She drew back and turned away. She must not make this bad situation worse by surrendering to her foolish desire to be in his arms. She must never forget—not even in the midst of a disaster—how her longing to be in a man’s arms had almost ruined her brother’s life.
“Take someone strong and smart with you,” she whispered, unable to meet his eyes. If he looked as bereft as she felt after putting distance between them, she could not bear it. “Promise me that, please.”
“I promise.” He stroked her arm gently, then walked past her to the door. “And I will send a message to your room as soon as I return, because I know you will not sleep until you hear what Cadman has to say.”
She had to smile. “You know me well.”
“Not as well as I hope to.” He winked and left.
As her knees grew weak, Vera sank to sit again. What had he meant by his bold wink? Her heart hammered within her, beating out a joyous melody. She longed to believe his words were an invitation to open her heart to him. She could not. She had made that mistake once already.
But Edmund isn’t Nolan Hedgcoe, came the insistent voice in her mind. He would not try to twist her heart so he could pretend he was in love with her when he used visits to her as an excuse to pay secret calls on the woman he was truly interested in. A woman who lived near the parsonage on Lord Hedgcoe’s estate, so he could leave his horse or carriage in front of the parsonage without drawing further notice. Why had she believed Nolan when he said, time after time, that he wanted to take a walk by himself through the wood that separated the parsonage from the other woman’s cottage? She had been so in love with him that she would have believed him if he said the sun was going to shine at night.
She rose and went to the closest shelf. She selected a book with an interesting title. Turning the chair so she had a view of both the window and the door to the hallway, she sat and opened the book.
The words blurred. Closing her eyes, she prayed for Edmund’s safety as he went out into the night where the smugglers roamed as if they were the lords of Sanctuary Bay. A place she had sent him when she could have agreed he would be wiser to remain beneath Meriweather Hall’s roof. Why hadn’t she thought through her own decision before making one for him? If she had made the wrong one again, the price could be higher than her brother’s living. It could be Edmund’s life.
* * *
Lights burned at many of the windows in the manor house. If the household staff believed the lamps could hold back what hid in the darkness, they were wrong. Evil stalked Sanctuary Bay.
Edmund tossed his greatcoat to a footman without even noticing which one it was. “Where is Miss Fenwick?”
“I c-c-an f-f-find out, m-m-my lord,” stammered the footman that he now recognized as Foggin.
“Send a message to her room immediately,” he ordered as he strode out of the entrance hall. “Ask her to accept my apologies if she is asleep, but let her know I need to see her without delay.”
“Yes, m-m-my lord.”
Edmund did not slow as he stormed through the house. He shot an order to a maid to have coffee brought to his book room. She acknowledged his bidding and curtseyed, but he only stepped around her and kept going.
Did he think he could flee from what had happened on the strand? No, he was not that foolish, but if he slowed, even for a moment, he would have to face the truth of how weak his position was now.
As he entered the book room, Vera came to her feet from where she had been sitting facing the door. He said nothing when he went to the window and pulled the draperies to shut out the view of the bay. Loosening his cravat that suddenly seemed as constricting as a hangman’s noose, he looked at Vera.
She was the epitome of the brave, stalwart women who lived in Sanctuary Bay. The women who waited ashore, tending to their households and families, while their men challenged the unforgiving sea and the predators both below the waves and atop them. Yet, in spite of her aura of strength, there was something fragile about her. Something that announced that her unrelenting resilience was partially a pose. Looking closer, he could see how her eyes glittered. With tears or fatigue?
“What happened?” she asked when he remained silent, not wanting to put the burden of pain on her slender shoulders. “Was Stanley there? Did he tell you anything that will help us uncover the identity of the smugglers’ leader?”
His composure, strained already, almost cracked when she said us. That single word made him feel less alone, less lost because he could not find the man he once had been. He did not want to be lonely and uncertain any longer. He wanted to tug her into his arms, pull out the pins that held her hair in place and bury his face in those lush strands. Holding her close and shutting out the rest of the world was the sweetest balm he could imagine for his torment.