Edmund stood and went back to lean against the windowsill as Brooks and the vicar continued to discuss Stanley Cadman’s murder and how it might lead them to the smugglers’ leader. He appreciated their enthusiasm, but he could not believe that his qualityship would be careless and leave a clue along with the body of a dead man. He was beginning to doubt that they would ever discover the truth.
* * *
Vera was relieved when one of the Brooks children came to the door, more than two hours later, to ask if Mrs. Brooks should accept Lady Meriweather’s offer for the family to spend the night at Meriweather Hall. Without additional clues to lead them to the person giving orders to the smugglers, the conversation had been going around and around and getting nowhere.
The men must have realized that, as well, because Mr. Brooks asked them to excuse him while he saw his family home. Gregory went with him and Edmund, asking their opinions if there should be more than one bell in the church’s tower when it was completed.
She stayed where she was, exhausted by the day’s events. She could think of several things she should do, but she did not move. Staring out the window, she watched rain curve down the glass, blurring the view of the sea. She did not realize tears were sliding down her cheeks, as well, until a gentle finger swept them away. Raising her eyes, she saw Edmund beside her.
“If I am the cause of these tears, I am sorry,” he said, his voice the low rumble of half-heard thunder.
“You do not need to apologize.”
“But I do.” He caressed her face, and his eyes were filled with sorrow. “I upset you in the garden. I am not sure how or why, but if you will tell me, I vow I will not again.”
He waited for her to go on, then asked, “Will you tell me what I did to distress you? Tell me how I can make it up to you.”
She started to answer but feared as soon as she spoke the truth, everything would change between them. Everything had to change eventually. If he did not wed Lillian, he would marry another woman of the ton. After that, nothing could be the same for them. No more long evenings of sitting and planning the church and talking of many other things. They could continue to work together on the church, but she truly would be nothing more than an assistant. That role she had yearned to break out of, but she would gladly assume it again if she could recapture the special times they had shared.
Life was uncertain, as Stanley’s death had shown. All that was inevitable was change, and if their relationship must change, then...
She slipped her hand up his sleeve. His eyes widened in astonishment when she stood so her hand could curve around his nape. Knowing what she risked, but willing to pay the price when she might never have another chance to make this precious dream come true, she lowered his head and brushed his lips with hers. Shock riveted her. Not just at her own outrageous behavior, but at how a sweet warmth rippled out from the kiss to her fingertips.
Stepping back, she could not meet his eyes. “I am sorry. I should not have done that.”
“No, you should not have done that.” His hands framed her face. “I should have done this.”
His mouth caressed her damp cheeks with a gentleness that captivated her. Laughter, joyous laughter bubbled deep in her throat. When he found her lips again, he pulled her into a deep embrace. She slid her hands beneath his arms and across his back’s strong muscles.
Voices coming along the corridor compelled her to step back, though she longed to remain in his arms. She looked up into his eyes and was lost anew in these precious, fragile sensations that bound them together.
His name was called, and, not shifting his gaze from her, he whispered, “I have to go, Vera.”
She nodded, unable to speak, as she wished she could make the rest of the world stay away a little longer.
He started to say something more, but his name was called more insistently. He stroked her cheek before walking away.
Unable to turn to watch Edmund leave the room, Vera heard him answering whoever had called to him and listened as his voice faded along with the other one in the corridor as they walked away. Then, closer, she heard a throat clear.
She looked over her shoulder to where Gregory stood in the doorway. His face was colorless and his voice held no emotion as he said, “Not again, Vera.”
He was gone before she could speak. But what could she have said? That she knew it appeared as if she were letting history repeat itself by possibly jeopardizing her brother’s living by kissing Edmund? She knew that, and like before, she had tossed aside good sense and listened to her heart.
She sank to the chair and covered her face with her hands. She had known that the joy of the stolen moment of being in Edmund’s arms would be short-lived. She simply had not guessed how short.