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.