Chapter One Cornelia p
It was winter in New York City and the days were short. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the sun already hung low over the horizon, casting sharp pink light on the clouds above the skyscrapers.
Cornelia S. Englehart lagged five steps behind her classmate Lauren Brannigan as they walked down the street. School had just ended for the day.
Lauren wheeled around to face Cornelia, her long blond braids whipping through the air. “Come on, Cornelia,” she said irritably, as if Cornelia were her annoying little sister. “Hurry up.”
Cornelia reluctantly quickened her pace.
“So, what do you want to do this afternoon?” Lauren asked without enthusiasm after they had walked several blocks in complete silence.
Now, in certain circles, Cornelia was renowned for her extreme reserve. Some girls always have a coterie of pretty friends, sisters, and cousins fluttering around them—but not her. She spent most of her time alone and hadn’t had playmates since nursery school. Party invitations and after-school playdates had become few and far between. And when Cornelia did get asked over to someone’s house, she was terribly out of practice and awkward.
“We can do whatever you want,” Cornelia answered, her breath forming a misty cloud in the cold air.
Lauren sighed impatiently. “Well, I just got some new American Girl play scripts for Christmas,” she said. “Maybe we can dress up and act one of them out.”
Cornelia’s heart sank. “I’ve never done a play before,” she said, longing for her warm bedroom at home, with her armchair and all of her books.
“Fine,” Lauren said. “My older sister just got a karaoke machine as one of her presents. Why don’t we use that?”
What a nightmare, Cornelia thought. “I don’t like singing either,” she said.
Lauren lost her patience. “What do you like to do, then?” she snapped, staring at Cornelia.
“We could play Scrabble,” Cornelia suggested. It would give her secret satisfaction to trounce Lauren in the game, for Cornelia knew lots of uncommon words. It was her special weapon.
“That is so boring,” said Lauren as she strode down the street. “But better than nothing, I suppose.”
They arrived at Lauren’s brownstone house and rang the front doorbell. When they heard the sound of footsteps coming toward the door from inside, Lauren whispered to Cornelia, “The only reason I invited you over in the first place is because my mother made me.”
She smiled meanly as Cornelia’s face turned ashen. At that moment, Mrs. Brannigan yanked the front door open.
“Hello, girls,” she cried, clapping her hands together in apparent joy. “Come in, come in. It’s absolutely freezing out there! Hello, hello, Cornelia! Welcome to our humble home. It’s about time you came over and visited us. Ever since I heard that you were in Lauren’s class, I have been simply begging Lauren to invite you over to play. And you live so nearby as well.” She took the girls’ coats and stuffed them into the front closet. “Follow me, troops—I have a snack for you in the kitchen,” she shouted as she practically galloped down the front hallway.
Lauren glared at her guest as she followed her mother to the kitchen. Cornelia trailed after them.
“Sit down, ladies, sit down,” Mrs. Brannigan whooped, clattering down some plates, cupcakes, and glasses of milk for the girls. Cornelia, who found Mrs. Brannigan as volatile as a pot of boiling water, warily sat down at the kitchen table. Mrs. Brannigan plunked down in the chair next to her.
Lauren stomped to the refrigerator. “I want Sprite, not milk,” she complained. “I’m not five years old, in case you forgot.” Of course, she didn’t offer Cornelia any soda as she poured herself a huge glass.
Mrs. Brannigan gave a little hoot. “Have whatever you want, dearest, as long as it’s not brandy,” she said, and smiled coyly at her cleverness. Then she swiveled around and leaned in toward Cornelia as if they were long-lost friends.
“So, my dear,” Mrs. Brannigan said. “How is that mother of yours?”
“Fine,” Cornelia replied, wishing by now that she were at the bottom of the ocean. The cupcake sat like a wart on the plate in front of her.
“I heard her play in a concert at Carnegie Hall last month,” Mrs. Brannigan said. “Marvelous, absolutely marvelous! She has such flair, and my goodness, is she gorgeous! Those long, elegant arms! I could just die! I imagine that you play the piano too, don’t you?”
“No,” said Cornelia.
“What?” shrieked Mrs. Brannigan. “You don’t? How can that be? I would think that your parents would insist! Especially since you’re their only child, and all of that talent would go to waste if you didn’t play too! After all, your father is a famous pianist also, isn’t he?”
Cornelia stared at her glass of milk. “Yes, he is,” she said after a moment. “But I’ve never met him.”
For the first time since the girls had walked through the front door, the room was utterly silent. Even Lauren stared at Cornelia.
Mrs. Brannigan shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Ohhh,” she said. “I see. Well, that’s all right, dear.” She patted Cornelia’s hand in a fakey, consoling manner.
Then she went on, “In any case, your mother seems so fabulous. I have always wanted to get to know her! She seems very warm. And, you see, I am planning this charity gala—a big party—and I’m sure it would be a big hit if your mother played the piano at it.”
Tears sprang to Cornelia’s eyes. Now she understood the invitation to Lauren’s house. Believe it or not, this sort of thing had happened to her before. It always astonished Cornelia that adults were willing to make such fools of themselves in front of her just to get the chance to meet her famous mother.
“I think I’ll go home now,” she said, feeling older than her eleven years. “I have a stomachache.” She got up and began to walk toward the front door. Lauren looked elated for the first time that afternoon.
“Ohhhh,” wailed Mrs. Brannigan, sensing that her mission was in danger. “What’s the matter, sweetie?” She followed Cornelia down the hallway and snatched an envelope from a desk in the foyer.
“Just a second, dear,” she cried, handing the envelope to Cornelia. “Please give this to your mother. And come back anytime! I mean it—absolutely anytime!”
Cornelia put on her coat, marched out the front door, and closed it behind her, sealing Mrs. Brannigan back up inside. Cornelia sighed with relief. Her visit had lasted a grand total of ten minutes, nearly a record high for an after-school social outing.
She looked at the letter in her hand. “To Lucy” was scrawled on the front of the envelope. “Please call me!” was written on the back of it.
Cornelia dropped it in the gutter and went for a stroll.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters by Lesley M. M. Blume. Copyright © 2006 by Lesley M. M. Blume. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.