The Counterfeit Governess – Part Two

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Two – Haunting Ghosts From The Past

 

Lily and Oliver gave a squeak of delight when their grandmother’s dilapidated cottage came into view, and ran like lightning toward it. By the time Beth reached it, they were in Mrs Bradley’s embrace. The three of them were crying, but from joy, not from sorrow.

“Dear Beth!” the old lady exclaimed. “Do come in, child! Thank you for bringing back my sweethearts to me. They have been away for three weeks and they were not allowed to come and see me. I missed them something dreadful.”

“Granny, can we have tea and biscuits?” Oliver piped, his distress already soothed, now that his worries about his grandmother had been laid to rest.

“Yes, of course, you little glutton! Go and ask Ruby if she wants to brew us some tea.”

Ruby Merton was Mrs Bradley’s neighbour and she looked after her when necessary and did a bit of household chores for her. The children swiftly disappeared through the back door.

“So, my child, tell me all about you!” Mrs Bradley asked Beth. “It has been six weeks since your last letter from Saint-Saturnain. Have you been able to tie up your aunt’s affairs after she died?”

“I have,” Beth replied. “Aunt Lucie left me a small nest egg in her will, safely invested but the income is not enough for me to live on, so I was forced to apply for a position as a governess. Mrs Bradley, no one knows I am Beth Williams. I took on the name of Elle Guillaume because I want to live at Brixton Abbey incognito and investigate at my leisure. I want to find proof of the Fentons’ involvement in the cart accident.”

Mrs Bradley nodded. “Yes, my dear, you need to know for sure if the present Lord Brixton is responsible for the death of your beloved mother and brother. You have not yet reached closure regarding their demises.”

All of a sudden, Beth was back to when she was eight years old, and on that dreadful day when she lost her mama and Julian, her older brother. Mama had been visiting the sick of the parish, as was her habit as the vicar’s wife. She had been driving her small gig to reach the parishioners who lived far from the village. Julian, Beth’s twelve-year-old brother, had been allowed to accompany her, while Beth, not having completed her homework, had been ordered to stay home. Furious, Beth took her little pony and rode after them, but she was far behind, because she had lost time, saddling her mount. By the time she reached them, she could only watch helplessly how Lord Septimus Brixton’s phaeton, racing like hell and not taking heed of other carriages on the narrow country road, came thundering from the opposite direction. Mama had startled, pulled the reins too sharply and her cart had gone off the road and down the hill, overturning several times before crashing on the boulders lining the river. Mama and Julian had been caught under the heavy vehicle’s body and died before help arrived.

The incident was hushed up by the baron who did not want to jeopardize his son’s future. It had been thirteen-year-old Stephen Fenton who held the phaeton’s reins and not his father.

And Beth had witnessed that. She had, however, kept her mouth shut until she was thirteen when she blurted it out to her father in a fit of anger over some trifle they bickered over. Peter Williams had then gone to confront Baron Septimus about it, and the latter promptly turned his vicar out and bought an army commission for his only son to remove him from the scene. Beth and her father had no other option but to exile themselves to France and the small village of Saint-Saturnain, Provence.

 

Lily and Oliver were pretty worn out when the trio returned to Brixton Abbey. After they were bathed and dressed in their nightgowns, Beth gave them their tea. A bed time story was all the children needed to doze off and go to sleep. Beth left the room with a satisfied smile on her face. She was pleased with her first day at the home of her worst enemy because she had succeeded in making it happy for two of his most vulnerable victims.

As she dressed herself for dinner with the help of Grace, one of the upstairs maids, Beth’s attention was diverted from her reflection in the mirror by a knock on her bedroom door. It was Trixie, the eleven-year-old tweenie.

“Beg yer pardon, miss. The master asks if yer want to come down and meet ‘im in ‘is study before dinner.”

“Thank you, Trixie,” Beth answered, wondering what His Infernal Lordship would want from her before they met at the dinner table. Steeling herself, she looked in the mirror one last time to see if everything was as it should be. It was. Her formal black bombazine dress gave her a stern, unforthcoming look as befitted a woman in mourning. Beth took care not to resemble the bright, young and joyful child she had been, ten years ago; Fenton was not to recognize her as Beth Williams. She made the sign of the cross and left the room.

 

Stephen Fenton, the ninth baron Brixton, sat behind his large study desk, cradling a glass of golden cherry. His long legs stretched before him, he was brooding over what might be coming to him, now that his Nemesis had returned from France. For long years, Fenton had both dreaded and welcomed this day, preparing himself on how he would deal with Beth Williams.

He was the first to admit that his father dealt wrongly with Vicar Peter Williams and his family. Trying to cover up the facts about the accident had been a mistake, but one the former baron made out of fatherly love for his young son, after he granted the latter permission to drive the phaeton.

Fenton still could not comprehend what had happened in those seconds in which he lost control over the pair of greys he had driven recklessly over the country lane. Had he turned their heads, ever so slightly, so that they swivelled toward Williams’ old mare and made her go off the road? Had he screamed out of sheer fear and frightened the mare himself with his cry? He did not clearly recollect what transpired, but only saw the results; the vicar’s battered cart going over the road’s edge and crashing down the slope. He could still hear the terrible noises of the horse, screaming with mortal fear, of the cart’s breaking wooden body and clanging metal of hinges, springs and wheels. His father took over the reins in a split second and halted the phaeton.

Then, Fenton’s heart had skipped several beats as he saw his strong, masterful father falter, and back away in horror and flee from the scene, all the way home admonishing his son not to tell a soul they had been the cause of the accident. Instead, his father said, they would pretend to have come on the spot some time after and gone for help instantly. Who was to doubt the word of Baron Brixton, after all?

It had worked out perfectly. No one suspected their foul play until young Beth betrayed them. And now she had come back to her old haunt, Fenton thought, but why? It boded ill that she changed her name and posed as a Frenchwoman in order to have access to his home. She must be seeking revenge, then, and he, Stephen Fenton, was not going to let her have her way.

When the study door was thrown open by Raleigh, his butler, to announce Mademoiselle Elle Guillaume, Fenton braced himself just as determinedly as he did before battle, back in Badajoz, Spain during the Peninsular Campaign in April 1812.

The Counterfeit Governess – Part One

 

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One – A Governess For Two Forlorn Children

 

Henrietta, Dowager Baroness Brixton, took in the slender form of the young woman, standing in front of her. Way too pretty to suit a governess, she thought, but she would have to do. Her son Stephen would finally stop harassing her about searching for a governess to discipline his wretched bastard twins.

Lily and Oliver Bradley were the offspring of Stephen’s youthful misstep with a village wench when he was seventeen. The Baroness could easily forgive him for having taken a tumble in the hay with Molly Bradley on a hot summer’s day, and even understand it. So many young gentlemen did foolish things when they were still too young to know what they were doing. It was nothing of consequence. But, to take those two brats in his own house and treat them like they were gentry, was too much for the sixty-year-old dowager. Besides, she was not entirely sure about her son’s intentions for the twin siblings. What did he expect of two common brats who had lived with their old grandmother in a derelict village cottage up until now? They could not even read or write and they were totally undisciplined.

The baroness sighed when she thought about her beloved son. At the age of thirty, he should have had a legitimate son to raise; one he begot from his lawfully wedded wife during their short marriage before Florence had died in the curricle accident, just three months ago. Stephen had only his wife’s considerable fortune left from that marriage. Florence had not even been with child once, and the Dowager suspected her of being barren.

Straightening her back, Her Ladyship forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand and addressed Miss Elle Guillaume in a haughty voice.

“Miss Guillaume, it will be expected of you to educate the children as completely as possible. First you will teach them the basic accomplishments such as reading, writing and arithmetics. They are to be instructed in French, German and English, of course, and also mathematics, geography, music and poetry. Etiquette is of the essence, as you will undoubtedly understand. The twins have come to Brixton House only recently, having lived in the village with their grandmother. They are not yet used to the workings and manners of a noble household so you will find them a little … wild.”

Henrietta smiled and looked conspiratorially at Miss Guillaume.

“You will be expected to keep them to their suite as much as possible. My son, Lord Brixton, does not wish to be burdened with their company too frequently. His valet will be the one to inform you, if his lordship wants to see the children. Do not try to hoist them upon his lordship without a summoning.”

The Baroness signalled to the livered footman who stood in attendance near the wall.

“For the moment, this should do. Terence will show you to your rooms.”

“I beg your pardon, Your Ladyship,” the voice of the governess sounded in a heavy French accented English. “I have a few questions I would like to be answered.”

A pair of dark eyes, almost black as obsidian, met the Baroness’ grey ones with a frankness that could have withered her, had she not been so steeled in her long years of dealing with servants.

 

~~~~

 

As soon as the footman closed the door behind him, Elizabeth Williams, alias Elle Guillaume, took in the small, bare room that was to be her bed chamber. She had been given one of the maids’ room on the fourth floor of the house, one floor beneath the attic.

Beth knew the house very well. As a child, she had accompanied her father, the vicar of St Mary’s at Woolworth, when he came to confer with the old Baron about parish matters. Her father, a widower, used to take her with him everywhere and at any time, reluctant as he was to leave her at the parsonage on her own. So, while her father talked with his patron, Beth had been left alone in a downstairs parlour. The active, inquisitive child that she was, she could not stay put but started wandering through the huge house with its many rooms and corridors. That was how she had come to know Brixton Abbey almost as well as their own, modest little parsonage.

A weird sound, as if made by mice running over wooden floorboards, pulled Beth out of her reverie and she looked around to see a side door creep open.

“Yes?” she enquired and now, the unmistakeable sound of open footsteps running away from the door, made her go over there. The door led to another small and dismal bedroom, one with two cots and a washstand and two frightened children clutched together against the far wall. Their eyes were huge with fear and their frail figures were shivering with anxious nerves.

One of them was a skinny boy of about twelve, an incredibly dirty one, to boot.

“Go away!” he yelled. “Leave us alone or I’ll kick ye in the legs!”

He threw an arm around his sister’s body, who was actually taller than him. Beth smothered a smile and looked at him defiantly.

“You could try,” she replied evenly, keeping her face bland, “but you won’t succeed in kicking me. I’m bigger and taller than you and I’ll punch you in the face.”

She held up her fist for good measure and shook it at him.

“On the other hand,” she said, pouting her lips as in deep reflection, “I could give you another chance in introducing yourselves. I am Miss Elle Guillaume and I have come to be your friend.”

She dipped a curtsy toward the two stunned children and smiled sweetly at them.

The girl, her voice small but not breaking, dipped back awkwardly.

“Me name’s Lilly Bradley,” she said, “an’ this is me brother Oliver. Where d’ye come from? Ye speak so funny!”

“I am from France,” Beth answered. “Do you know where that is?”

They both shook their heads and seemed to relax a trifle. They were beautiful children with honey-coloured curls and large grey eyes, straight little noses and wide mouths. Oliver still had the round, soft face of youth while Lily’s heart-shaped one began showing signs of adolescence. Her body too was more developed than that of her brother’s, the tiny peaks of her budding breasts beginning to show through the bodice of her drab, brown homespun dress.

“You will learn where it is and many other new things too, but not today. Today we are going on a walk. The weather is too beautiful to be cooped up inside. Fetch your coats and you, Lily, bring your bonnet.”

“I ‘aven’t got one, Miss,” came the shy reply.

“Leave it, then. We will find you one later.”

As the trio left for their walk, Beth smiled when she saw the children hopping and chatting happily. She followed them at a more measured pace, satisfied about their first meeting. Clearly, Lily and Oliver were lost, and they did not fit into this magnificent estate at all. Beth would walk to the village with them and ask to meet their grandmother. She knew old Mrs Bradley well enough from the time she lived here with her father, the vicar. There were some things she needed to ask the old lady about the new Baron Brixton.

 

~~~~

 

Standing at the window of his study, Stephen Fenton, the new Baron Brixton, stood watching the three people who left for the village of Woolworth. The woman must be the new governess, he mused. What was her name again? Elle Guillaume – or was it Beth Williams? Fenton recognized her from the first moment he saw her slender form stride along the drive. He would always recognize Beth Williams, whenever and wherever she chose to appear.

They had a history, Beth and he, one in which he had the worst part. Ten years ago, she disappeared from his life, and he had been glad about it. Now she was back – on the sly – he realised. He needed to draw up a strategy to ready himself against her attack.

 

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Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Six (Final Chapter)

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Chapter Thirty-Six

 

The sun was high in the August sky when the newlyweds left St Wulfram’s church.

A double row of village girls, all dressed in their best Sunday clothes were standing along the path that led out of the churchyard. They were forming a flowered arch over the path, inviting Richard and Manon to pass under it on their way to their carriage. A chorus of happy cheers sounded as the couple ducked and walked under the arch, while a sprinkle of rice rained down on them. Well-wishers shouted their congratulations and children offered nosegays to the grateful bride and groom.

They reached the white-and-gold carriage and Richard ushered his bride in.

Manon settled onto the blue velvet cushions with a sigh of pure, contented pleasure, hooking her hand through Richard’s arm when he sat next to her.

“Well, my love?” Manon asked, delicate eyebrows raised over slightly mocking green eyes. “It seems that the Bearsham villagers are happy with our marriage, do you not agree? We have been concerned in vain, thinking they would object.”

“Yes, we were wrong to do so,” Richard acquiesced, his grey-blue eyes sparkling with unmitigated happiness. “These simple people are far more sensible than my harebrained, spiteful mother.” He sighed. “What am I to do with her, Manon? I had hoped she would settle quite meekly in our household, but it appears that she is determined to be the fly in the ointment of our marriage. I am so sorry, my sweet. I would have given my right arm to spare you the scene she inflicted upon us during the ceremony.”

Manon took his handsome face in her hands, forcing Richard to look her in the eyes.

“Oh no, we cannot have that,” she said, her voice full of mirth. “What use would you be to me with only one arm?”

With a groan, Richard pulled her onto his lap in one swift movement and revelled in her happy gasp of surprise. “Finally, I have you to myself for the first time today, my lady. There is so much I wanted to say after what transpired last night, and so much that I worried over. Did I…have I…oh, God, Manon! I am thoroughly ashamed of the way I so utterly lost control…”

“Yes…”Manon drawled. “Rest assured that I will punish you for torturing me so, my lord husband. I have been wracking my brains for ways to make you suffer for what you did to me, last night, and I have come up with something like this…”

She stood, hitched up her skirts and rearranged herself in his lap, this time astride. Her lips captured his and her tongue teased his while she sensuously wriggled atop of his thighs and onto his already aroused member. Richard groaned into their kiss and pulled her to him in a grip of iron. Their tongues battled as a wave of raw desire swept them along. Gasping for dear life when Richard’s hands slid up her thighs, to slip a finger into her heat, Manon began fumbling with the buttons of his breeches.

A few moments later, they were joined under the wide expanse of Manon’s gown, and a wild dance, old as the world itself, drove them to bliss in seconds.

 

When their carriage stopped in front of Bearsham Manor, the flushed couple had barely had the time to right their dishevelled appearance. They had a dining hall full of guests waiting to share their wedding breakfast with them. Manon, however, cast a quick glance in the hall mirror before she faced her guests…and gasped. She looked thoroughly disordered! On no account in the world would she present herself thusly.

“Richard, I really must have a moment to myself so that Bessie can restore my appearance.”

She gave him a critical look of appraisal and added, “And you, my love, will want Bright to correct your attire, too.”

“Thornton,” Richard addressed his butler, tongue in cheek, “please ask our guests for patience, just a little more time.”

Rushing up the stairs, they barely heard the butler’s reply. Once inside the master bedroom, Richard shooed away Bessie and Bright, who had come running after them. He kicked the door shut, swept Manon into his arms, and placed her onto the bed. With determined concentration, he then applied himself to continue what they had begun during their carriage ride home. His bride met his demands with eager anticipation. It was, after all, their wedding day.

 

Much later, when the wedding breakfast was over, and their guests had gone home, Richard took Manon by the hand and led her outside. The balmy August evening had not yet come, but the sun was beginning to make its way downward. Manon wondered where her husband was taking her, but she said nothing and followed him down the terrace and into the secret garden. It was a lovely spot near the edge of the Home Wood, and Manon had always wanted to explore it ever since she had come to Bearsham Manor but had never found the time in the whirlwind of events that had arisen. Now she stood next to her Richard in front of a grave.

“Here rests Father,” Richard whispered, pulling Manon in the circle of his arms while making her face the tomb. “I hope he looks upon us with contentment on this happiest of days, my love.”

“I am certain he does, my dearest,” Manon replied, placing her hands over Richard’s.

It was the perfect time to be here, she reflected. Sir Robert de Briers had always been anxious about Manon and Jéhan, even if he had never known them. He had even stood guard over them all, from beyond the grave, and left them the letter that brought her and Richard together. How Manon wished she had known him!  How she would have cherished Richard’s good father!

“We must do something about Mother,” Richard suddenly said, recalling the Dowager’s appalling behaviour during their wedding ceremony. “She is going to be a constant thorn in our sides, my sweet, and I cannot have anything disturbing our lives from now on.”

Manon turned in his arms and looked up to him. “Leave her to me, my darling,” she said, confidence radiating from her lovely green eyes. “I want her to be part of our lives. She is a damaged woman, Richard. Life has not been gentle to her. Together, we will find a way to give her a place at Bearsham Manor.”

And if anyone could accomplish just that, Richard thought, it was his lively, strong Manon. He bent his head to claim her mouth in a kiss that promised the world.

 

The End

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Five

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Chapter Thirty-Five

 

The vision of his bride, exquisitely dressed in a silken gown of fragile green, knocked the air out of Richard’s lungs. Good Lord, she was breathtakingly beautiful, and she was going to be his wife. He took a deep breath – a much needed breath because his head was spinning with the deep feelings of love and joy that overwhelmed him.

Then Manon smiled at him, and his heart turned to water. His legs would have walked toward her of their own accord, had not Lucian’s hand on his arm kept Richard on the spot.

“Steady, old man,” Lucian whispered – mercifully, his voice was only audible to Richard. “You must allow Jéhan to give her away.”

Only then did Richard notice the small, dapper figure of Jéhan, left hand linked with his sister’s right one. Of course, he berated himself, Manon had no one else to hand her over to her bridegroom. What a capital thought to choose her young brother!

Richard strove to keep his countenance solemn as Jéhan placed Manon’s hand in his. He bowed to the child with reverence and had the pleasure of seeing Jéhan emulate the bow with diligence.

Then, however, Richard had eyes solely for his beautiful bride, who beamed up at him. He kissed the back of her hand, never letting his gaze leave hers. Before straightening again, he whispered, “My dearest…” How he longed to say more, yet the words would not form in Richard’s mind.

Manon raised a hand to touch Richard’s cheek, when the Reverend Merryweather cleared his throat to drag them both back to the present. In unison, they turned to face him, but Richard kept Manon’s hand firmly in his.

While the good vicar began reciting the proper words for the wedding celebration, Richard felt his fears subside. Only then did he realise how heavily those fears had weighed upon his heart. Would Manon meet him at the altar to be his wife, when he had so thoroughly lost his control, the previous night? What if she had been scared by his wild abandon? But no, she was here, at his side, and he knew he was forgiven.

In a haze, Richard heard the vicar’s familiar voice.

“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today before this company, to join together Richard de Briers, fourteenth Baronet Bearsham, and Miss Manon Favier of Paris in matrimony which is an honourable and solemn estate and therefore is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and soberly. Into this estate, these two persons present come now to be joined. If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

Here, the Reverend paused and peered sternly at the congregation over the rim of his glasses.

Richard’s heart began hammering in his throat yet again as he realised that someone, anyone, in the small community had the power to object to their union. Not many of Brighton’s society were in attendance but they all knew that Manon had been first presented as his niece and afterwards had been named the daughter of Lady Elizabeth’s bastard.

Then, his heart nearly stopped as the sound of the church doors being thrown open reached him.

“I, Lady Mildred de Briers, do strongly object to this farce of a marriage!”

A rumble of shocked sighs rippled through the church’s nave as everyone turned towards the back, where the imposing figure of the Dowager Baronetess darkened the doorway. Time seemed to slow as Richard saw Manon’s lovely face freeze in a horror that must have reflected on his own countenance. A nightmare, devastating and cruel, descended upon them as the cold, harsh voice continued its torture.

“This union is truly cursed for it is an incestuous one! Manon Favier is the daughter of Lily de Briers, and therefore she is Sir Richard’s niece!”

 

Richard could not move, nor speak, nor even breathe. A weight crushed down on him, threatening to suffocate him under a pitch-black blanket of misery and shame. All was lost…he wished for Death to take him here and now.

But no…he should have had faith in his indomitable, fierce bride!

Manon stepped away from him and met her nemesis with pride and dignity.

“You are mistaken, Madam, and you are cruel and vicious in your despair! You should be crushed by shame to try and inflict this torture upon your only son. Sir Richard does not deserve to be treated thusly by the woman who gave birth to him, a mother whom he has always respected and cared for. My dear mother, Lily Favier was a bastard. I hereby make this known to this community and challenge everyone to take notice of Sir Robert’s letter to his son, written by his own hand and deposited in the care of his solicitor, Mr Brownslow. Sir Robert’s seal is testimony enough for the letter’s authenticity.”

“It is true and unmistakable! I, as Our Lord’s representative, have acknowledged and approved the content of Sir Robert’s letter. You will hold your peace, madam, or you will be removed from this church!” Mr Merryweather’s booming voice had never sounded so welcome to Richard’s shocked ears. He watched how the Dowager gasped in shock as St Wulfram’s sexton took her arm and led her away.

“Let us now proceed with the celebration of this marriage,” continued Mr Merryweather. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

“I do!”

Jéhan’s clear voice chimed through the nave like the voice of an angel. The small five-year-old took his sister’s hand and led her back to her betrothed, confident in his role. Manon, as if nothing had occurred to disturb her peace, firmly grasped Richard’s hand and brought him back to reality and happiness. With infinite relief, he was grateful for Manon’s unwavering support.

The rest of the ceremony was undisturbed, and the two young people spoke their vows with nothing but pure exhilaration in their hearts.

“I, Manon, take thee, Richard, to be my lawfully wedded husband, secure in the knowledge that you will be my constant friend, my faithful partner in life, and my one true love. On this special day, I give to you in the presence of God and all these witnesses my pledge to stay by your side as your faithful wife in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, as well as through the good times and the bad. I promise to love you without reservation, comfort you in times of distress, laugh with you and cry with you, grow with you in mind and spirit, always be open and honest with you,
and cherish you for as long as we both shall live.”

Richard watched in awe and reverence as Manon’s gaze grew but brighter, with every word she spoke. He had the solemn duty to answer her in kind, so he cleared his throat and let exultation colour his deep voice.

“I, Richard, take thee, Manon, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto, I plight thee my troth.”

His hand shaking just the merest moment, Richard took his bride’s hand in his.

“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

The simple gold wedding band slid onto Manon’s finger, and she looked at her husband. His beautiful blue eyes shone like diamonds, love sparkling from them to warm her soul.

Again the Reverend’s voice boomed them back to the present.

“I hereby declare that you, Sir Richard and Lady de Briers, are husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride, Sir Richard.”

An invitation Richard accepted with alacrity.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Four

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Chapter Thirty-Four

 

August twenty-second dawned with a shaft of golden sunlight piercing through the gap in the curtains of Richard’s bedchamber. He woke with a start when the light touched his face with pleasant warmth. His arm flung out to reach for Manon but to his utter disappointment, she was no longer there. He turned to the small ormolu clock on his nightstand, which told him it was barely seven in the morning.

A feeling of utter loss assaulted Richard as he reclined on his back with his arms supporting his head. He now knew for certain that he must have hurt Manon during their nightly lovemaking, great lumbering brute that he was.

Up until now, he had never had to concern himself with the women he bedded other than to gain his satisfaction from them. They had all been experienced. Yet he had always made it his duty to give as much as he took in the way of pleasure, and more so, to avoid causing pain during the process of intercourse. He had never suspected that he had failed in doing so since none of his former lovers had complained, the morning after.

However, now, something was vastly different. He had made love to his virgin bride, his companion for the rest of his life, and his soon-to-be wife. He had introduced his soul mate to the pleasures of the marriage bed and had made a thorough mess of it since his Manon had fled their chambers.

Lord! He must rise and dress and go to find her. Beg for her forgiveness, and promise never to hurt her, ever.

 

Manon stepped out of the copper bath and into the large towel Bessie was holding in front of her. The warm, lavender-scented water had effectively soothed her aches, even in those places Manon had never felt hurt before. With heat-suffused cheeks, Manon began drying herself. All the lovely things she and Richard had shared, all the wondrous caresses they had exchanged, and all the deep, soul-touching feelings they had experienced – they all came to life again. It was unbelievable, but she again felt those magic stirrings, deep in her core, just by thinking of her Richard. Oh, dear Lord, if there were just one, single wish that Manon would love to make today, it would be to have that kind of sharing with him for the rest of their lives together! She ached for him yet again and as strongly as she had last night when she had spotted him on the terrace. He had been exactly how she wanted him, tall and lean and so exquisitely male. And so incredibly sweet and infinitely gentle.

A tap on the dressing room door had Bessie hurrying to open it. It was Pru Butterworth, glowing with excitement while she stepped in to greet Manon. In her wake was Mrs Briskley, carrying a breakfast tray with a pot of steaming hot chocolate and a plate of freshly baked scones.

“Come and sit down, Manon,” Pru ordered. “Have some breakfast first before Bessie starts dressing you.”

“Has Madame delivered the gown?” Manon asked, a bit of anxiety in her voice.

Finding a suitable wedding gown had been a daring challenge. Manon wanted it to be something unique, something that showed her true self. She had gone to Brighton in the company of Pru and Bessie to visit Madame Tourtereau’s establishment. It was said that Madame was of aristocratic descent, related to the French royals and that she had barely escaped the guillotine, a few months ago. Manon knew that it was all a sham. The clever seamstress was as English as a field of daisies. She had been born in Leicester as the daughter of a tailor, but she took care to lace her speech with enough French words to describe her business so that most of her unsuspecting clients believed her story.

Pru smiled and gestured to Franny and Mabel, who stepped forward to present Manon’s gown. With a gasp of wonder, Manon clasped her hands on her chest.

“Oh, Pru,” she whispered, “it is all I wished for!”

Then she took Pru by the waist and began twirling around the room with her, in a burst of unchecked joy. “I am going to be Richard’s wife, Pru! I am going to be his!”

 

Richard opened his dressing room door, eager to dress and go find Manon, but he was waylaid by his valet Bright.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but you have got only one hour to ready yourself. I have your bath prepared, and you can have a quick bite afterwards. Now if you would care to sit down so that I can shave you, then we will start.”

With a sigh, Richard surrendered to his valet’s care but he wondered if perhaps there would be a few moments later on, because he desperately needed to see Manon.

“Do you know if Miss Favier has woken yet, Bright?” Richard inquired, striving to keep his tone neutral.

Bright grinned broadly while he began lathering his master’s face in preparation for a shave.

“The activity in her quarters started an hour ago, sir. I saw Miss Butterworth coming up the stairs at nine o’clock with Mrs Briskley and two maids following her. Do not concern yourself, sir. Mr Thornton has everything well in hand. He will give the signal when it is time to set off for the church.”

Richard met Bright’s positively glowing gaze in the mirror, and it abruptly dawned on him in full force. He was getting married today. In just two hours from now, he would be Manon’s husband. If she was indeed preparing herself for their wedding, Manon could not possibly have seconds thoughts about becoming his wife.

With a broad grin, he settled down in his chair and willingly surrendered to Bright’s ministrations.

 

Bessie put the finishing touch to Manon’s toilet by adding just a spot of rouge on her already flushed cheeks.

“There, miss,” she said, beaming with pride, “now you can go and marry Sir Richard!”

Manon gazed at her own image in the large cheval mirror, happiness warming her heart. Her wedding dress of sea-green taffeta had a snug bodice that dipped just enough to reveal the curve of her breasts. The neckline left her shoulders bare so that Maman’s pearls were shown to their best advantage. Elbow-length sleeves encased Manon’s slim arms, while her hands were clad in short, white chiffon gloves. The gown’s skirt was narrow and in the Empire style, hugging her slender hips in flowing lines and ending in a short train, as to emphasize Manon’s upright bearing. Her thick auburn hair was left unbound, but Bessie had styled the long waves with tiny pearl clasps so that Manon’s face was framed with heavy wings on both sides. It gave Manon a regal air, which she liked very much. After all, she was marrying a noble of the realm.

“Thank you, dearest Bessie!” Manon whispered, taking the girl’s hands in hers. “You will stay with me after I marry, I hope?”

“Yes, Miss, I would be happy to! My mum no longer needs my presence, since my younger sister took over the task of caring for her.”

“How is your mother, Bessie? I am truly sorry for not asking earlier about her health, but my own circumstances have kept me vastly occupied recently.”

“She is doing better, miss. Thank you for asking.”

At that moment, the door opened. Jake Davies led a splendidly dressed Jéhan into the room, and Manon gasped in surprise.

“Oh, mon chou! You look absolutely magnificent! How you have grown over the last weeks, little brother!”

Jéhan drew himself up to his full height of three-foot-four. He was indeed tall for his five years.

“Manon, no more calling me French names. I must become an English gentleman.”

The way her little brother eyed her, Manon had no doubt he would become just that. She hid her smile and curtsied.

“I beg your pardon, Sir John. I forgot my manners.”

Then Jéhan grinned broadly at her and went to embrace his sister.

“I am glad that you are marrying Uncle Richard, Manon,” he said and kissed her cheek.

Manon inwardly grimaced at the name Jéhan still called her beloved. They had, of course, tried to explain it all to Jéhan, but to no avail. At five years old, notion of legal descent was too hard to comprehend. To Jéhan, Richard would be considered his uncle until he came to an age when he knew enough about life to understand. Manon was just immensely relieved that Jéhan had never been told that he had once been considered to be the heir to Richard’s title.

“My firstborn son will be the next Baronet Bearsham, sweet,” Richard had explained to Manon. “However, I promise you that Jéhan will never lack for anything for as long as he resides under my roof. He will be allowed to make his way in life as he wishes, and I will not withdraw the funds that my father wanted him to inherit when he comes of age.”

All this had overwhelmed Manon with joy, of course.

It is time, miss,” Bessie said, interrupting Manon’s thoughts. “Here is Miss Butterworth to take you to the wedding carriage.”

 

In St Wulfram’s Church, Richard was waiting for Manon to arrive.

He was pacing in front of the small blue stone altar, an exquisite piece of stonemasonry, with little, elegant niches, in which red sandstone saints stood.

Richard, however, did not notice those tiny pieces of art. He was growing more nervous with every minute that passed. Would Manon still want to become his baronetess? What if she had changed her mind after he had initiated her so forcibly, last night? He damned himself now for not having been more circumspect. He should have…

“Here she comes, Rich,” Lucian’s voice dragged him back from his dismal thoughts, and Richard swivelled round toward the church entrance. Yes, there she was, his Manon, and what a sight she was to behold!

 

In the brand new, white-and-gold wedding carriage, especially bought by Richard as a wedding

present to his bride, Manon fantasized with rapt anticipation about what was to come in the next hours. Today, she was Richard’s bride! They were about to be joined in matrimony, for the rest of their lives. Joy, pure and hot, sped through her heart like wildfire. A bright smile curved her lips.

Her brother, sitting on the bench opposite, saw it and asked, “What are you smiling for, Manon?”

Of course, Manon mused. Jéhan was too young to understand that this was a pivotal day in his sister’s life. In all their lives, for that matter.

“I am smiling because you look so extremely handsome, mon chou. And also because you are giving me away to my future husband, which is only right, since you are my only living male relative.”

Jéhan reflected on this for a while, his young face screwed up in concentration.

“Is that what a brother must do, Manon? Must I give you away forever when you marry Uncle Richard?”

“No, my sweet, I will not be away from you at all, aver. You are going to do a very important thing, my love. It is an English tradition to give away a woman to her husband. A brother places his sister’s hand in that of her husband because he entrusts her welfare and happiness to the man she loves. To the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with.”

She stroked his cheek and smiled fondly at him.

“My sweet Jéhan,” she said, fighting down the huge lump in her throat, “you will always be the dearest person in my life. You are my one and only brother whom I love more than life itself.”

The carriage stopped at the foot of the low knoll that bore St Wulfram’s Church, a fortress-like Saxon building. Manon stepped down, her hand held by Jake Davies.

“Are you ready, Master John?” he asked Jéhan.

“Yes, Mr Davies,” the boy replied solemnly and took up his position beside his sister.

The tones of Jeremiah Clarke’s “Prince of Denmark March,” performed by the village organist and accompanied by one of Brighton’s renowned trumpet players, began resonating through the nave. Every head turned toward the open double doors in anticipation.

Manon, her small hand in that of her brother, was stepping down the aisle towards the man of her dreams, who was awaiting her at the altar.

Oh, how handsome he was, her Richard! His finely tailored coat of moss green superfine wool covered a shirt of the sheerest white lawn and a cream-coloured silk waistcoat over a pair of buff buckskin breeches. He stood solid as the rock he truly was, his long, muscular legs encased in rust-coloured boots of the softest leather. In his trembling hand, he held his black beaver hat.

It was his bright blue eyes, however, that captured Manon’s gaze in rapt, intense love. She returned it with her beautiful green gaze, equally full of love.

Finally, their day had broken. At last, their lives would truly begin.

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Three

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Chapter Thirty-Three

 

Richard could see the vivid green of Manon’s eyes in the silver glow of the moon. He basked in that eternal fire, which always burned in them. He saw the cloak of her gorgeous hair, fanned out over her slim shoulders. Not even the lack of daylight could dim the abundant waves’ bright auburn shade. His hand came up to twine into the silken smoothness. Oh, Lord, the feel of it…so divine…

“My sweetling,” he croaked, summoning every ounce of sense he could muster, “do not try me so. I need to hold you in high esteem until you are mine before God and our congregation. I can do no less, dearest heart. I do not want to ruin you. You at least should come to me a virgin, as it should have been for Lily and Elizabeth.”

“Oh, that unbendable de Briers’ honour! I should have known you of all the ones that came before you would be the most steadfast, my Richard. I admire you for it, my love, and I love you for it, but … you would make me most thoroughly unhappy, if you let it come between us tonight. I cannot wait, my heart, I cannot.”

Manon placed her hands on his chest, stroking the taut muscles beneath Richard’s shirt. She could feel Richard’s heat radiating through the sheer fabric, and instantly, a responsive stirring, deep in her core, weakened her knees. Her pulse quickened and her heartbeat located itself between her thighs, deep down below. A sweet ache fluttered there at the apex of her thighs, causing her breath to stop. Hot moistness began pooling there, a sensation so enticing, that Manon released a soft whimper. She felt the urgent need to press herself firmly against Richard’s long, hard body. Oh, how she had longed for this!

Richard endeavoured to resist the soft, feminine curves that settled along his chest and stomach. Sweet Lord. When Manon’s belly pressed against his arousal, he groaned, his voice a deep, faltering rumble.

“Manon, do you know what you are doing to me?”

Her answering chuckle was seductively low.

“I think I have a fairly good inkling, my love. Why are we still here? Take me to bed, Richard.”

She paused, then looked up at Richard.

“Please, my love, I want to be yours. I cannot wait any longer.”

Richard buried his face in the soft richness of her hair and greedily inhaled her scent.

“Oh, my darling Manon, you feel so incredibly right in my arms.”

And that was where she was, Richard acknowledged with surprise. Somehow, sometime, he had wrapped her in the circle of his arms without even realising it. His blood was now racing madly, straight into his tautly aroused manhood. Rational thoughts were beginning to fade, as his body recognised the same signs of arousal in her soft, luscious figure. She became warm, and where his hands roamed over the cotton of her nightdress, dampness began to form.

He gave in and swept her into his arms, to strode indoors and up the stairs to his bedchamber. Bright, his valet, violently startled at the sight of his master carrying his betrothed in his arms, but Richard merely gave him a fierce, commanding stare. Matthew Bright literally fled the room, while Manon, utterly embarrassed, hid her face against Richard’s shoulder.

He set her on her feet, next to his large four-poster bed, and took her face between his hands.

“I can wait, my love, if you wish it,” he whispered, drinking in the green glow of her eyes. It would be deuced hard, but he would wait, if…

“But I cannot, my love…I cannot wait any longer…” Manon breathed, turning her mouth into the palm of his hand to kiss it softly.

With a groan, Richard captured her luscious mouth with his own, driving his tongue into her soft warmth to explore her sweet abundance to his heart’s content. He felt like a man starving after a cold, harsh winter, one who finally knew that his famine was at an end.

Manon answered him with all the fervour she felt, desperate as she was to quell the need she had experienced for so long. All those previous, heart-wrenching moments of painful longing for Richard were swept away in their fierce, intoxicating kiss. However, Manon realised, it was not enough. She wanted to feel all of him; she wanted to be his, totally and in every aspect. Fumbling for the buttons on Richard’s shirt, she began tugging it free from his breeches. He broke their kiss and coaxed her to sit on the bed.

“Wait, wait, sweet. Let me uncover you. We have to slow down, better to savour our lovemaking, my precious.”

Manon leaned back against the cushions on top of the thick, silken spread, and her eyes grew wide when Richard pulled his shirt over his head. His chest was broad, smooth, and oh, so firm. Her breath caught at the sight of those taut, finely chiselled muscles. His tanned skin was covered with a light sprinkling of dark hair that narrowed to a thin line where it disappeared below the rim of his breeches. And then, he shed his top boots and white silk stockings to reveal his strong, masculine feet. The tension was building inside Manon, like steam in a kettle on a kitchen stove. She stopped breathing altogether when Richard stripped off his breeches and small clothes to free what was inside.

He was utterly and beguilingly beautiful. He was all male splendour, magnificent and powerful. Her heart was pounding now, with trepidation as well as with longing. This was the hour. This was their moment.

His beloved lay perfectly still, Richard realised. He watched her eyes grow large, and when she moistened her lips with her tiny, pink tongue, a spear of raw desire skidded through him. Slowly, slowly, he admonished himself. She is a maiden. She must be initiated in a tender way.

He approached the bed and mounted the mattress. Crouching on his knees beside Manon, he began stroking her small, bared feet, lifting them to his lips. She whimpered when he let his mouth roam over the sensitive skin of her perfect instep, first one dainty foot, then the other.

He worked his way up to her knees, then to her thighs – creamy silk, and so soft and warm.

Manon felt as if her bones were melting inside her at the feel of Richard’s smooth, hot lips caressing her. A pressure was building in her belly and in her aching breasts, so fiercely that it made her writhe with need. She was hot and damp, and her skin would surely dissolve if Richard kept up his torturing like that. Oh, God! Now he was uncovering her belly, shoving her night rail higher, in order to free her breasts. Soon, her arms were lifted above her head, and her gown was suddenly gone. She had barely had time to wonder about the fact that she was now totally naked when he started kissing the delicate skin of her neck, right on the sensitive spot behind her ear.

Richard revelled in the silk of Manon’s skin as he worked his way down her elegant neck, to the exquisite swelling of her breasts. His manhood twitched when his lips caressed the hard, puckered nipples. He would have to be careful, or he would spill himself, before he was even inside her! Oh, how he loved the way she twisted and writhed beneath him! With slow, sensuous licks, he traced the contours of her gorgeous breasts, then finding his way down the silken plane of her belly, he began feathering light kisses around her rosebud belly button. Her muscles twitched in instant response, one that shot an arrow of lust down his already tightened groin.

“Richard … please, Richard,” Manon moaned, and grasped the firm support of his shoulders, as if to steady herself.

“Patience, my sweet. Just relax,” her lover cooed. Then he positioned himself with a knee on either side of her, and lifted her lower body, better to kiss her womanly curls. Manon gasped. Oh, sweet Lord…oh, oh…hot, sweet torture made her claw her hands into the thick abundance of Richard’s ebony locks. She arched her hips and pressed them more firmly against his mouth, better to savour the bliss he was giving her. His tongue explored her most private place, causing liquid fire to ignite with every stroke. He sucked, kissed, licked that hard, tiny bud at the edge of her womanhood, until Manon thought she would explode and dissolve into a myriad of shards. And then, it truly happened! She did, she truly did shatter!

Richard could swear he tasted the difference in her honey after she cried out and convulsed against his mouth in a long series of shudders. In one swift movement, he let her down onto the bed and slid his aching manhood into her wetness. Slowly, slowly…do not forget, this is Manon’s initiation. Christ! This was incredible. Her sheath was already closing around his flesh, nearly sending him over the edge.

Manon was still shaking with the aftermath of her climax, when he started moving inside her, with slow, careful thrusts, each of them deeper than the one before. It was heaven, the way he rocked inside her, Manon thought, as he filled her further and further, and ever so gently, with his powerful maleness. She started to feel the same tingling of arousal again and began to be swept away once more. Until… oh, Lord! A sharp, burning pain exploded deep inside her and raced through her entire body to her shocked brain. She was hurt; she must surely have been stabbed with a blade!

Her maidenhead resisted only for a short time, and Richard forced himself to keep still while he caught her cry of pain with a tender kiss.

“Shhh, shhh, my heart. It will pass, my sweet. Shhh, this will happen only this first time, I promise.”

Richard could feel Manon relax beneath him as her breathing eased, when he began thrusting again. Cautiously at first, then gradually increasing the rhythm and force of his strokes until he noticed she was following his pace. A wild jab of arousal, fierce and taunting, travelled up and down his body.  “Yes, my sweet, that is what I want you to do,” he crooned. He rose onto his knees, lifting Manon’s lower body, to match his rapidly increasing desire.

Manon could barely believe that her body warmed into arousal once again after the fierce pain in her inner core, but her body did exactly that. Again, warmth began bubbling in her womb; again, that tiny bud throbbed with a growing need; again her folds started to tremble with renewed desire. With a sigh of pure, raw pleasure, she gave herself over to the delicious sensations that shook her body.

Richard inwardly burst with joy when he felt her response. She was so hot and soft, and so incredibly tight, as her inner muscles drew him deeper into the heat of her core. In a split second of awareness, Richard felt the exact moment when Manon climaxed yet again. That was right before he lost himself into divine, overwhelming bliss. His muscles tensed, and his body went perfectly rigid with anticipation, and then he violently shuddered. His senses were drowned in a relentless sea of hot waves. He raced through the surf that swept him higher up into the flames. She was, he registered, riding with him. Riding him with the siren-like undulation of body and of soul. A hoarse cry escaped him, as the alluring motion of Manon’s hips milked him, drew every strength out of him, conquering all resistance. As his seed spilled into her depths, Richard shattered into a million pieces.

In the tiny second before she succumbed to the overwhelming exhaustion, Manon registered a pure, utterly feminine joy at the realisation that she had just given Richard the ultimate pleasure of love. She snuggled up against his warmth as he gathered her in his arms and drew the coverlet over them both.

 

Richard listened to Manon’s soft, steady breathing while he enjoyed the feel of her warm, naked body against his. He could not so easily find sleep, not after the bliss he had just experienced. He had to simply revel in the memory of their beautiful lovemaking. Tomorrow, she would be his wife. Tomorrow, he would love her yet again, and his rampant thoughts were already plotting new ways to make her reach heaven. He had long years of experience to look back on. Skilful women had shaped his own talents in lovemaking. Yet, with Manon, he was reluctant to use those skills. He wanted his wooing to be unique, to be reborn solely for Manon. He now wished that he had still been a virgin this night and that he would have had to work out the art of lovemaking for the first time with Manon. He would give his right hand if it meant he could start over with Manon as his first woman and to be a young, innocent boy again.

But it was foolish. The past could never be remade. At least, he could be hers, and hers alone, for the rest of their lives. That, at least, he would vouch before the Almighty tomorrow.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Two

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Chapter Thirty-Two

 

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.”