“I hate him.”
The sentence was uttered through clenched teeth, in a voice, low with malice. Mildred de Briers stood looking over Bearsham Manor’s sunny lawn from the window of her boudoir when she spoke the words that had simmered in her heart for twenty-seven years.
“Yes…” The voice of her lover drawled, “you have said that before, more times than I care to recall, darling. It is time you acted upon it.”
Mildred turned towards her large four-poster bed, where Jeremy Lawson lay sprawled in all his splendid nakedness. They had just made love, and Mildred, now physically satisfied, was able to give her attention to the matters at hand. More precisely, her acute shortage of funds. Funds that her son, Richard de Briers, refused to hand over to her.
“What do you mean, act upon it? I have asked my son for money countless times, but he has refused me over and over again. Apart from the meagre allowance he so stingily doles out to me every month, I have no other income. God! When I think of the fact that the money came from my father, my blood boils!”
Jeremy laughed, a sound that came from deep in his throat and could still make her tingle with the rapture of anticipation. He had not aged a bit, she thought. Men were fortunate. They only seemed to grow more attractive with age, provided they managed to keep their slim forms. Jeremy’s waist and stomach were still slender, and his chest and shoulders were muscular. His black hair was barely sprinkled with grey.
“Ah, well, we know that women cannot control a fortune, do we not?” Jeremy drawled. “Especially you, my darling; you have a tendency to fling out your blunt in every direction without even knowing the cost of things.”
Mildred huffed, which made the robe she had thrown around her shoulders slide down in a rustling heap at her feet. Jeremy appreciated the sight of her slim, lithe body and still full breasts. Mildred was a stunningly beautiful woman, despite her forty-eight years.
“What virtue is there in being rich if you cannot spend heaps and heaps of money? That blunt is mine, Jeremy, and I intend to get it back,” Mildred said determinedly and turned towards him with a gleam in her eyes.
Jeremy Lawson, Viscount Banbury, son of the Earl of Donbridge, eyed her with a mocking scepticism in his blue-grey eyes. “Have you still not had enough, my vixen, that you should uncover yourself to me? Fear not; my time is yours, you know. Come back to bed, my darling, and forget about that skinflint of a son of yours.”
Mildred did not react to his plea but retrieved her robe and put it back on. She seated herself in a chair near the window and cast a pensive glance at her lover.
“At first, I believed Richard was yours, Jeremy,” she said in a voice so low that Jeremy could barely hear her words. When he did comprehend the full meaning of her statement, his heart jumped in sudden fear.
“Mine? How could that be, Millie? We did not meet for several weeks before you married de Briers. My father had one of his apoplexies, remember? I had to see to estate matters in his stead.”
Mildred gave him a smile that chilled his heart to the core with its slyness.
“It is possible, you know. My courses were late to arrive during the fortnight before the wedding. I was fearful that they would be present on the wedding night, but to my relief, they stopped the day before.”
When she did not continue speaking, Jeremy anxiously prodded her. “So your son is truly his father’s, I take it? No doubt about it?”
“Richard arrived ten months after the wedding, Jeremy. De Briers never doubted his son was his.”
Viscount Banbury felt hugely relieved to hear that. He inwardly shuddered at the thought of being morally bound to Mildred by the sole fact that he might have begotten a son with her.
“Richard could have been your son, Jeremy, had you proposed to me as was my due. We had been lovers for several weeks before my wedding.”
Her voice took on a slight wailing sound that grated against Jeremy’s nerves. Mildred de Briers was a lovely woman but a harpy as well, and the idea that he could have easily been leg-shackled to her for life created goose bumps all over his body. He forced himself to be unruffled and coolly answered.
“Yes, we know all that, Millie dear. It is all water under the bridge. You know I could not marry you. My father would never have consented to a marriage with a commoner.”
Now Mildred was truly irritated. She stamped her foot like a twelve year old, a gesture that made her full breasts jiggle attractively – at least, in Jeremy’s eyes.
“No, instead you married that nitwit Mary Breckenridge and have made her pregnant every single year of your ten years of marriage. How does it feel to copulate with a limp, apathetic skeleton of a woman, Jeremy?”
“An extremely aristocratic skeleton, darling! Let us not forget that Mary’s father is His Grace, the Duke of Beaufort. That makes up nicely for her less-than-average looks and her thin, unattractive body.”
He rose from the bed, fully aroused now. In two strides, he was at her side, and Mildred found herself wrapped in his strong arms within seconds.
“Whereas you, my darling Millie,” Jeremy said in a low voice, “are simply delicious. You know you are the one I love, my vixen, so come to bed, and I will make you soar into heaven once again.”
God help me, Mildred thought, but I cannot resist him when he speaks thusly.
She let herself be taken to the bed, where she opened herself to him once more. While her lover proceeded to do as he had promised, a small part of Mildred’s brain was still fretting over her son. How might she put enough pressure upon Richard, so that he would consent to give her a more generous allowance? She had tried everything, flattery, threats and bouts of rage, but nothing seemed to unsettle that imperturbable mind or that cold heart. Robert de Briers seemed to have passed his own nature on to his son. Both men had the same unfeeling heart and were not easily persuaded to change their minds once they had decided upon a course.
A few days later, Richard was back at his estate. It was the only thing he could do to make his life bearable. The sixty-two-mile distance between him and Manon was sufficient to dull the pain he suffered when he was in her presence. No, that was not so. It was indeed painful, to have to set eyes on her the whole day long and not be allowed to touch her, beautiful and sweet as she was. Yet Richard craved that pain, because it meant he was in the same house as she was. It meant that he breathed the same air as she did.
At Bearsham Manor, matters had not changed much. His mother was still entertaining a few young bucks and taking her pleasure with them. Just this morning, Mrs Briskley, the housekeeper had complained about the extra work they gave the maids by making a mess in every room they set foot in. Richard had granted her permission to hire a few extra hands for the time the aristocratic pests stayed in the house. Fortunately, they would depart shortly, Thornton informed him. They had been absent from the London Season too long.
After his daily contact with his steward, Mr Waldham, Richard had taken to the stables. Now he was riding towards one of his farms. The joy of cantering through the Hampshire countryside on Spartacus was a much-needed diversion from his gloomy thoughts about Manon. The stallion seemed to appreciate the exertion as much as his master did. He was happily stretching his long legs in a fast canter. Richard felt the horse’s back muscles work against his thighs as if Spartacus longed for a gallop. On an impulse, Richard gave Spartacus free rein. The horse jumped forward, and Richard gave himself over to the exhilarating speed for a time. Eventually, he reined Spartacus in and patted the stallion’s neck.
“Well done, boy, “ he praised. The horse whinnied softly in response.
Then Fate struck.
From the forest undergrowth, a bunch of village lads came bursting into the open. They ran straight into Spartacus’ path. Still cantering at a fair speed, the large stallion reared in fright. With desperate effort, Richard tried to keep the strong animal from trampling one of the boys, who had rolled under the horse’s deadly hoofs. Spartacus reacted against the painful pull his master exerted on the bit. He bucked, swung his large body sideways and threw Richard off. Richard’s body crashed onto the surface of the road, which had been hardened by several days of summer drought. A spooked Spartacus broke away from his master in a fast gallop.
Richard was unconscious when the villagers came rushing towards him. His body was bent at a weird angle, and he was bleeding from a deep gash on his head where it had hit a roadside boulder.