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.”

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-One

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

The silence in the room was almost tangible. It descended upon Richard and Manon like a suffocating blanket. For a few moments, neither of them were capable of speech, their thoughts jumbling within their minds like frantic sheep. Armitage_00412- small
The one notion that was screaming deafeningly in Richard’s head was that Manon was not his niece. Not even family at all. Her mother, Lily, whom for his entire life he had considered his sister, was not a child of his father’s. The enormous consequence of that minor detail struck him with the force of a blow to the stomach. They were not related, Manon and he. They did not share the same blood. Consequently, they were allowed to marry. They were allowed to be together. The joy of that notion blazed within him like a wild fire.

But his cautious brain told him it was not that simple.

The world would have to be told that the girl Richard de Briers had first presented to Brighton society as his niece, was not who he had told them she was. She was Lily Montrose’s daughter, and a granddaughter of Sir Robert’s first wife. Her mother had been conceived with a man other than Sir Robert de Briers. Manon herself was not a bastard, but her mother Lily had certainly been one. There was not a drop of de Briers blood in Manon, nor in Jéhan, for that matter.

Richard drew in an audible breath and steeled himself for what he must say. He rose, took Manon’s hands in both his own, and drew her away from his desk to the middle of the library. She looked up at him eyes large with apprehension, because she, too, knew what he must say.

Richard lifted her hands, palms up, to his lips and kissed them softly.

“This letter,” he whispered, “is a curse, my sweet Manon. A curse because we must reveal to the world that our darling Lily was born out of wedlock. You are her daughter but not my father’s grandchild. You are not a de Briers. When this becomes known, the world will proclaim you an imposter and a fraud. Society will ostracise you and make a fool out of me because I chose to take you in as my niece.”

“Yes,” Manon breathed, “and we cannot have you considered a fool, because you are Richard de Briers, Baronet Bearsham. Too many people depend on you for their livelihood. Your strength is the title you bear and it must remain unblemished.”

Richard freed one hand and put a finger to her lips.

“I have not finished, my sweetling.”

One tear escaped Manon’s luminous green eyes, causing Richard’s heart to turn to water.

“There is nothing more to say,” Manon said, and her voice sounded steady, though her heart was heavy with a deep sadness. It was done. Their cause was ruined. They could never be together because he was a nobleman and she was a commoner.

“This letter,” Richard continued, “is also a blessing, my heart. Our love is no longer forbidden, and we can be together before God and the world. Anyone who dares to offend you, will do so at their own risk, for I shall shield you from it at all costs, Manon.”

Manon’s vision was blurred by the tears that ran freely over her cheeks. She blinked them away to look into Richard’s beautiful blue eyes. Eyes that smiled at her, eyes so full of unmitigated joy that she thought her heart would stop beating with the beauty of it.

“Richard,” she whispered, fighting to catch her breath.

But he did not stop smiling. Instead, he sank onto one knee and placed his right hand over his heart.

“Manon Favier, daughter of my beloved sister Lily, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife? I cannot go on living if you are not by my side. I cannot be the man I long to be if you are not to be my woman, my companion and my love.”

Oh, could it be true, Manon hoped? Could it be that simple? But surely, it could not. She would have guilty thoughts about having lowered Richard’s immaculate position from a respected country gentleman to an easily besotted fool. He would develop resentment in the years to come. Their love would suffer, wither, and die.

“Richard…” she whispered again, failing to find the words to describe what was in her heart.

He rose, and briskly – almost brutally – drew her within the circle of his arms. He lifted her face, forcing her to look into his own.

“We will be husband and wife, Manon, and we will defy everything and everyone who tries to damage us and the love we have for each other. I know we can and will be happy beyond words. I will devote my life to that.”

He touched her brow with a kiss, so soft that it was almost a whisper, but so fervent that Manon felt it, deep within her very heart.

“Nothing matters if you are not with me every day for the rest of our lives, my heart. You are my life, Manon, and all else is mere fluff in the wind. Together, my courageous, beautiful Manon, we conquer all. Please, say you will be my wife. Please, my love.”

Manon closed her eyes and gave herself over to Richard’s enchanting words. Could it be true? Oh, how she longed for it to come true! Her throat was dry and her heart was beating a fierce drum when she finally made her decision.

“You know that I love you, Richard. Therefore, I will be your wife, no matter what might come our way. Our love will conquer all.”

His mouth crushed hers in a kiss that seared through her body like a spear. She greedily tasted him, her tongue fighting with his in an ever-growing delight. She gasped when she felt the hot thrust of his tongue, plundering her mouth like a man starved. Her insides were burning; her belly was a pool of liquid fire.

“I have so longed for you, Richard,” she breathed, her mouth still held by his. “Please I beg you, make me yours…”

Richard tightened his grasp on Manon, stifling a groan of pure desire because he did not want to rouse her desires any further.

“My sweet love,” he whispered, “there is nothing I would like more but…oh, Manon, we cannot, my sweet! I burn for you! At least you must feel that. We must wait, my darling until we are well and truly wed, even though the waiting will surely kill me. You are so beautiful, my heart. It takes all of my willpower and control to keep my hands to myself!”

A harsh voice broke into their intimacy with a vengeance.

“Well, by all means, do not restrict yourself from doing so, my lord! It will only result in making you despicable in the eyes of society. But that would be intolerable to a de Briers, wouldn’t it?”

Manon and Richard turned as one to find Mildred de Briers blocking the library door way. The corners of her mouth were twisted into something that might have been called a smile, had not her eyes smouldered with hatred. She sailed into the room and stopped right before her son, just short of stepping on his toes. Richard raised an eyebrow but did not so much as move an inch.

“I do not care a blasted wit about whom you ravish, my lord. In fact, marry your French hussy if you feel so inclined. Even when they know she is not your niece, society will still be scandalized so tongues will be waggling aplenty. You will suffer from that gossip, I know that for a fact.”

Silence fell as Manon and Richard realised what the baronetess’ statement implied.

“You knew…” Richard breathed the words, eyes narrowing.

“Of course, I knew!” Mildred spat. “What kind of a fool do you think I am? After mere weeks of being married to your blackguard of a father, who never loved nor liked me, I decided to arm myself with some knowledge that would benefit me, should the need arise. I needed protection from him. After all, once I bore him an heir, he had the power to divorce me whenever he wished.”

“You have only yourself to blame for that, madam,” Richard said, his voice even but his face pale with subdued fury. “You betrayed the vows of marriage from the beginning.”

Not for the first time did Manon feel the hatred between mother and son, and she was saddened for Richard. No one deserved to be hated by their own mother.

“Ha!” Mildred scoffed. “And why should I not do what women of society deem normal when they are trapped in a loveless marriage?”

“Enough!” Richard said, with emphasis and authority. “We shall not elaborate on the past, madam, but instead concentrate on the future. Your future, to be precise. You shall leave this house and go to my estate of Walton House in Shropshire. There you will live in comfort and prosperity, for I will raise your allowance so that you lack nothing. The only condition is that you stay there, and never return to Bearsham Manor.”

The dry crack of the slap made Manon jump in horror. Richard’s cheek growing bright red was the only sign that his own mother had just slapped him in the face. Hard. The imprint of her fingers was clearly visible on Richard’s pale skin, yet he did not even flinch, nor did he show any expression. It was only after Mildred stormed out of the room that his shoulders relaxed a bit.

“Why does she hate you so, Richard?” Manon whispered. “It makes no sense, for you are the kindest of men.”

On an impulse, Richard drew her to him once again. Somehow, he needed to have her in his arms.

“I do not know, sweetling. She just does, and she has always done so. Ever since I was old enough to take notice of people’s behaviour, I realised Mother did not care for me. It was a kind of vibration that rippled through a room when she entered it, a wave of fierce aversion that emanated from her whenever she discovered my presence. I learned to avoid her, to scuttle out of a room before she would notice I was there. Later, when I was at Eton, things became easier. I came home for the breaks between terms to find she was away in London, most of the time. My father did not seem to care whether his wife was in residence or not. During the breaks, he and I spent lovely country walks on the estate, during which he taught me how to run it. We went horse riding and hunted hares and wild geese. We went fishing for trout and in the evenings, we talked. I loved those quiet talks, alone with Father in his library.”

Warmth overwhelmed Manon at the joy in Richard’s words. At least he had not been entirely alone. His father, Sir Robert had been his guide during Richard’s youth, a time in which he must have been lonely.

“I am truly happy that your father cared for you, my darling, even though his marriage brought him no joy.”

“My father was in dire financial circumstances at the time. He never allowed himself to touch the money Elizabeth had brought into the marriage. He was also in need of a son and heir. Mildred Thompson’s father was a wealthy Manchester cotton manufacturer who strove to have a title in the family. The Thompsons were of low birth, and a baronet seemed to fulfil their wishes. After the wedding, Mildred discovered that a baronet is excluded from the rank of peers. She might be Lady de Briers, but Father was not a lord of the realm, nor did he belong to the London ton. That was why she took lovers amongst the gentry. Jeremy Lawson, now the Earl of Donbridge was the perfect candidate. I fail to understand why Mother thought Lawson would leave his wife and marry her after Father’s death.”

“Both your parents must have been excruciatingly miserable, Richard.”

“Yes, you have the right of it, sweetling. Unfortunately, that is all obsolete at the present time. Father is dead. I wish I could rectify what was done to my mother when Father married her under false pretences, but that is impossible. They have each in their own way made mistakes, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

With a sigh, Manon buried herself deeper in Richard’s embrace. She felt relieved, because she and Richard were on the brink of their lives together, and not like Mildred at the end of their options. All possibilities still lay open before them. She would make the damned best of it, Manon swore.

“Come, dearest,” she said, in an attempt to change the mood, “we must tell Jake and Jéhan.”

Richard’s chuckle rumbled deep in his chest, making Manon weak with sudden happiness.

“I feel the strongest urge to scream it to the whole world, sweet! I might just do that!” he shouted. “Then by all means, let us do just that, my love!” she smiled.

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Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty

Armitage_004 - small

Chapter Thirty

 

“Bearsham Manor, 15th April 1793

 

To my beloved son Richard,

 

If this letter has come into your possession, it means that I have gone to meet my Maker.

For my own sake, I hope that it has been a peaceful passing, but we do not have a say in the way that we part from this world, do we?

 

I deliberately kept the enclosed information from you because it was my sincerest intention to share it with you someday. If you are reading this, then life has not granted me that chance.

 

I have only myself to blame, because I never took the time to sit down with you and talk about it. You were at Cambridge University until recently, and presently, you are enjoying the Season in Town with your friends. I do not want to begrudge you that, Richard, so I shall write as complete an account as possible. Pray God that I shall have the opportunity to confide the whereabouts of this story before I die.

 

I am not well, Richard. The condition of my heart is dire, or so Dr Prentice tells me. I could die at any moment. On the other hand, I could also live on for some years. It is not for me to decide. Therefore, I must be prepared.”

 

Richard lowered the letter and closed his eyes, inwardly shivering.

The dismal memory of his father’s last days earlier that year hit Richard with a force that painfully squeezed at his very heart. At the time his father had written this early 1793, Richard had been enjoying his third London Season. All he had truly been doing, was wasting his days with his friends, mindlessly so, and he had been full of his own desires for the future. There had been a few summonses from Donby, who was his father’s secretary in those days. He had written in no uncertain terms that Sir Robert was unwell and that Richard’s presence at Bearsham Manor was urgently requested. Richard had ignored the first few letters and had proceeded with his life of soirées and balls, jousting bouts at the boxing parlour, and lazy mornings at his club. That is, until his father’s Eastbourne solicitor, Mr Brownslow had turned up in London in person, and had made Richard fully aware of the way things were lying. Sir Robert, Mr Brownslow had said, reproach in his eyes, was on the brink of death.

With a sigh, Richard continued reading.

               

“The bequest of my worldly goods is quite straightforward as you well know. My solicitor Mr Brownslow informed you of the contents of my will, the moment you came home from Cambridge.

 

You are entitled to the title of Baronet Bearsham when I pass on. The Bearsham Manor estate and the bulk of my fortune and investments will come entirely to you.

 

Your half-sister Lily de Briers had a right to some of the funds that issued from her mother’s family, the Montroses. Therefore, I would have made certain that she acquired that money, had not fate decided otherwise.

 

Lily has been dead for several long years, but her children will have their mother’s share. That is my fervent wish, and I have made provisions for that in my will as you are aware. I will ask of you that you seek out the whereabouts of Manon Favier and her brother Jéhan and that you will give them their rightful share. You are a man of honour, Richard and thus you will act upon my wishes. I have no doubt about that.”

 

Again Richard’s thought drifted back to the time when his father had lain dying.

His father had seemed to be asleep for the better part of the day, Richard had discovered, once he had returned to the Manor. He recalled the long hours he had spent at his father’s bedside, reminiscing over his own, up-until-then frivolous life.

For the first time in his life, Richard had felt the full responsibility that would befall him, as soon as his father passed away. The livelihoods of his tenants and servants would lie in his ability to keep the estate thriving. His mother’s fast-approaching declining years would be his to manage. And finally, Manon and Jéhan Favier, who at that moment in time were still unknown to him, would be his responsibility as well.

The enormity of his task had threatened to overwhelm Richard, as he now recalled. He picked up the letter where it had fallen from his hand and realised he had not even registered that he dropped it.

 

“By now, you will have been informed by Mr Brownslow that I have kept up a steady correspondence with Thibaut Favier, since the death of dearest Lily. Before that horrible event, I had no inkling of the Faviers’ whereabouts until Thibaut wrote me that she had died giving birth to Jéhan. It was as terrible a blow to me, Richard, as it was to you. Fortunately, we had one another to lend us comfort. However, Thibaut and Manon had nothing, apart from the task of having to raise little Jéhan. Thibaut recently informed me of the alarming turn of events in the French capital. Riots, arson, and killings have become a daily pattern, and Thibaut is worried. So I will have to ask you to go on a journey to France anytime soon and bring the family to England. There is, however, one detail that you should know about Lily, my son, although it will not alter anything and certainly will not change anything with regard to the provisions I have made for Manon and Jéhan.”

 

Manon had been reading the letter over her uncle’s shoulder with rising excitement. She now felt a quickening of her pulse and gripped her uncle’s arm unawares, while the contents of Sir Robert’s letter kept unfolding. She was going to discover new facts about Maman! Maman, whom she had missed so dreadfully all through those five years since her brother was born. This letter, Manon realised with a start, was all about Maman.

Together, they read on.

 

“My dearest Elizabeth was a daughter of Reginald Montrose, a Scottish lord whose family fled the country after the Jacobite Risings. Sir Reginald’s grandfather swore allegiance to King George and was rewarded with the modest estate of Montrose in Yorkshire. Under the diligent care of several barons Montrose, their estate prospered, and the family grew to considerable wealth. Sir Reginald was able to provide for a suitable London Season for his only daughter. Elizabeth Montrose was therefore placed in the care of an elderly spinster aunt who owned a house in London. His steward, James MacIntyre was given the task of accompanying Elizabeth to the capital. They arrived in due time at the residence of Miss Horatia Satterthwaite on Curzon Street.

 

I was presented to Elizabeth by one of my long-time friends in the capital on the evening of a ball. I instantly fell head-over-heels in love with her, and to my infinite joy, she returned my feelings, even though she was only nineteen and I was thirty. I asked for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage and was granted permission to court her. We set our wedding date for the following summer, and I escorted my beloved girl around Town to balls and soirées. It was the happiest time of our lives.”

 

Where was all this leading? Richard mused. Why was his father elaborating over his courtship to his first wife? Of course, Richard knew that Sir Robert’s matchless love had been Elizabeth and not Mildred, Richard’s own mother. He had known that all his life, even though his father had never uttered a single word about the nature of his marriage to either Elizabeth or Mildred. Richard had never known Elizabeth, since she died giving birth to Lily, but every time he had seen Robert look at her portrait on the wall of Bearsham Manor’s grand entrance hall, Richard had felt her presence in the way his father gazed at her stunningly beautiful image – a gaze Robert never used when he looked at Mildred. This simple fact did not surprise Richard at all, since his mother must be the coldest woman on earth.

Robert and Elizabeth’s love must have been earth-shattering, Richard thought if his father had still missed her even after he had married someone else and begotten a son by her.

 

“Then, at the end of the Season, my life was shaken to the core when Elizabeth disappeared quite abruptly from London, without saying a word to anyone, including me. I quite dreadfully bullied her elderly aunt into telling me that Elizabeth had gone back to Montrose. I went after her, of course, and forced my way into her father’s study. Baron Montrose had refused to see me at first, you see. His daughter, he said, could not become my wife, because she had shamed his name in a most unforgivable way. She had eloped with his steward, James MacIntyre.

 

Initially, I was devastated, of course. I was so deeply hurt – not only was my pride wounded, but also and more deeply, my heart – that I fled to Bearsham Manor and licked my wounds in solitude. I could not believe what my Lizzie had done, and the pain of her betrayal was so immense that I indulged myself in wallowing in my sorrows for a few months. Eventually, I recovered and got my wits back. I remembered Lizzie’s love for me and her sweet, unspoiled nature, her warm loving heart. I started to have some serious doubts about what had happened. So after nearly half a year, I started searching for her.

               

Baron Montrose had no notion as to where the pair had fled to, but he said MacIntyre had relatives near Inverness in Scotland. I went there as quickly as I could and found Elizabeth in a small, dismal cottage on the estate of a local nobleman. She was working as a scullery maid in the laird’s kitchens and she was heavily pregnant with MacIntyre’s child. The man himself had sailed to the Americas after he had killed one of the laird’s footmen in a drunken row. He had simply abandoned Elizabeth and had never married her.

               

Elizabeth had succumbed to the man’s coaxing charms and had given herself to him. But the steward had only wished to bed her. On his part, it had been only lust he had felt for her since she came out of the schoolroom. Once it was spent, the man lost his interest in her. Elizabeth had followed him to Scotland when he ran from London, terrified that her father would find out about his dastardly deed. They had tried to settle down in his childhood home, but MacIntyre had been drunk for most of the time. Elizabeth was forced to work if she wanted to have food in her belly and a roof above her head.

               

Richard, it was utterly horrible.

 

When I found my Lizzie after all those months, I realised I had never stopped loving her. She was everything for me as she had been before and she would always be the love of my life. I brought her to Bearsham Manor and married her, despite her being pregnant with another man’s child. It did not matter one iota that she had betrayed me. I knew quite simply and plainly that I could not live without her. When Lily was born, some three months later, Elizabeth did not have the strength to survive the extremely difficult birth. Guilt had plunged her into a deep depression, but on top of that, she could not overcome the raging fever that came after the baby’s birth. All I had left of my beloved Lizzie was a beautiful baby girl with green eyes and auburn curls, just like her mother’s. I vowed, to myself and to God, to raise Lily as my own and to love her as deeply as I had loved Lizzie.

               

I have kept my promise, Richard, and so must you. You must give Lily’s children what I have set on them, and you must save them, protect them, and cherish them for the rest of your life. Your sister, Richard, even though she was an illegitimate child, was the daughter of my heart, just as you were the son of my heart and my beloved heir.

 

You are a man of honour, Richard. I know, in the deepest part of my heart, that you will not disillusion me.

 

Farewell, my son. May the Almighty Lord in his all-embracing mercy watch over you and yours, for the rest of your life.

 

Robert de Briers, Baronet Bearsham”

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Nine

Armitage_004 - small

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

A discreet knock on the chapel door startled them both so unexpectedly that they almost jumped apart.

“Come in,” Richard summoned, and Thornton entered in his usual dignified manner.

“Sir, you have a visitor from London, a Mr Blenkinsop. He says he is Sir Jeremy’s man of business. His Lordship is out riding so I have put Mr Blenkinsop in the drawing room. Perhaps you might want to receive him in his Lordship’s absence? He says he has extremely urgent business with Sir Jeremy.”

“Very well,” Richard recollected himself and followed his butler.

Manon trotted after them, frustrated now that she would not immediately know the contents of the parcel. When she passed the vast mirror on the second floor landing, Manon caught a glimpse of herself and halted. She appeared terribly dishevelled, and her dress was in a sorry state. She could not possibly meet a visitor in her present attire. With a sigh, she headed to her room to change.

 

His mother, Richard noticed with annoyance, was already in the drawing room. She was standing at the front window, wringing her hands. A fair sign that Mildred was concerned over something, although Richard had no inkling of what it might be.

A short, rotund man in his early sixties rose from the drawing room settee when Richard entered.

“Sir Richard,” the man said, bowing from the waist with something of an effort since the said waist was non-existent.

“Mr Blenkinsop,” Richard acknowledged, returning the man’s bow. “How can I help you?”

I was hoping that I could have a word with Lord Jeremy. The news I am obliged to bring him is quite upsetting.”

Mildred gave a strangled little shriek but fell silent when her son threw her a forbidding look. Richard turned his attention back to his visitor and replied, “I am truly sorry to hear that, Mr Blenkinsop. Since His Lordship has yet to return from his ride, will you join me in taking a glass of sherry? At least we could make the time pass in an agreeable manner.”

“With extreme pleasure, sir,” Mr Blenkinsop beamed.

To Richard’s relief, Mildred recalled that she was the hostess and hastened toward the liquor cabinet to serve the men their drink. She then seated herself in a chair near the window, still pulling at her hands.

The two men conversed about general topics during a pleasant quarter of an hour until the door opened to let Thornton in.

“His Lordship, Viscount Banbury, sir.”

Jeremy strode into the room, emanating a scent of horse and outdoor riding so enticingly that Richard began longing for the moment his bruised ribs would again allow him to do the same.

“Mr Blenkinsop,” Jeremy said, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise. “What brings you to faraway Hampshire this morning?”

To Richard’s surprise, the round figure of Mr Blenkinsop sank onto one knee. The man bowed his head and retrieved a small item from his waistcoat pocket, presenting it to Jeremy.

“It is a sad message I bring to you, My Lord Donbridge. I was commissioned to hand over your father’s signet ring so that you will be able to resume the duties laid upon you in this very hour. His Lordship passed away in his sleep during the night.”

Richard heard the slight intake of breath Jeremy uttered, the sole sign that the new Earl of Donbridge had indeed acknowledged the lawyer’s words.

“When did this happen, Mr Blenkinsop?” the new earl quietly asked.

“Last evening, after returning from a soirée, the earl collapsed. His physician pronounced it an apoplectic attack, my lord. His Lordship died in the night, without having regained consciousness. May I offer you my sincerest condolences?”

“Thank you, Mr Blenkinsop. You may rise to your feet. I am most obliged to you for coming to appraise me so forthwith.”

Richard stepped forward and proffered a hand. “Donbridge, I am most aggrieved upon hearing of your father’s demise. If there is anything I can do to be of assistance, please do not hesitate to tell me. It would be my honour and pleasure.”

“Thank you, Bearsham. Please ask your butler to send my valet to my chambers and tell him to start packing. I want to return to London as soon as possible.”

“Jeremy!”

The baronetess’ high-pitched cry rang through the room like the wailing of a banshee.

“You are not going to leave me behind, are you? I want to accompany you, and be with you! You promised me that we would never be separated again!”

Richard froze in horror when his mother flung herself onto the earl’s chest, sobbing her heart out. He made a move towards the couple, but the Earl of Donbridge took the matter in hand. He slowly freed himself from Mildred’s clutching hands lowering them from around his neck.

“I think you know that we must part, my dear,” he said in a gentle voice. “My responsibilities are immense now. I will have to work hard to fill my late father’s shoes and preserve the earldom of Donbridge for my eldest son. We will see each other again on the London scene, I am sure. Farewell, Mildred, my dear.”

Mildred did not reply but sank into a chair, sobbing.

To be honest, Richard had been struck by the change in the new earl’s demeanour, when the realisation of his father’s demise had occurred to him. If he had been a shallow, easygoing middle-aged man before, Jeremy Lawson was now showing his true breeding. He seemed to have grown several inches, and his bearing had become regal and distinguished within mere seconds. Richard almost admired him for finally allowing his upbringing to show.

The Earl of Donbridge gracefully nodded an acknowledgement to Richard.

“My thanks for your hospitality, Sir Richard. I hope you will think of visiting me sometime in the future at Donbridge Abbey.  For now, I would like to leave within the hour. My mother must have need of my comfort and assistance.”

“Of course, I understand, my lord. Just convey your wishes to my butler, and he will provide for them.”

 

The door opened with a click, and Manon entered, her cream-coloured muslin skirts swishing softly as she neared the earl. She dipped in a perfect curtsy and gently said, “My lord, I heard about your father’s demise, just now. Please accept my most sincere condolences.”

Richard watched in mesmerized pleasure as she took the hand Jeremy offered her once she rose from her curtsy. Manon, being as soft-hearted and compassionate as ever, pressed it in both her hands before placing a discreet kiss on the earl’s cheek.

Donbridge coloured in sudden pleasure, and his eyes grew damp.

“Thank you, dear child,” he replied. “Your compassion is most appreciated.” He swallowed, then straightened before he released Manon’s hand. He bowed to her and the baronet and left the room.

The only sounds in the room were his mother’s sobbing, and they drew Manon’s attention.

Richard caught Manon’s eyes, which were softened with tears as she walked towards his mother. She knelt before Mildred and put a comforting hand on the baronetess’ shoulder.  Richard felt his heart tighten within him. She was so compassionate, his angel. She even showed true gentleness to a woman who despised her.

“Aunt Mildred,” Manon whispered, “I beg you, do not weep so. You will make yourself ill, and what would be the benefit in that? Come, you should rest for a while. I will ask the cook to prepare you some hot chocolate.”

Richard was not at all surprised when his mother jumped up from the chair, pushing at Manon who fell backwards onto the floor. His mother was not so easily pacified.

“Take your hands off me, you wretched wench! I will not be pitied by the likes of you!”

Mildred stormed out of the room while Richard helped Manon up.

“Poor woman,” his niece sympathized. “And poor Jeremy, too. I am certain he will feel the loss of your mother’s company in the days to come.”

“Do not waste your tears on Jeremy Lawson, my sweet niece,” Richard felt compelled to answer. “He is now an extremely wealthy earl in possession of a large fortune and several thriving estates. The old earl was a tyrant who took pleasure in forcing his family into submission. No one will feel the loss of him greatly, I suspect.”

“How can you say that, Uncle?” Manon turned disturbed eyes on him as if she could not believe her ears. Tears began to run slowly down her pale cheeks, yet her voice sounded stern when she spoke.

“He was a father, a husband. He must have been loved and now he will be missed, no matter how fierce his character! A father will always be missed, Uncle!”

Richard’s heart turned in his very chest at the realisation that Manon’s father, who had been taken from her only so recently, must still be causing her grief. A grief she had not yet had time to  acknowledge. Manon had never spoken about her father’s death, he recalled with a pang of sorrow. She had bravely taken up the task of looking after her little brother, ignoring her own pain. On the ship to England, she had comforted Jéhan when he realised their father was dead and would never return to them. Who had comforted Manon, he mused? No one, not even he.

On an impulse, Richard obliterated the distance between them in two strides and wrapped his arms around her slender shoulders.

“Forgive me, my dear. I had forgotten your own recent bereavement. I spoke in haste.”

The moment his warmth enveloped her like a shielding cloak, Manon melted against Richard’s body, unable to resist the comfort he offered her. The memory of Papa and Maman rushed over her in a tide of pain, so fierce that her breath was cut off. That life was gone. Forever gone, and it did not signify to mourn the loss of it. She swallowed the useless tears and stepped away from Richard’s disturbing embrace.

“We cannot dwell upon what is lost, Uncle. I will always mourn Papa and after all these years, I still have grief over Maman, but I cannot allow their passing to influence the rest of my life. I shall dearly love them as long as I draw breath, because they loved me and cherished me. They gave me and Jéhan a home through the love they felt for each other. But they are gone and so is the life we led when they were still alive. We cannot go back to the past as dearly as we should wish for it.”

“Come,” Richard said, on an impulse. “There is something you must see.”

He took her hand and pulled her with him to his library where he pointed at a large frame above the mantelpiece. Manon swallowed in sudden emotion as, for the first time since Lily passed away, she saw her dear mother’s likeness.

It was breathtaking. Lily De Briers must have been but a girl barely out of the schoolroom, when the portrait was painted. She had been depicted in a standing position, dressed in her finery, and cradling her little dog. Her left foot was resting on a low stool, while the right one was hidden beneath her skirts. That slender, delicate foot was shod in a white silk stocking and a silver slipper. Peeking out as it did from under the hem of Lily’s skirt, it emphasized her youth and vulnerability. Lily’s vibrant auburn hair was spilling over her shoulders, which were slightly bared by a splendid gown of deep sea-green. The colour of the gown matched her mother’s eyes, which sparkled with a fire of their own. The artist had managed to capture that glow to perfection. This, Manon thought, was Maman, as she had been when Papa fell in love with her.

“Whenever you feel the loss, Manon, do as I do – just sit here and look at her. This is our Lily, the dearest of mothers to you, and a dearly beloved sister to me.”

Richard’s voice came from behind her, and was so near that Manon started. His breath ruffled the hair on top of her head and his warmth was clearly noticeable. Manon kept still, revelling in his being so close. He spoke again, and she listened.

“Father adored her. She was the sun in his life and in mine. I remember the time when she modelled for the portrait. It took the artist two months to finish it. Lily had to spend hours just standing there without changing position. I was five at the time and an absolute little brute. I used to peek from behind the artist’s back and make faces at her, to make her giggle and laugh, which she did, of course. The painter used to be angry with her and scold her. She always had a difficult time regaining her solemn composure after my mischief.”

“I cannot ever for the life of me picture you as a brute, Uncle. You are gentle and caring.”

She tried to keep her tone light, not wanting him to see her emotions.

“Oh, but I was a pest, niece, I assure you. All five-year-old boys invariably are. However, I tried to be a good master to Wriggles, her dog after she left. Sadly, the poor dog’s heart was broken, and it died two months later. The lucky bastard. Wished I could have died too, at that time.”

Manon could not think of anything that might console her uncle, so she kept her silence. Then her attention was drawn by another picture on the opposite wall.

“Is that our grandmother, Elizabeth?” she asked, walking over to look closer at the painting.

“Only yours, Manon. Surely you remember that your grandmother Elizabeth was my father’s first spouse. My mother was his second wife.”

“Oh, quite! I forgot. Elizabeth was as stunningly beautiful as Lily, was she not? That glorious auburn hair and those dark eyes! Are they not magnificent?”

“They certainly are,” Richard agreed.

“Maman and I seem to have inherited her hair,” Manon mused, “but not her eyes. They are dark,  almost black.”

“Yours are sea-green, as were Lily’s. Since there are no green eyes in my father’s family that I know of, it must be a trait that came from Elizabeth’s. Unfortunately, I do not know your grandmother’s family since my father and Elizabeth were estranged from them long before I was born. Father never talked about the Montrose family. I only know that their seat was somewhere in Yorkshire.”

“Thank you for showing me these,” Manon said, smiling. “I had not yet found time to go find my Maman’s picture, Uncle.”

“No,” Richard chuckled, “you have been rather busy during your short stay, niece. Now, let us find out what is in that parcel my father left me. I can but wonder why he did not allow me to know its contents when he was alive.”

They repaired to Richard’s desk, where Thornton had placed the parcel. Richard cut the strings and unwrapped it. In it was a letter, several sheets thick.

Manon drew nearer to her uncle so that she was able to read it also.

 

 

 

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Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-EightArmitage_00412- small

 

Two weeks passed in relative peace, so that Manon was able to go to Greenhaven to check on how Mrs Lynver fared. Pru who had gone there a few days before Manon, told her that she had secured the services of a young Cornish physician, Dr Trevellyan. Together with the staff of nurses they managed to stem the constant daily tide of sufferers to a reasonable amount.

Manon returned to Bearsham Manor on the tenth of August. She found her uncle much improved in strength and in spirits, although he was still in need of rest. After a thorough examination, she left Richard to his sleep.

Conscious of her still unabated feelings for her uncle, Manon sighed with sorrow as she closed the door of her uncle’s bedchamber behind her. It had not grown easier, this constant confrontation they were both subjected to. She had hoped it would, though. Yet after a few days away from Richard, days in which she deeply missed him, the joy of seeing him again overwhelmed Manon. Her heart had leapt with love when she saw the answering sparkle in Richard’s eyes, just moments ago. His smile had warmed her to the core, even when she recognized the pain of having to suppress their mutual forbidden feelings in his hungry gaze. How were they to bear this, she had no inkling.

On the second floor, Manon passed a large oak door which was polished to a shine in certain places by the touch of many hands. Curious to the point of excitement, she pushed against it; she had not entered this room before.

The solemn silence of a chapel met her when Manon stepped over the threshold. Her upbringing had been Roman-Catholic. The chapel’s perfectly quiet atmosphere, combined with the exquisite decoration, instantly touched her very soul.

She reverently curtsied while dipping her hand into the elegant marble shell near the door. It was filled with holy water. She made a slow sign of the cross and glanced around to admire the beautiful upholstery.

 

Richard woke from a short nap when the door to his room opened. His niece rushed in, and he was struck by the somewhat dishevelled state she was in. Manon’s fiery hair was coming down from its pins, and she had a smudge of dirt crossing her nose and cheeks.

“Oh, I am truly sorry, Uncle, to have woken you. Parbleu! Tête de mule, que je suis!

She turned to leave the room, but Richard, fully awake now and intrigued, called her back.

“When you are swearing in French and calling yourself a dunderhead, then something truly upsetting must have happened, my dear. Out with it, please.”

“I wanted to show you something, but I forgot that you might be asleep. It can wait, Uncle.”

“No, it cannot. Wait for me outside, and I will call Bright to help me get dressed.”

Manon left the room with a smile on her face. So her uncle had taken her advice and allowed Bright to help him while he was convalescing.

Ten minutes later, Richard let Manon take him to the second floor chapel, but was surprised that she did so.

“The family has not used this chapel for years, Manon. The servants have their services here whenever they lack the time to go down to Bearsham Village and St Wulfram’s Church. The vicar, Mr Merryweather, has always graciously obliged me in this. I did not know you had adopted it as your own, small place of worship.”

“Mrs Briskley told me about it, but I had not found the time to visit and pray. There is something here. Come.”

Manon impetuously grabbed his hand rather and pulled him with her. Richard winced as a sharp tug reminded him of his injured ribs yet he quickly swallowed his gasp of pain.

His niece led him to the small, intricately decorated altar at the chapel’s front. It was an example of exquisite baroque craftsmanship in white, pink, and dark blue marble. Its front and upper part bore bas-reliefs, representing angels, demons, saints, and cherubs in all sizes and postures, yet the overall effect was charming and not as overly loaded as is usually the case in baroque pieces. The upper part had also a small, gilded door which concealed the tabernacle. On both sides of this door, there were two paintings, both about the size of a square foot.

“Look closely at the painting on the left, Uncle,” Manon said quietly.

Richard furrowed his brow and looked at her in complete bewilderment.

“I have known these paintings to be here as long as I can remember, Manon. The one on the right is “The Steps to Elysium” or the depiction of souls ascending into Heaven, and the other is “The Vale of Tears” or…” And suddenly, Richard grasped what his niece had wanted him to see.

He darted forward, ignoring the fiery arrow of pain piercing his back. Dizziness forced him onto his knees, and he heard Manon’s distressed cry only dimly, as if he were under water.

“I am well,” he hastened to reassure her. “It is only a passing faintness. Help me up, please.”

Once he was on his feet again, Richard acted with greater caution, grimly recalling that he had not yet his strength back. Pushing back his infuriated thoughts about his condition, he bent forward to examine the small painting to the left of the tabernacle.

It all came back to him like a high wave, breaking onto the shore. This chapel had been his father’s retreat when his wife’s harassments became too overburdening. Richard remembered that his father had often worked in here as well, seated at a small table at the back. It stood to reason that Robert de Briers must have had a place in here that was destined to hide confidential documents.

Richard’s hand went up to the gilded tabernacle door, then stopped. It must be locked, he remembered, and the key would be … where, for heaven’s sake? He abruptly realised he had no notion of its whereabouts.

“Blast!” He tried to mutter the curse under his breath, but Manon’s keen ears picked it up anyway.

“What? What is it?” she demanded, her voice rising to a pitch with frustration. “Why do you not pull the painting from its place and examine what is behind?”

“Because, my impetuous niece,” Richard patiently explained, “that is not the way to find out what is ‘behind the vale’. Which, if I may say so, is exceedingly astute of you to have figured out.”

Manon blushed so becomingly that Richard’s heart leapt with a sudden desire. Damn! When would he learn to suppress his unruly feelings for his lovely niece?

“It was not solely my doing,” she answered. “Jake and Jéhan helped me. Oh, I am so extremely curious! How will we know, then? What is this secret?”

She was almost jumping with excitement, and Richard laughed aloud at the pretty sight she presented. Hair tumbling, face flushed, and sea-green gown wrinkled and stained from her search – it made her look truly adorable.

“Well,” he replied, “I need to locate the tabernacle key, because without it, our search is over. It may very well be amongst the keys in my father’s desk. I have not yet found the time to go through all his possessions, since I had to set out for France right after his death.”

“Tabernacle keys are usually found in the vestry,” Manon said, matter-of-factly. “In a French church, there would be a special cabinet for them.”

“Let us go find out, then,” Richard replied, and preceded her to the room in question, a small, cupboard-like extension at the far left side of the chapel. It had no windows, and its sturdy door was concealed in the wall panelling. Fortunately, it was unlocked.

Richard took a candle from a holder on the altar and lighted it from the thick wax candle in the corridor which was always kept burning by Thompson. They stepped inside. Manon immediately pointed at a small wooden box fixed to the back wall.

“There! That is what I mean!”

She was right. The small but robust iron tabernacle key was easily spotted, hanging from its hook amidst its fellows, which were used to open the cabinets for books and religious garments.

“Was the chapel a Roman Catholic one?” Manon asked, a bit bemused. “All those items certainly point toward that conclusion.”

“As a matter of fact, it was,” Richard confirmed. “After Henry VIII established the Church of England, all chapels, even the private ones, had to be refurbished. My ancestor at the time instantly swore loyalty to the new religion but could not find the heart to destroy the lovely late Gothic paintings the altar had been decorated with a century earlier. He had a false front installed, with reproductions of Renaissance works. Unfortunately, a later baronet had it pulled down to replace it with that baroque-styled monstrosity. The family must have kept all the other items concealed behind the vestry door.”

“I rather love the baroque style,” Manon retorted a bit of a reproach in her tone. “It is elegant and refined, and in my country, the nobility has used it in many exquisite chateaux, townhouses and churches.”

Richard kept silent, and instead went back to the chapel to try the key. He was unexpectedly stung by Manon’s referring to France as “her country” when he had believed all along that she was beginning to feel quite at home in England. How could one not feel at home at Bearsham Manor? Even with his cold-hearted mother around when he was little, Richard had always been fond of the large barn of a house. He knew why; his father had loved and cherished him and had made him feel at home. His father had instilled pride and reverence in him, for his name, his title, and his estate. Concern and care for people who depended on him for their livelihood.

“Never forget that you are first and foremost a de Briers, Richard. A baronet who was given a community to protect, along with his title. People and families, beasts and crops, and this estate and house – they all depend on you, my son, for their well-being.” Those were words he had often heard from Robert, his father.

“Oh!”

Manon’s little cry ripped Richard back into reality, and he hastened to put the key in the lock.

The tabernacle door opened easily on well-oiled hinges, which surprised Richard until he realised his father must have used it frequently for documents he needed to keep safe. Papers that had to be kept private and out of his mother’s sight, no doubt. Richard had no doubt that the dowager would have gotten hold of the combination to his father’s vault, even if she were not supposed to have acquired that knowledge.

“Oh! It is empty!” Manon exclaimed.

“No, wait,” Richard said and put his hand inside the small cupboard. He tapped lightly on the left side wall although he had no recollection as to how he knew to do so.

A hidden panel swung inward, and Manon held her breath when Richard extracted an item out of the secret compartment behind “The Vale of Tears”. It was a parcel, the size of a book, and wrapped in brown paper and fastened with a string.

In a bold, precise hand, the words “To my son Richard de Briers” could be read.

 

 

 

 

 

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