The silence in the room was almost tangible. It descended upon Richard and Manon like a suffocating blanket. For a few moments, neither of them were capable of speech, their thoughts jumbling within their minds like frantic sheep.
The one notion that was screaming deafeningly in Richard’s head was that Manon was not his niece. Not even family at all. Her mother, Lily, whom for his entire life he had considered his sister, was not a child of his father’s. The enormous consequence of that minor detail struck him with the force of a blow to the stomach. They were not related, Manon and he. They did not share the same blood. Consequently, they were allowed to marry. They were allowed to be together. The joy of that notion blazed within him like a wild fire.
But his cautious brain told him it was not that simple.
The world would have to be told that the girl Richard de Briers had first presented to Brighton society as his niece, was not who he had told them she was. She was Lily’s daughter, and a granddaughter of Sir Robert’s first wife. Her mother had been conceived with a man other than Sir Robert de Briers. Manon herself was not a bastard, but her mother Lily had certainly been one. There was not a drop of de Briers blood in Manon, nor in Jéhan, for that matter.
Richard drew in an audible breath and steeled himself for what he must say. He rose, took Manon’s hands in both his own, and drew her away from his desk to the middle of the library. She looked up at him eyes large with apprehension, because she, too, knew what he must say.
Richard lifted her hands, palms up, to his lips and kissed them softly.
“This letter,” he whispered, “is a curse, my sweet Manon. A curse because we must reveal to the world that our darling Lily was born out of wedlock. You are her daughter but not my father’s grandchild. You are not a de Briers. When this becomes known, the world will proclaim you an imposter and a fraud. Society will ostracise you and make a fool out of me because I chose to take you in as my niece.”
“Yes,” Manon breathed, “and we cannot have you considered a fool, because you are Richard de Briers, Baronet Bearsham. Too many people depend on you for their livelihood. Your strength is the title you bear and it must remain unblemished.”
Richard freed one hand and put a finger to her lips. “I have not finished, my sweetling.”
One tear escaped Manon’s luminous green eyes, causing Richard’s heart to turn to water.
“There is nothing more to say,” Manon said, and her voice sounded steady, though her heart was heavy with a deep sadness. It was done. Their cause was ruined. They could never be together because he was a nobleman and she a commoner.
“This letter,” Richard continued, “is also a blessing, my heart. Our love is no longer forbidden, and we can be together before God and the world. Anyone who dares to offend you, will do so at their own risk, for I shall shield you from it at all costs, Manon.”
Manon’s vision was blurred by the tears that ran freely over her cheeks. She blinked them away to look into Richard’s beautiful blue eyes. Eyes that smiled at her, eyes so full of unmitigated joy that she thought her heart would stop beating with the beauty of it.
“Richard,” she whispered, fighting to catch her breath.
But he did not stop smiling. Instead, he sank onto one knee and placed his right hand over his heart.
“Manon Favier, daughter of my beloved stepsister Lily, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife? I cannot go on living if you are not by my side. I cannot be the man I long to be if you are not to be my woman, my companion and my love.”
Oh, could it be true, Manon hoped? Could it be that simple? But surely, it could not. She would have guilty thoughts about having lowered Richard’s immaculate position from a respected country gentleman to an easily besotted fool. He would develop resentment in the years to come. Their love would suffer, wither, and die.
“Richard…” she whispered again, failing to find the words to describe what was in her heart.
He rose, and briskly – almost brutally – drew her within the circle of his arms. He lifted her face, forcing her to look into his own.
“We will be husband and wife, Manon, and we will defy everything and everyone who tries to damage us and the love we have for each other. I know we can and will be happy beyond words. I will devote my life to that.”
He touched her brow with a kiss, so soft that it was almost a whisper, but so fervent that Manon felt it, deep within her very heart.
“Nothing matters if you are not with me every day for the rest of our lives, my heart. You are my life, Manon, and all else is mere fluff in the wind. Together, my courageous, beautiful Manon, we conquer all. Please, say you will be my wife. Please, my love.”
Manon closed her eyes and gave herself over to Richard’s enchanting words. Could it be true? Oh, how she longed for it to come true! Her throat was dry and her heart was beating a fierce drum when she finally made her decision.
“You know that I love you, Richard. Therefore, I will be your wife, no matter what might come our way. Our love will conquer all.”
His mouth crushed hers in a kiss that seared through her body like a spear. She greedily tasted him, her tongue fighting with his in an ever-growing delight. She gasped when she felt the hot thrust of his tongue, plundering her mouth like a man starved. Her insides were burning; her belly was a pool of liquid fire.
“I have so longed for you, Richard,” she breathed, her mouth still held by his. “Please I beg you, make me yours…”
Richard tightened his grasp on Manon, stifling a groan of pure desire because he did not want to rouse her desires any further.
“My sweet love,” he whispered, “there is nothing I would like more but…oh, Manon, we cannot, my sweet! I burn for you! At least you must feel that. We must wait, my darling until we are well and truly wed, even though the waiting will surely kill me. You are so beautiful, my heart. It takes all of my willpower and control to keep my hands to myself!”
A harsh voice broke into their intimacy with a vengeance.
“Well, by all means, do not restrict yourself from doing so, my lord! It will only result in making you despicable in the eyes of society. But that would be intolerable to a de Briers, wouldn’t it?”
Manon and Richard turned as one to find Mildred de Briers blocking the library door way. The corners of her mouth were twisted into something that might have been called a smile, had not her eyes smouldered with hatred. She sailed into the room and stopped right before her son, just short of stepping on his toes. Richard raised an eyebrow but did not so much as move an inch.
“I do not care a blasted wit about whom you ravish, my lord. In fact, marry your French hussy if you feel so inclined. Even when they know she is not your niece, society will still be scandalized so tongues will be waggling aplenty. You will suffer from that gossip, I know that for a fact.”
Silence fell as Manon and Richard realised what the baronetess’ statement implied.
“You knew…” Richard breathed the words, eyes narrowing.
“Of course, I knew!” Mildred spat. “What kind of a fool do you think I am? After mere weeks of being married to your blackguard of a father, who never loved nor liked me, I decided to arm myself with some knowledge that would benefit me, should the need arise. I needed protection from him. After all, once I bore him an heir, he had the power to divorce me whenever he wished.”
“You have only yourself to blame for that, madam,” Richard said, his voice even but his face pale with subdued fury. “You betrayed the vows of marriage from the beginning.”
Not for the first time did Manon feel the hatred between mother and son, and she was saddened for Richard. No one deserved to be hated by their own mother.
“Ha!” Mildred scoffed. “And why should I not do what women of society deem normal when they are trapped in a loveless marriage?”
“Enough!” Richard said, with emphasis and authority. “We shall not elaborate on the past, madam, but instead concentrate on the future. Your future, to be precise. You shall leave this house and go to my estate of Walton House in Shropshire. There you will live in comfort and prosperity, for I will raise your allowance so that you lack nothing. The only condition is that you stay there, and never return to Bearsham Manor.”
The dry crack of the slap made Manon jump in horror. Richard’s cheek growing bright red was the only sign that his own mother had just slapped him in the face. Hard. The imprint of her fingers was clearly visible on Richard’s pale skin, yet he did not even flinch, nor did he show any expression. It was only after Mildred stormed out of the room that his shoulders relaxed a bit.
“Why does she hate you so, Richard?” Manon whispered. “It makes no sense, for you are the kindest of men.”
On an impulse, Richard drew her to him once again. Somehow, he needed to have her in his arms.
“I do not know, sweetling. She just does she has always done so. Ever since I was old enough to take notice of people’s behaviour, I realised Mother did not care for me. It was a kind of vibration that rippled through a room when she entered it, a wave of fierce aversion that emanated from her whenever she discovered my presence. I learned to avoid her, to scuttle out of a room before she would notice I was there. Later, when I was at Eton, things became easier. I came home for the breaks between terms to find she was away in London, most of the time. My father did not seem to care whether his wife was in residence or not. During the breaks, he and I spent lovely country walks on the estate, during which he taught me how to run it. We went horse riding and hunted hares and wild geese. We went fishing for trout and in the evenings, we talked. I loved those quiet talks, alone with Father in his library.”
Warmth overwhelmed Manon at the joy in Richard’s words. At least he had not been entirely alone. His father, Sir Robert had been his guide during Richard’s youth, a time in which he must have been lonely.
“I am truly happy that your father cared for you, my darling, even though his marriage brought him no joy.”
“My father was in dire financial circumstances at the time. He never allowed himself to touch the money Elizabeth had brought into the marriage. He was also in need of a son and heir. Mildred Thompson’s father was a wealthy Manchester cotton manufacturer who strove to have a title in the family. The Thompsons were of low birth, and a baronet seemed to fulfil their wishes. After the wedding, Mildred discovered that a baronet is excluded from the rank of peers. She might be Lady de Briers, but Father was not a lord of the realm, nor did he belong to the London ton. That was why she took lovers amongst the gentry. Jeremy Lawson, now the Earl of Donbridge was the perfect candidate. I fail to understand why Mother thought Lawson would leave his wife and marry her after Father’s death.”
“Both your parents must have been excruciatingly miserable, Richard.”
“Yes, you have the right of it, sweetling. Unfortunately, that is all obsolete at the present time. Father is dead. I wish I could rectify what was done to my mother when Father married her under false pretences, but that is impossible. They have each in their own way made mistakes, and there is nothing we can do about it.”
With a sigh, Manon buried herself deeper in Richard’s embrace. She felt relieved, because she and Richard were on the brink of their lives together, and not like Mildred at the end of their options. All possibilities still lay open before them. She would make the damned best of it, Manon swore.
“Come, dearest,” she said, in an attempt to change the mood, “we must tell Jake and Jéhan.”
Richard’s chuckle rumbled deep in his chest, making Manon weak with sudden happiness.
“I feel the strongest urge to scream it to the whole world, sweet! I might just do that!” he shouted. “Then by all means, let us do just that, my love!” she smiled.