Check out the first chapter below.
“Kate, we need to leave now.” My cousin Agnes charged past me out of the pre-dawn darkness grabbed my shoes from the shelf where they lived safely out of puppy reach and tossed them at me. While I was still struggling to tie my shoes, she pulled my coat off the rack shoving me out the door and into Henry, her Ford Explorer. Before I could even ask where we were going, we were headed south on the Yankee Expressway known to the locals as Connecticut Route 6, toward the interstate. She reached between the seats and grabbed a large Dunkin’ Donuts bag which she plopped onto my lap.
“There’s two cups of tea and croissants with orange marmalade. It was the best I could do on short notice.”
Having grown up with four brothers, my first instinct was to argue, but the smell of those buttery croissants on my still sleep befuddled brain was too tempting to ignore. In half the time it normally took, we turned up the ramp onto I-84 and were heading west.
Once the bag’s contents, including both cups of tea, were history, I felt awake enough to speak. “Where the hell are we going?”
“Into the city.”
“I hate to inform you, Rambo, but taking someone across state lines against their will is kidnapping, a federal offense. I’ve got two businesses to run in Connecticut and don’t have time to watch the sunrise over the Hudson with you.”
“It’s all taken care of. Sal is getting coverage. You were smart to bring him on as kennel manager. He told me he could manage without you in the boarding kennel this weekend. This week’s numbers are low because, next week, everyone and his brother will be boarding their dogs, when they go away for the long Thanksgiving weekend. Since it’s Saturday you’re not scheduled to teach training classes. Also, I checked, and you don’t have any entries in the dog show at the Big E this weekend so that’s not an issue. Lastly, according to Ellen Martin, you could take the month off from your knitting studio and still submit the number of new designs you’ve created for the business since summer. Your studio manager is about to start kicking your butt.”
I stared ahead, silent. I had to admit, I’d hit a dry spell. Following the second funeral, I’d just stopped, thinking, doing or caring. If it didn’t happen by rote, it didn’t get done.
In the Killoy family, I was not only the sole girl of the five children, but the only offspring who possessed a passion for the world of dog breeding and showing, especially Samoyeds. My mother and all four of my brothers lived and breathed mathematics. That was Dad’s and Gramps’ field too, but their true passion was the dogs. I, meanwhile, showed no aptitude, let alone genius, for numbers and it absolutely appalled everyone when I snubbed MIT to study fashion design. But Dad and Gramps stepped up to the plate and supported me, turning the second floor of the dog-training barn into a design studio for my business. The fact that my designs were aimed at people who showed dogs, also helped.
Losing Gramps to cancer had been heartbreaking, but I’d seen it coming and I still had Dad. Sharing our love of dogs, the three of us had been a team all my life. Since I was seven, we’d spent weekends together at dog shows. They had taught me my craft the way no one else ever could. Always together, we became “The Three Amigos” of the dog-show world. With Gramps gone, Dad and I had just begun to build a new connection, working as a pair. We had begun taking an interest in the new litter of puppies and their show potential. We’d actually been in the puppy pen, laughing at their antics, when the aneurysm hit him. They told me later there was nothing I could have done. Dad was dead before he reached the hospital. My world caved in as though the ground had been cut out from under me. I stood at his graveside, oblivious of the crowds that had gathered. I was alone and, after that, nothing seemed worth the effort.
We’d driven for about half an hour when I finally I roused myself. “Why?”
Agnes didn’t take her eyes off the road. “So I can help a friend. As for why you’re going, I need someone who looks like you.”
“Looks like me how?”
“I need someone who looks like a kid. You’ve got to pretend to be a kid who likes dogs but knows nothing about them. Act like you’re very shy so you won’t have to talk, your voice would give you away.” Her eyes were glancing at the clock every few minutes.
“You look twelve.”
“Agreed. Though I think I qualify as veteran bitch. Look, Kate, you’ve been trading on that ‘little-girl’ look in the ring for years. I just thought I’d take advantage of it for once. You run around the ring with your braid flying and your cute innocent expression and all the judges think it cool to put up the young handler with the great dog. Tell the truth. Don’t you think it’s about time to start playing on a level field with the grown-ups?”
“Any more advice, Dear Abby? What else can’t you stand?”
“Well someone’s got to tell you this stuff. Your mother doesn’t notice you exist, Grace is too sweet to criticize her granddaughter, and everyone else thinks it but likes you too much to say anything. It needed saying. You adored your dad and granddad, but they kept you frozen in amber and didn’t let you grow up. If they’d tried this type of control with your brothers, there would have been war, but you were their sweet little girl. They could keep you young and play with you in the dog show world forever.”
“They didn’t…” I began what I knew was a flimsy protest.
“You haven’t changed a thing about yourself since you were twelve. Even in design school, people thought you were some young kid in a special program. People didn’t take you seriously.”
I moved as far from her as possible. Pressing up against the door I stared out the window. I wanted to scream and shout that she was wrong. She wasn’t. What’s more I’d known it for a long time but just didn’t want to admit it because the thought of change scared the hell out of me.
With work everything was fine. I could run the kennel and teach the classes, no problem. And my design business was done online. No challenge there. No, I knew she meant that I should have a social life as a woman. Truth was that terrified me. The world of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll was not even in my solar system. I glanced at her determined expression and knew I was about to be ripped from my protective cocoon and thrown into the cold cruel world. After more miles of silence, Agnes sighed and glanced my way.
“Remember when we were kids and I’d ask you to do things and not ask why?” I nodded. “This operation is like that. I’m involved in something I can’t discuss, but I need your help.”
The words “Go to hell,” popped into my head, but “fine,” came out of my mouth.
We were making excellent time. She crossed onto I-684 heading into White Plains. It was good we’d gotten this far so early because the sun was coming up–and that meant a gazillion cars would be flooding the highway any minute traveling the same direction we were. I twisted in my seat to look at Agnes. She was biting her lower lip as her thumb twisted the Claddagh ring she always wore. She was nervous which was unheard of for her. She could handle any situation with style and aplomb. Hell, her photo was on a billboard in Time Square. I’d never seen her stressed. I went back to staring out the window. We ate up the miles as we transitioned from the Saw Mill River Parkway to the Henry Hudson Parkway which ran along the Hudson River as both the city and the sun rose before us.
Before I knew it, we were swinging into the parking garage of Agnes’ condo. I headed toward the elevator, but she yelled, “Come on,” and ran for the street.
Five minutes later we slowed to a stop at the entrance to Central Park nearest Strawberry Fields, an area named in memory of John Lennon. Agnes grabbed a gaudy scarf from her pocket tying it around her head like a turban, and turned her reversible white coat inside out so, the white fake-fur collar stood out against a now bright-purple coat. Then she put on the ugliest pair of glasses ever designed and slipped the strap of a camera over her head.
We’d barely gone forty feet into the park when I noticed a group of men moving toward us. “Don’t speak and follow my lead,” she whispered. Then in a voice that dripped of a supposed Georgia birth, she ordered me to pose in front of a statue as she morphed into the quintessential obnoxious touristzilla. My eyes focused immediately on a gorgeous Afghan Hound walking at the side of Bill Trumbull, a handler I’d known all my life. “Oh my God, darlin’, will you look at that pretty doggie!” Agnes gushed. “Oh I’ve got to get a photo of that. People back home won’t believe that you can see something that beautiful just walkin’ in the park.”
The men had all stopped because we were blocking the walkway. I automatically moved toward the dog which was an exceptional blue-gray color with a white blaze. “I just know that you gentlemen won’t mind if my baby sister poses for a picture with your magnificent doggie. Step a little closer sweetie. Stand right behind the—excuse me, what kind of dog is this?” Agnes raised her camera and waved me into position. I stood beside Bill, but he didn’t show any recognition.
“It’s an Afghan Hound, madam. You may touch the coat young lady.” He reached out to stroke the dog. “Feel how sleek it is—like your own beautiful long hair.” He reached out and stroked my hair, giving it a slight yank partway down.
“Oh, thank you so much.” Agnes gushed. “Come on, darlin’ we don’t want to be late meeting Cheryl for breakfast.” I turned and waved shyly at Bill then hurried to join Agnes. As soon as we were out of sight, we exited the park. She waved down a cab and gave the cabbie an address I didn’t know. As we started forward, she looked back to make sure we hadn’t been observed. Once we were in traffic, Agnes grabbed my shoulders.
“Turn around and let me see your braid.” Her hands worked their way down to the spot where Bill had yanked it.
She pulled something out of the braid along with a clump of hair that had recently been attached to my head. Turning, I saw her slip a mini memory card into her bag.
“What the hell is going on?” I was now getting worried. “Bill acted as if he’d never seen me.”
Agnes didn’t answer; she just looked out the window.
We pulled up in front of a brownstone building with a plaque on the door that read Marcel. As we got out of the cab, I looked at her. “Those men with Bill were not the kind I’d like to meet in a dark alley. Are they a danger to Bill or to us?”
“Neither they’re bodyguards.”
I looked at her in surprise as we climbed the front steps, but her frown told me the subject was off limits. When we neared the top, she turned to me, grasping my shoulders to hold my attention. “Since you were twelve years old, what has been your one goal in life?”
I laughed because this had been the family joke forever. “You mean my fantasy, to have my own fashion show here in the city during Fashion Week?”
“Well, what if it weren’t a fantasy? What if it were a challenge? What if I told you that since we were coming into the city today, I thought it might be a good time to kill two birds with… well, you get the picture? Kate, it’s about time you show the world that you really are a serious designer. Fashion Week is in February right before the Westerland Kennel Club show. I pulled some strings—well a lot of strings—and you’d better be ready to put your ass on the line, kiddo, because your fashion show is in the works. I suggested it at the board meeting of the Canine Genetics Foundation. They were looking for something to use as charity event to raise research money during show week. It will happen the last evening of Fashion Week. You’ll meet with the sponsors later today to finalize the plans and sign the contracts.”
My foot slipped on the top step and I grabbed the railing to keep from falling flat on my butt. Her words slowly sank in and began to have meaning. “I get a fashion show of my designs…here?”
“Actually, I think Marcel might object to that use of his front steps, but the ballroom of the host hotel should do. It’s scheduled for the Saturday of their show week, which, as I said, happens to be the last day of Fashion Week so all the buyers will still be in town. You’d better close your mouth or Marcel will think you’re an idiot.”
“There is only one Marcel. He’s my step one in the plan to pull you out of your cocoon and turn you from a frumpy, dog-enrapture child into a sophisticated fashion designer. That has got to happen before you sit at the grown-up table today to sign the contracts for the show.”
Agnes pulled me inside to meet Marcel and in a flurry of activity my transformation began.
Like Alice after falling down the rabbit hole, I felt disoriented. Each successive change was tearing me farther away from the only Kate Killoy I had ever known. Saying goodbye to my braid broke my heart since my hair had never been cut. The resulting stylish hair-do, clothes, and make-up created an entirely new person. As she stared back at me from the mirror, I didn’t recognize her. She was beautiful. She scared me to death.
Agnes and her agent, Arden, supervised all the contracts for my show. The deal guaranteed a winning result for all. The Agnes & Arden show took over the room, charming everyone while they pointed to the many places I, and everyone else involved should sign. Once the stack of contracts was complete, they left, pulling me in their wake. Each gave me a high-five and welcomed me to the world of high fashion. I had ceased thinking hours ago and was running on autopilot. All I could do was smile and mutter my thanks. Reality began forcing its nasty way into my brain and I questioned whether thanks were premature. Had I just signed contracts that could sound the death knell for my career?
We’d spent so much time today in Agnes’ fairytale world that I was surprised when we arrived at a place I actually recognized.
Reilly’s was my great-aunt and -uncle’s favorite pub. We pushed open the door, and there they were. I was so happy to see familiar faces I almost burst into tears trying to hug them both.
Maeve, held me at arms length, just staring at me, but Padraig leaned over me to whisper in my ear. “You are the spitting image of Maeve the day I fell in love with her. John and Tom would be thrilled speechless if they could see you now. In fact they’re probably doing a jig up in heaven now, knowing their little girl has grown up.”
I wanted to cry but was afraid the tears would turn my newly applied makeup into a horror mask.
Supper turned out to be a noisy affair with friends of Maeve and Padraig coming over to our table to be introduced to Agnes and me. For some reason, many thought I was a model too. Only their oldest friends recognized me right off.
Reilly’s attracted mostly retired members of what I called ‘The long arm of the law club.’ Patrons tended to be both active and retired NYPD, FBI, CIA and MI-5. Maeve had been working for MI-5 when she met Padraig. They moved to New York where Padraig’s family business was, but Maeve had kept her hand in, on an informal basis.
Partway through dinner, a man whose name wasn’t mentioned joined us at the table pulling up a chair next to Agnes. As I watched, she slipped him the memory card. He apparently knew everyone there, because he jumped right into the conversation. After about five minutes he said his goodbyes and disappeared. Agnes leaned back, relaxed and ordered a cocktail, the signal, I guess, for a job done.
I wasn’t sure if I was just overly conscious of my new appearance, but I was aware that we were being watched. The watchers sat at a table to our left. At first I didn’t pay much attention. I know the effect Agnes has on the world’s male population. However, as one hour passed into two, this began to feel creepy. The younger one, who was dressed much more formally than any of the other men in the place, neither spoke nor ate. Every time I glanced in his direction, his eyes—his beautiful green eyes, I noticed—were focused on me. He didn’t look like the men shadowing Bill, but…
When we stood to leave, I took Agnes’ arm. “Those two guys at the table on the left have been watching us since we arrived. The guy in the double-breasted suit hasn’t taken his eyes off me since we came in. Could he have recognized us from the park? Should we be worried?”
She glanced casually in their direction. “No, you needn’t worry. Nobody could recognize you as that little girl in the park this morning.” She grinned at me. “Brace yourself, Kate, I’d say it’s a case of you having your first admirer.”
When we turned to go out, I frowned and glanced back at the table. Both men were still watching. From where I stood, I couldn’t read the expression on the younger guy’s face, but when I looked at his older friend who had focused all evening entirely on Agnes, what I saw wasn’t admiration. His look was pure, unmistakable hatred.