Fingertips waved slightly to catch his eye, and he saw Lillian sitting by her great-uncle. On the other side, Ashland had a whole bench to himself. Maybe no one felt comfortable asking to sit next to the viscount. Brooks, his equally chubby wife and their dozen children had filled two benches closer to the back.
All the men who fit the description his qualityship were in the chapel and studiously ignoring each other. Did they suspect one of their fellows was the leader of the smugglers? Or did they care? Brooks seemed interested in not rocking the boat. Ashland acted as if being in their presence was an odious duty he had to perform, and Sir Nigel... Well, Edmund never guessed what the baronet might do or why.
As he escorted the widowed baroness to the front bench set aside for the lord and his family, he passed Vera who stood near the door instead of sitting in her usual spot across from the Meriweather family. He guessed she had offered her seat to someone else. She nodded politely to Lady Meriweather. A hint of color dusted her soft cheeks when her gaze met his.
“Do come and sit with us,” Lady Meriweather said.
“Mrs. Uppington wants to share your bench,” Vera answered. “But thank you.”
He wished he could think of something to say, but words seemed mired in his mind. He wanted to tell her how lovely she looked in her simple gown that matched her blue eyes. Allowing even one of those words to pass his lips might free the rest as he spoke of how glad he was that she had come to stay at Meriweather Hall so he could get to know her better. Before he could find a way to control his own mouth, he and Lady Meriweather had walked past Vera.
The opportunity was lost. As many other opportunities had been because he could not trust himself to make the right choice after making too many disastrous ones.
Moments after he seated Lady Meriweather, his aunt hurried to join them. Aunt Belinda was as happy as a cat with a bowl of cream. She meant well, and he appreciated that. He simply wished he could interest her in something other than his future marital plans.
Mr. Fenwick stepped into the chapel, and the few whispers silenced. As the vicar led them through the service, Edmund heard some sniffling. Someone, maybe more than one person, was trying to keep from crying when Mr. Fenwick spoke of the sad events of the past week.
Wishing he had an excuse to stand and move where he had a good view of the whole chapel, Edmund sighed. Such a vantage point might give him a solid clue to who was involved in Cadman’s death. He might as well have wished that the vicar would announce that the new church building was complete and the rest of the service would be held there.
Edmund forced down his frustration as the vicar began his sermon. He had expected a verse about honoring mothers, but the passage for the day’s lesson was Proverbs 3:5-6. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.” Had the vicar selected it to give hope to the parishioners toiling to rebuild the church? Or was it a warning for the villagers not to exact retribution for Cadman’s death?
His gaze slipped to where Vera stood. His curiosity about what she thought of the verse her brother had chosen was replaced by astonishment. She had shifted so most of the chapel would not be able to see her face, but he had an excellent view of her lips forming each word the moment before Mr. Fenwick spoke it. His forehead furrowed. Even if she had listened to her brother practice his sermon, how would she know each word in advance of him saying it aloud? He could think of only one reason, but he could not confirm it until the service was over.
Sitting back, he listened to Mr. Fenwick and stole occasional glances at Vera whose face displayed every emotion in the sermon. He fought his yearning to put his arms around her when sadness filled her eyes as her brother reminded the congregation that while they might never know why Stanley Cadman died, God did, and even tragedy was part of His plan for all of them.
As soon as the service was over, Edmund stood. His hope of speaking with Vera vanished when she slipped out of the chapel ahead of even her brother. He guessed she had offered to help with the Mothering Sunday feast being held in the great hall. Once he bid the vicar a good morning, he intended to give chase.
That did not happen because his aunt looped her arm around his and kept him by the front bench until Sir Nigel and Lillian reached them. She took a half step into the aisle as if waiting for a break in the line of parishioners. She took Lillian’s hand in her other one and drew her around the front of the benches.
She made sure that Sir Nigel stopped as well when she gushed, “My dear Sir Nigel, how kind of you to come to Meriweather Hall to join our Mothering Sunday celebration. It is always a pleasure to see your pretty face, Miss Kightly.”