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.