“Of course, Mr. Brooks,” her brother said.
Mr. Brooks motioned for Gregory to walk with him away from the others. When Lord Ashland made to follow, Mr. Brooks gave him a stern look that stopped him in midstep.
The viscount scowled, then stamped toward the carriage. “Coming, Meriweather?” he called over his shoulder.
“In a few minutes.”
Vera was grateful that she stood far enough away from the viscount so she could not discern the words he growled under his breath.
Lord Meriweather watched Lord Ashland for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Miss Fenwick, who is Brooks?”
“Cuthbert Brooks is the local justice of the peace.”
“That man is the justice of the peace?”
Vera kept her voice low. “Do not let his self-effacing image fool you. He is a brilliant man when it comes to keeping the peace in the Sanctuary Bay parish.”
“He has been of little use with stopping the smugglers.”
“But there has been less violence than in other places along the shore.”
“Possibly because the smugglers know better than to upset their well-placed leader.”
“That is something I cannot forget,” she whispered.
Vera was astonished when Lord Meriweather glanced at where Lord Ashland was climbing into the carriage. Did the baron have suspicions about the viscount’s involvement with the smugglers?
She had heard enough whispers to know that the smugglers took their orders from someone of wealth and prestige. The viscount fit that description, as did Sir Nigel. Mr. Brooks was not as plump in the pockets as the other two, but he held much sway in the parish as the justice of the peace.
“As a good host,” Lord Meriweather said with a sigh, “I should escort Ashland back to Meriweather Hall. I have no idea why he wanted to come here.” He glanced at the baptismal font.
“With the recovery of the font,” she said, “the parishioners are going to be even more eager to have the church rebuilt.”
“We need to start making plans for the interior. I can meet with you tomorrow whenever you wish. Or the next day if that is better.”
“If you think that is the best time...”
Vera kept her face serene, so he could not discern how sympathy welled up within her. The poor man could not make a single decision. Facing each one seemed to scourge him.
“Let’s not set a definite time now. I will make a list of what I think we need to do,” she said, “and, when I’m done, I will bring it to you for review. Your expertise will be invaluable.”
He nodded and turned to leave; then he paused. Facing her, he said, “One question, Miss Fenwick, if I may.”
“Of course. Any time.”
Again his smile came and went like lightning on a hot summer night. “It is a difficult question to ask. It has come to my attention that it is being said that you and your brother have offered assistance to the smugglers. Is there any truth in that rumor?”
“None!” Both anger and pain riveted her. Anger that he would give that rumor any credence. Pain that such a lie could lead to her brother losing the living in Sanctuary Bay.
“I’m glad to hear that.” He tipped his hat toward her. “I will see you at Meriweather Hall, Miss Fenwick. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
She nodded, but she knew she would never be able to ask for what she needed most now: answers. She wanted to know who was spreading spurious tales about her and Gregory. She ached to discover if, upon first hearing them, Lord Meriweather had contemplated sending them away from Sanctuary Bay. And, as much, she longed to find out how she could halt herself from feeling the warmth of his touch, a warmth that could lead her into ruining everything...again.
Vera stifled a yawn as she walked into her brother’s room the next morning. The room Gregory was using was as masculine in style as hers was feminine. Dark furniture and rugs contrasted with the green velvet draperies. Friezes along the ceiling served as a frame for a mural of a hunting scene. Foxhounds bounded past hedges while riders on horseback jumped over them, suspended forever in midflight. The bright red coats matched the silk on the upper half of the walls above richly stained moldings.
She called his name, and he poked his head past the door that led to the room where his valet would sleep if he had one.
“Good,” he said. “I had hoped you would get here before I left.”
“Left?” She noticed he carried a stack of clothing. “Where are you going? We need you here now while we make plans for the new church.”