The Baxendale Sisters Series

LADY HONOR’S DEBT

Highland Manor, Royal Tunbridge Wells, 1822

 Excerpt:

Lady Honor Baxendale left the cook in the kitchen, mulling over the receipts for the following week’s dishes. Her mother was lying down in her bedroom, suffering from one of her megrims. Mama’s nerves had worsened of late, especially since Honor’s stepfather had developed such a bad temper.

The house seemed to be constantly in an uproar.

Honor searched for her younger sister, Faith, and found her curled up in the corner of the cerise-striped chintz sofa in the morning room, beside the canary in its gilded cage.

“You might take a walk in the sunshine, Faith. It quite lifts one’s spirits.”

After Honor opened the French windows, a perfumed breeze swept in to ruffle the curtains. Beyond the terrace, the azalea bushes flaunted their mass of pink and mauve blossoms. “Why not go outdoors on such a beautiful day?”

Faith gestured to the bird, which chirped and hopped about. “I am talking to someone who will listen.”

Honor joined her on the sofa. “I am listening. Don’t I always?”

“Yes. But you cannot help me with this, Honor.”

“You’ve been so horribly bored shut away in the country, dearest. Have you asked Papa to take a house in London for the Season?”

“This morning. I begged him, but he was deaf to my pleas. He means to marry me off to Lord Gillingham. And I have no say in the matter.”

Honor drew in a breath. “With me still unwed, I had hoped he’d give you one Season, at least.”

“It’s business. One of us must marry a Gillingham.”

“I’ll talk to him.” Honor doubted anything she said to her stepfather would hold weight. She was aware that she wasn’t in his favor.

“It won’t help,” Faith said in a doleful tone. “His mind is made up.”

“You get on well with Lord Gillingham.” Honor tried to sound positive while appalled at the notion. She would have to think of a way to prevent it. “He’s a personable man, is he not?”

“He’s an amusing partner to sit beside at dinner, but I don’t love him.” Faith poked a restless finger through the bars of the cage, and the bird hopped along the perch to inspect it. “You are fortunate, Honor. Papa doesn’t force you to marry.”

“I am a lost cause. I would not like to see you become one.”

Faith gave a watery sigh and sniffed. “I shouldn’t like that. Just think, if tragedy hadn’t befallen you, you would be happily married now, with children of your own.”

“Yes, dearest.” Honor patted her sister’s hunched shoulder. She couldn’t shrug off the guilty feeling. She’d been glad when her stepfather failed to consider her attractive enough for his business partner’s son. But Faith should not be denied the excitement of London, with its routs, balls, and soirees. Faith was so pretty. She would cause quite a stir, and would enjoy the whirlwind of a Season so much. Honor’s mind skittered away at the thought of her own Season, some years ago, which had ended in disgrace. Faith’s come-out would be far more successful. Why couldn’t her stepfather trust her to find a suitable husband? He seemed too panicked to consider things carefully.

“I shall speak to Mama. We might wrangle a Season out of Father yet.” Honor opened the birdcage and removed the water tray to refill it.

“You are wasting your time.” Faith stood and picked up her shawl. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be on that walk.”

***

 

Brandreth Park, two hours later

 

A startled deer darted away into the undergrowth as Lord Edward Winborne rode through the leafy glade. He enjoyed his occasional visits to his family’s country seat. Life had settled down somewhat, now that Sibella, the last of his sisters to wed, had married Strathairn. His elder brother, Chaloner, and his wife, Lavinia, seemed content, raising their young brood with less interference since his mother had moved to the dower house. With the exception of his tearaway younger brother, Vaughn, whom one could never be completely sure of, life was, at the moment, free from worry. That is, apart from his mother’s insistence that Edward find a wife.

He was far too old to be managed, but his mother’s force of will was formidable. As the oldest unmarried son, he was now her focus, and she insisted it was time for him to set up a nursery. His mother had been disappointed when he and Olivia had decided not to marry. Mother was certain that he still suffered from a broken heart, when all he really wished for was to forge his career before taking on the responsibility of a family.

Edward didn’t have time to spare for the mating rituals society required of a man in search of a wife, and why it should be necessary for him to marry, now, escaped him. Edward’s two older brothers had sons, so neither he nor his progeny were ever likely to be the Marquess of Brandreth. Had he met a lady he wished to spend his life with, it might be different. Soon to sit for bar exams, he hoped one day, with an impressive body of work behind him, to be invited to take silk as King’s Counsel, and all his energies were directed to that end.

So lost in thought, Edward almost missed the young woman perched on a log by the side of the path. He reined in when her deep sobs caught his notice. Dismounting, he led his horse over to her.

She raised her tear-stained face to his and sniffed.

Edward pulled his handkerchief from a pocket and held it out to her. “Are you lost?”

She took it and dabbed at her eyes. “A Brandreth, I see.”

“That is hardly surprising, is it? You are on Brandreth Park Land.”

“Am I?”

He swept off his hat and bowed. “Edward Winborne. And you are?”

“Faith Baxendale of Highland Manor.” She raised her eyebrows with a censorious expression. “I believe we have met, more than once. I am your neighbor’s daughter, my lord.”

Edward had a vague memory of meeting a brood of sisters from the neighboring estate at one of those appalling assemblies he was forced to attend. “What has happened to distress you, Lady Faith?”

“My heart is breaking,” she murmured.

“Surely not,” Edward said, resisting a smile.

She took a deep, unsteady breath. “Well, perhaps not breaking, exactly. But my heart is in danger of it. I’m in hiding.”

“Hiding? From whom?”

She shook her fair ringlets. “My papa has turned into a monster.”

Lady Faith was very young and quite pretty, if only she’d stop twisting her lips in that fashion. “What manner of monster is he?”

“He wishes me to marry Lord Gillingham.”

Edward rested his foot on the stump. “I know Gillingham.” He was a man of a similar age to him, and of good standing. “Not such a bad fellow, is he?”

“I am too young to marry, my lord.”

“Yes, indeed.” He refrained from asking her how old she was. A few years younger than his sister Maria, he supposed, but Maria was now a wife and the mother of a baby.

“Well, you can’t stay here, can you?” He glanced at the sky. “It’s going to rain.”

She sighed. “I got a stone in my shoe, and I’ve bruised my foot.”

He held out his hand. “Then allow me to escort you home.”

“Thank you.” Standing, she shook out her skirts and offered him back his damp handkerchief.

“Please keep the handkerchief. You may have need of it,” he said, noting her downcast expression. He hated seeing women weep. Having four sisters, he considered himself an expert at predicting the vapors.

Edward brought his horse over to the log and helped her to perch sideways across the saddle. Taking hold of the reins, he tried to remember more details of her family, but his memory failed him. “I seem to recall you have sisters.” He clicked at the horse and pulled the rein.

“There are five of us. We have no brothers.” Grasping the horse’s mane, she rattled off their names.

Edward skirted a rock on the path. “All married, I gather?”

That produced a stern huff. “Of course not. You met us recently at the local fete your mother opened in the village.” Her tone condemned his lapse. “Mercy is only fourteen, and Charity is sixteen. Hope is seventeen. She’s touring the Continent with Aunt Amelia. Honor is the oldest. She should marry before me, but she prefers to stay at home helping Mama rather than go to soirees. Honor reads books and writes poetry. Is it fair that I must get married at eighteen? I don’t wish Honor to marry if she doesn’t wish to. But cannot I wait and enjoy a London Season?”

“I always thought a Season was designed for that purpose?” Edward believed it the aim of all women to find a husband. Honor sounded intelligent and independent, as was his former fiancée. Olivia had married a considerably older and wealthier man than Edward after explaining she needed to concentrate on her writings and not be distracted by a more passionate young man. Well, he’d learned a painful lesson, and his wife, when he chose her, would be very different indeed.

“Love is the aim of everyone, is it not?” Faith asked. “But not everyone meets that special person.” Her voice filled with frustration. “Especially when one cannot choose for oneself.”

It seemed quite a sensible observation for one so young. Edward had nothing to add, so he remained silent. He was reassured that Lady Faith required no answer when she continued her one-sided conversation. “Come-outs appear to be such fun.” She gave another regretful sigh. “I want to dance and flirt and make my own choice of a life partner.”

Edward thought it an entirely acceptable thing to wish for. He disliked seeing women pushed into a marriage against their will. It chilled him when he recalled how his sister Sibella had suffered when a suitor had been chosen for her. Thankfully, she was now married to the man she adored.

As he led the horse across a meadow, he allowed Faith to rattle on about her sisters without interruption. They reached the boundary between their estates and, moments later, approached the rear of the manor house. Leading Faith on the horse, Edward crossed the cobbles into the stable block, where a groom ran out to greet them.

Edward helped Faith down. “I’ll leave you here, my lady.”

“Oh, but you must come in,” she said. “Otherwise, I shall be in such trouble.”

“I doubt my presence will be of assistance. But if you wish it.” Edward sighed inwardly. He hoped he wouldn’t be in trouble himself; his intentions might be misconstrued. It happened so easily these days that a man had to be careful.

“Take care of my horse,” he said to the groom. “I shan’t be long.”

The lady of the house rushed forward when they entered the front hall. “I’ve been so worried. Where have you been, Faith?” Lady Baxendale gazed at him with uncertainty. “You are one of the Brandreth men, are you not?”

“Lord Edward, Lady Baxendale.” Edward bowed. She was a thin, harassed-looking woman with a certain faded blonde beauty. Having five unmanageable daughters still in her care was most likely the cause of it. Edward’s mother had suffered the same circumstance, although she was possibly made of sterner stuff than was Lady Baxendale.

Her ladyship’s cheeks flushed, and she dipped in a hasty curtsey. “Oh, my goodness, so you are indeed. Forgive me; you and your brothers look rather alike! You are all tall with black hair and green eyes! So unusual,” she murmured. “And we have seen little of you in the last few years. I heard your mother had two weddings to organize and has two new grandchildren. She must be exhausted!”

“Mother,” Faith said, tugging her sleeve, “Lord Edward brought me home when it looked like rain. I wandered onto Brandreth land.”

“I do wish you would be more prudent, Faith. It will not do! Wandering around the countryside like a gypsy!” Lady Baxendale arranged her features into a smile, but worry clouded her eyes. “How very kind of you, my lord. You will be in need of refreshment. Please come into the parlor.”

Edward was keen to leave, but manners forbade it. He followed Lady Baxendale into the pleasantly furnished room, where the sun streamed through French windows.

“Faith, your father is very angry with you. Before he left home, he gave instructions for you to wait his return in your bedchamber,” her mother said.

Faith’s mouth turned down at the corners in a mulish manner, but she exited the room without a murmur.

“Please sit, my lord. May I offer you tea?” Lady Baxendale hurried from the room before he answered.

But for the two grey cats slumbering in the sun on the carpet, Edward found himself alone. The room had an untidy but appealing lived-in look, something he wasn’t used to. Bluebells in matching vases decorated the mantel. A book on art rested on a table, along with a sewing basket, and sheet music lay open on the pianoforte, with other sheets scattered over the top, as if the pianist had been interrupted.

While contemplating his return to his rooms in London on the morrow, and the work that awaited him, he studied the bright oil paintings hanging on the walls, one of lilacs in the wood and another of the river. They were similar in style; the same hand had painted them—perhaps a young person, for they had a certain naivety and lively rawness.

He was examining a painting of pink roses when a tall, slim young woman came through the door. Edward knew who it was immediately by her spectacles.

She crossed the flowery carpet and curtseyed gracefully. “Lady Honor, my lord. Mother asked me to entertain you in her absence.” She gestured to a damask chair. “Please sit down. I have ordered tea.”

“How do you do?” He waited for her to be seated, wondering when he might take his leave.

Lady Honor sat on the blue sofa opposite his chair, ankles crossed. She wore her hair pulled back from her brow with no curls to soften the arrangement. Her gown was of some heavy cloth in a shade of brown Edward didn’t care for. It was evident in every line of her body that she’d rather not have to entertain him. A very nice body it was, too, that the ugly gown failed to disguise.

“You found Faith on Brandreth Park land?”

“Ah, yes, I’m afraid that in her distress, she had lost her way.”

“She was distressed?” Her mouth settled into a firm line.

Dash it. He had been indiscreet. He didn’t wish to give Faith away to her serious sister. “I’m sure she can explain the reason for her emotional upset better than I.” He shrugged and smiled. “We men don’t always understand these things.”

Her fine, straight, dark brows drew together. He realized he’d just made things worse and braced himself for disapproval.

“You believe women to be more emotional than men?” she asked in a flat tone of voice.

“Yes, and better for it,” he said quickly.

“I must speak to Faith,” she said, gazing at the door and still frowning.

“I believe you’ll find her in her bedroom,” he offered, approving of her concern for her younger sister. He glanced at the window, hoping for the weather to turn so he might make a quick retreat.

A maid came in with the tea tray. She placed it on a rosewood side table at Lady Honor’s elbow. “Thank you, Anne. Oh, you’ve forgotten the teaspoons.”

“Lud, sorry, my lady.” The maid darted from the room.

“Do you take milk in your tea, my lord?”

“Lemon, thank you.”

Lady Honor might have been the lady of the house. Required to entertain a strange male alone, there was nothing coquettish or hesitant in her manner. Her slim fingers grasped the silver tongs and added a slice of lemon to his cup. “Might I tempt you with a sandwich or a piece of seed cake, my lord?”

“Yes, thank you.” Edward took an egg-and-cress sandwich and a slab of cake, placing them on his plate. When the maid returned, he stirred sugar into his tea, then leaned back in his chair, surprised to be enjoying himself. The room had a pleasant ambiance.

“Do you read the Romantic poets, my lord?”

Her question evoked long, dreary conversations with Olivia and spoiled his mood. “I’m afraid I haven’t as yet had that pleasure.”

The door opened and two young girls on the brink of womanhood danced in, dressed in sprigged muslin, followed by a golden-haired hound. The dog nudged the sleeping cats into wakefulness. The larger of the two cats yowled and arched its back, and the dog retreated, settling at the youngest girl’s feet with a rumbling groan. Edward watched, fascinated, for no one took the slightest bit of notice of the contretemps.

“Don’t tell me,” Edward said, confident he had been well informed. “You are Lady Mercy.” He nodded at the girl with plaits. “And you,” he turned to the slightly older girl with long blonde tresses, “are Lady Charity.”

“How clever of you, my lord,” Lady Mercy said with a giggle. She took a piece of cake from the cake stand and sank back onto the sofa beside her sister. “I’m glad you asked Cook to make this,” she said with a mouthful of cake. “It’s delicious.”

“Don’t drop crumbs, dear.” Honor handed her a plate and napkin.

Charity settled at Honor’s feet on the floor. “You promised to help me with my French,” she said. “Miss Hogg will be cross this afternoon if I haven’t finished the work she set.”

“Come to the schoolroom half an hour before luncheon is served,” Honor said.

Edward took a bite of his sandwich, finding it tasty. Lady Honor seemed enmeshed in the running of the house, and her authority was not only accepted without complaint but also relied upon. He studied the young Baxendale girls, who gathered around Honor like the moths around a lamp. They were similar in looks, with round faces, fair hair, and pretty blue eyes. His glance rested on Lady Honor. She was the odd one out. Her hair was chocolate brown, her face thinner, with high cheekbones, and her eyes behind her glasses dark enough to be brown. She might be in her mid to late twenties, but it was hard to guess her age when she dressed like someone’s maiden aunt.

He ate the last of his cake, took a sip of tea, and leaned back. “Now, what instruments do you play, and who sings the sweetest?”

Charity and Mercy spoke together, and a heated discussion ensued. It became clear that Hope was the best at the pianoforte. Charity drew and painted well, and Faith had the sweetest singing voice. Charity’s paintings hung about the house.

“These are Charity’s. Isn’t she clever?” Mercy jumped up to point at those Edward guessed were Charity’s. She twirled over the carpet. “Our dancing master says that I am the best dancer.”

“Honor is by far the best rider,” Charity said, gazing up at her sister fondly.

“Oh, yes, that is quite true.” Mercy grinned at Honor. “She rides like the wind.”

Ridges of color brightened Honor’s cheekbones. “I don’t believe his lordship mentioned riding.”

Edward was amused. It was hardly something to be ashamed of unless she rode naked. The thought startled him. He suddenly had an urge to whip off those glasses and discover just what color her eyes were.

An hour later, riding home, an image came to Edward of Honor riding at full pelt, naked as a babe, her long locks blowing out behind her. “Merciful heaven,” he yelled and laughed. What had prompted that?

Review

5 Stars~ Lady Honor’s Debt by Maggie Anderson is a must read for all who love a historical romance with balls and Dukes. A novel of how one young woman was put in danger by a man and how she had lost her father. Now, older she faces her stepfather trying to marry her off to an evil man. But due to a friendship and help from her neighbor, Lady Honor, is safe for the time being. A woman with a plan to help her stepfather and get out of a horrible marriage arrangement seems impossible but not if there’s a good man helping her and maybe just maybe falling in love with her as well.

Lady Honor’s Debt is a fascinating tale on one woman honorable deeds and a man who is willing to help her. But as the troubles begin both are pressured to take action. Can they solve Lady Honor’s money problems, her safe, and figure out what’s happening between them? Or will it be too late?

Maggie Anderson’s writing is brilliantly stunning. Her words lure readers away from this world and take them into her fictional one where suspense, action, and danger are abound. Readers will find it hard to put the novel down once they begin reading it. Romance that takes place without it ever being intended. A rich man fall in love with a poor woman. Fate has something great in store for them both. I highly recommend readers to grab a copy and find out what happens between Lady Honor and Lord Edward Winborne. I promise that it’s hot, exciting, and the perfect romance for any day. Overall, I rate Lady Honor’s Debt a five out of five stars.