Sometimes, no matter what World Trixie and her friends find themselves in, there are certain things that are just meant to be.

Over Hot Cocoa One Night

Dear Junior Counselors,

I hope you saved every cent you earned at camp the way I did working at home this summer, because Dad says I can buy a colt from Mr. Tomlin next spring, and if you help me pay for his feed—the colt's, I mean—I'll let you ride him sometimes.

I learned how to ride this summer—well, I'm learning how to ride—because some rich people from New York bought the Manor House, and they have three horses and a daughter named Honey. Well, Honey is her nickname. She seems really nice but she doesn't really care much for living out here in the country. She's scared of spiders and snakes and even just dirt. And she has this horrible governess named Miss Lefferts who makes her spend the afternoon doing awful things like sewing and piano lessons and practicing French. But she'll be going back to boarding school when school starts next month. Oh, woe! Only two more weeks before the grind begins.

In other news, I think Moms and Dad wrote you that old Mr. Frayne passed away. I had to go to the funeral, which was just so boring. I thought a funeral might be fun, but I was wrong. Mr. Frayne's nephew and his family were there. They drove all the way from Rochester to be at the funeral, which was a really long drive. Their son, Jim, who is just about the most wonderful boy in the world—almost the same age as you are, Brian—he just celebrated his birthday in July—where was I? Oh, right, he'll be in the same grade as you at school because he did two years in one and won a scholarship to college, too. But he isn't a bookworm at all. He's simply super at all sports and woodcraft. Even Regan says he handles Jupiter, Mr. Wheeler's enormous black gelding, better than anyone else. Apparently Jim's father and Mr. Wheeler used to go to school together, so Jim and Honey and I got to go horseback riding. Regan, who is the Wheelers' groom, was worried about it at first, but when he saw how well Jim rides, he let us go. He should've been more worried about me!

Anyway, that didn't all happen at the funeral. That was boring, like I said. But Jim's family has been visiting the area almost every weekend. His parents are trying to clear out the Frayne mansion. It was—still is—so cluttered with junk. Jim and I wanted to go exploring through all the rooms but Honey was scared to because she thought the place might be haunted plus it's crawling with mice and spiders and stuff. And Mr. Frayne—the old Mr. Frayne's nephew—wouldn't hear of it either. He was worried that the wood all has rot in it and the floor boards might break under our feet. Once they clear out all the junk—and there are piles of it: newspapers and bottle caps and old clothes and just everything—they're not sure if they're going to have to tear down the house or if they'll be able to fix it up. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that when they dragged out this old mattress that Mr. Frayne had probably been sleeping on, it was stuffed with money! Can you imagine? I guess old man Frayne really was a miser.

Anyway, Mrs. Frayne, who's this pale, petite woman but who bakes the most wonderful breads and cookies—almost as good as Mrs. Vanderpoel's—really wants to try and fix it up. The house, that is. Not the mattress. That thing's already at the junk yard. But the house could be really beautiful again if it's not damaged beyond repair. They have contractors going through to see what needs to be done to make sure it's safe for them to go upstairs. We haven't been upstairs yet at all because old Mr. Frayne had it completely boarded up. I really hope they do fix up the house and maybe move here from Rochester.

It would be so nice if Jim and Honey both stayed here. Then Jim could go to school with me all of us at Sleepyside Junior-Senior High. If only Honey could go to our school, too, instead of that awful boarding school in Connecticut, then we could all hang out together. It's been so much fun having other kids our age in the neighborhood for a change, even if Jim is only here on the weekends and Honey's always busy with lessons of some sort.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention ... you remember Diana Lynch, don't you? Well, you know how her father made all that money practically overnight and she's kind of different now—not really stuck-up, I don't think, but just that her mom keeps her busy with that same kind of boring stuff Honey's governess makes her do. I haven't even seen her all summer. Well, her mother—Diana's that is—and Honey's mother have become friends, and now Diana is going to go to the same boarding school as Honey. I really wish she hadn't changed so much. We used to have a lot of fun together, but now with them both going off to school and Jim still living in Rochester, I just know the school year is going to be as dull as ever.

Nothing else is really happening at home. Have fun watching the small fry at camp. Don't get too many bug bites or any poison ivy!

Your sister,

16 December, Crabapple Farm

Trixie smiled as she read the letter she had written a few summers ago. "I can't believe you kept this, Brian." She looked over the drawings and the hard-to-read scribblings of her younger brother as well and then folded the papers together again.

Brian glanced over at her as he finished unpacking the rest of his belongings for his short stay home. He had another semester of undergraduate studies to go and she knew this would probably be one of his toughest years. He was already stressing over the MCAT test and whether or not his GPA was high enough to keep him on the medical track, though Trixie wasn't sure why he was so worried. It seemed to her he was just as smart and as serious about school as ever.

"I'm more sentimental than you realize, I guess," her brother finally answered.

She tucked the pages into his box of other mementos: photos, some hand-made cards, and a few Christmas ornaments. "Did you want to hang these on our tree downstairs?" she asked.

"Yep. They'll fit right in on our tree. Did you put up my favorite Looney Tunes lights again this year?" Brian asked.

"Of course. And the reindeer lights, and Mart found some burger-and-fries lights that he sent us earlier this year, too." She picked up a popsicle-stick star painted yellow and decorated with red beads. "I don't remember this one. Who made this, anyway?"

Brian took the star, holding it by the gold thread loop and setting it spinning. Then he stopped it and read the back before handing it to her. "Brian."

Trixie read the year on the back next to his name and then started to laugh. "You made this this year? I thought you had gotten better at arts and crafts by now."

"Not me." Brian ducked around her to pick up a stack of t-shirts. "It was this little boy named Brian from the hospital ward where I volunteered last week. He bonded with me because we had the same name." He placed the shirts in one of the dresser drawers and turned back to her.

"Oh, how was that?" Trixie fingered the ornament again and then placed it back in the box.

"It was good, if a little depressing. One of the other volunteers and I were trying to cheer up some of the children who knew they couldn't go home for Christmas. She had bought a bunch of craft items, but when she brought them in, she couldn't figure out what to do with them. I remembered all the crafty ornaments we made as kids so helped her set up a workshop—kind of like Santa's elves."

"Sounds fun." Trixie didn't miss the dreamy smile on Brian's face as he reminisced about that night. "So who is she?"

"Huh? Who?" Brian zipped up his now-empty duffle bag and then stuffed it under his bed.

"The volunteer you made ornaments with." Trixie watched him as he moved around the room, grabbing some hangers from the closet for the slacks he'd left on the bed.

"Oh, her name was Madeleine. She was still in high school, but she said she really liked working with children and she was volunteering her time." He hung up his pants and then closed the closet door.

Trixie sat on the bed, now void of the pile of clothes from his bag. "Oh, in high school. Probably too young for you, then." She slumped down with her head in her hands. She'd been hoping Brian might finally have found someone special. Ever since his first serious girlfriend had left him over two years ago, he'd been alone, although at least he no longer moped around about it.

Just then, the front door slammed shut, causing the walls to vibrate slightly. "Sorry about that!" a voice called out.

"Mart's home!" Trixie bounded up from the bed and ran down the stairs. He wasn't supposed to arrive until the following afternoon.

Brian followed at a more sedate pace. "Hey, Mart. Welcome back to the roost."

Mart dropped his red duffel bag on the floor and gave his sister a hug. "Where are the 'rents and the rugrat?"

"You just missed them," Trixie answered. "Well Moms and Bobby anyway. Moms wanted to stop in town for a few more groceries for the week and Bobby went along in the hopes of getting some candy out of the trip. Dad hasn't actually made it home from work yet but he should be here soon."

"Who should be here soon?" a voice asked from the doorway. "And who left all these muddy footprints on the floor?"

"Dad!" Mart turned around to answer his father. "Sorry, it was me. I literally just walked in the door." He shrugged out of his coat and then leaned against the wall as he pulled off his boots.

Peter winked at his kids. "Is that why you're all blocking the doorway, too?"

"Oops!" Trixie took the briefcase from his hands and headed into the kitchen, stopping to place her dad's case on the shelf where he usually set it. "Mart really did just come in while I was helping Brian unpack," she called back to her father.

"Helping?" Brian shook his finger at that notion as he followed her into the kitchen. "All you did was go through one box of things and stop to read the letters and look at the other items."

"Touché." She grinned in response. "But I kept you company, and that's help, right?"

Brian scoffed.

"More than enough help, because I know how you unpack, Sis," Mart defended her. "And if you had helped Brian with the actual putting away of clothes, he'd be up all night re-folding, re-sorting, and re-organizing everything. So what letters were you reading?"

"Brian still has that letter I wrote to you both the summer you were junior counselors at that camp upstate." Seeing the look in Mart's eyes, the one questioning just which summer, because they had done that multiple summers, she quickly added, "When I was thirteen."

"Ah, 'the most wonderful boy in the world' summer," Mart teased.

"What's that?" Peter spoke up. He had fallen behind the younger generation as he stopped to remove his coat and switch his street shoes for house-slippers. He gave Trixie a stern look as he spoke. "Who, exactly, is the most wonderful boy in the world?"

"Why, Jim Frayne," Brian replied, using an alto voice to mimic her tone.

"Ah, that boy." Peter ruffled Trixie's hair as she blushed. "He was a nice enough kid."

"It's too bad you two didn't get to meet him," Trixie told her brothers. She tried to shift the conversation away from one dreamy red-head to that summer in general. "You didn't get to meet Honey Wheeler, either."

Peter rubbed his chin. "Yes, I still think it's kind of strange how the Wheelers bought the mansion and yet they're rarely here. I guess it's more of a summer home for them."

"The lifestyles of the rich and famous will never make much sense to me," Mart conceded. "But as long as they're okay with us swimming in their lake and riding their horses while they're gone, it's all good to me."

"Swimming? In winter?" Peter winked.

"Fine, ice skating and sledding and exercising their horses," Trixie amended for her almost-twin. "They are super nice to continue letting us run all over their land as if it were our own."

"That they are," Peter agreed. "Now, let's see what we can do to help your mother get dinner ready."

"I think everything's all ready," Trixie countered. "Nothing to do but set the table."

"How about some hot cocoa while we're waiting?" Brian suggested.

16 December, downtown Sleepyside

Helen Belden tried not to wince as Bobby pushed the grocery cart at alarming speeds through the lot. Twice he'd had to grab the cart back quickly to keep it from ramming into one of the parked vehicles. At ten years old, she had hoped he would've calmed down some, but it seemed like he had grown more rambunctious. The two of them made quick work of loading the bags into the back of the car and then she let him put the cart in one of the collection areas.

"One more stop," she announced cheerfully as he joined her in the car, pulling his seatbelt over the shoulder. It was a treat for him to get to sit in the front seat, since it was still a rare occasion that it was just the two of them in the car.

He blew a bubble from the chewing gum they'd just bought—he had already pulled it out of one of the grocery bags and opened it immediately—before answering. "Where to, Moms?"

"I need to stop at Mrs. Elliot's." Ethel Elliot was putting together some flower arrangements for the Belden's Christmas Open House event, and Helen had promised she'd stop by to go over exactly what she needed.

It wasn't long before they were pulling into the driveway along Glen Road, not far from their own farmhouse. There was another car parked in the wide driveway, and it wasn't Mrs. Elliot's station wagon. Helen made sure to leave enough room between her car and the light blue sedan so that she wouldn't block it in before shifting the gear into park. "Coming?" she asked her son.

Bobby looked bored and disappointed at the thought of having to look at flowers. "Can I wait in the car, Moms?"

"You can, but I don't know how long I'll be." Helen stepped out of the car and then turned around and peered at her son through the car window. She tapped on the pane until he leaned over and rolled it down. "Are you sure it won't be too cold?"

"I'll be fine, Moms." Bobby reached his hand out to her. "Can you leave me the keys, though, so I can listen to the radio?"

"Sure." Moms handed the keys back to him and then started up the driveway to the front door. She could hear the squeak of the window being rolled back up behind her. For a fleeting second, she wondered if it was wise to leave him with car keys. He just might try to drive the car. She brushed the thought aside. For all his rambunctiousness, he wouldn't do anything that irresponsible and reckless.

She knocked on the front door and heard her friend call from inside, "Come on in! It's unlocked."

Ethel Elliot's house was warm and the scent of various blooms was inviting. Helen shrugged out of her blue wool coat and hung it on the coat hook by the door. Then she followed the voices she could hear coming from the living room.

The two women with Ethel had their backs to Helen. "And then we should have twelve of those vases with the rose and lily bouquets you showed me," Ethel's guest requested.

"Of course, Mrs. Wheeler," Ethel replied. She caught Helen's eye and then nodded at her. "Helen, I'll just be a few minutes. There's some hot chocolate in the kitchen if you'd like a cup while you're waiting."

"Take your time," Helen replied easily. "Hello, Madeleine, Carol. How are you?"

"Helen!" Carol Lynch turned around and stepped toward her, giving her a light hug and an air kiss. "I haven't seen you in forever. How are you?"

"Helen," Madeleine Wheeler turned around and acknowledged her. "How nice to run into you today. We're doing well, and you?"

"Fine, thank you." Helen put on her most polite smile. She'd never been that comfortable around her neighbor—one who was seldom in town at that. They weren't the type of people you could just run over to visit and have a good chat over a cup of coffee. "Beautiful arrangement," she added, pointing at the flower vase on the table.

"Thank you. Ethel does have a magical touch with her flowers, doesn't she?" Madeleine smiled kindly. "And I believe it was your son, Mart, who inadvertently pointed her out to me."

"Mart?" Helen asked, somewhat surprised.

"Yes, you must remember—he won that photo contest that featured some of Ethel's sweet peas," Carol reminded her. "There was an article in Gotham Magazine that showcased the photo and then did an exposé on Ethel's in-home business."

"Oh, yes, that was a couple of years ago. I remember now." Helen's smile was genuine as she recalled how proud he was of that photograph and how it had saved Ethel's business.

Ethel blushed lightly. "Well, that reporter from the magazine may have exaggerated slightly—" she started.

"Of course he didn't," Madeleine interrupted. "You do have a splendid green thumb and we always get the best compliments on the flowers at Manor House."

"Speaking of which, I'll have the arrangements ready and delivered in time for your party on the twenty-third." Ethel picked up a pad of paper and pen in her hand and started jotting down the full order.

"Helen, what are you and Peter doing that Saturday? You're welcome to come to our little soirée if you're free." Madeleine made the last-minute invitation graciously.

"Actually, that's the same weekend as our Open House." Helen shook her head as she declined. "I'm afraid we won't be able to attend. If you have any time that day to stop by our place, though, we'd love to have you."

"Oh, your Open House!" Carol grinned, her dark blue eyes gleaming with delight. "Those were always so fun. You know, Madeleine," she turned to her companion, "Diana and Honey might have more fun attending the Belden's Open House that night."

Madeleine nodded thoughtfully. "You're right, Carol. They would've been holed up in Honey's room the entire night anyway. But how rude of us, Helen. They haven't even been invited and here we are planning on sending them your way."

"Oh, they're invited." Helen grinned. "I think it would be great if they could join us. Honestly." She really was glad to have more young people attending the Open House. She knew her own children sometimes got bored at the event. "How about the twins, Carol? You can send all of them over as well. Bobby would enjoy spending some time with Larry and Terry, and the girls will have fun with the Delanoys' babies."

Carol Lynch's eyes widened. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I am, or I wouldn't have suggested it." Helen hoped the Lynch girls enjoyed babies. And there might be other small children present, though she could never be certain.

"Well, then, it's a plan." Madeleine actually grinned as she tucked her arm in Carol's and stage-whispered, "Take her up on it before she realizes what she's getting herself into."

Helen winked at the two society ladies. "Oh, I realize!"

It only took a few more minutes for Ethel to wrap up her business with Mrs. Wheeler. After she and Mrs. Lynch left, Ethel shook her head at Helen. "Really, Helen. I know you had to invite them to your Open House, but can you imagine Mrs. Wheeler attending the same event as her staff members do?"

Helen's blue eyes twinkled merrily. "And yet she'll let her children attend."

"To get them out of her hair." Ethel sighed and shook her head sadly and then ushered Helen into another room. She opened a refrigerated cabinet with glass doors. "Let's go over your flower arrangements. I have a couple of samples I put together based on our conversations."

18 December, outside of Rochester

Jim Frayne gazed uninterested out the windshield at the road ahead of him as he drove along the interstate. He spoke to his mother, Katje, seated next to him. "It's not like you to want to go to a fancy Christmas party that probably has very little to do with the actual Christmas holiday, Mom. So why are we driving out to Sleepyside again?"

"Ask your father. I'm just along to check on the house." She glanced in the back seat where Win Frayne had made himself comfortable by stretching his legs out on the seat.

"Matt invited me. Why wouldn't we go?" His dad didn't seem to think it was a big deal.

"Because it's Christmas. It's our family time. I don't want to hang around a bunch of business men on Christmas." His mother wasn't really complaining; she was just stating the facts.

Jim frowned slightly as he maneuvered around a slow-moving truck in front of him. He agreed with his mother, of course. He had driven all the way from Boston to Rochester to spend the holidays at home, and now, instead, he was driving nearly the same amount of time to stay in Sleepyside.

He didn't mind driving so much, but by the time they got to Ten Acres, he'd have spent nine hours behind the wheel. His father could help out, but Jim knew he didn't like to drive long distances at all.

"We're not going to spend all of our time with the Wheelers. The house is empty at the moment," Win replied from the back seat.

Katje touched Jim's arm lightly, getting his attention. "That's true. And since I don't want to deal with tenants ever again, especially after that last fiasco, I am reclaiming our house. I plan on decorating it for Christmas and making it our home-away-from-home for this two week stay. I know it won't be the same as being back in Rochester, but we're together. That's what counts, right?"

Jim glanced over at her and something about her expression—the softness in her pale blue eyes and the sincere joy in her smile—made the stress of mid-terms and long drives just dissipate. "Right, Mom. Of course that's what really matters."

"We are going to spend Christmas Day at Ten Acres," his father piped up.

"And Christmas Eve, too," his mom smiled warmly. "I'll bake cookies and make cocoa just like I do when we're back home in Rochester."

"And we'll get our tree together like always," Win continued. "I've already gotten permission from Matthew to explore the area around his estate. He bought up a whole nature preserve over the years."

Jim was familiar with the Wheelers' preserve from his first visit to Sleepyside. He smiled fondly as he rememebered the summer his father had inherited Great Uncle James' home. He knew it was foolish to think that the petite blonde girl that he'd befriended then thought of him as anything more than some boy she'd known one summer, if she remembered him at all. But he couldn't help hoping that she would be around and that they'd run into each other. After all, surely the Wheelers had invited the Beldens to their posh soirée, too.

Even if Trixie wasn't going to be there, Honey Wheeler surely would. She had been such a good sport about being dragged along to the dilapidated house, even though she seemed frightened and worried at first. But for a wealthy heiress, she was also very modest and had been a great friend to him that summer. She could handle that big black gelding of a horse almost as well as her father could, and she swam like a pro. Jim wondered if the lake would be frozen and if she could ice skate as well as she seemed to do everything else.

"And where has your mind wandered off to, now?" Katje's voice held a teasing note. "You seem to have zoned out of the conversation."

"Huh? Sorry. Just driving." Jim shrugged a shoulder. "What were you saying?"

His dad answered from the back seat. "I was saying we can borrow a couple of Wheeler's horses and go riding up that one trail that follows the river. That is, if you'll come with me. I know it will be cold, not like summertime riding, but I'm itching to go on a trail ride somewhere I haven't been a hundred times before."

"Sure, Dad." Jim glanced at him in the rear view mirror. "As long as it's not too dangerous for the horses. Otherwise we'll have to just exercise them in the yard."

The three Fraynes fell into a comfortable silence as they continued the long drive to Sleepyside.

23 December, Regan's apartment

"Why do I have to go, Uncle Bill?" Dan grumpily buttoned up the only button-up shirt he owned, a plain white shirt with a little stain on the left sleeve, but it wasn't too noticeable unless someone actually looked for it. "I hardly even know these people."

"I always go to Peter and Helen's Open House," Regan stated. He glanced at Dan's mother, Maureen. "If you really don't want to go, we don't have to."

"But I do want to go." Dan's mom glanced up at Bill Regan with a smile. "I'm really looking forward to it. I know it's an Open House, but are you sure they won't mind you bringing extra guests?"

Regan nodded as he reached for his jacket. "I'm sure. Helen asked me to bring you all around. She's looking forward to meeting all of you."

"How do you know?" Dan asked sullenly. He really did not want to go to a Christmas party. He wanted to just hang out with his family, sipping hot chocolate and reading Christmas stories together.

"Because she told me so," his uncle replied easily. "Are you almost ready to go?"

Maureen was looking through the ties in the suitcase and then turned around with two in her hand. "Tim, you take this one." She handed a forest-green tie to Tim Mangan and then stood in front of Dan.

"Not that one, Mom," Dan protested. He was not at all fond of the red and white striped tie. He always thought it looked too much like a candy cane or, if he was forced to wear it in the summer time, like one of those barber-shop poles.

She shushed him as she slipped the piece of silk around his neck and fashioned a knot out of the ends. "It's festive. And it suits you."

Her task done, she turned back to her younger brother. "You're always saying how nice the Beldens are, all of them, and an Open House sounds like a fun and friendly way to spend the evening."

Dan immediately loosened his tie and peered at his dad, hoping for some support. "I can stay here by myself."

"I don't think so, son." Tim shook his head slightly. "What would you do here on your own anyway?"

Dan saw his father glance out the window. He knew what his dad was probably thinking. "Well, I'll probably just watch T.V. or read a book. It's not like I'm going to case the mansion Uncle Bill works at. Not like my buddies could come up here and help me rob the place anyway."

"Dan." His father's tone was sharp. "That's enough."

Uncle Bill gave Maureen a sympathetic half-smile. "Dan might not get along with the other kids his age that will be there."

"I'm not a kid." He was twenty years old—not a kid at all—but his parents still treated him like one. Of course, it didn't help that he had hung out with a tough group of guys and had gotten in trouble with the law—more than once.

But he was trying to turn his life around. Most of the members of his old gang were either in jail or worse, and a few had joined other gangs, realizing the Cowhands weren't going to survive the turf wars. So Dan was back at home, working to get his general education diploma so that he could sign up for a vocational program in the spring.

When his parents mentioned they were going to visit his uncle for the holidays and had invited him along, he jumped at the chance. His Uncle Bill was a pretty cool guy and had a bit of a past himself, and yet he had become a "fine upstanding citizen"—as his father put it—in spite of that.

Plus, there were the horses that always needed care, and a frozen lake for ice skating. He had to admit, he still enjoyed going out on the ice and skating as fast as he could around that lake, gliding so fast he felt like he couldn't stop if he wanted to. There was something about Sleepyside that just made him feel free.

"You're coming with us, and that's final." His mom had found a Christmas sled broach and pinned it to her sweater. "And," she added sternly, "you will do your best to get along with the other young folks there."

"Tell them to get along with me," he countered. He knew the Beldens, well, some of them anyway. He'd been to visit his uncle a few times and had met Mart Belden, the middle son. Dan thought of him as a know-it-all with a big mouth when they'd first met. But he was friendly, at least. He always greeted Dan warmly, even if Dan only grunted a response in return. They weren't close by any means, and they never really hung out, but Mart and Trixie had been out ice skating on the lake one cold February day, and Mart had invited him to join them.

Now, Trixie, on the other hand, she had an attitude that he just didn't have the patience for. He'd been wearing his Cowhands jacket and some cowboy boots the first time he'd met her, about two years earlier. She apparently read the newspaper or watched the news or something, because she quickly put two and two together and called him out on being a gangbanger. She even named some of his rival gangs and gave him a rundown of all the criminal acts they'd been involved with.

He figured she hated him without even getting to know him. She, just like so many other people he met, like his own father at times, had judged him by that leather jacket with the white lettering. So while Mart had waved hello and suggested a friendly race around the lake that one winter morning, Trixie had glared at him and given him the cold shoulder. Every visit after that, he avoided her as much as she avoided him.

He'd heard from his uncle that there were two other Belden children, but he'd never met either of them.

"Daniel Patrick Mangan!" Tim's voice bellowed in the small apartment.

Dan startled out of his pensiveness. "What?"

"I've called you three times. Let's go."

His Uncle Bill put a hand on his shoulder, letting Tim and Maureen get ahead of them. He spoke low so only Dan could hear. "Give the Belden kids another chance. Remember, you were in that gang when they first met you."

Dan shrugged a shoulder. "Sure, Uncle Bill."

23 December, Manor House

Diana Lynch stood quietly against the wall in the Wheeler's foyer as her best friend gave the tall, handsome redhead a hug.

"Jim!" Honey's squeal sounded high-pitched.

"Honey!" Jim's answering grin was full of warmth. "It's good to see you."

"I haven't seen you in forever," Honey replied, stepping back and smoothing down the forest green skirt of her dress. "Not since the summer we met. I'm so glad you're in Sleepyside and that you're here. Except, we were just planning our escape." Honey turned to Diana, encompassing her with a gesture. "Oh my gosh, I haven't even introduced you because I'm pretty sure you haven't met unless you met some other time? Have you even been back to Sleepyside since that summer?"

Jim shook his head as he reached his hand out to shake Diana's. "I haven't been back to Sleepyside, so I haven't had the pleasure. Jim Frayne."

"Diana Lynch," Di answered, shaking his hand. She felt decidedly timid in the presence of this unknown young man, but managed to squeak out a greeting. "Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise." Jim's eyes were the greenest Diana had ever seen, and his lopsided grin was rather charming. "Escaping?"

"Gosh yes!" Honey replied. She hooked her hand in Jim's elbow and then drew Di in as well, forming a tight circle. "I hate these so-called holiday parties. They are boring as all get out. And I made the mistake of sneaking a cup of the hot cocoa."

"Why was that a mistake?" Jim asked. He couldn't picture how hot cocoa on a cold day could possibly be a mistake. "Did you get in trouble for it?"

Di giggled. "Nope. But it's flavored with Irish Whiskey. A bit strong for our tastes."

Honey nodded in agreement. "Definitely not my cup of tea—or chocolate. Anyway, Mother mentioned that the Beldens are having a gathering today as well. I'm hoping it won't be anything like this formal affair."

"Trixie?" The name slipped out of Jim's mouth, and, if Di read his expression correctly, he seemed rather hopeful and disappointed at the same time. "So she's not here? I mean, she won't be coming?"

Diana sighed. Of course Trixie would know Jim, too, though she couldn't quite figure out how except that it had to be the same summer Honey had met him. "No, she's not. Honey's been trying to talk me into going to their Open House, but I'd feel kind of awkward just showing up uninvited."

"But we were invited." Honey's hazel eyes widened. "I mean, I think we were. Sort of."

"I'm confused," Jim admitted easily. He shrugged out of his coat and folded it over his arm. "Care to explain?"

"Mother ran into Mrs. Belden the other day and Mrs. Belden told her we could come by."

"So you were invited." Jim shrugged his shoulder. "What's the problem then?"

"My mother said it was more like Mrs. Wheeler suggested we—that is Honey and I—go there before we were actually invited by her." Di blushed at the admission. "Which means we weren't actually invited. And, on top of that, Trixie and I haven't spoken in years. The last time she had come over to my house, I got the feeling that she didn't like me much, and so I don't think I should just show up at her house all of a sudden."

"Trixie? She seemed so friendly when I met her." Honey shook her head. "I mean, we had so little in common but it didn't seem to matter to her and we got along swimmingly that summer. And I do want to see her again. It seems every time I'm in town, she's off visiting other family. I've only seen her a few times over the years, but she's always invited me to hang out with her as if we were best friends."

"I'd lo—like to see her again, too," Jim admitted, giving Di an apologetic half-smile. "She was great fun the summer I had to spend almost every weekend up here. But when was the last time you saw her?"

"Years ago," Di replied. She pulled down on the sleeves of her lavender sweater. "She came over for a luncheon. I had just turned twelve and—"

Jim interrupted her with a small laugh. "Twelve? I don't think you should put much stock in whatever happened when you were twelve. That had to be at least five years ago, then, right?"

"True." Di waved her hand away. "It probably was nothing. You know—or I suppose maybe you don't know—how awkward twelve year old girls can be."

"I'm sure she's not holding any grudges against you or anything. She doesn't seem the type." Honey frowned. "At least not from what I could tell."

Di glanced from Jim to Honey and then made up her mind. "It is an Open House and the Beldens always invite everyone, so I guess you're right. There's no reason we shouldn't go. It's sure to be a lot more fun than here." Besides, she thought, maybe Trixie's brothers would be there. She wasn't about to admit it to anyone, but she'd always had a crush on Mart Belden. He was so smart and funny and had those amazingly gorgeous blue eyes.

"Then let's go. I really want to get out of here before we're confined to our rooms." Honey pulled on Di's arm, heading toward the front door. "Oh, we need coats, don't we?"

Jim glanced at the red coat still draped over his arm. "I have mine; where are yours?"

23 December, Crabapple Farm

Mart took in Dan Mangan's sour expression and pasted a smile on his face. He wasn't sure why Regan's nephew always had such a chip on his shoulder. He'd always liked the guy despite his dubious past. It was apparent to Mart, if not so much to his slightly younger sister, that Dan was a good guy at heart and was trying to get past whatever trouble it was he'd gotten into in the city. Even Dan's gang affiliation seemed to be no more, as the black leather jacket he wore no longer had that silly gang name sprawled across the back in white letters.

This was the first time that Dan had come to the Beldens' home, and one glance at Trixie made Mart realize he'd have to run some interference. Trixie wasn't being rude—yet—but she definitely wasn't happy that the "hoodlum" was there.

"Dan!" Mart called out, moving through the crowd of people. "Glad you could make it."

"Really?" Dan scoffed. "I didn't think I was welcome here in Sleepyside, much less in your house."

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course you are. And since you're in town, I hope you have your skates. You still owe me a rematch." Mart grinned and then pointed out the door. "Race you around the lake later?"

Surprisingly, Dan smiled back. "You're on, Belden."

Trixie had made her way to them now, too, and Mart was glad to see Brian was right behind her. If anyone could diffuse his curly-haired almost-twin, it was their older brother.

"You remember Trixie, right?" Mart introduced unnecessarily, but he didn't want Trixie to speak first. She might open with something rude.

"How could I forget?" Dan actually chuckled. "Despite what you might think, it's not every day that I get accused of being a thief. How ya doin', Trixie?"

"Fine, thanks." Trixie clamped her mouth shut at Mart's warning stare. He knew her and could tell she wanted to say something more, but even Trixie wouldn't do anything to cause a scene at their Open House.

"And have you ever met my older brother, Brian?" Mart gestured to Brian to step forward.

"Hi, there." Brian stuck his hand out to shake. "Brian Belden. And you are?"

"Dan Mangan." Dan shook the offered hand. "I'm Regan's nephew."

Brian's smile widened. "That's great! Mart and Trixie have mentioned you a few times. It's good to finally meet you."

"Really?" Dan raised an eyebrow skeptically. "And didn't they say—Trixie at least—what a trouble-maker I am?"

"Oh, that." Brian put a hand on Trixie's shoulder. "My sister may have mentioned something about the 'city slicker' nephew, but Mart vouches for you, so you can't be as bad as she tries to make out."

Dan seemed surprised at that revelation. He glanced over at Mart. "Really? Why?"

Mart shrugged his shoulders. "You help out Mr. Maypenny when you're here. I've seen you chopping wood for him and Regan said you helped him repair that stable for his horse."

It was Dan's turn to shrug. "Yeah, whatever."

Mart was about to say more but a vision of beauty caught the corner of his eye and he was thoroughly distracted. He touched Trixie's arm and pointed to the trio that had just entered the room. "Do my orbs deceive me or is that Diana Lynch?"

Trixie turned to look at the newcomers but seemed equally engrossed in the new arrivals. "I believe it is. And that's Jim—and Honey."

Mart snickered at how her friend, Honey, seemed a mere afterthought. "Would that be the infamous 'most-wonderful-boy', Jim?" He studied the redhead that had come in with the two beautiful young ladies. He noticed how each of the girls had their hands crooked into his arms. What a lucky fellow he was! But he also noted that the young man's eyes were searching the room. And when the taller guy turned their way, he seemed to zone in immediately on Trixie.

To Mart's further surprise, his older brother stepped forward before the three newcomers reached them. "Madeleine? Maddie?"

"Brian!" The brown-haired girl opposite Diana let go of her escort's elbow and rushed forward, then skidded to a stop just short of hugging Brian. "I—how—how are you?" She recovered from her impulsive behavior, albeit not quite smoothly.

"Fine. Great, actually. How are you? How is it you're here?" Brian could not seem to stop smiling. "Trixie, Mart, this is Maddie. She's the one I was telling you about, Trix."

Trixie grinned as she hugged Maddie. "Honey! I can't believe you know my brother. So you're the girl he made ornaments with?"

Honey or Maddie—Mart wasn't sure which nickname to use—nodded enthusiastically. "I can't believe Brian is your brother!"

"Ahem." The redhead cleared his throat. "Sorry to interrupt this reunion but I was hoping to get in on it."

"Jim!" Trixie started to hug him, almost pulled back, and then did hug him. "Of course you can."

Mart noticed that Jim was hugging his sister back rather tightly. He was about to say something when he noticed some movement beside him.

Dan held his hand out to Diana Lynch. "Since they don't seem to be in the introducing mood, I'm Dan Mangan."

The violet-eyed beauty spoke softly. "Diana, only my friends call me Di."

"I thought that was you," Mart interrupted quickly. Dan may be a nice enough guy, but he did not want him making a move on the lovely Di Lynch. He had always had a crush on his sister's friend, but rarely saw her since she'd started going to boarding school out of state. "Your appearance is both fortuitous and delightful this evening."

December 23, Crabapple Farm, later that evening ...

It wasn't long before the seven young people were chatting away as if they'd all known each other for years. They moved into the kitchen to avoid being underfoot in the crowded dining area and conversation flowed easily around school plans and ambitions. Every single one of them was laughing and smiling with the ease and comfort of old friends.

"Anyone else up for some hot cocoa?" Trixie asked, looking around the table.

"And some cookies?" Brian added hopefully, rubbing his hands together.

"Sounds delicious." Dan stood up. "Anything I can do to help?"

"I'd love to help, too." Di bounced up from her own seat. "I can make the cocoa, if that's all right with you."

"I trust you with the cocoa more than I trust my sister." Mart grinned and then announced to the others, "Diana is hereby elected chief cocoa maker of the club!" He waved a hand in Trixie's general direction. "And you, addlebrain, can be the chief marshmallow."

"Oh, let's do have a club! Could we?" Honey spoke up timidly.

"A club?" Jim glanced at Honey curiously.

"Well, I've always wanted to belong to a secret club, like boys and girls have in story books. And I know I don't know all of you that well, yet, but I do know Diana and Trixie and Jim and Brian, and I really like you both, Dan and Mart, and, well, I'd just love if we could form a secret club of some sort." She gazed around the room at the six pairs of eyes staring at her. "I mean, if you don't like the idea, if you think it's too childish, or whatever, well, anyway, I just thought I'd bring it up. It was a silly idea."

Brian quickly came to her defense. "It's a great idea."

"It sounds fun to me," Trixie said over her shoulder as she reached for mugs for the cocoa. "I'm in."

"Are you sure you want to include me, the ex-gang member?" Dan's voice was skeptical. "I'm not exactly club material, you know?"

"Of course you are!" Honey quickly came to his defense. "Whatever you were is not who you are now and, from what you've said here, you're clearly not the same person you were when you were in that gang."

"She's right. You're one of us now." Trixie grinned at Dan. "Like it or not."

Dan punched her lightly on the shoulder and then took some of the mugs from her. "I like it. I like it."

"We all have ties to Sleepyside, even if we don't all live here. Maybe we could call ourselves the Sleepyside Seven," Di suggested. She had a pot on the stove and was stirring the cocoa mixture.

"Does that mean we can't ever add more members, though?" Trixie looked thoughtful as she placed the last two mugs on the counter. "Not that I know who else we'd add, but you just never know."

"Well, we all like to ride horses and we all have homes—relatives homes count," he added, glancing at Dan, "—near Glen Road. How about Riders of the Glen? We can call ourselves the R.O.G.'s or Rogues for short?" Mart suggested.

Brian vetoed that idea. "Speak for yourself, knave. I'm no rogue."

Jim shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know about a name, but could we have a secret club whistle? I learned how to whistle like a Bob-White. I don't know if Trixie and Honey remember, but I taught them how that one summer and could teach all of you. It's not that difficult."

"I like that idea." Honey clapped her hands gleefully. "How about we call ourselves Bob-Whites of Glen Road? Or just Bob-Whites of the Glen. B.W.G."

"No one would guess what those initials stand for." Di nodded enthusiastically.

"A motto. We should have a motto." Dan looked around at the others. "Something we stand for."

"All for one and one for all!" Mart cried out.

Jim nodded. "Yes. If one of us is ever in need, we'll never fail him or her."

The seven young people smiled happily. Something magical happened in the Belden kitchen over the hot cocoa that night. They didn't realize it then, but the Bob-Whites of the Glen would become a very important part of their lives.


Word Count: 8,035

Merry Christmas, Robin! I was excited to receive your name in the gift-fic exchange and hope you enjoyed this holidayesque tale.

I was inspired by the answers to the Secret Santa questions you gave to Mal, specifically the words "no death". Just two small words but they got me thinking, although I ended up interpreting them in a way somewhat different than the context in which they were given. So, armed with the words, "no death", the mention of Christmas in July, and then thinking about your stories and alternate universes, I was inspired to write this alternate forming of the Bob-Whites of the Glen.

I did seem to have trouble sticking with the "no death" theme, though, so while all the parents of all the Bob-Whites are still alive, I hope you'll forgive me for the mention of the funeral in the opening of this story. ;)

Hope you enjoyed the extra strand of novelty lights Mart threw into the mix!

Special thanks to Julia for editing and all her fabulous comments and suggestions, and also to Laura (Motowngirl) for being a sounding board during our virtual writing session.

Background image © bhofack2 Stock Photography with modifications (color removed, cropped) by Vivian under the terms of licensing agreement.