1871 . . . The very proud Duke of Wexford was about to have his orderly world blown apart. At the age of nineteen Blake Sanders had wed a beautiful, dutiful wife, and she had borne him three children. But now as mid-life approached, the Duchess had the unheard of temerity to leave him! Too mortified by her behavior to mix in ton company, Blake sought companionship with his best friend and neighbor, Anthony Burroughs and his wife Elizabeth. But Blake had forgotten the Burroughs were entertaining a houseguest, Elizabeth’s distant cousin, a spinsterish ‘Amazon from America.’
Gertrude Finch, a champion for women’s rights, had long ago decided most men were pretty useless other than Uncle Fred who’d raised her on his horse ranch near Chicago. While traveling with other Suffragists, Gert lectured women on the perils of passion, and the value of independence, but thought of neither when Blake kissed her. While opposite in nearly every way, other than an attraction neither could deny, their one night of passion would change her world, and send Gert scurrying her way back home across the ocean.
When Blake discovered his heir had stowed away on Gertrude’s ship, he set out on his own adventure to America, to bring the boy home and to see her once again. Traversing America’s vast wilderness, Blake discovered that Gertrude had changed his life. Whether riding the rails or meeting common folk, Blake saw a whole new way of living, but most of all, he realized something about love. He found he was not immune, and his heart could love, and love deeply.
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.
He was stirring his oatmeal when he noticed Melinda at the door of the dining room. His daughter’s face was pale.
“Good morning, Melinda,” he said as he stood. “Come sit down.”
There was a letter in her hand.
“You . . . you knew,” she said from the doorway.
“Come in. Sit down,” he said. Blake eyed the servants. “Leave us.”
Melinda sat and unfolded the paper in her hand. “Mother’s gone, and you knew.”
Blake raised his brows and dipped into his now cold gruel. “I found out just as the guests began to arrive. 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.
“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. Fifteen years old, nearly six-feet-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.”
“Nothing to do with my mother?” she asked in a whisper.
“She’ll be staying at Grandmama’s then,” William said.
Blake could not believe his ears. He would not believe. “The dowager will never allow it. She’ll insist her daughter has died rather than face the scandal.”
Melinda lifted her letter and faced her father reading. “My mother, your grandmother, knows of my plans. She does not agree but is rectified with it. I know your father will never keep you from her.” Melinda faltered. “Not that their love for you would hold sway, but certainly with the dowry my father set aside for you, Melinda, he will not cross her. As you know, turning down the Haswood gems would make your father positively ill.”
Blake blanched. The Haswood jewels were worth a fortune in value and prestige. Bequeathed from the king two generations ago. The topic had been discussed on many occasions. Blake often wondered if that was part of the reason for Wendover’s pursuit of Melinda for his son. But to hear his wife’s sharp words as if the only thing of importance to Blake were a string of baubles. Exquisite baubles, granted, but certainly worth less than his self-respect. He would not acquiesce.
“You’ve no need of the Haswood jewels,” Blake said.
Melinda’s eyes opened and narrowed. “Father, if I didn’t know better, I would think those jewels meant nothing to you. But in this case, it’s not the necklace you covet. It’s your pride.”
“Hardly the thing to be saying to Father. Mother’s left him. Have some pity,” William stammered.
“I need no one’s sympathy, thank you.” Blake shouted at his son and turned to stare out the window. “This . . . this incident will be blamed on the Duchess’s conniving, duplicitous ways. To leave me, leave her duty, with no thought to the consequences. Pitiful, thoughtless baggage.” Blake turned back to see his son standing before him, the young man’s fists clenched.
“Whatever she has done, no one, no one speaks of my mother, like that.”
William’s voice cracked as he spoke. Fierce anger, hurt and pride warred in Blake’s head. He remembered the first time he had stood up to his own father. The scene flashed through his mind. My son is becoming a man. Where have I been? The door to the dining room opened.
“Sir Anthony Burroughs,” Briggs announced.
Blake did not look at his best friend. “Another time, Burroughs. Family business,” he said abruptly.
Melinda turned. “You’ll not tell him? Your closest friend? William’s godfather? Do you intend to explain her absence to anyone?”
Anthony stood, quiet grace, in the doorway. He smiled at Briggs and pulled the man’s hand from the doorknob. “Won’t be needing anything right now, Briggs.” Anthony turned to the assembled before him. Melinda’s tear-stained face. William’s anger and confusion. And wild unholy wrath on the face of Blake Sanders.
“Whose absence?” Anthony asked.
Blake ran his hand through his hair, unwilling or unable to speak. The room was quiet while Anthony poured himself a cup of tea. Blake could not begin, could not voice, would not mutter the explanation. His embarrassment was overwhelming. Melinda finally gave way in a flurry of tears, running to Anthony.
“Uncle Anthony! Mother’s left us,” Melinda cried and crumbled into his arms.
“There, there, puss,” he crooned. Anthony sat Melinda down and poured her a cup of tea. “Cry it out.”
Melinda blubbered as Blake stood ashen at the window, and William swallowed time and again as the story and their letters were retold.
Anthony’s eyes were wide, faraway and his voice soft when he spoke. “I wouldn’t believe this if it hadn’t been you telling the tale. Ann’s left us.”
“Left us?” Blake exploded. “She left me. Me. She left me.”
Anthony took Melinda by the hand and jerked his head to William. “Your father and I need a chat. Dry your tears. Hurry along now until we decide what’s to be done.”
As calm as Blake had always strived to be, Anthony was the opposite. Wild youth, horrible temper, impetuous ways all rolled into one tall, loyal friend. His marriage, two years prior was the only reason he still lived, Blake was convinced. Elizabeth Burroughs ruled him with a beautiful face and a strong will. Blake had never seen a man and wife so besotted. He was surprised when Anthony calmly told him to sit down.
Anthony smiled then, and his pleasant tone belied his sharp words. “Wexford, you are acting like a spoiled, unfeeling, pompous ass.”
Blake’s mouth fell open, and he sputtered, “Ann was the one to. . .”
Anthony’s eyes closed and one finger came to his lips. “Do not besmirch her name in front of me or your children, regardless of what you may be feeling. She was wrong as some of us are on occasion. Present company excluded of course.”
Blake’s mouth closed, and Anthony continued. “You are an adult. You’ve been an adult since we were five-years-old. Your children need you, now more than ever. Don’t hold onto this hurt jealously as if you are the only one involved.” Anthony sat back in his chair. “There are others in much more pain simply because they loved her. An emotion you are fortunate to not have to deal with.”
“I loved her in my way,” Blake said staring out the window.
Anthony harrumphed. “Really? Did you ever tell her?”
“She’s my wife, damn it, Burroughs,” Blake muttered.
“Ah, yes, easier to tell your current mistress than your wife,” Anthony replied.
“What does my having a mistress have to do with anything?”
Anthony laughed hoarsely. “Only you would pose a question that absurd.”
“Why did she leave with him though? Why not just . . .”
“Just bed a man who is not her husband as many rich, titled women do? Perhaps Ann’s sense of honor wouldn’t allow it. Perhaps she didn’t wish to teach her children such faithlessness. Perhaps she loves him.”
Although he had no argument to make in defense of himself, Blake was furious at Anthony’s conclusions. “Besides my being an “ass” what do you propose I say about this?” Blake asked. He was tired, so very tired, but this mess, this incident needed thought.
The two men spent the morning trying in vain to think of a way to cover the affair up. It would not be done. Did someone see Ann as she boarded a ship with her merchant? Would she be seen by peerage traveling abroad? And how does one, even one as powerful as the Duke of Wexford, explain a wife who has suddenly disappeared? They would think he locked her in the attic, or worse yet, Bedlam.
“Brazen it out, Blake. Tell the truth and dare them to laugh. I see no other way.” Anthony jumped up as the clock chimed the hour. “Is that the time? Dear God. I told Elizabeth I’d be home at twelve.”
“So what if you’re late? With Elizabeth’s confinement, what’s she to do but lie about? What’s the hurry?” Blake asked, now sulking.
Anthony turned from the door. “I told Elizabeth I’d be home.”
Blake dismissed him with a flit of his hand. “At least I won’t be the hen-pecked husband of the neighborhood. You do very well.”
Anthony stared boldly. “Think what you will. You always do. But I’ve not got a shrew for a wife. Nor did you. I don’t run home because she told me to.” His friend raised his brows to mock. “I run home because I want to be there. I love her. And she me.”
The door closed softly and Blake was left alone. He was glad for the solitude. Of all the ugliness, the shouting, the accusations, Anthony’s declaration shook him as nothing else did. His throat clogged, and tears sprang to his eyes. Not for love lost but for the truth whirling around in his head. The cold, black stark reality that he would die without ever knowing that love. Ann had loved him all those years ago, and perhaps even in her disgrace she would be the victor. She had loved someone. Him. Her husband. And with an all-consuming passion and clarity that he would never experience. Blake had watched that love wane and fade as time and inattention whittled it away. Did Ann love this merchant? Was she so lucky as to love twice in her life? Would his children love like that? Like Anthony and Elizabeth?
“Where’s Momma?” a young voice said from the doorway.
Blake turned to see Donald, all of seven-years-old. “She’s gone away for a while, son.”
The boy nodded.
Blake stood and walked to the doorway.
Donald smiled. “She’ll be back. She told me she might be taking a trip, ‘cept she didn’t know when. That I’d see her at Grandmama’s soon after she left.”
“That’s right, Donald,” Blake said stiffly.
Donald turned, hands in his pockets, and ran down the vast hall.
“Where are you going?” Blake called after him.
The boy cocked his head. “Same place I do every day, Father. To the pond so Malcolm and I can sail our boats.”
“Yes, of course,” Blake lied. He watched Donald and Malcolm be enveloped in Mrs. Wickham’s arms. She had a basket packed, and they ran down the hall swinging it between them. The housekeeper faced him.
“Mrs. Wickham, would you be so good as to gather Briggs and Benson and join me in my study?” Blake said.
“Yes, Your Grace,” she replied.
Blake sat down behind his desk. He had best make some explanation or rumors would abound. The three servants he trusted entered the room. They stood expectantly. Blake cleared his throat.
“The Duchess has . . . the Duchess has . . .” Blake’s mouth was dry and he searched for the right words.
“The Duchess is away,” Briggs said.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Mrs. Wickham said, “the Duchess is away and . . . and we need to make sure that everything runs smoothly in her absence.”
“Certainly, Your Grace,” Benson said. “We have no intentions of allowing any mischief or talk until things are as they were.”
Now Blake could not speak. They had spoken for him and would not let him humiliate himself. He managed to blurt out, “The children . . .” but he could not continue.
“Don’t worry yourself, sir. Not a soul will sully those children without answering to us,” Benson said.
All was silent.
“Is that all, Your Grace?” Mrs. Wickham asked.
Blake nodded, staring out the window.