Vera could manage no more than a tremulous smile. With her emotions raw, Jonathan Bradby’s kindness was almost more than she could take without erupting into sobs. She must not ruin Cat’s homecoming by weeping.
“That gown looks familiar.” Cat grinned.
“It should. It is yours. Your mother gave me carte blanche to use anything in your room.” She put her fingers to her lips as inspiration struck. She had the excuse she needed to leave before she embarrassed herself with tears. “Oh, give me a few minutes, and I will move my things out so you can use your room.”
“There is no need. Jonathan made it clear on our way here that being in that pink room for more than a few minutes might drive him crazy.” She took Vera’s hands in hers. “Besides, it is your room now. My home is in Norwich with my husband. I never had a chance to tell you how sorry I was to hear about the fire. You left the wedding before I could even say goodbye.”
“Thank you, but we have begun to rebuild. With Edmund’s knowledge of building, we are making good progress.”
She saw the looks exchanged when she used Edmund’s given name. A hysterical laughter tickled the back of her throat. Whatever they imagined was wrong. She had ruined everything by kissing Edmund yesterday.
“Yes, we are,” came Edmund’s voice from behind her. He pulled off his greatcoat and handed it to a footman before coming to greet his friends and younger cousin.
Vera saw her opportunity to slip away, and she took it. She thought nobody had noticed until Edmund called after her. She was too close to pretend she had not heard him, so she stopped while he asked the others to excuse him.
His smile fell away as he walked toward her. “Vera, we need to talk.”
A shudder raced down her spine, but she nodded. When he led the way to the book room, she wondered why they were not going to his private office. She was surprised to see her drawings for the church stacked on the rosewood desk. Why had he brought them from his office?
“Please, sit,” he said, his voice as taut as her brother’s had been yesterday.
When she did and clasped her hands in her lap, she struggled not to ask what Gregory had said to him during their conversation in the book room. She wished Edmund would draw her into his arms again and tell her that was where she should always be, but instead he leaned back on the edge of the desk.
“I wanted you to be the first to know, Vera. I confirmed what Brooks said. Nobody I talked to at the church or in the village would describe him as quality.” He grimaced. “I have always hated that term, but never more than now when a member of the so-called quality is a thief and a murderer.”
Relief coursed through her. Maybe he and Gregory had spoken of something other than her mistakes. She chided herself. Instead of thinking about her own concerns, she should be thinking, as Edmund was, about the vital task of halting the smugglers.
“Then Mr. Brooks probably isn’t the smugglers’ leader,” she said.
“No, and I am glad to hear that. Brooks has a sense of integrity and morality that is better suited to a justice of the peace than a criminal. From what we have seen, the real leader cares nothing about God’s gifts of life as long as he keeps a tight hand on his contraband.”
“That leaves us with two suspects.”
“Both highly intelligent men who will be difficult to trap.” He folded his arms over his chest and raised his gaze to the ceiling. She recognized that pose. He knew a decision must be made, and he was wondering how he could possibly be expected to make it.
Lord, comfort Edmund, she prayed. Only You and he know why he suffers so. Only You can guide him out of the darkness of indecision that he has created around himself. He wants Your help. I know he does. And I want him to be happy. Truly happy, even if that means he spends his life with Lillian. Let me understand and accept that.
She unclasped her hands in her lap. She had not expected the prayer to take that direction when she had opened her heart to God. For a moment, she longed to take the last part back, to say she did not really mean it. Pain surged through her at the thought of him kissing another woman as sweetly as he had her.
Pushing the thoughts aside, she forced herself to think about how to capture the smuggler’s leader. Ideas formed and were tossed aside. They needed to do something as devious as the leader would do himself. A flicker of another idea flashed through her mind. It was only the seed, but maybe it was enough to get started.
“Edmund, both Lord Ashland and Sir Nigel have more than their share of arrogance. If there were a way to use that against them, we could set a trap and capture the one leading the smugglers. We could put out the word that you are planning to meet someone else who has the information Stanley did—”