“Sounds like the best decision to me.” He took her hand and waded with her into the tunnel to the left.
Even though danger stalked them in the darkness, Vera’s heart danced at the light tone in Edmund’s voice. He had not been angry when she had made the decision. Maybe there was a chance for them, after all, to remain friends. She longed for more, but she had to be realistic. Lillian would be a better wife for him, assisting him to learn when he must.
Those thoughts raced through her head in a heartbeat; then crushing fear returned. If they did not escape with their lives, the future was unimportant.
Edmund hissed something. His arm pressed her back against the slimy wall. He shuttered the lantern. An ache built in her chest, and she realized she was holding her breath. She let it sift out softly. Breathing normally was impossible when her heart beat as if trying to bang its way out of her chest.
The smugglers behind them came closer and closer. Their words became more distinct. They were boasting how much money they would make now that they had disposed of Lord Ashland. Her stomach threatened to erupt at how easily these men who were her neighbors spoke of murder.
“Day and night,” one man said, “there has to be someone at the entrance by the shore. We cannot be sure if Ashland shared his knowledge with anyone else.”
“He won’t share anything else.” A harsh laugh grated on her ears. “Dead men don’t tell tales, as the saying goes.”
Edmund’s shoulders grew rigid with fury. She rubbed one gently, wanting to remind him that Lord Ashland had been alive when he had left him where the smugglers would not look for him.
“What about Meriweather?” a man asked. “He sent Curley on a fool’s errand.”
“And followed after him, Jeannie said. She saw him go up the street past The Scuppers.”
Jeannie had helped them again!
Vera’s relief vanished, and she put her hand over her mouth to silence her gasp when she heard one of them mention Gregory. She strained her ears but, other than speaking his name, they said nothing more about her brother. The men were too excited about their next rendezvous with a ship out at sea.
As soon as their voices grew distant again, Edmund let Vera edge away from the mossy wall. He opened the lantern to give them a splinter of light. Taking her hand as they walked along the left tunnel, he muttered to himself.
Vera noticed a faint easing of the darkness. At first, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. The gray grew stronger.
“There’s something ahead of us,” she whispered.
“I see it.” His voice was grim. “Let me go first.” He reached under his coat and pulled out something that flashed in the light from the lantern.
She gulped and edged behind him. She kept her hand on his coat as she tried to put her feet where he had his. More than once, she looked back. No signs of pursuit. She hoped more smugglers were not lying in wait ahead of them.
* * *
Edmund inched toward the soft twilight that, as he and Vera got closer, became no brighter. He held his pistol at the ready. It was a single shot, and it would not be enough. If they could have gone back the way they had come, he would have.
Be with us, Lord. Watch over us here in this dark place. He repeated the prayer over and over, setting a rhythm for his feet. Ice pumped through his veins. The only warmth was Vera’s hand on his back.
He climbed on to the stone ridge at the side of the tunnel and assisted Vera up. She almost stumbled but caught herself. Her feet must have been even more frozen than his, because he wore boots. Here the stone was not crumbling, and he understood why when he saw the stones in the wall ahead protruded into the tunnel. A door. To a cellar or somewhere else?
With a signal he had used in the army, he told Vera to remain where she was. Did she understand? He was relieved when she nodded. He edged to where he could peek past the door. In the twilight, he saw crates stacked haphazardly throughout the room. He did not see any lamp, so he guessed the light must be coming from beyond the room. He held up the lantern.
The light caught a pair of eyes close to the floor. Not a cat or a rat. A man’s eyes! The vicar’s eyes!
“He’s here,” Edmund whispered, “but it may be a trap.”
“I know,” she said as softly.
“I will go first. If I shout, run back the way we came. Promise me that.”
He handed her the lantern, then tipped her mouth up for a kiss. He tasted fear on her lips. Reluctantly, he stepped away and slipped into the room.
His eyes adjusted to the dusk as he scanned the space. There was nobody but the vicar, who lay on the dirt floor. Taking a chance, he reached out the door and crooked a finger to let Vera know she could come in.