“I have to make the decision?”
He nodded, grinning.
“But didn’t you choose to ask me?”
“I didn’t choose. My heart did, and I know I need to listen to my heart. I ask you to listen to yours, Vera. Marry me.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
He swept her up against him, sprinkling kisses on her face as he told her again and again how he loved her.
“And I love you.” She caught his face between her hands and laughed. “I choose to love you for the rest of my life.”
He pulled her to him and kissed her until she was so breathless her laughter faded into soft sighs of joy.
Six months later
Standing at the front of the new church, Gregory raised his hands to the sky. The walls were up, but the roof and the bell tower still needed to be finished.
“I can imagine no better place to celebrate this special day than here,” he said. “And I can imagine no better people to be celebrating it with than the ones who have worked hard to build the new church. In the midst of our great sorrow, God shone a light in our hearts, helping us hold on to faith and hope. As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, faith, hope and love are treasured gifts that abide with us, but the greatest of these is love.”
He smiled at Vera. She smiled back through her veil, then glanced at Edmund, who stood beside her in front of the simple pulpit that had been finished a few days ago. The lacquer reeked, but nothing could ruin this perfect day.
She had hoped they would marry before this, but Edmund’s obligations as a baron had intruded time after time. First, before the banns could be read even one time, he had been called to London to give testimony at Whitehall. Then there had been Sir Nigel’s trial in North Yorkshire. The result had been as Edmund’s aunt had predicted. Sir Nigel was found insane, though Edmund said he was not the only one who thought the baronet was faking being crazy to avoid being sentenced to death. Any man who had set up such a network of smugglers and even used his supposed love of painting to confer with them and give them orders must have a facile mind. His estate had been seized, and there were rumors throughout Sanctuary Bay about who might have purchased it, but nobody had come to claim it.
When Edmund had returned, he was kept busy with the group of excise officers who swarmed over the village. Seven or eight families had disappeared from the village within hours of Sir Nigel’s arrest. Several others left before the excise officers arrived. A collective sigh of relief had come from the villagers when those neighbors left, because they had never fit into the close-knit village. All the cobles pulled up on the sand now were used only for fishing and bringing legal cargo to the village.
The tunnels’ sole purpose was carrying the waters of beck tumbling down to the sea. No smugglers used them to avoid detection. The entrances from cellars had been sealed closed, including the one in the public house. An iron-barred gate at the entrance kept people out of the tunnels, a precaution taken after a trio of young boys became lost while exploring.
At the same time, work had continued on the church. Vera visited the site almost every day, often to escape what seemed like endless fittings with Mme. Dupont for her wedding dress. The work went more slowly than they had hoped, but the new building would be strong enough to stand up to the most powerful winds blowing in off the sea. It was a labor of love for everyone involved, which was why she and Edmund had decided to be married in the Sanctuary Bay church, even though it wasn’t finished.
“The love of man for God,” Gregory continued, “the love of a congregation for its church, the love of a parent for a child or a brother for a sister, and the love of a man for a woman. All of these are gifts from God, gifts we share with one another.”
Vera snuck a glance over her shoulder as she savored her brother’s words of all the ways love had come into her life. On the front bench, Lady Meriweather sat with Sophia and Charles, as Lord Northbridge had reminded her that she should call him now that they were going to be cousins-in-law, and their three children. The newest child, another daughter with her mother’s green eyes, slept on Sophia’s lap, and Gemma and Michael, the older two, were trying without much success to sit still. Near them Cat, her stomach already growing round with her first child, rested her head on Jonathan’s shoulder. Lillian had arrived late, having come all the way from London where she had been feted by the ton as a heroine in halting the smugglers. She sat near the back because the other benches had been claimed by villagers and residents of Meriweather Hall. Those who had not found room inside looked through the glassless windows. Several youngsters sat on the sills. All the guests were smiling broadly, except Lord Ashland who shared a bench with Edmund’s Aunt Belinda. He was not smiling as she kept whispering to him.