The early July day that Brietta was given wing to receive her first client on her own was a sweltering hot one with temperatures climbing to ninety and humidity near one hundred percent. The past month had gone more or less smoothly with Conrad putting the episode of the locket behind him as if it had never occurred; his monitoring of Brietta had continued at a slow and steady plod until, just as Sloan and Dorian had predicted, Conrad had released her. She arrived at the office early- already feeling frazzled- glorying in the fact that Grandfather had not hung on to the old ways when it came to air-conditioning.
She dropped into a chair in the sedate waiting area, saying to Colly who had also found it advisable to come in early, “This weather will bring in a storm for sure,” while wiping the sweat drops off her nose.
“I heard on the radio that a low front will move through late this afternoon,” Colly said matter-of-factly, not even looking up from her work.
“That means we’ll have wind for sure,” Brietta shivered. “I hate strong wind.”
As Colly had no reply, Brietta stood and was moving to the hallway that led to the offices when Sloan arrived. “Good morning, Colly... Brietta.” He smiled, cool and assured as always even in the clammy, unpredictable weather that wilted Brietta.
The mares returned his salutation, and Brietta added, “Colly says we’ll have a storm before the day’s over.”
“The radio announcer said it; I just repeated it,” Colly clarified. She handed Sloan a note. “Grady called after you left yesterday; he said it’s not critical, but he’d like you to return his call.”
“I’ll take care of it now.”
Dorian came in mopping his face and headed straight for the cooler. “This weather is repulsive,” he noted, guzzling the small glassful and refilling it. “Where’s Conrad?” he queried, looking around the office.
“He and Aiden are meeting with the judge concerning the Cryndon case,” Colly informed him.
“Oh. That’s right.” He grinned at Brietta. “So what are you going to do today? Scrub the floors?”
Colly giggled, but Sloan gave Dorian a darkling glance. Brietta, however, defended herself. “Grandfather left his appointments for me to handle.”
“Easy stuff then, I presume?” Dorian continued to taunt, but his smile was bright.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Brietta said and made her exit. She walked down the hall to her office door and, upon opening it, was met with the sight of a gorgeous bouquet of roses and baby’s breath on her desk. “Oh! How beautiful!” she breathed and found that Sloan and Dorian were immediately behind her.
“Read the card,” Dorian ordered, edging around the mare and crossing the room to fetch the white note that rested against the vase; Brietta’s name was prominently sprawled across the card in a masculine hoof. “Who’re they from?”
Brietta opened the message and blushed. “You two!” she cried and hugged them in turn. “What a couple of sweethearts!”
“We wanted your first day on your own to have a special touch,” Sloan said, maintaining his grasp on Brietta’s foreleg even after the hug had ended.
“As Dorian didn’t know I’d be on my own, I can surmise that he was railroaded into the surprise.”
“Think what you like, my dear,” Dorian grinned. “It was worth hearing your obvious pleasure at seeing the flowers.”
“And to be honest, Brietta, the flowers were Dorian’s idea,” Sloan admitted. “He lied about not knowing that Conrad had passed his approval on you. But remember, he’s just trying to bribe the senior partner’s daughter to get on your good side.”
“Well, he succeeded,” Brietta smiled, reclaiming her hoof. “The flowers are beautiful; it was a lovely thought. Thank you both ever so much!”
“You are very welcome,” Dorian bowed just as Colly came into the room to announce to Sloan that an unexpected pony was asking for him. “Says his name is Craig.” She looked scathingly at the flowers before leaving.
“Have a great day, Brietta,” Sloan smiled before leaving to attend to his work. “I know you’ll do a fine job.”
Left with Dorian, Brietta offered him a seat which he promptly accepted, while Brietta took her place behind the desk.
“What’s on your schedule, Brie?”
“An estate planning and several consultations.”
“Yes, you were right; it’s easy stuff.”
“But you’ll handle it with finesse and expertise.”
“One would hope.”
“You’re not nervous, are you?”
“Not about the work...”
“It’s just the worry that no one will take me seriously. Two of the clients coming in were in high school with me. I have this dread that they’ll laugh themselves silly to see me sitting behind this desk.”
“I’ve never worked under that handicap, not having landed a job in my hometown... not that I ever lived in one town for more than a couple of years anyway.”
“I can’t imagine that,” Brietta admitted. “I’ve lived with the ponies of Whitehall all my life. Why were you on the move so much?”
“I was shuttled between foster homes,” he stated simply.
“Oh.” Brietta was at a loss for words.
“My parents were unable to care for me properly,” Dorian added. “I didn’t like the idea of their farming me out, and I wasn’t the easiest colt to get along with.”
“If you were difficult, it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting effects.”
“Let’s just say that by the time I got out of high school, I’d had enough of seeing the courtroom from the accused’s point-of-view; I decided that with my experience, I should be fairly good at criminal law.”
“Yet you specialized in civil law.”
“By the time I’d gone through college and got into law school, I’d formed different opinions.” He got to his hooves. “I know you’re finding my life history fascinating, but I’d better let you have some time to get ready for your first appointment.”
“My gosh! It is getting late!” Brietta jumped up and came around her desk. “Thanks again for the roses; it was very considerate of you.”
Dorian looked at her with hooded eyes. “Sloan was right, you know. The flowers were a bribe of sorts...”
“Excuse me.” Colly was at the door. “You’ll need these files, Brietta.”
“Later,” smiled Dorian, quickly exiting.
Colly crossed to the desk and set the files on the glassy surface, then softly touched the blood red petals of the roses. “Very pretty,” she said; then, turning her gaze on Brietta, she added, “Just remember the thorns.”
Feeling a sudden shiver, Brietta shot a wary glance at the mare; but Colly only tossed her mane and left the office.
* * *
The storm broke that afternoon while Brietta was in consultation with a couple who had been several years ahead of her in high school; Dwaine was married now to Cara, and they were contemplating starting up their own business. When the rumbling of thunder made their business talk difficult, they lapsed into personal remembrances to wait out the frenzy of the storm.
“It shouldn’t be too bad,” Dwaine advised, watching Cara and Brietta at the window. Both mares were ill-at-ease due to the blasts of wind and rain that washed across the panes. “The weather pony didn’t issue any warnings.”
“I’ve hated storms like this since I was a foal,” Cara fretted. “Look at how the trees are swaying, Dwaine! I hate it!”
Dwaine came to his wife and hugged her close, but he looked curiously at Brietta. “Since when have you been afraid of storms, living in that big house. You used to brag about braving the storms that would cut across the ledge out there.”
“There was a tornado near Pembroke when I was away at school,” Brietta said quietly, her eyes never stirring from the motion outside the windows. “The devastation was horrible.”
“This squall will soon be over,” Dwaine asserted. Another punishing gust of wind belied his words, but it was followed by what seemed, to even the distraught Cara, a lessening of the force behind the awful slamming wind. The torrent of raindrops receded accordingly, leaving a straight and steady flow of drops before finally fading into a gentle rainfall. As the ponies watched, a ray of sunshine pierced through the clouds, and a brilliant rainbow arched across the sky.
“Thank God,” Cara murmured, smiling at last.
“Amen!” Brietta breathed freely. “Shall we get back to business?”
* * *
By the time Brietta had escorted Dwaine and Cara to the outside door, she found the other offices empty. “Where is everyone?” she asked Colly.
The secretary, busily organizing her desk in a hurry herself to leave the day’s work behind, answered as if it was a chore. “Conrad and Aiden called to say they were going straight home; Dorian left as soon as he finished with his last client, muttering something about some hazard or other; and Sloan had a meeting across town. I’m out of here myself-- you’ll have to lock up.”
Familiar with the necessary procedure for securing the offices for the night, Brietta was not concerned about that responsibility. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, Colly. Have a pleasant evening.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said before slipping out the door.
Brietta shrugged her shoulders. Why the mare seemed to resent Brietta’s presence, Brietta did not know. She had hoped the mare would soften in time, but Brietta was beginning to doubt that would ever happen.
Going back to her office, Brietta’s gaze went directly to the beauty of the roses. She stopped to touch the velvety richness of the red petals and to inhale the sweet fragrance that surrounded them, a reminder of corsages and bouquets that Sloan had presented to her down through the years for birthday dinners and school proms. The memories carried her back to those sweet and innocent times, and that is where Sloan found her.
His voice startled Brietta and she jumped, her eyes flying to the stallion in the doorway.
“Sloan! I thought I was alone.”
“I finished my meeting, but wanted to look up some information while my questions were still fresh. How about you?” He had crossed the room while he talked, and Brietta found herself moving to a position that would place the solid desk between them. “There was a time you would have met me with no barricades,” Sloan said, his eyes holding hers.
“I was just remembering some of those times myself,” Brietta admitted softly.
“They were good.”
“Up to that night...”
“We could start over.”
“Finella stands between us, Sloan.”
The phone jangled into the moment, and Brietta pressed the proper button to put the call on conference. She should have been upset over the interruption in this private conversation with Sloan, for hadn’t she yearned for such a moment since she arrived back from Pembroke? But some perverse sensibility caused her to welcome the abrupt end of such a personal dialogue. “Brietta here.”
“Brietta, I’m looking for Sloan,” Conrad’s voice came through.
“He’s right here, Grandfather.”
“What can I do for your, sir?” Sloan asked.
“On my desk are some figures for the Burtron contract; you’re familiar with the project, so I’d like you to read off what I need.”
“I’ll pick up when I get to your office.” Sloan, whose eyes had not left Brietta’s face, bid her good day and abruptly left to attend to Conrad’s request.
“Your mother wants to know when you’ll be home, Brietta,” Conrad continued as he waited.
“I’m leaving right now,” the mare responded, hearing Sloan come on the line. “Tell her I’ll be there soon.” She ended the call, grabbed her purse, and beat a hasty retreat.
* * *
Sitting with her mother later that evening, Brietta broached a nagging dilemma. “Why does Colly resent my coming to work at the firm? She surely must have known that I’d join my father and grandfather when my education was completed.”
“I thought I’d noticed some tension between the two of you.”
“It’s not between us, Mother; it’s entirely one-sided on her part.”
“I can only surmise...”
“Any input will be better than the nothing I now have.”
“I think she might see you as a threat...”
“A threat?” Brietta gasped. “To what?”
“When Dorian was new in town, Colly helped him to get settled and acquainted with the place.”
“I’d have thought Sloan would have taken it upon himself to see to that sort of thing for his friend.”
“Sloan was a big help, I’m sure; but Colly filled in some of the gaps; she helped decorate his apartment to make it more home-like and...”
“Are you saying she and Dorian are romantically involved?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but Colly does rather look upon him as more of a friend than a boss.”
Brietta looked at her mother blankly. “So where is this leading? Why does she treat me like her number one enemy?”
Lena sighed before answering. “Brietta, it’s perfectly obvious to anyone with an iota of sense that Dorian is attracted to you.”
Her mouth dropping open, Brietta was speechless. Her mother continued. “Are you telling me that you haven’t been aware of his feelings?”
“Mother! Dorian’s a very kind stallion with a great sense of humor; he can set anyone at ease- I’ve seen him do it time and again at the office. But it doesn’t mean anything- it’s just the way he is.”
“When it’s you he’s ‘setting at ease’ my dear, he radiates a certain pleasure that goes beyond being kind. I’ve seen it... felt it; I’m sure Colly has, too.”
Brietta stood up and paced the patio where she and her mother were enjoying the fresh air that had moved in after the storm. After pondering her mother’s words for a minute or two, she sat down again.
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“Do you like Dorian?”
“Of course, I like him; who wouldn’t? He’s... very comfortable to be around. But I never gave him reason to think I was interested in him as anything more than a business associate.”
“You are a lovely mare, Brietta. I’m sure Dorian doesn’t need a list of reasons why he’s... intrigued with you; nor do you need to feel guilty if you return his feelings.”
“Mother, I haven’t looked at another stallion seriously since Sloan wrote me off all those years ago. I never thought I’d have the desire to, for all that matters. Stallions only complicate a mare’s life.”
“I’m sorry that Sloan found it necessary to end that special friendship the two of you shared, dear, but he’s chosen his own path with Finella. You’re free to make your own decisions without any regrets.” Lena patted Brietta’s foreleg and got to her hooves. “Don’t worry about a thing. But if you don’t want Dorian to lose his heart, I suggest that you find a way to let him know up front that his feelings won’t be reciprocated.”
Left alone with the surrounding darkness, Brietta tried to sort her thoughts. She had been home for weeks now, and she had yet to face her feelings about Sloan. What had she expected upon coming back into a life where she was thrown into nearly daily contact with this stallion who had once been her champion? If she was to be honest with herself, she would admit that she had nursed the hope that, once she was back in Whitehall, Sloan would have seen the folly of his ways and resumed that precious friendship that had existed between him and Brietta before Finella had become her nemesis.
But Brietta had found it impossible to pick up the pieces of that friendship while Finella remained a part of Sloan’s life, so she had resisted any situation that might have brought them closer together.
We could start over, Sloan had said just hours ago. The words tumbled over themselves in Brietta’s mind until she could stand it no longer. She fled indoors to seek the comforting companionship of her family.
“You’ve been quiet, Brietta; is something bothering you?” Her father set down the newspaper he was engrossed in at her entrance into the den where he rested. Conrad was in a chair across the room, and he closed the book he was reading, waiting for her answer.
“Handling clients on my own made me realize what a responsibility I have to them,” she said, sitting next to Aiden. “It’s rather overwhelming.”
Aiden patted her hoof. “It’s that sense of responsibility that will make you an exceptional lawyer, honey.”
“All the know-how in the world is to no avail if you don’t have compassion with which to use that knowledge well,” added Conrad.
“You two have been wonderful examples in that regard,” Brietta smiled. “And I’ll try my best to follow in your hoofsteps.”
They were interrupted as Lena came in with Anna carrying a tray with coffee and some freshly-baked peanut butter cookies. “I though you might be hungry, Brietta; you didn’t eat much of your supper,” Anna said.
“Oh, dear, sweet Anna,” Brietta hugged the mare who had cooked and cleaned for her family since before Brietta had been born. “You’re right back to spoiling me, aren’t you?”
Anna brushed off the sentimentality. “I’ve never done a thing to spoil you in your life; I’ve just made sure you kept your energy up with good food, and tonight you’re in need of some calorie-laden morsels to put some spring in your step.” She proceeded to distribute coffee and cookies to everyone, then bid the family goodnight.
“Do you know how often at school I would have given my good grades to see Anna come into my room with a tray of cookies like this?” She bit into and relished the flavorful treat.
“In retrospect, I’m surprised she didn’t send you boxes of cookies weekly rather than just at holidays,” Lena remarked.
“It was impossible to save more than one or two out of those care packages for myself when they did arrive,” confessed Brietta. “All my friends invariably knew when to show-up on my doorstep.”
This comment led to a sharing of stories between the three generations of law students; and Brietta, when she finally headed up the stairs to her third-story room, was calm, confident, and cheerful. She busied herself by laying out ribbons for the next day and by straightening up her writing desk, which involved the disposal of a week’s worth of junk mail that had accumulated seemingly from out of nowhere. By the time she had washed up and brushed her teeth, her eyelids were getting heavy; and she looked forward to a good night’s sleep and the arrival of another new day with all its opportunities.
This upbeat mood lasted until she had put out the light and crawled between the covers; when she closed her eyes, her late afternoon encounter with Sloan came back in vivid detail. We could start over, he was saying. But Finella’s pretty face intervened, causing Brietta to bury her own face in the pillow while she fought back tears. There was no way to start over with Finella standing between them.