On the first Thursday of July, a sumptuous ball was given by Richard de Briers, Baronet Bearsham, in his townhouse, to present his niece, Miss Manon Favier to the Brighton society.
Standing near the large, high ballroom windows, Richard was watching the line of dancers that occupied the floor in an intricate country dance. All the dancers were part of Brighton’s ton, and the coastal town’s society was rapidly increasing, due to the Prince Regent’s presence.
There was, of course, his best friend, Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter, who was at present leading Manon between the lines. There were the brothers Lascombe, who were the sons of one of Brighton’s wealthiest hotel owners. Although not belonging to the aristocracy, Joseph and Marcus Lascombe were respectable and rich enough to be considered much sought-after as marriage candidates. Further, Richard also recognized the sons of a number of the country gentry members, all young, handsome, and wealthy enough to aspire to be hunted by the unmarried young ladies of Brighton’s society.
There was one person in the line who inexorably drew Richard’s gaze time and time again.
That person was his niece, who glided and whirled effortlessly from male to male, her wide skirts swishing.
Richard felt increasingly uncomfortable, as he always did when he studied Manon. Every time she turned, her slim ankles, encased in creamy white silk stockings, showed for just the beat of a heart. Her small, delicate feet in their golden satin dancing slippers seemed to hover above the floor instead of touching it. Her slender, utterly feminine curves were dressed in bronze silk, and whenever Manon turned or curtsied, every move she made was enhanced by the fabric, which hugged her body like a second skin. She was enchanting, elegant, and sensual, and Richard swallowed at the reaction of his treacherous body, unable to control his rising hunger, even when his brain ordered him to adopt a more distant view of his niece.
The sultry voice of the woman coming to stand beside him pulled him back into reality. He blinked, and with an effort, he tore his gaze away from the object of his unruly desire.
“I say, Richard, what a handsome pair they make, your niece and Blackthorne. Do I detect a marriage in the making, or is he not what you wanted for Manon?” Blanche Morrison said, looking directly into his eyes as soon as he turned his head towards her.
Blanche Morrison, née de Bourg, was the daughter of an impoverished squire. The squire’s estate had been in shambles before his daughter married Ambrose Morrison, a wealthy Manchester manufacturer. Blanche’s husband’s money restored her father’s estate to its former prosperity, but Blanche’s husband would rarely leave his native town and follow his wife when she returned to The Feathers for a family visit.
Richard looked down at the pretty blonde with the wide, cornflower blue eyes, who smiled beguilingly at him. There had been a time when he and Blanche had been lovers, the year after she married Morrison. She had practically begged Richard for attention, claiming that her husband had no time for her, as he was entangled in his business. Richard had only been too happy to oblige, and they had had a stormy, very satisfactory affair, which had resulted in a son for Blanche. She had easily passed the child off as Morrison’s and did not pay the least attention to the now seven-year-old boy, who was being raised by the staff of her Manchester household. Richard would have welcomed the child into his own household, but Blanche was adamant that young Matthew should stay where he was, claiming that he was better off there.
If at first he had been reluctant to renew his acquaintance with Blanche because of the attraction he had once felt for her, Richard could now put his mind at ease. The attraction was no longer there, and the only reaction Richard felt when Blanche lifted her eyes in a desperate plea to have him back in her bed again was a mild compassion with regard to her loneliness, both physical and mental. He answered her teasing remark about Lucian and Manon with an indifferent shrug of his broad shoulders.
“Who knows how it will turn out, Blanche? Manon has only been out for a single week, and in Brighton, no less. She has yet to try her chances in London, when the Season resumes mid-November.”
Richard glanced around at the line of gentlemen on the dance floor, then continued. “Although I must say that half of the London ton seems to have moved to Brighton to continue the Season here.”
Blanche let out a titter of laughter, curled her hands about his arm, and replied, “Well, they probably followed Prinny’s trail from London in early June, do you not think? How is one supposed to stay in the future monarch’s good graces when said royal prefers the seaside air to that of the capital?”
“True,” Richard agreed, covering her hands with one of his. “So how is dear old Manchester faring, these days?” he asked, studying the delicate, heart-shaped face with the rouged cheeks and rosebud mouth. He should take advantage of Blanche’s presence in Brighton to renew his former affair with her, Richard mused. God knew how long he had been without a woman, and Blanche certainly would not reject him. He needed something to distract him from his attraction to his own niece.
Blanche shook her head, causing the golden curls that framed her face to dance. The rest of her coiffure was in the “pouf” style, swept up high on her head and supported by a cushion to keep it high. Feathers, braids and bejewelled combs made it look heavy and encumbering.
Richard’s gaze involuntarily shifted towards his niece, whose bright auburn locks were fastened at the back of her neck with a simple green tortoise clasp, which caused it to fan over her back in long copper waves. With every turn she made while dancing, the gorgeous cloak whirled with her and made Manon resemble a fairy dancing in the sunlight. Richard’s heart leapt in his throat, and he forced himself to wrench his eyes away from the enchanting view and listen to Blanche.
“Morrison is such a boring, old stick-in-the-mud,” his companion continued. “He never leaves that dusty old office of his. Did you know he has a bed in there? He does not bother to come home to sleep in mine anymore.”
Wisely, Richard refrained from commenting on this but upon seeing the dancers line up for a fresh round, he asked if she wanted to step into the cotillion with him. Blanche looked at him with starry eyes and agreed.
Manon was aware of a burning sensation scalding her heart while she was preparing herself for the cotillion. Her uncle was talking to and smiling at an exceptionally beautiful blonde, who took the liberty of laying her hands on him. He clearly welcomed her attentions, which caused sheer, raw jealousy to roil within Manon.
She should not be so affected by Richard, Manon realised. He was her uncle, and therefore forbidden. Yet she was incredibly jealous when another woman claimed Richard’s attention. It had not been the first time that evening. Many beautiful, lively women had been led into a dance by her handsome uncle, and many others stood watching, hoping for a dance with him.
Presently, it was this sultry, devilishly beautiful blonde. Richard’s hand resting on the woman’s waist, his smile and the obvious intimacy that existed between them had marked the woman to Manon as a rival for Richard’s attentions.
It ached, not only because of the distasteful feeling of jealousy, but also because that woman had what Manon desperately craved – Richard as a man, a companion, and an equal.
Fear rose in Manon when she saw Richard lead the woman into the cotillion that was about to begin.
That meant they would meet somewhere in the line of dancers, and she did not know if she could bear it.
Lucian took Manon’s hand and led her to her place.
“Ah, finally!” he whispered, bending over to her. “I feared Richard was done dancing tonight, but I see Blanche Morrison still has her claim on his attention.”
Manon eyed the woman, fear clenching at her very heart. Claim? What did Lucian mean?
“I do not understand,” she whispered back. “Does my uncle know this woman well, then?”
Lucian softly snickered. “He did, a few years ago. Used to go to Manchester quite often, he did.”
Manon inwardly cringed when she saw the knowing look on Lucian’s face. So this Blanche had been her uncle’s mistress?
The cotillion’s introduction music sounded, and two lines – a male and a female one – formed facing each other. Manon curtsied to Lucian, who bowed to her in return. Lucian took Manon’s hand to form a square, together with three other couples. Manon felt a stab of apprehension when she saw that her uncle and his dance companion were one of these couples.
In the first movement, Lucian made Manon turn under their joined hands, before taking her by the waist to slowly execute a complete turn. It was so pleasant that Manon entirely forgot about her uncle’s presence. Lucian was a skilled dance partner.
The dance companions began to turn away from each other to meet the partner at their other side. Manon curtsied to Marcus Lascombe, a gentleman she had only met that evening. He took her hand and drew her to his own side of the square. They touched first their right hands, then their left ones. With a smile on his face, Mr Lascombe passed Manon to the next gentleman. Without having to look up, Manon knew whose hand gripped hers.
With her heart beating wildly, Manon slid into her space in front of Richard and curtsied. He bowed and unexpectedly squeezed her fingers hard, which made Manon look into his face. The warmth of his fingers burned through the thin material of her glove, but it was nothing, compared to the heat of his gaze as they drew closer. In the next prescribed movement, he raised her hand above their heads and they came face to face, their mouths only inches apart. His breath caressed her slightly parted lips. Merciful Heavens…
Then the dance separated them again, and Manon turned away from him, acutely feeling the loss of his touch. It was only a few seconds before the dance brought them closer again, when Richard slid his arm around her waist and took the hand she had moved to her back. Their waists touched, their thighs brushed, and Richard’s torso slid along Manon’s breast. She felt the heat sear into her nipples like a spear. Closing her eyes to conquer the unsettling jolt of arousal, Manon prayed for deliverance. It did not come.
Entering into the dance had been a capital mistake, as Richard was wont to notice, as soon as he took Manon’s little hand into his. Immediately, her scent – vanilla and roses – enveloped him, and in his already semi-aroused state, unruly thoughts sprang into his mind. He ruthlessly broke them off. No, no and no! Just perform the movements and, for Heaven’s sake, detach yourself from her, you idiot!
But…oh! Those rosy, sensual lips, that pert little nose, and those green eyes, glowing with what he identified as budding desire … it was agony. Sheer, brutal torture.
She felt it too, Richard saw. Her cheeks were flushed a pretty rosy colour, her lips slightly apart. The warmth of her hand scorched his palm, even through the fabric of her glove. Thank God the dance made them turn away from each other so that he could collect himself.
Yet his treacherous body already craved the moment when they would touch again, and when they did, Richard was grateful that Manon did not look down to witness his embarrassment.
He had to fight for composure when they stepped forward, sides touching.
Holding on to the distant awareness that he was bound in honour to protect Manon and keep her safe, Richard summoned up the courage to lessen his hold sufficiently to wrench his gaze from hers.
And then she was gone again, taken over by the next gentleman who passed her to Lucian, and Richard was once more holding hands with Blanche. Promptly, his arousal subsided. Well, he mused, was that not a tell-tale reaction?
Manon suffered, swallowing back tears of misery and frustration. She wanted the dance to end so that she could leave the ballroom and give herself over to her sorrow. This was cruelty, pure and simple.
For the last three weeks, she had tried to fit into Brighton’s society and learn what her uncle wanted her to master. She had become a moderately good horsewoman, well enough to accompany suitors when they came to fetch her for a ride. Most of these rides had been with Lucian Blackthorne, whom Manon was beginning to be extremely fond of. She fervently hoped that Lucian’s attentions would eventually help her to overcome her forbidden feelings for her uncle.
Furthermore, Manon’s speech, manners, and conversation had greatly improved under Pru’s tutelage, and she and Pru were now much sought-after invitees to afternoon tea parties and musical soirées. Pru and Manon had become friends, and Manon had visited Pru’s home on several occasions. Mrs Adelaide Butterworth’s warm welcome was a balm to Manon’s aching heart, and for the first time since her father died, Manon again felt the comfort of a genuine home.
When invited to balls, Manon had the opportunity to display her newly acquired dancing skills – again mostly with Lucian, who was an excellent dancer.
Her uncle had kept a firm distance, except for breakfast and dinner, on the days when Manon was not to go out. Manon had dutifully respected that decision, because she too wanted to keep away from her far-too-attractive uncle. She was determined to find a husband and in doing so, to ban Richard from her heart. She thought she might have succeeded rather well in tamping down her silly feelings.
Until now, at this ball and in this dance, as she watched him with his beautiful female partner… it had all returned a hundredfold.
Was love supposed to hurt this way? If so, Manon wanted never to love again!
Her uncle had been reticent enough, even though Manon had been aware of the tension emanating from him. She was certain she had been equally distant towards him, yet passion had sparkled between them. It always did. Try as she might, she was unable to help herself and there appeared to be no rescue coming.
She was immensely relieved when the dance finally ended, and she excused herself to Lucian. Keeping herself from running, Manon left the dance floor and headed for the ladies’ cloakroom.