Richard was furious. In fact, he could not recall ever having been so outraged in his whole life.
He had done his utmost to provide Manon with the best of opportunities to organize her life, and look what the foolish chit made of it!
What was his niece thinking? Setting up an infirmary, of all things! It was unthinkable! Yet here was her letter, written in a tiny, neat hand, explaining that she would be searching for suitable premises near Brighton Port and that she would need to employ staff to help her. In a totally candid manner, Manon elaborated on the reasons why she would like to establish her infirmary – namely, the wretched conditions of the poor and the total lack of medical assistance for such people. She had been trained by her father, she wrote, and felt she was highly qualified to perform her task. Miss Prudence Butterworth would be her companion and assistant.
With a huff of irritation, Richard put the letter down onto his desk blotter. He heaved a deep sigh, but that did not diminish his concern at all! Suddenly, his mind seemed to be teeming with unwanted images of Manon staggering through filthy rookeries and her being assailed by packs of ruffians. Ravaged, possibly. He jumped to his feet and forcibly pulled open the library door.
“Thornton, send someone to the stables! I want Spartacus ready in ten minutes. I am leaving for Brighton at once.”
Richard covered the sixty-two miles to Brighton in less than eight hours, pushing Spartacus into a steady trot, and occasionally into a swift canter. Spartacus was large, strong, and nearly eighteen hands high, and with enough muscle strength to keep this exhausting pace up until they reached The Wild Rose. Still they did not make it until deep into the night by which time both horse and rider were utterly exhausted.
“Sir, pray, do come in.” Pritchard said. Although roused from his bed at this ungodly hour, the butler nevertheless seemed not at all surprised to see his master.
“What the deuce is going on here, Pritchard?” Richard’s voice sounded harsher than he had meant it to be.
Pritchard cleared his throat. “Well, sir, erm … it is Miss Manon. She … well, we have all been helping her this past week, and I assure you, sir, that nothing improper has been going on, what with Miss Butterworth and Mrs Carson accompanying her, as well as the three footmen, sir.”
All this had come out of his solemn, dignified butler, and Richard was simply stunned to hear him say so much in so short a time. Although, Richard mused, Pritchard had not quite said anything that made sense.
“I have no inkling what you are trying to say, Pritchard. Please, enlighten me.”
Again, the butler swallowed and said, “Miss Favier needed our help to set up Greenhaven, sir, so we all pitched in. The footmen, and some other workers hired by Mrs Carson, have cleared the house Miss Favier rented from top to bottom, whereupon Mrs Carson and the maids directed the placing of the beds and cupboards. We then…”
Richard jerked up a hand to stop the flow. “What on earth is Greenhaven, Pritchard?”
“Why, it is the name of the infirmary Miss Favier has opened in Jermin Street, sir!”
Amidst the grimy, sagging hovels hugging the waterside, the house actually was a haven of green. Even in the grey light of dawn, Richard could see the bright green walls from afar shining like a beacon. Inside, there was a bustling activity. Upon stepping into a small entrance hall, Richard saw a table and a seat on the left, which served as a desk for the young girl who was sitting there; she was scribbling away in a thick ledger. On the right side was a long bench, and it was occupied with people. Grubby, downcast people in rags. Mothers who clutched crying children in their arms, girls barely out of childhood but pregnant, some of them bent over with pain, feverish boys with eyes too old for their years, and men coughing, moaning, even bleeding. It was chaos and utter misery.
“Next!” The loud voice of Mrs Carson, the housekeeper of his Brighton townhouse, boomed from the rear of the hall. A second later, the woman saw him and gasped. “Good heavens, sir! We … we were not expecting you!”
“Where is my niece, Mrs Carson?” Richard demanded, struggling to maintain a constant, calm voice but not succeeding. He felt his temper rise like the tide.
“Forgive me, sir,” his worthy housekeeper told him, “but I have no time to spare. This baby is decidedly sick.”
She snatched a wailing infant from its mother’s arms and gestured the woman to follow her. She then disappeared through the door she had come out. Richard hastened after her, suspecting he might find his niece when he did so.
In contrast to the dimly lit hall, this room was ablaze with light. A bright, white light that came from a multitude of candleholders and shone upon a room with whitewashed walls and a shiny flagstone floor. In the middle of it all stood an unusually large oak table, also painted in white. Mrs Carson deposited the crying baby upon it, and then guided the mother to a row of chairs against one of the walls.
Only then, as if he was waking from a kind of stupor, did Richard see Manon. She was dressed from head to toe in a starched, white apron, and on her bright auburn hair, which was pulled back in a tidy bun, she wore a white mobcap.
Immense relief washed over Richard when he saw that she was her usual, efficient self and that she smiled at him brightly as if she were overjoyed to see him. That smile went straight to his heart. He felt his anger run away like water down a hole. And it was not as if he had not been frightfully furious with her, because he certainly had been. He had wanted to thrash her for putting herself into danger like that, venturing into Brighton’s rookeries. Yet now, he found that he lacked the words as well as the inclination to scold her. He just wanted to take her into his arms and crush her to his chest.
“Good evening, Uncle,” Manon said cheerfully. “What a lovely surprise to see you here! I did not mean for you to come all the way down from Bearsham Manor but I am indeed delighted you did so. Now I can show you what we have accomplished here, I and all those hardworking people of your staff. They have done a splendid job! You ought to give them a raise, because they surely deserve it.”
He blinked, then gave himself a mental shake to chase away his wayward thoughts. It had been unwise of him to come here without preparing himself for seeing her after being away from her for a whole week. She was so beautiful, so heart-wrenching in her innocent enthusiasm. God! How he had missed her!
“However,” Manon went on, still smiling at him, “I shall not be able to show you anything tonight. We are rather swamped with work, I am afraid. So forgive me, Uncle; I must return to my tasks.”
With that, she turned towards the massive oak table, and to the crying infant that was lying on top of it.
For the rest of the night, Richard sat on one of the chairs near the wall and watched Manon perform an endless number of tasks, each one even more horrid than the last. She pierced horrible wounds, cleaned them, and bandaged them. She listened to numerous chests, probed throats and ears, and doled out spoons of syrups to infants of all ages. Gradually, he saw her neat white apron become covered with blood and other, even more repulsive fluids. He abhorred the sight of it, and he loathed to see her being soiled like this, yet he could not take his eyes from her.
He noticed how she inevitably grew tired, yet she never faltered for a second until the very last patient had been dealt with. He acknowledged how radiant and unmistakeably happy she looked, even when the most vicious of tasks was presented to her. How she comforted, and soothed, and made people feel at ease. It was like a second nature to her, Richard realised. This was what she was meant for; this was her true vocation.
Again, he was forced to acknowledge that she was the one he loved, more than anything in the world. God help him but he did love her, and always would. She was the most extraordinary woman he had ever encountered, and the kindest. How could he not love her? How could he not adore his angel?
At some point, Manon lost all track of time and even of place. She just took on every task as it came, and performed all the right gestures, found all the right words, and ploughed on from one patient to the next. That was as Papa had taught her, how one coped with human suffering. One locked off the portion of one’s brain that controlled compassion. These were not only people, but first and foremost, they were patients. Patients had a condition that must be dealt with. For every condition, there was a treatment, and Manon applied that treatment, then went on to the next patient. If only she had not been so utterly tired. And if only Richard had not been there, sitting there and glowering at her. Now she had an additional task to accomplish. She must keep her wits about her and not think of Richard.
She finished her last task and smiled at the young boy whose hand had been crushed under the heavy sack he had been hauling at the docks. There were two small bones that had snapped in that tiny little hand. Manon had put a splint on the palm so that the child would not be able to move his hand until the bones were healed. She had explained to his mother who seemed to be even younger than Manon herself, that her son could not work for several days. The woman had looked at her as if she were insane and said, “I can’t afford to keep ‘m ‘ome. Me ‘young uns ‘ll starve if he doesn’t work.”
In a haze, Manon watched her last patient leave the room.
“Just how long have you been doing this today?”
Richard’s voice broke through her sorrow, warm and so infinitely gentle that her vision blurted all of a sudden.
She turned to him and noticed that he was steadying her with a hand on her arm. How odd, she thought; why would she need steadying?
When Manon crumpled, Richard caught her and held her against his chest, his senses assaulted by her scent of roses. How had that fragrance managed to last against the stench of sickness that seemed to drench the room?
“Oh, sweetling …” he whispered against her temple, lifting her into his arms. How delightful it felt, just to hold her. “My darling …”
He abruptly became aware of every other person in the room when he realised they were staring at him. There was Miss Butterworth, as well as Mrs Carson and three of her maids. Two footmen stood frozen in the tasks they had been performing. Time stood still, it seemed.
Then Miss Butterworth cleared her throat. “Sir Richard,…”
“I am taking my niece home,” Richard felt necessary to explain. “I will send the carriages to bring you all back to The Wild Rose, after you finish here.”
He settled Manon’s head against his shoulder and left the room, and the house. Outside, he signalled to a footman, handed Manon over to him, and mounted his horse. Without any command from his master, the footman lifted Manon so that Richard could take her up and place her in front of him. With one arm clutching her firmly to him, Richard nudged Spartacus into a slow walk.
Don’t have a date yet.
“Thank you, Mr Waldham,” Richard de Briers said to his steward. “That will conclude our meeting for today. I trust you will inform me when the works will start on the northwest meadows. We need to drain them as soon as possible before the autumn rains start.”
“Certainly, sir. You may depend on me,” the short, middle-aged steward replied. He bowed and left Richard’s library carrying the ledgers they had been studying together. Richard rose and went to stand at the window overlooking the vast lawn in front of the house. It was his favourite spot, when he wanted to clear his thoughts. A perfect green lawn lay before his home which was a stately house in soft red brick. It was of perfect symmetric proportions, with three rows of windows above one another under the grey-slated roof.
Richard loved his home. As soon as he had turned into the driveway now a week ago, a sense of belonging had instantly touched his heart as it always did. He had grown up in this house and been loved, at least by his father, and also by the whole of the vast staff that ran the household. Richard realised that his father had been the one who made him feel at home, the one to give him countenance and a feeling of immense pride about becoming the next baronet Bearsham. Never had his mother given him that same feeling.
Mildred de Briers, née Thompson, must be the coldest woman on earth, Richard mused, for she had never given him any attention, let alone love. Mildred only cared about herself and the various pleasures that had been bestowed upon her when she became a baronetess. Parties, balls, and soirées, for instance. And lovers. His mother, Richard knew, could not resist the seduction of a well-turned beau, praising her beauty and her elegance. She had taken a multitude of young lovers to her bed over the past twenty-five years. His father had told him when Richard was sixteen and old enough to understand such matters.
Of course, his father had known. Robert de Briers had not cared about his wife’s unfaithfulness, since she became barren after Richard’s birth. The London doctors had assured Robert that his wife would not bear another child, and that suited Robert well since he knew damned soon after the wedding that he could not love this woman. He had only married her for her father’s money, which had restored his estate from the dire conditions it had been in at that time. And, of course, to beget a son by her.
Richard had arrived home on the previous Saturday only to find his home invaded by a bunch of his mother’s London friends, who thought it fit to spend a few weeks on his estates and at his expenses. Useless leeches, the lot of them! Idle, spoiled sons and brothers of peers, hypocrites and flatterers of his aging mother, who ignored her nearly fifty years and still behaved like a girl fresh from the schoolroom!
His mother was still beautiful; her son had to give her that. She had retained her slender figure, and her face had not acquired the usual wrinkles other women had at that age. Her dark hair was still abundant with rich brown waves, and her vivid blue eyes sparkled when she was entertaining as she was doing now. Even from the distance of his library window, Richard could hear her tinkle of laughter drifting toward him as a suite of young men was trailing after her. They were nothing if not persistent, Richard grimaced. Every single one of them hoped to be admitted into Mildred’s good graces.
When the company headed for the front door, Richard turned away in disgust. He crossed the large room in a few steps of his long legs and quickly locked the library door. No need for the pack to invade his sanctuary.
He poured himself a splash of his favourite whisky and let himself down in one of the leather seats flanking the empty fireplace. The Laphroig’s smoky scent and peaty taste always calmed him, and calmness was exactly the disposition he needed to be in now. Only God knew when he had last felt peace of mind!
His father had died two months ago at the end of May, and since that moment, Richard had been swept away in a maelstrom of events, over which he had had no control. It was fairly unbelievable, that his life had been turned upside down in this manner. His life … and his heart. God! How he missed Manon!
He lay staring into the darkness at night, her image haunting him. He could not keep her out of his mind all day. He would hear a maid singing somewhere in a corridor and compare the sound to that of Manon’s voice. A movement, a shift of light, objects, books, everything brought her back into his thoughts. Exactly how his promise to his dying father had turned into a curse he did not know, but it had done just that.
Alone in his quiet library, Richard relived those distressing moments of his father’s passing.
His mother had been in London when his father’s final illness began. A badly treated cold had turned into pneumonia. By the time Richard had understood how ill his father was, the doctors could do nothing more than make the patient as comfortable as was possible. The pneumonia had added to his father’s weakness, which had been induced by two previous heart attacks.
Mildred de Briers did not come to her husband’s deathbed until the last moment. To Richard’s astonishment, his dying father forbade her to enter the bedchamber.
“She does not care for me, Richard, and I loathe her.”
Those words were the last his father had spoken in a normal voice, for the night thereafter, he had fallen into a severe fever and had not regained enough lucidity until the final minutes. It was then that he had asked for Richard’s promise, to find his niece and nephew. It was then that he had whispered about “the letter hidden behind the veil”.
What veil could his father have meant?
Was there a veiled woman in one of the many pictures that graced the Manor? No, Richard had examined them all, even the ones that had been stored away in the attic.
Maybe, there was a hidden niche behind a curtain somewhere in the house. Richard had searched every room, high and low. Even the staff’s quarters had been examined for such a niche, but it had all come to nought.
He had also searched his father’s desks and cupboards, had even had footmen leafing through the many books in the library, but to no avail. Richard was now convinced, that his father had been delirious in his last moments.
The estate’s affairs had been in perfect order when Richard took on the task of managing it. All costs and gains were accounted for, all the property in proper order, and all his tenants content, thanks to the efforts of Trevor Waldham, his steward. His household was in excellent order as well, under the tutelage of Thornton, his butler, and Mrs Briskley, his housekeeper.
No letters other than the ones that Richard already knew of had turned up among his father’s papers. When his father’s will was read, Richard had noticed it contained nothing that he did not already know. Richard had been fully informed by his father of the contents of the will six years ago, when he came of age. He was heir to the title and the estate as well as to a large part of the money. On the contrary, his mother had only been entitled to a small yearly allowance. She had been thoroughly disgruntled, and even more so when she heard that Lily’s children would also inherit their own fortune. After the funeral, she had gone off to London for several days and had returned only recently, her usual bunch in tow. They had not spoken yet since Richard’s return to the Manor. Maybe that was for the best, he mused.
The happy cries of a young boy reached his ears, and Richard rose. He was ready for a stroll over his grounds to go and see what Jéhan was up to. Since the boy had come with him to Bearsham Manor, Jéhan had truly been in excellent spirits. The boy had missed his sister only once on the first evening of his arrival. As Richard had surmised, Jéhan was no different from other young children. They were resilient and adapted to new situations remarkably quickly.
Richard had spent a couple of hours in Jéhan’s company each day since their arrival, thus allowing his tutor, Jake Davies, a bit of free time. Jéhan awaited his time with his uncle with avid anticipation, and Richard found the boy’s company a welcome escape from estate matters. He liked Jéhan and enjoyed rambling with him over the grounds, especially in the large wilderness the estate boasted of. His heart a bit lighter, Richard threw on his coat and unlocked his library door.
He had barely stepped into the corridor when he heard his mother’s irritated voice.
“A word with you, sir!”
He turned to see her standing just a few paces away, her hands clutching her skirts in so tight a grip that they were rustling, which meant that the baronetess’ hands were shaking.
“Now, Madam? I fear I am lacking time at the moment, but I would be happy to speak with you an hour before dinner.”
“No!” Mildred de Briers gritted out through clenched teeth. “You will listen to me now, sir!”
Richard inwardly sighed and resigned himself to an unpleasant moment with his irate mother. Anger seemed to be the only emotion he had ever seen in her. He opened the library door once again and gestured her inside. Once inside, Mildred whirled around to face him and pointed an accusing finger at him.
“I demand, sir, that you increase my allowance at once! The pitiful amount I now receive is nothing more than crumbs from your abundant table. It does not last longer than three months, and I will no longer stand for it. After all, it was my dowry that brought wealth back to this fossil of an estate!”
With an effort, Richard barely managed to keep his temper. As always, his mother brought out the worst in him, applying to his darkest characteristics, the ones that he normally kept under a firm control.
“Madam, as you are well aware, my father is distinctly clear about the financial arrangements that have been granted to you in his will. Apart from a generous enough allowance, you also have the use of the London townhouse to entertain your acquaintances. You know very well that you can also make use of the Brighton townhouse, should you need it.”
He raised a hand when she opened her mouth to speak.
“Furthermore, I have already given you additional funds twice this year, madam. I have also redeemed the debts you incurred while in London after my father’s funeral. All good money, I point out to you, that I am not obliged to hand over to you, other than out of the goodness of my heart. If you are not managing your resources well, madam, it is no fault of mine. I suggest that you be more careful in the future.”
He could have foreseen what would happen, Richard mused. His mother’s eyes grew dark with anger, and she clenched her fists. Her face lost all beauty as it screwed up in fierce rage.
“You cannot do this to me,” she spat, stepping closer to him, in an attempt to browbeat him.
He barely battered an eyelid but drew himself up to his full height. She was a tall woman but she lacked a fair few inches on him, and she detested it.
“Do not disgrace yourself, madam,” he said in a light voice. “This conversation is over. I have matters that claim my attention.”
“Such as to run about with that little bastard you forced upon our house, I presume?”
The words had been uttered in so vilely a tone that Richard inwardly winced at their viciousness.
“Jéhan Favier is not a bastard, madam, since his parents were married before the magistrate and the church before he was born. At present, he is , and I urge you to keep that in mind , also my heir, until I marry and beget a son. So I intend to give the boy my full attention until he has reached his majority.”
“Will you bring the girl to Bearsham Manor as well?”
The question surprised him, and he had no answer ready to hand, so she continued, “What is she like? Is she pretty? Why have you not brought her yet?”
Her voice sounded slightly sly, Richard thought, as if she had plans for Manon when his niece came to the Manor. God forbid! If there were anyone whom Manon should be protected from, it was his mother, who had never cared about Lily nor her children. He shuddered at the thought of exactly how eager his mother would be to take revenge on his father for loving his first wife dearly. Mildred de Briers had always envied Elizabeth, Lily’s mother, because of the love, Robert had felt for her.
“My niece is due at the Manor in early August, madam. Her many engagements in town did not permit that she should join us yet,” he replied his voice even as ever. Richard never revealed his thoughts to his mother. He thoroughly distrusted her and was convinced she would take advantage of him, should she know how he felt about Manon.
“Yes…” The word came out trailing as if she were pondering over her next sentence. Mildred’s eyes were mere slits, but the vivid blue irises still shone through them. The sight gave Richard a chill that slithered down his spine like liquid ice.
A knock on the door startled them both. Thornton entered when bade to, and bowed.
“Beg pardon, sir, but I have an urgent message for you. It came by courier.”
Richard took the letter, then turned to his mother. “I am certain your guests will be wondering where you are, madam. If you will excuse me, I have urgent business.”
His mother humphed and left the room, skirts swishing in irritation. Richard ripped open the letter, which had come from The Wild Rose, his Brighton town house.
“Dear Uncle, I would like to ask your permission to start an infirmary for the poor…”
There‘s the first photo from period set comedy drama THE OBSCURE LIFE OF THE GRAND DUKE OF CORSICA which sees
|Timothy Spall leads the cast in the new movie|
Timothy Spall playing a cantankerous and brilliant architect, Alfred Rott, who embarks upon a highly unusual commission for ‘The Grand Duke Of
|The movie currently has a December release date|
Corsica’ (Peter Stormare). A deadly malaria epidemic sweeps Malta but Alfred remains to finish the job. The movie is set for a December release!
|Jamie Dornan and Emily Blunt lead the cast of the romantic drama|
who get caught up in their family’s land dispute. Also starring Jon Hamm and Christopher Walken, the movie is both written and directed by John Patrick Shanley.
Hello again! In case you hadn’t already heard, there are two great things coming out today – another new episode of Deadwater Fell, and the second season of Balthazar (both on Acorn TV).
Tomorrow, look out for the premiere of Waiting for God on BritBox. It’s a great classic comedy we’ve not seen streaming anywhere in North America before now, and it features the fantastic Stephanie Cole (who’s also in Scarborough, recently released on BritBox).
<h2>This Day in British TV History…</h2>
Five years ago today, <em>Safe House</em> premiered on ITV. Christopher Eccleston stars, and it follows a couple who’ve turned their lovely Lake District guest house into a safe house for people on the run. There are two seasons, and you can find them both on Sundance Now.
<h2>Telly Tracker: Vintage London & Classic Black Back in Stock</h2>
These handy TV journals make it easy to keep track of what you’ve watched, where you watched it, when you watched it (or when it premieres), and any other notes you might want to save.
The dilapidated hovel could hardly be called a house, Manon mused. It was not much better than a shed. The notion that poor Mrs Harrows lived here with six small children made her cringe. Mrs Harrows was Queenie’s mother. The little scullery maid had turned to Mrs Petheridge in despair when her older sister Patsy came to The Wild Rose for help, wailing that her mother was so terribly ill. Mrs Petheridge was an excellent cook but knew nothing of sickness and how to treat it. She wisely informed Miss Butterworth of the news.
Pru Butterworth being a clergyman’s daughter had always taken an interest in the welfare of her father’s parishioners, and in bestowing charity upon those who truly needed it. She had even acquired a small knowledge of the healing arts and had learned to treat minor wounds and mild colds.
Manon when hearing Pru’s services were needed decided to unearth her forgotten medicine satchel from its closet and accompany Pru on her journey.
Inside Queenie’s home, they found abject poverty.
Two toddlers lay crying in their cots which were no more than crates. On a wrought iron bed, covered by a thin, frayed blanket, Mrs Harrows was shivering with fever. Queenie rushed to her side and knelt beside her.
“Oh, Ma! Why haven’t you sent for me?”
Manon was appalled by the lack of even the slightest necessities in the house, even though she had seen more than her share of misery in the back-street hovels of Paris more than enough. Here in Brighton, it was even worse. Mrs Harrows seemed to be at the end of her tether.
Pru was already examining the poor woman, while Queenie and Patsy were trying to calm down the two howling boys. One of them was no more than twelve months while the other seemed about two years old.
Manon looked about her for the other two sisters she knew Queenie had. The girl must have seen her looking.
“Molly and Ruthie are in service, just like me, Miss. Ma wouldn’t be able to cope without our wages. Patsy works for Mr Lascombe at the Blue Ribbon Hotel. It’s not like Ma to let Jamie and Robbie cry like that!”
So four of Mrs Harrows’ girls were working, and still she did not seem to be coping. Or were the girls paid so badly that they did not have anything to spare after their mother used their wages to buy food? Patsy was fifteen, and Queenie only ten, so the other two girls would be somewhere in between, Manon guessed.
And where was the father? Probably drinking away his daughters’ hard-earned money, no doubt.
“Do you know where to reach your father, Queenie? she asked. “Your mother should not be alone when she is ill.”
Queenie eyed her in a rather peculiar manner and replied. “Pa died last year, Miss. Got a nasty bit of pneumonia. Ma just found out she was expectin’ again, with Robbie, that was.”
“Oh…I am so sorry, Queenie, I…”
“That’s all right, Miss. You weren’t to know.”
Nevertheless, Manon felt awful.
Mrs Harrows groaned when Pru tried to make her more comfortable. Quickly, Manon joined Pru at the bedside and pulled the blanket away. Mrs Harrows was burning up with fever and she had not left the bed for a long time, judging by the stench emanating from the dirty sheets. The poor woman was lying in her own dirt which had caused bedsores.
“Manon, what are you doing?” Pru asked, slightly alarmed.
“Queenie, go and fetch the two footmen,” Manon addressed the girl. “We are moving the whole family to The Wild Rose.
“Beg pardon, Miss, but there is a gentleman to see you,” the parlour maid said to Manon.
“Who is it?” Manon replied, not taking her eyes off Mrs Harrows. She and Pru had washed her, tended her sores, and tucked her into a nice, clean bed in one of the house’s unused rooms. Manon had fed her some chicken broth and covered her chest with a poultice, laced with lavender and eucalyptus. It had relieved the patient’s cough a bit, and Mrs Harrows was now sleeping peacefully in what Manon reckoned to be the first time in days. Her two toddlers were being looked after in the kitchen by Mrs Petheridge and the housekeeper, Mrs Carson. As it turned out, the most urgent things the boys needed were a proper wash and a decent meal.
According to Queenie, their mother had been ill for days but she had still been doing her work in one of the sewing workshops. Patsy had found her the previous night in the state Manon and Pru had first seen her in. Apparently, it had been some days since the girls had visited their mother. One of the other sisters, Molly, had come the previous day to feed her brothers, but she had done nothing for their mother because the latter had been asleep.
The parlour maid preceded Manon on the second floor landing while she answered Manon’s question.
“It is Sir Lucian Blackthorn come to call, Miss. He said you had agreed to go for a ride with him,” the maid said, dragging Manon back to the present.
So she had, Manon recalled. Only she quite forgot the date when she had begun caring for Queenie’s family. She explained to Pru, who was clearing up the dressing room they had used to give the patient a bath. She then quickly followed the maid downstairs to find Lucian standing in the hall, impeccably and most dashingly attired in his burgundy riding coat and stylish black trousers.
Only when she saw his stunned dark eyes upon her did Manon realise that she was still wearing the modest dark blue gown and white apron she had donned to attend to Mrs Harrows.
“My dear girl,” Lucian said, surprise colouring his voice, “what on earth have you been doing that you require the use of a maid’s apron?”
“Oh, never mind,” Manon breathed, “I have been…” Could she tell Lucian about Queenie’s family? She could not do so, definitively not. Lucian was an earl’s son and he would consider members of the lower staff to be insignificant and not worth bothering about.
“Pardon me, Lucian. I will go and change into my riding habit.” She quickly pulled the bell, and Pritchard appeared.
“Pritchard, will you take care of His Lordship until I come back, please?”
“Certainly, miss. If you would care to follow me, Your Lordship?”
The day was lovely with the weather so bright and sunny. Lucian took Manon out of the city and into the beautiful countryside. They cantered through the lush meadows, enjoying the ride. At least, Lucian was, but Manon could not divert her thoughts from Mrs Harrows and the miserable life she and her family led. When they stopped to rest their horses next to a babbling stream, Lucian led Manon to a wooden bench and sat her down.
“I have the distinct impression, Manon, that you are miles away from here. What is troubling you, my dear?”
Again, Manon wondered if she should tell Lucian about what she had been doing that morning. All through the process of tending to Mrs Harrows, Manon had felt a joy that she had thought she might never experience again. It was the satisfaction of caring for people and relieving their ailments. Manon wanted to help people who were ill, using the knowledge her papa had taught her. It had all felt so right that Manon realised not only how much she had missed it, but also that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. The art of healing was Papa’s legacy to her, and she was well experienced in it. She loved it because she was truly skilled in it and because she cared for people who were in need of help. The smallest bud of an idea had formed in Manon’s mind, and she was determined to find out if it would prove viable.
As for now, Manon knew, she could not share these thoughts with Lucian Blackthorn. Not before he made clear his intentions towards her.
“I was thinking of my brother,” she told him. At least that was only half a lie. “It is the first time in his whole life that we have been separated from each other. I worry, Lucian, that is all.”
Lucian Blackthorn studied his companion as unobtrusively as he could without catching her attention. He could not fathom this young woman as well as he wanted to. After all the weeks she had been in his company, he still had no clue about what was going on in that pretty little head. He could not read those vivid green eyes at all.
Manon Favier, although she was Richard de Briers’ niece, had not been gently bred. That was a fact that did not sit well with Lucian. When he became the next Earl Clifford, he would need to marry and beget an heir. That was one of his most sacred duties. His heir should be of truly noble blood, and Manon was partly of common stock. She was not entirely fit to be the mother of his offspring.
All that was true, Lucian knew, and it was valuable to him. He also knew it would be of no consequence if he loved her. And that was the crux of the matter. He did not love Manon. He found her beautiful, even extremely so. He thought her lively and entertaining, elegant, intriguing, and fascinating. Yet he did not truly love her.
Lucian had never been in love with any woman in his life. He had known many lovers and could entice any woman to come to his bed. He truly enjoyed their bodies, but he never let them touch his heart. He did not think Manon had touched his heart either, yet he could not be certain altogether when he had not kissed her.
Kisses were extremely revealing, Lucian thought. They could sparkle a flash of desire that might grow into a fire, one that could only be doused by a nice encounter between the sheets. Lucian had no qualms about taking Manon to his bed and introducing her to the art of lovemaking.
She truly was a lovely girl, he mused, marvelling in the deep auburn colour of her hair, her slender, elegant figure, her pert little nose, and her lush, rosy mouth. And those green, sparkling eyes. Ah, yes, truly lovely!
Manon lifted her face to the warm July sun, revelling in the feel of it on her skin. Her hat, a soft green straw bonnet, had slipped off her head but she did not pay attention to it. Contrary to what she had once thought, she enjoyed riding. Buttercup, her pretty bay mare was the perfect mount for her, and she was grateful to her uncle for finding the animal. He had seemed to know exactly what kind of horse she had needed. But then, her uncle always knew what she needed, did he not?
Richard had gone to Bearsham Manor nearly a week ago, yet Manon had not stopped thinking of him for one second of each day. She missed him, and terribly so, and she longed for the day when he would send the carriage to come and bring her to him. Her little Jéhan was also constantly in her thoughts. How would he fare without her to guide him? Would he miss her too? Would Richard miss her?
“We should go back,” Lucian’s voice dragged her back to the present and to the lovely countryside bench near the stream where Manon sat beside him. Oh, dear! She had not exchanged one word with Lucian since they came to this spot. He would think her terribly rude, indeed.
“I am so truly sorry, Lucian. I fear I am not pleasant company today, forgive me.”
Lucian rose, took her hand and helped her to her feet.
“You could redeem yourself with … this,” he said, sliding his arm around her waist and gently pulling her to him. His action startled her, but she did not draw back. A vague sense of inevitable closure affected her as if her life would now take a new direction. Finally, Lucian had made up his mind, she thought.
With something of curiosity, Manon waited for the kiss that would follow. She could see it in Lucian’s eyes that he was on the verge of kissing her. She studied his face, which was handsome, eager, and bold. His lips were already slightly parted and his gaze was dark with desire.
Why did those signs not excite her? She suddenly recalled how those same signs had thrilled her when it had been Richard holding her. How her heart had fluttered like a bird trying to escape its cage. Now she felt only a mild curiosity and she wanted Lucian to get it over with.
When Lucian’s mouth slanted over hers, Manon registered that his lips were as firm as Richard’s had been, and as warm, and as lovely. Lucian was a skilled kisser, as experienced as Richard had been. He attempted to woo her with his agile probing of her mouth and tongue and he was inviting her to respond.
Determined to give herself a chance to make the distinction between Lucian and Richard, Manon wound her arms about Lucian’s neck and pressed herself against him. She opened her mouth and gave him full access, searching for the spark of fire that she had so exquisitely felt when Richard had kissed her.
It did not come. Where was the jolt of flame that had overwhelmed her when Richard’s tongue swept her mouth? Where was the heat that had suffused her whole body when she felt Richard’s arousal press against her belly? Why did her heart not pick up its pace and why did her blood not course through her veins like a stream of liquid fire?
Manon felt only a mild disappointment and even a faint sensation of boredom. She let go of Lucian and retreated.
“Forgive me, Lucian. I …”
“No, my dear. It is I who must beg for forgiveness. That was rude of me. I fear I forgot myself, and I apologize. Come, let us return to town.”
He extended his hand once again, and Manon allowed him to lead her to Buttercup and lift her into the saddle. They swiftly rode back to Richard’s townhouse and separated without further ado.