She paused by the door to his private office. It was ajar.
He frowned. He had closed the door, as he did every time he left the office. Who had opened it? There were a lot of people under Meriweather Hall’s roof today, and he could not ask each one.
“Are those papers the plans for the new church?” Lillian asked as she walked into the office. She untied her bonnet and held it by its ribbons.
She examined the pages. “Did you draw these, Edmund?”
“No. Vera did.”
“She has many special talents, doesn’t she?” She smiled with warmth, but not coquettishly.
Maybe he would never understand women. Lady Eloisa had used him without a bit of guilt. Lillian was a chameleon, and he never knew what to expect with her. And Vera... His heart contracted in the midst of a beat. He had thought she possessed the strength he once had. When she had fallen apart in front of his eyes in the garden, he had been shocked; his first thought had been to bring her into his arms and soothe her.
But he had not acted quickly enough, being torn between the choice of comforting her and risking her reputation if anyone discovered them, unchaperoned, in the garden. He closed his eyes and sighed. If he could not make that decision, a choice so easy he once could have made it without even pausing to think, how could he ever hope to decide anything?
“Vera does everything well,” Lillian continued as she walked back toward him, swinging her bonnet by its ribbons. “She is an extraordinary woman, and this parish is lucky to have her here to help with the rebuilding of the church. Without her— Oh!”
Something clattered to the floor. As she apologized, she bent to pick up the silver flask he had dug up at the vicarage. She turned it over in her hands, a perplexed look on her face.
“Don’t worry,” Edmund said. “You could not damage it more than it has been damaged already.”
“Is it yours?”
“No. I found it, and I’m looking for the owner. Do you recognize it?”
“Maybe. I have seen one like it before.”
“Where?” he asked, hope spiking in his chest.
She shrugged as she placed the flask back on the table. “Maybe at my great-uncle’s house or maybe it was at my stepfather’s house. Or maybe both. Such flasks are fairly common, aren’t they?”
“Yes.” His hope deflated, but he kept a polite smile in place. Lord, I need Your help to unravel the puzzles in Sanctuary Bay. He added another silent prayer that God would understand that he was seeking help in more than halting the smugglers. He never wanted to see such pain on Vera’s face again.
By the way others were devouring servings of bread pudding doused in caramel sauce, Vera guessed the dessert was another triumph from Mrs. Porter’s kitchen. She had taken two bites and pushed it aside. Each spoonful had tasted like dust in her mouth. Hearing a lilting laugh, she looked across the great hall to see Lillian coming in with her hand on Edmund’s arm. Her head leaned toward his, and Lillian gave that obviously happy laugh again.
Neither of them looked in her direction. Why should they? They were focused on each other, enjoying the day and the company. They were not lurking in a corner as she was, trying to still her frantic heartbeat at the same time she dressed herself down for blurting out too much to Edmund.
How could she have been so silly? Provoking Edmund when he wanted to praise her sermon. How many times had she longed to know if churchgoers were moved by her words? When he had sought her out to tell her what she had hoped to hear, she had reacted as if she had thought he was attacking her brother. She longed to apologize, but she could not when Lillian clung to him like a burr on a hem.
Vera instantly chided herself. Thinking of Lillian like that was inexcusable. The pretty blonde had done nothing but come to the garden looking for her. Vera had left her alone with Edmund because she could no longer bear to look at the bafflement on his face.
Edmund must think her half-mad. How could she explain that she had cost Gregory his previous living? Any respect Edmund had for her would be banished once she divulged her greatest shame. She could not bear the thought of that happening.
Suddenly, voices rose from the other side of the great hall. Heads swiveled as everyone strained to see who was disrupting the Mothering Sunday feast.
Her eyes widened when she saw Lord Ashland poking a finger at Mr. Brooks’s waistcoat. The justice of the peace had his arms folded over his wide belly and a scowl on his face. Behind him, his wife pulled their younger children to her like a hen collecting her chicks. Sir Nigel edged to stand beside the viscount, clearly taking sides.
Everyone stopped talking, so Lord Ashland’s words rang across the great hall.