A/N: Thank you, again, to those who have been leaving feedback for my stories! I really appreciate it. This is another story that takes place within the same universe as the book I want to write for Camp NaNoWriMo, without being an actual part of that book. (See? I'm being good and not starting early. Yay, me.)

In case you read this first without reading the earlier stories: 1) This is NOT a Jim & Trixie story and 2) I have done/will continue to do several things that violate canon. This is deliberate, so yes, this is all very much AU. For instance, Uncle Bill has become Uncle Liam simply because I don't know any Williams under the age of about 50 who choose to have "Bill" as a nickname any more. :)

Also, oddly enough, and without any plans to do so, I have been consistently working my way back in time with these stories, so this one takes place while Mart, Dan, and the girls are still in high school.

The Cold Lake Murders: Interlude – The Beginning of the End

"And furthermore," Regan lectured on, wondering how many more times in his life he would find himself saying the exact same words, "these are horses! Not bicycles. You don't just pay attention to them whenever it happens to be convenient -" He cut himself off as a slight movement next to him caught his attention. He turned to look at Trixie fully and his frown grew. She was standing at his side in the center aisle of the stable, mimicking his stance with her fists on her hips. Her eyes were narrowed and lips pursed in an exaggerated scowl as she pretended to glare at her brother and friends.

"What are you doing?" he demanded.

Not at all deterred by his hard tone, Trixie peered up at him, adopting a determined look. "I am making sure they know just how much trouble they are in, Captain Grumpy Pants, sir!" she declared before executing a smart salute. "We'll have these lazy, no-good wastrels whipped into shape in no time!"

Honey drew in a sharp breath, wondering if she should simply grab her best friend's arm and make a run for it. This time, she thought, Trixie had gone too far. She braced herself for an explosion from the groom. Maybe this would be it. Maybe this time, he really would quit.

For a long moment, the only sounds in the stable were of the horses shifting restlessly in their stalls and a low humming drone from one of the gardeners passing by on a riding lawn mower. Then Regan slowly shook his head, dropping his hands loosely to his sides. A wry smile replaced his angry grimace. "Trixie, is there any chance you could not undermine my authority quite so much sometimes?" he asked ruefully.

"I'm only trying to support you here, Regan," she replied innocently. She cocked her head to one side and flashed him an impish grin. "Okay. Yes, they've been a little negligent about exercising the horses the past couple of weeks, but we are going into finals right now and everybody is studying like mad."

"You don't seem to have any trouble making it up here every few days," he pointed out.

"That's because my own brand of madness doesn't include much studying," she admitted with a chuckle. She waved a hand at the others. "They actually care about their GPAs. I'm running with the idea that 70 is passing, and 71 is overkill."

"Uncle Liam," Dan cut in quietly, "we are sorry about not putting in more time with the horses lately."

"We promise we'll try to do better," Honey rushed to add.

Regan looked at the four teens regarding him apologetically, and bit back a sigh. "I know. Go on. Get them saddled up for your ride."

He put out a hand to stop Trixie before she could move to join them. "Do you want a part-time job?" he asked, surprising her. "For the summer and your senior year?"

"You mean... here? Working for you?"

"Yes."

"Wouldn't you need to clear that with Mr. Wheeler first?"

"He suggested it himself last week. Jim and Brian are already away at school. Mart and Dan will be leaving in a few months. That just leaves you three girls here."

"Mr. Wheeler said you should hire me?" Trixie's voice revealed her skepticism.

"He said we should look at hiring someone," Regan clarified. "A part-time employee who could help make certain the horses are exercised on a regular basis. I'm asking if you want to be that someone."

She considered his words. "You want to pay me to ride the horses?" she asked finally, still doubtful.

"It would be a bit more involved than that. For one thing, you'll be training your eventual replacements."

She regarded him blankly.

"Bobby and both sets of the Lynch twins," he explained, answering her unspoken question. "The expectation is that in a few years we're going to have an entirely new crew of crazy teenagers running amok around here."

"Amok?" she echoed, suddenly smiling. "Look at you, busting out the Mart-ish word. I knew getting you that Word-of-the-Day calendar for Christmas was a good idea."

"Ouch! You are determined to knock me down a peg or two this morning." He laughed softly as he said it. "Maybe I should rethink this job offer."

"Maybe you should," she agreed. "You really want someone who is always undermining your authority to be working for you?"

"Well, maybe if I hire you on, Miss Fidget, I can pay you to act like you understand I'm supposed to be the one in charge. And at least I know things would never be too dull or quiet around here. I suppose that has to count for something, right?"

Trixie's answering laugh was full of merriment. "It would be so awesome if that was the criteria on all job applications," she said. "Then I might actually stand a chance out there in the 'real world.' Okay, I'll have to run it by Moms and Dad first, so my answer is provisional, and I'm sure there's gonna be some caveat regarding my grades, but yeah, it would be cool to work here, Regan."

"Provisional? Caveat?" Regan said, one brow raised. "I take it the reason you never actually gave me that Word-of-the-Day calendar for Christmas was because you decided at the last minute to keep it for yourself?"

"Oh... snap!" Trixie grinned again. "Touché, Regan. You win that round."

Trixie hurried to saddle Susie and join her friends for a morning ride and picnic by the lake. On Dan's suggestion, they rode the trail that took them across the eastern portion of the preserve, skirting along the back of Ten Acres, before cutting south to come out on Glen Road near Lytell's convenience store. Turning west, then, they made their way along at a leisurely gait, finally reaching the Wheelers' lake just before noon. The weather was hot, but not miserably so. Wispy cirrus clouds stretched out across the sky high above, faint splotches of hazy white against the atmosphere's light blue.

They left the horses in the shade of a copse, content to nibble at the grasses growing on the ground. Mart spread out the old blanket he'd brought while Di unpacked the food from the two soft-sided coolers Moms had packed for the teens that morning.

"Okay, Trix," Honey said. "Seriously. Now that we can all talk, explain!"

"Huh?" Trixie replied as she handed paper napkins around. "Explain what? I have no idea what you're talking about, Hon."

"Did you or did you not just accept a job offer to work in our stable?" Honey demanded, wide-eyed. She sat down on the blanket and reached for a sandwich.

"Oh. Well, yeah. I mean, assuming Moms and Dad say it's okay," Trixie responded, dropping down next to her.

"Why...?"

Trixie hesitated before responding, glancing at her brother. He nodded once. He knew exactly why she'd done so. She looked back at her friend. "To save money for school," she explained. "We all know I'm not going to be winning any major scholarships. And we found out recently that since Dad was promoted to executive manager of the bank, he makes too much money for any of us to qualify for a Pell grant. So even though he still can't afford to have three kids in college at the same time, that potential source of funds is all dried up. Fortunately, Brian and Mart are uber-geeks, so they'll be okay, but for me, I need to be looking at earning as much money as I can. I really don't want to become one of those awful student loan statistics, you know?"

Honey flushed and looked away while Di bit down on her lip and busied herself with peeling an orange. "Guys!" Trixie said, some exasperation seeping into her tone. "It's okay! It's not like I'm mad at either of you for having rich folks! I could really use a job, and Regan offered me one that beats the heck outta asking people if they wanna super-size their orders. It's no big deal."

Honey nodded, but still didn't quite meet Trixie's gaze. Recognizing the need to change subjects, Mart leaned forward and picked up a chocolate muffin. "I think I'm going to start this meal with dessert," he announced loftily. "And I dare any of you to stop me!"

It was almost two hours later by the time they'd eaten, returned the horses to the stable, and properly cleaned up. As Mart and Trixie made their way to the trail that ran along the edge of the preserve and connected with a footpath that would bring them to Crabapple Farm, they heard Dan calling to them. They slowed to allow him to catch up.

"Hey," he said as he neared. He shot Mart a glance. "Can I talk to your sister alone for a few minutes?"

Mart shrugged both shoulders. "Sure. Though why you'd want to do so voluntarily..." He smirked at Trixie before ambling away, soon disappearing around a bend in the path.

Trixie regarded Dan curiously. "What's up?"

"Uh... about this job," he began slowly.

"Yeah?"

"You might want to think about it some more, before you agree officially."

"Why?" Trixie asked, brow furrowed. "You aren't trying to tell me I won't like having your uncle for a boss, are you?"

"No. That's not it at all. Well, I don't know. He might be a total slave-driver if you're getting paid to be there. But that's not what I'm talking about."

"Okay. So what are you talking about then?"

"Freckles, it's different when you actually work for the Wheelers."

Trixie stared at him in confusion. "What?"

Dan expelled a breath, impatient with himself as he tried to figure out how to phrase what he wanted to say. "You'll be an employee. That... puts a bit of a wall between you and the family. They won't mean to treat you any differently, but... it's just there."

Trixie shook her head and started walking along the trail. "The Wheelers aren't snobs, Dan," she said firmly.

"I know that, Trix," he said, keeping pace with her. "I might be in a better position than you to know it, really. I've been working for them for a couple of years now. Which is my point. I'm only a part-time gamekeeper, but it means when it comes to me and Honey and Jim, we're on different social levels. I work for their dad."

"Now, wait a minute, Cowboy!" Trixie stated, anger rising, as she came to a halt again. "Jim and Honey have never, ever been anything less than good friends to you-"

"Stop," Dan said, putting both hands on her shoulders and cutting off her tirade. "Please just listen to me, okay?"

Stormy blue eyes met chocolate brown ones, but after a pause, Trixie nodded her agreement.

"Think about all the trips and activities the Bob-Whites have been on that I missed, because I was working. There are plenty of times I'd love to be hanging out with you guys, but I can't, because I've got a job to do. You know how embarrassed Honey and Jim get about having money when we don't. When I have to tell them I can't do something because I've got to work, it's always obvious they feel awful about it, especially because I work for their dad."

"Dan, I need a job. Whether I work for Regan and the Wheelers or start ringing up Tastykakes and Slushies at Lytell's won't make any difference. I'm gonna miss out on a lot, too." Trixie held her hand up in a helpless gesture. "I can't change that."

Dan sighed and released her. "Okay, Freckles. I guess I won't say anything more, but... while I wouldn't wish working for Old Man Lytell on anybody, I still think you might want to look elsewhere beyond the Wheelers' stable for a job. At least consider it."

Dan walked her the rest of the way home, then took the long way back to the cabin he shared with Mr. Maypenny, lost in thought. He paid no attention to the chirping birds flitting among the treetops or the growing shadows of the afternoon darkening the trails he followed. He knew Trixie didn't really understand what he'd tried to explain to her, and he realized that was mostly his fault. If she did decide to go to work for his uncle, he guessed there wasn't much he could do but hope for the best, though he found his optimism level was distinctly low in this case.