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 nor did he touch 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 sank into 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 exactly what they were proposing. 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 woods 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.