A gentle hand stroked her back. She raised her head, even though her cheeks must have been filthy where her tears had fallen and mixed with the dust on the bench.
Edmund knelt beside her but looked out at the waves. “Everyone has told me that I need a wife who can help me learn to become the lord of Meriweather Hall. I cannot continue on with no idea what I should do next.”
“I never said that you had no idea what to do next.”
“But you thought it.” He chuckled when she hesitated answering. “You may as well own to the truth, Vera. Just as you should accept the truth that I love you.”
She stared at him, unsure if she had actually heard him say the words that had been whispered through her dreams. “You do?”
“I wouldn’t have asked you to marry me if I didn’t love you. I may be a baron, but I still think like a merchant. I won’t settle for less than love when I marry.”
His words echoed her own thoughts when she had wondered if he would give in to pressure to propose to Lillian. Happiness flared within her, then died.
“Your aunt is right about one thing,” she said.
“I find that hard to believe, but go ahead. Humor me and tell me what you think she’s right about.” He sat on the grass so close she could feel his warmth, but he did not touch her.
“I am not the sort of woman you should marry.”
“Oh, Vera, do we have to go through this again?”
“Yes.” She took a deep breath, then looked deep into his eyes. “I know you see me as the vicar’s helpful sister, but there are things you don’t know about me.”
“Things like about you and Nolan Hedgcoe?”
“You know about that?”
A sad smile tugged on his lips. “Your brother sought me out for a private conversation because he was concerned about the attention I was paying you. He did not want you to be hurt again.”
She flinched as she recalled how she had seen Gregory going into the book room the day after Edmund had first kissed her.
He ran one crooked finger along her cheek. “Your brother told me how you blame yourself for the circumstances that unfolded before you came to Sanctuary Bay.”
She put her hands up to cover her eyes and her cheeks that burned with her embarrassment. She could not bear to look at him while he spoke of her greatest shame. When he put his hands on her wrists and drew down her fingers so his gaze could meet hers, she longed to lean against his strong chest and have his arms around her, shutting out the past that haunted her.
“Vera, your brother didn’t give me the details of what happened. Only that you were judged harshly when you could not prevent a young man from continuing on his self-destructive path.”
“Did Gregory tell you that I was sweet on Lord Hedgcoe’s son? I would have done anything to protect him.”
“He didn’t have to. I know you, Vera. Where your heart leads you, you follow, no matter what the cost.”
“The cost was my brother’s living.” She lowered her eyes as she told him how Nolan had been in love with a married woman and died in a duel. She could not bear to see the recriminations on his face. The same recriminations she felt in her heart. When she finished the explanation, she added, “I know you have wondered why I have been so eager to see the church rebuilt for Gregory. It’s the best way I can repay him for ruining his previous living.”
“You didn’t ruin it.”
“But Gregory lost this living there.”
He tipped her face back up so she could not avoid his eyes. “No, he resigned that living.”
She searched, but saw no accusal on his face. “Resigned?”
“He must have told you.”
She was ready to say that he had not, but then she thought back to the night when he had told her they were leaving Lord Hedgcoe’s parish. He had told her that they could no longer stay because of what had happened. “He never said Lord Hedgcoe made him leave.”
“Your brother refused to stay there when Lord Hedgcoe tried to blame you for his son’s mistakes.”
“But I assumed...” She blinked back more tears. “Oh, Edmund, all these years, I have felt horrifically guilty.”
“I know a lot about guilt, too, Vera. I have been guilty since I sent those men to their deaths. I don’t know if I will ever get over it, but I know God knows that I honestly thought the men would be safe. He is not punishing me. I am punishing myself by pushing aside every chance for happiness.” He kissed her cheek. “Until I met you. Vera, say you will marry me. I need you to help me make decisions, in spite of my stupid frustration, and I need you in my arms. Say yes.”