A Bride for the Baron(5)

By: Jo Ann Brown

Miss Fenwick rushed around the church’s perimeter. Strands of her black hair flapped on her shoulders, and she pushed them impatiently back under her bonnet. Her bright blue eyes were wide. “My lord, what are you doing?”

“I know why the church burned, and I think I know who burned it.” Maybe he should have phrased it differently, Edmund thought, as he saw the faces around him become as pale as milk.

Miss Fenwick stared at him, her eyes widening as understanding dawned. She whispered, “What did you see?”

“I don’t want to say until I am sure of my suspicions.”

“Smugglers?” Her voice remained hushed.

He nodded grimly. “Take a deep breath. What do you smell?”

She did and shivered. “Some sort of distilled spirits.”

“Brandy, I would guess. A lot of it if the odor lingers after the fire.” He let his breath sift past his clenched teeth. “Brandy burns fast and hot.”

“You think someone used it to start a fire in the church?”

“Possibly. I need to check the cellar to see if there is a clue there.” He put his foot on the closest beam. It cracked and tumbled into the cellar with a crash.

Mr. Fenwick stormed toward them and pushed between Edmund and his sister. “My lord, it may not be my place to tell you what you should do, but we lost your predecessor barely a year ago. To have you risk your neck now would be foolhardy.”

“Aye,” chimed the men who had gathered by the cellar.

Miss Kightly, who had followed the vicar, grasped Edmund’s arm with both hands. “My dear Lord Meriweather, there are others who can go down into the cellar in accordance with your directions.”

“You cannot believe,” Miss Fenwick said with a serenity that contrasted with the panic in the other voices, “that Lord Meriweather would ask someone else to do what he himself would not. He is not that sort of man.”

“But, Vera,” began her brother.

“Have you forgotten that Lord Meriweather fought heroically for our nation?” she fired back.

“Of course not,” Miss Kightly said, “but—”

“Then trust that he would not do something risky without having a good reason.” Miss Fenwick faced him. “But he also must see the good sense of taking one or two others with him in case the debris shifts.”

Edmund was pleased by Miss Fenwick’s defense of his plan. Suddenly the wind seemed less cold and the sunlight brighter because he had an ally. Her eyes glinted like the sapphire sky above them. A man could lose himself in eyes like hers. Maybe he already had, because he had no idea how long he had gazed into her eyes or how long he would have continued if one of the men had not sneezed.

Clearing his throat, he thanked her for her good idea. He asked for volunteers. Every man, except the vicar, raised his hand. In dismay, he wondered which one he should choose.

“If I may make a couple of suggestions, my lord,” Miss Fenwick said.

Grateful and hoping his face was not blazing with embarrassment, he said, “Most certainly.”

“Mr. Sims is slender and able to squeeze into small places.” She smiled when she added, “Mr. Henderson may be the strongest man in Sanctuary Bay. If one of the timbers slips, he will be able to hold it while all of you escape.”

Edmund did not doubt the man was the strongest in the parish. He was built with thick shoulders and looked as if he could lift one of the fishermen’s cobles—their small deep wooden boats—out of the sand and hold it over his head.

“Thank you, Miss Fenwick.” He nodded toward her as if it were the most ordinary matter in the world that the vicar’s sister should make such a decision. “Men, come with me.”

The vicar began praying for their safety as Edmund put his foot on another beam. Edmund added a few prayers of his own as he shifted his weight onto it, and his boot slid slightly. The beam held. With one foot still on the ground, he gave orders for the men to follow one at a time, testing each step they took and never allowing more than one man on a beam at the same time. Without knowing how the joists had been weakened by the fire, they must take extra care.

Edmund eased down into the cellar, feeling more alive than he had in months. The only decision he had to make was where to put his foot next, and he was relieved to see there was no choice. The crisscrossed joists offered a single path. He reached the bottom and frowned at the broken font to his right. For how many centuries had it been part of baptisms? Now it was rubble.

The odor of brandy was very strong, and he saw several crates of empty bottles in a dark pool. He knelt by the pool, dipped his fingers in and tasted the liquid. Water.