As Richard had foreseen, they reached Boulogne in three days, but it was night when they entered the small seaside town. As a precaution, they had not slept at inns the two previous nights, after they had spotted a company of soldiers camped near the village of Quend, fifteen miles north of Abbeville. Instead, they had made camp in the woods lining the road. It had been uncomfortable, but not overly so, because the June nights were balmy.
With Jake and Jéhan present, it also proved bearable to sleep close to Richard, Manon found. She took her little brother under her coverlet during the night, his warmth a veritable comfort when dawn set in and the temperature dropped. Nevertheless, she did not sleep soundly, but in short stages, and she lay awake for long periods, watching Richard when it was his turn to take watch. Jake and he alternated every two hours.
She would look at his moonlit, aquiline profile as he sat near the banked fire. His face was strong, his jaw clean, even with the shadow of beard now blurring it. His wavy, black hair was tied with a bow at the nape of his neck, and Manon revelled in the sight of his proud, uncovered head. During the day, he always wore his beaver hat, which made much of his beautiful hair invisible. How she longed to weave her hands through the black silkiness of Richard’s hair. To caress his jaw, to feel the roughness of his beard, to run her fingers over his neck and shoulders. To press her lips against his mouth and part those finely chiselled lips with her tongue.
No – she was not allowed to perform all those wonderful gestures. He was forbidden to her in that way. That night at the inn in Abbeville, they had slept in the same bed, an experience that would probably never occur again in their lives. She had lain awake listening to Richard’s breathing, feeling every movement as his body dipped the mattress when he shifted position, his warmth when his body accidentally touched hers. His scent, clean and spicy, was so intensely male that when it reached her nostrils, it set her flesh on fire.
She would have to endure this suffering no longer once they crossed the Channel. In England, they would be staying at a friend of Richard’s, where his coach stood waiting to bring them to Bearsham Manor. Their adventure was nearing its end. Once they were in England, society would effectively separate the two of them.
Yet Manon was reluctant to let Richard drift apart from her before she had even experienced what love truly meant. She loved Richard, and she was certain, beyond all doubt, that he loved her too. They were physically attracted to each other, and they found it difficult not to act upon it. She would be married someday to a man she would probably not love at all, and Manon longed for Richard’s touch now, even if it would be only once. She desperately wanted to be initiated in the ways of lovemaking by the man she loved, so that she would have no regrets about being touched for the rest of her life by an indifferent husband. She longed for memories she could cherish throughout a life she would spend without Richard.
In Boulogne, they found an inn near the harbour. It boasted four private rooms and a large common room. Because of the country’s uproar, the inn stood empty, all attempts to travel to England having come to naught.
After a restful night, they breakfasted and went to find the boat Richard had used to come to France. La Nymphe Maritime was a fisherman’s craft, and her owner, Paul Lafitte, made daily voyages deep into the Channel to earn his living. Richard had managed to secure his services when a storm had blown La Nymphe into Dover Port. He made a deal with Lafitte, who promised to wait for him in Boulogne Harbour for a month. After that, the deal would be over, and Lafitte would be free to go. Since only three weeks had passed since Richard had set foot in France, Lafitte was still waiting for him. He welcomed Richard wholeheartedly.
“Bring us to England, Paul,” Richard said. “I will make it worth your while. Thank you for being here as we agreed.”
The boat was small, every storage space destined for the cargo of fish Paul would catch when he went out on the North Sea. She was sturdy, and her skipper kept her in excellent order. There was only one cabin, however, where Paul had his bunk and galley. He graciously left it to Manon and Jéhan, should they need a rest, but the crossing would only take four hours in this weather. The sea was calm, and the sky was clear. They should reach Dover early in the afternoon.
As soon as they set foot on the boat, Jéhan began behaving strangely. He stayed close to his sister, clutching her skirts tightly as he used to do when he was a toddler.
“What is it, mon chou?” Manon asked gently, ruffling his dark curls.
“Manon, I am scared! What is this … thing? What is happening?”
His sister realised that Jéhan had never seen the sea. Paris and the surrounding countryside were all he knew, and the five-year-old must be confused indeed. She took her little brother downstairs to the galley while the three men prepared the boat for sailing. In the cosy confinement of the cabin, Manon sat Jéhan on the bunk next to her.
“Mon petit frère courageux,” she said, pulling him close, “I need you to be truly brave. We are leaving France to go to England. You knew that, did you not?”
Jéhan nodded. “Yes, but what is this large water? Are we not going to sink? You cannot tread on water, Manon! We will drown!”
“No, love, we will not. This is a boat, not quite like the ones you see on the Seine in Paris, but similar. You know the river boats on the Seine, do you not?”
“Yes, but I have never been on one! Will it sink, this boat?”
“No, it will not. Monsieur Lafitte, our skipper, will bring us safely over the North Sea to England. That is the name of this large expanse of water you see here, Jéhan. It is the North Sea, and it separates England from the European continent, where France lies. Uncle Richard says it will take four hours to reach Dover, which is the nearest port from Boulogne, where we are now.”
Jéhan stared at her with large, frightened eyes.
“We will leave France? But … but Papa is in France, in Paris! We cannot leave Papa behind, Manon! We must go back and bring him with us!”
With mounting apprehension, Manon understood that now was time to tell her brother about their father. She could postpone it no longer. Taking him onto her lap, Manon tenderly embraced the little boy.
“Listen, Jéhan, I must tell you about Papa. You need to be very brave, because it is not pleasant news. Papa is dead, my sweet darling. The rioters killed him and left his body in our kitchen. I found him on the very first night that we slept in our house after the rioters took everything. I buried Papa in our garden. I did not want you to see him, Jéhan.”
Her brother’s hazel eyes, Papa’s eyes, Manon realised, were round with shock, but he did not weep or wail. He just nodded and said, “We will never see Papa again, will we? He is gone forever.”
“Yes, mon chou. Papa has gone to join Maman in heaven. They are together now, but so are we.” By now, Manon’s eyes were burning with unshed tears but she swallowed them back, not wanting to upset her brother further. Jéhan was trembling in her arms, so she held him close and stroked his curls to soothe him.
“What will become of us, Manon?” His small, frightened voice wavered, tearing at the strings of her heart.
“We will go to England, to live with our uncle and his mother at their estate. I will always be with you, Jéhan. I will never leave you. Our uncle will house us, feed us, clothe us, but I will care for you for the rest of your life, Jéhan. Whatever happens, you and I will never be separated. We are Manon and Jéhan Favier.”
Jéhan was quieter now, Manon felt. He sighed and nestled closer to her.
“If you are with me, I am not afraid, Manon.”
“I am with you, Jéhan, and I always will be.”
When the siblings went back up onto the deck, they were surprised to see that the boat had reached the open sea. With the resilience of childhood, Jéhan ran to the railing and cried out, “Mon Dieu, Manon, come and look at this! There is water everywhere! Oh, look, a seagull! Sister Marie-Ange showed us a drawing in class!”
Manon joined him at the railing and cautioned him not to fall overboard. “Here, Jéhan. Take hold of my skirt and do not let go of it. Be careful, mon chou. If you fall overboard, you will drown.”
“Yes, I know that, silly!” Her brother humphed, then asked, “Can I go and see what le capitaine is doing? I will be careful, I promise.”
Paul Lafitte hailed him and Jéhan ran off without waiting for permission.
“Do not worry,” a deep voice rang beside her, “he will be safe with Lafitte. The man has a family of his own, somewhere near Boulogne. I have met his wife Isabelle and their five children.”
Manon looked up into Richard’s smiling eyes. A lump formed in her throat, and she said, “I have told him about Papa.”
Richard’s hand, warm and strong, covered hers on top of the railing. “That was necessary, Manon. You could not keep the truth from him forever.”
“I know,” she replied in a small voice, “but telling him was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.”
“You did well, Manon,” Richard said. “Look at him. He is already fully absorbed by what Lafitte is doing and enjoying it. Children are resilient. As long as we are there for Jéhan, he will do well.”
They reached Dover when dusk was settling in. The crossing had been smooth, but the travellers were tired, so it was with relief that Richard spotted his friend’s carriage waiting for them at the quayside.
Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter, had been Richard’s friend since their days as Cambridge students. Lucian’s father was the Earl Clifford of Middleton in Kent, but the viscount had a small estate of his own near Romney, which was twenty-three miles south of Dover.
He now stepped and grasped Richard’s profited hand in a tight grip.
“Richard!” he said with unmitigated relief in his tenor voice. “Finally, you have come. I have been keeping men watching here for over a week, not knowing when you would arrive. I am so glad you made it back to England again.”
Manon, still weary from her sea voyage, came off the gangplank carrying her sleeping brother against her shoulder. She did not notice the tall, blond Adonis until he came striding in her direction, concern in his dark brown eyes.
“Mademoiselle,” he said in perfect French, “let me relieve you of your burden.”
He took Jéhan from her before Manon could react. “I am Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter,” he presented himself. “Your uncle de Briers and I have been friends for nigh ten years. Welcome to England, mademoiselle Favier!”
Manon had been full of apprehension when the stranger took Jéhan from her, but now she curtsied and replied, “Thank you, my lord. I am most happy to make your acquaintance.”
“Rich, you old scoundrel! You did not tell me your niece spoke our language! May I congratulate you, mademoiselle, on your perfect English? And please, no titles. My name is Lucian, and I would like you to use it.”
Manon smiled and begged the viscount to do likewise. She liked this pleasant, open young man from the start. He was the opposite of her uncle, she thought. Wavy golden hair, warm brown eyes, and a thin moustache that graced his wide, sensual upper lip. He was as tall as her uncle was, but of slighter build, though he had the same musculature about the chest and shoulders. The difference between them, Manon realised, lay in their character. Where Richard was a quiet, grave and somewhat withdrawn man, Lucian was exuberant and outspoken. Richard had a decidedly distinctive tendency to brood, whereas Lucian seemed to have no care in the world. Perhaps he really did have none, Manon mused. When your father was an English peer, you had no significant qualms or concerns.
She followed the two men to the waiting carriage, watching them as they strode side by side. Two friends, and every inch each other’s opposite.