“No, that would be the worst thing to do. If she leaves The Scuppers immediately, no one will doubt the position at Meriweather Hall is a reward for her help in finding Gregory.”
She could tell his mouth twisted by how his words sounded. “Yes, yes, I should have known that, but we don’t have time for this. You need to leave, Vera. Now.”
* * *
Edmund watched her eyes grow wide in the light from her lantern. He tried to deflect the protest he knew was coming by saying, “This is no place for you.”
When he had seen a light ahead of him in the tunnel, he had skulked as quietly as he could toward it. He had expected to find one or more smugglers, so he had drawn the pistol, ready to fire if necessary. He had hid it under his coat when he had seen Vera wading up the stream with the dark lantern to light her way.
“This no place for you, either,” she retorted.
“At least I am armed. You are not. You should go back, Vera.”
She shook her head, long strands of her black hair cascading around her shoulders. “Even if I were willing to stop looking for Gregory, which I’m not, I cannot go back the way I came. Not for three hours. The public house will be busy. I could be seen. I won’t betray Jeannie. Her family has suffered too much already.”
“You cannot go back the way I came in, either.” He told her how he had bamboozled the man standing guard at the foot of the street. He had recognized the man from services at the chapel, and he had hoped that asking for his help in rescuing a fellow parishioner who had been hurt at the church would lure the man from his post. It had. The man had run up the steep street as if it were as flat as the top of the cliffs overlooking Sanctuary Bay.
“Good. That buys us some time.”
“No. As I was ducking beneath the nets, I heard him call to one of his fellows to finish up his work. You can be certain someone is standing guard close to the nets now, though they cannot be certain I entered the tunnel.”
“That gives us no choice. We have to go forward.” She held up the lantern, and the moss on the walls looked like a green waterfall. “It will not take long for the word to reach Lord Ashland or—”
“Ashland isn’t the smugglers’ leader.”
“How do you know?”
He let his frustration sift into his voice. “I found him bleeding on the beach. Beat by smugglers acting on Tresting’s orders.” He told her what the viscount had shared with him. “That is why you must get out of here. If Tresting is willing to order a viscount’s death, he won’t hesitate to see a vicar or his sister dead.”
“Or a baron.”
“That is why...” He paused when a distant sound reached his ears.
He grabbed the dark lantern from her hand and shut its door, leaving them in utter darkness. He strained to hear the sound again.
Splashing. Closer than before.
Voices resonated along the tunnel. Many voices.
Vera grabbed Edmund’s hand, and they ran as fast as they dared, jumping from rock to rock so no splashing called attention to them. She reopened the dark lantern, and a sliver of light flashed up and down the wall in time with their steps. He took it from her. Reaiming it at the water, he urged her forward. They had to slow because the tunnel began to slant steeply uphill, and the footing became precarious.
No shouts came from behind them, so it was possible the smugglers had not guessed they were in the tunnel. Or maybe they had gone into one of the cellars connected to it.
Her shoe slipped. She would have fallen in the icy water if Edmund’s arm had not caught her at the waist and kept her on her feet. She leaned against him, trying to catch her breath which was not easy when each one was flavored with the scent of him.
“Which way?” he asked.
“What?” She raised her head.
He gestured with the dark lantern, and she saw the tunnel split a few feet in front of them.
“Do you know which way we should go?” he asked.
“I don’t know!” Vera stepped cautiously forward. “Jeannie said there was more than one tunnel, but she never said where any of the tunnels went.”
Raucous laughter came from behind them. They had to make a choice. With a shudder, Vera realized she had to make the choice. That Edmund had asked her opinion meant he could not decide which branch to take.
She closed her eyes and prayed she would not lead them straight to other smugglers. In the quiet while she sent up that prayer, she heard a faint sound from ahead of them.
“Listen,” she whispered. “More voices.”
“I hear them. They are coming from the right-hand tunnel.”
“Then, let’s go left,” she said.