My Little Pony Monthly Issue 80 (November 1, 2003)

My Little Pony Monthly
A publication of Nematode (Electronic) Publishing
Established June 1997
This Newsletter is Safe for All Ages

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Issue 80
November 2003

1. Contest!
2. Survey!
3. Ghost Stories (by Clever Clover)
4. Sugarberry's Magic Berry Pie (by Steamer)
5. The Ring (by Clever Clover)
6. The Time is Now (by Sugarberry)
7. Silent are the Bells Chapters 13-15 (by Sugarberry)

Hoorah! Check out our list of winners from last month!

*garej* (
BJ (
Cherie (
Jaye (
Megan (
Pika-Chan (
Starre (
Steamer (
Sweet Tooth (
Teardrop (
Violet Star Shine (

Catrina’s original slaves were the Bushwoolies. At least as far as we know. Maybe she had other slaves before them...? But anyway. The Bushwoolies were liberated when Friendly– or at least a lavender Bushwoolie whose color matches Friendly’s in The Quest of the Princess Ponies, so I like to say it’s Friendly– stood up for the rights of his fellow Bushwoolies and initiated their revolt. Friendly is quite the revolutionary! Of course, as Sweet Tooth observed, now the Bushwoolies are “enslaved by the Princess Ponies”... heh-heh. Rumor has it Friendly might have another uprising in the works. Watch out, ponies! You don’t want to tick off Friendly. In fact, he might tell us more about his revolutionary escapades if he fails to find an employer after graduating this year. Hmm, very interesting...
Anyway, moving onto other matters... as usual, all ponies listed above received their webpage graphic prize for participating. But, last month we initiated something new. My Little Pony Monthly is getting high-class and offering real, physical prizes! So, all of those names were thrown into a hat– only figuratively speaking; it was actually just my hand– and one lucky pony was chosen to receive a bottle of Nailwear Nail Enamel in the shade of Cherry Jubilee. Now, WHO WAS OUR LUCKY WINNER?!?! DRUMROLL PLEASE!

BJ! BJ is our winner!! Let’s hear it for her!!!

Now, let me dip into my mystic box of pony-named AVON products again and see what you have a chance at this month... ah, it looks like we have another nail enamel up next. Not only does it have a pony namesake, it also works very well with the winter month of December! Our lucky winner for this month (if the winner should be a girl; guys, read below for your prize!) will receive a bottle of AVON Speed Dry nail enamel named “Snowflake”. It’s all white and shimmery and pretty! Don’t miss your opportunity to have a chance at this!

Alas, we weren’t able to secure a bottle of the Wild Country talc we promised for you guys last month. Sugarberry and I were both justly outraged that AVON had discontinued such a staple item. So instead we have this lovely soap-on-a-rope in the Wild Country scent. That’s a fun word. Wheeeee....

All right, here’s the question you have to answer for a chance at one of these lovely prizes! (By the way, you can look up the answer in outside sources. I don’t mind.)

What is the name of Miss Hackney’s old beau (he appeared in the My Little Pony Tales episode “Up, Up, and Away”)?

Tell me the answer by e-mailing or entering through the form at

THE RULES! *ANYONE* can enter. That means anyone as in anyone. Even if you’ve already participated in the past you can enter; in fact, I encourage you to do so. You don’t even have to be a subscriber of MLP Monthly in order to enter. But if you’re not a subscriber you’re probably not even reading this. ^.~
However, now that we’ve introduced *real* prizes, we will be putting a limit on how many times you can be entered in the drawing for that. If you’ve already been selected to win one of our prizes in the past you can’t be entered again– BUT, you can still participate and get your webpage graphic! So just because you’ve won something in the past doesn’t mean you can’t have any fun at all with our contests anymore. And, of course, if eventually all contest participants are ones that have won a prize, it’s fair game for everybody again!
On the contest form at, you will be able to select your gender so we’ll be able to determine which prize you get. Or, if you’d prefer to be opted out of the prize drawing, you can select that on the form as well. You’ll still get your webpage graphic, however.

Four survey entries, pretty good! We can do better, but... pretty good! You told us if you wanted the ads section back in MLP Monthly...

Baby Dibbles ( says...
YES YES YES!!! i used to love browsing the ads until they were no longer there!!!! : P

Jaye ( says...
Sure, why not? It might be another great way to connect with other MLP lovers. :-)

Pika-Chan ( says...
The newsletter did that before, didn't it? If I remember correctly, it got pretty long, too! I wouldn't mind seeing the want ads again, but I would suggest that it should be put together as a separate email from the Newsletter and perhaps sent out only to those who want it. Something like that might cut down on time and space, I hope!

Violet Star Shine ( says...

So that means... yeah, let’s try it again! Send in your My Little Pony want/sale/trade ads for inclusion in the next issue. I’ll send the ads section as an e-mail separate from the rest of the newsletter so you can ignore it if you want. ^.~ Everyone’s welcome to submit an ad, even non-subscribers, so tell your friends about it, too!

And now we have another survey question to answer!

What does your family think of your pony-collecting hobby?

The URL is:
Ghost Stories
by Clever Clover (

Nightshade, the dark swordpony, carried a bowl of hot soup to her brother. Since Zotikos, the ghost from Atlantis, had left him, Hemlock had been bedridden. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with him and Jack O Lantern’s magic had done nothing for him. Nightshade knocked on her brother’s door and slowly opened it. “Are you awake, brother?”

“Of course, sister. Though the ghost has left me, his memories still haunt me.”

“I brought some soup.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Nightshade sat down next to her brother’s bed. “You need to eat, to keep your strength up.”

Hemlock forced a weak smile. “It is nice to know someone still cares about me.”

“I’m sorry I let Zotikos posses you like that.”

“You couldn’t have known, sister. Not even Jack O Lantern was aware of him. Sister, has the Night Clan lost its path? Our father’s vision was an independent Night Clan; then Jack O Lantern came and led us into a war with the Isle, and now Zotikos seeks to make us subjects of Atlantis again.”

“Our people will never be free as long as the king of the Isle claims to rule all seven clans. As for Zotikos, he used us; so for now, I will use him. Do not worry, brother; though Zotikos’ path is not ours, our path for the Night Clan is our own.”

“I hope you are right, sister.”

“Now, brother, you should eat and sleep.”

“Very well, I will eat. But I still cannot sleep.”

Hemlock finished his soup and Nightshade took the bowl. Outside his room, Lady Sea- Snake was waiting. “How is your brother doing?”

“What business is it of yours?”

“We are a team, now. Is it wrong to be concerned for a teammate?”

“Who are you? Of all the prisoners I released, you are the only one who has done nothing to prove their worth and yet you are the only one who is eager to serve. What are you up to?”

“You fear me, don’t you? Because I don’t use magic, you have no special advantage over me.”

Nightshade dropped the bowl, which shattered on the stone floor, and drew her sword. “I fear no one!”

“We shall have to spar some time. I look forward to brushing up on my fencing.” Lady Sea-Snake turned and walked away.

Nightshade sheathed her sword and gathered up the pieces of the bowl. Shortly, she encountered Jack O Lantern. “What do you want?”

“Has your brother’s condition improved?”

“You are the second to ask me that, though it still puzzles me why it would interest anyone but me.”

“We have recently become the minority in this castle. Though I am not of the Night Clan, I am a clan-pony. With these outsiders about, it will be important for us to stick together. Besides, he was a good apprentice.”

Nightshade grinned. “Zotikos’ alliance is crumbling already.”

“Zotikos never had an alliance. He has brought together a group of self-serving individuals and pressured them into serving him. Unless he has something up his sleeve, his house of cards will tumble when we encounter our first hurdle.” Jack O Lantern handed Nightshade a talisman carved from black stone. “Give this to your brother and Zotikos will not be able to posses with him again.”

“I…I don’t know what to say. But how can you protect my brother if you yourself were unknowingly possessed by Zotikos once?”

“I was unaware because he remained hidden. Now that I know of him, I can protect myself, and others I deem worthy, from his influence. You, however, do not require such protection. Your gift is adequate. Though I wonder what would happen if Zotikos would try. Hm, that might be interesting.” Jack O Lantern wandered off, mumbling to himself.

* * *
After Nightshade had left his bedside, Hemlock lay silently in his bed. Before long, though, he became aware of another presence in the room. He sat up. “Who’s there?”

There was no answer. He laid back down but shortly, a strong wind blew through the room. Hemlock shot bolt upright. “Who is there!?” The wind died down and Hemlock once again sensed the presence. He looked around the room. “Zotikos, is that you? Go away! Go away, vile shade!”

A soft whisper reached Hemlock’s ears. “You have grown into quite the young stallion, my son.”

A tear came to Hemlock’s eye as he recognized the voice. “F…Father? Could it really be you, Father?”

A ghostly image of a noble, dark red pony appeared before Hemlock. “Yes, it is me, son.”

“Why have you come to me now?”

“Because, my son, I did not want to see you suffer any longer. I have come to guide you back.”

“Back? Back to where?”

“To who you were before. I wish I could have stopped Zotikos from doing what he did, but I can help you now that he is gone.”

“Zotikos. He still haunts my dreams. That’s why I don’t sleep. I’m afraid of him.”

“You shouldn’t be. Your strength drove him to find a new host.”

“Strength? He controlled me so easily. I let him. After Enchantment came here, I realized that I wasn’t strong enough to lead our people. I could sense Zotikos lurking in the back of my mind, and I let him take control.”

“Enchantment. A fine filly. Ah, if I was a young stallion again... ahem, I was the same way with your mother, well, most fillies actually, but your mother was special. And in the same way, Enchantment is special. Your feelings for her are not weakness, it is strength.”

“Enchantment? Strength? But I cannot act when I am near her.”

“You can act, if your action is guided by your heart, not your mind. When Zotikos threatened her, you were able to stop him, even though you had surrendered yourself to him. That is your strength.”

“But, she is not one of us. She is from the Spirit Clan, not the Night.”

“Then maybe strength is not in the Night Clan alone. Maybe true strength comes from all the clans together.”

“But the clan was strong under you. You taught us to be independent.”

The shade shook his head. “Zotikos threatens our independence now. The time has come to stand alongside the other clans rather than against them.”

“But Zotikos now rules the Night Clan. How can we stand alongside the others when he leads us into battle against them?”

The shade smiled. “You will find a way.” And with that he faded away. “Farewell, my son…”

“Father! Don’t leave me! Father…”

* * *
Far away, on the Isle of the Emerald Lake, Enchantment sleeplessly wandered the halls of Malachite Castle. She had often had trouble sleeping since her last encounter with Hemlock. She climbed the stairs to the castle’s tallest tower. She climbed onto the parapet and sat gazing at the stars, as if they held the answers to the questions that kept her awake. Like, what had happened to Hemlock to make him act like he did? Could he be returned to the way he used to be? And where was he now?

The stars didn’t have anything to say tonight, but still, it made her feel better to ask. She heard the sound of hoofsteps behind her. “Hey, Enchantment, what are you doing up here at this time of night?”

“Hi, Ironwood. I couldn’t sleep.”

Ironwood, the captain of the castle guard, sat down next to Enchantment. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m worried about Hemlock.”

“I know you think something’s wrong with Hemlock, but he is Jack O Lantern’s apprentice. Do you really think he’s worth losing sleep over?”

Enchantment shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what I feel that keeps me up. I feel that his actions are inconsistent with his spirit.”

“I don’t know what to say. If you have faith in his spirit, you have to trust that his spirit will guide him through. Now, I’ve got to get back to my patrol.”

“Thank you, Ironwood.”

Enchantment sat on the parapet still gazing at the stars as Ironwood returned to his duties.

* * *
Back at the Dark Isle, Nightshade returned to her brother’s room to give him the talisman Jack O Lantern had prepared for him. She opened the door to find her brother fast asleep. She set the talisman on the night-stand and kissed her brother on the cheek. “Sleep well, my brother.”
Sugarberry’s Magic Berry Pie
by Steamer (

One day Sugarberry decided to make one of her famous pies. She went into the kitchen at the Paradise Estate to get together her ingredients. She always made her pies from scratch, the way her mama used to do. She first of all got the ingredients she’d need to make the crust.

As she was doing that, she thought to herself, I think I’ll make this pie extra special, by putting some cinnamon in as well. I’ll mix it in with the berry filling. Yeah! Everyone will love it.

She put the berries into a mixing bowl, and then went to look for some cinnamon. She found an unlabeled jar with what looked like cinnamon in it, so she put that in. What she didn’t realize was that it was Magical Fairy Dust that Powder had got from one of the fairies.

Sugarberry put the berry mixture into the pie, and then proceeded to make the top crust and put the pie into the oven.

That evening after dinner, Sugarberry brought out the pie for dessert. The other ponies licked their lips, as they all loved Sugarberry’s pies. After they had taken a couple of bites, though, all their best dreams started to come true, and alive.

Baby Tiddly Winks all of a sudden had all the games and toys she could want. Baby Lofty had an instant flight instructor, specializing in Baby Pegasus flight of course. Even Baby Ribbon had an instant winking instructor, so she could wink like the best of them.

Powder then asked Sugarberry what she put in her pie. “Just berries, and cinnamon, or at least I thought it was cinnamon.” Sugarberry responded.

“Please show me what you put in,” said Powder. So Sugarberry showed her the unlabeled jar. Powder laughed when she saw it. “Sugarberry, that’s Magic Fairy Dust that I got from the fairies.”

“It is?” asked Sugarberry.

Powder nodded. “It doesn’t have a lasting effect; though I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”

“Next time I think I’ll ask before I use an unlabeled item” said Sugarberry. And that she did.
The Ring
by Clever Clover (

After a long day at the flower shop, Morning Glory had to run some errands. As she exited one shop, she caught sight of Clever Clover slipping out of a jewelry shop across the street. “Hm, that’s odd. Clever Clover isn’t into jewelry. I wonder what he was doing in there.” She trotted across the street but Clever Clover had already disappeared around the corner. “Well, I suppose I could ask the jeweler what he was up to.”

Just as Morning Glory was about to open the door, the jeweler, Pearl, began to lock up for the night. Morning Glory tapped on the glass. “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”

Pearl opened the door. “Um, could you make it quick? I’ve got a lot of work to do before I can go home, and I’m already dead tired.”

“Oh, of course! I was just wondering what that purple stallion who just left was doing here.”

“Clever Clover? He helps me authenticate antique pieces I acquire from time to time. But today he asked about some prices before he left.”

“And what was he pricing?”

“Engagement rings. I think they just caught his eye, though, on his way out. He laughed when I told him the prices.”

“Thank you, and good night.”

“No problem.”

As Morning Glory walked home, she contemplated what Pearl had told her. “There can only be one reason he would be pricing engagement rings! But I wonder who he plans to give it to?” She hadn’t planned to stop by Clever Clover’s house that evening, but now she just had to talk to him. She stopped by her own home first to drop off some things, then went on to Clever Clover’s. She was greeted at the door by Minoko.

“What do you want?” the pirate grumbled.

“I had hoped to talk to Clever Clover.”

“Well, he’s out. Said he might be late, had some important business to take care of. So you can be going now.” Minoko began to close the door, but Morning Glory blocked it with her hoof.

“Maybe I could have a word with you then?”

“Wha? You want to talk to me? What makes you think I’d want to hear anything you have to say?”

“Just give me five minutes and if you’re not interested by then, I’ll leave.”

“Okay, I guess I can waste five minutes. Come on in.” Minoko opened the door and led Morning Glory to the living room where Belle Star was drinking tea.

“Aren’t you supposed to be Clever Clover’s bodyguard? Why are you here and not guarding him?”

“Oh, I overslept this morning and by the time I woke up he had already left. And he told Minoko that he wanted to be alone today.”

“He wanted to be alone? Oh my! This supports my theory.”

Minoko scratched her head. “What are you talking about?”

Morning Glory sat down. “Well, I saw Clever Clover coming out of the jewelry store. I asked the jeweler and she said that he had been pricing engagement rings!”

“Uh-huh, pricing rings. Really interesting. You’ve got four more minutes.”

Belle Star poured another cup of tea and offered it to Morning Glory. “Would you like some tea?”

“Thank you, Belle Star. Now, Minoko, a stallion doesn’t even think about buying a ring until he is absolutely sure who he wants to wear it!”

Minoko laughed. “Oh? You’re quite the authority on stallions; you must have quite a bit of experience.”

“It doesn’t take that much to figure it out. I’m sensitive and observant. And that is why I’m sure he’ll ask me to be his wife.”

“Oh really?” said Minoko. “Well, once I’m his wife I can have all the locks changed so you can’t get in.”

“Humph! Once I’m his wife, I’ll be able to evict you! Or at least start charging rent.”

Belle Star giggled. “Wouldn’t it be silly if he asked me to marry him?”

Minoko and Morning Glory stared at her in disbelief. “Why would you ever say that?” asked Minoko.

“Well, first I thought of Clever Clover asking me to marry him; then I thought ‘that’s silly’, so I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be silly if he asked me to marry him?’ ”

Minoko and Morning Glory glared at Belle Star for a moment longer, trying to decide weather or not to take her seriously before returning to their bickering.

“I’m sure he’ll take me on a romantic honeymoon to some exotic, isolated spot where the two of us can be alone together for as long as we want,” mused Minoko.

“As a royal couple, I’m sure our honeymoon would be at the finest grand hotel in Ponyland, where we would be waited on hoof and hoof.”

“But if he did marry me, I’d be a princess, wouldn’t I? Princess Belle Star. Tee-hee-hee. And we would live in a big castle.”

“And after the honeymoon we could blow this dump and live on my ship. We’d travel the world, living wherever our hearts led us.”

“I’m sure Clever Clover and I will live here, though we’ll need to do some renovations to make it worthy of a royal couple,” responded Morning Glory.

Belle Star sighed. “And I’d bet we’d have lots and lots of kids. Oh, I’d love to have a big family!”

The conversation ended abruptly as Clever Clover came in. Belle Star rushed over to him. “Oh! Who are you going to marry? I’m so excited! I can’t wait to find out!”

“Uh, what are you talking about?”

“Morning Glory says she saw you pricing for engagement rings,” said Minoko.

“I was at a jewelry store, but I wasn’t pricing rings. I was authenticating antiques.”

“But Pearl said you asked about the engagement rings!”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business, but I did ask about some rings. But I didn’t know they were engagement rings. They just caught my eye.”

“Just caught your eye? That’s exactly what Pearl said. I think you two are working together to cover your tracks.”

Clever Clover scratched his head. “Uhm, I think you’re paranoid.”

Minoko laughed. “Oh yeah, ‘sensitive and observant’ or ‘paranoid’? Do you know what I think?”

“Uh, sensitive and observant?” guessed Belle Star.


“What!? I am not paranoid! It’s simple deduction!”

“I’m sorry, but your deduction is a little off.”

“I don’t think so. You can deny it all you want, but that doesn’t change the facts.”

Clever Clover shrugged. “Whatever. Will you be staying for supper? I picked up some pizza on the way home.”

Belle Star jumped for joy. “Oh goody! I love pizza!”

“Well, I suppose, since I’m here…” said Morning Glory.

“Lousy freeloader,” mumbled Minoko.
The Time is Now
by Sugarberry (

“Ribbons n’ Lace, thanks so much for this wonderful meal!” Chocolate Chip warmly smiled at her hostess after finishing off a detectible dinner better than any she had yet encountered in New Pony. “I can almost imagine myself back in Sugarberry’s kitchen.”

“I take that as a splendid compliment,” Ribbons n’ Lace smiled in return. “But whereas Sugarberry is blessed with culinary skills, I am sadly lacking.”

“What she means,” winked Andrew, “is that without Fricassee in her kitchen, we’d be having boiled water and toast right now.”

“Whoever was responsible, the food was great,” said Xavier. “I’m very grateful that Chocolate Chip chose me to accompany her tonight; I haven’t eaten so well in weeks.” The two young ponies were dinner guests of Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace at their lovely home in one of New Pony’s elegant, upscale districts.

“Well, we’re not done yet,” remarked Ribbons n’ Lace. “Fricassee found a new dessert recipe which she’s trying out for the first time. But we’ll withdraw to the living room where we can be comfortable with our coffee and cobbler.” The mare rose to issue a request of a hovering servant, then led her guests to the adjacent room.

“I believe, Xavier, that you mentioned your hometown as being Happy Hollow. Do your parents still live there?” Andrew queried.

“Oh, yes. They and my siblings are all still back in that sleepy little town.”

“Tell us about your family,” prodded Ribbons n’ Lace.

“Well, I’m the youngest of us kids. My sister, Yolanda, is married and has a two-year old foal who is the delight of Mom and Dad; Zachary is the oldest and is a teacher at the local high school.”

“Xavier, Yolanda, Zachary... X, Y, Z,” mused Ribbons n’ Lace. “Was there a reason for alphabetical names?”

“My aunt and uncle started at the beginning of the alphabet,” admitted Xavier, “so Dad thought it would be cool to start from the end. Then Dad’s other two sisters took off from the middle in opposite directions.”

“An interesting arrangement,” grinned Andrew.

“Toby and Fern will be picking out a name soon enough,” noted Ribbons n’ Lace. “Our son and his wife have a foal due this month,” she smilingly apprized Xavier, then turned her attention to Chocolate Chip, her smile fading. “Fern has had a troublesome time of it, I’m afraid.”

“She’s feeling much better, though, as her due date draws near,” Chocolate Chip assured the worried mare. “When I last talked with her, she was fully caught up in organizing the nursery; she’s impatient to have the foal in her forelegs.”

“The same can be said of Toby,” added Andrew. “We’re going to visit them over the Thanksgiving holiday, with Tribute and Chiffon meeting us there.”

“And what do you think of the wedding plans being made in Woodlawn?” queried Ribbons n’ Lace, her eyes twinkling.

“That will be quite an event,” acknowledged Chocolate Chip, who then turned to explain the situation to Xavier. “Vanguard’s very favorite cousin, Chiffon, is marrying Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace’s son, Tribute, who is also a doctor like his father and brother; and Vanguard’s brother, Icon, who is also very close to Chiffon, is marrying Splotch, a legal assistant. As Chiffon’s and Icon’s families are so close, they’ve decided to combine the wedding into one big celebration next June.”

“Splotch?” Xavier, who had been bravely trying to follow the convoluted explanation that Chocolate Chip put forth, suddenly became very attentive at the mention of that name. “I grew up with a Splotch back in Happy Hollow, and the name isn’t that common. She was working for Macrohard the last I heard.”

“I believe she did work for Macrohard before coming to Woodlawn,” Chocolate Chip revealed.

“Well, well. So Splotch has done okay for herself,” Xavier grinned.

“You say that as if you wouldn’t have expected it of her,” noted Ribbons n’ Lace. She herself had found Splotch to be a charming and intelligent mare from her brief acquaintance with her on visits to Woodlawn.

“Oh, no, don’t get me wrong. Splotch was always confident of her abilities. It’s just that she lacked the polish of her older sister and sometimes allowed her temper to get the best of her. I’m delighted to hear that she’s doing so well.” A private wink to Chocolate Chip promised that further enlightenment on the topic of Splotch would be forthcoming when they were alone.

* * *
On the walk back to the apartment building that housed both Chocolate Chip and Xavier, Xavier apprized the mare of some of the exploits that he and Splotch had been involved in back in Happy Hollow. The stories caused much laughter and gentle teasing; but in the end, Chocolate Chip seemed rather glum.

“What did I say to spoil the good spirits we were sharing?” Xavier finally asked.

“What? Oh. All the talk about your friends made me rather homesick for mine, I guess.”

“You’re going home for Thanksgiving, aren’t you?”


“Smile when you say that.”

Chocolate Chip tried to smile, but the action appeared more as a grimace, causing Xavier’s brow to wrinkle in worry. “What gives?” he asked the mare.

“It’s just... well, Fabia is really getting on my nerves since I discovered that she is taking credit for my work. Everything I do has to be documented in precise detail so that she can study the data and present it as her own. I’m tempted to give her false information once just to see her make a complete fool or herself, but she’d only dump the responsibility on me and get me fired anyway.”

“Hey, now, what happened to that ‘I can conquer anything or anyone’ attitude you came to New Pony with?”

Chocolate Chip sighed long and deep. “I’m having second thoughts, Xavier. Maybe I made the wrong decision to leave Dream Valley.”

“That’s just your weariness talking. By tomorrow morning, you’ll be ready to take on Fabia and all of Worth Hydroshed Firkins again without blinking an eye.”

“But what’s the point? I was so caught up in proving myself that I lost track of some rather important things... like family and friends.”

“I’m your friend.”

Chocolate Chip grinned at the goldenrod-yellow stallion. “And a dear one, at that. But you know what I mean.”

Xavier smiled crookedly, well aware of what Chocolate Chip was getting at. He would not have understood if it had not been for his introduction to Chocolate Chip’s younger sister, Lollipop, when he had accompanied Chocolate Chip to Dream Valley for her brother’s wedding. He had met any number of mare’s in his hometown, at college, and finally at New Pony; but none had ever touched his heart quite as Lollipop had. He knew what it was like to begin each day with a thought of someone precious who was far away; and he grasped the blatant reality that notes, phone calls, and e-mails did not quite fill the longing that a more personal encounter would have appeased.

“Yeah, I think I know, all right,” Xavier mused, then lapsed into a moody silence himself.

Chocolate Chip did not notice, for she, too, was introspective as well, wondering what Wigwam was doing at this minute. Was he thinking about her as she was him?

* * *
“Chocolate Chip!” Fabia rushed into the office the following morning where Tarn and the chocolate brown mare were bent over some facts and figures concerning their current project. “We’ve just been given the Sutter account to analyze, and its been labeled a top priority. I’m putting you in charge, so come to my office now for a briefing.” She left as quickly as she had come.

Throwing down her pencil, Chocolate Chip let out an exasperated huff. “This was top priority a week ago,” she said, gesturing to the papers on the desk with her hoof. “Am I supposed to just drop it now?”

“We’ve got a good grasp of this problem,” soothed Tarn. “I can handle it from now on. But what I know of Sutter and Associates, I think you’ll find that you’ll be keeping later hours than even you’re used to for the next few weeks.” He smiled wryly. “You’d better not keep the boss waiting.”

With a grunt and a toss of her mane, Chocolate Chip got up out of her chair to obey Fabia’s summons.

* * *
“It’s impossible!” Chocolate Chip reiterated, scanning the documentation that Fabia had presented to her. “There is too much material here to sort through and come up with a viable solution on such short notice. Sutter is a Ponyland conglomerate, not some small business down the street.”

“That’s why I’ve put you in charge. Of all the consultants, you’re the one most capable of sifting through the numbers and putting them into a workable order to answer Sutter’s needs. I realize the enormity of this project, but I honestly think you’re the one best qualified to handle it. And, besides, everyone else is caught up in deadlines right now as it is. I’ll help Tarn finish up on Cramco’s account”– She dismissed that project with a careless wave of her hoof– “which will give you uninterrupted time to concentrate on Sutter. I know you can do this, Chocolate Chip.” The mare looked at her expectantly.

Every fiber of Chocolate Chip’s being wanted to shove the mess of papers across the desk into Fabia’s lap before stalking out of the office, out of the building, out of New Pony... but she could not. This is what she had studied for through four years of college, what she had given up her home and friends for, what she had turned down Wigwam’s proposal of marriage for. She was living her dream... wasn’t she? She had no right to complain if Fabia deemed her more competent than any of the other consultants in the company; she could be proud of her achievements.

Shoving her piquet to the background, Chocolate Chip merely stood and gathered the files neatly together. “I’ll get right on it, Fabia,” she said in clipped tones. Under her breath, she added, “Who needs a Thanksgiving holiday, anyway?”

“That’s the spirit,” Fabia said in obvious relief. “I assured Uncle Wil... ah, Mr. Bates, that we’d meet the challenge. He’ll appreciate your efforts.”

Scooping up the pile of paperwork, Chocolate Chip couldn’t bring herself to respond. She cocked a disparaging brow and left the office.

* * *
Uncle Wilfred will never know who did the work,” Chocolate Chip grumbled under her breath as she set the files on her desk none too gently. “I’ll slave night and day, and Fabia will hand in my report with her name affixed to it. She’ll get the raise, and I’ll continue to be a doormat for her to walk on.” The mare procured a glass of water and walked to the window to stare out across the hustle and bustle of New Pony, but she saw none of it.

Her thoughts were far away to the west across the hills and valleys of Ponyland, back in Dream Valley, back where she was valued more for who she was as a pony rather than how much benefit she was to the financial assets of a company, back where she could encounter a friendly face no matter where she went, back where a certain stallion would greet her with the most heart-melting smile regardless of how busy he was, back where she was loved. Chocolate Chip sighed and forced herself to return to her desk. Why was she feeling so melancholy when this was the life she had chosen? She slumped in her chair and opened the top file.

* * *
Arriving at her apartment that evening, Chocolate Chip saw the familiar slim, white box waiting for her outside her door. The sight of it caused a smile to spread over her face and her eyes to sparkle. She scooped up the parcel, unlocked her door, and quickly confined herself to the privacy of her home, going to the sofa and sitting, pulling her legs up under her, then grinning at the box as if she expected it to reveal a special treat. She ran her hoof along the length of the familiar package, anticipating the gift inside. Only after several long minutes of a dream-like trance did Chocolate Chip lift the lid.

Inside the box, nestled in white tissue, were six crimson roses.

Lifting each delicate blossom carefully one at a time and breathing in the sensual fragrance, Chocolate Chip lined up the fiery flowers in a row on the beige couch. She did not have to look for a card... she knew there would be none.

Six roses meant that she was entering her sixth month as a resident of New Pony. Her first day in her apartment in the city had been met with the delivery of a single red rose; one month later, two roses had mysteriously appeared. The third anniversary of her arrival brought three roses. As the fourth anticipated delivery came on a Saturday, Chocolate Chip was able to intercept the delivery pony and bribe her to reveal what information she could about the pony behind these floral gifts. As she had expected, the request for the roses originated in Dream Valley, specifically from a pony named Wigwam. Five months away from the stallion brought five roses, now the sixth.

Gazing down at the row of flowers stiffly laid out like the pickets in a fence-row, Chocolate Chip was reminded of life. Day by day, week by week, month by month, life went on; and if one was fortunate, time well spent would result in something beautiful like the full-blown rose... regardless of the thorns that pricked and prodded. Her time in New Pony had been like that, Chocolate Chip had to admit. She was well on her way of accomplishing her goal to face life head-on, independently, and make a success of herself, someone who could hold her head high in the face of all the doubts that had tormented her since she was a toddler becoming aware of her mother’s dissatisfaction with a common little filly who appeared at first glance to be nothing special. She had succeeded in carving a bright future for herself, following a regimen of hard work and a total commitment to success, day by day just like the marching row of roses.

She had come a long way from that determined yet frightened pony who had wandered into Dream Valley in a valiant effort to escape the confines of parents who looked down upon her as some sort of oddity incapable of being accepted. She had been accepted by Sugarberry and Tabby and Friendly, Dainty and her group, Prime and his friends, and so many others who had no preconceived notions that a plain-looking pony signified a plain character.

Picking up the first rose in the line-up, Chocolate Chip brought it to her nose and sniffed the fragrance, smiling as she remembered her budding acquaintance with Wigwam and how she had found herself attracted to him and was pleasantly surprised to discover that he reciprocated her feelings. She picked up the second rose, combining it with the first, smiling over those early days of their friendship that had grown and flourished as she learned to trust and rely on the stallion’s solid presence in her life; she had never been so happy as she was then, to know that he was there for her.

A frown marred her look of happiness as she picked up the third rose, pricking herself with a thorn and sucking the rose-hued blood off her hoof. There had come a time when her trust in Wigwam had been broken; she had accused him of betraying her and her brother when Wishbone had become involved with a cheating ring at Pony Pride with Wigwam assisting in bringing it to a sudden and searing end, leaving her brother answerable for his misguided actions. She had held Wigwam accountable for hiding the truth from her during his investigation of the cheating ring rather than warning her that Wishbone was headed for trouble. Putting up a wall between them, she had spurned his efforts at reconciliation, accusing him of betraying her trust.

The fourth rose was added to those already in her hoof as her smile returned to her face. Appropriately, it had been at the celebration of Sugarberry and Vanguard’s wedding that she and Wigwam had mended their differences, both admitting that they had been equally responsible in letting things get out of hoof to the point that they had allowed their friendship to stagnate; but Chocolate Chip had known the truth, that it was her irrevocable anger that had come between them, and that Wigwam would have never left her to her own devices of his own choosing. She had made it impossible for him to approach her until Enrica had stepped in to force the issue. Closing her eyes, Chocolate Chip recalled just how satisfied she had been when Wigwam was once more her confidant, her anchor, her best friend.

Following their natural progression, her thoughts next brought a tear to her eye as she leaned to claim the fifth rose. With graduation approaching, she had been so caught up with her plans for her future that Wigwam’s proposal of marriage had been met with a stubborn disclaimer on her part that she had better things to do with her life than to settle down at the first opportunity presented to her and live out a dreary existence where she had already proven her worth. No, she would not marry, not with a bright future ahead of her with a prominent business in New Pony that could only lead to bigger and better opportunities to make her mark upon the world and prove to everyone– namely, her mother– that even a drab little filly with no great beauty could succeed if she tried hard enough. So caught up in this grab for success, she had spurned the love that Wigwam offered her.

And here she was in New Pony, single, successful, financially independent... and lonely. It was not because of a lack of friends: she had found an ideal companion in Xavier; Tarn was an intelligent and considerate workmate, Prime occasionally checked in on her, Ribbons n’ Lace included her in society’s embrace, Sassy and Blackcap had begun looking out for her since their return to the city, and Tilly had adopted her as a surrogate granddaughter. She was on easy speaking terms with a number of the other tenants in the apartment building and fostered some growing friendships with co-workers. Why, now, did it seem so empty?

Adding the last rose to her bouquet, Chocolate Chip was faced with a startling reality. The flowers singly had made a marching row of drudgery; but together they formed a beautiful bouquet that tantalized all the senses. It was a cataclysmic discovery: Her successful days in New Pony stretched out behind her and before her like an endless march of monotonous duties while her sometimes rocky, sometimes heavenly days in Dream Valley came together in a woven pattern of radiant petals and soothing fragrance that lifted her, sustained her, and enlivened her. She had traded paradise for mediocrity... and for what purpose? To appease her early years of insecurity? To prove to herself that she could stand alone? To show her mother that even a plain Jane could be worthwhile?

Chocolate Chip jumped up off the sofa to pace the room. Why hadn’t she accepted Wigwam’s proposal when he had renewed it in August when she had been home for Wishbone and Garnet’s wedding?

“Wigwam!” the mare groaned. “I’ve changed my mind! I want to come home! I want to marry you!”

* * *
“Fabia, I’ve got to talk to you.”

“You’re not having a problem with the Sutter account, are you?” the business mare asked apprehensively. She had given her promise to her uncle, the company president, that there would be no glitches in meeting the deadline. Yet, Chocolate Chip did not seem harassed. Come to think of it, she appeared absolutely glowing.

“This doesn’t involve Sutter. It involves...” the young mare blushed a deeper brown, “a decision I’ve made.”

“You don’t make decisions,” Fabia reminded her underling. “You suggest ideas.”

“This is something that affects me personally as well as the company,” Chocolate Chip hurried to say. “I’ve decided to resign my position here.”

Fabia’s eyes widened in shock. “You can’t mean that. What will I do...”

“I’ll stay long enough to finish the Sutter project; you don’t have to worry about that,” assured Chocolate Chip. “But once that’s out of the way, I’m going back to Dream Valley.”

“Who could have offered you a better position than you have here? Dream Valley has no companies that compare to Worth Hydroshed Firkins.”

“From a business point-of-view, you’re right, of course. But from a personal stand-point, I feel compelled to return to my... home.” So what if she did not have a home of her own; Sugarberry had said she would always be welcome, and had not Vanguard urged her to keep the key to the house, just in case?

The wheels were turning in Fabia’s head as she considered the effect of Chocolate Chip’s defection. She had found the mare to be a biddable and efficient consultant who had succeeded in greatly improving her– Fabia’s– standing with Uncle Wilfred; so much so, in fact, that he was now considering putting her in charge of the entire department. She was sure she could handle the added responsibility... if Chocolate Chip was there to back her up. Even Fabia realized that her acclaimed success was due more to the chocolate brown mare’s expertise than to her own knowledge of the business. But it was so important to her to prove herself with Uncle Wilfred; he had been hesitant in hiring her, doubting her ability, but she had held up her end of the bargain they had made and he now found her capable of added trust. She could not back down now.

“Chocolate Chip, has something upset you to cause you to want to leave the company? If there is, we can surely talk it over and set things right.”

“Nothing you can say will entice me to change my plans, Fabia; but since you ask, I have found it rather disconcerting to have my work turned in under your name.”

“Well, certainly you understand that, as your manager, I have to be in control of all the information submitted to the board.” Fabia’s eyes refused to meet Chocolate Chip’s.

“But you aren’t the one that sifts through the piles of data and performs the analysis. If the truth be told, I doubt that you have the education to do the mathematical end of the job– let alone the simulation required, especially with the complexity of a corporation like Sutter.”

Leaning forward over her desk, Fabia quickly defended herself. “You forget that I’m the one that takes your boring statistics and turns them into a viable presentation that will pass the scrutiny of the corporate heads. That’s where your recommendations either pass the test or fail.”

“Well, I promise you that I’ll do my best to see that Sutter passes. I definitely want to leave on a positive note.”

That remark brought Fabia back to the reason for this conversation. “But you don’t have to leave! Is it a raise you want? I can talk...”

“No, Fabia. It’s not about the jangles. I want a home and a husband and a family... things I thought I didn’t need when I accepted this job, but now seem eminently more valuable than climbing the ranks of corporate New Pony.” There was a certainty in her voice that could not be denied.

Fabia gulped. “But you’ll stay long enough to handle the Sutter account?” Her voice was pleading.

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Chocolate Chip grinned. “We’ll dazzle ‘em before I leave, Fabia. You can count on it!”

* * *
Never had Dream Valley looked so good to her!

Chocolate Chip had arrived at the airport unannounced, anxious to surprise Wigwam with her unexpected return. Now, as she walked to Sugarberry’s house, she could not contain the sappy grin that split her face. Behind her followed the delivery pony she had hired to cart her luggage; she hoped Sugarberry would not be in the middle of something when she walked in.

Once the brown mare had made up her mind to return to Dream Valley, she had worked like a demon possessed to fulfill her promise to Fabia and had completed the Sutter project on time. Fabia had become resigned to the mare’s imminent departure and had used the opportunity to screen replacements, looking for someone who could assume Chocolate Chip’s responsibilities without disrupting Fabia’s peace of mind.

When Chocolate Chip had finished her report and was ready to turn it over to Fabia, she made one final request of her manager. She asked if, just this once, Fabia would allow her to make the presentation to Sutter herself rather than turning her hard work over to Fabia for all the credit. At first, Fabia had refused to even consider the idea; but in the end, after much wheedling from both Chocolate Chip and Tarn, she had reluctantly given her consent.

Chocolate Chip experienced the thrill of having the corporate officers of Sutter listening to her every word as she laid out the results of her study and the proposals that would benefit both the company and the consumers. She had answered their questions clearly and concisely, backing up her conclusions with irrefutable evidence. Watching the ponies’ faces around the boardroom table, she had seen them turn from obvious skepticism to grudging admiration– and, finally, to open respect.

It had been icing on the cake when Wilfred Bates had stepped into her office amidst the farewells of her coworkers to draw her aside and offer her a managerial position and a raise in salary if she would only stay on. She had thanked him kindly, but had turned down the offer without one regret. She had proven something to herself– that she, plain little Chocolate Chip, had the intelligence and the poise to dazzle the cream of the corporate world. That was what she had set out to do. Now, she was ready to go home.

Home! What a lovely sounding word! When Sugarberry and Vanguard’s house came in sight, Chocolate Chip hurried her steps, leaving the cart driver behind. She ran up the sidewalk, nearly tripping on the risers, and scurried across the porch to knock on the door. After an impatient wait of all of three seconds, she pounded again, then attempted to turn the knob only to find that the door was locked. That meant that Sugarberry was gone for more than a quick run to the grocery store or to meet Tabby for ice cream at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe.

Frowning as the cart driver gained the porch steps, the mare suddenly remembered the key in her possession that Vanguard had refused to accept when she had left for New Pony. If you ever need a place for whatever reason, you still have a home here, he had said. Surely her acceptance of Wigwam’s proposal was reason enough. Unlocking the door, she directed the delivery pony to set her suitcases inside the door, then paid him and sent him on his way.

Taking a cursory inspection of the house, Chocolate Chip spied Fluff, the orange and white long-haired cat, watching her with some uncertainty from the back of the sofa. “Fluff,” she cooed softly, “surely you remember me? Do you still sleep at the foot of my bed?” The heavy cat looked at her with wide, round eyes, then slunk over the edge of the sofa and disappeared beneath it.

“Well, so much for a welcome home,” muttered the mare. She turned to go upstairs, nearly tripping on the other feline occupant of the house, Raptor. Long and lean as Fluff was round and plump, the dark short hair sat looking up at her with a contented expression on his face.

“You’re glad to see me back!” purred Chocolate Chip, patting the cat on his head. Raptor brushed against her legs happily. “No one’s home but you and Fluff, obviously... not even Licorice in Wishbone’s old room downstairs.” She scooped up the cat and carried him with her up to her old room and found it seemingly awaiting her return. She set Raptor on the bed, and eyed the furnishings with pleasure. Opening the drawers, she found that Sugarberry had left them empty as if fully expecting her to move back in.

“I suppose I should unpack my suitcases,” Chocolate Chip confided to the cat, “but I’m ever so anxious to see Wigwam’s face when he finds out that I’m ready to wear his ring.” She picked up the cat once more and twirled him around the room. “I’m going to rush over to the casino right now, Raptor. I can’t wait another minute.”

With that said, the mare dumped the feline unceremoniously back on the bed and hurried down the stairs and out the door toward Wigwam’s workplace.

* * *
It was a quiet day in Dream Valley, Chocolate Chip noted as she made her way from Sugarberry’s house to the outskirts of the town where the casino stood, now graced on one side by Native Dreams and on the other by the art center. She had not met any ponies out and about on this cold but clear day, which pleased her as she was not delayed but idle chatter. A notion to stop by Dreamcatcher’s shop to say hello was quickly discarded; rather, the chocolate brown mare scurried around to the back of the casino to make a quiet entrance. It was Wigwam she most wanted to see.

As she walked down the carpeted hallway, Chocolate Chip ran a hoof through her mane, grimacing as she realized that she should have taken the time to comb her hair and freshen up a bit. But, this way, Wigwam will know just how anxious I was to get here, she rationalized. Seeing the office door standing open, Chocolate Chip knew that Wigwam was at least in the building, if not seated behind his desk. She had almost gained the doorway when she heard a feminine giggle, and abruptly halted.

“I haven’t let you down yet, have I?” a musical voice asked.

Chocolate Chip immediately recognized the voice as Bittersweet’s and groaned inwardly; she did not want an audience for her and Wigwam’s reunion, especially not a mare Chocolate Chip did not quite trust. Chocolate Chip held back, hoping Bittersweet would soon leave.

“No, you certainly haven’t.”

The treasured sound of Wigwam’s voice caused a shiver to run through Chocolate Chip’s body, not only because of the masculine timber that made her heart flutter, but also because of the sensual softness with which he said the words. What could he and Bittersweet be discussing to bring out that emotional tone?

“So, my talents are justified?” Bittersweet asked coyly.

Wigwam chuckled, a rich, caressing sound. “This is not the time or the place to discuss your talents, Sweetie.”

Sweetie? Chocolate Chip nearly gasped to hear that sweet term of endearment; she had not been around the mocha unicorn enough to know that all her friends sooner or later lapsed into that abbreviated form of her name. Even if she had, Chocolate Chip was in no mood to listen to her stallion refer to any other mare with such cloying familiarity. She scowled as she listened further.

Wigwam continued. “What we’ve been discussing is of singular importance; I’ve got to be sure I’m making the right choice. This is for a lifetime, you know.”

“Wigwam! I’ve nothing but your best interests at heart,” countered the mare. “Trust me.” Chocolate Chip got the impression that the unicorn leaned over the desk as she spoke.

“You’ve certainly earned my trust these past months; I don’t know what I’ve had done without you.”

Chocolate Chip’s hoof flew to her heart as that organ seemed to constrict in shattering pain. Had she waited too long to confess her undying commitment to Wigwam, allowing Bittersweet to... to worm her way into his heart? But what of Teepee? Wigwam himself had told her that Bittersweet and Teepee were as good as engaged. But that was months ago... anything could have happened in the interim. Chocolate Chip leaned against the wall for support.

The grate of a desk drawer opening was the next sound from the office, and Wigwam’s voice, so soft and thoughtful she could barely hear it, saying, “I thought I’d give this ring into no one’s hooves but Chocolate Chip’s.” She heard his sigh and closed her eyes, remembering the simple gold band with the fiery diamond sending out flashes of light as he had offered it to her last Christmas Eve. If she had accepted the ring then, she and Wigwam would have been married by now; the stallion would have been safely out of the clutches of that... that... harpy. Chocolate Chip was ready to march into the office and... and...

But Wigwam’s next words stopped her cold.

“You’ve convinced me, Bittersweet, that I can entrust the ring to you.”

Putting her hoof to her mouth to stop herself from crying out, Chocolate Chip waited for the response of the mare.

Bittersweet almost squealed. “You won’t be sorry, Wigwam. I’ll make you proud... and you’ll be very satisfied.” Chocolate Chip did not have to be in the room to know that the two ponies were now enveloped in a warm hug.

“You realize that you hold my future in your hoof?” Wigwam was finally able to say.

Bittersweet giggled. “You’ve told me often enough.”

“Only because it’s true. You’ve made me see things differently; my giving you this ring is a sign of that.”

“You’ve made me very happy,” Bittersweet sighed on a soft and silky voice. “Shall we seal our agreement now?”

Hearing a low chuckle from Wigwam, Chocolate Chip could take no more; she turned and ran, all of her hopes and dreams crashing down around her. How could fate be so cruel as to time her return at the moment when Wigwam decided to change his alliance from her to Bittersweet?

In the agony of the moment, Chocolate Chip could not consider the fact that she was the one who had turned down Wigwam’s proposal and informed him that she wanted more out of life than marriage.

All she knew in this instant was that the one pony in the universe who could make her happy had just cut her off with barely a backward glance. How could he! And she... she had cut her ties with New Pony slick and clean. What was she going to tell Sugarberry?

What was she going to tell anyone?

How could she admit that she had been so stupid and starry-eyed as to give up a lucrative and demanding job in New Pony to return home to nothing but an air dream? She would never be able to show her face in Dream Valley again.

The thought struck her that she could still rush to Sugarberry’s and possibly retrieve her luggage and... and what? Where could she go to hide her shame? Home to her mother? That would be an open admission that her mother had been right all these years... that plain and simple Chocolate Chip would always be an outcast and a failure. Oh! She simply could not bear this!

Feeling like a lost puppy who had finally found its way home only to find a new pet ensconced in its place, Chocolate Chip wandered down a deserted street. She was heartbroken and furious all at the same time. Unable to discern an answer to her current dilemma, Chocolate Chip wished she could disappear from the face of the earth.

* * *
Back at the casino, Wigwam put his signature on the check he had just written and turned it over to Bittersweet’s waiting hoof. “There. That will cover having the ring redesigned as you suggested?”

“Definitely,” Bittersweet grinned as she saw the amount. “And I promise that the Native Pony design we settled on will please Chocolate Chip much more than this tasteful but boring thing you originally chose for her. Manipi is a true artist when it comes to jewelry; you’ll be impressed.”

“The main thing is that Chocolate Chip will be impressed the next time I offer it to her. And tell this Manipi not to dawdle; I plan to take it to New Pony with me as soon as it’s back in my hooves.”

“And you’re so sure she’ll say yes this time?”

“I feel it in my bones, Bittersweet. The time is now.”

* * *
Once Bittersweet left his office, Wigwam was able to settle down to some serious work and was progressing rather well when the telephone rang. He picked up on the third ring and was greeted by Sugarberry’s cheerful voice.

“Do you have my girl there with you?” she asked.

“Sugarberry,” Wigwam frowned, “you have a little boy... and, no, he’s not here.” Suddenly remembering the Vulcanopolis kidnaping, he rushed to ask, “You didn’t lose him again, did you?”

A giggle came over the line. “I’m talking about Chocolate Chip.”

“Chocolate Chip? You know as well as I do that she’s in New Pony... not that she isn’t in my thoughts constantly. You haven’t been doing some of that fancy holiday baking with brandy, have you, Sugarberry?”

Another giggle almost confirmed Wigwam’s suspicions, but the next words from Sugarberry caused the stallion to jump out of his chair.

“Well, for your information, all Chocolate Chip’s worldly possessions are stacked in my entry hall, so I assumed...”

“She’s in town?” the stallion raved.

“Why else would her luggage be here?” countered Sugarberry. “Vanguard and I just got home; we had taken Banderol in for his one year check-up and then went out to eat, but when we walked in the front door, there was every piece of luggage that Chocolate Chip ever owned, plus a few new pieces. It looks like she’s here to stay, Wigwam.”

“But she’s not at the house? Do you think she’s on her way to see me?”

“If I were in her shoes, that’s where I’d be headed.” Sugarberry winked at Vanguard.

“Oh! What rotten timing!” Wigwam growled.

Sugarberry’s voice sobered. “And just what’s that supposed to mean?”

“I just gave her engagement ring to Bittersweet to have it recreated into a Native Pony setting, but I’m bound and determined to propose to that girl... again... the moment I see her– and I won’t take no for an answer this time.”

Relieved with that answer, Sugarberry resumed her happy grin. “Oh, that I could be there to see this reunion!”

“This is my moment, Sugarberry. But I’ll tell you all about it later.”

“I wish you happy, my friend.”

* * *
“Where is she?” Wigwam asked for the umpteenth time as he paced Sugarberry’s living room, stopping at each pass in front of the window to check the street for some sign of the chocolate brown pony. He had given up his futile watch at the casino when the mare had not shown up in an acceptable amount of time. She had not contacted Garnet or Wishbone, both of whom were now sitting on the couch watching his harried anxiety build to the bursting point.

A call placed to the apartment manager in New Pony had revealed that Chocolate Chip had quit her job and left Dream Valley as a forwarding address. The manager assured Sugarberry that Chocolate Chip was in a very upbeat mood when she left. “She said she was going home,” he had added in a helpful manner.

That information was comforting as far as it went, but it did not explain where Chocolate Chip was now. “Her luggage is here, so this doesn’t make sense,” Vanguard puzzled out loud, “but what if by going home she meant back to Neighberry?”

So a call was quickly placed by Wishbone to his parents’ house in that town; the young stallion asked as discreetly as possible so as not to alarm his parents if they had seen Chocolate Chip recently, but the answer was in the negative.

On the phone with Fern, Sugarberry received yet again the disappointing news that, no, Chocolate Chip had not contacted her in any way. The same answer was received from Lemon Treats, Dreamcatcher, Tabby, Petal, and any other friend or acquaintance that the worried pony could think to call. Wigwam’s request to Chief Tawny to ask that he and his department keep a lookout for the lost mare had not provided any leads either.

With all the apparent possibilities in Dream Valley exhausted, Sugarberry looked to her companions for advice, only to be interrupted by Licorice and Snapper’s entrance into the house; the two young stallions had been combing the mall and the campus for any sight of the chocolate brown mare.

“There’s no sign of her,” Licorice reported. “No one we talked to has even seen a pony matching her description.”

Pounding his hoof into the nearest end table, Wigwam thundered, “Then where the devil is she?!” He turned to Sugarberry as if she could answer his question.

“She must have arrived here safely,” Sugarberry retraced the facts. “She accessed the house as her luggage proves. If she quit her job, she must have come back willingly and with definite plans about her future. And she was happy, according to her apartment manager, so...”

“But what if she was just putting on a show?” interrupted Wigwam. “What if she had gotten into some kind of trouble or hadn’t left her job willingly? Maybe something went wrong in New Pony and she was bummed out by it... so bummed out, in fact, that she couldn’t face any of us just yet. Where would you go, Sugarberry, if you needed time to think seriously about a big problem?”

Sugarberry answered immediately. “To church.”

“It’s worth a try,” said the stallion; and before anyone else could say a word, he was out the door.

* * *
The streetlights pooled their illumination along his path as Wigwam sped to the spired edifice in the center of town, all his hopes resting on the possibility that Chocolate Chip would be in its safe refuge. At his approach, he caught sight of a pony coming out the side door; and even in the dark he could tell that whoever it was, the pony was not pastel. His hopes flared, but quickly were doused as he came face-to-face with the ebony Fr. Isaac. Not pastel, but not the chocolate brown mare he had expected to find.

“Fr. Isaac, I was wondering...”

“You’re looking for Chocolate Chip, I imagine. She’s inside.”

“You don’t know how grateful I am to hear you say that, Father,” Wigwam said, moving to go past the priest. But Fr. Isaac’s hoof came out to stall him.

“She’s very depressed,” Fr. Isaac informed him. “You haven’t said or done something to put her in this dark mood, have you?”

“I would never hurt Chocolate Chip in any manner,” the stallion responded. Then, as if needing to verify his statement, he added, “And as I haven’t seen her yet since she arrived back in Dream Valley, how could I be responsible?”

“Well, she won’t confide in me,” Fr. Isaac admitted. “She says she wants to be alone. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best thing for her right now.”

“I’ll talk to her,” Wigwam said, anxious to do just that.

Fr. Isaac studied his face for a moment longer before he released his hold on the stallion. “All right. You go to her. But tread carefully.”

* * *
Slipping quietly into the church, Wigwam stood a moment to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the dim and flickering candlelight. There, sitting in the shadows in the farthest corner, was the mare he loved. Her face was hidden in the darkness; but as he softly walked closer, he caught sight of the tears staining her cheeks and his heart wrenched.

Lowering himself onto the bench next to the despondent mare, he settled a hoof on her foreleg, causing her to recoil at the unexpected touch. She slid down the pew, putting several feet between them, as if his light contact had hurt her. She said nothing, but a slight moan seemed to escape unbidden.

Wigwam was dismayed at the hopelessness and sorrow he read in her eyes. “My darling, what lowlife scum in New Pony has made you so unhappy?”

The bleak expression of the mare turned quickly to one of anger. Her eyes flashing, she retorted, “It’s a lowlife scum much closer to home.”

“Someone in Dream Valley has offended you since you got back?” asked a confused Wigwam.

“You could say that.”

“Who was it? I’ll have his hide!”

“That’s going to be awfully painful for you; I don’t think you’re up to it.”

That remark only succeeded in puzzling the stallion further. “What are you getting at?”

“Just go away!”

“I will not go away, Chocolate Chip. I’m in earnest when I say that I’ll not let you turn my attentions away from you again. Whatever is bothering you must be serious to have put you in such a mix of temper and depression. Don’t you understand that I’m here to help you, that I always want to be the one you turn to no matter what happens?” He brushed his hoof through his mane in an agitated manner. “I just wish I had that blasted ring!”

The mare’s look of total disgust turned Wigwam to ice; her words then fractured him. “It was only several hours ago that you gave the ring to Bittersweet; your feelings have changed so dramatically since then?”

“How did you know about the ring?”

“I was there when you gave it to her; I heard everything.”

“So you know why I don’t have it, and you don’t approve?”

Chocolate Chip responded with a laugh, a rather high-pitched sound that held no mirth. “Your proposal is your decision; I obviously didn’t figure into your plans this afternoon.”

“But Bittersweet thought you’d treasure a Native Pony ring; she said that a pony as unique as you should have a one-of–kind ring designed with you in mind. She convinced me that she was right. She’s been right about a lot of things, you know– Native Dreams is proving very lucrative, for one thing. But that’s beside the point. You’re the only mare for me, so the ring should be matchless as well.”

Staring in complete incomprehension, Chocolate Chip tried to decipher the meaning of the words she had just heard. “Wh... what are you talking about?” she choked.

Seeing that the anger in the mare’s eyes had diminished– even if it was now replaced by a look of total perplexity– Wigwam allowed himself a smile. “The ring. Bittersweet’s suggestion was to take the diamond out of the modern band and work it into a traditional Native Pony setting.”

“For whom?”

Wigwam now looked at Chocolate Chip as if she had sprouted horns. “For you. Who else?”

An endearing blush spread across Chocolate Chip’s brown face, deepening the rich chocolate color. “You weren’t... proposing... to Bittersweet?” she whispered.

Dazed, Wigwam asked, “Propose to Bittersweet? What, do you think I’m crazy?”

“You... you entrusted the ring to her... and your future. You liked her talents and... and... the ring was a sign of all that.”

“Good grief, girl! That’ll teach you not to listen at doorways.” He grinned in apparent relief and took her hooves in his. “Bittersweet is an excellent business associate, but did you honestly think I was planning to marry that mare?”

“It sounded like it to me,” Chocolate Chip sniffed.

“I was afraid of this,” Wigwam said soberly while shaking his head. “New Pony’s radical ways overcame your common sense. But for all that, I’m sure that once you’re settled in at Sugarberry’s again, you’ll regain your true sensibilities once more.”

“Have you really waited for me to find my way back to you?” Chocolate Chip asked even though she could already see the answer to that absurd question in the stallion’s eyes. It suddenly seemed very important to have her hopes verified.

“I have... and would have continued to do so for as long as it took, although those roses were really starting to deplete my bank account.” The mare rolled her eyes as Wigwam continued. “I was even beginning to see the two of us as our generation’s Miss Hackney and sweetheart.”

“You are very patient.”

“Up to a point,” Wigwam admitted. “With you back in Dream Valley, I’m afraid I may want to see things move a little faster. Will you marry me, Chocolate Chip?”

Chocolate Chip spared a glance for the red flame in the sanctuary. “With God as my witness, yes, Wigwam, I’ll marry you.”

“And soon?” To Wigwam, it seemed as if the future of the entire galaxy was riding on her answer.

She smiled. “At the first possible date.”

The answering smile that crossed Wigwam’s face caused Chocolate Chip’s heart to skip a beat or two. Wigwam held out a hoof to her as he stood. “Let’s light a candle. I’m feeling very thankful right now that life can be this good.” He stared at her so intensely and with such warmth that Chocolate Chip felt like she was melting like a wax taper herself. “Welcome home, Chocolate Chip.”

“I’m back where I belong,” beamed the mare, more sure of herself in this moment than she had ever been.

* * *
When the two ponies emerged from the church, they nearly collided with Fr. Isaac. “Is everything okay?” He looked searchingly at Chocolate Chip.

“Yes, Father. Everything’s fine. I’d jumped to some wrong conclusions, but I’ve been set straight.” The glow on her face broadcast her present contentment.

“And I’m taking her home,” Wigwam allowed. Then, seeing the scowl that Fr. Isaac fastened on him, the stallion added, “To Sugarberry’s house, of course. And maybe you would be so kind as to call Sugarberry so that she doesn’t worry any longer than necessary?” Wigwam knew that his return trip across town was going to be conducted at a much slower pace than his frantic run over here.

“Yes. Yes, I’ll do that,” Fr. Isaac assured the couple.

Wigwam and Chocolate Chip began moving away when Wigwam suddenly stopped and turned back. “And, Father, check your calendar. Chocolate Chip and I want the first Saturday available to pledge our wedding vows.”

“We’ll talk soon,” Fr. Isaac promised before disappearing into the night.

“Soon,” Wigwam whispered to his betrothed as he pulled her close and kissed her soundly.
Silent are the Bells
by Sugarberry (

The Ring
Chapter 13 of 28

The morning following their engagement found Brietta in her office early with Dorian following not far behind; the first thing he did was to ask her if she had any doubts about last night’s decision now in the revealing light of day.

“Not a single doubt,” she smiled, “but many, many hopes.”

They were seated on the window seat in close proximity when Colly arrived at work; peeking into Brietta’s office, she was well aware that the two ponies were not involved with a business discussion, yet she asked with a dark and glowering look on her face if the two had spent the night poring over a difficult case as it was unusual to see them at work quite this early in the day.

Dorian met this utterance with a bland smile. “Why, of course we didn’t work all night; Brietta had a dinner engagement with Keri and Bram, I believe, and,” turning to Brietta, “didn’t you say, my love, something about Keri’s brother as well?” He focused on Colly once more. “Have you ever met Trey, Colly?”

A slight flush crept up Colly’s cheeks, but she only flung her hair with an impatient gesture. “Briefly.”

“That was more than sufficient, I’m sure,” Dorian replied sardonically. “But enough of Trey. You might be interested to know that Brietta and I are engaged as of last evening; better to hear of it first-hoof than through the grapevine. You will dance at our wedding?”

This last query was delivered with an ingratiating smile that Colly found revolting. She turned a glare upon Brietta and said rather mechanically. “Congratulations.” Then she turned and left, the sound of her hoofsteps beating an indignant message of contempt.

Dorian grinned at Brietta. “That went well.”

“You are insufferable!” Brietta giggled. “Colly will undoubtedly make our lives here quite miserable after that putdown.”

“She wouldn’t dare; she knows that Aiden and Conrad wouldn’t condone such actions on her part where you are concerned; she and Keri put you in terrible danger last night with their ploy to put you in Trey’s way. And, for myself, I’d suffer anything just to know that you’re willing to be my wife.”

The two were shortly joined by Aiden who tartly reminded them that they would be expected to maintain a professional demeanor during business hours regardless of their personal satisfaction over current events, then favored them with such a warm smile that it negated any tangible compliance his little warning had evoked from them.

Arriving at the outer office in good time himself, Sloan was met with a look from Colly that forewarned the stallion that this day was not going to run any more smoothly than the last several days had gone for him; he had been thwarted at his every attempt to come to terms with Brietta after that fateful dance on Saturday night and was therefore in no mood to hear Colly’s announcement that she delivered with cold directness.

“Dorian and Brietta have decided to get married,” she told Sloan, watching for his reaction which she knew would be fierce; and she was rewarded to see a look of such deep consternation cross his face that she felt somewhat liberated from her own downcast sensibilities concerning the matter of the newly announced engagement.

Sloan almost immediately shrouded his own feelings and asked in a controlled voice, “Where did you hear this piece of information?”

“From the two of them,” Colly justified, nodding toward Brietta’s office. “They’re both...”

Sloan, however, did not wait to hear what the receptionist had to expound on the matter; he was already striding down the hall to Brietta’s office, his mouth set in a hard line and his eyes cold and dark. He walked in on the trio of ponies who, by their gaiety, were not discussing legal matters; the words that were on the tip of Sloan’s tongue were swallowed when he noted Aiden’s presence, and he forced his features into the semblance of a stallion in control of his emotions.

“So what has evoked this party atmosphere?” he asked, his gaze falling on Brietta’s radiant face.

Dorian came forward and clasped his friend’s shoulder. “It’s great news, Sloan; Brietta has consented to be my wife.”

For a brief moment, the words were met with complete silence as Dorian, Brietta, and Aiden waited for Sloan’s reaction; it was obvious that it took an intense measure of control for the stallion to finally force a weak smile and respond. “Congratulations. I would wish you happy, but I can see that you’re both quite pleased already.”

“Never happier,” Dorian grinned, then looked to Brietta for her admission.

The mare had experienced one heart-wrenching moment when she had recognized the look on Sloan’s face when Dorian had broken the news to him as a look that she remembered from their earlier years that meant that he had received a severe disappointment; but she did not dwell on it. If he was disappointed, it was due to his own decision to cast her aside and not her problem in the least. She, therefore, met his brooding gaze now with a sparkling smile. “‘Throned on highest bliss,’” she said, “to quote Milton.”

Conrad broke into the gathering at that time. “I’ve been waiting in the conference room for the last ten minutes; I wasn’t aware that today was a holiday.”

Sloan took advantage of this summons to slip out of the room; Aiden only chuckled. “This is an important time for these two.” But he followed his domineering parent out of the room, sending a silent yet succinct message to Dorian and Brietta that they, too, best come down from the clouds and face the reality of life.

* * *
“When is this wedding going to take place?” Lena asked as the family plus Dorian came together for dinner that evening at Whitehall Place.

“The sooner, the better,” Dorian supplied, with a wink at his bride-to-be.

Lena disregarded the stallion and turned to Brietta. “Have the two of you talked of a date yet?”

“We’ve discussed it briefly; but as it appeared that it would be the first bone of contention between us, we decided to stay away from that decision until we’ve had some input from others.”

“June weddings are always very lovely,” Lena offered hopefully.

“This is July!” exclaimed Dorian. “That would be nearly a whole year... way too far in the future. “How about this September?”

“There wouldn’t be enough time to get everything done by then!” gasped Lena, looking to her daughter for help.

Brietta simply shrugged and smiled. “Now you know what I mean.”

“There are a lot of serious decisions for the two of you to make which you can’t do on the spur of the moment,” advised Aiden. “You’ll need to have a home, for one thing.”

“My apartment will do just fine if we don’t find something better in the meantime,” Dorian said. “What more do we need?”

Lena frowned at the stallion. “I don’t want to see my daughter jump into some hasty decisions, making drastic changes in her life that she could regret later.”

Somewhat grudgingly, Dorian conceded. “How about October, then?”

Lena rolled her eyes. “You’re very generous, Dorian; an entire extra month!”

“Exceedingly generous.”

Lena threw up her hooves in mock exasperation. “How do you feel about this, Brietta?”

“I’ve always thought the springtime was the prettiest time for a wedding; but now that I’m faced with the actuality of it, I’m sure a fall wedding would be just as lovely.”

“And remember, Lena, that I have no family to speak of, so your guest list will be a breeze!”

Lena was not yet won over. “You’ll never find a house in that length of time, and there’s no sense in settling into an apartment for a short time and then moving again.”

“Dorian has already pointed out that if we don’t find what we’re looking for before the wedding, he will keep his apartment; it’s a very nice one, you know, when it’s straightened up.”

“But, dear, you just said the other day that it’s so refreshing to be back in this big old house; you aren’t going to be happy in an apartment.”

Clearing his throat, Conrad got into the conversation. “Any Manning should be proud to retain Whitehall Place as his home, and Brietta is no exception. I’ve often thought that the size of this place is unwarranted for the number of ponies living here; but now that the family is branching out, we could put the empty rooms to good use.”

“No, that would...” began Dorian, but Conrad waved a hoof to silence him.

“This place was built with a large family in mind, and several generations of ponies managed to co-exist quite well. I don’t take up that much space in these capacious rooms, nor do Aiden and Lena. And as for you, Brietta, you’ve always been crazy about that third floor where you insist on having your room amidst the silent emptiness of unoccupied space. It could be easily transformed into rooms for you and Dorian.” He fell silent, awaiting his listeners’ response.

Brietta had clapped her hoof over Dorian’s nearest to her, and stared at Conrad with eyes that revealed an inner excitement. “Do you mean that, Grandfather? You would let us share Whitehall Place?”

“It was my suggestion, wasn’t it?” he responded, raising an eyebrow. “This is Whitehall Place, and you have a right to it.”

“But I don’t,” Dorian said testily. “I’d like to provide my wife with a home of our own.”

“Her marriage to you is precipitating this arrangement, so you are providing it,” reasoned Lena, too enthralled by the idea of Brietta’s life remaining tied to Whitehall Place to let the notion get scrapped simply because Dorian was too proud to let his wife provide the home. “Besides,” she added with a certain amount of pique, “you were perfectly willing for Brietta to accept your apartment; there’s nothing wrong with you accepting her home.”

“I myself think the idea is a good one,” Aiden propounded, “but I feel it’s necessary to mention that what my father refers to as ‘easy’ in connection with the work involved to turn the third floor rooms into a separate apartment of sorts will take some serious planning which in turn will involve a fair amount of time. Most of the construction firms in the area are already swamped with work.”

“Not to mention that it would destroy the integrity of this place,” Dorian maintained, looking not at all pleased with the planning going on around him. “Brie has told me herself that changes around here wouldn’t be looked upon favorably.”

“We wouldn’t be changing anything really,” argued Conrad. “We’d just be putting some of those rooms to new uses. Niles would know how to handle it.”

“When we’re done eating, we’ll have to go upstairs and look over the possibilities,” Brietta suggested. “Dorian has never seen the area, so he’s in no position at this time to make a decision on it.”

“Excellent idea!” Lena agreed, standing immediately. “Anna, hold the coffee and dessert until we’ve returned.”

“I’m being railroaded into this, you realize,” Dorian whispered to Brietta as they, too, left the table. “Four against one, six if you include Clarence and Anna.”

Brietta patted his hoof in false compassion. “Learn to live with it,” she smirked. “You’re the one who asked a Manning to marry you.”

“I’m not taking the Manning name; you’re taking mine,” imparted the stallion.

“A mere detail,” winked Brietta, taking his hoof to hurry his pace to the stairs.

They passed the second floor where the family bedrooms were banked to the left while a number of guest rooms all standing at the ready strung to the right. The next flight of steps took them to Brietta’s level of the mansion, where the rooms, other than her own, were clean and neat but relatively empty except for the barest necessities to give them the impression of not being completely forsaken.

Brietta and Dorian stopped at the head of the stairs where Conrad, Aiden, and Lena were waiting. “This is Brietta’s room; it will give you some idea of what the other rooms can be made to look like with the proper furniture and window treatments,” said Lena, acting as tour guide.

“It’s nearly as big as my whole apartment!” Dorian commented in some surprise.

“And that’s just the beginning,” Lena voiced, taking advantage of what she saw as Dorian’s yielding ground. “The other rooms are of the same size and would accommodate anything you’ll need; you can be completely independent or you can make use of the downstairs rooms as your right.” She opened the door into the chamber next to Brietta’s room. “This would be a perfect nursery,” she advised, casting a maternal smile on the newly engaged couple.

Dorian trod into the room and crossed to one of the windows. “Nice view,” he said as Brietta came to join him.

“It’s always been a comfort to look out over the sweep of lawn from this vantage point,” agreed Brietta.

“This has been the only home you’ve ever known,” Dorian looked at her closely.

“And my father and my grandfather before me... and so on. Does that bother you?”

“I just can’t imagine what it’s like to have such deep roots; I’ve free-floated all my life.”

“You’ll be a part of this.”

“And what of these foals your mother is already filling the house with? Will they be root-bound or wanderers?”

“Some of each, I would imagine.”

Conrad appeared in the doorway. “Your mother wants you in the next room, Brietta.”

“And what are her plans for that one?” Brietta grinned at her grandfather.

“I’ll let her fill you in on that.”

On one pass through the hallway that fed the rooms, Dorian made the comment that even that space would make a functional sitting room. He surveyed the area, his attention settling on a smaller than average door that appeared to access a lesser room at the front of the house. He looked puzzled for a moment, then realization hit. “That door would take one to the bell tower, I suppose.” He reached out and attempted to open it, but found it locked.

“The bells are off limits,” Conrad said brusquely. “There’s no need for anyone to go up there.”

“I presume it wouldn’t be safe, either, with foals in the house,” pondered Dorian, although his interest in the door and what lay beyond it was apparent.

“Grandfather, it would mean a lot to me if the bells could ring for Dorian’s and my wed...”

She was not allowed to finish her sentence. “You know what my wishes are on this subject, Brietta. Not another word.” He looked at her sternly, the mien of his eyes warning her to go no further.

“Yes, Grandfather,” she murmured just as she had finally capitulated in her youth.

The entourage continued the appraisal of the rooms, and it was some time before the ponies returned to the dining room where Anna was hovering impatiently. She eyed Brietta with a questioning look, but Brietta could only shrug her shoulders. Dorian had been impressed by the size and potential of the third-floor rooms, but he had not stated definitely if he would go along with the plans that were swelling in Lena’s mind.

As they sat with their freshly baked cake and rejuvenating ice cream, Brietta and Lena discussed decorating options, although Brietta’s participation was brief and disjointed, her attention fixed on Dorian who seemed to be turning something over in his mind. Lena did not seem to notice the lack of enthusiasm as she was so caught up in what to her was the perfect solution of a home for the newlyweds. Aiden and Conrad were in a corner discussing, from the bits and pieces that Brietta overheard, the more mundane details such as cost and feasibility. The mare was relieved when a phone call came through for her mother, and Conrad and Aiden retired to the den to do some reading before bedtime.

Brietta slipped her hoof into Dorian’s. “Let’s go out on the patio and talk,” she suggested, pained to see the uncertainty that haunted Dorian’s eyes. The stallion followed her without a word and seemed to be in no mood to talk once they were outside; he walked to the edge of the stonework and stared into the now obscure night.

Having never experienced this behavior from Dorian, Brietta was unsure how to proceed. She stood silently, watching him from the corner of her eye while seemingly admiring the floral display that Clarence and her mother so diligently cared for. When she could stand the quiet no longer, she set a hoof on Dorian’s shoulder. “Come. Let’s go down by the pond.”

The stallion remained mute, but he set off with her across the lawn and onward to the spit of land that reached out into the small lake. There was no moon, but the stars were twinkling overhead; and Brietta found that she could see quite well once her eyes had adjusted to the absence of the lights that enfolded the patio. The sounds of the night life reverberated around them as they stood, side-by-side but not touching, both of them unsure of where to begin.

Dorian finally broke his silence. “This idea really means a lot to you.”

“It opened up a possibility that I’d never considered before.”

“You never fantasized about bringing Sloan into your family home like this?” His voice was sharp and tinged with anger; he did not bother to face the mare.

“So that’s what this is about.” Brietta turned and walked several paces away from the stallion, trying to sort out her thoughts over this unexpected attack. When she had given her yes to Dorian’s proposal, she had assumed that a door had closed on the part of her life that had revolved around Sloan; she had not considered that Dorian would find it difficult to consider that door locked.

She turned to face the stallion, but he was still staring off into the shimmering void of water. “I can’t wipe out the past; there are memories of Sloan and me affixed to every particle of Whitehall Place and the town itself. You have to trust me when I say that you are the one I’m willing to share the rest of my life with; we’ll make our own memories.”

He swung around now, ready to meet her, an agony of emotion that she caught on his face quickly suppressed. “It hit me tonight at the dinner table when the talk came around to a home for us that I have no practical experience to fall back on; your family is so close and loving that none of you can understand the isolation I felt as a foal... have always felt.”

“Your parents weren’t there for you, but you’re being assimilated into our family now.”

“Yes, and I feel smothered! I’m sorry, Brie, but I’m used to my own counsel– my own alone– on any decisions that need to be made that affect my life; and I feel as if I’m being pushed into things that I have no control over with all this talk about revamping the third floor rooms of Whitehall Place.”

“It’s only an option; we didn’t mean to rush you into anything.”

“You, however, seem to find no fault with the plans.”

“After being away for those years of my education, I was delighted to come back home to Whitehall Place. I guess I haven’t yet adjusted to the idea of leaving it again so soon.”

“So, you see, the choice comes down to no choice, because I can’t take you away from here.”

“You think my love depends on this setting? If you ask it of me, I will leave everything– the house, the town, the country!– all of it. Let me know what you think is best.”

“If I’m the reason for you losing Whitehall Place, you’ll soon despise me.”

“My love for you is not contingent on any other factor, Dorian. I could lose the house to wind or fire at any time and would have to accept it; you, however, I never want to lose.”

Dorian was finally able to smile, and he reached out to draw Brietta close to him. “You’re going to have to teach me how to handle this family stuff.”

“I remember how well you accommodated those colts not so very long ago; I think you’ll do just fine.”

With a snicker, Dorian grinned, “Your mother expects a houseful of foals, I gather.”

“And why not? Can you imagine how they’ll enliven our home, no matter where we decide it should be?”

“And pretty little things, the fillies,” he reflected, tracing the outline of Brietta’s face with his hoof.

“I would expect the colts to be as handsome as their father,” Brietta replied, her eyes soft and shimmery under the starlight.

“This family stuff... I’m beginning to like the sound of it,” Dorian confided, his lips meeting Brietta’s in a soft caress.

“Good,” said Brietta with a smile, “because Mother and Father and Grandfather are probably wondering where we’ve disappeared to by now; we’d better rejoin them.”

“In a minute,” Dorian whispered, finding her lips again.

It was well over that allotted time before the two ponies slowly retraced their steps to Whitehall Place.

* * *
“It’s been a rough week,” Dorian sighed as another Friday’s appointments came to a close. He threw a folder on Brietta’s desk and plopped down in a chair. “I’m sick of being cooped-up in the office day in and day out.”

“You and Sloan are taking a fishing trip this weekend, aren’t you?” Brietta reminded the stallion as she fussed with the paperwork still on her desk. She frowned. “What did I do with the notes from the meeting concerning the Silvia trial?”

“Is this what you’re looking for?” grinned Dorian, picking up a file balanced against several books stacked at the back edge of the desk.

“Yes!” clipped Brietta, tossing her mane back. “This has been a rough week.” She opened a drawer in the desk and swept all the papers into it and banged the drawer shut again.

Dorian laughed. “Are you sorry now that Conrad didn’t keep you under his supervision longer? You wouldn’t be so swamped with work.”

“I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ll worry about some of the problems all weekend and not have a moment’s rest.”

“Maybe I could come out to the house later, and we could walk around the lake to wear off some of this stress.”

Flashing him an appreciative smile, Brietta responded, “I’d like that.”

“Good,” Dorian said, standing to make his departure. “What time?”

“You might as well come for supper,” Brietta mused. “Are you free?”

“I’m at your beck and call.”

“As you should be. I’ll call Anna and tell her to set an extra place.”

* * *
After a leisurely meal of spaghetti, bread sticks, and salad followed by one of Anna’s decadent chocolate desserts, Brietta and Lena took Dorian through the third-story rooms that were in the process of being refurbished and incorporated into a private suite of rooms for Brietta and Dorian once their vows had been exchanged at the late October wedding that had been scheduled and was now being busily planned for. Lena nodded her approval over the sedate yet elegant wall covering that now graced the future dining room above the richly stained wainscoting. “Roger’s decorating scheme is shaping up quite nicely.”

“One thing puzzles me about the kitchen, though,” Dorian worried, looking through the doorway that joined the dining room to the future kitchen which at the present time was a vacant expanse of potential culinary finery.

“What’s that?” asked Brietta, coming to stand beside him.

“Who’s going to use it?”

“We are, of course,” Brietta assured the stallion as she stepped into the space, imagining the arrangement of the appliances and informal eating area.

“That’s an interesting idea, but I’ve never developed any cooking skills myself nor have I seen any proof of my lovely fiancee’s ability in that area.”

Lena came quickly to Brietta’s defense. “Brietta is a wonderful cook,” she assured Dorian. “Anna always took time to teach Brietta how to get along in a kitchen; she has a natural flair for it.”

Dorian arched a brow doubtfully. “If that’s the case, why haven’t I seen any evidence of it?”

“Because we have Anna,” Brietta reminded him. “She is rather possessive of her kitchen.”

“Yet she taught you to cook?”

“Teaching is one thing; turning over her domain is another.”

“Yes; but, Lena, you cook when Anna has her day off.”

“I muddle through one day a week,” admitted Lena. “But I’ve learned to put all the pans and utensils back exactly as I found them.”

“I’ll have Dorian to take care of that for me,” Brietta giggled. “I’ll do the cooking and he can be in charge of cleaning up.”

“If I have the strength for it after your meals,” teased Dorian, still unable to envision Brietta at home in a kitchen.

“You doubt my ability, don’t you?” inquired Brietta, coming to face the stallion.

“In a word, yes.”

“How about a home-cooked meal on Monday evening, then, prepared by me,” she railed.

“It’s a date,” Dorian grinned. “I’ll bring the flowers.” Then a new thought occurred to him. “Fish! I can provide the fish.”

“Assuming you and Sloan catch any.”

“Ah ha! Now you’re doubting my abilities!”

“Well, there are no guarantees.”

“If we come home empty-hoofed, I’ll pick some up at the store.”

“I’ve never cooked fish,” admitted Brietta.

“But a good cook should be able to handle anything,” dared Dorian.

“How hard can it be?” shrugged Brietta, mentally deciding to spend part of her weekend under Anna’s tutelage in all things concerning fish preparation.

“No harder than catching them.”

“And if you do get some, it wouldn’t be fair to leave Sloan out of the dinner,” reasoned Brietta.

“We’ll have enough for each of us to share.”

“Maybe so, but that’s beside the point. I heard him say that Finella is out of town for a number of days.”

“You want Sloan to come that badly?” Dorian raised a questioning eyebrow.

“He’s your fishing partner and your best friend,” wheedled Brietta; and seeing that Dorian was weakening, added, “not to mention that he’s going to be in our wedding party.”

“Has he tasted your cooking before?”

“Of course!”

“Well, I’ll ask him then and see what his reaction is. If he hesitates because of the caliber of your talents, I might consider cancelling myself.”

“Oh, you of little faith!”

Lena shook her head. “You two are worse than having foals in the house.”

“Why, Lena, I thought you were looking forward to that,” teased Dorian.

“I am. However, it’s one thing to listen to toddlers’ scraps, quite another to be a party to adults’... spats. I’ll call Sloan myself and invite him to dinner Monday evening. You, Dorian, will provide the fish whether from your own catch or from the seafood grocer.”

“Yes, Lena,” Dorian said contritely, his eyes twinkling with secret delight at this mothering that he had missed out on when he needed it most.

They walked through the remaining rooms that were in various degrees of turmoil before returning to the main floor where Brietta and Dorian left Lena in the company of Aiden and Conrad who were relaxing on the patio; Brietta and Dorian set off on a leisurely walk around the pond.

“You’re quiet.” Dorian cast a glance at the mare beside him as they neared the water.

“Menu planning,” Brietta responded distractedly.

“Forget that for the time-being and enjoy this time we have together. Sloan and I are leaving very early in the morning and won’t be home until late Sunday. I’m going to miss you something fierce.”

“Don’t forget to go to church.”

“I’m not a heathen, you know.”

A ring-necked pheasant was spotted strutting across the path ahead of them, his brilliant coloring catching the sunlight from the west. “What a beauty!” Brietta breathed. The bird’s mate scuttled from the taller grass to the side of the path and hurried to catch up to the splendid rooster.

“She’s a plain little thing,” Dorian commented. “Not at all like you.”

“I don’t have to sit on a nest and blend into my surroundings to protect my life and the lives of my offspring,” retorted Brietta.

“Aren’t you glad of that!”

The two ponies had reached the spot where they had sat fishing with Kent, Troy, and Chad and stopped to look over the pond. Several dragonflies darted over the water and a killdeer scurried along the water’s edge, leaving a lacy trail of prints behind. Dorian and Brietta stood in quiet contemplation of the serenity that surrounded them and let the pressures of the week melt away.

“I’m glad we came here,” Brietta said. “It’s so utterly peaceful.” She stared off across the water until she became conscious of Dorian’s intense gaze on her. She turned her head and smiled at him.

“I love you, Brie,” he murmured.

“And I love you, Dorian.”

“Come. Let’s walk over by the willow.” Dorian stretched out his hoof to Brietta, and she slipped hers into his. They went the short distance to the tree without a word; Dorian held back the drooping branches that touched the ground, and they passed through the green veil to sit against the wide, rough trunk.

“This tree has been here forever,” Brietta stated, leaning back to take in the sweep of branches that encircled them within the tree’s protective embrace. “Shayla and I shared many secrets under this old willow.”

“And you and Sloan?” Dorian had not intended to say those words, but they came unbidden.

Brietta picked a hoof full of grass and threw it at the stallion. “I wish I could make you forget that Sloan and I ever were childhood buddies.”

“I’m sorry I asked that question; I’ve been trying to curb my jealous streak, but obviously haven’t yet succeeded.” He grinned sheepishly.

“I’m sure if I knew any of the fillies from your past, I’d feel the same way.”

“Well, you have nothing to worry about in that department; I never found a one that I’d have trusted with my heart like I trust you.”

“Why do I find that hard to believe?”

“I have never loved anyone but you, Brie. That’s why I want to give you this.” He reached behind the trunk of the tree and brought forth a box which he opened to reveal a stunning diamond ring. He lifted the ring from the box, claimed her hoof, and gazed into her eyes. “Will you wear this ring as a sign of our betrothal?”

“Dorian, I’ll be proud to,” Brietta whispered with shining eyes.

The stallion gently slipped the ring on Brietta’s foreleg where it rested perfectly. “It’s beautiful,” Brietta murmured, looking up into Dorian’s eyes with such obvious devotion that Dorian was temporarily mesmerized before he leaned toward her and sealed their troth with a kiss.

When they rested back against the tree trunk with Dorian in possession of the jeweled foreleg, cradling it as if its significance was too profound for words, Brietta giggled. “I thought we were planning a trip to Capital City to look at engagement rings.”

“I hope you’re not too disappointed, but I was in the local jewelry store checking out the styles available so I’d have some idea what to expect, but I was so taken with this particular ring that I couldn’t suffer leaving it behind. You do like it, don’t you?”

“It’s the most exquisite ring I’ve ever seen,” Brietta admitted truthfully as she watched the play of the slanting sunbeam off the precious diamond. “It’s all the more special because you chose it.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “However, I’m very curious as to how the ring was so readily available at the base of the willow tree just when you needed it.”

“Clarence was kind enough to set the stage, my dear.”

“Clarence knew about this? No wonder he seemed so nervous while we ate.”

“Anna knew, too, if that wink she flashed me as we left the table was any indication.”

“We should get back to the house so I can show this to everyone.”

“I suppose we should,” Dorian agreed, but he made no move in that direction; nor did Brietta attempt to retrieve her foreleg from his possession. Instead, she nestled her head on Dorian’s shoulder.

“I am completely happy,” she sighed.

Dorian nestled his face against her mane and sighed in deep contentment. He, too, was pleased with the way things were going in his life.

Capital City
Chapter 14 of 28

The engagement ring was no longer a factor, but Dorian and Brietta decided to proceed with their journey to Capital City the following weekend when Dorian admitted that he had been considering hunting up a foster family that had once harbored him in that city and with whom he had not corresponded for several years. Brietta thought it was an excellent idea and readily consented to accompany him there; the day would include some sightseeing and some shopping as well.

Finding the view of Capital City from the vantage point of an overlooking hilltop to be as breathtaking as ever with the domed capitol dominating the scene, Brietta sighed. “I’ll never tire of seeing the orderly design of this beautiful place; as much as I love Whitehall, I wish it could have been planned from the beginning to be this organized. And look at the fountains and the flowerbeds,” she cooed. “Everything is as neat as a pin.”

“It makes a very deft layout,” Dorian stated, “but I think I prefer the haphazard arrangement of Whitehall that has grown along the path of least resistance.”

As the ponies continued their approach to the political center of their area, Brietta drank in the sights of carefully laid out streets and lanes interspersed ever so correctly with geometric flower arrangements and calculated stands of graceful trees. Everything about the city spoke of orderliness and efficiency– so much so that by the time Dorian escorted Brietta into an attractive open-air café, the mare was beginning to find the regimented perfection grating on her nerves.

When the light lunch they had ordered was served, Brietta looked at her companion and admitted, “All this meticulousness is beginning to get to me. I find myself beginning to want to see something out of place or somewhat inferior.”

Grinning, Dorian agreed with her. “I knew you’d see my point sooner or later. Whitehall has a spontaneity that Capital City will never acquire.”

“I so want to turn a corner and see something unexpected, not the same neat and exact lines that I’ve seen around every other corner.”

“Believe it or not, there’s a disorder in the city if you look deeply enough.”

“Like what?” asked Brietta.

Dorian deflected the question. “When we get into the residential section to visit Clara and Edward, you’ll begin to see some diversity; although the blocks are laid out with the expected precision, individual homeowners have opted to allow their own styles to come through.”

“Are you sure your foster parents are still here?”

“Yes. At least, they’re still listed in the phone book at the same address.”

“Are you nervous about seeing them again?”

Dorian was silent for a moment, fidgeting with the cutlery. “Clara and Edward understood me better than anyone; for that reason, I feel a certain vulnerability in facing them again. But my time with them, though short, was the happiest experience I had during that stage of my life, so I look forward to the meeting.”

“Why were you with them such a short time if you were happy there?”

“Just because I was more content with my surroundings didn’t mean that I neglected my sideline education, Brie. I was caught in suspicious circumstances, shall we say; and the social worker in charge of my case thought that the temptations in Capital City were detrimental to my potential reformation.”

“What were you involved with?”

Dorian winced at the concern in Brietta’s eyes. “For all its outward perfection, Capital City has its own shady underground. I was fortunate, I thought at the time, to connect with that network early on and had been given a simple task to fulfill to prove my caliber...” He hesitated, not wanting to say more.

Brietta, however, was determined to know. “Go on.”

Taking a deep breath, Dorian continued. “I was asked to obtain a certain item from one of the legislator’s offices.”

“You were just a colt,” Brietta said unbelievingly.

“Yes, but a very daring one.” He grinned suddenly in an attempt to lighten the impact that his revelation was causing. “But I wasn’t very good at what I was attempting, because a guard read my intentions and thwarted me before I even had a chance to complete my mission. It was enough, though, to warn my social worker of a rough road ahead if I was to stay in Capital City, so I was moved on to a small community where my opportunities were more limited.”

“I’m so thankful you were able to straighten out your life before it was too late,” Brietta asserted, reaching across the table to touch Dorian’s hoof.

“Why, Brie, I had much more fun in that backward little town than I ever would have had in a longer sojourn here; I was into one scrape after another and moved again and again. It was years later before I realized that I wanted more out of life and changed my ways accordingly.” Dorian captured the hoof that had imperceptibly edged away from his. “That dissolute part of my life is behind me, Brie; never doubt that.”

“You’ve never given me a reason to doubt you since I’ve met you; I trust that the fine stallion you’ve portrayed is the real you.”

His face suddenly taking on a serious demeanor, Dorian said in a quiet voice, his eyes locking on Brietta’s, “I love you too much to ever break that trust, my darling.” He lifted her left foreleg with the engagement ring sparkling upon it. “This ring is a sign of that love and of the faith we have in one another.”

“Oh, Dorian! You are the most endearing pony!” She leaned toward him to receive his kiss. “I love you,” she whispered, her eyes shining.

As Brietta settled back, content in the moment, she noticed that Dorian’s gaze had moved to a point behind her; and she had the feeling that he had spotted someone he knew, causing a feeling of deja vu going back to the restaurant in Whitehall on their first date. Before she could ask who it was, the stallion patted her hoof and stood up.

“You finish your coffee while I settle the tab,” he said, his voice somehow distant, his eyes cautious; he left her alone.

Feeling shabbily deserted, Brietta was about to turn and observe Dorian’s movements, sure that he had seen someone who had ruffled his calm mood, when her attention was distracted by a squeal from a passing mare. “Brietta Manning! This is a pleasant surprise! What brings you to Capital City?” A striking orange pony with aqua hair, the newcomer quickly occupied the chair so recently abandoned by Dorian.

“Martha!” Brietta smiled in genuine delight. “I could ask you the same question!”

“Well, my friend, there were some last minute changes in my plans after we separated with our law degrees fresh in hoof; I was offered a position here with the premier law firm of Farwell, Greenfield, and Clover. I grabbed it up before they could change their minds,” she grinned. “And I think it was the right decision. How are you getting along back in the bosom of your family?”

“Not a thing to complain of,” Brietta admitted. “The reality is even better than the dream, so I’m quite content.”

Martha’s eyes narrowed. “You once intimated that there was someone special back in your home town; is he the reason for this satisfaction?” Her gaze dropped as she caught the glint of the diamond on Brietta’s foreleg. “I withdraw the question.”

Brietta giggled. “My father had taken on a new associate; we hit it off quite well together and are to be married in October.”

“Well, my best wishes to the both of you,” Martha grinned. She scanned the other occupants of the tables around them, and her eyes came to rest on the grey stallion who was just coming across the room. “Now here’s a stallion that I wouldn’t mind having fall at my hooves,” she said under her breath.

Looking to where Martha’s attention centered, Brietta’s eyes danced. The stallion stopped at their table. “Martha, I’d like you to meet my fiancé, Dorian,” Brietta nearly gloated.

Raising a brow, Dorian looked at Brietta, then turned his attention to the mare with her.

“Dorian,” Brietta said, “this is Martha; we studied law together.”

Taking the hoof Martha offered him, Dorian smiled a disarming smile. “Pleased to meet you, Martha. Am I to assume that all female lawyers are stunningly attractive?” His gaze swept over both of the mares.

Brietta rolled her eyes as Martha batted hers. “My, my... such a charming fellow, Brietta. I must confess that I’m envious of your good fortune.”

“Ah, but Martha, you still have the fun of looking,” Brietta said, winking at Dorian.

“It hardly seems fair,” Martha said. “This stallion’s not the same one you carried a picture of while at Pembroke, Brietta; but he was as handsome, if I remember correctly.”

Brietta colored slightly and changed the subject. “Oh, look at the time. Dorian and I are just in town for the day, so we must get moving. It was wonderful running into you, Martha.” While saying this, Brietta stood and linked her foreleg with Dorian’s.

“That’s too bad,” Martha frowned. “I was hoping you could keep me company while I lunched.”

“Brietta’s right,” Dorian acknowledged. “Our time in town is limited; but we surely will have to talk again sometime.”

“Here; take my card, Brietta, and call me soon.” Looking at Dorian, Martha added, “And I’ll be expecting an invitation to the wedding as well.”

“We’d certainly want to include you in our happy day,” Dorian smiled. “Until then...”

As Dorian and Brietta set off across the city to the home that had temporarily been Dorian’s, they exchanged no words, their attention taken, as it seemed, by the busy stream of ponies on the streets of Capital City, until they passed through a park-like niche where Dorian put a hoof on Brietta’s and directed her to a wooden bench under a flowering tree.

Sitting down unwillingly, Brietta expected Dorian to torment her concerning Martha’s mention of a picture of a handsome stallion that had accompanied Brietta throughout law school; but Dorian only smiled kindly at her.

“Brie, I know I’ve been a trial in the past over Sloan, but you don’t have to become flustered every time he’s mentioned in conversation. Now that you’re wearing my ring, I have no more jealous qualms... at least, not many. I know the history you two shared, but I know even better the future the two of us will share.”

“That was very sweetly stated.” Brietta tried to smile, but it came across as a grimace because she felt the need to explain. “Martha caught me sighing over that confounded picture one day when I was susceptible to homesickness, and she managed to wring the story out of me; I admitted to her that I was hoping that Sloan and I could straighten things out once I was back in Whitehall.”

“And you did straighten things out– you accepted my friendship and promised to become my wife.”

“I love you, Dorian.”

“That’s good to hear, because I’m desperately in love with you.”

* * *
Dorian found that the house of his earlier years had changed color, but the structure was as neat and trim as ever. “You can tell what kind of ponies Clara and Edward Grant are just be looking at their property,” Dorian told Brietta as they looked over the carefully tended lawn and the proper flower beds.

“I’d of thought that you would’ve found such surroundings rather stifling,” mused Brietta.

“Not at all; my parents set no strictures, but I naturally set boundaries for myself-- even though those boundaries were not necessarily the ones I should have set,” he admitted with a grin. “I always knew where I stood with Edward and Clara.”

The two ponies by now had reached the front door, and Brietta hung back as Dorian rang the doorbell. As the sound of hoofsteps came closer, Dorian instinctively reached for Brietta’s hoof, so that when the door opened, the mare standing within the house was presented with the charming picture of a blushing young mare and an anxious young stallion. She seemed not to recognize either of the ponies for an instant, and then her face broke into a welcoming smile.

“Dorian! What a pleasant surprise!” she trilled. “Edward, come and see who’s here!” She opened the door wide and pulled the ponies into the house.

The petite pale yellow mare was joined by a slender sky blue stallion, both of whom were perfectly suited for the orderly interior of their home. Brietta was instantly aware of tasteful furnishings and refined accents softened by a hominess that reached out to welcome anyone who entered. She grinned as Dorian was hugged by both of his former foster parents amidst a flurry of questions.

When Dorian was able to extricate himself from Clara’s possessive embrace, he once again took Brietta’s hoof and drew her to the forefront. “I’d like you to meet my fiancé, Brie Manning. Brie, this is Clara Grant, who can bake the best banana nut bread, and her husband, Edward, who tells the greatest tales.”

Clara eyed Brietta with a look of doubt before she remembered her manners and invited the two visitors into the living room. Edward looked on with curiosity mixed with mild amusement.

Brie must be a cropped version of another name,” Edward said to Brietta. “I remember that Dorian had a penchant for shortening any name with more than one syllable.”

“My name’s Brietta; and Dorian is the only one who uses the abbreviated version.”

When the ponies were all comfortably seated, Clara gazed at Dorian with obvious pleasure. “Now, Dorian, tell us what you’ve accomplished these last few years.”

As the last time Dorian had contacted the Grant’s was the spring of his college graduation, he proceeded to inform them of his years at law school, his successful completion of his studies, his acceptance of a position with a firm in Denton, and his more recent placement at Whitehall. “And Brie and I worked so well together that we decided to take it a step further; we’re to be married in October.”

“And anyone who has studied the history of this area is familiar with the Manning’s of Whitehall Place, Brietta,” Edward intoned. “Your ancestors were responsible for bringing stability to the lives of the early settlers there.”

“And I hope that we still continue to provide a certain amount of stability,” Brietta smiled. “Dorian has been a definite asset; my father and grandfather are very pleased with his abilities with the firm.”

“Dorian was with us only a short time, but we recognized his aptitude even though he was determined at that point in his life to sell himself short,” Edward revealed.

“He’s certainly outgrown that tendency,” grinned Brietta.

“Edward, do you still collect those first editions?” Dorian very much wanted to direct the conversation away from himself, and he had chosen the exact topic to accomplish his goal.

“Of course I do, m’boy. Come with me, and I’ll acquaint you with some of my star finds.”

As Dorian accompanied Edward down the hall, Clara turned her cautious gaze to Brietta. “You’re aware of Dorian’s past?”

Brietta stiffened. “I’m quite sure he’s been honest with me,” she pertly replied.

Clara thought a moment. “Yes, I guess he wouldn’t have brought you here if he was trying to hide anything.”

Refraining from commenting, Brietta sat frostily in her chair. Clara obviously was not going to accept Dorian’s choice of a fiancé.

“Dorian has suffered more rejection in his lifetime than is good for anyone, first by his parents and then by those who were supposed to look out for him; I wouldn’t like to see him hurt now when his life seems to be going somewhere.”

“I wouldn’t have accepted his proposal if I hadn’t been serious in my intentions,” Brietta fumed. “Rejecting him is the last thing on my mind, you can be sure.”

“You find my questions out of line.”

“Yes, I do.”

Studying Brietta’s face, Clara made a decision. “I knew Dorian’s mother and have always felt somewhat remiss in not having kept an eye on her exploits.”

“You knew Dorian’s mother?” Brietta asked, her icy shield slipping a bit.

“Lucy and I were in college at the same time; I became acquainted with her in that setting.”

“Lucy...” Brietta said the name tentatively. “What was she like?”

“Very selfish,” Clara replied immediately. “She never gave a thought to anyone until she met that stallion she married.”

“Dorian never mentioned his parents’ names,” nudged Brietta. “His father was...”

“Parnell.” Clara made a humphing noise. “They were ideally suited, Lucy and Parnell, both so caught up in their own interests that they had time for no one else.”
“How could they not love their son?”
Clara shrugged. “You would have had to see them together to know how single-minded their purpose was.” Both mares sat in silence for some minutes before Clara resumed. “I lost track of them after they set out on their quest to research trees and only heard about the birth of a foal through the grapevine. I never laid eyes on Dorian until the social worker contacted us about taking in a wayward youth; when I saw who his parents were, I couldn’t turn down a chance to get to know Lucy’s son.” Her eyes took on a far away look. “He was nothing like his parents, yet he’d developed into a loner; it wasn’t by choice but by necessity.”

“He was happy here.”

“Yes, I think he was; but he wasn’t ready to give up his old ways, and we had no choice in the matter when it was decided to move him to another town. Edward and I were both heartbroken, but the powers that be wouldn’t listen to our concerns.”

“That must have been a difficult time for you.” Brietta’s anger thawed a little more.

“Edward and I knew the potential that Dorian had, and we had grown to love him,” Clara said simply. “We would have liked to have been the ones to guide his life.” She sniffed, then smiled. “But he did all right for himself, and that’s the main thing. To think that he’s now a lawyer and in practice with such a reputable firm; it’s all we could have asked. And that’s why I wanted to be sure that you were not toying with his affections; the dear boy needs to find happiness in his life.”

The dear boy accompanied Edward back into the room, and Clara and Brietta turned welcome smiles on them. “You’ll have to see this collection, Brie,” Dorian enthused. “Edward’s accumulated some rare specimens that are exceptional.”

“I’d like to see it very much. But I’d like to see any photos you might have of Dorian even more,” Brietta said, a twinkle in her eye.

Clara was quick to comply. “Come with me, Brietta. I know just where to look.”

So with a smug glance at Dorian, Brietta trailed after Clara into the next room. Edward chuckled over Dorian’s look of discomfort.

“Clara surely doesn’t have that many snapshots of me,” the younger stallion remonstrated.

“Don’t be too sure of that,” grinned Edward. “Clara’s always taking candid shots of ponies.”

Dorian groaned. “I do remember one time...” His voice drifted away as a giggle came from Brietta. With a grimace, he followed the sound to its source.

A smiling Brietta stood before an album laid out on the table, its pages opened to a school day’s photo of a belligerent, unsmiling colt nearly unrecognizable except for the coloring of gray face and violet mane; the attitude expressed in the daring eyes was one of complete and utter distrust, accented with a certain amount of contempt. “Dorian!” she chortled. “You couldn’t have been this... cold.”

Looking into the face that was his, Dorian shuddered. “I didn’t like school.”

Brietta flipped the page to reveal several candid snapshots of the colt in more comfortable surroundings; in one, Dorian and Edward were preparing to launch a kite; and Dorian’s expression was one of intent excitement. In another, the two were setting out a picnic lunch on a brilliant red and white checkered tablecloth. Brietta ohhed and ahhed over the pictures in the following pages, then turned to Dorian in high good humor.

“What an endearing urchin you were, my love. I’m so pleased that Clara had the foresight to capture your wayward past for me to share in it.” She kissed the sulky stallion’s cheek and added coaxingly, “Surely you wouldn’t deny me the opportunity to see you as a colt; Mother and Anna have shared any number of pictures of me.”

“You were an engaging little creature,” he muttered.

“As were you!” she grinned. “Except for this first one.” Flipping back to the school shot, she studied those forbidding eyes again. “Oh, Dorian, I wish I’d have been there to bring a smile to your lips.”

“I wouldn’t have noticed you back then,” Dorian admitted, slowly regaining his composure. “I thought all girls were annoying little pests.”

“Well, if truth be told, I suppose Sloan did, too, at that age,” Brietta mused, causing Clara to glance speculatively at Edward. “But Shayla and I had our ways.” Brietta turned a look of pure adoration onto Dorian. “Oh, how I wish I would’ve had the chance to cause that sad little colt to smile at me!”

The stallion smiled at her. “You’ve got the rest of your life to make me happy, Brie. And I plan to do the same for you.”

The look that passed between them was such that Clara’s hesitation in approving Brietta as an acceptable mate for Dorian was instantly quelled.

Unexpected Trouble
Chapter 15 of 28

“This has been a splendid day!” Brietta sighed as she and Dorian were on their way back to Whitehall. They had spent an enjoyable afternoon with Clara and Edward after which Dorian treated them all to an elegant dinner at Capital City’s paramount eating establishment; rather affective goodbyes were said, and Dorian and Brietta departed firmly entrenched in the good graces of the Grants. They had been walking along in silence for several miles, each of the ponies milling over the events of the day in their minds.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Dorian stated. “Clara and Edward seemed to approve of my choice of a wife.”

“You certainly made them proud when you told them that their presence at our wedding was imperative, as they would be accorded the place of your parents.”

“You don’t mind that I did that? It was a rather spur of the moment emotional response to their kindness.”

“Your time with them as a colt was brief, but there was an obvious bonding between the three of you,” Brietta reflected. “I think it was a commendable idea.” She grinned. “I’ll forever be indebted to Clara for the photo album; she’s promised to send copies of all your pictures.”

“As long as you keep them to yourself,” huffed Dorian.

“Well, I’m sure Mother will want to see what you looked like... and Anna... Shayla, too.”

“At that rate, maybe you should just publish them in the paper,” the stallion drawled sardonically.

“Now, now; don’t get all huffy.”

Brietta had just turned to send a beguiling look the stallion’s way when the bushes that lined the path erupted on either side of them as two stocky stallions burst out upon them. Before either of the unsuspecting ponies could respond, Brietta had been grabbed by one of the coarse ponies while the other had attempted an unsuccessful strike at Dorian which was retaliated upon as that stallion recovered from the shock of the attack and began a commendable defense.

Feelings of surprise and fear had engulfed Brietta, but those feelings had quickly been submerged by anger at the audacity of these ruffians; the stallion that had seized her found himself being pummeled quite effectively by the mare whom he had underrated by looks alone. Brietta was mentally congratulating herself on one well-placed kick that had seemed to incapacitate her attacker momentarily, but the brute recovered and lunged for her with such strength that she was knocked down forcefully, her breath escaping her as she hit the ground.

For some moments, Brietta was unable to respond as the villain grappled with the diamond ring on her foreleg. Then using every ounce of energy left within her, Brietta made a brave attempt to thwart his designs– and the beast suddenly slumped to the ground before her. Brietta looked up into Dorian’s face; the stallion had fought off his own attacker to come to Brietta’s aid.

“This is getting to be a habit,” gasped Brietta, having visions of Dorian’s rescue of her from Trey not so long ago.

But the look of victory that passed between Brietta and Dorian was quickly stifled as the first assailant gained his hooves and lunged once again toward Dorian.

What the outcome would have been if two of Capital City’s inhabitants returning to that city had not come upon the scene at just this time, no one would ever know. As it was, one of the new arrivals restrained the interloper who was trying to overcome Dorian while the other circumvented Dorian’s intentions to throttle the scum.

“These two attacked us!” Brietta panted, rushing to Dorian’s side as she realized that the two newcomers would not know who was responsible for the fray. But the burly aggressor who had been pulled off Dorian now escaped the hold of the rescuer; and as he pushed into the bushes and ran off through the trees, the other villain shook his head groggily and scuttled after him.

Neither of the newcomers went after them, one of them saying, “We can give the authorities a good description of those two; I see no advantage in trying to capture them ourselves.” He turned to Brietta. “Are you all right, miss?”

“I’m fine,” Brietta gasped between breaths. “Oh, but Dorian!” She rushed to him, noting the blood trickling out of a cut on his lip and an ugly bruise forming near his eye. “You’re hurt!” She tore the ribbon out of her hair and dabbed at the blood to see the extent of the injury. “We could use some water,” she snapped at the stallions who now stood watching the two.

“Brie!” Dorian said, taking the ribbon from her grasp. “I’m okay.”

“Okay?” she retorted. “You just fought off two mangy pugilists; you are not okay.”

“You handled one of them quite efficiently.” Dorian tried to smile, but the cut on his lip turned it into a grimace. “My little wildcat.” He brushed some disordered locks from Brietta’s forehead, and Brietta found that tender action too much for her.

“Oh, Dorian!” she moaned, tears beginning to fall. She leaned against him, suddenly weak. “Why would those two miscreants attack us?”

Putting his forelegs around the mare and crushing her to him, Dorian shook his head. “Your diamond, I guess,” he said dully.

“Are you saying that those two jumped you unawares?” asked the older of the two stallions who had happened upon the scuffle.

“They came out of the bushes with no warning,” Dorian admitted. “We were returning to Whitehall after a day in Capital City.”

“Had you ever seen either of them before?” queried the younger stallion.

Dorian hesitated only a moment. “No,” he said. “They were strangers.”

“Miss... what about you? Did you recognize either of the assailants?”

From her position secure in Dorian’s embrace, Brietta simply shook her head in the negative.

“I wouldn’t count much on our descriptions doing a whole lot of good,” stated Dorian, staring at his hoof. All the others centered their attention on the hoof as well and saw what Dorian meant. His hooves– and Brietta’s as well– were streaked with brown and olive green smudges. Whoever the stallions were, they had disguised themselves with body paint.

“You’ll have to fill out a report when you get back to Whitehall,” the older stallion said. “We’ll do the same with the Capital City authorities.”

Dorian for the first time took a good look at his rescuers. “Thanks for coming along when you did.” Suddenly alert, he added, “You’re Gable.” Dorian’s gaze then shifted to the second stallion.

“This is my son,” Jordan Gable responded. “Terence and I were on our way home from a town meeting at Freemont. And your name?”

“I’m Dorian Adams. And this,” Dorian indicated the mare in his forelegs, “is Brie Manning.”

Hearing her name, Brietta lifted her head and regretted the weakness she had shown. Brushing some stray tears from her cheeks, she looked with curiosity at the two ponies who had been instrumental in thwarting their attackers. What had Dorian called this distinguished looking pony? Gable?

“You’re Senator Gable!” Brietta ineptly stated. Realizing the impression her disheveled state and languishing manner must convey, she hastily stood erect and ran a hoof through her hair which caused the senator to grin.

“There aren’t many mares who could battle an aggressor and come through it looking as lovely as you do, Miss Manning,” the senator remarked. “I hope you enjoyed your time in Capital City... if not your trip home.”

“We were just commenting on what a perfect day it was,” Brietta admitted, “when those two goons jumped out of the bushes at us.” She looked at Dorian ruefully. “Dorian was doing a wonderful job at holding them off, but I must add my thanks to his for your coming to our rescue.”

“We just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Terence smiled, bowing to Brietta. “My father and I are only grateful that we came along when we did.”

“And now, my boy,” the senator said to his son, “I think we’d better escort these two on to Whitehall. I’d hate to think that their journey would encounter any more unexpected surprises.”

“For Brietta’s sake, I’d gladly accept your company,” Dorian said, a tremor cutting through him as he thought of what might have happened if they had not been able to hold off the villains.

“Do you really think that they were merely robbers waiting for an unsuspecting traveler to accost?” asked Jordan Gable as they turned their steps back down the path.

“What else could it have been?” asked Dorian evasively.

“I’m familiar with the Manning family,” Jordan replied with a glance at Brietta. “Lawyers are in a position to make enemies just as legislators do.”

“The town of Whitehall is like a big family,” Dorian bristled. “The cases we handle are of a benevolent nature.”

“But the town is growing,” Jordan reminded him. “Growth brings both good and bad elements into a setting.”

Terence and Brietta had been silent listeners to the conversation, but now Terence spoke up, addressing himself to Dorian. “You said ‘the cases we handle’. You’re a lawyer, too, then?”

Brietta answered for Dorian. “He’s with my father and grandfather’s firm, as I am.”

“I’m familiar with both Conrad and Aiden,” acknowledged Jordan. “And now I take pleasure in meeting their talented associates.”

“Sloan McClere is with the firm as well, I believe,” offered Terence with a glance at Brietta.

“Yes, he is.” Brietta saw no need to expand on that topic.

“One only hears good things about the Manning firm,” remarked Jordan. “However, that doesn’t leave out the fact that some client may hold a grudge– most likely unfounded– against one of you.”

“I don’t buy that for a second,” grunted Dorian. “The two that attacked us were vulgar low-life who simply took advantage of the situation; I should have been more alert to the circumstances.”

Terence smiled at Brietta while responding to Dorian. “In your position, I’m sure my thoughts would have been distracted by the company as well.”

Dorian threw the younger stallion a sharp look, and a menacing scowl settled over his wounded features. Hating to see Dorian under any more stress than necessary, Brietta pretended she had a problem with her backpack that only Dorian could rectify so that Terence moved up next to his father and Brietta had Dorian at her side once more.

“You’ll always be my hero,” she assured Dorian with a teasing grin.

“I’ll count on that,” he replied.

* * *
“We’re going to the hospital first!” ordered Brietta, a determined look on her face. The group had reached the town of Whitehall just after darkness fell, and Dorian was all for going straight to the police station; but Brietta had stubbornly vetoed that idea. “That cut on your face needs more attention than a Band-Aid,” she chided under the amused attention of Terence and Jordan. “Those vagabonds were dirty and mangy like rabid animals; heaven only knows what you might have been exposed to.”

Before Dorian could respond, Jordan made a suggestion. “You two go on to the hospital while Terence and I report this incident to the police here. The Capital City force owes me; I’ll make sure they’re on the case, too.” Dorian hesitated, but Jordan reassured him. “I’ll send someone over to the hospital to question you and Brietta there and save some time.”

Brietta put a restraining hoof on Jordan’s. “You and Terence are welcome to spend the night at Whitehall Place; it’s the least we can do for all your help.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you and your family out, Brietta,” Jordan assured her. “Terence and I will undoubtedly find a comfortable room at the hotel.”

“No, really, my family and I would consider it a pleasure to have you with us,” Brietta urged.

“We’ll meet you at the hospital then,” Jordan agreed and was gratified to see Brietta break into a smile.

“I really don’t need a doctor’s attention,” grumbled Dorian as he and Brietta continued on without their patrons.

“I’ll let one of the doctors tell me that,” Brietta maintained her authority. “Now, no more discussion.”

Dorian took her at her word and did not speak to her again until they were at the emergency room and found Dr. Finella on duty. Dorian could not resist the temptation and drawled smugly, “Are you satisfied? You’ve turned me over to your rival, dearest.”

“Some sacrifices are expected in life, dearest,” Brietta returned. She frostily greeted Finella as the doctor came into the room.

“My, my,” Finella clucked as her eyes raked over Dorian. “You two have a fight?”

“We did, but not with each other,” Dorian blandly responded.

Brietta moved to the door. “I’ll go and call home to warn Mother of our house guests.” She flashed a wink at Dorian before exiting, leaving the door ajar for her own peace of mind.

* * *
When Brietta returned after giving her mother a very abbreviated story of what had happened– that Jordan and Terence Gable had been on the path with her and Dorian and had been unexpectedly caught in Whitehall for the night, and that she had thought it best to extend them a welcome at Whitehall Place– she found Dr. Finella finishing up the patchwork on Dorian’s injuries; she waited patiently until Finella stepped back and pronounced Dorian as good as new– or at least she expected him to be within the next few days. Brietta crossed to his side. “You look much better with that cut cleaned up.”

“It’s your turn now, Brietta,” Dr. Finella said, patting the examining table.

“I wasn’t hurt; my antagonist was too intent on getting my ring to hit me.”

“Let me see your foreleg.”

Looking down at her ring-ornamented appendage, she saw what Finella was referring to. Around the band of the engagement ring was visible dried blood. Seeing it, Brietta realized that the dull ache in that foreleg was not entirely due to the exertion of the tussle.

Dorian was distraught. “Brie, you said you weren’t hurt! You should’ve been taken care of first!” He helped her up and watched as Finella worked the encrusted ring off Brietta’s foreleg. The gold band was covering a torn and bloody gouge that had occurred in the scuffle with the thief who had tried so hard to remove the precious ring from her.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Dorian reprimanded her.

“I didn’t know,” admitted Brietta. “Everything happened so fast, and I was worried about you.”

“That’s gotta hurt,” the stallion commiserated.

“It does now,” Brietta gasped as Finella cleaned the open wound.

When Dr. Finella had finally released both of her patients with the admonition to make an appointment for a follow-up exam, Brietta and Dorian were approached again by a local police officer who, after a quick word with Dr. Finella, escorted the two into an empty office for some questions. Both of the lawyers, having met this particular officer in court cases in the past, were less than enthusiastic to be on the receiving end of the questions this evening.

“We’ve had a report of some trouble on the route between Capital City and Whitehall; I’d like to hear your version of it.” The officer looked bored out of his skull.

Dorian glanced at Brietta who deferred to his telling the story. When he was finished, Officer Neil glanced at Brietta before returning his attention to his notes. “Anything you want to add?”

“That pretty well covers it.”

The officer’s head came up to train his piercing blue eyes on Brietta. “That pretty well covers it,” he repeated with an uninterested voice. “I expected better of you, Miss Manning.” He jotted a note on the pad in front of him before the blue eyes returned to stare at the mare. “You normally are quite hung up on the details.”

“As is Dorian, and he covered them quite accurately.”

Officer Neil studied the two ponies, alternately tapping the desk with one hoof, then rubbing the other across his chin. Finally he said, “You two didn’t have a lover’s quarrel, did you?”

Dorian’s response was lost as Brietta spat out her disgust over such an idea. “Get serious, Officer Neil!”

The cop raised a dark eyebrow but decided not to pursue that particular path any further. “Why were you set upon, do you think?” he queried now.

“My diamond.”

Surveying the dressing on her foreleg, Officer Neil asked, “One of the assailants hurt you?”

“I fought him when he tried to force the ring away from me.”

“You’d have been better off letting him have it; he and his partner would have left sooner if they got what they wanted.”

“You expect me to stand back while some brute plays rough with my fiancee?” Dorian rumbled angrily, his eyes dark and threatening.

“Did either one take anything from you?” Officer Neil directed at the stallion.


“So it’s possible that if you’d handed over the ring, neither of you would have needed medical attention tonight.”

“And it’s also possible that neither of us would be here to tell the story, isn’t it?”

“You both concur that you’d never seen either one of the assailants before?”

“They were wearing camo paint,” patiently repeated Dorian.

“As Dorian told you a minute ago,” added Brietta.

Closing his notebook with a snap, Officer Neil stood up. “We’ll check your story out, but I wouldn’t count on seeing either of those thugs in custody; they’ve probably disappeared into some hole somewhere by now.” His blue gaze settled disturbingly on Dorian. “You would understand that.”

“Now listen here!” Brietta was on her hooves in an instant to defend Dorian. “You’ve no right...”

Officer Neil held up his hoof. “We’ll contact you if we need any further information. Good night.” He was gone.

“He’s no better than a low-down common...” Brietta began in a low, dangerous voice.

“Brie, settle down,” Dorian reprimanded. “He enjoys playing the tough guy.” His voice grew softer as he held out a hoof to her. “Let’s get you home.”

The tension suddenly slipped from Brietta, and she realized how tired she was. “Yes. You’re right. Let’s put this terrible episode behind us and get back to living.”

* * *
They found Jordan and Terence waiting for them, and together the four ponies walked through the darkened night to Whitehall Place where the senator and his son were warmly greeted; and Dorian was drawn into Anna’s protective guardianship and Lena’s motherly attention.

Dorian quickly dispelled this pampering, however, by informing them that Brietta herself had been the target of some harmful activity; Brietta’s family listened in astonishment and trepidation as they were told the true story of the preceding hours. All their combined care and concern were showered on both Brietta and Dorian now, and their gratitude for a timely rescue was Terence and Jordan’s lot until Brietta pleaded with them to put the affair behind them as a way for the participants to forget the frightening experience as soon as possible.

When Aiden and Conrad retired to the library with Jordan and Terence for some political conversation and Lena had been refused her invitation for Dorian to spend the night in one of the guest rooms, Dorian and Brietta finally had a quiet moment alone.

“I was so scared, Brie, to think that those stallions might hurt you,” Dorian confessed as she walked him to the door. “I’d never have been able to forgive myself if anything happened to you, especially due to my inability to protect you.”

“You did very well on that count,” Brietta smiled at him. “No one could’ve been anticipating that we’d be attacked on a well-traveled path like we were. We’re a civilized country, you know.”

“Oh, Brie!” He hugged her to him. “I never want to feel that helpless again.”

“Why won’t you stay the night? I’d feel better knowing we were under the same roof.”

“I need some time to think and sort things out; a walk in the fresh air will give me a chance to do that without distraction.” He grinned at her. “And I do love you to distraction, my wildcat.”

Brietta studied his cut lip, then lifted her eyes to meet his and asked demurely, “A kiss is out of the question, I suppose?”

“You think I’d let a little thing like this stop me?” he whispered.

Brietta was kissed; and then she watched as her love left through the encroaching darkness, whispering a prayer to guide him on his way.

* * *
Aiden and Jordan were the last to seek their beds; but before they parted, Jordan set a restraining hoof on Aiden’s shoulder. “How much to you know about Dorian?” he asked.

Aiden’s eyes searched the senator’s. “He’s been honest with Brietta about his past, if that’s what you’re asking,” he coolly responded.

“I don’t want you to take this amiss, Aiden, but I feel a warning is necessary. Dorian has come a long way since he was a colt on the streets, but never forget that he was once very much like those rogues who attacked him and your daughter tonight.”

“Since we’ve known Dorian, he’s never given us a reason to doubt his capabilities or his intentions,” stated Aiden. He hoped to relieve Jordan’s misapprehension, but he saw that the worry remained in the senator’s eyes. Aiden sighed. “I’ll keep your warning in mind, however; Brietta means the world to me, and I’d never knowingly allow her to be hurt... not by anyone.”

“That’s all I ask, Aiden.” Jordan patted the stallion on the shoulder and left him.

* * *
It was a pleasant walk, Brietta decided, with Dorian at her side after their enjoyable day in Capital City. The weather was perfect, and she and Dorian were in such compatible conversation that she hoped their time together would go on forever.

She was teasing the stallion about his serious demeanor captured in Clara’s picture of him when the shrubbery exploded as two disgusting bodies burst out to accost them. Over Brietta’s terrified scream, she just barely heard the voice of the ruffian who stood menacingly in front of Dorian.

“Dorian, ol’ friend,” the stallion had sneered just before Dorian’s hoof found his face.

Brietta yelped in terror as she woke from her nightmare. “Dorian!” she said out loud into the empty room that was just beginning to lighten with the dawn of a new August day. “He knew you!”

Brietta swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up, a feeling of urgency about her. But as her hooves hit the floor, the vision of her recent dream faded and dissolved into unrecognizable fragments. She shook her head and crawled back under the covers and dropped off to sleep in an instant.
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