Author's Note: I first wrote this book in longhand when I was 16 years old in 1985. Now, while typing this book up so that it's legible, I tried my best to stay true to the relatively poor spelling that afflicted me during my teenage years, and sometimes it was agony to avoid rewriting it. But I refused to do anything but stay true to its original format in spite of what my older self insisted on doing. It's also amusing what my 16 year old self thought was important enough to write about in the first place, not to mention what that same person knew (or often didn't know) about how the world works, as well as interpersonal relationships. There are times that this book is so much like 'The Sound of Music' that I want to vomit, and at other times it's so original and fresh that I think 'Where did this girl go? I want her back!' In any case, I've re-read this book numerous times over the years, have always found it a fun read, and hopefully it will bring the same joy to you.

Linda Vogt Bindner - 2012

The Captain and His Kids

(I know, I know - pathetic title. But what can I say? I was just 16 at the time.)

by Linda Vogt

Chapter 1

I was simply thrilled the day the letter finally arrived. I had been waiting for it forever.

Well, actually it was just the week before that I sat down and wrote to the man that my former teacher had suggested, applying for the empty position. He seemed nice. At least his name did. His reply was brief and to the point.

Dear Miss Stevens,

I have considered your request and am glad to say that it will work out fine. Please report to my house, Ashby Manor, on the 10th of next month. If this date is too soon, please let me know, as we will be expecting you.

Faithfully yours, Captain Christopher Kartwright

Hm. A captain. I wondered if he went around blowing whistles like Captain Von Trapp did in The Sound of Music. It sure would be interesting.

The tenth of next month. That gave me about three weeks, as it was the nineteenth of April. That was plenty of time. I could fly to Denver and then take a car from there. I had been to Colorado so many times because of family vacations that I knew my way around. Maybe living in Colorado would be fun.

I guess I had better explain myself. I am a governess. Or at least I will be in three weeks. I went to school for it and have a degree that proves I'm fit to take care of kids. That's what I do best. In fact, it's the ONLY thing I do decently. Unlike my twin sister, Kate, who can sing, dance, and is much smarter and prettier than I, I had little choice as to my profession. At the moment, Kate is studying to be a detective, of all things. I guess we watched too much TV when we were in high school.

So now I was off to Denver to live in a huge mansion and take care of kids. As of yet, I have no idea what to expect, nor would I until I arrived at my first post, as they call it. Just for the record, I'm twenty years old.

And also for the record, I will describe myself. I have long blond hair that never quite made it to my waist. All through school people tried vainly to get me to cut my hair real short and get a perm. How awful I would look! It would be friz city! I have Bing Crosby ears that stick out a mile. I was very conscious of this until I convinced my parents to let me get contacts. After that I didn't care. I also have a flat nose, which I think was caused somewhere along the line by Kate. Of course I can't prove this and she says it's a ridiculous idea.

I love all good movies. To this day I still haven't seen an 'R' rated film. I also watch TV, but only the good shows, nothing too filthy or violent. I like detective shows especially well.

As far as Kate and I go, we're identical, but look nothing alike. When we were little you couldn't tell us apart. She has short blond hair that is usually curly. She's the model of sophistication while I still act like a kid. She had many, many, MANY boyfriends (at least a lot of boys liked her, but she never had a steady (too independent) while I had none. Sometimes this bothered me, but I lived. She always beat me in school. She studied more. I was always buried in a book, my biggest hobby. Because of this I was called abnormal.

I wasn't a normal rock and roll teenager, either. When other kids went to Springstein concerts, I stayed at home and listened to movie soundtracks on my stereo. I guess I WAS weird.

My mom liked the movie Gone With the Wind so much she named us after the characters. Katy was Scarlett's first name, but we call Katherine Kate instead of Katy. Don't ask me why.

My name is Melanie and I love it. Most people call me Mellie for short. I think it's a nice name. It has a lot of personality.

We lived on the same farm in Illinois since Kate and I came into the world. The school we attended only had about 500 students. It was small, but you got to know everybody.

The three weeks went quicker than I could count, and before I knew it I was boarding my plane after saying farewell to everybody. My parents were there as was my best friend, Cathy. We said goodbye as quickly as possible, so I was the first person on the plane.

After finding a seat next to the window, I pulled out my book and started reading. I never go anywhere without a book. It's an old habit.

Then before I knew it, we were landing at Denver airport. As the plane touched the ground, all the what ifs that I had forced out of my head during the long ride returned. What if they didn't like me? What if I did something stupid? What if nobody met me at the airport? I had no idea where Ashby Manor was situated. I could just see myself arriving in a cab without enough money to pay the driver.

I had just managed to collect my luggage when a man wearing a black, well tailored suit and a hat cleared his throat and asked, “Are you Miss Melanie Stevens?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I'm Phillips, the chauffeur. I've come to take you to Ashby Manor.”

“A chauffeur! Wow,” was all I could say as he picked up my heavier bags and began walking towards the exit. I followed with a ton of lighter stuff. As he walked I noticed short, curly black hair peak out from under his hat.

He led me to a car parked directly outside the door. He opened the trunk while I stood on the curve, my mouth open to my feet.

I had been expecting a limousine, but this was definitely the best looking car I had ever seen! It was huge and old, about 1930s I guessed. Kate would have known the exact year without having to ask. Old cars were her hobby. The black body shone brightly in the afternoon sun. It looked as if it was polished at least once a day. The chrome plating glinted also. And this was just the outside!

“Miss Stevens?”

It was Phillips, holding the back door for me. His voice had startled me. I was about to climb in when I asked, “Would it be terribly inconvenient for you if I sat in the front seat?”

“Whatever you prefer, Miss Stevens.”

“Please, call me Melanie. I'm not used to Miss Stevens. It sounds so formal.”

“Everybody is formal at the Manor, miss.”

“Oh.”

We were well on our way to our destination before I spoke again. “Is it far to the Manor?”

“About an hour, with all this traffic. We'll be close to the mountains before we get there.”

“Good. I'll have to write Kate about them. She's my twin sister and loves mountains. She even got lost on one once.”

“A twin? That's interesting. Identical?”

“More or less. We don't look much alike now, but we used to.”

“Same here. My brother Roger looked like me until we hit about fifth grade. Then we went in opposit directions. My name is John.”

“Nice to meet you, John.” We shook hands. I had made a friend already! “How many children are there?”

“Five,” he answered.

“Five!” I think I shrieked.

“Three girls and two boys. I don't know much about them. I just drive.”

Five? That was quite a handful for a twenty-year old girl to take on at full time. Oh, well, I shall simply have to make do, I guess.

I stared out the window and watched the countryside roll by. Trees shaded both sides of the road, mainly pines. Every now and then I saw a boulder lying along the road. Meadows were seen through breaks in the trees and it looked like flowers were peaking through.

Thus we spent the rest of the ride. It was pleasant, but when John said, “We're almost there,” my heart leaped into my mouth. When it finally settled down again, it was pounding.

“Do you think they'll like me?” I asked, my voice only a high squeak.

“Sure. You're nice. And as long as you can handle kids, you'll probably stay.”

“Good.” It was quiet until his last statement hit me. “What do you mean by 'handle kids?' Is there something wrong with them?”

“The kids? No. The last four nannies? Yes.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Well, kids are kids and naturally they play tricks. Of course those tricks were sometimes on the nanny. The first one had no sense of humor whatsoever. She was MUD, I tell you. The next two were just too old to handle five rambunctious kids. The last one was just plain mean. She was dismissed for spanking one of them.”

“What's wrong with that, as long as he or she deserved it?”

“She did it with a broom handle while the poor kid was strapped to the bed.”

“My goodness! What did the poor kid do?”

“She put garlic water in Miss Grantley's mouthwash.”

I couldn't help but laugh.

“Captain Kartwright's wife died four years ago when liile Amanda was born. I don't know much. I just started work here a year ago.”

“But I thought you knew all those other nannies? How could you know what they were like if you just started work here? And I thought you said you didn't know much about the family.” My voice was teasing him.

He grinned. “Miss Melanie,” he said. “I can tell right now that you're finally the perfect nanny.” I must admit that I blushed. “Well, to answer your questions, you're the fifth nanny this year, not in the last four years. It seems that every year the household starts over. Just a game, I guess.”

“The fifth? And to think it's only May! But I can see you have more to tell me.”

“I see the kids quite a bit, because they're always in the servants quarters, even though they're not supposed to be there. I hardly ever see the Captain. I only drive, and then he doesn't talk to me.”

“Does everybody call him Captain?”

“He doesn't allow anybody to call him by his first name. Except of course for Monica Sinclair.”

“Oh? Who's she?”

“Oh, I expect you'll find out soon enough. Here we are.” John turned a corner and a huge steel gate barred us from the tree shaded circular drive that I could see through the barrier.

A gate keeper in a uniform identical to John's walked serenely to the gate, took a glance at John, then opened the gates, throwing one back and then pulling the other half open wide.

“Isn't there a little gadget that opens the gate?” I asked.

“Nope. Ashby Manor is one of the few mansions that still use gate keepers. It seems to be traditional.”

Then the house came into view. It was big, REAL big! It was made of light colored stones, bit it didn't look old as some stone houses did. It appeared to me to be friendly but cautious. Windows dotted the entire front of the 3 story building.

The driveway circled a well cared for lawn in which sat a fountain surrounded by a stone-enclosed pool of water. The water trickled out of an opening in the tree shaped statue standing in the middle of the water. The effect of the fountain with the house in the background was fantastic. I would have to take a picture of it and send it to Kate in San Francisco.

“Well, what do you think?” asked John, a smile creasing his face.

“Wow,” was all I could say.

We stopped directly in front of the double door. Now that we were closer, I could see that designs were carved into the stone surrounding the door. Just above the massive doors was the word 'Wilkommen,' meaning welcome in German. The doors themselves made me feel smaller then I usually did, they were so tall. No one would have to bend over to get in, that was for sure.

Although my heart was pounding in my chest, I walked right up to the door and pounded as hard as I could with the brass knocker. I figured that since the house was so big, I would have to knock loud in order to be heard.

Thus I was very surprised when the door opened almost immediately to reveal a tall man dressed in black with white gloves. His head was almost completely bald except for a tuft of grayish hair falling to his ears on each side. He stared, one arm holding open the door, the other held respectfully behind his back.

I stared back at him. Was I supposed to start this conversation by introducing myself or what?

Finally, with what seemed to me as a great effort, he said, “Yes?”

My anxiety disappeared at once. “Hello,” I said, thrusting out my hand. “I'm Melanie Stevens, the new governess.”

He tentatively took my hand and shook it briefly. “You mean the nanny?” He had a slight accent, but it wasn't quite English.

“Oh, yes. But I prefer governess because the word nanny always reminds me of a goat.” I think he snickered here, but he covered it with a cough. Behind us I could hear John taking my bags out of the car and setting them silently on the drive. My new friend was now the proper servant.

When the man in black had caught his breath, he opened the door wide and said, “Come right this way.”

I walked into a wide hall that reminded me of the mansion in the film Annie. The first floor that I had just entered could be seen from the balcony that encircled this front part of the house. A set of stairs at my right led up to the second floor where I figured the bedrooms were situated.

On the walls hung ornaments and pictures, some of which I had seen in books, but I had no idea what era they had originated. I did recognize a copy of The Last Supper by Da Vinci. There were doors under the second floor balcony that led to other rooms. Some of the doors were open, and through the nearest one I could see a light blue carpet covering the floor, and a window with blue curtains. A fireplace crowded the one wall I could see.

“Please wait here.” The bald man was about to leave the hall.

“Wait,” I called after him. He turned slowly and faced me. “I don't know who you are.”

“I'm called Perkins.” Then, with his nose in the air slightly more than was normal, he walked down a corridor and out of sight.

John had just brought in my last bags and set them on the floor. “Good luck,” he said in a low voice, then left through the double door to put that magnificent car away.

I was left to my own devices for the time being. I didn't want to enter any of the rooms in case I wasn't supposed to be there. I didn't want to get into trouble before I'd even been here fifteen minutes. But these thoughts didn't keep me from peeking into some of those rooms.

The first I looked into was the blue one that I had seen. It turned out to be a sitting room. There were two rather uncomfortable-looking chairs and an ornate coffee table next to the wall. A small, old styled piano was against the wall opposite the window. There was a picture that I had not noticed before on the mantle, but I didn't enter the room to see what the picture was taken of.

I moved on down the row of doors. There were two more sitting rooms, each with little furniture and a fireplace. I briefly wondered if the only heating method was matches and wood. That certainly seemed to be the case so far.

The fourth room I came to had the door firmly closed. I tried the knob and it swung open very willingly on oiled hinges. Now, this room was different. It was more modern than the others. There was a big window on the opposite wall of the door with a beautiful view of a garden and the mountains. The habitual fireplace was on the wall to the left of the door, but it was bigger and somehow prettier than the others. Many pictures sat on this mantle, all in very expensive frames. A variety of furniture greeted the eye. Comfortable looking chairs, a sofa with matching loveseat, a beanbag chair, and a big shaggy light blue pillow lay propped in the corner. And then my eyes cane to rest on the large screen TV. Now, I had seen big screen TVs before, but never one this big! There were so many buttons and switches on the thing it looked like on of the Space Shuttles. I was sure the picture would be clear. Who in this house would buy a defective TV? Next to the set, sitting on a table carved of wood, sat an expensive VCR. I could hardly contain my excitement. A big TV AND a VCR! (You may think I'm weird, but let it rest. I have a passion for movies.)

I could see that the table holding the video equipment was also used to store tapes. A cabinet was underneath the top, and when I crossed the room to investigate, I found about twenty tapes within, each having a label which told what was captured on the reels inside. But each label had something like 'World War II - The Great Generals' or 'Taxes and You.' They were all documentaries! Where were the real movies? With such a grand video system, they would surely have movies.

But before I could look around for these missing films, I decided that I had better leave unless I got caught snooping around family belongings.

I exited through the door and closed it silently behind me. No sooner had I turned around when Perkins entered from the corridor, his back ramrod straight and his nose still in the air, followed by a man.

This man was tall, at least a good six feet, give or take an inch, and he wore a grey business suit. He had jet black hair, but not quite so black that it was blue, worn up off his forehead.

He walked like a very important person, and as if he had been important for years. His pace was quick, but not unkind. He hit me as very handsome.

They stopped a few feet away from me. Perkins said, “And this, sir, is the new governess.” He put a stress on the word governess, almost like he was sure it was a new word and he wanted the tall gentleman to take note of it.

Well, the tall gentleman certainly DID take note of it. In fact, he did a double take, looking at Perkins with a surprised expression on his strong face. “Oh,” was what he said. His voice was just perfect for the rest of him. Not too high, not too deep. I liked it.

“Hello, I'm Melanie Stevens.” At the time it seened like the right thing to say.

“So I gather.” Perkins left the hall then, so the man who was obviously Captain Christopher Kartwright, waved his hand a little without even looking at him. His gaze continued to fall on me. Actually, probe THROUGH me would be a better term.

“You're from..?” he asked as he finally withdrew his gaze and began slowly walking around the hall.

“Illinois.” I stood rooted to my spot, following him with my own green eyes.

“Ah, yes. A farm in Illinois. Have you any experience with children?”

“If you call babysitting experience, then yes I have.” My answer was full of energy, and I smiled.

He gave me a strange look in return, but I think the corners of his mouth were turning up. He turned away before I could be sure.

“As you may or may not know, it depends on how many questions you asked Phillips, I have 5 children, their ages ranging from four to fourteen. You will be in charge of them at all times. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.” I felt like I was on one of his ships.

“They are to be in their rooms every night ny nine o'clock at the latest. Times vary between ages. Use your own discretion on that matter. They are to look neat and orderly, and that goes for you too. Running is not allowed in the house, nor rough housing of any kind. I like my house to be quiet, not filled with shouts and shrieks. They are out of school and won't resume until September, so you need not worry about that. During the summer, it would please me greatly if they kearned something. Just because school is not in session does not mean they can stop learning.”

The list continued on and on forever, and with every rule I became more and more amazed. He expected me to keep five growing children quiet, occupied, polite, well dressed, clean, smart, and healthy with no childlike qualites at all. He wanted them to be perfect! Honestly! I had thought MY dad was bad! He was cheesecake compared to this!

A few rules later I finally interrypted, without thinking first, as usual. “Are they allowed to DO anything?”

“What?” He seemed amazed that anyone dare interrupt him. His grey eyes settled on me once again.

“Are they allowed to DO anything?” I repeated in a much smaller voice.

“And what is it that you propose them to do, Miss Stevens?”

“Well.” I thought a minute. “How about play?”

“Miss Stevens, my children don't play. We are in a high social position in the community and we must set a good example. Rowdy kids are not that example.” He turned away from me, which was probably a good thing because my face became red with anger. I'm sure I would have said something very insulting if I hadn't heard the clatter of many feet in the corridor that apparently led to the rest of the house.

“And these, Miss Stevens, are my children.”

Five bodies came into view, all neatly dressed, and very well behaved. Two girls had long hair, but the oldest one's was cut just below her shoulders. The boys hair was kept short, cut just above the ears. The older son looked so much like his father. Both boys wore good pants and dress shirts. The girls were dressed in good clothes also. This seemed to be the tradition when greeting a new nanny.

None of them spoke and none of them smiled. They stood in a huddled group, all staring at the tiled floor.

“Look at me when I speak to you,” their father commnaded. Five young heads snapped up, eyes trained on the Captain. “This is Melanie Stevens, your new governess.” Like Perkins, he stressed that word. Athough I looked hard, I didn't find even the hint of a spark of interest in any pair of eyes. “You will obey her at all times. If there is a problem, she will come to me, and the guilty party will be dealt with, as you well know.” He turned to me and said, “I am saying this for your benefit, Miss Stevens, so listen.”

I raised my eyebrows at his back, and I saw the middle girl's face lighten. She wouldn't smile in the presence of her father, of course, but she came close to it.

Since there was a brief pause in the conversation, I decided to get one thing straight. “Please, call me Melanie, or Melly if you like. Miss Stevens sounds so formal.”

The Captain gave me a brief nod of the head to say that he understood, but that was all. When he had turned his back to me again, I mimicked his gesture. This caused a small giggle to escape from the three younger ones. The older boy gave them all a 'how dare you' look from the corners of his eyes. The Captain gave them a disapproving stare, and the three quieted down immediately.

“Now, step forward as I give your name and age.” He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Lizette is my oldest at fourteen.” A tall girl stepped forward. Her short hair was brown in color, and curled at the bottom. It looked very becomming on her. She looked almost completely grown up, and her faintly haughty expression told me that she knew it. Her face was pretty, her eyes a sky blue, and a small perfect nose finished her off. She stepped back.

“Eric, the next in line, was thirteen last week, and very proud of it.” I noticed that his face softened somewhat when he mentioned this, and the tense air relaxed a little. So he did have feelings after all!

The proud Eric clomped forward, making the sound of his steps echo in the great vastness of the hall. His light brown hair was tossled, but trimmed nicely. He looked the neat and handsome young man, and I noticed once again how much he looked like the Captain.

“'This is Michael.” The younger took the place of Eric. He had red hair, but the characteristic freckles were missing.

A mischevious look was on his face that, as I was to find was always there. He was fairly short, but very agile from the way his shirtail was untucked. “He's ten.” Michael stepped back into the group.

The next one in line didn't wait to be introduced. She stepped forward and did it herself. This was the one who had almost smiled at me. “I'm Anne and I'm eight. I'm a hellion.”

I was surprised be her choice of words, especially in front of her father. But it didn't seem to affect him very much. Apparently he was used to it. All he did was sigh and say,” Really, Anne, must you use those words?”

“Two nannies ago said I should express myself.”

“Next time, try to do so silently,” he said firmly, but with a twinkle in his eyes.

Her blond hair swishing against her back, she turned back to rejoin her brothers and sisters.

“And last but not least, Amanda. She's four.” Nobody stepped forward, though. I couldn't even see her, for she was hiding behind the taller kids. “Amanda, step forward please.” It was the first time I had heard him say please.

When no little girl came into view, the Captain stepped into the rank of children and scooped a small girl up in his arms. I noticed then how strong he was. The blond-haired girl looked at me with a little fear, but more interest. Just from the way she held on to the Captain, it was obvious that she adored him.

“This,” he said, indicating the girl in his arms, “is Amanda.”

“Hello,” she said politely.

“She's a little shy.”

I smiled sweetly, but didn't say anything.

This seemed to put the Captain at a loss for words. After a hanging few seconds, he put Amanda down, walked over to a small recess in the wall, and pulled a cord. (I didnt know they still did that!) “Mrs. Harding will be here in a minute to show you to your room. Your luggage?”

I pointed meekly to the mountain of suitcases and travel bags sitting in front of the stone stairs.

“All that?” I nodded.

Michael piped up, “What do you have in there? A horse?” The children laughed.

“Books mainly, I guess. Clothes, of course, and my records. I'll have to buy a stereo first, though.”

“There's an old stereo in Miss Frankens room that isn't used anymore. You could have that one.” Eric looked at me with an air of great importance for solving that minor problem.

“That will be fine.” The Captain was moving off now, into yet another corridor. “I'll leave you to unpack and get acquainted. Dinner is at seven o'clock sharp. Be there on time.” It was a command, not a request. I felt my anger at his seemed arrrogance rise again. With an effort I shoved it down.

“Can we help you unpack?” Anne was asking.

“Well, I suppose so.”

Michael interrupted loudly, saying, “I wouldn't let her. She only wants to get a look at all your stuff.”

“I do not, but I bet you do,” she retorted, spreading her legs apart, placing her hands on her hips, and stared defiantly at her brother.

“Oh, both of you, stop it!” Lizette orderd. “You're acting like children.”

“And what do you think we are, diphead?”

“Michael, you shouldn't talk to your sister that way,” I said.

Michael looked at me in surprise. “I bet you yelled at your sister like that!”

Eric hit him in the ribs and said in a loud whisper, “What if she doesn't have a sister?”

“I have got a sister, a twin in fact, named Kate, and of course I called her things like diphead, jerk, idiot, stupid, and a lot of other things.”

“See!” Michael was the victor.

“Father doesn't like words like that.” Lizette was very serious.

Just then Mrs. Harding, the housekeeper (or actually, HEAD housekeeper) walked into the hall and the discussion was cut off as everybody scrambled for my pile of bags, yelling at the top of their lungs. Mrs. Harding was quite beside herself.

“Eric, stop that pushing! Lizette, can't you keep better conrol of them? You are the oldest. Anne, you can't possibly carry all that. Give some to Michael. Eric, be careful, that could hold valuables inside. Here, Lizette, take this handbag. Anne! I told you to put some of that down! Now look, you've upset Amanda! I shall simply have to tell your father about all this! Come here, Amanda.” The struggling housekeeper waded through the mess and picked up the four-year-old, who had tears running down her cheeks.

But it appeared that Amanda wanted nothing to do with the finicky lady. She pushed her as far away as possible.

I plopped down my bags and held out my arms to the girl. She came into them very willingly.

“Now, Anne, do give some of that to Michael,” I started. “Yes, that's good. Can you take that bag there, also? Fine. Eric, carry the heavier stuff, and Lizette, can you take the leftovers? Thank you, dear. Mrs. Harding, could you please take that blue case, and that red one? Thank you. I'll take this, and Amanda, carry my book. Now, which way do we go?”

I was led up the staircase and around the balcony. We entered a wide hall with doors placed at fairly even intervals in the walls. A brown and white carpet padded the way for us, muffling our many footsteps. I found that four-year-olds get heavy after awhile.

“This is the children's wing. There is another staircase at the end of this hall that leads to the dining room and kitchen areas. The children will show you around.” We passed a few more doors, then halted, with Mrs. Harding continuing her narrative. “This is your room.” She threw open the door and we crowded in. “I hope that everything is there. If you need anything, just pull the rope and a maid will come. I must leave you now. I have a lot of work to do. Remember, dinner at seven.” With that she was out the door and I was alone with five kids and a ton of luggage. I stared at my surroundings.

The room was absolutely incredible! First and formost, it was huge! A big double bed was nestled in the corner, a pretty light green and purple spread covering it. There was a small sofa, a rocking chair with a pretty quilt draped over the back, an easychair, and a dark green velvet window seat. Heavy green curtains hung at the windows, through which I could see the tree shaded lawn. The ever-present mountains finished off the view to make it breathtaking.

There were two doors in the room. One opened onto a spacious closet stock full of hangers. Another revealed the bathroom. The tub was big enough to hold all six of us. The sink was blue with very shiny faucets. The entire place simply sparkled from all the cleaning it had been subjected to.

Back in the main room, I headed for the bed and plopped down on it. Amanda quickly joined me, climbing into my lap. “I like you,” she stated.

“I like you, too,” I replied, and gave her a quick hug. We were already friends.

Lizette placed herself on the edge of the bed and didn't say anything. Anne jumped up and sat down on my right side while Michael placed himself on the left. Eric wriggled in between Anne and Lizette.

“Why is your nose flat?” It was the all-inquisitive Anne who asked the fateful question.

“Because it got squished by Kate somewhere along the line,” I said with a sigh.

“She wasn't a very nice sister was she?” commented Eric.

“Oh,” I conceded, “she had her good points.”

“Yeah, does she look anything like you?”

“Well, if I can find my purse. Ah, here it is. Let's see now. There.” I pulled out a recent picture and handed it to Michael.

“You don't look anuthing alike,” he said, disappointed. “The least you could do is have the same hair cut.”

The rest of the afternoon went rapidly. The children helped me to unpack and get organized. All except Lizette, that is. She went off by herself and I didn't see her until just before dinner, when I was desperately trying to find the dining room. I had taken the stairs Mrs. Harding had mentioned, but I apparently took a wrong turn when I reached the bottom, for somehow I ended up in the front hall again. I heard a voice coming from one of the rooms, so I looked there, hoping to find help.

I knocked before entering. The room appeared to be a study, or den, and a library all in one. The walls were crowded with books, and I made a note to stop in and look at some of them later.

Directly in front of the two big windows sat an oak desk, polished till it shone. There were neat stacks of paper at one corner, and a phone occupied the other. The voice I had heard was Lizette's as she spoke to somebody. Her back was to me, so I went unnoticed. I couldn't help but overhear.

“Uh, no, my father just went out,” she was saying. There was a pause as the other party said something. Whatever they said didn't seem to sit too well with Lizette, for she said, “No, I'm not lying! You have no right to say that I am. And stay away from us! We don't like you! If you come again, we'll make you life miserable! I can promise that!” She slammed down the phone and whirled around to find me standing in the door.

A hand instinctively flew to her mouth. She didn't bother to pretend innocence, but accusingly asked, “How long have you been there?”

“Oh, long enough,” I said mildly. “Who were you talking to?”

“None of your business.” She tried to brush past me, but stopped when I said:

“That was Monica Sinclair, wasn't it?”

“How did you know?”

“Lucky guess. I take it you don't like her.”

“She's a wolf. She comes around here and bossses everybody around like she owns the place. She's mean to us, and all she wants is my father's money. I hate her!”

“I see,” I said slowly. “Does she live around here?”

“She has houses everywhere, including here. She's terribly rich. She just got in this morning from Paris.”

We walked into the hall and headed for the dining room, I guess. By now we were late for supper.

“We're late. They'll be waiting for us,” Lizette said. Then she snuck a glance at me from behind her hair. “You won't tell my father about the call, will you?”

I considered for a minute. “No, I won't. I don't think it's too wrong to yell at somebody over the phone. I just wouldn't do it too often, if I were you.”

She smiled at me, then grabbed my hand and quickened her pace.

Suddenly we errupted in the dining room. Everybody looked up from their plates and stared at us. Lizette immediately slipped into her place and stared at her lap. There was only one chair left, so I moved to it and sat down.

“You're late,” the Captain accused.

“Yes, we are,” I agreed. This seemed to unruffle the man's feathers a bit! “I got lost and Lizette found me. Thank you, Lizette, for bringing me here.”

Lizette acknowledged the thanks with a quiet, “You're welcome.” She turned her gaze back to her lap.

“From now on make it a point to start early. Then if you get lost, we won't have to wait for you.” He turned back to the food on his plate.

For the third time that day I felt my dander reaching the danger point. Nobody looked at me, and I busied myself with my food to hide my feelings. They always showed on my face. At times, it was an annoying quality.

Chapter 2

We slipped into a routine after a few days: Breakfast from seven thirty until eight, then time to ourselves until noon, when lunch was served. The Captain was usually out at this time, and I very rarely saw him until dinner at seven. Then he retired to his library/den while I got the younger children ready for bed. Even though they were suppposed to be in their rooms at nine, I sometimes let them come into my room to watch the nice color TV set that had been provided for me. These were the fun times, because we were doing something that we weren't supposed to, and the agent of our capture was just down the stairs. It made it an adventure.

One night, the movie Superman was on. Lucky for us it started at eight o'clock. We rushed through supper, which the Captain took little notice of, then the little ones had their baths and were ready for bed in record time. I flipped on the TV just as it started, and we settled down with popcorn and pillows. Anne was so excited she couldn't sit down, and Michael refused to be quiet, even when Eric slugged him a good one over the head with a pillow.

Things were going along fine until about ten o'clock. Amanda had been put to bed an hour before, and we were just watching the exciting ending.

“Wow,” Anne breathed as the Man of Steele, played in this film by the handsome Christopher Reeve, used his super powers to save Lois Lane's life.

Our eyes were glued to the set. We were so enraptured that nobody heard the knock on the door, or noticed the fact that it opened silently.

Superman flew into the sky with a final WHOOOSH, while Lizette let out a whoosh of her own, and the final credits started rolling by.

“He is soooooo cute.” Lizette sighed.

“Did you get a load of the way he caught that helicopter? True heroism!” Michael said.

“Will you be quiet. I'm trying to listen to the music,” Eric commanded.

We were silent until the very, very end came on and was gone. The musicel score ended with a flourish, and a commercial immediately followed. Anne used her foot to shut off the set.

“Ok, everybody. Bedtime.” I stood up and stretched stiffened muscles.

“I should say it's well passed bedtime.”

The voice made us whirl around, and we found ourselves facing the Captain.

I stammered out a, “Hello, sir.” No one said anything at all, but each pair of eyes were open wide, wondering what they would be forced to do tomorrow for punishment. I managed to find my voice, and said, “I'm sorry, sir. It was my idea.”

He looked at me, his eyes like steel. “I gave specific orders that the children are to be in their rooms by nine o'clock. I was led to believe that you understood that?”

“Oh, I do. I understand completely.” I couldn't keep the anger out of my voice. I was about to say more, but he cut me off.

“Alright, all of you, get to your rooms.” No one moved, but stood in front of me like a wall. “Now!” he ordered, and the four departed with amazing speed, leaving me alone to face the verdict.

“Now,” the Captain turned towards me, “I can assume that the rules will be followed in the future?”

“Yes sir!” I bit off with malice toward all. Again he didn't notice my anger.

“Good,” he said curtly, then walked out closing the door behind him.

“OOOOOH!” I said between my teeth and threw a pillow at the closed door. It hit with a dull thud, not quite what I needed to release my anger. “Of all the rotten things! It was only a stupid movie! If he isn't the most cold-hearted, haughty, arrogant...” I'm sure I would have gone on if the idea hadn't hit me. “Just a movie...” I repeated in a much calmer tone of voice. I bobbed my head once in determination, and said to the long departed man, “Yes, Captain, I WILL follow the rules, but some are going to be bent a little.” Then, with great satisfaction, I went to bed.

The next day the Captain left the house to see the much spoken of Monica Sinclair, leaving the rest of us alone. I silently thanked Monica Sinclair for coming back from Paris now instead of waiting.

After breakfast I asked the maid to see if Phillips was around. After an extended search he was found and sent to me.

“Thank heavens the Captain drove himself today,” I said as the chauffeur cruised in.

“What can I do for my favorite governess?”

“John, could you do me a favor?”

“Sure. Aim and shoot.” (He was such a nice man!)

“Could you drive me and the kids in to Denver?”

“The Captain didn't say anything about it.” He scratched his head, ruffling his dark curles. “I don't know, Miss Melanie...”

“Oh, please John. My job depends on it.” It certainly did, considering that if the Captain ever found out, I would be fired. But nevertheless, I intended to go on with my plan.

My face must have had the damsel-in-distress look, for he smiled and said, “Sure. What time do we leave?”

“Oh, as soon as possible!” I smiled and gave him an impulsive hug. “Thank you, John!” I was rushing up the stairs two at a time. He yelled that the car would be in front in fifteen minutes, and I stopped long enough to let him know that I'd heard him before I pounded down the hall to round up my charges.

It was only nine in the morning when we hit the department stores. The children assured me they had been there before, so I gave them each so much money and sent Michael and Eric off with John as guardian. I took Amanda and Anne myself, and told Lizette she could do what she wanted. I was surprised but pleased when she ran to catch up with us. She was turning into a wise young lady.

Because of my small budget, we couldn't buy everything we wanted, but we still ended up with plenty of packages. I'm afraid I was in a naughty mood and encouraged Lizette to buy clothes that I knew her father wouldn't approve of. But oh! it was fun!

We met at an appointed place and all had lunch at a fast food restaurant, a place the children were NEVER allowed to go. Then I took them all to see a re-release of Raiders of the Lost Ark starring Harrison Ford. Even John couldn't resist a good adventure film. It went over with great success, but Amanda needed a lap through most of the show, especially when the snakes came on. Lizette said they gave her the creeps, but Anne and the boys thought they were neat.

When we emerged in the sunlight, we all agreed that it was time to eat again. We bought hotdogs and soft drinks on the street and walked to a nearby park to sit and eat.

We had races and played tag and hide-and-seek, and laughed a lot. Finally everybody flopped down on the grass, exhausted but happy.

“Melanie, can we do this again?” Anne asked from her position on the ground.

“I suppose, but we'll have to wait until I get more money out of your father. Amanda, stop eating grass. You're not a cow.”

Lizette laughed and let out a happy sigh. “This has been the best day of my entire life.”

“I hope that you stay with us forever, Melanie,” Michael said.

“Me too,” Eric stated firmly. Other affirmatives made the vote unanimous. It made me feel very good indeed.

We were quiet, catching our breath, when suddenly Eric's head came up. “Hey,” he said. “Melanie didn't buy anything.”

“I don't need anything,” I said, fussing with Amanda's clothes.

“No, come on, we all got something, so should you. How much money do you have left?”

“None,” I admitted. “I gave it all to you.”

Lizette pulled five dollars out of her purse. “How much do the rest of you have?” Pockets were emptied and wallets drawn out. When all the leftovers had been deposited in Lizette's hand, the total came to twenty dollars and sixty-seven cents.

“That's just enough,” she said, standing up and starting for the car. When we didn't follow she yelled, “Come on, you dopes! We don't have much time.”

Back to the department stores we went. Lizette forced me to stay in the car while the rest of them ran after her. They were gone about half an hour, and when they came back, Lizette was carrying a package.

“All right, what did you do?” I asked as John headed home.

“This is for you, Melanie, from the five of us.” Lizette handed me the bundle.

I was kind of scared to open it, but I did anyway, and inside was a fluffy, wriggling kitten. “Oh, how cute!” I cried. The little thing was black and white, with four perfect white socks and a little white nose. It was rather scrawny looking, but adorable.

“It's a she, and the man said it was fixed,” Amanda piped up.

“It's probably a good thing. But what will the Captain say? He surely won't let a cat in his house.”

“Mrs. Harding has a cat in the kitchen, and it sleeps in her room at night. So we figured it would be ok for you to have one, too. We saw you looking at her through the window of the pet store,” Anne said.

“Oh,” Eric said, pulling another sack from underneath him. “This is for you too.”

“You idiot!” Lizette said. “Why'd you sit on it? Now it's squished!”

“Sorry!” He made a face at her, but smiled when he handed it to me.

It was indeed squished, almost completely flat. I pulled out a light brown fedora. It had a wide brim and a band of lighter brown around the crown. A little pushing brought it back into it's normal shape. I clapped it on my head, and for a change, a hat actually fit. Normally my head is too small, but not this time.

“It looks good,” Anne said. The others agreed, and John looked at it through the rear-view mirror.

“Thank you for everything,” I said and cuddled the kitten close. It made me less homesick somehow. The little animal shivered. I knew she was scared, but would soon get used to me.

We talked a little as John sped homeward. Once again we were late for supper.

The days sped by and I didn't even notice. In fact, I got so wrapped up in 'my children' that I was hardly even homesick.

We spent the days riding the horses from the Captain's stables, going on picnics, and having fun. I was determined that these five kids would have a fun summer despite their father.

It became normal for the Captain to leave the house soon after breakfast, so it wasn't very often that I got to see him. Lizette's birthday was already next week, and I wanated to talk to him about what we would do for it.

Finally I caught him just before he left for Miss Sinclair's. He was walking across the front hall, looking slightly agitated.

“Captain,” I yelled. He stopped and turned around to face me as I hurried to his side. “Could I talk to you for a minute? It's about Lizette's birthday. It's next week.”

He glanced at his watch. “Alright, but make it quick. I'm in a hurry.”

“Let's talk where we're sure she won't hear us.” Much to his regret, I led him into the library and shut the door firmly behind me.

“Now,” I started. “Do you have anything planned?”

“Such as what?” he asked with bland interest showing vaguely in his grey eyes.

“Well,” I said shortly, “do you normally have a party on birthdays?”

“We don't make a lasting habit of it.”

“You do buy presents, though. Is it an informal present give-away?” I said lightly. Getting any information out of him was not an easy job.

“I have no idea what you're talking about. Miss Stevens,” he glanced again at his watch, “I have no more time to talk of this. I have an appointment that I can't miss. Now, if you'll excuse me.” He walked towards the door and had his hand on the kob when I heard myself say:

“Wait a minute!” I was confused by his actions. When I'm confused, I become totally lost. My face becomes as blank as a board and my mind starts to whirl around in all sorts of directions and I don't see clearly. I never know what will happen when I get like this.

The Captain slowly turned around. “Excuse me?” His voice was low and calm, but seemed to be saying, “You're treading on thin ice, Miss Stevens.”

I took a deep breath and thought this is it. Here goes my job, but I refused to back down or even lower my voice. Aloud I said, “I said wait a minute. I'm not finished.”

“Oh?” The muscles in his face tightened and I knew he was getting mad. “What more do you have to say?”

Naturally, I didn't listen to my common sense. “I have a lot more to say. I think...”

“Miss Stevens, at this time I don't care what you think. I'm late for a date with Miss Sinclair.” With that he pulled open the door and left.

I followed close on his heals, refusing to be pushed aside. My voice was shrill as I said, “If you spent as much time with your own children as you do with Monica Sinclair, you could be called a normal father!”

He wheeled around, his eyes blazing. “Now, just a minute...”

But I couldn't be stopped once the door had opened. My eyes blazing fire equal to his, I said, “Yes, a minute would be nice. Amanda would love to have a minute with her father. Do you know that once she told me she didn't always know what you looked like? And she's only four years old! As for Lizette, all she needs is a glance her way or a smile, but NOOOOO! you ignore her just as you do the others. Anne calls herself a hellion, but do you know that she actually likes dresses and pretty clothes? Of course you don't! You don't know your own children from... from,” my mind reeled, trying to find a good comparison, “from the servants!” I finally got out.

Thr Captain had been silent through the whole bombardment, but now that I had to take a breath, he had his chance. “Are you finished?” he said between clenched teeth.

“No, I'm not!” I yelled back. My words echoed in the hall, and it's a pure miracle that nobody heard us. “Did you know that Michael can beat Eric in a footrace? He tried to tell you last night during supper, but you didn't pay any attention. You're too busy with Monica Sinclair.” I spit out her name.

His mouth was set in a grim line as he said, “You haven't even met her yet, and you have no right to talk of her that way!” Apparently he was better than me at keeping control of his temper, because this was the first time he raised his voice.

“No, I haven't met her,” I agreed, “but I've learned so much about her through the children that it seems like I've known her all my life. Do you know how they feel about her? I do. I know they're scared she'll take you completely away from them if you marry her. Scared that she'll send them to boarding schools in France of England and that they'll never see you except for the holidays, not that they see you much more now, but it's better than nothing, and...”

“You mean to tell me that you, who has been here exactly one month, know my own children better than I do? Who pays for their education? For thier food and clothes? You certainly don't!” He was pacing in front of me now, his shoes making agitated clicks on the clean linolium.

I gave a disgusted look and said, “Clothes, school! They're material things! What they need is some attention and consideration! Something much more than the curt “Good morning” you give them every day at breakfast. They need to be loved!

“Are you implying that I don't love my children?!” It was a statement waiting to be confirmed, but he didn't wait. “I've had enough!” He strode quickly to the door and yanked it open. “We're not finished, Miss Stevens. I'll see you when I return tonight!” The door slammed on me and any further protests I might have had.

For the rest of the morning I was too mad to think. I went around the house like thunder, bringing rain wherever I went.

But then I started to think of what I had said, and it didn't take long to realize that I had hurt the Captain beyond belief. I had actually said that he didn't love his children, his own flesh and blood! He just didn't know how to show it.

What could he possibly think of me? Now he had every right to hate me, and I wouldn't blame him if he did. I hate me! I was awful, uncaring, and incredibly insensitive.

I supposed I would lose my job. I dreaded the time when the day would be over and the Captain would come home. I was sure he would fire me.

But, to my surprise, the Captain didn't come home. Supper came and went with no sign of him. The children sensed that something was wrong, but I didn't say anything. I figured it wasn't worth upsetting them now.

It was late that night when I was told the Captain wanted to see me in the library. With a heavy heart, I went.

He was sitting at his desk, looking over some papers. A cup of coffee was at his elbow and he wore a suit similar to that in which I had first seen him.

I walked in as quietly as I could, feeling small and meek. I thought of how Dorothy Gail had faced the Great Wizard of Oz, and that this was how she had felt. I had a great respect for good old Dorothy just now.

I stood in the doorway for a thousand years before he looked up.

“Oh, hello Miss Stevens. I didn't hear you come in.” He turned back to his papers.

I thought - “He doesn't LOOK mad.” - But I stayed at my post by the door.

After a few silent minutes went by, he glanced up again. Noticing that I was still standing by the door, he looked around, and said, “Do you prefer to stand, Miss Stevens?”

“What? Oh.” I walked to one of the easy chairs and sat down on the edge, my back straight as a board.

The Captain seemed to shake his head slightly, but still didn't say anything.

Finally, I couldn't wait any longer. “Captain, about this morning...”

“Yes, this morning.” He stood and walked around the desk to stand in front of me.

“You're going to fire me,” I said before he could get the words out himself.

“Fire you? No, I won't do that.”

I looked at him with surprise. “Why not?”

“Miss Stevens, at this time, I wouldn't ask that question if I were you.”

“Then I take it back,” I said wholeheartedly.

He moved away, then, and faced the wall. “Let's just say that we both got was coming to us, and besides,” He stopped, seeming rather embarrassed, “you're the first person I've met that would... well that would stand up to me.”

I was totally taken aback. “Oh, Captain, surely somebody's told you off before this.”

He turned to me and his eyebrows shot up. “No. They haven't.” His old arrogance restored, he sat down behind his desk once again. “Now for the problem at hand. Lizette's birthday is a week from Thursday. That gives us nine days. What had you planned to do?”

I was totally bewildered. “Well,” I stammered, “We usually had a party with just the family.”

“That sounds fine. Do whatever you want. If you have any problems, feel free to ask me.” He was already waving his hand for me to go.

I stood up slowly and made my way to the door. But before I opened it, I said, “I'm sorry about this morning.”

He didn't even glance up, just said, “I understand,” then went back to his work.

I left, not really knowing what had just happened. Sometimes I simply didn't understand the Captain.

Well. Lizette's party was a big success. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Her favorite foods decorated the table, and we ate off the best china. She had asked her 'guests' to come dressed comfortably, so there were no flashy dresses or suits, but I must say that we really did look nice. The Captain was very handsome in a dark blue shirt with matching pants. He seemed to be in a good mood and I was glad that he wasn't going to ruin the day by going over to the Sinclairs.

When the birthday cake came, Lizette made the traditional wish and blew out the candles. Michael made strangle noises during the procedure, trying in vain to get her to laugh and become unable to blow them all out, but he failed, and when Anne told him to be quiet, she added, “Men,” with a sigh and shake of the head. Her eyes rolled up, beseeching God to take them back.

We adjourned to the living room. It was only the second time that I had passed through the door to behold that fantastic TV. There we had presents, and would have had a fight with the discarded wrapping paper if Lizette had allowed us, but she declared that since it was her day and that she was now fifteen years old, she was too old for such childish things. This brought boos from Eric and Michael, and Amanda stated that she would never let herself become an old lady like Lizette.

So instead we told ghost stories. The Captain told a particularly eerie one about a sailor who had been locked into the hold of a ship and was haunted by his dead brother. The sound of the wind rushing through the leaves of the trees outside mixing with his resonant voice really produced a chilling effect. It reminded me of Dracula and I had the feeling that I wouldn't be sleeping too well that night. The children liked it, anyway. They just loved a good scare. But as for me, NO THANKS!

That night, the leaf-rustling wind turned into a gale, bringing dark clouds, loud thunder and sheets of rain. When I climbed into bed, it was so dark in my room that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I huddled under the blanket, thoughts of dead sailors floating through my mind. Every few seconds bolts of lightning zipped across the sky, creating strange shadows that stayed just long enough for me to see them, then disappeared to let my imagination take over. And on this night my imagination was working overtime.

Along with ghostly thoughts came reminders of every single scary movie I had ever seen. Poltergeist was the most prominent, and I watched the closet, almost sure that a monster would stick it's head out of the recess and eat me alive.

Then my little common sense came to the fore. “Melanie, stop it,” I said aloud. “For heaven's sake, you're twenty years old now. You can't let a stupid movie keep you from sleeping.” So I shut my eyes and tried to think pleasant thoughts.

I had just about fallen off to sleep when a shrill scream tore me away from the edge. I jumped up immediately and ran to the door, not bothering to throw on my robe.

The hall was dark and seemed longer than normal. It was completely empty except for me, and I wondered if I had been dreaming. I stood for a minute, listening, but nothing more could be heard, so I headed back for my room.

I had just reached the door when a very loud clap of thunder tried to shake apart the house. A door flew open and a little body flew out. It was Amanda, scared by the storm.

“Amamda?” I said in a loud whisper.

She ran to me and wrapped her arms around my leg, clinging for all her life. Tears streaked her face and she was extremely hot.

“Sh,” I said. “It's just a storm.” I picked her up and was about to go back to my room when suddenly Anne appeared beside us.

“See, Amanda.” I shook the little girl. “Anne is scared, too.”

“Oh, I'm not scared. I'm just seeing who's making all the noise,” she protested.

“Right,” I said. “Get in there.” I opened the door wider and she scurried in.

“Daddy's sailor was outside my window.” Amanda hicoughed.

“Really?” Anne asked with wide eyes. She scooted closer to me on the bed.

“Oh, fiddle faddle,” I said, using Kate's favorite phrase. “There's no such thing as ghosts.”

“How do you know?” Amanda asked.

“Because I do. After all, I'm twenty and I've never seen one.”

Anne looked at me doubtfully. “I GUESS I believe you.”

“Well, now that we have that cleared up, what do we do?” Thunder once again split the heavens.

“Hide!” yelled Anne and she dove under the blankets. Amanda followed.

I pulled back the covers, exposing the two huddled forms, their heads buried in their hands. “OH, come on you two. I bet the rest of them will be here at any minute.”

“Never,” Anne replied. “Lizette's too OLD, and the boys wouldn't DARE come.”

Amanda crawled into my lap and settled there. “Do storms scare YOU?”

Now I was caught. “Well... sometimes,” I admitted. “It's better to be with somebody when it storms, I think.”

“It's not nearly as bad as when you're by yourself,” she agreed.

Lightning continued to blind us every minute or so, and the thunder seemed louder with each bang.

“Why is it so LOUD?” Amanda wailed.

I explained, “Because God's moving around his furniture and every time he drops something, you hear it and that's the thunder.”

“Then He's sure dropping a lot of furniture,” Anne observed. I agreed. “What makes the lightning then?”

I searched my memory, finally saying, “I guess that when He drops something, it hits a lamp and the lamp breaks.”

“Then He must buy a lot of lamps.” Amanda's eyes were wide. I giggled.

“Well, it's late. You two crawl into bed while I check everybody's windows.”

“NO!” the two screeched in unison, and each grabbed a hand as I once again walked into the hall.

I peeked quietly into Michael's room. He was in bed with the covers up to his ears. The window near his head was wide open and the nightable was getting wet. I closed the window and latched it, the girls watching from a dry distance. As the latch fell into place, I heard a whisper.

“Melanie?”

“Hello. I thought you were asleep,” I answered.

“No, not me.”

“We're having a party in my room. Want to join us?”

“Sure!” And he jumped out of bed a little too quickly.

We found Lizette waiting for us in the hall, and it didn't take much to convince Eric that the thunder wasn't so loud in my room.

“Did you know that God is rearranging his furniture?” Amanda asked with her chin in her hands and a serious look in her eyes.

“He's what?” Lizette responded.

I hastily said, “Nevermind.”

The next thing I knew it was morning and the sun was streaming in through my big windows.

“Really!” said a voice that sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. “What on EARTH will the Captain say?”

“Ah,” I thought. “It's Mrs. Harding.” I could just make out her tight curls and pointed nose against the blinding sun. I forced my eyes open wider and realized that there was something in bed with me.

Then I remembered the storm and the late night party. I looked around, but hardly recognized my own room. Amanda was smuggled somewhere under the blankets. I couldn't be sure where she was, but I did see a suspicious looking lump. Anne was on my other side, splayed all over the bed, taking up as much space as oossible. Lizette lay at my feet, all scrunched up, with her legs drawn up to her chest. Her dark hair tumbled over her face, and she looked very pretty at the moment. Michael was on the floor beside the bed, wrapped up in my bedspread. I seemed to remember that last night he had started out ON the bed. Eric was practically burried by Lizette, laying at the very end of my bed.

It was a good thing that I had a big bed, or else we would never have fit.

“Miss Stevens, what is the meaning of this? These children are quite old enough to sleep by themselves.”

“Don't get hyper,” I admonished her as I sat up slowly, so as not to rock the boat. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and asked, “What time is it?”

“Eight thirty,” said she with a click of her tongue. “The Captain is extremely exasperated for having to wait so long for you.”

“I thought he went to Monica Sinclair's in the mornings.”

“Today Monica Sinclair is coming here and Captain Kartwright wants the children to greet her. So... do whatever it is that you nanny's do and get them ready!” She turned for the door but stopped when I said,

“I'm a governess.”

“Hmmmpf,” she said with a lady-like snort, and left, pulling the door closed with a bang.

Ah, Monica Sinclair at last. So I finally meet her I thought as I drug five kids from the deep recesses of sleep.

The children marched down the stairs in silent solemnity. All the smiles of the day before had vanished and were replaced by looks of tired apprehension. They once again wore their good clothes; the girls in dresses and the boys in shirts and ties.

The Captain stood in the hall, his hands held behind his back, looking rather pleased with himself. Beside him stood an elegantly dressed woman who proved to be a few inches taller than me. She had dark hair that was cut short in the curly fashion of the day. Her nose was long, and her eyebrows ended in sharp points over hard blue eyes. Her mouth was slightly pinched, but was now forced into a smile. Long fingers were clasped together and I could see diamond rings sparkling on more than one of them.

She wore a blue dress that was probably straight from Paris. It hugged her figure, and DID look good on her. She was slim, and, as far as I was concerned, could have passed as one of the Carringtons from 'Dynasty.' She had an 'Oh, those adoring children' look on her face, which was usually worn when people didn't understand those 'creatures.'

“Monica, you've met my children,” the Captain offered in intoduction.

“Yes,” she said in a deep voice. Her head nodded in acknowledgment.

“Hello, Miss Sinclair,” they echoed in well-rehearsed unison.

“And this is our governess, Melanie Stevens.”

“Hello,” she said politely as she looked me up and down.

“How do you do?” I bowed my head ever so slightly and smiled.

“Fine, thank you.” She abruptly turned away and walked into one of the many pleasant sitting rooms.

I let out my breath in a slow hiss. I don't think I made much of an impression on the royal Monica. But I didn't have time to dwell on it. “Ok, let's get these old rags off and put on something more comfortable. Then breakfast.” With a rush the five were up the stairs and I could hear an occasional door bang. I was heading up the stairs at a more sedate pace when the Captain called me back down.

“I heard from Mrs. Harding about the sleeping accomodations of last night. I was sure that you fully understood that...”

I finished for him. “... the children were to be in their rooms by nine o'clock. Yes I understand. But the storm, mixed with the elements of your story, Captain, put us into a different situation.”

His eyebrows went up. “Oh? How so?”

“Amanda came tearing into the hall, yelling, 'Daddy's sailor is outside my window!' so I thought it would be better for her to sleep with me. The rest of them just trickled in.”

A strange smile lit up his face and made it softer and almost human. “Ah, well, as long as you kept everything under control, I guess there's no harm done.”

He dismissed me then and I wondered why Mrs. Harding couldn't keep her mouth closed at certain times. I started up the stairs, but stopped when I heard voices.

“Christopher,” Monica was saying, “she's hardly more than a child herself. And why on earth does she call herself a governess?”

I didn't hear the Captain's reply, for he shut the door firmly.

A child indeed! Well, true, I may never completely grow up, but I'm certainly not a child! I looked at my image in a mirror hanging at the top of the stairs. A young-looking, green eyed girl stared back.

Ok, so I looked young. That just means that when I'm thirty-five, I'll look twenty-five. Ant THAT should worry Monica Sinclair a bit, for I doubted that she was a day under thirty.

With this thought in mind, I went to gather my flock and feed them.

The next day was Saturday, and with it returned the rain. This kept all of us cooped up indoors, and that didn't sit too well with the children.

At least they didn't fight among themselves, I thought. Basically, I take care of five very good kids. Right now they were a little restless.

After lunch my charges went upstairs to have a secret neeting about something or other. I sank into a soft chair in the library and curled up with a book. It was one of the first chances I had had to read since I arrived at Ashby Manor.

A peaceful hour went by. I was completely absorbed in my book, thus I didn't hear the door open, and very surprised when a voice beside me say, “Good book?”

I jumped and yelled a short, “Ahhhh!” Monica Sinclair stood beside my chair, staring down at me with a pleasant face.

“I didn't mean to frighten you. Is it good?” she repeated.

“My book? Yes, it's alright.”

She was walking around the room now, making conversation. “I hear you have a twin sister?”

“Yes, Kate's in San Francisco.”

“Are you identical?”

I repeated the familiar answer. “We used to look alike, but don't anymore.”

“Is she older than you?”

Another familiar quetsion. “She's eleven minutes older.”

“It must be interesting to live with someone your own age.”

“It's fun. We have a lot in common.”

“Is she a governess like you?”

“No.” I laughed at the thought. “She's apprenticing to be a private detective.”

“Oh really? A most interesting family.” She walked to the side board to fix herself a drink. “Do you want a drink?”

“No, thanks. I don't drink.” I watched her plop ice cubes into a glass. Suddenly I realized that this was the first time I had seen her outside the presence of the Captain. “Did the Captain go out?” I asked in curiosity.

“He's talking about something or other to Perkins.”

“How long have you known the Captain?”

“Oh, for about ten years, but not closely until Amanda died. She was his wife. I told him not to name the baby after her, but he didn't listen to me any more than he does to anyone else. Now you can see how much pain the children cause him.”

“I hadn't noticed.” I put down my book, interested.

“They were one problem after another. That is, until now.” Here she turned towards me. “I've heard so much about you, my dear. The Captain is constantly talking about you. He thinks you're a miracle.”

“Well, that's nice of him, but I really didn't do anything.”

“Oh, but you did. Christopher now has time to relax without having to worry about the children. He knows that you have everything under control.” She took a sip of her wine.

“Is that good?” Something about her tone of voice made me suspicious suddenly.

“Why, absolutely. Now Christopher doesn't have to think about anybody but me. And that's always good. So keep up the good work.” With a smug look, she walked into the hall, leaving me alone to ponder her last words.

Chapter 3

Dear Kate,

Hello, hello, hello! How are you? I'm fine. How is your apprenticing going? So far, my governessing is going fine.

Not much has happened since I last wrote. Ever since our little spat, the Captain seems to have called a truce with me. He seems to treat me a little more equally now.

Lizette's birthday was last week. She's fifteen. She tries bery hard to act grown up, but she has problems created by 'the rotten creeps' who are unfortunately related to her. Anne said she'll never grow up. I told her to get in touch with Peter Pan. You know, I keep forgetting that you don't know these kids like I do. I've been her six weeks and I already feel like I've known them all my life.

How did you like the picture of the house and the car? Aren't they something? I keep wanting to send this picture or that, but it's too darn expensive. You'll just have to come here and see it for yourself. Wouldn't that be fun? We could even go HORSEBACK RIDING! I could cure your fear of horses forever.

The Captain is a fantastic rider. He went zipping off an his stallion yesterday, jumping anything in sight. Personally, I think he was showing off for Monica Sinclair.

That woman! Ever since she came hear, the house has been as dark as Darth Vader! You know she's the almost fiancé of the Captain. Her estate is just over the hills and either she's here, or the Captain's there. Lately, though, she's been here a lot, and the kids don't like it one bit.

Would you believe that she had the nerve to tell me that ever since I came, the Captain has been able to spend more time with her instead of worrying about his children, and to keep up the good work? Really! I think it would just about serve her right if they did get married! But that wouldn't be fair to the kids.

She has got to have the world's biggest wardrobe! I think she changed clothes three times a day; a morning outfit, an afternoon 'comfortable clothes,' and a different evening dress each night. She really puts me to shame at dinner. I'm wearing a pair of jeans and a decent shirt, and here she is in a dress that sparkles and has a split up to her thigh! Ugh! From what I've heard through the gourmet gossip line (the kitchen servants), she put up a big fuss about having to eat at the same table with a 'servant' and that she and the Captain had a fight about it. Apparently the Captain didn't listen to her, because I'm still eating with the family. Sometimes she really gets to me.

What have you been watching on TV lately? Did you see the new show on Tuesday? I forgot what it's called, and the only paper I ever see around here is The Wall Street Journal, so I can't look it up. Have you heard from Mom and Dad lately? I should call them pretty soon. They're probably bored stiff without us to liven up their days.

Do you remember that great, big screen TV I told you about? These people never watch it! A few days ago I asked Lizette why, and she said because the only movies they were allowed to watch on it were documentaries, and who wants to watch documentaries? I think that when winter gets here, I'll change that. I'll put something like The King and I on it and that will keep their attention. And it IS educational about Siam, so what can the Captain say? That's dirty pool.

Oh, that reminds me. I heard a rumor down at the oldies movie theatre that they're bringing out The Music Man for a few weeks. Maybe you can come up for a weekend and we'll see it, then you can go back to San Francisco. Wishful thinking, I know.

Oh, and how's that 'new man' in your life? Are you still being too nice to all the bus boys? You always can use that excuse.

Well, nothhing much else is happening around here. Guess I better let you go for now.

Write back this time!

Your wonderful and loving sister,

Melanie

PS If what's his name doesn't work out, I could get you fixed up with our chauffeur. You'd like him.

I was sitting on my green window seat, looking out at the very green mountains. The rain had really helped the grass. As I looked down, I could see Anne and Michael playing in the garden.

It was my day off, but I had decided to stay at the mansion. After all, where would I go in Denver? I didn't need to go shopping (but Kate would say that you don't need a REASON to go shopping, you just go) and I certainly didn't know anybody. So I had stayed in my room, cleaning and rearranging, with the help of my many records. Mrs. Harding was in charge of the children today, and had told them not to disturb me. I kind of wished they would. I was bored.

I looked at the letter in my lap and thought how neat it would be if Kate could come for a visit. But she was busy, and I didn't want to bother the Captain with it. I shoved the pages into an envelope and threw it on the bed to be mailed tomorrow.

As far as I knew the Captain was off somewhere with Miss Sinclair. I hadn't really sat down with him since Lizette's party. As much as I hate to admit it, I was getting used to his arrogant ways, and now that he was never home, I missed him. Before, he had at least been alone with us for dinner, but now Monica was always there. I don't know why she simply doesn't move in!

I looked out the window again and saw a terribly irate Mrs. Harding giving a violent scolding to Anne. Michael stood aside, enjoying the action tremendously. Wondering what had happened, I opened my windows wider in to order to hear their words.

“... I want you to go in and apologize to her immediately!” the housekeeper was saying.

“I won't! You can't prove that I did it, so you can't make me apologize!”

“Anne Kartwright!, get in there this instant!” and she pointed a finger shaking with rage towards the door.

“No!”

“When I tell your father about this, you'll be sorry!”

“Tell him, I don't care! He won't do anything!”

“Sure. And he didn't punish you for that garlic water episode either, did he?” Anne seemed to waver at this remark. “Now, young lady, march!”

I couldn't help butting in on this. “Anne, what did you do?” I yelled as I leaned out the window, resting my elbows on the sill.

“Melanie!” she fairly shrieked. “She's going to burn me at the stake! Help!”

“Oh, Anne, quit being so dramatic. Tell me, what happened?”

But before Anne could give her side of the story, Mrs. Harding yelled up to me, “Please Miss Stevens, come and take care of this monster. I know it's your day off, but I can't handle it anymore.”

Feeling sorry for the distraught woman, I called that I would be right down. After turning off my stereo, I flew down the flight of stairs and into the garden.

“Now, what's wrong?” I asked once in the warm sunlight.

“This... poor excuse for a child sprayed shaving cream all over Miss Sinclair's clothes, then made a point of it to rub it in.” (In case you're confused, Monica had been given a bedroom in which to keep her many clothes, and for resting purposes Pretty soon I think she'll need another room just for her clothes. She has a big selection stashed at the Manor.)

“I did not!” Anne stated vehemently.

“Don't lie, missy!” Mrs Harding grabbed her arm, trying to yank the confession through the socket. I could see that this lady understood houses, but not children.

“Alright, alright,” I said. “Mrs. Harding, will you and Michael please go inside? I'll take things from here.”

“Oh, thank you!” gasped Mrs. Harding, putting a hand to her head. “I don't know how she got hold of the shaving cream in the first place. I really don't understand children. Now I shall have to go in and rest for a time. These devils do upset me so.” Still muttering to herself, she walked quickly through the French doors and into the mansion's cool interior. Michael ran off to find Eric.

I turned my attention to the matter at hand. “I think she was born at the age of thirty-five and took it from there.”

My attempt at humor was lost in the breeze as Anne ran to me and wrapped her arms tightly around my waist. “I hate your days off, Melanie. There're the worst days of the month!”

“Oh, now, come on. Mrs. Harding isn't that bad.” I patted the girl's back as I spoke.

“Yes, she is!” Anne cried. “She hates me!”

“And don't you think that maybe she might have a reason to?”

“No, I don't!”

“Anne,” I said warningly.

“Well maybe she does, a little,” she assented.

When she had calmed down sufficiently, I said, “Did you spray Miss Sinclair's clothes with shaving cream?”

“No, I didn't,” she said, shaking her head.

“Look at me and say it,” I siad gently, kneeling down to her level.

The miserable girl looked at me and finally broke down and said, “Alright, I did it.”

“Why?”

“Because I heard her say that when she's married to father, she'll send us to boarding shools. I thought if I got her expensive clothes dirty, she'd go away and never marry him.”

I looked at the girl and couldn't help but feel sorry for her. “You know, boarding schools aren't THAT bad.”

“How do you know? Have you been to one?”

“Well, no,” I admitted. “But...”

She interrupted me, “I'll never see my father if she does that. Never,” and before I could do anything, she dissolved into tears.

Now I didn't know what to do. I couldn't lie and tell her that the Captain wouldn't marry Monica Sinclair, because more than likely he would. Amd I couldn't tell her that he WOULD marry her, because that would only upset her more.

“Anne,” I finally said. “I wish I could say something that would make you feel better.”

She lifted a tear-stained face to look at me. “YOU could marry father and everything would be fine.”

I laughed. “Anne, I couldn't do that.”

“Why not?” she asked indignantly.

“Well, because he hasn't asked me, and he won't, either.” I took a kleenex from my pocket and wiped some of the tears from her cheeks.

She sighed and look down. “That's what I thought you'd say.”

I looked at her in disbelief. “You mean you did this so I would marry the Captain?”

“Well... kind of.”

“What do you meam, 'kind of?'”

Her wizened face looked at me again. “You see, I sprayed Miss Sinclair's clothes because I don't like her. You should have ssen them! What a mess!”

“Stick to the subject,” I admonished.

“I guess the rest of it just popped into my head. But it would be nice, though, wouldn't it?” she finished enthusiastically.

I didn't answer her. Instead I said, “Now, Anne, you go inside and tell Miss Sinclair that you're sorry.”

“Do I have to?” she pleaded.

“Yes, you do. Come on. I'll come with you.”

We walked through the beautifully carved French doors into the hall. We didn't have to look far, for Monica was in the hall, her face as red as a beat, holding one of her many evening gowns. The dark blue silk was in contrast to the glops of white shaving cream that stuck to it and dripped to the floor. A puddle was beginning to form on the polished tiles at her feet. The Captain stood before her, trying to calm her down.

“I'm gonna kill her! Just look at what she did to my newest silk dress!” Monica shrieked in rage.

“Calm down, Monica. You can buy a new dress any time you want,” the Captain said in a reassuring voice. He placed a hand on her arm, but she pulled away, refusing to be placated.

“Sure, but she did it to ALL my dressed! My entire wardrobe! Some of those were designer originals and can never be duplicated!” She turned and spotted Anne and me. She strode furiously to Anne and shoved the dress under her nose. “You rat! You'll pay for this!”

“Anne's come to apologize. Haven't you, Anne?” I placed my hands on her shoulders and pushed her forward slightly.

“So,” Monica stormed, “you admit to doing it!”

“I'm sorry,” Anne said in a small voice.

“Did you say something, monster?” the irate lady spat.

“I said I'm sorry!” Anne raise her voice, some of her old fortitude coming back.

I'm sure Monica would have said much more, but Anne broke away and ran up the stairs.

“Christopher!” Miss Sinclair turned back to him. “You aren't going to let her get away with this so easily, are you? She'll be punished, won't she?”

The muscles in the Captain's face twitched. “Oh, I assure you, dear Monica, she'll get what's coming to her.”

“Well, that's something anyway.” She was about to go when she turned back and said accusingly, “And where were YOU? I thought you were supposed to control them.”

“Today's my day off,” I said.

She didn't have a response to that. “Well... don't take any more days off!” she yelled loudly, and walked up to her room to sulk. I think she had hoped I would be at fault in this mess. She was disappointed.

The minute she was out of hearing, the Captain started laughing. His face turned red and he began gasping for breath.

“Captain, I don't think this is funny at all,” I reproached him.

“I'm sorry, Miss Stevens, I can't help it. Did you see Monica's face?” He was carried away by another fit of laughter. “She looked like a red apple with a blue stem!”

“That doesn't seem very high praise for someone you plan to marry.”

Finally he calmed down enoug to look at me with a quizzical expression. He cocked his head to one side, gazing at me through shrewd eyes. I stared back with what I hoped to be an equally shrewd look.

“Is something wrong?” I asked when he didn't say aything.

He drew a breath and held it. “You know, Miss Stevens...” He laughed a little before going on. “This might sound ridiculous, but if I didn't know better, I would say that you want me to get engaged to Miss Sinclair.” He regarded me, and I felt like one of his business problems.

“I don't know where on earth you got that idea,” I said rather evasively. “If I had been waiting patiently in the wings for four years, I certainly wouldn't want to wait any longer.”

“Oh, no, this is much more personal then simply waiting four years.”

Suddenly I had the urge to leave the man as quickly as possible. As a scapegoat, I came to Monica's defense. “How can you say that?” I asked, putting anger that I didn't feel into my voice. “She's been sitting around for four years wondering 'Gee, will he ask me today or not?' Four years is a long time. And you have the children to think about.”

“Yes,” he interrupted. “It's always the children with you. Which brings us to Anne's punishment.”

The change of subject threw me off balance, but I felt more comfortable with this one. “She can't get away with that without SOMETHING.”

“I think an essay on the many uses of shaving cream is in order here.”

I had to let go of my severity and smile. It was true that all men were boys at heart. “That sounds... adequate.”

“Well,” and he clapped his hands together. The noise reverberated through the hall. “I guess that's settled. It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Thank you,” I said out of habit more than reason.

He was about to leave me when he stopped. “That really was ingenious. Shaving cream is such a mess.”

I walked half way up the stairs before I looked down to say, “Oh, Captain.” He turned from the library door. “Why don't you ask Anne why she did it.”

His hard face lightened a bit as he said, “Perhaps I'll do that, Miss Stevens.”

The essay was handed in on time, and the Captain had a long talk with Anne. I was glad to see that he was at least interested in what she felt. I had no idea if he would do anything about it, though.

Monica continued to come to the Manor every single day, even on the days when the Captain went into Denver for business meetings, or to work at his office. When my dad said, 'Rich people never work,' I believed him. But that was true only on the surface. The Captain worked a lot in the library at the Manor, and about once a week he went to his office in Denver. I know very little about his business, except the he owns a lot of companies.

On these work days, Monica spent her many hours by bossing the servants around, being insanely hard to please, and creating an all around mess. If the cook, Mrs. Beals, made ham for lunch, Monica was sure to want steak. She was the most contrary person I had ever met!

For the most part, the children and I stayed out of her way as much as possible. I felt sorry for the servants for having to put up with her, but an intervention by me would only have made matters worse. We stayed outside for most of the day until the Captain came home, and then the children crowded around to tell him all that we had done during the day. Usually, Monica was left out of these family meetings, and that really irked her, which pleased me. When it concerned Monica, I could stoop to a pretty low level and feel proud of it. She seemed to bring out the worst in me. I couldn't help disliking her when she called a sweet kid like Anne a monster.

It was just one such working day when, before supper, we found ourselves in the fantastic livingroom, comparing our days. The children all spoke at once, vying for attention.

“And then we went outside and played baseball. I caught one that Eric hit!” Anne said proudly.

“Yeah, and then you dropped it,” finished Lizette in a disgusted tone.

“That's because Amanda bumped into me,” Anne said, trying to regain some of her former glory.

“She wasn't anywhere near you, and you know it,” Michael supplied to the conversation.

“We had ham for lunch,” Amanda piped up. “I don't like ham.” She wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“Ham is good for you,” said her father.

“But Melanie showed us how to make ham and cheese sandwitches in the kitchen, and they were real good. A lot better than the old stuff.”

I giggled softly from my chair set back from the circle. Sometimes Amanda had such a way with words!

“Let's see, what else did we do today?” Eric asked himself.

“We went horseback riding,” Lizette suggested.

“That's right! And didn't Melanie fall off her horse?”

My face turned scarlette and I shrank farther down into my chair, hoping to remain unnoticed. No such luck!

“She fell right in that big patch of mud in front of the stables. Boy she was a mess!” Lizette laughed at the recollection.

“Who was she riding? Gringelot?” the Captain asked. Gringelot was his favorite stallion, and was far beyond my horse capabilities.

“She was on Wizard,” Anne told her father.

“That old nag? And she fell OFF?” Now the entire assemblage was laughing except me. “Really, Miss Stevens, however did you manage it?” he asked me.

Still blushing, I said, “I didn't fall, I slipped.”

“Sure!” came a chorus of unbelieving voices.

“I did!” I insisted. “He went right and I went left and I lost my balance. That's all.”

“Oh, how I wish I'd been there,” the Captain laughed. I didn't say anything. I figured the less I said, the better off I was.

“You see, Melanie only knows how to feed chickens. Let's find her a big one and she can ride it instead of a horse!” Eric said while catching his breath.

I stood up, exasperated, and said the first thing that popped into my head. “Oh, it's Capulets like you that make blood in the Marketplace!” Then I left the room, leaving a lot of puzzled faces. Only the Captain seemed to understand what I was talking about.

After my horse episode, instead of riding, we walked everywhere. I think some of Kate's fear of the animal was transported by air waves across the mountains.

The children called me chicken when I refrained from going on a ride with them. I'm sure these excuses prompted the riding lessens they gave me.

Lizette and Eric took on the responsibility to train my skills, not that there WERE any, into something fit to ride with the best. I told them it was impossible, and I think I was right.

Four days after my fall found me once again on top of good old Wizard, walking continually around a practice ring behind the stables.

“No, that's still not right!” Eric yelled for the thousandth time. “Try again, and this time think about it!”

“I AM thinking!” I yelled crossly. We had been at it all afternoon, and I was tired and sore, and I'm sure my two coaches would rather have been doing something more enjoyable.

When I had once again completed my way around the ring, with Lizette yelling at me to post instead of bounce around, and Eric telling me to keep my elbows in and to look up and not down, I pulled up before them.

“OOOOh!” Lizette said in frustration.

“I told you it was hopeless,” I said as I took my feet out of the stirrups so I could bend my aching knees.

“I don't know what it is, but you do something... wrong, I guess. I can't figure it out.” Eric threw his hands up in defeat.

“Let's go in. It's almost time for supper. Father should be home by now.” Lizette and Eric headed up for the house, and I was about to turn my horse around to put him in the stable, when he once again went on his own.

Wizard started off at a trot, and with my feet out of the stirrups, I totally lost my balance. I didn't fly through the air, like they do in movies, but simply rolled over his rump and landed face down in the dirt.

I didn't move. Actually, my muscles refused to move. All at the same time those obnoxious things knotted up, and I was unable to get up. But at the moment, I preferred relaxing in the dirt. I shut my eyes and breathed out a sigh of relief to finally be safe on the ground again.

I knew Wizard would go straight back to the stables, so I didn't even bother to lift my head to make sure. I heard his plodding stops receding into the distance.

But it wasn't long before I heard footsteps coming towards me at a rapid pace. I briefly entertained the thought that Wizard was coming back to apologize, and that I would joyously smack him in the nose. But this entire theory disappeared when I felt a hand on my back, and heard a voice say, “Melanie?” It sounded very concerned, but my brain refused to try to place it, so I opened my eyes and found the Captain down on his knees, staring at me.

“Oh, hello, Captain,” I said vaguely.

“I saw you fall. Are you alright?” I had never seen anybody so concerned about me.

“I'm fine, but I hate horses.”

“You're sure nothing's broken?” Come on, let's get you up.”

“But it's so nice here,” I objected.

He didn't listen to me. Instead he put his arms around my waist and hauled me as far as my knees. I think I groaned, because he stopped and once again asked if I was alright, to which I replied that my muscles felt like they had been flattened by a steam roller; all laid out and squashed, but I assured him that nothing was broken.

Now that he was sure I was quite alright, he grew angry. “What on earth were you doing with your feet out of the stirrups, anyway?”

“I was cracking my knees,” I answered in a sarcastic tone. Why was he mad at me? I hadn't sinned, only fallen off a horse!

“Stirrups are there for your feet, not decoration. That's how you keep your balance,” he continued.

I looked up and was about to make a suitable retort when my eyes caught his, and I couldn't talk. His grey eyes had suddenly become bery soft and even pretty. Now, normally, I can't read eyes very well. (I used to practice on people in school, but I never got the hang of it like they do in books) but I could read his easily enough. He was very concerned about me.

This trance lasted only a second, and then I said heatedly, “Oh, I know what stirrups are for!”

He cleared his throat before saying, “Then next time I suggest you use them.” Then, without warning, he hauled me to my feet.

“OWWWWW!!” I yelled as my knotted muscles were ripped apart. I'm sure I would have fallen over backwards if his arm hadn't been supporting me. I stood still while he brushed the dust off my jeans and shoulders. It was in my hair, too, and I tried to shake it out, but it would have to be washed.

“How come you were riding in the ring and not the fields?” he asked when I finally put one foot ahead of the other in the direction of the house.

“Eric and Lizette were teaching me how to ride. As you can see, it didn't work too well.”

“I see,” he said. We had reached the house by now and could hear the children running down to supper. I headed for the stairs in order to change clothes, but the Captain stopped me. “Well, we'll just have to continue your lessons tomorrow. I'll be looking forward to it.”

“Continuing them?!” I croaked, but he was gone. “Oh, no,” I said in a quiet resigned voice.

It was the next morning, a Wednesday, and the sun was shining on the world outside. All night I had prayed for rain, but the heavens hadn't listened.

I had fallen asleep easily enough. My poor muscles had practically forced me to bed at an early hour. Now that it was time to get up, they wanted to STAY in bed.

My cat jumped onto the covers and immediately began giving herself a bath. This had turned into a morning ritual. She also climbed up the wall outside my window in the middle of the night and meowed loudly until I let her in. This was growing into a very annoying habit.

“Uh,” I said, trying to move. “Micki, I can't get up.” I had named the cat Micheline, but called her Micki for short.

The black and white creature simply ignored me and continued with her cleaning.

“Sometimes you are the most uncaring, ugly thing in the world,” I said, but it had little affect on her.

I could hear the birds chirping outside my window. It was time for me to start moving. Gritting mu teeth in determination, I threw back the covers and smoothly rolled off the side of my bed. I landed on the floor with a thud.

Now that I was out of bed, it was fairly easy to loosen my muscles by moving around. I put The Man From Snowy River on my stereo for entertainment, and began to get ready for the day.

I was curling my bangs when suddenly Anne came running in, saying, “Father wants to start your riding lessons now.”

Now? “But I haven't even had breakfast yet!” I yelled down the hall as she ran out. “That man,” I thought as I went to once again change clothes and finish my hair.

And so I found myself atop the plodding creature that now haunted my dreams yet again, being yelled at to keep my elbows in, to post instead of bounce around, and above all to keep my feet in the stirrups.

Around and around the ring I rode until I was so dizzy I lost count how many times I had passed the Captain. I had now graduated to a controlled hand gallop, and we slowly sauntered around again.

“Finally!” the Captain yelled. “You're doing it right!” That was about the hightest praise I got from him the entire time.

“Gee, thanks a lot!” I yelled back.

Apparently my voice had a bad affect on Wizard, for right in the middle of the ring he stopped short and refused to move. Unprepared again, I flew over his lowered head and landed in a heap on the dirt. While that loathsome creature trotted to the fence and began eating grass.

I picked myself up and dusted my jeans off. There were no sore muscles this time, only pure, red-hot anger.

The Captain was having a good laugh about it on the other side of the fence.

“So, you think it's funny, do you?” I asked, my face red. He wasn't able to answer, but continued laughing.

Unable to think of anything witty to say, I bent down, scooped up a handful of loose dirt, climbed to the top rail of the wooden fence, and dropped the entire handful onto his head. Now he looked like a tall cake with frosting. My own anger departed as I stared at him. “So there!” I said.

He spit dirt out of his mouth slowly and deliberately. When he shook his head, dust flew in every direction. “Did that accomplish anything, Miss Stevens?” His voice was dry and without emotion.

“Sure it did,” I answered without hesitation. “Now we're BOTH dirty.”

“Hmmmmm,” was all he said, but I could see a smile beginning to emerge om his lips. He turned towards the horse, who was still chomping away, and said, “I think we'll stop for today. Grab your horse before he eats himself into obesity.” He shook his dark hair once again, then started for the house, leaving me to take the horse to the stable.

“Come on, ugly.” I grabbed his bridle and started walking. He went willingly enough. “I hate you,” I said to his nose. “Do you know that?” He eyed me and snorted. “Oh, shut up,” I muttered.

After Wizard had been duly taken care of, I entered the house quietly. I had just enough time to clean myself up a bit before lunch, so I headed up the stairs, and was about to turn into the children's wing, when I heard voices farther along the balcony where the Conservatory, a proper study, more sitting and bed rooms, and the Billiard Room were located. Normally, I don't listen in on conversations, but this one was so loud that I couldn't help it.

“You did what!” the astounded voice of Monica Sinclair echoed onto the balcony.

“I ordered the middle-sized chandelier. I went to the Captain and he sent me to Miss Stevens. I merely followed orders.”

“But I told you to order the larger one. Why didn't you do so?” Monica was valiently trying to restrain her temper.

“The Captain,” Mrs. Harding repeated with an edgy voice, “sent me to Miss Stevens, and she said the middle-sized one would do just fine and told me to order it, which I did.”

“Oh, curse that Melanie Stevens!” Monica said under her breath. There was a pause in which I could hear her angrily pacing the floor. “So be it,” she said in a calmer voice. “If she wantes to play that way, we'll change the rules.”

“What about the chandelier, miss?”

“Keep the blasted thing, I don't care. If she wants to play decorator, ler her. But I know a better game to play.” I could picture her face in my mind, contorted into a grimace of pleasure.

“Yes, ma'am.” Mrs. Harding said doubtfully.

Suddenly I heard the footsteps coming up the stairs and quickly hid myself in a convenient closet. I saw the Captain walk by through the tiny crack I left open. He had not yet cleaned himself up, and I could see a trace of dust still in his dark hair. I couldn't resist a secretive smile.

He strode on passed my closet without even glancing at it. I slowly pushed open the door and trained my ear towards the billiard room.

“Oh, there you are, Monica.” Then he must have discovered the presence of Mrs. Harding, for he said, “Are you busy?”

“We had just finished.” Suddenly I could picture Monica as Alexis Carrington from Dynasty. At the moment I'm sure their scheming brains were much alike.

Mrs. Harding walked stiffly into the hall, and I had to quickly shut the closet door again. Then she was gone, and the conversation continued. I felt guilty as I pushed open the door, but I had to know what Monica was up to.

“Christopher! What in heavens' name have you been doing? You've got DIRT in your hair!”

“I was teaching Miss Stevens to ride,” he said nonchalantly.

“What did she do, throw dirt at you?”

“Weeeelll....”

But Monica didn't allow him to finish. “That farm girl is so callous! She doesn't belong here. I don't honestly know why you spend so much time with her.”

“She takes care of my children, in case you haven't noticed.”

“Oh, I've noticed. You COULD be spending less time with her and more time with me,” she suggested.

“Really, Monica, be reasonable. I see her when it concerns my children, and only then.”

“And did her riding abilities affect your children?” she asked venomously.

The pause was quite long, and I began to wonder if one party had left the room. Then the Captain said in an icy voice, “This conversation is over. If you will excuse me.” He walked on around the balcony and into his part of the house, a place I had never been. Monica followed shortly after, only she sped down the stairs and out the door, banging it hard enough for it to be heard in the servants quarters.

I crept out of my closet and hurried to my room, wondering with dread what Monica had meant by 'a better game to play.'

Chapter 4

The days of the summer zipped by, and before we could catch our breath, it was time for school.

Everybody would attend except Amanda, who was still too little. That meant I had to get four grumpy kids up, each wanting to sleep less or longer than the next one. Lizette had to get up at six in the morning so she could get ready. Anne wanted to sleep as long as possible. Eric needed time for shower and breakfast, and Michael wanted to get down to the table before the 'morning rush.'

The bus picked all four of them up at the gates. I had figured that John would take them in the big, black limosine, but I was told it was easier just to ride the bus. Another surprise came when I found that they didn't attend the big, new school in Denver, but went to a smaller public school about five miles from the city. Personally, I think a smaller school is better. You get to know everybody.

Anne was so excited the night before that she couldn't sleep. It was ten o'clock and she was still up. The rest of the children were either asleep, or on the way. But Anne was in my room, walking from one corner to another, exploring my little knicknacks, asking questions a mile a minute. When she tired of this, she hopped to my closet and began rumagging through my clothes.

“Hey,” she said, pulling out a pink sprigged calico dress, “how come you never wear this? It's pretty.”

I turned away from my bed where I was turning down the covers to see what she was talking about.

“Oh, that? It's more a winter dress, I guess. I expect I'll wear it later on.”

“You don't wear very many dresses, do you. Just to church.”

“I don't feel particularly comfortable in dresses,” I explained. “I think I look too professional in them.” My nose wrinkled at the thought.

I don't think Anne completely understood, but she nodded anyway and shoved the dress back into the closet. Next she proceeded to try on my shoes, shich were about two sizes too big. She plodded around the room, having a good time.

“Anne, you should be in bed,” I reproached her, knowing full well that her being in my room was my own doing.

“I can't sleep. I'm too excited,” she replied.

“Have you tried?” Her rather evasive reply answered my question. “So I thought. Come on,” I said, taking her hand, “you can go through my clothes later. With our luck, the Captain will be waiting for us in the hall.”

But the hall was completely empty when we entered it. We journeyed quickly to her room, and quietly opened the door. I could hear Amanda, who also slept in this room, breathing deeply. “Sh,” I whispered as Anne crawled under the covers.

“Will you stay here until I fall asleep?” she asked from the shadows.

What harm could it do? “Yes, I'll stay,” I whispered back, “but only for a little while.”

She sighed contentedly. “Good-night, Melanie.”

“Good-night, Anne.” I gave her a kiss on the forehead, then stood by the window to watch the moon rise.

It was a beautiful evening outside, and the sound of crickets chirping reached the window. A couple of birds took off from a tree in the garden and flew away, turning from substance to shadow in the blink of an eye.

I stood there, rooted to the floor, for some odd minutes. When I was sure Anne was asleep, I tip-toed to Amanda's bed to make sure she wasn't being strangled by the covers. I gazed down at the soft curls that tumbled over the pillow, and knew that I was very fond of her.

I made the rounds, then, finding Michael snoring loudly into the sheet, his left arm and leg sticking out from under the covers. I pushed them back in and straightened the blanket. He didn't stir. Eric had just turned out his light when I slowly opened his door. He bounded out of bed, saying, “The water line broke and school has been cancelled, right?”

I smiled. “Not quite. I just came to make sure you weren't secrertly talking to a girl on the phone.”

“Ha! Never!” he said and settled down again.

“Sure.” I pulled the door shut behind me, and went on to Lizette's room, knocking before I entered. “Hi.”

“Oh, hi.” She was sitting on her bed, reading magazines.

“Don't stay up too late.”

“I won't. G'night.”

“Good-night, Lizette.”

Now I was alone. I didn't want to go to bed, yet, so I headed down the stairs, out the door, and into the garden.

The night was warm, and the star-studded heavens greeted me when I looked up. I sat down on a stone bench, leaned back, and watched the night sky. The many stars twinkled in their velvety casing, and I felt almost as if I could reach up and touch them.

A breeze stirred the leaves of the trees around me, and I could barely see the lights of the house through the waving branches. I felt as if I was in a world all my own. I breathed deeply, and let it out in a long sigh.

“I see you like night jaunts, Miss Stevens.” I had not heard the Captain come up behind me, nor knew how long he had been there, watching me through the dark.

“Yes, I do,” I agreed with him. “I didn't feel like sleeping, and the moon was so bright I had to come out.”

He didn't talk, only leaned against a tree a few feet away and looked across his darkened domain. I could see his silhouette against the sky and I studied him out of the corner of my eyes. He stood, confident in himself, his strong frame seeming to dare the dark to send something against him. The strong, handsome face could be seen clearly against an illuminated window. I heard him breath in steady, even rhythm, and I knew that, for the moment, he had nothing to worry about.

“It's a beautiful evening.” His voice startled me out of my examination.

“Yes, it is.”

He walked to stand beside the bench, his hand on the wrought iron back.

Since he didn't sit down, I said, “Please, sit down.”

He laughed somewhat absent-mindedly, and sat at a proper distance from me, on the other side of the bench. “So, Miss Stevens, you've been here for... about three months?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you like your charges?”

“I do, very much. They're so well-behaved.”

“Is that the only reason you like them; because they're well-behaved?”

“No. To be honest, I've become quite attached to them, sir.”

“That's good.” He looked towards the house. “They need someone like you to look up to.”

“Oh, I'm no angel,” I objected.

He didn't seem to have heard me, for he went on. “They haven't had anybody for four years. I think it's time they did.”

This twist caught me by surprise. “You're going to get married, then?” I choked out; my throat had suddenly become very dry. I could not see his face now, and I was glad of that. I didn't want to read his eyes.

“No, not now, I don't think,” he finally said. “I'll wait awhile yet.”

I experienced a strange sense of relief then, almost as if something had been holding me under water, and had suddenly lifted, allowing me to breath again. When I thought about it, I decided that the reason for this relief was that if the Captain married Monica Sinclair, I would be forced to leave the children, and that would have proven unbearable. But now I could forget the thought and not worry about it.

“How long do you plan to wait?” I asked, not looking at him.

“We're getting a little personal, Miss Stevens,” he warned.

“Sorry, Captain,” I said immediately, not wanting to insult him, but at the same time wondering why he bothered to impart the fact that he WOULD get married, if he wasn't going to offer WHEN.

“What do you think of it here?” he asked eventually.

“Your house is magnificent,” I said without hesitation.

“It's been in the family for five generations. Of course, it's been remodeled, and modern furniture has been brought in. My mother liked everything to look as up to date as possible, but my father refused to sell anything. It's all stashed away in the attics.”

“You ahve an attic?” I was instantly interested. Attics were a passion of mine, because great treasures were always hidden in their cobwebbed recesses.

“Oh, we have more than one. There are three on the third floor at the back of the house, all crowded with old furniture, trunks eons old.”

“Wow,” I breathed. “I suppose there are clothes stacked into the trunks?”

He appeared to be thoughtful for a minute. “I don't remember, come to think of it.” Suddenly he jumped up. “Come, let's go up and see.”

“Now?” I asked incredulously.

“Why not? The children are all in bed, and quite safe. I won't have time tomorrow, and you shouldn't be up there alone.”

“Are there ghosts?” I mocked him.

His eyes were slightly mischevious as he said, “Perhaps.”

“Now I know where Anne gets her wild streak,” I thought.

I had little time for more reflection, however, because the Captain grabbed my hand and hurried towards his house, intent deeply imbedded in his strides. His hand continued to clutch mine as we entered almost secretly through the servants entrance.

He stopped in the kitchen momentarily to grab a box of matches, candles, and candleholders.

“Candles?” I asked doubtfully.

“Just in case the bulbs have burnt out, which they do with frequent regularity.” He was about to continue, but stopped and looked squarely at me. “You're not scared of the dark, are you Miss Stevens?”

I gave him a slightly nasty look for dragging it out of me. “I'll say I have a big imagination that overreacts to darkness.”

He seemed satisfied with the answer, because he led me through a door I had never seen into a plain, narrow corridor. Our footsteps echoed against the walls, and I suddenly felt very small in this huge house.

We wound our way through halls and passages until I was completely lost. “I hope you know where we are,” I said softly, walking a little closer to him than was normal.

He assured me he knew precisely where we were. Then before I knew what happened, he pulled open a huge oak door and a set of rather narrow wooden stairs met my eyes. From the dim light of the passage, I could see that they wound upward and out of sight.

“Why do they wind?” I asked cautiously.

“This is a hidden tower smack in the middle of the house. The only way to see it is from the air, or to actually be in it. You get to the roof from here, as well as the main attic. Naturally, there's a more convenient staircase from the second floor, but I figured I'd show you just how big this house is.”

“Well, you've convinced me of that.” I needed no argument.

“Now let's see if we need these candles.” He fumbled on the wall until he found the lightswitch. It clicked on, and some light fixtures that were bolted to the walls flickered to life, spreading their dim light over the stairs. Now I could distinguish the specks of dust and the cobwebs that covered everything.

“It's not much, but it will have to do.” He turned to me and said, “Welcome to Attica,” with a queer smile. He took my hand almost ceremoniously and began climbing.

We hit the first turn when I said in a hushed voice, “And so the adventurers took their first step into the dangerous world of the unknown, climbing up and up, twisting away from the civilized world below, having no idea what they might encounter at the next turn of the path.”

“You do have an imagination,” he said, glancing back at me.

“It's an awful thing to have at night just after watching a horror movie, I'll tell you.” We continued climbing, and the lights got dimmer and dimmer. “It reminds me of the stone staircase to the third floor of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. You don't happen to have an insane wife up there, do you?” I suddenly asked.

He laughed softly. “Not that I know of. You watch too many movies.”

“They're very helpful sometimes.” I began to feel slightly closed in, with the feeling that we would never reach the top. The Captain's hand tightened on mine, and the trapped feeling disappeared.

“Did you ever see that?” I asked.

“See what?”

Jane Eyre.”

“As a matter of fact, I was forced to watch it for an English class in college and write a paper on it.”

“It was a fantastic movie.” My voice shook slightly as the lights seemed to go a little closer to blinking out all together.

The Captain stopped and took the matches out of his pocket. “I think we better light these before it's too late.” I looked around while he performed the operation. “Umm, Miss Stevens, I need my hand.”

“What?” I asked, surprised.

“My hand,” he repeated.

“Oh!” I looked down at me left hand clutching tightly to his right. I relaxed my muscles and he pulled away. “Sorry.”

He struck a match and lit two of the candles, handing one to me to put in the holder that he also gave me. The new light made the small staircase much lighter and the walls seemed to recede slightly.

“There, that's better,” the Captain said. “Shall we continue?” He took my hand again, and, holding his candle in front of him, proceeded on up the twisting tower.

After awhile, I asked, “Do we come out at the second floor, or go all the way to the attics?”

“I'm afraid we passed the second floor some time ago. About here is the third floor. The main attic is above that.”

“Really? The house doesn't look that big from the outside.”

Then we came to another thick door that grew out of the darkness, with a brass knob and huge hinges.

“I feel like we've stepped into one of my fantasies.”

The Captain gave me his candle in order to use both hands to push open the door. “This thing probably hasn't been touched for years. I hope it opens.” He put all his weight aganst it, but I still had to add my own slight body to finally get it open.

We tumbled in with a crash, landing on our knees on the floor. Dust spiraled upwards, causing me to sneeze several times, and I waved my hand back and forth in front of me to clear the air.

When the dust had finally settled, the Captain caught me at the waist and pulled me slowly to my feet. The light that filtered through the doorway cast strange shadows across his face, and the glint of the candlelight in his grey eyes mesmerized me. I couldn't tear my gaze away from him, or maybe I didn't want to.

I have no idea how long we stood like that, staring at each other, with his hands around my waist, but he suddenly stepped back into the tower and retrieved the candles. I didn't look at him when he reentered, only took the light he offered and walked among the boxes and trunks that littered the floor. The Captain found the big power box on one wall by the door, and a bulb on the ceiling came on, spreading it's light into everything but the far ends of the cavernous room. Moonlight also streamed through the many slanted skylights making the room brighter than normal.

I could now see why he had called this the main attic. It seemed that everything possible was stored here: boxes full of old books, some dating clear back in 1850, old furniture, all arranged in living sequence, with the more recent things in the middle of the room, and their predecessors lined up to the far wall, old full length mirrors, covered with dust, but in perfect condition, two grand pianos, also excellently kept.

Trunks littered the floor, too, covering sections of wooden planks. Some were made entirely of brass, and others had tiny jewels set into their fixings. Upon seeing this, I commented, “You had some rather extravagant ancestors.”

He didn't say anything, only wandered around, brushing dust off the lids.

“Maybe we'll find some pirate treasure,” I suggested lightly.

He ignored me completely and went on to blow on yet another trunk. “Aha!” he exclaimed at last. “This is the one. Come here, Miss Stevens, and bring the candle.”

I obeyed and crossed to him. He was intent on getting the lid open, but wasn't having much success. I stood behind him, holding the flickering light so that he could see.

Finally, with a crack, the lid popped up, successfully smacking the Captain in the chin. He fell back to plop unceremoniously onto the floor, bellowing, “OUCH!” and persisted to carry on about it afterward. Men.

“Oh, for heavens' sake, it's nothing at all,” I said, pushing the candle closer to see what damage had been done.

“You think it's nothing?” he said in a controlled voice. “How would you like it if I hit you on the chin right now.”

“How would you like to fall off a horse three times in one day?” I countered. That seemed to sink his boat. “What's in there?”

“Take a look.”

I knelt down beside him and peeked into the trunk. There was a grey flannel covering on the very top, which I removed. Underneath lay a dress, neatly folded, and hardly old-looking at all. It was made of burgandy satin, and the dim light made it utterly gorgeous.

I pulled it out, my eyes wide. “It's beautiful,” I whispered. Completely unfolded, it fell to the floor in a cascade of material. Lace was abundant in the bodice and sleeves, and the long skirt was big enough for hoops, but could be worn without. The material was smooth and fairly unwrinkled, but reeked of the musty attic. “It's so heavy!” I said as he ran his fingers down the dress. “Here. There's more than one.”

We pulled out dress after dress, some plain and every day, but others were party gowns with gloves to match. Spring florals were brought out, each with its own parasol. Some were high-necked and rather reserved, but others went REAL low, and were worn off the shoulders. “That was kind of risqué, wasn't it?” I asked, pointing to just such a specimen.

The Captain picked it up and held it to the light. “I'm afraid it would drop to your bellybutton.”

I blushed furiously, but smiled at the thought.

“You know,” he added thoughtfully, “one of these would be perfect for the costume ball.”

I was puzzled. “What ball?” I asked in curiosity.

“Every year, on the last weekend of October, the annual Kartwright costume ball is held here. Because it's so close to Halloween, everybody who attends wears a costume of some sort. You could wear one of these and go as a Southern belle.”

“No, I'm afraid I'm not quite pretty enough for a Southern belle. I'll leave THAT role to Scarlette O'Hara. But Melanie Hamilton would do just fine.”

“Good. Then it's settled.”

I looked at him incredulously. “You mean I get to go?” Excitement quivered in my voice.

“Of course you do.” He was nonchalant.

“I thought governesses were just a step above a servant.”

“And you've read far too many books, Miss Stevens.” He stood, bringing our conversation to an end. “Please, pick out the dress you would like to wear. I'm sure it needs washed, or whatever.” He then crossed to stand in front of the many skylights, looking out over the grounds.

I packed all the dresses except the burgandy evening gown into the trunk, replaced the flannel covering, and shut the lid. Next I turned off the power, so the lights wouldn't glare on the glass, (I HATE that) then joined the Captain.

The view was magnificent, and we could see the entire estate. The mountains were hazy and mysterious in the distance.

“It's very pretty up here,” I said, breaking the silence. The Captain nodded, but remained quiet. I flipped my hair over my shoulders, and glanced at my watch. It was very late, and time to go to bed.

The Captain noticed my action, and suggested we leave. I grabbed the newest addition to my wardrobe and draped it over my arm, and headed for the thick oak door through which we had entered. But before I could get there, he took my hand again and said, “We'll go out the other way. It's a quicker way to the second floor.”

He led me to a wide set of double doors placed at the other end of the room. The candles that he had picked up before leaving cast ominous shadows on the walls and occupents of the attic. “This place is kind of creepy,” I commented. “The shadows seem to be waiting for us to reach them in order to pounce on us, making us prisoners of their world forever.”

This time he laughed. “Miss Stevens, what HAVE you been reading?”

We reached the double doors, and I asked, “Why are there two?”

“My ancestor that built this house had the foresight to see that a lot of furniture would be stored here, so he made it easy to get bulky things through the door by making them double. The staircase is also wide for the same reason.” He put the candles on a cabinet sitting outside the door and blew them out. “We won't need these anymore. The lights are always bright on this staircase.” We started down, the weight of the dress reminding me of the coming ball. “Finish our story,” he said.

I slowed absent-mindedly, thinking. “The adventure concluded, for the time being, the two weary heros headed slowly back to the world of civilization, their mission accomplished. They retired for the night, to be in readiness for the dangerous mysteries of the morrow.”

“Brilliantly done, Miss Stevens. An imagination like yours should be highly prized,” he said, laughing.

“I don't intend to trade it in.”

He grew suddenly serious, and looked at me with great intent. “Promise me something.”

“That depends on what it is.” I was puzzled by his abrupt mood swing.

“Never stop imagining things. Promise.”

“That's easy enough. I promise.”

We wewre now on the second floor, and, at the end of the stairs, we parted. I watched him go around the balcony and disappear into his wing. When he was gone from sight, I pensively walked to my own bedroom, thinking how very little I really knew about my employer.

The next day arrived, and I had to drag Anne out of bed amidst violent protest. When she refused to get up, Eric came in and held a glass of water over her head, threatening to spill it unless she took immediate action. It was crude, but effective.

The morning was hectic, but the bus finally came and took them away. Michael grumbled that it was too nice outside to be put in jail until he boarded the bus.

Then, suddenly, it was just Amanda and me with the entire day in front of us. She was kind of mad that she didn't get to go to school like everybody else, but the suggestion of a picnic with just the two of us cheered her up imensely.

The day was warm and beautiful, and so we made our way through the woods to the meadow. I noticed how good everything smelled. You may think this is kind of strange, but when you've lived on a farm for twenty years, you notice things like that. I know how dirt smells before and after it rains, how good hay smells when its just been cut, and how sick it gets after about three days, how dust smells so... dirty when it coats everything during the summer, and how GREAT that 'clean country air' smells when you've just passed a fairly potent pig farm.

Today all I smelled was pine trees and clean air. It gave me energy, and Amanda and I had a real good time running around, laughing, and playing games. We played hide and seek for the longest time, and once, no matter how hard I looked I COULD NOT find that squirt. After a record fifteen minute search, she popped up from the grass, squealing and yelling, “Here I am!” What a kid!

When the other children got home from school, brimming with news of their day, they were told that EVERYBODY went to school, but only Amanda had spent the day with Melanie.

Chapter 5

Once school started, September simply rolled by. It was gone before I knew it. The leaves were changing colors and falling to the ground, and the children were complaining about homework. Since I had been out of school for only two years, I sympathized with them, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I had started teaching Amanda to read, or at least know the alphabet. She had only reached the letter 'K' so far, but she could recite all the numbers from one to ten, and we got repeated performances every night at the supper table. The others encouraged her to learn more so she could recite something ELSE for a change.

One dark and gloomy day, when the wind scuttled the dead leaves around in circles, and the rain spattered on the windows, the Captain broke up Amanada's 'lessons' in order to talk to me. I had no idea what he wanted, and couldn't think of anything stupid I had done lately, so I willingly followed him to the study upstairs, briefly warning Amanda to stay out of trouble before I went.

“Miss Stevens,” he began somewhat formally. “I'm sure you know that, according to tradition, a ball is given by a host and a hostess. You can see that, as of now, Ashby Manor has no hostess. I wondered if you would fill the position.”

I was horrified! To think of having to greet all those rich and powerful people, to actually TALK to them, sent shivers up my spine. Impossible! Forget it!

I backed away from him, almost as if his suggestion was a physical threat, and stammered, “NO! I... I couldn't.”

“Why not?” he asked, disappointment showing clearly on his handsome features.

Seeing his face, I instantly said, “Oh, it's not you, or anything. It's just that... well... all those PEOPLE!”

He seemed confused. “What about them?”

“Well, they're RICH!”

“So am I, but what's that got to do with it?”

I walked a few steps, and used my hands to try to express my predicament. “I'd have to greet them at the door, and make conversation. I'm terrible at making conversation!” I wailed.

“Really? I've never noticed,” he mocked me.

“I'm serious!” I exclaimed. “Im far too shy, and not nearly pretty enough. Now, Kate would be perfect. She always knows exactly what to say, and never does anything stupid, and she's pretty. But not me! I'd say something in German to people from Mexico, trip on my dress, and make a complete fool of myself!”

“Alright, alright, you've convinced me,” he said, placing calming hands in my shoulders. “I'll have Monica do it. She'll be thrilled. But,” and he looked at me with purpose in his eyes. “this doesn't mean you're off the hook. You'll still come.”

I could feel his hands tighten in reassurance on ny shoulders, and I nodded. “Wouldn't miss it for the world.”

“Good.” Then he turned away frop me, and I escaped from the room, my shoulders strangely tinglng from his touch.

Naturally, with these reminders of the coming event, my thoughts concerned themselves with my costume, and it wasn't until I had washed it that I realized I had no petticoats to wear underneath it, therefore, it couldn't be altered until I found some.

A few days after my conversation with the Captain, Amanda and I journeyed up to the attic to find some appropriate undergarments. Amanda had never been to the attic before, and she ran around the boxes and climbed over every piece of furniture she could reach while I pried open trunk after trunk in a vain search for petticoats.

At last I found some yellow specimens that I guessed would have to do. We were about to leave when I remembered that throughout most of Gone With the Wind, Melanie Hamilton had kept her hair up with a net, and I certainly needed a net. So I started searching again.

My search revealed something interesting immediately, although not what I was looking for. In one of the trunks I found a small jewelry box wrapped in cast out material. It opened easily and inside were several very real-looking gems. I carefully examined them all, discovering that they were in fairly good condition. There were rubies, and emeralds, rings that sparkled in the light, and a beautiful diamond necklace the would go perfectly with my dress. I would ask the Captain if I could borrow it for the ball.

I continued my search for the net, but never found one. I was forced to give up and go downstairs, and I looked for Amanda, but she was nowhere in sight. I called her name and began looking behind trunks. She didn't appear, and I thought she was playing hide and seek. I yelled that I was going downstairs and leaving her in the attic, but this too failed to produce the little girl.

Now I was worried. What if she had gotten locked in a trunk? I had read a story once where that had happened. The unfortunate victim had died.

I began calling frantically, wondering if I should run down and get the Captain. Then, all of a sudden, there she was, sound asleep on one of the ancient beds! Apparently too much running around had taken its toll on the poor girl. I picked her up in my arms, along with all the petticoats, and carred her down the stairs to her own bed for a nice, long nap.

The days got colder still, and the nights were close to freezing. Mrs. Harding was forced to pull out all the extra blankets and quilts, most of them satin and extremely expensive, and remake all the beds. I helped, for she was also busy with the preparations of the fast approaching ball, and Monica, who was in charge of the whole thing, since I had declined the offer of hostess, was almost impossible to please. Mrs. Harding found most of her time taken up by undoing most of the things that had already been done, and more then once I heard the servants wishing fervently that I HAD accepted the Captain's' offer, thus keeping Monica temporarily out of the house. But at least she didn't bother the children, for which I was glad.

Ever since our journey to the attic, the Captain had been cool and detached toward me. I rarely saw him, for when he wasn't locked in the library, working, or at his office in Denver, he spent his time with Monica, making up a guest list and going over the days' accomplishments.

In the meantime, while the oldest four kids were occupied by school, Amanda and I toured every department store in Denver, trying to find the type of hair net I wanted. You'd think with all the stores in Denver, one would have what I wanted, but NOOOOOO! As a last resort, I went to a beauty parlor, and what do you know! I was lucky they sold it to me. They thought I was kind of strange, I think.

With the colder weather brought the annual cold bug, and I had to contend with several runny noses and stuffy heads all at once. And, of course, they felt so bad they just COULDN'T go to school. At this point I'm afraid that I was kind of mean, and the only way they stayed home was if they had a temperature of 100 degrees, which they didn't. They complained, but lived.

The preparation continued right up to the day of the big event, when the finishing touches were put on the chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the front hall, and all the ladders and dust rags had been taken away.

The entire mansion fairly glistened! Everything had been cleaned three or four times, just to be sure. A recess for the orchestra had been built the day before, and chairs and stands were waiting to be used. More chairs had been set up around the hall, so the guests would not be obliged to stand. Several bedrooms had been prepared, also for the benefit of people wearing uncomfortable costumes who wanted to change into something more normal. It had also been planned that some of the guests would stay the night because of long distances between Ashby Manor and their homes.

By five thirty that Saturday night the children had all eaten and were scurried out of the dining room so the tables could be set with dishes of delicacies, and trays of caviar. Champagne and wine bottles sat chilling in the kitchen, simply waiting to be opened. The extra help that had been hired was scurrying all over the place, trying their best to carry out the orders given by 'the Queen.'

And indeed Monica was going to be a queen. I had heard that she was going as Cleopatra, and the Captain was to be Marc Antony. Personally, I couldn't see him as anything but a captain, but I supposed Monica would have her way.

I was up in my room, trying to do my best to get ready on time. The ball started at eight, and it was already half past seven. My hair was still damp from the washing it had received earlier, and my curling iron refused to heat up. Not to mention that Anne and Amanda were getting into absolutely everything they weren't supposed to, and getting in the way was a game to them.

But finally Lizette appeared, and I implored her to HELP! She buttoned me up the back and helped me place my long hair into the net. It took us several attempts to get the net to stay on my head, but once we got it secured, it looked quite realistic. My bangs were soon curled in the right direction, and I stepped back to get a good look at myself in the mirror.

I looked like I had stepped out of the past, right from the pages of Margaret Mitchell's famous novel. “You're very pretty,” Lizette said.

“I like that dress. It's neat.” Amanda came up and hugged my legs. Smiling with pleasure, I knelt down and kissed her on the head.

“I wish I could go,” Lizette said, heavy disappointment weighing on her face.

“Your father said next year. Just think what fun it will be when you do get to go. Only one more year.”

“But I'm not a child! I AM fifteen!” she responded.

Out of ideas, I ran my hand affectionately down her hair and said, “Well, I really don't know what I'm doing tonight. I shouldn't be going to this ball. I'm twemty and look about fourteen. Somebody will mistake me for you!”

“No, they won't,” Anne said. “If they do, they're plain stupid! You're too pretty in that dress to be fourteen.”

I smiled at her, some of my excitement returning. “Thanks, Anne.”

We were silent for a minute, and I was very glad that I wasn't downstairs greeting guests, playing hostess. I was nervous enough as it was.

Suddenly, through our silence cut the strains of music. “Listen, they've started!” Lizette said, cocking her ear.

“Can we go and watch?” Anne implored me, and before I could even say a guarded, “Welllllll...” she grabbed my hand and pulled me out the door.

The music was a clear and sweet sound in the hall, and we could hear the murmur of conversation, even though we were so far above the guests.

“Come on, you have to see this first dance,” Anne insisted, still towing me forward.

We arrived at the railing and looked down on the dancers. At first it seemed like a mass of moving colors, but I finally found the Captain and Monica dancing together in the middle of the throng. The orchestra played a waltz that was very lively, (if not pretty). The steps seemed easy enough, but was far beyond my capabilities. I watched with growing delight, and beside me Anne was tapping her foot.

“What IS father wearing?” Lizette asked in an amazed tone.

“Monica's Cleopatra, or at least that's who she's SUPPOSED to be - she desn't look too Egyptian from here - and your father is Marc Antony. He looks even LESS Egyptian,” I noted.

'Who is Cleo - Cleope...” Anne stuttered.

“Cleopatra, idiot,” Lizette finished for her. “She was once the queen of Egypt.”

“What happened to her?” asked the ever-curious Anne.

“She got bitten by a snake and died,” and Lizette made hissing noises, starting after her younger sister with outstretched fingers. Anne squealed and ran a few steps down the hall.

“If you don't be quiet, somebody will see us,” I warned.

Lizette turned to me and said, “But, Melanie, that's the whole idea. Somebody will notice us, feel sorry for us, and hopefully convince father that the ball simple CAN'T go on without us!”

“Good plan,” I congratulated her, “but I don't think it will work.”

She sighed. “Eric didn't think it would either.”

“By the way, where are those two little brothers of yours?”

“They ran off after supper. They're probably stealing food from the table when nobody's looking. That's what they did last year.”

We stood for awhile longer, until I decided it was time I went down.

“Are you going to dance with anybody?” Lizette asked eagerly.

“Well, I suppose I will, if somebody asks me, but I don't think anybody will,” I hastily finished.

“There's Paul Sinclair,” Amanda said. She was standing at the railing, pointing down at the dancers with a stubby finger.

I was puzzled. “Who?”

Lizette joined Amanda at the rail and Anne followed. “Where?” Lizette demanded. “I thought that after last year he would never come here again.” Amanda pointed him out again. “I don't see him. You're imagining things.”

“Who?” I repeated.

But Anne interrupted any answer that might be forthcoming, “There he is! By the library door, wearing that green outfit.”

“That IS him! Really, the nerve of that man!” Lizette shook her head with a disgusted look, while Amanda's countenance was rather smug.

“Whp! What man?” I insisted.

Lizette took my arm and pointed to a figure dressed as Robin Hood, or so he appeared. (The Jolly Green Giant would also have fit his description.) “That's Paul Sinclair.”

“Why should he never have come here again? What did he do?”

“Oh, last year he got drunk and ran around like a maniac, throwing chairs, instruments, and wine glasses, and generally ruining the ball. Father pubicly threw him out,” Lizette explained.

“He's Monica's brother, you say?”

“Half brother, actually.” The fifteen-year-old wrinkled her nose in disgust. “His family disowned him when he ran away with the kitchen maid.”

“The black sheep of the family, just like Rhett Butler,” I said to myself. I stood, pondering this newest information. I'd never met a disowned person before. I must say I was intrigued.

Suddenly I felt a tug on my dress. Amanda was there, saying she was hungry and wanted something to eat. I took the three girls down the back stairs and into the bustling kitchen. The servants with who we were familiar with said hello before they flew to the dining room to keep the table completely decked out.

Eric and Michael had beaten us to the food, and they were gorging themselves with turkey and fish. Amanda immediately attacked the ice cream bucket. Mrs. Harding gave them all disapproving stares, but was too busy to do anything about it. She was in every place at once. Tomorrow, she would have sore feet.

Before we knew it, it was time for Amanda to go to bed. She protested, saying she had hardly seen the dancers, and couldn't she stay up just a little longer?

I complied and set all five of them at the balcony railing, making sure they knew they had to be in bed by ten o'clock. Then I descended the stairs to my very first ball.

I'm sure I came down unnoticed, for there was no dashingly handsome man waiting for me at the bottom. The costumes turned into people as I got closer, and the first person to come up to me was none other then Monica.

As I said before, she and the Egyptians really don't mix, but I will admit she was giving it her best shot. Her dark curls had been replaced by a black wig that fell to her shoulders. Eyeshadow that was meant to make her look oriental only made her face more gaunt than normal. She wore something made out of filmy material, although I'm not quite sure just WHAT. The feeling the finished product was almost Cleopatra, but not quite.

“Why, if it isn't Scarlette O'Hara,” she said in slight contempt.

“No, it's not,” I said matter of factly. “I'm Melanie Hamilton, Scarlette's sister-in-law.”

“Why, of course,” she muttered, a sneer on her face. The snear immediately vanished, however, as a short, balding gentleman appeared at her side. “Charles,” she beamed, “How nice of you to come. Are you enjoying yourself?”

The man glanced around at the festive-looking hall, “I must say, Monica, you relly outdid yourself this time. It's fantastic. In my opinion, Ashby Manor is just waiting for you to move in.” Suddenly he turned to me. “And who is this lovely young lady?”

“Charles, meet Melanie Stevens. This is Charles Dupré, of Dupré Oil.”

I smiled at him, but his face had dissolved into hardness. He spoke to Monica in a curt voice. “Is this the one I've heard about? The nanny?”

Monica gave him a severe glance, which he seemed to understand. He lifted his eyebrows ever so slightly, and shook my hand vigorously. Then, before I could say 'Nice to meat you,' he was gone, mumbling something about talking to Christopher.

When he was gone, I asked Monica, “What did he mean by 'the one I've heard about?'”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I've no idea.” I would have pursued the subject with her, but out of the blue, she said, “That's a very nice necklace you're wearing. I didn't know you owned jewelry.”

I laughed softly. “Oh, this isn't mine. Amanda and I found it in a trunk in the attic. I asked the Captain if I could wear it with my costume, and he said it was fine. But it's only for the night.”

“I see.” Her interest seemed suddenly elsewhere. “Well, dear, I must get back to my guests.” Then she was gone, slipping easily through the crowd.

Still thinking of what Charles Dupré had said about me, I scirted the dance floor until I reached the library door. My skirts rustling as I walked, and I caught many admiring glances from people I didn't know. When I reached the door, I peaked in, trying hard to remain just on the edge of notice.

The library was filled with people, most of them smoking cigarettes and drinking wine. The air was hazy from all the smoke, and it didn't take me long to decide to move on. But just as I turned away from the room, a man in green bore down on me, and I had no place to go.

“The lady wrinkles her nose. Let me guess. You dislike books.”

It was Robin Hood, or rather Paul Sinclair, the 'man with that nerve.' He held a glass of wine in his hand, and I remembered Lizette's history of him. My curiosity burned to the boiling point.

In answer to his question, I said, “On the contrary, I do like books, and I read a lot.”

He glanced back at the room. “Then why the look of distaste?”

“The smoke. It makes me sick,” I explained.

“Ah, an anti-smoker. Now we're getting somewhere. I suppose you're an anti-drinker, too?”

“Not really, as long as the drinker doesn't bother me.”

“A truly artful answer, my dear... By the way, with whom am I speaking?”

I laughed nervously. “I'm Melanie Stevens, Captain Kartwright's governess.”

“Oh, yes!” he exclaimed. “I do believe I've heard something about you. You're from Illinois, is that right?”

“Yes, I am,” I said, wondering what other 'somethings' he'd heard.

“And I'm...”

“Paul Sinclair,” I interrupted.

He seemed surprised, but in a second it was gone. “So, my reputation proceeds me.”

“No. Lizette told me all about you before I came down.”

He had not even the decency to blush a little. “Then you've no doubt heard of my adventures at this same ball last year.”

He seemed to be boasting about it, and, disapproving, I said, “It's not something I would gloat about.”

He looked at me with complete innocence. “What would be the use of denying it? Once these people hear or see something like my stunt last year, they don't forget it. They're STILL talking about it.” He looked at the dancers whirling by. “But for all I care, they can keep talking about it. It's much more fun outside they're stupid circle, anyway,” and he straightened his back proudly.

“But surly there's sombody in this crowd that's done something wrong.”

“Of course there is.” He glanced down at me, as he was several inches taller than I. “Even your Captain had his bad days. And my sister is certainly no saint.”

“That's what the children say, too, although she hasn't done anything to me yet.”

“You mean she hasn't tried to kick you out yet?” I shook my head. “I would think that sweet Monica would have gotten rid of you immediately, as pretty as you are.”

I blushed, and had to look at the floor to regain my composer. “You flatter me, Mr. Sinclair.”

The orchestra had just finished the song and begun another. This prompted him to ask, “Will you dance with me, Miss Stevens?”

I immediately shook my head. “No, thank you.”

He looked surprised “Is it something I said?”

“No,” I assured him. “I can't dance.”

He took my hand. “Then I will teach you.”

“Oh, please, I'd rather not,” but it was too late, we were already moving to the rhythm of the music. Paul Sinclair leading, with me following as best I could.

“You see, it's not hard,” he said. “Tell me, you've taken dancing lessons, haven't you?”

I told him I hadn't, and he exclaimed at how good I was. The steps WERE easy, but I was still making a lot of mistakes. “I'm not as good as you say I am,” I said, concentrating hard on what came next, forward or left.

“Oh, but you are, my dear lady. Never underestimate your accomplishments.”

I couldn't resist asking, “And is one of you accomplishments charming women out of their senses?”

He faked surprise. “Me?”

“Yes, you.” We whirled around for the tenth time, after which I added, “You do it very well, too.”

He nodded his head and smiled at me, exposing very white teeth. The word swashbuckling popped into my head suddenly. “You remind me of Indiana Jones.”

“Really? What a compliment. That is good, isn't it?” His eyes held mock fear.

“Yes, I think he's very handsome.”

“Nothing about me?” I only smiled at him rather coyly, but said nothing. He sighed, then went on almost to himself, “Indiana Jones. That's different.”

The song ended, and we stopped dancing. The orchetra received applause, then announced they would take a twenty minute break. As the musicians walked out into the cool air, the dancers dispersed and headed for the open rooms, while some clammored for the food in the dining room. I saw the Captain, still in his cape and head band, walk quickly through the crowd, politly acknowledging the guests that spoke to him, but not lingering to talk longer.

“Your Captain seems to be in a hurry. Perhaps he's off to meet darling Monica at some predetermined secret rendezvous.”

The words 'I hope not' whispered softly in my mind.

“You seem puzzled, Miss Stevens.”

I jumped and looked up at Paul Sinclair. “I'm sorry. I was thinking.”

“Do you always think so deeply?”

“Most of the time.”

“May I ask what those deep thoughts were about?”

“I was wondering what you'd heard about me before we met,” I said suddenly. Of course, that had been far from my thoughts, but I certainly didn't want him to know that I had been thinking of 'my Captain,' and how he wouldn't be mine for much longer.

“I'd heard of your previous marriage in Illinois, and I...”

“My WHAT?” Thoughts of the Captain vanished as I trained all my attention on the man in front of me.

Paul Sinclair seemed confused. “Why, of your marriage to that murderer, and how you got divorced and came up here in order to get some money for his bail so you could get married again and live together. Really, Miss Stevens, I think that's an awfully noble thing for you to do, to just up and leave the kids that way so you could get him out of jail.”

I stared at him incredulously. “I've never been married,” I finally said.

He looked at me, perplexed. “Yes you have.”

“No. If I'd been married, I'm sure I would have known it. I'm not married to anyone, and certainly not to a murderer.” My voice began rising, as did my temper. “Who told you this?” I demanded.

“Why, Edward Hanson, I believe.” He looked at my fuming countenance, and came to his own conclusion. “There is no divorced husband, kids, or bail money, is there?”

“Certainly not!” I cried. “Who's Edward Hanson?”

He looked around, then pointed descretely at a well-dressed man wearing the Elizabethan costume of Henry VIII. He looked very rich to me, and was talking to someone dressed as a princess, I think.

Without waiting for any more information, I started deliberately toward Edward Hanson, the intent of asking who he had heard this rumor from clear in my mind.

I didn't get very far, however, because Paul grabbed my arm and stopped me in mid-stride.

“Let me go!” I said angrily, my green eyes blazing. “I'm going to get to the bottom of this if it takes me all night!”

“You can't. That would only hurt matters.”

Unconvinced, I yanked my arm out of his grasp and was about to proceed when he said, “Listen, Melanie, I know how you feel, but believe me when I say that whoever started this will be uncovered before the night is over.” I looked at him doubtfully. “A rumor like that will go through a lot of mouths tonight, since your new to all this, and naive. Somebody on your side will hear it sooner or later, and get to the bottom of it. All you have to do is wait.”

I wanted to comment on his saying I was naive, but I held my peace, seeing how right he was. I took a deep breath to calm my exploding nerves, and said, “You're right, I guess. I'll keep my mouth shut. But you'd better be right!” and I got him to swear he knew what he was talking about.

“I had better make sure the children are in bed and not wreaking havoc in the kitchen,” I said at last, moving towards the front staircase.

Once again he caught my arm. “Melanie, use the back stairs. You shouldn't bring any unwanted attention to yourself.” I nodded in understanding. “Trust me. I know these people and how they work. And by the way, is it alright if I call you Melanie?”

I smiled, some of my anger melting. “Sure... Paul.” I made my way down the servants hallway to the back stairs.

As I checked from room to room, looking at the peaceful faces of the children, possibilities as to who had started these awful rumors ran through my head. Naturally, my first thought was of Monica, but as Kate would say, she had no motive, or at least none that I could see.

When all the little ones had been accounted for, I headed back down to the dance. The musicians were picking up their instruments again and warming up. I entered the crowded front hall in time to hear the tail end of a conversation.

“... And did you know that she was also illegitamate?” asked a short dumpy woman in a whiny voice. She was surrounded by two men and another woman, all paying rapt attention to her words.

“Really?” the other woman commented, disbelieving. “That would explain the fact that she married a murderer. She probably didn't have much of an upbringing, poor girl.”

My face burned. 'Illegitamate! Oh really, I have two normal parents just like everybody else!' I screamed silently at them. 'And I'm NOT married!'

These silent denials did no good, however. The gossipers continued talking, eating up every word that was said.

The taller of the two men spoke up next. “I was just talking to Charles, and he said that the only reason she has this job here is that Christopher felt sorry for her. I hear she's only seventeen. Can you imagine having two kids by seventeen? Then to come all the way here from Illinois all alone... why, it's unheard of!”

The first woman interrupted with, “Ah, but she did have a good education. Some farmer had pity on her and sent her to school.”

“But why waste all that time and money on a drop-out?” supplied the first woman.

I was about ready to explode! I wanted to shake them until some sense had been rattled in their brains! I was getting very hot, and I could no longer see perfectly. But, fortunately, I remembered Paul Sinclair's warning and remained silent. I waited to hear if there was more.

“And to think about those two poor kids of hers!” the last man shook his head. “Still back in Illinois, all by themselves, stranded. It's a wonder that Christopher gave her the job when he knows she does stuff like that, with no conscience at all.”

“He'll be the next one with problems. Her repayment for his kindness will be losing one of his dear children. He'll regret this at the end.”

That's it! I could handle being illegitamate and married, but to say I didn't care for kids was totally outragious!

In my hazy state of mind, I moved involuntarily towards the group, wanting to hurt them as much as they had hurt me. The four of them immediately caught sight of me, and grew suddenly hushed, glancing furtively at me, wondering how much I had heard.

The room closed in about me, and I needed fresh air. Whirling away from the group, I hurried out the french doors and down the garden path. The night air was quite cold, but I payed no attention to it. Soon the noise and lights of the party grew dim and the darkness enveloped me, and I stopped near a tree to catch my breath.

To my astonishment, I was crying. It was very rare that I got so mad that tears came out of my eyes. All my anger melted into bitter disappointment as the drops of salty water continued to make tracks down my cheeks. 'So this is how the rich live,' I said to myself. I decided I wanted no part of it.

“If I were you, I wouldn't let them bother me.”

I turned quickly to confront my employer. He no longer wore his Egyptain costume, but his formal uniform met my eyes.

“They don't bother me,” I retorted maliciously.

“Then that must be the reason you're crying,” he observed dryly.

“I'm NOT crying!” I stupidly insisted, brushing away the tears on my cheeks.

“Then why are there tears on your cheeks?” A faint smile tugged at his lips.

“The wind made my eyes water!” I said foolishly.

He laughed outloud then, making my anger return and bringing forth a new deluge of tears. I turned away from him, saying, “Go away! You're no different then the rest of them!” I immediately wished I could take it back. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean that.”

He handed me a handkercheif, which I gratefully took. “I know,” he said quietly.

When I had composed myself sufficiently, I once again turned to him and asked, “You've herd what they're saying, then? Those lies about me?” He took my arm and steered me farther down the path, away from the house. We continued walking as we conversed.

“Yes, I've heard them. You've been married to a man who's in jail for murder, have two kids, and are only seventeen.” He walked with his hands behind his back, tall and straight. I relaxed my tensed muscles, and felt strangely safe with him. No one would bother me as long as I was with the Captain.

“Then you haven't heard the latest. I'm also Illegitamate, and had a good education, that is, until I dropped out of school. I was taken in by a farmer who felt sorry for me, and I stranded my two kids back in Illinois. I am supposed to repay your kindness to me for giving me this job by losing one of your children.” I shook my head in amazement. “How can anybody believe that?”

“You'd be surprised.” We walked on in silence, the wind rattling the dead leaves of the trees. In spite of the cold air, the night was beautiful with a big, orange harvest moon hovering in the sky. “You would never lose one of my children, would you?” he asked suddenly.

I glanced at him sharply. “Of course not. I love your children.”

He hesitated slightly before saying, “That's what I thought. Please forgive me for doubting you.”

“If you'll forgive me for yelling at you just now.” I stopped walking and faced him, sticking out my hand. “Deal?”

He smiled. “Deal,” he said and shook my hand briefly. Our fingers barely touched, but my hand tingled long after he had let go. “Your fingers are icy. Are you cold?” he asked.

“A little, I guess.” I suddenly noticed the wind biting through my dress.

“I shouldn't have taken you so far from the house.” We turned back.

After another silence, he said, “I saw you dancing with Paul Sinclair.”

“Yes. He's really nice. Lizette told me about last year.”

“I don't speak to him very much.”

“You must have seen him when you spent all those days at Monica's house.”

“He doesn't live there. You see, his family disowned him.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “But he doesn't look like the type of guy who'd run away with the kitchen maid.”

“And do I look like the type of guy who would throw somebody out of my house?”

With this in minbd, I studied him thoughtfully. “You could if you were mad enough. But normally, no.”

His eyebrows raised slightly at my response. “I don't think Paul ran off with the kitchen maid, either. I think his parents refused to see the truth. Besides, society was breathing down their backs, and they had to do something.

A question formed in my mind, but I hesitated to ask it, fearing what the answer might be. “Are you going to let society breath down your neck and fire me?”

“Absolutely not! Society does not influence me in any way.”

“Well, I'm glad to hear that!” I breathed a sigh of relief. “What WILL you do... about me?”

“Nothing for now. I have an idea who started these rumors, but I can't be sure. Bringing up the subject will do no good, either.” Then his voice turned hard. “But I WILL find out. No body in my house is dragged through the mud like this without appropriate recompense.”

I decided that I would not want to be the person responsible and have to face the Captain's wrath. I shivered at the thought of it.

“You're shivering,” he commented.

“I should have brought a coat with me.” When he moved to take off his own coat, I instantly replaced it and smoothed out the wrinkles he had created. “Please, don't be gallant and give me your coat. I think it's stupid for you to be cold, too. You stay warm, and I'll shiver for both of us. It's not much farther to the house.” We hurried along the path, passing a few brave couples every now and then who obviously had other things in mind besides coats to keep them warm. “Someday I'm going to buy a maroon velvet cloak that goes clear to my ankles. I've always wanted one of them, and as soon as I save enough money, I'm going to buy one.”

“A maroon velvet cloak? You are a strange little one, Miss Stevens.”

By now we had reached the house. “I'm going straight upstairs. I don't want to see those people again.”

He caught my arm and held it gently. “If I may suggest something, I'd tell you to come back and face them. They won't bother you as long as you're with me. They're really not mean people at heart. Gossip like this is one of their favorite passtimes, and they must have their fun. Now,” he straightened his dress coat, making sure there were no wrinkles, “go to your room and make yourself presentable. I will be waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs.” His former manner had returned, and he was brusque and very sure of himself.

“But aren't you supposed to be with Monica tonight?” I cautioned to ask.

“Monica,” he said, “is busy with her guests. She won't miss me. Now hurry,” he ordered.

I gathered my skirts and sped up to my room. There I washed the tear stains off my face, and smoothed back my hair. The net was becoming loose, so I secured it again. I looked at myself in the mirror one last time, decided I was fit for the queen of England and for all I cared those people downstairs could go to the devil, and, putting on my best Melanie Hamilton face possible, walked sedately out of my room, closing the door softly behind me.

My second entrance to the Kartwright Costume Ball was exactly the same as the first, except that this time there WAS a dashingly handsome man waiting for me at the bottom of the great staircase. The Captain was talking to Charles Dupré and was laughing gayly about something one of them had just said. His laugh was deep and rich; a truly beautiful sound, and I knew that I would enjoy this portion of the evening.

As I reached the bottom of the stairs, the Captain looked up and smiled at me. It was such a congenial smile that I smiled back without even thinking about it. I'm sure that smile went all the way up to my eyes.

He offerred his arm, and I took it. “Charles, have you met my new governess, Melanie Stevens?”

“Why, yes I have,” he stuttered, his face quite red.

I bowed my head slightly and said, “Good evening, My Dupré. It's nice to meet you again. You're enjiying yourself, I hope?”

He seemed confused. “Jolly good time... yes... jolly good.” He turned to my protector. “Nice chatting with you, Christopher. Must run and see what Emily's up to.” Then it was just the two of us.

“If he didn't seem surprised!” I burst out. Yes, I decided, this would be an interesting night.

Throughout the dance I played Melanie Hamilton and acted very demure and humble. I smiled when I was supposed to, and laughed at the right times. It payed off in the end. After about thirty minutes we no longer heard comments about my 'marriage' or caught any sidelong glances as people passed by.

The entire time, the Captain stayed at my side, and when we weren't dancing, he was always close by. I learned that he had been a captain in the Navy, but had retired when his father had died, and became the owner of Ashby Manor. By then Anne was on the way, and he and his wife were very happy here. Then, when Amanda was born, by some fluke of nature, a blood clot that had gone undetected exploded and his wife had died instantly. She'd never seen the newborn baby. Since then he had lived in something like a trance, trying hard to make a normal life for his five children, but at the same time wishing they were gone because they reminded him of his deceased wife. Times had not been happy at Ashby Manor.

Every now and then Paul Sinclair would stop on his way to the dining room and see if I had done anything else in my past which had recently been made public. I put him at rest, saying that I had heard nothing at all, and that now I was having a great time.

He looked at the festive people and commented, “It is almost like a fairy tale, isn't it?” He glanced down at me slyly. “Especially with your handsome protector over there,” and he indicated the Captain.

“The Captain is merely a friend who is helping me,” I said in a quiet voice.

“Monica doesn't seem to think so,” he suggested.

“Oh?” I held my curiosity in check.

“After all, she's the one who started those rumers.”

I pounced on this accusation. “Do you have proof, or are you the jealous brother making a play on his sister?”

“It's simply common sense. If you look hard, you can easily see that all Monica is after is Christopher's money, and that you pose a threat to her attaining that goal. She started those ridiculous lies in hope that your employer would believe it and fire you, leaving the path to his money clear and free.”

I laughed. “That's preposterous.”

“Is it?” He looked squarely at me. “Your a smart woman, Melanie, and you know deep down that what I say is true. The Captain is simply stalling for time now, because he doesn't know what to think. That's why he's not married to Monica yet.”

“But what if she really does love him?” I asked quietly, playing with the wine glass in my hands.

“Then she has a legitamate reason for trying to get you out of the house.” He took a drink, then continued, “But I don't think Monica is capable of feeling love for anybody but herself.”

Just then we heard the clock in the hall strike midnight, and I said goodnight to Paul and the many new friends I had met. The Captain smiled at me as I bid him farewell until morning.

“Farewell to you, too, Melanie Hamilton.” His grey eyes glittered and shone as he spoke.

Up in my room, I smoothed out the dress before hanging it in my closet, remembering the dance in every detail. My thoughts lingered most, however, on the time I had spent with the Captain, and I smiled as I remembered.

Chapter 6

I was sitting in the library with Amanda, helping her muddle through a three word sentence from a beginning reader's book. She was doing quite well, and now knew the entire alphabet and could count to a hundred.

A fire roared in the fireplace, making the room warm and cozy. Outside, grey clouds scuttled across the sky, pushed by a stiff wind. The tree's bare branches scraped against each other, making eerie noises.

Amanda had just graduated to the second page when we heard footsteps in the front hall.

“Melanie!” yelled the voice of Michael. “It's snowing!”

At these words Amanda immediately ran to the window and placed her hands on the pane, making fantastic smudge marks. She watched the small flakes as they were flung from the sky, then blown against the stone walls of the house.

Lizette walked into the library then, followed by Michael, who wore a very jubilent expression on his face.

“That snow hurts,” Lizette complained. She still wore her coat, but now she stook it off and threw it on the couch against the wall.

“Do you think we'll get out of school tomorrow?” Michael burst out.

I laughed quietly and went to stand at the window with Amanda. “I doubt it,” I said. Michael's face fell in disappointment. “Then again, you never know,” I added, and he immediately brightened.

Anne and Eric joined us next, their hair covered with white flakes that quickly melted in the heat created by the crackling fire.

Eric shivered and dropped his books on his father's desk. “It's darn cold out there!”

Micki, who lay beside the fireplace, yawned and stratched before getting up to walk to the window. Her green eyes stared out at the world with disdain. That cute little kitten had turned into a rather contrary cat in a very short time, and she was extremely finicky. But at least she used the litter box instead of the carpet.

“Melanie, are girls dumb?” Anne asked, her face serious.

“Yes!” Eric and Michael shouted at once. Anne withered them away with a look, then turned her attention back to me. “Well?” she said.

“No, girls are not dumb. Who on earth told you that?” I packed away Amanda's lesson books for use later, as it was obvious we wouldn't get any more work done today.

“Marty Fratzke. Today at lunch he said that the only thing girls are good for are making sandwiches and beds.”

“Then he has a lot to learn,” I said.

Eric stood up proudly. “I think he's right. A woman's place is in the kitchen.”

“Murder,” I said under my breath. Anne threw a pillow from the couch at him. He ducked just in time, though, and it smashed into Micki, who jumped at least four feet into the air, landing with her tail up and her claws ready. She was surprised to see that her attacker came in the form of a square but soft blob. She sniffed at it, then curled up beside it and fell asleep.

“Hey!” Eric yelled as another pillow caught him from behind.

“I'll let that remark go, since you're young and inexperienced,” I said, “but if you go around talking like that, you'll be a bachelor for your entire life.”

Suddenly Lizette jumped up, saying, “Oh, Melanie, here's a letter for you from Kate. I forgot about it till now.”

“From Kate?” I grabbed it and ripped it open, reading as quickly as I possibly could. “She got the vacation time she wanted and she can come for Christmas!” I exclaimed.

“You mean we finally get to meet her?” Anne asked, and I nodded.

“Well, it's about time!” Eric pointed out. “All we've heard about is the gyy she's in love with. She's probably driving him nuts, with all that detective stuff.”

“She's NOT in love with him. He is her boss, nothing more.”

Lizette seemed strangely puzzled. “I thought you were going home for Christmas.”

“I thought so, too, but, according to Mrs. Harding, it's been years since she's had a vacation, and she announced last week that for Christmas she was going to visit her sister in New York and nothing would stop her.” I shrugged my shoulders. “What could your father do? He asked me if I would stay.”

“And you said yes!” finished Amanda in triumph.

I smiled and swung her around. “You got it, kid.”

“I'd be kind of mad if I were you. You haven't been home for almost seven momnths,” Lizette mentioned.

At the thought of home I sighed deeply, then said, “Oh well. No use getting sentimental about it.”

“This way you get to spend Christmas with us!” Amanda giggled.

Lizette rolled her eyes up and said, “Do you really want to?” in a rather sarcastic voice.

“Oh, come on!” I exclaimed, jumping up and down. “Think of the fun we'll have! We can decorate the tree, and when it gets dark we can turn off all the lights and turn on that gorgeous tree, and light all the candles. It will be like living back in the 1800s.”

Unfortunately they didn't catch much of my enthusiasm.

“Why turn off all the lights?” Michael asked.

I threw my hands up in resignation. “Oh, you people have NO imagination!” I twirled around in my excitement over Kate and Christmas. “Haven't you ever done your homework by candlelight?” They all looked at me strangely. “Just think, the entire house will smell like the tree. It must be a huge tree. Where to you put it? In the front hall?”

They glanced at each other, but nobody answered my questions. Finally Eric spoke. “I'm sorry, Melanie, but we don't know what you're talking about. What candles?”

My face went totally blank. “What do you mean 'What candles?'”

“We don't have much of a Christmas since Mom died,” Lizette explained. “We don't even have a tree.”

I jumped in shock. “What!” I exclaimed. “No tree?” They shook their heads. “What do you do for presents?”

“We have them in the livingroom,” piped up Anne. “Christmas is the only time we use the livingroom. But then,” she went on thoughtfully, “we've been in there a lot lately.”

“No tree?” I asked meekly.

Five heads shook simultaneously.

“Well,” and I stomped my foot loudly, determination flowing through my veins, “we shall simply have to see THIS year.” I walked into the hall, my brain whirling, thoughts clicking themselves off in my head: “We must get lots of candles and wreathes - I'm sure there are some in the attic - a humongous tree, of course, and holly running down the banister.”

“What are you going to do?” Eric asked suspiciously.

“Why, I'm going to make this one heck of a Christmas. You'll see.” They still stared at me doubtfully, but I ignored them, my brain still busy with plans.

That night I spoke to the Captain about the tree the very first chance I had. I hadn't expected the reaction I got.

“A tree,” he said.

“Yes, a tree. They're green and have branches,” I supplied helpfully.

He gave a me a You're-not-cute look and said, “I'm aware of what they are, Miss Stevens.”

I ignored the look completely and stated, “We really must have a tree. It'll make the house smell so good, and at night you can turn on all those lights and...”

“No.”

I looked at him in surprise. “What do you mean 'no?'”

“Just what I said. We can have the presents in the livingroom like we always do. It's perfectly fine that way.”

At the sound of opposition my blood immediately began to boil and my face got hot. This was too important to me to let it fall by the wayside. But I kept myself under perfect contol as I said, “That's nonsense. Of course we'll have a tree. EVERYBODY has a tree.”

“We don't.”

“Come on, Captain, this is the 80s! A tree is a symble of Christmas. I can't imagine having presents without one.” My tone was persuasive and I hoped it was working.

He sighed. “Miss Stevens, I don't think you realize that a tree of great height would be needed for this house and it would take too many people to get it in and to decorate it.”

“There are plenty of servants who would gladly help pull it in. You have double froont doors and if it's brought in backwards, it would fit easily,” I countered quickly.

“Then who would decorate it?” he asked rather sternly. “And how would you get all the way to the top?”

“There are five kids, me, Kate will be here by then so she can help, you can certainly do a good job, Mrs. Harding - or will she be gone? - John would gladly help, and you can use step ladders, and then the stairs to reach the very top.”

He stared at me a minute before sighing. “My, you have thought of everything.”

“Can I assume there are decorations in the attic from previous years?” He bleakly nodded. “Then that's taken care of.” I would have gone on, but he interrupted me.

“Miss Stevens, there are... shall we say... personal reasons why we don't have a tree.”

“What are they?” Sometimes I can be SOOOO idiotic.

His eyes widened and the muscles in his face twitched - a sure sign that I had said the wrong thing. “You don't need to know,” he said shortly.

“Sorry,” I said, “but you really can't punish the children for what you may feel. They'll grow up thinking that Christmas is just another day, and that's not right. It should be special.”

“Oh...” he stood up and began pacing back and forth in front of me. Somehow I'd done it again. “It's special alright.” The words were spat in my general direction, but his eyes were staring at the wall, trying to burn a hole through the plaster. “Christmas will always be remembered in this house. It's the time when everybody goes out, has a good time, gets rip-roaring drunk, and then pays for it later. Other people pay for those drunks, too.”

I looked down and muttered, “I don't follow you, Captain.”

“Of course you don't! You weren't here, you don't know what it was like.” He ran a hand through his wavy hair and tryed to calm himself.

“What happened?” I heard myself ask.

“Christmas Eve, my wife went into labor four years ago. I rushed her to the hospital, but our doctor wasn't there. He was off having fun because it was Christmas.”

“Doctors DO get days off, even when a rich man's wife has a baby,” I reminded him. “And there are many competant doctors on duty at all times.”

“They weren't competent enough to save Amanda, were they? I stood in that very room and watched her eyes suddenly dilate and go blank. I watched her die.”

“You told me yourself that she had an undetected blood clot. Even good doctors can do nothing about things they don't know exist.”

He glared at me. “Can't you let me blame it on SOMEBODY, for heaven's sake?”

“There is nobody to blame. It just happened.”

“On Christmas. You see, I can't celebrate a day that contains so much... agony,” he said with vehemence. “I can't, and don't want to.”

“But you're still depriving your own children. Wouldn't Amanada have wanted ALL of you to be happy?”

He whirled on me, his voice passionate. “With you it is always the children! Everbody cares about the children! Does nobody think of me? Am I so awful because... because I feel sorry for myself? Because I want to take one day out of the year to remember my dead wife?”

My appearance was calm, but inside I was in turmoil. I suddenly wanted to put my arms around him and hold him tightly until all that pain was gone. I swallowed hard, trying resolutely to push down these feelings. “Then you're torturing yourself needlessly. If I loved my husband as much as Amanda surely loved you, I wouldn't want him to mourn me forever. I would want him to be happy, and to get on with life. What you're doing is keeping this entire house suspended in time. It's not fair to the children, and above all it's certianly not fair to you.”

He suddenly asked, “Have you ever lost a loved one, Miss Stevens?”

“No.”

“Then where do you get such a speech?”

“Books, I guess,” I said after thinking for a minute.

He shook his head in amazement and all the clouds seemed to lift from his face. He smiled slightly and said, “You are a strange little elf.”

When he didn't go on, I prompted, “About the tree?”

I seemed to drag him from deep thoughts; he herked his head up and had to compose himself before saying, “Ah, yes. You've convinced me. You can have your ridiculous tree. I guess it's time I should face my ghosts.”

I smiled and excitement filled me. “Thank you, sir! Thank you!” I fairly skipped from the room, planning and plotting like a murderess, only I planned something good.

I was not aware of a strange gleam in his eyes as he watched me go.

The entire month of November had gone by, and we were a few days into December already. My, how time flies! Kate was to arrive on the fifteenth, and I was counting the days. The children were as excited as I was. They were simply DYING to meet her.

“What's she like?” Eric asked me one day.

“Well,” I said, “she's a little taller tham me, has blond curly hair, (at least it was blond when I left. Who knows now) runs around the house singing, and is fairly pretty, I guess.”

“What does she sing?”

“Oh, songs from movies and show tunes mainly. She always had a better voice than I did.” I remembered back to those 'good old days' when she used to sing from dawn till dark. It didn't matter where she was, the hall at school, the bottom of the driveway waiting for the bus, her room, over the phone, and even when I was vainly trying to do my German translation. Nobody realized how hard it was to translate 'Gut, dann setzen wir uns zu Ihnen' when she was belting out 'Over the Rainbow' from The Wizard of Oz. She drove us all nuts.

“How come she's a detective and not a singer then?” He brought me out of my thoughts.

“Because she watched too much TV,” I said scornfully and he giggled. (I should say chuckled. Everybody knows boys DON'T giggle) I'm sure he would have asked for more information, but Lizette came pounding in exclaiming the she didn't know HOW anybody could possibly think that Algebra made sense and that the guy who thought it up had been TOTALLY INSANE and would I plese HELP! Eric left us to muddle through that 'dumb junk' as Lizette so colorfully put it, and our conversation came to an end.

The rumers that had sprung up at the costume ball in Octover were still circulating wildly. The Captain told me that, every now and then, when he was at his office he heard comments about 'that disgraceful nanny at Ashby Manor,' and how strange it was that I was still here. I mentioned that I wished they would stop talking about me. He told me not to worry and that it would all blow over by Christmas. It was getting pretty close to Christmas and they were still talking about me.

When I began my Christmas shopping (which had become MUCH larger since I left home) people stared at me in the stores, and once I was even stopped and asked how my kids were doing in Illinois. I had come back from the stores very upset that day, and told everybody that if being rich meant rumers, they could keep the money. Once again I was told not to worry.

At any rate, I was too busy to think about a bunch of stupid rumers. Kate was due to appear in two days and I was scurrying around, getting the best bedroom ready, rearranging my closet so she could pick out something easily if she wanted to wear it, (she wore my clothes all the time when we were at home) and generally creating chaos. I thrived on chaos!

The children were very excited and constantly peppered me with questions. The Captain finally told them to leave their poor governess alone, to which I was secretly thankful.

Then the day finally arrived. Kate's plane wasn't due to arrive until two o'clock in the afternoon. I gave John her description and sent him on his way. I had decided to wait at the manor, as I would only pace the floor at the airport, visions of plane crashes flashing through my mind.

The children went off to school as usual, grumbling because they couldn't stay and meat the guest right away. But I was firm, reminding them that she would still be here during part of Christmas vacation. She was the lucky one and got to go home for Christmas, but I was sending a big box with her.

Amanda sat down to play with her toys and I was left to my own devices. Being left with nothing much to do, I walked from room to room, unable to settle down anywhere. Everybody else had something to do except me and it was driving me nuts!

Two o'clock finally arrived, but of course it would take them another hour to get from the airport to the Manor. I began jumping around instead of walking. Jumping seemed to take up energy, and I certainly had a lot of THAT.

They finally arrived, pulling up in the 1930s whatever that I had ridden in when I first arrived. Apparantly John had told her to come right in, because the door burst open and there she was.

Of course we hugged each other, and laughed a lot, and all that sisterly stuff. She hadn't changed a bit. Her blond hair was short and curly, and she still wore the strangest clothes. (I considered a dress strange, so don't get me wrong) I drew her into the front hall, a grin on my face. “How do you like it?”

Kate looked around and then up. “Wow.

I giggled. “That's what I said, too.”

“Talk about the Ewings, the Carrington, and Oliver Warbucks all rolled up in one! I feel like Grace Farrell!” And she started belting out the lyrics to 'I think I'm Gonna Like It Here' from Annie.

I covered ny ears, saying, “Please, no more torture!” She simply sang louder and hit me in the arm. “You're going to bother the Captain! He's just in the library.” I pointed the room out to her as she quieted down. John brought in the bags, which reminded me to ask her if she'd liked her ride.

“Fantastic!” she said reverently. “That car is the neatest thing I've ever ridden in.” She leaned closer to me. “The driver isn 't too bad either.”

“Kate!” I exclaimed. She was always flirting. After giving her a reproving look, I said, “I'll show you to your room. Come on.”

We ran up the stairs, each lugging two suitcases. “What do you ave in here?” I panted.

“Clothes, what else?”

“Did you buy a hundred new outfits or something?”

“No!”

“It sure feels like it!” I muttered.

We finally arrived at her room, where Amanda was waiting for us.

“Is this your sister, Melanie?” the little girl asked in her serene voice.

“Yes,” I said, setting down my load. “Kate, meet...”

“Amanda. I can tell from all your letters. From what you wrote, I pictured her as much younger. Before we know it, you'll be completely grown up.” She spoke the last to Amanda, who smiled at the compliment.

I glanced at my watch and said, “We have just enough time to unpack before the rest of them come home from school,” and set to work with her mountain of clothes.

“Melanie!” yelled Michael as he ran through the front door. “You should have seen the fight we had at school today! There was blood all over the place!” He ran into the livingroom, but didn't find me there, for I was in the library talking to the Captain. I could hear him, but didn't want to interrupt my employer.

Just at that time Kate came down the stairs, surprising Michael out of his narration of the fight.

“You're not Melanie,” I heard him say.

“I'm Kate, and you're Michael.”

“How'd you know?”

“I'm really a sorceress in disguise, amnd probed into your brain just now. Your name was written all over it.”

“Really?” he asked unbelievingly.

I decided it was time to break up Kate's little charade before it was too late and excused myself from the Captain. “Kate,” I said, coming out the door. “Really. Michael, don't believe a word she says.”

My three other charges walked through the door more sedately than Michael had a minute earlier. They stopped and stared, looking from Kate to me and back again. This is what I had expected. People always treated twins in the same way; trying to see how they were alike. Actually, Kate and I really aren't alike very much. First of all, I'm shy, and Kate definitely is NOT shy! She's quite the opposite. That's why she was off in San Francisco, meeting hordes of new people and doing exciting things and I was taking care of five kids, cooped up in a big mansion most of the time.

But we are alike in some ways, too. We both raved about the same movies, although she goes more for singing and dancing while I bend towards science fiction and adventure. That also contradicts what I just said about me being shy and quiet while Kate was outgoing. Twins ARE complicated things. So, before I confuse me and you, poor reader, I will quit while I'm ahead.

“This is Kate,” I said to the new members of our conversation.

They looked her up and down, and must have decided thay liked her, for soon they were all chattering a mile a minute.

“What's it like being a private detective? Is it exciting?” Lizette wanted to know.

Kate seemed to consider several different answers before she said, “At times it's the neatest thing on earth, (that's when we help the police catch somebody) but generally it's pretty boring. There's a lot of research, but I like it.”

“How many cases have you had so far?”

“Two, I think.”

“Two! Is that all?” screeched a distressed Eric.

Kate shrugged her shoulders. “Just a drug dealer and one theft of some valuable jewels.”

“Did you find the thief?” asked Anne, her eyes wide. (I had the feeling this family would have at least ONE Cagney and Lacey!)

“We figured out who he was, but the police caught him. Personally, I wanted to be the one who got to shout FREEZE and hold the guy at gunpoint, but Tony, my boss, said I wasn't 'ready' for that yet. What he meant was it was no job for a woman.”

“Bright fellow!” exclaimed Eric, as always, our 'female-in-the-kitchen' committee chairman.

Kate gave him her dangerous look; she widened her eyes and frowned at him, probably making him feel like he'd just made a federall offense (I was very familiar with this look) and said, “Next time it'll be different.” Eric didn't argue with her.

In a minute she became her normal self again (she had really only been acting anyway) and smiled at the fretting Eric.

“Come on, people, let's go upstairs. I want shown around this palace.” Kate grabbed a hand and started off to the stairs. The children followed silently, kind of shocked, I think.

I was going to follow them, but the voice of the Captain stopped me.

“She certainly has a way with people,” he commented.

“Yes, she does,” I agreed whole-heartedly.

“Is she as affable as you?”

“Much more.” He called ME affable! “She's always gone right up to a stranger and said any old thing. I've always been slightly afraid of people.”

“How can you be afraid of people?” he asked, surprised at my choice of words.

“Oh, it's very easy,” I said earnestly. “When I was little I didn't have very many friends - entirely my own fault, too. I was a rotten kid! Because Kate had more friends than I had, I started thinking that people thought I was strange and I was conscious about it. Somewhere along the line, I grew up and became more... pleasant to be with, shall we say, but I still have the feeling that people think bad things about me when they pass me on the street.”

“Such as?” he prodded.

I really would rather have talked of something else, but I answered his question anyway. “Oh, like 'There's that Melanie Stevens. Sometimes she's really an idiot!' or “I wish she would DO something with her hair. It's so stringy and long.'”

“Your hair is NOT stringy,” the Captain admonished me. “Who on earth said that?'

“Kate, for one. She is just added to a long list of people I know. Even the children have asked me why I don't get it cut.”

“Well, why don't you?” We had moved to a set of chairs placed against the wall and sat down. I put my legs under me before I answered, getting comfortable.

“Because I look GROSS in short hair, believe me!” I was emphatic now. “I was in sixth grade, - that's -” I had to compute it in my head, “eight years ago! - when I last chopped it off. I looked like a little brat, and with it long I at least only look young, and not bratty. What are you laughing at?”

“You!” he managed to squeeze out.

I gave him an irked looked, failing to see his humore. “I realize that! But what about me?”

“I was just wondering who you were trying to convince, me or you.” His laughter was over now, and he looked at me solemnly. “If you want long hair, never cut it. You don't have to please anybody but yourself.”

I sat and absorbed that in silence. “You're right, of course. Now, see what an idiot I've been?”

He laughed again, shaking his head. “You are my friend, Miss Stevens. If you want to act like an idiot, go right ahead. I won't stop you.”

“Thanks a lot!” I said haughtily. “Hmph!” I snorted as I sat, glaring at him.

“You've been around Mrs. Harding too much,” he said.

“And you've been stuck with your papers too much!” I retaliated. I could feel how hot my face was, it must have been red by now. I was more embarassed than mad, though.

He nodded his head, trying not to laugh at my red face. “I should be back with those papers, trying to bring in your salary.” Finally he let his laughter go and exclaimed, “My, but your face is red!”

I had the urge to say oh shutup, but held back, not sure just how good of 'friends' we were. “Oh!” I said finally in frustration. “You men are all alike! I suppose YOU'RE face doesn't get red?”

He waved his hand in the air, trying to breath. “I'm sorry, Miss Stevens. I don't know what's come over me. I haven't laughed like this for years!”

“About four, I would say.”

I wheeled around to find Monica Sinclair standing behind me. She looked as refined as ever in a royal blue dress with white polka dots and a white belt. Blue pumps adorned her feet. (White would have looked better, but everybody knows you don't wear white after Labor Day) She also wore a pair of dark sunglasses and a blue hat, which she now took off, along with the sunglasses.

“That snow is bright. How are you, Christopher?” She ignored me completely, as usual.

“Fine,” he answered.

“Yes, I heard you laughing. I'll assume that the noise covered my entrance, or I'm sure you would have greeted me at the door.”

Well la-di-da I thought. Sometimes she was SUCH a snob! The Captain merely stared at her, not saying a word.

“Well, it's nice to know that Christopher's in such capable and... funny hands.” She spoke to me, but only bothered to glance at me before her gaze again fell on my employer. “Now, we have some business to discuss. If you will excuse us.” She then took her almost-fiancé by the arm and drew him into the library. He went willingly enough, I will say that for him. The boob, I thought, recalling an image of Jeff MicKinnley, who had used that word profusely when we had been in a play together in high school. And he'd almost always referred to me when he'd said it, too.

I sighed, looked one more time at the closed library door, then went upstairs to see what trouble Kate and her group had gotten into.

“I don't think I've ever been in anything so BIG!” Kate commented as she sat on my bed in my room just prior to going downstairs for dinner.

“It took me awhile to get used to it, I'll admit,” I said, pinning up my hair. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. Monica Sinclair is here.”

“Ah, the Captian's not-quite fiancé. Will she wear one of her evening gowns to dinner, do you think?”

“Probably.” My voice held scorn.

“Something tells me you don't like that idea.”

“The only reason she wears stuff like that is because she wants to show me how badly I DON'T fit in with all this money, and how well she DOES. I think she's trying to convince the Captain that she's the perfect wife for him or something. It's like 'My mansion or yours?' It's really sick.”

“Well, is she nice?” Kate was kind of annoyed with me for not telling her more about the people I live with in my letters.

“Not really,” I answered evasively.

“Come ON, Melanie,” she threw a pillow at me. “How isn't she nice?”

“Kind of like she thinks she's better than I am.”

“Well, she IS rich.”

“And that's ALL she is. Rich and a snob.” I emphasized the word 'snob.'

She glanced at me slyly. “My dear sister, it sounds like you're jealous!”

I turned to look at her. “Jealous! ME? I think not.”

“How I hate it when you talk like that!” she exclaimed, bouncing on my bed.

“Why do you think I do it, ding-a-ling?” I smiled over my minor victory.

“Anyway, you're jealous!”

“About what, for heavens sake? Monica? Why would I envy HER?”

“Because she's rich and...” She stopped, causing my curiosity to boil up.

“And?” I prompted.

She bobbed her head, brushing it away. “Oh, nothing. Just a dumb idea. I called Mom before I came.” Now she had an excited look adorning her pretty features.

“So, tell me the local Taylor Ridge gossip. Are my two kids surviving with grandma?” I asked sarcastically.

Kate rolled around on the bed, laughing loudly. “Oh, Melanie, I just DIED when I read that! Which jail is your husband in?”

References to this story usually bothered me, but now I smiled, having fun with Kate. “I'm not sure. Maybe he's in the 'Rumer Rot Roundup!” This made Kate laugh even harder. I had to force myself to stop giggling in order to say, “Tell me what's been happening.”

“Ok.” She sat up and pushed her curly hair out of her eyes. “Well, everybody's fine at home.”

“That's good.”

“Missy and Dustin Joy had a baby girl last week.”

“They did! What did they name it?” I was excited now, too! Missy had always been a good friend in high school.

“Um, Jessica Lynn, I think. She was two weeks overdue, and from what Mom said, she was a BIG baby!”

I sighed, happy for good old Missy. “That's a nice name. They could call her JL for short. So, what else has been going on.”

“Michelle Brockett is getting married.”

“Really!” I screeched. “Who is he? Who is he?” I demanded, vacating my mirror to jump on her. Michelle was another really good friend who had always pined for men, but had never gotten one.

“Good grief, Melanie! Get off me and I'll tell you! Geez!” She once again straightened her hair. “She met a rich banker at one of her concerts - she gives them herself and also plays piano for the show choir an Augustana College - they went out a few times, and the next thing you know they're engaged.”

“I'll have to call her and see when the wedding is.” I stood up to turn off my light on the vanity, getting ready to go down for dinner. “That's one nice thing about living with rich people; they don't worry about the cost of long-distance calls! Come on, let's eat!”

After dinner we all crowded into the living room. The wind had picked up outside and we could here it howling around the corners of the hosue. Perkins had built a fire in the huge fireplace, and we were cozy and warm.

Monica settled herself down next to the Captain on the loveseat. Kate plopped on the couch and was quickly joined by Amanda and Anne - they had become pals. Michael dragged out the big pillow and he and Eric practically beat it to death trying to get the bumps in just the right places before sitting on it. Lizette chose a rocker in which to spend the evening. I could hear the swish as she rocked slowly back and forth. I finally sat down on the window seat, my back against the cold glass, watching the scene before me, a mere observer of a play in which I had no active part.

“So, Kate,” Monica said. “How do you like Denver?” She took a sip from the ever-present drink she held in her hand.

“It's... flat. Compared to San Francisco anyway.”

“Yes, San Francisco is quite a town. But I like Paris and Vienna a little better, I think.”

I'm sure Monica would have preferred to talk about herself, Paris, and Vienna, but Anne said, “Have you ridden on the cable cars?”

“Naturally. In fact, I've fallen OFF a cable car.” Anne gave Kage a quizzical look, so my sister explained, “You see, I was standing next to this man - he was the ugliest thing! - and, as the car was packed full, we were standing very close together. I think somebody in front lost their balance or something, because there was a chain reaction of lerching people - almost like the wave come to think of it - and I didn't expect it, so when the lerch finally reached me, I wassn't hanging on and the man just kind of pushed me right off. I landed on my rear and I had bruises for a week! But I must admit that the man who helped me up sure was cute!”

“Was your heart left in San Francisco?” Michael asked with the absolute straightest face you ever saw.

There was the normal amount of groaning and booing, and Kate stated, “You HAVE been around Melanie too long! You've picked up on her poor humer!”

Micki wandered in as the talking continued. She trotted straight to me and jumped noislessley up to lay down beside me. I scratched her ears absent-mindedly as she started purring. Monica threw us a disgusted look, but didn't say anything. She doesn't like cats.

I ignored the talking around and stared out the window, watching snow flakes fall to the groud, illuminated by a light from the kitchen wing. My thoughts drifted back to what Kate had said about my being jealous of Monica Sinclair. Truthfully, I lingered on what she had NOT said. What else did Monica Sinclair have that I might want besides money? Maybe she had referred to her beauty, although I really couldn't see that. Dracula was prettier than she was as far as I was concerned! 'Let's see' I thought, 'she has a big house, but then, I'm living in one now, so that can't be it. A house in Paris. I don't care about Paris, and I'm sure if the Captain wanted a house in Paris, he'd get one. Perhaps the Captain himself?'

This thought brought chaos to my mind. 'After all' I told myself, 'she IS supposed to marry him. So, what's that got to do with me? Don't you WANT him to marry her?' I had to think for only a second before I answered 'NO.'

“Miss Stevens?”

His voice made me jump and I jerked around to find the entire room staring at me. “What?” I asked, confused.

“Are you with us?” Kate asked sardonically.

“I was thinking,” I answered vacantly.

“You're ALWAYS thinking!” sighed Kate. “If you payed more attention to this world and less to the one in your mind, you'd help a lot of people hold on to their sanity.”

“Thanks a lot!” Her voice grated on my ears in the wrong direction, and I became annoyed with her for no reason at all. What I really wanted to do was go to my room and think about the idea that had just formed in my mind. Instead, I forced myself to take interest in my immediate surroundings, thus helping everybody to 'hold on to their sanity.' “What were you talking about?”

“Just how alike we are, that's all. The Captain asked you if you liked the same things as I do.” Kate seemed bored with the subject. We had hit upon it SEVERAL times in our lives.

I oblingly told them that I liked the same movies, classes, and people as Kate had while we were at school, and this seemed to keep them sated, at least for the time being. They went on talking about how high the stock market was getting, or something to that affect, and I went back to my previous thoughts.

I studied Monica from my niche across the room. What DID the Captain see in her? I asked myself. She wasn't particularly pretty, and certainly not beautiful, although she did have a certaiin quality of elagance and grace that was rare in itself. With these qualities, she would be considered the perfect match for a man with the Captain's social standing. Their money combined would equal amazing proportions which anybody would envy.

Then, of course, Monica would want to marry the Captain because he was rich, nice, and handsom; the three most important attributes for a lady to keep in mind when hunting for a husband.

The one disadvantage, according to Monica, was the Captain's five children. Monica was not cut out to be a mother. But unwanted children could be easily taken care of. Boarding schools had been built specifically for that purpose, and I'm sure Monica knew of many such schools in the United States and England, or maybe even as far away as Switzerland. ALL rich children finished school in Switzerland, or so it seemed.

The idea of Lizette, my darling dark-haired girl, in a boarding school, among total strangers, thousands of miles away from home, rung my heart. (Then again, she would probably take one look at the boys and decide that boarding school was alright) Anne, I knew, would definitely put up a fight, and would do just about anything short of murder to stay in Denver with her father. I didn't know how the boys felt about going away to shool, but I did know that they hated Monica as much as their sisters did.

And who had control of all these lives? My eyes now fell on the master of the house. He seemed calm for a man who held the strings to seven lives, mine included, for if he married Monica and she sent the children away to school, there would no longer be any need for me. Of course, Amanda would be too young to go off to school, but I'm sure Monica would NOT let me stay in the same house that she inhabited. We were cold and distant now; imagine how it would be if we saw each other every day!

My hand stroked the soft fur of Micki, who only batted at it with a paw, wanting to sleep and not to be disturbed. I ignored the complaint and continued petting, and she fell asleep with her whiskers quivering in annoyance. As my hand stroked, my eyes followed the movement of the Captain.

I had never studied him before, and found that he was a very interesting subject. He listened to Kate with ardent interest, and asked many questions, most of which I payed little attention to, since I was 'in my own world' and not among the living. He payed due attention to his children and Monica without seeming to favor either. Occasionaly he left his place on the loveseat to poke at the burning logs in the grate, asking the occupents of the room if they were warm enough.

The room itself evoked a sleepy warmth and my thoughts drifted through a hazy fog. Before I knew it, my eyes had closed and I was asleep. And due to all the disquieting thoughts going through my head, I began to dream.

I think it had something to do with Jane Eyre and Kate, although I never did quite make the connection. Suddenly, one moment I was in the modern livingroom of Ashby Manor, the next in the drawing room of Thornfield Hall, Mr. Rochester's fabulous house. I knew the English weather was cold, damp, and dreary outside, but we were quite comfortable inside. I believe I was an observer in this play, as well as in the real world, once again the audience and not an actor.

I saw the small, plain form of Jane wearing the burgandy gown I had worn at the costume ball, come into the drawing room. The dress was of the wrong time period, and definately from the wrong country, and it looked rather outlandish on my imagined Jane.

Mr. Rochester was sitting in his chair by the fireplace, gazing moodily into the dancing flames. He was slouched and looked to me to be tired, perhaps from fighting with his insane wife locked upstairs.

The two of them talked of something, but I have no idea what it was. This is where Kate came in. She had on her street clothes, but on her head wore a white cap. I think she was supposed to be the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, but I can't be sure. Thinking back on her appearance, I laugh. I certainly had my history mixed up!

Anyway, Kate said something to Mr. Rochester like, “I know how it ends, I know how it ends,” exactly the way a child would say, “You can't catch me, you can't catch me!” in a game of tag. Her voice was taunting him. He looked up, and his somewhat ugly face turned into the features of the Captain.

Needless to say, my poor Jane was very surprised, and she immediately left with suitcases in tow. The last thing I remember is Mr. Rochester, his own face back, running through his house yelling, “Jane! Jane! Jane!” in an anguished way. In the background there was laughter, Kate's I think, and I saw the form of Mr. Rochester slowly fade away, the echoes of his last “Jane!” reverberating in my mind.

I jerked awake, confused at first as to exactly where I was. Then I saw Lizette rocking back and forth, listening to Kate describe what sounded like one of her cases. As a matter of fact, everybody listened, except of course for Monica, who looked bored. Maybe she would leave early for a change, and make us all happier.

There was a break in Kate's narration, and Monica spoke. “Tell us, Kate, how did your sister meet her husband?”

This caught everybody off balance. The children looked up, perplexed, because they had not heard of these little stories.

Eric looked at me in surprise, while Monica looked extremely happy with the reaction she had produced.

“You have a husband?” Eric asked.

“And two kids, from the information I've been getting,” Monica helpfully supplied.

Lizette glanced at me. “I thought that you couldn't be a nanny if you're married.”

“You can't,” said Monica.

It was clear to me that Monica was trying to stir up trouble by bringing this subject up. She wanted me to get mad, and would probably have a lot of fun with me if I got myself into that situation. So, I tried my best to stay calm and cool.

Lizette looked at me quizzically. “I don't understand.”

Think Melanie Hamilton, and stay calm! I ordered myself. Then, with what I hoped was a serene expression, I said, “I'm not married.”

“But she said you are,” Anne remarked.

“What she heard was a story, created by a particularly MALICIOUS person who has something against me,” and I looked meaningfully at Monica, who only smiled and succeeded in looking very innocent.

“So you're NOT married,” Michael stated.

“No, I'm not.”

“And you don't have any kids, either?” Anne asked.

“Absolutely not. If I was married and had kids, I wouldn't be here,” I explained.

“I'm glad you're here,” Amanda said and ran to me and gave me a big hug. I smiled, hugging her back, and kissing her on top of her head. But before we could get too mushy, she scurried back to her place beside Kate.

“I don't get it. Why would somebody tell a story about you?” Michael inquired.

“Because somebody doesn't like her, that's why,” Lizette said with conviction.

“Who wouldn't like Melanie?” Amanda was innocent in her inquest. Lizette gave a scornful look in Monica's direction, staring at her with cold eyes. I could see that she was about to say something, and I decided it was time to put a stop to this conversation.

“It's snowing,” I said out of desperation.

“It is!” Eric yelled, looking out the window beside me.

“Is it snowing hard?” Anne ran to join her brother.

“Is it ever! I think we'll get out of school tomorrow!” cryed the optimistic Eric.

“I'm not so sure,” I said.

Anne jumped up and down, her eyes screwed tightly shut. “I hope we get out! I hope we get out!” She stopped jumping and stood still, looking at me with truth all over her face. “I don't like school.”

“That's because of Marty Fratzke, your boyfriend,” teased Michael.

“He's NOT my boyfriend! He's an idiot!” she yelled back at him, slugging him on the arm in a sisterly fashion.

“Is too!”

“Is not!”

“Then why is he always hanging around you? Because he likes you.”

“He does not!” she insisted, her fists tightening into little balls.

“Excuse me, you two,” said their father in a reprimanding tone, “don't forget. We have a guest.”

Kate waved the excuse away with her hands. “Oh, that's OK. I'm enjoying it. It's nice to watch somebody else fight for a change.”

Inspired by her comment, Michael said, “Did I tell you about the fight today? There was blood ALL over the place! It happened just as we were coming in from recess, right in front of Mrs. Wilson's room. Was it gross! I think one of them has a broken nose. It was really crooked and...”

The Captain interrupted his son. “Michael, you told us already!”

“I did?”

“Yes. At the supper table. Don't you remember?”

“Oh. That's right. I did. But I didn't tell you about how Jeff Martens fell off the monkey bars and broke his arm, did I?”

“Yes, twice, and don't tell us again!” Lizette pleaded.

“Then did you hear about...”

I stood up and interrupted him with, “Bedtime.”

“NOOOOOOO!” came a chorus of protests.

“Can't we stay up for awhile longer and talk to Kate?” Lizette asked.

“I'm sure Kate is very tired after her flight from San Francisco and wants to go to bed,” said the Captain.

“Well, actually...” Kate began, but I didn't give her a chance to finish.

“And besides, tomorrow is Friday, and then you'll have the entire weekend with Kate. She'll still be here.”

Resigned, they all rose from their seats and followed me out the door, mumbling disappointed good nights over their shoulders. “Really!” grumbled Lizette. “I'm fifteen years old and still being sent to bed at nine o'clock! It's not fair!”

“I'm sure you have homework, because I know you didn't do before supper.”

“Well, I DO have some Algebra. And there's a test tomorrow in Biology.”

“Again?” I asked. “Wasn't there one Monday?”

“Yes! I swear the only thing that man knows how to do is give tests.” I opened my mouth to say something. “And don't tell me it's for my own good, either. They already tried that, and it doesn't work. Oh, I'm glad tomorrow's Friday! I need a break!”

“Don't you get out next Wednesday for vacation?” I asked as we reached the bedrooms.

“Yes! I can't wait, either! That dumb brick building they call an educational facility is REALLY driving me nuts. I suppose we'll get homework over vacation. I can see it now. Just as the bell rings in English, Mr. Walkert will say 'Oh, and by the way, there's a ten page term paper due on my desk the day we get back'”

I laughed. “If you have trouble with Algebra, ask Kate. She was always better at it than I was.” Lizette nodded, then went to her room and closed the door.

“Come on, Amanda dear, let's get you in bed.” I pulled her pajamas out of the drawer. Anne got her own nightgown out and began pulling off her own clothes.

“Isnmph Kningshty unthreeishup?” Anne aked as she pulled her sweater over her head.

“Anne, we don't speak Martian. This is Earth!” said Amanda in a very grown-up way.

“Is Kate staying until we put up the tree?” Anne repeaeted.

“Yes. She's helping put it up,” I answered, struggling to get a slightly small top over Amanda's head.

“When do we put it up?”

“Saturday.”

“Where are the decorations?”

“In the attic.” I pulled down the covers for Amanda to climb under them.

“Which attic?”

“The big one, I think. I'll have to ask the Captain to be sure.”

“Is he helping put it up?”

“Yes, Anne.”

“You sure spend a lot of time with him. How come?”

“Anne, he's my boss. Now get into bed and BE QUIET.”

“Did you know that you were staring at him tonight?”

“I was not!”

“You were too! I saw you with my own two eyes. You were staring at him.”

“I was thinking, not staring. And besides, I thought you were listening to Kate.”

“I was. But I was watching you watch him, too.

“I told you, I was thinking!” I said.

“About him?”

“Anne Kartwright, go to sleep!” I forced a maliciousness into my voice which I didn't feel.

“You WERE thinking about him!” she yelled victoriously. “If you weren't, you wouldn't have used my full name!”

I sighed, my mind suddenly blank. How I hate it when I can't think of anything to say! “Well,” I finally conceded, “there's nothing wrong with thinking about somebody. Now, for heavens sake be quiet and GO TO SLEEP.”

“Alright. Good-night Melanie.”

“Good-night Anne.”

“G'night Melanie,” piped up a yawning Amanda.

“Good-night Amanda.” I switched off the light and quietly shut the door. Sometimes kids had the tendency to really get to me!

Chapter 7

“Wait! Wait! I haven't got the other door open yet!”

“Eric, you're on my FOOT! MOVE!”

“I can't! If I do, I'll drop this stupid thing!”

“Will you PLEASE hurry up! I'm getting cold out here!”

“Be quiet! We're not much better in here!”

“I'm dropping it! I can't hold on any longer! Look out!”

“I got it! Bring it in,” I yelled over the chaos as I finally got the second door open. The huge green pine tree that had been chosen as the Kartwright Christmas tree was rushed in and dropped in the first convenient place. The carriers all sank to the floor, panting and trying to bend their fingers.

Eventually Kate looked up. “Melanie,” she said, “next time, make sure the second door is unlocked BEFORE we get the tree caught. You're not much of a supervisor.”

“And I suppose you could have done better?” I asked testily.

“Yes, I could!” she answered without hesitation.

“Hey, you two, no fighting,” said John. “We have too much work to do.” He wore jeans and an old coat, and I hardly recognized him without his cute little hat. “Let's get started. Come on, everybody up!”

With groans of despair, the children, Kate, and I climbed to our feet and lifted the tree again, heading in the general direction of the corner where the stairs met the wall. The tree stand was waiting for us, ready to be filled.

We had the devil's own time trying to get that dumb tree into the stand, then once we got it there, it was crooked and we had to straighten it out. I had forgotten what a pain Christmas trees could be.

At last we had it up and it was actually straight, or as straight as it was going to get, at least. You could almost touch the tallest point when you were standing on the balcony. It was a good sixteen feet tall, if not taller. It had to be the biggest tree I'd ever seen.

“Ok. Put away your coats and be back here in five minutes,” Kate ordered, and we scattered, racing to see who could be back first.

Boxes of ornaments and decorations lined the wall, and I went to call the servants in to help us decorate.

Twelve people helped, including Perkins, even though he gave the whole project a disdainful look. John and Kate were soon talking a mile a minute about something or other. The children were running back and forth from the boxes to the tree placing various-shaped arnaments on the green branches. John and Kate undertook the job of putting on the lights and screwing the bulbs into place. It took them a long time because the tree was so tall and they had to keep moving the ladder.

“Melanie, I can't reach this branch. Could you lift me up so I can get it?” Anne asked.

“Here, I'll do it,” Lizette said and started to take the wintery painted ball from Anne.

“NO! I want to do it!” Anne gave her sister a dirty look. I picked the eight-year-old up so she could reach the preferred branch while Lizette scowled at her.

“Honestly, Anne, you're such a child!” Lizette said and flounced away.

Eric's mouth dropped open in mock surprise. “NO! You're kidding! I never knew that!” Lizette simply ignored him and continued working.

I stood back to look at our progress thus far. Things were going pretty good. Kate and John were about finished with the lights, and the children were putting ornaments on as fast as they possibly could. There was a lot of joking comments and insulting remarks flying around the hall, and everybody seemed to be having a good time.

We were doing so well that I decided to start decorating the rest of the house. I took a long green plastick rope vine, and climbed the stairs, and went to work on twisting it around the banister. I didn't think there would be enough to cover the railing of the enter balcony, so I started at the stairs and worked my way down.

I'd made it as far as the top step when the Captain suddenly appeared beside me.

“My, you're certainly getting a lot done.”

Distracted, I merely nodded. The beginning of my vine had come unsecured, and I handed the loose part of the vine to the Captain, saying, “Hold this,” then went back to secure it once again. When the dumb thing was finally fastened, I rejoined my vine-holder.

“Were you working?” I asked.

“Um, yes, in the study.” He was staring at the vine he was holding and at the way I had twisted it.

“Am I doing it wrong?” I asked, looking at his bewildered face.

“What? Oh, no, you're doing fine. Just fine.” He handed the vine back to me. He appeared kind of melancholy and sad in his dark, verdant green sweater and aphotic slacks. He shoved his hands in his pockets and began to slowly shuffle away.

“You've been working too much,” I said to his back.

Surprised at my voice, he turned around to look at me. “What?”

“I said you work too much,” I repeated as I went back to winding my vine around the highly polished banister.

“Why do you say that?” He came to stand beside me, leaning against the railing.

“Well,” I said, pausing in my job to look him up and down, “you're pale.”

“I am not!” he protested glancing at his hands.

“You are too!” I retorted. “You're always locked up in the library or you study. You never go outside.”

“I go outside to get the car,” he pointed out.

“Sure. I bet that takes all of two minutes, and when you DO go outside, the sun isn't up yet. You should be having a snow ball fight with your children instead of working on those stupid papers.”

I expected to see the muscles in his face begin to twitch and his eyes to go hard, but all he did was let out a big sigh. “If I went out and threw snowballs, my business would cave in, we'd have to move, and you would be fired.”

I laughed at his bland tone. “Oh, for heaven's sake, one snowball fight wouldn't kill you. Don't be so serious.”

“Hm,” he said, but his eyes sparkled.

“Hm,” I said back. As we talked, I continued to wind the vine down the railing. I was trying to wind it tightly, but not so tight that it came loose again. I stepped down another step, and, with all my talent, lost my balance. I grabbed the railing and had no trouble regaining my equilibrium, but the vine came loose again. “Oh..!” I said and lamely ended it with “shoot!”

“Shoot?”

“Shoot!” I said again. “I could have said something much worse, but I decided I would be better off if I didn't.” I began climbing the stairs to fasten that dumb vine, but the Captain stopped me.

“I'll get it,” he said and strode quickly up the steps and attacked the vine with vigor. After a few minutes of twisting and turning, he called down to me, “Is that good enough?”

I tugged gently on my end and it held. “I guess so,” I called back. “At least it didn't move.”

He nodded, then came back down to stand near me on the steps. He stood with his back against the wall, watching me in much the same way as I had watched him two nights earlier, though he did it more openly.

“I hope your grey orbs aren't watching for perfection, because they won't get it out of this stupid thing,” and I gave the plastic rope a slap.

“Grey orbs?” he asked incredulously.

“What's wrong with being poetic every now and then? When talking about a subject who is as mysterious as you are right now, one must use words like 'orbs' or one would fail to get one's point across correctly.”

“You do use those words!” he said. “So, first I'm pale, now I'm mysterious. Where's the connection?”

I had to think because I had thrown out my last statement on the spur of the moment, without thinking if it made sense. “Well, you're musteriously pale,” I finally said.

“Thanks! That's real inventive!” He laughed, letting out that beautifully rich sound which I rarely heard.

“You have a pretty laugh.” I went back to my work, turning my back on him.

He was silent for a minute, but came to stand on the step directly below mine, unravelling the length of vine which I had not yet twisted around the polished railing. “I didn't know laughs came with beauty marks.”

“Of course they do,” I insisted, smiling slightly. “Take Kate for instance. She laughs exactly like a witch, especially when she really gets going. It's one big cackle. When I laugh, my face krinkles up and nothing comes out, but my face gets red. Now, a laugh like yours doesn't come very often. It's deep, soft, and rich all at the same time.”

“I don't believe we're having this conversation,” he said.

I looked at him pensively. “I think people have that problem when they talk with me. I say some pretty strange things at times. Finally! The bottom of the stairs,” I said.

“And twenty extra feet of green vine,” the Captain added. “So, what do we do with it?”

“Oh, crumbags. Let me think.” I paced in front of the stairs, the Captain, and that infernal vine, chewing the thumbnail of my left hand.

Just as I was about to say that I was open the suggestions, Anne came running by holding a wteath in her hands. Michael was close behind, yelling, “I want to hang it up! I had it first!”

“Women and children first!” Anne yelled back.

“That's not fair! Give it to me!” and he pounded after her with renewed strength, running full tilt towards me and Anne, who was trying to get on my other side, away from her brother.

The immenent collision came, and we all ended up on the floor. The wreath skidded across the tiles, and the vine, which I had been holding onto, came loose and untwisted itself as fast as butter melts in summer.

When I opened my eyes (I always close them when something disastrous is about to happen) I found Anne on top of me and Michael on top of her. “Get up! I can't breath!” I said.

The Captain pulled Michael off and Anne rolled to the floor by herself.

“Thank you!” I took a deep breath. From somewhere I heard laughing. Craning my neck, I saw Kate having a wonderful fit of hilarity beside the tree. John, Lizette, and Eric were also howling, while Amanda looked at everybody, wondering what the devil was going on. Even the Captain had to sit down on the floor because he was laughing so hard.

“Miss Stevens, sometimes you are very amusing.”

“It's nice to know I'm good for something.” I sat up, rubbing my rear end. “I get more bruises and sore muscles in this house than the ocean has fish!”

“Are you alright, Melanie?” asked Michael as he bent to retrieve the wreath.

“Sure, I'm fine,” I said sarcastically.

“Sorry. I didn't mean to run into you.”

I could tell that he was sincerely sorry by the look on his face. I climbed to my feet and ruffled his hair affectionately.

“You're not mad?” he asked uncertainly.

“No, I'm not mad. You were just having some fun. But next time, have fun near someone else. My body won't take much more.”

He smiled. “Come on, Anne. Help me hang this someplace.”

The two of them tore off together and successfully hung the wreath in the library. The others went back to trimming the tree, and I picked up that infernel vine and once again climbed up the stairs to start winding it around the banister.

“You really do like kids, don't you?” The Captain had follwed me, standing to my right, watching me deftly twist the rope. (By now I'd gotten real good at it)

“To me, children are the neatest thing next to movies. I don't think there's been a kid that I've met that I didn't like in one way or another. I find that children are much easier to understand and get along with then adults.”

“Not all adults, I hope,” he said.

“No, not all,” I agreed with him. “But most,” I mischieviously ended. “Why don't you go down and start dragging candles out of the boxes? I can finish this myself.”

With a nod of his head he bounded down the stairs, looking regal and boyish at the same time. The mixture brought a smile to my face as I watched him.

It wasn't long after that before Kate's voicebox began to itch for noise. She began singing 'Jingle Bells' while Eric loudly groaned:

“Oh, no! A singing detectie! Sherlock Holmes will turn in his grave!” But it wasn't long before he joined in. I could hear John's voice blending with Kate's beautifully, and silently envied my sister. A good voice was something I wasn't born with.

Dashing through the snow

In a one horse open sleigh

Over the fields we go

Laughing all the way (Ha Ha Ha!)

Yes, Kate was having a grand old time being the center of attention.

A sleigh ride, I said the myself. That sounds like fun. I stopped working and stared, unseeing, at the opposite wall. In my mind I pictured a small sleigh, pulled by a dark horse, zipping across the dazzling white snow. I could see two figues in the sleigh, but had no way of knowing who they were, as I couldn't see their faces. They seemed to be having fun, though, and they raced over the snowy hills of my mind, making silent tracks in the fluffy white flakes. Every now and then the black horse snorted, clearing it's nostrils in the clean, crisp air.

“Melanie!” Kate yelled from below.

I blinked and looked at her. “What?”

“Quit thinking, will you? I said we're finished and would you hurry up so we can go outside?”

“Oh. You're finished already?” I once more started twisting and winding.

“We've BEEN finished, idiot. We're waiting for you.”

“Then go on out. It'll take me awhile yet.”

Kate turned to address her 'followers.' “OK, gang, last one out is a rotten egg.” With a whoop they all came tearing up the stairs and ran for their rooms to put on heavy clothes.

“Kate, put Amanda's snow suit on her, not just an extra pair of pants!” I yelled after her. The Captain remained near the boxes. “Captain,” I called down to him, “you'd better hurry if you want to beat them.”

He lifted his handsome face to look at me. “I'm not going out.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I'm not.”

“You're still pale,” I reminded him.

“That has nothing to do with anything. It's winter. EVERYBODY'S pale.”

“But you're paler than most.”

“Please, Miss Stevens. When I get done with these candles, I have more work to do for the office. I don't have time for fun.”

“Neither did George Banks and look where it got HIM,” I said.

“Who?”

“George Banks. From Mary Poppins. I don't suppose you've seen that, either?”

“No.”

“Ah, well. It's certainly not my fault you've missed so many good movies.”

When I didn't say anything more, he prompted, “And what exactly did this... um... George Banks do?”

“He worked too much, never paid attention to his two children, and hired Mary Poppens as his nanny. She, of course, opened his eyes wuth her spoonfulls of sugar and everything ended hunky dorey. But somebody had to show him how to have fun first, and once he knew how, he became a much happier man.”

“Miss Stevens, are you saying that I don't know how to have fun?”

I couldn't resist answering, “Yes, Captain, I am.”

“Well,” and he placed the candles he had held in his hands on the floor, stood up, put his hands on his hips, and stared up at me, reminding me of how Sir Lancelot looked at Queen Guenevere in Camelot. “I'll just have to show you that I CAN have fun.” He pounded rapidly up the stairs, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to my room.

“Wait a minute! What are we doing?” I asked as we reached my door.

“We,” he opened my door for me, “are going outside. Get ready, or be fired. I'll meet you in ten minutes at the front door.” Then he was off, jogging around the balcony to his own room, a flash of green in the plush surroundings.

“What about your work?” I yelled after him.

“As you always say, it will keep,” he called back, then disappeared into his own apartment.

I shook my head in bewilderment. Sometimes, I simply did not understand him.

With all the clothes I had on I could hardly move. I opened the front door and stepped out into the cold air. The wind blew loose strands of my hair into my mouth, and I chewed thoughtfully on them as I gazed across the expanse of white lawn. It was a day when the sun was warm, but the air was cold.

The children were running around and shouting, throwing snowballs at any feasable target, and having a grand time. Kate was deeply involved in a concentrated attack on Eric's 'territory.' Eric was bombarding my sister with sbnowballs while Anne ran up behind her brother in order to take him from behind. This was definitely a planned war.

Lizette was also involved in a snowball fight against Michael and John. When she saw me, she called, “Melanie, HELP!” I ran to join in the fun.

We were doing surprisingly well until the Captain came out and rallied against us with our two opponents. After that it was a lost cause.

“Wait a minute!” I yelled at the three of them. “This isn't fair!” Just as my mouth was wide open, an either well-aimed, or purely chance bomb smashed into my face, half of it runnning down my throat.

I coughed and wiped the quickly melting ice off my cheeks. My skin burned from the force of the impact, and a few tears leaked out of my eyes, though that was partly from the wind.

“Are you alright, Melainie?” Lizette asked, concerned.

I heaved a sigh before saying, “Oh, I'll live. Heck, by now, I'm getting used to this sort of thing.”

“Well, Michael threw it. Let's get him!” She packed a tight ball and threw it at him. It squashed into a white blotch on his heavy blue coat.

“No, I think I'll quit before anything else happens,” I said, and went to help little Amanda build a snowman. Kate and Anne ganged up with Lizette against the four men of the family and went to it, with boundary lines and everything.

“When's Christmas?” Amanda asked, trying her best to roll the head together.

“Um... let me think... eight days from now.”

“Is there gonna be a lot of presents?”

“Yes, I guess, since you have such a big family. You'll wake up real early Christmas morning and run downstairs to find presents piled under the tree, and even around the tree, because there won't be enough room.”

“Will Santa Claus come?” she asked, staring at me with those serene blue eyes.

“Of course he will. That is, if you've been a good girl.”

“Oh, I've been a REAL good girl. I even let Anne use my brush once.”

“My, you HAVE been good.” I silently laughed. She was so very serious!

We worked in silent concentration for awhile. Then she asked me, “Which chimney will Santa come down?”

“Oh well, the biggest one, I suppose,” and I stood up to gaze at the house and it's many chimneys.

“But what if they're all the same size?”

“Then he'll just have to decide.”

“But what if he can't decide? What if he picks the wrong one?”

“Amanda, how can he pick the wrong one? They all lead into the house.”

“But not to the same room, and none of them goes to the hall. What if he can't find the tree?” Now she was worried, her face wrinkled up in disturbance.

“Sweetheart,” I said and knelt down to look at her, “if he has that much trouble, which I don't think he will, he'll come through the front door.”

She looked at me doubtfully. “Can he DO that?”

“Why, of course he can,” I guranteed her, and gave her a loving kiss on her nose, the only part of her body which Kate had not wrapped against the cold. “Now, don't worry about it.”

She nodded and enthusiastically went back to molding her head.

Soon the rest of the crew trickled over to our snowman-building expedition, becoming tired of throwing snowballs. With a mass production we managed to erect the absolute tallest snowman I had ever seen. The Captain had to put the head on because he was the only one tall enough.

We stepped back and surveyed our work. My gaze slipped past the work of art to the surrounding snow-laden trees, watching the wind try to move the heavy branches. In some cases it succeeded, and clumps of snow occasionaly fell to the ground, making soft thuds when it hit the white blanket.

My eyes roamed to the mountains. They were now in shadow, for the sun had already set. “Ominous,” I whispered softly to myself.

“Yes, they are,” agreed the Captain in an equally quiet voice. He stood beside me, solemmly beholding the darkened alps, the wind tossling his hair, blowing it into his eyes.

“A veritable winder wonderland,” I said reverently.

The others didn't seem to notice the beauty of their environs, only the fact that the sun was setting and it was getting cold. Besides that, it was getting close to supper time and stomachs were beginning to rumble.

We had trooped as far as the door when the sound of tires crunching on the snow reached our ears. We all turned and saw headlights coming toward us around the circle of the drive. The long, black limosine stopped before the door and Monica Sinclair climbed out.

“You mean she has her chauffeuer drive her a mile from her house to here?” Kate asked in an astounded whisper.

I bleakly nodded, despair suddenly filling my heart. I had been having a good day until SHE showed up. I waited for the sarcastic comment which always came when she found me and the children with the Captain.

“Out playing, I see,” she said, the high heeled boots she wore kicking snow everywhere. Even when it was below freezing, Monica would insist on dressing fashionably instead of warmly. An idiot to the very core. “You look so cute, all bundled up. And even Kate is out. My, what a party.” She royally brushed passed us and swept into the hall. I waited for a remark about the tree. Indeed, it came just as I expected.

“Why, Christopher, you have a tree! You haven't had one of those since Amanda died. Really, I never would have thought that there would ever be a tree in this house again.”

Suddenly my despair turned to anger. What right did she have to prance in here and stir up old wounds? I finally get the entire house into a resemblance of happiness, and she walks in and destroys it all with just a few words. It was maddening!

“The tree was Melanie's idea. I think it's neat!” Anne said. We had followed Monica through the door and I had begun the process of getting Amanda out of her wet snowsuit.

Monica looked around at the mess in the hall. “We're not quite finished, “ I explained.

“That's easy to see.” Then she abruptly dismissed me and turned to the Captain. “Well, let's let the servants complete their cleaning... alone.” She walked brusquely to the library and the Captain dutifully followed her.

“Servants!” I said under my breath as the children ran to place the candles lined against the wall in advantageous corners. Kate remained behind to help me with the many wet clothes.

“I wouldn't let her bother me if I were you. She's just a pompous old hag with a lot of money.”

“And he just follows her around like a puppy!” I straightened up and gave the library door a very nasty look.

“Now, don't discredit him. He seems to be wrapped around her little finger, but I bet he has an ace up his sleeve.”

I sighed. “I suppose so. I just hope he uses it before it's too late.”

Kate looked about ready to say something more, but she shut her mouth and remained silent all through dinner. I would have pondered this, accept I had my own thoughts to keep me busy. And, I'm afraid to say, not exactly nice thoughts when it concerned Monica.

I was listening to 'The Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet,' trying to relax enough to go to sleep. The children had been put to bed at the usual time with the exception of Lizette, who had somehow managed to persuade her father into letting her stay up until ten o'clock. (I think she is already giving Michael and Eric lessons on the ways of persuasion for future use!)

I wandered from one corner of the room to the other, trying to settle down somwhere. But I was restless and my feet refused to stay still. Something was on my mind, but I hadn't yet figured out just WHAT. Thoughts were racing back and forth across my brain, but none of them made much sense; they were just THERE.

A knock on my door brought me out of my thoughts. “Come in.”

Lizette walked furtively through the door, shutting it silently behind her. I glanced at my watch, seeing that it was already past ten, and said,

“What are you doing up? If you get caught, that's the end of ten o'clock bedtime.”

“I know. I'm going in a minute. I came to ask you a question.” She stopped and looked rather uneasy.

“Well, hit me with it.”

“If father were to ask you to marry him, would you say yes?”

I was quite unprepared for that! “What?” I asked in astonishment.

She repeated her question.

I sat in a slightly stunned silence, my brain dead and refusing to even let her query sink in. Finally I shook my head to clear the fog in my brain and looked at the expectant fifteen-year-old. “Uh... what made you ask this?” I managed.

She plunked down on the bed in despair. “Oh, Melanie, if we don't do something quick, he's going to marry Monica and we'll be miserable. I would rather die than live with her!”

“Yes. Living with Monica would be difficult, I'm sure.” I pondered her problem for a second, then asked, “Who's idea was this, anyway? Yours?”

“Well, everybody's, I guess. We were having a session in Eric's room.”

“And you were elected to do the dirty work.”

“Actually, I'm the only one who's allowed up this late. It was a unanimous vote.” She looked at me suddenly. “You DO like father, don't you?”

“Naturally. One really couldn't help liking someone as handsome as your father. But, then again, you can't judge a book by it's cover.”

“Please, Melanie, stop talking in riddles,” she insisted. “What should we do?”

“Lizette, there's nothing we can do. The Captain will marry whomever he wants, no matter what anybody else says. We can't influence him one way or the other.”

She heaved a sigh, then stood up to leave. “Guess that's that.” She despondantly moved to the door, shuffling her feet.

“Lizette,” I stopped her. “In the words of a wise outsider named Kate, I quote, 'He seems wrapped around her finger, but I bet he has an ace up his sleeve.' I wouldn't lose hope until they both say 'I do' at the altar.” I gave her a hug goodnight.

“Thanks Melanie. I wish you WERE going to marry him.” Then she left, walking slowly back to her 'session.'

Two hours later found me tossing and turning in bed, still unable to fall asleep. I had been thinking about the family with whom I was now living since Lizette had left my room, and the thoughts kept turning circles in my mind.

All thgrough dinner Monica had managed to dominate the conversation, keeping the Captain's attention centered on her. Personally, I think Monica had ALWAYS dominated the table, but it wasn't until now that I had noticed it. The Captain had been paying a lot of attention to Monica lately, come to think of it, I thought to myself. I almost never saw him, and it was a rare occasion when I spent part of the day with him as I had today. Or maybe he wasn't spending any more time with me than before, it was just that I had begun to notice it? Life was becoming strangely complicating.

I had thought about what Lizette asked me earlier. If the Captain DID ask me to marry him, would I say yes? Then again, what reason could he possibly have to marry me? None whatsoever, I answered myself. It is a comnpletely ridiculous idea, so forget it and go to sleep.

Well, I tried, anyway. I never did succeed in falling asleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the scornful, haughty face of Monica, sneering at me. When I finally managed to push her face out of my mind, the Captain's immediately took its place.

I finally gave up on slumber and climbed from between the cold sheets. I put on my heavy navy blyue bathrobe before opening my door and treading silently down the darkened hall.

I stopped at the railing and stared down into the darkness. I could see nothing, not even my own hand unless I held it directly in front of me. No moonlight streamed through the windows tonight: clouds scuttled across the sky and I could hear the wind that pushed then howl around the corners of the hosue. I shivered in the blackness.

Carefully I wound my way down the stairs, going slowly, placing my foot on the step before putting my entire weight on it.

I finally found myself on the floor, trying desperately to find the wall before it found me. I still managed to miss it entirely and ended up falling over a chair in one of the sitting rooms. Trying hard not to say aloud what I was thinking, I climbed off the floor and found the lightswitch. I flicked it on and used it to find my way to the tree in the hall, where I plugged in the tree lights. Then I ran back to turn off the light in the sitting room.

The lights from the tree cast an eerie glow over the large hall, but it was warm and pleasant at the same time. I stared at the many green, yellow, blue, red, and white lights for a long time, watching some of them blink off and on while others stayed constant, never twinkling. I walked to the center of the hall, my eyes always on the beautiful tree. The colored lights flashed off the shiny surfaces of the ornaments, making it seem that I was seeing double when I wasn't. It had a strange effect and made me slightly dizzy.

I know I stood there, looking at that tree, for quite awhile, though I'm not exactly sure just how long that quite awhile was. When I finally felt peaceful enough to go to sleep, I turned in order to flick the sitting room light on again, but there was someone, or something in my way. It surprised me so much that I let out a small scream, to which a hand was promptly placed over my mouth.

“Shhh! For heaven's sake! Do you want to wake everbody up?”

I recognized the Captain's voice in time to stop myself from biting one of his fingers. He cautiously took his hand away. I nodded my head to tell him I was fine. “Sorry,” I said in a low voice, “you surprised me. What are you doing down here?”

“What are YOU doing here?”

I let out a sigh. “I couldn't sleep.”

“So you decided to run around the house like a thief from Bagdad?”

I ignored his question, and asked one of my own. “How did you know I was here?”

“I heard a clunk and came to investigate. It's a good thing you have that long hair, or else I would have smashed you in the head. I though you were a thief or something.”

I grinned. “That clunk was me falling over one of your chairs in the sitting room. I silently cussed it out, but my words didn't seem to have much affect on it.” He smiled at my attempt at humor. “What are you doing up so late?”

“The work that I was going to finish this afternoon went undone because Monica kept me occupied.”

“So I noticed,” I said under my breath.

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing. So, are you finished yet?”

He was staring at me, or rather, staring THROUGH me, just like when I had first met him in this same hall. I waved my hand in front of his face. “Wake up.”

“What?” and he looked straight at me.

I gazed back, my eyes strangely held by his features. I could plainly see sadness and torment exhibited on his countenance as well as something else, something I couldn't quite place. “You must be tired. You were daydreaming,” I said.

“Oh, was I?”

“Yes.” I was going to ask again if he was finished working, but instead asked, “Captain, is something wrong?”

“Why?” he quickly asked. “Do I look like something's wrong?”

“I can't tell,” I said truthfully, “it's too dark.”

His face changed suddenly into one of radiance. He smiled and said, “What would I do without you, Miss Stevens?”

I lifted my eyebrows, regarding him with cool disdain. “Oh, you'd manage, I'm sure. Some old hag would be taking care of your children and you would be forced to spend Christmas with her.” Secretly I pictured an old and withered Monica in my head, and I practically laughed out loud.

“I suppose you're right, as always.”

“Oh, please sir, don't give me too much credit. Kate was always right, not me.”

“You compliment her a lot,” he observed.

“Thgey're not compliments, simply the cold hard truth. She always studied more than I did and got better grades, though not MUCH better. I don't think she's smarter, but then, I don't know. At any rate, the boys seemed to like her.”

“And not you?” he inquired.

“They considered me weird, I think. EVERYBODY considered me weird.”

“Are you?”

“Are YOU?” I countered.

He shook his head down at me. “I admit, Miss Stevens, I don't always understand you.”

“And I don't always understand you, either. I'm really very simple, actually,” I continued. “That's why I like movies and books so much, I guess. The simplest thing can enrapture me in minutes.”

“That must be nice.”

“Sometimes I have a hard time becoming unenraptured and going beck to the real world. My imagined ones are so much nicer, it seems.”

“That's because in imagination, it's exactly as you want it. Who would want to come back from that?” He turned suddenly, looking around the hall. “It's cold down here,” he said, turning back to me. “Are you tired, Miss Stevens?”

“No, not really.”

“Good. Then you can help me with my work. I need some unbiased opinions. Get the tree first. I'll turn on a light.”

Without thinking, I obeyed him and scooted to the tree to unplug its lights. They blinked off, reminding me of a thousand tiny stars suddenly snuffed out by an unknown force. Before I could dwell too deeply into this thought, I rushed to take the Captain's outstretched hand as he flicked off the hall lights. We slowly travelled up the stairs.

“We do have a lot of adventures in the dark. OW! I stubbed my toe!” I said, biting my lip against the pain in my toe.

“I wouldn't exactly call this an adventure,” he decided. “We're merely walking up the stairs.”

“Yes. In the dark, and we've no idea who or what's up there. For all we know, a demon could be waiting for us in the hallway.”

He shook his head again. “I'm going to have to start regulating your reading.”

“You said you wanted me to use my imagination, remember?”

“Oh, I remember. But you do have the tendency to go overboard.”

“Better to have too much than too little.

“Do you have an answer for everything?”

“Why, of course I do,” I said mockingly.

“Ha!” he said.

We stole silently along the balcony, the only sound being the pattering of our feet on the carpet. He led me to his study where a lamp was burning on his desk, dimly illuminating the surrouunding chairs. The fireplace was in the left wall and had a cozy little flame burning away in it. It reminded me of what Amanda had said about Santa Claus.

“Today Amanda asked me which chimney Santa Claus would come down. She was scared he would pick the wrong one and never find the tree. I told her if he had problems, he'd come through the front door.”

“Imaginative answer, as always,” he said rather absent-mindedly, for he had already seated himself at his desk and begun going through the papers scattered in front of him.

“What are you working on?” I asked curiously.

He handed a paper across the desk to me and said, “I'm trying to figure out this merger between IBM amd Phillips 66.”

“I thought that mergers only happened on Dallas and Dynasty.”

“What?” He glanced at me inquisitively.

“Nothing. I forgot you don't watch TV. I didn't know you had stuff to do with IBM and Phillips 66.”

“I own a portion of each.”

“Really?” I exclaimed in a loud, unbeliving voice.

“Sh!” he reminded me.

“Sorry,” I said in an exagerrated whisper. “Do you own anything else?”

He slowly lifted his eyes to regard me. “I own a great deal, Miss Stevens. That's why I'm always up here working.”

“Gee. The only thing I ever owned was a cat. Do you ever get them all mixed up?”

“Yes. Now read the paper and tell me what you think.”

I did as I was told and read silently to myself. After awhile I said, “This is definately a legal paper. I understand about every tenth word. Is it something like Phillips 66 wants to buy some computer bonds...”

“Stocks,” he corrected me.

“... stocks in IBM, but IBM wants more money for their stocks than Phillips want to pay?”

“That's the main gist of it,” he smiled.

“Why don't you have a meeting with them and compromise?”

“We've already tried that. Neither company will consent to a compromise of any kind.” He leaned comfortably back in his chair. “Any more suggestions?”

I eyed him suspiciously. “A ha! You made me read this with the specific purpose of embarrassing me, didn't you?”

“What ARE you talking about, Miss Stevens?” he asked innocently.

“Oh, please! You knew I would suggest a compromise! Now you've made me feel stupid! I hope you're happy!” I threw the paper onto his desk in fraudulent anger.

He laughed again, filling the room with that pleasant sound. “You're eyes flash even when you're not really mad.”

“Who says I'm not mad?”

“I can tell. When you're mad, your jaw gets tight, your green eyes blaze, and your face gets red.”

“Well, for your information, sir, when YOU'RE mad, your grey eyes smoulder and turn to steel, and the muscles in your cheeks twitch.”

“They do not! And besides, how would you know?”

“Sometimes I think I'm the only one you ever get mad at. I've been yelled at several times since I came here.”

He looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Yes, well, that's in the past and we can't change it, so we might as well forget it.”

“Words to live by,” I said pointedly.

He rose and came to stand in front of me. “I suppose you're referring to the tree?”

“Me? I'm not referring to anything. You are.”

He opened his mouth to say something more, then closed it again. I think he got the meaning behind my words. “You...” He wagged his finger in front of my face while I smiled at him smuggly. “You little elf!” he finally finished. “I'll admit it. This time you've got me. But just wait! I'll get you back someday, and you'll be sorry!”

“I've no doubt of it, sir,” I said.

Then, through all the mocking words and laughter, it happened again. His grey eyes caught my own green ones, holding them and me. From past experience I knew it would be impossible to move, so I didn't even try. I just stared into his beautiful, gentle eyes, drinking in every second that it lasted. It seemed that we were in a world all our own and nobody could bother us.

He lifted his hand, but before it got anywhere he dropped it and closed his eyes. Then, just as suddenly as it had happened, the moment was over. He averted his gaze to his desk, saying, “I think we've done enough for tonight. Good-night, Miss Stevens.”

It was a dismissal I couldn't ignore. “Good-night, Captain.” I quickly crossed to the door, not daring to look back.

When I was alone in my room, I let my breath out slowly and leaned against the wall. My heart was beating louder than a foghorn and I'm sure the Captain had heard it in the study. I was breathing rapidly and had to force myself to calm down.

Strange feelings were zipping through me, and I didn't feel so good. I started to shiver, so I crawled into bed and closed my eyes. The Captain's face immediately appeared in the dark realm behind my lids, but I was asleep before I could think about him or my chaotic feelings.

Chapter 8

The next morning brought sunshine and cold winds. I shivered as I crawled out of bed to get ready for church.

The wool skirt and sweater that I had chosen to wear were lying on my bed, but I was interrupted by Lizette before I had a chance to put them on.

“WHY is it always freezing on Sunday when you have to wear a skirt? I don't understand it.” She turned away from me, presenting a zipper caught on the red material of her dress. With a few deft twists, I managed to fix it for her.

“There you are. If you're ready, would you please help Anne and Amanda? I overslept.”

“Kate's dressing them.”

“Oh. I hate to think what she's putting on those poor girls.”

“I think Kate has a great taste in clothes!” Lizette said indignantly.

“Well, I think she's weird,” I said.

“That's what she said about you, too. Thanks for the help!” She was gone before I could comment on her last remark.

In ten minutes I was dressed, my bed was made, and I was trying to think of a different way to put up my long hair. As usual, when I try something different, I run out of time and end up pulling it back in two barrettes or something along those lines.

I was humming 'Romeo and Juliet' subconsciously and concentrating on my hair. Also as usual, when I'm running out of time, my hair refuses to do what I want it to. I had managed to get one side up but was still working on the other half when I was again interrupted, this time by the Captain.

“Ah. I know that song.” He came through the open door, walking slowly, his eyes directed to the ceiling. “'But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the...'” he turned around in a circle, calculating as to which direction my window faced, “.... south and... Melanie is the sun!”

“Oh BROTHER!” I said loudly for his benefit more than mine.

But he continued despite my anguished protest, his voice getting deeper. “'Arise, fair sun... and kill... I mean melt the envious snow, who is...'” He looked at me, hoping for a prompt, which I gave him.

“'... already sick and pale...'”

“'... with grief that thou her maid,'” and he waved his hand in my general direction, “'art more fair than she.' Now look who's pale.” He said the last in his normal voice gazing straight at me.

“Well, two can play at this game.” I jumped onto my bed and leaned against the bottom post, looking as woebegone as possible. After clearing my throat, I started:

“Oh, Christopher, Christopher, wherefore art thou Christopher? Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I'll no longer be a Montague.”

“You're the Capulet. I'm the Montague,” he pointed out to me.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I'm sure.”

“OK,” I said doubtfully and again resumed my dramatic pose with the thought of continuing on. Unfortunately, my mind decided to go to sleep, and I couldn't remember a thing more of those famous lines. “Am I supposed to say something here?”

“There's something about a rose somewhere in there.”

“Yes. 'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet... etc, etc, etc.' As far as I remember it's, 'Change your name from Christopher and you'll still be the same.'”

He laughed, staring peacefully up at me, his soft eyes twinkling. “Something like that.”

He was very handsome, his face lifted up to mine as it was. All the strange emotions I had felt after leaving him the night before suddenly returned, bringing the confusion with them. Fighting for control, I said, “Don't you get caught by the nurse, or something?”

His own face also had confusion written all over it. If his does, so does yours, I said to myself. Because I was leaning over slightly, my hair fell over my face, shielding it from anything but him. And also hiding anything else in the room from me.

“I... don't remember... how it goes anymore,” he said softly, all the while leaning closer to me.

I knew he was going to kiss me and through my hesitation and confusion, my head kept repeating 'Go for it! Go for it!' It had suddenly dawned on me that I was in love with this man and at the moment, it didn't matter that he was almost married to somebody else, or that I was a mere servant in his house. Now I know what they mean when they say love is blind.

“That was a simply marvelous performance!”

We both jerked back to find Monica watching us from the door. She looked very elegant in her expensive clothes and it made me very aware of the social breach that the Captain and I had just about closed a moment before. Now the breach turned to a wide hole that was getting bigger by the minute.

“I didn't know you could act.” She walked to the Captain, kissing him on the cheek, a very rare thing indeed. “Good morning, Christopher. Or should I say Romeo?” She laughed derisively. “Have you had breakfast, dear?”

“No, not yet.” He didn't look at me, but I watched him from the corner of my eye. I knew Monica was playing it up for my sake, telling me in veiled words that the Captain was HERS and nobody else's.

“Then let's go down and eat. I'm sure you're hungry after that scene.” She led the way out and I watched them go.

I sank down to my bed, feeling like a mountain had just settled on my shoulders. I was shaking again, and a tear trickled out of my eye, travelling slowly down my cheek and splashing onto my hand.

The Captain and Monica remained at Ashby Manor while the rest of us went to church. Needless to say, my mind was far from what Mark said in his second chapter, verse eleven.

Thoughts of the Captain revolved out of control in my head, and several times I had to breath deeply to keep away from total panic.

What should I do now? I already knew Monica's standing on him; she was going to marry him even if it meant murdering me, although I doubted she was capable of THAT. Then again, money makes people do strange things. And of course she wanted his money, not him.

Is that what you want? Just his money? If he was the poorest man on earth, would you love him? Is it just the money you're after?

NO! I screamed to myself. I DO love him!

How do you know? You've never been in love before. (My conscience always has little conversations with me when I'm in trouble)

What has that got to do with it? Are you calling this a mere crush?

Suppose I am.

But he almost kissed me! People who have crushes on one another kiss each other!

Almost is the key word. Truth is, he DIDN'T kiss you. And Monica DID kiss him.

If it wasn't for her, life would be easy.

But she's still here.

Oh, why do you have to be so damn realistic? Sometimes you're a real pain!

The feeling's mutual.

Great. I still don't know what to do.

Well, let's make absolutely sure that you love this guy.

He's handsome sweet, has beautiful grey eyes, and constantly stares at me.

Don't flatter yourself. He's also stubborn, unreasonable at times, and has a temper.

Leave it to you to find his bad points. Pessimist!

It's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it. You're obviously so enamored with him, you can't see straight. So it's up to me to get us through this.

So, start working! Tell me what to do!

Well, the most logical thing to do is to tell him that you love him. If he loves you too, you'll live happily ever after, if he doesn't, you can quit in an undignified manner and go back to Illinois where you belong.

And let Monica have him? Are you crazy?

Then tell him, stupid!

I can't!

I'd like to know why not?

What if he laughs? What if he thinks I'm crazy? What if he loves Monica? What if...

What if he says yes and asks you to marry him? Would you say yes?

Lord, I don't know. Right now I don't know anything. I'm terribly confused.

Then drop the subject for now and see what happens. We only found out today that you love him. You don't have to decide now.

Kate suddenly yanked me out of the pew and shoved a hymn book in front of my face, pointing to the right page. In a surprisingly steady voice, my alto blended well with her soprano and we waded our way through the song. The organist got lost as usual, but actually ended at the same time we did. Then we said the last prayer and church was over. I kind of wished it lasted longer so I wouldn't have to face the Captain back at the manor. Chicken!

I was silent on the drive home, staring out the window and ignoring the cheerful banter of the children around me. Apparently nobody noticed for I was left alone, to which I was grateful.

To my great regret, we arrived home in good time and the Captain opened the door for us to pour through.

“Oh, father, you were lucky you didn't go! It was SOOOOO boring!” Eric said immediately.

“I nearly fell asleep!” Michael said.

“I DID!” Amanda yelled over the voices. The Captain laughed at her and tweaked her nose.

“So did Melanie, from the way it looked,” Kate loudly supplied.

I immediately looked down at the ground, trying not to call attention to myself. Making an excuse of wanting to get out of my itchy skirt got me as far as the stairs without having to look at him.

“Miss Stevens,” he called to me.

I stopped, midway up my flight to safety, and took a deep breath before turning to face him.

“I hope I didn't keep you up too late last night. You aren't tired, are you?” He had climbed the stairs to join me and I was staring at him full in the face.

“No, I'm fine. I overslept this morning, so I caught up.”

“Good.” He placed his hand on my shoulder and I felt it clear through my coat. “I wouldn't want you to be tired because of me.”

Then he released me to rejoin the group at the bottom of the stairs. My heart pounding and my shoulder tingling, I turned to continue up to my room.

Yes, my other self said, the bug has definitely bitten. You, my dear, are in love.

“Melanie, is something wrong?” Kate asked the next day. “You've been acting kind of weird lately.”

“No I haven't. I'm fine.”

We were in my room and I was wrapping Christmas presents while the children were at school. The Captain had agreed to entertain Amanda for an hour so she couldn't spill the beans, and I was wrapping furiously.

“Well, you've been off in 'that other world' for about two days now.”

“I was just thinking,” I said, pausing in my work to glance at her lying on my bed.

“Oh, you're always thinking! You think too much!”

“Then I'm smarter than someone like you who never thinks.”

“Don't you wish! But seriously, you've been acting strange.”

“You already said that!”

She had a pensive look on her face. “You know, come to think of it, the Captain has been acting strange lately, too.”

I paused briefly, my face becoming hot. Then I went to work again, attacking the wrapping paper with the scissors. “Oh?”

“Yes. He's actually NICE now.”

“He's always nice! Don't say things like that.”

“Don't get hyper! I didn't mean that he wasn't nice before, it's just that he's not so cool and distant anymore. Did you see him at lunch yesterday? He was actually laughing for a change, and he was in such a good mood.”

“You don't have to tell me. I was there.” I put the wrapped present in my 'after' pile and grabbed another one from the diminishing 'before' stack. “It's apparent that you don't know the Captain very well. He laughs a lot, you're just not there to hear it.”

“And you are, huh?”

“That's not what I meant! What I said was...”

“Oh, I know. I was just teasing.” She looked slyly at me. “If I didn't know better, I'd say something was going on between the two of you.”

“That's ridiculous,” I said. “I honestly don't know where you get your ideas.”

“You mean you're NOT plotting to kill the president?” she exclaimed mockingly. I only gave her a disgusted look and didn't bother to say anything. “Gee, can't you take a joke?”

“Oh, go away!”

After that we were silent until Amanda came running in, saying, “Father said he couldn't keep me any more and sent me up here. Are those for me?” She pointed a finger at the unwrapped presents.

“Kate, grab her!” I yelled and Kate jumped off the bed and carried the littel girl out of the room while I shoved all the presents under my bed. I would hide them in a safe place later when I had more time. “It's safe now,” I said and Kate brought Amanda back in.

“Did I ruin it?”

“Did you see anything?”

“No.”

“Then you didn't ruin anything. Now, give me a hug before you're wild siblings storm the house.” She jumped into my arms and wrapped her little arms around my neck. “My, you give good hugs,” I said. “Almost as good as Michelle Brockette, but not quite. But she's older than you.”

“Who's Michelle Brockt?”

“An old friend who's name is Brockette, not Brockt. Ah, I hear the front door slam and the tramp of many feet.”

“What?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.

“She means, your brothers and sisters are home,” Kate said.

“Oh.” Understanding now filled her voice. “Melanie, why didn't you just say that?”

I had convinced myself that I should act exactly the same to the Captain as I had the last seven months. Well, the other me really did the convincing. It's so darn persuasive.

So I was back to my own normal, slightly elfish self, but with a secret that hopefully nobody would discover until I was ready to reveal it.

It was ten thirty that Monday night when I quietly opened the library door and peeked in. The Captain sat in his chair, his head bent studiously over the many papers in front of him. Perfect I thought. Being careful not to make a sound, I reached in and clicked off the light. Then, as the Captain yelled, “Hey!” I pushed open the door and brought the double candle holder I held in my left hand around and under my chin, which I knew would cast such shadows on my face as to make me look mortally eerie.

I slowly advanced towards his desk, one step at a time, and in a hushed voice said, “Your time has come! The sorceress Morgan Le Fay knows no mercy! Run hither and hide, if you can! I will find you, no matter where you go. A mere mortal can never outsmart the mind of a sorceress!” I had reached his desk and was staring down at him out of what appeared to be hollow sockets.

“Should I call King Arthur, my dear Morgan? Or would Lancelot do?”

I could tell by his voice that he was tired, so I decided to cut the scene short. “Lancelot?” I sneered. “You must be joking! You should die of shame to leave here, alone and helpless!”

“What? I'm afraid you lost me.”

“Sorry. I didn't mean no mix Gone With the Wind in with Camelot. It's just whenever I say 'You must be joking!' I have the urge to finish the line. Besides, I couldn't think of anything else to say and I needed a quick way out.”

He shook his head in either amazement or total surrender. “Whatever you say,” he said and went back to work.

I looked over his shoulder to see what he was doing. “Are you still working on the merger with IBM and Phillips 66?”

“I'm not sure. I can't see.”

“Oh.” I ran to a small table near the door and opened a drawer, pulliing out several more candles and some brass holders. I lit them and placed them on the corners of his desk. “There. Is that better?”

He sighed. “I meant to turn on the light.”

“I know, but candles are much more fun and interesting. How many people do you know that work by candlelight?”

He shook his head with a little laugh and said, “None.”

“See. You're the very first. You may start a new fad and get even richer by selling candles to the idiots who would use them. Then you could sell them glasses when their eyesight gets bad.”

“You certainly are in a mischievious mood tonight.”

“Yes, I am. I don't know why, either. Maybe I'm sick.”

“In the head, yes.”

“I can tell you've talked to Kate recently. Look at all these papers. You're just like her, studious and precise.”

“Where is Kate, by the way?”

“She's watching one of her detective shows in my room. You'd think she would get enough excitement in San Francisco.”

He was silent for awhile as I walked around the dimly lit library. I watched the flames bounce on the window panes, letting them hypnotize me and draw me into the beautiful realm of daydreams.

“Well, did you want something?”

I jumped back into the real world. “What? Oh, no.”

He waited for me to go on, and when I didn't, asked, “Then why are you here?”

“To give you reason to ask questions.”

“You're doing a very good job.”

I looked around the library, watching the strange shadows cast by the candles. “Is it true that this mansion was built back in the 1800s?”

“Yes.” He was back at his work, figuring something or other on the calculator.

“Then this room must have looked like this way back then. I wonder if the master of the house did his work here or someplace else. Were there children here back then?”

“I suppose there were,” he answered vaguely.

“Then the governess must have stood in this very room, just like I am. Of course, she wore those beautiful long dresses with hoops and a bustle in the back.” In my mind I wondered if she too had been in love with her employer. “Were there ever any cases like yours?”

He looked up. His features were hardly altered by the dim light and he was so very handsome that my heart skipped a beat. I wanted to tossle his hear and smooth it out again, but I didn't dare. I had no right to feel like this, yet I did. I was sure I was blushing. I had to look away from him and stare at a wall in order to calm my beating heart.

“There's a book somewhere over there that might tell you. We keep accurate accounts of our history.” He pointed to the shelves of books. “It's on the left side, I think, third shelf down.”

I found the book I was looking for, thankful to have something to keep my mind occupied. I leafed through the old pages and started reading. The first couple I read about, George and Alice Kartwright, were very boring. They had two children, a boy and a girl, but from the sound of it, they were totally ignored. All George and Alice seemed to do was go to parties and entertain guests at the Manor. George died in 1852 and his son, George Kartwright II, took over as master of the house. Two Georges, I thought. How boring. This George was married to Marlette and they already had three children before Marlette was killed in a carriage accident along with the youngest child, a girl. I thought how sad it was.

George II apparently had problems with his servants and could not find a decent nanny for his two remaining kids. (I guess good help was hard to find clear out here in the boonies) Finally, six years after his wife died, he hired Irene Templeton from Vermont. A year later, ignoring all social rules, they got married and had ten living chlidren.

“Ten!” I screached. “Lord, I thought five was bad!”

At my outburst the Captain jumped in surprise. When he had caught his breath, he reproached me, saying, “Will you please stop doing that? Before the night is over, you'll kill me.”

“This guy had ten... no, twelve kids! Can you imagine that?”

“You're talking about... um... George, right?” he inquired.

“George the second,” I corrected him. “This is a lot like you, although he only had two kids when his wife died. She was in a carriage accident. Then he had a long, long list of nurses, nannies, and governesses until he hired Irene Templeton, six years later. He married her, and they had ten kids.” I put the book down for a moment and looked at him. “Isn't it strange how history sometimes repeats itself?”

“I don't see where there's any repetition.”

“Well, his wife died as did yours, you both had children, and you also had trouble finding a decent governess.”

“Those are all freak accidents.”

I looked at him out of stricken eyes. “Are you calling ME a freak accident?”

He hurried to say, “No, of course not. Please, don't look so unsettled. I meant it is all a coincidence, nothing more.”

“Sure you did,” I said, but with a smile. he went back to work and I settled in a chair to continue reading about the Kartwrights.

The library became almost completely silent. I could hear the ticking of the clock and every now and then the scratch of his pen on paper. Even the wind was strangely silent, almost as if it was waiting for something to happen.

It didn't take much of this expecting silence and the dark room to set my imagination in motion. Before I knew it, I had demons dancing past the window, ghosts flitting between the shelves, and strange sounds coming from the unlit corner of the room. I sat still, telling myself how stupid and childish I was being, but it didn't do much good.

When a loud thunk reached my ear, I jumped up and ran to the door, yanking it open. I didn't see a ghost, only Perkins straightening a chair against the wall. “Did you hear something just now?”

He looked at me out of bland eyes. “Just the sound of the chair hitting the floor when I dropped it, Miss. I'm sorry if it disturbed you.”

“Oh. That's quite alright. My imagination ran away with me.” I closed the door again and glanced at my watch. It was already eleven o'clock and a yawn decided it was time to hit the hay. I turned and said good-night to the Captain's lowered head. When he didn't answer, I repeated it a little louder. He still didn't say anything. Then I noticed his pen was no longer moving and his calculator had shut itself off. His head was on his desk and he was sound asleep.

I wondered if I should just let him go, but then I thought of what a sore neck he would have when he woke up, so I crossed to him and said, “Captain, wake up.” He didn't move. “Captain,” I repeated louder, “wake up.” He remained asleep. “I suppose I'll have to throw water on you.” I placed my hand on his shoulder and shook him gently. “Will you wake up!”

This too had no effect and I began to get suspicious. Leaving my hand on his shoulder, I walked around the chair to look at his face. His eyes were open and staring.

“I wondered how long it would take you to figure it out. 'Captain, wake up,'” he mimicked in a high, squeaky voice.

“Oh, be quiet! I thought I'd be nice and keep you from a sore neck, but do I get any thanks? NO! I only get imitated, and very badly, I might add.”

“Thanks a lot!”

“I'm going to bed. Good-night, Captain. I mean Romeo,” and I threw a quick glance at him to see what his reaction was.

All he said was, “Farewell until it be morrow. Good-night, Juliet.”

Chapter 9

“Don't just look at it! SHOOT IT!”

“Will you shut up! I can't hear!”

“Isn't that thing UGLY!”

“No kidding! It's so red... and slimy.”

“Ugh! You can keep it as far as I'm concerned. That guy's pretty cute, though.”

You mean the tall one in blue?”

“No, idiot. The shorter one in brown.”

“Here it comes! It's gonna get him!”

“COMMERCIAL!” we all yelled as the exciting events on the screen were taken over by an old lady trying to convince that Wendy's hamburgers were better than Hardees, MacDonald's, and Burger King's all thrown together.

Lizette looked around at us and said, “This thing is pretty good.”

“The sets are ancient history, though,” Eric stated.

“But that's part of the fun,” I said.

“Leave in to Melanie to think that watching an old TV show is fun,” Kate said in a scornful voice.

“I'll remind you of that when we watch The Music Man again,” I retorted.

“Sh! It's back!” Lizette said.

We became silent, with our eyes glued to the big screen TV in the livingroom. With our attention thus diverted, we completely missed the Captain's entrance.

“Well, this is a nice little party,” he said.

I turned. He carried his briefcase and still wore his heavy coat. “You're home rather early.”

“Yes. Now I know what you do when I'm gone.” He paused, watching the action on the screen. “Correct me if I'm wrong, but is that Captain Kirk?”

“Righteo,” I said.

“Be quiet!” Kate demanded.

“Well, shoot it, for Pete's sake!” Eric exclaimed.

“My, but they're all involved, aren't they?” the Captain whispered to me as he seated himself on the floor next to my chair. He had thrown his coat and briefcase onto the couch before getting comfortable.

I nodded. “I didn't force them either. They just trickled in.”

“I haven't seen Star Trek in years. I don't believe it's still on.”

“If you two don't be quiet, we're going to throw you out the window!” Kate warned.

“Oh, gross!” Anne shouted. “He's going to touch it!”

“That's the only way he can talk to it,” I explained.

“What's his name again?” inquired Michael.

“Mr. Spock, first mate and science officer,” the Captin answered for me.

“I like his ears,” Amanda said.

Eric laughed. “Look at his eyes roll up! Pretty neat!”

The Captain glanced at his son. “Nothing is neat about Mr. Spock, simply logical.”

We were silent until the end of the program, leaving Kate without a reason to give everybody 'the look.'

When it ended, I said, “Well, so much for another exciting adventure of the USS Enterprise.” I pushed the button and the set went dark. I wheeled around to face my employer again. “So, how come you're home so early?”

“Nothing was going on at the office, so I decided not to stay. I didn't leave much earlier than normal.”

“Early enough to catch us, though.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don't care.”

My eyebrows shot up. “Really? You would have cared six months ago.”

His sheepish grin made him look very young indeed. “Let's face it Miss Stevens, you have a mellowing effect on people.”

Kate loomed over us, looking like she'd just been kicked by a cow or something. “Aren't you two ever quiet?”

“No,” I innocently answered.

“You always did have trouble keeping your mouth shut.”

I stared at her in shock. “What did I do to you?”

“You were born,” she said and walked our of the room.

“Tyrant!” I yelled after her. “Sorry, Captain. She has her bad days, and this is definitely one of them.”

“Oh, don't worry about it. If she wants to be grumpy, let her.”

I stared down at him, shocked again. “You're certainly in a good mood.”

“It's abnormal, so be happy while it lasts,” he jokingly cautioned.

“You better be careful, or your offspring will take advantage of you.”

Kate stuck her head in the door. “That's another thing. Why do you always use those dumb words? Why don't you say what you mean? You're so dumb.”

“Then you're just as dumb since you're just like me.”

“I always was smarter than you. You were just plain lazy.”

“Kate, if you're going to be a crab, go someplace else to do it. Leave us alone.” Since she couldn't say it was her room and I should leave, she had to do as she was told. With a dirty look aimed at me, she walked haughtily up the stairs.

“You two are very good at insulting each other,” the Captain observed.

I said, “It's from years of practice. Didn't you insult your brother or sister?”

“I didn't have one. I was an only child.”

“I didn't know that.”

“You never asked.” He stood up and yawned, walking slowly to retrieve his coat and briefcase. “Oh. I saw Paul Sinclair today.”

“I thought he was in Europe.”

“He came back last week. I saw him at the office and he asked how you were and I said you're fine... You are fine, aren't you?”

I smiled at his boyish humor. “Yes, I'm perfect in every way.”

The Captain went on, “He didn't have much time, just dropped in to say hi.”

I walked around the room, straightening the pillows on the couch or smoothing a fold in the heavy curtains. “I didn't think you were such good friends, what with throwing him out last year.”

“Oh, that was a mere social obligation. If I hadn't thrown him out, it would have been against me. Paul understands. He would do the same to me if I got stone drunk at his house. It's a rule of socialization.”

“Sounds confusing,” I said.

“It's not. You just have to get used to it.” With coat and leather case in hand, he headed to the library to do his infinite paper work.

I wandered into the hall, wondering what to do now that everybody else was busy. Even Amanda was off somewhere, doing something. For one of the first times in a long while I was actually alone. The thought of grabbing my book and hiding immediately came to mind, and I was about to steal quietly up the stairs when I was caught by Lizette.

“Come here. I want to talk to you.” Lizette seated herself on a davenport and I plopped down next to her, comfortably settling in the corner. Her face took on a glow as she said, “He talked to me today!”

I was already confused. “Who did?”

“HE did! I told you! Don't you remember?”

“Who's he?” My brain refused tp bring forth any mention of anybody Lizette might have recently told me about. I was still in the dark.

“Keith Marten!”

“Keith Martin. Ah, the boy in your histoy class! Now I remember. What about him?”

“He spoke to me today.” Her eyes were now extremely dreamy as she recalled that conversation. “He asked me what the answer to question seventeen was.”

I waited for her to get to the interesting part, but she stopped right there and stared off into space. “Lizette? Is that all?”

She looked at me and her cheeks became decidedly red as she said, “No, not quite. He asked me to go out with him tomorrow night.”

“And?” I goaded.

“And what?”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I said I had to check my calendar. I wasn't about to tell him I had to ask my father first!”

“I really don't blame you.” I paused.

“Well, can I go?” she asked expectantly.

“Gosh,” I said, stunned. “I don't know. Nobody's ever asked me permission to do something before. This is kind of neat!”

“Please, Melanie.” Lizette saw it to her advantage to plead.

“Well, is he nice?” I asked.

“Oh, very,” she said, all dreamy eyed again.

“Is he tall, dark, and handsome?”

“Medium, blond, and gorgeous,” she gushed, sighing as she spoke, an accomplishment I was never quite able to perform.

“How old is he?”

“Almost seventeen, but not quite. He's been driving for almost a year, and he's NEVER had an accident or gotten a ticket.” Her voice was very convincing indeed.

“Tomorrow night, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I don't really see why not.” She was about to jump up, her expression on the verge of jubilance, when I stopped her. “But you have to be home by whatever time the Captain says. I know midnight is curfew for kids in general, but that might not be YOUR curfew.”

“Fine!” She jumped up and gave me an impulsive hug. “Thanks, Melanie.”

“Tell him I want to meet him first before you leave!” I called after her as she ran up the stairs to call her date in private.

that night I was walking along the corridor from the front hall to the kitchen in desperate search of scissors, ANY pair of scissors. “You'd think a house this size would have a pair of scissors for every room, but NOOOOO,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. Maybe the walls were sympathizing with me. “One lousy pair of scissors. Oh! I have to help Kate pack, too. I forgot about that.” Kate was leaving the next day in order to be home and rested up in time for Christmas. Lucky Kate. “Oh, quit your complaining!” I ordered myself, still speaking aloud. As I spoke, I rounded the corner and smashed directly into the Captain.

“Whoops!” he said and caught me before I landed on the ground. “This accidently running into each other is becoming quite a habit of ours,” he said as he set me on my feet again.

I could feel his hands on my arms and I couldn't help the luxury of looking up at his handsome face, watching his grey eyes sparkle. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn't see you.”

“Apparently. Who were you talking to? I DID hear talking as we collided.”

This rational conversation snapped me back to normality. I took a step back before saying, “I was looking for a pair of scissors and I thought some might be in the kitchen.”

“Well, I don't carry around an extra pair, so I can't help you with that. But I did want to talk to you about...”

“... Lizette's date. So you know,” I cut in.

“Oh, yes. She did mention something about it. I figured you would know more along those lines than I would, so I left it up to you.” He had steered me along the corridor towards the kitchen, I think, though I wasn't entirely sure. I still got confused every now and then. “No, what I want to prepare you for is Amanda's birthday. We celebrate it the day after Christmas. Or at least we will this year. If that's alright with you.”

“Oh, fine, great. I wondered about that.” We walked for a moment in silence. “I'll be twenty-one on the twenty-seventh. Gee, I can legally drink alcohol!”

He laughed. “All these birthdays make me feel old.”

“Yeah. Your white beard is so long, you're tripping over it.”

“My, what sarcasm,” he admonished.

I opened my mouth to reply, but the thought that I was about to say suddenly disappeared from any area near my mind, which became totally blank. “Oh, I HATE it when I can't think of anything to say!” I exclaimed, to which he only laughed. The rich sound brought out a smile from me that made the Grand Canyon look puny.

“Glad I caught you. Until I catch you again, Miss Stevens, good-bye.” He left me standing in the middle of the corridor.

After a contented sigh, I turned to go into the kitchen, but I found that I had no idea where I was. I turned a complete circle and only became more confused. “Captain!” I yelled after his quickly receding form. “Which way is the kitchen?”

I could hear his laughter again as he pointed in the opposite direction he was taking. “End of the hall,” he called back.

“Thank you!” I turned and headed for my lost and found kitchen, and when I stopped to look back, he had already disappeared. Such a big house! I thought and continued on my way.

The next afternoon, a Thursday, Kate left for Illinois. Ever since the night before she had been strangely silent and she hadn't told me to cut my hair even once. Several times she looked as if she wanted to tell me something, and once she even started to do so with a forceful, “Melanie, do you..?” but then it had died away.

I didn't have a whole lot of time to think about my dear sister, though, because I was trying to get her squared off on her plane and to keep five kids in one central area of the airport. Finally, after the luggage had been taken care of, and the ticket acquired, we gave her a last farewell hug and she walked out the gate, the epitome of sophistication in her black pants, white blouse, red blazer, and black fedora. “Don't forget about the presents! And give everybody a kiss for me!” I yelled after her. I saw her nod her head and wave her hand. Then she was gone.

We stuck around until the plane had taken off, making sure, as Eric so poetically put it, that 'the dumb bird isn't hijacked or something. You never know with a singing detective on board.'

John took us straight back to Ashby Manor, and wouldn't you know it, Monica's black limo was parked outside in the snow. “Great,” I mumbled. “When it rains, it pours. The clouds blow in, and the sun goes under, and everbody runs indoors.”

“Hey, that's pretty good, Melanie,” John complimented, steering the car close to the door and shoving the thing into park.

“I just wish Monica wasn't in the same doors I am,” I said.

“Don't let her get you down. You probably won't even see her.”

Sudden enlightenment filled my face. “So THAT'S why this house is so big! The guy who built it didn't like his wife, so he built it so big, she'd get lost in it!”

“I guess so, Melanie,” John said. We let ourselves out, and I told him thank you for driving us to the airport before getting out of the cold air and into the warm mansion.

I didn't even have my coat off when Monica came out of the sitting room closest to the front door, saying, “Really, Miss Stevens, don't you know you're supposed to make the chauffeur open the car door for you?” She wore her you're-just-a-stupid-farm-girl look on her face.

“Yes, I know,” I answered politely enough. “I watched Dynasty last night. And I don't MAKE anybody do anything.” I turned away from her with the last word for once and started up the stairs.

But Monica couldn't let it rest. “Miss Stevens, I want to see you. Come into the sitting room.”

It was an outright order. Michael whispered “Don't do it.”

I said, “Michael, this isn't war. I'll see what she wants. Here, take my coat up for me, please?” He took my proferred coat as I started back down the stairs. I squared my shoulers at the door, then walked sedately into the sitting room. “You wanted to see me, Miss Sinclair?” I started properly.

She looked at me with open scorn now. “Yes. I wanted to talk to you about Lizette's date. I think she's too young to be out at night. You'll have to tell her to cancel it.” She turned away to stare out the window, dismissing me.

I exploded before I could stop myself. “I'll do no such thing!”

Monica turned instantly, a sick smile on her face. “What was that?” she questioned.

“You heard me! You have no right to tell me what to do, nor the children! I make the decisions concerning them, not you!” I didn't even try to bring my voice down. I simply let my entire self slip onto the warpath.

“I'd watch my words if I were you, Miss Stevens.” She spat out my name like so much dirt. “Keep in mind that you are only a servant!”

“Then you keep in mind that this isn't your house! I don't work for you, and even if I did it wouldn't make any difference.”

“Wouldn't it?” She crossed closer to me, the cat stalking forward. “If you worked for me, I'd fire you on the spot!”

“But I don't.” I forced myself to calm down.

“No, but Christopher listens to my advice. Don't worry, dear, I can have you fired in the blink of an eye.”

Now things were getting mean! “I'd like to see you try! The Captain can't be pushed into a decision about anything!”

“That just proves how little you know him.” Her face looked as if a demon had taken it over. Her eyes were slits, her small mouth a straight, thin line, her cheeks gaunt and strained, and her eyebrows drawn taut over her black eyes. She was the female image of an evil druid from one of my fantasy books.

“I daresay you know him even less, considering you've been around for four years.”

“Inexperienced imbecile!” she said, coming even closer to me. I instinctively wanted to back away, but I held my ground. “When I'm married to him, I'll have a free will to make your life miserable!”

“I'm not going to stick around and let you get away with that. I'll quit first.”

“Then those five brats will take it for you. I'm very good at causing misery, Miss Stevens.”

“I'm sure you are, Miss Sinclair.” I mimicked her, doing so fairly well, I thought, but it didn't sit too well with Monica, for she effortlessly lifted her hand and slapped me across the face.

“You little fool,” she uttered through clenched teeth, dangerously calm. “You will definitely see just how rotten I can be.” With that said, she seemingly floated from the room, disappearing in a cloud of smoke like the Wicken Witch of the West.

Actually, the cloud of smoke was tears leaking out of my eyes, brought on by my smarting cheek. What had I gotten myself into? I certainly couldn't ask the Wizard of Oz to send me back to Illinois. You'll stay and fight until you ARE fired, if it comes to that, I said to myself. She won't be able to do anything. She's just a mean old hag with money. A mean old hag who slaps mighty hard, and I experimentally felt my ravaged cheek, making sure it was still there. Witch, I thought.

CHRISTMAS! Well, actually, Christmas Eve-day, to be exact. I was as excited as the children. Just because you're over the age of eight doesn't mean you have to act like it.

I got out of bed early, making sure my hiding place for the presents hadn't been discovered. I had all my Christmas shopping done, but Lizette wanted to get a little something for Keith Martin. The way she talked, she'd give herself if I'd let her. After her date Thursday, all we'd heard about was Keith this and Keith that and isn't Keith cute and isn't Keith smart, etc. etc. etc. Honestly, we were all getting tired of hearing about Keith.

The name Marty Fratzke popped up quite a bit, too, though Anne vehemently denied she had anything to do with him. Eric and Michael teased her plenty about it. If they aren't careful, she may slug them when they aren't looking.

Monica had disgustingly insisted on spending the night Thursday at the Manor. I think she did it to spite me. Since our feelings for each other were now out in the open, at least between us, we no longer bothered with niceties. Every time I happened to cross her path, she stuck her nose farther in the air (at first I didn't think that was possible) and I stared at her, trying to look as weird as possible, hoping it would at least unsettle her. I always had the urge to 'give her the finger,' but I decided that wasn't too sophisticated. Too bad Kate was in Illinois. She'd fit in perfect in this game! She always knew how to handle people better than I did. She would know exactly what to do.

Most of the time I stayed far away from dear Monica, and ignored her when I came into contact with her. Naturally, if she had attempted to even speak to the children, I was ready to jump on her faster than a duck on a June bug, as they would say in the South. But she didn't bother herself with petty humans like us, and she had to leave for her own house early Friday to help prepare for the Sinclair Christmas Jamboree, or whatever they called it. I was very glad when the front door closed behind her.

As far as I know, she hadn't said anything about our little spat to the Captain, or if she had, he didn't mention it. Either way I soon forgot all about it in the excitement of Christmas.

Nothing much happened during the day. Lizette went to town, bought something, came back, wrapped it, and that was that. Apparently Keith was taking her out again soon and she planned to give it to him then, whatever IT was. The mysteries of the young in love.

While Lizette was enraptured with Keith, the rest of the children were expending all their pent-up energies in long games of tag and hide-and-seek, both played in the house. I held my breath the entire time, hoping fervently they wouldn't break anything. The Captain had gone to the office for a little while to get something finished before he took his Christmas-New Years break. I had told him that you weren't supposed to work so close to Christmas, but he had only smiled and said he would to back before tomorrow.

Towards the middle of the afternoon we were forced to go outside to have a grand-scale snowball fight. I don't think I'd ever seen kids with so much energy!

While we were goofing around, the servants and cooks were rushing about, getting the Christmas dinner underway. I thought it was strange how they starting preparing things a day ahead of time, but I guess it took them both days to get it all ready.

The day finally drew to an end and the children's excitement became even bigger. Amanda constantly asked me how much longer it was, and I had to give the answer in hours. I had the feeling she would never go to sleep, but the exercise she had had during the day had worn her out and she was asleep before I knew it.

The others followed in quick procession, and it didn't take long before I found myself in bed.

I was sound asleep, probably having a nice dream, when I felt somebody shaking me. At first I ignored it, then I reached out, found the arm that was bothering my sleep, and gave it a good, hard punch. “Kate, go away. It's not morning yet.” I rolled over and went back to sleep.

But whoever was shaking me definately wanted me to wake up, for the covers were finally pulled off, drawing in the freezing air, and my reading lamp was turned on at the same time.

Blinded and frozen like I was, it didn't take me long to wake up. While my eyes were adjusting themselves to the intrusion of light, I said, “Kate, you do realize that this means war, don't you?” My eyes could now stand the light and I slowly opened them. It wasn't Kate standing by my bed, but the Captain.

“I thought you'd never wake up,” he whispered, leaning close.

I immediately sat up worry clouding my thoughts. “What's up? Is something wrong?”

“No, no, everything's fine,” he assured me. “The presents.”

“Well... what about them?”

He looked at me with frank astonshment. “Unless Santa Claus puts them under the tree, how do you expect them to get there? They don't have wings.”

I clapped a cold hand to my mouth. “That's right! I forgot all about it!”

“Sh!” he ordered, shaking his head. “And to think the tree was YOUR idea.”

“Nobody's perfect,” I whispered loudly as I swung out of bed. I ran to the closet and pulled out my heavy bathrobe. “Ok, what do we do?”

“Get them out of the closet by the attick door and put them in the box outside your room. Hurry up. I'm already finished.”

I walked through the open door and saw the box on the floor. I had picked it up before all that he had said sunk in. “How did you know where I hid my presents? You were snooping, weren't you?”

“Merely a lucky guess.” He led me quietly past the children's room to the closet.

“And I was worryed about the children finding them. NOW I know who to watch!” He merely looked at me and raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. I couldn't help smiling at him. He was such a kid at times!

We silently worked to fit all the presents in the box, trying not to squash any of the bows. It was amazing how heavy a boxful of presents could be compared to an empty box. We lugged them to the banister, then stopped to look down at the tree.

“You turned the lights on,” I said, my voice hushed.

“I figured we'd need some light and what better light at Christmas then those of the tree?” We carefully walked down the stairs, the box held aloft between us.

“Another mysterious excursion in the dark. Really, Captain, we're going to have to stop doing this. And in our robes, too! It's a daarn good thing Mrs. Harding isn't here. Is this the last step?”

“Two more. There.” We hurried the box to the tree and set it on the floor with a clunk. “Miss Stevens, next time I'm going to remind you to buy lighter presents,” he said, straightening up and rubbing the muscles in the small of his back.

“If I did that, you would not get any exercise,” I said, while briefly elating on the fact that he would have to remind me next time, which meant I was going to stay for another whole year in his presence. It was definately a nice thought.

Unloading the box was easily done, and we did so quickly in the dim light of the tree. When we were finished, I sat down on the cold floor and looked at our arrangement. “I think that looks pretty good, if I do say so myself.”

“And you do,” he said pleasantly, staring down at me from his towering height.

“This is kind of fun. I've never done anything like this before.”

“I haven't done it for a long time, either. Last year we carried the presents down in the morning. It was all very boring compared to this.”

“What did the other nannies do on Christmas? Sit around?”

He laughed shortly. “I'm afraid they all went home at Christmas. None of them stayed like you.”

“Then Mrs. Harding took care of the children?”

“Yes, for about two weeks.”

“Those poor kids!” I exclaimed.

“They always did seem strangely glad when school rolled around again. From the way it looks, though, things will be differnt this year.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “It's against childhood tradition to actually WANT to go back to school. I remember I used to have nightmares on the night before the first day back. There were always a HUGE assignment that I could not POSSIBLY get done, and naturally I forgot my locker combination, and had left all my books at home. I hated going back to school.” I looked up at him only to find him staring down at me very strangely.

“A lot of things have changed... since you came,” he started slowly, his voice barely a whisper. He knelt down beside me, never taking his eyes from me face. My heart started thudding in double time. Yet I was still able to remain calm and detached.

“I'm afraid I have that affect on houses.”

“And people,” he said distinctly but softly, still staring at me. I think he breathed then or something, because there was a rush of air and after I blinked, the strange look in his eyes was gone. “Well, Santa Claus, we better get back to bed. The children will be up plenty early.” He offered his hand and pulled me up. “Get the light and I'll get the tree.”

All the lights were rapidly taken care of and I was back in bed before I knew it. After that, it didn't take long for me to fall asleep, and it took even less time for morning to arrive.

Once again, I was sound asleep when I was rudely awakened by somebody jumping on my double bed. “GO AWAY!” I yelled and rolled onto my stomach.

“Amanda, it's still dark out. Go back to bed.”

“Get up!” Amanda ordered, falling on top of me in her jumping routine. “It's Christmas! You can't stay in bed! Come ON!” She grabbed hold of my arm and pulled.

To make matters worse, Anne ran in and began helping her sister. “The sheets!” she screeched, pulling with all her might on my blankets while Amanda continued jumping on me.

Then Eric came rambling in, his hair mussed from the scratching he'd just given his head, yawning big enough for a bird to make a nest in his mouth. “What's all the racket? Can't a guy get any sleep around here?”

Amanda jumped down from my bed and started dancing around the room, singing,

“Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,

Please to put a penny in the old man's hat.

If you haven't got a penny, a paperclip will do,

If you haven't got a paperclip, God bless you.”

as loud as she possibly could. When the song was over, she wrapped her little arms around her brother's leg and said, “Mewy Chwithmus, Ewic.”

“That's right,” he said, “it's Christmas.” He looked at the clock on the table beside my bed. “Do you mean it's six thirty already, and I'm not even downstairs yet? Come on, Anne, let's go jump in Michael and Lizette. They've slept too long. Get up, Melanie! It's Christmas!”

I groaned, but forced myself out of bed to stumble to my closet. Some people like to unwrap their presents still wearing their pajamies. Not me. I always get dressed first. I don't know why. I think it's a habit from school days. Anuway, I found myself standing in my closet, shivering, trying to keep my eyes open. It didn't take me long to pull out the first pair of heavy pants my fingers came across and a blouse to go with it. A sweater finished off the outfit, and I hearnd the children pound past my door to get to the presents below as I quickly brushed the rats out of my hair.

Now that I was awake and decent, excitement filled me and I couldn't wait to get downstairs. In stockinged feet I ran out of my room and down the hall, bounded down the stairs and skidded to a stop by the tree in the front hall. “Hi gang! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas, Melanie!” came the chorus of voices as they all started to talk at once.

“Can we open our presents, Melanie? Can we, can we?”

“I get to go first.”

“How come?”

“Because I'm older than you are.

“So what. What's that got to do with it?”

“I'm also bigger than you.”

“Well, whoop-dee-do.”

“Wait a minute!” I yelled over the noise. “Who got the Captain up? Did anybody?” Silence reigned while they all looked at each other and shook their heads. “Then who's the priveledged one to do the job?”

“I am!” Amanda said, standing up.

“Me too!” Michael put in his opinion.

“Alright, get going. The rest of you can start on the stockings.” This went over big. Anne attacked the presents in her bright red stocking, but Eric and Lizette open theirs more sedately. It kept them busy until Michael came down the stairs, Amanda following, saying their father would be down in a minute. Unfortunately, they hadn't gotten to jump on him because he was already up and getting dressed when they had stormed his room. When this information had been dutifully delivered, they fell to the floor, concentrating on their stockings.

Amanda went from one present to the next without even really looking at them. Michael examined everything before going onto the next surprise. Amanda was completely finished before he had succeeded in getting his third one open.

“Can we open the big ones now?” she asked, eyeing them.

“Wait for your father, squirt. You can't get ahead of everybody. You'll be finished and everybody else will still have presents to open. You'd be jealous watching them. I think you'd better wait.”

“Yeah, so do I,” she said seriously and parked herself on my lap to wait for the others to finish.

“Well, well, well, it looks like some little elves visited our humble house last night,” I heard the Captain say before I saw him. He came suavely down the stairs, wearing a heavy sweater and comforable-looking pants. A smile lit his comely face.

“Daddy,” Amanda yelled, jumping from my lap and running to him, whereupon he swung her into the air, causing her to giggle more than a teenager. I'd never heard him called 'daddy' before. At the moment, it fit him much better than the stricter word 'father.'

Right then he looked anything BUT strict. He looked... happy was the only word I could think of, and that didn't say all I wanted to, but it will have to do. He added a feeling of security to the entire hall. I wished I was only four years old and could run up to him and hug him without having to worry about what other people thought. Instead, I settled for watching him greet his children, hoping that they would always be as happy as they looked in those few moments. It gave me the distinct impression that the sun had come out.

“Well,” the Captain said, looking at his group, “what are we waiting for? Those presents are saying 'Come and get me!' So go get them!”

CHARGE! Custer would have been proud of the rush the Kartwright family made at the Christmas tree.

“Wait a minute! Don't open something that doesn't belong to you!” I called, but my cries bounced off unhearing ears.

“Oh, let them go at it. Can't you ever have fun?” said the Captain as he came to stand next to me, watching his brood.

“You're a good one to talk, pale-face,” I said. “By the way what work was so important it couldn't wait til after Christmas?”

He had a mysterious look about him when he said, “You'll see.”

“Melanie, here's one for you,” Anne said breathlessly, handing me a rectangular package. She was gone before I could say anything.

“Hmm,” I said, seating muself on the floor to examine the gift. “It's from Kate. If it wasn't so heavy, I'd say it was books. Then again, it might be a hardcover. You never know concerning Kate. I wonder if... Maybe it's a...”

“For heaven's sake, will you quit thinking about it and open the thing?” the Captain said impatiently.

I tore the paper, only to find more paper underneath. “This is definately from Kate. We used to have a contest to see who could use up the most ugly paper on one present. Some things were wrapped seven or eight times. Lord, she used enough tape on this one.” I finally ripped open the tape and flung off the paper to once again find more paper. “This is getting ridiculous.” It was much easier to get this level of paper off, and the present was revealed underneath.

It was a hardcover book. The cover was a beautiful dark blue made of something like leather, but not the real McCoy. Three titles were engraved in the color gold on the front: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Sword of Shannara, and Jane Eyre.

The Captain was peering ove my shoulders at the titles. “Rather wide array of interests, Miss Stevens.”

“How did she possibly find these three books in one?”

Lizette, a present in her hand, came towards us. “You can order them at the book store in the old section of Denver. You get to choose three titles and the color of the cover.”

“And they'll put all three books in one no matter how long they are?”

“Yep.”

“Hey, that's neat!”

“Here's a present for you, father.” Lizette handed over the package, then went swiftly back to the tree to join in on the fun. I examined my new book, looking at the thin, guilt-edged pages.

“Ah, a bottle of champaigne and an invitation to the annual Club Dinner. I suppose they'll send it by carrier pigeon next year.”

“What's the annual Club Dinner?” I asked curiously.

“It's a get-together of all the Club members. You eat, dance, and talk. An all-around good time.”

“What's the club for?”

“Being rich,” he answered, still studying the invitation.

“Being rich?” My voice held disbelief.

“If you aren't worth at least five hundred thousand dollars, you aren't a member. Of course, if you ARE worth five hundred thousand dollars and AREN'T a member, the rest of the Denver socialites think you are eccentric, and nobody wants that. So everybody who's anybody belongs. Each year they send out the invitation in a different way. Last year it actually came by air mail.”

“Is that so strange?”

“It is when they drop it from a helicopter with a little parachute attached. It landed in the fountain out front. Lucky for us the fountain was frozen, or we would have had an extremely soggy invitation.”

“Are you serious, or are you making this up?”

“Oh, I'm quite serious. I'm sure you've heard of us 'eccentric millionaires.' We're just living up to our repuatation.”

It was my turn to simply shake my head for a change.

Christmas continued, as did the exclamations and joy from the children. This was the first Christmas I had ever watched instead of being the center of. It was like watching a play instead of being in it.

“Melanie, these pants are gorgeous!” Lizette said, pulling the clothing out of its box.

“I hoee they fit,” I said. “I wasn't quite sure what size you are.”

“Oh, that's easy,” Eric intervened. “Extra large would fit perfectly.” He collapsed to the floor, laughing at his own joke. Lizette threw some wrapping paper at him.

“Anne, what did you get for Marty Fratzke? A music box that plays 'Love Me Tender, Love Me True?'” asked Michael sardonically.

“Michael, blow it,” I said.

“What?”

“Blow it,” I repeated.

“What am I supposed to blow?” he asked innocently.

“Ah, ha, good come-back,” the Captain congratulated his son.

But Michael was confused. “What did I do?”

“It's above your head,” Anne said while looking very intelligent. I don't think he understood it either, but the odds were in her favor.

The subject was dropped when Amanda came running to me, saying, “Listen, Melanie, I can read this. 'The sun is up.' Santa brought me this book. I got a whole bunch more, but I can't read them yet. When can I go to school?”

“Next fall, sweetheart. Look, there's Eric with another present for you.” She ran back to the tree and I followed her.

By now paper was scattered all over the floor. Unwrapped boxes were piled against the wall in sections. Shouts of 'Father, here's one for you,' 'Look at this! Neat!' 'Help, I can't get it open!' and 'What is it?' filled the air.

Finally all the presents were opened and everybody seemed happy. For the Captain I had gotten a comfortable flannel shirt and sweatshirt with a note tucked between them saying, 'Relax and Go With the Flow.' He merely laughed when he opened it and gave me a look.

Perkins came in and quietly announced that breakfast would be ready in ten minutes. We sang 'Happy Birthday' to Amanda even though we were celebrating her birthday the next day. When we told her she was five years old, she strutted around the room like she'd just been announced the greatest person in the world.

We were about to leave to go into breakfast when Anne yelled, “Hey, here's another present.” She wriggled her way under the green branches and came out pushing a big box in front of her. “It's for Melanie.”

“Me? That big thing's for me?” I asked, going forward to claim it from Anne. “Kate and I got a stereo once, but that was together. This is the first big present I've had all to myself. My, it's heavy!” I pulled Anne and the present the rest of the way out from under the tree before seating myself on the floor.

There was no card on the paper. Just a little tag with my name on it. “Ok. Who's it from?” I asked, staring up at the group surrounding me. They all looked amazingly innocent.

“Open it.” Anne moved in closer for a better view.

“But do it fast, alright,” Eric said. “I'm hungry.”

Lizette looked at him with disgust written all over her face. “Always thinking with your stomach instead of your brain.”

I carefully loosened the tape on either side so I wouldn't rip the paper.

“Don't be so careful, Melanie. Just tear it open,” Michael said.

“Just hold your horses. You're always supposed to be careful with your last present. It makes it last longer.” I had the paper off and was now staring at a white bix. I tried pulling off the lid. “Whoever wrapped this did a good job. It's taped too. It's a good thing I haven't chewed off my fingernail lately.”

With the help of my nail, I managed to get the lid off. Inside was tissue paper, which I moved aside.

Marroon was the first thing that I saw. A deep, dark velvet marroon. It was obviously something to wear for there was a collar on top. I took hold of the beautiful material and started drawing it out of the box, but my arms weren't long enough to disclose what it was, so I stood up, still drawing. It's identity was finally revealed when the entire length was before me. A marroon velvet cloak.

I assure you my mouth was wide open and my eyes were staring. “Wow,” I breathed. That was all I could get out.

“It's beautiful,” Lizette said for me. “Who's it from?”

I looked in the box for a card. “I don't know. There isn't a card in the box, or on the paper.”

“A secret admirer!” exclaimed Anne. “Try it on.”

I swung the heavy folds of material around and set it on my shoulders. I hooked the clasp under my chin and pulled my hair out from beneath it. The last fold of velvet just barely touched my ankles.

The Captain came forward then and straightened the collar. “You look like you've stepped right out of a movie about nineteenth-century England.”

I looked at him and suddenly knew that this was HIS gift. I held my exclamations in, knowing he wanted his identity to be kept a secret since he hadn't put his name on the card.

“Well, don't just stand there. Go look at yourself in the mirror,” he suggested.

I walked to a long mirror hanging in the hall. As I walked, I felt the scraping of paper against my hand. Further exploration revealed a pocket filled with a folded note. I didn't take it out to read in front of the children, but decided to wait until I was alone in my room. I looked at myself in the mirror.

I certainly did look like an Enlgish girl from the 1800s. An English governess just arriving at her first post. “Wow,” I repeated.

Just then Perkins announced that breakfast was on the table and the group headed for the dining room. I said I was going to put my new cloak in my room to keep it clean and that I would be down in a minute. I watched the Captain herd his children down the corridor finding out from the feeling coursing through me just how very much I loved him.

I hurried up to my room and pulled the note from the concealed pocket. There was nothing on the front or the back and only a few words were written inside:

To my Juliet

That was all it needed to say.

“Melanie, what are you doing? Hurry up!” Lizette said as she passed my bedroom door.

I looked up as she flashed by, wondering what she was talking about. Deciding it was nothing, I went back to my book. As I read I continually heard the pounding of many feet on the stairs and excited voiced reached my ears, though I couldn't understand what they were saying.

When I heard the Captain say, “Ok, troops, lets move out,” I decided to see what they were up to.

I found them assembled in the front hall, all dressed up to have some fun in the snow. The Captain stared at me from under the brim os his fur-lined hat. “Miss Stevens, what are you doing?”

“I was reading and...”

“Why aren't you ready?”

I looked at the six faces, trying to find an explanation written on one of them. I didn't find one. “Ready for what?” I finally asked.

“It's December twenty-eighth,” Lizette said as if it explained it all.

“Well, thank heavens we agree on SOMETHING,” I elaborated, throwing my hands into the air. “What's so big about December twenty-eighth?”

“That's our snow day,” Anne said.

“You mean nobody told you?” The Captain was completely amazed. I shook my head.

Eric stepped forward. “It's like this, Melanie. Grab some skates, grab some skis, let's go out and feel the breeze!”

“UUUGGGHHH!” the rest groaned while Eric smiled.

“We're going sledding,” Amanda ionformed.

“And ice-skating,” added Anne.

“And SKIING!” yelled Eric.

“So hurry up and get ready,” ordered Michael. “We don't have all day.”

“But I don't have any ice-skates. And I don't know how to ski,” I protested.

The Captain looked at his group with a disappointed face. “Well, that's that - we'll just have to go without her!” and they all started for the door.

“FREEZE!” They froze. “Alright. Don't go anywhere. It'll only take me a few minutes.” I ran back to my room and threw on as many clothes as I could in the shortest amount of time. Then I ran back to the hall where they were waiting.

Eric reproached me for taking so long. “It's a good thing we're not snowmen or we would all have melted.”

“Oh, please forgive me, your Royal Highness,” I beseeched, bowing low.

“She means 'your Royal Pain in the Butt,'” I heard Anne whisper to Lizette. I giggled.

“I heard that!” Eric said as he was pushed out the door.

We seemed to be heading for the stables. I caught up to ask the Captain, “Where are we going?”

He pointed to the mountains. “Up.”

“Oh,” I said meekly.

He looked at me humorously. “You don't sound too thrilled, Miss Stevens.”

“It's not that. I'm just not what you would call a... good mountain climber. I have the tendency to... fall behind.” WAY behind, I thought.

“Don't worry. We're riding.”

I wondered if riding was any better than walking as we boarded our horses and started off, the blades of the ice-skates clanking together and the skis always in constant danger of coming untied. Somehow I always managed to get stuck with Wizard and this was no exception. But I guess our old agreement of 'I'll scratch your ears if you don't throw me' still held.

The day was beautiful, with not a cloud in the sky. The air was crisp and clean and its coldness stung every time I took a breath. The sun made the snow sparkle, but since we were surrounded by trees, we didn't see much of it. We wound our way up the mountain, the only sound being the cries of the few birds still frequenting the woods, and the clank of the ice-skates.

Finally, I couldn't stand the silence anymore. “So, do you people do this often?”

“Every year,” Lizette siad, looking over her shoulder so she could see me. The path was so narrow we had to ride single file.

Michael piped up. “We usually go on the twenty-seventh, but that was your birthday. It's a good thing, because it was too cold to go yesterday.”

“One year we took Monica with us, but she's not much of an out-doorsey person. She didn't even know how to ice-skate. She just sat by the fire and complained,” Anne said.

“Sounds like me,” I commented.

“You don't complain!” Anne said indignantly.

“But I get cold easily, and when I'm cold, I'm a crab.

“Melanie, the Malicious Magician,” Eric yelled loudly and the others laughed.

“Watch it Eric, or I'll zap you!” I warned good humoridly.

“Daddy,” Amanda yelled from in front of me, “How old am I?”

“You're five,” he answered from the rear of our procession.

“But you look fifty!” hooted Michael from the front.

“Better to look old than be a boy!” Anne retorted. “And pretty soon you'll be ELEVEN, so you can't say anything!”

“I wouldn't be talking, Anne! You'll be NINE sooner than I'll be eleven!” he answered.

Wizard never reacted well to yelling voices, so before he could do anything I would regret, I said, “Can I have some dates?” hopefully trying to stop the yelling.

“Anne's is January thirteenth and mine is February sixth,” Michael informed us.

Eric couldn't resist yelling his out to us. “Mine's the tenth of April!”

Lizette glanced coyly over her shoulder from the front. “And father's is March first and he'll be THIRTY-FOUR!”

I planted a shocked expresseon onto my face and turned around to face him, my mouth hanging in my 'you're kdding' formation. “Why, Captain,” I said, “you're so OLD!”

Without even hesitating, he said, “Children, we'll have to find a new governess. Miss Stevens has just been fired.” A snowball came from somewhere and plopped onto his coat. “Oh, if we're going to play like that, fine!” he yelled, scooping snow off a branch as he passed by. It was quickly molded into a snowball, which he threw in the general direction of the front of the line. Pretty soon there were snowballs flying back and forth over my head. I think more hit me then flew by, though.

“Wait!” I shrieked. “What did I do?”

“That's what you get for calling me OLD!” and the Captain threw one last well-aimed ball straight at my neck, where the snow proceeded to trickle down my back.

“Hey!” I placed a hand in my neck, scraping off the rest of the snow, wailing, “It fell down my back!” I looked around at the people and the trees. “Why do I feel like Willie Scott from Indiana Jones?” I looked at the horse beneath me, and said under my breath, “Thank God you're not an elephant.”

“Melanie, what are you talking about now?” asked Eric with patience forced into his voice.

“Don't you people ever go to movies?” I didn't get an answer. “Well, I guess I'll have to educate you, then.”

“We saw Raiders of the Lost Ark,” suggested Anne.

The Captain said, his voice puzzled, “I don't recall that one.”

“That's because you didn't see it,” came Amanda's innocent voice.

“I see. And just when did you see it?”

“Right after Melanie and you had that big fight, clear back in summer. You have to remember it. Right before Lizette's birthday,” Michael said. “You should have see it! It had snakes and everything!”

“If you think that one was neat, you should see the sequel, with Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw,” I said with a little sigh. “That was SOOOO good.”

“Have you ever seen a bad one?” the Captain asked slightly sarcastically.

“Oh, sure. There was one 3-D that was extremely stupid, But that's the only one.”

“It figures,” he said.

We continued talking on such pointless subjects as movies until we reached our destination. We were at the lake and I didn't even know it, because everything was white and it all looked the same. Since I had no idea that we had arrived and everybody was stopping, I just kept right on talking, not paying any attention to where I was going. The procession in front of me stopped dead, but not Wizard. Oh, no. He simply played his old trick and veered suddenly to the right, while I naturally kept going straight. I landed on my back in the snow.

“I hate you, horse!” I yelled while everybody else got a good laugh at it. Wizard snorted.

“Miss Stevens,” the Captain was saying, bending down to help me up, “will you ever learn?”

“I had a perfect record until I met THAT thing!” I said angrily, grabbing his hand, letting him pull me to my feet. I was covered from head to foot with snow.

“I can see you're all right. The day you come up crying is the day you'll actually be hurt.” He helped me brush the snow out of my loose hair.

“Maybe I'm just a good actress,” I said haughtily, striking my dramatic pose. “'Oh Rhett, where shall I go? What shall I do?'” I quickly turned myself around, facing the opposite direction, and stood as tall as I possible could. “'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.”

“See, you're quoting. Now I KNOW you're alright.” He looked up, his hand remaining on my back. “Well, we can't let the children beat us to the fun. Eric's already got the horses taken care of and they're clearing off the lake. Grab some skates and let's go.”

I felt like Grizzly Adams without the beard as I trudged behind him through the snow. The saddles had been taken off the horses and blankets thrown over their backs to keep them warm. The Captain cleared away a big patch of snow while the rest of us hunted for some dry wood. You'd think it would be hard to find dry wood in the winter, but it's actually pretty easy. Most of the sticks are frozen and covered with snow; not wet, just cold. With all of our arms at work, we had plenty of wood for a big bon fire, which the Captain soon had blazing in the cleared area.

Because of the immense amount of snow on the ground, we had to clear off the lake before we went skating. The lake was really quite small, and it didn't take us long to clear off the snow using the skis as scrapers. NOTHING takes very long when you have seven pairs of hands working at the same time.

I borrowed Michael's black skates because they were the closest to my size. Even Lizette's were too big. Michael wanted to go skiing with Eric anyway.

My first few glides on the ice were purely experimental, but once I got my skating legs, I was going pretty good. Amanda was still in the learning stages, and she refused to let go of her 'Daddy's hands. She'd started calling him that just recently, and from the looks of things, he liked it. Some people are VERY strange.

And you're one of them, I told myself. Most people don't quote from movies. It must be one of my personal charms, and I smiled to myself.

“Come on, Amanda, let go. You won't fall,” pleaded the Captain.

“Yes, I will! Don't let go of me!”

“Amanda, how are you ever going to learn if you don't let go?”

“I don't want to learn!”

“We went through this last year. I thought now that you're five, and such a big girl, you could do it all by yourself. I guess I was wrong.” He picked her up and skated to the side, setting her down by the fire. I smiled at his technique. He skated away, successfully causing Anne to fall on her rear, laughing all the time. It didn't take much witnessing on Amanda's part to convince her to at least TRY skating by herself. She stood up, wavered a bit, then skooted forward a few feet.

“Daddy, look! I CAN skate!” she yelled. The Captain turned just in time to see her go KERPLUNK on the ice, her arms and legs sprayed out in every direction. It didn't bother her, though. “Did you see me, Daddy?”

He was laughing as he bent to help her up. “Yes, I saw you. I guess you ARE a big girl after all.” She was SUCH a big girl she refused to let him help her up.

Lizette looked like she had taken lessons for six years. She did all sorts of cute little jummps and spins, putting the rest of us to shame. When I tried to turn around to skate backwards, my feet got all tangled up and I ended up on my belly. At least Amanda was able to fall on her rear.

“Maybe I would have better luck at skiing,” I said to the ice. I looked up, watching Eric and Michael race down a short but steep slope. “Forget it, “ I told myself.

I took one brief motionless moment tp take a good look around. Trees still surrounded the little lake, but they were quite a ways back from the shore. The only open area faced south, and that was where the boys were skiing down the slope. The trees kept away the wind and nicely hemmed in the 'winter wonderland,' keeping us warm. The lack of wind mixed with the heat of the fire had already persuaded me to remove my stocking hat, although I would probably pay for it later. The entire scene made me kind of sleepy, and I would have had a nice nap except for the coldness of the ice, which was beginning to seep through my pants.

I climbed to my feet and carefully skated over to the dancing fire to restore the warmth in my legs. I stared at the flames and before I knew it, I was completely lost in thoughts about Monica Sinclair.

To think I actally stuck up for that witch! I said to myself. Of course, that was before you'd even met her. You didn't know how rotten she is, my conscience answered.

I wonder how the Captian stood her.

The same way he stands her now, stupid. Maybe he even LIKES her.

But that's impossible! He has better taste than that. I wonder if it really was her that started those rumers?

Why don't you ask her?

And give her the pleasure of saying yes? No way!

Ok. Then the only way to win the fight is to stoop to her level. You know, fight fire with fire?

I'll burn her house down!

Oh, don't be an idiot! At least be logical. Think Mr. Spock. You do have his ears.

UGH! Don't joke at a time like this! I don't know if I can be as mean to her as she is to me.

She wants to marry the man yolu're in love with! NOW is the time to get mean! If all else fails, grab a bucket of water and throw it on her. If we're lucky, she'll melt. If we're not, she'll at least be wet. Maybe we can stick her outside and she'll turn int a popsicle. We can all have her for dinner!

Don't tempt me! The thought of a frozen Monica made me smile wickedly. I could call it a Shivering Sinclair! I smiled even more.

“I see you're enjoying yourself, Miss Stevens.” The Captain glided to a stop beside me.

“But not in the way you think, Captain.”

“You were snililng,” he pointed out.

“Yes, but at rotten thoughts I'm afraid.”

He looked shocked beyond belief. “Oh, no! You? Never! Why, there's not a wicked bone in your body.”

“Sure. And I'm Santa Claus,” I said disbelievingly.

A slow grin spread slowly across his lips. “Ah, but you ARE Santa Claus. The definition: He who bears gifts on Christmas Eve. Where's your beard?”

“If I'm Santa Claus, you're one of the elves.” Sometimes we had such ridiculous conversations!

“Hm. I don't look like an elf.” He tried unsuccessfully to see his reflaction in the ice.

I couldn't help laughing. “Captain, sometimes I think you're stranger than me.”

He looked up from his observatons, that strange look in his eyes again. “Maybe... I think we should trade occupations. I should be Santa Claus and you, the elf. After all, Santa doesn't have a flat nose.”

He flew off before I could do anything, skating as fast as he could to the other side of the lake. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me!” I yelled after him. I managed to get him back later. While we were racing I naughtily tripped him. As it went, I didn't win the race, either, but I still evened the score.

We had a grand old time for the rest of the day, skating, watching Lizette show off, watching the Captain making a fool of himself, and in general having fun.

“Captain,” I couldn't resist saying, “you ride a horse extremely well, but where on earth did you learn to skate?”

“I'm just copying you,” he answered with a True Blue look.

“The way you two insult each other, you'd think you were married or something,” Lizette said as she skidded to a halt, spraying us with ice chips.

“Lizette,” said her father seriously, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Children are the worlds's greatest insult teachers.” She opened her mouth to reply, but he held up a hand, stopping her. “I know, I know. You don't like copliments because you don't know how to take them. Just believe me when I say it comes from the bottom of my heart.”

Lizette gave us both a weird look. “I don't think I know you people,” she said before skating away.

“Melanie, pull me, please,” pleaded Anne, holding out her hand. With a polite smile at my employer, I departed from his presence and grabbeed his daughter's hand. We skated towards the outside of the lake, picking up speed, until we came to a corner. I stopped, pulling Anne forward, then letting her go. She giggled and laughed as she wobbled from the force of my push, and was finally forced to fall on her knees.

“Me! Me!” Amanda demanded, holding out her own arm. I dutifully did the same for her, and was about to go back to Anne when my own hand was grabbed by the Captain.

I tried to pull away, but he was practically squeezing my hand in two as it was. “Come on, Captain, don't,” I pleaded. He ignored my pleas for mercy and increased our speed. “You maniac!” I yelled, trying for his guilt cord. “I'm too old for this! If I fall, you're finished! Captain! DON'T!” He threw me forward and I went sailing across the smooth surface with absolutely no control whatsoever.

Just that moment, Eric, whom I hadn't seen all day, came flying down the ski slope and, instead of stopping like he normally did, continued towards the ice at top speed or at least as fast as somone can go on a medium sized slope. He hit the ice and naturally his skis started sliding all over the place.

Now, there were two people on the same lake, both totally unable to control their direction. With all that ice, onw would think the two people would miss each other. BUT NO!

We slammed into each other close to the side of the lake. He fell down immediately and I am happy to say received a very bruised rear from it. My feet flew out from under me and I was airborn for about three seconds before I hit the ice, landing on my shoulder. I kept going, though, and collided with the few rocks that were imbedded in the dirt along the shore. They hadn't looked like sharp rocks, but my back told me otherwise!

I stayed where I was, all scrunched up, trying to breath. The word 'Wow' reverberated through my brain and that was all I could think of for a minute. But once I got my breath back, everything came back into focus, and I felt reletively fine, although I hadn' t moved yet. It's times like these when it's nice to just lay down and pretend you're paralyzed. I closed my eyes against the glare of the sun.

It wasn't long before I felt a hand on my shoulder and I knew it was the Captain's without even opening my eyes. His voice confirmed it as he said, “Melanie, are you alright? Can you move? Is anything broken?”

At this point I am ashamed to admit that a pretty rotten idea came to me head. Up to now I'd never had the chance to use this idea, and now was the perfect time. Unfortunately, it was rather mean to the Captain.

I stayed where I was, my eyes closed, not moving a muscle. By now the Captain was quite beside himself when I didn't answer him. He finally said, “Melanie, say something!”

“Speeaakk!” I moaned loudly, while having a hard time not smiling.

“What?!”

“Speak!” I repeated, my voice as low as I could get it. I couldn't resist smiling now, as I opened my eyes and looked up at him.

He seemed far from relieved to hear me talk. Once he'd figured out that I was perfectly fine, he glared at me. “I suppose you got hit on the head? If you didn't, I'll do it for you!”

“Didn't you see High Road to China?” I asked suddenly.

“What are you talking about?” he said, his voice low enough so the children wouldn't hear, but loud enough for me to understand his tone of voice. Pure malice. “You practically get killed and you're quoting from movies!”

“I did NOT almost get killed. Don't be ridiculous.”

He pulled (actually he YANKED) me around so that I was facing the same direction as he was and pointed to a fairly large rock with a sharp edge only inches from where my head had been. “Look!” he ordered.

“Alright, alright, it was a bad idea. But I'm quoting. Now you know I'm fine,” I pointed out. I was leaning against him, supported by his shoulder, and as far as I was concerned, we could stay that way.

“Well, are you ok? You aren't hurt or anything?” he asked.

“No, I'm fine. I just got the wind knocked out of me.”

“You didn't hit your head?”

“No. My head is as good as ever.” It had suddenly occured to me that he had called me Melanie instead of Miss Stevens. The only other time he'd ever done that was when I fell off Wizard. Maybe I should start falling out of trees and see if it created the same affect.

The children crowded around then, Michael joining us as soon as he arrived on the scene. “I'm sorry, Melanie,” Eric stated. “I didn't see you. All of a sudden, there you were.”

“That's quite alright, Eric. It wasn't entirely your fault,” and I looked up at the Captain.

“Are you hurt, Melanie?” asked Michael, still out of breath from his fast trip down the slope. I shook my head.

“Then why is daddy holding you up?” Amanda asked, leaning in close.

All eyes switched to the Captain, who stammered before he got his thoughts in order. “Uh, I was just showing her the rock that she almost ran into.” Then he quickly changed the subject. “Well, I've had about as much fun as my body can hold. Let's head back and have something to eat.”

“Ice-cream!” Anne yelled as she hurried to take her skates off. I held my head and groaned.

Chapter 10

“Melanie, I don't feel good,” said Anne, sticking her lower lip out, creating a very woe-begone face.

“You don't, huh? Are you sure you just don't have back-to-school-itis?”

“I don't think so.”

I put the book I had been reading down and felt her forehead. “Well, you ARE hot. Sit on my bed and I'll get the thermometer.” She sat down, and I went to get the instrument. The result of this endeaver showed Anne to have a fever of 100, althought I think it was higher because it took me a few minutes to figure out how to read the dumb thing. “Where does it hurt?”

“My stomach and my head.” Her lower lip was sticking out even farther and I was afraid she would start crying.

“Ok. You are now classified as Nurse Melly's first patient. I'll get you some aspirin, and then you can watch some TV in here. Don't move.” I whisked back to my bathroom, trying to think what a person gave a sick kid. The only things I could think of were orange juice and soup.

After taking my prescribed therapy, Anne leaned back against my pillows and I bundled her up in blankets. “Is that better?” She smiled and nodded. I gave her a kiss on the forehead before turning on the TV. She seemed content, so I slipped out to break the news to the household.

I found the Captain and Monica in the second floor study. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Anne's sick.” (How I love messages! They make me feel important!)

“Do you have to bother us with it?” Monica asked nastily.

“Monica!” the Captain admonished before asking me, “So, nurse, what's she got?”

“The flu, I think, but I'm not sure.”

“Of course you're not. You're not a nurse, only a farm girl from Illinois.”

I glanced at her long enough to say, “Thank you for reminding me,” then looked away. All this was said in a very polite manner as we were with the Captain, but I'm sure he saw the hidden animosity beneath the words. He made no mention of it, however.

“I heard there was a flu bug going around,” he said, shuffling some papers on his desk. “Well, thank you for telling me. You can go.

“Yes, sir.” I turned, sneered secretly at Monica, and left the room. It's strange how the Captain and I always acted so formal towards each other when Monica was around. He was the cool and detached millionaire and I, his humble servant. Of course, things were very different when we were alone or with the children. I guess it was another on of the 'Social Rules.'

I found the rest if the children in the livingroom watching TV. “Hey guys, pay your condolences to Anne before she dies. She has the flu, I think.”

Eric pounced on the subject. “EVERYBODY hs it. We've been in school for six days and already about half the class is gone.”

“There were sixty kids gone from high school today. I suppose ONE of us will be sick for Anne's birthday.”

“Let's just hope it's not Anne.” I was about to leave when it suddenly occured to me to ask, “Do any of you have a stomach ache or headache?” There were three nagatives and one kinda of 'maybe.' “Michael?”

“Well, my head hurts,” he suggested.

“Tell me if anything else comes up. I don't want you going to school if you're sick.”

“Don't worry, I'll tell you!” he said enthusiastically. He would grab at any chance to get out of school.

“Melanie,” Lizette stopped me at the door, “is SHE still here?”

“I'm aftaid so. Maybe she'll get what Anne has.”

“I heard that.” Monica floated into the room, her long fur coat on to go home. “I suppose this is your meeting to poison these innocent young minds against me.”

I had learned long ago that when dealing with Monica, it was always best to keep your cool and not get mad. THAT was exactly what she didn't wanted you to do. It always irked her when things didn't go her way. “Monica, they don't need me to 'poison' their minds. You already did that about four years ago. You don't need MY help.”

Her eyes smoldered and I knew I had scored. “Go ahead, make your little comments. You'll pay for them later.” She whirled, her fur flying, and marched out of the room. I heard the front door slam after her.

“If she twirled any faster with that fur, she'd take off like a plane,” Eric joked and we laughed.

“That was a good remark, Melanie,” Lizette complimented.

“Thanks, but we can't get too cocky. There's no telling what she'll do when there's money at stake. I shouldn't be approving of this kind of talk, either.”

“Don't worry, Melanie. We'd say the same things without your help,” Michael said, his headache temporarily forgotten.

I smiled and turned to go, but found the head of the household standing in my way. “Sorry, didn't see you.”

“Where's Anne? I went up to check on her and she's not in her room.”

“Oh, I didn't tell you. She's in my room watching TV.”

“Ok. It's time for bed, guys.” For a change there wasn't a single grumble. The television set was switched off and the herd trampled up the stairs, being quiet when they passed my door.

After I had tucked in everybody (yes, even the boys liked being tucked in) I tiptoed to my room, the Captain at my side. I eased the door open and peeked in. The TV was still on, but Anne was sound asleep.

“Isn't she cute?” I whispered to my companion.

“What do you expect? She's MY daughter,” he said vainly. He turned off the set. “Should I carry her to her own room?”

I looked at the sleeping girl in the dim light. “No, I don't have the heart to move her, and it wouldn't help Amanda in the long run. I'll sleep in the next room.”

“But it's so small.”

“Even that one's bigger than my room back home. You people always think so BIG in Denver.”

“You still think of Illinois as home, huh?”

“Sure. But right now I have two homes. Most people can't say that.” We had left the room and were now standing in the darkened corridor. I had turned off the light in my room so it wouldn't waken Anne in the middle of the night, so light didn't filter into the hall from the crack beneath the door. Light came from under Lizette's door and also Eric's, but their rooms were farther down the hall.

The Captain suddenly took both by hands into his, his large hands completely covering my littler ones. “Are you happy here, Miss Stevens?”

I was quite happy during this particular moment, so I could honestly answer, “Extremely happy, sir.”

He looked down at me for a few long seconds prior to saying, “I'm glad. Good-night, Miss Stevens.” I watched him go, probably looking exactly like Lizette did when she spoke of her Keith. Life was gettering better all the time.

My eyes popped open. All I could see was black. It wasn't even a color, it was just THERE.

I looked around, trying to figure out where I was. Are you on vacation? I asked myself. No. then maybe you were kidnapped and are being held in a huge black cave. But it's not cold and damp. Then I remembered how I had changed rooms because my own was in use.

Something had prodded me out of my sleep, but what? I listened and didn't hear anything. Deciding I was imagining things, I snuggled farther into my blankets and closed my eyes. I was almost asleep when I heard a moan, or something, from my room. Anne was awake.

Once again I listened, and once again nothing happened. Melanie, you're hearing things. I didn't have time to even close my eyes, though, because I heard Anne scream, then yell, “Run! They're coming! Mommy, help me! MOMMY!”

I was out of bed and in her room within two seconds. I flicked the light on and found her sitting up, the blankets completely disarranged. Her hair hung limply, wet with sweat. Tears streaked down her hot cheeks.

She looked up when I came in and held out her arms. “Mommy!” she wailed.

I crossed quickly to the bed. “It's alright, sweetheart, Mommy's here.” I gathered the poor girl in my arms and rocked back and forth, comforting her as best I could. She was so hot! I wondered if I should get the Captain, but Anne quieted down directly, and was asleep again before I knew it. I layed her back in bed, but stayed with her until I was possitive she was asleep. Personally, I wasn't sure if she had ever been awake.

I kissed her softly on the forehead, then left, leaving the bathroom light on in case she woke up again. I met Eric standing outside the door. “Eric! What are you doing up?”

“I heard screaming. Is Anne ok?”

“She was just dreaming, but she's pretty sick.”

He nodded, turned to go back to his room, faced me once again and said, “She used to call Mom 'Mommy.' She was the only one of us who ever did.”

“She must have got me mixed up with Amanda. That's understandable.”

“Yeah. Well, see you tomorrow.” He turned and walked to his room.

“Good-night, Eric.” I went back to bed, but didn't fall asleep for a long time. Thoughts of 'my children' kept swimming around in the recess of my brain, refusing to quiet down. They ALL needed a mother, and it still looked like Monica was the elected candidate. Just thinking about Monica made my blood boil! I couldn't tell if I hated her because of who she was, or for the children's sake.

“You're sure starting out year number twenty-one with a bang,” I said softly. “Sick kids with family problems. I feel like a psychiatrist.” I sighed, then said, “Go to sleep, you idiot.”

Ringngngngng.

I picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Is Mr. Kartwright at home?” came the voice from the other end of the line.

“No, he's at work. May I ask who's calling?”

“This is Mrs. Evans from the school. Michael is sick, and I wondered if someone could come and get him?”

“Oh! Please tell him Melanie's on the way,” I said, silently cussing at myself for even sinding him in the first place. Couldn't I tell a sick kid when I saw one?

“Thank you. Do you know where the nurse's office is?”

“Yes, I do. Thanks for calling.” I replaced the receiver in the cradle and ran upstairs to grab my coat and the car keys, if I could find them. Luckily they were still in my purse from the last time I had deemed to drive someplace, and after telling Mrs. Harding to watch Amanda and Anne, I was off.

As it turned out, I had to ask directions to the Nurse's office. When I arrived, there was Michael, looking as chipper as ever. “I thought you were sick,” I said.

“I am. I threw up all over Randy Wormstadt's books. It was pretty gross.” He smiled at the recollection while at the same time tryed to look wan and queasy. “Can we go home now?”

Reluctantly I took him home. We arrived just as the doctor finished looking at Anne and he cornered Michael the minute we walked through the door.

“What's wrong with you, young man?” he asked in a low voice, scratching his chin under his snowy white beard. I figured him to be at least seventy years old. To him the Captain would be a young man!

“Well,” began Michael, “I woke up with a headache this morning, and I threw up at school.”

“Hm. You seem healthy enough to me. Sit!” Michael sat. “Open yout mouth! Say 'ah.'”

“AHHHHHH!” Michael was really getting into this checkup.

The doctor gave him 'the look' and said, “You open your mouth very well. You must get lots of practice at it. Here, put it under your tongue and KEEP it there.” A thermometer was shoved into the boy's mouth.

“But...”

“And don't say anything!” He turned to me and muttered, “Kids! They'll ruin me someday. Never have found one that could hold a thermometer and not talk.” The four prescribed minutes passed agonizingly slow for Michael, until the old man finally took the instrument out of his mouth. “Hm.”

“Well?” I asked when he didn't go on.

“Huh? Oh. Yes, a fever of 101 I believe. He'll probably start coughing pretty soon. Your other one upstairs already has her medicine. Give the same to this ruffian. Might stop some problems before they start. The other littler one will get it, too. Give her the same. Wait a minute. That's one - two - three kids. Better give you two bottles.” He looked at me with a sidelong glance. “Ya got any more?”

“Two more,” I answered.

“Whew! You don't look like you've had five kids!” he exclaimed, appraising me in a very unprofessional manner.

“I haven't!” I said, flabbergasted by his uncouth manners. “They're not mine! They belong to Captain Kartwright!”

“Oh!” Understanding lit his face. “So he's been messing around huh? Wouldn't think a gal like you would let him get away with that!”

“No!” I said.

Fortunately for all involved in the conversation, the front door opened and a much younger version of the impossible man I was talking to walked into the hall. “Dad, I told you to stay home! What are you doing here?”

“Who are you?” I asked, becoming extremely confused.

He approached me and held out his hand. “I'm Dr. Salgers. You must be Miss Stevens, the nanny.”

I took his hand and nodded.

“Dad, did you get Charlie to drive you here? You know you're not supposed to do these sorts of things,” young Dr. Salgers said.

“And who are you, a pipsqueak of a mere forty years, telling your own father what to do? I'm a doctor and so help me I WILL doctor people!” the old man raged, his face turning purple.

“But you're retired. You don't have to cure people anymore...”

“I WANT to! And there's nothing you can do about it!” With a snort he turned abruptly to me and said, “Throw them all together and get it over with as quick as possible.” He turned back to his son again. “I'll be in the car,” and he stomped out the front door, seeming to pound on the floor even though his frame was stooped.

The remaining doctor sighed before saying, “Sorry about him. He rampages every now and then.”

I said, “That's quite alright. I'm sure no harm was done.”

“Well,” he said, “and how are you, Michael? I haven't been to this house fore sometime. I see they're feeding you better.”

“Melanie convinced them to let us off the bread and water,” Michael said.

“So, what's wrong with you?” Michael gave the doctor his day's history and had to say 'ah' again. It was even louder then before. I climbed up the stairs to see how Anne was doing.

She was in my room watching a soap opera. “How's my little girl?” I asked, kissing her on the forehead before putting my coat into the closet.

“Fine, I guess. I'm bored. This stupid show doesn't make sense.” She climbed from the blankets she was wrapped in and turned off the TV. “Did you see that weird doctor downstairs? He made me take some of this stuff.” She pointed to a bottle on my nightstand. “It was GROSS!”

I picked up the bottle and read CASTOR OIL on the lable. “Castor oil! UGH!”

“He's not our usual doctor. Dr. Salgers is the one who most always comes. He's nice.”

“I've met him. He's down stairs and working his way up. Do you know who called him?”

“Mrs. Harding did. She figured you wouldn't know what to do so she did it for you. But she said that's all she'll do because she can't abide us kids. What's 'abide' mean?”

“It means she can't stand you.”

“Well, then I can't abide her, either.”

I laughed. “I can see you ARE feeling better.”

Just then Dr. Salgers and Michael came in. The boy was finishing up a narrative of his exciting sickness, which I'm sure the doctor loved hearing.

He checked Anne over and gave me a prescription. “Is it better than the other stuff?” she asked and he asssured her ANYTHING was better than Castor Oil.

I showed him to the door. “Are there a lot of cases of this going around?”

“Yes. It's sweeping the country.”

“Like rock and roll?”

“Something like that,” he chuckled.

“I can't get over the fact that you came here instead of staying in an office, waiting for us to come to you.”

“Dad made house calls when he was the only doctor aroound here, and I'm kind of keeping up the tradition. Besides, I see more people this way and nobody does any waiting.” Once out the door, he turned again. “Expect both of them to start coughing pretty soon. Michael seems to have gotten the lighter case. Keep them warm and dry and lots of liquids. They'll be back in school before you know it. Oh. Sorry again about dad.”

“That's alright. He's a very intersting man, to say the least. Thank you for coming. Bye.” I shut the door on the cold air.

That night at dinner Michael seemed normal enough. He told us all about poor Randy Wormstadt's desk and ate just as much as he always did. Anne pushed the food around on her plate, but only ate a little of it. Even though I hadn't had the flu for a long time, I still remembered what it was like, so I didn't force her to eat anything. Maybe she'd eat some soup later.

Just as we were about to disembark from the dinner table, Michael ran to the bathroom and proceeded to get rid of his dinner in a quicker then usual fashion. I'm just glad he made it to the bathroom.

I gave him and Anne a swallow of the prescribed medicine which John had been nice enough to pick up in town and sent them to bed early. Anne slept in her own bed this time. I decided Amanda would end up getting it, anyway, so Anne might just as well be in familiar surroundings.

I had asked her if she remembered dreaming about her mother the night before, but she said she didn't and gave me a have-you-been-drinking look. Only Anne.

Keith Martin had the flu, too, and Lizette spent a lot of her time on the phone with him. She'd only know him two weeks!

The Captain had seemed strangely detached during dinner, and I didn't want to bother him. Actually, between taking care of sick kids and giving Amanda a bath, I didn't have TIME to bother him. When I had been in school, the instructors had neglected to tell me how busy I would be. It was a major oversight on their part.

The next day came with no other person added to the sick list. Lizette and Eric went to school as usual and the other three became immediately bored.

“But there's nothing ON TV,” Michael insisted.

“Then go play with something,” I suggested.

“There's nothing to play with, either. At least nothing that can be done quietly. Doctor's orders make being sick very dull.”

I shrugged unapologetically. “Sorry. There's nothing I can do about that.”

“Let's do SOMETHING. This sitting around is...” he had to take a break in order to cough. It made me wince just to hear it. “... driving me crazy.”

“Let's explore the guest rooms!” Anne exclaimed. “Maybe we'll find a secret passageway or something.”

Michael shook his head in resignation. “You've been reading those Nancy Drew books again.”

“I'm GOOD at solving them,” she pouted. “I'm going to be a private detective like Kate when I grow up.”

“You mean IF you grow up,” retorted her brother, while Amanda began waving her arms around, trying to make everybody quiet down so she could talk. Her siblings ignored her.

“I'm more grown up than you!” Anne yelled.

“You can't be! I'm older!” came his hoarse reply.

“Melanie, you said that girls grow up faster than boys, didn't you?”

“Well, I meant when they were teenagers. You're still too young to be able to aply that theory.”

“See, I AM more grown up because I'm older!”

“I was also talking about you, Michael. You're both at the same level, devilishly mischievious. Now, don't yell or you'll start coughing.”

At this point Amanda had decided she'd waited long enough and placed her hands on her hips and stamped her little foot on the floor. “BE QUIET! BE QUIET!” She went on now that she had our attention.

“I want to go upstairs! You come, too.” She marched to the servants staircase and started up, obviously expecting us to follow, and, since we had nothing better to do, we did.

She led us through the children's wing, around the balcony, and into the guest wing where the Captain's rooms were located. Apparently she knew where she was going. We went right passed the Captain's door and continued on down the hall to a guest room. She pushed open the door and walked in.

This was another room I had never seen. It was very dark and didn't seem to fit the mood of the rest of the house. Heavy dark curtains covered the windows, blotting out the sun. The furniture was old, yet still serviceable. The bed was a huge four-poster and I would have felt lost in it. Brown panneling covered the wall, giving the whole room an even darker outlook. I felt like I was invading somebody's tomb as I walked in.

“Kind of musty, isn't it?” I quietly commented.

“I like it,” Amanda stated and walked right to the closet and threw open the door.

Michael followed, saying, “It's Nancy Drew's little sister, Clancy. Are you looking for something, Clancy?”

“Michael, shut up,” Anne said in defense of her sister.

“Better not let father hear you say that,” he warned.

“I won't. Come on. Maybe there's a hallow pannel back here, like in The Hidden Staircase.

Michael coughed then looked beseechingly to heaven. We joined the two girls in the closet and Anne gave us our first sleuthing lesson.

“Maybe Anne has something here,” I said. “Old houses almost always have secret passeges and this is DEFINATELY an old house.”

We knocked and pounded on the wall until our knuckles were raw, moving slowly around the room. “I don't get it,” Anne said. “There's nothing here.” She sneezed.

“Bless you,” I said. “Did you expect to find something?”

“Nancy Drew always did!” she wailed while Michael gave up and walked back into the room, looking around.

“Hey, this place is big. It even has a fireplace.” He ran over to inspect the ageing stones. “Father has one like this in his room. I saw it once. Hey, I wonder if there's anything around here. The Hardy Boys always looked at the fireplace first, not some measly closet.” He turned his full attention on the house and its surrounding wall, poking and prodding. The rest of us stood back and watched him, slightly amused.

“Wait a minute! I think it moved!” he finally said excitedly. He moved his finger over a spot on the wall.

Anne couldn't keep quiet. “Oh come on. Nothing moved and you know it.”

“No. It did move, I swear it. If I can just find the place my finger had touched, I could...”

His sentence was left hanging in mid air as he pitched forward through a dark opening that appeared where a heavy panel had once been. He screamed a little scream, and I heard him hit something. “OUCH!” he yelled.

I rushed to the black cavity, peering cautiously into it, trying to discern any object beyond the hole. “Michael? Are you alright?” I called.

He answered immediately, for which I was thankful. “No, I'm not alright! If they're gonna put some stairs in a dark hole, they should have some light!”

“Do you see anything?” Anne asked him.

“Of course not, you idiot! It's dark down here! Look, will you throw me a rope, or something? Wait, just move out of the light. Ok, now I know where I'm going.” The sound of shuffling reached us. “UGH! I just stepped on something squishy! I think it was a rat!”

Amanda and Anne screamed and jumped on the bed. I was momentarily inclined to join them, but I held my breath and counted to five. Before I even reached my number, however, Michael appeared from the dark recess.

His clothes were dirty and his hair was tossled, but he wasn't limping or anything, so I supposed he was alright. He seemed surprised to see me standing where I was. “Weren't you scared of the rat?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I lied. “I grew up on a farm wth a barn full of rats. Besides, I don't think there was a rat.”

He smiled sheepishly. “It got you out of my light, anyway.”

“Well.” I moved back to the hole. “You said there were stairs leading down?” He nodded. “Does anybody have a flashlight?”

“I'm not going down there!” Anne immediately stated, and Amanda wholeheartedly agreed with her.

I turned to Michael. “Well?”

He had to cough before being able to answer. I felt his forehead, just to be sure, and found it cool as a cucumber. “I'm fine,” he said, brushing my hand away. “I'll go get a flashlight.”

He was back in a flash (no pun intended) shining his bright light in my face. “Hey, cut it out!” I shouted. He obligingly lowered the light. “Ok. Anne, stay here in case this door starts to shut again.”

“What do I do if it shuts?” she asked.

I looked at her helplessly. “I don't know. Yell, I guess. Come on, Michael.” We turned to our discovery and carefully began to descend the steep stairs. “Michael, give me the flashlight. I can't see an inch ahead of me.” We went slowly, one step at a time. Michael stayed close beside me, his hand on my shoulder. “Michael,” I whispered, not quite able to bring myself to break the silence, “are you scared?”

“Who me? No way.” His voice was pitched higher than normal.

“Then will you please take your hand off my shoulder? You're pulling my hair.”

“Oh. Sorry.” The hand was dutifully removed, only to be placed on my arm a moment later. “Did you hear something?” came his urgent voice out of the dark.

“No. Why? Did you?”

“I thought so, but maybe not.”

“This is not the place for you to have hallucinations.”

“Ok. I'll stop hallu - whatever you said.”

After that our conversation died away. We were totally surrounded by a deep blackness. The flashlight didn't give off much light, so we couldn't see very far ahead. The stairs kept going down in a straight line. At first I had thought they were made of wood, but I found that they were actually stone with a lot of dust on them.

On the walls were candle holders, sometimes with an ancient candle still stuck in the socket. Cobwebs reached from the holders to the ceiling, giving the whole place a spooky look. And still the stairs went on.

Finally we reached the bottom. A corridor led off to the right. I shone the flashlight down it, but couldn't see anything except stone walls.

“I wonder where we are,” I said softly.

“I never knew this was even here.” Michael turned around. “Hey, Melanie, look! Another staircase! I bet this is an escape tunnel of some kind!” he said excitedly.

I regarded the stairs with doubt. “And just who were they escaping from, might I ask?”

“The Confederate Soldiers, silly!”

“Michael, there were never any Confederate soldiers clear out here in the mountains! They did all the fighting in Virginia.”

“Well, then, how about the Mexican soldiers from that war?”

“Nobody was dumb enough to cross the Rockies,” I vetoed. “More than likely it was the Indians. Some tribe like the Apache or Comanche, or something, lived in the area.”

“Indians!” he said reverently. “Wow!”

“Well, come on. Let's see where this tunnel leads. We'll go up the other staircase when we come back,” I said and turned to the long passage.

It was eerie. There were strange shadows everywhere, and the flashlight only penetrated the thick blackness so far. The ceiling was low and I expected it to cave in on us at any moment. There is was no other sound except the thudding of our tennis shoes in the dust. “I keep expecting some awful monster to jump out at us and go 'ARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!'” I said, more to break the silence than anything.

Michael jumped. “Melanie! Don't do that!”

“Sorry.” More silence. “Lord, it's quiet down here.”

“You can say that again,” said an emphatic Michael.

“Lord, it's quiet down here,” I repeated. “I wonder what would happen if we yell 'Hello!'”

“HEEELLLLOO! HELLO! Hello!” came back the echo.

“Not much,” I concluded.

Michael looked at me warily. “Melanie?” he began timidly. “Are you on something?”

I took a deep breath and blew it out. “I'm sorry, Michael. I talk when I get nervous. And right now I'm nervous. My imagination is over-acting again. I hate the dark. We need a spark. This whole thing is a lark. See, there I go, off and running. Michael, hit me.”

I didn't have to ask twice. He gave me a good slap on my rump, which seemed to wake me up. He would have done it again if a hadn't told him the first had been quite sufficient.

Finally, after whet seened hours and hours of walking, I noticed that the narrow passage was getting lighter. Michael remarked on it just as I noticed it. “Maybe it's the end,” he said hopefully.

“Or maybe it's the candlelight of the skeletal guardian of the Lake of the Dead, waiting to take us across the stygian waters to the island of Medussa, where, upon one look into her wicked eyes, we will forever be turned to stone. What a morbid future we have in store for us, Michael.”

He glanced at me strangely, and I don't particularly blame him either. “Now I know what father meant when he said you have an imagination. I thought he meant you told good stories. But you're just plain weird.”

I laughed softly and my maccabre mood lifted. “I'm sorry. I hope I'm not giving you nightmares. I...”

“Melanie, a door!” said Michael. Excited, he ran to the rotted plank and pulled on the handle. It didn't budge.

“Wait! If you open it, the whole ceiling might fall in!” Indeed, the beams supporting the roof looked to be in worse shape than the door.

“But if we don't open it, how will we know where we are?”

I felt the rough handle. It was extremely cold, so I knew the outside world of snow and icy winds were on the other side of the door. My curiosity overrode my caution and together we managed to yank the door open.

As I had suspected, we looked out at the blanket of snow. Trees obscured the view of anything that might have been there. “Do you know where we are?” I asked Michael at last. He shook his head and sneezed. “Oh, heavens, you shouldn't be out in the cold air. Come on, back into our dreary tunnel. There. Goodness! It's cold out there!” We were both shaking enough to bring down the tunnel.

While quickly retracing our footsteps (which could be seen clearly in the dirt) we talked little. The exercise warmed us up a little, but the damp coldness of the stone walls seemed to sink into our bones. Fortunately for both of us, we arrived back at the twin staircases in a short amount of time.

I stopped and looked at our footprints on the steps of the left starcase. The mark of man, I thought. The right steps' emptiness and unscathed dirt seemed to say, 'Step on me! Step on me!'

“Come on, Michael. More exploration.” I started up the steps at a brisk pace, kicking up quite a lot of dust. Michael, coughing, came behind.

It was much easier going down than it was going up and I was soon out of breath. My pace had slowed considerably and I finally had to stop and catch my breath. “Isn't this fun?” I gasped.

Michael didn't answer. Instead, he coughed for about five minutes. He looked at me like it was MY fault he was in the rotten tunnel. Resolutely, we started up again.

We came to the end of the stairs, but our way was blocked by a solid wall. “Now, how do we get this open. There has to be a way out.”

“There should be another lever on this side,” Michael said, feeling along the wall. “There always is in the books.”

It was hard to work in the dim light, but at last one of us found the right button, for suddenly the wall opened outward onto a room.

The last rays of the sun were streaming in through large windows partially covered by light curtains. To the immidiate right of the little opening was a fireplace idtentical to the one in the guest room.

“Hey, this is father's room!” Michael burst out of the passage-way. I came slowly, taking in everything my eyes fell upon.

We were in the bedroom, which was occupied by a possitively enormous bed. You'd have thought one person would get lost in all the space. It was a four-poster, and looked quite like the one in the other room. One for him and one for her, I thought. That was probably how married couples had slept back in the olden days. Or it is golden days? The rest of the room contained mainly chairs. A big rocker stood in the corner and looked as if it was rarely used. Beside the bed was a nightstand. A phone sat on it, but nothing else.

As a matter f fact, there was little decoration to be found at all. The walls were completly bare and no books lay scattered along the floor as in my room. How boring, I thought. What a solitary existence my captain led. All work, no play.

I suddenly felt as if I was invading on his privacy. I told Michael to shut the passageway, which he did, and we left the room.

He ran in to tell Anne and Amanda about our discoveries. I walked in the opposite direction, heading for my own room where I could think. I was shaking, but not from the cold air. It was perfectly warm inside the house. I had had no idea what affect the Captain had on me. Just seeing something that he used every day touched me in a strange way.

I would have contemplated further on these thoughts, but the three mischief-makers ran down the hall towards me. “Come on. Let's go tell father about the secret passage.” Amanda grabbed my hand and dragged me along.

When we'd found him in the library, I hung back and watched.

They explained to him excitedly of our adventures, all talking at once. He listened, but seemed slightly distracted. His work was spread out before him as usual, but that wasn't it, either. I puzzled over it, half listening to the conversation.

“Why was it built, father?” asked the curious Anne.

“I suppose so people could meet in secret, or excape the Indians, or something. It's been there for a long time.” Even when he spoke, his mind seemed to be on something else.

The children didn't notice, however. Maybe I was the one who was daydreaming. “I bet it WAS Indians!” Michael said loudly. He started prancing around the room, giving war-whoops. The other two joined him, but broke off when Lizette and Eric came through the front door. They ran to tell them the news. I stayed.

“Captain...” I started, but my voice refused to finish my thought.

He looked at me and smiled, his grey eyes twinkling and gleaming. “Yes?”

“Is something wrong?”

He considred an answer. “No.”

“Oh.” For some reason I was caught by surprise.

“Was something SUPPOSED to be wrong?”

“No, no. It's just that... well, you look...” Darn my voice!

“Miss Stevens, would it help if I said I'm tired?”

I smiled in a relieved sort of way. “Immensely. Is it the truth?”

His smile faded and he sighed. “Yes, it is. I gyess I haven't been sleeping very well lately. Work problems.”

“Anything bad?”

“No. You know, if somebody should be tired, it should be you,” he remarked, leaning back in his chair. I heard it squeak.

“Oh, there's only two of them sick so far. If I don't get any more before the other two get better, I'll live.”

His head nodded, but he didn't say anything.

I was totally at a loss for words. My brain refused to think of something to say. I was about ready to leave when Lizette came in, dragging her coat, her head drooping.

“Melanie!” she fairly wailed. “I can't be sick! I can't!”

I felt her forehead. “Hm. And why can't you be sick?”

She plunked down on the couch and placed her chin in her hand. “Keith's coming back tomorrow! I haven't see him for five whole days! I HAVE to go to school!”

“Now this is a first,” commented the Captain.

Eric sauntered in then. “Everybody says to keep her home. They don't want her to throw up on them.”

“It seems that the Kartwrights are mkeing their mark on the Middleton school district,” said the Captain. He got up from his chair and walked around the room.

“Melanie, you have to give me something, quick, before I throw up again,” wailed Lizette.

Amanda walked in just at that particular moment. “Melly, my head hurts.” She leaned against me and I patted her head.

Mrs Harding poked her head in the door. “Captain, Miss Sinclair is here.” Monica always shows up when things are getting bad. The icing on the cake, you might say. I HATE icing!

The fashion plate waltzed through the door and into our midst. “Why, Christopher, dear, is this a family meeting? Is there something I should know?”

I had a beautifully nasty retort on my tongue, but Anne obligingly breathed in Monica's face for me. I couldn't help laughing, and Monica turned a vicious countenance on me.

“Miss Stevens, can't you control these... these... CHILDREN any better? Take them out, at once!”

“Now, Monica,” intervened the Captain, but she cut him off.

“I WON'T have a little girl breathing germs in my face! Christopher, tell them to go.” We were rewarded then with a great view of her back.

I looked to the Captain and he nodded with an I'll-talk-to-you-later look in his eyes. I turned and began ushering the children out the door. Mrs. Harding appeared again.

“Miss Stevens, can you spare some time and come to the kitchen?” she more or less begged. “There are so many servants sick with this flu that I don't know what to do. I'm afraid I'm coming down with it, too. There's so much work and nobody to do it.”

I patted the poor woman on her shoulder. “I'll come as soon as I get these guys taken care of. Don't worry.” I turned to my sick group. “Let's get you upstairs and plaster you with mustard.”

Lizette looked doubtful. “Mustard?”

“It's a joke, Lizette.”

“Oh.”

Dinner was a dreadfully silent affair. Eric and I were the only ones who appeared. Both Amanda and Lizette had contracted this flu bug, and Michael and Anne were both back in the same boat as before. I think they'd had too much exercise and had gotten tired. The Captain had said he wasn't hungry and was locked in the library with Monica. I don't know why ANYBODY would torture himself like that.

Mrs. Harding hadn't been joking when she'd said half the servants were gone. Even Perkins had it and Mrs. Harding had been covering for him. Two hours after she'd called me she took one look at dinner and said she couldn't take it anymore and went to her room. Well, at least the cook was still healthy.

Trays were carried to the afflicted and soup was forced down many throats. I had visited John when the chance arrived and found him in bed like everybody else. His room was next to Perkins' so I stopped in there, too.

“Hello, Mr. Perkins. Here's some soup. Try to eat a little, please.” I set the tray on his knees, as he was propped up in bed.

“Why, thank you, Miss Melanie.” He picked up the spoon and took a mouthful. “Did you make this?”

“Well, I heated it up. I'm afraid all I have time for is Campbell's.”

“Then it's delicious, even though I can't taste it.”

I smiled. “Just leave it when you're finished. Somebody will pick it up.” He reminded me of Drake, the butler from Annie. Such a nice man once you got to know him.

I wandered out and plodded towards the kitchen on what was becoming a well-worn path. By now I certainly knew my way around the back part of the mansion! I found the cook up to her elbows in soapsuds, washing the many soup bowls. I picked up a towel and began drying them.

“You know,” I began, “It's really kind of stupid to make a big meal when nobody eats it.”

The big woman shook her head, but said, “The Captain wants a big, hot meal after working. I only follow the orders. It's certainly not my cooking that keeps people away from the table.”

I agreed with her completely, but refused to give up on the idea. “It's still dumb to make chicken souflee, then turn around and make fifty bowls of soup. I'll talk to the Captain about it. If I ever have time, that is.” I reflected on the idea as I sat bowl after bowl on the counter. “A dishwasher would be nice, too. It's perfectly ridiculous to have all that money and no dishwasher. Why, it's archaic! I'll see what he says about that, too.”

“Yes,” she said, “you do seem to have a way with the Captain. He's changed so very much since you came.”

“Oh?” I was undeniably interested in this news. I couldn't refrain from asking, “What was he like before?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “He's just NICER, I guess. He used to stay by himself a lot and never speak to anybody. Miss Sinclair had a free run of the house, and she didn't like it one bit when you moved in. Oh no! Why, I heard from the cheaffeur over at Sincalir's that she's rampaged about you for days on end! Things were really wild for awhile. She just couldn't understand how Christopher could hire a FARM girl who had lived with PIGS to take care of his children.” Her voice rose to Monica's indignation tone and she paused in her washing to role her eyes around, mimicking the woman. She soon sobered, however, and said, “Of course, she classses the children with pigs, too. Heaven help this house if the Captain ever marries that woman.”

I ran back to collect Perkin's and John's bowls, seeing that neither had eaten very much of their soup, and scolding them quite seriously for it. How on earth, I had said, did they expect to get better if they didn't eat anything! They were as bad as the children!

Before I went upstairs to give baths, I dropped in to see how Mrs. Harding was feeling. She looked positively GREEN! Apparently, she felt that way, too. I promised her she would feel better after a night's sleep and left her on this high note, although I'm sure she didn't believe a word I'd said.

I went up the front stairs in order to stop off at the library to get the book I was currently reading. I had forgotten it the day before when I had set it on the desk and decided I would get it now, so I wouldn't have to come back downstairs. As I approached the double doors I heard yelling. It was Monica's voice.

“Christopher, exactly how much longer do you expect me to wait? I can't go on forever like this. It's MY life and I won't wait any longer.”

“Monica,” came the somewhat softer reply of the Captain, “we've gone over this before...”

“But I'M the one who's waiting! I'M the one you're keeping on a string, one minute completely attentive and the next one ignoring me!”

“I'm dangling YOU?” he said, his voice raising considerably. “And just what were you doing at the costume ball when you were flirting with every man who looked your way? Or at the party at Mount Bastian when you ignored me the whole time?”

“At the costume ball you were too enamored with Miss Stevens to pay even the slightest bit of attention to me!” She sounded like a spoiled, jealous child. I waited for his response.

“If you hadn't started those stupid rumors about her being married, I could have left her alone without the least bit of doubt as to the fact that she could take care of herself. But I couldn't very well have left her to take the abusing comments and dirty looks from the rich snobs whom we call our friends by herself, could I, my dear? That wouldn't have been proper at all! And above all else, we must ALWAYS by proper!”

There was a slight pause as Monica collected herself, I think. “You have no way of knowing if I started those rumers!”

“Oh, don't I? What kind of a fool do you think I am, Monica? I'm not blind! You've been jealous of her ever since she came into this house. And don't give me that 'thing' about her coming from a farm and living with pigs! She's a very capable governess and will someday make a wonderful mother, which is something you will never be!” He paused, then continued in a much softer tone and I couldn't hear what he said. She, too, seemed much calmer and I couldn't hear her voice, either.

I turned quickly and ran up the stairs. My heart was pounding in my chest and my hands were sweating. I had clenched them into fists and my nails had dug into my palms, leaving marks.

When I reached the top of the stairs, I leaned against the wall and tried to control my breathing. Guilt swept over me like a wave. How could I have so blatantly stood by the door and listened like that? Honestly, I was no better than Monica!

Their words still ringing loudly in my ears, I headed for Anne and Amanda's room to give them the good news that it was bath time.

Anne was immensely crabby and had to be forced into the water, complaining that she wasn't dirty. Amanda just did everything she was told and didn't say anything at all. How I wish EVERYTHING could be that easy!

I had them all successfully under the covers by nine o'clock. Surprisingly, Lizette went without a word. Even Eric was soon sound asleep. If he kept this up, maybe he would be lucky and not get it.

After this I made the rounds of the rest of the house, asking if anybody wanted anything. Up to now I had liked the idea of having all the servants live at the Manor, but now I selfishly wished they could all go home and let somebody else take care of them. There were at least thirty servants in all, and I'm sure twenty or so of them were sick. Couldn't they have gotten it in shifts of five or something? And with Mrs. Harding down, all the housework fell to me, being the next highest in command. I felt like the first ship mate! Now I know that Mr. Spock and I were equals.

I was busy all night so I didn't see Monica leave. I guess she left, anyway, because her chauffeur, James (of all things!) was not in the vicinity of the kitchen when I made my last trip back before going up to bed.

Gratefully I slipped under the cold sheets and was soon sound asleep. I hadn't had time to think about the secret passage, my sick kids, the Captain, or anything before my eyes were shut. Goodness, what a day.

I should have known it couldn't last long. It was somewhere near midnight when I felt Amanda shaking me, saying, “Melanie, I don't feel good,” in a loud whisper.

My first thought was to say “What do you want me to do about it?” but that was definately not what a 'capable governess' would say, so I dragged myself out of sleep and sat up in bed. “Does your head hurt?” She nodded, which I could barely see in the dark. “How's the stomach?” Negative. I sighed and turned on my reading lamp. “Ok. I'll give you some medicine for your stomach and some aspirin for your head.” As I was fetching these materials from the bathroom, I noticed that I was going to need more children's aspirin. Hopefully Dr. Salgers could stop by tomorrow, whoops, later on today, with some more junk. But HE'S probably running out, too!

“Here,” I said, handing the chewable asprin to the little girl, following it with a glass of water, then finally a spoonfull of medicine.

She grimaced at the taste. “YUCH!”

“I'm sorry. I'm NOT Mary Poppins and I can't make medicine come in your favorite flavors. Although,” I added thoughtfully, “It would be kind of fun if I could. I'd give Monica liver-tasting medicine.”

This prospect made Amanda smile at least. “Anne put garlic in Mrs. Grantley's mouthwash once,” she said.

I laughed. “Yes, I heard about that. So, do you feel good enough to go back to bed?”

“No! I want to stay here with you! Anne snores!”

I sighed again. Now what? The rocking chair! I yanked one of the many blankets off my bed and spread it over the polished boards of the back. Thank heavens the seat was cushioned! Another blanket covered us up, and, with the little girl on my lap, I began rocking.

“Who's Mary Poppins?” she inquired presently.

“Why, she's only the best governess in the world. She taught me everything I know.” I couldn't help adding, “She lived in England a long time ago, and carried an umbrella and a carpet bag crammed full of interesting things. I believe she even carried a hat rack in it.”

“What's a carpet bag?”

“A cloth suitcase that's no bigger than your bellybutton!” and I tickled her tummy.

“Don't tickle me!” she laughed before quieting down again. “My head hurts.”

“Oh, my. Well, maybe if you go to sleep, your headache will go away. Close your eyes. That's it. No peeking! Ok, now think nice things.”

“Like what?” she whispered.

“Oh, like... a day in summer when it's warm and the sun is shining. The flowers will be growing all over the place and they'll snell SO good and the gardner will be cussing at the weeds in the garden. The bugs will be flying all around and the leaves will rustle on the tree, the breeze moving them only enough to make a little noise. The new green grass will smell so good and look so soft that you simply HAVE to lay down in it and roll around so you get some good grass stains on your pants. Then, the sun will be so warm amd it'll make you so tired that you can't help lying still and having a nice, comfortably long nap. And all the little butterflies and bees will be buzzing around, singing you to sleep.” My voice got softer and softer as my description went on, and Amanda's head got closer and closer to my shoulder. It landed with a soft thud and I knew she was asleep, but I kept rocking, thinking of the warm, sunny days yet to come, wishing fervently that they were here now.

A noise near the door caused me to look up and Micki pranced in. She made herself at home on my bed and proceeded to give herself a bath. I sat and watched her, my thoughts drifting.

“That was very nice,” the Captain said as he stood leaning against the door.

His surprise visits had ceased to startle me. I was getting used to having him suddenly make a comment or appearance when I least expected it.

I smiled, appreciating the compliment. “Why, thank you, sir.” I kept my voice a whisper so I wouldn't wake Amanda.

“Summer days.” He moved to lean against my bed post. “Yes, anything is better than staying cooped up in here with no place to go. It's times like this when I wish I could saddle up Gringelot (his horse) and ride to my heart's content. I assure you, I would get as far away from here as possible.”

I wanted desperately to make a comment about that, but I held my tongue, afraid that I would tell about the overheard arguement.

He came out of his revery and smiled at me. “Well, it's no use wishing for something that's not here. I must tell you, Miss Stevens, that if you'd gone on much further with your 'Summer Day' you would have had me asleep outside your door. I was sure you heard me yawning.”

“Uhuh. Somehow I don't believe you.”

“Captains NEVER lie,” he said with his eyes wide. He indicated Amanda. “Is she sick?”

“Yep. Just like everybody else.”

“Do you plan on spending the night here?”

“No,” I admonished him for his foolishness with a look. “When my legs fall asleep, I'll worry about getting her back in bed without waking her up. But right now I just want to rock.”

“It looks like lots of fun.”

I looked at him, noticing that he was still in his clothes. “Don't you ever go to bed? Are you STILL working?”

“No,” he warrented. “I'm finished now.”

“Good. Go to bed. If you don't get some sleep, you'll end up with the flu as sure as I'm born.”

“You're that sure, are you?” I nodded. “Alright, I'm going, miss bossy. But you have to get some sleep, too. If you get this, then we're ALL in trouble!”

“Deal.” I couldn't shake his hand as Amanda was sitting on it. I tried unsuccessfully to rise. It's hard to get up when you're holding a forty pound girl!

The Captain placed a restraining hand on my shoulder. “Here, I'll take her.” He effortlessly lifted her out of my arms, replacing my shoulder with his. He stared down into the little face. “She is cute, isn't she?”

“Positively adorable, as are all your children.”

“Yes, I'm beginning to find that out again. Good-night.”

“Good-night, Captain.” He walked slowly out of my room, carefully cradling his daughter. He appeared to be the perfect and loving father. I could still feel his hand on my shoulder.

It was becoming harder and harder to act normally in his presence. Every time I saw him I wanted to tell him how I felt and touch him in a way that I had no right. Even though I enjoyed talking to him tremendously, I knew I would soon reach the point where I would be avoiding him purpossfully, afraid I would give myself away with just a look. I'm sure my eyes were adoring when I looked at him now and I was surprised that no one had figured out my secret yet. I fervently hoped that nobody would.

The next day dawned grey and morbid. I had been up twice more the night before, once with Michael and once with Anne, and I was quite exhausted. Now I knew why people were having smaller families these days!

I went to get Eric up for school and found him already awake. “So, how are you?”

“I've got a headache. I've never gotten up after a good night's sleep with a headache before.” He puzzled over it.

“Does breakfast sound good to you?”

“I don't know. I'd have to smell it first.”

“Well, run down and try.” He plodded down the back stairs in his pyjamas while I went to see if anybody else was up. Lizette was dressed and curling her hair. “And how are you?” I asked.

“I'm fine,” she answered.

“You look kind of green to me. Sit down and let me take your temperature.” She did as she was told reluctantly. “Can I trust you not to hold the thermometer under your light?” I joked, but she only nodded. “I'll be back.”

I peeked in to find Anne and Amanda still sleeping and Michael was the same. I supposed I would have to call down to the school and get their homework, although I was sure a third and fifth grader wouldn't have THAT much work to do.

Back to Lizette. She was dutifully sitting on her bed, the thermometer still in her mouth. I took it out and read the results. “Well, you're still stuck here.”

“What! I can't have a termperature! That thing's broken! I'm going to school!”

This was one problem I had never had to face. “You can't expose yourself to everybody else, Lizette. If you stay home today, maybe you can go back tomorrow. I'm sure Keith will live one day without you. You can call him tonight.”

She despondently lay down on her bed, not saying anything more. I made my way to the servant's stairs and met Eric on his way back to his room.

“Forget it!” he said emphatically. “There's no way I can eat that stuff! Thank you, but I'll go back to bed.”

I took his word for it and went down to breakfast, for my stomach was totally empty and had been informing me of it rather noisily for the last half hour.

I had my bacon and eggs in the kitchen with the cook as nobody else came down to eat. The Captain apparently still wasn't hungry.

Orange juice made up most everybody's breakfast. At least it was an easy order to fill. I did hunt down the Captain to make sure he hadn't overslept and found him in the library preparing for a days work at the office. He didn't look much better than any of his children, yet I was in no position to force him to stay home. I made him promise me to at least get a donut or something before he left.

John obliged me and ordered some toast from the kitchen and the cook was only too happy to finally have something to do. I reminded myself to talk to the Captain about the dishwasher the first thing when he came home.

As it was, he reappeared at the mansion just after noon and immediately shut himself in the library. This was extremely strange but I didn't question it.

Lunch had gone the same as breakfast. This time the main course was Seven-up, just for something different. I had called Dr. Salgers and he told me he would be over tomorrow at the earliest. I told him to bring LOTS of medicine.

Not long after lunch I went in to talk to my employer about the dishwasher. I opened the library door and before he could even look up, I started, “Captain, I've been meaning to talk to you... Goddness, it's hot in here!” There was a huge fire in the big stone fireplace and I'm sure the heater was turned up full blast. The Captain sat at his desk, wearing a heavy sweater.

“Hot!” he exclaimed, looking up. “I'm freezing! I came home because it was so cold at the office and it's not any warmer here!”

I crossed the expanse of carpet to his desk and without even thinking, automatically placed my right hand on his forehead. “You certainly don't feel cold to me. Quite the opposite!” I stated. I was about to withdraw my hand, but he stopped me by covering it with his own.

“Your hand's so warm,” he said.

“And so are you,” I said, fighting mightily to remain in control of my stampeding emotions. Finally he let go of my hand and I withdrew it quickly, my cheeks hot. He was looking at me with that strange glint in his eyes again. “You should be in bed,” I said, averting my eyes.

“Bed doesn't sound too bad, really,” said the Captain, but his attention went back to his work.

This time I decided to be firm. “I'm sure your work can wait. And,” I continued as he gave me an objecting glance, “if it can't, there is more than likely ten people down at the office who are more than capable of doing it.” With a touch of finality, I unplugged his electric calculator. His briefcase stood open on the floor so I gathered up his papers and dropped them in, forming them into a neat little pile. I grabbed his hand and pulled him out of his chair, then headed for the door. “Come on.”

“Wait.”

I stopped, turned, and looked at him. “What?”

“There's another stairway leading up to my room. I haven't used it for a long time. It's somewhere back here.” He led me now, pulling me towards the back of the big room. “There it is.” He showed me to a dusty corner in the dark recesses of the room. There was a little door, hardly visible, hidden among the shelves of books.

“I don't think I've ever seen a door that little, except in Alice in Wonderland,” I said. The Captain pulled on the knob and the door swung open easily. The stairway was as skinny as the door.

“It's dark, so be careful,” he warned.

“You're the one in front. Just don't slip backwards.” We started up. It was a plain, straight staircase made of wood. Service stairs for quick access to the library.

It was rather stuffy and the dust was beginning to get to me. The Captain sneezed and I blessed him automatically. I could feel how hot he was just by standing near him, and my hand held inside his fingers was sweating.

Then we reached the top and another door. This too opened easily and we entered onto yet another room which I hadn't seen. This one contained a couch and several chairs, with a few windows on the south wall. The room was cold and had a kind of grey and unhappy atmosphere. There were no pictures on the walls at all.

“Where are we?” I asked while gazing around the room in disapproval.

“My sitting room.”

“It's cold in here.”

He crossed to a normal-sized door and opened it, entering his bedroom. I followed him slowly, reluctant to enter the inner sanctum.

“Have you had anything to eat or drink today?” I was suddenly extremely shy and I refused to look at him, thus talking to the floor.

“No,” he said as he lowered himself wearily on to the bed.

I left and ran down the back stairs to get some orange juice, thinking about the little stairs from the library. This house certainly had a lot of surprises! Back up again, cradling the glass in my hands, managing to make it all the way to his room without spilling. Miracles never cease to exist!

But by this time the Captain was already asleep. I set the glass on his nightstand and hurried to close the curtains, making the room dusky, but not exactly dark. I looked around, shivering. If something wasn't done about the temperature, the Captain would be a block of ice with hair when he woke up. I tried to build a small fire as quietly as possible, but I'm not the world's greatest fire-builder. I dropped three logs on the grate, and once I finally got a flame going, I burned myself and had to bite my lip to keep from screaming, “OUCH!” Why me?

With my finger cooling off in my mouth I took one last look around to see if there was anything else to do. To be truthful, now that I was in his room, I really didn't want to leave. I tip-toed into the bathroom to find another blanket to spread over my sleeping hero and in the process of throwing it over him, I discovered that he'd forgotten to take off his shoes. Typical men! It really wasn't hard to get them off, and the Captain never even moved.

I surveyed the room once again, this time my eyes resting on the orange juice. I found a piece of paper and a pen and wrote DRINK ME on the small, white sheet. I giggled softly at the thought as I rested the paper against the glass. That was it. There was nothing left for me to do. I could go now.

But still I stayed, just giving myself the luxury of gazing at him without having to worry if somebody was watching me. I hesitantly reached out a hand and brushed back a lock of his dark hair that had fallen over his eyes. Then I left, quietly closing the door behind me.

I gave a knock on John's door.

“Come in,” he called and I pushed open the door. “Melanie! What a surprise!”

“Hah!” I set down the soup I was carrying on his night table. “Surprise my foot! Who else is healthy enough to come see you?” My voice was harsh, but I was smiling.

“Ah, more liquid. I feel like the Chicken soup sea.” He took the bowl and began feeding himself.

“So, how do you feel?”

“Much better, thank you. I think I'll get up tomorrow.”

“Good. Then I'll put you to work.”

“In that case, I'll stay here. Hey,” he looked at me closer. I stared back. “Did you do something to your hair?”

“I washed it, idiot. It's wet.”

“Oh. I just noticed it was a different color. It makes you look about sixteen.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“Just thought I'd mention it.”

I whirled around. “So long. I have more food to deliver.”

Perkins was my next stop and he too commented on my wet hair. It's like nobody had ever washed their hair before! Good grief!

Lizette was still moping around, but at least she ate something. Michael had beaten me to the kitchen and had just eaten a huge sandwitch. He was obviously getting better. Eric slept the whole day, and Anne asked me what we would be doing for her birthday, which unfortunately was the very next day. I'd told her that we would wait until everybody was better so they could have more fun.

“But I want a party tomorrow!” she pouted.

“Please, Anne, don't start acting like Monica. I'm too tired to argue with you. We'll wait. That just gives you more time to look forward to your presents.” This seemed to give her something to think about. I was about to leave when she stopped me.

“Melanie, did you stretch your hair or something? It looks longer.”

I sighed. “I washed it,” I said. I wished this house had an intercom so I could yell over it “I washed my hair!” and keep everybody quiet.

“Oh,” she said. “It makes you look different.”

“Thanks, Anne.” I left.

The Captain was my last stop. I wanted to get in and get out of his room quick before I had time to do something stupid and embarass myself. I knocked quietly on the door, half hoping he was still asleep.

“Come in,” I heard him call. I opened the door with reluctance. He was sitting yp in bed, the blankets bunched around him.

“I thought you'd like some soup since you haven't had anything to eat all day.”

“How nice of you,” he said, taking the bowl out of my hands.

“I see you drank your orange juice. Good for you.”

“Grossest stuff I ever tasted. I thought the 'DRINK ME' was a nice touch, though.”

“I couldn't resist it. I...” He suddenly stopped feeding himself and stared at me. “What's wrong?” I asked self-consciously.

“Nothing, nothing. It's just... well... you look different somehow.” His face was puzzled.

“Honestly! I washed my hair earlier than normal because I had a free half hour. I've learned to do it when I can this last week. It's just wet.”

He nodded his head. “You look younger.”

“So I've been told. Well, I guess I'll go now.” I put my hand on the door knob.

“Wait.” I turned quickly to face him. “I want to talk to you.” I stood waiting for him to go on. “Please, sit down.”

I cautiously seated myself at the end of his bed. He was still curled up in his blenakets, but his back was propped against the backboard.

“I was just talking to Monica on the phone and regretably she has the flu,” he was saying, sipping soup between words.

I thought, regretable nothing! HOORAY! Aloud I said, “Then she won't be coming over or anything for awhile?”

“From the way it sounded, she won't be doing anything for quite some time. I guess she's got it pretty bad.”

“I don't understand why you're telling me this.”

“Didn't I tell you? The Club Dinner is this Saturday and Monica will more than likely be too sick to go with me and I wondered if, maybe, you'd consider keeping me company for the evening?”

I sat kind of surprised for a minute. Gee, my first genuine date! “Well... I don't really know... I suppose I could. But the children. They'll still be sick and SOMEBODY'S got to take care of them. And I really don't have anything to wear or...”

“I know it's rather short notice, but I'm sure there's a dress you could wear somewhere in this house, or you could buy one in Denver,” he suggested mildly, imploring me to come to his rescue.

I considered his proposition. “You're in a bind, aren't you?”

“Well, yes.”

“Don't tell me. The Club Dinner is NOT something you go to by yourself.” He nodded, seeming to hold his breath in wait for my answer. I came to a quick decision. “Ok. I'll go. But only because you're in a situation, not because your date got sick.”

He breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Miss Stevens. Just for this, I'll give you a raise.”

“A raise! Good grief! That's one thing I DON'T need. I already nave more money than I know what to do with. Please keep your money.”

“Miss Stevens, didn't anybody ever tell you that when somebody offers you money, you don't say 'Keep it!'” His old air of arrogance was back now that he had me where he wanted me.

“Well, nobody's going anywhere if you're still sick. How do you feel?”

“Oh, tired but better. How's the rest of the house doing?” He finished his soup and set the bowl on his table.

“Let's see, Michael ate a huge sandwich, Anne complained about not having her birthday party tomorrow - I told her we would wait until everybody's healthy again - John said he'd get up tomorrow, Lizette, Amanda, Eric, and Mrs. Harding are still stick, and Perkins said he would be up tomorrow too. We're beginning to trickle back one by one. When I decided I wanted to be a governess, sick kids was not exactly what I had in mind.” The uneasiness I had felt earlier had completely disappeared by now.

He settled himself in a more comfortable position. “Tell me, why did you become a governess?”

“Because I love children, I guess. They're my one talent. Why are you... whatever it is you are?” I asked.

“Tradition more than anything, I think. The oldest son always takes over the company when he's old enough. Sometimes I wish I had an older brother,” he added almost to himself.

“Why? Aren't you happy being a businessman?”

“Oh, sure I'm happy. Well, at any rate, I'm not UNhappy. There are just times that I wish I was something else.”

“Such as what?”

He looked at me hesitantly. “You'd laugh.”

“No I wouldn't,” I insisted. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Well, I always wanted to be a horse guide or mountain man in the Rockies.”

I thought about this possibility. I pictured the Captain, clad un buckskins and wearing a cowboy hat, sitting regally on his horse, looking across the valley. I suddenly burst out laughing. “I'm sorry, Captain, but... you in beckskins is just...” I couldn't finish my sentence for I had buried my face in the blankets.

“That is the absolute LAST time I'll ever trust you again!” he expostulated.

“Oh, don't take it personally,” I said, still giggling. “To tell you the truth, I once wanted to guide tourists on horse trails too.”

He looked at me in terror. “The way you ride? That's one trail ride I would be sure not to miss. It would be too entertaining!”

“Oh, be quiet! I also wanted to be a jockey - NO COMMENT - and a reporter and an actress, and a lot of other things that were definately not practical but fun to think about.”

“Here, here,” he said. “We should have some wine or something and toast ourselves for not becoming the stupid things we wanted to.” He had to stop talking and yawn.

“I guess I also wanted to be a travel agent so I could travel around the world and visit all those neat places before I die.”

“And where's that?”

“Well, Austria first, and Egypt, and England. I'd live in England if I could, but I don't think I would fit in to London society. I don't think I fit into DENVER society. I'm kind of a class all by myself.”

“Yes, that's true. But Egypt? What's in Egypt?”

“Sand.”

“That's exciting,” he said in an exagerated voice. “What about Austria?”

“Oh, there's the Alps,” I suggested. “And I think I have relatives in Switzerland.”

“If you want to see mountains, just look out the window.”

“Well, it's too dark now and it's snowing.”

“Oh, you elf!” He threw one of his many pillows at me. I caught it and gave him a smug look.

“Well, there's also England,” I said, continuing the conversation. “Although I would rather be in the 1800s than the present. Then I could wear those long dresses and go to balls and dance with... well, if I was a governess in nineteenth-century England, I wouldn't be allowed to go to balls and dance with anybody. I would be forced to 'remember my position' and I would never have any fun. I'd still like it, though. Dancing doesn't thrill me too much.”

“You mean you don't like to whirl about the floor and...”

“And step on people's feet,” I finished for him. “I am not a proficient dancer.”

“Then I'll have to teach you. I can't be dancing with everybody else's dates Saturday night.”

I nodded my head and didn't say anything. I climbed off the bed and uncovered the windows. It was completely dark now and I couldn't see if the snowflakes still fell from the grey sky. The room was becoming decidedly colder, especially near the windows. Icy air crept into the room from between the woodwork. The fire was almost out, the embers glowing brightly.

“Did you sleep all afternoon?” I asked, facing him.

“I guess so. Unless it's Friday night instead of Thursday.”

I smiled. “What humor! I suppose I should start the fire again.” I added some more logs to the dying embers and watched the paper catch fire. The logs soon caught and a nice little blaze was going. “Oh, my. I could lay down right here and fall asleep. Unfortunately, my face would probably melt before slumber claimed me as it's victim. But the thought is nice.”

“Stop! You're putting me to sleep!” He crawled out from under his covers and came slowly to stand beside me.

“I could sit here and dry my hair and you could watch in friz,” I suggested. “I've been told if I cut it, I'll have curly hair. Then half my personality would disappear.”

“Most assuredly,” he said quietly.

“Ah, you've been listening to me too much. You're beginning to use big words.”

“Somebody could record our conversations and sell them as episodes of the Twilight Zone. We certainly say strange enough things.”

The conversation kind of drew to a halt after that. We just stood in front of the fire, totally silent, watching the flames promenade across the logs. Every now and then the wood popped and sizzled, but on the whole, the room was silent.

I soaked it all up and let it sink into my tired bones. There was a great atmosphere of contentment in the air and I was taking as much of it as I could possibly get while it was still for the taking.

Finally the Captain broke the silence and said, “What are you thinking?”

Without hesitation I answered, “I'm thinking that if I don't get out of here, I'll die of starvation,” and I started for the door. “Whoops. I almost forgot your bowl.” I retrived the item and said good-night after giving him strict orders to go to bed at a decent hour, or Monica would not be the only one not attending the Club Dinner.

I closed his door behind me and caught my breath. I was going to spend an entire evening with the Captain! And no Monica! Then panic took control of me. What on earth was I going to wear? I quickly ran down the steps to talk to Mrs. Harding. Hopefully, she would know what to do. I certainly didn't!

Chapter 11

“Melanie, hurry up! Father's waiting for you!” Michael yelled from down the hall.

“For Pete's sake, Michael, I'm trying! Give me a break!”

I was quickly putting the finishing touches on my hair and general outward appearance. Lizette as usual was helping in any way she could, and Anne and Amanda were on the bed watching.

“There,” I said at last, “how do I look?” I turned for their approval.

“Fantastic,” said Lizette, giving my hair a final swish with the brush. “You'll be the prettiest lady there. And probably the youngest.”

“And the strangest, the worst dancer, and the only governess. Why on earth did I let your father talk me into this? For once I wish Monica wasn't sick!” I exclaimed.

“Oh, you'll do fine! Just remember, if you don't talk to anybody, you won't have any problems,” Lizette assured me.

“I'll never open my mouth,” I promised.

“Then how are you going to eat?” asked Amanda seriously. Lizette hushed her with a look.

I turned around to survey myself one last time in the mirror. I was wearing a white floor length gown that Mrs. Harding and I had bought the day before. The skirt was big and seemed to flow from my waist. I'm not quite sure what material it was made of, but it felt like satin and it glimmered in the light. The neckline was a little lower than I would have liked, but beggers can't be choosers. The sleeves were very simple and elastic held them at my wrists. I was wearing the same diamond necklace I had worn to the costume ball, and new diamond-studded combs securely held my hair back. Mrs. Harding had told me that jewelry was an absolute necessity and I had taken her word for it. The combs had been quite expensive, but I had money piling up in the bank and I had decided to spend some of it. It had been a wise decision.

“Well,” I said. “I guess this will have to do.”

Anne's eyes were huge. “Are you nervous?”

“Immenseley so,” I answered.

“Your hand are shaking,” she commented.

“Thank you, Anne, but I already know that. How do I get myself into these things? Lizette, I'm gonna get sick.”

The older girl grabbed my hand and yanked me out of my room. “You'll be fine. They're just people.” Anne and Amanda followed, carrying my maroon cloak for me.

“But they're rich.”

“For tonight so are you. Everything you're wearing is expensive. You look rich even if you're in debt. Now, come ON.”

“Are you sure you feel alright?” I asked her for the tenth time.

“Melanie, I'm fine. I can take care of Amanda. She won't die while you're gone. I promise.

We were now travelling down the stairs. “Ok, Ok. Don't forget to give her some medicine before you put her to bed.”

“I know, I know. Good grief, you'd think you'll be gone for an entire year or something.”

Lizette had raced Eric back to health and beaten him, I think. Amanda was still sick, but she was doing better. Michael had even gone back to school the day before and gotten all his homework. John was all better and so was Perkins. Mrs. Harding was almost there, even though she had taken me shopping the day before. I had been up both Thursday and Friday night with Amanda and I was quite tired, but right now I was too excited and nervous to think about it. My stomach was doing flip-flops every other second.

The Captain was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs with Eric and Michael. I went to stand before my escort and held up my hand. “Why, Captain Butler, what a pleasure it is to see you again,” I said in my best southern drawl and a little smile on my lips.

He played his part well, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise, taking my hand. “The pleasure's all mine, Miss O'Hara.” He raised my hand to his lips and kissed my fingers ever so softly. (Wow!) “Shall we go?”

I took a big breath and let it out. Here goes nothing! I gave each of my children a kiss good-night and told them to do as Lizette and Mrs. Harding said and not to fight. They waved to us as the limosine pulled out of the drive and headed toward Denver.

I don't remember much of the ride except that I kept rubbing my hand on the soft velvet of my cloak, feeling it brush one way, then the other. The Captain kept up a steady stream of conversation and I must have said SOMETHING, but for the life of me I can't remember what.

The Captain was as handsome as ever in a black tuxedo with coattails, white shirt, and black bow tie.

We arrived at the Ball Room amidst a pack of limosines. They were lined up for blocks, waiting to deliver their occupents on the stone steps leading to the vast building. Eight pillars supported the ceiling, four on each side of the steps.

“My heavens, it's big,” I said, gazing up. The roof seemed to touch the stars.

“You have a habit of understatement, my dear Melanie,” he said.

Melanie? When did he start using my first name? Of course, I told myself, he couldn't exactly call me Miss Stevens tonight. He never called Monica Miss Sinclair, so why should he call me Miss Stevens? It makes sense. Then am I supposed to call him Christopher? I don't think I can do that. It's too familiar. I'll call him Captain unless he tells me not too.

Once to this conclusion and once in the building, I relaxed and prepared myself for an interesting evening. My cloak was deposited in the cloak room and we walked across an ocean of marble to greet the other Club members. Actually, the Captain did the greetings, I just stood by and smiled. I recognized many faces from the costume ball, but I couldn't put names to any of them. I was introduced as the Captain's 'aquaintance' and nobody disputed it, though I'm sure some of them remembrered me as the young and disgraceful Kartwright governess. Whenever I was with the Captain, tongues were held.

The Captain was engaged in a conversation with some old matron when I heard a familiar voice say, “Melanie? What are you doing here?” Paul Sinclair suddenly appeared at my side accompanied by a rather tall woman who appeared to be in her mid to late twenties.

“Paul! Hello again,” I said. “Don't you know that Monica's sick? I'm kind of her replacement.”

“I see,” he said, glancing at the Captain. “So she can work to our advantage as long as she doesn't know it.”

I looked at him, confused. “What?”

“Nothing. Oh, Melanie, this is my good friend Constance La Fonte. Connie, this is Melanie Stevens, Christopher's... how should I put it?”

“Aquaintance,” I finished for him. I nodded a greeting to Miss La Fonte. “You know the Captain?” I asked her.

A somewhat low voice answered, “We've met. Paul's told me a lot about you, Melanie - may I call you that?”

I felt very comfortable with this girl for some odd reason. “Only if I can call you Constance,” I answered.

She smiled slowly. “Paul said I would like you. Well, hi, Christopher. What's been going on with you lately?”

“The flu,” he said, turning away from the matron to join us.

“You too, huh? I suppose the whole house got it?”

While the three of them talked, I studied Constance. As I said before, she was quite tall with a good figure. The grey dress she wore brought out the light grey in her dark, curly hair, but it didn't make her seem old, only characteristic. She spoke easily and didn't seem in the least bit shy. In fact, she was slightly loud at times, her low voice carrying across the room. This caused heads to turn, but she ignored them completely and continued talking.

“Did you ever solve your nanny problems, Christopher?” Constance was saying when I brought my attention back to the moment at hand.

I looked up at the Captain to see what he would do. His eyebrows went up and he said, “Why hide the truth. You're looking at her.”

Constance looked me full in the eye. “This little thing takes care of all five of them?”

“And she does a marverlous job of it,” Paul supplied.

“Glad it's you and not me. Hey, then it must be you that I keep hearing about. Marrying a convict! You've got more guts than I have.”

I turned accusingly on my escort. “I thought you'd said it would pass by Christmas.” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled apologetically. I focused my attention once again on Constance. “Whatever you heard, it wasn't true.”

“You mean you're not married? You don't have two kids in Mexico?”

“Mexico!” I exclaimed. “Heavens no!”

“None of it's true?” I shook my head. “And I thought I'd finally met somebody interesting!”

“I'm sure you'll find Melanie extremely interesting,” said the Captain smoothly. She had no time to comment on that because Charles DuPree came up, bellowing:

“Christopher! How are things with you? Monica keeping you on your toes?”

“Hello, Charles,” said the Captain. “Things are fine. Monica has the flu, so she stayed home and is taking care of herself.”

“Smart woman, smart woman. Well then, if she's at home, who in the devil are you...” Then he spotted me. “Oh, Miss Stevens, is it? Yes, we met at the Halloween bash at your place. It's good to see you again. Ah, there's Alice Smitzeln. I've got to catch her. See you later Christopher. Miss Stevens.” He took off to pursue his Alice, no doubt to gossip about me.

“Now, there is a prime example of an idiot,” Paul said while gazing after the plump man. “Wouldn't know how to conduct himself in public if he was handed a baton.”

“I don't think he likes you, Melanie,” Constance ventured forth.

“He certainly doesn't hide it, does he?” There was genuine animosity in the Captain's voice. “I never could understand what Monica saw in him.”

Paul answered, “His money. Just like...” He cut himself off as the loud clang of a gong sounded through the hall. “Well, finally,” and he moved off towards the left of the hall, Constance close by.

Everybody moved in the same direction and I, totally lost as to what was going on, grabbed the Captain's arm and asked, “What's happening?”

“It's time for dinner,” he said.

“Called to dinner by a gong. I feel like I'm in Siam.”

We were surrounded by people, all going for the dining room. Suddenly the Captain leaned down and spoke softly. “I must warn you about the dinner. We'll probably be split up; that's the custom. Don't worry, just smile. There will probably be seven or eight courses, so don't eat all of what you get. If you do, you'll explode before desert. Eat a little of everything and you'll be fine.”

“A little of everything,” I repeated to myself, then said, “You sure sound important; giving me all this advice and everything.”

“I have the knowlege so I might as well show it off.”

“My, aren't we conceited!”

“Oh, absolutely. Conceited to the very core!”

“Hmph.”

I didn't have time to say anything else for we entered the huge dining room. Guests milled around the tables, finding empty places and seating themselves, laughing and talking. I expected the Captain to stop at one of these tables, but he led me through the throng towards an extremely long table with many cushioned chairs set around it.

“Heavens!” I said, looking at the table. “It's certainly big enough! How many does it seat?”

“Exactly fifty,” said the Captain, looking down at me.

“I'd hate to have to ask someone at the other end to pass the salt. By the time it got to you, you'd be finished eating!” The Captain's rich laugh rang out, diminishing those of the other guests. I couldn't help but smile at him. It was all I could do not to give him an impulsive hug; I was so very happy in that moment just being with him. My gaze slid to the floor and I knew I was blushing. Hopefully the Captain didn't notice.

Together we found Monica's name card and I sat down in her place. I had already been told that on the invitation was something of a questionair, requiring the guest to fill out who he was and who was going with him. It made sense; how else would they know who to expect? It just so happened that at the time the Captain returned the invitation, Monica was still his date.

With the caution of, “Don't eat too much. I don't want any broken toes after the dancing,” he left to find where he was to sit. I soon lost sight of him in the crowd near the table.

I got myself settled and looked aroud at the other people near me. I didn't read the name cards next to my seat because I thought it would be rude. However, my curiosity boiled. Suddenly I sensed rather than saw a quick, subtle movement on my left. I turned, but only found an empty chair to stare at. I looked away, telling myself to stop imagining things.

Other people were settling themselves into chairs now, still laughing and talking. I caught a glimpse of the Captain talking to someone, but lost him again as the chair to my right was pulled out. I looked out of the corner of my eyes to see who it was.

Charles DuPree! I'm going to cry!

Mr. DuPree sat down, quite unconcerned with the arrangements while I cursed Fate, the gods, and whatever else I thought would be effective. It did no good; he stayed in the chair. This is a time to say 'Beam me up, Scotty,' I thought remorsefully. Wishful thinking.

I stared down at my napkin, trying desperately to remain inconspicuous. It didn't work.

“So we meet again, Miss Stevens. And without the company of Captain Kartwright,” he said, his stout belly squeezed between the table and his chair. A look of 'Ha ha, I've got you now,' could be clearly read on his countenance.

“No, I'm afraid he's eating with... others, as seems to be the custom at these little get togethers,” I smoothly let go and was quite proud of myself for my quick thinking, while hunger and anxiety made my stomach twist into a little ball. I COULDN'T make a fool of myself in front of this man.

“This gives me a chance to talk to you privately.”

“What could you possibly want to talk to me about, Mr. DuPree?”

All those Star Trek episodes were finally paying off; thinking of Mr. Spock's infallibly calm behavior, I was cool as a cucumber.

“I was just curious about your past. Is it true?” He seemed to me to be grovelling for any bit of information he could in order to show up to his friends. He and Monica were just alike.

“What differnce would it make if I said it was true or not? You would only go on believing what you've heard.” I think my coolness was coming dangerously clost to contempt without Mr. Spock's help.

“Why of all the...” he sputtered in rage.

I didn't let him go on. “Tell me, Mr. DuPree, do you make a hobby of believing everything you hear? Or is it merely a passing fad? Please don't judge me by what I am saying right now, because I'm normally a nice person, but these rumers, and the extent to which they have reached in popularity, have... upset me tremendously. I become quite defensive when they are mentioned. For your information, I am twenty-one, unmarried, and childless and I intend to stay that way for quite some time. Now, if you will excuse me.” I turned my head the other way, my eyes finally regaining their focus. Throughout my speech they had been completely blank. My heart was pounding and my muscles were taut. But I had stayed completely calm. Look out, Mr. Spock!

“That was very impressive,” said a recognizable voice next to me on my left. It was Constance La Fonte.

“Hello again,” I said, blushing from her observation of my address. “I suppose I should be ashamed of myself for that, but I'm not.

“And why should you be? He got exactly what he deserved.” She removed her napkin from the table, revealing a ton of silverware laid out before her.

“Good grief! There's enough silverware here to help feed a million Ethiopians!” I exclaimed.

Constance laughed loudly. “You ARE new to this, aren't you? I don't suppose the Captain bothered to explain our eating etiquette?”

“No, I don't think so,” I said, trying to remember all his advice I'd gotten concerning this dinner.

“Figures. Just start on the outside and work your way in.”

I pulled off my own napkin then studied the arrangement. On my left were five different forks. The fifth one out had only three prongs and I figured it was for my salad. On the right was first a butter knife, a steak knife, and two regular knives, then a soup spoon, followed by 4 smaller teaspoons. There must have been a fortune of silver on this table alone! Ye Gods, I thought.

“So, when do we eat?” I asked.

“Pretty soon,” Constance answered, though her attention seemed far away from food. She was staring down the table, her face solemn, her brown eyes wide. I followed her gaze and found myself staring at Paul.

“Is something wrong, Constance?” I asked.

She jerked her head around to look at me. “What? No, nothing's wrong. Nothing at all.”

She seemed slightly uneasy with this conversation, so I quickly changed the subject. “Have you known Paul for a long time?” I asked.

“Oh, about eight years, I guess. We met the year that I finished school. Back then he was one of my dad's friends and was at my graduation party.”

“Where are you from?”

“South Carolina.” Her gaze slipped back to Paul.

“Really? You don't sound Southern,” I said.

“That's because I went to shool in California. Boarding schools are not what they're cracked up to be. Besides, I hated California.”

“Oh. You were 'finished,'” I said in understanding.

She gave a wry little laugh. “You might say that. Just take it from me. DON'T send your kids away to school. It ruins family relations.”

“I don't intend to,” I said heartily. Then, deciding to be blunt, I asked, “Why do you keep staring at Paul?”

She started. “Am I? I hadn't noticed.”

I looked at her squarely. “May I be honest with you, Constance? I know this may sound rather straight-forward considering we just met.” She nodded her head, so I continued. “Even though I've never had any first-hand experience at this, I can usually tell when there's something going on between two people. Are you... involved with Paul?”

Constance looked at me abashadly. “You are absolutely the nost different person I've ever met. Nobody else in this room would say that so bluntly.”

“Instead they go off and make up lies about people. Well, are you?”

“Hm. I knew it would get out sometime. But for Pete's sake don't tell anybody! Paul has had enough problems already.”

I laughed in triumph. “I knew it! I could tell the minute I saw you. So, are you going to get married?”

“Melanie, don't rush it! Good grief! That's like me asking if you are going to marry the Captain. You hardly know him.”

For a minute my insides froze up and I wondered if I was being as easily read as my new friend. But in a minute I could see that she had meant nothing by the comparison. “Oh, I think I know the Captain quite well. After all, I've been living with him for eight months.”

Before she could say anything to that I became aware of somebody standing near my chair. I turned to find a waiter dressed in black and white standing behind me, obviously waiting for something. I didn't quite know what to do, so I said, “Hello,” and smiled. He nodded back, but didn't say anything or move. I leaned closer to Constance and asked, “Why is this man standing behind me?”

For some unknown reason, she began to laugh and had to hide behind her napkin. Needless to say, her laugh was loud enough for the entire room to hear and people were beginning to stare at me. I felt the blush rise to my cheeks, and before I could think, began hitting Constance on her back as if she had something caught in her throat.

“Are you alright, Constance?” I said in a louder-than-normal voice. She pulled me down so she could whisper:

“Tell him what wine you want.” She was quickly taken over by another fit of laughing/coughing while I turned to the waiter and said, “I'm so sorry to keep you waiting. I'll have some red wine, please, and would that be fine for you, Constance?” She bobbed her head up and down, still laughing. “Yes, red's just fine, thank you.” When he had gone, I hit Constance on the arm and said, “Will you stop! A fit of choking never lasts this long. NOW what are you laughing about?”

“Oh, Melanie!” she gasped, wiping her eyes. “You're what they call a greenhorn to society. You actually said 'please' and 'thank you' to a servant!”

My eyebrows rose. “And why shouldn't I? It's common courtesy to a fellow human being.”

“Oh dear! You're breaking all the rules and you don't even know it. I can see what Christopher meant when he said you were interesting. It's going to be a fun evening.”

I smiled. Another new friend! Just think how many friends I'll have to invite to my wedding, I thought.

We were interrupted by the intervention of a soft voice. “Are you alright, Connie?”

I looked across the table to see a very pretty young woman. She had blond hair approximately the same length as mine (believe ir ot not!) and looked extremely elegant and classy in a black velvet dress.

“Who me? I'm fine. It's Melanie we have to worry about.” She suddenly looked apologetic. “Oh, I'm sorry. April, this is Melanie Stevens. Melanie, meet April Gillette. Melanie's here with Christopher Kartwright.”

April nodded. “Yes, I know. I've heard about you, Miss Stevens. I didn't believe any of it, and now I know it's not true. Who would start such a lie!”

I could have told her, but instead said, “Please, call me Melanie. And I thank you for not believing those rumors. You're the first one I've encountered so far who hasn't believed it, except for the Captain.” I gave Constance a side-long glance.

“Noboby's perfect,” Constance said with lowered eyes. “Not everybody can be an angel like you, April. Besides, believing the worst in people gives you the fun of finding out how wrong you were. Or in some cases, how right.” Her eyes took on a mischievous gleam and I thought how much like Anne she was. “How's Donald? Still sticking with you?”

“Oh, he's fine.”

“Wait a minute,” I stopped them. “Who's Donald?”

April looked up and down the table, finally spotting him. “There he is, next to Alice Smitzeln. The one with the dark hair.”

“You mean the fat... I mean bigger... one on the right?” I blurted out, thoroughly embarassing myself.

Constance laughed. “Oh, Melanie! No, the skinny one on the left. Donald is April's husband.”

I looked at her across the table, amazed. “You're awfully young to be married,” I finally managed to blurt out. It's amazing how stupid I can be at times.

April smiled a little and said, “I tend to agree with you, but my dad saw it differently.”

“Not a whirl-wind romance, I take it?” I asked cautiously.

“No, but I'm surviving. Donald is VERY rich,” she said.

“Love and happiness is more important than money,” I said.

“But to have both is bliss!” Constance said loudly. “Not to mention impossible,” and she gave a look in Paul's direction.

Soon after that we were given the wine we had ordered. I took a sip, feeling it burn as it slid down my throat. A pleasant warmth spread through me and I tingled all over. Abstinence from drinking seemed to make the wine taste a whole lot better.

“Yuch!” Constance said, setting down her glass. “I hate red wine.”

“Then why did you ask for it?” I asked.

“I was laughing too hard to say anything.” She motioned for a waiter and told him to bring her some champaign to replace the wine. He gave her a quizzical look, but took the glass away. “See, Melanie, now he thinks I'm strange thanks to you.”

“Me! I can't help it if I'm ignorant.” I turned to look at all the strange faces, studying their manner and clothes. Tight dresses with big ruffly sleeves seemed to be the 'in' thing this year. There was also a lot of the color black floating around, too. There didn't appear to be many white dresses. At least I'm still being different, I thought wrily. When I let my eyes fall out of focus, all the people turned into a jumbled mess of color. The light from the chandeliers caused some dresses to sparkle, and the glint of jewelry added to the strangeness of it all.

Constance and April were talking about people unknown to me, so I sat out on the tete-a-tete and continued my observations. People laughed gayly as if they didn't have a care in the world, and they probably didn't. There was the normal amount of flirting among the younger people, and ever now and then I caught sight of a jealous look cast across the room. The world was not yet devoid of romance. No, better change that to passion, I thought. Nowadays it seems people don't know what love is. But not ALL people, of course, I reminded myself.

My gaze danced around the room and I found myself watching the Captain. He was mixed up in a group that included several very beautiful young ladies, looking like he was enjoying himself immensely. The women fussed around him, vying for his attention, which he gave most generously. With some wonderment, I noticed I didn't feel any jealousy at all. Well, maybe a little pang here and there, but not much. Why shouldn't they fuss over him? I asked myself. He's very handsome, very rich, and very single. They'd be fools if they ignored him. They can have him for now. I get him at least a little every day.

Once, while I was in one of those observations, he caught me looking at him. I smiled slowly and he smiled back, causing the smile of everybody else to become faky and false to me. Warmth seemed to explode in that smile. He gave me a questioning look, asking if anything was wrong without actually opening his mouth. I shook my head and let my smile grow to tell him I was fine and having fun. He seemed satisfied and went back to his group of friends while I forced my attention back to my own.

Just then the first course, a salad was served, together with a bowl of what looked like clam chowder, but I'm sure it wasn't. Imagine eating clam chowder in a place like this! I dug in with the Captain's warning still fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, the soup was so good, I ate almost all of it without realizing it. Next came a fish dish, and I'm not exactly sure WHAT I ate. It didn't taste particularly good, so I really skimped on it, making up for the soup.

The plates and silverware were whisked away by the ever present waiters, and the third course was set before us. I had never tasted veal parmesahn before and I found it was a very strange experience. I guess Italian food was never my forte.

All this time Constance and April had been talking to other people surrounding us. I had made comments every now and then, but I'd already heard somebody whisper to dear old Charles that I was being awfully opinionated, which of course I wasn't, but since I could be linked to the Captain, I thought it would be better if I kept quiet. Then the word went around that Christopher's 'aquaintance' was a snob because she wasn't talking to anybody. Either way I couldn't win. So I compromised and listened, but remained quiet.

“Did you hear about Wildon Kendrick?” the woman sitting next to April asked, scandal in her eye. “I simply can't believe he ran off with the French girl. They created SUCH a scandal. I dare say, everybody's talking about it.”

Including you, I thought. How hypocritical could you get.

Constance threw a bored loook at the woman and she immediately changed the subject. I laughed to myself. Constance certainly had a way with people!

Suddenly Constance's fork dissappeared. I heart it clatter as it hit the floor. “Ach, SCHEISS!” she yelled quite loudly before she bent down to retrieve it. A waiter appeared with a clean fork and she took it from him, clearly agitated.

As she once again settled herself, I said, “Das ist nich nett, Fraulain.” I giggled at the look on her face.

“Sprechen sie Deutsch?” she asked.

“Ya. Ich spreche Deutsch ein bischen,” I answered.

“Neat,” was all she said. I giggled again.

“You really shouldn't say words like that in such company. For all you know, the German ambassador's here.”

“Then he'll know something that nobody else does.”

After this brief exchange, the conversation went back to the way it was wth them talking and me listening. I began catching snatches of the conversations on my right side as well.

“Sitting by her is better than I thought,” I heard Charles say in a low voice to the woman on his other side. “I'm getting it all straight from her mouth. You know, she speaks German, and I heard her use a German SWEAR word so nobody else would understand.”

The woman gasped. “Really! I honestly think somebody should advise Christopher to get rid of her. She's postively scandalous!”

Immediately upon hearing this my jaw set in a hard line and my hands clenched into fists. I could feeel the anger rising just as it had during the costume ball. Only this time I had no place to run. There wasn't a garden where I dould go and cry in private. I was stuck in the room full of hateful people, completely alone, and the Captain couldn't save me this time.

I glanced quickly over at the Captaian and found him absorbed in his friends. My anger was boiling and if I had been a dragon I would have been breathing fire. I almost came to the point of turning on Charles and his 'cohorts' and telling them exactly how dispicably low and disgusting I thought they were, but I bit my lip fiercly and concentrated on one single noodle lying on my plate. I let its blandness sink into me and my anger rapidly gave way to despair.

What am I doing here? I thought. I don't belong here. How could I possibly let myself fall in love with the Captain? It will neve work. I will never fit in with his world. I have been an outcast from the first moment I arrived.

If I wasn't careful, my lip would start bleeding. I relaxed and closed my eyes for a minute. Just a minute, to be totally alone.

“Melanie? Are you sick?” Constance's voice sounded worried.

Sick? Yes, I'm sick of all this and all of you. Aloud I said, “No, I'm just thinking.”

“Your face is all red,” April stated. “Does that always happen when you think?”

I sighed and smiled slightly. “Only when I think of depressing subjects.”

This suited everybody and the talk continued. The next course came and my wine glass was filled. I ate the steak without realizing it. A lump had logded itself in my throat and refused to disintegrate. Eating was extremely hard and I drank more wine than I should have.

The Baked Alaska that was served for desert cheered me up some. This was also something I have never had. I found it very good.

The meal finally ended with my spirits in my quiet-and-kind-of-tired mode. I took an interest in the happenings around me again. Even though the last plates were cleared away, everybody remained. “What's next,” I asked of Constance.

“Coffee and wine, whichever you prefer,” she informed me. “Are you sure you're alright? You still don't look so good.”

“I'm fine,” I assured her. As a way of changing the subject, I asked her something that had been on my mind the entire evening. “By the way, was it just luck that you sat next to me?”

Constance looked guilty. “Not really,” she finally conceded. “I was supposed to sit way down on the other end, but I changed the cards. I figured nobody would notice, or if they did, particularly care. I thought you'd need somebody you knew somewhere nearby. We couldn't throw you into this mess without SOMEONE'S protection.”

I almost blurted out, I can take care of myself, but managed to stop myself in time. “Oh. Thank you,” I said.

The Captain suddenly appeared beside my chair. I turned to look at him and my mood lightened further. Other people were beginning to stand and move around as well. The dancing would soon begin and the hall was filling up as wine glasses were carried away from the tables, filling up as quickly as they were emptied.

“Melanie, come here. I want to show you something.” The Captain took my hand and pulled me out of my chair.”

“Oh brother. Here comes your mountain scene again. Every year it's the same old thing,” Constance said in a bored voice.

“Connie, I think Paul is calling you, from the other end of the room. Why don't you find out what he wants,” he suggested, and while her head was turned, led me through the crowd.

I hurried to keep up with him. “Captain, what did she mean?”

“You'll see.” He led me into the ball room, then through a hallway that had a few rooms leading from it. We emerged in another room, though not quite as grand. There was a red-carpeted staircase leading up. We went up, through another hall, and finally came to a stop when we had reached a terrace.

A pair of French doors led us into the fresh air. The air felt good and it woke me up. “I didn't know how much smoke there had been in that room.” I breathed deeply. “Goodness. It's so quiet out here! Ok, what did you want to show me?”

He walked to the very end of the terrace, his shoes clicking on the stones. Here there was no wind and it wasn't too cold, either. It was dark in this corner, the only light coming from a circle of moon in the sky. Even the lights of Denver had disappeared. It was like being transported to an entirely different world.

“Look.” He pointed to the west. I could see the shadow of mountains looming over us, turned ghostly white by the moon.

“They're so big!” I said quietly. “I can never decide if they're trying to squish us or if they're protecting us.”

“Oh, protecting us, definately,” he answered. A minute later he said, “Squish us? That's a... different... way of putting it.”

I smiled. “I couldn't think of the word I wanted and squish just came out.”

He was silent for a minute. It was too dark for me to read his face, so I stared at his mountains until he decided to say something. “What were you mad about during the veal parmesahn? I saw your face turn purple.”

“You noticed? I hoped nobody would see me.” Obviously he hadn't been so enamored in his friends as I had thought.

“I think I was the only one who noticed. So, what happened? Did Charles say something?”

“Oh, it was stupid, really. It seemed that no matter what I did, it wasn't the right thing. If I was quiet, I was stuck-up, if I said something, I was opinionated. And then Constance started swearing in German. It was quite funny, really. She just yelled it as loud as she could. But then dear old Charles turned it around and said that I was the one who was swearing, and of course swearing is a moral sin. All I did was say in German that she wasn't being very nice, nothing else. For Pate's sake, I don't even swear in ENGLISH. I just don't see how somebody could turn a few words around like that to suit their own purpose.”

“For some people it comes from a lifetime of practise.”

I went on, ready to spill everything. I was never one to keep things bottled up. “And those idiots he told his garbage to believed every word of it at face value. They never once asked if it was true or not. They just assumed. I can assure you, I came very close to telling them exactly what I thought about them!”

The Captain's tone was light. “Well, why didn't you?”

I was shocked at this. “Tell them? I couldn't do that! It wouldn't have solved anything in the long run. They would just talk about how crude and uncivilized Christopher's acquaintance was and how they couldn't possibly imagine why you didn't turn me into the streets where I belong. Why, they would have talked about you for years! I could never cause misery to you in order to defend myself. No, it's better that I kept my mouth shut. But I would certainly like to use Charles as a punching bag.”

“All that hot air of his would make him a good one,” he said, sitting on the cold stone of the railing.

I suddenly laughed. “I can see him hanging in the basement, dressed in leather.” My laughter became hollow and died away. “OOOOOOH, I KNEW something like this would happen! I came prepared for the worst. But it STILL got to me.” I sighed and looked at his shadowed face. “I suppose I've mananged to ruin your evening too. At least with Monica you would have been accepted without a fuss. Nobody would be talking about you behind your back.”

“My goodness, Melanie, that's something I'm used to. Do you think that Amanda and I did everything by the book? Of course not! That would be a very boring life indeed. The only reason people gossip is because they have nothing better to do. I pride myself in thinking that I, at least, have better things to do with my time. Such as dancing. Come on. Only if you're not afraid to enter the lion's den, of course.” He stood up and offered his hand.

I smiled warmly and took his offer. “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.”

When we arrived at the ballroom, the dancing was in full swing. I stopped and watched for a minute. The glamorous clothes swished by, sparkling and flashing under the light from the great chandeliers hanging from the lofty ceiling. I smiled in pure delight. There was such a magical feeling in the air.

“What are they dancing?” I asked the Captain, trying to be heard over the music.

“It's ball room dancing. It's not hard. Come here. I'll show you.” On the outskirts he started my first dancing lesson. “Now, when each frain starts, you automatically start the combination of steps over. Alright, you start by taking your right foot and stepping backward.” The result of this was that we both stepped backwards. “Whoops. Wait a minute. I step backwards and YOU step forwards. Hey,” he said when I gave him a doubtful look, “at least I said the right foot. Now, forward, to the right... no left. I'm sorry. It's the left.”

“Are you sure? Maybe Paul could teach me better. I think I'll see if he'll do that. There he goes! Paul! I was wondering if you...” The Captain caught hold of my wrist before I could get very far.

“No you don't. Paul is an ox on the dance floor. You're much better off sticking with me.”

“Hm,” I said, but went back with him to our little corner. “We were at the left,” I reminded him and place my hand on his shoulder.

We had the entire routine of one dance more or less down in fifteen minutes. I was still making mistakes, but I had an idea of which direction to go. Without warning, the Captain led me into the throng, directly in the midst of the dancers.

“Take smaller steps. I'M the one who's supposed to lead,” he admonished gently.

“Sorry.” I was looking down, concentrating on my feet.

“Look up,” he said, a little smile on his face. “How am I supposed to talk to you if you're looking down?”

I forced my head up. “If I'm looking up, I'll...”

“OW! That's my foot!”

“... step on your foot,” I finished smugly.

“Thank you for telling me.” He walked me a few steps, then turned a half circle before starting everything again.

“I wish you'd tell me where we're going before you drag me across the floor like that.”

“When you quit trying to lead, I'll think about it.”

“Sorry. When Kate tried out for the show choir at school, I was her practise partner. I never did learn the girls' steps, but I knew the boys part by heart,” I explained.

“Why didn't you try out for this 'show choir?'”

“Well, Captain, it should be obvious. I can't dance.”

“I think you're doing fine,” he complimented. But he had to yank me left as I tried to go right, saving me from plowing into Charles DuPree.

I watched him twirl away with somebody, “For such an idiot, he sure dances good.”

“That's only because this is a slower dance,” he said, following my gaze. “Start something in jazz and he turns into an octopus with all eight legs flying in a million different directions.”

I laughed loudly and had to turn it into a cough to keep people from staring. “I've already been around Constance too much. She has an affect on me. By the way, do you know about... Maybe I shouldn't tell you.”

“Them? Yes, I know all about them. I think Paul's a perfect fool not to have already asked Connie to marry him. If he waits too long, somebody else will grab her for her money. Although he would regret it later when her temper flares up.”

“Is there a lot of marrying for money?” I asked.

He considered before answering. “Not as much as you think. But every now and then, greed overpowers love. Right now there seem to be a lot of prearrranged marriages. That is something I would never force one of my children to do.”

“I talked a little bit to April Gillette during dinner. She didn't seem particularly happy wth her marriage. It's a pity. She seemed to be such a sweet girl. Is Donald... bad... in any way?”

The Captain's eyes grew wide in mock consternation. “My, such personal questions! Aren't you being far too inquisitive for your position?”

“Oh, answer the question, please!” I ordered jokingly.

He drew in an astonished breath. “NOW she's ordering her own benefacter about like he's the butler! I will HAVE to telll Charles about it this very minute and...”

“Will you hush! I'll step on your toes,” I warned.

He laughed quietly. “Alright, alright. Is Donald bad? No, he's not bad, he just has a few minor problems, like drinking a little too often, playing around with the pretty girls. Nothing serious though.”

Nothin serious? Poor April! You'd think that he'd give everybody so much to talk about, they wouldn't find time to discuss me.”

“Oh, you're a novelty. You'll wear off in no time. That is, of course, if you don't get yourself into any trouble.”

“And, just what is that supposed to mean?” I looked him square in the eye and stood as tall and straight as I could.

He merely looked innocent. “I see nothing, I know nothing.”

Suddenly the song ended and another began. This was much livelier than the first, and the couples stepped off, whirling and spinning around.

“Wait!” I screeched. “What are we doing?”

“Just spin... No, the other way.” He laughed his rich, beautiful laugh again. “Oh, Melanie, you're impossible!”

“Can we just watch this one, please. I'm getting dizzy. I think I drank too much wine.” We made our way to a couple of chairs lined against one wall and seated ourselves. I gratefully sank into the cushion, realizing how tired I was. “It feels good to sit down again.”

“Would you like a glass of wine?” asked the Captain.

“No, thank you.” He nodded and went to grab one for himself from a passing waiter. Then he came back and joined me. “What kind of family is Constance from?” I asked curiously.

“You're so inquisitive, my dear! You're worse then Amanda.”

“I promise you that when you visit Illinois, I'll let you ask as many questions about the pigs as you want. Please tell me.”

He took a drink and swallowed it slowly. “She's from South Carolina. I suppose you know that. Well, her rather is very wealthy - almost as rich as I -” (I groaned and rolled up my eyes. Such conceit!) “ - and he really only wants the best for his children. She has an older brother and a younger sister. The La Fonte family is not too big on family relations, so it didn't bother them when Constance was sent to school in California. She was expelled from two schools prior to this one, both in the South. I don't know the gory details, but I guess she finally settled down. Perhaps she's jealous of her brother. Apparently, from the stories, he got all the attention, though I can't see Roger la Fonte being affectionate to anybody. Connie has a lot of money herself, and her father hopes she'll marry somebody deserving of her social statis.”

“And he doesn't think Paul is deserving?”

“Quite the opposite. He thinks Paul is the scum of the earth, to put it nicely.”

“Why?” I asked incredulously. “I think Paul is very nice.”

“But he's been disinherited,” he reminded me. “Roger certainly doesn't want his daughter married to some one who has no inheritance.”

This puzzled me and after thinking for a minute, I figured out why. “Wait. If he doesn't have any money, what is he doing here? I thought you had to be worth five hundred thousand dollars in order to come to this little party.”

The Captain looked at me, his eyebrows raised. “I never said Paul didn't have ANY money. He doesn't inherit any. Paul has been very successful in a business of his own. it's just that nobody wants to admit it.”

“Oh. I see.” We sat in silence for awhile. I sat back and relaxed, watching the dancers, losing myuself in the music. I wondered what kind of lives these people led, if they were as happy during this exact minute as I was. A tiny smile of complete contentment settled on my lips.

Suddenly the room tilted at strange angles and my eyes refused to focus. I sat up, my smile disappearing. The music ceased being melodious and turned into a dull roar that assaulted my ears. The flashing costumes confused me and for the briefest moment I couldn't remember where I was. I grabbed onto the arm of my chair, trying to steady the tilting room and shook my head in order to clear away the disorder. I felt the Captain's hand on my arm; it was strong and reassuring.

“Melanie, are you alright?” he asked, concerned.

“No, I'm...” I shook my head again. “Im fine.”

“You looked sick for a minute. Are you sure you're fine?”

I nodded my head. “It was the strangest thing. The room suddenly started spinning and I couldn't focus my eyes. All I could heaer was this roaring sound. But I'm fine now,” I added when I saw his worryed features.

“Well, you look better than you did a minute ago. Are you hot?” He felt my forehead, just as I had felt his a few days earlier.

“No, I don't feel bad now at all. It was probably from that extra glass of wine I drank at dinner. It's nothing to worry about.”

He seemed unconvinced. “Maybe so. Perhaps I should tell John to bring the car around and take us home.”

I put out a hand to stop him. “Absolutely not! We're not leaving at a disgustingly early hour because I got dizzy for a minute. Don't worry.”

“I wouldn't dream of it,” he stated lightly, but his eyes still flashed concern.

“What's wrong? Are you sick?” asked Constance as she appeared beside me.

“I'm fine,” I said, my voice ringing with assurance. “Now, will everybody please not mention it?”

“Fine,” said Constance, sounding rather miffed. “Come on, Christopher, let's dance.” The Captain gave a questioning glance in my direction, but I waved him away. Even if I was sick, I still wanted him to have fun.

“So, having fun, Melanie?” Paul sat down in the chair that the Captain had just vacated.

“Yes, I am,” I said after a slight hesitation.

“Ah. You hesitate. Something's wrong. What's up?”

“Well... Paul, does too much wine make a roaring sound in your ear?”

“Hm. Not that I know of. But then it might have a different affect on you than on me. How much did you drink?”

“Two glasses.”

“TWO GLASSES! Melanie, that's not enough to make a mouse tipsy let alone you. What you need is a good dancing partner. After Christopher, I'll be like a swan gliding over smooth waters.” Before I could resist he had pulled me out of my comfortable chair and led me onto the dance floor. “And don't say you can't dance, either. You made your previous partner look very good indeed.”

“I think it was the other way around,” I said. “He said that you danced like on ox. Please, keep your hooves off my toes.”

“An ox! Melanie, you have just started a war.”

I laughed. As we danced, I noticed that Paul kept an eye on Constance, and I silently wondered if he'd marry her against her father's wishes. Then, when I looked at him again and saw the glint in his eyes, I knew he would, it was just a metter of time.

The room was beginning to get hot. I couldn't get away from the idea that everybody was in slow motion. Melanie, I told myself, you're sick. You should go home. Yet I didn't want to ruin the Captain's night by going home early. Then again, I didn't want to throw up on everybody either. I decided to finish out the dance, then try to find the Captain.

It seemed the music went on forever. I was getting dizzy again when we finally stopped moving.

“Melanie, you don't look so good,” Paul mentioned as he led me to the side. I leaned against the wall, breathing and attempting to stop my spinning head.

“Paul, could you please find the Captain for me?” I requested in a quiet voice.

“Sure,” and he hurried off.

I shut my eyes, but still felt as if the world was reeling under my feet. I was hot and cold at the same time and my head began pounding in time with the music. All I could think of was how good my bed would feel.

Suddenly somebody bumped into me, pushing me hard against the wall. My eyes snapped open, ready to pierce through whoever was in front of me.

“Oh. Hello,” the short, darkhaired young man said in a slurred voice. The glass he was carrying threatened to spill its contents as he wove unsteadily on his feet before regaining his balance.

“You're Mr. Gillette, aren't you?” I asked through a haze of my own.

“Thatsh right, honey.” He punched me on the shoulder. “Hey, you're kinda cute. Who're you with?”

I could smell the liquor on his breath and tryed to turn away. “Captain Kartwright.”

“Oh. HIM. The jerk. Every... every... everybody knows he'll marry... Monica Sinclair. Is he gonna... marry you too?”

“No. Will you please leave?” I turned away and drew in a deep breath. Mr. Gillette pursued me.

“Good. Then I can have you all to myshelf.” He drained the last drop out of his glass and set it on the edge of a small table. It fell off and dropped to the floor, but didn't break. His arm slipped around my waist.

The smell of the alcohol nausiated me. “Please go away and leave me alone. I'm sick and I'll throw up on you.”

These words had little affect on the man. “I guess if you want to... to puke, thatsh your... bizhnish. But do it later. Right now, letsh dance!” He grabbed my hand and spun me around, yelling war whoops at the top of his lungs.

I pushed him away and fell back against the wall. My head was pounding so hard, tears squeezed through my tightly closed lids. I was so dizzy I couldn't stand up straight. The roaring sound was back and I was scared I would faint.

“Playin' hard to get, huh?” Mr Gillette was saying. “Well, you're my... my kind've... my kind've girl.”

“Oh, go away!” I yelled, just as much to the dizziness as to the impossible man in front of me. Where was the Captain? I couldn't see him when I finally managed to open my eyes. Where was anybybody, for that fact? The one time I needed help, everybody was ignoring me. I was very tired of standing and wished I had someplace to sit down. However, there were no chairs in the near vacinity and I didn't think I could walk very far by myself. I'd never been this dizzy before. Nor had anybody ever made a pass at me. I was completely at a loss of what to do about either problem.

Donald Gillette refused to give up. “Come on! You're no fun! Thish ish a party!” He pulled me away from the wall and I quckly found myself surrounded by unfamiliar people.

It suddenly seemed that everybody was staring at me, walking in circles, never standing still. Their unfriendly faces seemed to be saying, “You don't belong here. Go back where you came from.” I lost Donald completely as he was whisked away by the crowd. Or maybe I was whisked away. I can't remember if I was moving or not. Confusion settled in my brain and I couldn't tell which direction I was facing. When I looked up, the sparkling chandeliers swayed back and forth, the light glittering off their crystals, catching my eye. I looked down again, but still found only hostile faces. They were pressing closer, trying to squeeze me out, or suffocate me, whicher came first. They were so close now that I couldn't brreath, couldn't move. Panic was quickly taking control of me and more tears leaked from my eyes.

Then, abruptly, something heavy was thrown over my shoulders. I got myself turned around sufficiently to see that my salvation had finally arrived in the form of the Captain. I brushed away the annoying tears and noticed that the noise in my ears had subsided immensely. “Thank God,” I whispered.

“Can you walk?” he asked, clasping my cloak under my chin for me.

I nodded and said, “I just need something to hang on to.”

He plowed through the crowd of dancers, his arm firmly around my waist, holding me up and steering me at the same time. The people seemed to make a path for him, like the parting of the Red Sea, I thought.

We were through the crowd and out the door before I knew it. The cold air sent chills up my spine and I shivered, but it did clear my head somewhat. There wasn't a limosine in sight, probably because of the fairly early hour.

“Come on, John, where are you?” said the Captain under his breath.

I watched his breath steam in the air. “Captain,” I hesitantly started, “I'm sorry about this. I don't want to ruin your night or anything...”

“Melanie,” he interrupted in a gentle voice, “I don't want to hear anything about it. Now keep quiet and try not to... to faint, because if you do, I won't know what to do with you.” He paused before saying, “Besides, what are friends for?”

I stood and shivered. The wind was creeping up under my cloak and attacking my skin with vigor. I wished John would hurry up.

I blinked and when I opened my eyes, John was there, opening the door for me. He'd pulled up facing the wrong direction, but I certainly didn't care as I slid across the seat to the right side of the car. The Captain climbed in next to me and we were on our way.

I kicked my shoes off and curled up under my cloak, trying to keep warm. It wasn't working. I closed my eyes, but knew I would never get to sleep. It's impossible to get comfortable enough to sleep in a car.

“You're shivering. Come here.” The Captain held out his arm. I was to the point where I didn't care who thought what. I only wanted comfort and warmth and the Captain was offering them. I wasn't going to be a fool and let this opportunity pass. I moved over and slid into his arms, letting my head fall gratefully to his shoulder. “That's better,” he whispered into my hair and I felt his arms tighten around me.

How I loved him! It was like a physical force inside me that erupted in a flood of warmth. I relaxed my tired muscles and closed my eyes. I was asleep in no time at all.

Chapter 12

Thr January thaw had finally arrived. Actually, it had been coming for several days, but I had been too busy to notice it. The sun was melting all the snow and it felt like Spring.

Along with this wonderful thaw came another miracle. Everybody was finally HEALTHY! The servants were back in working condition and the children were again in school. I myself was as good as ever, but every now and then I could still remember how terribly dizzy I'd been at the Club Dinner.

I'd fallem asleep in the car on the way nome and I never woke up intil five o'clock on Sunday afternoon. I had never slept that long in my entire life! From reports I got later, passed down fron John to Mrs. harding to Maria, to Lizette, to me, I found that the Captain had carried me from the car to my room. It's a pity I wasn't awake at the time! Things might have gotten interesting. Apparently Mrs. Harding had gotten me in bed. I don't remember anything until I woke up, and then I couldn't figure out if it was morning or night, because the sun was just touching the horizon.

It wasn't half an hour later before the Captain came up to see how I felt. He had called Dr. Salgers earlier, who had said that I was merely exhausted and just needed a good night's sleep. I could have argued with him, but as it turned out, Monday morning dawned with me as chipper as ever. I hated admitting that he was right!

Everything was normal again. As usual, I was contracting a case of cabin fever and Amanda and I spent as much time outside as possible. We always came in covered in mud, but we had fun. The other children were complaining about being stuck in school and the the teachers had no mercy. I just thanked God that I was finished with the whole thing.

It was the evening of what had been a beautiful sunny day when I was called to the library by the Captain. It wasn't very often that I was called to see him. We sually bumped into each other in an unplanned way. As I ran down the stairs, I hoped fervently that he wasn't going to invite me to another dinner.

“Come in, Miss Stevens, come in,” he said when I opened the door and peeked in. Ever since the party, he had gone back to calling me Miss Stevens instead of Melanie, but I was waiting for him to slip. “Sit down.” As usual, he went back to his work while I took a seat in the big chair in front of his desk.

“You wanted to see me, sir?” I asked. “I've always wanted to say that, although it usually means you're being promoted or being fired.”

He laughed amiably. “I see you've recovered from Saturday night.” (It was was Tuesday.) He sobered abruptly. “Yes. I have some news for you.”

I immediately sat up straight. “What happened? Did you go bankrupt? Did your accountant run off with all your money?”

“No, no!” he said, laughing again. “Oh, Miss Stevens! No. You see, I own a lot of companies overseas and every year I go to Europe to check up on them, kind of see how things are running.”

“And making sure that your accountant hasn't stolen all your money!” I finshed triumphantly.

He looked at me rather reproachfully. “Yes.”

Suddenly I knew what he was leading up to. He was going to Europe. He was LEAVING Denver! My insides plunged and my smile faded. “When are you leaving?” I asked glumly.

“Tomorrow.”

“TOMORROW!” I yelled, astonished. Then, lowering my voice, said, “So soon? Why didn't you mention it a little earlier?”

“Well, all the children were sick... I didn't want to bother you with unimportant details,” he ended feebly.

“You forgot.”

“I forgot,” he admitted. “My mind has been on... other things than my overseas comapanies lately. I'm sorry. I should have told you sooner. In fact,” he rose from his chair, ran his finger absentmindedly across the books on one of the shelves. “I was going to cancel it all-together if you had remained sick, and send one of my employees instead. But it's better if I go.”

I had to agree with him. “Yes, you should go. I wouldn't want you to go bankrupt because of me. Oh.” I suddenly remembered something elase. “What about Anne's birthday? I told her we'd wait until everybody got better to have a party. We can't have one if you're not here.”

He turned on me with a mischievious smile. “I've already thought of that. We'll have it tonight.”

“Tonight? But we haven't had time to get any presents or...”

“Ah,” and he held up a finger for my silence and walked to the little stairway that led to his room. “Behold.” A stack of presents sat on the steps, all wrapped in pretty paper with bows and everything. There was even a rug sitting under them so they wouldn't get dirty.

“My, you've thought of everything,” I finally said through my surprise. “When did you do this?”

“Yesterday. I never knew how empty department stores were on Mondays until now. There's two presents from everybody, three from you and me.”

“Who wrapped them?” I asked.

“Oh, Mrs Harding, Maria, Stacy, and John.”

“Who's Stacy?”

“The gardener's wife's oldest niece. She came for a visit yesterday and volunteered to help, and I NEVER turn away a volunteer.”

“Hm,” was all I said.

“Don't just stand there. I only have tonight.” He prodded me towards the door.

“Alright, I'm going. This is going to be a very strange birthday party.” I hurried up the stairs in search of the celebrity of the day. “Anne!” I called, my voice bouncing off the hollow walls. “Anne.”

She surpised me by actually being with Amanda in their room. “Hi What do you want?” She grew suspicious. “What did I do this time?”

I laughed cheerfully. “It's not what you did, it's what your father did. We're having your birthday party tonight.”

“TONIGHT!” came the excited reply. “But when did you go shopping?”

“The Captain went shopping yesterday, believe it or not, and got you a lot of presents. Now, get downstairs! He's waiting for you. Amanda and I will round up the rest of the gang.”

“Melanie, wait!” Anne called just as I reached the door. I sent Amanda to find her brothers and sister, then turned back to Anne. “Will you please wear the long dress that's in your closet? Please! Oh, please, oh please, oh please!”

“Oh, Anne, I don't think I should wear it again. It's so old and I might get it dirty and it would...” I started uncertainly, but she interrupted me.

“Oh, PLEASE! You look so pretty in it and you'll probably never wear it again. Please? It's my birthday party. Please?”

She was giving me the hounddog eyes and I found it impossible to say no. “Oh, alright. I suppose it won't hurt. And besides,” I let a smile creep over my face, “this gives me a reason to wear it.”

“GOODIE!!” She jumped up and down and clapped her hands. Running across the hall to my room, she said, “Come on! I'll help you put it on.”

I was unmercifully dragged to my room. Anne puled the burgandy ball gown out of the dark recesses of my closet and layed it on my bed, smoothing out the wrinkles. We soon had the dress over my head and she buttoned it up the back, having to stand on my bed to do so.

“Melanie, you're getting fat! Suck in!” she ordered, concentrating on her job.

“I am not fat, young lady! And I am sucking in.”

“There, all finished. Now turn around.” I did as she told me. She sighed happily. “I wish I had a dress like that. It needs petticoats, though. What did you do with them?”

“Look in the third drawer down,” I answered. I brushed my hair one final time while she looked.

“Found them. Here, put this one on. It's yuckier then this one. That way the good one will be on the outside.”

“Whatever you say, Your Higness,” I said in a mocking tone. “I hope your husvband is used to taking orders.”

“Husband! Good grief, Melanie, I'm only nine!” she exclaimed. “I'm going down. You're too slow. See you there.

She ran out the door and pounded down the hall.

“Ingrate,” I muttered. Struggling, I managed to get both petticoats in place. I glanced at myself in the mirrow before going out and had to admit that this dress did SOMETHING to my outward appearance. Something very good. Then I left the room.

I could hear the loud chattering coming from the livingroom long before I reached the bottom of the stairs. I hurried down the last steps, then walked sedately into the room.

“Finally!” Eric said without looking up. “What took you so long?” His voice was irritated as he looked up. “WHY ON EARTH ARE YOU WEARING THAT THING?” he exclaimed, gaping at me, his mouth open, and his nose wrinkled in distaste.

“Eric, have you no manners?” asked the Captain. “That is not the proper way to address a lady.”

“What lady?” Michael asked, looking around. “All I see is our governess.” He cracked up laughing, but the rest of us just groaned.

“Thank you Michael, Eric. May you remain batchelors until you turn to dust.” I turned away, my nose in the air.

“I think you're pretty!” Amanda declared stoutly.

The Captain seemed lost in thought. “An accurate accusation, my dear,” he said almost to himself, yet loud enough for me to hear.

I blushed considerably and turned away. “It was Anne's idea, so don't blame me. And you can't say no to the birthday girl.”

Eric became thoughtful. “If I asked her to wear a biquini on my birthday, I wonder if she'd say no,” he said softly.

“ERIC!” exploded Lizette. “How disgusting can you get?”

“Oh, I can get real disgusting. Did you hear the one about the buutcher who went into a bar...”

“Yes, and for heaven's sake, keep your filthy mouth shut around Amanda and Anne,” she scolded. “You don't need to corrupt them yet.”

“Well, fine!”

Anne could wait no longer. “I wanna open my presents!”

“How could you corrupt THAT?” asked Eric quietly. Lizette gave him a dirty look.

“I don't suppose the good Lord would take you back?”

“No way,” he shook his head. “I've already got a deal made with the devil on a condo overlooking Hades' Hollow. I've heard it has central heat.”

The Captain fell back in his chair, laughing, while Anne protested loudly, “Daddy, make them stop! I want to open my presents!”

“Ok, ok, sweetheart. Go to it.” He continued chuckling as Anne 'went to it.' He stood up and came to stand beside me, still smiling. “We've created monsters.”

“We?” I asked innocently. “I had nothing to do with their creation. I just make sure THEY don't create something.”

“This one's from you, Michael.” Anne tore at the wrapping.

“Yeah? What did I get you? It's strange not knowing what I got somebody for their birthday.”

“You usually forget anyway, so what's the difference?” Lizette said. She was enjoying her age superiority a lot tonight, I noticed.

Anne finally succeeded in opening Michael's present. “Hey! A robot! Wow!” She turned her new treasure over in her hands, gazing at it dumbfoundedly.

“Really?” Michael scrambled closer for a better look. “Boy, I've got good taste!”

“Come on, Anne. Open this one.” Amanda held out another present, which Anne took excitedly.

After that the children grouped together, and the Captain and I heard exclamations of one sort or another about every two seconds. Wrapping paper went flying through the air, remaining scattered where it landed on the floor. I kept my voice low as I said:

“Have you told them that you're leaving tomorrow?”

He followed my example and replied in hushed tones. “No, I didn't want to ruin the fun.” He cocked his head for a minute, looking at me and thinking. “You know, usually I just leave and let Mrs. Harding tell them where I've gone. Come to think of it, I never went anywhere alone before Amanda died. It's strange to realize things like that when they've been under your nose for a a long time. And I've been 'realizing' a lot of things since you came.”

When I looked at him, he was still lost in thought and I didn't interrupt him. I know that there's little worse than being yanked unmercifully out of an interesting meditation. I waited until he moved his head to look at his chidren, then said, “Are you healthy enough to be flying all over Europe?”

“I'm fine. How are you?”

“I'm as dandy as brandy.”

He looked at me helplessly. “You have some very strange expressions. Are you sure you're not from another realm?” he asked jokingly.

My eyebrows shot up. “Haven't you heard? It's the latest gossip. At night I steal silently out of the house and join my kinsmen, the Elves. You yourself have called me a little elf.”

“Yes, well you certainly are little. I didn't know how very small you actually are until I carried you in from the car Staurday night. I could have carried you forever and never know I was holding anything.” A mischievous twinkle flashed in his eyes.

“You're making me feel like a thimble!” I exclaimed, blushing slightly with the thought of it all.

“Wrapped around my little finger,” he said, holding up a specimen.

“Oh! A thimble goes on your index finger. Everybody knows that!”

“I'm sorry, but I don't sew for a living,” he retorted back, his voice rising.

“Sh! The children will hear this rediculous conversation and have us both cofined to the funny farm!”

“Then it will have to be a big farm because they'll be joining us before long. They do take after me, you know,” he said, his nose in the air.

“And I sure feel sorry for them, too!” I retorted quickly. “How Amamda ever lived with you and remained sane I will never know.”

“Then Miss Smarty, how are YOU living with me and my brood?” His eyebrows raised and he looked at me with open disdain.

“Why,” I answered looking at him out of the corners of my uplifted eyes, “I was already partly insane when I arrived in you happy home. You and your brood have had no visible or lasting affect on me thus far whatsoever.”

He looked puzzled for a minute, digesting my statement. “Yes, I do believe you were. And as to us having no affect on you... I just don't believe it. After the Kartwrights, you'll never be the same.”

Since I couldn't think of anything suitable to say to that, I only smiled and started what turned into lingering silence, broken solely by the children's voices.

I looked around at the scene before me. The children were having a grand time while Anne opened her presents. They joked and teased, but she loved every minute of it. I could easily see this by the big smile she wore on her face. Everybody seemed to belong to one big happy family, with me playing the role as mother and the Captain the loving and respectful father.

How I wished it would go on forever! I wanted this hour to be suspended in time for all eternity. If that were the case, I would never loose my Captain to the world of business and he would go on forever with that same beautiful smile adorning his handsome face. Yes, I thought, I could live out the rest of my life like that, selfishly claiming all these lives.

Yet, down deep, I knew I couldn't keep him with me. I loved him far too much to completely ristrict his life. Besides, it would be physically impossible, as I could not stop time, nor could I hold him back by force since he outweighed me by almost one hundred pounds and stood a good nine inches above the top of my head. Melanie, I told myself, you have been reduced to indulging in stupid and pointless fantasies. Never let the demands, or regrets in this case, of tomorrow interfere with the pleasures and excitements of today. Now, go and kiss Amanda before you completely grow up.

I did as my other-self said and quickly found myself surrounded by my children, all clammering for my attention.

“Look at this, Melanie! Isn't it the neatest thing you ever saw?” Anne held up a box containing a race course or something like that.”

“I've ever SEEN, my darling Anne, not saw,” I corrected automatically. “And yes, it looks very... interesting. Maybe we'll put it up tomorrow after school.”

“Yeah! And father can help us! When you come home from work. You will, won't you?” Those persuasive tones of hers were at work again.

I glanced at the Captain and he glanced at me. Then he purposefully said, “I'm sorry, Anne, but I can't help you. You and Miss Stevens will have to do it alone.”

Anne's eyebrows drew closer together as she asked, “Why?”

“It's time for your business trip, isn't it?” cut in Lizette, her voice and face cold and hard. I watched the scowl settle in her blue eyes as her father answered:

“Yes, it is. I'm leaving tomorrow morning.”

This was the end of the night's festivities. Glum faces and downcast eyes met my gaze as it travelled around the room. “Oh, come on, guys. It's not the end of the world.” I turned to the Captain. “You won't be gone long, will you?”

“A month, maybe more.”

My heart plunged to my toes. “Oh. I didn't think it would take THAT long.” For just a minute, I sympathized with the children, but I forced myself to be cheery. “Oh, well, it's STILL not the end of the world. But it IS time for bed.”

The now somber children helped Anne pick up her new presents and began walking to their rooms. I followed, but the Captain caught my arm and held me back for a minute.

“I'd like to talk to you. Please come to the library when you're finished.”

I nodded, then quickly hurried after my charges. The look of melancholy in his grey eyes tore at me. There was something wrong, and I dreaded finding out what it was. But I agreed to do as he asked.

I had just tucked Amanda in and kissed her goodnight. I turned to find Anne staring at me out of flaming eyes. “Anne?”

“It's not fair!” she exclaimed. “Why does he have to leave now, when things were really getting good? Why does he have to ruin everything? I hope be never comes back!”

“Anne! You know you don't mean that! I don't see why you're getting so upset. You had to know he would be leaving soon.”

“But I thought this year would be different!”

“Why? What's so different about this year?”

“I thought that since you were here, he would stay home. But business is still more important that his own family!”

“That's not true! He loves you very much!”

“Then why is he leaving? Lizette says he never left when Mom was alive. You're practically our Mom now, anyway.”

My voice was gentle as I said, “But I'm not your mother Anne, though I certainly wish I were. He'll be back before you know it. The time will fly by. I'll let you stay up late and we'll go go out on Saturdays. Maybe we'll see a couple of movies or something. Don't worry. While he's gone, we're going to have fun! Just think of that. Then we'll have a lot to tell him when he comes home.”

The fire died out of her eyes. “Alright, I guess. But I don't want you to leave, too!” She threw herself into my arms and hugged me tightly.

I hugged her back. “Don't worry, sweetheart, I won't be leaving for a long time.” I hadn't known that such a young kid could be capable of such drama! “Now, get to bed, little lady.” She climbed under the sheets and I kissed her goodnight. “Sleep well, Anne, and don't let the bed bugs bite.”

“Melanie, don't EVER leave, okay?”

“I won't. I promise.” But as I clicked out the light and shut the door, the nagging feeling that something was wrong grew slightly bigger in the back of my mind. I forced it down with an effort, then went to my room to change clothes. I didn't want to give myself any more chances to ruin my dress.

After I was more comfortable and with the order not to worry about what would happen tomorrow firmly implanted in my mind, I ran down the stairs and burst into the library.

“Hello. Here I am,” I said to the startled Captain.

He smiled over the drink in his hands. “So you are. Would you like a drink?”

“No thanks. I've learned my lessen. I'm not going to drink for a long time.” I seated myself on the edge of his desk, my legs swinging back and forth in a slow rythm. “So, tell me, what am I doing here?”

He turned away and faced the rows of books. “To tell you the truth, I don't really know.” He laughed shortly before continuing. “It's funny. I had the feeling I wanted to tell you something, but I don't know what. Maybe it's about tomorrow.”

“Oh, tomorrow, tomorrow!” I said with scorn. “Why are we all so meloncholy? It will come and it will go, followed by a lot more tomorrows. Tell me, where are you going?” I crossed to the stepladder used to reach the higher shelves and climbed up, staring at the titles.

“Let me think. South America is my first stop...”

I couldn't resist interrupting. “South America!” I whispered reverently. “Which country?”

“Columbia,” he answered.

“You're into coffee beans!” I exclaimed with a smile. “Romancing the Stone took place in Columbia. Oh, watch out for the mud slides,” I warned. “They can be dangerous and embarassing. Just think! You'll be in the jungle with all the insects and snakes... Oh, I hope you don't get squeezed to death by a boa constrictor, or whatever. I don't think I'd be too thrilled if you were sent home only weighing ten pounds and in pieces. Oh, and watch out for the mosquitos. You can still get malaria, you know. Have you been imunized?”

He laughed at me, his eyes glowing. “I'm not going into the jungle, Miss Stevens. I'll be staying in the cities.”

“What cities? I'm afraid I don't know Columbia like I do Edgington, Illinois.”

“I'll be staying in Cartegeña most of the time, I think. I'll have to look at my plans to make sure.”

“Be careful of little bald men in Volkswagons,” I said.

“What?” he asked confused. “No, wait. I bet you're talking about another movie. I don't want to know what you mean.”

“You should still keep it in mind. Knowledge is power.”

He hesitated, but finally said, “Right.”

I laughed. Sometimes it was so EASY to confuse him! “Where to then?”

“Australia.”

“AUSTRALIA! What's in Australia besides kangaroos and koala bears? Ah! you're harvesting eucalyptus leaves! You're going to bring all of us koala bears!”

“NO! Not quite,” he said laughing. “Harvesting eucalyptus leaves, indeed! No. I have a small ranch in the out back...”

“In the mountains?” I interrupted excitedly.

He looked at me guardedly. “It's close to the mountains. Why?”

I wore a mask of innocence. “Oh, no reason.”

“Alright, I'll ask. To what movie are you referring THIS time?”

The Man From Snowy River,” I said without hesitating. “Isn't it strange how I've seen a movie to fit every aspect of your life so far?”

“Totally uncanny,” he said, sounding totally unconvinced.

“It's not my fault I've seen so many movies,” I said as an excuse.

“I suppose Kate held a gun to your head until you got into the theatre, huh?”

“For Pete's sake, you know what I mean!”

His face was all innocence as he asked, “Who's Pete?”

I threw the book I was holding at him, but he ducked.

“Hey!” he yelled. “What is this? War?”

All's Quiet on the Western Front,” I answered. “Sorry but I saw it to my advantage to attack.”

“Well, next time you see your advantage coming, warn me so I can hide.” He picked up the book from the floor and tossed it back to me.

“If we had told Germany we were going to attack, the war would still be going on.” I caught the book and replaced it on the shelf. “After Australia, where do you go?”

“China. Well, Hong Kong, actually. I bet you can't think of a movie that took place in China,” he challenged.

High Road To China,” I said triumphantly. “Too bad we didn't bet money.

“Yes,” he said warily. “How about England? Name a movie.”

My Fair Lady, The Prisoner of Zenda, Jane Eyre, Camelot...” I reeled off. I would have gone on, but he stopped me.

“I said A movie. Okay, let me think. Paris.”

Gigi.

“Switzerland.”

Heidi.

“Germany.”

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

“Italy.”

Romeo and Juliet.

“That's a play, not a movie!”

“Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, released soetime in the late '60s. Where have YOU been?”

“In front of paper work, no doubt. Alright, try Rome.

Julius Ceaser.” When the skeptical look returned to his eyes, I exclaimed, “It is too a movie! I saw it mysellf my sophomore year. So there!”

“So there!” he mimicked after me. He stopped when I threatened him with another book. “Africa,” he continued.

King Solomon's Mines.

He was beginning to get aggravated. “The Pacific Ocean.”

South Pacific,” I answered rapidly.

“Oh, Iowa, for Pete's sake!”

The Music Man.

“Iceland!”

“Iceland?” I hesitated.

“Hah! At last I win! There ISN'T a movie sset in Iceland!”

“Okay, okay, take your glory. Men!” I said the last under my breath. “What were we talking about? Oh, yes. Your trip.”

“And I was in Hong Kong.”

“Right. Then where?”

“Athens, Greece.”

“The Parthenon! Send me a postcard!”

“I think I'll rest up there for a few days. Then on to Paris.”

“Have you seen the Eiffel Tower? Is it as big as I think it is?”

“I've never been to the Eiffel Tower.”

“You've been to Paris and never seen the Eiffel Tower?! How could you?”

“No, don't throw it! I'm sorry. I've never thought of it. I promise I'll go this year and send back a picture.”

“That's better. Then where?”

“I'll stay about a week in Paris, then I hit Madrid.”

“Bull fights! Neat!”

“If you don't watch it, you'll be the matador,” he teased. “I'll fly the children in to watch you embarrass yourself.”

“Then I want to be buried in YOUR car. Put all my books and records in the trunk.” He looked at me strangely. “Well, I have to have SOME kind of entertainment while I'm travelling to the Pearly Gates.” I believe he was about to make a remark on my last statememt, but I cut him off before he could utter a sound. “I've never been to Madrid. Actually, I've never been ANYWHERE, come to think of it. After Madrid, where are you going?”

“London.”

“Say 'hi' to the queen for me. I suppose you know Prince Charles and Princess Diana personally?”

He smiled wryly. “I've seen them, but never had the opportunity to meet them. I'm afraid I don't have businees dealings with the royal family.”

“Oh. Do you have one of those cute little cottages in the English countryside, with a tree-studded lawn and a brook in the back of the garden?”

“No. You're standing in the only house I own.”

“What about the ranch house in Australia? Or do you force your hired helpers to sleep on the ground in front of the barn?”

“Whoops. I forgot about the ranch house. Okay, I own TWO houses.”

My mind slipped to Australia where I pictured a two-story wooden house, a tree standing at each corner. I could see Anne running around the yard with Michael, playing cowboys and Indians. Lizette was sitting on the fence, watching. Mrs. Harding was leaning out the window, her curls in a wild friz around her head, yelling at the two children to settle down and keep their clothes clean. I laughed at the thought.

“Miss Stevens, where are you?” the Captain sang in a quiet voice.

“What?” I blinked and once again found myself in the library of Ashby Manor. The Captain was gazing at me out of his soft grey eyes.

“You've been gone for about the last five minutes. I was just curious as to where you were.”

“Oh. I was in Australia.”

“Well, since you're back, can I have your attention?”

Once again, he would have gone on, but I interrupted him. “This is Annie. She'll be staying with us for a week. And her dog, Sandie.”

“What on EARTH are you talking about?” he exclaimed, his voice dumbfounded.

“Annie, of course, silly,” I answered.

“What about her? Since when did my daughter change her name?”

I laughed loudly. “Not your daughter! Annie, the movie!”

Understanding lit up his face. “Oh! I might have known. How stupid of me.” He cast his eyes heavenward. “Lord,” he said in a loud voice, “Please help this wayward child of yours. She's strayed off the path. WAY off!”

“Spoken from the mouth of the MOST virtuous prayer,” I muttered sarcastically. I averted my eyes from him to watch the light sparkle on my class ring. The green lights that bounced back hypnotized me. “When you asked me to the library, you looked... disturbed, I guess is the right word. What's wrong?”

He looked at the liquid still left in his glass. With a crooked smile he said, “My ever-inquisitive governess. What's wrong? I don't know. I don't even know if something IS wrong. I don't quite know how to put it...”

“Something FEELS wrong, but you can't support this 'feeling' by logic or words.”

“That's it exactly. I can see you've been watching Star Trek again.” I smiled at the admonishing look he gave me. “All I really know is that I don't want to go tomorrow.”

“Well, if you don't want to go, stay home. Nobody's holding a gun to your head.”

He sighed heavily. “I can't stay home. There's something... I have to do. Something... very important.” He stared off into space, trying to look into the future, I supposed.

“Captain, I do believe you've been around me too much. You're daydreaming again. Were YOU in Australia too?” I asked in a light tone. I wanted to throw off the sober mood that had suddenly invaded the room.

He took a long time to bring his eyes back to me and reality. His voice was quiet and rather puzzled as he said, “Australia?” He seemd to be trying to remember his connections with the continent.

“Yes. The eucalyptus leaves. Remember?”

I could tell he wasn't listening to my words, though he was staring at me. His grey eyes were the most beautiful color I'd ever seen. I could see them sparkle in the dim light of the desk lamp. His handsome face was contorted by indecision, it seemed, though it was impossible to be sure. My heartbeat quickened and I once again found myself incapable of keeping my eyes away from his.

You can't do this, Melanie, my consciense said to me.

Why not? I have as much right to love this man as Monica Sinclair, or anybody.

But it's not right! You work for him. You are practically his servant! You should forget about all of this and let Monica have him. You have to let him go!

Before I knew it, I found myself standing on the floor beside the ladder. I don't even remember climbing down the steps. I stood at the bottom, unmoving, not knowing what I should do. Neither the Captain nor I made a move. We simply stood and stared at each other. The ticking of the clock on the mantle invaded my mind and kept me linked with the substantial world. I wanted to push it out, to sink completely into this feeling of suspended animation.

“Melanie.” He barely whispered it. The sound seemed to slip through his lips before he could stop them. To me it sounded like the bells of St, Mary's. It rang and echoed in my head and finally resolved into a hard, cold decision.

It's WRONG my insides screamed. Wrong, wrong, WRONG. I felt terribly dizzy and I shut my eyes to close out his face. I didn't want to see it. Actually, I was afraid I would melt if I did. With iron determination, I said, “Good-night, Captain.” He didn't say a word as I walked swiftly to the door. My hand was on the knob when I again heard his whisper.

“Good-bye.”

Tears were streaming down my cheeks when I finally closed the door of my room behind me.

Damn, I thought. Damn, damn, DAMN! I felt tired and drained and my legs could no longer support me. I allowed myself to sink to the floor beside my door, where I sat, shaking, for a long time.

Nobody had told me that love was so complicating, so complex. I had never been so confused in my life! My mind was telling me one thing and my heart was yelling quite the reverse.

Thank God he's leaving, I told myself. Now I can catch some time to think without having to see him every day.

But his last 'Good-bye' still reverberated in my thoughts.

The Captain's absence wasn't really noticed until suppertime, when the children were used to telling him about their day. His chair was empty and his presence or rather, the lack of it, was felt. Other than that, life was normal. Well, almost.

The children didn't remain glum about their father's trip for long. I informed them that we would 'party hardy' while he was gone, and this got their immediate approval. Bedtime was changed for Eric and Lizette and on Friday nights for the other three as well.

I let them bring home some friends from school and Keith Martin dropped by almost every day, and often stayed for supper. I think his parents thought he'd been adopted!

It had taken us quite some time to get back in the habit of school, but we finally made it.

“Anne, hold still! How the deuce am I supposed to braid your hair if you keep wriggling?” It was Friday morning, two days after the Captain had left for the world. At the last minute possible, Anne had decided she wanted her hair braided down her back, a normal school morning catastrophe.

“What does 'deuce' mean?” she asked, finally standing still.

“It means 'heck' or 'he...' other things, I guess. It's kind of a cuss word, I suppose, but it's not a bad one.” I concentrated on the hair stuck to my fingers.

“OUCH! You're pulling!” She grimaced in pain.

“Sorry. Maybe we should shave it all off and feed it to the horses.”

She was thoughtful for a minute. “Wouldn't that clog up their throats like it does the drain?”

I giggled. “I don't know. I've never fed hair to a horse. There. I'm finished. Well, it's not the latest French style, but it will have to do.” I glanced at my watch. “It's time for the bus to come. Get downstairs.” She ran out, her braid flying. “Come on, Amanda,” I said to the little blob sitting on my bed, “let's go dowm amd say good-by.”

She grunted - kind of - and held out her arms for me to pick her up, which I did. We traveled quickly down the stairs just as the bus could be seen coming down the road.

“Don't forget your lunches!” I yelled as they made a scramble for the door.

“My book!” screeched Michael.

I saw the object of his yelp lying on the mail tray on a little hall table. I picked it up and threw it to him.

He caught it. “Thanks, Melanie! Bye!” He had to run to catch the bus.

“Bye,” I yelled out the door and Amanda waved. With a screech of tires and a moaning of a reluctant engine, the bus lerched forward and was soon out of sight. “Well, kid, it's just you and me,” I said to Amanda.

“Let's read,” she said.

“Fine. That's a nice, easy thing to do at seven thirty in the morning.” I closed the door on the cold outside air.

But when a book was opened in front of her, she quickly decided that reading wasn't such a good idea. “I don't want to read.”

“Good. Neither do I.” I dropped the book on the desk in the library and fell onto the couch. “I think I'm catching a cold.”

Amanda climbed up beside me. “Me too.”

“I wish the cold weather would go away and Spring would come.”

“Me too.”

“I wish it was summer vacation so we could all go on a picnic.”

“Me too.”

“I wish I was sixty feet tall and weighed 780 pounds.”

“Me too.”

“Amanda, I have the feeling you're not listening to a word I'm saying.

“Me too.”

“What are you, a broken record?”

“Me too.”

“Me too, me too, me too!” I tickled her and she laughed.

“Don't tickle me!” she shrieked.

“Let's do something today. Let's go someplace.”

“Ok,” she agreed.

“Where do you want to go?”

“The movies, the movies!” she bounced on my stomach.

“UGH! Get off before I die!” She slid off my stomach and to the floor. “Thank you! The movies, you say? Well, that sounds alright. Where's the paper? Let's see what's playing.”

We found the newspaper on the Captain's desk and I quickly flipped to the movie ads. “Hm. A lot of rated 'R's. Hey, Snow White! Have you ever seen that?”

“No.”

“Great. It starts at twelve forty-five.” I hesitated for a minute. “We really shouldn't go without the others. It's not fair that they're in school and you're not. There's another showing tonight. Let's wait until they come home and then surprise them.”

“Yeah!” Amanda exclaimed excitedly.

“Yeah,” I echoed her. I could hardly wait for them to come home from school.

The idea of a movie, ANY movie, went over big with the children. The minute they walked through the door, Amanda jumped on them and blurted out our idea. Eric rebelled a little at the thought of seeing a Disney film, especially an animated cartoon, but it didn't take long to convine him that he would be better off with us in the theatre than alone at the mansion with Mrs. Harding.

We had supper early, maccaroni and cheese, a forbidden delicasy according to the Captain, and were ready to go by five thirty. The movie didn't start until seven o'clock, but it took almost as hour to get to Denver and I always like to be a little early, to make room for any catastrophe that might happen.

I had just opened the door when Maria, one of the many maids, appeared on the balcony. “Miss Melly,” she called down, “there's a phone call for you. It's the Captain.”

Anne immediately started jumping up and down. “Let me talk to him! Let me talk to him!” She ran to the library, the rest of us close behind, and pounced in the desk phone.

But before she could pick up the receiver, I placed my hand over hers. “Wait a minute. I'M the oldest here. I get to go first.” I uncurled Anne's fingers from the receiver and picked it up. “Hello, Captain!” I said exuberantly.

The line crackled for a minute then cleared. “Hello. Who's this?”

I smiled. “It's Melanie.” The crackling returned. “What? I can't hear you very well.”

“Hold on,” he said. “Operator? Yes, you. The one listening in on this conversation.” I could hear a sharp intake of air over the line. “Clear the air or you're fired.”

“Coma esta Usted?” came a female voice.

“Get off the line or I'll coma esta you and you won't like it one bit,” the Captain warned. There was a click and the static cleared.

“Hey! What's going on! Let me talk to him!” Anne persisted.

“No, I get too!” Amanda said.

“Hey, how come she gets to talk? That's not fair!” They were all yelling at the top of their lungs.

Now it was my turn to say, “Hold on.” I turned to the group and yelled “BE QUIET!” Silence reigned. “Thank you!” I returned my attention to the telephone. “Well, hello. How's life?”

“Just fine. I can see that things haven't changed much over there. What's going? on? Has anybody died?”

I giggled. “No, we're all still alive. We're going to a movie,” I informed him.

“Oh?” His voice sounded slightly suspicious. “And just what are you planning to see?”

“The worst rated 'X' film in town. I figured that Amanda would fall asleep and the others would get educated,” I said mischievously.

There was a slight pause, then the Captain cleared his throat. “Would you care to repeat that?”

“Now I know who doesn't trust me! Don't worry Captain. This terrible movie is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and you really ought to see it because it might improve your humor and here's Anne.” I handed the phone over to Anne and collapsed onto the desk in a fit of giggles.

“Hi Daddy! Have you bought me any presents yet? - You haven't? - How come? - Meetings all day long? Yuck! That's worse than school. - Well, Melanie is making the most noise, I think. She's sitting on your desk and laughing. - Ok, I'll tell her.” She looked up. “Daddy says his humor's fine and what's wrong with yours?” She spoke into the receiver again. “She's laughing too hard to answer. Oh, I got in trouble today for saying 'deuce' in the classroom. I got my name put on the board. - It means heck! Don't you know anything? Wait, Amanda wamts to talk to you. Good-bye, daddy!”

With a smile that would put Humpty-Dumpty to shame, she took the receiver from Anne. “Hiiiiiiii,” she said softly. “I'm fine.” She had suddenly become very shy. “When are you coming home? - Oh.” She sighed. “Ok.” She handed the receiver back to me.

“Don't we get to talk?” asked Michael.

“Say 'Hi” on the count of three,” I suggested and held out the instrument.

“HHHIIII!!!” they all yelled as loud as they possible could.

I could hear the Captain chuckle. “Tell them hi for me and that they get to talk next time.” I relayed the message and upon the news that nobody else got to talk, they trickled back into the hall to wait.

“Ah, peace at last! What are things like in Cartegeña?”

“Hot. It's so humid down here!”

“The sweet remeniscences of home,” I said softly and without thought.

There was a slight pause before he asked, “How are things really?”

“Oh, everything's just great. Nothing has happened, at least as far as I know. It's as dull as ever around here.”

“Well, things aren't exactly what you could call exciting here either. Although there was a mudslide in the jungle the other day that buried half a bus.”

“You weren't on it, were you?” I asked with worry in my voice.

“No. I just though I'd mention it. And I haven't seen any little bald men in Volkswagons, either.”

I smiled. “How did your coffee beans check out?”

“They're brown,” he finally said after consideration.

“Is that good?”

“I don't know. I've never made a close study of a coffee bean before.

“Melanie, hurry up! We don't have forever!” called Eric from the hall.

“Oh, my charges are getting antsy.”

“So I heard. This phone call was getting too expensive anyway. I'll probably call again on Sunday, just to see how thing are going.”

I detected a hint of melancholy in his tone. “Are you lonely?” I suddenly asked.

“I have a lot of paperwork to keep me company. But thanks for asking, anyway. I'll talk to you on Sunday. Good-by.”

“Bye.” The line went dead. Well, I thought, that was nice of him to call. At least we know he hasn't forgotten us. In a good mood, I skipped into the hall. “Ok. Let's go!”

There was a mad rush for the door, then the limosine, which stood on the drive, waiting for us.

“Why so late?” asked John as he opened the door and we poured in. “Did Melanie have to adjust her wig?”

“Ha! Not likely!” I retorted. “The Captain called and I couldn't exactly said 'Sorry, we're busy. Call back later,' now could I?” I shut the back door and climbed into the front seat with John. “This time I'm sitting in the front. After all, I'm paying.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went over with great success. We nearly laughed ourselves sick. After the movie, we went out for a snack at McDonald's. The children had never been there before.

“Melanie, where's the hamburger?” asked Lizette, picking up the top bun of the hamburger she had ordered and inspecting it.

“It's right there, under the pickles.” I pointed.

“That's is? It's kind of small, isn't it?” she asked doubtfully.

“Of course it is. This is a fast food restaurant. What did you expect? A steak?”

“The frech fries are good,” commented Michael, who was devouring everything he could lay his hands on.

Amanda leaned close to me. “Melanie, look at that man with the funny hair. It's ORANGE!”

Heads turned at her loud words while we tryed to hold back the laughter that was leaking out. I saw the man with the orange hair give us a nasty look.

Anne spoke up next. “He doesn't look very happy. If he's not happy, why deos he have orange hair?”

I forced myself to remain calm. “Because, dear, that's how he wants to express himself.”

“It's weird, that's what I say,” Eric said.

“Eric never expresses himself. Let's dye his hair light green!” Lizette said, smiling.

“He'd be the Jolly Green Eric!” said Michael, grinning.

“Can you imagine Eric in the commercials?” I asked. I sat up straight and mimmicked an innocent child. “His corn is so good because it has the juice in it! Ho Ho Ho! Green Eric!” We all collapsed into a fit of giggles.

All except Eric, that is. “Ok, ok. Have your fun. Melanie, someday you're going to wake up and your hair's going to be spiked and sticking straight up. You'll never fit through aother doorway again!”

“Look, there goes Mr. Orange,” commented Anne as she watched him head to the door. Michael started eating everybody else's food.

“Lizette, do you want your hamburger?” he asked hopefully.

She gave it a disgusting look. “No, you can have it. I don't like that stuff.” He grabbed it and started munching away.

“Don't get sick, Michael. We don't really need anybody throwing up all over the back of the car. It's a long way home,” I warned. As I was quite full myself, I sat back and watched the children. Is it really this easy being a mother, I thought. Well, that's practically what you are so it must be.

My thoughts turned to the Captain. I wondered what he was doing and where he would be calling from on Sunday. At least he'd sounded healthy over the phone. Actually, I could't wait for him to come home. I misssed him terribly. I was so used to taking his orders that I was having a hard time giving them.

Oh, quit complaining, I told myself. You've got five wonderful chidlren to keep you occupied and all he has are meetings and paperwork. You should feel sorry for him. Personally, I didn't think the Captain would enjoy pity very much.

“Melanie.” It was Amanda, trying desperately to crawl into my lap. “I'm tired.”

“So am I.” Lizette yawned. A chain reaction started and soon we were all yawning.

“We should start a new organization called YA: Yawnaholics Anonymous,” suggested Eric.

“Yeah!” Anne said, smiling.

“Oh, my, aren't we clever tonight? Well,” I glanced at my watch, “It's already nine o'clock. Let's get going. I don't want to keep Amanda up too late.” Anne and Amanda each took one of my hands and we made our way out of McDonald's and into the cold outside air. “When do you think Spring will come?”

“Not for awhile yet. There will probably be at least one more big storm before the winter ends,” informed Lizette.

“Great. Something to look forward to.”

Needless to say our limosine was the only one in the parking lot. Shivering, we climbed in. John turned up the heat full blast.

“Maybe the heat went out in Monica's mansion and she's frozen solid,” said Michael.

“Ha! Before that happened she'd find a way to our house. Father would keep her warm,” said Lizette with scorn.

Suddenly thoughtful, I mentioned, “We heaven't seen much of dear old Monica lately. I wonder what she's up to.”

“Wasn't she sick?” asked John.

“She was, but that was Saturday and unfortunately, in this case anyway, the flu doesn't last forever. She'll be back to her normal corrupt self before we know it. Maybe she's related to the Wicked Witch of the West. I wonder what would happen if we threw water on her.”

“With our luck she'd probably get bigger,” John muttered. I laughed.

“Melanie?” called Lizette from the back. “What do you do when a kid has fallen asleep on your leg and the blood is cut off from your toes?”

“You keep repeating to yourself how cute this kid looks as it sleeps. Meanwhile, your leg dies. It's called motherhood, or in your case, sisterhood. Welcome to my world. Why, who's asleep?”

“Amanda, and she's VERY heavy.”

“Wake her up and pass her to me. There's plenty of room for her up here.” I don't think she ever completely woke up, but somehow we managed to get her up front and settled. Now it was my leg that was falling asleep. The price for happiness.

The days wore on... and on... and on. The Captain called every other day and we took turns talking to him. He said his meetings kept him busy.

A week passed. Saturday afternoon found me in the kitchen, trying my best to make chocolate chip cookies. The cook knew how to make great gourmet food, but when it came to chocolate chip cookies, she had a lot to learn.

Unfortunately, I didn't know much more than the cook. I had only made cookies a few times.

“Margarine,” I said aloud to myself. “The refridgerator, stupid. God, don't you know anything? You're trying to find margarine in the bread cupboard. Idiot.” I foud the margarine and set the two sticks on the counter.

Anne walked in. “Hi, Melanie. Whatcha doing?”

“I'm making choclate chip cookies,” I said, glancing at her.

“Oh, can I help?” she asked eagerly.

“Sure,” I answered readily. “I need all the help I can get.”

“Good. What do I do?”

“Well, we need some brown sugar. Do you have any idea where it is?”

She looked at the row of cupboards lining the wall, and shook her head sadly.

“Let's start looking.” We began opening cupboards one by one and going through the contents. “I feel like one of Ali Babba's forty thieves.”

“Who?” Anne gave me a quizzical stare.

I didn't even try to explain. “Never mind,” I said. “Aha! I found it!” I yelled, pulling out the sack of brown sugar from one of the many cupboards.

We continued our search for the rest of the ingredients and finally had them all lined up along the counter. “Now we need a mixing bowl. A big one.” Anne pulled something out of a cupboard and set it on the counter. “No, Anne, that's a pan, not a bowl. That's what you shell peas in.”

She looked at me strangely. “I didn't know peas lived in shells,” she said.

“Oh, that's right. You're not a farm girl. You've probably never shelled peas. Well, I'll tell you, it's fun for a while, but then it becomes a pain in the butt.”

Just then Michael and Eric sauntered in, looking as if they didn't have a care in the world.

“Hi! What's up?” asked Michael, leaning on the counter.

“We're making cookies. What does it look like?” said Anne with scorn.

“Cookies?” asked an eager Michael, always on the lookout for food.

“I wouldn't eat them if Melanie is making them. They'll end up poisonous,” Eric warned.

“Then I'll be sure to give them to you for your birthday.” I had been mixing the ingredients together in a big yellow bowl I had found, and the mess was beginning to turn into edible dough. My hands were covered with flour and eggs, etc. Eric reached in for one of the chocolate chips. “Hey! You can wait, smarty. Shouldn't you be doing your homework or something?”

“I'm finished with my homework. It's too easy. It's all boring. EVERYTHING'S boring!” he complained.

“Wait till you get to high school,” I said. “That's where the fun begins.”

“Did I hear the words 'high school?'” asked Lizette as she peeked in from the back entrance.

“You did,” I answered, still concentrating on mixing the dough and keeping Eric out of the bowl.

“UGH! Take it from me, it stinks! I'm STILL doing homework. I thought the weekend was our time off.”

“'Time waits for no man,'” quoted Eric proudly.

“Oh, shut up,” Lizette said. “What are you making, Melanie?”

“Chocolate chip cookies,” stated Anne. To me she muttered, “You'd think she'd know that from the chocolate chips in the bowl. She IS dumb.”

“I heard that, Anne.” In retaliation, Lizette dipped her hand in the flour and sprinkled it on Anne's hair.

“Hey!” yelled Anne, moving away from her sister. “Cut it out!”

“Lizette, please, try to keep control of your urges,” I said as Anne brushed the flour out of her hair.

“Where's your sense of humor?” she asked angrily and stomped out of the kitchen, practically running over Amanda as she skipped in.

“Boy!” Michael exclaimed. “What's her problem?”

“I believe it's called either homework or boys,” I explained.

Eric looked thoughtful. “No, I can understand why she would be upset about the second part...”

'Oh, SHUT UP!” Anne and I said together. I used Lizette's method and threw flour at him. “Boys,” I said alone. “They're not worth getting upset about.”

“Where do you think your bread and butter will come from?” Eric demanded.

“Well,” I looked around, “there are three girls that I take care of and only two boys - I seem to be doing quite well without a man.”

“Ha! Father pays you a salary. You're not in a free enterprise.”

“Oh, Eric, it could have easily been your mother still alive as your father and I would be getting my weekly checks from her instead of him.

“You mean you get a weekly check!” Eric sounded astonished.

I reflected for a minuted. “Well, if you want to get technical about it, the Captain puts my salary in a bank account for me. That way I don't spend it. When I need money, I withdraw as much as I need and no more. It keeps me rich.”

“He even puts it in the bank for you! See, he's still your bread and butter!”

“Eric! He goes to town more than I do! If you don't watch it, I'm going to dump this whole sack of flour on you!” I lifted the sack from the counter to make the threat more evident.

He put up a hand to stop me. “Ok, ok I know when I'm beaten. I guess this proves that you should never mess with a woman when she's in the kitchen. It's invading her turf.”

What insolence! I threw a whole handful of flour in his face. “Like father, like son! Dirt seemed to dampen him. Maybe flour will work on you.”

He sputtered and coughed, shaking flour from his face and hair. It fell to the floor like light snow flakes drifting from a winter sky.

I laughed gayly. “You look so much like your father sometimes!” I exclaimed.

“What did you mean by dirt dampening him?” Michael still leaned on the counter, his eyes shing with interest.

My eyebrows shot up. “You never found out about that?” They shook their heads. “I'm surprised. I figured he'd tell you all about it just to embarass me. Well, I guess I'll have to tell you.” I began putting drops of cookie dough on a cookie sheet as I explained. “Remember when you and Lizette were trying to teach me to ride, Eric?”

“Do I ever! You were a hopeless case!”

“Were? I still am. Anyway, the Captain saw me fall over that dumb horse's rump... oh, you weren't there, were you? You'd both gone into the house already. Well, I fell off and the Captain said he would continue giving me lessens. I think he thought he was doing me a favor. The next day we went at it, with him yelling at me from the fence and me bouncing around on that horrid creature. I had finally done everything right and the Captain had just complimented me when Wizard stopped short and I flew over his head. The least the Captain could have done was ask if I was alive, but NOOOOOO! He stood there and laughed! Of all the rotten things to do! Needless to say, I was quite mad, so I scooped up a handful of dirt, climbed the fence, and dumped it on him. I remember he looked like a cake with brown frosting.” I stopped working and laughted at the memory. “You reminded me of him with flour in your hair,” I said to Eric. “You both have that same shocked 'How dare you?' look.”

“You mean to tell me that you threw dirt in father's hair and he didn't do a thing about it?” asked an unbelieving Eric.

“Yep. It's strange when you think about it,” I reflected.

“Strange is an understatement! He must like you a lot. We'd never get away with anything like that and we're his children!” he muttered.

I went back to my cookies and Anne helped. Nichael was looking thoughtful, and that always meant trouble.

“I've got an idea,” he said at last. “Let's rig it up so that when Lizette comes in the door, the whole bag of flour will fall on her.”

“My, aren't we getting devious? Michael, I think you should be a professional criminal. You could foil Kate's expeditions and she would never catch you.” He smiled at the compliment. “I don't think we ought to do that. Think of the mess we'd have.”

“Oh, come on Melanie, don't be a spoils-sport,” begged Anne, her mischievousness as plain as day on her face. Then came the puppy-dog eyes.

I could feel myself giving in. “Alright. I don't believe I'm doing this. There will be such a mess. But what the heck. I'm mistress of this house right now and what I say goes, and I say we should clobber Lizette because she's being a crab. Now, let's see, how can we do this?” We all looked at the door, studying possibilities.

“I've got it.” Eric grabbed a chair and the sack of flour and carried them to the door. Standing on the chair, he carefully set the sack on top of the door. He tested out his plan by going through the door himself, but the sack just fell to the floor with a thud.

“No you're doing it all wrong, “ I said. “Give it here. Let me try.” I looked at the door again. “Somebody find me some string.” There was a mad search through all the drawers and cupgoards before a fairly long piece of string was placed into my hand. I judged it to be long enough for my purpose, then tied one end around the flour sack and set it above the door on a small ledge. I then quickly fastened the other end of the string to the kitchen side of the door. “There, that should make and effective mess of anybody who comes through that door.” I smiled to myself at my handiwork.

“Won't Lizette be surprised!” Michael was grinning from ear to ear. “I'll run up and get her.” He ran out the back entrance and pounded up the stairs. A few minutes passed and I put my cookies into the oven. He came back, breathless, and said, “I told her you wanted to see her. She's coming.” He was practically exploding with excitement.

We waited expectantly. Then suddenly the door burst open. Down plunged the sack, turning over and spilling its contents in a cloud of white. We broke up laughing, but stopped when the flour had settled.

The figure covered in white was not Lizette's but that of Mrs. Harding! She looked like Casper, the friendly ghost, only with curls! Her mouth was wide open, like a baby bird's calling for food. I expected her to chirp at any minute.

I started laughing again, and soon had to sit on the floor because I was out of air. Oh, she did look hilarious, all white and frizzy! The Abominable Snowman gets a girlfriend!

As I laughed, she wiped white powder from her face and shoulders. She was FURIOUS! Her fed face contrasted with her snowy hair. “WHO DID THIS?!!!” she fairly shrieked. “WHO DID IT?”

The children shrank back, unwilling to admit their guilt. I looked at her and laughed harder. “I did it,” I finally managed to gasp out, still giggling.

“YOU? I don't believe it! Youre only covering up for one of these... these miserable WRETCHES!”

“No, honestly, I'm not,” I said, calming down a bit, seeing that I had a serious crisis on my hands. “You see, Lizette is being a crab and we decided to play a joke on her...”

“Oh, spare me the details, Miss Stevens! You're all culprits in this plot to disrupt my life! Now, clean up this messs, or the Captin will be getting an unwanted telephone call!” She flew out on her broomstick, or so I thought, trailing flour all the way.

I smiled again. “We could put a scarf around her neck, a top hat on her head, and a corncob pipe in her mouth and she could be Frosty the Snowman!” My joke failed to produce even a smile. “Oh, come on, you guys! Don't worry about her!”

“She's going to call father. Boy, are we in for it!” said Eric, staring at the flour on the floor.

“Oh, no she won't! And if she does, I'll call him right back and explain that it was my idea and if he wants to fire me to go right ahead. He's not some horrible monster. Don't worry.”

“I don't like her,” Amanda whimpered, pressing close to my leg. “She's mean to us.”

“She just doesn't understand kids, that's all. Now, let's get this mess cleaned up.” The joking atmosphere had suddenly turned serious. My glum children plodded off to find brooms and dustpans.

I would have helped, but just then Amanda mentioned that something smelled bad. “My cookies!” I shrieked and ran to the oven. I had to blow the smoke away with my hot pad as it poured into the kitchen. Amanda and I coughed and choked. I pulled out the cookie sheet and set it quickly on the stove.

Amanada looked doubtfully at the black globs. “Do we have to eat them?” she asked hesitantly.

Lizette stomped in. “Melanie, what did you want?” she growled, then sniffed the air. “GROSS! What stinks?”

“Melanie's cookies,” Amanda said and pointed to the still smoking tray.

She looked at me with open disgust. “You're a nanny, Melanie, not a cook.”

“A nanny who happens to control your life a the moment, miss. I am not above punishing you, even though I haven't as of yet. Of course, so far, I've had no reason to bring down the whip, but don't think I won't.”

She looked intimidated for a minute, but quickly recovered. “What did you want to see me about?” she asked wearily.

“Oh, that. Well, it was nothing. Just a stupid idea the backfired.” I added as an afterthought, “... in one big POOF and a cloud of white.”

It was the night of that same Saturday. I was in my room, reading my book, waiting rather impatiently for the Captain's call. Micki jumped onto my bed and, purring, rubbed against my arm.

“Hello, cat,” I said as I scratched her under the chin. She continued purring. “Well, here we are, just you and me. It's kind of quiet. I wonder what they're up to.” I looked into her yellow feline eyes. “Hey, that reminds me. Just where have you been gallavanting off to these last two days, huh? You've been outside most of the time. I know bedause it was MY window you scratched at in the middle of the night. Do you have a boyfriend? Are you meeting some ruffian Tom cat behind my back? Is there some secret you're not telling me, huh? Wait a minute. It's the beginning of 'that time of year.' I have a sneaky suspicion that you are going to have your first family. Let me see.” I felt her stomach, looking for the evidence. “Well, you're not fat yet, but if I know my cats, and I DO know them very well, you soon will be. Honestly, Micki, you could have waited until you were a little bit older.” I sighed. “I suppose I'm too late for the 'Watch out for little boys' speech, aren't I? Really, Micki, where am I going to PUT them? One thing this house doesn't need is kittens. But I shouldn't be jumping to conclusions. You may be perfectly innocent. Heaven help is if you're not. What will the Captain say? He'll probably make me kick you out.” Micki just stared at me, looking innocent. “I see Anne's been giving you some pointers. You know what? I OUGHT to make you stay on that window ledge out there. You seem to like it quite well. It's a good thing there's a tree within jumping distance, or you would be stranded out in the cold snow. You'd have to learn to come in the FRONT DOOR! Heaven help us! Sure, fine, curl up and go to sleep. I don't care. I'm just telling you how hard you're making my life. Hm, I WONDER what dear Captain Kartwright would say. It'll be interesting finding out.” Just then the phone rang. “FINALLY!” I said and picked up the extension in my room.

But it was not the Captain's voice I heard over the line. I recognized it as Keith Martin's, Lizette's boyfriend. I heard Lizette say, “I see,” before I managed to get the receiver back in its cradle. She had sounded strangely quiet and I wondered what was going on. I tried to remember if she had mentioned a fight, but I couldn't recall anything of the sort. Oh well, I thought, and went back to my book.

Presently I heard the sound of pounding feet as they ran down the hall and the slamming of a door. Puzzled, I climbed off the bed and ventured into the hall. The door to Lizette's bedroom was the only one closed. I walked over and listened before knocking. I could hear crying from within.

I knocked quietly. “Lizette? Can I come in?”

“Go away!” she called in a choked voice.

Naturally, being the motherly type, I ignored her order and pushed open the door. She was laying on the bed, her face buried in her pillow.

She looked up at me. “AAAARGH!” she yelled and put the pillow over her head.

“Lizette, good heavens what's wrong?” My voice was full of concern.

She lifted here tear-stained face to look at me again. “Men!” she cried. “They're the most dispicable, rotten, dirty, low-down creatures in the world and I HATE them!”

“I see,” I said. I went to sit on the edge of her bed. “That was Keith on the phone, wasn't it?”

“Don't mention his name! The RAT!”

“What did he do?”

She propped herself up on her elbows. “He ruined my life, that's what he did! And all for who? Susan McKendrick, that's who!”

“I take it he broke up with you,” I said.

“He didn't even do it face to face. He did it over the phone!” She dissolved into tears again and let her head fall onto the pillow.

“Oh, Lizette, I'm sure it's not as bad as you make it sound,” I said consolingly and patted her on the back.

“It's WORSE!”

I was about to say something when Maria interrupted us. “Miss Melly, the Captain's on the phone.

“Oh... DAMN,” I said in a whisper. “Alright. Thanks, Maria. Lizette I'll be right back.” I ran to my room and picked up the receiver. “Captain?”

“Hi. What's up?” came his familiar voice.

“Call me back in fifteen minutes and I'll tell you. I've got a crisis.” I didn't even wait for a reply, but hung up and then back to Lizette.

“Do you know what he was doing while I was sick?” she began the minute I entered the room. “He was taking Susan McKendrick out to movies and dinner, and he DIDN'T EVEN TELL ME! He just kept going from me to her, and now he's dumped me! ME! Susan is UGLY! She's a... a... COW compared to me! He embarassed me in front of the WHOLE school! He's a pig, a dirty rotten PIG!”

“Oh, come on, sweetheart. Tell me, what exactly did he say?”

“He said, 'Lizette, this is Keith. I can't see you anymore because I'm going steady with Susan McKendrick. It was nice knowing you and fun while it lasted.' Then he hung up. The nerve of him!” Her sorrow was turning into anger at an extremely rapid rate.

“That WAS rather tactless. He should have told you face to face.”

“I don't ever want to see him again in my lifr! I'm quitting school!”

“Over a boy?” I asked in astonisment. “No you're not. On Monday, you should go right up to him and slug him a good one. Tell the principle I gave my permission. Sometimes that even brings people back together. And besides, Susan McKendrick was his second pick.”

“Ha! He knew what he was doing! It was all part of his master plan. I'm gonna KILL him!”

“That's the spirit! Never tell them that it bothers you. They like to know that they have an impact on a girl's life. It makes them feel powerful. I'm sure there's somebody better in your school than Keith Martin.” I heard the telephone ring in my room. “There's the Captain.” I got up and hurried back to my room again. “Captain, the fifteen minutes aren't up yet. W... What? Oh Keith. Hello. Hold on, I'll see if she'll come to the phone.” I turned around, but Lizette, who had followed me to my room, grabbed the receiver from my hand.

“SWINE!” she yelled and slammed down the phone. With murder in her eyes she stomped back into her room.

The phone rang again. Honestly, couldn't that boy take a hint? Now, thoroughly mad myself, I yanked up the receiver and said, “Look, Keith, Lizette hates your guts and doesn't want to talk to you...”

“What?” came a confused voice.

“Captain! Oh, hello. How's life?” Blushing, I sat down on my bed, resting my back on the headboard.

“Um... I'm fine. How are YOU?”

“Just wonderful,” I said with sarcasm.

“Keith. That's Lizette's boyfriend, isn't it?”

“You mean EX-boyfriend,” I said scornfully. “Men these days have absolutely NO tact. Lizette's quite upset about it. He just called a minute ago and she called him a swine and hung up.”

“A swine you say?”

“I believe she's been listening to me talk to my cat. It's an effective name at times.”

“Apparently. Will she be alright?”

“Oh yes. She's just ready to kill him, that's all. She'll get over it.”

“Don't let her out of the house,” he warned.

I laughed lightly. “I don't plan to. So, where are you tonight?”

“You mean today. I'm in Athens right now.”

“Oh, is the sun shining?” I asked excitedly.

“Yes, it is. And it's warm too.”

I sighed wistfully. “Lucky you. It's still cold here and there's STILL snow all over the place and we have to wear heavy coats and...”

“Stop!” he said, laughing. “You're making me homesick!”

“How about if I find a witch who will zap us into each other's places? I could handle a little warm weather about now.”

“Melanie!” Anne pouted as she entered my room. “Michael took my teddy bear and he won't give it back!”

I covered the mouthpiece with my hand and turned towards her. “Tell him that I say to give it back.”

“Who ya talkin' to?” It never failed. Anne's curiosity was always coming to the fore.

“Your father,” I answered. “And HE says to behave. Now, amscray.” She smiled sweetly, then skipped out.

“Are my wonderful offspring being good?” he inquired.

“As good as can be expected. There's the usual fighting and squabbling. Nothing major yet. We CAN live without you.”

In a mocking tone, he answered, “You're kidding! I never thought it possible.”

There was a slight pause before I asked, “So, how long are you staying in Greece?”

“Oh, about four days I guess. Then it's on to...”

“No, WAIT! Don't tell me!” I shut my eyes and put my hand on my forehead, concentrating. Muttering, I said, “Let me see, Columbia, Australia... um... um... Hong Kong, that's it, then Greece and next... PARIS! I got it!” I yelled over the line.

“Well, give you a medal,” he complimented. “I'll probably be there about a week.”

“You'll actually have time to get used to your hotel room.”

“To be perfectly honest, I miss my own bed. The lumps just aren't the same anyplace else. And it's too quiet. I'm used to the children yelling something or other and you quoting your movies. I'm afraid the Greeks that I've met so far haven't seen Annie.

I giggled. “I could assemble the group and have them sing 'Jingle Bells' at the tops of their lungs,” I suggested.

He paused (rather effectively, I might add) then said, “Excuse me, but...”

I couldn't resist cutting in with, “... are you Mr. Dunlop? Well, either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the calibur of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.”

“Stop, stop, stop, STOP! You're driving me nuts!” he said, laughing.

“My main goal in life. Am I doing a good job?”

“Definately.”

“That's from the Music Man, so if anybody stops you on the street and asks you what Harold Hill said, you can repeat my quote.”

“Somehow I doubt that will ever happen.”

“Somehow, I agree with you.” I laughed quietly. “Uh-oh. I can hear the sound of a crying child. Yep, here comes Amanda.”

Eric led the sniffling little girl into my bedroom. “She tripped over a chair and hit her elbow on the table. You take her.” With a look of exasperation he left my room.

“Goodness, Amanda, you even tore your pants! What a wild kid.” I pulled her into my lap and kissed her on the head. “There, you're fine. Here, say hi to your father.”

But Amanda would have nothing to do with the telephone. She buried her head on my shoulder and refused to talk to the Captain.

“Well, she says 'hello' anyway,” I spoke into the receiver once again.

“It's nice to know I have an affectionate daughter. Oh... come back here you...” I heard a crash over the line and a loud, “OUCH!”

I sat up straighter. “Captain? What happened?”

“The damn chair broke!” he exclaimed huffily.

“Maybe it's the custom in Greece to sit on the floor.”

“I kind of doubt it.” I could tell by his tone of voice that he was angry.

“I can just see the muscles in your face getting tight and your eyes flashing fire,” I said humorously.

“I'm laying here in mortal pain and you're making jokes. How ungrateful can you get?”

“Well, I'm going to be even more ungrateful. I have to hang up and put your dear children to bed. Sorry, but that's life. I'll talk to you later.”

“Yeah. I've got to get myself untangled, too. I'll talk to you in two days.”

“Right. So long, farewell, Aur Wietersehen, good-bye. Oh, and good-day to you.”

“Good-night, Miss Stevens. I hope the bed bugs bite.”

I heard the click as he hung up. CREEP! I yelled silently, staring at the telephone, but I was smiling.

Amanda was still crying silently on my shoulder. I grabbed a kleenex from the box on my nightstand and wiped away her tears. “My poor, darling little girl,” I said and hugged her. “Do you feel better?” She nodded silently.

Presently she spoke. “When's daddy coming home?” she asked quietly.

“Not for awhile. He still has to go to Paris and Madrid and England before he can come home.”

She sighed woefully. “I wish he was home now.”

I too sighed. “You're not the only one.”

Once again the days seemed to wear on... and on... and on. Life was pretty dull. Lizette refused to mention Keith Martin's name. She continued to harbor hate in her heart.

The Captain continued calling every other day until he left Greece and then, for no apparent reason, the light, friendly phone conversations ceased. I kept track of his wherabouts and knew that he had arrived in Paris. Every night I waited for him to call, but he never did.

Until Tuesday the seventh of February.

Amanda and I were sitting in the library, reading through her reader once again when the phone rang.

“GOT IT!” I yelled, a habit which I had gotten into at home and never seemed able to escape. Everybody thought I was weird. I grabbed the receiver and said, “Hello.”

“Miss Stevens. Good, it's you.” The Captain's voice was brusque and devoid of its usual warmth.

I was suddenly filled with suspicion. “Yes?”

“I'll be arriving home tomorrow afternoon. Have some guest rooms prepared, I'll be bringing some people with me. Have the children dressed nicely and on their best behavior...”

I was confused as to what the devil was going on. “But...”

“That will be all, Miss Stevens.”

“Captain...” I was talking to thin air. He'd already hung up. Puzzled, I set the receiver back in its place.

An awful feeling of dread which I couldn't explain swept over me. He was coming home. I should have been happy and excited. Instead I felt deflated and in a hopeless situation. Something was wrong, but WHAT?

That night I lay in bed, quite unable to sleep. Thoughts webt zipping to and fro in my brain and refused to settle down.

I had told the children the news and they were all extremely excited. After all, their father was coming home early. And that's what really bothered me.

I hadn't said anything about the guests accompanying their father or of the strangeness that surrounded his early departure of Europe. I didn't want to bother them with my own suspicions and dark thoughts.

Finally I fell into a sleep full of dreams; hardly what one would call a restful night. All my dreams, nightmares actually, centered around the Captain, of course. They were full of strange people and places.

I remember one dream in particular. The Captain was standing near the edge of a cliff, I believe, and being led closer and closer to the edge by a something which evolved into Monica Sinclair. She was walking on thin air over nothing, like a fairy, or in this case especially, a witch. She had those long arms of hers extended towards the Captain, and seemed to be saying, “Follow me,” or something like that. And the idiot was going with her, too! I yelled at him over and over again to stop and come back, but he continued on. I screamed at him, but nothing worked. I then tried running to him, but something held me back and I couldn't move. Finally, he reached the edge, Monica was reaching out to him, and I was still trying to stop him when I saw him topple right on over the cliff. “CHRIS!” I yelled, my voice working at last.

I jerked awake and sat up. My covers were tangled all around me. It was no wonder I couldn't move! I was sweating even though it was cold in my room.

He's gone! I kept repeating. Gone, gone, gone! Tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I brushed them away. Without reason, I jumped out of bed and ran into the hall, not bothering with my robe. I just had to make sure he wasn't dead. My stockinged feet made little pattering sounds as I quickly made my way around the balcony to his room.

Once at the door, I knocked softly, but there was no answer. I pushed open the door and switched on the light.

The room, of course, was empty. The bed was unruffled and neat as it should have been. I don't honestly know what I had expected to find, but it had been SOMETHING. Here I found only nothing.

I leaned against the wall, suddenly tired. I've lost him, I said to myself. My conscience immediately answered with, How can you lose something you never had? Oh, shut up! I thought.

Several shiny black limosines pulled up to the front door of Ashby Manor. I watched from the livingroom window.

Grey clouds gave the day a gloomy and forboding atmosphere. The white snow that covered the ground looked dirty and dull to me. It was a completely cheerless day full of cheerless people.

The Captain stepped out of the first limosine and turned to help Monica Sinclair alight. I had been expecting this and wasn't surprised in the least. From the dark recesses of my mind I recalled that Miss Sinclair owned a huse in France, and that, more than likely, was the reason we had not heard from the Captain.

Men and women were emerging from the other black cars as well, and the drive was becoming clogged with people. When I noticed they were heading for the front door, I quickly exited the livingroom and ran up the stairs. I had no great desire to be observed by the new arrivals. I much preferred being the observer.

I could now here the sound of voices in the hall as Mrs. Harding greeted our employer. Now I stood at the raling and watched. Perkins gathered coats and hats while John helped the other chauffeurs with the luggage. There seemed to be a mountain of suitcases piling up in the hall.

“Thank you, Mrs. Harding,” the Captain was saying as she took his and Monica's coats. “Are the guest rooms prepared?”

“Yes, sir,” answered the housekeeper.

“Good. Have chapaign and wine sent up to the sitting room. We have some celebrating to do!” He dismissed her, but called her back. “Oh, and have Miss Stevens bring the children in. I have something to tell them.”

She nodded and left, taking as many coats as she could carry with her. The Captain turned suddenly and looked up. For a brief instant, our eyes met and locked. I could not read what was passing across his grey eyes, nor, I'm sure, could he read mine. I didn't smile and neither did he. Not exactly what you'd call a welcome homecoming. I turned and walked into the children's wing to round them up.

“Is daddy home, yet?” asked Amanda the minute I entered Eric's room where they were all gathered.

“Yes, he's home,” I answered without emotion.

“I'm gonna go see him!” She jumped off the bed and would have ran out the door except I caught her.

“Not yet. Wait for a minute.”

Lizette looked around, puzzled. “What I don't understand is why we're all so dressed up. What difference does it make how we look?”

Explaining, I said, “I didn't mention it yesterday, but the Captain brought about ten guests home with him. I heard him mention something about celebrating. I'm supposed to take the five of you to the sitting room where he will be some sort of announcement.”

Anne approached me hesitantly. “Is Monica here?”

I nodded bleakly.

“I knew it!” she said, slamming her hand down hard on her brother's bed. “I knew he would have to ruin our lives and get married to her!”

“Oh, Anne, don't dramatize! He's NOT married! At least, not yet. Now come on, I want to get you guys settled in the room before everybody else gets there.” I led the way out of their wing, around the corner, and into the sitting room.

I had only been in this room once or twice before, as it was used primarily for entertaining. A fairly large chandellier hung from the ceiling; the chandellier that I had told Mrs. Harding to put up, to which Monica had thrown a fit, claiming that SHE had the right to decorate the mansion and not some lowly farm girl like me. There was furniture made expressly for comfort scattered in advantageous places throughout the room. A set of tall windows looked out across the gardens, but today long heavy curtains were pulled across them, shutting out the cold air.

I placed the children on a couch in a corner, warned them to behave, and then secreted myself onto a chair in a darkened corner. Here I could once more watch without being seen.

I had just gotten settled when the Captain walked in with Monica on his arm. They were followed by the rest of their enterouge, but I kept my eyes on Monica.

She looked quite ravishing in a black silk dress that came to her knees. She was smiling a huge smile and looked around the room with a commanding air. Oh, she was enjoying herself! She turned to usher her friends into the room and told them to make themselves comfortable. As she turned, I noticed a huge diamond sparkling on her left hand.

The ladies of the group immediately remarked on how adorable the children were. Two of them crossed the room and began doting on Amanda and Anne. Amanda didn't like this one bit and as soon as the opportunity arose, jumped up from her seat and ran to me.

“Melanie, I don't like them! They won't leave me alone,” she whispered plaintively.

“I know,” I answered understandingly. “But I'm afraid you have to put up with them. Just for a little while, though. Then we can go back to your room and get out of these ridiculous clothes. Now go on back and sit down.”

“I don't want to!” she said again.

“Amanda, please! This is not the time or the place to make a scene. Your father will be very angry if you cause problems. Just sit there and smile.”

“Alright,” she said at last and went back to her couch, though reluctantly.

The champaigne was brought in, poured into glasses, and passed around. Conversations started and little groups were formed. The Captain and Monica went to work at making everybody feel at home.

Next I studied the Captain. It was a wonder he didn't look more exhausted than he did. He'd just spent the last three weeks sleeping in hotel rooms and on planes, and the first thing he does when he gets home is throw a party. What an idiot. Then I began wondering if this little party of his was just a convenient reason to come home early. Besides being obviously tired, he still remained as handsome as ever.

“Come on, Captain,” I said to myself. “Let's get this over with. You're not helping the children by stalling.”

A few minutes later the Captain moved a bit away from his guests and said, “Ok. So you people can stop wondering about what the devil is going on, I'll tell you my news.” He glanced at Monica, who smiled rather coyly, and continued. “While in Paris on my business trip, I asked Monica to marry me, and she, naturally, said 'yes.'”

I purposefully turned my attention to the children to see their reaction. Lizette's face went as hard as stone and I'm sure she would have gladly slaughtered her 'new mother,' but she kept her head and didn't say a word. Amanda just sat calmly next to Lizette, watching the proceedings out of frightened eyes. I don't think she quite knew what was going on. Michael gave one look at Monica and then lowered his head to stare at the floor. I heard Eric audibly groan. He placed his hands over his eyes, trying to shut out the world, I suppose.

The only open resentment came from Anne. I watched her face turn red and her fists curve into those hard little balls. Tense myself, I sat on the ege of my seat, ready to jump forward and prevent a catastrophe. Unfortunately, I wasn't fast enough.

Anne jumped up and yelled, “You can't marry her! I won't let you!”

“Anne!” Lizette warned quickly.

Anne turned to her sister. “She'll send us away to boarding schools and never let us come home! She will!” She flew and her father then, those little fists flying. Her first hard punch plowed into the Captain's stomach and I could hear the air that was forced out of him even from where I was sitting.

Now I jumped up and told Lizette to take the three well-behaved children out of the room as quickly as possible, then I concentrated my attention on Anne, who was still unmercifully beatong on her father.

“Anne! Stop it!” I said fiercly, hoping my tone of voice would enter her muddled brain and bring her good sense back.

But Anne stuck with her attack. The Captain finally managed to get behind her and lift her off her feet. “Anne Kartwrite, if you don't settle down and stop this, you will sit in your room by yourself for the next menth! Now stop it!”

“NO! I won't let you marry that witch! I WON'T!”

That's it, I thought, and sure enough there landed the Captain's hand, right on her behind. Anne gasped, but didn't cry. Up till now, he'd been humoring her, I believe so as not to embarass either of them in front of everybody. Now his cheek muscles tightened and anger burned in his eyes. “You will not speak of Monica in that fashion, is that understood?” She nodded, but just barely. “Now go to your room, and I don't want to see you again until you can behave.” He carried her into the hallway before setting her down, to be on the safe side. I slipped out behind them.

The minute Anne was on the floor and away from her father's hand, she gave him her most hateful look and yelled, “I hate you! You've ruined my entire life!” Tears streaming down her cheeks, she turned and ran down the hall. Luckily, I had had the foresight to close the sitting room door, so this part of the action went unseen.

His eyes burning fire, he now turned his wrath on me. “And where were you the whole time?”

“I was watching. I had presumed you could handle your own daughter. Obviously I presumed wrong.” My own anger had risen to the fore and I was ready for a good fight. All the dread and anguish of his homecoming had finally resolved into bitter anger and I knew I would have to watch what I said. “The least you could have done was take her into the hall BEFORE spanking her!”

He grabbed my arm and pulled me around the balcony, away from the ears of his guests. “You were supposed to have control of them! Why on earth did you bring them in there in the first place?”

“Because you told me to!” I let my voice rise. “You're not going to put this off on me! You should have told them later, with no body else around! But you had to blow all their hopes up in front of everybody!”

“What do you mean by that, pray tell?” His voice was low and dangerous.

“You know very well how they feel about Monica! They don't like her and I know the felling is mutual!”

“What was I supposed to do, ask their permission?” he said sarcastically.

“Of course not! But it wouldn't have hurt to ask them what they thought of getting a new mother, especially when the nominee was Monica!”

“My children do not run my life!”

“But they're part of it! They're happiness depends on you. And you just took that happiness and ripped it apart!”

“Monica will be a good mother,” he said, forcing his voice to sound calm.

“In your dreams!” I exploded. “She couldn't be a mother if you payed her, which you're practically doing as it is!”

“I can see you've been talking to Paul!” He sighed angrily. “I thought, of all people, you would understand.”

“What is there to understand? It's not some intricate puzzle. She wanted your money, and you, being a total idiot, gave it to her!”

“All I've given her, Miss Know-it-all, is that diamond engagement ring, which she picked out, not I.”

“Yes, it's certainly big enough. It's practically gloating her little victory to anybody who can see it! Honestly, what do you think she is? Some kind of fairy princess who only does good deeds? You can bet your socks she's not!”

“Oh, and I suppose you are?”

“That's not what I said.” I paused and collected my temper before saying, “I believe Monica is only capable of loving material things and you're far from material! Look at all she has; her money, her estate, and who knows how many houses. Add onto that an extremely rich and handsome husband who is practically considered the catch of the year, five wonderful children, two more houses, an immense amount of money. What you get is a fairly decent looking woman who is once again getting what she wants handed to her on a silver platter! How could you be so gullible?”

“I would like to remind you that you still work for me and I can fire you at any time I choose,” he warned calmly.

“Amd you would have to start the whole routine all over again if you did. After the scene just a few minutes ago, I don't think it would be a good idea to make the children break in a new governess, especially since they won't be needing one for very long. I'll stay, if only to keep peace until the wedding.” My anger was beginning to burn out and I was suddenly very tired. My one main desire was to run off someplace and have a good cry. “When is the wedding?”

The Captain, too, was clming down. His grey eyes were still hard, but the fire had left them. “Um... in June.” He paused before saying, “So, do you have anything else to say?”

“Only that you missed Michael's birthday. He was waiting for at least a call, but it never came. We had presents without you.”

“Yes. The sixth of February.” He made no excuses, for which I was glad, because I would have denounced whatever excuse he made anyway.

An unbearable silence followed. We were both uneasy and probably on the verge of apologizing. Finally I said, “You had better get back to your guests, Captain. They'll be wondering what on earth you're doing.”

Now even the hardness had disappeared out of his eyes and he just looked worn out and miserable. I wanted desperately to tell him how much I loved him, but now he was more out of reach than ever. What a hopeless situation.

The Captain nodded and walked briskly back around the balcony and disappeared into the sitting room.

Chapter 13

Relations at the mansion became strained, to say the least. The children sulked around and gave Monica the 'evil eye' every time they saw her. The Captain became withdrawn and spoke little. Monica flounced around the house, glorifying in her new, exalted position. She gave orders from left to right without a pause. It's a wonder she didn't lose her voice! I quickly discovered what an idiot Monica was. It gave me an added feeling of power.

The day after the Captain's arrival home, the guests left for their own private abodes. I guess they were all partied out. Immediatly after their departure, Monica spoke to her fiancé about my remaining at Ashby Manor. It was quite apparent that she didn't want me in the same house as herself since she went to no pains to hide her feelings. This required a meeting between the Captain and I, through which I remained cool and rather aloof, though the Captain was even more aloof than I. We said only the necessary things, and I witnessed the ripping up and burning of the two year contract I had signed last May, stating that I would remain in the post of nanny at Ashby Manor for two years or until I was fired, whichever came first. Now I signed a new contract, stating that I would remain through July to take care of the children. This would cover the time before and during the wedding, and the month-long honeymoon that would follow. ALL rich people seem to take long honeymoons. Monica would have preferred that I leave the house tomorrow, but the Captain refused to give in to her wishes for once and said she had to be content with this contract, unless, of course, SHE wanted to take care of the children? I believe we all know the answer to THAT one.

And so life continued on in its strained silence. It wasn't until three days had passed that Anne forgave her father and began talking to him again.

The frienship that had developed between the Captain and I had suddenly dissolved as if it had never been. We no longer met accidentally in the hall and our long conversations of the past had ceased altogether. We were both kind of confused about it, but nevertheless, neither of us did anything to adjust the situation.

Things were getting slightly frigid outside, too. The temperature was dropping to record lows. Snow was predicted, but who trusted the weathman? Not me.

By the weekend Monica had completed moving in to the Manor. She just journeyed to her house over the hill and packed ten boxes full of clothes, using up servants from both households to cart them from one mansion to the other. I honestly don't know why she bothered with all the clothes. She still had plenty of changes stashed at the Manor. She had enough clothes to give all the poor people in the world something new to wear!

Since Miss Sinclair had moved in, she and the Captain spent almost every waking minute together. Every time I passed the library I could hear her babbling away about something or other. I don't think the Captain got any work done at all.

Most of the time I managed to remain quiet indifferent about the romance aspect of Monica and my boss. But there were times when I secretly watched the affections displayed between the two and felt a pang of something in my stomach. I fervently wished it was me and not Monica in her current position.

“Melanie, please come sledding with us,” begged Anne, her hands clasped together and her eyes beseeching. “No one else wants to go and I don't want to go with just Amanda. Please!”

I doubtfully looked outside. The sky was gray and covered with low-hanging clouds. “I don't know. Aren't we supposed to be in the middle of a blizzard or something?”

“Look.” She pointed to the window. “It's not even snowing. Come on, please.”

I sighed. “Oh, slright.” I knew I would give in. I ALWAYS give in.

So Anne, Amanda, and I stepped out on that cold Sunday afternoon and went sledding down the slope behind the stables and paddocks. The wind whistled around us and it was almost impossible to climb back up the hill once we'd gone down, but that ride down sure was worth it! Besides, we all needed to get out of the house.

We had only been out an hour when it started to snow. As we were quite cold, we decided to call it quits and started up the hill for the last time. It was a long walk back to the warmth of the house.

“I want to see the horses!” Amanda stated as we came to the stables. I let her have her way. At least it was fairly warm there.

Anne and Amanda patted the horses, one after the other, going down one side of an aisle and up the other. I had never noticed before just how many animals the Captain owned. The only beast I had ever been acquainted with was Wizard, who totally ignored me when I went to pay him a visit.

“Hello, horse,” I said. He looked at me once, then went on eating his hay. I tried again, “So, how have you been lately?”

He snorted.

“That bad, huh?” Well, things aren't too hot for me, either. Say, did you know that my cat is pregnant? We'll have little Mickis running around all over the place. Well, don't look thrilled on my account!” I turned away from him. “Good-bye, you old crab! Come on Amanda and Anne. If we don't get out of here soon, we'll be drifted in with these loathsome creatures.” The two girls scampered towards me.

Outside, large snowflakes were falling from the sky. It almost invoked a peaceful feeling in me, but not quite.

The wind picked up and the flakes began turning small and hard, flung against us by an ever-increasing gale. The three of us were soon surrounded by swirling white. I lost sight of the house altogether and could barely see a foot in front of me. I was completely surprised. It had happened so fast! I instinctively grabbed the hands of each girl and yelled to them over the wind to hang onto my coat.

The wind slammed into us, making it hard to breath or even move. Tears were forced out of my eyes and the drops of water froze on my cheeks. The girls shuffled along behind me, partly shielded from the wind by my body. I had to turn my head sideways just to get some air into my lungs.

Where was the house? It felt like we had travelled the distance between the house and stables ten times. All I could see was the white snow trying to bury us alive. What if I had missed it? The thought sort of leaked unbidden into my mind. Oh, for Pete's sake, you CAN'T miss it. But you could have gotten turned around. You COULD be heading in the wrong direction. Oh, don't cry, you idiot! You're face will turn into a block of ice! STOP IT! “Get hold of yourself, Grace! What's come over you?” (I find that quoting lines from anything has a calming effect on me. Thus I'm constantly quoting) “I can't bear to send her back there, sir. I CAN'T. You haven't seen that horrible orphanage...” You messed up. That can't be how it goes. “Fascinating. You mean it's alive, Spock? Precisely, Captain.”

We plunged on. I was getting tired of pushing against the wind. I wanted to fall onto the ground and go to sleep, letting the snow claim me as its victim.

Then I hit a tree. Or maybe it hit me. I'm not exactly sure. But I recognized this tree. It was the very tree, right outside my window, that Micki climbed to get to and from my room. Now I knew where we were. I was only slightly off course.

I found the brick wall of the Manor and followed it until I came to the door, Anne and Amanda still behind me. My frozen hands could barely turn the knob and push the door open. I needed help from Anne before we finally tumbled through the opening, landing in a puddle on the floor.

My whole body was burning. I couldn't tell if I was hot or cold. I heard the door slam as somebody shut it. I gulped in much-needed air, letting it fill up my lungs. Other than that, I didn't move.

Suddenly I was jerked into a sitting position and warm hands were placed on my icy cheeks. I was slowly beginning to thaw out.

When I found my voice I asked, “How... are Anne... and...”

“They're fine. Don't say anything. You're the one who's frozen solid. Can you open your eyes?”

My heart skippped a beat. Of all people to have their hands on my cheeks but the Captain! I tried to move away but was told firmly to sit still. Again he asked me if I could open my eyes and I forced them open. Tears spilled out and splashed onto his warm hand. At least I knew he hadn't forgotten about me.

“Oh, don't cry,” he said.

“I can't help it. Everything hurts! I've never been so cold in my entire life.

“Well, no wonder. You've got snow melting INSIDE your coat, of all places. What'd you do, roll around in it?”

I replied sasrcastically, “No, I dumped a bucket of it down my front.”

He pulled the stocking hat I wore off my head and threw it near the door. He suddenly laughed, a chuckle beginning deep in his throat. “You're hair's soaking wet and frizzy. You look like you've been electrocuted.”

“You're beautiful too!” I was really getting sarcastic now. The stupid tears kept pouring out of my eyes.

“Come on, stop crying,” he said, wiping his wet hands on his pants. “There, at least your cheeks aren't blue anymore. Let me see your hands. Icicles! Can you feel anything in your fingers?”

I nodded. “My feet are what's killing me. They're on fire.”

He pulled off my boots. “Bend your toes,” he commanded. I tried to bend them at least. They didn't curl too well. “Let's get you into the livingroom. There's a fire there. Take your coat off first. You're dripping all over the place.”

My numb fingers refused to grab hold of the little zipper to my coat and the Captain had to unzip it for me.

“I feel like such an idiot,” I said.

“I could elaborate on that, but out of kindness' sake, I won't.”

“You're all heart.” My coat now disposed of, I took his offerred hand and let him pull me up. My legs too were numb, not to mention completely exhausted. The minute I was up, I fell down again. “My legs feel like spaghetti. Couldn't we bring the fire out here?”

He looked at me and sighed. For a minute we were friends again, just enjoying each others company. “Well, if Mohammed won't come to the mountain, move the mountain to Mohammed.” Grinning, he leaned over, picked me up, and started for the livingroom.

“Captain, put me down!” I ordered, blushing furiously.

“And let you make a puddle on my clean floor? Never!”

“Oh, you're enjoying this immensely, aren't you? You conniving wretch.”

“Wretches are girls. For your information, I'm a man. Boy, I wan't kidding when I mentioned move the mountain. Have you gained weight?”

“SWINE! If I'm so terribly heavy, put me down,” I said, while I wished for the opposite.

“I could throw you over my shouler and carry you like a sack of potatoes,” he suggested.

“I think I'll pass.” We entered the livingroom and he gently set me down on the floor in front of the fireplace.

Like a switch was thrown his manner towards me changed completely. A quick observation of the room showed that Monica, the children, Paul Sinclair, and Constance LaFonte were seated in chairs and on the floor.

“Miss Stevens,” the Captain was saying, “what were you doing out there in the first place? Explain your actions.” He even looked aggitated.

I stared at him belligerently for a minute, then said, “Let's get one thing straight.” Then, in a lighter tone, “'I never explain anything.' Quote, unquote!” I turned away from him then and faced the fire, which was emenating a fantastic amount of heat. I was quite warm in no time and I could feel my feet again. Heaven! I thought.

“Next time be more selective about when you run around outside. And try not to drip.” The Captain looked disdainful and dismissed me from his attention.

Just as on the first day I'd met him, my eyebrows shot up and I mimicked his look. My, I was being naughty! I guess that's the effect cold had on me.

Anne giggled and gave me an impetuous hug. “You're cold! Thanks for going sledding with us. You're a good guide too.”

“Why, thank you.” I hugged her back and we ended up rolling on the rug, tickling each other.

When I sat up again, I noticed both Monica and the Captain had vacated the room. I turned to Constance and asked, “Where did they go?”

“Oh, I don't know.” She rose from her chair and came to sit beside me on the rug. “Probably out in the hall to have it out with each other. Oh, Melanie, I could have DIED laughing when Christopher carried you in! You should have SEEN Monica's face!” She started laughing at the recollection.

“Well, it wasn't my idea,” I protested. “Anne, how do you feel? Are you cold?”

“I'm fine. There wasn't hardly any wind at all,” she said.

“Sure! I was the one in front! And how are you, my darling Amanda?”

She smiled brightly in answer to my question.

“My darling Amanda,” repeated Eric in a scornful tone. “She never says anything like that to us, does she Michael?”

“No!” Michael agreed.

“Oh, my beautiful, sweet boys, how are you doing today?” I asked loudly. “How could I ever neglect such wonderful boys like you?”

Eric looked very serious as he said, “I honestly don't know. And you should be punished for it, too.”

“Oh, Eric, shut up,” said Lizette and she kicked him in the leg.

“Don't kick me!”

“All boys are idiots!” she said, shaking her head.

“Yeah, idiots,” agreed Anne.

“What is this, boys against the girls?” asked Paul, entering the conversation for the first time. “The sides are kind of uneven.”

“My toes are finally all thawed out,” I said. I turned my attention to Constance and Paul. “So, what are you two doing here?”

“Paying respects to the happy couple, what else?” Constance said disdainfully. “What a lot of rot! I somply don't BELIEVE Christopher sometimes!”

“Now Connie,” Paul warned glancing at the children.

I followed his gaze. “Oh, don't worry about them. If there's anything to know, they probably already know it. Now tell me, when did you find out?”

“Friday. Connie read it in the society column,” Paul answered.

“What a place to find out. Weren't you invited to the big bash they had here Wednesday night?” They shook their heads no. “Oh, you missed an exciting night.”

“There were people crawling all over the house!” shouted Eric.

“And the ladies left saying how adorable and cute we were. UGH!” said Michael.

“And I got spanked in front of EVERYBODY! I didn't talk to Father for three whole days!” Anne nodded her head for emphasis.

“Then the Captain and I had a very interesting argument. Yes, it was a day we'll all remember,” I finished.

“Sounds like fun. Wish I'd been there,” said Constance sarcastically.

“It's getting pretty bad, Connie,” said Paul, looking out the window. “We better get going or we'll get stuck somewhere.”

“Forget it,” Constance said, now emphatic. “Look at it snow! I'm not going anywhere. Besides, things are too interesting around here to leave now. And I thought you wanted to talk to Christopher.”

“Weeeeeel...” began Paul hesitantly.

“Oh, stay, please stay!” begged Anne, hopping up and down on one foot in excitement.

“The Captain has plenty of room,” I added.

“Oh, alright. It IS kind of unpleasant weather to drive in,” agreed Paul.

“YEAH!” yelled all the children except Lizette, who probably thought she was above the age of yelling.

“Isn't it nice to be popular?” I asked Constance.

“Immensely.”

“Maybe we won't have school tomorrow,” suggested Michael.

Lizette went to stand by the window for a better view of the white world outside. “I hope not. I didn't get my Algebra done.”

And so Paul and Constance spent the night... and the next day... and the next night. That snowstorm lasted forever. I heard it was the worst in Denver's history.

Naturally school was cancelled starting on Monday and never resumed until Thursday. I do believe Lizette had time to finish her Algebra assignment.

Things got pretty bad having so many diverse personalities cooped up in one house. On Monday, things flowed fairly smoothly. We stayed nice and warm while the wind continued to howl around the corners of the house. The temperature dropped to below zero.

It wasn't until Monday night that the problems started. Mrs. Harding beckoned me into the kitchen as I was zipping by on my way up the back stairs. “Miss Stevens, I don't quite know how to put this, but I'm afraid that if the storm lasts much longer, we're going to run out of food.”

“What?” I asked after a moment's silence.

“We're almost out of food,” repeated the housekeeper. “I know I should be talking to the Captain about this, but he's so unpredictable lately and I thought that maybe you could tell him?”

Imagine, being afraid of your own boss! I nodded, then asked, “How much do we have left?”

“Enough for tonight. You see, usually we have extra food, just in case, but the party Wednesday used up all the extra, and usually Sunday is market day, but we were snowed in before anybody could go shopping. And I'm at the end of my rope. I don't know what to do.” She was managing to work herself into hysterics at a quick pace.

“Now, Mrs. Harding, calm down. Are you sure there's just enough for tonight?” She nodded. “There''s NOTHING for breakfast tomorrow? Not even cereal?”

She looked at me, horrified. “Cereal? Not in my house!” she said indignantly.

“Wonderful. Yes, I'll tell the Captain, though I'd probably be better off not to.” I aborted my mission upstairs and went in search of my boss. “Excuse me, Captain, but I have to talk to you.”

Noticing my hesitation, Monica said, “Well, talk. I'm not a spy,” and went to stand behind the Captain's chair.

Sometimes I wonder, I thought. But I just shrugged and went on. “According to Mrs. Harding, we're running out of food.”

“Running out of food,” he repeated slowly.

“That's right.”

Monica looked smug. “I see you've been neglecting your duties, Miss Stevens.”

“I hate to shatter your opinion of me, Miss Sinclair, but my duties entail the children, NOT the food that keeps them alive.” I looked back at the Captain. “Mrs. Harding says that we have enough for supper tonight, but that's about it. I guess your staff eats a lot, too.”

“Well, the 'staff' just won't be allowed to eat.” Monica could never resist reminding me of my position.

“Oh, be real, Monica,” admonished the Captain. He leaned back in his chair, making it creak. “She's sure of this?”

“She was quite hysterical when she told me.”

“Wonderful,” he said.

“That's what I thought too. Oh well,” I said in a light tone, “we all need to lose some weight anyway,” and I looked pointedly at Monica.

I left them then without being dismissed. I just loved being a defiant servant. It put dear Monica on edge.

After our last decent meal of the snowstorm, we all conglomerated in the livingroom in front of a nice cozy fire.

“Let's do something,” said Lizette, already bored. I'd listened to the radio and knew that school had already been cancelled for the next day, so the children had no relief from their boredom to look forward to.

“Well,” began Constance, “what kind of games do you have?” She looked at us, the arms of the big sweatshirt she was wearing falling down below her hands again. She pushed them up to her elbows for the hundredth time. Since she and Paul had not planned on staying, they had no extra clothes to put on, so we had had to scrounge something up for them. Paul had borrowed some of the Captain's clothes, but because Constance was so tall, we had to dig deep in the old-clothes closet to find something decent for her to wear.

“We don't have anything that's fun to play,” said Eric.

“You must have something. Yatze? Life?” They shook their heads. “Ok, how about a game of cards?”

“We don't know how to play anything,” Lizette explained.

“What do you guys do all the time? Homework?” They nodded. “Good grief!”

“Let's tell ghost stories,” suggested Anne.

“Oh, no! I don't want any more dead sailors outside my window, thank you very much,” I said.

But the idea had already caught, and we had a nice group of storytellers showing off their abilities in no time. At popular demand the Captain repeated his spine-chilling tale of the dead sailor and like an idiot I listened to it all.

Just as the Captain finished that certain classical piece of literature, the lights blinked off, came back on, then blinked off for good. We sat for a minute in stunned silence, waiting for the lights to illuminate the world again.

When it was apparent that we would remain in the dark, Michael jumped up and yelled, “CANDLE ALERT!” at the top of his lungs. He and Anne rushed out into the dark hall to find some candles.

In the livingroom the fire gave off some light, but not enough to brighten the corners of the room.

“Great,” grumbled Lizette. “Just what we need. A blackout.”

“OUCH!” was suddenly yelled from somewhere in the hall. A minute later came the words, “The phone doesn't work! I know because I fell over Father's desk and knocked it on the floor and there wasn't any AAAAAAHHHHHH coming from it.” I recognized the yeller as Michael.

“Since the ligts are off, so is the heat,” the Captain said thoughtfully.

“We're all gonna freeze!” exclaimed Lizette. “It's unfair to be dragged to Awful Death at such a tender age!” and she sank to the floor with a dramatic air.

“OH BROTHER!” moaned Eric. “Somebody claim her. She doesn't belong to me!”

“You've been watching too much TV, Lizette,” said the Captain, smiling.

“To be ripped away from an unfinished life, a life just opening up to amazing possibilities (such as a new car on my sixteenth birthday) is a gross unfairness. This is so TERRIBLY unfair that my insides go cold with just the thought...”

“Oh please, Lizette! You're beginning to sound like me!” I said, laughing.

She lifted her head and grinned. “Wasn't that good?”

“That point is debatable,” offered Eric.

Still laughing, I said, “You remind me of Kate when she gives her speech on teenage romances.”

“She taught me everything I know,” gloated the fifteen-year-old.

“Which isn't much,” finished Eric victoriously.

“Why you...” started Lizette.

“PILLOW FIGHT!” I yelled, interrupting her to come to her defense. I grabbed a plump pillow that I was leaning on and began whacking away at Eric with it. Lizette and Amanda joined me.

“Hey, this isn't fair!” yelled Eric, trying to fend off our blows with his arms.

Suddenly a pillow landed on the back of my head and with fire in my eyes I attacked Paul with vigor. Lizette and Amanda continued to bombard Eric. Constance wasn't about to sit out on all the fun and she was soon by my side, planning attacks out loud.

Anne and Michael came running in with both hands full of candlesticks. “A pillow fight!” Anne said reverently. Down went the candlesticks and up came a pillow. Away she went on anybody she could reach.

“Christopher! Do something!” shrieked Monica in indignant rage. “These... ANIMALS are behaving like BARBARIANS!”

“Oh, cool off, Monica,” he said. I noticed that he was enjoying himself just watching.

“Christopher!” She was fairly PURPLE by now.

But before the Captain could respond to his purple fiancé, Paul yelled, “Chris, help a poor friend in need, will you? At least supply a weapon.”

Asking was all the Captain needed. He grabbed two pillows and came to Paul's rescue. The four of us were squared off like fencing partners.

“'With a wicked thrust, it will be dust to dust!'” I said in a low, evil voice. “'From fore to aft? He'll FEEL A DRAFT!' On guard, you wretched creature!” I took my stance opposite my gallant employer, one hand behind me and the other extending the pillow forward.

“What theatrics!” bellowed Paul, who was immediately silenced with a smash in the mouth given by Constance. “Now it's WAR!” he yelled.

We danced around the livingroom, having a grand old time, while the children fought in circles around us.

“I condemn thee to the pits!” I roared at the Captain. In between the words I smashed away with my trusty pillow. “Ye will... sit and mold... in the grimy... dungeons... where such a beast... as thee belongs. Ah, help Connie, there's heavy artillery in sector four... and it's getting heavier!” I was forced to back off from my attack and began to defend myself. It did little good, however, as the Captain was now taking full adventage of my weakened position. “I'll tell you what. Let's make a deal,” I said persuasively.

“NEVER!” he bellowed. “Thou art a corrupt, miscreant devil and deserve far worse than my own punishment. I will give thee no mercy. Justice has prevailed!”

“AAAAAAHHHHH! I fully agree and would now very much appreciate it if you would allow me to repent!”

“The time for repentence is long passed, your wickedness. Prepare to meet your end!” He raised his arms to deliver the final blow to my cowering form.

“CHARGE!” A group of children crowded between my adversary and myself before that final blow could occur. “The Five Muskateers, at your service, my good lady.” It was Eric, naturally, leading his troops into battle.

“What about me?” called Constance, now trying to beat off a pressing Paul by herself.

“Coming!” I jumped up and grabbed the quilt that decorated one of the couches and aimed for Paul. Once blind it was easy to get him on the floor. “Mere child's play,” I said successfully. “I pronounce the warrior Paul Sinclair deceased, extinct, and otherwise finished with his career as pillow fighter. Now, on to new horizons.” I pulled the quilt off Paul and threw it over the Captain.

We all tryed our very best to get him to the floor, but just as we had him to his knees, Paul declared himself revived and came to help his ally.

Thus we were on the floor, trying hard to kill each other, when Mrs. Harding walked in.

Of course we missed her appearence, but none of us missed her shrill whistle that sounded throughout the room like a carillon. It brought us all to a surprised halt.

The housekeeper's mouth flew open, aghast. “What... on earth... are you doing?” She came close to matching Monica's shade of purple. “Children get off the floor at once! What WILL the Captain say.”

We all looked down at the Captain, still on the floor and practically buried by pillows. He pulled a feather out of his mouth and said, “I'm speechless.”

“I should hope so!” It was Monica this time who was doing the scolding. “Christopher, you are thirty-four years old and a distinguished man in society. I simply can't believe that you're having pillow fights with five badly behaved roufians and a simpleton from a farm! I'm completely APPALLED! I expect something disgusting like this from the others, but YOU... I thought you were above them! I see I was wrong!” She elegantly climbed down from her perch on the couch and pranced to the door. “I'm going to bed!” And with a final disdaining look in my direction and one last flounce of her hair, she was gone.

I suddenly began to laugh uncontrolably. I tried my best to stop when the Captain glared at me after crawling from beneath us. After he too departed, I couldn't help gasping, “What an idiot!”

“Miss Stevens, get up off that floor! I will not have the nanny rolling around on the rugs,” Mrs. Harding said. I managed to sit up and began calming myself. “I came to ask if you would prefer to sleep in another room that contained a fireplace. As the electricity is off, it will get quite cold in this house.”

Now my normal self, I said, “I believe we'll sleep down here. Does that suit you, children?” They all nodded thier heads enthusiastically. “Yes, the floor will be just fine. Help me round yp some blankets, will you, Connie?”

“Sure.”

“You're sleeping on the FLOOR?” asked an astounded Mrs. Harding.

“Why not? Besides, I feel scandalous tonight.” I sat up and cast my eyes heavenward. “In the Kartwright mansion, things will be done that have never been done before!” I brought my eyes down to meet the group. “Just call me Captain Stevens. And this.” I pointed to Constance, “is my first mate, Spockette.”

Just then Monica came storming in and grabbed one of the candles that were laying on the floor near the door. She threw another defiant look at me and turned to the housekeeper. “I would like a fire in my room. Make sure I get one.” She stomped out again after lighting her candle. Mrs. Harding followed her.

I stood up. “Come on, Connie. Let's find some blankets.” I grabbed a candle and shoved it into a holder.

After collecting all the blankets and quilts and pillows we could find Constance and I began spreading them on the floor of the livingroom. Paul had taken all the children upstairs to find something warm for them to wear to bed. There was already a noticable change in the temperature. Things were getting chilly around the edges.

“What a disasterous evening,” I said unfolding a blanket.

“To say the very least,” she agreed. “But it was fun while it lasted. Christopher seemed to join the world of the living for awhile at least. He doesn't seem to talk very much anymore.”

“What do you expect? He's engaged to Monica. SHE does so much talking, HE doesn't have to,” I said.

“How are things, really, beneath all the acting?” she asked, now serious.

I sighed, considering for a minute. “I'm not sure exactly. They haven't even been engaged for a week, and there's already a difference in the Captain's attitude towards everybody. He doesn't associate with us anymore. He ignores the children and treats me like one of his secretaries or something. Yesterday, after we were left alone in the hall, when he carried me in here, things were back to normal. For a few minutes we were friends again and insulting each other like anything. But the minute we entered this room and were no longer alone, his attitude changed completely and he acted like he was mad at me. Of course, what I said didn't help matters any, but honestly! I don't understand him at all.” I paused thoughtfully. “Oh well,” I continued, brushing it off. “I guess it's just another one of life's mysteries.”

Constance reached for another blanket in the pile when I saw the light from the fire sparkle on something on her left hand. Curious, I said, “I didn't know you wore rings, Connie.”

“Oh,” she held her left hand out for examination, “it's pretty, isn't it? I've only had it for two weeks. I still haven't gotten used to the idea.”

More confused now than ever, I asked, “Are you getting married?”

Constance looked at me in wonderment. “Didn't I tell you?”

“No.”

“Oh my gosh! I thought I did! I'm sorry! Yes, Paul finally asked me and I wasn't about to be an idiot and turn him down.”

“My goodness!” was all I could say at first, but I found my tongue soon enough. “It's about time! The Captain was wondering how long it would take. Does he know?”

“Of course he does! He's only my future husband's best friend. I thought sure he'd tell you.”

“I hardly talk to him.” I shook my head in surprise. “My gosh, it seems like EVERYBODY'S getting married!”

“Except you?” The inquiry was cautiously made.

Once again I was surprised. “What?” I asked. “What does that mean?” I was suddenly suspicious and my hands were sweating despite the cold air.

“Are you in love with Christopher?” she blurted out.

It was like somebody had just hit me a good one. I managed to get out a disbelieving laugh. “Whatever makes you think that?”

Once again she didn't hesitate. “Your eyes. And it's written all over your face whenever you're around him.”

“It is not!” I said indignantly.

“Aha! So you admit it!”

“I do no such thing!” I turned away from her, my face burning. But worry overrode my indignation. “Is it really that obvious?”

“Oh, Melanie, no! I just said that so you'd admit it. Does Christopher know?”

I whirled around to face her again. “Certainly not, and he'd better not find out, either.”

“Why don't you tell him? It wouldn't hurt,” she said.

“In case you've forgotten, dear Constance, he's engaged to somebody else.”

“So. He's not MARRIED to her! Consider him fair game until he's at the alter and saying 'I do.'”

“Oh, please, Connie!” I couldn't help but smile though.

“How long have you known about this... attraction... for your employer?”

“Since Christmas, I guess, but if I'd been paying attention, I would have figured it out much earlier I think. I've probably been in love with him since the minute I met him. Though I don't think he particularly liked me at first,” I pondered.

“That's how it always starts. The first time I met Paul I thought he was a pompous... fill in the blank. You never know what ears are outside the door.” I laughed. “Well, if you knew at Christmas, why on earth didn't you tell him?”

“Oh, I don't know! I'm shy I guess!”

“Shy my foot. Is he in love with you?”

“How do I know? I'm not a seer. Apparently he's not or else he wouldn't be engaged to your fiancé's sister.”

The conversation was cut off then because the children bounded in, followed by Paul. He wearily leaned against the door.

“Paul, you can't tell me that five little children are too much for you?” I asked innocently.

“ They're monsters, all of them. I don't know how you stand it.”

“Better practise up. You'll have some of your own before long.”

“Oh, shut up,” he said.

The children were running around the blankets, jumping up and down, yelling over who would sleep where.

“It's like camping out,” said Lizette, smiling. “Oh, Melanie, you should go upstairs!”

“It's FREEZING!” said Anne adamently.

“Good,” I stated. “Maybe Monica will turn into ice.”

“I'll drink to that!” agreed Eric. “Or, at least I would if I had anything to drink.”

“Where are you sleeping?” I asked Paul as I spread my last blanket over the floor.

He smiled smugly. “MY room has a fireplace and I'm going to sleep right in front of it.”

Connie looked around, then nodded. “I believe I'll sleep here. The company is so much better.”

Paul gave her a dirty look. “Ingrate,” he muttered. “Well, sleep well, people. Don't freeze. See you in the morning.”

“Good-night, Paul,” came back the chorus of voices. He nodded then left for his room.

The next morning found me in the kitchen at a grossly early hour. I sat at the table in a hardbacked chair, reading my latest book. Due to the dreadfully low temperatures, I wore two pair of pants, three sweatshirts, heavy socks, my warmest shoes, and over all I had thrown a blanket. I still shivered as I drank a cup of hot chocolate. A half-eaten sandwich sat on a plate in front of me. I was jerked out of a doze when the Captain bounded in suddenly.

“Heavens, you scared me!” I said.

“Sorry.” He spied the food on my plate. “I didn't think there was any food in the house,” he said in a mild tone.

“What Mrs. Harding calls food and what IS food are two different things. True, there isn't enough for a big meal - in fact there are no eggs or anything - but a lunchmeat sandwich is better than nothing. Would you like one?”

“Do I have a choice?” I shook my head and stood up to find the ingredients. “What are you drinking? It doesn't smell like coffee.”

“That's probably because it's not. It's hot chocolate. I can't stand coffee. As a friend of mine once said, 'It smells great, but tastes terrible.' I agree with him. And I'm NOT going to make you any. Coffee's bad by itself. It's even worse when I make it.” He chuckled softly and seated himself on the counter. “Did you stay warm last night?” I asked as I pulled odds and ends out of the refridgerator. “Mayonaise?”

“No, thanks. As a matter of fact, I slept like a log. My room was a little corner of Florida.”

“Ugh! Don't tell anybody that! It might mean an early death for you. You'd think that with all those bodies in one room, enough heat would be generated to keep us warm, but NOOOOOO! Well, I guess it would have helped if somebody had remembered to put more wood on the fire and since I was the closest it probably should have been me but...”

“You mean you slept in the livingroom?”

“Uh-huh. All seven of us. Paul was a party-pooper and slept in his room. I hate to tell you this, but your floor is NOT the most comfortable bed in the world.”

“I never said it was.”

“And I kept running upstairs to put more clothes on. I didn't get much sleep last night. And what little I did get was frequented by dreams containing dead sailors in the shadowy corners of the room,” I said accusingly.

“Hey, don't blame me. I was just filling in with the demand for my eloquant, imaginative stories.”

“Put that nose of yours much farther in the air and it'll stick to the ceiling and when it does, I'm gonna sit back and laugh. Here's your sandwich.” I slapped the food into his open hands. “Is Monica up yet?”

He hesitantly bit into his breakfast. “She won't be up until ten at the earliest. This thing isn't poisoned or anything, is it?”

“No, and next time kindly keep your suspicions to yourself. I'd forgotten that rich women never get up until after noon. It must be tradition. How come you're down here so early?”

“I couldn't sleep. I figured it was dumb to be laying around in bed when I could be down in the kitchen eating a... salami and turkey lunchmeat sandwich for breakfast. Oh, it's very good, by the way.”

“Why, thank you, sir. If you want something to drink you'll have to get it yourself. I'm saving up what little energy I have to keep your children occupied today. When they had school, they complained because they never got a day off, and when they get a day off, they complain because their bored. You can't win. Excuse me, but am I dominating this conversation?”

“Yes, I was just thinking that for someone who didn't get much sleep, you sure are peppy.” He put the last bite of sandwich in his mouth and jumped down from the counter.

“By lunch I'll probably need a nap,” I said, seating myself in my chair once again.

The door opened and Constance walked in. “Oh, for some food! Just a tiny little morsel to keep me going.”

“There's some leftovers in the fridge,” I said, taking up my book.

The Captain said, “Good morning, Connie. And how did you sleep?”

“Oh, shut up. I'm sure Melly has filled you in on our accomodations of the night.”

“Miss Stevens?” he looked around at me as if he was just now noticing me. “We really haven't talked.”

Frigid, that's what he is! I thought, WHAT is going on? Is he trying to prove something? I wish I knew. I HATE not knowing what's going on. Aloud I said, “No, the Captain and I don't associate. That's only proper.” I stood up and nodded in his direction, a slight smile playing on my lips. Thus I PROPERLY dismissed myself.

I had hardly gone six steps in the direction of the livingroom before Constance caught up with me, a hastily made breakfast in her hand.

“So, what happened?” she asked as she walked alongside me.

“What do you mean 'what happened?'” I tried to be light and cheery on top, but underneath I was seething.

“Oh, come on, idiot. You know what I mean! Did amything... interesting... come out in conversation?”

In a sarcastic voice I said, “I made him a sandwich. How positively romantic.” I now let the anger slip into my voice as I continued. “Didn't you hear what the master said? We really haven't talked! OOOOOH! He makes me so mad sometimes! We were normal friends having a nice chat until you came in and then BOOM! suddenly I was a servant and of no importance whatsoever. I wish I knew what he was up to! It's driving me crazy.”

“That's men for you. 'You can't live with 'em and you can't live without 'em,'” she quoted.'

“I didn't know you were so wise so early in the morning.”

“It disappears as the day goes on.”

“I'm sure it does. Well, as far as I'm concerned, Monica can have him. I don't want him. I don't even UNDERSTAND him. Men!”

That Tuesday lasted forever. There was still no electricity, heat, or substantial food in the mansion. Even the leftovers quickly dwindled. There was a lot of people to feed when you included the servants.

The Captain spent most of his time working in the library. I didn't speak to him again for the rest of the day. If the opportunity had arisen for us have another little talk, I'm sure it would have turned into an arguement before we knew what was happening. It was better this way.

“I hate this!” complained Monica for the hundredth time. “We're going to starve to death, all because Christopher insists on feeding his servants.” She cast a dirty look at me. I ignored her.

We were once again in the livingroom. I had never known how dreary that room was until the snowstorm. This and the library were the only rooms that were heated. We didn't want to run out of wood. Outside the snow kept falling from the sky and the relentless wind continued blowing.

“Oh, pipe down, Monica. All you ever do is complain,” Paul said, scowling at her over a back issue of the Wall Street Journal he was reading.

“You just shut up!” she yelled.

Paul gave an exasperated sigh. “Please control yourself, dear sister. You don't want to act like your true self in front of your future children, do you? It would ruin your image.”

“Paul...” she began.

“Cut it out, you two,” I intervened from my place on the floor. “We don't need any family spats now.”

Paul glared at his sister, but receded back behind his paper. Monica however, could not let things go.

“And who are you to tell me what to do, MISS Stevens?”

“Someone who is obviously more mature than you,” said Constance.

“I will NOT have a servant giving me orders.” She was on the verge of turning purple again.

Trying desperately to keep control of the situation, I said, “It was merely a suggestion, not an order.”

Monica walked over to stand in front of me, a threatening visage to which I had to look up just to see her face.

“My, aren't we tough,” mocked Constance.

“Shut up! she shrieked. “You little tramp.”

“Monica, leave her alone,” warned Paul.

Now she turned to Paul. “You always were a bossy big brother.”

“And you always needed your butt spanked too, but you never got it. You really should calm down. Your children won't know what to think of you.”

Eric groaned and Lizette whispered, “Oh, yes we do.”

“I heard that!” Monica whirled to face Lizette.

“Please, children,” I entreated and tried to continue with the game of Monopoly we were playing.

“Yes, children PLEASE be good.” Monica was doing a poor job of imitating me. “After all, I can't control you because I'm SUCH a rotten governess.”

I was on the verge of throwing peace to the wind and welcoming war, but Anne got to it before I did. She stood up directly in front of her future mother, spread her feet apart, put her hads in her hips, and said, “You leave Melanie alone! She's better at anything than you!”

Without warning Monica's hand flew out and slapped Anne right across the cheek. I knew how those slaps felt and I flinched when I saw it coming, but I was too far away to stop it.

Anne's eyes got real big, but not a tear came out of them. Also without warning her foot came out and effectively kicked Monica, tripping her at the same time. She crashed to the floor.

“Ha! Serves you right,” said Paul.

“You disinherited pig!” she cried from the floor.

Paul put down his paper. “Your true colors at last. Come on, Monica. You've been looking for a fight all day. Now you've got one. Too bad Christopher isn't here. He could witness what it's really like to listen to you.”

Amanda crawled into my lap, scared to death.

“Stop it!” I said. “Your scaring Amanda.”

“So what!” snorted an irate Monica. “She's just a little brat who's going to be shipped off to boarding school, like her brothers and sisters.”

“Don't be ridiculous! She's too young to go to boarding school.” Amanda hugged me tighter and I could see the look of fright in her eyes. I hate you Monica! I thought. I hate you for what you're doing to this family.

Paul almost read my thoughts, but said them in a more decorous way than I could have. “Of course! How stupid of me! Without any children hampering you, you can have all of Christopher AND his money to yourself. What a marvelous plan! You really are dispicable, Monica. Wicked to the very core.”

By now Monica had risen off the floor to stand again in front of Paul. That hand of hers snaked out, but Paul caught and held it tightly in his strong grasp.

“Paul, let go! OUCH! That hurts!” The change in Monica came suddenly. Now she was reduced to an average human being before her brother.

“Nothing is too bad for you, my dear sister!” Paul snarled. “There just aren't words that I can say in mixed company that adequately describe you. You are a spoiled child, no better than our money-loving parents, who doesn't deserve a man as good and kind as Christopher Kartwright. I hope his money makes you miserable!” He abruptly turned away from her and walked stiffly out of the room.

Monica's eyes grew wide and her mouth flew open. Her surprise, however, quickly evolved into anger. “How DARE he? He can't do things like that and get away with it!”

“And just who are you going to tell? Your mommie?” Constance was malevolent. “You finally got an inkling of your just deserts. I'd give you the rest if it, but I don't want to waste my time.” She stood up and turned her back on her adversary.

“Come on, let's go find something more enoyable to do someplace ELSE.” She took the hands of Anne and Amanda and left the room, the other children trailing behind.

This left me to pick up and put away the game, all by myself. Thanks a lot, Connie. I began sorting out the money and placing the bills in their respective places in the box.

“This is all YOUR fault!” Monica accused. “None of this would have happened if you would have stayed with your pigs where you belong.”

I ignored her and went on with my task.

“Did you hear what I said, you little gnome? I said...”

“I heard you the first time. You needn't repeat it. And I'm an elf, not a gnome.”

She smiled crookedly. “Gnome, elf, what's the difference? They're all ugly, dirty little creatures who crawl around in the muck and slime of the great outdoors.”

I sighed and paused briefly in my work to look up at her. “If that's all you can see of the great outdoors, I truly feel sorry for you. But you won't get a fight out of me. I'm too tired to bother with you right now.” I put the lid on the box and climbed to my feet.

“Why you little...”

“I'd watch my language if I were you. One never knows whose ears are at the keyhole.” I then walked to the door, but she wanted more yet, and grabbed my shoulder. “Aren't you finished yet?”

“I won't be finished with you until you're out of this house.”

“Well, you're going to have to wait awhile. I don't understand why you feel that I'm a threat to you. I certainly wouldn't want your life.”

“You... threatnn me? Oh, that's a laugh!”

“I don't think so, and neither do you, and THAT'S what really bugs you. Good-bye, Monica. I hope I never see you again, but that would be too good to be true.”

“I'll have you fired for your insolence,” she warned.

“Oh, stop playing God! Insolence indeed!” I turend and walked slowly out the door and into the cold hall.

Wednesday arrived as a completely white world still overcast with clouds. The snow had finally stopped falling and the wind had died down. It seemed that the snowstorm was over at last.

Even though the snow had ceased its descent from the sky, we were still snowed in. Great drifts blocked the drive and I'm sure the road was the same. Yet another day cooped up in the house.

By now I had an almost intolerable case of cabin fever, so I decided to venture into the outer world. Everybody thought that was a good idea. We didn't stay out long, though, because it was still quite cold.

Early in the afternoon the electricity and heat were restored and we retired the fireplaces. A little later the snowplow came charging through and plowed out the driveway for us. Paul and Constance could now go home, which they did with no reluctance whatsoever. Too bad they couldn't put Monica on a leash and take her with them.

The children were glad to be going back to school again, and so was I. It was nice to have them home during the summer when we could go outside, but during the storm, they nearly drove me crazy!

So things were back to normal.

Everything but the Captain, that is. He continued treating me strangely and I wondered why, but I didn't ask him. I don't believe I really wanted to know.

Chapter 14

Ah, Spring at last!

Well, almost. At any rate, it was getting slowly warmer and the snow was melting. Now mud filled the yard... and got tracked into the house and onto the carpets and... but I'm not complaining!

The children were in slightly better spirits now that spring had finally arrived, but a pervading cloud of gloom seemed to be settling lower and lower over the mansion as the day of the Captain and Monica's wedding drew ever closer. I tried to keep everybody cheery and peaceful, but it was a hard job.

Monica was still playing God with the rest of the house, but since the fight with Paul she'd left me and the children alone. Instead she poured her attentions on bossing the staff around and telling her 'darling Christopher' what to do.

But by the middle of March her zeal for authority had diminished somewhat. She still kept up a happy front, but I could tell that underneath something was wrong.

She threw a big party for the Captain's thirty-fourth birthday. At least fifty people were invited. The children and I, of course, were not. We piled the presents we had for him on his bed in his room where I presume he opened them. He sent us all thank-you notes. Imagine, sending your own children thank-you notes! This family deffinately had problems.

Then one day I found a deeper meaning to the recent actions of Monica Sinclair.

I was in the kitchen doing somethong or other when I heard our cook talking to Maria in a low voice. Curious, I scooted closer in order to hear better.

“That's what I heard too. God, I hope it's not true. This isn't the best time to be out of a job,” Maria was saying.

“You don't have to tell me. I know all about it. If he loses it ALL, what in heaven will happen to the children?”

“What's going on?” I asked, unable to contain my questions any longer. “If he loses what?”

I apparently caught the two by surprise for they jumped at the sound of my voice. Maria looked at the cook, who looked back at Maria, and a strange look of forboding passed between them.

“I thought she knew,” said Maria after a short silence.

“Well, I didn't tell her. She doesn't get to the back of the house very often and you know that SHE won't have anything to do with her and SHE won't let HIM talk to her and...”

“Wait! Stop! I'm completely confused!” I said, smiling. Who's this 'SHE?'”

“Monica, of course. What other 'she' is there in this house?” said Maria all-knowingly.

“You watch it, young lady,” began the cook. “She's a mite higher then you in this house.”

“Will you just tell me what's going on?” I cut in.

“Well,” and the two leaned closer to me in a conspiritorial fashion. “Have you heard anything about the Captain?”

I thought hard for a minute. “Nothing except that he's getting married.”

“Melanie, you're humor appalls me sometimes,” said Maria as she shook her head. “We meant have you heard any RECENT things about him?”

Now it was my turn to shake my head. “If I had, I wouldn't be asking you, would I? Now, for the sake of the Irish, what's happened?

Maria looked cautiously over her shoulder to make sure nobody was listening that wasn't meant to know her news. Once again facing me, she said in a low voice, “It's been said that Captain Kartwright is losing all his money. He goes out at night and gambles it all away and spends it on...”

The cook hit her on the arm. “Stick to the truth, Maria. Quit fabricating stories.”

Maria gave her a nasty look, but said, “So maybe he's not gambling and spending his money on loose women, but he's losing it, and pretty soon we'll be out of a job.”

I stood stunned for a minute. I finally managed to blurt out, “I don't believe it! The Captain is a good businessman. Are you sure?” I hesitated in asking. They nodded together. “How much has he lost?”

“Oh, close to half his fortune,” informed the cook.

I raised my eyebrows unbelievingly. Then my suspicious nature came into play. “How do you know this? Did you hear the Captain say this himself?”

Maria looked consternated for the first time. “Well, no, but I heard it from Perkins who heard in from John who...”

“Thank you, Maria, that's quite enough. I think I'll keep my judgement until I ask him myself. Thanks for telling me.” I pensively left the kitchen and travelled sullenly through the house.

What if this was true? What would happen to him, to his children, to his beautiful mansion? I had noticed that lately the Captain had been remote and silent much of the time, byt I had credited it to Monica's talkative nature. Perhaps that wasn't the case.

Still thinking, I made my way to my room where I wrote to Kate of the latest developments in the lives of the despondant Kartwrights.

Micki jumped onto my bed and rubbed against my leg, purring all the while. She looked much like a blimp with fur now as the time for her first litter of kittens approached. Wherever she went, she waddled instead of walked, and I continually had to shoo her out of places like closets and clothes hampers, and just to be sure she didn't have her brood in an unintended place, I kept her locked in my room most of the time. A big trunk which John had helped me lug down from the attick sat in a corner of my room, waiting for the big day to arrive.

But right now I had no time for Micki. I was busily writing my letter, speculating to Kate on how one could lose half of one's fortune in little more than a month. My cat curled up beside me and fell asleep.

Ten o'clock that night found me contentedly sitting on my bed, held breathless by the suspensful adventure story I had lately become involved in. As the events got more interesting, I sat straighter and straighter until I was preactically standing on my bed.

“No! Don't go with him!' I spoke aloud. “He's the bad guy who killed what's-his-name. Besides, you're in love with Grant, not this toad. No, don't! You IDIOT! Oh, great, now you're captured. Way to go. Micki,” I looked at the trunk where the feline was sleeping, “why are some heroines so STUPID! I suppose so the heros can look like macho men and rescue them. Alright, I guess I can handle that.” I returned to my book. “Just don't take too long!”

“I'll be as brief as possible.”

I jumped about a foot off my bed. I looked at the Captain standing in the door. “Don't DO that! One of these days you're going to give me a heart attck.”

He almost smiled. “Then I'll bury you in my car with your books and records in the trunk.”

“Well, that's SOME comfort anyway.” This was the first time I had spoken to the Captain in almost a month. I wondered what had happened and when he didn't tell me, I asked, “What's up?”

“I want to show you something. Come here,” and he beckoned me with his finger.

Curious, I climbed off my bed. “I need a break anyway. Sometimes I have the tendency to get too involved in my books.”

“So I noticed,” he said lightly, but didn't smile. He never smiled anymore. He walked into the hallway and I followed, my stockinged feet making swishing noises on the carpet as I walked.

“Where are you taking me THIS time?” I inquired.

He turned to look at me. “Why, I'm taking you captive so Grant can rescue you.”

“Oh, don't tease me!” I said. I noticed that he was quite relaxed in my company and we were acting like friends again. This was also a first in a long time. “Will you please tell me where we're going?”

“You'll see,” he said mysteriously as he led me around the balcony. We ended up in his room, where he pointed to his bed and said, “Look.”

At first I didn't see anything but a rumpled bedspread. But upon closer inspection I saw four small objects crawling around a larger, black and white object of the same origin.

“Micki!” I exclaimed, sitting on the bed. “You had your kittens!” Then the entire impact hit me. “Oh, and on the Captain's bed too! Oh, goodness. Captain, I'm sorry. I could have sworn she was in my room. I even talked to her in the trunk... well, I guess I talked to the TRUNK, at any rate. I don't know how she got out, honestly I don't. Oh, look at them. They're so tiny!” I was now splitting my attention between my employer and my new pets. “I'm really sorry about the mess... No, little guy, mommy's this way. There's just a sea of brown material out that way and there's certainly no milk.” I grabbed one of the small creatures before it could venture to far and gently laid it beside Micki, whose ears I scratched. “My, aren't you a proud mother. Believe me, you'll be sick of them before long. How many do you have? Let's see, here's one, two, three, and... there's one more under your leg. Here, don't squash it.” I laughed at the look MIcki gave me. “Sometimes I think you're more human than some humans, cat.”

The Captain stood at the end of his bed, watching. “They are small, aren't they?”

I scooped one up and offered it to him. “Here, hold one. It won't hurt him. Don't worry, he's clean, though I'm afraid you bedspread's not. Oh, Micki, calm down. He's not gonna hurt him.”

“How do you know it's a 'he?'” asked the Captain as he held the furry little kitten gingerly in his strong hands.

“I don't. 'He' is just easier to say than 'her.' I could find out, but it's a little rough on a newborn kitten to be turned upside down. I usually wait until their eyes are open before allaying my curiosity.

“Hey, your eyes ARE shut. Is that normal?”

I laughed. “Yes, that's normal. It'll be about two weeks before they can finally see the world.”

He held the kitten out and looked at it. “You know, you're kinda cute.” Then he handed it back to me. “Can I hold another one?”

“Sure.” I traded him with the one I'd been holding.

“Oh, no you're not nearly as cute as the other one. In fact, you're rather ugly.”

“Captain! You're going to give it an appearance complex!” I admonished.

“Alright. You are the absolute MOST beautiful creature I've ever seen in my entire life. Do you feel better?” He stared at it intently.

I laughed. “Do you expect it to answer you?”

“Of course I do,” he said with a straight face which quickly nelted into a grin. “Yes, I know, I know: 'In my dreams,'” he quoted and we both laughed.

“Oh, Christopher, there you are!” exclaimed Monica as she waltzed in. “What have you... oh, Miss Stevens. Keeping my fiancé company, I see. That's nice. Well, you can leave now and go back to your kiddies. Christopher darling, what are you holding?”

He held out his hands for her to see. “Miss Stevens' cat had her kittens on my bed.”

Monica shrank back from his proffered hands. “Don't! Get it away! That thing actually moves!”

“Oh, come on, Monica, it's just a kitten. See, it's too small to do anything to you.”

“Christopher, I mean it! Don't come near me with that thing! They're disgusting creatures!”

“They are not!” I said indignantly. “Cats are lovable and affectionate - if they're treated well.”

“They're dirty, messy, and ugly!” She walked around the Captain to look at the other kittens. “My God, on the bed!”

“It'll wash out,” I said.

She looked at me. “Leave it to you to bring this on! You're trying to move the farm into the bedroom!”

“She wasn't supposed to have them here,” explained the Captain in a soothing voice. “Now calm down, Monica, before...”

“I will NOT calm down! This governess of yours has brought a bad nane to the Kartwright family. How do you expect me to marry somebody with a tainted background?”

Who do you think started the tainting? I thought, but wisely chose to remain out of the conversation.

“Oh, for Pete's sake...” began the Captain, but she cut in, saying,

“See! You're even using her language! You never used to use such slang before SHE came!”

The Captain's patience was running out. “And you never used to be such a snob, either,” he said in a hard voice.

This took Monica by surprise. “Christopher! How dare you say such a thing!”

“This happens to be MY house, not yours, and while you're under my roof you'll treat my family and my servants with respect, which I know you haven't been doing!” His voice was rising quickly, and I kept asking myself how I'd managed to start this, while at the same time I wanted to sink into the floor.

“You will NOT treat me like a child!” Monica said.

“Then grow up!” he ordered harshly.

Her mouth became a thin line and her eyes narrowed. “You will regret this, Christopher, you'll see.” She threw me a dirty look, then stomped out the door. I heard the door to her room down the hall slam shut a momenet later.

I had no idea what to say or even if I should say anything at all. I still wanted to sink into the floor. But I noticed that the poor kitten the Captain was holding was getting squeezed by his hands. “Captain, you'll squish it,” I said, rising and crossing to him to take the animal from him.

He whirled around and barked, “What?”

“The kitten. You're hurting it.” I carefully lifted the frightened animal out of his hands. “You poor thing. Are you even alive? Yes, you're breathing. Now I think it's time to get your family moved into my room.”

The Captain still stood where Monica had left him, his hands clenched into fists.

“What you need is a punching bag in the basement,” I said as I gathered the kittens into my arms. “Come on, Micki,” I said to the cat. “I'm sure you can walk.” I started out the door and my cat followed me.

The Catain caught up with me on the balcony. “Let me take a couple before you drop them.” He pulled two out of my arms. Micki walked in front of us, obviously knowing where we were going.

Hesitantly I asked, “Did I somehow start that?”

“You? Oh, that's been coming on for a long time. It just happenedd to take place while you were around. If it hadn't been the kittens, it would have been something else.”

“Oh, good. I mean it's good that I didn't cause it, not good that you had a fight. Do you fight often?”

He sighed. “With increasing regularity.”

“Is it because of...” I stopped, not knowing if I should go on.

“Because of what, Miss Stevens?” he prompted.

Reluctantly, I continued. “Well, I HEARD that...”

“I'm losing all my money, right?” I nodded. “I didn't think it would take long to make the rounds. Do the children know?”

I shook my head. “I don't think so. I just found out today. Is it true?”

He sighed again. “Yes. I didn't want you or the children to know.”

“What happened? Did your accountant rip you off?”

He laughed shortly. “No. I don't know what happened, exactly. Everything I touch seems to turn to poison. By now I suppose everybody in Denver knows.”

“But you're such a good businessman,” I objected. “You're sure it's not your accountant?”

He smiled wrily. “You're sure stuck on the accountant, aren't you? No, it'a not his fault. I'm just having a streak of bad luck, that's all. Hopefully it won't last long.

“Can't you pull out of any of the deals or mergers you're involved in or something?” We had reached my room now, and the Captain and I followed Micki through the door. She walked right over to the trunk and hopped in. “Micki, if you knew where to go, WHY did you have your babies in the Captain's room? You idiot.”

“She probably had an alterior motive, as Kate would say.” He softly laid the two kittens next to Micki on the rug that I had spread over the bottom of the trunk.

I laid my two furry creatures next to Micki also. “I can't wait to tell the children that we finally have kitties. It'll have to wait until morning, though.”

“What are you going to name them?” He ran his hand down Micki's back and scratched her chin.

“Well, right now this one's Little, this one's Small, this one's Tiny, and this one's Extra-Tiny.”

He laughed. “That's deffinately imaginative.”

I giggled. “I'll give them names when I know their personalities. Or maybe I'll let the children name them.”

“Cats have personalities?”

“Yeah, some good, some bad, just like humans. We had one cat at home - it was the UGLIEST thing - and it meowed forever in the loudest, most obnoxious voice I've ever heard. He was a pure pain. Now, his mother was one of the most intelligent cats we ever had. She was also a big producer. She had about four litters every year.”

The Captain looked at me in consternation. “Is she going to have that many?” he asked and pointed at Micki.

“Weeeellll...” and I looked at him carefully, “... probably not, but one never knows. I'm surprised she had one so soon. She's still a little young. Of course, I could have her.. fixed.”

“That WAS one of our conditions if you kept her,” he reminded me.

“I know. I just never quite got around to it. It seems so CRUEL. But what must be done, must be done.” We sat in silence for some time then, but it was a comfortable lack of words, not strained. Eventually I asked, “How much money do you have left?”

His serene countanence changed abruptly to a stormy one. “I had hoped for awhile that I could forget about money.”

“But I'm worried about you and the children,” I insisted. “You have been rich all your life and probably don't know what it is to worry about money. What are you going to do?”

He rose to his feet and towering over me, said, “I'll call on the Elves to help me. Good-night, Miss Stevens.” He walked elegantly out of my room and down the hall.

The Elves! What kind of an answer was that? It sounds like something I would say, I thought.

I stood at my dresser, dusting the top of it with a cloth. Every now and then I get strange urges to clean something. It's still a mystery as to why.

Well anyway, there I stood, dust cloth in hand, fiercly vanquishing all dirt particles from my furniture, when Lizette came in.

“Here you are! I've been looking for you for the LONGEST time.”

“And naturally my room is the LAST place you looked.”

“I didn't look in the attics,” she said and hopped onto my bed.

“That's intelligent. Did you want something?”

“Oh, just to talk. Keith is getting 'friendly' again.”

“Oh? What happened to Susan McKendrick?”

“Didn't I tell you? She dumped him simply AGES ago. Maybe he was double-timing her, too.”

“Serves him right,” I said. “He got exactly what he deserved.”

“But now he wants to come back to me. I don't know if I should say yes or no.” She put her chin in her hand, an indecisive look on her face.

I turned to look at her. “Do you WANT him back?”

“I don't know. It was nice having a boyfriend, but he was a rat in the end. What did you do about boyfriends?”

“Me?” I asked, surprised. “I never had one.” I moved on to my stereo.

“Never?” Lizette souded aghast. “You mean you went through four years of high school and never had a boyfriend?”

“You sound like my mother. It IS possible to live without men, you know. I had plenty of good times with my friends.”

“No boys in your life at all? How awful!” She stretched out on her stomach and watched me dust.

“I had friends who were boys, Lizette. But in my group there was about two girls for every boy. We all got along very well with each other. Hmmmm. I wonder what they're all up to?”

“Imagine not having a boufriend!” She was still pondering that terrible position.

“I said I never had one. I didn't say I was never asked.”

Now I had her curiosity racing. “You said no! Was he a real jerk?”

“Of course not! He was very nice and I liked him.”

“Then why did you say no?”

I had to think back for a minute or so. “I didn't really have time, actually. And I think that was the time that Kate had her mess with the male of the species. After listening to her complain about boys for two weeks straight, I wanted no part of them. As far as I was concerned Kate could have them. It made my life easier.”

“Did Kate have a lot of boyfriends?”

“You sure are inquisitive! Kate was always surrounded by people wherever she went, both boys and girls. I never quite figured out why. She loved the attention, that much I know. I guess I was content with my thoughts for company.” I looked up at her on my bed. “How many boyfriends have YOU had?”

“Oh, goodness, let me see. There was Tom and Tim - they were twins - and David and Keith. Four.”

“And you're only a sophomore! You must work fast!”

“I guess. Well, what should I say? Yes or no?”

I sighed. “Honestly Lizette, it's up to you. If I were you, I'd say no. He's already dumped you once. Who says he won't do it again? Besides I'm sure there are other boys of better durability than Keith Martin.”

She giggled. “You make it sound like a tire commercial.”

I laughed too. “I'll remind you of that the day I see a boy with the Good Year symbol stamped on his forehead.

I could tell she was about to say smething when she hesitated, cocking her head and seemed to be listening to something. I too stayed quiet and listened.

“I'm sorry, Christopher, but I can't stand it anymore!” Monica yelled from the hall. There was a pounding of feet as she whizzed down the stairs.

“But Monica....” came the Captain's voice, sounding very tame compared to its normal tone. He too went down the stairs. Lizette and I left my room to see what was going on. We peeked around the corner and watched the proceedings.

Monica stood at the bottom of the stairs, entombed by a mound of suitcases. She wore a coat and carried a purse and a pair of gloves. She seemed to be waiting for something.

“If you'd just sit down and think this through, Monica,” said the Captain as he plowed his way to her through the luggage.

“I HAVE thought about it, Christopher. Night and day, day in, day out. My parents and I agree that I simply can't marry you when you have five children and no money.”

“But I'm climbing back up.” He was begging, which was not a normal characteristic for him.

“It could take YEARS for you to get to where you were. I know how much you're worth - I called the bank - and it's not much. You couldn't possibly support me.” John came in through the front door and began carrying out her suitcases. Perkins had been enlisted to help.

“What will I tell the children?”

She gave him a restrained look. “Oh, you'll think of something. They'll be overjoyed, I'm sure. I know I am.”

She took a step towards the door, but stopped. “Oh, here.” She pulled the huge diamond off her left hand and dropped it into his palm. “Good-bye, Christopher.” THEN she walked gracefully out the door to the limosine waiting to take her home.

“John will have to take two trips because of all those suitcases,” Lizette whispered loudly. “I don't believe that Father got dumped!”

I pulled back behind the wall. “Lizette! Not so loud!”

“Sorry,” she whispered softer.

“Did you and the others do something to Monica to make her go?”

She reflected. “No, I don't think so.”

I heard the Captain mount the stairs and I pushed Lizette to my room and shut the door. “Are you sure? Anne didn't put shaving cream in her closet?”

“You mean closets. No, she didn't.”

“This just seems so sudden.” I glanced out the window, thinking. “I mean, she chases after your Father for five years, finally gets hum, then dumps him for no reason.”

“Well, we WERE kind of mean to her during the snowstorm. But she deserved all that.” She shrugged her shoulders and crossed to the trunk to see the kittens. “What did Monica mean when she said Father has no money? He has plenty of money.” She reached in and pulled out a little black kitten. They had their eyes open now and were just starting to play instead of sleep.

I picked up my dust cloth from the bed where I had dropped it. “I wasn't supposed to tell you, but I guess you should know. From what I understand, your family fortune is quickly dwindling. This is just what the Captain told me. I guess that's why Monica left. She just COULDN'T marry someone who was going bankrupt.”

“Of COURSE not!” said a sarcastic Lizette. She suddenly sat up straight. “Melanie, do you know what this means? With Monica gone, there's no wedding, and you don't have to leave! We don't have to go to boarding school!” She dropped the kitten back into the trunk. “I'm going to tell the others!”

“Lizette!” I was going to remind her the the kittens still were young enough to be easily hurt, but she was gone. I sat beside the trunk and stroked the fur of my pets, thinking about the departure of Miss Sinclair. I wondered how the Captain would take it. As to how I was taking it, I was elated. Maybe now things would get back to normal. Maybe.

The change in the atmosphere of the mansion was almost immediate as the news spread. The very house seemed to say, “She's gone, she's gone.” The children ran around with smiles and were uncommonly polite toward each other, and the servants didn't complain about anything anymore. It was a complete revolution.

However the Captain remained almost the same as before Monica left. He secluded himself from the rest of the family and didn't normally talk to anybody, including me. I believe he started avoiding me after his fiancé left. He worked a lot and I never heard anything more about his declining fortune. I assumed he was hard at work restoring it. He rarely took his meals with us, and the children and I almost never saw him, except for when he was on his way out the door to go to his office. But the nice little family get-togethers we used to have before the 'Monica Syndrome' no longer existed.

I knocked lightly on the library door and waited for an order to either come in or go away. When no answer was forthcoming, I pushed open the door and slipped in.

The room was dark and kind of creepy, reflecting the grayness of the weather outside. The air was cool though the temperatures were quite warm now. The books seemed to be leaning forward, waiting for something that they would witness to happen. I walked in and closed the door behind me, shutting away the world for a few brief moments of silence.

I walked slowly around the room, gazing at the books without reading their titles, just letting the color of their dark bindings sink into my mind and settle there, giving me a rather sleepy feeling. I walked aimlessly for about ten minutes until the name of Edgar Allan Poe caught my eye.

I had not previously run into this book, or if I had, I had ignored it. But now I pulled it off the shelf and ran my fingers over the bonded leather cover. It was a thick volume and comparatively heavy. I opened the pages to the contents, but it was too dark in the corner where I was, so, not wanting to spoil the brooding mood of the library, I moved to the window instead of flicking on the light.

I recognized a few titles listed including The Raven and 'The Purlined Letter,' but skipped over them until I came to 'The Fall of the House of Usher.' Oh, Good! A perfect day to read such a story. I disregarded the chairs and seated myself on the carpet, leaning against the bookshelf. There was just enough light to read by and no more.

I was familiar with the story of the Usher family, but my surroundings and mood of the time gave it an even more chilling effect. I was ready to be deliciously scared.

Soon I forgot my problems of daily life and my surrroundings and found myself transported to nineteenth-century England and the House of Usher. I became so enraptured by the words that I could believe that I was the narrator myself, living through and watching the progression of the madness that took over the mind of Roderick Usher. It was I who helped to bury the form of his siter Madeline in the tomb-like vault and it was I who read to my friend Roderick on the eve of that great storm.

'Not hear it' I read. 'yes, I hear it, and HAVE heard it. Long- long- long- many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it - yet I dared not - oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! - I dared not - DARED not speak! WE HAVE PUT HER LIVING IN THE TOMB!'

In my mind I could hear the shattering of Madeline's coffin as I read Roderick's speech. I heard the squeeky hinges of the thick door to the tomb as she, a person beleived dead, pushed it open. The light tread of her slow methodic footsteps sounded on the stairs.

“'Do I not distinguish the heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!' here Roderic sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul - 'MADMAN! I TELL YOU THAT SHE NOW STANDS WITHOUT THE DOOR!'”

Suddenly the door to the library burst open, ripping me away from England and back to the present. I sat up and gave a loud, involuntary scream. I turned around and, loe and behold, there stood the Captain.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, surprised by my reaction to him.

“How do you do it?” I asked, willing my heart to return to it's normal steady beat. “Do you read my mind or something so you know exactly when you should make your entrance and scare me to death? Honestly, I thought sure you were Madeline come back from the grave to get me.”

“How you do run on, Miss Stevens,” he admonished me lightly. “Though it doesn't surprise me. It's sort of dark in here, isn't it? How can you see to read? I'll turn on the lights.” He reached out to hit the switch, but I stopped him.

“Oh please don't!” I begged. “I like the darkness. It's peaceful and quiet.”

He raised his eyebrows and looked around the room. “Yes it is. I hadn't noticed how quiet it is in here before. Yet another thing that you have opened my eyes to.” He softly closed the door behind him. Now I was secluded, but not alone.

“What brings you in here?” I stood up and laid the book on his desk. Poe would have to wait. I wasn't going to let a chance to talk to the Captain slip away.

“I was looking for some papers and thought they might be in here.” He rummaged through one of his desk drawers. “Yes, here they are.”

“Captain...”

“It's cold in here,” he interrupted, coming around the desk to stand in front of me.

“It is. Feel my hand.” Through a habit of old times I unconsciencously laid my hand on his cheek for him to feel its iciness.

His eyes sought mine and held them better than any chain. I was rivetted to my spot on the floor and couldn't move. His eyes were the most beautiful color I'd ever seen. Looking into them was like looking through to another, better world. Then, after a second had passed by, I forced myself to avert my eyes and let my hand fall from his cheek.

“Wait,” he said softly, suddenly, and caught my hand. He enclosed my little fingers with his own larger and stronger ones. A shiver traveled up my spine and started spreading through my body in tingles. He took a deep breath and said, “You have the most beautiful eyes.”

His voice caught me and sent more shivers along my spine. I had to clear my throat before I could say, “I was just thinking the same about yours.” He was pulling me closer with every passing second and I was certainly making no move to resist. I felt his other arm slip aroumd my waist and those little shivers turned into a permanent tremble.

With his finger under my chin he tilted my face until he was staring directly at me. With a look of 'finally' in his eyes, he leaned down and kissed me.

It was not the most passionate kiss of the century. Far from it, in fact. It was gentle and sweet and filled with love.

“My darling Melanie,” he said as we parted. I slid down into the safety and warmth of his embrace. It was all he said. We held each other in the darkened, silent library.

“I love you,” I whispered fervently against his coat.

“Not half as much as I love you.” He softly planted a kiss on the top of my head. I closed my eyes and enjoyed every single minute I could with him. He rested his cheek on my head. “I was so afraid that you would leave before I had a chance to explain,” he said in a low, tender voice.

“Leaving you was the farthest thing from my mind,” I assured him.

He was about to say something more, but stopped himself when we heard the front door open and the children run in. “Melanie!” one of them yelled. “Guess what! Melanie, where are you?”

“This is one time that they're not going to find you.” He kissed me on the forehead, took my hands, and said, “For once I'M going to have you all to myself. Let's go.” With a smile on his face he led me to the narrow staircase that offered passage to his room. We started up, hand in hand, and emerged into his sitting room undetected. He then headed to the large fireplace in his bedroom and began running his fingers over a panel near the hearth. The panel slid aside as he activated the mechanism. A familiar set of stairs led down.

I looked at him doubtfully. “Couldn't you have found some place a little cleaner to take me?”

“This is merely a passage to the brighter world outside. I'm getting as good as you with words.” He reached into his dresser drawer and pulled out a flashlight. “I always come prepared,” he explained, and, after turning on the beam of light, plunged into the dark hole with me close behind.

“I hope you're not allergic to dust. See, there's the footprints that Michael and I made when we came down here to explore. Obviously this place isn't frequented too much.”

“The common person doesn't even know it's here. Monica slept in the room with the other opening for two months and never figured it out. But then she wasn't supposed to. I don't believe she had the intelligence to find her checkbook without help.”

“Now Captain,” I started.

“I'm serious,” he persisted. “I don't know what I ever saw in her. I guess she was just THERE at the right time. But let's not talk now. All I'm breathing is dust.”

We walked on through the tunnel in silence, the flashlight beam bouncing off the damp and dingy walls. I didn't recall that it had taken so long to reach the door before, and I suddenly noticed that I could no longer see the footprints made by my previous visit to the cavern. I mentioned it to the Captain.

“We turned off the main tunnel way back. Didn't you notice?”

“No. I must have been thinking.”

“As always. This tunnel ends up at the back of the gardens. We should be getting there soon.

“I am continually surprised by the ingenuity of your family.”

He smiled boyishly at me. “Interesting bunch, aren't we? I used to use this little cave as a way to escape my nannies. They were always after me for something.”

“Were you a bad little boy?”

“The worst. Even you would have had trouble handling me.” I gave him 'the look' but said nothing.

Finally we emerged into the gray outside, closing the tunnel's heavy wooden door behind us. We were indeed at the very back of the gardens. The air was rather oppressive and the heavy clouds sifted across the sky.

“It smells like rain,” I said after taking a sniff of the clean air.

“You can even tell when it's going to rain? Amazing. Is there anything you can't do?”

“I can't wiggle my ears and make you disappear, and I shouldn't want to if I could.”

He put his arm protectively around me and I laid my head on his shoulder. “Now that I've finally got you, you should know everything. I never believed I could fall in love again.” We began to slowly meander down the paths toward the house.

“I thought you were infatuated with Monica.”

He reflected on his past before sasying, “To me all Monica did was keep me company with her endless chatter. I was waiting for something better to come along. Meanwhile all Denver expected me to marry her.”

“What happened? Why didn't you marry her?” I inquired, looking up at him.

“Because you came along! How could I possibly marry such an idiot as Monica when I was in love with you? I knew the very minute that I saw you. It was love at first sight.”

“Then you are more perceptive than I am. I never figured it out until... Christmas, I think, when we were doing that Romeo and Juliet scene in my bedroom.”

“Ah yes!” He smiled broudly. “'It is the South and Melanie is the sun,'” he quoted. I almost told you then, but wonderful Monica interrupted just as things were promising. You were so enchanting that morning, like a grown yet innocent young woman, so incredibly naive that...”

“Hey, I'm not totally ignorant!”

“Alright, I'll admit your beguiling charms caught me. Anyway, it was after that that I came up with the Master Plan. I knew I would never be happy if I couldn't have you, but I couldn't just dump Monica after five years, so when I left on my trip to Europe, my plan went into action.”

I laughed softly. “It sounds like a James Bond movie. Tell me, what was this plan of yours?”

“It may seem kind of mean at first, but it worked. I knew that Monica would show up in Paris and I figured what better place to start things rolling. You know how THAT stage ended. I knew for a fact she would not say no when I asked her to marry me, but I didn't expect her to move in with us.”

“That's not the normal procedure?” He shook his head. “She probably wanted to keep an eye on me.”

“Yes, she didn't seem to like you, and she took pains to show it at times. I always wondered why she started those rumers at the costume ball. She should have known it wouldn't work.”

“What was the second stage of your plan?”

He smiled deviously. “Artistry at its best!” he exclaimed reverently. “I thought if Monica could use rumers, so could I. So I started a rumer that I was losing all my money. I had some people at certain banks that owed me a favor do the spreading. They did an effective job of it too. And Monica swallowed the whole thing.”

I shook my head slightly. “She's not the only one.”

“I wanted to tell you, but in view of the situation, I thought it best that you didn't know. Paul knew. He managed to weasel it out of me during the storm.”

“Constance learned a lot during that storm too. Imagine the two of them know everything about us. They probalby thought we were total idiots. But two of the most lovable idiots in the world.”

“Deffinately,” and he gave me a squeeze before continuing. “I must admit that Monica stuck it out longer than I thought she would, but in the end the thought of having to put up with five kids and not having a lot of money to compensate for them ended her love for me.”

“Then you haven't lost your money?”

“Quite the opposite. I worked so much pretending to get back my fortune that I added onto it considerably.”

“I had no idea you were so clever.”

“Oh, I'm incredibly clever and conceited and very much in love with my inquisitive, elfish governess.” He stopped on the path to look at me. “You know, I know, or I had an IDEA, that you were madly in love me only a few weeks after you arrived.”

“You ARE conceited. How did you know, oh wise Captain?”

“Your eyes,” he answered. “They say the eyes are the portholes of the soul and your eyes have been... expressing yourself a lot the past few months.”

“Really? How interesting. And your eyes always remained that steel grey, though they did soften every now and then.” We started walking again and I saw the form of the pavallian in the distance. “And when they DID soften... you made it very hard for me not to tell you exactly how I felt.”

“Do you think it was any easier for me? I wanted to be with you every minute of the day. It was so hard not to kiss you or just look at you when we were in mixed company. The dances were the worst. I was actually holding you in my arms, yet I couldn't take it any further. It was self-inflicted torture!” He stopped again and suddenly pulled me into his tight embrace. “I will never, NEVER let you go.”

I sympathized with him, for I had gone through the same thing. I hugged him closely.

It is unknown to me how long we would have stood there, but not long after the leaden skies began to pour their water over the country. With childish smiles we raced down the path to the pavilian, hoping to stay dry. By the time we managed to reach the cover of its stone roof, however, we were drenched to the skin. We laughed as we wrung the water out of our clothes.

“Now I know what happened in the movie The Far Pavilian. All the characters got wet.” I pushed a lock of wet hair out of his eyes.

“If we aren't a sorry couple. I will say that water looks very good on you.”

“It looks terrible on you. You look like a tall, dripping totem pole.”

“A TOTEM POLE!” he exclaimed.

“The truth hurts, I know.”

“IMP!” He turned away from me and watched the rain patter on the paved pathway. Finally he wheeled around with his usual commanding air and said, “Well, since I've started this, you elf, I might as well finish it.” He came back to stand in front of me. With his hands behind his back and his body as tall and straight as he could get it considering his heavy wet clothes, he said, “My dear Miss Stevens, will you marry me?” I had the urge to curtsey, but fought it back. Instead I let a slow smile take over my face. “My dear Captain Kartwright, yes I will.” My bangs dripped water in my eyes as he kissed me again.

The rain continued to fall throughout that day, washing away the past and its events, spreading the ground for the beginning of something new.

Epilog

I love epilogs. They let you tie up all the loose ends. I'll make it brief and painless.

Monica Sinclair somehow managed to recover from the double blow of finding out that Captain Christopher Kartwright was as rich as he ever was and that he married me and not her. A year later she married some rich widower and they lived happily with a lot of money to keep them company in their old age (and no children!)

Paul Sinclair and Constance La Fonte waited for quite some time before they officially tied the knot. In the end, though, her parents gave in she and Paul were married at her family mansion in South Carolina.

My sister Kate continued her detective training and finally opened her own detective agency. She got married when she was thirty-two.

The Captain and I got married that May. We didn't believe in long engagements. Needless to say, the two of us had a LARGE family. We had seven children of our own to add to the five original Kartwrights. We weren't happy unless we were surrounded by chaos, and those twelve children created a LOT of chaos. But we were happy and a loving family, and that's all that really matters.

The End


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