Northbridge said, “Maybe he went to the church—”
“He did not take a horse or cart.” Her voice was growing higher with dismay. “I checked with Griffin in the stable, and, as I told you, if he had left of his own free will, he would have left a message for me.”
Vera interrupted Bradby. “Maybe the smugglers took him.”
Silence gripped the book room. Every face became as pale as Vera’s.
Edmund looked at Northbridge. The habit had been ingrained during their years of fighting, side by side. Once, Edmund had made suggestions and waited for his commanding officer to decide.
Like Vera had done for him, he realized with a pinch of remorse.
Northbridge did not hesitate. “We will mount an organized and thorough search of the house and the grounds and the shore below the headland before we make any assumptions about where he might be or why. It is possible that he is in a place that has already been searched.”
While the others rushed out of the room, Ogden calling for the footmen and maids to report to the entry hall, Edmund kept Vera from following by taking her hands again. He half expected her to yank them away. She did not, and he knew she was heartsick with fear for her brother.
“Do you think something terrible has happened to him?” Her voice shook.
He forced a smile. “Other than he has lost track of time wherever he is, no. He was in the gardens, Vera. Not even the smugglers are bold or foolish enough to come here in the sunlight. They could not slip in and out without being seen.”
“I wish I could be as sure as you are.”
“You will be when Northbridge and I bring him back, quite chagrined that he has upset his sister.” He brushed her hair from her ashen face. “And then maybe you will let me apologize to you.”
“Not now, Edmund.”
Her soft answer would not have hurt more if a cannon ball had been driven into his gut. It was what he deserved after he had spewed his frustration on her. He clamped his lips shut, not wanting to chance hurting her further when she was fraught with fear for her brother.
Even though there was much he longed to say, he only nodded as he left her standing in the book room. He caught up with the others in the entry hall and thanked Lady Meriweather who offered to sit with Vera while the house and grounds were searched.
“Find him,” Cat said, blinking back tears. “He is all Vera has left.”
The words pummeled Edmund anew. Once, Vera might have counted him among the most important people in her life. Now...
“Let’s go,” Bradby said, tugging on his sleeve. “We can’t waste a second.” His face was as set and determined as Northbridge’s. “Ogden, we need to search each room. When it has been searched, the door must be locked so nobody can go in.”
It was a good plan, but by the time they finished searching the house, the stable, the outbuildings and even the cottages on the estate, there was no sign of Mr. Fenwick. Nobody spoke again of the smugglers, but Edmund had seen the many glances toward the sea. He wanted to kick himself for putting false hope in Vera’s heart.
Lord, help me find the right words to hold her up and help her know that she and the vicar are both within Your care.
“Meriweather,” Northbridge said as they walked through the front gate again, “I think we need more help. You already have the villagers going through the village and along the beach. We need others who can help us look in the wood. It may be that the smugglers are involved, and they have used the wood before to conceal their dirty work.”
“That makes sense, but there are a few more places that I want to check along the shore.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” Northbridge asked. “I thought I could ride for Sir Nigel’s estate while Bradby went to Ashland’s. Both of them should send help.”
“Go ahead. Let me check those places on the other side of the cliffs along the headland.”
“How long do you think it will take?” Bradby asked.
“An hour. Two at the most.”
“Good. Make sure you are back within two hours. Not a minute longer. And take care, Meriweather! Your family doesn’t need another baron to die without an heir.”
Vera rushed down the kitchen stairs at an unseemly pace. What did propriety matter when her brother was missing? Her hopes had risen when a couple of hours ago, Lillian had arrived with Sir Nigel and the men he had brought to help search for Gregory. Then a half-dozen men had come from Lord Ashland’s estate, though the viscount did not join them.
She listened while the men were given their areas to search. Lord Ashland’s men were to check the woods with men from Meriweather Hall while Sir Nigel’s men concentrated on the areas around the church and the village. She heard Sir Nigel tell his men that if they did not find Gregory, they were supposed to check in both directions along the shore. Lady Meriweather had invited Vera to join her and the other women in the withdrawing room. The baroness was being a gracious hostess, as she always was, but Vera could not stand the idea of quiet conversation and speculation. She had to do something.