Vera’s knees threatened to collapse beneath her when she saw nothing remained of the church. The stone walls had fallen to the ground, scorched by the power of the fire. Upon first glance, the vicarage appeared as if it had survived with less damage. Smoke stains, like dark gray fingers clawing out of the windows and the doorway, warned that the fire had reigned inside the cottage, gutting the interior. The roof was gone, and she wondered if it had burned or fallen into the flint cottage.
“Say the word,” Lord Meriweather murmured, “and we can go back to Meriweather Hall at any time.”
She looked past him. “Where is Gregory?”
“Over by the church.” He continued to keep his hand over hers on the sleeve of his dark brown greatcoat as they walked to where her brother stared into the church’s cellar.
The few men who had been gathering up debris and piling it near the edge of the cliff stopped working as they watched her and Lord Meriweather come toward the church.
“Maybe you should wait here,” he said. “I don’t know how stable the foundation is.”
She shook her head, and they walked to where her brother had not moved. His shadow dipped over the edge of the cellar, and he seemed unaware of anything or anyone else.
“Gregory?” she called.
He was silent.
When her brother gave her no answer, she glanced at Lord Meriweather. Again his mouth was taut, and furrows had dug back into his face.
He drew his arm out from under her hand and strode to her brother. “Vicar!” His voice was as sharp as the crack of a whip.
Gregory flinched, then turned to look at them. Tears filled his eyes when he saw Vera. She ran, wending her way past the gravestones in the churchyard, and flung her arms around him.
“Do you know what happened?” she asked.
“All I can figure,” her brother said, “is that another section of roof fell in and struck the wood stove. Embers must have fallen out. That set the church on fire.”
Vera shook her head. “Gregory, that can’t be what happened. We didn’t use it anymore.”
“It is the only explanation I have.” His shoulders sagged, and Vera embraced him again.
* * *
Edmund Herriott, Lord Meriweather, stepped away to let Miss Fenwick and her brother comfort each other. He spoke to the men cleaning the site and was glad to see many were his tenants. He thanked them. Was he expected to do more? He had no idea. Now that his cousins Sophia and Catherine were both married and gone, he would need to turn to Lady Meriweather to help him make proper decisions.
Or any decisions at all.
He refrained from grimacing as he walked around the ruined church. How was Meriweather Hall going to function if its baron could not even decide which cravat to wear each morning? Now there was the matter of rebuilding the church and the vicarage. He did not want to burden Lady Meriweather, but he was unsure where else to turn.
His gaze settled on Miss Fenwick. He had suspected, since shortly after his first meeting with the vicar’s sister, that she handled many of the parish responsibilities. Mr. Fenwick was a learned man who made every effort to serve his congregation, but the vicar’s duties often kept him riding from one end of the parish to the other. Would Miss Fenwick help Edmund, too?
Miss Fenwick went with the vicar to examine the damage, and Edmund looked away. He did not want her to discover him staring at her. She was his cousin Catherine’s best friend, but Edmund had to own that he scarcely knew the vicar’s sister. Any time they had spent together prior to the journey back to Sanctuary Bay had included her brother or his cousins, and there had been no time to learn more about her during the days in the carriage because Miss Kightly’s prattle had monopolized the conversation from morn until they stopped at another coaching inn each night.
The sickening reek of wet ashes erupted with each step as Edmund walked around what was left of the church. The roof had burned. The joists supporting the floor had failed, and everything that had not been consumed by the flames had fallen into the cellar.
But there was another odor. Fainter, yet there nonetheless. He sniffed and frowned. Brandy. There must have been a lot of brandy to leave the scent after a fire. That could mean one thing and one thing only.
The rattle of carriage wheels resounded, startling him. He turned as a small carriage rolled to a stop beside his carriage, its wheels crunching on the filthy snow. Edmund recognized it, even before he saw the baronial crest on the door. It was from Meriweather Hall. Who had driven here after them?
When the door opened and Miss Kightly stepped out of the carriage with the help of a footman, Edmund was not surprised that she had been unwilling to remain at Meriweather Hall as he had requested. An astounding beauty with golden hair and perfect features, she was, as always, a pattern-card of style. The crimson pelisse she now wore was the lone bright spot among the ruins. She held on to her ermine-lined bonnet to make sure it was not twisted off by the wind as she hurried to them.