Friend... Since their return from Norwich, while they had worked together, she had become his friend. Now, as he looked into her shimmering eyes, the word friend no longer seemed to fit. It felt too simple for the complex feelings tangled inside him.
“It will not take long to dig the daffodils up,” Vera said. “The bulbs should be close to the surface here.”
He nodded, glad that her words pushed aside his confusing thoughts. He enjoyed spending time with her, more than with any woman he had ever met. She accepted him for himself, not as the brave, damaged warrior or the very eligible baron in need of a wife. She would make any man a good wife, so he had to make sure he did not monopolize her time and prevent her from finding the one she could love. A curious sensation rushed through him, curious and altogether repellant.
He did not allow himself to examine it closely. He gave a shout to one of the workers. The man picked up a shovel and brought it over to them.
“We’ll need a box or bag to carry the bulbs in,” Vera said after thanking the fellow.
He rushed away and came back with a small box that was about six inches on each side. “Will this do, Miss Fenwick?”
“It is perfect. Thank you.”
He tipped his cap before returning to his work.
Vera held out her hand for the shovel, but Edmund shifted it out of her reach.
“You don’t think I am going to let you dig them up, do you?” he asked.
“Actually I did.”
“Why? Because such work is below a peer’s dignity?”
“You do have gardeners at Meriweather Hall.”
“I didn’t always live at Meriweather Hall. Maybe I enjoyed digging in the dirt, too, before I inherited my title.”
Her eyes widened. “I never thought of that. Did you?”
“Did I enjoy digging in the dirt?” When she nodded, he chuckled. “Only when it comes to raising a new building, I must admit. However, no lord of the realm would allow a young lady to dirty her pretty frock by digging up bulbs.”
She swept out her hand. “I don’t want to be the one who pulls out the underpinnings of the realm.”
“And you have no desire to spend more time with Mme. Dupont being measured for a new gown to replace a dirty one.”
“You said that. Not me.” She laughed. “So, by all means, dig up the daffodils.”
He pressed the tip of the shovel against the ground, then put his foot on it to drive it into the hard earth. He had been jesting with her; yet, he found doing something physical very satisfying. He had been accustomed to taking care of his own needs. Now he had a valet and a butler and a stableman and a coachman and a gardener and many others. He must not lose sight again of how pleasant it was to do a task himself.
As he worked, pushing aside stones and piling dirt to the left of the daffodils, Vera knelt by the flowers.
“It’s said that the daffodils in North Yorkshire,” she said, “come from those planted by the monks at Rievaulx Abbey out past the moors.” She smiled at the buds where small slips of yellow were visible through the green. “Since then, they have spread throughout North Yorkshire and blossom each spring.”
Her smile wavered as she glanced toward the ruins of her home. Nothing remained except the torn-up ground.
“Did you have daffodils by the vicarage?” he asked, aching that he could not ease her grief.
“There were lots of flowers.” She drew the bulbs out of the ground and set them in the box.
“Let’s rescue them.”
Hope and gratitude blossomed in her eyes, as glorious as the first flowers of spring. “I can do that, Edmund.”
He gave her a feigned frown. “Must I explain again how such a request could destroy nearly a thousand years of our country’s society?”
“No. Please don’t!” She picked up the small box and stood. “I appreciate you helping me with this, Edmund.”
“You have helped me often, so I am only returning the favor.”
“We need not keep score.” She motioned for him to lead the way. “That’s not what a friend does.”
There was that word again. Friend. He should be glad that she considered him a friend, but her saying so annoyed him in a way he could not explain.
He was glad that she kept talking about the flowers she had planted near the vicarage. Most of them must have been destroyed while the fire had been doused and when the vicarage had been torn down, but she had faith that some had survived.
After she pointed out where he should dig, Edmund went to work. The bulbs closest to the cottage were charred lumps, but a few had been protected by the cold ground. He kept digging, ignoring how sweat dripped off his forehead and trickled down his spine. It felt good to be doing something that required no thought, only hard work. Soon the small wooden box was filled to overflowing and a second was becoming full, too. The wind shifted and turned cold as it came off the bay. The sweat that had run down his back became a cold sheen, and he shivered in spite of himself.