“I haven’t said anything you were not already thinking.”
“True.” He sighed. “And I think it’s true that Cadman may have been less a target than a message to me.” His shoulders sagged, and he groped for a chair. “I had thought no more men would die because of me.”
Vera gave in to her yearning and knelt by where he sat. Putting her hand on his that gripped the arm of the chair, she said, “Stanley did not die because of you, Edmund. He died because the leader of the smugglers ordered his death.”
“You sound sure of that.”
He put his other hand over hers. “I hope you are right, but if you are, then that means someone learned about Cadman’s message to me and alerted the smugglers’ leader.”
“Yes.” Edmund looked toward the door. “If they were referring to Brooks, why would he call for a coroner’s inquest?” He answered his own question. “Because it is the law, and he wants no suspicion to alight on him.”
“But Mr. Brooks may not be the leader.”
“No. One of my neighboring gentlemen could have ordered Cadman’s death.”
She flinched, in spite of her resolve to remain serene.
He lifted her hand off his and folded it between his rough palms. “Forgive me, Vera. I should not be speaking of such appalling matters with you.”
“With whom should you speak of them?”
Again she could see that her blunt words discomfited him, but he recovered himself. Squeezing her fingers, he released her hand as he stood. He held out his to assist her to her feet. She took it and stood. Too close to him, but he did not back away. When she shifted slightly, he tightened his grip on her hand. Slowly, he raised it toward him. The warmth of his breath slid along her skin in the moment before he pressed his lips to the back of her hand. Her fingers curled over his as her knees shook. Slowly he raised his head until his eyes were even with hers.
“Know one thing,” he said softly. “I appreciate your concern more than words can say, but I will not allow your well-meaning heart to lead you into danger.”
She struggled to form words to reply, but her mind refused to focus. Even when he bid her good-night and left the small parlor, she could not move her still-outstretched hand.
In a few minutes, she would regain her perspective and recall the trouble she courted if she entangled her life with a member of the ton. For this special moment when she could believe that anything was possible, even not being made a fool of by another man, she was going to savor the sweetness of the memory of his kiss on her hand.
* * *
On Mothering Sunday, as the parishioners arrived at Meriweather Hall to attend morning services, Edmund had never felt less like playing the genial host. Many members of the congregation were equally grim. Vera had been correct when she had said Stanley Cadman was both well respected and well liked. The whole village was in mourning.
Not the whole village. He had no proof, but he was sure that Cadman had been killed by someone familiar who had been able to sneak up on him in the thick fog. If a stranger had been in the village, that news would have spread through Sanctuary Bay.
For once, he was very grateful for his aunt. Aunt Belinda was enjoying every minute of acting the chatelaine of Meriweather Hall. She stood by the chapel door and greeted the parishioners.
When he saw Lady Meriweather coming along the hallway, he went to meet her and offer his arm to escort her into the chapel. “I am sorry,” he said low enough so nobody else could hear, “that my aunt has usurped your place.”
“You need not apologize, Edmund.” Lady Meriweather smiled. “Your aunt is having such a good time that I could not imagine putting a halt to it.”
“That is kind of you.”
“It is what families do.”
“But she is my aunt on my mother’s side. She is not related to your late husband.”
“You are part of our family, Edmund, and she is related to you. That makes her family.” She smiled, and the stress of the past few years of caring for her dying husband fell away to reveal the beautiful woman she was. “As you may have noticed, in Sanctuary Bay, we don’t define family strictly. We all are God’s children.”
He had noticed that. In good ways, when one family helped one another without expecting anything in return. In bad ways, when the village families closed ranks to keep the identity of the smugglers a secret. Were they hiding the identity of a murderer who might be among them for the Mothering Sunday gathering?
Edmund scanned the chapel as they entered, not surprised to see it filled to capacity. Some of the youngsters had climbed to the gallery to find a place to sit. Not only was it a special Sunday, but the parishioners must hope—as he did—that the vicar’s sermon would help them make sense of a senseless death.