She tried to keep from lowering her eyes when Lord Meriweather looked from her brother to her. Accusation burned in his eyes.
“Are you saying, vicar, that Miss Fenwick lied?”
“No.” Gregory shook his head calmly. “She told you the truth as she knows it. However, it is not the true as I know it.”
“I see. Perhaps,” Lord Meriweather said, “we should sit and discuss this. Miss Fenwick, if you please...”
Both men waited while Vera selected a chair farthest from where the baron had been sitting. She stared down at her clasped hands. It might be futile, but she wanted to prevent him from having a good view of her face. If Gregory had been honest with her, they would not be in this uncomfortable situation.
No, a small voice whispered from her heart, you would have had to spill the truth when Lord Meriweather asked you yesterday. You could have been the cause of Gregory being dismissed again.
At that thought, her throat threatened to close and halt her breathing. The vicarage was gone, and they could be soon, too. Lord Meriweather might believe, upon hearing what Gregory had to say, that a vicar who consorted with criminals did not deserve to preach at the Sanctuary Bay church.
“Very well, Mr. Fenwick,” Lord Meriweather said coolly. “I am waiting for you to explain that extraordinary comment which leads me to believe you have assisted the smugglers.”
She closed her eyes, praying that Gregory knew what he was doing. She did not open them as her brother spoke.
“It was not as you think, my lord,” Gregory said in a quiet, calm voice. “The incident happened several years ago. It was one evening after I had visited a member of the congregation in the village. A man appeared out of the shadows. He wore cloth over his mouth and nose, and his hat hid his eyes. He did not say much, but it was enough to know that there had been a terrible accident and I was needed. A man was dying. I am not a judge. I leave that to God. What I could do was pray with him and offer his family comfort when he died.”
She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling as tears pressed against her eyelids. How could she have doubted her brother’s integrity? One of the smugglers’ greatest crimes might be making them suspicious of each other.
Lord Meriweather did not reply right away. When he did, his voice was strained. “I cannot fault you for doing your duty, vicar. I would never speak badly of any man who did that. But I do have a question.”
“Did you tell my predecessor of these events?”
Vera raised her head at the sudden sharpness in Lord Meriweather’s voice. She was surprised to see that the baron sat on the chair beside hers and Gregory stood next to the hearth.
Her brother’s face appeared as serene as if he stood at the pulpit to read his sermon until she noticed a tic near his left eye. “Because he would have asked me the question that you want to ask, too. He would have asked me the dead man’s name.”
“Yes,” the baron said, “that is what I want to ask.”
“I cannot tell you his name. His widow and children no longer live in the village, but other relatives do. Other relatives who have never been involved with the smugglers.”
“But if his name directed us to the man leading them, more people could be kept from harm.”
Gregory’s eyes grew almost as sad as they had been the day they had left his last living. “If I believed that, I would have told the old Lord Meriweather straightaway. I hope you believe that, my lord.”
The baron stood and offered his hand to her brother. When Gregory grasped it, neither man spoke, but she could not miss the mutual respect in their stances.
Vera released a breath she had not guessed she was holding. For how long? As the fresh air swirled into her lungs, she wondered if she had last drawn a breath when they walked into the book room. She rose as her brother explained that he was traveling to meet with the bishop.
“Have a safe trip,” Lord Meriweather said, “and I hope that Miss Fenwick and I will have made some progress by the time you return.”
A smile tugged at her brother’s mouth as he said, “I know my sister well, and I have no doubts that you will have made significant progress. Vera can make amazing things happen when she sets her mind on it.”
His compliment shocked her into silence, for Gregory was not a gushing man. He gave her a kiss on the cheek, wished her well then walked out of the room.
Leaving her alone with Lord Meriweather, she realized with a pulse of something that was not dismay and was not excited anticipation but a bit of both. All words fled from her mind.
She needed not to worry because Lord Meriweather said, “I am sorry that my question caused such upheaval.”