You have a deep, dark secret,” Trixie Belden accused, pointing a chocolate cake batter-covered spatula at her friend and fellow Bob-White, Dan Mangan.

“Baby, I am all about deep, dark secrets,” he teased, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. He reached around her so that he could dip his finger into the bowl. He licked the batter off the tip of his finger, keeping his eyes on her.

“I’m serious!” Trixie protested, giving him a little push away from her. “And stop eating the batter! I want Mr. Maypenny’s birthday cake to be perfect.”

“Then shouldn’t your mom be making it?” Dan asked, his expression deceptively innocent.

“Oh, you did not just say that.” Trixie pressed her lips together to hide her smile. Though she loved Dan’s sharp teasing, it would never do to let him know. She still hated Mart’s digs, but she found that Dan’s didn’t bother her in nearly the same way. Probably because he always followed them up with one of the sultry, lazy looks he seemed to save just for her. As if he already knew that he was the only one whose teasing didn’t sting…

“And stop distracting me!” she ranted. “I am going to figure out whatever it is that you’re hiding.”

Dan shrugged and sat down at the cheerful kitchen table. Drumming his fingers nonchalantly on the checked table cloth, he motioned for her to continue. “Hit me with it,” he told her. “Fire away. Do your worst.”

She cautiously poured the batter from the mixing bowl into the cake pan. “Well, you certainly don’t make a secret of your urge to use really bad metaphors.”

“Hanging out with Mart has to count for something,” Dan agreed. “I’ve been getting really good marks on my English papers.”

“I thought that was because Mr. Maypenny doesn’t have a television and he only has Shakespeare and Dickens in his library.”

“So, is my secret that I’m well read? ‘T’is a far, far better thing I do’ and all that nonsense?”

Trixie scowled. “I didn’t know it was possible to love and hate the ending of a book at the same time.” She set the egg-shaped timer on the top of the stove and placed the cake in the oven. “Mr. Maypenny does like chocolate, right?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Though he’d probably like it even better if you sprinkled a little bacon on top. The man is a serious meatatarian.”

She stared at him blankly, trying to envision adapting her mother’s chocolate cake recipe to include bacon.

“He’ll love the cake,” Dan assured her. “I’m sure he’s not expecting anything at all. And you know he thinks that anything made in Crabapple Farm’s kitchen is, by definition, delicious.”

“Maybe you’re really a closet pastry chef,” Trixie speculated, turning her attention back to his deep, dark secret.

“Do you really think I’d still have this stomach,” he paused to pat his muscular abdomen, “if I were a pastry chef? Not likely.”

“True.” Running water in the sink, she began washing the mixing bowl and utensils she had dirtied in her quest to create the perfect birthday surprise. Dan joined her, snagging the dish towel hanging on the stove as he walked by.

“All out of guesses?” he questioned, clucking his tongue. “You’re slipping, Detective Belden.”

“Ha! You admit it! You do have a deep, dark secret!”

He dried a spatula and placed it in the kitchen caddy. “Everyone has at least one secret.”

“But yours is a big one.” She scrubbed at particularly sticky spot on the mixing bowl. “Not drugs.”

He looked at her, his expression a combination of surprise and wariness.

“Oh, I don’t doubt you’ve done drugs,” Trixie said in her best matter-of-fact voice. “I just don’t think that’s your secret. It’s in your past, and you’ve moved on. You were open enough about it when you smelled the marijuana on Honey and me. No, you’re definitely not a drug user.”

Dan inclined his head slightly.

“And I don’t think you have a secret love child stashed away some place,” she continued.

“Geez, Trix!” he exclaimed, his eyes bugging out. “Where are you coming up with this stuff?”

She shrugged. “I’m trying to get the big stuff out of the way. Your secret’s in there somewhere.”

He shook his head and turned back to drying the dishes. “You’re kind of scary.”

“Only to people trying to hide things from me.” She rinsed the mixing bowl and set it in the drain tray to dry. “Now,” she said, taking a dried dish from his hand and putting it away, “where was I?”

“Planning my life as a druggie daddy?” Dan asked.

“No…” she drummed her fingers restlessly on the table top as she sat down and snagged a cookie. “No, your deep, dark secret has something to do with why you so seldom go on any trips with the Bob-Whites.”

Dan said nothing and concentrated on his own chocolate chip cookie.

“No denial?” Trixie questioned. “No witty rebuttal?” She crowed in delight. “I’m getting somewhere, aren’t I!”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re always getting somewhere, Trix. Whether that somewhere has anything to do with the truth or not is completely unrelated.”

“Hey!” she protested good-naturedly. “If you would just tell me what your secret is, I wouldn’t have to be going somewhere I shouldn’t be going.” She stopped. “Wait. Did that make sense?”

He snickered and broke off a piece of cookie to eat. “You almost make me wish I had a secret to share.”

“Nuh uh.” She shook her head. “You can’t throw me off that easily. Your secret really does have something to do with why you stay home so much.” Abandoned her cookie, she studied her friend, her expression serious. She bit her bottom lip. “You know that you can trust me, right?”

Dan’s expression softened at her earnest entreaty. “Yes.”

His simple, truthful answer helped, but Trixie felt the need to press. “And you know that you don’t need to protect me? I mean, no matter what your secret is, I won’t think of you differently. I can handle it,” she assured him confidently.

“Trixie, I have no doubt that you can handle anything that comes your way.” Dan cringed inwardly, knowing that he wasn’t being entirely truthful. As much as he trusted and respected the abilities of the curly-haired detective, there were certain things that he would continue to protect her from. And secrets that he would keep from her. Lying to her was one of the very last things that he ever wanted to do, but in this case, he couldn’t see his way clear to being open.

“But you do go on some trips,” Trixie continued, apparently accepting his statement. “And not just the in-state trips like the one to New York City. You travelled down the Mississippi with us when we were after Lontard. So distance isn’t an issue,” she concluded. “There’s no court order forcing you to stay in-state.”

Dan shook his head. Damn, he thought. That was one rumour that he had hoped to promote. He should have realized that Trixie would eventually see through it…

“And you’re not still secretly in the Cowhands. I mean, despite your membership in the Bob-Whites, you’re totally a lone wolf.” Her eyes widened and he froze. “Lone wolf.”

He waited for the axe to fall.

Staring at his mouth, she said, “You never have to go to the dentist.”

Recovering himself, he threw her what he hoped would be a distracting smile. “Good oral hygiene.”

She nodded sceptically. “You’ve never missed school for a doctor appointment, either.”

“What can I say? I’m just your typical healthy, wholesome guy,” he quipped.

Trixie burst into laughter. “Dan, you’re one of my very favourite people, but wholesome is not a word I typically associate with you.”

“I’m wounded,” he claimed, clutching his chest theatrically.

Her eyes widened. “That’s it! You don’t have a heart!” she breathed. “Maybe you’re a vampire. It would explain why you always look so good,” she muttered, almost to herself.

Dan rolled his eyes and took her hand in his. He placed her hand on his heart, and then held it there so that she could feel its firm beat. “See? Fully functioning heart.”

Trixie blushed, realizing how close she was to being in his arms. Dan released her, but not before he’d turned her insides to mush with a predatory smile.

“I give up. For now,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “But I’m keeping my eye on you. One of these days, you’ll slip up, and I’ll figure it out.”

He shrugged into the black leather jacket he’d bought to replace the one the Cowhands had given him and stood at the back door. “So we’ll see you tonight at the cabin?” he confirmed.

She glanced at the oven and nodded. Just the thought of surprising Mr. Maypenny with a homemade birthday cake put a smile on her face and pushed her mystery-solving thoughts to the background. “Not too late, though,” she reminded him. “There’s almost no moon tonight.”

Dan hid a smile and stepped through the door. “Don’t I know it,” he murmured as he loped away from Crabapple Farm at a gentle jog. Half way to the cabin he stopped and let loose one long, plaintive howl. Eventually, he knew, Trixie would figure it out. It was only a process of elimination.

Author’s Notes

This is a submission for Mal and Ryl’s annual Halloween Challenge. As always, it was a blast to work together with the lovely Mal to come up with this year’s theme. Sometimes I could swear that we share a brain! *grin* Thanks for working with me again and for doing all the heavy lifting, my friend.

Thanks to MaryN (Dianafan) who edited and created these awesomely spooky graphics. You’re the best!

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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