The Fork in the Road
by Ruth Christian

CHAPTER 1 - The First Step

William thought, not unkindly, that she was not a young woman ­ her
face had far too much character to be that of an untried youth - the
wrinkles around her eyes evidenced that. She turned her head and
caught him in his perusal of her. She smiled and lowered her eyes;
shyly and with uncertainty. She glanced up again and he smiled back
at her, quite without meaning to.

This went on for several minutes before they were both startled from
their reverie when the minister banged his Bible upon the pulpit to
emphasize a point in his sermon. When he looked back, he was
disappointed to see that she had turned to face forward again; eyes
straight ahead; with lips pressed firmly together. That's when he
noticed her shoulders were shaking slightly, and then a smile stole
across her face. She quickly placed a hand over her mouth to hide the
grin. He could see that her cheeks were a bit flushed ­ she was
obviously embarrassed for misbehaving in church.

He mentally chastised himself ­ this was neither the proper place nor
time to notice attractive women. He was slightly embarrassed, too,
but no one else had seemed to notice. Perhaps he would find an
opportunity for an introduction after the service. Had a man
accompanied her? He looked over the men sitting in the pews near
him. He had grown up in this tiny village and knew most of the
townsfolk, but her face was not familiar to him. Of course, he had
been at sea for many years ­ couples had married, babies had been
born, children had grown up, the older ones had passed away ­ life
had carried on.

She /had/ smiled at him. Good heavens, his thoughts were sailing
along courses he had no chart for. He needed more to do ­ some
activity to keep his mind and body occupied and away from these
dangerous currents. Since the Treaty had been signed, there was
little to do but hope for a post aboard a merchantman. Except for a
monthly trip to Portsmouth to collect his Lieutenant's half-pay, he
never caught a glimpse of the sea or of fellow officers.

Ah, at last, the service was over. He rose with the other men to
leave and collected his mother and sisters at the entrance. He
suddenly realized that it would be expected of him to say something
to the minister about the sermon. As he shook the minister's hand,
he managed, "Very inspiring today, sir." Well, he had been inspired,
just not by the minister's sermon, so it wasn't that much a stretch
of the truth. The minister seemed very pleased, so all was well. At
sea, Sundays were so much simpler: a short verse from the Bible read
by the Captain, the Articles of War recited monthly, and then the
inspection of the crew. There was entirely too much conversation on
shore to suit him; too many pleasantries to exchange.

He saw her then, walking down the church steps and then stopping to
speak with the minister. She began shaking her head in a negative
manner and had almost made good her escape when a man stepped up to
them, accompanied by an older woman.

"Oh, my," his mother said, "poor Mrs. Wessex, we must rescue her,
William."

His mouth dropped open as he turned to look at his mother. "Rescue
whom?" he asked, caught unawares by the remark.

"Mrs. Wessex, dear," she said as she motioned towards the
minister, "before Mrs. Dillard and her son manage to wheedle an
invitation to her home for dinner. They make such a nuisance and
won't leave the poor thing alone. How thick can the man be, when
she's made it very obvious that she is not interested in him?"

His mother walked towards the small gathering, gently took lady's
elbow, and managed to infuse herself into the conversation. He found
himself straining to listen, but there were too many other
conversations going on nearby.

"Do you remember the widow Wessex?" his sister Jane asked.

"Hmm," he mumbled distractedly, and realized he had been staring at
the group with his mother. He turned to Jane and saw that she had
that look on her face. It was difficult to fool his sister; he had
learned that lesson when they were children. She was a year younger
than he, but was one of those that seemed to have been born old and
wise. She had been his willing co-conspirator many times when they
were children and he had needed an alibi. They were closer in years
and character than of his other sisters had been to him.

He reached for her hand and fondly placed it at his elbow as he
pulled her towards him. "What about the widow Wessex, little sister?"

"Mrs. Wessex, the woman mother is attempting to free, is the daughter-
in-law of the widow Wessex. The son died some five years ago . . .
at sea, I believe it was. Do you remember Robbie Wessex? Yes? Well,
it was then that the `younger' Mrs. Wessex arrived. She was blessing
and certainly made the widow's final years much easier. The only
remaining male heir was a nephew who had no use for that decrepit
cottage, so he had gladly rent it to our Mrs. Wessex." Jane glanced
up at William and noticed that she had a captive audience. She tried
not to smile at his obvious interest.

"So, that is the /new/ widow Wessex?" he asked as he turned towards
the little group. She wasn't married, but it seemed that the pretty
little widow had drawn the attention of at least one man in the town.

"Yes, and if I'm not mistaken, mother is insisting that she accompany
us home for dinner. She has probably created some ruse that Mrs.
Wessex had promised earlier in the week to join us. There, see,
mother has her arm and is bringing her this way."

And just as Jane had predicted, Mrs. Bush began to guide Mrs. Wessex
towards them, patting her reassuringly on the arm. Bless mother ­
she could have been a great diplomat - he had inherited none of her
subtlety and tact. However, the Dillards looked none too happy with
the situation; particularly when Davey noticed him standing there.
He nodded his head to Davey and grinned.

His mother must have said something that amused her because he heard
the widow laugh ­ a soft and musical sound. Jane leaned over
conspiratorially and whispered in his ear: "I saw you watching her
during the service." He was about to deny it when his mother arrived
with the widow.

"Mrs. Wessex is joining us for dinner." His mother announced - as if
there had been any doubt of the matter.

"How delightful, we were so hoping you could." Jane was once again
playing the accomplice, and nudged him in the ribs to speak.

William found his voice and added, "Indeed, we would be delighted to
have you join us."

"Well, of course, you have not been introduced. Mrs. Wessex this is
my son, William. William, this is Mrs. Lara Wessex."

"It is a pleasure Mr. Bush." Mrs. Wessex said as she smiled and
curtsied to him.

He inclined his head and replied: "The pleasure is certainly mine."
Jane and her mother shared a meaningful look between them. William
caught the exchange and made a mental note to censure Jane later.

"Very good, now, where are your sisters?" She looked about and
spotted them with a group youths. "Jane, would you please let your
sisters know that we are ready to leave."

"Mother I recall that they have made previous arrangements to picnic
with the McAllisters this afternoon. So, it will only be the four of
us. I do hope you won't be bored without our sisters' company, Mrs.
Wessex." Jane was not one to deceive herself; she knew that her
younger sisters were much prettier and more animated than she.

"Then, the dinner conversation will be all the more leisurely for
it." Mrs. Wessex smiled at the chortles the comment brought from
William and Jane. They all knew how difficult it was to get in a
word into the conversation when their younger sisters were in full
form.

Jane entwined her arm with Mrs. Wessex's and cheerfully
remarked: "Yes, indeed it will be all the more leisurely for it."