Chapter 1

Crabapple Farm, many years ago…

Trixie Belden scowled from the warmth of the kitchen in Crabapple Farm as she watched snowflakes the size of closed fists fall. A good three inches of heavy, white snow had already fallen, and the storm showed no sign of abating. The sound of an armful of logs being roughly placed beside the large cook stove that her family relied on to heat the main level of the farmhouse drew her attention, and she smiled brightly at Tad Webster, the young hired man who helped her father with the more menial labour that living on a farm required.

"Miss Belden," Tad replied to her unspoken greeting, his eyes twinkling with mischief. Trixie immediately narrowed her own eyes, wary of his good humour. A storm such as the one currently buffeting the farm had most of the household cross with hurried anxiety as they prepared for a prolonged forced seclusion. Though Crabapple Farm was only two miles from the village of Sleepyside, a heavy snowfall could render the winding road to town impassable for days, if not weeks. Mrs. Belden, Trixie, and Mrs. Vanderpoel had only just finished taking stock of the pantry. Mr. Belden, Mart, Bobby, and Tad had secured all the outbuildings, seen to the comfort of the animals, and laid in a generous supply of firewood.

Tad's smile, therefore, was highly disconcerting. All the men were exhausted from the additional physical labour, which could only mean that somehow, despite the hurried preparations, Tad and Mart had managed to contrive some sort of practical joke of which she would undoubtedly bear the brunt.

"What did you do?" she demanded, planting her hands firmly on her hips. The blue dress she wore was plain and warm in deference to the weather, but she managed to pull off an air of authority by the sheer force of her considerable temper.

Unfortunately, it was wasted on Tad Webster.

"Do?" he asked, his face the perfect picture of innocence. "Do? I believe the evidence of what I have been doing is directly in front of you." He gestured to the impressive stack of wood.

Trixie narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest, but Tad proved immune to her second attempt at intimidation.

"You had better hope that whatever you have planned is worth it, because you know that I'll retaliate in kind," she warned, but Tad's smile only grew.

"One can only hope," he teased. "Seeing as how my only nefarious plot is to help you realize that you are madly and passionately in love with me—"

Trixie snorted.

"Then it can only be to my advantage if you retaliate in kind," he finished.

And even though the threat was not a new one, Trixie sputtered in indignation.

"I know I'm a mere servant now," he continued, "but one day…"

"Oh, do be serious," Trixie demanded. "You're no more in love with me than I am with you. Which is to say, not at all. And if I did have feelings for you, which I do not, I would most certainly not be deterred by the fact that you are a servant. You know me better than that," she scolded.

"And how am I to stop myself from falling in love with you when you make such bold and impassioned speeches?" he demanded, clutching dramatically at his chest. "You do make it difficult for a simple man."

"Simple is right," Trixie muttered, taking back her hand which Tad had somehow managed to capture during his last sally. The man was a born troublemaker and a relentless flirt, and Trixie enjoyed his antics far more than she cared to admit. Young male suitors were few and far between in their small community, and young male suitors who were willing to accept her headstrong, tomboyish ways and lack of substantial fortune were even more rare. Tad's harmless flirtation was a boost to her self-esteem, even though she suspected that he was secretly in love with Ruthie Kettner, one of the upstairs maids at the Manor House. They would be a good match, in Trixie's opinion, and it was not because they held similar stations. Ruthie, though by all accounts diligent and hardworking, had a sharp tongue and was not afraid to speak her mind. A quality that would no doubt come in handy when dealing with Tad.

"There you are!" Mart said, frowning as he dumped his own pile of wood on the growing stack beside the cook stove. "There's one more load, if you're quite finished trying to convince my sister to run away with you."

"Slanderous lies!" Tad protested. "And I was making headway!"

Trixie snorted at the outrageous claim. "Run away with you? Hardly. Run away from you? More tempting by the minute."

Good-natured as always, Tad laughed at Trixie's quick-witted retort. "One day you'll run away to get married," he told her, cheerfully heading back outside with Mart to gather the last load of wood. "And I'll be there to say 'I told you so'."

Trixie closed the door firmly behind them, shutting out the cold and snow. "Not likely," she whispered into the empty room. With each passing day, it was less and less likely that marriage was in the cards for her. And she was content with that, for she firmly believed that remaining unmarried was highly preferable to being married to someone with whom she was not compatible.

It did seem hard luck, however, that she wasn't likely ever to find someone with whom she was compatible.


Dinner was Trixie's favourite part of the day, especially in winter when the family ate by light of candles in the homey kitchen instead of the more formal dining room. It was more crowded, certainly, but something about eating at the large planked table and seeing the copper pots hanging from the ceiling and the blue and white dishes in the open cupboards relaxed everyone's tongues, and stories and laughter flowed even more freely than usual.

"And then Larry and Terry chased Anna and Emma right into the pig pen!" her youngest brother, Bobby, chortled.

"That's awful!" Mrs. Belden scolded. "For shame, Robert!"

"We waited until they changed out of their good clothes!" Bobby protested.

"That does not make it right," Mrs. Belden reprimanded. "I believe that you just volunteered to muck out the Lynches' stable when the weather warms."

"Aw, Moms," Bobby complained, but one look from Mr. Belden silenced him.

"Not to worry," Peter Belden said as he carefully speared a piece of meat. "I have no doubt that your older brother will have earned himself a similar punishment before Spring. I highly doubt you will be labouring alone."

"Father!" Mart complained. "I'm a man, fully grown! Such a punishment—"

"I hardly thought you would consider it a punishment to have a valid excuse to spend extra time in close proximity to the Lynch household," his father said mildly. "However, if it is truly so repulsive a prospect—"

"No, no," Mart interrupted hastily. "I see the wisdom of such a 'punishment' now."

"One has to wonder, though, if Diana would view it as a punishment," Trixie said, snickering at the look on her brother's face.

"Oh, hush," Mrs. Belden scolded, serving Bobby another portion of potatoes. "Miss Lynch seems like a sweet young lady. I'm certain she appreciates our Martin as the fine young man he is."

Trixie bit back the comment on the tip of her tongue, knowing that her normally easy-going and good-tempered brother could be unpredictable when it came to discussing the lady in question. And since she had indulged in more than one whispered conversation with Diana on the subject of her brother, she was reluctant to put herself in a situation where she might be tempted to divulge information shared in confidence. No, the topic of Mart Belden and the woman of his dreams was best left alone.

The meal progressed with the conversation veering to the day's snowstorm, with its still-accumulating load of snow.

"I don't like to leave the horses," Mart said, sounding worried. "The path to the stables is already under a foot of snow. What if we can't get to them?"

"They have food enough to last a while," Mr. Belden said, sliding his dessert plate away and fingering his pipe. "A missed meal or two won't do them any serious harm. And if the storm does last more than a day or so, we can always use the line we strung to reach them."

"It won't come to that," Mrs. Belden said firmly, as if her strength of will was enough to make it so. "I won't even entertain the thought of you using that flimsy rope connecting our house to the barn. The horses will be perfectly fine in their stalls, and we will all be perfectly fine in the house."

"Yes, dear," Mr. Belden said mildly, and the subject was put to rest as they moved to the sitting room for Mrs. Belden to take out her embroidery and for Mr. Belden to put his pipe to good use.

Mrs. Belden's prediction, once again, proved to be more accurate than the Farmer's Almanac that hung on the wall in Lytell's General Store. The winter storm raged through the night, dumping several more inches of snow and sending it swirling around the buildings in almost gale-force winds. The morning, however, dawned clear and cold. The new snow sparkled in the sunlight, the drifts hardening to almost rock-like texture as the temperature dropped.

In her upstairs bedroom, Trixie shivered as she dressed for the day. The promise of a roaring fire in the kitchen drew her downstairs somewhat earlier than was her norm, and she found her mother in the midst of her early morning routine. A pleated apron covering her dress, Helen Belden finished kneading a large lump of dough and pinched it off into individual loaves.

"You're awake!" Mrs. Belden smiled as she slid the first batch of loaves into the cook stove. Though Mrs. Vanderpoel did the majority of their cooking, Mrs. Belden had insisted on retaining the job of keeping the family in bread, and both women were pleased with the arrangement.

"I was cold," Trixie admitted sheepishly. She was rarely awake early enough to witness this stage of the miraculous creation of light, fluffy, delicious bread. Miraculous, in Trixie's mind, because she herself was incapable of producing anything other than blackened clay-like lumps. Which were sometimes, inexplicably, still raw on the inside. As a result, she'd been banned from the bread-making process. It was an agreeable resolution for all concerned, especially Trixie.

"Is there anything you'd like me to do?" she asked, feeling a pang of guilt at seeing her mother working hard while she fixed herself a cup of coffee and took a seat at the table.

Mrs. Belden glanced at the cook stove, as if Trixie's mere presence in the kitchen might contaminate the baking. "No, dear," she assured her hastily. "I have everything under control."

Hiding a smile, Trixie finished her coffee and began breakfast preparations. The men had been out early, she was sure, to shovel paths to the barns and stables, but they rarely took time for more than a cup of coffee before heading outside, and she knew that they would be ravenous when they returned. She began mixing the batter for pancakes and set the table, knowing that Mrs. Vanderpoel would soon take over the actual cooking.

As if on cue, Mrs. Vanderpoel bustled into the kitchen holding a jar she'd no doubt brought up from the cellar. "I thought we'd open a jar of the strawberry preserves," she said, placing the jar on the table. "We're beginning to run low on the crab apple jelly. If I didn't know better, I would suspect young Mr. Belden of—"

Her almost certainly correct assumption regarding the mysteriously dwindling supply of Crabapple Farm's specialty was interrupted by the sudden opening of the outside door leading to the kitchen. The force sent the door slamming against the wall and set the dishes in the cupboard rattling. Trixie's jaw gaped as she took in the sight of Mart and Tad shouldering their way through the doorway, a limp figure supported between them.

"Land's sake!" Mrs. Vanderpoel exclaimed, bustling towards them. "Who's been hurt?"

Mart and Tad pushed through the kitchen and continued on to the sitting room, where they roughly placed the unresponsive person on the couch.

"I thought we'd never make it to the house," Mart gasped, wiping his brow as he collapsed in a chair. "Frozen or not, he's heavy!"

Tad grunted in agreement, sliding down to sit on the floor in front of the couch.

"But who is he?" Trixie demanded, ignoring Mart and Tad's exhaustion. "What happened to him? Is he hurt?"

She stared at the figure lying prone on the couch, taking in his pale face, multiple freckles, and thick red hair. Her gaze shifted down the length of his form, noting broad shoulders, callused hands, and strong, thick thighs. No wonder Mart and Tad were exhausted, she thought. The man they'd rescued was tall and heavily muscled—she didn't imagine they'd had an easy time moving him.

"Don't know," Mart answered, still trying to calm his breathing. "We found him several feet from the barn. His tracks were mostly blown over, but I suspect he came from the road looking for shelter."

Trixie looked down at the man, feeling a mixture of curiosity and pity. She couldn't even imagine how far he must have walked and how cold he must have been in the storm. "A tramp, do you think?" she asked, unable to come up with a reason why any sane person with access to shelter would have been outside last night.

"Not hardly," Tad said, gesturing to the mystery man's jacket. "That's quality clothing, that is. Winter weight superfine wool. And since it fits him perfectly, I highly doubt he stole it."

Trixie took a second look at the man's fine garments and agreed. Taking the time to examine them more carefully, she recognized the signs, even though the garments were sodden and frozen, of high quality workmanship.

"Wet clothes," she murmured, then repeated her thought at a much louder volume. "Wet clothes! We need to undress him and get him some dry clothes. And a bath! I'm sure a hot bath would help. We can put the tub in the kitchen so he needn't go upstairs. Mart, you fetch the tub. Tad, if you could bring in water for Mrs. Vanderpoel to boil…" Without looking to see if her instructions were being followed, Trixie set to work unfastening the long line of buttons on the man's navy coat.

"Trixie!" Mrs. Belden scolded, gently pushing aside her daughter's hands. "Mart and Tad will fix a bath in your father's study while you begin breakfast. Mrs. Vanderpoel and I will see to undressing the young gentleman, seeing as how it is a task better suited to married women," she added in gentle, quelling tones.

Trixie snatched back her hands in instant mortification (had she really been about to disrobe a complete stranger?!) but bit her lip in frustration at being relegated to the kitchen. By herself! With no one to talk to about the mysterious man!

Not to mention the fact that she would actually have to make breakfast.

The morning meal (consisting of scraped toast, crispy bacon, and only slightly blackened pancakes) passed in a procession of individuals eating when they had a chance and supplying Trixie with tidbits of information that served only to increase her curiosity.

"That poor boy," Mrs. Vanderpoel clucked, taking over for Trixie at the sink and scrubbing the cast iron skillet Trixie had used to burn the pancakes. "I'm going to make a good, hearty soup so that when the lad wakes up, he'll have a substantial meal waiting for him."

"He still isn't awake?" Trixie asked. "How on earth did you—" She stopped, face flaming, as she imagined her mother and Mrs. Vanderpoel bathing the unconscious man.

"Oh, Trixie," Mrs. Belden said, shaking her head as she entered the kitchen. "Just because it's not appropriate for you to bathe a stranger doesn’t mean that you are required to blush at the idea of others completing the task. Mart and Tad were most helpful in levering him in and out of the tub, and I believe they've taken him upstairs to continue resting." She glanced up toward the second floor, as if she could see the sleeping man through the ceiling. "I don't like the look of the bump on his forehead," she said, more to Mrs. Vanderpoel than to Trixie.

"He'll wake up as soon as his body is ready," the older woman said firmly. "There isn't a man around these parts who hasn't suffered a knock to the head due to some sort of shenanigan. He might have a headache, but he'll be fine."

Mrs. Belden nodded, but glanced up at the ceiling again before sitting down at the table and taking out her meal planning diary. Before she could engage Mrs. Vanderpoel in a discussion of which vegetable would best compliment the salted beef she planned to cook that week, Trixie interrupted.

"What bump on his forehead?" she questioned. "I didn't see anything!"

Mrs. Belden looked up from the page in the diary she'd been studying. "I didn't either until I went to wash his hair. It's at the hairline, you see. Even then, I might not have noticed it, but he flinched when I worked the soap into his hair."

"But he's unconscious," Trixie said. "If the bump is hurting him…"

"He'll be fine," Mrs. Vanderpoel said. "Gracious, Trixie. You weren't this concerned when Bobby broke his leg falling from the apple tree!"

"Of course I wasn't," Trixie retorted. "I knew he'd live. I also knew that I'd be waiting on him hand and foot while he recovered. Not to mention the fact that the only reason he was even in the tree was to avoid me because he'd ruined my favourite pair of hiking boots by using them to catch frogs!"

Mrs. Belden made a face. "That boy… And why am I not surprised by the fact that you were more upset at the loss of your boots than your brother's broken leg? Why you even needed these boots in the first place is beyond me!"

Trixie gaped at her mother. "I can't very well go for a walk in the woods without them, can I? There are far too many copperheads for that to be safe!"

"I do wish that you wouldn't spend so much time on the Manor property," she said worriedly. "It's a wonder that you haven't become lost in that labyrinth. Or mistaken for a poacher!"

"Nonsense," Trixie said briskly. "I've played in those woods since I was a child. And as I carry no weapon and walk loudly enough to startle a sloth, I'm hardly likely to be accused of poaching. Besides, the Spencers haven't been to the Manor in ten years."

"Ah, but they've rented it, according to Mrs. Lytell," her mother informed her. Though the Beldens weren't prone to gossiping, they did like to stay abreast of the general comings and goings in the Sleepyside area. "Apparently the New York branch of the Wheeler family has leased it for the next three months."

"Now?" Trixie questioned. "In winter?" Most people with enough means to rent an estate as vast as the Manor chose to do so in the summer months in order to escape the heat of the city.

"They're meant to arrive before Christmas," Mrs. Belden said. "Officially it's so that the daughter, Madeleine, can experience a country Christmas and so that Mr. Wheeler can indulge in winter hunting. Unofficially…" She lowered her voice. "There's a rumour that the young Miss Wheeler is being removed from the city in order to avoid an Unfortunate Entanglement."

"Pish," Trixie said, giving the table a good swipe with a washcloth. "Most likely the truth falls somewhere in between. I wonder how old Miss Wheeler is," she said thoughtfully, pouring herself another cup of coffee. "If she's daring enough to court an Unfortunate Entanglement, she might be fun to get to know. I wonder if the family will socialize?"

"Oh, you know Sleepyside," Mrs. Belden said. "I'm sure we will be privy to all of their deepest and darkest secrets inside a week of their arrival."

Trixie grinned. "I certainly hope so!"


The noon meal was taken in relative silence as Mr. Belden, Mart, Bobby, and Tad were worn out from a morning of vigorous physical labour, and unenthusiastic at the idea of forcing themselves back out into the frigid temperatures to complete the shoveling and other clean-up from the storm.

"I can shovel," Trixie insisted for the third time, but Peter Belden merely shook his head, also for the third time.

"It's far too cold," he insisted. "Your cloak provides no insulation against the wind, and also restricts your movements too much. You would be frozen within the hour, and your fine cloak ruined to boot."

Trixie pressed her lips together, unhappy with her father's response. It was true that her lovely cranberry cloak was impractical, but that was hardly her fault. They didn't even make proper, warm coats for women!

"I could wear Mart's old coat!" she offered, relieved that she'd found a solution. "It's too big for Bobby yet, and—"

"Not anymore!" Bobby interrupted her cheerfully as he reached for his second cherry tart. Mrs. Belden attempted to slap his hand away, but he was quicker than she and popped the tart, whole, into his mouth. "Mart gave it to me this morning, and you're right—it is really warm," he said, talking around the mouthful of tart. "Fits perfectly, too. You'd probably swim in it."

Trixie glared at him, giving up her plan with poor grace. It simply wasn't fair that even in a family with three sons, there was no coat for her to pilfer. One of the cardinal rules of the household was to be prudent with money, and new clothing was a rarity rather than the norm. Taking her own tart before either of her brothers could rob her of it, she used her fork to pierce the flaky crust, sending crumbs scattering.

"Now, now," Mr. Belden said, taking a last sip of coffee before pushing back from the table. "I'm sure that you can find something to do indoors." A murderous look from his daughter and a warning look from his wife stopped him from suggesting that she assist in the kitchen. "You could always read," he offered, ignoring the incredulous looks from everyone else in the room. "Or, better yet, you could read to the young man upstairs."

Trixie's eyes lit up at the suggestion. Mrs. Belden and Mrs. Vanderpoel had firmly directed her away from the sick room all morning, but now she'd been given explicit permission—practically an order!—to keep the mysterious young man company. Stopping only to plant a kiss on her father's cheek, she scampered up the staircase as quickly as she could.

Only to come to a screeching halt outside the door to the only unused bedroom on the second floor. As much as her curiosity was screaming at her to open the door and learn everything she could about the stranger therein, she had the prickling sensation that whatever she accomplished would be closer to a violation of privacy.

"You needn't bother being shy now," a voice behind her said, and Trixie realized that her mother must have followed her up the stairs. "It's time someone relieved Mrs. Vanderpoel, anyway. She didn't like to leave him alone during lunch, but it's far past time for her to eat. I'm sure you don't mind taking her place?"

The worry lines between Trixie's eyebrows smoothed as she smiled. "Of course not. I'd be happy to watch over him for as long as I'm needed. After all, I wouldn't like to wake up by myself in a strange house."

"That's true," Mrs. Belden said thoughtfully. "Well. If he is upset when he wakes, don't hesitate to call for me. And I do believe I'll ask Tad to stay in the house for the afternoon."

"Moms!" Trixie exclaimed softly, not wanting to disturb the young man separated from them only by a door. "You don't really think he's dangerous, do you?" She stared at the door as if she were seeing straight through it, all the way to the occupant within. The man had been a curiosity to her; it honestly hadn't occurred to her that he could also be a danger to her.

Mrs. Belden pressed her lips together. "No," she said, "but it doesn't hurt to take precautions. There's no telling how disoriented he'll be when he wakes, and how he will react."

"I'm sure we'll both be perfectly fine," Trixie said firmly. "He's getting the best possible care from you and Mrs. Vanderpoel, and when he wakes up, he'll be grateful for it." Her mind at ease, she opened the door and slipped in, smiling brightly at the elderly lady seated in a hard-back chair beside the bed, her knitting needles clicking at a furious rate.

"He's starting to get restless," she reported, looking up from the blue bootie suspended from the needles. "I'm hopeful that he'll wake soon."

Trixie moved further into the room, studying the patient intently. His eyes were most definitely still closed, but even from a distance, she could see that they were moving. Perhaps he was dreaming? Barely acknowledging Mrs. Vanderpoel leaving the room, Trixie slipped into the vacated chair, sitting on the edge of the seat and leaning towards the bed.

"I'm Trixie Belden," she said, feeling a little foolish, but needing to break the silence. "I don't think I introduced myself before. My real name is— Well. It doesn't really matter what my real name is, because nobody ever uses it. Not even Moms! I'm sure she'd like to. She sometimes calls my brother Bobby Robert, and Mart becomes Martin when he's stolen a pie. My oldest brother is the lucky one, I suppose. He was named Brian, and that's what he actually goes by. Moms doesn’t have to change his name at all when she yells at him. Not that she ever does. Brian's the good child. Also, he doesn't live with us anymore; he's studying in New York to be a doctor. He'll be a good one, too," she said, voice brimming with pride. "He was always patching up my scrapes and bruises when I was a child. And I had a lot of them! He always told me stories to distract me when he knew that something was going to hurt," she said. "It's really too bad that he isn't here to treat you—I've no doubt you'd be back to normal in no time! Well, he will be here for Christmas," she said, carrying on even though she felt silly having such a one-sided conversation. "But he won't arrive for another week. I'm hoping that you won't have any need of him by then!"

Determined to keep talking to the man (after all, surely the prospect of engaging in conversation would be more likely to bring him out of his unconscious state that the sound of clicking knitting needles!), Trixie continued on the happy subject of her brother's return.

"He's the dark one of the family," she said with a touch of envy. "The rest of us are blond and blue-eyed. Not Brian, though. He looks just like Father with his dark hair and eyes. Similar personalities, too. Very serious and hard-working. Responsible. I can't tell you the number of times Brian tried to talk me out of a scheme! And then helped me out of them when I discovered that I was in over my head."

She tried to make herself more comfortable on the stiff chair, but the throw pillow designed to cushion the seat was lumpy. With a sigh, she stood long enough to remove it from the chair and toss it to a corner of the room.

"That's better," she said, settling back on the wooden seat. It wasn't as soft, of course, but it was more comfortable than the poorly stuffed cushion that slid every which way at a whim. "Brian's a doctor in New York. Did I tell you that? Right. Of course I did. Well, I suppose he's not an actual doctor yet, but he's close. He's only twenty-one, but he left the Sleepyside school early because he'd learned everything he could from Miss Trask. She recommended a doctor in the city, who took him under his wing and got him settled in medical school. He flew through that, too." She shook her head. "He always did spend too much time studying. But it's paid off, and he'll really be Dr. Belden in a few months. I suppose he'll come home even less often, then," she concluded sadly. "I don't imagine big city doctors have much time to themselves."

Realizing that she was leaning closer and closer to the bed as her story became more animated, Trixie straightened abruptly. "But I'm sure you don't want to hear about a person that you'll most likely never meet. Maybe you'd prefer stories about my other brothers. I still have two of them living here at Crabapple Farm. You've met one of them already, you know. Mart. He's only eleven months older than me, but to hear him tell it, he's been looking after me for years." She snorted. "Not. True. In fact, I can give you plenty of instances when I was the one to save him. And I think I'd better tell you all of them. If you're going to spend your recuperation here, you're probably going to need ammunition against him at some point."

Nodding decisively, she launched into a long and involved tale revolving around a stolen strawberry pincushion. "You think that story was ridiculous?" she asked when the story ended with the pincushion being returned to their mother. "If you really want to rile Mart, all you have to do is ask about the time I helped him write an advice column for the local paper." She chuckled, saying, "He still hasn't recovered from that one!"

It was only when the door creaked open and Mrs. Vanderpoel entered with a tea tray that Trixie realized she'd been talking for several hours. The light in the room had shifted, and she knew it wouldn't be long until the sun set.

Mrs. Vanderpoel clucked over the state of the patient. "His colour has improved," she noted. "I think your company has been good for him. The good Lord willing, he'll wake today."

Trixie nodded as she accepted the tea the housekeeper poured for her. The hot liquid felt exquisite on her sore throat, and she drank gratefully. When she started to reach for one of the shortbread cookies on the tea tray, however, Mrs. Vanderpoel whisked the tray out of her reach.

"Not until you've finished that cup of tea and I've poured you another," she said. "You'll do the patient no good if you catch your death of cold while you sit watching over him."

Trixie huffed in annoyance but quickly drank the rest of the scalding tea. She hadn't noticed the cold until Mrs. Vanderpoel had mentioned it, but as soon as she did, it was as if the frigid chill seeped straight into her bones. Holding a hot teacup suddenly seemed like a very good idea, and she accepted a second cup with better grace than she had the first.

"If you're still comfortable, I'll leave you to it," Mrs. Vanderpoel said. When Trixie nodded, she left, setting the tea down on a table in her reach.

Instead of hurrying through her second cup, however, Trixie merely held it, enjoying the warmth on her fingers. The spell of her earlier stories broken, she felt surprisingly shy again in the young man's presence. Instead of trying to think of another story, or engaging in banal small talk, she took advantage of the opportunity to study his features.

She'd been watching him all afternoon, of course, but she'd also been focusing on the stories she was telling. Now, her highly developed sense of curiosity and her powers of observation demanded that she discover all that she could about the mysterious man.

Red hair. She'd never been particularly attracted to red hair. This was possibly because, other than the owner of the local livery, there were very few redheads in Sleepyside and the surrounding area.

Freckles. She'd never seen a person with so many freckles! Despite his improved colour, they still stood out in stark relief.

Broad shoulders. He had the body of a man who worked hard, not unlike many of the youths with whom she'd attended school.

Large hands. She tilted her head, her gaze wandering down the length of his arm resting on the sheet. More freckles, she noted with surprise. She hadn't realized that hands could have freckles, too.

She looked back to his face, curious to compare the freckles on his hands to those on his face. Would they be the same size? Colour?

And every trait she'd noted flew out the window in the discovery of another feature.

Brilliant green eyes.

Staring directly at her.

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Author’s Notes

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. Story copyright by Ryl, 2013. Graphics copyright 2013 by Mary N.

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