Part 1

Christmas Eve

Ben Riker took a deep breath as he navigated his black BMW up the Wheelers' driveway. Snow crunched under the wheels, and he tightened his grip on the steering wheel, determined to avoid the embarrassment of sliding off it into the snow piled high in drifts on both sides. He pulled up in front of the house and left the keys in the ignition, assuming that the chauffeur would be along momentarily to park it for him.

The Manor House was lit up like a circus, a blazing Christmas tree in the over-sized living room window its crowning glory. Aunt Madeleine had gone with a silver and gold theme this year, he noted. It should have looked cold, even sterile, but it didn't. Or maybe the warmth he could practically feel coming from the house originated from his two cousins and their five friends.

Standing on the landing, he watched through the window as Mart and Diana danced to music he could just barely hear. The others were laughing and talking, and they looked so sickeningly happy that Ben had to fight the urge to turn right back around, climb into his car, and drive away at breakneck speed.

But Uncle Matthew and Aunt Madeleine were expecting him, and if he played hooky, he would only be making his situation worse. Besides, it wasn't as if he had anywhere to go. After the latest school debacle, he wasn't welcome in his own home, and certainly not in the homes of any of his friends.

He rang the doorbell, and then did his best to settle himself. Game face on, he reminded himself, and plastered a grin on his face.

"Merry Christmas!" he called, smiling at the dignified middle-aged woman who opened the door for him.

"Welcome here," Miss Trask said. "You made good time—we didn't expect you for another hour!" Pulling him into the entry, she took the long black cashmere jacket he doffed and directed him to the living room.

"You'll find the Bob-Whites in there," she told him, giving him a gentle nudge. "They've finished decorating the tree, but I'm sure you'll find plenty to do together."

Biting back the caustic retort that the Bob-Whites would prefer not to have to do anything with him, Ben entered the room, smile still firmly in place. Unobserved by the others, he watched Trixie hand pieces of tape to Jim as the red-head struggled to wrap a present. Jim's patience was obviously being tested, but Trixie only laughed and took the box away from him when the paper ripped. Ben watched in amazement as Trixie repaired the rip and completed the wrapping job with deft, precise movements. His mouth dropped open in shock until he took a closer look at the present and realized that, while it was wrapped, the edges were haphazard and the paper had bubbled in spots. Now that was a wrapping job that he could attribute to the feisty, impatient blonde. Jim, however, seemed to think it was perfect. All traces of his former irritation disappeared, and he smiled at Trixie fondly.

For a brief moment, Ben tried to remember if anyone had ever smiled at him that way. He quickly pushed the maudlin, useless thought aside as Honey spotted him and jumped up from her place on the loveseat to greet him.

"Ben! You made it!" she said, and he had to admit that both her smile and tone seemed genuine.

He accepted her hug and kissed her cheek, noting that she looked even happier and healthier than the last time he'd seen her. Of course, she'd been embroiled in a mystery back then; a counterfeiting ring, he remembered. Plus, she'd been worried about him, and how he would fit in with her friends. No wonder she'd been stressed, he thought grimly. And that had been over a year ago. It stood to reason that she'd changed a little since then.

"Have you finished wrapping your presents?" she asked, drawing him into the room. "We're having a wrapping party, as you can see."

The rest of the Bob-Whites called greetings to him, which he returned quietly. Mart's enthusiastic slap on the back surprised him, but Jim's wary expression did not. Ben felt his mouth draw into a tight line as he read between the lines in Jim's behaviour. His adopted cousin hadn't really forgiven him for the trouble he'd caused on previous visits. And, Ben had to admit, it wasn't as if he deserved forgiveness. Though he'd turned over a new leaf after his last visit to Sleepyside, the better behaviour hadn't lasted. When he was honest with himself, Ben knew that he hadn't earned the forgiveness of anyone. And, though he had many bad habits, lying to himself wasn't one of them.

"Come help!" Diana called, and Ben saw that she and Mart were attempting to wrap an oversized water gun. Mart was trying to wrap paper around the bulky shape while Diana taped it in place, but the torn paper showed that they weren't getting very far.

"Why don't you put it in a box?" Ben asked, rescuing the roll of paper when it fell from Mart's grasp.

"Someone," Diana said, with a telling glare at Mart, "thought it would be more fun to do it this way. Personally, I think he just wants Bobby to know what he's getting, but not be able to play with it until Christmas morning."

Mart grinned sheepishly. "Busted."

"You're such a meanie!" Di exclaimed, but her affectionate smile took the sting out of her words.

"It's Bobby," he reminded her. "The kid who helped your brothers make a modern art display out of your bras."

Diana's face coloured. "They saw some of that art work people do to raise awareness for breast cancer," she explained to Ben. "I guess they thought they were helping by taking my bras and taping them to the walls."

"The walls of the Sleepyside Elementary School," Mart elaborated.

"You didn't need to tell him that!" Diana exclaimed, elbowing Mart in the ribs. "They were only up for about an hour," she protested.

"But you're still getting gifts of poetry from a few of the sixth grade boys," Dan reminded her.

Mart's easy grin disappeared. "You are?"

"Well, it rhymes," she admitted, "so I guess it could be considered poetry..."

The water gun fell to the floor with a clatter as Mart dropped it in disgust. "I don't know why I'm even getting him a Christmas present," he muttered. "After that stunt, he deserves a lump of coal in the toe of his stocking."

Ben's enjoyment of the story disappeared, having hit a little too close to home on several levels.

"He apologized," Diana reminded Mart.

"Yeah, well sometimes an apology just doesn't cut it," Mart snapped in frustration. "You're still dealing with the effects of his joke, and he's getting the water gun he's been begging for for months for Christmas."

Ben turned away, only to be greeted by Trixie's curious gaze.

"So, how come you're spending the holidays in Sleepyside?" she asked, her bluntness tempered by the friendly smile on her face. "Honey never did say. Are your parents away?"

To her credit, Trixie did actually look sympathetic, Ben thought. Probably because she couldn't imagine spending the holidays being packed off to relatives like an unwanted fruit cake. "No," he said shortly.

Much to his relief, Jim tugged Trixie back to the sofa before she could continue her line of questioning.

"Have you been up to your room yet?" Honey asked, breaking the tension.

Remembering the suitcase he had left in the car, Ben shook his head.

"You're in the same room you were last time you were here," Miss Trask said, poking her head in the doorway. "Perhaps you'd like to get settled?"

Ben nodded in gratitude. Spending Christmas in Sleepyside was going to be even harder than he had anticipated. What had his parents been thinking? Did they really assume that he would just turn into a new person after spending a week or two with the over-achieving do-gooders? Unlikely. He wasn't capable of their easy camaraderie and trust, and they weren't capable of understanding someone who apparently couldn't learn from his own mistakes. Oil and water.

Grasping the handle of the designer luggage his housekeeper had packed for him, he started up the wide staircase, surprised that Miss Trask was still beside him. She accompanied him to the door of his room, and gave him the first genuine smile he'd seen in months.

"I hope you'll enjoy your stay here, Ben," she said, and he could have sworn that she actually meant it. "Let me know if there's anything that you need."

"I'm sure my room will be fine," he said, knowing that his Aunt Madeleine's standards were, if anything, higher than his mother's.

"If I can help you with anything, you'll say so," she said, and Ben knew that she wasn't referring to making sure that there was adequate shampoo in the attached bath.

"Yes, ma'am," he said, feeling a peculiar need to address her respectfully. Funny. At school he was constantly being called on the carpet for not addressing his teachers by their proper titles. Yet here, where he knew that Miss Trask would never demand it, it was easier. Turning over a new leaf had been easier here, too, he reminded himself. Sleepyside seemed to have some sort of magical quality about it, something that made it easier for people to stick to the straight and narrow. A person only had to look as far as Dan Mangan, the former gang member, and Jim Frayne, the abused runaway, to see the remarkable turnarounds that people could do here. Maintaining it in the real world, though—that was an entirely different story.

I'd like to see Jim and Dan function at my prep school, he thought viciously, and then felt a stab of shame. Who was he to say they would have relapsed? Just because he hadn't been able to keep from going back to his old, trouble-making ways... He scowled at his own thoughts. Reminding himself of his failures never seemed to do any good, but neither did anything else. The looming threat of expulsion hadn't curbed his troublemaking tendencies. The stern disapproval in his father's eyes had only angered him. And the pained look his mother had given him, as if he had embarrassed her by intruding into her life again... Well, that hadn't done the trick, either.

A knock on the door roused him from his self-loathing stupor.

"Did Tom bring your suitcase up for you?" Honey called through the door. "I know Celia won't have had time to unpack it yet. Could you use some help?"

He briefly debated pretending he was already asleep, but it was only a fleeting thought. Honey was by far his favourite cousin, even if he couldn't help a twinge of jealousy at the way her family seemed to have miraculously changed into something he could only dream about.

"Come on in," he called. He opened the door for her and waited as she entered the room. "You don't have to help, you know," he said. "I know you'd rather be with your friends."

"Don't be silly!" Honey exclaimed, heading straight to his suitcase and flipping it open. "I want to spend time with my very own full-blooded cousin, too!"

He shook his head, disregarding the full-blooded comment. He loved his cousin, but some days, it was like she spoke a different language. Quickly snagging his socks and underwear to place in a drawer, he watched as Honey carefully hung up his clothes.

"This is a beautiful sweater," she said, sighing. "I wish I could get Jim to wear something like this."

Ben raised an eyebrow at the thought of the naturalist in a three hundred dollar sweater.

"Yes, I know," she said, catching his expression. "Jim would be happy if he could live in worn tee-shirts all the time. And don't even get me started on all that flannel Dan wears." She pretended to shudder, but Ben could see the affection she held for both young men. "So," she said, changing the subject, "are you ready for Christmas? Do you need help wrapping anything?"

He shook his head. His parents might have been frightfully angry with him, but it would never occur to them to deny him the services of their many staff. During his short stay, the housekeeper at their home had made sure that his presents were wrapped. He fought back a grimace, thinking of the shiny white paper and elegant black bows. His presents looked nothing like what the Bob-Whites had been wrapping. Even Diana had set aside her artistic sensibilities and had been working with the most hideous candy cane paper he had ever seen. He wondered suddenly if any of those creatively and horrifically wrapped presents were for him. And why he was more interested in opening those than the professionally wrapped and undoubtedly expensive presents from his parents. And then he tried to figure out why he had the sudden urge to unwrap the presents he'd brought and take them downstairs to beg Trixie to help him re-wrap. Well, maybe not Trixie. He did have some standards. Plus, Jim would probably smother him in his sleep if he even looked at the pert blonde.

"I'm so glad you're here," Honey said, still standing in front of the closet, but turned to face him. "Christmas is just so much more... Christmas with family."

He flinched, both at the Honey-speak and at the reminder that he wasn't with his own family, not really. The Wheelers were relatives, not family. Of course, some days he liked them a whole lot more than he liked his own family...

"I'm sorry," Honey said quietly, looking pained. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"You haven't, not really," he assured her quickly, resolving to keep his personal thoughts off his face in the future. Honey was the very last person he wanted to hurt with his messed-up reactions. "I guess I'm just feeling a little out of sorts. It's funny not being with my parents at Christmas. I mean, sometimes they were barely home, what with all the parties and stuff, but..." his voice trailed off.

"I know exactly what you mean," Honey said, sitting down on the bed beside him. "Mother and Daddy still spend a lot of December in New York instead of here, in Sleepyside. More than I would like," she admitted.

"Really?" Ben asked, genuinely curious. "I thought they were regular country folk now."

Honey's eyes grew wide, and then her lips started to twitch. "Oh, Ben!" she said between giggles. "I dare you to say that to Mother!"

He winced, picturing Madeleine Wheeler's horrified expression. "I guess she still enjoys the city social life, then?"

She nodded, a sad smile on her face. "But when she is here, she's really here. So it's okay."

Ben had to wonder if it really was. Still, Honey did seem a lot happier than before the Wheeler family had moved to Sleepyside. And she positively glowed whenever she was with the Bob-Whites. Yes, Honey was definitely in a better place. Even if that place wasn't perfect.

"I want you to have a good time while you're here," Honey continued. "You will, won't you?"

When was the last time he'd had a good time? Even when pulling pranks, something had been missing for longer than he cared to admit. There was no thrill of satisfaction anymore, no rush of success. And he couldn't remember the last time anything other than a prank had made him happy. What was wrong with him?

"Of course I'll have a good time," he said, nudging Honey. "You're here, aren't you?" And, to his surprise, he realized that there was a measure of truth in his words. In fact, the last time he'd been really happy was right here in Sleepyside, when Trixie had turned to him in a panic about her little brother, and trusted him. Him! Sleepyside magic again, he told himself. Because certainly no one outside of Sleepyside had ever trusted him.

"Do you want to come back downstairs, or are you going to rest?" she asked, smoothing her skirt. "We open presents at eight tomorrow morning."

"You have it scheduled?" he teased, though he wasn't really surprised.

Honey's sophisticated features twisted to a grimace. "Mother," she said simply.

"Hey, don't knock it," Ben said, standing up and stretching. "I, for one, prefer the later start. Can you imagine what it will be like at the Belden's tomorrow morning?"

He could have bit his tongue off when he saw the wistful look on his cousin's face. "It'll be a mad house," she agreed, but it was obvious that she wished she could be a part of the craziness.

Craziness. For a brief moment, he contemplated doing something to shake up the carefully choreographed Christmas morning routine at the Manor House. Just to see a happy, surprised smile on Honey's face. He dismissed the idea quickly, knowing that if he planned it, it was sure to bring frowns and lectures, instead of the intended smiles and laughter. Still, there had to be something he could do...

"What are you thinking?" Honey asked suddenly, and he flushed at the scrutiny. Obviously, Honey was more than carrying her weight in the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency if she could read him that easily.

"Nothing!"he said, slapping on the charming smile that had gotten him out of countless scrapes.

Honey frowned. "I'm on to you," she warned. "And I'll be tasting the sugar before I put any on my oatmeal tomorrow."

He laughed aloud, remembering the prank he'd played on his cousin so many years ago. "That was a good one," he said, smiling as he recalled her puckered face at the taste of the salted oatmeal.

"It wasn't so great when nobody believed me," Honey muttered, and Ben felt the heaviness descend again. Honey was absolutely correct. It hadn't been the actual salt that was so bad. It had been the fact that she hadn't been able to tattle on him. She'd been trapped, and Ben could finally see why that had made her so miserable.

"Well," he said, clearing his throat. "I guess it's a good thing that I won't be pulling any pranks while I'm here, isn't it?"

"Oh dear," said Miss Trask. "And here I was hoping for quite the opposite."

Startled, Ben looked up and found the governess in the doorway. His eyes widened as he realized that she'd heard part of their conversation. What kind of servants did the Wheelers have, he wondered. If the staff at his parent's home managed to accidentally overhear a private conversation, they always did their level best to pretend that they hadn't. And Honey didn't seem in the least surprised, he noted. In fact, she'd jumped off the bed and hurried to tug the older woman into the room. Unbelievable!

"What do you mean, Miss Trask?" she asked curiously. "I hope you weren't planning on putting frogs in Cook's bed again—I'm really looking forward to Christmas dinner, you know!" She giggled, and then paused. "Unless you're looking for an excuse to cook the meal together?" She clapped her hands together in delight. "I'll help with the frogs!" she offered.

Ben shook his head, amused by her antics. "It's a little cold for frogs," he told her. "I don't think we'd have an easy time getting our hands on one."

"And I don't suppose par-squirrels are in season either, are they?" she said thoughtfully.

Ben's face softened at the memory of the critter he'd rigged to amuse Bobby Belden. It had been rather grotesque, and, in retrospect, it was probably a terrible thing to have given a six year old with a vivid imagination, but he'd never heard any complaints about it. And, if there had been complaints, he was positive they would have been voiced. Loudly.

They always were.

"Come along," Miss Trask invited. "I want to talk to all of the Bob-Whites. You, too, Ben."

He turned to Honey, but she only shrugged as she followed Miss Trask down the hall. Hesitating only a moment, he ignored his half unpacked suitcase and trailed after them as the three made their way back to the family room. The rest of the Bob-Whites were still there, though the wrapping had been set aside, and there was more dancing than decorating going on. He watched in amusement as Mart led Diana in an exaggerated and clumsy waltz, and Dan and Trixie did something that he was pretty sure was called the jitterbug. How the two couples could dance so differently to the same song was a mystery to him, but they looked happy, so he shrugged it off. With a point of the remote at the stereo, Miss Trask drew the dance to a close.

Mart, Diana, Trixie and Dan took seats, panting and laughing from their exertions. Ben hid a smile when Jim moved to sit next to Trixie on the couch before Dan could take the spot. As envious as he was of his supposedly perfect cousin, he didn't envy Jim trying to gain the attention of such a vibrant, outgoing girl. How anyone could hope to hold Trixie's attention for more than five minutes was beyond him, and he was just grateful that Jim was the one trying to gain her favour, and not him.

Belatedly, Ben realized that Miss Trask had been speaking, and that he hadn't heard a word.

"...a number of interesting traditions," she said. "My personal favourite is the Lord of Misrule. Have any of you heard of it?" she asked, her voice sounding suspiciously like she was teaching a class. Well, Ben thought, at least he wouldn't be quizzed on any of the material, as he would have been at school.

"No, Miss Trask," Brian said politely. "I don't believe we have. Would you tell us about it?"

If he hadn't known better, Ben would have sworn that the oldest of the Belden siblings was trying to butter up the governess. Instead, he knew that he really was that interested and solicitous. It was positively sickening.

"It evolved over the years, of course," Miss Trask began, "but the time I associate with The Lord of Misrule is Medieval England. The higher learning institutes would elect an undergraduate to assume temporary rule of the school."

"Really?" Dan asked. "Why would they do that? Seems like a bad idea waiting to happen."

Miss Trask smiled. "Yes. Well. I think it was perhaps seen as a transfer of power with a pre-determined time limit."

"What sort of things would the Lord of Misrule do?" Di wondered.

"Parties!" Mart said immediately. "I bet there were a lot of parties."

"Maybe," Miss Trask agreed. "But I think it was more a time of what we would call pranks."

Every head in the room except Miss Trask's swiveled to look at Ben. The expression of polite attention he'd been wearing fell in the face of scrutiny, and he felt his mouth twisting into the arrogant sneer he'd perfected during his many years at various prep schools.

"It was a very important role," Miss Trask continued, pulling the Bob-Whites' attention back to her and away from Ben, much to his relief. "School could be very harsh in those days, and students were disciplined quite strenuously. Electing a Lord of Misrule was a way of letting the students have a time of being in control. The professors might be forced to wear the uniform of a novice. Or find that their favourite foods had been replaced with, shall we say, less palatable fare."

Ben dared to sneak a glance at Honey, who was covering her mouth to hide a giggle. Apparently the memory of salted oatmeal was still fresh.

"And the professors went along with this?" Trixie asked, incredulous.

"Oh, yes. It was tradition, you see. In many places, it coincided with the twelve days of Christmas. After the Christmas feast, power was transferred to the Lord of Misrule. The power was handed back on the twelfth day of Christmas, or Epiphany. For those twelve days, though, the Lord of Misrule was in charge, and expected to do his very best to set the institution on its ear, so to speak." She sat in one of the arm chairs and leaned forward. "I'd like to propose that we elect a Lord of Misrule."

Ben couldn't help thinking that Miss Trask no longer reminded him of a teacher. No teacher he had ever known would have suggested electing a Lord of Misrule. Or endorsed pranks. Or had a look of absolute faith and trust, even though it was obvious that none of this could end well.

Before he had time to further ruminate on the governess' apparent descent into madness, she took it one notch further.

"And I nominate Ben."

He could actually feel his eyes bulge and his jaw grow slack. He'd sat in the headmaster's office without blinking an eye while accusation after accusation was brought against him. He hadn't moved so much as a muscle when his father had yelled at him for over an hour. His mother's tears hadn't evoked the slightest of responses. But now, he knew, he was doing a damn fine impersonation of a goldfish.

The sudden silence of the room wasn't helping him. Nor was the knowledge that every eye in the room was trained on him. In fact, he noted, even Patch had perked up enough to fix him with a happy, if unblinking look. The dog, he thought wryly, was the only one in the room who trusted him. And that was probably only because he refused to involve live animals in his pranks. Ever.

"I don't know—" Jim started to say doubtfully, but was cut off by Honey's exuberant exclamation.

"Oh! This will be so much fun! I always wanted to incorporate more English traditions into our Christmas holidays. I suggested pantomimes last year, but Daddy didn't want to dress up as a woman. And riddles gave Mother a headache, so..."

Ben's eyes were wide for an entirely different reason. Uncle Matthew in a dress? Aunt Madeleine puzzling out riddles?

"Ben will be perfect!" Honey continued, her bubbly enthusiasm practically tangible. "You will do it, won't you, Ben?" she asked, taking his hand and treating him to her most earnest expression.

But Ben was still flummoxed at his name and "perfect" being used in a positive manner (as opposed to "You're a perfect idiot!"), and so was momentarily unable to respond.

"Of course he'll do it," Mart muttered. "With our luck, he'll get Bobby on board as the village idiot."

"Mart!" Diana exclaimed, giving him a little push. "That's not nice. And Bobby isn't an idiot! He's just—"

"Exhibiting idiot-like tendencies," Trixie supplied, grinning. "It's okay, Di. He's learning that stringing up your unmentionables wasn't the smartest thing he's ever done."

"You think he's learning?" Mart asked doubtfully. "I think he's plotting his next debacle."

Trixie shrugged. "Well, either way, he's learning something," she surmised with an impish grin.

"Children," Miss Trask said, calling them back to topic before Trixie and Mart could start one of their famous arguments. "I should point out that there would be rules. Absolutely no one must be hurt. No property can be destroyed. And, most importantly, when the twelve days are over, the pranks are over as well. The balance of power is restored, and the Lord of Misrule relinquishes his authority."

Her expression was so pointed that Ben found himself fidgeting in his seat. "I don't know about this," he started to say, but was interrupted by Honey taking his hand. "Please, Ben? It will be so much fun! And maybe we could learn some of the older English carols to sing, too! Isn't there one about a boar's head?"

Trixie groaned, but the smile that came after was genuine. "Are you channelling Mart? Quick! Somebody help her!"

"Help all of us is more like it," Mart muttered. "We'll be lucky if we're all still alive after the twelve days!"

"Twelve days," Dan repeated thoughtfully. "I thought Ben had to return to school shortly after New Year's."

Well, Ben thought, that answered his question of how much the Bob-Whites had been told. The disciplinary hearing that would determine whether or not he was allowed to return to Wilson Prep Academy wasn't scheduled until the middle of January, and he wouldn't be allowed back at school until after that. If he was allowed at all. And his father was so angry that it had decided it was in everyone's best for Ben to stay in Sleepyside until the hearing.

"Of course, I'll instruct Ben in the history of the revelries," Miss Trask continued, ignoring Dan's question, "so that his pranks can be as authentic as possible. And," she said, turning to the Bob-Whites, "I think you'll find that you enjoy this. After all, the pranks are to be against those who are in positions of authority, not fellow students. For the most part, I'd imagine that you all are safe."

Mart, Jim, and Brian brightened visibly at this information.

"Wait a minute," Ben said, frowning. "I'd be playing pranks, but it wouldn't be on the Bob-Whites."

"That's right," Miss Trask agreed. "In fact," she said, her blue eyes twinkling, "I'd imagine that I'll need to watch my step quite carefully for a time."

"Omigosh," Honey said, eyes wide. "Cook's not going to quit again, is she? I think Mother will want to move permanently back to the city if she has to try to find another cook again!"

"I'll speak to the staff personally," Miss Trask assured her. "But I really do think that Ben is just as anxious for good food as the rest of you are."

Ben blinked. "Of course."

Miss Trask smiled brilliantly at him, and he felt a sudden plummeting of his stomach. Had he just agreed to this insanity?

"Wonderful! Now, as it's getting rather late, I believe it's time for everyone to turn in."

The Beldens, Dan, and Di rose immediately and thanked their hosts for the evening of Christmas festivities while Ben merely shook his head. The parties he'd attended rarely had adult supervision, and he couldn't imagine the party breaking up simply because someone told them it was time. Or, if the partiers did disperse, it was only to reconvene in smaller, more intimate groups elsewhere. This, of course, caused him to glance at the other youths curiously. Would the clubhouse be receiving late night visitors, he wondered? From the way Mart and Brian were herding Trixie out the door, he rather thought not.

"The Lord of Misrule typically begins his reign the day after Christmas," Miss Trask said, when the room was empty except for Jim, Honey, and Ben. "So we have some time to plan."

Ben nodded, wondering once again how he had been suckered into this ill-advised plan, and wondering how much extra trouble he would be heaping upon his already over-flowing plate. Indulging in practical jokes at a time when he was already in a significant amount of trouble just screamed 'bad idea', but he wasn't about to say that to Miss Trask. He suddenly understood a little better why the Bob-Whites had followed her directive to end the party so easily—she wasn't a person that they wanted to disappoint.

As if reading his mind, Miss Trask spoke over her shoulder as she left the room. "And Ben? I think you'll find that these types of pranks aren't likely to land you in trouble. After all, you have permission, don't you?"

Ben nodded woodenly. Sure, he had permission. For now. Permission which he had no doubt would be revoked at the first mildly inconveniencing prank. And what was the point of pulling a prank if the victim knew it was coming?

Maybe Sleepyside wasn't just magical. Maybe it was crazy, as well.

Then again, maybe it was just him.

"Good Lord!" The words popped out of his mouth before he could stop them. He felt a faint flush start to colour his face, but instead of turning away in embarrassment, he took ownership of his gaffe. "I'm sorry," he said, his eyes still fixed on the Belden siblings, the sight of whom had prompted his exclamation. "It's just that I wasn't expecting..."

Trixie and Mart both sighed while Brian took the ribbing with his usual even temper.

"French artist?" Diana asked, coming forward to examine the hand knit sweaters the three were wearing. "Is that what your Aunt Alicia was aiming for this time?"

Trixie snatched the matching knitted tam off her head and flung it onto an unoccupied chair. "Does it matter?" she asked. "We're wearing black! On Christmas Day!" She scowled, her blonde curls swinging as her movements turned jerky with irritation.

"Well," Diana said, violet eyes twinkling, "black is slimming. And you weren't wearing it all day, you know."

Trixie glared harder.

"You look nice," Ben said, trying not to stumble over the word when used in conjunction with the sandy-haired blonde. "I just wasn't expecting to see all three of you in black."

"You should see Bobby," Trixie said, grinning.

And, in his mind's eye, Ben really could see the eight-year-old boy, decked in black, his cherubic features wearing a scowl identical to his sister's.

"Oh, man," he said, without stopping to think. "I hope you took pictures!"

Trixie and Mart both groaned again. "Every year," she complained. "Every year! I'm beginning to think we're only encouraging her when we let Moms take pictures to send her."

"It's only one evening," Honey soothed. "And you won't have to wear those sweaters ever again."

"Or at least not until you have to impersonate a cat burglar," Dan chimed in.

"Put a sock in it," Trixie warned. "I happen to know you like black. I'd be happy to exchange your Christmas present for this sweater."

Dan backed away, hands held out as if in defence. "Now, Trixie," he said, edging further away even as he smirked. "You wouldn't want to do that."

She raised an eyebrow that told Ben that yes, she really did want to do that.

"Plus," Trixie continued, throwing herself onto the dilapidated sofa with an audible thump, "it might keep the girls at school off your back for five minutes." Her eyes twinkled. "Unless you like having them offer to carry your books to class?"

"Now, Trixie," Dan said, "that was only the one time, and you know it. And it was because I was carrying that physics project—the scale model of the galaxy."

"And thanks for that, by the way," Mart cut in, shoving Trixie over to make room for himself on the couch. "You messed with the grade curve so badly that I was forced to do extra credit to keep up."

Dan took a seat on one of the chairs and propped his feet up on the chair across from him. "I do my best," he said with a satisfied smile.

"Oh, come on!" Trixie exclaimed, apparently recovered from the trauma of wearing the ugly sweater she'd been given as a gift. "It's Christmas! Are we really going to sit here and talk about homework?"

"Well, it wouldn't hurt you to at least think about it over the holidays," Brian said. "I know you're still having trouble with math."

"Bri-an!" Trixie wailed. "Not the M word! You promised!"

"I did no such thing," he said, smiling indulgently, as if he actually enjoyed being nagged by his sister. Ben watched the interaction with fascination, wondering what his life would have been like if his parents had had more children.

"Still," Trixie huffed. "It's Christmas!"

"People keep saying that," Di pointed out, "but, really, Christmas is over, isn't it? We had our Bob-White party last night, and we all opened presents with our families this morning." She shrugged. "It's over for another year, wouldn't you say?"

Dan's lips twitched. "But, Di, haven't you been watching your Christmas specials?" Adopting a serious expression, he earnestly intoned, "We're supposed to make every day of the year Christmas!"

"That's not what I meant, and you know it, Dan Mangan!" she exclaimed, her pout ruined when she joined the rest of the Bob-Whites in laughing.

"Christmas over? I should think not!" Miss Trask breezed into the room carrying an assortment of notebooks and pens. "Traditionally, Christmas is just beginning. Isn't that a lovely thought?" She handed out the supplies to each person in the room, equipping Ben with a whiteboard marker in addition to the standard writing supplies. When he looked at her questioningly, she smiled. "As the Lord of Misrule, Ben, you're taking point on this one." She gestured to the whiteboard, still smiling, and Ben coughed uncertainly.

This was worse than being called on in class. Much worse. His classes at his private prep school weren't easy, but they weren't difficult, either. By doing a minimum amount of work, he was able to maintain a solid B average. And on the few occasions he'd been caught unprepared in class, he hadn't much cared. What did it matter, after all? It only involved courses he didn't care about and teachers and students who didn't care about him.

But this wasn't calculus.

And it wasn't with people he didn't care about.

He stared at the blank whiteboard. "Miss Trask," he finally said, "I have no idea what you want here." He offered her the marker, resisting the urge to wipe his sweaty hands on his trousers.

"Oh, but that's the beauty of being the Lord of Misrule, Ben. It's not about what I want, it's about what you want."

He blinked.

What he wanted? Sleepyside wasn't magical, it was positively insane if anyone really that anything was about what he wanted. Nothing was ever about what he wanted. And yet, Miss Trask appeared to be perfectly earnest. He glanced at the Bob-Whites, expecting to see confusion, criticism, even derision. But they, too, were regarding him with expressions of quiet expectation.

They actually expected him to take charge.

Maybe this was an elaborate form of reverse psychology, he decided. Give him complete freedom so he could realize how necessary rules, regulations, and hierarchy really were. Or, more realistically, give him enough rope to hang himself.

But no.

That might be something his parents or teachers would come up with (assuming that they would contribute any thought or effort beyond the bare minimum), but it didn't seem like the Bob-White's style at all. They were decent at mysteries and fundraisers, but subtle plans were not their forte. He was fairly certain that Jim, in particular, was incapable of subterfuge. He opened his mouth (when in doubt, fill up the silence with meaningless fluff) but before he could try to charm the room, he was interrupted by the oldest Bob-White.

"Why don't you tell us a little more about the customs, Miss Trask? It might help us come up with some ideas."

Ben blew out a sigh of relief.

"Of course," she agreed, and Ben half expected to see her produce a laptop out of thin air and conjure up a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, she merely smiled and took a seat next to Trixie.

"The Lord of Misrule is most commonly associated with the late Medieval and early Tudor eras, but is also thought to have had its true origin in Rome during the Feast of Saturnalia. In Scotland the Lord of Misrule was known as the Abbot of Unreason, and in France as the Prince des Sots, and presided over the Feast of Fools and was in charge of the Christmas festivities." She paused. "And while historically this was a time of drunkenness and disorder, I think we needn't be quite that zealous in maintaining historical accuracy." She spread her hands. "But, really, what you wish to make of the tradition is up to you. This is intended to be fun, after all!"

"Which means that we won't be switching the sugar for salt," Honey said, pointing an elegant finger at her cousin as she pretended to be stern.

"No," Mart agreed thoughtfully. "But that doesn't mean we couldn't have some fun with food."

"What do you mean, Mart?" Di asked, her violet eyes wide, and Ben smiled to himself. If he was any judge, she wouldn't be inviting him for any country music marathons this holiday break.

"Well, I hadn't really—" Mart broke off, snapping his fingers in excitement. "I've got it! We could have a Cave Man Meal!" He beamed, obviously waiting to be congratulated on his idea. From the utter silence, Ben had to assume that he wasn't the only who had no idea what a Cave Man Meal was.

"I don't think I've heard of that," Honey said tactfully. "Can you explain what you're talking about?"

Mart blinked. "Of course," he agreed. "And while I'm not surprised that you, oh dignified Madeleine, are unfamiliar with this particular cuisine, I must admit to some chagrin that the rest of you are similarly unenlightened."

"Did he just call us stupid?" Trixie asked in a loud aside to Jim. "Because I'm pretty sure that he just called us stupid." She glared at her brother, blue eyes snapping with irritation.

"Mart, perhaps you'd better explain," Miss Trask suggested, giving him a pointed look.

"Right," Mart agreed, directing a smirk at his sister.

"In layman's terms," Miss Trask prompted.

He shrugged. "Simply put, we eat like cave men. No utensils."

Di blanched. "Eat with our fingers?" she asked, wrinkling her nose.

"Yep," Mart confirmed cheerfully. "And to make it even more cave man-like, I vote we have steak."

"And baked potatoes," Honey suggested, and then clapped her hand to her mouth as she giggled. "Can you imagine Mother and Daddy?" she finally said. "Oh, Ben, this is going to be fun!"

Smiling back at her, Ben was almost tempted to believe 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, 2014. Graphics copyright 2014 by Mary N.

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