Tears blossomed in her eyes when she placed her fingers lightly on Miss Fenwick’s arm. “I had no idea there would be this much devastation. I know my great-uncle will be willing to help you rebuild.” She gave Edmund a swift smile because she must know that Edmund, like most of the people in North Yorkshire, considered her great-uncle, Sir Nigel Tresting, a very eccentric man. “He likes coming here for services.”
“That is very kind of both of you,” Miss Fenwick said.
“I am sorry this has happened to you.” The blonde flung her arms around Miss Fenwick, giving her and her brother a big hug.
Edmund looked away, feeling as he had too often, like an outsider in this close-knit seaside community. Before the war, his only worries had been how to keep his import and construction businesses profitable. That had changed when he had inherited the title of Lord Meriweather. Now, he had three vital duties. He needed to keep the estate running and make sure its residents saw to their responsibilities. He must attend sessions of Parliament. Last and most important, he had to find a woman to wed and give the baronage an heir, as well as a spare or two.
He had been somewhat successful with the first two, even though he still had much to learn. On the last, he had failed. Oh, he had thought he was on his way to success on the third when he had begun courting Lady Eloisa Parkington after the young woman had shown her interest in him. He had bought her items she admired, and he had escorted her to gatherings where the door might otherwise have been closed to her after her family’s reputation was sullied by her older siblings’ wild behavior. He even, to quiet her pleading, had introduced her to a man he had served with during the war, a man who had recently become a marquess. Edmund had regretted the decision when Lady Eloisa had quickly persuaded the marquess to propose to her.
Introducing them had been the last decision Edmund had made, and it had been as wrong as too many others had been when he had watched men die on the battlefield following his orders. The night he had heard of Lady Eloisa’s betrothal was the night he admitted that he would be a fool to attempt to decide anything else on his own.
He was not going to think about that now. He went back to the hole that once had been the church’s cellar. Kneeling on its edge, he scanned the dusky shadows. Again he sniffed. Again he caught a hint of brandy.
One of his tenants, a man who farmed land west of the manor house, came over. “Excuse me, m’lord, but could you use this?” He held out a lantern.
“Thank you, Sims,” he said as he took it and held it over the side.
A flash of white marked where the stone font had fallen. When he saw several reflections, he guessed the light might be hitting brass candlesticks or pieces of broken glass. Anything made of wood had been burned beyond recognition.
Edmund held out the lantern at full arm’s length and squinted through the sunlight off the sea. He lowered the lantern into the cellar, hoping to get a better look at what was beneath the joists. He gasped when he saw a black area where the foundation’s stone wall had been broken. From what he could see, the opening looked big enough for a man to walk through. Someone had cut out a section of the wall and, with what he had smelled near the cellar, it was not hard to guess who or why.
The bane of Sanctuary Bay was a gang of smugglers who practiced their illegal trade brazenly. His predecessor had tried to halt them, but had failed. Both of his cousins had been threatened by the smugglers who, he had recently learned, were led by someone they spoke of as his qualityship. That must mean that the leader was of wealth or of the peerage or both. It explained how they had eluded capture for so long and also why they grew bolder with each passing month.
Getting to his feet, he brushed dirt off his buckskin breeches. He handed the lantern back to its owner, then shrugged off his greatcoat. “Sims, can you hold this up while I go down?”
“Go down?” The thin man gulped, his Adam’s apple bouncing like a ball as Edmund took off his coat and tossed it on top of his greatcoat. “Go down there?”
“Hold up the lantern so I can see when I get to the bottom.” He tugged the hem of his wrinkled waistcoat and looked into the cellar.
Sims hesitated, then nodded, “Aye, m’lord, but let me see if I can find a ladder. Someone in the village must have one.”
“No!” He held up his hand to halt Sims. His voice resonated, and everyone stared at him. He must look like a madman standing in the icy wind in his shirtsleeves. But if Sims alerted the villagers to what they were doing, the smugglers who lived among them would hear. He could not risk them coming to halt him now. “I don’t need a ladder. These beams offer me a good path to the bottom.”