Will You Dance,

If I Ask You to Dance?




The silence in the room was deafening.  Ria and Chelsea exchanged quick, worried glances, then studied the facial expressions of those around them.

Matthew Wheeler was tense.  His eyes darted around the room, warily watching the faces around him.  He appeared to be bracing himself for an oncoming explosion.  He took a deep breath, flexed his hands, and clenched his jaw.  The tall, powerful man stood rigidly, waiting for the expected attack from the young people he had just wounded.

Not appearing surprised, Sherry Lynch stood behind the couch, calmly waiting.  She had obviously been warned ahead of time and was there to give support.  She hovered in the background, gentle eyes searching to determine where she would be needed most.

Dan was inscrutable.  He stared at Matt Wheeler intently, as if he could discern his motives and intentions by studying the man’s eyes.  He seemed to be searching for evidence that this was actually the best way to help Trixie.  No matter how radical the approach, the result was what mattered to him.  If he could be convinced this would really help Trixie, he’d go along with it.

Honey’s hazel eyes were welling up with tears.  Even the most insightful observer could not possibly follow the confused meanderings of the young heiress’ mind.  She couldn’t follow them herself; she was so confused.  Part of her wanted to reach out, to do or give anything to her hurting best friend.  Honey had always wanted to be part of a loving, caring family and had always envied Trixie her happy home life.  Now, just as Honey’s family life was coming together so nicely, her best friend’s family was falling apart.  Life was so unfair!

Another, tiny part of Honey’s mind was screaming in jealousy.  How many years had it taken before her parents had even adjusted their schedules to take care of her?  Yet, here they were, dropping everything for a neighbor.

Guilt washed over the tenderhearted girl for allowing the jealous thoughts to enter her heart.  Trixie was so much more than a neighbor to her.  Honey would do anything on Trixie’s behalf.  She was glad her parents cared enough to offer their assistance.

The hazel eyes swept the room, seeking strength and stability.  She wanted a shoulder on which to lean, but one upon which she would not be a burden at this difficult time.  Her friends were just as desperately in need of places to lean, and she would only weigh them down.  She eventually met Ria’s gaze.  Honey’s eyes pleaded for understanding for her feelings, though she herself could not understand them.  Ria’s features softened, and she sent Honey a mental hug with just a tilt of her head.  That quiet reassurance gave Honey the strength to take a steadying breath and concentrate on the needs of her friends.

Jim was visibly trying to control his temper.  He was afraid what he saw was his adoptive father using his power and influence to try to control the situation.  It had always seemed to Jim that Matt Wheeler needed to be in authority over everyone around him, even his friends.  He loved Matt, but he was not about to let his best friends become pawns in some sort of bizarre power play.  Trixie’s feelings were not bargaining chips, and the healing that needed to take place was not something that could be bought or sold.

Sensing that Jim was definitely the loose cannon in the room, Chelsea moved from her seat to stand behind him and place a steadying hand on his shoulder.  The simple gesture had a profound effect, suddenly calming the raging tide of anger.  Jim was used to leaning on Trixie when he was troubled, and suddenly realizing her current state had left him floundering.  He reached up to his shoulder and covered Chelsea’s hand with his own to accept the support and comfort she offered, and to express his thanks. 

Brian’s face was pale, his breathing shallow, his eyes wide with fear; this situation was beyond even his worst nightmare. Brian had always been the strong, steady one.  He was the stable influence among the Bob-Whites.  But he was only able to do this, to be this, because he rested on a firm foundation.  His family was his rock and fortress.  Now all of that was crumbling around him, and he was lost, adrift without a paddle.  For once he wished he were the younger child, with a big brother to help him navigate life’s rough waters.

Diana stared at Mart, her lavender eyes sending him her love and strength.  Her expressive face made it clear that her primary concern at this moment was how Mart was going to react.  In fact, it seemed that every person in the room was holding their breath, waiting for Mart to react.

For his part, Mart was sitting still as a statue, blue eyes locked intently on the hazel eyes of Madeleine Wheeler.  Mart tried to keep the accusation of betrayal off his face, while Maddie seemed to be willing him to understand.  Finally, Maddie walked over to Mart.  Never breaking eye contact, she knelt before him and took his hands in hers.  Throughout the room, all eyes watched the exchange, anxious to see if Maddie Wheeler could find the words to make this situation acceptable to Mart.

“Mart, dear, you are a fine young man.  You’re mature and responsible, and I know that you want to take care of your sister.  But you’re only sixteen years old.  You are not an adult, and you don’t need to try to be.  Taking care of Trixie is not your responsibility.  You need to be there for her, and love her and support her.  But you need to let the adults take care of her.”

Tears filled Mart’s eyes, and he croaked out in a hoarse voice, “But you’re taking her away from me.”

Compassion flooded Maddie’s face, and she gripped his hands tighter.  “No, sweetheart, we’re not.  We would never do that.  You’ll still be with her in school every day, and you’re welcome here at any time.  In fact, we debated asking you to come and stay with her here.  Right now, however, the plan is for you boys to stay at home – you and Bobby.  He’s going to need you a lot right now.”

Mart grimaced as if in pain at the thought of his little brother.  He closed his eyes and bowed his head, allowing the tears to fall.  He leaned into Maddie, nearly crushing the hand he still held.  She had extricated her other hand and now wrapped a soothing arm around his shoulders.  After a brief moment that felt like an eternity, Mart lifted his head, wiped his tears, and nodded.

“But let me tell her,” he requested, his voice thick with emotion, as he tried to force a composed look onto his face.

For the first time, Maddie shifted the focus of her attention from Mart.  She turned to look at Brian, silently asking his opinion of Mart’s request.  Seeing Maddie’s questioning eyes, being asked to respond, and needing to take a stance all brought Brian back to himself.  Back into responsible “Big Brother Mode”, he told himself, as he reined in his fear and confusion.  What he really wanted was to take charge and make everything better, but he could see that wasn’t going to happen.  He needed to talk to Trixie, to Mart, and to his parents, but first he needed the world to stop tilting so crazily.  At the very least, the Wheelers seemed to be trying to stabilize things.  He placed a supportive hand on Mart’s shoulder, then nodded and responded to Mrs. Wheeler’s unanswered question.  “We’ll tell her together.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Matt Wheeler moved next to his wife and sat on the coffee table facing the Belden brothers, pulling Maddie up off the floor to sit beside him.  “We’re not trying to take over, boys.  We’re just trying to help.  Whatever you need from us to help you through this, you’ve got it.”

Brian nodded, trying to regain control of the situation.  “Thank you, Mr. Wheeler.  We appreciate your help.  All we want is what’s best for Trixie.”

Honey let out the breath she had been holding.  For some reason, if it was okay with Brian, then it was okay with her.  Jim relaxed too; Brian’s calming influence soothed all the Bob-Whites.  Di reached out to rub Mart’s back, and he leaned his head on her shoulder.

Satisfied, for the moment at least, that the Belden brothers were accepting of the situation, Dan decided he would follow their lead.  The tense emotions flooding the room were nearly suffocating, and the moment seemed right to try and lighten the atmosphere.  With a dangerously wicked glint in his eye and a barely suppressed smile, he caught Honey’s eye and gave her a big wink.  Honey wanted to soothe the tension in the room, as well, but she knew Dan’s methods rarely followed the same lines as her own.  She gave him her wary attention, wondering what sort of trouble he was about to cause this time.  Dan turned to Jim, seated beside him, and nudged him with his toe.

“Hey, Jimbo, doesn’t that make Trixie, like, your sister or something?”

The nervous tension in the room bubbled over into silliness.  Honey choked back a laugh so hard she started coughing.  Diana’s attention was finally torn from Mart as she turned in shock to see Dan’s devilish grin.  Di started to giggle, causing Honey’s laughter to spew forth.  Jim sat with a clenched jaw, staring at Dan, the anger in his flushed face slowly being replaced by a twinkle in his green eyes.  He was grateful to Dan for diffusing a very difficult situation, even if it was at his expense. 

“Don’t go there, Daniel.”

Ria and Chelsea were watching the group, amused.  Chelsea nodded at Dan, the look in her bright blue eyes saying, I think I like this one.  He’s as warped as I am.

Sherry Lynch and Matt Wheeler smiled at Dan.

Dan’s grin grew wider.  “It’s a good thing you’re going back to school, Frayne.  I’d have to worry about Trixie living with you.”

Jim was obviously faking his anger now.  “Kiss off, Mangan.”

Ever serious, somber-looking Brian quietly announced, “Just don’t make that offer to Trixie, and we’ll be good.”

Jim’s jaw dropped, and his head whipped around to face Brian’s sober look, nearly missing the twinkle in his roommate’s eye.  The incongruous absurdity of the moment multiplied, and the girls hooted with laughter, Honey and Di holding their sides.  By this point, Matt and Sherry were openly chuckling.

Continuing along with the charade, Jim turned to the one Bob-White still not laughing.  Huffing indignantly, Jim called out, “What about you, Mart?  Do you trust me?”

Mart finally lifted his head off Di’s shoulder.  He turned to Jim, his red-rimmed eyes softened by the smirk on his face.  “To think of Trixie as a sister?  How stupid do I look?”

Relieved that Mart was participating in the joke, Maddie finally smiled.  They would get through this, after all – as long as they did it together.






Helen leaned against the glass in Trixie’s bedroom window, staring up the hill at the soft glow of Manor House.  The howling wind and pelting rain obscuring her view felt like a mile-thick wall between her and her family.  Her own personal torment increased with every passing moment.  Her children were in pain, and she could do nothing to help them… because she had caused the pain.

She had too readily agreed to Matt and Maddie’s plan.  However, she honestly believed everyone would be better off if there were as much distance as possible between her and her daughter.  Besides, truth be told, she was grasping at straws, trying to find ways to control this overwhelming fear she couldn’t shake.  The convenient “out” which Maddie had offered was a godsend.

Poor Peter, on the other hand, hadn’t known what to do.  His first instinct was to pummel the life out of anyone who questioned their capabilities as parents, but Helen’s rapid response had thrown him for a loop.  It had also served to further convince him of her current irrationality.  He was the head of the family, certainly, but the strength of their family had always been Helen.  Trixie was in a lot more trouble than he had imagined.  How could he be sure he could take care of her, when Helen was half the problem and seemed eager to send her away?

He and Matt had discussed the issue at length.  The only reason any formal paperwork had been involved was because of the obvious need to seek medical help for Trixie.  Peter secretly believed it was so that Matt and Maddie could also call in the most expensive specialists money could buy without worrying about Peter’s ability to pay for them.  Despite the blow to his male pride that thought caused, he would do anything for his daughter.  He finally agreed to concentrate on Helen and let Matt and Maddie concentrate on Trixie; perhaps, with their combined efforts, they might make some progress.

However, signing the papers had still taken all of his willpower.  Matt had called his personal lawyer, not his corporate one; Peter’s lawyer had been a friend since elementary school and was, in fact, part of his poker group with John Epperley.  The men were as kind as they could be.  The arrangements were not even officially “custody”, since no judge had been involved.  Technically, it was only an affidavit of “temporary legal guardianship”, which Peter and Helen were free to revoke at any time.  Still, it took an enormous amount of trust in Matthew Wheeler to steady Peter’s hand as he signed his name.

Peter found Helen in Trixie’s room, tears trickling down her cheeks.  He walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her.  She leaned back against him, and they stood together, facing the storm.  For a moment, Peter pondered the symbolism in that.  It’s you and me against the world, babe, he thought.

Breaking the silence, Helen asked, “Did you get a hold of Brian?”

“No,” he told her.  “John found a note Brian left saying he was going to Manor House.”  When he finally spoke again, he sounded like he was trying to convince himself of the truth of his words.  “The boys are with her.  They’ll take care of her; they always do.”

Either that, or they’ll get sucked down into the vicious black hole that surrounds her…

The thought had come unbidden to Helen’s mind, but it just served to further convince her that Matt and Maddie were right.  The dark and depressing thoughts she had about her daughter were just plain wrong.  Trixie needed to get as far away as possible if either one of them were ever going to get any better.

At one time, motherhood had been the only thing Helen had felt she truly did well.  Now even that was slipping through her fingers and, try as she might, she couldn’t grab the fistfuls of sand as they fell into the abyss.

Helen gripped Peter’s arms.  This man was all she had left, and she couldn’t afford to lose him, too.





Up at the estate on the hill, Matt and Maddie Wheeler had spoken privately with Mart and Brian for a while and were now meeting with the staff to inform them of the changes to life in Manor House.  While Sherry Lynch had returned to her own home, where she had the difficult job of informing Bobby of some of the day’s events, the Bob-Whites and their friends from Boston were seated around the dining room table, taking the opportunity to get to know Chelsea and Ria better. 

Miss Trask had not been present at the staff meeting because she had been upstairs sitting with Trixie.  As soon as she entered the room and nodded to her employers, Maddie left Matt to finish the discussion.  Quietly slipping into the dining room, Maddie walked up behind Mart and touched his shoulder.  “Trixie’s awake.”

The words, though softly spoken, echoed through the room and brought all other conversations to a screeching halt.  In the piercing silence that followed, Mart’s nervous gulp sounded like a cannon shot.  He and Brian nodded to each other, then rose and followed Maddie from the room.

When they reached the door to Trixie’s room, as it now was, Maddie turned to the boys.  “Do you want me to come in with you?”

Brian shook his head.  “No.  We’d like a few minutes alone with her.”

Maddie nodded and pointed to a chair by the telephone table at the end of the hall.  “I’ll be waiting there.”

Brian held back a few paces as Mart entered the room and moved to the side of the bed.  Trixie opened her eyes when she felt him sit on the bed beside her, facing her.  Grabbing her hand, Mart asked, “How do you feel?”

Trixie swallowed hard as she sat up, as if trying to wash away a terrible taste in her mouth.  Huskily, she mumbled, “Have I mentioned that I really hate drugs?”

Brian sat down on her other side, back against the headboard, shoulder to shoulder with her.  “You needed them.  It was about time you got some sleep.”

Trixie glanced at him for a moment, then turned to Mart with a look of betrayal.  “You told him,” she accused.

“No details,” Mart assured her.  “That’s just between us.”  He cupped her face in his hand and looked at her beseechingly.  “I had to, Trix.  I’ve got to help you.”

She stared at Mart for a moment, then rolled her eyes in resignation and turned away, all the while fighting back tears.  “I suppose I’ve been the subject of a BWG meeting.”

“All for one, you know,” Brian said, grabbing her other hand.

Trixie looked at her brothers, then closed her eyes and wearily rested her head on Brian’s shoulder.  “I’m not supposed to be the one.”

“Everyone gets a turn, Princess,” Mart responded gently.

She sighed.  “Brian, you’re not even supposed to be here – you’re supposed to be in Boston.”

“I’ll always be here when you need me,” he quietly assured her.

The tiny hands squeezed the larger ones, engulfing them as hard as they could, acknowledging the care and concern with thanks.  Tears trickled down her cheeks.  “What happened?”

Frowning, Mart asked, “What do you mean?”

“Two months ago, everything was different.  My whole world, who I am… it was just different.”

Mart glanced nervously at Brian.  Now was as good a time as any.  “Including where you live, it seems.”

Trixie lifted her head off Brian’s shoulder and stared at Mart in confusion.  “What do you mean?”

“You’re going to be staying with the Wheelers for a while.”

Trixie gazed into the distance, pain and confusion warring with relief, relief battling with guilt.  “So, Moms wanted to get rid of me that badly, huh?”

“This wasn’t her idea, Trix,” Brian said firmly but gently.  “Mrs. Wheeler is trying to get you away from the chaos.  You’re having problems right now, and so is Moms.  You’re just making each other worse.  Mrs. Wheeler wants to help you both.”

Battling a myriad of emotions that she couldn’t even begin to name, Trixie looked again to Mart.  “And you?”

“Apparently, I’m to take care of Bobby,” he answered, just a trace of bitterness in his voice.  He saw the look of panic that whisked across her face.  “I’ll be close by.  Any time you need me, just whistle.”

As a fresh wave of tears coursed across her already streaked face, Mart leaned forward and put his free hand on her shoulder.  “Trixie, listen to me.  Nothing is going to come between us… not crazy parents, not custody arrangements…”

Trixie sat bolt upright and looked back and forth rapidly between her brothers.  “Custody?” she fairly screeched.  Custody?

Brian hastened to reassure her.  “Trixie, you need help… counseling, and maybe some medical help.  Mr. Wheeler says it’s just a technicality to facilitate that process.”

Mart turned her face to him, blue eyes blazing with intense love and devotion and, in a fierce whisper, promised her, “This doesn’t change anything between the three of us.  Not ever.”

Sobbing and struggling to process all that had happened, Trixie threw her arms around Mart’s neck and buried her face in his shoulder.  She was scared and confused.  She couldn’t seem to find the energy to fight.  She was only beginning to realize how out of control her life had become.

For his part, Mart held her like he would never let go, until her sobs had quieted.  Brian scooted up, needing to maintain physical contact with Trixie, and ended up with his arms around both siblings.  The shared embrace emphasized the unbreakable bond between the three.

When Trixie seemed calmer, Brian sat back and grabbed some tissues off the nightstand.  He reached a hand forward to hand one to Trixie while using the other hand to surreptitiously wipe his own eyes.  As his sister sat back to wipe her face, Brian threw a wadded up tissue at Mart, hitting him between the eyes.  Mart responded by making a silly face, and Brian decided it was time to lighten Trixie’s mood as well.  He opted to follow the “Mangan Method”.

“It does change some things, though.  Dan says it makes you Jim’s sister.”

Trixie turned slowly toward Brian with a look of disgust.  “Eeeeewwwwww!  What the heck is wrong with that boy?”

His face a picture of innocence, Mart asked, “You mean you don’t think of Jim in a brotherly way?”

Seeing the trap into which she’d just fallen, Trixie blew her nose and glared grumpily at Mart.  “He’s my best friend.  That’s all.”

Mart nodded knowingly.  “Anyway, Jim’s date seemed to think it was funny.”

Grasping onto the change of subject in relief, Trixie quirked an eyebrow at her almost-twin.  “Jim’s date?  Coming home because your friend has lost her marbles requires a date?”

Brian shook his head and grinned mischievously.  All the chaos and insanity in Trixie’s life right now upset her, but Brian knew hearing about Jim’s date wouldn’t.  It made no sense to him, but Trixie heard about all of Jim’s dates.  She critiqued and ranked them.  In fact, she was the one who had suggested that Chelsea was worthy of a second date.  He knew just how to get her back to acting like herself.

“No.  He just hasn’t finished his date from last night yet.”

Trixie blinked.  A few times.  Slowly.  “Excuse me?”

“Sometime during their date last night, she ended up driving him to Rochester… to visit his dad’s grave.”

Trixie’s jaw dropped.  “She got him to talk about that?  I don’t know whether I should be jealous or impressed.”

“Here’s the best part,” Brian’s eyes twinkled.  “According to the report I got a little while ago, she did it by telling him that, if he thinks you’re so smart and you said he needs to talk about it, then obviously he needs to talk about it.”

Her stunned expression giving way to begrudging respect, Trixie conceded, “At least she’s smart enough to know who knows him best.  Which one is this?”

“Ria’s roommate, Chelsea,” Brian said.  “They’re downstairs.”

Brightening a bit, Trixie latched onto that information.  “They?  As in, the lovely Ria is here as well?”

Brian nodded.  Mart winked.  “She’s really pretty, too.  Big Brother sure can pick ‘em.”

Trixie bounced a little, her natural enthusiasm returning.  “I think I need to go downstairs and meet these ladies.”  She looked down at the nightgown she was wearing.  “But I can’t go like this.”

Mart pointed to the chair behind him.  “All you need is that bathrobe and those slippers.  You don’t need to dress up to come downstairs and eat something.”

“Eating is your department,” she retorted, conveniently disregarding his opinion of her need to change clothing.

He tapped her on the nose and responded firmly, “It needs to be yours.”

Trixie looked at Mart, then down at her own frail form sitting in the bed.  Embarrassment tinged her face.  She definitely didn’t want to discuss her weight.

Giving her a quick hug, Brian changed the subject.  “Actually, Sis, I think Mrs. Wheeler wants to talk to you before you come down.  We’ll be downstairs waiting.”

Panic flooded her features. 

Mart vowed, “We’ll be right downstairs.  We aren’t going anywhere.”

“Just stay here, and I’ll send Mrs. Wheeler in.”  Brian kissed the top of her head.  “We’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Mart gave her a kiss on the cheek and followed Brian out the door.  Trixie could only sit, wringing her hands and wondering what to expect next.





The conversation in the dining room had resumed after Brian and Mart left, albeit in a much more subdued fashion.  A few minutes later, Matt appeared in the doorway, beckoning Jim to join him.  Heeding his father’s call, the younger redhead left his seat and followed the older gentleman down the hall to the study.

After they were gone, Honey plunked both elbows noisily on the table and dropped her face into her hands with a loud, weary sigh.

Diana gave her a sympathetic glance, but gently reprimanded, “Don’t be so dramatic, Honey.”

Honey lifted her face to turn a hazel glare on her friend, punctuating her un-Honey-like words with wide waves of her hands.  “Dramatic?  There’s been nothing BUT drama for the last 24 hours, and it all centers on those two.”

Chelsea, ever irreverent, opined, “I get the impression that, around here, everyone’s entire world revolves around those two.”

While enjoying Chelsea’s irreverence, Dan mildly objected to the image of being a secondary character in Trixie’s shadow.  “What do you think we are, the Trixie Belden Fan Club?”

Grinning, Chelsea said, “Nah.  If you were you’d have club jackets and a secret whistle or something.”  Catching the slightly guilty looks exchanged among Dan, Di and Honey, Chelsea burst out laughing.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

In contrast to the amused twinkle in her eyes, Diana sniffed and stuck her nose in the air.  “We are the Bob-Whites of the Glen, thank you very much, not the Trixie Belden Fan Club.”  Then she grinned back at the newcomers.  “Of course, none of us would be here if it weren’t for Trixie.”

Honey nodded.  “If you continue to spend time with our brothers, ladies, you will soon be in the sphere of her influence.  Your life will never be the same.”  She smiled knowingly.  “There will always be drama… as well as enough adventure, chaos, turmoil, and even terror to match the amazing love and light.”

“All of which, by the way,” Dan put in, “are endless.  There is no family on this earth with bigger hearts than the Beldens.  That explains why we’re taking all of this so hard, I suppose.  I think we’re used to them being our safe haven.”

Ria had quietly observed the exchange.  “They’ve made you strong.  Now they need help.”

“Which is exactly what they’ll get!”  Honey vowed, emphasized by her fist pounding the table, fierce determination bringing an aura of strength to the once-frail girl.

Ria smiled wistfully.  “That’s the way love should be.  Always giving or always taking are paths to destruction.  Give and take that keeps everyone afloat… that’s true love.  You are all very lucky.”

Honey studied Ria thoughtfully.  She remembered life at Briar Hill, and the cold loneliness that had seemed to permeate the place.  She had a feeling that Ria had very little firsthand experience with the kind of love of which she spoke.  However, the older girl was dating Brian Belden – he of the caring soul and generous heart.  Stick around, Ria.  You’ll know what it feels like soon.




Matt beckoned Jim into his study and shut the door behind him.  A somewhat awkward silence filled the room while Matt fiddled with some papers on his desk.  He finally picked up an old yearbook and flipped to a marked page.

He traced a picture on the page and asked Jim a curious question.  “Do you remember the feeling, the day you met Trixie, that your life would never be the same?”

Jim stared at this man he now called father, contemplating his response.  He shoved his hands deep into his front pockets and leaned his backside against a mahogany table.  “Of course I do.”

Eyes never leaving the picture before him, Matt nodded.  “When you ran away from Ten Acres you knew - if you never saw her again, you’d never forget her.  Didn’t you?”

With a wry smile, Jim acknowledged that.  “She has that effect on people, you know.”

He expected Matt to chuckle, or at least smile.  He didn’t expect the sad, lonely look on the man’s face, nor the way his hand flattened on the book, as if trying to reach out through time and space to touch a lost memory.  He certainly didnt expect the utterance that followed, in a husky voice.  “So did Win.”

Jim’s eyes widened, and he caught his breath.  Although he was aware that Matthew Wheeler had gone to school with Winthrop Frayne, his adopted father had never shared any personal memories of the man that connected them.  Then again, Jim had never asked.  Before today, the only person with whom he talked about Win was Trixie.  He just hadn’t been ready.

But today was different.  Today, he had shared with Chelsea.  Today, he had found his way to happy memories.  Today, he had visited his father.  Today, he wanted to talk about him.

Finally raising his eyes from the picture before him, Matt looked at Jim.  “I lost touch with Win when he moved to Rochester.  You wouldn’t think a half a state could make such a difference, but your dad chose a quiet farm life, while I hustled my way up the corporate ladder and into the high-society world.  You were just a baby then.”

Jim frowned.  “You were still in touch with Dad after I was born?”

Nodding, Matt told him, “The last time I saw him was at your christening party.”  Lost in a memory, he smiled.  “In fact, you’re responsible for Honey being born.”

Eyebrows rocketing skyward, Jim exclaimed, “You’re kidding!”

Chuckling, Matt said, “Maddie didn’t want children.  As far as she was concerned, they were diapers and details and drama and disruption to a life she preferred to be orderly and elegant.  But, at the party, Katje insisted she hold you.  You snuggled into her arms and smiled at her.”  A tender look crossed his face.  “She’s never been the same.  You have no idea what it means to Maddie to be your mother.”

Jim felt like Matt was placing pieces into the puzzle of his life that he hadn’t even known were missing.  “No one ever told me.”

“More the fools we.”  Regret hit hard, but was quickly replaced by a determination to right the unintentional wrong.  Matt motioned Jim to have a seat as he crossed the room and took one himself.

“Do you like your roommates at school?”

Completely thrown by the change of topic, Jim frowned.  “Well, yes, but…”

Matt grinned.  “College roommates are great friends.  Let me tell you about the time Win convinced us all to strip to our skivvies in the snow…”

Jim flashed his dad a disbelieving look that demanded further explanation, answered Matt’s grin, and settled back to hear the story.





Chris lounged, stretched out lazily across several boxes in the far corner of the warehouse space that the band, Two Tones, used as a practice room.  The band members were mostly in their late twenties, except the drummer, Denny, who was in his forties.  During the day, Denny was a conservative, respectable businessman.  However, on the weekends, he hung out with the band members and whaled away on the drums.  He called it a stress-reliever that kept him young.

The band in question had been hired to perform at the Homecoming Dance, but an injury had befallen their lead singer.  It wasn’t anything too serious, a broken leg, but the hip-cast was enough that he wouldn’t be available to perform at the dance, a mere week away.  Without a vocalist, the band had been in a bind, but had found a workable solution.

Denny had asked someone to fill in – his daughter, Sarah.  While she was eager to help, and equally eager to have a paying singing gig, from a vocal standpoint she could only handle half their songs.  They really needed a male voice as well.  Hence, Sarah had twisted her best friend’s arm to help her.

Chris sat back and watched as Sarah and Tad practiced with Denny and the others, learning the rhythms and getting the feel of the group, so they could take center stage next week.  Chris had to admit, this was a much better solution to Tad’s problem than Chris’ suggestion that Sarah be his date.  For one thing, Sarah could dress like the band members rather than having to wear a party dress.  The pain Sarah would have inflicted on her two best friends for trying to force her to wear a dress would have been unbearable.  Excruciating, even.  Yes, this was definitely a better solution.

Besides, if Tad was busy on stage, he wouldn’t have an opportunity to cut in on Chris and Trixie.  Chris would have Trixie all to himself.

Then again, Tad would be serenading her all night.

Gritting his teeth against that unpleasant thought, Chris took comfort in the fact that at least he would be the one holding Trixie in his arms.  Yes, he would still have the better deal.

When the group finished their rehearsal, Sarah and Tad made their way over to Chris.  Sarah shook her head at him in pity.  “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time sitting here.”

Chris grinned.  “Riss and Paul wanted to be alone, and I was bored.  What could cure boredom better than watching the two of you make fools of yourselves?”

Tad slugged his arm. “You’re a clown, you know that?”

Sarah ducked to the floor and looked at the ceiling.  Chris looked quizzically at her.  “What the heck are you doing?”

Sarah shrugged.  “Waiting for the lightning strike.  I figured you’d arrange one for him for daring to say such a thing.”

Tad laughed while Chris hauled her back to a standing position.  “Aren’t you just the comedienne tonight?”

“Yup, that’s me!”  Sarah grinned.  “Always around to ruin your reputation.  Aren’t you glad I don’t go to Sleepyside High?”

“Extremely!” Chris uttered vehemently.

Shaking her head, Sarah sighed.  “I don’t know why you won’t just let your guard down and let people see the real you.  You’re not so bad, you know.”

No longer joking, Tad folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall.  “Yes, but he’s not perfect.  And God forbid anyone think he’s less than perfect.”

Chris didn’t like the shift this conversation was taking.  “Bite me, Webster.”

Watching her friend squirm uncomfortably, Sarah frowned.  “Why is your reputation so important to you, Chris?  Why do you think you have to be so perfect?”

Tad remained silent.  They’d had this same conversation many times over the years.  This was the point at which he had always jumped in with some smart-aleck comment, to which Chris would respond comically, causing the subject to be dropped, and they’d then go off and have fun.  But after all these years, after everything they’d shared, Sarah still didn’t get it.  Apparently, he was going to have to spell it out for her.

Tad’s voice was gentle, but the words cut like a knife.  “Because of Eric.”

Chris’ head turned so fast he should have had whiplash.  He looked at Tad as if he had just stabbed him in the back and twisted hard.  His gray eyes reflected betrayal, as well as the remembered pain and embarrassment that haunted him daily.

Sarah felt like a complete idiot.  She should have realized… But, no, she’d been so stupid for so long.  And now Tad was going to take the brunt of Chris’ anger for having the nerve to speak the truth out loud.  Not if I can help it…

She stepped forward and placed a light hand on Chris’ arm.  “Chris, you’re nothing like Eric.  And no one is comparing you to him.  He was so much older than you; most people you know don’t even remember him.”

Slumping back down onto the box he had been lying on earlier, Chris clenched his teeth and blinked back tears.  It had been so many years since Eric’s death, but it still wounded him deeply to even mention his brother.  His voice laced with heartache, he said, “My parents do.”

Tad moved from the wall and sat beside his friend.  “And they know you’re nothing like him.  Your parents are proud of you, of who you are.  You’re their ‘pride and joy’.”

Voice cracking, Chris said, “I have to be.”

Sitting down on his other side, Sarah grabbed his hand.  “No, you don’t.  You have to be you.  That’s all they want.  It’s enough, honest.”

After a brief mental struggle, Chris decided to bare his soul to the two people he trusted most.  “This is going to sound stupid.”

“Try us,” Tad encouraged.

“When I die… I want people to be sad… instead of breathing a sigh of relief.”

Tears sprang to Sarah’s eyes.  “Oh, Chris!  No one was relieved about Eric’s death!”

Chris’ only response was a snort of disbelief.

Measuring his words carefully, Tad gave his friend his advice.  “If that’s really what you want, then you should quit the charade.  People mourn the loss of a nice guy a lot more than the loss of a cocky, arrogant kid who can shoot hoops well.”

Although he had heard every word and was taking them to heart, Chris felt an overwhelming need to lighten the mood.  “Really?  What about the smartass who hits homeruns?”

Tad answered by shoulder-slamming him while trying to keep the smile off his face.  Chris grinned and jabbed again.  “What about the jerk with the angelic voice?”

“Talking about yourself now?” Sarah chided Chris with a smirk.

Chris shoved her off the box.  She turned and shoved him back, which in turn knocked Tad onto the floor.  Tad protested indignantly, “Hey!  What did I do to you?”

The three friends burst into laughter.  Chris stood, pulled Tad off the floor, and clapped him on the back.  “Come on; let’s get out of here.”

“Not so fast!” Sarah commanded.  “You still have work to do here!”

Chris looked down his nose at her.  Not that it was intentional; it was really just a function of his height.  Sarah took offense nonetheless.  “Don’t look at me like that, Christopher,” she fumed.

“What work?  When did I agree to do any work?” he protested.

“You didn’t agree, but you’re going to do it anyway,” Sarah announced.

Chris looked at Tad in amazement, who turned to hide the twinkle in his eye.  He saw what was coming and was more than happy to let Sarah take the blame for this one.

Turning back to Sarah, Chris became wary.  “What, exactly, do you think I’m going to do?”

Sarah pointed at the microphones at the other end of the practice room.  “You two are going to go up there and practice the duet you’re doing for church tomorrow.”

Chris’ jaw dropped.  “What?  I am not doing a duet for church!  Tad is doing a solo.  S - O - L - O.  SOLO – that means one voice.”

Sarah stood right in front of Chris with a determined gleam in her eye.  Chris was suddenly reminded of facing down a very angry Trixie.  These two will get along too well, he thought.  Tad apparently got a similar mental image, because he laughed so hard he fell back on the box.

“You will sing the duet, Chris.  You’ll do it because it will make your mother proud.”  A triumphant smile covered her face.

Chris narrowed his eyes.  “You’re evil, you know that?  Pure evil.”

With a smirk, Sarah said, “Yes, I know.”  Then she batted her eyelashes and turned, throwing a wink back over her shoulder.  She sauntered off to the soundboard to insert the background track, fully expecting the boys to obediently follow.

Watching her with an irritated glance, Chris then turned to Tad.  His friend’s laughter had finally died down enough for him to catch his breath.  “Why do we let women run our lives?” Chris muttered.

Casting a rueful grin at his tall blond friend, Tad answered, “Because the alternative is to live without them.”

Pondering that thought, Chris said, “That would leave me alone in this world with you.  No thanks!”

“Jerk!” Tad said as he gave Chris a playful shove.

“Moron!”  Chris shoved back.

And so they continued, horsing around as they moved toward the microphones, pretending their decision to sing together was their own idea, and not Sarah’s.


Author's Notes




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