“I am not so sure of that. You and Lord Northbridge and Mr. Bradby possess a strength that is admirable. You may have had it before you went to the Continent, but Sanctuary Bay is better for having you come here, my lord.”
Her quiet praise, praise he knew he did not deserve, eased a few of the bands around his heart. Those strictures had tightened each time he was faced with a decision and could not make it. He wanted to believe that she saw something in him that he had failed to see himself. Maybe he was fooling himself again as he had when he had believed Lady Eloisa loved him, but he yearned to lose himself in the delusion while he stood beside Miss Fenwick.
“I don’t know how to respond to that,” he said with all honesty, “but I do know, as we are working together on this project to rebuild the church, it seems it might be simpler for you to call me Edmund.”
He had shocked her, he could tell, because her eyes widened as she said, “Simpler, but not proper.”
“Are you always the vicar’s proper sister? My cousin mentioned once that you and she had a few adventures that turned heads.”
She laughed. “Cat must have been talking about the time we dared each other to jump our horses over a low hedgerow. Neither of us stopped to ask ourselves if the horses we were riding had been trained to take a hedge.”
“And they had not been?”
“No, and worse, the beasts were so insulted by the very idea that we would ask that of them that once they tossed us over their heads, they refused to let us remount.” She laughed again. “It was a long walk back to Meriweather Hall with the bumps and scratches and bruises we received as a reward for our silliness.”
“So if you could be silly then, can you be silly now and use my given name?” He grinned. “That did not come out as I meant it to.”
“I know what you intended to say. All right. I will address you as Edmund.”
“And may I use your given name?”
“Of course. The only thing more inappropriate than me calling you by your first name is for me to do so and you to continue to speak to me as ‘Miss Fenwick.’”
He folded his arms in front of him as he watched sparks climb from the fire and flit like daylight fireflies on the sea wind. “Then that is settled. Would you settle something else for me?”
“If I can.”
“Will you tell me now how and why I upset you before my aunt came into the billiards room?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. Finally, she said, “Truly, my lord—”
Nodding, she said, “Edmund, it is only me reacting to nothing. I have not been myself since learning about the fire at the church.”
“I can understand that. I have not been myself for longer than I care to admit.” His hands clenched in frustration at his side when deeper dismay flickered through her eyes. Now he had upset her by letting her know how his own words picked at the new scab over his war memories. “Forgive me. I should not have said something that makes you uncomfortable.”
“I am uncomfortable only because I was unsure how to respond.”
“You could have answered like my aunt and told me to do my duty and stop acting foolish.”
Vera smiled. “I believe one woman giving you that scold is enough.”
“Have I told you that you are, without question, a brilliant woman?”
“I don’t recall you saying that.”
He savored her light tone that floated like the sparks did. Being with her lifted the burden of his own flaws from his heart. For a single moment, but when he was with her, chatting easily as they were now, he could breathe deeply and relish each bit of air he drew in.
“I must,” he said, “correct that oversight.”
“If you fail to, I’m sure your aunt will point out your error.”
His laugh exploded from him, and heads turned to discover what he found funny in the midst of the disaster the whole parish had suffered. Seeing Vera’s eyes alight with amusement, he offered his arm. She put her hand on it, and he led her away from where the men were returning to their tasks.
They walked toward the cliffs where they would have a good view of the narrow beach at the base of the village that hugged the sheer wall. Upwind from the fire, the air was fresh and tasted of salt and recently caught fish.
He heard a shout and looked back to see Sims directing the few workers he had. “It is clear that we need more workers than can be spared from the estate farms and the village. With planting soon to start, even fewer men will be available to work here. I have already sent word to Whitby and Scarborough that there is a fair wage to be paid for hard work here on the church.”