"Toby, I've got some news for you." The voice was Perry Winkle's, and Toby felt a hint of trepidation; he had contacted Friendship Garden's lawyer concerning the questionable circumstances surrounding the closing of Fern's grandmother's will and the eventual dismissal of Fern from the home in which she had grown up under her grandmother's care.
Fern knew nothing of his discreet interference into her affairs; now, upon hearing Perry's voice, Toby was hit with a sinking feeling that Fern would resent his prying into her background, no matter if it was in her best interests or not. "Perry, is it about Fern's inheritance?"
"That and more. When can we get together?"
"First, tell me if what you've learned is going to be good news or bad for Fern."
"For Fern herself, it is very good news."
"Then the sooner, the better. Fern and I are going out for dinner tonight; could you join us?"
"That would work well for me; but let me set up the reservation; Driftwood always had a special table that he gave me when I needed privacy to talk with my clients, and Whisk says he will continue the tradition even with Driftwood married and gone to Berryvillle. Meet me at the Estate Manor at seven."
* * *
Toby picked Fern up for the walk to the restaurant, but he could not work up the courage to broach the upcoming revelation that Perry would have for her. He listened in silence to the incidents from work and the plans for her writing class and the activities with Chocolate Chip. He was no closer to finding an opening for his unexpected news when Fern stopped her chatter and looked at him with a studying glance. "What's bothering you, Toby?"
The stallion met her blue eyes; their solicitude induced him to speak. "We are not dining alone tonight; a friend of mine, Perry Winkle, is joining us; you might remember him from the charity ball."
"Yes, I do. He was in the company of Princess Dawn. If I remember correctly, he is a lawyer."
"That he is." Toby stopped and turned to Fern. "I asked him to check on some things in connection with your grandmother."
"Some things? Like what?"
"Like how your grandmother could ignore your needs in her will and how your great-uncle could evict you from the home you had shared with your grandmother for years. I thought you should know for certain that everything was done in accordance with the law."
Fern stared at Toby for so long that the stallion envisioned an unpleasant scene arising, but Fern's words reassured him. "You did that for me? I was hoping to save enough money to have someone investigate the situation, but it would have taken months and months." She suddenly stopped, realizing what this could mean. "What did Perry find out?"
"He didn't tell me anything except that it would be good news for you."
Fern's blue eyes widened. "Good news... does that mean..."
Toby stopped her. "I don't know what it means, so maybe we should continue on our way to the Estate Manor; the sooner we get there, the sooner you will know something for sure." He took her hoof in his, and they started on their way again.
"I'm almost afraid to hear what Perry has to say, Toby. I'm happy with what I've found in Dream Valley."
Those words brought back the earlier apprehension and sent a cold shiver across Toby's skin. In that instant, he wished overwhelmingly that he had kept out of this inquisition into Fern's past.
* * *
Steering the conversation away from the business at hoof until they were seated and comfortable, Perry finally met Fern's questioning look head on. "I imagine you are wondering what I've found out about the proceedings at Bushley."
"Y... yes," Fern stuttered, casting a glance at Toby for his support.
"Well, first of all, it was several weeks ago that Toby told me about his-- and your-- quest, yet it was only this morning that I had time to make a preliminary phone call to the only lawyer in Bushley to see if he knew anything about your grandmother's case."
"Your first contact was today, and you already have news?" Toby could not help asking.
"I stumbled into some good luck," Perry smiled. "It seems, Fern, that your great-aunt is looking for you."
"Aunt Maisie is looking for me?" echoed Fern in surprise.
"A lot has happened with her since your hasty dismissal by her husband a year ago." Perry looked at Fern as if to prepare her for something harsh. "Your great-uncle, Troubadour, passed away several weeks ago."
"No," Fern whispered. "That can't be."
"He had a terminal illness already when he moved into your grandmother's house; in fact, that is what prompted him to do what he did."
"What he did? I don't understand."
"Your aunt Maisie was told some things by Troubadour when he was failing close to the end. He admitted to his wife that he had tricked her sister-- your grandmother-- into signing a will that gave Maisie everything she had."
Toby set a restraining hoof on Fern's foreleg to steady her. "How did he manage that? From what Fern has told me, her grandmother was one sharp mare."
"He came to her unexpectedly and told her about his illness; he then told her that he wanted to include Fern as an heir in his own will as he and Maisie had no offspring of their own. He was so serious in his proposal that he wanted Maud to sign a paper to put with her own legal documents that stated her knowledge and agreement to Fern's inheriting from Troubadour in case anyone questioned such a transaction between ponies who had ignored each other for a large part of their lives."
"Granny never told me about this."
"Maybe she still didn't trust Troubadour completely. And she had reason not to. The stallion had her sign other papers along with the ones he told her about; unknowingly, she signed a new will of her own. It's that will he presented after her death, with the help of a not too reputable lawyer friend of his."
"But why couldn't I find her real will?" Fern asked in a trembling voice.
"Troubadour even told Maisie how he accomplished getting his hooves on your grandmother's will in the short time that he was at her house. He, of course, had gained her compassion toward him on admitting to her that he was dying and that Maisie would be alone soon; then by convincing her that you would be included in his will, he further gained some control over her."
"Granny would have been caught between her love for her sister and her distrust of Troubadour."
"Your great-uncle was obviously a trickster at heart; he mouthed off to your grandmother that copies of his will would be kept with his lawyer and in a safe deposit box at his bank as the safest places for such an important document, and Maud unwittingly glanced at a small wooden box that sat on her mantelpiece. Troubadour deducted that the box was where her will was located; and knowing that she had not trusted a lawyer to help her with the will, he surmised that it was probably the only copy."
"That box was always locked," Fern argued. "And I did find the key when I went through my grandmother's things, but the box was empty."
"Maisie admitted that Troubadour was not above picking a lock if it was in his best interests; I gather that was how he managed to support himself and Maisie for many years. He simply had to sneak in the house after Maud thought he was gone and removed the papers without her ever knowing."
"Quite a conniving stallion," Toby commented as Fern sat absorbing the information.
"How could Aunt Maisie live with such a character?" she finally asked.
"From what Dynasty, Bushley's lawyer, told me, your Aunt Maisie is an extremely gentle pony who needs a lot of guidance; I doubt that she would have been capable to stand up to Troubadour even if she did not approve of his deeds. But once she became aware of his interference with your legacy, Fern, she came to Cody as soon as she could after her husband's funeral. She wants to make things right for you."
"Is that possible without Granny's original will?"
"Troubadour must have had some conscience to him; he kept that will and let Maisie know where it was; it would appear that he intended for you to have your share of the inheritance in due time."
"If she survived the interim!" spat Toby as he remembered the unconscious and malnourished filly he had discovered that hot summer day several months back.
The three ponies sat in silent thought for some minutes before Perry came back to business. He addressed Fern. "Dynasty would like to see you and me in Bushley this weekend, Fern."
"So soon?" The young mare looked overwhelmed.
"From what Dynasty tells me, your great-aunt is quite upset over this entire situation; he is concerned for her health if something isn't done to set her mind at ease soon."
Fern turned her head to look at Toby, her eyes haunted with uncertainty. "Will you come with me?"
"I'll get someone to cover for me," he assured her.
She turned back to Perry. "Then this week-end it is."
* * *
"Your great-aunt insisted that we spend the night at her-- your-- house, Fern," Perry remarked as he, Fern, and Toby neared the town of Bushley. "I hope you aren't daunted by such a homecoming."
Fern, who had started this trip quiet and withdrawn, had slowly come alive as she neared her hometown; she began to recognize sights and could tell stories of things that had happened in her years with her grandmother. Her eyes were dancing with excitement now as the town itself was within range.
"When I left here, I thought that I would never come back," she admitted, growing pensive. "I imagined that all my feelings for this place had died when I was sent on my way. But now that I see it again, I think I can put all those horrible impressions away."
"Just where is your grandmother's house?" Toby asked.
"We'll cut off on that lane up ahead to bypass the town; Granny's house is about two miles due east of here."
Now so close, Fern could not stop talking. "Granny and I walked this road hundreds of times, going to church and shopping. Of course, when I went to school, I had to walk it alone; but I enjoyed the scenery, so I was never lonesome. Sometimes, Granny would meet me under this big maple tree just to hear about my day; I wish she was there now." Sadness crossed her face as she mourned again the loss of her grandmother, the pony who had taken the place of her parents so long ago.
"Your grandmother will be happy to know that things are finally going to be the way she wanted them for you," Toby comforted her.
"She was so wonderful." Fern sighed. "I hope Aunt Maisie is at least a trifle like her."
The house now loomed before them, a large, white, elegant residence with a spreading front porch covered with ivy. On the west corner was a round turret and just visible around the side of the house was an apple orchard. The setting was dotted with spreading maples and stately elms and a line of lilac bushes rimming the lawn. Fern drank in the vision. "It looks just like when I last saw it!" She rushed to the front steps that led to the generous porch, leaving the stallions behind, but stopped short as she reached the first step.
Off a wooden bench to the side of the door arose a pony, petite and prim, her lavender body trembling, her pink hair clipped back off her shoulder. She took one step forward and with a wispy voice asked, "Fern? Is that you, Fern Feather?"
For a moment, Fern faltered. The mare on the porch look amazingly like Granny on first glance, but the voice was only a shadow of the confident voice her grandmother had. As the mare came out of the shadows, Fern saw that there were tears in her eyes; that was one thing Fern could not abide. She hurried up the steps and met her great-aunt at the top. "It's me, Aunt Maisie. It's Fern."
"I'm so glad you're here!" the older mare cried, and in the same moment nearly lost her ability to stand, her emotion was so great.
A stallion that Fern had not been aware of came from the depths of the porch and put a strong foreleg around the elderly mare to stabilize her. "It's all going to be okay now, Maisie," the stallion said in a soothing voice, leading her back to the bench. "You sit down and get acquainted with Fern; I'll leave the two of you alone for awhile."
The stallion was true to his word; he went down the steps to meet Perry and Toby. Extending his hoof, he introduced himself. "I'm Dynasty, the lawyer that is handling Maisie's case. And you are..." He looked from one stallion to the next, trying to determine which was the lawyer he had been briefing on the phone.
"Perry Winkle," Perry responded. "And this is Toby, a friend of Fern's."
"Nice to meet you both," said Dynasty, shaking their hooves in turn. "I can't tell you how thankful I am that you were able to get here on such short notice." He looked back to the porch. "Maisie is a dear, but she has been worrying herself sick ever since she found out that Fern had been denied her legacy."
"That's what we are here to straighten out," Perry smiled.
"Maisie won't stand in your way; she won't rest until the house and property are in Fern's name as Maud intended."
"Were you acquainted with Maud?" Toby asked curiously. He wanted to learn all about the pony who had raised Fern from a foal.
"We had the pleasure of meeting several times," Dynasty smiled. "I can't say that she was impressed with me, but I found Maud to be exceptional. She was as self-sufficient as they come, and she knew her rights and her responsibilities. She did not, however, have any trust for lawyers."
* * *
Back at the porch, Maisie held Fern's hoof protectively in her own. "I'm so sorry for what happened, Fern. I never knew until... until Troubadour was failing fast, that he had intervened in your inheriting the house here." A new flood of tears brushed her cheeks, and Fern's heart melted.
"It's okay, Aunt Maisie. No harm has been done. I'm just sorry that you ended up all alone."
"I loved Troubadour very much." Maisie seemed to need to impress that on Fern, knowing that her marriage to the maverick stallion had not been blessed by her sister, Maud. "But I certainly would not have condoned the action he took against you, dear. I think he was sorry in the end, too."
"Why did he take such a drastic step?"
"He loved me, too, Fern. When he found out that their was nothing that the doctor's could do for him, he couldn't face leaving me alone without some security. He knew that Maud would take me in after... after he was gone... but he wanted something in writing to guarantee a home for me in the case something happened to Maud, too. He knew that I couldn't take care of things myself, Fern. What he did was wrong, but he did it out of love for me. Can you understand that?"
"But why did he not leave room for me in his plan?" Fern asked, trying to understand the workings of the stallion.
"He never expected Maud to go before him; but when she did, he thought you might resent me; he assumed that Maud would have filled your head will all kinds of horrible things that he had done. My sister never did like Troubadour, not for a minute. She never gave him a chance."
Fern knew that Granny had often made instantaneous judgements about ponies, but she also knew that Granny was more often than not proved right in her assessments of equine nature.But Fern was not about to cause Maisie any more pain. "Granny never said anything against you, Aunt Maisie. I would have welcomed you and Troubadour, too."
As the two mares hugged, Maisie looked beyond Fern to where the stallions still kept their distance. "Speaking of welcoming, I think we should invite those ponies in, don't you, Fern?" She smiled at her great-niece with more life in her than Fern had yet been privileged to see.
"Yes, Aunt Maisie, I do."
* * *
Fern found that the inside of the house was virtually unchanged from when she had left; as Maisie led the group into the parlor, Fern was taking in all the details that had stayed in her memory: the sweep of the stairway, the placement of the furniture, the pictures, the crocheted accents that had been her grandmother's source of pride, and the heavily curtained windows. She found everything to be as she remembered it except for one spot on the wall that no longer held a portrait of herself and her grandmother. Fern filed a note with herself to ask Aunt Maisie about that missing picture when the two of them were alone.
"Fern, I've got coffee ready in the kitchen; would you help me serve?" Aunt Maisie set off for the kitchen, and Fern followed. As she managed the tray of coffee and supplies, Aunt Maisie uncovered a plate of homemade sugar cookies. "Do you think our guests will be hungry?"
"We stopped at the cafe in Stableton for a snack, but I think your cookies will go over very well."
"You only had a snack? Then I should have fixed lunch for all of you. Dynasty didn't tell me that you hadn't eaten properly."
"We are fine, Aunt Maisie. Don't worry about us." She motioned for her great-aunt to bring the cookies.
Maisie picked up the plate, but she shook her head and frowned. "I feel terrible about this; I would have had a nice lunch ready if I had known."
Fern smiled. "If it will make you feel any better, you can treat us to a special dinner tonight."
The mare's face lighted up. "That's a very good idea, dear. I'll do that." Returning to the presence of the stallions, Maisie lost no time in extending an invitation for them all to join her for the evening meal. That proposal taken care of, the mare served the coffee with Fern's help; the cookies were met with honest praise that made Maisie flush with satisfaction. Fern noted that her great-aunt looked much younger when she was content.
After the small talk was out of the way, Dynasty cleared his throat. "Maisie, we have some business to discuss."
Immediately, the demeanor of the mare became tense and worried. "Business? Of, yes, of course. Fern, dear, you will forgive me for what Troubadour did, won't you? He did what he did for my sake, even if it wasn't right." A trickle of tears began once again.
"Aunt Maisie, you have nothing to be concerned over." Fern squeezed her great-aunt's hoof. "Let's listen to what Dynasty has to say."
The lawyer, casting an appreciative glance at Fern for her kindness to Maisie, took the floor. "As you all know, we now have in our possession the last will and testament of Maud Feather; according to the terms of that will, this house and the surrounding property and all the financial accounts of Maud will be in the possession of Fern once the proper paperwork is completed."
"May I see those papers?" asked Perry.
Dynasty handed one copy to the Friendship Garden lawyer and one copy to Fern while Maisie sat back as if she was not involved with these proceedings. "Why don't you take the time to study this over," Dynasty suggested. "Then you can ask any questions that you may have."
Maisie suddenly became alert. "There are some things I would like to take care of in the kitchen. You won't be needing me, will you?"
"If you have important work to do, Maisie, you go right ahead." Dynasty offered his hoof to the mare as she pulled herself off the settee next to Fern. Maisie acknowledged his help with a demure smile, then took herself off to her dinner planning.
Toby, in the meantime, was feeling out of place. This was Fern's affair, not his, and he was becoming uncomfortable over the fact that he had pushed this onto Fern without facing the consequences. He looked at Fern across the room as she studied the will and realized that as of the finalizing of that statement, she would become an independently wealthy mare. And that being the case, she would no longer need his strength and support.
Lost in his thoughts, Toby would never have guessed what was going through Fern's mind. The numbers before her were larger than anything she could have imagined. If Dynasty's summary was correct, Granny had managed her jangles well; there would be no reason for Miranda to look down her nose at Fern now; she and Toby would have clear sailing.
Looking up from her paperwork, Fern caught Toby's eye. Patting the couch next to her, she called him to her. "Miranda would have respected Granny," she smiled as she handed him the facts.
Toby skimmed over the figures and chuckled. "I'll say; she will have to change her attitude toward you now."
Dynasty came to the center of the room. "Fern, do you have any questions?"
At the same time, Maisie came into the room. "Troubadour always helped me in the kitchen. I don't know if I can do it without..." She was on the verge of more tears.
Toby saw his chance to escape the legal technicalities that needed Fern's attention; he immediately went to Maisie's rescue. "I can help you, Maisie. What do you want me to do?"
Maisie looked at the stallion as if he had lifted the world off her shoulders. "Why, thank you... Toby... is it?'
Toby followed her after a brief word with Perry to watch out for Fern's concerns and a quick wink at Fern to bolster her resolve. Once in the kitchen, he was grateful for the times he had helped his mother prepare a meal; his own manner of cooking included microwave dinners and little more, which was not a good background for the style of dinner that Maisie had in mind. He at least knew enough to tell a cake pan from a roaster and a skillet from a Dutch oven. He and Maisie were soon working well together as Toby fetched pans and canisters and foodstuffs for the mare as she measured, poured, cut, and diced.
Only occasionally would the mare look directly at Toby, and he was amazed each time to see the same vivid blue eyes that graced Fern; he wondered if Granny shared that feature as well.
In the middle of his musing, Toby was hit with a direct question. "And what is your occupation, Toby?"
"I'm a doctor."
Maisie dropped the spoon from her hoof. "Fern's not well?"
"Fern's fine," Toby was quick to assure her. "We met when she came to Dream Valley."
"Dream Valley..." Maisie contemplated as she continued stirring the batter. "Troubadour mentioned Dream Valley; I believe he was there before I met him." She stared straight ahead, looking across the years. "I met him at a dance in Bushley. Maud never understood. You would understand about love, wouldn't you, Toby?"
"Yes, I think I would."
"Maud never..." Coming back to her duties, she brushed the mane off her forehead and got back to work.
* * *
The lawyers had spent the entire afternoon with Fern straightening out the details of Granny's will, finishing only when Maisie called them to dinner. Fern came to Toby, her eyes bleary from the facts and figures that had been presented to her and the responsibilities connected to each. "I want to go home," she groaned.
"You are home," Toby reminded her.
"Dream Valley is my home now."
"I'm very glad to hear you say that."
"Come and sit down," Maisie chided. "Perry, you sit here; Dynasty, here; Fern, here; and Toby, here." She pointed out each seat in turn and waited for the ponies to sit down. Only then did she allow herself a chance to sit as well. "And now, a prayer," she smiled at the waiting faces.
* * *
"This is a picture of my parents," Fern said as she and Toby sought some quiet time after supper. Perry had insisted on helping with the dishes, due to the fact that Toby had worked so hard in helping Maisie prepare the meal. Dynasty had been commandeered as assistant dish-drier.
Toby looked the picture over carefully, studying the visages for their corresponding features in Fern. "You have your mother's eyes, that's for sure." He smiled into Fern's blue eyes, a reflection of the mare's in the portrait. "And you have your father's warm smile." He bent toward that smile.
Perry, however, barged into the room with a china plate in his hoof. "Fern, tell me that your aunt and Dynasty are pulling my leg-- they tell me that there isn't a telephone in this house!"
Fern giggled. "There never was one while I was here, so if Aunt Maisie and Troubadour didn't put one in, nope, there aren't any."
"So now what am I supposed to do? Dawn is expecting a call from me sometime this evening."
"Some ponies will do anything to get out of doing dishes," commented Dynasty, following Perry. "If you come back and help, I'll let you walk with me into Bushley when I leave; you can use my phone." Muttering, Perry returned to his chores.
Toby stared at Fern. "You grew up without a telephone?"
"Granny would not allow one in the house; the phone company tried hard enough, but she wouldn't let them on the property."
"But, no phone?" Toby could not understand the concept.
"You never met Granny!"
Remembering something, Fern turned to the empty space on the parlor wall. "There was a portrait of Granny and I hanging in that space. I have to ask Aunt Maisie what became of it; it was taken when I was sixteen."
"A sweet sixteen portrait?" Toby smiled. "I'd like to see that."
"It was an impromptu decision to have it done; we walked passed the portrait studio one day in town, and Granny stopped suddenly in front of the window. She said, 'Fern, here you are all grown up already; and we don't have a single picture of you.' That was fine by me, but she was adamant that I had to have my picture taken. I balked, telling her that as we had no picture of her either, that I would only consent if she was in the picture with me."
"You were quite a diplomat."
"Not really; I didn't want to sit for a portrait, and I figured that she wouldn't want to, either. But she dragged me into the studio; and as fate would have it, the photographer didn't have any appointments that afternoon, and he was more than glad to have the business."
"Are you still afraid of cameras?"
"Ask Chocolate Chip sometime; she tried to get a picture of me one day and failed miserably."
"I have a cousin who is camera shy; what prompts such a reaction?"
Before Fern could answer, the dish-drying stallions returned. "Are you finished already?" Fern asked.
"Maisie kicked us out," Dynasty admitted. "She was afraid that we were going to break some of the good china."
"How about the two of you walking with us into town? Maybe we can hit the hot spots before we're through," Perry asked.
Dynasty snickered. "The movie theater is closed for remodeling and the dance hall only opens of Friday night. Bushley doesn't really have any hot spots."
"So what do you do for a good time?"
"I'm surprised any of you have a telephone!" scoffed Perry.
"He's teasing, you know," Fern laughed. "Bushley has lots to do."
"I'll be my own judge of that," replied the lawyer.
"Don't get back too late," Fern advised. "We lock the doors at ten."
"I don't think there will be a problem there, unless a wild animal attacks on my way back." He suddenly looked serious; Dreamcatcher's experience was still fresh in his memory. "That couldn't happen, could it?"
"Now I'll have to go along to protect him," Toby grinned. "You and your aunt might like some time alone to get better acquainted, Fern. Do you mind if I go with these two?"
"That sounds like a good idea; I think Aunt Maisie has a lot of feelings and memories to talk over... but we really will lock the doors at ten."
"We'll be back before then," Toby said as the three stallions filed out the front door.
* * *
"Where is everyone?" Maisie asked when Fern entered the kitchen alone.
"Gone to Bushley."
Maisie smiled knowingly. "That young lawyer that came with you has a sweetheart." She searched Fern's face. "And Fern dear, you and Toby are in love, too, aren't you?"
"He's been a very special friend, Aunt Maisie; and, yes, I think I'm in love with him." "I'd say he's sure on his feelings for you, child."
Fern blushed. "We both want to be sure it's the real thing."
Maisie sighed. "That sounds like Maud talking."
"Why didn't Granny approve of Troubadour?"
"She never gave me a reason; she just didn't like him."
"Granny never made a decision without a reason."
"She cut us off before she had a chance to get to know him; there could have been no reason except..."
"Except what, Aunt Maisie?"
"Never you mind, dear." She changed the subject. "Dynasty says that I should talk with you about what will become of me now that the will is settled." She tried to smile, but her jaw quivered.
"Aunt Maisie! What do you think? Of course, you will stay here! Surely you wouldn't think I'd send you away like... like..."
"Like Troubadour did with you? You do understand, don't you, that he did it for me in his misguided way of protecting me? You don't hate him for that, do you?"
"No, Aunt Maisie; I have to believe that he did the best for you that he could."
"Thank you, dear. And you really meant it when you said that I would be staying here?"
"This will be your home as long as you want it. Granny and I both want that for you." The two moved on to the parlor, and Fern brought up the missing picture. "Do you know what became of the portrait of Granny and me? It used to be on the wall next to Mom and Dad's."
"Troubadour took it down. He said that Maud was always watching him; it made him nervous." She walked out to a hallway closet and returned with the portrait.
"That's it!" exclaimed Fern. The image of her grandmother evoked many poignant memories. "Oh, Granny, how I've missed you!" She hugged the picture to her and let the tears fall.
"Come now," Maisie comforted her until the tears subsided. "Let's get this back up its place where it belongs.
* * *
The two ponies talked together until a knock on the door announced the return of Toby and Perry.
"Well, we found the center of life in Bushley, Fern, and it's the ice cream shop, just like in Dream Valley," Perry noted as Fern admitted them to the house.
"And how was your princess?"
"She wasn't even home," Perry shrugged. "I had to leave a message with Royal Blue."
"Snuzzle was holding a dinner meeting of the hospital volunteers tonight; I'm sure you have nothing to worry about."
"Just how late do these meetings run?"
"How long can a group of ponies, mostly mares, think of things to talk about?"
"Very long," both stallions said at once.
Then Perry asked, "Where's Maisie?"
"I hear the rattle of coffee cups," Fern grinned. "She's fixing us a bedtime snack."
"Oh, no, Fern. You've got to help us. We had sundaes at the ice cream shop, courtesy of Dynasty. We couldn't eat another bite; right, Toby?"
"It was a big sundae," concurred Toby.
"You two wouldn't want to hurt Aunt Maisie's feelings now, would you?" Fern asked as she led them off to the kitchen with a side trip to view the newly rehung picture.
* * *
The stallions had been shown to the bedrooms on the second floor, and Maisie and Fern retired to their respective rooms at the rear of the house on the main floor. This was Fern's first look at her former room; Maisie had opened the door with the comment, "I didn't touch a thing of yours. Everything is just as you left it."
And it was. Fern said goodnight to her great-aunt and entered the room alone; she wanted to experience the feelings and emotions by herself. She stood just inside the closed door, savoring every article that had been part of her life during her growing-up years. There was so much that she had left behind; and now here she was in the midst of it again, something she had lost hope for in her lonely wanderings.
On her bed sat a purple cloth doll in the shape of a cat wearing a frilly purple dress. Fern scooped up the softly stuffed treasure and danced around the room. "Sally, you must have thought I deserted you for good." Fern giggled. "So did I. Oh, my little friend, just wait until you meet the stallion who saved my life and made it possible for me to come back. You'll love him, too!"
It was much later after having reacquainted herself with her space-- her books, the three My Little People dolls in their garden play set, the crystal vase in which she had kept a red rose from Granny's rosebush, an antique case with her mother's jewelry. Every item brought back a memory to relive-- a smile or a tear.
On the floor of her closet she found a metal box with letters; for a moment she could not place whose they were; but then she recollected-- while searching for her grandmother's will, she had come across a lifetime of letters received by Granny; they were not what she had been looking for, but she had moved them to her room to read when she found herself missing her grandmother. But they, too, had been left behind at her sudden dismissal, only now to be discovered again. She set the ribbon-bound letters on her dresser; she would take them back to Dream Valley with her to read at her leisure.
Fern crawled into bed, happy to have reached a point where she could look back on her life without regrets and look forward to a promising future. She hugged the purple cat to her and drifted off to pleasant dreams.
* * *
The morning sun shining in her east window awoke Fern and she lazily stretched, knocking Sally to the floor. Only then did she remember where she was, and she slid out of bed to make the most of the day before she, Perry, and Toby would head back to Dream Valley.
After a shower and a fresh ribbon in her hair, she trotted to the kitchen, following the tantalizing smells of Maisie's breakfast. The guys better be hungry this morning, or Aunt Maisie will be disappointed, she thought to herself.
"Aunt Maisie! Good morning!"
"Fern, dear, you're up early. I hope I didn't wake you."
"Who would mind getting awoken to such yummy smells!" Fern hugged Maisie. "I'm starved!"
It was not long before Perry and Toby found their way to the kitchen, and Aunt Maisie bustled about scrambling eggs and buttering toast and monitoring the browning apple muffins while the others prepared the table and hovered close to the tantalizing array of food.
"Apples homegrown in the orchard are always best," Maisie declared, setting a bowl of rosy red fruit on the table. "Of course, I wasn't able to pick as many as I would have liked, not having help and all."
"You'll be able to hire someone to help you in the future," Perry told her, carrying the coffee pot to the table.
"But who would I hire?" Maisie looked blank.
"Don't worry about that now," Fern ordered. "Are the eggs done?"
"Yes, they are, so let's eat while the food's hot." On this fresh, new morning, no one complained.
* * *
Being denied their offer to help with dishes, Toby and Perry left the house to walk over the property that went with the house. "If you need my advice on any of your holdings, I'd better know what I'm dealing with," Perry had told Fern.
As the last dishes were being washed, Maisie began laying out her plans for lunch, but Fern intervened. "Aunt Maisie! We couldn't eat another big meal after that luscious breakfast you served!"
"A pony's got to eat!"
Fern laughed. How many times she had heard Granny say that! "Oh, Aunt Maisie; I'm so glad we've found each other." She hugged the mare exuberantly, but Maisie stood forlorn. "What's the matter, Aunt Maisie? What did I say?"
"You are going to leave me here alone, aren't you?"
"Aunt Maisie, I have my own life back in Dream Valley."
"I know that. But this house is going to be so quiet once you're gone." She tried to hold back her tears but with no success.
"You needn't be alone; surely you have friends who will look in on you and..."
Maisie was shaking her head emphatically. "There's no one; Troubadour didn't like too many ponies around, so we kept to ourselves."
"But there must be..."
"No one. And now, who would come near me knowing what Troubadour did to Maud and you." Fern tried to avert her great-aunt's fears, but the mare could not restrain her worries. "And there will be more papers to sign-- Dynasty said so-- and how will I know what to do? Troubadour always took care of things, Fern; he always took care of me!" She collapsed into a chair and buried her wet face in her hooves.
"Aunt Maisie..." Fern smoothed down the mare's hair like Granny used to do for her when she cried over some crisis-- real or imagined. "Aunt Maisie, would you like me to stay for a little while to help you out?"
Maisie uncovered her face, a sob shaking her body. "Oh, Fern dear, would you do that for me?"
"Of course I would." Fern hugged her great-aunt close but wilted a little inside. Her mind was whirling from this unexpected concession on her part. What of Chocolate Chip and my other new friends, my job with Lemon Treats, my class at Pony Pride, my Toby... I miss him already! She had faced many tribulations in her short life, but nothing that hurt like this did.
* * *
Fern found the stallions on the far side of the orchard and Perry was sharp enough to see the tension in her face; he excused himself to return to the house and go over some more legal details.
As Fern and Toby stood facing one another alone, Toby knew without being told what was bothering Fern. "You're going to stay, aren't you?"
"Just for a couple of weeks until Aunt Maisie is used to being without Troubadour. She gets so worked up facing the responsibilities that she's never had to shoulder before. You do understand, don't you?" Her eyes pleaded with him.
"Yes, I do. It's the kind of pony you are-- kind and compassionate-- that fueled my love for you in the first place." Their eyes were locked, and Toby reached out to touch this face that made his spirit soar. His lips moved to meet hers.
"Fern! Toby! It's time we were setting off for church or we'll be late." Aunt Maisie came along the orchard path in search of the two, realizing too late that she had interrupted a special moment. "I'll meet you back at the house," she said.
* * *
After church, the ponies lunched at a local cafe under orders from Maisie; Dynasty joined them so that he and Perry could clear-up any last questions. Maisie was in high spirits to know that Fern would be with her, and Toby was depressed for the same reason although he did not let it show.
When lunch was over, goodbyes were said. "I'll write lots of letters," Fern promised.
"This might be a good time to have a phone put in," Toby rationalized.
"If I heard your voice, I wouldn't be able to stay away."
"All the more reason."
* * *
Nothing but silence surrounded the two stallions as they plodded along the path to Dream Valley.
"It's only for two weeks," Perry observed to his downcast friend.
"Is it?" Toby queried. "You warned me when I first approached you about checking on Fern's inheritance that I might open a door that I couldn't close."
"But things have worked out well for Fern; you should have no regrets."
"What if she finds her life in her old home too much to walk away from?"
Perry shook his head. "You are making up problems where there are none."
But Toby persisted in his negative musings, imagining Fern settling in among the ponies of Bushley, delighting in their company, and reveling in her newly found status as an independent pony. Would she forget about her friends in Dream Valley? Would she forget about him?