She had thought she was helping Edmund, too, but he had been blunt. He did not want her help.
Not ever again, Vera!
All she had done was make everything worse.
* * *
Edmund could not sit, and he paced between where his friends sat and the window in his suite of rooms. He had asked Northbridge and Bradby to come there, because he knew these rooms were one place where he could be certain they would be undisturbed by anyone else.
So why was he finding it impossible to think of anything but the horrible conversation he’d had with Vera? He had tried to hold his frustration at his inability to make a decision when they needed to find a murderer, but it had burst out at her. He did appreciate all her help with the church, but he needed to relearn how to make decisions himself. Quick and good decisions that would lead to capturing the man who had ordered the death of Stanley Cadman. He likely would not have time to hesitate or to seek her help. He would have to make decisions himself.
And what if you never can? You told Vera you no longer want her help. What happens when you need one of her suggestions? Will your pride keep you from bringing a killer to justice? His fears taunted him with each step he took.
Bradby shifted in his chair. “If you bid us to come here to watch you walk back and forth, I would say you have achieved your goal.”
“I need your advice,” he replied.
“About the smugglers or about women?” Northbridge smiled when Edmund stopped and stared at him. “From your expression, it is clear that you need advice on women. Or did you ask us here to tell us you plan to marry Lillian Kightly as rumor says you will?”
“Rumor? What rumor?” Edmund frowned as he looked from one of his friends to the other.
“The rumor that you were going to come to Town to get her mother and stepfather’s blessing before you offered for Miss Kightly.”
Bradby chuckled. “Sometimes, the groom-to-be is the last one to know. Marrying mamas like to start talk that may make hopes a reality.”
“I don’t plan to offer for Lillian.”
“If it’s not Miss Kightly on your mind,” Bradby said with a wink in Northbridge’s direction, “then I would guess it must be the vicar’s lovely sister. You courting her will make a lot of tongues wag, but if you love her, that should mean nothing to you.”
“Will you stop prattling like two old toughs and listen?” Edmund locked his fingers together behind his back and hurried to explain what had happened in the book room less than an hour ago. It was not easy to concentrate on that when Northbridge’s words careened through his head. Courting Vera? He hardly allowed himself to imagine that in his most private thoughts. He enjoyed the time they had together, save for earlier, but how could he ask her to marry when her kind heart would keep him from finding a way to get past his debilitating inability to decide even the simplest things?
His stomach clenched as he recalled his conversation with her brother yesterday. The vicar had expressed his concern about Edmund showing interest in his sister. His account of what had happened with another young lord before the vicar left his previous living had been difficult to hear. Vera’s gentle heart had betrayed her, and now Edmund was adding to her pain with his unpardonable accusation that she would never understand his unseen wound from the war.
“She has done nothing different from what Bradby or I have done on your behalf,” Northbridge said, pulling Edmund out of the vicious circle of frustration and guilt, “and you have been grateful for our assistance since the war.”
He agreed, though he did not want to. “True, but we were comrades-in-arms. We had to depend on each other.”
“And she is your comrade in rebuilding the Sanctuary Bay church,” Bradby said. “How is that different?”
Wishing he had never broached the topic of the quarrel, he shook his head. “If I had the answer to that, I wouldn’t be miserable now.”
Northbridge settled back in his chair and rested one foot on his knee. “Women have that effect on us, especially women in Sanctuary Bay. They make us see parts of ourselves that we would rather not look at, but the light of their love and faith shines too brightly for us to hide the truth from ourselves or them.”
“And, in spite of what they illuminate in our heart’s darkest recesses,” Bradby said, with an ironic smile, “they love us still.”
“Until we push them away.” Edmund stood again. “I would not blame Vera if she never spoke to me again.”
“But that is not your decision, Meriweather.” Bradby clapped Edmund on the shoulder. “It is Miss Fenwick’s. Your only decision is what you will do if she cares enough about you to forgive you.”