The Counterfeit Governess – Part Four

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Four – The Beginning of Battle

 

Beth’s face froze at the casually spoken accusation. He could not have found her out, she thought. Had he recognized her despite all the precautions she took? Even as the colour left her face, she realised she would have to answer him – and quickly.

“Intentions, my lord? I do not understand!” To give herself space to breathe, Beth did not sit down but wandered to the high windows to contemplate the beautiful rose gardens below. When Fenton’s voice suddenly came but from inches away, she started involuntary. Her hand, holding her glass, wavered and the golden cherry spilled over her employer’s coat sleeve.

“Oh, I am sorry, my lord! Here, let me …”

He grabbed her hand, removed the glass and put it on a nearby table. Not releasing his grip, he slid his other hand under her chin in a gesture of pure male dominance.

“I will not be distracted, mademoiselle. Why are you badgering me into forcing your charges upon me and my mother?”

Regardless of the consequences, Beth only listened to her own, indignant fury and snapped at him.

Because you are their father! Because you have a sacred duty to them to care for them – no, to love them! They are very young and extremely distressed to have been taken from the grandmother they love! Telling Lily and Oliver that you love them and that you want them near you, would be the only explanation they would accept. If you do not give them that, they will simply wither away with misery.”

Fenton’s grey eyes were alight with rage, she saw, and in his livid face, his mouth quivered with the effort of restraining himself not to slap her. Narrowing her own eyes at him, to show him she was not intimidated by his fury, she tilted her chin and wiped his hand away.

 

He ached to kiss her! No, he just wanted her! That was the only thing on his mind because all other coherent thoughts seemed to have vanished like water drops a hot stone. As his gaze travelled from her rosy, moist lips to the spot right under her ear where her blood pulsed vigorously, Stephen Fenton felt his stomach muscles tighten with a knot of sheer desire. By Jove, what the deuce was wrong with him? He needed to get a hold on these uncontrolled feelings and right now, before she noticed them!

His long years of rigid army training served him well as he drew himself up to his full 6’2 and cut Beth off in a voice as clipped as a razor blade’s edge

“Mademoiselle Guillaume, let me clarify the position in which you serve this household. You are a governess on my payroll and you follow the rules I deem appropriate for the education of my bastard children. My bastard children, mademoiselle. Kindly take care you do not lose sight of that tiny little detail. Lily and Oliver are to be given a basic , and I do not expect them to behave as if they were to have a London season and a presentation at court. I provide for them in a very generous manner so that they can make their way through life. I believe that is already more than I am obliged to give them. Love is no part of the arrangement so keep your French emotions in check and stop interfering where it is not wanted.”

Beth could not believe her ears at this ice cold little speech but she would rather die than letting him see her indignation. This man, she told herself, was a cold-hearted rogue and immune to feelings of the heart. And she would be wise to always remember that.

“Very well, my lord,” she replied as politely as she could manage. Making him a perfect curtsy, she added a little sting. “I will tell Lily and Oliver that they do not need to love you, only pay you the respect you are entitled to as their provider. It will make matters much simpler. Goodnight, my lord.”

She had almost reached the door before his barked reply stopped her.

“For the love of God, what do you want me to do? I do not know these children at all! How am I supposed to convey feelings to them that I do not have?”

“I leave that entirely up to you, my lord,” Beth answered neatly. “A man of your breeding and experience surely must know how to convey his feelings if he puts his mind – and his heart – to it.”

With that, she left the room and went upstairs on shaky legs.

 

~~~~

 

Beth’s first month at Brixton Abbey had every day fully packed with various activities. She imposed a strict schedule to her charges and kept to it. Mornings were for study – reading, writing and arithmetic. As the weather was fine in this month of September, she often took Lily and Oliver outdoors, instead of keeping them cooped up in the dreary classroom on the top floor of the manor. They found a quiet terrace in the gardens where they could not be seen from the house. It was surrounded by yew hedges and had a stone table and benches.

Afternoons were for visits to Granny Bradley’s or horse riding lessons in the paddock near the stables. Beth thought it important that the children should learn to handle a horse.

Four weeks after they started, both children were tolerably fluent in reading. Lily had the upper hand  in writing and Oliver excelled in riding. Their weak point seemed to be arithmetic, although Oliver was better than Lily. The latter showed a knack for French, which Beth had introduced fairly quickly. All in all, she was very pleased with her charges’ first accomplishments.

Lily was a quiet girl who could concentrate, if she put her mind to it. Her brother, being a healthy, twelve-year-old boy, hated sitting still for more than a quarter of an hour at the time. He relished the horse riding and the thought of it kept him focussed during the other lessons.

However, Beth’s major accomplishment during that first month was that she succeeded in gaining the children’s trust and friendship, which was even more important for their well-being than the rest.

 

~~~~

 

It was one of those splendid September mornings when one did not think it would ever be Fall again, Stephen Fenton thought as he rose from behind his desk in the library. He had been working on estate matters and was eager to take a stroll and stretch his legs. As he began walking the path beside the large lawn toward a set of secret gardens and terraces, he acknowledged his master gardener‘s  good work in tending his vast grounds. Everything was in perfect order.

He descended a flight of shallow stairs that separated the lawn from the formal gardens beyond, when suddenly his left knee gave way, causing him to stumble and flail his arms to regain his balance. His reward was a sharp stab of pain on the right side of his abdomen where a French sabre left him with a horrible scar. The sabre cut and a bullet in his thigh were the injuries that had brought him on the brink of death after the Badajoz siege in 1812. If his mother had not moved heaven and earth, first to get him home and secondly to nurse him, he would have died far away from home and under miserable circumstances. His battle scars kept troubling him from time to time, though, causing him to be bitter and ill-tempered.

As he neared one of the secret gardens, the sound of a voice irresistibly drew him to it.

“Mon … nom est … Lily et je … suis une … fille,” Fenton heard. It was Lily’s voice, he realised with surprise! Reading in French? Her accent was not even that bad but he would have to thank the governess for that.

Elle Guillaume – aka Beth Williams – seemed to be doing a great job, Fenton mused. Who would have foreseen that the awkward vicar’s daughter would grow into so refined a lady.

“Très bien!” came Beth’s voice. “Et maintenant, Oliver, c’est à toi.”

“Oh, must I, miss? I do not know how to!”

“Yes, you do, Oliver. Come on, make an effort! You know the rules; if you do your lessons well enough to satisfy me, you’re allowed to make the trip to Granny’s on horseback, this afternoon.”

And, to Fenton’s surprise, Oliver obliged in a mangled French and recited the required words.

“Mon nom est Oliver et je suis un garcon.”

What surprised Fenton even more, was that Beth had arranged for the boy to have riding lessons! Nothing had been said about riding lessons, and Fenton was determined to have a serious conversation with Mademoiselle about that! His horses were not to be touched without his strict permission and it seemed that his head stable master had neglected his orders.

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Three

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Three – Meeting With The Devil

 

When the woman stepped into his study and made her curtsy to him, Stephen Fenton had the oddest of sensations – some strange, unknown feeling that made his heart stutter and his brain go numb.

For a split second, he was convinced he had been mistaken, and this woman was not Beth Williams but just a stranger, a French governess who joined his staff. An employee and nothing more.

Then she raised her head and looked him straight in the face. Her eyes, the colour of chocolate, pierced right into his soul, and he knew he had been right; nobody he had ever encountered, had eyes like that. They were like the earth on the fields after a thunder storm, a deep, bottomless brown, with sparkles of green shooting through them when she was angry – or passionate …

“You wished to speak with me, my lord? I am Elle Guillaume,” the woman said, her voice a little hoarse and laced with a strong French accent.

Stephen cleared his throat and stood.

“Yes, Miss Guillaume. Please, come in.”

He gestured to a pair of dainty Empire style settees gathered around a matching coffee table and waited until she seated herself before he did the same, on the settee opposite hers.

“Miss Guillaume, I did not have a chance to confer with the Dowager Baroness about your position so I propose we do it now, before dinner. Your salary will be forty pounds a year. I hope this will suit you?”

“Excellent, my lord. You are most generous.”

Her eyes never left his and her mouth curved in a controlled smile. How was it that he used to find that mouth large and those teeth horse-like, ten years before, Stephen mused. There was nothing wrong with her teeth now. They were small, straight and perfect and her mouth was … well, just plain sensual and extremely kissable. God! Had he gone out of his mind? He was no green boy when it came to women! He was not in the habit of losing his head over a pair of dark eyes, confound it!

“As for the children,” he continued, relieved to find his voice steady, “I am afraid you will find them rather rough diamonds. Due to circumstances beyond my control, their education has been neglected for years. What I expect from you is that you school them in the basic skills of reading and writing, as well as proper behaviour in society gatherings, all this before three months will have passed. At Christmas, I will appraise the progress that you have made.”

Stephen readied himself to rise but was checked by the coolly interrogating voice of the governess.

“I beg your pardon, my lord, but I have a few questions of my own with regard to the children. If they are expected to behave satisfactorily in polite society, they will have to be given a chance to be in one. The best way to start, is to allow them to dine with you and the Dowager Baroness, when you are not entertaining. That way they can copy the manners of well-educated people who won’t balk at their mistakes. Shall I bring Lily and Oliver with me from tomorrow night on?”

For a few seconds, Stephen was rendered speechless by the sheer audacity of the woman  but he recollected himself quickly and replied.

“No, Mademoiselle Guillaume, you shall not. When I want you to do such a thing, I will inform you about it. Now, …”

“Do you not think the children must spend time with their grandmother and their father, at least once a day, my lord? I am certain it will only benefit …”

“Mademoiselle Guillaume! You forget yourself!” This time Stephen could not contain his anger, yet it had not the effect on the governess he would have thought it would. She cocked her head to one side and, with a sweet smile on her pretty face, dropped her next question.

“Why do I have the feeling that you are not telling me the whole of the story, my lord? If I am to educate Lily and Oliver, I must know everything about them. I already heard some gossip about the children’s descent but I would like you to give me the facts as you know them.”

His anger now fuelled to a downright rage, Stephen realised she had him neatly cornered, yet he would not give her the satisfaction of knowing it. He did admit, however, that she had a point.

“Suffice it to say, Mademoiselle, that the children’s mother was a commoner. The Dowager Baroness, my mother, will not allow them to be in her presence, and I prefer not to go against her wishes. Now, if you permit me, I will take you to dinner.”

With that, he extended his arm to her, giving her no choice but to swallow all remarks she wanted to give and take the Baron’s arm.

 

~~~~

 

During dinner, Beth had the leisure of letting her thoughts go astray from the boring exchange of village and estate matters between mother and son and instead, study the Baron covertly.

Stephen Fenton, she mused, had always been a comely lad but now, at thirty, he was just devastatingly handsome. His black hair, thick and curly, framed his strong-boned face and emphasized his skin’s light tan. He had always loved to be outdoors, she remembered.

Her heartbeat fluttered as she watched those grey eyes express every emotion the conversation with his mother conjured up – passion for the land and its needs, compassion for the estate’s tenants who had encountered setbacks, enthusiasm for those who had managed to pull off a renovation in agricultural techniques.

His wide mouth constantly curved into smiles as he narrated the day’s events to the Dowager who seemed to relish in his stories with as much gusto as he. Beth knew they had temporarily forgotten she was there but she did not mind. She sat quietly enjoying her meal while she let her mind slip back to the past, ten years before.

From a very tender age, Beth had always been painfully aware of Brixton Abbey’s young heir, but it had been hate that raged in her, every time she saw him canter through the village on that black steed of his. Blind, hot hate because he was the one that caused the death of her sweet, beautiful mother and her handsome brother. Every time she found her gentle father weeping in his study, something he was subjected to whenever the memories haunted him, every time again and again she had hated Stephen Fenton more. And she swore he would pay for that with as much heartache she could give him.

Beth’s compassionate heart burned with anger when she thought of the two innocent children that were sleeping upstairs, the fruit of Fenton’s love affair with Molly Bradley, Beth’s childhood friend. Granted, he had taken them into his home and was prepared to give them an education, but there was no love for Lily and Oliver, only guilt he sought to soothe by taking them away from their old grandmother. Had Fenton experienced but one inkling of what love between parents and offspring meant, he would have known how much grief it brought to Granny Bradley and how much her grandchildren missed her. She vowed herself to bring them to Granny Bradley every day, from now on.

And … she promised herself she would force those children onto Stephen Fenton and his icy mother, so that they would realise what they had missed, all those long years – the simple, undemanding love of a child.

“Mademoiselle Guillaume, may I congratulate you on your excellent English? Where have you learnt it?”

The voice of her employer tore Beth out of her reverie. His mocking grey eyes were staring at her with intense curiosity, and Beth felt a shiver of apprehension go down her spine. She must not betray herself, she thought.

“At the Lycée in Montpellier, my lord. I spent six years as a non-resident pupil and would have continued at the Université, had not my father died. I inherited a small income from my aunt and was able to come to England. As you know the political situation is not yet stable in France. Have you ever been to France, my lord?”

“I have fought in France, mademoiselle, so you could say I was there, though not as a tourist.”

“My son,” the cold voice of the Dowager cut in, “has had more than his share of grief from your fellow countrymen, Miss Guillaume. He fought in France and Spain and was badly hurt at Badajoz. I took me six months to have him healthy again.”

A sudden, very unexpected quiver of concern tore at Beth’s heart at those words. Fenton had been wounded?  She had not known that! She schooled her voice into polite concern, though.

“I am sorry to hear that, my lady. All I can say is that not all Frenchmen are supporters of Bonaparte. My family certainly was not.”

The Dowager inclined her head and rose to her feet.

“I am retiring now, my lord,” she said to her son. “I wish you a good night. And to you, Miss Guillaume.”

Both Fenton and Beth stood and bowed to her, after which she left the room in a sweep of silken skirts. The Baron took Beth’s arm and guided her to the drawing room where he poured her a sweet sherry.

“Now that we are alone, mademoiselle, you need no longer keep up appearances. Out with it! What are your intentions?”

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Two

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Two – Haunting Ghosts From The Past

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Counterfeit Governess – Part One

 

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One – A Governess For Two Forlorn Children

 

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

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

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

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

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

Henrietta smiled and looked conspiratorially at Miss Guillaume.

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

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

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

 

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Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Six (Final Chapter)

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Chapter Thirty-Six

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The End

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Five

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Chapter Thirty-Five

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An invitation Richard accepted with alacrity.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Four

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Chapter Thirty-Four

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this had overwhelmed Manon with joy, of course.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stroked his cheek and smiled fondly at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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