I have reconcil'd your friends and you
Thursday, February 11, 1999
New York, New York
The elevator doors opened, and Matt prodded Trixie out into the hallway. She never looked up from the file folder of documents she was studying. As they proceeded down the hall, Matt grumbled, “I thought I told you to leave that at work.”
Without looking up, she answered, “I won’t get into the office until one o’clock tomorrow, and the presentation is at one-thirty. I’ve got to work on this tonight.”
He stopped and turned to her, exasperation mixing with a tinge of anger. “No, you don’t. You have to go out to dinner with Bobby, and then you have to finish your paper for class tomorrow. The only way that leaves you time to work on that file is if you don’t bother to sleep. I won’t stand for it!”
She finally looked up from the papers, giving him a cool glare. “I’ll sleep as much – or as little – as I please. You can’t order me around; you’re not my father!”
Matt’s eyes narrowed, sparks of fury igniting in the green depths. He drew a breath, prepared to launch into a filibuster of epic proportions on the stupidity of that statement.
Leaning against the penthouse door, watching the entire exchange, Mart decided now would be the perfect moment to interrupt. “What time are you meeting Bobby for dinner?”
As Trixie whirled to face him, her entire demeanor changed. Gone was the pinched, hard look and the formal stance. Instead, her face lit up and she gave Mart a brilliant smile. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she asked as she flew into his arms.
Matt stooped to retrieve the file folder and briefcase Trixie had dropped, smothering both a grin and a sigh of relief. The many transformations she’d gone through the past couple of months had been difficult for both of them, but the angry and cranky individual she’d become the last week or so was extremely tiresome. Watching her light up at Mart’s arrival was cheering, and Mart’s presence as a buffer between them the next few days would provide a welcome respite.
Trixie clung to her brother. She hadn’t even realized how much she needed to see him until this moment. “I would have met you at the airport!”
Considering how hard it was to get Trixie to leave the office in the evening, Mart considered that a compliment. “I wasn’t sure if and when I’d get here.”
Stepping back, Trixie said, “I’m so glad you’re here!”
Mart saw nervous anxiety in her bright blue eyes. He knew she’d managed to get out of her monthly dinner with Bobby the previous month. He also knew that that had been the only time she’d ever cancelled on him, and she felt guilty. Finally, he knew that Trixie’s recent breakthroughs made her very nervous about dealing with potentially emotional situations. She just didn’t have it in her to keep her composure anymore.
He placed steadying hands on her shoulders, and gave her a reassuring smile. “So, when and where are we meeting Bobby?”
She couldn’t stop the tears from forming. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Matt silently stepped around them and entered the apartment, leaving the door open for them, as Mart pulled her back into his arms. “Haven’t you figured out yet that I would do anything for you?”
She trembled and buried her face in his chest. They both considered it a good sign that the tears lasted only a few minutes.
Bob Belden emerged from the train station, casting a quick glance around for his sister. When he spotted his brother Mart beside her, he was shocked. He walked up to them slowly, still reeling. They were talking to each other and didn’t see him approach, so he had the opportunity to study them.
Trixie was pacing a bit, and clenching and unclenching her hands, a nervous habit she didn’t even realize she had. But there was a certain… light about her. And Mart stood tall, confident. He had a self-assurance about him Bobby hadn’t seen in years. Amazed, Bobby thought he might actually have something good to report when his parents asked about his evening.
“Hey, guys,” he greeted them.
Trixie turned. “Hi, Bob,” she greeted him before giving him a hug.
Bob hugged her back tightly, closing his eyes against the tide of emotion that nearly brought him to tears. She had flashed a smile at him when she’d spoken. It had been quick and nervous, but it had been a smile.
“Good to see you, Bobby,” Mart said. When his little brother turned to him Mart gave him a wink and a quick hug.
As Trixie turned to signal Steven and the limo, Bob muttered under his breath, “Thanks.”
Just as quietly, Mart returned, “We’re only pointed in the right direction. We aren’t out of the woods yet.”
“It’s a start,” Bob said.
“Yes, it is,” Mart agreed.
Throughout dinner, Trixie managed to keep the conversation away from herself. She asked Bob about school, his friends, even their parents. For the first time in a long time, she seemed genuinely interested in the answers, so Bob was happy to talk. When he turned the tide of the conversation towards Mart and school, talk continued to flow smoothly. This surprised the young lad, because his older brother usually tried to avoid discussing school or his social life.
The evening was full of pleasant surprises for Bob. He wasn’t sure he could take any more when, over dessert, Trixie apologized for missing their last dinner.
Bob shrugged. “I figured it had to happen sooner or later. After Christmas, I wasn’t really surprised.”
He was surprised, however to see the tears that flooded her eyes at his remark. She looked beseechingly at Mart.
“I’m afraid that was my fault, Bob,” Mart explained. “Trixie caught a cold after I made her go skating with me at Rockefeller Center.”
Bob’s eyes bugged out of his head. “You were in New York?”
“Yeah,” Mart nodded. “I stayed with Trix and Matt for a couple of weeks.” He reached out and placed a hand over one of hers. “It helped us both get our heads screwed on a little straighter.”
Trixie gave him a watery smile of gratitude and clenched his hand. Bob stared back and forth between the two of them. He knew he wasn’t going to make it all the way back to Sleepyside before he had to share this remarkable development. In fact, he decided that as soon as his siblings dropped him at the train station, he was going to pull out his cell phone and call Mrs. Weston. He was quite certain he needed to thank her for the little nudge she had given Mart at Christmas dinner, which seemed to have started a domino effect. He smiled and hoped it would keep on going for a long while to come.
Friday, February 12, 1999
New York, New York
When Trixie emerged from her room, she was busily checking off items on her PalmPilot. She didn’t look up when she reached the coffee machine, until she realized the pot was too light. She glanced at the counter. Her travel mug was already filled, sitting beside a granola bar.
She felt a twinge of conscience. For two and a half years, she had been making Matt’s coffee every morning. But for the last two months, he’d been making hers. Granted, she filled the machine at night and set it on auto program; still, he poured her cup and fixed it just the way she liked it.
It was such a silly little thing, but it bothered her. In her darkest days when she felt she couldn’t have lifted a finger to help a soul, she had still taken care of Matt’s morning coffee. She knew she had agreed to let him take care of her. She realized she needed his help. Yet, somehow, the simple act of fixing coffee in the morning symbolized to her the inability to take care of herself.
Heaving a deep sigh, she shoved aside her coffee worries and grabbed her cup. Regardless of who made the coffee, she couldn’t start the day without it. She picked up the granola bar and moved to place it and the PalmPilot in her briefcase. When she opened it, she found two granola bars already inside.
“You’re supposed to eat one of them now,” Matt spoke up from his place at the dining table. He hadn’t looked up from his newspaper and her back was to him; nevertheless, he knew exactly what she was thinking.
The few choice words that were formulating on Trixie’s lips died suddenly as Mart appeared, backpack slung over his shoulder. “Are we ready to go?” he asked.
“Go where?” Trixie questioned with a frown.
“To school, of course.” Mart smiled indulgently, like he was speaking to a small child. “You have classes. I have nothing else to do this morning, but I have a paper due Tuesday. I figured I would while away the hours in the campus library being productive.”
“Oh,” Trixie responded, nonplussed. “Okay.”
“Then we can go to lunch.”
“I can’t, Mart. I have to be – “
Matt cut her off. “The presentation has been rescheduled for Tuesday.”
She turned to glare at him. “Excuse me?”
Finally looking up from his paper, he offered her a superior smile. “McKay’s daughter arrived for an unexpected visit, so he’s canceled all his appointments today. You have all weekend to prep for the presentation.”
Trixie narrowed her eyes. She seriously doubted the story about McKay’s daughter. And she would definitely check it out. If Matt Wheeler thought for one second he could control her schedule, he was seriously mistaken. It was her job to control his!
Fuming, Trixie scooped up her briefcase and stalked out of the apartment. Mart waited as Matt leisurely folded his newspaper and closed his own briefcase.
“You’re going to pay for that, you know,” Mart advised the older man.
“I know,” he replied. With a twinkle in his eye, he continued, “Fortunately, I also know better than to lie to her. I came to be successful by learning to take the best advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. When McKay called, I could easily have handled the situation differently. This way just suited me better.”
Mart laughed. He enjoyed watching the interactions between Matt and Trixie. It was an interesting combination of friendship and competition. Their relationship was quite different from the one they’d had years ago. Back then, Trixie had viewed Matt paternally, as her best friend’s father, and Matt had seen Trixie as a little girl, almost another daughter. Those days were long gone; Matt was much more Trixie’s friend than Honey was, and Trixie was definitely not a little girl any more.
Despite her protests, Trixie had enjoyed the day. Spending time with Mart was therapeutic. Somehow, it was easier to believe that life would go on when they were bantering back and forth like they had all their lives. They had eaten lunch, stopped by a museum exhibit, gone to dinner, taken in a movie, and were now relaxing over coffee and dessert.
Thinking about how much more she ate when Mart was around, Trixie smiled. It was so rare for her to smile about a thought in her own head that Mart almost stood up and cheered. He settled for prying. “What’s so funny?”
Trixie shrugged. “It’s not, really. I was just thinking that I’ve eaten more today than I have in the last two weeks, and yet it seems perfectly normal because you’re here.”
Mart raised an eyebrow. He was certain she’d eaten more often today than usual, but based on the size of her portions he wouldn’t exactly say she’d eaten a lot. “No wonder you look like a scarecrow.”
“Yeah, right,” she snorted.
“I’m serious, Trix. You look like you haven’t seen the sun in years, you keep that hair pulled back all the time, and you’re beanpole thin. Combine that with the ‘slimming effect’ from your ever-present all-black wardrobe, and you look downright sickly.” He gave her a determined look. “Be prepared to spend the afternoon shopping tomorrow.”
Glaring at him, Trixie asked, “You wouldn’t actually try to subject me to such horrors, would you?”
Nonchalantly, Mart replied, “I wouldn’t. But by the time we’re done with lunch, I’m pretty sure Diana will.”
Trixie became intensely still. She swallowed hard before attempting to speak, and then she barely managed a whisper. “Diana?”
Mart nodded slowly. “We’re meeting Dan and Di for lunch.”
She started to reach for her coffee, but when she noticed how bad her hand was trembling she clenched her fist and buried it in her lap. She focused her gaze on the swirl of raspberry syrup decorating her plate beside the remains of a rich, chocolate-raspberry cheesecake. It seemed to require conscious thought to draw in a rasping breath. “Why?”
Trying to be as gentle as possible, Mart said, “Because you need them, Trix.”
Quivering, Trixie shook her head slightly. “No.”
Firmly, he responded, “Yes.”
When she finally raised her eyes to his, there was panic and terror behind the forming tears. “I can’t,” she choked.
“Not alone, you can’t. I wouldn’t ask you to.” He reached over to rub her shoulder. “You’re not alone. I’m with you every step of the way.”
She rose abruptly. “I want to go home now.”
Mart quickly settled the bill while she stopped in the ladies’ room. Despite the measure of privacy there, Trixie still felt like she was on public display. She couldn’t stop trembling and she was having trouble breathing. She rushed out and Mart nearly had to run to catch up with her before she reached the limo.
Steven cheerfully tipped his hat while opening the door. “Where to now, kids?”
“Home.” Her tight reply was barely out of her mouth before she dove into the car.
Steven pressed his lips into a thin line. He wasn’t a close confidant, by any means, but he saw plenty through his daily contact with the young lady who resided with his boss. He could see a meltdown about to happen. Once Mart was inside he shut the door and ran around the car. His job, right now, was to get Trixie back to the penthouse as quickly as possible.
When they arrived at the apartment, Trixie blew in the door and stalked off to her room before Matt could even make it from his den to the foyer. Frowning after her, he turned to Mart. “What happened?”
Frustrated, Mart grabbed at his hair with both hands. “I told her about the lunch plans I made for tomorrow – with Dan and Di.”
Matt’s eyebrows disappeared beneath the lock of red hair that curled over his forehead. He was surprised, but definitely pleased with the young man.
Mart sighed. “It was probably a bad idea. I don’t think she’s ever going to speak to me again.”
“Wrong,” Matt vehemently exclaimed. “She needs this, and you both know it. She’ll calm down by lunchtime tomorrow.”
“Uh huh,” was Mart’s dubious response.
A hand on his shoulder, Matt reassured him. “Just leave it to me.”
Once Mart had retreated wearily to the guest room, Matt headed for Trixie’s room. He knocked once and then entered, knowing she would be too upset to be changing or any such thing. He found her pretty much as he had expected, huddled in a corner of the room with her back to the wall. He approached her as he would a skittish colt, walking slowly and speaking soothingly.
“It’s okay, Trixie. Everything’s going to be okay.”
She didn’t acknowledge his presence until he stood right in front of her. When she looked at him he saw her fear, her terror of being cold and alone again. In a ragged whisper she said, “I can’t.”
Pulling her into a hug, he assured her, “Yes, you can.”
“Why would they want to see me?”
“Because they love you and they miss you.”
Still she trembled. “What if you’re wrong? What if they only want to tell me how much of a mess I’ve made of the Bob-Whites?”
Matt sighed. “Deep down in your heart, you don’t believe either one of them would do that. And if they wanted to, Mart wouldn’t let them.”
“I know. But everything’s going to be all right…” he stopped short. He had almost called her Little One, just like he had since she was fourteen, but lately it just didn’t seem right. She wasn’t little, and she wasn’t a child.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Trixie.”
“But… what if… what if it all goes wrong?”
“Then you come right home. I’ll be here,” he soothed. He continued to comfort her, rubbing her back, as he felt her relax. “I’ll always be here, sweetheart. I promised you I’d help you through this, and I will.”
Matt’s words, his voice, his embrace all served to make Trixie feel safe. This was why she’d needed to come home. When the overwhelming panic had come over her, she’d needed more than anything to feel safe.
As she calmed down, Matt felt progress. It was only a little, but every day that held any progress brought them a step closer to being free from the shadows of death that haunted them.
Saturday, February 13, 1999
New York, New York
Trixie paced the length of her walk-in closet. There were things in here she didn’t even know she owned. The front-most rack held the classic black tailored suits and dresses she wore for school and work. In the deepest, darkest nether region of the room, stuffed into bottom drawers, were the clothes she’d brought with her when she had moved into the penthouse. Somewhere in between there were some things Maddie had purchased for her while she was still alive. Trixie remembered one shopping trip in particular.
Maddie had been having a few good days and was feeling a little stir-crazy. She had called an exclusive salon she favored and made an appointment for a private showing. By the time she had picked out just two casual outfits she was tired. However, she was enjoying being out and wasn’t ready to go home. Instead she sat regally in a comfortable chair and commanded the helpful staff as they gave Trixie a full makeover. It had been so good to see Maddie happy and having fun that Trixie had agreed to anything she wanted.
The clothes they had purchased that day had languished in the depths of the closet ever since Maddie’s health had taken a turn for the worse. Hesitantly, Trixie opened the panel for that section of her closet. Just seeing the bright colors brought tears to her eyes. She very nearly slammed the door shut again, but one blouse in particular caught her eye.
She fingered the collar of the bright blue silk blouse for a moment before taking the hanger off the rack. She walked to the front of the closet and held it next to one of her usual suits. The black pin-striped pants and jacket looked nice with the blouse, and the bright color did wonders for livening up the suit. Maybe that would be enough for today.
When she appeared in the living room a short while later, the looks of approval from Mart and Matt did much to calm her nerves. As Matt helped her into her long black woolen coat, he smiled reassuringly. “Relax. And I’ll be right here if you need anything.”
Trixie nodded, too worried to respond, before taking Mart’s arm and beginning her walk down the longest mile. In the elevator, Mart commented, “It would help if you didn’t look quite so terrified.”
Clenching his arm in a vice grip, Trixie replied, “I might not look that way if I didn’t feel that way.”
Mart squeezed her hand, surreptitiously loosening her grip on his already sore bicep. “It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
Trixie didn’t speak another word all the way to the restaurant. Mart had chosen a small, quiet, out of the way setting, hoping to keep everyone relaxed and to avoid running into casual acquaintances. When they arrived, Mart jumped out of the limo quickly, scanning to see if Dan and Di were already inside.
Steven offered his hand to assist Trixie out of the limousine. “Miss Belden, I’ll be right nearby if you need me.”
Mart’s head snapped around. “That won’t be necessary, Steven.”
Steven glared at Mart challengingly before turning back to Trixie. He restated, in a firm and deliberate voice, “I’ll be right outside.”
Trixie’s face softened, and she squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Steven.”
Taking her brother’s arm, she led him into the restaurant before he could say something rude to the chauffeur. Mart muttered, “Personally, I think he’s half in love with you.”
A vague hint of a twinkle in her eye, Trixie raised one brow. “Really? I’ll have to mention that to his fiancée when we get together to discuss the bridal shower I’m throwing for her.”
Flushing, Mart cleared his throat and turned to the maître d’. “Belden, party of four.”
The gentleman bowed slightly. “The rest of your party has already been seated. Please follow me.”
Trixie’s stomach twisted itself into knots as she trailed after the tall host through the restaurant toward a back corner. She couldn’t see anything except the back of the man she was following. When the maître d’ stepped aside with a flourish to pull out her chair, Trixie saw that Dan and Di had seated themselves on opposite sides of the small square table, so that she would have to sit between them and Mart would be across from her. That alone caused such a huge wave of panic to crash over her that she almost bolted from the restaurant.
Mart turned, sensing the escape plan forming in her tortured mind. He reached a hand behind her and pushed her toward the chair which the maître d’ still held. As he placed a hand on her shoulder to force her gently down into the seat, Diana smiled and pulled something from underneath her own chair.
“Trixie, please sit down. I have something for you.” Di placed a medium-sized box wrapped in bright red paper with a lavish white bow on the table in front of Trixie.
Trixie stared suspiciously at the package, then glanced nervously back and forth between Di and Dan. During the moment of confusion, Mart managed to get her to sit and the maître d’ pushed her chair in to the table, effectively trapping her. Unable to miss the tension in the group, he slipped away and signaled the waiter not to approach the table just yet, while Mart moved around the table and took his own seat.
“Please, Trixie, open it.” There was an unmistakable plea in Diana’s eyes, as if willing Trixie to understand some hidden meaning behind the gift.
Saying not a word, Trixie fingered the bow for a long moment. She studied the careful penmanship on the gift tag, where her friend had written, “To Trixie, Love Di.”
It was too simple. It couldn’t be that easy, could it?
Looking back up into Di’s eyes, Trixie carefully unwrapped the package without glancing down at it. She could see the request written across the other woman’s face: Please hear what I’m saying.
When she looked at the gift, Trixie’s vision blurred and she was transported back in time.
Trixie sat across the table from Diana, surprised that her friend had been the one to suggest a puzzle since they had always seemed to irritate Di so much when they’d been children. As Trixie shuffled through the pieces in her usual fashion, sorting the blue shades of water from the very different blue shades of sky, Di chose her first piece and looked carefully for a piece that would connect to it. When Trixie pushed a piece in her direction, she immediately took it and tested it until she made the two fit together.
“Do you remember when we decided we were going to Niagara Falls?” Di asked.
Trixie laughed. “What were we, seven?”
Di nodded. “About that. I think we talked about taking a honeymoon together.”
Giggling over the memory, Trixie nodded. “Your mom was horrified! Once she got done explaining to us why we couldn’t go on a honeymoon together, she thought the subject was closed. Then we insisted that neither one of us would ever go there unless we went together.”
“And we haven’t!” Di laughed gaily. “My parents tried to drive through there on our last trip to Wisconsin, and I wouldn’t let them. I told them I couldn’t go to Niagara Falls without you.”
The two friends continued to laugh and talk, sharing childhood memories that they tended to avoid when Honey was around because they didn’t want her to feel left out, until the puzzle was complete.
Trixie swallowed hard and reached blindly for her napkin, only to have a delicate handkerchief thrust into her outstretched hand. She wiped her eyes with one hand while she traced the rainbow on the cover of the 1,000-piece picture puzzle of Niagara Falls with the other.
“I’ve still never been to Niagara Falls,” she said without looking up.
“Neither have I,” Di choked through her own tears. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Raising her eyes from the box, Trixie saw that Di had moved her chair around the corner of the table so they were right next to each other. Her oldest friend had her arms outstretched, and Trixie fell into them. Di held her and stroked the long braid that hung down her back, ignoring the tears streaming down her face.
“I’ve missed you, Trix. I’ve missed you so much.”
Mart and Dan exchanged relieved looks. It seemed Diana had pushed just the right buttons. Come hell or high water, they were going to pull Trixie out of her hole.
Dan cleared his throat. “So, at one point Di had suggested that the two of you ditch us after lunch and go shopping. But that was before she thought up this gift. I was thinking a quiet afternoon working on a jigsaw puzzle might be just the thing for the four of us to do together.”
Trixie lifted her head off Di’s shoulder to look over at Dan. Smiling timidly, she replied, “I’d like that. I really would.”
“Good,” Dan grinned.
When Di began to move her chair back to its place, the waiter took that as his cue to approach the table. He gave them menus and took their drink orders. Once he had moved away, Dan cleared his throat again.
“So, Freckles, I have another question for you.”
“What’s that?” Trixie asked nervously.
“Do you remember the day you first trusted me?”
Trixie smiled. “Of course I do. You helped save Bobby’s life.”
“So if I asked you to help me save my little sister’s life, would you?”
Shock and curiosity shot through Trixie. “What little sister?”
Dan’s face betrayed nothing. “Just answer the question.”
“Of course I would!” Trixie waved impatiently as she scooted her chair closer to Dan. “Now answer my question: What little sister?”
Not saying a word, Dan reached out and tapped her once on the nose. Tearing up all over again, Trixie leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. Dan inched his chair the last little bit closer to hers and wrapped his arms around her. Resting his head on her curls, he squeezed his eyes shut to force back tears of his own.
“I’m so, so sorry, Trix.”
“Dan, no,” she whispered. “You have nothing to be sorry about.”
“Bob-Whites are supposed to be there for each other,” he said. “I let you down.”
Shaking her head, Trixie looked up into his eyes. “You were right where I wanted you to be.”
“I know,” Dan said ruefully. “But that doesn’t mean I was where you needed me to be. I won’t let you down again.”
Joy, sorrow, gratitude and guilt battled for center stage. Trixie didn’t know what to feel. “Oh, Danny,” she said, and hugged him as hard as she could.
This time it was Diana who exchanged a look with Mart. She gave him a brilliant smile and a wink. He returned her grin, feeling confident that a massive wrecking ball had just hit the walls around his sister’s heart.
The four friends eventually ordered food and settled down to lunch. After a few halting starts, conversation began to flow. By the time they were ready to leave, they were all looking forward to spending the afternoon over a jigsaw puzzle and friendly chatter.
On their way out of the restaurant the group ran into a tall, broad-shouldered man with silver-gray hair and kindly blue eyes, accompanied by a young woman with flowing red hair, a ton of freckles, and her father’s eyes. Hand outstretched, Trixie greeted him. “Mr. McKay, how are you?”
The older man offered a wide smile. “I’m doing wonderfully, thanks to my daughter’s surprise visit.” He turned to introduce the young woman by his side. “Maureen, I’d like you to meet Beatrix Belden of Wheeler International.”
Maureen’s smile was charming, and the Irish lilt in her voice made it seem musical. “’Tis a pleasure to meet you, Miss Belden. I’m sorry to have taken my Da away from his business with you yesterday, but I rarely get the chance to see him.”
Trixie offered a pleasant smile. “That’s quite all right, Miss McKay. It actually worked out better for me, as I, too, have family visiting from out of town.” She turned to introduce her companions. “This is my brother, Mart Belden, and two of our best friends, Dan Mangan and Diana Lynch. This is Sean McKay and his daughter, Maureen.”
As greetings were exchanged, Mr. McKay asked Diana, “Ted Lynch’s daughter? I know your father well. He’s a good man.” He accepted Di’s demure thanks before turning back to Trixie. “Well, now I understand why Wheeler didn’t harass me for postponing, after I was the one who had originally wanted to move the meeting forward.”
“Oh, I’m sure you won’t escape unscathed,” Trixie commented dryly. “He’s probably just saving it up for what he deems a more advantageous moment.”
McKay’s roaring laughter filled the room. “Belden, you are one smart young lady.”
Trixie nodded graciously. “Thank you, sir.”
Suddenly turning serious, McKay fixed her with a serious look. “Miss Belden, may I offer you a wee bit of advice?”
“You may always offer,” she replied.
He smiled. “But you’ll decide whether or not to take it? Smart girl. Here’s my advice: don’t listen to them.”
Frowning, Trixie queried, “To whom, sir?”
“The men of the world,” McKay said. “There will be those who tell you that you are nothing more than a glorified secretary. There will be those who tell you that you are simply Matt Wheeler’s tool. There will be those who tell you that if you ever want to be taken seriously on your own, you can’t hide in his shadow.
“Ignore them. You are a bright, intuitive young woman with a lot of potential. You are in a position to learn from one of the smartest businessmen in the world. Absorb all you can. And remember, Wheeler may be a generous soul, but not when it comes to business. He gives nothing away. You earn everything when you work for him.
“Connections are all-important in business. You’re going to a good school, but you’re being tutored by the master. Take every advantage of what you’ve got, and you’ll go far.”
Maureen laid a hand on her father’s arm. “Da, why don’t you stop while you’re still at a wee bit of advice, instead of running off into a full-blown lecture.”
Chuckling ruefully, McKay acknowledged his daughter’s wisdom. “Maureen is right. I do have a tendency to ramble on.”
With a thoughtful look, Trixie replied, “Actually, I think I’d rather listen to you lecture than some of my college professors. Feel free to sub for them any time.”
McKay laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind. I won’t keep you any longer. Enjoy your day, and I look forward to our meeting on Tuesday.”
As Trixie bid farewell to the father and daughter, she wore a dazed expression. The four friends moved out of the restaurant and into the limo before she spoke again. “Well, that was just weird.”
“What’s wrong?” Mart asked.
“I think Mr. McKay was spying on my professors and classmates this week. My advisor told me that I was destined to live my life in Matt Wheeler’s shadow; he said I had planted myself there and would never have any access to the sun because of it. A teacher told me that Matt was using me, because I had a bright mind and he takes terrible advantage of all who are foolish enough to get close to him. And a classmate told me not to be so smug about my place in the world, because I was nothing more than a lowly secretary, no matter who I worked for.”
“Wait a minute,” Di said. “You mean people in business classes act like it’s a bad thing to work for Matt Wheeler?”
Trixie snorted. ”Constantly. Now, if I had been placed through one of their hard-to-get internships in the bowels of Wheeler, they’d be impressed. But since I didn’t go through them, and I'm a lot closer to the top than they would have been able to place me, it’s somehow going to ruin me.”
Dan studied her thoughtfully. “That sounds like a normal consequence of life in the real world. It sucks, it’s wrong, but it’s real and you have to deal with it. It’s the kind of thing you bitch about privately to your friends to let off some steam, but in the end you just tough it out.”
Trixie acknowledged Dan with a slight tilt of her head. “Exactly. Deal with it and move on.”
Dan shook his head. “You missed the important part of that statement: ‘the kind of thing you bitch about … to your friends to let off some steam’. Who’ve you been bitching to, Trix?”
Heaving a loud sigh, Mart answered for her. “No one, obviously. This is the first I’m hearing of it, and she’s sure as hell not going to tell Matt about this stuff, so clearly, the answer is no one.”
Trixie stared out the car window and refused to meet their eyes. “It’s minor, compared to everything else.”
“Exactly,” Di said, reaching out to grab her hands. “Compared to everything else. But on top of everything else, it’s unnecessary stress. Don’t you remember our solution to Anderson’s geometry theorems?”
As she thought back to a particular gripe session in high school, a chuckle almost escaped Trixie’s lips. “That was silly.”
“And fun,” Di emphasized. “We were angry and panicked and freaked out, and after that silliness we were relaxed and did well on the test. It’s what friends are for. I want to hear about the creepy professors, or the classmate who smells bad, or the stupid pen that exploded on your new pants.”
A faint hint of amusement colored Trixie’s face. “The classmate who smells bad?”
Di waved dismissively. “Every school has one. That’s not my point.”
Trixie nearly smiled. “And what does yours smell like?”
Rolling her eyes, Di said, “Cat pee and garlic. Can we get back to my point?”
With a quirk of an eyebrow, Trixie turned to Dan. “Do you avoid eating garlic around her cat?”
Dan and Mart burst out laughing, and Trixie actually smiled. Diana feigned insult while secretly cheering Trixie’s good humor. By the time the boys were able to regain control, the limo had pulled up in front of Trixie’s apartment building and Steven was opening the door.
As they stepped out onto the street, Trixie turned and gave Di a quick hug. “I get your point, and thank you.”
“I mean it,” Di said, returning her hug. “I want to hear about your smelly classmates and annoying teachers.”
“Over jigsaw puzzles?”
Di grinned. “Yeah, over jigsaw puzzles.”
The group of young people proceeded through the lobby and up the elevator. Matt Wheeler stepped into the foyer when he heard the door open. Trixie breezed by him with what could almost pass as a bounce to her step.
“Matt, I’m going to make hot cocoa. Would you please get us the card table? We’re going to work on a puzzle.”
Matt stared after her a moment, blinking in surprise. Then he turned and wrapped the other three in a big bear hug. “Thank you. I have no idea what you did, but thank you.”
Mart smiled happily. “Want to join us in a jigsaw puzzle?”
Matt shook his head. “No. I’ll leave you to keep doing whatever you’re doing. Once I get out the card table, I’ll make a strategic retreat. Why don’t you take care of everyone’s coats?”
By the time Trixie arrived in the living room with a tray of mugs and a carafe of cocoa, Matt had disappeared. Mart, Dan and Di were arranging chairs around the card table and arguing amiably about seating arrangements. Trixie set down her tray and hurried out, returning a moment later with a second tray, laden with cookies and snacks.
“Hey,” Dan said. “One of us could have helped you with that.”
“I almost called Mart,” Trixie admitted. “But… well, it’s food.”
Laughing, they poured their drinks and sat down to the table. Trixie raised her cup and said, “Here’s to good friends.”
Dan raised his mug as well. “May the past be remembered without dwelling there, may the present be savored, and may we dream of the future together.”
They swallowed past lumps in their throats or blinked back tears from their eyes as they acknowledged Dan’s toast. And as they touched their glasses together, the sound was as the music of bells ringing in a new day.
My deepest thanks to Trish and Bonnie. Not only did you turn these edits around super quickly, but your reactions gave me a supreme boost of confidence. I cannot thank you enough.
I had to post this for the Jixaversary, since so much of this universe has been posted during such celebrations. Besides, how better to honor the Bard than to post in a Shakespeare-themed universe on the Ides of March.
Without Jix, Cathy, and the many varied tastes of the readers here, this universe wouldn't even exist. I am so proud to be counted a Jixemitri Author. And no, this wasn't written during the February challenge. Shockingly enough, I was already done with this before the challenge.
For everyone who loved the puzzle image in the last story, don't ya just love where it went here?
The title is from Titus Andronicus, Act I, Scene i, line 467.