From Chapter One of
In Honor’s Defense
By Karen Witemeyer
Madisonville, Texas, 1895
Six Weeks Later
Nathaniel? Is that you?” Damaris looked up from the misshapen loaf of bread she’d just turned out from the pan.
Running footsteps thundered down the hall, but no voice rang in answer to her question. Not that she expected a response. Her nephew preferred pretending she didn’t exist to engaging in any form of verbal communication. Sullen looks, exaggerated eye rolls, and stomping frustration were more his style. After she’d arrived in Texas, it had taken less than a day for her beautiful delusions of mothering a sweet, heartbroken boy out of his grief to wither and die in the face of reality.
At fourteen, Nathaniel was more man than boy, at least in stature and stubbornness. He matched her in height and surpassed her in cunning, constantly finding new ways to torture her. She’d been awakened by a chicken pecking at the quilt threads atop her midsection, a snake slithering down the back of her nightgown, and a pair of frogs dropped on her face. It had taken more fortitude than she’d realized she possessed not to run screaming back to Aunt Bertha.
Yet underneath all the pranks, sarcasm, and anger lived the little boy she remembered. A boy who’d lost the linchpin that held his life together—his father. Was it any wonder he was spiraling out of control? He had no one to tether himself to. No one except her, an aunt he barely knew and trusted even less.
After crying herself to sleep for the first week, mourning not only her brother but her starry-eyed dreams of home and belonging, Damaris resolved to meet her nephew’s challenge. Self-pity never accomplished anything. If she wanted a real relationship with her nephew, she’d have to fight for it. Stubborn for stubborn. No matter how hard he pushed, she’d prove herself reliable, winning him over with constancy and care. If he lashed out in anger, she’d respond with patience. If he avoided her, she’d seek him out. If he ignored her, she’d persist with one-sided conversations.
“How was school?” she called, lifting her voice to carry down the hall to his bedroom. “Do you have much homework? I can help you with it after dinner if you like.”
Miss Tatum had stopped by last week to let Damaris know that Nathaniel’s grades had dropped significantly over the last month. He only attended class half the time, and when he did show up, he failed to engage in his lessons. Worst of all, he’d started getting into fights during recess.
He needs you, Lord, but I get the feeling he’s pushing you away as much as he’s pushing me. Show me how to help him.
Heaven knew she’d need divine intervention to get through to the boy. While she believed in her ability to dose him with a constant flow of affection, she had absolutely no confidence in her ability to discipline him. She’d tried scoldings and reprimands, but they only brought out more rebellion and pranks, so she’d been terribly lax of late. She knew he needed boundaries, but those proved difficult to establish when he didn’t recognize her authority.
“We’re having sausage gravy on toast tonight.” One of the few dishes she made of which he willingly ate a second helping.
Her cooking skills seemed more suited to stove than oven. She could fry, sauté, stew, and boil to some degree of success, but disaster struck whenever she attempted roasting or baking. On the stove, she could move from a too-hot spot to a cooler one or vice versa, but the delicate mathematics of balancing the variables of wood, heat, and dampers never failed to give her the wrong answer when it came to the oven. Hence the lopsided bread in front of her. She flipped the outturned loaf right side up and placed it on a cooling rack. At least it wasn’t burnt. Just slightly caved in on one side.
Not everything could be beautiful. A truth Damaris had come to terms with long ago when her own appearance failed to mature into anything other than plain. Yet a thing’s outward beauty should not determine its value. Bread’s value lay in its ability to fill an empty belly, not in how well it delighted the eye. She wouldn’t scorn her misshapen loaf just because it wasn’t as pretty as the ones in the baker’s window.
“Can we have some of them fried apples you made last week for dessert?”
Damaris squeaked and spun around. “Nathaniel! You startled me.”
Her nephew leaned against the doorjamb, his arms crossed defensively over his chest, and his too-long brown hair hanging across his eyes. The prickly pose and droopy mane couldn’t hide the satisfaction gleaming in his eyes, however. He was proud of making her jump. For someone who had tromped through the house with all the delicacy of a drunken buffalo five minutes earlier, he certainly could move with stealth when he wanted.
“So, can we? Have the apples?”
Damaris smiled, her aggravation melting away as her heart softened. Nathaniel so rarely asked her for anything. “Of course.”
There was a half-bushel of tart green apples in the root cellar. Maybe she could even make a brown betty with some bread cubes and extra cinnamon and sugar.
“Thanks, Aunt Maris.”
Warning bells rang in the back of Damaris’s mind. He never thanked her. Just ate whatever food she placed in front of him and disappeared either outside or into his room.
Nathaniel pushed away from the wall. “I’ll be back before suppertime.”
Shaking off her cynicism and suspicion before he could sense them, Damaris brightened her smile. “Be careful.
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