“I will not risk anyone else’s life.”
“You wouldn’t, if that person was safely behind the walls of Meriweather Hall before the rumor is started.”
He shook his head. “That is no guarantee the person would be safe.”
Vera sighed. “You are right. Maybe you should ask Lord Northbridge and Jonathan. They might have some ideas.”
“I will do that.” He pushed himself away from the desk.
“I think that’s the best decision at the moment.”
He stopped and scowled. “The best decision? Because you made it?”
“I only made a suggestion,” she replied, dumbfounded by the sudden anger in his voice. She knew he was upset about the smugglers. She was, too. He should know that.
“Suggestion?” He pointed to the drawings. “How many suggestions have you made to steer me to do what you want me to do?”
She set herself on her feet. “I have never tried to manipulate you. Never, Edmund.” She wanted to add that she was not like Nolan Hedgcoe who had manipulated her.
“Maybe you did not mean to, but you did.” When pain poured out along with his words, she realized she had mistaken it for anger. “How can I expect to get better if you never give me a chance to make a decision?”
“I have given you every opportunity to make a decision.” She took a step toward him, wanting to touch him as she assured him that she had been trying to help him.
“Have you? Really?”
“I thought I had.”
He shook his head. “You always interject a comment before I can come to a decision. I would have appreciated you giving me the chance to make a decision.”
“It breaks my heart when you look lost and as if you would rather be somewhere else whenever there is a decision to be made. All I want to do is help you by showing that I understand how hard this is for you.”
“Understand?” he repeated. “You cannot understand.”
“I can try.”
He shook his head.
“Give me a chance to show you I can understand.”
“It is a waste of time. You have lived a peaceful life. You will never understand a life of war.”
“You aren’t being fair.” She blinked back hot tears.
“Fair? Is it fair that I am the way I am?”
“That is not my fault.”
“Are you saying it is mine?”
How had this conversation gotten heated so swiftly? She reached out her hands to him, but he did not take them. For an endless moment, they hung in the air, an illustration of the abrupt chasm that had opened between them.
As she lowered her hands to her sides, she said, “Of course, I’m not saying it is your fault, Edmund. I am only saying that I understand how difficult it can be when—”
“You don’t understand. I know you want to, but you can’t ever completely understand because you never made a decision that sent more than a score of men to their deaths. They died because I made the wrong choice.”
“What?” She choked on the single word as the depth of his pain lashed out at her. Swallowing hard, she said, “Edmund, it was a war. Men die. It’s sad, but it’s war.”
“But these men didn’t have to die. I decided that the foray was low risk. I decided which men should go, including several who were as green as the leaves on the trees. I made the decision that sent them to their deaths in an ambush.”
“How were you to know that ahead of time? If you made the best decision you could—”
“Don’t give me platitudes!”
She bit her lip and stretched her hand out again. She took his hand, but he slipped it out of her grip and stepped back.
“I know you want to help me, but I need to help myself!” he exclaimed. “I don’t want your help any longer. Not ever again, Vera!” He walked out and slammed the door behind him.
The sound was still reverberating through the room as she sank into a chair and stared at the plans scattered across the desk. Her brother’s voice echoed in her mind.
Not again, Vera.
But she had done it again. She had tried to solve a problem on her own instead of handing it over to God. When she had let Nolan Hedgcoe beguile her, she had not stopped to pray for guidance about listening to her heart or to her good sense that his sudden interest in her was uncharacteristic when he had paid her scant attention before that. Instead, she had gone forward, unstoppable and never thinking of the consequences, like a charging bull. She had thought she was doing the right thing then, not realizing that he was using her as an excuse to pay court to a married woman. When the woman’s husband had found out about their affaire de coeur, he had challenged Nolan to the duel that left him wounded and dying. In his grief at his heir’s death, Lord Hedgecoe had discovered Vera’s unintended part in his son’s lies. Lord Hedgcoe had, in his anguish, lashed out and taken away Gregory’s living. She had been foolish to agree to believe Nolan’s excuses for leaving his horse in front of the parsonage. She had only wanted to help him.