“Are you all right?” Miss Kightly asked when he managed to regain control of himself.
“Quite all right. Pardon me for interrupting.” He avoided looking at Miss Fenwick again as the other ladies continued their conversation.
Suddenly a commotion came from beyond the room. As the ladies turned to look toward the door, he came to his feet.
A woman dressed like a tulip of fashion stood in the doorway. Her gown was a vivacious green that belonged on someone of his cousins’ ages, not a woman of her advanced years. Sparkling silver hair edged her full face. Her brown eyes widened when she saw him.
“Eddie, my dear, dear nephew!” she cried out, rushing toward him.
Edmund closed his eyes as pudgy arms were flung around him. He stepped out of his aunt’s embrace as quickly as he could without offending her.
“Oh, I forget. You are called Edmund now, aren’t you?” Aunt Belinda chuckled, her double chins bouncing with her enthusiasm. “Now that you are a fine lord.” She pinched his cheek. “But you still care enough about your auntie that...” Her voice faded away as she stared at the other women.
“Lady Meriweather, may I present my aunt Belinda Uppington?” he asked.
Aunt Belinda whirled to face the baroness, and he held his breath until he heard her say graciously, “Lady Meriweather, I am sorry for your loss. I have been informed that you and your daughters have been very, very good to my nephew since he assumed your late husband’s title.” She looked past the lady to Miss Fenwick and Miss Kightly. With a broad smile, she asked, “Are you Sophia and Catherine? Aren’t you lovely? Edmund, you would do well to choose one of your cousins to be your wife.”
Before his aunt could say something more to embarrass him and the others, he introduced her to the younger women and explained they were guests in the great house. Those were the last words he managed to insert into the conversation. He did not even have a chance to explain that both of his cousins now were married to his two best friends. When a maid brought in a tray with both tea and hot chocolate, as well as an assortment of sweets, Aunt Belinda barely paused to take a breath. She talked about herself and how excited she was to visit her favorite nephew and how she looked forward to bouncing his heir on her knee. Even as she babbled on, she still managed to correct him on how he passed a cup of tea to the baroness.
Edmund was relieved when he could excuse himself. He nodded when his aunt chided him for hurrying away without making sure a room was properly prepared for her. Aunt Belinda did not seem to notice the shock on the other women’s faces.
“That is why I ask you to allow me to withdraw,” he replied.
“Thank you, Lord Meriweather.” Miss Fenwick’s eyes twinkled like a pair of sunlit ponds, and her lips twitched. “I know we all appreciate your efforts on our behalf.”
He resisted smiling back. That would bring another dressing-down from his aunt, and Aunt Belinda would realize he found her endless stream of advice bothersome. He bid the ladies a good afternoon and left.
Outside in the hallway, he surrendered to that smile. Miss Fenwick’s words had defused the tension in the room. He must thank her later. For now, he needed to figure out how to keep his aunt from arranging his marriage before supper.
* * *
Rain splattered the window in the book room before wind rattled the glass. Vera looked up from the book she had been reading. It was a history of nearby Scarborough. Since her journey from Sanctuary Bay to Norwich, she had been curious about the towns and cities she had passed through. The story of the Scarborough lifeboat service, started less than twenty years ago, should have intrigued her, but she could not stop thinking about Lord Meriweather.
He had not joined them for dinner, and she envied him because he had avoided listening to Mrs. Uppington’s unending prattle. Instantly she chided herself. Lord Meriweather’s aunt was excited to be in the manor house that her nephew had inherited along with his title.
As if she had called Lord Meriweather to her side, the baron strode through the door, muttering, “Maybe I am insane. If I am not, Aunt Belinda is sure to send me around the bend.”
“Talking to oneself is a sign of being ready for Bedlam,” she said to let him know that he was not alone.
He stared at her, astonished, then laughed. “Just what I was telling myself.” He shrugged off his greatcoat and hung it over a chair before going to where she sat near the hearth. He started to sit, then paused. “Am I disturbing you?”
“No. Of course not. I was enjoying some quiet time for reading.” She motioned for him to sit.
Lord Meriweather clearly needed an ear right now. If she wanted to do God’s work beyond writing some of Gregory’s sermons, she must accept each opportunity that came her way. After all, comforting others was something she found easier than Gregory did. He was a good counselor, but sometimes too ready with a solution when the person who came to him simply wanted to be listened to.