“Brooks, if you would do your task as you vowed to, there would be no heaviness lingering over this day.” Lord Ashland looked down his nose at the rotund justice of the peace.
“I am doing as I said I would the day I took my oath!” Mr. Brooks asserted as his wife began shooing their children out of the great hall so they did not witness the verbal attack on their father.
“Are you? You’re making too much of a simple, albeit tragic, accident.” The viscount exchanged a glance with Sir Nigel.
The baronet sneered. “Anyone with a bit of common sense knows that Cadman stumbled around in the fog, lost his bearings and fell over the cliff. Probably so deep in his cups that he didn’t have the slightest idea where he was.”
Gasps came from every direction at the slur heaped on the dead man. Vera jumped to her feet, ready to defend Stanley Cadman. A hand on her shoulder gave her pause, and she looked at her brother.
Gregory’s emotionless face could have been carved from the thick beams over their heads. He stared at the three men and whispered a single word. “Wait.”
She nodded, though every instinct told her to jump into the conversation to tell Sir Nigel he was wrong about Stanley. She gripped the table edge and bit her lower lip as she tried to see where Edmund was. Too many people stood between her and the far end of the great hall.
But the only one who spoke was Sir Nigel who said, “Brooks, be done with this inquest and let the matter rest as the dead man is.”
“I will rest when all the facts are known,” asserted Mr. Brooks.
Lord Ashland gave a terse laugh. “When have all the facts ever been known? Are you really that naive, Brooks?”
The justice of the peace turned a deep shade of puce. He opened his mouth to retort, but paused and looked past the viscount.
“Gentlemen, is there a good reason for raised voices?” asked Edmund in a tone that suggested they would be want-witted not to heed him.
Vera drank in the sight of him, in command and calm amid the turmoil. While the other men were leaning toward each other, their fists clenched and their chins jutted, he stood with the easy assurance befitting a lord of the realm. She realized that, for the first time, she was seeing the man he had been before the war had stripped his confidence away.
“We are gathered here to celebrate Mothering Sunday,” Edmund went on. “I think you forget yourself and the company you are in.”
His simple, relaxed words eased some of the tension. Lord Ashland began to apologize, but his voice vanished beneath Mr. Brooks’s furious one.
“My reputation has been sullied,” Mr. Brooks said.
“Shall I arrange for my second to contact yours?” asked Lord Ashland, his arrogance once again in place.
The justice of the peace snarled, “Dueling is illegal.”
“Only if one is caught,” Sir Nigel said with a chuckle.
“Or one waits until the next day so cooler heads have time to prevail,” Lord Ashland said. “I am sure you know that, Brooks.”
“I know my duties as justice of the peace, and I know your duties as coroner. I am doing mine, and may I suggest that you do yours?”
Vera had heard enough. Already the smugglers had succeeded in disrupting too much of life around Sanctuary Bay. Allowing them to do so today through their vile deeds was too much. She slipped past her brother, sidestepping his hand that reached out to halt her. He caught her arm, and she whirled to him.
“Do something, Gregory!” she ordered in a sharp whisper, even though nobody was paying attention to them. Every eye and ear was focused on the men on the other side of the great hall.
“This is Lord Meriweather’s battle. For me to intrude would be foolish, as you know all too well.”
She flinched at his words meant to remind her of the muddle with Lord Hedgcoe, even though she could never forget it. She shook her head. “You are the vicar, Gregory. You would not be intruding. You would be reminding them that today is the Sabbath, and such accusations are inappropriate.”
Gregory’s eyes widened, then narrowed with an expression she had not seen on his face in many years. His mischievous smile suggested he was about to surprise everyone in the great hall.
“Thank you, Vera,” he said, and he released her arm. “I needed to be reminded that I should minister not only to the sick of body.” Turning, he strode toward the men.
She followed but paused by the end of the table where Lady Meriweather listened with a scowl. The lady glanced at her, then looked back at the men.
“I will say it again,” Edmund said, his voice even. “This is neither the time nor the place for this discussion.”
“I add my voice to Lord Meriweather’s,” Gregory said as he moved next to Edmund. “There are six days in each week for these matters. Can we not keep this day holy, even though a man is dead under what some deem suspicious circumstances?”