It was with relief that Brietta slipped out of the office, leaving behind a beehive of activity. Fortunately for the mare, her schedule was not as full as the other members of the firm on this late summer morning; and she could make her escape to the hospital to visit Shayla and her foal. Even Conrad would not deny her that.
When she arrived at Shayla’s room, she found the mare in company with her husband and was able to extend her sincere congratulations to both parents now in the light of day. “You two must be so proud!” she purred, hugging them both in turn.
“Proud and stunned,” Derry admitted. “If I’d have known what was going to happen with me out of town, I’d have refused to go.” He looked lovingly at his wife. “But all’s well that end’s well, they say.”
“You’re looking extremely well, Shayla, for your long night.”
“Wait until you see her, and you’ll understand why I’m so content.”
“What name have you decided on for your little angel?”
“Keely!” the father replied enthusiastically.
“It means beautiful,” Shayla admitted. “You can see we’re biased.”
“Where is your little darling? Is she still under special care?”
“She’s to join me here at any time,” Shayla grinned. “If you can stay for awhile, you’ll get a chance to see her.”
At that moment, the door opened and a nurse came into the room bearing in her forelegs the foal in question. “The little one is hungry,” the nurse smiled, placing the petite baby girl at her mother’s side.
A blanket covered most of the foal, but Brietta caught sight of a mass of pale green hair and a wrinkled pink face that was most assuredly demanding lunch. Small hooves punched the air disconsolately until the matter was resolved to her satisfaction, and the foal settled down in immediate contentment.
“She’s so tiny!” Brietta breathed, hardly believing how small the newborn was. “How does she compare to Flynn when he was born?”
“Several pounds lighter, but she’ll be a match for him soon enough,” Derry laughed. “He’s already counting on her companionship in all his various pursuits.”
The foal, having satisfied her hunger, was picked up by Derry and handed to Brietta. The mare received the bundle as if it were highly breakable, but the warmth and softness of the precious child soon set her at ease; and she hugged the little one to her in a natural movement that felt immanently right. The limpid blue eyes of the foal were heavenly and the soft hair felt like spun silk. The delicate features of the face were exquisite. Brietta could think of nothing that could be more precious than this wonderful creation. “She’s perfect!” she stated in awe.
“I think so,” Derry concurred, smiling at his wife. “Just like her mother.”
“In looks, definitely, “ Brietta agreed, “but I can’t help but wonder if this fragile little one will be as exacting for her parents as her mother was.”
“With Flynn as her guide, I’m afraid there won’t be much chance for her to grow up as anything but a tomboy,” Shayla laughed.
“Flynn will try to lord it over her,” Brietta observed, “but one look from this angel’s eyes and he will be putty in her hooves.”
* * *
If Monday had been a busy day, the rest of the week was hectic in the law offices of Manning and Associates, so much so that Brietta drew an exaggerated sigh of relief as she closed her office door late Friday afternoon. Conrad, who was with the mare, smiled. “Having second thoughts about joining the business, child?”
“Not at all, but I am glad to see the weekend arrive. Not that it means anything,” she added, glancing at the briefcase in her hoof.
Aiden, waiting in the hall, said, “I’ve been hearing enough about that dance you’re going to tomorrow night to doubt that you’ll be buried in paperwork for the entire weekend.”
A bright smile lit Brietta’s face. “It’s going to be wonderful fun!” She sighed again, this time in anticipative pleasure. After a week immersed in legalities, the mare needed a night away from any complicated matters.
* * *
Dorian had called for Brietta at the appointed time on Saturday evening and presented her with a fragrant corsage of red roses which she wore on her left foreleg; the two were now at the old high school gymnasium that had witnessed numerous such gatherings over the years, but usually with a younger crowd. Tonight the room was filled with an assemblage that, for the most part, was at least twenty-five years old; it came close to being a class reunion for the schoolmates of Egan and Kelli.
Enjoying herself immensely, Brietta renewed old acquaintances- introducing so many ponies to Dorian that he was beginning to get light-headed- and met new faces that her years away from Whitehall had caused her to miss. When they had finally bumped into Sloan and Finella, Dorian was grateful for a chance to talk to ponies he knew well.
“I thought I had met a goodly share of Whitehall’s inhabitants until tonight,” he complained.
“As a fair share of them have needed a doctor’s guidance through pregnancy, I feel right at home,” grinned Finella.
A pony who was obviously a former classmate of Brietta’s came on the scene. “Brietta! Sloan! It’s great to see you!”
“Jared,” laughed Brietta. “I thought you were settled in Capital City.”
“I am, but there was no way I was going to miss this party! Hey, I want you to meet Hannah, but I left her over at the snack bar.” He took Brietta’s hoof and motioned for Sloan to follow, leaving Dorian and Finella to their own pursuits.
“Those two are in their element tonight,” Dorian said, nodding his head in the direction Sloan and Brietta had disappeared.
“They’ve obviously shared a lot of memories connected with this group,” Finella smiled.
“I don’t think I’d look forward to an assembly of the ponies I went to school with,” admitted Dorian, scanning the gathering of cheerful faces partying around him with a wary look.
Finella scrutinized him through heavy lashes. “That sounds ominous.”
The stallion shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s just say that my presence among my old chums might make some of them mighty uncomfortable.”
“Now there’s a story I’d like to hear!” laughed Finella.
“You would be mightily bored, I can assure you,” Dorian smoothly belied. He glanced at the couples that were heading for the dance floor. “Shall we join the revelers?” he asked; and at the mare’s assent, he led her to join the dance.
* * *
“We met quite by accident at the grocery store when my cart careened into his,” Hannah explained, “but we found out that our tastes were quite alike, he and I, so we’ve decided to tie the knot.”
The mare looked at Jared with adoring eyes, causing Brietta to giggle. “With Jared’s eye for beauty, I somehow doubt that the crash was an accident.”
Jared’s eyes sparkled. “At least it was a carefully designed accident,” he admitted.
“Our wedding is next month,” Hannah went on. “We’d both be delighted if you two could attend. Your names have come up often tonight, so I know you were good friends of Jared.”
Jared suddenly looked at Sloan and Brietta closely. “I’m assuming you two are married by now with any number of kids.” He looked down at Brietta’s foreleg where rested the red roses.
“School kept us apart,” Sloan responded after receiving a horrified look from Brietta. “Brietta has only been back in Whitehall since late May.”
“What kind of excuse is that? Hannah and I’ll have only known each other for five months by the time we’re married; I do believe the two of you are being a trifle cautious.”
“As lawyers, we have to consider our options very carefully,” Sloan replied, casting a glance at Brietta that made her heart race. This conversation was getting way too dangerous, and she felt that the only safe route was to change the subject.
“I hear that tonight’s entertainment will include some spontaneous performances from some of our own,” she said.
“I’ve heard rumors to that effect,” Jared stated.
By that time, Egan and Kelli were passing by, claiming the attention of the ponies, and Brietta was able to take stock of her situation. She looked over the crowd to find where Dorian had absented himself and located him on the dance floor with Finella which intensified her uncomfortable feeling. Was Dorian going to leave her in the lurch just had Sloan had once done? It was with evident relief that she saw Derry and Shayla arrive, and she excused herself to attend to them.
“I can’t believe you felt up to coming tonight!” she hugged Shayla warmly. “But I’m glad you’re here.”
Shayla studied her friend’s face closely. “You look upset.”
Brietta laughed. “You will, too, when you see what the passage of time has done to some of our compatriots, although everyone is acting as though they were teenagers again.”
Derry guided his wife to a relatively quiet corner where a grouping of chairs made for a comfortable chat; by the time Shayla had been seated, she became the center of attention for a number of ponies who were interested in hearing firsthoof about her recent confinement; and Brietta was once more allowed to float aimlessly across the crowded room, looking as if she no longer found the festive atmosphere to her liking. She had nearly made it to an open outside door that led to a dimly lighted patio of sorts which offered her some fresh air and that boasted a wrought-iron settee and a smattering of chairs when Dorian caught up to her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he questioned with a grin, although there was some concern in his eyes as well as he searched her sober countenance.
“I need to get a breath of air,” she said, failing to meet his gaze. “It looks cooler outside.”
“I’ll come with you,” he offered, taking her foreleg and guiding her out the door. After she was perched on the edge of a chair, he asked, “Would you like some lemonade?”
Brietta looked at the stallion with a smile. “That would be nice,” she said, grateful for some time alone with her thoughts. As Dorian disappeared through the doorway, Brietta let escape a huge sigh of relief and slumped back into the chair in obvious consternation.
Why, she asked herself, did Sloan not come right out and tell Jared that he was committed to Finella- and had been for the past several years- instead of hinting that the field was still open between himself and Brietta? Why his evasive answers that intimated that Brietta and Sloan were still a couple, just not yet ready to make a commitment? It made no sense, none whatsoever.
She was still searching for an answer when Dorian returned with two drinks in his hoof. He handed her one of those icy beverages, then pulled a chair closer to the one she occupied and sat down. “Ponies are asking for you,” he said, “but I told them you were indisposed for the time being and completely under my care.” He grinned at her. “Other than some sly glances, no one seemed willing to interfere.” The stallion’s lighthearted banter broke through the shell that had surrounded Brietta, and she smiled back at Dorian. “Much better,” he said, taking her hoof in his. “Now, what’s bothering you?”
“You were dancing with Finella; I thought you’d forsaken me,” Brietta prevaricated, trying to keep her voice gay.
Dorian scowled at her. “All the ponies here tonight are your friends; you shouldn’t have a free moment to stand around and mope. Something has upset you.”
Looking down to where her hoof rested in his, Brietta tried to explain. “Some of the ponies here tonight have been out of touch with our lives; they assume...” She could not say the rest and let her unfinished sentence hang in the air between her and Dorian.
As he studied the situation, understanding suddenly washed over Dorian. “They assume that you and Sloan must surely be an old married couple by now... and probably envision a brood of foals around your hooves as well. Am I right?”
She nodded her head in assent and finally managed to look into his eyes. “There’s more,” she said, almost inaudibly. “Sloan made no effort to deny that our relationship is over.”
If that fact had unsettled Brietta, it entirely discomposed Dorian. “What did he say?” he could not help but ask rather bluntly.
“That it is only because of my being away from Whitehall until recently that he and I haven’t... settled down yet.” Brietta saw a hard glint come into Dorian’s eyes at her words, and a frown marred his face for a few seconds before he responded with a squeeze of her hoof.
“Well, how about you and I settling anyone’s doubts, shall we?” he stated, the smile returning. “May I have this dance?” His hold on her foreleg drew her to her hooves without awaiting her answer.
Returning to the crowded gymnasium and allowing the flow of the dance to carry her away, Brietta could not help but regain her earlier good humor as Dorian’s conversation drew her into his light-hearted nonsense which served to calm her; nor did she have time to allow her thoughts to revert to her earlier melancholy as she accepted dance offers from a steady string of spirited stallions, interrupted occasionally by Dorian as he checked on her well-being and met any needs for rest or nourishment.
One of the stallions who came to claim Brietta for a dance was Bram, her friend from the antique shop; afterwards, Bram led her off to make the long overdue introduction to his wife, Keri, and to finalize the dinner invitation that had never yet materialized, Tuesday evening being chosen for the affair.
“Bram tells me that you have no preference for any of our local stallions,” Keri had smiled, “and as my brother will be in town for a few days, it will work out quite well to have you over while he is here.”
Since Brietta and Bram had first discussed a dinner date, Brietta had begun to form a definite preference in Dorian’s favor; but she did not want at this point to upset Keri’s plans and acquiesced to the proposal. She could not quite put her hoof on it, but Keri’s attitude, even though polite and inviting, had a cool touch that made Brietta feel uncomfortable.
Brietta was occupied in a dance with Egan when she noticed that Dorian was again partnered with Finella, a fact that she found disconcerting for a moment as the stallion seemed to be holding the mare much more closely than necessary and to be overly absorbed in what Finella was saying for what even politeness would demand, but then dismissed this show of jealousy from her mind as she next tried to locate Sloan, curious to see with whom he was dancing. She finally spotted him with Hannah. As she watched them, Sloan looked in her direction and smiled a disarming smile that unexpectedly caused her heart to skip a beat and so completely flustered her that she was grateful that the music came to an end and she no longer had to concentrate on the dance steps.
As Egan escorted the mare to the refreshments, they were intercepted by Dorian and Finella; and Sloan soon joined them as well. Brietta positioned herself at Dorian’s side, but the stallion turned to face her with, she noticed, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “I’ve gotta leave you for awhile, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He winked and was gone.
“Abandoned!” she spat in his direction under her breath.
“Hungry?” a familiar voice asked at her side; she swung her head to see Sloan watching her. Finella had gone on ahead with Egan, leaving Brietta and Sloan strangely alone in the crowded room. Feeling somehow assailable, Brietta dropped her gaze from the stallion and began moving toward the refreshment table.
“I’m a little thirsty,” she admitted to Sloan who walked with her. “I haven’t danced so much since my homecoming.”
“We’ll have to make sure you get more opportunities to keep in practice,” he replied matter-of-factly. He had just gotten her a cold drink and one for himself when the disc jockey announced a special treat and the curtains rolled back from the stage revealing a line of stallions, one of which, Brietta quickly noted, was Dorian. It was so like him to be in the center of the action, even in this crowd made up mostly of relative strangers. Jared was there, too, as well as seven or eight others.
The sound of the music left no doubt as to its purpose, and the crowd watching could not hold back their laughter as the stallions went through the motions of a chorus line dance, rather convincingly, Brietta thought as she laughed at their antics until her sides ached while Sloan looked on the entertainment with an expression of acute embarrassment. Touching a hanky to her eyes which were wet with the effects of her overwhelming laughter, Brietta asked Sloan why he had not joined the performers on stage.
“Once was enough,” he admitted a bit shamefacedly.
Brietta looked at him in surprise. “You mean to tell me that you’ve behaved in this lamentable fashion?” She could not imagine this proper stallion ever taking part in such foolish behavior.
“It was at a party at Pembroke, and Dorian pushed me into it. Never again!” he added emphatically.
Looking at him with narrowed eyes, she said, “I’m sorry I missed it!”
“I’m not!” He smiled at her again (twice in one evening!) so poignantly that she had to look away.
The routine on stage ended with a fanfare of drums and a burst of applause from the revelers, many of whom were still convulsed in laughter. Brietta and Sloan were separated as a general milling of ponies occurred as everyone discussed the spectacle, and soon Dorian was at her side once more.
“I’m glad I discovered your secret passion, Dorian, my dear, before hearing about it through the town gossips. Tsk, tsk!” She shook her head reprovingly, but there was no way for her to hide the merriment in her eyes.
“You’re not fooling me; I heard your gales of laughter.” He began guiding her toward the edge of the room where he could catch his breath when the strains of a sentimental tune came over the speakers; Brietta stopped in her tracks, causing Dorian to pause as well. Brietta stood with a dreamy look on her face as the music swept her back to seven years earlier when she and Sloan had adopted this particular song as their special theme.
She felt the years slip away and did not hesitate when Sloan materialized next to her and retrieved her hoof from Dorian’s grasp. “This dance is mine,” he said to Dorian in a low voice and proceeded to draw an uncomplaining Brietta, who seemed to be moving as if she was floating completely unaided by anything of her own doing, off to the center of the dance floor where he encircled her with his forelegs and led her to the sound of the music.
This isn’t happening, Brietta said to herself. I’m dreaming.
Looking up into Sloan’s eyes, Brietta saw the tenderness and- could it be affection?- that dwelt there. The two of them were back in that summer after she had graduated from high school, back before there had been any estrangement between them, back before Finella had destroyed Brietta’s sure hopes. No words were spoken- Brietta was afraid that any sound would break the spell... would awaken her from her dream. She leaned her head against Sloan’s shoulder and lived for the moment, holding reality at bay by concentrating on the present truth: She was in Sloan’s forelegs and he loved her. She did not want the music to end.
Please don’t end! she pleaded from the depths of her soul as she held on to the hope that these past years had only been a long and tiring dream that she had only now woken up from, finding the reality heavenly. She wanted this feeling of euphoria to last forever. With Sloan was where she was meant to be, just as she had known long ago.
But the music ebbed away.
And that was not the worst of it.
As Brietta raised her head to drink in the look in Sloan’s eyes, she heard Finella’s voice, discreet and quite close. “Sloan, I received a page; there’s an emergency at the hospital; I’m leaving right now.”
The magic ended.
Sloan’s eyes broke away from Brietta’s with difficulty; his forelegs dropped away from her, and he was acutely aware of her body stiffening as he turned his attention to Finella. “I’ll walk with you,” he said, his voice as steady and clear as if he had been dancing with a mere acquaintance- and one he was not too attached to at that. He did not look back at Brietta but left immediately with Finella.
Brietta had turned ice cold in the seconds since Finella had spoken, so much so that a shiver ran through her body, forcing her to face her predicament. She looked around and realized that she was standing like a statue amidst the other ponies who were talking and laughing in small clusters since the music had ended. They were not aware, obviously, that her world had just come crashing down around her like it had once before at another dance, in another time, when Finella had first become a thorn in Brietta’s side.
She looked farther afield, wondering where she could go to escape the crowd, when she became aware that Dorian was winding his way through the throng of ponies toward her, a troubled expression on his face; and she knew she could not confront him, not now, not until she had time to recover her senses.
Knowing that she was close to tears, Brietta turned away from the still approaching stallion, losing herself in the assembly until she could slip out the door and disappear beyond the range of the yellow lights that shone much too blatantly for Brietta’s wounded sensibilities.
She found a tree, its rough bark feeling coarse and irritating against her skin; but it was nonetheless real and touchable. She leaned against it for support and let the tears fall, her thoughts running riot as if they would tear her apart.
After all this time, she found that her nerves were raw and susceptible to the touch of the stallion who had laid bare her defenses; the attraction that had existed between them even as foals had intensified, and it had matured even as they themselves had... until suddenly it had been guillotined swiftly by Sloan’s own resolve, leaving Brietta resentful and scarred on a dance floor that fateful night when he had shown up with Finella in Brietta’s place.
She had lived with the emptiness of his loss for so long, and she thought she had mastered its control over her; but once she was caught up in Sloan’s embrace in the dance this evening, she had reverted to the pull of her youthful yearnings and had slipped once more under his spell.
Now, it broke her heart.
* * *
How long he was there she did not know; but when her tears ended and she had quelled the soft sobs that had continued unbidden when she had tried to restrain them, she sensed his presence.
“Brie,” Dorian whispered, his hoof resting on her shoulder. “I’m here for you, if you need someone.” The invitation was barely uttered before it was accepted; Brietta slumped into his forelegs and let him hold her close for several minutes before she spoke.
“I let him hurt me again, just like before and for the same reason. What a fool I am!” She tried to smile; but instead, the tears spilled over once more.
Dorian stroked his hoof through her mane as if she were a foal who had a physical wound that needed healing, and he kissed her forehead before responding. “If I could make you forget so you wouldn’t have to suffer because of him, I would. What can I do?”
Hearing the agony in Dorian’s voice helped to bring Brietta to her senses; it was bad enough for her to feel this wretched; there was no need to drag him down with her. She pulled back from his embrace and succeeded in giving him a tremulous smile. “Walk with me until my red and swollen eyes have time to return to normal; then I can face saying goodnight to Egan and Kelli.”
For a hovering moment it appeared that Dorian would rather kiss those eyes, but he realized that both of them were too susceptible to the temperament of this compelling moment. He released her, and they began moving further away from the remote lights and action to be swallowed up in the dim moonlight.
They walked in silence until their progress was impeded by a hedgerow that outlined the school property. Brietta faced Dorian and asked, “What happened with that dance?”
“I think you would know better than I,” he said evasively, trying not to remember the possessive manner in which Sloan had abducted Brietta from him or the entranced look in Brietta’s eyes as she had blindly followed him, so soon followed by a hollow look of complete renunciation when Sloan had left her standing alone while himself departing in Finella’s wake.
“But you do know Sloan, and you are a stallion.”
“He chose to dance with you, that’s all. You obviously read something more into it.” He avoided her direct gaze.
“That’s not all; and I read no more than what I saw in his eyes.” She stopped, realizing that the sensual vibrancy that had engulfed her at the sound of that particular music and which had also driven Sloan to act as he did would have no meaning to Dorian, nor did she wish to discuss such deep feelings with someone who held a special place of his own in her life. Suddenly, she felt anger toward Sloan as much as pain over his curt dismissal after what had seemed a move toward reconciliation.
“Why did I let him get to me like this?” she exploded, tossing her mane back over her shoulder. “Am I some foolish filly who will swoon over the attentions paid by a gallant stallion as if my life depended on him?”
Seeing Brietta’s change of mood as an opportunity to promote his own interests, Dorian quickly stated his opinion in a fashion that, he hoped, would alleviate any lingering doubts as to her relationship with Sloan, even though feeling a twinge of conscience at undermining his best friend. “You’re not a foolish filly but a very capable- and, I might add, beautiful- mare who can handle her own affairs quite well without any interference from anyone, especially a stallion who doesn’t know how to value what he has in his grasp, as he’s shown time and again; I’d certainly make no mistakes in that area.”
Such a declaration did much to assuage Brietta’s torment; she smiled at the stallion kindly, her good humor returning. “You have stood by me, my champion, and I thank you for it.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “And now, if you’ll accompany me back to the hall, we can take leave of our host and hostess.”
If Brietta knew of the restraint that Dorian was commanding to stifle his natural response to that light kiss, she showed no sign of it as she took his hoof and engineered their return to the party gathering, all the while enumerating the names of ponies that she felt obligated to make her adieu.
Dorian, however, influenced by the moonlit night and the isolation of this tete-a-tete, fueled by the love that had been steadily growing since he had first met Brietta, yearned to take her into his forelegs and let her know exactly how much she meant to him; but he held himself in check, partially because he knew that her emotions could plummet again as quickly as they had risen.
Also hanging between Dorian and Brietta was Dorian’s friendship with Sloan; for Dorian, although not willing to admit it to Brietta, had sensed that Sloan had something far more enduring in mind than one sentimental dance. So as it turned out, by the time Dorian and Brietta re-entered the building, both of the ponies had their emotions under control and appeared to be enjoying the party as much as any other of the guests.
Shayla and Derry had long since left as Shayla was still recuperating from Keely’s birth, but there were plenty of other acquaintances that Brietta knew she would not see again until some other occasion, happy or sad, presented itself to reunite them, so it was rather late when Brietta and Dorian finally made their last goodbyes and left for Whitehall Place.
* * *
It was only when Egan and Kelli were themselves departing from the site of their anniversary bash that Egan said to his wife, “You did remember to tell Brietta that Sloan was looking for her, didn’t you?”
Kelli, shaking her head, frowned. “There were so many ponies around when she and Dorian were saying goodnight that I’d hardly have been able to relay the message even if I’d thought about it. Do you think it matters?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Egan dismissed it. “Sloan seemed awfully anxious to get a chance to talk to her, but he surely knows where he can find her; I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I wonder what’s going on between those two,” Kelli pondered idly. “I always thought that Sloan and Brietta would have been married long before this, yet she seems to be dangling after Dorian; and Sloan makes a feeble effort to maintain a friendship with Finella. Someone should sit Brietta and Sloan down and make them realize that they were destined for each other.”
“No one had to tell us what our destiny was,” Egan grinned at his wife of seven years. “I think Sloan and Brietta can figure theirs out for themselves, too.”