He did not move. She might be appalled if he drew her close. The tremulous connection they shared could be severed. He could not chance losing that. Vera had become an important part of his life.
“Edmund?” She put her hand on his arm. “What happened? Tell me, please.”
He slid his arm out from under her gentle touch and put the desk between them. “Stanley Cadman is dead.”
Vera moaned softly, then sank to the chair. Her fingers clenched the arm as if she held on to the side of a boat in a thrashing sea. “Are you sure?”
“Very.” He spread his fingers across the desk, needing to steady himself when the world seemed unstable. “We discovered him at the base of the cliff below the garden. His neck was broken.”
“Do you think...?” She choked on the words.
“Do I think it was murder? Yes.”
Vera looked around the small parlor. Even though Edmund and her brother were also in the room and watching Mr. Brooks as closely as she was, not a sound could be heard beyond the crackle of the fire on the hearth and the clatter of cold rain against the windows. Her gaze shifted to Edmund whose face showed the strain of the night’s events. She longed to kneel beside him while she told him how sorry she was that he had been the one to find Stanley Cadman’s body on the sand. His gaze had turned inward, and she suspected he was thinking of the other deaths he had seen during the war.
Mr. Brooks had brought two thick volumes with him when he had arrived in less than an hour after Edmund had returned to Meriweather Hall. The justice of the peace turned the page in the slightly thinner book as he murmured to himself. She caught words like during the reign of Edward III, but was unsure what he was reading.
Looking up, Mr. Brooks said, “The law is quite clear, my lord. In circumstances such as these, there must be a coroner’s inquest. What is discovered in that may lead to the cause of Cadman’s death, though I would say it is quite obvious to me what happened.”
“And what is that?” asked Edmund with a calmness that was belied by his fist clenched on the chair’s arm. “Someone killed him to keep him from meeting with me tonight? Because that is quite obvious to me.”
“I disagree. I believe it is far more likely that, in the foggy darkness, he misjudged how close he was to the edge of the cliff and stepped over it. However, that is not for us to decide. I must contact Ashland.”
“Ashland is the county’s corner?”
Mr. Brooks stood. “Unlike a justice of the peace, a coroner must be of the peerage, my lord. I am surprised you do not know that.”
“It appears I still have more to learn about the peerage and its obligations.” Edmund’s sarcasm lashed through his voice, and, for once, he did not apologize for such a sharp tone.
As Edmund and Mr. Brooks glared at each other, Gregory said, “I assume Lord Ashland will want to see the body to assure himself that the man is dead.”
“He has that right for the next fortnight.”
“Fortnight?” Edmund shook his head. “Do you really expect Cadman’s family will delay burying him for two weeks?”
Mr. Brooks sighed. “They can bury him whenever they wish, but the coroner can order the body disinterred anytime within a fortnight.”
“That is barbaric,” Vera said, then lowered her eyes when all three men glanced at her.
“It is,” the justice of the peace replied, “but it is also the law. May I impose on you, my lord, to send someone to alert the viscount that he must gather men to assist him in the investigation?”
Edmund nodded, and Mr. Brooks bid them a good night before taking his leave. Gregory followed without a word. He had his hands clasped behind his back and stared at the floor, a sure sign he was deep in prayer that he would find the right words when he went to the village to inform Stanley’s family of the tragedy.
“There is no need for you to remain here,” Edmund said as Vera came to her feet. “Good night.”
He faced her, startled. “I am not sure what you mean.”
“I mean there is a need for me to remain here.” She walked to where he stood by the hearth. “Something horrible happened to a man who had the respect of the villagers, for he took a moderate stance in any discussion. He has no enemies I’ve heard of.”
“He had one.” He went to a side table where a pot of coffee had grown cold.
“Or you do.”
Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he held it up to her. She shook her head, and he added cream to the cup. After he had taken a sip, he said, “It would be far easier to deal with this if you were not so blasted insightful.”