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.”