“The facts speak for themselves.”
“Do they?” He lowered his foot to the floor as he met Ashland’s stare with his own. “Then you clearly are hearing more than rumor, Ashland. The facts are not that straightforward to me. I have seen what was left behind in the church’s cellar, and I have seen the Fenwicks’ faces when they heard that information.” He faltered as he recalled the pain and grief on Miss Fenwick’s face during the long ride back from Norwich. Tears had glistened in her eyes when she had beheld what was left of the only home she had known for the past ten years. The memory of her face as she had fought to remain strong for her brother and his parishioners was etched on his mind. “I believe they have been victims, twice over. First, when the smugglers used Mr. Fenwick’s church for their crimes, and second, when the church and the vicarage were burned.”
“You come to their defense easily.”
“The truth is easy.” Keeping his answers short prevented his anger from bursting forth.
The viscount smiled coldly. “Truth, like beauty, is bought by judgment of the eye, if I may misquote Shakespeare. You rush to the defense of the Fenwicks.”
“Because they are, as I have said, victims in this heinous crime.”
“Maybe they are, but I am not as certain of that as you are.”
Edmund borrowed the viscount’s chilly expression. “Why?”
Again he sensed that his question had astounded Ashland, because the viscount did not shoot back an answer. When Edmund had gone to Ashland’s estate last year to ask for his help in halting the smugglers, he had been shocked at the viscount’s disdain and disinterest in taking action with him. He had stuttered over his words and left feeling like a pup with its tail curled beneath its legs...as he had when Lady Eloisa had tossed him aside.
“You are a newcomer to Sanctuary Bay, Meriweather,” the viscount answered as he regained his poise. “I have lived nearby my whole life.”
“Then you should know that the Fenwicks would never be mixed up with the smugglers.”
“No?” He laughed icily. “I would leave you in your ignorance, Meriweather, but the situation requires action. May I suggest your first action would be to speak to the vicar and his sister about assistance they have offered the smugglers?”
Edmund looked away from the triumphant glitter in Ashland’s eyes. The viscount must have directed the conversation to this point so he could shock Edmund with such a revelation. No, it was not a revelation. Only innuendo.
“I shall.” Standing, he said, “And there is no time like the present. The Fenwicks have gone to see what they can recover from the church, as well as any personal possessions. Why don’t we go and ask them together if your insinuations have any basis in truth?”
“I thought the church was completely destroyed.” Ashland remained seated, but his smile had vanished into a deep scowl.
“The building was, but items can survive even such an inferno.”
He leaned forward, his eyes slitting again. “What did you see when you climbed into the cellar?”
“I see gabble-grinders have been doing a strapping job of spreading the tale of my actions at the church.” He folded his arms, after ringing for a footman to bring the viscount’s outer wraps, as well as his own.
“Why are you avoiding giving me an answer to my question?” He set himself on his feet. “Are you trying to hide something, Meriweather?”
“Are you accusing me of being in collusion with the smugglers?”
“You? Working with the smugglers?” Ashland surprised him by laughing.
The viscount was not laughing at his question. Ashland was laughing at him. And why not? A baron who could make no decisions was hardly a man fit to give the smugglers orders of when and where to obtain their illegal wares. Did the whole world know of his humiliating affliction? It would seem so.
* * *
Vera heard the rattle of harness and carriage wheels and looked up from where she was placing a broken plate back on the ground. Brushing away the cloud of ashes that swirled on the sea wind, she was not surprised to see the Meriweather carriage slowing to a stop between the ruins of the church and the charred vicarage.
Happiness burst through her as unstoppable as the waves rolling out of the sea. And just as powerful. She was glad that Lord Meriweather had come from Meriweather Hall. He was calm and sturdy and...handsome. She ignored the end of that thought. He made her feel that her problems were his. He made her feel safe. He made her feel...lovely.
Was she addled? The last time she had let her mind lead her in that direction, she had almost destroyed her brother’s career. But lying to herself was foolish. When she was with the baron, she felt as if she were someone special, someone who could be described as more than the vicar’s sister, someone who had worth of her own.