Miranda finished with her last client of the day and had just escorted him to the bank lobby when she saw a stallion in one of the chairs in the waiting area who was looking at her closely. As their eyes met, the stallion smiled pleasantly, stood, and came forward to greet her.
"Miranda?" he asked.
"I'm Jack Ceridan," the stallion answered. "I met your father in New Pony last week; and when he learned that I was to be in Dream Valley, he suggested that I stop by to see you."
"I'd be very happy to help you with your financial planning," Miranda said, noting the teal stallion's symbol of gold coins and foreseeing an extensive portfolio in her hooves. "Please, come into my office," She began to lead the way, but Jack stopped her.
"My finances are all secure," he smiled. "I was hoping to take you to dinner this evening."
Looking disappointed, Miranda frowned. "There are some attractive investment opportunities available right now..."
"Forget about business. Please, come with me to dinner or your father will think I let him down."
"I will speak with my father. Good day!" Miranda turned to indicate that she would waste no more time on this stallion.
Jack watched her disappear into her office and chuckled. He had not been looking forward to this enforced acquaintance; but now that he had seen the mare, he found himself wanting to get to know her better. But there would be time for that. He was to be in town a few days, advising Queen Serena on some points of protocol Majesty wanted reviewed in light of the approaching marriage of Princess Tiffany to Guido Casale. Yes, there would be plenty of time to win this attractive mare's approval yet.
* * *
Miranda lost no time in calling her father, and she was not happy with the results. After his disapproval of Roland-- an insignificant business teacher at Pony Pride-- he had taken it upon himself to line up an appropriate prospect for his daughter; and Jack, someone he had long admired, appeared to him as a most suitable candidate for his only child.
"Jack has an important role in the government of Ponyland," Juniper told his daughter. "He could do wonders for your career."
"I'm doing just fine with my career as it is," Miranda snapped.
"Now, Miranda, I realize that you are happy with your job in Dream Valley, but we both now that you are capable of better things; Jack could open new doors of possibilities..."
"Father! I didn't like Jack! He presented himself as an overbearing, domineering, egotistical..." Miranda hesitated, realizing that she was describing her father as well as Jack. "...He wasn't even interested in my financial counseling!"
Juniper chuckled. "I'm sure Jack has no need of your services in that regard, Miranda. His wealth is quite well-managed as it is."
Miranda hesitated. "How wealthy is he, anyway?"
"Very wealthy, Miranda. His father was involved in Ponyland's government, and Jack followed in his hoofsteps. He has the ear of every important pony in Ponyland, the very social circle you should be cultivating."
"He didn't seem that impressive," Miranda muttered.
"You haven't done something to compromise your esteem in his eyes, I hope," Juniper replied sharply.
"We barely had the chance to make any serious inroads," Miranda said evasively.
"Well, I'm sure you will make the most of this opportunity, Miranda," Jupiter said before ending the conversation. "Give Jack my best regards."
Miranda stood in deep thought, pondering the words of her father. She needed to talk with someone, but she had not made many close friends since moving to Dream Valley; in fact, there was no one who fit that classification. She had dismissed Roland at her father's express wish. Toby had been a complete disappointment; and now that he was head-over-heals in love with Fern, he would care even less about Miranda's personal problems. And Miranda had spent her time making an impressive, though local, name for herself in the financial realm-- that was what her father had always wanted for her. Why, now, was he equating her success with who she hung out with?
Miranda moved nervously about the room, resenting her father's interference in her affairs. She was old enough to know what she wanted out of life; she was certainly capable of choosing her own friends.
Having come to that realization, the mare reached for the telephone and dialed a familiar number. She waited irritably as the ringing phone grated on her senses, and was just about to hang up when Roland's voice came on the line.
"Roland, it's Miranda. I know that I asked you to not call me anymore, but I desperately need someone to talk with; could we meet somewhere?"
"Tonight?" Roland asked stiffly.
"Yes, tonight," Miranda huffed. "I haven't eaten yet; maybe we could go to the Cafe Carousel like... like we used to do; I need your advice."
"I'm sorry, Miranda; but I have a previous engagement." Roland sounded as if he regretted his plans.
Miranda was hit by a pang of jealousy. "Who is she?"
"It's not a date; Vanguard and Sugarberry invited me over for supper; I was just ready to walk out the door."
"And who else has Sugarberry invited?" The mare could not help but remember that it was at Sugarberry's dinner party that she had met Roland.
"No one, other than Chocolate Chip and Wishbone."
"I see. Well, I won't delay you any longer. Good night."
"Miranda!" Roland could not let this unforeseen opportunity go unheeded. "I can beg off early and meet you in... an hour and a half at the Cafe Carousel. Okay?"
"I'll see you later."
* * *
Miranda had just finished her lonely meal at the quiet restaurant when Roland came in; the waitress brought the couple a fresh carafe of coffee, then left them to themselves.
"So what's bothering you, Miranda?"
Putting on a pouty face, Miranda dove right in. "It was one thing when my father told me who I could not see, but it's quite another when he tells me who I should see."
"Oh," said Roland, squelching any hopes for a reconciliation between them. "Who's the lucky stallion?" He took a swallow of coffee, burning his tongue yet welcoming the pain it afforded him, numbing his senses.
"Someone who is big in Ponyland's government... Jack Ceridan from New Pony."
"I've seen him," Roland managed to say; "He came to speak at the commencement when I was teaching at Limestone Ridges."
"What did you think of him?"
Roland mulled over the question, searching for an answer that was truthful without being too affirmative. "He seemed to know what he was talking about."
"I found him to be rather arrogant."
"I didn't get that impression at all; he is very intelligent and is quite a problem-solver; Queen Majesty considers him one of her top advisors."
"I wonder what he's doing in Dream Valley?"
"He's here, now?"
"Yes. He stopped at my office to invite me to dinner, at my father's suggestion."
Roland grinned. "Let me guess; you offered to take on his financial business instead."
"Well, it is my job," Miranda sniffed. "You didn't turn down my help."
"That was because I was infatuated with you." And still am, he could have added. But he restrained himself from contributing to Miranda's quandary.
"I'm sorry about what happened with us," Miranda smiled ruefully. "My father was not prepared to allow me a choice in the matter."
Reaching across the table to take her hoof, Roland asked, "Can you live with his choice?"
The mare pulled her hoof back. "I'll have to, won't I?"
* * *
Letting herself into her apartment, Miranda found a message on her machine. "Miranda, this is Princess Dawn; Queen Serena would like to speak with you tomorrow over a luncheon at the Royal Paradise. Please verify by calling as soon as possible."
"Now what?" muttered the mare. She handled some of the accounts of Dream Valley's royalty, but she had never before been summoned to the Royal Paradise; Queen Serena had always come to the office if she wanted to discuss financial matters. Miranda dutifully called, however, and acquiesced.
* * *
A slightly out-of-breath Miranda arrived at the Royal Paradise the next day; she had been forced to cut short her last appointment of the morning and to postpone several others. She ran a hoof through her mane as she waited for the doorbell's summons to admit her; it was Spike who let her in and preceded her down the hall to a rather large room of settees and comfortable chairs. Miranda searched the room for Queen Serena but found instead... Jack.
The stallion had obviously been awaiting her arrival, for he was already on the way to where she stood. He dropped a pretentious bow before her and took her hoof in his. "I'm delighted that you could join us."
Join us? How much power did this stallion have that he could presume to be in command here? Miranda smiled politely. "I did not think it wise to turn down a royal invitation."
"I convinced Queen Serena of the necessity of your input on some of the affairs directly involving Princess Tiffany's assets in connection with her home here at the Royal Paradise and how her impending marriage will affect them."
"You surely would know better than I," Miranda stated, feeling both honored and repulsed by the stallion's manipulation of her time for what she was sure were personal motives.
"Queen Serena will be the judge of that." Jack nodded toward the doorway. "And she is waiting for us in the dining room."
* * *
The luncheon had gone well; Queen Serena was an excellent hostess as well as a superb administrator-- the food had been wonderful and the business was easily discussed to everyone's satisfaction. It was only after Queen Serena had excused herself for further appointments that Miranda suddenly felt uncomfortable.
Looking at her watch, the mare moved toward the hallway. "I have an appointment with a client myself. I can see myself out."
Jack had other plans; he escorted her to the door himself, all the while relating his itinerary for the coming weeks, ending with, "So, as you can see, the only possible chance for you and I to have dinner together is this very evening."
The invitation took Miranda by surprise, and she turned to study this stallion's face; he was so infuriatingly imperious, almost arrogant. She was used to such airs from ponies like her father who had reason to be proud of their accomplishments, but Jack was too young to be so successful and all-assuming. Yet she realized that he would not back down until he got his dinner date with her, so she sighed rather tragically and replied, "What time?"
Jack raised an eyebrow over her defeated attitude. "I assure you, we will have a lovely evening. I'll pick you up at seven-thirty."
"Until then," Miranda nodded and left the royal dwelling.
* * *
It had been a late day at the office due to the scheduling changes precipitated by the luncheon meeting at the Royal Paradise, and Miranda found herself rushed to be ready on time for Jack's arrival. She had just dabbed on some perfume and run a comb through her hair when the doorbell of her apartment rang. She looked into the mirror one last time before heading for the door and admitting the stallion.
"Good evening, Miranda," Jack smiled, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. "They reminded me of you."
Miranda had to smile because the posies were all shades of mauve and purple which did mirror her own colors. "That was very thoughtful of you," she found herself saying. "I'll put them in water right away."
While she took care of the flowers, Jack perused the living room to see what he could learn about this mare from her surroundings. He noted the CD's by the stereo, the books on the end table, the style of the furniture, and the pictures on the wall; from them he gleaned enough information to direct the course of the evening's conversation. Once Miranda returned with the bouquet in a lovely cut-glass vase that she placed on her desk "...where I will be enlightened by their beauty and fragrance", the couple left the apartment for the Estate Manor.
The evening was going well; they had discussed music, art, and literature and found that their tastes were similar even to their favorite current recording artist. Jack was pleased that Miranda seemed to be enjoying herself, and that he had been successful in turning her opinion of him around. He found this mare to be special somehow; he was accustomed to associating with all levels of royalty, but he had never been so taken by the charms of any of them as he was by Miranda.
For her part, Miranda was finding that what she had earlier taken for arrogance was a keen intelligence; she understood now why Majesty put so much trust in this pony's discernment. Their conversation over dinner had revealed that he was logical, yet perceptive, and Miranda had warmed to his company. She realized that she had been so busy with work since she had settled in Dream Valley that she had forgone the joy of an affable conversation with such a knowledgeable pony. She yearned for the evening to go on forever, but in no time the couple was outside Miranda's apartment door.
"I'll look forward to my next visit to Dream Valley," Jack smiled, "if you'll consent to another evening together."
"I can think of nothing I would like better."
"Good night, then, Miranda, until our paths cross again."
* * *
Roland sighed as his classroom visitor finished her presentation to his business students; the information she had imparted was good, but he had found himself on pins and needles since the mare had entered his domain ten minutes late of her appointed time.
Becca worked for the benefit of Dream Valley's business community, involved heavily with the Chamber of Commerce. She was knowledgeable about every facet of her job, yet Roland was regretting having invited her to share her insights with his class. It was bad enough that she had showed up late; Roland frowned upon anyone who did not respect a fixed time as it disrupted his well-planned schedule.
That, however, was only a minor inconvenience compared to the manner in which this trim and pretty mare handled a piece of chalk; she was an expert at releasing that screechy, scratchy sound that drove him crazy. His students, well aware of his phobia, enjoyed his apparent distress while Becca remained quite oblivious to it. This, along with her upbeat enthusiasm, endeared her to the students who barraged her with questions when she was finished with her talk.
After the bell rang to signal the end of the class period, some of the students remained behind to further converse with Becca while she packed away her notes and paraphernalia; the mare, caught up with their perceptive comments, closed her briefcase. Picking it up, it became apparent that she had not properly latched it, and the entire contents of the case slid helter-scelter across the floor followed by energetic students endeavoring to chase papers and charts.
Roland helpfully repacked the disorganized items once more in the briefcase and closed it properly, handing it to Becca with a weary smile. "Thanks for your time, Becca; the class enjoyed your presentation and learned a great deal." He guided her toward the door, anxious to gain some semblance of order in his domain.
"It was my pleasure," the mare smiled at him, leaving with several of the students who were adverse to losing her sunny company.
Making a mental note to avoid asking Becca to return for any future appearances, Roland proceeded to erase the blackboard with a vengeance in an effort to wipe this disorganized episode from his memory. As he worked, he found himself reliving the memory of the annoying sounds Becca's board work had evoked; he gritted his teeth and shivered in spite of himself. It was at this moment that Petal, one of his students, came breathlessly into the room.
"Excuse me, but Becca fell."
"What? How?" Roland asked even while envisioning just such a happening.
"I think she tripped over the door sill."
Roland raised a questioning brow. "Is that possible?" But he was already on his way to lend what assistance he could with Petal following closely behind him. "Is she hurt?" was his next question.
"More than she's willing to let on," Petal admitted. "I saw tears in her eyes while she was trying to convince us she was okay."
By the time Roland reached the doorway where Becca had experienced her tumble, several of his students had already assisted the mare in moving to a bench in the hallway. Becca was rubbing her right thigh where a painful-looking lump had formed, although she was assuring her rescuers that she would be fine in a minute. Roland hoped she was right, but a closer look at the swelling belied that prospect.
Taking charge as he felt somehow responsible having been the one to invite Becca to speak to his class, Roland sent Petal ahead to notify the student nurse that a patient was on the way while he and a hefty stallion named Lariat guided Becca in the direction of the medical office on campus. Her step was slow and painful, but she bore it with resolve.
The pony on duty, Nurse Warble, took one look at the swollen area and set to work to relieve the discomfort the mare was experiencing. When her work was through, the nurse had Becca take a tentative step, and it was found that she could walk reasonably well, but would do best with some support.
Lariat had already disappeared and Petal, handing over Becca's briefcase, said she was sorry but she was due to start her shift at Pizza Hut. That left none but Roland to walk the mare home, as he became aware as both Becca and Warble's eyes came to rest on him.
Smiling gallantly on the outside while resenting ever having seen this particular pony, the stallion put himself at the disposal of the maiden in distress, after delaying Petal long enough to gain her help in relaying a message to Tripper, one of the other business teachers, to lock his abandoned classroom and put a note on his office door that he would be unavailable for his scheduled hours.
"We can get started now," he said to Becca, while mentally envisioning the empty classroom and course work he had left behind.
"That's really sweet of you," Becca managed a smile. "I'm afraid I won't be able to make very good time."
"I don't have any more classes for the day." Roland did not mention that he had hoped to find the time to call Miranda to see how she was doing.
As they made their sluggish way toward Becca's home, the mare attempted a cheery chatter that only tended to annoy Roland who was making the best of the situation by reliving his last conversation with Miranda, interjecting a nod of the head or a polite agreement when it seemed appropriate to Becca's never-ending words.
"I could really go for some ice cream when I get home," Becca suddenly said, and Roland realized by the way she was looking at him that a definite response was expected, but he kept quiet. Becca continued, "Would you mind if we stopped by the grocery store to buy some?"
"In this cold weather?" Roland shivered at the thought, kicking aside some of the snow that fell quite frequently.
"Ice cream sees me through all my mishaps."
"That would be a lot of ice cream," Roland muttered under his breath, holding the door to Oakley's Grocery and keeping a steadying hoof on the mare at the same time, wondering how she maintained such a sleek figure if ice cream was her comfort food.
They had no sooner gotten inside when he found out how much she did like ice cream, for Oakley, upon sight of her, waved and commented, "Two new flavors in the case today, Becca; be sure to let me know how you like them."
Becca grinned at Roland. "I must have had a premonition."
While the chartreuse mare was making her decision on which box of ice cream to purchase, Roland, who had just been thinking that he was glad no one he knew was shopping in the store at this time to see him in close company with a mare he was anxious to part from, heard someone call his name, and turning to look down the aisle, he spotted Sugarberry carrying several items in her hoof.
Quickly noting that Becca was still occupied with her decision on the perfect flavor, Roland tried to look as if he was not in her company as Sugarberry approached. "Hi, Roland," Sugarberry smiled. Roland was sure that he could already see a look of amusement in Sugarberry's eyes.
"Hi, Sugarberry." He said no more but turned his attention to the case next to the one Becca was leaning against, hoping that Sugarberry would not stop to talk. But that was not to be.
"I'm sorry you had to rush off the other evening when you came for supper; you will have..."
At that moment, Becca surfaced from her quandary over choices, turned to Roland, and asked, "Island Echoes or Chocolate Odyssey?" Then seeing who else was there, she greeted the strawberry-patterned mare. "Hi, Sugarberry."
"I haven't seen you, Becca, since you delivered the posters to the vet clinic concerning the job fair," Sugarberry responded.
Becca rolled her eyes. "And Elaine noticed that I hadn't changed the date from last year's poster."
"How did you hurt your leg?" Sugarberry asked, just then noticing the bandaged appendage.
"I did a presentation for one of the business classes today," the mare vaguely answered.
Sugarberry looked at Roland. "I didn't know business classes could be so... hazardous."
Becca only laughed. "You know me, Sugarberry. Now, what flavor ice cream sounds best?" And she urged Sugarberry's opinion of the two new flavors.
"No contest," Sugarberry said. "Chocolate is always number one." While Becca busied herself in retrieving a box of the delicacy, Sugarberry turned her attention back to Roland. "Maybe you and Becca could both come over some evening."
Roland shook his head. "It's thoughtful of you to ask, but..."-- He glanced at Becca to make sure she would not hear -- "I don't think that would be wise," he added quickly before the mare could say anything more. "Give my regards to Vanguard." Roland breathed a sigh of relief when Sugarberry took her leave without pressing the point.
When they were finally underway once more with Roland carrying the parcel from Oakley's Grocery and supporting Becca who found that the short stop at the store had caused her leg to stiffen and make her steps more painful, their speed was slowed down for the several blocks left to travel.
As they neared the address of Becca's apartment, Roland was surprised to find that she lived on a side street that dead-ended directly behind the apartment complex in which Miranda lived. It crossed his mind that it would not be too forward of him to stop to see if Miranda was home before he left the area; she had, after all, opened up their friendship by calling him the other night. This thought made him anxious to surrender his responsibility for Becca.
He was grateful when he and Becca finally reached the door. "Well, it seems that you've arrived all in one piece," he said lightly.
"Oh, but you're not going to abandon me now, are you?" The mare said, looking at him with wistful eyes. "I thought you'd stay to have some ice cream."
"There are some things I need to attend to," he remarked, opening the door for her. "And you need to rest."
Seeing that Roland would not bend to her wishes, Becca tossed her head and smiled at him. "Well, anyway, it was awfully nice of you to make sure I got home, Rudolf, and..."
"Roland," the stallion corrected. Becca looked confused, so Roland clarified the error. "My name is Roland, not Rudolf."
Looking at him closely, Becca asked, "Are you sure?" in such a way that Roland himself began to doubt his own designation. He felt a keen desire to get away from this mare before he, too, began to see life in her anomalous style.
"Good day, Becca." The stallion turned and left, pulling the door closed behind him. He breathed a sigh of relief as he walked away; a smile lighted his face as he anticipated an encounter with Miranda, which occurred much sooner that he anticipated.
"Well, Roland, fancy meeting you here," a pleasant voice sounded in his ears and he looked up to find his preference coming down the sidewalk.
"Miranda! This is a pleasant surprise!"
"You and Becca...?" She paused politely and glanced at the apartment he had just left and smiled with the same amused look that Roland had so recently seen on Sugarberry's face.
"I simply walked her home after she gave a presentation to one of my classes," Roland defended his position rather brusquely, then softened. "Now, if you would consent to let me walk you home, my day could end with some coherence."
"You may walk with me, of course. I've just been to the post office where I dropped a note to Jack in New Pony."
Roland fell into step with the mare, afraid to find out what the note signified, but not being able to live with not knowing. "Where do the two of you stand by now?" He glanced at his companion and, from the enamored look on her face, already knew what the answer would be.
"I think my father was right, Roland."
She did not have to say any more, and Roland was gentleman enough to let the issue drop. They walked in silence, however, as if a door had closed between them until Miranda, casting a mischievous glance in Roland's direction, said, "Becca would be good for you."
"In what way?"
Miranda laughed. "She would keep you from getting too immersed in your work, for one thing."
"Look who's talking."
Miranda ignored that remark. "When Becca's around, the unexpected is bound to happen; you need some of that spontaneity in your systematic life, Roland."
Coming to Miranda's door, Roland was painfully aware that a chapter of his life was closing; and for him, it was not a happy ending; yet he was not blind to the happiness that suffused Miranda's countenance so beautifully. "Anyone who can light your face the way that stallion has succeeded in doing must be right for you; I'm happy for you, Miranda."
"Thanks, Roland. And I wish you the best." She brushed his cheek with a kiss before disappearing into her apartment.
"The best," grumbled Roland as he set his steps for home, "has been taken."
His thoughts were dark and dreary as he went down the path, which explained why he did not observe the ridges of icy, hard snow pushed up into jagged mounds by the tread of many hooves before him on this course and was taken by such surprise when his hoof encountered it that he was sent sprawling in a very embarrassing manner upon the cold, rough surface of the wintry ground. He groaned as he rubbed his thigh where a rather angry looking welt was fast forming.
As he painfully got to his hooves and continued on his way, he was heard to mutter furiously, "That... that pony has jinxed me!" He regretted the day that he had taken it into his head to invite Becca to class and raked himself over the coals until he reached home and was able to sooth his aching body under a warm shower and his breaking heart with a good book.
One thing only he knew for sure: There was no one, especially Becca, who could replace Miranda in his life.