In the end, Richard and Manon kept matters as uncomplicated as was possible since their wedding was only twelve days hence.
They purchased a special marriage licence at the Brighton Register Office and asked the Rev. Mr Hiram Merryweather, vicar at St Wulfram’s Church in Bearsham Village, to perform their wedding ceremony on August twenty-second. Mr Merryweather kindly consented to allow an Irish priest he was acquainted with to perform a Catholic ceremony afterwards. Father Damian O’ Rourke and Mr Merryweather had been at Oxford together and had stayed friends over the years. Manon was particularly touched by the vicar’s gesture, as it showed the kindness of his heart. After all, she had been brought up in France and had no wish to forestall the faith of her youth.
Richard informed Mr Brownslow and his son Daniel of his upcoming marriage, instructing the lawyers not to alter the stipulations of his father’s will regarding Manon’s and Jéhan’s inheritance. The elderly family solicitor was of course extremely surprised by the latest turn of events, but not even he could deny the contents of Sir Robert’s letter and his explicit wish to safeguard the Faviers’ fortune.
“I sincerely hope you do understand, Sir Richard, how the revelation of Lily Favier’s illegitimacy will be received in society. You might find yourselves ostracised from the ton, both in Brighton and in London. Have you fully considered the consequences of such a possibility?”
“My betrothed and I have thoroughly gone over the consequences of becoming excluded from the folds of society, Mr Brownslow, and we find that we do not overly care. We have no significant interest in what the ton thinks of us, so we have no particular need of their support. My investments, as you know full well, are primarily tied up in the American colonies and in the Manchester cotton mills. Since President Washington’s ascent to power, supply of cotton is fully guaranteed, which is vital to the spinning mills in England. Resources have been steady and abundant. Furthermore, there are Bearsham Manor’s excellent profits, which give me the opportunity to make it even more prosperous every year.”
“So, you and the future Lady de Briers will not overly venture into society after your marriage, I take it?”
“No, we will not, Mr Brownslow. We will live a quiet, domestic life at our estate, and raise a family without the interference of polite society.”
Mr Brownslow nodded, but inwardly he shook his head in doubt. Sir Richard de Briers and his lady would indeed lead an extremely quiet life if Mr Brownslow was to be the judge of it.
After Richard had seen Mr Brownslow out, he climbed the steps to the west wing of the manor where his mother’s suite was located. He needed to have a serious conversation with her , and there was no point delaying it. He could have entered without so much as a by-your-leave. He was, after all, lord of the house but Mildred was his mother. Despite her nasty character, Richard still felt an innate disposition to treat Mildred with a basic respect that, in contrast, she never showed her son. So he knocked and waited until Rawlings, her maid, opened the door.
Rawlings was a bit older that Mildred and had come with her from Manchester when her mistress married Richard’s father. She was a tall, bony woman with dark eyes and grey-streaked dark hair in a tight chignon at the back of her head. Her face was riddled with shallow little lines, giving it a stern look. Her thin mouth under the beacon of her long, narrow nose instantly pressed tighter when she saw Richard. However, Rawlings did not forget her manners and dipped a curtsy.
“Sir?” she asked, voice flat and weary. She did not move to let him in.
Richard stepped past the servant.
“Thank you, Rawlings. You may leave us now”
“But, sir, my mistress is indisposed. She always wants me to appraise her first when a visitor comes calling. I…”
“Thank you, Rawlings,” Richard cut her off and headed for the dowager’s boudoir door without so much as a glance at the faithful maid. Poor Rawlings, he inwardly commiserated. At times, it must be hard waiting on his irate, unbalanced mother.
Mildred de Briers was lounging on a long chair, a book in one hand and the other dipping into a box of sweetmeats. She started when Richard strode in, her beautiful face immediately crunching into a scowl.
“My lord! You are trespassing!” she shrieked, using her most formidable weapon – her shrill, loud voice.
Richard had known that voice all his life, even from before he had been old enough to realise he could be hurt by it. Yes, he knew of being humiliated, mortified, and deeply hurt by the mother he had tried so desperately to love. It had lasted until he went to Eton, where other challenges claimed him, challenges that were sometimes painful, when he was drawn into brawls and fisticuffs. Yet those physically painful skirmishes were never as hurtful as the emotional ones his mother inflicted upon him. Richard had learned to physically defend himself at Eton – and simultaneously to shield himself from his mother’s vicious emotional stabbings. It had, however, taken him longer to realise that his mother hated him so much because he was his father’s son. Mildred had a heart filled to the brim with black, seething hatred for her husband, and she needed a scapegoat, any scapegoat upon which to ventilate that emotion. Richard had been the most convenient scapegoat of all, so he had learned from a tender age not to be bothered by his mother’s shrieking, nor by the words she flung at him.
That was why he was able to stare her down without so much as a flicker of his eyelids.
“Madam, I came to make you a proposition, which you would be wise to consider. It will not be made twice, should you reject it. It will also not be altered to please you. You are my mother, so a part of me esteems it an obligation to my honour to treat you with deference.”
He paused deliberately to let his words sink in. Mildred was eying him with abject loathing but also with a shrewd interest.
“What torture have you in mind, my lord? Have I not suffered enough from the cruel treatment you have been giving me since your father died? Will you impose yet more misery?”
With an inward sigh, Richard forced himself to keep his temper under a tight rein. He had come with an offer he hoped his mother would not reject.
“As you are aware, madam, my nuptials will occur on the twenty-second of this month. My wife and I will live at Bearsham Manor, as is our due and our duty. You are granted permission to stay here for the rest of your days, because you are my mother, the Dowager Baronetess Bearsham.”
He fixed her with a stern look, feeling his mouth hardening. Then, accordingly, he tightened his voice to an icy coldness.
“You will not, however, be permitted to be a nuisance, madam. My wife and I will require peace and quiet if we are to have a family, which is our most fervent wish. You can be part of that family, if you behave appropriately. However, if you find you cannot attempt to behave like a true mother, I will be forced to take measures to ensure my family’s welfare. What is your answer to that, madam?”
“So you want me to condone your marriage to that…that…”
The fire in his eyes must have warned her, Richard thought, for she hastily swallowed whatever term of abuse she had been about to utter on Manon’s behalf. Instead, she continued, “That girl of common descent – a bastard, to boot! She will lower you and your house to her own level, my lord. She is nothing. She will destroy whatever respect you carry in society.”
“Madam, I will not permit you to abuse Manon. We love each other dearly, and that is enough to ensure our future happiness. Besides, Manon is not a bastard; I already told you that. Her parents were legally married before she was born. And if you are referring to Manon’s mother, Lily, her descent is at least half noble. Not that that little detail is of any concern to me. Manon has her own worth; that is sufficient for me.”
“Love? What is love but a meaningless word invented by poets to…”
Richard had had more than enough. He strode from the room with a vile taste lingering in his mouth, a feeling he often had after speaking with his mother.
The three days that separated Manon from her wedding day stretched like eons in her eager heart. She suffered through them with spells of delirious joy, during which she fantasised about how she and Richard would spend their wedding night. Those thrilling moments were alternated with bouts of dark misgivings about how their union would be looked upon by society. Manon knew that she and Richard faced a rough time ahead.
Time passed slowly, even though Manon was extremely busy. She had the seamstresses working around the clock to finish her wedding dress in time. With the help of her trusted Pru, who had come up from Brighton, Manon helped Mrs Briskley, the housekeeper, and Thornton with the organization of the wedding breakfast. Footmen adorned Bearsham Manor’s grand hall with flowers and ribbons. Maids were polishing and cleaning all the rooms and corridors – a titan’s task. Invitations had been delivered to a plethora of Richard’s acquaintances and neighbours. Oh, Manon thought, would that they would grant them their esteem!
On one of these hectic days, Richard welcomed Viscount Lucian Blackthorne, who was to be his best man. The two friends joined in the library at Bearsham Manor for a drink of whisky.
“I still cannot fathom the amazing events that have transpired during these past weeks, Rich,” Lucian said, bewilderment in his voice. “You and Manon, a betrothed pair. So you harboured a love for her that was not quite…” Lucian stopped, realisation keenly upon him that he was overstepping the mark. “Forgive me, my friend, I was about to judge you, and I have no business doing that.”
“You are merely expressing the general opinion that people will have and show, I fear. How am I to explain to society that I thought Manon to be my niece, but oh, now I have discovered that my sister Lily is, in fact, not my father’s daughter? People will look suspiciously upon our union, Luke.”
“Well,” Lucian said matter-of-factly, “perhaps you should let society go hang itself. You do not need to explain anything, Rich. You can prove beyond all doubts that Manon is not of your blood. You love her, and she loves you. As a consequence, you two will marry and be happy. However, it must have been awkward for you, Rich, all these past months.”
“Luke, it was sheer agony, believe me. I was attracted to Manon from the moment I set eyes on her, yet I knew all too well that she was not for me. The worst of it was that she felt the same attraction towards me.”
Lucian stared into his whisky before continuing, and Richard suddenly saw the banked sorrow that was burning in his eyes. Had his friend harboured feelings for Manon, after all? Richard was astonished, for he had not thought Lucian interested in Manon. Lucian had never offered for her.
“Luke, what is troubling you? You have never proposed to Manon, so I figured you did not care for her. Yet your attitude shows that you are disturbed.”
“I was confused, Richard. I could not win Manon for myself, no matter how fervently I devoted myself to her. I have always adored Manon. But at the same moment, I felt that a wall stood between us that could not be breached.”
A joy warmed Richard’s heart at the thought that his Manon had never given in to any other man but him. Yet he keenly felt Lucian’s distress, too.
“I am sorry, Luke,” he tried, but his words rang falsely in his own ears.
“I will survive,” Lucian said in an airy voice, which was belied by his weary eyes. “Think nothing of it, Rich and enjoy your good fortune.”
With a flourish, he toasted his glass to Richard’s, and the two lifetime friends drank to each other’s health. Then, the two friends almost simultaneously turned their gaze toward the windows overlooking the terrace where Manon was walking arm-in-arm with Pru. Richard’s heart lifted when he saw her. He smiled happily and said, “Miss Butterworth is the best of companions to my dear Manon. I am so fortunate that she consented to stay after our wedding. Manon will still have need of her many skills when there is a ball or dinner to be hosted at Bearsham Manor.”
Lucian let his gaze roam over the tall figure that was chatting with Manon while graciously striding the length of the sun-bathed terrace. Miss Butterworth…so that was her name, he mused. He found himself taking in the slender waist, the long, straight back, the non-existent bosom Miss Butterworth displayed in that grey and very drab morning gown. Earlier on, he had glimpsed her thin, elongated face and her lustreless straw-blond hair, which she wore in a severely tight bun at the nape of her neck. Poor woman, Lucian silently commiserated. She truly had no qualities at all that could entice men to seek her attention. Apart from her eyes, Lucian conceded. They were a deep-ocean blue and they changed colour from lilac to deep violet when she laughed.
“Oh, Pru,” Manon sighed, “you have no idea how confused I am. Here, I am to be united with the love of my life. I should be overflowing with joy, yet I am also frightened.”
“Frightened?” Pru asked. “How can that be? Your un…erm…Sir Richard is the kindest of men. He worships the ground that you walk on.”
“Yes, I know that, Pru, and I will never be afraid of anything as long as we are together, Richard and I. But you almost called him my uncle. That is a telltale reaction, Pru. People will never believe that we are not uncle and niece. They will regard our marriage as incestuous. They will ostracise us, Pru. And that, I am very much afraid, will affect Richard in the end.”
Prudence Butterworth was a vicar’s daughter and she understood all too well how people behaved when inexplicable events came their way. Heavens, it seemed unfathomable even to her that Manon was now going to be the wife of the man, who had been considered her uncle before now. And yet there before her lay the truth. Sir Robert’s letter was crystal-clear. The former baronet had married a woman already pregnant by another man, and he had adopted her child as his own. That was what a true gentleman would do, and it was to Sir Robert’s credit that he had done so. His noble gesture could not be allowed to go to waste.
“Listen, Manon,” Pru said, taking Manon’s hands. “You will need all your strength in the days and months to come. You will surmount this, I know it. Concentrate upon your marriage to Sir Richard and devote yourself to making him happy. Do not overly heed people’s reactions. Be friendly, smile, and stay composed, whatever they say to you. Show them that you love Sir Richard, no matter what happens. People will change their attitude over time. I know that they will. I have seen it happen on numerous occasions in my father’s parishes. Life provides people with many distractions, and your story will only last until something else occurs that draws people’s attention from you. And believe me, dearest, something will.”
“Thank you, Pru,” Manon whispered, tears of relief staining her cheeks. “You always say what I need to hear when melancholy overcomes me. You are a dear friend, Pru.”
The evening before his wedding, Richard stood on the terrace and gazed at his moonlit gardens. The nightly orb stood above the manor’s roofs, painting the manicured lawn in a silvery light. The night was balmy and perfectly still, the sky an indigo blue sprinkled with a myriad of stars. Richard needed the stillness to calm his nerves and gather strength for the day to come. He knew his own worth well enough and he would hold his head high, no matter what might come. He was also certain that his beloved Manon would stand her ground in any circumstance, and in answer to any insult society might throw in her face. She was brave, his Manon. She may not have de Briers blood in her veins, but she certainly had the fierce family courage.
No, it was not for the way she would stand her ground that Richard feared but for her noble, brave heart. She would be hurt by people’s reactions – not at first, but slowly, through the years of ostracism, bitterness would grow and destroy her. He could but try and protect her from being hurt.
“A penny for your thoughts…”
Manon’s sensual voice broke through his abject reasoning, like a ray of sunshine through a blanket of heavy storm clouds. He turned, and his breath caught at the sight of her.
She was wearing her nightgown, a shawl thrown over her slim shoulders. The gown was a sheer linen thing, made translucent by the silvery light of the moon behind her. All her lush curves were perfectly outlined, and they were beckoning to be caressed. Richard’s mouth watered, and he swallowed hard.
“What are you doing here, my love? I thought you would like to have a decent night’s rest.”
His own voice sounded hoarse – and also harsh- to him. Manon stood there, smiling at him. She stretched out a hand.
“You owe me, my darling,” she said, “and I have come to claim that debt.”
His expression must have been one of bewilderment, because she uttered a tinkling peel of laughter. It lit up her face and gorgeous green eyes, and he felt a surge of arousal from head to toe, and right into his manhood. He wanted her yet he must wait until the next day to claim her as his wife. It was agony, but it was also a definite necessity. He would not ruin her as her grandmother and mother had been before their marriage. His honour forbade such a scheme. Most adamantly so.
“Richard,” Manon said in a voice that reverberated along his spine, “I once asked you to love me as a man loves a woman. That night, you deceived me. You pleasured me, my darling, and you gave me the most beautiful experience I ever had. Yet you denied yourself that same pleasure, and by doing so, you got yourself into a debt. A debt to me, my love. You owe me the right to pleasure you as much as you did me that night. I want you to make love to me tonight, my heart. I want to be yours, in every sense of the word.”