A Bride for the Baron

By: Jo Ann Brown

Chapter One

Meriweather Hall, Sanctuary Bay, North Yorkshire

February 1817

“’Tis 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 Meriweather 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 Meriweather, 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.