A discreet knock on the chapel door startled them both so unexpectedly that they almost jumped apart.
“Come in,” Richard summoned, and Thornton entered in his usual dignified manner.
“Sir, you have a visitor from London, a Mr Blenkinsop. He says he is Sir Jeremy’s man of business. His Lordship is out riding so I have put Mr Blenkinsop in the drawing room. Perhaps you might want to receive him in his Lordship’s absence? He says he has extremely urgent business with Sir Jeremy.”
“Very well,” Richard recollected himself and followed his butler.
Manon trotted after them, frustrated now that she would not immediately know the contents of the parcel. When she passed the vast mirror on the second floor landing, Manon caught a glimpse of herself and halted. She appeared terribly dishevelled, and her dress was in a sorry state. She could not possibly meet a visitor in her present attire. With a sigh, she headed to her room to change.
His mother, Richard noticed with annoyance, was already in the drawing room. She was standing at the front window, wringing her hands. A fair sign that Mildred was concerned over something, although Richard had no inkling of what it might be.
A short, rotund man in his early sixties rose from the drawing room settee when Richard entered.
“Sir Richard,” the man said, bowing from the waist with something of an effort since the said waist was non-existent.
“Mr Blenkinsop,” Richard acknowledged, returning the man’s bow. “How can I help you?”
“I was hoping that I could have a word with Lord Jeremy. The news I am obliged to bring him is quite upsetting.”
Mildred gave a strangled little shriek but fell silent when her son threw her a forbidding look. Richard turned his attention back to his visitor and replied, “I am truly sorry to hear that, Mr Blenkinsop. Since His Lordship has yet to return from his ride, will you join me in taking a glass of sherry? At least we could make the time pass in an agreeable manner.”
“With extreme pleasure, sir,” Mr Blenkinsop beamed.
To Richard’s relief, Mildred recalled that she was the hostess and hastened toward the liquor cabinet to serve the men their drink. She then seated herself in a chair near the window, still pulling at her hands.
The two men conversed about general topics during a pleasant quarter of an hour until the door opened to let Thornton in.
“His Lordship, Viscount Banbury, sir.”
Jeremy strode into the room, emanating a scent of horse and outdoor riding so enticingly that Richard began longing for the moment his bruised ribs would again allow him to do the same.
“Mr Blenkinsop,” Jeremy said, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise. “What brings you to faraway Hampshire this morning?”
To Richard’s surprise, the round figure of Mr Blenkinsop sank onto one knee. The man bowed his head and retrieved a small item from his waistcoat pocket, presenting it to Jeremy.
“It is a sad message I bring to you, My Lord Donbridge. I was commissioned to hand over your father’s signet ring so that you will be able to resume the duties laid upon you in this very hour. His Lordship passed away in his sleep during the night.”
Richard heard the slight intake of breath Jeremy uttered, the sole sign that the new Earl of Donbridge had indeed acknowledged the lawyer’s words.
“When did this happen, Mr Blenkinsop?” the new earl quietly asked.
“Last evening, after returning from a soirée, the earl collapsed. His physician pronounced it an apoplectic attack, my lord. His Lordship died in the night, without having regained consciousness. May I offer you my sincerest condolences?”
“Thank you, Mr Blenkinsop. You may rise to your feet. I am most obliged to you for coming to appraise me so forthwith.”
Richard stepped forward and proffered a hand. “Donbridge, I am most aggrieved upon hearing of your father’s demise. If there is anything I can do to be of assistance, please do not hesitate to tell me. It would be my honour and pleasure.”
“Thank you, Bearsham. Please ask your butler to send my valet to my chambers and tell him to start packing. I want to return to London as soon as possible.”
The baronetess’ high-pitched cry rang through the room like the wailing of a banshee.
“You are not going to leave me behind, are you? I want to accompany you, and be with you! You promised me that we would never be separated again!”
Richard froze in horror when his mother flung herself onto the earl’s chest, sobbing her heart out. He made a move towards the couple, but the Earl of Donbridge took the matter in hand. He slowly freed himself from Mildred’s clutching hands lowering them from around his neck.
“I think you know that we must part, my dear,” he said in a gentle voice. “My responsibilities are immense now. I will have to work hard to fill my late father’s shoes and preserve the earldom of Donbridge for my eldest son. We will see each other again on the London scene, I am sure. Farewell, Mildred, my dear.”
Mildred did not reply but sank into a chair, sobbing.
To be honest, Richard had been struck by the change in the new earl’s demeanour, when the realisation of his father’s demise had occurred to him. If he had been a shallow, easy-going, middle-aged man before, Jeremy Lawson was now showing his true breeding. He seemed to have grown several inches, and his bearing had become regal and distinguished within mere seconds. Richard almost admired him for finally allowing his upbringing to show.
The Earl of Donbridge gracefully nodded an acknowledgement to Richard.
“My thanks for your hospitality, Sir Richard. I hope you will think of visiting me sometime in the future at Donbridge Abbey. For now, I would like to leave within the hour. My mother must have need of my comfort and assistance.”
“Of course, I understand, my lord. Just convey your wishes to my butler, and he will provide for them.”
The door opened with a click, and Manon entered, her cream-coloured muslin skirts swishing softly as she neared the earl. She dipped in a perfect curtsy and gently said, “My lord, I heard about your father’s demise, just now. Please accept my most sincere condolences.”
Richard watched in mesmerized pleasure as she took the hand Jeremy offered her once she rose from her curtsy. Manon, being as soft-hearted and compassionate as ever, pressed it in both her hands before placing a discreet kiss on the earl’s cheek.
Donbridge coloured in sudden pleasure, and his eyes grew damp.
“Thank you, dear child,” he replied. “Your compassion is most appreciated.” He swallowed, then straightened before he released Manon’s hand. He bowed to her and the baronet and left the room.
The only sounds in the room were his mother’s sobbing, and they drew Manon’s attention.
Richard caught Manon’s eyes, which were softened with tears as she walked towards his mother. She knelt before Mildred and put a comforting hand on the baronetess’ shoulder. Richard felt his heart tighten within him. She was so compassionate, his angel. She even showed true gentleness to a woman who despised her.
“Aunt Mildred,” Manon whispered, “I beg you, do not weep so. You will make yourself ill, and what would be the benefit in that? Come, you should rest for a while. I will ask the cook to prepare you some hot chocolate.”
Richard was not at all surprised when his mother jumped up from the chair, pushing at Manon who fell backwards onto the floor. His mother was not so easily pacified.
“Take your hands off me, you wretched wench! I will not be pitied by the likes of you!”
Mildred stormed out of the room while Richard helped Manon up.
“Poor woman,” his niece sympathized. “And poor Jeremy, too. I am certain he will feel the loss of your mother’s company in the days to come.”
“Do not waste your tears on Jeremy Lawson, my sweet niece,” Richard felt compelled to answer. “He is now an extremely wealthy earl in possession of a large fortune and several thriving estates. The old earl was a tyrant who took pleasure in forcing his family into submission. No one will feel the loss of him greatly, I suspect.”
“How can you say that, Uncle?” Manon turned disturbed eyes on him as if she could not believe her ears. Tears began to run slowly down her pale cheeks, yet her voice sounded stern when she spoke.
“He was a father, a husband. He must have been loved and now he will be missed, no matter how fierce his character! A father will always be missed, Uncle!”
Richard’s heart turned in his very chest at the realisation that Manon’s father, who had been taken from her only so recently, must still be causing her grief. A grief she had not yet had time to acknowledge. Manon had never spoken about her father’s death, he recalled with a pang of sorrow. She had bravely taken up the task of looking after her little brother, ignoring her own pain. On the ship to England, she had comforted Jéhan when he realised their father was dead and would never return to them. Who had comforted Manon, he mused? No one, not even Richard himself.
On an impulse, Richard obliterated the distance between them in two strides and wrapped his arms around her slender shoulders.
“Forgive me, my dear. I had forgotten your own recent bereavement. I spoke in haste.”
The moment his warmth enveloped her like a shielding cloak, Manon melted against Richard’s body, unable to resist the comfort he offered her. The memory of Papa and Maman rushed over her in a tide of pain, so fierce that her breath was cut off. That life was gone. Forever gone, and it did not signify to mourn the loss of it. She swallowed the useless tears and stepped away from Richard’s disturbing embrace.
“We cannot dwell upon what is lost, Uncle. I will always mourn Papa and after all these years, I still have grief over Maman, but I cannot allow their passing to influence the rest of my life. I shall dearly love them as long as I draw breath, because they loved me and cherished me. They gave me and Jéhan a home through the love they felt for each other. But they are gone and so is the life we led when they were still alive. We cannot go back to the past as dearly as we should wish for it.”
“Come,” Richard said, on an impulse. “There is something you must see.”
He took her hand and pulled her with him to his library where he pointed at a large frame above the mantelpiece. Manon swallowed in sudden emotion as, for the first time since Lily passed away, she saw her dear mother’s likeness.
It was breath-taking. Lily De Briers must have been but a girl barely out of the schoolroom, when the portrait was painted. She had been depicted in a standing position, dressed in her finery, and cradling her little dog. Her left foot was resting on a low stool, while the right one was hidden beneath her skirts. That slender, delicate foot was shod in a white silk stocking and a silver slipper. Peeking out as it did from under the hem of Lily’s skirt, it emphasized her youth and vulnerability. Lily’s vibrant auburn hair was spilling over her shoulders, which were slightly bared by a splendid gown of deep sea-green. The colour of the gown matched her mother’s eyes, which sparkled with a fire of their own. The artist had managed to capture that glow to perfection. This, Manon thought, was Maman, as she had been when Papa fell in love with her.
“Whenever you feel the loss, Manon, do as I do – just sit here and look at her. This is our Lily, the dearest of mothers to you, and a dearly beloved sister to me.”
Richard’s voice came from behind her, and was so near that Manon started. His breath ruffled the hair on top of her head and his warmth was clearly noticeable. Manon kept still, revelling in his being so close. He spoke again, and she listened.
“Father adored her. She was the sun in his life and in mine. I remember the time when she modelled for the portrait. It took the artist two months to finish it. Lily had to spend hours just standing there without changing position. I was five at the time and an absolute little brute. I used to peek from behind the artist’s back and make faces at her, to make her giggle and laugh, which she did, of course. The painter used to be angry with her and scolded her. She always had a difficult time regaining her solemn composure after my mischief.”
“I cannot ever for the life of me picture you as a brute, Uncle. You are gentle and caring.”
She tried to keep her tone light, not wanting him to see her emotions.
“Oh, but I was a pest, niece, I assure you. All five-year-old boys invariably are. However, I tried to be a good master to Wriggles, her dog after she left. Sadly, the poor dog’s heart was broken, and it died two months later. The lucky bastard. Wished I could have died too, at that time.”
Manon could not think of anything that might console her uncle, so she kept her silence. Then her attention was drawn by another picture on the opposite wall.
“Is that our grandmother, Elizabeth?” she asked, walking over to look closer at the painting.
“Only yours, Manon. Surely you remember that your grandmother Elizabeth was my father’s first spouse. My mother was his second wife.”
“Oh, quite! I forgot. Elizabeth was as stunningly beautiful as Lily, was she not? That glorious auburn hair and those dark eyes! Are they not magnificent?”
“They certainly are,” Richard agreed.
“Maman and I seem to have inherited her hair,” Manon mused, “but not her eyes. They are dark, almost black.”
“Yours are sea-green, as were Lily’s. Since there are no green eyes in my father’s family that I know of, it must be a trait that came from Elizabeth’s. Unfortunately, I do not know your grandmother’s family since my father and Elizabeth were estranged from them long before I was born. Father never talked about the Montrose family. I only know that their seat was somewhere in Yorkshire.”
“Thank you for showing me these,” Manon said, smiling. “I had not yet found time to go find my Maman’s picture, Uncle.”
“No,” Richard chuckled, “you have been rather busy during your short stay, niece. Now, let us find out what is in that parcel my father left me. I can but wonder why he did not allow me to know its contents when he was alive.”
They repaired to Richard’s desk, where Thornton had placed the parcel. Richard cut the strings and unwrapped it. In it was a letter, several sheets thick.
Manon drew nearer to her uncle so that she was able to read it also.