The mare wanted to run up the steps of the stately house and fling open the door as she had so many times as a foal, but she retained her dignity and walked properly up to the courtly entrance with its pilasters and pediment and rang the doorbell. The musical notes echoing throughout the house made the mare smile; she had often angered the mature butler by ringing the bell at odd moments just to hear the sprightly sound that encompassed the sedate house.
Chewing on her lower lip as she waited for Clarence to respond to the summons, Brietta turned to look over the view behind her. The stone house faced a curving path that was bordered on both sides by peony bushes now in full bloom with lush flowers in graduated shades running from pure white to deepest red. The lawn, meticulously manicured, spread smoothly, interrupted only by the lavish flower beds that ornamented the carpet of grass. Several huge weeping willows spread their cascading branches to meet the earth, and a trio of blue spruce trees anchored the eye to their towering dominance.
So engrossed in the sight of home, Brietta did not hear the click of the opening door and was startled to hear the voice of the butler break into her thoughts.
“Clarence!” she grinned as she whirled around. “You haven’t changed a bit!”
The stiff domestic looked at her with surprise. “Miss Brietta, you weren’t expected home until tomorrow!”
“Well, I’m home today. May I come in?”
“Indeed you may, Miss Brietta.” Clarence regained his composure swiftly. “And your luggage?” he asked, peering down the steps for a sign of the numerous pieces of baggage that would certainly accompany the mare.
“They’ll be delivered later today, Clarence. I wanted to make good time, so I traveled light.” She tapped her backpack. “Everything I need is in here.”
Clarence raised an eyebrow, dropping some of his formality. “You’ve changed then.”
Brietta laughed. “Hopefully for the better, you could have added.” She glanced up the winding stairway rising up at the center of the large entry hall beyond the foyer. It was a cavernous space, running the width of the house to meet the back entrance. “Are Mother and Father home?”
“I’m sorry to say that they are not. Your father had a business appointment that will keep him away for the entire day, and your mother is off making arrangements for a dinner party in your honor tomorrow evening.”
“He’s at the office; he refuses to slow down even at his age.”
“Afraid that no one can do the job like he can?”
“He trusts your father explicitly; it’s the young ‘interlopers’, as he calls them, that he feels a need to keep his eye on.”
For the first time since she arrived back home, Brietta frowned. “You’re referring to Sloan and Dorian.”
“Of course.” The butler obviously did not want to get in a discussion with Brietta over the two stallions who had been hired in the family business while she was away at college. “Go on into the parlor, and I’ll have Anna get you something refreshing.”
“How about I go with you to the kitchen and give Anna a hug and a kiss?” Brietta countered.
“As you wish,” the butler sighed, but a smile lit his eyes; he and his wife had often been the only source of comfort for a growing and rebellious filly during a several year time-of-turmoil when she had fought against her parent’s authority which had fortuitously been outgrown as quickly as it had started; he was grateful that Brietta remembered the loving guidance that had always been available to her in the most trying of circumstances.
* * *
A glass of milk and a soft chocolate chip cookie or two later, Brietta found her way to the third floor bedroom that had been hers since she had asserted her independent nature by demanding that she was old enough to be granted a room as far removed from the family’s main quarters as possible. Her hoofsteps reverberated down the long hallway, this upper level of the mansion somewhat less dramatic in its furnishings and therefore uncarpeted.
Her vision was attracted to a door that stood insolently glaring at her just as in days gone by. She was captivated by it as if by some magical power and lured toward it until she stood inches from the dark, forbidding gateway.
Staring at the sturdy portal, Brietta slowly reached out a hoof to touch the tarnished knob, attempting to turn it; but the knob only rebelled against her hoof. The door was still locked as it was always locked, except for that one brief lapse so many years ago.
For a moment, the mare was inundated with memories that threatened to overwhelm her; she put both hooves against the door to steady herself; after several minutes she pushed herself away and retraced her steps back to her room.
Clarence had obviously been here before her for the front window was open and the curtains swayed gently in the warm, spring breeze. Brietta crossed the room to take in the panorama from this extended height; the spruce trees, she noted, were now taller than the house itself. The willows had always dwarfed the mansion for as far back as she could remember. She had loved to sit by the window and watch the wind play in their branches as she dreamed her dreams and made her plans. She would do that again, now that she was home.
Passing to the center of the room, Brietta observed that even though the floral pattern of her bedding was still in the huge red rose pattern that she loved, the linens were all new; her mother had taken pains to prepare a fitting haven for her-- a new creature set down amidst all that was tied into tradition and family matters. Pictures of friends and family cluttered the dresser, a painting of an imposing castle hung over the bed, and a shelf groaned under the weight of beloved tomes written by an eclectic mix of authors.
Wandering around the room, reacquainting herself with each memento, Brietta was struck by the fact that she was no longer a filly ready to grasp at any pleasant dream or sparkling bauble that presented itself. She was a mare now, ready to put her knowledge and integrity on the line by joining the law firm that her grandfather’s father had established before him. She would continue the heritage of the ponies who had gifted her with life and love. It was a dream come true.
Brushing a hoof over the silky surface of the comforter that was riotous with roses, Brietta found that she was tired... very tired. Her accelerated pace on her homeward journey along with the heavenly snack she had consumed overwhelmed her. She crawled onto the bed, closed her eyes, and fell asleep with the breeze caressing her softly curling hair.
* * *
“No! No! I want to see the bells!” the lavender foal with deep violet mane cried as she fought against the forelegs that attempted to hold her back. “Let me go!” She managed to gain several more of the steep steps before she was brusquely swept back to the level at which her grandfather stood.
“You have been told to stay away from this tower, and I expect you to obey. You are to return to your room immediately and wait there until I can talk with you.”
“I want to see the bells!” the foal reiterated. “Mommy says they make a beautiful sound!”
“Your mother has never heard the bells and neither will you!” A strong hoof took her in firm control and pulled her downward. “You are expected to obey your elders, young lady, and I will make sure that you do even if no one else seems to care.”
Fighting every step of the way, the foal was not easily deterred. Breaking the grasp that held her, she nimbly recovered a good number of the treads before the hoof once more restrained her; but it was not before she caught a glimpse of the large metal bells that hung from the top of the tower. Having seen them and verified their existence, she was more easily pacified.
“Grandfather, why don’t the bells sing anymore?” she asked as he guided her down to the landing. When the stallion did not respond, the foal stood her ground and turned to look at him. “Don’t you like the bells, Grandfather?”
“Go to your room, Brietta,” he said as he lifted her down the final treads. “Go to your room and wait for me there.”
The young filly obeyed the command, but not without a long lingering glance back at the doorway that led to the bell tower. She saw her grandfather locking the door, and she was observant enough to notice that he looked very sad. Somehow, that quieted her more than his rough handling and his gruff voice. She slipped into her room and stationed herself in front of the window, focusing on the cascading branches of the willow to wait for his lecture.
* * *
The mare turned her head and opened her eyes from the deep sleep into which she had fallen. The voice calling her name was so familiar, yet it lacked the vibrancy she remembered. As her vision moved to the doorway of her room, she saw a thin and seasoned stallion standing there; with one motion, the mare was off the bed and hurrying to meet him.
“Grandfather! I was told you were at the office, and I didn’t expect to see you until later.” Her twinkling eyes searched his tired ones.
“It is good to see you home, Brietta.” The two stared at one another, crossing the chasm that the years had carved and then embraced in a familiar hug as the years melted away.
“It’s good to be back,” Brietta smiled as she pulled away to study her grandfather’s face. “And it’s about time I came home, by the looks of you.” She brushed a hoof across the lined and melancholy countenance before her. “Aren’t you supposed to be cutting back these days?”
“I’ve worked too long to let my legacy fall into the hooves of those young interlopers your father hired on. Wastrels, both of them.”
Brietta smiled winningly. “Come now, Grandfather. Sloan graduated with high honors; and Dorian is, I’ve heard, an exemplary lawyer. How can you doubt their capabilities?”
“Wait until you’ve seen them in operation, child,” Grandfather shook his head as he ambled to one of the chairs tucked into a sitting area of the room. “These modern stallions don’t understand a thing about accountability. All that matters to them is making a fast buck and coming across like some movie star.” He looked at his granddaughter appreciatively. “You do these old eyes good.”
Brietta moved into the chair next to her grandfather and took his hoof in hers. “Grandfather, I’m ready to take my place in the firm.”
The stallion eyed the young mare speculatively. “I expect the best from you, Brietta; your father does, too.”
“I’ll do a responsible job, Grandfather. I haven’t been away honing my skills for nothing.”
“You didn’t allow yourself to get led off-track by any ingratiating stallion?” His piercing gaze searched her heart.
“No. Who would I have met that could hold a candle to you?” she teased.
Lifting a brow, Conrad retorted, “There was a time when you thought Sloan would do very well.”
“It just goes to show that I’ve learned a lot, doesn’t it?” parried Brietta.
“We’ll see,” said Conrad with a smile that eased some of the worried wrinkles out of his face. “And now, let me show you some of the new plantings we’ve put in around the patio; I’m anxious to hear your opinion of the petunias I found for your mother.”
With that, the two ponies companionably set off to explore the gardens.
* * *
Arriving home together, Brietta’s parents were very pleasantly surprised to find their only child in the gazebo waiting for them, Conrad having withdrawn back to the house. “Brietta! My darling! It has been so long!” Her mother threw her forelegs around the mare and hugged her tightly while Brietta’s father looked on in proud contemplation. Her mother pulled back and frowned. “Why didn’t you let us know you were arriving today? We would have been here to meet you.”
“A change in scheduling got me here sooner than I’d expected, Mother. Clarence and Anna have met my every need, and Grandfather and I have had a chance to talk.” She turned to her father. “Is there still room for me in the firm?”
Aiden smiled. “There is-- if you and Sloan can come to some sort of understanding; he’s been awaiting your arrival with some trepidation.”
Laughing, Brietta hugged her father. “That’s good. It shows that his confidence is shaky, at best. And don’t worry; I won’t let my personal feelings concerning the stallion interfere with business.”
“Lena, what do you think? Has our daughter matured to the point that she can control that temper of hers?”
“We’ll find out soon enough, Aiden.” She smiled at Brietta. “Sloan and Dorian are both invited to a party your father and I are hosting in your honor tomorrow night.”
“But, Mother, I’ll surely meet them both at work tomorrow. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a real case.”
“Whoa, girl,” her father held up a hoof to silence her. “No one expects you to be at your desk so soon; even your grandfather has allowed you a few days to readjust to your life back at Whitehall Place.”
“My desk... does it really exist, Father? I’m not dreaming, am I?”
“Not only a desk, but an office with your name on the door, Brietta.”
Her mother touched her hoof. “We’re very proud of you, Brietta; make no mistake about that. Grandfather may have been disappointed when you were born and weren’t the little colt he envisioned, but he’s mellowed over the years; and, even if he’ll not admit it openly, he’s very pleased that you decided to join the family business.”
“No one could be more pleased than I am,” grinned Brietta as she once more hugged her parents. “I feel as if my life is just beginning!”
* * *
“Your room is as you left it last, except for some updated linens. If you need anything, just let Lissy know; and she’ll take care of it.”
“The room is perfect the way it is, Mother. I’d forgotten how protected I feel here.”
“Why you chose to sleep up here all by yourself surrounded by these big empty rooms is beyond me, Brietta. You’re free to chose a cozier room on the second floor if you’d like.”
“Why would I want to abandon my room, Mother? It’s close to the bells, and someday they are going to ring for me.”
“Not as long as your grandfather has anything to say about them. He hasn’t changed his mind about them in all these years; you’re not going to be the one to convince him.”
“You never know. Maybe I am just the one.”
“I seem to remember him evicting you from the bell tower under some very strict admonitions.”
“I was dreaming of that earlier. Mother, did you ever hear the bells? You told me how beautiful they would sound, but Grandfather said you never heard them either.”
“No, I never heard them. But your father remembers them when he was young, and he said that no sweeter bells have ever rung.”
“How many years has it been, Mother? Grandmother has been gone a long time.”
“Your father is fifty now, and he was sixteen when he lost his mother... and Conrad lost his beloved wife.”
“So the bells have been silent for all those years,” Brietta mused.
“And it’s a shame, too. I’m sure that Myrna would have wanted their use continued.”
“It’s time for Grandfather to let go of the past,” said Brietta, looking out her window at the shadow of the towering peak of the bell tower where it lay outlined on the lawn.
“The bells signaled the joy of his and Myrna’s wedding day and the eventual birth of your father; but Conrad says that when his wife died, the bells would ring no more. There could be no more happiness for him.”
Brietta frowned. “Someday...”
* * *
Putting in a phone call that evening, Brietta counted the rings to five before a harried voice answered, “Yes?”
“Let me guess; that son of yours just fed the goldfish to the cat.”
“Brietta! Is that really you? Where are you?”
“I’m home, Shayla; I arrived early this afternoon.”
“But your parents said...”
“I wasn’t supposed to be here until tomorrow, but the trip didn’t take as long as I’d planned. I was in too big a hurry to get here. How is that husband of yours and that son I hear begging in the background?”
“Both are fine, Brietta; I can’t wait for you to meet Flynn; he looks just like his father.”
“I can picture your face beaming as you say that.”
Shayla laughed. “I love them both devotedly, Brietta.”
“How are you doing?”
“The doctor said that I should quit work so that I could get more rest, so Flynn and I are making the most of our time together. We were right in the middle of baking cookies when you called.”
“Is there a problem with your pregnancy?” Brietta asked anxiously.
“Nothing to worry about; the doctor has assured me that as long as I take good care of myself, the baby will be fine, too.”
“Dr. Liam would be getting up there by now, Shayla; are you sure that he’s competent?”
“You’ve been away too long, Brietta. Dr. Liam retired and moved to Pine Park several months ago; I see Dr. Finella now.”
“Finella...” Brietta spat the name. “She decided to set up practice here?”
“She proved her worth during her internship; why shouldn’t she settle in Whitehall?”
Brietta changed the subject. “If you and Flynn have no responsibilities tomorrow morning, why don’t the two of you join us for breakfast here at the house. I look forward to meeting the miniature Derry.”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude; you and your parents must have a million things to talk about.”
“When would your being here be an intrusion? The only time you weren’t here as a filly is when I was at your house or we were both at Sloan’s.”
“It’ll be great having you nearby again; I’m sure Sloan feels the same way.”
Brietta ignored that remark. “We’ll plan on seeing you for breakfast then.”
“We’ll be there.”
After hanging up the phone, Brietta walked to the window. It was nearly dark outside, but the lighting over the front door radiated a mellow glow down the steps. In Brietta’s mind, a scene from the past played out in vivid detail as she stared.
* * *
Brietta was in the company of Bram as they walked into the already crowded end-of-summer dance being held in the school gymnasium; Sloan had backed out at the last minute, telling her that he had something important to take care of that could not wait. He was preparing to move his things to Pembroke where he would be starting law school; he had just graduated from college and now had his career of choice for which to prepare; Brietta, herself just finished with her first year of college, had understood that and did not question the late cancellation.
She would have been spared the full impact of that evening if Bram had not called her. He was morose because the filly he had been dating had gone out of town. It was only to cheer him up that Brietta had suggested that since she was without a date herself, why not go to the dance together? Once the fall semester began and everyone returned to their chosen educational pursuits or buckled down to their chosen vocation, they would not be seeing much of each other. Bram quickly agreed to accompany her.
After arriving at the hall, the two had become separated as they worked their way around the crowded gym; and Brietta was left to wander by herself. She soon spotted Bram, however, on the dance floor with Trish. Brietta had to smile; Bram would not spend too much time mourning Tripta’s absence. It was nothing new; his infatuations never lasted long.
Brietta was soon invited by Vinney to join the dance, and the two were swirling across the floor when a flash of familiar steel blue caught her eye; she turned her head to verify the inference and froze in her tracks, drawing Vinney’s gaze to parallel hers. There, his forelegs around another mare, was Sloan. Brietta’s eyes flashed fire.
Never one to wait when action was called for, Brietta left Vinney and marched to the unaware couple; the mare saw her first, but knew no reason for the obviously indignant pony to be focusing such blazing attention on Sloan and herself. But the mare whispered something to her dance partner, and the stallion swung his head in Brietta’s direction.
Nothing could have fed Brietta’s vexation more than this trite acknowledgment; with an unpleasant tone, she accosted Sloan. “This was your important errand?”
Sloan was unruffled. “Brietta, I’d like you to meet Finella. Finella,” he smiled at his date, “this is Brietta, the filly who tagged after me while we were growing up; she’s kind of like my little sister.”
The venom in the look Brietta gave Finella was potent; but in the glare that she fastened onto Sloan, it was deadly. “You two-faced pretender! How dare you brush off our relationship as if it’s just some puppy love on my part? Who is this mare anyway?”
Sloan smiled patiently. “I met Finella when I was in Pembroke making living arrangements. I invited her to visit Whitehall, and here she is.” He looked at his companion with admiration.
Brietta looked at Finella as well; the mare was white, pure white; she was wearing a blue ribbon that matched her eyes. Brietta had never fully trusted any white pony; now she knew that her instincts had been right all along.
She turned her attention back to Sloan, who was gazing at Finella like an enamored mooncalf. Brietta found it infuriating. “You can have her.” She left them standing in the center of the dance floor and never looked back.
* * *
“Honey, what are you thinking about?” Brietta’s mother had come into the room to find her looking rather morose.
“He never tried to stop me, Mother.”
“Who... Oh. I see. Being home has uncovered some ghosts for you, has it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Her mother came to her with a hug. “Don’t you worry; everything will work out; the main thing is that you’re back where you belong.”
Brietta smiled, shaking off the haunting memories. “I’m ready to step into Father and Grandfather’s law firm, Mother. There were days back in school when I thought that I’d never get this far.”
“Aiden and Conrad have both dreamed of this day since you were a foal.”
“That reminds me, Mother. Shayla and her little son are coming for breakfast tomorrow.”
“I’m glad to hear that; you and Shayla have a lot of catching up to do. And little Flynn is the cutest little guy-- looks just like his dad except with that soft, innocent charm of youth.”
“We’ve all lost that, haven’t we, Mother?” sighed Brietta, turning to gaze out the window once more. “Everything seemed so simple...” She flushed guiltily. “But that’s the past, and I’ve let that go. The future is what’s important now. Right?”
Brietta busied herself over an array of magazines on the table so that her mother could not see the moisture that had formed in her eyes. No stallion- especially one who had brushed her off the way Sloan had done- was worth even a single tear. Hadn’t she told herself that a thousand times over the years?