Crossroads

 

 

Part One 

 

Saturday morning, Wheeler dining room

 

“And Trixie said she would teach me to ride a bike, and all I have to do in return is help Regan teach her how to ride a horse, which really won’t be like work at all since Regan thinks Trixie is a natural after just one day of riding, and I know she’ll be riding as well as I do in no time. I just hope riding a bike isn’t too hard.”

 

Honey paused for breath, a slight frown darkening her brow. “I’ve wanted to learn for ages, but when I wasn’t at camp or school, I was usually in the city, and there was no place to learn there.  Now I’ll feel silly if I have a hard time learning and keep falling off, when most kids my age have already known how to ride a bike practically forever.  Why, even Trixie’s six-year-old brother Bobby can probably ride circles around me already.”  

 

“You’ll do fine, Honey, and everyone falls a few times when they’re first learning,” Miss Trask said with a reassuring smile.  She turned to Maddie.  “I took the liberty of picking up some dungarees for Honey when I was in White Plains yesterday, and I also thought she should have a bike. Now that we’re living in the country, she should be able to dress like the other girls and do the things that they do, too.”

 

The room went quiet.  Matt guessed they were all waiting to hear what Maddie would have to say about her daughter riding around the countryside in blue jeans.  Matt realized that even he was holding his breath as he waited for Maddie to answer Miss Trask.

 

“That’s fine,” Maddie agreed, her tone somewhat listless.  She took a sip of her coffee.

 

Honey stood up.  “Thank you, Mother.” She said the words a little stiffly, but Matt thought he could also hear relief in her tone. “May I be excused now?”

 

“Run along,” Maddie said, waving her hand in dismissal, and Honey planted a quick peck on her cheek before disappearing down the hall.  Matt looked at his wife in surprise.  He was sure Maddie would have had a hundred reasons why Honey shouldn’t wear blue jeans and learn to ride a bike.  She had never allowed a pair of dungarees to be purchased for Honey before, even for camp.  Ever since Honey was very little, Maddie had always made sure she was outfitted in perfectly coordinated play clothes made by the top designers for children.  And as for the bike, Matt had been absolutely sure Maddie would object to that.  She was always so afraid that Honey might get hurt that she usually forbade any active pursuit other than swimming and horseback riding.  Maddie went faint at the sight of blood, but where Honey was concerned, it was even worse.  She worried about her to the point of obsession, and it bothered her to see even the tiniest scrape or bruise on Honey.  In fact, Maddie was so difficult when Honey had first been learning to ride a pony that Matt had finally had to convince her to stay home while he took his daughter riding, at least until she got past the stage where she was in constant danger of falling off.  

 

No, Matt thought to himself, this wasn’t like Maddie at all.  Maybe she’s trying to be more lenient now that we’re living in the country, he guessed.  But no, even if she had agreed to the bike riding and the blue jeans, Matt was sure that she’d have had a set of rules to go along with the new activity.  Maddie always gave Honey reminders about wearing gloves when riding and a hat while out in the sun, as well as cautionary remarks about wandering near the woods and talking to strangers.

 

He raised an eyebrow at Maddie across the table, but if she noticed, she didn’t pay any attention.   Taking a closer look, he noticed that she looked pale and drawn, and there were circles under her eyes.  Had she had trouble sleeping again?  He had been so tired last night, he had fallen into an exhausted slumber as soon as his head had hit the pillow, and slept straight through until Celia had knocked on their door saying breakfast would be ready shortly.  He felt a pang of guilt run through him, realizing he wouldn’t even have noticed if Maddie had been awake half the night again.  And he felt another pang of guilt as he thought about the night before that, when he had been trying to find out what was bothering Maddie.  He cursed himself under his breath, thinking about how easily he had become distracted from finding out what was wrong.  What could he have been thinking?  Well, he obviously hadn’t been thinking much at all, or if he was, he had been thinking with his …well, he certainly hadn’t been thinking with his brain, anyway.   He shook his head ruefully.

 

Glancing up from his scrutiny of his wife, Matt saw that Miss Trask was watching him, an appraising expression on her face.  Honey seemed to love Miss Trask, but he and Maddie were still getting used to her being part of their household.  She seemed pleasant enough, and she certainly was efficient, but Matt had to admit that he found the unwavering gaze she sometimes fixed on him somewhat disconcerting, and it was especially that way now, considering what he had just been thinking about.   He forced himself not to look away and placed a somewhat false smile on his face.

 

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it, Miss Trask?” he asked heartily.

 

“Yes, it is,” Miss Trask answered politely, but she still stared at him with a thoughtful expression in her blue eyes. 

 

Matt scowled and rattled his paper.  Maddie looked up at the sudden noise.

 

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

 

Matt just shook his head, feeling grumpy all of a sudden.  It was only the second morning after their move to the country, and things weren’t going as well as he had hoped.  He was glad Honey had found a new friend, but now she couldn’t seem to wait to run off and spend time with her.  He supposed it was only natural, but he had taken some time off so they could spend time together as a family.  Instead, he was stuck with Honey’s new governess, who kept looking at him as if he was a little boy who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  And to top it all off, Maddie wasn’t looking well and she apparently couldn’t sleep here.

 

“Well, I’ve got things to do,” Miss Trask interrupted his thoughts.  She turned to Maddie.  “This morning, I’m going to go over the menus for this week with Cook, and then I’ll bring them to you so you can approve them.” 

 

She got up and Maddie waved vaguely in her direction.   “Thank you, Miss Trask,” she said.  “I’m sure whatever you and Rachel decide is fine.  We’ll see you at lunch.”

 

Matt nodded his head brusquely to Miss Trask, before burying it behind his paper.  Good riddance, he thought to himself as she left the room.

 

“I think I’ll go play for a while,” Maddie said quietly.  “What are you going to do this morning?”   

 

“Read the paper,” Matt replied shortly.  Maddie eyed him, but didn’t comment.  Instead, she took a last sip of her coffee and left the room without another word.  After a few minutes, Matt heard the strains of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring drifting in from the piano in the other room.  He picked up his paper and made his way into the living room, choosing an armchair by the window.  He might as well be comfortable while he read his paper, and he liked it when his wife played Bach; he found it soothing somehow.  He let the paper fall into his lap as he gazed out the window.  It was another beautiful day, if a little on the hot side.  Maybe when Maddie finished playing she’d feel up to going for a ride or a swim.  He sat back for a few minutes and closed his eyes, allowing the soothing notes to drain the morning’s tensions out of his body. 

 

Just as he felt himself begin to relax, he was startled by loud, discordant notes coming from the piano. He looked up just in time to see Maddie slam down the lid over the piano keys.  He winced, and watched her warily as she got up and began pacing around the room. 

 

“What’s the matter, Maddie?” he asked, struggling to keep his voice even.

 

“I’ll tell you what the matter is,” Maddie said, her own voice high-pitched with irritation.

“Not one of the maids we’ve had since we’ve been married has known how to dust properly, and this new one is no better.  There’s furniture polish on the piano keys again.  I couldn’t even play because my fingers kept slipping on the keys, and now my hands feel all greasy.”  She rubbed her slim, elegant fingers together in distaste.  “I don’t think there’s anything I despise more than the feeling of greasy polish on my hands.  And Celia should know better than this by now.  Maybe we should fire her, too.”

 

Matt suppressed a sigh.  He had heard this complaint many times. “Why don’t you go wash the polish residue off your hands?” he said in an attempt to soothe his wife.  “I’ll call Celia and have her run over the piano again with a cloth so there’s no polish left.”

 

“Don’t try to humor me, Matthew,” Maddie said, a warning in her voice. “I’m not an out-of-sorts child who needs to be placated.  If the servants can’t do their jobs correctly, we should think about dismissing them.  It’s as simple as that.”

 

“Don’t you think we’ve gone through enough maids in the last few years?  Not to even mention cooks.” Matt could feel the anger rising inside him, and he struggled to keep it under control.  “Celia seems to be doing very well overall.  Maybe you can have Miss Trask speak with her about the dusting.”

 

“I spoke with her about the dusting myself when I hired her,” Maddie argued.  “And I warned her especially about the piano.”

 

Matt had to bite his lip to keep from arguing her, but as it turned out, keeping quiet wasn’t even worth the effort, as his silence seemed to infuriate Maddie just as much as his words might have.

 

“I know you think I’m being petty.”  Matt opened his mouth to protest, but she interrupted him.  “Don’t bother to deny it,” she continued coldly.  “I can see it all over your face.”   She walked over to the window opposite Matt, standing silently in front of it.  Matt knew she wasn’t even seeing the view.  Her crossed arms and rigid stance clearly showed how much anger she was still holding in her slim body. 

 

“It’s just that we’ve been through so many servants, Maddie,” he said quietly, trying to defuse the tension brewing between them before it flared into a full-blown argument.  “Continually having new maids and cooks who don’t know our ways is a royal pain in the ass. And now that we’re in the country, it’s not going to be as easy to find new help. We may have to lower our standards a bit.”

 

“I don’t see any reason to lower our standards,” Maddie said, her tone icy.  “We certainly pay our servants generously, and if anything, we’ve probably been too soft with them.  This kind of problem never comes up in my mother’s house.  She makes sure her maids do their jobs properly.”

 

That’s because they’re all scared to death of her, Matt thought, but thought the remark probably wouldn’t go over too well with Maddie.  Aloud he said, “It’s my theory that if you treat people well, then they’ll be loyal to you and want to do a good job for you.  That’s the way I try to handle my employees at work, and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t apply in our personal life as well.”

 

“Really?”  Maddie asked, a shade of sarcasm evident in her voice.  “I find that very interesting.  I never realized that you were so close to all your employees.   And I suppose intimidation never factors in to any of these relationships?”

 

Matt looked distinctly uncomfortable.  Practicing intimidation was a big part of his business life.   He practiced it all the time, mostly with his competitors, but he certainly wasn’t above using it with his employees as well if the situation warranted it.  “Well,” he answered evasively, “I try not to do it on a regular basis.”  

 

Maddie nodded her head with a small smile.

 

The self-satisfied look on her face irritated Matt.  “There’s a difference between using a little intimidation, and threatening to fire people for every little mistake they make,” he said heatedly.  “Celia’s young, and she hasn’t even been doing this work for very long.  How can you expect her to do her job well when she has to constantly worry about losing it?  I really feel that we should try to treat the servants more like individuals.  They do have feelings, too, you know.”  

 

Maddie whirled at him, infuriated by his superior attitude.  “Is that all you care about?  The servants?”  Her voice edged dangerously close to hysteria.  “Is it too much to ask that I should be able be able to play my piano for an hour or so in the morning?  It’s one of the few joys I have right now.”  She paused and gestured toward the window.  “Especially in this god-forsaken place with all its overabundance of sunshine and fresh air.”

 

“That’s not fair, Maddie, and you know it.”  Matt was out of his chair now and facing her angrily.  “We haven’t even spent three whole days here, and you’re already passing judgment on this move.  And you know damn well that I wouldn’t have bought this place if you hadn’t agreed to it.  You seemed pretty happy about it at the time.”

 

“I was trying to be happy.  I knew it would be good for you and Honey, maybe for all three of us.” She bit her lip, trying to keep her emotions from getting the better of her.  “I really do want us to be closer as a family,” she said, her voice softening.  “I just never expected it to be like this.”   

 

“Like what, Maddie?” Matt asked quietly, the fight leaving him as he watched her struggle with her feelings.  “After all, you did see the house before I signed the papers.  You knew what we were getting into just as well as I did.”

 

Maddie nodded. “You’re right.  I did know what the house was like.” She looked down at her hands.  “I don’t know quite how to explain it,” she said quietly, “but it’s very different living here than I thought it would be when we first came up to look at the house.”

 

She sat down on the couch, hugging herself and looking like a small, lost child.

 

“What’s different about it?”  Matt asked, fighting the urge to sit down next to her and take her in his arms.  He didn’t like the direction this discussion was taking. 

 

Maddie was silent for a few minutes.  “I don’t like the woods,” she said finally, her voice so low that Matt had to strain to hear her.  “It’s not so bad during the day, but at night they look so black, and there are all kinds of strange noises coming from them.  I can’t seem to sleep here.”

 

She looked at Matt, a helpless look in her big, hazel eyes.  Matt couldn’t hold out any longer.  He crossed the room and wrapped her in his arms, holding her close and stroking her hair.

 

“You’ll get used to all the country noises,” he said gently.  “It was a lot louder in the city, and we didn’t even hear the sounds of the traffic and the ambulances going by during the night; we were so used to them. The country noises will become like that after a while, too.” 

 

Maddie was silent, and he knew she was unconvinced.  He tried again.  “It’s actually much safer here in the country,” he said.  “We just moved out of one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  From what I’ve heard, crime is practically nonexistent here in Sleepyside.”

 

“Yes, but in the city, we had triple locks and burglar alarms.  Here we have a single hook on the screen door.”

 

“We can have better locks and alarms installed,” Matt tried to reassure her.

 

 “And I know it’s silly.” Maddie continued as though he hadn’t spoken.  “Maybe the heat is getting to me, but I keep getting this feeling that something bad is going to happen here.  I’ve tried to ignore it, but it just won’t go away.  I don’t even like going outside if you’re not with me.  I keep thinking that someone’s watching me. And I worry about Honey all the time.”  Matt could here the strain in her voice, and a single tear ran down her cheek. “I have no idea where she is right now.  Do you know how scary that feels?  I just know these woods are full of snakes and foxes and bears, possibly even wildcats.  And if I forbid her to do something, or ask her to be careful and wear gloves or a hat, everyone thinks I’m being paranoid.” 

 

The tears she had been fighting back started to flow freely and she buried her head in Matt’s chest.   He held her and rocked her back and forth gently.  “I don’t think you’re paranoid,” he said, kissing the top of her head.  “I know how difficult it is for you, but we have to let her be thirteen.  Do you remember being thirteen?” he asked her with a smile. 

 

“It seems like so long ago,” Maddie answered tearfully.  “And I don’t think I was ever really allowed to run around the way Honey is now.  Mother didn’t like us to get our clothes dirty.  My sister and I were supposed to act like little ladies.”

 

“And did you?”  Matt asked curiously.

 

“We used to sneak out,” Maddie answered, sitting up straighter and looking lost in thought.  “Otherwise, we were bored to tears.”  She looked up at Matt, a horrified expression on her face.  “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed.  “I can’t believe I’ve turned into my mother.” 

 

“I don’t think it’s as bad as all that,” Matt said with a chuckle, stopping to kiss her forehead gently. “But I think we both need to try to remember what it was like to be a kid.”

 

“I’m trying, Matthew, I really am,” Maddie said, nestling deeper into his arms and laying her head on his shoulder.  “After all, I didn’t object to the bike or the blue jeans, did I?” She tried to smile, but it ended up more like a grimace.

 

Matt repressed the laugh that was welling up inside him.  “I know you’re trying, Maddie,” he said.  “And Honey seems happy with her new friend.  We should be glad she has someone her own age to do things with here.”

 

“I am happy she has a friend,” Maddie said sincerely.  She was quiet for a moment, and then she continued in a small voice.   “I’m sorry I’ve been so difficult.”  She sighed.  “I guess I’m just so tired and hot that I can’t think straight.”

 

 “Maybe we could go for a swim to cool off,” Matt suggested.

 

Maddie nodded, but her expression was distant.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Matt asked, watching her carefully.

 

“I’ve just had an idea,” Maddie said.  “You may not like it, but at least hear me out.”

 

“Fair enough,” Matt said.  “What is it?”

 

“Well,” Maddie began slowly, “we had planned to spend this first week together as a family, but Honey seems very preoccupied with her new friend now.  Don’t you agree?”

 

“Ye-es,” Matt said carefully, “but we can still spend time just the two of us.  I haven’t taken a vacation in a while, so it will be nice to have some time together.”

 

Maddie pounced on his words. “That’s exactly it; we haven’t had a vacation in ages.”

 

“What are you suggesting?” Matt asked cautiously.

 

“Remember that luxury train trip we’ve always wanted to take?  The one that goes across Canada, from Toronto to Vancouver?”

 

“The one that stops at Jasper, with side trips to Banff and Lake Louise?” Matt asked.  Maddie nodded. “I remember talking about it,” he said, “but surely you’re not suggesting we go this week?”

 

“I know, it seems crazy,” Maddie agreed. “But this is the perfect week to do it.  I’m pretty sure it leaves on Sundays and we could drive up to Toronto tonight.”

 

“It’s tempting,” Matt admitted, thinking of the pictures of the trip they had seen in the brochure from the travel agency.  He and Maddie had talked about doing this for a while now, but his business had grown so fast, it had been difficult to find the time. “But I hate to leave Honey so soon after we’ve moved in.  What happened to our resolution to become closer as a family?”

 

“Matthew, we both just agreed that she’s caught up in spending time with her new friend right now. And Miss Trask will still be here. We’d only be gone for a week or so, and we’ll have plenty of time with Honey after that.  Besides, maybe once she gets used to her new friend, she might not want to spend quite as much time with her.”

 

When Matt still looked unconvinced, Maddie looked up at her husband, holding his green eyes with her wide hazel ones. “Just think, darling, how much cooler it will be in Canada at this time of year.”  She ran her hand lightly down his face and her voice softened. “How long has it been since you and I had a whole week together, without having to think about the business?  There’s a spa at the hotel in Banff that’s supposed to be out of this world,” she said persuasively, her voice now almost a caress, “and we’ll have plenty of time on the train together – just the two of us.”

 

Matt bent to kiss her as the last shred of resistance left his body.  Maddie returned his kiss, and then got up quickly. 

 

“Where are you going?” he asked in surprise.  “I was just getting comfortable here.”

 

“Sorry, darling,” his wife said with a small smile.  “But I have a lot of packing to do if we’re going to leave tonight.”

 

Matt groaned.  He might have known.  “I’ll call the travel agent and see about the train tickets,” he said.

 

Maddie nodded as she left the room.  A few minutes later she was back.  “And can you have a talk with Miss Trask?” she requested. “I want to be sure she enforces the rules we’ve set up.  I don’t want to have to worry about Honey the whole time we’re gone. I hate to think about her wandering around the woods.  There could be tramps or other undesirables out there.”

 

“I don’t think you need to worry about anyone wandering around the game preserve,” Matt argued.  “It’s pretty much all wilderness, and I don’t think it would be very inviting to tramps.”  The only people wandering out there might be a poacher or two, he thought to himself.  I really should see about getting a gamekeeper.  It didn’t seem wise to mention this to Maddie, though.  She seemed worried enough about the woods. 

 

“Just the same, I’d feel better if you talked to Miss Trask,” Maddie insisted.

 

Matt sighed.  “Can’t you talk to her, Maddie?” he protested.   “She always treats me like I’m a ten year old who’s just been caught in some schoolboy prank.”

 

“It must be your guilty conscience that’s bothering you,” Maddie teased with a smile. “I bet you got up to all kinds of schoolboy pranks when you were ten.”

 

Matt turned a little red, but grinned.  “You know me too well.”

 

Maddie laughed delightedly at his boyish grin.   “But I bet you were adorable, anyway,” she said.

 

“So, you’ll talk to her then?” Matt asked hopefully.

 

Maddie shook her head.  “I have a hundred things to do, Matthew,” she said as she left the room for a second time.  This time she just poked her head back in.  “Besides,” she said, “I think it would carry more weight coming from you.  Lord of the Manor and all that.” 

 

Matt looked around for a pillow to throw, but she was already out of the room, her tinkling laugh barely audible from the hallway.  He shook his head as he went to find Miss Trask, thinking that he didn’t know why he even tried to hold out against Maddie.  

 

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On the train

 

Matt and Maddie walked down the corridor of the train from the dining car to their compartment in the Blue and Silver class.

 

“That dinner was excellent,” Matt said as he unlocked the door to their accommodations.

 

“Yes, it was,” Maddie agreed, looking around their deluxe suite with a contented sigh.  The easy chairs had been converted to a double bed while they were at dinner, the covers pulled down at one corner to reveal a fluffy, down comforter and chocolates on the pillow.  A bottle of wine sat chilling in its silver holder.  She smiled at Matt as he loosened the tie of his tuxedo. 

 

“This train trip has been just perfect, hasn’t it?” she asked, putting her arms around his neck and pressing her body into his as he bent his head to kiss her.

 

“It really has,” he agreed when they came up for breath.  “I have to admit, I had reservations about this at first, but it’s been just like a second honeymoon.”  He ran his hands down his wife’s silk-clad backside, pushing her closer to him.  “What would you care to do now, Mrs. Wheeler?  Would you like to retire for the evening?”

 

“We-ell,” Maddie said thoughtfully.  “It’s still early.  How about if we take our wine and go up to the observation car for a little while?  It should be very romantic at night, under the stars.”

 

“Sounds good to me,” Matt said, pulling her in for another kiss.  This one was interrupted, however, by a knock on the cabin door. Matt frowned, but strode over to it, opening it to find the porter standing there, several envelopes in his hand. 

 

“Some mail for you, Sir,” he said, handing Matt the bundle of envelopes.  “It was waiting at the station in Winnipeg this afternoon.”

 

“Thanks,” Matt said. Reaching into his pocket, he handed the man a bill, and then closed the door.  “They’re mostly from work,” Matt said, shuffling through the letters as he walked back over to Maddie.  “But they can wait,” he said with a smile, bending to plant kisses along her soft neck.  “I believe we have a date.”

 

“Yes, we do,” Maddie said, closing her eyes and moaning softly as he toyed with one the thin strap of her dress, following its descent with more kisses along her shoulder and arm.   “And we’d better go now,” she said, pulling back with a smile, “or we’ll never get there.  Why don’t you take the wine and I’ll carry the glasses?” 

 

Matt nodded and walked over to the wine stand, looking at the last several envelopes as he went.

 

“I guess these aren’t all from work,” he said.  “There’s a letter from Honey and one for me from George Rainsford. I wonder what he could want?”

 

“There’s only one way to find out,” Maddie said, taking the envelope Matt handed her.  “Why don’t we take a look at these two before we go up to the observation car?  I’m anxious to see how Honey’s getting along.”

 

Matt nodded.  “And I have to admit, I’m curious as to why George is writing to me airmail special delivery.”

 

The room was silent for a few minutes as the Wheelers read their letters.  Matt finished first, and watched his wife, waiting for her to finish, a dazed expression on his face.

 

“Is Honey asking the same thing George wrote to me about?” he asked when Maddie looked up.

 

“I think so,” Maddie said softly.  “She wants us to consider adopting a Jim Frayne.  Surely, he can’t be the son of…?”

 

“Winthrop Frayne,” Matt finished for her with a nod.  “I didn’t even know he had a son.” The emotion was plain in his voice.

 

Maddie watched her husband’s face carefully.  His easy grin had disappeared and his skin had paled so the freckles stood out against it. 

 

“I didn’t either,” she said.  She took Matt’s arm.  “I think we could use that wine now,” she said quietly.  “Do you still want to go up to the observation car?”

 

Matt nodded numbly.  He turned toward Maddie, pulling her into his arms and holding tightly to her as if to a lifeline.  Scenes from the distant past played in his mind, as he thought about his one-time best friend, and everything that had happened between them.  Now, inexplicably, Honey and her new friend had stumbled upon Win’s son, and had gone off on a trailer trip with Miss Trask in the hopes of finding him again, and George Rainsford wanted to appoint him his legal guardian.   

 

“Let’s go now,” he said finally.  “But forget about the wine.  Unless you really want it, we can get a couple of whiskeys from the bar on the way up.” His face looked troubled as he admitted, “I think I’m going to need something a lot stronger than wine.”  

 

Author Notes: Big thanks go to my super-stupendous editors, Susansuth and Kris, and to Carol for her fantastic job on the graphics! Train photo courtesy of Via Rail. Believe it or not, it was taken by Matthew G. Wheeler.  How’s that for a Trixie moment???


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