“Whoohoo!” Jéhan’s cry of delight instantly brought his sister back to reality.
“Hush, mon chou! It is a secret. No one must know we are searching for the treasure yet.”
Jéhan’s eyes shone with delight. There was nothing her little brother loved more than to play hide-and-seek or pirates-and-villains.
Jake Davies was scrutinizing Manon in a puzzled way. He had been a London street urchin until he was rescued from starvation by Richard’s father. Playing hide-and-seek had been essential to staying alive in the grimy rookeries of London. However, he had a hard time imagining what Manon needed to be secretive about.
Manon caught his gaze and smiled.
“We must have a council of war,” she whispered. “We need to plan our strategy. Listen to what we shall do.”
The three of them went to sit at Jéhan’s desk. Manon pulled a sheet of paper from the top drawer and began writing down a word.
“Veil,” Jéhan correctly read. He had begun learning his letters under Jake’s tutelage and was making fast progress.
“What about it, miss?” Jake asked in surprise.
“What does it mean?” Jéhan piped in surprise.
“The French word is voile,” Manon said, “but that is not the point. What I want to know is, what images does that word evoke for you? Say all that comes into your mind.”
“Une soeur! Nuns wear a veil!” Jéhan cried, radiating enthusiasm as only a little child could.
“Exactly!” Manon exclaimed and wrote down the word.
“Ladies wear veils when in mourning or when they marry,” Jake offered.
“I like eating veil!” Jéhan proffered. His sister and Jake stared at him in surprise until Jake said, “ Oh! You mean veal, erm, let me see, what is the French word?”
“Veau,” Manon translated.
“Yes, that is it,” Jéhan said. “Sorry, Manon, I was wrong.”
“Not to worry, sweetheart.”
“Yes,” Jake mused, “but what if we considered homonyms, as well? V-E-I-L and V-A-L-E sound the same, but they are not!”
“Vale…” Manon thought hard, letting the word roll over her tongue.
“What does it mean?” Jéhan asked, for the second time.
“Vallée, or valley,” his sister explained.
“That does not make sense,” Jake muttered. “Which vale? There are vales aplenty in the English countryside.” Then he said in a puzzled tone, “What is the meaning of all this, miss?”
Manon took a deep breath and began to explain the real story behind the treasure hunt.
Mildred de Briers reclined on the drawing room’s settee with satisfaction emanating from her countenance.
“Jeremy, I have finally acquired the means to mould my son to my wishes. When I threaten him with the disclosure of his incestuous love for his niece, he will have no choice but to increase my allowance. Richard will endeavour to spare the chit that particular shame and disaster,” the dowager tittered.
It was not a beautiful sound, Jeremy mused.
Jeremy Lawson was a pragmatic man. Over the years, his relationship with Mildred had proved an agreeable arrangement. His marriage to the timid and docile Mary Breckenridge was one of convenience and had only provided him with wealth. Mary was reluctant to accept his ardent attentions yet too afraid of his flaring temper to deny him. She endured his touch with pious stoicism only to run into her chapel afterwards and pray. To Mary, marital relations were a means to gain a place among the saints through martyrdom. Fortunately for Jeremy, his handsome looks and skills in the bedchamber had never left him wanting for lovers among the ladies of the ton. However, Mildred de Briers was the one he had always preferred over all others.
Lately, however, matters had begun to degenerate. Mildred was no longer pleasing him the way she used to. She constantly whined about her son being a miser and about not having enough blunt. Jeremy did not envy Richard de Briers. Having to cope with an unreasonable, irate creature like Mildred was always hard. Having such a woman for a mother must be hellish.
So Jeremy wanted to return to London, fervently so. He was bored with the whole farce at Bearsham Manor. Let Mildred fight her own battles, he thought. Jeremy had had enough of them.
“My dear Millie,” he drawled, careful not to reveal his doubts, “it seems to me that you are underestimating the man. Richard de Briers, as I know him, will not easily succumb to threats. You should also be more circumspect about him. His retaliation, should he have a chance to exercise revenge on you, will be fierce. I suggest that you change tack and try to win his affection instead.”
“Ha!” Mildred huffed. “That would never work! Richard knows I hate him as much as I did his father. The feeling is extremely mutual, Jeremy. Only my son’s sense of honour keeps him from banishing me from the estate. God forbid that he would do so, because I would waste away with boredom. And so, now that I hold a powerful weapon against my stubborn son, I intend to use it.”
Jeremy kept his further musings to himself since it was fruitless to go against Mildred when she was in this particular state of mind. He planned to prepare his escape, though, should the need arise.
Richard was furious. Since the moment he had regained consciousness, he had cursed the abominable weakness in which he found himself. Never before in his life had he felt so helpless and so dependent on the assistance of others to see to his most vital needs, such as food, personal hygiene, and healing treatment. He was only too grateful that the last one was being taken care of by his skilled niece instead of by the quack his mother had summoned in the first hours after his fall.
The thought brought Richard back to the problem of his mother, the bane of his life – and her lover, Jeremy Lawson.
Since boyhood, Richard had been confronted with society bucks circling around his beautiful mother like moths around a flame. At one time, he had been convinced that they stole his mother’s affection from him. He had hated the whole lot of them but at the same time had been powerless to do anything about them. It had wounded his soul, and he recalled all too well the countless nights that he had cried himself to sleep. Until the age of eight, the age at which he had been sent to Eton, and thus had been removed from his mother’s entourage, Richard had thought that, in spite of her indifference towards him, Mildred indeed loved him in some small measure. He had convinced himself that his mother, being as lovely as she was, had a right to have men fluttering around her. That he, a troublesome little whippersnapper, had no right to intrude upon her court and her life. He had fervently hoped that his mother would come to show her love for him if only he respected her right to amuse herself. He had hoped that she would cease her neglect of him, her only son when she saw how he worshipped her from afar.
That vision had been brutally shattered when one day, he came home after term earlier than was his habit. Lucian’s father had brought him and Lucian home in their carriage because the family had planned on a journey to Scotland. He and Lucian had been granted the beginning of their summer break three days early. How well he remembered that disastrous day. He had been fourteen and already tall, with muscles beginning to form on his arms and torso.
Richard had jumped from the carriage as soon as a footman opened the door. He had shouted a greeting to Thornton who had welcomed him even if the butler appeared somewhat surprised. In joyful excitement, Richard had run into his father’s study and had stood rooted to the spot, staring at the scene that had played out before his horrified eyes.
Mildred de Briers, shrieking like a fishmonger’s wife, had been pummelling his father’s chest in absolute rage. Richard could still see the insanity that had been on her beautiful face while she had scratched his father’s cheeks until they were covered with bloody streaks. It had most frightfully shocked him. Yet what had appalled Richard even more was the fact that his strong, brave father had not even winced at his wife’s behaviour. Robert de Briers stood there unmoving, like a rock in the surf, his face stoic and indifferent.
Something had snapped in Richard. Like an arrow from a bow, he had flown towards his mother and torn her away from Robert, throwing her onto the floor in the process. From his own mouth, words had begun to flow, words Richard never thought he knew at all.
“Stop it, you miserable bitch!”
Even more words were forming in his enraged soul until his father slapped him across the face. Only once, but it had stung like fire.
“Apologize to your mother at once,” Robert de Briers had ordered, and his voice had barely risen above normal. He fixed his son with a severe stare that brooked no argument.
Richard had swallowed and opened his mouth to protest, but the steady, commanding stare in his father’s brown eyes had killed the words forming in his mind.
“I am sorry, Mother,” Richard had uttered between clenched teeth, his eyes on the floor, and his cheeks in flames.
“That is not nearly enough,” the cold voice of Robert had sounded. “Look your mother in the eyes when you offer her your regret.”
It had been almost impossible for Richard to do as his father asked, yet the imperturbable gaze in the baronet’s eyes did not vanish until he had done so.
“I truly regret my words, Mother. Please forgive me.”
Then Richard had forced his eyes to meet his mother’s and was instantly appalled by the hatred that shone in them. By then, she was on her feet again, even though neither Richard nor Robert had offered a hand to help her. She had spit upon the floor and turned to leave the room.
Shocked beyond comprehension, Richard had helplessly turned to his father for support. Robert had not appeared to be moved at all. He stood in the middle of the room, his hands on his back and his face streaked with blood. Yet his voice was as calm as ever.
“That was extremely rude of you, my son. You are forbidden to behave like that to the woman who birthed you. If you ever do that again, I shall punish you beyond measure. Do you understand, Richard?”
“Yes, father,” Richard had stammered, mortified both by his own behaviour and his father’s reaction.
“Go to your room and do not show yourself again today. Tomorrow, I might perhaps be able to summon the patience to speak to you again.”
It had taken years before Richard understood why his father had punished him; Robert de Briers had been an honourable man who had wished to install respect for his elders in his only son.
At fourteen, it had been a blow, however. Richard had cried himself to sleep once more that evening. For the last time ever.
It was long past luncheon by the time the treasure hunters had inspected every picture, from the tiniest one to the largest, that graced the walls of Bearsham Manor. They had started with the portraits, which was the most logical way to start. Most of them had women with veils in them. Those pictures that could be lifted or moved to the side had been closely investigated, of course. Then they had proceeded with the ones representing outdoor scenes. Almost every single one of them featured a valley. And in those “vales” there were women with “veils” as well.
Now it was midafternoon, and Jake, Jéhan and Manon found themselves back in Jéhan’s quarters. They were dirty, tired, and famished, as well as utterly discouraged. They had no idea what they were looking for, what size it was, or if “treasure” also meant also coin and jewels.
“I give up,” Jéhan declared. “Maybe there is no treasure ‘behind the “veil” or “vale” or whatever, Manon.”
“You could be right, my angel,” Manon replied. She felt dispirited to the extreme and was in sore need of a wash. “Jake will call for your nanny so that you can clean yourself up, and have a bite to eat.”
“Finally!” Jéhan muttered, which made his sister laugh.
Manon left the two to their afternoon activities and headed for her chambers. She knew from Bright that her uncle was sleeping so she had time to attend to matters concerning Greenhaven. When Pru joined her shortly thereafter, the two women worked diligently on their project.