The dilapidated hovel could hardly be called a house, Manon mused. It was not much better than a shed. The notion that poor Mrs Harrows lived here with six small children made her cringe. Mrs Harrows was Queenie’s mother. The little scullery maid had turned to Mrs Petheridge in despair when her older sister Patsy came to The Wild Rose for help, wailing that her mother was so terribly ill. Mrs Petheridge was an excellent cook but knew nothing of sickness and how to treat it. She wisely informed Miss Butterworth of the news.
Pru Butterworth being a clergyman’s daughter had always taken an interest in the welfare of her father’s parishioners, and in bestowing charity upon those who truly needed it. She had even acquired a small knowledge of the healing arts and had learned to treat minor wounds and mild colds.
Manon when hearing Pru’s services were needed decided to unearth her forgotten medicine satchel from its closet and accompany Pru on her journey.
Inside Queenie’s home, they found abject poverty.
Two toddlers lay crying in their cots which were no more than crates. On a wrought iron bed, covered by a thin, frayed blanket, Mrs Harrows was shivering with fever. Queenie rushed to her side and knelt beside her.
“Oh, Ma! Why haven’t you sent for me?”
Manon was appalled by the lack of even the slightest necessities in the house, even though she had seen more than her share of misery in the back-street hovels of Paris more than enough. Here in Brighton, it was even worse. Mrs Harrows seemed to be at the end of her tether.
Pru was already examining the poor woman, while Queenie and Patsy were trying to calm down the two howling boys. One of them was no more than twelve months while the other seemed about two years old.
Manon looked about her for the other two sisters she knew Queenie had. The girl must have seen her looking.
“Molly and Ruthie are in service, just like me, Miss. Ma wouldn’t be able to cope without our wages. Patsy works for Mr Lascombe at the Blue Ribbon Hotel. It’s not like Ma to let Jamie and Robbie cry like that!”
So four of Mrs Harrows’ girls were working, and still she did not seem to be coping. Or were the girls paid so badly that they did not have anything to spare after their mother used their wages to buy food? Patsy was fifteen, and Queenie only ten, so the other two girls would be somewhere in between, Manon guessed.
And where was the father? Probably drinking away his daughters’ hard-earned money, no doubt.
“Do you know where to reach your father, Queenie? she asked. “Your mother should not be alone when she is ill.”
Queenie eyed her in a rather peculiar manner and replied. “Pa died last year, Miss. Got a nasty bit of pneumonia. Ma just found out she was expectin’ again, with Robbie, that was.”
“Oh…I am so sorry, Queenie, I…”
“That’s all right, Miss. You weren’t to know.”
Nevertheless, Manon felt awful.
Mrs Harrows groaned when Pru tried to make her more comfortable. Quickly, Manon joined Pru at the bedside and pulled the blanket away. Mrs Harrows was burning up with fever and she had not left the bed for a long time, judging by the stench emanating from the dirty sheets. The poor woman was lying in her own dirt which had caused bedsores.
“Manon, what are you doing?” Pru asked, slightly alarmed.
“Queenie, go and fetch the two footmen,” Manon addressed the girl. “We are moving the whole family to The Wild Rose.
“Beg pardon, Miss, but there is a gentleman to see you,” the parlour maid said to Manon.
“Who is it?” Manon replied, not taking her eyes off Mrs Harrows. She and Pru had washed her, tended her sores, and tucked her into a nice, clean bed in one of the house’s unused rooms. Manon had fed her some chicken broth and covered her chest with a poultice, laced with lavender and eucalyptus. It had relieved the patient’s cough a bit, and Mrs Harrows was now sleeping peacefully in what Manon reckoned to be the first time in days. Her two toddlers were being looked after in the kitchen by Mrs Petheridge and the housekeeper, Mrs Carson. As it turned out, the most urgent things the boys needed were a proper wash and a decent meal.
According to Queenie, their mother had been ill for days but she had still been doing her work in one of the sewing workshops. Patsy had found her the previous night in the state Manon and Pru had first seen her in. Apparently, it had been some days since the girls had visited their mother. One of the other sisters, Molly, had come the previous day to feed her brothers, but she had done nothing for their mother because the latter had been asleep.
The parlour maid preceded Manon on the second floor landing while she answered Manon’s question.
“It is Sir Lucian Blackthorn come to call, Miss. He said you had agreed to go for a ride with him,” the maid said, dragging Manon back to the present.
So she had, Manon recalled. Only she quite forgot the date when she had begun caring for Queenie’s family. She explained to Pru, who was clearing up the dressing room they had used to give the patient a bath. She then quickly followed the maid downstairs to find Lucian standing in the hall, impeccably and most dashingly attired in his burgundy riding coat and stylish black trousers.
Only when she saw his stunned dark eyes upon her did Manon realise that she was still wearing the modest dark blue gown and white apron she had donned to attend to Mrs Harrows.
“My dear girl,” Lucian said, surprise colouring his voice, “what on earth have you been doing that you require the use of a maid’s apron?”
“Oh, never mind,” Manon breathed, “I have been…” Could she tell Lucian about Queenie’s family? She could not do so, definitively not. Lucian was an earl’s son and he would consider members of the lower staff to be insignificant and not worth bothering about.
“Pardon me, Lucian. I will go and change into my riding habit.” She quickly pulled the bell, and Pritchard appeared.
“Pritchard, will you take care of His Lordship until I come back, please?”
“Certainly, miss. If you would care to follow me, Your Lordship?”
The day was lovely with the weather so bright and sunny. Lucian took Manon out of the city and into the beautiful countryside. They cantered through the lush meadows, enjoying the ride. At least, Lucian was, but Manon could not divert her thoughts from Mrs Harrows and the miserable life she and her family led. When they stopped to rest their horses next to a babbling stream, Lucian led Manon to a wooden bench and sat her down.
“I have the distinct impression, Manon, that you are miles away from here. What is troubling you, my dear?”
Again, Manon wondered if she should tell Lucian about what she had been doing that morning. All through the process of tending to Mrs Harrows, Manon had felt a joy that she had thought she might never experience again. It was the satisfaction of caring for people and relieving their ailments. Manon wanted to help people who were ill, using the knowledge her papa had taught her. It had all felt so right that Manon realised not only how much she had missed it, but also that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. The art of healing was Papa’s legacy to her, and she was well experienced in it. She loved it because she was truly skilled in it and because she cared for people who were in need of help. The smallest bud of an idea had formed in Manon’s mind, and she was determined to find out if it would prove viable.
As for now, Manon knew, she could not share these thoughts with Lucian Blackthorn. Not before he made clear his intentions towards her.
“I was thinking of my brother,” she told him. At least that was only half a lie. “It is the first time in his whole life that we have been separated from each other. I worry, Lucian, that is all.”
Lucian Blackthorn studied his companion as unobtrusively as he could without catching her attention. He could not fathom this young woman as well as he wanted to. After all the weeks she had been in his company, he still had no clue about what was going on in that pretty little head. He could not read those vivid green eyes at all.
Manon Favier, although she was Richard de Briers’ niece, had not been gently bred. That was a fact that did not sit well with Lucian. When he became the next Earl Clifford, he would need to marry and beget an heir. That was one of his most sacred duties. His heir should be of truly noble blood, and Manon was partly of common stock. She was not entirely fit to be the mother of his offspring.
All that was true, Lucian knew, and it was valuable to him. He also knew it would be of no consequence if he loved her. And that was the crux of the matter. He did not love Manon. He found her beautiful, even extremely so. He thought her lively and entertaining, elegant, intriguing, and fascinating. Yet he did not truly love her.
Lucian had never been in love with any woman in his life. He had known many lovers and could entice any woman to come to his bed. He truly enjoyed their bodies, but he never let them touch his heart. He did not think Manon had touched his heart either, yet he could not be certain altogether when he had not kissed her.
Kisses were extremely revealing, Lucian thought. They could sparkle a flash of desire that might grow into a fire, one that could only be doused by a nice encounter between the sheets. Lucian had no qualms about taking Manon to his bed and introducing her to the art of lovemaking.
She truly was a lovely girl, he mused, marvelling in the deep auburn colour of her hair, her slender, elegant figure, her pert little nose, and her lush, rosy mouth. And those green, sparkling eyes. Ah, yes, truly lovely!
Manon lifted her face to the warm July sun, revelling in the feel of it on her skin. Her hat, a soft green straw bonnet, had slipped off her head but she did not pay attention to it. Contrary to what she had once thought, she enjoyed riding. Buttercup, her pretty bay mare was the perfect mount for her, and she was grateful to her uncle for finding the animal. He had seemed to know exactly what kind of horse she had needed. But then, her uncle always knew what she needed, did he not?
Richard had gone to Bearsham Manor nearly a week ago, yet Manon had not stopped thinking of him for one second of each day. She missed him, and terribly so, and she longed for the day when he would send the carriage to come and bring her to him. Her little Jéhan was also constantly in her thoughts. How would he fare without her to guide him? Would he miss her too? Would Richard miss her?
“We should go back,” Lucian’s voice dragged her back to the present and to the lovely countryside bench near the stream where Manon sat beside him. Oh, dear! She had not exchanged one word with Lucian since they came to this spot. He would think her terribly rude, indeed.
“I am so truly sorry, Lucian. I fear I am not pleasant company today, forgive me.”
Lucian rose, took her hand and helped her to her feet.
“You could redeem yourself with … this,” he said, sliding his arm around her waist and gently pulling her to him. His action startled her, but she did not draw back. A vague sense of inevitable closure affected her as if her life would now take a new direction. Finally, Lucian had made up his mind, she thought.
With something of curiosity, Manon waited for the kiss that would follow. She could see it in Lucian’s eyes that he was on the verge of kissing her. She studied his face, which was handsome, eager, and bold. His lips were already slightly parted and his gaze was dark with desire.
Why did those signs not excite her? She suddenly recalled how those same signs had thrilled her when it had been Richard holding her. How her heart had fluttered like a bird trying to escape its cage. Now she felt only a mild curiosity and she wanted Lucian to get it over with.
When Lucian’s mouth slanted over hers, Manon registered that his lips were as firm as Richard’s had been, and as warm, and as lovely. Lucian was a skilled kisser, as experienced as Richard had been. He attempted to woo her with his agile probing of her mouth and tongue and he was inviting her to respond.
Determined to give herself a chance to make the distinction between Lucian and Richard, Manon wound her arms about Lucian’s neck and pressed herself against him. She opened her mouth and gave him full access, searching for the spark of fire that she had so exquisitely felt when Richard had kissed her.
It did not come. Where was the jolt of flame that had overwhelmed her when Richard’s tongue swept her mouth? Where was the heat that had suffused her whole body when she felt Richard’s arousal press against her belly? Why did her heart not pick up its pace and why did her blood not course through her veins like a stream of liquid fire?
Manon felt only a mild disappointment and even a faint sensation of boredom. She let go of Lucian and retreated.
“Forgive me, Lucian. I …”
“No, my dear. It is I who must beg for forgiveness. That was rude of me. I fear I forgot myself, and I apologize. Come, let us return to town.”
He extended his hand once again, and Manon allowed him to lead her to Buttercup and lift her into the saddle. They swiftly rode back to Richard’s townhouse and separated without further ado.