Home > In Honor's Defense (Hanger's Horsemen #3)

In Honor's Defense (Hanger's Horsemen #3)
Author: Karen Witemeyer

 


Prologue


ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

1895

Invisible people rarely received correspondence. A fact Damaris Baxter had accepted long ago. So when the housekeeper entered the parlor and held out an envelope with her name occupying the address line instead of her aunt’s, it took a moment to process the unprecedented event.

As the youngest of eight children, with no particular radiance of either face or manner to draw attention, Damaris had grown accustomed to being overlooked. In fact, she held the Baxter family record for being left behind on outings most frequently with an impressive total of five. Her brother Joseph had managed the feat twice, being the one most likely to wander off after being counted, but he’d never truly been forgotten, just temporarily misplaced. Their parents had forgotten about Damaris for an entire afternoon on one occasion, not missing her until she failed to appear when called for supper.

Mama had scolded her for being too quiet for her own good, accusing her of hiding away to read books instead of participating in family activities. She’d demanded Damaris pay closer attention in the future so as not to be left behind again. Mama had wept through the entire exchange, of course, then nearly hugged the life out of Damaris at the conclusion of her lecture, assuring Damaris that she was loved if not memorable.

Being invisible had its uses, however. Forgettable girls rarely got called on to recite lessons in front of the class. Or asked to dance when one had a perfectly good book to read. Yet when one reached marriageable age, invisibility became a significant disadvantage. There was always someone prettier, wittier, or more charming to draw the attention of available suitors. Which was how Damaris ended up as a companion to her great-aunt Bertha at the age of twenty-three. Not only was Damaris on the shelf, she was in the back corner behind the knickknacks, collecting dust. At least with Aunt Bertha, she’d found a way to be useful.

Damaris pulled her scattered thoughts together, set aside her needlework, and reached for the letter. “Thank you, Anna.” She tried not to sound as astonished as she felt, but her voice carried a touch of breathlessness despite her best efforts.

Anna noticed, of course, and smiled. “It’s from Texas, miss.”

“Texas?” From Douglas? But the handwriting on the envelope wasn’t his. Not that she was an expert on her brother’s penmanship. He was fifteen years older and had been absent for more of her life than he’d been present. He’d moved to Texas right after his son was born and had only returned to Missouri once, the Christmas after his wife died.

Seven-year-old Nathaniel had seemed so lost during that visit, so withdrawn. Damaris’s heart had ached for the grieving little boy. At sixteen, she knew enough to realize there were no words to take away his pain, so she didn’t offer any. She simply made sure he was never alone. She sat on the floor next to him while he played. Brought him cookies from the kitchen. Offered to read him stories. When he finally grew comfortable enough with her to crawl into her lap and help her turn the pages, she’d fallen completely in love. She wrote him letters and sent him small gifts for his birthday and Christmas each year, never really minding that he didn’t write her back. Young boys couldn’t be expected to correspond with eccentric aunts they probably didn’t even remember meeting. She’d been in his life for ten days. A mere drop in the ocean of his young existence. Douglas wrote to their mother a few times a year, so Damaris managed to keep up with Nathaniel through secondhand sources.

“I hope it’s not bad news,” Anna said when Damaris made no move to open the letter.

Damaris’s heart pounded. What else could it be when it came from a stranger? Unless . . . could it be from Nathaniel? He’d be, what, fourteen by now? Perhaps it was his handwriting.

Please, Lord. Let it be from Nathaniel, not some stranger with ill tidings.

Damaris placed the envelope in her lap with all the care of a seamstress laying out a piece of expensive Venetian lace. She smoothed her hand over the front before stealing herself to flip it over and discover what lay inside. Her hand trembled slightly as she removed and unfolded the stationery.

Miss Damaris Baxter,

I write with a heavy heart to inform you of your brother’s untimely death. Douglas Baxter was found drowned in Lake Madison on March 7, 1895.

A small cry escaped Damaris. Her brother drowned? It couldn’t be. Douglas had been athletic and strong, good at nearly every sport, including swimming. How vividly she recalled the summer after she turned five, when he’d taken it upon himself to teach all of the youngest Baxter siblings to swim. She’d been too young to do much more than cry and cling to him, but by the end of the summer, he’d had them all paddling across the swimming hole unaided—her included. How could he have drowned?

“Are you all right, miss?” Anna turned from where she’d been adjusting the blanket on Aunt Bertha’s lap, the older woman snoring softly in her rocker by the window.

“It’s my brother Douglas. He’s . . . They found him . . .” She couldn’t say it. Couldn’t make it real.

Anna’s eyes softened in sympathy. “I’m so sorry. Should I wake the missus?”

Damaris shook her head. “No. Not yet.” She needed time to compose herself, to get a grip on her emotions before she broke the news to her aunt. And what about her mother? Had she been informed? Surely a letter of this sort would be sent to the deceased’s parents. So why had this one come to her?

Blinking back the mist from her eyes, Damaris refocused on the letter.

The cause of death was determined to be accidental. A true tragedy, ending the life of a man in his prime. You have my most sincere condolences.

Damaris dropped her gaze to the signature—Ronald Mullins, Esquire. A lawyer? She would have expected notification to come from a minister or friend. She’d never heard the name Ronald Mullins, nor did she recall any mention of him in the letters Douglas had written to Mother.

Mr. Douglas Baxter named you, Miss Damaris Baxter, guardian of his son, Nathaniel. You have also been named trustee of the boy’s estate, including the bank funds and property left behind by Mr. Baxter. I will provide you with a copy of all relevant documents when you come to claim the child.

I place myself at your disposal, Miss Baxter. I stand ready to assist you in any way that might prove helpful during your time of mourning.

Sincerely,

Ronald P. Mullins, Esquire

Douglas had chosen her? Damaris could barely find the strength to blink through the paralysis of shock. He’d entrusted Nathaniel’s care to the baby sister he barely knew. Why not their parents or Bartholomew? Bart was only a year younger than Douglas and had children close in age to Nathaniel. He seemed the logical choice. Yet Douglas had chosen her. Perhaps because she had no attachments to hinder or distract her. Of all their siblings, she was the only one with no family to keep her rooted in St. Louis. She was free to leave at any time, free to devote herself fully to Nathaniel’s care.

Or maybe . . . Damaris caught her breath. Maybe the choice had belonged to Nathaniel. The idea kicked her heart into a rapid rhythm. What if Nathaniel had remembered his aunt Maris and requested that she be named his guardian?

To be chosen for herself—it was the secret desire of her heart. To be important to someone. More than a glorified servant who fetched and carried and entertained at her aunt’s whim. To be wanted truly for herself. Seen instead of invisible. Valued instead of tolerated.

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