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Meriweather Hall, Sanctuary Bay, North Yorkshire
"It is the church in Sanctuary Bay! It's on fire!" The words still resonated through Vera Fenwick's mind as they had in the moments right after her bosom-bow's wedding. The original plans to hold the ceremony in Sanctuary Bay had been changed after more than half of the church's ancient roof had collapsed beneath the winter's heavy snows. Even though her brother, who served as vicar of the Sanctuary Bay church, had not been able to officiate at the ceremony in Norwich, which was the groom's home parish, Vera had been filled with joy for Catherine and her new husband, Jonathan Bradby. Then the messenger from Sanctuary Bay had raced through Norwich Cathedral's gate.
After long days of traveling by carriage, Vera would soon see how much damage had been done to the church and the vicarage that had been her home for the past decade. Her composure had chipped away a little more with each passing mile that brought the carriage closer to Sanctuary Bay.
A gentle hand covered her clenched ones. She looked across the carriage to where Lady Meriweather, Catherine's mother, leaned toward her. Forcing a smile, which she could not hold long, she knew she should thank the widowed baroness for her compassion. She feared if she opened her mouth that she would be sick.
"We are almost there," Lord Meriweather, who had inherited the title from Catherine's late father, said from where he sat beside Vera. They were riding facing backward so the baroness and Miss Lillian Kightly, who had come with them from the wedding in Norwich, could travel in more comfort.
She nodded. The messenger had been sent as soon as the fire was discovered, and he could tell them little other than that the church was engulfed in flames.
"Then we shall know the truth of what has happened," the baron went on when she did not speak. "Let's hope that our imaginations have painted a dreary picture of the truth, and the situation won't be as dire as we fear."
Vera glanced at him. He had come to claim Meri-weather Hall in the autumn. Even sitting, he was a head taller than she was. His tawny hair blew into his brown eyes as an icy wind off the sea swirled through the carriage. His features were interesting rather than classically handsome.
She appreciated his attempt to put her at ease; yet nothing but seeing the damage with her own two eyes would do that now.
"Look!" Miss Kightly said in an attempt to be cheerful. "There's the gate to Meriweather Hall." The blonde was the most beautiful woman Vera had ever seen. During their journey north, she had noticed how men could not keep from staring at Miss Kightly while none of them had taken a second look at Vera.
Not that she had cared when every thought in her head was of getting back to Sanctuary Bay.
They came to a stop by Meriweather Hall's gate, and Lord Meriweather opened the carriage door.
"Why are we stopping here?" asked Miss Kightly.
Instead of answering her, he said, "Lady Meri-weather, I trust you will forgive me for asking you to walk into Meriweather Hall."
The older woman nodded and motioned for Miss Kightly to precede her out of the carriage. Miss Kightly complied but frowned when Lady Meriweather said she believed they both should wait at the manor house while Lord Meriweather assessed the damage.
Vera drew in a deep breath to say she would not be kept a moment longer than necessary to see what was left in the aftermath of the fire, but a footman burst through the gate. He glanced at her, then away.
She had wished her brother would have left a message here to prepare her for what she would soon see. Hope leaped inside her. Maybe the damage was not bad. That hope faded with her next heartbeat. If it had been believed the fire could be doused, there would have been no need to send a messenger with the bad news.
God, give me strength to face what lies ahead. Help me hold up Gregory.
Vera raised her head as Lord Meriweather started to climb back in. He paused as Lady Meriweather murmured something too low for Vera to hear. The baron nodded and gave her a tight smile before he reentered the carriage.
"Miss Fenwick, you will enjoy a better view of the sea if you sit facing forward." His voice held not a hint of emotion.
Relieved that he was not asking her to wait at Meriweather Hall, she edged past him to take the other seat. He sat and faced her as he slapped the side of the carriage. It lurched into motion, headed toward the village farther north along Sanctuary Bay.
Again Vera clasped her hands. She wanted to thank Lord Meriweather for accompanying her, but the words stuck in her throat. Her limbs felt heavy, then light, then a ripple of sensation like a million frantic insects. She tried to relax. She could not. She and Gregory had spent the past ten years serving the church set on the cliff above the village. She had grown up there, for she had been a girl when they had first arrived.
A foolish girl who nearly had ruined her brother's career. Even though Gregory never spoke of it, neither of them would ever forget her stupid belief that the son of Lord Hedgcoe truly loved her. Her youthful foolishness, for she had been barely fifteen, had led to disaster and Gregory being removed in shame from the parish Lord Hedgcoe controlled. If the late Lord Meriweather had not offered Gregory the living at Sanctuary Bay, she was unsure what they would have done.
She looked toward the sea. How she had come to love this bay with its turbulent waves and its capricious winds! A sunny morn could end in a wild storm. She caught a view of the village where it clung to the cliffs, the gray-and-red roofs bright against the winter fields.
The road turned before she could glimpse the church. Or what was left of it.
Lord Meriweather cleared his throat. "Lady Meriweather asked me to remind you that you and the vicar are welcome to stay at Meriweather Hall as long as necessary." He stared out the window rather than meet her eyes. "Assuming it is necessary, of course."
"Thank you. I appreciate you coming with me to th-th-he ch-ch-church." Her voice broke on the last two words. In so many ways, Sanctuary Bay was her church as much as it was her brother's. Since she had almost cost Gregory his career in the church, she had slipped into a life of helping in the background. More and more often, she had taken on the task of writing his Sunday sermons while Gregory kept himself busy with other parish duties. When he read her sermons from the pulpit, she could not keep from sneaking glances at other people in the pews, always wondering if her words had touched their hearts.
Lord Meriweather's gaze focused on her. "Miss Fenwick, I am sure there are many pretty words that might offer you solace at this time, but I am sorry that I am not a man accustomed to speaking such words. Before I served the king, I spent my days working with rough men who are as skilled with crude cant as they are with tools." He drew in a deep breath and sighed it out loudly enough that she could hear it over the breeze from the sea.
Vera tried to think of something to say but was afraid that if she opened her mouth sobs would come out. Again her emotions went up and down like a storm wave, crashing her hopes into many shattered pieces.
She continued to gaze at the sea until she heard Lord
Meriweather pull in a sharp gasp. She sat straighter and realized, while she had been making an effort to think of nothing, they had reached the top of the village where the church and vicarage were. Shouts rang through the carriage, but she did not catch any of the words.
The tone was unmistakable, though. Anger. Fear. Regret. Pain. All those emotions and more were woven through the voices.
Odors of smoke and wet wood hung in the air, tainting every breath she took.
She remembered that smell from when a fire had burned through a side street in the village. The reek of soaked wood had lingered over the village for almost a month. Each new storm brought it forth again until the cottages were rebuilt.
Her stomach dropped as the last drops of hope evaporated. She turned to the other window, but Lord Meriweather's hands clamped on her shoulders. Surprised, she looked at him. His mouth was drawn, and she saw lines on his brow and gouging into his cheeks that she had never noticed before.
"It is bad, isn't it?" she whispered.
Again he nodded.
"All gone?" She had to force the words past her lips.
"Yes." His jaw worked, then he said, "If you wish to return to Meriweather Hall now and come back here when you have had a chance to rest from our long journey, say so."
It was tempting. To push aside the problem and pretend it did not exist, but that was not her way. "I appreciate your kindness, my lord. However, delaying will not make my first sight any easier."
"I thought you would say that. You are fortunate to have a quiet courage, Miss Fenwick, that is admirable."
Even though she guessed he intended to warn her to be prepared for what awaited her, his words sent a surge of warmth through her to ease the cold surrounding her fearful heart.
Lord Meriweather stepped out of the carriage and offered his hand to assist her. As she reached for his hand, the courage he had complimented deserted her. She still had not been able to look out the window toward what was left of the two buildings. The church and her home. Once she emerged from the carriage, she would come face-to-face with the disaster.
"It can only get better from this point," he said quietly, as if she had spoken her thoughts aloud.
She clutched his hand as she climbed out of the carriage. When he winced, she realized she had a death grip on his fingers. She released his hand, but he took hers and placed it on his sleeve. Without saying a word, he led her around the carriage. The wind battered them. Ashes rose into the air in miniature cyclones before falling, turning the ground into a gray wasteland.
Vera's knees threatened to collapse beneath her when she saw nothing remained of the church. The stone walls had fallen to the ground, scorched by the power of the fire. Upon first glance, the vicarage appeared as if it had survived with less damage. Smoke stains, like dark gray fingers clawing out of the windows and the doorway, warned that the fire had reigned inside the cottage, gutting the interior. The roof was gone, and she wondered if it had burned or fallen into the flint cottage.
"Say the word," Lord Meriweather murmured, "and we can go back to Meriweather Hall at any time."
She looked past him. "Where is Gregory?"
"Over by the church." He continued to keep his hand over hers on the sleeve of his dark brown greatcoat as they walked to where her brother stared into the church's cellar.
The few men who had been gathering up debris and piling it near the edge of the cliff stopped working as they watched her and Lord Meriweather come toward the church.
"Maybe you should wait here," he said. "I don't know how stable the foundation is."
She shook her head, and they walked to where her brother had not moved. His shadow dipped over the edge of the cellar, and he seemed unaware of anything or anyone else.
"Gregory?" she called.
He was silent.
When her brother gave her no answer, she glanced at Lord Meriweather. Again his mouth was taut, and furrows had dug back into his face.
He drew his arm out from under her hand and strode to her brother. "Vicar!" His voice was as sharp as the crack of a whip.
Gregory flinched, then turned to look at them. Tears filled his eyes when he saw Vera. She ran, wending her way past the gravestones in the churchyard, and flung her arms around him.
"Do you know what happened?" she asked.
"All I can figure," her brother said, "is that another section of roof fell in and struck the wood stove. Embers must have fallen out. That set the church on fire."
Vera shook her head. "Gregory, that can't be what happened. We didn't use it anymore."
"It is the only explanation I have." His shoulders sagged, and Vera embraced him again.
Edmund Herriott, Lord Meriweather, stepped away to let Miss Fenwick and her brother comfort each other. He spoke to the men cleaning the site and was glad to see many were his tenants. He thanked them. Was he expected to do more? He had no idea. Now that his cousins Sophia and Catherine were both married and gone, he would need to turn to Lady Meriweather to help him make proper decisions.
Or any decisions at all.
He refrained from grimacing as he walked around the ruined church. How was Meriweather Hall going to function if its baron could not even decide which cravat to wear each morning? Now there was the matter of rebuilding the church and the vicarage. He did not want to burden Lady Meriweather, but he was unsure where else to turn.
His gaze settled on Miss Fenwick. He had suspected, since shortly after his first meeting with the vicar's sister, that she handled many of the parish responsibilities. Mr. Fenwick was a learned man who made every effort to serve his congregation, but the vicar's duties often kept him riding from one end of the parish to the other. Would Miss Fenwick help Edmund, too?
Miss Fenwick went with the vicar to examine the damage, and Edmund looked away. He did not want her to discover him staring at her. She was his cousin Catherine's best friend, but Edmund had to own that he scarcely knew the vicar's sister. Any time they had spent together prior to the journey back to Sanctuary Bay had included her brother or his cousins, and there had been no time to learn more about her during the days in the carriage because Miss Kightly's prattle had monopolized the conversation from morn until they stopped at another coaching inn each night.
The sickening reek of wet ashes erupted with each step as Edmund walked around what was left of the church. The roof had burned. The joists supporting the floor had failed, and everything that had not been consumed by the flames had fallen into the cellar.
But there was another odor. Fainter, yet there nonetheless. He sniffed and frowned. Brandy. There must have been a lot of brandy to leave the scent after a fire. That could mean one thing and one thing only.
The rattle of carriage wheels resounded, startling him. He turned as a small carriage rolled to a stop beside his carriage, its wheels crunching on the filthy snow. Edmund recognized it, even before he saw the baronial crest on the door. It was from Meriweather Hall. Who had driven here after them?