“Once you heard the rumor, you owed everyone in Sanctuary Bay an obligation to find the truth.” She stared down at her feet. “I hope you don’t believe that I misled you on purpose.”
“That thought never entered my head.” He put a single finger under her chin and tipped her head back so she looked up into his eyes, which revealed much and hid even more. “I have seen your fervor in halting the smugglers. I have seen your pain when they made threats against this house or its residents or against anyone in Sanctuary Bay.”
“I wish they could be stopped.” She should move away, but his hand shifted until he cupped her chin, his fingers splaying along her cheek. She drew in a slow breath that was flavored by a hint of sunshine and the lemon used to whiten his shirt and cravat. “They have destroyed so much.”
“Especially for you and the vicar.”
She stepped back and shook her head. “Those were things. We will miss them, but they can be replaced. What if someone had been in the church when they lit the brandy? And the man who died that Gregory went to... What about his family? How do his children fare without him?”
“As any child does who has lost a parent.” He locked his hands together behind his back and turned toward the fire crackling on the hearth. “With sadness and regret.”
“I know. My parents died when Gregory was still studying at Cambridge, and he took responsibility for me.”
“As you now take responsibility for him?” He looked back over his shoulder at her when she gasped. “Don’t look so surprised, Miss Fenwick. It doesn’t take any great insight to be aware of how solicitous you are for his well-being. You want him to be happy, even when you wish you could gainsay him from his plans. Like now.”
“You think he should remain here to begin work on rebuilding the church rather than go to meet with the bishop.”
“You are mistaken.”
Vera was about to assert that of course he was wrong, but she could not. She did think a call on the bishop now was premature. It would have been better to wait until after they had more information to share with him.
“No, you are right,” she said.
He smiled, and she did, too, for the first time since he had asked her about the smugglers. “Not many people would own to that.” He walked back to where she stood. His expression was lighter than it had been yesterday at the church with Lord Ashland or even when she and Gregory had come into the book room.
Lines vanished from his face as he smiled easily again. The darkness had disappeared from his eyes, which twinkled. His shoulders no longer seemed bowed beneath an invisible weight. He had the responsibilities of the estate, but she never guessed what a burden it must be. He bore it with good humor and dedication, even though he had not been raised to expect such a life.
He’s a hero, she remembered her dear friend Cat saying about her cousin. All three of these men who served together are heroes who don’t flinch from doing the hard tasks. They not only rush in “where angels fear to tread,” but stay to clean up the damage left behind afterward.
“You were worried there was something behind the rumor, weren’t you?” she asked, surprising herself with her audacity. A vicar’s sister should not question a baron.
“I was not worried exactly. I know how worthless most gossip is, but the fact the rumor exists could make the situation more difficult for you and the vicar. Now that I know the truth, I can divert some of the talk with the facts.”
“Thank you.” She put her hand on his arm as she had others at church and in the village. But none of those other friendly touches had set her fingers to quivering as if she tried to hold on to a butterfly. No, a honeybee, because along with the buzz was the undeniable sense that she had made a mistake, but still she could not release the bee before it stung her.
Strong and startled emotions flickered through his volatile eyes as he slid his hand over hers on his arm. She could not speak, not wanting to shatter this lovely moment. He was silent, too. Could he hear the frantic beat of her heart?
He shifted his arm slightly, drawing it and her a single step closer to him, so she had to tilt her head back. His other hand rose toward her cheek. She closed her eyes, awaiting its touch.
It did not come. Instead, he released her hand and stepped away. Only then did she hear footsteps hurrying toward the book room. She barely had time to compose herself before Ogden, Meriweather Hall’s butler, paused in the doorway.
The silver-haired butler, who always stood as straight as cliffs edging the bay, nodded toward her before saying, “My lord, forgive me for interrupting your conversation with Miss Fenwick, but there is a matter that requires your attention.”