Part 1

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Okay, so that’s such a cliché!  But that’s the way I felt when Jenkins told me it was all worked out for me to spend the Thanksgiving holidays with my cousins, Honey Wheeler and her new adopted brother, Jim Frayne.  Honey’s mom is my mom’s sister, and her dad is the millionaire businessman Matthew Wheeler.  They live in a huge mansion out in the country, near a little village called Sleepyside.  It’s about an hour away from New York City.

I’ll tell you the best part first, because the worst part is pretty much of a whiny sob story, and it makes me kind of sick to even talk about it.

The best part is that I was going to be able to drive my own car up there.  Actually, the car belongs to my dad, but since he’s going to be out of the country for a year or more, he said I could drive it until he gets back.  The car is really sweet – a 1968 lemon yellow Mustang convertible.  It’s really a babe-magnet – naturally, that’s why Dad wanted it.  My dad is a photojournalist and travels all over the world.  He went to South Africa to do a piece on the civil rights leader, Steven Biko.  I don’t know if he cares that much about black South Africans and their civil rights, but it’s a high-profile piece.  Ever since he won a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, he’s been on the hunt for another one.  Apparently it’s extremely sexy to be awarded a Pulitzer.

Of course, that’s why he and my mom split up.  Mom is a Hart, one of the Harts of Boston.  She married Dad to rebel against my grandparents’ standards and expectations.  Mom was a debutante, and then she attended Mount Holyoke for awhile.  She was supposed to be able to meet the “right kind” of boys there.  Instead, she met Dad, who was kind of a beatnik and social activist.  Even back then he was going down South to record footage of the civil rights movement, or any other kind of social unrest.  My grandparents were fit to be tied, especially after they ran off and got married.  But once they married, Dad got a freelance job with the National Geographic and they settled down and had me.  Mom learned a lot about photography from Dad, and once I was old enough to go to school, she decided to travel with him, and help him in his work.  That’s when the crap hit the fan.  Mom discovered that Dad couldn’t keep his hands off of other women.  She split from him and we moved back to Boston for a while with my grandmother – my grandfather had died a couple of years after I was born.

But, Mom and Grandmother mixed like oil and water, and soon Mom decided to move to Long Island and open her own photography studio.   I was off at boarding school or camp most of the time, so she could work hard, build her business, and even travel, without having to drag a kid along.  Nice for her, and she could always pack me off to Grandmother if it wasn’t convenient for me to come home.  Dad would suddenly appear, stick around for a few days or weeks, and then suddenly go off again on a new job.  I think he and Mom still have a kind of thing going on, but they’ll never get back together.  That’s how the car turned up.  He came to my school to let me know he was leaving the country, and asked if I would like to drive the Mustang.  I’m not stupid, so naturally I said yes.  Since I can’t keep it at school, he said he’d leave it at Mom’s place for me. 

When Mom was invited to cruise the island of Skorpios with Jackie and Aristotle Onassis for the last two weeks in November, she just called Aunt Maddie to see if I could stay with them for the holidays, and then she asked Jenkins, our housekeeper, to let me know about the change in plans.  See?  No problem.  Of course Aunt Maddie said yes – with their huge house and all the servants, they’d never notice one extra.  I know Honey and Jim don’t really want me there, especially after the last time I visited and put frogs in the cook’s bed.  Honey’s a sweet girl, but she hates practical jokes.  And Jim’s even worse.  The guy’s more than a year younger than me, but he’s a grade ahead of me in school, and acts like he’s thirty years old sometimes.  He’s had a hard life until now, I guess, but he needs to loosen up.  What I say is, what good does it do to have money if you can’t have a little fun?  

Their friends don’t like me, either.  The Beldens live next door to the Manor House – Honey’s best friend Trixie is her age and a real tomboy.  She has two brothers who are older.  The last time I was there, Brian had just turned sixteen, and couldn’t stop talking about the old jalopy he was saving up to buy.  He’s a grade ahead of me too, even though he’s a few weeks younger, because he skipped a grade.  What is it with these brainiacs?  His brother Mart has a pretty good sense of humor, but even he was acting disgusted over the stunt with the frogs.  Probably because if the Wheelers’ cook quit, it might interfere with him eating!  That’s okay, I don’t need a couple of hayseed farmers for friends.

Hmmm, I thought there might be more good things to talk about.  Well, I do get three more days of vacation than my cousins do.  That’s something.  And, I’m driving my own car from Long Island to Sleepyside – and it’s a sweet car.  Really sweet!

As far as being the worst of times, the worst thing is that my girlfriend just broke up with me.  She didn’t even do it to my face.  Instead, she sent me a “Dear Ben” letter.  Tracy is hot – really hot.  She goes to Miss Porter’s School at Farmington, and I met her two years ago when our schools had a dance together.  She was fun and very feminine – I hate girls who try to dress and act like a boy.  I’ve taken the train and met her dozens of times and we’ve had a blast together.  I couldn’t tell you how many movies we’ve seen – I also couldn’t begin to tell you what they were about.  Third base, man!  She let me get to third base.  And now, all of a sudden, she thinks we’re not “compatible.”  What the he** does that mean?  I thought we were perfect together.  I thought we really had something.  Guess I was wrong.

Well, that just reminded me of another good thing.  At least I won’t have to worry about running into Tracy while I’m in Sleepyside.  She doesn’t live too far from me on Long Island and we usually hang out at the same places a lot when we’re both home.  It’d really be a drag to run into her over the Thanksgiving holidays. 

Too bad there won’t be any cute girls at the Wheelers’.  Of course I can’t count my own cousin, and like I said, Trixie is a tomboy.  I like girls who are dressed like a girl, smell nice, and have long, straight hair.  Trixie’s cute enough, but she stays in jeans and old T-shirts most of the time, and her hair is short and curly.  Jim doesn’t seem to mind, but she’s not my type.

I was only about two miles from Aunt Maddie’s when I heard an awful noise and the car sounded like something was dragging on the road.  You can imagine how I felt!  I pulled over and checked.  Sure enough, my right rear tire was flat.  I never changed a tire before, so it was a great new learning experience. 

Yeah.  It only took the best part of an hour, and I had to stop at the next gas station I passed to let them check and make sure I had the spare on right.  Luckily I could wash up there and change my clothes.  I wasn’t going to let Jim, Mr.-Perfect-Who-Can-Do-Everything, know that I had to change a tire and was a filthy, sweating, mess.

Four’s a crowd

So I got to the Manor House and took my bag inside.  Right off, Miss Trask, the estate manager who used to be Honey’s governess, told me that Aunt Maddie and Uncle Matt were gone on business and wouldn’t be back before the next weekend.  She was giving me the evil eye, too, as if she wanted to say something about not pulling any stunts.  But, she didn’t.  She just invited me to go on out to the veranda, where there was a buffet luncheon set up.

Jim and the Belden boys had finished eating and were just getting ready to leave when I got there, and they didn’t stick around for a visit. 

“We’ve got to clear away some branches that came down during a storm last weekend, and fix a broken window,” Jim told me, obviously in a hurry to get away.

 I let them go; I had done enough manual labor for one day.  Honey, as usual, was playing the tactful hostess and pretending she didn’t know the guys were trying to keep me from watching them work on the old shack they call a clubhouse. 

“Where’s Trixie?” I asked her.  I was surprised.  Usually Trixie’s at the Manor House or Honey’s at her house. 

“Well, you probably didn’t know it, Ben, but Daddy’s new gamekeeper quit after the storm.  We’re – that is, Trixie and I – taking over the patrolling for a week or so to earn some money for our club.  Trixie had to take a newspaper to her dad and change clothes; then she’s coming back up here.  Our friend Diana Lynch is coming over, too.  You haven’t met her before because she was out of town the last time you visited.”

“Honey, you kids don’t have to entertain me.  I’m ready to relax in front of the TV after driving up here.”  Maybe I was a little abrupt, but hanging out with a group of thirteen-year-old tomboys really didn’t sound like that much fun.   

“Oh, Ben, Diana’s been so anxious to meet you!  Please be nice and at least act a little friendly.  Trixie will be here soon, and if you don’t want to hang around with us girls, I’m sure we can find something for you to entertain yourself with.”  Honey seemed really eager for me to meet this new friend, so I agreed.

Diana arrived right after that, and I have to admit, she was stunning.  Long, coal-black hair, huge violet eyes fringed with thick lashes; she was slim, but curvy in all the right places – if you know what I mean.  She was wearing a sweater set in some kind of pale purple shade, and a miniskirt that showed off a nice pair of legs.  When she smiled at me, I felt like my legs were turning to jelly.  This vision of loveliness couldn’t be thirteen!

“Hello, Di!  I’m so glad you could come over today.  This is my cousin Ben; I don’t think you two have met.  Ben, this is my friend, Diana Lynch.”  Honey was introducing us.  I did my best to focus on her beautiful face – that wasn’t too hard to do – and not on her beautiful … um, shape.

“Hi, Ben.  I’ve heard a lot about you from Honey and Trixie.”  Diana wasn’t saying whether she had heard good things or bad … I’m pretty sure which it was, though.  The vision was talking again, so I tried to listen over the pounding of my heart.  “Honey said you like hillbilly music.  Isn’t that a conundrum … consistency … coinci… oh, bother!  I like it too, so I brought some records in case you want to listen.”

“Sure, Diana.  Is there a place where we could listen to the music, Honey?”  I know Uncle Matt has a great stereo setup in the library, but I also knew better than to assume he would let me use it.

“I’m sure Daddy wouldn’t mind if you used the library.  Did you bring the records inside, Di?”  Normally Honey would have asked Miss Trask before she exposed any of her dad’s things to the risk of my using them.  That made me suspicious, although I hadn’t been before.

“Oh, I only brought about six albums.  Since Ben will be around here all week, I thought I could bring some more Wednesday, or he could even come to my house one day.”  Diana flashed me a dimpled smile.  She obviously planned to be spending time with me, and that was another thing that made me think Honey was hiding something.

An even stranger thing happened next.  Trixie arrived while we were still outside, and she was dressed to the nines – for her.  Plaid skirt, nice sweater, knee socks, and a string of pearls!  She didn’t look too pleased to see me, so of course I had to needle her a little.

I stared at her as if I didn’t recognize her, and then said, “Hi, goon.  Go home and take off your mother’s clothes.  On you they definitely look queer.”

Trixie went brick red.  It’s hardly even fun to tease someone who reacts so instantly.  But she didn’t say anything just then, and satisfied herself with glaring at me.  Honey glanced from one of us to the other, and spoke up quickly.

“You look darling, Trixie.  Come on up to my room with me for a sec.  I want to show you something.”  She winked at Diana then.  “It’s about the secret.  You know.”

Diana winked back at her and said to me, “Let’s play some of our favorite records.  I’m so glad you like hillbilly songs, too.”

I’d listen to anything if I could listen with her, but it just happens that I really do like hillbilly songs, even though it’s not really hip at my school to admit it.  So we went on inside to the library, and Honey and Trixie scampered upstairs.  I have to admit, it was getting very mysterious around the Manor House.  Honey and Trixie obviously had some big secret going on, and Diana was in on it.  Otherwise, why would those girls have split up?  It’s really not like Honey to leave her friend to my tender mercies.  I know Trixie left some time during the afternoon, and I didn’t see Honey again for a couple of hours.

“Ben, do you like to dance?”  Diana was tapping her foot.  We had played some early Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline.  Although Diana admitted she wasn’t any great shakes as a student, she seemed to know a lot about music, and she had told me about how she had been taking dance lessons for the past two years.

“Sure,” I said.  “What kind of dancing do you like?”  At school we have to learn to do the basic dances, so that when we go out in society we don’t make fools of ourselves.  I’m a pretty good dancer, if I do say so.

“I took ballet for a year and a half, but when classes started back up this year, I asked my mom if I could switch to ballroom dancing.  The other ballet students in my class were so much younger than I was, it was embarrassing.  We learn things like the rumba, the foxtrot, and the waltz in class, and I watch American Bandstand every week to get ideas about popular dances.”  Diana was going through the albums she had brought with her, looking for something with a good beat.  I helped her to pick out a couple of records, and we spent a couple of hours dancing, laughing, and talking.  Now and then I thought about Tracey, and I hoped she wasn’t having as much fun as I was. 

Don’t worry, Miss Trask walked by the open door several times.  No way would she trust me alone with one of Honey’s friends.  When she stopped in to let us know it was time for dinner, I couldn’t believe how the time had flown. 

Jim and the Belden boys came back to the house for dinner, but Trixie didn’t.  “Where’s your sister?” I asked Brian. 

Honey jumped in then.  “Oh, Ben, she had some homework to do before school tomorrow and she was tired after patrolling this morning.” 

Mart and Brian looked surprised at this explanation, but didn’t say anything.  It sounded weak to me.  How much homework would be assigned the weekend before a holiday?  Besides, last time I visited the Wheelers, Trixie only went home to change – in fact, I think she keeps some clothes at Honey’s because she’s there so much.  And when her brothers and Diana were invited to dinner – it just didn’t make sense.  If this weird behavior kept up, I decided I’d have to do a little investigating.

Chauffeur for a week?

Monday dawned, bright and early.  I had the room next to Jim’s, across the hall from Honey.  They’re not too noisy in the morning, but unfortunately I am used to getting up at an ungodly hour at boarding school, and my body hadn’t adjusted to vacation time yet.  So I got up too, and went down to a fabulous buffet.  Miss Trask and Regan were at the table with Jim and Honey, eating waffles, bacon, fruit cups, and hot chocolate.

Honey had already patrolled the game preserve with Trixie, and Jim and Brian had been out repairing feeding stations damaged in the previous weekend’s storm.

“Well, Ben, what are your plans for today?” Regan asked.  “Jim and Honey have school until Wednesday and Miss Trask and I are very busy with Tom and Celia being gone on their honeymoon.  So I hope you can entertain yourself.  Remember that you can ride the horses, but they have to be groomed and all the tack cleaned when you are finished.”

I just bet he hoped I could entertain myself.  More likely, he was itching to put me to work in the stables.  I had forgotten that the Wheelers’ chauffeur and the downstairs maid were married the weekend of the big storm.  Then I had a brain wave.  Regan hates to drive, and Miss Trask had too many duties to run the errands that kept Tom on the road even when he wasn’t driving Uncle Matt or Aunt Maddie somewhere.

“I thought I could run some errands in the car for you and Miss Trask,” I offered.  “I could pick up groceries or dry cleaning, or run the day staff back and forth to the village.”

Regan’s green eyes lit up at those words, let me tell you.  Even Miss Trask looked pleased.  “Ben, that will be a big help,” she assured me.  “I’ll give you a charge card to use for gas and any other expenses you incur.  Winnie the laundress needs to be fetched right after Jim and Honey go to school, and I have a load of dry cleaning to be picked up.”

“Oh, Jim!  Look at the time.”  Honey jumped up and kissed Miss Trask goodbye; then she and Jim went outside to wait for the school bus.

Well, my chauffeuring duties weren’t too hard.  I drove into town to pick up Winnie, stopped at the dry cleaners to pick up some curtains and tablecloths Miss Trask had had cleaned, and went back to the Manor House so Winnie could get started on the laundry.  Then I had to go back to town to pick up a grocery order and drop off some mail at the post office.  While I was there I picked up a package for Uncle Matt.  Back home and it was time for lunch.  I offered to exercise one of the horses for Regan, but I think he was afraid I might pull a stunt with one of his valuable animals.  Even more likely, he didn’t want to answer to Uncle Matt if anything happened to one of the horses while I was riding.  Never mind if anything happened to me.  He sent me back to town for a couple of new saddle blankets and girth straps, and then when I got back, Miss Trask had discovered that Diana left a few things at the Manor House on Sunday.  It was time to take Winnie home, so I delivered Diana’s things after that.

At the Lynches’ house, Diana opened the door.  “Hello, Ben!  I wasn’t expecting to see you today.” 

“I know, but you left some stuff at Honey’s yesterday.  Miss Trask wanted me to return it in case you needed it before you come back over.”

“Thank you, Ben.”  She smiled.  “Come on inside and meet my parents and my twin brothers and sisters.” 

The little kids were really cute.  The two boys are about five years old and they were fascinated with my car.  I let them get in and blow the horn and turn the steering wheel, but Diana said they couldn’t go for a ride.  The two little girls are only about three.  They were shy and wouldn’t talk to me, just tried to hide behind Diana’s legs.  Mrs. Lynch invited me for supper, so I called to ask Miss Trask if it was OK.  She said Regan didn’t need the blankets and girth straps today, so it wouldn’t be a problem.

Dinner was great, and it was a lot more relaxing to eat without everyone at the table looking at me like I had horns.  The Lynches were a little less formal than the Wheelers, but Diana told me it wasn’t always like that.  After supper we talked outside for a while before I went back to the Manor House.

“My family was just an ordinary family, living in a small apartment in town when I was a kid,” she told me.  “Then, two years ago, Daddy suddenly made a pile of money, and my parents bought this big house and hired a houseful of people to run it.  But we had never had anyone working for us before, and I guess my parents didn’t know how to deal with that.  I know I didn’t.  Besides, my mom had to have surgery right after we moved in, and I think for awhile she just didn’t realize how bad things were.  I have to say I don’t think it was all the staff’s fault; we just didn’t know how to deal with them.”

“So, what happened?” I asked.  “It seems like everyone’s pretty comfortable now.”

“It all came to a head when we found out my mom had an older brother.  He had left home when she was a baby, then her parents died and she never knew she had a brother.  He came to visit us – that is, he claimed to be her brother, but he was a fake and a crook.  It was only thanks to Trixie and Mart that we all found out he was a fake before he got away with a big payout from Daddy.  Anyway, when all that happened, my parents and I sat down and had a long talk.  Mummy said she wasn’t really comfortable with all the new staff; she felt like they were in charge and running the place.  I told her how uncomfortable I was with being so different from my friends.”

She paused for a minute, and I tried to imagine how it must have felt for her to feel like an oddball at home and at school.

“We decided to let all of the staff go.  Mummy would run the place like she used to do, and I would help her to watch the twins and do chores around the house.”

“Wow!  This is a pretty big place for you to run without any help.”  I was impressed.  Our house is smaller than the Lynches’ – a lot smaller – and we have a housekeeper and a maid who live in, plus a man who comes every day and does all of the yard work, takes care of the furnace, and does regular handyman chores.

“Yes, it is.  And in fact, Mummy talked to Mrs. Belden and Mrs. Wheeler right after she fired the twins’ nurses and the housekeeper.  Mrs. Wheeler told her she really needed to keep some help because of the size of the house and because Mummy has to entertain for Daddy sometimes, and Mrs. Belden agreed.  Your aunt is my mother’s very own ideal, you know, and they worked on a staffing plan together.”

Aunt Maddie anyone’s very own ideal?  That was a surprise.  I mean, she’s beautiful and all that, and she’s supposed to be a great hostess, but still—!  Mrs. Lynch seemed a lot more friendly and close to her daughter than Aunt Maddie is to Honey, or than my mom is to me, I thought. 

In fact, I was so busy digesting this idea that I didn’t even hear what Diana was saying for a few seconds.  “So what did Aunt Maddie and your mom decide?” I asked when I realized she was waiting for me to say something.

“She ended up keeping Harrison, the cook Janet, and the chauffeur, who live in.  There’s a cleaning service and a lawn service who come regularly, and she hired Tom Delanoy’s sister and a friend of hers, to help with the little ones.  They’re students at the community college, but they live here and at least one of them is always here if my parents aren’t home.  With the boys in kindergarten now, they really don’t need a fulltime nurse.”

We talked for a few more minutes and then I checked my watch.  I knew I’d better get back to the Manor House before Miss Trask sent out a search party.

Larry and Terry came running outside just as I was about to get into my car.  “Ben!  Ben!  You hafta come play racecars with us before you go!”

“Sorry, guys, but I have to go back to the Manor House now.”   They did have a great Hot Wheels track set up in the nursery, but I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, and I didn’t want Miss Trask and Regan mad at me.

“Will you come back tomorrow, then?  Please?”  The little boys were jumping up and down in excitement.  Mrs. Lynch had followed her sons outside, and invited me for supper again, so I said I would come if it was OK with Miss Trask.

When I got back home, Honey and Jim were just sitting down to supper.  Honey was unusually quiet, like she was worried about something, and Jim kept glowering at me.  I have no idea what he was so sore about – I couldn’t think of anything I could have done to set his temper off, and I hadn’t done anything all day except work.  I really can’t figure that guy out.

Tuesday was more of the same – running errands most of the day.  I went to the Lynches’ after Diana got home from school.  I’d stopped at Crimper’s store and bought each of her brothers a new Hot Wheels car.  We had a blast playing race cars with them, and I found out some things about Diana.  To see her, you’d think she has nothing on her mind but looking pretty and what kind of hairstyle to try next.  But she can get down on the floor with her little brothers and sisters and entertain them for hours.  More than that, she actually likes hanging out with them!  I never really minded being an only child, but I was beginning to think siblings might be kind of fun.  Well, as long as I still got to be the oldest and the boss.  Besides that, she really cares about other people and she’s very sensitive.  I told her how Jim had been acting so weird to me. 

She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “I can’t tell you why he’s acting that way, Ben, but really, it has nothing to do with you.  He’s been upset because Brian gave up the money he had earned to buy a car, in order to fix the roof of our clubhouse.  That’s why they’ve all been working so hard on the gamekeeper’s job.  I wish I could help Trixie and Honey patrol when I go over there tomorrow, but I really don’t ride well enough yet.  I’ve been feeling so useless, until Honey suggested I could watch Bobby for the rest of the week while she and Trixie patrol.  I know they’re just trying to give me something to do, but Bobby is cute and it will be fun to watch him.  Would you like to help me – that is, if Miss Trask doesn’t have chores for you to do?”

“You’re not talking about watching him early in the morning, are you?”  I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being recruited to get up at five-thirty a.m.

Diana giggled.  “Oh, no!  Bobby doesn’t get up that early.  But Mrs. Belden has to go to the supermarket, and she has a lot to do to get ready for the open house the Beldens always have on Thanksgiving Day.  So Trixie is going to bring him up to the Manor House after they come home from school at noon.” 

Honey and her friends wanted to keep me out of the way; I was sure of it.  “Did Honey ask you to invite me to help you?”

 “Ben!”  Diana looked hurt.  “I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t want your help.  So what difference does it make if she wanted me to ask you?   Besides, Honey and Trixie are my best friends.  You don’t know how lonely I’ve been in the past two years.  Until last month, I was afraid I didn’t have any friends left.  If it wasn’t for Honey and Trixie, I’d still be miserable.”

“See!  She did ask you to keep me busy so I couldn’t find out what kind of mysterious secret she and Trixie have up their sleeves.  You can’t tell me there isn’t something fishy going on.”

“Oh, Ben!  I can’t tell you about that either. Please believe me.  Trixie is doing something really generous to help her brother Brian, and if he found out he wouldn’t let her do it.”   I smiled to myself – Diana had as much as admitted I was right.

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Author’s Notes

Background forest graphic from Absolute Background Textures Archive. Tree scene in title graphic from istockphoto. 1968 Corporate Yellow Mustang convertible from Mustang All images manipulated by me in Photoshop.

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. Title image from istockphoto; graphics on these pages copyright 2010 by Mary N.

Copyright by Mary N, 2011

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