Trixie Belden shivered and turned up the collar on her deep red great coat. She should have worn her blue puffy snow jacket, and she knew it. But that coat was currently hanging in the laundry room, air-drying after being washed from her morning snowball fight with Bobby. She groaned, remembering how the little imp had tackled her and brought her down in an area with very little snow. The dirt had been well and truly ground in before he had released her.

And that had been the only easy part of the day. The first day of winter break was always a little bit crazy, but with Brian and Mart both busy, Bobby had been even more rambunctious, and it was Trixie’s job to look after him. Finally, at mid-afternoon, Mrs. Belden had taken pity on her and suggested that she find something to do by herself out-of-doors while Bobby had some quiet time. Since the horses had already been exercised, it didn’t take Trixie long to decide on skating.

Picking up her pace, she veered toward the stables. “Hi, Regan!” she called as she stepped into the groom’s domain.

The tall red-head poked his head out from a stall. “You riding again?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

“I wish!” she exclaimed, remembering how wonderful it had been to wake up on the first day of the winter break and have an early morning ride through the preserve. “No, I’ve been looking after Bobby all day, and Moms finally suggested that I go do something else for a while. I was thinking I’d go skating.”

Regan nodded sagely. “Yeah, I can see where that would be a good idea.” Stepping out of the stall, he gave Jupiter a pat on the nose. “I’ll get your skates down,” he offered. Regan deftly removed a pairs of skates from a labelled hook and placed the knotted laces over her shoulders.

“Thanks, Regan. Are you sure you don’t want to join me?”

He laughed. “I like skating about as much as I do paperwork,” he informed her.

“You’re missing out,” she told him, eyes sparkling. “Besides, if you go skating, you have to have hot chocolate after. It’s a rule. You don’t want to miss out on that, do you?”

“You make a good point,” Regan conceded, “but not even hot chocolate can make up for all the bruises on my backside I’d be sure to have after skating.”

“So I guess that Dan didn’t get his love of skating from you,” Trixie giggled.

The young groom cocked his head to the side. “No,” he said thoughtfully. “Do me a favour,” he continued.

Trixie nodded. “Sure. But I hope you don’t want me to muck out the stalls…”

“No. At least, not today.”

Trixie heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief.

“No, I was just hoping that you would stay down at the lake for a while. Dan’s out filling the feeding stations, but he hasn’t been skating in a long time, and he’ll have more fun if he has someone to skate with.”

“Not a problem. I don’t plan on going back to Crabapple Farm until I have to,” she admitted.

“A little Bobby goes a long way?” Regan guessed.

She laughed, her good-nature returning quickly at the prospect of not only skating, but skating with another Bob-White. “You said it, Regan. You said it.”

With a final pat to Susie’s nose and a quiet promise to bring her a carrot soon, Trixie scampered out of the stable and down the path leading to the lake. Within minutes she was warming up, skating in wide circles. She gradually picked up speed until she felt like she was flying, her shoulder-length curls flowing behind her. With arms flung wide, she enjoyed the pure exhilaration of the speed.

When her leg muscles started to protest, she slowed and moved to the centre of the lake. Just as she had on a winter day not so long ago, she practiced the moves that she and Honey had developed for the ice carnival in support of the library in Mexico.

“At least I’m not wearing a Spanish comb this time,” she laughed to herself, moving through the figure eights and bunny hops.

“I don’t know,” Dan called from the shore. “I thought you looked really good that night.”

“Dan!” Trixie exclaimed. She abruptly left off her routine and skated towards the edge of the lake to talk to him while he laced his skates. “You came!”

He glanced up at her and pushed aside a lock of dark hair that had fallen across his eyes. “I’m not one to pass up skating,” he reminded her.

Trixie nodded soberly. “It seems that we never have enough time. There are always horses to be exercised and homework to do and—“

“Mysteries to solve,” Dan teased.

“Well, sure!” she grinned.

Dan tightened his laces and gracefully pulled himself up from the snowy ground. Easing onto the ice, he skated in wide circles, gaining speed gradually. Within minutes, he was circling the lake so quickly that Trixie could only stand and watch, enjoying the show of power, speed, and agility. After a long while, he snow-ploughed to a stop beside her, sending ice shavings flying.

“Show off!” she teased.

Dan smiled back, his eyes dancing with excitement. “That was fun!” he exclaimed, breathing heavily.

Trixie started circling him, putting him in the middle of a figure eight pattern. “So, I know you can skate crazy fast. But I bet you don’t know how to partner skate,” she challenged.

Dan raised a brow. “How hard can it be? It’s just like dancing, right?”

Trixie chuckled, remembering how much fun she'd had teaching the handsome former gang member to dance. “Something like that,” she agreed.

“I can see where this is going,” Dan said. He took another few seconds to slow his breathing, and then extended his hand. “You ready for a little ice dancing?”

“Ice dancing? I said partner skating,” Trixie protested, even as she placed her hand in his and allowed him to pull her a few feet.

“There’s a difference?” Dan asked, facing her as he took both her hands and skated backwards.

“Do you not watch the Winter Olympics? At all?”

“They have Olympics in winter now?” he teased. He positioned himself beside her, one arm behind her back, the other holding reaching across his body to hold her hand. “Dancing. On ice. I think I’ve got it covered.”

Trixie’s retort was cut off as he spun her away from him, drew her back again, and then matched each of the moves she had been practicing earlier. Skating with Dan, she discovered, was entirely different than dancing with her best friend, Honey. When they exhausted her repertoire of moves, he switched to what she could only describe as actually dancing with her. They moved together easily, gliding smoothly across the ice.

“Thanks, Dan,” Trixie said as they slowed and came to a halt. “That was great!”

“Oh, we’re not finished,” he told her, grinning wickedly.

She couldn’t help laughing. “What’s left? Are you going to try a triple axel?”

“Nope,” he said, still smiling. “I played your game; now it’s time for you to play mine. You’re going to skate faster than you ever have before.” Before she could protest, he took her hand and began skating in ever-widening circles around the lake. At first, Trixie kept up easily, but soon she was working hard to match his pace. His grip on her hand tightened, and soon he was carrying her along with him, and they were moving at a speed Trixie hadn’t dreamed possible. The wind whipped her hair and stung her eyes, but she revelled in the absolute freedom of the speed.

When Dan finally slowed, Trixie clung to him, a huge smile on her face. “That was amazing!” she exclaimed.

He guided her to the snow bank where they’d left their boots, keeping his hand in hers. “Wasn’t it?”

She nodded vigorously. “I can see why you love speed-skating so much. I bet you weren’t even going at full speed yet!”

Dan shrugged modestly and began unlacing his skates. “I need both arms to really gain speed, but that still felt pretty good,” he admitted.

“Would you like to come to Crabapple Farm for hot chocolate?” Trixie invited, tugging on her sturdy winter boots.

“Nope,” Dan said cheerfully, reaching out a hand to help her up. “Regan already called your mom. I’m under strict orders to invite you to the cabin. Mr. Maypenny made doughnuts,” he confided.

Her eyes lit up. “What are we waiting for?” she asked, taking hurrying up the path leading to the stable.

“Regan!” she called, bursting through the door. “Regan! Mr. Maypenny made doughnuts…” she stopped, looking for the groom.

“Uncle Bill took off early,” Dan told her, returning the skates to their respective hooks.

“Regan? Early?” she parroted.

Dan hid a smile. “He didn’t say, but rumour has it he has a date with a red-head.”

She blinked. “A date?”

This time, he didn’t bother to hide the smile. Waggling his eyebrows, he informed her, “Yes, Trixie. A date. You know, when a man asks a woman to dinner, and—“

“I know what a date is!” she protested, her cheeks flushing. “I just didn’t realize that… Never mind!”

“You thought he only socialized with horses?” he continued to tease.

“Oh, don’t be such a hooplehead,” Trixie scolded. “You know what I mean!”

He blinked slowly. “I’ve been called a lot of names over the years, but hooplehead is a new one. Ouch.”

Trixie gave him a push toward the door. “Well, I didn’t really mean it,” she told him as they started down the trail leading to Mr. Maypenny’s cabin.

“That’s good,” Dan agreed, “because I’d hate to think that you lost a snowball fight to a hooplehead.”

“What are you talking about? I didn’t lose a—“ Trixie let out an outraged shriek when something cold and wet connected with her back. “You are so going down, Mangan!”

“Promises, promises,” he teased. “Put your money where your mouth—“ He stopped abruptly when she landed a snowball on his chest. Before he had time to react, another snowball had found its way down the back of his jacket.

With a solid thunk, Trixie flung herself onto Dan’s back in an attempt to throw him off-balance. He wobbled on unsteady legs, but managed to stay upright even as she clung to him like a monkey.


Both Dan and Trixie stopped short at the familiar voice. “Trixie, if you want to take him down, you’d do better to tackle him by the knees,” Miss Trask recommended. “And Dan, she’s not made of china. Let’s see you put a little more effort in dislodging her from your back.”

Trixie waited for a moment, and then slithered down to the snowy ground, her eyes wide.

“What?” Miss Trask asked. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I watch wrestling with Mr. Lytell on Saturday nights,” she told them, eyes twinkling.

Dan dusted off his snowy hands and brushed at Trixie’s coat to remove the snow clinging to it. “We were just heading to—“

“To the cabin; I know.” Miss Trask patted her large shoulder bag. “I’m on my way there myself. But first, I was hoping that you two would help me with something.”

“Of course,” Trixie agreed, mostly recovered from her surprise at the governess’ unexpected snow ball fight advice.

“I’d like to gather some fresh pine,” she told them. “Just a few branches, mind you. We have some decorating to do, I believe.”

“We’ll have to hurry,” Trixie said, looking at the sky and sighing. “It gets dark so early in the winter.”

Miss Trask glanced at the sun, which was already beginning to sink behind the tall trees of the game preserve. “Indeed.”

They continued toward the cabin, gathering pine branches as they went. By the time the rustic home came into view, they were each carrying an armful of fragrant boughs, and the sun was a hazy red blur against the horizon.

“You made it!” Mr. Maypenny said. “Hurry in, now. Time and tide wait for no man, you know.” He held the door open for them, the room behind him lit with the homey glow of a lone kerosene lantern.

Trixie’s eyes widened as she took in the tree in the living room. “You haven’t decorated yet!” she exclaimed.

Mr. Maypenny smiled affectionately at her less-than-polite observation. “Why do you think you’re here tonight, missy? It’s not just to eat me out of house and home,” he retorted. “There’s no such thing as a free doughnut in this neck of the woods.”

She clapped her hands in delight. “Wonderful! I love decorating Christmas trees! Where are your ornaments?” she asked, looking around for a box of heirloom trinkets.

“Didn’t I just say that you’re here to help decorate?” he questioned. “In this house, we make ornaments for the Yule tree.”

“But not until we’ve lit the log,” Miss Trask cautioned. She glanced out the window. “And I do believe it’s time.”

Though even the largest window in the cabin was small, Miss Trask motioned for everyone to join her. Trixie peered out the window, perplexed. “What are we looking at?” she finally whispered to Dan.

He smiled and pulled her directly in front of him so that she could follow his line of sight. “We’re watching the sun sink below the horizon,” he said, pointing to the last pink streak they could just make out through the trees.

“And waiting for the longest night of the year to begin,” Mr. Maypenny finished.

Trixie nodded slowly. At first, it seemed as if nothing was happening, but after a moment’s observation, she began to notice the minute changes in the sky. She held perfectly still, though her body vibrated with anticipation, somehow knowing that she was waiting for something special. The pink streak grew fainter, and the pale winter sky darkened to a murky indigo. And then the sun was gone, swallowed by the forest and the night. She felt the tension drain from her body to be replaced with an unexpected contentment.

“Another beautiful solstice,” Miss Trask murmured.

“Haven’t seen a bad one yet,” Mr. Maypenny agreed gruffly. He was the first of the group to move away from the window. Trixie only tore her eyes away from the darkening sky when she heard him open the chest that served as a coffee table in the living room.

“Ah, here it is,” he said, holding a charred piece of wood. It caught fire easily as he held a match to it. Kneeling by the fireplace, he used it to light a prominently positioned log. He spoke a few low words, and though Trixie couldn’t understand them, they seemed to fit the moment. They all watched as the fire leapt to life, crackling and burning with cheerful hisses and pops. Trixie found herself staring into the flames long after the others had wandered away. In fact, for a brief moment, she was certain that she could see pictures in the flames; unfamiliar symbols and images.


She dragged her eyes away from the fire, surprised that she had been watching it for so long. “Whoops,” she said, blushing as Miss Trask eyed her expectantly. “Did you ask me something?”

The middle-aged governess smiled. “It’s time for the decorations,” she reminded her.

“Oh!” Trixie scrambled to her feet and joined the others at the kitchen table. Her forehead wrinkled in confusion as she surveyed the articles spread out in front of them. “Um, I thought we were making ornaments?”

“That’s what I said,” Mr. Maypenny confirmed.

She studied the table again, her head cocked to the side. “We’re decorating with fruit cake?” she finally asked, unable to come up with any other explanation for slab of cake on the table. She frowned when Mr. Maypenny hid a smile behind his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “It’s just that you had the exact same expression on your face that Dan did the first year he was here.”

“Oh.” She looked to Dan for confirmation, and found him grinning at her.

“Yeah. Only I think my reaction involved a bit more cursing,” he admitted. “Before moving to Sleepyside, my experience with fruit cake was…unpleasant, to say the least. The idea of working with it on purpose was disturbing.”

“Well, in your defence, you’d never had my fruit cake before,” Mr. Maypenny acknowledge. “And I’m the last person to complain about your language.”

Everyone laughed when Miss Trask pointedly cleared her throat. “The night isn’t getting any younger,” she reminded them. “We’ll be decorating the tree with bells and fruit cake,” she informed them, gesturing to the supplies.

Trixie giggled as she used the threaded needle Miss Trask had handed her to spear a piece of fruit cake and attach a looped thread to it. “Food on the tree?” she asked. “Is this to help with those midnight cravings?” she teased.

“I should think not,” Miss Trask answered, her blue eyes twinkling. “It’s not polite to take food from wood spirits.”

Her jaw dropped. “Wood spirits?” she asked incredulously. Surely she wasn’t serious...

“Wood spirits,” Mr. Maypenny confirmed. “Why do you think we’re hanging bells? We want to know when the spirits are visiting. They like the fruit cake best,” he continued, and Trixie couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. “It contains nuts and berries, which they’re already familiar with. The fact that it’s been made into cake makes it a special treat for them. The year I hung pop corn I didn’t hear the bells at all.”

She stole a glance at Dan, who only shrugged in a non-committal fashion. “Don’t look at me. I grew up in a house where we left treats out for the pookas in the hope that they would fix our shoes.”

She swallowed hard, suddenly reminded of the want Dan had grown up with, and hating the fact that something as basic as having decent shoes had been a struggle for him.

“So leaving food out for the wood spirits feels good,” Dan continued cheerfully. “I hope we hear the bells tonight.”

Trixie nodded slowly. “That would be cool,” she agreed, picking up another piece of fruit cake and attaching a string. They worked together in companionable silence, the only sound the fireplace crackling in the background. Setting aside the fruit cake, Trixie picked up a delicate silver bell and jiggled it. The musical tinkling was clear and high, and she realized that the bells were no dime store purchase.

“My ancestors brought them over when they moved to America,” Mr. Maypenny said, picking up another. “The story is that they were hand-crafted by one of the skilled metal smiths of the day. The spirits like pure materials. And they don’t like loud sounds. They won’t choose a tree if the bells are too loud.”

“Why do they visit the trees, anyway?” Trixie asked. “I’m pretty sure it’s not to leave presents…”

“No,” Miss Trask agreed, deftly spearing another piece of cake. “It’s the darkest, longest night of the year. The wood spirits come in for relief.”

Trixie shivered, as if she could feel the heavy weight of the darkest night of the year. “Then these should be perfect,” she said, cradling a bell in her hand. “They’re beautiful.”

When the last piece of fruit cake was ready, Mr. Maypenny gestured for Trixie and Dan to begin hanging them on the tree. “I’ll get a bite to eat ready,” he told them.

“And I’ll help,” Miss Trask offered, wiping crumbs from the table. “I brought a treat of my own.”

Trixie began looping the fruit cake and bells over the branches, trying to space them evenly. “This is kind of weird,” she whispered to Dan. “I didn’t know it was possible to decorate a tree without anyone picking a fight or breaking an ornament.”

Dan elbowed her out of the way in order to place a bell on the branch he had chosen. “Did that help? I could insult you, if you want…”

She snorted and elbowed him back. “No, thanks.”

“No, really. It’s no problem.” He stopped decorating and studied her side of the tree. “Your bells are too close together,” he told her.

“I said, ‘no thanks’,” she reminded him.

With a grin, he traded one of her bells for a fruit cake. “It’s all about balance.”

“Yeah, yeah. If you start talking feng shui, I’m telling the others.”

Dan held up both hands. “I’m done.”

“Children,” Miss Trask called. “The snack is ready.”

Trixie began salivating as she spotted the platter of doughnuts and bowls of icing sugar for dipping. “They smell so good!” she exclaimed, fidgeting with impatience.

“Dig in,” their host invited, and none of the four stood on ceremony.

“These are wonderful,” Miss Trask complimented Mr. Maypenny, and Trixie was shocked to see older man sit up straighter.

“My pleasure,” he told them, but his eyes were on the governess. "And the tea is perfect."

Trixie stared down at the cup in front of her. It wasn't like any other tea she had tasted, but Miss Trask had assured her that the herbs and flavourings were part of the solstice tradition. She considered adding another spoonful of sugar to mitigate the unusual flavour, but that didn't seem right. She took another sip, and found that the taste had grown on her. It was still unusual, but fitting, somehow.

"Thank you," Miss Trask said, and, for the briefest of moments, Trixie thought she could detect a blush on the normally unflappable governess' face.

Trixie and Dan exchanged amused glances, having often joked about a relationship between the two, but never before seeing any evidence of one.

“Moms makes a New Year’s treat something like this,” Trixie said, interrupting the moment, “but they have raisins in them.”

Mr. Maypenny turned his attention back to the younger guests and patted his stomach. “I’ve had your mother’s porzelke, young lady, and they’re almost as good as her crab apple jelly.”

Trixie nodded vigorously. “They’re the best part of New Year’s Day,” she agreed. She eyed the platter longingly, but knew that she couldn’t handle another doughnut. As it was, she’d be lucky if she could even get up from the table. “Is there any decorating left to do?” she asked, hoping to forestall returning to Crapapple Farm until Bobby had been put to bed.

“We’ll put pine over each of the doorways,” Miss Trask said. “That’s why we gathered the branches on the way here.”

Trixie wrinkled her nose, eyeing the height of the door frame. “Maybe I’ll leave that to someone taller than me,” she suggested regretfully. “Unless you have a ladder handy?”

“I’ll take care of them,” Dan offered. “And I won’t even call you Short Stuff.”

She stuck out her tongue, and then blushed at her rudeness. “Sorry,” she apologized to Miss Trask and Mr. Maypenny.

“Oh, the boy had it coming,” Mr. Maypenny said, clearing away the doughnuts.

Just for fun, Trixie threaded the left-over bells and fruit cake through the pine branches. When Dan had hung them, she stood back and admired their handiwork. “Very nice,” she decided.

Dan positioned the bough carefully, tucking it behind pins set in the door frame.

“A little to the left,” Trixie suggested from her position directly behind him and three feet back. He obligingly moved the bough.

“Too far. Come back a little,” she directed.

Dan again moved the branch to her specifications, and then waited, still holding it in place.

“Maybe we should flip it—“

He tucked it firmly behind the pins and dropped his arms. “It’s perfect,” he told her.


“Dan’s right,” Miss Trask said. “It’s perfect the way it is. Now, you’d better hurry and do the rest of the doorways. It’s getting late,” she said, looking out the window.

Trixie followed her glance and took in the dark night. No streetlights in the preserve. No lights from neighbouring homes. Not even the glow of moon or stars. Just an expanse of growing darkness. She shivered and turned back to the fireplace. The cheery flames warmed her instantly, and the dark no longer felt as cold.

“I don’t like the looks of that,” Mr. Maypenny said, standing beside Miss Trask at the window.

“The looks of what?” Trixie asked curiously. She couldn’t see anything except dark.

“The clouds,” he said shortly. “It’s snowing.”

Sure enough, even as he spoke, Trixie saw the first of the flakes come down. Huge, fist-sized snowflakes clung to the window and then melted. Within moments there was a fresh layer of snow obscuring their recent foot prints. And then the snow changed to smaller, harder flakes that pelted the window, driven by a strong wind.

“No one’s going out in this weather,” Mr. Maypenny said firmly. “There’s no moon to speak of, and the wind is picking up. It’s not safe.”

Miss Trask looked as if she wanted to argue, but nodded her head after a brief struggle. “I’ll call the Manor House and Crabapple Farm,” she decided.

Trixie blinked in surprise and then smiled at her good fortune. She’d visited the cabin many times, but had never spent the night. Dan was almost always invited to the other Bob-White’s homes—he rarely hosted any of their get-togethers. Though she felt slightly guilty about not wanting to go home, she couldn’t help the twinge of excitement she felt about the chance to explore the home of two of the most private people she knew. Though it wasn’t as if either Mr. Maypenny or Dan were keeping secrets, she reminded herself. They were both just so incredibly self-contained that she found herself wanting to know more about them.

“Your mother is fine with you spending the night here,” Miss Trask informed Trixie, drawing her out of her reverie. “And she promised to send a few jars of crab apple jelly as payment.”

Mr. Maypenny slapped his thigh in delight. “Good deal. Now, what should we have for dinner? It’s getting late, and I’m sure you’ve worked off those doughnuts.”

Trixie patted her stomach. “I couldn’t eat another bite!”

“Well, I could,” Dan put in. “Don’t we have some hunter’s stew we could heat up?”

It wasn’t long before the sweet smell of baking was replaced by the tantalizing aroma of Mr. Maypenny’s famous hunter’s stew. And Trixie found that she could, indeed, eat another bite. When the last of the stew was gone, Trixie and Dan washed dishes while the adults tidied the mess from decorating.

“You’ll take my bed, of course,” Mr. Maypenny told Miss Trask. “Trixie can have Dan’s bed, and the boy and I will sleep down here.”

“Out of the question,” the governess protested briskly. “You’ll not sleep on the couch in your own home. I know that your back gives you trouble if you’re not careful, and I’ll not risk it by having you sleep anywhere other than your bed. You and Dan will keep your own beds, and Trixie and I will sleep down here.”

Mr. Maypenny raised a brow. “I raised the boy better than that. He’ll not be sleeping in a bed when there’s a lady present.”

“He’s right, Miss Trask,” Dan said, wiping his hands on the dish towel. “I’m fine on the couch, or the floor.” He hung the towel neatly on the rack on the side of the stove. “I’ve slept in worse places, believe me.”

“But where will Trixie sleep?” Miss Trask asked.

The room fell silent as each of the four realized that under the current plan, Trixie would be staying with Dan in the living room.

“Oh, please, please, please can I sleep in the living room?” Trixie’s eyes were perfectly round with enthusiasm. “I want to stay up and watch for the wood spirits! Please?”

Miss Trask and Mr. Maypenny exchanged long looks.

“This might be my only chance to hear the bells ring!” she pushed, absolutely set on the idea. If she was going to spend the night at the cabin, she was going to make the most of it!

“It’s fine with me,” Dan said, making eye contact with both of the adults. “We won’t get into any trouble.”

Trixie flushed when she realized what Dan was promising, but held firm to her plan. “Please?”

Miss Trask looked uncertain, but Mr. Maypenny nodded sharply. “He’s practically an adult,” he told her. “And Trixie knows her own mind. If they’re going to get into trouble, they’ll do it no matter how well they’re supervised.” He turned to Dan. “Just remember, if something happens to Trixie, you won’t be the only one Mr. Belden comes after. I like my face the way it is just fine, thank you very much.”

Dan nodded once while Trixie tried to squelch the flames of embarrassment she knew were turning her face an unbecoming tomato red. The important thing, she reminded herself, was that she was getting to spend the night at the cabin. And sleep within three feet of the Yule tree! And if the thought of spending the night in close proximity to Dan made her heart rate pick up, well, she wasn’t going to think about that.

“I’m trusting the both of you to act like the responsible young adults that you are,” Miss Trask said. Her tone was serious, rather than stern, and Trixie knew that the governess had come to terms with the sleeping arrangement. She felt a stab of remorse for all the times she had withheld information from her and gotten herself into serious trouble, and resolved to do better.

Giving Miss Trask an impulsive hug, she whispered, “Thank you.”

Miss Trask nodded and patted her shoulder before slipping into organizational mode. Within thirty minutes, everyone was ready for bed, and Trixie and Dan were unfolding the extra quilts Mr. Maypenny had brought down from the chest in his room.

“Don’t stay up too late,” Miss Trask warned. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of work in the morning, what with all this snow.”

“And the spirits won’t enter until everyone is asleep,” Mr. Maypenny added, apparently knowing exactly what Trixie was thinking.

“You’re just saying that!” Trixie accused, her tone teasing. “You just don’t want us to keep you awake all night talking.”

“Well, that too,” admitted with a wink.

When the adults finally went upstairs, Trixie turned to Dan, her face alight with excitement. “Well, what now?”

Dan patted the seat beside him on the couch as he leaned back and stretched out his legs. “Now we get comfortable. If you’re serious about wanting to hear the bells, we’ll have to be pretty quiet. Wood spirits don’t fool easily.”

Trixie hesitated before joining him on the couch. Though he had seen her wearing much, much less at the Wheeler’s lake, she still felt conspicuous dressed in Dan’s flannel plaid shirt and boxers. The shirt reached mid-thigh, and the kerosene lamp had been turned down so that the cabin was quite dark, but she still felt as if she had too much skin on display. And since the shirt was so long, it looked as if she wasn’t wearing anything underneath it. With a sigh, she forced the self-conscious thoughts out of her head, reminding herself that she was decently clothed and had nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, Dan was her friend.

Her reverie was interrupted by Dan’s low chuckle. “Sit down, Trix. I won’t bite. Well, not unless you ask—“

Trixie deliberately hit him in the face with a quilt as she unfurled it to lie across her lap. Strangely, his slightly inappropriate banter was just what she needed to defuse the tension. Instead of staying as far away from him as possible, she jockeyed to gain at least her fair share of the couch. Dan tugged the quilt away from her long enough to steal enough of it to cover his legs.

“Perfect,” he told her. “Thanks for the blanket.”

Trixie tugged it to regain a few inches. “You’re welcome,” she said drily. Settling down, she leaned her head back and gazed at the tree. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “But it’s still a little strange to see a tree without Christmas lights.”

Dan shrugged. “No electricity. And Mr. Maypenny refuses to put candles on the tree.”

“Good call,” Trixie agreed, shivering. “It makes me sick whenever I think about how many family homes burned down because people used to put lit candles on trees.”

He nodded. “Flame and trees don’t mix,” he agreed. “And Mr. Maypenny’s no fool.”

“I bet it would be really beautiful, though,” Trixie said suddenly, never having taken the time to really picture it before. Now, as she stared at the flickering flames in the fireplace, she could imagine hundreds of tiny flames illuminating a tree and its decorations. Each flame conjuring its own images and telling its own story…


She blinked and turned her attention back to Dan.

“Where did you go?” he teased.

“I was just picturing the tree with candles,” she said, shrugging. She angled her body to get a better view of the fireplace and felt Dan’s arm around her shoulders tighten. When had he put his arm around her? Instead of it making her feel uncomfortable, though, it somehow felt right. They stared at the flames for a few minutes before Dan broke the silence.

“Did you want to play a game of Dutch Blitz?” he asked. “I think the cards are around here somewhere…”

“You mean Mart hasn’t asked you to burn them?” Trixie joked. “I’ve beaten him three times in a row now.”

“Oh, he asked,” Dan admitted cheerfully. “But I happen to like playing with you.”

“Even though I always win?” Trixie pressed.

“You don’t always win,” he retorted. “I distinctly remember Brian cleaning you out a few months ago.”

“Sore winner,” she grumbled. “Did he really need to do a victory dance around the entire Lynch estate?”

“I didn’t know he had moves like that,” Dan continued, smiling at the memory.

“The chicken dance doesn’t count as a move.”

“I thought I saw the electric shuffle.”

Trixie shuddered. “Stop. Please stop.”

His low chuckle sent vibrations through her. “Probably he should have asked you to teach him to dance,” Dan continued.

She covered her ears. “I can’t hear you. There is no way it could be a good idea for me to teach my brother to dance.”

Dan shrugged, the motion causing Trixie to tip closer to him. “It worked out pretty good for me,” he said.

“Well, yes, but you aren’t my brother,” Trixie pointed out, and then bit her lip. She was most certainly not prepared to admit that she’d always felt at least a low-level attraction to the former gang member. And that the attraction had been steadily growing for the last several months.

“No,” Dan said softly. “I’m not your brother.”

Before she could try to decipher the man-code he was speaking, he cleared his throat and moved back slightly, though he still kept his arm around her. “So, looking forward to the rest of the holidays?” he asked.

Half-disappointed and half-relieved at the turn the conversation had taken, Trixie answered, “Sure. Although I do wonder why I look forward to it so much when I spend most of my time baby-sitting Bobby.”

“Probably because you actually really like spending time with him,” Dan speculated.

She frowned. “Are you sure? After today I’m pretty sure that I don’t like spending time with him.”

“You do and you know it,” Dan continued. “And I like him, too. In fact, I could use his help. Do you think he’d be interested in checking the feeding stations with me every day for the rest of the holidays?”

Her eyes lit up. “He’d love it! He needs all the fresh air and exercise he can get.”

“He’ll get plenty of both,” Dan promised. “And I promise I won’t make him chop any fire wood.”

Trixie clapped a hand over her mouth to hide her horrified giggle at the idea of Bobby wielding a sharp implement. “Good call.”

They settled into a comfortable silence, watching the fire. It didn’t take long for Trixie to find herself yawning deeply and having trouble keeping her eyes open.

“You can stretch out on the couch,” Dan offered, “and I’ll make up a bed on the floor.”

“No, don’t do that,” Trixie protested, yawning again. “I want to watch for the wood spirits. And you have to help!”

Dan shrugged and grabbed another blanket to tuck around them. “Sure. But they’re not supposed to show up until everyone is asleep. That’s what the bells are for, remember?”

“Yes, but…” Trixie bit her lip, unable to explain why it was so important to her to keep watch.

Dan eased her frustration when he settled back comfortably, obviously willing to keep her company.

“So,” he asked in a low voice, nodding toward the attic, “do you think Miss Trask and Mr. Maypenny are actually sleeping in separate rooms up there?”

Trixie choked on a startled burst of laughter. “Dan!” she hissed, trying to quell her giggles before she woke the adults.

“I’m serious!” he protested. “Did you see the way they were eyeing each other tonight? There were a few times I thought that they would spontaneously combust. You know, in an old folk kind of way.”

She stared at him. Sure, she’d noticed a little reaction, but had she really missed out seeing that there was a deeper attraction between the two adults?

“He’s probably smooth-talking his way into her room right now,” Dan whispered, his dark eyes dancing with mischief. “If you listen closely, you can almost hear the Frank Sinatra...”

She whacked him in the ribs, finally realizing that he was yanking her chain. “Very funny! You almost had me there. No way would they get together with us here,” she told him.

“True,” he admitted. “But it does make you wonder.”

Her vivid imagination already in overdrive, Trixie couldn’t stop a momentary flash of an image of Mr. Maypenny and Ms. Trask, sans his traditional knickers and her dignified business suit. “Dan!” she groaned. “Thanks a lot!”

His lips quirked. “Maybe you’d prefer to think about Ms. Trask and Mr. Lytell?”

She couldn’t stop the horrified giggle. “No! That’s just… ew!”

“Oh, I get it,” Dan continued, nodding sagely. “You want Mr. Lytell for yourself.”

She clapped a hand over her mouth, whether to hold in laughter or vomit, she wasn’t sure. Determined to turn the tables on him, she retorted, “No, that’s Honey. Didn’t you know she has a thing for him?”

Dan blanched momentarily, and then relaxed as he saw the mischief in her eyes. “I give,” he said, holding up both hands and leaning back. “I can’t top that.”

She settled back and rearranged the blankets. Though the fire still burned brightly, the cabin was getting cooler and cooler as the temperature outside dropped. Dan’s arm around her shoulders grew heavier, and she realized that he was leaning back against the armrest of the couch. Rather than disentangle herself, she moved with him, resting mostly comfortably half on Dan, half tucked between him and the backrest of the couch.

Trixie found herself staring into the flames of the fire, yet again. This time, though, the pictures she saw in the flames soothed her. Though it was the longest night of the year, she could swear she saw a burning red sun appear, its long rays reaching to the far corners of the fireplace. Trees and stars appeared, and finally, a figure that was just otherworldly enough that she knew it had to be a wood spirit. Her eyes grew wide as she watched the slim figure dance in the flames.

“Do you see that?” she whispered, but Dan didn’t respond. Unwilling to look away from the fire, she nudged his leg, but he only grunted in his sleep. She inadvertently glanced at his face, and saw that he was well and truly asleep, his mouth open as he breathed in a slow and steady rhythm.

When she turned back to the fire, the figure was gone. Instead of being disappointed, however, Trixie felt only a strong surge of contentment. Seeing the shape in the fire was closer than she had dreamed she would get to actually seeing a wood spirit. The urge to stay awake had disappeared along with the figure, so she laid her head back on the couch and snuggled deeper under the covers. The physical activity of the day caught up with her almost immediately, and her eyelids closed of their own accord.

Trixie woke slowly, her internal clock telling her only a few hours had passed. She could feel that the cabin had grown colder, but she was still wrapped securely in the quilts, and she was warm. Toasty warm, actually. That made perfect sense, seeing as how her arms and legs were tangled with Dan’s… She kept her eyes closed, too tired to move. Dan’s leg thrown across her was heavy, but not uncomfortable. And the arm holding her to his chest was pleasantly warm.

She was drifting back to sleep when she heard a faint musical tinkling. She lay still for a moment, trying to place why the sound was significant. When she put the pieces together, her eyes flew open. She started to sit up, but Dan’s arm tightened around her, and she heard his almost imperceptible hiss.

“Hold still,” he whispered.

She froze, her eyes frantically scanning the Yule tree. She heard the tinkling again, and tracked the sound to the top of the tree.

“Dan,” she gasped softly. “Did you hear that?”

At the top of the tree, the air shimmered. She heard a faint whirring sound, and then another bell sounded. She waited, holding her breath for so long that she felt the tips of her ears turn red. She heard one last chime, and then the room was silent. Riding high on the excitement of the moment, she twisted in Dan’s arms until she could see his face. His eyes held the same wonder that she knew she was feeling, and, for the very first time, she saw him without any of his emotional safeguards. His face was both younger and older at the same time, and more beautiful that she could have imagined. And, somehow, this impacted her on a much deeper level than the fleeting brush with a wood spirit had.

Swept away by the moment, she brushed his lips with a swift kiss. The mood changed instantly. The intense emotion demanded a physical response, and she stared at him, wide-eyed. His expression of wonder didn’t lessen as he raised a hand and gently brushed aside a sleep-tousled curl. When her eyes drifted closed at the sensation, he moved his hand to the back of her neck and guided her back to him. And then they were sharing the emotion together. She returned his kiss, wanting it to last forever. When he gently pulled away she felt faint. His arms tightened around her, and he tucked her firmly against his chest as he stretched out on the couch.

“Sweet dreams,” he murmured, placing one last kiss on her forehead.

She mumbled something that she hoped was appropriate even as her eyes closed.

She awoke the next morning to the sound of Miss Trask’s cheerful greeting. “Good morning, children.”

Blinking blearily, she struggled to sit up but found that she was tangled with Dan. Her face reddened with embarrassment, but Miss Trask didn’t appear to be offended or surprised.

“Sorry,” Dan apologized, his voice rough. He sat up and tucked the blanket around Trixie. “I’ll build up the fire. You may as well stay under the covers until the cabin warms up.” He yawned widely before standing up. Dressed in grey sleep pants and a long sleeved black shirt, Trixie couldn’t help but admire how good he looked, even first thing in the morning. She flushed again when Miss Trask caught her eye. Before she could say or do anything else to embarrass herself, Trixie was distracted by the front door of the cabin opening. Wind and snow followed Mr. Maypenny into the cabin, and she shivered and tucked the blanket closer around herself.

“The storm’s over,” he reported cheerfully, stamping the snow off of his boots. “It’s about twenty-five degrees colder than it was yesterday, but the wind has died down, and I don’t believe we’ll get any more snow.”

“Shall I make breakfast?” Miss Trask asked. “A bowl of cereal, or…”

Mr. Maypenny snorted. “You just sit yourself down beside the girl,” he told her, pointing to the couch, “and I’ll have bacon, eggs, and oatmeal on the table in fifteen minutes.”

“Oh, you don’t have to go to the trouble—" she started to protest, but he silenced her with a raised hand.

“I may not be the best cook in the world, but I do know how to start the day right,” he told her. “Dan and I will be working all day dealing with the snowfall. And if I’m going to make a growing boy work that hard, the least I can do is give him a good breakfast.”

“Of course,” she acknowledged. “But are you sure we can’t help?”

“Nope. I don’t share my kitchen well,” he confided. He set to work at the old-fashioned stove, and true to his word, a hearty breakfast was on the table in minutes. Trixie and Miss Trask set the table while Dan tidied the blankets and pillows scattered in the living room.

“So, did you hear the bells last night?” Mr. Maypenny asked when they were all seated around the ancient oak table.

Trixie’s eyes lit up. “Yes! We did.” She turned to Dan and felt her stomach go into a free fall as she remembered what had happened after they heard the bells. Holy cow! She had kissed a friend and fellow Bob-White! She bit her lip, suddenly nervous.

“We sure did,” Dan supplied, with a lazy smile just for her. “It was pretty awesome.”

Somehow, Trixie wasn’t entirely convinced that he was talking about the bells.

“Well, I didn’t hear a thing,” Miss Trask admitted, sprinkling brown sugar liberally on her oatmeal. “I’m afraid I slept like a baby. I certainly appreciated the use of your room last night, Dan.”

“It was no trouble, ma’am. Trixie and I were fine in the living room.”

“Yes,” she agreed, giving them both a telling look over the top of her glasses. “You did look… comfortable this morning when I came down.”

Thankfully, Mr. Maypenny interrupted the awkward exchange by asking Dan to pass the pepper, and before long, they’d finished breakfast. Miss Trask and Trixie borrowed extra layers to keep them warm, and the four prepared to leave the cabin. Just as Trixie stepped through the doorway, Mr. Maypenny stopped her.

“Well, would you look at that!” he exclaimed. Everyone followed his gaze to the top of the door frame. “I don’t remember weaving mistletoe in the pine bough.”

Sure enough, several of the distinctive plants were laced through the branch in the places where Trixie had placed fruit cake.

“That’s odd,” Dan agreed, reaching up to pluck one of the plants. “It’s definitely mistletoe. Maybe it grew with the tree?” he speculated, referring to the parasitical nature of the plant.

“Maybe,” Mr. Maypenny agreed doubtfully. “Although, it doesn’t explain where the fruit cake went…”

“The wood spirits, of course,” Trixie said, grinning.

“Of course,” Miss Trask agreed thoughtfully. She followed Mr. Maypenny out of the cabin, turning up the collar on her coat while Dan closed the door behind them as he waited for Trixie to finish lacing her boots. When she straightened, he held up the mistletoe and regarded her seriously.

“You do know the tradition for standing under mistletoe,” he prompted, moving to stand closer to her.

Trixie flushed. Before she could formulate a response, he dipped his head and caught her lips in a brief but tender her kiss. As he pulled away, he pressed the sprig of mistletoe into her hand. He studied her, expression serious.

“I won’t pressure you,” he said softly, “but last night was pretty amazing. If you decide that you’re interested, all you have to do is return the mistletoe.”

Trixie ducked her head and nervously tucked the prickly green plant into the pocket of her red coat. The previous night had been a magical experience, in more than one way, but she knew that everything could feel different in the light of day. What if they had both just been caught up in the moment? She rejected the thought immediately, knowing that she’d had feelings she’d refused to acknowledge for Dan for several months. But what about Dan? Could he really have feelings for her? For the first time, it seemed like a real possibility.

“I’ll do that,” she promised, knowing that it wasn’t a question of “if”, but “when”.

The crisp, cold winter morning was still dark, but the sun was just beginning to brighten the horizon, signalling an end to the longest night of the year. Cradling the mistletoe in one hand, and Dan’s hand in her other, Trixie couldn’t help wishing that the night, long as it had been, had lasted just a little longer.


Author’s Notes

This year I had the pleasure of writing for one of my very favourite people—the lovely Mal! I chose to do something a little different and concentrated on the celebration of Yule rather than Christmas. And let me tell you, there are some fascinating customs! Happy Holidays, sweetie. I hope you enjoy reading this story half as much as I enjoyed writing it. *hugs*

Thanks to MaryN (Dianafan) for editing and creating these wonderful graphics. What would I do without you?

Thanks also to Mal for organizing this year's Secret Santa story exchange, and to all the authors who participated. What a wonderful way to celebrate together!

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, October 2011. Graphics copyright 2011 by Mary N.

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