Hearts Adrift – Part Eleven

Armitage_004

Chapter Eleven

 

Manon woke when Bessy knocked and entered the room with a tray of tea and toast.

“Sir Lucian’s compliments, miss; and would you join the gentlemen in the breakfast room when you are dressed?” the girl said in a cheerful voice.

“Thank you, Bessy,” Manon answered, glancing surreptitiously around the room. She was lying naked under her covers, and she was terrified the maid would find out.

He was not here. Understanding why did nothing to dampen down the wave of burning grief that washed over her as disappointment struck. He had left her after he lifted her up to the heavens and gave her the most exquisite pleasure in the world. It was done, over, gone, as he said it would be.

As soon as Bessy disappeared into the adjoining dressing room, Manon slipped out of bed and hurriedly donned her nightgown. It had been tucked under her pillow, no doubt by Richard before he stole out of her room in the dead of night.

While Bessy assisted her with her bath and toilette, Manon relived the pleasurable events of the previous night.

Richard had unselfishly disappointed her, she realised as she thought back over their night together. Even with her lack of experience, she knew there should have been more to their consummation than had taken place. He had denied himself and her of their ultimate closure. By bestowing infinite pleasure upon her but not asking that his needs be satisfied in return, he had indebted her to him. Manon had not been Richard’s equal during the most notable event in her life, her initiation into lovemaking. The guilt was overwhelming. He had said that he loved her, so why the incomplete act? She should have known there would be no further intimacies after he told her to sleep.  She was determined to experience love with the man she loved more than life itself, even if they were doomed to be apart.

 

Richard listened to Jéhan’s French-cum-English chatter with an absent mind, only partially engaged in the conversation between Lucian and the boy. Wide awake at six in the morning, he had gone out for a long ride on one of Lucian’s excellent horses in an attempt to shake off his black mood. Afterwards, he had come back exhausted, but not in the least relaxed. Even the hot bath and the excellent attentions of Lucian’s valet, Travers, who had groomed and dressed him in an impeccable manner, had not been adequate to restore his peace of mind.

It was all for naught. The previous night, he had not slept after he went back to his own room. The image of Manon’s sensuous body, the feel of her perfect femininity in his arms, the glory of her pleasure – it all played over and over in his head. Adding to that the frustration in his own lack of fulfilment, it was enough to put him thoroughly out of sorts. Leaving her after their joined experience had been the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.

He was a man in the prime of his life, and denying himself satisfaction had never been his strong point, especially when he had not been with a woman for a long time, as was the case now.

In addition to that, Richard had another, more poignant issue to come to terms with; he loved Manon, with a depth of feeling he had never experienced for any woman.

Manon’s youth, her innocence and her eagerness were extremely hard to resist. Despite her twenty years of age, Manon was still innocent, a matter that astonished him, given the fact that she had lived in Paris. In the minds of many young Englishmen, Paris was the city of freedom, of the mind and of the body. Richard had visited France and Paris only once before with his father, just after he had graduated from Cambridge, five years before. The impression the city had left on him had been one of sheer debauchery and gaiety, and the women had seemed to have no boundaries at all. Yet amidst all that sin, Manon had remained pure and untouched. That was remarkable enough in itself, he mused.

The door to the breakfast room opened to let his tormentor in. Merciful Lord! What an image she presented! Someone must have lent her some attire, for she was dressed exquisitely in a fresh morning gown of pale green muslin, sprigged with tiny moss green hearts. The neckline modestly revealed the onset of her breasts, not enough to be indecent, but sufficient to be utterly teasing. Her glorious auburn hair was swept into a heavy coil at the nape of her neck, held together by a silver filigree net, and strands of carefully arranged curls graced her face to perfection. That face, Richard noticed at once, though of a faultless porcelain complexion, was set in a solemn, almost grim expression. Manon’s chin was raised in defiance, and her green eyes were cool and detached. Her lips, usually rosy and full, were now a thin line of challenged rejection. But in the back of his mind, he could only remember her sounds of pleasure.

By Jove! She was not taking his approach towards the situation well at all. Richard stifled a sigh and braced himself for what was to come.

 

Manon barely had time to glance around the pretty, sunny room before her little whirlwind of a brother jumped up from his chair to throw himself into her arms.

“Manon! We are going to Brighton today, and Luke says I can pick a toy in the shops! Is that not grand?”

Jéhan’s speech was a confusing gibberish of French, laced with the occasional English word he had picked up randomly. He was overexcited, Manon noticed. Therefore, she gently admonished him in his native tongue.

Calme-toi, mon chou! You will injure yourself before long, and what would I do then, eh? Now, go finish your breakfast, and behave.”

While her brother darted back to his seat at the round breakfast table, the two men rose and bowed to Manon. She curtsied and addressed them in perfect English, with only the slightest accent.

“Good morning, gentlemen. I hear we are bound for Brighton. Might I ask, Uncle, what your plans are for today?” She smiled brightly at Lucian but did not look at Richard, lest her grief would show in her gaze.

Richard, to her disappointment, did not rise to the bait. He traversed the room in three strides of his long legs and offered her his hand. “Good morning, niece. May I escort you?”

Manon took in the magnificence of his appearance with a barely stifled gasp. He was clad in light grey silk breeches, with white silk stockings and black slippers. His shirt was of the finest white linen, and under his perfectly cut, dark blue frock coat, he wore a white silk waistcoat, plain and unembroidered. The whole was topped by the froth of lace on a white neck cloth, arranged in an intricate knot. He was neatly shaven, which brought out his clean-cut, granite jaw, and emphasized the strength of his features. His hair was brushed away from his brow and tied in a thick tail on his back. His sparkling blue eyes were eying her coolly. Manon had never seen his eyes take that deep blue colour before. It was most enticing, even with the brooding stare they gave her. She lowered her gaze to his mouth, which was pinched and colourless. And utterly forbidding.

He was doing exactly what he said he would do, and that was to treat her in an avuncular way. In a distant, cold way. Very well then; Richard had admonished her about their future behaviour, and she would play that game until she could speak to him alone. Knowing how much she loved him, she would hold her tongue and not embarrass him to another person present.

“Ah, my dear Manon!” Lucian hailed from his seat at the table. “I have saved you some toast and tea, and a chair at my side. Would you do me the honour of sharing my breakfast?”

“It would be my pleasure, Lucian,” Manon replied, inclining her head and ostentatiously ignoring Richard’s proffered hand. She inwardly grinned when she saw a flash of anger though instantly suppressed in his blue eyes. Gathering her skirts, she glided towards the table and sat down next to Lucian, whom she favoured with a genuine smile.

During breakfast, Manon and Lucian struck up a pleasant conversation between the two of them, leaving Richard to listen and respond to Jéhan’s many questions about England, and about Brighton in particular. Better that way, Richard told himself. Let her get better acquainted with a suitable man like Lucian.

The meal ended soon thereafter, and Lucian announced that he and Jéhan would go and see if their carriage was ready. “I promised Jéhan I would show him the litter of puppies one of my dogs  threw last week,” he apologized himself to Manon. She smiled at him.

“Jéhan, do be careful, mon chou. Do not disturb the mother too much, will you?”

“I will keep an eye on him,” Lucian winked.

The sudden silence took them both by surprise, so Manon asked her uncle if he cared for another cup of tea. Richard shook his head. “I would like to inform you, niece, about your prospects.”

Manon’s surprise showed, but she asked in a level voice, “Prospects, Uncle? I was not aware that I had them.”

“Your circumstances and Jéhan’s have changed in the last week, Manon. Since the death of your father, I have become your legal guardian, and, of course, Jéhan’s too.”

Manon hated the cold formality in Richard’s voice. She felt irritation growing but made an effort not to reveal it. “As you undoubtedly know, Uncle, I will reach my majority on the third of October. I have no means to support myself yet, so I am grateful that you are kind enough to provide for my brother and me until I find a new situation. In the weeks to come, I intend to search for a suitable position. I am sure that I could…”

Richard could not bear it any longer. After the first shock of hearing Manon’s suggestion that she would find paid work, he was so taken aback that he had not been able to react, but now he raised his hand to silence her.

“Manon, I fear you have no real grasp of who you are. You and Jéhan are members of the de Briers family, my dear. Lily de Briers, your mother, was my sister. She would have inherited her share of my father’s money, had she not died when Jéhan was born. In his will, my father bequeathed that share to you and Jéhan in equal parts. When you will reach your majority, you will have access to twenty thousand pounds, Manon, and the same goes for Jéhan when he turns twenty-one.”

Richard realised he had to give Manon time to absorb this, so he waited before going on. She seemed stunned and utterly shocked by what he just told her.

“I do not understand,” she finally said. “Why was that money not given to my father, as my mother’s husband, immediately after her death? He was her legal heir, at least, according to the French law.”

“I am afraid English law works quite differently, Manon. Unless your mother had made him her heir in a will, Thibaut nor you or Jéhan, for that matter would have inherited. I am fairly sure that Lily would not have made a will, since she would not have needed one in France. The only way that you or Jéhan could inherit money that came from my family is if my father, as head of the family, had bequeathed it to you. My father was an honourable man, Manon, and he did his duty towards Lily’s children because he loved his daughter.”

Richard paused and waited for Manon to nod her understanding. “Good,” he continued. “As I recently told you, I found the letters your father sent to mine over the years. In one of these, your father asks that the money be put into a trust fund. He deemed the situation in France too dangerous for him to have that money in a French bank. Remember that in 1788, when Jéhan was born, riots had already started over King Louis’s excessive spending. My father agreed but requested that he be kept informed about the situation in Paris. According to our solicitor, Mr Brownslow, my father begged yours to come back to England. The three of you would have been welcome at Bearsham manor. I read in your father’s letters that he was planning to do so, Manon, but unfortunately, he did not have a chance to carry out his plans.”

Manon’s head had begun to swim from what she heard. How had all this been going on without her knowledge? Why had her father not confided in her?

“He never said a word,” she whispered, in a small, pitiful voice that tore at Richard’s heart. He hastily continued. “Read his letters, Manon, and all will become more bearable. I will ask Mr Brownslow for my father’s letters, of which he has copies. I should have requested them after my father’s passing, but I was too anxious about you and Jéhan, and I wanted to ensure myself that you were safe. All these facts must make you realise that you are now a de Briers, Manon, and so is Jéhan. That brings on adjustments that you must be prepared to make. If you would consent to hear what I propose, I would be most grateful.”

Manon looked up into his face for the first time that morning, Richard realised and her eyes were large with apprehension. So he continued, “You will require a lady’s maid. Bessy Crampton has agreed to come with us and act as such until we find someone else. Her mother lives here in Romney, and Bessy does not wish to be separated for too long from her. I told her not to worry and promised her a large reward for her services. As I mentioned before, you will have need of a female companion. When we arrive at my Brighton townhouse, I will go to an agency that provides suitable candidates. In her capacity as a chaperone, this woman will then accompany you to social events and parties. She will also instruct you in the accomplishments that English society demands of a young, unmarried woman. I have no doubt that, by the time you reach majority, you will have become a perfect English lady. Smart and beautiful as you are, you will able to reach every goal you set for yourself, once you have access to your money.”

With a jolt of joy, Manon registered what Richard had just called her. She was half French after all, and she instantly picked up on it, smiling surreptitiously at him. “So you find me smart and beautiful, Uncle?”

Her smile broadened involuntarily when a deep blush crept over his cheeks.

“Damn it, Manon! Will you behave like the grown-up woman that you are and not like a schoolroom chit enamoured with her dance teacher? Matters are not going to be easy in the weeks to come, and I will not tolerate any inappropriate behaviour, do you understand?”

Manon fixed him with a serious gaze, but made her voice gentle when she replied, “What I feel for you is not some silly schoolgirl puppy love, Richard. It is a feeling that glows deep within me, a feeling of safety when you are near me. Of awareness when you enter a room, and all my senses acknowledge your presence. Of belonging together when I think of you. Of joy when you smile at me. It is love, Richard, pure and simple.”

She shook her head, smiling at him. “We do not choose whom we fall in love with, Richard. We do not choose love; it chooses us. I know that, whatever may yet come to happen in my life, or whomever I choose to be my husband, I will always love you. I might come to love my husband in time, and I hope I will, but I still will always love you.”

Looking directly into his eyes, she continued, “I know what you did last night, and why you did it. You wanted me to go to my husband untouched. Thank you for that, Richard. I am so sorry that I put you through this, that I put myself through it, too. Nevertheless, it has indeed happened, and I rejoice in it. It is a memory I shall cherish for the rest of my life. I am prepared to do as you have  asked, Richard. From this moment on, you are again my uncle, and I vow to behave in a manner that will make life easier for us. You have my word, Richard, the word of a de Briers.”

The only words Richard could utter, were a strangled “thank you”. They both rose simultaneously and left the room together, Richard to summon the footman to collect their travel bags and Manon to go to her room and find Bessy.

Hearts Adrift – Part Ten

Armitage_004

Chapter Ten

 

Manon’s proposition made perfect sense. Richard’s logical mind acknowledged Manon’s words, and his foolish heart welcomed them, of course. It was true that he loved her, and he knew beyond all doubt that she loved him back. Despite the fact that he knew they could never be husband and wife, Richard was overwhelmed by true, unmitigated happiness, because his Manon loved him. His Manon? Yes, it was the undeniable truth. She was Lily’s daughter, and Lily had been the light of his life. Manon, so like Lily, had come to fill the hole in his heart that had been gaping since Lily’s departure.

Richard needed to think clearly, he knew. He needed to assess the consequences of what might come if he decided to make love to Manon, something he most dearly wished. With infinite tenderness, he cupped her face in his hands and lifted it up so that she could see his eyes.

“My sweet Manon, before we decide to do this, I want to be certain that you fully understand what you are about to do. Once we have made love to each other, there will only be one option open to us. I will be forced to keep my distance from you again. We will never be allowed to express our true feelings, not by a word nor by a gesture. Not even, dearest, by a look. If people became aware of the love we harbour, we would be outcasts. We would end up in prison for incest.”

Manon saw nothing but love in those beautiful eyes, now a soft violet because of the desire she knew he must feel. She felt the same desire welling up in her heart. She focussed on communicating this glorious feeling to her darling.

She smiled, and Richard was lost. Her beckoning rosebud mouth parted to reveal her small, even white teeth. He dipped his head, but she met him halfway, touching her lips to his.

A shock, sharp and intoxicating, sparkled between them, and fire spread like lightning, head to toe. Richard’s lips were firm and warm and utterly beguiling. He tasted like spice and sweetness intermingled, like chocolate combined with cream, like genuine, uncompromising male. It was heaven! She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her body against his, eager, desperate to feel all of him.

The movement set Richard’s senses alight with an intensity he had never felt before. She was so soft, so feminine and, he realised, so trusting in the way she gave herself over to him without fear or restraint. Conscious of the fact that Manon was still untouched, he would be tender and cautious.

But as much as he wanted her, all of her, he could not allow himself to take her chastity and leave her impure for her eventual husband. It would ruin her. Oh, why did it have to be this way? He considered the moment and acknowledged their unbridled passion, which left them teetering on the brink.  He struggled to regain a fraction of his control. There was only one possible way he could proceed. It would not be all that it could be, but it was all that it ever would be.

Gently skimming her lips with his tongue, he heard her rapt intake of breath, shallow and quick. She tensed in his arms when he slowly parted her lips, but she did not withdraw. Instead, she pressed herself even closer, a gesture that caused sparks of pleasure to run down his spine. Plundering the soft, sweet cavern of her mouth, he drank in her taste of raspberries and cream, of pure, undiluted woman.

She was unique, she was Manon, and his body knew her for what she was – his own woman.

He allowed their kiss to continue for just a few moments longer, then broke it. Gently he scooped her into his arms and carried her all the way up to her room.

 

Manon could not think of anything but Richard’s strong arms sweeping her off her feet and up the stairs. Her heart beat fast and loud. Her pulse raced. She was aware of the heat coursing through her veins, and of the eager anticipation of what was to come. She embraced it whole-heartedly. Any possible qualms were laid to rest, any objections ignored. She would be his, completely his, and she welcomed it with all her being.

Richard put her down beside the bed and slowly, reverently, as if she were some goddess to be worshipped, began to undress her. First her dressing gown was removed, and then Richard’s tender hands brushed the straps of her flimsy satin robe from her shoulders. It pooled at her feet with a faint whispering sound.

Merciful Lord! She was exquisite. She was slender, but round and curvy in all the places Richard liked a woman to be. Her breasts were gorgeous, her areolas a soft, puckered pink, and her nipples firm and red like ripe strawberries. He cupped his hands over both of them, revelling in the delighted gasp she took. When he stroked the nipples with his thumbs, she gave a small, whimpering moan. He felt it right down to his fully erected penis, his groin tightening further.

“That is … Oh, God! That feels incredible…” Manon breathed. “Please, do not stop!”

“I have no intention of stopping,” he said hoarsely, letting his hands slide to her slim waist to roam over her firm buttocks and back to her tight stomach. Her thighs … Oh, heaven! The skin was like velvet, and beneath it, her muscles were firm and soft at the same time. When his hands reached for her folds, she stopped him.

“Now it is my turn,” she said, placing his hands alongside his body. “Let me discover you, my love.”

 

A slight smile on her lips, Manon began unbuttoning Richard’s shirt, brushing the skin of his tanned chest with every button she undid. He reacted with little gasps at first, but when she placed her palms on the wide expanse of finely chiselled muscles, Richard groaned, his eyes closed in delight. Emboldened, Manon explored the surface under her hands – soft skin covering hard muscles. So enticing, so beautiful. Her fingers traced the lines of his collarbone and went down to skim his nipples, flat and hard under her touch. She followed the light dusting of coarse black hair that encircled the nipples, then let her hands slide down to where a thin line of hair disappeared beneath the rim of his breeches. Her breath now coming in short gasps, Manon undid the buttons of the flap, which proved rather difficult with the bulk of his arousal pressing against it. She had it open now.

Oh, sweet Jesus, but he was large, long, and hard! Manon had never imagined it would be like this. For a moment, she hesitated, not sure if she would be able to receive him.

Richard immediately sensed her anxiety.

“Go and lie down, my sweet,” he whispered. “I will finish undressing and come to you.”

His avid eyes followed every movement of her long legs, her round buttocks, her pert breasts, as she climbed onto the mattress to lie flat on her back, her limbs stretched out alongside her body. Richard quickly kicked off his shoes, stepped out of his breeches and peeled off his stockings. He lowered himself beside Manon and let the entire length of his naked body touch hers.

She eased closer, pressing herself against him, skin to skin.

“Now, my darling,” Richard crooned, “let me worship you.”

He turned onto his back and lifted her atop him. She was on her back, too, so that his aroused member slid between the crescents of her buttocks. With slow circling movements, Richard stroked her arms, her shoulders, her breasts, carefully pinching the nipples. He revelled in the little whimpers that escaped her and felt something akin to triumph when quite spontaneously she parted her legs further until they rested on each side of his thighs. That gesture left her fully open to his touch, and he smiled to himself.

 

She was on fire, Manon thought. It flared up wherever Richard touched her, and it grew hotter and more intense, as he worked his wicked way down her body. His fingers were everywhere at once, it seemed, never resting, never still. They brushed the sensitive skin of her inner thighs, and the air left her lungs in a low cry. How was she to bear this? It was torture – slow, wicked, exquisite torture.

Then, in one smooth caress, Richard slipped a finger into her folds. She cried out when liquid fire began warming her womanly place, and only grew hotter when another finger followed. He moved his expert fingers to draw slow, languidly exquisite circles into her folds, stroking deeper with every turn. Occasionally, he flicked her sensitive bud, and she cried out once more, not knowing how to find that coveted pleasure he seemed to spur on and on. Whispering sweet nothings in her ear, he drove her higher and higher up the slope of pleasure, and she had to draw in deep breaths just to keep up with him. Finally, he pushed her over the edge. Stars exploded behind Manon’s eyes, as warm, liquid flames consumed her from the inside out.

It was everything, it was incredible. The waves of delight rolling over her, again and again, Manon fought to catch her breath, yet all she could do was drift along that sea of pleasure and drown.

Richard turned them both onto their sides, wrapped his arms and legs about her and drew the covers up. She would be exhausted, he knew. Too many new and highly exciting experiences.

“My darling,” he crooned, “sleep, my sweet, sleep.”

 

With a small sigh, she slipped into sleep. Richard felt her lithe body relax against his, and he closed his own eyes for a brief period of respite. It was unbearably hard to keep himself from going further with Manon, but she was as his conscience was screaming at him his niece, and therefore forbidden.

He had done what she asked. He had shown her what it was to be loved, to experience pleasure. It would have to be enough. More than that he could never teach her.

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Nine

Armitage_004

Chapter Nine

Lucian’s carriage was a large chaise-and-four, drawn by four splendid matching greys. It would cover the twenty-three miles in less than three hours. They were heading for Lucian’s estate, Whitehaven, near Romney in Kent.

Jéhan was fast asleep, snuggled up in a blanket against Lucian. Jake was sitting next to the coachman on the bench, while Manon and Richard occupied the bench opposite Lucian.

Night had fallen, and as the carriage rolled on through the quiet countryside, Manon felt her body go limp with fatigue. Her head lolled as her eyes grew heavy, and eventually, she could no longer stay awake. Richard carefully caught her and drew her close to him, so that her head rested against his shoulder. By then, Manon was already asleep.

With Manon safely settled against him, Richard could finally sit back and breathe. They had made it to England and to safety. The first part of his promise to his dying father had been fulfilled.

“She is truly exquisite, Rich.” Lucian’s mellow tenor voice snapped Richard back into reality. He lifted a mocking eyebrow and teased, “I am happy to see that your eyesight is still in good order, Luke!”

“So, tell me, are you her guardian as well as her uncle?”

Richard nodded briefly. “Why do you want to know?”

“I want your permission to court her. She is lovely and sweet. I am of an age when I should settle and start a family. Manon is a de Briers – if not in name, then surely by blood. She is a suitable match and besides, we would become family, Rich.”

“Oh, and you know that a quarter of an hour after meeting her? Is that not a bit premature, Luke?”

“That is why I am asking you, if I am allowed to pay her a proper court, Rich.”

Mixed feelings formed in Richard’s mind about his friend’s proposal. Of course, Manon would have to be introduced in society, and, beautiful as she was, she would capture the attention of many young bucks in search of a wife. It was not that Richard was opposed to Blackthorne as a potential husband to Manon. She would reach her majority on the third of October, which was in a little over three months. On her twenty-first birthday, Manon would come into her own fortune, which amounted to twenty thousand pounds. In his will, Sir Robert de Briers had bestowed the part of his money, that would have come to Manon’s mother Lily on Manon herself. Once the inheritance became hers, Manon would be free to choose her own path, yet she would also be subject to any fortune hunter that crossed her path. Therefore, Richard would try to protect her, whatever the cost, and the best way to do that was to find a suitable husband for her.

Luke Blackthorne was a prime candidate for his niece and Richard would love to have him in the family as his nephew by marriage, since they were long-time friends. No, it was something entirely different that made Richard reluctant to give his permission for a courtship. The notion that another man – any other man than Richard – would have the exquisite pleasure of having Manon at his side for the rest of his life was abhorrent to him. He rejected the idea as soon as it presented itself, because and here, he dared not formulate his thoughts; it caused him unbearable pain. To be condemned to a life without Manon, to be forced to watch from afar while she made some lucky devil the happiest man in the world, proved unthinkable. However, it had to be just so. Manon had a right to seek and find her place in the world.

So he pushed his rebellious thoughts aside and considered the matter rationally.

“Look,” he said, his voice even, “Manon has a long way to go yet before she is fit to move about in British society. She is like a rough diamond, Luke. She has been brought up in Paris, in a shop, and has no notion of what is required of a gentlewoman. Give me a couple of months … say half a year, to educate her. After that, I would be happy to welcome you as her suitor.”

“Fair enough,” Lucian grinned. “I admit that you are right in the matter of Manon’s necessary education, yet I refuse to stay away from her for six months. I can help with her education, Rich, and you know that. So prepare yourself for the notion that I will not be far away from Bearsham Manor in the next half-year.”

 

When the carriage rolled through the wrought-iron gates of Whitehaven, Richard gently shook Manon awake. “We have arrived, niece,” he whispered in her ear. She slowly came to her senses, but shied away when she saw where she had been.

“Uncle, forgive me. I did not know I was…”

“Think nothing of it,” Richard interrupted, before she said something that might embarrass them both. Nonetheless, when he caught Lucian’s gaze, Richard could not help noticing the strange expression on his friend’s face. Bugger, he thought. He would have to be much more careful in his dealings with Manon, lest the shrewd Lucian grasp the way matters were lying.

Since Lucian had sent word of their estimated time of arrival, the butler, the housekeeper and a lady’s maid stood to attention in the hall. Manon, still heavy-lidded from her nap, only vaguely noticed her surroundings. She was all too happy to have the maid, a pretty blonde by the name of Bessy, bring her to an upstairs bedchamber and help her into her nightclothes. The maid had produced a delicate, white, satin nightgown with a deep neckline, and a matching dressing gown. However, Manon was too tired to pay much attention to it.

“Do you require anything else, miss?” Bessy asked, dipping a neat curtsy. “Shall I bring you something to eat?”

“No, thank you, Bessy,” Manon replied. “I am quite exhausted and shall go to bed this instant.”

When she lay down onto the thick, soft mattress, she immediately sank into a deep sleep.

 

Manon woke with a start from a dream she could not quite recall but which left her in turmoil. Her heart was beating fast and irregularly, and she was perspiring all over her body. Jéhan! Where was he? With a muffled cry, Manon jumped out of bed and ran to the door of her bedchamber. She was standing on the landing, confused and forlorn, before she realised she had no inkling where to find her brother in this strange house. Dieu! Why had she not asked His Lordship where Jéhan’s room was?

She went back into her own room, lit a candle and donned the pretty dressing gown Bessy had laid out for her. The thick carpet covering the parquet muffled the sound of her footsteps. She descended the stairs and looked around the hall. It was not overly large but quite elegant with its soft grey hangings and wallpaper. A large bowl of fresh roses on the dark, polished abbey table spread a delicate perfume.

Uncertain, Manon looked around to find the green baize door that led to the servants’ quarters. She discovered it on the right side and went through it. A large staircase led to the servants’ parlour and cellars. With surprise, Manon saw the dancing light of a candle in one of the downstairs rooms. She went down to find it. One of the maids was probably doing some overdue work she had not had time for during the day. The light came from the enormous kitchen and revealed the tall figure of her uncle, standing near the stove to heat a kettle.

Richard turned around when he heard the soft footsteps.

“Manon! What is the matter? Are you unwell?”

Manon was still recovering from the enticing sight of her uncle in breeches and an open-necked shirt, and she gaped at him, tongue-tied and confused. She must have alarmed her uncle, because he crossed over to her in three long strides. His warm hands on her upper arms dragged her back to her senses. “No, Uncle, I am well. I was just concerned about Jéhan. What kind of a sister am I, that I should tumble into bed and not know to which chamber they have taken him? I am thoroughly ashamed!”

“No need for concern, Manon. I just checked on him. Jake and he are sharing a room, lest the boy should wake and be confused by his surroundings. Jake will watch over him, have no fear.”

Infinitely relieved, Manon thanked him, then asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I could not sleep,” Richard replied. “Travelling always brings me into a state of watchfulness until I am back in my own home again. I was about to make some tea. Would you like to join me?”

“Oh, yes, please! I am thirsty, and hungry as well, come to think of it.”

Only now did Richard realise he was still holding her by her arms. She did not seem to have noticed herself, but she did when he released her. A violent blush spread over her cheeks, her neck, and the enticing expanse of skin revealed by the low neckline of her white satin nightgown. The onset of a pair of small, round breasts peeked alluringly over the lace-trimmed rim.

Immediately, Richard’s body reacted, and he hastened to turn away. Busying himself with the tea, he cursed the treacherous embarrassment his body caused him. He wrenched his thoughts away from Manon’s slender figure, outlined through the sheer material of dressing her gown, and tried to recover his composure.

Manon, too, was affected by what she saw, in a way she had never experienced before. Broad, muscular shoulders filled the sheer linen of Richard’s shirt, and the v-shaped opening at his throat revealed tanned skin dusted with a fine covering of dark hair. That, however, was not what had shaken her the most. No, it was the realisation that her gaze had travelled lower, to Richard’s powerful thighs encased in the buff buckskin breeches, and on top of that, the large bulge behind the flap.

Manon had never lain with a man. No one had ever caught her attention for longer than a few days at the utmost. She knew what it felt like to be kissed, having received the pushy attention of impatient youths at the occasional summer dances on the quays of the Seine. She had never liked it much and she abhorred the feeling of an erection against her belly. It seemed so intrusive, so overwhelming.

Now, however, witnessing Richard’s arousal, caused just by him touching her, made her realise she was as aroused as he was. Low in her belly, a warm, liquid feeling was teasing her, and her breasts tingled where the peaks, hard and sensitive, brushed the satin of her gown. She was aware of a languidness spreading through her body, an exquisite feeling of excitement, of well-being. She wanted to touch Richard, to stroke and feel him, and she wanted to do so while they both were naked in a bed.

Her hands flew to her cheeks as she felt those thoughts spring into her mind. What kind of wanton woman was she? Her brain was shouting at her to run to her room and lock the door behind her, but her body was screaming for Richard’s touch with overwhelming force. Her most secret female parts were humming with excitement, a warm liquid pooling in her inner core. She found the sensation quite exquisite and wanted Richard to know what she was feeling.

 

When Manon said his name, it was in a low, sultry voice that made Richard’s senses react with violent arousal. God! It was unbearable! He felt her hands slide around his waist, which caused him to groan with frustration.

“Manon … Let go of me, please. If you …touch me in that way, I cannot …”

“Richard, look at me.” It was a command, he realised, and one that he was unable to resist.

Manon stood before him, solemn and proud like a queen. Her green eyes were glowing with unmitigated love – not lust, but love. She no longer touched him but folded her hands as if in prayer.

“I know we can never be together as man and wife, Richard. Fate has made us blood relatives, and a union between uncle and niece is forbidden. I am aware that I shall have to marry someday. Unmarried females have a fate worse than death in our society. So I am prepared to welcome any suitor that might come my way.  However, when I wed, I shall be a dutiful wife to my husband, even when I know for certain that I will not love him.”

She paused and drew breath, closed her eyes and shuddered.

“Of course you will love him, whoever he is,” Richard heard himself growl.

She looked at him, startled. Then her eyes filled with a sullen determination, and she said, “No, I cannot ever love another man, since it is you that I love, from the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul. The love I feel for you can never be born twice, Richard.”

“Lord, Manon! You do not know what you are saying! How can you love me as you would love a lover? It is wrong, not natural, it is sin!”

“Love can never be a sin, my darling.”

Oh, how sweet that sounded from her lips! In despair, Richard closed his eyes to shut out the lovely, loving woman before him. But she continued speaking, relentlessly but oh, so sweetly.

“I want to know how it feels to be made love to by the man who loves me, my sweet, strong, handsome Richard. You do love me; I can sense it in every gesture you make, in every look you give me. I hear it in your voice when you speak to me. I see it in your beautiful eyes when you gaze at me. We love each other, my darling.”

It was true. He did love her, like he had never, ever loved before. He knew, for certain, he had never loved before in his life, now that he recognized the depth of his feelings for Manon. He was doomed.

“Dearest Richard, will you please teach me how lovemaking can be between two people who love each other? We will be together only once, only tonight. After that, I will not bother you ever again. I will set you free so that you can forget me, and so that I can find my future husband. You cannot, may not refuse me tonight, Richard.”

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Eight

Armitage_004

Chapter Eight

 

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.

Hearts Adrift – Part Seven

Armitage_004

Chapter Seven

 

Jake eyed them both with barely concealed astonishment, but he said nothing.

“What about Jéhan?” Manon asked. “Could we not take him into the room also?”

“I want to sleep with the other men!” Jéhan protested. “Jake is my friend, and I have to watch over him!”

Manon saw her uncle’s sweet smile curve his lips before he answered, “Of course you must, my boy! Jake will watch over you also; will you not, Jake?”

“Yes, master, I will. Rest assured, miss, he is safe with me.”

Manon pressed Jake’s hand in gratitude, glad that the young man had sensed her anxiety over her brother.

“It would ruin our scheme of deception if we were to take him with us,” Richard whispered. “You understand that, do you not, niece?”

“Yes, I do, Uncle. So, how do we proceed?”

“Just follow me up when I summon you,” her uncle replied.

They finished their repast in silence, and afterwards Richard made a great show of rising from the table and making a hand gesture towards Manon. Amidst the snickering of the other guests, she followed Richard upstairs to a lofty room. Her gaze fell upon the large four-poster bed, which dominated the entire space. She froze, swallowed, and began to tremble with a trepidation she had never experienced before in her life.

“Have no fear, niece. I shall go to the tap room for a last drink whilst you prepare yourself for bed.”

Richard strode towards the bed and picked up a blanket and a pillow.

“I shall sleep on the floor,” he said, and tossed the items behind the screen in the corner. “There,” he joked, “you will not even know I am in the room. I promise not to snore.”

Manon gratefully smiled at him, as he left the room.

Her uncle was such a kind and thoughtful man, Manon reflected. She had only seen a similar kindness once before, and that was in her own father. The way Richard always put her needs before anything else was the way her father had been towards her mother, too. The way Richard watched her at all times, as if he were afraid something might happen to her, had been the same caring concern her father had shown her mother.

While she was donning her nightclothes, after a much-needed wash at the stand in the corner, Manon fretted over the disturbing feelings she was rapidly developing towards Richard. In the past days, she had forced herself to call him “Uncle” stubbornly refusing to reflect on other terms concerning him. That was who he was – her uncle, her mother’s brother, even though all she could see was a strong, extremely handsome, and brave gentleman in the very prime of his life. They were only seven years apart, despite being of different generations. Manon realised that, had she met Richard under different circumstances and not known he was her uncle, she would have easily fallen in love with him. He was a wonderfully loveable man, was Richard.

Feeling utterly disheartened by this whole impossible situation, she climbed onto the high mattress of the bed and slid under the covers, pulling them high under her chin. Soon, he would be coming up. How would she be able to sleep, knowing he was in the same room, only a few yards away? She was certain to lie awake all night, listening to his breathing, waiting for… oh, heavens! Waiting for what, she dared not hope. She felt the acute conviction that her feelings for Richard were utterly disturbing. And forbidden, too. Oh, merciful Lord … she loved Richard de Briers!

With a muffled cry, she sat up. No, no, no! This could not be happening, it was too appalling for words, too sinful! What was she to do? She was cursed!

 

Downstairs, in the nearly empty taproom, Richard sat staring into his ale, his head full of passionate reflections of the very young woman upstairs. It was no good trying to deceive himself. He was in love with the lively, beautiful, and sweet creature that was Manon. How had this happened? He was no green boy, freshly out of the schoolroom, for God’s sake! He was a distinguished and wealthy country gentleman, sought after by numerous mamas who hoped he would show an interest in their daughters. Many of them were even more beautiful than Manon, and English to boot. Many of them had their own fortune, were lively and sweet, and were eager to become Bearsham Manor’s next baronetess. Why, he had even considered his neighbour, the Honourable Miss Adèle Brinslay of Bishop’s Keep, as a suitable bride, and he had been sorely tempted to make her an offer. Miss Adèle was the daughter of Sir Eustace Brinslay, a dear friend of his father since childhood. She was stunning, with golden waves of silken hair and the clearest blue eyes one could imagine. They were the colour of a summer sky in the morning, and combined with a perfect complexion, a heart-shaped face, a pert little nose and a rosebud of a mouth, Miss Adèle was fit to capture any man’s heart, conquer it and keep it in her small hands forever.

At eighteen, Richard had thought himself in love with the captivating young miss of fifteen, but the feeling had not lasted through his Cambridge years, where other female temptations had lured him.

He knew for certain, however, that what he felt for Miss Adèle was but a bleak, shallow part of what he was harbouring now for Manon. She had courage, spirit, endurance and a savvy intellect he had never witnessed in other women. Manon was an unbearably sweet torture.

With a sigh, Richard finished his ale and went upstairs, bravely repressing all disturbing thoughts that inhabited his brain. Manon would be sound asleep, by now, he mused. He would stretch out on the floor behind the screen, without bothering to undress. And he would assiduously strive not to look at the bed.

 

Just as he reached the top of the stairs, the door to his room opened, and Manon emerged, fully clothed and carrying her travel bag.

“Where are you going?” Richard blurted out, startling her with his accusing tone.

“My conscience will not allow me to stay the night in your room, Uncle,” Manon replied, eyes downcast and cheeks flushed. “Please, let me return to the common room.”

“Why, Manon? Why would you lay yourself open to danger when you can be safe with me?”

To his utmost sorrow, Richard saw tears rolling down her cheeks. She was weeping! Why? What had transpired while he was downstairs?

“What is it, Manon? Please, tell me,” he urged, thinking she was going to let propriety stand in the way. “We do this only to keep you alive and unmolested. I hope you understand that.” Down deep, Richard knew that was not the only reason..

“I…I feel so greatly confused,” she sobbed. “I do not know what to do. I feel that I am damned and that my happiness is lost.” She dropped her bag and raised her hands to her face, sobbing into them. Her whole fragile body was trembling, and the sight of her ripped through Richard’s heart with a painful force.

“Come,” he said softly, taking her bag and guiding her back into the room. “We must talk, and you will tell me all.”

Manon allowed herself to be seated in front of the empty hearth, already feeling comforted by her uncle’s compassionate tone. He knelt before her, gently taking her hands in his.

“What is the matter, dearest? Is it me? Have I accidentally hurt you? Do you feel unsafe with me?”

Manon’s eyes flew towards his in shock. “Oh, no, Uncle! Not you! You could never hurt me, you are the soul of gentleness! No, it is my stupid ignorance of the world and all its doings. Forgive me for behaving so childishly. I will endeavour to keep my composure from now on.”

His endearment, uttered so sweetly, still rang in Manon’s ears and caused her pulse to race madly. How she adored the way he was looking at her just now, concern and avuncular affection burning in his gaze. What a devilish creature she was, allowing her heart to be filled with such feelings of a forbidden love.

She rose. “I will go now,” she whispered. “You are our anchor during this journey. In the morning, you need to be rested, because we all depend on your strength and intelligence.”

Richard also rose from his knees and said, “Oh, and how will I manage to sleep in peace, when I know you are alone in the common room? This is what we will do, since we both need to be at the full capacity of our strength; we will both sleep in the bed, but fully clothed and above the covers. The night is warm enough for us to do so. We will talk some more until we get tired, and then we will sleep. I know we will.” His control would have to be stalwart but he would try anything to keep her safe in his room.

The earnest expression in his blue-grey eyes convinced her, and Manon nodded. They stretched out on the bed, a small distance away from each other, so that they were not touching anywhere. Strangely enough, Manon felt once again at ease, and when her uncle began inquiring about how she fared after her strenuous first day of riding, she was able to reassure him that she was fine.

“Good,” he said, “now that we are on horseback, we can proceed much quicker on our journey than before. I hope to reach Boulogne by three days hence. The distance we have to cover is fifty-six miles, and at our current speed, we are bridging seventeen miles a day.”

“I like riding,” Manon smiled. “I would like to learn it the way I ought to, once I am in England.”

After a small pause, she continued, “What will my life be like, Uncle? How will I spend my days?”

Richard had no immediate answer to her question, so he reflected on it for a while. At long last, he said, “You are of an age that you will begin to seek a husband, Manon. I hope you realise that. I will have to provide you with a female companion who will introduce you to English society, with all its rules and traps. You will have to learn how to run a large house and manage its inhabitants, because that will be your task once you are married.” God! These words I speak to her are cutting to me. I cannot think of her with another man, Richard thought.

She sat up at once, hugged herself and huffed, “You must think me a very coarse person indeed, and unfit for polite society. I do know how to behave, Uncle; have no fear. Maman taught me, and you will agree with at least, that she was a true gentlewoman!”

“Manon,” Richard said, sitting up and turning her towards him, “you misunderstand me. Of course, you are fit for any society you would like to belong to. My offer of a companion was not only given because you must learn the English way, but also because society demands that you have a proper chaperone when attending soirées and balls.”

“Oh … forgive me, Uncle; I had not thought so far ahead,” his niece said in a little voice.

“No, do not apologize, dearest. But you will have to learn to control that feisty temper of yours. I love it when you are brazen, but others might take offence.”

He had said it again, Manon registered with a shock. Again, he had called her by a name that was only associated with affairs of the heart. Her blood was coursing through her veins in a frenzy; her skin was beginning to feel hot. She lifted her eyes to his. Shock struck her when she saw the deep feelings that lingered there. For a few interminable moments, they gazed into each other’s eyes, exchanging what was in their hearts. Time stood still. Then, with every ounce of effort he had, Richard tore himself away and turned his back to her, saying, “We should sleep now, niece. Tomorrow will be a tiring day. Goodnight.”

Manon swallowed the lump in her throat, then returned his wish.