"It's very sweet of you two to help Pampas babysit," grinned Sunny at the two stallions she had just been introduced to, both of whom grimaced at the designation of "sweet" being used to describe them. "I'm sure you can think of more exciting things to do."
"After a hard day of work, collapsing on the sofa with some popcorn seems mighty appealing," the orange-maned pony replied.
"But you're staying with Roy's parents, aren't you?" queried the mare, looking from one to the other, her gaze settling finally on Roy.
"Have you ever met my mother, Sunny?"
"No, I haven't had the pleasure."
"Well, you might not find the experience such a pleasure," grinned Roy. "She has a sharp tongue; so even though she insisted that Dangler and I stay at the house while we're working on the library renovation, she's constantly letting us know just how much our presence is putting her out."
"She's a great cook though," Dangler added justly.
"How's your dad doing now that he's back to work?" Pampas asked of Roy.
"You'd never know he'd been laid-up. And because he's not around the house convalescing, Mom has even more time to harp on me and Dangler... just like when we were colts."
"I think you're being too hard on your mother," Sunny remarked, giving in to Mesquite's whining for a cookie. "I'll bet you put her through any number of trying times over the years."
"You've got a point there, but she was the reason that Dangler and I moved out-of-town to open our remodeling business when we were finished with school."
Their occupation being carpentry work, Dangler and Roy had become acquainted with Pampas, who was in a related field, while working on the library improvement project. It was Dangler's casually asked question of Pampas if he knew a mare in Dream Valley named Adalee that had precipitated Pampas' invitation of the two friends to spend the evening with him while Sunny went out. Although Dangler did not divulge whether his query was prompted by a desire to see the mare or to avoid her- he had, in fact, clammed up when he learned that Pampas was actually a neighbor of the mare- Pampas was not above giving fate a little nudge, just to see what fireworks might ensue.
"Well, you guys have fun," Sunny said, giving her husband a quick kiss and little Mesquite a warm hug. "I should be home by ten."
* * *
As Pampas suspected would happen, Sunny did not come home alone. As she had intended to walk with Adalee to the performance by the high school drama club, Pampas was fairly sure that Adalee would stop in for a snack before continuing on to her own apartment next door. The two mares arrived, laughingly discussing the play they had seen; but Pampas was quick to note the bemused look that settled on Adalee's face when she glanced at the company and noted who was there.
It was Sunny, who knew nothing of any prior connection between Adalee and Dangler, who made the introductions, first to Roy, then to Dangler.
"Hi, Adalee," Dangler greeted. Then to the others, he explained, "We met last Christmas when her nephew took an unauthorized walk in the park." With a grin for the apricot-colored mare, he asked, "How is Tommy doin'?"
"T... Tommy's as energetic as ever," Adalee found her voice to say. "W... what brings you back to Dream Valley?"
As Roy and Dangler described their part in the remodeling project at the library, Sunny helped Pampas set out cookies and milk; and soon everyone was sitting informally around the kitchen table. Mesquite, hearing the sound of Adalee's voice from where he had fallen asleep on the couch, groggily came to find her, crawled up onto her lap, grabbed a cookie, then fell back to sleep nestled cozily in her forelegs.
Under the pretext of prying the now crumbling cookie out of Mequite's small hoof, Adalee did not participate in the conversation going on around her; her mind drifted back to that chance meeting with Dangler over a month ago. She had enjoyed their impromptu sledding excursion with Tommy more than she cared to admit and had hoped that the stallion had enjoyed it, too. But she had received no further word from him.
More annoying yet, she had overheard Roy's mother talking at the grocery store about Dangler's recent engagement. That information had stifled any hopes Adalee had left for a further acquaintance with the stallion. Now, seeing him again, she could only regret more deeply the missed opportunity.
"Here, let me take Mesquite off your hooves," Pampas offered, coming to take the foal from Adalee's grasp. "I'll put him to bed."
"Oh, it is getting late!" Adalee was startled out of her reverie. "I should be getting home, too."
"I could walk with you," Dangler was quick to suggest.
"Yeah, we should head home; Mom will be sitting up waiting for us, even though she warned us not to make any noise when we came in that might disturb her sleep," Roy chuckled.
Dangler looked annoyed that Roy would make a threesome when he would have much rather had a chance to talk with Adalee alone, but there was not much he could do at the moment that would not appear very rude or embarrassingly obvious. So it ensued that both he and Roy walked Adalee the short distance to her apartment door and bade her goodnight.
* * *
"Pampas thinks Dangler is sweet on you," Sunny informed Adalee the following evening. Pampas was going to be late getting home, and Sunny and Mesquite had called on Adalee to talk over the previous evening.
The mare snorted. "Dangler's engaged," she stated emphatically.
"He couldn't be!"
"Well, he is. I heard it straight from Roy's mother one day at the grocery store."
"I didn't realize you knew Sadie," Sunny puzzled.
"I don't, personally. But she was talking to someone while I was shopping, and she conveyed the news that Dangler had proposed to some mare on Christmas Eve."
"That doesn't make sense. He's told Pampas that neither he nor Roy have anyone special in their life."
"Which is a good example of the old adage, 'Out of sight, out of mind,'" sniffed Adalee, tossing her minty mane in defiance.
Sunny was in the middle of her defense of Dangler when the phone rang, and Adalee went to answer it.
"Hi, Adalee. It's me, Dangler; and I was wondering if you'd like to catch a movie at the theater tonight.'
Adalee shot a speculative glance at Sunny while covering the receiver with her hoof. "Dangler," she whispered; then talking into the mouthpiece, she sweetly acquiesced. "Sure. I've nothing better to do."
"Great! I'll pick you up about seven, then?"
"Sounds fine. See ya."
As she set the receiver back in its cradle, Adalee cast a brittle smile at Sunny. "Before this night's over, I'll know all there is to know about Dangler's fiancee."
* * *
Adalee tried, she really tried, not to be drawn in by Dangler's devastating smile or his charming manners, but she failed completely. By the time the movie was over and they were on their way to the Café Carousel for a slice of lemon pie and some hot coffee, the mare was as infatuated with the stallion as she had been on the day of their first encounter. The month that had elapsed seemed not to have intervened. They had settled into a comfortable camaraderie that felt completely right to Adalee.
Once they were seated with their desserts, however, Adalee knew that she could delay the inevitable no longer. Taking a deep breath, she asked as dispassionately as possible, "I've heard that you proposed to your sweetheart on Christmas Eve."
Chagrined, Dangler dropped his gaze momentarily, then lifted his head to face Adalee squarely. "Yes, I did."
Adalee's heart plummeted to her hooves, but before she could gather her thoughts to make a congratulatory remark, Dangler continued. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me when she turned me down."
"T... turned y... you d... down?" Adalee's violet eyes widened in disbelief. She thought back to the day she had overheard Sadie and another mare discussing this topic at the grocery store and now remembered that the two mares had gone out of her hearing with Sadie's last statement of Dangler asking the mare to marry him; she had not heard what the answer had been, but why would that answer not have been yes?
"She'd met someone on one of her business trips who had promised her the world. All I could give her was a home and my heart." The stallion grinned. "I was devastated all of thirty-two hours; then I met you." He reached across the table and lightly touched her hoof.
For a moment, Adalee could do nothing but stare into his eyes; then she flushed and averted her gaze. When she had regained her composure, she asked, "Did you truly love her?"
Dangler sat back in his chair and sighed. "I thought I did." He raked a hoof through his hair. "Roy, Trisha, and I were always the best of friends; we grew up here in Dream Valley and put our parents through every form of deviltry we could devise. When Roy and I made our break from home, we did some research and decided Stableton was in need of some good resident carpenters; so we moved there. Trisha followed us when an advertising agency needed a good copywriter. She said life was too boring without Roy and me to liven things up."
"So you were just good friends all that time?"
"Yeah, I guess you could say that. Then last summer my brother took the plunge and got married; I saw how happy he was, and it got me to thinking that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to settle down. And Trisha was, well, convenient."
"And you decided a diamond would make your Christmas shopping a breeze."
"Something like that... rather foolish, huh?"
Trying to look at the situation fairly, Adalee mused, "It sounds like a natural outcome of such a close and long-standing friendship." She squinted and a mischievous smile lighted her face. "Were you and Roy ever at odds as to who would win the mare?"
Shaking his head in the negative, Dangler explained. "Roy is adamant that he'll never get himself shackled to a managing female like his dad did. His sister isn't much better than Sadie, either. He doesn't want to run the risk of choosing unwisely... says you can never be sure until it's too late."
"I suppose there's some truth to that," grinned Adalee.
"And I suppose it depends on which female it is that's doing the managing," Dangler grinned back.
* * *
The following morning, Saturday, Dangler was awakened early by a none-too-pleased Sadie. "Trisha's in the front parlor wantin' to talk to you," she grumbled.
"Tri-sa?" Dangler moaned from his bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He was silent a moment, then sat up quickly and barked, "Trisha?"
"In the flesh," Sadie snapped.
"What's she doin' here?" Dangler's eyes looked rather glazed.
"I didn't ask," drawled Sadie. "I've got no time for entertainin' your guest." The mare turned and left.
Grumbling, Dangler crawled out of bed, ran a hoof through his mane, and hurried downstairs. He did not fully believe Sadie until he entered the parlor to find Trisha pacing impatiently in front of the picture window. Before Dangler could so much as say good morning, the mare got down to business.
"I've decided to accept your proposal after all, Dangler. Where's the ring?"
Tongue-tied with shock, Dangler could do no more than stutter, "Th... the ring? I... I took it back."
"You took it back?" Disbelief showed on Trisha's face, then satisfaction. "No problem. Now I can choose one that I like."
"B... but you..."
"Don't worry! You can afford it!" Her face grew dreamy. "I'm thinkin' somethin' big and very sparkly." She hugged the stallion. "Everyone'll think you have excellent taste in diamonds! I'm going over to the mall right now and see what Sparkler has available. I'll talk to you later!" With a kiss to his cheek, Trisha was gone.
Dangler watched the door close and groaned. "Trish, I don't want to marry you!" Running a shaking hoof through his mane, he plopped down on the couch, confused and angry. "I'd rather marry Adalee!" he whispered.
Sadie came in from the kitchen, a mixing bowl and spoon in her hooves, and looked around the room. "Who you talkin' to? Trisha's gone."
"Tell me I only dreamed she was here," Dangler pleaded.
Sadie did not pretend that she had not heard the entire exchange between the two ponies.
"It was worse than a dream, Dangler. The way I see it, it was a nightmare." With what could only be called a cackle, she returned to her baking.
* * *
Adalee was in alt. Not only was she to see Dangler tonight for bowling with Roy and several other ponies, he had already claimed a dinner date with her for the following Saturday, Valentine's Day.
Having learned that Dangler had not gotten himself involved in a Christmas engagement had opened a dreamy future for Adalee, and she was not about to waste a minute of it. Feeling in perfect harmony with the world, she had accepted her sister's last-minute invitation to spend the morning with her and the energetic Tommy at the mall. After all, her reason for moving to Dream Valley over a year ago was to be closer to her sister, Caralee, whose husband had been transferred to a new job in Dream Valley the previous year.
The two mares were currently perusing the merchandise at Lemon Treats' Boutique while Tommy tugged at Adalee's forehoof, begging her to take him to the toy store, when Adalee, as if sensing the stallion's presence, glanced up to see Dangler, who was looking neither right nor left, hurrying past the entrance of the shop. Knowing that her sister would spend at least another half-hour debating the merits of each and every hat on display, Adalee informed her that she would be back in a minute and took off after Dangler with Tommy trailing behind.
Dangler's hurried steps had already taken him far down the corridor, but Adalee noted the store that he suddenly entered; it was Sparkler's Jewelry Store. She fought an intense battle with herself on the propriety of chasing after a stallion to such a destination- she had to admit that Dangler appeared to be quite determined in his errand- but her curiosity was now engaged, so she kept on the trail.
When she rounded on the entrance to the jewelry store, she wished she had stayed in bed this fine morning. The scene upon which she became an unwilling spectator was of Dangler sharing a very warm hug with an attractive baby-blue mare, her canary yellow hair cascading over the stallion's shoulder. And on her left foreleg, plainly visible to Adalee, was a sparkling diamond.
As Dangler had described Trisha the evening before, Adalee had no doubt as to the identity of the mare he now held in his forelegs. As dismayed as she was at what she was seeing, she could not move her eyes from the sight. As she stood there, motionless, Dangler felt that burning gaze and looked her way. Their eyes met only briefly before Adalee found the ability to flee, dragging an unwilling Tommy with her. The colt had recognized his friend and would have liked to spend some time with him.
Dangler was left with an unwanted burden in his forelegs and the memory of the undeniable anguish he had seen in Adalee's eyes. Before he could address this latest fiasco, however, he had Trisha to contain.
* * *
"Trisha, put the ring back on the counter. You and I have to talk."
"If it's the price, I'll help pay for it," Trisha pouted.
"It's not the price... entirely." Dangler shuddered, however, having seen the numbers. He smiled apologetically at Sparkler. "Maybe another time." Grasping Trisha's foreleg, he led her from the store while she continued to cast longing glances back at the cases of glittering gems. The stallion did not release her until they reached the relatively quiet food court where he settled the mare in a chair and took the one next to her for himself.
"Trisha, when I proposed to you on Christmas Eve, you turned me down flat."
Dangler raised a hoof for silence. "Not only that, you gloated over your good fortune in having discovered the perfect stallion. I believe you indicated that no one would ever be able to come near him in your estimation. What happened?"
A stubborn look settled on Trisha's pretty face. "He took off for Vulcanopolis yesterday for an extended stay, breaking our date for Valentine's Day."
"And..." prodded Dangler.
"What more do you want?" Trisha growled. "The most romantic day of the year, and he deserted me!"
"He left me without a date for Valentine's Day after promising me an elegant dinner in Hayton and our attendance at the Valentine Ball there. Instead, he runs off to some faraway place for ten days and leaves me all alone."
"What? He's such a loose fish that he has a mare in every port... or what?"
"Really, Dangler" Trisha rolled her eyes. "Marty's not so rude as that."
"So what's he doing in Vulcanopolis?"
"I told you at Christmas that he's a buyer for Tatters."
"So this was a business trip?"
"So what's the problem? The guy has to make a living if you expect dinner, dancing, and diamonds."
"But over Valentine's Day?" Flabbergasted, the mare looked at Dangler as if he was suddenly a complete loon.
"Are you saying you decided to marry me because this Marty had to cancel a date with you?"
Trisha gave it several moments thought, then grinned. "Bare bones... yes. I wanted to show him that he couldn't take me for granted."
"You were using me to get at him? Well, then, I have no qualms in telling you that I retract my proposal. I don't want to marry you after all, Trisha."
"Then why did you propose in the first place?"
"I want a home and a family. We've known each other forever, and you seemed as good as choice as anyone to settle down with."
"I'm flattered," Trisha smirked.
"Maybe we've both taken advantage of our long-standing friendship. Thanks for saying no."
Trisha finally made the connection. "Hey, if you've changed your mind about marrying me, that means you must have met someone else!"
"That's another story."
"I'm not sure yet that she'll have me; so to spare my pride, I'd rather not talk about her right now."
"I told you about Marty."
"And Cockpit and Slinger and Mooch and..."
"Enough already. Is your special mare here in Dream Valley?"
Dangler looked heavenward. "Forget it, Trisha. Are you staying at your folks? Let me walk you home." The stallion stood up, anxious to leave. It was urgent that he make contact with Adalee and explain the scene she had seen in the jewelry shop.
Trisha pushed back her chair. "Okay. Walk me home. But don't think for a minute that I'm going to give you any peace about the identity of your latest flame."
"Peace? From you? I'm not stupid, Trish."
* * *
With a potted flower arrangement in one hoof, Dangler knocked on Adalee's door and tapped a second hoof impatiently, wishing her to hurry so that he could get this explanation over with. After what seemed an eternity of time, the door finally did open; and Adalee stood before him.
Every line he had rehearsed on the walk over deserted him. "Hi." So maybe I am stupid, he chided himself. Remembering the flowers, he held them out to her. "For you." Then he accidentally did the best thing he could do... he smiled. As it always did, that simple action melted Adalee's heart.
"Thank you." Unable to resist, she returned the smile and moved aside to allow him entrance.
"The florist said the blue flowers act as a messenger." He pointed at the dwarf iris in the bouquet, "and the white ones represent hope. After that scene at the jewelry store, I'm hoping you'll let me explain what happened."
"I won't deny that it first seemed to disprove everything you told me last night." The mare sighed. "But when I looked back on it more rationally, I realized that you didn't appear to be as elated as Trisha was. For the life of me, though, I can't figure out what was taking place if that wasn't your engagement ring she was wearing."
"Well, sit down and get comfortable. This rendering may take awhile."
* * *
"Why didn't you just tell Trisha flat-out that you'd changed your mind when she came to see you this morning?" Adalee asked after hearing the story.
"Getting awakened by Sadie doesn't put a stallion in the best frame of mind," Dangler chuckled. "I wasn't thinking straight when Trisha hit me with her intent; once you get to know Trisha, you'll realize that she can be a whirlwind when she's fired-up. She didn't give me a chance to say a word."
Adalee sniffed the snowdrops and the iris that she still held in her hoof and met Dangler's eyes over the white and blue petals. "Are you sure she understands that the two of you aren't engaged now?"
"She understands perfectly, and she's dying to meet you. If I know Trish, she's badgering Roy right now about your identity; and it's a good bet that she'll finagle herself into our plans for tonight so that she can see you for herself."
"I look forward to meeting her, too... I think." A glance at the clock gave Adalee an idea. "Cara expected me to stay with her and Tommy for lunch, and I sort-of deserted her after the jewelry store." She crinkled her nose, remembering her sister's dismay over the disjointed excuse she had given to cover her harried exit and Tommy's squeals of anguish at losing his ordinarily amenable aunt. "We could still meet her and Tommy at the food court in time for lunch," she suggested hopefully.
The mare did not have to twist Dangler's foreleg as the stallion himself was thinking fast for a way to extend their time together even further. "And we could take Tommy sledding this afternoon," he offered.
"Tommy will be thrilled when he finds out!" Adalee jumped to her hooves, setting the flowers on the nearest table. "I'll be ready in a minute."
Watching the mare as she left the room, Dangler smiled appreciatively. Apricot and mint were beautiful colors for a pony. And speaking of colors... what had the florist said? That red roses expressed love? He would have to remember to order a dozen of those for Valentine's Day, and maybe a supper club with dancing would be appropriate as well... by Trisha's standards, anyway. He grimaced as he recalled the importance in which she held dinner, dancing, and diamonds.
A diamond... that might be presumptuous at this point, he realized; but in the not-too-distant future, it held definite possibilities. A smile returned to the stallion's face. The idea of spending the rest of his life with Adalee was much more satisfying than his earlier ill-conceived notion of marrying Trisha.
As Adalee returned to the room with a perky blue bow in her hair and a delicate scent of vanilla surrounding her, Dangler got to his hooves, a besotted a look on his face. Yes, he could certainly go for a lifetime of beautiful memories with this mare by his side.