“Mr. Kendall Gregg?” The boy seemed to sum him up for size. “There’s a telephone call for you sir, from a young lady.”
For a panicked instant, reason deserted him. Trailing the boy toward the station’s small office, he groped for a logical explanation as to who might have tracked him down here. The list of women in his life was short, and there were few who could have an urgent need to reach him.
“Gregg here.” Perhaps it was only his mother, who he supposed might pass for youngish over the phone. It would be like Eloise to conjure up an emergency, real or imagined, which he would be expected to resolve.
“Mr. Gregg, this is Peg Shannon, Michael Shannon’s daughter?” The voice, low and warm with a distinctive American accent, paused as though he might actually question who Michael Shannon was. “My father apologizes, but he’s been held up by a transatlantic business call and was unable to meet your train. Would you mind very much getting a cab to our flat? I’ll be happy to pay the fare when you arrive.”
He wondered if she caught his relieved gasp. He’d been unconsciously holding his breath until the moment he heard her voice, calm and polished, stating its simple request. As she gave him the address, it occurred to him that Miss Shannon possessed the sort of voice to reassure, whatever the message.
During the cab ride, he tried to recall what his mother had said about Michael’s daughter. Somehow, he’d thought Peg Shannon was just a child, but then his mother was a predictably unreliable source of information. He’d learned never to trust her beyond the most basic. Obviously she’d misunderstood about Michael’s only child, heir to his fortune and from all reports the apple of his eye. Thinking back to their brief conversation, he decided he was actually looking forward to meeting the woman attached to that intriguing voice, with its rich tone and underlying humor. Perhaps he could risk a little diversion. Two weeks, an American girl and no danger of anything beyond a casual flirtation should be harmless enough. It was probably time he let himself venture at least that far.
He’d insisted he would handle the fare, but when the taxi came to a halt, there was someone waiting on the curb. He blinked stupidly as the cabby accepted coins from an adolescent girl. “Mr. Gregg?” she asked, mimicking the voice on the phone, “Are you planning to get out? We do have a car, you know. We won’t be taking the cab to Aunt Addie’s.” She stared at him over the seat, blue eyes gleaming with laughter in an otherwise perfectly straight face.
He stammered something inane, and eventually found himself on the pavement with his bags at his feet and the girl still staring at him. Holding out her hand, she said much too naturally for one so young, “It’s a pleasure to have you joining us, Mr. Gregg. I know I speak for my father in welcoming you to the family.”
She took up two of his bags and turned toward the narrow building’s entrance. “Yes. My friends all tease me that I could pass for thirty on the phone. It’s only because I’m allowed to answer calls at Dad’s office and pretend I’m the secretary. I like to pretend, you see, and I get lots of practice that way.”
“Pretend what, exactly?” he asked, more for the continued sound of her voice than for an explanation of this bizarre behavior.
“Oh, you know, that I’m not me, that I’m someone else. I suppose if things were different, I might want to be an actress someday. As it is, I just like to see how far I can go pretending before I’m found out.”
Following her up the steep stairway, he took the opportunity for a closer look at the girl. She was probably tall for her age, with long legs and a graceful bearing. Dressed in tailored linen trousers and twin set, with her hair twisted in long braids, she seemed an odd juxtaposition of woman and child. The expression in her eyes when she glanced down at him was wiser than any adolescent girl had a right to, yet there was an innocent sweetness to her apologetic smile.
“Sorry to make you climb all this way, but Dad’s on the phone. I had to use the call box at the market. I can find you something to eat, if you’re hungry. At least you won’t starve before we can get you to Aunt Addie’s. And I’ll warn you now it’s pretty crazy there. It’s a shame really, to throw you in there on your own. It must seem weird, meeting a whole new family of strangers like this. When are Uncle Patrick and your mother coming over?” She paused for breath at the landing.
“They should be here Friday night. They were delayed leaving Monaco, I’m afraid.” Kendall was touched by the idea that this girl wanted to take care of him. “How many are there at Mrs. . . .at Aunt Adelaide’s just now?”
“Let’s see, Uncle Sean and Aunt Maureen just arrived from Edinburgh yesterday. Then there are some cousins, mainly from Dublin and Kilkenny.” As she pushed her way through the partially open door, she turned to him with a grimace. “At least a dozen little kids, most under the age of ten. Maeve and Agnes are there, of course, and Jack. They’re the closest to our ages, but Jack thinks he’s quite the college man these days, too old to run around with the rest of us.” He nodded, resisting the temptation to point out the number of years between their ages, or that he was a college man himself.
With a candid glance, Kendall took in the casual opulence of the flat’s sitting room, furnished in gleaming wood and tasteful upholstery, the walls hung with an impressive collection of artwork. His eyes came to rest on a painting he recognized as the work of John Lavery and he must have gawked at the sight.
“Don’t be too impressed. It’s a print. A very low number, but still a print. We have the original in the brownstone in New York. It’s one of Dad’s favorites.”
Swallowing his amazement, he reminded himself that this girl, and indeed most of the Shannons, lived in a world he could only dream of visiting. “It’s very beautiful.”
“Would you like to freshen up? It sounds like Dad’s still at it in there.” Through the closed door to an adjoining room, muffled but firm and persuasive in tone, the voice of the great man himself could be heard. “He’ll win this one, but it’s taking a little bit longer than he expected. There’s a lot of money riding on it, you see, so he won’t lose.”
“An investor?” he asked, as though he had some notion of what was being discussed.
“Oh, no. A donation. To the foundation, you know.”
“I’m afraid I don’t. High finance is very much out of my league.”
“The Mary Margaret Shannon Foundation, in memory of my mother. Dad spends as much time on foundation business as he does at the bank. Right now, he’s cornered an old classmate from Cornell and he’ll end up with a five-figure endowment for a scholarship fund before the day’s over, or my name isn’t Anna Margaret Shannon.”
He grinned in spite of himself. The pride in her eyes as she gazed at the closed door and the confident little toss of her head punctuating that statement were in stark contrast to her pert, lightly freckled face. “Is it? Anna Margaret, I mean. I’d only heard Peg.”
“I’ve always been called Peg, but in the future, I may decide to use my full name. More impressive, don’t you think?”
“I suppose.” He wanted to tell her the name had nothing to do with her impressiveness. She was plainly a force to be reckoned with already, with a keen mind and a disarming frankness that left him wondering what she’d be like ten years from now.
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners? The bathroom’s right through there. I’ll put the kettle on. I assume you’ll drink tea? Katie, she’s our maid here, always leaves some sandwiches in the fridge. I don’t cook, you see.”
Thus dismissed, he did the necessary, noting that his reflection in the mirror didn’t appear too shabby, despite the long day. He was blessed, he knew, with the sort of good looks which could take a beating and still serve him well. No dark circles beneath his blue eyes, no pallor to his suntanned face, and his black hair possessed just enough curl to resist damp or wind. It wasn’t that Kendall was vain; but he’d long been aware of the benefits which came with broad shoulders and elegant manners. As a teenager during the war, tall for his age and able to pull off a dinner jacket without looking ridiculous, he’d been call into service as an escort for his mother’s friends, several of whom had shown him favors far beyond exposure to concerts and plays.
He started at the sharp rap on the door. “Do you need milk for your tea? I’m afraid ours may have gone sour. I never touch the stuff, but Katie insists we have some on hand. I can run down to the market if you do.”
“No, that’s all right. I don’t take it anyway. I’ll be there in a tick.”
“No hurry.” The reply was muffled as she walked away. Bold little thing, he smirked at his reflection. Somehow he doubted Peg Shannon would be impressed by his looks or his experience. The thought was oddly refreshing, and he released the day’s built-up anxiety in a long sigh, realizing his headache had all but disappeared.
She’d set the small dining table with fine china and silver, along with a linen napkin. “This is very elegant. You’re not joining me?”
“Oh, no. I ate hours ago. Dad may have something when he’s done. Dad can eat anytime of the day or night.” As she talked, she filled his cup and moved a platter of sandwiches toward him. “How was your trip over?”
“Fine. A bit choppy, though. I’m not the best sailor, I’m afraid.” He sampled what appeared to be an egg sandwich, realizing he was well past hungry. “This is just the thing, Peg. Or perhaps I should call you Cousin Peg?”
“Please don’t! There’s so much ‘cousin this’ and ‘auntie that’ over here, I get confused. I haven’t been here since I was five, before the war, you know. I don’t really know any of these people yet. We have that in common, I guess. Being strangers in a strange land, so to speak.”
He chuckled, sipping at the scalding tea. “I suppose. But they’re your family. I’m the outsider.”
“Oh, but they’re all looking forward to meeting you. I should warn you, they’ve seen your photograph and Maeve for one is absolutely crazed to get a closer look. Watch out for Maeve, if you get my drift. She’s boy-crazy as all get out, and you’re not really cousins, after all. She’s on the make for a summer romance, or my name isn’t . . .”
Barely stifling a chuckle, Kendall supplied, “. . .Anna Margaret Shannon? And thank you, Miss Shannon, for the warning.” She pulled a face, scrunching her nose and poking her tongue out a polite distance. “You know, you might be able to help me sort out who’s who here. My mother’s quite hopeless with such things, I’m afraid.”
“Sure. Just pay attention when I introduce you to everybody. And they’ll all be very understanding, you being new. Me, they seemed to think I should remember them all, but that was ages ago. I just pretended I remembered so as not to insult anybody at first.”
“Ah, yes, your penchant for pretending. You certainly had me fooled over the telephone. I was expecting a woman of at least twenty-one. You made me feel the complete idiot down there on the curb.”
She giggled, a warm, girlish sound that made him smile. “I know. You should’ve seen your face!” She paused, glancing down at her hands folded on the table in front of her. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I really like you, Kendall Gregg. I think we’re going to end up being super good friends.”