For Better or For Worse
written by Sugarberry
"A pony could get used to this kind of life," confided Sugarberry as she nestled her head against Vanguard's shoulder.
"Very quickly," agreed Vanguard as he pulled her closer and kissed her forehead. The two were acclimating to their temporary home in Vulcanopolis. They had been met at the airport by one of Giorgio, Sr.'s, aides, Stefano, and taken through the predawn darkness to the country home that Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica had turned over to them for the duration of their honeymoon.
Expecting to be shown to a small, unobtrusive dwelling, Sugarberry and Vanguard were surprised to be met by a spreading stone house that appeared stupendous in Sugarberry's estimation. A gradually inclined and curved walkway led to the front door which was lighted in warm welcome. The black iron railing that edged the walk was adrift with glossy green foliage that scented the mild air.
The ponies had no sooner reached the door when it opened to reveal a stallion who was a stranger to Sugarberry, but one that Vanguard recognized with amazement. "Donato!" he exclaimed. "This is unexpected!"
"Welcome, Mr. Vanguard." The stallion turned his bright smile on Sugarberry. "And to you, too, Mrs. Vanguard." He extended a foreleg in a sweeping gesture of welcome and took the suitcases from Stefano who bid them good day.
They were no sooner inside the house when a pink mare with lavender mane swept into their midst. "Mr. Vanguard, it is so good to see you again!" Prisca cooed. "And what a pleasure to meet your wife." She smiled warmly at Sugarberry. "Whenever I dusted your picture on Mr. Vanguard's desk, I told myself he was a very lucky stallion to have found such a beautiful mare.
Sugarberry murmured a thank you and looked to Vanguard for enlightenment. "Sugarberry, this is Prisca, the housekeeper who kept my rooms spotless; and this is her husband, Donato." Continuing, Vanguard flushed with pride, "This is my wife, Sugarberry."
The ensuing conversation revealed that Donato and Prisca were now in the employ of Giorgio, Sr. to watch over and maintain the country house, "Although I still keep up Giorgio's town house as well," Prisca was quick to add.
While Donato took their luggage to the upstairs suite, Prisca bustled them into the kitchen where she had hot coffee and fresh coffeecake ready for them. "I know you must be tired, but eat something first; then you can sleep the day away... if you want."
* * *
When Vanguard and Sugarberry made their way downstairs later that day, they found that Prisca had been busy and once more seated them at the rustic breakfast table and presented them with a tasty assortment of foodstuffs that came in an overwhelming variety and quantity. When she was sure that they were properly provided for, she left them with a final suggestion. "When you are through, you can have your coffee on the veranda; the flowers are lovely; Donato treats them like jewels."
That is where Sugarberry and Vanguard now sat surrounded by terra cotta flower pots overflowing with splendid and fragrant blossoms in reds, yellows, and blues. Tiny blue butterflies flitted their way energetically from flower to flower; out of sight, a bird serenaded the couple from a bower of hanging vines on a corner trellis.
Prisca had just refilled their coffee cups before disappearing within the house, and Sugarberry shook her head in wonder. "She and Donato treat us like royalty, and I like it."
Vanguard grinned. "Don't get used to it, my love, unless you can convince Chocolate Chip and Wishbone to change their career plans."
"I'll give it my best shot," she smiled. "Will Clare and Hydrangea live like this once they are settled down?"
"Clare already has Alda to do her cooking and cleaning," Vanguard offered. "But something tells me Pacificus wouldn't easily agree to such a pampered life."
"Why not?" Having experienced a taste of it, Sugarberry could not believe a life of luxury would be abhorrent to anyone.
"He's used to working hard for what he gets."
"Oh, look!" Sugarberry sat upright. "Did you see that bird?" A flash of teal had swooped through the floral tapestry.
"It was a common bee eater," Vanguard informed her. "They eat what their name implies which makes them very unpopular with bee farmers." He stood and offered Sugarberry his hoof. "Let's take a walk and see what other forms of wildlife we can see around here." The two set off, hoof in hoof, to explore the grounds around the country house.
* * *
"Your goldfinches don't look like ours back in Ponyland," Sugarberry later told Prisca, "but they have a beautiful song none the less."
"It sounds like you enjoyed your ramble about the place," Prisca smiled as she served refreshments to the recently returned explorers.
"I found out that mice evoke the same feeling of creepiness here as back home," Sugarberry admitted with a grimace, remembering the fleet-footed rodent that had startled her by running over her leg as she and Vanguard had rested under a chestnut tree.
"What are your plans for tomorrow?" the housekeeper asked.
Sugarberry looked at Vanguard who admitted, "Without knowing that we'd be spending our honeymoon here in Vulcanopolis, we don't really have any set itinerary."
"You should take Sugarberry to see the ruins of Pompeii," Prisca suggested. "Tomorrow would be a good day as it won't be so crowded after the weekend."
"What do you think, Sugarberry? Shall we visit the past tomorrow?"
"I've always wanted to see Pompeii, but thought I'd never get the chance," admitted Sugarberry. "Let's plan on it."
Donato came into the room with a newspaper in his hoof. "The police have their hooves full by the sound of it," he said, setting the paper on the table. "One of their prisoners escaped yesterday."
"Who was it?" asked Vanguard, drawing the paper to him to peruse the article.
"They're not releasing the name," Donato shook his head. "Must be a relative of one of the officers," he chuckled.
* * *
The trip to Pompeii was every bit as exciting as Sugarberry had imagined it would be, plus the weather was perfect. After leaving the ruins with minds filled with ancient imagery, both ponies were called back to the present abruptly when a voice reached them. "Vanguard!"
Looking at Vanguard with a smirk, Sugarberry muttered, "I had hoped that she was off on assignment somewhere across the galaxy." But she put forth her most cheerful face as the exuberant model corralled them.
"Vanguard! I heard you were vacationing in Vulcanopolis! I'm so glad we ran into each other this way!" She engulfed him in a hug.
"Nice to see you, too, Mooncurl," Vanguard said as he distanced the white mare from himself. "Sugarberry and I are here for our honeymoon."
"Hi, Mooncurl," added Sugarberry, noticing that the model was no longer wearing her signature fragrance, Ambrosia.
Mooncurl acknowledged the greeting, but swiftly returned her attention to Vanguard. "Your timing is perfect! Our shoot is finished for the day, and we were just going to get a bite to eat." A nod of her head directed the attention of the newcomers to a table of ponies seated at an outdoor café.
Vanguard had met Angela on his previous visit to Vulcanopolis, and she quickly introduced him to the two stallions at the table, Nello and Gabriel. Vanguard, in turn, presented Sugarberry to the employees of Clare's Creations, and a jostling of tables and chairs soon enabled them all to share a common repast. Mooncurl, across the table from Vanguard, could not take her eyes off him while Sugarberry, at Vanguard's side, could not take her eyes off Mooncurl. She's gotten prettier, Sugarberry thought to herself as she watched the mare's expressive eyes flirt unashamedly with Vanguard.
Vanguard, however, engaged Angela in ready conversation about the daily happenings at Clare's Creations. They learned that Nello had spent the day photographing Mooncurl in a new line of fashions with the assistance of Angela and Gabriel.
Gabriel himself told his own story of how he had once been employed under Clare only to strike off on his own with the patronage of one of Vulcanopolis' wealthy matrons only to find himself floundering in his ill-conceived venture. Clare had taken him back as a designer, and Gabriel had found his creativity enhanced once he was settled in the fold. "It's where I belong," he admitted, with a smile at Angela which led Sugarberry to believe that the watermelon pink mare was more to the stallion than merely a business associate.
The gathering offered a pleasant exchange of conversation among the ponies, and Sugarberry found herself enjoying the companionship of these new friends. Even Mooncurl's blatant familiarity with Vanguard became bearable once Sugarberry learned to let her remarks fall on deaf ears.
"Pacificus and Clare will be back to work at the end of the week," Angela, who was Pacificus' sister, said. "I got a post card from my brother, and he has found your city to be completely charming."
"Living here under the blessings of Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica has impressed Vulcanopolis' finer points on me in short order," countered Sugarberry. "Life here seems like a fairytale."
"You are being pampered, obviously," Gabriel laughed. "Our days here can be just as strenuous and frustrating as anything Dream Valley can dish out."
"Hydrangea seems to have fulfilled her dreams readily enough once she was back here."
"But only after passing through the fire."
"So you're telling me there is no special enchantment here?" Sugarberry asked.
"Sorry, Sugarberry. You're only experiencing the sheltering hoof of Giorgio, Sr." Nello summarized.
"Or she's so deeply in love that she can't see the pitfalls life puts in our paths," stated Mooncurl. Everyone stared at the model who had come up with this insight, but Mooncurl shrugged it off. "If I had won Van, I'd be seeing things through rose-colored glasses, too."
* * *
"I saw a friend of yours today," the yellow-on-yellow mare commented to her companion as she unpacked the market items from her bag, setting them on the kitchen counter in random array. She had finished her day's work as a delivery pony and was preparing to fix a late dinner.
The stallion who shared the room with her stood gazing out the window as if contemplating the mystery of life and coming up empty-hoofed. He did not say a word in response to the mare's remark.
Melina prattled on. "She was with a bunch from Clare's Creations; I recognized their model."
That piece of information caught the stallion's ear; even if he had been out of circulation for the last seven months, he knew enough of the local news that he found this tidbit something that might be to his advantage-- he had heard that Giorgio was engaged to this Clare. He began to pay attention to Melina's gossip.
"Your friend was with a stallion who was at Leonardo when I took that class last summer," Melina continued.
"This supposed friend... what did she look like?" The stallion continued his vacant staring out the window, but his mind was tuned to Melina's answer.
"A white earth pony with red hair."
The stallion sighed contemptuously. "That brings to mind several possibilities," he snarled. "Can you be more exact?"
"Strawberries," Melina replied. "She was one of those Twice-As-Fancy ponies with strawberries."
The stallion lost all interest in the scene outside the window as his memory flew back to last fall's disaster. He whirled to face Melina. "I've never met such a mare," he retorted hotly.
Melina looked at him strangely. "You had a picture of her."
The stallion stared back at Melina. Of course he had a picture, but how had Melina come to see it? Only he and Giorgio and Renzo knew about the photo. The very thought of it renewed his hatred for Giorgio, the traitor who had ended his grab for power. His memory flew back to the election which had ended in his failed attempt to gain Vulcanopolis' highest office. "Where did you see this picture?"
"On your desk last fall," she replied, noting the anger flaring in Zaverio's eyes. "I had come by your office, but you were talking on the phone rather intensely so I didn't hang around." Why was he looking at her with such animosity?
"I remember no such a time," he stated in a cold, harsh voice.
"It's no wonder," Melina replied with a giggle, trying to lighten his mood. "You were chewing someone out for something and gesturing wildly as you paced the room. You probably weren't even aware of me." Just like always, her subconscious whispered to her in agonizing clarity.
Even now, Zaverio's attention dropped from the mare before him, and he once again turned his reverie inward. Could it be possible that this Sugarberry who had figured in Giorgio's blackmail of Giorgio, Sr., was now in Vulcanopolis? Zaverio stood blankly staring out the window as the series of events involving Giorgio flashed across his mind. He was aware that Giorgio's ultimate dismissal of their carefully constructed plan to end Giorgio, Sr.'s, term as administrator of the city hinged as much on his relationship with the strawberry-patterned mare in the picture as it did with Giorgio's concern for his father and mother.
The wheels turned as Zaverio's thoughts escalated. His escape from prison had occurred, unfortunately, while Giorgio was out of town, leaving him with no one to settle the score. The more days that passed in hiding, the more likely the police-- as inept as they were-- would discover him here at Melina's apartment.
The conniving mind of Zaverio jumped ahead. If Giorgio had any feelings at all for this Sugarberry, wouldn't he come running to her aid if something happened to her? Zaverio smiled callously as he contemplated one more meeting between him and his adversary; these months in jail had honed his enmity for Giorgio who had received only a slap on the hoof for his part in the blackmail while he, Zaverio, had been forced to rot in jail. His smouldering resentment ignited afresh. He could use the mare as a pawn to put Giorgio in his place... and to get the finances he needed to start a new life somewhere far from Vulcanopolis.
When Zaverio finally looked once more at Melina, his eyes had lost the angry look and had regained a sparkle of optimism that Melina had not seen even when Zaverio had escaped his detention. "This pony..." he asked, "would you be able to find her again?"
"It's a big city, Zaverio. I have no idea where she would be."
"Then make it your business to find out." His tone was once again frigid. "I want to know where she's staying and how long she's planning to be in our lovely metropolis."
Melina's eyes grew wide. "You want me to search for this one pony among so many?"
"That's exactly what I want." His gaze sent a shudder through the mare. "And be discreet about it. Do you understand?"
"It is important that I talk to her," Zaverio allowed some softness to creep into his voice. "You have to be my eyes and my hooves for me, Melina."
* * *
"Alben, you've got to help me," Melina pleaded with the yellow-haired stallion before her. "I have to locate a pony and I have no idea where to start looking."
"For what purpose?"
"My... boss... needs to talk with her," Melina stuttered, avoiding making eye-contact with her brother.
"Why is Lorin looking for a mare? He's a happily married stallion, isn't he?" Lorin was the owner of the delivery service where Melina worked part-time.
"She owes him money, I think. I'm just supposed to find where she lives but not say a word to her," Melina instructed.
"Well, I'm free, so I'll help you out. But if you ask me, it's a long shot that either one of us will spot her."
"Just look for a red-haired white earth pony covered in a strawberry pattern; you can't miss her."
"Okay, then... what are we waiting for?"
Melina hugged her brother. "Thanks, Alben. You're the greatest!"
* * *
Vanguard and Sugarberry spent the day roaming Vulcanopolis. They covered the campus of Leonardo University where Sugarberry met a number of the teachers whom Vanguard had worked with and-- more impressive than that-- students who Vanguard had taught who were delighted to meet their former professor once more. "When are you coming back to teach?" more than one of the students asked.
They walked down the narrow street that contained Giorgio's town house that had been Vanguard's home while he lived in Vulcanopolis. A familiar sight met Vanguard's eyes as they approached the house... Iveta was watering the plants, both hers and Giorgio's. "Don't forget the bougainvillea," Vanguard commented from behind the mare, causing her to nearly drop her watering can in surprise.
"Vanguard!" she squealed, taking one of his hooves in her wet one. "Who'd have thought I'd see you today!" She looked on him happily as he introduced Sugarberry. "So you waited for him," she said teasingly.
By this time, Giles had heard the banter going on outside his window and came to join his wife in welcoming the visitors. "Van! Congratulations! Giorgio told us that you were tying the knot. And this is Sugarberry. It is a pleasure to meet you."
Iveta and Giles invited Sugarberry and Vanguard in for a visit, and Iveta prepared a light lunch. "I'm getting better in the cooking department," she grinned at Vanguard. "Slowly, but Giles says he doesn't get indigestion nearly as often any more."
"Everything is very good," Sugarberry commented, taking another bite of the seasoned pasta.
"I wish I could take the credit, but Giles stopped by the deli to pick up our lunch; he's been coming home at noon every day since the baby is so close to being born."
"Any day now," Giles grinned, "and we'll have that foal in our forelegs."
The story of the birth of Tabby and Thomas' foal at the wedding was then told, and Iveta remarked, "We're invited to a wedding this weekend; maybe our foal is waiting for that, Giles."
When Giles left for the office, Vanguard walked with him allowing Sugarberry some time with Iveta in preparing a casserole for the couple's supper. "Just store it in the refrigerator until an hour ahead of your eating time; then put it in a 350-degree oven," Sugarberry instructed when it was completed.
"Could you send me other recipes that I could handle as easily as this one?" Iveta asked hopefully.
"If you promise to let us know when the foal comes," bargained Sugarberry. "Who knows, you may have it while we're still in Vulcanopolis."
Once Vanguard had returned, he and Sugarberry set off again to cover more of the city. On seeing a stationery shop along a crowded thoroughfare, Sugarberry remembered that they had not yet sent any communications home; they had promised Tabby a card, and their parents would expect some word from them.
"Huckleberry would like to get something from Vulcanopolis," Vanguard decided as they looked through the available post cards on the rack. "His stamp collection could use some international stamps."
"If Huckleberry gets one, then Wineberry and Baby Gooseberry will feel left out; we'll have to send them each one."
"Let's send one to Baby Droplet, too."
"We might as well send one to Chocolate Chip and Wishbone as well."
By the time they were finished with their selections, they had a hefty stack of post cards; the remaining part of the afternoon was spent at the post office writing messages and addressing the colorful, glossy mementos.
With that taken care of, Vanguard took Sugarberry past Guido's splendid villa and then past Clare's house; as they strolled the peaceful lanes, Vanguard shared more details about his friendship with Clare than he had ever been willing to admit before. "You're saying she kissed you?" Sugarberry raised an eyebrow.
"Not a real kiss," Vanguard immediately clarified, realizing he had said too much.
"And just when is a kiss not a real kiss?" Sugarberry was not going to let him off the hook that easily.
"You know what I mean."
"Give me a for instance."
Vanguard gave her a sideways glance instead. "You are purposefully tormenting me."
"Let's look at the facts. If you kiss me, that's a real kiss. If you kiss Clare, it's not a real kiss?"
"The fact is, I never kissed Clare."
"That's right; it wasn't a real kiss."
Vanguard shook his head. "I'm beginning to understand how Bassanio felt when Portia laid into him after the court scene," he admitted with a wry grin.
"I'm sorry. It's just my jealousy again. I should be over that by now, huh?" She gave him a penitent look that only served to endear her to him.
"Come on. We're near the park where I used to drift when I was too homesick for you to do anything else."
They walked together along the carefully tended flowerbeds, past ornate fountains of dancing water, and through avenues of manicured privet hedges. At one point, the path met a brook and turned to parallel its course, taking them eventually to a cobbled street with a stone bridge arching gracefully over the stream.
"This is where I did my day-dreaming," Vanguard smiled, leaning on the stone railing. "How many times you stood here in spirit, you'll never know." The caress of her mane on his shoulder sent a shiver through his body.
"It's a lovely place," Sugarberry agreed, surveying the crystal water, the overhanging willow trees, and the ducks preening on the grassy bank. Her gaze came back to Vanguard and their eyes met.
"I love you, Vanguard."
"... I love you." He drew her to him and they exchanged a proper kiss before continuing on their way.
There was no reason for them to notice the yellow-haired stallion who remained under cover of the trees yet kept them in his vision. Their attention centered on one another; their life together was just beginning, and no cloud hung over their happiness. They were completely unaware of the danger that followed them.
* * *
"Melina!" I didn't expect to see you again tonight." Alben ushered her into his apartment. Saying nothing, Melina sat at the table.
"You always did have an uncanny knack for knowing when the pizza was ready," he smirked as he got a hot and hearty pizza out of the oven. Putting plates on the table, Alben continued to carry the conversation alone. "We know now where the strawberry pony is staying; I hope that will help Lorin get his jangles back."
"About that..." Melina finally spoke up, although hesitantly. "There are some things you need to know."
"Whoa, Melina. If Lorin thinks I'm going to go to this mare and ask for his money, he's wrong."
"The truth of the matter is, it isn't Lorin who is interested in the whereabouts of this mare; it's Zaverio." Her face blanched as she said the name.
"Zaverio?" Alben's face turned scarlet. "And what does that jerk have to do with any of this? He's behind bars where stallions of his kind belong!"
"He's not behind bars any longer," Melina whispered.
Alben stared at her as if he could not comprehend her words. "What did you say?"
Melina forced herself to speak. "Surely you've heard that someone escaped from the police."
"That skunk gave the cops the slip?" Alben nearly screamed the words.
"He came to me, Alben. I was the only one he could turn to."
Alben took a step toward his sister as if he fully intended to shake her but gained control of himself and simply glared at her. "You were well rid of him; don't you realize that you were better off without him?"
Tears slipped from Melina's tortured eyes. "I love him; you know that," she groaned.
"I thought you had seen the truth about him last fall."
"I thought I had, too; but when he showed up asking for my help, what could I do?"
"You could have called the police and ended it right there."
"You don't understand, Alben; you simply do not understand." The tears flowed more freely now.
Alben's sympathy finally went out to his sister, and he tried to comprehend her feelings. "What does Zaverio want with this mare?"
"He says that Giorgio will pay dearly to keep her safe," Melina sobbed. "He wants me to help him get her away until Giorgio hands over enough money to allow Zaverio to get away from here and start a new life."
"That's kidnaping, Melina. Don't you see that he's still playing his same old game? Only now he's getting you involved, too!"
"You don't understand!" wailed Melina once more. "Zaverio will take me with him; we'll start a new life together."
The anger returned to Alben's face. "And what kind of life would that be? He's a criminal."
"But Giorgio would be able to pull some strings to get Zaverio absolved of any wrong-doing; his dad would be only too glad to help to put this situation behind them."
"And what about Zaverio? Do you think he's changed? Look at the reality, girl! That guy doesn't know the first thing about honesty!"
"He says he loves me; he says that he will straighten his life out as long as I'm there with him."
"And you believe him?" Alben's tone of voice carried more incredulity than sincerity.
"Of course, I believe him!" Melina looked pleadingly at her brother. "Out of all the ponies in Vulcanopolis, he came to me. Doesn't that count for something?"
It only means that all his goons are incarcerated, too, Alben wanted to say; but he could not bring himself to cause more pain for his sister than she was obviously suffering under his condemnation of her actions. "What does Zaverio want you to do?" he asked her with as much compassion as he could muster.
Sniffling, Melina's face brightened. "All we have..."
"Hey! What's with this 'we' business?"
"You have to help me. Zaverio can't be seen out on the streets. The cops are looking for him everywhere."
"Which brings to mind, why haven't they been to your place yet?"
"They have," Melina admitted. "But Zaverio went through the trap door onto the roof while they were there."
"I can't believe this, Melina. Don't you see what you are getting yourself into?"
"It gets me a chance at a better life, Alben. Zaverio and I can begin a life together without any hold from the past."
Alben sighed. "So what's the plan?"
"Zaverio wants us to watch the country house where you saw this Sugarberry go and convince her to come with us when a chance provides itself; once we have her away from the stallion she's with, we're to take her to an old, abandoned shepherd's hut nearby and hold her until Giorgio responds with amnesty and money."
"That doesn't even sound simple, Melina. How are we supposed to pull it off?"
"Zaverio says Sugarberry is an author; all I have to do is go to her with a copy of one of her novels and ask for her autograph and entice her to go with me to meet another adoring fan... that's you, by the way. Once away from the house, we take her to the hut; Zaverio will take care of the rest."
"This is crazy, you know."
"It will work, Alben. Have some faith. It will work."
* * *
The new day dawned bright and beautiful; Sugarberry and Vanguard sat lazily over the breakfast Prisca had served them in the somnolent atmosphere of the garden. "Let's not do anything today but relax," suggested Sugarberry with a yawn. "I saw lots of good titles in the library."
"Sounds fine by me," agreed Vanguard. "But how about more coffee first?"
Sugarberry picked up the carafe and jiggled it. "All gone. I'll go get some more."
Vanguard stopped her. "I'll get it," he said. "You enjoy the flowers." He kissed her and set off toward the house.
Sugarberry smiled as she watched him follow the path across the garden and through the unlatched ornate wrought-iron gate to the veranda where he disappeared from her sight, then turned to the vibrant blooms that set the garden on fire with their color and intensity. The play of sunshine and shadow along with the buzzing of innumerable insects mesmerized the mare, causing her to jump when a voice broke into her solitude.
"Excuse me," the yellow stranger said, coming from the edge of the garden. "You're Sugarberry, aren't you?"
Sugarberry looked over the pretty mare before responding. "Yes. And who are you?"
"My name's Melina, and I'm a fan of yours. I've read all your books." She held up the latest novel in her hoof.
Smiling warmly, Sugarberry approached Melina. "My books are available in Vulcanopolis?"
"Why, of course. I hope you are working on a new title. I always look forward to a new release."
"As a matter of fact, my publisher expects my next manuscript to be done this fall," Sugarberry admitted. "Time is limited," she grinned, knowing full well that the wedding had seriously curtailed her writing.
"All I wanted was to get your autograph," Melina admitted. "I don't want to intrude."
Sugarberry accepted the book and pen that Melina held out to her and took care of the request. "I appreciate your interest in my work," she said, returning the autographed volume.
"My brother is working in the field just down the road," Melina gushed, stepping closer to Sugarberry. "He reads your books, too, but couldn't leave his job to see you. Could you come with me to meet him, too?"
Sugarberry looked toward the house before answering in hopes that Vanguard would soon be back when Melina uttered a shrill shriek and began hopping wildly. "Bumblebees!" she screamed amidst her frenzied actions. "They're trying to sting me!"
Realizing that the young mare must have inadvertently stepped onto a bee's nest, Sugarberry found herself wishing that one of the bee eater birds would make a timely appearance. The bees seemed to be intent on the yellow mare who could find no escape but to turn and run in the direction in which she had come using the book to fend off the bees' attack to the best of her ability.
Vanguard returned to find his wife staring off in the direction from which occasional shrieks still emitted. "What is going on?" he asked.
"It was strange," Sugarberry revealed. "A mare came to get my autograph, but the bees attacked her and she ran away."
"Does she need any help?" Vanguard asked, straining to see what was going on in the distance.
"It looks like her brother is fending off the bees," Sugarberry stated. "Her family must live around here because she said her brother was working in the field; it looks like he has everything under control now." She turned to her husband. "Did you get the coffee?"
"That, and Prisca sent out some sugared fragole, too. I told her we'd eat a late lunch and that I was taking you to an upscale restaurant tonight."
"My kind of day," Sugarberry took his hoof in hers, and Melina became a forgotten memory.
* * *
Sugarberry and Vanguard had no sooner arrived at the restaurant, Coppoli's, when Sugarberry excused herself from Vanguard's company to comb through her wind-blown hair. It was only when she was heading back to the dining room that the yellow mare suddenly appeared before her once again.
"Melina! How are you doing after your hectic adventure this morning?"
"Only two stings, fortunately." She turned to reveal several red and swollen lumps on her shoulder. "That was really scary." She shuddered uncontrollably.
"I'm glad to see that you are all right."
"My brother was very disappointed that he didn't get a chance to meet you. He's waiting for me right outside the back door over there. Could you spare a minute to say hi to him?"
"My husband is waiting for me," Sugarberry confessed. "Maybe you could bring your brother to our table."
"Oh, please, Sugarberry. He's kind of shy and would feel like he was imposing on you. It will only take a second."
As if this isn't imposing on me, Sugarberry thought to herself but, giving in to the mare's pleading, she accompanied her out the back door of the establishment where a yellow-haired stallion waited rather impatiently. "Alben, this is Sugarberry," Melina was just saying when to Melina's dismay and Sugarberry's delight, who should be coming to eat but Pacificus and Hydrangea.
"I thought you would still be in Dream Valley." The mares exchanged hugs that disavowed the fact that they had just seen each other several days earlier.
"A change of plans got us home sooner than we expected," Hydrangea admitted.
"What are you doing here all by yourself?" queried Pacificus.
"Melina was intro..." Sugarberry began, but stopped when she realized that the mare and her brother were no longer in sight. "That's strange; she shouldn't have been frightened off by you two."
"The mare and stallion that were here? They headed off around the corner as soon as we arrived," Pacificus observed. "Am I to assume that you and Vanguard are dining here this evening?"
"Yes, we are. And we'd be delighted if you two could join us."
Vanguard was surprised to see in whose company Sugarberry returned. After the preliminary greetings were over, he admitted his concern at Sugarberry's prolonged absence. "I was contemplating my alternatives on how to check the mare's room; I had no way of knowing that you were in such good company."
"You'll never believe that I ran into the same mare who came to the garden this morning," Sugarberry enlightened him. "Then along came Hydrangea and Pacificus. I hope it was nothing serious that brought you home early," she stated, suddenly concerned that Enrica might not have stood the trip well.
"No. My father got a call that he was needed back in Vulcanopolis immediately, so we all decided to come back together."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Enrica was so interested in becoming familiar with all of Dream Valley's haunts."
Hydrangea giggled. "Wait until you hear what her plans included." She glanced at Pacificus who continued the story.
"Enrica and Wigwam hit it off so well, he catered to her every whim. He had even made arrangements to get Enrica to the Native Pony caves so she could see the excavation first-hoof, but it rained on the planned day and then Giorgio, Sr., got his phone call."
"Enrica was obviously instrumental in smoothing over the problem that Wigwam and Chocolate Chip were suffering through," said Sugarberry. "I can well imagine Wigwam's gratitude."
"He also arranged for Clever Clover to give Enrica a presentation on the dig site, complete with artifacts and pictures," added Hydrangea.
"What happened here in Vulcanopolis that Giorgio, Sr., was so urgently needed?" Vanguard wondered. Both Hydrangea and Pacificus shrugged their shoulders.
"Whatever it was," Hydrangea revealed, "both my brother and my father were as dismal as the storm clouds over Ponyland when we left Dream Valley."
* * *
"Well, this is an unexpected pleasure," Sugarberry purred when Prisca showed Giorgio and Giorgio, Sr., into the breakfast nook the following morning. "We've been enjoying your kind gift immensely. The smile she cast on Giorgio, Sr., faded when she realized that both stallions were in a very somber mood.
"Something's wrong," Vanguard stated, his gaze holding Giorgio's.
Prisca bustled through with two more mugs brimming with steaming coffee; no one said a word until Giorgio and his father were seated. Giorgio, Sr. was the first to break the silence. "There's been a development here in Vulcanopolis that the two of you should be made aware of."
Vanguard instinctively put his hoof over Sugarberry's. "What's happened?"
The two dark green stallions exchanged a glance before Giorgio answered. "Zaverio, the pony who hoped to get my father's position as administrator of Vulcanopolis, escaped from prison several days ago."
"There was an article in the paper," Vanguard recalled, "but no name was given."
"Chief Matteo thought that he would have Zaverio back where he belonged before too many hours had passed, but the force has come up empty. We returned as soon as we were made aware of this unfortunate occurrence only to find that Matteo is still no nearer to ferreting out the scoundrel."
Sugarberry, not fully realizing the scope of the situation, tried to be reassuring. "Surely your police will find him soon."
"They should have found him by now," growled Giorgio, Sr. "There was no reason for them to let him escape in the first place. But that doesn't change the fact that at this minute, Zaverio is somewhere out there; and you can be sure that he is plotting something to improve his present position."
Finding all three stallions looking at her, Sugarberry suddenly felt a churning in her stomach. "What are you getting at?" she managed to say.
"Sugarberry, this Zaverio is a schemer; his one goal in life was thwarted last fall when I revealed his intent to the police; he hasn't forgotten that, you can be sure," explained Giorgio.
"You're saying that he is out for revenge?" Vanguard asked gravely, tightening his hold on Sugarberry's hoof.
"We think it is highly possible," Giorgio, Sr., verified. "Anyone in our family-- or close to our family-- is at risk. Sugarberry fits that category, and Zaverio is aware of it."
"It seems likely that he will try to strike where we are most vulnerable. Mother, Clare, and Hydrangea would all be likely choices, but with you here right now, Sugarberry, he might try to get to me through you," Giorgio added.
"What is Matteo doing about all of this?" questioned Vanguard.
"He's assigned officers to keep an eye on all involved; there are several judiciously stationed outside right now."
"It would be best, however, if you stayed here rather than wandering about Vulcanopolis," warned Giorgio, Sr.
"At least I won't have to worry about running into Melina anymore," Sugarberry giggled nervously.
"Melina?" Giorgio questioned sharply.
"I have a fan here in Vulcanopolis," Sugarberry replied. "She wanted my auto..."
Giorgio waved his hoof to silence Sugarberry. "Describe her."
"All yellow-- yellow hair and a yellow body..."
"And a canary symbol," Giorgio finished.
"Yes. You know her then?"
"I met her once." Looking at his father, he expounded. "She was Zaverio's on-again, off-again girlfriend." Everyone was silent as the implications crystallized.
"Where did you meet this mare?" Giorgio, Sr., asked, his voice strained.
"She came into the garden yesterday morning and asked for my autograph; she had a copy of one of my books, so I was happy enough to sign it for her."
"And then what?"
"She wanted me to go with her to meet her brother who was nearby."
"You didn't, of course."
"No. She stepped on a bumble bees' nest, and the bees attacked her, so she left in a hurry."
"Thank the bees for that," Giorgio considered.
"There's more," interjected Vanguard with a frown.
"She was at the same restaurant that we were having dinner at last evening," Sugarberry explained. "She again wanted me to say hello to her brother, and she took me outside where he was waiting for her."
"When we talked to Hydrangea earlier, she mentioned that she had seen you. Was that before or after Melina was there?"
"Looking back with what I know now, it was Hydrangea and Pacificus' arrival that interrupted Melina's plan a second time; she and her brother, if that is what he is, took off as soon as Hydrangea and I started talking."
"Your guardian angel was working overtime yesterday, Sugarberry," Vanguard deliberated. "It seems that you were Zaverio's target."
"And it shows how imperative it is that you stay here where you will be safe," Giorgio imparted. He stood up from the table, his father following him. "We will update Matteo on this new development immediately." The two left, leaving Sugarberry and Vanguard in a daze.
"This can't be happening," lamented Sugarberry, allowing Vanguard to take her into his embrace. She laid her head on his shoulder. "I thought this mess was all resolved last year."
"Deceit sends out its malicious roots; there is no telling what the harvest will be."
"And those roots are wrapping Giorgio's family in their snare just when things were going so well for them."
Vanguard pulled back to look his wife in the face. "Don't misplace your sympathy, Sugarberry. It was Giorgio's enmity toward his father that got him into this predicament which now has put you in danger. He deserves to suffer; you don't."
Sugarberry saw the anguish that this ordeal was causing Vanguard, but she could not think harshly of Giorgio as he did; yet she also knew not to press the point. "I'll be safe with you here to protect me," she smiled. "Let's not brood over this unfortunate affair; it is our honeymoon after all."
"That it is." He returned her smile, but it hurt her to see the anxiety that filled his eyes.
* * *
"We searched her apartment first thing," Chief Matteo defended, but he was on his hooves and giving orders to his officers before Giorgio was through speaking.
"I'm coming with you," Giorgio informed him, following him out of the office. Matteo scowled, but he kept his thoughts to himself.