Do you remember In Charleston With You, from all the way back in April of 2021? In Chapter Six of that book, the heroine, Genevieve, mentions her childhood friend who moved to St. Louis before the book takes place.
That friend’s name was Katherine, and I’m pleased to tell you her story is next. And boy, is it a story.
Since the events of In Charleston With You, Katherine has been widowed. Her husband’s dying wish was for her to marry Lawrence Knightley, their best friend, for financial security, et cetera.
Where it gets complicated? Lawrence is in love with her. It’s that aching, haunting kind of love you have for someone who isn’t yours. Except she is his, but only through these most unfortunate circumstances.
And she doesn’t want to be his anymore.
This book’s a little different than all the rest of the World’s Fair romances—Kate and Lance have a marriage of convenience, friends-to-lovers kind of romance instead of falling in love at first sight—but I think you’ll like it. It’s called In St. Louis With You, and below is the complete first chapter.
The herbal, earthy scent from the chrysanthemum bouquet Katherine held mingled with the aromas of flowering dogwood trees and looming petrichor from St. Louis’s last April rainfall of 1904. Unfortunately, the downpour halted moments before she would have insisted on calling a cab, which meant she and Lawrence were walking in thorny silence as they passed by Forest Park.
Although, nowadays, it did not feel like the Forest Park where she’d celebrated her marriage to Arthur. The quiet, rolling green was gone—or, at least, disguised. Elaborate white buildings in the neo-Classical style littered the grounds, soaking in the warm hues of the setting sun. Though nowhere near the height of the surrounding skyscrapers, the silhouettes of certain attractions were more than odd enough to draw attention towards themselves: a tower of some kind, mismatched yet stately-looking buildings, and the Ferris wheel.
The Ferris wheel. Katherine had been preparing herself for the sight of it for so long, but her spine still tingled now, and it would later as well, when Arthur’s old School of Engineering friends from Washington University brought up their roles in helping the Louisiana Purchase Exposition come to life.
“Are you all right?”
Katherine jumped in her boots. She’d all but forgotten she wasn’t alone. Lawrence floated beside her, and just when she’d grown used to the quiet of his company—like being in solitude, but with someone else—his deep, sonorous voice reminded her that there was someone next to her after all. “I am, yes. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
He nodded. “I would love to know what you are thinking. Would you be willing to engage in conversation?”
She was looking at him, but the intensity of his stare—with those deep-set, crystalline blue eyes—forced her to turn away. He made the oddest, most polite requests she’d ever heard. Always had. “I would.” Anything to keep my mind off of the fair.
“Do you know if the Norris couple will be there tonight?”
Her brow furrowed. “No. Have you heard, er, something?”
“Yes, the way she plays piano,” he said, chuckling. “I was hoping to avoid the vocal gymnastics exercise that is keeping to her uneven pace.”
Katherine tugged the corners of her mouth down as far as they would go, but she couldn’t keep the face for long, and she laughed. Neither Norris could carry a tune, and just two months ago, everyone left the weekly gathering complaining of sore throats from attempting to reach the impossibly high notes played. But in light of all their problems, it seemed in poor taste to poke fun. Perhaps he doesn’t know what’s happened to them after all. Katherine cleared her throat to buy herself a little time to think of how to ask the question, then: “Were you surprised to learn about them?”
One of Lawrence’s ash brown eyebrows shot towards his black evening hat. “I hadn’t heard a thing. What might surprise me?”
Katherine bit her lip. Perhaps she shouldn’t have spoken after all. It would all lead into a topic she wasn’t ready to broach yet, but it was the first thing that popped into her head. Nevertheless, it would be the elephant in the room at dinner tonight, and it would be cruel to keep him out of the loop now that she knew he was unaware. “You worked with Mr. Norris, so I thought you might have heard the whispers, or that he might have told you himself. Are you certain he didn’t mention any changes or a specific plan to you in passing?”
Lawrence shook his head.
“Have you heard him mention a woman named Bertha?”
He tsked. “I have a feeling Bertha is not his sister.”
“Oh, no.” Katherine’s cheeks warmed. “Ah, that was his—well, she was his lover. I learned all about it at croquet just a few days ago.”
Lawrence slapped his hand on his thigh and shook his head. “Norris? I thought he was a good man. He never seemed the sort to go—God, I can’t imagine. His poor wife must have been beside herself when she found out. But what’s this plan you say he has?”
“Well, that was the funny thing about it.” Katherine scanned the surrounding area for passersby. They were less than a five-minute walk away from the Keating residence, and she didn’t want to be overheard. She allowed herself one step closer to Lawrence, trying not to eye the man walking towards them on the opposite side of the road. “Mrs. Norris was guilty of similar indiscretions. From what I hear—well, I don’t mean to gossip—”
“Oh, do go on. You are out so often and get to learn so much; it’s only fair I get to hear about some things, too, especially considering they were mutual friends of ours.”
Katherine was suddenly keenly aware of the weight of her two wedding bands as she held fast to the bouquet—one ring on the left hand, and one on the right. “They’re moving to Arizona to file for a divorce.”
Lawrence was quiet for a moment. It sounded like the crickets had crescendoed to fill the silence. To her knowledge, neither of them had ever uttered the word before, but it could not possibly have been the first time it entered their minds. “A divorce?”
“Well, they won’t be able to obtain one until next year, but Arizona’s laws are such that all they’ll need is to spend a year there to establish residence, and they can be granted a divorce with little else. They won’t need to blame one or the other in front of God and everyone.”
He went quiet again. Katherine focused on the sound of their footsteps, calculating how many might be left until they reach the Keating residence just ahead. A thousand? She hoped it was less. She was sorry she mentioned it at all. She should have just acted surprised when the Norrises didn’t show up for dinner and let everyone else fill Lawrence in when the time came.
But to hear that seven-letter word aloud was also a relief, in some way. She waited with bated breath to hear Lawrence’s response, to better gauge his interest or disgust with the word.
He sighed and looked away. “How terribly unfortunate for them that they must go through such an ordeal.”
That gave her so little! And they were too close to the Keating residence to dive any deeper into the topic. Katherine merely nodded her agreement and walked up the two front steps to knock.
“Wait a moment,” Lawrence called out too late. Katherine turned. He’d bent down to tie his shoelaces. A fine time!
The door flew open, and Mattie Keating opened the door—as she always insisted on doing herself—in an elaborately embroidered, ballet slipper pink evening dress. “My, my, Katherine! You look like an absolute dream in mauve, did you know that? Where is Arthur, my dear, so he can agree with me? Right behind you?”
It was a long second before either of them reacted. Katherine’s heart pounded in her ears and her mind raced to calm itself down. Not here, not now. Breathe, you stupid girl, and pull yourself together. Crying about it won’t do you any good, and it will make everyone else uncomfortable. Stop it.
Such thoughts and feelings could be masqueraded, or dealt with privately. Even the urge to run—to flee the Keating residence or even St. Louis itself and never return—could be wrestled and reasoned with. The color rushing to her cheeks could be explained away by the long walk.
But there was no denying the tears. They spilled over without permission, and her attempt to take a calming breath was thwarted by a hiccough she could not contain.
Mattie paled. She said something—an apology, or a plea not to be upset—but Katherine didn’t absorb her words. She’d already been pulled back into that deep, dark place.
Katherine dropped the chrysanthemums. A pair of strong arms caught her before she could collapse onto the ground beside them, just in time for the first full-body sob and her husband’s—her first husband’s, her late husband’s—name to break free.