In the two weeks that followed the ball, Manon was swept into a flurry of activity attending balls and soirées and enjoying outings to the park and riding journeys. Lucian was her attentive groom when she went riding while Marcus Lascombe, a charming fair-haired giant with dreamy blue eyes was Manon’s usual companion for the theatre. His brother Joseph, considerably shorter than Marcus, was a slender, handsome and amiable man who loved to take her out for poetry evenings. Then there were a number of other young bucks, scarcely older than Manon who endeavoured to ask her to a ball or a soirée with the enthusiasm only the young possess. They made Manon smile, yet she did not respond to their pleas, because she had no interests in beguiling innocent boys still engaged in their studies at university.
However, none of Manon’s suitors had proposed to her, not even Lucian Blackthorn, a fact that left Manon nonplussed. Since she was unable to accept Richard, she was determined to say yes to Lucian if he asked her to be his wife. She liked Lucian. He was an earl’s son; that was true. He was wealthy as well, but that was not what made him attractive. It was his high-spirited, humorous manner and his boyish charm that drew Manon to him. She knew that life with Lucian would be anything but dull. They were certain to have fun together, and even joy, and perhaps love would blossom one day if they let it grow between them. Manon was prepared to give love a chance again, with Lucian. Yet he had not said a word so far.
As Manon had expected, her uncle wished to be informed about the situation. He questioned her on one of the rare nights that she was not engaged. The four of them, with Pru and Jake Davies being of the company, were dining en petit comité.
“Manon, have you received any offers of marriage as yet?”
“No, Uncle. So far, no one has ‘come up to scratch’ yet.”
She smiled at him, seeing that her words somehow seemed to upset him. “I apologize, Uncle. I know a lady should not speak in such terms.”
He did not reply but quickly lowered his gaze and continued eating.
Pru, however, knew she could not have misjudged the look of pure sorrow she saw in the baronet’s eyes when the proposal was mentioned. Oh, it had only been there for a second. Sir Richard was too well bred to allow feelings to show on his face for longer than that. But it had been there, nevertheless. Manon, she knew, had seen it too; it was what had compelled the young woman to quickly apologize. Sir Richard had become utterly distressed when Manon joked about Sir Lucian’s proposal, or the lack thereof, Pru registered. That, or Pru was no longer able to read people’s gazes as she had been doing all her life.
Unobtrusively, from the corner of an eye, Pru observed the two. At any given moment, they were either avoiding each other’s gazes or throwing furtive looks at each other especially when they thought the other would not see them. A tension most definitively hovered between the baronet and his niece.
Allowing Pritchard to remove his empty plate, Richard de Briers cleared his throat and thus claimed the attention of the other diners.
“Estate matters claim me back to Bearsham Manor, as I was informed today by a letter from my steward, Trevor Waldham. There is no need to accompany me, niece, if you wish to stay in Brighton. Jake, I trust you will prepare young Jéhan for the journey and instruct his nanny that she is to pack his belongings.”
“Yes, of course, sir. Will…”
“I beg your pardon!” Manon’s voice rang with sudden alarm when she abruptly stood, drawing all attention to her.
Richard looked at her wearily and said, “Yes, Manon?”
“Are you taking my brother away from me?” Her green eyes blazed with sudden fury, Richard saw. He drew a breath to keep his composure before patiently explaining, “That goes without saying, Manon. Jéhan is my heir. He will accompany me wherever I go.”
“Then, Uncle, I must also prepare myself for travelling.”
Manon addressed Pritchard in a polite voice and asked him if he would kindly inform her maid Bessie to start packing.
“Yes, of course, Miss Favier,” the butler answered. He gestured to a footman to take his place at the table before he left the dining room.
Her uncle’s quiet voice was laden with authority. He was fixing her with his most unwavering gaze. Pru Butterworth watched in amazement at how Manon’s chin went up in defiance and how her eyes and her whole expression focussed on her uncle.
“Please, sit down and listen to me.”
Richard gave his niece a stern look in the hope that she would listen to reason. He thoroughly regretted not having spoken to her of this before and cursed his omission, because he had known full well how firmly the two siblings’ lives were intertwined. Manon might never trust him again if he did not present this correctly to her. He kept his voice as soothing as was possible.
“As I said before, dearest Manon, there is no need to accompany me to Bearsham Manor. Jéhan will be safely under my protection and properly looked after by his nanny and his tutor. The boy is no longer your concern, Manon and besides, you have several events that claim your presence in the days to come. I suggest you stay here with Miss Butterworth and honour the invitations you have received.”
“But … Jéhan has always been with me, from the day he was born! We have never been separated, not even for a day! Please, Uncle, let me come with you! I cannot stand to be without my brother! I promised our father I would protect him with my life, and I will!”
She shoved her chair backwards and swiftly crossed over to her uncle’s place at the head of the table. To Richard’s utter shock, Manon threw her arms around him.
“Please, dearest Richard! I beg you, do not take my little brother from me!”
Pru and Jake exchanged surprised glances upon Manon’s use of a romantic endearment instead of the usual title of ‘Uncle’ that she always employed. Yet they could barely keep their jaws from dropping at the reaction of their employer.
Richard de Briers had risen and he put his arms around Manon. He was gently stroking her now shaking shoulders. “I am not taking him from you, sweetling. Please, do not weep so. I … I cannot stand it.”
His gaze went to Pru, a plea in his eyes. Pru rose and came to take Manon from him. The girl went quietly with her companion – to Richard’s immense relief. It had cost him a formidable amount of willpower not to kiss the tears from her cheeks and make her smile again. His heart went with her when he saw Manon and Miss Butterworth leave the room.
Sighing deeply, Richard gestured to the footman to serve the next course, which was dessert. He then turned to Jake Davies.
“Jake, will you join me in the library after dinner? I have some matters to discuss with you concerning the young master.”
“Certainly, sir,” Jake replied, still stunned by the whole performance and its implications. His master could not … would not … No!
Half an hour later, Manon had been bathed by Bessie and put to bed. A cup of hot cocoa had been served to help Manon sleep. Pru came to sit next to her bed and took her hand.
“Dearest Manon, I think you have something to tell me,” she said quietly and looked comfortingly at her companion. Manon turned her face away, but Pru had seen the silent tears that ran down her cheeks. Poor little mite, she thought. Poor sweet child.
“Is your uncle the one you lost your heart to, Manon? You can tell me; it will ease your mind to tell someone, dearest. Such a burden should not be borne alone.”
Still Manon did not answer and she tore her hand from Pru’s and covered her face. Her slender shoulders shook with violent sobs.
“Manon, we do not choose whom we love. Love chooses us, just like that. It is no crime to fall in love with one’s uncle but it would be if you gave in to temptation and acted upon that love. I cannot believe that your uncle would commit such a dishonourable act, Manon. Richard de Briers is a gentleman of the first water.”
“He has not done anything. He has always behaved impeccably. We never … touched each other again, not even after …”
Manon’s voice faltered, and she burst out in tears again.
“After what, dearest? Tell Pru all; it will relieve you.”
“After I confessed my love to him. He … he was the kindest of souls and he tried to comfort me. He also begged me to stop loving him and to search for a husband, but … oh, Pru! I cannot! I cannot, not ever! I love him so much, Pru! Oh, why must he be my uncle? What have I done to the Heavens to deserve such a torture?”
“There, there,” Pru soothed, anxious because Manon was so thoroughly distressed and because Pru could not seem to offer her comfort. “You must be strong, my darling, and pull yourself together. Sir Richard is right. You must be married and find a new happiness with your husband. The love you feel for Sir Richard can never be allowed to grow. You know that, do you not?”
Manon nodded, unable to speak. She valiantly tried to dry her tears, but they kept streaming down her cheeks. She fumbled for a handkerchief. Pru offered her a clean one so that Manon could blow her congested nose. Finally, she was able to speak again without sobbing.
“Yes, Pru, I do know all that. However, how do you think it feels when I am forced to meet him every day and eat at his table and sleep under his roof and never be allowed to tell him that I love him? How torturous it is to be confronted with him, day after day, and to see how magnificent he is? When he is all dressed up in his fine clothes with his splendid figure, his fine, broad shoulders, and his handsome countenance, he is temptation come alive, Pru. Yet I can never touch him or caress him. I am only allowed to peck him on the cheek and never truly kiss him on the mouth. It is slowly killing me, Pru.”
She was only eight years Manon’s senior, Pru mused, yet at that same time, she was feeling as if she were trice as old as the girl. Love could be such a cruel sentiment. Manon should be happy and joyous at this moment, enjoying her youth. Above all, she should be experiencing the love of a good, kind man instead of being ripped apart by her forbidden feelings for her attractive uncle. But that was just how life was, sometimes. Nothing, no unfair setback, was ever to be excluded.
“Darling Manon,” she said in an infinitely gentle voice, “life has treated you terribly unkindly. You lost your parents and you had to flee your native country. Now these unbidden feelings assault you. It is indeed cruel, my darling, but you must find the courage to fight against all this. I know you can fight, Manon. You are a brave, clever, strong young woman, and you can do it. Of that I am most thoroughly convinced. You are not alone in this, dearest. I am with you and I will support you. For now, I think Sir Richard is right. You should remain here with me and create a distance between you and him. That will be the first step towards peace of mind, Manon. Only when you are not in his presence will your love for your uncle return to a more appropriate level.”
The next morning, Manon said goodbye to her little brother as he mounted their uncle’s splendid carriage. Jéhan was excited and happy, whereas she felt as if her heart were being ripped apart.
“We will see each other again soon, mon chou,” Manon said, biting back tears and squaring her shoulders against the sorrow that was lurking nearby. “I will follow you to our uncle’s estate in a few weeks. Now, you will be a good boy, won’t you?”
“Yes, yes, Manon! Hurry, let go of me! We are about to leave!”
Manon smiled when she saw Jéhan’s enthusiasm. At least he was cheerful enough for the both of them.
The company – Jéhan, Jake and Maisie – climbed into the carriage, on the back of which one of the grooms was finishing the strapping of the luggage. Richard de Briers, who had been watching the proceedings from the front porch of the house, stepped forward.
“Well, niece, I will see you on the first of August, then. I asked Lucian Blackthorn to accompany my carriage when it carries you to Bearsham Manor. I hope you will have a pleasant time in Brighton until we see you at the estate.”
He took her hand and placed a kiss on its back, then pulled on his gloves and swung himself onto his big chestnut stallion.
Manon hastily retreated when Spartacus stepped aside, lest the animal tread on her foot. Mere seconds later, the horse and carriage disappeared round the bend and from Manon’s sight. She felt like she had lost a limb.
Climbing the stairs to her room, Manon had the distinct impression that, with Richard gone, the house had lost its very soul. It was definitively missing all joy now that Jéhan no longer filled its corridors and rooms with his cheerful babbling and light footsteps. When she entered her large, well-lit bedroom, she lowered herself onto her bed, lying on her back and resting her head upon her arms.
She needed to think, and to take her life into her hands again. Since coming to Brighton, she had had the impression that her life was being led for her instead of the other way around. Now that she was alone with Pru, without Richard’s constant supervision, Manon knew she could make plans of her own.