“I owe you and the others an apology,” Lord Meriweather said, startling her.
“Why would you apologize for your aunt?”
“As you may have noticed, she is very assured of her own opinions and delights in airing her vocabulary.”
“Does she live alone?”
He looked baffled. “Yes. Her late husband was my mother’s brother. Why do you ask?”
“So she has no one to talk with at home?”
“Only her servants, and I daresay, though Aunt Belinda has not noticed, her major domo is half-deaf and her housekeeper lost her hearing years ago.” He raised his hands to forestall her response. “Not from her chattering. I did not mean to suggest that.”
Vera hid her smile. Poor man! His aunt’s appearance had left him on edge.
“I know you didn’t. You are overwhelmed. We all are in the wake of the fire.”
As if she had not spoken, he went on, “You have no idea how much trouble my aunt can cause.” His tone was so grim that this time Vera could not keep from chuckling.
“She cannot be as bad as you suggest,” she said.
“I could regale you with stories that would send you shrieking into the night.” He tapped his chin. “Maybe that isn’t such a bad idea. We could run away and...” He gave her a wry grin. “But it would do no good. After coming all this way from her home near Coventry, Aunt Belinda will not be waylaid from her plans to visit Meriweather Hall. She would not miss this chance to acquaint her nephew with each of his shortcomings.”
“I am sure she means well.”
He shook his head, then cradled it in his hands. “God above save me from well-meaning aunts.”
“He will if that is His will.” Vera reached out to put her hand on his arm, then drew it back. To touch him might be the worst thing she could do. After she had reacted to his touch, meant only to keep her from falling on the stairs, she must keep firm control on herself and her tendency to act before she considered the consequences.
“I wish I could be as accepting of God’s will as you are.” A smile tugged at his lips. “Of course, you don’t have an aunt like mine.”
“Actually I have a half dozen.”
“What?” He sat straighter. “The vicar told me that you were without any other family.”
“All right,” she conceded with a smile. “These aunts are not blood relatives, but there are at least six ladies in the church who seem to believe God gave them the task of making sure I do exactly as I should.”
“Which is to do exactly as they want you to.”
Vera stared at him, surprised. “Yes. How did you know?”
“Because that is what Aunt Belinda has done my whole life.” He drew up his knee and clasped his hands around it, more relaxed than she had ever seen him. “On one hand, I never have to worry about how I will be perceived. She is eager to inform me of the least misstep.”
“Sometimes it feels as if it would be easier to be compliant.”
He nodded, grinning. “Exactly. Miss Fenwick, I had no idea that you endured the same from some of your brother’s parishioners.”
“I would not use the word endure, but I have learned when it is wise to keep my mouth closed.”
Laughing, he said, “Maybe you could teach me then. Learning such a lesson could make Aunt Belinda’s stay infinitely more enjoyable.”
“It is quite simple.” She leaned toward him. “I remind myself that God brought them into my life for all of us to discover how each of us can become a better person.”
“Aunt Belinda and I must have a long road to that discovery then.”
When he smiled, her heart did a flip-flop. That surprised her, because she had seen him smile many times since he first came to Sanctuary Bay last autumn. But this time, she knew his smile was solely for her.
Don’t be a silly goose! she warned herself. He was a charming man. As he spoke to her easily, she understood why his friends liked and trusted him. But he saw her solely as his cousins’ friend and the vicar’s sister, someone he could speak honestly with and not worry about her repeating his words. She should expect nothing else from him, and she would be a fool to wish for more.
Knowing she needed to reply before he caught her musing about him, she forced a smile. “Should I pray that the road to discovery is short for the two of you?”
“A lovely thought, but I suspect it will be long and convoluted and filled with plenty of bumps and chuckholes.” He laughed. “Miss Fenwick, if I may say so, you are a breath of fresh air and have given me a second wind in dealing with my aunt. I know she loves me, and she knows I love her, but...” He shook his head with an ironic grin. “But I must say thank you for listening to me being a sniveling fellow.”