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, Your Grace,” 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 and stopped as 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 paper 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 this note 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, flopped perversely like some great beached sea turtle. So memory or God or mind’s protection lengthened the seconds until he read.
In the present, he snatched the note, unfolded it and recognized his wife’s script. He dared not glance at the still-present servant. Blake Sanders read to the final line, folded the paper neatly and met Mrs. Wickham’s eyes. Had he been six, he may have hurled himself in the great black comfort of her skirts. But he was not a boy.
“The contents of this note, I gather, you read?” he asked.
The mobcap nodded. “Twas open and lying 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.
She nodded and hurried away.
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 seventeen-year old daughter, Melinda. Fifteen-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 in line and his daughter. Her look of shame and surprise shook him. His menacing gaze softened as he turned to her. “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 longtime 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 his dilemma in the midst of the glowing ballroom. He shuttered his feelings quickly, but he knew Anthony 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 at nearly four in the morning. He 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 twenty-four by decree of his father to Lady Ann Murrow, and a beautiful fair child, Melinda, was born nine months to the day from the date of his wedding. The heir, William, two years later with the spare, Donald, arriving seven years ago.
Blake did not over indulge 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. “I’m leaving you ...” 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 sake, he railed silently. He continued reading. “He’s a well-to-do merchant...” Not even a peer of the realm.
Would Ann stop at nothing to humiliate him? How would he show his face in town? 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 that when the Earl of Wendover heard this story, he would withdraw the arrangement for Melinda to marry his son. Blake had not told Melinda 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 may 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 go now before everyone knew of this scandal and he’d be forced to deal with the ton’s whispers and stares. I’ll deal with the children first. I must. It’s my duty. He rang for his valet and wondered if 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 with his dismissal.
About the book
1871 . . . Worlds collide when American Suffragist, Gertrude Finch, and titled Brit Blake Sanders meet in an explosive encounter that may forever bind them together. Gertrude Finch escorts a young relative to London and encounters the stuffy Duke of Wexford at his worst. Cross the Ocean is the story of an undesired, yet undeniable attraction that takes Blake and Gertrude across an ocean and into each other’s arms.
About the author
About the author
Holly Bush was born in western Pennsylvania to two avid readers. There was not a room in her home that did not hold a full bookcase. She worked in the hospitality industry, owning a restaurant for twenty years. Holly has been a marketing consultant to start-up businesses and has done public speaking on the subject.
Holly has been writing all of her life and is a voracious reader of a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction, particularly political and historical works. She has written four romance novels, all set in the U.S. West in the mid 1800’s. She frequently attends writing conferences, and has always been a member of a writer’s group.
Holly is a gardener, a news junkie, and former vice-president of her local library board and loves to spend time near the ocean. She is the proud mother of two daughters and the wife of a man more than a few years her junior.