Luce's Lines

Mistaken

Dearest, Loveliest Meg

 

Chapter One

 

The grey streaks of dawn were just beginning to show on the eastern sky when I closed the door of Barton Cottage behind me. Soon the morning sun would grace the Devonshire downs with a rim of gold, but for now the world was still a pearly grey and everything was quiet. The air of this early June morning was so pure and exhilarating that, to me, it tasted like chilled white wine.

I climbed the grassy slope on which the cottage sat, paused at the hill top and looked down on the small, neat house of dark, grey granite. Nothing moved behind the windows yet so I could indulge in an activity that would have sent my mother into an uproar, should she ever find me out. I broke into a healthy, uncontrolled jaunt down the hill’s other side. I ran until I had no breath left, then rolled in the hillside’s soft grass, panting and laughing. Oh, it was so good to be out of the cottage with its stuffy rooms and away from Mother with her constant complaints - always weeping and whining about one thing or everything.

 

My name is Margaret Dashwood and I am the youngest of three sisters. Elinor and Marianne, both married to the man they loved, were as different as could be, the former a tall, graceful young woman with heavy brown hair and grey eyes, the latter also tall but much more elegant, with a mass of golden curls and a pair of cornflower blue eyes. They were also each other’s opposite in character and disposition, Elinor being the sensible, responsible eldest of the two, quiet and discrete, and Marianne, who was mostly led by her emotions, cheerful and loud.

Compared to my sisters, I was not really beautiful but some people thought me attractive with my fair, curly hair and my pale blue eyes. As for myself, I hated my snub little nose and the sprinkle of freckles on it, though some found it cute. I would have liked to be taller since I was barely 5 feet 5 inches which, according to Mother, was a scant too short to be considered beautiful. Elinor and Marianne were both over 5’8 so I guess Mother was right. However, there was nothing I could do about my height so I accepted my lack of inches with good humour.

I had turned twenty-one the month before and - to members of the circle of Society our family moved in – I was still relatively young, even if one was endowed with enough prospects, such as beauty, a fortune or a title, to be offered to a possible suitor. However, when one is blessed with a rather inconspicuously pleasant prettiness, without any financial prospects and absolutely no bonds to the nobility, at twenty-one I was what people called ‘on the shelf’.

 

I am content with remaining unmarried.  Eight years ago, Marianne left to marry Colonel Christopher Brandon and shortly thereafter Elinor had done the same to be united with Edward Ferrars. Someone had to stay and look after dear Mama, endearingly shallow and confused as she was, or she would end entangling herself in disastrous situations. Mama had never managed to reconcile herself with our dire financial circumstances after my half-brother John had left us with a yearly income of barely 500 pounds. She was still most hurt by him turning us out of our beloved Norland Park, Papa’s estate, where all three of us grew up.

So I, level-headed, intelligent Margaret, had to play the part of nursemaid, coping with Mama’s eternal harebrained and silly ways. I did not mind because they gave me the opportunity of doing exactly what I wanted without anyone asking questions.

My childhood had been rather uneventful. First I had a nanny, later a governess until I was thirteen and our father died, leaving us practically nothing to live on. So my governess, Miss Pewter, had to go and, short time later, we had moved away from Norland Park into Devonshire and the estate of Sir John Middleton of Barton Park, a distant cousin of Mama’s, who kindly offered us the use of a cottage on his grounds. I grew up with nothing more than books for company, though Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings were always happy to receive us regularly at Barton Hall for quiet country dinner evenings. Thus, I became a solitary, earnest girl, always engrossed in books and with not much knowledge of what the world was like beyond the beautiful downs of Devonshire, a process that was even increased after my sisters married and left me alone with Mama.

I was quite reconciled with the certainty that I would never be what Mama wanted me to be, a distinguished, wealthy woman, married to a rich and preferably titled gentleman. There were none in the vicinity of Barton Park, except Sir John and he was a widower of some sixty years without children. In Torquay, a rapidly growing country town, some twenty miles southwest of Barton Park, there lived several rich manufacturers and tradesmen with sons in search of a wife, but I was no match for them, being free-spirited and outspoken as I was. I could never have thrived in that confined, narrow-minded world and the young men I encountered soon became aware of that. So far, none of them had ever tried to deepen the acquaintance they made with me during the balls I too rarely attended.

In short, I was undisciplined, but free and I did not care as long as nothing more was asked of me than looking after Mama.

 

After having recovered my breath, I did what I liked the most. Adopting a sturdy pace, I began walking the moors towards my own favourite spot, a small circle of standing stones. There were many of them to be found in Devonshire and this one was without the grandeur of Stonehenge and much smaller. There were only eight standing stones in the small circle, each about seven feet high. Between them there were benches lying that were some fifteen inches high. The circle had a diameter of approximately twenty yards so the whole was rather tight and cosy.

Just when I reached my sheltered spot behind one of the large stones of the circle, the sun rose above the horizon in a blaze of bright orange. Magnificent! I lowered myself down, rested my back in the hollow of a boulder and sighed with pleasure. The light would provide an adequate help for my sketching and I started rummaging through my bag for my sketchbook and pencils.

 

For the good part of an hour I was happily and most satisfactory engrossed in my drawing.

I was just thinking of breakfasting on the food I had with me, when I suddenly saw a horse running towards me. A riderless horse, yet saddled and bridled. Coming at me at a swift canter, it abruptly stopped a few yards away from me, startled and with huge eyes full of fear.

Colonel Brandon, Marianne’s husband had allowed me the use of his stables at his estate of Delaford and over the years I had become a fairly good horsewoman. Therefore, I was not afraid, but rose and stepped towards the horse, my hands stretched out before me and whistling softly. The huge black stallion approached and sniffed one of my hands when I addressed it in soft, murmuring tones.

“Hey, my beauty, hush now, where do you come from?”

The stallion blew into my hands, snorted and allowed me to stroke his neck. After a bit of caressing and crooning, I made an attempt to mount him. He allowed me do it with just a hint of panic, which was easily soothed as soon as I was in the saddle. I gave him free hand and he started trotting lightly to the west. That is when I saw he was limping a bit, but it did not seem to bother him much. I chuckled when I thought of what Mother would have to say about me sitting astride a horse, in a man’s saddle, with my skirts hitched up high.

My steed continued westwards over the wide stretch of grassland for a few minutes and I was beginning to enjoy the ride when he suddenly stopped, trusting his head upwards.

“What is it, boy?” I stroked the animal’s neck and he moved forward again. Then, I saw what the stallion had wanted to show me and froze with shock. The body of a man, lying face down on the boggy grass.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Honesty compels me to confess I hesitated a little before I dismounted.

I was not like the few of my female acquaintances - that is to say - the ones who grew up in a normal household and were brought into Society without so much as a close look upon a man. I was not afraid of men for I had not been formally presented to any. I was not afraid of men, period. Of course, I knew they were not all of them as gentle as my two brothers-in-law, Colonel Christopher Brandon and Edward Ferrars. They were the rare treasures among their kind. I was aware that there were also dangerous specimens roaming society for innocent, gullible damsels.

This man was unknown to me so I attentively studied him before I dared come closer.

He was lying on his stomach, his face covered by strands of long dark hair, black as a raven’s wing.

A puddle of blood formed under his body and I was concerned. He seemed to be seriously injured, his face very pale.

I knelt beside him and, reaching with a trembling hand to one of his wrists, I was relieved to feel a strong pulse. That gave me the courage to try turning him onto his back, not an easy task because he was a tall, muscular fellow. He did not regain consciousness when I involuntarily caught him on the left shoulder, as I turned him. He was bleeding rather copiously from what appeared to be a bullet wound in that shoulder. The fine fabric of his dark green riding coat was stained with blood which was spreading to his white linen shirt and staining his waistcoat of moss green silk.

The sight of the blood prompted me into action.

I searched my bag for something that could serve to stop the bleeding wound but found nothing. To my relief, the man’s coat pockets produced a large white cotton handkerchief which I crumpled into a ball. Pressing it to the small hole, I began untying the man’s cravat of buff coloured silk, to allow him easier breathing.

He stirred and gave a weak, throaty moan.

I felt a surge of relief from this sign of life. I secured the handkerchief wrapping the man’s chest with the cravat. Not an easy task as I was forced to pass my hands over his body several times. I became aware of his warm hard strength and it allowed me to examine him more closely for other injuries. There were none I could find except for a shallow gash on his brow which had already stopped bleeding. I carefully cleaned it with a tip of the cravat.

I drew a deep breath and leaned back, satisfied with the efforts I had done so far. For the first time in several minutes, I could again take stock of the situation. Here I was, alone on the moors, with an unconscious, injured man, and I was somewhat at a loss to what I was to do next.

Should I go for help? Where to? Barton Cottage was out of the question; my mother would have a fit of the vapours if I arrived there in the company of an unknown gentleman without a chaperon, an injured one at that!

My patient was indeed a gentleman, judging by the quality and fabric of his dress and the exquisite cream-coloured buckskins, which hovered above the finely crafted, black leather Hessian boots. His hands, long fingered and strong, bore no calluses and his nails, though not manicured, were nevertheless cut and clean. He sported no jewels, not even a signet ring, which was rather unusual for a gentleman of means.

My gaze wandered to his sun-tanned face and I lingered there, revelling in its attractiveness. His face was not really beautiful since it was too strong-featured. He had a broad brow bearing a few shallow lines. A long, thin nose set above a pair of wide sensual lips rounded out his features. The firm, well-defined jaw, covered with the shadow of beard as if he had shaved in a state of hurry, was very becoming and I found myself touching that jaw just to know the feeling of it. It was rough yet at the same time, soft and warm. My hand quivered with an unknown tingle; I hastily withdrew it. I touched his thick black hair as I did so. So thick, and so silky soft ... and a trifle too long for propriety’s sake.

This was a man born into Society, but not a willing member of it? He clearly lacked the touch of finesse acquired for Society gatherings as if he was somehow reluctant to participate with people in them. His appearance was appropriate, but nothing more. However, compared to my sisters’ husbands, the handsome Edward and the manly Brandon, this man definitively was even more attractive - in a slightly dangerous way.

Who was he? I was fairly certain I had never seen him around here, nor had he appeared at the small country gentry gatherings in this part of Devonshire, so I reckoned he must be staying with relatives or friends who lived in the vicinity somewhere. But where? To my knowledge no one had a guest staying with them at the moment.

He must have spent a considerable amount of time abroad, I mused. His skin bore the golden tan of someone who lived a long time in a climate with much more sun than was found in England. I sighed. So many questions were spinning in my head!

The stranger suddenly let out a low, deep  grunt, then opened his eyes – bright blue eyes.

“What the devil ... hell and damnation!” he exclaimed in a forceful voice, eyes darting side to side.

The blasphemy came when he tried to sit up and his shoulder wound must have caused him considerable pain, hence the expletives. I put a constricting hand upon his chest and raised my voice in a forceful manner.

“Do stay where you are, sir, or you will only injure yourself even more!”

His fierce blue eyes bore into mine but with a scowl that could have scared the Devil himself.

“Who are you? What have you done to me?” he growled.

The voice was a deep baritone and the tone, though refined enough, was a clipped one. It was enough to render me speechless with indignation.

“Well?” the stranger barked. “Are you going to sit there like a stone statue? Help me up, you silly wench, or I will give you a taste of my riding crop!”

I was beginning to enjoy the situation so I smiled sweetly.

“I am sorry to say so, sir, but you seem to have lost your crop when you tumbled from your horse. I also want to point out that I am no mere ‘wench’ but a respectable woman. I must insist you treat me with the respect I am due.”

With as much dignity as I could muster, I rose to my feet, placed my hands on my hips and looked down at him.

“My name,” I said, “is Margaret Dashwood of Barton Cottage and my mother is a relative of Sir John Middleton of Barton Hall. Kindly tell me your name, sir, or I will leave you to your fate this instant.”

“Upon my word! A ‘respectable lady’ disguised as a peasant girl. Please forgive my mistake, my dainty damsel, but you must admit that it was only natural, given the dishevelled nature of your appearance.”

That statement was accompanied by an impertinent stare that raked my body, head to toe. All of a sudden, I became very uncomfortably aware of how I must appear to him in my old muslin dress and scuffed walking boots, my hair escaping its confinement and my face flushed with anger. I could not bear this embarrassment for more than a second so I grabbed my bag, turned on my heels and stalked away as dignified as I could.

“Wait ... Miss Dashwood, please? I would be very grateful if you would consent in assisting me.”

He had spoken in a gruff tone yet he had not managed to conceal the pleading in his voice. Immediately I grew concerned again and scolded myself inwardly for my selfishness. After all, this man was injured and had lost quite a lot of blood.

“Put your right arm around my shoulders, sir,” I said and, kneeling once again beside him and sliding my arm around his waist. After a few failed attempts, we finally succeeded in getting him to his feet.

He towered over me and seemed to be too weak in the knees to stay upright; I had to tighten my grip just to keep him upright.

“Careful, sir!” I panicked a trifle when his head fell onto my shoulder and the warmth of his breath caressed the skin of my neck. I felt the hardness of his muscles under my hand, and the assault of his heady but not unpleasant scent was enough to rattle my usually calm composure. All of a sudden there seemed to be not enough air to breathe ...

Finally the stranger stirred and lifted his head, his back muscles tightening under my touch.

“Good Lord, but this has affected me in a rather serious manner! Do forgive me, Miss Dashwood. I seem to have outdone myself more than usually in my rude behaviour.”

He took a step away from me and gave me a little bow. “Douglas Alexander Spencer of Watcombe Manor, at your service, Ma’am!”

He had overrated his abilities and I grabbed his arm when I saw the dark, nasty shade of grey that suffused his countenance.

“Sir, we must seek help. You are too weak to ...”

At that moment the black stallion came trotting towards us, whinnying softly, which made Mr Spencer stare at me with disbelief.

“Dragon? He galloped away from me after I fell. How come he is here now?”

“I found him in the ring of standing stones and it was he who led me here, sir. Once I got into the saddle, he knew exactly where to go.”

“He ... he allowed you to mount him? Impossible! Dragon does not accept orders from anyone but me. Even I sometimes get bitten when he is in a foul mood. Come here, boy.”

Dragon snorted and nudged Spencer’s outstretched hand, who then stroked the soft silken nose with tenderness.

“So you have deserted me for this pretty little chit, have you not? You devil! I should whip you, but I cannot blame you. She is very pretty, indeed.” The stranger then looked at me and I blushed.

The horse tossed its head upward and whinnied.

“Mr Spencer, I must insist on two things: first, I will bring you to Barton Cottage where I can summon a physician. Secondly, I must demand respect from you. I do not wish to be called ‘a chit’ which I find a most offensive word for a woman.”

Spencer’s blue-eyed gaze raked over me once more and his mouth widened into a sardonic grin.

“Oh, but you are indeed a woman, my dainty damsel, no doubt about that!”

His hand reached out to tidy a lock of my hair behind my ear and I had to suppress a sudden shudder.

“I have known many fair-haired, blue-eyed dolls, my dainty one, but none like you. You are not afraid of me and you have not recoiled in horror upon hearing my name. Why is that?”

“I have never heard of you, sir, so why should I be afraid? What have you done besides indulging in the usual eccentricities gentlemen of your type permit themselves?”

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

I was surprised when a hint of undisguised sorrow shadowed Mr Spencer’s eyes yet his mouth stretched in a wicked grin.

“I am not in the habit of confessing my crimes to innocent young ladies, Miss Dashwood. You will soon be hearing all the gossip there is about me. Now, help me into the saddle. I must return home and not keep you any longer.”

Suppressing my heartfelt anger, I took hold of his arm with both hands.

“And I am not in the habit of listening to gossip, Mr Spencer! Please do me the favour of answering my question! What is this reputation of yours?” Despite a feeling of tension I looked directly into his eyes. I got my answer right then and there when he pulled free his arm and used it to grab me in the waist. The same wicked grin was still on his face as he drew me very close, his mouth only inches from mine.

“I am a ravisher, my dainty damsel, and you are very close to being ravished ...” His eyes burned into me. My reaction was instinctive. I shoved him hard and he fell full force against Dragon’s tall frame. The horse, however, did not budge and Spencer’s injured shoulder took the full brunt of the blow. I saw his face grow white and he slid to the ground gasping in pain.

What had I done? Reproaching myself I knelt beside him.

“Oh, I am sorry! Please, forgive me, Mr Spencer! Come, let me help you up again!” I put my arms around him in a futile attempt to lift him.

“No, Miss Dashwood, it is I who must beg you to forgive me. That was very rude of me and you were right to defend yourself.” For the first time he did look remorseful.

“We have to get you safe, Mr Spencer. Here, step onto this boulder. I will help and put you onto the saddle.”

We failed several times but, eventually, we managed to get Mr Spencer back on the saddle. His face was ashen. I could see he was in no state to ride Dragon on his own so I swung myself up on Dragon’s back and situated myself in front of him.

“Sir, hold on to my waist with your uninjured arm. I will take you to Barton Cottage,” I said, turning to look back at him.

“No ... please, no! That would be ... most unwise. Just ... get moving to the north and ... I will tell you where to go ...” he urged in a voice hoarse with pain.

I kicked Dragon into a walk and for half an hour we kept going north.

“I fear, my dainty damsel, you must keep me entertained or otherwise, I shall not remain conscious. Pray, tell me somewhat more about you. I find you very interesting,” Mr Spencer’s voice croaked and I grew anxious, so I obliged.

“Very well, sir. Our Marianne is the wife of Colonel Christopher Brandon. She lives at Delaford with her family and her youngest daughter Emily is my goddaughter. She is two and her sister Amelia is five. Marianne is expecting her third child in early fall. My eldest sister, Elinor, married Edward Ferrars, who is now parson of the Delaford parish. They do not have children yet.”

We came onto a narrow country path, which lead us over the rim of a hill. We must be nearing Torquay, I thought, but this part of the shire was unknown to me. To my growing dismay Mr Spencer’s health seemed to grow worse and it dawned on me that he had not spoken a word for a long time. His head was lying heavily on my shoulder and his breathing became ragged.

“Sir! Mr Spencer, say something!” I gently nudged him a few times to prevent him from fainting.

“Sir, do not lose consciousness! We are not yet there. Are we going into the right direction?” I asked urgently.

“Yes ...” His breath was shallow, laboured.

“Breathe, sir! Do you want me to stop for a while so that you can rest?”

I grew more anxious by the minute! If he was to fall off the horse again, it might well kill him.

To my infinite relief, he replied in a hoarse voice, “No ... go on, you are doing very nicely ... we are almost there, give Dragon the free rein ...”

I clung to the saddle’s pommel for dear life when Mr Spencer’s arm pressed harder around my waist.  The moor had given way to a small wood and our path was winding through it. Just as I despaired on ever getting to Spencer’s house, Dragon rounded a bend in the road. A clearing appeared to our front and I saw a small house set against the gentle slope of the hill. Dragon walked through an open gate and into a tiny courtyard, left untidy with overgrowing weeds.

The house itself was in the same state of disrepair but it was nevertheless very charming with its light red brick facade, small, shutter-framed windows and dark brown tiled roof. The woodwork, however, was in sore need of painting, though.

Suddenly the front door was flung open and a tall, gangly youth of some fifteen years came running out.

“Blimey! ‘Ere now, what’s ‘appened to the guvnor? ‘Oo are you?” he shouted in a strong cockney accent.

I dismounted with dignity and faced him with a stern stare. “I am Miss Dashwood from Barton Cottage. Be so good as to help your master, sir! He is injured and I think it best if you would send for a physician.”

Spencer chose this moment to slide down from the horse and, between the young chap and myself, we barely managed to prevent him from crashing down onto the gravel.

“We must put him to bed,” I urged, “Call for a footman!”

“A what? We don’t ‘ave any of ‘em out ‘ere, lady! It’s just me! You ‘elp me, seems yer doin’ a great job already!”

The youth – he said his name was Twinkler – did not waste anymore time but shoved a shoulder under one of his master’s and clamped a firm hand around Mr Spencer’s waist. I helped him by supporting the man, who was now unconscious, as best as I could. We made our way to the master’s bedroom, which was located on the house’s ground floor. I was greatly thankful for that. There we let our patient down onto his bed, whereupon Mr Twinkler got him out of his boots and coat while I loosened his collar.

“Ye said yer wanted a physician, miss, but I don’t know of one ‘ere abouts. There’s a gypsy woman that dwells not far from ‘ere an’ ‘as knowledge of ‘erbs an’ sicknesses the like. Shall I fetch her?”

“Yes, Mr Twinkler, that is fine. I will stay with Mr Spencer.” I turned and looked at the injured man; he seemed to rest comfortably, despite the bullet wound.

Thus I was left alone with my new acquaintance, the impropriety of it all was staring me in the face but there was nothing I could do about it. Mr Spencer’s condition seemed too precarious to leave him unguarded. His shoulder bandage was soaked with blood and drops of perspiration formed on his ashen face. The only thing I could do was wipe them away with a clean cloth I found upon inspecting the chest of drawers beside the bed. My patient opened his eyes, they were moist which indicated the beginning of fever.

“Miss Dashwood ... you are still here? You should not be ... you must go home. You are compromising yourself if you stay without being no longer needed.”

With his low, raspy voice he tried to emphasize his plea yet the plea in his eyes belied the curtness of his tone.

“You must leave that decision to me, sir. I am old and wise enough to make it for myself.” Again I felt defiant. A naughty grin curved the large mouth as Mr Spencer scoffed: “Is that so? How old are you, then?”

“Twenty-one, since last May.”

“Remarkable ... I would not have given you more than sixteen ...”

“You are teasing me, sir. Now, lie still. All that bustling about has opened your wound. Let me see what I can do.”

Gently I loosened the blood-soaked bandage but, despite my cautious gestures, I inflicted pain on Mr Spencer. Yet not a word of reproach nor a cry of pain passed his lips. He laid there with closed eyes while I examined the wound.

I had read quite a number of books on medicine so I knew the bullet would have to be removed, the damaged blood vessel had to be cauterized and the wound sewed shut. The patient could not properly heal otherwise. Of course, I had neither the skills nor the proper instruments for such a task, but I could attempt to reduce the bleeding until the servant returned with the healing woman.

“I am very curious about Mr Twinkler, sir. He could not have been in your service for long, he seems so young,” I said in a casual tone while I worked on him.

“Twinkler is my friend, Miss Dashwood, not my servant. He followed me from London of his own free will. His real name is Jack but I named him Twinkler because of his bright green eyes. They remind me of stars.”

“Just Jack? No surname?”

“No. Jack was one of the many orphans London is crowded with. His mother was a ...”

He stopped himself and turned his head away.

“A prostitute? You need not be embarrassed, sir. I have done my share of reading and I know of the existence of such unfortunate women.”

My patient stared at me with stunned eyes.

“Extraordinary ...”, he murmured, “Miss Dashwood, you do know, I hope, that it is very improper for a young woman of your class to have this sort of conversation with me?”

“Mr Spencer, who is ever to know we had such a conversation? If you do not tell, I will not either. La, your wound has stopped bleeding. I will bandage it.”

Mr Spencer watched me with curious interest and it made me feel a trifle uneasy.

“Do you not care about your reputation, Miss Dashwood? So far, you have violated every rule of propriety. You have been alone with an unmarried man and you have touched him, intimately, to say the least. You have even entered his home without being chaperoned and at the moment, you are at his bed site. If this becomes public, you will be ruined beyond repair, my dainty damsel.” A slight but intimidating smile broke on his lips.

The words had come out in a very impudent, taunting tone, but that was not what disturbed me. It was his smile that did - a wicked, almost cruel smile - that infuriated me most. I could feel my cheeks burn with anger, yet I checked myself, although with difficulty. Giving Spencer the satisfaction of seeing me lose my temper would only prove the veracity of his words.

“Mr Spencer,” I retaliated, but with dignity, “I thank you for your concern but I would like you to understand to the fullest that I am an independent woman, with a mind of my own. If you should know the circumstances I am faced with, you would find me well suited in dealing with any difficulty that arises.”

His black eyebrows rose in what looked like appreciation.

“Well said, Miss Dashwood! Pray, enlighten me about those circumstances, if you do not deem it too impudent of me.”

“It is impudent but I do not care. After my father died, we were left in dire financial circumstances. My mother was forced to leave the estate to my half-brother John and his family and it was a cruel blow to her already weak health. She was used to the opulence of Norwood Park and has been in low spirits since then. We had to resign ourselves to being very frugal, though this proved to be hard on Mother. After my sisters married, seven years ago in the summer of 1811, Mother and I got the full benefit of the 500 pounds on which we lived from Father’s will. But, as you will be well aware of, my lord, that is not at all a substantial sum. My task is to keep Mother from spending it on frivolous items in order to have something left for food and coal.”

Mr Spencer chuckled, his eyes sparkling.

“Frugal, hey? I know that feeling well enough, my dainty damsel. It is how I have been living for the past ten years. It seems we are both poor as church mice, then. I lost my baronetcy of Watcombe to my cousin after I made some bad mistakes in my ill-spent youth.”

“Oh, dear!”

It was my turn to chuckle.

“Poor and titled! That is even worse, My Lord Watcombe!”

“No, Miss Dashwood, you have it wrong. I might not even come into the title before August 22th of this year ...”

At that moment we were interrupted by the opening of the bed room door.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Mr Twinkler appeared in the doorway accompanied by a short, stocky woman of some fifty odd years old. She was wearing a frilly skirt of brightly coloured cotton, a white cotton shirt and a shawl of scarlet coloured wool. Over her long, curly brown hair she had knotted a scarf in the way that is custom with the gypsies. Her ears were pierced with thick golden rings and her arms jingled with a lot of golden bracelets from which many charm pendants hung.

“This ‘ere is Petite-Maman,” Mr Twinkler announced, mangling the name frightfully. “She don’t speak English ‘cos she’s a Frenchie. I ‘ad all the trouble in the world explaining what was goin’ on!”

Bonjour, Madame Petite-Maman,” I smiled, “je suis Margaret Dashwood. Voici Monsieur Spencer. Il a été blessé par une balle à l’épaule. Il va falloir l’extraire. Pourriez-vous prendre soin de tout ça?”

Bien sûr, Mademoiselle. Pourriez-vous me donner un coup de main, s’il-vous-plaît?”

Mr Twinkler’s eyes were round as teacups and he exclaimed in admiration.

“Blimey! Yer a lady for real, then, if ye speak that filthy jargon so well! Where d’ye learn that?”

“From reading and having conversations with my two sisters, Mr Twinkler, where else? Now, if you please, stand by. Petite-Maman might need you to assist her in caring for your master.”

Petite-Maman told me what she wanted to be done and I translated it for Mr Twinkler.

She asked for hot water and fresh towels and bandages. Mr Twinkler supplied two out of three, apologizing for the fact that bandages were not available in the house. I cut two towels into stripes.

Mr Spencer had not interfered with any of this but his eyes had never left me while I was bustling about. When the gypsy woman began making preparations by laying out various, nasty looking instruments on a towel, his face took a slight expression of alarm.

“Miss Dashwood, what is this? Are you going to let her butcher me?”

His eyes were dancing with mischief and I could not help myself and laughed.

“Oh, come on, sir! You know as well as I do that the bullet must be removed. This woman claims she can do it so ...”

“Yes, I heard her. You do understand French well, I presume?”

“Well enough, my lord. As do you.”

“I learned it on Jamaica where I spent the last ten years.”

Petite-Maman was now ready to begin her administrations and told me to tell the patient to lie very still while she worked.

“Oui, Madame, je comprends,” Mr Spencer said as he positioned himself on the bed.

 

The next ten minutes were very unpleasant and I had to take over Mr Twinkler’s task of holding his master down while Petite-Maman extracted the bullet from the wound. The young man suddenly turned white and fled to one of the room’ corners. At one point Mr Spencer grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it rather forcefully as the gypsy pulled out the projectile by means of a long pincer. I could literally hear him grinding his teeth. I was feeling a bit queasy myself watching the procedure.

He nearly broke my hand a few seconds later, when Petite-Maman poured a dash of medicinal alcohol into the wound. A small rivulet of blood ran down his lips where he bit himself. I wiped the blood away.

“Miss Dashwood”, my patient said through clenched teeth as Petite-Maman bandaged the wound, “Mr Twinkler will bring you home in the curricle. Please accept my sincere thanks for your help.” His tone did not sound sincere, just hurtful.

I was stunned and also a trifle put out by the harshness of his tone because I had not expected him to dismiss me like he would have a servant! Nevertheless, I knew what prompted the remark. I had seen him weak and in pain and from what I observed of the marriages of my two sisters, it was not something a man would want a woman to witness.

Dites-moi comment prendre soin de lui, s’il vous plait, Petite-Maman? Que dois-je faire en cas de fièvre?”

“What do you mean ...? Miss Dashwood, curse it! Listen to me!”

I ignored Mister Spencer’s fervent interruptions and instead listened to the gypsy’s instructions. She said she did not think he would get feverish because he was young and strong but in case it did indeed happen, I was to call her. I thanked her and pressed a few coins into her hand; they were all the money I had in my purse. Petite-Maman seemed content with it.

“Twinkler!” a booming voice rang out.

Poor Jack nearly jumped out of his skin with his master’s outraged cry.

“Yes, sir?”

“Go harness the curricle and escort Miss Dashwood to Barton Cottage. Now!”

I nodded at Jack and his countenance cleared significantly.

“I will be with you in a minute,” I said to him and he and Petite-Maman left.

With as sweet a smile as I could muster – because I certainly was not in a sweet mood – I seated myself next to the bed again.

“Miss Dashwood, I must insist that you leave this house forthwith! For Heaven’s sake, why are you so cursed headstrong!”

I laid my hand on his arm to calm him when I noticed how he was working himself into a state of nervous rage.

“Mr Spencer, I will do as you requested but not before you answer this: why is it that you will not come into your title before the 22th of August? It is, after all, a very uncommon thing. You should have inherited the title right after your father’s death.”

To my surprise, he fell back onto his pillow with a hearty sigh and turned away his face. He seemed to be struggling with himself but eventually he yielded.

“Ten years ago ...,” he began, then stopped.

“Yes?” I encouraged but to no avail.

“No, Miss Dashwood!”

He faced me once again, very sternly and brought forth all his defences.

“Please, leave. It is for the best.”

I had no choice but to obey.

 

As we were drove towards Barton Cottage, I interrogated Mr Twinkler about him and his master. Where had they been before coming back to England? These were the things I wanted to ask.

“Oh, I ‘aven’t bin anywhere but Lonnun, ma’am. Master found me starvin’ in a porch some months ago. Took me to ‘is ‘otel and fed me, then took me on as ‘is servant. Not that he’s paid me a single penny yet. I don’t mind! ‘E’s a good master and ‘e’s also fair and friendly. As long as ‘e feeds me, I’ll stay with ‘im.” 

“But where has Mr Spencer been, do you know?”

“I think it was the Caribbean, ma’am. Dunno what he’s been doin’ there. Master doesn’t talk to me about ‘is personal affairs. Suits me fine. I’ll stay wi’im for the rest o’ me life, I am!”

“So you have no knowledge of what happened to him, ten years ago?”

“No, ma’am, not an inkling. Master’s from these parts of the country, that I do know. Watcombe Manor, that’s ‘is estate but ‘e ain’t no right of living there, that’s all I know.”

Watcombe Manor was unknown to me but I vowed myself to find out where it was. I had become very interested in Mr Spencer’s history.

“Do you not miss London, then, Mr Twinkler?”

“No, ma’am, why should I? I ‘ave no family left, they all died. I’m fifteen now and I’ve been on me own since I was ten. No, I’m stayin’ wi’ the master.”

“He calls you ‘his friend’, Mr Twinkler?”

Jack Twinkler’s narrow face lit with merriment.

“That’s why I’m stayin’ wi’ ‘im and always will, Ma’am, no matter what ‘appens.”

 

By that time we had reached Barton Cottage and I bade farewell to Mr Twinkler, who turned the curricle and rode away. Deep in thoughts, I climbed the shallow slope. I was deeply aware of some inner uproar in myself, even though I would not allow it to show outwardly. Douglas Spencer had indeed intrigued me from the very first moment because of a duality in his behaviour; a ravisher, he may have called himself but why then had he wished me away for fear about my reputation?

I was not allowed to dwell upon these disturbing reflections for my mother’s shrill voice greeted me from the sitting room as soon as I entered the cottage.

“Meg? Is that you? Where have you been, girl? Not only is it not suitable for a young lady to go dashing about the countryside on her own but it is also very ruinous for her complexion! Do you want to have the looks of a peasant girl? Do you want to look all weathered and knocked about, your beautiful skin all red or spotted with freckles?”

“Mama, Mama, calm yourself. Nothing of the sort has happened. I just took a long walk and got lost. That is why I am so late and I beg you to understand that it was not my intention when I set off this morning. Lord, but I am hungry! Is breakfast ready?”

With those last remarks I hoped to distract my mother from the fact that I was quite dishevelled and a little dirty. Yet my heart lurched within me as I suddenly discovered a large spot of red on the bodice of my dress!

“I am coming, Mama! I must wash first!”

Then I dashed up the stairs to my small bedroom under the eaves of the attic and closed the door behind me. That had been close! My mother would have had a fit if she had seen that blood!

Spencer’s blood ... immediately his handsome face sprang into my mind ... those fierce blue eyes, those sensual lips ... Oh, stop it! Margaret Dashwood, you are being silly and shallow! Put that man out of your thoughts. He is not for you. My thoughts raced. Not for me? Why not? Because he is not suitable and way too old for you. I battled with propriety  and my desires – point, counterpoint. He is also poor and you know very well how that affects one’s life, don’t you, Margaret? He is also a rake as he proclaimed himself so very well to you.

Do you not remember what that rascal Willoughby did to poor Marianne? He nearly destroyed her and that is exactly what Spencer will do if you let him come too near!

All that was true. The sensible, realistic part of me acknowledged it all too well but my foolish, romantic heart did not. My poor, love-starved heart only remembered the feeling of his warm, hard body against mine when he clung to me, so wounded and helpless.

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

Three weeks later, Mama and I were to dine with Sir John Middleton and Mrs Jennings at Barton Park. Sir John’s carriage came up to fetch us at seven and Mama was her cheerful self again as always when she was about to be in good company. And good company it was.

We were welcomed by Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings, who are without a doubt the most cheerful people I have ever met.

“Oh, my darlings!,” Mrs Jennings exclaimed. “How lovely to see you again and how shamefully long it has been since you were last here! How well you are looking, my dear Mrs Dashwood! And, oh, my darling Meg, you are becoming even more beautiful than your two sisters, I dare say!”

She covered us with kisses and ushered us inside the parlour where we found the rest of our family. Elinor sprang to her feet as soon as we set foot into the room and embraced us fondly.

“Mama! Margaret! How are you? It has been so long!”

Next we were hugged by Edward who inspected me with inquiring eyes.

“Upon my word, Margaret, but you have even grown more beguiling than the last time I saw you! How do you manage, my dear, to do so?”

“Oh, Edward, you are teasing me. Now, where is Marianne?”

My youngest sister was waving at me from the settee upon which she was sitting. Marianne was seven months pregnant and she was often tired.

“I am sorry, darling, but I am feeling a bit under the weather. This pregnancy seems to be much harder to bear than when I was expecting the girls.”

“Marianne, I am sorry to hear that. Now, you must not care a bit about staying on the settee. I am sure we will all forgive you in your present state.”

I hugged Marianne and gave the colonel a hand. Even after all these years I was still a bit shy in the presence of the stern and serious man, though he had never given me the slightest hint of anything but kindness. He was, however, much more formal in his dealings with me than Edward.

“Miss Margaret, I can only second my brother-in-law in his praise of you. You are looking very beautiful, my dear.”

 

I must confess, the evening proceeded in a bit of boredom as we drank champagne and later as we dined in the splendid dining room. The conversation rippled on about uninteresting topics of tenants and estate matters. As a result I was very glad when we all retreated to the parlour for coffee. Mrs Jennings began indulging her incorrigible need for gossiping.

“Now, my dears,” she said, a mischievous glint in her eye, “have you heard the latest news about Watcombe Manor?”

I almost choked on my coffee but managed to preserve my dignity in the nick of time, pretending to have a sudden cough. When I looked up again, I saw Colonel Brandon’s eyes scrutinizing me closely. Yet, when I smiled sweetly at him, he gave me a friendly nod of the head.

“Well, you will all be surprised, I’m sure!”, Mrs Jennings went on. “Imagine, the prodigal son has returned to England and is living in this very same county of Devonshire, as we speak!”

“Who are you talking about?”, I asked in what I hope was a guileless voice.

They all stared at me but then Elinor exclaimed:

“Of course, Margaret cannot know. She was but thirteen when we moved here. Remember, Mother, we only learned about the Spencer family ourselves a few months after our arrival.”

Marianne chimed in.

“Yes, Meg, you were too young then to discuss this with you. Sir Bartholomew Spencer, the grandfather of the present and presumed heir, laid down a strange claim in his will. Darling, will you take it from here?”

She looked at her husband who went on with the story.

“It was stated in Sir Bartholomew’s will that any heir to his estate should be of irreproachable behaviour, without so much as a stain of debauchery to his character. His son, Sir Matthew, had nothing to be blamed for. His grandson, Douglas, however, did a terrible thing.”

While my heart suddenly plummeted within my chest, I avidly listened to Sir John Middleton, who took up the story with relish.

“Douglas Spencer was but nineteen years old when he seduced the seventeen year old daughter of a business acquaintance of his father. The girl soon became with child and, when interrogated, declared young Spencer raped her. Sir Matthew was furious and banished his son to stay with a relative somewhere in the Caribbean - Jamaica, if I am correct. He did not cut his son out of his will, though. If young Spencer takes a wife before he reaches his thirtieth birthday – which Sir Matthew regarded as a sign that he would have redeemed himself – then the estate and the money would befall to Douglas. Otherwise, the estate comes to Phineas Wilkinson, Douglas’s cousin, and the child of Mary, Sir Matthew’s sister. She married Harold Wilkinson, a wealthy Liverpool manufacturer.”

“Ah!,” exclaimed Mrs Jennings, “but what decent mother would have her daughter marry a rake like Douglas Spencer, I ask you? So, my dears, I expect the chances of young Douglas to retrieve his estate are quite nonexistent!”

All nodded agreement but I burst out:

“What a cruel, unpleasant man Sir Matthew must have been, to condemn his only son to such a wretched future!”

Seven faces rigid with shock stared at me and I realised I must explain my impulsive remark at once.

“Well, yes, can none of you see why? A young, inexperienced boy behaves very foolishly and is banished from his home and future for it. Should not Sir Matthew have been more lenient? The poor boy was only nineteen, after all!”

Mother was the first to regain her wits.

“Margaret Dashwood, that was an utterly unladylike outcry if I ever witnessed one. Youth is no excuse for behaving like a rake and a ravisher. Sir Matthew had every right to act as dictated by the stipulations of Sir Bartholomew’s will.”

I fervently wanted to defend Douglas Spencer and opened my mouth to do so but Colonel Brandon’s distressed gaze caught my eye.

“I am afraid, my dear Miss Margaret, that matters were not that simple. The girl Spencer raped, Christina Finney, died in childbirth and, although Douglas Spencer cannot be charged with killing her in the strict sense of the word, he is nevertheless considered her murderer by all members of Devonshire’s Society.”

 

In the days that followed, I was besieged with conflicting feelings about Douglas Spencer as again I found myself in a dilemma over what I heard from Mrs Jennings and Colonel Brandon on the one hand and Mr Spencer’s attitude of concern toward me on the other hand.

I had no chance to mope about what might have happened, should Douglas Spencer have been a better person. More urgent daily matters of ever returning troubles kept me busy and ... extremely concerned.

 

Mother and I were pitifully poor. We were living on her yearly allowance of five hundred pounds and this was not nearly enough to keep us in good sustenance. If I were alone, I would have managed.

My needs were few. I had my books and my sketching and I did not crave for dresses and baubles since I did not participate in society events. But Mother was another matter altogether.

She still contrived in spending money on the silliest things, mostly items she had no need of at all! Whenever she ventured into Torquay, which was the largest city in our neighbourhood, she always came home laden with dresses, coats, shoes and bonnets. All clothing items she purchased she did not need since she, too, never went into society. As a result, I was forever recalculating our spending and searching for new ways of saving. I was breaking my head over how to keep our household afloat. We could have asked my sisters for financial support, not at all inappropriate since they knew all too well what it meant to be poor. But Mother was absolutely abhorred by the thought! She most fervently forbade me to even mention our plight to Elinor or Marianne. She threatened to have a nervous breakdown if she was forced to endure their pity. She was a Dashwood. She had a name to be proud of and she would not stoop to charity from her own daughters.

So, because I was in real despair, I did a terrible thing. I wrote to my half brother, John Dashwood of Norland Park.

 

Father had been widowed for several years when he married Mother. John was his son from his first marriage and had left Norwood Park to marry the wealthy Fanny Ferrars shortly after I was born. Elinor’s husband, Edward, was Fanny’s brother and I had never met two siblings who were more the opposite as they were. Edward was kind, generous, shy and compassionate; Fanny was ... none of those things. I knew very well she would not take it kindly if she learned about my appeal to John about money but he was the only person I could turn to. I also knew that John would find a solution since he was most anxious to be bothered with our problems and would seek to discard himself from them as soon as possible. Yes, he would find something ...

He came within three days after I sent him my letter.

Since I had urged him not to mention our pecuniary needs to Mother, he merely subjected himself to her extravagant  demonstrations of joy in seeing him after so long a time. It had been almost five years since the last time he visited.

John took me apart without Mother’s knowing as soon as he had the opportunity. He whispered into my ear that he found the perfect solution to our problems.

“Allow me, dear Meg, to explain this to your mother and you will see that I have figured it all out very neatly.”

Perhaps it was due to my state of emotional misery, or to my utter weariness after several nights of insomnia fretting over Douglas Spencer, but I had no dire forebodings of what John’s proposal could be. I should have known better. I should have remembered what a despicable person he was.

 

We installed ourselves in the small sitting room of the cottage; its shabby furnishings underlined all too well the pathetic situation of our finances. The carpet and hangings were threadbare and faded, the chairs and sofa sagging and the cupboards and tables were scratched and worn-out. Mother and I were used to it but I saw John’s disapproval glance go around the room, noting every detail of our poverty. No doubt he wanted to memorize what he saw so he could inform his wife Fanny of it and then they could congratulate themselves they had not shared their richness with us, for fear it would go to waste into this bottomless pit of ours.

“Well, my dears,” John began, clearing his throat, “I have a very fine proposition for you. Step-mama, I know how much you love your daughters and how eagerly you want them to make good marriages. It is needless to point out how Elinor and Marianne have already succeeded in this endeavour.”

He fastidiously sipped the tea I poured him earlier and went on.

“I have a dear friend and business acquaintance who is in need of a bride of good and proper breeding. He is of excellent fortune, some 7500 pound a year. He lives on his own estate, not far from here, in this same county of Devonshire. I told him about my lovely sister Margaret and he is eager to make her acquaintance. Would you agree in accompanying me tomorrow to his estate, dear Meg?”

My mother gasped in delight and clasped her hands in joy but I, on the other hand, could not believe my ears. My vain, arrogant, stupid brother was arranging a marriage for me? How could he? If he had only the slightest idea as to how I felt, he would know I would never agree to such a bargain.

“No!” I shouted loudly so no one misunderstood my stance.

Throwing the word into my brother’s face had been a mistake. I saw John’s eyes harden while his mouth became one thin line of utter disapproval. To me it seemed that John’s mouth was always expressing his disapproval of something or other!

“My dear Margaret,” he sneered, “may I point out to you that this is a great honour, to be sought out by a decent gentleman to become his wife? Must I make it clear to you that you have as good as no expectations of contracting a good marriage? You don’t have any property or wealth and you are, as you well know, already twenty-one years old. In a year or two you will be ‘on the shelf’ with no chance of finding a decent husband in this godforsaken part of the world.”

Mother also chimed in.

“Meg, I beg of you to go with John to this wealthy gentleman tomorrow and learn to know who he is. It is, as John indicates, a very fortunate opportunity. You could at least make an effort getting to know him.”

In my mother’s eyes, tears were already gleaming. I knew what would come now. She would start crying and wailing until she had wrought herself into a state of nervous breakdown. For days she would not speak to me and she would treat me like a criminal.

So I agreed to do what John asked.

 

That night, I was haunted by dreams of Douglas Spencer but they were very blurry and confusing. I could not see him clearly or read his face as he held me in his arms. I begged him to love me but he pushed me away, no matter how I cried or flung myself at him. Bathing in perspiration, I gasped when I woke, my heart pounding with ache.

That was the only thing that remained from the dream - the hot, desperate ache.

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

Next morning, all three of us set off for the estate of John’s acquaintance.

I was very curious to know where it was and what it was called. He had not even told me the name of the man, stating it would not mean anything to me since I had never seen him.

Imagine my surprise when the carriage took us to the small village of Watcombe, near Torquay. We passed through the village and rode into a curved, upward-going track. We turned several bends, which lead us up a gentle slope and between impossibly green pastures, strewn with granite boulders. After one last turn, the most captivating sight unrolled before my eyes.

Set in the palm of what looked like a giant hand of green was an elegant manor house in Elizabethan style, not too large but exquisitely proportioned. The facade’s buff coloured stone appeared golden in rays of the morning sun; the lawn spread to its front in shades of emerald.

I may not yet have met the owner but, for certain, I loved his house already. Hope sprang in my heart that it might not be that bad after all. A man in possession of such loveliness could never be anything but kind and pleasant. Yes, I am ashamed to confess that those were the thoughts I harboured, although I know now how immature and childishly naive my thoughts were.

We alighted from our carriage and were led into a splendid hall of royal proportions, all white and gold, and the floor a chest board of white and black marble.

A few moments later the lord of the manor entered the hall and my spirits plummeted in disappointment. He was a man of middle height, sturdily built and with a puffed, bleak face. He was at least fifty years old!

While I struggled to keep calm, John pressed the outstretched hand of the man and turned toward us.

“Step Mama, Margaret, allow me to present my good friend, Mr Phineas Wilkinson of Watcombe Manor. Phineas old boy, this is Mrs Dashwood and her daughter Margaret.”

I extended my hand to the man, all the while attempting to still the uproar of thoughts in my shocked mind.

This man was Douglas Spencer’s cousin and he would inherit my new-found friend’s money, title and estate if the latter did not manage to marry within the month. Watcombe Manor was Spencer’s house and home! No wonder I loved it instantly ...

We were invited to take tea in one of the magnificent parlours. I had to force myself to answer Wilkinson when he spoke to me but only then as John had insisted. Young ladies were not supposed to have an opinion, let alone express them. I hated to be subdued and shy because that is not who I am. Yet I decided to play the game John had proposed so that I could learn more about the man he was trying to force on me. We did not stay long but agreed that Wilkinson would collect me next week to take me for a drive.

July had come in a blaze of hot, airless days and oppressively sultry nights.

Our stuffy little cottage seemed even more joyless than ever so it was with all the more delight that I took my early morning daily walks. However, my steps did not take me to the moors and my circle of stones anymore. Instead, I found myself wandering towards Mr Spencer’s house, keeping well out of sight, of course, as it behoved a well-bred young lady.

The trees surrounding the dwelling provided me with enough protection so as not to be seen and also a well-craved-for shade from the blazing sun. I was working on a sketch of the house, which I found very pleasant, despite its shabby appearance. While I was drawing, my thoughts wandered.

Eight years ago, Elinor and Marianne had been in the same situation I now found myself in. Marianne entangled herself in a hopeless love affair with John Willoughby, a careless, selfish young man, who abandoned her for a wealthy heiress at the first occasion, leaving Marianne broken-hearted. It was Colonel Brandon who saved her, not only by rescuing her from the moors on a nightly rainstorm but also by healing her emotions through the sheer force of his genuine love.

Elinor and Edward had fallen in love at first sight but Edward’s arrogant and cold mother tried to separate them by using his former attachment to Lucy Steele as a means to drive a wedge between them. Edward, who had loathed himself for falling out of love with Lucy, had stayed away from Elinor. My strong eldest sister hid her broken heart well and devoted herself to us, caring for us with all her heart. Edward had not come back before he had been certain of Lucy’s new attachment to his brother Robert whom she married soon thereafter. I am sure I have never seen a woman so happy as Elinor when Edward proposed to her.

When the pencil in my hand stilled, I was looking at Douglas’ home with sudden longing. That was, of course, very foolish but I could not help myself. I would give my life, right then, if I could have been there with him. Reminiscing over my sisters’ romances had made it all too clear for me - I was in love with Douglas.

It was – and I coolly acknowledged this – foolish to the extreme for I had no hope of gaining anything but heartbreak. Douglas was a rake, a ravisher and an outcast of decent society. These facts were generally known yet much about him still remained uncovered.

Why had Douglas returned to England? If he meant to find a bride and recover his estate, why had he waited so long? According to Jack Twinkler, Douglas rented the house in late April after a two-month stay in London.

Then there was the disturbing fact that he had acquired a gunshot wound, which was not at all a common event. People did not get shot unless they had a sworn enemy or were attacked by highwaymen. Douglas had never offered me an explanation for his injury. But then, we had not really had one single serious conversation, had we? He had been too busy charming me and I had been a willing subject of his attractive charm.

On top of that, I suddenly realised something that unsettled me by the sheer plausibility of it: he might have attempted to attract me on purpose, to catch a naive, unsuspecting girl into marrying him. This would fulfil the conditions of his father’s will and would reclaim his title and fortune. The blood in my veins ran cold with the vileness of my own thoughts, but there it was. I had to face reality because, as a girl without any financial aspirations to speak of, I knew I must make my own future.

It was all good, solid reasoning except for one small bit - Douglas had not acted a rake when we met. Apart from the one time on the moor when he clutched me into his grasp, he had been adamant about my reputation remaining unscathed. He had all but chased me from his house.

Then there was Jack Twinkler. Saving a street urchin from starvation was a charitable deed, unless one did it to make ill use of a child afterwards. Yet Jack, who owned not a single penny while staying with Douglas, albeit receiving food and shelter, did not want to leave him and spoke in friendly tones about him.

 

All these thoughts troubled me during the week, before Mr Wilkinson was due to take me out. Yet I had to rid myself of these thoughts if I was to be in a fit state of mind for my outing. It would not do at all to show distress. Mr Wilkinson seemed kind and, although I did not find him in the least attractive, I knew I must force myself to know him a little better.

So when he drew up before the cottage I seated myself demurely next to the man on the curricle’s couch. I took care that I did not touch him. Nevertheless, I could not avoid the pressure of his fat thigh against my own, nor his hand on mine. I tried to free myself but he only gripped me harder.

“Ah, my dear, I find modesty is such a fine quality in a young lady. Do not be afraid of me, Margaret. It will all turn out splendidly, my dear.”

I was beginning to feel uneasy by this familiar behaviour, yet I braced myself to go through this day. That way I would give Mr Wilkinson his chance to show me what kind of man he was. Somewhere in the back of my mind I repeated over and over that this was Douglas’ cousin. He must have some merits.

 

We drove over narrow country roads in the direction of Torquay for ten minutes. I suddenly saw a familiar side road which branched off the one we were taking. That stretch of sandy track led to Douglas’ house, I was sure of it! Longing struck me like a bolt of lightning and I was aching to jump off the curricle and run to the house and to him. I had so much to ask him, to tell him, even though he rejected me. I believed we could still be friends, couldn’t we?

But, of course, I did not jump out. I remained the prudent and demure lady.

I let myself be driven to Watcombe Manor, some three miles ahead, and allowed Mr Wilkinson to hand me down.

“My dear,” he said in a suave voice, “let me show you the house. It is very grand, as you can see.”

I did not want him to do that but could not in truth find a reason to refuse. We walked through the downstairs parlours, the library, the ball room, and the drawing and morning rooms. They were all equally lovely.

“Did you design the decorations yourself, sir?”, I asked, not that I was really interested but I had to find something to distract my host’s attention from my figure and face. He was literally undressing me with his lascivious stares, which unnerved me greatly. Was this the ‘gentleman’ my half-brother had chosen for me?

“Oh no, my dear, that must have been the work of the previous Lady Watcombe, some thirty years ago. She barely had the time to finish the furnishings before she died in childbirth. Her husband, Lord Matthew, was very devoted to her and forbade that anything should be changed in the house. Now that I am in possession of the manor, I will start making new arrangements. I was hoping that you would advise me in this.”

Not in a million years, I thought. I shuddered at the idea of doing away with the lovely, bright colours and the elegant furniture. So Douglas’ mother died giving birth to him. How sad ...

We were now in an exquisite little room with French windows, leading to the rose garden. It was absolutely divine ... its walls were a soft pink and the floor was a very pale parquet. A bookcase occupied one wall and I wandered to it. The shelves were laden with all my favourite books and poetry anthologies. This could have been my dream room ...

My reveries were abruptly disturbed when Mr Wilkinson’s arm grabbed me around the waist!

I startled and tried to free myself but it was no good. He pressed me against his bulging stomach and began kissing my neck and face with his thick, slobbery lips.

“Mr Wilkinson,” I cried, pushing to back him off but to no avail, “I do not care for such behaviour, sir! Be so good as to unhand me this instant!”

He only sneered in a very unpleasant way.

“Cannot a man kiss his betrothed then, my lovely? You will become my wife soon and I do not intend to make do without the physical pleasures of our union.”

I gave him a great shove and managed to push him onto a settee where he lay sprawled panting and coughing like a beached whale.

“I will never be your wife, sir, let this be very clear! I loathe your despicable manners and do not care to be manhandled against my will! Now, be so kind as to drive me back to Barton Cottage at once!”

With a swiftness I had not thought possible for such a rotund man, Wilkinson was on his feet and the next moment I was again imprisoned in his disgusting embrace.

“Well, my dear, I have many ways to convince you otherwise ...”

Suddenly his drooling mouth was upon mine and I gagged in drowning nausea. Then his hand was in my bodice, gripping my breast and squeezing it. I struggled and fought but it was utterly futile! He was too strong for me. When the sound of ripping cloth pierced through the haze of horror surrounding me, I reacted. I raised my knee and kicked him in a very vulnerable place.

Wilkinson yelped, let go of me and sank onto his knees. I did not waste precious time but lunged for the French windows, threw them open, leaped out and fled.

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

I plunged through the rose garden of Watcombe Manor and I did not have the slightest notion where I was running to nor had I time to reflect upon it. I just ran as fast as I could. The most urgent thing was to create a great distance between me and that horrible man! It was not before I twisted my ankle and rolled headlong down a slope that I wondered where I was.

I was in a wood and my body ached all over. I saw that my bodice was ripped open and that one of my breasts had escaped my chemise. Flushed with shame I hastily restored my appearance. A violent wave of nausea churned my stomach as I recalled the touch of that beast’s fat hand on my breast. Thank God no one witnessed my shame and humiliation!

Wiping away the foolish tears on my face, I strove to restore my shattered wits.

Where was I? I forced myself onto my feet and winced as a sharp pain shot through my right ankle. I would have to endure the pain because I had to try and return to Barton Cottage without delay; I would inform my hellish half-brother I would not, under any circumstances, marry his disgusting friend! I started hobbling down the slope and deeper into the woods.

 

I do not know how many minutes I doggedly ploughed on but I just persevered with stubborn determination, although I had become hungry and tired. Eventually the trees thinned and I came out of the woods and onto a gently sloping pasture. To my immense joy there was a house at the bottom of it, a house I knew! I ignored my fatigued state and quickly ran towards it. My injured ankle gave way again and once more I found myself rolling down the slope, unable to stop myself.

It was a weird experience for, as I was sliding and rolling into the direction of the house, I could see the French terrace windows had been thrown open. A man stepped out onto the terrace and shouted something, but I was screaming with fright and could not hear him. Had he not hastened up the slope towards me, I would have crashed into the garden wall and more than likely badly hurt myself. The man caught me and slowed my downhill descent by flinging his arms around my body and holding me tightly. My rush was stopped. I was dizzy with pain. I rested my head against a warm, solid chest, inhaling an all too familiar scent of leather and woody soap. I looked up at my rescuer and found I was in the arms of my beloved rake ...

“Well, Miss Dashwood, it seems that we are again destined to meet each other under unusual  circumstances, does it not? What in the devil’s name are you doing here, all alone and at nightfall?”

I hastily sat upright, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. Douglas’ eyes, blue fire in the sun’s dying light, widened suddenly and his mouth curved into his wicked grin. I followed his gaze down my body and gasped! My breast ... !

As I raised my head, unable to move in my height of shame, Spencer’s hand slowly came up. With only the slightest of touches, he gingerly took my chemise and gently drew it up to cover me. I held my breath and gave a small, shuddering sob. With the back of his fingers he brushed my cheek and smiled at me so sweetly I felt my heart melt.

“What has happened to you, my dainty damsel ?”, he asked softly. “That was no ordinary walk in the woods, was it?”

I fiercely shook my head, lacking the courage, as well as the breath, to speak. By now, I was weeping and I was furious at myself for doing it! Yet, I could not stop ...

Douglas did not move at all but knelt on the grass before me. I was in a half lying, half sitting position and felt like a ragdoll. I looked like one too. After a while I stopped crying, finally recapturing my composure again. Douglas then rose, offered me his hand and drew me to my feet.

“Come, Miss Dashwood,” he said, “let me offer you some refreshment. You are looking very much  like you could use it.”

I was very grateful Douglas did not try to comfort me but, instead, led me into his study and indicated that I should sit down on the worn leather couch. My shame continued to burn and I did not wish to indulge myself further or melt far too readily into his arms, but that was precisely what I wished to do - most fervently.

When Twinkler was summoned, Douglas told him to show me to an upstairs room and give me some fresh clothing so that I could tidy myself a bit.  Twinkler brought me to a bedroom and opened the large cupboard it contained.

“ ‘Ere, miss, this should do very well,” he said with a friendly grin on his face as he handed me a long, dark red woollen coat. I thanked him and he left.

A little while later I entered the study again, feeling much better now that I regained some fragment of decency. Douglas was standing in front of the French windows and turned when he heard me. He waited until I was sitting on the edge of a sofa before he sat himself down in a chair on the opposite side of a low table. He then crossed his fingers under his chin and rested his elbows on his knees. I opened my mouth to speak but he silenced me with a slight shake of the head.

“No, my dainty damsel, do not say a thing. You need to compose yourself. You are distressed. We will wait for Twinkler to bring us some tea and then you will tell me what has happened.”

As I looked at him from across the table, I saw him as the image of strength, composure and compassion. I loved him for that. No, I just loved him, without the merest hint of a doubt. He was a rake, dangerous and seductive, but I loved him because he showed me no unnecessary pity. He just made me feel strong again.

Half an hour later, I was done telling Douglas about my unpleasantness with Wilkinson. I felt drained and giddy with exhaustion but also very relieved. The fragrant Indian tea was most welcome.  My rake listened to me without interruption; he was  outwardly calm but his eyes burned with mounting fury as my tale unwound. When I was done talking, he took a deep breath and leaned back in his seat.

His voice was a level monotone when he spoke.

“It seems very clear to me, my dear Miss Dashwood, that there is only one vitally important thing I can do for you. I must get you back at Barton Cottage as soon as possible without anyone knowing you were here.”

I stared at him in consternation for a few moments, hurt by the remote expression on his face and the coolness of his tone. It suddenly dawned on me that I must not let him notice my distress. All at once something was very clear to me; Douglas Spencer would not tolerate a new stain on his already ruined reputation.  Should people hear of my short stay at Douglas’ house without a chaperon, he would have to fully take the blame and marry me. On the other hand, I would be brand as damaged goods and we would be banned from society, even after our marriage.

I rose and was relieved to find my voice steady.

“Very well, Mr Spencer, I would be very obliged if you would instruct Mr Twinkler to bring me home. I thank you for your help and I must ask for your forgiveness for inconveniencing you with my troubles. Goodnight, sir.”

He did not stop me when I walked out of the room, still limping slightly on my injured ankle.

 

Barton Cottage was in a downright uproar when I limped in, dirty and dishevelled, but not wearing Douglas’ coat anymore; I did not want anyone to know about my acquaintance with him.

Mother gave a shrill cry when she saw me.

“Margaret, for the love of God, what has happened to you, child? Where have you been ? What ...”

Elinor, who was supporting Mother’s limp form on the settee, gently interrupted her.

“Now, Mama, give Margaret a bit of time to recover herself.”

Several things seemed to happen all at once. Marianne hastened towards me and put her arm around me while Edward pushed a chair forward for me. Once I was duly seated, Colonel Brandon knelt beside me and pressed a glass of sherry into my hand.

“Here, Miss Margaret, take a sip of this, a small one, mind! We would not want you to choke on it.”

After I had done what he asked, I looked around.

“Where is John? Is he still here?”

Colonel Brandon was the one who answered.

“He seems to have left in a hurry, Miss Margaret, after he received a message from a livered footman. Your maid did not asked from whence he came but can I presume it has a connection with what happened to you?”

“Yes, Colonel, I think this footman was from Watcombe Manor and the message must have concerned me. I was obliged to leave it rather precipitously, I am afraid.”

Mother startled everyone by yet another wailing cry while throwing up her arms.

“But Margaret, why? For once, could you not behave like the well-bred young lady that you are? This is not to be endured and Mr Wilkinson will be most vexed! Colonel Brandon, we must go without delay and apologize to him!”

“No, Mother!” I had forced my voice into a normal but very firm speech and it had the desired result; everybody was staring at me in shock. I was on my feet, faced everyone and straightened my back in an attempt to show a resolution I heartily felt.

“I will not accept an offer from Mr Wilkinson. I left his house on my own accord and free will, refusing to be driven in his curricle. My walk home just took me longer than foreseen and I am very tired so I will take myself off to bed at once.”

Offering no further explanation I took my leave and no one acted against it.

 

The next day Colonel Brandon took us all in at his estate of Delaford and stated that Marianne was concerned about Mother.  Poor Mama was indeed in uproar and could not stop complaining. I was thankful for that since I was not feeling at all well myself. My ankle still hurt, though I attempted not to show discomfort for fear Mother would want me to explain how I had gotten it hurt. A few days of pampering and rest should see me right, I reckoned.

By the time July was half, I was completely recovered and ready to make new plans.

 

Indeed, a new and daring scheme had formed in my mind, which would, I hoped, solve the most of my problems. They were clear, those troubles of mine. I must contract a marriage with a gentleman of fortune. I knew of such a candidate, though he seemed reluctant to commit himself.

Therefore it was of the utmost importance that I contrived to win Douglas over.

One morning at breakfast, I asked Colonel Brandon if I might borrow a horse from his stables and go for a ride. Mother was not with us for she was not well enough to leave her room. The rest of my family looked at me with guarded glances.

“Dearest,” Elinor began, “is it wise to make such an outing on your own? I wish you to take a groom, lest you come into trouble.”

I readily acquiesced and she said no more. Of course, I had no intention of doing so. The presence of a groom did not suit me at all on the journey I bore in my mind. However, at least, I took the precaution of asking Johnny, the youngest groom, to accompany me on a part of my journey. I left the boy in the wood near Douglas’ house with the two horses, but not so close that he could actually see the house. Pressing a few coins into his hand, I explained I had an errand to do and would be back in half an hour.

Douglas’ small house seemed deserted as I came nearer to it, yet I heard the sound of someone chopping wood in the back. As I turned the corner, a most unforeseen picture presented itself to my slightly dazed eyes - the wood chopper was not Jack Twinkler as I wrongly presumed but his master. The day was hot and the sun blazed down on his shirtless torso, emphasizing his muscular strength to an utmost advantage. He was working with gusto and concentration, displaying the joy he must be experiencing from good, honest manual work. The shoulder wound appeared to have healed nicely, only showing a dark red scab where the hole had been. His muscles stretched in a normal way each time he rose his left arm. The view was a most satisfying image. It sent my heart racing. I ventured to take a slow step towards Douglas but ended up startling him.  He hastily threw on his shirt. His eyes burned into mine, his brow furrowed.

“Miss Dashwood! Confound it but have you no brains at all? What is the meaning of this, sneaking upon a fellow when he is in no fit state to receive visitors? Go round to the front at once and knock for Twinkler to let you into the study!”

Stifling my delighted giggling, I hastened to obey. The ten minutes it took for Douglas to make himself presentable provided me ample time to prepare my speech and be ready when he entered the study. He was  dressed exquisitely in a blue superfine coat and light grey breeches.

“Well, Miss Dashwood? I made it sufficiently clear that I did not wish to compromise you any further but it seems I have been mistaken. What do you want from me?”

His blue eyes blazed fire at me in a most outraged scowl, but I was not afraid.

“Your injury seems to have healed very nicely, Mr Spencer, as you worked yourself into exhaustion. Is that wise, you think?”

I could hear him grind his teeth in exasperation. I had to stifle a smile quickly.

“Thank you for your concern, Miss Dashwood, but do not exert my patience any longer or I will throw you out of here. What are you doing here?”

Oh my! He was indeed furious!

“I have come to make you a business proposition, Mr Spencer, one of which I am convinced will serve us both to perfection.”

This time my eyes were burning into his.

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

Douglas’ eyebrows rose in mock scepticism, yet I detected a hint of admiration in his tone of voice as well.

“For sure, you never cease to amaze me, my dainty damsel. A business proposition, no less. Pray, enlighten me, I am most curious to know.”

A vivid ripple of pleasure soared through my heart when I heard Douglas address me with the endearment he used after we first met. He seemed mesmerized by what I had to say but I, on the other hand, had to swallow before I found the courage to continue.

“It is very simple, Mr Spencer,” I replied, my voice only slightly wavering. “You are in need of a wife and I of a husband. Let us join in matrimony and both our problems will vanish.”

A sharp intake of breath was Douglas’ sole reaction to my words. In his eyes I could not read any emotion; shock overbore them. Was the prospect of making me his wife so upsetting, then? Quickly blinking back sudden tears, I challenged:

“Well? You are no coward, I hope, nor a man who acts in an uncivil way. You do see the advantages to such a scheme, do you not? At least give me some reply, one way or other!”

“My dear Miss Dashwood, either you are very naive or you have gone insane, all of a sudden. You must have learned what the gossip mongers are telling you about me, by now, in that I brought shame to my family and to that of a young girl I courted ten years ago.”

“Very well, I will speak bluntly as this seems necessary to convince you, Mr Spencer. Yes, lately, your dealings with Miss Christina Finney have been laid out to me in detail when I attended a soirée at Barton Hall. Everybody in Devonshire’s society is fully informed about you.”

I deliberately stopped speaking, better to fathom the effect of my words on Douglas. He paled but that was all. “As a consequence, you have no prospects at all of marrying a girl from a respectable family,” I went on.  “No father will allow you to court his daughter, Mr Spencer. Yet, you are sorely in need to be lawfully wedded before your thirtieth birthday in order to claim your title and estate. I believe that is on August the 22th next, is it not?”

“Yes, I can very well see that you are indeed fully informed, my dainty damsel. I gather you are then offering your hand in marriage to help me recover my possessions?”

“Precisely!” I exclaimed eagerly. “Can you not understand what a good match it would be? You become Lord Watcombe and I will be saved from a husband like your cousin and all his caddish manners and rude behaviour.”

“Ah! And what makes you think my manners will not prove to be equally caddish, my beauty? I do have exactly that reputation, have I not?”

His eyes were gleaming with mischief and mockery. I had to brace myself from recoiling when he suddenly took a step towards me.

“No,” I said softly, “no, I cannot ever be intimidated by you, Mr Spencer, since you had ample occasion of ravishing me, yet you did not even touch me. Instead, you were very gentle and rather comforting when I needed it the most.”

In a spur of brazenness I laid a hand on his arm, ignoring Douglas’ involuntary shudder of surprise.

“Is the prospect of having me for a wife so repellent to you, then?”

Tearing himself free, Douglas shouted:

“Lord in Heaven, Margaret, you cannot do this! You will condemn yourself to a life of misery and contempt! Can you not even comprehend that?”

He spun away from me and covered his face with trembling hands.

“You have not answered my question, Douglas. Do I repel you so that you would not have me for a wife? I know I am no diamond of the first water but ...”

“No!” His voice rang out with anger and his eyes were sheer blue fire. “Do not play that game with me, Margaret Dashwood!”

He gripped me by the shoulders and dragged me in front of a mirror, that was placed above the fireplace. He spun me around so that I was forced to look at my own reflection.

“Do not pretend that you are not the most charming, most beautiful girl that has ever walked this earth, nor the sweetest, loveliest one! No, I am in no way repelled by you, my darling Margaret! Quite the contrary, in fact ...”

He bent his head and brushed my neck with one, very light kiss. To me it had the effect of a burning! I closed my eyes, eager to shut out every other impression but that kiss. I could feel Douglas’ hands fall from my shoulders when he stepped back. It left a cold spot on my flesh and an ache in my heart. Once again I had to brace myself.

“That settles it, then!” My eyes blazed into his. “We will make a well-matched couple, Douglas Spencer. Of that I am convinced to the extreme. I shall leave now, my groom is waiting for me. Will you come to Delaford tomorrow and ask my mother for my hand?”

He did not answer nor did he give me a single sign of acquiescence. Yet, he did not say otherwise either.

 

Johnny was waiting for me as agreed and we headed for Delaford. We had just rounded the first bend when I saw a man on horseback standing beside the road, as if waiting for us. It was Colonel Brandon. He pulled up beside me and, addressing the groom, said softly, “Go ahead, Johnny.”

The boy obeyed and rode away while the colonel adjusted his steed’s pace to that of my placidly plodding mare. For a few moments we just walked our horses in silence but then he spoke in an even voice.

“Some ten years ago, I fell in love with a girl deemed unsuitable a match for me. I am sure you know that story, Margaret, so I will not repeat it.”

Searching my memory, I recalled that the colonel lost track of the girl when she gave herself to a scoundrel. She died in childbirth in the workhouse after her lover abandoned her. Col. Brandon placed her baby daughter in the care of a farmer and his wife. Many people in the shire thought him the father of the child, which was not true. The colonel, for whom the girl was the only person left of his beloved, had never been bothered by those rumours. His protégé had also been seduced at the age of fifteen by a ruffian with the name of Willoughby. It was the same man that nearly managed to seduce my sister Marianne. Colonel Brandon was hurt twice by the same man, which made a very moving and such a sad story.

“At that time, a good friend of mine also had his first romance go awry,” the colonel continued in a casual tone. “The young lady became pregnant and my friend was whisked away to Jamaica by his father. The girl accused my friend of raping her. She later died in childbirth as did the child.”

“Douglas Spencer was your friend? But ... you must know far better than anyone what really happened? You must tell me!”

Christopher Brandon’s tone was unusually full of reproaches as he retorted swiftly.

“Why did you not tell us you met him, Margaret? Why do you visit him secretly?”

                “My personal life is no one’s business but my own!”

I heard the harshness of my own voice but could not hide it. A quick glance at the colonel’s face showed me I had made a mistake.

“I am sorry, Margaret, and you are right, of course. But please try to understand it is merely a great concern for you that prompted my questions.”

“No, I too am sorry, sir. I am afraid temper is one of my many flaws and Mother is always scolding me for it. Temper is all I have to make a stand in life, is it not?”

To my utmost surprise, the colonel burst out in laughter, which left me with vexation again.

The colonel saw it and hastily said. “Margaret, I do not mean to vex you in any way, please believe me, but you remind me so of Marianne with her sparkling impulsiveness and her refreshing spirit!”

“Oh ...” I blurted out, unable to say something more intelligent, “I see ...”

After a while Colonel Brandon again surprised me.

“So ... what is your opinion on Spencer?”

I was speechless, more so that apart from confessing my love for Douglas, there was nothing I was able to say  about him. All of a sudden it dawned on me that I did not really know anything about Douglas’ former life - his interests, his character or other matters generally known.

“Touché, sir, Douglas is a stranger to me. Is that what you wanted me to acknowledge?”

He did not reply but smiled very sweetly at me, which, in a strange way, was very comforting.

“How well did you know our Marianne when you proposed to her, Col. Brandon?”

“I loved her,” was the quiet answer.

“I love Douglas Spencer,” I said equally quiet, “and we are going to be married.”

Nothing more was said before we reached Delaford.

 

At dinner time, Colonel Brandon was absent from table as he was away on an errand or so Marianne said. I felt disappointed because I had wanted him to be present when I made my announcement. I waited until after the meal when we were all together for coffee. Marianne reclined on the settee with her feet on a hassock. Elinor and Edward sat beside her and Mother, dainty and discreet, lifted her little finger up as she drank her coffee. Seeing us all gathered like that made me feel a pang of regret for having to disturb their peace. It could not wait, however. My family had to have a chance to prepare for the changes that were inevitably coming.

“I have met someone who has become very dear to me, lately,” I said briskly, as was my nature.

An absolute silence accompanied the stares of ... what? Horror? Fear? Distaste?

“Well, it was bound to happen sometime!” I exclaimed, trying to sound apologetic.

My most sensible elder sister, Elinor, was the first to gather her wits.

“Who is it, Margaret? Someone we know?”

“His name is Douglas Spencer,” I replied, never one to prevaricate.

This time it was indeed horror I saw in the eyes of those I loved, a split second before my mother gave a shrill, very piercing cry. She threw her hands to her mouth and sat trembling like a leaf in a brisk wind. Her face was white as a sheet.

“Allow me to explain,” I demanded, “I met Douglas a few weeks ago while I was taking one of my daily walks on the moor. He had been shot and was in need of assistance. I treated him as best as I could. After I  had escorted him to his house, his servant took over and I returned home. Nothing inappropriate, dear Mama, has transpired between us.”

Instead of reassuring her, this seemed only to add to Mother’s distress. She burst out in tears as she always did when something occurred that she had no control over. As always, it left me angered because it robbed me of any power to console her.

Oddly enough, it was Marianne that came to my assistance.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Mama! Let her continue. Why do you have to always cry and carry on so?”

Mother instantly stopped and stared at her with hurt pride.

“I am to marry him,” I declared boldly whereupon I could have slapped myself for saying it when it only added to the general distress. However, it was the only thing I could or wanted to say.

All were struggling to speak when Colonel Brandon suddenly entered, looking very tired and cold despite the mild summer evening. Marianne gave a small gasp.

“Christopher, you seem exhausted. I will ring for your supper this instant.”

But the colonel looked at me with sympathy.

“Margaret, can I have a word with you in my study, please?”

“If you are attempting to spare us her news, darling,” Marianne said dryly, “you are too late. We already know about Mr Spencer.”

The colonel, however, was not amused.

“I fear you are in for a shock, Margaret,” he announced. “Douglas Spencer has left his house and not even his servant knows of his present whereabouts.”

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

I had no wish to confront the colonel after I heard that appalling news.

Alone in my room, after the family had retired for the night, I sat in a high-backed chair, unable to find sleep. I was utterly miserable and also furious at Douglas.

It was crystal-clear that he would not consent in marrying me and that my carefully laid-out plan held no lure for him. I would have to reconsider my future actions if I was to succeed in making him my husband. Oh yes, Douglas and I were going to be husband and wife, for that was my most ardent wish! I loved him and a life without him was simply unthinkable!

The door opened quite unexpectedly as my two sisters came in to sit beside me.

“Dearest Meggie,” Marianne said softly, “I know how you must feel. Elinor and I came to offer you our support as we are all too well aware of your distress.”

Elinor sweetly smiled at me and pressed my hand.

“Well,” I sighed, “thank you, sweethearts. But you know me, I will weather this. As usual I have ...”

“Meg ..   !”

Elinor interrupted me quite determinedly and I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

“Dearest Meg, you must tell us all that has transpired since you met this Douglas Spencer. Marianne and I have shamelessly neglected you since we married and left you alone with Mama. You must have been very lonely, dearest ...”

Dear Elinor, I thought. Somehow she is convinced that she can make me forget about Douglas simply by pouring my heart out. I knew I must make my story as genuine as I could and to make it a true declaration of my feelings towards Douglas. I swallowed and began my story of how we met on the moors after Douglas was shot. I told my sisters about his spirit, his wit and his temper. But also about the way he sent me home as soon as Petite-Maman and his manservant Twinkler took care of him. Then I recounted what had happened with Mr Wilkinson. Marianne cringed with horror but Elinor was furious. Only then it occurred to me that I had not recounted these events to anyone before except Douglas. However, it did feel good to do so, even if it upset my sisters. I hastened to continue, with me ending up in Douglas’ garden and the way he treated me. What I recalled the most, was how considerate and sweet he had been. Then, at one point, I had such a desperate aching for Douglas that I could not but realise I might have lost him for good - now that he had disappeared from me.

“Oh, damn and blast, Elinor!” I exclaimed. “How could he do this to me? I explained it so meticulously to him: he needed a wife so that he could become Lord Watcombe and retrieve his father’s fortune. He would have the estate back and I would be free of that dreadful Mr Wilkinson and John and their sly, underhand ways and ... oh, Marianne, Elinor, can you not see how merry we would be, Douglas and I? We would have so much fun! I could help him with the estate and we would have children, a boy and a girl and ... and ...”

There was no air left to breathe ... the silence was comforting after the roaring in my ears had stopped. When I managed to compose myself again, Elinor and Marianne were still there and my strong eldest sister very quietly said: “You must not lose heart, dear Meg. Remember what a difficult time Marianne and I have gone through. After Edward left us at Norland Park, I still harboured a slight bit of hope that he would return and declare his love to me. That hope went dead when I heard what Lucy Steele had to tell me about her secret engagement to Edward. Oh, Margaret, I then thought I would die of grief but I did not. People do not die of a broken heart, Margaret.”

“Meggie,” Marianne chimed in, “do you recall how it was for me? All the precious time I wasted on pining over that scoundrel Willoughby, while all along there was my darling Christopher, who adored me beyond everything! What a goose I have been! No, sweet thing, you must keep up your courage!”

I smiled through the mist of tears as I indeed recalled the tale of my sisters’ love stories.

“Sense and sensibility ...” I whispered and what would I be called, I mused. Naiveté? Stupidity? Rashness?

Marianne’s cheerful voice broke through my black reflections.

“I have an idea! We must talk to Christopher. He will know what to do.”

She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me with her to Colonel Brandon’s study. We startled the poor man, who had been working on estate ledgers.

“Marianne, my love, what is it? Are you unwell? Margaret?”

“No, darling, I am fine but Margaret is not. We must find a way to bring this dreadful business to a good end. Tell us all there is to know about Douglas Spencer.”

Elinor too had entered by now, so we installed ourselves into the worn leather seats of Christopher’s study and directed our attentive faces towards him. The poor colonel had no choice but to surrender.

“Although Douglas Spencer was a few years my junior, we nevertheless were good friends. He was an engaging young man at that time. Intelligent and well-educated, he showed a large interest in his father’s estate. He had several new agricultural techniques in mind in order to approve the yields of field labour. His father was very pleased with Douglas’ attempts and they enjoyed their long talks and combined farming efforts greatly. At one time, Sir Matthew decided to ask one of his business acquaintances from Liverpool to come and spend some time at Watcombe Manor. He wanted him to invest money into the estate. The gentleman, Mr Jeremy Finney, arrived in the company of his seventeen-year-old daughter, Christina. Poor Douglas was instantly besotted by her and no wonder: she was stunningly beautiful with her abundance of silver fair curls and her cornflower blue eyes. She was also charming and sweet, and not only to Douglas. I have met her at several parties and balls and she shamelessly played with the affections of any gentleman that came within range. Douglas suffered horribly and I tried to make him see reason but to no avail. Where Christina Finney was concerned my highly intelligent friend behaved like a bacon-brained idiot.”

The colonel stopped to take breath and turned a sad face towards me before continuing.

“So, Margaret, it was of no surprise to me when the scandal broke out - it was generally known Douglas raped the girl. I was shocked but could very well understand him. The Cyprian chit had played his emotions a bit too much.”

There was nothing I could comment about this story and I felt even more miserable. If even his best friend thought badly about Douglas, how then was I to defend him?

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

Oddly enough, I no longer felt depressed after I heard Colonel Brandon’s story. Instead, a new hope sprang and that I must go at once to find Douglas and talk to him. I had a right to hear his version of his past as well. He had better give me a well-founded reason not to marry me before I would give up trying to convince him to do so.

The next morning I again took my mare and rode to Douglas’ house, this time without Johnny or anyone else. I simply could not believe Douglas would have left Mr Twinkler behind, since he had been taking care of him from the moment he found the youth starving on his London doorstep. As usual, I was right. I found Twinkler in the house, busy with packing up his master’s belongings into two large portmanteaus. He was violently startled when I burst into the master bedroom.

“Miss? ‘Ow did yer ... that is, why yer ‘ere? Guv’nor ain’t ‘ere, you know?”

I advanced on him so rashly he backed away with a guilty look in his eyes.

“Jack Twinkler, I am most irritated with you! How is it that you failed to inform me about your wretched master’s last foolish action? I thought you were my friend! Have I not proved that I am also a friend of your master’s? I cared for him when he was injured, did I not?”

“Yeah ... yeah, Miss Dashwood, ye did but ... it’s the guv’nor ‘oo swore me into silence about ‘is whereabouts! ‘E don’t want ye to know as ‘e cares about yer reputation an’ the likes, Miss!”

“You must tell me where you are staying, Jack! I have to talk with him!”

Jack was in a serious dilemma, I could see that. After a while, though, he seemed to give in.

“Well, if y’ insist, Miss, I suppose I could tell yer. Now, mind, ye did not ‘ear it from me, should ‘e ever ask!”

“No, no, I promise. But Jack, earlier you said you did not know anything about Mr Spencer’s past. Somehow, I do not believe that. You must have heard the gossip about him which could be different from what I learnt. So, pray, tell me.”

Jack shrugged and went on with his work while he was narrating.

“The old Lord must ‘ave been a grumbling piece of a sanctimonious bore, Miss. ‘E was always rambling on about ‘onour and dignity and the family name. No wonder ‘is son was lookin’ for a bit of fun wi’ the ladies, though, from what I’ve ‘eard, ‘e was a good lad altogether! They all liked ‘im, men and women alike and nobody that knew ‘im could believe what ‘appened wi’ the young lady. Said it was not something they think ‘e’d do! But, there ye are, Miss. Whenever a bright young thing takes an interest in ye, even the best of young men can fall into their pit. From what I ‘eard about Miss Christina Finney, she wasn’t one to say no to the young men either!”

“Do you mean she was a bit of a Cyprian, Jack?”

“Right ‘o, Miss, she was the most shameless flirt at the Torquay balls.”

“But she was only seventeen!”

“Aye! And already ‘ad a reputation when she came ter stay at the Manor! Seemed she ‘ad been at it in Liverpool too. That’s why ‘er father brought ‘er down from there. A lot of the Torquay tabby cats were gossipin’ away about ‘ow she behaved at balls, if you know what I mean, Miss.”

“Yes, I do, Jack. Sorry I pounced on you so rudely.”

“Don’t ye worry about it, Miss. Now, let me get ye that address on a piece of paper and ...”

 

“No!” The word cracked like a whip and I whirled around to face him. Douglas was standing in the doorway, his bearing very rigid and forbidding and the tone in which he addressed Jack was cold.

“Go and prepare the curricle, Jack. We are leaving soon.”

The young man hastened out of the room, leaving me alone to deal with Douglas. He was livid, his face dead white and his mouth set in a thin line of intense disapproval. I knew I must hold my ground, so I trusted my chin upwards and straightened my shoulders.

“I have a bone to pick with you, Douglas Spencer!” I challenged him. “Why have you run away like a coward instead of fighting like the man I took you for?”

He covered the space between us in two long strides and suddenly towered over me but he deliberately did not touch me. His eyes bore into me in a frightening way.

“You endeavour to try the patient of a saint, Margaret Dashwood, but you will not force marriage upon me! If I am to be leg-shackled, I prefer to pick the woman myself and in my own time, thank you! Now, will you leave my house and never return? I have enough issues without you complicating my miserable life.”

There was something in his eyes that moved me to the core, a deep, desperate loneliness that he was fervently trying to subdue by being rude to me.

“Tell me about Christina Finney!” I demanded sternly, “I have a right to know.”

“Ah!” His heartfelt groan of irritation was accompanied by a movement of pure powerlessness as he threw his arms up. I laid my hands on his chest in a pleading gesture.

“I simply cannot believe that you would overpower a young, innocent girl, Douglas. You are not like that. ”

He gripped me by the shoulders and groaned.

“You do not know me, Margaret. I did ... oh, God! Will you not leave me alone? Why do you persist in making it so difficult for me?”

“It is your own doing if I do not know you, Douglas! Tell me how it was between you and that girl. Tell me everything. How did you meet? Was she not from the North?”

With a sigh, Douglas let himself down into a chair and I did the same.

“Jeremy Finney came to Watcombe Manor at the request of my father who wanted him to invest in the estate. The deal was they would try and establish new agricultural techniques in order to increase yields and raise profits. I was with them when they talked but my mind was not in it. Instead, all I could think of was the pretty Miss Christina, who had come with Mr Finney. She was his only daughter and heir and she was ... she was like a ray of sunshine to me; beautiful, lively, full of joy. From the start, we got on extremely well together. We enjoyed long rides on the estate, outings to Torquay, balls and parties. Of course, she was a success! Every young unmarried gentleman wanted to bask in her brilliant light and, just like me, they were all enchanted by her.”

“So she liked to hold court, then?”

“Of course, she did. What would be more natural?”

“She was only seventeen at the time. Had she been brought out yet?”

That seemed to astonish Douglas very much.

“No, I do not think so. Her father was still planning her season when they came to Watcombe Manor.”

“When I was seventeen I was extremely shy, Douglas. I would not have known what to do if a gentleman should address me, let alone treat me like I was something out of the ordinary. It seems to me that Miss Finney was already much accustomed to the ways of Society, even at her tender age.”

“I must stop you there, Margaret. Christina was not the villain in this piece, I was. I was the one incapable of restraint when it was expected.”

“So, when and where did this ... event take place, then?”

All of a sudden, Douglas’ face turned beet red and my heart lurched with a bolt of tenderness for him. Was it possible for a man, thought a rake, to feel so ashamed by an action that took place in his youth?

“Well?” I pressed, watching him grow reluctant.

“In the stables ... after we came back from a ride. It was a hot, sultry afternoon and we ... we took care of the horses first. I accidently spilled water on Christina’s dress and ...”

The memory seemed to choke him and I felt a stab of genuine jealousy for Christina Finney to have bewitched Douglas so hard.

“And ...” I finished the sentence for him, “she looked very fetching in her clinging garments and you lost your head.”

“Yes!”

He abruptly rose from his chair and stalked to the window where he leaned his face against the glass.

I did not speak as I understood he was extremely upset by the memories of that episode. I, however, considered Christina Finney to be the luckiest woman on earth since she was able to unleash that kind of feelings in Douglas.

“Are you satisfied now? Was this what you wanted, Margaret, for me to bear my soul like that?”

I refused to be provoked and instead inquired in a level voice:

“Did she try to stop you when you ... ?”

In exasperation, he whirled around.

“You never give up, do you? No, of course not! She loved me, you know! She wanted this as much as I did!”

“Yet she claimed afterwards that you forced yourself upon her. That does not sound like love to me.” I sounded threatening despite myself.

“She was young and confused, frightened maybe. Her father would have harassed her to know the baby’s father.”

“Are you certain it was yours? She might have had other lovers. What about her life before she came to Torquay? Maybe she had a love interest, perhaps back in Liverpool?”

Douglas’ reaction was far from what I expected. He turned so pale I thought he would faint. His hands clenched, and his whole body seemed to stiffen as if he readied himself for a blow. A faraway stare in his eyes told me that he had become aware of the possibility Christina cheated on him. Waiting in sudden anxiety I watched him, again experiencing jealousy towards the girl whom he had loved so long ago. I loved him right then and there. Would my love have the power to make him forget Christina?

“It was all so long ago,” Douglas said with a sudden shrug. “I was very blind at the time and would not have noticed if others caught her attention.”

“It may be from long ago, Douglas, but it is still haunting you. You need to give your life a turn for the better. Marry me and retrieve your estate. It is your rightful place in life.”

He looked me in the face again, cold and detached.

“I have no rightful place, Meg. Unless I uncover the truth about Christina, I will be an outcast. Forget me, sweet Meggie. There is no future for us.”

The use of that abbreviation of my name went right to my heart and I acted upon it.

He would have gone through the door if I had not barred the way and stopped him by pushing hard against his chest using both my hands.

“Look me in the eye and repeat that, Douglas Spencer!”

Standing on the tip of my toes, relinquishing all pride, I flung my arms around his neck and said, “Say it. Say that you do not love me and never did and ...”

His mouth was on mine even before I had a chance to finish that sentence. I had never been kissed before so I did not know what to expect. A bolt of lightning pierced my body, scorching a path from head to toe when his hard lips crushed mine. His arms encircled me like a vice, my breasts painfully meeting  the steel wall of his chest. A spilt second later his tongue invaded my mouth, exploring it with a hunger that equally frightened and delighted me. I only wanted to press my body closer to his and run my hands through the silkiness of his hair. I longed to abandon myself completely to him. I could feel the reaction of Douglas’ body as he deepened our kiss. My own response made my head spin with a need I never knew existed within me. God in Heaven ..!

With a grunt, Douglas threw me upon the bed where I lay like a wounded bird, panting and aching all over. Slowly as my vision cleared I found myself alone in the room. Douglas was gone.

“Douglas!” My cry of despair rang in my ears and echoed in the empty room. I bolted out into the courtyard where I saw my rake swing himself onto Dragon’s back. He disappeared in a cloud of dust, oblivious of my pleading shouts to return.

For a few moments, I felt nothing but despair and loss as I crumbled to the yard’s dusty surface. Sobs raked through my chest until rage for what he had done to me overcame them; he had invited me to Heaven and in the space of mere minutes banned me from it.

Jack Twinkler came to offer me comfort but he became the obvious recipient of my fury and I grabbed him by the lapels of his coat.

“Where are you hiding yourselves, Jack? Tell me now and do not try and deceive me!

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

July dragged to an end when, one morning, I had to admit I had achieved little more than a kiss in my relationship with Douglas. Granted, that kiss had been divine and the memory of it still had the power of thrilling me deeply but it had also awakened a larger need in me, a need that could not be stilled by kisses only.  Yet there was little I could do to unite me with my beloved Douglas.

My daily rides now took me to Torquay and the house near the port where he and Jack were living. I was hoping to have another conversation about my future with Douglas and to convince him as yet of the necessity of marrying me. My hopes were dashed, time after time, for Douglas was never there. Jack always had to disappoint me about where he had gone to because he did not know himself. It seemed Douglas stayed away from home until late or did not return at all for several days, never even offering a shred of explanation to his friend. So I was forced to exercise patience while I made Jack promise me to keep me informed.

 

Mother and I were still at Delaford while Elinor and Edward had returned to their own home. Edward had the living of the Delaford parish so Elinor came over as frequently as she could, mainly to support Marianne who was now suffering from heat exertion in those last weeks of her pregnancy. Elinor and I did our best to make her take an afternoon nap every day. We also persuaded her to a morning promenade, a physical benefit for our sister.

I was suffering too, albeit not from a physical ailment. Since there was no immediate cure for my heartache, I devoted myself to the task of finding out what I could about Douglas’ past, in the hope of discovering proof of Christina’s flirtations with other young gentlemen. Mrs Jennings and Sir John Middleton of Barton Hall were the first sources I consulted with.

 

Barton Hall was some ten miles from Delaford so I used my usual placid mare to get there. I found Sir John and his mother-in-law taking their breakfast in the morning room. The large French windows were open to let the fresh air penetrate the room and chase the sultriness of the July night.

“Good gracious, child!” Mrs Jennings exclaimed when I burst into the room with my usual exuberance. “Did you leave Delaford in the middle of the night that you are already here? What happened? Something wrong at Colonel Brandon’s home?”

“No, not at all, Mrs Jennings. Good morning, Ma’am, Sir John. I am looking for some information and very determined to acquire it.”

I was well aware of the fact that the two of them were eternally bored, since nothing ever occurred at Barton Hall. It was no surprise to me that they were instantly  interested in whatever matter I was looking for.

“Sit down, Margaret, sit down! How may we help you, dear?” Mrs Jennings said in a warm and welcoming tone.

I had thought long and hard how to achieve my goal without raising suspicions as to my motive so I was prepared.

“You know of my interest in history and genealogy, Mrs Jennings, it has always been a favourite topic of mine. Devonshire has become a home to our family so I decided to write a book about its gentility and the families and their estates. It seemed best to start here with Barton Hall, the Delaford estate and a few others. Sir John, I was wondering if you would allow me to use your excellent library?”

“Of course, my dear,” he said. His voice had a hint of pride. “ Come and browse as much as you like.”

 

Comfortably seated behind a huge desk in Sir John’s enormous library, I was soon engrossed with a book volume that contained a list of Devonshire landowners. For a while at least, I had to keep up the pretence that I was working on something but what I really wanted was for Mrs Jennings to give way to her insatiable curiosity so that she would come and join me. After barely five minutes, there was a knock on the door and she entered when I bade her to do so.

“My dear Meg,” she twittered in her usual cheerful manner, “how is your dear family? It has been quite a time since we were all together. You must tell me everything!”

Indulging in her need for gossip, I obliged for a good quarter of an hour and afterwards turned the conversation to another subject as unobtrusively as I could, a subject even closer to my own heart. I asked her about the Spencer family.

“Of course, I remember Sir Matthew Spencer,” Mrs Jennings said. “He was a real gentleman, well-bred, wealthy, very proper and ... boring. He was always rambling on for hours about righteous behaviour and ‘Noblesse Oblige’ and how different standards had become since his own youth.”

She giggled which startled me a bit.

“Except ... in his own youth, he had been rather something of a Corinthian!”

“He was?” I gasped, in genuine surprise, “Sir Matthew was a ladies’ man?”

“Oh, yes! I remember one particular ball when he made quite a serious pass at me. Had I not already been engaged to Mr Jennings, well, ... I don’t know what I would have done! Such a handsome, charming young fellow, he was!”

“What caused him to turn sour?”

“The death of his beloved Phoebe in childbirth. They were the handsomest couple of that season, so well-suited and so in love! Phoebe Watcombe, née Wilkinson, was a lively, well-educated and very pretty young woman when she met Sir Matthew. It was love at first sight and Sir Matthew worshipped her. It broke his heart when she died, leaving him to raise their son on his own.”

When she had to stop to draw breath, I managed to get a word in.

“Wilkinson? Doug ... erm, Sir Matthew’s wife was a Wilkinson? The same family from Liverpool that Mr Phineas Wilkinson came from?”

“Yes! Did you not know? Phoebe was Phineas’ aunt! She was much younger than her brother Harold who married Sir Matthew’s sister Mary. Mary was fifteen years Sir Matthew’s senior, and the latter was born long after Sir Bartholomew had given up the hope of having a son and heir. Poor Mary was lucky she married a rich Liverpool manufacturer. Her father stripped her of her inheritance once Matthew was born. Quite a nasty thing to do if you ask me, but then that is the way of the world, my dear!”

My head was spinning from all these new titbits I gathered just now! Douglas and Wilkinson were more entwined than I had thought them to be.

I forced my attention back to Mrs Jennings who had not stopped talking, not even for a second.

“I must admit Sir Matthew raised the boy well. Young Douglas lacked for nothing; he had the best teachers, went to Eton College and was in his second year at Cambridge when it all went awry for him. Or, rather, when he ruined it all by forcing himself on Christina Finney.”

Mrs Jennings seemed to enjoy reminiscing about Douglas’ past. I swallowed back a reprimand but with difficulty.

“What kind of person was she? Did you know her, Mrs Jennings?”

“Well, what did you expect of her, child! Young, pretty, lively and foolish, like all seventeen-year-old girls! Her father was a business acquaintance of Harold Wilkinson, who was Sir Matthew’s brother-in-law. Soon it became clear to everyone that he was looking for a husband for his daughter. She was considered a catch; her father was said to be worth 12.000 a year! Only after her death in childbirth did we learn Mr Finney had been on the brink of bankruptcy and that Sir Matthew’s wealth would have put a stop to that. We never heard from him after the girl’s death.”

“What a sad story! Did the child die too?”

“Yes, a little boy. I always wondered what Sir Matthew would have done, should the child have lived. He was so blinded by rage when he found out about his son’s affair that he sent Douglas away to his cousin on Jamaica. It all happened extremely quickly and the boy was not allowed to speak up for himself.”

This time I did not take up Douglas’ defence, as I had done before. Mrs Jennings was too quick-witted by half.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

I could not resist taking a longer route home since all those startling disclosures of Mrs Jennings had left me quite restless. What lay hidden in them I did not know yet but I was determined to find out. I was sure it contained the truth about Douglas’ dealings with Christina Finney.

Without noticing I had wandered onto the moors and was now approaching the stone circle where I found Douglas’ horse Dragon - the day he had been shot. I dismounted and tethered my mare to one of the standing stones. The day was rapidly growing hot again and I let myself down in the large shadow of a stone and rested my back against it.

The silence was absolute and welcoming, too. A morning in the company of Mrs Jennings has that effect on people. She was very overbearing and yet the information she gave me could prove to be of use. I thought it of particular importance that Christina Finney’s father had been bankrupt when he came down to Devonshire. He had been in search of a rich husband for her but had probably not informed Sir Matthew about his financial situation. Had Douglas known that?

I needed to speak with him, urgently so, and decided I must quickly go to Torquay.

 

 I was about to mount into the saddle when a soft voice made me turn around first.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle Marguerite.”

“Petite-Maman! Comment allez-vous?”

It was indeed the gypsy woman who addressed me and with an earnest gravity I had not seen the first time we met.

“Je vais bien, Mademoiselle, merci. Est-ce que vous avez des nouvelles de Monsieur Spencer?”

I replied by telling her that the only news I had about Douglas was that he seemed to have recovered well enough from the bullet wound. I insisted on thanking her again for her help.

The gypsy woman seemed perturbed in some way so I decided I wanted to know what it was that upset her.

The following conversation ensued between us:

“Have you seen him recently, Mademoiselle?” was her next question.

“No,” I replied with hesitation, “not for a fortnight. Why?”

Petite-Maman wrung her hands in the gesture of despair.

“What? What is it? Has something happened to Douglas? You have to tell me! Please, tell me!”

The gypsy woman hastened to explain she had not seen him either but that she feared he might be in mortal danger.

“Petite-Maman, please, why are you saying that?” I begged, as I tried to calm down the panic that was rising in my chest.

“Venez, Mademoiselle, vite. Il y quelque chose que vous devez voir ... There is something you have to see ...”

With that, she swung herself onto my horse’s back and helped me up behind her. Then we rode at a neck-breaking gallop as my mare hit her full stride. I held on to the gypsy’s waist for dear life as we raced over the moors. I should have known any gypsy was good with horses and could ride like a cavalry man.

 

Before long, we penetrated the woods and reached a tiny, rather ramshackle cottage but with a surprisingly neat herb garden. Petite-Maman nimbly leapt from the saddle and hurried inside, leaving up to me to tie my horse.

“Ecoutez-moi attentivement, Mademoiselle!”

She pointed to a chair beside the rough wooden table and I sank down on it, watching her while she went to a cupboard and started rummaging through it.

“Petite-Maman, I beg you! Please tell me that Douglas is alright? Have you heard something, anything from him?”

“No, nothing, but you have to listen to me, Mademoiselle. You have to listen very carefully but first, answer this question: Est-ce que vous l’aimez? Do you love him?”

Oui, je l’aime de tout mon coeur! Yes, with all my heart!

Her deep set eyes scrutinized me. She looked me in the face and probed my very heart abut I did not waver. How could I waver when I was not seeing her but instead saw only the face of my beloved rake, my Douglas.

“Vous m’avez convaincue. You have persuaded me, Mademoiselle, and I shall tell you what I know.”

 

My heart missed several beats as I listened to Petite-Maman’s story.

“Ten years ago I was summoned to the bedside of a young girl in the process of childbirth by a gentleman who claimed to be her father. The birth took place at an obscure little hotel in Torquay. This amazed me for the father seemed to be a wealthy man and the girl’s nightgown was of silk and the finest Brussels lace. He did not tell me his name but instructed me to assist the girl in her confinement. He said his daughter was six months pregnant. He left me alone with the girl; she could not have been more than seventeen years of age.”

“What was her name, Petite-Maman? Did she reveal it to you?”

“Christina Finney.”

 

I swear my heart stopped for a moment.

“The baby was in breech position and the birth was very difficult,” the gypsy explained. “The mother was bleeding profusely and I was not able to stop it. The baby was stillborn yet full term.”

My breathing was not fully adequate as I took in all these new facts.

“While the girl was slowly dying, she told me to look in her reticule and extract a document from it. I did as I was told for she was very adamant. I held her hand in mine and stroked her wet, golden hair while she faded away - quietly but inexorably. Her last words I shall never forget.”

“What were they?” I breathed.

“She said ‘Ask Douglas to forgive me’.  I have been searching for this Douglas since the day she died and now I’m convinced it must be Monsieur Spencer. The poor girl did entrust a letter to me, a letter I was to give him.”

The gypsy’s hand held a small, cream-coloured envelope, sealed with blue wax, with the ends tied by a lavender-coloured ribbon. Instinctively, I reached towards it but stopped. I had no right reading it.

“Have you been to Mr Spencer’s house in Torquay?” I asked and when she shook her head, I wrote down the address on a scrap of paper.

“No, Mademoiselle, you must take it. I have implicit faith in you and that you will give it to Mr Spencer. You love him very much, do you not?”

“Yes ... yes, I do ...”

I took the letter from her and tucked it in my skirt pocket, under my kerchief.

“Petite-Maman, you said something about the baby, that it was full term. Are you absolutely certain it was? Christina’s father said she was only six month pregnant.”

“He must have been wrong, Mademoiselle. The baby was a boy, eight pounds in weight. It must have died in the womb because the umbilical cord  was wrapped around his neck. Yet it was fully developed, Mademoiselle.”

So Christina had already been with child when she came to Watcombe Manor.

I thanked Petite-Maman and left for Torquay immediately. I simply had to see Douglas since there were too many things I had to tell him. Yet, when I arrived at the house near the port, only Jack Twinkler was there to receive me. He had not seen his master for more than a week and was very concerned about him.

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Of course, it was abundantly clear to me I could no longer deal with this on my own. Douglas, my Douglas, was missing! A multitude of scary, horrible images popped up in my mind of him lying injured somewhere ,or worse, dead!

“Jack,” I urged, “come with me! We must seek help, we cannot do this alone anymore.”

About half an hour later, I burst into Delaford’s library, Jack in tow. I startled Colonel Brandon, who was quietly working behind his desk. Marianne, who was reclining on the settee while sewing baby sheets, gasped in surprise.

“Forgive my impulsiveness but I need your help! Colonel, I am at a loss at what to do! Douglas Spencer has gone missing for more than a week and I am so very concerned about him!”

My loud outbursts also alarmed Mother and Elinor who came running from the morning room. Elinor, my practical, level-headed older sister, took matters in hand with her usual efficiency.

“Margaret, calm down! Mother, take a seat! Marianne, stay where you are and, for God’s sake, let us all keep a cool head! Now, Margaret, what is this all about? Please, make an attempt in being clear and succinct?”

Drawing a deep breath, I straightened my shoulders, closed my eyes and then started my narration of Douglas and me right from the beginning. Mother knew nothing about all this and several times she gasped violently during my tale but she did not interrupt me until I finished.

“Margaret, my dear, this is all most disconcerting and also most inappropriate! This man certainly has not behaved as a gentleman when he endeavoured to hold you, kiss you and reject you all in one gesture. I do fervently hope you have not formed an attachment to him for I do not see anything good coming from this.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Mama!” Marianne burst out, “She loves him! Surely even you must understand that!”

Mother’s face grew even more alarmed at her impulsive remark. Fortunately, Elinor intervened.

“There is no need for emotional uproar, please? Mother, do not upset Margaret further with useless preaches about propriety. She has behaved like a genuine lady in all this and has used her brains much more than her heart. It has also become quite clear to me that Mr Spencer has feelings for Margaret and that he is showing considerable respect for her by urging her to be cautious about her reputation.”

She now turned to me, her face showed deep earnest.

“Meggie, as matters stand presently you cannot marry Douglas Spencer. I am sure you understand as much?”

“No, I do not! Why, for Heaven’s sake, can I not?”

 

Tears of rage and frustration wetted my face and I made no attempt to stop them as I felt drowned in complete despair. Obviously, my family was not prepared to help me in my hour of need! My hands flew to my face and I wept like a child, unable to stop myself.

Colonel Brandon was the one who took matters into hand.

“Ladies, would you please leave it to me to try and help Margaret? Kindly leave us, I need to have a conversation with her and your presence here is upsetting her too much already.”

They must have obeyed him for when I lifted my tear-streaked face again I noticed the colonel and I  were alone. He rose from his chair, handed me his handkerchief and patiently waited until I had cleaned up my face before seating himself next to me on the settee.

“Margaret, you know about my unfortunate affairs of the heart when I was a young man, don’t you?”

I nodded, searching for words yet not finding them.

“About Eliza, the girl I fell in love with but was not allowed to court because she had no fortune. I was only nineteen then and, if my father had not whisked me away into His Majesty’s Army, I would have eloped with her. I would have done the same thing as my friend Douglas, and where would I have ended then? I would have had no money, no prospects and a wife and child to support. My point , dear Margaret, is that we all tend to do irrational things for love when we are too young to make the right judgements.”

“Yet, colonel, you were deeply affected by what happened to Eliza, so deeply that you searched for her for years! Even after you found her dying in a workhouse, you committed yourself to provide for her daughter Beth in so thorough a way that you even tracked the rapist Willoughby who impregnated her!”

“Yes, and a good thing I did for it was that same rascal Willoughby who seduced my beloved Marianne and would have ruined her in the same way, had I not intervened!”

“I am sorry, sir, but it was not you that saved Marianne from Willoughby! He did that himself by marrying the rich Miss Grey, thus alienating himself from my sister. You did bring her back to life, first by rescuing her from the moors in a rainstorm, then by healing her emotionally after her sickness. Yet, who has healed you, colonel, after Eliza? Who stood by you in those horrible years of longing for her?”

 

Col. Christopher Brandon’s face had grown very white and his soft hazel eyes were wide with grief. I laid a hand on his in an attempt to soften my previous harsh words.

“Forgive me, sir, I was very rude. It is none of my business.”

He smiled, a bit sadly, before continuing.

“No, Margaret, you are right. I have been nursing my pain entirely on my own which makes me a fair judge of how Douglas must have felt when he was shipped off to Jamaica without seeing his Christina again. He was in an even worse situation than I was because he was the father of ...”

“No, no, colonel, he was not! I had not reached that part of the narrative because of Mother’s outburst but listen to what I discovered today. Jack, where is Jack? I need him to ...”

“Elinor has taken him  to the kitchen, I believe. It is the boy you brought with you that you are talking of, I presume?”

“Yes, his name is Jack Twinkler and he is Douglas’ friend and acts as his servant as well. I must have him with us to help me explain ...”

“Margaret, please, calm yourself and slowly explain it to me yourself. What have you found out?”

I obliged in a long, somewhat undisciplined tale. The colonel drew a deep breath, after I was finished and said. “So Douglas is innocent? But who, then, was the father of Christina’s child?”

 

Col. Brandon and I had a long conversation with Jack after we located him in the kitchen. He was enjoying a large plate of Cook’s excellent shepherd’s pie. Poor Jack looked like he needed it, he seemed even thinner than before. We learned quite a lot from Jack, information we did not know before.

He explained that Douglas returned to England in late February of that year 1818, after family lawyers informed him of his father’s demise. Those same gentlemen explained to him the stipulations of his father’s will, now common knowledge to all of us. The consequences of that will were dire, for Douglas was left in uncertainty since he was not the full heir to his father’s legacy  - until he married. Therefore, he could not sell nor buy any property, nor have access to his father’s money. Douglas was, to keep it short, completely powerless to do anything except to try and find a bride.

According to Jack, he had looked for a suitable mate all over the London scene for the good part of two months without results. Each London mama of unmarried daughters was well informed about him and his past. He was instantly barred from most of the London homes and parties.

“I wonder,” Colonel Brandon said in a pensive tone, “who informed the London ton of Douglas’ past. Certainly not his lawyers for they could be barred for breach of trust.”

I was thinking along the same lines myself. Someone who was very close to Douglas must have spilled the beans on him and I had an inkling as to whom it might have been. It could only have been his own cousin, Phineas Wilkinson.

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Colonel Brandon, with whom I shared my suspicion of Wilkinson, departed for Liverpool the next day; he was determined to inquire more about the Wilkinson family. The previous evening we informed my mother and sisters of what we had learnt so far. Mother had been weeping softly into her lace handkerchief the whole time and, afterwards, she followed me into my room.

“Margaret, Margaret, what am I to do with you, have you no sense at all, girl? No shame? It seems you have thrown yourself at this ... this despicable person and now you have dragged the colonel into this. And he is needed at our Marianne’s side in her last and difficult days, too! It is not to be suffered!”

I was very tired and did not want to argue with her. My legs were actually shaking when I sank onto a chair.

“Mother, I have done nothing to be ashamed of. I love Douglas with all my heart and I want to be his wife more than anything I have ever wanted. Right this moment I do not know where he is and it frightens me to the point of panic. I beg you to leave me alone, please? I need to think, to gather my thoughts.” I was not entirely sure if I was angry with Mother or myself.

The door opened again and Elinor entered. She gently took Mother’s arm and spoke.

“Mama, our little one needs comforting, not scolding. Whatever will occur within the following days will be hard on Meg because she loves Mr Spencer. If she fails to become his wife, she will be very distressed. We must be prepared to stand by her with all the love we can give her.”

“Thank you, Elinor,” I replied but my voice was distant and unsteady.

Mother seemed to reconsider her attitude for she nodded, planted a peck on my cheek and left the room. Elinor did not. She sat down in the chair next to mine and took my hand.

“Poor little one, you have gone through quite a hard time, have you not? Do not yet despair, Meggie. Things can change over the few hours to come.”

“Oh, Elinor, you have not heard the worst of it! Mother is right; I completely disgraced myself in front of Douglas. I threw myself at him, proposed marriage to him and he refused me! It sounded like the perfect way to end his troubles and mine but he did not want to hear about it.”

“Darling Meg, surely you can see why? He wants to protect you from gossip and shame. You know what Society will do if you marry him after so short an acquaintance. They will accuse him of having done the same atrocity to you as to Christina Finney. They will say he married you because you might be pregnant. Your marriage will be a stained one and you and Douglas will be shunned.”

“I do not care what they think! I just want to be with Douglas!”

I knew I pleaded a hopeless cause but did not care.

“Meg, you might not care but Douglas does! He loves you, Meggie, surely you must acknowledge that! He is avoiding you at all costs lest he succumbs when he is close to you. That is maybe why he has gone into hiding.”

Elinor was speaking the truth, of course. Yet the truth never at all comforts a person in distress.

 

When Colonel Brandon had not returned at the end of the day, I began pacing up and down the parlour like a caged lion. He warned us that his investigation might take more than one day but I had hoped against all odds he would have been back by now.

“Margaret,” Mother urged, “stop upsetting us all with your endless pacing. Marianne is getting nervous enough as it is with her baby due in a few weeks. Sit down!”

Her voice rose to the pitch of irritation I knew all too well but she was right about Marianne. My frail younger sister had the pale face of a ghost and her big blue eyes widened with worry.

“I am so sorry, Marianne, please, forgive me. Maybe it is best that I retire early as I am in no fit state to be pleasant company.”

I left for my bed chamber and readied myself for yet another sleepless night but when I was about to climb the stairs, a voice hissed at me from the direction of the servants’ quarter and I turned to see Jack Twinkler. He beckoned me to follow him through the green baize door into a now deserted kitchen. I remembered he was staying at Delaford as well since the colonel had asked him to. He had been helping in the stables just to make himself useful.

“What is it, Jack? Have you any news for me? Have you heard from Douglas?”

“No, miss, but there are things I reckon yer ought to know.”

We sat down on the bench at the big table like two conspirators.

“Miss, I make it my business to look after the master’s things even when ‘e’s not here to see for ‘isself! So I went to the ‘ouse in Torquay an’ ev’rythin was okay. I also went to the country ‘ouse which was also okay ‘xcept for one thing - I found Dragon in the garden, munchin’ away at the lawn!”

“Dragon? Douglas’ horse? Was Douglas there, too? Was he alright?”

“No, no, that’s just it, miss! ‘E wasn’t! Only the ‘orse an’ that’s not right, not right at all! Dragon was still wearin’ ‘is saddle and reins and ‘e was sweaty all over, like ‘e’d been galloping for a long time. ‘E was also ravenous with hunger and thirst. ‘Ad a ‘ell of a job cleanin’, dryin’ and feedin’ ‘im, and I brought ‘im back wi’ me to Delaford, I did.”

Jack drummed the table top with his forefinger and continued:

“I tell ye, miss, this ain’t right! Somethin’ ‘s ‘appened to the guv’nor, somethin’ really bad! That ‘orse ‘d never leave ‘is side for the world! Either the guv’nor is lying somewhere wounded or either the ‘orse was left somewhere on ‘is own. After all, the guv’nor is gone missin for a week and the state that ‘orse was in might well confirm that!”

“Jack,” I urged, “what did Douglas say he was planning to do when he left the house? Where was he going to?”

“’E did say nothin’, miss, even when I begged ‘im to! So today, after I’d cared for Dragon, I searched through the papers on the guv’nor’s desk. Found not that much but ‘ere, I think you ought to see this!”

He handed me a small, slim notebook with a black leather cover. I took it from him, realizing I had underestimated this clever youth.

“Jack, I am impressed and also humbled. I did not know you could read!”

“Yeah, the guv’nor ‘as been teaching me from the first days he took me in and says I’m really good at it. I’ve been doin’ some work for ‘im these last few weeks, that’s why I knew what I was looking for.”

With trembling hands I started leafing through the notebook and soon, a lot of pieces began to fall into places. Douglas had been investigating the finances of the Wilkinson businesses in Liverpool. The notebook contained the results of his findings. Profit or loss figures were neatly listed in a strong, large handwriting. Wilkinson’s cotton manufactory had been suffering severe losses over the past year. Douglas had also added several newspaper clippings, even one from London which announced the mill’s bankruptcy. It seemed Douglas had been preparing a file against his cousin Phineas Wilkinson, proving his distrust.

I returned the notebook to Jack and laid out my plan to him. Poor Jack’s honest face turned pale with apprehension when I finished.

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

“Please, Miss Dashwood, I can’t let yer do that! Ye said the colonel was lookin’ into the guv’nor’s family. ‘E might find the solution and I’m thinkin’ we ought to wait for ‘im to come back! Ye can’t go runnin’ off to that Wilkinson bloke on yer own!”

“Jack, I can and I will! I must learn what Wilkinson is hiding and if he has done harm to Douglas. Are you coming with me or not? I will go alone, if I must! Now come along, I have to find Johnny the groom.”

Muttering under his breath, Jack followed me to the Delaford stables and went to wake Johnny. The boy appeared soon thereafter his wake-up, yawning and complaining of his being waken in the middle of the night.

“Johnny, listen to me. You are my friend, are you not?”

The boy nodded but was still sulking in aversion.

“I need your help, Johnny. Jack and I are going to Watcombe Manor now, while it is still dark. We fear that Jack’s employer, Mr Spencer, has come to some mishap at that place and we want to investigate. If we are not back by morning, say ten o’clock, you must go to Mrs Ferrars, my eldest sister, or to Colonel Brandon, if he is back. Tell them where we have gone. The colonel will know what to do as will Mrs Ferrars. Do you understand all this?”

“Yes, miss. I’ll do as you ask, miss but I don’t like it. I don’t like it a bit!”

“Johnny, please, just do as I ask. All will go well since Jack is with me. Now, can I count on you?”

“Yes, miss, you can.”

“Good,” I replied, “Oh, and Johnny, can you lend me a pair of breeches and a coat?”

Johnny’s jaw – and that of Jack – dropped in sheer consternation.

 

As we sped over the dark roads of Devonshire, my thoughts kept circling around the latest events in the case. Of course, I was fully aware that I was rash in my behaviour by going after Wilkinson on my own, all the more, that I was acting without the slightest hint of a plan as to how I was to do this. I could not just knock on the front door and ask to see Mr Wilkinson in the middle of the night and without a convincing story. Moreover, how would I find out if he really was the one behind all this and how would I be able to prove it? Yet, there was but one thing I could do in my present state of anxiety for Douglas - I had to find out for myself.

 

It would be impossible to enter the Watcombe estate by the front gate which would surely be closed for the night. The fence and wall were at least twelve feet high and therefore insurmountable. Yet I had fled the estate on foot, through the woods, without encountering any walls the night I ended up on the terrace of Douglas’ house. Jack and I first went to the country house where they had stayed. It was also better to leave the horses there and proceed on foot, which we did.

“Jack, let us make a deal. If we were to be caught, and one of us has a chance to run away, then do so. Do not look back, even if I am the one that is caught. I will do the same. Go straight to Delaford immediately and come back with help. Promise me, Jack.”

“Miss, please, what is it that yer afraid of? D’ ye think the guv’nor ‘s being held there? I don’t ‘ave a good feelin’ about this. We can stop right ‘ere, Miss, and leave it all to the Colonel.”

“No, Jack, I cannot. I must know about Douglas and I need you to help me discovering if he is held there.”

By now we were almost out of the Watcombe Home Wood and approached the back of house. The beautiful rose garden was closest to the terrace so we crept through it and crouched behind one of the fragrant rose hedges to observe the house. The distance to it was approximately fifteen feet and we could clearly see what was happening in the elegant room with the French windows; it was the same room I found so exquisite when I first visited.

Although it was long past two in the morning, the lights in that room were ablaze and Phineas Wilkinson was pacing the floor like a caged animal. Another man was with him, a giant of a man with a rough, forbidding face and a body as powerful as a bull’s - all muscles and weight. He appeared to be a common man, for his clothes were of drab homespun brown and he was holding his cap in his hands, a gesture of deference. Wilkinson was furiously arguing with this man, throwing up his arms in agitation and stomping his feet on the floor in his rage. We could not hear their conversation but we saw the other man pleading and debating with Wilkinson who became even more outraged by what the man was telling him.

“What’s goin’ on in there?” Jack whispered.

I shook my head but did not take my eyes from the scene.

“I can sneak around the ‘ouse and see if I can get in, somewhere, Miss. We ‘ave to get in and go look for the guv’nor.”

“Yes, I know but not yet. I do not think that he would be kept in the house if he was a captive since that would be far too dangerous. The servants would gossip about it and Wilkinson will not risk that. Besides, Jack, we do not even know for certain that Douglas is even here.”

“Aye, yer dead right, Miss, we could be making fools of ourselves an’ then where ‘d we be?”

All of a sudden the French window doors were thrown open and the two men came striding over the terrace, straight in our direction, which made Jack and me duck deeper behind the hedge. They passed us, Wilkinson still muttering under his breath, and headed for the Home Wood.

“What now, Miss? I daren’t follow them ‘cause that big bloke seems pretty strong to me! ‘E could break me like a twig wi’ those shovels for ‘ands of ‘is!”

“We must see where they are going, Jack! Come with me!”

 

There were obvious signs of poor grooming all over the gardens; weeds grew and paths were not kept. The same could be said for the Home Wood where the undergrowth was thick and lush. That was in our favour since we could hide ourselves well while we crept after the two men.

They led us to what looked like a grassy mound at the edge of the wood but was in fact an icehouse. Only the stout wrought iron door indicated that there was a room beneath the small, man-made hill. Wilkinson opened the door with his set of keys and he and his companion disappeared inside. Even from a twenty foot distance, Jack and I could understand each word they said, or rather shouted, inside. It was not only Wilkinson’s voice we heard but also that of an extremely angry Douglas!

“For the love of God, Phineas, will you not listen to reason?” he yelled. “We can make a financial arrangement between us. I am prepared to let you have all the money and take the estate off your hands. Let me run it for your benefit. I do not even need to have the title since I do not care about it! Keeping me here is pointless, Phineas!”

Wilkinson’s joyless laughter sounded hollow.

“It is your own fault, Douglas. You should have stayed overseas instead of returning to good old England trying to rob me of my rightful inheritance. No, cousin, this is the best way to ensure that you are in no position to thwart me. I am keeping you here until your birthday and then you will sign over the estate and the money to me. Maybe then I will let you go free.”

“Hell and damnation! If I ever get my hands on you ...”

Douglas broke off when the sound of a blow whipped through the still night air.

“There! He really is a nuisance, this cousin of mine. He never learns. Check him, Dobson! I do not want him dead, at least not yet.”

 

With the blood pounding in my ears, I found myself trembling with fear. Had Jack not kept a hold of me I would have burst through the iron door and ... and do what? Tears of powerless rage were rolling down my face but there was nothing I could do.

When the two men emerged from the icehouse, my mind was already searching for a way to get Douglas out of there. Jack must have guessed what I had in mind because he clapped his hand over my mouth and held me even harder so that I could no longer move. Who would have thought this slender youth to be so strong? I tried to struggle free but to no avail. It must be his fear that gave Jack extra strength.

“For God’s sake, miss, keep quiet!” he adamantly whispered into my ear. “Yer not helping the guv’nor by being caught!”

He was right, of course. As the two men walked back to the house, I put up a conciliatory hand and Jack released me.

“We must try and get him out of there, Jack!”

“Well, miss, we can’t! ‘Ow yer gone break down that door, I ask ye? Come on, we’re ou’ o’ ‘ere!”

“No, no, you go, Jack. I want to keep watch. Wilkinson might move him to some other place and then we would never find him. I will be careful, I promise.”

‘Alright, miss, but don’t do anything stupid. We won’t ‘ave you a prisoner too, you know!”

A voice froze my blood. “Too late, my young friend! Dobson, grab the boy!”

Wilkinson quickly had me in a stronghold and I screamed as loudly as I could. Dobson reached for Jack but he had clearly underestimated the former London street urchin. Jack kicked him in a delicate place between the legs and bolted. Within seconds the darkness had swallowed him up.

“Confound it, Dobson!” Wilkinson’s voice boomed.

Dobson lay writhing and moaning, his hands between his legs; Wilkinson fumed and swore. His hold on me slackened a little and I took the opportunity I was presented. I bit his hand as hard as I could, deeply sinking my teeth into the soft flesh of the palm until I tasted blood. A hard blow on my temple ended this and darkness engulfed me.

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

My head hung upside down and my arms dangled straight down like those of a rag doll. Dobson had flung me over his shoulder and, with every step he took, a jolt of pain spread from the back of my head all the way down my spine in throbbing waves. For a moment I feared I was going to be sick but I forced myself to breathe deeply. I closed my eyes as I felt my surroundings sway, fighting the nausea that was threatening to overcome me. As this was also preventing me from seeing where Dobson was taking me, I decided against it. We were still in the Watcombe Home Wood, though now we were descending some roughly hewn stairs that led into a kind of ruined crypt. A castle, maybe? A church?

I was not granted the time to dwell on this for Dobson unceremoniously threw me down and I landed on the floor, my hands and feet catching me. We were in a musty, decrepit room, littered with all kinds of rubble. In front of me I saw Douglas, his hands and feet tied to a chair.

He looked absolutely ghastly! His unshaven cheeks were covered with a thick, black beard that blurted his strong jaw line and his body seemed to have shrunken. His clothes hung appallingly loose around his frame. Yet, more than by his appearance, I was worried about the cold, almost disgusted look in his eyes!

“Well, cousin,” Wilkinson’s voice sneered, “this is the moment where you sign over your property to me. I was prepared to wait until August 22th but the arrival of this person here forces me to move matters forward.”

“Who is this? Are you plucking urchins and peasants from Torquay’s workshops now, Phineas?” Douglas demanded.

Douglas’ comment reminded me I was still clad in men’s breeches and coat and, for a passing of a heartbeat, I found myself hoping no one had recognized me.

In answer to that, Wilkinson grabbed the grubby cap that covered my head and ripped it off, causing my hair to loosen from its pins and tumble down over my shoulders. He pulled my head back in a rather painful manner, thus forcing me to face Douglas.

“It is your lovely Miss Dashwood, cousin. She has come to your rescue or so it seems. I am sure you would not want to see her harmed?”

If I had presumed to find solace in my rake’ face, I was completely wrong. His features did not change and his eyes continued to look at me - cold and uninterested.

“Ah, yes, Miss Dashwood!” Douglas aid in a matter-of-fact tone. “Well, Phineas, she seems to have formed an attachment to me, though I cannot think what she sees in me. Rest assured I did the best I could to fend her off. I am not in the least prepared or interested in having her leg-shackled to me!”

Surely he must be bluffing, I thought. He does not want Wilkinson to see that he cares for me. Yet his deep blue eyes, even in the poor light of torches, kept their coldness and indifference. Had I been wrong? Had I let myself believe that Douglas loved me, even when he had never spoken the words? Wilkinson’s icy snicker abruptly forced me back to reality.

“Forgive me, cousin, but that performance does not convince me at all. I also have a bone to pick with her for rejecting my more than generous offer of marriage.” Wilkinson’s ruthless stare still bore into me and I had to suppress a shiver.

His free hand suddenly grabbed my throat and squeezed it just enough to terrify me and I was forced to gasp for air. A waft of his vile, odorous breath invaded my nostrils and I gagged with horror and disgust. I made a futile attempt to claw at those beefy, squeezing fingers but they felt like a vice around my neck.

“You did not think it was your pretty little face that prompted me to offer you marriage, did you, my dear?” Wilkinson growled. “You were merely a means to an end and marrying you would keep you away from him. Did you think I did not know about your little meeting with him on the moors?”

“It was you who shot him!” I choked, fury mounting in my chest.

Wilkinson chuckled. “Yes, and I waited to see him die but then you came along! You had to meddle with my affairs, had you not? You had to help him out and disrupt all my carefully laid plans in the process. Imagine my surprise when I recognized you. I knew who you were from a miniature picture your brother showed me. He and I concocted our wedding but now this little scheme will have to be re-adjusted.”

Wilkinson so abruptly released me that I fell and smartly hit the floor on hands and knees, while he again turned to Douglas.

“You are indeed hard to get rid of, cousin! I had high hopes that you would never return to England after your little adventure with the Finney girl. Rumours were that you were depressed and apathetic for years. You did not even wish to come back when your father, in his later years, begged you to come back.  What prompted you to do so now?”

Douglas eyed him coolly, yet with a calculating gleam in his eyes.

“I was notified of my father’s demise by his solicitors, as you well know is customary. Imagine, Phineas, my surprise to hear that you had been living at Watcombe Manor for about ten years and that you had moved in shortly after my departure for Jamaica. How did you succeed in convincing my father to take you in?”

All of a sudden, Wilkinson seemed uneasy under Douglas’ hard gaze. I could only wonder what Douglas might have uncovered about his cousin lately. Not for the first time, I wished Christopher would have returned from Liverpool with some confirmation. My eyes were riveted on Douglas’ face - so stern, so unperturbed, so strong and so rigid with suppressed anger and powerlessness. I saw how he was attempting to free himself from the crude hemp-made ropes that bound his wrists, which were dripping with blood from the friction.

In a level voice, he said: “Phineas, Miss Dashwood has nothing to do with all this. Let her go. This is between you and me.”

That was a mistake. Wilkinson’s countenance cleared instantly and a sneer of triumph distorted his puffy cheeks and thick lips. His yellowed teeth gleamed.

“I am pleased indeed that you are confessing your attachment to her at last, cousin! It will make the taste of my revenge all the sweeter. You must know that I have reasons of my own, never to let her see the light of day again. Miss Dashwood will share your destiny and die with you. But enough dawdling! Dobson?”

All of a sudden, my arms were snatched behind my back in a grip of iron by Wilkinson’s henchman and the point of a blade slightly nicked my throat, causing a warm trickle of blood to run down my neck.  I bit my lips so as not to scream out of fear. Those two were merciless! Lives did not count for much with men such as Wilkinson and Dobson.

“Well, Douglas Spencer? Are you prepared to sign the documents or shall I have Dobson cut her scrawny throat? The choice is yours, cousin. This pretty little chit’s life is literally in your hands .”

The villain seemed amused by his own wit and threw back his head, roaring with laughter.

I was on the verge of death. At least, I hoped it would be quick. I was determined to go in dignity, however. With an effort to keep my voice level, I spoke up.

“Douglas, no! Do not sign on my behalf. After he has killed me, you will be next. At least, do not give him that signature.”

“Ah, first name terms already? I knew there was something going on between the two of you! I want your answer now, Douglas!”

My beloved’s face did not change; it was as impassive as a statue’s. His eyes, though, did. They were telling me he loved me.

“Free my right hand, Phineas. I will sign.”

And so he did. Wilkinson grinned when Douglas put his signature at the bottom of the document that robbed him of his inheritance. With a florid gesture Wilkinson folded the paper, slid it into his coat pocket and, in one gesture, smacked Douglas across the face. With a kick of his heavily booted foot he caused Douglas’ chair to turn over and  his head thudded in the crypt’s flagstones with a sickening crack.

“Do you want me to tie this one up, master?” Dobson asked, not taking his knife off my neck.

“No, my good Dobson, just leave her. The boy you allowed to escape will think them in the icehouse. Nobody will think of looking down here for them. She will not be going anywhere nor will he. They are where I want them: in their graves.”

Dobson just threw me and I hit and fell against the wall. Both men left, locking the door behind them. The torches still burned in their holders, though their light was beginning to fade. However, there was enough light for me to crawl to Douglas, free him from his bonds and take his head onto my lap. Cautiously I probed the back of his head but could only find a large lump. No fracture of the skull -  a great relief to me!

“Douglas, wake up ... can you hear me, Douglas? Say something ...”

His lip had been cut by Wilkinson’s blow and I gently wiped away the trickle of blood, careful not to open it again. Through the thick beard, I could feel his jawbone  and face clearly, as if no flesh covered them. He was frightfully thin and a horrible thought struck me. Had they not fed him while he was their prisoner? Through the dirty fabric of his torn shirt I could actually see his ribs and the muscles seemed to have shrunken to nothing. Was that why he had not resisted or put up a fight when he might have had the chance?

               

“Why are you weeping all over me as if I were already dead? You did not use to be such a wining wench, Miss Dashwood, at least not to my recollection.” Douglas cracked a slight smile, even though this little gesture caused him some pain.

“I am not weeping, my nose is merely running from the dampness in this cellar.”

“Well, maybe you will assist me when I want to get up?”

“You should not ... you are hurt ...”

“No, I am fine. Just a bit knocked about ...”

With my help, Douglas managed to sit up and lean his back against the wall. I did the same, feeling a trifle worn out by everything that happened over the past hours. The silence in the cellar actually suited me very well. It was, at the very least, soothing until Douglas’ angry voice startled me.

“Confound it, Miss Dashwood! What drove you to come here tonight and burst in like some madwoman which forced my cousin to act in this insane behaviour? Before you came, I might have had a chance of convincing him to release me but no! You had to appear here and give him his best opportunity to persuade me into signing those papers! Of all the insane, foolhardy ...”

He banged his head against the wall and slammed his hand on the floor in a gesture of sheer impatience. I suddenly felt so crestfallen that I could not think of an answer to his righteous indignation. He was absolutely right - I had ruined it all. Watcombe Manor was lost to him because I turned up and gave his ruffian of a cousin a hold over him. He must surely consider me the most stupid woman on earth!

 

There was nothing I could say so I turned my face away from him because I did not want him to witness my distress. After a long silence, in which I managed to conquer my rampaging emotions, I ventured:

“Was Wilkinson right? Is this where we die?”

“Not if I can help it. Come, help me up, Miss Dashwood.”

“Why? What are you planning to do?” I started to get up, wanting to help him.

“Do I always have to explain my actions to you? Can you not simply do as I ask? I swear, Miss Dashwood,  you are the most exasperating woman on earth!”

“Well, I will take that as a compliment, Mr Spencer! Here, you are on your feet! What now?”

He freed himself from my grasp and limped over to the room’s back wall where there was an altar, a big rectangular-shaped lump of stone, , which must have weighed several hundred pounds.

“Was this ruin once a church?” I asked, following him.

“More like a chapel but it was destroyed long ago, after Henry VIII banned all private chapels. It was, however, my favourite playground when I was a boy, and if I am not mistaken, there is a secret passage behind the altar. You must help me pull it from the wall, Miss Dashwood,  for I fear I am a little weak after my stay in the icehouse.”

“Did they starve you? You lost so much weight ...” I was till mortified by the sight of his now thin build.

“Bread and water, just to keep me alive, but do not concern yourself, Miss Dashwood. I am a strong man and it takes more than that to wear me down. Now stop talking and put your hands here, on this edge. On three, pull with all your might.”

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

We were completely out of breath, Douglas and I, by the time we managed to pull the massive stone block aside. It showed a small entrance to a dug-out passage, shored-up by wooden planking which did not seem at all sturdy.

“By Jove!” Douglas wheezed, “It seemed much larger when I was ten!”

I do not know how but I found some breath and laughed weakly.

Soon we were crawling through a pipe that was so low and narrow we were forced to go single file. Douglas went first and I followed.

“Mind you stay close to me, Miss Dashwood,” he said. “This torch is not going to last much longer and we do not want to lose each other. Here, hold this.” He removed his belt, trusted one end into my hand and took the other himself.

The going was difficult as the passageway floor was bumpy and littered with cave-in debris. At least the passage was straight. Soon our progress came to an end when we reached a solid wall of earth where the tunnel roof and walls had collapsed.

“Damnation!” Douglas hissed and tried to sit up but could not because the ceiling was barely three feet high. He only managed to lay on his side and I noticed his face was grey under the torch light. He was covered in streaks of dirt and perspiration and undoubtedly  I  looked the same. I realised we were both too exhausted to continue our laborious journey. Although I was aching to touch him and have him touch me, I did not dare to move toward him; I was no longer sure of Douglas’ feelings for me, after he was forced into signing those dreadfully final estate documents. However, my mind was in such turmoil about the recent revelations about Wilkinson that I could not stay silent.

“Mr Spencer, would you please consent in telling me what has transpired this past week? I ... we have been seriously concerned about you when we learnt that you had disappeared.”

“I might as well tell you, Miss Dashwood, since I know all too well you will not stop harassing me about it! It must have certainly occurred to you that my cousin is not, to say the least, an agreeable man. We never got along well but the difference in our ages could have been the cause for that, since Phineas was already a grown man of twenty-two by the time I was born. Although I cannot recall having done him any wrong, he always showed an aversion to my person and has forever treated me with contempt. Yet never had I imagined that he hated me so much that he wants me dead all these years .”

“Oh, no, you are mistaken!” I said vehemently. “It does not signify whether you are dead or alive, Mr Spencer. All he wants is your property, your title and your money! Surely you must see this clearly now your premature return to England is what urged him into action. He never expected you to turn up before your thirtieth birthday, the day on which he would become the legal owner of your father’s wealth, unless you married. He has been plotting to kill you since that moment and nearly succeeded when he shot you on the moors.”

“Yes,” Douglas replied, raking a hand through his hair and mussing it even more. “I think that is sufficiently clear, although I fail to see why he had to go to such lengths to accomplish his goal. He would have gotten his wish soon enough, since I had no prospects of marrying before August 22nd.”

“There are a number of unexplained parameters in this case, Mr Spencer. Col. Brandon, who suspects financial difficulties are at the base of them, has gone to Liverpool to sort them out. We might be able to find prove of Wilkinson’s premeditation to your downfall and death.”

“Ah ... well, my dear Miss Dashwood, if we do not succeed in getting out of here, that would be of no use, would it?”

He rose onto his knees but wavered and shook his head to dispel some dizziness.

“We should go back,” I urged. “You do not look well at all, Mr Spencer.”

“No, confound it! We will dug ourselves out of this rat hole or die trying!”

 

With that, he started digging with the help of a piece of wood he picked up from the floor. I followed his example by shoving the earth he had removed behind me. We managed to proceed for about ten feet when it happened - the ceiling came crashing down on my head and dirt filled my mouth and nose.

Strangely enough, I felt no fear at all. It was like a warm blanket covering me on a cold winter night, except that there was no air to breathe. I would soon be gasping for air so I abandoned myself to the warm darkness of death in which I had fallen.

 

Suddenly I felt a forceful slapping on my  back which caused me to cough hard.

“Excellent! Keep coughing and do not forget to breathe!” I heard a voice say and found myself lying on my side, draped over Douglas’ arm while he was trying to make me spit out the dirt I had swallowed. I threw up violently and then gasped for air, wheezing like an old woman and feeling nauseated. After a few moments, just as I began feeling better, I realised Douglas was caressing my neck and shoulders with gentle, soothing strokes.

“There, there, my darling ... better now?”

“Yes,” I croaked, “how did I get here? I thought I was buried for good.”

Since I was much shorter than Douglas, I managed to sit and was able to lean my back against the passage wall. Only then I saw we were still buried, more or less, for we were in a kind of cubbyhole between two barriers of earth. Fortunately our makeshift torch was still burning.

“You were still clutching my belt,” Douglas replied, “so I was able to pull you out. Are you well, Meggie?”

“Ah, we are back on first name terms, I see. That is a true relief, since I have been living under the impression that we were no longer friends because of your return to formality.”

“Margaret?”

“Yes?”

“Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”

 

The situation was ridiculously hopeless. I was half lying, half sitting, against the wall. Douglas lay propped up on his elbow, his head half a foot from mine. For the first in a long time, I looked Douglas in the face, but was at a loss for words. He tried to flash me a smile but it was a shaky one at best.

“Well, Meg, that is what you wanted, is it not? You needed me to say it aloud so I graciously obliged.”

“And here, here of all places, you are actually asking me to leg-shackle you? Me half choked and you half starved?”

His arm went up and he drew me to him, hard and swift. His mouth was equally hard and so demanding I was aroused in two seconds. I pressed against his iron chest; my body crushed against his - I was lost! Suddenly I remembered I wore no corset under my breeches and shirt, just a thin chemise, which caused our bodies to touch more intimately. Douglas must have noticed it too for his hands stroked me in various places. A devastating desire for him threatened to overwhelm me. When, finally, we had to come apart to draw breath, we were in a black, stifling darkness because the torch had gone out.

“My God, my loveliest Meggie! Will you give me an answer before we both perish here? I love you, for God’s sake, as I always have since the first moment I set eyes on you.”

“If you can free us from this hell, Douglas Spencer, I will be your wife. You have my answer. Now let us get digging again before the air runs out in this confined space.”

 

With desperate tenacity we tried to dig through one side of the cubbyhole. I could feel my hands bleeding from the effort but in the darkness could not see them. In my recollection this was the worst experience that had ever happened to me in my whole life and the whole time I was terrified the ceiling would collapse and bury us both alive. The only way to bring this off with success was to shut our mind off from the horrible consequences and keep shoving and passing the earth from the front to the back of this impossibly small space we crawled into. We were forced into coughing and wheezing from the lack of oxygen, while we performed in deep suffocating darkness.

I was becoming dizzy and light-headed and so worn out that I was working like an automaton, no longer capable of doing anything except shoving the earth behind me as Douglas passed it to me. Then with a jolt, the wall of earth collapsed and cool, fresh air rushed into what could have been our temporary grave. Douglas burst through the hole and dragged me with him. Gasping for air, I lay on top of him and did nothing more than just gulp in that wonderful, clean night air.

After a while I became aware of Douglas’ hands caressing my derrière, chuckling as he did so. “You know, Miss Dashwood, I find the image of you in breeches and coat a very thrilling one. To my delight, I found out you are not wearing your corset. It is a most wonderful feeling, your body beneath those breeches.” His wonderful smile had returned, causing my heart to stutter. I brushed the hair from his dirty face and kissed him, an act which seemed to please him very much, judging by the reaction of his body.

“Why have you tortured me for so long, Douglas Spencer? Why did it take you almost to the point of death before you fully accepted me?”

With a sigh, Douglas sat up and embraced me while I was still sitting on his lap.

“My dear heart, in that dreadful moment when I realised I could lose you forever, only one thing seemed to be the right one to do. I had to have you in my life, forever, for as long as we both shall live.”

“So if I had been buried alive sooner, you would have asked me sooner?”

I started to laugh but stopped when I saw his earnest face.

“No, my love, you are mistaken. I have said it many times already but I will say it many times again until you realise it - I have loved you since the moment I saw you. I ultimately resigned myself to have you for my wife when Dobson’s blade was on your throat. That was when I gave in, Margaret, when I was on the verge of losing you.”

He took my face between his hands and, in the light of the full moon, his eyes shone dark and deep.

“My darling Meggie, here I am, with no fortune or property. I have no idea how we are going to make a living but I promise you I will find a solution.”

We will find a solution together, Douglas. We will be together and that signifies it all.” Tears welled up in my eyes and I had no desire to stop their flow.

 

Lost in our kiss, we did not immediately hear the voices until they were upon us. Douglas, whose hearing was keener than mine, suddenly pulled me down beside him.  An angry, all too well-known voice rang nearby.

“Search, you stupid oaf! They must be here somewhere! I must find them and kill them!”

It was Wilkinson and his accomplice! I could see them clearly now, firearm in hand, only twenty yards away. For some reason, they must have gone back to the crypt. Douglas’ voice was a breathless whisper in my ear.

“Hide yourself in the passage, my love. I will try and distract them and then you must go for help.”

“Douglas, no ...”

“Please, my darling, do as I ask. Run from here as quick as you can. I could not bear to have you killed, my love. Promise me you will run?”

“Very well, I promise.”

 

Douglas waited until I had backward crawled into the hole so that I would be able to come out swiftly when the time was right. He then began stealing to the left in the opposite direction of our attackers, on hand and feet and keeping low to the ground. I watched him disappear into the thick undergrowth and my heart inexorably sank. To my right I could now see Wilkinson, shoving tree branches aside, but where was Dobson? Slowly it dawned on me that I might have a good chance of luring Wilkinson away from Douglas if I could make him believe that we were still in the passage. I had to do it! I could not bear that Douglas might be caught again and most certainly killed.

When Wilkinson was almost upon me, I rose from the hole, screamed, and threw myself back into the tunnel’s gaping darkness.

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

“Dobson,” Wilkinson howled, “go back to the crypt! They are still in the passage!”

Meanwhile, I had reached the obstruction resulting from the first cave-in, about twelve to fifteen yards from the outer entrance.

“Douglas, hurry,” I shouted, “they are coming!”

It had the desired effect, for the moonlight was blotted out from the passage entrance when Wilkinson crawled in.

“Where are you, Spencer? You did not think I would forget about your father’s signet ring, I hope? Without it, the documents are no use to me. Come! Surely, by now you will understand it is a useless cause! I am the stronger man, cousin!”

“Hurry, Douglas! Hurry!” I cried again.

Although I knew all too well my ruse would be found out as soon as Wilkinson saw I was alone, it would give Douglas enough head start to flee from his devilish cousin. Wilkinson must have been taken in by my deceit because he proceeded farther into the passage.

 

A yellow light flared up which made me realise he had just lighted a torch. The light did not reach the place where I was, yet it forced me to cringe against the earthen wall like a frightened rabbit in a sudden spell of terror. I bit my lips because I did not want to cry out when I beheld Wilkinson, who had a torch in one hand and a firearm in the other. He crouched forward with a lot of moaning and swearing, looked up and took in the sorry situation I was in. An evil grin spread across his plump face.

“Alone, my dear? So he left you to pick up the pieces, did he not? Never mind, you will do very nicely luring him to me.”

That part of the tunnel was particularly low since it was there that I had been buried earlier on. Wilkinson had to duck so low his chin almost touched the ground. He groaned as he put forth his effort to move forward. Was that what made him lose control over his ability to move? Completely unexpectedly, his gun went off.

The sound of the firearm’s shot was deafening and shuddered sound waves rolled through the passage’s confined space. I covered my ears with my hands and closed my eyes and mouth as a cloud of dust from the collapsing ceiling washed over me. This surely must be the end; once again I resolved myself to die.

 

When the ringing in my ears subsided, I discovered I was still able to breathe. I forced open my stinging eyes and rubbed them. The torch, still burning, lay on the left side of the cubbyhole formed by the cave-in. On the right side, protruding from a heap of dirt, lay Wilkinson’s hand. He was still holding the gun. The rest of him was buried under the earthen debris.

I must have been in a sort of shock, for I could not move. Shaking like a leaf and cold to the bone, I was only able to press myself against a wall, my end of some open space, as far away as possible from my attacker.  After a while, pinpricks of my thoughts began to trickle deep into my numbed mind. Was he still alive under the rubbish? Should I try and dig him out? I recoiled violently from that thought!

Faced with imminent death of suffocation as the oxygen ran out, I wanted to take Wilkinson with me so that he would no longer be a threat to Douglas. Eventually, they would search and find our bodies and then Douglas could destroy the documents he signed in order to save me. It was a fair trade - a life for a life. Douglas deserved to be the master of Watcombe Manor; it was his birth right.

When the torch stopped burning, I closed my eyes again - a useless gesture since I was in total darkness.

 

When I heard voices from somewhere above my head, I was convinced I was dreaming. A heavy pressure on my chest told me that I was still in the underground passage and that the air in my small grave was running dangerously low. It was also unbearably hot and perspiration was running down my face. Or was I weeping? Realising I must have been unconscious for some time, I did not know how much time had passed since I had been cooped up.

Voices again! One voice in particular was Douglas’ deep baritone, calling my name from above!

“Margaret, carry on, my love! Meggie, are you well? Answer me, Meggie!”

“Douglas ...” I mouthed his name but it seemed my voice had disappeared. My attempt to speak was instantly punished by a pain in my chest; my lungs, deprived too long for air, started protesting.

I tried to lift my arms and push against the ceiling because, apparently, it was from there that rescue was to come. But it was to no avail, for I had no strength left in my body. Yet, when the shower of dirt that continued to fall on me finally stopped, I was able to open my gritty eyes and behold the terrified face of my beloved rake. I even managed a shaky smile but speech would not come, even though I was longing to say his name. He reached down for me and grabbed my upper arms, then slid his hands under them and pulled me up in one strong gesture.

“There, there ... I have you, dearest, you are safe,” he said, his voice gruff with emotion. Burying my face against his chest, I wept uncontrollably until other hands freed my limp body from his affectionate grasp.

 

“Monsieur, laissez-moi examiner Mademoiselle Dashwood! Il se peut qu’elle soit blessée gravement.”

“Yes, Madame, you are right. She might be injured,” Douglas replied in French.

Petite-Maman! Thank God, I was in the gypsy’s capable hands now! Those hands were probing my body and limbs with expert fingers. She then did something very unusual. She pushed me down, straightened my body and, grabbing my arms with considerable force, threw them high above my head, causing me to cough rather violently.

“Qu’est-ce que vous faites, bon sang!” Douglas exclaimed. He was ready to throw himself upon the woman, had not Jack Twinkler withheld him. “What in the devil’s name are you doing, woman?”

“Don’t fret yerself, Guv’nor!” Jack piped. “She’s only tryin’ ter free ‘er lungs from dust and dirt! Ye should be grateful, ye know? The gypsy woman only does ‘er job!”

 

“Jack, dear Jack,” I thought. He had come to our rescue after all. I saw other familiar faces around me. Col. Brandon and Edward Ferrars were looking rather worried and the former, after he witnessed a long talk between Petite-Maman and Douglas, asked:

“Spencer, Margaret will be well, I hope? I cannot imagine what Mrs Dashwood would say if her baby daughter would have come to harm?”

“The gypsy says she sustained no broken bones or serious injuries. We must get her into bed as soon as possible, Brandon!”

Douglas, after glancing at Petite-Maman who nodded to affirm that I was not seriously hurt, gently picked me up and carried me to Col. Brandon’s carriage where he installed me on the bench and covered me with a blanket. He seated himself beside me for support. As the carriage began moving, I leaned back against him, marvelling in the warmth of his body as his arms encircled me. For a few moments, we let ourselves be lulled by the movements of the carriage, revelling in each other’s company.

“Is he ... is he?” I tried but I could not make myself saying it.

“He died of suffocation,” Douglas said quietly. “The gypsy woman attempted to revive him to no avail.”

“I could not ... I know I should have tried but ... I could not ...”

“Hush, my heart. Do not trouble yourself. There was nothing you could have done to save him.”

His hold tightened around me and his next words were uttered in a husky voice.

“My darling Margaret, can you ever forgive me for letting him go after you in that passage? I have been such a fool, I should have known he would search for us until the end.”

“I am to blame for that, Douglas, I lured him to me. I wanted you to escape.”

“You little fool ... you could have died! Meggie, dearest, loveliest Meg, why do you always act so very rashly? I swear you will be the death of me, some day ...”

 

By now, dawn had broken and Delaford’s driveway was golden with reflecting sunlight. A large company of people were waiting for us and at the head of them stood my mother, her arms crossed in a very determined way. Angry, no doubt.

“Listen,” I urged, “you must carry me in your arms, Douglas! I will act as if I have fainted!”

“Why, Margaret, surely ...”

“Mother will try to separate us. She does not approve of you so you must appear to have come to my rescue! That is the very truth, after all!”

“We will do no such thing, Margaret,” Douglas said firmly.

When the carriage came to a stop, he alighted and offered me his hand which I reluctantly took; I threw him a furious glance. Douglas guided me toward the waiting group of servants and family - and I spotted Elinor as well - and bowed deeply to Mother.

“Mrs Dashwood, allow me to present myself. Douglas Alexander Spencer, son of the late baron Sir Matthew Watcombe. I must ask your forgiveness for appearing before you in a less than formal attire but Miss Dashwood and I have been in a spot of misfortune.”

My mother darted her eyes from me to Douglas and back. She was speechless but no longer angry. When my charming rake flashed her a dashing smile, she actually smiled back!

“Mr Spencer, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Do not, sir, concern yourself about your attire. Col. Dashwood already informed us about the past events. Margaret, my child, come with me.”

Before Douglas released my hand, he gave it a little squeeze for encouragement.

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Elinor, my trustworthy sister, took matters in hand in her usual sensible way. I was whisked away by two maids and brought to my room where they assisted me in bathing and changing into my nightdress. I felt suddenly very worn out and had no objection when Elinor instructed me to bed. I had one plea to her, however, before I was ready to surrender to sleep.

“Please, Elinor, make sure Douglas is cared for. He saved my life, several times in fact, and I could not bear to see him slighted by mother.”

“I will do my best, dearest, but now you must rest.”

Lovingly, she drew up the sheets and stroked my hair. I smiled at her and said.

“Thank you, Elinor, for supporting me when I needed it the most. Without your sisterly support  I might have given up on Douglas long before.”

Did Elinor’s face freeze or did I imagine it in the drowsy state I was in?

“Rest now, Margaret.”

 

When I woke up, it was early afternoon. Fully refreshed and very hungry, I jumped out of bed, dressed, and ran down Delaford’s wide staircase to find Douglas. The only person I found was Mother, sitting in the drawing room and working on her needlework. She told me the colonel was out on business and Marianne was resting, the date of her giving birth coming nearer. Elinor had gone back to Edward, and the parsonage and Mr Spencer had gone home.

“Gone home? Mother, that is not possible! He was wounded and exhausted!” I said in exasperation.

“His servant went for his carriage and took him away to Watcombe Manor, I presume, where he can take up quarters now that his cousin is dead. Margaret, I hope you do realise it is only for the best? If it became known what transpired yesterday, you would be irreparably ruined. You have been behaving extremely foolish, child, running into danger like that. You not only jeopardized your reputation but also your life!”

A horrible thought dawned on me and I could not keep myself from voicing it.

“Douglas has asked you for my hand in marriage, I presume?”

“Yes,” Mother answered, her lips pursed in a primly way, “or rather Mr Spencer did inform me of his intension to wed you. He did not ask me, he just told me.”

“Well, after all, I am indeed of age. He does not need your permission to make me his wife, Mother.”

“He was quite emphatic in his pointing this out to me, Margaret. It did not put me in a generous disposition toward him. I assure you his behaviour was not that of a gentleman or of good breeding.”

I had to suppress a smile when I imagined the course of their conversation. Douglas in his usual forthright manner of explaining - telling Mother that we were to be married. Mother’s rising indignation and increasing sense knowing she was outwitted. However, Mother had one ace up her sleeve and said. “When I realised he would not give in and set you free, I appealed to his conscience. I pointed out that he still had the reputation of having raped that poor girl ten years ago and that, if he really loved you, he must not bestow upon you the suspicion of marrying him because he took advantage of you.”

For a moment I was simply speechless with rage, not only with Mother for digging a trap for Douglas, but also with Douglas himself for acting as if he were truly guilty of an act he did not commit. With an effort, I managed enough control to keep silent and, instead, thought hard how to repair this new damage to my wedding plans.

It was fairly clear that I would have to prove to my disillusioned mother that the man I was in love with was worthy of my love.

 

                Slipping out of the house, I ventured for the stables where I found my favourite little groom mucking out one of the boxes.

“Johnny, would you do something for me, please? I need you to run two errands, right now.”

“Yes, miss, what are they?”

After I explained to the young groom what I needed him to do I went to find Christopher, whom I had seen entering his study a while before.

“Good morning, Margaret,” he greeted me. “I trust you are feeling better today? You do know Douglas Spencer has returned to Watcombe Manor, yes?”

“Yes, Christopher, and I want to consult you on that matter.”

At that moment the door opened to let Marianne in. She was looking well that morning, though she was suffering from her growing pregnancy, causing her much pain to her lower back. She had gotten into a habit of supporting it with both her hands whenever she got up from a seated position.

“My love, come and sit,” her husband said as he rose to meet her. “You know you should not be on your feet too long.”

“Now, Margaret,” Marianne began as she lowered herself onto the settee, “what is it that you need to discuss with Christopher? Something to do with Douglas Spencer, I have no doubt?”

“Yes, and with Mother too. She has played a mean trick on me, Marianne. With her usual obsession for propriety, she has succeeded in driving Douglas away by appealing to his love for me and pointing out he still has not freed himself from the suspicion of rape. She is very aware of the fact that Douglas is still feeling guilty about Christina Finney and she used his deep love for me to force him away. I believe she wants me to be suspicious in that he indeed raped her. So there is but one thing I can do - I have to exonerate him once and for all from the consequences of his one-time encounter with the wretched Liverpool witch.”

Marianne shook her pretty head in disbelief. “Mother ... I am sure she does indeed mean well but she has a strange way of showing it. She has absolutely no insight into men’s nature. Do you remember how she encouraged me to be with that ruffian Willoughby, who charmed her even more than he did me? That man was not worthy of her admiration, yet she did not see it. Nor did I, for that matter. Enough said about that, I think. However, Douglas is a good man but not to Mother. Once she heard the gossip that was bringing him down, she did not look any further and judges him wrongly. How will you proceed in convincing her otherwise, dearest?”

With a smile of satisfaction, I meticulously laid it out for my sister and her husband.

 

That very same night I managed to assemble all persons concerned in the drawing room: Elinor and Edward, Marianne and her husband, Mother, and a very shy Petite-Maman, to whom Johnny had brought my written note. The clever stable lad had coaxed her to come to Delaford with him, a difficulty I had foreseen would arise as soon as she learnt what she was needed for. The only one who did not turn up, was my Douglas, who sent Jack Twinkler to apologize for him.

“The guv’nor says ‘e’s not well, miss. Begs ye to forgive ‘im but ‘e’s sticking to ‘is bed ternight!”

I squeezed Jack’s arm in great concern for that might just have been true!

“Oh, Jack, is he sick? What is wrong with him? Does he have a fever?”

“Nah, miss! It’s just ‘im bein’ stubborn. Says ‘e’s not right fer yer, says ‘e doesn’t want ter be yer downfall an’ all! I scolded ‘im but ‘e just doens’t want ter listen!”

“Well,” I sighed, “there is no point gathering here without him. He is the key person to this mystery.”

 I raised my voice to draw the assembly’s attention and they all turned expectantly to me. Mother had a suspicious look in her eyes but I ignored it and looked at the gathered people.

“Jack tells me his master will not join us here tonight so I am afraid we have gathered to no avail since Douglas is the reason I asked you to come. We might as well ...”

 

I was interrupted by the door being opened rather forcibly - Douglas stalked into the room, wearing a guarded expression on his handsome face.

“Ah, Spencer!” Christopher exclaimed, “you made it after all! Take a seat, old chap. Our Margaret, once she has made up her mind, is very determined to have her way.”

Douglas nodded a greeting to the persons assembled and strode toward me.

“Do excuse us for a moment,” he said firmly and staring earnestly at the assembly. He then took my elbow and drew me with him into the hall.

“Margaret, I hope you know what you are doing. Your mother is very much against our marriage, claiming you will ...”

“Douglas, if you have second thoughts about our marriage, then do not beat around the bush! Tell me this instant before I make a fool of myself trying to exonerate you. I would rather not make the effort, in that case.”

“Exonerate me? And how would you succeed in that, my love? You weren’t even living here when all this happened!”

“You did not answer my question, Douglas.”

 

A multitude of emotions played on that beloved face and my heart hurt for him. For so long Douglas had been an outcast - he could not bring himself to believe in a good outcome any longer. He gripped me by the upper arms and hissed:

“Damned, Meg, you know what I want! Marrying you is my heart’s desire, my life’s blood! Nothing would make me happier, but your mother certainly has a point.”

“Do you trust me, Douglas?”

“With my life, you know that, Meg!”

“Then, sit down and leave it all to me.”

His mouth was on mine in a brief, hard kiss, and then I heard my mother’s gasp of surprise! Unfortunately, the door had been left open and our embrace had been witnessed by all. Douglas, releasing me, whispered in my ear. “Your mother is going to be a handful, is she not?”

“Yes,” I said softly, “but we will not let her. Have you noticed she did not seemed perturbed by your swear word yet balked when you kissed me?”

“You little witch!” Douglas grinned and kissed me again. Mother was beside herself then

“Margaret Dashwood, I insist you behave appropriately as is suitable for a young lady of good breeding. And you, Mr Spencer, will refrain from acting the rake you most certainly are!”

“Oh, Mama, stop it! Do you not see they are in love?”

That was Marianne, the kindest of souls, who never raised her voice - and surely not to Mother - except where emotions were involved!

The latter stared at her with offended pride but Elinor, sensible as ever, laid a calming hand on hers and shook her head in admonishment. To my surprise, Mother yielded with a graceful nod.

 

                Douglas and I came back into the room and I cleared my throat before commencing my story.

“After we met on the moors, Douglas and I did not set off well at first. I was convinced he was a dangerous rake, a notion he all too well enforced by acting the part to perfection. However, after I heard part of his story from various sources, I offered to contract a marriage of convenience with him. After my wretched experience with Phineas Wilkinson, I saw no other way of protecting myself from my half-brother’s troublesome meddling. Douglas behaved like the man of honour he is by refusing me but the inevitable had already taken place. We had formed a mutual attachment for each other and ...”

“Margaret!” the mocking voice of my beloved interrupted me. “Can you not simply say that we fell in love? You do like expressing yourself somewhat elaborately, do you not?”

He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, drew me to him and continued:

“Margaret is right. We love each other deeply but there is the stain of rape on my character to be reckoned with. Mrs Dashwood, I am fully aware of the fact that I cannot make Margaret my wife without removing it. So we ...”

“ ... are going to prove that Douglas was not the father of Christina Finney’s child!” I exclaimed hastily and cutting Douglas off. I was prevented from going on further with my story by the united cry of stupefaction from the assembly, including Douglas.

Quickly, before they would all recover from their surprise, I went to Petite-Maman and drew her beside me in front of our audience.

“Racontez tout ce que vous m’avez dit, il y a quelques jours, s’il vous plait? Je traduirai.”

“There is ... not a need, Mademoiselle. I ... know ... to speak ... a bit of the English ...”

That was enough to make me utter a gasp of surprise but the gypsy closed her eyes for a better concentration and started her story.

“Before ten years, I was working as a ... merde, je ne connais pas le mot exacte ... a woman for helping les mamans accoucher?”

“A midwife?” Douglas offered.

She nodded vehemently.

“Yes, a midwife! I was asked to help a young woman in Torquay with the accouchement. Her father was en panique because she was having the baby too soon. I was surprised that there was personne d’autre que moi. I was alone there and they were rich people, so that was not normal. Pas de docteur Anglais, vous comprenez? She had a little boy but he came de travers ... I do not know the word ...”

She clicked with her fingers impatiently.

“A breech delivery,” Douglas supplied.

“Yes, yes, but that was not the only thing surprenant ... erm ... not normal: the baby was big, pas prémature, vous comprenez?

“Full term ...” Douglas whispered, fully aware of what it meant, but Petite-Maman hastened to continue.

La pauvre petite, a lot of blood and I could not save her. Her name, she said, was Christina Finney. Before she died, she gave me a letter and said: ‘Ask Douglas to forgive me’.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

My eyes were riveted on Douglas’ suddenly ashen face,  which showed the expressed shock and disbelief he was experiencing. He walked slowly toward Petite-Maman, gently took her hands in his and spoke to her in urgent French. I roughly translated their conversation on behalf of the rest of the audience. It sounded like this:

“I beg you, Ma’am, are you certain of the baby’s age?”

“I assure you, Monsieur, that the baby was approximately eight pounds in weight. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the neck and he must have died in the womb which caused the beginning of birth.”

“When was this, the birth?”

“Ten years ago, not long before Christmas.”

“So it is true ...” Douglas murmured, “Christina and I met in June ...”

My heart, in sudden emotion, went out to him yet I could not move or venture a gesture of comfort. Douglas’ own apparent distress proved that Christina Finney must have been very dear to his own heart since, ten years after her death, she still had so great a power over him. Not for the first time did I feel extremely jealous of the Finney girl.

 

Marianne’s eager voice roused me from my sombre thoughts with an alacrity that was so very much in her nature.

“Oh, it is indeed true! Dear Mr Spencer, she did deceive you then! She must have been already with child when she came to Torquay and her sole purpose was to trick some unfortunate young man into marriage, so as to give the child the benefit of his name and position.”

At this point, Christopher, her husband, interrupted her in his quiet, determined way.

“I fear, my love, that it might not have been the only reason for the Finneys’ coming to Devonshire. During my stay in Liverpool I found out that Finney was in dire straits with regard to his financial circumstances. He was in great need for funds and his creditors were closing in on him quite rapidly. Finney and his friend, Wilkinson, had invested a great deal of their money in some very insecure schemes which proved to be disastrous. Finney had lost virtually all his money while Wilkinson, whose father had just recently died, was able to survive on his newly received inheritance money. Ten years after the affair which drove Spencer from his home, however, Wilkinson found himself in equally disastrous pecuniary difficulties as his friend, yet he had managed to keep the creditors at bay by the promise of inheriting Sir Matthew’s fortune and estate. He came to live here as soon as Douglas was sent away to Jamaica. He wormed himself into the esteem of Sir Mathew, who was very distressed by the conduct of his only son.”

“Oh, oh, I cannot believe how it was possible for Sir Matthew to treat his son that way!” Marianne exclaimed, “Surely it would have been preferable to ...”

“No ...”

Douglas’ wavering voice stopped her in mid-sentence. Fighting to hide his emotional distress – and only barely succeeding - he let his distasteful gaze travel over the assembly.

“No, I will not tolerate any disapproval of my good father. He was right in punishing me, for had I not done exactly what he most disapproved of? I had indeed seduced Christina! I had known her intimately, even if I was not the father of her child ...”

His words died away in a dreadful silence and everybody sat staring at him with compassion. The silence dragged on for several minutes and, although I wanted desperately to break it, my constricted throat could not find the words I wanted to force out.

                Elinor’s calm, level voice took over for me.

“Christopher, did you happen to discover who Miss Finney’s lover was, back in Liverpool?”

“No,” our brother-in-law answered, “the girl was said to be quiet and very protected. Her father always kept her in his house and in the company of close friends and family. No one I spoke with knew of any suitors.”

Again, silence engulfed the room. I was beginning to feel dizzy with weariness and tension. I realised I was not closer to Douglas as I had been since we were rescued from the underground passage. He withdrew from me whenever we were not alone.

The soft French speaking voice of Petite-Maman spoke to me and I startled.

Mademoiselle, do you still have the letter I gave you, that day when we met on the moors?”

I was confused at first and I stared at her, not comprehending what she was talking about. Then, belatedly, I remembered and took the cream-coloured envelope with its blue ribbon and seal, from my pocket, where I had kept it ever since she gave it to me. I transferred it from skirt to skirt with each passing day and each change of clothes – it never left me. Like a talisman one does not want to be parted from. I was still unable to utter the slightest word but I handed the envelope to Douglas, who accepted it from  my trembling hand. He tilted his inquiring eyebrows and looked at me.“Margaret, what is this?”

“It is for you, Monsieur Spencer, from the young lady I attended. She pressed it into my hands just before she died,” Petite-Maman said, looking forcibly into Douglas’ eyes.

“My love, will you not open it?,” I urged. “This clearly is Christina’s last message to you and she must have felt guilty ...”

The words died in my throat as I watched yet again the emotions on Douglas’ countenance. He stood very upright and rigid and held the letter in his hand. He stared at it, frozen in memories of the girl who had engaged his heart for the first time so long ago. Christina Finney might have wounded Douglas by her betrayal, yet she had never lost that special place in his heart - that magical, deep touch of first love. For that, I would always hate her.

 

                 Elinor’s husband Edward suddenly stood and walked over to Douglas. He turned toward the rest of us and, in his quiet, soothing parson’s voice, addressed us.

“I think we should let matters rest for tonight. Mr Spencer, as well as our Margaret, have been through quite an ordeal. They need some peace and quiet so that they can reflect on what has been revealed here.”

“Quite right,” Christopher agreed. “Spencer, old chap, I suggest you stay here for tonight. Your room has been readied so that you can get a decent night’s sleep. Tomorrow we can attend to the most pressing matters of how to retrieve your inheritance. I have asked my lawyer, Mr Morley, to come over from Torquay and advise us on the legal issues of your late father’s will. I hope you do not find this too forthright of me?”

Douglas roused himself from a state of apathy with some difficulty, nodded and said: “No, Brandon, not at all. Thank you, Mr Ferrars, and you too, Brandon, for the suggestion of retiring to bed. I think I will give in to it.”

Without a word to me or the rest of us, he turned on his heels and motioned to Jack Twinkler to follow him out of the room.

 

                The night breeze, wafting through the open window of my bedchamber on Delaford’s second floor, was hot and sultry. It did nothing to cool the room, beside stirring up whatever air and dust it contained. I lay on top of the covers in my flimsiest muslin nightdress, perspiring and unhappy, because I could not find sleep. No, I mused to myself, unhappy does not cover my discomfort and sleep lack. Miserable is more like the way I felt, utterly and deeply miserable, and I was at my wits’ end about how I would ever be come cheerful again.

When had my luck changed? Why does Douglas behave as he does now? Always, when there were people around, he seemed to withdraw from me. It is a very different behaviour from the one he shows me when we are alone.  When we were cooped up in that horrible passage, he was a tower of strength and gentleness. He saved my life with no regard to his own personal risks. He had asked me to be his wife in such a romantic way that I still feel weak in the knees from the sheer loveliness of it. At that moment, as in all the moments we were alone, I knew that he loved me as deeply as I loved him.

                But tonight, with Christina’s professing letter burning in his hand like a piece of red hot coal, Douglas looked like a stranger to me, wrapped up as he had been in memories of the girl, he gave his heart to, when he was no more than a boy. It was doubtless that he had indeed loved Christina. Worse, he still had some feelings left over for her, or perhaps regret, guilt, or bereavement. I need to find out what it was that stirred him so, if I was ever to become happy with him. I would have to prove to him the depth of my commitment.

                I gave up the struggle, rose and went to the open window. I gazed into the hot August night with its deep indigo sky pierced with a myriad of star pinpricks and adorned by a waning moon. The garden of Delaford lay beneath my window. It appeared like an enchanted kingdom beckoning me to explore it. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and went outside through the drawing room’s  French windows and onto the terrace. The slate flagstones felt cool beneath my bare feet and I slowly walked toward the smooth lawn. The grass was soft and thick and I strode over the lawn’s width toward the Home Wood. In contrast to Watcombe Manor’s neglected landscape, here there was meticulous caring of the grounds. No undergrowth or weeds disfigured this estate. I reached the wood and faced the lawn and house, hugging my shawl about me. Delaford was a lovely house and a happy one; it sheltered Christopher and Marianne and their children, my nieces, Amelia and Emily. Soon there would be a new baby and I knew how fervently, this time, Marianne was hoping for a boy.

“A penny for them ...” a deep, very familiar voice behind me spoke.

 

                Douglas was in dishabille and wore nothing but shirt and breeches – he looked devastatingly handsome. My startled gaze roamed over his tall, lean body and its broad shoulders and thin waist. His long, muscular legs ended at large, strong-boned feet. Bare feet. His were so incredibly attractive that my throat tightened as if I were back in the underground passage again and I could not breathe.

I took in the smooth triangle of chest in the V-shaped opening of his shirt, from which rose the perfect column of his neck. His face, pale in the weak moonlight, was finely chiselled – the smooth, strong bones, displaying the strength of his nose and jaw and the sensuality of his mouth. His eyes, however, were unreadable and appeared almost black in the night.

                The shawl fell from my shoulders and out of my trembling hands, forming a large white triangle on the lawn’s darker shaded area. I was suddenly immersed in heat, blood coursing loudly through my veins and pounding deafeningly in my ears. Heaven help me, but I wanted him then and there. When he took a step toward me and extended a hand, I grasped it into my own, sank down onto the shawl and drew him on top of me. His long, lean body covered me completely. For the time of a heartbeat, Douglas supported himself on his elbows and gazed down on me, his eyes now a pale grey in the low, near moonless night. Once again his eyes were unreadable.

“Meggie ...” he said in hoarse, almost gruff voice, his lips parting as if he needed to breathe heavily. The weight of him, even as he supported himself on his elbows, was almost too much for my slender body but I did not care. I welcomed him as it felt so good, so right. I felt the pressure of his erection against my equally aroused womanly place. My whole body suffused with heat. Urgently I raked my hands through the heavy black mass of his gorgeous hair. Instinctively my lower body came upward to press even closer to him; he uttered a low, throaty  groan.

“Ah ... woman, what are you doing ... do you want me to ruin you here and now? If I do not get up, I will. You are so lovely, my Meg, you smell so good and your body is so soft and warm against mine ...”

“I want you to love me, Douglas, here and now ... I have waited so long to have you as my lover, please, do not deny me ...”

Unable to suppress a sob, I drew his head down and pressed my mouth on his.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Douglas’ kiss was not what I expected. Instead of hungrily invading my mouth with his tongue, he begged entrance in a shy, humble way, almost wooing my lips first by gently licking them. I was surprised and stopped trusting my own tongue into his mouth. Immediately he sweetly began sucking my upper lip, which caused my heart to leap violently within my chest. His mouth made love to my lower lip in slow, stroking movements. A ball of desire began growing in my belly, racing up and down my body like a fire. Dear Lord ...

“My dearest, are you sure you want to do this? We could wait and ...,” Douglas whispered. I cut him off and pleaded. “No, Douglas, please? I have been wanting you for so long ... I love you, Douglas ...”

“Margaret, my heart ... you know I love you too, almost from the first moment we met but ... this is huge, my love. This is definite. I do not want to force you into something you might not be ready for.”

“Douglas ...” I stroked his face with both hands and to my astonishment I felt my eyes sting with unshed tears. “Do not reject me, Douglas, I beg of you. We are to be husband and wife soon so what difference does it make?”

In answer to this, Douglas wrapped his arms around me and kissed me to the full now. This time the kiss was hard and demanding, his lips bruising mine with his surge of arousal. My nightgown was shoved upwards and Douglas’ hands were on my bare flesh. I whimpered as he caressed the length of my thighs with skilful strokes. I instantly responded by tugging at his shirt; his magnificent chest glistened and showed the smooth hardness of his silk and steel-like muscles.

 

                Douglas gave me no chance of exploring his body further. His hands wandered over my shoulders and freed them from my nightgown. His feathery kisses rained down on my face and neck and trailed down to my bosom’s edge. His lips traced the curve of my left breast, caressing it with his tongue, before taking the peak into his mouth. I gasped and lifted my hips against his in a violent need that threatened to drown me! He nibbled and sucked until my nipple was hard as a pebble. His hand slid under my bottom and lifted it. His mouth left my breast to travel down to my stomach, and then up again to my other breast.

“Douglas, please ...” My ragged voice sounded loud in my ears; I had no breath left. With a start I realised he was now lifting my bottom with both hands! His mouth was – oh Heavens! – on my most secret place. I felt his mouth kissing, nibbling, nudging where no one had ever touched me.

It felt immensely good ... I gave myself over to the sensations he was instigating in my body – deliciously intense sensations. I experienced an impression of being forced upwards into a ray of liquid sunshine and I was immensely eager to follow that heat wherever it would take me. The world was spinning and I was spinning along with it. I stopped breathing when I was suddenly cast into the heart of the sun; a myriad of stars exploded inside me in a huge ball of unmitigated and unending pleasure!

 

                In the morning, I awoke in my own bedchamber with no recollection of how I ended up there. I was again wearing my nightgown and the bedcovers were tucked snugly around my body. I was alone and bitterly disappointed about it. Somehow, I had hoped to find Douglas beside me when I woke. What a lovely thing that would be - to open my eyes and see the face of my beloved rake next to mine on the pillow and to be able to ask him to repeat what he did last night.

                I rose and shook away the morning drowsiness. Ten minutes later, I was dressed. When I left my bedchamber, the house, quiet and peaceful, seemed deserted. Halfway down the stairs I heard voices coming from Christopher’s study. I knew not what alerted me but, in a sudden impulse, I cautiously opened the door of the library, which was adjacent to the study and had a connecting door to it. I tiptoed to that connecting door and pressed my ear to it.

                Three people were in there. One of them was Mother; there was no mistaking that shrill, slightly belligerent voice.

                “My Lord Watcombe – for that is now the proper way to address you, I presume – you might well have retrieved your title and your estate but, from what you have just shared with me and Col. Brandon, I gather that your cousin has squandered away your fathers’ fortune. You, therefore, have no means to support Margaret, should she become your wife. How are you planning to remediate that?”

Christopher – kind soul that he was – came to Douglas’ defence.

“Mother-in-law, I fear that you are a trifle harsh in your judgement of His Lordship, who loves Margaret dearly. I am positively sure that he will do everything within his power to give her all the comfort she needs. Furthermore, dear Mama-in-law, might I remind you of the fact that Margaret is of age? You cannot prevent her from becoming Lady Watcombe if she has set her mind to it.”

Mother’s voice suddenly was serene and very determined. A cold shudder ran down my spine when I listened to what she was saying.

“My Lord Watcombe, dear Christopher, I know you are both deeply committed to Margaret’s welfare. Christopher, you – contrary to His Lordship – have known Margaret since she was a little girl of thirteen, at the time we came to Devonshire. Margaret has never left Devonshire since. She has not been presented at Court, nor has she ever had a London Season. Margaret does not know the world beyond this small corner of Devonshire. If she becomes your wife, My Lord Watcombe, she will be forever tied to this all too small part of England. She will be confined to the boundaries of your estate, My Lord. You know she will. Is that the kind of life you are prepared to give her? Margaret is a gentlewoman and she therefore needs to have knowledge of the world before she shackles herself to you for all eternity. If she is locked away in Devonshire for the rest of her life, she will wither and perish prematurely, cut-off from what is due to her according to her lineage. I cannot believe, My Lord, that this is what you want for her, not when you love her the way you say you do.”

 

                A long, heavily laden silence ensued. I did not dare take a breath, anxious as I was to miss Douglas’ reply to that absurdly ridiculous remark of Mother’s. Yet to me, Douglas’s answer mattered. I desperately needed to hear what were his reflexions about all this.

                Mother was liberally using emotional blackmail - with the purpose of instigating guilt on my betrothed, thinking he would deny me the life of a genuine well-bred society lady, albeit in her old-fashioned and outmoded notions of what such a life would look like.

 

                The next moment, I could well understand why my Douglas was generally considered a rake.

He chuckled! He chuckled so impudently I could hear Mother’s sharp intake of breath. I, on the other hand, exhaled the air I had been subconsciously holding. In a cool, very detached voice, Douglas spoke.

                “Mrs. Dashwood, it seems abundantly clear to me that you have not the slightest notion of your daughter’s character. If you had, you would comprehend, Ma’am, that Margaret does not care for such a life. Not only is Margaret the loveliest woman on this earth, with her fine figure, golden curls, gorgeous blue yes, and accented with her gracious elegance and sweet disposition, but she is also intelligent, courageous, astute and smart. Between the two of us we will have restored Watcombe Manor into its former wealth and appearance in no time at all. Of that, I am most sincerely convinced. Nothing will prove too much, too difficult or too unthinkable for my Margaret. She is invincible, Ma’am, and she is incredible and the light of my life. I would rather die than disappoint her.”

 

                By now, I was no longer capable of standing on the side line. I threw open the door, which caused the three of them to start violently.

                “Well said, my love!” I congratulated Douglas. “Dear sweet Mama, do not concern yourself any longer. Douglas is right; we will do whatever is necessary to make Watcombe Manor the thriving estate it was when his father died. We will make profit, I dare say, in the twinkle of an eye. And if we are fortunate enough to have some money left, next year, perhaps, we will go to London together and have a great season. Together, Mama, we will do everything together, Douglas and I.”

                I took Douglas’ outstretched hand in mine and together we knelt before Mama.

“Mrs. Dashwood, Ma’am,” Douglas solemnly said, “will you please give us your blessing on our marriage? It would mean the world to us.”

“Very well, sir,” Mother answered, gesturing that we should rise. Her eyes were guarded but her smile was genuine. “However, I would like you to court my daughter properly from now on. You must leave Delaford Hall and go live somewhere other than where my daughter is staying. It is the proper thing to do. The reason I am asking this of you is that, a few days ago Mrs Jennings and I had a rather nasty  experience in Torquay. Several of the well-to-do merchant spouses approached us with comments of your nightly adventures. I am sure I did not know where to look out of sheer embarrassment!”

“So the gossip mongers are already at work, then? I wonder who gave them the information in the first place,” Douglas mused. “I am sorry, Ma’am, but I cannot be held accountable for what has happened to me and Margaret, at least not entirely. I could never have foreseen that my devious cousin would have had me captured and incarcerated, nor that Margaret would come searching for me.”

“True, sir, all too true. Yet, if you had known Margaret well enough, which you would have if you had taken the time to court her properly, you could have foreseen her coming to search you.”

                “Mama, I am in the room! I can hear you!” I shouted. Indignation sounded in my voice but my mother was not to be deterred.

“You know I am right, Margaret! My Lord Watcombe’s behaviour towards you has been outrageous from the start. I cannot but shudder when I think of what your reputation must be like among the decent but narrow-minded merchant families of Torquay, with whom you will have to trade when selling the produce of your husband’s estate.”

“Enough, Mama!” I interrupted. I could see she was about to reproach us again with our behaviour. “Now, if you will excuse us, Douglas and I have some private matters to discuss.”

 

                Douglas slid his arm around my waist as we left the library and steered me towards the garden. We walked for a while amongst the profuseness of flowers and bushes of the French garden. Nature was still lush, its the deep green plumage of late summer’s plants surrounded us. It was hard to imagine that all this would decline rapidly, once September came. Almost instinctively we retraced our steps to the spot where we had been the night before.

                My cheeks flushed as I recalled what we had done there on the soft velvety grass.

                “Douglas?” I ventured, somewhat shyly.

                “Yes, my sweet?”

                He guided me to a bench, well-hidden from the house, and drew me near.

                “Why did you ... not finish ... last night? Was I too rigid? Did I not entice you enough? You must know I have no experience in matters of lovemaking but I will learn. I want to ...”

His mouth closed mine swiftly but firmly and it made me wonder if I had been too outspoken. What did I know about men? They, or he, might well dislike forthrightness in women! I was still fretting about that, all the while answering Douglas’ kiss with alacrity when, to my surprise I felt him chuckle against my lips.

“What? What is it, Douglas?”

He took my face into his hands and peered into my eyes, his gaze sparkling and his mouth wide with a brilliant smile. Oh, how I loved his rare but beautiful smile! I vowed myself, then and there, that I would try to make him smile every day of our lives!

“My beautiful, darling Meg,” Douglas said, “it almost frightens me to death every time I realise how young you still are. And you are, my love! You are still so innocent and I feel terrified – and guilty – of being the one who has damaged that innocence.”

He drew me into the circle of his arms so that my head rested close to his heart. He continued.

“Have you any idea how a man makes love to a woman, sweetheart?”

 

                Of course, I had not experienced lovemaking but I had done extensive reading about the animal world. Moreover, I had occasionally witnessed cattle in the fields of Devonshire, and once I came upon a pair of mating cats in the cottage garden. I must confess that, being so close a witness to the act, I was rattled a bit.

                “Well, I do know that it is not done as you did last night, Douglas. With ... with your fingers, I mean. It involves the use of a man’s ... member, does it not?”

Douglas was still chuckling, his mouth buried in my hair. “Yes, my precious, you have that right ... proceed with your explanations, if you please?”

I was somewhat puzzled because of his obvious mirth but continued.

“This is all very ... embarrassing to explain, Douglas! I was a bit confused at first but when I saw with my own eyes how a cow presented her backside to the bull and ...”

“Stop! Oh please, stop!” Douglas was shaking with laughter by now, tears streamed down his cheeks. I stayed silent, feeling even more confused and – I admit – a little hurt. What had I said that was so laughable?

                My rake wiped his cheeks with a handkerchief he produced from his coat pocket and became serious again. He rose from the bench, took my hand and pulled me with him in the direction of the stables.

                “Come,” he said, “we must go for a little ride. There is something you need to know."

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

                Douglas spoke very little as we went for a ride on horseback through the midday countryside. Dragon seemed skittish and Douglas used the pressure of his thighs to control the stallion so that my placid mare could keep up with him. The sun was high and shined down on us with considerable heat. I wanted to know where we were going but I was reluctant to brake Douglas’ solemn silence. Soon I saw we were heading towards Watcombe Manor.

                As always, the signs of extreme neglect as a result of Wilkinson’s indifference filled me with sorrow and yet, at the same time, with a determination to make repairs as soon as possible. I wanted Watcombe Manor restored to its original beauty, as was right and just. Therefore, I was glad to see a handful of gardeners busily occupied on the lawn and in the rose garden. No longer capable of keeping silent, I exclaimed.

                “Oh, Douglas! You have people working already! How good of you! I will be so pleased when everything is put to rights again. Watcombe is such a beautiful place and it deserves to be in excellent shape!”

Again Douglas’ reaction surprised me. He did not reply, just nodded agreement. What was his meaning? Did he not wish to talk about Watcombe’s restoration?

                We entered the stable yard and a young boy came running to take our horses. Douglas greeted him with a cheerful shout.

                “Hey, young Richard! How are you settling in? Do you like working in the stables?”

                “Yes, my lord, I do!” the boy answered eagerly and in a heavy Devonshire accent.

                “Good! Give the pair of them some hay and water and unsaddle them, will you? We will not need them for a couple of hours,” Douglas commanded. He began walking towards the house in his long, easy strides and I hastened after him.

                “Douglas, why have you brought me here? Have redecorations in the house also started? I had hoped you would consult me so that I might give my opinion about ...”

“Meggie, will you please be silent?” my rake interrupted, taking me by the hand, so that he could pull me with him up the stairs to one of the first floor bedchambers. I gasped in awe when I entered!

                It was a magnificent room with a high ceiling intricately worked out in beautiful pastel shades. Each high window had a balcony facing the rose garden. Hung on the walls with panels of flowered silk in a soft shade of pink framed  with gold. The floor was a rusty brown parquet that gleamed from extensive waxing. A thick Aubusson carpet of the finest mint green silk covered the fine wooden boards; it muffled the sounds of our footsteps. A large four-poster bed with matching curtains and silken bedspread occupied one of the walls. The rest of the room was furnished with small cupboards and cabinets in Empire style. A little settee with matching seats and coffee table was placed near one of the windows.

                “Oh, how charming!” I exclaimed. “What an absolutely lovely room!”

                “It will be ours, Margaret. It used to be my parents’ chamber and I know for a fact they have been very happy in here. After my mother’s death, my father had it sealed shut. He did not want to have anything changed from the time when my mother decorated it. Yesterday, I had it opened and cleaned again.”

“Yesterday? But, when? Did you not sleep at all, then, after we were rescued?”

“No. I considered this of the utmost importance, my darling, since I wanted it ready for you after we marry. Do you like it, then?”

I jumped into his outstretched arms. “Oh yes, Douglas! I adore it!”

“Good, I hoped you would because ... well, this is where I will teach you about lovemaking, darling. It would be unpleasant for you if you disliked the room, would it not?”

“L ... lovemaking ...” I stammered, looking up at him. He was holding me in his embrace with mischief in his eyes yet smiled sweetly.

“Yes,” he said softly, “after we are married, of course. But first, I will give you a short yet well-needed lecture on the procedures of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, just by way of an explanation, mind.”

“N ... now?” I squeaked, suddenly feeling equally excited and frightened.

“Now. Please go and lie down on top of the bedcovers for me, sweetheart.”

 

A lump formed in my throat and I was unable to swallow. The constriction became a flash of heat that rushed all the way down to the tip of my toes. My stomach muscles seemed to buckle and a fluttering of my pulse made my legs tremble. I held on to Douglas for support as my knees grew weak. My rake’s smile widened and he picked me up as if I were weightless. In two strides he reached the huge bed and gently laid me down.

Douglas stretched out beside me and cupped my face with one hand. Sparkles of mischief were dancing in his blue eyes, causing my pulse to speed up.

“Now, Meggie, I want you to listen very attentively because this is important for our future marital intercourse. How again did you describe the cows’ mating ritual?”

“Well ... you know what I said ... the female’s backside is presented to the male for him to insert his ... apparatus and impregnate her with it ... have I got that correct, Douglas?”

“Very correct, my sweet.” His mouth was twitching in an attempt to smother a laugh and his eyes were dancing with mirth. “We will do that too, one day. It can be very satisfying for the male, in this case, me. But not at the beginning, my love, not when you have yet to learn what is most pleasing for the lady.”

He tilted my face upwards so that I was forced to look deep into his eyes. His gaze was soft and somewhat unfocussed. The blue of his eyes was very dark and his breathing seemed harsher, his voice hoarse.

“For your first lesson, my love, I will teach you this ...” His hand left my face, took one of mine and guided it downwards to the junction of his thighs. A shock hit me when I felt ...

“Heavens ...” I breathed as I probed the length of it, marvelling in its steel-like hardness. I felt its pulsing heath, even through the doeskin of his breeches. It was highly exciting and I stroked it harder, my body responding in thrilling arousal. Although I was careful and shy, I nevertheless seemed to cause pain to Douglas- he suddenly moaned and braced himself against my body. But his mouth was warm and firm and started roaming over my throat and neck.

“When I am like this, Margaret, you are my master and commander. All I want to do at such a time, is this ...” he whispered

The skirt of my riding habit was shoved upwards and Douglas’ fingers were suddenly stroking my leg in its silk stocking, from my foot and all the way up to my thigh. The touch of his cool fingers on my bare flesh caused a bolt of lightning to blast through me. I felt the muscles of my womanly place clench in response. I arched up to close the distance between that place and his hand, inviting him to caress me again as he had done the night before.

                “This is how I prepare you, my darling, so that you will be ready for me when I ... insert my apparatus. To do that I must straddle you while I’m gazing into your beautiful eyes or kissing you senseless.”

I heard Douglas say those words but was not really listening to him. There were too many lovely sensations that threatened to overcome me and I welcomed them eagerly. His hand was stroking me through the silk of my drawers; he was driving me mad with desire! In a red haze of mounting pleasure I rubbed myself against the heel of his hand and shuddered when it touched me just where I wanted it the most.

“Please, Douglas, do not stop ... please ...”

“Is this what you want, my love? And this? Or this?”

“Yes ... yes ... please ...”

Waves of molten lava drowned me as my body shuddered in ripples of pure delight! It seemed to last a lifetime and I could not breathe, nor did I want to! I just wanted to feel like this for the rest of my life!

Through the sound of my blood, thundering in my whole body, I heard Douglas whisper. “This, my lovely sweetheart, is what I mean to give you, every time we make love. You are made for this, my love.”

I could feel him shiver and asked. “Are you cold, darling? We can draw up the ...”

He chuckled softly. “No, my love, I am definitively not cold. Come here ...”

He drew me very close and held me. My cheek rested in the soft hollow of his neck and my eyes closed in utter well-being.

 

When I came out of the blessed state of drowsiness, I found myself alone on the bed. I must have fallen asleep, some time before. A door in the far corner of the room was open and noises of splashing water came out of it. It must be a dressing room, I thought. I was tempted to go and investigate when the sound of a gasp, followed by a muffled curse, reached my ears. It was Douglas! Was he in pain? Had he hurt himself, or worse, had I hurt him?

“Douglas? Are you in there, my love? What is happening?”

“Do not come in, Margaret! Stay there!”

His panicked voice rang very clearly; his words, so powerful, prompted me to  stay where I was. I did not understand, though. I was scared, too.

“Douglas, what is it? Can I help you?”

“No ... no, all is well, my love. I will be with you in a few moments.”

                When he finally emerged from the dressing room, I saw that his clothes were fully restored and Douglas looked rather composed, but also distant.

“There are some utensils in there, if you want to freshen yourself up,” he said. “I will be downstairs, waiting for you, my darling.”

With a smile, he left the room.

I was baffled! What I had wanted was that he would have stayed with me and talked more about marital intercourse. There were so many things I did not comprehend as yet.

The small dressing room had no windows and was upholstered in the same shades of green that were used in the main room. There was a large copper bath tub and a wash stand with a lovely basin and jar in delicate, flower-patterned china. A big bar of scented soap lay on a matching plate. I picked it up and found it was still wet from Douglas’ using it. Next to the wash stand was a wicker basket, meant for dirty linen. I opened its top and took out what was in it. It held a pair of doeskin breeches, the pair Douglas had been wearing when we went riding earlier this afternoon.

With trembling hands, I lifted the breeches and inhaled the sweet, enticing scent that emerged from it. Douglas’ scent, I realised, strong and masculine ... To my surprise, I became aroused again. It was an exquisite feeling, deliciously powerful and intoxicating. My hands fondled the soft, cream-coloured material with relish. Then they encountered a most peculiar thing - a stain, still wet, and situated where the pants’ legs met.

My heart suddenly jumped with the awareness of what I was seeing and a bolt of pure, feminine joy shot through me! My dear rake lost control of himself, just by being intimate with me! Everything became very clear and all of a sudden! I had no need for further lessons in marital intercourse.

Recalling Douglas’ embarrassment of this, I solemnly swore I would never tell him that I knew of his embarrassment.

                I cleaned myself up and righted my rumpled clothing. When I stepped into the bedchamber again, I noticed a large cheval mirror in one of the corners and was instantly drawn to it. Would I look different now, after having acquired this new insight on lovemaking? Would I even look changed if we had gone all the way, Douglas and I?

I stood in front of the mirror, straight as a measuring rod and utterly composed. I saw a not too tall, slender woman with a tiny waist, small breasts and slim limbs. The mirror reflected very small hands and feet and a heart-shaped face with enormous blue eyes, now the colour of a pale spring sky.

I took in my nose, short, straight and a bit upturned, which gave me the appearance of a young child. There were times when I hated looking like a child, especially when I was not feeling at all like one! My mouth was rather large but with nicely shaped lips, now slightly swollen from Douglas’ kisses. A surge of heath went down my spine at the recollection of his caresses - I suddenly felt absolutely, fabulously happy!

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Douglas was waiting for me at the bottom of the wide spiral staircase that encircled the width of the splendid hall. The expression on his face changed from slightly worried to surprised. I descended the steps with a smile on my face and extended a hand to him.

“Dearest,” I said lightly, “you have not showed me the rest of our future home. Is the master bedchamber the only one I am allowed to admire or are there other lovely rooms to be viewed?”

His handsome face spread into a cheeky grin and my rake obliged.

 

From then on, matters progressed with speed. First of all, Douglas and I applied for a special marriage license since it was already the third of August. We had to get married before Douglas’ thirtieth birthday on the twenty-second and had set the date for the wedding on the fifteenth.

“Damn!” Douglas swore, as we left the registrar’s office in Torquay. The clerk had just informed us that it would probably take three weeks before the license would be available. I inwardly chuckled at this most ungentlemanlike remark by my beloved rake. The fact that he was inclined to forget he was in the presence of a lady pleased me excessively. It proved that he was relaxed and carefree with me.

“Well, if only you would have listened to me when first I proposed marriage to you, Douglas Spencer, we would have been wed a long time beforehand!” I admonished him, but with a smile in my voice.

“Oh, it is my fault then? Pray, forgive me, Miss Dashwood,” he mocked, “but it seems I was somewhat slow in discovering your charms!”

I punched his chest and he pretended to gasp with pain.

“Ah! The cruel damsel wounds me in the heart!” he exclaimed, as he pulled me into his arms, right there in the middle of the street, oblivious to the indignant stares of well-meaning citizens.

“My love,” he whispered, “how long those three weeks will be! I cannot think how I am to survive them!”

“I say!” said the angry voice of a plump matron, who quivered with indignation, and abruptly tore us back into the dusty streets of Torquay. We hastily let go of each other and I adjusted my bonnet which had gone askew. Douglas lifted his beaver hat to the lady in mock apology and presented me his arm.

“I do beg your pardon, Ma’am,” he said suavely, “my future wife and I did not mean to cause offense.” He then led me to his nearby carriage in perfect behaviour, leaving the matron staring at us in helpless fury.

               

After a long visit to the Manor where Douglas showed me the progress he made on the decorations, we headed back toward Barton Cottage, to which Mama and I had recently returned. Douglas sat in the seat opposite mine. His blue-eyed gaze absently roamed over the surroundings and his mouth was bracketed by a pair of lines which I had not noticed before. He was obviously fretting about something.

                “I do hope that frown has not been caused by that worthy matron’s reproach, Douglas? She was only being spiteful as do many of her ...”

“No, no, Margaret, of course not. I was only ... well, I am a little upset about what the clerk told us. What if the license will not come through in time? It will be plain and poor Douglas Spencer that you will be marrying instead of Baron Watcombe.”

                I raised mocking eyebrows at him and replied. “Are you trying to get out of your promise of marriage, Mr Spencer? It will not do, you know. You have corrupted me beyond repair already and you are long since considered an incorrigible rake so we are very well matched. It would be such a shame if we were not to seal this union with wedding vows.”

Instead of responding with one of his rakish smile to this remark, which I had meant to be light and mocking, Douglas eyed me very seriously, a shadow lurking in his gaze. He took my hand and kissed it.

“My sweet love,” he said quietly, “I am all but too well aware of the irreparable damage I inflicted on you, merely by walking the streets in your presence. People are going to talk behind our backs, Margaret, have no doubt about that. There are moments when I despise myself for dragging you into my sordid existence and I am terrified that, one day, you might reproach me for it. Worse even, that you might stop loving me for it.”

A knot of apprehension suddenly formed in the pit of my stomach.

“You are talking utter nonsense, Douglas! Why would I ever stop loving you?”

“You will, Margaret, when the consequences of being my wife expulse you out of people’s esteem and company. When you are shunned from social gatherings and when women are starting to talk covertly behind their fans as soon as you enter a room or a shop. When they stare you down with no proper greeting. When our sons are refused at prestigious schools and our daughters do not get proposed to by respectable gentlemen. It will be social ostracism, my love. It will be slow and lethal torture to your heart and it will destroy your lively, happy spirit.”

“Oh, God!”, I thought, stunned and troubled. I could not find any words to reply to that gloomy prospect which apparently seemed to trouble my Douglas so. It was, of course, utter nonsense! Banished at thirteen from my beloved Norwood Park and all my childhood friends to the social wasteland of Devonshire, I grew up lonely and without real friends among the female half of society. I had never missed it, however. I was happy and content to be with my family, to spend my days as I liked best: reading, drawing and walking. Lord John Middleton and Mrs Jennings were sufficient company for me and the rare conversations with respectable Devonshire misses of society represented such a total bore. I did not in the least longed for them.

The only joy I experienced in all my twenty-one years was meeting Douglas and coming to love him. I did not care for what people thought about me and I would deal with the consequences of social ostracism when they arose; I would certainly not worry about them beforehand. If circumstances should become so grave that we could no longer live at Watcombe Manor, I would endeavour to convince Douglas that we move to another shire or even another country. I had always longed to travel through Europe and I was most curious about the Caribbean where Douglas spent so long a time. We would take our children with us and teach them not to care about the opinions of addlebrained, narrow-minded people. 

Yet, I could very clearly see that I must convince my dear Douglas in this. More so, I must prove to him that he, and he alone, was the most important person in my life. I needed to make Douglas happy again. It was vital that Douglas should again become the lord of Watcombe Manor, in a way that reminded people of his father, Sir Matthew, who had been respected and loved in this part of Devonshire.

 

After Douglas dropped me off at Delaford Hall, he returned to Watcombe Manor, as was agreed between him and Mama earlier. From now on until we married, he would come calling properly by presenting his card to Mama and asking for permission to see me. It was all very frustrating and annoying but both Douglas and I acknowledged the necessity of it. From now on until we married, all must be done in order to keep my reputation from being harmed further. Excursions, like the one we just had now, would have to be carried out very carefully. No more visits to Watcombe Manor without a chaperone, I promised myself.

Mama was in the dressing room, reading. She had just come down from her afternoon nap and looked refreshed and in a good mood. I wished her to be in an open and receptive mood for what I had to discuss with her.

“Where have you been, Margaret?” Mama said, looking up from her book. “Surely it cannot take that long to go to Torquay and apply for a marriage licence, can it? Mrs Bernard informed me she had seen you and Lord Watcombe coming out of the registrar office at eleven this morning. It is now four in the afternoon!”

I was momentarily baffled and did not know what to say. Mrs Bernard? Who was Mrs Bernard and why had she come all the way from town to gossip to Mama about me?

“Mrs Bernard?” I stammered. “Do I know her, Mama?”

“Margaret, for Heaven’s sake!” I could feel Mama’s anger rising. “Do you ever pay the least attention to what I say? Horatia Bernard is the widow of one of Torquay’s richest residents.  Her late husband William owned half of Torquay’s real estate, including several hotels. All that large fortune is now in the hands of her only son Nicholas but everybody knows it is his mother who controls it. Her opinion on people is of the most importance to one’s reputation.”

Great, I thought. Mrs Bernard must be the matron we encountered just when Douglas was kissing me in broad daylight in the middle of the street. Mother’s voice again pierced through my annoyance.

“Margaret, you have not answered my question. Where have you been? I demand to know, girl!”

“We went to Watcombe Manor where Douglas showed me what is already set in motion, to turn the house into a proper residence,” I said, hoping that my voice would not betray the rest of my activities in the house.

“And was there a chaperone with you?”

“There were dozens of servants working as hard as they could in every room of the house and in every part of the gardens, Mama!”

“But none of them has accompanied you and Lord Watcombe while you were visiting through the house?”

“No but ...”

“Shame on you, Margaret! Clearly you still have not grasped what it takes to be of impeccable reputation! You leave me no choice but to forbid you from going on a ride with your fiancée unless Becky accompanies you, which she will do from now on.”

Becky Haggart was Mama’s newly acquired lady’s maid. She had just recently left her fathers’ farm to enter our service and she was shy, not too bright and easy to fool. I did not think she would form an obstacle for Douglas and me if we decided to do wicked things together. So I meekly replied that I would take Becky from now on and Mama seemed satisfied for the moment. That convinced me to push on with what I had in mind.

“Mama,” I asked, “what would you say if Douglas and I were to organise an engagement ball? We could invite all the important families of Torquay and of the neighbourhood. We would present ourselves properly to them.”

“That is a capital notion, darling! Yes, that would be most satisfactory! Oh, I must go and start to organise it this instant! I shall ask Mrs Jennings and Sir John Middleton if they would help me. They know a great deal about such things.”

“Good!” I said. “I shall go ask Christopher if he would host the ball at Delaford Hall.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

                Barely a week later, Barton Hall’s driveway was ablaze with the light of many torches illuminating the path for the engagement ball’s guests. They ranked among the most prominent  families of Torquay and its surrounding countryside. Replies to the invitations of our engagement ball had been abundant, mainly thanks to the combined effort of our friends, Sir John Middleton and Mrs Jennings.

The former had used his considerable influence in Devonshire politics through his brother-in-law Mr Parker, husband to Charlotte, Mrs Jennings’ younger daughter. Mr Parker was a member of Parliament and a rising star in England’s political sky. Mrs Jennings herself had worked the circle of her many lady friends and acquaintances, stating that winning the good graces of the future Lord Watcombe might be profitable for all of them. Douglas Spencer would, after all, be a baron as soon as he married Miss Dashwood, as Sir John pointed out.

 

                Douglas and I were standing at the top of the hall stairs at Barton Hall, ready to welcome our guests as soon as they arrived. My gaze wandered to my fiancée and, as always, my heart fluttered. He was looking absolutely magnificent! Over a pair of white silk breeches, matching stockings and black evening pumps, he wore a silver-coloured waistcoat and a night-blue, superfine coat, tailored to fit his broad shoulders and narrow waist. His ebony hair was tied in a curling tail at the nape of his neck, displaying to the full the strength of his handsome face. Jack Twinkler had done him proud, I thought, acting as his manservant. The boy had been instructed by Christopher’s own gentleman’s gentleman David and he was determined to fulfil that service for the rest of his life.

                Judging by the glances Douglas kept giving me, I must not look bad myself. His bright blue eyes were alight with deep admiration and also, with a hint of something far more exciting. I felt myself blush under that gaze and scowled at him.

“Douglas, please! Will you stop ... with whatever you are doing and maintain a shred of dignity? Our guests will be arriving soon and ...”

He bent towards me and whispered into my ear. “In my lively imagination I find myself unfastening that gorgeous sapphire-coloured dress, gleaming pearl button after gleaming pearl button, and sliding it off your exquisite, round shoulders until it puddles around your dainty little feet, snuggled in their blue silk evening slippers. Next, I will take those slippers off those little feet, kissing them before I remove your gauzy silk stockings. I will be caressing your slender, incredibly arousing legs and next, I will work my way up to your corset and unhook it, one hook at the time, while I kiss my way down again to your pert little bottom and uncover it. Next, I will ...”

                “Excuse me!” I gasped and fled to the ladies’ room in great emotional turmoil. My God! I wanted him so! I must regain control over my trembling body before the guests would come. I had been calm and composed all day, while the preparations were going on, until I saw Douglas walk into Barton Hall’s dressing room with his easy, long-legged stride. I had managed to get control again after that encounter but now, with his enticing voice whispering those arousing words in my ears, I only wanted him to act upon them! How was I supposed to hold on until our wedding day?

                I studied my flushed face in the washstand’s mirror; my blue eyes were misty with desire but also shining with unmitigated joy. My fair hair had been arranged in a waterfall of dancing curls that rested on my back and shoulders like a golden cloak. Even my upturned nose looked attractive - even pert - and my small mouth, touched with just a hint of rouge, seemed very ... kissable!

                The ladies’ room door opened and Mrs Jennings, in full regalia, sailed in.

                “Margaret, my dear, how absolutely radiant you look! I told your mama that sapphire blue gown was what we needed, although she was not sure about the daring neckline. You do have a beautiful bosom, my dear, so you are well entitled to flaunt it. After all, your fiancée will be at your side, so nobody will think the worse of it! Speaking of your fiancée, I have never seen a more dashing figure of a man than Sir Douglas! Those shoulders, that waist and ... those thighs! Ah! I could wish myself to be years younger so I could bat eyes at him myself!”

                At that, she swished out again, leaving me baffled with shock. Was it still possible for a widowed matron in her early sixties to have unruly thoughts about a man?

 

                By the time I had welcomed a multitude of guests, whose names and titles had soon become a blur in my bewildered mind, I was exhausted and the dancing had yet to begin. I was in a fair state of nervousness as I took up my place at the end of the line and not at all in the mood for intricate country dances. Fortunately, I would be dancing the first reel with Douglas and that made up well for the rest of the young men on my card whom I had promised a dance.

                “Are you quite ready for the ordeal, my sweet?” he whispered in my ear as he took up his place in front of me.

“Please, keep me on my toes with some interesting conversation. I might fall asleep with boredom,” I whispered back.

Douglas chuckled and took my hand for the quadrille. I sighed and put my rebellious thoughts aside, remembering Douglas would waltz with me just before dinner began.

 

                I soon lost track of the many gentlemen I danced with, even though there were quite a lot of handsome faces among them. I could not recall the names of them all, except for a dashing, young buck by the name of Nicholas Bernard. He was almost as tall as Douglas but more slightly built. With his fair curls and hazel eyes, he cut a nice figure among the many unmarried misses that attended the ball. Mother had mentioned him and his mother to me before. We were together in the cotillion line when I suddenly recalled that.

                There was another reason that I remembered Mr Bernard; he was the only one that came to collect me for a dance no less than four times, a very unusual feat. A lady was not supposed to be dancing more than two times with the same gentleman unless he was her betrothed or her husband.

This fact kept me in a puzzle; why would Nicholas Bernard do such an outrageous thing?

I decided to ask him. He smiled innocently at me.

“Miss Dashwood, I just realised I have been somewhat remiss in my social duties towards you. I should have strived for a better acquaintance with you. We have barely seen you on the Torquay scene and now, that you are finally showing yourself, it is because you are going to marry Lord Watcombe. I might never have the chance to dance several times in one evening ever again!”

“This is where you are mistaken, Mr Bernard. My husband and I will host many parties and balls because we mean to become part of Torquay society. No doubt we will welcome you many more times in the future.”

“Ah, yes! But then I will have to be married myself before I will be allowed to ask you for a dance, remember? Married ladies only dance with married gentlemen.”

The cotillion had come to an end and the orchestra struck the introduction to a waltz. I tried to pull my hand free but failed. Mr Bernard’s gaze was downright insolent.

“Well, if you want to partner me again in the future, Mr Bernard, I suggest that you start looking for a bride. I am positively sure that will not be difficult with all these lovely young ladies present.”

“I will partner you now, Miss Dashwood. For a waltz.”

To my astonishment he grabbed my waist into a hold of steel and whirled me around the floor.

“Mr Bernard!” I hissed, not wanting to cause a stir. “Let go of me this instant! I promised this waltz to my fiancée!”

“He should have been quicker, then!” the insolent young man laughed.

“Oh, he is quick enough for the likes of you, my boy ...” Douglas’ voice drawled. The next moment I was in my rake’s arms and we were waltzing away, faster than the wind. It was like my feet never touched the ground with Douglas’ right arm firmly on my waist and his left hand holding my own. It was absolutely exhilarating!

The music whirled around us and we whirled along with it, swept away with the rhythm and the thrill of being closer to each other than we had ever been. I could feel Douglas’ muscles shift with every turn. His strong arms clasped me firmly as in a vice and yet as delicately as if he were holding a baby. Nevertheless, our bodies touched and fitted perfectly. I turned and turned, my heart racing against his, my blood roaring in my ears to the rhythm of the waltz. The delicious heath of arousal began floating up from deep within my belly and soon drowned my whole being in exquisite waves. I was pressing myself even closer to my handsome partner when I saw a certain look in his eyes - watchful and alert like a lion stalking its prey. Those eyes of a deep blue  glittered with heat like molten glass. Against my secret place I could feel the pressure of his own arousal. Suddenly, my knees buckled. Immediately, his hand moved from my back to my bottom, pressing me so close that the breath was driven out of my lungs.

“Sweet God in Heaven, Meg, ...” To hear him say the name my family called me made me feel all weak in the knees. He wanted me so much and I too longed for him, more than anything I had ever longed for.

 

                With a few swift steps, Douglas brought me off the dance floor and out on the terrace and into the starry night above it. We were not alone. Three or four other couples were standing near the stone railing, softly speaking to each other and observing a safe distance apart. Douglas cradled my hand in the crook of his arm and started to walk with me into the moonlit garden. There was no impropriety in that, after all we were officially engaged. I understood why he whisked me out to the terrace, too. We both needed a little time to come to our senses.

“Margaret,” Douglas said, in a somewhat concerned tone, “do you know that young buck Bernard? I have never heard of him before. When I was still in England, ten years ago, his parents must not have lived in Torquay yet, for I have no recollection if them.” He looked right into my eyes, hoping for an answer.

“I am not the best person to ask, Douglas,” I replied, looking back at him intently. “We have lived very quietly, Mama and me. We are not really acquainted with Torquay society and just barely with Sir John’s neighbours, for that matter. We must enquire about him since he is an important member of Torquay society.”

“He certainly is!” Douglas retorted. “That milksop owns half of Torquay’s real estate and he is forever attempting to get his greedy hands on the other half! And what was his game, snatching you for a waltz like that?”

“He wanted to further his acquaintance with the future Baron Watcombe,” I said, trying to ease his concern. “You are becoming a distinguished member of society yourself, darling!”

Douglas tightened his hold by laying his hand over mine.

“Not before we are truly and lawfully married, sweetheart. Do not underestimate the viciousness of society. They are eagerly waiting to see us fall into the pit of social ostracism, which will inevitably occur if we do not get the marriage licence soon.”

“Oh, Douglas, has it still not arrived? That would be dreadful, won’t it?” Now, I did feel a concern and a fearsome one, to boot!

“Yes,” he replied quietly, “yes, it would. I find myself longing to become a veritable part of the community as soon as possible. I want to work hard, Margaret, I want to commit myself fully to my ancestors’ estate!”

“I know, my love, and so do I. I want to work at your side so that we may restore Watcombe Manor to its rightful place in society.”

                Douglas turned to me and slid his arms around my waist. He lifted my face to his and kissed my brow in a way that made my heart turn to water with the sheer tenderness of it.

“My Meggie,” he whispered, “I do not know what I would do without you. Please, promise me we will always be together, no matter what.”

“We will, Douglas, I promise.” I buried my head in his comforting chest.

 

After a while, we returned to the ballroom to attend to dinner. As I stepped inside on Douglas’ arm, a familiar yet unwelcome voice made me turn halfway from whence it came. The slightly stooped form of my half-brother, John Dashwood approached us, politely bowing to Douglas and me.

“My dearest sister,” he said in a coaxing voice, while extending his hand, “may I congratulate you on your excellent choice in choosing a partner in life?”

He took my hand and kissed it, leaving the mark of his thick, wet lips on my skin. A repulsive shudder ran through me and I looked at Douglas helplessly. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, as if he failed to understand why I let myself be upset by John, who now directed his eager gaze at my betrothed.

“Douglas, this is Mr John Dashwood, my half-brother,” I croaked, my throat suddenly tight with the recollection of what he had tried to do to me just a few weeks earlier.

Douglas eyed the hand John extended to him without interest and his voice, whipping forth like a Northern wind, stopped my brother in his tracks.

“Correct me if I am wrong, sir, but are you the same John Dashwood that befriended my cousin, Phineas Wilkinson?”

John’s puffy face crinkled in embarrassment.

“Why ... erm, yes, yes, that would be correct, my lord. I was awfully sorry to hear about his untimely death. May I offer you my most sincere condolences?”

“No, sir, you may not. In fact, you may spare me the oppressing presence of your person altogether. Lady Watcombe and myself will not care to have you as a visitor at our estate. Good day, sir!”

On that statement, Douglas guided me away and into the dining parlour. I would have given my life just to watch how my brother responded to that!

 

                The day after the ball I slept late, having stayed up until four in the morning. Douglas and I were forced to wave off the very last attendant, for good manners. When it was finally over, I was completely worn down with fatigue. Poor Douglas was even worse off than myself, since he had to return to Watcombe Manor and I just had to mount Delaford’s stairs to reach my bedchamber.

                I was justifiably annoyed just a little with my maid Becky when she woke me around lunch time to inform me that Douglas had left an urgent message for me downstairs. Dizzy with too little sleep, I allowed her to bathe and dress me and afterwards, I went to the hall to collect Douglas’ note.

‘Meet me at the Manor as soon as possible’ it read, in Douglas’ firm handwriting.

The house still seemed in repose and no one was about in the morning room yet, so I went to the stables to get my mare saddled. No need to take Becky, I thought; she would still be busy cleaning up my bedchamber. In the quiet high noon blaze of the August sun, I set off for Watcombe Manor, raking my brain as to what purpose Douglas summoned me there.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer

 

Watcombe Manor, August 12th 1818

 

Something terrible has happened. Margaret – MY Margaret – has met with something dreadful ! She  disappeared yesterday morning after she went out for a ride, apparently to see me at the Manor. Her maid Becky, thoroughly questioned by Brandon, knew almost nothing except that a note arrived at Delaford early in the morning. The note was in a hand that resembled mine but of course, I had not written it.

Brandon’s groom confirmed that Miss Dashwood had ridden out on the mare she usually takes for a ride. After Margaret disappeared from Delaford’s stable yard, she was not seen again. Her mare returned to the Delaford stables on her own, sweating and skittish.

 

I have searched every road and path that leads from Delaford to Watcombe Manor since, but I have not discovered a trace of my darling. The wreckage this notion is doing to me, is indescribable!

All sorts of doom schemes whirl through my weary brain and the fiercest anxiety overwhelms my heart! Where is Margaret? Has she fallen of the horse and is she lying somewhere, dead or badly injured? Has someone taken her, harmed her, killed her? God forbid!

 

Night has come after yet another day of searching and interrogating people as to whom might have glimpses a sight of Margaret or may know something about her. I’m sitting behind the desk in my library, unable to find sleep. If something ill should have befallen my sweet darling, I shall never survive it ...

 

                As soon as consciousness returned, I wished it had not. Nausea made me gag almost instantly and I was absolutely sure I had never had such a searing headache in my whole life! Sparks of fire raged through my head and my heart thumped so hard that my rushing blood resembled the pounding of a hammer inside my skull. Forcing myself to lie still, I endeavoured to keep my eyes closed during the first few moments of awareness.

                But, of course, eventually I had to open them. My mind vaguely registered  the tilted and heavily beamed roof of an attic above my head, its decrepit beams festooned with cobwebs of years of neglect. Carefully turning my aching head, I saw I was lying on an old iron bed with a mattress so damp, I could feel the moist seep through the fabric of my riding habit. It  smelled of decay, mould and mildew. One of my legs was chained to a bedpost but otherwise I was free of bonds.

                A few yards from the bed a small, very grimy window threw a sparse, diffuse light on the worn wooden floor. It seemed like dusk was settling in for I saw the nearly full moon rising in a corner of the window.

                I had not an inkling of what might have befallen me. Sometime during my ride to Watcombe Manor I must have been abducted when I reacted to the summon in Douglas’ note, yet I had no memory of it. What could be the purpose of this? Who would do such a despicable thing? My sore head did not allow me to reflect on these issues further. I closed my eyes again to shut out every lurid detail of my prison.

 

 

 

Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer

 

Delaford House, August 13th 1818

 

Still no sign of Margaret ... I have moved to Brandon’s estate in order to combine efforts to find her. It is obvious to everyone now that Margaret must have been abducted but we have no idea who is responsible for that.

 

Brandon, Ferrars, Sir John and I have raked our brains about the reason for this and the only thing we could come up with, was that someone is trying to prevent my marriage to Margaret by removing her  from me. The logical consequence is that it was done to prevent me from gaining my title and estate, but why? Phineas Wilkinson is dead, as is all my next of kin from Liverpool. There simply is nobody between me and  the conditions of my father’s will.

 

I must again rummage through Father’s papers in case there is something about my past that I might have overlooked. Jack Twinkler is bringing them over today. I mean to go through the documents with a fine comb. There must be something I do not know!

 

Mrs Dashwood has taken to her bed with a violent headache and is in a deep depression. Even my promise that I would do everything in my power to restore Margaret to her, does not seem to alleviate her sorrow. Her daughters have the greatest difficulty, just to make her take her meals. Brandon is all keyed up about the consequences for Marianne, who is nearing the end of her pregnancy and is getting more tired every day.

 

As I am forever trying, over and over again, to fathom what has happened to my sweet girl, my thoughts wander to every single moment of our acquaintance. From the first moment I set eyes on Margaret Dashwood, I was lost. I have tried to understand why I fell in love with her. She was barely more than a child and therefore, inexperienced. Her upbringing, though very sheltered and refined, did not prepare her for life’s cruel surprises. Maybe that was one of the reasons I was so drawn to her ...

 

 

                When I opened my eyes again, it was morning and a bright, purple light was filtering through the dusty windowpane of the skylight. I felt thoroughly uncomfortable and nauseated, with my dirty riding habit clinging to my sweaty skin. The call of nature was excruciatingly urgent but there was no way I would be able to reach the rusty iron bucket in the corner of the room. The chain around my right ankle was too short.

                Someone had removed my boots. With a pang of apprehension burning my throat, I realised they – whoever they were – meant to keep me securely captivated. Who were ‘they’? Why did they abducted me? Was it a chance abduction or did they know who I was and were they planning on asking a ransom for me? Was Douglas the one supposed to pay for it?

                The various possible answers to these questions were endless and, to my infinite regret, I had as good as no clues. Yet, pondering over them kept me distracted from my raging thirst, gnawing hunger and painful bladder, so I stubbornly continued my train of thought. I startled violently when my prison was violently thrust open.

 

 

 

 

Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer

 

Delaford House, August 14th 1818, morning

 

Day after day of continued searching now follow each other but without any result at all! It’s driving me insane with concern about my sweet angel! Somewhere there surely must be a trace of Margaret!

 

My father’s papers did not give me any new clue to my past but I did find his personal diary. I want to read it, especially the ones that cover 1817 and 1818. Those were the last years of his life  and I was no part of it.

 

Margaret ... how was it possible that I, the dissipated son of my righteous father, could have been struck in the heart by a pure and innocent girl? I, who disappointed my good and loving sire with my moral depravity , therefore have robbed him of his only son and heir. I, who was used to grabbing any skirt that passed me by, ravished any girl or woman that caught my immoral eye.

 

Yet I could not bring myself to touch Margaret ... not Margaret, no ...

I did not have such qualms in my vile past, never ... I just turned my roving eyes to any company of pretty women, caught sight of what I lusted after and seduced the often unwilling girl into satisfying me. My insatiable appetite made no distinction between married or not, virgin or experienced, young or mature. After Christina, nothing mattered anymore. There was only gratification to be satisfied.

 

But Margaret ... her ‘joie de vivre’, her boundless energy, her indomitable will and her heart-wrenching innocence only compelled me to one fervent wish: to protect her from all harm and hurt. Oh, I wanted her, no doubt about it ... but I also recognized her own need in wanting to give herself to me without restraint and  immensely feared it!  Margaret was not to be hurt, not to be spoiled, not to be ravished. I wanted her to stay whole for when the moment came that she would experience true love from a man that was worthy of her and that man certainly was not me!

 

Yet, when I was shocked into the realization that she could have been taken from me by Death, I dared ask her to become my wife and was never happier when she accepted.

Margaret, my life, my heart. Margaret, my own, exquisite darling ...

 

Now, on the verge of our wedding, I have deserted her by allowing some miscreant to snatch her from me ...

 

I must end for now since I have a meeting with Brandon , Ferrars and my solicitor, who has come up with an idea. We are once more to examine the contents of Father’s  will lest we have overlooked some detail about its many clauses.

 

Four people entered the attic room and one of them was familiar to me in the most horrid way - it was Dobson, Wilkinson’s huge and brainless henchman! He immediately came towards me and unfastened the chain around my ankle. He jerked me upright beside the bed, grabbing me by the upper arms from behind. I was unable to move one inch as his grubby hands dug into my flesh with crushing force.

“Ah, Miss Dashwood!”

The suave voice of Nicholas Bernard sounded first. He was standing next to his mother, whom he supported by one arm with endearing gentleness. Her other arm was held by a big, sturdy woman in the drab clothes, the white mobcap and apron of a maid. Bernard left his mother to the care of her servant and motioned at Dobson to bring me closer.

“Miss Margaret Dashwood, you are lovely as ever! I cannot wait to make you do what I brought you here for!”

He took hold of my chin and jerked it upward.

“You dainty little hussy, I am going to have my way with you soon. I must steal this march on Spencer. It will be the sweetest revenge!”

The direst of forebodings made me cringe inwardly but I struggled not to show it to Bernard and asked, “Revenge, Mr Bernard? For what? What harm can you have sustained from my fiancée? He has been out of the country for ten years!”

“Oh, it will dawn on you eventually, my sweet, but you do not need to know it right now. Suffice it to say that your ‘fiancée’ is the most vile rake Torquay has ever known. What do you know of Douglas Spencer, Miss Dashwood, other than what he wants you to know?”

I drew myself up as high as I could, despite Dobson’s hold on me.

“He is a good man who has been falsely accused of rakishness and who has paid for a crime he did not commit. That is all you need to hear, Mr Bernard. It is none of your business. Now you must let me go. I am sure we can hush this up as I have no need to it become the tittle-tattle of town.”

Bernard laughed sarcastically. His mother Mrs Bernard stood watching the whole exchange as motionless as a statue, her black eyes cold as obsidian.

“I am afraid things are not that simple, my hussy! You are here for a reason or, better, for two reasons. One of them is to prevent Spencer from marrying you in time. I intend to keep you here until August 22nd. In the mean time, I will take my fill of you. You will become my mistress because I have had my eye on you for quite a time. I always get what I want, my sweet, and what I now want, is you.”

He gave a sign with his hand to Dobson who then picked me up like a sack of potatoes and tossed me over his shoulder. While he carried me out of the attic, I shouted to Mrs Bernard in despair. “Mrs Bernard, Ma’am, I beg of you! Help me! You cannot let your son do this to me! Please, Mrs Bernard?”

The older woman did not reply but held up a hand to stay Dobson who obeyed instantly. Full of hope, I looked at her expectantly.

“You, my dear,” she said to me in a cold, even voice, “are nothing better than a whore. You have accepted the attentions of Spencer who is a vile bastard of a rake. Do not implore my help; you will not get it.”

“But ... why, Mrs Bernard? What have I ever done to you?” I begged, fear and despair breaking my voice.

“I hate all Spencers, my dear, and everybody that has to do with them. Your fiancée is a horrible criminal, just like as his loathsome father was. It is time they paid for their crimes.”

 

 

Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer

 

Delaford House, August 14th 1818, evening

 

                Jack Twinkler just brought the most distressing news: Someone stole the contents of my safe in the library at Watcombe Manor. They got away with a fair sum of money which I kept to pay the servants at the end of the week but, most of all, they took my mother’s jewellery box. Not only contained in it were the Watcombe diamonds, a tiara, a necklace, two bracelets and a pair of earrings , but also a string of black pearls and matching earbobs, which are so rare that not a price can be set upon them. On the floor of my library one of Margaret’s earrings was found. It is one of the pair of tiny dangling silver ornaments she usually wears.

                I do not comprehend. Margaret does not know I have a safe since I never told her. Moreover, why should she want to rob me when, in a fortnight, she will be mistress of all my scanty possessions? It does not make sense. But foremost, I cannot suspect my darling of such a deed. She has not a bad bone in her body, not Margaret.

Someone snatched her from me, damn and blast! They stole my valuables and left her earring to put the blame on Margaret. I will hunt them down and make them pay with their lives if it is the last thing in my life that I do!

                At this very moment I am preparing myself to return home. The magistrate has been sent for and I want to be present when his men search the Manor for further evidence.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

                “Mrs Bernard, please? Do not let them do this to me!” I cried as Dobson carried me from the room and down the stairs. No answer came from the mother of my abductor. I could not understand! Why? What had I done to her or anyone else to be denied mercy like this?

I was also denied the leisure to ponder over this because Dobson headed for a door on a lower landing. He kicked it open and forcibly threw me on a large four poster bed. My head banged against the headboard, leaving me vertiginous for a short period of time. When my vision cleared, I saw Nicholas Bernard sitting in an armchair beside the bed. He placed his fingers under his chin forming  a steeple and drew up his lips in a smile that did not reach his eyes. I tensed and instinctively crawled away from him. Glancing at the windows, their curtains still open, I saw that night had come.

                “I demand that you stop this outrageous behaviour, Mr Bernard! Please take care that I should return home this instant. My family and friends will be in great concern over my safety.” I did my best to look at him with a scowl because I was afraid to let him see my fear. My life could very well be at risk.

                Bernard’s smile widened but did not grow softer.

                “Oh, you feisty little vixen!” he exclaimed. “Good! Gather your courage for you will need it for what I have in store for you!”

That remark sent a chill down my spine because his voice had been laced with cruelty and viciousness. His eyes, which were a soft hazel, now showed a hint of green. It gave him a devilish look. It also did nothing to put my mind to rest.

                “Mr Bernard, pray act like the gentleman that you are. You are a young man of fortune and proper upbringing and one who enjoys the respect of his fellow citizens. Why would you want to throw that away on my behalf? How would you be able to face society if you acted as you intend?”

                “Ah, but that is where you are mistaken! I am no ‘gentleman’, no ‘gentry’ like that bastard Spencer and I have no standards, moral nor societal, to uphold! I am a commoner, a wealthy one but nevertheless, a commoner. How do you think my father gained his fortune? Not by playing it fair, sweetheart, I can tell you that! My father was as cunning as a lion. He searched for prey and was ruthless in cutting out the competition. Moreover, do you think I will let my actions be known to all and sunder?”

                Bernard suddenly stood and loomed over me, his hands gripping my arms and pinning them onto the bed. I noticed a drop of saliva running down his chin and had a sudden fear that he might be insane! In a cooing voice he continued. “You will be ruined and shunned as a loose woman but I will appear clean as a whistle because no one knows you are here. I have, however, set things into motion already. Rumours are being spread throughout the city that you have eloped with a hitherto unknown lover.”

One of his hands began unfastening the buttons of my riding jacket and all the while, Bernard kept on talking. “The members of my mama’s little card club have already dispersed the scandalous lies my mother fed them about your hypocrisy. How you deceived society by your dainty and innocent ways. How you tricked Spencer into your confidence and, on the verge of marrying him, stole his mother’s jewels to run away with your lover.”

                “His mother’s jewels?” I exclaimed, now utterly bewildered. “I had no knowledge of their existence! Douglas never spoke of them.”

                “Ah!” Bernard cajoled, his hand now inside my bodice. “But he has not told you even the half of it, my pet.”

                Desperately swallowing against the nausea that threatened to overwhelm me at Bernard’s cold fingers on the soft skin of my breast, I ventured. “The half of what, Mr Bernard? Can you not tell me? I would like to know, please.” And with a courage I did not know I had, I laid my hand against his cheek and caressed it. “Please, Nicholas?”

                My aggressor leered and drew back, seating himself on the chair again. “Margaret, my sweet, are you beginning to like me, then? Or are you just attempting to beguile me with your feminine wiles?” His eyes raked over me so vilely that my heart nearly stopped in fear. That man was the devil incarnate. Nevertheless, I had a sudden understanding that I could actually have an influence on Bernard which restored my courage. For the sake of mine and Douglas’ future, I had to try everything within my power to escape this lunatic and his mother. I ached to go back to Douglas and our love, to the bond we would soon forge. Already I missed him so acutely that nothing else mattered! I would do anything to be united with him, anything! I would even let this madman think I would succumb to him. So I shamelessly batted my eyelids at him and tried to make my voice sound sultry.

                “Nicholas, had I but known you sooner, who knows what might have transpired? We were so isolated, my mother and I, that we did not pay enough attention to what life had to offer us in Torquay. A foolish mistake, I realise now. It deprived me of the pleasure of your company. We will remediate that, won’t we?”

                “Margaret ...” Bernard now said hoarsely, his eyes softening ever so slightly. “Margaret, are you sincere? How do I know you are not deceiving me? You could easily be tricking me into softening my vigilance and leap to freedom when I let my guard down.”

                I dared not answer with words because I needed all my presence of mind to make the expression on my face longing and seductive. A faltering of my voice would surely betray me. Instead I kept stroking his face with a faint smile curving my mouth. Bernard bent over me again and tested my sincerity by pressing his mouth on mine, his tongue pushing for entrance.

                “Oh, Douglas!” I begged inwardly. “Please, forgive me, my love ...” And opened my mouth to Bernard’s kiss. It was as vile as I had imagined! His lips were thick and spongy and his breath tasted sour. His tongue was like a piece of rotting vegetable that probed all the way down into my throat. It was incredibly hard for me to prevent myself from choking and gagging. I do not know how I managed. Maybe it was the memory of Douglas’ kisses that kept me sane, the feeling of his mouth and tongue, so sweet, so alluring, that made me sustain Bernard’s onslaught. But I achieved it, for Bernard withdrew with a sigh of satisfaction.

                “Ah, sweet nectar! My lovely Margaret, how I long for us to join our bodies in unison and pleasure!”

                “We will, Nicholas, we will. Could I beg you for a small favour? What day is it?”

“August 14th. Why?”

“I am extremely thirsty and starving for food. I think I have not eaten in two days and I feel a little queer. Please, let me partake of some refreshment so that I can devote myself to the full to our union?”

                “Very well, my sweet. You must give yourself to me in complete concentration and for that, you will need all your abilities. I will go and order a tray.”

 

 

Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer

 

Watcombe Manor, August 15th 1818, two o’clock in the morning

 

                I cannot believe it! For hours I have been reading Father’s diaries and found nothing but estate business and every day goings-on being described in full and boring detail. Until now ... until I read this hastily scribbled and badly worded paragraph in a shaking hand on the last day of his life, April 4th 1818, a few weeks before I reached home.

 

‘Made a new will. Had to. Must preserve some funds for Douglas in case he comes back to England, even if it means I have to bring down the Bernard child’s allowance. My cousin in Jamaica wrote to me in February to confirm Douglas was still unmarried and had not formed an attachment to any young lady. Stubborn young sod! Anyhow, the will is drawn and secured away in the usual safe place, where I found unending comfort and where I keep all my secret correspondence. If Douglas is the man I hope he has become, he will look there and find it, along with the rest. If he does not search for it, then he will have to marry to get his inheritance. Otherwise, all goes to Wilkinson and Douglas be damned!’

 

                Understandably I was in great confusion! A will subsequent to the one guarded in the lawyers’ practice? The Bernard child? What child? I had to find this will! What could he have meant by ‘the usual secret place’? A place of safety and comfort ... Then, suddenly, it dawned on me! It could only be in my parents’ bedchamber.

 

                I went to wake up Jack Twinkler and the two of us went to the bedroom where I had almost deflowered Margaret and, in the process, spilled myself into my breeches, fool that I am!

                Jack and I turned the room inside out, searching every cupboard and closet, tapping the panels on the wall, and even probing the floor boards for hidden spaces. It was all to no avail. Jack, sensible lad that he is, then fetched me a glass of brandy and told me to sit quietly and concentrate on my father and mother. I was stunned to find such an awareness in a young man who had scarcely known his own parents! Yet, I did as he asked and let my eyes wander through the room.  I recalled my strong father and my sweet mother and how they had loved and cherished one another, here in this very room, where their love had blossomed. And then I knew ...

 

                As soon as Bernard left the room, I jumped up from the bed and ran to the window. Not only was it locked tightly and situated at the street side of the house, it was also on one of the upper floors and the drop to the street level was at least 30 feet down! That had slipped my mind completely. I tried to open the latch because I might have a chance to call out on someone walking by. It was useless. I could not shift the handle because it was weld shut. This fact assured me of Bernard having acted under premeditation to abduct and ruin me. He had even prepared a prison for me.

                My thoughts raced through my brain and I felt panicked like a caged bird trying to find a way to escape. I looked around the room for a weapon of some sort, in case I needed to strike Bernard down. The place was as bare as a monk’s cell, the only furniture being the bed and the chair! There was not even a closet or a chamber pot! My shoes had been taken away, along with my riding crop and hat. My spirits suddenly plummeted as I sank onto the bed, sobbing in aching despair.

                What was I to do when Bernard would return and claim me? Well, I scolded myself, to sit here and snivel like a baby will not solve a thing! I needed to gather my thoughts and think!

                I had been taken two days ago, halfway afternoon. Douglas would be searching for me and – oh, no! – not if he reckoned I had pinched the family jewels! Here I was, it all came to only one fact; did I trust Douglas’ love for me? If Douglas loved me, truly, utterly loved and trusted me – and I was sure he did – then he would not believe I deceived him. I had to trust Douglas completely and, with a jolt of pure joy, I realised I did!

                But how would he know where to look for me? And how would he recognize Bernard’s doings in this? In truth, I had not the least notion if and when my rescuer would come. So, in the end, the only thing I could do was to hold off Bernard as long as possible or – to knock him unconscious and escape on my own accord.

                I was still considering my possibilities when the door opened to let Dobson in and – Mrs Bernard. I stood and curtsied politely while I covertly studied her. She was short and stout with an ample bosom and a broad, plain face. Her once pleasant looks were blurred by plumpness. Her eyes were the same hazel colour as her son’s but she must have been dark-haired in her youth instead of fair like Bernard. Her mouth was thin and her nose snub. Her double chin quivered with agitation when she addressed me.

                “You foolish, vain creature!” she growled. “Do you even have the slightest idea what a family you plan to marry into? The Spencers are a race of villains who do not place the slightest value upon the lives of others. They see, covet and take what they want with no regard for man or devil!”

                “Mrs Bernard, I do not have an inkling about what you are talking of. I beg you to enlighten me about the Spencer family, Ma’am. What is it that I need to know?”

                The woman did not reply but gave Dobson a sign whereupon the brute grabbed me and took me outside after Mrs Bernard and down a flight of steps.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer

 

Watcombe Manor, August 15th 1818, three o’clock in the morning

 

                Jack and I are hurrying into Torquay and to the Bernards’ town house. Thank God I found my father’s will in time in the wall panelling above the bed where Father kept his most cherished belongings. That was how I learnt about his connection with the Bernard family! Margaret must be there, she must be! A message has been sent to Brandon and the magistrate. Pray God we should arrive in time ...

 

 

                Dobson’s hand was crushing my arm while he dragged me through the house. We came into what I assumed was a part of the servant’s quarters because the walls were bare and painted  a drab brown. This was not the ground floor yet because the stairs continued downwards, but Dobson pushed me into a side corridor and halted before one of the many doors. His mistress opened it with one of many keys on her bunch and thrust me inside.

                It was a bare room without so much as a carpet or draperies on the small window. The shutters were closed. There was a narrow cot with a coarse grey blanket and rough cotton sheets, and a table and chair, both plain and without ornamental carvings.  What was this? By the table sat a woman in nurse’s clothing. She wore an unadorned grey woollen dress and starched white apron and cap. She was busily mending sheets but put down her work when Mrs Bernard entered, she rose and curtsied respectfully to her.

                Then, in one corner, I saw something that overwhelmed me with horror and pity alike. In a high-backed chair, hands tied to the arm rest, and her feet to the chair’s legs, was a girl. Her slumped slender body was dressed in a plain, grey cotton dress and she sat with her feet bare on the floor boards. She was sitting with her head bowed down so that I was unable to see her face. She seemed unconscious or sleeping - I could not tell. Her breathing was heavy and the front of her dress was wet with what must be drool. Instinctively I took a step toward her but Mrs Bernard roughly drew me back. The explanation of this girl came quickly – and cruelly.

                “Leave it! It must not be disturbed! It is an animal, not a human being and must not be treated as one. This is what I got for trusting Matthew Spencer, for loving him, for giving myself to him! This is God’s punishment for me, doomed as I am to take care of it for the rest of my life. I must redeem myself by caring for it but why must I be the only one to pay? I never understood that ...”

Her voice trailed away and she let go of my arm to stare at her daughter.

                My mind was reeling under what she had just told me. This unfortunate girl was a child of Sir Matthew, Douglas’ father? I looked at Mrs Bernard and suddenly understood. Her father had been extremely wealthy and established in society. She must have been a beautiful girl; remnants of that beauty were still there in the structure of facial bones, in the form of her mouth and – most of all – her hair, now a coarse grey. How luxurious it must have been in her youth. I could easily picture a waterfall of thick, dark curls tumbling down her back and shining like a raven’s coat of feathers.

                “What happened, Mrs Bernard? Why did you not marry Sir Matthew?” I asked, my voice calm. She turned to me and slowly focussed again after she abandoned her reverie of the past. “He was a rogue,” she replied, her voice listless, almost lethargic. “He went from girl to girl and not one of them could resist him. I was one of many and easily fooled by his title and looks and his suave voice, uttering sweet nothings. Of course, none of us was good enough to become Lady Watcombe. It took me too long a time to comprehend that and, when I discovered I was increasing, I did my duty and married Randolph Bernard, who was courting me at the time. God knows how long I kept him at bay before I finally gave in. I was honest to him and confessed what I had done. Good man that he was, Randolph let me keep the creature and gave it his name. But from the day it was born, he started working on the Spencers’ downfall by buying everything they coveted right from under their noses. He sealed bargains before they could and expanded his empire at the expense of theirs. Matthew Spencer tried to save his fortune by marrying that goose, Phoebe Wilkinson, and it gave him some slack for as long as she lived. But after her death, the Wilkinsons again attempted to take over.”

                “But, what is wrong with your daughter, Mrs Bernard? Is she mentally incapacitated? Or deaf or blind?”

“She is Spencer’s daughter! That is enough to keep her locked up!” Mrs Bernard’s voice dripped hatred. There was such a ring of madness in her words that a dire foreboding crossed my mind. Both mother and son must be insane! I could not stand it any longer and went to kneel before the girl’s chair. Gently, I stroked one of the pale, slender hands. There was no reaction. The girl just sat bent forward and I could hear her heavy breathing and I saw her saliva drip into her lap. I slid my hand over her black and sleek hair. The nurse had left it untied and it hung on both sides of her face like a curtain.

                “What is your name?” I asked. “Will you not tell me your name?” Still there was no movement from the girl but she uttered a soft whimper, which went straight to my heart.

                “What are you doing?” Mrs Bernard’s shrill voice sounded. “Leave it alone, I said!”

“She must have a name, does she not?” I retorted, angry with her cold and distant ways. “Everybody has a name! Tell me!”

                Mrs Bernard’s distress was obvious and she was clearly confused about my compassion. How was this possible? How could a mother not love her child, even if it was conceived out of wedlock? But it was the nurse who answered. “ Her name is Amata. She knows her name, Miss. Just you try it.” When I looked up at her, I saw that the woman was smiling at me in encouragement. She must like her patient, I thought, for she is kind to her.

                “Good day to you, Amata. I am Margaret. You have a beautiful name.” I touched both of her hands now and said her name again. “Amata ... the one who is loved ...”

                Slowly the girl lifted her head and I was caught in a gaze I recognized immediately. Amata’s blue eyes were exactly like those of her half-brother Douglas and they looked at me with fear - dreadful, bone-chilling fear - but also with subdued awareness. This poor, suppressed creature, locked away for years, certainly was not mentally disabled!

                Shock overwhelmed me as I struggled to take in all the horrors this girl must have been subjected to over the long years being locked up in this room. I rose to my feet, ready to release the stinging reproaches on my lips, when the door burst open. Nicholas Bernard grabbed my arm and dragged me outside, causing Amata to shriek like a banshee.

 

                I was dragged back to the room I already experienced . Although I was too frightened to resist when Bernard tossed me back onto the bed in the chamber with the locked windows, I could only think of that poor girl in the downstairs room. I could not comprehend why someone would do such a thing to an innocent child! It was not until I felt Bernard tug at my bodice’s buttons that I realised what he was doing.

“Nicholas, wait! Please, Nicholas, we have to talk!”

I pushed at him but his weight was already upon me. Vaguely I wondered how such a slight man could be so heavy! When his mouth was on mine, forcing my lips to open under the pressure of his tongue, I gasped and tried to turn my head aside. He wrenched my chin back and held it in an grip of iron, trusting his tongue into my mouth. There was nothing I could do, I realised. He was too strong and too determined to have his way with me. Far away downstairs, there were unusual noises as I heard crashing and thudding and breaking, but my stunned mind could not understand. Bernard’s hands were ripping open my dress and groping at my breasts. Horror washed over me when he tore aside my ruined bodice and began unfastening the front of his breeches with one hand while the other held me firmly by the neck. I felt no desire, no warmth, only horror, frightful and revolting. Tears streamed down my face as I realised I was being raped, ruined by a man that was not Douglas. Tears, so hot that they choked me ... oh, how I longed for death to come and take me ...

                Suddenly the weight was lifted off me and I drew a deep breath when I heard a voice that was more dear to me than my own life! Douglas! He had come! I tried to sit up and my stunned eyes had trouble taking in what was happening. Douglas and Bernard were fighting, dealing each other hard punches. Although Bernard was several inches shorter than Douglas, he was also wiry but well-muscled and was holding his ground against Douglas’ blows. Bernard was also quick and agile, darting around Douglas and stinging him with hard blows which the latter took on easily before punching back. Douglas might succeed only now and then to connect with Bernard’s jaw but his blows were much stronger. The force behind them was fuelled by so fierce a rage that his eyes seemed to burn with liquid blue fire.

                The fight went on for a few minutes but eventually Douglas gained the upper hand and a crushing blow put Bernard down and he did not come round again. Douglas, panting and covered with blood, turned to me. The burning rage in his eyes suddenly frightened me and, groping for the blanket to cover myself, I backed away. God! He looked as if he was going to throttle me! Someone was whimpering but it took me a while to realise it was me.

                “Margaret ...” Douglas kneeled beside the bed, the rage gone from his eyes. “Meggie, it is me, Douglas! Do not look at me that way, my love, please?”

                “Douglas ... oh, Douglas ...” Suddenly I was in his arms, sobbing my heart out. I wanted to feel him, to revel in his warmth, to inhale his scent, to hear the beating of his heart. Through the fabric of his shirt, I could feel his steel hard muscles and I rubbed my face against that muscled wall of chest, crying with relief because I was finally home. “He did not ... I am not ...” I heard myself stutter and attempted to say the words but they would not come.

                “Shhh, shhh, all is well, my darling, all is well. I have you back, thank the Lord! Never, ever, will I let you out of my sight again, I swear it! Oh, my sweet, sweet darling, I have died a thousand deaths, not knowing where you were!” He was covering me with hard kisses, on my face, my neck, my hands and I was trying to give them back to him but, when our lips finally met, his mouth was greedy and fierce! Heat shot through me when my breasts, already bared from Bernard’s attack, rubbed against Douglas’ shirt. All conscious thinking faded, all reasoning died and only desire leapt, flared up and burned with incredible heat. Now was the time to give myself to him! Now!

                Through the red haze of need a very urgent voice pierced the air. “Master, ‘urry! Master, the ‘ouse is on fire! We must leave, I beg ye, master!” Jack Twinkler, I realised with shock!

                Douglas was already wrapping me in the blanket, in an attempt to shield my nakedness.

                “On fire? How is that possible, Jack? What has happened?”

                “It was the old woman, Master! She set fire to the ‘ouse and fled, together with Bernard! Master, it started in the downstairs rooms and the stairs are already in flames! We must leave now!”

Douglas scooped me up and carried me out of the room and down the stairs. A thick, black smoke had already filled the whole staircase and all of a sudden, I was coughing.

“Cover your mouth and nose, Margaret!” Douglas shouted. I could barely hear him over the roaring of the flames. How had this fire developed so quickly? Then, as I recalled Jack’s words, a horrible thought crossed my mind.

                “Douglas, the girl! We must find the girl!” I leapt out of his arms and ran down the stairs, vaguely aware of the heat and the flames, toward Amata’s room. I could barely see a hand before my stinging eyes but eventually I found the door of Amata’s room, threw it open and froze! They had abandoned her! She was still tied to that chair, screaming in heart-wrenching panic now as she was pulling and straining against her bonds! I fell to my knees and began tugging at the ropes’ knots. They were strained too hard and I could not even begin to loosen them.

                I must have been screaming myself because, all of a sudden, Douglas and Jack were beside me. “Margaret, leave that! We are taking her with us, chair and all! Come on, follow us! Here, put your hand on my shirt’s tail and, for the love of God, do not let go!”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

                A journey through hell began as our little group struggled to find the front door of the Bernard house. We stumbled through thick blackness, caused by the vile smoke and the dust of falling debris as pieces of the walls and beams began falling down around us. At one point I tripped and fell, releasing Douglas’ shirt. I could not breathe and nearly coughed my heart out, which only caused my lungs to ache even more. Douglas groped for me and I clutched his hand in a death grip. He hauled me back to my feet, shouting in my ear. “Hold on, for God’s sake! We are nearly there!” Poor darling, he was coughing and wheezing as hard as I was!

                Finally, helping hands pulled us out from the entrance hall of the house, to where we had  fought our way, and I found myself on hands and knees on the cobles outside, gulping down the sweet night air like a person starved.

                “Oh, Margaret!” That was Elinor’s voice and I was extremely glad to hear it. “Come, my sweet, let me cover you. Here, put this around you. Are you hurt? Do you have burns?”

“No, Elinor, I think not. Where is Douglas?”

“Here, darling!” Strong arms engulfed me and squeezed me tight. “Margaret, you little fool, I swear you will be the death of me, one day! I thought I would succumb then and there! Why did you run from me to save that girl? Who is she that you were prepared to take such a risk for her?”

                I looked up into his soot-streaked face and red-rimmed eyes and raked my hands through his hair, standing-on-end like that of a scarecrow. “Douglas, she is a child of Mrs Bernard and Sir Matthew,” I said, keeping my voice as level as I could. Douglas received the shock of his life.

                “My father? But ... you mean he fathered a child out of wedlock?” he asked incredulously.

“No, it was before he married your mother! He seemed to have – well, to have been quite a dashing young man who ...”

“Who could not keep away from rich, young women! In short, he was a rake – damn and blast, but ... Margaret, this girl – woman, I should say, for she must be older than me – is my sister!”

“Yes, she is. Douglas, they have kept her locked away all those years. They have secluded her from the rest of the world, simply because she was born out of wedlock and Mrs Bernard could not bear the shame to own up to her! It is appalling!”

“So she must be the ‘Bernard’s child’ ...” Douglas whispered, face frozen with shock. Even in the poor light of the street lanterns, I could see how the blood had drained from his face. I was feeling exactly the same myself. The lights grew dimmer and dimmer ...

 

Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer

 

Watcombe Manor, August 16th 1818, ten o’clock in the morning

 

                I have brought my Meggie home to Watcombe Manor. Here we hope to build our lives together so, when I moved her to a carriage last night, after the fire, I decided she should rest and mend here in our house.

                Mrs Dashwood did everything she could to stop me. She wailed, she cursed, she screamed and wept but it all slid down and off my back like raindrops off a duck. Elinor was more subtle and very gentle. She pleaded me not to do this, pointing out that the whole of the county knew Margaret had been abducted by Bernard and would think her ravished by him. I did not listen to her. I brought my Margaret home, just the same, to Watcombe Manor, even if I had to fight off Brandon and Ferrars. They bombarded me with reasonable arguments but it left me stone cold. I am the only one from now on who is going to care for Margaret.

                And now I am sitting here beside her bed, just watching her. My heart aches when I see the paleness of her lovely face. I cringe inwardly at her pretty locks, now singed and damaged where the fire touched. I cannot help myself but something seems to have shifted deep inside me. I could not protect her so I have failed her. I, who claims to love her, have let her down. I will never forgive myself.

                To redeem myself – at least, a part of me – I took in the girl she risked her life for. I cannot begin to comprehend what Margaret told me last night, about the girl being my sister! I shirk away from that thought as violently as I would from a leper! No, this cannot be true.

                Yet, I took the girl in, despite the fact that I owe her nothing. But I owe it to my Margaret and that is enough.

 

                Bernard’s hand on my mouth prevented me from screaming and, along with rage, panic rose in my throat! He was determined on ravishing me! He wanted to force himself on me! Fighting with all my strength, I strained against his hands that held me pinned onto the bed. I could smell his breath and the odiousness of it choked me, just before his tongue invaded my mouth. I could not breathe. I would die.

When he ripped off my dress, I finally screamed – and sat up in bed, pounding at my attacker, sobbing, panting.

                “Shhh, shhh, my darling, all is well. It was but a horrid dream. You are home, with me.”

Confused and my body hurting all over, I stared – merciful heavens – at Douglas, who was gazing into my eyes and smiling his beautiful smile. I slumped against him, clasping my arms around his neck in huge relief.

“Oh Douglas, I was so scared! He ... he was ...”

“Shhh, it is over now, my love. I am with you, here in our home of Watcombe. Everything is safe and fine so go to sleep, my sweet. I will stay here at your side.”

He gently pushed me back onto the mattress and pulled the covers high. However, I could not stop shaking and fresh sobs kept coming from my constricted chest. I clasped Douglas’ hand tightly as if it were a lifeline, that prevented me from slipping back into the nightmare.

“I am so cold. How can I be cold when I have been in those horrible flames?”

“Shhh, I will make you warm again, my dearest Meggie. Close your eyes, my darling.”

And then, to my infinite delight, he slipped under the covers beside me, curled his arms around me and then pulled me close to his heart. Oh, the warmth of him! It was exquisite and I gave myself completely over to this heavenly feelings. All was well. I was with the man I loved and would always love.

 

                The cheerful voice of my maid, Becky, woke me the next morning, from a delicious dream.  I felt a trifle out of sorts with her for doing so. She drew open the high window curtains in, – oh, sweet Lord – the bed chamber at Watcombe Manor destined for Douglas and me after our wedding! I had just passed the night in our marriage bed.

                “Good morning, Miss Margaret! Oh, what a beautiful room this is! His Lordship ordered me to bring you breakfast in bed and, afterwards, he awaits you in his study. Oh, what a handsome man he is, Miss Margaret, and so gracious and friendly and ...”

“Becky, please!” I tried to sit up but my head was pounding with a huge headache and all I could do was groan.

“Oh, miss! Are you unwell? I could put some drops of laudanum in your tea, if you want. Come, let me help you.”

                It occurred to me that the young maid had learned quite a lot in a short time as she expertly helped me to sit up against freshly fluffed-up pillows. A few moments later, she handed me a cup of fragrant Indian tea and a plate with scrambled eggs, crisply fried bacon, along with a piece of toast.

                “Did you prepare this, Becky? It looks delicious and so perfect!” The girl beamed and curtsied. Another thing she seemed to have mastered, I mused.

                “How come you are here, Becky? Did my mother send you?”

“Oh no, miss! His Lordship pays my wages from now on. He asked Mrs Dashwood to let me go and stay with you as your chaperone until the wedding.” She pointed to a small cot behind a screen in one of the room’s corners. “His Lordship asked me last night if I would be so good as to sleep there and I did.”

                So Douglas had not stayed with me through the night. I could not decide if I wanted to be angry or relieved about that. While I was savouring my excellent breakfast, I worried over Douglas’ continuing efforts to keep up appearances. Surely by now, my reputation must be completely lost, with Bernard’s abduction becoming known to all and sunder. In an impulse, I decided to hurry on with my breakfast and ablutions and afterwards I would go look for my betrothed forthwith.

 

                The library was deserted when I burst into it, barely half an hour later. The footman, startled by my rush past him, which prevented him from opening the door for me, made hasty excuses but I cut through them.

“Where is His Lordship?”

“He has been called away, Miss. He told me to inform you he would be back by eleven.”

“Thank you – erm, Broderick, is it not?”

“Yes, Miss.” the footman bowed. I was glad I had remembered his name. It is what servants find important - to be remembered and known by name.

“Tell Mr Burroughs I will await His Lordship here and be so good as to bring me some tea, please?”

Burroughs was our newly acquired butler and he was a very punctual man. He wanted to know the whereabouts of every person under his roof, be it upper or down stairs.

“Yes, Miss.” Broderick left and closed the door behind him.

                I took my time taking in the vast room where Douglas was about to spend all his free hours in the years to come. A typical masculine room it was, with bookcases filled with thousands of leather-bound volumes, deep, battered, leather chairs, a huge mahogany desk littered with ledgers and documents, and behind it a big, straight-backed chair. I came closer to the desk and picked up a piece of paper. It was a lease contract, issued to a tenant called Jonas Pickery and a cottage with the name of Blackberry Cottage. The land to go with it was about 25 acres, which seemed large for one man to work. At the same time, I realised I had not much knowledge of agricultural matters and still had a lot to learn before I would be of use to Douglas.

                It was when I replaced the document that I saw a small booklet with a burgundy-coloured cover. The year 1818 printed in gold peeped from under the pile. A diary! Without thinking I picked it up, sat down in the chair and leafed through it.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

                Even when a stab of remorse pierced my heart, I could not, for the world, have stopped myself from reading Douglas’ diary. The thoroughly feminine urge of a woman, to delve deep into the secrets of the man she loved, washed over me. I wanted to know my Douglas and everything that was in his life.

                This year’s diary’s first entries in January were about his stay with his cousin on the isle of Jamaica and reports about the tobacco plantation. I rapidly browsed through them, but the entries made little sense to me. Every now and then an entry appeared in black ink while the reports were in blue. Those entries were in some kind of code; there was always a sum of money, usually about two pounds, and initials, some of them recurring and others new. I could not figure out what they meant.

                The pattern stayed the same until February when Douglas made a note of a letter from his solicitors, announcing Sir Matthew’s death. From then on, he began preparing for his journey home:

 

                Made an agreement with Captain Whitaker of “The Valiant Maiden”. She sails for Bristol in a fortnight and I plan to be on board. Cousin John and I are settling our business as I will not be back soon. He gave me the handsome sum of 1250 pounds, which I will need, once I am back in England. God only knows in what state I will find Watcombe Manor.

                Had a row with Regalia. She wants me to take her to England but John refuses to make her a free woman. Shall miss her. She was a good girl and gave me much pleasure. Could not take her with me since she is as black as ebony. I tried to explain it to her. Said I had barely enough money to keep me alive, let alone the two of us. Poor girl, she wept her heart out.

 

                Regalia, I thought. That was something I had to ask Douglas about. Had she been his mistress or was she just a prostitute he visited? I was a bit taken aback. This was certainly one side of my future husband I did not know. Was this what men did when they had no wife of their own? Or when they needed to lie with a woman and they did not have enough love from their wives? Would Douglas do this after we married? The thought was appalling! Again I realised I did not know much of life or men - a sudden sorrow pierced my heart.

               

The next entrance that drew my attention was made on April 25th:

               

Father’s lawyers again told me what I already knew - I must marry before August 22th or I will not inherit. What I did not know was that Phineas Wilkinson now lives at Watcombe Manor. Apparently, he has taken residence there when I left for Jamaica. Father never wrote me about that. I wonder why.

Yet, I can understand his need to have his heir under his roof and become acquainted with him.

Blast! If only Christina were still alive! I would have married her in an instant, provided of course, she was still free.

Oh, Christina ... I never encountered anyone like her after I left for the Caribbean, though I tried hard enough! How well I recall my deep distress when I realised I could not give my heart again to anyone. Christina imprisoned it for the rest of my miserable life.

There have been a few affairs which gave me pleasure but nothing more. No attachment, only relief. That is why I was drawn to Regalia. She accepted me as her lover without asking for anything. I  paid her handsomely for her services and pretended not to see the hurt in her eyes. I liked Regalia but I did not love her. Love, for me, is forever forbidden.

 

Dear God! How lonesome Douglas must have been all these years! And how much he must have loved Christina ! That thought burned my heart like a brand.

No, Margaret, stop it! What nonsense! Douglas loves me now. He proved that on numerous occasions during the few weeks I was with him. With determination, I continued my reading:

 

                Moving to Devonshire today. Will take Jack with me, for he has nowhere else to go and I have grown fond of the boy. He is smart, witty and loyal. Could be the best friend I ever had. Oh, the irony!

 

April 30th, I saw. The next entrances were scarce. Mostly, they reported on how he had fitted the house and how he had to juggle his finances in order to pay his bills. May was uneventful. He visited Wilkinson and was received very coolly. He attended some parties in Torquay but found himself thoroughly rebuffed. Now, we knew that had been the Bernards’ work. I flipped the pages to the beginning of  June until I found what I was looking for.

 

                June 4th. Had a most interesting experience today. Someone shot me and an angel came to my rescue. Her name is Margaret Dashwood, my dainty damsel. Margaret, Meg ... Meggie. So beautiful and lively! She actually bullied me into letting her care for me and she did not listen to anything I said about her reputation. With the patience of an angel, she took care of my wound and brought me home. She stayed with me until the healing woman came. I had to banish her with my most stern attitude. Even then, she was very reluctant to go. But she had to. I am poison for dainty damsels.

 

An angel! He called me a bloody angel! Drat!

In my recollection, I had not behaved in a very angelic way, at least I had not wished to do so. How is it that no matter how much we try to present ourselves, people always seem to see the opposite side of us? I continued to read:

 

                June 8th. Feeling like bloody hell! My shoulder aches like the blazes and my spirits are as low as they come! The gypsy woman has come to look at the wound and she said all was fine and healing splendidly. Would that she could also make my spirits heal!

Oddly enough, I find myself being besieged by some strange mood changes - feeling black as the devil at one time and exhilarated with joy the next. The exhilaration usually comes when I think of Miss Margaret Dashwood, my dainty damsel, which is stupid, of course. She is barely out of the schoolroom and still very pure.

I do not understand myself in this. Except, of course, if this strange attraction is caused by the fact that I have never bedded a virgin and am now relishing the thought of it. Blast!

 

Oh, my sweet Douglas ... so he was attracted to me from the start, at least physically. I would say it was a good start then. Physical attraction, and the actions that come with it, are a good start for any marriage.

 

June 29th. I am doomed. I have fallen for Meg and it took me nearly a month before it finally dawned on me. She came here tonight, half naked and confused and upset and ... I did not know what to do; I just wanted to pick her up and take her to bed. I could not, though. My heart turned to water when I saw her distress. I did not trust myself to even touch her or take her in my arms, so I tried being cool and distant. I sent her home though my heart broke when I saw her leave in the curricle with Jack Twinkler. I think I love her.

 

Reading Douglas’ confession of love started a glow deep down inside me, and I swallowed. So he had loved me since that night, or perhaps even earlier? It seemed that both our feelings had risen and grown from the first day we met. And I, in my foolish inexperienced way, had had no inkling of that ...

The study door opened to let Raleigh in. He bowed and solemnly announced a visitor.

“Mrs Dashwood of Barton Cottage, Miss!”

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty

 

Drat! What now, I thought, instantly feeling irritated and nervous. I hastily stood, tucked Douglas’ diary under some documents and retreated to the window to wait for Mother to enter. She did so but I instantly saw that she was not in her usual sour mood. She took a few faltering steps toward me, then stopped in the middle of the room; there was a deep concerned look on her face.

“Good morning, Mother,” I said, my voice level and face remote, determined to weather whatever reproach she undoubtedly would throw at me for living in Douglas’ house without being married to him yet.

“Oh, my sweet Meggie!” Her face was wet with tears, her voice quivering. Mother looked so very upset that I did not know what to think and I was about to say something comforting when she suddenly rushed forward and threw her arms around me and hugged me.

“Oh, my darling baby girl, I am so immensely grateful that you are unharmed! Oh, to think that you might have perished in that fire! Those awful, wretched people! And me playing their game with my stupid habit of trying to keep up appearances! Please, Meggie, forgive me? I have done you very wrong, my darling, but I will never do so again, I swear!” Looking at Mother’s face, I realised there was no doubt she meant what she said.

I was so utterly bewildered and surprised that I could not do anything but embrace her and hold her tight, when the door suddenly burst open and Douglas rushed in, a piece of paper in his hand.

“Meg, Meg, I have it! Here is our marriage license!” He took no notice of Mama, who hastily jumped aside, but instead swept me into his arms and whirled me around. “Oh, my darling, we can marry tomorrow! Edward Ferrars has agreed to perform the service and my cook tells me she can whip up a meal for a hundred people, if necessary! Meggie, please, let us get married! I cannot wait a day longer!” His mouth came down on mine and we kissed, oblivious to everything else but to savour each other. Douglas, my love! There was only him! I craved his hard, loving embrace, his firm, warm mouth, his body and most of all, the overwhelming love he gave me and the feeling I was his as he was mine.

A discrete cough abruptly tore us out of our bliss. Mother! Oh, my goodness, I feared  she would be absolutely shocked by our behaviour! Yet I was wrong! She surprised me yet again, by smiling so sweetly at us and my heart melted. I had not seen her smile like that since Father was still with us.

Douglas was the first to regain control.

“Oh, Mrs Dashwood, please forgive me for not acknowledging you were with us. I ... I somewhat lacked propriety but ... please, forgive me. It will not happen again.” Douglas was obviously embarrassed but Mother put him at ease.

“No, my lord, do not apologize for your display of love for Meg. I hope the two of you will always feel the necessity to show your mutual love for each other. It is only natural.”

Mother gave a small sigh that sounded so sad that, for the first time since Father died, I realised how lonely she must have been and how she must have missed him. I knew they had loved each other very much.

“Mama,” I said, stepping toward her and taking her hands in mine. “Is there something that concerns you? Is it my living here under Douglas’ roof without us being joined in matrimony?” Mother smiled and replied. “Yes, I am concerned about your reputation, as I always am, dearest. But I also understand My Lord Watcombe’s deep concern for you, after the abduction. So, I will allow you to stay here with him.”

“My dear Mrs Dashwood,” Douglas cut in. “May I offer you a room in this house, next to Margaret’s? No one will have to gossip about us when you are also in residence here. I also want to offer you a permanent home at Watcombe Manor. You cannot stay at Barton Cottage on your own with just two servants for company. They can have a position here if they desire. No need to turn them onto the streets.”

I was as surprised as Mama, to say the least! Douglas would take in my meddlesome mother in order to preserve my reputation and even have her after we married? Mama looked up at my handsome rake with stunned speechlessness and, after a moment, managed to stammer.

“My Lord, I ... I am thankful beyond words! I shall gladly accept your gracious offer and ask my servants to move my belongings from Barton Cottage, this instant.” She turned on her heels and disappeared from the room.

“Douglas,” I asked, “why have you done that? You do not - in the least - have an inkling to what you have done!  Mama – even though I would love to have her save and well-provided for – is a fearsome busy-body and she will try and take our lives into her hands whenever she has the chance! We will not be safe in our own house, Douglas!”

My rake just chuckled, took me in his arms and spun me around yet again.

“Dearest loveliest Meg, no one but me rules Watcombe Manor, so keep that in mind. I might – on occasion – ask for your opinion on some matters – when the whim takes me, but I am the one and only one setting the rules. Your mama will have a suite of her own and a staff of servants to do her bidding but she will never tell me what to do. You, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish! I am sure you will – in a short time – become the only ruler in this house.”

He tilted my head back and kissed me sweetly and passionately alike, setting all my senses ablaze in the space of seconds. His mouth released mine abruptly. Blue eyes burning with fire, his breath against my lips, he teased. “I will gladly transfer my ruling powers to you, my Meggie, as long as you keep me satisfied - between the sheets of our marriage bed, that is.”

Every part of my body tingling with need, I had to gasp for breath before I was able to answer yet I managed.

“Then I will make it my solemn task to lift those powers from your shoulders, my dearest rake, and as soon as possible.”

 

Of course, we could not settle the ceremony for the next day for there were too many arrangements that had to be made. Mother, who absolutely loved a nicely organized marriage, volunteered to make them. We agreed upon a near future date, August 20th, which was a Thursday and only two days away from Douglas’ thirtieth birthday. Mama stated that she would need those two days, as it was already the 17th. That left Douglas and me virtually alone during the days that proceeded our marriage. I was determined to spend them in a useful way by accompanying him on his daily trips to the estate.

On one of these days we had just visited several tenants, who were engaged in some new agriculture methods Douglas wanted to try. The morning and afternoon was satisfying and we returned home through the woods. The August weather was characteristically hot and I reckoned the temperature must have neared the 30 C. However, the vast height of the old forest trees effectively blocked the sun’s blazing rays. When we stopped at a large pool to water the horses, I could not help myself and dismounted. The water looked so enticingly cool and the pool’s bank so grassy and soft under the canopy of trees that I let myself down, pulled off my dusty boots and dipped my bare feet into the cool, green water.

“Oh, this is Heaven!” I exclaimed. “Come and try it, my love!”

Douglas quickly complied and gave a big sigh of sheer bliss when his long, strong-boned feet touched the water. We relished the first moments of blessed solitude we had not for days – what with the shocking events that had come to pass, before I decided this was the perfect moment to breech a subject that had been nagging me for some time.

“Douglas, tell me about your time on Jamaica please? You have spent ten long years there and I reckon they were not easy after what happened here.”

“No,” Douglas sighed. “No, sweetheart, they were downright awful, at least the first year was. I do not have a clear recollection of the journey on the “Bristol Maiden” because I was sick as a dog the whole six weeks of the voyage. I was too ill to even wallow in my misfortune and I lost two stone during the trip, dragging myself ashore like a man twice my age when I arrived in Kingston. My cousin John received me rather cordially, to my surprise. He did not seem to think I had crossed that big a line in England, just by lifting ‘some chit’s skirts’, as he called it. With Father’s bitter reproaches still ringing in my ears, I could not help feeling offended and crossed. During my first weeks on the island, I roamed the plantation in silence. I grimly sulked, ruminating the events which drove me out of my home and country. Eventually, I grew less bitter and took an interest in John’s business. He had been wise not to badger me into confiding to him my misfortunes. When I did tell him, his main comment was that Father was a fool, to let me go for such a minor misstep. I scolded him about that attitude but he persisted and has always done so. Now, after what we discovered at the Bernards’ house, I am forced to admit John was right about Father. Not only was he a fool but also a hypocrite. He must have been a womanizer in his youth, even more than I have ever been.”

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

                My poor Douglas sounded so bitter that my heart ached in sympathy. He was right. Sir Matthew, who begot at least one illegitimate child, surely had no right to cast off his only son over one misstep. While being held prisoner at the Bernards’ house, I discovered the result of Sir Matthew’s own misstep, Amata, the daughter he had with Mrs Bernard before her marriage. We had taken in Douglas’ half-sister at Watcombe Manor after the fire destroyed Nicholas Bernard’s house. The poor creature was in no state to be left on her own after thirty-six years of imprisonment. Indeed, for that was the length of time in which Amata Bernard had been locked up in a dismal, almost cell-like room, she with no education at all with only in the company of a nurse, who was more of a jailer to her than a companion.

                “What are you going to do about Amata?” was my next and obvious question.

                Douglas turned to me with sad eyes. “What is there to do for me but to care for her as best as I can, Meg? She is – to say the least – emotionally disabled and with little wonder, after the way she has been treated, locked up like an animal. I must confess I have no idea as to how we are to deal with her. She refused the help of the nurse she had for all those years. As you well know, she threw a chair at her when the woman tried to come into her room. And she definitively abhors me, does she not? She cannot abide looking at me or being in the same room with me, even though she never set eyes on me before the day of the fire.” Douglas, I knew, hoped for an answer to the problem Amata caused. His compassionate nature could not bear the distress she was in.

                “Yes, I do know. I reckon it has something to do with the Spencer name. Amata has been persuaded of thinking that name to be the personification of evil. It is a good thing, though, that Elinor took matters in hand and managed to sit with her for a few hours, yesterday.”

                “Oh, if anyone can help poor Amata, it is your sensible eldest sister. Of that, I have no doubts at all.” He paused and gave me an odd little look before he shrugged his shoulders.“Meg, I have been such a fool. I thought my father was an honest and righteous man with firm principles. I have been cursing myself for hurting him so badly by what transpired with Christina and I considered myself no less than his murderer when he died before I could beg for his forgiveness. Now it seems that he was just a fake and a liar and no better than me.”

                I had no comment to that, knowing full well that Douglas was still in shock over what he learned these past few days. Not for the first time did I become aware of the awe in which he had held Sir Matthew until recently. I recognized the feeling for it was one I myself had experienced at my own father’s demise. How I had loved and respected Father, only to learn that he had left us to my half-brother’s mercy for our survival!

                “Douglas, what about Bernard and his mother? Does anyone know about their whereabouts?” My betrothed shook his head. “No, they seem to have fled after the fire. I do not care where they are, Meggie. People like that should be severely punished but I am afraid the authorities would have no charge to lay upon them, should they be found.” I could see anger in my love’s eyes.

                “What do you mean, they cannot be charged?” I enquired.  “They abducted me and they held poor Amata a prisoner for years!”

                “Meg, use your head!” he said, looking quickly at me. “You are very well aware that a female relative, living in the house of her half-brother, has no rights to speak of. Amata cannot sue Bernard and his mother for treating her like a recluse and you cannot prove that you were taken by force. It is Bernard’s word against yours, my love, and he was, up until now, a respected member of Torquay society for generations past.”

                “Bah!” I exclaimed. “How unfair!”

                Douglas laughed and lay his arm around my shoulder. “Rest assured, my darling, when I get my hands on that rascal, I will give him a good piece of my mind! I ache to give him a good, old-fashioned thrashing, to say the least!”

                Then, all of a sudden, he pushed me down onto the soft, mossy bank. In the blink of an eye, his long, lean body covered mine completely and the blue fire of his gorgeous eyes burned into mine.

                “My dearest, loveliest Meg ... have you not noticed that we are completely alone in this quiet and remote spot of the woods? I have a mind to do some wicked things to you, my love.” His mouth captured mine in a kiss that spoke of his ardent love for me and I answered him, fire being kindled in my belly, when I felt the proof of his arousal pressing against my most womanly place.

                I tugged at his cravat and shirt, aching to touch his naked skin, the warmth of him already burning through both our clothes. My hands revelled and quivered when they found the heat of his torso beneath his clothes and I let them roam all over the smooth, satin muscles of his back. Douglas groaned when I unfastened his breeches, never releasing my mouth and inserting his hand into my bodice to cup one of my breasts. Oh, God! Pleasure began curling upwards from low in my stomach upward in a slow, hot spiral of desire. My fingers found his sleek, silken hardness and caressed it in rapt exuberance until Douglas moaned in pleasure!

                “Meggie, please, stop! If you continue in that way, I swear I will not be able to hold back!” Douglas growled through clenched teeth. Clasping me to his chest with one arm, he fumbled with the front of his breeches. “Douglas, no! I want you, Douglas, I want you so much!” I was weeping with frustration and need but Douglas sat up and restored my clothing with trembling fingers.

                “Meggie, I want you too but not like this, my sweetling. I want our first lovemaking to be sheltered in the closeness of our room, our bed, but not here, where anyone could happen upon us.”

With gentle gestures, he put back my stockings and boots before donning his own. “Tell me you understand, my love? Tell me you know I do this out of love?” His pleading was clear in his eyes.

                I lay my hand against his cheek. “I do know, my darling, and you are right, of course. This would not do at all.” But it was the hardest thing I had ever done in my whole life. I vowed myself I would put an end to this nonsense, once and for all!

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

At Watcombe Manor we were immediately greeted by Mother, who came out of the drawing room with her arms full of cloth samples.

                “Margaret, for Heaven’s sake, where have you been? Marianne’s seamstress is here to see to your wedding gown! God knows we have only so scarce a time to have it finished for the day after tomorrow!”

                “But Mama, that is impossible! How can poor Madame Grenier finish it so quickly? No, come with me. I will show you what I had in mind for my gown.”

I took the two of them up to the bedchamber which would be mine and Douglas’ after our wedding. The previous night, I had not been able to find sleep and decided to investigate the contents of the large dressing room cupboards. To my great surprise, I found them filled with gowns and accessories. A closer examination revealed an old- fashioned cut and fabric. The richness of the cloth, and the excessive fine taste of the finishing touches of the dresses, told me they must have belonged to Phoebe, Douglas’ mother. Appalled as I was, realizing that Sir Matthew must have kept his wife’s personal wardrobe for all these long years, I nevertheless could not help myself from extracting a few of them out of the closet for closer inspection. Stunned with unmitigated appreciation, I eventually chose one of them for my wedding gown.

The gown that I now tried on brought forth gasps of beatific surprise from Mama and Madame Grenier told me I had chosen well. The fabric was rough silk, shimmering with every step I made, and its pale blue colour reminding me of forget-me-nots, enhanced the blue of my eyes to perfection.

“Hm ...,” the seamstress remarked. “We will have to remove the crinoline, I suppose. The gown will still be too full, so I guess I will have to close the skirt front. We do not want to see the underskirt. It is no longer in fashion. The neckline is very fetching though, and if I remove the lace rushes of the sleeves, which will allow the fabric to reach beyond your elbows, I believe I can make puffed sleeves out of them. Oh, Mon Dieu, just touch that silk! It is exquisite!” The seamstress could not hide her enthusiasm.

So it was. Measurements were taken and Madame and her girls went to work. I escaped and decided to check on our unfortunate guest, Douglas’ half-sister Amata. I had lodged her in a set of rooms on the third floor where the guest rooms were located. That way the maid she would eventually come to employ, would be sleeping in the dressing room. For the moment, Amata could not bear human company. She howled at every person WHO entered her room and hurled objects at them, especially my Douglas, which gave me great sorrow. At first, I was the only one who was allowed to approach her but my impending wedding took too much of my time and I felt chagrined by it. I liked Amata and wanted her to become a full member of society again.

Upon entering her room, I found Amata sound asleep in her bed. Elinor sat beside her in a chair, doing her mending. My sister motioned me outside. We withdrew to the downstairs drawing room.

“How is she, Elinor? She has not been given any laudanum, I hope. The poor creature has been drugged long enough, at least in my opinion.”

“No, Margaret,” my sister emphasized, “ she is sleeping in a normal way. Amata passed a quiet night and ate a good breakfast. She still needs a great deal of rest so I read to her from one of Mrs Radcliffe’s novels, which she seems to like. It kept her peaceful and she went back to sleep.”

“Oh, Elinor, what am I going to do with her? She seems to resent Douglas extensively. It hurts him because he wants to do her right. It is all such a befuddled, confounded mess!”

Elinor put her arms around me and hugged me for a while, which made me feel better just a little. Then she spoke softly. “Meggie, just give me a chance to talk with Edward. He is a very good listener and he will know what to do.” “Yes,” I replied. “Yes, that is just the thing, Elinor. Talk to Edward.”

 

The day seemed to wear on interminably and I busied myself with wedding preparations, all the time longing to see Douglas at dinner. He was away from the manor all afternoon on estate business but sent for me around five. I hastened to the library where I found him in the presence of his business man and of Mama.

“Ah, Margaret, your betrothed and I have been discussing the wedding arrangements. You will be pleased to know that His Lordship has settled a yearly allowance for you of 7500 pounds. You will now be able to keep up a proper standard of living.”

I turned to Douglas in astonishment, my eyes widened.

“Money, Douglas? There is money to settle on me? How is that possible? I thought your cousin had squandered it all away!”

“Meg, with all that has been happening during the last days, I have not had the chance to tell you about the cache of stocks my father had kept. Jack and I have been searching for them after I found his diary. That is also how I knew where to go look for you. He wrote down the story of his relationship with Mrs Bernard but kept hidden Amata’s existence. He settled a small allowance for her in a will that postdates the one that favoured Wilkinson. So I would have inherited the title and estate after all. He just omitted to inform his lawyers of this later will. Meggie, we are not rich but we have a little nest egg to get us started re-establishing Watcombe Manor.”

I just could not fathom what I just learned. All this dreadful business had just been for nought? Douglas had had no need to be married before he turned thirty after all? I must have looked confused for Douglas came to me with concern.

“Meggie, my heart, what is it? Are you unwell?”

“No, no, it is only that I am stunned, baffled, and in need of air! What a development of affairs this is! Mother, we will now be able to surround you with all possible comfort and ...”

But Mama interrupted me and what she said baffled me even more.

“No, my darling, I am not planning on living at Watcombe Manor. Marianne needs me more, especially when the baby arrives so I am taking up quarters at Delaford, Meg. A newlywed couple has no need for a mother-in-law to living with them.”

 

Sleep eluded me, yet I again lay tossing and turning in my bed that night. On the other hand, Becky was sleeping like a baby on a nearby cot. Her snoring made it hard for me to find my own sleep. I rose and donned my nightgown. Maybe a glass of milk would restore me. The house was deathly quiet when I stepped into the corridor and directed my footsteps toward the stairs. A thin, faint line of light glowed from under Douglas’ bedroom door. He must be wide awake too, I mused. In an impulse I laid my hand on the door handle and pushed it down. The door opened soundlessly and I sneaked through it. In a chair by a fireless hearth sat my rake, clad only in a pair of loose cotton drawers. The sight of his bare chest – with the candlelight dancing over the smooth expanse of muscle – wreaked havoc with my already precarious self-control.

“Margaret!” His soft outcry was followed by a gasp as he swiftly rose from his chair. Two long strides brought him to me and I threw myself into his arms, aching with a sudden and overwhelming need to touch him, feel him and lose myself in him!

“Meggie, oh, my sweetest girl! What are you doing here? Darling Meggie, you have to go! Seeing you in your adorable nightgown is too much for me, my sweetling. Oh, the feel of you ...” He gasped his words, his hands were roaming over my body, starting flames wherever they went. I made my decision then and there – tonight, I would become his!

                I pushed my trembling body against his hard and demanding physique. Douglas groaned and buried his face in the soft mass of my long, curling hair. I let my hands wander downwards to touch the rim of his trousers, only to revel even more in the silken smoothness of the skin beneath it, as my trembling fingers pushed down the fabric. Douglas gasped when I bared him, my own breath catching at the feel of his hard length - steel and silk in one. Irresistibly, my eyes were drawn from his narrow hips and flat stomach to the ebony nest of curls beneath from where his proud manhood lifted proudly. The swift pulse of his life’s blood raced against the palm of my hands when I cupped him. I looked up to meet the darkened blue of his eyes. They glistened with unmitigated desire. 

                “Prove to me that you love me, Douglas. Take me to bed, here and now, and make me your own.”

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Three        

 

Before I could even draw another breath, Douglas enfolded me into his arms. I settled comfortably against him and, while I began tugging at the bows of my dressing gown, Douglas hissed in sudden disagreement.

“Oh no, my little vixen! Uncovering your exquisite body will be my privilege!” His voice was shaking with suppressed need. An answering tug of desire sprang to life low in the area between my thighs and heat suffused me as Douglas carried me to his bed. He placed me on my feet then shook off his trousers. My eyes roamed over his bare form; what they saw pulled at every nerve in my body! Oh, sweet Heaven, he was magnificent!

With few manipulations, Douglas undid the fastenings of my dressing gown and pulled it from my frame. As his fingers loosened the bows of my nightgown, he held my gaze with his own – a very earnest one.

“My love, are you certain of this? You can only pull away up until a certain point, Margaret. Beyond that point, I will no longer be able to draw back. Do you understand?”

“I do, Douglas. I do not want you to hold back any longer. I want you completely as my lover and beloved.” I almost lacked the breath to finish my sentence!

Soft flicks of his fingers removed my gown from my shoulders and it slid silently to the floor. Douglas’ gaze reflected my own as he let it roam over my naked body.

“Sweet Mother of God, Meggie ... you are exquisite! I have imagined you in my dreams but nothing could have prepared me for this lovely sight of you.”

Warmth and desire spiralled up from low in my belly and my toes curled with need. My stomach seemed to be sucked empty with ache as my eyes roved over Douglas, head to toe and back. I extended a trembling hand to him and he took my hand to lace his fingers through mine. Without words, he led me to his bed and invited me to lie down between the silk sheets and rest my head upon the silk-rimmed pillows. Easing down beside me, Douglas settled his long, lean body against mine - a complete unison of touch.

He leaned upon his elbow and slowly began roaming his free hand over my now very trembling flesh, from my cheek and neck, to the swell of my breast and the flatness of my stomach to the curls of my womanhood; his touch sparkled fire all the way down. I caressed his shoulder in needy return and revelled in the long, smooth muscles of his torso under my palm. A sudden urge to kiss him flushed over me and I succumbed, attacking his mouth with a fierceness I did not know I possessed. In the blink of an eye, his arms were around me with a grip as tight as I could stand! His tongue ravished mine in a dance of love as old as mankind and I pressed myself against him in a desperate need to get as close to him as was possible. Mounting need made me wriggle and writhe against the hardness of his manhood until I was almost driven over the edge with impossibly hot desire. Oh, this play of flesh was delicious! I never could have suspected this!

Suddenly, he was on top of me, and, for an instant, the weight of him pressed the breath out of me. Then I instinctively adjusted my position to accommodate my body under his pressure and it felt marvellously good! Under my own eager volition, I parted my legs and arched up to be even closer to him. Blood pounding in my ears and a sweet ache churning in my belly, I felt my heart stop when the tip of his length probed for the opening of my secret place. I moved slightly and, all of a sudden, felt it slide inside and fill me completely and somewhat overwhelmingly. I gasped when a sudden sharp pain made me clench my inner muscles in response.

“Shhh, shhh, my heart, lay still. It will only be a moment, the pain will pass,” he most lovingly whispered. His lips soothed mine in a deep, warm kiss and I relaxed again as I returned his kiss. The pain subsided as abruptly as it had come. It was replaced by a strong, throbbing sensation of sweet, churning desire. I moved my hips up and down, seeking a position that brought me closer to Douglas than I ever felt before. He gasped and uttered a low, long pleasurable groan.

“Meggie, I cannot keep back ... I must have you now, my sweetling.”

“Have me, then, Douglas, my love ... please ...”

Douglas’ hands slid around to cradle the back of my head and again he kissed me while his hips started to move gently against mine. Every move of his powerful body brought on a sensation of ever growing and well-being of excitement. The rubbing of his hard chest against my peaked, oversensitive nipples not only increased my desire but also, at the same time, pained and pleasured me to the extreme. I was driven higher and higher on the waves of seething pleasure and suddenly, was pushed over the edge into a sea of swirling, bright white lights. I was spun into the spiral, warm, exquisite ripples of delight drowning me! It was impossible bliss! How could I recover from this? Did I even want to?

Douglas’ hoarse cry reached the depths of my isolated bliss and I felt his body stiffen and harden as he ground his hips against mine under the strength of his long-lasting release. My inner muscles responded as they clenched around him and, once again, a fresh wave of pleasure rippled through me. It was even more exquisite than the first and I threw my arms around his lean waist to keep him close to me. My face resting against the hollow of his shoulder, I inhaled his unique, manly scent, saturated with the flavour of orgasm. I desperately longed to preserve the marvellous sensation! He collapsed on top of me with a gasp for breath, hurting me a little with his dead weight, yet I did not care. It felt so good, so right.

 

We stayed in that divine position for a while, revelling in each other’s warmth and closeness. Then Douglas’ mouth was upon mine and he whispered:

“Am I crushing you, my sweet? I will move away and ...”

“No!” The thought was simply unbearable! I did not ever want him to move away from me and abandon me to loss and cold!

Douglas chuckled and the low rumble sent a new stir of pleasure up my body.

“I will be of no use to you, darling, for quite a while. I need to recover a bit.” And, with a sigh of utter well-being, he rolled over onto his side and drew me to him, so that I covered him now. Our bodies had, however, disconnected which filled my eyes with sudden tears that spilled over and down my cheeks.

“Do not weep, my sweetling. I know you must be in a bit of pain but it will not stay that way. The sexual deed becomes easier in time until there is only pleasure.” His big hands gently caressed me as he said this.

How could I put this remark to rights and tell him that it was the unbearable loss of him that prompted my tears? He would think I had become a sorry wanton under his lovemaking and that would not do. Or would he?

“I should scold you, my rakish lord, for not giving me all this sooner! How could you keep this heavenly experience from me? Shame on you, my lord!”

Douglas quickly stole a kiss from me and then grinned wickedly.

“So you liked it, my vixen? Well, why am I not entirely surprised about that? I knew from the start what a shameless creature you were! You and those cornflower blue eyes of yours, fluttering those lashes at me and beguiling me unabashedly from the first moment we met! Maybe I should punish you for seducing me tonight and send you to your room, right now!” He could not hide his impish grin!

                “I am not moving from this bed, Douglas Spencer, and neither can you. Now, show me that I am about to shackle myself onto a real man and not a mere green boy!” I had to suppress my laughter.

                Before I could finish my sentence, I was again back on the mattress and immediately convinced of the strength of my beloved’s bedside skills.

 

 

Epilogue

 

                As I recall the events of those August days of the previous year, I now cannot fathom how I lived through the last two that preceded our wedding day. I still shiver under the onslaught of all the different feelings that besieged me then – anticipation, fear of discovery and bliss, being only a few of them.

                We were married August twentieth as planned. After an agonizing time of two long days in which we could not keep from finding ways to be alone and touch, kiss and arouse each other like young fowls in springtime, a mutual agreement was decided on which not to share a bed again before our wedding day. It was hard as hell and, yes, we barely manage to live through that time of exciting agony. 

                The day of our wedding was a glorious, warm, sunny one. It was fragrant with the scents of harvest and the joy of storing food away for the coming winter. Everybody was in high spirits, from stable hands, to our maids and footmen, to family and friends. Everyone wanted to share our joy and happiness.

                Edward Ferrars performed his clerical duties to perfection and pronounced us husband and wife in Watcombe Manor’s chapel after we spoke our wedding vows. Douglas, now Baron Watcombe, slid his mother’s wedding ring onto my finger. His eyes glistened with emotion and I wept uncontrollably while he kissed me before the assembled congregation of my family, friends and servants. After we exchanged our wedding vows, they all cheered us whole-heartedly .

                After our wedding breakfast, Douglas and I slipped away and sneaked to our bedchamber where we renewed our physical union for the rest of the day and night.

 

                I do not think – in fact, I am sure - I shall ever tire of my husband’s marital attentions. Douglas never ceases to amaze me with new ways of arousing and pleasing me and I dare say I am returning his caresses in just a most satisfactory fashion, since he does not complain from the lack of attention.

                My hand is resting on the slight swell of my stomach, where our child is just now beginning to stir into life. An ever so tiny ripple goes through me, like the caress of a breeze over a field of barley -very fluttering but oh, so real! If everything goes well, I will be a mother come Christmas.

The sound of booted feet on the hall way marble causes me to turn to the morning room’s door in eager anticipation! An instant later, it is thrown open under the forceful hand of my husband.

“Dearest, loveliest Meg ....” he breathes, just before he wraps me and our child into his loving embrace. Our life together is just beginning!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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18.10 | 04:41

HI, could you please send me a PDF of "Mr Thornton Takes A Wife." My email address is: sales@vintagebabyboomers.com Thanks very much.
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We are so proud: our teacher is also an autor.

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Very cool animation!

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I am happy to have a english teacher with such personality!!

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