Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Three

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Chapter Thirty-Three

 

Richard could see the vivid green of Manon’s eyes in the silver glow of the moon. He basked in that eternal fire, which always burned in them. He saw the cloak of her gorgeous hair, fanned out over her slim shoulders. Not even the lack of daylight could dim the abundant waves’ bright auburn shade. His hand came up to twine into the silken smoothness. Oh, Lord, the feel of it…so divine…

“My sweetling,” he croaked, summoning every ounce of sense he could muster, “do not try me so. I need to hold you in high esteem until you are mine before God and our congregation. I can do no less, dearest heart. I do not want to ruin you. You at least should come to me a virgin, as it should have been for Lily and Elizabeth.”

“Oh, that unbendable de Briers’ honour! I should have known you of all the ones that came before you would be the most steadfast, my Richard. I admire you for it, my love, and I love you for it, but … you would make me most thoroughly unhappy, if you let it come between us tonight. I cannot wait, my heart, I cannot.”

Manon placed her hands on his chest, stroking the taut muscles beneath Richard’s shirt. She could feel Richard’s heat radiating through the sheer fabric, and instantly, a responsive stirring, deep in her core, weakened her knees. Her pulse quickened and her heartbeat located itself between her thighs, deep down below. A sweet ache fluttered there at the apex of her thighs, causing her breath to stop. Hot moistness began pooling there, a sensation so enticing, that Manon released a soft whimper. She felt the urgent need to press herself firmly against Richard’s long, hard body. Oh, how she had longed for this!

Richard endeavoured to resist the soft, feminine curves that settled along his chest and stomach. Sweet Lord. When Manon’s belly pressed against his arousal, he groaned, his voice a deep, faltering rumble.

“Manon, do you know what you are doing to me?”

Her answering chuckle was seductively low.

“I think I have a fairly good inkling, my love. Why are we still here? Take me to bed, Richard.”

She paused, then looked up at Richard.

“Please, my love, I want to be yours. I cannot wait any longer.”

Richard buried his face in the soft richness of her hair and greedily inhaled her scent.

“Oh, my darling Manon, you feel so incredibly right in my arms.”

And that was where she was, Richard acknowledged with surprise. Somehow, sometime, he had wrapped her in the circle of his arms without even realising it. His blood was now racing madly, straight into his tautly aroused manhood. Rational thoughts were beginning to fade, as his body recognised the same signs of arousal in her soft, luscious figure. She became warm, and where his hands roamed over the cotton of her nightdress, dampness began to form.

He gave in and swept her into his arms, to strode indoors and up the stairs to his bedchamber. Bright, his valet, violently startled at the sight of his master carrying his betrothed in his arms, but Richard merely gave him a fierce, commanding stare. Matthew Bright literally fled the room, while Manon, utterly embarrassed, hid her face against Richard’s shoulder.

He set her on her feet, next to his large four-poster bed, and took her face between his hands.

“I can wait, my love, if you wish it,” he whispered, drinking in the green glow of her eyes. It would be deuced hard, but he would wait, if…

“But I cannot, my love…I cannot wait any longer…” Manon breathed, turning her mouth into the palm of his hand to kiss it softly.

With a groan, Richard captured her luscious mouth with his own, driving his tongue into her soft warmth to explore her sweet abundance to his heart’s content. He felt like a man starving after a cold, harsh winter, one who finally knew that his famine was at an end.

Manon answered him with all the fervour she felt, desperate as she was to quell the need she had experienced for so long. All those previous, heart-wrenching moments of painful longing for Richard were swept away in their fierce, intoxicating kiss. However, Manon realised, it was not enough. She wanted to feel all of him; she wanted to be his, totally and in every aspect. Fumbling for the buttons on Richard’s shirt, she began tugging it free from his breeches. He broke their kiss and coaxed her to sit on the bed.

“Wait, wait, sweet. Let me uncover you. We have to slow down, better to savour our lovemaking, my precious.”

Manon leaned back against the cushions on top of the thick, silken spread, and her eyes grew wide when Richard pulled his shirt over his head. His chest was broad, smooth, and oh, so firm. Her breath caught at the sight of those taut, finely chiselled muscles. His tanned skin was covered with a light sprinkling of dark hair that narrowed to a thin line where it disappeared below the rim of his breeches. And then, he shed his top boots and white silk stockings to reveal his strong, masculine feet. The tension was building inside Manon, like steam in a kettle on a kitchen stove. She stopped breathing altogether when Richard stripped off his breeches and small clothes to free what was inside.

He was utterly and beguilingly beautiful. He was all male splendour, magnificent and powerful. Her heart was pounding now, with trepidation as well as with longing. This was the hour. This was their moment.

His beloved lay perfectly still, Richard realised. He watched her eyes grow large, and when she moistened her lips with her tiny, pink tongue, a spear of raw desire skidded through him. Slowly, slowly, he admonished himself. She is a maiden. She must be initiated in a tender way.

He approached the bed and mounted the mattress. Crouching on his knees beside Manon, he began stroking her small, bared feet, lifting them to his lips. She whimpered when he let his mouth roam over the sensitive skin of her perfect instep, first one dainty foot, then the other.

He worked his way up to her knees, then to her thighs – creamy silk, and so soft and warm.

Manon felt as if her bones were melting inside her at the feel of Richard’s smooth, hot lips caressing her. A pressure was building in her belly and in her aching breasts, so fiercely that it made her writhe with need. She was hot and damp, and her skin would surely dissolve if Richard kept up his torturing like that. Oh, God! Now he was uncovering her belly, shoving her night rail higher, in order to free her breasts. Soon, her arms were lifted above her head, and her gown was suddenly gone. She had barely had time to wonder about the fact that she was now totally naked when he started kissing the delicate skin of her neck, right on the sensitive spot behind her ear.

Richard revelled in the silk of Manon’s skin as he worked his way down her elegant neck, to the exquisite swelling of her breasts. His manhood twitched when his lips caressed the hard, puckered nipples. He would have to be careful, or he would spill himself, before he was even inside her! Oh, how he loved the way she twisted and writhed beneath him! With slow, sensuous licks, he traced the contours of her gorgeous breasts, then finding his way down the silken plane of her belly, he began feathering light kisses around her rosebud belly button. Her muscles twitched in instant response, one that shot an arrow of lust down his already tightened groin.

“Richard … please, Richard,” Manon moaned, and grasped the firm support of his shoulders, as if to steady herself.

“Patience, my sweet. Just relax,” her lover cooed. Then he positioned himself with a knee on either side of her, and lifted her lower body, better to kiss her womanly curls. Manon gasped. Oh, sweet Lord…oh, oh…hot, sweet torture made her claw her hands into the thick abundance of Richard’s ebony locks. She arched her hips and pressed them more firmly against his mouth, better to savour the bliss he was giving her. His tongue explored her most private place, causing liquid fire to ignite with every stroke. He sucked, kissed, licked that hard, tiny bud at the edge of her womanhood, until Manon thought she would explode and dissolve into a myriad of shards. And then, it truly happened! She did, she truly did shatter!

Richard could swear he tasted the difference in her honey after she cried out and convulsed against his mouth in a long series of shudders. In one swift movement, he let her down onto the bed and slid his aching manhood into her wetness. Slowly, slowly…do not forget, this is Manon’s initiation. Christ! This was incredible. Her sheath was already closing around his flesh, nearly sending him over the edge.

Manon was still shaking with the aftermath of her climax, when he started moving inside her, with slow, careful thrusts, each of them deeper than the one before. It was heaven, the way he rocked inside her, Manon thought, as he filled her further and further, and ever so gently, with his powerful maleness. She started to feel the same tingling of arousal again and began to be swept away once more. Until… oh, Lord! A sharp, burning pain exploded deep inside her and raced through her entire body to her shocked brain. She was hurt; she must surely have been stabbed with a blade!

Her maidenhead resisted only for a short time, and Richard forced himself to keep still while he caught her cry of pain with a tender kiss.

“Shhh, shhh, my heart. It will pass, my sweet. Shhh, this will happen only this first time, I promise.”

Richard could feel Manon relax beneath him as her breathing eased, when he began thrusting again. Cautiously at first, then gradually increasing the rhythm and force of his strokes until he noticed she was following his pace. A wild jab of arousal, fierce and taunting, travelled up and down his body.  “Yes, my sweet, that is what I want you to do,” he crooned. He rose onto his knees, lifting Manon’s lower body, to match his rapidly increasing desire.

Manon could barely believe that her body warmed into arousal once again after the fierce pain in her inner core, but her body did exactly that. Again, warmth began bubbling in her womb; again, that tiny bud throbbed with a growing need; again her folds started to tremble with renewed desire. With a sigh of pure, raw pleasure, she gave herself over to the delicious sensations that shook her body.

Richard inwardly burst with joy when he felt her response. She was so hot and soft, and so incredibly tight, as her inner muscles drew him deeper into the heat of her core. In a split second of awareness, Richard felt the exact moment when Manon climaxed yet again. That was right before he lost himself into divine, overwhelming bliss. His muscles tensed, and his body went perfectly rigid with anticipation, and then he violently shuddered. His senses were drowned in a relentless sea of hot waves. He raced through the surf that swept him higher up into the flames. She was, he registered, riding with him. Riding him with the siren-like undulation of body and of soul. A hoarse cry escaped him, as the alluring motion of Manon’s hips milked him, drew every strength out of him, conquering all resistance. As his seed spilled into her depths, Richard shattered into a million pieces.

In the tiny second before she succumbed to the overwhelming exhaustion, Manon registered a pure, utterly feminine joy at the realisation that she had just given Richard the ultimate pleasure of love. She snuggled up against his warmth as he gathered her in his arms and drew the coverlet over them both.

 

Richard listened to Manon’s soft, steady breathing while he enjoyed the feel of her warm, naked body against his. He could not so easily find sleep, not after the bliss he had just experienced. He had to simply revel in the memory of their beautiful lovemaking. Tomorrow, she would be his wife. Tomorrow, he would love her yet again, and his rampant thoughts were already plotting new ways to make her reach heaven. He had long years of experience to look back on. Skilful women had shaped his own talents in lovemaking. Yet, with Manon, he was reluctant to use those skills. He wanted his wooing to be unique, to be reborn solely for Manon. He now wished that he had still been a virgin this night and that he would have had to work out the art of lovemaking for the first time with Manon. He would give his right hand if it meant he could start over with Manon as his first woman and to be a young, innocent boy again.

But it was foolish. The past could never be remade. At least, he could be hers, and hers alone, for the rest of their lives. That, at least, he would vouch before the Almighty tomorrow.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Two

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Chapter Thirty-Two

 

In the end, Richard and Manon kept matters as uncomplicated as was possible since their wedding was only twelve days hence.

They purchased a special marriage licence at the Brighton Register Office and asked the Rev. Mr Hiram Merryweather, vicar at St Wulfram’s Church in Bearsham Village, to perform their wedding ceremony on August twenty-second. Mr Merryweather kindly consented to allow an Irish priest he was acquainted with to perform a Catholic ceremony afterwards. Father Damian O’ Rourke and Mr Merryweather had been at Oxford together and had stayed friends over the years. Manon was particularly touched by the vicar’s gesture, as it showed the kindness of his heart. After all, she had been brought up in France and had no wish to forestall the faith of her youth.

 

Richard informed Mr Brownslow and his son Daniel of his upcoming marriage, instructing the lawyers not to alter the stipulations of his father’s will regarding Manon’s and Jéhan’s inheritance. The elderly family solicitor was of course extremely surprised by the latest turn of events, but not even he could deny the contents of Sir Robert’s letter and his explicit wish to safeguard the Faviers’ fortune.

“I sincerely hope you do understand, Sir Richard, how the revelation of Lily Favier’s illegitimacy will be received in society. You might find yourselves ostracised from the ton, both in Brighton and in London. Have you fully considered the consequences of such a possibility?”

“My betrothed and I have thoroughly gone over the consequences of becoming excluded from the folds of society, Mr Brownslow, and we find that we do not overly care. We have no significant interest in what the ton thinks of us, so we have no particular need of their support. My investments, as you know full well, are primarily tied up in the American colonies and in the Manchester cotton mills. Since President Washington’s ascent to power, supply of cotton is fully guaranteed, which is vital to the spinning mills in England. Resources have been steady and abundant. Furthermore, there are Bearsham Manor’s excellent profits, which give me the opportunity to make it even more prosperous every year.”

“So, you and the future Lady de Briers will not overly venture into society after your marriage, I take it?”

“No, we will not, Mr Brownslow. We will live a quiet, domestic life at our estate, and raise a family without the interference of polite society.”

Mr Brownslow nodded, but inwardly he shook his head in doubt. Sir Richard de Briers and his lady would indeed lead an extremely quiet life if Mr Brownslow was to be the judge of it.

After Richard had seen Mr Brownslow out, he climbed the steps to the west wing of the manor where his mother’s suite was located. He needed to have a serious conversation with her , and there was no point delaying it. He could have entered without so much as a by-your-leave. He was, after all, lord of the house but Mildred was his mother. Despite her nasty character, Richard still felt an innate disposition to treat Mildred with a basic respect that, in contrast, she never showed her son. So he knocked and waited until Rawlings, her maid, opened the door.

Rawlings was a bit older that Mildred and had come with her from Manchester when her mistress married Richard’s father. She was a tall, bony woman with dark eyes and grey-streaked dark hair in a tight chignon at the back of her head. Her face was riddled with shallow little lines, giving it a stern look. Her thin mouth under the beacon of her long, narrow nose instantly pressed tighter when she saw Richard. However, Rawlings did not forget her manners and dipped a curtsy.

“Sir?” she asked, voice flat and weary. She did not move to let him in.

Richard stepped past the servant.

“Thank you, Rawlings. You may leave us now”

“But, sir, my mistress is indisposed. She always wants me to appraise her first when a visitor comes calling. I…”

“Thank you, Rawlings,” Richard cut her off and headed for the dowager’s boudoir door without so much as a glance at the faithful maid. Poor Rawlings, he inwardly commiserated. At times, it must be hard waiting on his irate, unbalanced mother.

Mildred de Briers was lounging on a long chair, a book in one hand and the other dipping into a box of sweetmeats. She started when Richard strode in, her beautiful face immediately crunching into a scowl.

“My lord! You are trespassing!” she shrieked, using her most formidable weapon – her shrill, loud voice.

Richard had known that voice all his life, even from before he had been old enough to realise he could be hurt by it. Yes, he knew of being humiliated, mortified, and deeply hurt by the mother he had tried so desperately to love. It had lasted until he went to Eton, where other challenges claimed him, challenges that were sometimes painful, when he was drawn into brawls and fisticuffs. Yet those physically painful skirmishes were never as hurtful as the emotional ones his mother inflicted upon him. Richard had learned to physically defend himself at Eton – and simultaneously to shield himself from his mother’s vicious emotional stabbings. It had, however, taken him longer to realise that his mother hated him so much because he was his father’s son. Mildred had a heart filled to the brim with black, seething hatred for her husband, and she needed a scapegoat, any scapegoat upon which to ventilate that emotion. Richard had been the most convenient scapegoat of all, so he had learned from a tender age not to be bothered by his mother’s shrieking, nor by the words she flung at him.

That was why he was able to stare her down without so much as a flicker of his eyelids.

“Madam, I came to make you a proposition, which you would be wise to consider. It will not be made twice, should you reject it. It will also not be altered to please you. You are my mother, so a part of me esteems it an obligation to my honour to treat you with deference.”

He paused deliberately to let his words sink in. Mildred was eying him with abject loathing but also with a shrewd interest.

“What torture have you in mind, my lord? Have I not suffered enough from the cruel treatment you have been giving me since your father died? Will you impose yet more misery?”

With an inward sigh, Richard forced himself to keep his temper under a tight rein. He had come with an offer he hoped his mother would not reject.

“As you are aware, madam, my nuptials will occur on the twenty-second of this month. My wife and I will live at Bearsham Manor, as is our due and our duty. You are granted permission to stay here for the rest of your days, because you are my mother, the Dowager Baronetess Bearsham.”

He fixed her with a stern look, feeling his mouth hardening. Then, accordingly, he tightened his voice to an icy coldness.

“You will not, however, be permitted to be a nuisance, madam. My wife and I will require peace and quiet if we are to have a family, which is our most fervent wish. You can be part of that family, if you behave appropriately. However, if you find you cannot attempt to behave like a true mother, I will be forced to take measures to ensure my family’s welfare. What is your answer to that, madam?”

“So you want me to condone your marriage to that…that…”

The fire in his eyes must have warned her, Richard thought, for she hastily swallowed whatever term of abuse she had been about to utter on Manon’s behalf. Instead, she continued, “That girl of common descent – a bastard, to boot! She will lower you and your house to her own level, my lord. She is nothing. She will destroy whatever respect you carry in society.”

“Madam, I will not permit you to abuse Manon. We love each other dearly, and that is enough to ensure our future happiness. Besides, Manon is not a bastard; I already told you that. Her parents were legally married before she was born. And if you are referring to Manon’s mother, Lily, her descent is at least half noble. Not that that little detail is of any concern to me. Manon has her own worth; that is sufficient for me.”

“Love? What is love but a meaningless word invented by poets to…”

Richard had had more than enough. He strode from the room with a vile taste lingering in his mouth, a feeling he often had after speaking with his mother.

 

The three days that separated Manon from her wedding day stretched like eons in her eager heart. She suffered through them with spells of delirious joy, during which she fantasised about how she and Richard would spend their wedding night. Those thrilling moments were alternated with bouts of dark misgivings about how their union would be looked upon by society. Manon knew that she and Richard faced a rough time ahead.

Time passed slowly, even though Manon was extremely busy. She had the seamstresses working around the clock to finish her wedding dress in time. With the help of her trusted Pru, who had come up from Brighton, Manon helped Mrs Briskley, the housekeeper, and Thornton with the organization of the wedding breakfast. Footmen adorned Bearsham Manor’s grand hall with flowers and ribbons. Maids were polishing and cleaning all the rooms and corridors – a titan’s task.  Invitations had been delivered to a plethora of Richard’s acquaintances and neighbours. Oh, Manon thought, would that they would grant them their esteem!

 

On one of these hectic days, Richard welcomed Viscount Lucian Blackthorne, who was to be his best man. The two friends joined in the library at Bearsham Manor for a drink of whisky.

“I still cannot fathom the amazing events that have transpired during these past weeks, Rich,” Lucian said, bewilderment in his voice. “You and Manon, a betrothed pair. So you harboured a love for her that was not quite…” Lucian stopped, realisation keenly upon him that he was overstepping the mark. “Forgive me, my friend, I was about to judge you, and I have no business doing that.”

“You are merely expressing the general opinion that people will have and show, I fear. How am I to explain to society that I thought Manon to be my niece, but oh, now I have discovered that my sister Lily is, in fact, not my father’s daughter? People will look suspiciously upon our union, Luke.”

“Well,” Lucian said matter-of-factly, “perhaps you should let society go hang itself. You do not need to explain anything, Rich. You can prove beyond all doubts that Manon is not of your blood. You love her, and she loves you. As a consequence, you two will marry and be happy. However, it must have been awkward for you, Rich, all these past months.”

“Luke, it was sheer agony, believe me. I was attracted to Manon from the moment I set eyes on her, yet I knew all too well that she was not for me. The worst of it was that she felt the same attraction towards me.”

Lucian stared into his whisky before continuing, and Richard suddenly saw the banked sorrow that was burning in his eyes. Had his friend harboured feelings for Manon, after all? Richard was astonished, for he had not thought Lucian interested in Manon. Lucian had never offered for her.

“Luke, what is troubling you? You have never proposed to Manon, so I figured you did not care for her. Yet your attitude shows that you are disturbed.”

“I was confused, Richard. I could not win Manon for myself, no matter how fervently I devoted myself to her. I have always adored Manon. But at the same moment, I felt that a wall stood between us that could not be breached.”

A joy warmed Richard’s heart at the thought that his Manon had never given in to any other man but him. Yet he keenly felt Lucian’s distress, too.

“I am sorry, Luke,” he tried, but his words rang falsely in his own ears.

“I will survive,” Lucian said in an airy voice, which was belied by his weary eyes. “Think nothing of it, Rich and enjoy your good fortune.”

With a flourish, he toasted his glass to Richard’s, and the two lifetime friends drank to each other’s health. Then, the two friends almost simultaneously turned their gaze toward the windows overlooking the terrace where Manon was walking arm-in-arm with Pru. Richard’s heart lifted when he saw her. He smiled happily and said, “Miss Butterworth is the best of companions to my dear Manon. I am so fortunate that she consented to stay after our wedding. Manon will still have need of her many skills when there is a ball or dinner to be hosted at Bearsham Manor.”

Lucian let his gaze roam over the tall figure that was chatting with Manon while graciously striding the length of the sun-bathed terrace. Miss Butterworth…so that was her name, he mused. He found himself taking in the slender waist, the long, straight back, the non-existent bosom Miss Butterworth displayed in that grey and very drab morning gown. Earlier on, he had glimpsed her thin, elongated face and her lustreless straw-blond hair, which she wore in a severely tight bun at the nape of her neck. Poor woman, Lucian silently commiserated. She truly had no qualities at all that could entice men to seek her attention. Apart from her eyes, Lucian conceded. They were a deep-ocean blue and they changed colour from lilac to deep violet when she laughed.

 

“Oh, Pru,” Manon sighed, “you have no idea how confused I am. Here, I am to be united with the love of my life. I should be overflowing with joy, yet I am also frightened.”

“Frightened?” Pru asked. “How can that be? Your un…erm…Sir Richard is the kindest of men. He worships the ground that you walk on.”

“Yes, I know that, Pru, and I will never be afraid of anything as long as we are together, Richard and I. But you almost called him my uncle. That is a telltale reaction, Pru. People will never believe that we are not uncle and niece. They will regard our marriage as incestuous. They will ostracise us, Pru. And that, I am very much afraid, will affect Richard in the end.”

Prudence Butterworth was a vicar’s daughter and she understood all too well how people behaved when inexplicable events came their way. Heavens, it seemed unfathomable even to her that Manon was now going to be the wife of the man, who had been considered her uncle before now. And yet there before her lay the truth. Sir Robert’s letter was crystal-clear. The former baronet had married a woman already pregnant by another man, and he had adopted her child as his own. That was what a true gentleman would do, and it was to Sir Robert’s credit that he had done so. His noble gesture could not be allowed to go to waste.

“Listen, Manon,” Pru said, taking Manon’s hands. “You will need all your strength in the days and months to come. You will surmount this, I know it. Concentrate upon your marriage to Sir Richard and devote yourself to making him happy. Do not overly heed people’s reactions. Be friendly, smile, and stay composed, whatever they say to you. Show them that you love Sir Richard, no matter what happens. People will change their attitude over time. I know that they will. I have seen it happen on numerous occasions in my father’s parishes. Life provides people with many distractions, and your story will only last until something else occurs that draws people’s attention from you. And believe me, dearest, something will.”

“Thank you, Pru,” Manon whispered, tears of relief staining her cheeks. “You always say what I need to hear when melancholy overcomes me. You are a dear friend, Pru.”

 

The evening before his wedding, Richard stood on the terrace and gazed at his moonlit gardens. The nightly orb stood above the manor’s roofs, painting the manicured lawn in a silvery light. The night was balmy and perfectly still, the sky an indigo blue sprinkled with a myriad of stars. Richard needed the stillness to calm his nerves and gather strength for the day to come. He knew his own worth well enough and he would hold his head high, no matter what might come. He was also certain that his beloved Manon would stand her ground in any circumstance, and in answer to any insult society might throw in her face. She was brave, his Manon. She may not have de Briers blood in her veins, but she certainly had the fierce family courage.

No, it was not for the way she would stand her ground that Richard feared but for her noble, brave heart. She would be hurt by people’s reactions – not at first, but slowly, through the years of ostracism, bitterness would grow and destroy her. He could but try and protect her from being hurt.

“A penny for your thoughts…”

Manon’s sensual voice broke through his abject reasoning, like a ray of sunshine through a blanket of heavy storm clouds. He turned, and his breath caught at the sight of her.

She was wearing her nightgown, a shawl thrown over her slim shoulders. The gown was a sheer linen thing, made translucent by the silvery light of the moon behind her. All her lush curves were perfectly outlined, and they were beckoning to be caressed. Richard’s mouth watered, and he swallowed hard.

“What are you doing here, my love? I thought you would like to have a decent night’s rest.”

His own voice sounded hoarse – and also harsh- to him. Manon stood there, smiling at him. She stretched out a hand.

“You owe me, my darling,” she said, “and I have come to claim that debt.”

His expression must have been one of bewilderment, because she uttered a tinkling peel of laughter. It lit up her face and gorgeous green eyes, and he felt a surge of arousal from head to toe, and right into his manhood. He wanted her yet he must wait until the next day to claim her as his wife. It was agony, but it was also a definite necessity. He would not ruin her as her grandmother and mother had been before their marriage. His honour forbade such a scheme. Most adamantly so.

“Richard,” Manon said in a voice that reverberated along his spine, “I once asked you to love me as a man loves a woman. That night, you deceived me. You pleasured me, my darling, and you gave me the most beautiful experience I ever had. Yet you denied yourself that same pleasure, and by doing so, you got yourself into a debt. A debt to me, my love. You owe me the right to pleasure you as much as you did me that night. I want you to make love to me tonight, my heart. I want to be yours, in every sense of the word.”

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty

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Chapter Thirty

 

“Bearsham Manor, 15th April 1793

 

To my beloved son Richard,

 

If this letter has come into your possession, it means that I have gone to meet my Maker.

For my own sake, I hope that it has been a peaceful passing, but we do not have a say in the way that we part from this world, do we?

 

I deliberately kept the enclosed information from you because it was my sincerest intention to share it with you someday. If you are reading this, then life has not granted me that chance.

 

I have only myself to blame, because I never took the time to sit down with you and talk about it. You were at Cambridge University until recently, and presently, you are enjoying the Season in Town with your friends. I do not want to begrudge you that, Richard, so I shall write as complete an account as possible. Pray God that I shall have the opportunity to confide the whereabouts of this story before I die.

 

I am not well, Richard. The condition of my heart is dire, or so Dr Prentice tells me. I could die at any moment. On the other hand, I could also live on for some years. It is not for me to decide. Therefore, I must be prepared.”

 

Richard lowered the letter and closed his eyes, inwardly shivering.

The dismal memory of his father’s last days earlier that year hit Richard with a force that painfully squeezed at his very heart. At the time his father had written this early 1793, Richard had been enjoying his third London Season. All he had truly been doing, was wasting his days with his friends, mindlessly so, and he had been full of his own desires for the future. There had been a few summonses from Donby, who was his father’s secretary in those days. He had written in no uncertain terms that Sir Robert was unwell and that Richard’s presence at Bearsham Manor was urgently requested. Richard had ignored the first few letters and had proceeded with his life of soirées and balls, jousting bouts at the boxing parlour, and lazy mornings at his club. That is, until his father’s Eastbourne solicitor, Mr Brownslow had turned up in London in person, and had made Richard fully aware of the way things were lying. Sir Robert, Mr Brownslow had said, reproach in his eyes, was on the brink of death.

With a sigh, Richard continued reading.

               

“The bequest of my worldly goods is quite straightforward as you well know. My solicitor Mr Brownslow informed you of the contents of my will, the moment you came home from Cambridge.

 

You are entitled to the title of Baronet Bearsham when I pass on. The Bearsham Manor estate and the bulk of my fortune and investments will come entirely to you.

 

Your half-sister Lily de Briers had a right to some of the funds that issued from her mother’s family, the Montroses. Therefore, I would have made certain that she acquired that money, had not fate decided otherwise.

 

Lily has been dead for several long years, but her children will have their mother’s share. That is my fervent wish, and I have made provisions for that in my will as you are aware. I will ask of you that you seek out the whereabouts of Manon Favier and her brother Jéhan and that you will give them their rightful share. You are a man of honour, Richard and thus you will act upon my wishes. I have no doubt about that.”

 

Again Richard’s thought drifted back to the time when his father had lain dying.

His father had seemed to be asleep for the better part of the day, Richard had discovered, once he had returned to the Manor. He recalled the long hours he had spent at his father’s bedside, reminiscing over his own, up-until-then frivolous life.

For the first time in his life, Richard had felt the full responsibility that would befall him, as soon as his father passed away. The livelihoods of his tenants and servants would lie in his ability to keep the estate thriving. His mother’s fast-approaching declining years would be his to manage. And finally, Manon and Jéhan Favier, who at that moment in time were still unknown to him, would be his responsibility as well.

The enormity of his task had threatened to overwhelm Richard, as he now recalled. He picked up the letter where it had fallen from his hand and realised he had not even registered that he dropped it.

 

“By now, you will have been informed by Mr Brownslow that I have kept up a steady correspondence with Thibaut Favier, since the death of dearest Lily. Before that horrible event, I had no inkling of the Faviers’ whereabouts until Thibaut wrote me that she had died giving birth to Jéhan. It was as terrible a blow to me, Richard, as it was to you. Fortunately, we had one another to lend us comfort. However, Thibaut and Manon had nothing, apart from the task of having to raise little Jéhan. Thibaut recently informed me of the alarming turn of events in the French capital. Riots, arson, and killings have become a daily pattern, and Thibaut is worried. So I will have to ask you to go on a journey to France anytime soon and bring the family to England. There is, however, one detail that you should know about Lily, my son, although it will not alter anything and certainly will not change anything with regard to the provisions I have made for Manon and Jéhan.”

 

Manon had been reading the letter over her uncle’s shoulder with rising excitement. She now felt a quickening of her pulse and gripped her uncle’s arm unawares, while the contents of Sir Robert’s letter kept unfolding. She was going to discover new facts about Maman! Maman, whom she had missed so dreadfully all through those five years since her brother was born. This letter, Manon realised with a start, was all about Maman.

Together, they read on.

 

“My dearest Elizabeth was a daughter of Reginald Montrose, a Scottish lord whose family fled the country after the Jacobite Risings. Sir Reginald’s grandfather swore allegiance to King George and was rewarded with the modest estate of Montrose in Yorkshire. Under the diligent care of several barons Montrose, their estate prospered, and the family grew to considerable wealth. Sir Reginald was able to provide for a suitable London Season for his only daughter. Elizabeth Montrose was therefore placed in the care of an elderly spinster aunt who owned a house in London. His steward, James MacIntyre was given the task of accompanying Elizabeth to the capital. They arrived in due time at the residence of Miss Horatia Satterthwaite on Curzon Street.

 

I was presented to Elizabeth by one of my long-time friends in the capital on the evening of a ball. I instantly fell head-over-heels in love with her, and to my infinite joy, she returned my feelings, even though she was only nineteen and I was thirty. I asked for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage and was granted permission to court her. We set our wedding date for the following summer, and I escorted my beloved girl around Town to balls and soirées. It was the happiest time of our lives.”

 

Where was all this leading? Richard mused. Why was his father elaborating over his courtship to his first wife? Of course, Richard knew that Sir Robert’s matchless love had been Elizabeth and not Mildred, Richard’s own mother. He had known that all his life, even though his father had never uttered a single word about the nature of his marriage to either Elizabeth or Mildred. Richard had never known Elizabeth, since she died giving birth to Lily, but every time he had seen Robert look at her portrait on the wall of Bearsham Manor’s grand entrance hall, Richard had felt her presence in the way his father gazed at her stunningly beautiful image – a gaze Robert never used when he looked at Mildred. This simple fact did not surprise Richard at all, since his mother must be the coldest woman on earth.

Robert and Elizabeth’s love must have been earth-shattering, Richard thought if his father had still missed her even after he had married someone else and begotten a son by her.

 

“Then, at the end of the Season, my life was shaken to the core when Elizabeth disappeared quite abruptly from London, without saying a word to anyone, including me. I quite dreadfully bullied her elderly aunt into telling me that Elizabeth had gone back to Montrose. I went after her, of course, and forced my way into her father’s study. Baron Montrose had refused to see me at first, you see. His daughter, he said, could not become my wife, because she had shamed his name in a most unforgivable way. She had eloped with his steward, James MacIntyre.

 

Initially, I was devastated, of course. I was so deeply hurt – not only was my pride wounded, but also and more deeply, my heart – that I fled to Bearsham Manor and licked my wounds in solitude. I could not believe what my Lizzie had done, and the pain of her betrayal was so immense that I indulged myself in wallowing in my sorrows for a few months. Eventually, I recovered and got my wits back. I remembered Lizzie’s love for me and her sweet, unspoiled nature, her warm loving heart. I started to have some serious doubts about what had happened. So after nearly half a year, I started searching for her.

               

Baron Montrose had no notion as to where the pair had fled to, but he said MacIntyre had relatives near Inverness in Scotland. I went there as quickly as I could and found Elizabeth in a small, dismal cottage on the estate of a local nobleman. She was working as a scullery maid in the laird’s kitchens and she was heavily pregnant with MacIntyre’s child. The man himself had sailed to the Americas after he had killed one of the laird’s footmen in a drunken row. He had simply abandoned Elizabeth and had never married her.

               

Elizabeth had succumbed to the man’s coaxing charms and had given herself to him. But the steward had only wished to bed her. On his part, it had been only lust he had felt for her since she came out of the schoolroom. Once it was spent, the man lost his interest in her. Elizabeth had followed him to Scotland when he ran from London, terrified that her father would find out about his dastardly deed. They had tried to settle down in his childhood home, but MacIntyre had been drunk for most of the time. Elizabeth was forced to work if she wanted to have food in her belly and a roof above her head.

               

Richard, it was utterly horrible.

 

When I found my Lizzie after all those months, I realised I had never stopped loving her. She was everything for me as she had been before and she would always be the love of my life. I brought her to Bearsham Manor and married her, despite her being pregnant with another man’s child. It did not matter one iota that she had betrayed me. I knew quite simply and plainly that I could not live without her. When Lily was born, some three months later, Elizabeth did not have the strength to survive the extremely difficult birth. Guilt had plunged her into a deep depression, but on top of that, she could not overcome the raging fever that came after the baby’s birth. All I had left of my beloved Lizzie was a beautiful baby girl with green eyes and auburn curls, just like her mother’s. I vowed, to myself and to God, to raise Lily as my own and to love her as deeply as I had loved Lizzie.

               

I have kept my promise, Richard, and so must you. You must give Lily’s children what I have set on them, and you must save them, protect them, and cherish them for the rest of your life. Your sister, Richard, even though she was an illegitimate child, was the daughter of my heart, just as you were the son of my heart and my beloved heir.

 

You are a man of honour, Richard. I know, in the deepest part of my heart, that you will not disillusion me.

 

Farewell, my son. May the Almighty Lord in his all-embracing mercy watch over you and yours, for the rest of your life.

 

Robert de Briers, Baronet Bearsham”

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Nine

Armitage_004 - small

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

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.”

“Jeremy!”

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, easygoing 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 he.

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 breathtaking. 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 scold 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.

 

 

 

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Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-EightArmitage_00412- small

 

Two weeks passed in relative peace, so that Manon was able to go to Greenhaven to check on how Mrs Lynver fared. Pru who had gone there a few days before Manon, told her that she had secured the services of a young Cornish physician, Dr Trevellyan. Together with the staff of nurses they managed to stem the constant daily tide of sufferers to a reasonable amount.

Manon returned to Bearsham Manor on the tenth of August. She found her uncle much improved in strength and in spirits, although he was still in need of rest. After a thorough examination, she left Richard to his sleep.

Conscious of her still unabated feelings for her uncle, Manon sighed with sorrow as she closed the door of her uncle’s bedchamber behind her. It had not grown easier, this constant confrontation they were both subjected to. She had hoped it would, though. Yet after a few days away from Richard, days in which she deeply missed him, the joy of seeing him again overwhelmed Manon. Her heart had leapt with love when she saw the answering sparkle in Richard’s eyes, just moments ago. His smile had warmed her to the core, even when she recognized the pain of having to suppress their mutual forbidden feelings in his hungry gaze. How were they to bear this, she had no inkling.

On the second floor, Manon passed a large oak door which was polished to a shine in certain places by the touch of many hands. Curious to the point of excitement, she pushed against it; she had not entered this room before.

The solemn silence of a chapel met her when Manon stepped over the threshold. Her upbringing had been Roman-Catholic. The chapel’s perfectly quiet atmosphere, combined with the exquisite decoration, instantly touched her very soul.

She reverently curtsied while dipping her hand into the elegant marble shell near the door. It was filled with holy water. She made a slow sign of the cross and glanced around to admire the beautiful upholstery.

 

Richard woke from a short nap when the door to his room opened. His niece rushed in, and he was struck by the somewhat dishevelled state she was in. Manon’s fiery hair was coming down from its pins, and she had a smudge of dirt crossing her nose and cheeks.

“Oh, I am truly sorry, Uncle, to have woken you. Parbleu! Tête de mule, que je suis!

She turned to leave the room, but Richard, fully awake now and intrigued, called her back.

“When you are swearing in French and calling yourself a dunderhead, then something truly upsetting must have happened, my dear. Out with it, please.”

“I wanted to show you something, but I forgot that you might be asleep. It can wait, Uncle.”

“No, it cannot. Wait for me outside, and I will call Bright to help me get dressed.”

Manon left the room with a smile on her face. So her uncle had taken her advice and allowed Bright to help him while he was convalescing.

Ten minutes later, Richard let Manon take him to the second floor chapel, but was surprised that she did so.

“The family has not used this chapel for years, Manon. The servants have their services here whenever they lack the time to go down to Bearsham Village and St Wulfram’s Church. The vicar, Mr Merryweather, has always graciously obliged me in this. I did not know you had adopted it as your own, small place of worship.”

“Mrs Briskley told me about it, but I had not found the time to visit and pray. There is something here. Come.”

Manon impetuously grabbed his hand rather and pulled him with her. Richard winced as a sharp tug reminded him of his injured ribs yet he quickly swallowed his gasp of pain.

His niece led him to the small, intricately decorated altar at the chapel’s front. It was an example of exquisite baroque craftsmanship in white, pink, and dark blue marble. Its front and upper part bore bas-reliefs, representing angels, demons, saints, and cherubs in all sizes and postures, yet the overall effect was charming and not as overly loaded as is usually the case in baroque pieces. The upper part had also a small, gilded door which concealed the tabernacle. On both sides of this door, there were two paintings, both about the size of a square foot.

“Look closely at the painting on the left, Uncle,” Manon said quietly.

Richard furrowed his brow and looked at her in complete bewilderment.

“I have known these paintings to be here as long as I can remember, Manon. The one on the right is “The Steps to Elysium” or the depiction of souls ascending into Heaven, and the other is “The Vale of Tears” or…” And suddenly, Richard grasped what his niece had wanted him to see.

He darted forward, ignoring the fiery arrow of pain piercing his back. Dizziness forced him onto his knees, and he heard Manon’s distressed cry only dimly, as if he were under water.

“I am well,” he hastened to reassure her. “It is only a passing faintness. Help me up, please.”

Once he was on his feet again, Richard acted with greater caution, grimly recalling that he had not yet his strength back. Pushing back his infuriated thoughts about his condition, he bent forward to examine the small painting to the left of the tabernacle.

It all came back to him like a high wave, breaking onto the shore. This chapel had been his father’s retreat when his wife’s harassments became too overburdening. Richard remembered that his father had often worked in here as well, seated at a small table at the back. It stood to reason that Robert de Briers must have had a place in here that was destined to hide confidential documents.

Richard’s hand went up to the gilded tabernacle door, then stopped. It must be locked, he remembered, and the key would be … where, for heaven’s sake? He abruptly realised he had no notion of its whereabouts.

“Blast!” He tried to mutter the curse under his breath, but Manon’s keen ears picked it up anyway.

“What? What is it?” she demanded, her voice rising to a pitch with frustration. “Why do you not pull the painting from its place and examine what is behind?”

“Because, my impetuous niece,” Richard patiently explained, “that is not the way to find out what is ‘behind the vale’. Which, if I may say so, is exceedingly astute of you to have figured out.”

Manon blushed so becomingly that Richard’s heart leapt with a sudden desire. Damn! When would he learn to suppress his unruly feelings for his lovely niece?

“It was not solely my doing,” she answered. “Jake and Jéhan helped me. Oh, I am so extremely curious! How will we know, then? What is this secret?”

She was almost jumping with excitement, and Richard laughed aloud at the pretty sight she presented. Hair tumbling, face flushed, and sea-green gown wrinkled and stained from her search – it made her look truly adorable.

“Well,” he replied, “I need to locate the tabernacle key, because without it, our search is over. It may very well be amongst the keys in my father’s desk. I have not yet found the time to go through all his possessions, since I had to set out for France right after his death.”

“Tabernacle keys are usually found in the vestry,” Manon said, matter-of-factly. “In a French church, there would be a special cabinet for them.”

“Let us go find out, then,” Richard replied, and preceded her to the room in question, a small, cupboard-like extension at the far left side of the chapel. It had no windows, and its sturdy door was concealed in the wall panelling. Fortunately, it was unlocked.

Richard took a candle from a holder on the altar and lighted it from the thick wax candle in the corridor which was always kept burning by Thompson. They stepped inside. Manon immediately pointed at a small wooden box fixed to the back wall.

“There! That is what I mean!”

She was right. The small but robust iron tabernacle key was easily spotted, hanging from its hook amidst its fellows, which were used to open the cabinets for books and religious garments.

“Was the chapel a Roman Catholic one?” Manon asked, a bit bemused. “All those items certainly point toward that conclusion.”

“As a matter of fact, it was,” Richard confirmed. “After Henry VIII established the Church of England, all chapels, even the private ones, had to be refurbished. My ancestor at the time instantly swore loyalty to the new religion but could not find the heart to destroy the lovely late Gothic paintings the altar had been decorated with a century earlier. He had a false front installed, with reproductions of Renaissance works. Unfortunately, a later baronet had it pulled down to replace it with that baroque-styled monstrosity. The family must have kept all the other items concealed behind the vestry door.”

“I rather love the baroque style,” Manon retorted a bit of a reproach in her tone. “It is elegant and refined, and in my country, the nobility has used it in many exquisite chateaux, townhouses and churches.”

Richard kept silent, and instead went back to the chapel to try the key. He was unexpectedly stung by Manon’s referring to France as “her country” when he had believed all along that she was beginning to feel quite at home in England. How could one not feel at home at Bearsham Manor? Even with his cold-hearted mother around when he was little, Richard had always been fond of the large barn of a house. He knew why; his father had loved and cherished him and had made him feel at home. His father had instilled pride and reverence in him, for his name, his title, and his estate. Concern and care for people who depended on him for their livelihood.

“Never forget that you are first and foremost a de Briers, Richard. A baronet who was given a community to protect, along with his title. People and families, beasts and crops, and this estate and house – they all depend on you, my son, for their well-being.” Those were words he had often heard from Robert, his father.

“Oh!”

Manon’s little cry ripped Richard back into reality, and he hastened to put the key in the lock.

The tabernacle door opened easily on well-oiled hinges, which surprised Richard until he realised his father must have used it frequently for documents he needed to keep safe. Papers that had to be kept private and out of his mother’s sight, no doubt. Richard had no doubt that the dowager would have gotten hold of the combination to his father’s vault, even if she were not supposed to have acquired that knowledge.

“Oh! It is empty!” Manon exclaimed.

“No, wait,” Richard said and put his hand inside the small cupboard. He tapped lightly on the left side wall although he had no recollection as to how he knew to do so.

A hidden panel swung inward, and Manon held her breath when Richard extracted an item out of the secret compartment behind “The Vale of Tears”. It was a parcel, the size of a book, and wrapped in brown paper and fastened with a string.

In a bold, precise hand, the words “To my son Richard de Briers” could be read.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Seven

Armitage_004 - small

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

“Whoohoo!” Jéhan’s cry of delight instantly brought his sister back to reality.

“Hush, mon chou! It is a secret. No one must know we are searching for the treasure yet.”

Jéhan’s eyes shone with delight. There was nothing her little brother loved more than to play hide-and-seek or pirates-and-villains.

Jake Davies was scrutinizing Manon in a puzzled way. He had been a London street urchin until he was rescued from starvation by Richard’s father. Playing hide-and-seek had been essential to staying alive in the grimy rookeries of London. However, he had a hard time imagining what Manon needed to be secretive about.

Manon caught his gaze and smiled.

“We must have a council of war,” she whispered. “We need to plan our strategy. Listen to what we shall do.”

The three of them went to sit at Jéhan’s desk. Manon pulled a sheet of paper from the top drawer and began writing down a word.

“Veil,” Jéhan correctly read. He had begun learning his letters under Jake’s tutelage and was making fast progress.

“What about it, miss?” Jake asked in surprise.

“What does it mean?” Jéhan piped in surprise.

“The French word is voile,” Manon said, “but that is not the point. What I want to know is, what images does that word evoke for you? Say all that comes into your mind.”

Une soeur! Nuns wear a veil!” Jéhan cried, radiating enthusiasm as only a little child could.

“Exactly!” Manon exclaimed and wrote down the word.

“Ladies wear veils when in mourning or when they marry,” Jake offered.

“Splendid!”

“I like eating veil!” Jéhan proffered. His sister and Jake stared at him in surprise until Jake said, “ Oh! You mean veal, erm, let me see, what is the French word?”

Veau,” Manon translated.

“Yes, that is it,” Jéhan said. “Sorry, Manon, I was wrong.”

“Not to worry, sweetheart.”

“Yes,” Jake mused, “but what if we considered homonyms, as well? V-E-I-L and V-A-L-E sound the same, but they are not!”

“Vale…” Manon thought hard, letting the word roll over her tongue.

“What does it mean?” Jéhan asked, for the second time.

Vallée, or valley,” his sister explained.

“That does not make sense,” Jake muttered. “Which vale? There are vales aplenty in the English countryside.” Then he said in a puzzled tone, “What is the meaning of all this, miss?”

Manon took a deep breath and began to explain the real story behind the treasure hunt.

 

Mildred de Briers reclined on the drawing room’s settee with satisfaction emanating from her countenance.

“Jeremy, I have finally acquired the means to mould my son to my wishes. When I threaten him with the disclosure of his incestuous love for his niece, he will have no choice but to increase my allowance. Richard will endeavour to spare the chit that particular shame and disaster,” the dowager tittered.

It was not a beautiful sound, Jeremy mused.

Jeremy Lawson was a pragmatic man. Over the years, his relationship with Mildred had proved an agreeable arrangement. His marriage to the timid and docile Mary Breckenridge was one of convenience and had only provided him with wealth. Mary was reluctant to accept his ardent attentions yet too afraid of his flaring temper to deny him. She endured his touch with pious stoicism only to run into her chapel afterwards and pray. To Mary, marital relations were a means to gain a place among the saints through martyrdom. Fortunately for Jeremy, his handsome looks and skills in the bedchamber had never left him wanting for lovers among the ladies of the ton. However, Mildred de Briers was the one he had always preferred over all others.

Lately, however, matters had begun to degenerate. Mildred was no longer pleasing him the way she used to. She constantly whined about her son being a miser and about not having enough blunt. Jeremy did not envy Richard de Briers. Having to cope with an unreasonable, irate creature like Mildred was always hard. Having such a woman for a mother must be hellish.

So Jeremy wanted to return to London, fervently so. He was bored with the whole farce at Bearsham Manor. Let Mildred fight her own battles, he thought. Jeremy had had enough of them.

“My dear Millie,” he drawled, careful not to reveal his doubts, “it seems to me that you are underestimating the man. Richard de Briers, as I know him, will not easily succumb to threats. You should also be more circumspect about him. His retaliation, should he have a chance to exercise revenge on you, will be fierce. I suggest that you change tack and try to win his affection instead.”

“Ha!” Mildred huffed. “That would never work! Richard knows I hate him as much as I did his father. The feeling is extremely mutual, Jeremy. Only my son’s sense of honour keeps him from banishing me from the estate. God forbid that he would do so, because I would waste away with boredom. And so, now that I hold a powerful weapon against my stubborn son, I intend to use it.”

Jeremy kept his further musings to himself since it was fruitless to go against Mildred when she was in this particular state of mind. He planned to prepare his escape, though, should the need arise.

 

Richard was furious. Since the moment he had regained consciousness, he had cursed the abominable weakness in which he found himself. Never before in his life had he felt so helpless and so dependent on the assistance of others to see to his most vital needs, such as food, personal hygiene, and healing treatment. He was only too grateful that the last one was being taken care of by his skilled niece instead of by the quack his mother had summoned in the first hours after his fall.

The thought brought Richard back to the problem of his mother, the bane of his life – and her lover, Jeremy Lawson.

Since boyhood, Richard had been confronted with society bucks circling around his beautiful mother like moths around a flame. At one time, he had been convinced that they stole his mother’s affection from him. He had hated the whole lot of them but at the same time had been powerless to do anything about them. It had wounded his soul, and he recalled all too well the countless nights that he had cried himself to sleep. Until the age of eight, the age at which he had been sent to Eton, and thus had been removed from his mother’s entourage, Richard had thought that, in spite of her indifference towards him, Mildred indeed loved him in some small measure. He had convinced himself that his mother, being as lovely as she was, had a right to have men fluttering around her. That he, a troublesome little whippersnapper, had no right to intrude upon her court and her life. He had fervently hoped that his mother would come to show her love for him if only he respected her right to amuse herself. He had hoped that she would cease her neglect of him, her only son when she saw how he worshipped her from afar.

That vision had been brutally shattered when one day, he came home after term earlier than was his habit. Lucian’s father had brought him and Lucian home in their carriage because the family had planned on a journey to Scotland. He and Lucian had been granted the beginning of their summer break three days early. How well he remembered that disastrous day. He had been fourteen and already tall, with muscles beginning to form on his arms and torso.

Richard had jumped from the carriage as soon as a footman opened the door. He had shouted a greeting to Thornton who had welcomed him even if the butler appeared somewhat surprised. In joyful excitement, Richard had run into his father’s study and had stood rooted to the spot, staring at the scene that had played out before his horrified eyes.

Mildred de Briers, shrieking like a fishmonger’s wife, had been pummelling his father’s chest in absolute rage. Richard could still see the insanity that had been on her beautiful face while she had scratched his father’s cheeks until they were covered with bloody streaks. It had most frightfully shocked him. Yet what had appalled Richard even more was the fact that his strong, brave father had not even winced at his wife’s behaviour. Robert de Briers stood there unmoving, like a rock in the surf, his face stoic and indifferent.

Something had snapped in Richard. Like an arrow from a bow, he had flown towards his mother and torn her away from Robert, throwing her onto the floor in the process. From his own mouth, words had begun to flow, words Richard never thought he knew at all.

“Stop it, you miserable bitch!”

Even more words were forming in his enraged soul until his father slapped him across the face. Only once, but it had stung like fire.

“Apologize to your mother at once,” Robert de Briers had ordered, and his voice had barely risen above normal. He fixed his son with a severe stare that brooked no argument.

Richard had swallowed and opened his mouth to protest, but the steady, commanding stare in his father’s brown eyes had killed the words forming in his mind.

“I am sorry, Mother,” Richard had uttered between clenched teeth, his eyes on the floor, and his cheeks in flames.

“That is not nearly enough,” the cold voice of Robert had sounded. “Look your mother in the eyes when you offer her your regret.”

It had been almost impossible for Richard to do as his father asked, yet the imperturbable gaze in the baronet’s eyes did not vanish until he had done so.

“I truly regret my words, Mother. Please forgive me.”

Then Richard had forced his eyes to meet his mother’s and was instantly appalled by the hatred that shone in them. By then, she was on her feet again, even though neither Richard nor Robert had offered a hand to help her. She had spit upon the floor and turned to leave the room.

Shocked beyond comprehension, Richard had helplessly turned to his father for support. Robert had not appeared to be moved at all. He stood in the middle of the room, his hands on his back and his face streaked with blood. Yet his voice was as calm as ever.

“That was extremely rude of you, my son. You are forbidden to behave like that to the woman who birthed you. If you ever do that again, I shall punish you beyond measure. Do you understand, Richard?”

“Yes, father,” Richard had stammered, mortified both by his own behaviour and his father’s reaction.

“Go to your room and do not show yourself again today. Tomorrow, I might perhaps be able to summon the patience to speak to you again.”

It had taken years before Richard understood why his father had punished him; Robert de Briers had been an honourable man who had wished to install respect for his elders in his only son.

At fourteen, it had been a blow, however. Richard had cried himself to sleep once more that evening. For the last time ever.

 

It was long past luncheon by the time the treasure hunters had inspected every picture, from the tiniest one to the largest, that graced the walls of Bearsham Manor. They had started with the portraits, which was the most logical way to start. Most of them had women with veils in them. Those pictures that could be lifted or moved to the side had been closely investigated, of course. Then they had proceeded with the ones representing outdoor scenes. Almost every single one of them featured a valley. And in those “vales” there were women with “veils” as well.

Now it was midafternoon, and Jake, Jéhan and Manon found themselves back in Jéhan’s quarters. They were dirty, tired, and famished, as well as utterly discouraged. They had no idea what they were looking for, what size it was, or if “treasure” also meant also coin and jewels.

“I give up,” Jéhan declared. “Maybe there is no treasure ‘behind the “veil” or “vale” or whatever, Manon.”

“You could be right, my angel,” Manon replied. She felt dispirited to the extreme and was in sore need of a wash. “Jake will call for your nanny so that you can clean yourself up, and have a bite to eat.”

“Finally!” Jéhan muttered, which made his sister laugh.

Manon left the two to their afternoon activities and headed for her chambers. She knew from Bright that her uncle was sleeping so she had time to attend to matters concerning Greenhaven. When Pru joined her shortly thereafter, the two women worked diligently on their project.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Six

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Chapter Twenty-Six

 

“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 meant?”

“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 bed rest!”

“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. Stupid 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 marched 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 felt 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.

“Aunt.”

“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 young 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 inference 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. So 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 the 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 anything. 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.”