“Brie, I need your advice,” Dorian interrupted the mare unceremoniously in her office where she stood in front of the bookshelves, tome in hoof.
It had been days since Noreen’s garden party; raspberries and foalhood exploits and friends and neighbors were at the moment only hazy memories. Looking up numbly from the difficult legal writing that she was referring to, Brietta was capable only of croaking a hesitant, “Oh?” as she marked her place in the text with her hoof.
Dorian came up short. “I’m interrupting you.”
“It’s the Burtron problem; I know there’s a precedent...”
One look at her glazed eyes and Dorian made his retreat. “Later,” was all he said.
The stallion’s steps then took him to Sloan’s office where he walked in on a phone conversation.
“... a table for two for this evening... yes... thank-you.”
Dorian grinned. “You and Finella out on the town?” he queried.
“None of your business,” retorted Sloan. He stood up. “Is Brietta in her office?”
“No. She’s in conference.” Sort of.
“Oh.” The stallion sat down again, a scowl on his face. “What do you need to see me about?”
“Just checking on our schedule for tomorrow; Tanner wants us to meet him for lunch; does that work for you?”
Checking his calendar, Sloan jotted down a reminder. “Sure. I had nothing planned.”
“Great. I’ll get back to him then.” Dorian was on his way out when Colly came in with Sloan’s next client; his smile for the secretary was met with an icy dismissal.
Grabbing two cups of coffee-- hot and black-- Dorian retraced his steps to Brietta’s office; this time he tapped softly before sticking his head in. “Brie?”
The mare had moved to the padded window seat that ran the length of the windowed wall; and although still in possession of the book, she now offered a smile and an invitation.”
“Come in, Dorian.” She patted the seat next to her. “What’s your problem?”
Presenting her with one of the mugs of coffee, Dorian made himself comfortable. “It’s more a question of what you can do for me.”
Raising an inquisitive brow, Brietta took a sip of coffee. “What do you need?”
“A dinner date for this evening.”
Brietta choked on her coffee; when she was done with the coughing, she met his laughing gaze. “Ask Colly.”
“You’re a wicked one, aren’t you?” He lowered his voice. “Between you and me, I don’t want to ask Colly.”
“She’s a big help at getting things done, but she’s not my idea of a dinner companion. I’d prefer to have you across the table.”
Closing her book, Brietta gave the proposal some thought. “I suppose my reputation won’t be sullied too badly to be seen in public with you. Which restaurant?”
“Cimbrel’s. And if you doubt my reputation, just remember that your father and grandfather trust me explicitly.”
This time, Dorian choked on his coffee. “Your point?” he asked darkly.
Brietta, amused by this reaction, smiled. “Sloan did recommend you for the job here, I’ve been told. He must have some respect for your... work.”
Dorian seemed relieved by this answer. “We kept in touch after graduation, and he knew I wasn’t happy at Denton; so when Conrad and Aiden began discussing hiring, he let me know. And, yes, he vouched for my capabilities. But that’s beside the point. Will you have dinner with me?”
Brietta dug in her heals. “I’m still rather piqued over your assessment of my looks that day of Noreen’s party.”
Chuckling, Dorian attempted to redeem himself. “I’d unexpectedly came across a woodland fairy, I’d thought. But such a creature wouldn’t have tangled hair and shiny skin and cockleburs in her tail, now, would she? But I found it was much more satisfying to realize that you were a real flesh and bones equine- much more approachable, you know.”
“And does that explain your obvious infatuation with Finella the rest of that evening?”
Dorian’s eyes sparkled. “Number one, you disappeared. Number two, Sloan wasn’t available. Number three, after you finally showed up, you were immediately surrounded by an admiring court which made it difficult if not impossible to so much as talk with you. I rest my case.”
“I still find you guilty, and your sentence is to someday be coated with those miserable cockleburs.”
A moment of hesitation was followed by a tentative smile and a stuttered, “Y... yes.”v
If Dorian was concerned over the hesitation, he did not show it. “That’s great! I’ll pick you up at... seven-thirty?”
The arrangements having been finalized, Dorian left Brietta to her work. She was busily scribbling down notes a half hour later when Sloan made an appearance in her doorway.
“Excuse me, Brietta. Can I see you a minute?”
The mare set down the pen she was using and leaned back in her chair, restraining the urge to yawn and stretch. “Certainly.” She had not been alone with Sloan since their not so profitable encounter some days back when Sloan had suggested that they start their relationship over, thus prompting some muddled thoughts and sleepless nights; she hoped that memory did not show in her face.
But Sloan sat in the chair next to her desk and made it clear that moment was uppermost in his mind. “We haven’t had a chance to really talk since you got back to Whitehall.”
Brietta felt her face pale. “This isn’t the time or the place...”
“I know that,” Sloan interrupted. “I’d like to take you out to dinner.”
Feeling a conflict of opinion that tore her between sorrow that she could not respond with an emphatic yes and relief that she could avoid the meeting with an honest no, she stammered, “Y... you’re timing’s way off. D... Dorian, you see, has already spoken for my company this evening.”
If she had wanted to hurt Sloan after all these years for those cruel words he had spoken to Finella in Brietta’s hearing at that long ago dance- She’s kind of like my little sister- Brietta could not have done better. The stallion stiffened and a frown creased his face. “When did he ask you?”
Unaware of Sloan’s knowledge concerning Dorian’s accidental discovery of Sloan’s plans for the evening, Brietta admitted, “Just a little while ago. Why do you ask?”
She was surprised by the anger in his eyes, but he merely shrugged his shoulders. “Just curious.” And he was gone.
If Brietta had not been due in Conrad’s office, she would have taken the time to contemplate the just completed scenario; but as it was, she only briefly ruminated over the fact that Sloan, who had blatantly ended their relationship without the hint of a reason other than Finella, had no right to be upset by Brietta’s interest in Dorian all these years later.
It felt good, she found, to be on the other side. It was with a clear conscience that she met her grandfather and with stunning directness that she outlined the defense of the case in question.
* * *
“This is excellent!” cooed Brietta, tasting the display on her plate experimentally. “You were right about it. And here I would never eat fish because I thought I didn’t like it.”
“I used to fish as a foal some Sunday afternoons and became quite a connoisseur. Of course, buying it this way takes away all the fun of cleaning it and...”
“Please! Spare me the details,” Brietta laughed. “I accept the fact that you are a fisherpony; that’s enough for me.”
“I’ll take you out on Grand Lake sometime; Sloan enjoyed our outing the other day and agrees that we should take to the water more often.”
“I suppose he finds it more enjoyable than our frogging escapades used to be.”
“I couldn’t answer for that, but yet something tells me your adventures together might rank a little higher.”
“Did you ever do any ocean fishing?” Brietta was quick to change the subject.
“Just once. It was thrilling. I even saw a shark.”
“Oh! How exciting. Tell me about it.”
“Well, as it involved cleaning some fish I’d caught, I don’t think you’d enjoy it,” Dorian grinned.
“Maybe another time.” Brietta grimaced. “I’m not entirely alien to the sport of fishing; Shayla, Sloan, and I would sometimes take poles to our little lake.” She sat envisioning those episodes of her young life. “I suppose that’s why I grew to hate fish,” she giggled. “I found the entire process somewhat disconcerting.”
“Ah... but being amidst the sights and sounds of nature is worth it.”
Awareness of a discrepancy crept across Brietta’s face. “At the house that night we met, you didn’t know what the sound of the frogs was; now you tell me you’re proficient as a fisherpony. One or the other of those two facts doesn’t... hold water.” She scowled at him.
“Guilty as accused,” Dorian laughed. “My ignorance over the frogs that night was a ploy to get you out of the house... and it succeeded quite well.”
Brietta dropped her gaze, remembering all too clearly that light brush of a kiss she had received.
“I’m surprised Sloan didn’t give me away, but he didn’t... his loss, my gain,” said Dorian, a touch of gentleness in his voice revealing that the kiss was foremost on his mind as well.
“Do you make a habit of deceit?” Brietta asked, her disquiet making the question sound harsher than she intended.
Dorian looked uncomfortable. “I’d rather call it craftiness.” Seeing the need to turn the conversation to a safer subject, he asked, “What do you enjoy doing for recreation?”
“You’ll find that I am not at all athletic, but I do enjoy long walks over the acres of Whitehall Place better than anything.”
“I look forward to experiencing one of those with you.”
Knowing that a soft blush had risen in her cheeks at those warm words, Brietta turned her full attention to the meal before her for several minutes before speaking again, and the conversation became less personal.
Brietta was in the middle of a story concerning the history of Whitehall when she saw a look of consternation come over Dorian’s face as he watched something beyond her, but it only lasted a moment before he regained a look of interest in what she was saying. Brietta, however, thought she knew what might have caused his fleeting perplexity.
“You just saw someone you know.”
“What? No... no.”
Not believing him, she asked, “Is it Sloan?”
He looked at her intently, but finally answered. “No, not Sloan. But why did you think that?” He turned the inquisition on her.
“He asked me out to dinner today, too. He wasn’t too pleased to learn that I had accepted your invitation. I thought he might be here with Finella.”
“Is that why you accepted my invitation... so you could flaunt your independence from him?”
“If that’s what you think, then I’m sorry I came.” Fire flashed in her eyes.
“Brie! I’m sorry. I can’t help but wonder about the two of you, growing up together the way you did, and now being so... detached.”
“I told you once before that he outgrew our friendship when he met Finella.”
“And when was that?”
“Nosy, aren’t you.”
Brietta sighed. “He brought her home after he had found a place in Pembroke to live while he was in law school.”
“How old were you then?”
“It was the summer before my sophomore year in college.”
“You’d been dating Sloan up until that time?”
“I don’t think we ever considered it dating; we always assumed that the other one would be there. Of course, his being in college at Palisades meant we didn’t see each other except on his vacations for his first three years; so maybe we had drifted apart without my knowing it. But that one year when we were both at Palisades while I was a freshman and he was a senior, we were like foals again. When he dumped me for Finella, I vowed that I would never let him get close to me again.”
“That was, what, six years ago?”
“Yes. Finella was still in medical school herself; she must not have finished her residency until about the time you came to Whitehall.”
“It’s funny. Sloan never mentioned her when we were at Pembroke either; I never knew she existed until I got here. He didn’t like to discuss his female friends with me.” He looked at Brietta pointedly.
Brietta shrugged. “He wouldn’t have wanted anything to detract him from his studies; he was dedicated that way.”
Dorian was silent, fiddling with the napkin while he considered something.
“What are you thinking about?” She noticed that the stallion’s dark blue eyes looked black in his present serious mood.
“I knew Sloan was going to ask you out, so I made sure I talked to you first.”
“I thought you and Sloan were friends.”
“We are; that’s why I’m admitting my scheme to you.”
“Why did you cut in on him?”
“Because he had his chance with you. I made my own opportunity.”
The waiter came to clear their dinner plates, and the ponies ordered dessert. No way did Brietta want to leave this conversation dangling, however. When they were alone once more, she said, “I’m glad you did... make your own opportunity, that is.”
The blue eyes brightened, but he remained skeptical. “No regrets?”
“I’ve had to put Sloan out of my mind for six years; and since I’ve been back, he’s had all these weeks to smooth over the past, but he’s retained Finella’s companionship. I don’t think you or I need to have any regrets.”
“Then be warned: I’m going to do my best to win your affection.” He leaned across the table to take her hoof in his, and Brietta did not resist.
“Time will tell, now, won’t it?” she smiled.
* * *
The two ponies were in no hurry to reach Whitehall Place; their pace from the restaurant had been purposely slow. At times they were deep in conversation, at other times companionably quiet. But they all too soon were approaching the venerable estate; lights played against the stone facade, climbing ever higher past the elegant windows of the first, then the second, and finally the third floor dormers that fed from the roofing, and soaring higher yet to envelop the bell tower itself, following the two colonnades that began at ground level and rose past the Palladian window, sweeping up to lend their strong support to the louvered extremities of the bulwark. The two stopped to admire the sight.
“I’ll never get used to the grandeur of this place,” Dorian admitted. “Every time I see it, I expect to see royalty.”
“When I was a foal, I wished I could have lived in Whitehall Place’s early days; Grandfather said the original family had eight children, several of whom brought their spouses to live here after they were grown and married- plus the servants required to keep it all running. Can you imagine the activity? The bells would have been used on a regular basis to announce news of import. How I would love to hear those bells!”
“You could turn this place into a night spot: restaurant, dance hall, billiards, gambling-- and let ponies experience a taste of the elegant life.”
“This is my home your talking about,” Brietta punched the stallion in the shoulder unceremoniously. “Would you want your home turned into a public spectacle?”
“You’re asking the wrong stallion; I didn’t have a home, remember?”
“So that’s what makes you ruthless!”
“Ruthless, am I? Just because I see potential in an establishment like this?” A wave of his hoof took in the serenely situated edifice.
“Don’t let Grandfather or Father hear you talk like this; you would find your position with them forfeit.” Brietta did not look too pleased herself, finding it too close to Ryan and Connor’s discussion of Ravenridge.
“Is that a threat, Miss Manning?”
“Yes, I guess it is; and as I would miss you, please keep your mouth shut.”
“I’d miss you, too, so I’ll trash my development plans.”
They had begun walking toward the house once more when Dorian made a suggestion. “Let’s walk over to the pond and listen to the frogs again.” He took her hoof without waiting for her answer.
“So what’s your fascination with amphibians?”
“Too many fairy tales, I guess.”
The melody of the frogs filled the darkness as Brietta and Dorian, hoof in hoof, approached the spit of land where they had stood the night of Brietta’s welcome home party. They approached it quietly, but the frogs heard their hoofsteps and plopped themselves into their watery world.
“That’s cool,” Dorian grinned, referring to the sound of their bulgy bodies hitting the water.
“Do you ever fish at night?” Brietta queried.
“Now that’s something I never tried,” he laughed; and before Brietta knew what he was about, he had her in his clasp. “We could attempt it, you and I.” He bent to kiss her.
At that instant, there was a giggle and a rush of bodies past their legs; Brietta screamed while Dorian reached out to intercept whoever it was that dared interfere with this romantic interlude. Dorian’s attempt came up with a wriggling foal, faintly visible in the ghostly darkness. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” he boomed at the trespasser.
“Me watchin’ frogs,” a little voice said.
Brietta, conscious now of two other colts standing nearby to watch the fate of their comrade, giggled. “I bet they’re Anna and Clarence’s grandfoal’s. I remember hearing that they’d be visiting for a few days.” To the foals, she said, “I’m Brietta. Your grandmother cooks for my parents and me. I’m sorry we disturbed your frog hunt.”
“That’s okay,” the oldest of the three said good-naturedly. “It’s getting pretty dark now anyway; Grandma’ll be worried.”
Dorian released his hold on the foal, and the young pony edged his way to where Brietta stood; he must have heard something in her voice that gave him courage, for he stood by her expectantly.
“Come on, Kent,” the middle youngster said. “Let’s get going.”
The foal looked up at Brietta. “Come on,” he urged, taking her hoof.
“You heard him,” Brietta grinned through the starlight at Dorian. “Let’s get going!”
“Just what I need,” muttered Dorian. “Three pint-sized chaperones.”
“Aw. But they’re so cute!”
“How can you tell? It’s too dark to see...” A grunt from the stallion as his hoof found a hole in the turf intervened. “... clearly.”
Laughing, Brietta queried. “You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”
“Look! There’s a shooting star!” the oldest colt called, pointing to the star-sprinkled sky.
“Where?” asked Kent, peering upward.
“It’s gone,” said his brother.
“But I want to see it!” the foal argued.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Dorian muttered. “Here.” He swung the foal up into his forelegs. “Watch the sky; maybe you’ll see another.”
“Up there!” The stallion waggled his hoof toward the heavens.
By this time, the troupe was nearing the back door of the mansion where only one light sent its welcome glow down a stepping-stone path. Brietta could now see the foals better, and she remembered one of them as Todd, who had been a baby foal himself the last time she had seen him in the company of his grandparents.
“Todd, I met you years ago; I remember you playing with one of the kittens down in the barn.”
“Me have a kitten,” Kent advised her.
“We’ve met Kent. What’s your name?” Brietta asked of the still unknown colt.
“Nice to meet you, Chad. As I said earlier, I’m Brietta; and this is Dorian.”
The back door opened, and Anna came out to the porch. “Where have you ragamuffins been off to? Me and your granddad have been getting worried.”
Dorian set Kent on the ground at her hooves. “They were down with the frogs, Anna... just like Brie and me.”
Anna frowned at Brietta. “I’d have thought you’d outgrown that.”
“They was kissin’,” Kent relayed, making a disgusting face to show his feelings on that subject.
“Huh!” Dorian expressed his own disapproval. “Thanks to you three... ragamuffins... there was no kiss!” He scowled in such a manner that it sent Kent scurrying behind his grandmother for refuge.
Now Anna laughed. “Well, it might not make up for what you missed,” she winked at Brietta, “but I just finished frosting a batch of homemade brownies... with walnuts,” she ended in a coaxing tone.
“Well, maybe.” Dorian grudgingly grinned. “It’s the walnuts that won me over.”
While Clarence took the colts off to be washed-up, Brietta helped Anna set out the milk and plates; Dorian was set to work cutting the brownies. By the time Todd, Chad, and Kent- along with their grandfather- returned, everyone was ready to enjoy the tempting treat; and before long the pan was empty.
“Never had a brownie that tasted that good,” Dorian admitted. “You‘re unbeatable, Anna.”
“Been using the same recipe since Brietta was a little tyke no bigger than Kent. She and Sloan would come out here to the kitchen begging for food; and brownies was what pleased them most.”
Dorian looked at Brietta who had Kent leaning into her where she sat, her hoof stroking the foal’s mane. “What a charming picture,” he murmured, leaving Brietta in the dark as to whether he was referring to the picture of her and Sloan begging for brownies or the current little foal falling asleep by her side.
As Todd and Chad were the outdoors type and avid fisherponies, they pumped Dorian for fish stories which, once the stallion was warmed-up, he provided with plenty of varied truths and yarns. Brietta slipped off with Anna to tuck the sleepy Kent into bed.
When the mares returned to the kitchen, the colts were enticing Dorian with the idea of an afternoon of fishing on the following Saturday; by the time they went off to bed, the plans had blossomed into an excursion which would include a picnic lunch provided by Anna; it was only after some bargaining with the colts that Dorian succeeded in getting their approval for Brietta to join the venture.
“It will be a good initiation for you in the sport so you can learn how it’s done properly,” he grinned at the mare as Brietta walked him to the front door.
“I plan to take my sketch pad and fritter away the time quite apart from your fish,” she asserted.
“Spoil-sport,” he teased.
Conrad came out of the den; and seeing the two ponies by the door, he came to join them. “There’s an article in the paper about how Freemont is handling their expansion efforts, Dorian; I think you’ll find it interesting.” To Brietta, he said, “I’ve got an idea or two for you on your Tremont case that I’d like to discuss.”
“That will be fine, Grandfather; Dorian was just leaving.” She smiled at the stallion. “Thanks for dinner.”
“My pleasure.” He looked as if he wanted to say more, but Conrad’s presence cut him short. “Goodnight, Conrad. Goodnight, Brie.” He touched her hoof and went out into the night with Conrad closing the door behind him.
* * *
When Brietta got to work the following morning in the company of Aiden and Conrad, she found Sloan talking with Colly; they both looked at her inquisitively as she came in, wondering, Brietta was sure, if she and Dorian had a pleasant dinner. Brietta obliged them with a cheerful smile. “It’s a truly gorgeous day,” she said brightly.
Colly said nothing, and Sloan got down to business. “Colly set some files on our desks before she left last evening; but I seem to have the ones you’ll need and you’ll probably have mine.”
“Thanks,” Brietta said, taking the files from Sloan’s hoof. “I’ll check the ones in my office and get right back to you.” She set off briskly down the hall while Conrad and Aiden went into Aiden’s office to continue the discussion that had occupied them since breakfast.
Brietta had no sooner gotten the errant files off her desk in hoof when she heard Dorian’s exuberant entrance into the building. “Good morning, Colly... Sloan. Is Brie in? Thanks!” She heard his hooffall advancing her way.
Coming through her doorway with no hesitation, he quickly stepped across the room saying cheerfully, “I have something for you, Miss Manning.”
Brietta’s startled look at his empty hooves was soon satisfied as he put his forelegs around her. “No interruptions this time.” He kissed her soundly.
A gasp from the doorway forced them apart and two guilty faces turned to see Colly and Sloan standing there. Sloan, his anger apparent, turned immediately and left. Colly, however, censure ensuing from her like spitting sparks, walked to the desk to retrieve the folders Brietta had dropped during the kiss, and with one final cutting glance at the two of them, turned abruptly and left them to themselves.
“I’m sorry...” Dorian began, although his grin did not lend much credulity to his words.
Brietta silenced him. “I’m not.” Her eyes conveyed her meaning and her lips verified it as she returned the kiss.
“You minx!” Dorian eventually said. “And here I thought all lawyers were staid.”
“Look who’s talking.”
Brietta had extricated herself from Dorian’s embrace just before her father stuck his head in. “We’re waiting for you two in the conference room.”
“Oh, my!” exclaimed Brietta. “Look at the time already.” She hurriedly rustled through some papers in her desk, retrieving what she needed. “We’re on our way.” She looked up to catch her father’s critical gaze, but caught the smile that lurked around his mouth.
Brietta was on her way out when she realized Dorian was still standing by her desk. “Hurry up!” she advised, brushing her hair back with a hoof.
“How did you to that?” the stallion asked.
“You went from flirty female to laborious lawyer in the blink of an eye.”
She rolled her eyes and left him standing, but he made it to the conference immediately behind her. The available chairs sat him across the table from her, and she made it a point to avoid his face.
After the dispersal of the meeting, Brietta had a full day of appointments and was just arranging her desk at day’s end when her father came into her office.
“Ready to go home?” he asked.
“Give me a minute.”
Aiden set a note down in front of her. “Dorian asked me to give you this.”
Brietta looked up. “Why didn’t he give it to me himself?”
“He got a phone call- someone needed to see him on some urgent business.”
Opening the note, Brietta read: Brie- I’ll be tied up until late this eve, but I haven’t forgotten our fishing rendezvous. I’ll be at Whitehall Place tomorrow as planned. Dorian. P.S. Don’t forget to dig the worms.
“What was that, dear?” Aiden asked.
“Dorian and I are taking Anna’s grandfoal’s fishing tomorrow, and Dorian has the nerve to tell me to dig worms.”
“The colts will have that taken care of,” he assured her with a chuckle. “I heard about your adventure last night at the lake.”
“You didn’t read about it in the paper, I hope.” She cast a suspicious glance at the folded newspaper in his hoof.
“Your mother called today and mentioned it; I gather that little Kent gave her an all inclusive first-hoof account.”
“Yes. Three rocks erupting into three little ponies in the semi-darkness while one’s mind is... elsewhere... can be quite a distraction.”
“I couldn’t help but notice that Sloan’s mood seems to plunge when yours peaks.”
“He has Finella, Father-dear. Don’t I deserve Dorian?”
“Whether you deserve him or not isn’t the point; I think Dorian doesn’t stand a chance against your wiles if you’ve made up your mind to have him.”
Brietta smiled. “I’m glad you understand me. Let’s go home.”