“Now turn onto your back,” Manon asked. “Slowly, mind!”
Richard complied but had to bite his lip to forgo crying out with the excruciating pain. By Jove, that hurt! He could not fathom how it was possible that he had not broken any bones when Spartacus had thrown him off.
Manon repeated the gestures she had made on his back, this time on his chest, and she applied the poultice to his torso. Lord! That was an even greater torture. Her hands were sparkling fire wherever she rubbed. He begged for strength and closed his eyes in despair. Fortunately, his niece seemed oblivious to his ordeal and picked up the thread of their ongoing conversation.
“A veil? What type of veil do you think your father spoke of?”
“I have no inkling,” Richard replied. “I have examined all the paintings in this house – and I assure you, there must be hundreds of them. I scrutinized all those who had women with veils pictured in them – of which, I tell you, there are also many. I had them taken down and tapped the walls behind them for hidden niches. All for nought. I have grown quite desperate, Manon.”
“Yes, I can imagine you have,” Manon commiserated while she finished her ministrations, then washed and dried her hands.
“Ah, that feels like heaven!” her uncle sighed. “You have the healing touch, niece.”
But Manon wanted to hear more about his quest for the veil and ignored his comment. “Are there any statues with veils?” she asked. “Please sit up for me, Uncle. Here …”
She offered him the help of her arm so that he could manage to pull himself into a sitting position. He savagely pressed his lips together to avoid groaning.
“Brace yourself by putting your arms on my shoulders, Uncle. It will support you while I wrap a bandage around your torso.”
She was, Richard realised, every bit the apothecary and the healer, at that instant. How extraordinary that she could close off every other part of her mind and simply concentrate on the task at hand. He was the only one here to be subjected to disconcerting thoughts. Wrenching away from the disturbing sensations invoked by the position he had complied to, Richard forced himself to answer Manon’s question about the statues.
“There are several statues of women in veils. In the chapel, for instance, there are three, and in the gallery, you will find no fewer than seven of them.”
“And?” Manon prompted. “Have you examined them?”
“I have. I even hired a genuine sculptor, who probed them and tapped them, but, alas, he came up with nought. It is agony, Manon. I have run out of ideas.”
“Well,” Manon said in a matter-of-fact tone, “there is nothing you can do now, Uncle. You need to heal first. I will ring the bell for your valet so that he can assist you with the rest of your ablutions. Then breakfast, and afterwards, absolute rest. In bed, do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, mother,” he grinned. “No need to summon Bright, niece. I am certain I can manage by myself. Why would I need help in performing my morning ablutions?”
“No, Uncle, you cannot. I forbid you to even move without Mr Bright’s support. You could collapse and injure yourself even further.”
Richard lifted a sceptical eyebrow. “You are being silly, Manon. A few bruised ribs are not enough to keep me in bed all day.”
He promptly threw back his covers and swung his legs out of bed. The moment he shifted his weight onto his feet, his knees buckled and his vision blurred.
“Be careful, Uncle!”
Shaking his head to clear his vision, Richard clung to Manon’s steadying hands, becoming quite aware of her warm, soft body, with its feminine curves and its delicate lavender scent. He could not prevent his instant arousal yet struggled against it.
The door opened without warning and the dowager strode in.
Manon lifted her head and met the older woman’s gaze. She saw first disbelief and then calculation in the blue eyes that so resembled her son’s. A malevolent little smile curved the dowager’s thin lips. Only then Manon did realize what the scene must present to the dowager; Manon with her arms around Richard, who was clad in nothing but his unmentionables.
“Well, my son, I see that you are almost back on your feet again. You left your sickbed to embrace your niece … and in such an avuncular way.”
She laughed a bitter little laugh which surprisingly gave Richard the strength to draw himself up to his full height. His head was swimming, but he used his full willpower to keep to his feet.
“Yes, madam. I am on the mend, as you can see. To what do I owe your visit?”
Manon, who had backed away several steps from Richard as soon as she understood the meaning in the dowager’s gaze, felt a chill run down her spine at the cold, unloving tone Richard used when addressing his mother. She had never heard him use that tone of voice to any person before. How could there be so little love between a mother and her son?
“Cannot a mother rush to her son’s sickbed, then?” the dowager asked in a mocking voice. “You gave us all a fright, my lord. To be thrown by one’s horse can be dangerous. I always thought you were a skilled horseman, so how is it that you almost broke your head in such a fall?”
“I do not know, madam, nor do I have to explain myself to you. Now I would like to prepare for the day so that I can give my attention to estate matters. Be so kind as to leave my rooms.”
The dowager’s eyes burned with hatred, but when Manon looked at Richard she saw an equally loathing stare directed at his mother. It shocked her to the core. It was as if this person were a Richard she did not know, one that had another side that was different from the caring, gentle person she had always seen until now.
The dowager turned on her heels and left the room. For a few moments, it seemed as if the woman’s hatred was still hanging in the air. Then Richard swayed on his feet and grappled for support. He clutched the bedpost, but his legs refused to hold him. He slowly sank to the floor, motionless and white as a sheet. Rivulets of sweat were running down his face.
Manon ran toward him, her heart beating loudly with fear. Foolish man! He had overestimated his strength.
“Uncle, come! Wake up!” She gently shook him and rubbed his hands, a gesture which managed to rouse Richard.
“Thank God! Come, Uncle, you must go back to bed. You have suffered a severe shock and are not yet strong enough.”
“Yes, it seems that you are right again, niece. Help me up. Together, we will manage.”
Once her uncle was safely back between the sheets, Manon pulled the bell and ordered a modest but nutritious breakfast for him. Mrs Briskley must have been waiting because it was not more than five minutes before she bustled in with a tray. Manon asked her to help her uncle while she went to her room to dress.
Later, after she had breakfasted with Jake and Jéhan, Manon returned to her uncle’s bedchamber. She still worried about his condition. He had collapsed when he tried to stand, and that was a sure sign that he was still weak.
On the first floor landing, she was waylaid by the dowager and Viscount Banbury. They both had a look in their eyes that gave Manon the direst of forebodings.
“Niece…” The smile that accompanied this smoothly uttered term of address made a shiver run down Manon’s spine. This woman, Manon could not think of her as Richard’s mother, had a black and cruel heart. Manon curtsied.
“You seem particularly fond of my son, for which I am grateful. Yet let me warn you, my dear, not to display those affections in public. People talk so readily. They love to gossip. They would find immense pleasure in, shall we say, misreading those affections…”
The dowager let her voice trail over her last words, thereby putting a distinct meaning to them.
Manon felt her cheeks erupt in burning flames. She lifted her eyes and met the two equally mocking stares. Through the sudden noise in her ears, caused by her own pulsing blood, she heard the rest of the dowagers’ words.
“Affections they might most frightfully abhor. People have such a nasty word to describe it. Are you familiar with the term incest?”
“My lady!” Manon put all the indignation she could muster in her exclamation. She was shaken to the core because the dowager had been so cruelly bold. Yet a little voice in Manon’s head acknowledged the allegations. The love she felt for Richard was, indeed, incestuous.
“Why won’t you return to Brighton, niece?” The dowager went on, her voice dripping with mock sympathy. “I am certain there would be no blemish in that. My son has a reputation to uphold as a country gentleman. He cannot have his young, beautiful niece living in his house, especially when it is obvious that the green young lady is infatuated with her attractive and still youthful uncle.”
“Aunt, you seem to have affection confused with gratitude. My uncle saved my life and my brother’s. Of course I feel a bond towards him. I reject your interference most firmly.”
Dismissing Manon’s words as double Dutch, the dowager and her lover descended the stairs, both laughing at the dowager’s sardonic wit. Manon leaned against the wall, her legs shaking. She felt as if a powerful weapon just had been thrust into the dowager’s hands. A weapon that could destroy her, Richard and Jéhan. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to regain composure. There was no point in falling to pieces. She had to talk with Richard and now.
Mr Waldham was present when Manon entered her uncle’s room. He and the baronet were working on the estate ledgers, which lay spread on the bed. Richard, Manon saw with relief, had chosen to remain abed instead of sitting at his desk.
“Uncle, can we speak?” she asked in a level voice. Nonetheless, Richard caught an undertone of concern. He had come to know Manon truly well over the past months, and he sensed that she was upset by something.
“Mr Waldham, thank you for your time. We will continue tomorrow morning at eleven.”
The steward bowed and retrieved the heavy ledgers from the bed. “Very well, sir.”
As soon as they were alone, Manon spoke. “Uncle, there is something you ought to know. I have a strong feeling that your mother is your worst enemy. And mine, and Jéhan’s. In fact, your mother hates all members of the de Briers family in my opinion.”
“I can fully agree with that, Manon. My mother resented her marriage from the first day on. She hated my father, because in her eyes, he deceived her into thinking she would marry a peer of the realm. Extending her hatred to me, his son, was only a small step to take. Yet my mother cannot do much harm. I cover her large expenses, so she must keep her resentment of me in check. She would not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”
“What of the viscount, Uncle? He and she are…”
With a start, Manon stopped talking. She had no proof of what she was about to say even if she had surmised it from the start.
“Lovers?” Richard finished her sentence for her. “I have been aware of that for a long time, Manon. That blasted adulterer, for Jeremy Lawson has been married for years to a sweet, shy girl who adores him, has been loitering around my mother since the day my father died. It did not bother me before, but now I begin to wonder what further intentions he might harbour.”
“Not ethical ones, Richard! Actually…oh, dear Lord!”
She clutched her hands to her chest, wringing them in sudden despair. Richard was instantly concerned. “What is it, Manon? Tell me!”
“She and the viscount have guessed our affection for each other. I fear what she might do to us, Uncle, and to Jéhan.”
Richard felt a surge of pure rage shoot through his chest. His mother had been a thorn, first in his father’s side, and now in his own flesh.
“She will do nothing as long as I am master here, Manon!” he said, in a voice low with suppressed anger. “In fact, I will force her to retire to Walton House, an estate that came from the family of my father’s first wife, Elizabeth. It is in Shropshire near the Welsh border. I will threaten to retrieve her allowance if she ever comes back to Bearsham Manor.”
He meant every word, Manon realized. Her uncle could be quite merciless if he was forced to be. However, he was also not yet strong enough to have that severe confrontation with his mother right now. His face was still drawn and pale and his hands were trembling with exhaustion.
“Uncle, I am sorry to upset you so when you are still in need of rest. We will deal with this when you are back to your proper health.”
He gave her a sad, little smile. “I confess to feeling a bit tired right now. God, Manon! How is it possible to be so worn out when all I do is lie in bed?”
Manon lifted her bright green gaze to his, compassion and concern shining from her lovely eyes.
“You had a severe fall, Uncle. I hear that you strove to avoid overrunning one of the village boys. That was very commendable but also reckless, Uncle. You could have been killed. As it is, your head and your body suffered considerable bruising and you are fortunate not to have broken any bones. It is only normal that you should be weakened. Rest now. We will speak later.”
When she reached the door as she went out, Manon turned around to see her uncle close his eyes and surrender to sleep. She ascended the stairs to Jéhan’s rooms where she found her brother and Jake. The tutor was just closing his books.
“Manon, I am finished for the morning,” Jéhan announced, clearly eager to engage in something other than sitting behind his desk.
“Well, my angel, I need you for something very important,” she said, crouching down before Jéhan.
“What is it? Please tell me!”
“I need you to come on a treasure hunt with me,” his sister said, and to Jake, “Will you come too, Jake? I am very much in need of your assistance.”