Brian Belden and the Mystery of the Stowaway Kitten

Brian Belden and the Mystery of the Stowaway Kitten


Brian Belden was sick and tired. He was fighting a cold, had stayed up until all hours for the past week trying to finish off his assignments, and had somehow managed to turn up for his shifts at the café where he worked part time. The other Bob-Whites had all finished their various classes a couple of weeks earlier. As usual he was the last to get time off.

Now, home in Sleepyside, he was ready to rest and relax. What a joke. He’d barely even climbed out of his old car before being hit by a barrage of demands from his family. Sure, they were glad to see him, but, he reflected moodily, they were even more glad to have their resident mechanic, handyman and referee, Mr. Fixit, back on site—even Honey.

His expression altered at the thought of his girlfriend. She’d hung back, waiting for his more exuberant siblings who’d flung themselves at him talking nineteen words to the dozen. And then she’d come towards him and his world had tilted—as it always did.

Brian Belden might be, he knew, by reputation, responsible, sensible, studious, controlled—the list, at least according to his friends and family, went on and on. But when it came to Honey and his feelings, those things just didn’t apply, though he did his best to keep that little fact to himself. She loved him. He knew that, but Honey loved everyone who was close to her. Sometimes he suspected she might find the intensity of his feelings a little off-putting.

Wrapping her in his arms, inhaling her scent, feeling the soft brush of her long, dark gold hair against his chin, all made him want to throw caution to the wind and take her then and there. Fortunately, his cautious, sensible side prevailed.

So, arm-in-arm, they’d gone into the farm, with Trixie bouncing along beside them.

“Did you ask him yet?” she’d demanded.

“Not yet,” Honey replied with a smile for her best friend.

“Ask me what?” Brian wondered how his sister, with her undeniable talent for solving mysteries, could have missed the fact that he and Honey had had all of about thirty seconds alone. Time for ‘I’ve missed you’ and ‘I’m glad you’re home’ and nothing else.

“Nothing, really ...,” Honey had said. “It’s just, well you know Trix and Di and I were planning on going up to the cottage in Maine next weekend?”

He remembered some vague reference to that plan and nodded.

“The station wagon has sort of been acting up and it’s a long way and—”

“And can you work your magic and take care of it?” Trixie finished. “Honey said there was no way you wouldn’t be able to fix it.”

“Well, he is very talented.” Honey wrinkled her nose in a way he usually found endearing, but now felt like an additional pressure, adding to his already long to-do list. His own car was in desperate need of attention, and the last thing he felt like doing was spending most of his time off with his head under a hood playing grease monkey. He’d nodded though, and then headed upstairs to drop his stuff in his old room.

Now, sitting on his childhood bed, he felt an overwhelming urge to yell or throw something. Surely they’d outlawed slavery? Or at least had reasonable, enforceable labor laws? Closing his eyes, he wondered if anyone would notice if he just holed up in his room and slept. Instead, as usual, he forced himself to get up and soldier on with all the chores that everyone expected from him.

He fixed the washing machine while the others were getting dinner on the table. And while Trixie and Honey took care of the clean-up, he went over Mart’s paper with him. Finally, after, what seemed to him anyway, several hours of Belden bonding, he walked Honey home.

“Are we still going on our drive tomorrow afternoon?” Honey asked, tilting her head to look up at him. “Just you and me? Alone?”

I should say no, Brian thought. There’s no way I can look at my old jalopy before we go, not if I’m going to fix the station wagon.

Honey moved into the circle of his arms, her warmth and softness beckoning.

Damn it. I’m entitled to spend my break any way I want.

Brian lowered his head and captured Honey’s mouth with his own, for one perfect moment forgetting all about the outside world.

 

Honey checked her reflection in the huge mirrored door of her walk-through closet. The simple lines of the pale green dress she’d chosen flattered her slender figure, and her hair, freshly washed and carefully blow-dried, tumbled around her shoulders in a way that Brian told her was very distracting; the very thought of distracting him made her smile. Brian might not be as demonstrative as his siblings, but when it was just the two of them, alone, together, she knew his feelings for her were real—even if he wasn’t quite as crazy about her as she was about him.

Hopefully, spending the afternoon by themselves might help him unwind a little. Even for Brian, he seemed tense and tired. His dark eyes were smudged and there were faint lines around that wonderful, capable mouth.

Grabbing a sweater and her purse, she took one last glimpse at her reflection before heading down to Crabapple Farm.

It might have been early summer, but as Brian’s old car followed the winding country road, the light was starting to fade and the temperature was dropping.

Shrugging into her sweater, Honey turned to her boyfriend. “Maybe we could put the top up? It’s kind of chilly.”

“It’s not working.” Brian didn’t even turn his head to look at her as he spoke.

“Why?” Honey felt the frown wrinkle her brow.

“Because it’s broken,” Brian said unhelpfully.

As he spoke, the jalopy began to slow and, with a snort of disgust, Brian steered it to the side of the road where it came to a complete stop. He got out and strode to the front of the car, flinging up the hood.

Honey’s frown deepened. “What’s wrong?”

“The car’s dead,” Brian returned grimly.

“But how? Why?” Honey turned her gaze on the darkening sky as the clouds shifted and bumped with increasing intensity.

“I didn’t get around to checking it out,” Brian said.

“Why?” Honey asked, her expression puzzled and just a little annoyed. “You said you thought it needed looking at.”

“Why didn’t I check it out?” Brian demanded, his dark brows drawing together as he slammed the hood of the uncooperative vehicle and stalked back to the passenger door. “Let me think about that. Maybe it was because I had to tinker with Moms’ washing machine, fix Bobby’s bike, help Mart with a biology paper, and, oh, that’s right, somehow resurrect the BWG station wagon from the dead because you girls want to go gallivanting next weekend! Mr. Fixit, that’s me.”

His voice rose in volume as he spoke, and Honey drew back, surprised.

“Well, no one made you do any of those things. You could have said no.”

“No?” Brian laughed, in spite of the situation. “You guys just don’t take no for an answer. Bobby would sulk and Mart would moan and you’d ....”

“I’d what?” Honey asked, her hazel eyes narrowing.

“You’d look at me with those big disappointed eyes and I’d feel like a total heel.”

“I am not responsible for the size of my eyes!” Honey snapped. “They’re the ones that are in my head and I’m stuck with them.”

“You know what I mean.” Brian’s jaw had that stubborn, set look.

“Then why didn’t you cancel our drive this afternoon? I would have understood.” Honey was not impressed with being painted as a demanding, emotionally needy girlfriend.

“Maybe I wanted to spend time—just the two of us!” Brian all but yelled. “Though, right at this very moment, I’m not sure why.”

Honey crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Well if you weren’t so caught up in being the big brother, the one who has to take care of everything, if you were willing to actually say you didn’t feel up to doing something, then maybe someone else would step in.”

“Right. Like who? I hadn’t even set foot inside the farm before I had a list of things to do as long as your arm.”

“We do manage when you’re not here, you know.”

“Great, then maybe you’d like to fix the car?” He opened the passenger door for her to step out.

The clouds above swirled and churned and abruptly released the rain they’d been gathering within their folds. Honey turned her head with its freshly washed and blow-dried hair towards the deluge and then back toward the man she loved. “So, Mr. Fixit. What now?”

Brian’s eyes gazed over the surrounding farmland. “That barn, over there!” He pointed to a building standing not too far from the road. “We can wait out the storm there.”

Honey followed his line of sight and frowned. “You know my luck with barns. I’m not liking this.”

Brian glared at her, obviously in an even worse mood than when they’d started their drive. “You can wait out here and get soaked, then. I’ll take my chances with the barn.”

“Fine. But if this turns into a flood and we end up floating in that thing until we’re rescued, or if there’s a gang of thieves storing their goods in there—”

He cut her off with a laugh. “Point taken, but Trixie’s not here, so, chances are, this particular barn is safe.”

He grabbed her hand and the two ran along a muddy path leading to the brightly painted structure. Inside, the smell of hay, or perhaps some other crop, overwhelmed her senses.

“At least it’s mostly dry,” Brian commented. “And no animals.”

Honey sighed. This day was not going at all as she’d hoped. She stepped further into the barn, noting that while it was providing some shelter from the rain, the roof was leaking and the floor of the barn was muddy. It must not have dried out from the previous days’ rain.

Even though she was trying to watch her step and keep from sinking into any puddles, she felt her foot slip out from under her. She fell flat on her seat and slid a few inches into a nearby hay pile. At least it was a loose pile and not one of the hard-packed bales, she thought ruefully.

“Honey! Honey!”

She heard Brian calling for her and the sound of his footsteps sloshing through the mud. She didn’t answer; instead, she lay there fuming. It was his fault they were in this predicament in the first place! He should have taken care of his car or told her they couldn’t go driving if he knew it wasn’t running right. And she’d reminded him she didn’t have the best of luck with barns.

“Honey? Talk to me.” He touched her shoulder gingerly.

“I’m fine.” She stood up slowly so as not to slip again. She shook some loose straw from her hair, wondering why she’d ever bothered spending the extra time on it that morning—and he hadn’t even noticed! Distracting, my foot!

“Well, you could have answered me earlier. I was worried!” Brian sounded more annoyed than worried.

“I told you I don’t like barns!” She felt herself slipping again and tried to grab onto him to keep from falling. Instead, he fell right along with her.

Brian’s voice was incredulous. “You did that on purpose, Madeleine Wheeler!”

“I wish,” Honey muttered under her breath.

Brian tried to stand again. Tried, being the operative word. He slipped a few times, although he eventually managed to stand and keep his balance.

Honey took one look at him and then covered her face. Her shoulders were shaking and she could feel tears streaming from her eyes, but she couldn’t stop the involuntary reaction to the sight of the normally serious, calm, and oh-so-handsome Brian Belden.

His eyes widened in concern. “Honey?” He reached for her hands. “Honey? Are you hurt?”

Honey removed her hands from her face and laughed even harder.

He became irritated anew. “What’s so funny?”

“I wish you could see yourself,” she got out between the gasping howls. She reached up and tried to pull at a strand of straw that was stuck to his shirt.

He broke into a smile, reaching for her hand to help her stand again. “Yeah? Well you don’t exactly look like you stepped out of a fashion magazine anymore, either.” His smile softened. “And, yet, you still look beautiful.”

She blushed at the compliment as she took his hand, but she stayed seated in the mud, not trusting herself to stand yet. “You think I look beautiful?”

“Always,” he whispered.

“All covered in mud and hay?” She couldn’t help the silly grin she was sure adorned her face.

He stepped closer to her, as if he were about to kiss her, and she started to lift herself off the ground. She was so glad their little spat, or whatever it was, seemed to be over. But, the next thing she knew, she felt his full weight on her as he stumbled forward, pushing them both into the soft pile of hay.

“Oof!” he groaned. “What was that?”

She felt the pressure of his hand on her, and while part of her liked the sensation, the fact that he didn’t seem to even notice—again!—annoyed her. “That—if you had paid any attention in your anatomy classes, you would realize—is my breast.”

His cheeks turned a bright red as he attempted to move his hand away. “Not that,” he choked out. “What did I trip over?” He turned over and reached down. “An empty sack.” He pulled it out and straightened it to read it. Before he could say anything, Honey started giggling.

“It’s an empty sack of apples.” Brian tossed the sack away as Honey continued giggling.

“Exactly why are you laughing?” Brian growled at his girlfriend.

“It’s funny because I was thinking from the way you’re acting that maybe you were eating apple seeds.” Honey grinned, remembering when he ate seeds from a Waldorf salad a classmate had made for him.

Brian wanted to say something, but stopped. She was right. He had looked forward to his time off, but all he had done was grumble since he had gotten home.

Honey stopped giggling. “Brian? Are you okay? You know I care, right?”

Brian got up. “Honey. Do you know how much sleep I’ve gotten this week?”

“No,” she replied. “I thought you said things were going all right. That you would be okay.” She pulled her legs to her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees.

“I got a good five hours last night. That’s more than I’ve gotten any other night this week.” He balled the sack up and threw it towards the corner.

Honey gasped. “Brian, that isn’t healthy.”

“I know. It’s been a long week. But it won’t get better when I’m interning.” Brian ran his hand through his hair and sat down next to her. “I’ve nearly got enough set aside that, along with my scholarships and loan money, I should have enough to finish. Problem is, I’m afraid no one else is really going to understand just how much busier I’ll be then.”

They sat in silence, both thinking about how things had been since he came home. “Am I pressuring you too much?” Honey hesitantly questioned, averting her eyes from Brian. “I mean, I know I kept asking when you were ....”

Brian put his finger on her lips and shook his head. “No, Honey. If anything, you seem to be the one who gives me the most space. I, uh, well, I was afraid I was becoming too much of a pest, like, maybe, umm ....”

She looked at him and narrowed her eyes. “You, a pest? I was beginning to wonder if you even wanted me?” Her statement turned into a question as her face turned red.

Brian grabbed her hand. “Not wanting you is not even a possibility.” He gave her a half-hearted grin. “I think it’s possible that the tactful one and the boring, sensible one have been too nice to all the rest of the Bob-Whites and their families. I mean, Jim and Dan are pretty cool about it. They’ll come to our get-togethers here, and the three of us manage to see each other in the City when we can, but they get it when I’m busy.”

“Brian, dear,” Honey replied quietly. “I get it when you’re busy, too, but you have to tell me.”

He put his arm around her. “You’re who I want to be busy with. Trixie has seen Jim nearly every day since he graduated. Mart has been with Diana nearly every weekend. My problem is I’ve always been the big brother and the oldest. I don’t mind helping Moms and Dad out when I come home, but no one helped me with papers. I had to go to the school or ask a fellow student for help. I’ve offered to show Mart and Trixie how to do simple car maintenance, but they both act like it’s no problem to just have Brian do it. The station wagon was a simple oil change and tightening of some belts. It really was the time it took.”

Honey leaned over, kissed him on the lips and then pulled him down with her so they were lying on the pile of hay. “You have to tell them that. I’m to blame for the station wagon, too. I made the comment, but I knew it was going to eat into our time. And, it’s hard to speak up against Trixie sometimes. She’s matured enough to use tact with other people, but she’s still a bit unaware of her family and friends. She would do anything for us, but she doesn’t always stop and think about us needing time away from each other.”

Brian propped himself up on one arm and looked down at his girlfriend. She had nailed it. He knew it was time he spoke to his family about respecting his need for down time or he was going to have to stop visiting. He smoothed back her hair and kissed her again.

The rain finally stopped and Brian and Honey headed back to the vehicle. Brian put the hood up and started to check things under it. Honey came over and started asking questions. Brian grinned and laughed. “Do you think you are going to need to know how to fix a car, Miss Wheeler?”

Honey smiled. “Well, probably not everything. But when we go to Maine, what do we do if we are in the middle of nowhere without our resident mechanic and something goes wrong? You could probably teach me at least a few small repairs that I could manage.”

“Let’s get the car fixed so we can get home. You can change into something a little grungier, and I’ll teach you how to change a tire and check belts. You won’t be a mechanic but it’ll be a start.”

An hour and a half later, Brian pulled up to Crabapple Farm after dropping Honey off at home. First he got into the station wagon and pulled it away from the garage. He then parked his own car in front of the garage and put the hood up. He was looking inside the engine again as Trixie and Mart pulled up in the car Mart and his parents had bought.

“Great,” Mart called as they got out. “My car could use a tune-up, too. Shall I pull it in?”

Brian dropped the hood and walked into the garage without saying anything.

Trixie spoke up. “Have you finished the station wagon yet?”

As if written in a story, Bobby walked out of the house. “Brian, have you fixed my bike yet?”

Brian turned and walked towards the house without saying a word.

Mart turned and looked at his other siblings. “How do you think he got so muddy?”

Trixie raised her eyebrows. “I was wondering how he got so covered in hay.” She turned to Brian, who had stopped at the door. “You were with Honey, weren’t you?”

Mart cackled. “Just what kind of an outing did you participate in with the lovely Miss Wheeler? I didn’t know rolls in the hay were part of the agenda on your dates.”

“Never mind,” Brian grumbled. “You worry about your dates and I’ll worry about mine.”

Bobby looked from one sibling to another, not really understanding their banter and not really caring. His mind was set on one thing. “Did you fix my bike yet? Mr. Lynch said he’d take Terry and Larry and me on a bike ride up to the marsh tomorrow.”

Brian heaved out a long sigh and gave in. “Far be it from me to keep you from tearing around the marsh with the Lynch twins. Go get your bike and we’ll have a look.” When Trixie opened her mouth, though, he held up his hand. “The station wagon will have to wait until tomorrow. I had a quick look earlier, and it’s nothing too serious. I should have it done in an afternoon.”

Trixie nodded but didn’t seem to be able to resist adding, “Why don’t you just get it done this afternoon, then?”

Brian just about managed to keep his voice calm as he responded, “Because, dear sister, I have more important things to occupy my time than playing the role of Mr. Fixit of Sleepyside all day.” He shook his head. “If you must know, Honey’s coming over, and I’m going to show her the basics of car mechanics.”

Mart chortled at the last statement. “First, you took her on a date involving mud and hay, and then you’re going to spend the rest of the afternoon giving her a class on auto repair?”

Trixie smirked and took on an accent reminiscent of Gone with the Wind. “How can sweet Madeleine ever resist your manly charms?”

“Very funny,” Brian muttered, although he had to wonder if he was striking out a bit in the romance department this afternoon.

He wondered that even more about a half hour later when he and Mart were just finishing up work on Bobby’s bike, with Trixie standing by to “supervise” the job, and Honey came strolling down the path from the Manor House. She was wearing slim dark jeans that made her legs look even longer than usual and a sleeveless black and white print shirt that showed off her tanned arms. She had obviously showered and her hair had that freshly washed look and flowery smell that he usually found quite distracting, as it made him want to run his hands through it or rub his face in it. Right now, though, it only served to make him all too aware of the fact that not only had he not had time to shower, but working to replace the chain on Bobby’s bike had added grease to the already unattractive combination of mud and hay adorning his clothes.

“Is that your idea of a grungy outfit?” he asked Honey, partially to cover his discomfort.

Honey shrugged. “It’s just jeans and a t-shirt. Would you rather I borrow Tom’s grease monkey jumpsuit?”

He shook his head. “We’ll manage,” he said shortly, wiping his oily fingers on a rag and walking around to the back of the jalopy. He opened the trunk and rummaged through it to find the tools he needed.

“Honestly, Brian, could you even be grumpier if you tried?” Trixie rolled her eyes in Honey’s direction. “How do you put up with him?”

“Actually, I think he’s kind of sexy when he’s grumpy,” Honey returned.

At that, Brian’s head popped up and he banged it on the hood of the trunk. “Ow!”

“What’s the matter now?” Trixie asked.

“Nothing. Everything’s fine,” Brian answered out loud, although he added a few swears under his breath. He closed his eyes against the pain in his head for a few seconds and when he opened them, he grabbed the tools he needed and slammed the trunk closed. He headed back to the front of the car but did a double take as movement in the back seat caught his eye. He frowned as he leaned forward and took a second look.

“Er ... Honey, could you come here for a minute? There’s something you need to see.”

The tone of his voice brought not only Honey, but also Trixie and Mart, to his side.

“Is that a cat?” Trixie asked, pulling the door open as she spoke. “Where did you get it?”

“I didn’t get it anywhere,” Brian answered. “I have no idea how it got in my car. Did any of you put it there?”

The other three Bob-Whites shook their heads as Trixie lifted the little gray ball of fur gently into her arms. “Why, he’s just a kitten!” Trixie exclaimed.

“And he must belong to someone,” Honey mused. “Look at his little collar with fake gemstones on it. It’s even got a tag—SK—but no phone number.” She reached out to pet the tiny cat, and then turned to Brian. “Do you think he could have climbed into the car when we were at the barn?”

“I guess he must have,” Brian said, “but I can’t believe we didn’t notice it before this. Wait a minute. Bobby!”

Bobby rode his bike over at the sound of his older brother’s bellow. “Cool! A cat! Where did you get him?”

Brian let out an exasperated sigh. “So much for that idea. What do we do now?”

“We should go back to the barn and see if we can find his owner,” Trixie responded promptly.

“How did I know you were going to say that?” Brian asked, his tone rueful.

“Because anyone who knows Trixie could have predicted it,” Mart answered with a laugh.

Brian shook his head and then shrugged. “Why fight it? If we’re going back there, though, let’s take Moms’ minivan. We’ll fit better, and we won’t have to worry about sudden rainstorms.”

“Good idea,” Honey agreed with a smile. “Let’s call Jim, Dan and Di and see if they want to come along. I’d hate for them to miss out on anything.”

“Why not? The more the merrier,” Brian answered, not even bothering to hide the sarcasm creeping into his tone. This day wasn’t going at all the way he had planned. “If we’re going to wait for the others, I’m going to grab a shower and change my clothes.”

“Fine,” Trixie said. “Would you hold the kitten for a few minutes, Mart?” She handed the cat to her brother, and it gave a tiny mew and dug its claws into him.

“Ow! Why can’t you hold it, Trix?”

“Honey and I are going to search the car for clues. You don’t mind, do you Brian?”

“Mind? Why should I mind?” Brian said through gritted teeth as he headed into the house to take his shower.

 

Honey watched Brian go with a twinge of regret. Somehow this weekend visit was not playing out the way she’d imagined, and it was pretty clear he felt the same way. She hadn’t missed the tell-tale tightening of his jaw or the underlying tone of sarcasm in his voice. In most people it would make her uncomfortable or worry her—she hated conflict of any kind. But, for some reason, Brian being irritated or annoyed or even angry just made her want him more. It was as if his willingness to show that he wasn’t perfect made him more attractive.

“Stop thinking about my grump of a brother and focus!” Trixie snapped, pulling her out of her reverie.

Honey met her best-friend’s blue-eyed gaze with a raise of her brows. “If you don’t stop being so bossy, I’ll take my focus upstairs to Brian and the shower.”

“Ew!” Trixie shuddered. “What are you trying to do to me?”

“Remind you that as much as I love you and our mysteries, I was looking forward to some alone time with Brian and he was looking forward to the same.”

“Oh, pooh!” Trixie said dismissively. “You two can do that later. Do you hear me crying about spending more time alone with Jim?”

“You get time alone together,” Honey countered, keeping her tone even. “Brian and I don’t get the chance all that often.”

“I don’t spend that much time alone with Jim.” Trixie frowned slightly. “And we always include you in stuff. You’re just busy a lot of the time.”

“Of course I’m busy.” Honey shook her head. Trixie was a natural detective, sniffing out mysteries where others would pass them by, but sometimes she missed the obvious. “I make sure of it,” Honey added.

Trixie’s expression shifted as she digested this. “Oh, well, you don’t have to do that. Jim and I both love you heaps.”

“And I love you.” Honey smiled. “Enough to give you some time alone.”

“Great,” Trixie said ruefully. “Now I feel like a total heel. Do you want to stay here with Brian while the rest of us investigate the stowaway kitty?”

“No. I want to help my partner solve the mystery, but I also want my partner to stop expecting her overly responsible oldest brother to spend his free time fixing things.”

“Not exactly holding a gun to his head,” Trixie began, then broke off and grinned ruefully at Honey. “I guess we don’t need to, huh?”

“Not really.”

“Okay, fine. You have my promise. And when we have solved the SK mystery, you and Brian can go off alone together and be as smushy as you like.” Trixie held out her hand and Honey shook it, wondering if Brian himself might be as easy to convince.

 

Brian took his time in the shower. It was probably the only place where he’d get any privacy so he might as well make the most of it. Tilting his head back, he allowed the water to run over his upturned face. As he soaped and washed his body, he grimaced at the memory of his petulance and snappish tone—both with his siblings and with Honey. Especially Honey. He hated hearing it in his voice, but lately it seemed to creep in more and more. And his workload was going to get a whole lot worse. He needed to find some strategies to deal with it. Like having Honey shower with him. He was pretty sure that would relieve some of the tension he was feeling. A half laugh escaped at the image of him dragging Honey upstairs to the bathroom at the farm, removing pieces of her clothing as he went. It might just blow his ‘boring’ reputation right out of the water.

Knowing that if he didn’t get a move on, he was more likely to have his impatient sister invading his space than Honey. He turned off the faucet and got ready for another BWG adventure.

Plastering a smile on his face, Brian headed out to the yard where all of his friends and family were waiting. Now, instead of spending the afternoon curled up with Honey, he would be playing chauffeur—again.

“Finally,” Mart said, flinging open the door of the Belden mini-van. He turned and was about to toss the keys to his brother when Trixie snatched them from him.

“I’m driving,” she announced.

“Why?” Mart demanded. “He knows the way.”

“So do I,” Trixie retorted. “Honey’s already filled me in on where they’ve been.”

“Does that make me your co-pilot?” Jim’s green eyes glinted as he looked down at his pint-sized girlfriend.

“Sure does,” Trixie said and Jim planted a kiss on the tip of her nose.

Mart shrugged. “Fine. Di and I will take the rear seat. Dan can ride in the middle with Brian and Honey.”

“Nope. You and Dan are hereby elected kitty carriers,” Trixie said and Dan smiled and gently waved to the little cat, who was nestled against him. “Di, will you keep an eye on them?” Trixie added.

“Happily.” Di patted Mart’s arm, causing him to grin.

“I guess that leaves you and me at the back of the bus.” Honey grabbed Brian’s hand and pulled him inside the van.

Brian settled beside her, vaguely surprised by the turn of events. Honey slipped her hand into his and he squeezed it. As he turned his head to look at her, he caught sight of his sister’s face in the rearview mirror. She winked and Honey returned the gesture before realizing his gaze was fixed on her.

“Belden Wheeler plans in action, huh?” He raised his dark brows.

“We are good planners,” Honey conceded, leaning over to brush her lips against the corner of his mouth. He smiled and Honey kissed him again.

Brian leaned back in the seat. “Maybe,” he said softly, “this mystery isn’t such a bad idea after all.”

 

They soon arrived back at the barn. It looked just as it had when Brian had left it earlier.

“There must be a house around somewhere,” Di commented. “The barn has to be part of someone’s property.”

“There’s some kind of a path here.” Trixie pointed to the ground. “Well, not a path, but tractor tracks.”

“Let’s follow them, then,” Jim suggested sensibly.

Honey grabbed Brian’s hand, but Brian didn’t rush to follow the others. “Let’s hang back just a little.”

“Sure.” Honey smiled at him in that sweet way of hers.

“Thanks for orchestrating the seating in the van. And for giving me a break from being the club chauffeur.” He squeezed her hand lightly.

“Any time. I might even be able to get us some time alone tomorrow. That is, if you don’t already have other plans.” She gazed up at him, hope shining in her hazel eyes.

“For you, I’m free. But if Trixie or Mart should ask, I’m busy.” Brian waggled his eyebrows.

The group ahead of them came to a stop in front of a house set far back from the road.

Trixie had her hands on her hips as she surveyed the house. “Let’s see if this is SK’s home.”

“Let’s. Dan, you have SK?” Di glanced back at him.

“Stowaway Kitten’s right here.” He smiled at the little cat in the make-shift carrier he was holding—an old boot box bottom with no cover. He made little cooing noises and tried out different names for the bundle of fur. “Sophisticated Kitty. Sweet & Kooky. Special K?”

“Special K?” Mart rolled his eyes. “She’s not cereal.”

“Are you sure she’s a she?” Brian asked.

Honey shrugged her shoulders. “Rhinestones on the collar, so I’m guessing, but I suppose she could be a he.”

“Do you want to check, Dr. Belden?” Jim asked, winking.

“I’m not a vet!” Brian protested. “Anyway, let’s stop standing around and someone go ring the doorbell already.”

“I thought we’d gotten rid of Mr. Grumpy,” Trixie grumbled good-naturedly as she climbed the two porch steps.

The group waited. She rang the bell two more times before they decided they should give up. Just as they were turning around, the door opened.

An older man using a walker was at the door. He seemed a little apprehensive.

“Hi, sir,” Jim started out. “We’re sorry if we’ve disturbed you, but we were just wondering if this little kitten here belongs to you?”

Dan walked closer to the man and held up the carrier.

The man looked them over and then peered closely at the kitten. “No, this little one isn’t mine. I don’t have any pets.”

“Okay, well, thank you,” Di responded.

“You wouldn’t happen to know anyone else that lives around here, would you? That the cat might belong to?” Trixie questioned.

“No. Sorry I can’t be of any help.” The man started to close the door.

“Thanks again,” Honey called back as they started to leave.

“Well, that was a bust.” Mart looked at the group. “What now?”

Honey thought for a few seconds. “The kitten didn’t necessarily climb into the car when we were waiting for the rain to stop. SK could have stowed away either before or after that.”

“True,” Brian agreed. “Should we head home and ask around there? We don’t have a lot of neighbors, but we can try the Hartmans, Mrs. Crandall, or Mrs. Elliot.”

Dan poked a finger through the carrier’s door. “Come on, Sweet Kumquat. Let’s find your home.”

None of their neighbors knew anything about the cat, either.

Di shrugged as they turned away from their last try, Mrs. Vanderpoel. “We can put up some flyers, including at the vets’ offices in town and the animal shelter.”

“And I know just who can design those flyers.” Mart grinned at her. “Just as long as you don’t make them all purple.”

Di smacked his arm lightly. “Please. I love purple—well, orchid, lavender, plum, and violet, anyway—but even I know that too much is too much.”

“You guys don’t mind if I take Superman’s Kryptonite home with me, do you?” Dan appeared to have gotten pretty attached to the little creature.

“Only if you promise to stop coming up with all those SK names,” Jim replied with a grin. “I think even SK is getting sick of hearing them.”

The little kitten mewed as if in agreement.

“Are you, Stalker & Killer? Or is it Sexy Kisses?” Dan waggled his eyebrows as he pulled SK out of the carrier.

The group all stared at him, some rolling their eyes.

“What? You’re all paired up and I’m all alone with little Soft & Klutzy.” Dan put on an offended air as the kitten tumbled from one of his hands to the other, trying to rub against him while emitting loud, throaty purrs. “Come on, Single Kiddo, you’re staying with me.”

“Stowaway Kitten may as well go with Dan,” Brian agreed. “He obviously needs some kind of company.”

“And a nice new jacket. The kind that closes up in the back. And don’t worry, the sleeves are supposed to be long.” Trixie linked her arm through Jim’s.

“Since we’re pairing off,” Di slipped her arm through Mart’s, “then Mart and I will go work on those flyers.” Then she let go of Mart’s arm. “Oh, we need a picture of SK first.”

“I’ll go get my camera.” Mart jogged off toward the house.

Dan held up the mewing and purring kitten. “I think she’s hungry. And I guess I’ll need some kitty litter for her, won’t I?”

“Sure will.” Jim glanced at Trixie. “Trixie and I could take the van and go grab some food and litter for you.”

“That’d be great.” Dan pet SK and the purrs continued.

Honey winked at Brian and whispered softly to him. “I think we’re left with nothing to do. What say we sneak off and actually spend some time alone now?”

Brian nodded his head slightly. “I like your plan, Miss Wheeler. I like it a lot.”

Deciding to grab a snack before they left, the couple went back into Crabapple Farm just as Mart was leaving. “We’ll be going up to Diana’s to work on the flyers with Dan. Trixie and Jim are going to bring everything for the cat to us there.” Mart grinned. “Do you two want to come with? Or do you have other plans?”

Brian sneezed and shook his head. “No. I think I’m staying out of the wet air. Honey?”

“I think I’ll stay here and keep Brian out of trouble. You have enough to get the job done. We’ll catch up with you all at dinner.”

As Mart waved and took off through the back door, Helen came into the kitchen. “Brian. You look tired.” She placed her hand on his forehead before he could shake it off.

“That’s it.” Helen had watched as her son tried to be accommodating to everyone. When he lived at home, she could judge better what his schedule was and if he was overdoing it, but this year was the start of his advanced classes. He was working to try and lessen the amount of student loans and doing summer classes to get through earlier. “I’m sorry Brian. I should have paid Tom to fix that washing machine. And Mart should have helped Bobby with that bike.”

Honey grinned. “And we girls should not only ask Tom to help us with the car, but have him teach us some basic car skills. Our big brawny boyfriends aren’t always with us.” She smiled at her boyfriend’s mother, glad to see that there was another ally in keeping Brian from overcomplicating his life.

Helen winked at Honey. “I’m going to take Carolyn up on her offer to cook for the Terrible Threesome, and, if the rest of the clan is over there, I’ll see if she can just adjust for your brother and sister and friends.” She nodded towards the fridge. “There’s leftover fried chicken and potato salad in there from last night. Why don’t you two go ahead and have that for dinner? I’m going to get my handsome husband to run me into town for a quick meal and a movie.”

Brian found himself maneuvered into the living room while his two best girls looked through the fridge. Helen went upstairs to inform Peter of her plans as Honey took two sodas in to Brian.

“Before you say anything, I didn’t say a word to your mom.” She snuggled next to him on the couch. “She heard how many jobs had been lined up for you. And she heard you telling Mart how many hours you had worked and that you had a paper you were working on, so she must have figured out how little sleep you’d had.” Honey grinned at him. “I actually think she’s letting you off light because I told her we’d already gone a round about how you’re not saying no.”

Brian relaxed. After his parents left, the two began talking about all that had happened in Sleepyside that week. Soon, the young man had begun to close his eyes. Honey moved his head to her lap and began running her hands through his hair as she told him monotonous details of the goings-on, finally looking content as her boyfriend drifted into sleep.

Honey’s fingers were gentle as they stroked Brian’s cheek. He did not stir, and her heart swelled a little at the vulnerability in his face. How was it that sleep stripped away the defenses that a waking life held in place? The weekend had not gone as planned, that was for sure, and yet, she was happy, and she was fairly sure he was, too. The truth was, with years of study ahead of him, she and Brian were unlikely to get lots of time to themselves. These moments, snatched in between chores and expectations, and mysterious stowaway kittens, might be all they could get. But with this past hour spent alone together, and with the memory of his kisses still fresh, she hoped it was enough.

 

By the time the others returned, the two were enjoying the last of the chocolate pie. Mart looked at the two pieces of pie and groaned. “I was hoping no one remembered there were leftovers.”

Brian licked his fork and then, quite uncharacteristically, licked his plate. “And it was delicious!” Everyone laughed.

“So,” Honey asked, “have you got the posters finished? Determined if the cat is part of a sinister plot? Figured out a name?”

Diana pulled out a paper from her backpack. “This is our poster. We didn’t say anything about the initials. This kitten is so cute someone might lie just to get her.”

Dan agreed. He had the cat in his hands again. “Mr. Maypenny is even thinking about it if we can’t find her owners. And he agreed she’d have to be an inside cat.”

“We’ll ask Lytell if he’ll let us put one up at his store and then go out towards Sleepyside from there,” Trixie remarked. “We may have to do some on Monday as some of the stores aren’t open tomorrow, but we’ll get them.”

Brian rested his head back against the cushions of the couch, his arm around Honey, listening to the comments of the Bob-Whites around him, but making no effort to join in. He was contentedly full and for the first time today, happy. Lying on the couch with his head in Honey’s lap, her long fingers gently massaging the tense muscles of his forehead had been like a secret salve or a vacation on a Caribbean island with lapping waves and soft music playing around him. All the tenseness of the afternoon was gone and he felt like a million dollars. He heard a little mew, and, looking down, smiled at the little gray kitten brushing against the leg of his jeans. He reached down to pick her up and held her in one hand stroking her absent-mindedly with the other. The cat rolled onto her side, and Brian ran his fingers over her belly, frowning as he felt a little bump just where her right front leg met her body. Brian looked down, even more surprised to see drops of blood coming from the area. “Hey, what happened to you?” he exclaimed.

“Excuse me?” Honey must have assumed he was talking to her.

“What happened to who?” Trixie asked. “Or whom?” she amended quickly as she aimed a sideways glare at Mart.

“The kitten. She’s bleeding,” Brian said. “I need to get the first aid kit.” He got up from the sofa and strode into the kitchen, the others trailing beside him as he grabbed the kit from its spot in the cabinet next to the sink and set it down on the counter.

“What is it?” Mart asked at the same time Trixie queried, “What happened to her?”

“Is she going to be all right?” Honey questioned, an anxious tone creeping into her voice.

“I’m not sure yet,” Brian answered. “Let’s have a look. Wet a couple of paper towels with warm water, will you, Trixie?” Flipping the kitten over in his big hand, he took the towels Trixie handed him and dabbed at the blood on the little cat’s underside. The kitten mewed in protest. “It’s okay, little one,” he said, in his best reassuring doctor’s voice. “I can’t see very well. It’s kind of dark in here,” he muttered, moving over so he was standing just under the overhead kitchen light. “Hmm, it looks like she has the teeniest little scratch on her belly.”

“How could she have gotten that?” Trixie wondered. “There’s nothing sharp in the den that she could have cut herself on.”

“Some of this blood is dried blood,” Brian noted. “She probably cut herself before we found her, and she just managed to reopen the cut when she was playing in the living room.” He turned to Honey. “Here, take her for a minute. Just keep holding this towel over the cut. Firm, but gentle. That’s good.”

Brian took a moment to study his girlfriend, concentration furrowing her brow as she carefully kept pressure on the wound. He wanted to comment on what a pretty picture she made holding the cat, but thought the better of it with all the others around. Later.

Instead, he washed and dried his hands and then opened the first aid kit, taking out some antibiotic cream. He applied the salve and then finished the job by attaching a small bandage to the kitten’s belly. After cleaning up and washing his hands again, he looked around at the worried faces of his siblings and fellow Bob-Whites. He couldn’t quite hold back a chuckle. “Cheer up, you guys. It’s only a small cut. SK will be fine.”

The others laughed back in relief. “Thank goodness!” Diana breathed.

“What do we do with her now?” Dan asked, watching the kitten twisting around in Honey’s arms, trying to get at the bandage. “We don’t have one of those collars that vets use.”

“Let’s go back to the living room,” Brian suggested, bending down to take the kitten from Honey. “The bandage probably doesn’t need to be on for very long – just long enough for the cut to close up again. If I hold her and she takes a good nap, she should be okay. If not, we can swing by Dr. Samet’s for a collar later.”

Settled back on the couch once again, Brian kept the kitten in his lap, stroking it gently until it purred its contentment. The others kept up a steady stream of chatter around him, but once again Brian was content to sit quietly listening to the conversation around him. He knew that all the Bob-Whites, led by Trixie, would make every effort to solve the mystery of the stowaway kitten. They’d make posters and go door-to-door in the area surrounding the farm to try to locate its owners. Even Bobby would help out in every way he could. And if they never found a home for the kitten, Brian knew the little cat would be well-loved living with Dan and Mr. Maypenny, with the others as frequent visitors.

He thought it fitting that he had helped heal the kitten in a small way, just as he had performed first aid in so many situations in the various mysteries they had encountered over the years. It all felt familiar and satisfying. So what if his friends took him for granted sometimes? He most likely did the same, turning to them automatically if he needed help in the particular area each was strong in. That’s what it was all about, being able to count on each other in times of need.

He looked down, realizing that the cat had fallen asleep under his hand. Honey reached over, covering his hand with her own slender, soft one. “You thinking about our little stowaway?”

“No,” he answered truthfully. “Right now, my mind is much more occupied with kisses than kittens.” Her lovely green-gold eyes lit up with a smile, and he flashed her an answering smile of complete happiness before lowering his mouth to hers. Stolen kisses, sexy kisses, as long as he was kissing Honey, his world was perfectly perfect.



Brian Belden T-Shirt

Julia: I was so honoured to be included in a project with these wonderful women: Mary, Tammy and Vivian. Smart, generous, talented and with excellent taste, too. After all, they do love Brian. Jix is a community and working on a group story celebrates the spirit of that community—open, collaborative and supportive. It's been fun writing this, and I hope I get the chance to do it again someday. Hugs for Mary and Vivian for editing the piece and extra hugs for Vivian, who once again employed her brilliant graphic and design skills.


Mary C: How could I resist the chance to write with three like-minded, Brian-loving Jixsters? Julia, Tammy and Vivian were wonderful to work with, as I knew they would be. Thank you, ladies, for being such lovely co-writers, and an especial thanks to Vivian for organizing, editing and doing the awesome graphics!


Tammy: (Tammy's life has been busy and she's been offline and will continue to be for a little while longer, but I hope she'll be back soon! I'll update this page with her notes at a later time.)


Vivian: When the CWE 8 was first announced, my immediate thought was ‘There aren't enough Brian stories to read!’ So I contacted some authors known for their love of Brian, and then waited with my fingers crossed hoping at least one of them would join me in the team effort. To my delight, all three of them did! As Team Brian, we started working on this story, and it was so much fun. Julia, Mary C, and Tammy are all wonderful writers and the team work to keep each other going and on schedule was fantastic, especially considering how busy all our lives are. I'm so glad we were able to write this short and cozy romantic adventure.