The Perfect Sister
Katherine tiptoed down the long, dark hallway on the second floor. She stopped in front of the last door on the left and the candle in her hand flickered wildly with her trembling. Her father had given the family strict orders not to venture to the west wing tonight and she has never disobeyed him or Missus Temple, the nanny hired on to care for the family after their mother’s passing. So, she stood there torn between loyalty to her sister and the disastrous consequences of getting caught.
Finally, she gathered her nerve, and a deep breath, and pushed the door open. As it went, the bitter stench of formaldehyde caught her and she stared blankly at the open wooden casket propped dead center in the room.
Ever so slowly, she inched closer. She watched her sister's still body, half-expecting her to sit up and burst out laughing that this was all a hilarious joke. Lorraine was known for her theatrics and distorted sense of humor, especially when feeling neglected by their father. How often had she threatened to drown herself if she couldn’t attend a party or hang herself if she couldn’t buy a new bonnet?
But Lorraine didn’t commit suicide.
Katherine lifted the candle higher. Her sister’s flaxen curls lay flat across the pillow instead of bouncing high atop her crown. Her pasty skin, pale lips and hollow expression robbed her of the unparalleled beauty every woman in the county envied. Her voluptuous curves disappeared beneath the loose folds of the black linen dress. And a pink silk cravat coiled her neck to conceal the torture she had endured before she died.
Katherine frowned. Even now her tears wouldn’t come. Three days ago, her two younger sisters had collapsed into their father’s arms when they heard the news. Their pitiful wails deafened Mansford Hall while she stood silently by the doorway. Judging from her father’s pointed glare, he assumed her stoic reaction stemmed from indifference rather than shock. He didn’t know how close she and Lorraine had become of late, the nights they stayed up talking until dawn or the secrets they kept. Since she and Lorraine were opposites, no one bothered to notice the close friendship between them.
The howling winds outside rattled the glass panes, snapping her out of the trance. She concentrated on her mission instead and scanned her sister’s hands tucked neatly on either side. But Lorraine wasn’t wearing any jewelry.
Katherine bit her thumbnail as she envisioned Missus Temple removing her sister’s jewelry and presenting the trinkets to her father. They would recognize the necklaces, bracelets and earrings, but neither of them knew about the diamond ring. They would immediately jump to the conclusion that David had purchased it. After all, he had promised to buy Lorraine an engagement ring as soon as he could afford it. And when her father took the proper route by returning the ring to David, the doors to hell would burst open, exposing the lies and betrayal, destroying her sister’s reputation and compounding everyone’s heartache, especially poor David. He loved Lorraine dearly and she had to do everything in her power to stop him from ever finding out about that ring…or the man who had given it to her.
Katherine glanced at the marble-top dresser in the corner. Chances were slim, but she wondered if Missus Temple had returned the items to her jewelry chest. Or better yet, maybe Lorraine decided not to wear the ring that night.
She set the candle down on the night table and yanked the top dresser drawer open. She pulled out the oak chest and rummaged through the handfuls of jewelry. She dug deeper and nearly cried with joy when she happened upon a small silk covered box with ‘Trilby’s Jewelers’ printed in gold.
But the case was empty.
She pitched it back into the chest. “Oh, Lorraine, why did you leave me alone in this? Father will blame me when he finds out. I’m the eldest, he’ll say, and wholly responsible for your actions.”
She suddenly spotted a small book inside the drawer, a gold-trimmed diary with a string of keys pressed between the pages. She stared at it while contemplating all the secrets it contained. Then, as if being watched, she quickly shoved the book into her pocket, grabbed the candle and dashed from the room. And she raced down the hallway so quickly, she didn’t notice that her candle had extinguished yet her path was illuminated. Not until she reached the staircase and heard her father’s voice. She skidded to a stop and slammed her back against the wall, clinging to the cold marble like a bloodsucking leech.
Her father was talking to Sheriff Connors in the foyer, she realized. There was no good reason for the Sheriff’s visit this late except to inquire about the murder. At some point, he would ask why Lorraine went to the summerhouse that night, why a nineteen-year old girl traveled such a distance alone and wound up dead because of it. Father wouldn’t have an answer. Lorraine had simply told him that she was taking the carriage to visit friends.
“The only possible motive is robbery, Sheriff,” she overheard her father explain. “My wife cherished our vacation home and most of her valuables remained there after her death. After the funeral, I will send George to see what was stolen.”
“Paul McCallister recognized the man as he fled away on horseback," the Sheriff said. "He owns a farm about ten miles southwest of here. The back door was jimmied open and, well, she apparently tried to defend herself with a pair of scissors."
After a long moment, her father asked for the man’s name. Katherine couldn’t see her father's face, but she imagined that his eyes had ignited and looked more like burning coals as he waited for the Sheriff's response.
"Michael Johnston. His brother, Steve, was a hotheaded gambler who caused quite a ruckus at one of the saloons years back. He lost a heap of his family's money, I heard, and soon after, their father was shot and killed. The judge declared it an accident, but I always wondered about that decision since Steve high-tailed it out of town afterwards. Too bad we didn't lock them both up back then. By the way, Thurmond, do you have any idea why Lorraine went to the summerhouse?"
Katherine closed her eyes.
"Certainly, Sheriff. I decided to give Lorraine and David the home as a wedding present. She stopped by to make a list of needed renovations."
A hand suddenly clamped down on her shoulder, digging into her flesh. "Katherine, what are you doing here?"
She stared wide-eyed at Missus Temple for a second, then wriggled herself free and ran upstairs to the safety of her bedroom on the fourth floor. She threw herself on her bed and tried to calm her racing heart. When she finally put Missus Temple’s fury out of her mind, she puzzled over her father’s explanation. His theory about robbery apparently made sense to Sheriff Connors and she was glad of it. Such a neat motive would surely save Lorraine’s reputation and ease any pressure on her to reveal the truth.
Yet, her father had lied to the Sheriff. All her mother’s belongings had been retrieved from the summerhouse years ago. Still, wasn’t it enough that they knew who the murderer was? Whether he went there with robbery as a motive or killed her sister over some lover's quarrel, did it matter so much if he was found and convicted?
But that darn guilt haunted her again, screaming at her for not stopping Lorraine. She knew about her sister’s secret meetings at the summerhouse. She knew how wrong and immoral it was, although she never contemplated the danger. And when Lorraine slipped into her room late at night a week ago to show her the diamond ring the man had given her, she could only think about poor David’s feelings and how it would break his heart if he knew his fiancée was secretly engaged to another. Had she considered her sister’s welfare instead, she might have foreseen the disaster before it struck.
Julia was suddenly tapping on her door, asking to speak with her. Katherine sat up in panic as her younger sisters never ventured to the fourth floor. For a moment, she contemplated pretending to be asleep to thwart them, but both of her sisters stepped inside her room, wrapped in each other’s arms. And they looked like they hadn’t slept in months rather than days.
“We don’t understand how this terrible thing happened,” Julia said.
“She told Father that she was going to visit Carol that night.” Tess wiped a tear away. “Why would she go to the summerhouse?”
Katherine shifted her startled gaze toward darkness beyond her bedroom window.
“There’s something you’re not telling us, isn’t there?” Julia asked. “I know Lorraine confided in you. I saw her sneaking up here at night a few times.” She waited a moment. “Why did Lorraine go into the village that night? Tell us the truth, Katherine.”
She tried to straighten her thoughts. “I…I heard Father was giving the summerhouse to her, as…as a wedding present. She went there to….”
“What?” Julia questioned angrily. “Who said he was giving her the summerhouse?”
“It makes sense,” Tess broke in. “She and David would need a place to live after the wedding.”
Julia frowned. “David would never give up his law practice in Syracuse.”
“The darling would have moved heaven and earth if Lorraine had asked him,” Tess said. “He’ll be here in the morning. What on earth shall we say to him?”
Julia stared at Katherine another moment then softened her tone. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
Katherine stuffed her head into the pillow after they left, wishing she was a thousand miles and a hundred years away from this. Julia didn’t believe a word she said and even accused her of keeping something from them. How in the world did she expect to pass these untruths to her father, Missus Temple, the Sheriff and David, especially? He always knew exactly what she was thinking and often gazed into her hazel eyes as though wanting to see the answer before she spoke the words. She had to avoid him at all costs.
The sixth day of May brought the most glorious spring weather so far with blinding sunshine, sapphire blue skies and flocks of bluebirds, canaries and hummingbirds fluttering through the gardens surrounding Mansford Hall.
Katherine peeked out her bedroom window and stared down the beach. She wished more than anything that she could escape to her hideaway near Sandy Creek. Even her father had forgotten about the old sea-washed cabin less than a mile away. She had discovered it by chance one stormy afternoon when she sought shelter. The haven was buried beneath overgrown vines and decaying branches that had fallen down the eroding bank and she claimed the territory as her own. It took her months to unearth it and even longer to clean the cobwebbed walls and gritty stone floor. She hung bright floral curtains and Mister Hanson, owner of the hardware store in the village, was kind enough to give her a quick course in upholstery. She recovered a few discarded chairs and eventually repaired a wicker sofa. In the storage room she kept her easel, paints, brushes and canvasses with her finished paintings and sketches stacked in uniform rows throughout each of the three rooms.
Since then, she has dreamed about living in her cottage one day, secluded from the pressures of society. There, no one would force her into crowds or insist she attend dinner parties where she stumbled over her words and thoughts. She just wanted a simple, quiet life living on the lake with her artwork. But when she mentioned her interest in painting years ago, her father scoffed at the hobby and forbade her to waste her time. So, she kept her paintings and her cottage to herself, her own harmless little secret that never intruded upon anyone.
Missus Temple entered her bedroom without knocking. "Your father needs to speak with you."
Katherine turned a half smile on the woman as though it were a common request. Yet, the wooziness in her head quickly spun into a throbbing migraine and her stomach churned nauseously. She struggled to maintain her composure as she trailed Missus Temple down the stairs, but when they reached the last flight, she fixed her frightened gaze on the study door.
Surprisingly, she found herself still upright when they reached their destination, but her knees nearly gave out when Missus Temple knocked on the door and walked away. Her father instructed her to enter, but she couldn’t find the strength to lift her hand, let alone open the door. Then, he was swinging it open for her and what went through her mind were lies, thousands of them, for he was sure to ask questions that she simply did not want to answer.
He pointed to the lone chair parked in the center of the room and sat behind his oak desk. "The service will begin at two o’clock. Missus Temple, Emma and the other employees will ready tea and a light meal for those who come to pay their respects after the burial. During the service, I want you to stay close to Missus Temple and follow her instructions exactly."
Katherine relaxed, thinking this was all he intended to say.
"Missus Temple said you were listening to my conversation with Sheriff Connors last night. Is that true?”
She hung her head. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Then you heard that Michael Johnston killed your sister. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
She glanced up.
“Lorraine was meeting Michael Johnston at the summerhouse, wasn’t she?”
Katherine gripped the leather arms of the chair until her knuckles turned white.
“I asked you a question! You knew she was meeting someone secretly. Was it Michael Johnston?”
"I…I don’t know, Father.”
“Don’t lie to me!”
His words cut through her. “Lorraine never mentioned his name…” She could picture the sort of man he was, but she never thought to ask his name.
“How long was it going on?” he asked next and when she didn’t answer quickly enough, he slammed his fist down on the desk and she nearly fell out of her seat. "Damn it, tell me how long!”
“I…I’m not sure…a few months.…maybe more. I didn’t think it was serious…not until he gave her a diamond ring…” She gasped. Then cringed. Didn’t she just risk everything last night for the sole purpose of keeping that information from him?
“A ring?” Her father fell back into his chair. His anger dissipated into a vacant stare that passed right through her to somewhere far beyond this room. "That bastard took my daughter from me, but I'll be damned if I let him ruin our good name. Johnston is going to pay for this with his life if I have to kill him, myself." He suddenly glared at her as if she were the murderer. “No one else shall know of this, do you hear me? I convinced Sheriff Connors that he was a thief and a stranger. I know how righteous you can be, Katherine Ann, but that is the only story you will carry with you."
With his gesture of dismissal, Katherine ambled out the door trying to recall all the warm and wonderful ways her mother used to placate her when she felt this badly about herself.
‘Your goodness is your strength,’ her Mother had told her. ‘You will meet your dashing young prince, but you will never recognize him until you find the contentment within yourself.’
It wasn't meant to be, she would tell her Mother now. At twenty-four years old, she already wavered between womanhood and a renounced old maid. Her goodness and quiet ways have brought her nothing but sadness and rejection. She had failed in her search for contentment and her prince? That dashing, young man who would sweep her off her feet and save her from herself? He had fallen in love with another. So, she had little else to wait for, no other dreams to put her to sleep at night, only this emptiness eating away at her heart.
When her vision cleared, she found herself standing on the terrace, gazing out at the calm and serene waters. In the next moment, she lifted the hem of her black skirt and hurried down the stone pathway through the beds of tulips and daffodils, climbed over the jagged rock ledge and trudged through the sand as fast as she could to her hideaway cottage near Sandy Creek.
She threw the plank door open and slammed it with a vengeance. She shuffled through the stacks of paintings, snatched the only portrait among them and hung it from a protruding nail on the largest wall beside the window. Then she sat in the pink paisley chair, gathered her legs beneath her and studied it.
She loathed painting portraits. The nose always caused her such trouble as it was always too big, upturned, pointed or flat, distorting the face. By far, she preferred mixing colorful oils together, recklessly searching for just the right hue to compliment her lake and country scenes, and she felt any artistic talent she possessed came more freely when no one else was watching…or silently criticizing her.
Yet, on Lorraine's eighteenth birthday, her sister had followed her here, discovered her hideaway as well as her paintings and insisted she paint her portrait. When Katherine refused, Lorraine threatened to tell their father about the cottage and left her no other choice.
That day was as picturesque as this one, but still, it paled in comparison to Lorraine’s beauty. She stood on the east bluffs looking like a Goddess dressed in white linen and lace with a lovely bonnet. Strangely, Katherine was not only able to capture her sister’s likeness on canvas, she also replicated the stunning expression on Lorraine’s face, the graceful curve of her lips and the saucy twinkle in her mahogany eyes.
Katherine idolized Lorraine and envied her beauty like most other women. But unlike the others, her admiration twisted deeper, causing feelings of self-loathing every time Lorraine swept into the room, every morning when Lorraine pecked their father on the cheek winning an agreeable smile from him and every afternoon when a handsome suitor came to call for her. Meek Katherine, Lorraine had nicknamed her. How often had she cried herself to sleep cursing the wretched truth of it?
Katherine suddenly sprang to her feet. "Your life may have been short, Lorraine. You may have done impulsive and immoral deeds, but you made every man love you and every woman jealous. You were never afraid of life or hid from it as I do."
She stormed over to a stack of paintings and snatched the first. With every ounce of her being, she smashed the frame against the doorjamb. The wood cracked and split. She hit it again and again until the canvas broke free. She grabbed the small stiletto strapped to her thigh and sliced it lengthwise and across, shredding it into pieces.
“You loved life, Lorraine, and I abhor it!” she shouted as she continued the onslaught, ravaging her treasured works of art as though they symbolized her weaknesses. "I detest my timidity and the way I cower from everyone. I don’t blame Father for wishing I had died instead of you. It should have been me!"
She reached for the last painting in the stack so hell-bent on her mass destruction, she failed to hear someone approach her from behind. The man grabbed her arm and she screamed in terror. She dropped the picture and fought against him viciously, still in a rare state of fury that doused her fears. She paid no mind to his towering height or bullish strength. And when she remembered the dagger in her hand, she flashed the weapon at him as though she intended to use it.
Yet, did she have the nerve?
As she contemplated the shimmering steel rather than the man before her, she missed the smirk crossing his face. "Either use the blade or drop it, Miss. I'm not letting you go until you make up your mind."
His threat stoked her fire. She thrust the knife at him, but he easily snatched it out of her hand, pinned her arms behind her and shoved her back against the wall.
"I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her. “I give you my word…” He waited and when her struggles subsided, he slowly eased himself away from her.
Katherine’s auburn braided hair had fallen loose in the struggle and she threw her head back to look at him. His eyes were as black as coal and he stood as tall as a mountain. “Who are you?” she whispered, but her next breath stuck in her throat when she remembered that Michael Johnston had escaped. And what better place to hide than her secluded cottage.
"Well, I think you just guessed who I am..." His dark gaze traveled down the length of her. "I see you’re in mourning. Are you one of the Mansford girls?"
"You killed my sister.”
“I didn't kill anyone, but I'd be hard pressed to convince you of that right now, wouldn’t I?"
“The neighbors saw you….”
"Ah, the neighbors. Such reliable spectators. They may have seen me at the house, but your sister was dead when I got there. Look, I don’t expect you to believe me, but I give you my word that I have no intention of hurting you."
She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. "Then let me leave.”
“I can’t,” he said as he wandered away from her. “You’d head straight for the sheriff’s office and I haven’t any other place to go right now. Like I said, I didn't kill anyone, but your father is a powerful man and I’ll be damned if I’m going to hang from a tree just because I don’t have enough money to prove my innocence."
She contemplated his words while eyeing the fact that he deliberately stood between her and the door. Yet, his attire suddenly caught her attention. He was wearing a blue flannel shirt, denims and leather boots, nothing at all like the wealthy, fashionable sort of man Lorraine always courted. Even his skin was tanned as though he spent a great deal of time working outdoors.
“Why were you destroying these paintings?” he asked as he bent down to pick up a tattered strip of canvas. "And what are you doing living way out here?"
She glanced at the fragments scattered about the floor. Mangled shreds of blue sky and green water lay in a heap of gold painted wood splinters. In a fit of rage, she had destroyed a year's worth of work, her treasures, her only passion. The colorful massacre crushed her. She forgot all else and dropped to her knees. She reached over to touch the remnants and fondled the scraps. She gathered a few pieces into her arms and crushed them against her chest as tears streamed down her cheeks. Without any sense of his presence, she stood up and carried the fragments to the storage room where she laid them to rest beside her easel.
When she finished, she stared at the pile and burst out crying. Those damn tears she had waited for finally fell and it didn't matter that he was here, that he had threatened to keep her at the cottage or even that he was a dangerous killer. She ran past him and threw herself onto the couch. She clutched one of the pillows and wept into it like a baby. She cried so hard she could barely catch her breath, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered to her any longer except that the tears weren't for Lorraine, for her poor, dear sister who must have suffered terribly when she died. These were self-pitying tears and she cried even harder from the shame of it.
Katherine suddenly yanked the pillow away and sat up. Her shoulders jerked as she stifled another hiccup, then another.
Michael fetched a glass of water from the bucket and handed it to her. "Are you all right?”
She took a few sips and nodded.
“I know what you've heard about me,” he said quietly, “but too often people are blinded by one side of the matter. They get caught up in the excitement and forget to look for the clues hidden underneath. I was at your family's house that night, but I had nothing to do with your sister's death."
She heard the conviction in his voice and wondered again why he didn’t look anything like what she expected. She watched him walk over to the window. Lorraine's portrait hung on the wall beside him. He paused to study it and she thought he was going to reach over to touch the dry paint, but he turned to look out at the lake instead.
With his back to her, she gathered the nerve to speak. "If you didn't kill Lorraine, then who did?" She remembered her father's theory and wondered if someone did break into the summerhouse.
"I don't know yet, but I’m going to find out.” He turned around. “I didn't mean to scare you by saying you couldn't leave. It’s just that the whole town is looking for me and I need a place to stay until I can prove I didn’t do it. If you promise not to say anything..."
"You can't stay here!” She jumped to her feet. “If my father found out …if he knew I came here...he's so terribly angry with me already."
“As soon as I contact a friend of mine, he’ll clear this whole thing up.”
She paced the room back and forth, wringing her hands and mumbling to herself. “There has to be someplace else you can go…anywhere but here…”
“It’ll only be for a couple of days...”
“No, you can’t…” She suddenly stopped her trek. Her father was already furious with her and the thought of him finding out what she intended to do right now made her blood run co ld. How could she face anyone in the household knowing that she was harboring her sister’s killer? And if the law discovered her secret, she, too, could be arrested.
Yet, she thought about Lorraine. Her sister had said that she loved this man and if he was truly innocent, she would have wanted her to help him. "All right, just for a few days.”
Michael approached her. “What’s your name?”
She bit her lip and lowered her head. "Katherine…"
“My mother’s name was Katherine. Kate to her friends.” He handed her the small knife. "Next time, don't hesitate to use it."
She looked up at him and took it.
He wandered over and relaxed in the chair, stretching his legs out and folding his hands behind his head. "I probably should explain why I went there that night, but the whole thing is pretty complicated…”
Her brows flared upward. "I know why you were there! Lorraine told me all about your meetings.”
“Indeed? Does anyone else know?”
"My Father does, although I can’t imagine how since Lorraine made me promise not to tell a soul. I…I suppose you're married?" It was a natural question, a viable reason for him to want their affair kept a secret.
"No, I'm not married.”
She waited for him to elaborate then considered the other theory again. “My father convinced Sheriff Connors that you went to the summerhouse to rob us. If you are innocent, perhaps someone else broke in."
He shook his head. "No, it wasn’t robbery. Someone intentionally killed her.”
“How do you know?”
He ignored her question. “Can you remember what she did earlier that day or the day before? Did she go anywhere or have any unusual visitors?"
She tried to remember. "That day was like any other. On Sunday the day before, we attended church in the morning. My sisters were anxious for the service to end so they could go to the picnic at Hamlin Beach afterwards with their friends. Lorraine intended to go, but she changed her mind. I can’t remember why. She and I stayed home." Katherine nearly caught a smile with a silly thought. What if she had a hand in finding the real killer? Wouldn't her father be proud of her then? But she quickly dismissed her musings and looked at him again. “You honestly didn’t have anything to do with her death?”
“No, Kate, I swear it.”
"Please…my name is Katherine," she whispered uneasily. After a long moment of silence, she told him, “I…I need to get home for the funeral. My family will come looking for me if I don’t show.” She waited, but he made no move to stop her. “Can...can I go?”
He nodded his head, yet she remained fixed in the spot.
"You'll find apples and cookies in the cupboard,” she told him. She waited another moment, then added, "You have my solemn word I won’t say anything to anyone.” And she headed out the door.
Michael got up and went over to the porthole window. He watched her amble down the beach and caught a smile. “And I’ll bet your word is as good as gold, Kate.”