"I still can't believe you accepted my invitation," Splotch said, dropping onto the sofa. She and Icon had spent the holidays in Happy Hollow with Splotch's family, and her lightly issued suggestion that her sister accompany her and Icon back to Woodlawn for some rest and relaxation had surprisingly been accepted with alacrity.
A dedicated royal lawyer in Queen Majesty's service, Lattice would normally have laughed at such an idea, pointing out that she had far too much work to tend back in Golden City. This year, however, she had seemed to anticipate such an invitation and had accepted it with sincere pleasure.
Lattice, Icon, and Splotch had journeyed to Woodlawn still surrounded by the merriment of the season so that the journey had been quite pleasant, but the sight of her and Icon's simple but comfortable apartment had reminded Splotch how much she had come to consider Woodlawn her home. Tucking her legs under her, she now shot her sister an inquisitive glance, awaiting her elder sibling's response.
"If you must know the truth, Mom was pushing hard for me to spend a week with her and Dad. Now, you know I love them both dearly; but with Ripples at the house, too, I just couldn't say yes."
Splotch giggled, hugging a pillow to her. "It's not so much Ripples as those two brats of hers. I hope cousin Ranger returns home before Mom and Dad run out of patience."
"Mom and Dad would do anything for Ranger; he was more of a son to them than a nephew... which makes this a good time to ask, Splotch, which are you yearning for, a son or a daughter?" Lattice asked, her eyes twinkling.
"Icon is determined that because he is from a family of boys and that Vanguard has so far issued nothing but boys that our firstborn will be a son also. But Mom and Dad had only the two of us and Stillwater has both a girl and a boy, so I'm not so sure." Her expression became soft and wistful. "But I couldn't care less which sex it is, Lattice. Just think, when summer comes, I'll have a little one to care for. Isn't it exciting?"
Lost in her enchanted thoughts, Splotch did not notice the shadow of unhappiness cross Lattice's face; and the entrance of Icon caused both mares to abandon their private musings. In his hooves was a freshly baked pizza from the local parlor and a motel key. "You're room is all set, Lattice. I drew the line at emptying your suitcase, however. It's waiting for you inside the door."
"Thank you, Icon," Lattice grinned. "I appreciate you help... and your good sense."
"I still don't understand why you won't stay here with us," Splotch pouted, uncurling her legs and standing wearily. "You know you're welcome."
"I love the two of you dearly," Lattice smiled, "but I remember too well the disagreements you and I had when we were at home yet." Lattice fixed Splotch with a teasing look. "And don't say those days were perfect. You and I often didn't see things in the same light."
"Don't you think we've outgrown our petty differences?" asked Splotch, refusing to remember the rivalry she had once felt toward her too-perfect sister or to admit to her own temper that could be unsettling to those around her.
Icon and Lattice shared a knowing look before Icon intervened. "Lattice explained that she wants to be free to come and go as she pleases. This is her respite, after all, and she shouldn't feel obligated to be at our beck and call." He flicked a kiss across his wife's cheek. "Now, let's eat this pizza before it's as cold as the night."
"I am hungry," Splotch admitted, sending Lattice and Icon into uncontrolled laughter. Pregnancy had turned her into a ravenous creature, as everyone who knew her well was aware.
"Boy or girl, this foal is going to be a butterball," Lattice choked, hugging her sister to her.
"From what I hear, Coppice is a bit on the chubby side," Splotch defended.
"Sugarberry and Vanguard are in town, you said."
"Yes, for a few days."
"Good. It will be nice to see them again... and meet the newest member of their family."
* * *
Several blocks away, Sugarberry and Vanguard were eating supper with Vanguard's parents. Banderol sat in the highchair while Coppice slept peacefully in the next room. Floral Breeze was just serving the dessert when the phone rang.
"You answer it, Sugarberry. It's probably Splotch, letting us know she and Icon are safely home."
Floral Breeze was right, and Sugarberry and Splotch had a lighthearted visit. "Lattice is here?" Sugarberry questioned as that information was relayed. "How wonderful for the two of you to have this time together."
"Well, she's distancing herself by staying at the motel.
"I'm sure she didn't want to intrude."
"Yeah. That's what she said."
Another voice came on the line. "Sug, is that you?" Icon asked. " I just got one sister-in-law settled and now I get to say goodnight to another."
"How nice to hear your voice, Icon. You made good time on your journey back from Happy Hollow."
"No thanks to Splotch. We had to stop at every restaurant on the way."
In the background, Sugarberry could hear a wail of protest. Sugarberry giggled, but defended the mother-to-be. "Don't be too hard on her, Icon. You have no idea how she's feeling."
"She feels as good as ever to me," Icon retorted, and Sugarberry could hear him deliver a sloppy kiss to Splotch and could imagine the bear hug she had received along with it. She rolled her eyes.
"No wonder Lattice didn't want to stay with you two."
"Speaking of Lattice, Splotch and I are going to show her the town tomorrow evening. Could you and Vanguard meet us at Hood's Place around eight?"
"Only if you and Splotch and Lattice will have lunch here with us at noon." She and Floral Breeze had already discussed that option.
"Sounds great; we'll be there. And remember, make extra for Splotch."
Sugarberry shook her head as the phone went suddenly dead; she knew that Splotch was making Icon pay for his teasing remark. She reseated herself at the table and glanced sweetly at the others. "Icon and Splotch are home and already at dagger's drawn."
Whirlpool chuckled. "Everything's normal, then." He shrugged. "Those two sure do love to haggle."
* * *
Hood's Place was a festive environment with barely an empty chair or stool. Icon had made sure that everyone in the small town of Woodlawn had heard that there would be out-of-town visitors at the popular ice cream shop. Some local residents came to look in awe upon one of Queen Majesty's cohorts; some showed up to critique Sugarberry's latest romance book; the majority came because of a relationship to Vanguard.
Besides Splotch and Icon, the third brother in Vanguard's family, Stillwater, arrived with his wife, Morning Dew. This left Floral Breeze and Whirlpool at home babysitting not only Banderol and Coppice, but also Droplet and Cascade. The brothers' closest cousin, Chiffon, and her husband, Tribute, were in attendance as were other cousins at home in Woodlawn- Stormy, Biscuit, Petal, Cadet, and Silver Frost. Friends and neighbors filled out the numbers.
Those who had come to get a glimpse of Lattice, whose high-ranking position put her in daily contact with the leading citizens of Ponyland, were to be disappointed. There was no doubt that she was sophisticated and beautiful; but if they had not known better, they would have mistaken her for one of their own. She talked animatedly with everyone, regardless of status. She laughed over local humor, shared amusing anecdotes that offended no one, and listened politely to arguments concerning governmental policies.
Throughout it all, however, an astute observer would have noted that Lattice's gaze often rested on the ice cream shop's front door as if awaiting the arrival of someone special. Her perusal of every new face that came into the shop was discreet but pointed; and as the evening grew later, her enthusiasm waned as if she had given up the hope of seeing whomever it was that she was watching for.
"Are you tired, sis?" Splotch leaned over to ask, concerned that Lattice seemed to be wilting. She knew that Lattice normally had unflagging energy. "You didn't pick up a cold or flu from those runny-nosed brats of Ripples, did you?"
"I feel just fine. I'm on vacation, remember? I don't have to meet any deadlines, so I probably look lethargic by comparison." Lattice smiled and patted Splotch's hoof assuringly. "I'm having a great time."
Interrupted by the talkative Vivi, Splotch turned her attention to that friend and missed a series of events that might have given her a clue to Lattice's preoccupation.
The door to Hood's Place had opened, and a soft-beige mare stepped in out of the cold; she took one look at the crowd of ponies inside and turned back to the door where a fawn-colored stallion followed. She whispered something into the stallion's ear, and both ponies grinned companionably before entering further into the noisy diner.
Lattice's attention had been caught by the entrance of the young mare, the sight of her triggering some forgotten recognition that Lattice could not pinpoint. The stallion following so close behind, though, triggered a completely different emotion in the royally-connected mare.
Her face in the first moment had registered total approval, as if this was the pony she had been waiting for; but upon seeing the stallion respond so familiarly with the mare, a look of confusion had enveloped her. Lattice watched as the stallion escorted the mare to one of the few empty chairs, then turned her eyes away. Only then did Lattice realize that Icon was asking her if she wanted coffee or soda, and she shook her head dismally.
"Neither, thank you."
"Are you okay?"
Unusual for her, Lattice returned a sharp retort. "Would you and Splotch stop worrying about me as if I'm some sort of invalid?" Realizing how trite that sounded, she reached out to touch Icon's foreleg. "I'm sorry, Icon. The trip must have tired me more than I realized. Would it ruin the evening if I quietly slipped out the back door?"
Throughout this exchange, Lattice had lost track of the fawn-colored stallion; now he spoke from close to her shoulder.
"I'd be disappointed, Lattice. I've barely had a chance to get a good look at you."
Lattice turned her head, her gentle dove-gray eyes meeting the stallion's tawny ones. "A... Anchor. How nice to see you again." Her words were sincere, yet there was an edge to them.
"It seems like an age since you were in Woodlawn last."
"Only six months ago," Lattice returned coolly, referring to the time of Icon and Splotch's wedding in which Lattice and Anchor had served as one of the attendant couples. "How have you been?"
"Busy," Anchor said, drawing back as if he sensed Lattice's reticence. "But I'm sure your schedule puts mine to shame."
Icon intervened. "Lattice is here to escape work, so no shop-talk. How's Cammie enjoying her stay?"
"Like she enjoys everything... to the limit. I'm sure Splotch has informed you of her suggestions to improve the office."
"Actually, Splotch is afraid you'll hire Cammie to replace her."
With a chuckle, Anchor shot an admiring glance in the direction of the beige mare. "As much as I love Cammie, I don't want to put up with her in my office for any length of time."
"It'll be great, though, if she decides to fill-in for Splotch when the foal's born."
"We'll see; she can be a hoof-full." Anchor turned again to Lattice, his voice suddenly formal, his eyes hooded. "It was nice seeing you again. I wish you well in the new year." And before Lattice could respond, he turned and walked back to the waiting Cammie.
Icon had turned his attention to some good-natured kidding from his cousins, so Lattice was free to pursue her own thoughts for the moment. She watched as Anchor returned to Cammie's side; she saw Cammie cast a bright smile on him and pull him into the chair next to hers; she noted the fact that Anchor draped a foreleg around her shoulder as the two of them engaged Blake and Silver Frost in conversation; and she felt her heart constrict as is something very important had just wafted away, for it had been Lattice's intent in coming to Woodlawn to ascertain whether or not she and Anchor could possibly cultivate a future together.
What she had seen stifled that hope.
* * *
Lattice raised her head from the motel pillow to check the time and groaned. Raising a foreleg to cover her eyes, she debated getting up and unpacking one of the books she had left in her luggage, but found she did not have the energy to move. She had not slept well all through the night; and now, at four in the morning, she was feeling the adverse effects of her insomnia.
For the most part, she was exasperated with herself. What had come over her that had turned her decisive, career-oriented personality into that of a waffling romantic. She could not believe the resentment and envy she had felt toward Cammie when she did not even know the young mare. Lattice felt herself floundering, pulled by some force she did not understand.
All Lattice knew for sure was that for the months since Splotch and Icon's wedding, she had looked back on her time spent with Anchor as something of a reprieve, a calming experience that had seen her through some trying times of late in Golden City.
The mare rubbed a weary forehoof across her eyes. She had met high-ranking stallions without blinking an eye; worked with wealthy, influential businessponies without a twinge; conversed with movie stars without a flutter. Then why could she not get Anchor out of her mind? Why did an deep-seated peacefulness invade her being when she relived the hours that she and Anchor had shared as attendants to Icon and Splotch?
Why did every day of her future now seem bleak and lonely?
Good grief! Lattice chastised herself. She stared at the ceiling, lit only vaguely by the outside lights being filtered through the drawn curtains. I came close to making a complete and utter fool of myself by declaring my feelings to Anchor. How he would have squirmed to be faced with my dream of a life together when he has already found the mare of his own dreams.
A lone tear trickled down Lattice's cheek and soaked into the pillowcase. Lattice angrily dashed her hoof over her cheek, refusing to allow her emotions to run away with her. She rolled over, ignoring the glaring red numbers of the digital clock, her mind made up.
Tomorrow morning, she would take control of her life again. She would leave Woodlawn behind and return to Golden City. That settled, she fell into a dreary sleep.
* * *
"No!" Lattice groaned, covering her ears with her pillow. The telephone on her bedside stand was ringing, loudly and incessantly. When the eighth ring sounded, Lattice knew she was defeated. Opening one bleary eye, she gasped to see it was already nine-thirty in the morning. Always an early riser, Lattice was dismayed. She sat up, throwing the covers to the side, and jumped out of bed, picking up the receiver in the same motion.
"Lattice here." She was pleased that her voice sounded as if she was in complete control.
"Did I get you out of the shower?" Splotch's voice asked.
"You're lucky I heard the phone at all," Lattice prevaricated.
"Well, I would have called you earlier, but I thought you might be sleeping in on your vacation. I should have known better. But isn't the snow beautiful? I bet you're glad you got here when you did, or you would have been stranded along the road somewhere."
"The snow..." Lattice moved to the windows and pulled back the drapes, her mouth gaping open as she took in the fluffy white mounds of snow that had enveloped the earth overnight and that was still falling. "Oh, yes, it's beautiful all right," she said pleasantly, but her face registered a severe grimace. So much for her plans to escape Woodlawn as quickly as possible. Not even her personal self-determination would allow her to face the hazards involved in traveling in such weather.
"Why don't you come down to the office, and we'll have lunch together. The sidewalks were shoveled earlier, so you shouldn't have too difficult a walk. Just be careful. Icon's going to join us, too."
"I was thinking..."
"He's treating us to lunch at Fernwood; Biscuit promised us royal treatment, in lieu of you being here. Can you meet us here at twelve-thirty?"
Lattice could not help but smile. "Twelve-thirty? Can you hang out that long?"
"I'm eating a snack now to tide me over," Splotch informed her sister. I've got fruit, cheese, and crackers..."
"That sounds healthy and nourishing."
"... and some frosted sugar cookies from Floral Breeze."
Lattice laughed. "I should have known."
"I'm eating for two now," Splotch defended. "And believe me, this little one is as hungry as I am."
In a wave of an unnamed sorrow, Lattice was engulfed once more with all of her feelings of disappointment from the previous evening. Her shoulders slumped, and she moved to sit down on the bed. Struggling to stifle the black mood that had settled on her, she forced a smile to her lips. "You'll be a great mother, Splotch."
"I hope so, Lattice! Sometimes I can't believe that Icon and I are going to be parents. Am I ready for all that responsibility?"
"Take it one day at a time," Lattice advised, "and you'll do just fine."
"Thanks, Lattice. Your confidence in me is appreciated. Oh! I have to take another call. Don't forget, be here by twelve-thirty... no later!"
Setting down the phone, Lattice sighed. One day at a time. That was advice she was going to have to use herself.
* * *
Arriving at Anchor's downtown legal office, Lattice stopped a moment to brace herself. She would remain pleasant and in control of herself if Anchor happened to be present; he need never know what thoughts she had entertained in regard to their mutual future. She would meet him as one legal professional to another, with polite reserve. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Her resolve was squelched in the first moment. Clustered around the receptionist's desk stood Splotch, Icon, Anchor, and an older pony that Lattice had not previously met, all of them laughing over something the fourth pony in the scenario had said. In the chair behind the desk sat Cammie, her brown eyes sparkling with merriment.
"I promise you I won't make that mistake again," Anchor was saying. "Robby, you can have complete confidence in my ability to handle your situation."
The unknown stallion, Robby, gave Anchor a friendly punch in the shoulder. "Make sure you do it up right, or I'll transfer my account to Cammie as soon as she settles here." With that, Robby headed for the door, coming up short as he encountered Lattice. "Excuse me, ma'am," he smiled as he walked around her and stepped outside where the snow was once again accumulating on the sidewalk.
"Lattice!" Splotch exclaimed, coming to her sister's side. "Don't just stand there with the door open! We'll all freeze to death!"
"I... I didn't want to interrupt," Lattice stuttered, avoiding looking at either Anchor or Cammie. "Icon, I hope I haven't kept you waiting."
"You're right on time; and now that Robby is gone, Anchor can close up the office so we can all get something to eat."
"All?" Lattice questioned, her gaze unconsciously meeting Anchor's.
"I hope you don't mind that Cammie and I are joining your luncheon," Anchor said, frowning slightly as he realized that Lattice was disturbed by his inclusion in the party.
Lattice could think of nothing original to say. "The more, the merrier," she managed, hating her use of the trite phrase. She tried to smile, but found her lips set stiffly in a straight line.
Cammie stood up and moved around the desk. "Anchor's been promising to take me to Fernwood forever, but something always comes up. Icon was kind enough to invite me." She sent an appealing pout Anchor's direction, then kissed Icon's cheek.
Anchor looked at Cammie sternly, then grinned at Lattice. "You haven't been introduced to Cammie yet, have you? Lattice, I'd like you to meet my baby sister who is a sore trial to all the family. Cammie, this is..."
"I don't need to be told who this is," Cammie stated, coming forward to extend her hoof to a dazed Lattice. "I know you're Queen Majesty's best lawyer... as well as the prettiest. I'm honored to meet you."
"Thank you, Cammie," Lattice managed, looking at the mare closely. How had she missed the obvious similarities between the two ponies? Although Cammie was a much paler shade of Anchor's fawn coloring, the brother and sister were crowned with dark green manes, although Cammie's sported apple green highlights. But it was the eyes that branded them most effectively as siblings... brown orbs that could deepen to rich chocolate or pale to a mellow topaz. "It's a pleasure to meet you, too. I heard last evening that you're helping out at the office here."
"Yup! I'm on semester break from Binksville University, so Anchor is giving me a chance to earn some money."
"I'm trying to give her some direction in her life," Anchor intoned. "She has no idea what she wants to major in."
"And big brother is pushing me toward a career in the legal profession," Cammie grimaced. "I'm not so sure."
"That's the whole idea," Anchor argued. "After a month of working here, you'll have a better idea of what's involved and can make up your own mind."
"You promise you won't put me on a guilt trip if I opt out?" Cammie asked.
"Well, then, let's get out of here," Splotch said, grabbing Icon's forehoof and pushing Lattice ahead of her out the door. "Minikin and I are hungry."
"Minikin?" Lattice asked, turning her head to meet Icon's gaze.
Icon shrugged and grinned. "It's a temporary name for the foal."
"How... original," Lattice said
"You realize that he or she will be stuck with that for a nickname for the rest of his or her life," Anchor laughed.
"It's better than being called bratling," Cammie sniffed, casting her brother a sideways glance.
"The name fit... and still does," Anchor retorted. Everyone laughed as Cammie sent her brother a withering glance and a hoof-full of feathery snow.
Lattice's attention, focused on her companions' antics, did not notice an icy patch on the sidewalk and her back leg began to slip out from under her; but Anchor was at her side in an instant, steadying her with a strong foreleg. His touch sent a tingling sensation along Lattice's dark pink side, but all too soon he released her and put some distance between them, causing Lattice to shiver from the cold.
"Thanks for sparing me a sudden set-down," she stated softly, wishing he would offer his protection once more.
"I wouldn't want to face our queen's wrath if something happened to extend your stay here in Woodlawn," Anchor brushed off the thanks, not knowing how much his stark words froze Lattice's heart.
* * *
Impressed with Fernwood's luncheon menu, Lattice enjoyed the meal, yet added little to the bantering conversation carried on by the other four ponies at the table. Her emotions were on a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows as she assimilated the fact that Anchor was unattached romantically, yet seemingly uninterested in her as nothing more than Queen Majesty's royal assistant. Lattice gave no thought to the fact that she had been less than encouraging in her recent attitude toward the stallion.
She noted the familiarity with which Anchor interacted with his sister and Splotch and Icon and felt the cool politeness with which he addressed her. His manner was charming and correct, but Lattice longed for some sign that he held her in some affection on a personal level. She was so absorbed in her own bleak thoughts that she did not hear Splotch's question until she became aware of a hoof waving in front of her face.
"Lattice, stop mulling over your latest court case," Splotch reprimanded. "We need your input on our sledding party."
"Sledding?" Lattice asked, blushing slightly, glancing at her companions. What would they think of her if they knew where her thoughts were taking her?
Icon explained. "There's a hill just outside of town that's perfect for sledding. Stillwater and Vanguard and their families are going to join us there tomorrow," Icon gestured to include everyone at the table, "and Mom's fixing lunch. Does that sound okay to you?"
"I haven't been sledding since I was in grade school," Lattice hesitated. "I'd be happy to help Floral Breeze prepare lunch, though."
"Oh, no, you don't!" argued Splotch. "You're here to have a good time, and I'm going to make sure you do!"
"Oh, do come, Lattice," Cammie begged. "It'll be such fun!"
Lattice looked from one to the other of the pleading faces of Cammie and Splotch, and her heart skipped a beat as she saw that Anchor, too, seemed to be begging for her acquiescence. "Okay," she capitulated. "I'll come along. But," she warned in her most authoritative lawyer's voice, "I'm not promising anything more than to watch."
"Great!" squealed Cammie.
Lattice did not miss the wink that Anchor sent her way, and she found herself looking forward impatiently to the morrow's activities.
* * *
"I've said it before, and I meant it: I'm not going down that hill on a sled," Lattice said, the tone of her voice leaving no room for doubt. She had refused to take on the steep slope, shaking her head emphatically whenever she had been offered the opportunity of an empty sled.
"But, Lattice," Cammie wailed. "You're missing all the fun!"
"That's not true, and you know it," Lattice argued. "I've been cuddling shivering foals while they wait their turn on the slope, and that's more than enough fun for me."
She had thoroughly enjoyed the foals' companionship- and their innate honesty- over the course of the outing and would have accompanied them and their mothers back to Floral Breeze's home if Cammie and Splotch had not intervened, convincing her to stay and watch one final race which was to include Icon, Anchor, Vanguard, Stillwater, and Cammie herself.
Splotch was relegated to the sidelines with Lattice, as Icon refused to let her take the steepest run for fear of doing harm to the unborn foal. She had, instead, taken runs with Banderol, Droplet, and Cascade on the gentler slope that offered safety as well as a taste of the sport. Splotch was now situated at the end of the run to determine the winner.
As Icon and his brothers and Cammie lined up at the starting line, Anchor held back. "I concede victory to one of you," he grinned when Cammie took him to task for chickening-out. "I'm fully aware that I lack the talent to be a champion sledder... and I've been in the snowbank enough for one day."
"Coward!" Cammie shot back as she positioned herself on the sled, maintaining a low profile to provide the least resistance.
Lattice took up her position to signal the start of the downhill race and sent the participants on their way. She watched gleefully as the four contestants pushed off, noting that Cammie actually jumped the gun by a few seconds. The only sound was of the metal runners slipping through the snow as the racers concentrated on keeping their bodies streamlined and their sleds aimed at the fastest areas on the slope.
"Oh my gosh!" Lattice choked as she watched Cammie maneuver her sled in front of Stillwater's, causing that stallion's sled to careen to the side when the runners screeched together momentarily. Stillwater recovered full control, but lost his lead. At the base of the slope, Vanguard skidded out of control and hit a bare patch of ground that brought him to a sudden stop, allowing Icon to pass his brother by. Icon and Cammie were neck-and-neck coming into the finish line, but Cammie made the mistake of celebrating a victory too soon, lifting her head to shout a depreciatory remark at Icon which only served to slow her pace enough that Icon won the margin of victory, much to Splotch's glee. She greeted her husband with an exuberant hug that sent both of them onto the cold snowy ground, and Splotch's laughter echoed up the hill to where Lattice stood.
Again, a feeling of loneliness washed over the mare as she watched her sister and Icon share a tender kiss before Icon accepted the congratulations of the other racers. When they turned to wave and shout goodbye did Lattice realize that she was alone with Anchor at the top of the hill. She resisted the urge to call the others back, fighting against a self-consciousness that she had not felt since she was a teenager. She wildly searched her mind for something to say that would not sound too forward but would open the door between her and Anchor.
She opened her mouth and turned to comment on the race, but closed it abruptly when she found Anchor standing close beside her.
"We can take the slow route down or jump on the sled and close the gap between us and the others," Anchor said, his eyes laughing down at her.
"I'm sorry Cammie lost the race."
"She'll be fine," Anchor chuckled, nodding toward the disappearing ponies. Lattice followed his gaze and saw that the young mare was indeed enjoying her loss as she peppered the others with snowballs which they returned in kind. Cammie's laughter tinkled back through the wintry air. "But I think we should get you back to a warm house before you suffer from frost bite." He took her hoof in his and tugged her toward the sled. "The sooner, the better."
"I'm not all that cold," Lattice protested, offering little resistance to Anchor's gentle prodding. She found his touch comforting to the extreme and felt warmed by it. Right at this moment, she did not care if she ever went home- not as long as Anchor's brown eyes looked at her so caringly.
"Come. We'll take the sled down."
Anchor settled himself on the sled without releasing his grip on Lattice and pulled her down in front of him, wrapping his forelegs protectively around her. "Now trust me in this," he whispered in her ear, gathering the rope lead in one hoof and pushing off from the summit with the other.
For a moment, Lattice was terrified by the thought of hurtling down the slope; but as the sled picked up speed and she was forced to lean back into Anchor's strength, she relaxed, enjoying not so much the wind against her face and the rate at which they were traveling as the proximity of Anchor and the comfort she experienced from his nearness and the knowledge that he would protect her from any harm. In a moment of blinding clarity, she knew that she had fallen totally and irrevocably in love with Anchor. In the next moment, she found herself half-buried in a snowbank as the runner encountered the edge of a snow-covered rock and tipped, expelling its occupants.
* * *
"Sorry about that," Anchor grinned, his face only inches from hers. "Are you okay?"
"So much for trusting you," Lattice snipped, feeling the chill of the cold snow settling into her body. She struggled to sit upright, but Anchor blocked her progress.
"Here, let me help," he suggested, rolling over to get to his hooves and offering her his assistance. He pulled her effortlessly up, and the two stood facing one another for a second or two, their gazes locked, before Anchor slowly and deliberately lowered his head to meet her lips. Lattice closed her eyes in anticipation and...
"Lattice! Are you okay? You're not going to faint, are you?" Cammie's worried voice echoed through Lattice's senses. "Anchor, how could you do something so stupid as to spill Lattice off the sled?!! She might have broken something, and then what would Queen Majesty do? And you call me the irresponsible one!"
Cammie tucked Lattice's foreleg possessively in her care and led her after the stallions who had stopped to wait for the runaway Cammie who had- unfortunately for the tender moment that was budding between Anchor and Lattice- witnessed the sled's mishap. Lattice's emotions were running rampant after that near kiss, and she had no energy to resist the younger mare's ministrations. She did, however, dare a quick glance at Anchor who still stood where Cammie had found them, bewilderment clouding his face.
Bewilderment, Lattice wondered, over having dared the attempt to kiss her?
Suddenly, Lattice saw what had happened between them from a different perspective... and she cringed. What if Anchor had been merely going to whisper a warning that Cammie was coming to smother her with unnecessary concern? And she had responded in so wanton a manner as to prepare herself for his kiss! What must he think of her!
She turned her eyes away, wondering how she could ever face him again.
* * *
The weather was turning colder, and Lattice was feelings the effects of it and her dumping off the sled by the time the party reached Floral Breeze's comfortable haven. Icon made sure she was cozily situated in front of the fireplace where the warmth of the burning wood could sooth her battered muscles and ease her aching heart.
She had seen little of Anchor. He had seemed to avoid her on the walk to the house, keeping his distance and letting the others carry on the conversation. Once inside, Anchor had disappeared entirely, stepping into the living room only for a moment to announce that he had to meet with a client over some unexpected development; he had made his apology to Floral Breeze and bid a general goodbye to the rest of the guests with barely a glance in Lattice's direction. Lattice needed no further proof that she had misread his intent and that he had been repulsed by her reaction.
* * *
Regardless of her troubling day, Lattice had no trouble sleeping that night and awoke the following morning at her regular time, rested and energetic. She had showered and curled her shimmering white hair and then had packed her luggage which now stood waiting at the door. All she had to do now was place a call to Splotch, informing her that she had been called back to Golden City on an emergency. That this was a lie had no significance. She had been chasing a pipe dream; and now, knowing it to be false, she was ready to move on.
Startled to hear a knock on the door, Lattice frowned. She had specifically told Splotch and Icon not to disturb her this morning, claiming fatigue as her excuse. She should have known it would only make Splotch all the more concerned. "Oh, well," she sighed. "It will save me making a phone call to break the news."
Upon opening the door, however, she found not Splotch but Anchor awaiting her. In the stallion's hoof was a tissue-wrapped parcel that could only be flowers. He seemed anxious, as if unsure of his welcome.
"Good morning, Lattice. I wanted to apologize for my poor handling of the sled yesterday." He offered her the flower bouquet, which she unconsciously accepted. "Cammie said she thought you were hurt, but unwilling to admit it. I hate to think I caused you pain."
Raising a hoof to silence the stallion, Lattice smiled. "Please, don't be concerned. I suffered no ill effects from the incident. I'll admit that I never felt quite so cold, but that was nothing you did."
"You certainly look well." He visibly relaxed. "I was wondering... have you breakfasted yet? We have an excellent little diner that I'd like to introduce you to."
"Under other circumstances, I would be pleased to accept; but I've been summoned back to Golden City by Queen Majesty. I'll be leaving within the hour."
"You're leaving... so soon?" The disappointment on Anchor's face was easy to read.
"That's part of the job; I'm sure you understand." Lattice felt her resolve begin to crumble, so she hastily added. "I really am pressed for time..."
"I'll take myself off then," Anchor said, his eyes searching her face as if memorizing every detail. "Have a safe journey, Lattice."
"Thank you. And good day to you as well." Lattice turned quickly and closed the door, unable to keep up the charade any longer. She closed her eyes against the welling tears and fought them down. Her future did not include a life with Anchor, nor with any stallion. What had taken possession of her to even consider the matter? She was married to her career.
Opening her eyes, Lattice dashed away one stray tear that had escaped, then headed for the telephone to inform Splotch of her plans. She was very anxious to get away from Woodlawn and back to her busy world. And, she promised herself, there would be no looking back.
As if to seal her vow, Lattice dropped the flower bouquet, without a glance, into the wastebasket.