She sighed softly as she gazed around the well-kept yard in front of her friends’ home. Daffodils bloomed around the front steps in a vivid contrast to the light blanket of snow surrounding them. The bright purple curtains in the front window caused her to smile and comment to her fiancé, “This is definitely the right house.”
Bob squeezed her hand. “Are you ready?”
“I think so,” Madeleine nodded. She took a deep breath and opened her car door. “We’ve come too far for me to back out now.”
Hand-in-hand, they walked up the shoveled walk, and she nervously knocked on the door. She was just about to knock again when she heard footsteps inside and a once familiar voice calling, “Come on in! The door’s unlocked.”
She gingerly opened the door and they stepped inside the warm room. “We were in the neighborhood and thought we’d drop by,” she quipped hesitantly, uncertain of the reception they would receive.
“Honey!” Diana Belden squealed, temporarily putting most of Madeleine’s fears aside as the raven-haired woman raced to envelop her in a hug. “We didn’t know you were coming!”
“We weren’t sure we would be welcome,” Madeleine admitted softly. “But I’ve realized over the last few months that I need to make amends.”
Bob stood awkwardly in the background, then stepped forward at Mart’s questioning glance. “I don’t know if you remember me, but we met several years ago. I’m Bob Wellington.”
“He’s also my fiancé,” Madeleine added, self-conciously displaying the ring she had received just a few weeks earlier. Mart’s uncomfortable gaze made her anxiety return in full force.
“Of course we remember you, Bob! It’s good to see you again,” Diana assured him. “Why don’t we all sit down so that we can talk?”
They followed her into a cozy living room and sat down. “We just finished dinner, but I made a chocolate cake this afternoon. Would anyone like some? I have a fresh pot of coffee brewing, too.”
“Thank you, but not right now,” Madeleine shook her head. Mart still hadn’t spoken a word, and until she knew just where she stood with both of them, her nerves would be too tense to allow her to eat. “I hope you don’t mind us just barging in like this, but it’s been a while since we last wrote, and I, well, some things are easier to talk about in person.” She was quiet for a moment. “I’m getting ready to graduate, and this entire school year, but especially this semester, I’ve been both looking back and trying to look forward to the future. None of us are where we planned to be, but I’m hoping that we can somehow put the past behind us and at least restore the friendship we used to have.”
“It can’t be the same,” Mart finally spoke. “Too much has happened. There are things that some of us did that are unforgivable.”
“I know,” she admitted softly. She leaned into Bob’s protective embrace and closed her eyes. “I was horrid to Trixie, and I know now that Jim wasn’t entirely blameless in their break-up.” She took a deep breath. “I know he probably doesn’t even care, but I finally managed to forgive Brian, too.” She squeezed Bob’s hand. “In a round about way, he actually did me a favor.”
“He does care,” Mart told her with a sigh. “He’s mostly happy now, but he still regrets hurting you, and the way you found out.”
She smiled sadly. “I’m hoping for a chance to tell him so when we get back to New York.”
“He’s actually in Massachusetts now,” Diana said. “If you’re going to be around for a couple of days, I can call him in the morning and ask if I can give you his address or phone number.”
“We’re not sure just how long we’ll be in the area,” Madeleine said. “But yes, I would appreciate that. We have rooms in a hotel in Buffalo for tonight.” She sat up straight and took a deep breath. “I was hoping, too, that you could tell me where Trixie and Regan wound up. Mother knows, but she refuses to tell me.”
Mart and Diana exchanged glances, and Mart shook his head. “Honey, the worst thing I ever did was to let your brother see her the day before her wedding. I’m not going to tell you just what happened that day; I don’t even know everything that happened, but she’s been through too much. I know you’re not Jim, but I can’t put her through that again.”
Diana put her hand on his arm, but spoke to Madeleine. “We can get a message to her, though, and ask if she would be willing to see you.”
Madeleine nodded, wondering if this was how Trixie had felt when she had snubbed her so long ago. “I understand. Would you tell her I’m sorry and I miss her? Can you tell me how she’s doing?”
“She’s fine, now,” Mart said, unshed tears glistening in his eyes. “She almost died the night Jacob was born, hundreds of miles away from her family because you and Jim hurt her so badly she and Regan decided to move.”
“Mart, Regan and Jacob are my family, and now you and Di are here,” a soft voice spoke from the doorway. In the intensity of the moment, none of them had heard the front door open, nor had they noticed the petite blonde slip into the room with her husband and three-year-old son. “And yes, I’m okay.” A small smile crossed her face. “If you had reacted this strongly every time I was kidnapped, you would have never let me leave the house.”
Madeleine’s eyes widened as the clues she had ignored suddenly fell into place, but she pushed that aside as she took in the sight of Trixie and her son sheltered in Regan’s protective embrace. “Trixie!”
“Hi, Honey,” Trixie said quietly. “I’m sorry, Di, I didn’t realize you had company. Regan can take me and Jacob back home before he goes to the meeting.”
“Please, Trixie, can we talk?” Madeleine asked. “We came here hoping to convince Mart and Di to tell us where you were.” She shook her head. “I should have realized you would be close by.”
“You really didn’t know?” Trixie asked, raising her eyebrows. “We never made a secret out of it. Regan took the job with the Murrows when we left Sleepyside.”
“I was too angry in the beginning to ask where you had gone,” Madeleine admitted. “By the time I realized more of what had really happened, no one would tell me.” Tears streamed down her face. “I’m so sorry, Trixie. I just thought you had betrayed my brother. The timing was so suspicious, and I didn’t know you had broken up with Jim because he was cheating on you.”
“How did you find out?” Trixie gasped, her already white face turning even paler. “Only Regan, Jim, and Mrs. Wheeler knew that.”
“I was talking to the tenants of the apartment across from the penthouse,” Madeleine replied. “They mentioned the constant stream of women that Jim had over.” She wiped her eyes and took a shuddering breath. “It didn’t take much to put two and two together.”
“How is he?” Diana asked softly.
“Okay,” Madeleine said. “He started working for our dad when he graduated. He gave up on plans for his school.”
Regan gave a relieved sigh. “I think that was for the best. Mart, mind if I use your phone? I’m going to let Bill know we won’t make the ag meeting tonight.”
Mart gave a start as he glanced at the clock. “Yes, please. I forgot all about it in light of everything.” He turned to his wife. “Di, why don’t you take Jacob into the kitchen? I think he has some toys in there.”
Madeleine watched as Diana gently took the small child from Trixie’s arms, squelching the desire to ask exactly what Regan had meant by his comment about Jim and the school. Thoughts of the accusations Dot had recently made filled her mind, and she gasped. “Trixie, did Jim ever hurt you physically?”
“I prefer not to answer that,” Trixie said evenly, settling into the armchair Diana had just vacated. “It’s all in the past, and we’ve tried to move forward. I’m sorry, Honey, but I really don’t want to rake up all those old memories.”
Mart turned wide, horrified eyes on his sister. “Trixie? That day right before your wedding….”
Madeleine’s heart sank as she watched her friend nod slightly as tears began to fall.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mart asked, tears in his own eyes.
“No one would have believed me,” she answered softly, trying to shrink into the chair. “You were all on his side at that point, and even if you had believed me, you would have just told me I deserved it.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “You would have been right.”
“No, Trixie, you didn’t deserve it,” Mart whispered, going to her side. “No matter what happened. Will you tell me if it had been going on awhile or was that the first time?”
“That was the only time,” she said. “I don’t think he meant to hurt me – he had just found out about Jacob and he was upset.” Her eyes lighted on Regan, who had just come back through the doorway. “Regan? Can you take us home now?”
Regan crossed the room with long strides and lifted her into his arms. “Mart, would you mind bringing Jacob out to the car for me?”
Mart nodded miserably. “Trixie, if I’d had any idea….”
“I know, Mart,” she assured him, her face buried in Regan’s neck. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Madeleine’s heart broke as she watched Regan carry his wife from the room. “I’m sorry I brought you into this,” she quietly told Bob. “I had no idea…”
“I’m glad I’m here with you,” he whispered, rubbing her arm. “We should probably be going now, though. We don’t want to make it any worse.”
She nodded her agreement, and they stood as Diana came back in the room. “I’m sorry, Di,” she began. “I didn’t realize how much she had been through.”
“None of us did,” Diana said, motioning them to sit back down. “Mart just told me what happened, and he’s following them home to make sure she’s going to be okay.”
“If only we had known….” Madeleine said wistfully.
“Would we have believed her, though?” Diana asked. “Everyone was so focused on what they believed she had done to Jim to wonder if there were other reasons.”
Madeleine shook her head. “I had him on a pedestal at that point,” she admitted. “Jim and Brian both. I didn’t realize how much they had both changed.”
“What caused it? It was more than just growing up and going away to college.”
Madeleine closed her eyes. “According to Jim, it started when they overheard Ben’s mom talking with Dad the day of their graduation. Aunt Deanna confronted Dad with her belief that Jim was his biological son.” She sighed. “Understandably, the world as they knew it changed when Dad admitted it. Jim felt like he had lost Winthrop Frayne all over again, and he went away to summer camp with Ben. I had two years of psychology, and I can see now that Jim went through an identity crisis. Ben has always been the stereotypical rich playboy, and he was a big influence on Jim who didn’t know who he was anymore. And Brian – well, that was the summer he met Charles.” She sighed, not willing to delve into Brian’s issues at that moment. “Tell me about Trixie, Di. She looks so fragile.”
“She is,” Diana admitted. “Mart told you she almost died the night Jacob was born. Only in Minnesota would you have a blizzard in mid-October, and only Trixie would go into labor in the middle of it. Jacob was breech, and thankfully, Charlene had experience in delivering babies. Thank goodness, too, they did manage to eventually get the doctor here, and they were finally able to airlift her to the hospital right after he was born. Physically, she’s okay now, but emotionally, she worries about Jacob, and she’s devastated that the doctor keeps telling her she shouldn’t have another child.”
“It surprised me seeing her this way,” she said sorrowfully. “Trixie was always so strong and vibrant, but now, she reminds me of me when we first met.”
“I know,” Diana agreed. “She’s come a long way since Mart and I moved out here, and Regan would do absolutely anything he could for her.” She smiled. “She would for him, too. I never pictured them together, but now, I couldn’t see either of them with anyone else.”
“How did you two wind up here?” Bob asked. “It couldn’t have been easy for Mart to find a job in this area.”
“Family connections,” she admitted. “I know we always made a point of relying on ourselves and not our parents or their money, but Mart and Trixie’s Uncle Andrew came up here to see her when Jacob was born. While he was here, he noticed a farm for sale, and he bought it, knowing it would give him a reason to visit frequently. Mart and I were both miserable at school. I was struggling to keep up with my classes, and my mother was constantly trying to get me to follow Honey to Vassar. Mart was constantly worried about both me and Trixie. He couldn’t stand it that he was so far away from her, so he talked to his uncle and asked for the caretaker’s position. We eloped as soon as school let out for Christmas break, and here we are. I admit I never pictured myself living and working on a dairy farm, but we both love it.”
The trio continued to talk until Mart came home two hours later. He sank wearily into a chair.
“How is she?” Diana asked.
“Better,” he replied. “We had a long talk, and I think it’s going to be good for her that she finally had to talk about what she’s been through.” He smiled sadly. “And I finally realized that she doesn’t blame me for it.”
He looked across the room at Madeleine, his expression much more welcoming than when she had first arrived. “She doesn’t blame you, either, Honey. Realizing that you actually came all this way just to find a clue as to where she is helped her a lot, and she wanted me to tell you she’s sorry for her reactions tonight.”
Madeleine smiled as a fresh hope began to blossom. “Tell her there’s no need to be sorry.”
He shook his head. “You can tell her yourself. She’s invited us all to dinner tomorrow night.” He chuckled. “I promise her cooking has improved over the years.”
“Just tell us when and where,” she replied immediately. “We’ll be there.”
“Their house, six o’clock. We tend to eat dinner early in this part of the country,” he said. “They live in a small house on the Murrow’s property, not far from where Gus had his cabin. If you want to come here early, though, we can all ride together.”
“Come even earlier,” Diana said. “We’re both busy in the morning with farm chores, but come in time for lunch. I’ll show you around the farm afterwards. Maybe even show you around the area a little bit.”
“That sounds great,” Madeleine agreed, looking at Bob for his approval. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Mart said. “Four years of guilt are gone now. You have no idea how that felt.”
“I think I do,” Madeleine said softly. “I think we all do to some extent. I’m just thankful to have hope again.”
“There’s always hope, Honey,” Diana said. “It’s when we give up on it that we’re in trouble.”
“I’d given up on it for too long,” Madeleine sighed. “So has Trixie. Will you let me help her find it again?”
“As long as she’s willing, we are,” Mart said as he reached over to give her a hug.