Hearts Adrift – Part Nine

Chapter Nine

Lucian’s carriage was a large chaise-and-four, drawn by four splendidly matching greys. It would cover the twenty-three miles in less than three hours. They were heading for Lucian’s estate, Whitehaven, near Romney in Kent.

Jéhan was fast asleep, snuggled up in a blanket against Lucian. Jake was sitting next to the coachman on the bench, while Manon and Richard occupied the bench opposite Lucian.

Night had fallen, and as the carriage rolled on through the quiet countryside, Manon felt her body go limp with fatigue. Her head lolled as her eyes grew heavy, and eventually, she could no longer stay awake. Richard carefully caught her and drew her close to him, so that her head rested against his shoulder. By then, Manon was already asleep.

With Manon safely settled against him, Richard could finally sit back and breathe. They had made it to England and to safety. The first part of his promise to his dying father had been fulfilled.

“She is truly exquisite, Rich.” Lucian’s mellow tenor voice snapped Richard back into reality. He lifted a mocking eyebrow and teased, “I am happy to see that your eyesight is still in good order, Luke!”

“So, tell me, are you her guardian as well as her uncle?” Richard nodded briefly. “Why do you want to know?”

“I want your permission to court her. She is lovely and sweet. I am at an age when I should settle and start a family. Manon is a de Briers – if not in name, then surely by blood. She is a suitable match and besides, we would become family, Rich.”

“Oh, and you know that a quarter of an hour after meeting her? Is that not a bit premature, Luke?”

“That is why I am asking you, if I am allowed to pay her a proper court, Rich.”

Mixed feelings formed in Richard’s mind about his friend’s proposal. Of course, Manon would have to be introduced in society, and, beautiful as she was, she would capture the attention of many young bucks in search of a wife. It was not that Richard was opposed to Blackthorne as a potential husband to Manon. She would reach her majority on the third of October, which was in a little over three months. On her twenty-first birthday, Manon would come into her own fortune, which amounted to twenty thousand pounds. In his will, Sir Robert de Briers had bestowed the part of his money, that would have come to Manon’s mother Lily on Manon herself. Once the inheritance became hers, Manon would be free to choose her own path, yet she would also be subject to any fortune hunter that crossed her path. Therefore, Richard would try to protect her, whatever the cost, and the best way to do that was to find a suitable husband for her. Luke Blackthorne was a prime candidate for his niece and Richard would love to have him in the family as his nephew by marriage, since they were long-time friends.

No, it was something entirely different that made Richard reluctant to give his permission for a courtship. The notion that another man – any other man than Richard himself – would have the exquisite pleasure of having Manon at his side for the rest of his life was abhorrent to him. He rejected the idea as soon as it presented itself, because and here, he dared not formulate his thoughts; it caused him unbearable pain. To be condemned to a life without Manon, to be forced to watch from afar while she made some lucky devil the happiest man in the world, proved unthinkable. However, it had to be just so. Manon had a right to seek and find her place in the world. So he pushed his rebellious thoughts aside and considered the matter in a rational manner.

“Look,” he said, his voice even, “Manon has a long way to go yet before she is fit to move about in British society. She is like an uncut diamond, Luke. She has been brought up in Paris, in a shop, and has no notion of what is required of a gentlewoman. Give me a couple of months … say half a year, to educate her. After that, I would be happy to welcome you as her suitor.”

“Fair enough,” Lucian grinned. “I admit that you are right in the matter of Manon’s necessary education, yet I refuse to stay away from her for six months. I can help with her education, Rich, and you know that. So prepare yourself for the notion that I will not be far away from Bearsham Manor in the next half-year.”

 

When the carriage rolled through the wrought-iron gates of Whitehaven, Richard gently shook Manon awake. “We have arrived, niece,” he whispered in her ear. She slowly came to her senses, but shied away when she saw where she had been.

“Uncle, forgive me. I did not know I was…”

“Think nothing of it,” Richard interrupted, before she said something that might embarrass them both. Nonetheless, when he caught Lucian’s gaze, Richard could not help noticing the strange expression on his friend’s face. Bugger, he thought. He would have to be much more careful in his dealings with Manon, lest the shrewd Lucian grasp the way matters were lying.

Since Lucian had sent word of their estimated time of arrival, the butler, the housekeeper and a lady’s maid stood to attention in the hall. Manon, still heavy-lidded from her nap, only vaguely noticed her surroundings. She was all too happy to have the maid, a pretty blonde by the name of Bessy, bring her to an upstairs bedchamber and help her into her nightclothes. The maid had produced a delicate, white, satin nightgown with a deep neckline, and a matching dressing gown. However, Manon was too tired to pay much attention to it.

“Do you require anything else, miss?” Bessy asked, dipping a neat curtsy. “Shall I bring you something to eat?”

“No, thank you, Bessy,” Manon replied. “I am quite exhausted and shall go to bed this instant.”

When she lay down onto the thick, soft mattress, she immediately sank into a deep sleep.

 

Manon woke with a start from a dream she could not quite recall but which left her in turmoil. Her heart was beating fast and irregularly, and she was perspiring all over her body. Jéhan! Where was he? With a muffled cry, Manon jumped out of bed and ran to the door of her bedchamber. She was standing on the landing, confused and forlorn, before she realised she had no inkling where to find her brother in this strange house. Dieu! Why had she not asked His Lordship where Jéhan’s room was?

She went back into her own room, lit a candle and donned the pretty dressing gown Bessy had laid out for her. The thick carpet covering the parquet muffled the sound of her footsteps. She descended the stairs and looked around the hall. It was not overly large but quite elegant with its soft grey hangings and wallpaper. A large bowl of fresh roses on the dark, polished abbey table spread a delicate perfume.

Uncertainly, Manon looked around to find the green baize door that led to the servants’ quarters. She discovered it on the right side and went through it. A large staircase led to the servants’ parlour and cellars. With surprise, Manon saw the dancing light of a candle in one of the downstairs rooms. She went down to find it. One of the maids was probably doing some overdue work she had not had time for during the day. The light came from the enormous kitchen and revealed the tall figure of her uncle, standing near the stove to heat a kettle.

Richard turned around when he heard the soft footsteps. “Manon! What is the matter? Are you unwell?”

Manon was still recovering from the enticing sight of her uncle in breeches and an open-necked shirt, and she gaped at him, tongue-tied and confused. She must have alarmed her uncle, because he crossed over to her in three long strides. His warm hands on her upper arms dragged her back to her senses. “No, Uncle, I am well. I was just concerned about Jéhan. What kind of a sister am I, that I should tumble into bed and not know to which chamber they have taken him? I am thoroughly ashamed!”

“No need for concern, Manon. I just checked on him. Jake and he are sharing a room, lest the boy should wake and be confused by his surroundings. Jake will watch over him, have no fear.”

Infinitely relieved, Manon thanked him, then asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I could not sleep,” Richard replied. “Travelling always brings me into a state of watchfulness until I am back in my own home again. I was about to make some tea. Would you like to join me?”

“Oh, yes, please! I am thirsty, and hungry as well, come to think of it.”

Only now did Richard realise he was still holding her by her arms. She did not seem to have noticed herself, but she did when he released her. A violent blush spread over her cheeks, her neck, and the enticing expanse of skin revealed by the low neckline of her white satin nightgown. The onset of a pair of small, round breasts peeked alluringly over the lace-trimmed rim.

Immediately, Richard’s body reacted, and he hastened to turn away. Busying himself with the tea, he cursed the treacherous embarrassment his body caused him. He wrenched his thoughts away from Manon’s slender figure, outlined through the sheer material of dressing her gown, and tried to recover his composure.

Manon, too, was affected by what she saw, in a way she had never experienced before. Broad, muscular shoulders filled the sheer linen of Richard’s shirt, and the v-shaped opening at his throat revealed tanned skin dusted with a fine covering of dark hair. That, however, was not what had shaken her the most. No, it was the realisation that her gaze had travelled lower, to Richard’s powerful thighs encased in the buff buckskin breeches, and on top of that, the large bulge behind the flap.

Manon had never lain with a man. No one had ever caught her attention for longer than a few days at the utmost. She knew what it felt like to be kissed, having received the pushy attention of impatient youths at the occasional summer dances on the quays of the Seine. She had never liked it much and she abhorred the feeling of an erection against her belly. It seemed so intrusive, so overwhelming.

Now, however, witnessing Richard’s arousal, caused just by him touching her, made her realise she was as aroused as he was. Low in her belly, a warm, liquid feeling was teasing her, and her breasts tingled where the peaks, hard and sensitive, brushed the satin of her gown. She was aware of a languidness spreading through her body, an exquisite feeling of excitement, of well-being. She wanted to touch Richard, to stroke and feel him, and she wanted to do so while they both were naked in a bed.

Her hands flew to her cheeks as she felt those thoughts spring into her mind. What kind of wanton woman was she? Richard was her uncle, Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu! Her brain was shouting at her to run to her room and lock the door behind her, but still her body was screaming for Richard’s touch with overwhelming force. She could not! She could not submit to these unseemly feelings, yet her most secret female parts were humming with excitement, a warm liquid pooling in her inner core. She found the sensation quite exquisite and wanted Richard to know what she was feeling. She could not!

But … would it be so impossible? They were a man and a woman, and they were alone.

 

When Manon said his name, it was in a low, sultry voice that made Richard’s senses react with violent arousal. God! It was unbearable! He felt her hands slide around his waist, which caused him to groan with frustration.

“Manon … Let go of me, please. If you …touch me in that way, I cannot …”

“Richard, look at me.” It was a command, he realised, and one that he was unable to resist.

Manon stood before him, solemn and proud like a queen. Her green eyes were glowing with unmitigated love – not lust, but love. She no longer touched him but folded her hands as if in prayer.

“I know we can never be together as man and wife, Richard. Fate has made us blood relatives, and a union between uncle and niece is forbidden. I am aware that I shall have to marry someday. Unmarried females have a fate worse than death in this English society. So I am prepared to welcome any suitor that might come my way.  However, when I wed, I shall be a dutiful wife to my husband, even when I know for certain that I will not love him.”

She paused and drew breath, closed her eyes and shuddered.

“Of course you will love him, whoever he is,” Richard heard himself growl.

She looked at him, startled. Then her eyes filled with a sullen determination, and she said “No, I cannot ever love another man, since it is you that I love, from the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul. The love I feel for you can never be born twice, Richard.”

“Lord, Manon! You do not know what you are saying! How can you love me as you would love a lover? It is wrong, it is unnatural, it is sin!”

“Love can never be a sin, my darling.”

Oh, how sweet that sounded from her lips! In despair, Richard closed his eyes to shut out the lovely, loving woman before him. But she continued speaking, relentlessly but oh, so sweetly.

“I want to know how it feels to be made love to by the man who loves me, my sweet, strong, handsome Richard. You do love me; I can sense it in every gesture you make, in every look you give me. I hear it in your voice when you speak to me. I see it in your beautiful eyes when you gaze at me. We love each other, my darling.”

It was true. He did love her, like he had never, ever loved before. He knew, for certain, he had never loved before in his life, now that he recognized the depth of his feelings for Manon. He was doomed.

“Dearest Richard, will you please teach me how exquisite lovemaking can be between two people who love each other? We will be together only once, only tonight. After that, I will not bother you ever again. I will set you free so that you can forget me, and so that I can find my future husband. You cannot, may not refuse me tonight, Richard.”

 

 

 

The Noble Coachman – Chapter 19

Available Amazon Kindle

Chapter 19
Abduction

 

Kip left the railway coach and hired a cabby to take him home. When he arrived, a curious sight of three other coaches parked by the stables met him. He was sure the carriages belonged to Marc, Lucas, and Matthew.

“What the bloody hell has happened?” He mumbled, paying the driver whom he knew. He speculated as he walked to his door. Jonathan’s had an accident. They didn’t know he went home to Norcaster. Surely, they were here to tell him about Lilith Caldwell. He remembered Mary’s swirling anger. Mary’s anger had now infused him. She followed him here, still full of wrath. Coming through the back door, his friends stood.

“What has happened? You three look pathetic. Has something happened to Jonathan?”

Nobody could speak.

“Speak someone!  I know about Lilith being found. I wanted to follow up on her demise, so I hunted her family.”

“The Caldwell girl was found? We hadn’t heard that.”

“Then what the bloody hell is wrong? Someone say something!” Kip was in a bad mood, and he let the men see his annoyance, a scene rarely witnessed by anyone among his family or friends.

“Kip, I don’t know how to say this except to say it,” declared Marc.”

“Just say the words, whatever they are, before I go mad.” Kip’s voice rose in tenor as he shouted at Marc.

“Squeaks has been missing for a day and a half.”

“Sorry?” Kip barked with incredulity.”

“Squeaks has been missing from Stokes Castle since yesterday morning. We have been looking for her since we heard. Jonathan is out searching now. Please go to see Dorset and His Lordship as soon as possible. We know you’re fond of her. Tell us what to do.”

“Give me a moment.” Kip flopped down in his reading chair. He leaned forward placing his elbows on his knees and holding his head. “Could you wait outside for me?”

“Of course, Kip.” The men noticed the portrait of Squeaks standing as a rear footman that was on Kip’s mantle and knew instantly that this was more than a fondness.

When the door slammed shut, Kip slid to the floor, allowing the tears to flow. “I will kill the bastard who has done this. Why Squeaks? Where could she be? Where do I start? I cannot live without her.”  He felt a trembling inside of him that had been absent since he lost his sister. It was a sickening helplessness.

Mary, tell me what to do. Where do I begin?

He knew who had kidnapped her and violent anger roiled inside of him. Kip didn’t care if he lost his life, he would find her.

Kip dried his face and headed towards his stable. He had no time for the agony anymore. Action with leadership had been the mainstay of his learning. All rules, regulations, legal maneuvers, politeness, and nobility weren’t words he recognized anymore.

“If you chaps would canvass the other drivers for any news. Be back here by 7:00 p.m. and bring Kyle. Tell the others, they may soon be called upon for a rescue.”

“Aye, Guv,” said Lucas. The three took to their benches and rolled out of the yard.

Kip looked heavenward and shouted at God and shook his fist. “Why Squeaks, God? Why her? I have only just found her, and you let them take her. This is my fault, not hers.”

Kip went to his stable and loaded his two pistols. While harnessing his horse, a swift pain came to his stomach, causing him to bend at the midriff and vomit. It was pure fear for the woman he loved.

Mary was back. Thank God. He stopped and closed his eyes trying to catch what she wanted him to know. She no longer was angry, but saddened. He glimpsed his image of Squeaks riding footman. He didn’t know why but he went back for his sketch pad.

As Kip began his twenty-minute journey on horseback to the Stokes Castle, he thought about Mary appearing after the discovery of Lilith. “Is she trying to confirm to me that the men that had killed her, had Squeaks?” The intent seemed obvious, as he raced to see Clyde Dorset.

Kip thought that once Lilith was located, Mary would find peace. Nevertheless, with Squeaks being taken, it would explain her angry images yesterday. And he knew, because of him, she would be their next victim. He couldn’t bear to think past kidnapping. He needed his head, and dwelling on something unknown would hinder him, right now.

“The killers know who I am. They must! There would be no other reason for Squeaks to be captured.” Now he knew why he brought the sketch pad. He would visit with Lucy Blevins and draw a picture, from her memory, of the two men who were at the ball. Resolving that gave him hope, but a whole day and a half had passed.

 

Squeaks woke, not knowing where she was. It was a bare room with only a bed, small table, chair and no oil lamp. Her head ached and feeling her scalp, there was a large lump up there. The last she remembered was talking to her father about her picnic day and then going to bed. It was a day she would never forget. She became Kip’s lady. She remembered being so happy when she told her father who did not look very surprised. However, he was moved when hearing about Kip saving her life from that racing carriage and team. She wondered if that coach rode hard toward them for a purpose.

Squeaks walked to the window, which was boarded from the outside. She could peek through the slats that didn’t fit well. It seemed to be afternoon. There was an old poor tenant flat next door and another across the street from that. Seeing all she could, she went to the door to listen.

Two male voices and one female were heard, but not what was being said. It was only a moment later when she heard footsteps coming closer and then a knock on the door.

“Deary, can you hear me?” Came the elderly voice.

“Who are you and where am I?” Squeaks replied.

“I have brought you some stew. I want you to sit on the edge of the bed, while I unlock the door.”

Squeaks was starved, she complied. “I’m ready. She heard the lock click.

The door opened a fraction barely before swinging open. The old charwoman carried a tray to the small table. She quickly closed the door and then sat on the bed. Squeaks went to the small table and pulled up the chair.

“Who are you and why am I here? Do you know who I am?”

“Listen, deary. It makes no never mind to me who or why you’re here. I’m being paid to see that you are fed, and your chamber pot is emptied. It’s under the bed.” The woman checked it. “It’s still empty. Don’t you piss, Deary?”

“How long have I been here? I only just woke.”

“Well, I gots here after dark last night, and you was up here by then. I think those two  men down there, are up to no good. ‘Tis you worth somethin’? They says I will be paid real good, enough for a fancy frock.”

Squeaks kept quiet and allowed the charwoman to wax on about this task she was hired to do. “They makes me stay in the kitchen. They been talkin’ about a ransom note all day. Your pa got money?”

“No. I am in service. I know my Lord would pay you a lot more if you let me out.”

“Awe … deary, I can’t do that. They might kill me.”

“They will probably kill us both. You’ve seen their faces. They won’t let anyone live who has seen their faces.”

“One sure is an ugly cuss. He only be havin’ but one glass eye. I gotta go. They be wantin’ their dinner.”

“I don’t know your name, but think about my Lordship paying you more coin, even a whole lot more if you can find a way to free me.”

“I’ll think about it, but I thinks I likes livin’ more. Stay where you are.” Sarah, watched Squeaks closely as she unlocked the door and slipped out. “My name is Sarah,” she locked the door.

Squeaks sat there eating her stew, wondering why she was taken. She wasn’t worth anything unless they wanted money from His Lordship. They were foolish to try that. She thought of Kip and could make no connection there. She began to worry about her father, and Lord Stokes. They would be most upset by now, yet; she was still unharmed except the bump on her head. Squeaks noticed she had a night shirt on. She finished her food and water and went back to the window. Although it was nailed shut, she took her fork prying out the two nails holding it closed. She was able to raise the window only a little which left her room to knock out one of the slats of wood. That seemed as far as she could go unless she smashed through it all with her chair. She closed the window and slipped the two nails back in the holes.

The slat of wood fell to the ground leaving more light coming into the room. She was thankful that dusk was near. She sat on her bed and looked at the window. “What else can I try? I can wave my arm outside. Someone might notice.”

Suddenly, she heard heavy boots coming toward her door.

 

As Kip came up the drive to Stokes Castle, he jumped off his horse and threw the reins to a stable boy headed towards him. Without asking or saying anything, he walked into the servant’s area and asked which room was Clyde’s. He was told that Clyde was with His Lordship.

“Where is that, again? Take me there immediately.”

The housekeeper led him through the labyrinth of staircases until she met Morgan.

“This gentleman …” she was interrupted.

“I know who he is. It’s all right. Follow me, Mr. Kipling.”

“How is the family? Has there been any word on Squeaks?” Kip was frantic.

“No word, sir. The entire household is quite worried. We all love her as I am sure you know.”

Morgan knocked on the door to the study. “Mr. Kipling, your Lordship.”

Kip passed into the room, and the sight looked worse than he imagined. A doctor was attending His Lordship, who apparently was having chest pains, and Clyde was distraught with worry.

“Kip, Thank God you are here.” Both men tried to speak at once. “Go ahead, Clyde. You tell him what we know.”

Kip was handed a glass of scotch to which he declined, but he did take a seat close to Clyde.

“Please, Clyde. Everything you know and what you think?”

“No one on the property has seen Squeaks since the night she returned from the picnic with you. Upon waking, we found her bed empty. The police think she was taken during the early hours of the morning. We are still trying to find out how that could have possibly happened. Our only conclusion is that this Castle has never been broken into for centuries. We are sure a window was unlocked, but the back door was wide open—perhaps to carry her out. No one at the stables heard anything. The police believe she was moved further down the lane to some other transportation. They also think she was unconscious at that time, as there is a spot of blood on her pillow.

Kip had taken to his feet long ago and was pacing the room. As he stopped and peered out a window, Clyde stopped talking. “Please proceed,” he said with his back to the room and water in his eyes.

“Our first thought was that the two of you may have run off to be together, but that was quickly dismissed. However, the police did find that you had left London the night of your picnic. I think you were under suspicion for a while since you both were gone so soon after having been together.”

Kip turned to see if they were expecting an explanation. They were.

“Kip, I am sorry. I had to break your confidence with me, but only to Clyde.”

“I see. In such matters, it is entirely understood. As for leaving London, we had a rider from our estate come to my father’s apartment, telling us of the discovery of Lilith Caldwell’s body. She was found where my sister was found. I left on the train that night to represent the family and settle the staff – my brother was visiting here. I returned only an hour ago. I am worried there is a connection from me to Squeaks. What is being done?”

“The police are in the dark. There was nothing similar to Squeaks being found missing and the abduction of Lilith Caldwell. I dare say they do not associate the two cases. Do you?”

“Most certainly.”

“How do you come by that?” Asked His Lordship.”

“It comes from my dead sister. I will explain at another time. I have irons to cast into the fires. I will bring all the London coachmen to bear. We will find her. I only hope we are not too late.”

“Do I see two pistols in your belt.”

“Yes, you do. I have a rifle with my horse. If Squeaks has been hurt in any way, they will find a dead man. I will send a driver over every hour for any communication. I must go. Good evening.” Kip waited for no reply. He turned on his heel and left.

Kip headed for the Blevins Manor.

 

The heavy boots did not call out to her to stand away from the door, he opened it, giving Squeaks no decency had she needed it. He entered carrying an old lamp with a bailing wire handle, holding it high to see the dim room. “There you are. Cute little thing, as were the others.”

Squeaks couldn’t help but tremble. Although dressed as a gentleman, his speech, and unkempt look said differently. She gauged he was twice her weight. “I think you are mistaking me for someone else. I have no worth to anyone.” Squeaks began to plead her case.

“We knows exactly who you are Miss Dorset. You live with His Lordship, isn’t that right?”

“I am only a servant there. I am not a member of the family. I only have my father, and he works as staff. What do you mean, I’m like the others? What others?”

“I guess I can forgive you for not knowing the Caldwell women. You wouldn’t be traveling in the same circles.”

“I heard about Miss Lilith Caldwell if you are trying to scare me. I know there is Lord Caldwell at the House of Lords. I knew neither and have no association with them, and have no value. How can I benefit this scheme of yours?”

“You have a nice young body, like those two. Me brother and I fancy that. First, though, we have decided to get some money for you since you aren’t a noble.” The one-eyed man laughed. “You’re so small, I don’t know if you be worth much.” He laughed again.

“That makes no sense at all,” Squeaks said in her normal spirited attitude.

“Well, you have two Lords that are keen on you. At least one should be amiable to pay to get you back.”

“I don’t know what you mean by two Lords. You have me confused with some other.”

“It doesn’t matter which one.”

Squeaks saw the other brute-of-a-man come through the door with a long kitchen knife.

Squeaks felt the urine running down her leg as she began backing into a corner. She called for help but was quickly subdued.

“Miss, we ‘taint going to kill you yet. We just want some of that lovely hair of yours. They’re going to need proof that we have you.”

In her stuttering voice, “I should think being missed is proof enough for them.”

“We won’t take all of it this time. Brad, I’ll hold her. You cut.”

Squeaks was violently thrust to the one-eyed man, while the other began sawing off her hair with the dull knife, about halfway up. Squeaks started to cry. The seriousness of her situation was pressing in. Would she ever see Kip again?  “Did you kill Miss Caldwell?”

He roared with a laugh. “We got them both. You seem to think we are here to have a conversation.”

“Why?”

“Why? That family killed our sister just as if they shot her. She was young and pretty, like all of you. My brother and I have waited a long time to even the score.”

“How am I involved in this?”

“You are the lady to Lord Trevor Caldwell. But Lord Stokes will pay more for ya.”

“I know no Lord Trevor Caldwell. You want some other woman.”

“Maybe this will stop you from insisting on that.” Hair cutting completed, the one-eyed man punched her in the face, breaking her nose.

Squeaks fell to the floor, staining her nightshirt red while she lay unconscious.

The charwoman came running in when she heard the noise. “You men are brutes. What that young lady ever do to you blokes?”

“Shut up, or you’ll get the same. Clean ‘er up.” The brothers left the room mumbling about getting on with their job.

“I figure we have one more day. We’ll get that ransom note to Stokes and see if he reacts. If he doesn’t send gold or jewels within a few hours, we’ll have our fun with that young thing upstairs. In the morning, you take care of that old woman. I think you can hang her in the back stable.

Unknown to the men, Sarah overheard the end of the conversation as she headed for a pan of water and a cloth to wash Squeaks. “I don’t have no clothes for her,” she said, hoping they didn’t give a thought that she heard anything.

“You can leave her clothes off. We’re gonna tear ‘em off anyway.” The brothers laughed and refilled their glasses.

“So … which one? Stokes or Caldwell?

“Stokes. Hit him while we can. We still have the other Caldwell brother’s lady to snatch and then we can leave this country. After finding that last Caldwell wench, they know the deaths are connected. That inspector may be putting things together. Throwing in the Stokes girl should muddy their thinking for a couple of days. Where’s the coach?”

“It’s around back like you wanted. I put it under the coach shed. Don’t worry, brother. It may be a bit old, but that was an expensive ride at one time. The inspector won’t be looking for a carriage like that down here.”

 

By the time Sarah had cleaned up Squeaks, she had a new opinion on the offer that was made to her. Squeaks regained consciousness. She and the charwoman had a brief chat about how could they live through the next day.

That evening, Sarah folded a piece of scrap paper, along with a pencil, and put them in her apron pocket. She took a food tray to Squeaks.

Hearts Adrift – Part Eight

Chapter Eight

As Richard had foreseen, they reached Boulogne in three days, but it was night when they entered the small seaside town. As a precaution, they had not slept at inns the two previous nights, after they had spotted a company of soldiers camped near the village of Quend, fifteen miles north of Abbeville. Instead, they had made camp in the woods lining the road. It had been uncomfortable, but not overly so, because the June nights were balmy.

With Jake and Jéhan present, it also proved bearable to sleep close to Richard, Manon found. She took her little brother under her coverlet during the night, his warmth a veritable comfort when dawn set in and the temperature dropped. Nevertheless, she did not sleep soundly, but in short stages, and she lay awake for long periods, watching Richard when it was his turn to take watch. Jake and he changed every two hours.

She would look at his moonlit, aquiline profile as he sat near the banked fire. His face was strong, his jaw clean, even with the shadow of beard now blurring it. His wavy, black hair was tied with a bow at the nape of his neck, and Manon revelled in the sight of his proud, uncovered head. During the day, he always wore his beaver hat, which made much of his beautiful hair invisible. How she longed to weave her hands through the black silkiness of Richard’s hair. To caress his jaw, to feel the roughness of his beard, to run her fingers over his neck and shoulders. To press her lips against his mouth and part those finely chiselled lips with her tongue.

No – she was not allowed to perform all those wonderful gestures. He was forbidden to her in that way. That night at the inn in Abbeville, they had slept in the same bed, an experience that would probably never occur again in their lives. She had lain awake listening to Richard’s breathing, feeling every movement as his body dipped the mattress when he shifted position, his warmth when his body accidentally touched hers. His scent, clean and spicy, was so intensely male that when it reached her nostrils, it set her flesh on fire.

She would have to endure this suffering no longer once they crossed the Channel. In England, they would be staying at a friend of Richard’s, where his coach stood waiting to bring them to Bearsham Manor. Their adventure was nearing its end. Once they were in England, society would effectively separate the two of them.

Yet Manon was reluctant to let Richard drift apart from her before she had even experienced what love truly meant. Her uncle was forbidden, as was his touch. Manon, however, had seen too much despicable behaviour in her hometown. Paris was the centre of sexual excesses where people knew how to keep it all hidden, even from the almighty Roman-Catholic church. Yet living in the town centre with all the brothels nearby, where the aristocrats used to go before the Revolution, had given Manon a notion, although weak, of what transpired behind the walls. Depravity was riot in a city like Paris, and it had cost Thibaut Favier a lot of effort to keep it away from his children. More specifically from his daughter.

Manon loved Richard, and she was certain, beyond all doubt, that he loved her too. They were physically attracted to each other, and they found it difficult not to act upon it. She would be married someday to a man she would probably not love at all, and Manon longed for Richard’s touch now, even if it would be only once. She desperately wanted to be initiated in the ways of lovemaking by the man she loved, so that she would have no regrets about being touched for the rest of her life by an indifferent husband. She longed for memories she could cherish throughout a life she would spend without Richard. They would have to find a way, it was essential.

 

In Boulogne, they found an inn near the harbour. It boasted four private rooms and a large common room. Because of the country’s uproar, the inn stood empty, all attempts to travel to England having come to nought.

After a restful night, they breakfasted and went to find the boat Richard had hired to come to France. La Nymphe was a fisherman’s craft, and her owner, Paul Lafitte, made daily voyages deep into the Channel to earn his living. Richard had managed to secure his services when a storm had blown La Nymphe into Dover Port. He made a deal with Lafitte, who promised to wait for him in Boulogne Harbour for a month. After that, the deal would be over, and Lafitte would be free to go. Since only three weeks had passed since Richard had set foot in France, Lafitte was still waiting for him. He welcomed Richard wholeheartedly.

“Bring us to England, Paul,” Richard said. “I will make it worth your while. Thank you for being here as we agreed.”

 

The boat was small, every storage space destined for the cargo of fish Paul would catch when he went out on the North Sea. She was sturdy, and her skipper kept her in excellent order. There was only one cabin, however, where Paul had his bunk and galley. He graciously left it to Manon and Jéhan, should they need a rest, but the crossing would only take four hours in this weather. The sea was calm, and the sky was clear. They should reach Dover early in the afternoon.

As soon as they set foot on the boat, Jéhan began behaving strangely. He stayed close to his sister, clutching her skirts tightly as he used to do when he was a toddler.

“What is it, mon chou?” Manon asked gently, ruffling his dark curls.

“Manon, I am scared! What is this … thing? What is happening?”

His sister realised that Jéhan had never seen the sea. Paris and the surrounding countryside were all he knew, and the five-year-old must be confused indeed. She took her little brother downstairs to the galley while the three men prepared the boat for sailing. In the cosy confinement of the cabin, Manon sat Jéhan on the bunk next to her.

Mon petit frère courageux,” she said, pulling him close, “I need you to be truly brave. We are leaving France to go to England. You knew that, did you not?”

Jéhan nodded. “Yes, but what is this large water? Are we not going to sink? You cannot tread on water, Manon! We will drown!”

“No, love, we will not. This is a boat, not quite like the ones you see on the Seine in Paris, but similar. You know the river boats on the Seine, do you not?”

“Yes, but I have never been on one! Will it sink, this boat?”

“No, it will not. Monsieur Lafitte, our skipper, will bring us safely over the North Sea to England. That is the name of this large expanse of water you see here, Jéhan. It is the North Sea, and it separates England from the European continent, where France lies. Uncle Richard says it will take four hours to reach Dover, which is the nearest port from Boulogne, where we are now.”

Jéhan stared at her with large, frightened eyes.

“We will leave France? But … but Papa is in France, in Paris! We cannot leave Papa behind, Manon! We must go back and bring him with us!”

With mounting apprehension, Manon understood that now was time to tell her brother about their father. She could postpone it no longer. Taking him onto her lap, Manon tenderly embraced the little boy.

“Listen, Jéhan, I must tell you about Papa. You need to be very brave, because it is not pleasant news. Papa is dead, my sweet darling. The rioters killed him and left his body in our kitchen. I found him on the very first night that we slept in our house after the rioters took everything. I buried Papa in our garden. I did not want you to see him, Jéhan.”

Her brother’s hazel eyes, Papa’s eyes, Manon realised, were round with shock, but he did not weep or wail. He just nodded and said, “We will never see Papa again, will we? He is gone forever.”

“Yes, mon chou. Papa has gone to join Maman in heaven. They are together now, but so are we.” By now, Manon’s eyes were burning with unshed tears but she swallowed them back, not wanting to upset her brother further. Jéhan was trembling in her arms, so she held him close and stroked his curls to soothe him.

“What will become of us, Manon?” His small, frightened voice wavered, tearing at the strings of her heart.

“We will go to England, to live with our uncle and his mother at their estate. I will always be with you, Jéhan. I will never leave you. Our uncle will house us, feed us, clothe us, but I will care for you for the rest of your life, Jéhan. Whatever happens, you and I will never be separated. We are Manon and Jéhan Favier.”

Jéhan was quieter now, Manon felt. He sighed and nestled closer to her.

“If you are with me, I am not afraid, Manon.”

“I am with you, Jéhan, and I always will be.”

 

When the siblings went back up onto the deck, they were surprised to see that the boat had reached the open sea. With the resilience of childhood, Jéhan ran to the railing and cried out, “Mon Dieu, Manon, come and look at this! There is water everywhere! Oh, look, a seagull! Sister Marie-Ange showed us a drawing in class!”

Manon joined him at the railing and cautioned him not to fall overboard. “Here, Jéhan. Take hold of my skirt and do not let go of it. Be careful, mon chou. If you fall overboard, you will drown.”

“Yes, I know that, silly!” Her brother humphed, then asked, “Can I go and see what le capitaine is doing? I will be careful, I promise.”

Paul Lafitte hailed him and Jéhan ran off without waiting for permission.

“Do not worry,” a deep voice rang beside her, “he will be safe with Lafitte. The man has a family of his own, somewhere near Boulogne. I have met his wife Isabelle and their two children.”

Manon looked up into Richard’s smiling eyes. A lump formed in her throat, and she said, “I have told him about Papa.”

Richard’s hand, warm and strong, covered hers on top of the railing. “That was necessary, Manon. You could not keep the truth from him forever.”

“I know,” she replied in a small voice, “but telling him was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.”

“You did well, Manon,” Richard said. “Look at him. He is already fully absorbed by what Lafitte is doing and enjoying it. Children are resilient. As long as we are there for Jéhan, he will do well.”

 

They reached Dover when dusk was settling in. The crossing had been smooth, but the travellers were tired, so it was with relief that Richard spotted his friend’s carriage waiting for them at the quayside.

Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter, had been Richard’s friend since their days as Cambridge students. Lucian’s father was the Earl Clifford of Middleton in Kent, but the viscount had a small estate of his own near Romney, which was twenty-three miles south of Dover.

He now stepped and grasped Richard’s profited hand in a tight grip.

“Richard!” he said with unmitigated relief in his tenor voice. “Finally, you have come. I have been keeping men watching here for over a week, not knowing when you would arrive. I am so glad you made it back to England again.”

Manon, still weary from her sea voyage, came off the gangplank carrying her sleeping brother against her shoulder. She did not notice the tall, blond Adonis until he came striding in her direction, concern in his dark brown eyes.

Mademoiselle,” he said in perfect French, “let me relieve you of your burden.”

He took Jéhan from her before Manon could react. “I am Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter,” he presented himself. “Your uncle de Briers and I have been friends for nigh ten years. Welcome to England, mademoiselle Favier!”

Manon had been full of apprehension when the stranger took Jéhan from her, but now she curtsied and replied, “Thank you, my lord. I am most happy to make your acquaintance.”

“Rich, you old scoundrel! You did not tell me your niece spoke our language! May I congratulate you, mademoiselle, on your perfect English? And please, no titles. My name is Lucian, and I would like you to use it.”

Manon smiled and begged the viscount to do likewise. She liked this pleasant, open young man from the start. He was the opposite of her uncle, she thought. Wavy golden hair, warm brown eyes, and a thin moustache that graced his wide, sensual upper lip. He was as tall as her uncle was, but of slighter build, though he had the same musculature about the chest and shoulders. The difference between them, Manon realised, lay in their character. Where Richard was a quiet, grave and somewhat withdrawn man, Lucian was exuberant and outspoken. Richard had a decidedly distinctive tendency to brood, whereas Lucian seemed to have no care in the world. Perhaps he really did have none, Manon mused. When your father was an English peer, you had no significant qualms or concerns.

She followed the two men to the waiting carriage, watching them as they strode side by side. Two friends, and every inch each other’s opposite.

 

 

Noble Coachman Chapter 18

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Chapter 18
Lilith

 

It was nearing four in the afternoon when Kip attached the coach and horses. He and Squeaks had an amazing ride through the forest. He had to admit she was quite a good horseman herself, once he got her in the saddle. Their great love for horses was equally cherished, but how would she feel about being a countess? Kip felt in his heart that his love could reach through her, to the other side if she joined his noble family, but could she reach back to him?

He knew she would not expect or demand extra respect. It would be like her to blend in as one of his own residents rather than their mistress. Perhaps, that would be a good thing. She could ask that something be accomplished instead of issuing commands. She would be well loved. His father would live another twenty years before Kip, himself, would have to accept his due title. Being a coachman for another decade would give Squeaks what she wanted. Their dreams could be fulfilled on both sides of the peerage line. As he rode, Mary came into his mind again, she was there often during this period of his life.  With her presence so entrenched within, his attitude was softening about one day returning home. Squeaks was changing his world, even more. He was beginning to think less of his own life and more of hers.   He had to make her happy.

Kip handed her the reins when they left the forest and traveled the main roads.

“Squeaks, when we get to the outskirts of London, would you like me to ride rear footman?”

She started to giggle thinking about it. “I think we should wait until we are very near Stokes Castle.” Kip could again see the child that was still invading her subconscious. She was easily pleased like a little one at Christmas. There the innocence remained. Someday that would be gone. He would cherish it while it lasted.

“When can we see each other again, Kip?”

“That will be up to you, my love. Tonight, I have an affair to attend. I know you are only available in the evenings, and that tends to be when I am working. We will definitely begin to plan nights so I can refuse fares.”

“How do we tell people about us?”

“We don’t say anything. If someone asks if you and I are a pair, just say that you are seeing me. Word will spread fast.”

“Does that mean I can see no one else? Can I not attend an evening meal with someone who asks?” She was teasing him, but he did not recognize it as that.

“That is usually what that means. Have I totally misunderstood you?”

“No, I am glad to have a reason to turn another down. Friday morning, without you, was a bit sad, having to disappoint so many men.” Her dimpled cheeks popped up.

“So many, was it?” Her charade had worked for a moment. “You don’t know how often I thought about you that day. Did you really have men asking to escort you out?”

“Yes. It was rather thrilling. I’ve never had that adoration, and now it is everywhere. I was asked several times if I was single and once if I was married.” She grinned.

“As if my control with you isn’t hard enough, you are going to make this difficult to woo you, properly.”

“But you said I didn’t need wooing, didn’t you? I’m not sure how I would make it difficult.”

“I believe you just did. A man takes very great pride in his lady. His first aim is to possess her. No one else may have her, or touch her. He will defend her with his life.”

“And you feel that way?”

“Yes. How many ways can I say it? I thought you were riding along with me today. Did you just arrive, woman? What have you done with Miss Dorset? The only problem Dorset has is listening to me, or perhaps it is believing in me.”

“Am I your lady?”

“You said you weren’t a lady if I remember accurately. Do you want to be? I thought you loved me.”

“I do.”

“Then it is a ‘yes.’”

“I think I need an official scorekeeper. I do not know what levels of love there are. I do not like assuming.”

Kip laughed out loud. “Excuse me. I have just been slapped across the face for which I deserve. I love your innocence and then forget that you really are that naïve. Yes, I dare say you need me to keep your score. If it needs to be clear, you are officially my lady. We are seeing each other.”

She gave Kip a broad smile. I now have a ranking. I am your lady. Is this the first step?”

“No, I’d say we were on our third step. We have declared our love to one another. Touching the other in any way that was not a customary courtesy, such as a kiss, was the second step.”

“How many steps are there and what is waiting at the top?”

“That’s hard to say. If we are right for each other, it will continue to grow and strengthen.

“So which level is the most intimate?”

“Squeaks, don’t do this to me. Do not force me to put a number on it. I have never been to that level in love.”

“I hope it is under five, although two was a wonderful awakening. Do you think I am wanton? What does that mean exactly?”

“Good God Squeaks! I should be shot for chipping away at your virtuous veneer. I think we need a few days of separation to cool you down. You are frothing?”

“And you’re not?”

“I think I am barely under control.”

“How about that bump underneath me?”

“The bump?” Suddenly, Kip blushed.

“What step was that?”

“Actually, that can be part of the needy thing and be step zero or lower. Sometimes it is there when we least expect it or don’t want it.”

“Was it that way today?”

“Squeaks, you are going inside the coach. This conversation is over.”

“But you said to ask you, not the women.”

“I did say that, didn’t I? Well, now is not the time or the place. And don’t go asking your father or His Lordship. God, you are driving me insane.”

“I am afraid you created this in me. I am your responsibility.”

“I want that more than anything in life, but let’s take it gradually. I want to be a gentleman and not a rake or a swain. I want to show you respect above all else.”

“How is that going for you?” She giggled.

Startled at that, Kip laughed. “I thought I could leave that up to you, but I see I cannot. You have no boundaries.”

“Should I? Do you have boundaries?”

“I’m starting to believe I’m the only one on this ride today that does. And I am not doing a very good job of it. Just how much Byron did you read?” Kip had to wonder if these questions were in earnest or in jest. He hoped he never found out. It was an appealing part of her nature and fun, which he rarely experienced.

 

It was 7:00 p.m. when Kip arrived at his father’s for dinner.

“Come in, son. Chandler, get Trevor a scotch.”

“And another one for me,” shouted Augustus.”

“We’ve been looking for you. All we knew was that you took Miss Squeaks out for a ride. What a day to not be able to find you.”

“What is it, father … Gus?”

“Lilith’s body was discovered today exactly where Mary was found.”

The air in the room became thick. Trevor gulped his drink and refreshed it. A heavy frown formed as his father and Gus looked to him for some possible guidance …an answer …anything.

“How were you notified?”

“Richards dispatched a rider with a note.”

“And what has been done since you found out?”

“Gus sought out Inspector Marshall, and I went to visit the Blevins. I imagine they will tell the family. I would assume the police in London and Norcaster are communicating by telegraph.”

“Marshall is on his way there,” Gus interrupted.

“I will go tonight, father. My job isn’t critical. I will represent the family and talk with the staff and constabulary.”

“Thank you, son. Are you sure? This could be very hard for you.”

“Trevor, I will be up sometime tomorrow,” replied his brother.

“Yes, father. I want to do this. If dinner is ready, could we eat, and then I’ll be on my way.”

 

Trevor wrestled with his decision to return home for the challenging sadness. The other Caldwell’s could be on this train, he thought. Within two hours he was at his door.

“I’m so glad you are here, Lord Trevor,” said Richards, looking exceedingly relieved. “I believe Chandler should be here on the next train. This way, Sir.”

As Trevor entered the sitting room, there sat Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell, half in tears. Inspector Marshall had been there about two hours, and the local constable was present. No one knew to introduce him to the other Caldwell’s.

He walked over to the distraught couple. “I am sorry to be meeting you under such tragic circumstances. I am Trevor Caldwell.”

The couple bowed, and Trevor asked them to sit. “Please let us have no formality during these few days. My father wishes to be here, but I am afraid he cannot face another death as has happened. He sends you his best and please honor this house with asking for anything that you need. My brother, Gus, will arrive tomorrow. Inspector, advise me on what you know.”

“I would prefer to do it elsewhere, so these poor folks don’t have to hear it again.”

“Indeed. Would you please excuse us, Sir and Lady Caldwell?”

Trevor, the constable, and the Inspector went into the study across the reception hall. He walked to the bar and asked for drink orders. He was the only one, so he fixed it for himself. All were seated within minutes.

“Lord Trevor, unlike your sister, this young woman was beaten and raped elsewhere, but her body was brought here. The doctor assumes, at first glance, that she died of internal injuries, but there was a strangulation attempt. He believes the body to have been there for about three days. Your brother ordered the icehouse to be torn down, and that was how she was discovered.”

Trevor rubbed his forehead as the Inspector continued.

The body has been moved to the mortuary, where she will be examined and then made ready for transport tomorrow. Her parents will take the same train. I shall stay on here for a few more days and ask around and inspect the site.

“Is there nothing we can do?”

“I will soon speak to your Butler, Chandler when he returns since he has been here the longest. We are sure, now, that it is a revenge killing. Chandler may know things he doesn’t realize he knows. We will talk with him after the Caldwell’s have left for the train. He will assist us with all your previous staff. He has decades of records, I understand. Since Mary was attacked first, this vendetta would seem to stem from your side of the family. We will also look into these other Caldwell histories. Again, the other Caldwell families have been alerted. Both women were young and ‘out.’ They were visible to the public. There are no other females in the Caldwells that match this scenario.”

“What scenario would that be, Inspector?”

“We believe a Caldwell member or Caldwell staff could be responsible for these deaths. It is only the women. The men could be targets, but we don’t think they are. The revenge seems to be aimed at women. We are most likely looking for a man who may have resided in this household. Our initial assumption now is that some harm, discharge or disgrace may have come to a woman who worked here. Unfortunately, I think your uncle, Nathaniel, is at the root of this revenge. Being almost 20 years ago since Sir Nathaniel was asked to leave; and if he is the cause of these murders, a plan has been in the works for a long time. You continue with your coachmen, and I’ll work with Chandler on your previous staff. The end may be close.”

“My father has spoken of Nathaniel. Have you heard that story?”

“Yes. His Lordship and I discussed him at length after Miss Mary. How are you doing, by the way? I see you driving in London, using another name and wonder why?”

“I had to get away. It is that simple. Being Mary’s older brother and her protector I wanted to shoulder all of the blame and I couldn’t do it here. Perspective was needed, no matter the time it took before I felt I could assume the role that is planned for me. I have quite enjoyed being with the lads. We are seen but not noticed. A lot is known to us but no one else. It came to me that at some point, perhaps the subject of Lady Caldwell would be mentioned whereby I could learn something.”

“Please don’t take on any retribution until I know about it. Can you promise me that?”

“No, sir. I cannot.

“Because you are a Noble gives you no special privileges where the law is concerned.”

“I am quite aware of that, and it has been considered. I will tell you, now, if I find the killer of my sister, I will dispatch him myself.”

“There are at least two of them. We know that much.”

“I know that, also.”

“Please reconsider.”

“I am warned, sir.”

“It is past 11:00. We should return to the parents.”

 

The following morning, Trevor gathered every servant and had a long conversation with them. First, he spoke about his feelings of Mary, trying to help him. He mentioned how comforting it felt and hoped they could see it the way he did. That seemed to appease most of them. Anyone wishing to leave their employ would go with a good reference.

 

Later, he, Chandler and the Inspector would have a conversation after Chandler had pulled out his old books. To fill his time, Trevor rode his horse. He could feel the wind whipping through his long untethered hair as he sprinted through the nearby riding acreage. A thought came to him, and he rode across town to see the Friesian horse breeder.

 

After the mid-day meal, the house was quiet. He had nothing to do but reflect on the image of Squeaks in this manor house. Trevor took the stairs to Mary’s room once more. It was still the same. Her clothes had been removed, and he wondered what had happened to her jewelry. However, the wall-hangings and colors stayed the same. Even the furniture was as he remembered. He sat on the side of her bed. Eventually, he flopped back and spread his arms, looking at the ceiling motifs. Suddenly, Mary was in his head. Swirling her image with a vengeance. Trevor found it a bit frightening this time. She seemed angry. She even wore a frown if that were possible. He left her room thinking that being there could have upset her, but the anger did not abate. Something was wrong. He went to visit her gravesite. He wept during his talk with her and told her about Squeaks.

 

Trevor strolled into his father’s study and saw Mary’s portrait over the mantle. His father commissioned it three years before she died. The swirling image didn’t have much resemblance to the portrait at the moment. He rang for Chandler.

“May I help you, Sir?”

“Yes. Please close the door and come in. Do take a seat this time.”

“I prefer to stand, Sir.”

“I know you do, but I would rather you sat.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I want to thank you for what you have done for this family, especially in this past year and moreover these last few days. Who is with father right now?”

“Richards and I changed places for several days until the staff could be settled. I will be heading back tomorrow. Richards should be here before noon.”

“Did you listen when I talked with the staff about seeing Mary in my dreams? Lately, her image is getting stronger in my mind. I’m beginning to feel her presence without seeing her face. I am sure she is going to lead me to her killer.”

“Yes, Sir. I heard you say that. I remember you telling your father and brother about most it, except this more recent sensing.

“What do you think of that?”

“I cannot come to a decision on it, Sir. If you say it, I believe it. From someone else, I would question it.”

“I just came from Mary’s room a short time ago, where she appeared in my head again. This time, she seemed angry. I left the room, but something is bothering her. Do you have any ill feelings about this house or anyone in it?”

“None, Sir”

“Speak up, no matter how insignificant something may feel.”

“Sir, there is nothing to report. All feels as it should in this household. In fact, it is calmer than it has been in a long time. I am sure that is because you are here. They have worried a great deal about you, Sir.”

“Thank you, Chandler. I am returning tomorrow. You are excused for the night.”

What could be bothering Mary?

Kip didn’t remember seeing her this livid when she lived. He didn’t have a good feeling this time.

Hearts Adrift – Part Seven

Chapter Seven

Jake eyed them both with barely concealed astonishment, but he said nothing.

“What about Jéhan?” Manon asked. “Could we not take him into the room also?”

“I want to sleep with the other men!” Jéhan protested. “Jake is my friend, and I have to watch over him!”

Manon saw her uncle’s sweet smile curve his lips before he answered, “Of course you must, my boy! Jake will watch over you also; will you not, Jake?”

“Yes, master, I will. Rest assured, miss, he is safe with me.”

Manon pressed Jake’s hand in gratitude, glad that the young man had sensed her anxiety over her brother.

“It would ruin our scheme of deception if we were to take him with us,” Richard whispered. “You understand that, do you not, niece?”

“Yes, I do, Uncle. So, how do we proceed?”

“Just follow me up when I summon you,” her uncle replied.

They finished their repast in silence, and afterwards Richard made a great show of rising from the table and making a hand gesture towards Manon. Amidst the snickering of the other guests, she followed Richard upstairs to a lofty room. Her gaze fell upon the large four-poster bed, which dominated the entire space. She froze, swallowed, and began to tremble with a trepidation she had never experienced before in her life.

“Have no fear, niece. I shall go to the tap room for a last drink whilst you prepare yourself for bed.”

Richard strode towards the bed and picked up a blanket and a pillow.

“I shall sleep on the floor,” he said, and tossed the items behind the screen in the corner. “There,” he joked, “you will not even know I am in the room. I promise not to snore.”

Manon gratefully smiled at him, as he left the room.

Her uncle was such a kind and thoughtful man, Manon reflected. She had only seen a similar kindness once before, and that was in her own father. The way Richard always put her needs before anything else was the way her father had been towards her mother, too. The way Richard watched her at all times, as if he were afraid something might happen to her, had been the same caring concern her father had shown her mother.

While she was donning her nightclothes, after a much-needed wash at the stand in the corner, Manon fretted over the disturbing feelings she was rapidly developing towards Richard. In the past days, she had forced herself to call him “Uncle”, stubbornly refusing to reflect on other terms concerning him. That was who he was – her uncle, her mother’s brother, even though all she could see was a strong, extremely handsome, and brave gentleman in the very prime of his life. They were only seven years apart, despite being of different generations. Manon realised that, had she met Richard under different circumstances and not known he was her uncle, she would have easily fallen in love with him. He was a wonderfully loveable man, was Richard.

Feeling utterly disheartened by this whole impossible situation, she climbed onto the high mattress of the bed and slid under the covers, pulling them high under her chin. Soon, he would be coming up. How would she be able to sleep, knowing he was in the same room, only a few yards away? She was certain to lie awake all night, listening to his breathing, waiting for… oh, heavens! Waiting for what, she dared not hope. She felt the acute conviction that her feelings for Richard were utterly disturbing. And forbidden, too. Oh, merciful Lord … she loved Richard de Briers!

With a muffled cry, she sat up. No, no, no! This could not be happening, it was too appalling for words, too sinful! What was she to do? She was cursed!

 

Downstairs, in the nearly empty taproom, Richard sat staring into his ale, his head full of passionate reflections of the very young woman upstairs. It was no good trying to deceive himself. He was in love with the lively, beautiful, and sweet creature that was Manon. How had this happened? He was no green boy, freshly out of the schoolroom, for God’s sake! He was a distinguished and wealthy country gentleman, sought after by numerous mamas who hoped he would show an interest in their daughters. Many of them were even more beautiful than Manon, and English to boot. Many of them had their own fortune, were lively and sweet, and were eager to become Bearsham Manor’s next baronetess. Why, he had even considered his neighbour, the Honourable Miss Adèle Brinslay of Bishop’s Keep, as a suitable bride, and he had been sorely tempted to make her an offer. Miss Adèle was the daughter of Sir Eustace Brinslay, a dear friend of his father’s since childhood. She was stunning, with golden waves of silken hair and the clearest blue eyes one could imagine. They were the colour of a summer sky in the morning, and combined with a perfect complexion, a heart-shaped face, a pert little nose and a rosebud of a mouth, Miss Adèle was fit to capture any man’s heart, conquer it and keep it in her small hands forever.

At eighteen, Richard had thought himself in love with the captivating young miss of fifteen, but the feeling had not lasted through his Cambridge years, where other female temptations had lured him.

He knew for certain, however, that what he felt for Miss Adèle was but a bleak, shallow part of what he was harbouring now for Manon. She had courage, spirit, endurance and a savvy intellect he had never witnessed in any other woman. Manon was an unbearably sweet torture.

With a sigh, Richard finished his ale and went upstairs, bravely repressing all disturbing thoughts that inhabited his brain. Manon would be sound asleep, by now, he mused. He would stretch out on the floor behind the screen, without bothering to undress. And he would assiduously strive not to look at the bed.

 

Just as he reached the top of the stairs, the door to his room opened, and Manon emerged, fully clothed and carrying her travel bag.

“Where are you going?” Richard blurted out, startling her with his accusing tone.

“My conscience will not allow me to stay the night in your room, Uncle,” Manon replied, eyes downcast and cheeks flushed. “Please, let me return to the common room.”

“Why, Manon? Why would you lay yourself open to danger when you can be safe with me?”

To his utmost sorrow, Richard saw tears rolling down her cheeks. She was weeping! Why? What had transpired while he was downstairs?

“What is it, Manon? Please, tell me,” he urged, thinking she was going to let propriety stand in the way. “We do this only to keep you alive and unmolested. I hope you understand that.” Down deep, Richard knew that was not the only reason..

“I…I feel so greatly confused,” she sobbed. “I do not know what to do. I feel that I am damned and that my happiness is lost.” She dropped her bag and raised her hands to her face, sobbing into them. Her whole fragile body was trembling, and the sight of her ripped through Richard’s heart with a painful force.

“Come,” he said softly, taking her bag and guiding her back into the room. “We must talk, and you will tell me all.”

Manon allowed herself to be seated in front of the empty hearth, already feeling comforted by her uncle’s compassionate tone. He knelt before her, gently taking her hands in his.

“What is the matter, dearest? Is it me? Have I accidentally hurt you? Do you feel unsafe with me?”

Manon’s eyes flew towards his in shock. “Oh, no, Uncle! Not you! You could never hurt me, you are the soul of gentleness! No, it is my stupid ignorance of the world and all its doings. Forgive me for behaving so childishly. I will endeavour to keep my composure from now on.”

His endearment, uttered so sweetly, still rang in Manon’s ears and caused her pulse to race madly. How she adored the way he was looking at her just now, concern and avuncular affection burning in his gaze. What a devilish creature she was, allowing her heart to be filled with such feelings of a forbidden love.

She rose. “I will go now,” she whispered. “You are our anchor during this journey. In the morning, you need to be rested, because we all depend on your strength and intelligence.”

Richard also rose from his knees and said, “Oh, and how will I manage to sleep in peace, when I know you are alone amongst a pack of ruffians in the common room? This is what we will do, since we both need to be at the full capacity of our strength; we will both sleep in the bed, but fully clothed and above the covers. The night is warm enough for us to do so. We will talk some more until we get tired, and then we will sleep. I know we will.” His control would have to be stalwart but he would try anything to keep her safe in his room.

The earnest expression in his blue-grey eyes convinced her, and Manon nodded. They stretched out on the bed, a small distance away from each other, so that they were not touching anywhere. Strangely enough, Manon felt once again at ease, and when her uncle began inquiring about how she fared after her strenuous first day of riding, she was able to reassure him that she was fine.

“Good,” he said, “now that we are on horseback, we can proceed much quicker on our journey than before. I hope to reach Boulogne by three days hence. The distance we have to cover is fifty-six miles, and at our current speed, we are bridging seventeen miles a day.”

“I like riding,” Manon smiled. “I would like to learn it the way I ought to, once I am in England.”

After a small pause, she continued, “What will my life be like, Uncle? How will I spend my days?”

Richard had no immediate answer to her question, so he reflected on it for a while. At long last, he said, “You are of an age that you will begin to seek a husband, Manon. I hope you realise that. I will have to provide you with a female companion who will introduce you to English society, with all its rules and traps. You will have to learn how to run a large house and manage its inhabitants, because that will be your task once you are married.” God! These words I speak to her are cutting to me. I cannot think of her with another man, Richard thought.

She sat up at once, hugged herself and huffed, “You must think me a very coarse person indeed, and unfit for polite society. I do know how to behave, Uncle; have no fear. Maman taught me, and you will agree with at least, that she was a true gentlewoman!”

“Manon,” Richard said, sitting up and turning her towards him, “you misunderstand me. Of course, you are fit for any society you would like to belong to. My offer of a companion was not only given because you must learn the English way, but also because society demands that you have a proper chaperone when attending soirées and balls.”

“Oh … forgive me, Uncle; I had not thought so far ahead,” his niece said in a little voice.

“No, do not apologize, dearest. But you will have to learn to control that feisty temper of yours. I love it when you are brazen, but others might take offence.”

He had said it again, Manon registered with a shock. Again, he had called her by a name that was only associated with affairs of the heart. Her blood was coursing through her veins in a frenzy; her skin was beginning to feel hot. She lifted her eyes to his. Shock struck her when she saw the deep feelings that lingered there. For a few interminable moments, they gazed into each other’s eyes, exchanging what was in their hearts. Time stood still. Then, with every ounce of effort he had, Richard tore himself away and turned his back to her, saying, “We should sleep now, niece. Tomorrow will be a tiring day. Goodnight.”

Manon swallowed the lump in her throat, then returned his wish.

 

 

Noble Coachman Chapter 17

Available Amazon Kindle

Chapter 17
The Sketch

 

Returning from the coach, Kip spread the coverlet on the ground.

“Shall we eat first, or shall I sketch?”

“I am not that hungry just now. Sketch me. First, I need a drink of water.”

Instead of pulling water from the basket which had been poured into canning jars, she went to the stream. She squatted down as only one can do in pants, cupped both her hands and filled them with cold water. She sipped from them several times, shook the excess from her hands, and dried them on her trousers.

She was the epitome of simplicity and carefree countenance, Kip thought.

“This is a good spot where we sit. I believe I told you before that I am just starting to sketch portraits. You are my first commissioned work of art.”

“Who ordered it?”

“A fine gentleman who wishes to remain anonymous. You are perfect right there, and I will sit here,” Kip said, finding the ground and sitting cross-legged.

“Is this gentleman handsome?” Squeaks asked sheepishly.

“Now what kind of man would I be if I could answer that?”

“An interested one?”

“To me, all men are the same. Now, the female creature inhabits a different sphere. She will walk among flowers and through wisps of clouds, which make her soft, fragrant and porcelain in color. She reveals little of herself leaving the man in mystery. Her fan will be used to communicate with her gentleman.”

“I’ve heard of that, the fan language. Is it really true or were the maids teasing?”

“They spoke the truth to you. I’m slowly picking up the art of the fan by watching my riders as they wait for my coach when I am in a line.

“Tell me.”

“Tell you? Tell you, what?”

“A fan word.”

“Most of the time they are comments—not words. Let me see, what can I tell you? If the lady holds an opened  fan with her right hand in front of her face; she is asking her gentleman to follow her.”

“I don’t believe you. I’ve never seen such goings-on.”

“I am not surprised at Stokes. You have my permission to ask his Lordship,” he chuckled.

Kip readied his supplies and opened his sketch folio to a large blank page. “I want you to look into my eyes for a while. I will be staring at different parts of your face. I say this, so it does not alarm you. We can talk if you do not move your head, and I will draw your mouth last. There we will decide on a smile or a more serious look. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“Look at me. Stare into my eyes. I will draw down to your neck so move your arms however you wish.”

Kip placed the folio on his knee and withdrew the black charcoal from the box. He stared at her and began to draw the sweep of her hair.

“Can I ask a question?”

“Yes, Sweets, what is it?”

“The night that you let me learn to night-drive, the night you really kissed me, remember?”

“Of course, I remember.”

“You introduced me to the other drivers, and you told them if they got ‘caught out’ to take care of that privately; then you went on to talk about language.”

Kip put down his charcoal, laughing. “I would guess you want to know what ‘caught out’ means?”

“Yes.”

“That would be to urinate. Wait. Hold that look. Where is my red charcoal?” He teased her.

“You had to say that with me there?”

Kip continued sweeping lines on his paper. “Look at me. Yes, but you must know that was a very proper way to mention it. There are other words we generally use.”

As Squeaks sat there staring at him, she felt as if she were in a lovely dream. How often she had wanted to stare at him and study his handsome looks. His strikingly green eyes were his most significant feature. “You have a Patrician nose; did you know that?”

“What do you mean, Patrician? Am I girlish looking?” He knew what she meant.

“It’s a feature that goes back to ancient Roman nobility, or is it Greek? It’s a perfect nose, I think. It is not large or too small, it has no bump or hook to it. It is slim and not wide, but not thin either. It is an aristocratic nose.”

Kip continued to stare at her, drawing. “So, does that mean I have nobility somewhere in my lineage? I would think everyone can say that.”

“Perhaps, or maybe you are just lucky.” His lips and mouth were perfectly shaped. All his features were handsome, from his ears to his brow to his chin. “If I were with another man at a restaurant and you walked in …”

“I don’t think I’m going to like this.”

“What do you notice first about the other gentleman. What makes one man jealous of another man and don’t say it is because I am there?”

“You sure are tough on me. Can’t we men have any secrets?”

“Please.”

“Men are fairly territorial. They need to protect what is theirs. Now if that is not a factor, I would think a man could worry if he was handsome enough for his lady. Did he have a nice build? Is his profession worthy of her?”

“Does intimacy enter  a man’s jealousy?”

“Most assuredly. That is the number one factor, which is usually an unknown, and the most difficult to cope with. You gaze at me rather hard, Miss Squeaks. Must I pass muster, again?”

“I’ve waited to do this.”

Kip smiled. “I’ve waited to do this. Do you know I came home that night and drew you standing as footman? Remember, I asked you to look at me and smile. That is what graces my mantle.”

“Perhaps, I shall see your home one day.” Squeaks wondered what it looked like. “Let me tell you about your home, may I?”

“Yes. This should be interesting.”

“You are a single man, who I believe lives in a place where his stable looks better than his residence.”

“You are very nearly right with that.”

“Your house is two levels but only two bedrooms. It is devoid of nearly everything except a bed, kitchen, and a few items to rest upon. You have old furniture for the apostles to sit when they visit. You have never brought a woman to your house.  You have a nice wardrobe for your clothing finery. A charwoman comes in weekly to sweep the dirt from the floor, change your bed linen and finish washing your dishes. She takes your laundry home when she leaves. You keep two tins of boot polish all the time. You have more shoes than I do. I believe you to have saved for and purchased real Wellington boots. I see you’re smiling.”

“Proceed. I am enjoying hearing about myself.”

“Your loo is outside. You have a post office box in London proper, and you collect your post rather than having it delivered. Your address is part of your image. By looking at your face, I cannot tell if you cook or eat out. In your bedroom, you have one nightstand and one oil lamp beside it. You do not have indoor gas lighting, but that doesn’t bother you, as your best fares are at night. You like to whistle when you drive. Now you are laughing. Tell me where I am right or wrong.”

“Oh, I cannot do all of that. You must still find me mysterious. I will say I drew the line at an outdoor loo. It is inside. And I do not whistle while I drive, except for whistling for my horse, but I do not do it for entertainment. I will say that I have three tins of boot polish. I have black and brown boots. As you see today, I am wearing the brown boots. Do they look polished to you?”

“Why … the leather is blinding when the clouds pass.”

“You should know I would not be caught dead with worn leather boots. I am ready to add your mouth. Perhaps, I shall kiss it first.”

“Yes, please.”

Kip crawled over on his knees and leaned in to kiss Squeaks.

Squeaks burst forth with laughter as he reached her lips. He sat back on his ankles wondering what was causing this moment of amusement.

“Miss Squeaks, you take my romantic attentions too lightly, I fear.”

“It’s not that. You tricked me. What a novel joke.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Now, stop that. You know very well what I mean?”

“I wish it was true, but I have not an idea at all.”

“Your sketch, silly.”

Kip looked down and was shocked. He pushed the folio off of his lap, wanting it away from him.

“Kip, now stop playing. That sketch of yourself is exactly how I just pictured you in my mind. How did you do that? I would like to have it. If you wanted me to have your portrait, you could have given it to me. I would love to hang it in my room. This charade wasn’t necessary, but it is funny.”

Kip staggered to his feet aghast. “How did I do that?”

Squeaks held up her hand for him to take it and sit beside her. “Kip you look awful. You have gone pale. What is happening to you? What is wrong?”

Lowering his body next to her, keeping his distance from the sketch, he said, “I did not knowingly draw my own face.” He stared at the portrait. Squeaks became quiet. She didn’t have words, as she felt he was telling the truth.

“Can you read minds, Kip? That is exactly, and I do mean accurately, the way I see you. Could you see the image in my head?”

“If I did, this is a first. This doesn’t make any sense. I looked down every so often to see what I was doing, and it appeared as I saw you. I have no gift. I hope they don’t still hang people for witchcraft.” The near accident came back to his mind and how he thought of Mary.  Mary, Mary, you are making this happen? “Are you sure this is how you see me?”

“There is no doubt. Perhaps, you do have a gift. You said you were new to portraits, and you stared at me, and I stared at you. Should we try something else? Are you afraid to know if you are gifted?”

“I do not believe in such things. What do you wish of me?”

“I will sit as before, but I will not look at your eyes. I will look away. I will imagine a vision and hold it. Perhaps you can see what I see by looking at me again.”

Kip hesitantly pulled his folio back to him. “This cannot work. But I will try.”

“I have a vision in my mind now. Do not see my face, but look deeper.”

Kip sat for a minute trying to force himself to reveal an image. “This isn’t working. It cannot be that.” Mary’s image swirled through his mind.

“Give it more time, Kip. Try again. Concentrate. I will be quiet.”

Kip put the folio aside. If he could see her vision, he could tell her. He would not have to draw it. “I think I am guessing. I feel like you are seeing Warrior.”

Squeaks gasped. “That is right. It may have been a guess, but how did you think of it?”

“I do not remember thinking. I was thinking about not thinking when I saw Warrior. Actually, that isn’t the truth. I believe I can tell you now. I was clearing my mind, and an image of my sister seemed to rush past my consciousness.”

“You don’t think …”

“I don’t know. Something allowed me to know of the impending danger with the runaway carriage.”

“Let us try this again. This time, I will envision something you have never seen. Give me a moment.” On the wall in her bedroom was a small painting of her in her mother’s arms as a baby. Her father was standing behind her seated mother. It was crudely done, but it was something Kip would not know about. “I have it. Now concentrate and so will I.” Squeaks conjured up the picture as she would see it from her bedside.

“Oh my god, something is forming. Don’t say anything. Hold the image.”

“I believe it is a picture hanging on a wall. You are looking at it from below, as it is hung over your head. Let me concentrate on the picture. It is in a dark frame, most probably walnut. Sitting in a kitchen chair, there is a woman holding a baby. The man behind her with his hand on her shoulder appears to be a young Clyde Dorset, your father.” With that final word, Kip fell backward, utterly spent.

Squeaks hurriedly moved to him. “Kip, what can I do? Your eyes look unfocused. Does your head hurt?”

“Give me a second. I feel totally exhausted. I couldn’t keep myself upright. It is starting to recede. Where was I? Oh, yes. How close was I to your vision?”

“Kip, you are gifted. Your words told me more than I saw. I didn’t consciously remember the frame color or the chair coming from the kitchen. You looked through my eyes because you spoke of the perspective from which I see it every day. It is across from my bed, over my head by quite a lot. I do not think I can reach it from standing on the floor. This is incredible. Nothing like this has ever happened before?”

“Never.” Kip felt, if he was developing a gift, it was being given to him by Mary. But why?

“Are you strong enough to try it once again, for good measure?”

“Yes, I would like to. If this turns out to be a real gift, I wish to keep it quiet until I figure out what is going on with me. This time, do not envision anything specific. Just have random thoughts with images, but do not stand on one.”

“All right. I guess you can start anytime you want.”

Squeaks turned to Kip and looked at him but thought of a day in her life. She rose and washed, dressed, ate, and went to find her father. She brushed the horses and helped her father harness them. Later, she would walk some of the horses in the paddock along with the other lads.

“No, I cannot see anything clearly. Will you do me a favor tonight?”

“If I can.”

Kip laughed, preparing to have his face slapped. “At 9:00 p.m., if you can, make ready for bed, strip down until you are naked, and stand in front of your mirror. Hold that vision. I will try exceedingly hard to conjure what you are seeing.”

“Are you serious?”

“Only if you don’t hit me.”

“Since I do not have a full-length mirror, I will do it.”

“You will?”

“You will have to try this on others. Perhaps it is just me.”

“Oh, I hope not. I do not want to know what you are thinking. That would never work for us.”

“What happened to my kiss?”

“I hope I do not see me kissing myself.”

This time, he placed Squeaks on her back, and he rested on his elbows looking down at her. Her hair was spread around her face. He wanted to drown in her big, light blue eyes. Kip looked at her beautiful skin, impeccably arched brows, perfect pixie nose, and lips that he wanted to kiss until he died. He leaned toward her mouth and kissed her simply and gently, then backed away from her to see her face again. Quietly, she laid there smiling, looking directly at him.

“You are not trying to see how much I love you, are you?”

“A bit ago you said you think you loved me. Why are you sure now?” Kip wondered.

“Can’t you tell me?” She asked.

He smiled broadly, “No. I do not want to wander in your mind if I find I can. Nevertheless, are you saying you know you love me?”

“Yes, I am.”

Kip wrapped his one arm around her body as he plundered her mouth over and over. She brought her hands to his face and held him there to look at him. Kip rolled on his back and brought Squeaks on top of him. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and penetrated her lips repeatedly until she forgot all concerns and yielded herself, passionately.

I must stop this.

“Do I please you enough?” she asked.

“Far beyond what I thought it would be like kissing you.”

“I’m not sure what I can do for you.”

“What do you feel like doing to me?”

She sat there and blushed for a moment.

If you can’t say it, just picture it,” Kip laughed.

He unbuttoned his shirt, pretending that was what her thoughts were telling him.

Kip wished he could let her feel how much she pleased him.

“Sweets, allowing me to kiss and touch you is your precious offering.”

Kip pulled her shirt from her trousers and unbuttoned the top three. Exposing her cleavage, he slid his hands underneath, climbing her ribs. Slowly, they found the swell of her breasts, and Kip watched her eyes close. He felt their fullness while the nipples pebbled. Flames ignited in both of them. Kip removed his hands and pulled her up hard against him, nestling himself in the apex of her thighs.

Squeaks gasped, emitting a small unexpected moan. Her eyes opened to him staring into his face. “I … I.”

“I know, Sweets.” He took her mouth again, making love to it while his hands reached under her shirt. Once more, her eyes closed as did his. Kip felt tears drop onto his face. He reached for her head and licked them from her cheeks. “I need this very essence of you, Sweets.”

“I never thought it would feel like this,” she whispered. “There are other sensations at work here. I guess you know that, though.”

Kip smiled. “Yes, I know. We are merely at the beginning of what I hope will last a lifetime.” Kip found control and ceased his actions, but his chest was still pounding from the interminable pleasure and patience.

She placed her hands on his hairy chest and saw his eyes close immediately. A great sigh and smile came from him. She retracted her hands back.

“I don’t know what I am doing. I think I should talk to the women again.”

“I think you should talk to me. I love what you are doing. You can’t tell?” He buttoned her shirt.

“Have you been with many women?”

“I don’t know of your relative term of ‘many,’ but I am experienced.”

“Have you been with many women when it was her first time?”

“No, I haven’t, but I know what to expect. Please don’t have that on your mind. I will not ask for your virginity.”

“Well … suppose … I might …”

Kip kissed her deeply and sensually.

Catching her breath, “If you keep kissing me like that I might have to insist.”

Kip rolled his head from side to side, laughing. “Sweets, do not ever, I mean ever, think you have to offer yourself to show me you love me. What you are thinking is only part of you. I will want all of you, your heart, mind, body and your soul one of these days. I want you by me for life. What you are embarrassed to talk about is making love. Yes, it is pleasant beyond words, and a part of marriage I would not care to live without, but I could if you could not. Do not feel you have to prove anything to me. Promise me that.”

“I can promise you I will not do that to prove my love to you.”

“You sound rather vague.”

“Well, there you have it!”

“There I have what?”

“My promise.”

“Perhaps, it is a good idea to talk with the women. Not about the act itself. I will control all of that. You need them to tell you how normal you are for a woman in love.”

“Well, stop kissing me then. I’m feeling all funny inside.”

“I can’t help myself.” Kip pleaded.

“That is how you make me feel when you kiss me the way you have today. I can’t help myself. I have no idea where the brakes are. I don’t want them.”

“What is it that you think you cannot help but do?”

“Never mind. Can we have our lunch now?”

“I think the timing is just perfect to have our lunch. I’ll check the leads on the horses while you place the food out for us.” Kip remembered thinking how he loved the idea of her being raised without restrictions and proprieties. He was having second thoughts on that now. Neither had the will to control their passion. She was soaking in desire, unhindered. They had better marry soon.

Squeaks smiled to herself as she watched him walk toward the horses. He was not coping very well with what he had started. She placed the food out and waited for him to return. He was smiling, too.

“Do you want roasted chicken or a beef sandwich?”

“I’ll take the chicken.”

Squeaks handed the cloth wrapped chicken to him.

“Why do they geld horses?” She asked out of nowhere.

“To subdue them. They are lust-driven, mighty powerful and strong otherwise. And you don’t want them trying to mate with the horse waiting at the next coach. Wait a minute. What are you trying to say?”

“Oh nothing,” she laughed. “How many women have you been with in your young life? I’ll tell you if you tell me. I think we are supposed to not be embarrassed to talk with each other about lovemaking, is that so?”

“You are a brat. I have never made love to a woman.”

“Other men?”

“Stop it, Squeaks. I will paddle your backside if you continue this.” He snickered.

“What do you mean then – you have never made love to a woman?”

“Surely, or maybe not, you know there is a difference between having sex and making love. You know men have needs, do you not?”

“I haven’t understood a lot about that. And I do not know the difference between having sex and making love.”

“You will never know that difference as you will never have just sex.”

“And the needy part?”

“Can I finish my chicken?”

“You have been driving for over one year, correct?”

“Professionally? Yes.”

“You have trained me on a few new things which tend to be known more by independents.”

“I have, I believe.”

“I have ten years more experience with a coach than you do. Who would you say is the better driver sitting here today?”

“That would be me, of course,” he smiled.

“Why?”

“Because, Sweets, I am a man.” Kip thought she was throwing down the proverbial gauntlet. He was going to have some fun with her.

“Is that your same declaration for saddle riding?”

“Not quite.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am the better rider, but not because I am a man. I am an excellent horseman.”

“I see.”

“Pray tell. What do you see?” Kip asked with a sparkle to his eye.

“Wait and see.”

“I guess I will have to.”

“I would practice if I were you.” Squeaks countered.

“I need do nothing of the sort, Madam Horsewoman.”

“I will hate embarrassing you in front of your friends.”

“My friends? What do they have to do with this?”

“Wait and see. Tell them to practice, too.”

“You are really piquing my interest now,” Kip smirked.

“So that’s what it takes to arouse you?”

“Please don’t use that word. Miss Sweets, I think you are jesting with me.”

“I think not. You will have a month to practice.”

“To practice what exactly?”

“Your skills as a coachman and horseman.”

“Are you in earnest?”

“I am hoping I will be,” Squeaks replied. “I want to have a derby. Can we saddle-ride after we finish eating? Also, I need to find a bush. I did not bring a jar with me.”

“We can empty a water canning jar,” he mentioned, still scratching his head over whatever she was talking about.

“Yes, that will do.”

“I will guard the coach, but not listen.”

“Thank you.”

They packed up their belongings. Kip carried the folio, and the coverlet and led Warrior after having a final look at his gaskin area.  Squeaks managed the empty basket and Soldier.

Squeaks had no idea where the coachman derby idea came from. She blurted it out to tease Kip, and it caught in the wind and carried on. She would speak with Lord Stokes. Perhaps, he could suggest a way to withdraw this challenge or indeed let there be one. The more she thought about it, the more exciting an idea it became.

Hearts Adrift – Part Six

Chapter Six

Longpré was reached in the late afternoon, and the travellers were all exhausted, hungry and downtrodden. They hid in the surrounding woods while Jake went into the village. He was the least conspicuous of them all; he could pass as a harmless farmhand.

Jéhan was fast asleep, his head on Manon’s lap. She gently brushed the boy’s auburn hair from his brow, a gesture that went straight to Richard’s heart.

“You both have Lily’s colouring, Manon,” he said, his voice a bit hoarse, “and she was the image of her own mother, Lady Elizabeth. There is a large portrait of her in Bearsham Manor’s great hall. Your mother’s picture is in my library, where I can look at it while I work. I loved your mother very much, Manon. I was but a child when she left, yet I acutely felt her absence for years. When my father informed me of her demise, five years ago, I was downcast for months.”

“Your father informed you? How can that be? How did he know?”

“Our fathers kept up a correspondence, apparently. They started it soon after Thibaut Favier settled himself in Paris with Lily. My father, though heartbroken because she ran away with his valet, never stopped loving his daughter. I learned of the connection between our fathers when your mother died giving birth to Jéhan. After my father’s death, I found the letters in his desk. You may read them, if you wish it.”

“Thank you, Uncle; I know for certain I will enjoy reading them. So my father wrote to yours for years? He never told me.”

“My father, your grandfather adored Lily, just like I did. Lily was …”

He stopped, and in his eyes, Manon could see a dreamy sadness. “Lily was beautiful,” he went on.  “Not just pretty, but truly exquisite, with her wavy hair the colour of the purest copper and her sparkling green eyes. She was smart, lively, and sweet. Graceful she was, with a natural elegance, combined with a perfect figure.”

“Maman was always perfect in everything she did. Papa was devastated when she died, and we missed her terribly. I talk about her to Jéhan whenever I think of her. It is a shame that my brother never knew her.”

“We will show him her picture when we reach my home.”

“Your home …” Manon whispered, as if the words meant something unreachable for her.

“Yes,” Richard replied, a sudden constriction in his throat at the forlorn expression on her face. “Bearsham Manor, which will be your home and Jéhan’s from now on, Manon.”

“So I will never see Paris again? How will we fare in England, Jéhan and I? It is another country, another language.”

“I will hire a tutor for Jéhan, to prepare him for a decent boarding school. He has to learn English, of course, and so do you.”

Manon bowed her head so that her uncle would not see her face. She was inwardly debating if she should tell him that she already spoke his language. After what he had done for her the previous night, she knew she could trust him unquestionably. Her decision made, she looked up and said, in perfect English, “No need for language lessons for me, Uncle. Maman insisted that I should learn her mother tongue to perfection.”

Her slight French accent was the arrow that struck him, Richard realised. She was irresistible with those finely clipped consonants and those stretched vowels. As if she had not been utterly striking and charming already. She had pulled her bow and pierced his heart.

“Why did you not tell me before?” he asked, in a voice hoarse with emotion. The answer mattered to him, for some reason.

She shrugged, then smiled. “You were a stranger. I did not trust you, but I do now. Since last night, when you saved me.”

Before Richard could go further into that topic, they both heard Jake’s whistle. He had returned with fortunate news.

“There is this farmer called Bontemps, master,” Jake grinned. “He was part of a gang that raided the local squire’s manor after the family fled. Now he is stranded with four thoroughbreds, and he has no inkling what to do with them. Their upkeep costs him an arm and a leg, he says. I figure we could relieve him of at least two horses.”

“Good, that is what we will do. Listen, Jake, there is no need to speak French anymore, except with the boy. Miss Manon is fluent in English.”

Jake looked at Manon with delight. “She is? Oh, that’s capital! I was growing tired of having to speak the damn …”

“Jake!” Richard threatened, but with a grin on his face.

“Sorry, miss! I was about to speak nonsense, of course!”

“It is of no consequence, Jake. You are my friend, so you may speak to me about whatever you like.”

Richard cleared his throat, waking Jéhan in the process. The boy peered around sleepily before he said, “I am terribly hungry, Manon. When will we have breakfast?”

“Soon, mon chou,” his sister answered in French. “For now, you must pay attention to what our uncle is planning.”

“We must change tack,” Richard explained. “When we buy the horses, it will be under a different disguise. I will pose as a wealthy Parisian shopkeeper, and the three of you as my servants. Having just acquired a large house in Paris from a former aristocrat, I am in need of skilled horses. You, Jake, will do the talking, as I, your master, will be too haughty to speak to riffraff. Manon and Jéhan, you will be there to serve me and see to it that I have everything I need while on the journey. It will be just a pretence, in case someone is nosy enough to ask who we all are. The keyword is haughty. Do not offer information, not even when you are asked, unless it is by soldiers. If that happens, Jake will do the talking. Are we ready? I am counting on you, friends!”

 

They readily pulled it off, the farmer being all too keen to sell three of the horses, for which he was handsomely paid by Richard. Richard rode the largest animal, a big black hunter of seventeen hands by the name of César. Jake had a much smaller bay gelding who answered to the name Cyrano, and Manon, with Jéhan behind her, was to ride a placid chestnut mare named Mélissande.

Richard had decided on three horses so that they could carry their travel bags and food supply more conveniently. Manon, who could not ride, received a quick, elementary riding lesson, with regard to her position in the side saddle and how to find and maintain her balance.

“I hope you will manage, Manon,” her uncle said. “We will go slowly, and you must ride beside me. I noticed that the mare and my own steed are comfortable with each other. When you stay at my steed’s side, Mélissande will be more at ease.”

“I will manage, Uncle. Have no fear.”

After a much-deserved breakfast at the only inn Longpré boasted, they repaired to the main road and covered the ten miles to Abbeville in time for dinner and a bed in one of the inns. Abbeville was smaller than Beauvais, with a population of eighteen thousand. In one part of the city, nearly a thousand houses had been destroyed twenty years before when the ammunition depot exploded. A hundred and fifty people had been killed and trice as many had been gravely injured. The gaping holes where the houses had been had not yet been filled in with new ones.

According to what they had agreed upon earlier, the travellers acted as a company of servants to a Parisian bourgeois. Understandably, they dressed in character. Richard donned his breeches and riding boots, and his frock coat, with white shirt, black waistcoat and cravat. He wore his beaver hat and riding gloves and made use of a riding crop. Jake was dressed in modest but well-cut attire, with buckled shoes instead of boots, and a tricorne hat. Jéhan kept his own Parisian clothes, which were suitable for a servant lad and Manon donned one of the gowns her uncle had purchased. It was a morning dress of pale blue cotton with a navy blue bodice. Over her auburn curls, which she had pinned up in a bun at the nape of her neck, she wore a mob cap. That way, she could hide the too noticeable beauty of her long, shining locks in order to avoid unwanted attention. With her eyes downcast and her hands demurely folded in front of her, she truly looked the part.

Jake haughtily requested a private room for his master, Messire Jean-François Breton, master draper of Paris, and three beds in the common room for himself and his companions. While they were having their supper, Richard softly spoke to Manon in French.

“I must ask you to trust me once more, niece. I am not at ease with the riffraff that is staying here, tonight. In the common room, you will doubtless be bothered again. As a gentleman, I cannot allow that. You must stay the night in my room so that I can watch over you.”

Richard paused to look at Manon’s reaction, but she merely nodded.

“You know what people will think, do you not?”

“Yes,” she stated, looking him in the eye, “they will assume that you take your maidservant to bed. I do not care what they think, Uncle. I am ever so grateful that I will be safe and can have a decent night’s rest.”

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Five

Chapter Five

Five days and four nights later, Richard and his companions reached Amiens.

The journey had been relatively easy, with one checkpoint in Beauvais after twenty-one miles of travelling through the lush Picardie countryside. The farther they moved away from Paris, the less people seemed affected by the Revolution. At least, the farmers were still at their work; the fields had been sowed and the pastures had cattle grazing on them. Even at the Beauvais checkpoint, the guards seemed lax and did not question the travellers. Apparently, a small family of what looked like farmers was not prone to raise their interest.

Richard’s company arrived at Amiens halfway through the fifth day after they left the abbey. The town was buzzing with activity, as if there were no revolution going on. With a population of forty thousand and a thriving community of weavers and drapers, it was not easy to find suitable accommodation. Nonetheless, Richard with Jake acting as the head of the family managed to secure lodgings at an inn in the Quartier Saint Maurice, which was situated northwest of the centre. The Auberge de la Madeleine was run by a large woman by the name of Francine Duval, who ruled her establishment with an iron hand. She put Manon in the common room reserved for women, while the men were lodged in the vast stables. There they joined ten other men, mostly drapers. There were, however, three soldiers as well, so Richard instantly adopted his “demented uncle” persona. They could not afford to let the soldiers address him.

To her utter relief, Manon discovered that she was the inn’s only female guest in the inn that night. After dinner in the taproom, she quickly retired to the far corner of the common room, which was divided into separate booths by means of wooden partitions. Finally some privacy, she sighed. She enjoyed the luxury of washing in a small wooden tub and afterwards donned a fresh cotton nightgown, which her uncle had purchased for her in Beauvais along with an extra change of small clothes, two cotton gowns and a pair of extra walking boots. Together with her toiletries, those items formed the contents of her new travel bag.

Once she was lying on her narrow cot, Manon felt she could finally let her guard down. For almost a week, the four of them had ridden through the vast French countryside, always on the lookout for soldiers or brigands. Manon had not yet told Jéhan about Papa’s death, yet the boy kept asking when they would go back to Paris to ascertain that he was not in need of assistance. Every time that happened, Manon’s gaze met her uncle’s, who in a private moment, asked her if Jéhan knew that their father was dead. He should be told, her uncle said. There was no point in deceiving the boy when he would eventually have to find out the truth.

Now that she was finally alone, Manon found herself sobbing, at last allowing herself to feel the full impact of recent events. All her efforts and thoughts had been taken up with keeping herself and her brother alive. Papa was dead. She had buried him in their garden in Paris, and the last time, she had seen him alive and well had only been the same morning of the day she had done so. They had parted in joyful affection, never worrying, even in the grim circumstances the Revolution had brought on. Now she was alone, and with the added responsibility of having to look after her little brother. She had yet to live a life taking care of only her own person. Even when they now had the protection of her uncle for which she was utterly grateful in these dire times, the care for Jéhan rested on Manon’s shoulders and no one else’s. The burden was indeed heavy.

Resolutely, Manon dried her tears and went to wash her face in the water basin that sat on the side table. There was no point in dwelling on matters she could not change.

Abruptly and without warning, she was seized by strong hands, which gripped her so hard that her arms were painfully wrenched upwards. An arm slung around her waist, effectively pinning her arms against her body and making it impossible to move. A rough hand clasped over her mouth, and a hoarse voice rasped in crude French, “Ah, but what have we here? A pretty little wench, so fit to please a brave soldier of the Revolution!”

A vile stench of unwashed male accompanied these words, and Manon gagged when her tongue tasted the sour skin of the large hand that covered her lips. In a wave of panic, she writhed and kicked, but the man simply lifted her in the air and smacked her onto her cot, face down. With one hand he held her pinned to the straw mattress, while the other shoved her nightdress high until her backside was bare.

She froze, the breath fleeing from her lungs. He was going to rape her! Her face was pressed into her blanket. In despair, she kicked her legs, but the man simply put his knees onto her bare thighs. His weight was heavy and unyielding like tons of bricks on her tender flesh. She was going to be killed …

And then she was set free. The weight was lifted from her body, and she drew in a large gulp of wonderful air. Hastily, she covered herself and turned onto her back.

“Manon, are you unharmed?” her uncle asked, concern making his voice give way. There he stood, in shirt and breeches, apparently the attire he used while abed.  Manon watched him, still dazed from her experience. She gasped in horror.

“Where is he? That man …” She noticed the large, unkempt soldier, lying unconscious at her feet.

“Oh …”, she said in a small voice. “Uncle, what are we to do? Now, everybody will know you are not demented. We must leave immediately!”

“Shhh, child, do not panic. Jake is preparing Jéhan as we speak. Yes, we are leaving, this instant. Jake and I will carry our friend here and dump him somewhere in the yard. I will pour some cheap wine all over him so that it will appear as if he was in his cups and stumbled when he went to relieve himself. You must dress and pack your bag. We will be waiting for you in the yard as soon as Jake has paid our hostess.”

 

As a precaution, Richard decided to give the cart and horse to the landlady and instead, repair to the marshes lining the river Somme and proceed on foot. His purpose was to find two decent horses and attempt to reach Boulogne on horseback.

They marched as quickly as was possible, which was not easy because the rich pastures near the water were soggy. Fortunately, they were also covered with tree saplings, so the fugitives were hidden from the main road that ran alongside the river. Richard was justifiably worried about the soldiers. They might well try to find them and take revenge.

With Jéhan asleep in his arms, Richard took the lead of their small group. Manon walked behind him with Jake taking the rear. The path was so narrow it only allowed them to walk in single file. It was still very dark, with no moon to guide their way. Richard hoped to reach the village of Longpré before nightfall of the following day. They had approximately twelve miles to cover, and their progress would be slow and tiresome. Fortunately, he had taken the precaution of bringing enough coins from England. The exchange of guineas against Louis d’or in Paris had been easy and very profitable. Money lenders knew the value of English coin and hoarded it for the future. And every Frenchman, high or low, loved a Louis d’or.

The three walked in absolute silence, because they needed to watch their footing on the slippery riverside path. Manon doggedly followed in her uncle’s footsteps, ignoring her weariness after the disturbed peace of the night. Her arms and legs were starting to bruise where the brute had grabbed them. Yet she would not give in to weakness. Her uncle would protect them all, she knew. At that moment, Manon had the absolute conviction that nothing was impossible for Richard de Briers.

 

Richard was extremely anxious to progress as quickly as was possible. He was convinced the three rascals would pursue them, even kill them if they caught up with them. Upon Richard’s instructions, Jake had fed the landlady a tale of a dying relative on a farm south of the river Marne. With enough coin and the cart and horse to keep her silent, Francine Duval had vowed not to tell the soldiers too much. Yet Richard had not overly trusted the woman. Anybody could break under pressure, he knew.

His thoughts kept wandering to his niece and what she had gone through this past week.

Her father had been slaughtered, forcing her to leave the only home she had known, and now she had been brutally assailed by that monster. Richard recalled the white-hot rage he had felt surging through him at the sight of that brute, who had been on the verge of raping her. He had literally seen red and had wanted to smash the man into a bloody pulp. He had not hesitated for one second but had thrown himself to Manon’s rescue, blowing their carefully constructed cover in the process. He might well have signed their death sentence, he realised. If he was not able to secure horses soon and lead the group to Boulogne forthwith, they would be caught. He shuddered at the thought – not for himself or Jake, but for Manon and her little brother.

However, that was not his deepest concern. He was more disturbed by the torrent of raw desire he had been experienced when setting eyes on Manon’s creamy white, round buttocks. May the Lord have mercy on him but he had wanted her so much that he felt his body react just by recalling the image. What a miserable cad he was, lusting after his young niece. And what hell his life was turning into. How was he supposed to keep on living when he felt thus?

 

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Four

Chapter Four

The company set off at dawn, as was agreed, in a cart drawn by a large horse, one that de Briers had purchased from a brewer. He had paid handsomely for the horse, as well as for the cart, and had asked the brewer and the landlady to keep quiet about himself and his charges. As a precaution, he had let slip that their destination was Le Havre, instead of Boulogne. It was an insurance that meant whoever followed them would take the wrong road, heading due west instead of north.

Jake and Manon sat on the bench, with Jake holding the reins, while Jéhan and de Briers were in the cart. The latter was dressed as drably as was possible, with a large cap shielding his face. Manon was extremely curious to see how he would behave if they encountered a checkpoint.

They crossed the Bois de Boulogne and reached the village of Suresnes where they crossed the river Seine. From there they followed the riverbank, travelling east for a while, until they reached the small village of Clichy. Travelling northwest, they next set off on the road to Calais. Eventually, the horse had to be rested and fed. That left the travellers time to have their luncheon.

As soon as the foursome sat down on the Seine’s grassy sloping bank, Jéhan chose de Briers’ company, barely glancing at his sister when she handed him a piece of bread and an apple.

“Uncle, tell me about England. I want to become an Englishman, like you,” the boy said in rapid French.

De Briers laughed, a sound so joyful it made Manon’s heart leap.

“Well, first of all, Jéhan, you must learn to speak English! Once you have mastered that, I can hire a private tutor for you so that you can be properly educated.”

“I do not speak English,” the boy moped. “Is it difficult to learn?”

“Not to me,” de Briers smiled, “and I am certain that a clever lad like you will learn it very quickly.”

Manon kept her mouth shut about her ability to speak the language. Up until now, the travellers had always spoken in French. However, Manon’s mother had insisted on Manon learning English from a very tender age. Manon spoke it fluently, albeit with a slight accent. She was reluctant for de Briers to learn of this – it was convenient to be able to overhear conversations between the two men when they discussed matters they did not want her to hear.

After the meal, de Briers ordered Jéhan and Manon to take a nap, given the fact that their early rising had left the boy sleepy. Brother and sister stretched out on the cool grass, basking in the warm June sun. De Briers waited a quarter of an hour before he challenged Jake.

“What exactly were you blabbering about last night, Jake? I overheard your comment about the Dowager Baronetess, and I was displeased with it.”

“I apologize once again, master, but the girl was asking eager questions about you. I saw no harm in telling her facts that are common knowledge.”

“Enlighten me, Jake,” de Briers said, his tone becoming rather implacable. “What exactly was my niece asking after?”

“Well, she wanted to know …” Jake hesitated, then continued, “… about the women in your life.”

Manon felt heat flaring up her cheeks and neck. She pinched her eyes closed more  firmly, afraid that they might think her awake.

“Did she now?” de Briers drawled. “And have you managed to satisfy her curiosity?”

“No! What do I know about that subject, sir? I am merely your Parisian man of business.”

“Good,” de Briers grunted. “I would very much appreciate it, Jake, if you did not venture to proffer personal details of my life to anyone in the future.”

“No, master, I won’t. You have my word.”

 

They stayed at the riverside for two hours to make sure the horse was properly rested. Their survival might well depend on the animal’s ability to bring them all the way to Boulogne, which was one hundred and sixty miles from Paris. That distance was but a bit shorter than what they would have to travel once they reached England.

Eventually, Jake mounted the bench while de Briers lifted Jéhan into the cart. Manon hesitated.

“I … could you just wait a moment, Uncle?”

De Briers turned in surprise upon hearing the name she had given him. Finally, he reflected, his niece was letting her guard down. “What is it, Manon?”

“I … I have … to go,” she mumbled, and began to head off for a small copse some twenty yards from the road.

Of course, De Briers realised a tad too late. She was female and did not have the luxury to go and do her business in the river, like the rest of their little band. Stupid of him, not to have anticipated that. However, he did not like the notion that she should stray into the woods all by herself and followed her. When she turned and saw him, Manon put her hands on her waist in the universal gesture of annoyance. “You do not need to come with me,” she challenged. “I will be only a moment.”

“No,” her uncle stated curtly, “times are too uncertain. There are lots of fugitives in France, nowadays, and desperate people do not shy away from violence. Let me take a look first.”

Manon had not thought about that, and she realised her uncle was not only intelligent and careful, but also sweet and caring.

“Thank you, Uncle,” she said, and waited patiently until he signalled her to come nearer.

“Here,” he said, “this is a safe place. I will be waiting just a few yards away. Be quick about it, Manon. I want us to reach Fraconville before nightfall. There is a decent auberge where we can spend the night. I do not like the look of those clouds in the west.”

 

Unfortunately, de Briers was right. The clouds became large, black, and ominous, and the group was soaked to the bone by a deluge right after they crossed the Seine outside Clichy. The river meandered through the countryside repeatedly on its way to the North Sea, so they would encounter it again and again before they reached Boulogne.

Fortunately, while the passengers of the cart sat hunched under their soaked cloaks, feeling miserable, the placid, sturdy horse kept on plodding along, oblivious to the pelting rain. There was one large benefit to the situation, de Briers mused. At least they would not encounter guards or checkpoints now.

Their progress through the lush countryside was slow but steady, and eventually, the rain subsided. The warm sun that followed the torrent was a welcome change to the bone-cold travellers, who basked in the warmth it provided. Yet, when they reached the Auberge du Coquelicot in the tiny village of Fraconville, clouds had come drifting in again.

“Remember,” de Briers warned, before they went in, “Jake is the head of our “family” and you, Manon are posing as his wife. I am a demented uncle and Jéhan is your son.”

“Actually,” Manon said, “that will not do. Jake and I, as man and wife, would be given one bedchamber. I will be his widowed sister and Jake can sleep with you. Jéhan sleeps in my room.”

“I want to be with the men,” Jéhan piped. “I am a man, too!”

But, as it turned out, there were no private rooms at the “Poppy Inn”. All guests had to sleep in the common room, but as times were uncertain, they were the only guests, that night.

Times were indeed uncertain, as Manon soon experienced. The landlord, a thickset, gloomy looking man with a head as bald as an egg, had little else to offer but a hard straw mattress and a thin blanket for a bed in the cold common room.

“I have no wood to burn, and besides, it is June,” he said sourly. “Be glad I have some rabbit stew ready for your supper. That and a tankard of wine will get you warm quickly enough.”

After their meal, Jéhan settled next to Jake, who spread his blanket over the both of them. The boy seemed to have formed a friendship with Jake, who welcomed him good-naturedly. De Briers put his pallet to Jéhan’s other side, almost automatically, and Manon envied the three males. She was banished to the far end of the room, where a curtain separated her from the rest.

 

Manon felt miserable. She was damp, cold and still hungry. She had not dared to drink wine, for fear she might be sick afterwards. Wine made by the common people could not always be trusted, her father had taught her. They added dubious extra ingredients to the mixture in order to increase the alcohol content more efficiently than was possible with grape fermentation alone, such as wood spirits, an alcohol produced by the distillation of wood and used as a diluent in cheap wines. It was poisonous and could kill or blind a person, if they were lucky enough to survive.

Her uncle, as it turned out, forbade all of them from drinking the drinking the landlord’s wine. Manon asked for a pitcher of hot water and made a mint tisane for them. She had the satisfaction of seeing her uncle’s eyes widen with surprise as she rummaged through her medicinal bag to retrieve the pouch with the dried mint leaves. She even produced a small pot of honey, which she used to sweeten the beverage. It was succulent but it did nothing to warm the body, especially hers, when she lay shivering on her lonely pallet. After a long time, she drifted into a fitful sleep, interrupted by her frequent coughs.

 

Richard de Briers listened to his niece’s coughs with growing unease. The girl had no spare clothing so she was forced to sleep in her damp dress, he knew. It must by sheer misery. He could barely get warm under the thin, mouldy blanket their host had provided, so he could only guess how Manon must feel. At least he had little Jéhan’s body to warm his back, while she had no one’s warmth to comfort her. Tired of wrestling with his worry for Manon, Richard rose and crept to the other end of the room.

His niece was sleeping like a child would do, one hand under her cheek and the other wrapped tightly over her small breasts. The blanket had slipped away to leave her trembling with cold. Without giving further thought to the matter, Richard curled up behind her and enveloped them both in his spare woollen cloak. This one was fairly dry since it had been stored inside his leather travel bag.

The moment he felt Manon’s soft, round body snuggle up against his, Richard realised his mistake. His treacherous male body immediately responded with the usual embarrassing reaction. He froze, not daring to move for fear Manon would wake. How was he, her uncle, to explain the very

non-avuncular behaviour he had just displayed by joining his virgin niece on her pallet?

However, with a sigh of well-being, Manon sank deeper into sleep, and was soon breathing, deeply and regularly. Gradually, Richard relaxed and his body with him. It felt … well, right, although he knew that it was not right, not at all. Manon was his niece – his ward, even. He was honour-bound to protect her, to offer her a home where she would feel loved and safe. His mind and heart knew her for what she was, his sister’s daughter, but his lascivious body only acknowledged her exquisite femininity.

Richard inwardly cursed himself for staying away from Madame Herodias’ London nunnery for far too long. Then, as their combined body heat started to relax him, he willed himself to rule out all inappropriate thoughts and go to sleep.

 

Manon woke as soon as de Briers gave the signal. She was surprised to see him already dressed and giving instructions, while Jéhan and Jake were still preparing, dizzy with sleep. She herself felt marvellously rested, which caused her to wonder, since she had had such a hard time falling asleep.

When they were on the road again, Manon reflected upon it. She had been cold and wet and shivering. Yet she must have fallen asleep sometime, and had a sound sleep as well, since she had not dreamt or tossed around on her pallet. She did, however, remember a wonderful warmth that had spread over her at some point. By that time, she had already been too soundly asleep to bother about trying to understand it.

 

The weather was bright and sunny again, and the group made excellent progress. Come nightfall, they had achieved their planned fifteen miles, and they reached the Abbaye Notre-Dame du Val.

The abbey had been sold to a draper from Paris a few years ago, when the Revolution dispersed the monks. It stood empty but people from the vicinity still worshipped our Lady in the ruined church, which was the only building that had been destroyed.

De Briers knew about the abbey because he had stayed there when accompanying his father to France during his boyhood. He was also acquainted with some of the farmers who lived nearby. His father had always showed an interest in how others gained their produce so that he could apply their methods at Bearsham Manor.

The four of them stopped at Thierry Dubois’ farmhouse and bought some food from him – at a very substantial price, of course. Afterwards, they took refuge inside the abbey for the night and restored themselves.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Three

Chapter Three

The band of fugitives made its way to the quays aligning the river Seine without being spotted by members of the Garde Révolutionaire. A small boat was moored at the bottom of the steps. They got on board, Manon and Jéhan at the stern and Jake at the bow, while de Briers took the oars. He began rowing downstream in a steady rhythm, the heavy oaken shafts cutting the water in silence. They slid along the riverbank, and de Briers kept the boat as close to the quay wall as he could without crashing into it. Their progress was slow but steady and undisturbed in the moonless dark of the June night.

Manon had taken Jéhan onto her lap when the boy began showing signs of weariness, but the damp chill that always seemed to emanate from the water made them both shiver with cold. Jéhan could not settle. “I am so cold, Manon. I want my cloak,” he whimpered.

“Shh, mon chou,” Manon hushed, “you must not make a noise.” She was afraid de Briers would become angry with them. Moreover, heaven knew what would happen if they were caught by the guards patrolling the riverbanks.

“Here,” de Briers said, “take this.” He signalled for Jake to hold the oars, shed his coat and draped it over Manon’s shoulders. She stifled a gasp when the man’s body heat, still trapped in the rough woollen coat, engulfed her. His scent – clean, spicy and very male – attacked her senses. They were stirred in a way she had never experienced before in her life, creating odd little flames that tantalized her skin. Recovering from her thoughts, she pulled Jéhan into the coat with her.

Quickly, Manon lowered her gaze, shame welling up deep in her chest. What was this awkward sensation that so disturbed her? Could it be … desire? Could it? In the twenty years of her life in the French capital Manon had – of course – encountered young men. Manon knew she was beautiful, lively and witty, and some young men had been so besotted that they had tried to lure her into their beds, but none had succeeded. No man had ever stirred Manon’s heart so she always kept the upper hand. She also knew what damage could be done when giving oneself to a man. Damage, both physical and emotional, that could ruin a girl’s life and leave her with a babe to raise on her own. Manon could deal with a fatherless babe but she would have been mortified to put her dearest Papa through the ordeal of a daughter who betrayed his trust in her. Papa had always shouldered the scalding blame for her Mama’s forced flight from her family when she had eloped with him. He had instilled in his daughter a strong conviction that a girl should not give her virginity to a man unless he was her legal husband. A husband who would love and cherish her until death parted them.

Manon had kept to that belief until this day, and she meant to keep it that way. Moreover, this man, this Richard de Briers, was her uncle, according to his own words. A blood relative. Romantic feelings for him would be considered incest, even if she did not act physically on them. She needed to quell these sudden, immoral thoughts forthwith.

 

Richard de Briers focused on the job at hand, steering the small craft over the mirror-like surface of the river Seine. At the same time, he listened for unusual noises and scanned the riverbanks for lights. From the moment he had met his niece and nephew, they had become family.

The girl was indeed his niece; of that he had no doubts at all. She had the bright red hair and vivid green eyes of her mother, his beloved sister Lily. Richard had been five when his half-sister eloped with Thibaut Favier, and to him, it had felt as if a part of his soul had been ripped away. Lily, sweet and caring, had been more of a mother to him than the cold, self-centred woman who had given birth to him.

Mildred de Briers, née Thompson, was a commoner. An extremely wealthy one, no doubt, but a commoner nevertheless. Her vast dowry, the result of her father’s activities as a Manchester cotton mill owner, had been the principal motive of his father’s second marriage. Sir Robert was in dire financial circumstances and needed the blunt. The fact that Mildred had given him a son and heir had never stirred more than tepid affections for Mildred in Sir Robert. Mildred herself had not loved her husband either. She consented to the marriage to please her papa who wished to have a titled son-in-law. Because Mildred and her family were tradespeople, they had never been properly educated. They could read and write, of course, but they had no interests in Society’s intricate machinations. Therefore, they had not known until after the marriage that Sir Robert, being only a baronet, was no member of the peerage. That little piece of information had thoroughly severed the connections between Sir Robert and his in-laws.

With rising annoyance, Richard shook off the memories of his sour, grim-faced mother. He needed to keep his wits free to get his niece and nephew out of Paris safely. That was what he had promised his dying father and what Richard himself felt was an obligation to his dearest Lily’s memory. This girl and this boy were Lily’s children. He would protect them with his life.

 

They reached Auteuil unharmed and unnoticed. The small borough, just outside Paris, lay squeezed between the river in the east and the notorious Bois de Boulogne in the west. Richard’s lodgings were with a soldier’s widow called Madame Bernard. The house was situated at the edge of these woods, a safe enough distance from the capital to keep them from being overly bothered by the revolutionary guards. The nasty reputation of the woods, where people were attacked and even murdered, where women were raped and children butchered, helped to keep Richard and Jake out of sight.

By the time they arrived at Madame Bernard’s house, Jéhan was fast asleep in Richard’s arms, exhausted by the long walk from the river to the woods’ edge. Manon looked ghastly, Richard noticed, even though she never uttered a complaint as she dragged her tired and sore feet. Her shoes were threadbare; their soles were too thin to walk the cobbled streets, let alone travel the dusty roads.

Once inside, Richard ordered a bath and a meal for his charges. Madame Bernard was instantly fussing over the boy and cooing over Manon. She led them to the kitchen and shooed the men into her parlour, instructing them to pour themselves a glass of liquor. Richard grimaced at the thought of the vile green beverage the French called crême de menthe, but Jake eagerly poured himself a generous dose. Finally, Richard chose a cognac and settled into a chair.

Faint noises from the kitchen reached his tired mind. Splashing and giggling, and Madame Bernard’s happy comments; she must have been bustling about and preparing their meal. Upon hearing Manon asking for the soap, an image of her naked body, luxuriating in the bath, ambushed Richard’s mind, utterly unbidden and thoroughly unwanted. In response, his body immediately reacted, leaving him stunned with the force of his desire. What the devil was going on and what the hell was he thinking? He jumped from his seat. “I will be in my room. Tell Madame Bernard to bring up my meal as soon as it is ready.”

Jake, startled by his master’s sudden exit, stared at the closing door in bewilderment.

 

Manon was famished by the time the landlady laid out their meal. At first, she was distracted by Jéhan, who ravenous as he was gobbled up his food without even trying to chew it. A few minutes passed, in which she fed him little tidbits until he ate more slowly, before she actually noticed that her uncle had not come to Madame’s cosy kitchen. When she asked Jake about it, he shrugged.

“He is like that sometimes. I do not know why. Simply disappears. Reckon he had enough of us for tonight.”

“How well do you know my uncle, Jake?” Manon asked, eager to learn as much as she could.

“Not well, actually. I was employed by his father, the late baronet of Bearsham, who sent me to Paris. I know Sir Richard only slightly from my rare visits to Brighton in the past. He is all right, so to speak. Never treats one without respect, although he does not allow slovenliness or insubordination. He is thorough in his business dealings, and he is clever, I tell you.”

“Is he married, or engaged?” Manon did not know why she wanted to know the answer to that, but she did.

“How would I know whether he is betrothed?” Jake protested. “He is not likely to tell me, is he? I heard he was engaged once, but the lady married another.”

“Does he have a mistress, then?”

“Now, miss, you should not ask such questions. It is very unladylike!”

“Jake, this is Paris and I am no lady.” Manon eyed him with deliberate mischief.

“No, but you will become one soon. You are the master’s niece.” The young man returned her a stern gaze.

“Maybe I will,” Manon chuckled, “but really, is there a woman in his life?”

Jake shook his head emphatically. “No, indeed. I think he is somewhat lonely, is the master.”

Manon digested this information for a while before asking, “What do you mean, lonely?”

They had spoken all of this in French, of course, and Manon now became aware of Madame Bernard staring at the two of them with avid eyes. Apparently, she was considering all this to be very interesting.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” Madame Bernard chimed in. “Monsieur has a certain … look about him, of being utterly alone in the world. As if he had not a living soul who cared for him. As if no one ever told him they loved him.”

“Exactly!” Jake acknowledged.

She knew not why, but Manon’s heart contracted with sheer compassion for de Briers.

“That cannot be true,” she said. “His mother is still alive, is she not? Mothers and sons – that is the oldest love story in the world!”

Jake knowingly shook his head. “Ah, but you clearly do not know the Dowager Baronettes of Bearsham! She is as cold as they come. Haughty, and ruthless. A veritable dragon, she is!”

Suddenly, a deep voice boomed from the doorway.

“I will thank you, Mr Davies, not to comment on my family, if you please!”

Jake nearly fell from his chair and began apologizing profusely to his master. “Oh! I am so sorry, master … I …”

“Madame Bernard, we wish to depart from here at the first light of dawn,” de Briers said, cutting him off. “We will need several items for our journey, such as a food basket, blankets, and two decent woollen cloaks for the young lady and her brother. I wish to buy that wooden cart I saw in your yard. Just tell me your price and I will meet it.”

The landlady bobbed in silent answer. De Briers addressed Manon with a curt nod of his head. “Be sure to wear unobtrusive clothes, niece. We do not want to attract any unwanted attention. We will pose as a family of farmers. You and Jake as a couple with a young son. I will be an elderly relative who is weak of mind. Also, I will not speak because my accent would give me away as an Englishman.”

Manon was dumbstruck by his curtness and could only nod in agreement.

“Very well, then,” de Briers said, “we should all retire to our beds and have a good night’s sleep. We have a long journey ahead in the days to come.”

They all rose at once and left for their sleeping quarters.

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