Storm in the Heartland
written by Sugarberry

"Congratulations!" A cheerful group of ponies surrounded the green stallion, his mortarboard and tassel jauntily crowning his head. "You've graduated, finally!"

Buck grinned with pride and happiness. "Can you believe it?" He hugged his mom and dad and even gave a perfunctory hug to Columbine. Licorice and Tramples shook their brother's hoof, accompanying the formality with a fair share of banter.

"Willy!" Buck yelled as his buddy came up to the group with a pretty young mare at his side. "Who'd have thought you'd make it to this day!" he teased his best friend from his college years.

"I had to work harder at it is all," Willy grinned.

"Honeybee, you'll have to meet my family." Buck proceeded to introduce the waitress from Bubbling Springs to the assembled ponies, ending with, "...and this is my friend from way back in kindergarten, Columbine."

The celebration continued on the grounds of Binks University until Buck and his family with Columbine in their company made their departure, stopping first for a special dinner at one of Binksville's finest restaurants. Then began the long journey home to Birdsong.

"What do you plan on doing before you start teaching in the fall, Buck?" Columbine asked. "Are you going to help your folks at Birdsong?"

"As much as I can. But I'll be helping to set up the museum that will be opening in July; that will take most of my time." Having gone through thirteen years of school together in their home town before Buck's departure to the university, the mare and the stallion had been close friends; yet Buck denied to anyone who questioned him that their relationship was any more than that.

Columbine had other ideas. She had even approached Buck's mother about a job at the popular bed-and-breakfast establishment of Birdsong that Lilac and Trendy operated along with their extensive acreage, and Lilac had been delighted to take on such an enthusiastic and capable helper. So now, after his years away at college, Buck was returning to a situation that would keep him and Columbine together just as it had since kindergarten.

The walk home proved to Buck that Columbine had infiltrated his family's life to a striking degree. Tramples and Licorice were as comfortable with her as if she was their sister, and Lilac and Trendy included her in all their plans quite naturally. Buck foresaw some problems on the horizon but put any dissension behind him for the time being. On this day, his graduation day, he was not going to let anything get him down.

* * *

Springtime at Birdsong was always beautiful, and Buck reveled in the splendor not only of nature's pallet of color and form, but also in the sheer freedom that he felt in launching a new phase of his life. In the fall he would be teaching classes at the same high school that he had once attended as a student; he looked forward to the start of his career. In the meantime, his days were spent doing field work and chores at Birdsong and in unpacking and organizing museum pieces at Riverside's newly endowed Window on the Past.

"I never get to see Buck even with him being back home," Columbine had complained to Lilac as the two of them were preparing lunch for a full house of guests. The balmy weather had brought an influx of vacationers after the bitter cold winter.

"He likes to keep busy," Lilac had responded to Columbine's grievance. She had to tread a fine line to respect Buck's reserve and yet humor this young mare who had become a valuable asset to the bed-and-breakfast enterprise. "And he's enjoying being out of school; he'll settle down after a while."

The only time that their workday schedules overlapped was the supper hour, and then Columbine was busy in the kitchen or serving in the dining room. The Birdsong stallions ate their supper separately from the guests in an alcove off the kitchen area and were out for chores while Lilac and Columbine ate their own hurried meal and slaved over the dishes. As Buck, Trendy, and Licorice usually dawdled over the barn work (they found it an excellent time to talk amongst themselves), Columbine was gone home before they were finished for they day.

Mondays were the exception. The museum curator, Whirlybird, had declared Monday to be her day off, and no work was allowed without her cautious supervision. This news was music to Columbine's ears; she would have one day out of the week in which to spend some time with Buck. She was disappointed, however, when she arrived for work on Monday morning to find that he was already helping in the fields.

Before lunch, Columbine had made her daily trip to the mailbox; and in her dedicated way, she sorted through the envelopes, grouping them by recipient's name. One letter addressed to Buck caught her attention; it had no return address, but the hoofwriting had a definite feminine flourish to it that caused her to feel a twinge of jealousy. Entering Birdsong through the front door, she was surprised to meet Buck coming through from the back of the house.


"Hi, Columbine."

"Are you in for lunch?"

"Yes, and Mom said the window in the sitting room was stuck again."

Columbine remembered the mail in her hoof. "You have a letter." She handed him the piece of correspondence and watched his face as he looked at the hoofwriting.

Buck accepted the letter in all innocence; but on seeing the fancy makeup of the address scribed so freely, he had the odd feeling that he should recognize it. He stared at it trying to remember; suddenly it hit him. Back in Binksville, he had seen this hoofwriting at the museum often enough; one of the volunteers had this very unique style of writing-- the volunteer who had deceived him into laying bare his heart only to have in brazenly crushed... Garnet. He was so lost in thought that he was visibly startled when he realized that Columbine was still standing there, scrutinizing him.

"Is it important?" she asked, sensing some of the feelings running through Buck and fearing competition.

With eyes that looked not so much at her as through her, Buck replied, "No... not important." But he took the letter with him and disappeared to his room, setting off a bevy of speculation on Columbine's part.

* * *

Closing the door behind him, Buck sat at his desk, Garnet the only thing on his mind. He could see the dark red filly with her soft curls and her violet eyes as clearly as if he had shared lunch with her only yesterday. She had chattered with him and shared her sandwich and made him feel somehow special. But then the image changed, and he saw again the cold, calculating glare from her eyes as she duped him into taking the fall for her own misdemeanor. It was like she was two different ponies; which one had written this letter?

It was several minutes before Buck dared to open it. "Dear Buck," it began. "You will have graduated, and I wanted to congratulate you. I never have stayed in one place long enough to get an education; I'm envious of you because of your diploma as well as for that beautiful home you told me about, Birdsong.

"I'm sorry for what I did to you at the museum, but I was sure you wouldn't be blamed for long. Maybe someday my path will cross with yours again. I'd like to see your Birdsong. When that day comes, I hope we'll still be friends. Yours truly, Garnet."

Would she dare to come here? Buck asked himself. She was still wanted in connection with the theft that had occurred back at the Binksville Museum. She couldn't just waltz in and expect to be welcomed, not with what she had done hanging over them.

Buck remembered that he was supposed to be fixing the window, and he placed the letter in a desk drawer; he returned to the parlor and was just finishing up when Columbine came looking for him. "Lunch is on, Buck."

"Okay. I'm done here." He demonstrated how well the window now opened.

"Great! And just smell those lilacs!" She walked to the window and breathed deeply of the purple flowers that were blooming in profusion.

"They've always been Mom's favorites."

"I should think so," Columbine glibly replied. "Her name isn't Lilac for nothing!"

"So one should be able to assume that your favorite flower is a columbine, and yet you always say that sunflowers are."

"Sunflowers are such happy flowers!" They were nearing the kitchen where lunch was being served. "Your mom let me plant a row of them along the barn; they should be sprouting any day now."

"If the cats didn't dig them out already."

"What are you blaming the cats for now?" asked Tramples, already at the table.

"Buck thinks they'll dig out my sunflower seeds. They won't, will they?"

"Not all of them, anyway," grinned Licorice. Columbine shot him a pouty look before returning to the dining room to check on the guests.

"Are we going to the movie tonight or tomorrow night?" asked Tramples.

"Tonight would probably work out better; we'll be working in the back field tomorrow and won't get finished as quickly."

"Tonight it is then," Licorice settled the question.

Overhearing their conversation, Lilac took Buck aside as the stallions finished up and prepared to head back to work. "You should invite Columbine to go to the movie with you, Buck. You haven't spent any time with her since you got home."

"You're right, of course, Mother. Will you ask her for me?" he grinned. "You heard Dad say we weren't to dawdle."

"You can spare a minute to speak with Columbine," Lilac clucked. "Your Dad always says I'm the boss around here anyway."

"Yes, Mother."

Buck waited for Columbine to make another appearance in the kitchen and surprised her with his invitation. Her face lit up and she readily accepted. As Buck hurried to catch up to his father and brothers, he could not help but think about Columbine's comment on happy sunflowers and the similarity of her constantly cheerful disposition to those favorite blossoms. An unbidden thought quickly followed: Garnet, on the other hoof, reminded him of a rich, red rose, deeply mysterious.

* * *

"Did you enjoy the movie?" Lilac asked her assistant the next morning when she arrived for work.

"It was okay." She stood looking somewhat forlorn.

"Is there a problem, Columbine?"

"I was just wondering... have you noticed that Buck seems preoccupied?"

"No, I can't say that I have. Why do you ask?"

Columbine shrugged her shoulders. "He seems distant, like there's something on his mind; that's all."

* * *

The field work was nearing completion by the end of the week, and Tramples was busy finishing up a section of planting in an outlying patch far from the homestead late in the day. He had covered the last seeds, and stood to survey his work with a satisfied grunt of satisfaction when a motion in the adjoining pasture caught his eye. He looked in disbelief at what he saw.

The filly from the next farm over was scurrying across the grassy plot of meadow, her light pink body distinctly visible against the green grass, her yellow mane curling softly around her face. Tramples had secretly admired this vision of loveliness from afar when he had been in school, but he was too shy to even consider that she would ever look at him, let alone talk with him, so he had never made an effort to get to know her better. During this past year since his graduation from high school, he had rarely seen her; it struck him that she would be graduating this year and going off to college.

Years ago, when they had been foals, Lilac had occasionally invited the family over for Sunday dinner; Hollyhock had been a skinny little thing with a splattering of freckles and eyes too big for her face and a wrinkly nose. They had played hide-and-go-seek and tag and sought out the new kittens in the haymow. But for some reason, the two families had drifted apart as the foals had grown older. And in growing older, Tramples had grown more timid where fillies were concerned, especially around the neighbor who had grown to be a very lovely young mare.

Now, however, this particular filly was coming in his direction; Tramples walked to the fence to meet her. She was carrying a note pad and a pencil, and Tramples noticed that she looked rather distraught. "Tramples! Am I glad to see you!" she gasped as if she had been hurrying for some distance.

"What's wrong?"

"I was sketching back in the woods," her hoof waved to the trees behind her, "when I heard something moving in the bushes. I was so scared that I took off running and would be running yet if I hadn't seen you over here. I don't know what it was." She looked behind her as if expecting to see some horrid creature in pursuit.

"There's nothing in the woods that would hurt you," Tramples said. He had spent his life studying all sorts of animals and found all of them endearing.

"But it sounded so big and mean!" Hollyhock asserted, then looked sheepish. "You're right. I was just letting my imagination run away with me."

"The woods can be awfully quiet when you're there alone," Tramples comforted her. "Whatever was in the woods wouldn't have gone crashing through the underbrush unless it was spooked, so it was probably frightened when it spotted you."

"Do you think so?" questioned Hollyhock, her dread beginning to melt away. "I didn't mean to wander so far from home; but the flowers are so wonderful that I kept going just a little further to see what was over the next rise or behind the next tree that I ended up all the way over here on your dad's land."

"You said you were drawing."

"Yes. I like to sketch the flowers in their natural setting." She showed him the incomplete draft on the pad she carried.

Tramples looked at the drawing and recognized a bunch of violets with a moss-covered rock for a backdrop. "That's really pretty."

"Thanks. I like nothing better than to sit in nature and record all the beautiful hidden things." She stopped and blushed, as if she was sharing thoughts too secret.

"I like to watch the animals," confided Tramples, "but I can't draw them."

"Maybe you never tried," Hollyhock smiled, but then frowned deeply. "I must have left my pencil case back by the violets; I left in such a hurry." She looked back the way she had come with a return of apprehension in her eyes.

"I could walk back with you," Tramples offered, clambering over the fence to prove his sincerity.

"Would you, Tramples? I wouldn't expect you to help me out, but all my drawing equipment is in that box, and I'd be lost without it."

"No problem. I was done with my work here anyway. Just show me where you entered the woods."

The two ponies had backtracked to the place where Hollyhock had been sketching and recovered the latched wooden box that held her treasures. "Could you wait a minute while I put the finishing touches on my drawing?"

"Sure." While Hollyhock worked on the picture, Tramples explored through the bushes in the area. He grinned when he came across what he had expected to find and very quietly went back to Hollyhock.

"I'm finished," she said, a trace of anxiety slipping away as she saw him return.

"I found what frightened you."

"What was it?" She stepped back as if expecting a wild boar to come bursting through the greenery.

"A hen turkey on her nest. If you're very quiet, you can see her through the branches."

The two went to a point where Tramples held back some dogwood branches, and Hollyhock peered through the leaves to see, after some effort, the brown mottled body of the mother bird. They withdrew as quietly has they had come.

"If she was keeping her nest secret, why did she make such a racket?"

"I imagine she was coming back to the nest when she spotted you and made the ruckus to attract you away from it, making it safe for her to return."

"Well, she certainly succeeded." Hollyhock was able to smile more easily knowing for sure what had frightened her earlier. "Now I only feel foolish."

"There's no reason to." Tramples looked at the vision before him and suddenly lost all the courage that had been supporting him. "I... I guess I should get back."

"I was hoping you'd walk me part way home, at least," Hollyhock confessed. "I'm not sure of the best route to get back. I sort of meandered my way here."

"I can do that." The words rushed out, and now it was Tramples' turn to blush. "I'll take you to the hill that overlooks your place."

As the two walked together, Hollyhock talked about her search for flowers; when she mentioned her desire to find a yellow lady's-slipper to draw as a surprise for her mother and explained that her mom had not seen one of these flowers since she was a filly herself, Tramples was pleased to tell her that he knew where one grew. "It's on the far side of Birdsong, on a hillside covered with trees."

"Could you show me?"

"Sure. How about tomorrow?" Tramples said the words before he realized what he was doing.

"That would be perfect! I'm always out sketching on Sunday afternoon, so Mom won't be suspicious."

"Okay. So do you want to come by about one o'clock?"

"I'll have to help Mom with the dishes, so let's say one-thirty."

They had reached the top of the hill that overlooked the valley that encompassed Hollyhock's home. Tramples saw her safely on her way for the short distance still to go and watched her until she was safely on the front porch; from there, she turned to look back, and finding Tramples still standing there, waved in his direction before entering the house.

Tramples ran the distance home in sheer exuberance. He found his brothers by the barn and could not contain his good news. "I didn't take her home by the most direct route," he confided. "I was afraid I'd never have another chance to talk to her."

* * *

Hollyhock's visit mushroomed into a family affair; as soon as the brothers were in for supper and Lilac heard of Tramples chance encounter and the planned meeting for the next day, she began some planning of her own. "We haven't had Shamrock and Bonanza over since you boys were foals. Once we got busy with the bed and breakfast, we didn't take the time to stay in touch. Of course, Shamrock was busy with those twins-- they were a hoof-full. But they're older now." Lilac stood pondering the situation. "I'll call Shamrock as soon as dishes are done to invite them over for a Sunday dinner; all our guests are going in to Riverside tomorrow, so we'll be free."

Columbine came through with an empty platter and coffee pot. "Everyone says the food was excellent, Lilac. I'll refill the coffee; everyone wants dessert."

As Lilac scuttled off to help Columbine, the stallions could hear the conversation continue. "... six of them-- they have the four children, you know. And Columbine, why don't you join us even if it is your day off."

"I'd be glad to help."

"Not to help, dear. You'd be company, too."

Columbine looked across the room where Buck sat; he was busy talking to Licorice about some computer game, but he caught her glance and smiled. So did he hear that I'm coming as a guest tomorrow and is pleased? But she had no time to wonder as Lilac handed her the tray laden with hefty wedges of peach pie; Columbine took her load to the dining room and dispensed the food with a happy face.

* * *

Dinner went well, and in the aftermath, the adults made themselves comfortable in the sitting room while the younger ponies took off for the great outdoors. Tramples and Hollyhock headed straight for the elusive flower that Hollyhock wanted to sketch for her mother, and the rest trooped along in the manner of bothersome shadows. Besides Buck and Columbine and Licorice there was a colt about Licorice's age, Tie Dye, and the two younger twins, Calypso and Cameo.

The group followed the downhill path toward the river until Tramples veered off into the trees and led them to a sheltered glade where the lady's-slipper grew. "These are in the orchid family and are very rare," Hollyhock instructed the others. "The Native Ponies called it the moccasin flower because of its shape." She looked at the yellow blossom as if in the presence of the sublime.

Calypso and Cameo were not inclined to look at a flower for too long, so all except Hollyhock and Tramples (she to draw the flower in its natural setting, he to "protect you from any renegade turkeys in the area") doubled back to the path and continued on to the river. The temperatures had been abnormally warm for this early in the season, and the ponies were drawn to the water like flies to honey.

Licorice, Tie Dye, and Calypso were soon in the deepest part of the river while Buck stayed closer to shore with Columbine and Cameo who were satisfied with merely wading at the water's edge. Silver minnows darted around their legs, crawdads scuttled backwards to the shelter of rocks, and tadpoles moved their fat, black bodies with their long tails. Bank swallows flew in their swift arcs capturing insects for lunch.

As the two girls got off on their own topic of conversation, Buck retreated to the river bank and lounged on the soft grass and allowed his thoughts to wander under the influence of the mellowing sunshine. He was only partially aware of Licorice, Calypso, and Tie Dye moving closer to the shoreline to harass the girls, dousing them with sheets of water. Ganging up on Columbine with their splashing, they had forced her out in the deeper water; they were all enjoying the sport until, suddenly, Columbine took a step backward and disappeared under the surface of the water.

Before Licorice or Tie Dye could react, Buck was off the bank and to the spot where Columbine had submerged; and as she came spluttering to the surface, he supported her and guided her to the river's edge. The unexpected dousing had taken her breath and her vision away, and it was awhile before she could talk again. "You two are going to get it for this!" she spat as she regained control, pulling herself away from the stallion with an angry jerk. Looking up, however, she saw who it was who had rescued her, and lowered her eyes in dismay.

"We're sorry," Licorice spoke for the three jesters. "We didn't know there was a drop-off there."

"That's a good reason not to torment someone in the water," Buck advised. "Are you okay, Columbine?"

"Yes," she stated in an abbreviated manner not like herself at all, feeling terrible that she had upbraided the one stallion she craved the affection of. She brushed the wet hair off her face and sat sulking.

"Don't worry, Columbine. I'll tell Mom and Dad what they did, and they'll be in big trouble!" Cameo assured her.

"No, that's not necessary," Columbine quickly stated. "No harm was done."

"She'll dry out soon enough," Tie Dye observed. "The sun is still hot." He and Calypso and Licorice moved back to the deeper water, and Cameo, with a pat of Columbine's hoof, set herself the task of catching a minnow. Buck sat down again farther up the bank.

"I'm sorry for being short with you after you'd pulled me out," Columbine said, turning her head briefly to see if Buck was watching her. But she found that he was staring off into space, seeing something completely out of her scope.

"No problem," was all he said.

* * *

The following day was Monday again. All the guests had checked out after breakfast and Columbine had spent the morning stripping beds, cleaning bathrooms, and vacuuming bedrooms. She had just entered one of the turreted bedrooms, carrying a foreleg full of clean bedding, when she caught sight of Buck from the turret windows; he was weeding and cultivating the flower beds in the front lawn, and Columbine stopped her chores just to stand and watch.

We've gone through kindergarten, grade school, and high school together, plus four years of separation while he was in college, she mused, and I still don't know what his feelings for me are, if he has any feelings for me. As she continued to feel sorry for herself, another pony entered the picture from Columbine's viewpoint from the second floor of Birdsong.

Coming through the front gate was a pony Columbine had never seen before; she knew that no guests were expected today, so she wondered what business this rather gorgeous filly had in mind. Buck's back was to the gate, so he had not seen the new arrival; but the mare went straight to him and obviously said something that Columbine couldn't hear even through the open window for Buck twirled around and "seemed pleasantly surprised" noted Columbine to Lilac later.

Columbine stepped back deeper into the room so as not to be caught eavesdropping, but she could not bring herself to abdicate her position totally. She continued to watch the scenario play out below her.

* * *

Buck was busy in the flowerbeds, one of the chores that his mother insisted not be neglected even when other work might seem more urgent. "One of the first things the guests see are our flowers," she loved to say, "and first impressions are often the most important." So with his usual conscientiousness, Buck was making sure that no fault could be found with the plots he was responsible for. It was a shock, therefore, when his concentration was broken by the sound of a feminine voice behind him. "Hi, Buck."

Turning swiftly, he found an unexpected sight. He could not contain the smile that spread across his face as he stood to face her. "Garnet!"

"Aren't you going to welcome me to Birdsong?"

By this time, Buck had regained his composure, and he remembered the circumstances of their last meeting. The smile faded and he asked, "What became of the jewelry from the museum?"

"Well, just my luck, my buyer wasn't pleased with the lot when I showed it to him; he said I'd misrepresented its worth. So I took it back to Sundial, and you know him. Once he had the stuff back, he dropped all the charges against me."

Buck could imagine that happening as the museum curator had been at the beck and call of Garnet from the first moment he had met her. If Buck had been honest, he could have said the same about himself. For now, he simply accepted Garnet's word and invited her into the house. "It must be getting close to lunchtime. Can you stay?"

"I'd be delighted!"

* * *

Columbine abandoned her idea of finishing the bedroom before lunch, and reported to Lilac in the kitchen well ahead of Buck and Garnet. The two could be heard talking and laughing long before they came through from the front of the house to the kitchen where Lilac was preparing a salad and Columbine was setting the table. After introducing his mother to Garnet, he included Columbine with a cool, "This is Columbine; she's a big help to Mom here at Birdsong."

It wasn't long before Trendy, Licorice, and Tramples were in for the midday meal, and everyone sat around the kitchen table in an informal family setting although Columbine kept her place as "help". She had no appetite under the present conditions, so she made herself useful in serving and tidying kitchen counters that had no need of cleaning. She cleared the table and served the ice cream and cookies, poured coffee and milk, and kept a close eye on Buck.

Buck, in turn, kept a close eye on Garnet. She was even prettier than he remembered her to be, but of course he remembered their last confrontation when her face had been cold and ruthless and her attitude one of complete contempt. Now she was at her best: warm and friendly, soft-spoken and thoughtful. She responded to Lilac and Trendy's questions with all the right answers and included Licorice and Tramples and Buck in her talk of happenings around Ponyland. The entire family was impressed with this creature who reigned over their table like a visiting princess.

All except Columbine. She kept a gracious smile on her face, but her heart was on fire with jealousy and an unexplainable wariness that clouded her judgement. The only thing she knew for sure is that she would be very glad when Garnet's visit came to an end.

* * *

The dishes were done. Buck and Garnet, of course, had disappeared immediately after lunch; Buck had promised her a full tour of the house. "No one would expect a princess to wash dishes," muttered Columbine under her breath as she put the plates away in the cupboard.

"What was that, Columbine?" Lilac asked.

"I was just reminding myself of the work I have to finish in the red rose bedroom," Columbine covered.

"It won't be long and we'll be getting that one ready for a special couple that met here at Birdsong; they'll be spending their honeymoon with us."

"How romantic," Columbine said, adding to herself, How come there's no romance in this house where I'm involved? She was becoming irritable.

"Yes. Vanguard and Sugarberry were both here to enjoy our tranquil atmosphere and ended up in the middle of that awful flood we had a couple of years back."

"And they fell in love through that?"

"Sometimes you see the best in a pony through adversity," Lilac philosophized.

Columbine went grumbling back to her work.

* * *

Buck was showing Garnet the view from the red rose bedroom turret windows when Columbine clattered in. "Oh!" she said upon finding the two there.

"Are you looking for something?" Buck asked, a look of displeasure on his face.

"The bed needs making up, but I can come back later." Columbine put her emphasis on the "later" and shot a catty glance at Garnet.

"No, you can continue." Buck sounded like the master directing the servant.

When they were gone from the room, Columbine dropped a little curtsy and stuck out her tongue.

* * *

By the time Columbine had finished with all the upstairs rooms and reported to Lilac who was dusting the parlor, she had put her spite under wraps. "Is Garnet gone?" she asked innocently.

"She and Buck went into town; Garnet's going to spend the night, so Buck wanted to show her a good time in Riverside. They'll be dining at The Wharf."

"That's nice," Columbine said, but did not mean it.

"And Columbine," Lilac continued, "I've been wanting to clean out the attic for years now, but never get any farther than the first pile of boxes. We're only going to have one guest for the middle of this week, so I thought it would be a good time to tackle it again. I know it's not part of your job, but I was wondering if you would be willing to help me."

The days had been hot and the attic would be stifling, but Columbine wanted to drown her sorrows in work-- hard work that would take her mind off her own problems-- so she said, "Yes."

* * *

"Timber called today," Columbine's mother told her when she got home.

"What did he want?" Timber was an acquaintance from her time spent working at the local farm supply store.

"He didn't confide in me, dear. He wanted to talk to you."

"So is he going to call back?"

"Yes. He said he would." Dust Bunny had no sooner spoken the words when the phone rang.

"Hello." Columbine tried to sound cheerful, but fell flat.

"Tough day?"

"You could say that. Mom said you called earlier."

"I got a bonus from some extra hours I put in, so I thought I'd put it to good use. How about you and me eating at that ritzy joint down by the river tonight?"

"The Wharf?" Columbine could not believe her good luck. She had been scheming on the way home how she could manage to sneak into the place just to spy on Buck and Garnet. And now the opportunity had been presented to her on a silver platter with no need for subterfuge. "I'd love it!" Columbine squealed and ignored the duplicity that was not entirely fair to Timber and his hard-earned jangles; but she managed to squelch her conscience.

* * *

Timber and Columbine were seated before she caught sight of Buck and Garnet at a table across the room; she had mixed feelings as to whether or not she would have preferred sitting at a table directly next to theirs; but the place was crowded, and there would have been no choice in the matter anyway. Timber had been talking nonstop since he had picked Columbine up, so she felt no need to contribute to the conversation with anything profound. She nodded at the right times, smiled winningly at other times, and kept one eye on Buck at all times. Timber did not seem to notice any problem.

If Columbine had hoped to provoke some jealousy in Buck, she was to be sadly thwarted. Buck's attention never strayed from the dark red filly at his side. Garnet herself never seemed to look far from her escort, but Columbine imagined that every move she made was somehow directed at Columbine in an effort to confound her: the gentle touch to Buck's hoof, the toast of their drink, the sound of Garnet's laughter all seared her with an almost physical pain. And yet Columbine continued to respond to Timber's never-ending talk so that he, at least, got his money's worth from this extravagant meal. And Buck was none the wiser.

* * *

For the first time since she had begun working for Lilac at Birdsong, Columbine showed up late for work. She had left home in plenty of time, but the humid weather had dulled her energy, and she had loitered on the path while feeling sorry for herself, dropping pebbles into a little stream that gurgled its way down the hillside. She was soon to be twenty-three years old, and what had she done with her life? "Nothing!" she shouted at the blameless brook. For the first time since she had begun working for Lilac, she entered Birdsong without a smile on her face.

Breakfast was in progress, so Columbine quietly went upstairs to check on the one room that would be receiving a guest today; on the way she snippily stuck her head in the room that Garnet had stayed in and found the bedding in disarray and the accompanying bath in a similar state of confusion. She left everything a mess so I'd have to waste time cleaning up after her, she hissed. She closed the door on the clutter and continued to her original destination. Seeing that the vase on the desk of the soon to be occupied room was devoid of flowers, she sulked back outside to cut a bouquet. She was at the side garden around the corner of the house when she heard voices out front, and looking up, she saw Buck and Garnet walking down the path to the gate.

The two stopped by a peony bush, its rich, red blossoms hanging heavy in lush extravagance. Buck picked one of the beauties and offered it to Garnet with a kiss. Columbine dropped her gaze as if she had been struck; when she looked again the two were gone down the path away from Birdsong.

"Columbine!" Lilac's voice rang out from the back porch. "I was worried about you; I didn't know you had arrived."

"Just getting flowers for the daffodil room," Columbine answered, and dropped her head to her task before Lilac could see the tears wash her cheeks.

* * *

When chores were done and Birdsong was settled for the night, Buck put a call through to his friend, Willy, who was working with the restoration of a Victorian mansion in Bubbling Springs. "How's Honeybee?" asked Buck, knowing that the waitress at the local ice cream parlor had been a major draw for determining Willy's place of employment.

"She's great! And before you say another word, Honeybee and I are engaged."

"You're what?"

"We're going to get married this fall."

"Wow! I'm impressed. Congratulations!"

"And how is your life going?"

"You'll never guess who visited Birdsong."

"Blue Pearl and Burgundy Lace have been talking about it."

"That wasn't a guess, but I'll tell you anyway... Garnet!'

"Garnet? Did you notify the Binksville police?"

"I didn't have to; she told me that she'd turned the jewelry back over to Sundial."

Willy was silent for a few moments. "When was she there?"

"She came yesterday and left this morning. I walked her in to our new museum in Riverside, and she left from there on her way to the Flatlands. Why do you ask?"

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Buck, but I was in Binksville this morning for supplies and I stopped at the museum to talk to Sundial; he was still harping on the loss of the jewelry and the fact that the police hadn't recovered any of it yet."

Now it was Buck's turn to be silent. "She lied to me."

"I'm afraid so, buddy."

"I was so happy to see her, I never doubted her for a second... wishful thinking on my part."

"You might want to notify Chief Bastion about her whereabouts; it might give them a lead."

"I suppose your right. I guess I should have known that she couldn't be honest, but she seemed so sincere."

"Not to mention she's awfully pretty."

"Yeah... that too. But I'm glad to hear your good news, Willy. Give my best wishes to Honeybee until I can do it myself."

After Buck hung up the receiver, he looked back over Garnet's visit and tried to recall every word she said. How much was truth and how much had just been a story? He realized that he had no way of knowing where her reality began or ended; she was an actress who played whatever part was necessary to get what she wanted. And what had she wanted from him this time? " Probably a place to hide out for a night," he whispered, and hated himself for being so gullible. He stalked out of the house to find a quiet place to think.

There was not much relief in the dusky night. The air was still hot and humid and no breeze was present to offer any cooling comfort. Buck paced around the lawn until one of the barn cats found him and tangled himself around the stallion's legs. Buck gave up the fight and dropped to the ground, petting the cat's soft fur.

Garnet had lied. That was the one fact that was obvious. Buck realized that he could never trust her again. He envied Willy; from the time that Willy and Honeybee had met, they had known theirs to be a special friendship and now, after only a few months, they were preparing to commit for life. And then there was Columbine; it was only now that Buck saw value in the stability of their relationship.

Thinking of Columbine's up-beat outlook on life finally brought a smile to his face. He jumped up to check on the sunflowers she had planted by the barn; even in the lowering light, he could see that the seeds had sprouted and were sending forth the sturdy leaves of growth. They would grow tall and blossom forth with their "happy faces" as Columbine saw them. It was then that Buck recalled the last time he had seen Columbine's face. Are you looking for something? he had asked aloofly. You can continue. There had been no happiness visible then.

* * *

Wednesday brought more of the same heat and humidity that hung like a suffocating veil over the land. Lilac complained to Trendy about the weather. "It's way too hot to work in the attic, so we're losing this slow time to get that job done. And Buck and Columbine sulk around like they've lost their best friends, but neither one will talk to me. Thank goodness our one and only guest is here just to avoid interruptions in his work; Challenger has plenty of privacy to get lots done."

"There's lightning to the west," Trendy commented.

"Let's hope it breaks this hot spell," Lilac declared.

* * *

The savagery of the wind buffeted Birdsong, and rain tore at the western wall like pellets of iron. Lightning flashed so near that the thunder's intensity nearly stopped Lilac's breathing. "Trendy!" she whispered. "Are you awake?" She shook her husband's shoulder.

"Yes, dear," he groggily answered, rolling over and sitting up. "Quite a storm, isn't it?"

"I don't like it," Lilac fretted. "It's too intense."

Trendy sat listening to the roar of sound and suddenly jumped out of bed, pulling Lilac after him. "We've got to get to the basement! Wake up the boys while I get Challenger."

They ran their separate ways; Lilac found that the boys were already on their way down from the upper floor, soon followed by Trendy and Challenger. The ponies scampered for the basement stairs and plunged down them to the specially reinforced room for such emergencies just as pandemonium broke loose and the dreadful sound of wooden timbers shattering rent the air.

Lilac's petrified scream was lost on the thunderous reverberations that shook the very foundations of Birdsong. The family and Challenger huddled in the protected shelter, waiting in expectant dread for the storm to be done with them and go on its destructive way. Finally, as quickly as it had begun, silence settled over the interrupted tranquility of Birdsong. A soft sob from Lilac marked the storm's demise.

"The power's out." Tramples was the first to speak.

Trendy fumbled to open a metal case that held provisions for such urgent situations, pulling out several flashlights. "Let's see what we'll find." They set off to view the aftermath of the storm, anxious to see the results, yet frightened of the possibilities.

Coming up to the main floor, the ponies found no visible damage. "We heard the wood shattering," Lilac's voice quavered. "What happened?"

"Let's check upstairs."

Buck was shining one of the lights out the window. "There's something laying in the yard; I'd say they are sections of the roof."

The others clustered around him and directed more beams across the lawn. "It looks like a junk yard," Lilac whispered.

* * *

The first streaks of dawn showed the family the extent of the damage. The entire roof of Birdsong was gone, lying now in heaps of debris or scattered across the landscape. "You won't have to worry about cleaning out the attic," Trendy had told his wife, but Lilac was not amused.

The southwest corner of the house was the hardest hit, so beyond the roof devastation, the upstairs turret room on that corner was in the worst shape. "The red rose bedroom," mourned Lilac. "That's the room Vanguard and Sugarberry booked for their honeymoon." The windstorm (no one wanted to call it a tornado) had broken out the turret windows as well as removed some of the ceiling, so the room had also gotten a fair share of rain damage. Lilac was heartbroken over the destruction, but Trendy reminded her that the house could be fixed. No one had been hurt, and that, he ended, "...was the main thing."

Daylight also brought friends and neighbors who were willing to pitch in to begin the job of clean-up. Challenger had been able to use his cell phone to contact the electric company, so the crew was on the scene at first light. Telephone service was restored by mid-morning. Bonanza and Tie Dye and Hollyhock had come across the back way to offer their services. "Shamrock and the twins have a few branches and boards to clean up, but we'd heard you might need some help here, and Shamrock sent us on over," Bonanza explained.

Creampuff and Jingle and their family from the valley came as well. "You were quick to offer us a place to stay when the flood took over our home; the least we can do is return the favor," Creampuff said as she hugged Lilac. And that turned out to be the general consensus as more and more neighbors showed up. Everyone was willing to help out a friend in need.

Licorice, Tramples, and Buck had followed the path of destruction in a reverse course of the storm itself. They found that the twister had moved up the wooded hillside ravishing the trees; but fortunately the funnel had lifted as it neared Birdsong-- not enough to avoid it completely, but at least to spare it even more severe damage.

When the brothers returned from their explorations, Trendy set them to work clearing out a path to the barn after which they fed and watered the animals. All the cats were found to be safely harbored in the barn as well. "Even Stripes was a little bewildered by the wild night, but he came out of hiding once he smelled food," Tramples told Hollyhock as the two of them set to work clearing roofing and branches from the yard.

Buck pulled torn shingles off the row of sunflowers that Columbine was so proud of and found that the seedlings, although bent to the ground, were not broken. "They're resilient, like Columbine," he said to the barn cat as it came to investigate what he was doing.

"Who wants to tell Mom that all her rosebushes were crushed?" asked Licorice of his brothers.

"She already knows," Buck said softly. They had congregated once more with the pack of neighbors who were digging in to the general clean-up. Trendy was heard to apologize to Challenger about the interruption in his peace and quiet.

"I couldn't work anyway," Challenger admitted. "I'm used to noise and bustle; I couldn't concentrate in all that silence." He had been pulling fallen branches into a heap at the side of the yard.

"We'll refund your jangles, of course," Trendy told him.

"I wouldn't think of it," said Challenger. "I've had a little experience with construction, and I think you could use a little help here."

"But your vacation!"

"I've learned that I don't enjoy sitting around doing paperwork. This is a hooves-on situation that I can really get into." So saying, he went back to his self-appointed duty.

Buck's emotions had been kept in check simply because of the unending amount of work keeping him busy; but as he stood to stretch his back muscles, he heard his name called and was hugged to Columbine as she came on the scene. "Oh, Buck," she cried. "I was so afraid you'd been hurt when I heard about..." Her voice broke and she buried her face in his shoulder.

Buck did not have a choice but to reciprocate the hug; he felt Columbine's warm tears against his body, and tears of his own came unbidden. He lowered his head to hide his face in her mane.

When Columbine pulled away, she expressed her worries. "I didn't know anything had happened until this morning when Mom was listening to the news on the radio. They said Birdsong was the hardest hit." She stopped to fight back her anguish.

"Everyone's okay," Buck assured her. Everyone except Birdsong, he thought to himself as he and Columbine looked up at the ravished roofline of the house. Both turret roofs were gone as well as the roof over the main house; the roof covering the original servant's quarters where the family's private rooms were now located had lost all but the rafters.

Columbine saw the gash in the turret that encompassed the red rose room, and gasped. "The bedroom must be a mess! And your mother's stuff in the attic... where is everything?"

Buck waved a foreleg. "All across the county."

"I've got to go see her," Columbine said and left Buck to locate Lilac.

The work continued. The ponies who had some experience in building assessed the damage and calculated a list of materials necessary to bring the house back into shape. The mood was at first subdued, yet the durability of the ponies was evident in the talking and laughter that soon enveloped the workers. Challenger proved to be an able overseer who was also not afraid of hard work, and he had everyone assigned to constructive endeavors.

Buck saw little of Columbine throughout the day, but whenever he caught a glimpse of her she was busy hauling branches or splintered lumber. When Lilac, Creampuff, and Shamrock along with other neighbors set out a lunch for the ponies, Columbine was helping them. While the crew sat and rested after eating, Columbine was packing leftovers back to the house; Buck noted that she would help his mother with the dishes. Yet he later saw that she was back in the troops doing manual labor.

Night was falling before everyone, having made the most of the daylight hours, called it quits. Tarps were in place over the exposed sections of the roof in case more rain presented itself during the night. Buck had not noticed Columbine among the workers as they dissembled and assumed that she had finally reached her limit. He was surprised, therefore, to see Tramples, Licorice, and Columbine coming from the barn through the dusky evening. "I thought you'd gone home," he said to her rather grumpily, knowing she had worked as hard as any of them all day long.

Tramples came to her defense. "She wanted to help us with chores. She's great with the animals." He shot her a grin of appreciation.

"Come in to eat!" Lilac called from the back door to family and friends. "You'll all drop in your tracks the way you've been going at it." She came down the steps to where Columbine and the brothers stood. "You look exhausted, dear," she said to the young mare. "You'd better come sit down."

Columbine smiled a pale smile. "I'm fine." With that said, she swayed slightly on her hooves, closed her eyes, and collapsed.

Buck caught her up into his forelegs and growled, "Serves her right for pushing herself all day; she served the food, but I'll bet she didn't eat any herself." For all his bluntness, Lilac was quick to note the look of concern on his face.

"Bring her around to the front so you don't have to carry her through the crowded kitchen," she directed her son. "Put her on the sofa. I'll get some cold water."

"Columbine, wake up!" Buck commanded as he knelt at her limp side. He patted her cheek and brushed the hair off her forehead, but to no avail. They eyes remained closed. It was not until Lilac returned with a cold washcloth and laid it across her forehead that the filly responded.

"Wh... where am I?" she stuttered, staring with bleary eyes about her. "What happened?"

If her consciousness realized the hovering body near hers was Buck or not, she soon was to find out. "You fainted because you drove yourself too hard today, you silly goose!" the stallion scolded, relief at her revival rushing over him but surfacing as anger.

Columbine, now fully aware of her surroundings, looked thoroughly defeated at the harsh words from the one she idolized. Tears sprang from her eyes and ran unencumbered down her cheeks. Seeing her tears and knowing he had provoked them proved too much for Buck. He stood up and turned away. "Mom, you take over," he said as he brushed past Lilac and went back out into the night to sort out his feelings.

Stalking across the tattered lawn, the stallion worked off his emotions by throwing more branches in a heap at the edge of the yard until his aggrieved muscles screamed for mercy; he then threw himself down at the base of a bent and battered but still upright maple tree and dropped his head onto crossed forelegs. It was there his father found him.

"Need someone to talk to?" he asked, sitting next to his son. Buck shot him a glance, but said nothing. "Your mother put Columbine to bed here for tonight. The poor girl was exhausted."

The last part of Trendy's news set Buck off again. "Why did Columbine work so hard, Dad? She slaved right along with us all day; and then while we ate, she helped Mom serve food. When I thought she'd finally gone home to rest, she turns up helping in the barn until she's done herself in. Why?"

"She's come to care a lot about Birdsong, Buck. She really feels an affinity towards the place, just like we all do."

"Thanks for not saying it's because she cares a lot about me."

Trendy thought for awhile before answering. "You know that's part of it, Buck. She's always seen you as her best friend."

Buck stood and began pacing. "She's always been there, Dad, since that first day of kindergarten... always underhoof, always right there. I don't know where I stand where she's concerned. I've never felt myself in love with her, even though we've been paired up for every dance and party that took place. It was just the thing to do, and-- I guess-- she expected it."

"So you honestly don't love her, Buck?"

"I don't know, Dad. When she collapsed tonight because of Birdsong, I felt... I felt... I don't know. I hated seeing her so spent, so drained, when she's usually so lively. I wanted to protect her, Dad, but is that love?" He stopped for a minute and added in a subdued voice, "Earlier this week, I would have told you that I was in love with Garnet; but that was only a fantasy on my part. I don't even know who Garnet is."

"Sometimes love grows slowly, Buck, so that a pony can't recognize it for what it is. You and Columbine have always taken each other for granted; when one needed something, the other one was always there. That might be the most important thing about any relationship... to be there no matter what."

Buck looked at his dad and grimaced. "I called her a silly goose and made her cry after all she'd done today."

"So tomorrow apologize and tell her how much you appreciated her help, if you really mean it," Trendy said, then added with a grin. "Maybe you'll want to tell her more than that."

Buck was finally able to smile in return. "Thanks, Dad." He gave his father a brief hug. "I suppose we'd better go in or Mom will worry."

"Good point, son."

* * *

"I put her in the little room next to the master bedroom," Lilac informed Buck after he was cleaned-up and fed. "I gave her some soup, but she fell asleep before she could finish it."

"Could I look in on her?" Buck asked. "I feel like a jerk for making her cry."

"She'll be asleep; but come, so you know she's okay." His mother led him to the small bedroom which in its day had served as a nursery for the three brothers. Lilac had converted it to a very feminine guest room with curtains and bedding of violets among roses with lace trim and all the accessories to make it "gaudily Victorian" as her sons liked to tease her.

Lilac stood back as Buck gazed down at Columbine curled up sound asleep, one foreleg hanging over the edge of the bed like a tired foal. He knelt beside the bed and took her hoof in his and brushed a stray lock off her face. He knew that she had always given him nothing but her best-- her friendship and off-beat look at life, her playful smile, her total support. And what had he given her in return?

Seeing the rivulets where tears had washed down her work-stained face, Buck's heart was shot through with remorse once again. "I'm sorry," he whispered as he looked upon the visage now in peaceful slumber. He kissed the hoof he held and set it gently on the bed. The young mare stirred slightly, and a smile turned up the corners of her mouth as her dream crossed with reality.

Buck stood up and walked to where his mother waited. "Will she hate me for what I said to her tonight, Mom?"

Lilac shook her head and chuckled. "Stallions!"

* * *

When the house was quiet and engulfed in darkness, Lilac took one more look at Columbine before retiring for the night. Trendy was standing at the window in silence. "How long will it take to get everything back to normal?" she sighed.

"It's going to take some time," Trendy hedged.

"Sugarberry and Vanguard's wedding is so soon..."

"Lilac, there is no way we can have this place ready by then."

"But with all the help, surely things will go smoothly."

"The neighbors can't ignore their own lives. Most of them will help until we get the roof closed in; then we'll be on our own."

"If we could just get the red rose room done..."

"The ceiling was soaked with rain; there may be hidden damage that we aren't even aware of yet."

Lilac hated to admit defeat but had no choice. "I'll have to call Sugarberry then."

"Yes, and the sooner the better so she and Vanguard can make other plans." Trendy sat down next to his wife, and she leaned into his strong shoulder.

"And what about Buck and Columbine?"

Trendy took his wife's hoof in his. "Don't worry about the two of them. I'd be willing to bet that we'll be having our own wedding within the year."

* * *

Buck and his brothers came downstairs more quietly than they had ever done before, Lilac noted. Yesterday they had been driven to accomplish as much as possible in an attempt to return Birdsong to normal as soon as possible. This morning, with muscles strained and hopes considerably modified, they were in no hurry to face the job ahead of them. But breakfast could be dallied over only so long, and the stallions were soon busy with the business of cleaning up that which needed replacement.

Buck lingered long enough to ask his mother about Columbine. "She's still asleep, and nothing is better for her. Don't worry; she'll be fine," the mare answered.

Hugging his mother, Buck whispered a "Thanks, Mom" in her ear before rejoining the others.

Lilac cleaned up the kitchen and organized supplies for lunch when the helpful neighbors would again be on hand to lend their support and their strength before she checked on Columbine once more. The sleepy mare heard the click of the opening door and attempted to sit up, but her muscles rebelled at the effort and she slumped back down into the covers.

"Oh, Lilac, I hurt!" she groaned, but a smile lit her face as she prattled on. "I had the most wonderful dream last night; Buck wasn't mad at me anymore." She closed her eyes to visualize the scenario. When she looked at Lilac again, she shared the illusion. "He kissed my hoof," she said in an awed voice and cradled the so honored hoof as if to cherish the memory when she noticed the dirty condition of not only that hoof but it mate as well. "Oh my gosh, Lilac! You let me crawl into your clean bed when I was this filthy?" She ignored the pain as she swung her legs out of bed and stood upright.

Lilac laughed. "Take it slowly, girl. You were nearly dead on your hooves when you fell asleep. I wasn't about to wake you to wash-up."

Columbine frowned at her image in the lace-edged mirror and rubbed a hoof over the tearstains. Her mane was frazzled, she had smudges across her face, and smears running down her forelegs. "Luckily the mirror only showed her a limited picture," Lilac later confided to Trendy, for Columbine's entire body had accumulated a layer of dirt and grime during her hard labor yesterday.

Columbine was distressed enough by what she could see. "No wonder he had no time for me," she murmured.

Whether Lilac heard or not, she did not respond. She did, however, direct the mare to use the bathroom adjoining the master bedroom and to take all the time she wanted. "The warm water will feel good on your aches and pains; I've laid out fresh towels and shampoo for you."

"I'm keeping you from your work, Lilac; I'll hurry and help you as soon as I can." Columbine rushed for the door, but turned back suddenly. "Buck doesn't hate me, does he?"

She could only wonder why Lilac laughed and responded merely with, "Mares!"

* * *

A groomed and fed Columbine ventured out into the morning sunshine to observe the progress of the ponies busily working to restore Birdsong. Covering the grounds once, she saw no sign of Buck, but finally happened upon Licorice who directed her to the top of the house. "He's ripping out damaged wood," he stated, pointing skyward.

Columbine's gaze moved upward to the most damaged section of the house, and wondered again at the power of the storm that had lifted the roof off like a section of a child's toy. And she whispered again a prayer of thanksgiving that the twisting funnel had been near the end of its path of destruction and had lifted clear of the main support of the house.

Going upstairs, the mare was soon aware of the work in progress as busy ponies carried out their duties with energy and a fair amount of friendly conversation when the noise level allowed. She finally located Buck near the outside edge of the red rose turret, ripping nails out of the wood that needed replacement. He was concentrating on his work and did not see the mare watching him with suppressed interest.

Columbine wanted to pick her way through the exposed beams to offer her help, but feared his annoyance at her appearance. The memory of the kiss pulled her in one direction, but the ring of the words spoken in anger echoed across the chasm between them. She turned to backtrack to the kitchen and the food preparation already taking place.

She had not gone far when she heard her name called and turned back to see Buck hurrying to catch up to her. "How are you feeling?" he asked as he reached her.

"I'm a little sore, but otherwise fine." She rubbed her forelegs.

"I'm glad," he said, then clarified, "that you're fine, not that your muscles are sore." He grinned at her in so winsome a manner that her heart skipped a beat, after which the two ponies stared at one another as if they were strangers. When Buck spoke again, it was to apologize. "I'm sorry I was so gruff with you last night. You had done so much to help out, and I had no right to yell at you."

"That's okay. I am a silly goose, anyway. Everybody knows that." She cocked her head off to the side and rolled her eyes for effect.

"So you remembered my exact words, huh?"

"I'll remember them forever," she taunted. "I'll always think of myself as your silly goose."

"As long as you're mine," he responded gravely, "and no one elses." His fervent gaze reached her soul.

The conversation was interrupted as Buck's help was needed in lifting some heavy pieces of lumber. He left Columbine standing as if mesmerized, her wide eyes staring at him in astonishment. When he next got the opportunity to look her way, she had vanished. "What did I say wrong this time?" he worried.

* * *

There was no further time for Buck and Columbine to talk during the rest of that day, but after supper Buck excused himself from the evening chores so that he could walk her home. The stroll along the country paths in the waning light was taken companionably but with few words. Both were sorting out feelings that had been growing for years; it proved to be a complicated web.

Upon arriving at Columbine's home, the stallion found his voice. "Columbine, I..."

"Yes, Buck?" she asked expectantly, her eyes searching his.

"I'll see you tomorrow." A impudent grin meaning to antagonize accompanied that line.

The grin did succeed in infuriating Columbine so that she blurted out, "What did you mean this morning?"

"This morning? Why? What did I say?"

"In the remains of the attic this morning, you..."

"In the attic?" Buck stood in contemplation. "I think it was something to the effect that it was good to see you looking so rested."

Columbine was further provoked. "You said, 'As long as you're mine'. What did you mean by mine?"

"You've been like my shadow since kindergarten, Columbine."

"Oh, Buck!" She turned to go inside; she couldn't take any more of this torment.

Buck relented and caught her foreleg. "I've been teasing you, Columbine." She turned back to hear the rest. "This storm has taught me something-- namely, how much you mean to me. I've taken your friendship for granted. Now I realize that I couldn't get along without you."

Columbine wanted to believe those words with all her heart and soul, but she was unsure as to his sincerity. Was he just trying to placate her? Or was he still goading her? "Is this your idea of a joke?"

"No, it's not a joke. I'm sorry if I upset you." The look on his face belied that statement; he was enjoying her discomfort too much.

"Two apologies in one day?"

"I love you, Columbine. How can I prove that to you?"

She glared at him. How long had she waited to hear those words? But not like this, not knowing if he was taunting her. She finally responded with a challenge. "Kiss me like you mean it."

Buck returned her steady gaze for a long moment before he delivered the requested kiss. "Convinced?" he asked softly.

Columbine, catching her breath, smiled demurely. "Not quite... but I'll give you another chance."

Buck willingly complied.

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