Will You Dance,

If I Ask You to Dance?




The floor of the rec room was covered with bedding of all shapes and colors.  The young people were gathered there, along with enough snacks of every variety to satisfy even Mart for days.  The girls had plunked themselves down on the floor, nestled among the blankets and pillows, to eagerly quiz Ria and Chelsea about college life.  The boys had set themselves up at the game table, preparing to break out Yahtzee.  Jim slipped surreptitiously into the room, hoping his entrance had gone unnoticed.  He had no such luck.

As his roommate claimed the chair beside him, Brian commented dryly, “Nice try, but her eyes were glued to you the second you walked in the room.”

Jim shifted uncomfortably and mumbled, “Yeah, I know.”

Grabbing the score pad and pencil, Mart snickered, “Okay, now he’s got eyes in the back of his head.”

“Nope,” Dan said, shaking the die cup.  “Just Trixie radar.”

Glaring at his younger friends, Jim grabbed a handful of popcorn rather than commenting.

Lifting his can of pop to his mouth, effectively blocking any attempts at lip-reading from across the room, Brian said, “You know, you’re going to have to talk to her sooner or later.”

Again, Jim mumbled, “Yeah, I know.”

“We seem to have a broken record here this evening,” Dan drawled.

Drumming his fingers on the table, Jim glared at Dan again.  Across the table Mart bent over the tablet to record Dan’s score.  His back was to the girls, so he felt safe speaking his mind.  Without looking up, he growled at Jim, “And if you make her cry again, I’ll beat the crap out of you.”

Jim clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes.  “What are you talking about?  She was hopping mad… she chewed me out and hung up on me!”

“And then decided she’d gone too far and that you’d never speak to her again.”  Dan handed the die cup to Jim and returned his earlier glare.  “She ended up in a freakin’ puddle of tears on the kitchen floor.”

Across the room, Trixie leaned over and spoke in a tightly controlled voice to Di.  “Tighten the reins, or I’m gonna go ballistic on the Big Brother Brigade.”

Di quickly glanced over at the boys.  She had been so intent on her own conversation that she hadn’t been paying attention to them, but now a mere cursory glance told her their conversation was getting heated.  Violet eyes sparking and jaw set, Di stalked over to the game table, her entire demeanor changing when she reached her destination.  Sidling up to Mart, she slipped a deceptively casual arm over his shoulder and smiled at them.  She tossed her raven hair and leaned forward just enough to draw unconscious awareness to the V-neck of her sweater.  When she was certain she had their undivided attention, she let loose through gritted teeth.

“Tone down the testosterone, boys,” she snapped.  “My dear friend doesn’t appreciate being the subject of your conversation, nor does she like your over-protective interference.  Now butt out!”

Dan eyed Diana suspiciously.  “What have you done to Beth?” he asked sharply.

The sudden accusation startled Di enough to allow a guilty flush to whisk across her face momentarily before she was able to school her features into a mask of innocence.  “Whatever do you mean?”

While all four men studied her intently, Dan presented his argument.  “Given your extreme Mama Bear attitude over a simple conversation among some of her best friends, and your blue ink dye job at the first sign of trouble from Beth, I think it’s crystal clear why I’d suspect you of having done something else.”

Eyelashes fluttering, Di said, “I haven’t heard about Beth suffering in any other way.”

Dan clenched his jaw.  “If I do,” he ground out, “you’ll be the first person I suspect.”

With a nonchalant shrug, Di answered, “Thanks for the warning.”  She turned and strolled back to her seat beside Trixie, giving her hips a slight wiggle and tossing a wink and a wave back over her shoulder.

“Why do I see a minefield ahead?” Mart asked.

Brian snorted.  “Because we’ve just been visited by a weapons master.”

“There are lessons to be learned, gentlemen,” offered Jim.  “First, we should be grateful for our semi-annual reminder never to get on the bad side of Diana Lynch.”

Raising a glass, Dan cheered, “Here, here.”  The others raised their cups or cans in salute.

Jim continued, “And second, the events about to unfold should be carefully observed.  After all, men think of revenge in terms of beating people to a pulp.  Women think differently.  Dying Beth’s oh-so-perfect hair was a stroke of feminine genius.  I can guarantee we won’t figure out what Di’s got cooked up next, because we just don’t think like them.  We need to watch and learn.”

Worried blue eyes looked up from tallying the score.  “Suddenly, sitting with my back to them scares the heck out of me.”

On the other side of the room, Trixie raised an eyebrow at Diana.  “What did you say?”

Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, Di shrugged.  “I gave them something else to talk about.”

“Like what?” Trixie asked.

Di grinned wickedly.  “Me.”

Tuning in to their conversation, Honey asked, “And how did you make sure they were talking about you?”

Di leaned forward in a slinky imitation of her earlier exhibition.  “I just know where to direct their focus.”

“Sex kitten,” Chelsea said.  Ria nodded.

Honey’s brows shot skyward.  “What?”

“Sex kitten,” Chelsea said again.  “You’re not dumb enough to allow anyone to take advantage of you, but you’re smart enough to know how to use your body.  When you want to distract a man, you just take advantage of his own over-abundant hormones.  Keep his mind befuddled while yours is clear.”  She gestured at Diana.  “Perfect sex kitten.”

The smile that spread across Di’s face spoke of triumph and power.  Trixie looked at Honey and rolled her eyes.  “Great.  Bad enough every guy in school drools over her, but now she knows that she knows how to control it.”

Honey giggled.  Ria joined her, which made her giggle harder.  Soon all the girls were rolling on the floor in fits of hysteria.

Back at the game table, Mart glanced over his shoulder.  “Are they laughing at us?” he asked the other guys.

“I think I’d prefer not to know the answer to that,” Brian answered, watching his girlfriend and his sister carefully.

In the nest of pillows, Ria lay on the floor panting for breath when she could finally control her laughter.  “Maybe we should put in a movie so we can all settle down.”

“What fun is that?” Chelsea asked through a wide yawn.

“Uh, Chels… how much sleep have you had in the last 36 hours?” Ria asked her roommate.

Yawning again, Chelsea said, “Um… an hour?”

Trixie whacked her in the face with a pillow.  “For crying out loud, you’re worse than I am, Chelsea.  Just put that under your head and close your eyes.  Honey, why don’t we put in Sabrina?”

Rising to go to the video shelves, Honey asked, “I wish the new one was out on video already.”

As their conversation expanded across the room, the girls’ voices grew louder and the boys could hear their discussion of the original versus the remake.  “But Audrey Hepburn is soooo much better than Julia Ormond,” Trixie declared.

“True, but color is better than black and white,” Chelsea opined.

“But there’s a purity about originals,” Ria stated.  “Remakes are just cheap copies.”

“Ladies, really!” Di interjected loudly.  “William Holden is nice, but he’s no Greg Kinnear.  And Humphrey Bogart really doesn’t compare to Harrison Ford.  Now there’s a sexy man.”

Mart slammed his hand on the table and turned to glare at his girlfriend, effectively joining their conversation.  Di merely gave him a knowing look.  “And if I named two girls from school off the top of my head, would you know who had a better rack?”

“I am completely ignorant of the quality of their weapons storage devices.”

“Not that kind of rack, you jerk,” Di spat, accompanied by a withering glare.

“You have to understand, Di,” Brian said.  “He might know, but he’s not dumb enough to admit it in front of you.”

Trixie snorted.  “But he’s dumb enough to notice in front of her!”

“That’s ‘cause he’s plagued by the evil Y-chromosome,” Chelsea explained.  “It’s genetic.  He just can’t help himself.”

“Such a low opinion of the male sex you have,” Jim said.

Chelsea rolled on to her elbow and stretched sexily.  Giving a siren’s smile, she told him, “Not opinion – knowledge.  Knowledge is power.”

“You think you know everything, don’t you?” Jim challenged.

Issuing a counter-challenge, Chelsea answered, “Prove to me I don’t.”

Leaning back in his seat, Jim crossed his arms over his chest and smiled.  “If a gun smuggler wanted to hide weapons along the Mississippi River, where would he put them?”

Chelsea furrowed her brow in consternation.  “What kind of a question is that?”

Trixie felt a sudden tightening in her stomach and a throbbing at her temples.  Trying not to spoil the light-hearted mood, she feigned nonchalance by rolling her eyes and leaning over to confide in the older girl.  “One that has no redeeming value whatsoever, except some misguided attempt to make me feel intelligent.”

Chelsea flashed startled blue eyes at the younger girl.  “You did that?”

With a shrug of her shoulders, Trixie said, “Sure.”  Unable to fight the tension rushing through her whole body, her face hardened and she continued in a voice laced with bitter irony, “Of course, I also got Honey kidnapped and nearly killed in the process.  Endangering people seems to be my greatest talent.”  With that, she jumped up and ran from the room.

Jim watched her departure in dismay.  As soon as she was gone, Mart and Dan each whacked Jim upside the head.  Brian rose from his seat and leaned his knuckles on the table, staring down at Jim with a thunderous expression.  Jim ducked and covered his head with both arms.

Di sat up with a stormy face.  “Smooth, Frayne.  Real smooth.”

Ria watched the reactions of the group.  “Um… Chelsea and I seem to have missed something.”

“We’ll be happy to explain,” Honey stated.  “While my brother goes and fixes this.”

Jim stood and walked dejectedly toward the door.  “I doubt if it’ll work, at the rate I’ve been going.  I’ll try, though.”

Walking out into the hallway, he hesitated, uncertain which way to turn.  His parents and the household staff had already gone to bed.  It was possible Trixie had run upstairs to her room, but Jim thought she would have headed somewhere more familiar and comforting than the strange new room she’d been given.  He remembered that the fire had been left burning in the library, with assurances that Jim would be sure to put it out later.  That sounded like a good place to start looking for her.

Sure enough, he found Trixie sitting in front of the hearth, arms wrapped protectively around her knees.  From the doorway, Jim studied her profile in the flickering firelight.  The reflection of the tears streaking down her face broke his heart.  She was inhaling deep, shaky breaths, attempting to regain her composure.  With a strangled cry, she swiped viciously at her face trying to rub the tearstains off.

Taking a cautious step into the room, Jim said, “You’re hiding, so you won’t have to admit you’re crying again.”

Her sigh was loud and aggravated.  “Do you really have to know me so well?”

“Absolutely.  It’s an essential part of my being.”  He walked over and crouched beside her.  “Just as well as you know me.  You know what I need to hear, and you say it even when I don’t want to hear it.”

She looked at him timidly.  “You mean you’re not mad?”

His green eyes looked at her tenderly as he reached out and gave a soft tug to his favorite curl.  “I’m not capable of staying mad at you.  Besides, I was the one being a jerk.”

Trixie started to protest, but Jim placed a finger over her lips.  He made himself comfortable by the fire and pulled her into his arms.  She buried her face in the crook of his neck and relaxed into the safest place on earth.

“I’m sorry for bringing up Mississippi,” he said while rubbing his cheek against her curls.

“You were only trying to help.  But nothing helps these days…” Trixie’s voiced choked up and she trembled, fighting off another wave of tears.

When Jim felt she was calmer and a little more ready to talk, he asked her, “Why have you been holding back from me?  You know you can talk to me about anything.”

Keeping her head tucked beneath his chin and avoiding looking at him, she shrugged.  “You’ve got so much going on at school.  You don’t need to be bothered with my mess.”

“Trixie!” he reproached.  “You know I’ll always have time for you.  You’re never a bother.”

She responded with an indelicate snort.  “I thought you never lie.”

Jim rolled his eyes.  “I’m not.  Even when you’re being a royal pain in the ass, you’re not a bother.  There is a difference, you know.”

He was surprised to feel her cringe.  Trixie was never that sensitive.  He tightened his embrace, wishing his arms were strong enough to carry her out of whatever hell she was in.  Wasn’t it supposed to be his job to rescue her?

“I want to help, Trix,” he whispered.  “Tell me how I can help.”

The question was asked gently, but Trixie could hear the desperate plea in his voice and feel the fine tremor of tension in his body.  He sounded lost, like being out of the loop frightened him.  She realized just how little she had shared with him lately.  This was Jim, for crying out loud.  If she couldn’t talk to him, what hope did she have?  She was the one who wanted total honesty between them.  She recognized that she had been very unfair to him.

But, if she started talking, would she ever be able to stop?  There was just so much.  That sounded like a good place to start.

Trixie looked up at him, seeking the reassurance of his green eyes.  Her voice started small and timid, and she nervously wrung her hands as she spoke.  “It’s just too much, Jim.  There’s so much going on…  Most of it would be hard to deal with on its own, but I could get still through.  But there are just so many things all at once!  I can’t keep up.  I can’t handle them all at once.  I don’t know what to do.”

As Trixie spoke, her voice strengthened, but her ability to hold back the tears collapsed.  She started crying again, while Jim rocked and soothed her.

“Tell me about it,” Jim encouraged.  “Please, babe, just talk to me.”

Once her tongue was loosened, it had a mind of its own.  She started on the relatively safe topic of how strange it was not to have Brian and Jim around all the time and moved on from there.  Gradually the two moved apart a little, sprawling side-by-side in front of the fire.  Trixie talked for hours, her mercurial mind jumping from one topic to the next and back again at rocket speed.  Jim listened, adept at following her zigzagging conversational method, occasionally commenting or offering advice.  He threw another log on the fire and absent-mindedly jabbed it with the wrought-iron poker, never taking his eyes off her face.

In the quiet time just past midnight, Brian came by to check on them.  He stood outside the library door, never alerting them to his presence, and watched the interplay between the two best friends.  Somehow, he could easily picture them, old and gray, seated in the same positions and talking for hours, still able to talk about anything and delighting to simply be in each other’s company.  Theirs was a forever friendship, no matter what.  Satisfied that his sister was right where she needed to be, Brian silently returned to the rec room to get some sleep.

And still the two talked.  They drew energy from each other, being revived by their exchange rather than drained.  Trixie sounded more and more like herself as she told Jim everything; she talked about Luke, Beth, Moms, Mart, Honey, even Chris and Tad; she told him of her problems, her frustrations, and her fears.  Neither noticed the passage of time as the night turned into day.





Sunday, October 29, 1995


When Maddie Wheeler dragged herself into the kitchen at eight a.m., she hoped she didn’t looked as exhausted as she felt.  Margery Trask, Celia Delanoy and Virginia “Cook” Gordon were all arriving at the same time, and each looked tired as well.  Maddie shook her head.

“Not one of us has had enough sleep to warrant being in here at this hour,” she commented.

“And yet, here we are,” Cook said with a wink and a smile.  Virginia Gordon was the first cook the Wheelers had had in a while for whom the name “Cook” felt like a name rather than a title.  It helped that her family had nicknamed her “Cookie” when she was two, and still called her that even now when she was forty.  The good-natured, jolly woman presented the image of someone’s favorite grandma, but she possessed the skill of a French master chef.  Apparently, they had finally found a cook who would stick around for a while.

Maddie returned her smile.  “Cookie, please be a darling and tell me there’s coffee ready.”

Celia placed a cup in front of her, fixed just the way she liked it.  “Now don’t ask me for anything else until I’ve had mine.”

Margery rolled her eyes.  “She acts as if she can’t function until she’s had her first cup.  So far, she’s laid out Tom’s clothes, rousted Cook from her bed, checked on the slumber party, and started setting the breakfast table.  Oh, yes… and fixed your coffee.”

“All without speaking, of course,” Maddie said, eyes twinkling.  “She can function without coffee, but you know she can’t speak civilly without it.”

Celia ignored them all and held her own mug with both hands, inhaling deeply and sipping gently.  She closed her eyes and sighed in ecstasy.  “There is nothing better than the first cup of coffee in the morning.  Especially on a day like today.”

Maddie looked out the window and grimaced.  “Shouldn’t it be light out by now?”

“Well, sure,” Cook nodded, bustling about and gathering her breakfast ingredients.  “Unfortunately, those clouds have no intention of letting her peek out from behind them today.  It’s more likely to start raining all over again.”


Celia slowly opened her eyes and raised an inquiring eyebrow at Maddie.  “For you, that’s downright grumpy.  Are you alright?”

Shrugging, Maddie sighed.  “Yesterday was a very long day.”

“And today’s not likely to be much better,” Margery nodded knowingly.

“Want to get your day off to a good start?” Celia asked.  “The head count in the rec room is two short.”

The elegant mistress of the house groaned loudly.  “I’m sure I don’t need to be told which two.”

“I heard voices in the library,” Margery said.  “They sounded civil, even friendly.  It might be better than you think.”

Maddie chewed on her lip.  “I’d be thrilled to know they’d cleared the air between them, but I’d be willing to bet it took all night.  Somehow, I doubt either one of them has slept a wink.”  She pinched the bridge of her nose and thought for a second before selecting her course of action.  Once decided, she regained her normal regal manner and commanded those about her with confidence. 

“Here’s the plan:  Cook, please fix a tray for myself and Matt.  When that’s ready, Celia, please bring it to our room.  Breakfast in bed is definitely in order.  I’m going to send Jim and Trixie off to bed, upstairs, in their own rooms.  Margery, when the others wake up, they are to have breakfast and then see if Regan needs any help with the horses.  The boys should check in with Mr. Maypenny, as well.  After that storm yesterday, the preserve is probably a mess.  They may use Honey’s room or the guest rooms to shower and dress, but they are not to disturb Jim or Trixie.  We will meet up to regroup at lunch time.”  Satisfied that she was once again in control of her domain, Maddie dismissed her staff and set out on her own appointed task.

Standing in the doorway of the library, Maddie watched the quiet conversation between the occupants of the room.  Trixie lay flat on her back, head toward the fire.  Jim lay next to her on his side, head propped on one arm.  Maddie knew Trixie would be embarrassed if she realized how easy it was to read the naked adoration in her face as she looked up at Jim.  Not that Jim’s expression was much different.  Suddenly, Maddie was very glad they were dating other people.  She was quite certain they’d end up with each other eventually; she always had been.  But neither one of them was ready for anything that intense right now.  Their voices drifted over to her.

“So talking to Chelsea about your father was a good thing, then?” Trixie asked.

Jim smiled.  “Yes, Smarty-pants, it was.  And last night Dad told me a bunch of stuff he and my father did in college.  It was cool to hear those stories.  They were funny.”

“Did you laugh?”

The lopsided grin grew wider.  “Yeah, a lot.”

“Good,” she said firmly, reaching a gentle hand to trace the line of his brow and coming to rest on his cheek.  “You should laugh more often.  It lights up your face and chases away the shadows in your eyes.”

The aforementioned green eyes locked with the bright blue orbs below him, noticing the many shadows still lurking in them.  He placed his hand over hers, but before Jim could say anything he heard a delicate clearing of the throat across the room.

Maddie crossed the room as Jim and Trixie sat up and greeted her.  “Do you two realize what time it is?” she asked with a gentle smile.

Trixie blinked and turned to the gray light visible through the windows, while Jim glanced down at his watch and uttered a startled exclamation.

“That’s what I figured,” came the wry observation.  “I’m glad you two had a chance to talk, but sleep would’ve also been a good idea.  If you go into the rec room now, you’ll just wake up the others, and you’ll never get any sleep.  Instead, you’re both going to head upstairs right now, to your own comfy beds in your own rooms, and get some sleep.”  Maddie fixed them with a stern but loving glare.  “It’s non-negotiable.  Now go!”

The two teens rose without protest, each giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then obediently went upstairs.  She followed a discreet distance behind and made sure they arrived safely at their separate destinations before proceeding to her own room.  She climbed wearily back into the downy bed and snuggled up against the solid warmth of her husband.  Matt placed a sleepy kiss on her forehead.  That was the last thing Maddie remembered for several hours, not even noticing the breakfast tray Celia brought in a scant five minutes later.





As the last notes of the song faded, a hush fell over the congregation.  The collectively held breath of awe was far more rewarding than rousing applause could ever have been.  The two young men solemnly bowed their heads and stepped back from the microphones, reclaiming their seats with the choir.  Only when Pastor Nick had stepped to the podium and moved on with the service did Chris chance a look at Tad.

Tad’s grin stretched from ear to ear, supremely pleased with their performance.  Chris returned his smile, and Tad winked.  Their duet had been flawless, graced with passion, power, and joy; delicate harmonies intertwined and chased each other along the melody, echoing throughout the chamber, reaching heavenward in triumph and tribute.  That type of perfect moment was about more than just the power of voice and music – it was about the soul communing with the Creator.  Chris had experienced the feeling occasionally during a particularly well-executed choral piece, but never in such a small group.  It felt more intimate and more powerful.  He finally understood why Tad, who was not generally eager for the spotlight, was always so willing to perform a solo.

Leaning toward Chris and looking particularly smug, Tad whispered, “Gotcha.”

From behind, Chris felt a soft breath against his ear when Sarah leaned forward.  “You’re doomed.”

Chris turned to see the twinkle of amusement in her eyes.  His look rueful, he acknowledged, “I know.”

He hadn’t thought it possible for Tad’s expression to be any more smug, but he’d been wrong.

Sarah also looked smug.  “We own you now.”

Chris feigned disgust while muttering, “No kidding.”  But the excitement in his eyes clearly indicated this particular lamb was more than willing to be led to the slaughter.

Knowing just how to clinch the deal, Tad asked, “Did you see the look on your mom’s face?”

A swell of tenderness overcame Chris.  He could only nod; the look of pride and joy on his mother’s face more than made up for all the harassment he’d received, and would continue to endure from Tad and Sarah, as well as the anxiety and stage fright he’d suffered.  To put that look on his mother’s face, Chris would gladly stand naked in Times Square.  To know he could do it simply by standing up in church and singing… he couldn’t be bothered to be annoyed that he was now right where Tad wanted him.

Besides, maybe it’ll impress Trixie, Chris thought.  His Cheshire grin seemed to broadcast his thoughts.  Tad glared at him, suddenly realizing he’d just given up a serious advantage in his play for the little blonde’s feelings.  Sarah sat back, struggling to contain a fit of the giggles.

When the service ended, the teens moved to the choir room to put away their robes before joining their families in the fellowship hall, laughing and chatting as they went.  When they arrived at the corner where Marlena Zack stood, she hugged Sarah and Tad before wrapping her arms around her son, tears in her eyes.

“Thank you,” she whispered tenderly, trying to swallow past the lump in her throat.

Too macho to allow the moment to linger, Chris cleared his throat.  “Mom, can Tad come over for dinner?”

Marlena’s eyes sparkled with delight.  It had been much too long since Chris had invited his best friend over for Sunday dinner.  “Of course!”  She turned to Mrs. Vanderpoel and Spider Webster, who were approaching Tad.  “You’ll come too, I hope.”

Mrs. Vanderpoel smiled happily, but Spider shook his head.  “I have to work today.”

Not one to be so easily put off, Marlena eyed him reproachfully.  “Nonsense.  You never have to work before five on Sundays because you make a point of having Sunday afternoon dinner with Tad.  Why should eating out make that any different?  Since Tad’s eating at my house, you can’t eat with him unless you come over.  Don’t play games with me, young man.  You’re dining at my house this afternoon!”

While Chris and Tad snickered, Spider laughed.  Marlena Zack had often mothered him, even before his own mom had passed away.  She had no hesitation about treating him like family, including reprimanding him when he needed it.  Spider had always loved that about her.

Reaching down to place a kiss on her cheek, he gave in gracefully.  “Since you put it like that, you’re more than welcome to feed me.  Mrs. V. could use the break.”

“Good.”  Enjoying her triumph, Marlena pounced on the man trying to slip out the side door without being noticed.  “You’ll join us as well, Wendell,” she commanded.

Wendell Molinson stopped dead in his tracks and flushed bright red.  Turning nervously, he cleared his throat a few times before trying to speak.  “Really, Mrs. Zack… I wouldn’t want to intrude on a family meal.”

Stepping over to the gruff young man, Marlena placed a gentle hand on his cheek.  “My dear boy, you’ve been family since you were five years old,” she said softly.  Then her voice took on a harsher edge, returning to a tone of reproaching a disobedient child.  “But you’ve been neglecting me lately.  Stop arguing with me and come to dinner.”  She forcefully took his arm and placed her own through it.  “Now walk me to my car, dear.”

“Remind me never to get on your mom’s bad side,” Sarah whispered to Chris, flashing him a wide smile before bidding her friends goodbye and joining her own family.

Spider looked at Chris’ dad.  “How have you managed to survive life with her for so long?”

Jason Zack smiled broadly.  “I pick my battles wisely, and I let her do my dirty work for me.  I’ve been meaning to give you a kick in the pants lately, and Wendell, too.  It was awful nice of Marlena to drag you two flies into my parlor.”

Edda Vanderpoel laughed at the comically terrified look on Spider’s face.  “Come now, Spider dear.  I want to stop back at the house and pick up those pies, then get to the Zacks’ in time to help with dinner.  We need to get going.”  With that, she led Spider away, throwing a wink back over her shoulder at Jason.

Jason winked back.  “Tad can ride with us.  We’ll see you in a little bit.”  He turned to Chris and Tad.  “Let’s go.”

Tad held back a little, grabbing at Chris’ arm.  “What’s up with the Sarge?  I thought he was Erik’s best friend, but he always seems so nervous around your family.”

A grim line etched Chris’ face.  His brother’s death wasn’t something he liked to talk about, but he liked the new openness in his relationship with Tad and felt his friend could be trusted with the truth.  “He was Erik’s best friend, but he also fired the shot that killed him.  No matter how many times Mom forgives him, he still can’t forgive himself.”

Shock passed over Tad’s features.  Wendell Molinson was a mentor to Spider, almost like a big brother, so Tad had come to think of him like a spare big brother for himself.  He was rather surprised to find such a large chink in the armor of someone he held in such high esteem.  That made him seem more human, though, and Tad was actually comforted by the knowledge that the Sarge had demons, too.  He nodded thoughtfully as he trailed after Chris toward the Zacks’ car.

Sunday afternoon dinner at the Zack house was always a large affair.  Every week the Zacks brought someone home from church with them and, occasionally, gathered more guests along their way home.  There was always plenty of food and lots of laughter.  Mr. and Mrs. Zack were loving, social people who cared about everyone around them and made it their mission to touch lives in a personal way.

During the course of the meal, Wendell Molinson had been coaxed into sharing a story about an encounter he’d had earlier in the week with a very angry citizen.  At the end of the tale, Marlena clucked her tongue reprovingly over the man’s temper, and then told a story of her own.

“As bad as that sounds, I don’t think his temper matched Carla Fleming’s the other night.  She was ready to hurt someone over the state of Beth’s Homecoming dress.”

Chris and Tad were at instant attention.  Chris looked nervously at Tad before encouraging his mother to continue her story.  “Why, Mom?  What was wrong with Beth’s dress?”

With a little laugh indicating how foolish she found the woman in question, Marlena told her tale.  “Well, Beth’s dress had been ordered from an exclusive designer in New York.  Not being one to frequent such shops, I don’t know much about her except that she got her own studio under the patronage of Sherry Lynch.  Sherry’s always raving about her excellent work.

“Anyway, Beth wanted her dress in the school colors, so it was supposed to be navy blue satin with a silver-gray trim.  It sounded lovely.  But when it arrived Thursday afternoon, the dress had been made in purple with orange trim.  Carla was livid!”

Edda Vanderpoel sighed sympathetically.  “Perhaps there was some mix up with another dress.”

“Oh, no,” Marlena told her.  “Carla had a huge fight with the dressmaker on the phone, who insisted that the order had been for purple and orange.  Carla refused to pay for the dress, and then took Beth into New York on Friday to find a dress somewhere else.  While I understand being upset that the dress was not what she had ordered, she was acting ridiculous.  You would think a dress for Homecoming was the most important thing in the world.  Imagine letting a child skip school just to go dress shopping!”

The conversation moved on to other matters, but Chris and Tad continued to think about Beth and her dress.  They repeatedly exchanged worried looks across the table, until the meal ended and they were finally able to escape the presence of the adults.

Once they reached the sanctuary of Chris’ bedroom, Tad turned to his friend with anxious blue eyes.  “Do you think it was deliberate sabotage?”

Chris snorted.  “The dressmaker owes her career to Sherry Lynch.  Don’t tell me you think it’s a coincidence?”

Tad ran a hand through his hair as he paced.  “Diana wouldn’t actually do that, would she?”

Chris sat on his dresser and raised an eyebrow at Tad.  “You know her better than I do, but wasn’t she responsible for the blue dye in Beth’s hair?”

Tad groaned.  “Mart’s gonna kill her!”

Chris nodded grimly and reached for his Student Directory.  “I’m calling Dan.”  He placed the phone call to Mr. Maypenny’s house.  He was informed that Dan was up at Manor House with the rest of the Bob-Whites, which he then relayed to Tad.

Tad grabbed the phone and the directory, dialing the Wheelers’ public number with shaking fingers.  He was relieved to recognize the voice that answered the phone.  “Hello, Miss Trask, it’s Tad Webster.  I, um, heard that Dan Mangan is there.  I, um, have to talk to him about something important… um, for school.  Could I speak to him, please?”

Shaking his head at his friend’s nervous stuttering, Chris grabbed the receiver from Tad’s hand while Miss Trask called Dan to the phone.


“It’s Chris.  Tad and I just heard an interesting story you’re not going to like…”

Several informative minutes later, Daniel Mangan slammed the phone down and stalked off to find a certain raven-haired beauty, murder in his eyes.


Author's Notes



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