“Thank you, Mr Waldham,” Richard de Briers said to his steward. “That will conclude our meeting for today. I trust you will inform me when the works will start on the northwest meadows. We need to drain them as soon as possible before the autumn rains start.”
“Certainly, sir. You may depend on me,” the short, middle-aged steward replied. He bowed and left Richard’s library carrying the ledgers they had been studying together. Richard rose and went to stand at the window overlooking the vast lawn in front of the house. It was his favourite spot, when he wanted to clear his thoughts. A perfect green lawn lay before his home which was a stately house in soft red brick. It was of perfect symmetric proportions, with three rows of windows above one another under the grey-slated roof.
Richard loved his home. As soon as he had turned into the driveway now a week ago, a sense of belonging had instantly touched his heart as it always did. He had grown up in this house and been loved, at least by his father, and also by the whole of the vast staff that ran the household. Richard realised that his father had been the one who made him feel at home, the one to give him countenance and a feeling of immense pride about becoming the next baronet Bearsham. Never had his mother given him that same feeling.
Mildred de Briers, née Thompson, must be the coldest woman on earth, Richard mused, for she had never given him any attention, let alone love. Mildred only cared about herself and the various pleasures that had been bestowed upon her when she became a baronetess. Parties, balls, and soirées, for instance. And lovers. His mother, Richard knew, could not resist the seduction of a well-turned beau, praising her beauty and her elegance. She had taken a multitude of young lovers to her bed over the past twenty-five years. His father had told him when Richard was sixteen and old enough to understand such matters.
Of course, his father had known. Robert de Briers had not cared about his wife’s unfaithfulness, since she became barren after Richard’s birth. The London doctors had assured Robert that his wife would not bear another child, and that suited Robert well since he knew damned soon after the wedding that he could not love this woman. He had only married her for her father’s money, which had restored his estate from the dire conditions it had been in at that time. And, of course, to beget a son by her.
Richard had arrived home on the previous Saturday only to find his home invaded by a bunch of his mother’s London friends, who thought it fit to spend a few weeks on his estates and at his expenses. Useless leeches, the lot of them! Idle, spoiled sons and brothers of peers, hypocrites and flatterers of his aging mother, who ignored her nearly fifty years and still behaved like a girl fresh from the schoolroom!
His mother was still beautiful; her son had to give her that. She had retained her slender figure, and her face had not acquired the usual wrinkles other women had at that age. Her dark hair was still abundant with rich brown waves, and her vivid blue eyes sparkled when she was entertaining as she was doing now. Even from the distance of his library window, Richard could hear her tinkle of laughter drifting toward him as a suite of young men was trailing after her. They were nothing if not persistent, Richard grimaced. Every single one of them hoped to be admitted into Mildred’s good graces.
When the company headed for the front door, Richard turned away in disgust. He crossed the large room in a few steps of his long legs and quickly locked the library door. No need for the pack to invade his sanctuary.
He poured himself a splash of his favourite whisky and let himself down in one of the leather seats flanking the empty fireplace. The Laphroig’s smoky scent and peaty taste always calmed him, and calmness was exactly the disposition he needed to be in now. Only God knew when he had last felt peace of mind!
His father had died two months ago at the end of May, and since that moment, Richard had been swept away in a maelstrom of events, over which he had had no control. It was fairly unbelievable, that his life had been turned upside down in this manner. His life … and his heart. God! How he missed Manon!
He lay staring into the darkness at night, her image haunting him. He could not keep her out of his mind all day. He would hear a maid singing somewhere in a corridor and compare the sound to that of Manon’s voice. A movement, a shift of light, objects, books, everything brought her back into his thoughts. Exactly how his promise to his dying father had turned into a curse he did not know, but it had done just that.
Alone in his quiet library, Richard relived those distressing moments of his father’s passing.
His mother had been in London when his father’s final illness began. A badly treated cold had turned into pneumonia. By the time Richard had understood how ill his father was, the doctors could do nothing more than make the patient as comfortable as was possible. The pneumonia had added to his father’s weakness, which had been induced by two previous heart attacks.
Mildred de Briers did not come to her husband’s deathbed until the last moment. To Richard’s astonishment, his dying father forbade her to enter the bedchamber.
“She does not care for me, Richard, and I loathe her.”
Those words were the last his father had spoken in a normal voice, for the night thereafter, he had fallen into a severe fever and had not regained enough lucidity until the final minutes. It was then that he had asked for Richard’s promise, to find his niece and nephew. It was then that he had whispered about “the letter hidden behind the veil”.
What veil could his father have meant?
Was there a veiled woman in one of the many pictures that graced the Manor? No, Richard had examined them all, even the ones that had been stored away in the attic.
Maybe, there was a hidden niche behind a curtain somewhere in the house. Richard had searched every room, high and low. Even the staff’s quarters had been examined for such a niche, but it had all come to nought.
He had also searched his father’s desks and cupboards, had even had footmen leafing through the many books in the library, but to no avail. Richard was now convinced, that his father had been delirious in his last moments.
The estate’s affairs had been in perfect order when Richard took on the task of managing it. All costs and gains were accounted for, all the property in proper order, and all his tenants content, thanks to the efforts of Trevor Waldham, his steward. His household was in excellent order as well, under the tutelage of Thornton, his butler, and Mrs Briskley, his housekeeper.
No letters other than the ones that Richard already knew of had turned up among his father’s papers. When his father’s will was read, Richard had noticed it contained nothing that he did not already know. Richard had been fully informed by his father of the contents of the will six years ago, when he came of age. He was heir to the title and the estate as well as to a large part of the money. On the contrary, his mother had only been entitled to a small yearly allowance. She had been thoroughly disgruntled, and even more so when she heard that Lily’s children would also inherit their own fortune. After the funeral, she had gone off to London for several days and had returned only recently, her usual bunch in tow. They had not spoken yet since Richard’s return to the Manor. Maybe that was for the best, he mused.
The happy cries of a young boy reached his ears, and Richard rose. He was ready for a stroll over his grounds to go and see what Jéhan was up to. Since the boy had come with him to Bearsham Manor, Jéhan had truly been in excellent spirits. The boy had missed his sister only once on the first evening of his arrival. As Richard had surmised, Jéhan was no different from other young children. They were resilient and adapted to new situations remarkably quickly.
Richard had spent a couple of hours in Jéhan’s company each day since their arrival, thus allowing his tutor, Jake Davies, a bit of free time. Jéhan awaited his time with his uncle with avid anticipation, and Richard found the boy’s company a welcome escape from estate matters. He liked Jéhan and enjoyed rambling with him over the grounds, especially in the large wilderness the estate boasted of. His heart a bit lighter, Richard threw on his coat and unlocked his library door.
He had barely stepped into the corridor when he heard his mother’s irritated voice.
“A word with you, sir!”
He turned to see her standing just a few paces away, her hands clutching her skirts in so tight a grip that they were rustling, which meant that the baronetess’ hands were shaking.
“Now, Madam? I fear I am lacking time at the moment, but I would be happy to speak with you an hour before dinner.”
“No!” Mildred de Briers gritted out through clenched teeth. “You will listen to me now, sir!”
Richard inwardly sighed and resigned himself to an unpleasant moment with his irate mother. Anger seemed to be the only emotion he had ever seen in her. He opened the library door once again and gestured her inside. Once inside, Mildred whirled around to face him and pointed an accusing finger at him.
“I demand, sir, that you increase my allowance at once! The pitiful amount I now receive is nothing more than crumbs from your abundant table. It does not last longer than three months, and I will no longer stand for it. After all, it was my dowry that brought wealth back to this fossil of an estate!”
With an effort, Richard barely managed to keep his temper. As always, his mother brought out the worst in him, applying to his darkest characteristics, the ones that he normally kept under a firm control.
“Madam, as you are well aware, my father is distinctly clear about the financial arrangements that have been granted to you in his will. Apart from a generous enough allowance, you also have the use of the London townhouse to entertain your acquaintances. You know very well that you can also make use of the Brighton townhouse, should you need it.”
He raised a hand when she opened her mouth to speak.
“Furthermore, I have already given you additional funds twice this year, madam. I have also redeemed the debts you incurred while in London after my father’s funeral. All good money, I point out to you, that I am not obliged to hand over to you, other than out of the goodness of my heart. If you are not managing your resources well, madam, it is no fault of mine. I suggest that you be more careful in the future.”
He could have foreseen what would happen, Richard mused. His mother’s eyes grew dark with anger, and she clenched her fists. Her face lost all beauty as it screwed up in fierce rage.
“You cannot do this to me,” she spat, stepping closer to him, in an attempt to browbeat him.
He barely battered an eyelid but drew himself up to his full height. She was a tall woman but she lacked a fair few inches on him, and she detested it.
“Do not disgrace yourself, madam,” he said in a light voice. “This conversation is over. I have matters that claim my attention.”
“Such as to run about with that little bastard you forced upon our house, I presume?”
The words had been uttered in so vilely a tone that Richard inwardly winced at their viciousness.
“Jéhan Favier is not a bastard, madam, since his parents were married before the magistrate and the church before he was born. At present, he is , and I urge you to keep that in mind , also my heir, until I marry and beget a son. So I intend to give the boy my full attention until he has reached his majority.”
“Will you bring the girl to Bearsham Manor as well?”
The question surprised him, and he had no answer ready to hand, so she continued, “What is she like? Is she pretty? Why have you not brought her yet?”
Her voice sounded slightly sly, Richard thought, as if she had plans for Manon when his niece came to the Manor. God forbid! If there were anyone whom Manon should be protected from, it was his mother, who had never cared about Lily nor her children. He shuddered at the thought of exactly how eager his mother would be to take revenge on his father for loving his first wife dearly. Mildred de Briers had always envied Elizabeth, Lily’s mother, because of the love, Robert had felt for her.
“My niece is due at the Manor in early August, madam. Her many engagements in town did not permit that she should join us yet,” he replied his voice even as ever. Richard never revealed his thoughts to his mother. He thoroughly distrusted her and was convinced she would take advantage of him, should she know how he felt about Manon.
“Yes…” The word came out trailing as if she were pondering over her next sentence. Mildred’s eyes were mere slits, but the vivid blue irises still shone through them. The sight gave Richard a chill that slithered down his spine like liquid ice.
A knock on the door startled them both. Thornton entered when bade to, and bowed.
“Beg pardon, sir, but I have an urgent message for you. It came by courier.”
Richard took the letter, then turned to his mother. “I am certain your guests will be wondering where you are, madam. If you will excuse me, I have urgent business.”
His mother humphed and left the room, skirts swishing in irritation. Richard ripped open the letter, which had come from The Wild Rose, his Brighton town house.
“Dear Uncle, I would like to ask your permission to start an infirmary for the poor…”