At The Wild Rose, Richard found Pritchard, on duty as he always was. The rest of his staff, his housekeeper, his cook, and all the footmen and maids, even the tweenie and scullery maid were at the infirmary.
It seemed that Manon had commandeered his entire staff into her service. Since even her maid Bessie was absent, Richard carried Manon to her room and laid her on the bed. She had not stirred, not even when he removed her apron, shoes, stockings and mobcap. Not even when he spread a blanket over her and tucked her in. She must have been exhausted, he realised.
In her usual brisk manner, she had made her plans and had diligently worked to make them come true.
Richard watched her while she was sleeping. She had instantly turned onto her side, and now she lay curled up, her hand tucked under her cheek.
His heart ached at the sight of her.
“Sir…” Pritchard’s hesitating voice sounded from the doorway.
“Yes, what is it?” Richard replied, turning to his butler.
“Miss Manon is well, I hope? She…well, she was so set on this infirmary scheme, and she convinced us all of its urgency, and…”
“And you all pitched in when she needed you. Yes, Pritchard, she is well, apart from being exhausted. I understand why you helped her. And fear not; I approve, but I will need to know everything there is to know about this infirmary scheme. Let us go downstairs, to my library.”
Half an hour later, Richard understood he had to take the matter firmly in hand, lest Manon should steer his entire household into chaos. It appeared that she had convinced Pritchard to use the funds Richard provided for daily expenses. It also became clear that Manon had been occupied for some time with her task. Her letter to him had come too late in the day, but maybe that had been her purpose from the start. To present Richard with a fait accompli so that he would have no choice but to condone it. Yes, he smiled to himself; that must be it.
Nonetheless, Manon needed his help. If she wanted to go through with this, she would be in urgent need of proper funding, and of a manager. Pulling out a sheet of paper from the top desk drawer, Richard began scribbling down some figures.
Manon woke with a start from a dream of horror and human suffering. She did not know where she was in those first moments of slowly returning awareness. She was also sore in her lower back and calves, as if she had walked for miles the day before. Which, of course, she had. And then it all came back to her. She gasped. Richard! Richard knew what she had done!
In a panic, she leapt from her bed and ran to her dressing room, calling for Bessie. Her maid was nowhere to be seen, nor was there hot water ready for her, and there were no clothes laid out on the chair. It was then that Manon realised she was still wearing the clothes she had worn the day before while working at the infirmary. That was, of course, why Bessie was absent. Manon herself had set her maid and everybody else in the house to work at the infirmary.
She hastily washed in cold water and dressed in a muted dark brown gown. With something of an effort, she combed and plaited her hair, the way she had done when she was living in Paris, just one thick tress down her back. She missed Bessie already, Manon thought.
There was not a footman in sight either, in the corridors and hall. Even the ever-present Pritchard could not be found.
The house seemed strangely quiet this morning. When Manon opened the door to the morning room, she registered with a shock that no breakfast was laid out on the polished round table near the window. Again, that was her own doing. She had waylaid Richard’s entire staff, and must go to see how she could put matters to right. She turned back into the hall and headed for the green baize door that led to the servants’ quarter. The door to Richard’s library stood ajar, and seemed to beckon her to come and investigate.
At his desk, slumped in his chair, sat Richard, still deeply asleep. His long legs, still in breeches and boots, lay stretched out before him. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his head rested on the back of the chair, slightly tilted to one side. His black hair looked ruffled, his face a bit drawn, even in repose.
With a stab of guilt, Manon realised Richard must have spent the entire night at his desk. The scattering of papers and books was testimony to that.
She picked up some documents, then stilled when she saw what was on them. It seemed that Richard, in his usual thorough and efficient manner, had worked out a scheme for the daily management of the Greenhaven Infirmary. There was a rudimentary financial plan, and a fund had been constructed for the daily expenses and staff wages that would ensure the infirmary could continue to be run. The fund would have to be provided for by charity events, such as fundraising balls and concerts. Richard himself would donate the money needed to get started.
Manon’s eyes filled as she realised what Richard had done. He had made her project possible and viable. Then, for the first time she took a moment to reflect on what she had done.
She had been a truly ungrateful and selfish creature. With his preparations of the past night, Richard had given her a chance to start a new life, even though she had gone behind his back and ruined the perfect routine of his household. Good heavens…she had even taken his money and used his staff, all without asking him face to face.
Yet he had never said a word the previous night. Instead, Richard had come, and when he saw she was too tired even to stand on her own two feet, he had brought her home, and had then started to work out her project.
“Well? Does it meet with your approval, niece?”
His sudden, teasing voice startled Manon, and she dropped the papers she was holding. She could only nod and swallow the tears that seemed to come so easily this morning. Richard rose and picked up the fallen documents, swiftly arranging them back into the right order.
“Look,” he said, matter-of-factly, “I will ask my solicitor, Mr Brownslow, to help us out with the funding management. We will go to Eastbourne today and discuss it with him. I want him to find us an accountant for Greenhaven. I am sure one of the young clerks he employs will be eager to take the job. Then we will need to hire a proper staff of nurses, although that might prove to be difficult. Not many girls would want to do such a demanding job.”
“I can train them!” Manon found her voice and pitched in with enthusiasm. “I learned from the best in Paris, the nuns of Les Dames de Marie! We would need to fit up free rooms at Greenhaven so that they could stay on the premises instead of having to rent. That would make it profitable for them to stay as on our staff.”
“An excellent idea! Now, let us work out some more arrangements. Take a chair.”
They worked like a team of accountants, efficiently planning the daily routines, the supplies that would be needed, and the people that would be indispensable, until Pritchard knocked to announce that breakfast was laid out. They had worked for two hours without even noticing the passing of time. Now they were famished.
After breakfast, during which they further talked and planned, Richard and Manon set off for Eastbourne in the gig. It was a Stanhope, which Richard had purchased after his father’s death so that he would have a fast carriage if he needed one. The twenty-two miles were covered in one and a half hours by a swift little gelding named Phineas.
Mr Brownslow, Richard’s solicitor, was a man in his early sixties, large and heavyset, with a shock of white hair above a pink, round face. His clear brown eyes smiled at Manon when Richard introduced her. His large mouth with surprisingly healthy teeth opened wide under his bushy white moustache.
“I am honoured, Miss Favier, to make your acquaintance. Sir Richard informed me of your coming to England, and it is my privilege to bid you welcome to our beautiful country.”
He bowed and took Manon’s right hand into his large, pudgy one. He placed a kiss on the back of her hand, surprising her with the subtle bending of his wide girth.
“Mr Brownslow,” Richard said evenly, “I have several matters to lay before you for careful consideration.”
Something in his tone must have spurred the solicitor into action, because he now bowed to Richard. “Forgive me, Sir Richard, for having done some research of my own already, but the messenger you sent me last night seemed adamant that I do so.”
Messenger? Manon looked at Richard in surprise, causing him to smile sheepishly at her.
“I sent Pritchard to convey my request to Mr Brownslow,” he explained.
“Now, sir, if you and Miss Favier would follow me into my office, I would be honoured to lay out what I have worked out.”
With his words, the solicitor effectively cut short any reply Manon would have made to Richard’s comment. He led them to a room at the back of the large townhouse he occupied. This chamber was airy, light, and beautifully furnished in the latest Oriental style that the Prince Regent loved so well. Elegant black-lacquered cupboards with coloured inlaid images of birds and flowers stood against the walls, which were covered in delicate, light green silk. Gold-painted sofas and chairs, upholstered in dark green silk, and with fragile curved legs, surrounded a Chinese tea table of finely carved wood.
From one of the chairs, someone rose when Manon entered.
“Allow me to present my eldest son, Daniel,” Mr Brownslow beamed. “He asked if he could act as your accountant, Miss Favier, and assist you with the running of Greenhaven.”
Daniel Brownslow was in his early thirties; he was not much taller than Manon and had a figure that was just a little too plump. Yet he showed an easy charm and a kind smile that lit his hazel eyes and kindled a warmth in Manon’s heart. He placed his right hand on his heart and bowed deeply from the waist, albeit with a bit of difficulty. “It will be my utmost pleasure and honour to serve you to the best of my humble abilities, Miss Favier,” he said in a warm voice.
Manon politely listened to Mr Daniel Brownslow as he explained what his scheme was for Greenhaven. He certainly was intelligent and diligent; she had to give him that. He had thought of everything, from hiring a staff to calculating what would be needed for the efficient working of the infirmary, and even how they could make a modest profit by investing their excess money once they were in business. Needless to say, for the moment, there was no excess money yet, but that did not deter Mr Brownslow junior from the course he had set.
Mr Brownslow senior had drawn up a contract, which was signed by Richard, after a careful reading and approving of its contents. After a celebratory glass of brandy, Richard and Manon left the Brownslows and returned to The White Rose.
“So what is your opinion on young Brownslow?” Richard asked once they were out of Eastbourne on the road to Brighton. The countryside was lush and slightly hilly with fields of barley and wheat, interspaced with meadows dotted with sheep.
“He seems a competent and intelligent man,” Manon replied. “And a truly kind one, too. I like him, Uncle, and I think he will be an asset to our scheme.”
They drove on for a few minutes while Manon felt struck by a feeling of guilt; she had forced her uncle to spend money on this scheme, when he probably had no wish to do so.
“I have not even thanked you yet for what you did, Uncle,” Manon said, clasping her suddenly shaking hands in her lap.
He did not answer right away but cast a sideways glance at her. His expression was unreadable. After a while, he replied, “I was furious with you at first, but once I saw what you accomplished in so little time and with so few means, I had to admit that it was an excellent idea, Manon.”
He fell silent again, and Manon’s pulse suddenly raced at the gentleness of his tone. She could hear his approval clearly, and she was ridiculously happy with it.
“I…I was not sure if you…,” she tried, but the words got caught in her throat.
“If I would approve?” Richard said, turning his head. Then his beautiful smile hit her in full force. “You think singularly little of me, Manon, if you feared my judgement. I could never disapprove of a job well done – and it was, Manon, it certainly was. I admire your pluck, and your tenacity, in striving to reach the goal you set for yourself.”
After a brief pause, he continued, “Have you been seeing Blackthorne again in the week that I was at Bearsham Manor?”
“Only once. We went out riding. He has not returned since.”
“I take it that Blackthorne has not come up to scratch, then?”
“No,” Manon answered quietly. “He was kind, and always the gentleman, but he did not ask for my hand.”
“Fool…” Richard muttered, under his breath.
“I would have refused him,” Manon said, clearly and determined.
That statement was a surprise for Richard, so much so that he steered the gig to the side of the road and stopped it. Phineas instantly started to graze on the road shoulder’s lush grass.
“Why? I thought you liked Lucian.”
Manon turned to look him in the face, unsettling him with the intensity of her gaze.
“I do like him, Uncle, but I could never marry a man that I do not love, especially when I like him. It would be a living hell for both of us, to live a life without love. Companionship is not enough for me, Uncle, nor is friendship. I want love, and passion, and the joy it brings. I could never do without those. I would rather stay alone and live my life the way I want. I think I have found what I want in Greenhaven.”
She is so lovely, Richard thought. How many times had that same notion crossed his mind, lately? Yet it was the absolute truth. His Manon was the loveliest woman he had ever set eyes on.
The way she looked at him now, with love glowing in those green eyes, set his heart racing, and he welcomed the feeling like the air he breathed. Even if they could never be together, he would always want to see the love she felt for him, Richard, in her eyes.
Then, suddenly, Richard stopped fighting the searing urge and surrendered. With a sigh escaping his lips, he leaned over and kissed her.
They did not touch other than by the joining of their mouths. Richard felt Manon’s answering jolt as clearly as he felt the sparkle of lightning run down his own spine. From that moment on, he lost himself in the feel of her soft, pliant lips as they parted to welcome him. She was as hungry as he was, and he steeled himself to keep from losing every shred of control and jumping from the gig with her in his arms so that he could…
Soft little moans escaped Manon, as she threw her arms around his neck. He felt her shaking body press against his, and suddenly, all his rational thoughts left him. He grunted with frustration, rose and lifted her into his arms. When he jumped down from the seat of the gig, Manon wrapped her legs around his waist and she never stopped kissing him. Her small hands were entwined in his hair as if she had to hold onto him for dear life.
Manon felt as if she were on fire. She could no longer think, no longer breathe, no longer contain herself. She had to cling tightly to Richard; she wanted to feel him and touch all of him! She was vaguely aware of him, carrying her through a hole in the hedgerow, and laying her down onto cool, soft grass.
And then they were tugging at each other’s clothes, breathing hard, seeing nothing but each other. Her breasts sprang free of her bodice as if they had a life of their own, but Manon did not stop to cover herself. She tore at Richard’s coat, shoving it from his shoulders while he lifted her skirts up to her waist. His hands were on her inner thighs, stroking harder and harder, and covering her sensitive skin with liquid fire everywhere they touched.
God, she was exquisite! She was all subtle, soft curves, firm femininity in a skin of pure silk. Her breasts begged for his lips, his tongue, his teeth, and Richard kissed, licked and sucked the hard, puckered nipples until she was moaning with need. He was so hard that he would burst any moment, if he did not…
Stop! You blithering fool, stop! He could not do this. He could not!
When he tore himself loose, the pain was agonizing. He heard Manon’s soft moan of protest and hated himself for letting her go. Hated the cruel God that installed this love in their hearts yet crushed it with the forbidding laws of sanity.
“I am sorry,” he whispered, his mouth still very near hers. “I did not want to do that, yet I wished it with all my heart.”
Then he released her, pulling up her bodice and lowering her skirts. He shrugged into his coat, stood, and reached for her hands to pull her to her feet.
Manon’s small hand touched his cheek in a gesture that gave comfort as well as understanding. “I know, my love and I feel the same pain as you do. Do not ever apologize for loving me.”
They stood frozen in their agony for a few moments, their brows touching; breathing hard in an effort to overcome their distress, they clung to each other.
Finally, Richard led Manon back to the gig and helped her up. He climbed up beside her, took up the reins, and clucked Phineas into a trot.
How on earth were they to survive this agonizing torture? Richard inwardly raged. How were they to shrug off the uncertainty that weighed upon them like a curse?
Next to him, Manon averted her flushed face to hide her hot tears from the man she was doomed to love.