Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat
For some odd reason, those words echoed through Trixie Belden’s mind as she tossed her change into the Salvation Army bucket manned by an elderly gentleman clanging his shiny brass bell.
A small little boy held his mittened hand over the same bucket and slowly dropped a single copper-colored penny in, smiling when he heard it clang against the other change. The kindly volunteer patted him gently on the head.
“God bless you,” he told the little tyke with a smile.
As she watched, the next part of the lyrics wafted through Trixie’s brain.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God Bless You!
Of course, the sappy sentimentality of the words was mitigated by the fact that it was Miss Piggy’s voice Trixie could hear singing in her head. She giggled happily. God, she loved Christmas!
And she was going home for the holidays! Her steps were light and her smile wide. She stopped just short of doing an undignified jig; after all, she was wearing her dress uniform.
Lieutenant Beatrix Belden strolled the shops of Norfolk, Virginia, picking up a few last minute Christmas gifts. She had actually done most of her shopping online, and had had all her gifts shipped home to Crabapple Farm weeks ago. But when she’d received her orders for thirty days’ leave the previous evening, she’d felt she couldn’t arrive empty-handed – thus the impromptu shopping trip two days before Christmas.
In a move calculated to increase both her scholarship opportunities and her experience in intelligence gathering, Trixie had joined a Navy ROTC program while studying criminology in college. Upon completing her degree, she was then required to serve a term of active duty in the Navy. At first, she had been excited by the opportunity and by the adventure of it all. But the longer she was away from home, the more she realized that sooner or later, she was going to end up settling down in Sleepyside. Adventures were grand, but home and hearth were precious, and she missed her family terribly.
Trixie had just spent the last eighteen months aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf, actively involved in the conflict in Iraq. Although shipboard life was a bit different than being with the ground forces in-country, her posting with Naval Intelligence had meant that she had been pretty consumed with the war during that time. Her primary duties had involved gathering, translating and processing intelligence reports from a variety of sources. She had been grateful when her tour was over.
After such a tour, it was natural to expect leave before your next assignment. But when a weather event delayed her ship’s docking in Norfolk until December 21st, she never expected to get her leave in time to be home for Christmas. She had informed her parents that she wouldn’t be home until after the first of the year, and had promised to call them on Christmas morning.
When her orders had changed the previous day, she’d been ecstatic. But she hadn’t called home. What better Christmas present than a surprise?
Although her gait was proper for her winter-weight dress blues with the skirt and sensible heels, excitement radiated off her. She seemed to be dancing gaily down the street, grinning from ear to ear and spreading sunshine through the gloom of the gray, dreary day. More than one passerby felt the need to smile after seeing her.
A quick mental calculation convinced her she could squeeze in one more stop before heading for the airport. She couldn’t afford to be late for her flight, after all. Nothing was more important than her travel plans.
Sleepyside, here I come!
Jim Frayne sat down at the desk in his dorm room and slowly beat his forehead against its surface. His frustration level was rising by the second. When he had submitted his doctoral thesis in November, he had expected his review committee to schedule his defense for January. It must have been a cruel, sick, evil mind that had decided the appropriate date for his defense should be December 22nd.
The university should be shut down for the holidays by now, for crying out loud, he thought. After more than nine long years of hard work on his various degrees, the end was finally in sight. In his current mood, however, he was just about ready to chuck it all out the window.
He really wanted to go home. He had spent Thanksgiving with his parents, visiting family in England. He had worked a summer internship at the university. He had spent spring break visiting his cousin Juliana in Holland. It had been an entire year since he’d been home. When he finally made it to Sleepyside, he was going to jump out of the car and kiss the ground.
If he made it to Sleepyside. He was still waiting for his advisor to call to give him the all-clear to leave. If she didn’t do it soon, Jim wouldn’t be able to find a flight home. If that happened… Forget it. He was desperate enough to get home for Christmas that he’d forget all his personal biases against the privileges of his family’s wealth, and call Dad to send the jet for him.
He was going home for Christmas, dammit!
Ready to scream in aggravation, Jim jumped up and paced the room. He stopped in front of the window, staring out at the 55-degree sunshine of the December day in Texas. Even after three years here, he still couldn’t help but feel it was just wrong to have this kind of weather in December.
You can take the boy out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the boy, he thought ruefully. He came to the conclusion, once again, that he needed to settle down in Sleepyside.
Jim had dreamed all his life of starting a school for boys that included camping, hiking, and other outdoors skills. He had visited schools all over the country, and scouted locations for his own in every wilderness area that existed, but nothing ever seemed right. Finally, he had realized what he was missing. His school was supposed to be a place for troubled kids to get a second chance, just like he’d gotten. For him, that second chance had meant Sleepyside. Not only did he need the symbolism of that, but he needed his connection to his home and friends there to keep him strong enough to be a beacon of hope to his young charges.
I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
The song blaring from the radio mocked him; he felt no remorse whatsoever for picking up a shoe and hurling it at the offending machine.
Just then the phone rang. Jim dove for it like a parched man reaching for a bottle of water. After a brief conversation, Jim hung up, grabbed his duffle bag, and raced from the room, grinning from ear to ear.
Sleepyside, here I come!
When attempting to book a last minute flight two days before Christmas, one should be willing to fly whatever is available, making any and all weird connections required, in order to get to the intended destination. Even with an open mind and a flexible attitude, however, pitfalls were everywhere.
By the time Trixie’s flight to Reagan National Airport landed, she was certain she’d never make her connecting flight to LaGuardia. When they were delayed on the ground waiting for an open gate, she began to panic. She signaled the flight attendant and asked about her connection. When the response was pessimistic, she became desperate.
Her big blue eyes pleaded pitifully while she said, “I know we’re all just trying to get home for the holidays, so I really hate to try and play upon your sympathies, but…”
Jim settled back in his seat. He’d had a long layover waiting for his connecting flight, and was more than ready to finally take off for New York. The flight crew had closed the door several minutes ago. The queue of planes waiting for an open gate was clearly visible, so he assumed they would push back from the gate quickly so another plane could take their place, even if they had to wait for clearance for takeoff. And yet, they weren’t moving.
The captain turned on the intercom. “Ladies and gentleman, we apologize for the delay. We’re waiting for one passenger from a connecting flight. We know everyone is anxious to get on their way, and we normally wouldn’t hold the flight, but… we’ve got a young naval officer returning from active duty in the Persian Gulf, and we’d really like to get her home for Christmas. Thank you for your patience.”
Jim’s heart skipped a beat at the announcement. Shaking his head, he scolded himself for grasping at straws. Trixie wasn’t supposed to get leave until January. Nonetheless, when the flight crew opened the door he leaned over the passenger next to him, straining to see through the windows of the plane and into the connecting jetbridge.
The woman next to him watched him with interest. “Curious about our naval officer, are you?”
He shrugged sheepishly. “It’s just that a very special friend of mine is returning from the Gulf. She didn’t think she’d get leave before January.”
Just then he caught an array of golden curls spilling out from beneath a white uniform cap and a brilliant smile for the jetbridge operator holding the door.
“Oh my God,” Jim breathed. He sat up straight, a quiet joy suddenly spreading over his face.
His seatmate smiled in amusement. “I take it that’s her.”
Jim could only nod as his attention focused on the front of the aisle. He unbuckled his seatbelt and stood up.
Trixie bounded onto the plane, grasping the flight attendant’s hand and smiling. “Thank you very much! This means a lot to me.”
She turned her head toward the aisle just in time to see a tall redhead rising in his seat halfway down the aisle. Her heart leapt to her throat while her jaw dropped and her bag hit the deck. Then she was grinning and running down the aisle.
“Jim!” she shrieked as she flew into his arms.
He grabbed her around the waist and lifted her, holding her tight and burying his face in her curls. She wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed as hard as she could.
The entire plane erupted in applause.
The flight attendant grabbed Trixie’s bag and followed her down the aisle, smiling widely. Jim’s seatmate rose and waved to the flight attendant.
“I think you should arrange for me to change seats with the young lady,” she said with a laugh.
“Absolutely,” the flight attendant agreed.
Jim and Trixie were oblivious to it all. When he finally loosened his grip on her, it was only to lower her feet to the floor and lean his forehead against hers.
“I thought you weren’t getting leave until January,” he said.
“My orders changed yesterday. I wanted to surprise everyone,” she answered.
“Well, you certainly made my Christmas,” he promised.
Trixie buried her face in his chest. “I’ve missed you so much!”
The flight attendant cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Lieutenant.”
Trixie turned, startled to realize she was holding up the works. “I’m so sorry!”
The attendant smiled kindly. “It’s quite alright. I am going to have to ask you to sit so we can get underway, but we’ve arranged for you to have the seat next to your friend.”
Trixie smiled and gave her a quick, impulsive hug. “Thank you!” she said before turning toward her new seat.
Jim glanced at the now-vacant seat. He had no idea how the woman had slipped past him, nor where she was sitting now. He hoped he spotted her at their destination so he could thank her for her kindness in changing her seating assignment. For now, he was happy to settle next to Trixie and enjoy the flight to New York.
Once they were comfortably seated and properly buckled, Jim turned to Trixie. “You seem awfully eager to get home.”
She nodded vigorously. “Oh, Jim, you know I love what I’m doing, but… I’m so homesick I can’t stand it! If I’d had to wait much longer to get home, I’d have just died!”
He had to laugh. The shy, clutzy, scatterbrained teenage girl had grown into a confident, gutsy, tough-as-nails woman – and distinguished herself as an officer – but there were some things that would never change about Trixie Belden. He found himself both amused and comforted by that.
“Doesn’t the Navy have enough adventure for you?” he teased.
In one of her trademark quicksilver changes of mood, Trixie sobered. In all seriousness, she said, “It’s not a lack of adventure; it’s a lack of home. All the adventures we had as kids, the ones I had in college… after them all I came home. Now I’m flying high, but I never have the chance to really rest. I’ve discovered that it’s an essential piece of who I am.”
She looked into his eyes, projecting her feelings with her entire being rather than with her words. “When my tour is up, I plan to stay in the Reserves, and I’m sure I’ll travel. But I’m parking my butt in Sleepyside for good.”
Jim nodded and covered her hand with his. “I know exactly what you mean. I haven’t been home in a year. I just saw my family at Thanksgiving, but we were in England; it wasn’t the same. I need to get home. It’s like I’ve been swimming underwater, but I can’t hold my breath any longer. The only place I can surface and fill my lungs is Sleepyside.”
Trixie smiled, grateful that he felt the same way she did. It was her turn to tease. “So, are you going to set your school schedule so that every few months you take a couple of weeks to go home?”
Jim narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You know… over the years, every time I’ve talked about an area of the country for my school, or looked at a particular piece of property, everyone has shared their opinions with me – given me their laundry list of pros and cons. Except you. You’ve never voiced a single opinion.”
“Oh, I’ve had opinions,” she said with an airy toss of her curls. “I’ve just kept them to myself.”
“Which is so completely unlike you that I used to wonder if you cared at all.”
Her eyes widening in shock, Trixie exclaimed, “Jim!”
He held a hand up before she could go any further. “Used to. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on in that crazy brain of yours.”
She merely quirked a brow, inviting him to explain.
Jim propped an elbow on the armrest and rested his chin on a freckled hand. He studied her face for the longest time before he continued. Finally he took a deep breath and sighed. “You’ve always known I’d build the school at Ten Acres, haven’t you?”
Trixie didn’t try to hide the smirk that crossed her face before her features settled into an expression of happiness for her dearest friend in the world. Ever so softly she said, “It had to be your idea, or you’d never have been happy with it.”
He shook his head. “I swear sometimes you know me better than I know myself.”
“Of course I do,” she smiled. “You don’t look at your weaknesses, because you wish they weren’t there. You expect so much of yourself that you don’t recognize your strengths as being that. But I see all of you. So, yeah… sometimes I know where you’re going long before you’ve even noticed the road.”
Jim stared at the bluest eyes he’d ever seen – the ones that could peer into his very soul – and time stood still. He experienced a moment of such perfect clarity that he felt like he was seeing for the very first time. His heartbeat changed its rhythm; his entire world shifted. And in that one moment, his life began.
When Jim just continued to stare at her without speaking, his emerald eyes alive with an intensity she’d never seen before, Trixie shifted uncomfortably. “What?”
With a smirk, he deflected her probing mind. “I thought you knew me better than I know myself.”
She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at him. “I’m not a word-for-word mind reader. I can tell that you have some profound thought in there, but I’m not sure what it is.”
He lifted his head and glanced at their surroundings. “Not here.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked with a frown.
He casually shifted in his seat. “There’s too many people here. I’ll tell you when we’re alone.”
“Oh, like that’s gonna happen,” she replied with a snort.
“Well, certainly not in Sleepyside. You’re gonna to walk in the door and Moms is going to start crying. Brian will hug the stuffing out of you while your dad beams proudly and tries not to get teary-eyed. Mart’s gonna have a silly grin and say something rude so he thinks no one will realize how happy he is to see you. And Bobby will say something goofy like, ‘Hey! My big sister’s a spy in the Navy!’”
Jim’s dead-on assessment of the Beldens’ reaction to Trixie’s homecoming had her howling with laughter. “Exactly! Which is why you have to tell me now!”
“Come on, Jim! Don’t torture me like that.”
He smirked. “When is your leave over?”
“What?!? Now you’re being a brat,” she pouted. “You can’t leave me hanging that long.”
Considering, he decided to cut her some slack. “I won’t. A car’s waiting for me at LaGuardia, and I’m generously offering to drive you home from the airport. We’ve got the whole ride home alone. You’ll live until then. Now, back to my question…”
Without wiping the pout from her face, Trixie answered, “I have to report back on January 27th, although I don’t know where yet. My new posting hasn’t come through.” Finished sulking, she cocked her head curiously. “When do you have to be back to school?”
Remembering, a huge grin split Jim’s freckled face. Emerald eyes twinkled in delight when he said, “I don’t.”
Trixie was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
His grin only got wider, if that was possible. “I defended my thesis yesterday. I’m done.”
Surprised delight flooded her face. “You mean done done? As in, finished? As in, the-diploma-just-needs-to-be-signed done?”
“That’s what I mean!”
Bouncing in her seat, she threw her arms around him. “I’m so happy for you… Doctor Frayne!”
Nearly giddy (in a purely manly way, of course), Jim grinned again. “You’re the first person to call me that.”
Trixie smiled happily. “I consider it an honor and a privilege.”
Once again, the emerald orbs became intense. “I’m glad it was you.”
With her throat suddenly dry, Trixie croaked, “Me too.”
In one of those perfectly-timed moments made for fiction, the flight attendant appeared just then with the beverage cart. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Trixie gratefully asked for a coke, while Jim requested an un-cola. Once the flight attendant had moved on to the passengers behind them, Trixie asked, “So, what next?”
“Now I start the real work,” Jim answered. “I only recently settled on Ten Acres. I have to have the land surveyed, the architectural plans drawn, the buildings built, etc. And while that’s going on, I have to do the paperwork for establishing the school. There’s a lot to be done before I can actually greet the first student.”
Sipping her coke and listening with rapt attention, Trixie asked, “How long do you expect that to take?”
He shrugged. “A couple of years. How long will you still be in the Navy?”
“A couple of years,” she parroted, mirroring his shrug.
Jim grinned. “Then I’ll schedule the ribbon-cutting for when you can hold the scissors.”
Trixie grinned back. “That’s a deal.”
Stretching his tall frame in the cramped airplane seat, Jim asked, “So, were you sent a copy of the schedule for this week?”
“Obviously not,” he chuckled. “My sister and her violet-eyed partner-in-crime have the entire week scheduled down to the minute.”
Aghast, she shuddered in mock horror. “I’m on leave! I have no desire to be subjected to military-style regimentality this week.”
Jim winked at her. “I’m sure the surprise of your arrival will cause instant flexibility in everyone around. Anyway, as the schedule stands, tomorrow is an early horseback ride, a window for last-minute shopping, a Bob-White meeting at the clubhouse, dinner at the Lynches’, and the candlelight service at the chapel. And Christmas day is breakfast at our own homes followed by a mid-day meal and Christmas extravaganza at Manor House. But, fortunately for you, tonight’s agenda calls for caroling, followed by hot cocoa and Christmas cookies at Crabapple Farm.”
Trixie glanced ruefully down at her stockings and regulation dress pumps. “I’m afraid these shoes weren’t exactly made for trudging through the snow and caroling.” Then she blushed prettily. “I know it sounds corny, but I really wanted to greet everyone in my dress uniform.”
“It’s not corny,” he disagreed with a tender smile. “You’re proud of who you are and what you do. Besides, it looks damned good on you.”
Instead of blushing and looking away, as she once might have done, Trixie grinned and said a bouncy, “Thank you.”
Returning her grin, Jim said, “How about this: we time the drive to Sleepyside so that we get to Crabapple Farm while everyone else is already out caroling. You get a chance to say hi to Moms and get first dibs on the cookies – before Mart scarfs them all – and you’re cozy in the kitchen, still in uniform, when everyone else shows up. Does that sound like a good plan?”
The two friends continued chatting and catching up with each other’s lives for the duration of the flight. They returned from their private world when the flight landed, as many of the passengers took the time to stop and wish them a Merry Christmas. Several older women shook Trixie’s hand and said, “God bless you.” They waited until last to depart the plane so that Trixie could take the time to personally thank each of the flight crew without holding anyone else up.
The public address system in the airport was blaring Christmas carols. They sung along as they wandered unhurriedly through the terminal, watching the hustle and bustle of the other travelers rushing to their holiday destinations.
Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock
Jingle bells swing and jingle bells ring
Snowing and blowing up bushels of fun
Now the jingle hop has begun
Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock
Jingle bells chime in jingle bell time
Dancing and prancing in jingle bell square
In the frosty air
What a bright time, it’s the right time
To rock the night away
Jingle bell time, what a swell time
To go riding in a one horse sleigh
Giddy-up jingle horse, pick up your feet
Jingle around the clock
Mix and a-mingle in the jingling beat
That’s the jingle bell rock!
As they were arriving at the baggage carousel, a young boy of about seven with curly blond hair spotted Trixie’s uniform. He ran over to them, stood tall, and saluted her proudly. She swallowed past the lump in her throat as she returned his salute.
“When I’m growed up, I wanna be jus’ like you!” he exclaimed with a precocious grin.
“Our country will be lucky to have you,” Trixie responded seriously, just as the little boy’s harried mother grabbed his hand.
Touched by the way the pretty young sailor had treated her son, the boy's mother smiled. “Thank you. Have a Merry Christmas.”
“And you as well,” Trixie replied with a nod as the mom ushered her son away.
Leaning down to speak in her ear, Jim asked, “Was I the only one having flashbacks of little Bobby Belden?”
Trixie giggled. “Not by a long shot.”
Jim scanned the crowd, noting the way other people noticed his special girl. “Walking through a public place in uniform must be an interesting experience.”
“It’s different at different times, in different places,” she said. “The older guys tell about being spit upon when they returned from Vietnam. In peacetime, people look at you like you’re out of place. But in post-911 New York… people are proud of their country and respect their troops. If you’re going to wear the uniform, you have to live up to that respect.”
Despite the full twelve inches he had on her, when Jim glanced her way he felt like he didn’t have to look down. Her diminutive height belied the stature she held in the crowded room. His heart swelled with pride.
When her large duffle bag swung around on the carousel, Jim’s eyes bugged. “Jeez, Trix, that thing’s as big as you are!” he said as he watched her lift it easily off the belt and set it on the floor beside her feet.
She just shrugged. “They don’t tailor-make them to fit the size of the sailor.”
When his own garment bag approached, Jim grabbed it and handed it to her. “At least leave me a sliver of male pride, and let me carry your bag.”
“I’m the officer, but you’re the gentleman?” she giggled.
“Yeah, something just like that,” he laughed as he hefted her duffle with one arm and placed the other hand at the small of her back. “All set?” he asked, before guiding her toward the parking ramp.
They journeyed to the private parking spot for which Matthew Wheeler paid ridiculous sums of money annually, solely to have it available for occasions such as this. Jim’s personal car was still in Dallas, but the brand new SUV waiting for them was more practical for the Hudson Valley roads in December. They stowed their gear, and when Jim closed the hatch Trixie absently traced a finger over the red, white and blue magnet ribbon that read “Support Our Troops”. Matt Wheeler wasn’t the type to place bumper stickers of any kind on his vehicles; the presence of this one was personal.
Choking back the feelings welling up inside her, Trixie turned and headed for the passenger door. As Jim came around to open it for her, she shifted her thoughts and said to him, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten your promise. As soon as we get in this car you have to tell me your profound thought.”
Making an impulsive decision for probably the first time in his life, Jim said, “Why wait?” He slid an arm around her waist and turned her, pulling her against him, cupping her cheek, his hand cool against her soft skin. She suddenly stared up into deep green eyes awash in a sea of emotion. He angled his head, and whispered, just before his lips tenderly claimed hers, “I’m in love with you.”
Her brain froze and her heart stopped, but her arms moved of their own volition. They reached up and wrapped around his neck, her fingers tangling in his hair as she pulled him closer, deepening the kiss. She’d been waiting for this moment since the day she’d met Jim Frayne, and even if the conscious part of her mind had shut down, the rest of her wasn’t going to miss out on this for all the world.
When they came up for a breath of air, Trixie mumbled, “Definitely worth waiting for.” And then she was kissing him again.
It took Jim a minute to process what she’d said. When it finally clicked, he pulled back to stare at her in surprise. “Just how long have you been waiting for me to do that?”
A look of tenderness and adoration stole across her face. “Eleven years.”
“Eleven years,” he repeated, dumbfounded. Then he shook his head. “I’m an idiot.”
She placed a finger over his lips to shush him. “No,” she said firmly. “You’re not. You’re a deep and complicated man who rarely does anything before he’s absolutely certain. It’s one of the things I love about you.” She grinned, blue eyes twinkling. “No matter how annoying it can be.”
“I’ll show you annoying…” he returned her grin and reclaimed her lips.
And so they stood, oblivious to the nip in the December air and the cars passing them in the garage, reveling in the first kisses of newly realized love.
Jim slowed the car down to a crawl as he drove into downtown Sleepyside. A sweet sense of belonging and of peace flooded his being. He glanced at Trixie and could see that her feelings matched his own. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, then squeezed his hand.
“You can come up for air, now,” she said.
“Yeah,” was all the reply he could muster.
He pulled the large SUV up next to the town square and put it into park, then cracked his window. Trixie leaned over and rested her head on Jim’s chest so she could see out his side of the car.
“Hello, Hoppy,” she whispered almost reverently.
Jim put his arm around her and rested his cheek on her curls. They sat there, just watching, for a while. Christmas lights twinkled on the stately old buildings bordering the square, while a light snowfall dusted everything with a crystalline sparkle. Somewhere nearby carolers were serenading their neighbors, and the joyful tones echoed through the air.
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic hearts proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
The indescribable bliss of home combined with the magic of Christmas to create a surreal beauty. The weary travelers soaked it all in. Trixie focused her gaze on the crèche in front of the nearby First Church.
“I suppose we should go see if there’s still room at the inn,” she sighed.
Jim snorted. “Like there would ever not be room for you at Crabapple Farm.”
“Besides,” Trixie giggled, “even if they sent me to the stables, Regan keeps them a heckuva lot more comfortable than the one Jesus had.”
“Yeah. This isn’t Bethlehem,” Jim said.
They grinned and chimed together, “It’s Sleepyside!”
Jim pulled into Crabapple Farm, weaving around the several vehicles already lining the long drive so that he could park close to the kitchen door. He figured anyone that might be annoyed by his presumption would forgive him when they realized for whom he’d done it. He reached for the key, but when he heard the opening strains of the song on the radio, he left it on.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
Trixie stared at the scene before her eyes. The land was covered in a soft blanket of snow, draping the limbs of the trees in robes of elegance. The charming farmhouse was awash in the sparkling glow of a thousand points of light, as the strings of red, white and green bulbs danced along the eaves and windows. Everything about the scene sang joyously of love, warmth and welcome.
Jim watched her drink it all in. Her curls seemed to absorb the light and glow with it, crowning her with a golden halo. Her skin shone with a happy luster, and her eyes glittered with a thin film of joyful tears. He could almost hear the drumbeat of her heart: “I’m home! I’m home!”
Reaching over and engulfing her small hand in his, Jim gave hers a squeeze. “Better weather than last Christmas?” he asked lightly.
She snorted. “Dry, desert sands with bitter cold winds if you got to go ashore, or frigid sea air aboard ship. Summer or winter, that place is harsh. There’s no gentleness about it.” She shook her head as her voice became wistful. “Did you ever consider a snowflake the softest, most beautiful thing in creation?”
A distant memory flashed in emerald eyes, and Jim smiled fondly. “Once, when I was fifteen. Snowflake mascara.”
A startled blue gaze flashed his way and Trixie burst out laughing. “Frayne, I love you.”
When she leaned over to give him a quick kiss, he pulled her closer and drank deeply of her sweet lips. Reluctantly releasing her, he said, “If I don’t take you in to see your mother right now, I’m gonna back the car out and carry you away to some secret hideout where I can have you all to myself.”
She stroked his cheek. “Christmas is for family. On the 26th you can have me all to yourself.”
With a burning intensity in his eyes, he whispered hoarsely, “I’m going to hold you to that.”
Kissing him one last time, she said, “Good.”
They got out of the car and snuck into the house. Jim helped Trixie out of her overcoat and hung it up in the mudroom, and set her bag by the door. Then he stamped his feet loudly and stuck his head into the kitchen, calling out, “Mrs. B! Are you here?”
Helen Belden appeared through the dining room door, a green- and red-checked apron covering her soft white sweater and red velvet skirt, carrying a tray of mugs for cocoa. A welcoming smile lit her face. ”Jim! We weren’t sure what time you’d arrive. Everyone is still out caroling.”
She set down her tray and hugged the young man who was like a son to her. He returned her embrace and said, “It’s okay. I needed to make a delivery here.”
“Oh? What kind of delivery?” Mrs. Belden asked as she turned to line the brightly-colored holiday mugs up on the counter.
Jim watched as she fussed over the refreshments for her soon-to-be-arriving guests, not really concentrating on his response because, as usual, her focus was on mothering her horde. Amusement rippled through his voice. “A little bit of Christmas cheer.”
She turned to him just as Trixie stepped through the kitchen doorway. “Hello, Moms.”
Moms gasped, and tears welled up in her eyes. Jim deftly caught the ceramic mug that slipped from her fingers as she ran forward to wrap her arms around her only daughter. “Oh, baby, you’re home!” she sobbed, holding her child close and hoping never to have to let go.
Trixie savored her mother’s embrace and returned it in kind. She closed her eyes and inhaled the particular scent – a mixture of soap, cinnamon and a light perfume – that she always associated with home. “I’m home, Moms. I’m home.”
Jim discreetly grabbed Trixie’s bag and coat from the mudroom, carrying them up to her room in order to give the two women a few moments of privacy. When he returned, Trixie was seated at the large old table of gleaming wood, with Moms fussing over her. A plate of homemade cookies was in front of her, and her mother was already fixing her hot cocoa.
Trixie winked and handed him a fresh gingerbread man. “Eat up, before Mart gets here.”
The “children” continued to soak up Moms’ attention, basking in the cozy warmth of home, until they heard the sound of carolers in the drive. Jim got up and glanced out the window as the last note died off. “Uh-oh.”
“Uh-oh, what?” Trixie asked impatiently.
“They may be awhile,” Jim chuckled. “Mart just started a snowball fight.”
Trixie grinned. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The back door opened and boots stamped on the step. Peter Belden’s voice drifted into the kitchen as he removed the snowy footwear and his coat. “I’m getting too old for this,” he grumbled good-naturedly. “These youngsters wear me out.”
Trixie rose and stood at attention by the table while Helen walked toward the door.
“Peter.” Helen said his name in a tone that had her husband’s immediate attention. He swiftly poked his head into the kitchen to see what was the matter. Although his eyes went directly to his beloved wife of many years, it took barely a heartbeat for his gaze to progress past her and land on the formal and proper young woman who was, and would always be, his precious little girl.
He blinked back the moisture in his eyes, and swallowed past the lump in his throat. He worked his jaw and cleared his throat before he could utter, with only a slight tremble to his voice, “Well. Now it really is Christmas.”
Trixie smiled adoringly at her Daddy and went to him, kissing his cheek before laying her head on his shoulder. No words were necessary for him to welcome his princess home.
When Matt Wheeler and Ted Lynch stomped on in a few moments later, he turned to them and beamed like the proud papa he was. “Look who’s here!”
The men greeted her warmly, moving on to welcome Jim just as their wives followed them in the door, laughing gaily.
“Oh, Helen, you should have come with us!” Maddie Wheeler exclaimed as she stepped into the room. She stopped short when she spied Trixie, her face softening into a gentle, welcoming smile. “Oh, but then you’d have missed the best part of your evening, wouldn’t you have?”
She glided forward and kissed Trixie’s cheek. “You look wonderful, darling. Welcome home.”
Trixie barely had time to smile and say, “Thank you,” before she was bombarded by the more exuberant greeting offered by Sherri Lynch.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s so good to see you!” she enthused, grabbing her oldest daughter’s oldest friend in a quick, fierce hug and kissing her other cheek. “Merry Christmas!”
Trixie laughed while untangling herself from the dear woman. Just before greeting his own mother, Jim winked at Trixie and ran a thumb over his own cheek. It was their old high-sign that, as usual, Mrs. Lynch had managed to leave a bright red lipstick imprint on Trixie’s cheek. Regan, next through the door, surreptitiously handed her his handkerchief as he greeted her.
“Merry Christmas, Miss Fidget,” he said, green eyes twinkling merrily.
Quickly removing the lipstick stain, Trixie giggled when she threw her arms around him. “Nice save. Thank you.”
“My pleasure, ma’am,” Regan bowed grandly and winked at her, before moving on to let the continuing stream of people into the cozy kitchen.
As friends and neighbors flowed through the room and on into the dining and living rooms, Jim and Trixie greeted them all. They didn’t mind that their compatriots remained outside, waging a frozen battle against each other. The people already indoors were near and dear to them and were, indeed, family. They each rejoiced in their homecoming as they wound their way through the crowd.
When they eventually bumped into each other, Jim grinned cockily. “I told you, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re batting a thousand,” she replied, her quick smile belying her tone of polite tolerance.
“Hey, I’ve got your family pegged. Bet I go five for five.”
Trixie cocked her head at him and put her hands on her hips. “Do I look foolish enough to waste my hard-earned money on a bet like that?”
Green eyes smoldering, he leaned down and whispered, “Who said anything about betting for money?”
Her heart skipped a couple of beats and it was a serious battle to breathe normally, but Trixie had received extensive military training in maintaining outward composure. Putting the taxpayers’ dollars to good use, she merely offered a saucy grin.
Jim glanced behind her and smiled. “Batter up.”
Trixie turned in time to see Brian’s double-take. He’d been about to hang his coat when he spotted her. The eldest Bob-White, known for calm, cool composure and level-headedness, was also human and had weaknesses. And he was, after all, a Belden. He dropped his coat to the floor and ran, his snow-laden boots making a mess of his mother’s immaculate kitchen floor. He bounded into the room and swooped his sister up in his arms, spinning her around and nearly squeezing the life out of her before dropping her back to the ground.
Trixie squeezed back nearly as hard, laughing even as she fought back the tears which threatened to form. She adored her oldest brother, and such an enthusiastic greeting from the normally staid young man said more of his love for her than words ever could. Just before he set her down she whispered, “Merry Christmas, Brian.”
Grinning from ear to ear, Brian stepped back a bit and said, “Merry Christmas, Princess. A very, merry Christmas.”
It was funny how those two words, “Merry Christmas,” could convey nearly every emotion known to man depending on the tone of voice, the facial expressions, and the body language employed in their utterance. It seemed to Trixie as if she and Brian had had a long conversation with just those few words. It was a good thing, too, as that was all the time they would be allowed just then.
Honey Wheeler’s scandalized admonishment echoed from the mudroom. “Brian Belden! Is that any way to hang your coat?”
Diana Lynch Belden’s voice followed. “Besides, I thought you were supposed to be a gentleman and help Honey off with her coat.”
The two women peered into the kitchen together. Seeing Brian releasing his sister and grinning at them, their eyes went wide. They rushed into the room, shrieking in stereo, “TRIXIE!”
The three young women grabbed each other up in a group hug, laughing and talking excitedly. Honey and Di’s loud cry had drawn the attention of the two remaining Bob-Whites. Mart Belden and Dan Mangan poked their heads through the door and rapidly assessed the situation.
Dan, observing the chaos, decided it was best to wait his turn. He quietly retrieved Brian’s coat from the floor and hung it up before removing his own outer garments and stowing them properly.
Mart, on the other hand, tossed his coat and boots carelessly in the general direction of the far side of the mudroom. He then leaned casually in the kitchen doorway, waiting for the girls to finish their initial chatter.
When he felt the volume had quieted sufficiently, Mart lazily observed, “Well, well, well… if it isn’t the true threat of the Middle East.”
Dan rolled his eyes and pushed past his best friend. “Just for that, you lost your place in line, you jerk.”
Trixie ignored her brother and spoke directly to Dan. “Quite right, Daniel. Besides, I think lame-brain over there is begging for a demonstration of my Expert rating in hand-to-hand combat.”
Dan grinned and gave her a hug and a kiss. “Welcome home, Freckles. Glad you could make it.”
Behind him, Mart snorted. “As if you could even begin to challenge my physical prowess, Squaw.”
Dan wisely jumped out of the way as Trixie turned to her almost-twin, face stone-cold and eyes hard. “I could kick your sorry ass from here to China and back without breaking a sweat.”
“Trixie!” Helen admonished sharply from across the room. “Just because you are a sailor doesn’t mean you’ll speak like one in my house.”
Turning her back on Mart, Trixie stiffly apologized. “I'm sorry, Moms.”
She spied Jim’s face turning red as he attempted to stifle his laughter. Just then her youngest brother, Bobby – or Rob, as he preferred to be called these days – bounced into the house.
“Hey!” he called excitedly over his shoulder to the pair of Lynch twins. “Look who’s here: my big sister, the Navy spy!”
Trixie and Jim burst out laughing, and thus the tension was broken. As they exchanged high-fives she cried, “Grand Slam plus one!”
Jim puffed out his chest in mock arrogance. “I am the master!”
Trixie curtsied grandly. “And I bow to the master!”
Their silly antics piqued Mart’s curiosity too much for him to maintain his charade of aloof disregard. “What’s with you two?”
Her anger forgotten, Trixie grinned at Mart. “Jim nailed it. And I quote:
“I’d have to give him a perfect ten for that one,” she crowed.
Mildly embarrassed now, and completely amazed that Trixie could quote him verbatim, Jim just shrugged. “What can I say? I know my Beldens.”
Mart walked over to his sister and spoke quietly. “Happy to see you, huh? He must be mad to think that.” Before Trixie could protest, he grinned. “Ecstatic, more like. Elated, jubilant, euphoric, overjoyed…”
Trixie comically clamped her hands over her ears. “You’ve made your point! No more thesaurus, please!”
The almost-twins exchanged happy smiles and warm hugs. Then Rob shoved Mart aside and took his place. “Hey! My turn!”
Dan had noticed the way Jim’s eyes were following Trixie’s every move. Mischievously, he called across the room. “Hey Jim! You were so good at knowing how everyone else would greet Trixie. How did you?”
The man in question flushed deep red. Before he could think of anything to say, Trixie flashed him a wicked grin. “Well… it was good enough to earn a round of applause from the entire plane.”
Jim gaped at her for a moment before he recovered his equilibrium enough to respond in the teasing fashion he realized she expected. “Excuse me, Lieutenant.” He turned to his friends and explained, “The pilot had announced that we were holding the flight for a late connection – one of our troops on their way home from Iraq for Christmas.” Turning back to Trixie, he continued, “The applause was for you - either as a welcome and good wishes from people who support our troops, or because we could finally leave.”
Trixie nodded, considering. “I’ve heard such stories. I might believe you… if the applause had started when I first got on the plane.” Again she flashed the wicked grin. “But it didn’t start until I was in your arms.”
Tossing a flirtatious wink over her shoulder, Trixie exited the room. The three Belden brothers, making a huge pretense of over-protective concern, surrounded Jim.
“Is there something we should know about?” Brian asked sternly.
Jim glared at them each in turn. “Yeah. We’re adults, and our business is none of your business,” he fumed before stalking from the room.
The silence lasted only until he was gone. All the other Bob-Whites and their younger siblings burst out laughing while Dan stood in the middle of the room, arms raised triumphantly, and shouted, “Finally!”
Meanwhile, Jim was navigating the crowd of people in the dining room, looking for a certain curly-headed blonde minx. He wasn’t particularly sure whether he wanted to strangle her or drag her into a dark corner, but he knew he needed to find her. He broke out in a nervous sweat, however, when he found her standing by his mother’s side, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Maddie turned to him. “Jim, dear, I just realized that you never did tell us why you were so delayed at school.”
Trixie blinked innocently. “You didn’t? For shame, James.”
Narrowed green eyes glared venomously at her as Jim spoke through clenched teeth. “Beatrix, would you kindly stop trying to get me in trouble?”
Again, the wicked, flirtatious grin. “Oh, I think you’re managing that just fine on your own, Doctor Frayne.” And again she slipped away through the crowd.
Maddie raised an eyebrow at her son. “What did Trixie mean by that, dear?”
Jim took a deep breath and blew it out slowly before attempting to answer his mother. Maddie watched him in amusement. She had always enjoyed watching the way Jim and Trixie drove each other mad, but before tonight the young blonde had always seemed oblivious to the tall redhead’s near-obsession with her. Watching as Trixie intentionally toyed with Jim was priceless.
When he had counted to ten – twice – Jim responded to his mother’s question. “Some evil, cruel, Bah-Humbug type scheduled my oral defense for yesterday, late enough in the day that they wouldn’t even allow me wait outside while they discussed it. They sent me on my way and told me they’d let me know in the morning.”
Matt Wheeler had walked up behind his wife in time to hear Jim’s explanation. Impatiently he asked, “And?”
Jim stared solemnly back and forth between his parents before letting the happy grin slide back over his face. “And… this morning they accepted it.”
Tears filled Maddie’s eyes as she cupped Jim’s face in her hands. Her voice thick with love, she said, “I’m so very proud of you, my boy.”
Matt grinned and clapped Jim hard on the back. His rich baritone boomed above the din of the crowd. “Congratulations, Jim! This calls for a celebration!”
Trixie suddenly appeared beside them carrying a silver tray laden with four delicate flutes of champagne. “I agree,” she grinned impishly. “Moms and Daddy are, even now, filling more glasses.”
As Matt lifted his glass to make a toast, the happy news traveled swiftly through the crowd. The champagne flowed freely, many more toasts were made, and the entire evening turned into a party celebrating Jim’s achievement. He was lost in a sea of congratulations for more than an hour before people began bidding their farewells and drifting off into the night to their respective homes.
Another hour later the crowd had thinned considerably, and Jim hadn’t seen Trixie in so long he wondered if she’d gone up to bed. When he finally found her, she was alone in her father’s study, standing by the window, staring out at the twinkling lights and gently falling snow.
Jim leaned an arm on the window frame, and reached out with the opposite hand to brush one soft, stray curl off her face. “You shouldn’t have done that, you know. This was supposed to be your night.”
She didn’t turn to look at him, but shook her head slightly. “I had my night when I graduated from college. I can have my night again when I come home for good. You’ve worked a long time for this, and you deserve to celebrate.”
“I still have to walk across the stage and get the diploma. That should be when we celebrate.”
Wistful sadness washed through her voice. “I won’t be here then.”
He straightened and stepped closer to Trixie, a gentle finger tilting her chin so he could see her face. Jim was surprised to find a single tear trailing down her cheek, and pain darkening the blue of her eyes.
Before he could speak, she shut her eyes tight and pressed her lips together, fighting to bury the emotions overwhelming her. “Don’t, Jim. Just… don’t.”
She drew in a shuddering breath, then opened her eyes but refused to meet his. “It’s just that… I’ve waited so long for this… I can’t imagine walking away – even temporarily. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even want to think about it right now.”
He pulled her into his arms and tucked her head beneath his chin. “Then we won’t.”
Trixie was shaking, and was shaken. Jim couldn’t imagine why that both thrilled him and terrified him, unless it was because it gave him an indication of the strength of her feelings. She’d always been fearless, even before the military had taught her to expertly hide fear. Yet she trembled at the thought of leaving him.
In the ageless, mysterious dance of male and female, Jim drew strength from Trixie’s fear. He could be strong for her and comfort her because he knew she loved him. Even as he held her and soothed her, he smiled when he rested his cheek against the pillow of her golden curls. She loved him.
“Trix, we’ll live in the here and now,” he whispered gently. “And right now, I’d very much like to kiss you.”
She stepped back and looked searchingly into those beloved emerald eyes. A ghost of a smile touched her lips. “That sounds like a plan I can live with.”
As their lips met, she sighed and leaned into him. He kissed her, softly and gently, slowly and deeply. He kissed her until they both forgot about everything else except each other, and the moment in which they lived.
In the gray, pre-dawn light of Christmas Eve morn, Lieutenant Beatrix Belden stood in front of her bedroom mirror, checking her appearance one more time. She wore combat boots, battle fatigues, and a heavy-weight coat. Her hair was pulled back in a bun so tight there wasn’t even a wave visible, let alone a stray curl. Her cap was set on her head, visor pulled low. Her jaw was set and her eyes were flat, the cold, hard look of the warrior. She stood at attention, searching for a flaw in her appearance. She found none.
She slipped quietly from the room. The Bob-Whites were expected for breakfast, and she wanted to get out of the house before Moms was up. She couldn’t be sociable this morning. She needed to be alone.
As she attempted to sneak through the kitchen, she was surprised to find Mart seated at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He’d been the last to leave the night before, and she’d thought he would sleep in and be the last to arrive this morning. She certainly couldn’t believe he’d arrived when there was not yet any food.
Mart heard her approach, and marveled that she could be so quiet in the clunky combat boots. He didn’t turn around or speak to her. He merely pushed the placemat beside him towards her.
She glanced at the placemat. It held a thermos, his car keys, and a package wrapped in blue tissue paper. Curious despite herself, she stepped forward. Upon seeing the contents of the package, she realized Mart knew exactly where she was going and why. More than that, he understood. But of course he understood; Mart always understood, without words being spoken.
He broke the silence, still without looking up. “Just because you don’t need help doesn’t mean you should waste the resources at your disposal, Lieutenant. Take my car.”
She clenched her jaw, holding back the tidal wave of emotion that threatened to flood. That was for later; she couldn’t afford it now, or she wouldn’t be able to complete her mission. So she reached out and picked up the items her brother offered and walked to the door. There she stopped. She could say little at the moment, but what she could say… it would sound strange to someone else, but he would understand – because this was Mart.
“Thank you, Sir.”
She closed the door quietly behind her, and he remained at the table until he was sure the car had left the drive. Then he rose and procured a tissue from the box Moms always kept on the kitchen counter. When his eyes were dry, he rinsed out his coffee cup and slipped out of the house for a long, solitary walk in the Preserve.
Mrs. Belden stood at the kitchen counter, working magic on her waffle iron, enjoying having her flock around. Well, half of them, anyway. They were slowly trickling in after the late night the previous evening. Brian had appeared first, at precisely the same moment Honey and Jim had knocked on the door. Their parents had long ago decided that Brian and Honey had built-in magnets; even if they were visiting another member of the household, the minute either one arrived at the other’s house, their counterpart instantly appeared. To say they were drawn to each other was putting it mildly.
Moms shook her head as she listened to Rob tease Dan about the way he constantly checked his watch. Dan was waiting for a call from his fiancée, letting him know what time to pick her up at the train station. Dan just kept telling Bobby to watch his back. And if Jim believed no one knew how many times he’d looked toward the stairs, he was extremely naïve. Sooner or later Moms knew she would take pity on the young man and go roust Trixie.
Everyone turned and called out their greetings as Di entered. She glanced around the table and frowned.
Rob peered behind her. “Where’s the human eating machine?”
“I don’t know,” she replied slowly. “He was gone when I woke up this morning. You haven’t seen him?”
As each person responded in the negative, Diana’s frown deepened. She turned worried violet eyes to her mother-in-law when the older woman bustled her over to the table. Mrs. Belden pressed a mug of hot tea into Di’s hand and told her not to worry.
Just minutes later, Mart arrived. He looked cold, his face was slightly chapped, and it was obvious that he’d come on foot.
“Where’s your car?” his wife asked.
Mart saw the many pairs of inquisitive eyes focused on him. He walked across the room to the coffeepot and poured himself a cup, partly to warm up, and partly so he had an excuse not to look at them. “I loaned it to Trixie,” he answered.
Surprised looks flew around the table. Everyone had assumed that Trixie was still sleeping.
Diana studied her husband’s turned back. He was tense, and something was just a little off. The longer he stood at the sink, staring out the kitchen window – and completely ignoring the food – the more worried she became. Last night had been such a great night, but this morning everything had seemed wrong. Mart was gone when she woke, and hadn’t left her a note or anything. In fact, there’d been no trace of him. He was normally a whirlwind in the morning, leaving a trail of chaos behind him, but this morning there’d been nothing out of place, except for an empty vase. How did that fit into the picture?
Speaking cautiously, and watching every nuance of his reaction, Di queried, “Mart, where are the red and white roses from the front hall?”
While the others looked at her like she was nuts, Di watched Mart. He studied his watch for moment before answering. “By this time, I imagine, they’ve been given to Lester.”
The room became silent and still as a tomb. Mart deliberately set his cup down and headed for the bathroom. Slowly, each person returned to their breakfast, eating in silence. No one said a word, but their thoughts were together… and with Trixie.
She’d hopped the fence and crept in just before dawn. It hadn’t taken her long to find what she’d been looking for. Once she had, she’d set down her package and stood at parade rest.
She had stood guard for two hours now. It was such a small thing, but this early morning vigil was all she had to offer him.
At her feet, the red and white roses wrapped in blue tissue paper rested atop a simple, oblong stone carved with the bare facts.
Pfc. Lester K. Mundy
Born: February 27, 1981, Sleepyside, NY
Died: February 2, 2006, Baghdad, Iraq
Captain Wendell Molinson noticed Mart Belden’s car parked at the side of the road. Assuming a need for assistance, he pulled up behind the car and got out of his own. Just as he realized there was no one in Mart’s car, he noticed the solitary figure in the cemetery.
He’d been a soldier once. He understood; he had, in fact, stood a similar vigil shortly after the boy’s funeral. He watched a moment, unconsciously at attention himself, as the young lieutenant moved from parade rest to full attention, then saluted the hero buried beneath her feet.
The captain would probably never admit that he had fatherly feelings towards the young woman. But he had never been so proud of her, as at that moment. He remained at attention until she had finished her salute, then returned to his car and drove away. This was her time, to seek her peace.
When Trixie arrived back at the farm, she marched through the kitchen and up to her room without looking at or acknowledging anyone. No one said a word until her footsteps had faded away.
“How did she look?” Honey asked Mart, who had been the only one to dare to look directly at Trixie.
“Blank,” he said. “That cold, military look that shows nothing.” He stared at the ceiling as if he could read his sister’s mind through the plaster and wood, the worry and grief apparent on his face.
Jim started to get up, but Brian placed a restraining hand on his arm. With a shake of his head, Brian said, “This one’s mine.” Then he left the room and slipped upstairs.
He found Trixie in her room, standing in front of the full-length mirror on her closet door, staring at her own reflection. Brian walked up behind her and looked over her shoulder at the reflection in the mirror.
“When I was a pre-med student,” he said, “one of my professors gave my class some advice which, at the time, made no sense to me. I’ve since discovered its wisdom, not only for doctors, but for certain other professions as well.”
Her expression never changed and she never acknowledged his presence, but he could tell she was listening, so he continued his story.
“She told us that we would see a lot of things, and deal with a lot of situations, that would weigh heavily on our souls. If we become immune to them, we lose our humanity. But if we carry them close to our heart all the time, we will lose our minds. She said she had developed a trick for maintaining balance. When she was working, she always wore her lab coat. And when she wasn’t, she never did.”
Brian placed a hand on each of Trixie’s shoulders. “Let the uniform embody the job. When you wear it, you never forget. When you take it off, set it all aside and concentrate on your own life. Live your life fully, so you have love and laughter to protect you from everything else that you’ll have to deal with when you put the uniform back on.
“I’ve followed this advice the last couple of years, and I’ve found it helps a lot. I’ve shared it with Dan, and he agrees.”
Trixie’s gaze shifted to meet his in the mirror. She conveyed her appreciation for his concern with her eyes.
Brian gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Now hurry up and change. There are horses waiting to be exercised.”
When he was gone, the young officer closed the door and slowly began to peel off her uniform.
When Trixie appeared in the kitchen a few minutes later, she was transformed. She was wearing riding boots, faded blue jeans, a red turtleneck, and a heavy green and white holiday sweatshirt. Her long, golden curls, freed at last, hung loosely about her shoulders and down to the middle of her back. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes twinkled as she bounced into the room, dancing in time to the song on the radio, for which she made a beeline to turn up the volume.
Her brothers all groaned. Rob held his head in his hands and wailed, “Why didn’t we change the station before she got here?”
Trixie ignored him and continued to dance around the room and sing along with her favorite Christmas song, as she snagged a cup of coffee and a gingerbread muffin.
A Christmas bell was cryin' and Santa heard it say
I just can't seem to jingle, and I can't go on the sleigh
Then Santa soon discovered the reason that it cried
The bell that couldn't jingle, it had nothin' there inside
Then Santa said Jack Frost will bring my Christmas gift to you
and on Christmas Eve you'll jingle just like you were brand new
Then Jack Frost froze a teardrop so each time that it swayed
The bell that couldn't jingle, it went jingling all the way
The bell that couldn't jingle, it went jingling all the way
The others, long familiar with her obsession with this particular song, looked on in tolerant amusement. They were relieved to see the old, familiar Trixie. It had been impressive to see the confident, composed officer in dress uniform. It had been kind of scary to see the cold warrior in battle fatigues. But it was a relief and a joy to see the bouncy, energetic, happy young woman dressed in Christmas cheer.
As she pranced around the room, she gaily patted Rob on the head and kissed Moms’ cheek. When she got to Brian, she wrapped an arm around his neck from behind and rested her face next to his. Giving him a quick squeeze, she whispered, “Thanks for the advice. It helps.”
Swiftly moving on, Trixie grabbed Dan as he tried to get past her to take his plate to the sink and made him dance with her. Then she stuck her head between Honey and Di’s and got them to sing along with her for the chorus. She gave Mart a hug similar to Brian’s while she reached down to set his car keys in front of him. Rounding out her greetings, she plopped down on Jim’s lap and snagged the last bite of bacon from his plate as she sang the finale to the song.
Then Santa said Jack Frost will bring my Christmas gift to you
and on Christmas Eve you'll jingle just like you were brand new
Then Jack Frost froze a teardrop so each time that it swayed
The bell that couldn't jingle, it went jingling all the way
The bell that couldn't jingle, it went jingling all the way
it went jingling all the way
it went jingling all the way
As the music faded, Moms turned down the volume. Mart looked at his watch melodramatically. “Now that the Princess has gotten to hear her song, can we get on with the riding?”
Trixie nodded and quickly drained her coffee, then set down her empty cup and bounced up again. “Let’s go ride!” And out the door she dashed. The others hastily cleaned their places and followed her out into the snow, only to find her, face titled skyward, twirling around and catching snowflakes on her tongue.
Once they were all outdoors, they proceeded as a group toward the stables. Jim glanced curiously at his favorite blonde. “You know, Trix, I’ve known for years that you love that song, but I’ve always wondered: Why?”
Trixie shrugged. “I just like the message. You take the teardrop, evidence of sorrow and a broken heart, touch it with magic, and suddenly the air is filled with beautiful music and joy. I love it.”
While the others kept going, Jim and Dan stopped in their tracks, looking after her in stunned silence. They were each thinking that Trixie had just summed up their lives, and that she had been the magic that had touched their tears. Finally Dan cleared his throat and turned to Jim.
“How does she do that?”
Bemused, Jim shook his head and turned to his friend. “If she knew what we were thinking, she’d never believe us. She’s oblivious to the effect she has on the world around her.”
Dan nodded thoughtfully. “I’ve always figured that was part of her magic.”
Jim sighed. “I suppose we should catch up with them and go ‘jingling all the way’.”
Stepping ahead of Jim, Dan snorted and muttered, “As if her touch freezes any of your bodily fluids.”
Trying hard not to blush, Jim shoved him in the back. “You’re a pig, Mangan.”
Dan turned, walking backwards, and grinned wickedly. “Probably. But I’m truthful.”
Jim shoved again, this time knocking Dan off balance. He landed on his butt in the snow while Jim grinned. “Yeah, and you’re also cold and wet.”
Jim walked on while Dan pulled himself to his feet and brushed the snow off his pants. He called playfully after his friend, “You’re gonna pay for this, Frayne.”
Laughing, Jim tossed back over his shoulder. “Probably. But it was worth it.”
It was the perfect day for a ride in the Preserve. The air was cold and crisp, and the snow was a perfect layer of white, enough to make everything beautiful but not enough to be a problem. The friends rode along, chatting and sharing stories, catching up on each other’s lives and reliving happy moments of their youth. The horses seemed to share their joy, prancing happily. It was one of those hours that seem to last forever.
Once back at the stables, however, time seemed of the essence. It was obvious that Honey and Di were itching to get to their shopping. Dan kept checking his watch, anxious to pick Denise up at the train station. Even Jim seemed to be impatient about being on his way.
Trixie couldn’t stand it any longer. Her sharp whistle drew everyone’s attention. “Finish up your horses and dump your tack in the tack room. Since I finished my shopping weeks ago – and have absolutely no desire to go anywhere near a store today – I’ll finish up all the tack. Y’all can just scat.”
“Y’all?” Mart asked mockingly. “When did you lose your New York accent?” He then quickly ducked behind the stall wall to avoid the curry comb his sister threw at him.
Honey protested. “You can’t clean all this tack yourself!”
She was answered with an unladylike snort. Trixie held her hands to imitate a scale. Considering her left hand, she said, “Hmmm… cleaning all the tack for this bunch.” She looked at her other hand. “Putting a military shine on the boots of the entire squad after a four-mile run in the rain.”
Dropping her right hand dramatically toward the floor, she said. “Nope. No contest. I could do this in my sleep, and faster than you think. Besides, I’ll enjoy it a lot more than I would shopping. Consider it part of your Christmas present. Now get moving!”
Dan tossed her a mock salute. “Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
Regan decided he would finish tending to Trixie’s horse so she could start on the tack. The Bob-Whites each expressed their thanks as they brought their things in to Trixie. She waved them on their way and went about her work. When Jim came in last, he hesitated.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” he asked.
Trixie nodded. “I thought it was a marvelous way to avoid being dragged shopping with the girls. I’m just surprised you still have shopping to do.”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “I was so busy prepping for the defense, I’m surprised I got any of it done.”
“Then you’d better get going,” she said. Grinning, she added, “Just don’t get anything for me. You already gave me my Christmas present.”
Jim smiled and leaned down to kiss her. “I don’t think I’m done giving it to you.”
Winding her fingers into his hair, Trixie mumbled against his lips, “I sincerely hope not.”
A bit out of breath by the time he broke off the kiss, Jim panted, “I wish…”
Trixie shook her head. “The stores close early today. Tell me what you wish later.” Giving him a smoldering look, she added, “I’ll do my best to make it come true. Later.”
Jim really needed to leave. It would be too easy to stay, and he’d hate himself if he didn’t get those few items he still needed. With a promise to see her later, he rushed off.
Trixie enjoyed her visit with Regan while she made short work of the tack, then went home and spent some time with her parents. By the time her friends returned from their shopping adventures, there was barely time for a glass of punch and the annual exchange of gag gifts before it was time to change for the formal dinner at the Lynch home. Trixie opted once again for her dress uniform, as she felt it was the most proper thing for her to wear to the church service they would be attending later.
The dinner was grand; marvelous food, elegant decorations, and good company. Although they had all been together the night before, there was no shortage of things to talk about. The teenagers seemed a bit bored and impatient, as if they felt trapped having to remain in the room with their siblings and parents all night. Trixie smiled indulgently; once upon a time, she had felt the same way on nights such as this. When you don’t have the option to spend time with family, it changes your perspective, however. Now she felt there was never enough time to bask in the warmth of this particular extended family.
Catching sight of her favorite redhead, laughing out loud at some witticism delivered by jolly Mr. Lynch, she amended her conclusion. Unless the alternative was basking in a better, more personal warmth, she thought, grinning to herself.
Late in the evening, Mart approached Trixie. “People are going to start heading out to the church soon,” he said.
Trixie nodded. “I know the service doesn’t start until midnight, but I also remember not being able to find a seat if you don’t get there by 11:15.”
“I was wondering…” Mart took a deep breath. He seemed rather nervous. “Would you mind riding with me? And leaving now?”
She studied her brother. He was attempting to look casual, but his blue eyes pleaded with her to say yes. For whatever reason, he wanted to be alone with her, and it was important. For his sake, Trixie remained casual as well. She set her drink down and said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
They exited unobtrusively and made their way to Mart’s car. As they drove in silence, Trixie noticed they were headed away from the little church that was supposed to be their destination. Curiosity was killing her, but she had learned much better over the years how to contain herself for a short while.
Mart pulled off the road into an overlook. He put the car in park and turned off the radio, but left it running to keep it toasty warm inside. Then he turned to his sister. “I’m sorry to be so…”
“Mysterious?” she supplied with a grin.
He laughed and blew a raspberry at her before getting back to what he had intended to say. “All right, smarty pants, let me explain. Brian, Rob and I came up with this plan. We know it’s necessary for you to travel light, and you can’t take a lot of things with you. But we wanted to get you something special for Christmas, something you could take with you wherever you go. So we decided we would each do something personal; give you a memory you could keep in your heart.”
Suspiciously moist blue eyes met ones so like her own. Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Trixie said, “That’s so sweet. The thoughtfulness of that plan is a gift by itself.”
“Gee, you mean I didn’t have to put any thought into the gift?” Mart joked. Clearing his throat a little nervously, he said, “Anyway, after church Di and I will be going home, and we’re having breakfast with her parents tomorrow. I won’t see you until the Manor House Madness, so I wanted to give this to you now.”
He pulled a bright green envelope out of his breast pocket and handed it to her. Trixie opened the red paper inside and read the note in gold pen.
I racked my brain trying to come up with the right gift. Then one miraculously presented itself. It has been extremely difficult to keep this gift under wraps, and Di deserves a tremendous amount of credit. But we both hoped it would be special to you.
Actually, it mattered a lot to me, too. I really, really wanted you to be the first to know:
Sometime between your birthday and mine this year, we’ll have another birthday to celebrate.
Merry Christmas, Aunt Trixie.
With all my love,
“Oh, Mart,” Trixie whispered. She folded the letter carefully with shaking hands and returned it safely to its envelope before looking up at him. When she leaned over to give him a hug, she said, “I’m so, so very happy for you.”
She sat back and looked at him in awe. “My big brother’s going to be a daddy!”
Mart looked rather awed himself. “Wow. Just hearing you say it out loud makes it seem more real.”
“In May?” Trixie asked. She shook her head in amazement. “Di’s four months pregnant already? How the heck did you keep it quiet this long?”
“Damn near killed us both,” he admitted. Then he squeezed her hand. “But this was the way I wanted to do this; the way we both wanted to do this.”
Swiping at a tear, Trixie said, “I’m moved beyond words. Thank you.” Then she took a deep breath and grinned. “But you know what? You’ve both suffered long enough. It’s time to shout it from the rooftops.”
Mart grinned back and they both laughed happily. It took a large measure of control for Mart to refrain from driving faster than either the road conditions or the speed limit required. His sister was right: now that the secret was out, he couldn’t wait to tell everyone under the sun.
When they arrived at the church parking lot, it was nearly full already. They were grateful to be certain their family was saving them seats. Mart gallantly offered Trixie a proper escort from the vehicle, and the siblings arrived at the church arm-in-arm. When they opened the door they could hear the carol being sung. They both laughed and added their lusty voices to the choir as they hurried in to find their seats.
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born
While shepherds kept their watching
O’er silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light.
The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo! Above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our Savior’s birth.
Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born,
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn.
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born
Diana was seated on the end of a pew, frequently glancing back over her shoulder. When she saw the two blond heads rushing up the aisle she breathed a sigh of relief. Suddenly she was engulfed by her sister-in-law’s enthusiastic embrace.
“Congratulations, Sweetie!” Trixie’s voice seemed to echo through the church.
Several heads turned upon hearing Trixie’s exclamation. Soon the hymns of the choir were drowned out as every member of the extended Bob-White family rushed to congratulate the happy couple before the service proper began. The large group barely quieted down in time for the pastor to enter the sanctuary.
As the congregation settled in to hear the comfortingly familiar yet always magical story of the First Christmas, Trixie contemplated the miracle of the circle of life. She remembered her father telling tales of attending this same service with his parents. She remembered listening to the same Bible verses as a young child, nestled in the pew with her parents and brothers. Now, although they were all here together, Brian was really there with Honey, and Mart was there with Di. Next year, Mart and Di would bring their first child here with them. It would be their turn to be the parents nestled in the pew with their little one.
She found comfort in the knowledge that, though time marches relentlessly on, simple things continue to tie all the moments together. This church, and this Christmas Eve service, tied the generations of her family together. So, too, did the Village of Sleepyside and the soil of Crabapple Farm. And because there was that continuity, that bond with the past, the current generation could draw strength from it, and feel free to move on to the future without losing sight of what had come before.
Trixie looked down at her hand, fingers linked with Jim’s, and smiled. Oh, yes, moving forward was a very good thing. Jim squeezed her hand as the congregation rose for the closing hymn.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin, mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from Heaven afar.
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born.
Christ the Savior is born.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
As the last strains of the song faded away, the people began to leave in silence. It was their custom to speak not a word as they exited the church after the service, so that their last thoughts of the night were on the holy miracle they commemorated each year.
In keeping with the tradition, the Bob-White clan remained silent as they departed for their respective homes. There would be plenty of time the next day for chatter. Tonight was for the Christ child.
Early in the morning, Trixie awoke to find a red envelope propped up on her nightstand. She smiled, knowing it would be from Brian. He often found it easier to share emotional sentiments in writing, and preferred not to watch while his words were read. It made him nervous to watch facial nuances as people absorbed each part of his message. He preferred to confront the complete reaction to the full impact of what he had to say.
Once again, Trixie carefully unfolded a letter bearing a heartfelt gift from one of her brothers, and began to read.
I know Mart already explained the intent of these letters. Our gifts are meant to be simple, but also true indications of how much you mean to us.
My gift comes in two parts.
First, you are well-aware that Honey and I have been planning for a couple of years to get married this summer. You also know that one of the issues we’ve struggled with is creating a balance between my stubborn independence and the expectations and advantages of her family’s wealth and position.
We want you to let us use the resources at our disposal. As long as you have a couple of days’ leave, the private jet will fly anywhere in the world to make sure you get home for the wedding. This would mean a lot to me. There is no one else whose presence at my wedding is more important to me (with one obvious exception). Honey feels the same way. We simply can’t make it through such a momentous occasion in our lives without you.
Part two is connected. After much discussion and debate, Honey and I have come to an unconventional arrangement with respect to the wedding party. At my request, she is selecting the Best Man, and I’m selecting the Maid of Honor.
It would mean the world to me if you would agree to serve in this position. You’re my baby sister and my dear friend; you are the person responsible for bringing the two of us together; and you’re my personal hero. I love you. Nothing you could ever do for me would mean so much as this.
Merry Christmas, Trixie.
As before, Trixie folded the letter carefully and returned it to its envelope. She returned this letter to its place on her nightstand, and nestled herself back down in her bed with a tender smile. She chose to consider Brian’s request by meditating on all the most special moments of their lives. It became, in a way, part of the gift, as she relived a great many precious memories and held them close to her heart once again.
The Belden, Lynch and Wheeler families had, over the years, developed a tradition of spending holidays together and rotating the celebrations between their homes. Many years, the beds in each home had been filled with friends and out of town relatives visiting for the occasion. Because Trixie’s visit had been anticipated, but expected to be later, all of the Belden relatives had chosen to spend this Christmas at their own homes and schedule a visit to Sleepyside after the holiday.
With no houseguests, this Christmas morning was relatively quiet at Crabapple Farm. There was no cleanup from Christmas Eve to be finished, and no preparations for Christmas dinner to be made. The five Beldens who were at home had decided to spend a lazy morning. Even breakfast was to be a casual affair. There were bagels, fruit cocktail, and a variety of pastries piled on festive platters on the kitchen table. Add a large pot of coffee and a carafe of chilled juice, and it made for a lovely buffet. Moms had even agreed to eating in the living room.
The living room was aglow with the twinkling lights of the tree. The candles throughout the room added their soft glimmer, as well as filling the air with festive scents. The fire crackling in the hearth created another layer of light and scent, in addition to providing cozy warmth. The atmosphere was rounded out by the light background sounds of Christmas carols playing on the stereo.
There were only a few presents to be exchanged, as most of the gift-giving was reserved for the festivities at Manor House later in the day. As the members of the household arose, they took their time dressing and wandering down to the living room. They stopped for coffee or to fill a plate and made themselves comfortable when they were ready. The unhurried morning and the relaxed, holiday atmosphere were themselves a special treat.
Peter and Trixie were the first to arrive. They sat together on the sofa, sipping coffee and talking quietly, just enjoying the chance to spend some time together. When Rob arrived, he grabbed the entire platter of pastries from the kitchen and deposited them on the coffee table. Then he dragged Moms into the room and settled her comfortably in the easy chair, tucking an afghan around her knees and bringing her a fresh mug of tea. Helen Belden just relaxed and soaked up the pampering lavished upon her by her baby boy.
When Brian stumbled in, he plopped on the couch beside Trixie. She picked up his hand and placed a mug of coffee in it. “Drink up. Get your drug of choice into your system and you’ll be all right.”
He drank deeply before answering with a grunt. “I’d hate you for being a smart-aleck if you weren’t so right.”
“You could hate me if I were mocking you,” she defended herself. “However, I’m just a fellow junkie helping to feed your addiction, in the hopes that you’d return the favor if I needed it.”
Peter laughed at his children. “You two are pathetic. While I admit to drinking coffee every day for the last thirty or so years, I could live without it if I had to. I’m no addict.”
All three of his children to hear that began to cough, covering their snickers. Helen’s eyebrows hit the ceiling as she stared at her husband, completely unable to believe he could make such a pronouncement with a straight face.
Peter glared around the room, daring anyone to contradict him. Mustering his dignity, he picked up a folded section of newspaper and removed himself to his private reading room.
After his departure, Trixie leaned against Brian’s shoulder. “So. If I were stationed on a ship, smack-dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean, what then?”
Inhaling the rich aroma while taking another glorious sip of rich coffee, Brian said simply, “Marine One.”
Trixie did a double-take, praying fervently that he was kidding. “Excuse me?”
Brian grinned. “I told them you’d react like that. Do I believe Matt Wheeler could do that? Yes. Would I let him? No, I’m not that cruel.”
Sagging with visible relief, Trixie said, “Thank goodness!”
“However…” Brian began. His sister focused her attention on him, trepidation etched in her features. He smiled kindly. “I was hoping for something a little more subtle. The plan is for your ship to put in to port for supplies or repairs or something the week of the wedding, and for you to receive R&R at that point. We’d get you here and back in the necessary timeframe.”
Suspiciously, Trixie asked, “And how do you plan to achieve this?”
“Well,” Brian said, cringing in anticipation of her reaction. “It seems that Mrs. Wheeler went to boarding school with the Admiral-of-the-Fleet’s wife.”
All color drained from Trixie’s face. “Oh, dear God, no.”
“Trust me, Trix, I’ve done what I can to keep them from drawing undue attention your way,” he assured her. “I have no desire to cause you difficulty in your career, honest. But it’s really important to me to have you there for my wedding.”
Trixie spared her brother a tender look. “It’s important to me, too. I really do want to be there.”
“It could be worse,” Brian suggested helpfully. “Matt suggested just getting you posted to Pearl Harbor.”
“How did you stop him from doing just that?” the curious blonde queried.
Brown eyes twinkling gleefully, he answered, “Honey suggested that, since the only person whose presence matters to us is you, Hawaii would be a lovely place to elope.”
Trixie burst out laughing. “She didn’t!”
“Oh, yes, she did,” Brian nodded, joining her laughter. “The look on Maddie’s face was priceless.”
When their snickers faded, Brian became serious again. “Well, Sis?”
Trixie grabbed his hand and smiled through watery eyes. “Did you really think I’d miss the moment when you finally make Honey my sister for real?”
Brian smiled back and they shared a warm embrace to seal their deal. “Thank you, little sister.”
“Any time, big brother.”
As they sat back to enjoy the rest of their quiet morning, Trixie felt a gentle joy steal over her. She smiled dreamily. “I think this is the happiest, most peaceful Christmas ever.”
When Trixie returned to her room to prepare for the trip up the hill to Manor House, she found a gold-wrapped box, about the size of a picture frame, in the center of her bed. She sat down to open Rob’s gift.
Inside was a short note:
I’m not as eloquent as our elder siblings, and I don’t have any earth-shattering gift. But I wanted to let you know what you mean to me. I decided to let the facts say what words never can.
Beneath the note were a small pile of papers. Trixie read through them, one by one. The top of the pile was a theme Rob had written in school several years ago on the topic of “My Hero”. It glorified the Bob-Whites for all their charitable works and crime-solving activities. Trixie smiled.
Then she turned to the next paper. It was another essay, from another time, with a similar theme. Page after page, the papers in the box displayed how often Rob told the story of why his big sister was his hero. The reasons given had changed over time, maturing in scope even as the boy had matured in years.
Near the bottom of the pile was a page labeled “College Admissions Essay #1”. The topic was service and self-sacrifice. Rob detailed how these traits were embodied in the modern heroes, such as the firemen and policemen who had died on September 11th. He then carried the thought out to describe the soldiers and sailors fighting for our country. His theme focused on one such sailor – his sister. Then he described how she had been teaching him about service and self-sacrifice his entire life. He talked about her Bob-White activities, but also how she had demonstrated those traits in the way she cared for him every day. He finished by saying that no one had ever provided him with a better example of how to live life.
Barely able to see through her tears, Trixie turned to the last page in the box. Recognizing the letterhead of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, she gasped. Her hand trembled as she lifted the page and read the words of Robert Belden’s Offer of Appointment to the Academy.
She rushed out of her room and saw Rob standing in the door to his bedroom. She flew to him and hugged him hard, tears pouring down her face. It was difficult enough to accept that her baby brother was a grown man. But for this man to idolize her, and to so obviously seek her approval, humbled her.
“I love you, lamb,” she whispered hoarsely. “I’m so proud of you, and I always will be, no matter what you do in life.”
Rob held his sister tightly and smiled. Affecting a lisp for old times’ sake, he said, “When I get all growed up, I wanna be jus’ like you!”
Trixie stepped back and held his face in her hands. “You shouldn’t try to do that. You’re a pretty amazing person yourself.”
The party at Manor House was a loud and boisterous affair. There were gifts and food, drinking and dancing, and people everywhere. As people congratulated the Belden boys on their various good news, the reminiscences that started never seemed to end. It was a day full of memories, old and new.
At one point, Dan pulled Trixie aside. “You know I can’t let your brothers leave me out of stuff, don’t you?”
Trixie rolled her eyes. “What are you going to do? Join the Secret Service?”
Dan contemplated. “That’s not a bad thought.”
The elbow to his ribs convinced him otherwise. Rubbing his side, he grinned at the rabble-rouser in front of him. “Actually, I had a different plan.”
Trixie shook her head ruefully. “If I’m afraid to ask what, it’s only because I’ve been expecting paybacks all these years.”
Grinning wickedly, Dan said, “Another time, perhaps. When you least expect it. MWAA-HAA-HAA!” Trixie giggled and Dan laughed. But after a moment he put on a straight face.
“Actually, Denise and I were planning on eloping.”
Trixie pouted, but before she had a chance to say anything, Dan continued. “However, we decided that, since you were home, you should be at the wedding. So we’ve made arrangements for Judge Armen to show up at the New Year’s Eve party and do an ‘impromptu’ ceremony.”
Trixie’s eyes bugged out. “Dan! That’s so cool!”
“Shhh!” he admonished. “You’re the only one who knows. The plan is for everyone to be surprised.”
Grinning, Trixie hugged him. “I won’t tell anyone – I promise I can actually keep a secret these days.”
“You’d better, Freckles,” Dan warned. “If there’s anyone who doesn’t look surprised, I’m gonna kick your butt!”
“It’s a deal!” she promised, and they shook on it.
Early in the evening, Trixie snuck outside to take a walk. Everything had been such a whirlwind since her arrival; she just wanted a moment to catch her breath. As she walked, the moonlight reflecting off the snow lit her path as bright as daylight.
She had missed her family so much. She had dreamed about coming home; longed for it so much that, in her anticipation, she had built it up in her mind to this huge, momentous event. She’d actually been a little afraid of feeling let down, just because real life couldn’t measure up to the perfect image in her mind.
Instead, reality had been even better than she’d imagined. Everyone had gone out of their way to ensure that. It was overwhelming. Even the weather cooperated, she thought as she glanced at “the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow”.
Trixie wasn’t surprised when Jim appeared at her side. They walked along in silence for a bit, each lost in their own thoughts but enjoying just being together. When Trixie broke the silence, she sighed and said, “It’s been the most perfect Christmas.”
Jim heard the slight twinge of sorrow layered into her words. He put an arm around her and gave her a squeeze. “The perfect Christmas doesn’t last forever, but when it’s over you can take the memories anywhere.”
“Going away is so hard,” she said with a quiver in her voice. “If I have to think about it today, I might just die.”
“Please don’t, O Queen of Melodrama.” Although he said it with a grin, Trixie suddenly turned and searched his face intently. He’d tried to keep the trace of bitterness out of his voice, but she knew him better than that.
“That’s what it was always about, wasn’t it?” she asked.
Evading her piercing gaze, Jim shrugged unconvincingly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“When I first joined ROTC, you weren’t very supportive. In fact, at the time I was convinced that you disapproved.”
When he began to protest, she placed a gloved finger over his lips. “BUT… to borrow a phrase, it took me a while to figure out what was going on in that crazy head of yours.”
“Oh?” he feigned disinterest. “And what was that?” He shifted uncomfortably, fairly certain she was about to hit the nail square on the head.
“You were sure I’d go and get myself killed.”
Frustrated, he turned away, pulling his bare hands from his jacket pockets and running them through his red hair as he paced. “It was a reasonable fear. Look how soon after you went active you landed smack in the middle of the war. And don’t tell me you were safely aboard a ship in the middle of the Gulf.”
He turned and faced her squarely. “I don’t care if it’s classified. Can you look me in the eye and tell me you were never in Baghdad?”
Clear blue eyes met his gaze directly. “No.”
He turned away, choking back a growl as he began to pace again. She stepped in front of him. “Jim, I made it through that. I’m not at the front any more. I came back.”
Jim struggled to get his emotions under control. This was not going at all the way he had planned. But he couldn’t stop the next thought from popping out of his mouth. “You don’t know where you’re going next. You said probably the Pacific; with your luck, you’ll be parked right off the North Korean coast.”
“I don’t know yet,” she said, but she looked away. Her inability to meet his eyes told him she’d already thought of that, and it was a real possibility.
“The job is dangerous enough. But you’re prone to be right in the center of everything, and that’s where people get killed.” He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “You nearly got yourself killed a hundred times before you joined the military. How could I expect you not to be in danger there? Like I said, it was a reasonable fear.”
Trixie wanted to tear her hair out. How could she make him understand? “I won’t get myself killed, dammit! I wouldn’t do that to you!”
He looked at her sharply. She ripped off her gloves and threw them on the ground, needing to touch him. She marched over and grabbed his face in both hands. Speaking very slowly and deliberately, she said, “I would never hurt you like that. I was always coming home to you.”
Jim stared into those beautiful blue eyes that were so fervently begging him to have faith in her. A sense of peace overcame him, an assurance that he was absolutely doing the right thing. He smiled tenderly and gave her a soft, gentle kiss.
“Then marry me.”
Trixie stepped back in shock and stared at him as if not quite believing her ears. Completely unsure how to react, she laughed lightly. “It takes you eleven years to kiss me, and less than 48 hours to propose?” she said in a shaky voice. “And people say I’m the impulsive one.”
His calm composure unnerved her. “I’ve been told I don’t have an impulsive bone in my body,” he replied in a strong, steady voice.
Then Jim reached into his pocket and drew out a small velvet box. Trixie’s eyes widened, and were riveted to the box as he slowly lifted the lid to reveal a gorgeous diamond solitaire surrounded by a swirl of gold encrusted with tiny sapphires. She clenched her hands together to stop their trembling as she raised her gaze up to meet a serene sea of green. Feeling light-headed, she whispered, “Oh my God. You’re serious.”
He held her eyes with his unwavering gaze. “I need to know that you’re coming back to me. I need to know that, when your tour is over, we have a future together. I know that if you make me this promise, nothing will stop you from keeping it.”
Her heart beat erratically and she could hear the blood roaring in her ears as he took a step closer to her and continued. “You need to know where your future lies. You need to know that I love you. You need to know that this isn’t just some happy moment from your perfect Christmas. That I’m right here, waiting for you to come home to me.”
Jim knelt down before her in the snow and held the ring box up. “Trixie Belden, will you marry me?”
She was afraid to breathe; afraid that if she blinked, she would wake up from the best dream she’d ever had. But never in her wildest dreams had she imagined this. Never had she dared to hope for this. She wasn’t sure she was capable of speech at the moment, but she couldn’t afford to miss out on this moment if it was real.
Swallowing hard and licking her lips, desperately attempting to bring forth some moisture into her dry mouth, Trixie barely managed one word. “Yes.”
Jim never took his eyes off hers. He reached out and grabbed her left hand, lifting the ring from its box and sliding it onto her finger. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the finger that now bore his ring. Then he rose to his feet and slowly smiled.
Suddenly hit with the full force of reality, Trixie grinned and flung herself into Jim’s arms. He laughed and swung her around, then set her down and kissed her thoroughly. When they came up for air, Jim grinned.
“So, I take it my shopping trip yesterday was worthwhile, even though you said not to get you anything for Christmas.”
Trixie laughed and watched the jewels on her hand glittering in the moonlight. “Oh, definitely.”
He nuzzled her neck and asked, “And the plan to avoid giving you tangible gifts, so you don’t have too much to carry on your travels?”
Arching to give him better access, she breathed, “You’re exempt from that restriction. And I can certainly manage to carry this around with me.”
“I hope so,” he said. “I don’t want any of those sailors to get any ideas about you.”
She looked up at him solemnly. “There’s never been room in my heart for anyone but you.”
Kissing her again, Jim whispered, “Merry Christmas, Trixie.”
When the happy couple arrived arm-in-arm to rejoin the party, it dawned on Trixie what had been bothering her for the last couple of years. She knew that, while she was halfway across the globe, life in Sleepyside would move on without her. She’d been afraid that she would no longer belong when she returned, and that she would feel aimless and out of place.
She looked up adoringly at Jim as he held her tightly to his side. A sense of peace and tranquility washed over her. Trixie knew where she belonged. She realized she would always have a place here in Sleepyside. She knew exactly what she would be coming home to when her tour of duty was finished. And she couldn’t be happier.
Love and Joy come to you
And to you your wassail too
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year
He had indeed.
This story was written as a Christmas gift-fic for April W. There is no one more deserving of the love and joy of a special Christmas. The heart and soul that were poured into this effort are a mere fraction of the love I owe you for all that you are to me.
I'm sorry I didn't write a Mart and Di story, but I just don't have it in me. I hope all the other special touches, designed just for you, are enough. The snowflake background I chose specifically because you love snow so much. I could have had a number of other colors behind the snowflakes, but I chose the lavender with you in mind. The orchid title text, and even the use of the font Trebuchet are all designed to warm your heart. And, of course, Rob's decision to join the Navy was a total nod to Victor.
Merry Christmas, April!
Very special thanks go out to Aleta and Dana for patiently answering all my tedious questions about doctoral dissertations and the U.S. Navy, respectively. Your help was invaluable.
Another round of thanks to Steph H. for continuous encouragement and prodding. I'm so glad you didn't take a Katrina tone of voice and repeat, over and over again, "Are you done yet?" I just wish I had finished in time for you to edit it.
Unfortunately, this is completely self-edited. April, if there's any problems, you'll be the first to see them. No one spots my screw-ups better. (BTW - Jim's hair is now red. )
I suppose I should be a good little girl and give appropriate credit for all the songs quoted throughout. However, since nearly all Christmas songs have been recorded and re-recorded, all I have to say is that I didn't bother to ask anyone's permission to do anything. Just like I didn't ask Random House's permission to use the characters from the Trixie Belden mystery series.
I think that's all I have to say. I love you, Sweetie!