* * *
Edmund’s coat ripped again, but he kept his shoulders pressed to the rough face of the cliffs. With the sun setting, deep shadows gathered around him. The large rocks that had tumbled to the shore offered some cover, but he stayed against the sharp cliffs as he inched north toward the village.
His search on the southern side of the headland had turned up nothing. All he had found were clumps of seaweed that stank and swarmed with flies and other insects. Strands still stuck to his boots. He had come around the headland and almost reached the path up to the gardens when he saw men gathered on the shore.
They did not see him, because they were staring at the ground. Their voices carried to him on the capricious sea breeze. He heard one say, “His qualityship sends his regards.”
As the men laughed, Edmund dropped behind one of the huge boulders that had fallen from the cliffs. Smugglers! So close to Meriweather Hall. He gauged the distance between him and the men. They stood close to where water rolled down from a stream to the sea. There, the cliffs had worn back to create a deep cut into the stone wall. Bradby and Cat had found the piece of a brandy crate nearby. It had no excise stamps and must have been discarded by the smugglers.
Was the vicar with the men? Even if he had been closer, Edmund could not have identified any of them. They wore their hats low over their brows, and kerchiefs pulled up on to their noses. Exactly as the vicar had described the smuggler he had met.
If Mr. Fenwick had come down to the strand for a walk and run into the smugglers... He tried to keep Vera’s distraught visage from appearing in his mind, but failed. He wanted to be with her, holding her in his arms, kissing away her tears.
No, he must keep focused on the task at hand. He pressed against the cliff, his gaze focused on the men. They never looked in his direction. A couple bent down, but he could not see what they did.
Then they went up the stream between the two sections of cliff. Their voices were muted as they drifted toward him. He did not move, knowing they would have a good view of his hiding place from the top. Slowly he squatted where the shadows were deepest.
As he heard his coat rip another time, Edmund watched the cliff. The smugglers appeared one after another. Caught by the last rays of the setting sun, they were easy to see against the sky. They must have realized that, too, because they turned as one and headed toward the wood to the north of Meriweather Hall. He guessed from there, they would wend their way back to the village or to their lair somewhere else, like the snakes they were.
He waited a few more minutes, then stood. He slipped along the cliffs. He was late returning to Meriweather Hall, but he needed to see if the smugglers had left a clue behind. Close to where the men had been, he saw a long piece of wood that must have been tossed onto the shore by a storm.
The light thinned as he approached the spot. He squinted through the dusk and gasped. That was not driftwood. It was a man.
He gulped. For the past three hours, he had refused to let the idea that the vicar might be dead slip into his mind. Now, seeing the motionless form on the beach, his hopes faded.
He started to step out of shadows, then paused to look in every direction, including up. During the war, he had learned not to trust what he thought he saw. He might not be on the Continent, but the smugglers had declared war on the law-abiding residents of Sanctuary Bay. He could not forget that.
He pushed away from the wall. One step. Another step.
The waves splashed against the dark shape on the sand. A groan came from it.
The man was alive!
Rushing forward, Edmund carefully turned the man over on his back. Blood covered the man’s face, but it was a face Edmund recognized immediately.
The viscount groaned, then cursed as he tried to sit.
“Easy. Let me help you.” Edmund put his arm beneath the other man’s shoulders and slowly tipped him up. Dampness oozed through his sleeve. He did not need to look down to know the warm liquid was Ashland’s blood.
He did not hesitate. On the beach, he and Ashland could be seen by anyone passing by on the top of the cliffs. He hooked his hands under the viscount’s arms and dragged him into the shadows.
Ashland murmured a single protest, then subsided when his attempt to get to his feet failed. He groaned again as he tried to move his right leg. Giving up, he dug his left boot heel into the sand and stones to help Edmund move him to a safer location.
Edmund scanned the break in the cliff walls. He saw what must be caves, but he rejected going there. Caves this close to the sea would be used by the smugglers to stash their illegal cargoes.
There! Where the stream fell over the cliffs. A tree with a couple of logs leaning against it. He could conceal Ashland there while Edmund went to get help.