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The wintry sun, shining in through the wide windows, gave the room a false warmth, for there was no fire in the handsome steel grate and there was a decided chill in the air; a chilliness strongly echoed by the two people in the room, facing each other across the handsome Soumak carpet, a young woman with pale brown hair and beautiful brown eyes in an unremarkable face, sitting very upright in a Victorian balloon chair, and a man in his thirties, dark-haired, grey-eyed and with a high-bridged nose which didn't detract from his good looks. He was a tall, well built man and the armchair he was leaning against creaked as he folded his arms along its back.
'What a silly girl you're being, Katrina,' he observed in a voice tinged with impatience. 'Anyone would think that it was you whose heart had been broken!' He grinned at her and she made a small indignant sound.
'I can find no possible excuse for you…' she began. She had a nice quiet voice, waspish at the moment though.
'My dear girl, I'm flattered that you should try to find excuses for me.'
She shot him a furious look, her black brows drawn together in a frown.
'Don't be ridiculous,' she begged crossly. 'It's the last thing I'd do. You've broken Virginia's heart…'
He came round the chair and sat down stretching out his long legs in comfort. 'Now who's being ridiculous?' he wanted to know. 'Virginia hasn't got a heart, from the moment she could toddle you know as well as I do that she made a point of twisting everyone round her thumb. She did it charmingly too.' He eyed her thoughtfully. 'You never did that, Katrina.'
'Much good it would have done me.' She was matter-of-fact about it. And then, her voice cold with anger again: 'She's in her room, crying…'
She was interrupted: 'Of course she's crying—spoilt girls who can't have their own way always cry. She'll stop presently.'
'You're heartless, Lucius.' Her eyes searched his face and saw nothing but mockery there. She got to her feet. 'Will you go away? I don't want to talk to you—there's nothing to say anyway.'
He sauntered to the door. 'Not while you're in this silly sentimental mood.' As he went through the door he said: 'I passed young Lovell on my way here, so Virginia had better repair that broken heart pretty quickly.'
'You're unspeakable!' declared Katrina, and heard him laugh as he shut the door.
She went to a window presently and watched him make his leisurely way across the lawn, taking the short cut to the side gate which would lead him to the stables where Gem, his mare, would be. It was a pity, she thought sadly, that they could no longer be friends. She had a sudden vivid memory of him, a ten-year-old schoolboy sitting his pony patiently holding the leading reins of her own fat Shetland. She had been three years old and Virginia wasn't even thought of…
And they had stayed friends, and even when Virginia, the spoilt darling of the family had made a threesome, they had neither of them minded; indeed, as the years passed, Lucius and Virginia spent more and more time together, naturally enough, for by then Katrina's talent for drawing and painting had got her a job illustrating children's books. Her father had had one of the attics turned into a studio for her and she had worked there contentedly, making a tolerable income for herself, although that was quite unnecessary. But she had been glad of it when her parents were killed in a car accident, for a good deal of money died with them and the pleasant quite large house and its several acres of ground absorbed a lot of the income which was left. All the same, she had contrived very well; Virginia had finished her expensive education, had all the clothes she wanted and ran her own small car. Now at twenty she was the darling of the neighbourhood, as pretty as a picture and taking it for granted that every man she met would fall in love with her. Which, more or less, they did. Katrina, a year earlier, used to Virginia's constant brief love affairs, but anxious that at nineteen she should turn her hand to something useful, had roped in Lucius. 'Look,' she had said, 'Virginia's got so many boyfriends she can't remember their names—I don't mind, it must be fun,' just for a moment she had sounded wistful and he had given her a long thoughtful look, 'but I wondered if she would train for something, meet older men perhaps. What do you think?'
That had been a year ago. He had laughed and agreed and said: 'I'm an older man, aren't I? She can start on me. What do you want me to interest her in? Bookkeeping? Or how to run an estate?'
He hadn't done either thought Katrina sadly, although he was a chartered accountant and Stockley House and its surrounding acres belonged to him. Instead he had given Virginia her head, whirled her up to London to dine and dance and visit theatres, ridden with her almost every day, and although he had never given her a ring, it was a foregone conclusion that it was only a question of Virginia making up her mind between emeralds and rubies.
And now it was all over and Lucius was behaving abominably. Katrina paused to think here; according to Virginia he had behaved abominably and he certainly showed no signs of remorse about that, although she hadn't actually asked him… Well, what could she have said anyway? Ever since she could remember, he had retired behind an expressionless face if he didn't want you to know something; he'd worn that face this morning, and she hadn't dared probe too deep. She sighed; they had known each other for so long, the thought of not having his friendship any more was depressing but what else could she do? Virginia had screamed at her that she would never speak to him again, and it was going to be rather difficult if she was to continue the easy companionship she had known for so long. And she would be disloyal to Virginia too. She herself was to blame anyway—encouraging Virginia to spend so much of her time with Lucius; it was inevitable that she should fall in love with him, even more inevitable that he should fall in love with her, or so one would have supposed. He had certainly indulged Virginia in everything she wanted to do or have, and then last night they had come back from a dance at one of the local houses. Katrina shuddered at the memory. Virginia had been beside herself, her voice shrill and almost hysterical, declaring that she would kill him, kill herself, kill everyone… her heart was broken, she would go into a convent, run away from home, throw herself in the river. She had sobbed and screamed into Katrina's dressing-gowned shoulder, and Lucius had stood just inside the door and laughed.
'I'll never forgive him!' declared Katrina to the empty room.
The door opened and she turned round to face Mrs Beecham's rosy round face. 'Will Mr Lucius be staying to lunch?' asked that lady, and at Katrina's forceful no, nodded her head. 'I thought perhaps he wouldn't be, and that's a great pity, because there's to be a cheese souffl and mushrooms—he brought 'em over himself, picked 'em this morning.'
'No mushrooms,' declared Katrina fiercely; she loved them, but it smacked of giving in to the enemy, 'and he's not staying, Mrs Beecham.'
'Just as well, maybe, Miss Katrina, because there's Miss Virginia carrying on something shocking up in her room—won't let Maudie in to clean neither.'
'I'll go up,' said Katrina, and went out of the room, crossed the polished floor of the wide hall and went up the uncarpeted stairs, the treads worn from the countless feet which had used them over a couple of centuries. The landing above was wide as the hall and several doors opened from it. She could hear her sister's voice as she turned the handle and went into a room in the front of the house.
Virginia was sitting up in bed, an untouched breakfast tray on the table beside her, and to Katrina's loving eye she looked the picture of woe. A delightful picture, although she was crying—something she was able to do without spoiling her pretty face in the least. When she caught sight of Katrina she cried: 'I haven't slept a wink all night, I shall be ill…' She peered at her sister's composed face. 'He's been here, hasn't he? I heard him come in. I don't know how he dares after what he's done!'
Katrina sat down on the edge of the bed. 'Well, he didn't actually do anything, did he?'
Virginia looked at her in outraged astonishment. 'Not do anything? He doesn't want to marry me!'
'Yes, love, I know, and although it's a dreadful thing to happen, it's better to say so now than wait until you're married and regretting it.'
Virginia cast her a baleful look. 'What will everyone say? And they'll all laugh—those hateful Frobisher girls and Emily and Patricia and Sue…'
'Why should they laugh? They're your friends; it could happen to them any time.'
'Oh, you're on his side—I might have known!' Virginia sounded spiteful. 'Just because you're getting on and not married yourself!'
Katrina went faintly pink. 'You don't mean a word of that, love. But I do think it will be a great pity if after all these years we shouldn't be on speaking terms with Lucius—after all, he knew you in your pram.'
Virginia tossed golden hair over one shoulder. 'What a silly girl you are, Katrina,' she observed, and Katrina thought: twice in one morning, Father used to say "Never mind the looks, the girl's got a good head on her," but I haven't even got that. She said placidly: 'Yes, I daresay I am. Would you like to go away for a while, darling?'
Her sister's beautiful blue eyes opened wide. 'Go away? With the Hunt Ball only a few weeks off and James Lovell taking me up to town to see that new play everyone is talking about?' She smiled beguilingly. 'I do need a new dress, Katie.'
'You had that blue taffeta last month. What are you going to do about Lucius?'
'I won't speak to him again, and I hope you won't either.' She added viciously. 'I hope some perfectly frightful widow with a horde of children gets her hands on him—it's all he deserves!'
'I don't imagine he'll marry unless he wants to,' said Katrina, and instantly wished she hadn't as Virginia's tears began again. To stop them she promised a new dress, and the tears disappeared as if by magic.
She got up from the bed, observing mildly that James Lovell was on his way and shouldn't Virginia get dressed. At the door she paused to ask: 'Did Lucius actually ask you to marry him, love?'
Virginia was out of bed looking at herself in the dressing table mirror. 'Don't be such a nosey-parker,' she said crossly, 'I don't want to talk about it.' She smiled suddenly. 'Darling Katie, what would I do without you? You're the nicest person I know.'
Katrina spent the next hour going about her household duties. None of them were heavy, but all the same they had to be done; her parents had left them in comfortable circumstances—a charming Regency house with a splendid garden as well as the paddocks, Mrs Beecham, who had been with them since Katrina was born, Lovelace, who had been chauffeur, houseman and part-time gardener for almost the same length of time, and two girls from the village who came each day to help in the house. There was Old John too, who was what the villagers called a little light in the head; he came when it suited him and saw to the garden; he had a magic way with anything growing and no one had ever thought of interfering with his work there.
She discussed food with Mrs Beecham, agreed that someone should come and re-hang the shutters outside the living room windows, suggested that Lovelace might like to take some harness to be repaired, whistled to Bouncer, the Black Labrador snoozing before the stove, and went into the garden to cut chrysanthemums. It was a clear day with frost underfoot and just for the moment warm enough for her to go outside in her tweed skirt and thick sweater, but with November half done, the days were getting short and she doubted if the weather would stay fine for much longer. She gathered her flowers and then walked on, round the house and up the sloping path which led to the kitchen gardens at the top of the slight hill. Old John was there, picking Brussels sprouts and talking to himself, and she joined him for a bit before crossing to the far wall where there was a stout wooden door.
She opened it but didn't go through, leaning against it and looking across the valley to where the chimneys of Stockley House sent pale wreaths of smoke into the clear air. The house was large; a great deal larger than her own home, with a park around it and a comfortable jumble of outbuildings, stables and barns at its back. Katrina knew every inch of it, for she had gone there very often as a child, first with her mother, when she went to call on Lucius's mother, and then on her own, to seek him out and plague him to let her go with him fishing or riding, but later on he went to school, and although she still went there frequently, she only saw him during the holidays, and when it was her turn to go to school she saw even less of him. All the same, they were firm friends and had remained so—until now. She hadn't always approved of his goings-on, by all accounts he was very much the man about town while he was in London—but that, she had told herself loyally, was his business, he was still Lucius; a friend to consult and someone to ask advice of, and when her parents were killed, a stout shoulder to cry into.