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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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…”
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.
“I don’t think men get nervous. Except perhaps on their first time.”
“That is a beautiful memory, never forgotten?”
“A man’s first time isn’t easy to forget, but in different ways, then you’re thinking.”
“Really?” She looked sad as if his reminiscence was something to be cherished.
“I think most men never live down their gross incompetence of that first experience. Is there something on your mind?”
“Are you competent now?”
“Squeaks, exactly what are you asking me?” Kip picked up speed to get home.
“I think we should approach step four. That is the step where one confesses whatever the other should know. You know … such as … other people, they have been with, secrets that they have kept, titles that they have, and …” She was interrupted.
“Bloody hell.” Kip pulled on the reins and brought the coach quickly to a stop. He turned to stare at her.
She was smiling. “I guessed, didn’t I? Your face says it’s something like that.”
“Youuuu … guessed?” Kip huffed out in astonishment.
“Even though I am small, I do have a modicum of intelligence and woman’s intuition. I don’t need swirling images to see things, although I did.”
“What …?” Kip shouted in disbelief.
What is happening? Maybe I am insane.
“I’ve been wondering how to tell you. I hardly believe it myself. Mary came to me in a dream soon after I was rescued.”
Kip took her shoulders and shook them. “Please, don’t make fun of that part of my life.”
“But she did. That is the truth.”
“I don’t believe you. I’m sorry, but I don’t. I am surprised that you could be this … this disrespectful.”
“Kip … Trevor … whatever your real name is, did your sister meet her death wearing a white sundress with yellow flowers and green leaves? Did she have green eyes like you and light hair? Did she have a cameo ring that she liked to wear?”
Kip was stunned beyond measure, and words were nowhere to be heard. He sat there staring at her wondering how any of this was possible. He still hadn’t accepted completely all that had been happening to him.
“Kip, are you all right?”
“I’m not sure. Can we not talk until we get home?”
“I’m sorry. It took a while for me to believe it, too. I thought you would be happy to hear that.”
The remainder of the ride was quiet. Squeaks could see his mind was elsewhere. She slid toward the center, effectively pushing him to the side and took the reins herself. The slow clip-clop of hooves seemed surprisingly loud, within their silence. She wondered if she should have told him. His sister Mary had appeared to her in a dream. Squeaks was frightened at first until Mary showed herself with her brother. Squeaks sensed she had entered her head when Kip was drawing her portrait at their picnic. Kip’s life with Mary played out in front of her. The images were joyful for both. Squeaks could see his love for his sister and the home he lived in and the way he was reared. He had to be of peerage. She was shown Mary’s death, and the ultimate payment exacted upon Kip.
Upon awakening, Squeaks was able to remember it and quickly wrote it down. Over the following weeks, Kip’s reasons for being a coachman became clear. Loving him as she did, Squeaks knew her life would dramatically change. She worried herself many nights thinking about it. Kip’s love finally pulled her through all the decisions she was facing in her future. She wasn’t sure how Kip would ask her to be his wife and be accepted by his family, but she loved him and put her faith in him. Perhaps, it was her place to decline. She knew she could bring nothing to that family but embarrassment. Kip loved her but was he doing right by his heritage?
When they reached his stable, Kip jumped down and walked into his house, leaving Squeaks on the bench. A minute later, he was back, apologizing for not thinking she was there. He tethered the team but did not unharness them.
Squeaks entered his back door behind him. He still wasn’t talking. She found her way to the parlor and sat on a shabby sofa. Suddenly, she had a glass handed to her. She smelled it. It was scotch. She hadn’t much liked that drink, yet. Kip settled in a chair across from her.
“I think I am ready to hear about your dream,” Said Kip, pinching the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb.
“Does that mean that my vision is confirmed. I have my own doubts, too.”
“Yes, you were right on all points. Proceed.”
“First, I want to say, we would have been great friends. She was a beautiful and warm person. She showed me how close the two of you were. It was through those images that I made my guess about possibly a noble heritage.” Still sipping his drink, Squeaks watched as Kip’s eyes watered, but he remained attentive and silent.
“I think she loves me, too.”
With that statement, Kip set his glass on the floor, laid his head back on the chair, placing his hands on his face. It seemed an eternity before he spoke.
“I am sure she would have loved you. Is there more?”
“Some. She showed me her death. I have no words strong enough for the gruesome fate she suffered. Mary was not conscious most of the time, so she only showed me small aspects of her ordeal. There were no images of the rape that you mentioned. She made me aware of the suffering that you endured. You don’t know how saddened that made her. She loved you so much that she would not move on until you forgave yourself.”
Kip stood and started pacing the floor listening. He refilled his glass. Returning, he sat beside Squeaks.
“There isn’t much more except she said you have a surprise for me. It pleased her, I think.”
“She teases me from the grave. That sounds like something you would do.” Kip took Squeaks’ drink and swallowed it. Taking her in his arms, he buried his face in her hair and shed his final tears. She wrapped her arms around him the best that she could and held him tight.
“Should I have told you? Will you be happy now that you know?”
“No one can understand how I feel. The two women whom I have loved most seemed to meet each other in a dream I never had. Both women care and love me. The passing of one led to the coming of the other.
“I still want to marry you, but that’s impossible.” Squeaks looked forlorn. “I don’t think I will accept. I would bring untold awkwardness to your family to speak nothing of your long ancestry. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks.”
“My father has given me his blessing. It wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t. My love for you is so deep, I shall never see daylight. You possess me. Wait . . . what do you mean, impossible?”
“Do you know of other marriages by nobles in our situation? I mean marrying into a different class?”
“Yes, there are many instances down through history where the couple married for love. It was most difficult for the females as they would follow the commoner’s way of life if they had little wealth. Sons born into nobility suffered little if any long term effect. I cannot say it will be easy, but I made that decision when I left home and became a coachman. I will still inherit my title, and you will gain one as well.”
“Will I have to take a test of some sort? I don’t even know what the second fork is used for. Can you see me setting an example for staff?”
Kip sat there laughing. “Eventually, you will learn those proper ways and a bit of our history, too.”
“Not history about those red and white roses and which King followed another King? However, I do know which King was the last one to ride into battle with his warriors.”
“That would be Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. See, you are on your way.”
Squeaks’ smile spread across her small face. “Do you think people will call us ‘Tall and Small?”
Kip laughed. “That’s entirely possible from our mates.”
“Am I too small for you?”
“It won’t be easy to kiss you being a foot below me. I shall endeavor not to trip over you. Do you have any other meaning? Wait …you mean something else, don’t you?”
Squeaks looked down at her hands in her lap, hoping he would know what she meant. Kip released a roar of laughter as her remark became clear. “Are you hinting at step five?”
“I think so.” Squeaks couldn’t look into his face.
“Probably. The doctor will have to examine us both. I’ve been working up the courage to see a specialist and … and … have things … umm … reduced.” Kip thought he would die watching the expression of horror on her face. Then he realized she could be serious and smiled.
“Never mind the doctor, I’ll take care of that myself.” Squeaks folded her arms and sulked. “Where is my surprise?”
“Hold on my little prodigy. What do you mean you’ll take care of that yourself?”
“I know where the gelding tool is,” she laughed.
“Patience, milady. Those are harsh words for someone who belongs on a tuffet. And, you have your surprise. I am sure Mary was aware of your Kipling livery which you are wearing.”
He smirked. “Just, oh?”
“Take me to your bed.”
“We can kiss fine right here.”
“Will you at least light the fire?”
“Which fire would that be? There’s seems to be plenty of heat to go around.”
“Why are you making this so difficult? Most of the time, you want to hold me until I can no longer breathe. Why are you teasing me?”
“Because I love you and I am happy. This day will never come again. Let us not let it slip through our fingers too quickly. The first thing you must know, which your father is correct, is that at this particular juncture, the man makes the first advancement and likely all the others. You cannot have your way at this point. You have no experience.”
“Doesn’t it come naturally or are you saying a woman isn’t capable?”
“If that’s the way you want it. Fine. I’ll light the fire, and you can begin.”
“I don’t think so. You wanted it, now you’ve got it. You must strike while the fire is hot, but you knew that, of course.”
“But our iron never cools. All right.” While Kip was building a fire, Squeaks removed her tails. boots, hose, and cravat. She laid the still unopened gold watch on a side table.
Kip rose from the fire pit and turned around. Seeing squeaks without tails and boots, he remarked, “Off to a poor beginning, I see. I’m sorry. Do continue. What would you wish me to do? Dress down to where you are?”
“Yes … er … no.”
“Should we start kissing?”
Kip spit out laughter. “Soon, huh? All right.” He stood there in front her watching the modicum of intellect and woman’s intuition work it’s magic while wearing a frown.
Squeaks approached him. She stood on the sofa and pulled him back to her where she removed his tails. She laid them nicely over the back of a chair.
“How am I doing?”
“Poorly?” She turned him toward her and pulled his shirt from his trousers.
“I beg your pardon, milady. You are halfway through and haven’t even found the beginning. Where is the passion? Why are our desires not building? Where is the titillating kiss to my mouth or the side of my neck? Where is the excitement in your eyes instead of that frown? When does my arousal arrive? Why can’t I stop laughing at this?”
Squeaks sat down on the sofa feeling dejected. “My father said I was headstrong like my mother.”
“He is a wise man, that Clyde. The beginning of lovemaking comes from the heart and body, not the mind. You’re thinking of what to do, not reacting to what you feel.”
Kip sat beside her and lifted her chin with his finger. She was still frowning. He encouraged her to stand in front of him. He removed her skirt, leaving her trousers and shirt. He removed his own boots and hose.
Squeaks was lifted to his lap, facing him. He kissed her sweetly and pointed to his cravat. Squeaks did the honors. “You see, I would have liked to have removed your clothes. However, … there are still a few more. They’re all going this time. Did not that kiss begin stirrings?” He pulled her shirt from her trousers.
“This is convenient, isn’t it? We have the same livery.”
“Not quite, Sweets.”
Kip pulled her fiercely to his mouth, savoring her soft sounds. He heard her breath escape. Again, he took her mouth and pressed for entry. She accepted his advance as she wrapped her arms around his neck. Slowly, disorientation took hold for her. She felt her shirt giving quarter. Kip smothered her mouth with devouring hunger. His lips were warm and wet, and they covered her mouth. He lightly nipped and sucked on her bottom lip before parting her lips with his tongue. Kip was pulling her face hard against his. He tightened her to his frame, introducing his rigid manhood to her. He unpinned her hair.
Removing her shirt, Kip saw the new corset. Her ivory shoulders, neck, and cleavage unfolded before him causing his heart to start hammering even faster. Kip wrapped his arms around her backside and, with a sustained pressure she was powerless to resist, moved her high and hard against him. He positioned himself at the apex of her thighs.
She softly moaned and closed her eyes. Squeaks fell softly against his chest. He had longed to show her what she was capable of feeling. Her journey was beginning.
He stood Squeaks up and removed his trousers and hers. She was barely conscious of what was happening. He set her down before she fell and unlaced her corset that bound her beautiful breasts, leaving her in the lace knickers he had bought for her. Kip leaned back against the sofa and brought her to his lap once again. The smooth ivory neck that had beckoned him for weeks was within reach. As he kissed and licked her neck, his hands found her breasts. He kneaded her softly while his thumbs gently massaged the pink beaded tips, eliciting cooing sounds from her. As he held her, he felt her muscles lose all resistance.
Drawing one nipple into his mouth, a gasp was heard while he savored her. She became a ragdoll with her head listing to one side. She was exquisite in her response to him. With no shame, he pulled her against him once again, rocking her; spilling himself.
Kip lifted her in his arms and laid Squeaks in front of the fire; then slipped off his and her undergarments.
He paused, wanting to hold this image with the flames from the fire casting their shadows against her porcelain skin. Kneeling, he gently nudged her thighs apart.
Squeaks, with much humility, tried to decline but when Kip’s mouth covered hers, she unlocked the gate.
“Kip, I’m afraid.”
“I know you are. Have I hurt you in any way?” He whispered into her ear.
“No, but this is embarrassingly intimate. In my dreams of this moment, I didn’t feel this hesitation.”
“This is the other part of your life that you have waited twenty years to experience. Do you wish me to stop? There will come a time when I cannot. That will happen to you, as well, if I am competent,” he smiled.
“My nerves are all tingly.”
“Then I am competent. That is desire building. I am way ahead of you in that area of passion, but I am taking my time with you, and drawing out every ounce of pleasure you can sustain. I love your every sound, gasp and moan. I wait to see your body move in reaction to how I please you. A man in love lives for that.”
“When is step five? I want something more. My muscles are tightening. I feel heat. I am very aware that your knees are between my thighs right now.”
“Sweets, this is only the overture. My heart has begun its strumming. Soon you will become my violin. I will tune your pitch and play your sensual strings. They will vibrate and quiver for me. I will hold you there and sustain your ascent.
“Isn’t it supposed to hurt?”
“It should be of short duration and only moderately discomforting. We’re not near there yet.”
“Well, can you not do something about my fidgeting? It almost hurts. Please! Do something.”
I want to laugh so badly right now. She doesn’t know how amusing she can be. I will not let her spoil her finest moments.
Kip had to bite his lip watching her frown at him. Immediately, he covered her mouth to quiet her. The kiss was violent, his tongue was thrusting into her, sweeping her mouth, nibbling her lips and then he was gone.
Squeaks next conscious moment found him suckling her breasts, First one and then the other.”
“Oh, Kip. You’re doing that really makes me aware of myself in … umm … in another place.”
“I love you telling me what you feel.”
Kip slid down and took his first lick through the curls. Squeaks jerked and arched her back without her own knowledge. He nudged her legs further apart. Her succulent little button was waiting for his attention. He lifted her to his mouth while holding her steady. Her hands were in his hair and then on his shoulders trying to push him away.
“Do horses do this? I’m embarrassed. “Her voice was whiney, and her face grimaced with confusion.
“Don’t push me away. Don’t think I don’t love doing this to you. I would live here if I could. This brings me as much pleasure as it will to you. I want this so badly for both of us. Try to lay still.”
“You must be jesting. Oh, my God,” Squeaks shrieked as Kip began in earnest.
Slowly and gently, he licked and suckled her womanhood, drawing out her pleasure for many long minutes. Her body movements slowed as she lost her inhibitions. When her sounds of breathing accelerated, she began to lightly thrash. He knew she was entering delirium.
“Talk to me. I don’t know what this feels like for you.” Kip knew she only existed in the world he was creating with the tip of his tongue. She was lost, and only he could guide her home.
She clung to him as intoxication coursed through her. Her gasps and moans had quickened. Her legs were quivering. “I’m … lost … my god.”
Everything crested with the intense pleasure rolling through her until her consciousness existed on a different plain.
The sensation, so shattered her, that she called Kip’s name in alarm. “Kip!”
Her bountiful breasts were heaving as Kip watched her floating back to the awareness of her own existence.
“You went over the precipice of desire, sweets. I wanted you to experience the ecstasy of my loving you.” Kip pulled her up against his body, wrapping his arms tightly around her. Kissing her madly and possessively. She was weakened, disoriented, legs still shaking, bosom heaving. “You had better get used to this.”
She slumped against him, breathing hard, still gulping air.
Kip looked at her lost little face, her unfocused eyes and scattered hair. “Are you ready for the final act?”
“Final act?” Squeaks whined, still being adrift.
“I love that smile on your face. It must mean I am competent. There’s more my sweet.”
“I will never live through it. Am I really smiling? I need rest. My nerves and withers aren’t ready for another fight.”
“A fight? I thought I was pleasuring you.”
“Too much so, unlike anything … ah … er … anything at all. You did that to me. You made me soar out of my world. I tried to fight it, but I lost control of myself.”
“You are supposed to lose control of yourself and all else. I wanted you to cast off all earthly feelings and exist just for me.”
“There is nothing that approaches where you sent me. One feels unworthy of such bliss.”
“No, my love. That’s one way a man shows his woman his love for her. I need to possess you, and that is inborn and cannot be denied me.”
“And there’s more? Of course! You storm my battlements, and run me through with your sword.”
“Don’t say it like that That isn’t romantic talk. You’ll make me self-conscious. This is my branding, I mentioned.”
She’s going to make me laugh before this is over. That will not do.
Kip laid her back down and lowered himself to her moist opening. Nudging her legs again, he took the first light touch. Squeaks put her hands through his hair.
It took no time for Squeaks to regain her feminine longing. She started to tremble.
Kip knew she was prepared to receive him. He lifted up, placing himself at the door of dreams. He inserted himself partially and Squeaks clenched herself there. It was heavenly for him. She was small, though.
“Are you all right so far?”
“Yes. I want you inside of me no matter how it feels.”
Kip thrust further meeting her virginity. Looking into her eyes, he pushed through the barrier, as he watched her eyes squeeze tightly and a grimace appeared. There was only a small moan from her. He continued until he was fully immersed in her velvet sheath.
“The worst is over. Are you still feeling well?”
“Yes,” she replied with closed eyes and a raspy voice.
Kip began his thrusting movement slowly, allowing her body to take him smoothly and without fear. Her pleasure should start any moment … and it did.
“Feel me, my love. Enjoy me.” He saw the smile appear. His movements increased. Squeaks began to rise up to meet him, encouraging a faster pace. He couldn’t believe this was going to be his life. He watched her closed eyes and face until the moment came. As she moaned out his name, he completed his own release with a shudder, after her.
Nothing exists but this moment.
Moments passed with only the sound of panting from them both.
“Hail, the Conquering Hero!” Squeaks whispered aloud.
He kissed her deeply as she lay there breathing hard. “I love you so very much.” Kip moved to the side, so she could take her air. “Ever since I’ve known you, I have dreamed of this, our first time together.”
“How did we do, Kip?”
“The question is, how did I do?” he asked her.
“You couldn’t tell? Why are you smiling?”
“You are the most sensuous, responsive and beautiful person in my life.
They stayed in each other’s arms for almost an hour. Squeaks dozed for a bit, and Kip was making plans for the future in his mind. Nothing ever in his life could match this day. From the Steeplechase until now. He must marry her soon. Chances were slim that she was pregnant this first time, but he wanted her in his bed.
Kip slipped from the hearth area and brought back a cloth and a basin of water. He had washed and brought fresh water for Sweets.
Missing him, she slowly came awake.
“I am going to clean you.” He waited for a denial; it didn’t come. He sat beside her with the wet cloth. As he parted her thighs to clean her, there was evidence of her innocence. “You know, you were right.”
“I was. About what?”
“About riding astride. You were still intact. Although, we both knew that before seeing it.”
“Will you stop saying that. You make me laugh every time. This is a moment I have waited my whole life to do. Don’t spoil it for me. Let me see, here. Yes, you’re clean. Let’s get you out off this floor.”
“It’s mussed. I don’t want you lying here.”
“What will your cleaning lady think?”
“I’ll dispose of this small carpet.”
“Good. With your noble history, I don’t want that going up on some trophy wall.”
“What am I going to do with you? Hurry up and get dressed. I have something to show you.”
“Is it the watch?”
“Well … almost.”
Kip slipped her watch into his pocket and walked her out to his stable.
“This is a grand stable, Kip.”
“This is our grand stable, Sweets.”
“This tack room is suffocating with horse accessories, oils, lotions, and the like,” Squeaks said as she paraded around the room.
“Are you sure you will marry me?” Squeaks asked.
“And we share everything?”
“Yes, as we did this most fervid afternoon.”
“So, does that mean that I get either Warrior or Soldier or half of both?”
“Well, as much as I love you, I cannot give you my horses.”
“So, I come second in your life?”
“What is that noise. Oh, that’s the horse you are stabling for a friend, right?”
“Right. Care to see him?”
The two walked down to the end of the stable holding hands.
“Oh, Kip! It’s another Friesian and he’s white. He’s beautiful. He’s young. He’s exquisite. What’s his name?”
“Who? Whose is it? Is it mine? Is it mine?” Squeaks was jumping up and down.
“He’s yours, Rebecca. All yours,” Kip smiled, never seeing her so glowing. “You know, I am quite put out that you should look more radiant now than about half an hour ago.”
“Oh! Well, being both the most magnificent gifts in my life, I have to say that Hero will last longer,” she giggled.
“I guess we will just have to see about that. I’m not called the Almighty for nothing,” he gleamed. He took her hand and walked her into the stall where Hero was, pulled her to his chest and kissed her long and lovingly.
“Hero is too much. I can’t parade around with a horse like him.”
“I have money. You know that now. I’ve wanted you to have one almost since I’ve known you.”
“When can I ride him?”
“He’s saddle ready but too young to pull a carriage. You can take him home today, tied to the coach, but you should work him first.”
“Oh, Kip. Thank you. Thank you. What a day this has been. One life-turning event after another. You’ve made me the happiest woman in the world. Please, no more gifts. As wonderful as they are, I am not used to being showered with presents. I will become selfish quite quickly. Let me take the time to get acquainted with your lifestyle. Don’t spoil me anymore. I mean that. Can I have my watch now?”
Kip pulled the chain and watch from his pocket, laughing and smiling at her, while he swung it before her eyes.
Squeaks grabbed at it with both hands and slowly opened the back case where the engraved words were revealed.
Reign over my Reins,
My Beloved Rebecca
You Are My Life
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.
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.
“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.
Early the next morning, Clyde and his friend Dirk were down at the field ensuring the proper set up for the steeplechase. Fences were being pounded into the ground, and ditches were being filled with water. The course was a half mile long, but the entrants would circle the course four times, making it a total two-mile run.
Bradley and Squeaks were doing the final grooming on Regent, a purebred Arabian, Lord Stokes’s personal horse, who had done some flat racing by a former owner. As Squeaks entered her late teens, she took to Regent and began working with him. Her father told her with what she had taught Regent, she should show well in the race today. It would be their first race together. She was nervous.
“Bradley, do a nice job on that tail. I’m almost done with his mane. Did you feed him lightly this morning?”
“Yes. Gee, look at him gleaming in the sun.”
“He’s beautiful. I wish His Lordship would ride him once again.”
“What next Squeaks?”
“Rub down his leg muscles, and then run him in the paddock, while I get ready. Do we still have those horse brasses that no one knew what they were meant for?”
“Yeah, I know where they are. You want them?”
“Yes. I will be down within half an hour.”
Kip was dressed in his gentleman driver outfit, boots, and top hat. The Queen Mary was spotless, flowers were in the vases, and the drapes clean and pressed. Inside he placed his new formal attire, sporting a black velvet collar, and embroidered cuffs which matched Squeaks. The top hats were also made of the same velvet set off by a purple hat band. This was one of his family crest colors, and he wanted to fit it in somewhere. Squeaks would have a bundle of purple chiffon bows at the rear hat band. The bow ended in two scarf ribbons, hanging down about a foot from the band. It gave it a very feminine look. He designed it. Perhaps a Kipling livery line would be in his future. He had worked all this through the seamstress he had visited one day. The seamstress suggested small darts be sewn in. Kip wondered what she meant. She told him that wearing a man’s straight coat would not accentuate her female allurements. He readily agreed to the darts. When he went to fetch the clothing, the seamstress said she had never sewn so elegant yet understated attire. Kip was glad to hear this as that was exactly the image he wanted. Be seen but not seen. He placed his harness brasses and an etched leather bridle in the coach.
Ion would arrive at the parade site at lunchtime. He had his own formal attire, but Kip had a matching top hat made for him. Kip brushed his Friesians one more time before leaving.
Squeaks arrived on Regent and placed him in the temporary paddock with all the horses. She walked over to see her father and Dirk, sitting at the entrant’s table.
“Excuse me, gentleman, I wish to enter the steeplechase event.”
Her father looked at her and said, “Sorry, no women allowed.” Then he and Dirk broke out laughing. “Yes, my child, you are entered. I know I will be a proud father today no matter your placement. You are causing quite a stir among the single gentlemen here. In fact, all of them, I believe. We’re always being asked if you are participating in anything. I think several have signed up just to ride with you. Little do they know that you’re a jumper.”
“Father, I forgot to tell you. I will ride with Kip in the Grand Parade.”
“I’ve been waiting to hear that. I figured you two would enter.”
“He asked me yesterday. When he came to dinner, he brought a box with a beautiful livery for me.”
“I hope that man isn’t going into debt over you.” Clyde knew that Kip was a noble and money was no problem.
“He wanted to give me a gold watch, but I told him to return it.”
“A gold watch?” Stammered Dirk.
“Father, can I borrow yours until the parade is over?”
Clyde pulled on the chain and slipped the watch off his vest, giving it to Squeaks.
Dirk remarked, “I haven’t seen Kip yet. Does he have any other events?”
“I don’t think so. Only the final one.”
Matthew and Marc crept up behind Squeaks and tapped her on the shoulder. “How are you today, Miss?” Asked Marc.
“I am feeling rather gay. I plan to enter the steeplechase.” Squeaks saw them grinning. She stood there proudly with her leather pants, dark-green wool blazer, and her red tam, which she cocked to the side. They didn’t believe her. Kip had never mentioned it because he didn’t know it either. They were in for a show, whether she placed well or not. Her biggest excitement was having Lord Stokes see his horse in the race.
“I guess you have a fair chance in that one as any other.”
“Why are you smiling?”
“Well, we have a few steeplechasers that are now drivers. You will have competition.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“Have you seen Kip today?”
“No, but I know he intended to watch the steeplechase race.”
“That’s good. He should be here soon, then. They’re having the open event now. Want to go watch?”
“I might as well,” she said, as they walked down the slope that overlooked the large field. “Exactly what is the open?”
“Any horseman may show off any stunts that he can do with his horse. It’s amazing what these animals can be taught. Judging is difficult for this one. I see many of the lords are beginning to show up with their stables for the Grand ending. I am sure Kip will be entered in that one. He’ll have some big competition with the in-service stables and coaches. He has a chance, though. At least, he should finish in the top five and get a horse brass as a prize.”
Lord Stokes arrived at the tented table with Dirk and Clyde. “Well gents, how is the derby faring?”
Both immediately stood and were signaled to be seated. “Your Lordship, I think you have an excellent event to be associated with. There have been few disputes over the judging. The coachmen are having a grand time. I hear there may be more in-service entrees next year. Even though the prizes are small, they seem to covet them.”
“Sir, I have made no promises to anyone. I have heard mumblings about ‘I’ll beat you next year’ and words like that. I think the steeplechase will have more entrants than expected and plenty of on-lookers.”
“And why is that, do you think?”
“Because our Squeaks rides in that one.”
“Does she now? When is that?”
“This open event is nearly over. There will be a half-hour pause to set up the steeplechase obstacles in the big viewing field. When they are completed, a horn will be blown, calling all participants.”
“I shall stay to watch this myself. Is that Lord Clayton over there?”
“Yes, sir. Many Lords are coming in for the final Grand event.”
“This is becoming more attractive by the moment. I shall take a stroll.”
Squeaks was watching intently at the open event when Kip sat down behind her. He easily looked over her head, seeing Matthew and Mark, “Morning mates.”
“Good morning, Kip.”
“There are darts in my coat.”
“Yes, I know. Your seamstress suggested them. I had no idea what they were.”
“Terribly. I told Father, but His Lordship doesn’t know, yet.”
“Did you know you will drive, too?”
“No! No, I didn’t know that. How is that to work?”
“After the opening speech, we take the coach. Each one of us will parade around the ring. You will go first. I will go last to finish any other movements they wish us to make after the ring trot. Trot. You must trot.”
“I understand that after the steeplechase, while all are eating, several deep holes will be left from the previous race. You will have to deftly go around them.”
“Do others know?”
“I don’t know. I believe all the independents do.”
“Is that fair?”
“It wouldn’t matter. They should be trained to look for such hazards all the time. There may be others that I don’t even know about. We’re not out there solely to look pretty.”
“Squeaks, can we have our private talk after this is over. I need to know if you will accept my suggestion.”
“Yes, to my suggestion, or yes to our meeting?”
Just then the steeplechase horn blew.
“I must go. I have to get my horse and get down there. Bradley should have him ready for me.” Squeaks jumped up and ran back to the paddock.
“Kip, aren’t you thrilled for her?”
“Embarrassed,” Kip said, “I never knew she could jump. This is all a surprise to me. I know she is anxious to feel part of the Brotherhood, but she didn’t have to enter this as proof.”
Bradley handed the reins to Squeaks and wished her luck. Once more, he reminded her of the weaving around the barrels in the big field.
“That will be no trouble for Regent.”
Kip and his apostles stood because of the large crowd which had formed ahead of them on the slope. Everyone wanted a higher view which could allow them a bit more visibility into the woods where half of the path led. For once Kip’s height came in very handy.
The trumpet blew, and all the entrants walked in, single file, leading their animal. Squeaks was sixth walking in. The crowd murmured when they saw her. Someone asked if children were allowed in. Someone else said it was a woman, and everyone shouted him down. She must be crazy if that is a woman. She’s wearing a tam. It must be a woman. Kip was grinning from ear to ear, and the apostles kept elbowing each other and laughing.
Kip saw that the horse was a thoroughbred Arabian. “Look at her horse, lads. How will she ever get on it?”
They all laughed. “Ten to one, she’s boosted,” said Lucas.
“I’ll take that bet,” replied Kip. Loser rides rear footman for a night.”
“You’re on. So, how is she going to get on, do you think?”
“I don’t have any idea, but I bet she won’t need any help. They didn’t put a horse block out there for her.”
“Looks like there are about twenty entrees. That seems like a lot to me. I don’t know that many former steeplechasers. Must be a lot of in-service I don’t know about.”
The ring announcer told them to mount their steeds. Kip watched as the rider next to her came over to assist. She curtsied to him but dismissed him. There were murmurs among the crowd. Kip spotted Lord Stokes, Clyde, and Dirk behind him.
As the riders mounted, all eyes were on Squeaks.
“Now, what’s she going to do?” Someone in the crowd asked loudly.
“What is she doing?” Stokes asked Clyde.
“You’ll see, Sir.”
Squeaks walked out in the front of the horse while holding the reins. She tapped her crop on the ground twice. A hush fell over the crowd. As if on cue, Regent got down on his front knees and then went down on his back legs, crouching like a stone lion figure. Squeaks easily slid into the saddle and patted him on the neck, and talked to him. Regent rose majestically into a standing position, and everyone clapped and whistled.
Kip felt so proud of her, he wanted to weep. She won everyone’s heart, not just the drivers.
Lord Stokes puffed out his chest in pride. “She’s on Regent,” he said loud enough for Kip to hear.
“I owe you one, Kip. That was incredible.”
Kip was stuck for words. His heart was pounding so heavily against his chest; he could hear nothing around him.
All the horses lined up at the end of the field, Squeaks felt very smart in her boots, tam, and corduroy vest and wool blazer. As she sat there waiting for the gun to sound, words came back to her. Let the others lead for half the race. She didn’t understand why, but she would let them lead.
The gun sounded, and Squeaks held back while the pack congested itself trying to weave through the barrels. When it cleared, she took off like a shot, catching up to the pack too quickly. The big field had two fences before going into the woods. Five riders went down trying to get over them. Squeaks could see that the pack jostled each other for the lead, therefore, forcing mistakes. Squeaks held back again and even came to a dead stop, before sailing over the first and second fences alone. They turned into the woods where there were men if one fell, was injured or tried to cheat by taking a shorter route.
Squeaks was starting to calm her insides and do more concentrating on the race. “A rider will always see ahead and compensate for something unexpected.” Kip’s words came to her. She passed another three entrants who were thrown into the muddy water jumps. She kept her head down and watched the two jumpers in front of her. If something went wrong with them, she knew to be ready to react. She could tell the jumps easily by their movements. The rider ahead of her was suddenly knocked from his horse by a low hanging branch. Squeaks ducked her head and had to jump the rider on the ground.
Kip and everyone was milling around, waiting for them to come into sight again. The barrels had been removed from the field, and two fences were erected. They were very close together. Kip thought he had never seen anything like that. As the riders came back into the field, only three made it over the close fences. The failed riders were in a pile near the fence when Squeaks came through. The crowd murmured again. She’d never make it.
Squeaks pulled back on her reins, essentially stopping her horse. She trotted him around at the end of the field until the fence was reset and riders were walking away. Squeaks used her riding crop and whipped Regent to a fast start. Everyone thought she was headed too fast to the double fence. At the right moment, she pulled Regen’ts head up, and he flew over both at once. A huge round of applause was heard. People were jumping up and down at the feat, she accomplished.
“Kip,” Mark shook him. “Why aren’t you saying anything?” This is fabulous. Her skills will never be doubted after today.”
“I am too choked up to speak. Excuse me.” Kip had to walk away for a moment to dry his eyes. He happened to catch Lord Stokes doing the same thing behind the crowd. Kip gave him a moment and walked over to him.
“I see we are both overwhelmed by our Squeaks,” said Lord Stokes, seeing the reddened eyes of Kip.
“Where did she learn this?” asked Kip.
“I thought you taught her,”
“Not I, sir. I’ve never done this in my life, only a fox hunt or two. Flat races yes, but not this.”
They both were silent.
The remaining four riders came back into the main viewing field and saw that four fences were erected, each one taking the rider across the field.”
“Here they come,” said Kip. “Oh, dear God, she’s still in the race.”
They both watched as the first rider missed seeing the first fence and had to repeat it or drop out. That put him behind Squeaks. The second rider had no difficulty. Squeaks took her time and was flawless over the fences.
Coming into the third pass, another fence had been added to the center with water on the other side. Very easy to miss if you weren’t watching. Squeaks was second of four. The third jumper passed her and failed the water jump. Squeaks was too close to stop. She approached the water and fence with great care. At the last minute, Regent bounded over the fence and the rider in the water without his hooves kicking the man.
As Squeaks and the two last jumpers left the viewing field, she picked up considerable speed which she had been holding back. She and the horse knew the path now. She had caught up to the first horse and was staying right behind him until the open field at the end. The first jumper began whipping his horse. Steam was coming from the horse’s nostrils. Squeaks pulled alongside him. She gave Regent a small whip on the final part of the field and finished first by a horse length.
Kip turned to his Lordship, and they shook hands. Both were beaming with pride. The crowd was wild. Top hats went sailing in the air. One would have thought it was a betting race. It seemed they all wanted the little woman to win, and she did not disappoint. She managed feats unseen by most people, the double fence, the horse bow and the phenomenal water jump.
The three winners were brought to the center field. Kip couldn’t hear anything being said, but the announcer handed horse brasses to the winners. Apparently, he had plenty to say about Squeaks, which caused the other two winners to applaud her. As Squeaks accepted her prize, she bowed and had Regent bow on one of his front legs. The applause was deafening. Kip could see those cherry dimples from where he stood.
She will be my wife someday.
Finally getting Regent settled, she found her way to the lunch buffet. There was applause as she entered the area. Lord Stokes stood and motioned to her where they were sitting. Squeaks was stopped and congratulated many times on the way to her seat.
His Lordship motioned for her to come sit next to him.
“My dear Squeaks; you have won the day and the hearts of all here. We cannot be prouder of you at this moment. How did you learn to jump?”
“On my own. I’ve had a lot of time in the years before I was allowed on the bench. Father would drive you somewhere, and I would saddle Regent and go riding. You had stopped riding him, and he needed to be worked. You see, it’s all your doing,” she smiled. Everyone laughed.
His Lordship made everyone lift their glasses, and he toasted to her great success. “What did you win, Squeaks?”
She hadn’t looked at it, assuming it was a nice ornament for her horse. Everyone heard her gasp as she read the inscription molded into the brass. She read it aloud. “Squeaks Derby 1867, First Place Steeplechase.”
Everyone applauded. She sat down and ran her fingers over the lettering. The motif was of two knights with lances, charging at each other. Around the edge were the words. Tears came to her eyes, and His Lordship put his arm around her. Her father was slapping her knee.
“This is the first you have seen of these?” Clyde asked.
“Yes, I had no idea. I am so honored.”
“It was His Lordship’s design and derby name.”
Squeaks looked toward Lord Stokes, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the cheek. Everyone grew silent seeing anyone touch His Lordship. But Lord Stokes laughed, and the festive lunch went on.
Several times during their meal, Squeaks caught Kip looking at her. He hadn’t eaten much. He looked worried, and she understood why. Before this day was over, changes will have been made, she told herself.
“Miss Dorset,” Kip called to Squeaks, “You have some explaining to do.” Everyone laughed. “It surprises me that no one knew of your skills in a steeplechase.”
Ion was brushing down the horses when Kip arrived. “Are you ready Ion?”
“That I am. Thank you for picking me to ride with you.”
“Ioan, you match me more than any other, in height, build, and courtesies. I think we make a splendid fit. Someday, I will ride rear for you.”
“Do I take it that the young lady headed this way is second driver?”
Kip turned to see her grinning face. “She is, indeed.” He wanted to sweep her into his arms and smother her with kisses. “Congratulations, Miss Dorset on a spectacular race. His Lordship and I were speechless. Perhaps you will teach me a trick or two.”
“I will be most honored to do that, Mr. Kipling.”
“This is Ioan, our breast-less footman. I think we had better change.”
“Does everyone know that story?” Squeaks asked.
“Yes,” replied Ioan with a smile.
“I will change in Lord Stokes’s carriage over there.”
“All right. We have a lot of competition in this one.”
“I see all the in-service teams that I have come to know. I don’t think they hold a candle to you. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Kip climbed in and made fast work of getting redressed. The crease in his trousers was razor sharp. He had to feel his cravat without the mirror. His boots shined, and his watch gleamed. He packed his old clothes in a satchel and put it in the rear box. As he stepped out, Ioan whistled.
“Kip, I would think you were a noble dressed as you are. I want the name of your tailor.”
Kip laughed. He reached in pulled out the two velvet top hats. Ioan was taken aback.
“Kip, this is magnificent. Please let me pay for it.”
“No, it’s my payment to you for today.”
“Don’t forget Ioan, you are first on the coach after lighting the torches.”
“Yes, sir. Will do.”
Kip looked over Ioan’s shoulder and saw a dream walking towards him. She was majestic. As she neared, both Kip and Ioan removed their hats and bowed. “Your Ladyship,” said Kip as he replaced his hat. Squeaks curtsied, and they laughed.
“Turn around and let me see it.”
“I want my hat. Those are beautiful with the purple bands.”
“I said, turn . . . around.”
As she twirled, she looked beautiful, but he laughed when he saw the silver watch, which was too big for her.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Give it to me and wear this one.” Kip pulled the gold watch from his pocket and fitted it on her. He took the silver one and put it in her pocket.”
Kip looked into Squeaks eyes, and he wanted to die. He wanted to drown in those light blues.
“Ready for your hat?”
“Since last night.”
Kip pulled out the very feminine hat with the chiffon bows and tails.
Squeaks gasped, and so did Ioan.
She took it slowly into her hands and turned it around and around and kept looking it over. Kip watched her amazement.
“I designed that, I’ll have you know.”
“Kip, it is stunning. I don’t want to wear it. I just want to sit and look at it,” she smiled.
“Well, here …” Kip took it from her and snugged it on her head. “We have to get moving. You see all the other carriages are moving.”
Squeaks adjusted her hat, looked at the coach, and stepped up the wheel peg.
Ioan had lit the lanterns and Kip was coming aboard.
“Kip you have a new set of reins and halter. They’re etched. And you have jewelry on them. I hope we can win a horse brass for you.”
“I would like one of your brasses very much. Here we go.”
Kip reined his beautiful blacks into the procession. There did not seem to be any particular order. He only saw a few independents, and none of them had second drivers or footmen. The more opulent in-service coaches were a mix of single drivers or two drivers. Very few had footmen, which surprised him. They were led into a formation where they parked their team only several feet from the next one. Kip realized that was on purpose. That was a feat they were looking at. Would the horses grouped close together spook the team? There were twenty-two entries.
They were asked to leave their brakes off and come to ground so everyone could see the drivers and their livery uniforms. Kip saw two other independents that were dressed smartly but not in formal tails.
As they entered the field together, as a threesome, the crowd grew loud. He knew they had spotted Squeaks. Once all were seen, they were told to bow, but Squeaks curtsied, which brought small laughter to the crowd. Next, they were to walk half of the field, but the teams were expected to stand still. Two teams and their coaches moved to follow their drivers and were immediately eliminated.
All the drivers turned and could use any method to draw their team to them. Kip split the air with a whistle, which Soldier and Warrior answered immediately. They were the first team to move to their driver. They stopped in front of Kip and stood still. More than half of the remaining riders had never taught their horses to come on command. They were eliminated.
“Kip, there’s only seven of us left,” Squeaks whispered out of her smiling face.
The other two independents were still in.
“Squeaks, independent horses respond to whistles every day. We had an advantage there.”
It was called out that single drivers and second drivers were to mount the box, followed by the first driver and footman. There were no teams left with a rear footman.
One of the field handlers, indicated to coach number one to begin the parade around the ring. Then the second coach was alerted and so on until all seven were ringing the field with their second driver. Again, the crowd began murmuring when seeing a small woman manage a coach and turning two large horses. One single coachman used a whip to keep his team in line. He was asked to leave the field.
“Kip they’re really judging the driver and the horses independently.”
“As they should. You are doing splendidly. Keep smiling.”
Clyde was standing next to Lord Stokes when he spotted Squeaks. “You didn’t tell me Squeaks was in this. She looks so beautiful and all grown up.”
“Sir, I only found out about this before lunch.”
“Just look at their stunning livery. Kip spared nothing. They look regal out there.”
“That they do, Your Lordship.”
The six remaining coaches were stopped close to the on-lookers so they could have an opportunity to see them. The announcer then told the audience that at the end, they would be the judges of the Grand Team. Everyone clapped to know they would take part.
The teams were directed to change drivers if there was a second.
Another team was eliminated because the two men crossed in front of each other in the box. Kip and Squeaks and one other team stepped to the ground. The first driver went around the rear of the coach and the second driver passed the heads of the horses. In tandem, they both climbed the wheels, which indicated their passenger was balanced. Once ready to begin a new round, they were surprised that each coach was presented a real passenger.
A lady and gentleman walked up to each coach. Kip saw what was happening and told Ioan to tend them, which he was doing. Ioan was perfect as Kip and Squeaks kept their heads straight ahead. Ioan opened the door, lowered the step mechanism and offered his arm to the lady. He raised the step, waiting for the signal to close the door and then closed it.
The final two passes around the ring began, but they were ordered closer to the fence. It was only moments into the trot that Kip saw the first ground hole that a team in front of him had been dragged through. He didn’t know about the ones in front of that one, as his eyes were on the ground. The crowd became very attentive to the coach and team, perhaps now understanding what drivers endure.
Suddenly, a half dozen men on horseback, dressed as highwaymen, galloped into the ring and tried to disturb the drivers or the team. Kip was smooth as glass, and so were Warrior and Soldier. No other team reacted well-behaved. The horsemen were rearing their horses or traveling face on towards them. They tried to edge the competing teams against the fence. Squeaks thought this was a nightmare.
“Am I supposed to be helping you in any way?” Squeaks asked. “Should I pull out the pistol and shoot?”
“Do any have masks on?” Kip asked.
“Two of them do. I can’t believe this is happening.”
Kip started laughing.
“One is headed this way, Kip.”
“All right, let’s give them a show. Reach down under the seat and find the pistol. Wait until I say go, then point the pistol in the air and fire.”
“Yes, really. I am having so much fun; I don’t care if we lose for this.”
As the masked man drew closer, Kip pulled his team out of formation and whipped them into a gallop. The audience was stunned. He was watching for holes while Ioan shouted about the masked man.
“He’s getting closer. Definitely in pistol range,” Ioan yelled.
Squeaks stood, holding onto Kip’s shoulder and fired the pistol into the air; not once but twice.
The onlookers were astonished. The masked man rode away, and Kip pulled his coach to a stop. Both he and Ioan went to each side of the coach to see to their passengers.
“By God, that was fun,” said the gentleman inside.
Kip tipped his hat and returned to the procession which was coming to an end.
“Are they going to dismiss us, Kip?”
“I don’t know. I bet they didn’t expect us to react that way, but it was the right thing to do in that situation.”
As they pulled the coaches to a stop, they parked facing the gathered crowd. The announcer said the course designers had that activity planned in but didn’t expect such an exciting ending.
There was no question as to the winner. Even the remaining drivers came down to shake their hands.
The announcer walked in front of each coach team and asked for applause. The standing ovation went to the Trevor Kipling Stable.
Kip was presented with a gold ornament for his team. It wasn’t the usual brass. Ioan and Squeaks did receive the brass ones. Kip shook Ioan’s hand and looked down at Squeaks. He picked her up about a foot off the ground and spun her around and around.
“We must make our closing bows. Ready?”
As the applause continued, Ioan and Kip bowed, holding their hats and Squeaks curtsied. The crowd was quite vocal about the winners. Squeaks disappeared from the center and went to exit their passengers. Everyone laughed.
The riders mounted their coaches and slowly walked from the field as the crowd began to disperse.
“Squeaks, you have given me the grandest day of my life. Thank you.”
“Of course, it is the same for me, and the day isn’t even over.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?”
“Let’s go to your home to talk and kiss.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather I take you home?”
“I am sure. I am sure about a lot of things.”
“You know kisses get us in trouble.”
Kip smiled. “Well, they can get me in trouble, then. You seem to want to leave me with all the responsibility of control.”
“I don’t do anything. I have no control over anything, do I? You once said that you would take over the handling and for me to only talk to the women about feelings. Father said that men are usually the dominant ones or something like that.”
“Yes, but you let me.”
“Let you do what? I don’t know what’s coming so how I can I let you? It’s a wonder you can control your own team,” she giggled.
Kip dangled his gold horse brass in front of her face. Looking sideways at her, he could see the cherub face. “I think you are toying with my affections. I bet you are sore from that steeplechase.”
“No, I’m not.” Squeaks quickly replied.
“So … kisses only, then. Am I correct?” He watched her hands as she constantly intertwined her fingers. She was nervous. “You seem a bit jumpy about something.”
“No, I’m not. I’m not.”
“If you’re sure then.”
“I think I said I was sure, just a moment ago.”
“Excuse me. You did say that. Maybe I’m the one who is nervous.”
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 …”
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!