A/N: One of the many things I changed in this AU is the location of Sleepyside-on-the-Hudson. Because of the population growth that has taken place in Westchester County and for a few other reasons, I moved Sleepyside a little north, to a fictional county located between Putnam and Dutchess, which I have named Harrison County. I wanted to maintain the same small-town, rural feel of the books, so this was my solution.
Standard reminder: This is NOT a Jim & Trixie story, although in this case, they are still dating. This story takes place about five months after the last one, The Beginning of the End.
Many, many thanks to everyone posting reviews.
The Cold Lake Murders: Interlude – Each Brick Laid
"Holy flaming fish tacos!" Trixie exclaimed with a breathless laugh as she stumbled into the stable. She shook her head, combing her fingers through her wildly tousled curls. "Who ordered up the tornado for the afternoon?" She tugged at the scarf around her neck, undoing the knot, and dropped it on the old, wooden three-legged stool sitting just outside the feed room.
"Well, it wasn't me," an amused voice replied.
Trixie's eyes widened and she spun around. "Jim! You're here!"
Jim stepped out of Regan's office, grinning. "Keen observation, Detective Belden."
She crossed to him quickly, launching herself into his arms for a welcoming hug before pulling back to lightly smack him in the chest. "You didn't tell me you were going to make it home this weekend!"
"I wanted to surprise you," he explained.
"And you did," she replied, flashing a winning smile. She stood on her toes and pressed her lips to his in a soft, brief kiss, conscious of her boss sitting at his desk a few feet away.
"I know you're going to Di's Halloween party tomorrow night," Jim began, "so-"
"You're coming, too, yeah?" Trixie broke in excitedly. "If you don't have a costume, I'm sure Honey can zombie-fy you or something."
Chuckling, Jim nodded. "I'll be there, though I might skip the dressing up part."
"You can't! What fun is going to a Halloween party without a costume?" She studied him thoughtfully. "If you don't want to be a zombie, we can come up with something different. Warlock? Ghost?"
"Okay! Okay!" Jim exclaimed, palms up in defeat. "I'll figure that out tomorrow morning, all right? But right now, I thought we could go into town and catch an early movie and then have dinner. I want to be able to spend some time just the two of us before I have to drive back to school on Sunday, and this might be our only opportunity."
"Oh. I... um... I can't, Jim. Not right now. I'm working until 6:30. I can go after that, though. We could have dinner first and then see a movie."
Jim took her hand. "Nope. We can go now," he assured her. "I already cleared it with Regan."
Trixie's eyes flew to Regan for a moment. His expression was impassive, but he nodded in agreement with Jim's statement. She frowned at him before looking back at her boyfriend. "Jim, I would love to go out with you tonight," she said carefully, "but after I get off from work. I already promised Regan I would help inspect all the tack this afternoon in an inventory check. We're looking to see what might need replacing soon."
"It's all right, Trixie," Regan said. "Jim drove a long way to see you."
Trixie chewed on her lower lip, torn.
Jim pulled her away from the office, out of sight and earshot of the groom. They stopped in front of Lady's stall. "Trix?" he said quietly. "It's okay. I appreciate that you don't want to go back on your word with Regan, but he's told me it's no problem. He said you can help with the inventory on another day. I hate that I wasn't able to make it back a few weeks ago to take you to the Homecoming dance. Let me make it up to you now."
Trixie regarded Jim pensively, knowing he didn't understand her hesitation. Of course Regan would say there's no problem, she thought. What else could he do? If your boss's son says he wants to take your assistant out for the day, it's not like you're going to say 'no' to that. But rather than give voice to her unhappy musings, she forced another smile to her face. "Right. Let me go talk to him for a minute, and call Moms and let her know where I'll be for the night, and then I'll be ready to go."
She hurried to Regan's office. He set down his mug of coffee and reached for an envelope propped up against his monitor. "Here. Have fun tonight."
Trixie winced as she accepted her paycheck. "Oh, geeze. Thanks. And I am so sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for," he said, smiling gently. "Go. Have a good time. You deserve it. I'll see you on Monday."
"I can come up Sunday afternoon if you want," she offered as she folded the envelope in half and tucked it into her jacket pocket.
"Why don't we play it by ear?" he replied easily. "You may be worn out after all the activities you've got going on for the weekend."
It was a quarter after four when Jim and Trixie left the Manor House estate. Jim drove along Glen Road to Jameson Banks Road, then headed east toward the Harrison Expressway and The Wappinger Valley Mall, an entertainment and shopping complex that attracted customers from all corners of the county. Trixie watched the scenery fly by, taking in the glorious autumn colors that blanketed the forests of New York State's Hudson River Valley area. Fall was her favorite time of year.
The cinema was almost empty when they arrived. The Friday movie-going crowd would be turning out for the later shows, and Trixie suspected there would be a large number of people seeking indoor entertainment for the night in the face of the chill, blustery weather that had blown in from the north earlier that day. For now, a handful of young families were lined up to purchase tickets and they joined them, studying the offerings and times listed on the marquee boards running along the back wall of the ticket booth.
They immediately ruled out both animated features playing, and agreed that neither had any interest in whatever My Best Friend's Lover might be. After some debate and a suggestion from the ticket seller, they settled on an action-thriller and soon found themselves alone in the theater.
"Gosh," Trixie said with mock-seriousness. "It's lucky we got here a little early. Otherwise, we might have had a hard time finding a good place to sit."
Chuckling, Jim lead her up a few rows, then across to the center seats. "We can pretend we're getting a private screening."
"Someone else may come in," Trixie pointed out. "We've still got fifteen minutes until the movie starts."
The time passed quickly, as Jim entertained Trixie with stories about his roommate at Dartmouth, a transfer student and Miami native with a humorous number of "fish-out-of-water" moments accumulating in his college career. Trixie was glad for the distraction. In the back of her mind, a feeling that could only be described as guilt lurked. Unfortunately, once the lights went down and the film started, she found her thoughts straying to her job, her attention on the action in front of her only minimal.
She knew Regan genuinely wasn't angry with her for ditching her duties in favor of spending the evening with her boyfriend. In the several months that she'd worked for him now, she'd never once missed a day for any reason. Jim's arrival was an unexpected event that would not happen on a regular basis and as such, could definitely be treated as a special occasion. And Regan knew just how disappointed Trixie had been when Jim was unable to return to town for Homecoming weekend. She'd gone to the football game with her friends, but then skipped the big dance. Missing the Homecoming dance of her senior year was something she knew she'd regret, but she simply couldn't bring herself to go without a date. Dan would have taken her, of course, if he hadn't been thousands of miles away in Texas. The following week, Nick sent her an email admonishing her for not letting him know of her date-less dilemma and reminding her that he was only a few hours away in the city, available in a friends-only capacity if she ever needed him. It was nice to know she had such good friends, but in the end... they weren't Jim.
She fought off a frown as she pondered their earlier conversation. It didn't bother her that Jim had assumed she'd want to spend the evening out with him, because of course she did. There really was no question there. But still a tiny seed of worry swirled through her thoughts. The Jim she'd met that fateful summer a few years before would not ever have suggested anyone cut out on the obligations of a paying job to go to the movies. When had he changed? Would he have done the same if she'd been working anywhere but the Manor House stable? Had he simply taken it for granted that Regan wouldn't object?
Stop it! she sternly chastised herself. This was different. He'd driven for hours to come home and surprise her. Maybe it would have been better if he'd arranged it ahead of time, so that she could've spoken with Regan first, but perhaps it had been a last minute decision on his part. In any case, she was making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. She resolutely forced herself to dedicate her full concentration to the movie and let her doubts go, at least for the time being.
Five minutes later, she knew exactly who the real villain was and how the film would end. She grimaced in disgust. So much for Robbie the Ticket Seller's praise and recommendation!
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. The strong winds of the day before had died down, and the air was brisk and refreshing. Trixie spent a few hours with her mother and baby brother, raking and tidying up the front and back yards. After a lunch of potato-onion soup and Irish soda bread, she packed a duffel bag with various items she would need for her costume.
Bobby wandered into her room and sat down on her bed with a heavy sigh. "I need help, Sis."
Hiding a smile, Trixie kept her tone casual. "Oh, yeah?"
"Dad's still not back from the mechanic's and Moms is baking stuff for me to take to the school fall fest tonight."
"There's a pumpkin carving contest," he continued. "I really wanna win it. Reggie Whitcliff has been bragging all week about how he's gonna have the best Jack-O'-Lantern. Can you help me?"
Trixie zipped up her duffel bag and set it on her desk chair. "Why didn't you come to me earlier about this, Bobby?"
"I didn't think I needed to," he told her. "Dad was gonna help me. We bought the pumpkin yesterday, but he had to take Moms' car in this morning so can you please help? Please?"
Trixie smiled faintly. "Yeah. I'll help. C'mere and we'll see what ideas we can find online." She booted up her laptop and ran a quick search. "Don't pick anything too complicated," she cautioned. "We don't have a lot of time, and I'm certainly no expert at this."
After some consideration, Bobby decided on a spooked cat design. Trixie wasn't terribly confident they'd be able to pull it off, but she sent him to the den to turn on the family's printer and they printed a copy of the outline. In the kitchen, they covered the table with an old, striped vinyl cloth and set to work.
While Helen Belden whipped up a batch of her famous triple-chocolate brownies, Trixie and Bobby gutted the pumpkin, picking out the seeds to be later cleaned and roasted. A light breeze wafted through the open window, ruffling the lace-edged curtains, and the mixed smells of raw pumpkin, cooling apple turnovers, and fresh air were both appealing and soothing. After a few false starts, Trixie found it was easier than she'd expected to carve along the lines of the paper design. She showed Bobby how to hold the knife, then closely monitored his progress as he carefully followed her instructions.
"Well," she said finally, surveying the results of his efforts, "I can't promise it will win anything, but you did a great job. I'd give you a ribbon for it, Bro." She wiped up some of the remaining stringy bits of pumpkin from the table, tossed them into the trash, then crossed to the sink to wash her hands.
"Thanks, Trix," Bobby said, grinning at her. "You could always come to the festival and volunteer to be a judge."
"Ha. Then you'd probably be disqualified from the competition." She glanced up at the antique cuckoo clock mounted on the wall next to the door to the formal dining room. "And now I've really got to get going."
"Already?" Helen asked. "I thought the party wasn't until eight? Are you going to see Jim first?"
"He's spending the afternoon with his folks. But Honey's supposed to help me with my costume, and then we're due at Di's by 6:00 for dinner and last-minute set-up."
"All right, then. Have a good time, dear, and take your key. Your father and I don't plan on waiting up for you." She sent her daughter a measured look. "But that doesn't mean you can miss your curfew."
Trixie held one hand up. "I do solemnly swear to be home by no later than 1:00am, as promised," she intoned.
"Don't forget you also promised Pastor Keith you'd work in the nursery in the morning since Mrs. Gates is visiting her sister."
"I know, Moms. I haven't forgotten," Trixie assured her. "Oh. Are there enough brownies that I could swipe a few?"
"Are you hungry?" Helen asked. "I could make you a sandwich before you go."
"Uh, no... they're a... gift."
"Ah," Trixie's mother said knowingly. "A little something for a certain handsome redhead." Helen pulled a baggie from the drawer near the stove where she kept them.
Trixie looked away, deciding not to correct her mother's misunderstanding. After all, the brownies were for a certain handsome redhead, just not the one Moms supposed. Explaining why she wanted to give her boss a gift would only lead to a conversation about her guilty feelings concerning her actions the day before, and she didn't really have time for the sort of talk that such a conversation would no doubt become. She flashed a tight smile and thanked her mother before hurrying from the kitchen.
She made a quick stop in her bedroom to grab her duffel bag and cell phone, then set off for the Manor House, feeling her excitement mount as she looked forward to the evening ahead. She sent Tom a cheery wave as she passed him in the drive where he was polishing Mrs. Wheeler's sedan and then let herself into the main house through the side door off the mudroom.
Celia and Miss Trask were both at work in the massive kitchen, sorting through the largest pile of table linens Trixie had ever seen outside of a restaurant. "Are you doing inventory in here, too?" she asked curiously, feeling a twinge of conscience as she thought again of how she'd abandoned her duties.
"Some of these napkins have definitely seen better days," Miss Trask replied with a smile. "We're picking out the oldest to make ghost decorations." She held up a sample she'd made.
"Oh, that's adorable!" Trixie exclaimed.
"And very easy to do," Celia told her. "You just need to ball up one napkin to make the head and drape another over it for the body. Then it's only a matter of using a Sharpie to draw on the eyes and mouth."
"What are you going to use them for?"
"We're taking them over to the Golden Life Center on Monday morning," Miss Trask said. "There's going to be a special Halloween luncheon for the residents."
"Awesome." Trixie grinned at the other women. "Is Honey about? She's gonna be turning me into one of Dracula's brides this afternoon."
"She's waiting for you up in her room." Miss Trask walked over to the refrigerator and opened it. "Cook left some lemonade and spice cookies for you girls to snack on."
"Cook is a very wonderful lady," Trixie said, her grin growing to a wide smile. She carried the drinks and cookies to Honey's bedroom along with her bag, and found her best friend setting out the floor-length, lacy white gowns they planned to wear.
"My brother is being a dolt," Honey said without preamble.
"Well, I told him our plan to be the brides of Dracula and how now that he's here, he should be Dracula, but he said it's too weird since I'm his sister. Then I told him that of course I would go as something else and you and Di could still be the brides, but he said he'd do something different and that was all he would tell me." Honey blew out a breath in exasperation. "Your boyfriend can be so difficult sometimes! It wouldn't surprise me in the least if he just shows up tonight as Jim."
Laughing, Trixie held out the tray with their snack. "Don't worry about it, Hon. Here. Have something to eat and then we'll get ready. You know what? If he decides not to dress up, that's his loss."
"You know," Honey said thoughtfully a few moments later, after polishing off two of Cook's excellent spice cookie bars, "we're going to have to do something about your hair."
"What's wrong with my hair?" Trixie demanded.
"I think it would look better straight and pulled back, the way the brides had it in the Bela Lugosi version of the film."
Trixie snorted. "Yeah. Good luck with that. If you wanted me to have straight hair, we should've bought a wig."
Honey turned to her make-up table and picked up her flat iron. "At least let me give it a try, okay?"
Forty-five minutes later, Trixie stood before the mirror in Honey's bathroom, regarding herself uncertainly. "I don't even look like me," she said.
"That is the idea, Trix," Honey pointed out with a smirk.
Honey had managed to tame her friend's fly-away curls and turn them into very loose waves that fell about her shoulders. She'd then used a thin band to pull Trixie's hair away from her face, and applied make-up to cover her lightly tanned, freckled skin. Trixie's complexion was now so pale it was almost white. Her eyes were heavily done with kohl eyeliner and smoky eyeshadow and her lips were stained a blood red. "I look... like a wannabe Goth."
"Relax," Honey said. "You look fantastic. You look hot. Jim's gonna freak. In a good way. Now, go change into your gown while I do my own make-up, and don't mess up all my hard work!"
Once dressed, Trixie rummaged in her bag for the jewelry she'd borrowed from a classmate for the night. She put on the elaborate beaded choker necklace, struggling for a moment with the clasp, and matching earrings, then added a set of bangles to her wrists. She perched herself on the edge of Honey's bed while she pulled on the knee-high stockings and white ballet slippers she'd brought with her. "Need any help?" she called to her friend.
"Nah! I got it," Honey replied. "I should be ready in another fifteen minutes at the most."
"Okay. I gotta run down and see Regan for a sec. I'll meet you in the foyer." She tucked her cell phone and key in the small, draw-string bag she was using for a purse. "Hey, I'm gonna leave my clothes and stuff here tonight, all right? I'll get everything tomorrow."
"Sure. No prob. Oh, but don't forget your cloak! I'm sure it's gotten pretty cool outside by now."
Trixie crossed Honey's bedroom and took one of the two black velvet cloaks down from the hook on the back of the closet door where they hung together. She slung it around her shoulders and tied the ribbons in front. She picked up the snack tray and the bag of brownies her mother had packed for her, and let herself out of Honey's room, taking the servants' stairs to the kitchen.
Miss Trask and Celia were no longer there. Trixie skipped lightly down the last few steps then made straight for the sink. She rinsed the tray and glasses and set them on the drainer before leaving the house through the back door.
The temperature had dropped as the sun moved toward the distant horizon. The cloudless sky was quickly fading to a deep purple set off with hundreds of twinkling stars. The wind had picked up again, and Trixie shivered as she started across the gravel drive. She was half-way to the stable before a low whistle caught her attention.
"You see that?" a teasing voice asked. "It's definitely Halloween weekend. Your assistant is wearing a dress."
Trixie turned to see Regan and Tom standing in a pool of light spilling out from the open doors of the garage. "Well," she replied in kind, walking over to the two men, "the goal of a Halloween costume is to be as scary as possible, yeah? What could be more scary than me in a dress?"
Tom studied her for a moment. "Oh, I dunno, kiddo. Somehow this is working for you." He pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. "Our little tomboy is growing up so fast," he sniffed dramatically.
"Uh, huh." Trixie rolled her eyes, but was unable to prevent the smile that stole across her features. "You are a complete clown," she said. "You don't even need a costume."
"Heh. I've been called worse."
Trixie held the bag of brownies out to Regan. He was regarding her with a strange look she couldn't quite identify. "This is for you," she said.
Regan slowly accepted the proffered gift. "What's this?"
"Chocolatey goodness from Moms' Kitchen. They're brownies. You eat them," she explained as if speaking to a small child.
"Your mom sent me brownies?"
"Ah. Moms made them. It was my idea to give them to you. It's my apology. For yesterday."
"Trixie," Regan said, frowning slightly. "I told you. You have nothing to apologize for."
A draft of chill wind struck them, and Trixie pulled her cloak tighter around her. "Yeah," she said quietly. "I really do. I should've insisted on staying and working until it was time for me to quit for the day. Thanks, though, for being like the best boss ever. And yeesh. It's cold. I'm going to go wait for Honey inside."
As she was hurrying back to the house, she heard Tom ask, "What was that all about?" She was too far away to catch Regan's softly-spoken response.