Will You Dance,
If I Ask You to Dance?
Matthew was hesitantly approaching the door to Honey’s room when Trixie came storming up the stairs. Saved by the furious thundercloud, he thought with an amused chuckle.
“So which one are you mad at?” he asked her.
She stopped in front of him, hands on hips, and stamped her foot. “What is the matter with them?” she raged. “One minute they’re all annoyed and over-protective that any guy has an interest in me, and the next they’re recruiting them all to do their dirty work!”
Matt shoved his hands in his pants pockets and rolled on the balls of his feet while giving her words serious consideration. He nodded wisely. “The male psyche has a protective streak a mile wide, I’ll give you that. Imminent, immediate danger always receives more attention than a distant threat. And sometimes you have to use every weapon at your disposal.
“Of course, then there’s also The Test.”
Trixie quirked a brow. “And what, exactly, is The Test?”
He leaned in, glancing up and down the hallway as if checking for spies. “Well, they know they can’t keep you from dating indefinitely. But they aren’t going to sit back and just let you date someone less than worthy of you… so they’ll devise ways of testing them. If a guy passes the test, he’ll earn some grudging measure of respect, and then be given a more difficult challenge. But if a guy fails the test, he’ll probably end up looking bad in your eyes. In which case, you’ll get rid of him without your brothers having to do it for you.”
Rolling her eyes, Trixie huffed. “Why can’t they just let me make up my own mind?”
Matt made a face. “That’s kind of tricky,” he replied. “The whole protective, caveman streak in us wants to believe that you need us. Then there’s the wisdom of knowing just what kind of devious things guys say and do, just from being one yourself. Your innocent little sister shouldn’t have to deal with such a scoundrel. But mostly,” he finished with a matter-of-fact shrug, “it’s because they love you.”
She narrowed her eyes at him accusingly. “You’re taking their side.”
Matt just smiled. “I’m a guy.”
As the storm cloud darkened on Trixie’s face, Matt held up a hand to forestall the explosion. “BUT… I don’t agree with their methods. I will grant you that.” He sighed. “Then again, I’m such a long way from high school. I’m not sure I remember how it all works. How would you prefer it be handled?”
“Just ignore her!” she fumed.
Now Matt quirked his brow. “And that’s been working so well up ‘til now, hasn’t it?”
Trixie crossed her arms over her chest and looked away, not wanting to concede his point, but not being able to argue it. Matt placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“Trix, their goal is to make it stop. It’s obvious you’re hurting, and your friends can’t stand to see it. You, of all people, should understand that.”
She closed her eyes in resignation, acknowledging that she understood. But she wasn’t satisfied. “Starting an all-out war isn’t going to make it stop.”
“No,” he agreed. “But sometimes, they just have to do something, so that they don’t feel like they’re doing nothing. Just ignore it for a few days. You have other things to worry about. Once you’re a little more settled here, we’ll see where things stand at school and figure out what damage control needs to be done.”
She peered up at him cautiously. “And you’re not just going to take their side?”
He gave her a stern look. “I haven’t gotten where I am without the ability to be fair-minded, young lady.” Then a smile softened his face. “Besides, in case you haven’t noticed by now… as much as I adore you, I’m not much of a smothering type.”
She grinned. “That’s true. You’re a heck of a lot more lenient with me than…” She faltered, her face clouding over as she choked back a sob.
“We’re going to get through this, you know,” Matt said as he gave her a hug. “You’re going to get better, and your mother’s going to get better, and we’re all going to help you mend the fences. I promise.”
Trixie clung to him, latching on to the hope in his words. After a moment she drew back with an exhausted sigh. “I think I want to be alone for a while.”
He released her. “That’s fine, and understandable. But there’s no wallowing allowed here, either. So you may have your privacy for a while, and someone will check on you after a bit. Okay?”
She nodded and thanked him before closing herself off into the room she had been told would now be home. Unable to believe how tired she was after only being awake for an hour or so, she flopped onto the bed and buried her pounding head under a plump pillow.
Matt heaved a sigh of relief that he seemed to have made progress with Trixie, then turned back towards Honey’s door and knocked softly. He heard Maddie call out, “Yes?”
Opening the door a crack, Matt stuck his head in. “Everything okay in here?”
Without raising her head from her mother’s chest, Honey nodded. “Everything’s good, Daddy.”
He closed the door and then made his way over to sit on Honey’s bed, studying his wife and daughter all the while. Both faces were a bit tear-streaked, but they looked more peaceful than he had ever seen them. Something good had happened between them, he could tell. It brought a tender smile to his face.
Maddie smiled back at him, still stroking her daughter’s hair. “We’re doing fine.”
“Good,” he replied. Then he remembered his purpose in hunting out his wife and frowned. “I’m glad someone is.”
Honey turned to study his face and slowly sat up. “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
Matt folded his arms. “Well, I’m pretty sure I got through to the other boys. But Jim…”
“Do you want me to go talk to him?” Honey asked.
“No, darling,” Maddie answered for him as she rose from the bed. “It’s my turn.”
She started to head for the door, then stopped and looked back at her daughter. “Of course, if I don’t get anywhere with him, I may have to sic you on him.” She smiled and winked, and then she was gone.
Honey turned back to her dad. “You look tired, Daddy.”
“A little,” he admitted. “How are you?”
“I’m okay. Why?”
“Are you really okay with us taking Trixie in?” Matt queried, watching her carefully.
Honey smiled and nodded. “I am. I admit I was feeling a little bit jealous of all the attention she’s getting, but that’s silly. I’m worried about her, and I want to help her, too. Besides, we always said we wanted to be sisters.”
He smiled and sat beside her, putting an arm around her. “You’re a beautiful girl with a great, big loving heart, my Honey-bear.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder and said, “That’s because you love me so much.”
Hugging her tight, Matt said, “That I do, sweetheart. That I do.”
Maddie entered the library and moved to the fireplace, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Jim and staring at the fireplace just as he was. “I understand you and Matt talked a lot about Win yesterday.”
“I’ve always gotten the impression your life was pretty happy before Win died,” Maddie commented.
Again, Jim just nodded.
“So, once upon a time you had a fairy-tale perfect life. Then the evil monster came and ruined it. Then the magic princess came and rescued you.”
Jim sighed. “Cut it out, Mom.”
“What?” she blinked innocently.
“I get how you think. Now you tell me that the magic princess had a fairy-tale perfect life, and now the evil monster is here, but once the evil monster is gone it’s happily ever after.”
She turned to face him. “It’s never that simple, is it? After what you’d been through, inheriting all that money and having us adopt you would equal happily ever after if life were a fairy tale. But it hasn’t been perfect, has it?”
“It’s been good,” Jim hurried to say.
Maddie smiled softly. “I like to think so. But it hasn’t been perfect.”
Jim looked at her. “But it’s been good. And life is never perfect.”
Maddie nodded. “Exactly. There are no fairy tales. We’d like to believe in them, because it’s so much easier than thinking, ‘What trouble is around the next corner?’ But they’re not real.”
Jim nodded. “You’re right. It’s easier to think that way.”
Maddie placed a hand over his. “Haven’t you ever felt like you’ll never be able to do enough for Trixie, to thank her for all she’s done for you?”
Ruefully, Jim agreed. “All the time.”
“But how many times have you saved her life?”
“A couple,” he replied with a shrug.
“You know, there are some cultures where, when someone saves your life, you are indebted to them until you save theirs. By that token, she might owe you by now.”
Jim frowned. “She doesn’t owe me anything.”
Pursing her lips, Maddie asked, “Why not?”
“Because it’s not about keeping score!” Jim cried in indignation. “It’s about friendship.”
Maddie kept her wise hazel eyes fixed on his face while he listened to the echo of his own words. Eventually he sought the lesson she offered by meeting her gaze. When she knew he was listening with his heart, she asked, “And what do friends do?”
The worry lines in his brow smoothed a bit as he answered. “They’re there for each other, no matter what. In good times, and in bad.”
His adopted mother nodded. “Unconditionally.”
He agreed. “Unconditionally.”
“Without recrimination, or guilt, or keeping score.”
Jim breathed deeply, feeling a weight lift off his chest. “No matter what.”
Maddie allowed a shadow of a smile to touch her lips, while love lit her eyes. “And family does the same.”
The ache eased from Jim’s eyes as he allowed himself to smile. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too. More than you know.”
Searching her face, Jim asked the question that had been niggling at the back of his mind since the previous night. “Dad said you had Honey because of me?”
Maddie looked startled for a second, before laughing self-consciously. “In a way, yes. I never thought of babies as being lovable. They were… obligations.
“Ben was born around the same time you were. Listening to Lydia complain during the entire pregnancy didn’t help my opinion any. I had not even held Ben before I attended your christening, and I had no desire to ever do so. I thought it was… beneath me.”
Jim frowned but nodded. “I get the impression that the nanny thing and all that proper stuff doesn’t leave a lot of room for loving.”
“Not in a personal way, at least,” Maddie agreed. “Anyway, Katje had always hated that about our world. She was having none of it in hers. My attitude aggravated her. Besides, she was gloriously happy and wanted everyone else to be, too. She was convinced that learning to more freely express our love would do much to improve the relationship between Matt and me.”
Maddie looked away, unconsciously wringing her hands while remembering a long ago pain. Wistfully, she said, “She was so right, but it took me a very long time to learn that lesson.”
Jim watched her, fascinated. Madeleine Wheeler always gave off the impression of being calm, composed, and utterly in control. He had occasionally gotten to see past that, had seen a vulnerable side of her that made her seem more real, and had learned to love her. But he had never seen her insecure. Given Matt’s supreme self-confidence, he had always wondered how Honey had come by her massive insecurities. Suddenly he witnessed how easy it was to have them, and to hide them. His adopted mother was more like him than he’d ever realized.
Maddie took a deep breath and shook off the past troubles. She turned back to Jim and smiled. “Katje knew that you were the most adorable little boy in the world. She was more than happy to tell everyone and anyone how perfect you were. Talk about a proud mother! So she insisted that I hold her pride and joy.”
She stopped and asked him. “Did you hold Dodgy when you all were taking care of him?”
Jim answered in the affirmative by offering an understanding smile. “Babies have a way of wrapping you around their little fingers.”
“Exactly. So here you were, a tiny person with a beautiful smile and happiness in your eyes, even though you couldn’t possibly understand why all these strange people were around. Your joy was infectious, and I fell a little bit in love with you.”
She reached out and squeezed his hand. “I left that party feeling more light-hearted than I had in a long time. And I thought, if five minutes with a child who was a virtual stranger could affect me so much, how much more could my own?”
Jim studied her thoughtfully. “But it took you a long time to learn to express it.”
Maddie started. She should have realized he would miss nothing. “Yes. A very long time,” she agreed. With a smile, she continued, “But I’ve gotten much better since you’ve been around. See, you just keep teaching me.”
Embarrassed, Jim shrugged. “I do what I can.”
Maddie laughed, then became serious again. “Jim, your mother loved you very much. Profoundly. When Honey first asked us to adopt you, I was hesitant because I knew I could never measure up to that. But then I thought about what it must have been like to have that much love, and to lose it completely. I hoped that, by giving you what I could, I could ease the pain a little.”
Tears welled in his eyes. Hoarsely, he said, “More than you’ll ever know, Mom.”
When they embraced, Maddie’s heart rejoiced. She had crossed major bridges with her two children today. How ecstatic she felt!
Matt glanced at his watch and cringed. Sighing, he said, “Honey, can you do me a favor?”
Lifting her head off his shoulder, she nodded, “Sure, Daddy. What is it?”
“Well, your mother and I have to leave for an appointment…”
“You’re kidding!” Honey exclaimed, eyes full of reproach and disappointment.
Matt was so used to saying things like that without giving any more detail that he hadn’t stopped to think about how inappropriate it would seem in this situation. “Not that kind of appointment. We have to take Brian and Mart down to Crabapple Farm.”
“Yeah. Oh.” The big man sighed again. Seeing the look of distress and sympathy on her face wasn’t helping him. “It won’t be that bad, honest.” Or so I keep telling myself.
Honey gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. “What did you want me to do?”
“Trixie wanted to be alone for a while and went to her room. I told her she wasn’t going to be allowed to wallow, and someone would come fetch her in a while. However, I…” He swallowed, thinking he sounded cowardly. “I don’t want her disturbed until after we’re gone.”
As usual, Honey’s tact and sweet nature came to the rescue. “If she has to say goodbye to Mart and Brian, it’ll get ugly. It’s better to save everyone the distress.”
With his eyes, Matt thanked his daughter for understanding. “Exactly. So wait until you’re sure we’re gone, then please go and talk to her.”
Smiling, Honey said, “No problem, Daddy. I’ll take care of it.”
“Thank you, Sweetheart.” He kissed her forehead and then left for his next task in a busy day.
He headed down the rear stairs, making a pit-stop in the kitchen. Cookie took one look at his face and handed him a bottle of pain relievers. He gratefully removed a couple of pills from the bottle while she fetched him a glass of juice.
“I’d recommend a good shot of whiskey if I didn’t know how important your meeting is,” she said with a wink.
He snorted. “A shot of whiskey won’t even touch it. Do me a favor and refill the brandy decanter in my office while I’m out.”
“It’ll be fine,” she reassured him.
“That’s what I keep telling myself,” he replied.
Matt headed into the dining room. There he found the majority of the young people, sitting around the table and chatting amiably. Mart, of course, had his mouth stuffed full of food. Matt really hated to disrupt the relaxed atmosphere in here, especially after all the tension that had already existed all weekend, but he had no choice.
“Mart, Brian, we have to leave in a few minutes,” he called from his position by the door.
The startled boys turned to look at him and, just as Matt had known it would, the room instantly filled with tension. He wished he could just soothe it all away.
“I have to go collect Mrs. Wheeler,” he started. Then he closed his eyes, almost wincing as if in pain. “Or rather, go and see if she’s done trying to beat some sense into that stubborn son of mine.” He expelled a weary sigh. “Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you’d get ready to go.”
After he turned and left the room, Ria commented, “Now there’s a man who’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
Mart flushed guiltily. “I didn’t stop to think what kind of position I was putting the Wheelers in.”
“Stop it,” Dan ordered. “He’s in the position because he wants to help, and because he can handle it better. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t where he needs to be.”
“It makes you think, though,” Chelsea commented. “You always hear and see about where people are in life, but you don’t see what they go through every day to get there. When we think we’ve got it hard, we tend to forget that so does everyone else in some way or another.”
“Which just brings us back to where this all began,” Di said. “We get through whatever life throws at us. But we do it better when we do it together.”
Brian nodded at Di. “And if one of us is ever in need, we’ll never fail him or her.”
Di stretched her hand out over the center of the table. Immediately, Brian Mart and Dan did the same, piling their hands on top of hers. Di looked at Chelsea and Ria and nodded to the pile. “You’re welcome to join us, you know.”
Chelsea grinned as she and Ria added their hands to the stack. “You guys are pretty cool, you know that?”
Deeply serious, Dan nodded solemnly. “Yes. Yes, we do.”
The solemnity was destroyed, however, as a cube of Mart’s watermelon crashed between his eyes. The group dissolved into laughter, leaving the Belden brothers to depart on a lighthearted note.
Matt, meanwhile, was making sure to take as long as possible to fetch his wife. Using his and Maddie’s coats as a delaying tactic, he had gone to retrieve them himself. Just as he finally arrived at the library door, it opened wide.
“Oh,” Maddie’s eyes widened, startled.
“I was just coming to get you,” Matt offered by way of explanation.
Jim frowned. “Are you going out, Dad?”
Maddie answered the question for her husband as she turned to let him help her on with her coat. “We have to take Brian and Mart to the Farm.”
Jim’s expression changed dramatically. He looked anxiously from one parent to the other, and offered them a heartfelt, “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Matt said gratefully. “Meanwhile, I believe it’s your turn to play host. Your guests are in the dining room.”
“No problem. I’ll see you when you get back,” Jim said meaningfully.
Matt nodded. “Maybe you should ride back to Boston with Brian.”
“I will,” Jim agreed. “Take care of them.”
“That’s the plan,” Maddie said as she took Matt’s arm. Jim watched the pair walk gracefully toward the side entrance before he headed for the dining room and his guests.
Honey knocked on Trixie’s bedroom door. When there was no answer, she almost walked away. Wondering how she had missed Trixie leaving, she considered where to search for her. Then she decided to double-check, and opened the door a crack.
Trixie lay on the bed, tossing and turning in a fitful sleep. Worried about Trixie and her nightmares, Honey quickly made her way across the room and shook her. “Trixie, wake up!” she gently pleaded.
Waking with a start, Trixie gave Honey a confused and disoriented look. Slowly she shook the fog of sleep from her head and sat up. Massaging her temples, Trixie asked, “So you’re the designated checker this time, huh?”
“If I’d known you were sleeping I might’ve waited longer,” Honey said. “But I’m glad I came.”
Trixie gave her a weak smile. “Yeah, me too.”
Feeling awkward around her best friend was unnerving to Honey. “Trixie, how are you really doing?”
Making herself comfortable in the queen-sized bed and inviting Honey to do the same, Trixie made a face. “This whole thing is just so weird.”
“Which thing?” Honey asked. “There’s a lot of weird going on.”
Chuckling, Trixie agreed. “The list of weird gets longer by the minute. When we said we wanted to be sisters, did you ever think this is how we’d end up?”
“No. I just figured…” Honey’s voice trailed off. Clearing her throat, she asked, “So, um… what do you think of Chelsea?”
Trixie laughed out loud. “Honey, stop worrying! I like Chelsea. She’s good for Jim. Besides, your brother needs to have someone around him who will drag his nose out of his books and make him live a little.”
“You mean like someone who would drag him out into the middle of an Iowa flood?” Honey smirked.
“I said someone who’s around him,” Trixie said with a pointed glare.
Thoughtfully, Honey nodded. “It makes a difference, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Realizing she’d kept too much from her best friend lately, Trixie opened up a little. “I’m too young to be what he needs right now.”
Silently absorbing what her friend was saying, Honey was amazed. For all Trixie’s impulsiveness, she could be surprisingly mature. Lightening the mood was definitely in order, though. Grinning wickedly, she asked, “Right now?”
Trixie grinned back. “Hey, I can only be unselfish for so long!” Getting really silly, she pretended to dramatically inspect her manicure and spoke airily. “Besides, someone has to keep him busy until I’ve had my fun with Chris and Tad.”
The two girls broke down into fits of giggles. When she could breathe again, Honey asked, “Seriously, though… what about Chris and Tad?”
“I don’t know,” Trixie sighed. “I like them, I have fun with each of them, I’m really pissed at both of them… Why do we bother with males, anyway?”
“For grown women,” Honey mused, “I suppose it’s wanting strength and security and stuff. For girls our age…”
They looked at each other, grinned, and shouted in unison, “It’s cause they’re hot!”
When the next wave of giggling had subsided Trixie gave Honey a big hug. “Thanks, Hon. I don’t know what I’d do without you!”
Mockingly stern, Honey said, “Apparently, without my wisdom and guidance you opt for puking in the woods during a hurricane.”
“That’s right. You’d have made sure I had an elegant bucket with me.”
And so the peals of laughter continued, over and over, as the two best friends buried their worries and troubles and just enjoyed each other.