The ride to Brighton was to take six hours, necessitating a stop in Hastings for luncheon. The Saxon and Norman Inn, near Hastings Castle, served a decent shepherd’s pie and boasted an appreciable amber-coloured ale by the name of “Coxcomb”. Lucian Blackthorne, Viscount Rossiter requested the private parlour for his party.
During the meal, Richard kept himself in the background, responding only when a direct question was addressed to him, glad that his friend Lucian was not drawing him into the conversation. Lucian started lecturing about the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the subsequent conquering of the British Isles by the Normans. Manon was well aware of Richard’s quiet presence but found Lucian’s story quite interesting. He had a way of narrating that made the tale easy to follow and never dull. He captivated his audience by weaving exciting anecdotes among the historical facts. To her surprise, Manon discovered she was beginning to like this friend of Richard’s. Like, but not love him. Love … never again.
Brighton, a seaside town of modest proportions with a population of sixty thousand, had come to the attention of the Prince Regent in 1783. The future George IV had exercised the full royal power since 1788, when his father became too ill to reign. Prinny had fallen in love with Brighton from the start, and that love had never faltered. Since 1787, Henry Holland had been designing Prinny’s plans for enlarging the modest farmhouse the prince rented for his seaside retreats from the London Court. The first wings of the Royal Pavilion were already in place, and Manon and Jéhan looked in astonishment as they passed the building site. The carriage rode over the Grand Parade on its way to King’s Road, where Richard’s townhouse was situated. So strange, Manon mused. Across the Channel, a kingdom was being obliterated, while here, on this small island, the monarch amused himself with fulfilling his dreams, and building them in stone.
King’s Road was a seafront road, and the de Briers townhouse – a stately four-storey Georgian building, with a cream-coloured limestone facade and high windows – occupied a considerably large area. A sign beside the double front door told the name of the house – “The Wild Rose”. Seeing that Manon was reading the name with a puzzled frown, Richard hastened to explain.
“A ‘briar rose’ – or ‘B-R-I-E-R’ in the old spelling – is a wild rose, also called ‘églantier’ in French. It resembles the common yellow or white dog roses that you can find in many a hedgerow, but this one is always a soft pink. I think you fit quite nicely into our family of wild roses, Manon.” The last words were said solely for her ears, a fact that made Manon blush with unexpected pleasure.
“Ah,” Richard exclaimed, deliberately diverting everyone’s attention, “here is my erstwhile butler! Good day to you, Pritchard!”
The man, of middle height, rotund, and balding, exuded an air of quiet competence. He bowed to his master and said, “Good day, sir. We expected you back some days ago. I trust all went well?”
“Only the slightest of delays, but nothing that we did not expect, Pritchard.”
Richard took Manon and Jéhan by the hand. “This is Manon Favier, my niece, and her brother Jéhan. I am counting on you to make them feel at home, Pritchard.”
“I will tend to that personally, sir. Welcome to The Wild Rose, Miss Favier, Master Jéhan. If you would follow me inside, I will show you to your rooms.”
Jéhan was baffled. “What did he say, Manon?”
“He was welcoming us into our uncle’s house, mon chou,” Manon replied, putting a hand on her uncle’s proffered arm.
In the hall, the staff was assembled to welcome the master. A short, rather plump woman of some sixty years stepped forward when Pritchard beckoned her.
“Miss Favier, Master Jéhan, may I introduce you to Mrs Carson, our housekeeper.”
Mrs Carson was dressed in a severe black calico frock that hugged her ample curves. It presented an austere contrast with her abundant white hair, which was drawn back from her rosy, round face. Her dark brown eyes were warm and welcoming and she curtsied before Manon, her mouth curving in a sweet smile. “Welcome, Miss Favier, Master Jéhan. Mr de Briers, sir.” Again, she curtsied, and Richard bowed back in return.
“Thank you all,” he said, “for welcoming my family. We will be staying in Brighton for a few weeks before we ride to Bearsham Manor. Now let us get the young master and miss settled, Mrs Carson.”
That evening at dinner, Manon sat listening to the quiet, serious conversation Richard and Lucian shared about the recent turn of events in the country she had been born in. Manon was no longer interested in what happened in France. Since the day her father was murdered, she hated her former fellow countrymen, and she was convinced she could never set foot there again. Jéhan, who had been whisked away by Mrs Carson to eat in the kitchen, should be ready for bed, Manon thought. She patiently waited for a lull in the conversation and asked permission to leave the table.
Both men stood when she rose. Lucian came to bow over her hand and press a feather-light kiss on its back.
“I hope you will grant me the pleasure of your company on an outing in my curricle one of these days, my dear Manon? There is a lot to be seen in Brighton.”
Manon’s eyes involuntarily darted to her uncle, who nodded slightly. “Yes, Lucian, I would be delighted,” she replied and left the room.
Richard felt as if the room grew colder, as soon as Manon closed the door behind her. Angry with himself, he reached for the Cockburn port and poured himself a generous amount of it. His friend Lucian raised an eyebrow when Richard tossed back his glass in one movement.
“I say,” Lucian commented, “are you out of sorts, old chap? I hope you do not mind me taking out Manon.”
“No, not at all. Why should I mind?”
Lucian nodded, took a cigar out of the silver box Pritchard offered him and presented it to the butler to be set alight. “You do know I am seriously considering taking an interest in your niece, I hope? Manon is a fascinating young woman, and her beauty matches her bright intellect and her lively wit.”
“I am aware of it, Lucian. I have eyes and a brain, too.”
The two men sat in silence after Richard dismissed his butler. Richard was conscious of a certain uneasiness stirring within him. His lifelong friend was beginning to take an interest, then. Small wonder there.
“Lucian,” he said, in a casual manner, “I intend to make sure that Manon receives all the attention she is entitled to. There will be parties and balls once my niece is properly kitted out. She will be given riding lessons, as well as dance instruction, and she will have to undergo quite a transformation before she is fit to meet the Brighton bucks. Are you sure you want to commit yourself already? She might turn out to be an entirely different woman than she is now, you know.”
“Oh, pish! Give her some credit, Rich! She will become even more beautiful and she will certainly grow more sophisticated, but she will always be the same, warm, uncomplicated and impulsive young woman that she is now. However, I think I have your meaning, old boy. You want me to behave and take my place in the queue that will line up for Manon as soon as she steps into the light.”
There were conflicting feelings in Richard’s mind as he listened to Lucian’s banter, for that was what it was. To Lucian, this was all just a game, a battle of words and actions governed by playful rules that varied according to the steps taken throughout the strategy. With rising panic, Richard recognized these rules and this game, and felt an unexpected shock as he realised he had played that game too since reaching adolescence and experiencing carnal attraction.
When they had become young bucks of society, privileged and rich and utterly irresponsible, he and Lucian had gone hunting for skirts. It did not signify what female came into view, and it did not matter how highborn or common the girls were. Lucian and he had laid out their strategy, lures, and charms to play the game of seduction, ruthlessly and determinedly, until they had gotten their prey where they wanted them. After the deed, no thought was left for what the unfortunate female had have been subjected to. Always onward to the next hunt – that had been their motto. Richard had always enjoyed the game. Until now.
This time, there was a snare. The female in question was Manon, and she was sacrosanct.
Fighting to keep the rising irritation out of his voice, Richard stated, “I would appreciate your reserve, Lucian. I want Manon to have every opportunity she needs to find the husband she wants. Your hovering at her elbow would not help in that. I am sure that this does not need to be said, but you do realise that our old hunting games will not be tolerated here. ”
In the kitchen, Jéhan was having the time of his life, Manon saw.
He was sitting at the enormous oaken table with a treasure trove of delicacies before him enthusiastically stuffing them into his mouth under the enchanted eye of both the housekeeper, Mrs Carson, and the cook, Mrs Petheridge. A few yards away, a couple of giggling scullery maids were watching the scene with glee.
“Oh, Mrs Carson, I hope my brother has not been overstepping the mark? Jéhan has no boundaries when it comes to sweets, I fear,” Manon asked.
Mrs Petheridge smiled broadly and replied in Mrs Carson’s stead. “Oh, no, miss! I love having him here! He is such a bright, handsome little chap, are you not, my pet?”
Jéhan nodded and to Manon’s surprise answered in English. “You are the best cook in the world, Mrs Petheridge!”
“Now where did you learn that?” Manon inquired, speaking French again.
“From Queenie there!” Jéhan replied, pointing at a petite little redhead in the small group of scullery maids. She looked to be the same age as Jéhan. “She is teaching me English!”
Manon looked at the wisp of a child, thin and pale, but laughing her head off with mirth.
“Hello, Queenie,” Manon greeted the girl. “Thank you for being my brother’s teacher.”
“Yer welcome, miss! I c’n teach ’m how ta peel vegetables too, if you want!”
That provoked a new peal of laughter between the maids. Mrs Petheridge leaned closer to Manon and whispered, “She looks small but she’s almost ten. I took her in some two weeks ago, and she never said a word nor ventured a smile, until your brother walked in here. Now she is acting like a normal child for the first time since she came here. The two of them instantly began talking to each other, your brother in French and Queenie in her Brighton dialect. They seem to understand the other without effort. Hopefully, she’ll settle in now and I want to put some flesh on that thin frame as fast as I can, poor little mite!”
“I appreciate your effort in making a welcoming home for Jéhan,” Manon said in response. “He has gone through some troublesome times, and so have I. I know that being under my uncle’s protection will bring back normalcy into our lives.”
“Right you are, miss. Mr de Briers is solid gold, do not worry. He will take you and Jéhan under his wing.”
Manon smiled at her, then ordered, “Jéhan, come with me. It is long past your bedtime.” She took her brother upstairs to the rooms that had been assigned to him in the left wing of the house. There she relinquished him into the hands of his newly appointed nanny, a pleasant fifteen-year-old girl by the name of Maisie Howard. She was Mrs Carson’s niece and had expressed a wish to serve in a stately household. When the family moved to Bearsham Manor in a few weeks’ time, Maisie would come along, as would Bessy, Manon’s lady’s maid.
Manon watched for a few moments while Maisie helped Jéhan undress and don his nightgown. She then tucked her brother into the large four poster bed and kissed him goodnight. Jéhan was exhausted, and so was she. Manon wished Maisie goodnight and left the room to go to the right wing, where her own rooms were located. On the landing, however, the deep voice of her uncle halted her.
“Manon, could I have a word with you before you retire for the night? There are some matters that need to be considered.”