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.