Prologue

Sleepyside First National Bank

Peter Belden tapped frantically at the keyboard of his computer, his heart racing. No. No! This couldn't be happening! The numbers on the screen mocked him, and a feeling of horrified dread settled in the pit of his stomach. He risked a quick glance through the large window of his office. Everything appeared normal. The bank was running smoothly. The tellers at their wickets were calm and friendly, and the customers were smiling. No higher-ups in suits had appeared to march him to the board room and certain termination, if not criminal charges.

Yet.

There was still time, he told himself. Maybe he could fix this.

The phone rang, and his normally unflappable nerves failed him as. He started violently and considered not answering it. What if someone had discovered the discrepancies? What if this was a phone call summoning him to the head office in New York? What if...

The phone stopped ringing while he was debated with himself, and then started again almost immediately. Swallowing hard, he picked up the receiver.

"Peter Belden," he said, his voice strained.

The voice that answered him was arrogant, smooth, and deceptively affable. "Peter," he said. "Matthew Wheeler here."

Peter's lips compressed to a thin line.

"I imagine that you've discovered the unfortunate transactions I saw fit to fabricate," Matthew continued, his tone light and conversational.

Peter didn't respond. Acid, agony, and despair seemed to mingle in the back of his throat, and he couldn't have spoken if he'd wanted to.

"I would imagine you have a few hours, yet," Matthew reassured him. "The board probably will probably want to verify what they're seeing before they take action against you."

"What makes you think you'll get away with this?" Peter forced the words out, past his burning, raw throat.

"Because I already have a new manager for the bank in place," the other man replied lightly. "One who will be happy to look the other way when I need to employ my more creative business practices." His voice turned hard. "You're ruined, Peter," he said briskly. "You won't recover from the taint of embezzlement, even if you're proven innocent."

But he wouldn't be proven innocent. Peter's eyes drifted to the information still flashing on his monitor. Matthew Wheeler hadn't amassed his dynasty and million-dollar profits by doing anything half-heartedly. The allegations, though patently untrue, would stick.

"What do you want?" he demanded hoarsely. He'd always treated Matthew Wheeler with respect, even though he hadn't liked him. Those days were gone, and he no longer felt a need to treat him deferentially. His career, possibly his life, was already ruined.

"I want you to disappear."

Peter blinked.

"I've made it easy for you," Matthew continued. "Crabapple Farm is already in my hands. Your bank accounts and investments have been frozen and drained."

His heart plummeted even though he'd expected no less. When Matthew Wheeler decided to ruin a person, he did it thoroughly. He didn't even want to think about how the business mogul had accomplished it.

"This makes it easier for me how?" Peter asked. His tone was meant to be acerbic, but even now, he didn't have it in him to be rude. And really, there was no need to pander to Matthew's twisted need to see men grovel and cower before him. If nothing else, he could hold on to his dignity, and the knowledge that he was more honourable than Matthew could ever dream of being.

"No one will be surprised when you take your leave for parts unknown," Matthew explained, his tone indicating that he really felt he'd done Peter a favour. "I doubt the board will pursue you. And, as long as you disappear before the end of the day, I won't try to track you down, either."

Magnanimous, indeed. He had no money, yet he was expected to disappear and start over fresh? Peter contemplated his future. After a moment, a small smile crept over his face, and he was glad that Matthew was safely tucked away in his New York high rise top floor office, where he couldn't see the glimmer of a plan being formed.

Crabapple Farm was not an expansive estate like the Manor House that Matthew Wheeler had purchased only a few years previously, but it had been in the Belden family for generations. He knew the land surrounding his farm, whether he owned or it. More importantly, he knew the secrets of that land. Especially the land that was now a part of the extensive and ever-growing Wheeler preserve.

"The end of the day? Generous, indeed." He kept his tone carefully neutral. For the first time ever, he was glad that his three children were almost grown, although two of them were now in potentially the same grave danger as he himself was. Mart had taken a job only one year ago in Matthew's public relations department, writing press releases and entertaining business associates. Even now, Trixie was at the Manor House, visiting her best friend, the once sickly and lonely daughter of Matthew Wheeler. Would the billionaire punish Mart and Trixie as well? He thought not. Hoped not. Public appearance was very important to the high-profile man. It would be hard to explain to Honey why her best friend had disappeared. Brian, at least, would be safe in the medical practice he'd established in New England.

With a pang, he thought of his wife and youngest son, who had both died at the child's birth. Robert Belden would have been twelve years old, almost thirteen, if he'd lived. Though he wished every day that they were still with him, he couldn't help feeling just a little bit relieved that Helen and Robert couldn't be dragged down with him into the quagmire he knew was coming.

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you, Peter," Matthew said, and Peter knew that he meant it, in his own sick, twisted way. "Remember. Midnight tonight, or I'll ruin you in an even more permanent way."

Peter hung up the phone without saying goodbye. Really, what was left to say?

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Authorís Notes

My fourth Jixaversary! *shakes head in amazement* Discovering Jixemitri was a dream come true for me, and becoming a Jix Author has been even more rewarding than I'd hoped. Thank you to CathyP, the owners, admins, mods, authors, and readers. You all make Jix the bestest place on the 'net, and I consider myself very blessed to be a part of it. *hugs*

Any Way You Want It is the next story in my Shakespearean universe, but is not in any way related to The Merry Maids of Sleepyside. I hope you enjoy this romp through As You Like It, Trixie-style.

Thank you to MaryN, who has held my hand every step of the way since I wrote my first story in 2005. I'm grateful for your editing, graphicing, and especially your encouragement. Thank you, my friend!

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission and not for profit, although with a great deal of affection and respect. Title image from Google Images; background tile from Absolute Background Textures Archives; images manipulated in Photoshop by MaryN. Graphics on these pages copyright 2007-2013 by Mary N.

Copyright by Ryl, 2013


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