There had been no sign of them since the fire. He hoped that the attack upon the village’s church had sliced a divisive line among them. There must be some smugglers as horrified by what had happened as he and the Fenwicks were. Even though Ashland, Sir Nigel and the justice of the peace had shared their outrage, one of them—at least—had to be pretending.
“There is no one else along Sanctuary Bay but those three, who could be described by the smugglers as his qualityship,” he said aloud.
“There is you.”
At the quiet voice behind him, Edmund whirled to discover Miss Fenwick in the doorway. A twinkle brightened her bright blue eyes, something he had not seen since she had stood by his cousin’s side while Cat had spoken her vows with his friend Bradby. He realized, only now, how dull her eyes had been since the news came of the fire at the church.
And how much he had missed that sight.
“Are you accusing me of being the leader of the smugglers?” he asked, grinning. He did not want to see her eyes lose that luster again.
“You could be described as his qualityship.” She walked slowly into the room.
“This estate has the best view of the whole of Sanctuary Bay of any manor house in North Yorkshire.” She paused by a chair about halfway between the door and where he stood.
“That is also true.” He held up a finger as her smile widened. “But there is the small detail that the smugglers were busy in Sanctuary Bay before I arrived here.”
“Yes, that is a small detail, but a resourceful man could arrange for his messages to be delivered to the smugglers, even from as far away as London.”
“True yet again.” He was enjoying this teasing game more than he had guessed he would. The dismals that had settled on his shoulders only moments ago were lifting. “But I also spent several years on the Continent.”
“The smugglers ply the waters between here and the Continent.”
“I must own that you are right about that.” He stepped forward and put one knee on the chair she stood beside. Folding his arms on the back, he gazed into her lively eyes. “But I have one fact that proves without a doubt that I am innocent of collaborating with the smugglers. They have been swarming around Sanctuary Bay since before my father was born.”
“Or his father.”
He nodded. “I daresay there has been smuggling on these waters even before William the Conqueror came to claim the English throne.”
Her brows arched as her smile faded. “That is true, and it is true as well that, while some of the members of the quality living close to Sanctuary Bay are older than you and Lord Ashland, none are quite that old.”
“I am glad that you do not believe me to be the scurrilous leader of the smugglers, though I must say your arguments are worthy of a barrister. I hope I never have to face you across a courtroom, for I suspect I might be much the worse for the experience. You have a rare skill for following a bizarre thought to its most illogical conclusion in an effort to prove I am the smugglers’ leader.”
Suddenly her face turned bright red in the moment before all color faded from it. Her fingers trembled as she held out several pages. “Here are the ideas you asked for, my lord. If you will excuse me, I shall leave you to read through them to see if any of them have merit.”
As she turned to leave—or was it to flee?—he spoke her name.
“Yes?” She turned, but stared at the toes of his boots.
He cleared his throat. “Thank you for your work on this.”
“I am glad to help.”
Placing the pages on the desk, he asked, “Have you heard the latest news from the fire?”
“That the vicarage must be razed?” She nodded, the last of the light snuffed out of her eyes. “I expected it, but, even so, it has been hard to hear.”
“There was no choice. One of the walls collapsed and nearly killed a couple of the men working there.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Not badly. Some bruises and one twisted ankle when they raced away to avoid the toppling wall.” He hesitated, then added, “I wanted to let you know that Mme. Dupont will be arriving later today.”
“Lady Meriweather thought, as you will be out of your home for far longer than we had hoped, that you would need clothes of your own.”
“That is not necessary.”
She glanced down at her borrowed gown, and he did, too. The rich blue suited her, making her eyes a richer shade and flattering her coloring. He preferred this blue to the dark gowns she usually wore. He knew what she would say if he spoke his thoughts aloud, but he could not agree. Simply because she was the vicar’s sister should not mean that she always wore drab colors.