“Thank you.” Vera stepped through the door and onto a stone slab. She edged down a step, and the door closed behind her.
Fear gripped her for a second, then she told her frantic heart to slow. She ran her toes to the edge of the stone and discovered it was another step. Cautiously she stepped down and grimaced as cold water washed over her shoes.
The beck was only a few inches deep, so she held up her gown with one hand as she began walking. She peered through the darkness, wishing she could open the panel on her lantern wide enough to let her see where she was putting her feet. She had to be grateful she had even this much light, because the tunnel was as black as Whitby jet. The beck flowed swiftly between large rocks. It would be too easy to twist her ankle on the uneven stones, so she edged around them. She had to be extra careful because years of water running over the rocks had dug out channels between them. Someone had built a low ridge on one side of the tunnel, but it appeared even more treacherous than the floor of the tunnel. Water oozed down the walls, puddling on the ridge before falling into the beck.
She heard nothing but the beck. The arched top of the tunnel was constructed of tightly packed bricks. None of them had shifted out of place, unlike the stones in the walls. Several had collapsed, bringing dirt down with them.
The late Lord Meriweather had known there was at least one tunnel. Cat had told her how he had searched but never found it. Had he known how big this tunnel was? Was this tunnel the one that connected to the old church, or was that a separate one? She wondered how many tunnels snaked through the cliffs.
Stop thinking about the tunnels. Find Gregory and get out of here!
She inched forward. Her left foot slammed into a rock she had not seen. Tears filled her eyes as pain surged from her big toe. She hoped she had not broken it. Not that it mattered. A broken toe was not going to keep her from finding her brother.
A hand settled on her shoulder. She drew in a breath to scream. A hand closed over her mouth, and she was tugged back against a firm chest. Another hand wrapped around her waist. She kicked back at her captor’s legs and clawed his arms.
“Vera, it is me,” came a whisper in her ear.
He was alive!
But what was he doing in the tunnel?
He spun her to face him. His arms encircled her. She threw hers around his shoulders as he lowered his mouth to hers in a kiss that offered healing for wounds left by angry and thoughtless words. She sank into him, savoring his rough mat of whiskers against her face.
Too soon, he drew back, but he leaned his forehead against hers. He whispered her name as if it were the sweetest prayer. Her fingers stroked his cheek, and she hoped her touch said what words could not. She heard him sigh when he released her.
“What are you doing in this tunnel?” he whispered.
“Gregory may be here. What are you doing here?” She gasped as she realized he was not carrying a lantern. “How can you see where you are going?”
“The smugglers use this tunnel. I figured if they could slip through without light, I could, too. I’ve been running my fingers along the wall to guide me.”
She nodded, then realized he might not be able to see the motion. “I know about the smugglers, but Jeannie thought Gregory might be down here.”
“Who is Jeannie?”
Vera hesitated, then realized her promise to Jeannie had been negated because Edmund already knew about the tunnels. “She is a maid at The Scuppers. Her full name is Jeannie Cadman.”
His eyes widened, catching the faint light. “Stanley Cadman’s wife?”
“His aunt, but she offered to help me when I told her that the smugglers might have taken Gregory.”
“But that doesn’t explain how you got into the tunnel.”
“Tunnels,” she corrected.
“There is more than one? How many are there?”
“I don’t know, but several houses up the hill are connected by branches of the main tunnel.”
Edmund took her hand as the current between the boulders tugged at their feet. She still was scared, but having him with her increased her chances of finding Gregory and returning alive to The Scuppers.
“But that doesn’t tell me how you got in here,” he said.
“One of the buildings connected to this tunnel is The Scuppers. I suspect the publican allows it in exchange for the smugglers providing him with inexpensive brandy. Jeannie didn’t tell anyone else other than her nephew.”
“Which may have been what he intended to tell me before he was murdered.”
“No, she said he overheard something at the building site.” She glanced at Edmund. “If anyone else finds out that she told me—”
He put his finger to her lips, and she wished he had silenced her with a kiss instead. “Don’t worry, Vera. Assuming we make it out of these tunnels alive, I will arrange for Jeannie to come to work at Meriweather Hall. That way, nobody will suspect she was the one who led you here.”