“My family,” began Brooks.
Vera interrupted, “Lady Meriweather asked me to let you know that she was going to spend time with your family.”
As the justice of the peace nodded and thanked her for delivering the message, Edmund motioned for them to follow him as he headed toward the door where the villagers were leaving.
He opened the door to his private office and ushered them in. Vera chose the chair where she sat while they worked on the church plans, and Brooks took the chair Edmund used. Mr. Fenwick drew another one closer. Edmund leaned against the windowsill.
“Go ahead,” he said to Brooks. “Explain to me why you have changed your mind. You discounted my theory that Cadman was murdered, but you defended it to Lord Ashland. I trust it was more than you wanting to vex him.”
Brooks’s chins jiggled as he chuckled. “Yes, though I have to admit that it was a pleasure to get a bit of my own back after dealing with his haughty ways.” He grew serious and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I have been asking a few questions as I know you have, too, my lord.”
“Only a few, and only with people I trust.”
“I have discovered how small the number is that I can say I trust without hesitation.” The justice of the peace looked at each of them in turn. “What I discovered was, to say the least, very disturbing.”
“That Cadman was murdered?”
“Yes, it would seem so. He was not a man with a reputation for drinking, and he was friends with many in the village. Some of those friendships included men rumored to be involved with the smugglers.”
Mr. Fenwick sighed and bent his head. Vera reached out to stroke her brother’s arm. Edmund wished she would offer him such comfort, too.
“So it would seem,” the vicar said, shaking his head in frustration, “that Stanley Cadman really was on his way to share information on the smugglers. ’Tis unfortunate that the fog gave his enemy enough cover to ambush him.”
“Whether that truly was Cadman’s intention, we will never know,” Edmund said. “It actually matters less than the fact that someone believed he was ready to tell me what he knew. Someone who had the power to order his death.”
“We are fortunate that you are a soldier, my lord,” Brooks said.
“I was a soldier.”
He waved aside the words. “You have been trained how to protect yourself as well as those who depend on you, and we need those skills in Sanctuary Bay now.”
Had his face gone deathly pale? His skin felt clammy. Vera started to rise but sat when he motioned with his fingertips for her to stay where she was. He gulped, then squared his shoulders.
“I trust, Mr. Brooks,” Mr. Fenwick said, “you are not suggesting we declare war on our neighbors.”
Brooks shook his head. “Our faith teaches that we should love our neighbors, but I know, my lord, that you share my dismay at the sorry state of affairs in this parish since the smugglers have grown more brazen. When I accepted the post as the parish’s justice of the peace, I had great hopes of seeing the criminals brought before my court, but then I realized that the only way to end these crimes was to find the leader and hand out the proper punishment.”
“It may not be as simple as that.” Edmund pushed away from the window and sat on the arm of Vera’s chair. It took all his willpower not to reach down and lace his fingers through hers. “A peer charged with a felony must be tried in the House of Lords.”
“A peer?” Brooks’s eyes grew wide. “You are jesting me!”
“I wish I were.” He explained what his cousins had overheard at Christmastime when the smugglers had grown bolder and more careless. “While the leader might not be of the peerage, he must be a man of property and prestige who lives within a reasonable distance of Sanctuary Bay. That gives us a very short list of possibilities.”
The justice of the peace said nothing for several minutes as he pondered the information. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow, as if he could barely bring himself to say the words. “If we believe what was overheard and reported to you, my lord, then there can be only three men who fit that description. The leader must live close enough to Sanctuary Bay to see the smugglers obey his orders.”
“Three?” asked Mr. Fenwick.
“Lord Ashland, Sir Nigel and, excuse me, my lord, but I must add your name to the list.”
Edmund laughed tersely. “You would be remiss if you didn’t, but you should add yours, as well, Brooks.”
“Quite to the contrary,” Brooks said. “I appreciate your esteem, my lord, but a country squire, even one who takes on the task of serving as justice of the peace, never would be considered quality in the same breath as a viscount, a baron and a baronet. If you doubt me, ask those in the village whom you trust. They will tell you the same as I do.”