Secret Fire – Johanna Lindsey

Another spring shower was in the offing, but Katherine St. John took little note of the overcast sky hanging heavily above her. She moved absently about the little garden, snipping pink and red roses that she would later arrange to her satisfaction, one vaseful for her sitting room and one for her sister Elisabeth. Her brother Warren was off in his typical endeavor of enjoying himself somewhere, so he didn’t need flowers to brighten a room he rarely slept in. And her father George disliked roses, so she cut none for him. “Give me lilies or irises or even wild daisies, but keep those cloying roses for you girls.” Katherine wouldn’t think to do otherwise. She was adaptable in that way. So a servant was sent out each morning to find wild daisies for the Earl of Strafford, never mind that they weren’t easy to find in the city. “You’re a wonder, my darling Kate,” her father was fond of saying, and Katherine would accept the compliment as her due. It wasn’t that she needed praise; far from it. Her accomplishments were for her own sense of pride, for her own self-esteem. She loved being needed and she was needed. George St. John might be head of his household, but it was Katherine who ran the household, and it was to her that he deferred in all things.

Both Holden House here on Cavendish Square and Brockley Hall, the Earl’s country estate, were her domains. She was her father’s hostess, housekeeper, and steward. She kept domestic trivialities and tenant troubles at bay, so the Earl was free from worry and free to dabble in politics, his passion, to his heart’s content. “Morning, Kit. Come have breakfast with me? Do.” Katherine glanced up to see Elisabeth leaning precariously out her bedroom window, which overlooked the square. “I’ve had breakfast, love, several hours ago,” Katherine called back in a voice just loud enough to carry. It wasn’t in her character to shout when anything else would do. “Coffee, then? Please,” Elisabeth entreated. “I need to talk to you.

” Katherine smiled in agreement and carried her basket of roses inside. She had in fact been waiting patiently for her sister to awaken so that she could have a talk with her. No doubt they both had the same subject in mind, for they had both been called into the Earl’s study last evening, separately, but for the same reason—Lord William Seymour. Lord Seymour was a dashing young man of devilishly good looks, who had taken the innocent young Elisabeth by storm. They had met at the start of this year’s season, Beth’s first, and the poor girl had looked at no other man since. They were in love, that universal emotion that made fools out of the most sensible people. But who was Katherine to scoff just because she thought the emotion silly and a waste of energy that could be better put to some useful endeavor? She was happy for her younger sister, at least she had been until last night. In the time it took her to cross the back hall to the stairs, she had servants running to do her bidding: a breakfast tray to be sent upstairs, the mail delivered to her office, a reminder sent to the Earl that Lord Seldon had an appointment this morning and was due in half an hour, two maids dispatched to the Earl’s study to make sure it was in order to receive a guest (her father was not known for his neatness), and vases of water carried to Beth’s sitting room. She would arrange the roses while they had their talk. If Katherine had been one to put things off, she would have avoided Elisabeth like the plague.

That wasn’t her way, however. Even though she wasn’t sure yet exactly what she intended to say to her sister, she was certain she wouldn’t fail her father in his request. “You’re the only one she’ll listen to, Kate,” her father had told her last night. “You have to make Beth understand I wasn’t just making idle threats. I won’t have my family associated with this bounder.” He had laid the whole dismal tale in her lap by that time, but her calm “Of course, Father” had only made him more defensive over his decision. “You know it’s not my way to be autocratic. I leave that to you, Kate.” They both smiled over this, for she really could be domineering when warranted, though that was rare, since everyone did their best to please her. George St.

John continued his defense. “I want my girls to be happy. I don’t lay down the law, like some fathers.” “You’re very understanding.” “I like to think so, ’deed I do.” It was true. He didn’t interfere in his children’s lives, which wasn’t to say he lacked concern. Far from it. But if one of them got into trouble—more accurately, when Warren got into trouble—he left it to Katherine to sort out the mess. Everyone depended on her to keep things running smoothly.

“But I ask you, Kate, what else could I do? I know Beth thinks she’s in love with this chap. Probably is, for that matter. But it makes no difference. I’ve had it from the best of sources that Seymour is not what he claims to be. He’s just one step ahead of debtors’ prison. And what did the girl tell me to this? ‘I don’t care,’ she says. ‘I’ll elope with William if I have to.’ Of all the impertinent misses.” And then on a quieter note, one full of uncertainty, “She wouldn’t really elope, would she, Kate?” “No, she was just upset, Father,” Katherine had assured him. “Beth just said what she needed to say to appease her pain and disappointment.

” Elisabeth had gone to bed last night in tears. Katherine had gone to bed saddened for her sister, but too practical to let this turn in events depress her. She felt partly responsible, because she had been her sister’s chaperon and had in fact encouraged the growing affection between the two young people. But she couldn’t let that influence her. It came down to one simple fact. Beth couldn’t marry Lord Seymour now. She had to be made to see that and accept it and go on from there. She knocked only once before entering Elisabeth’s bedroom. The younger girl was still in disarray, wearing a pink silk wrapper over her white linen nightgown. She sat before her vanity, where her maid was pulling a brush through her long blond hair.

She looked exquisite in her melancholy, with her soft lips pulled down at the corners. But then there was little that could detract from Elisabeth St. John’s dazzling beauty. The two sisters were alike only in height and in the color of their eyes, neither green nor blue, but a subtle blending of the two. All the St. Johns possessed these light turquoise eyes ringed with a darker blue-green. The servants were fond of swearing that Katherine’s eyes lit up with an unholy light when she was displeased about something. Untrue. It was just the lightness of color and the fact that her eyes, her only really good asset as far as she was concerned, tended to make the rest of her features fade away to nothing. For Elisabeth, the lovely turquoise color complemented her light blond hair, the darker gold brows, the soft lines of her face.

She had a classic beauty inherited from their mother. Warren and Katherine favored their father, with dark brown hair; a proud, patrician nose; forceful, stubborn chin; cheekbones high and aristocratic; and full, generous lips. On Warren these features produced a handsome countenance. On Katherine they were too severe. She was much too tiny at just over five feet to carry off their haughty effect. Passing pretty would have been a generous compliment. But what Katherine lacked in beauty she made up in character. She was a warm, giving woman with many facets to her personality. Warren liked to tease her by saying that she was so versatile that she should have taken up the theater. In a quite natural way she could adapt herself to any situation, whether to take charge or to cooperate humbly if others were leading.

Hers were not all inherent traits, however. Many she had learned during the year she had been one of Queen Victoria’s ladiesin-waiting. If court life teaches anything, it’s versatility and diplomacy. That was two years ago, after her own first season, which had been such a resounding failure. She was twenty-one years old now, soon to be twenty-two, and considered quite firmly on the shelf. A distasteful term that, just as bad as old maid. It was whispered about her, but it wasn’t what she considered herself. She fully intended to marry one day, a staid, dependable older man, not handsome and dashing, like the men sought by all the young debutantes, but not ugly either. No one of her acquaintance could deny she would make a superb wife. But she just wasn’t ready yet to be that wife.

Her father still needed her, her sister needed her, even Warren needed her, for without her he would have to own up to his responsibilities as the Earl’s heir, which he had no desire to do at present. Elisabeth waved her young maid away and met Katherine’s eyes in the mirror above her vanity. “Kit, did Father tell you what he did?” Such a woebegone expression. Beth’s eyes were even glistening, very close to tears. Katherine was sympathetic, but only because it was her sister who was suffering. All this emotion expended on such a silly thing as love she just couldn’t understand. “I know what he did, love, and I’m sure you’ve had a good cry over it, so buck up now. No more tears, if you please.” Katherine didn’t mean to sound so heartless. She really did wish she could understand.

She supposed she was too pragmatic, and being realistic to boot didn’t help either. She firmly believed that if you couldn’t win after all your resources were depleted, you gave up and looked on the bright side. No one would catch her beating her head against a wall. Beth swung around on her little velvet stool, and two fat tears did indeed trickle down the creamy expanse of her cheeks. “That’s easy for you to say, Kit. It wasn’t your fiancé that Father refused and showed the door to.” “Fiancé?” “Well, of course. William asked me before he came for Father’s blessing and I said yes.” “I see.” “Oh, please don’t take that tone with me!” Beth cried.

“Don’t treat me like one of the servants who’s displeased you!” Katherine was taken aback by this heated attack. Good Lord, was she really that condescending? “I’m sorry, Beth,” she said sincerely. “I know I’ve never been in this sort of situation myself, so it’s not easy for me to comprehend—” “Weren’t you ever even a little bit in love, just once?” Beth asked hopefully. Katherine was the only one who could persuade her Father to change his mind, but if she didn’t realize how important it was… “Honestly, Beth, you know I don’t believe in… What I mean is…” That pleading expression on her young sister’s face was making this very difficult. The maid arriving with a breakfast tray saved her from saying the truth, that she felt herself immensely fortunate to be one of the few women of her day who could look at love in a practical manner. It was a silly and useless emotion. It produced highs and lows of feeling that had no business cluttering up one’s life. Look what it was doing to sweet Beth. But Beth didn’t want to hear that what she was feeling at this moment was ridiculous. She needed sympathy, not ridicule.

Katherine took the steaming cup of coffee the maid handed her and moved over to the window. She waited until she heard the door close on the servant before she turned to face her sister, who hadn’t moved toward her breakfast tray. “There was one young man I thought would do,” Katherine offered lamely. “Did he love you?” “He never even knew I was alive,” Katherine said, remembering the young lord she had thought so handsome. “We saw each other the whole season, but each time we spoke, he always seemed to look right through me, as if I wasn’t even there. It was the prettier young ladies he danced attendance on.” “Then you have been hurt?” “No, I—I’m sorry, love, but you see I was realistic even then. My young man was much too handsome to be interested in me, even though he wasn’t that well off and I am quite a catch, financially, that is. I knew I didn’t have a chance to snag him, so it didn’t bother me that I didn’t.” “Then you didn’t really love him,” Beth sighed.

Katherine hesitated, but finally shook her head. “Love. Beth, it is the one emotion fated to come and go with remarkable regularity. Look at your friend Marie. How many times has she been in love since you’ve known her? A half-dozen times at least.” “That’s not love but infatuation. Marie isn’t old enough to experience real love.” “And you are, at eighteen?” “Yes!” Beth said emphatically. “Oh, Kit, why can’t you understand? I love William!” It was time for the hard truth to be thrust home once again. Obviously Beth had not taken her father’s lecture to heart.

“Lord Seymour is a fortune hunter. He gambled away his inheritance, mortgaged his estates, and now needs to marry for money, and you, Elisabeth, are money.” “I don’t believe it! I’ll never believe it!” “Father wouldn’t lie about something like this, and if Lord Seymour tells you differently, it’s he who will be lying.” “I don’t care. I’ll marry him anyway.” “I can’t let you do that, love,” Katherine said firmly. “Father meant what he said. He’d cut you off without a shilling. You and William would both be beggars then. I won’t see you ruin your life over this scoundrel.

” “Oh, why did I ever think you might help?” Beth cried. “You don’t understand. How could you? You’re nothing but a dried-up old prune!” They both gasped together. “Oh, God, Kit, I didn’t mean that!” The accusation hurt nonetheless. “I know, Beth.” She tried to force a smile, but it wouldn’t come. Another maid arrived with the two vases of water she had requested. Katherine directed her to her own sitting room and moved to leave the room, picking up her basket of roses. She paused at the door. “I don’t think we should talk any more about this for a while.

I only want what’s best for you, but you can’t see that right now.” Elisabeth wrung her hands for five seconds before she jumped up and followed Katherine across the hall. She had never seen such a stricken look on her sister’s face. At the moment William was forgotten. She had to make amends to Kit. She shooed the maid out of the large room filled with Chippendale furniture, handsome with covers that Kit herself had embroidered. She then commenced to pace across the thick diamondpatterned carpet that covered the floor from wall to wall. Katherine ignored her as she began to arrange the roses. “You’re not dried up!” Beth exclaimed. “And you’re certainly not old!” Katherine glanced up, but she still couldn’t manage to smile.

“But I am occasionally a prune?” “No, not a prune, just—just prim and proper, which is as you should be.” Now Katherine did smile. “I got this way having to entertain all those old German and Spanish diplomats at the palace. As soon as it was learned I spoke both languages so fluently, I never lacked for dinner partners.” “How boring,” Beth sympathized. “Never say so. It was fascinating, learning about other countries at first hand, almost as good as traveling, which Father refused to let me do.” “Didn’t you ever get to entertain any dashing Frenchmen? You speak French as well as a native.” “But so does everyone else, love.” “Of course,” Beth said, continuing her pacing.

It wasn’t enough. Kit had smiled, but there was still hurt in her eyes. Oh, those horrid, horrid words! If only she had Kit’s control. Kit never said anything she didn’t mean. A turn about the room brought her close to the window facing the street. The coach drawing up below looked familiar. “Is Father expecting Lord Seldon?” “Yes. Has he arrived?” Beth turned away from the window, nodding. “I never did like that pompous old goat. Remember when we were children and you poured that pitcher of water out the window onto the old fellow’s head? I laughed so hard—” Beth stopped, seeing that mischievous look enter Kit’s eyes.

God, it had been years since she had seen that look. “You wouldn’t!” Katherine picked up the second vase of water and walked slowly to the window. Lord Seldon was just being helped out of his coach by a liveried groom. “Kit, you shouldn’t,” Beth warned, but she was grinning from ear to ear. “Father had a fit the last time. We both got the birch.” Katherine said nothing. She waited until the unsuspecting Lord Seldon had reached the door just under her window, then tipped over the vase. She drew back, a second passed, then she burst into giggles. “Good Lord, did you see his face?” Katherine said between gasps.

“He looked like a dead fish.” Beth couldn’t answer at first, for she had thrown her arms around Kit and was laughing too hard. Finally: “Whatever will you tell Father? He’s going to be furious.” “Yes, undoubtedly. And I will assure him I will dismiss the clumsy servant responsible for such an outrage.” “He won’t believe you.” Beth giggled. “Of course he will. He won’t know the difference. He doesn’t concern himself with domestics.

And now I must go see to Lord Seldon. I can’t have him dripping all over my foyer. Pray for me, love, that I can deal with him with a straight face.” Lady Katherine St. John sailed out of the room to do what she did best: soothe and manage. She had also managed to relieve the tension between her and her sister.

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