She saw all that in a single glance before her gaze focused on Edmund. He stood inches from his aunt’s outstretched fingers. Fury, unlike any she had ever seen, twisted his mouth, but his eyes had that haunted expression she saw each time he was faced with a decision.
“There is no need for this,” he said, and Vera wondered if everyone else sensed he was stalling for time.
“No?” Sir Nigel kicked the silver flask away and snapped a curse before snarling, “You thought you were clever by inviting me here on the pretense that you wanted to make an offer for my niece, didn’t you, Meriweather? You and your friends. Bah! You think you’re great heroes, but you haven’t been able to see the truth under your own noses. You are no better than Ashland who pretended to be my ally before showing his true colors.” He gave a maniacal laugh. “He learned his lesson. Now you will learn yours.”
“Let my aunt go.” Edmund spoke calmly. “There is no reason to frighten her. This is between us, Tresting. Let us handle it like gentlemen.”
“Gentlemen?” he spat. “You are no gentleman, just a common laborer who has been raised above his station.”
Lord Northbridge started to protest the insult, but Edmund silenced him with a single twitch of his finger. His friends exchanged a look she could not interpret. Some message had been passed between them. She thanked God that the men had learned to communicate without words in battle.
On the floor, the maid stirred. She opened her eyes and shrieked, flinging out her hands and feet. One of them struck Sir Nigel’s leg, knocking him off balance.
Edmund grabbed his aunt’s hand and tugged her away, shoving her behind a chair. As the maid scrambled to get behind another, Sir Nigel grabbed her arm and jerked her to her feet.
“I may have been raised as a common laborer, but I know a gentleman does not hide behind an innocent woman,” Edmund said with cool dignity. When Sir Nigel swung the pistol toward him, he added, “Nor does he kill an unarmed man. Or should I say try to kill? You do know that the Earl of Northbridge is an excellent shot, don’t you?”
Vera glanced across the room. Like Sir Nigel, she had not noticed in the chaos when the maid regained her senses that Lord Northbridge had drawn a pistol of his own. It was as steady as the stones beneath the manor house and aimed at the baronet.
“Will he try to kill me, Meriweather, at the same time I shoot you dead?” Sir Nigel asked. “What say you, Northbridge?”
The earl lowered his weapon but held it at the ready.
“It seems our business for tonight is concluded.” The baronet stepped back, pulling the struggling maid with him. He was not young, but his determination to escape with his life added strength to his grip on the girl.
No one else in the parlor moved as Sir Nigel edged toward the door. With a sudden motion, he spun, shoved the maid forward and ran out of the room. He did not look in Vera’s direction as he fled toward the back of the house.
She looked up at Edmund’s drawn face as his friends ran past him. Questions filled his eyes.
“Go to your room,” he ordered. “Lock the door and wait there until one of us comes to tell you it is safe.”
He turned to follow his friends, then whirled to capture her by the shoulders and give her a swift, fiery kiss. He released her and was gone before she could urge him to stay safe himself.
Hearing a shriek from the parlor, Vera rushed in and helped Mrs. Uppington to her feet. Edmund’s aunt was having a crise de nerfs, and Vera called the maid to help her get the older woman to her room where she could recover. Mrs. Uppington was staying in a different wing of the house, so Vera and the maid half carried her toward the closest staircase to her bedchamber.
Meriweather Hall was preternaturally silent, and every shadow seemed to hold a threat. Mrs. Uppington’s sobs dissolved to soft whimpers. Still, she insisted on going to the book room to get something to read so she could relax enough to fall asleep.
“I can get you a book, madam,” the maid said. “If you will tell me the title of the volume you want, I will bring it to you.”
“How can I know which one I want when I don’t know which books are there? Are you bird-witted, girl?”
Vera felt sorry for the maid who had suffered as much as Mrs. Uppington. She did not deserve to be dressed down. Asking the maid to make sure Mrs. Uppington had a hot drink in her room, Vera nodded when the young woman gave her a grateful smile and scurried away.
She strained her ears for some clue to tell her if Sir Nigel had been caught. She heard nothing as she helped Mrs. Uppington toward the book room. As she opened the door, a shot resonated through the house.