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.”
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!”