“We don’t have enough information to believe one thing or another.” Lord Northbridge moved so he could look at her and the others. “Jumping to conclusions would be the worst thing we can do now. I have sent several men from the stables to follow the route Meriweather told me that he intended to take.”
“But what if they don’t find him?” choked out Lillian.
“Find who?” demanded Sir Nigel as he strode into the room. “Lillian, why are you a watering-pot?”
Lillian jumped to her feet and ran to her uncle. “Edmund is missing, Uncle Nigel.”
A flurry of emotions flew across the baronet’s face before it hardened. “Northbridge, is this true?”
“Meriweather failed to report in as he had planned. As we were telling the ladies, that might mean only that he has found some clue to the vicar’s disappearance and is following it.”
Sir Nigel’s mouth worked, then he ground out, “Come along, Lillian. We are leaving. Now.” He stuck out his chin as if daring them to counter his order.
“Uncle Nigel, how can we leave? The vicar hasn’t been found, and Lord Meriweather is overdue.”
“Those are the reasons. It is no longer safe for you here.”
“But Edmund may be on his way here now,” Vera said.
Sir Nigel shot a withering glare in her direction, but she did not quell before it. “Let Meriweather deal with his own problems.” His sharp laugh tore at her ears. “If the want-witted fool can. He probably is standing on the strand, unable to decide which direction to walk in.”
“Sir Nigel,” Lady Meriweather began, but Vera interrupted with, “For a man who professes to have an artist’s soul, Sir Nigel, you show a shocking disregard for others’ feelings.”
His gaze flitted from one face to another, except for Vera’s. He ignored her as he said, “Forgive me, Lady Meriweather. My anxiety for my great-niece’s safety has put me on edge.” He took Lillian’s arm and tugged. “Come along. Now!”
“Let me get my coat and bonnet. I cannot go bareheaded.”
Vera thought he would insist Lillian come without delay, but Sir Nigel relented enough to say, “Hurry!”
“I shall.” She glanced at Lady Meriweather who rang a bell to summon a maid.
Lillian’s garments were brought, and she pulled them on. After she tied her bonnet under her chin, she rushed to Vera. “Stay safe, my dear Vera.” Hugging Vera, she whispered, “Check the public house at the lower end of the village. I heard Lord Ashland speak of meeting people there.”
Vera murmured, “Thank you,” before she released Lillian. The young woman gave her an intense look, and Vera nodded. Lillian shared her suspicion that the viscount was the leader of the smugglers. If so, it was possible the people he met there were smugglers. Others would be there, too. Someone who was upset about the vicar’s disappearance might be willing to give her information.
“Where have you been?” Cat asked as she came over to stand beside Vera.
“You haven’t done something risky, have you?”
“No!” Not yet.
She walked with the others to the entrance hall. After she bid Sir Nigel and Lillian a farewell and left the rest to do the same, she hurried up the stairs and to her rooms. She forced her eyes not to look down the hallway toward her brother’s room.
Instead, she went into Cat’s beautiful bedroom. If Vera were the daughter of a peer, she could not go to the village by herself. No one would think twice about seeing Vera alone on the steep streets, because she often went to call on parishioners when Gregory was busy. Even though she had never been inside The Scuppers, as the vicar’s sister, she could enter the public house without worrying about her reputation.
She opened her cupboard and pulled out her dark gray gown. She had worn it on her way to Cat’s wedding. Since her return, she had not been able to put on the grim garment. Not when she had a rainbow of gowns at her fingertips.
Undoing the buttons down the back of her borrowed gown was difficult, but she refused to call a maid to assist her. That could raise questions she did not want to answer. Finally she got enough undone so she could squeeze out of the gown. The sound of threads snapping urged her to go slow, but the moment she wasted unbuttoning the gown farther might be the very moment that she waited too long to begin her search at The Scuppers.
Smoothing her hair into a simple bun, she grabbed her funereal cloak and straw bonnet. She tied the ribbons under her chin and took a deep breath before looking in the glass. The face reflected back to her had not a single hint of color. She turned away, reminding herself that she must not give in to the panic uncurling in her stomach. She hoped someone at The Scuppers could help her. If they could not, she had no idea where to turn.