Authors: Holly Bush
CROSS THE OCEAN
© copyright December 2005, Holly Bush
Cover art by Jenny Dixon, © copyright December 2005
New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author’s imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.
To Eileen, Susie, Linda, Sarah and Kate . . . wonderful women who were, are and will be.
“Pardon me, ma’am?”
The starch in Mrs. Wickham’s black dress seemed to wilt as she quivered. The soft folds of her jowls shook. “The duchess is not coming down,” she repeated.
The Duke of Wexford stood stock-still. The guests were to descend on his ancestral home in a matter of moments. The candles lit, the buffet laid, the flowers had bloomed on cue. The last remaining detail was the receiving line.
“Mrs. Wickham. There is a small matter of greeting two hundred and fifty guests arriving momentarily.
The duchess needs to attend them,” Blake Sanders, the Eighth Duke of Wexford, said sternly to his housekeeper.
When the woman had announced his wife would not be joining him, Sanders was certain he had not heard correctly. The Duchess knew her duties. As did he. He turned abruptly to the staircase. A shiver trailed down his arms. He turned back. The rotund woman had not moved other than the flitting of small hairs peeking out of her mobcap. After twenty-five years of service to his family he supposed she stood rooted for good reason.
The Duke spoke quietly. “Is there a problem conveying this message, Mrs. Wickham?”
The woman swallowed. “Yes, Your Grace. There is.”
“What is it, Mrs. Wickham?” he asked.
It was then he noticed a folded piece of vellum in the woman’s hand. As with most lifetime retainers, he had seen worry, seen anger and joy in her face. But never fear. And it was fear, indeed, that hung in the air, widened her eyes and had the missive shaking in pudgy fingers.
A lifetime later, in his memory, he would envision the slow transfer of paper as it made its way from her hand to his. The moments stretched out when life was sure--before he read it. With the reading, life changed.
“The contents of this note, I gather you read?” he asked.
The mobcap nodded. “‘Twas open and laying on your grace’s pillow.”
“Very well,” he replied and stared at the ornate wall sconce and the shadows the candles threw. The butler’s distant voice broke through his emotional haze. He knew he must ready himself for the onslaught of guests, but not before he made clear his wishes with Mrs. Wickham.
“We must be certain the duchess is left alone with such a malady.” His eyes met hers with a dark intensity. “You will be the only one in her attendance tonight.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” The housekeeper nodded to leave and turned back with tears in her great gray eyes. “The children, Your Grace. What if…?”
“I will handle the children tonight, Mrs. Wickham,” he answered.
“Yes, Your Grace,” she whispered.
The composure he had been born with, cultivated, and that now ruled his life, wavered as he slowly made his way down the staircase to his butler. Briggs stood sentry near the newel post as he had done for as long as anyone could remember.
“The guests are arriving, sir,” the butler said.
“The duchess is unwell, Briggs. Lady Melinda will stand attendance beside me.” “Very good, Your Grace,” Briggs replied.
Somehow Blake found himself between his children in the receiving line. On his left stood his sixteen-year old daughter, Melinda. Fourteen-year-old, William, the heir to the title, was to his right.
Donald, the youngest, was certainly fighting his nursemaid to escape and peek through the balustrade at the splendor of the upcoming ball.
“Where is Mama?” Melinda asked softly.
“Terrible headache, sweetheart. She needs to stay abed,” he said and made yet another crisp bow.
Melinda would make her come-out in a few short months, but she had not as of yet. Blake had made the decision to have her play hostess in an instant, not knowing what else to do. “You are doing beautifully in her absence.”
Between greeting the next guests, Melinda whispered to her father, “I’ll go to her as soon as I can. You know how--”
“No,” he shouted, startling guests nearest to them in the receiving line. His daughter’s look of shame and surprise shook him. His menacing gaze softened as he turned to Melinda. “I didn’t mean to snap, my dear.”
Melinda’s lip trembled until an aging matron shouted in her ear. She turned a practiced, polite face the dowager’s way.
Moments in every life indelibly etch in the mind. The birth of a child. A father’s grudging respect seen in a wrinkled face. The first time love is visible in a woman’s eye. But that evening and all its details were a blurry mass of glad tidings and lies. Conversations muted amongst his thoughts leaving his mind only capable of a nod or the shake of his head. One stark moment glared. Blake’s long time friend and neighbor, Anthony Burroughs, looked at him quizzically as he repeated his wife’s excuse. The man’s eyes bored into his and Blake nearly spilled the details of this dilemma in the midst of the glowing ballroom. He shuttered his feelings quickly. But he knew Tony was not fooled.
William and Melinda were so exhausted by night’s end that he had no trouble convincing them to wait to the following morning to regale their mother with the evening’s excitement. For himself, he could have cried for joy when the last guest left near four in the morning. His sent his valet to bed, untied his neck cloth and slumped into the dark green damask chair in front of a wilting fire.
He would be a laughingstock. The Wexfords took their pride seriously today in 1871 the same as they had in 1471. The current Duke of Wexford had spent his entire life guarding against any impropriety that might sully that pride or good name. Married at nineteen by decree of his father to Lady Ann Murrow. A beautiful fair child, Melinda, born nine months to the day from the date of his wedding. The heir, William, born two years later with the spare, Donald, arriving seven years ago.
Blake did not overindulge at the game tables or with drink. He kept a trim figure, and while not vain, was never seen without proper attire. His estates were in order; he treated his servants fairly and generously, and reaped the profits hence.
My life has been a model to the English aristocracy, Blake thought. Until now. He withdrew the letter from his pocket and read again, that which his eyes saw but what his mind refused to believe.
What in his life had he done or not done to deserve such treatment, especially from his wife, the mother of his children? The Duchess of Wexford for God’s sakes he railed silently. He continued reading.
He’s a well-to-do merchant....
A man of business yet.
Would Ann stop at nothing to humiliate him? He would never again be able to show his face at White’s.
The English peerage took delight and excruciating pains to reveal or revel in another’s debacle or misfortune. They tittered about the smallest transgression; a loss at the game table, a stolen kiss exposed before the banns were posted. He would be branded, bandied about, laughed at behind his back until his last breath and beyond.
Blake wondered if the Earl of Wendover would reconsider the marriage arrangement between his son, the viscount and Melinda. Blake had not told his daughter of the agreement because he had wanted her to enjoy her come-out without a cradle betrothal to dampen her spirit. Let her dance and meet young people and then tell her about the long ago made plans. But Blake admitted to himself there would be no triumphant union of two of England’s oldest families after the duchess’s betrayal became public.
The sun was peaking over rolling hills, he saw as he gazed idly out the window of his bedchamber. How would he tell his children? When their nursemaid had died, he had gone off to town rather than deal with their tears. Let their mother handle these things. But there was no mother. The scheming wench had gone off and left her own children without a word.
There was a horse at Tattersall’s he’d been eyeing. Blake wondered if he should head to London now before everyone knew of this scandal and he’d be forced to deal with the ton’s whispers and stares.
deal with the children first. I must. It’s my duty.
He rang for his valet and thought perhaps Mrs.
Wickham would be the better person to explain things. The housekeeper was a soft soul and the children adored her.
Benson helped him bathe and dress and he sat down bleary-eyed at the breakfast table. His morning regimen was placed in front of him as he was seated with a footman’s help. Blake was suddenly so angry, so horrified at the situation he found himself in, he merely stared at his oatmeal. Tea was being poured on his right. The morning paper carefully folded to the business section on his left. All seemed the same, should be the same. But it wasn’t. Ann would not glide down the stairs this morning. She would not inquire politely how he had slept. She would not explain her plans with the dressmaker or morning calls.
As if he’d cared.
But even still … it wouldn’t be the same. He would not kiss her cheek and tell her she looked lovely. Dismissing her for the day and from the room and his thoughts with one brief sentence.
He was stirring his oatmeal when he noticed Melinda at the door of the breakfast room. His daughter’s face was pale.
“Good morning, Melinda,” he said. “Come sit down.”
There was a letter in her hand.
“You ... you knew,” she said softly from the doorway.
“Come in. Sit down,” he said. Blake eyed the servants. “Leave us.”
Melinda sat and unfolded her letter. “Mother’s gone and you knew.”
Blake raised his brows and dipped into his now cold gruel. “I found out just as the ball started. There was no opportunity to tell you.”
Melinda’s lip quivered. “Why not?” she asked.
Blake tilted his head. “Was I to announce this ... this incident in front of two-hundred and fifty guests?”
“Incident? Is that what you call this?” Melinda whispered. “An incident?”
Blake was surprised at her harsh tone. But considering all, her age, this unfortunate well, yes, he thought, incident, he would overlook her glare.
“It is of the utmost importance that we conceal this as long as possible. From the servants, friends, whomever. I will contrive to make a conceivable explanation but you must ready yourself.” Blake paused. “There will be gossip.” Tears poured from Melinda’s eyes. He stood, went to his daughter and picked her hand up from her lap, patting it as he did. “Now, now, my dear. You are the oldest. You must face this head on and set an example to your brothers. Cry it out now, dear. There’s no on here but me.”
Melinda wrenched from his grasp. “As if I care who hears? Our mother’s gone. Why didn’t you send them all home?” She melted into the chair, her hands covering her face.
Blake hated emotional scenes. Hated the tears. Hated Ann for leaving him in this mess. He noticed William in the doorway of the breakfast room.
“Can’t have him saying, ‘Go on home now. The duchess ran off with a clerk.’ Think Melinda. Father did the right thing,” William explained.
Blake saw his heir held a letter as well. “Come in, William.”
The next Duke of Wexford went to a chair. Fourteen years old, nearly six foot tall and all long thin arms and legs. His blond hair, like his sister’s, was wet combed and his face as usual was blotched red. Fair complexion his wife had explained when he inquired why his son always looked as if someone had punched him about the cheeks and nose.
It will fade when his beard comes in. My brother’s did.’
Blake could hear Ann’s voice in his head.
Always calm. Serene. The thought hit him like a carriage had run him over.
I will miss her.I didn’t love
her, was unnecessary
but I will miss her.
Did he take for granted her small ways, her quiet voice, her very existence? Not prone to regrets, he hadn’t had any thus far; Blake awoke to his children’s sharp words.
“Mother must have had her reasons,” Melinda shouted.
William stood at the table, angry, his face red mottled. “What reasons, sis? What could make her do this?” His face crumbled and he sat again, now toying with a spoon. “She doesn’t want us.”
The streaks of emotion frightened Blake nearly as much as the ton’s censure. He watched his children’s faces ebb from sadness to anger in an instant. Blake’s head snapped up with Melinda’s next words.
“That’s not true. I’m sure. We’ll ask her all of this when we see her in two weeks.” Melinda moved to her brother’s side. “Don’t judge....”
“You’ll do no such thing, young lady,” Blake roared. “Your mother has made her choice. You’ll have nothing to do with her.”
Melinda’s mouth dropped. “Nothing to do with my mother?” she asked in a whisper.
“She’ll be staying at Grand mama’s then,” William said.