He savored the sound of her laugh. It lilted like a lark over a spring field, bringing the warmth of sunshine into the entry hall. When she looked at him, he chuckled, caught up in her amusement.
“I stand corrected,” he replied.
That set off another round of laughter from both ladies, though the vicar remained as somber as his dark clothes. Edmund had to pause to realize what he had said that was funny.
“No,” Miss Fenwick said, “we all stand corrected.”
Were her words a gentle reminder that his guests were exhausted? Maybe so. Maybe not. As with everything else, he could not decide.
But, even if the words were meant only as a jest, he needed to think of his guests’ needs. And his own. His clothes were wet, and they stank of ashes and brandy. He glanced toward the stairs, wondering which rooms were ready for guests. At Christmas, when his other cousin had wed, the Meriweather women had overseen all such preparations.
As if he had spoken aloud, Jessup said, “Lady Meriweather left instructions for where the vicar and his sister and Miss Kightly would stay.”
Thank God for Lady Meriweather’s foresight. He was able to wear a genuine smile as he said, “Jessup will show you to your rooms whenever you wish.”
Miss Fenwick turned to her brother who had not said a word since they had left the church. “Gregory, why don’t you rest? I doubt you have slept an hour since the fire.”
“I can try.” The vicar’s voice was a shadow of its usual booming warmth. “I probably won’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I see that inferno rising up from the depths to consume the church. Every time I let my mind wander, it takes me immediately to the moment when I first saw the flames and knew all I have worked for was being destroyed.”
Edmund had to look away before the vicar saw that hated sympathy and pity on his face. He did not want to subject any other person to that expression.
“Try to rest today,” Miss Fenwick said quietly. “You are going to need to be rested for the work yet to be done in rebuilding the parish church.”
“So they can burn it down again?”
Miss Fenwick gasped at the venom in her brother’s voice. “Gregory—”
“Someone should have put a halt to these smugglers by now.” His fury focused on Edmund. “Why haven’t you? Is it because your life’s work isn’t in danger?”
The vicar’s words lashed through Edmund. Through Miss Fenwick, too, if he judged by how her face became a sickly gray. Miss Kightly stared at the vicar as if she had never seen him before. No one spoke as the last echoes of Mr. Fenwick’s words faded from the entry hall.
Again it was Miss Fenwick who spoke first. “You are exhausted, Gregory. You barely know what you are saying.” She put her arm around him, and he wove like a sailor on a ship in a storm. He leaned on her as his head lolled, and she began to buckle.
Edmund leaped forward to pull the vicar’s other arm over his shoulder and help keep both Mr. Fenwick and his sister on their feet. He got the man steady only when the footman Foggin grasped the vicar’s arm that was draped over Miss Fenwick and drew it over his own shoulder. Miss Fenwick stepped back, her blue eyes wide with despair. She grasped Miss Kightly’s hand like a lifeline.
“Jessup and I can get him upstairs to rest, my lord,” Foggin said.
“I want to see that he is settled in,” Miss Fenwick said in a crisp voice that suggested nothing anyone said would change her mind.
“And, if someone could escort me to where my bags were taken,” Miss Kightly said, “I would greatly appreciate it.”
A glance he could not read flashed between the two women, and Miss Fenwick asked, “If you don’t mind, my lord, can Jessup assist Miss Kightly while we see to Gregory?”
It sounded like a reasonable solution, though he knew he could never have come to it on his own. Everyone looked at him, so he nodded. He loathed admitting, even to himself, how grateful he was for Miss Fenwick’s suggestion. He had no idea how long they all would have stood in the entry hall while he tried to determine what to do next.
With a smile and a nod to Jessup, Miss Kightly went up the long staircase, with the footman following like a well-trained puppy. No man of any class could be immune to the blonde’s ethereal beauty. She was like a fairy tale princess come to life.
He shook the thought out of his head. Now was not the time to admire Miss Kightly. The vicar needed his help. Telling Foggin that they would start at the count of three, he took a deep breath. The vicar was completely senseless and, therefore, dead weight.
As they climbed, Edmund wondered if he could have managed to help lug the vicar up the stairs before he had gone to the Continent. The life there had hardened his muscles in ways he had never imagined. In comparison with hefting cannon and gunpowder casks, the vicar was a light load. It had not been an officer’s place to handle such tasks, but, in battle, everyone pitched in to help where they could.