Hearts Adrift – Part Seventeen

Armitage_004

Chapter Seventeen

 

The dilapidated hovel could hardly be called a house, Manon mused. It was not much better than a shed. The notion that poor Mrs Harrows lived here with six small children made her cringe. Mrs Harrows was Queenie’s mother. The little scullery maid had turned to Mrs Petheridge in despair when her older sister Patsy came to The Wild Rose for help, wailing that her mother was so terribly ill. Mrs Petheridge was an excellent cook but knew nothing of sickness and how to treat it. She wisely informed Miss Butterworth of the news.

Pru Butterworth being a clergyman’s daughter had always taken an interest in the welfare of her father’s parishioners, and  in bestowing charity upon those who truly needed it. She had even acquired a small knowledge of the healing arts and had learned to treat minor wounds and mild colds.

Manon when hearing Pru’s services were needed decided to unearth her forgotten medicine satchel from its closet and accompany Pru on her journey.

Inside Queenie’s home, they found abject poverty.

Two toddlers lay crying in their cots which were no more than crates. On a wrought iron bed, covered by a thin, frayed blanket, Mrs Harrows was shivering with fever.

Queenie rushed to her side and knelt beside her.

“Oh, Ma! Why haven’t you sent for me?”

Manon was appalled by the lack of even the slightest necessities in the house, even though she had seen more than her share of misery in the back-street hovels of Paris more than enough. Here in Brighton, it was even worse. Mrs Harrows seemed to be at the end of her tether.

Pru was already examining the poor woman, while Queenie and Patsy were trying to calm down the two howling boys. One of them was no more than twelve months while the other seemed about two years old.

Manon looked about her for the other two sisters she knew Queenie had. The girl must have seen her looking.

“Molly and Ruthie are in service, just like me, Miss. Ma wouldn’t be able to cope without our wages. Patsy works for Mr Lascombe at the Blue Ribbon Hotel. It’s not like Ma to let Jamie and Robbie cry like that!”

So four of Mrs Harrows’ girls were working, and still she did not seem to be coping. Or were the girls paid so badly that they did not have anything to spare after their mother used their wages to buy food? Patsy was ten, and Queenie only five, so the other two girls would be somewhere in between, Manon guessed.

And where was the father? Probably drinking away his daughters’ hard-earned money, no doubt.

“Do you know where to reach your father, Queenie? she asked. “Your mother should not be alone when she is ill.”

Queenie eyed her in a rather peculiar manner and replied, “Pa died last year, Miss. Got a nasty bit of pneumonia. Ma just found out she was expectin’ again, with Robbie, that was.”

“Oh…I am so sorry, Queenie, I…”

“That’s all right, Miss. You weren’t to know.”

Nevertheless, Manon felt awful.

Mrs Harrows groaned when Pru tried to make her more comfortable. Quickly, Manon joined Pru at the bedside and pulled the blanket away. Mrs Harrows was burning up with fever and she had not left the bed for a long time, judging by the stench emanating from the dirty sheets. The poor woman was lying in her own dirt which had caused bedsores.

“Manon, what are you doing?” Pru asked, slightly alarmed.

“Queenie, go and fetch the two footmen,” Manon addressed the girl. “We are moving the whole family to The Wild Rose.

 

“Beg pardon, Miss, but there is a gentleman to see you,” the parlour maid said to Manon.

“Who is it?” Manon replied, not taking her eyes off Mrs Harrows. She and Pru had washed her, tended her sores, and tucked her into a nice, clean bed in one of the house’s unused rooms. Manon had fed her some chicken broth and covered her chest with a poultice, laced with lavender and eucalyptus. It had relieved the patient’s cough a bit, and Mrs Harrows was now sleeping peacefully in what Manon reckoned to be the first time in days. Her two toddlers were being looked after in the kitchen by Mrs Petheridge and the housekeeper, Mrs Carson. As it turned out, the most notable things the boys needed were a proper wash and a decent meal.

According to Queenie, their mother had been ill for days but she had still been doing her work in one of the sewing workshops. Patsy had found her the previous night in the state Manon and Pru had first seen her in. Apparently, it had been some days since the girls had visited their mother. One of the other sisters, Molly, had come the previous day to feed her brothers, but she had done nothing for their mother because the latter had been asleep.

The parlour maid preceded Manon on the second floor landing while she answered Manon’s question.

“It is Sir Lucian Blackthorne come to call, Miss. He said you had agreed to go for a ride with him,” the maid said, dragging Manon back to the present.

So she had, Manon recalled. Only she quite forgot the date when she had begun caring for Queenie’s family. She explained to Pru, who was clearing up the dressing room they had used to give the patient a bath. She then quickly followed the maid downstairs to find Lucian standing in the hall, impeccably and most dashingly attired in his burgundy riding coat and stylish black trousers.

Only when she saw his stunned dark eyes upon her did Manon realise that she was still wearing the modest dark blue gown and white apron she had donned to attend to Mrs Harrows.

“My dear girl,” Lucian said, surprise colouring his voice, “what on earth have you been doing that you require the use of a maid’s apron?”

“Oh, never mind,” Manon breathed, “I have been…”

Could she tell Lucian about Queenie’s family? She could not do so, definitively not. Lucian was an earl’s son and he would consider members of the lower staff to be insignificant and not worth bothering about.

“Pardon me, Lucian. I will go and change into my riding habit.”

She quickly pulled the bell, and Pritchard appeared.

“Pritchard, will you take care of His Lordship until I come back, please?”

“Certainly, miss. If you would care to follow me, Your Lordship?”

 

The day was lovely with the weather so bright and sunny. Lucian took Manon out of the city and into the beautiful countryside. They cantered through the lush meadows, enjoying the ride. At least, Lucian was, but Manon could not divert her thoughts from Mrs Harrows and the miserable life she and her family led. When they stopped to rest their horses next to a babbling stream, Lucian led Manon to a wooden bench and sat her down.

“I have the distinct impression, Manon, that you are miles away from here. What is troubling you, my dear?”

Again, Manon wondered if she should tell Lucian about what she had been doing that morning. All through the process of tending to Mrs Harrows, Manon had felt a joy that she had thought she might never experience again. It was the satisfaction of caring for people and relieving their ailments. Manon wanted to help people who were ill, using the knowledge her papa had taught her. It had all felt so right that Manon realised not only how much she had missed it, but also that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. The art of healing was Papa’s legacy to her, and she was well experienced in it. She loved it because she was truly skilled in it and because she cared for people who were in need of help. The smallest bud of an idea had formed in Manon’s mind, and she was determined to find out if it would prove viable.

As for now, Manon knew, she could not share these thoughts with Lucian Blackthorne. Not before he made clear his intentions towards her.

“I was thinking of my brother,” she told him. At least that was only half a lie. “It is the first time in his whole life that we have been separated from each other. I worry, Lucian, that is all.”

Lucian Blackthorne studied his companion as unobtrusively as he could without catching her attention. He could not fathom this young woman as well as he wanted to. After all the weeks she had been in his company, he still had no clue about what was going on in that pretty little head. He could not read those vivid green eyes at all.

Manon Favier, although she was Richard de Briers’ niece, had not been gently bred. That was a fact that did not sit well with Lucian. When he became the next Earl Clifford, he would need to marry and beget an heir. That was one of his most sacred duties. His heir should be of truly noble blood, and Manon was partly of common stock. She was not entirely fit to be the mother of his offspring.

All that was true, Lucian knew, and it was valuable to him. He also knew it would be of no consequence if he loved her. And that was the crux of the matter. He did not love Manon. He found her beautiful, even extremely so. He thought her lively and entertaining, elegant, intriguing, and fascinating. Yet he did not truly love her.

Lucian had never been in love with any woman in his life. He had known many lovers and could entice any woman to come to his bed. He truly enjoyed their bodies, but he never let them touch his heart. He did not think Manon had touched his heart either, yet he could not be certain altogether when he had not kissed her.

Kisses were extremely revealing, Lucian thought. They could sparkle a flash of desire that might grow into a fire, one that could only be doused by a nice encounter between the sheets. Lucian had no qualms about taking Manon to his bed and introducing her to the art of lovemaking.

She truly was a lovely girl, he mused, marvelling in the deep auburn colour of her hair, her slender, elegant figure, her pert little nose, and her lush, rosy mouth. And those green, sparkling eyes. Ah, yes, truly lovely!

Manon lifted her face to the warm July sun, revelling in the feel of it on her skin. Her hat, a soft green straw bonnet, had slipped off her head but she did not pay attention to it. Contrary to what she had once thought, she enjoyed riding. Buttercup, her pretty bay mare was the perfect mount for her, and she was grateful to her uncle for finding the animal. He had seemed to know exactly what kind of horse she had needed. But then, her uncle always knew what she needed, did he not?

Richard had gone to Bearsham Manor nearly a week ago, yet Manon had not stopped thinking of him for one second of each day. She missed him, and terribly so, and she longed for the day when he would send the carriage to come and bring her to him. Her little Jéhan was also constantly in her thoughts. How would he fare without her to guide him? Would he miss her too? Would Richard miss her?

“We should go back,” Lucian’s voice dragged her back to the present and to the lovely countryside bench near the stream where Manon sat beside him. Oh, dear! She had not exchanged one word with Lucian since they came to this spot. He would think her terribly rude, indeed.

“I am so truly sorry, Lucian. I fear I am not pleasant company today, forgive me.”

Lucian rose, took her hand and helped her to her feet.

“You could redeem yourself with … this,” he said, sliding his arm around her waist and gently pulling her to him. His action startled her, but she did not draw back. A vague sense of inevitable closure affected her as if her life would now take a new direction. Finally, Lucian had made up his mind, she thought.

With something of curiosity, Manon waited for the kiss that would follow. She could see it in Lucian’s eyes that he was on the verge of kissing her. She studied his face, which was handsome, eager, and bold. His lips were already slightly parted and his gaze was dark with desire.

Why did those signs not excite her? She suddenly recalled how those same signs had thrilled her when it had been Richard holding her. How her heart had fluttered like a bird trying to escape its cage. Now she felt only a mild curiosity and she wanted Lucian to get it over with.

When Lucian’s mouth slanted over hers, Manon registered that his lips were as firm as Richard’s had been, and as warm, and as lovely. Lucian was a skilled kisser, as experienced as Richard had been. He attempted to woo her with his agile probing of her mouth and tongue and he was inviting her to respond.

Determined to give herself a chance to make the distinction between Lucian and Richard, Manon wound her arms about Lucian’s neck and pressed herself against him. She opened her mouth and gave him full access, searching for the spark of fire that she had so exquisitely felt when Richard had kissed her.

It did not come. Where was the jolt of flame that had overwhelmed her when Richard’s tongue swept her mouth? Where was the heat that had suffused her whole body when she felt Richard’s arousal press against her belly? Why did her heart not pick up its pace and why did her blood not course through her veins like a stream of liquid fire?

Manon felt only a mild disappointment and even a faint sensation of boredom. She let go of Lucian and retreated.

“Forgive me, Lucian. I …”

“No, my dear. It is I who must beg for forgiveness. That was rude of me. I fear I forgot myself, and I apologize. Come, let us return to town.”

He extended his hand once again, and Manon allowed him to lead her to Buttercup and lift her into the saddle. They swiftly rode back to Richard’s townhouse and separated without further ado.

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Sixteen

Armitage_004

Chapter Sixteen

 

In the two weeks that followed the ball, Manon was swept into a flurry of activity attending balls and soirées and enjoying outings to the park and riding journeys. Lucian was her attentive groom when she went riding while Marcus Lascombe, a charming fair-haired giant with dreamy blue eyes was Manon’s usual companion for the theatre. His brother Joseph, considerably shorter than Marcus, was a slender, handsome and amiable man who loved to take her out for poetry evenings. Then there were a number of other young bucks, scarcely older than Manon who endeavoured to ask her to a ball or a soirée with the enthusiasm only the young possess. They made Manon smile, yet she did not respond to their pleas, because she had no interests in beguiling innocent boys still engaged in their studies at university.

However, none of Manon’s suitors had proposed to her, not even Lucian Blackthorne, a fact that left Manon nonplussed. Since she was unable to accept Richard, she was determined to say yes to Lucian if he asked her to be his wife. She liked Lucian. He was an earl’s son; that was true. He was wealthy as well, but that was not what made him attractive. It was his high-spirited, humorous manner and his boyish charm that drew Manon to him. She knew that life with Lucian would be anything but dull. They were certain to have fun together, and even joy, and perhaps love would blossom one day if they let it grow between them. Manon was prepared to give love a chance again, with Lucian. Yet he had not said a word so far.

 

As Manon had expected, her uncle wished to be informed about the situation. He questioned her on one of the rare nights that she was not engaged. The four of them, with Pru and Jake Davies being of the company, were dining en petit comité.

“Manon, have you received any offers of marriage as yet?”

“No, Uncle. So far, no one has ‘come up to scratch’ yet.”

She smiled at him, seeing that her words somehow seemed to upset him. “I apologize, Uncle. I know a lady should not speak in such terms.”

He did not reply but quickly lowered his gaze and continued eating.

Pru, however, knew she could not have misjudged the look of pure sorrow she saw in the baronet’s eyes when the proposal was mentioned. Oh, it had only been there for a second. Sir Richard was too well bred to allow feelings to show on his face for longer than that. But it had been there, nevertheless. Manon, she knew, had seen it too; it was what had compelled the young woman to quickly apologize. Sir Richard had become utterly distressed when Manon joked about Sir Lucian’s proposal, or the lack thereof, Pru registered. That, or Pru was no longer able to read people’s gazes as she had been doing all her life.

Unobtrusively, from the corner of an eye, Pru observed the two. At any given moment, they were either avoiding each other’s gaze or throwing furtive looks at each other especially when they thought the other would not see them. A tension most definitively hovered between the baronet and his niece.

Allowing Pritchard to remove his empty plate, Richard de Briers cleared his throat and thus claimed the attention of the other diners.

“Estate matters claim me back to Bearsham Manor, as I was informed today by a letter from my steward, Trevor Waldham. There is no need to accompany me, niece, if you wish to stay in Brighton. Jake, I trust you will prepare young Jéhan for the journey and instruct his nanny that she is to pack his belongings.”

“Yes, of course, sir. Will…”

“I beg your pardon!” Manon’s voice rang with sudden alarm when she abruptly stood, drawing all attention to her.

Richard looked at her wearily and said, “Yes, Manon?”

“Are you taking my brother away from me?” Her green eyes blazed with sudden fury, Richard saw. He drew a breath to keep his composure before patiently explaining, “That goes without saying, Manon. Jéhan is my heir. He will accompany me wherever I go.”

“Then, Uncle, I must also prepare myself for travelling.”

Manon addressed Pritchard in a polite voice and asked him if he would kindly inform her maid Bessie to start packing.

“Yes, of course, Miss Favier,” the butler answered. He gestured to a footman to take his place at the table before he left the dining room.

“Manon…”

Her uncle’s quiet voice was laden with authority. He was fixing her with his most unwavering gaze. Pru Butterworth watched in amazement at how Manon’s chin went up in defiance and how her eyes and her whole expression focussed on her uncle.

“Yes, Uncle?”

“Please, sit down and listen to me.”

Richard gave his niece a stern look in the hope that she would listen to reason. He thoroughly regretted not having spoken to her of this before and cursed his omission, because he had known full well how firmly the two siblings’ lives were intertwined. Manon might never trust him again if he did not present this correctly to her. He kept his voice as soothing as was possible.

“As I said before, dearest Manon, there is no need to accompany me to Bearsham Manor. Jéhan will be safely under my protection and properly looked after by his nanny and his tutor. The boy is no longer your concern, Manon and besides, you have several events that claim your presence in the days to come. I suggest you stay here with Miss Butterworth and honour the invitations you have received.”

“But … Jéhan has always been with me, from the day he was born! We have never been separated, not even for a day! Please, Uncle, let me come with you! I cannot stand to be without my brother! I promised our father I would protect him with my life, and I will!”

She shoved her chair backwards and swiftly crossed over to her uncle’s place at the head of the table. To Richard’s utter shock, Manon threw her arms around him.

“Please, dearest Richard! I beg you, do not take my little brother from me!”

Pru and Jake exchanged surprised glances upon Manon’s use of a romantic endearment instead of the usual title of ‘Uncle’ that she always employed. Yet they could barely keep their jaws from dropping at the reaction of their employer.

Richard de Briers had risen and he put his arms around Manon. He was gently stroking her now shaking shoulders. “I am not taking him from you, sweetling. Please, do not weep so. I … I cannot stand it.”

His gaze went to Pru, a plea in his eyes. Pru rose and came to take Manon from him. The girl went quietly with her companion – to Richard’s immense relief. It had cost him a formidable amount of willpower not to kiss the tears from her cheeks and make her smile again. His heart went with her when he saw Manon and Miss Butterworth leave the room.

Sighing deeply, Richard gestured to the footman to serve the next course, which was dessert. He then turned to Jake Davies.

“Jake, will you join me in the library after dinner? I have some matters to discuss with you concerning the young master.”

“Certainly, sir,” Jake replied, still stunned by the whole performance and its implications. His master could not … would not … No!

 

Half an hour later, Manon had been bathed by Bessie and put to bed.  A cup of hot cocoa had been served to help Manon sleep. Pru came to sit next to her bed and took her hand.

“Dearest Manon, I think you have something to tell me,” she said quietly and looked comfortingly at her companion. Manon turned her face away, but Pru had seen the silent tears that ran down her cheeks. Poor little mite, she thought. Poor sweet child.

“Is your uncle the one you lost your heart to, Manon? You can tell me; it will ease your mind to tell someone, dearest. Such a burden should not be borne alone.”

Still Manon did not answer and she tore her hand from Pru’s and covered her face. Her slender shoulders shook with violent sobs.

“Manon, we do not choose whom we love. Love chooses us, just like that. It is no crime to fall in love with one’s uncle but it would be if you gave in to temptation and acted upon that love. I cannot believe that your uncle would commit such a dishonourable act, Manon. Richard de Briers is a gentleman of the first water.”

“He has not done anything. He has always behaved impeccably. We never … touched each other again, not even after …”

Manon’s voice faltered, and she burst out in tears again.

“After what, dearest? Tell Pru all; it will relieve you.”

“After I confessed my love to him. He … he was the kindest of souls and he tried to comfort me. He also begged me to stop loving him and to search for a husband, but … oh, Pru! I cannot! I cannot, not ever! I love him so much, Pru! Oh, why must he be my uncle? What have I done to the Heavens to deserve such a torture?”

“There, there,” Pru soothed, anxious because Manon was so thoroughly distressed and because Pru could not seem to offer her comfort. “You must be strong, my darling, and pull yourself together. Sir Richard is right. You must be married and find a new happiness with your husband. The love you feel for Sir Richard can never be allowed to grow. You know that, do you not?”

Manon nodded, unable to speak. She valiantly tried to dry her tears, but they kept streaming down her cheeks. She fumbled for a handkerchief. Pru offered her a clean one so that Manon could blow her congested nose. Finally, she was able to speak again without sobbing.

“Yes, Pru, I do know all that. However, how do you think it feels when I am forced to meet him every day and eat at his table and sleep under his roof and never be allowed to tell him that I love him? How torturous it is to be confronted with him, day after day, and to see how magnificent he is? When he is all dressed up in his fine clothes with his splendid figure, his fine, broad shoulders, and his handsome countenance, he is temptation come alive, Pru. Yet I can never touch him or caress him. I am only allowed to peck him on the cheek and never truly kiss him on the mouth. It is slowly killing me, Pru.”

She was only eight years Manon’s senior, Pru mused, yet at that same time, she was feeling as if she were trice as old as the girl. Love could be such a cruel sentiment. Manon should be happy and joyous at this moment, enjoying her youth. Above all, she should be experiencing the love of a good, kind man instead of being ripped apart by her forbidden feelings for her attractive uncle. But that was just how life was, sometimes. Nothing, no unfair setback, was ever to be excluded.

“Darling Manon,” she said in an infinitely gentle voice, “life has treated you terribly unkindly. You lost your parents and you had to flee your native country. Now these unbidden feelings assault you. It is indeed cruel, my darling, but you must find the courage to fight against all this. I know you can fight, Manon. You are a brave, clever, strong young woman, and you can do it. Of that I am most thoroughly convinced. You are not alone in this, dearest. I am with you and I will support you. For now, I think Sir Richard is right. You should remain here with me and create a distance between you and him. That will be the first step towards peace of mind, Manon. Only when you are not in his presence will your love for your uncle return to a more appropriate level.”

 

The next morning, Manon said goodbye to her little brother as he mounted their uncle’s splendid carriage. Jéhan was excited and happy, whereas she felt as if her heart were being ripped apart.

“We will see each other again soon, mon chou,” Manon said, biting back tears and squaring her shoulders against the sorrow that was lurking nearby. “I will follow you to our uncle’s estate in a few weeks. Now, you will be a good boy, won’t you?”

“Yes, yes, Manon! Hurry, let go of me! We are about to leave!”

Manon smiled when she saw Jéhan’s enthusiasm. At least he was cheerful enough for the both of them.

The company – Jéhan, Jake and Maisie – climbed into the carriage, on the back of which one of the grooms was finishing the strapping of the luggage. Richard de Briers, who had been watching the proceedings from the front porch of the house, stepped forward.

“Well, niece, I will see you on the first of August, then. I asked Lucian Blackthorne to accompany my carriage when it carries you to Bearsham Manor. I hope you will have a pleasant time in Brighton until we see you at the estate.”

He took her hand and placed a kiss on its back, then pulled on his gloves and swung himself onto his big chestnut stallion.

Manon hastily retreated when Spartacus stepped aside, lest the animal tread on her foot. Mere seconds later, the horse and carriage disappeared round the bend and from Manon’s sight. She felt like she had lost a limb.

Climbing the stairs to her room, Manon had the distinct impression that, with Richard gone, the house had lost its very soul. It was definitively missing all joy now that Jéhan no longer filled its corridors and rooms with his cheerful babbling and light footsteps. When she entered her large, well-lit bedroom, she lowered herself onto her bed, lying on her back and resting her head upon her arms.

She needed to think, and to take her life into her hands again. Since coming to Brighton, she had had the impression that her life was being led for her instead of the other way around. Now that she was alone with Pru, without Richard’s constant supervision, Manon knew she could make plans of her own.

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Fifteen

Armitage_004

Chapter Fifteen

 

When the cotillion ended, Richard led Blanche to a seat. He then bid her leave to go and see to his many other guests, whom he had been neglecting somewhat. She graciously released him and turned to a girl whom she knew from childhood but had not seen since. Richard hastened after his niece – he had forgotten all else, after he noticed the paleness of her face when she left the dance floor.

But where was Manon? Standing in the doorway to the entrance hall, he scanned the crowd gathered there, which was easy because of his height. He was about to return to the ballroom when he glimpsed her small form disappearing onto the terrace. When he noticed that Miss Butterworth was with her, Richard felt slightly less concerned.

Before going after the girls, he again looked into the ballroom for his friend Blackthorne. Lucian was dancing with the well-endowed daughter of a Brighton merchant and seemed to be having a fabulous time, judging from the expression of satisfaction on his face.

Stepping onto the terrace, Richard saw the two girls heading for the maze in the garden. He realised something must indeed be wrong, because Miss Butterworth had her arm around Manon’s waist in support. Manon herself seemed unsteady on her feet. What the deuce had happened? Was Manon ailing, or injured? Surely, Miss Butterworth would have taken her to her room and called for a physician if that were the case. With growing concern, Richard accessed the maze through a different entrance than the one the girls had taken. He wished to hear why his niece seemed so perturbed, even though he resented being forced to eavesdrop.

“Dearest Manon, what is it?” Miss Butterworth asked. “We should return to the house, and put you to bed. You look terrible; you are white as a sheet!”

“No, no, I will recover in a while, Pru. Just let us sit for a few moments.”

“But … you are clearly unwell, dearest. Shall I find your uncle and …”

“No!”

The word came out like a cry of despair.

“Oh, Manon!” Miss Butterworth said in anguish,  “You look truly ill.  You are trembling all over, dearest!”

“It will pass, Pru; just stay with me and hold me.”

Richard gritted his teeth in powerless frustration. What had befallen his sweet niece that she should be so disturbed? If Lucian had made any improper advances, he would demand satisfaction.

Her voice barely more than a whisper, as if talking were difficult for her, Manon pleaded, “Not my uncle. He must not know about this. I … I will … be … right as rain …”

Manon got to her feet, swaying lightly, but she managed to make a step in the direction of the house. She then collapsed without a word. Pru uttered a small scream and bent over to her. To Pru’s utter bewilderment, Manon burst into heartbreaking sobs.

Richard  clenched his fists in an effort to keep himself from bursting through the yew hedge to see what was wrong with Manon. He heard Miss Butterworth’s shushing noises as she endeavoured to comfort his niece. Manon was crying her heart out in a most inconsolable and desolate manner.

“There, there, dearie! Tell me what is grieving you so, please. Pru will help you and make it right.”

Nothing was forthcoming from Manon but wracking sobs, as she was weeping like a child would do, forlornly and heart-wrenchingly.

Eventually, Manon’s crying subsided and Miss Butterworth coaxed her once again to confide in her.

“I cannot tell you, Pru,” Manon whispered, so quietly that Richard could barely understand.

“Why not, my sweetling? I am certain I can help you.”

“No, dear Pru, even you cannot help me, no one can. I am doomed!”

 

 

 

Miss Prudence Butterworth recognised the raw sentiment Manon displayed as the oversimplified despair of youth. After all, Pru had six sisters, and all were younger than she. Especially the two youngest, Mariah and Venetia, had a tendency to blot out every ounce of reason when thwarted in love. Mariah had once tried to drown herself when one of her beaux chose another girl over her. Unfortunately for her – or, from the family’s viewpoint, fortunately – Mariah had chosen the gently babbling brook at the back of their garden as the stage for her melodramatic act. The water was shallow and extremely muddy, and Mariah had sunk into the black sludge up to her armpits. By the time their father and their male servant managed to pull her out, Mariah’s despair was gone. Instead, she was bewailing the ruin she had made of her best muslin morning gown.

Manon, Pru realised, was in the same mood Mariah had been just minutes before she jumped into the brook. She was blind to everything else but her own deep despair.

Pru knew she had two sensible options. She could try and comfort Manon with conventional, empty phrases, or she could refuse to follow her into despair and instead chide Manon back into reason. Pru chose the latter.

“Pish and nonsense, Manon! Are you listening to yourself? Doomed, no less! You must recover yourself and act like the sensible young woman that I know you are. You are a de Briers, a member of an old and proud family, and you owe it to yourself to act as such. Quit your waterfall of tears and tell me what is wrong, now! Otherwise, I am taking you to your uncle, and you can explain to him why you are snivelling and wailing like a babe whose toy has been taken away!”

 

Manon startled at Pru’s stern tone but at the same time acknowledged her words as wise.

“You are right, and I apologize, Pru. I guess I was just overwhelmed. The ball is so grand, and I am still learning how to behave.”

“Weeping will not help when you need to use your head, Manon. You are too melodramatic by far. Has someone offended you or hurt you? Was it Mr Blackthorne?”

“Lucian? No, he has been the soul of kindness to me.” She shook her head before continuing, “You must promise never to tell a soul of what I am about to entrust to you, Pru. Promise me, please?”

Puzzled to the extreme, Pru promised.

Manon continued, eyes downcast and hands clenching in her lap.

“I have allowed myself to lose my heart to someone I cannot have for a husband, Pru. It was foolishly indulgent and terribly unfortunate. Now I am condemned to push that love away and hide it forever.”

Pru studied Manon for a while, asking herself how much the girl was affected by her self-declared impossible love, and she found that Manon seemed deeply hurt. How could this have come about? It could not have occurred that same night, Pru realised. No, this was something that must have happened earlier. Manon’s sorrow was painful and real, and it must have been festering for some time, for the girl had been downcast for days. Pru recalled how even the most exquisite gowns, bonnets ,and slippers had not elicited more than a sad, fleeting smile from Manon. Come to think of it, Pru mused, Manon had had an air of melancholy over her lately that was uncharacteristic for the sensible and lively girl that Pru had come to know. For now, Pru would desist prying into Manon’s heart, but she resolved to find out what was troubling her young friend in the days to come.

 

Richard watched the pair return to the house arm in arm. Conflicting thoughts assailed his mind. On the one hand, he was pleased that Manon had found a friend in Miss Butterworth, who seemed to have the right approach to Manon’s impulsiveness. On the other hand, he realised that Miss Butterworth was shrewd and tenacious and that she would try to find out who Manon’s impossible love was in order to protect her adequately.

Hearing Manon’s confession to her friend, he had foolishly rejoiced, even though he knew he had no right to do so. Blast it all! He needed Manon to marry, and fast, too. It would be the best thing that could happen, for both of them.

 

While he wandered back to the house, Richard had to fight against his own black mood. This was becoming ridiculous, he thought. Manon’s tears over the heartache that their mutual love had brought them affected him in the same way. He had always considered a broken heart a mere invention of romantic novel writers, and something that Sir Richard de Briers, an established gentleman with a comfortable position in life, would never have to endure. He was a respected and well-to-do member of England’s country gentry, and the master of his own prosperous estate. Misfortune was not something he was likely to experience, and should a setback come his way, Richard had always assumed he would be able to rectify it.

How wrong he had been, and how foolishly conceited!

 

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Fourteen

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Chapter Fourteen

 

On the first Thursday of July, a sumptuous ball was given by Richard de Briers, Baronet Bearsham, in his townhouse, to present his niece, Miss Manon Favier to the Brighton society.

Standing near the large, high ballroom windows, Richard was watching the line of dancers that occupied the floor in an intricate country dance. All the dancers were part of Brighton’s ton, and the coastal town’s society was rapidly increasing, due to the Prince Regent’s presence.

There was, of course, his best friend, Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter, who was at present leading Manon between the lines. There were the brothers Lascombe, who were the sons of one of Brighton’s wealthiest hotel owners. Although not belonging to the aristocracy, Joseph and Marcus Lascombe were respectable and rich enough to be considered much sought-after as marriage candidates. Further, Richard also recognized the sons of a number of the country gentry members, all young, handsome, and wealthy enough to aspire to be hunted by the unmarried young ladies of Brighton’s society.

There was one person in the line who inexorably drew Richard’s gaze time and time again.

That person was his niece, who glided and whirled effortlessly from male to male, her wide skirts swishing.

Richard felt increasingly uncomfortable, as he always did when he studied Manon. Every time she turned, her slim ankles, encased in creamy white silk stockings, showed for just the beat of a heart. Her small, delicate feet in their golden satin dancing slippers seemed to hover above the floor instead of touching it. Her slender, utterly feminine curves were dressed in bronze silk, and whenever Manon turned or curtsied, every move she made was enhanced by the fabric, which hugged her body like a second skin. She was enchanting, elegant, and sensual, and Richard swallowed at the reaction of his treacherous body, unable to control his rising hunger, even when his brain ordered him to adopt a more distant view of his niece.

The sultry voice of the woman coming to stand beside him pulled him back into reality. He blinked, and with an effort, he tore his gaze away from the object of his unruly desire.

“I say, Richard, what a handsome pair they make, your niece and Blackthorne. Do I detect a marriage in the making, or is he not what you wanted for Manon?” Blanche Morrison said, looking directly into his eyes as soon as he turned his head towards her.

Blanche Morrison, née de Bourg, was the daughter of an impoverished squire. The squire’s estate had been in shambles before his daughter married Ambrose Morrison, a wealthy Manchester manufacturer. Blanche’s husband’s money restored her father’s estate to its former prosperity, but Blanche’s husband would rarely leave his native town and follow his wife when she returned to The Feathers for a family visit.

Richard looked down at the pretty blonde with the wide, cornflower blue eyes, who smiled beguilingly at him. There had been a time when he and Blanche had been lovers, the year after she married Morrison. She had practically begged Richard for attention, claiming that her husband had no time for her, as he was entangled in his business. Richard had only been too happy to oblige, and they had had a stormy, very satisfactory affair, which had resulted in a son for Blanche. She had easily passed the child off as Morrison’s and did not pay the least attention to the now seven-year-old boy, who was being raised by the staff of her Manchester household. Richard would have welcomed the child into his own household, but Blanche was adamant that young Matthew should stay where he was, claiming that he was better off there.

If  at first he had been reluctant to renew his acquaintance with Blanche because of the attraction he had once felt for her, Richard could now put his mind at ease. The attraction was no longer there, and the only reaction Richard felt when Blanche lifted her eyes in a desperate plea to have him back in her bed again was a mild compassion with regard to her loneliness, both physical and mental. He answered her teasing remark about Lucian and Manon with an indifferent shrug of his broad shoulders.

“Who knows how it will turn out, Blanche? Manon has only been out for a single week, and in Brighton, no less. She has yet to try her chances in London, when the Season resumes mid-November.”

Richard glanced around at the line of gentlemen on the dance floor, then continued “Although I must say that half of the London ton seems to have moved to Brighton to continue the Season here.”

Blanche let out a titter of laughter, curled her hands about his arm, and replied, “Well, they probably followed Prinny’s trail from London in early June, do you not think? How is one supposed to stay in the future monarch’s good graces when said royal prefers the seaside air to that of the capital?”

“True,” Richard agreed, covering her hands with one of his.

“So how is dear old Manchester faring, these days?” he asked, studying the delicate, heart-shaped face with the rouged cheeks and rosebud mouth. He should take advantage of Blanche’s presence in Brighton to renew his former affair with her, Richard mused. God knew how long he had been without a woman, and Blanche certainly would not reject him. He needed something to distract him from his attraction to his own niece.

 

Blanche shook her head, causing the golden curls that framed her face to dance. The rest of her coiffure was in the “pouf” style, swept up high on her head and supported by a cushion to keep it high. Feathers, braids and bejewelled combs made it look heavy and encumbering.

Richard’s gaze involuntarily shifted towards his niece, whose bright auburn locks were fastened at the back of her neck with a simple green tortoise clasp, which caused it to fan over her back in long copper waves. With every turn she made while dancing, the gorgeous cloak whirled with her and made Manon resemble a fairy dancing in the sunlight. Richard’s heart leapt in his throat, and he forced himself to wrench his eyes away from the enchanting view and listen to Blanche.

“Morrison is such a boring, old stick-in-the-mud,” his companion continued. “He never leaves that dusty old office of his. Did you know he has a bed in there? He does not bother to come home to sleep in mine anymore.”

Wisely, Richard refrained from commenting on this but upon seeing the dancers line up for a fresh round, he asked if she wanted to step into the cotillion with him. Blanche looked at him with starry eyes and agreed.

 

Manon was aware of a burning sensation scalding her heart while she was preparing herself for the cotillion. Her uncle was talking to and smiling at an exceptionally beautiful blonde, who took the liberty of laying her hands on him. He clearly welcomed her attentions, which caused sheer, raw jealousy to roil within Manon.

She should not be so affected by Richard, Manon realised. He was her uncle, and therefore forbidden. Yet she was incredibly jealous when another woman claimed Richard’s attention. It had not been the first time that evening. Many beautiful, lively women had been led into a dance by her handsome uncle, and many others stood watching, hoping for a dance with him.

Presently, it was this sultry, devilishly beautiful blonde. Richard’s hand resting on the woman’s waist, his smile and the obvious intimacy that existed between them had marked the woman to Manon as a rival for Richard’s attentions.

It ached, not only because of the distasteful feeling of jealousy, but also because that woman had what Manon desperately craved – Richard as a man, a companion, and an equal.

Fear rose in Manon when she saw Richard lead the woman into the cotillion that was about to begin.

That meant they would meet somewhere in the line of dancers, and she did not know if she could bear it.

Lucian took Manon’s hand and led her to her place.

“Ah, finally!” he whispered, bending over to her. “I feared Richard was done dancing tonight, but I see Blanche Morrison still has her claim on his attention.”

Manon eyed the woman, fear clenching at her very heart. Claim? What did Lucian mean?

“I do not understand,” she whispered back. “Does my uncle know this woman well, then?”

Lucian softly snickered. “He did, a few years ago. Used to go to Manchester quite often, he did.”

Manon inwardly cringed when she saw the knowing look on Lucian’s face. So this Blanche had been her uncle’s mistress?

The cotillion’s introduction music sounded, and two lines – a male and a female one – formed facing each other. Manon curtsied to Lucian, who bowed to her in return. Lucian took Manon’s hand to form a square, together with three other couples. Manon felt a stab of apprehension when she saw that her uncle and his dance companion were one of these couples.

In the first movement, Lucian made Manon turn under their joined hands, before taking her by the waist to slowly execute a complete turn. It was so pleasant that Manon entirely forgot about her uncle’s presence. Lucian was a skilled dance partner.

The dance companions began to turn away from each other to meet the partner at their other side. Manon curtsied to Marcus Lascombe, a gentleman she had only met that evening. He took her hand and drew her to his own side of the square. They touched first their right hands, then their left ones. With a smile on his face, Mr Lascombe passed Manon to the next gentleman. Without having to look up, Manon knew whose hand gripped hers.

With her heart beating wildly, Manon slid into her space in front of Richard and curtsied. He bowed and unexpectedly squeezed her fingers hard, which made Manon look into his face. The warmth of his fingers burned through the thin material of her glove, but it was nothing, compared to the heat of his gaze as they drew closer. In the next prescribed movement, he raised her hand above their heads and they came face to face, their mouths only inches apart. His breath caressed her slightly parted lips. Merciful Heavens…

Then the dance separated them again, and Manon turned away from him, acutely feeling the loss of his touch. It was only a few seconds before the dance brought them closer again, when Richard slid his arm around her waist and took the hand she had moved to her back. Their waists touched, their thighs brushed, and Richard’s torso slid along Manon’s breast. She felt the heat sear into her nipples like a spear. Closing her eyes to conquer the unsettling jolt of arousal, Manon prayed for deliverance. It did not come.

 

Entering into the dance had been a capital mistake, as Richard was wont to notice, as soon as he took Manon’s little hand into his. Immediately, her scent – vanilla and roses – enveloped him, and in his already semi-aroused state, unruly thoughts sprang into his mind. He ruthlessly broke them off. No, no and no! Just perform the movements and, for Heaven’s sake, detach yourself from her, you idiot!

But…oh! Those rosy, sensual lips, that pert little nose, and those green eyes, glowing with what he identified as budding desire … it was agony. Sheer, brutal torture.

She felt it too, Richard saw. Her cheeks were flushed a pretty rosy colour, her lips slightly apart. The warmth of her hand scorched his palm, even through the fabric of her glove. Thank God the dance made them turn away from each other so that he could collect himself.

Yet his treacherous body already craved the moment when they would touch again, and when they did, Richard was grateful that Manon did not look down to witness his embarrassment.

He had to fight for composure when they stepped forward, sides touching.

Holding on to the distant awareness that he was bound in honour to protect Manon and keep her safe, Richard summoned up the courage to lessen his hold sufficiently to wrench his gaze from hers.

And then she was gone again, taken over by the next gentleman who passed her to Lucian, and Richard was once more holding hands with Blanche. Promptly, his arousal subsided. Well, he mused, was that not a telltale reaction?

 

Manon suffered, swallowing back tears of misery and frustration. She wanted the dance to end so that she could leave the ballroom and give herself over to her sorrow. This was cruelty, pure and simple.

For the last three weeks, she had tried to fit into Brighton’s society and learn what her uncle wanted her to master. She had become a moderately good horsewoman, well enough to accompany suitors when they came to fetch her for a ride. Most of these rides had been with Lucian Blackthorne, whom Manon was beginning to be extremely fond of. She fervently hoped that Lucian’s attentions would eventually help her to overcome her forbidden feelings for her uncle.

Furthermore, Manon’s speech, manners, and conversation had greatly improved under Pru’s tutelage, and she and Pru were now much sought after invitees to afternoon tea parties and musical soirées. Pru and Manon had become friends, and Manon had visited Pru’s home on several occasions. Mrs   Adelaide Butterworth’s warm welcome was a balm to Manon’s aching heart, and for the first time since her father died, Manon again felt the comfort of a genuine home.

When invited to balls, Manon had the opportunity to display her newly acquired dancing skills – again mostly with Lucian, who was an excellent dancer.

Her uncle had kept a firm distance, except for breakfast and dinner, on the days when Manon was not to go out. Manon had dutifully respected that decision, because she too wanted to keep away from her far-too-attractive uncle. She was determined to find a husband and in doing so, to ban Richard from her heart. She thought she might have succeeded rather well in tamping down her silly feelings.

Until now, at this ball and in this dance, as she watched him with his beautiful female partner… it had all returned a hundredfold.

Was love supposed to hurt this way? If so, Manon wanted never to love again!

Her uncle had been reticent enough, even though Manon had been aware of the tension emanating from him. She was certain she had been equally distant towards him, yet passion had sparkled between them. It always did. Try as she might, she was unable to help herself and there appeared to be no rescue coming.

She was immensely relieved when the dance finally ended, and she excused herself to Lucian. Keeping herself from running, Manon left the dance floor and headed for the ladies’ cloakroom.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twelve

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Chapter Twelve

 

The ride to Brighton was to take six hours, necessitating a stop in Hastings for luncheon. The Saxon and Norman Inn, near Hastings Castle, served a decent shepherd’s pie and boasted an appreciable amber-coloured ale by the name of “Coxcomb”. Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter requested the private parlour for his party.

During the meal, Richard kept himself in the background, responding only when a direct question was addressed to him, glad that his friend Lucian was not drawing him into the conversation. Lucian started lecturing about the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the subsequent conquering of the British Isles by the Normans. Manon was well aware of Richard’s quiet presence but found Lucian’s story quite interesting. He had a way of telling that made the tale easy to follow and never dull. He captivated his audience by weaving exciting anecdotes among the historical facts. To her surprise, Manon discovered she was beginning to like this friend of Richard’s. Like, but not love him. Love … never again.

 

Brighton, a seaside town of modest proportions with a population of sixty thousand, had come to the attention of the Prince Regent in 1783. The future George IV had exercised the full royal power since 1788, when his father became too ill to reign. Prinny had fallen in love with Brighton from the start, and that love had never faltered. Since 1787, Henry Holland had been designing Prinny’s plans for enlarging the modest farmhouse the prince rented for his seaside retreats from the London Court. The first wings of the Royal Pavilion were already in place, and Manon and Jéhan looked in astonishment as they passed the building site. The carriage rode over the Grand Parade on its way to King’s Road, where Richard’s townhouse lay. So strange, Manon mused. Across the Channel, a kingdom was being obliterated, while here, on this small island, the monarch amused himself with fulfilling his dreams, and building them in stone.

King’s Road was a seafront road, and the de Briers townhouse – a stately four-storey Georgian building, with a cream-coloured limestone facade and high windows – occupied a considerably large area. A sign beside the double front door told the name of the house – “The Wild Rose”.

Seeing that Manon was reading the name with a puzzled frown, Richard hastened to explain.

“A ‘briar rose’ – or ‘B-R-I-E-R’ in the old spelling – is a wild rose, also called ‘églantier’ in French. It resembles the common yellow or white dog roses that you can find in many a hedgerow, but this one is always a soft pink. I think you fit quite nicely into our family of wild roses, Manon.”

The last words were said solely for her ears, a fact that made Manon blush with unexpected pleasure.

“Ah,” Richard exclaimed, deliberately diverting everyone’s attention, “here is my erstwhile butler! Good day to you, Pritchard!”

The man, of middle height, rotund, and balding, exuded an air of quiet competence. He bowed to his master and said, “Good day, sir. We expected you back some days ago. I trust all went well?”

“Only the slightest of delays, but nothing that we did not expect, Pritchard.”

Richard took Manon and Jéhan by the hand. “This is Manon Favier, my niece, and her brother Jéhan. I am counting on you to make them feel at home, Pritchard.”

“I will tend to that personally, sir. Welcome to The Wild Rose, Miss Favier, Master Jéhan. If you would follow me inside, I will show you to your rooms.”

Jéhan was baffled. “What did he say, Manon?”

“He was welcoming us into our uncle’s house, mon chou,” Manon replied, putting a hand on her uncle’s proffered arm.

In the hall, the staff was assembled to welcome the master. A short, rather plump woman of some sixty years stepped forward when Pritchard beckoned her.

“Miss Favier, Master Jéhan, may I introduce you to Mrs Carson, our housekeeper.”

Mrs Carson was dressed in a severe black calico frock that hugged her ample curves. It presented an austere contrast with her abundant white hair, which was drawn back from her rosy, round face. Her dark brown eyes were warm and welcoming and she curtsied before Manon, her mouth curving in a sweet smile. “Welcome, Miss  Favier, Master Jéhan. Mr de Briers, sir.” Again, she curtsied, and Richard bowed back in return.

“Thank you all,” he said, “for welcoming my family. We will be staying in Brighton for a few weeks before we ride to Bearsham Manor. Now let us get the young master and miss settled, Mrs Carson.”

 

That evening at dinner, Manon sat listening to the quiet, serious conversation Richard and Lucian shared about the recent turn of events in the country she had been born in. Manon was no longer interested in what happened in France. Since the day her father was murdered, she hated her former fellow countrymen, and she was convinced she could never set foot there again. Jéhan, who had been whisked away by Mrs Carson to eat in the kitchen, should be ready for bed, Manon thought. She patiently waited for a lull in the conversation and asked permission to leave the table.

Both men stood when she rose. Lucian came to bow over her hand and press a feather-light kiss on its back.

“I hope you will grant me the pleasure of your company on an outing in my curricle one of these days, my dear Manon? There is a lot to be seen in Brighton.”

Manon’s eyes involuntarily darted to her uncle, who nodded slightly. “Yes, Lucian, I would be delighted,” she replied and left the room.

Richard felt as if the room grew colder, as soon as Manon closed the door behind her. Angry with himself, he reached for the Cockburn port and poured himself a generous amount of it. His friend Lucian raised an eyebrow when Richard tossed back his glass in one movement.

“I say,” Lucian commented, “are you out of sorts, old chap? I hope you do not mind me taking out Manon.”

“No, not at all. Why should I mind?”

Lucian nodded, took a cigar out of the silver box Pritchard offered him and presented it to the butler to be set alight. “You do know I am seriously considering taking an interest in your niece, I hope? Manon is a fascinating young woman, and her beauty matches her bright intellect and her lively wit.”

“I am aware of it, Lucian. I have eyes and a brain, too.”

The two men sat in silence after Richard dismissed his butler. Richard was conscious of a certain uneasiness stirring within him. His lifelong friend was beginning to take an interest, then. Small wonder there.

“Lucian,” he said, in a casual manner, “I intend to make sure that Manon receives all the attention she is entitled to. There will be parties and balls once my niece is properly kitted out. She will be given riding lessons, as well as dance instruction, and she will have to undergo quite a transformation before she is fit to meet the Brighton bucks. Are you sure you want to commit yourself already? She might turn out to be an entirely different woman than she is now, you know.”

“Oh, pish! Give her some credit, Rich! She will become even more beautiful and she will certainly grow more sophisticated, but she will always be the same, warm, uncomplicated and impulsive young woman that she is now. However, I think I have your meaning, old boy. You want me to behave and take my place in the queue that will line up for Manon as soon as she steps into the light.”

There were conflicting feelings in Richard’s mind as he listened to Lucian’s banter, for that was what it was. To Lucian, this was all just a game, a battle of words and actions governed by playful rules that varied according to the steps taken throughout the strategy. With rising panic, Richard recognized these rules and this game, and felt an unexpected shock as he realised he had played that game too since reaching adolescence and experiencing carnal attraction.

When they had become young bucks of society, privileged and rich and utterly irresponsible, he and Lucian had gone hunting for skirts. It did not signify what female came into view, and it did not matter how high – or lowborn the girls were. Lucian and he had laid out their strategy, lures, and charms to play the game of seduction, ruthlessly and determinedly, until they had gotten their prey where they wanted them. After the deed, no thought was left for what the unfortunate female had have been subjected to. Always onward to the next hunt – that had been their motto. Richard had always enjoyed the game. Until now.

This time, there was a snare. The female in question was Manon, and she was sacrosanct.

Fighting to keep the rising irritation out of his voice, Richard stated, “I would appreciate your reserve, Lucian. I want Manon to have every opportunity she needs to find the husband she wants. You hovering at her elbow would not help in that. I am sure that this does not need to be said, but you do realise that our old hunting games will not be tolerated here. ”

 

In the kitchen, Jéhan was having the time of his life, Manon saw.

He was sitting at the enormous oaken table with a treasure trove of delicacies before him enthusiastically stuffing them into his mouth under the enchanted eye of both the housekeeper, Mrs Carson, and the cook, Mrs Petheridge. A few yards away, a couple of giggling scullery maids were watching the scene with glee.

“Oh, Mrs Carson, I hope my brother has not been overstepping the mark? Jéhan has no boundaries when it comes to sweets, I fear,” Manon asked.

Mrs Petheridge smiled broadly and replied in Mrs Carson’s stead. “Oh, no, miss! I love having him here! He is such a bright, handsome little chap, are you not, my pet?”

Jéhan nodded and to Manon’s surprise answered in English. “You are the best cook in the world, Mrs Petheridge!”

“Now where did you learn that?” Manon inquired, speaking French again.

“From Queenie there!” Jéhan replied, pointing at a petite little redhead in the small group of scullery maids. She looked to be the same age as Jéhan. “She is teaching me English!”

Manon looked at the wisp of a child, thin and pale, but laughing her head off with mirth.

“Hello, Queenie,” Manon greeted the girl. “Thank you for being my brother’s teacher.”

“Yer welcome, miss! I c’n teach ’m how ta peel vegetables too, if you want!”

That provoked a new peal of laughter between the maids. Mrs Petheridge leaned closer to Manon and whispered, “I took her in some two weeks ago, and she never said a word nor ventured a smile, until your brother walked in here. Now she is acting like a normal child for the first time since she came here. The two of them instantly began talking to each other, your brother in French and Queenie in her Brighton dialect. They seem to understand the other without effort.  Hopefully, she’ll settle in now and I want to put some flesh on that thin frame as fast as I can, poor little mite!”

“I appreciate your effort in making a welcoming home for Jéhan,” Manon said in response. “He has gone through some troublesome times, and so have I. I know that being under my uncle’s protection will bring back normalcy into our lives.”

“Right you are, miss. Mr de Briers is solid gold, do not worry. He will take you and Jéhan under his wing.”

Manon smiled at her, then ordered, “Jéhan, come with me. It is long past your bedtime.” She took her brother upstairs to the rooms that had been assigned to him in the left wing of the house. There she relinquished him into the hands of his newly appointed nanny, a pleasant fifteen-year-old girl by the name of Maisie Howard. She was Mrs Carson’s niece and had expressed a wish to serve in a stately household. When the family moved to Bearsham Manor in a few weeks’ time, Maisie would come along, as would Bessy, Manon’s lady’s maid.

Manon watched for a few moments while Maisie helped Jéhan undress and don his nightgown. She then tucked her brother into the large four poster bed and kissed him goodnight. Jéhan was exhausted, and so was she. Manon wished Maisie goodnight and left the room to go to the right wing, where her own rooms were located. On the landing, however, the deep voice of her uncle halted her.

“Manon, could I have a word with you before you retire for the night? There are some matters that need to be considered.”

Hearts Adrift – Part Eleven

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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.