"For a change, I can see a little sunlight shining through the pouring rain.
I swear, it's getting a little brighter every time you call my name.
You know, I could get used to this, but right now it still feels strange."
- John Scott Sherrill and Steve Seskin


Jim Frayne looked across Mrs. Smith's crowded kitchen table and grinned. It was incredible, he thought, how those two remarkable thirteen year old girls could do so much in such a short amount of time: change so many lives, bring so much joy and, even more unbelievably, so much justice to the world. He gave them both credit. Honey Wheeler had certainly done her part, but the source of it all was the mass of feisty irrepressibility that was Trixie Belden. As far as he was concerned, they could just go ahead and change all the science and history books now: she was the origin of the universe.

Jim's gaze intensified as it lingered on Trixie. She sat talking excitedly while managing to feed and gently rock the little Darnell baby at the same time. Clearly, she'd had experience with Bobby. Jim thought she was pretty, and her short, blond curls always looked so soft. He liked the way they bounced when she moved her head, making him long to reach out and touch one.

Realizing he had been staring at Trixie for a little too long, he shifted his gaze back to his brand new sister. When they had come bounding toward him in the orchard that morning, Trixie had looked exactly the same. Honey, however, had changed in the few days since he'd seen her last. She looked stronger already, healthier. Her cheeks were fuller, too, and now glowed rosy red as she bounced Sally Darnell on her still scabbed knee.

Jim noticed a thin line of worry slowly wrinkling across his new sister's golden brow line. His eyes met hers with questioning concern. She gave him a silent smile of reassurance and shifted her gaze momentarily to her mother, sitting at Jim's left. Madeleine Wheeler was perched daintily on a piano stool that Mr. Smith had procured to provide seating for the majority of the group now crowded into the farmhouse kitchen. A quick glance sideways at his mother-to-be and Jim understood. He nodded knowingly at Honey and watched her worry line fade back into her gentle smile.

 

Madeleine Wheeler was uncomfortable. Even as she silently prayed it did not show, she knew it had to be obvious. The tiny farmhouse kitchen would have been hot if it was empty. With the addition of fourteen impassioned people ranging in approximate age from one to sixty, most of whom were all talking at once, the temperature neared one hundred degrees. At least someone had thought to let the three dogs out, the lucky things. Madeleine watched them frolicking in the yard through the kitchen window, wishing, for the first time she could remember, that she was outdoors.

She was aware that air conditioning would be out of the question; there wasn't anything in the building that even resembled a vent, but she couldn't for the life of her understand why the window wasn't open. She stared wistfully out the large windowpane, watching the full summer leaves of the cherry tree flap in the breeze. The breeze, the cool, cool breeze. She imagined the feel of that breeze against her flushed cheeks, the curtains dancing along with it. She was midway through a half hearted attempt at mentally willing the window pane upward when she felt the hesitant touch of a strong hand on the back of her own. She twitched slightly at the unexpected contact.

Jim withdrew his hand quickly. The look of raw fear that flashed across his freckled face, which had gone stark white at her reaction, instantly chilled her sweating veins. Could he really be afraid of me? Doesn't he know that I am afraid of everything? What has happened to this boy?

Jim had replaced both his hands in his lap and was staring at them morosely. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"You startled me, that's all." Madeleine smiled gently at Jim. "No need to apologize."

"I was just checking to make sure you were alright." Jim said hesitantly. "You look a little pale."

"It's very warm in here," Madeleine allowed.

"Would you like to go outside for a few minutes?" Jim offered.

"Yes. I would like that. A little fresh air would help I think."

"Fresh air always helps."

"I've never been on a farm before," Madeleine confessed, a few minutes later. She stood next to Jim and scanned the fields, the garden, and the barn. "Matthew and Honey tell me you grew up on one?"

"Yes. Out in Rochester. I wish I could show it to you." Jim looked wistfully towards the west.

Madeleine could tell he was reminiscing about his boyhood home, overlaying the Smith's property with faded images from his mind of the life he had lost. "Do you think," she asked hesitantly, "Mrs. Smith would mind if you, maybe, showed me this one instead?"

Jim was surprised by the tentative nature of her question, but enamored by how much like Honey she was. "No, I don't think so. Come on," he encouraged her. "Down this way is the apple orchard. That's where Honey and Trixie found me this morning."

They'd gone six or seven steps in the direction of the orchard when a flurry of black wings beat across their path. Mrs. Wheeler uttered a short cry of alarm and clutched at Jim's arm.

"Don't worry," he told her soothingly. "It's just Jimmy Crow."

The irrepressible bird settled himself haughtily on Jim's shoulder, bestowing a glare of outright condescension on the illustrious Madeleine Wheeler. "I'm so sorry," she told him politely, disengaging herself once the immediate emergency was over. "I was so frightened."

"It's alright." Jim was secretly impressed with the subtlety of her reaction. "He has that impression on people. I actually think you handled it rather well."

"Well, it just wouldn't do to go running full speed toward the house." Mrs. Wheeler said, with a small but playful smile.

Jim looked twice to be sure, but it was true. Madeleine Wheeler had just made a joke. For her efforts, she was rewarded with her first lopsided grin. "It's too hot for that, for one thing," Jim quipped back.

"It is indeed," Madeleine agreed. "How do you stand it? Working outside so much in the heat, I mean."

"I don't really mind. There's a lot of freedom in the outdoors."

"I suppose that's true. Being inside can make one feel so ... constricted."

Jim looked at her in surprise. She sounded not only as if she had understood his full meaning but actually shared the sentiment. "Not always, of course." Jim's face lit up for a moment, then faded to dark. "It sort of depends who you're in there with."

Madeleine stopped in surprise and looked around at the gnarled, bare trees. "This is the orchard? The trees look dead."

Jim surveyed the dying trees with sadness. "They are, for the most part. But the Smiths grow other things. I'll show you the garden. Unless you'd like to see the cows first?"

"Did you have cows on your farm?" Madeleine hedged.

"No, Dad just had chickens and horses, beside the crops, you know. Jonesy only had vegetables. He had horses, but they weren't for riding, like yours. They were for the plow. He didn't have a tractor." Jim paused. "Jonesy's my stepfather. I don't know if you knew that."

Madeleine knew it. The way Jim's green eyes had shuttered into lifelessness at the mention of his name would have told her even if her husband hadn't already done so. "You can live off that? Just growing vegetables?" Mrs. Wheeler blushed. "Forgive me; I'm afraid my ignorance is showing."

"You can if you grow enough of them." Jim's voice hardened. "Especially if you have free labor."

"Jim, I–" Madeleine Wheeler paused, then took a deep courageous breath. "All right. Let's see these cows."

Jim looked at her sideways. "You sure?"

She nodded bravely.

He glanced warily at her shoes. "You'll have to watch your step."

"On second thought, why don't you show me the garden instead?"

Jim grinned good naturedly. "It's over here."

"Oh, my." Mrs. Wheeler was suitably awed. "It's huge."

"Yes." Jim's tone held a deep respect for the garden, the earth and the people that tended it. "The Smiths fed a family of nine with this. Mrs. Smith has seven sons, you know."

"I believe I heard her mention that inside. My goodness." Her hazel eyes went wide at the thought. For a moment, a wave of consternation flowed over her usual calm features and she looked overwhelmed.

Something about her reaction made Jim feel very sorry for her. "It was very nice of you," he told her impulsively, "to come over here with us today."

"I couldn't ignore the hospitality of a family who were willing to take in the person who's going to be my son."

"Son," Jim repeated. Now he was the one who looked overwhelmed.

"I'm sorry, Jim. We don't have to put any labels on anything just yet."

Her hazel eyes filled with so much worry that Jim forgot his own concern and hastened to reassure her. "I don't mind." He unlatched the garden gate and held it open for her. "I'm just still working on believing you want me around at all."

Madeleine entered the garden and began walking through the soft earth between two rows of plants. Jim walked beside her in between the next two rows. "Jim, I know we can't compete, I mean, I know we aren't replacements for your birth family. We're poor substitutes, at best, but we're willing to try." She drew a long breath. "Seven sons, and here I am not sure if I'm qualified to handle one."

"You are parents already, you know." Jim felt compelled to gently remind her.

"Yes, we are, but," Mrs. Wheeler bit her lip, "I'm not sure we're good ones. We have the best of intentions, but I never seem to know what I'm supposed to be doing or saying to Honey. I'm sure I've already said the wrong thing to you."

Once again, Jim was surprised by her words. She seemed as frightened as he was. "You must be doing something right. Honey's a great person. She's kind and accepting and smart. No one could ask for a better sister. She's a wonderful testament to your influence."

"I can see some of your influence in our Honey already, Jim. She's quite a different girl than when I left for Canada. I have you to thank for it. You and Trixie Belden."

Jim was glad he was already blushing at the praise so he wouldn't have to hide it at the mention of Trixie's name. Madeleine seemed to notice, though, and tactfully changed the subject. Looking around the garden curiously, she asked, "Now, which ones are those beans you keep talking about?"

Jim looked around and pointed. "Over there. Looks like Mr. Smith did bring them all in this afternoon." He frowned slightly. "I really did want to finish the job."

"What about those over near the shady part?" Madeleine asked.

"You have a good eye. I might have missed these myself," Jim said, walking over towards them. "Mr. Smith probably left them because they weren't quite dry. This is the only spot in the garden that doesn't get full sun."

---


The heat in the kitchen had lulled Trixie into a drowsy daydream as she rocked the baby to sleep. Mr. Wheeler's hearty laugh at something Joeanne Darnell had said jerked her out of it. She looked around dazedly and turned to her friend. "Honey, where's Jim?" Trixie asked, trying to keep her voice calm as she passed the now sleeping baby back to Mrs. Darnell. "And your mother?"

Honey hid a smile. "They went outside about half an hour ago."

"Whew. I thought we lost him again already!" Trixie exclaimed with obvious relief.

"No, I dont' think so, but I did think they'd be back by now." Honey stood up and peered out the kitchen window. There, standing underneath the cherry tree, she saw them both, but it was what she saw in her mother's hands that made Honey's jaw drop open in shock.

"Honey, what's the matter?" Trixie cried.

"Nothing." Honey found her voice. "Mother and Jim are right outside. It's just that, well, it looks like they've been picking beans!"

"Oh, I thought they'd all been picked already." Trixie glanced out the window. "That's nice of them to help."

Honey kept her face glued to the window. "Trixie, that's my mother out there helping. Mother doesn't pick beans. Mother doesn't do any kind of gardening."

"Oh!" Understanding dawned in Trixie's eyes. She turned to face the window to see for herself. "Why, that's great then, isn't it? See, Jim's already being a good influence on your family."

Honey sniffed. "Yes. I suppose he is." But she couldn't help wondering why it took someone else, an outsider, to make her mother act so ... so ... well, not like her mother. Earlier in that very same kitchen, her mother had been looking nervous and uncomfortable. Why couldn't Honey figure out how to connect to her own mother? And with Jim, all it took was thirty minutes. She was being ridiculous, of course. She had a new brother now, not even for a day yet, and she was already jealous of how he was fitting in with her family better than she did.

"Are you okay, Honey?" Trixie asked.

Honey could tell her friend wouldn't understand. "I'm fine. It's probably just the heat getting to me."

"It is warm in this room, what with all the baking Mrs. Smith did today, too." Trixie smiled. Her eyes were still on the pair out in the garden. Well, on Jim anyway, Honey noted. "Let's go help them finish up."

"Do you think we should?" Honey wasn't so sure she wanted to intrude on their mother-son moment, only she couldn't decide if it was because she was jealous and didn't want to be around them or if it was because she knew they needed that time to adjust to each other.

"What do you girls think you should or shouldn't do now?" Mr. Wheeler asked, a twinkle in his green eyes as he approached the two girls standing at the window.

"Help Mother and Jim," Honey said, pointing out the pair to her father.

Matthew gazed out the window, astonished. "Madeleine? Is she picking beans?"

"Apparently," Trixie answered with a wide grin.

"Well, I'll be!" Matthew put an arm around Honey's shoulder. "Maybe Jim is just who this family needs."

But with those words, Honey broke into sobs. Mother always wanted a son. Mother would have been so much happier with a baby boy. Those words from her old nanny had always haunted her, and now she knew for certain they were true.

Matthew put his arms around Honey but peered over at Trixie. "I think she's a little overwhelmed. Maybe we should start to say our goodbyes so we can get back home."

Then he guided Honey outside, away from his wife and Jim. He sat with her on a porch step, and she nestled against him. "I'm sorry, Daddy."

"It's okay, sweetheart." Matthew stroked her hair steadily until her sobs had completely subsided.

"I know I wanted you to adopt Jim and I'm so glad you have." She really was glad of it. In just the short time she'd gotten to know Jim, she felt comfortable around him.

"But?" Her father seemed to sense her distress.

"Mother already likes him better than me." She looked out at the orchard in front of them and started crying again. "It's just not fair."

"Oh, Honey, no, you shouldn't think that." Matthew held her and rocked her gently. "Mother loves you. She just doesn't always know how to express it."

"She barely knows Jim, yet she's out there picking beans with him," Honey pointed out. "Why? Why won't she do things with me?"

"I think she would, if you just asked her." Her father gazed at her steadily. "What kind of things would you want to do with her?"

Honey shrugged her slim shoulders. "I don't know."

"Hmm." He pressed his lips together for a moment.

"I like going horseback riding and I think she does, too. Do you think she'd go with me sometimes if I just asked her?" Honey asked quietly.

"Yes, I think she'd like that a lot." Matthew smiled, and sighed softly. "And I know you've wanted to learn how to cook. Maybe that's something the two of you can do together, too. Sometimes your mother just needs a gentle push in the right direction. But, believe me, Honey, she loves you very much. Having Jim be part of our family won't change that."

"Thank you, Daddy." Honey thought back to earlier when she had run into her mother's arms and hugged and kissed her. Her mother had hugged her back and had said she'd missed her. She'd never acted so impulsively around her mother, and maybe that's what she needed to do more often. "Sometimes I think mother and I are both just scared of each other."

"Yes, I can see why you'd think that." He kissed the top of her head. "She has always worried about doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing to you, but I don't think she's scared of you so much as scared of making mistakes around you. And you shouldn't be scared of her."

---


Jim sat in the backseat of the cream colored sedan, Mr. Rainsford's car, although Mr. Rainsford himself wasn't in it. Mr. Wheeler—his new dad—was behind the driver's wheel and Mrs. Wheeler, Mother, was in the passenger seat.

Beside him sat his sister, Honey. Mr. Rainsford, Miss Trask, and Trixie were in the other car which was towing the Silver Swan. He knew Trixie was disappointed not to be riding back with them, but he understood why his new father wanted the four of them alone.

"I still can't believe it," Jim said. It all felt too good to be true.

"It will take some getting used to, for all of us." Mr. Wheeler smiled at him through the rear-view mirror.

Jim glanced at Honey, who was staring out the window, apparently deep in thought. "What're you thinking about, sis?"

Honey turned to him after glancing at her father. "I was just thinking about how our family is changing, I guess." Then she took his hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. "I am so glad you're a part of our family now, really."

"I'm glad, too." And relieved. No more worrying about Jonesy, no more running and hiding.

Mrs. Wheeler turned around part-way in her seat. "I hope you'll feel comfortable in your room, Jim. I think you should take the suite right across from Honey."

Suite? "I'm sure it'll be fine." Jim pictured the large house on the hill, the stables with the horses, streams for fishing, and even a lake for swimming. It was as if he'd fallen into some kind of dream world.

"Mother, do you think you and I could go shopping together for Jim's new room? And Jim, too, of course, if he wants to come." Honey gave him a timid smile.

"Shopping?" Jim grimaced, but in a teasing way. "You can go without me, can't you?"

"That's a splendid idea, Honey. Why, I'm not surprised Jim has no interest in spending the day shopping with his mother and sister." She winked at them. "And as long as we have his size and what colors he likes, we'll be fine. It will be a lot of fun—a girls' day out."

Honey broke into a wide smile, and then suddenly sobered. "But I don't want Jim to feel left out."

"Believe me, I won't feel left out." Jim grinned at her. "It's really fine with me that I don't go shopping with you, and I'll have plenty of time to spend with Mrs—Mother when you're not shopping."

"Whenever you girls do go shopping, I'll take Jim around the property," Mr. Wheeler said. Then, addressing Jim, he added, "I hear you're quite the experienced horseman. Regan said you handled Jupiter like a pro."

Jim blushed. "I guess. I've always liked horses."

"How do you feel about dogs? Since Honey left Bud with the Darnells, I'm thinking we should get another dog at home. Maybe one that we can take hunting with us. Do you like to hunt?"

"That would be great." Jim's voice echoed lamely inside his head. "I like dogs."

He hoped he didn't seem rude or unappreciative. It was a lot to take in so fast. Yesterday he was homeless; today he was a millionaire's son. Besides, what was he going to say? 'Oh yeah, I love dogs. Last week when I was squatting in my uncle's house, I tried to rescue one, but he turned out to be rabid so I shot him in the face to keep him from eating your daughter.' That would go over just wonderfully, especially with Mrs. Wheeler.

Jim liked her, though, this delicate, graceful woman who was now 'Mother.' He enjoyed their walk together at the farm, and he was happy to hear her planning an outing with Honey, not just because it meant he didn't have to go shopping. He liked Mr. Wheeler, too. He could tell already that they were both nice people, as kind and as generous as Honey. Though he had only known them for a matter of hours, he knew instinctively that his troubles, at least the type of troubles he'd had the past two years with Jonesy, were over.

He was grateful for that, so incomparably and indescribably grateful. But if he was honest with himself, and he always was, he would have preferred his new adopted parents to not have been quite so intimidatingly classy. He shot his new sister a nervous glance, rather getting the impression she would have preferred that, too. Funny, there wasn't anything in the world he would have changed about Honey.

Or Trixie either. The thought came into his head unbidden and his heart rate spiked dangerously. He swallowed hard. As long as he was uncomfortable, he figured, he might as well get the next bit of awkward out of the way while he was at it.

"It would be great to have a dog, Dad." He had to fight for the word, despite his good intentions. The word 'Dad' reverberated strangely in his ears, and he wasn't sure how he felt about it. It had come out ragged, and Jim feared it was echoing in the car as well as inside his head, but he'd said it. It was over. The next time would be easier. Honey smiled at him again when she heard it. The smile didn't fix everything but, oh, how it helped. He'd forgotten about smiles: how much better they could make one feel, how much easier they made one's days, like coffee for the soul.

"I'll take care of him," Jim promised, though he hadn't been asked and probably wouldn't have been expected to. "I'll make sure he gets plenty of exercise. Dogs are really smart, you know, and you can train them to recognize voice commands as well as hand signals. They love learning; they're actually a lot more relaxed and happy once they have been trained and know where they fit in the hierarchy of their pack. They are so social by nature, they'll accept humans into their packs as well as other dogs, even other animals. We had a neighbor in Rochester who kept a collie and a pig as pets, and they were best friends."

"Oh I'm sure we could hire a dog trainer." Mrs. Wheeler offered without thinking. "Couldn't we, Matthew?"

"Of course," Mr. Wheeler replied instinctively.

"If you don't mind, sir," Jim said politely, "I'd like to teach him myself. I like working with animals." He turned to Mrs. Wheeler. "I very much appreciate the offer, though, Mother."

Honey bit her lip and Jim's heart froze in trepidation as Madeleine Wheeler hesitated for half a moment. Then she smiled. "Of course you would like to train him yourself. How silly of me. I saw today how much you like animals."

"On second thought," Mr. Wheeler agreed, "Your mother is right. Having Jim train the dog is a much better plan." Matthew caught Jim's eye and winked at him through the rear-view mirror and Jim relaxed, slightly.

A few minutes later, Mr. Wheeler stopped for gas and Honey and Jim decided to stretch their legs. "You really know a lot about all sorts of animals, Jim," Honey said admiringly, following her big brother out of the car, "I didn't know half those things about dogs and we had several when I was younger."

"I guess so. I'm afraid I was rambling on and on. I hope I didn't bore everyone."

"I don't think so. Mother seems to love everything about you, and I actually think Daddy was impressed."

Jim grinned. "How are you so good at being a sister already? It's only been six hours."

"You're doing just fine yourself," she told him honestly. "At being a brother, I mean, not a sister."

Jim smiled. "I hope so. It's sure hard to tell." He gestured back at the car. Mr. Wheeler was pumping the gas; Mrs. Wheeler had remained inside. "I keep feeling like I have to stay one step ahead of them. They keep giving and offering me things. Every time I offer to do something on my own, they try to come up with a way to have it done for me. It's not that I'm not grateful, it's just that it's, well, it's more than I need."

Honey's pretty hazel eyes clouded. "Yes, I know what you mean."

"The house and the stable, clothes and suites and a dog, and a trainer for the dog, but Honey, all I really need is for them to—"

"Love you." Honey finished softly.

Jim colored slightly. He had a feeling she wasn't talking about him, but he didn't have the slightest clue what to do or say about it. He hadn't intended to make Honey feel bad. The brother gig was already turning out to be harder than it looked.

"You want them to love you," Honey continued, sadness hovering over her features, "but you know they can't because they haven't spent enough time with you to even know who you are."

"Aw, Honey—" Jim began, knowing he had to say something, but still not knowing what.

Just then, Matthew Wheeler called out, "Are you two coming with us, or are you starting another adventure on your own?"

Jim flashed his lopsided grin at his kid sister. "Sounds like they want to spend time with us right now. Better not keep them waiting."

Honey smiled too and followed him across the parking lot. Jim paused after three steps, noticing Mrs. Wheeler had never gotten out of the car. "Didn't she want to stretch her legs?"

Honey stifled a giggle. "Oh, Jim. I know you somehow convinced her to pick beans with you earlier, but this is a gas station! There are only so many miraculous things that can happen in one day."

---


As the days passed, each day was getting just that tiniest bit easier, yet each day also brought a new challenge. On his fifth day in his new home, Jim walked into the kitchen, finding Honey sitting alone at the servant's table. "Where are Mother and Dad this morning?"

"Oh, didn't they tell you? Daddy had to meet with some business associate in Milan and Mother went with him, of course." She patted the chair next to her. "Did you have breakfast yet?"

"No, actually." He sat down in the offered chair. "What're you eating?"

Honey looked into her bowl of cereal. "Sugar Frosted Flakes."

"They're grrreat!" Jim grinned as he reached for the other clean bowl on the table and poured himself some of the sweet flakes. "Milk?"

Honey stood up quickly and grabbed some from the refrigerator. "Here you go."

They ate quietly. Jim noticed Honey spent most of her time looking wistfully out the window.

"So, is this normal?" Jim asked as he put his spoon down. Before his new sister could answer, he lifted the bowl to his mouth and slurped up the rest of the milk.

Honey giggled. "Drinking milk from the bowl? As far as I know, that's pretty normal. Even I've done that a few times."

Jim wiped his mouth and shook his head. "Not that. Mother and Dad going off without any notice."

"Oh, that." Honey's mouth turned down into a sad frown. "Yes, it is." She looked up at him and grimaced. "Welcome to the lifestyle of the Wheelers. Business first, family ... somewhere down the list."

Jim stared into his empty cereal bowl. A very real fear overcame him. The Wheelers were done with their new 'toy' and would send him back.

"Jim?" Honey reached over and touched his hand, making him jump.

"Why did they agree to adopt me? I mean, I know it's not official yet, but should I worry?" Jim pressed his lips together. "I kind of thought having parents meant, well, having parents."

"They do want to be your parents, Jim. And I really want to be your sister. Give them a chance. They're not going to change overnight." She got up and put the milk back in the refrigerator and then stood next to him at the small table. "Daddy probably had this business meeting in Milan planned weeks ago and just forgot about it in the excitement. I bet, now that you're here, he'll start making sure to spend more time here so he can get to know you."

Jim looked up at her gratefully. "You're right. I'm making a big deal out of something that is obviously not, at least not to them, so it shouldn't be to me."

"And this is how I know you're fitting in." Honey grinned. "You're starting to sound like me."

"Oh boy, that was Honey-speak, wasn't it?" Jim put a hand to his forehead as if he were ill. "I didn't realize it was contagious. Is there an antidote?"

She shook her head. "Haven't found one, yet. Sorry."

"So, what are the plans for today, then?" He got up from the table and carried his empty bowl and spoon to the sink. "Do I wash these?"

Honey shook her head. "You can, I guess, but Cook or Celia will take care of it."

"Right. This will take a little getting used to." He forced himself to walk away from the dishes and turned back to Honey. "Since Mother isn't here to try to rearrange my room again, do you think we could just hang out? Maybe do something with Trixie today?"

"Oh, good! I'd already invited Trixie to come up when she finished her chores. I should've asked you first, I guess, but I didn't think you'd mind." She walked out of the kitchen and glanced back at him. "We thought we'd go swimming today, and then maybe riding later when it cools down."

Jim waited for her to leave the room and a wide smile formed across his face. Swimming with Trixie sounded like the perfect way to spend the day. He stood up slowly and walked to the door of the kitchen. He pushed the swinging door open and made it halfway through before he stopped to stare over his shoulder at the sink. Leave it, Frayne. Just leave it. Jim stood still for a good three seconds, then sighed resignedly, walked back to the sink, and washed his bowl and spoon. He looked down at Honey's, almost envious of how easily she had been able abandon them unwashed. He hesitated a moment and left hers there.

Jim walked slowly across the vast expanse of the near-empty house and up to his room. He had to open two or three drawers to locate the one that contained the brand new swimming trunks Mrs. Wheeler and Honey had picked out for him. They were forest green with an off-white (Mrs. Wheeler had called it eggshell) stripe up one side and at the bottom of each leg. He liked the suit just fine, but he couldn't figure out for the life of him why they thought he needed three. He pulled the top one off the pile and winced slightly at the price as he carefully cut the tag off. He changed quickly, grabbed a towel from his bathroom, still slightly moist from his morning shower, and headed back downstairs.

Jim did not like the first floor of the Manor House. He appreciated how Mrs. Wheeler's taste had enhanced the austere beauty of the mansion, but something about being alone in the empty space, with the lofted ceilings, elegant furnishings and hard marble floors made him feel small, frightened and cold. Jim couldn't deny the feeling, even though it did not make sense to his practical mind, considering the late-July heat. The thermometer in the Wheeler's kitchen had read eighty-five and the sun was still climbing.

The kitchen. Jim looked down the hall in its general direction. Maybe Honey's in there. He knew she probably wasn't. Albany wasn't Alaska. He might not have gotten out much in the past few years, but he did have enough experience to know that girls always took longer to change into swimsuits than boys did, even if he didn't fully comprehend the details as to exactly why. If she isn't in there, I might as well wash out her bowl while I'm waiting.

Honey wasn't in the kitchen, but Bill Regan was, pouring himself a large glass of lemonade.

"Good morning, Regan."

"Morning." He offered the lemonade to Jim, who declined.

"Just had breakfast."

Regan shrugged. "I recommend it," he said, placing the pitcher on the kitchen table and sitting down behind it. "Got to stay hydrated." He nodded at Jim, shirtless and in his bare feet and asked teasingly, as if the outfit made it obvious, "Gonna go riding?"

Jim grinned. "We plan to later, when it cools off. Trixie's coming, too."

"Good plan." Regan nodded approval. "Pushing ninety out there right now." He took a long swig of the lemonade. "Trixie was here this morning."

"She was?" Jim grabbed a glass, poured himself some lemonade and sat down next to Regan, all hang-ups forgotten in his eagerness to hear more about Trixie.

"Bright and early. I gave her another riding lesson. She wants to ride as well as you and Honey."

"I bet she already does. Honey said she kept up just fine upstate." Jim pictured her riding on Jupiter in those cut off shorts and that cute little halter top he'd seen her in once. Regan's voice drew him out of his brief fantasy.

"She's doing great; she's a natural. Plus she loves it, so that always makes things easier." Regan's face suddenly went stern. "But she's still on Lady, and only Lady. I told her she's not to try jumping anything yet."

Jim stiffened slightly, nervously wrapping his long fingers around the cool glass. "Don't worry, I won't let her." Although I'm not so sure I could stop her if she wanted to do it.

Regan smiled just broadly enough for Jim to relax. "I was pretty sure you wouldn't."

"I haven't seen her since we got back," Jim said. "I wonder why she didn't come up to the house."

"She told me her parents insisted on giving you a couple days to settle in. She's got good parents in those Beldens; dragged me down there the other day to meet them. They're good people, and I'm not just saying that because Mrs. Belden insisted on paying me for all these riding lessons in crabapple jelly, fresh tomatoes and raspberry preserves. You meet them?"

"Briefly, when we first got back. But I didn't have to meet them to know they're good people. You can tell that from Trixie."

"You can tell a lot from Trixie," Regan said, standing up, dropping his glass in the sink and ambling out of the kitchen, whistling softly as he headed back to the stables.

Jim replaced the lemonade in the refrigerator, thinking about Trixie getting up early for riding lessons, and Regan, taking time out of his busy day to teach her. A tiny twinge of a sharp, not completely unpleasant pain tightened a nerve somewhere deep in his chest. I could teach her to ride. I wonder why she didn't ask me.

When his eyes cleared from his Trixie-related reverie, there was a neat row of two bowls, two spoons and two glasses in the drying rack beside the sink. Jim looked at them with mild frustration. Well, there's always tomorrow. He dried his wet hands on his towel and left the house. He strolled down the hill to the lake and found Honey already there, sitting on the bench built into the dock against the boathouse wall.

"Hey, sis." He dropped down next to her.

"Hey, yourself."

"Trixie here yet?"

"No, but she'll be here soon. Oh Jim, you don't have to bring a towel down. There's beach towels here." She pointed inside the open boathouse door. A pair of built-in shelves were stacked with about two dozen colorful beach towels. Jim's oversized fluffy bath towel suddenly looked embarrassingly white in comparison.

Jim colored slightly. "Amazing. It's like they think of everything. It makes me feel so ...."

Honey smiled. "It's their job. People like to have jobs, Jim, and they like to be good at them."

Jim nodded. "That part I can understand."

"Miss Trask does most of the organizing, but Celia's great, too."

"Where is Miss Trask today?"

"She drove Celia to town for her day off and Cook to the market," Honey explained. She paused and leaned forward slightly to look up at Jim. "That's how I know you washed your own bowl."

Jim lowered his eyes. Honey reached out and touched his hand. "Don't worry about it."

He sat still for a minute, staring at his hands, one of which still clutched the bath towel, then looked over at his sister and grinned. "What did you do, go back to check?"

"I had a feeling." Her color rose slightly. "Besides, you asked for my help."

"Boy, you really are a sleuth. Here I was thinking it was all Trixie's influence."

Honey smiled a gentle, serious smile. "Trixie makes me brave, but even she couldn't make me do something if I didn't already secretly want to."

Jim wanted to agree with Honey's assertion, but he wasn't sure if it was completely true. He had a secret feeling Trixie Belden was capable of talking him into doing just about anything.

"It gets worse, little sister. I just went back and washed your bowl, too." Jim waited for her reaction.

Honey giggled nervously, not sure what to say. She was quiet for a few moments and then changed the subject. "You know what? I bet Trixie brings a towel, too. I didn't tell her we had some down here, either. Last time she came swimming, we had just moved in. The towels weren't unpacked yet."

"Regan says she was here this morning, getting another riding lesson," Jim said. "I actually thought we would be seeing more of her by now."

"She told me on the phone she's been simply dying to come over, but her mom said she should give us a few days to spend together as a family. Also, she did have a lot of chores to catch up on from being away for a whole week on the trailer trip."

Jim nodded in understanding. "There's a lot to do on a farm, even a little one like they have."

"Don't worry. I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot of her, starting today."

That thought made Jim happy. A fleeting smile passed across his face. "I'm not worried. Not about that, at least."

But Honey knew he was worried about something. Gazing at him earnestly, she asked, "What are you worried about, Jim?"

"Milan." It was more than worry. It was fear. It was frightening to realize that the Wheelers, into whose care he was now entrusted, held the power and the means to travel so far away on such short notice. Whether it was intentional or not, it intimidated him. It meant they also had the power and the means to do anything they chose with him, to him. Jim had faith in their kindness, and could not conceive of any situation where these well-meaning and generous people would misuse that power, but just knowing they possessed it was unsettling.

Honey's hazel eyes darted nervously from him to the ground and then back up to stare into his. "I explained that, though. It must have been already planned."

"I guess so. It's just that you had said that you wanted your parents to spend more time with you this summer. Now, after I've only been here four days, they've run off again. I just hope this trip wasn't my fault. If the idea of buying the Manor House was so you could spend time with your parents, I might have showed up and ruined it."

"No, Jim. You didn't. Everything is better now that you're here." The truth in Honey's words shone out of Honey's expressive eyes, filled to the brim with unshed tears. "Why, just think, if you weren't here, Mother and Dad would still have gone to Milan, only I'd be alone."

"Trixie would still be coming over."

"But she wouldn't be here for breakfast. I'd have had to eat it all alone, in that big empty kitchen, drowning my sorrows in bowl after bowl of sweet cereal. My parents would come back Thursday and find me under the table, surrounded by Sugar Frosted Flakes with my head in a bowl of milk."

Jim laughed, and looked at his sister with his heart full of warmth. He could tell she was still disappointed, but here she was cheering him up. "I'm sure it wouldn't be as dire as all that. But, I appreciate your point. I guess I just needed some reassurance that they didn't get bored with me already."

"Oh, no, Jim I'm sure—" Honey faltered as she met Jim's eyes, and immediately burst into tears. "I can't," she sobbed. "I can't lie about it anymore, not to you. Oh, Jim, that's exactly what I think happened. I think Mother got bored of both of us!"

Well I guess that was the wrong thing to say. Jim chastised himself, trying to figure out just what he had done to cause such a drastic mood change. Sisters sure were confusing. Maybe it wasn't just her parents who did things suddenly and without warning. He moved instinctively to comfort her, froze momentarily, and then leaned across the bench and hugged her.

Honey leaned into him and slowly her sobs subsided. He didn't say anything, but she didn't need him to. "I'm sorry, Jim. I'm alright now." She sat up and dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief Jim handed her.

"Let's talk about this," Jim suggested. The immediate crisis over, he was now more worried about Honey's words than the tears that had accompanied them. "You'd just had me convinced that Mother and Dad were trying; now you're saying they aren't."

"Oh, Jim, they are. I know they are, and I know they are adults and Mother gets bored all the time and she has friends and she actually likes some of them, and I'd be sad, too, if I had to spend all my time with Mother and Dad and none of it with Trixie so I know how she feels. I guess what I mean to say is maybe what they are doing is trying to find a balance. At least, that's what I hope they are doing."

"That seems fair." Jim agreed. "I mean, after all, this is a big adjustment period for all of us." He spoke slowly now, more carefully, wary of any sign of reemerging tears.

"And if that's true," Honey said, brightening up, "we should be doing the same thing. After all, it isn't right for me to not believe in them and be upset with them for not believing in me at the same time."

"That seems very reasonable," Jim said. "If I deciphered it correctly, that is," he teased gently.

"I'm just being selfish," Honey said, dashing the last of her tears away. "I spent every summer I can remember before this one away at camp. So even if our parents end up gone for half of it, this summer is already miles better than last year's."

"It sure is," Jim said quietly. "For me, too."

"Besides, now you and I get a chance to spend time together, and Trixie, too," Honey said, beginning to feel much better. "Why, I haven't even seen Bobby since I've been back, and you've barely even met Trixie's parents."

Jim grinned. He was looking forward to spending more time with Trixie and getting to know her family. "There you go. When Mother and Dad get back, we can tell them we missed them, and make a point to spend time with them when they are here."

Honey brightened even more and her face lit up with an idea. "How about if instead of telling them, we write to them?"

"They'll be back before the letters can get to Milan, won't they?" Jim didn't think they'd planned to stay in Italy long enough to receive letters from the States.

Honey nodded. "But we won't send them to Milan. We'll just leave them here. Mother and Daddy always read all their mail first thing when they get back from a trip. Miss Trask sorts it, and makes two little piles, one for Mother and one for Daddy. I'm sure we can convince her to drop ours into the middle of the pile."

Jim smiled. He liked the idea. It was exciting; a small, safe, shared adventure. "I'm up for it, if you think it will help."

Honey beamed, her hazel eyes dancing. "I know it will. After all, I wrote Mother on the trailer trip, and I got you!"

---


"Matthew?" Madeleine Wheeler glanced up at her husband. They had flown in to New York from their three day trip to Milan earlier that evening and were now at home, in Sleepyside, relaxing.

Matthew was seated in the armchair opposite hers, a tumbler of scotch resting on a cork coaster on the side table between them. Two stacks of letters also rested on the table, sorted, one for her and one for him.

He hadn't touched his yet, but Madeleine had gone straight to work, thumbing through them and picking one from the middle of the stack that had caught her attention. It was addressed from Madeleine G. Wheeler to Madeleine C. Wheeler, all rather formally. She read through it once more.

Dearest Mother,


I hope you and Daddy are having a wonderful time in Milan, when he isn't in business meetings, anyway. I'd love to hear about all the fabulous stores and see what beautiful new things you've bought. I'm sure you're having a great time shopping and exploring the city with your friends.

But, Mother, I miss you. I really do. I know you want to spend time with other adults and not hang around your teenage daughter all the time, but I really had a lot of fun shopping with you and picking things out for Jim's room and getting clothes for him. I'd love to do more things with you, and not just shopping, but maybe we could get our hair done together? Or we could go horseback riding, or, if that seems like too much, just take a stroll through the gardens.

I hope when you come back that we can spend time together before school starts again.

Meanwhile, I want you to know that I'm enjoying the summer so far, and I'm really grateful that you and Daddy bought Manor House and are living here in Sleepyside.


Love always,

Your daughter,

Honey


"Madeleine." He looked up at her and caught her eyes. "Everything okay?"

"I guess so. I don't know. Maybe." She folded the letter back into a neat rectangle and held it out to him, her hand shaking slightly. "I should've stayed here. I didn't need to go with you."

Matthew took the letter from her and read through it quickly. "Honey wrote this?"

Madeleine nodded. "There's another one here—from Jim. I haven't looked at it yet. I'm scared to."

Matthew reached his hand out to her across the table, and she handed it over.

"Check your stack, too." She nodded toward his pile of letters, mostly business correspondence.

He sighed as he picked up the stack and flipped through them. "They're right here." He pulled them out but didn't read them right away. "Madeleine, why is that letter making you so distressed?"

"You read it, Matthew. She missed me. She wanted me here. And I could've stayed." She reached for her own drink, a glass of white wine.

"I thought you wanted to spend time with Stacey. Didn't she and you go to Castello Sforzesco together?"

She looked down into her lap. "We did. And to the theater after. I had fun. But now I feel guilty."

His hand touched her knee and she looked up to see him kneeling in front of her. For a second it reminded her of when he'd proposed. But this time, the sincere expression was not romantic so much as just reassuring. "Maddie, darling, we talked about this before we left. You didn't want to stay here."

"I know. Because I was scared." She hated to admit it, but there it was.

"Right. You were worried that you wouldn't know what to do if you were alone with Honey and Jim. You were worried you wouldn't be able to keep up with their 'youthful energy and exuberance'—I believe those were the words you used." He smiled, and while the smile wasn't especially wide, those little laugh lines formed around his eyes, so she knew it was sincere. "You needed a little break, darling, and it was perfectly okay for you to take one. Baby steps, remember?"

"I suppose." She looked at the letters in his hand. "Read Jim's, please. I'm really worried he might have gotten mad."

"Just because he has red hair doesn't mean he has a temper." Matthew winked at her. "Besides, why would he get mad?" He moved back to his arm chair.

She watched him. He was resting comfortably as he read. His face wasn't usually expressive—she supposed that was a good thing when he was in the board room but it was frustrating to her now. She wanted to be able to see his reaction, but there was nothing. He finally finished and handed the letter over to her, unfolded.

"Well?" she asked, before taking it.

"Just read it, Madeleine. He's your son, now. You do realize that?" He smiled again, a hint of humor showing in his eyes.

"I do. But I'm still not used to it." She took the letter back from him and read it slowly.

Dear Mother,


It is okay if I call you Mother, right? I know I've said it, but it feels different somehow now that I'm writing it.

Anyway, Mother, I was a little surprised to find out you and Dad had left for Milan. I'm sure it wasn't intentional, and I probably shouldn't say anything—as a matter of fact, I wasn't going to say anything, but Honey insisted. For a little sister, she's kind of persistent. But next time, could you please let me know before you leave?

When you come back, I want to show you the vegetable garden. I wasn't sure if you even realized how many different vegetables your gardener is growing right here on the Manor House grounds. It's really great. Gallagher's done something with the herbs that's pretty neat.

Thank you again for agreeing to take me in. I know I haven't been here even a week yet, but everyone's been so kind and so welcoming. I'm really appreciative of everything you've done for me and hope I'll make you proud.


Your son,

Jim


Madeleine felt the moistness in her eyes. "We forgot to tell him we were leaving?"

Matthew met her gaze evenly, but he had let his guard down and she could see the guilt in his green orbs. "Apparently. That was pretty bad of us."

"I thought you had told him," she admitted.

"And I didn't think of it at all. I guess I'm used to the staff informing—" He stopped suddenly as if realizing he was partly to blame. "Honey would probably have appreciated knowing from us instead of hearing it from Miss Trask, too. From now on, let's try to make sure we tell them the important things ourselves."

"Agreed." She folded the letter again. "It's time for us to make some changes, Matthew. And I'm not talking about the décor."

"We've been making them, Maddie." Matthew actually grinned at her. "This house, Miss Trask, Honey's changing schools, Jim ...."

"I know." With a small sigh, she smiled back at him. "But we haven't changed ourselves, and that's what really needs to change, isn't it?"

"I think we have." He got up and stood behind her, massaging her shoulders. "Can you imagine us even having this conversation just a half a year ago?"

She thought about it, and he was right. They were changing, slowly. She was sure she'd get used to it, but, right at that moment, it still felt strange.





Deanna: This is a submission for CWE #8.  When I read that this CWE was to be a group challenge, I was in the midst of enjoying her rewrite of Blinking Eye so much that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to collaborate with Vivian.   I reached out and was beyond thrilled when she agreed to write with me.  Having been a longtime fan of her work, most especially her What I Believe In universe, I am both thrilled and humbled to co-write with such a talented author. 

What was it like for Jim to adapt to living with the Wheelers?  How did he handle that adjustment?  What changes did Jim’s presence bring to the Wheeler’s life?  If you asked me those questions six months ago I never would have the answers.  But something magical happened when Vivian and I took turns writing the story without thinking ahead to the ending, and this is the result.  I hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoyed helping to create it. 

The lyrics at the beginning of the story are from a song called “For a Change,” written by John Scott Sherrill and Steve Seskin and made popular by recording artist Neal McCoy.  We used a subtle modification of the lyrics as the last line of our story.


Vivian: When Deanna asked me to write a team story with her, I jumped at the chance. She's such a skilled writer and brings such depth to her characters; I only hoped I could live up to her expectations. It was so much fun to work with her on this story.

I've always wanted to explore that time between the end of Red Trailer and the beginning of Gatehouse. Of course it was a challenge not really being able to plot ahead of time, but when we decided to focus on the end of Red Trailer, it made it easier since we already knew where the characters started and where they eventually end up.

Sugar Frosted Flakes dropped the 'Sugar' from its name sometime in 1983, but Tony the Tiger has been the mascot since 1951 and is known for the slogan 'They're gr-r-reat!'

Um ... I think that's it. ;)



Jixemitri MB                    Funny Figure Four               Sleepyside Apartments


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