Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Manon’s heart skipped several beats, then began racing wildly. A fear as black as night enveloped her, threatening to paralyze her. She staggered backwards until she felt the much-needed support of a wall. Her knees buckled only for a second, but she steeled herself; this was not the time to faint and be missish. She had to leave at once for Bearsham Manor.

“Pru, would you please arrange matters with Matron so that the daily running of Greenhaven is secured?” she said simply and handed Jake’s letter to her friend, who read it at once.

Pru blanched and anxiously asked. “Are you going to make the journey ? I fear it is unsafe.”

“Of course I must go,” Manon said briskly. “And you are coming with me. If Jake is right about this, then both my uncle and Jéhan are in need of me, Pru. I will need your help in return.”

She left the ward, ran into her office, and snatched up her bonnet and pelisse. With a gesture of her hand, she summoned the footman whose task it was to accompany her to and from the infirmary. The young man sprang to attention, and Manon signalled him to follow her.

“Of course I will accompany you, Manon,” Pru answered. “That brooks no argument; you are my friend and you will need an ally if matters stand as Jake describes.”

Pru had followed Manon to the office, and she looked at Manon when the younger woman turned towards her.

“I was planning to visit Bearsham Manor in August anyway, Pru. I am sure my uncle will have informed his mother about it. We will arrive a little earlier, in all our best finery, as befits the niece of a baronet.”

Daniel Brownslow, who had been ignored by Manon so far, stepped forward.

“Miss Manon, can I be of assistance? Two ladies cannot travel unaccompanied for such a long distance. Let me come with you, I beg you.”

For a brief instant, Manon considered Daniel’s offer. From the tone of Jake’s letter, she gathered that the situation at Bearsham Manor was to say the least peculiar, if not dire. Richard had never talked about his mother to Manon, but from what Jake had once told her, the Dowager Baronetess must be a cold-hearted woman. Nonetheless, Manon was barely able to grasp that a mother would want to endanger her injured son’s life by not properly caring for him.

Furthermore, Manon realised that she and Jéhan could very well constitute a thorn in the dowager’s flesh. They were the offspring of Sir Robert’s beloved daughter Lily who had been the child he begot by his first and most cherished wife, Elizabeth. Lady Mildred de Briers might see a chance to hurt Richard by harming Jéhan. That horrifying thought settled the matter at once. Manon would present herself at Bearsham Manor but not in the company of Daniel Brownslow. If matters were dire, Manon felt no compulsion to show them to a stranger.

All these matters needed clarification, but Manon’s first duty was to Greenhaven. Mrs Lynver, the matron and her two nurses, Janet and Eleanor, would take care of the daily duties. However, Manon decided she would leave the finances in Pritchard’s capable hands for the time she would be at Bearsham Manor.

“I thank you for your kind offer, Mr Brownslow,” she said, smiling at the young man. “But I am fairly certain that I will be safe enough with the coachman, two footmen, Miss Butterworth and my maid as fellow travellers.”

Daniel knew a rebuttal when he received one. He bowed and left the infirmary.

 

The company set off in Richard’s well-sprung travelling coach the next morning at dawn. Manon was accompanied by Pru and by her maid, Bessie. Mr Daniel Brownslow had seen her off and had insisted that two sturdy footmen ride on the footboard, as well as a coachman and helper on the box. With the weather being fine and dry, the roads were passable. They made the sixty-two miles in eight hours and arrived at Bearsham Manor at four in the afternoon.

With anxious anticipation, Manon watched as the coach turned into a gated driveway flanked by tall beech trees and shrubbery laden with flowers of all colours. After a while, the coach emerged onto an open lawn, and for the first time, Manon was able to see Richard’s home.

It was utterly charming, she thought. Her heart lifted when she saw the well-proportioned, red brick house with the slate roof, the abundantly flowered borders gracing the flat stoned terrace, and the well-kept gardens surrounding the building. It was a house, Manon knew, that her grandfather Robert had created based on an earlier Elizabethan structure. Richard had not told her much, but that bit of information was one of the things he had mentioned. Manon already loved the house, because it felt like a home. A home for Richard, she realised. He was the one who filled the house with safety and caring.

The carriage stopped before the front steps, and Manon alighted when the footman opened the carriage door.

“Wait for me, Pru, until I have been allowed in,” she told her friend.

She strode towards the door, the footman in her wake. The man purposefully tapped the polished oak door.

A thin, elderly butler opened it partially, lifted grey eyebrows at the footman, and let his gaze drift towards the carriage.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice hoarse with age.

“I am Miss Manon Favier, Sir Richard’s niece. I was informed that my uncle was in need of my presence at Bearsham Manor.  Please be so kind as to let Sir Richard know that we have arrived.”

An expression of sad uncertainty slid over the old man’s face.

“I am truly sorry, Miss Favier, but Sir Richard is…”

“Thornton!”

A gentleman, well past his prime years, Manon had never encountered before came striding through the hall, a hint of reproach tainting his light voice.

“Thornton, what is all the commotion about? Who are these people?”

The butler cleared his throat to answer, but Manon quickly responded in his stead.

“I am Miss Manon Favier, and I have come to visit my uncle, Sir Richard de Briers. Who are you, sir, if I may be permitted to ask?”

The man did not reply, but his eyes wandered over Manon in an appreciative manner. Manon, dressed in a bottle-green travelling gown, her beautiful red hair blazing in the afternoon sunlight, stared back at him, determined not to be browbeaten.

“I say, what a delight to have you here, Miss Favier!” the man exclaimed and grasped Manon’s hand. “Welcome, welcome! I am Jeremy Lawson, Viscount Banbury, at your service.”

Manon started when the tall, dark, handsome man grasped her gloved hand and placed a kiss on the back of it. The viscount had abundant dark locks dusted with grey at the temples, and eyes that were a crystal-clear blue with a hint of grey. He displayed a tall, lean body with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.  He was, Manon acknowledged, a handsome man, but there was a glint in his eyes that made her suspicious. Her uncle had never mentioned this man before. Why was he here at her uncle’s estate?

To mask her surprise, Manon performed a deep curtsy and lowered her eyes. When she raised them again, she smiled brightly at the viscount, but her mind was racing.

“How do you do, my lord?” she said, taking the hand the viscount offered. They entered the hall where Thornton led them to a drawing room.

“If you would be so good as to wait here, Miss Favier,” Thornton said, “I will inform Lady de Briers of your arrival.”

“Thank you. I have also brought my companion, Miss Prudence Butterworth, and my maid, Bessie Crampton. Furthermore, there are my coachman and three footmen from the Brighton household. I trust that accommodations can be organized for them as well. Furthermore, I would like to see my brother, Jéhan Favier, as soon as possible.”

While she made this little speech, Manon took the precaution to have her back to Sir Jeremy. She caught Thornton’s gaze and mouthed the words ‘Sir Richard’. The butler gave an almost invisible nod, bowed, and disappeared. To Manon’s relief, Pru chose that moment to enter the drawing room, which allowed Manon to introduce her companion to Sir Jeremy.

Pru curtsied graciously to the viscount and started a conversation with him about the beauty of the estate. This allowed Manon to slip from the room. At the back of the hall near the green baize door, she spotted Thornton, who beckoned her inside and down the stairs to the servants’ hall. A few men and women were gathered there.

“Miss Manon,” the elderly man beamed, “I am so grateful that you are here. Mr Davies told us all about you, and we all feel as if we know you well. Allow me to introduce you to the staff.”

“I know of you, as well,” Manon confessed. “Jake described you all to me so vividly that I find you all to be exactly as he told me. You must be Mrs Briskley, are you not?” she said, addressing an elderly woman.

“Aye, miss! And here are Tobias and Zackary, our footmen. And these are the maids, Franny and Mabel.”

“Pleased to meet you all,” Manon continued, acknowledging the girls’ curtsies. “But now I would first like to see Sir Richard. I need you to tell me what that charlatan has said about my uncle’s condition. Mr Thornton, be so kind as to bring me my medicinal bag. Bessie will know where it is.”

 

It was a shockingly horrible sight. Richard was lying on his stomach, his upper body bared and one arm flung over the side of the bed. His face was damp with perspiration, and his cheeks were ashen under a two-day beard. The sheets that covered him to the waist revealed black bruises on the tanned flesh of his back. An unpleasant stench rose from the bed, and Manon realised that her uncle had been lying in the same position for two whole days without having been washed.

Manon swallowed her fear and hurried to his side. She felt his pulse with her left hand  and touched his face with the other. Oh, dear Lord. Matters were not looking at all right. Richard’s heartbeat was rapid, and his skin felt damp and hot. With trembling legs, Manon knelt beside the bed, laid her hand against Richard’s cheek, and spoke softly to him.

“Uncle, can you hear me? I have come to help you. Uncle, please open your eyes?”

There was no reaction, not even a fluttering of his eyelids. With a pang of anxiety, Manon also noticed that Richard’s breathing was frighteningly shallow. She stood and turned to Thornton.

“Mr Thornton, I will need some assistance. Could you please ask the two footmen to come up here? I will also need a table, a washbasin, clean sheets and several buckets of hot water. If you have a screen that I can put next to Sir Richard’s bed, I would be most obliged. I also require the assistance of Sir Richard’s valet, if you please.”

“I will send up the maids, Miss, but I fear Sir Richard does not make use of a valet, ” Thornton replied.

“Is there anyone who could serve as a valet? A footman, perhaps?”

“I can ask Bright, Sir Robert’s valet to perform the task, miss,” Thornton said and left the room, when Manon nodded her consent.

Manon then turned to the housekeeper. “What did the doctor say, Mrs Briskley? I need to know.”

“He spoke about a severe concussion, Miss Manon, but that was all, according to him. I think Sir Richard has broken several ribs, so we dare not move him.  I also have no inkling of how to bandage his torso. I am feeling most guilty, but it has been extremely difficult for us to take proper care of him.”

Manon nodded in agreement, but before she could reply, the door swung open.

“Manon!”

Like a little whirlwind, Jéhan burst into the room with Jake in tow. Manon opened her arms to her brother and clasped him to her heart.

Oh, mon chou, comme tu m’as manqué! How I have missed you!”

“I missed you more!” Jéhan exclaimed, in perfect English and without the slightest accent, other than a light Cockney one. No doubt that was Jake’s influence, Manon thought fondly. With a pang of regret, she released her little brother and gestured towards the still figure on the bed.

“Jéhan, my sweet, you must let me tend to Uncle. He is ill and needs my care. I will come and see you when I am finished. We will talk as long as you wish, mon chou.”

Jéhan cast a concerned look at the still figure on the bed. “Jake told me Uncle was not well,” he said quietly. “You can make him better, Manon, can you not?”

“I will do everything that is in my power, I promise. But now you must let me work.” Jake smiled at her and took her brother by the hand to lead him out of the room.

 

With a flurry of activity swirling around her, Manon began laying out the contents of her medicine bag on the table beside her uncle’s bed. She found that doing so soothed her frightened thoughts which was all for the best; Richard needed her undivided attention.

“All is ready, Miss Manon,” Mrs Briskley said, a quarter of an hour later.

“Mr Thornton,” Manon inquired, “the mattress on this bed seems ruined. Is there a spare that we may replace it with afterwards?”

“I am certain I can accommodate you, Miss,” Thornton replied, unperturbed.

Manon nodded and turned to her team. She handed the housekeeper a cotton bag filled with dried lavender, marigold, and white willow bark.

“Mrs Briskley, I want you to ask your cook to prepare a poultice with these herbs. Ask her to use calf fat, which is the most effective. The poultice will help to heal the bruises. I also want a tisane, made from camomile and eucalyptus and sweetened with honey. Cook must prepare it with boiling water and keep a stock of it. I want a pitcher on Sir Richard’s nightstand at all times. It will reduce his fever.”

The housekeeper hurried out of the room. To the rest of the staff, Manon only said, “For the moment, I need only Mr Bright with me. We need to undress the patient so that I can tend to his injuries properly.”

Mr Bright, a tall, thin man of some fifty years, stood at the ready while Manon turned the sheets back from Richard’s still body. She gasped when she saw the extent of the bruising on his back.

Richard’s fall from his horse had surely been harsh, and Manon wondered if these outward signs were also a measure for his internal injuries? She bent low so that she could listen to the sounds of Richard’s breathing. If there was a rasping sound, it could point to rib fracture. To her relief, Richard was breathing shallowly but silently.

With the utmost caution, she then began probing Richard’s spine, touching each vertebra and applying a tender pressure to ensure it was unharmed. Again, to her relief, there was no damage and thus she could now examine the ribs. None of them had been torn from their fixation to the back vertebrae. To be entirely certain, Manon slid her fingers under Richard’s torso to probe the front part of the rib cage for broken bones. There were none. The breastbone also seemed undamaged.

Manon now wanted to turn Richard onto his back, but she needed to ascertain that there was no danger in doing so. She moved her hands to Richard’s shoulders. The collar bones also seemed to be whole, which gave Manon additional latitude to move Richard.

“Mr Bright, if you please?”

“Just Bright is fine, miss,” the valet replied calmly.

Manon smiled. “Well, Bright, would you strip your master and cover him with this sheet, please?”

“Certainly, miss. Would you please retire behind the screen?”

Manon rapidly complied, eager to continue her work on her uncle’s injuries.

After Bright had finished the task of baring his master’s body, Tobias and Zackary lifted  Richard from his bed and laid him on his back onto the white sheet that covered the extra table. The lower part of Richard’s body was decently shielded by a clean white sheet so as not to offend the virginal eyes of the womenfolk. While her uncle was out of his bed, Manon asked the maids to change the mattress and bedding.

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Two

In Brighton, Manon devoted herself to the running of the infirmary, due to her desire to ensure everything was firmly established. Richard wanted her to come to Bearsham Manor at the beginning of August, and that moment was fast approaching. It would be marvellous to see Richard’s estate, knowing how proud he was of his ancestral home. Manon also longed to see her little brother again. She fiercely missed Jéhan and was eager to know how much he had learned under Jake’s tutelage. The letters that Jake sent her weekly only teased Manon’s appetite for learning of her brother’s progress.

First, however, she needed to have Greenhaven firmly on track.

Before leaving, Richard had discussed the financial plan Mr Brownslow junior had designed for Greenhaven. Manon had been interviewing nurses and other staff, and now the infirmary was running smoothly even though the number of sufferers was increasing day by day.  Manon was particularly pleased with the new matron nurse, Amelia Lynver. She proved a capable, sensible woman who ruled her staff with a firm, yet friendly hand. In time, Manon hoped to give over Greenhaven’s reins into Mrs Lynver’s capable hands, so that Manon herself would be able to direct her skills to the doctoring and caring. She was determined to train some of her nurses into becoming genuine healers with a thorough knowledge of the medicinal herbs.

Mr Daniel Brownslow proved a considerable asset when it came to keeping Greenhaven running smoothly. He frequently called on Manon and always brought a new idea or a better way to run matters.

Manon liked being in his company. Daniel had insisted upon informality from the start of their encounters and he was witty, smart, and kind. When she was with him at the infirmary or in the library at The Wild Rose, Manon was able to forget the troubles of her aching heart.

Banishing Richard’s image from her mind had been nearly impossible. Manon could manage it from time to time but she was unable to exile him from her heart. Richard was a part of her, she knew, even if they would never belong to each other. In consequence, Manon gave Mr Daniel Brownslow her full attention on matters of Greenhaven.

 

Mr Brownslow senior observed his son with a benevolent eye. Daniel was readying himself for that day’s appointment with Miss Favier, and his father was most anxious to see him decked out properly.

“Do not forget that the young lady is a member of the landed gentry, my boy,” Mr Brownslow said. “She might have been born and raised in Paris, but she has been out and about in English society to a small extent. You must act with the utmost propriety when in her company, even though you have a right to court her as much as all the other young bucks in Brighton. Miss Favier is sought after by all the unmarried sons of the impoverished London nobility that flock to Brighton in the Prince Regent’s wake. They are after the money Sir Richard’s niece stands to inherit when she reaches her majority. You must attempt to pay her a discreet courtship. We do not want Sir Richard to find fault in Brownslow & Sons, now, do we?”

Mr Brownslow rubbed his pudgy hands together in the universal gesture that embodied spotting a first-class opportunity to enhance one’s personal finances.

Daniel looked away from the mirror in which he had been inspecting himself, and in mild surprise, asked. “Father, what are you implying? Of course Miss Favier is a lady and always behaves impeccably when we are working together. I daresay I do the same. However, you need to understand that I do not intend to court her. A baronet’s niece is far too high for the likes of me.”

“You cannot be serious, my boy!” Mr Brownslow replied in dismay. “Why ever would you not take a chance with her? We Brownslows are highly respectable and of considerable circumstance. Why would you want all that lovely money to go to some hare-brained womanizer in London? Miss Favier would be subjected to the snubs of all the mistresses he might take!”

“Father,” Daniel replied in an earnest voice, “I do not harbour romantic feelings for Miss Favier. Furthermore, I think she may have taken a liking to Lord Blackthorn, who has been paying her an assiduous courtship over the last few weeks. I am certain Sir Richard would prefer her to marry nobility instead of a tradesman, no matter how respectable and well-to-do he might be.”

Mr Brownslow huffed in indignation. “Now, Daniel, my boy, you think too little of yourself. I am sure that…”

“Father,” Daniel interrupted him, “when I marry, it will be for love, just like it was for you and Mother, all those years ago. I saw how happy a marriage the two of you had and I want that for myself, too. You cannot blame me for that.”

“No, you are right,” Mr Brownslow sighed, resigning himself. “Your dearest mother and I have been blessed with happiness since the day I asked her to be my wife. Very well, my boy just provide Miss Favier with your best services as a solicitor, then.”

 

“Do come in, Daniel, and make yourself comfortable in the office. I will be with you in a moment,” Manon said smilingly before following Pru into the women’s ward at the infirmary. She gestured to one of the serving girls to prepare tea. These days, there was no shortage of helping hands, ever since the female population of the harbour quarter had quickly realised they could better themselves by working at Greenhaven.

“I do not entirely trust that one,” Pru muttered as soon as they were out of earshot. “To be honest, Manon, he seems to be calling on you too frequently to be interested in only the project he has been engaged for. I think other intentions might lie below that polished facade.”

“Pish!” Manon laughed. “Daniel is harmless and utterly charming. He is a powerful asset to Greenhaven, Pru.”

Miss Butterworth gave no further comment, because Manon was already heading for the first patient, a young woman who had given birth to a healthy baby daughter the day before.

“Hello, Jenny!”

She greeted the pale young mother with her best smile, although she knew Jenny was terribly weak and listless after the birth. Jenny had no husband and did not have the slightest idea how to raise little Daisy on the meagre wages she made by working as a tavern wench.

Manon inwardly sighed with frustration. How was she to help all these unhappy creatures? Even with the funding she had amassed during the last two weeks with Daniel’s help, she knew it would only be a small relief to Daisy’s eventual financial needs.

Both Manon and Pru jumped when the door to the ward was thrown open, and a street urchin burst inside, waving a letter at Manon.

“Miss, miss, ‘ere’s a le’er for ye! Brought by a man on an ‘orse, and ‘e said I was to give it to ye right away!”

“Thank you, Tommy,” Manon replied and took the letter from the boy. Tommy held up his hand with a grin on his grimy little face, and Manon chuckled while she handed him a sugared almond from the paper bag in her apron pocket. The boy rushed off, and Manon looked at the letter.

Her heart leapt with joy – it was from Jake!

Jake had sent her a weekly report on her brother’s progress from the day they had left for Bearsham Manor, and those letters had become the most anticipated things in Manon’s life. Jake’s style was humorous and witty, and she pictured the boy’s image as if he were there with her. Eagerly, Manon ripped open the missive and started reading.

 

Dear Miss Manon,

 

Your presence is needed at Bearsham Manor as soon as you can manage to leave Brighton. Two days ago, a terrible accident befell the master. He was thrown from his horse and has not regained consciousness since the incident took place.

A doctor, summoned by the Dowager, declared he suffered a severe concussion. He might be unconscious for a long period of time, so Sir Richard’s care has been left to Thornton and Mrs Briskley, but neither of them has any notion of how to deal with a person who is in a deep coma. You have such knowledge, Miss Manon, and it is vastly needed here. Both Thornton and Mrs Briskley are of the same opinion as I am. You are the only one who is able to help the master.

 

We cannot understand a mother such as Lady de Briers, who is haplessly playing with the life of her son. My lady has not sat by her son’s sickbed at all. It is as if she does not care about the master. Why did she not hire a nurse to assure he is being cared for throughout the day and the night? We are all mystified.

 

Miss Manon, there is yet another reason why I beseech you to come. I fear for Sir Richard’s welfare, because of trouble that comes from a direction I could not ever have imagined. The Dowager Baronetess forbade us to inform you of the incident. She even threatened to dismiss Thornton, if he wrote to his friend, Mr Pritchard about it. Thornton is at a loss because it is Sir Richard’s explicit order that the butlers at each of his residences should be kept informed about what occurs at the other.

 

I must be extremely careful not to attract the Mistress’ attention. So far, she does not seem to notice me or Jéhan so I will venture to send you this missive by the hands of a stable lad. The boy’s uncle lives halfway between Bearsham Manor and Brighton and offered to bring it to you. 

 

P.S. Jéhan is well, but truly distressed by what has occurred. He, too wishes you here.

 

Your faithful servant,

 

James Philip Davies

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-One

“I hate him.”

The sentence was uttered through clenched teeth, in a voice, low with malice. Mildred de Briers stood looking over Bearsham Manor’s sunny lawn from the window of her boudoir when she spoke the words that had simmered in her heart for twenty-seven years.

“Yes…” The voice of her lover drawled, “you have said that before, more times than I care to recall, darling. It is time you acted upon it.”

Mildred turned towards her large four-poster bed, where Jeremy Lawson lay sprawled in all his splendid nakedness. They had just made love, and Mildred, now physically satisfied, was able to give her attention to the matters at hand. More precisely, her acute shortage of funds. Funds that her son, Richard de Briers, refused to hand over to her.

“What do you mean, act upon it? I have asked my son for money countless times, but he has refused me over and over again. Apart from the meagre allowance he so stingily doles out to me every month, I have no other income. God! When I think of the fact that the money came from my father, my blood boils!”

Jeremy laughed, a sound that came from deep in his throat and could still make her tingle with the rapture of anticipation. He had not aged a bit, she thought. Men were fortunate. They only seemed to grow more attractive with age, provided they managed to keep their slim forms. Jeremy’s waist and stomach were still slender, and his chest and shoulders were muscular. His black hair was barely sprinkled with grey.

“Ah, well, we know that women cannot control a fortune, do we not?” Jeremy drawled. “Especially you, my darling; you have a tendency to fling out your blunt in every direction without even knowing the cost of things.”

Mildred huffed, which made the robe she had thrown around her shoulders slide down in a rustling heap at her feet. Jeremy appreciated the sight of her slim, lithe body and still full breasts. Mildred was a stunningly beautiful woman, despite her forty-eight years.

“What virtue is there in being rich if you cannot spend heaps and heaps of money? That blunt is mine, Jeremy, and I intend to get it back,” Mildred said determinedly and turned towards him with a gleam in her eyes.

Jeremy Lawson, Viscount Banbury, son of the Earl of Donbridge, eyed her with a mocking scepticism in his blue-grey eyes. “Have you still not had enough, my vixen, that you should uncover yourself to me? Fear not; my time is yours, you know. Come back to bed, my darling, and forget about that skinflint of a son of yours.”

Mildred did not react to his plea but retrieved her robe and put it back on. She seated herself in a chair near the window and cast a pensive glance at her lover.

“At first, I believed Richard was yours, Jeremy,” she said in a voice so low that Jeremy could barely hear her words. When he did comprehend the full meaning of her statement, his heart jumped in sudden fear.

“Mine? How could that be, Millie? We did not meet for several weeks before you married de Briers. My father had one of his apoplexies, remember? I had to see to estate matters in his stead.”

Mildred gave him a smile that chilled his heart to the core with its slyness.

“It is possible, you know. My courses were late to arrive during the fortnight before the wedding. I was fearful that they would be present on the wedding night, but to my relief, they stopped the day before.”

When she did not continue speaking, Jeremy anxiously prodded her. “So your son is truly his father’s, I take it? No doubt about it?”

“Richard arrived ten months after the wedding, Jeremy. De Briers never doubted his son was his.”

Viscount Banbury felt hugely relieved to hear that. He inwardly shuddered at the thought of being morally bound to Mildred by the sole fact that he might have begotten a son with her.

“Richard could have been your son, Jeremy, had you proposed to me as was my due. We had been lovers for several weeks before my wedding.”

Her voice took on a slight wailing sound that grated against Jeremy’s nerves. Mildred de Briers was a lovely woman but a harpy as well, and the idea that he could have easily been leg-shackled to her for life created goose bumps all over his body. He forced himself to be unruffled and coolly answered.

“Yes, we know all that, Millie dear. It is all water under the bridge. You know I could not marry you. My father would never have consented to a marriage with a commoner.”

Now Mildred was truly irritated. She stamped her foot like a twelve year old, a gesture that made her full breasts jiggle attractively – at least, in Jeremy’s eyes.

“No, instead you married that nitwit Mary Breckenridge and have made her pregnant every single year of your ten years of marriage. How does it feel to copulate with a limp, apathetic skeleton of a woman, Jeremy?”

“An extremely aristocratic skeleton, darling! Let us not forget that Mary’s father is His Grace, the Duke of Beaufort. That makes up nicely for her less-than-average looks and her thin, unattractive body.”

He rose from the bed, fully aroused now. In two strides, he was at her side, and Mildred found herself wrapped in his strong arms within seconds.

“Whereas you, my darling Millie,” Jeremy said in a low voice, “are simply delicious. You know you are the one I love, my vixen, so come to bed, and I will make you soar into heaven once again.”

God help me, Mildred thought, but I cannot resist him when he speaks thusly.

She let herself be taken to the bed, where she opened herself to him once more. While her lover proceeded to do as he had promised, a small part of Mildred’s brain was still fretting over her son. How might she put enough pressure upon Richard, so that he would consent to give her a more generous allowance? She had tried everything, flattery, threats and bouts of rage, but nothing seemed to unsettle that imperturbable mind or that cold heart. Robert de Briers seemed to have passed his own nature on to his son. Both men had the same unfeeling heart and were not easily persuaded to change their minds once they had decided upon a course.

 

A few days later, Richard was back at his estate. It was the only thing he could do to make his life bearable. The sixty-two-mile distance between him and Manon was sufficient to dull the pain he suffered when he was in her presence. No, that was not so. It was indeed painful, to have to set eyes on her the whole day long and not be allowed to touch her, beautiful and sweet as she was. Yet Richard craved that pain, because it meant he was in the same house as she was. It meant that he breathed the same air as she did.

At Bearsham Manor, matters had not changed much. His mother was still entertaining a few young bucks and taking her pleasure with them. Just this morning, Mrs Briskley, the housekeeper had complained about the extra work they gave the maids by making a mess in every room they set foot in. Richard had granted her permission to hire a few extra hands for the time the aristocratic pests stayed in the house. Fortunately, they would depart shortly, Thornton informed him. They had been absent from the London Season too long.

After his daily contact with his steward, Mr Waldham, Richard had taken to the stables. Now he was riding towards one of his farms. The joy of cantering through the Hampshire countryside on Spartacus was a much-needed diversion from his gloomy thoughts about Manon. The stallion seemed to appreciate the exertion as much as his master did. He was happily stretching his long legs in a fast canter. Richard felt the horse’s back muscles work against his thighs as if Spartacus longed for a gallop. On an impulse, Richard gave Spartacus free rein. The horse jumped forward, and Richard gave himself over to the exhilarating speed for a time. Eventually, he reined Spartacus in and patted the stallion’s neck.

“Well done, boy, “ he praised. The horse whinnied softly in response.

Then Fate struck.

From the forest undergrowth, a bunch of village lads came bursting into the open. They ran straight into Spartacus’ path. Still cantering at a fair speed, the large stallion reared in fright. With desperate effort, Richard tried to keep the strong animal from trampling one of the boys, who had rolled under the horse’s deadly hoofs. Spartacus reacted against the painful pull his master exerted on the bit. He bucked, swung his large body sideways and threw Richard off. Richard’s body crashed onto the surface of the road, which had been hardened by several days of summer drought. A spooked Spartacus broke away from his master in a fast gallop.

Richard was unconscious when the villagers came rushing towards him. His body was bent at a weird angle, and he was bleeding from a deep gash on his head where it had hit a roadside boulder.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty

Chapter Twenty

At The Wild Rose, Richard found Pritchard, on duty as he always was. The rest of his staff, his housekeeper, his cook, and all the footmen and maids, even the tweenie and scullery maid were at the infirmary.

It seemed that Manon had commandeered his entire staff into her service. Since even her maid Bessie was absent, Richard carried Manon to her room and laid her on the bed. She had not stirred, not even when he removed her apron, shoes, stockings and mobcap. Not even when he spread a blanket over her and tucked her in. She must have been exhausted, he realised.

In her usual brisk manner, she had made her plans and had diligently worked to make them come true.

Richard watched her while she was sleeping. She had instantly turned onto her side, and now she lay curled up, her hand tucked under her cheek.

His heart ached at the sight of her.

“Sir…” Pritchard’s hesitating voice sounded from the doorway.

“Yes, what is it?” Richard replied, turning to his butler.

“Miss Manon is well, I hope? She…well, she was so set on this infirmary scheme, and she convinced us all of its urgency, and…”

“And you all pitched in when she needed you. Yes, Pritchard, she is well, apart from being exhausted. I understand why you helped her. And fear not; I approve, but I will need to know everything there is to know about this infirmary scheme. Let us go downstairs, to my library.”

 

Half an hour later, Richard understood he had to take the matter firmly in hand, lest Manon should steer his entire household into chaos. It appeared that she had convinced Pritchard to use the funds Richard provided for daily expenses. It also became clear that Manon had been occupied for some time with her task. Her letter to him had come too late in the day, but maybe that had been her purpose from the start. To present Richard with a fait accompli so that he would have no choice but to condone it. Yes, he smiled to himself; that must be it.

Nonetheless, Manon needed his help. If she wanted to go through with this, she would be in urgent need of proper funding, and of a manager. Pulling out a sheet of paper from the top desk drawer, Richard began scribbling down some figures.

 

Manon woke with a start from a dream of horror and human suffering. She did not know where she was in those first moments of slowly returning awareness. She was also sore in her lower back and calves, as if she had walked for miles the day before. Which, of course, she had. And then it all came back to her. She gasped. Richard! Richard knew what she had done!

In a panic, she leapt from her bed and ran to her dressing room, calling for Bessie. Her maid was nowhere to be seen, nor was there hot water ready for her, and there were no clothes laid out on the chair. It was then that Manon realised she was still wearing the clothes she had worn the day before while working at the infirmary. That was, of course, why Bessie was absent. Manon herself had set her maid and everybody else in the house to work at the infirmary.

She hastily washed in cold water and dressed in a muted dark brown gown. With something of an effort, she combed and plaited her hair, the way she had done when she was living in Paris, just one thick tress down her back. She missed Bessie already, Manon thought.

There was not a footman in sight either, in the corridors and hall. Even the ever-present Pritchard could not be found.

The house seemed strangely quiet this morning. When Manon opened the door to the morning room, she registered with a shock that no breakfast was laid out on the polished round table near the window. Again, that was her own doing. She had waylaid Richard’s entire staff, and must go to see how she could put matters to right. She turned back into the hall and headed for the green baize door that led to the servants’ quarter. The door to Richard’s library stood ajar, and seemed to beckon her to come and investigate.

At his desk, slumped in his chair, sat Richard, still deeply asleep. His long legs, still in breeches and boots, lay stretched out before him. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his head rested on the back of the chair, slightly tilted to one side. His black hair looked ruffled, his face a bit drawn, even in repose.

With a stab of guilt, Manon realised Richard must have spent the entire night at his desk. The scattering of papers and books was testimony to that.

She picked up some documents, then stilled when she saw what was on them. It seemed that Richard, in his usual thorough and efficient manner, had worked out a scheme for the daily management of the Greenhaven Infirmary. There was a rudimentary financial plan, and a fund had been constructed for the daily expenses and staff wages that would ensure the infirmary could continue to be run. The fund would have to be provided for by charity events, such as fundraising balls and concerts. Richard himself would donate the money needed to get started.

Manon’s eyes filled as she realised what Richard had done. He had made her project possible and viable. Then, for the first time she took a moment to reflect on what she had done.

She had been a truly ungrateful and selfish creature. With his preparations of the past night, Richard had given her a chance to start a new life, even though she had gone behind his back and ruined the perfect routine of his household. Good heavens…she had even taken his money and used his staff, all without asking him face to face.

Yet he had never said a word the previous night. Instead, Richard had come, and when he saw she was too tired even to stand on her own two feet, he had brought her home, and had then started to work out her project.

“Well? Does it meet with your approval, niece?”

His sudden, teasing voice startled Manon, and she dropped the papers she was holding. She could only nod and swallow the tears that seemed to come so easily this morning. Richard rose and picked up the fallen documents, swiftly arranging them back into the right order.

“Look,” he said, matter-of-factly, “I will ask my solicitor, Mr Brownslow, to help us out with the funding management. We will go to Eastbourne today and discuss it with him. I want him to find us an accountant for Greenhaven. I am sure one of the young clerks he employs will be eager to take the job. Then we will need to hire a proper staff of nurses, although that might prove to be difficult. Not many girls would want to do such a demanding job.”

“I can train them!” Manon found her voice and pitched in with enthusiasm. “I learned from the best in Paris, the nuns of Les Dames de Marie! We would need to fit up free rooms at Greenhaven so that they could stay on the premises instead of having to rent. That would make it profitable for them to stay as on our staff.”

“An excellent idea! Now, let us work out some more arrangements. Take a chair.”

They worked like a team of accountants, efficiently planning the daily routines, the supplies that would be needed, and the people that would be indispensable, until Pritchard knocked to announce that breakfast was laid out. They had worked for two hours without even noticing the passing of time. Now they were famished.

 

After breakfast, during which they further talked and planned, Richard and Manon set off for Eastbourne in the gig. It was a Stanhope, which Richard had purchased after his father’s death so that he would have a fast carriage if he needed one. The twenty-two miles were covered in one and a half hours by a swift little gelding named Phineas.

Mr Brownslow, Richard’s solicitor, was a man in his early sixties, large and heavyset, with a shock of white hair above a pink, round face. His clear brown eyes smiled at Manon when Richard introduced her. His large mouth with surprisingly healthy teeth opened wide under his bushy white moustache.

“I am honoured, Miss Favier, to make your acquaintance. Sir Richard informed me of your coming to England, and it is my privilege to bid you welcome to our beautiful country.”

He bowed and took Manon’s right hand into his large, pudgy one. He placed a kiss on the back of her hand, surprising her with the subtle bending of his wide girth.

“Mr Brownslow,” Richard said evenly, “I have several matters to lay before you for careful consideration.”

Something in his tone must have spurred the solicitor into action, because he now bowed to Richard. “Forgive me, Sir Richard, for having done some research of my own already, but the messenger you sent me last night seemed adamant that I do so.”

Messenger? Manon looked at Richard in surprise, causing him to smile sheepishly at her.

“I sent Pritchard to convey my request to Mr Brownslow,” he explained.

“Now, sir, if you and Miss Favier would follow me into my office, I would be honoured to lay out what I have worked out.”

With his words, the solicitor effectively cut short any reply Manon would have made to Richard’s comment. He led them to a room at the back of the large townhouse he occupied. This chamber was airy, light, and beautifully furnished in the latest Oriental style that the Prince Regent loved so well. Elegant black-lacquered cupboards with coloured inlaid images of birds and flowers stood against the walls, which were covered in delicate, light green silk. Gold-painted sofas and chairs, upholstered in dark green silk, and with fragile curved legs, surrounded a Chinese tea table of finely carved wood.

From one of the chairs, someone rose when Manon entered.

 

“Allow me to present my eldest son, Daniel,” Mr Brownslow beamed. “He asked if he could act as your accountant, Miss Favier, and assist you with the running of Greenhaven.”

Daniel Brownslow was in his early thirties; he was not much taller than Manon and had a figure that was just a little too plump. Yet he showed an easy charm and a kind smile that lit his hazel eyes and kindled a warmth in Manon’s heart. He placed his right hand on his heart and bowed deeply from the waist, albeit with a bit of difficulty. “It will be my utmost pleasure and honour to serve you to the best of my humble abilities, Miss Favier,” he said in a warm voice.

Manon politely listened to Mr Daniel Brownslow as he explained what his scheme was for Greenhaven. He certainly was intelligent and diligent; she had to give him that. He had thought of everything, from hiring a staff to calculating what would be needed for the efficient working of the infirmary, and even how they could make a modest profit by investing their excess money once they were in business. Needless to say, for the moment, there was no excess money yet, but that did not deter Mr Brownslow junior from the course he had set.

Mr Brownslow senior had drawn up a contract, which was signed by Richard, after a careful reading and approving of its contents. After a celebratory glass of brandy, Richard and Manon left the Brownslows and returned to The White Rose.

 

“So what is your opinion on young Brownslow?” Richard asked once they were out of Eastbourne on the road to Brighton. The countryside was lush and slightly hilly with fields of barley and wheat, interspaced with meadows dotted with sheep.

“He seems a competent and intelligent man,” Manon replied. “And a truly kind one, too. I like him, Uncle, and I think he will be an asset to our scheme.”

They drove on for a few minutes while Manon felt struck by a feeling of guilt; she had forced her uncle to spend money on this scheme, when he probably had no wish to do so.

“I have not even thanked you yet for what you did, Uncle,” Manon said, clasping her suddenly shaking hands in her lap.

He did not answer right away but cast a sideways glance at her. His expression was unreadable. After a while, he replied, “I was furious with you at first, but once I saw what you accomplished in so little time and with so few means, I had to admit that it was an excellent idea, Manon.”

He fell silent again, and Manon’s pulse suddenly raced at the gentleness of his tone. She could hear his approval clearly, and she was ridiculously happy with it.

“I…I was not sure if you…,” she tried, but the words got caught in her throat.

“If I would approve?” Richard said, turning his head. Then his beautiful smile hit her in full force. “You think singularly little of me, Manon, if you feared my judgement. I could never disapprove of a job well done – and it was, Manon, it certainly was.  I admire your pluck, and your tenacity, in striving to reach the goal you set for yourself.”

After a brief pause, he continued, “Have you been seeing Blackthorne again in the week that I was at Bearsham Manor?”

“Only once. We went out riding. He has not returned since.”

“I take it that Blackthorne has not come up to scratch, then?”

“No,” Manon answered quietly. “He was kind, and always the gentleman, but he did not ask for my hand.”

“Fool…” Richard muttered, under his breath.

“I would have refused him,” Manon said, clearly and determined.

That statement was a surprise for Richard, so much so that he steered the gig to the side of the road and stopped it. Phineas instantly started to graze on the road shoulder’s lush grass.

“Why? I thought you liked Lucian.”

Manon turned to look him in the face, unsettling him with the intensity of her gaze.

“I do like him, Uncle, but I could never marry a man that I do not love, especially when I like him. It would be a living hell for both of us, to live a life without love. Companionship is not enough for me, Uncle, nor is friendship. I want love, and passion, and the joy it brings. I could never do without those. I would rather stay alone and live my life the way I want. I think I have found what I want in Greenhaven.”

She is so lovely, Richard thought. How many times had that same notion crossed his mind, lately? Yet it was the absolute truth. His Manon was the loveliest woman he had ever set eyes on.

The way she looked at him now, with love glowing in those green eyes, set his heart racing, and he welcomed the feeling like the air he breathed. Even if they could never be together, he would always want to see the love she felt for him, Richard, in her eyes.

Then, suddenly, Richard stopped fighting the searing urge and surrendered. With a sigh escaping his lips, he leaned over and kissed her.

 

They did not touch other than by the joining of their mouths. Richard felt Manon’s answering jolt as clearly as he felt the sparkle of lightning run down his own spine. From that moment on, he lost himself in the feel of her soft, pliant lips as they parted to welcome him. She was as hungry as he was, and he steeled himself to keep from losing every shred of control and jumping from the gig with her in his arms so that he could…

Soft little moans escaped Manon, as she threw her arms around his neck. He felt her shaking body press against his, and suddenly, all his rational thoughts left him. He grunted with frustration, rose and lifted her into his arms. When he jumped down from the seat of the gig, Manon wrapped her legs around his waist and she never stopped kissing him. Her small hands were entwined in his hair as if she had to hold onto him for dear life.

Manon felt as if she were on fire. She could no longer think, no longer breathe, no longer contain herself. She had to cling tightly to Richard; she wanted to feel him and touch all of him! She was vaguely aware of him, carrying her through a hole in the hedgerow, and laying her down onto cool, soft grass.

And then they were tugging at each other’s clothes, breathing hard, seeing nothing but each other. Her breasts sprang free of her bodice as if they had a life of their own, but Manon did not stop to cover herself. She tore at Richard’s coat, shoving it from his shoulders while he lifted her skirts up to her waist. His hands were on her inner thighs, stroking harder and harder, and covering her sensitive skin with liquid fire everywhere they touched.

God, she was exquisite! She was all subtle, soft curves, firm femininity in a skin of pure silk. Her breasts begged for his lips, his tongue, his teeth, and Richard kissed, licked and sucked the hard, puckered nipples until she was moaning with need. He was so hard that he would burst any moment, if he did not…

Stop! You blithering fool, stop! He could not do this. He could not!

When he tore himself loose, the pain was agonizing. He heard Manon’s soft moan of protest and hated himself for letting her go. Hated the cruel God that installed this love in their hearts yet crushed it with the forbidding laws of sanity.

“I am sorry,” he whispered, his mouth still very near hers. “I did not want to do that, yet I wished it with all my heart.”

Then he released her, pulling up her bodice and lowering her skirts. He shrugged into his coat, stood, and reached for her hands to pull her to her feet.

Manon’s small hand touched his cheek in a gesture that gave comfort as well as understanding. “I know, my love and I feel the same pain as you do. Do not ever apologize for loving me.”

They stood frozen in their agony for a few moments, their brows touching; breathing hard in an effort to overcome their distress, they clung to each other.

Finally, Richard led Manon back to the gig and helped her up. He climbed up beside her, took up the reins, and clucked Phineas into a trot.

How on earth were they to survive this agonizing torture? Richard inwardly raged. How were they to shrug off the uncertainty that weighed upon them like a curse?

Next to him, Manon averted her flushed face to hide her hot tears from the man she was doomed to love.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen

Richard was furious. In fact, he could not recall ever having been so outraged in his whole life.

He had done his utmost to provide Manon with the best of opportunities to organize her life, and look what the foolish chit made of it!

What was his niece thinking? Setting up an infirmary, of all things! It was unthinkable! Yet here was her letter, written in a tiny, neat hand, explaining that she would be searching for suitable premises near Brighton Port and that she would need to employ staff to help her. In a totally candid manner, Manon elaborated on the reasons why she would like to establish her infirmary – namely, the wretched conditions of the poor and the total lack of medical assistance for such people. She had been trained by her father, she wrote, and felt she was highly qualified to perform her task. Miss Prudence Butterworth would be her companion and assistant.

With a huff of irritation, Richard put the letter down onto his desk blotter. He heaved a deep sigh, but that did not diminish his concern at all! Suddenly, his mind seemed to be teeming with unwanted images of Manon staggering through filthy rookeries and her being assailed by packs of ruffians. Ravaged, possibly. He jumped to his feet and forcibly pulled open the library door.

“Thornton, send someone to the stables! I want Spartacus ready in ten minutes. I am leaving for Brighton at once.”

 

Richard covered the sixty-two miles to Brighton in less than eight hours, pushing Spartacus into a steady trot, and occasionally into a swift canter. Spartacus was large, strong, and nearly eighteen hands high, and with enough muscle strength to keep this exhausting pace up until they reached The Wild Rose. Still they did not make it until deep into the night by which time both horse and rider were utterly exhausted.

“Sir, pray, do come in.” Pritchard said. Although roused from his bed at this ungodly hour, the butler nevertheless seemed not at all surprised to see his master.

“What the deuce is going on here, Pritchard?” Richard’s voice sounded harsher than he had meant it to be.

Pritchard cleared his throat. “Well, sir, erm … it is Miss Manon. She … well, we have all been helping her this past week, and I assure you, sir, that nothing improper has been going on, what with Miss Butterworth and Mrs Carson accompanying her, as well as the three footmen, sir.”

All this had come out of his solemn, dignified butler, and Richard was simply stunned to hear him say so much in so short a time. Although, Richard mused, Pritchard had not quite said anything that made sense.

“I have no inkling what you are trying to say, Pritchard. Please, enlighten me.”

Again, the butler swallowed and said, “Miss Favier needed our help to set up Greenhaven, sir, so we all pitched in. The footmen, and some other workers hired by Mrs Carson, have cleared the house Miss Favier rented from top to bottom, whereupon Mrs Carson and the maids directed the placing of the beds and cupboards. We then…”

Richard jerked up a hand to stop the flow. “What on earth is Greenhaven, Pritchard?”

“Why, it is the name of the infirmary Miss Favier has opened in Jermin Street, sir!”

 

Amidst the grimy, sagging hovels hugging the waterside, the house actually was a haven of green. Even in the grey light of dawn, Richard could see the bright green walls from afar shining like a beacon. Inside, there was a bustling activity. Upon stepping into a small entrance hall, Richard saw a table and a seat on the left, which served as a desk for the young girl who was sitting there; she was scribbling away in a thick ledger. On the right side was a long bench, and it was occupied with people. Grubby, downcast people in rags. Mothers who clutched crying children in their arms, girls barely out of childhood but pregnant, some of them bent over with pain, feverish boys with eyes too old for their years, and men coughing, moaning, even bleeding. It was chaos and utter misery.

“Next!” The loud voice of Mrs Carson,  the housekeeper of his Brighton townhouse, boomed from the rear of the hall. A second later, the woman saw him and gasped. “Good heavens, sir! We … we were not expecting you!”

“Where is my niece, Mrs Carson?” Richard demanded, struggling to maintain a constant, calm voice but not succeeding. He felt his temper rise like the tide.

“Forgive me, sir,” his worthy housekeeper told him, “but I have no time to spare. This baby is decidedly sick.”

She snatched a wailing infant from its mother’s arms and gestured the woman to follow her. She then disappeared through the door she had come out. Richard hastened after her, suspecting he might find his niece when he did so.

In contrast to the dimly lit hall, this room was ablaze with light. A bright, white light that came from a multitude of candleholders and shone upon a room with whitewashed walls and a shiny flagstone floor. In the middle of it all stood an unusually large oak table, also painted in white. Mrs Carson deposited the crying baby upon it, and then guided the mother to a row of chairs against one of the walls.

Only then, as if he was waking from a kind of stupor, did Richard see Manon. She was dressed from head to toe in a starched, white apron, and on her bright auburn hair, which was pulled back in a tidy bun, she wore a white mobcap.

Immense relief washed over Richard when he saw that she was her usual, efficient self and that she smiled at him brightly as if she were overjoyed to see him. That smile went straight to his heart. He felt his anger run away like water down a hole. And it was not as if he had not been frightfully furious with her, because he certainly had been. He had wanted to thrash her for putting herself into danger like that, venturing into Brighton’s rookeries. Yet now, he found that he lacked the words as well as the inclination to scold her. He just wanted to take her into his arms and crush her to his chest.

“Good evening, Uncle,” Manon said cheerfully. “What a lovely surprise to see you here! I did not mean for you to come all the way down from Bearsham Manor but I am indeed delighted you did so. Now I can show you what we have accomplished here, I and all those hardworking people of your staff. They have done a splendid job! You ought to give them a raise, because they surely deserve it.”

He blinked, then gave himself a mental shake to chase away his wayward thoughts. It had been unwise of him to come here without preparing himself for seeing her after being away from her for a whole week. She was so beautiful, so heart-wrenching in her innocent enthusiasm. God! How he had missed her!

“However,” Manon went on, still smiling at him, “I shall not be able to show you anything tonight. We are rather swamped with work, I am afraid. So forgive me, Uncle; I must return to my tasks.”

With that, she turned towards the massive oak table, and to the crying infant that was lying on top of it.

 

For the rest of the night, Richard sat on one of the chairs near the wall and watched Manon perform an endless number of tasks, each one even more horrid than the last. She pierced horrible wounds, cleaned them, and bandaged them. She listened to numerous chests, probed throats and ears, and doled out spoons of syrups to infants of all ages. Gradually, he saw her neat white apron become covered with blood and other, even more repulsive fluids. He abhorred the sight of it, and he loathed to see her being soiled like this, yet he could not take his eyes from her.

He noticed how she inevitably grew tired, yet she never faltered for a second until the very last patient had been dealt with. He acknowledged how radiant and unmistakeably happy she looked, even when the most vicious of tasks was presented to her. How she comforted, and soothed, and made people feel at ease. It was like a second nature to her, Richard realised. This was what she was meant for; this was her true vocation.

Again, he was forced to acknowledge that she was the one he loved, more than anything in the world. God help him but he did love her, and always would. She was the most extraordinary woman he had ever encountered, and the kindest. How could he not love her? How could he not adore his angel?

 

At some point, Manon lost all track of time and even of place. She just took on every task as it came, and performed all the right gestures, found all the right words, and ploughed on from one patient to the next. That was as Papa had taught her, how one coped with human suffering. One locked off the portion of one’s brain that controlled compassion. These were not only people, but first and foremost, they were patients. Patients had a condition that must be dealt with. For every condition, there was a treatment, and Manon applied that treatment, then went on to the next patient. If only she had not been so utterly tired. And if only Richard had not been there, sitting there and glowering at her. Now she had an additional task to accomplish. She must keep her wits about her and not think of Richard.

She finished her last task and smiled at the young boy whose hand had been crushed under the heavy sack he had been hauling at the docks. There were two small bones that had snapped in that tiny little hand. Manon had put a splint on the palm so that the child would not be able to move his hand until the bones were healed. She had explained to his mother who seemed to be even younger than Manon herself, that her son could not work for several days. The woman had looked at her as if she were insane and said, “I can’t afford to keep ‘m ‘ome. Me ‘young uns ‘ll starve if he doesn’t work.”

In a haze, Manon watched her last patient leave the room.

“Just how long have you been doing this today?”

Richard’s voice broke through her sorrow, warm and so infinitely gentle that her vision blurted all of a sudden.

She turned to him and noticed that he was steadying her with a hand on her arm. How odd, she thought; why would she need steadying?

 

When Manon crumpled, Richard caught her and held her against his chest, his senses assaulted by her scent of roses. How had that fragrance managed to last against the stench of sickness that seemed to drench the room?

“Oh, sweetling …” he whispered against her temple, lifting her into his arms. How delightful it felt, just to hold her. “My darling …”

He abruptly became aware of every other person in the room when he realised they were staring at him. There was Miss Butterworth, as well as Mrs Carson and three of her maids. Two footmen stood frozen in the tasks they had been performing. Time stood still, it seemed.

Then Miss Butterworth cleared her throat. “Sir Richard,…”

“I am taking my niece home,” Richard felt necessary to explain. “I will send the carriages to bring you all back to The Wild Rose, after you finish here.”

He settled Manon’s head against his shoulder and left the room, and the house. Outside, he signalled to a footman, handed Manon over to him, and mounted his horse. Without any command from his master, the footman lifted Manon so that Richard could take her up and place her in front of him. With one arm clutching her firmly to him, Richard nudged Spartacus into a slow walk.

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen

“Thank you, Mr Waldham,” Richard de Briers said to his steward. “That will conclude our meeting for today. I trust you will inform me when the works will start on the northwest meadows. We need to drain them as soon as possible before the autumn rains start.”

“Certainly, sir. You may depend on me,” the short, middle-aged steward replied. He bowed and left Richard’s library carrying the ledgers they had been studying together. Richard rose and went to stand at the window overlooking the vast lawn in front of the house. It was his favourite spot, when he wanted to clear his thoughts. A perfect green lawn lay before his home which was a stately house in soft red brick. It was of perfect symmetric proportions, with three rows of windows above one another under the grey-slated roof.

Richard loved his home. As soon as he had turned into the driveway now a week ago, a sense of belonging had instantly touched his heart as it always did. He had grown up in this house and been loved, at least by his father, and also by the whole of the vast staff that ran the household. Richard realised that his father had been the one who made him feel at home, the one to give him countenance and a feeling of immense pride about becoming the next baronet Bearsham. Never had his mother given him that same feeling.

Mildred de Briers, née Thompson, must be the coldest woman on earth, Richard mused, for she had never given him any attention, let alone love. Mildred only cared about herself and the various pleasures that had been bestowed upon her when she became a baronetess. Parties, balls, and soirées, for instance. And lovers. His mother, Richard knew, could not resist the seduction of a well-turned beau, praising her beauty and her elegance. She had taken a multitude of young lovers to her bed over the past twenty-five years. His father had told him when Richard was sixteen and old enough to understand such matters.

Of course, his father had known. Robert de Briers had not cared about his wife’s unfaithfulness, since she became barren after Richard’s birth. The London doctors had assured Robert that his wife would not bear another child, and that suited Robert well since he knew damned soon after the wedding that he could not love this woman. He had only married her for her father’s money, which had restored his estate from the dire conditions it had been in at that time. And, of course, to beget a son by her.

 

Richard had arrived home on the previous Saturday only to find his home invaded by a bunch of his mother’s London friends, who thought it fit to spend a few weeks on his estates and at his expenses. Useless leeches, the lot of them! Idle, spoiled sons and brothers of peers, hypocrites and flatterers of his aging mother, who ignored her nearly fifty years and still behaved like a girl fresh from the schoolroom!

His mother was still beautiful; her son had to give her that. She had retained her slender figure, and her face had not acquired the usual wrinkles other women had at that age. Her dark hair was still abundant with rich brown waves, and her vivid blue eyes sparkled when she was entertaining as she was doing now. Even from the distance of his library window, Richard could hear her tinkle of laughter drifting toward him as a suite of young men was trailing after her. They were nothing if not persistent, Richard grimaced. Every single one of them hoped to be admitted into Mildred’s good graces.

When the company headed for the front door, Richard turned away in disgust. He crossed the large room in a few steps of his long legs and quickly locked the library door. No need for the pack to invade his sanctuary.

He poured himself a splash of his favourite whisky and let himself down in one of the leather seats flanking the empty fireplace. The Laphroig’s smoky scent and peaty taste always calmed him, and calmness was exactly the disposition he needed to be in now. Only God knew when he had last felt peace of mind!

His father had died two months ago at the end of May, and since that moment, Richard had been swept away in a maelstrom of events, over which he had had no control. It was fairly unbelievable, that his life had been turned upside down in this manner. His life … and his heart. God! How he missed Manon!

He lay staring into the darkness at night, her image haunting him. He could not keep her out of his mind all day. He would hear a maid singing somewhere in a corridor and compare the sound to that of Manon’s voice. A movement, a shift of light, objects, books, everything brought her back into his thoughts. Exactly how his promise to his dying father had turned into a curse he did not know, but it had done just that.

Alone in his quiet library, Richard relived those distressing moments of his father’s passing.

His mother had been in London when his father’s final illness began. A badly treated cold had turned into pneumonia. By the time Richard had understood how ill his father was, the doctors could do nothing more than make the patient as comfortable as was possible. The pneumonia had added to his father’s weakness, which had been induced by two previous heart attacks.

Mildred de Briers did not come to her husband’s deathbed until the last moment. To Richard’s astonishment, his dying father forbade her to enter the bedchamber.

“She does not care for me, Richard, and I loathe her.”

Those words were the last his father had spoken in a normal voice, for the night thereafter, he had fallen into a severe fever and had not regained enough lucidity until the final minutes. It was then that he had asked for Richard’s promise, to find his niece and nephew. It was then that he had whispered about “the letter hidden behind the veil”.

What veil could his father have meant?

Was there a veiled woman in one of the many pictures that graced the Manor? No, Richard had examined them all, even the ones that had been stored away in the attic.

Maybe, there was a hidden niche behind a curtain somewhere in the house. Richard had searched every room, high and low. Even the staff’s quarters had been examined for such a niche, but it had all come to nought.

 

He had also searched his father’s desks and cupboards, had even had footmen leafing through the many books in the library, but to no avail. Richard was now convinced, that his father had been delirious in his last moments.

The estate’s affairs had been in perfect order when Richard took on the task of managing it. All costs and gains were accounted for, all the property in proper order, and all his tenants content, thanks to the efforts of Trevor Waldham, his steward. His household was in excellent order as well, under the tutelage of Thornton, his butler, and Mrs Briskley, his housekeeper.

No letters other than the ones that Richard already knew of had turned up among his father’s papers. When his father’s will was read, Richard had noticed it contained nothing that he did not already know. Richard had been fully informed by his father of the contents of the will six years ago, when he came of age. He was heir to the title and the estate as well as to a large part of the money. On the contrary, his mother had only been entitled to a small yearly allowance. She had been thoroughly disgruntled, and even more so when she heard that Lily’s children would also inherit their own fortune. After the funeral, she had gone off to London for several days and had returned only recently, her usual bunch in tow. They had not spoken yet since Richard’s return to the Manor. Maybe that was for the best, he mused.

 

The happy cries of a young boy reached his ears, and Richard rose. He was ready for a stroll over his grounds to go and see what Jéhan was up to. Since the boy had come with him to Bearsham Manor, Jéhan had truly been in excellent spirits. The boy had missed his sister only once on the first evening of his arrival. As Richard had surmised, Jéhan was no different from other young children. They were resilient and adapted to new situations remarkably quickly.

Richard had spent a couple of hours in Jéhan’s company each day since their arrival, thus allowing his tutor, Jake Davies, a bit of free time. Jéhan awaited his time with his uncle with avid anticipation, and Richard found the boy’s company a welcome escape from estate matters. He liked Jéhan and enjoyed rambling with him over the grounds, especially in the large wilderness the estate boasted of. His heart a bit lighter, Richard threw on his coat and unlocked his library door.

He had barely stepped into the corridor when he heard his mother’s irritated voice.

“A word with you, sir!”

He turned to see her standing just a few paces away, her hands clutching her skirts in so tight a grip that they were rustling, which meant that the baronetess’ hands were shaking.

“Now, Madam? I fear I am lacking time at the moment, but I would be happy to speak with you an hour before dinner.”

“No!” Mildred de Briers gritted out through clenched teeth. “You will listen to me now, sir!”

Richard inwardly sighed and resigned himself to an unpleasant moment with his irate mother. Anger seemed to be the only emotion he had ever seen in her. He opened the library door once again and gestured her inside. Once inside, Mildred whirled around to face him and pointed an accusing finger at him.

“I demand, sir, that you increase my allowance at once! The pitiful amount I now receive is nothing more than crumbs from your abundant table. It does not last longer than three months, and I will no longer stand for it. After all, it was my dowry that brought wealth back to this fossil of an estate!”

With an effort, Richard barely managed to keep his temper. As always, his mother brought out the worst in him, applying to his darkest characteristics, the ones that he normally kept under a firm control.

“Madam, as you are well aware, my father is distinctly clear about the financial arrangements that have been granted to you in his will. Apart from a generous enough allowance, you also have the use of the London townhouse to entertain your acquaintances. You know very well that you can also make use of the Brighton townhouse, should you need it.”

He raised a hand when she opened her mouth to speak.

“Furthermore, I have already given you additional funds twice this year, madam. I have also redeemed the debts you incurred while in London after my father’s funeral. All  good money, I point out to you, that I am not obliged to hand over to you, other than out of the goodness of my heart. If you are not managing your resources well, madam, it is no fault of mine. I suggest that you be more careful in the future.”

He could have foreseen what would happen, Richard mused. His mother’s eyes grew dark with anger, and she clenched her fists. Her face lost all beauty as it screwed up in fierce rage.

“You cannot do this to me,” she spat, stepping closer to him, in an attempt to browbeat him.

He barely battered an eyelid but drew himself up to his full height. She was a tall woman but she lacked a fair few inches on him, and she detested it.

“Do not disgrace yourself, madam,” he said in a light voice. “This conversation is over. I have matters that claim my attention.”

“Such as to run about with that little bastard you forced upon our house, I presume?”

The words had been uttered in so vilely a tone that Richard inwardly winced at their viciousness.

“Jéhan Favier is not a bastard, madam, since his parents were married before the magistrate and the church before he was born. At present, he is , and I urge you to keep that in mind , also my heir, until I marry and beget a son. So I intend to give the boy my full attention until he has reached his majority.”

“Will you bring the girl to Bearsham Manor as well?”

The question surprised him, and he had no answer ready to hand, so she continued, “What is she like? Is she pretty? Why have you not brought her yet?”

Her voice sounded slightly sly, Richard thought, as if she had plans for Manon when his niece came to the Manor. God forbid! If there were anyone whom Manon should be protected from, it was his mother, who had never cared about Lily nor her children. He shuddered at the thought of exactly how eager his mother would be to take revenge on his father for loving his first wife dearly. Mildred de Briers had always envied Elizabeth, Lily’s mother, because of the love, Robert had felt for her.

“My niece is due at the Manor in early August, madam. Her many engagements in town did not permit that she should join us yet,” he replied his voice even as ever. Richard never revealed his thoughts to his mother. He thoroughly distrusted her and was convinced she would take advantage of him, should she know how he felt about Manon.

“Yes…” The word came out trailing as if she were pondering over her next sentence. Mildred’s  eyes were mere slits, but the vivid blue irises still shone through them. The sight gave Richard a chill that slithered down his spine like liquid ice.

A knock on the door startled them both. Thornton entered when bade to, and bowed.

“Beg pardon, sir, but I have an urgent message for you. It came by courier.”

Richard took the letter, then turned to his mother. “I am certain your guests will be wondering where you are, madam. If you will excuse me, I have urgent business.”

His mother humphed and left the room, skirts swishing in irritation. Richard ripped open the letter, which had come from The Wild Rose, his Brighton town house.

“Dear Uncle, I would like to ask your permission to start an infirmary for the poor…”

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

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

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

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

Inside Queenie’s home, they found abject poverty.

Two toddlers lay crying in their cots which were no more than crates. On a wrought iron bed, covered by a thin, frayed blanket, Mrs Harrows was shivering with fever. Queenie rushed to her side and knelt beside her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh…I am so sorry, Queenie, I…”

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

Nevertheless, Manon felt awful.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, never mind,” Manon breathed, “I have been…” Could she tell Lucian about Queenie’s family? She could not do so, definitively not. Lucian was an earl’s son and he would consider members of the lower staff to be insignificant and not worth bothering about.

“Pardon me, Lucian. I will go and change into my riding habit.” She quickly pulled the bell, and Pritchard appeared.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forgive me, Lucian. I …”

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

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

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, of course, sir. Will…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Manon…”

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

“Yes, Uncle?”

“Please, sit down and listen to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!”

The word came out like a cry of despair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Puzzled to the extreme, Pru promised.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

How wrong he had been, and how foolishly conceited!

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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