“What is suspicious?” demanded Sir Nigel. “You heard what Ashland said during the meal. A man got drunk and walked off a cliff after dark. It has happened before, and, sad to say, it will happen again. Lord Ashland has better things to do with his time than waste it continuing such a worthless pursuit.”
Vera heard the baroness draw in a sharp breath at the baronet’s heartless words.
“Is it worthless,” Edmund asked, “if the investigation leads to answers that may put an end to the crimes around Sanctuary Bay?”
No sound was heard in the great hall, not even the footfall of a servant, as the meaning of his question sank into every mind.
“If we get the answer to that question,” Mr. Brooks said, “it will be worth every minute. I think we are closer than we have ever been.”
Lord Ashland’s cocksure pose faltered at the quiet response. “Why would you say that?”
“I am still gathering facts, my lord,” the justice of the peace said politely, but she sensed he was pleased he had pierced the viscount’s arrogance. “I will not make any final judgment until I have as many as I can gather. However, I agree with Mr. Fenwick. Today is not the day to delve into that. I will contact you in your capacity as the county coroner, my lord, when I need further assistance.”
Lord Ashland’s face flushed, but Sir Nigel’s turned an unhealthy red.
“That is ridiculous!” Sir Nigel argued. “Ashland is the coroner. He has—”
“To view the body and determine if he believes there has been foul play,” Edmund said, clasping his hands behind his back. “Lord Ashland reported his findings to Mr. Brooks, even though I doubt any of us expected him to do so today. Therefore, he has discharged his duties, and the matter is back in Mr. Brooks’s hands.” He aimed a smile at the justice of peace. “As you can see, Mr. Brooks, I have taken your advice and learned more about the obligations each of us have to this parish and county.”
Lord Ashland muttered something that Vera did not quite hear. Perhaps it was for the best, because the viscount stamped away, not even pausing to bid Lady Meriweather a good day or thank her for her hospitality. Sir Nigel motioned for Lillian but did not wait for her as he followed the viscount out of the great hall.
Lillian paused only long enough to express her apologies to Lady Meriweather for her abrupt departure. She glanced at Vera, but said nothing more before she ran to catch up with her great-uncle.
Nobody sat. The dessert was forgotten. Lady Meriweather sent footmen to have the wagons brought, so the villagers could return to their homes. Some did not wait, leaving immediately with their families. Others remained but drew together in hushed conversations in corners of the great hall.
“I must see to Mrs. Brooks and her children,” Lady Meriweather said. “Will you let Edmund know where I have gone?”
“I could check on her if you wish, my lady,” Vera said.
“No, but thank you.” The baroness smiled and looked past Vera. “I think someone here needs you more.”
As the lady walked away, calling to the footmen to assist her, Vera turned to look in the direction Lady Meriweather had. Mr. Brooks flung his hands about as he made a point to Edmund and Gregory. Which one did Lady Meriweather believe needed her? Surely, the baroness had been speaking of Gregory, but what if she had not?
Vera went to where the three men now talked in rapid, hushed voices. Hesitating, she wondered if she should say something so they did not think she was sneaking up on them.
Before she could find the right moment to interrupt, Edmund flung out his arm to make a point. It hit Vera’s shoulder. Not hard, but enough to startle her.
He whirled. “Forgive me, Vera.”
As she was caught by the mighty passions in his eyes, she realized he was apologizing for more than almost knocking her from her feet. New tears burned the back of her eyes as she said, “Most certainly, Edmund. You are forgiven.”
She must be honest with him soon, but not now. Not when telling him the truth risked everything she had found in Sanctuary Bay...and with him.
* * *
Edmund had noticed Vera coming to join him, the vicar and the justice of the peace. He could never be unaware of her. It was not only the soft scent of the soap she used to wash her hair. It was as if they were connected in some invisible way that he could not describe. Brooks acknowledged her arrival with a glance in her direction, but looked at Mr. Fenwick.
The vicar said, “Perhaps this conversation could continue in a more private place, my lord. What Mr. Brooks is hinting at should not be discussed where many ears might overhear.”
“Come with me,” Edmund said.