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Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

Richard could see the vivid green of Manon’s eyes in the silver glow of the moon. He basked in that eternal fire, which always burned in them. He saw the cloak of her gorgeous hair, fanned out over her slim shoulders. Not even the lack of daylight could dim the abundant waves’ bright auburn shade. His hand came up to twine into the silken smoothness. Oh, Lord, the feel of it…so divine…

“My sweetling,” he croaked, summoning every ounce of sense he could muster, “do not try me so. I need to hold you in high esteem until you are mine before God and our congregation. I can do no less, dearest heart. I do not want to ruin you. You at least should come to me a virgin, as it should have been for Lily and Elizabeth.”

“Oh, that unbendable de Briers’ honour! I should have known you of all the ones that came before you would be the most steadfast, my Richard. I admire you for it, my love, and I love you for it, but … you would make me most thoroughly unhappy, if you let it come between us tonight. I cannot wait, my heart, I cannot.”

Manon placed her hands on his chest, stroking the taut muscles beneath Richard’s shirt. She could feel Richard’s heat radiating through the sheer fabric, and instantly, a responsive stirring, deep in her core, weakened her knees. Her pulse quickened and her heartbeat located itself between her thighs, deep down below. A sweet ache fluttered there at the apex of her thighs, causing her breath to stop. Hot moistness began pooling there, a sensation so enticing, that Manon released a soft whimper. She felt the urgent need to press herself firmly against Richard’s long, hard body. Oh, how she had longed for this!

Richard endeavoured to resist the soft, feminine curves that settled along his chest and stomach. Sweet Lord. When Manon’s belly pressed against his arousal, he groaned, his voice a deep, faltering rumble.

“Manon, do you know what you are doing to me?”

Her answering chuckle was seductively low. “I think I have a fairly good inkling, my love. Why are we still here? Take me to bed, Richard.”

She paused, then looked up at Richard. “Please, my love, I want to be yours. I cannot wait any longer.”

Richard buried his face in the soft richness of her hair and greedily inhaled her scent.

“Oh, my darling Manon, you feel so incredibly right in my arms.”

And that was where she was, Richard acknowledged with surprise. Somehow, sometime, he had wrapped her in the circle of his arms without even realising it. His blood was now racing madly, straight into his tautly aroused manhood. Rational thoughts were beginning to fade, as his body recognised the same signs of arousal in her soft, luscious figure. She became warm, and where his hands roamed over the cotton of her nightdress, dampness began to form.

He gave in and swept her into his arms, to strode indoors and up the stairs to his bedchamber. Bright, his valet, violently startled at the sight of his master carrying his betrothed in his arms, but Richard merely gave him a fierce, commanding stare. Matthew Bright literally fled the room, while Manon, utterly embarrassed, hid her face against Richard’s shoulder.

He set her on her feet, next to his large four-poster bed, and took her face between his hands. “I can wait, my love, if you wish it,” he whispered, drinking in the green glow of her eyes. It would be deuced hard, but he would wait, if…

“But I cannot, my love…I cannot wait any longer…” Manon breathed, turning her mouth into the palm of his hand to kiss it softly.

With a groan, Richard captured her luscious mouth with his own, driving his tongue into her soft warmth to explore her sweet abundance to his heart’s content. He felt like a man starving after a cold, harsh winter, one who finally knew that his famine was at an end.

Manon answered him with all the fervour she felt, desperate as she was to quell the need she had experienced for so long. All those previous, heart-wrenching moments of painful longing for Richard were swept away in their fierce, intoxicating kiss. However, Manon realised, it was not enough. She wanted to feel all of him; she wanted to be his, totally and in every aspect. Fumbling for the buttons on Richard’s shirt, she began tugging it free from his breeches. He broke their kiss and coaxed her to sit on the bed.

“Wait, wait, sweet. Let me uncover you. We have to slow down, better to savour our lovemaking, my precious.”

Manon leaned back against the cushions on top of the thick, silken spread, and her eyes grew wide when Richard pulled his shirt over his head. His chest was broad, smooth, and oh, so firm. Her breath caught at the sight of those taut, finely chiselled muscles. His tanned skin was covered with a light sprinkling of dark hair that narrowed to a thin line where it disappeared below the rim of his breeches. And then, he shed his top boots and white silk stockings to reveal his strong, masculine feet. The tension was building inside Manon, like steam in a kettle on a kitchen stove. She stopped breathing altogether when Richard stripped off his breeches and small clothes to free what was inside.

He was utterly and beguilingly beautiful. He was all male splendour, magnificent and powerful. Her heart was pounding now, with trepidation as well as with longing. This was the hour. This was their moment.

 

His beloved lay perfectly still, Richard realised. He watched her eyes grow large, and when she moistened her lips with her tiny, pink tongue, a spear of raw desire skidded through him. Slowly, slowly, he admonished himself. She is a maiden. She must be initiated in a tender way.

He approached the bed and mounted the mattress. Crouching on his knees beside Manon, he began stroking her small, bared feet, lifting them to his lips. She whimpered when he let his mouth roam over the sensitive skin of her perfect instep, first one dainty foot, then the other.

He worked his way up to her knees, then to her thighs – creamy silk, and so soft and warm.

Manon felt as if her bones were melting inside her at the feel of Richard’s smooth, hot lips caressing her. A pressure was building in her belly and in her aching breasts, so fiercely that it made her writhe with need. She was hot and damp, and her skin would surely dissolve if Richard kept up torturing her like that. Oh, God! Now he was uncovering her belly, shoving her night rail higher, in order to free her breasts. Soon, her arms were lifted above her head, and her gown was suddenly gone. She had barely had time to wonder about the fact that she was now totally naked when he started kissing the delicate skin of her neck, right on the sensitive spot behind her ear.

Richard revelled in the silk of Manon’s skin as he worked his way down her elegant neck, to the exquisite swelling of her breasts. His manhood twitched when his lips caressed the hard, puckered nipples. He would have to be careful, or he would spill himself, before he was even inside her. Oh, how he loved the way she twisted and writhed beneath him. With slow, sensuous licks, he traced the contours of her gorgeous breasts, then finding his way down the silken plane of her belly, he began feathering light kisses around her rosebud belly button. Her muscles twitched in instant response, one that shot an arrow of lust down his already tightened groin.

“Richard … please, Richard,” Manon moaned, and grasped the firm support of his shoulders, as if to steady herself.

“Patience, my sweet. Just relax,” her lover cooed. Then he positioned himself with a knee on either side of her, and lifted her lower body, better to kiss her womanly curls. Manon gasped. Oh, sweet Lord…oh, oh…hot, sweet torture made her claw her hands into the thick abundance of Richard’s ebony locks. She arched her hips and pressed them more firmly against his mouth, better to savour the bliss he was giving her. His tongue explored her most private place, causing liquid fire to ignite with every stroke. He sucked, kissed, licked that hard, tiny bud at the edge of her womanhood, until Manon thought she would explode and dissolve into a myriad of shards. And then, it truly happened! She did, she truly did shatter!

 

Richard could swear he tasted the difference in her honey after she cried out and convulsed against his mouth in a long series of shudders. In one swift movement, he let her down onto the bed and slid his aching manhood into her wetness. Slowly, slowly…do not forget, this is Manon’s initiation. Christ! This was incredible. Her sheath was already closing around his flesh, nearly sending him over the edge.

Manon was still shaking with the aftermath of her climax, when he started moving inside her, with slow, careful thrusts, each of them deeper than the one before. It was heaven, the way he rocked inside her, Manon thought, as he filled her further and further, and ever so gently, with his powerful maleness. She started to feel the same tingling of arousal again and began to be swept away once more. Until… oh, Lord! A sharp, burning pain exploded deep inside her and raced through her entire body to her shocked brain. She was hurt; she must surely have been stabbed with a blade!

Her maidenhead resisted only for a short time, and Richard forced himself to keep still while he caught her cry of pain with a tender kiss.

“Shhh, shhh, my heart. It will pass, my sweet. Shhh, this will happen only this first time, I promise.”

Richard could feel Manon relax beneath him as her breathing eased, when he began thrusting again. Cautiously at first, then gradually increasing the rhythm and force of his strokes until he noticed she was following his pace. A wild jab of arousal, fierce and taunting, travelled up and down his body.  “Yes, my sweet, that is what I want you to do,” he crooned. He rose onto his knees, lifting Manon’s lower body, to match his rapidly increasing desire.

Manon could barely believe that her body warmed into arousal once again after the fierce pain in her inner core, but her body did exactly that. Again warmth began bubbling in her womb; again that tiny bud throbbed with a growing need; again her folds started to tremble with renewed desire. With a sigh of pure, raw pleasure, she gave herself over to the delicious sensations that shook her body.

Richard inwardly burst with joy when he felt her response. She was so hot and soft, and so incredibly tight, as her inner muscles drew him deeper into the heat of her core. In a split second of awareness, Richard felt the exact moment when Manon climaxed yet again. That was right before he lost himself into divine, overwhelming bliss. His muscles tensed, and his body went perfectly rigid with anticipation, and then he violently shuddered. His senses were drowned in a relentless sea of hot waves. He raced through the surf that swept him higher up into the flames. She was, he registered, riding with him. Riding him with the siren-like undulation of body and of soul. A hoarse cry escaped him, as the alluring motion of Manon’s hips milked him, drew every strength out of him, conquering all resistance. As his seed spilled into her depths, Richard shattered into a million pieces.

In the tiny second before she succumbed to the overwhelming exhaustion, Manon registered a pure, utterly feminine joy at the realisation that she had just given Richard the ultimate pleasure of love. She snuggled up against his warmth as he gathered her in his arms and drew the coverlet over them both.

 

Richard listened to Manon’s soft, steady breathing while he enjoyed the feel of her warm, naked body against his. He could not so easily find sleep, not after the bliss he had just experienced. He had to simply revel in the memory of their beautiful lovemaking. Tomorrow, she would be his wife. Tomorrow, he would love her yet again, and his rampant thoughts were already plotting new ways to make her reach heaven. He had long years of experience to look back on. Skilful women had shaped his own talents in lovemaking. Yet, with Manon, he was reluctant to use those skills. He wanted his wooing to be unique, to be reborn solely for Manon. He now wished that he had still been a virgin this night and that he would have had to work out the art of lovemaking for the first time with Manon. He would give his right hand if it meant he could start over with Manon as his first woman and to be a young, innocent boy again.

But it was foolish. The past could never be remade. At least, he could be hers, and hers alone, for the rest of their lives. That, at least, he would vouch before the Almighty tomorrow.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

In the end, Richard and Manon kept matters as uncomplicated as was possible since their wedding was only twelve days hence.

They purchased a special marriage licence at the Brighton Register Office and asked the Rev. Mr Hiram Merryweather, vicar at St Wulfram’s Church in Bearsham Village, to perform their wedding ceremony on August twenty-second. Mr Merryweather kindly consented to allow an Irish priest he was acquainted with to perform a Catholic ceremony afterwards. Father Damian O’ Rourke and Mr Merryweather had been at Oxford together and had stayed friends over the years. Manon was particularly touched by the vicar’s gesture, as it showed the kindness of his heart. After all, she had been brought up in France and had no wish to forestall the faith of her youth.

 

Richard informed Mr Brownslow and his son Daniel of his upcoming marriage, instructing the lawyers not to alter the stipulations of his father’s will regarding Manon’s and Jéhan’s inheritance. The elderly family solicitor was of course extremely surprised by the latest turn of events, but not even he could deny the contents of Sir Robert’s letter and his explicit wish to safeguard the Faviers’ fortune.

“I sincerely hope you do understand, Sir Richard, how the revelation of Lily Favier’s illegitimacy will be received in society. You might find yourselves ostracised from the ton, both in Brighton and in London. Have you fully considered the consequences of such a possibility?”

“My betrothed and I have thoroughly gone over the consequences of becoming excluded from the folds of society, Mr Brownslow, and we find that we do not overly care. We have no significant interest in what the ton thinks of us, so we have no particular need of their support. My investments, as you know full well, are primarily tied up in the American colonies and in the Manchester cotton mills. Since President Washington’s ascent to power, supply of cotton is fully guaranteed, which is vital to the spinning mills in England. Resources have been steady and abundant. Furthermore, there are Bearsham Manor’s excellent profits, which give me the opportunity to make it even more prosperous every year.”

“So, you and the future Lady de Briers will not overly venture into society after your marriage, I take it?”

“No, we will not, Mr Brownslow. We will live a quiet, domestic life at our estate, and raise a family without the interference of polite society.”

Mr Brownslow nodded, but inwardly he shook his head in doubt. Sir Richard de Briers and his lady would indeed lead an extremely quiet life if Mr Brownslow was to be the judge of it.

After Richard had seen Mr Brownslow out, he climbed the steps to the west wing of the manor where his mother’s suite was located. He needed to have a serious conversation with her , and there was no point delaying it. He could have entered without so much as a by-your-leave. He was, after all, lord of the house but Mildred was his mother. Despite her nasty character, Richard still felt an innate disposition to treat Mildred with a basic respect that, in contrast, she never showed her son. So he knocked and waited until Rawlings, her maid, opened the door.

Rawlings was a bit older that Mildred and had come with her from Manchester when her mistress married Richard’s father. She was a tall, bony woman with dark eyes and grey-streaked dark hair in a tight chignon at the back of her head. Her face was riddled with shallow little lines, giving it a stern look. Her thin mouth under the beacon of her long, narrow nose instantly pressed tighter when she saw Richard. However, Rawlings did not forget her manners and dipped a curtsy.

“Sir?” she asked, voice flat and weary. She did not move to let him in.

Richard stepped past the servant.

“Thank you, Rawlings. You may leave us now”

“But, sir, my mistress is indisposed. She always wants me to appraise her first when a visitor comes calling. I…”

“Thank you, Rawlings,” Richard cut her off and headed for the dowager’s boudoir door without so much as a glance at the faithful maid. Poor Rawlings, he inwardly commiserated. At times, it must be hard waiting on his irate, unbalanced mother.

Mildred de Briers was lounging on a long chair, a book in one hand and the other dipping into a box of sweetmeats. She started when Richard strode in, her beautiful face immediately crunching into a scowl.

“My lord! You are trespassing!” she shrieked, using her most formidable weapon – her shrill, loud voice.

Richard had known that voice all his life, even from before he had been old enough to realise he could be hurt by it. Yes, he knew of being humiliated, mortified, and deeply hurt by the mother he had tried so desperately to love. It had lasted until he went to Eton, where other challenges claimed him, challenges that were sometimes painful, when he was drawn into brawls and fisticuffs. Yet those physically painful skirmishes were never as hurtful as the emotional ones his mother inflicted upon him. Richard had learned to physically defend himself at Eton – and simultaneously to shield himself from his mother’s vicious emotional stabbings. It had, however, taken him longer to realise that his mother hated him so much because he was his father’s son. Mildred had a heart filled to the brim with black, seething hatred for her husband, and she needed a scapegoat, any scapegoat upon which to ventilate that emotion. Richard had been the most convenient one of all, so he had learned from a tender age not to be bothered by his mother’s shrieking, nor by the words she flung at him.

That was why he was able to stare her down without so much as a flicker of his eyelids.

“Madam, I came to make you a proposition, which you would be wise to consider. It will not be made twice, should you reject it. It will also not be altered to please you. You are my mother, so a part of me esteems it an obligation to my honour to treat you with deference.”

He paused deliberately to let his words sink in. Mildred was eying him with abject loathing but also with a shrewd interest.

“What torture have you in mind, my lord? Have I not suffered enough from the cruel treatment you have been giving me since your father died? Will you emforce yet more misery?”

With an inward sigh, Richard forced himself to keep his temper under a tight rein. He had come with an offer he hoped his mother would not reject.

“As you are aware, madam, my nuptials will occur on the twenty-second of this month. My wife and I will live at Bearsham Manor, as is our due and our duty. You are granted permission to stay here for the rest of your days, because you are my mother, the Dowager Baronetess Bearsham.”

He fixed her with a stern look, feeling his mouth hardening. Then, accordingly, he tightened his voice to an icy coldness.

“You will not, however, be permitted to be a nuisance, madam. My wife and I will require peace and quiet if we are to have a family, which is our most fervent wish. You can be part of that family, if you behave appropriately. However, if you find you cannot attempt to behave like a true mother, I will be forced to take measures to ensure my family’s welfare. What is your answer to that, madam?”

“So you want me to condone your marriage to that…that…”

The fire in his eyes must have warned her, Richard thought, for she hastily swallowed whatever term of abuse she had been about to utter on Manon’s behalf. Instead, she continued. “That girl of common descent – a bastard, to boot! She will lower you and your house to her own level, my lord. She is nothing. She will destroy whatever respect you carry in society.”

“Madam, I will not permit you to abuse Manon. We love each other dearly, and that is enough to ensure our future happiness. Besides, Manon is not a bastard; I already told you that. Her parents were legally married before she was born. And if you are referring to Manon’s mother, Lily, her descent is at least half noble. Not that that little detail is of any concern to me. Manon has her own worth; that is sufficient for me.”

“Love? What is love but a meaningless word invented by poets to…”

Richard had had more than enough. He strode from the room with a vile taste lingering in his mouth, a feeling he often had after speaking with his mother.

 

The three days that separated Manon from her wedding day stretched like eons in her eager heart. She suffered through them with spells of delirious joy, during which she fantasised about how she and Richard would spend their wedding night. Those thrilling moments were alternated with bouts of dark misgivings about how their union would be looked upon by society. Manon knew that she and Richard faced a rough time ahead.

Time passed slowly, even though Manon was extremely busy. She had the seamstresses working around the clock to finish her wedding gown in time. With the help of her trusted Pru, who had come up from Brighton, Manon helped Mrs Briskley, the housekeeper, and Thornton with the organization of the wedding breakfast. Footmen adorned Bearsham Manor’s grand hall with flowers and ribbons. Maids were polishing and cleaning all the rooms and corridors – a titan’s task.  Invitations had been delivered to a plethora of Richard’s acquaintances and neighbours. Oh, Manon thought, would that they would grant them their esteem!

 

On one of these hectic days, Richard welcomed Viscount Lucian Blackthorne, who was to be his best man. The two friends joined in the library at Bearsham Manor for a drink of whisky.

“I still cannot fathom the amazing events that have transpired during these past weeks, Rich,” Lucian said, bewilderment in his voice. “You and Manon, a betrothed pair. So you harboured a love for her that was not quite…” Lucian stopped, realisation keenly upon him that he was overstepping the mark. “Forgive me, my friend, I was about to judge you, and I have no business doing that.”

“You are merely expressing the general opinion that people will have and show, I fear. How am I to explain to society that I thought Manon to be my niece, but oh, now I have discovered that my sister Lily was, in fact, not my father’s daughter? People will look suspiciously upon our union, Luke.”

“Well,” Lucian said matter-of-factly, “perhaps you should let society go hang itself. You do not need to explain anything, Rich. You can prove beyond all doubts that Manon is not of your blood. You love her, and she loves you. As a consequence, you two will marry and be happy. However, it must have been awkward for you, Rich, all these past months.”

“Luke, it was sheer agony, believe me. I was attracted to Manon from the moment I set eyes on her, yet I knew all too well that she was not for me. The worst of it was that she felt the same attraction towards me.”

Lucian stared into his whisky before continuing, and Richard suddenly saw the banked sorrow that was burning in his eyes. Had his friend harboured feelings for Manon, after all? Richard was astonished, for he had not thought Lucian interested in Manon. Lucian had never offered for her.

“Luke, what is troubling you? You have never proposed to Manon, so I figured you did not care for her. Yet your attitude shows that you are disturbed.”

“I was confused, Richard. I could not win Manon for myself, no matter how fervently I devoted myself to her. I have always adored Manon. But at the same moment, I felt that a wall stood between us that could not be breached.”

A joy warmed Richard’s heart at the thought that his Manon had never given in to any other man but him. Yet he keenly felt Lucian’s distress, too.

“I am sorry, Luke,” he tried, but his words rang falsely in his own ears.

“I will survive,” Lucian said in an airy voice, which was belied by his weary eyes. “Think nothing of it, Rich and enjoy your good fortune.”

With a flourish, he toasted his glass to Richard’s, and the two lifetime friends drank to each other’s health. Then, the two friends almost simultaneously turned their gaze toward the windows overlooking the terrace where Manon was walking arm-in-arm with Pru. Richard’s heart lifted when he saw her. He smiled happily and said, “Miss Butterworth is the best of companions to my dear Manon. I am so fortunate that she consented to stay after our wedding. Manon will still have need of her many skills when there is a ball or dinner to be hosted at Bearsham Manor.”

Lucian let his gaze roam over the tall figure that was chatting with Manon while graciously striding the length of the sun-bathed terrace. Miss Butterworth…so that was her name, he mused. He found himself taking in the slender waist, the long, straight back, the non-existent bosom Miss Butterworth displayed in that grey and very drab morning gown. Earlier on, he had glimpsed her thin, elongated face and her lustreless straw-blond hair, which she wore in a severely tight bun at the nape of her neck. Poor woman, Lucian silently commiserated. She truly had no qualities at all that could entice men to seek her attention. Apart from her eyes, Lucian conceded. They were a deep-ocean blue and they changed colour from lilac to deep violet when she laughed.

 

“Oh, Pru,” Manon sighed, “you have no idea how confused I am. Here, I am to be united with the love of my life. I should be overflowing with joy, yet I am also frightened.”

“Frightened?” Pru asked. “How can that be? Your un…erm…Sir Richard is the kindest of men. He worships the ground that you walk upon.”

“Yes, I know that, Pru, and I will never be afraid of anything as long as we are together, Richard and I. But you almost called him my uncle. That is a tell-tale reaction, Pru. People will never believe that we are not uncle and niece. They will regard our marriage as incestuous. They will ostracise us, Pru. And that, I am very much afraid, will affect Richard in the end.”

Prudence Butterworth was a vicar’s daughter so she understood all too well how people behaved when inexplicable events came their way. Heavens, it seemed unfathomable even to her that Manon was now going to be the wife of the man, who had been considered her uncle before now. And yet there before her lay the truth. Sir Robert’s letter was crystal-clear. The former baronet had married a woman already pregnant by another man, and he had adopted her child as his own. That was what a true gentleman would do, and it was to Sir Robert’s credit that he had done so. His noble gesture could not be allowed to go to waste.

“Listen, Manon,” Pru said, taking Manon’s hands. “You will need all your strength in the days and months to come. You will surmount this, I know it. Concentrate upon your marriage to Sir Richard and devote yourself to making him happy. Do not overly heed people’s reactions. Be friendly, smile, and stay composed, whatever they say to you. Show them that you love Sir Richard, no matter what happens. People will change their attitude over time. I know that they will. I have seen it happen on numerous occasions in my father’s parishes. Life provides people with many distractions, and your story will only last until something else occurs that draws people’s attention from you. And believe me, dearest, something will.”

“Thank you, Pru,” Manon whispered, tears of relief staining her cheeks. “You always say what I need to hear when melancholy overcomes me. You are a dear friend, Pru.”

 

The evening before his wedding, Richard stood on the terrace and gazed at his moonlit gardens. The nightly orb stood above the manor’s roofs, painting the manicured lawn in a silvery light. The night was balmy and perfectly still, the sky an indigo blue sprinkled with a myriad of stars. Richard needed the stillness to calm his nerves and gather strength for the day to come. He knew his own worth well enough and he would hold his head high, no matter what might come. He was also certain that his beloved Manon would stand her ground in any circumstance, and in answer to any insult society might throw in her face. She was brave, his Manon. She may not have de Briers blood in her veins, but she certainly had the fierce family courage.

No, it was not for the way she would stand her ground that Richard feared but for her noble, brave heart. She would be hurt by people’s reactions – not at first, but slowly, through the years of ostracism, bitterness would grow and destroy her. He could but try and protect her from being hurt.

“A penny for your thoughts…”

Manon’s sensual voice broke through his abject reasoning, like a ray of sunshine through a blanket of heavy storm clouds. He turned, and his breath caught at the sight of her.

She was wearing her nightgown, a shawl thrown over her slim shoulders. The gown was a sheer linen thing, made translucent by the silvery light of the moon behind her. All her lush curves were perfectly outlined, and they were beckoning to be caressed. Richard’s mouth watered, and he swallowed hard.

“What are you doing here, my love? I thought you would like to have a decent night’s rest.”

His own voice sounded hoarse – and also harsh- to him. Manon stood there, smiling at him. She stretched out a hand.

“You owe me, my darling,” she said, “and I have come to claim that debt.”

His expression must have been one of bewilderment, because she uttered a tinkling peel of laughter. It lit up her face and gorgeous green eyes, and he felt a surge of arousal from head to toe, and right into his manhood. He wanted her yet he must wait until the next day to claim her as his wife. It was agony, but it was also a definite necessity. He would not ruin her as her grandmother and mother had been before their marriage. His honour forbade such a scheme. Most adamantly so.

“Richard,” Manon said in a voice that reverberated along his spine, “I once asked you to love me as a man loves a woman. That night, you deceived me. You pleasured me, my darling, and you gave me the most beautiful experience I ever had. Yet you denied yourself that same pleasure, and by doing so, you got yourself into a debt. A debt to me, my love. You owe me the right to pleasure you as much as you did me that night. I want you to make love to me tonight, my heart. I want to be yours, in every sense of the word.”

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-One

 

The silence in the room was almost tangible. It descended upon Richard and Manon like a suffocating blanket. For a few moments, neither of them were capable of speech, their thoughts jumbling within their minds like frantic sheep.

The one notion that was screaming deafeningly in Richard’s head was that Manon was not his niece. Not even family at all. Her mother, Lily, whom for his entire life he had considered his sister, was not a child of his father’s. The enormous consequence of that minor detail struck him with the force of a blow to the stomach. They were not related, Manon and he. They did not share the same blood. Consequently, they were allowed to marry. They were allowed to be together. The joy of that notion blazed within him like a wild fire.

But his cautious brain told him it was not that simple.

The world would have to be told that the girl Richard de Briers had first presented to Brighton society as his niece, was not who he had told them she was. She was Lily’s daughter, and a granddaughter of Sir Robert’s first wife. Her mother had been conceived with a man other than Sir Robert de Briers. Manon herself was not a bastard, but her mother Lily had certainly been one. There was not a drop of de Briers blood in Manon, nor in Jéhan, for that matter.

Richard drew in an audible breath and steeled himself for what he must say. He rose, took Manon’s hands in both his own, and drew her away from his desk to the middle of the library. She looked up at him eyes large with apprehension, because she, too, knew what he must say.

Richard lifted her hands, palms up, to his lips and kissed them softly.

“This letter,” he whispered, “is a curse, my sweet Manon. A curse because we must reveal to the world that our darling Lily was born out of wedlock. You are her daughter but not my father’s grandchild. You are not a de Briers. When this becomes known, the world will proclaim you an imposter and a fraud. Society will ostracise you and make a fool out of me because I chose to take you in as my niece.”

“Yes,” Manon breathed, “and we cannot have you considered a fool, because you are Richard de Briers, Baronet Bearsham. Too many people depend on you for their livelihood. Your strength is the title you bear and it must remain unblemished.”

Richard freed one hand and put a finger to her lips. “I have not finished, my sweetling.”

One tear escaped Manon’s luminous green eyes, causing Richard’s heart to turn to water.

“There is nothing more to say,” Manon said, and her voice sounded steady, though her heart was heavy with a deep sadness. It was done. Their cause was ruined. They could never be together because he was a nobleman and she a commoner.

“This letter,” Richard continued, “is also a blessing, my heart. Our love is no longer forbidden, and we can be together before God and the world. Anyone who dares to offend you, will do so at their own risk, for I shall shield you from it at all costs, Manon.”

Manon’s vision was blurred by the tears that ran freely over her cheeks. She blinked them away to look into Richard’s beautiful blue eyes. Eyes that smiled at her, eyes so full of unmitigated joy that she thought her heart would stop beating with the beauty of it.

“Richard,” she whispered, fighting to catch her breath.

But he did not stop smiling. Instead, he sank onto one knee and placed his right hand over his heart.

“Manon Favier, daughter of my beloved stepsister Lily, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife? I cannot go on living if you are not by my side. I cannot be the man I long to be if you are not to be my woman, my companion and my love.”

Oh, could it be true, Manon hoped? Could it be that simple? But surely, it could not. She would have guilty thoughts about having lowered Richard’s immaculate position from a respected country gentleman to an easily besotted fool. He would develop resentment in the years to come. Their love would suffer, wither, and die.

“Richard…” she whispered again, failing to find the words to describe what was in her heart.

He rose, and briskly – almost brutally – drew her within the circle of his arms. He lifted her face, forcing her to look into his own.

“We will be husband and wife, Manon, and we will defy everything and everyone who tries to damage us and the love we have for each other. I know we can and will be happy beyond words. I will devote my life to that.”

He touched her brow with a kiss, so soft that it was almost a whisper, but so fervent that Manon felt it, deep within her very heart.

“Nothing matters if you are not with me every day for the rest of our lives, my heart. You are my life, Manon, and all else is mere fluff in the wind. Together, my courageous, beautiful Manon, we conquer all. Please, say you will be my wife. Please, my love.”

Manon closed her eyes and gave herself over to Richard’s enchanting words. Could it be true? Oh, how she longed for it to come true! Her throat was dry and her heart was beating a fierce drum when she finally made her decision.

“You know that I love you, Richard. Therefore, I will be your wife, no matter what might come our way. Our love will conquer all.”

His mouth crushed hers in a kiss that seared through her body like a spear. She greedily tasted him, her tongue fighting with his in an ever-growing delight. She gasped when she felt the hot thrust of his tongue, plundering her mouth like a man starved. Her insides were burning; her belly was a pool of liquid fire.

“I have so longed for you, Richard,” she breathed, her mouth still held by his. “Please I beg you, make me yours…”

Richard tightened his grasp on Manon, stifling a groan of pure desire because he did not want to rouse her desires any further.

“My sweet love,” he whispered, “there is nothing I would like more but…oh, Manon, we cannot, my sweet! I burn for you! At least you must feel that. We must wait, my darling until we are well and truly wed, even though the waiting will surely kill me. You are so beautiful, my heart. It takes all of my willpower and control to keep my hands to myself!”

A harsh voice broke into their intimacy with a vengeance.

“Well, by all means, do not restrict yourself from doing so, my lord! It will only result in making you despicable in the eyes of society. But that would be intolerable to a de Briers, wouldn’t it?”

Manon and Richard turned as one to find Mildred de Briers blocking the library door way. The corners of her mouth were twisted into something that might have been called a smile, had not her eyes smouldered with hatred. She sailed into the room and stopped right before her son, just short of stepping on his toes. Richard raised an eyebrow but did not so much as move an inch.

“I do not care a blasted wit about whom you ravish, my lord. In fact, marry your French hussy if you feel so inclined. Even when they know she is not your niece, society will still be scandalized so tongues will be waggling aplenty. You will suffer from that gossip, I know that for a fact.”

Silence fell as Manon and Richard realised what the baronetess’ statement implied.

“You knew…” Richard breathed the words, eyes narrowing.

“Of course, I knew!” Mildred spat. “What kind of a fool do you think I am? After mere weeks of being married to your blackguard of a father, who never loved nor liked me, I decided to arm myself with some knowledge that would benefit me, should the need arise. I needed protection from him. After all, once I bore him an heir, he had the power to divorce me whenever he wished.”

“You have only yourself to blame for that, madam,” Richard said, his voice even but his face pale with subdued fury. “You betrayed the vows of marriage from the beginning.”

Not for the first time did Manon feel the hatred between mother and son, and she was saddened for Richard. No one deserved to be hated by their own mother.

“Ha!” Mildred scoffed. “And why should I not do what women of society deem normal when they are trapped in a loveless marriage?”

“Enough!” Richard said, with emphasis and authority. “We shall not elaborate on the past, madam, but instead concentrate on the future. Your future, to be precise. You shall leave this house and go to my estate of Walton House in Shropshire. There you will live in comfort and prosperity, for I will raise your allowance so that you lack nothing. The only condition is that you stay there, and never return to Bearsham Manor.”

The dry crack of the slap made Manon jump in horror. Richard’s cheek growing bright red was the only sign that his own mother had just slapped him in the face. Hard. The imprint of her fingers was clearly visible on Richard’s pale skin, yet he did not even flinch, nor did he show any expression. It was only after Mildred stormed out of the room that his shoulders relaxed a bit.

“Why does she hate you so, Richard?” Manon whispered. “It makes no sense, for you are the kindest of men.”

On an impulse, Richard drew her to him once again. Somehow, he needed to have her in his arms.

“I do not know, sweetling. She just does she has always done so. Ever since I was old enough to take notice of people’s behaviour, I realised Mother did not care for me. It was a kind of vibration that rippled through a room when she entered it, a wave of fierce aversion that emanated from her whenever she discovered my presence. I learned to avoid her, to scuttle out of a room before she would notice I was there. Later, when I was at Eton, things became easier. I came home for the breaks between terms to find she was away in London, most of the time. My father did not seem to care whether his wife was in residence or not. During the breaks, he and I spent lovely country walks on the estate, during which he taught me how to run it. We went horse riding and hunted hares and wild geese. We went fishing for trout and in the evenings, we talked. I loved those quiet talks, alone with Father in his library.”

Warmth overwhelmed Manon at the joy in Richard’s words. At least he had not been entirely alone. His father, Sir Robert had been his guide during Richard’s youth, a time in which he must have been lonely.

“I am truly happy that your father cared for you, my darling, even though his marriage brought him no joy.”

“My father was in dire financial circumstances at the time. He never allowed himself to touch the money Elizabeth had brought into the marriage. He was also in need of a son and heir. Mildred Thompson’s father was a wealthy Manchester cotton manufacturer who strove to have a title in the family. The Thompsons were of low birth, and a baronet seemed to fulfil their wishes. After the wedding, Mildred discovered that a baronet is excluded from the rank of peers. She might be Lady de Briers, but Father was not a lord of the realm, nor did he belong to the London ton. That was why she took lovers amongst the gentry. Jeremy Lawson, now the Earl of Donbridge was the perfect candidate. I fail to understand why Mother thought Lawson would leave his wife and marry her after Father’s death.”

“Both your parents must have been excruciatingly miserable, Richard.”

“Yes, you have the right of it, sweetling. Unfortunately, that is all obsolete at the present time. Father is dead. I wish I could rectify what was done to my mother when Father married her under false pretences, but that is impossible. They have each in their own way made mistakes, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

With a sigh, Manon buried herself deeper in Richard’s embrace. She felt relieved, because she and Richard were on the brink of their lives together, and not like Mildred at the end of their options. All possibilities still lay open before them. She would make the damned best of it, Manon swore.

“Come, dearest,” she said, in an attempt to change the mood, “we must tell Jake and Jéhan.”

Richard’s chuckle rumbled deep in his chest, making Manon weak with sudden happiness.

“I feel the strongest urge to scream it to the whole world, sweet! I might just do that!” he shouted. “Then by all means, let us do just that, my love!” she smiled.

 

Genuine Fakes

  COLIN MORGAN TO LEAD
GENUINE FAKES DRAMA MOVIE
Colin Morgan will do some painting!

If you are wondering where has that sweet chap Colin Morgan disappeared after Merlin and Humans, and that stint in The Crown, he is preparing to lead GENUINE FAKES, a drama movie directed by Pat Holden. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the world witnessed a dramatic increase in the price of works of art. As prices soared so did the potential for fraud.

 

GENUINE FAKES
is based on a true story of how two different men from different social settings meet in the strangest of circumstances and proceed to Mastermind possibly the largest Art Fraud of the 20th Century. The film is based on the life of the brilliant artist John Myatt, who was involved in the biggest art con in the UK, but is now one of the country’s fastest selling artists.
===============================================================================================================================
  ‘BENJAMIN’ TRAILER
AN UNEXPECTED ROMANCE

Speaking of Colin Morgan, another of his movies, gay romantic drama BENJAMIN is due to be released on DVD and Bluray this August.  In Simon Amstell’s affecting, bittersweet comedy, he plays a rising young

Benjamin played in cinemas around Europe last year

filmmaker who is thrown into emotional turmoil by a burgeoning romance and the upcoming premiere of his second feature.

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty

Chapter Thirty

“Bearsham Manor, 15th April 1793

 

To my beloved son Richard,

 

If this letter has come into your possession, it means that I have gone to meet my Maker.

For my own sake, I hope that it has been a peaceful passing, but we do not have a say in the way that we part from this world, do we?

 

I deliberately kept the enclosed information from you because it was my sincerest intention to share it with you someday. If you are reading this, then life has not granted me that chance.

 

I have only myself to blame, because I never took the time to sit down with you and talk about it. You were at Cambridge University until recently, and presently, you are enjoying the Season in Town with your friends. I do not want to begrudge you that, Richard, so I shall write as complete an account as possible. Pray God that I shall have the opportunity to confide the whereabouts of this story before I die.

 

I am not well, Richard. The condition of my heart is dire, or so Dr Prentice tells me. I could die at any moment. On the other hand, I could also live on for some years. It is not for me to decide. Therefore, I must be prepared.”

 

Richard lowered the letter and closed his eyes, inwardly shivering.

The dismal memory of his father’s last days earlier that year hit Richard with a force that painfully squeezed at his very heart. At the time his father had written this, in early 1793, Richard had been enjoying his third London Season. All he had truly been doing, was wasting his days with his friends, mindlessly so, and he had been full of his own desires for the future. There had been a few summonses from Donby, who was his father’s secretary in those days. He had written in no uncertain terms that Sir Robert was unwell and that Richard’s presence at Bearsham Manor was urgently requested. Richard had ignored the first few letters and had proceeded with his life of soirées and balls, jousting bouts at the boxing parlour, and lazy mornings at his club. That is, until his father’s Eastbourne solicitor, Mr Brownslow had turned up in London in person, and had made Richard fully aware of the way things were lying. Sir Robert, Mr Brownslow had said, reproach in his eyes, was on the brink of death.

With a sigh, Richard continued reading.

              

“The bequest of my worldly goods is quite straightforward as you well know. My solicitor Mr Brownslow informed you of the contents of my will, the moment you came home from Cambridge.

 

You are entitled to the title of Baronet Bearsham when I pass on. The Bearsham Manor estate and the bulk of my fortune and investments will come entirely to you.

 

Your half-sister Lily de Briers had a right to some of the funds that issued from her mother’s family, the Montroses. Therefore, I would have made certain that she acquired that money, had not fate decided otherwise.

 

Lily has been dead for several long years, but her children will have their mother’s share. That is my fervent wish, and I have made provisions for that in my will as you are aware. I will ask of you that you seek out the whereabouts of Manon Favier and her brother Jéhan and that you will give them their rightful share. You are a man of honour, Richard and thus you will act upon my wishes. I have no doubt about that.”

 

Again Richard’s thought drifted back to the time when his father had lain dying.

His father had seemed to be asleep for the better part of the day, Richard had discovered, once he had returned to the Manor. He recalled the long hours he had spent at his father’s bedside, reminiscing over his own, up-until-then frivolous life.

For the first time in his life, Richard had felt the full responsibility that would befall him, as soon as his father passed away. The livelihoods of his tenants and servants would lie in his ability to keep the estate thriving. His mother’s fast-approaching declining years would be his to manage. And finally, Manon and Jéhan Favier, who at that moment in time were still unknown to him, would be his responsibility as well.

The enormity of his task had threatened to overwhelm Richard, as he now recalled. He picked up the letter where it had fallen from his hand and realised he had not even registered that he dropped it.

 

“By now, you will have been informed by Mr Brownslow that I have kept up a steady correspondence with Thibaut Favier, since the death of dearest Lily. Before that horrible event, I had no inkling of the Favier family’s whereabouts until Thibaut wrote me that she had died giving birth to Jéhan. It was as terrible a blow to me, Richard, as it was to you. Fortunately, we had one another to lend us comfort. However, Thibaut and Manon had nothing, apart from the task of having to raise little Jéhan. Thibaut recently informed me of the alarming turn of events in the French capital. Riots, arson, and killings have become a daily pattern, and Thibaut is worried. So I will have to ask you to go on a journey to France anytime soon and bring the family to England. There is, however, one detail that you should know about Lily, my son, although it will not alter anything and certainly will not change anything with regard to the provisions I have made for Manon and Jéhan.”

 

Manon had been reading the letter over her uncle’s shoulder with rising excitement. She now felt a quickening of her pulse and gripped her uncle’s arm unawares, while the contents of Sir Robert’s letter kept unfolding. She was going to discover new facts about Maman, whom she had missed so dreadfully all through those five years since her brother was born. This letter, Manon realised with a start, was all about her dearest mother.

Together, they read on.

 

“My dearest Elizabeth was a daughter of Reginald Montrose, a Scottish lord whose family fled the country after the Jacobite Risings. Sir Reginald’s grandfather swore allegiance to King George and was rewarded with the modest estate of Montrose in Yorkshire. Under the diligent care of several barons Montrose, their estate prospered, and the family grew to considerable wealth. Sir Reginald was able to provide for a suitable London Season for his only daughter. Elizabeth Montrose was therefore placed in the care of an elderly spinster aunt who owned a house in London. His steward, James MacIntyre was given the task of accompanying Elizabeth to the capital. They arrived in due time at the residence of Miss Horatia Satterthwaite on Curzon Street.

 

I was presented to Elizabeth by one of my long-time friends in the capital on the evening of a ball. I instantly fell head-over-heels in love with her, and to my infinite joy, she returned my feelings, even though she was only nineteen and I was thirty. I asked for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage and was granted permission to court her. We set our wedding date for the following summer, and I escorted my beloved girl around Town to balls and soirées. It was the happiest time of our lives.”

 

Whereto was all this leading? Richard mused. Why was his father elaborating over his courtship to his first wife? Of course, Richard knew that Sir Robert’s matchless love had been Elizabeth and not Mildred, Richard’s own mother. He had known that all his life, even though his father had never uttered a single word about the nature of his marriage to either Elizabeth or Mildred. Richard had never known Elizabeth, since she died giving birth to Lily, but every time he had seen Robert look at her portrait on the wall of Bearsham Manor’s grand entrance hall, Richard had felt her presence in the way his father gazed at her stunningly beautiful image – a gaze Robert never used when he looked at Mildred. This simple fact did not surprise Richard at all, since his mother must be the coldest woman on earth.

Robert and Elizabeth’s love must have been earth-shattering, Richard thought if his father had still missed her even after he had married someone else and begotten a son by her.

 

“Then, at the end of the Season, my life was shaken to the core when Elizabeth disappeared quite abruptly from London, without saying a word to anyone, including me. I quite dreadfully bullied her elderly aunt into telling me that Elizabeth had gone back to Montrose. I went after her, of course, and forced my way into her father’s study. Baron Montrose had refused to see me at first, you see. His daughter, he said, could not become my wife, because she had shamed his name in a most unforgivable way. She had eloped with his steward, James MacIntyre.

 

Initially, I was devastated, of course. I was so deeply hurt – not only was my pride wounded, but also and more deeply, my heart – that I fled to Bearsham Manor and licked my wounds in solitude. I could not believe what my Lizzie had done, and the pain of her betrayal was so immense that I indulged myself in wallowing in my sorrows for a few months. Eventually, I recovered and got my wits back. I remembered Lizzie’s love for me and her sweet, unspoiled nature, her warm loving heart. I started to have some serious doubts about what had happened. So after nearly half a year, I started searching for her.

              

Baron Montrose had no notion as to where the pair had fled to, but he said MacIntyre had relatives near Inverness in Scotland. I went there as quickly as I could and found Elizabeth in a small, dismal cottage on the estate of a local nobleman. She was working as a scullery maid in the laird’s kitchens and she was heavily pregnant with MacIntyre’s child. The man himself had sailed to the Americas after he had killed one of the laird’s footmen in a drunken row. He had simply abandoned Elizabeth and had never married her.

              

Elizabeth had succumbed to the man’s coaxing charms and had given herself to him. But the steward had only wished to bed her. On his part, it had been only lust he had felt for her since she came out of the schoolroom. Once it was spent, the man lost his interest in her. Elizabeth had followed him to Scotland when he ran from London, terrified that her father would find out about his dastardly deed. They had tried to settle down in his childhood home, but MacIntyre had been drunk for most of the time. Elizabeth was forced to work if she wanted to have food in her belly and a roof above her head.

              

Richard, it was utterly horrible.

 

When I found my Lizzie after all those months, I realised I had never stopped loving her. She was everything for me as she had been before and she would always be the love of my life. I brought her to Bearsham Manor and married her, despite her being pregnant with another man’s child. It did not matter one iota that she had betrayed me. I knew quite simply and plainly that I could not live without her. When Lily was born, some three months later, Elizabeth did not have the strength to survive the extremely difficult birth. Guilt had plunged her into a deep depression, but on top of that, she could not overcome the raging fever that came after the baby’s birth. All I had left of my beloved Lizzie was a beautiful baby girl with green eyes and auburn curls, just like her mother’s. I vowed, to myself and to God, to raise Lily as my own and to love her as deeply as I had loved Lizzie.

              

I have kept my promise, Richard, and so must you. You must give Lily’s children what I have set upon them, and you must save them, protect them, and cherish them for the rest of your life. Your sister, Richard, even though she was an illegitimate child, was the daughter of my heart, just as you were the son of my heart and my beloved heir.

 

You are a man of honour, Richard. I know, in the deepest part of my heart, that you will not disillusion me.

 

Farewell, my son. May the Almighty Lord in his all-embracing mercy watch over you and yours, for the rest of your life.

 

Robert de Briers, Baronet Bearsham”

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Nine

Chapter Twenty-Nine

A discreet knock on the chapel door startled them both so unexpectedly that they almost jumped apart.

“Come in,” Richard summoned, and Thornton entered in his usual dignified manner.

“Sir, you have a visitor from London, a Mr Blenkinsop. He says he is Sir Jeremy’s man of business. His Lordship is out riding so I have put Mr Blenkinsop in the drawing room. Perhaps you might want to receive him in his Lordship’s absence? He says he has extremely urgent business with Sir Jeremy.”

“Very well,” Richard recollected himself and followed his butler.

Manon trotted after them, frustrated now that she would not immediately know the contents of the parcel. When she passed the vast mirror on the second floor landing, Manon caught a glimpse of herself and halted. She appeared terribly dishevelled, and her dress was in a sorry state. She could not possibly meet a visitor in her present attire. With a sigh, she headed to her room to change.

 

His mother, Richard noticed with annoyance, was already in the drawing room. She was standing at the front window, wringing her hands. A fair sign that Mildred was concerned over something, although Richard had no inkling of what it might be.

A short, rotund man in his early sixties rose from the drawing room settee when Richard entered.

“Sir Richard,” the man said, bowing from the waist with something of an effort since the said waist was non-existent.

“Mr Blenkinsop,” Richard acknowledged, returning the man’s bow. “How can I help you?”

“I was hoping that I could have a word with Lord Jeremy. The news I am obliged to bring him is quite upsetting.”

Mildred gave a strangled little shriek but fell silent when her son threw her a forbidding look. Richard turned his attention back to his visitor and replied, “I am truly sorry to hear that, Mr Blenkinsop. Since His Lordship has yet to return from his ride, will you join me in taking a glass of sherry? At least we could make the time pass in an agreeable manner.”

“With extreme pleasure, sir,” Mr Blenkinsop beamed.

To Richard’s relief, Mildred recalled that she was the hostess and hastened toward the liquor cabinet to serve the men their drink. She then seated herself in a chair near the window, still pulling at her hands.

The two men conversed about general topics during a pleasant quarter of an hour until the door opened to let Thornton in.

“His Lordship, Viscount Banbury, sir.”

Jeremy strode into the room, emanating a scent of horse and outdoor riding so enticingly that Richard began longing for the moment his bruised ribs would again allow him to do the same.

“Mr Blenkinsop,” Jeremy said, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise. “What brings you to faraway Hampshire this morning?”

To Richard’s surprise, the round figure of Mr Blenkinsop sank onto one knee. The man bowed his head and retrieved a small item from his waistcoat pocket, presenting it to Jeremy.

“It is a sad message I bring to you, My Lord Donbridge. I was commissioned to hand over your father’s signet ring so that you will be able to resume the duties laid upon you in this very hour. His Lordship passed away in his sleep during the night.”

Richard heard the slight intake of breath Jeremy uttered, the sole sign that the new Earl of Donbridge had indeed acknowledged the lawyer’s words.

“When did this happen, Mr Blenkinsop?” the new earl quietly asked.

“Last evening, after returning from a soirée, the earl collapsed. His physician pronounced it an apoplectic attack, my lord. His Lordship died in the night, without having regained consciousness. May I offer you my sincerest condolences?”

“Thank you, Mr Blenkinsop. You may rise to your feet. I am most obliged to you for coming to appraise me so forthwith.”

Richard stepped forward and proffered a hand. “Donbridge, I am most aggrieved upon hearing of your father’s demise. If there is anything I can do to be of assistance, please do not hesitate to tell me. It would be my honour and pleasure.”

“Thank you, Bearsham. Please ask your butler to send my valet to my chambers and tell him to start packing. I want to return to London as soon as possible.”

“Jeremy!”

The baronetess’ high-pitched cry rang through the room like the wailing of a banshee.

“You are not going to leave me behind, are you? I want to accompany you, and be with you! You promised me that we would never be separated again!”

Richard froze in horror when his mother flung herself onto the earl’s chest, sobbing her heart out. He made a move towards the couple, but the Earl of Donbridge took the matter in hand. He slowly freed himself from Mildred’s clutching hands lowering them from around his neck.

“I think you know that we must part, my dear,” he said in a gentle voice. “My responsibilities are immense now. I will have to work hard to fill my late father’s shoes and preserve the earldom of Donbridge for my eldest son. We will see each other again on the London scene, I am sure. Farewell, Mildred, my dear.”

Mildred did not reply but sank into a chair, sobbing.

To be honest, Richard had been struck by the change in the new earl’s demeanour, when the realisation of his father’s demise had occurred to him. If he had been a shallow, easy-going, middle-aged man before, Jeremy Lawson was now showing his true breeding. He seemed to have grown several inches, and his bearing had become regal and distinguished within mere seconds. Richard almost admired him for finally allowing his upbringing to show.

The Earl of Donbridge gracefully nodded an acknowledgement to Richard.

“My thanks for your hospitality, Sir Richard. I hope you will think of visiting me sometime in the future at Donbridge Abbey.  For now, I would like to leave within the hour. My mother must have need of my comfort and assistance.”

“Of course, I understand, my lord. Just convey your wishes to my butler, and he will provide for them.”

 

The door opened with a click, and Manon entered, her cream-coloured muslin skirts swishing softly as she neared the earl. She dipped in a perfect curtsy and gently said, “My lord, I heard about your father’s demise, just now. Please accept my most sincere condolences.”

Richard watched in mesmerized pleasure as she took the hand Jeremy offered her once she rose from her curtsy. Manon, being as soft-hearted and compassionate as ever, pressed it in both her hands before placing a discreet kiss on the earl’s cheek.

Donbridge coloured in sudden pleasure, and his eyes grew damp.

“Thank you, dear child,” he replied. “Your compassion is most appreciated.” He swallowed, then straightened before he released Manon’s hand. He bowed to her and the baronet and left the room.

The only sounds in the room were his mother’s sobbing, and they drew Manon’s attention.

Richard caught Manon’s eyes, which were softened with tears as she walked towards his mother. She knelt before Mildred and put a comforting hand on the baronetess’ shoulder.  Richard felt his heart tighten within him. She was so compassionate, his angel. She even showed true gentleness to a woman who despised her.

“Aunt Mildred,” Manon whispered, “I beg you, do not weep so. You will make yourself ill, and what would be the benefit in that? Come, you should rest for a while. I will ask the cook to prepare you some hot chocolate.”

Richard was not at all surprised when his mother jumped up from the chair, pushing at Manon who fell backwards onto the floor. His mother was not so easily pacified.

“Take your hands off me, you wretched wench! I will not be pitied by the likes of you!”

Mildred stormed out of the room while Richard helped Manon up.

“Poor woman,” his niece sympathized. “And poor Jeremy, too. I am certain he will feel the loss of your mother’s company in the days to come.”

“Do not waste your tears on Jeremy Lawson, my sweet niece,” Richard felt compelled to answer. “He is now an extremely wealthy earl in possession of a large fortune and several thriving estates. The old earl was a tyrant who took pleasure in forcing his family into submission. No one will feel the loss of him greatly, I suspect.”

“How can you say that, Uncle?” Manon turned disturbed eyes on him as if she could not believe her ears. Tears began to run slowly down her pale cheeks, yet her voice sounded stern when she spoke.

“He was a father, a husband. He must have been loved and now he will be missed, no matter how fierce his character! A father will always be missed, Uncle!”

Richard’s heart turned in his very chest at the realisation that Manon’s father, who had been taken from her only so recently, must still be causing her grief. A grief she had not yet had time to  acknowledge. Manon had never spoken about her father’s death, he recalled with a pang of sorrow. She had bravely taken up the task of looking after her little brother, ignoring her own pain. On the ship to England, she had comforted Jéhan when he realised their father was dead and would never return to them. Who had comforted Manon, he mused? No one, not even Richard himself.

On an impulse, Richard obliterated the distance between them in two strides and wrapped his arms around her slender shoulders.

“Forgive me, my dear. I had forgotten your own recent bereavement. I spoke in haste.”

The moment his warmth enveloped her like a shielding cloak, Manon melted against Richard’s body, unable to resist the comfort he offered her. The memory of Papa and Maman rushed over her in a tide of pain, so fierce that her breath was cut off. That life was gone. Forever gone, and it did not signify to mourn the loss of it. She swallowed the useless tears and stepped away from Richard’s disturbing embrace.

“We cannot dwell upon what is lost, Uncle. I will always mourn Papa and after all these years, I still have grief over Maman, but I cannot allow their passing to influence the rest of my life. I shall dearly love them as long as I draw breath, because they loved me and cherished me. They gave me and Jéhan a home through the love they felt for each other. But they are gone and so is the life we led when they were still alive. We cannot go back to the past as dearly as we should wish for it.”

“Come,” Richard said, on an impulse. “There is something you must see.”

He took her hand and pulled her with him to his library where he pointed at a large frame above the mantelpiece. Manon swallowed in sudden emotion as, for the first time since Lily passed away, she saw her dear mother’s likeness.

It was breath-taking. Lily De Briers must have been but a girl barely out of the schoolroom, when the portrait was painted. She had been depicted in a standing position, dressed in her finery, and cradling her little dog. Her left foot was resting on a low stool, while the right one was hidden beneath her skirts. That slender, delicate foot was shod in a white silk stocking and a silver slipper. Peeking out as it did from under the hem of Lily’s skirt, it emphasized her youth and vulnerability. Lily’s vibrant auburn hair was spilling over her shoulders, which were slightly bared by a splendid gown of deep sea-green. The colour of the gown matched her mother’s eyes, which sparkled with a fire of their own. The artist had managed to capture that glow to perfection. This, Manon thought, was Maman, as she had been when Papa fell in love with her.

“Whenever you feel the loss, Manon, do as I do – just sit here and look at her. This is our Lily, the dearest of mothers to you, and a dearly beloved sister to me.”

Richard’s voice came from behind her, and was so near that Manon started. His breath ruffled the hair on top of her head and his warmth was clearly noticeable. Manon kept still, revelling in his being so close. He spoke again, and she listened.

“Father adored her. She was the sun in his life and in mine. I remember the time when she modelled for the portrait. It took the artist two months to finish it. Lily had to spend hours just standing there without changing position. I was five at the time and an absolute little brute. I used to peek from behind the artist’s back and make faces at her, to make her giggle and laugh, which she did, of course. The painter used to be angry with her and scolded her. She always had a difficult time regaining her solemn composure after my mischief.”

“I cannot ever for the life of me picture you as a brute, Uncle. You are gentle and caring.”

She tried to keep her tone light, not wanting him to see her emotions.

“Oh, but I was a pest, niece, I assure you. All five-year-old boys invariably are. However, I tried to be a good master to Wriggles, her dog after she left. Sadly, the poor dog’s heart was broken, and it died two months later. The lucky bastard. Wished I could have died too, at that time.”

Manon could not think of anything that might console her uncle, so she kept her silence. Then her attention was drawn by another picture on the opposite wall.

“Is that our grandmother, Elizabeth?” she asked, walking over to look closer at the painting.

“Only yours, Manon. Surely you remember that your grandmother Elizabeth was my father’s first spouse. My mother was his second wife.”

“Oh, quite! I forgot. Elizabeth was as stunningly beautiful as Lily, was she not? That glorious auburn hair and those dark eyes! Are they not magnificent?”

“They certainly are,” Richard agreed.

Maman and I seem to have inherited her hair,” Manon mused, “but not her eyes. They are dark,  almost black.”

“Yours are sea-green, as were Lily’s. Since there are no green eyes in my father’s family that I know of, it must be a trait that came from Elizabeth’s. Unfortunately, I do not know your grandmother’s family since my father and Elizabeth were estranged from them long before I was born. Father never talked about the Montrose family. I only know that their seat was somewhere in Yorkshire.”

“Thank you for showing me these,” Manon said, smiling. “I had not yet found time to go find my Maman’s picture, Uncle.”

“No,” Richard chuckled, “you have been rather busy during your short stay, niece. Now, let us find out what is in that parcel my father left me. I can but wonder why he did not allow me to know its contents when he was alive.”

They repaired to Richard’s desk, where Thornton had placed the parcel. Richard cut the strings and unwrapped it. In it was a letter, several sheets thick.

Manon drew nearer to her uncle so that she was able to read it also.

 

 

 

 

 

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