“No, I must thank you.”
Startled, he put his foot down with a thump. “Thank me? For what?”
“Helping me keep my mind off what the bishop may say to Gregory. If the rumor you spoke of us aiding the smugglers has reached the bishop’s ear, too, it may not go well.”
“Don’t look for trouble where there may not be any. During my time in the army, I too often heard men sitting around a fire in the hours before a battle talk about all the what-ifs, including what if we lost the battle. I reminded them that an army that believes it can be defeated will be defeated.” He put his hand on the arm of her chair. “The advice works for situations like this, as well.”
She sensed the warmth off his skin but did not move her hand closer or farther from his. She left it where it was and savored the connection between them. “That is good advice. All too soon, I will know what has happened.”
“And that should be better than the worst we can imagine.” His chocolate-brown eyes warmed.
She looked away...as she had not on the stairs. Then his eyes had glittered with even stronger emotions. She had to forget that, but knew she could not. No man had ever looked at her like that.
He took her hand in his, and her eyes cut back to him. Again she was caught by his gaze. In it, she saw compassion and honesty...and other things she would be wise not to examine too closely. He slanted toward her, and she held her breath, waiting to hear what he had to say.
“Ah, here you are, my boy.” The voice was not his, but his aunt’s. Mrs. Uppington strode in like a victorious general surveying the field of battle. Her nose wrinkled as she squinted at Vera. “Aren’t you the vicar’s sister?”
“Yes, Mrs. Uppington.” She hastily pulled her hand out of Lord Meriweather’s and laced her fingers together in her lap.
“Where is Miss Kightly?” she asked, dismissing Vera out of hand.
Lord Meriweather shrugged. “In bed and asleep, I assume. She mentioned that she rose early to come to Meriweather Hall.”
“Miss Kightly is someone you should get to know better, Eddie.” She grimaced. “I mean, Edmund. But my suggestion remains the same. Miss Kightly is a well-polished young lady from an impeccable family, and her great-uncle lives near you. A pursuit in that direction would be looked on kindly by both families, I assume.”
Vera flinched at Mrs. Uppington’s words that said quite blatantly that her nephew was wasting his time talking with a vicar’s sister when he could be courting a viscount’s daughter. Setting herself on her feet, she bid Lord Meriweather and his aunt a good-night. She left but wondered if either of them noticed her departure because Mrs. Uppington continued to lecture him on his obligations now that he was a baron.
Sympathy billowed through Vera, muting her vexation with Mrs. Uppington’s assumption that she could speak without concern for Vera’s feelings. As she rushed up the stairs to her room, she said a prayer for Lord Meriweather. He was going to need plenty of strength to deal with his aunt.
And so was everyone else.
After looking for Lord Meriweather in the book room, in the dining room and in the great hall, Vera sought the help of a maid who suggested she try a small room in a wing of the house that was seldom used. Vera took the drawing she wanted to show him and hurried in that direction.
The corridor was sparsely furnished but as immaculate as the rest of Meriweather Hall. Past half-open doors on either side, she saw beds that could be readied for guests. Portraits of somber people in their best finery were hung between the doors.
She paused to look at a woman who closely resembled her friend Cat. The woman had dark eyes and hair so ebony that the highlights were almost blue. Dressed in an elaborate gown with lace high around her throat, the woman must have lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth or her successor King James I.
With that sense she could not define, she knew Lord Meriweather had come to stand behind her. She turned. “How do you do that?”
“Sneak up on me without making a sound.”
He smiled, but his eyes were filled with pain. From his memories, she knew, when he said, “It was a skill I honed during the war. Being able to slip past someone could mean the difference between life and death for me and my men.” He leaned one hand beside the painting. “Does it bother you?”
“It is startling to discover someone close when you haven’t heard him approaching.”
“Shall I have a trumpeter announcing my passage?”
She laughed. “That might be helpful, though I suspect everyone in Meriweather Hall would soon tire of the blasts.”