“Ribbons n’ Lace, thanks so much for this wonderful meal!” Chocolate Chip warmly smiled at her hostess after finishing off a detectible dinner better than any she had yet encountered in New Pony. “I can almost imagine myself back in Sugarberry’s kitchen.”
“I take that as a splendid compliment,” Ribbons n’ Lace smiled in return. “But whereas Sugarberry is blessed with culinary skills, I am sadly lacking.”
“What she means,” winked Andrew, “is that without Fricassee in her kitchen, we’d be having boiled water and toast right now.”
“Whoever was responsible, the food was great,” said Xavier. “I’m very grateful that Chocolate Chip chose me to accompany her tonight; I haven’t eaten so well in weeks.” The two young ponies were dinner guests of Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace at their lovely home in one of New Pony’s elegant, upscale districts.
“Well, we’re not done yet,” remarked Ribbons n’ Lace. “Fricassee found a new dessert recipe which she’s trying out for the first time. But we’ll withdraw to the living room where we can be comfortable with our coffee and cobbler.” The mare rose to issue a request of a hovering servant, then led her guests to the adjacent room.
“I believe, Xavier, that you mentioned your hometown as being Happy Hollow. Do your parents still live there?” Andrew queried.
“Oh, yes. They and my siblings are all still back in that sleepy little town.”
“Tell us about your family,” prodded Ribbons n’ Lace.
“Well, I’m the youngest of us kids. My sister, Yolanda, is married and has a two-year old foal who is the delight of Mom and Dad; Zachary is the oldest and is a teacher at the local high school.”
“Xavier, Yolanda, Zachary... X, Y, Z,” mused Ribbons n’ Lace. “Was there a reason for alphabetical names?”
“My aunt and uncle started at the beginning of the alphabet,” admitted Xavier, “so Dad thought it would be cool to start from the end. Then Dad’s other two sisters took off from the middle in opposite directions.”
“An interesting arrangement,” grinned Andrew.
“Toby and Fern will be picking out a name soon enough,” noted Ribbons n’ Lace. “Our son and his wife have a foal due this month,” she smilingly apprized Xavier, then turned her attention to Chocolate Chip, her smile fading. “Fern has had a troublesome time of it, I’m afraid.”
“She’s feeling much better, though, as her due date draws near,” Chocolate Chip assured the worried mare. “When I last talked with her, she was fully caught up in organizing the nursery; she’s impatient to have the foal in her forelegs.”
“The same can be said of Toby,” added Andrew. “We’re going to visit them over the Thanksgiving holiday, with Tribute and Chiffon meeting us there.”
“And what do you think of the wedding plans being made in Woodlawn?” queried Ribbons n’ Lace, her eyes twinkling.
“That will be quite an event,” acknowledged Chocolate Chip, who then turned to explain the situation to Xavier. “Vanguard’s very favorite cousin, Chiffon, is marrying Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace’s son, Tribute, who is also a doctor like his father and brother; and Vanguard’s brother, Icon, who is also very close to Chiffon, is marrying Splotch, a legal assistant. As Chiffon’s and Icon’s families are so close, they’ve decided to combine the wedding into one big celebration next June.”
“Splotch?” Xavier, who had been bravely trying to follow the convoluted explanation that Chocolate Chip put forth, suddenly became very attentive at the mention of that name. “I grew up with a Splotch back in Happy Hollow, and the name isn’t that common. She was working for Macrohard the last I heard.”
“I believe she did work for Macrohard before coming to Woodlawn,” Chocolate Chip revealed.
“Well, well. So Splotch has done okay for herself,” Xavier grinned.
“You say that as if you wouldn’t have expected it of her,” noted Ribbons n’ Lace. She herself had found Splotch to be a charming and intelligent mare from her brief acquaintance with her on visits to Woodlawn.
“Oh, no, don’t get me wrong. Splotch was always confident of her abilities. It’s just that she lacked the polish of her older sister and sometimes allowed her temper to get the best of her. I’m delighted to hear that she’s doing so well.” A private wink to Chocolate Chip promised that further enlightenment on the topic of Splotch would be forthcoming when they were alone.
* * *
On the walk back to the apartment building that housed both Chocolate Chip and Xavier, Xavier apprized the mare of some of the exploits that he and Splotch had been involved in back in Happy Hollow. The stories caused much laughter and gentle teasing; but in the end, Chocolate Chip seemed rather glum.
“What did I say to spoil the good spirits we were sharing?” Xavier finally asked.
“What? Oh. All the talk about your friends made me rather homesick for mine, I guess.”
“You’re going home for Thanksgiving, aren’t you?”
“Smile when you say that.”
Chocolate Chip tried to smile, but the action appeared more as a grimace, causing Xavier’s brow to wrinkle in worry. “What gives?” he asked the mare.
“It’s just... well, Fabia is really getting on my nerves since I discovered that she is taking credit for my work. Everything I do has to be documented in precise detail so that she can study the data and present it as her own. I’m tempted to give her false information once just to see her make a complete fool or herself, but she’d only dump the responsibility on me and get me fired anyway.”
“Hey, now, what happened to that ‘I can conquer anything or anyone’ attitude you came to New Pony with?”
Chocolate Chip sighed long and deep. “I’m having second thoughts, Xavier. Maybe I made the wrong decision to leave Dream Valley.”
“That’s just your weariness talking. By tomorrow morning, you’ll be ready to take on Fabia and all of Worth Hydroshed Firkins again without blinking an eye.”
“But what’s the point? I was so caught up in proving myself that I lost track of some rather important things... like family and friends.”
“I’m your friend.”
Chocolate Chip grinned at the goldenrod-yellow stallion. “And a dear one, at that. But you know what I mean.”
Xavier smiled crookedly, well aware of what Chocolate Chip was getting at. He would not have understood if it had not been for his introduction to Chocolate Chip’s younger sister, Lollipop, when he had accompanied Chocolate Chip to Dream Valley for her brother’s wedding. He had met any number of mare’s in his hometown, at college, and finally at New Pony; but none had ever touched his heart quite as Lollipop had. He knew what it was like to begin each day with a thought of someone precious who was far away; and he grasped the blatant reality that notes, phone calls, and e-mails did not quite fill the longing that a more personal encounter would have appeased.
“Yeah, I think I know, all right,” Xavier mused, then lapsed into a moody silence himself.
Chocolate Chip did not notice, for she, too, was introspective as well, wondering what
Wigwam was doing at this minute. Was he thinking about her as she was him?
* * *
“Chocolate Chip!” Fabia rushed into the office the following morning where Tarn and the chocolate brown mare were bent over some facts and figures concerning their current project. “We’ve just been given the Sutter account to analyze, and its been labeled a top priority. I’m putting you in charge, so come to my office now for a briefing.” She left as quickly as she had come.
Throwing down her pencil, Chocolate Chip let out an exasperated huff. “This was top priority a week ago,” she said, gesturing to the papers on the desk with her hoof. “Am I supposed to just drop it now?”
“We’ve got a good grasp of this problem,” soothed Tarn. “I can handle it from now on. But what I know of Sutter and Associates, I think you’ll find that you’ll be keeping later hours than even you’re used to for the next few weeks.” He smiled wryly. “You’d better not keep the boss waiting.”
With a grunt and a toss of her mane, Chocolate Chip got up out of her chair to obey Fabia’s summons.
* * *
“It’s impossible!” Chocolate Chip reiterated, scanning the documentation that Fabia had presented to her. “There is too much material here to sort through and come up with a viable solution on such short notice. Sutter is a Ponyland conglomerate, not some small business down the street.”
“That’s why I’ve put you in charge. Of all the consultants, you’re the one most capable of sifting through the numbers and putting them into a workable order to answer Sutter’s needs. I realize the enormity of this project, but I honestly think you’re the one best qualified to handle it. And, besides, everyone else is caught up in deadlines right now as it is. I’ll help Tarn finish up on Cramco’s account”- She dismissed that project with a careless wave of her hoof- “which will give you uninterrupted time to concentrate on Sutter. I know you can do this, Chocolate Chip.” The mare looked at her expectantly.
Every fiber of Chocolate Chip’s being wanted to shove the mess of papers across the desk into Fabia’s lap before stalking out of the office, out of the building, out of New Pony... but she could not. This is what she had studied for through four years of college, what she had given up her home and friends for, what she had turned down Wigwam’s proposal of marriage for. She was living her dream... wasn’t she? She had no right to complain if Fabia deemed her more competent than any of the other consultants in the company; she could be proud of her achievements.
Shoving her piquet to the background, Chocolate Chip merely stood and gathered the files neatly together. “I’ll get right on it, Fabia,” she said in clipped tones. Under her breath, she added, “Who needs a Thanksgiving holiday, anyway?”
“That’s the spirit,” Fabia said in obvious relief. “I assured Uncle Wil... ah, Mr. Bates, that we’d meet the challenge. He’ll appreciate your efforts.”
Scooping up the pile of paperwork, Chocolate Chip couldn’t bring herself to respond. She cocked a disparaging brow and left the office.
* * *
“Uncle Wilfred will never know who did the work,” Chocolate Chip grumbled under her breath as she set the files on her desk none too gently. “I’ll slave night and day, and Fabia will hand in my report with her name affixed to it. She’ll get the raise, and I’ll continue to be a doormat for her to walk on.” The mare procured a glass of water and walked to the window to stare out across the hustle and bustle of New Pony, but she saw none of it.
Her thoughts were far away to the west across the hills and valleys of Ponyland, back in Dream Valley, back where she was valued more for who she was as a pony rather than how much benefit she was to the financial assets of a company, back where she could encounter a friendly face no matter where she went, back where a certain stallion would greet her with the most heart-melting smile regardless of how busy he was, back where she was loved. Chocolate Chip sighed and forced herself to return to her desk. Why was she feeling so melancholy when this was the life she had chosen? She slumped in her chair and opened the top file.
* * *
Arriving at her apartment that evening, Chocolate Chip saw the familiar slim, white box waiting for her outside her door. The sight of it caused a smile to spread over her face and her eyes to sparkle. She scooped up the parcel, unlocked her door, and quickly confined herself to the privacy of her home, going to the sofa and sitting, pulling her legs up under her, then grinning at the box as if she expected it to reveal a special treat. She ran her hoof along the length of the familiar package, anticipating the gift inside. Only after several long minutes of a dream-like trance did Chocolate Chip lift the lid.
Inside the box, nestled in white tissue, were six crimson roses.
Lifting each delicate blossom carefully one at a time and breathing in the sensual fragrance, Chocolate Chip lined up the fiery flowers in a row on the beige couch. She did not have to look for a card... she knew there would be none.
Six roses meant that she was entering her sixth month as a resident of New Pony. Her first day in her apartment in the city had been met with the delivery of a single red rose; one month later, two roses had mysteriously appeared. The third anniversary of her arrival brought three roses. As the fourth anticipated delivery came on a Saturday, Chocolate Chip was able to intercept the delivery pony and bribe her to reveal what information she could about the pony behind these floral gifts. As she had expected, the request for the roses originated in Dream Valley, specifically from a pony named Wigwam. Five months away from the stallion brought five roses, now the sixth.
Gazing down at the row of flowers stiffly laid out like the pickets in a fence-row, Chocolate Chip was reminded of life. Day by day, week by week, month by month, life went on; and if one was fortunate, time well spent would result in something beautiful like the full-blown rose... regardless of the thorns that pricked and prodded. Her time in New Pony had been like that, Chocolate Chip had to admit. She was well on her way of accomplishing her goal to face life head-on, independently, and make a success of herself, someone who could hold her head high in the face of all the doubts that had tormented her since she was a toddler becoming aware of her mother’s dissatisfaction with a common little filly who appeared at first glance to be nothing special. She had succeeded in carving a bright future for herself, following a regimen of hard work and a total commitment to success, day by day just like the marching row of roses.
She had come a long way from that determined yet frightened pony who had wandered into Dream Valley in a valiant effort to escape the confines of parents who looked down upon her as some sort of oddity incapable of being accepted. She had been accepted by Sugarberry and Tabby and Friendly, Dainty and her group, Prime and his friends, and so many others who had no preconceived notions that a plain-looking pony signified a plain character.
Picking up the first rose in the line-up, Chocolate Chip brought it to her nose and sniffed the fragrance, smiling as she remembered her budding acquaintance with Wigwam and how she had found herself attracted to him and was pleasantly surprised to discover that he reciprocated her feelings. She picked up the second rose, combining it with the first, smiling over those early days of their friendship that had grown and flourished as she learned to trust and rely on the stallion’s solid presence in her life; she had never been so happy as she was then, to know that he was there for her.
A frown marred her look of happiness as she picked up the third rose, pricking herself with a thorn and sucking the rose-hued blood off her hoof. There had come a time when her trust in Wigwam had been broken; she had accused him of betraying her and her brother when Wishbone had become involved with a cheating ring at Pony Pride with Wigwam assisting in bringing it to a sudden and searing end, leaving her brother answerable for his misguided actions. She had held Wigwam accountable for hiding the truth from her during his investigation of the cheating ring rather than warning her that Wishbone was headed for trouble. Putting up a wall between them, she had spurned his efforts at reconciliation, accusing him of betraying her trust.
The fourth rose was added to those already in her hoof as her smile returned to her face. Appropriately, it had been at the celebration of Sugarberry and Vanguard’s wedding that she and Wigwam had mended their differences, both admitting that they had been equally responsible in letting things get out of hoof to the point that they had allowed their friendship to stagnate; but Chocolate Chip had known the truth, that it was her irrevocable anger that had come between them, and that Wigwam would have never left her to her own devices of his own choosing. She had made it impossible for him to approach her until Enrica had stepped in to force the issue. Closing her eyes, Chocolate Chip recalled just how satisfied she had been when Wigwam was once more her confidant, her anchor, her best friend.
Following their natural progression, her thoughts next brought a tear to her eye as she leaned to claim the fifth rose. With graduation approaching, she had been so caught up with her plans for her future that Wigwam’s proposal of marriage had been met with a stubborn disclaimer on her part that she had better things to do with her life than to settle down at the first opportunity presented to her and live out a dreary existence where she had already proven her worth. No, she would not marry, not with a bright future ahead of her with a prominent business in New Pony that could only lead to bigger and better opportunities to make her mark upon the world and prove to everyone- namely, her mother- that even a drab little filly with no great beauty could succeed if she tried hard enough. So caught up in this grab for success, she had spurned the love that Wigwam offered her.
And here she was in New Pony, single, successful, financially independent... and lonely. It was not because of a lack of friends: she had found an ideal companion in Xavier; Tarn was an intelligent and considerate workmate, Prime occasionally checked in on her, Ribbons n’ Lace included her in society’s embrace, Sassy and Blackcap had begun looking out for her since their return to the city, and Tilly had adopted her as a surrogate granddaughter. She was on easy speaking terms with a number of the other tenants in the apartment building and fostered some growing friendships with co-workers. Why, now, did it seem so empty?
Adding the last rose to her bouquet, Chocolate Chip was faced with a startling reality. The flowers singly had made a marching row of drudgery; but together they formed a beautiful bouquet that tantalized all the senses. It was a cataclysmic discovery: Her successful days in New Pony stretched out behind her and before her like an endless march of monotonous duties while her sometimes rocky, sometimes heavenly days in Dream Valley came together in a woven pattern of radiant petals and soothing fragrance that lifted her, sustained her, and enlivened her. She had traded paradise for mediocrity... and for what purpose? To appease her early years of insecurity? To prove to herself that she could stand alone? To show her mother that even a plain Jane could be worthwhile?
Chocolate Chip jumped up off the sofa to pace the room. Why hadn’t she accepted Wigwam’s proposal when he had renewed it in August when she had been home for Wishbone and Garnet’s wedding?
“Wigwam!” the mare groaned. “I’ve changed my mind! I want to come home! I want to marry you!”
* * *
“Fabia, I’ve got to talk to you.”
“You’re not having a problem with the Sutter account, are you?” the business mare asked apprehensively. She had given her promise to her uncle, the company president, that there would be no glitches in meeting the deadline. Yet, Chocolate Chip did not seem harassed. Come to think of it, she appeared absolutely glowing.
“This doesn’t involve Sutter. It involves...” the young mare blushed a deeper brown, “a decision I’ve made.”
“You don’t make decisions,” Fabia reminded her underling. “You suggest ideas.”
“This is something that affects me personally as well as the company,” Chocolate Chip hurried to say. “I’ve decided to resign my position here.”
Fabia’s eyes widened in shock. “You can’t mean that. What will I do...”
“I’ll stay long enough to finish the Sutter project; you don’t have to worry about that,” assured Chocolate Chip. “But once that’s out of the way, I’m going back to Dream Valley.”
“Who could have offered you a better position than you have here? Dream Valley has no companies that compare to Worth Hydroshed Firkins.”
“From a business point-of-view, you’re right, of course. But from a personal stand-point, I feel compelled to return to my... home.” So what if she did not have a home of her own; Sugarberry had said she would always be welcome, and had not Vanguard urged her to keep the key to the house, just in case?
The wheels were turning in Fabia’s head as she considered the effect of Chocolate Chip’s defection. She had found the mare to be a biddable and efficient consultant who had succeeded in greatly improving her- Fabia’s- standing with Uncle Wilfred; so much so, in fact, that he was now considering putting her in charge of the entire department. She was sure she could handle the added responsibility... if Chocolate Chip was there to back her up. Even Fabia realized that her acclaimed success was due more to the chocolate brown mare’s expertise than to her own knowledge of the business. But it was so important to her to prove herself with Uncle Wilfred; he had been hesitant in hiring her, doubting her ability, but she had held up her end of the bargain they had made and he now found her capable of added trust. She could not back down now.
“Chocolate Chip, has something upset you to cause you to want to leave the company? If there is, we can surely talk it over and set things right.”
“Nothing you can say will entice me to change my plans, Fabia; but since you ask, I have found it rather disconcerting to have my work turned in under your name.”
“Well, certainly you understand that, as your manager, I have to be in control of all the information submitted to the board.” Fabia’s eyes refused to meet Chocolate Chip’s.
“But you aren’t the one that sifts through the piles of data and performs the analysis. If the truth be told, I doubt that you have the education to do the mathematical end of the job- let alone the simulation required, especially with the complexity of a corporation like Sutter.”
Leaning forward over her desk, Fabia quickly defended herself. “You forget that I’m the one that takes your boring statistics and turns them into a viable presentation that will pass the scrutiny of the corporate heads. That’s where your recommendations either pass the test or fail.”
“Well, I promise you that I’ll do my best to see that Sutter passes. I definitely want to leave on a positive note.”
That remark brought Fabia back to the reason for this conversation. “But you don’t have to leave! Is it a raise you want? I can talk...”
“No, Fabia. It’s not about the jangles. I want a home and a husband and a family... things I thought I didn’t need when I accepted this job, but now seem eminently more valuable than climbing the ranks of corporate New Pony.” There was a certainty in her voice that could not be denied.
Fabia gulped. “But you’ll stay long enough to handle the Sutter account?” Her voice was pleading.
“I said I would, didn’t I?” Chocolate Chip grinned. “We’ll dazzle ‘em before I leave, Fabia. You can count on it!”
* * *
Never had Dream Valley looked so good to her!
Chocolate Chip had arrived at the airport unannounced, anxious to surprise Wigwam with her unexpected return. Now, as she walked to Sugarberry’s house, she could not contain the sappy grin that split her face. Behind her followed the delivery pony she had hired to cart her luggage; she hoped Sugarberry would not be in the middle of something when she walked in.
Once the brown mare had made up her mind to return to Dream Valley, she had worked like a demon possessed to fulfill her promise to Fabia and had completed the Sutter project on time. Fabia had become resigned to the mare’s imminent departure and had used the opportunity to screen replacements, looking for someone who could assume Chocolate Chip’s responsibilities without disrupting Fabia’s peace of mind.
When Chocolate Chip had finished her report and was ready to turn it over to Fabia, she made one final request of her manager. She asked if, just this once, Fabia would allow her to make the presentation to Sutter herself rather than turning her hard work over to Fabia for all the credit. At first, Fabia had refused to even consider the idea; but in the end, after much wheedling from both Chocolate Chip and Tarn, she had reluctantly given her consent.
Chocolate Chip experienced the thrill of having the corporate officers of Sutter listening to her every word as she laid out the results of her study and the proposals that would benefit both the company and the consumers. She had answered their questions clearly and concisely, backing up her conclusions with irrefutable evidence. Watching the ponies’ faces around the boardroom table, she had seen them turn from obvious skepticism to grudging admiration- and, finally, to open respect.
It had been icing on the cake when Wilfred Bates had stepped into her office amidst the farewells of her coworkers to draw her aside and offer her a managerial position and a raise in salary if she would only stay on. She had thanked him kindly, but had turned down the offer without one regret. She had proven something to herself- that she, plain little Chocolate Chip, had the intelligence and the poise to dazzle the cream of the corporate world. That was what she had set out to do. Now, she was ready to go home.
Home! What a lovely sounding word! When Sugarberry and Vanguard’s house came in sight, Chocolate Chip hurried her steps, leaving the cart driver behind. She ran up the sidewalk, nearly tripping on the risers, and scurried across the porch to knock on the door. After an impatient wait of all of three seconds, she pounded again, then attempted to turn the knob only to find that the door was locked. That meant that Sugarberry was gone for more than a quick run to the grocery store or to meet Tabby for ice cream at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe.
Frowning as the cart driver gained the porch steps, the mare suddenly remembered the key in her possession that Vanguard had refused to accept when she had left for New Pony. If you ever need a place for whatever reason, you still have a home here, he had said. Surely her acceptance of Wigwam’s proposal was reason enough. Unlocking the door, she directed the delivery pony to set her suitcases inside the door, then paid him and sent him on his way.
Taking a cursory inspection of the house, Chocolate Chip spied Fluff, the orange and white long-haired cat, watching her with some uncertainty from the back of the sofa. “Fluff,” she cooed softly, “surely you remember me? Do you still sleep at the foot of my bed?” The heavy cat looked at her with wide, round eyes, then slunk over the edge of the sofa and disappeared beneath it.
“Well, so much for a welcome home,” muttered the mare. She turned to go upstairs, nearly tripping on the other feline occupant of the house, Raptor. Long and lean as Fluff was round and plump, the dark short hair sat looking up at her with a contented expression on his face.
“You’re glad to see me back!” purred Chocolate Chip, patting the cat on his head. Raptor brushed against her legs happily. “No one’s home but you and Fluff, obviously... not even Licorice in Wishbone’s old room downstairs.” She scooped up the cat and carried him with her up to her old room and found it seemingly awaiting her return. She set Raptor on the bed, and eyed the furnishings with pleasure. Opening the drawers, she found that Sugarberry had left them empty as if fully expecting her to move back in.
“I suppose I should unpack my suitcases,” Chocolate Chip confided to the cat, “but I’m ever so anxious to see Wigwam’s face when he finds out that I’m ready to wear his ring.” She picked up the cat once more and twirled him around the room. “I’m going to rush over to the casino right now, Raptor. I can’t wait another minute.”
With that said, the mare dumped the feline unceremoniously back on the bed and hurried down the stairs and out the door toward Wigwam’s workplace.
* * *
It was a quiet day in Dream Valley, Chocolate Chip noted as she made her way from Sugarberry’s house to the outskirts of the town where the casino stood, now graced on one side by Native Dreams and on the other by the art center. She had not met any ponies out and about on this cold but clear day, which pleased her as she was not delayed but idle chatter. A notion to stop by Dreamcatcher’s shop to say hello was quickly discarded; rather, the chocolate brown mare scurried around to the back of the casino to make a quiet entrance. It was Wigwam she most wanted to see.
As she walked down the carpeted hallway, Chocolate Chip ran a hoof through her mane, grimacing as she realized that she should have taken the time to comb her hair and freshen up a bit. But, this way, Wigwam will know just how anxious I was to get here, she rationalized. Seeing the office door standing open, Chocolate Chip knew that Wigwam was at least in the building, if not seated behind his desk. She had almost gained the doorway when she heard a feminine giggle, and abruptly halted.
“I haven’t let you down yet, have I?” a musical voice asked.
Chocolate Chip immediately recognized the voice as Bittersweet’s and groaned inwardly; she did not want an audience for her and Wigwam’s reunion, especially not a mare Chocolate Chip did not quite trust. Chocolate Chip held back, hoping Bittersweet would soon leave.
“No, you certainly haven’t.”
The treasured sound of Wigwam’s voice caused a shiver to run through Chocolate Chip’s body, not only because of the masculine timber that made her heart flutter, but also because of the sensual softness with which he said the words. What could he and Bittersweet be discussing to bring out that emotional tone?
“So, my talents are justified?” Bittersweet asked coyly.
Wigwam chuckled, a rich, caressing sound. “This is not the time or the place to discuss your talents, Sweetie.”
Sweetie? Chocolate Chip nearly gasped to hear that sweet term of endearment; she had not been around the mocha unicorn enough to know that all her friends sooner or later lapsed into that abbreviated form of her name. Even if she had, Chocolate Chip was in no mood to listen to her stallion refer to any other mare with such cloying familiarity. She scowled as she listened further.
Wigwam continued. “What we’ve been discussing is of singular importance; I’ve got to be sure I’m making the right choice. This is for a lifetime, you know.”
“Wigwam! I’ve nothing but your best interests at heart,” countered the mare. “Trust me.” Chocolate Chip got the impression that the unicorn leaned over the desk as she spoke.
“You’ve certainly earned my trust these past months; I don’t know what I’ve had done without you.”
Chocolate Chip’s hoof flew to her heart as that organ seemed to constrict in shattering pain. Had she waited too long to confess her undying commitment to Wigwam, allowing Bittersweet to... to worm her way into his heart? But what of Teepee? Wigwam himself had told her that Bittersweet and Teepee were as good as engaged. But that was months ago... anything could have happened in the interim. Chocolate Chip leaned against the wall for support.
The grate of a desk drawer opening was the next sound from the office, and Wigwam’s voice, so soft and thoughtful she could barely hear it, saying, “I thought I’d give this ring into no one’s hooves but Chocolate Chip’s.” She heard his sigh and closed her eyes, remembering the simple gold band with the fiery diamond sending out flashes of light as he had offered it to her last Christmas Eve. If she had accepted the ring then, she and Wigwam would have been married by now; the stallion would have been safely out of the clutches of that... that... harpy. Chocolate Chip was ready to march into the office and... and...
But Wigwam’s next words stopped her cold.
“You’ve convinced me, Bittersweet, that I can entrust the ring to you.”
Putting her hoof to her mouth to stop herself from crying out, Chocolate Chip waited for the response of the mare.
Bittersweet almost squealed. “You won’t be sorry, Wigwam. I’ll make you proud... and you’ll be very satisfied.” Chocolate Chip did not have to be in the room to know that the two ponies were now enveloped in a warm hug.
“You realize that you hold my future in your hoof?” Wigwam was finally able to say.
Bittersweet giggled. “You’ve told me often enough.”
“Only because it’s true. You’ve made me see things differently; my giving you this ring is a sign of that.”
“You’ve made me very happy,” Bittersweet sighed on a soft and silky voice. “Shall we seal our agreement now?”
Hearing a low chuckle from Wigwam, Chocolate Chip could take no more; she turned and ran, all of her hopes and dreams crashing down around her. How could fate be so cruel as to time her return at the moment when Wigwam decided to change his alliance from her to Bittersweet?
In the agony of the moment, Chocolate Chip could not consider the fact that she was the one who had turned down Wigwam’s proposal and informed him that she wanted more out of life than marriage.
All she knew in this instant was that the one pony in the universe who could make her happy had just cut her off with barely a backward glance. How could he! And she... she had cut her ties with New Pony slick and clean. What was she going to tell Sugarberry?
What was she going to tell anyone?
How could she admit that she had been so stupid and starry-eyed as to give up a lucrative and demanding job in New Pony to return home to nothing but an air dream? She would never be able to show her face in Dream Valley again.
The thought struck her that she could still rush to Sugarberry’s and possibly retrieve her luggage and... and what? Where could she go to hide her shame? Home to her mother? That would be an open admission that her mother had been right all these years... that plain and simple Chocolate Chip would always be an outcast and a failure. Oh! She simply could not bear this!
Feeling like a lost puppy who had finally found its way home only to find a new pet ensconced in its place, Chocolate Chip wandered down a deserted street. She was heartbroken and furious all at the same time. Unable to discern an answer to her current dilemma, Chocolate Chip wished she could disappear from the face of the earth.
* * *
Back at the casino, Wigwam put his signature on the check he had just written and turned it over to Bittersweet’s waiting hoof. “There. That will cover having the ring redesigned as you suggested?”
“Definitely,” Bittersweet grinned as she saw the amount. “And I promise that the Native Pony design we settled on will please Chocolate Chip much more than this tasteful but boring thing you originally chose for her. Manipi is a true artist when it comes to jewelry; you’ll be impressed.”
“The main thing is that Chocolate Chip will be impressed the next time I offer it to her. And tell this Manipi not to dawdle; I plan to take it to New Pony with me as soon as it’s back in my hooves.”
“And you’re so sure she’ll say yes this time?”
“I feel it in my bones, Bittersweet. The time is now.”
* * *
Once Bittersweet left his office, Wigwam was able to settle down to some serious work and was progressing rather well when the telephone rang. He picked up on the third ring and was greeted by Sugarberry’s cheerful voice.
“Do you have my girl there with you?” she asked.
“Sugarberry,” Wigwam frowned, “you have a little boy... and, no, he’s not here.” Suddenly remembering the Vulcanopolis kidnaping, he rushed to ask, “You didn’t lose him again, did you?”
A giggle came over the line. “I’m talking about Chocolate Chip.”
“Chocolate Chip? You know as well as I do that she’s in New Pony... not that she isn’t in my thoughts constantly. You haven’t been doing some of that fancy holiday baking with brandy, have you, Sugarberry?”
Another giggle almost confirmed Wigwam’s suspicions, but the next words from Sugarberry caused the stallion to jump out of his chair.
“Well, for your information, all Chocolate Chip’s worldly possessions are stacked in my entry hall, so I assumed...”
“She’s in town?” the stallion raved.
“Why else would her luggage be here?” countered Sugarberry. “Vanguard and I just got home; we had taken Banderol in for his one year check-up and then went out to eat, but when we walked in the front door, there was every piece of luggage that Chocolate Chip ever owned, plus a few new pieces. It looks like she’s here to stay, Wigwam.”
“But she’s not at the house? Do you think she’s on her way to see me?”
“If I were in her shoes, that’s where I’d be headed.” Sugarberry winked at Vanguard.
“Oh! What rotten timing!” Wigwam growled.
Sugarberry’s voice sobered. “And just what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I just gave her engagement ring to Bittersweet to have it recreated into a Native Pony setting, but I’m bound and determined to propose to that girl... again... the moment I see her- and I won’t take no for an answer this time.”
Relieved with that answer, Sugarberry resumed her happy grin. “Oh, that I could be there to see this reunion!”
“This is my moment, Sugarberry. But I’ll tell you all about it later.”
“I wish you happy, my friend.”
* * *
“Where is she?” Wigwam asked for the umpteenth time as he paced Sugarberry’s living room, stopping at each pass in front of the window to check the street for some sign of the chocolate brown pony. He had given up his futile watch at the casino when the mare had not shown up in an acceptable amount of time. She had not contacted Garnet or Wishbone, both of whom were now sitting on the couch watching his harried anxiety build to the bursting point.
A call placed to the apartment manager in New Pony had revealed that Chocolate Chip had quit her job and left Dream Valley as a forwarding address. The manager assured Sugarberry that Chocolate Chip was in a very upbeat mood when she left. “She said she was going home,” he had added in a helpful manner.
That information was comforting as far as it went, but it did not explain where Chocolate Chip was now. “Her luggage is here, so this doesn’t make sense,” Vanguard puzzled out loud, “but what if by going home she meant back to Neighberry?”
So a call was quickly placed by Wishbone to his parents’ house in that town; the young stallion asked as discreetly as possible so as not to alarm his parents if they had seen Chocolate Chip recently, but the answer was in the negative.
On the phone with Fern, Sugarberry received yet again the disappointing news that, no, Chocolate Chip had not contacted her in any way. The same answer was received from Lemon Treats, Dreamcatcher, Tabby, Petal, and any other friend or acquaintance that the worried pony could think to call. Wigwam’s request to Chief Tawny to ask that he and his department keep a lookout for the lost mare had not provided any leads either.
With all the apparent possibilities in Dream Valley exhausted, Sugarberry looked to her companions for advice, only to be interrupted by Licorice and Snapper’s entrance into the house; the two young stallions had been combing the mall and the campus for any sight of the chocolate brown mare.
“There’s no sign of her,” Licorice reported. “No one we talked to has even seen a pony matching her description.”
Pounding his hoof into the nearest end table, Wigwam thundered, “Then where the devil is she?!” He turned to Sugarberry as if she could answer his question.
“She must have arrived here safely,” Sugarberry retraced the facts. “She accessed the house as her luggage proves. If she quit her job, she must have come back willingly and with definite plans about her future. And she was happy, according to her apartment manager, so...”
“But what if she was just putting on a show?” interrupted Wigwam. “What if she had gotten into some kind of trouble or hadn’t left her job willingly? Maybe something went wrong in New Pony and she was bummed out by it... so bummed out, in fact, that she couldn’t face any of us just yet. Where would you go, Sugarberry, if you needed time to think seriously about a big problem?”
Sugarberry answered immediately. “To church.”
“It’s worth a try,” said the stallion; and before anyone else could say a word, he was out the door.
* * *
The streetlights pooled their illumination along his path as Wigwam sped to the spired edifice in the center of town, all his hopes resting on the possibility that Chocolate Chip would be in its safe refuge. At his approach, he caught sight of a pony coming out the side door; and even in the dark he could tell that whoever it was, the pony was not pastel. His hopes flared, but quickly were doused as he came face-to-face with the ebony Fr. Isaac. Not pastel, but not the chocolate brown mare he had expected to find.
“Fr. Isaac, I was wondering...”
“You’re looking for Chocolate Chip, I imagine. She’s inside.”
“You don’t know how grateful I am to hear you say that, Father,” Wigwam said, moving to go past the priest. But Fr. Isaac’s hoof came out to stall him.
“She’s very depressed,” Fr. Isaac informed him. “You haven’t said or done something to put her in this dark mood, have you?”
“I would never hurt Chocolate Chip in any manner,” the stallion responded. Then, as if needing to verify his statement, he added, “And as I haven’t seen her yet since she arrived back in Dream Valley, how could I be responsible?”
“Well, she won’t confide in me,” Fr. Isaac admitted. “She says she wants to be alone. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best thing for her right now.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Wigwam said, anxious to do just that.
Fr. Isaac studied his face for a moment longer before he released his hold on the stallion. “All right. You go to her. But tread carefully.”
* * *
Slipping quietly into the church, Wigwam stood a moment to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the dim and flickering candlelight. There, sitting in the shadows in the farthest corner, was the mare he loved. Her face was hidden in the darkness; but as he softly walked closer, he caught sight of the tears staining her cheeks and his heart wrenched.
Lowering himself onto the bench next to the despondent mare, he settled a hoof on her foreleg, causing her to recoil at the unexpected touch. She slid down the pew, putting several feet between them, as if his light contact had hurt her. She said nothing, but a slight moan seemed to escape unbidden.
Wigwam was dismayed at the hopelessness and sorrow he read in her eyes. “My darling, what lowlife scum in New Pony has made you so unhappy?”
The bleak expression of the mare turned quickly to one of anger. Her eyes flashing, she retorted, “It’s a lowlife scum much closer to home.”
“Someone in Dream Valley has offended you since you got back?” asked a confused Wigwam.
“You could say that.”
“Who was it? I’ll have his hide!”
“That’s going to be awfully painful for you; I don’t think you’re up to it.”
That remark only succeeded in puzzling the stallion further. “What are you getting at?”
“Just go away!”
“I will not go away, Chocolate Chip. I’m in earnest when I say that I’ll not let you turn my attentions away from you again. Whatever is bothering you must be serious to have put you in such a mix of temper and depression. Don’t you understand that I’m here to help you, that I always want to be the one you turn to no matter what happens?” He brushed his hoof through his mane in an agitated manner. “I just wish I had that blasted ring!”
The mare’s look of total disgust turned Wigwam to ice; her words then fractured him. “It was only several hours ago that you gave the ring to Bittersweet; your feelings have changed so dramatically since then?”
“How did you know about the ring?”
“I was there when you gave it to her; I heard everything.”
“So you know why I don’t have it, and you don’t approve?”
Chocolate Chip responded with a laugh, a rather high-pitched sound that held no mirth. “Your proposal is your decision; I obviously didn’t figure into your plans this afternoon.”
“But Bittersweet thought you’d treasure a Native Pony ring; she said that a pony as unique as you should have a one-of-kind ring designed with you in mind. She convinced me that she was right. She’s been right about a lot of things, you know- Native Dreams is proving very lucrative, for one thing. But that’s beside the point. You’re the only mare for me, so the ring should be matchless as well.”
Staring in complete incomprehension, Chocolate Chip tried to decipher the meaning of the words she had just heard. “Wh... what are you talking about?” she choked.
Seeing that the anger in the mare’s eyes had diminished- even if it was now replaced by a look of total perplexity- Wigwam allowed himself a smile. “The ring. Bittersweet’s suggestion was to take the diamond out of the modern band and work it into a traditional Native Pony setting.”
Wigwam now looked at Chocolate Chip as if she had sprouted horns. “For you. Who else?”
An endearing blush spread across Chocolate Chip’s brown face, deepening the rich chocolate color. “You weren’t... proposing... to Bittersweet?” she whispered.
Dazed, Wigwam asked, “Propose to Bittersweet? What, do you think I’m crazy?”
“You... you entrusted the ring to her... and your future. You liked her talents and... and... the ring was a sign of all that.”
“Good grief, girl! That’ll teach you not to listen at doorways.” He grinned in apparent relief and took her hooves in his. “Bittersweet is an excellent business associate, but did you honestly think I was planning to marry that mare?”
“It sounded like it to me,” Chocolate Chip sniffed.
“I was afraid of this,” Wigwam said soberly while shaking his head. “New Pony’s radical ways overcame your common sense. But for all that, I’m sure that once you’re settled in at Sugarberry’s again, you’ll regain your true sensibilities once more.”
“Have you really waited for me to find my way back to you?” Chocolate Chip asked even though she could already see the answer to that absurd question in the stallion’s eyes. It suddenly seemed very important to have her hopes verified.
“I have... and would have continued to do so for as long as it took, although those roses were really starting to deplete my bank account.” The mare rolled her eyes as Wigwam continued. “I was even beginning to see the two of us as our generation’s Miss Hackney and sweetheart.”
“You are very patient.”
“Up to a point,” Wigwam admitted. “With you back in Dream Valley, I’m afraid I may want to see things move a little faster. Will you marry me, Chocolate Chip?”
Chocolate Chip spared a glance for the red flame in the sanctuary. “With God as my witness, yes, Wigwam, I’ll marry you.”
“And soon?” To Wigwam, it seemed as if the future of the entire galaxy was riding on her answer.
She smiled. “At the first possible date.”
The answering smile that crossed Wigwam’s face caused Chocolate Chip’s heart to skip a beat or two. Wigwam held out a hoof to her as he stood. “Let’s light a candle. I’m feeling very thankful right now that life can be this good.” He stared at her so intensely and with such warmth that Chocolate Chip felt like she was melting like a wax taper herself. “Welcome home, Chocolate Chip.”
“I’m back where I belong,” beamed the mare, more sure of herself in this moment than she had ever been.
* * *
When the two ponies emerged from the church, they nearly collided with Fr. Isaac. “Is everything okay?” He looked searchingly at Chocolate Chip.
“Yes, Father. Everything’s fine. I’d jumped to some wrong conclusions, but I’ve been set straight.” The glow on her face broadcast her present contentment.
“And I’m taking her home,” Wigwam allowed. Then, seeing the scowl that Fr. Isaac fastened on him, the stallion added, “To Sugarberry’s house, of course. And maybe you would be so kind as to call Sugarberry so that she doesn’t worry any longer than necessary?” Wigwam knew that his return trip across town was going to be conducted at a much slower pace than his frantic run over here.
“Yes. Yes, I’ll do that,” Fr. Isaac assured the couple.
Wigwam and Chocolate Chip began moving away when Wigwam suddenly stopped and turned back. “And, Father, check your calendar. Chocolate Chip and I want the first Saturday available to pledge our wedding vows.”
“We’ll talk soon,” Fr. Isaac promised before disappearing into the night.
“Soon,” Wigwam whispered to his betrothed as he pulled her close and kissed her soundly.