Disclaimer: Trixie Belden and all of its characters belong to Random House, Inc. No profit was/is/will be produced from this page.
Most of his father's game preserve was as familiar to Jim as the very room where he slept, and usually, he could have led guided tours throughout the network of trails with his eyes closed. But even with his skills as a woodsman, he found navigating through the forested area known as the Labyrinth tricky and a tad disorienting.
The ancient trees overhead were at their peak, dense green leaves clustered together, creating a canopy of verdure. The thick foliage was only aided by the climbing vines that wound their way around the tree trunks and traveled to lay atop the branches, choking out most of the light that might have descended to the area beneath the trees, which was already dim due to the framework of leaves blocking the sun's rays.
Leaving the tapered, winding trail of trampled grass that was only somewhat traveled, Jim set off into the brush, weaving around the jungly thickets born of the shrubbery combining with the underwood. His green golf shirt caught on thorny branches several times, and he stumbled over gnarled roots protruding from the ground, but nothing deterred him from reaching his destination: in the midst of the thickets and thorns, there was a brief hollow formed by the earth sloping down suddenly, resulting in a shallow trench.
Due to its location in the recesses of the wood, the area was nearly impossible to discover if one didn't know where to look. Thanks to the overgrown boscage, no one was capable of viewing the hollow from the trail, thus it was an ideal place for clandestine meetings.
His approach was expected, but not greeted: the awaiting individual made no move to welcome him beyond arching a single, narrow eyebrow.
"Hey," Jim said with an amiable smile, hoping warmth and congeniality might defrost his companion's normally cool demeanor.
"Good of you to come," Dan returned in his usual low, unemotional tone, inclining his head, but only just.
There was a short-lived silence between as Jim concentrated on Dan, but Dan merely ignored him.
"You told me you wanted to meet here," Jim prompted him, puzzled over Dan's reluctance to launch into any sort of conversation or explanation.
"You're right," Dan replied, unperturbed, gazing at him in a manner struck Jim as that of a great cat gauging the force necessary to expend whilst killing its prey. His entire outward appearance was reminiscent of a feline, with his thin yet muscled body, lithely graceful movements, and sleek ebony hair, ever so slightly longer than could be considered proper.
Dan's eyes were particularly cat-like: a gold that was almost amber, shining brightly in the gloom, a contrast to his handsome but pale face. His stare held quiet but firm pride accompanied by detached calculation, as though he were plotting an unethical exploit, that always managed to render Jim ambivalently both uncomfortable and intrigued.
"I noticed Trixie's bracelet." A shrewd smile twisted Dan's lips, putting Jim on edge. "I see that you're marking your territory. An I.D. bracelet with your name on it for her to wear, really Jim? What's next, clubbing her over the head and dragging her back to your cave to complete the Cro-Magnon image?"
Bristling, Jim nearly opened his mouth to form an angry retort, but vanquished his impatience and forced himself to be calm. "Yeah," Jim responded levelly. "The bracelet was a present from me. I gave it to her almost three months ago, back during spring break."
Dan acknowledged this information by briefly raising both eyebrows. "And were you ever planning on telling me that you upgraded your relationship with Trixie? Or were you hoping I would just never find out that you were playing me for a fool?"
Jim's mouth went dry; he had a feeling that this situation would slip from his grasp in the very immediate future if he didn't explain himself quickly. An odd expression flashed within Dan's eyes, and Jim wondered if he saw genuine pain emerge within the golden depths that so often seemed filled with only self-satisfied mirth, coldly entertained by others' fruitless efforts toward success. "Dan, I never intended to hurt you -"
"And yet, here you are, spouting worthless clichés in hope of placating me so I'll approve that you moved on, to Trixie, despite never breaking it off with me." Dan's tone was composed, but there was a hint of bitterness. "You're the one who drew me into this . . . relationship. I didn't have anything to do with you until we began these . . . trysts at your insistence. I was lying, deceiving others, and keeping my promises to meet you in secret, because I thought you might have cared about me. "
"I'm sorry," Jim said helplessly. A prickle of suspicion ran through him, and he caught himself wondering if Dan was only feigning his dismay, but then he discarded the notion; icy as he was, Dan had the right to emote as anyone else did, and he had no reason to delude Jim. What could Dan possibly gain from such duplicity?
"No, I'm the one who should be sorry," Dan decided. "I trusted you, I allowed you to lead me to believe that our association could continue without consequence, and I never stopped you when I had the chance, now all of which appear to have snowballed into a colossally regrettable mistake."
Desperately, Jim struggle for an adequate response. "I didn't mean to lead you on."
"You did," Dan replied dispassionately. "At the beginning, when I wasn't sure what I wanted, you told me that I could trust you. And then you ditched me in order to feel better about yourself."
Jim knew that he had to at least try to appeal to Dan. "Please don't let this define our ties to one another, Dan."
"What 'ties'?" Dan queried, his voice devoid of feeling. "You don't really seem to be particularly 'tied' to Trixie or me. You tricked her as much as you tricked me. Do you think I never wanted to chase a pretty girl when we were together? Trust me, I did. But I didn't, because I foolishly thought we were committed to each other, even if the commitment on my part stemmed from being the employee of your father."
"What?" Jim gasped. "How- why- "
"The playing field between us was never even," Dan said dismissively. "Did it never occur to you as someone older and wealthier than me, and in a position of influence to my employer, you had considerable power over me?"
"I don't want -"
"I don't care about what you want or don't want," Dan informed him bluntly. "When you first established your feelings for me, I knew that I was the one who'd suffer the most if anyone realized what existed between us. It's fun to play games and keep secrets when you're a kid, but now this could get us killed. I'm putting everything on the line for us, and now you're keeping me in auxiliary in case some girl doesn't pull through for you."
"It's not just 'some girl'!" Jim burst out. "It's Trixie!"
Dan shook his head, as if amused. "I guess I should allow you the comfort of feeling normal for a change. The relationship between us was forbidden, and I suppose you wanted something more ordinary, something more 'natural.' After all, you can't be 'honorable' and 'noble' if you're attracted to another guy instead of a girl, right?" His gaze was nothing short of frigid. "Don't take my rationalization of your actions as forgiveness, though, because it's not. People like you disgust me, thinking that your money entitles you to treat people however you want. That you can just use me and throw me aside, like some broken toy."
"Dan- " Jim's large grasped the other teen's slim shoulder. "I didn't want it to end up this way."
For a moment, Dan's eyes softened. "You wanted both of us. Trixie. Me. But you can only have one. And if I'm not there, you'll have Trixie." Then his gaze hardened. "If you ever reveal what went on between us, Jim, remember that we both have something to lose, even yours isn't as significant as mine. I can hurt you in ways you couldn't imagine." A chill surged over Jim as Dan stared at him intensely, pale face eerily blank. "And I'll twist the knife, literal or metaphorical, just to watch you suffer." With that final testament, Dan turned his back and departed, but not before Jim thought he saw a spark of complacency in Dan's gaze.
As he dispiritedly watched Dan vanish into the brush, a sorrowful sigh was expelled from the very bottom of Jim's lungs, and he once again found himself pushing away the idea that he had been the one played.
Twelve years later
Though the temperature wasn't as high as it could have been considering the usual summer weather, Jim still welcomed the cool of the air-conditioning on his skin as he entered his Chicago-style bungalow. What he didn't mind was the warmth of the satisfaction that brought a ready smile to his face: he and his wife had arranged this barbeque with the hope of reuniting all of the Bob-Whites, now adults with their own spouses, for food and fun, and it seemed that they had achieved their aim.
Musing as he made his way to the kitchen to fetch more meat for the grill, Jim observed the interior of the house. Fresh paint coated the walls and the windows were framed by new curtains, but the decoration of collections of framed photos and various souvenir knickknacks wasn't exactly sophisticated and revealed he and Trixie's inexperience with domestic enhancements.
The home he and Trixie had purchased together was modest and not exactly the most appealing, but they had added an elaborate back deck furnished with all the best patio furniture with the tasteful, matching accessories of candles and garden lights that hung from the tree limbs. Extensive flowers beds, the products of days of hard work by both himself and Trixie, lined the house and the perimeter of the front and back lawns.
It was good for them, that they had their own projects to work on, to occupy their time. One of the reasons Jim had married Trixie was because he thought he had known her inside and out, but now, Trixie had proved herself to be such a different person than he had imagined that he was beginning to think he would have had more success getting to know a virtual stranger.
But their marriage was still young, Jim decided. They still had time to learn about each other and understand the other's personality.
On his way to the freezer, a glint of light on the dark, polished hardwood floor of the hallway caught his eye. Curious, he turned and strode in its direction, to find that the gleam was actually a shard of burnished metal reflecting the surrounding illumination.
Crouching down to retrieve the ornament, Jim realized that it was attached to an elegant chain; in fact, it was Trixie's gold locket, a gift of gratitude from Edgar Carver, a Southerner who had regained his family's lost emeralds thanks to Trixie.
Pensive, Jim fingered the delicate casing of the miniature metal heart. Though Trixie had barely worn the necklace as a teenager, it was now one of her favorite jewelry pieces, which she used with almost every outfit. When nervous or apprehensive, she toyed with the locket, and she slept with the necklace set carefully on the lace doily of their oak bedside table, which sat nearby her side of the bed.
When Trixie was presented the locket, Jim had taken it for granted that his photo would be going inside; at that time, during her early teens, Trixie had harbored a not-so-subtle crush on him. Jim had never legitimately returned her feelings due to their age difference: when a girl was only fourteen, it looked odd for her to be dating a seventeen-year-old guy.
Now, an inexplicable feeling of doubt and dread overcame Jim as he gazed at the locket, questioning its contents. He'd never seen the inside of the locket, but surely, as Trixie's husband, it would be his photo that was there?
His fingers shook for whatever reason as he attempted to open the clasp that sealed the locket shut, and he fumbled with the tiny metal shell for several minutes.
When the locket sprang open, Jim truly didn't expect to see his own smiling face with his trademark crooked grin staring back at him, but what he found surprised him.
It was Honey, of all people, whose picture resided in Trixie's locket. Her high school senior photo, by the looks of it: she wore a pale yellow blouse with a string of pearls around her graceful throat. She was lovely, with her light brown hair shining under the light and a sweet smile on her gentle features.
Utterly perplexed by this unforeseen turn of event, Jim stood in the same spot for several moments, trying to reach a conclusion of why Honey's photo occupied the space in Trixie's locket. So absorbed in his thoughts was he that the sound of approaching footsteps eluded him, and he didn't register anyone else's presence until a voice spoke.
"Honey has been Trixie's best friend for over a decade. Trixie can't really forget about her just because she's married. What kind of loyalty would that be?"
The voice belonged to none other than Dan; handsome as ever, he had retained his athletic body of a lean frame with streamlined muscles.
There were layers to his tone when he spoke, as if a message was hidden within, but the words were spoken with a veiled insolence and an almost lazy inflection.
Meeting Dan's golden-amber gaze, Jim saw smug satisfaction there, and was transported to the incident between them that had occurred years ago, in the woods. A string of memories replayed in his mind, but he forcibly drove them out of his head. It wasn't the time for that.
Unease tingled down Jim's spine: unless Dan had seen the contents of the locket prior to this encounter, there was no way Dan could know whose picture resided inside. From the angle at which Dan was standing, he could only see the locket's outer casing, and it would have been impossible for him to so much as glimpse the interior.
Jim rose, pasting a smile on his face, and extended his hand. "Hey, Dan. Haven't had the chance to talk to you yet. How's it going?"
"Jane and I are doing well, thanks." If Dan detected any reluctance from Jim, he didn't let it show; he responded with a well-structured smile and poised response. Jim was only able to recognize its artificial nature because he put on a facade of happiness and congeniality frequently now that he was married.
But Dan was only being truthful when he said he and his wife, Jane Morgan, were doing well. She had kept her maiden when the two had wed, if only because she was a very well-known New York Times bestselling author, who had a contract for at least a dozen more novels.
As for Dan, after finishing law school, his determination had manifested, and he had won himself an ambitious position at a prestigious law firm. Judging by the debonair sports car in which the two had arrived that now reposed in the driveway, they definitely weren't encountering financial difficulties.
Dan sent an oblique glance in Jim's direction, unusual eyes gleaming as the light of the setting sun streamed into the kitchen, then strolled to the window that allowed view of the patio. He and Jane were both dressed in urbane designer clothes, their outfits somewhat too stylish and extravagant than a backyard barbeque warranted, but neither seemed to mind the attention their sophisticated clothing drew to them.
From where Jim stood, he could saw out the window also; Dan was off to the side as he looked out, as though presenting the image to Jim like a game show hostess.
The guests stood in a circle: Mart was laughing with Diana's husband, Brian's wife was chatting with Honey, and Honey's husband engaging in animated conversation with Jane. Brian, Trixie and Diana were talking as they monitored the food on the grill, ascertaining none of the food burned during Jim's absence.
Jim's heart lightened as he saw his wife. Trixie would never be a slender, statuesque beauty, but her stocky frame lent her soft curves, and her face, though freckled and framed by tangled sandy hair, was usually adorned with a cheerful smile: both of these were attributes that Jim greatly appreciated.
"Isn't it nice," Dan said in a voice that Jim could only describe as poisoned honey, "that we've managed to come back together after going our separate ways. It's so . . . heartwarming."
"I suppose," Jim answered guardedly, wondering what Dan insinuating.
"Especially Trixie and Honey," Dan continued. "They were such close friends during their high school years that I never thought they could bear to leave one another. Their devotion to each other was quite touching."
"They still are close," Jim stated cautiously.
"Not as they once were," Dan disagreed, self-satisfaction prominent in his glimmering gold eyes despite his casual tone. "Once upon a time, I thought they would stay together forever. They weren't unlike you and I when we were younger, you know."
Jim's stomach plummeted as Dan's verbal bombshell devastated his world, unwanted realization dawning on him. Honey's picture wasn't in Trixie's locket because they were best friends, but because they had been-
"Of course," Dan went on, with an air that might have been intended to be indifferent, but was ruined by his self-approving manner, "they broke apart when you returned after they had finished high school, and Trixie went running to you." His smile held no warmth and was similar to the razor-sharp teeth of a shark as it prepared to devour a helpless infant seal. "I suppose if Trixie couldn't have the forbidden one, she would have to settle for the other available to her."
Blood pounded in Jim's veins, and he closed his eyes to ward off a wave of weariness that washed over him as his joviality suddenly drained away.
"I'll be seeing you," Dan said with a smirk, totally unconcerned, and with that, he sauntered back to the door, rejoining the guests on the back porch.
Left alone in the fading light, Jim was struck by the impression that he had been manipulated and tricked by Dan once more.