The vision of his bride, exquisitely dressed in a silken gown of fragile green, knocked the air out of Richard’s lungs. Good Lord, she was breathtakingly beautiful, and she was going to be his wife. He took a deep breath – a much needed breath because his head was spinning with the deep feelings of love and joy that overwhelmed him.
Then Manon smiled at him, and his heart turned to water. His legs would have walked toward her of their own accord, had not Lucian’s hand on his arm kept Richard on the spot.
“Steady, old man,” Lucian whispered – mercifully, his voice was only audible to Richard. “You must allow Jéhan to give her away.”
Only then did Richard notice the small, dapper figure of Jéhan, left hand linked with his sister’s right one. Of course, he berated himself, Manon had no one else to hand her over to her bridegroom. What a capital thought to choose her young brother!
Richard strove to keep his countenance solemn as Jéhan placed Manon’s hand in his. He bowed to the child with reverence and had the pleasure of seeing Jéhan emulate the bow with diligence.
Then, however, Richard had eyes solely for his beautiful bride, who beamed up at him. He kissed the back of her hand, never letting his gaze leave hers. Before straightening again, he whispered, “My dearest…” How he longed to say more, yet the words would not form in Richard’s mind.
Manon raised a hand to touch Richard’s cheek, when the Reverend Merryweather cleared his throat to drag them both back to the present. In unison, they turned to face him, but Richard kept Manon’s hand firmly in his.
While the good vicar began reciting the proper words for the wedding celebration, Richard felt his fears subside. Only then did he realise how heavily those fears had weighed upon his heart. Would Manon meet him at the altar to be his wife, when he had so thoroughly lost his control, the previous night? What if she had been scared by his wild abandon? But no, she was here, at his side, and he knew he was forgiven.
In a haze, Richard heard the vicar’s familiar voice.
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today before this congregation, to join together Richard de Briers, fourteenth Baronet Bearsham, and Miss Manon Favier of Paris in matrimony which is an honourable and solemn estate and therefore is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and soberly. Into this estate, these two persons present come now to be joined. If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”
Here, the Reverend paused and peered sternly at the congregation over the rim of his glasses.
Richard’s heart began hammering in his throat yet again as he realised that someone, anyone, in the small community had the power to object to their union. Not many of Brighton’s society were in attendance but they all knew that Manon had been first presented as his niece and afterwards had been named the daughter of Lady Elizabeth’s bastard.
Then, his heart nearly stopped as the sound of the church doors being thrown open reached him.
“I, Lady Mildred de Briers, do strongly object to this farce of a marriage!”
A rumble of shocked sighs rippled through the church’s nave as everyone turned towards the back, where the imposing figure of the Dowager Baronetess darkened the doorway. Time seemed to slow as Richard saw Manon’s lovely face freeze in a horror that must have reflected on his own countenance. A nightmare, devastating and cruel, descended upon them as the cold, harsh voice continued its torture.
“This union is truly cursed for it is an incestuous one! Manon Favier is the daughter of Lily de Briers, and therefore she is Sir Richard’s niece!”
Richard could not move, nor speak, nor even breathe. A weight crushed down on him, threatening to suffocate him under a pitch-black blanket of misery and shame. All was lost…he wished for Death to take him here and now.
But no…he should have had faith in his indomitable, fierce bride!
Manon stepped away from him and met her nemesis with pride and dignity.
“You are mistaken, Madam, and you are cruel and vicious in your despair! You should be crushed by shame to try and inflict this torture upon your only son. Sir Richard does not deserve to be treated thusly by the woman who gave birth to him, a mother whom he has always respected and cared for. My dear mother, Lily Favier was a bastard. I hereby make this known to this community and challenge everyone to take notice of Sir Robert’s letter to his son, written by his own hand and deposited in the care of his solicitor, Mr Brownslow. Sir Robert’s seal is testimony enough for the letter’s authenticity.”
“It is true and unmistakable! I, as Our Lord’s representative, have acknowledged and approved the content of Sir Robert’s letter. You will hold your peace, madam, or you will be removed from this church!” Mr Merryweather’s booming voice had never sounded so welcome to Richard’s shocked ears. He watched how the Dowager gasped in shock as St Wulfram’s sexton took her arm and led her away.
“Let us now proceed with the celebration of this marriage,” continued Mr Merryweather. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”
Jéhan’s clear voice chimed through the nave like the voice of an angel. The small five-year-old took his sister’s hand and led her back to her betrothed, confident in his role. Manon, as if nothing had occurred to disturb her peace, firmly grasped Richard’s hand and brought him back to reality and happiness. With infinite relief, he was grateful for Manon’s unwavering support.
The rest of the ceremony was undisturbed, and the two young people spoke their vows with nothing but pure exhilaration in their hearts.
“I, Manon, take thee, Richard, to be my lawfully wedded husband, secure in the knowledge that you will be my constant friend, my faithful partner in life, and my one true love. On this special day, I give to you in the presence of God and all these witnesses my pledge to stay by your side as your faithful wife in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, as well as through the good times and the bad. I promise to love you without reservation, comfort you in times of distress, laugh with you and cry with you, grow with you in mind and spirit, always be open and honest with you,
and cherish you for as long as we both shall live.”
Richard watched in awe and reverence as Manon’s gaze grew but brighter, with every word she spoke. He had the solemn duty to answer her in kind, so he cleared his throat and let exultation colour his deep voice.
“I, Richard, take thee, Manon, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto, I plight thee my troth.”
His hand shaking just the merest moment, Richard took his bride’s hand in his.
“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The simple gold wedding band slid onto Manon’s finger, and she looked at her husband. His beautiful blue eyes shone like diamonds, love sparkling from them to warm her soul.
Again the Reverend’s voice boomed them back to the present.
“I hereby declare that you, Sir Richard and Lady de Briers, are husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride, Sir Richard.”
An invitation Richard accepted with alacrity.