Manon woke when Bessy knocked and entered the room with a tray of tea and toast.
“Sir Lucian’s compliments, miss; and would you join the gentlemen in the breakfast room when you are dressed?” the girl said in a cheerful voice.
“Thank you, Bessy,” Manon answered, glancing surreptitiously around the room. She was lying naked under her covers, and she was terrified the maid would find out.
He was not here. Understanding why did nothing to dampen down the wave of burning grief that washed over her as disappointment struck. He had left her after he lifted her up to the heavens and gave her the most exquisite pleasure in the world. It was done, over, gone, as he said it would be.
As soon as Bessy disappeared into the adjoining dressing room, Manon slipped out of bed and hurriedly donned her nightgown. It had been tucked under her pillow, no doubt by Richard before he stole out of her room in the dead of night.
While Bessy assisted her with her bath and toilette, Manon relived the pleasurable events of the previous night.
Richard had disappointed her, she realised as she thought back over their night together. Even with her lack of experience, she knew there should have been more to their consummation than what had taken place. He had denied himself and her of their ultimate closure. By bestowing infinite pleasure upon her but not asking that his needs be satisfied in return, he had indebted her to him. Manon had not been Richard’s equal during the most notable event in her life, her initiation into lovemaking. The guilt was overwhelming. He had said that he loved her, so why the incomplete act? She should have known there would be no further intimacies after he told her to sleep. She was determined to experience love with the man she loved more than life itself, even if they were doomed to be apart.
Richard listened to Jéhan’s French-cum-English chatter with an absent mind, only partially engaged in the conversation between Lucian and the boy. Wide awake at six in the morning, he had gone out for a long ride on one of Lucian’s excellent horses in an attempt to shake off his black mood. Afterwards, he had come back exhausted, but not in the least relaxed. Even the hot bath and the excellent attentions of Lucian’s valet, Travers, who had groomed and dressed him in an impeccable manner, had not been adequate to restore his peace of mind.
It was all for naught. The previous night, he had not slept after he went back to his own room. The image of Manon’s sensuous body, the feel of her perfect femininity in his arms, the glory of her pleasure – it all played over and over in his head. Adding to that the frustration in his own lack of fulfilment, it was enough to put him thoroughly out of sorts. Leaving her after their joined experience had been the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.
He was a man in the prime of his life, and denying himself satisfaction had never been his strong point, especially when he had not been with a woman for a long time, as was the case now.
In addition to that, Richard had another, more poignant issue to come to terms with; he loved Manon, with a depth of feeling he had never experienced for any woman.
Manon’s youth, her innocence and her eagerness were extremely hard to resist. Despite her twenty years, Manon was still an innocent, a matter that astonished him, given the fact that she had lived in Paris. In the minds of many young Englishmen, Paris was the city of freedom, of the mind and of the body. Richard had visited France and Paris only once before with his father, just after he had graduated from Cambridge, five years earlier. The impression the city had left on him had been one of sheer debauchery and gaiety, and the women had seemed to have no boundaries at all. Yet amidst all that sin, Manon had remained pure and untouched. That was remarkable enough in itself, he mused.
The door to the breakfast room opened to let his tormentor in. Merciful Lord! What an image she presented! Someone must have lent her some attire, for she was dressed exquisitely in a fresh morning gown of pale green muslin, sprigged with tiny moss green hearts. The neckline modestly revealed the onset of her breasts, not enough to be indecent, but sufficient to be utterly teasing. Her glorious auburn hair was swept into a heavy coil at the nape of her neck, held together by a silver filigree net, and strands of carefully arranged curls graced her face to perfection. That face, Richard noticed at once, though of a faultless porcelain complexion, was set in a solemn, almost grim expression. Manon’s chin was raised in defiance, and her green eyes were cool and detached. Her lips, usually rosy and full, were now a thin line of challenged rejection. But in the back of his mind, he could only remember her sounds of pleasure.
By Jove! She was not taking his approach towards the situation well at all. Richard stifled a sigh and braced himself for what was to come.
Manon barely had time to glance around the pretty, sunny room before her little whirlwind of a brother jumped up from his chair to throw himself into her arms.
“Manon! We are going to Brighton today, and Luke says I can pick a toy in the shops! Is that not grand?”
Jéhan’s speech was a confusing gibberish of French, laced with the occasional English word he had picked up randomly. He was overexcited, Manon noticed. Therefore, she gently admonished him in his native tongue.
“Calme-toi, mon chou! You will injure yourself before long, and what would I do then, eh? Now, go finish your breakfast, and behave.”
While her brother darted back to his seat at the round breakfast table, the two men rose and bowed to Manon. She curtsied and addressed them in perfect English, with only the slightest accent.
“Good morning, gentlemen. I hear we are bound for Brighton. Might I ask, Uncle, what your plans are for today?” She smiled brightly at Lucian but did not look at Richard, lest her grief would show in her gaze.
Richard, to her disappointment, did not rise to the bait. He traversed the room in three strides of his long legs and offered her his hand. “Good morning, niece. May I escort you?”
Manon took in the magnificence of his appearance with a barely stifled gasp. He was clad in light grey silk breeches, with white silk stockings and black slippers. His shirt was of the finest white linen, and under his perfectly cut, dark blue frock coat, he wore a white silk waistcoat, plain and unembroidered. The whole was topped by the froth of lace on a white neck cloth, arranged in an intricate knot. He was neatly shaven, which brought out his clean-cut, granite jaw, and emphasized the strength of his features. His hair was brushed away from his brow and tied in a thick tail on his back. His sparkling blue eyes were eying her coolly. Manon had never seen his eyes take that deep blue colour before. It was most enticing, even with the brooding stare they gave her. She lowered her gaze to his mouth, which was pinched and colourless. And utterly forbidding.
He was doing exactly what he said he would do, and that was to treat her in an avuncular way. In a distant, cold way. Very well then. Richard had admonished her about their future behaviour, and she would play that game until she could speak to him alone. Knowing how much she loved him, she would hold her tongue and not embarrass him to another person present.
“Ah, my dear Manon!” Lucian hailed from his seat at the table. “I have saved you some toast and tea, and a chair at my side. Would you do me the honour of sharing my breakfast?”
“It would be my pleasure, Lucian,” Manon replied, inclining her head and ostentatiously ignoring Richard’s proffered hand. She inwardly grinned when she saw a flash of anger though instantly suppressed in his blue eyes. Gathering her skirts, she glided towards the table and sat down next to Lucian, whom she favoured with a genuine smile.
During breakfast, Manon and Lucian struck up a pleasant conversation between the two of them, leaving Richard to listen and respond to Jéhan’s many questions about England, and about Brighton in particular. Better that way, Richard told himself. Let her get better acquainted with a suitable man like Lucian.
The meal ended soon thereafter, and Lucian announced that he and Jéhan would go and see if their carriage was ready. “I promised Jéhan I would show him the litter of puppies one of my dogs threw last week,” he apologized himself to Manon. She smiled at him.
“Jéhan, do be careful, mon chou. Do not disturb the mother too much, will you?”
“I will keep an eye on him,” Lucian winked.
The sudden silence took them both by surprise, so Manon asked her uncle if he cared for another cup of tea. Richard shook his head. “I would like to inform you, niece, about your prospects.”
Manon’s surprise showed, but she asked in a level voice, “Prospects, Uncle? I was not aware that I had them.”
“Your circumstances and Jéhan’s have changed in the last week, Manon. Since the death of your father, I have become your legal guardian, and, of course, Jéhan’s too.”
Manon hated the cold formality in Richard’s voice. She felt irritation growing but made an effort not to reveal it. “As you undoubtedly know, Uncle, I will reach my majority on the third of October. I have no means to support myself yet, so I am grateful that you are kind enough to provide for my brother and me until I find a new situation. In the weeks to come, I intend to search for a suitable position. I am sure that I could…”
Richard could not bear it any longer. After the first shock of hearing Manon’s suggestion that she would find paid work, he was so taken aback that he had not been able to react, but now he raised his hand to silence her.
“Manon, I fear you have no real grasp of who you are. You and Jéhan are members of the de Briers family, my dear. Lily de Briers, your mother, was my sister. She would have inherited her share of my father’s money, had she not died when Jéhan was born. In his will, my father bequeathed that share to you and Jéhan in equal parts. When you will reach your majority, you will have access to twenty thousand pounds, Manon, and the same goes for Jéhan when he turns twenty-one.”
Richard realised he had to give Manon time to absorb this, so he waited before going on. She seemed stunned and utterly shocked by what he just told her.
“I do not understand,” she finally said. “Why was that money not given to my father, as my mother’s husband, immediately after her death? He was her legal heir, at least, according to the French law.”
“I am afraid English law works quite differently, Manon. Unless your mother had made him her heir in a will, Thibaut nor you or Jéhan, for that matter would have inherited. I am fairly sure that Lily would not have made a will, since she would not have needed one in France. The only way that you or Jéhan could inherit money that came from my family is if my father, as head of the family, had bequeathed it to you. My father was an honourable man, Manon, and he did his duty towards Lily’s children because he loved his daughter.”
Richard paused and waited for Manon to nod her understanding. “Good,” he continued. “As I recently told you, I found the letters your father sent to mine over the years. In one of these, your father asks that the money be put into a trust fund. He deemed the situation in France too dangerous for him to have that money in a French bank. Remember that in 1788, when Jéhan was born, riots had already started over King Louis’s excessive spending. My father agreed but requested that he be kept informed about the situation in Paris. According to our solicitor, Mr Brownslow, my father begged yours to come back to England. The three of you would have been welcome at Bearsham manor. I read in your father’s letters that he was planning to do so, Manon, but unfortunately, he did not have a chance to carry out his plans.”
Manon’s head had begun to swim from what she heard. How had all this been going on without her knowledge? Why had her father not confided in her?
“He never said a word,” she whispered, in a small, pitiful voice that tore at Richard’s heart. He hastily continued. “Read his letters, Manon, and all will become more bearable. I will ask Mr Brownslow for my father’s letters, of which he has copies. I should have requested them after my father’s passing, but I was too anxious about you and Jéhan, and I wanted to ensure myself that you were safe. All these facts must make you realise that you are now a de Briers, Manon, and so is Jéhan. That brings on adjustments that you must be prepared to make. If you would consent to hear what I propose, I would be most grateful.”
Manon looked up into his face for the first time that morning, Richard realised and her eyes were large with apprehension. So he continued, “You will require a lady’s maid. Bessy Crampton has agreed to come with us and act as such until we find someone else. Her mother lives here in Romney, and Bessy does not wish to be separated for too long from her. I told her not to worry and promised her a large reward for her services. As I mentioned before, you will have need of a female companion. When we arrive at my Brighton townhouse, I will go to an agency that provides suitable candidates. In her capacity as a chaperone, this woman will then accompany you to social events and parties. She will also instruct you in the accomplishments that English society demands of a young, unmarried woman. I have no doubt that, by the time you reach majority, you will have become a perfect English lady. Smart and beautiful as you are, you will able to reach every goal you set for yourself, once you have access to your money.”
With a jolt of joy, Manon registered what Richard had just called her. She was half French after all, and she instantly picked up on it, smiling surreptitiously at him. “So you find me smart and beautiful, Uncle?”
Her smile broadened involuntarily when a deep blush crept over his cheeks.
“Damn it, Manon! Will you behave like the grown-up woman that you are and not like a schoolroom chit enamoured with her dance teacher? Matters are not going to be easy in the weeks to come, and I will not tolerate any inappropriate behaviour, do you understand?”
Manon fixed him with a serious gaze, but made her voice gentle when she replied, “What I feel for you is not some silly schoolgirl puppy love, Richard. It is a feeling that glows deep within me, a feeling of safety when you are near me. Of awareness when you enter a room, and all my senses acknowledge your presence. Of belonging together when I think of you. Of joy when you smile at me. It is love, Richard, pure and simple.”
She shook her head, smiling at him. “We do not choose whom we fall in love with, Richard. We do not choose love; it chooses us. I know that, whatever may yet come to happen in my life, or whomever I choose to be my husband, I will always love you. I might come to love my husband in time, and I hope I will, but I still will always love you.”
Looking directly into his eyes, she continued, “I know what you did last night, and why you did it. You wanted me to go to my husband untouched. Thank you for that, Richard. I am so sorry that I put you through this, that I put myself through it, too. Nevertheless, it has indeed happened, and I rejoice in it. It is a memory I shall cherish for the rest of my life. I am prepared to do as you have asked, Richard. From this moment on, you are again my uncle, and I vow to behave in a manner that will make life easier for us. You have my word, Richard, the word of a de Briers.”
The only words Richard could utter, were a strangled “thank you”. They both rose simultaneously and left the room together, Richard to summon the footman to collect their travel bags and Manon to go to her room and find Bessy.