“I thought we’d never get this party together!” exclaimed Noreen several days before her summer coup: a fashionable alfresco fete. She dropped into a chair next to her husband as he sat relaxing over breakfast, his head behind a newspaper. A cold pitcher of orange juice stood on the table between them, and Noreen helped herself to a glass. “Everything has gone wrong from the moment I decided to do a garden party; it’s as if it wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Maybe the fates are trying to tell you something,” Niles grinned over the top of the paper.
“Well, they don’t know me very well then,” Noreen huffed. “At least the rains have stopped, giving the flowers a chance to come back from that ravishing wind. The gardeners have promised to have the lawns in tiptop shape and the caterers have finally found enough young ponies to wait on our guests. You’d think no one ever entertained in this part of Ponyland.”
Niles lowered the paper, having read the same headline five times and still not quite comprehending what the news story was about. “You’ve got to admit, Noreen, that you’re little garden party has become something of an extravaganza. Let’s see now: You’ve hired musicians to play on the patio, the fountain has been refurbished and now is the home of any number of Japanese carp, flowers have been coaxed and coerced to bloom on schedule- and any that didn’t cooperate were uprooted and replaced, you’ve added several new spruce trees to the already busy lawn, the stringing of lights around every nook and cranny on our entire acreage has rivaled the Christmas lights in Capital City, plus the menu boggles the mind of even Whitehall’s premier chef. Your plans have become a bit extreme.”
“We haven’t done much entertaining lately, and you know it.”
“We’d be in the poor house if you attempted this level of entertaining on a regular basis!”
“What am I supposed to do? For years now, I’d thought that when Sloan finally got around to asking Brietta to marry him, we’d host an engagement party; I’ve been holding all these ideas at bay waiting for that moment. But is it ever going to happen?”
Finding that Noreen was looking at him as if she expected an answer, Niles obliged. “It would appear not.”
“And why not?” asked Noreen. “I’m certainly aware that Sloan- and he gets this from your father- has to have every detail of a new endeavor worked out before he’ll take a step forward, but what is he waiting for now that Brietta is back in Whitehall? We should be grandparents to a whole parcel of little ones by now, Niles!” She practically moaned that last sentiment.
“Now, dear, we can’t live our children’s lives for them; I don’t know what happened between Brietta and Sloan, but something set them at odds with each other years ago...”
“It was that doctor, you know... Finella. Why Sloan took to her when he had Brietta, I’ll never understand.”
“Sloan and Brietta grew up so close together that we assumed they’d get married; but they obviously had other plans. That’s their decision.”
“But they loved one another! And they still do! But our son is playing his cards all wrong. If he doesn’t come forward and offer for Brietta soon, she’ll have gone over to Dorian- and then what is Sloan going to do?”
“Isn’t it possible that Sloan loves Finella?”
Noreen scoffed at the idea. “Watch your son when he’s in a room with both Brietta and Finella; sure, he’ll be attentive to Finella to a fault, but watch his eyes- he always knows exactly what Brietta’s doing, who’s she with, what she’s saying. He’s as infatuated with her as he ever was, but he’s not doing anything about it!”
“What about Brietta? Is she languishing over Sloan?”
“Of course not! She’s too spirited to let any grass grow under her hooves, and who can blame her? A mare that pretty isn’t going to wait for her prince charming forever. Mark my words, Niles... if Sloan doesn’t assert himself where Brietta is concerned pretty soon, he’s going to lose her... and for keeps.”
* * *
On the day of the garden party, a day thankfully free of any clouds in the sky, Noreen was everywhere. She had to oversee the gardeners whom she found did not know the first thing about proper flower care, the lawn crew who refused to understand the most basic concepts of landscaping, the house cleaners who were just as likely to sweep the dirt under the carpeting as not, and the chef and his crew who considered food an art form rather than a basic pony necessity. She was outside, inside, upstairs, and downstairs. And she was constantly muttering, most of this concerning her abandonment by her son and her husband.
Niles had suddenly been hit with a deadline for the architectural plans he had been working on for weeks... at what had seemed to Noreen a leisurely pace. Now, when she needed him, he had gone to his office and locked himself in.
Sloan was no better. A client who was too important to take lightly had invited both him and Dorian on a boating venture to Grand Lake; fishing was involved. Fishing! Hadn’t she made sure there were plenty of fish in the fountain?
Her only consolation was that both stallions had promised that they would appear at the house no later than six o’clock, with the first guests expected to begin arriving by seven-thirty. Noreen smiled. That meant that if she could somehow convince Brietta to come over at six o’clock also, she could set her and Sloan to doing something... something isolated... that would force the two of them to take note of one another and realize that they were meant for each other.
It was already late afternoon, however, she realized, nearly causing palpitations; and she still had not come up with a foolproof plan to get the two ponies in the same place at the same time; but she was not whipped yet. Standing on the patio in the shade afforded by the angle of the sun over the house, Noreen surveyed her kingdom, numerous ponies working like so many ants scurrying about their business. The lawn was trimming up nicely, the flowers were prettily blooming, the lights were being strung to highlight specific areas, the splashing sound of the water lent a calming background, the blue sky promised no rain to spoil the evening. What still needed to be done that Brietta could be sent for to oversee?
Nothing coming to mind, Noreen entered the house and made a bee-line for the kitchen to superintend the food preparations. The chef, studying his menu, shook his head. Noreen immediately expected the worst.
“What is it? You’ve ruined something, haven’t you?”
At the sound of her voice, the chef cringed, having come to learn that Noreen was a force to be reckoned with. He wished he could lock the kitchen door, thus preventing the mistress of the house from circumventing his plans on every front; but that, of course, would certainly earn her ire and cause him instant grief. He had no alternative except to admit the latest fiasco.
“The market sent over the strawberries I ordered,” he said, holding out a piece of red fruit toward Noreen, “and look at the condition they’re in.”
Noreen took the strawberry in her hoof and turned it over. “It’s perfect,” she noted.
“On the outside, maybe,” scoffed the chef, making an impatient gesture. “Cut it open and see what you get.” He matched his actions to his words and sliced the fruit in half, exposing a cavernous hollow within.
Picking up the defective strawberry, Noreen scowled. “This is the best they have to offer?”
“Have no doubt that I have already called to express my displeasure,” the chef remarked. “That green grocer had the audacity to tell me that these berries are top of the line, for this late in the season.”
“Well, I suppose you’ll have to make do then.”
“Make do? I, Chef Henri, make do?” the exasperated stallion slapped the counter with his hoof, effectively mashing the halved strawberry. “I never make do!”
“How important were the strawberries?” asked Noreen.
“As this is a garden party, fruits and flowers were to be my theme ingredients,” Chef Henri stated.
“What else is in season?”
“Gooseberries, I suppose, but they wouldn’t work with my plans. I need the red color of strawberries.” He thought a moment. “Of course, there are cherries, but they are rather tart. Or possibly blueberries.”
“What about raspberries?” asked Noreen, suddenly inspired.
“Their flavor is more uncustomary, harder to blend,” debated Chef Henri.
“What if I could get you some raspberries so fresh they’d still be warm from the sunshine and so sweet that you’d think they were sugared?” Noreen countered, already moving toward the telephone.
“I could garnish the hors d’oeuvres and even make a pleasing sauce...” The chef was immersed in the possibilities.
As Noreen listened to the ringing of the telephone, she tapped her hoof impatiently on the counter. It was nearly time for Niles and Sloan to return home. If she sent Brietta straight to the raspberry patch that the foals had marauded summer after summer while they were growing up, the mare should arrive almost at the same time as Sloan would... once Noreen had sent him to assist. For one of the few times in her life, Noreen was grateful that her one and only child was by habit so infuriatingly punctual.
Once Anna had summoned Brietta to take the call, Noreen dived right in, explaining the unforeseen emergency that was creating a crisis of some magnitude in the chef’s domain; and would Brietta, at this late hour, be so kind as to help Noreen out by visiting the old raspberry patch down by the cabin ruins where she and Sloan used to haunt?
“Why, if it’s that important, of course I will,” Brietta responded, wildly wondering how she could make herself presentable for the summer party of the year after having been scratched by the raspberry vines and soaked in her own sweat by the work involved.
Noreen was ahead of her. “Throw any do-dads you may need in a bag and you can bathe and dress here. The hour is late, and time is of the essence.”
“Okay, Noreen. I won’t let you down.”
Hanging up the phone, Brietta groaned. She had been looking forward to this evening as a pleasant summer interlude, not as a scratchy and uncomfortable trek through the overgrown acres that backed Niles property. Setting off through the acres of tall grass, random bushes, and sheltering trees was one thing when a young pony was with her best friends, quite another for a supposedly mature mare to undertake by herself with only a few hours remaining before she was supposed to be sweet-smelling and properly coiffured.
After gathering together the items she would need to transform herself from farmer’s daughter to diva, Brietta said goodbye to her mother who frowningly questioned the sense in having her daughter involved in such a venture- even if it was Lena’s best friend doing the asking- and only succeeding in convincing her to wear a bandana over her head. Lena watched, shaking her head, as her daughter swept off in the direction of the berry patch, basket in hoof.
Following the path until it neared Niles property, then cutting off across the open field, Brietta found the walk soothing to her rather riled equilibrium. She enjoyed seeing the countryside that had harbored Sloan, Shayla, and herself through many a long summer day when they were young and life was simple. The warm sun put a brightness on the scene that mirrored Brietta’s own light mood now that she was now a part of the pastoral setting, and she silently thanked Noreen for giving her the opportunity to experience such a peaceful interlude.
Keeping in mind Noreen’s words that time was of the essence, Brietta did not lag as she crossed grassy areas dotted with wild flowers or passed under cooling shade trees until she came upon the nearly covered remains of what had once been a log cabin, long since abandoned. The pony who had once lived here had established a raspberry patch that had continued to thrive long after the equine inhabitants of the homestead had moved on to new pastures.
Working her way around the perimeter of the rotted lumber of the dwelling, Brietta was soon met with a tangled snarl of berry bushes, quite loaded with large, luscious fruit. After tasting a berry, then another, and still more, Brietta, satisfied that the fruit would suit even Chef Henri, settled down to serious picking, her hooves busy while her mind wandered back to other feeding frenzies by three vivacious foals with an insatiable appetite for nature’s bounty.
When the berries had been ripe on the vine, Shayla, Sloan, and Brietta inevitably found their way to the old cabin surrounded by the prickly but beneficent bushes. The moldy, rotting wood which lay about the site had been an attraction for snakes and other creepy, crawly things, and Brietta had more than once run to Sloan for protection from the perceived evil of a slithering reptile. The memory made her shiver, and she looked closely at the ground before choosing a spot to stand from which she could reach a sufficient amount of berries. Perching her basket safely next to her, she began to pluck the purplish-red, sun-ripened fruit from the stems.
The wild area around her was silent as she started, but soon the song of a bird ruptured the air as a feathered creature decided to accept the presence of a little pony as nothing dangerous. It was not long before other birds joined in, and Brietta took for granted the various noises of leaves brushing against branches and the occasional snapping of twigs in the underbrush. It was conducive to pleasant recollections.
Grinning over the time that Shayla, always ready to instigate an adventure but not always brave enough to carry it through, had suggested that the three of them carry their freshly picked basket of berries to the nearest tree which had such conveniently low branches just begging the foals to climb into its heights and scurry up into a secret world above the ordinary. All three of them had safely made the assent to a pleasurably frightening height and had settled comfortably on their own branch and had begun to eat their hard-won berries when Shayla, reaching for her share, had lost her balance; in the ensuing struggle to maintain a hold on the rough bark, she had upset the basket of berries, spilling them in a torrent to the ground below, converting them to a mushy and unappetizing paste. Brietta had blamed Shayla for ruining their afternoon of work while Sloan had looked at the bright side- Shayla had saved herself from a nasty tumble from the tree, the berries being a small price to pay for their friend’s safety. Brietta had finally reluctantly agreed.
Another time, Colin had snuck up on the three of them as they busily engaged in berry-picking and story telling, eventually bursting out of his cover as if he was some huge, menacing bear. Shayla and Brietta had both dived for cover behind Sloan, who- thankfully- assessed the situation for what it was and stood his ground. Colin had been properly upbraided.
In real time, Brietta’s basket was beginning to fill with the plump and juicy berries, but she picked on, not wanting to disappoint Chef Henri or Noreen. The watch strapped to her foreleg informed her that time was fast running down, and she determined that at exactly seven o’clock, she would set off for Noreen’s house which would be easily accessible once she was out of the bushes that soon fed into the back lawn of Nile’s estate.
There was one memory tied to this place that Brietta had tried hard to avoid; but now as the loneliness of her location began to make her feel assailable, she found herself reliving the episode unbidden. It had been when she and Sloan were in high school- she a first year student and he a senior- and they had come without Shayla although that filly was to join them at some point in the course of the afternoon. Sloan and Brietta had dallied on their way across the pasture, allowing time for Shayla to catch up to them; but the errands she had to run for her mother were taking her longer than expected.
When Sloan and Brietta had arrived at the berry patch, Sloan had determined that they should wait for Shayla before they started feasting on the berries; but Brietta had not agreed. So while Sloan made himself comfortable under a nearby tree, Brietta had filled her basket. When she had a good amount of berries and Shayla had still not arrived, Brietta had gone to sit near the reclining stallion, now half asleep in the somnolent mood of the woodland. She nibbled on the berries, enjoying the companionable silence until she had become bored with no one to talk to.
She began a subtle assault on Sloan by throwing grass blades at him, but their feather-light touch did not faze him. She followed by plucking flower heads off the tiny sweet clover that grew amidst the grass and sending them his way, but still no response. Contemplating using the berries at her disposal to barrage him, she gave up that idea; the berries were too tasty to waste. Setting her basket aside, she moved closer to the stallion and ran her hoof against his mane, fully intending to pull a strand hard enough to awaken him. She should have foreseen the outcome of her touch; but in her innocence, she had not. She was fully unprepared for the effect it caused.
It happened so fast that later when she looked back on it, she was unsure of what had actually occurred. All she could be sure of was that Sloan had awakened; and before she could react, his foreleg had reached out for her, drawing her against him where he lay. He had lifted his head and looked at her with such a fire in his eyes that she had been frightened, and slowly his lips had lowered to meet hers.
Shayla’s entrance on the scene shattered the moment. With a return to his usual calm assurance, Sloan had moved away from Brietta; and with a gasp, she had scuttled away from him. Never in their relationship had there ever been anything more than a comfortable companionship between them; now, in a moment, Brietta had come to realize that they had entered a more complicated connection. Never again did they return- physically or emotionally- to the berry patch by the cabin. The remembrance of the feelings that had engulfed them seemed to draw a line between them that could never again be crossed.
The sound of her voice being hailed from a close distance brought Brietta back to her task; she looked up, startled to see Dorian coming toward her through the bushes. Her involuntary jump caused the berry basket to totter, and she just managed to salvage her laboriously obtained berries.
“Dorian! What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing,” he grinned. “I’d have thought you’d be all primped and prettied and pacing the floor, waiting for me to pick you up.”
“I wish!” Brietta held out the basket of berries and accepted Dorian’s hoof to steady her as she pried herself lose from the grasping berry branches. “Noreen and her chef were left in the lurch by the green grocer, and she needed my help to save the day.”
“You’re a loyal friend, aren’t you?” The stallion picked off some twigs and leaves that were stuck in Brietta’s mane. “And you look so domestic. Will you be working in the kitchen this evening as well?”
“If I don’t get these to Noreen immediately, there will be no party... if her distress when she called me was any indication.” The mare picked up her backpack and set off toward the house with Dorian at her side. Pulling the bandana from her head and using it to dab at her face, she added, “And what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Well, you’re aware that Sloan and I went off on a day trip to Grand Lake at the invitation of a stallion we do business with...”
“Yes... and, as it turned out, we had a great go of it and sort of lost track of time so that we couldn’t get back to Whitehall for Sloan to meet his mother’s schedule. And to top it off, Rob decided that he needed some further advice from Sloan and wanted him to stop at his office before going home. You know Sloan... he wouldn’t disappoint a client; so he sent me on my way while he took care of business.”
Brietta looked at him curiously. “If you were coming from Grand Lake, you’d have come from the northern route, not the eastern.”
Looking miffed, Dorian unwillingly admitted, “I took the wrong path at one of the junctures and ended up at some God-forsaken place east of here...”
“Yeah, country girl... and by the time I realized where I was, I figured I might as well come straight here.”
“You don’t look like you spent the day on the lake and traveling,” Brietta noted with a sideways glance at her companion.
“Rob’s got a great little cottage on the lake with all the amenities. And what about you? Do you have to go back to Whitehall Place before the party? Not that you need to, mind ya’. You look very attractive with your hair all tousled about and those little tendrils curling around the sweat on your forehead and the berry smudges on your cheeks...”
“Thank you very much for your critique of my appearance,” Brietta growled. The two had broken through to Niles’ backyard by this point, and Brietta grabbed the basket of berries from Dorian’s hoof. “And thanks for your help.” She turned her back on him and hurried toward the house.
“Oh. And you have cockleburs stuck in your tail,” Dorian called out.
An aggrieved flick of that tail was the only response the stallion received, and Brietta cringed under his laughter.
Upon entering the kitchen with her hard won fruit, Brietta found that Chef Henri was ecstatic with the raspberries; he quickly set several of his assistants to work readying them for use. Of Noreen, there was no sign. Brietta wondered about this, knowing how agitated the mare had been earlier. She met her in the hallway, however, as she was working her way up to the guest room that Noreen had put at her disposal.
“The raspberries are luscious,” Brietta informed the mare.
“Raspberries?” Noreen nearly shrieked. “Do you realize that Sloan called me not ten minutes after I talked to you and informed me that he wasn’t going to make it here until nine o’clock at the earliest? Do you know what that did to my plans? And then to see you come back accompanied by Dorian, of all ponies? Raspberries, indeed!” The tempestuous mare stalked off, her aggrieved hoofsteps echoing down the hallway.
Brietta watched her marching off and shook her head. What was that all about? At a loss, Brietta continued to her destination.
Locking the door behind her, Brietta breathed a sigh of relief. She was overly warm, tired, dirty, itchy, and- at this precise moment- fed up with acts of kindness. Dumping the contents of her backpack on the bed, she retrieved her soap and shampoo and disappeared in the bathroom to shower and coax her hair into something more appropriate than the wild abandonment that it now displayed.
She grimaced as she saw her reflection in the mirror; Dorian had reason to taunt her over her looks. She turned to the side and pulled the clinging cockleburs from her tail, holding the offending seedpods in her hoof in disdain as she pondered burying them in Dorian’s mane at some point during the evening- after all, it was a garden party- but finally tossing them into the wastebasket just to be rid of them.
In the process of curling her hair, Brietta, now refreshed by the shower, heard a tap at her chamber door. Ignoring it, she continued to fuss with her mane; she wondered if Dorian would have the gall to search her out in the family’s private quarters- she would not put it past him; he probably had some more taunts to throw at her. But the knock sounded again, accompanied by a feminine voice. Brietta grinned and immediately crossed the room to admit Shayla.
“Lena and Aiden arrived, and Lena was worried about you. I told her I’d look you up,” Shayla explained, coming in and sitting carefully on a bedside chair. “Without you or Sloan, the party seems flat.”
“He got in a sports discussion with a bunch of the guys,” Shayla shrugged.
“And I suppose without Flynn shadowing you, you feel lost,” Brietta mused.
“My parents have him tonight, so he’ll be a terror.” She ran her hoof over the stretching skin of her abdomen. “And this one is determined to party as hard as the best of them.”
“Active little thing, huh?” Brietta said, trying to imagine what it would be like to be carrying a precious new life within one.
“He or she is trying to keep up to Flynn already,” grinned the expectant mother. After a pause she continued, “Just what went on this afternoon that you ended up getting ready for the party here?”
“Didn’t Mother tell you?”
“No. She was within Noreen’s hearing, and I got the impression that she didn’t want to talk in front of her.”
“Mother wasn’t too happy when Noreen called at the last minute to ask my help in something.”
“What was that?”
“She asked me to go to that old raspberry patch to pick some berries.”
“It seems that some of Chef Henri’s dishes were in need of fresh fruit, and nothing was available to meet his standards; what could I do?”
“You could have told her to send one of the gardeners,” pointed out Shayla.
“Well, you now Noreen. She can kind of go off on her own tangents sometimes, so I thought it best to humor her. And besides, it wasn’t so awfully bad, except that...”
“Except what?” queried the inquisitive Shayla, leaning forward to catch any details.
“Dorian, of all ponies, came across me looking like some wayward peasant; and he found that sight hilarious.”
“Oh, is that all?” Shayla settled more comfortably once again. “I suppose you did look sort of earthy. Remember how our moms would roll their eyes over our looks when we’d come in after a day roughing it?”
“Sloan never complained.”
“Sloan was Sloan,” Shayla said, as if that explained everything. Then she grinned wide. “You should have seen how you looked that day I caught him kissing...”
“He didn’t kiss me!” Brietta snapped.
“Whatever. It looked like he was kissing you.”
“I suppose he would have if you hadn’t stumbled into the clearing just then,” Brietta admitted softly.
“The two of you must have had many other opportunities.”
Patting the last curl in place, Brietta turned to her friend. “Sloan made sure that we never had such a chance again.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“But remember, he was always admonished by both our parents to act as my guardian from the time we were toddlers- ‘Make sure Brietta doesn’t get hurt. Make sure Brietta doesn’t fall. Make sure Brietta doesn’t get left behind.’ He was always expected to be my protector, to keep me safe. He couldn’t cross that line, even if he wanted to. It would have let too many ponies down. He took chivalry very seriously.” Something became very clear to Brietta in that moment. “Maybe that’s why he turned to Finella; no one expected him to be governed by scruples where she was concerned.”