Manon did not, could not, believe her ears. That tone had been one of sheer spite if she had ever heard one. But then, that could not be right, could it? A mother who regretted the fact that her only son would indeed regain his health after an uncommonly severe fall, it was unthinkable.
Slowly turning on her heels, Manon eyed the dowager with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Better to keep up appearances.
“Yes, my lady, of course he will. He is young and healthy and with the proper care, which I fully intend to give him, he will recover his health in no time. Why would you think he would not recover?”
“Dr Seething most clearly informed us that my son was not likely to survive his injury. The fractured ribs might already have punctured some vital organs”
Manon saw no concern in the dowager’s stony face, nor any apprehension whatsoever about the possible death of her son. Mildred de Briers was merely recounting facts.
“The physician was wrong, my lady. My uncle will heal, since his ribs are not broken, merely bruised. I will use all the knowledge I have to see that he does indeed heal. As far as I could deduce from the examination I performed, no organs were punctured. I have applied a firm bandage and will see to it that he stays in bed for at least a week. Now, if you will excuse me, I must retire for the night.” She curtsied and left the room.
Mildred was inwardly seething with fury at the forward behaviour of this French bastard girl. Only, Manon Favier could never be called that. The girl’s parents had married after their elopement.
A bastard…how well Mildred remembered her anxiety from long ago, when she feared that she might fall pregnant after giving herself to Jeremy.
Damn Jeremy Lawson for seducing her in her first Season and making her fall in love with him, so much so that she had been unable to love another man again! Oh, she had participated in the seduction well enough. Naive bourgeois girl that she was all those years ago, she had thought letting herself be deflowered by an earl’s son would be encouragement enough for him to propose marriage to her. Consequently, because he would have need of her father’s money – all aristocrats were in need of fresh money – the Earl of Donbridge would offer a commoner’s daughter his son and his title after she had let herself be ruined. It had not been so.
After all those years, the recollection of what had occurred after she had demanded of Jeremy that he marry her still rankled. Jeremy had flatly refused but had had the cheeky nerve to ask her if they could remain lovers.
Mildred had foolishly addressed a letter to Jeremy’s father at his London townhouse, informing him that his son had ruined her. At first, nothing had occurred. For two months, she had heard nothing from Jeremy, not a jot. During those two months, she had met Robert de Briers, Baronet Bearsham, and had let herself be courted by him. Better, she thought, to have several irons in the fire. Yet she had tried to meet with Jeremy again in London. She had even approached his father at a soirée that the Earl and Countess of Donbridge had attended without their son and heir present.
Albert Philip Lawson, Earl of Donbridge, Marquis of Banbury had looked her over as if she were a mere insect fit to be crushed underfoot. He had then signalled his valet to assist him into his coat as if nothing untoward had happened. He had utterly ignored her when she had started running after him. He had calmly stepped into his carriage while she was kept back by her father who had been appalled by her conduct. As had the whole room, Mildred recalled. One did not approach an earl without having received an invitation to do so.
A few days later, she had read in the newspapers that Jeremy Lawson had departed for his grand tour of Europe as was the habit of sons of the higher aristocracy. He had stayed away from England for two years, and upon his return, his father had granted him the income of Banbury Abbey. A few weeks after, Jeremy had become engaged to Mary Breckenridge, daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, and had married her six months later. Alexander Breckenridge, Duke of Beaufort was wealthy beyond comparison.
But of course, by then, Mildred had long since married Robert de Briers and had become the Baronetess of Bearsham. Because she had been rejected by an earl’s son, Mildred had been forced to settle for a mere baronet instead of becoming a countess. She had, however, resumed her relationship with Jeremy after he had come crawling back to her. His wife, he complained, was a frigid stick of a woman who recoiled from his touch every time he chose to rejoin her in the bedchamber. Served him right!
By then, Mildred was already pregnant with de Briers’ offspring, which kept her husband from her own bed. The arrangement suited her extremely well.
After a quick bath and a light supper in one of the guests rooms, Manon mounted the stairs to the second floor, where Jéhan had his own set of rooms. She spent a pleasant hour with her brother and Jake, an hour in which she marvelled at Jéhan’s progress. Her brother’s English was nearly perfect, as were his skills in mathematics , and he showed an acute interest in European history and that of England in particular. He had also grown, Manon noticed with a pang. He had added almost an inch to his height and put on at least a quarter of a stone, all of which made him a beautiful, strong boy who promised to grow to be a tall young man in a few years.
“Are you coming to live here, Manon? Jéhan asked. “I wish you would. I do miss you so.”
“If I can, I will stay, mon chou,” Manon replied. “But you know it is our uncle who makes the decisions. I must obey whatever he wishes me to do.”
Jéhan laughed merrily.
“Oh, then you do not need to worry, sister! Uncle Richard missed you too! One night, when he came to tuck me in, I heard him say so. I was almost asleep when I heard him say he missed you terribly. So he would love it if you were to stay here.”
“Go to sleep now, my angel. I need to see if Uncle is well.”
“He will not die, will he, Manon? You will make him well again?”
“Yes, my angel. I will do everything to heal him.”
She tucked Jéhan in and kissed his brow. “Sweet dreams, mon chou.”
When she came out into the corridor, Jake was waiting for her.
“Can I have a word with you, Miss?”
He preceded her to a small sitting room down the corridor.
“Miss Manon, I do not think it is wise to stay here. We should all move to the Brighton townhouse, yet I fear the Master is too ill to travel in a coach.”
“Jake, we cannot do that. It would kill him. I fully understand that none of us is welcome here. The dowager is a vicious woman, and I do not trust the viscount. Also, it seemed to me that the dowager did not give a jot about my uncle’s health. She was most indifferent to whatever injuries he might have sustained. I cannot comprehend such an attitude, Jake, so I will be vigilant in seeing that my uncle is properly cared for. As I said, we cannot move him, so we must stay here. At least, I can. Maybe you should leave with Jéhan if need be.”
“Never, miss! Never without you or the master.”
Jake’s spontaneous reaction warmed Manon’s heart. “Thank you, dear friend.”
“You are very welcome, Miss Manon.”
When Manon entered her uncle’s bedchamber shortly thereafter, Mrs Briskley hastily rose and tiptoed towards her.
“I made Miss Butterworth retire to her room at ten, miss. She was exhausted.”
“Thank you, Mrs Briskley. How is our patient?”
“He’s ever so restless, miss, and he keeps mumbling in his sleep. I think he’s developing a slight fever. He’s gibbering about his father and about something he should find, some veil or other. I couldn’t make head or tail of it!”
“I will see to him, Mrs Briskley. You can retire now.”
“Will you need anything further, miss? Tea, or a tray of food?”
“No, thank you, Mrs Briskley. Goodnight.”
The housekeeper wished Manon a goodnight in return and left the room.
Richard was lying in the same position on his back, in what seemed to be a restless sleep. With concern, Manon touched his brow and found it damp but not hot. His pulse was slow, thank God! Just the merest onset of fever then which was only to be expected after the ordeal her uncle had gone through. However, at this moment, Richard seemed to be settling into a regular sleep so Manon nestled herself in the chair that Mrs Briskley had vacated. She might as well try and have a nap, too.
A deep, pained groan from her uncle woke Manon. She fetched a candle to examine him, since it was still night. The room had grown darker, now that the moon had vanished. Yet it still lacked several hours before dawn.
To Manon’s relief, her uncle was only dreaming, although the dream must not have been an agreeable one. Richard was moaning low in his throat, as if he were in pain. At first, Manon was unable to make out what he was mumbling, but gradually, his words became clearer.
“Father…Father, where have you hidden it? Father, no! Do not go before you tell me!”
Now Richard became more agitated than he had been before, so Manon dabbed his face with a wet cloth to make him settle down again. It failed.
“Veil … you said it was behind the veil. There is no veil, Father…”
“Shhh…shhh,” Manon coaxed, stroking her uncle’s cheek. “It is all right, Uncle. Sleep now.”
Maybe it was the soothing tone combined with her caress that made Richard calm down; whatever it was, he did eventually still. Manon still kept vigilant for several minutes. She needed to be ready, should her uncle start tossing between his sheets. He did not but seemed to fall into a deeper sleep once more.
With a sigh of sheer exhaustion, Manon sank into her chair. What luck that it had been a false alarm, she thought. Maybe if he managed to get through the night sleeping soundly, Richard might do better in the morning.
The second time, Manon woke that night, it was due to the sound of something falling to the floor. She jumped from her seat, only to find the bed empty. Richard was on his knees on the floor, bent over and clutching his stomach with both his arms. He was rocking back and forth and moaning, as if in agony. Hastily, Manon dropped onto her knees beside him.
“Uncle, what is it? Are you in pain? Uncle, it is Manon! Answer me, please!”
There was no change in Richard’s behaviour. It looked as if he had not heard her. In a low, growling voice, he muttered the words.
“I am cursed. I love her. I love my own niece. Damnation and misery, but all the punishments of hell cannot chase her from my heart.”
Her own heart stuck in her throat Manon took his hand and pressed it. Richard, she knew, was sleepwalking. Manon recognized the signs from when Jéhan was little. He had had the same affliction, although it had been a long time now since her brother had left his bed to wander through the house. If Richard’s sleepwalking came from being extremely upset, as had been the case with Jéhan, then Manon must act as if he were not asleep and talk to him. Her uncle would not remember a single thing when he woke up.
“Uncle, you are dreaming. Come, let me guide you back to your bed. You must rest, Uncle.”
Her calm voice produced the desired effect. Richard rose from his knees and allowed Manon to lead him back to his bed. She coaxed him to lie down and propped up the pillows under his back so that his injured torso was sufficiently supported. She carefully pulled the bedcovers over him. With a sigh, Richard slept again.
The rest of the night, Manon sat silently in her chair and listened to Richard’s regular breathing. Her very heart ached with the burden that she was forced to carry. When Richard’s rigid control broke at night when he was sleepwalking, only then did he confess his love for her. When it was safe for him to do so.
The last time Manon was being woken up, it was by a gentle, familiar voice. It was early morning, now.
“Manon, have you been here all night? Niece, you must be exhausted; take yourself to your bed!”
“Uncle, you have woken! How wonderful!”
Manon had trouble extracting herself from sleep, feeling barely rested at all. Her body ached from sitting in that uncomfortable chair all night. She stood and stretched.
Richard felt himself tightening in an instant. In the blink of an eye, he was as hard as a rock. He cursed his treacherous body and gripped the covers to steady himself against the onslaught caused by the sight of Manon’s lithe young body languorously stretching in the soft, rosy light of dawn. Lord, she was so beautiful!
But his worst ordeal was yet to come, when she came nearer again and laid her cool hand on his hot brow. He swallowed and closed his eyes to avoid having to look at the swell of her pert breasts under her green sprigged muslin gown, so close to his face.
“Good! You do not have a fever,” Manon said. “Now turn onto your stomach. I want to check your ribs.”
He obeyed, but it was sheer agony. His whole body seemed suffused with pain, the most extreme of it in his chest and back. His head felt like it would explode any minute.
He had other concerns now, too. His swollen manhood was being pressed into the mattress, which caused him pain. But the pain only remotely compared to the tantalising torture of her hands on his bare back. That was altogether unbearable. He braced himself and tried to endure the movements of her ravishing, sensuous fingers as they cut his bandage and peeled the poultice from it. At least the sudden chill of a cold washcloth on his heated flesh helped to overcome his rampant desire.
Oh, this was heaven! Manon was applying a slowly massaging movement onto his aching muscles, thereby gently smoothing the pain out of them. He gave himself over to the feeling of wellbeing Manon induced. Stunningly enough, all that time his niece was oblivious and unsuspicious of the way he was suffering. Perhaps it was all for the best, Richard conceded. He forced himself to lie still while Manon applied a soothing ointment onto his bruised muscles.
Manon, however, surprised him with the question that followed her chatter about the condition of his torso.
“You were sleepwalking in the night, Uncle. You had unpleasant dreams in which you talked to your father. You asked him about a veil. What is that about?”
Richard was startled. Had he truly been doing so? The veil. And his father. Those were two things he had not thought about in a long time.
“When my father lay dying,” he began hesitantly, then went on more boldly as he saw Manon’s interested expression, “he told me to search for a letter that was hidden behind a veil. I should read that letter. My father said it was vital that I did. I have been searching for that veil ever since, but I have never found it.”