Grayton was a large, industrial town on the eastern coast of Ponyland; and Chiffon wished she was miles away from it by the time her day was ending. She had accompanied a friend- and fellow teacher- to the big city to help her out as she displayed her line of workbooks and study aids at a home-schooling convention that had been well attended and had kept both mares very busy for the two-day run.
With a sigh of relief that she could now escape from the hotel’s convention center to the comfortable room on the sixth floor that she and Arabella shared, Chiffon made for the exit with her forelegs full of shiny, slick-covered workbooks topped by some hardcover textbooks. She had reached the connecting lobby when she heard her voice being called from behind.
“Chiffon! Chiffon!” Arabella was gasping by the time she caught up to the blue mare with spring-green hair. “Nelly wants me to take a look at her notes for that grammar book she’s writing; could you take these to our room for me?”
Without waiting for an answer, Arabella shoved the strings to a bouquet of colorful balloons into Chiffon’s hoof and stacked a variety of pens and notepads picked up from other vendors on top of the load of books already in danger of slipping out of Chiffon’s grasp.
Not having a choice, Chiffon managed an, “Okay,” while using her chin to anchor the precariously perched items.
Arabella immediately dashed away, leaving Chiffon to make her way across the crowded lobby to the elevator doors. It was a long walk, as Chiffon was sure that more than one of the hotel patrons was following her progress and snickering at the messages that appeared on the bright balloons that swayed over her head; Arabella had a rather weird sense of humor when it came to slogans for her line of life science school materials, and Chiffon felt like a walking billboard.
Gratefully arriving at the elevator bay but finding no units available, Chiffon established that it was impossible to push the “up” button with her hooves so full of material. Looking quickly from side to side to make sure she was not being observed, she resorted to using her nose to make contact. Having succeeded in this endeavor, she found two things happening simultaneously- number one: the elevator doors opened; and number two, her load of workbooks, texts, pens, and pads suddenly shifted, spilling her entire load onto the floor and at the hooves of three ponies who were about to exit the elevator.
Chagrined, Chiffon stared at the disarray of items on the floor and therefore did not notice the apple green stallion surveying the mess in his path, then looking at Chiffon in dawning recognition.
“My, my. Look who we have here,” he drawled.
The voice was not overly familiar, but Chiffon recognized it at once. She had first- and last- heard it at Sugarberry’s house on Christmas Day, and it had grated on her nerves then as it did now. She looked up to see his laughing eyes on her and was immediately set on edge with acute embarrassment.
“Tribute! I knew my problems were caused by some evil presence,” she remarked with more nerve than she was currently feeling; she bent down to begin to reclaim her load, glad to hide her blushing face.
Ignoring the rebuff, Tribute extended his hoof to the pale pink pegasus at his side and guided her over the offending clutter littering the floor.
“The hotel should be more careful with the caliber of ponies it allows to stay here,” the pegasus, Prissy, stated loudly enough for Chiffon to hear.
“From the country, I’d say,” Tribute replied. “She lacks town polish.”
Chiffon admirably restrained herself from lashing out at this infuriating stallion who had been taken in instant dislike by Chiffon when he had walked in on her while she was enjoying some quiet time on Christmas and had treated her to his presumptuous, top-lofty manner that made it quite clear that he considered himself to be a superior specimen.
The stallion had only one redeeming factor as far as Chiffon was concerned. He had a dimple that could flash across his arrogant cheek, making him almost likeable. Chiffon chose not to remember it.
The third pony in Tribute’s group was an off-white stallion with purple hair; he ignored the comments made by his friends and set about collecting the errant pencils that had scurried to the farthest reaches available to them. By the time Chiffon had reclaimed the stack of books, the stallion had rounded up the smaller items and the aberrant balloons.
Giving the balloons into her care, the stallion observed, “There. That’s the last of it.”
“Thank you for your help,” Chiffon said, glad to be able now to flee; but as she turned to access the elevator, she found closed doors blocking her escape once again. She could not contain a disappointed groan. To further her mortification, she found that the three ponies had not moved on their way but were standing watching her as if she was a very entertaining freak show.
“One with your strong determination should be able to simply will it back,” observed Tribute.
The other stallion, however, seemed more sympathetic to Chiffon’s plight. “You were going up?” he asked.
“Yes, if you would be so kind as to signal the elevator once again.” Chiffon smiled at him sweetly while nodding toward the call buttons. There was no way she was going to take a chance of losing her grasp on her stack of books again. She then gave Tribute a cold stare, but he returned it with a grin, that tantalizing dimple showing itself briefly, making Chiffon’s heart flutter.
“While we’re waiting,” said the off-white stallion, “allow me to introduce myself. I’m Putter, this is Prissy, and I believe you’ve already met Tribute.”
Chiffon smiled at Putter, nodded at the pegasus, and glared at Tribute.
“My friends and I have some business to discuss, but we would love to have you join us for dinner in the hotel’s dining room... say in one hour?” Tribute invited condescendingly, his gaze sweeping over the tangle of stuff in her forelegs as if he expected it to clatter to the floor at any second, an event that Chiffon herself was anticipating with dread.
Struggling to keep her load in tack, Chiffon responded icily. “No, thank you. I had hoped to enjoy my meal.”
To her immense relief, the doors of the elevator finally cooperated and opened to give her the chance for a face-saving departure before anything else was said. She hurried into the elevator and pushed the “close doors” button- once again with her nose- before she could be delayed further.
She made one little mistake, however. She forgot to account for the balloons. One of the disagreeable things had not quite made it into the chamber, and Chiffon did not notice until it was too late. The doors closed, trapping the balloon outside with three smirking ponies while the string was held captive in the closure. In dismay, Chiffon watched as the string slipped through the crack as the elevator began its ascent.
“Oh, no!” she wailed as the string disappeared from sight. How humiliating! She visualized how dopey- how countrified!- she must appear to Tribute and his friends; she was sure she could hear their refined laughter rippling up the elevator shaft. She wondered which advertising slogan that particular balloon was bearing and knew intuitively that it would somehow come back to haunt her.
* * *
Tribute grinned at his companions as he plucked the errant balloon from the grip of the doors. “I’ll save this for the lady,” he explained. The balloon itself was white; and in red, dripping letters, it proclaimed, I give you... my heart. These words were accompanied by a graphic- not a frilly stylized rendering of a heart but a very unromantic and educational cut-away version of that organ.
“Who was that?” asked Putter as they turned toward the lounge.
“My brother’s... friend’s... cousin,” Tribute puzzled out. “I met her at Christmastime. You know how it is at holiday gatherings- every waif, elderly spinster, and eligible bachelor is included.”
“Well, it’s easy to see where you fit into that list, but this mare is definitely not an elderly spinster nor does she appear to be a waif.”
“She lives at home with her parents and teaches third graders in a small town. She’s a spinster.”
“I still don’t know her name.”
“Chiffon... what a beautiful name,” Putter said.
“It’s highly misleading, however. She’s not soft or fragile in the least,” alleged Tribute.
Prissy stifled a snicker. Had Tribute really missed the effect he had made on the mare?
* * *
When Tribute, Putter, and Prissy moved into the dining room at the indicated hour, there was no sign of Chiffon; nor did she show up as the trio went ahead with ordering their dinner, leisurely ate it, and dallied over their after-dinner coffee. Prissy noted that both Tribute and Putter glanced toward the doors at regular intervals and found herself unaccountably peeved by that fact.
Prissy and the two stallions were all physicians at the Grayton Hospital; they had worked together for several years now and knew each other’s idiosyncracies as well as their own. As a matter of fact, Prissy and Tribute had dated for some time, ending the personal part of their relationship over a year ago when Prissy had begun to feel stifled by Tribute’s increasing interest in her. Since that time, they had continued as friends on a professional basis only, attending this seminar at the hotel together as part of their constant effort to stay on top of the latest medical techniques.
When Tribute indicated to Putter and Prissy that they could go on without him, Prissy felt somewhat abashed. She looked at Tribute closely, finding herself feeling a jealousy that she had no right to feel. Her intuition told her that he was staying behind in the hopes that Chiffon would yet make an appearance in the dining room, and she found that occurrence a trifle unsettling. But she had no hold on Tribute and could only accept Putter’s escort to her apartment.
Not unaware of Prissy’s waffling or of Chiffon’s inner torment, Tribute sat in solitary thought, nursing a refill on his coffee that the waiter had delivered to him. A motion caught his eye, and he remembered the balloon that he had salvaged from the elevator; it was still tied to an empty chair where he had placed it. Reaching out a hoof, he touched it meditatively. Then, settling back in his chair, he prepared to wait... for what, he was not sure.
* * *
Arabella and Nelly had ended up spending the majority of the evening discussing details in Nelly’s latest attempt at textbook writing, which served Chiffon well. She had dreaded facing Tribute and his friends again in the dining room- she was sure Tribute would find some way to make her look the fool anew- so when Arabella had still not returned to their hotel room at the designated time of Tribute’s invitation, Chiffon felt herself vindicated.
When Arabella did finally show up, she had Nelly with her; and Chiffon was drawn into their scholarly discussion. It was getting quite late before any of the mares remembered that they had missed their evening meal.
When the threesome entered the nearly abandoned dining room, they failed to notice Tribute still in his silent vigil in a far corner of the room. They made themselves at home and continued their critique of Nelly’s work and of every other grammar guide they had used with their students. Their discussion was often marred by raised voices as they argued a point and giddy laughter as they conceded obvious defects. Their meal was served and savored in the midst of their constant chatter.
While the mares were so pleasurably occupied, Tribute had a confidential conversation with a waiter during which a considerable amount of jangles was exchanged
From his vantage point, Tribute watched the three mares with hooded eyes. That they were new to Grayton was obvious in their free and genial manner with the waiter and their abandon in their talk as if they were isolated in their own kitchen at home. He could hear most of what was said and found it fascinating to learn the opinions and stratagems and classroom situations being discussed by these elementary school teachers, subjects far removed from his own sterile medical knowledge.
The three had just ordered dessert and were enjoying some hot coffee when Tribute made his move. Untying the balloon, he walked across to where Chiffon sat- her startled eyes registering a sort of horror when she realized his presence- and handed her the balloon with a slight bow.
“You gave me your heart... and I give you mine.” He waved his hoof, and the waiter appeared out of nowhere with an extravagantly frosted, heart-shaped confection in red and white.
Expressing their delight, Arabella and Nelly invited the stallion to join them in their delightful repast; introductions were made and friendships cemented... but not with Chiffon. She tried to put on a happy face; but she was boiling inside, knowing that Tribute had gone to all this effort merely to embarrass her. And he had attached the offending balloon to her chair where it waved in mocking disrespect.
Chiffon, unfortunately, did not have a pin on her or she would have put the balloon in its place.
Arabella and Nelly laughed as they were told the story- by Tribute, as Chiffon was not speaking to anyone at this point- of how the balloon had gotten in Tribute’s possession. By the time the tale was finished, Arabella and Nelly had taken over the conversation. The chat became nothing more than light-hearted nonsense; but Tribute, although displaying his usual aloofness, seemed to enjoy the parley with the friendly mares, even though Chiffon refused to participate beyond what was absolutely necessary to maintain a sense of propriety in front of her friends.
It was Arabella who brought the talk to a more serious venue.
“I’ve been pondering something since you revealed that you’re a physician,” the lavender mare began. “Woodlawn is in the process of procuring another doctor for the hospital there; expansion plans have been approved, you see.” She looked hopefully at Tribute.
“Actually, I’ve heard of that enterprise,” Tribute admitted. “I have a good friend, Putter...” Here the stallion looked at Chiffon, knowing full well that she had granted that stallion a higher nobility than himself because of Putter’s assistance at the elevator fiasco; and he was about to burst that bubble for her. “...who interviewed for that position and was offered the job, but he turned it down- he said that in a town like Woodlawn, a doctor couldn’t really help his patients because they all died of boredom anyway.”
Two of the three mares found that inference amusing. Arabella and Nelly twittered while Chiffon fumed. She searched her arsenal and came back at Tribute in short order.
“You Grayton doctors have it made, what with all the pollution that’s ruining the health of the residents of your gray town; I can see why you’d be hesitant in leaving such a veritable goldmine of lung problems; quite lucrative from your standpoint, I’d guess.”
Chiffon signaled to the others that she was quite ready to end this tete-a-tete, but before leaving, Arabella informed Tribute that she and Chiffon would be leaving as soon as they had breakfasted in the morning.
Tribute quickly took advantage of that piece of information. “As Prissy and Putter and I are planning to breakfast at the hotel ourselves- we have a morning seminar to attend- I’ll look forward to seeing you then. All three of you are welcome to join us.”
No was forming on Chiffon’s lips when Arabella’s voice cut across the void. “How delightful! Until tomorrow, then!”
Chiffon mentally cut Arabella from her lifetime list of friends; but Tribute smiled, revealing that treacherous dimple.
Watching the mares cross the lobby away from him, however, the dimple was replaced by a thoughtful frown; Tribute realized that he suddenly felt very alone and unaccountably downcast. He rescued the red and white balloon from its confinement and left for home.
* * *
Back in their hotel room, Arabella was aflutter over the charming and handsome Tribute while Chiffon was depressed that she would have to face that same disagreeable stallion in the morning. As Arabella had found her own special stallion while in college, had married him, and now was the mother of two young foals, she wished the same for her friend; Tribute, she had ascertained, was a worthy candidate.
“I was so hoping that as a doctor, Tribute might have expressed some interest in Woodlawn’s needs in that department,” Arabella noted as she brushed out her hair.
Chiffon sat in chair, reading a book and chose to ignore the statement.
“Imagine the coincidence of running into him in a city of this size,” Arabella continued. “It’s almost as if it were meant to be.” She looked at Chiffon pointedly but to no avail, so she continued. “He must be interested in you to wait for you in the dining room the way he did.”
That got Chiffon’s ire up. “The only reason he showed up was to further humiliate me with that dratted balloon; the stallion doesn’t have a kind bone in his body.”
“But he has a dimple, Chiffon; and you’ve always said that if you ever did meet someone, you hoped he would have dimples.”
Taking an exasperated breath, Chiffon set down her book. “The stallion is overbearing, arrogant, egotistical, and heartless. Good night.” The mare crawled into her bed and covered her head.
Arabella desisted and sat in thoughtful silence, only a slight smile negating the fact that Chiffon had won that round.
* * *
Chiffon’s hopes that Tribute had been insincere when he had extended an invitation to the mares for breakfast was dashed when she and Arabella entered the dining room the next morning, Nelly having backed out in an effort to get an earlier start for her home. All Chiffon’s arguments to Arabella that they do the same were ignored, Arabella maintaining that she was starving and would collapse en route if she did not fortify herself; and besides, she asserted, Tribute would be paying for it.
In more ways than one, if Chiffon had anything to say about it.
Their arrival was met with warm greetings from Putter, a brief acknowledgment from Prissy, and a polite good-morning from Tribute. Putter’s ministrations put Arabella next to Tribute (Prissy was on his other side) and Chiffon next to Prissy, leaving himself sandwiched between the two visitors to Grayton.
Being in no mood to be overly gracious toward any of the three local ponies, Chiffon was polite but nearly mute. Arabella frowned at her, but flashed her lovely smile to the others and began a fast-moving volley of questions as to points of interest in Grayton and the positive aspects of the booming municipality.
Putter took advantage of the dialogue between Arabella, Tribute, and Prissy to hoard Chiffon’s attention for himself.
“I’d be delighted to show you and your friend around Grayton,” he offered with a winning smile. He was willing to miss the seminar if it meant accompanying this lovely mare around the city.
As this stallion had demeaned her town, however, Chiffon was in no mood to favor him. “We’re leaving for home immediately after breakfast,” she responded with barely a glance at him. She obviously found her scrambled eggs much more interesting than a practiced flirt.
This attitude was one the stallion was not used to encountering. He took a swallow of orange juice and tried again. “The weekend’s coming up; why not change your plans and attend the theater with me tonight,” he suggested.
“That wouldn’t be possible.”
It took several bites of his own breakfast before he tried again. Third time was charm, after all. “If you let me know the next time you’re in town, I could make some plans for us.”
This, at least, got Chiffon’s attention, Putter noted, mentally complimenting himself on his success. She turned and looked at him full in the face. “As boring as my home town is, I’d never be that bored.”
Putter, not knowing which of Ponyland’s many towns harbored Chiffons’s home, could not account for this terse answer.
Tribute could and did. “Chiffon’s from Woodlawn,” he updated his friend.
Dawning crept over Putter’s face. “Woodlawn... oh, I’m sorry.” And sorrow did register itself on his face, at least for a moment, until he opened his mouth again. “Sorry for anyone who has to call Woodlawn home, that is.”
Chiffon glowered at Putter, Prissy smirked, Arabella rolled her eyes, and Tribute sat back to enjoy the scene.
“And I’m sorry that citizens of Grayton find themselves so elite that they are blinded to the real values that exist elsewhere. You, doctors, all need to have your heads examined.” That said, she got to her hooves and stalked away, giving Arabella no choice but to follow her.
“What an attitude!” declared Prissy.
Putter stared after Chiffon, astounded. “You were right, Trib; her disposition- combined with her life in a dinky little town like Woodlawn- has her doomed to spinsterhood.”
Said vindictively so that Chiffon would be sure to hear, the words hit home; but Chiffon was already so furious that she pretended deafness and kept on walking. She had never in all her life loathed a stallion more, and it was not Putter who bore the brunt of that negative feeling.
* * *
Happy to get back to the daily grind of her life in Woodlawn, Chiffon settled down to the routine in a contented state of mind- or so she tried. And she succeeded quite well, at least as far as her family and friends could see. Only a few very observant ponies noticed that there were times when Chiffon was inordinately quiet with a sad little frown on her face that spoke of some secret dilemma or unanswered dream. One of those ponies was her mother, Velvet; another was her best friend, Arabella. The third and final pony who suspected that something was not quite right was her cousin, Icon; but he was so busy with his company, H.C.I., and with his favorite mare, Splotch, that he did not take the time to sort out the matter.
It was not that Chiffon could have explained the matter to Icon if he had questioned her. She was satisfied with her life, she really was. She was fulfilled in her chosen career of teacher; she assured herself of that daily. She did not envy ponies like Arabella and Morning Dew and Sugarberry their lovely families; she enjoyed her independence. She had never... repeat, never... met a stallion with whom she could even begin to imagine living the rest of her life; there was not a stallion born who could entice her.
But at the oddest moments...
Chiffon shook her head, determined to have her students’ papers corrected before eight o’clock on this particular evening, several weeks after her visit to Grayton, so that she could begin a new novel she had picked up- an impulse purchase at the supermarket. The image of that apple green stallion with that engagingly fleeting dimple crept into her mind at the most inconvenient moments, like now, when she had set herself a deadline which she intended to keep.
Having just organized her thoughts once more to the task at hoof, Chiffon could not restrain a grimace when Velvet stuck her head through the doorway announcing, “You have a visitor in the parlor.”
By the time Chiffon regained a pleasant face and turned to her mother, the mare was already gone. Griping under her breath that a pony could get no peace even in her own home (well, allowances had to be made when one lived with one’s parents), Chiffon set down her red pen, walked down the stairs, and marched gloomily to the front living room off the foyer.
She was in the room before she caught sight of her guest. Standing by the window, peering out into the darkening night, was the apple green stallion of her flitting thoughts. Aghast, Chiffon choked, “You!” and grabbed onto the back of a chair to maintain her suddenly rubbery legs.
“It’s snowing... again,” Tribute smiled as he turned to face her, causing a further weakness as a dimple met her wondering eyes.
“And you’re no more capable to stop it now than you were in Dream Valley,” she managed to say.
“No. But I do see the value in simply watching it now. The way it sparkles in the glow of the light is quite... mesmerizing.” If the look in his eye indicated anything, he found her rather mesmerizing as well.
His words were polite, almost atoning, but Chiffon could not forget the way he had dismissed her as countrified to the pink pegasus in Grayton or her first impression of him as an overbearing blue blood.
Keeping the chair between them, Chiffon said, “I can’t imagine what you’re doing in Woodlawn.”
“Visiting a friend,” the stallion said, crossing to stand next to the mare as he explained. “Dr. Blake at the clinic and I were in school together; he always wanted me to visit him here and tour his turf.” Tribute shrugged. “Since I was passing through the area, I decided to stop in. The subject of Woodlawn has been cropping up so much in the last couple of months that I could hardly ignore it.”
Finding his nearness more than she could handle, Chiffon edged around the chair. “A friend of yours in Woodlawn? I find that hard to believe.”
“Putter’s not the only friend I have.”
“I’ve met Blake, Putter, Prissy... and you, of course. Blake takes the medal for kindness and compassion.”
“Grayton ponies can be kind and compassionate, just as Woodlawn ponies can be caustic and unforgiving.” His meaning was clear, and Chiffon’s eyes flashed flame.
“How dare you accuse me after you looked down on all of us, not only here in Woodlawn but back in Dream Valley as well? You and the ponies like you can laugh all you want. We’re happy in our small town boredom as long as your kind leave us alone.”
“I didn’t mean...”
Chiffon interrupted, her temper flaring for all the wrong reasons; but she could not stop herself. “You can see yourself out!” She glared intensely, willing the tears not to fall, and stalked past him.
Unexpectedly, Tribute reached out a hoof and placed it on Chiffon’s foreleg to stop her angry departure, willing her to understand that he had come in peace.
For Chiffon, the touch of the stallion was a shock that rocketed through her body causing her heart to thump laboriously and the color to drain from her face. She stared first at the hoof resting on her foreleg, then directly at Tribute as if seeing him with new eyes. She had danced with, been hugged by, and shared a gentle kiss or two with stallions before; but this was different. Never in the past had there been a response like this on the part of her traitorous emotions. What was there about this insufferable stallion that could disturb her equilibrium like this?
Tribute stared back at her, equally undone. He had felt a similar reaction to Chiffon’s, but he had no way of knowing what was going through the mare’s mind in that moment of enlightenment for himself. Misreading her look of surprise and attraction quite misguidedly as one of agitation and repulsion, he suddenly dropped his hoof away from her.
“I’m sorry. This was all a mistake on my part; I shouldn’t have come.” He paused, during which Chiffon’s mind reeled, trying to come to grips with her own feelings while hearing words from the stallion that went against everything her heart was telling her. “Goodbye, Chiffon.”
That was it? Goodbye? Chiffon stood in shock as Tribute walked across the room, into the foyer, and opened the front door. “No!” she whispered so softly that no one other than herself heard. Another step and he would be gone. Chiffon intuitively knew that for her it would be a great loss.
“Tribute!” she managed to say loudly enough to be heard.
The stallion stopped and looked back at her questioningly, the door still gaping open, with snowflakes falling in the glow of the porch light, setting him in an ethereal sort of aura. He found the mare coming toward him, but in complete silence.
Realizing that she had to say something, Chiffon stuttered, “I... ah... well... Woodlawn has an ice cream shop; if... if you spent some time there, you might find that our town isn’t as bad as Putter made it out to be.”
The several seconds before Tribute responded seemed like an eternity to Chiffon.
“Isn’t it a little cold for ice cream?” he asked, his eyes locked on Chiffon’s as she came to stand before him. It was obvious to Chiffon that it was her cool manner toward him that he was referring to, and she almost lost her resolve to extend some manner of apology for her earlier brusqueness; but the feeling that this was moment was somehow very important to her future egged her on.
“I thought... that is... if you didn’t have any plans... maybe we could...” Her voice trailed off. Chiffon had never asked a stallion for a date before in her life.
A dead silence hung between them, making the snowfall sound excruciatingly garish. Chiffon thought she was going to be subjected to some haughty comeback that would put her in her place once and for all, when Tribute suddenly smiled, his dimple flashing before Chiffon’s eyes like some elusive treasure that might yet be hers.
“Ice cream in the dead of winter might prove restorative,” he said, his gaze brushing over her.
“Give me just a minute,” Chiffon blustered, rushing off to tell her mother that she was going out. When she returned, her face rather flushed, she felt unaccountably shy as they set out; but Tribute put her at ease by asking her about the founding of the town and the points of historical interest. It was not long before Chiffon felt comfortable enough to make an earnest apology to him.
“I allowed myself to catagorize you the minute I heard your voice on Christmas day.”
Raising an eyebrow. “And what category did I fall into?”
Remembering that he had classified her as domineering, Tribute could not take offense. “Have you changed your mind or did you just feel a moment of compassion back there?”
Not directly answering that question- for what she had been feeling when she called Tribute back was not something she wanted him to be aware of just yet- she said instead, “Your father has a similar demeanor, from what I observed.”
“Everyone likes my father, however.”
“His pride is tempered by a deep-seated interest in others that makes him approachable.”
“And I’m not... approachable?”
Glancing at him quickly, Chiffon admitted, “Not... easily.
Tribute only laughed.
The wind battering the snowflakes around them was cold- it enveloped them even through the mutual euphoria both were feeling- as Tribute and Chiffon approached the brightly lit gathering place on Main Street, but they were met with all the warmth they could desire once they passed over the thresh-hold and were greeted by Jules, the owner of the shop.
Patrons being rather sparse at the moment, Jules directed the ponies to a snug little table against the far wall; with a sunny smile that bespoke of a burning curiosity to know who this stallion was that accompanied the usually lone Chiffon, Jules helped Chiffon to be seated, then stood expectantly waiting to hear her wishes.
Having regained her poise, Chiffon smiled at the proprietor. “Our visitor to Woodlawn underestimates the value of an ice cream shop in winter, Jules. I’ll leave the choices in your capable hooves; something, perhaps, that could warm Tribute’s heart?”
“I’ll get right on it,” smiled Jules, winking broadly at Chiffon. “You’re lucky you beat the crowd; I’ll be able to put my full attention to it.”
Left alone, Chiffon directed a quick glance at Tribute and found that he was frowning at her. “What?” she asked.
“I feel like I’m being played for a fool.”
“That’s because you’re out of familiar territory.” Chiffon grinned. “Now you know how I felt in Grayton.”
“Touche!” Tribute grinned back, and Chiffon’s heart skipped a beat as that dimple reasserted itself. And she made a grand discovery! When his smile came from his heart, when he really meant it, there were two dimples that appeared, one on either side of his face. She stared in open amazement.
“Something’s wrong?” asked Tribute, brushing his hoof across his mouth as if a piece of lettuce was lodged there.
“There are two of them!”
“Two pieces of lettuce?” the stunned stallion asked. He hadn’t eaten any lettuce this day.
“No, numbskull! Two dimples!”
“Oh. Those.” He grinned again, and Chiffon almost swooned.
The entrance of a rather noisy bunch of ponies pulled Tribute and Chiffon’s attention away from one another, and they watched as Hood’s Place quickly filled. Many of the ponies, Tribute noted, waved or called out in Chiffon’s direction, casting a speculative glance at him and quickly dismissing him as alien but unexceptional.
One young couple, however, made it a point to come directly to their table. “Hey, Chiffon! What’s up?” the stallion queried, his gaze settling on Tribute with a calculating look that was not entirely friendly. He and his brothers had grown up quite close to Chiffon, who as their cousin and an only child, had gained their protection for life.
“The snow is, I imagine, since it’s falling,” Chiffon said, motioning to the two empty chairs in invitation.
The stallion and his companion, a magenta mare with primrose pink hair and a scattering of freckles across her nose, slipped into the indicated spots, the mare eying first Chiffon and then Tribute.
“Splotch, I’d like you to meet Tribute from Grayton; Tribute, Splotch is a transplant to Woodlawn, previously from more exciting locales like Golden City and Vulcanopolis. Now, she’s one of our own, working as a legal assistant with a local lawyer.
“And this is Icon,” Chiffon continued, smiling at the white stallion. “He’s my cousin and Vanguard’s little brother; Tribute is Dr. Toby’s big brother.”
“Oh!” Any misapprehension cleared from Icon’s face. “I played lacrosse with Toby last spring when I was visiting in Dream Valley; he’s an okay kinda’ guy.”
“You two must have met at Christmas,” assumed Splotch. “I haven’t been to Dream Valley myself yet.” She sent a miffed glance Icon’s way.
“That’s only because we visited your family in Golden City over the holidays,” Icon returned.
“But you had said that we’d have plenty of time to stop in at Vanguard and Sugarberry’s to see Baby Vanguard.”
“I can’t help it if Cachet took on a big project while I was gone.” He turned to explain to Tribute. “Cachet, Hodgepodge, and I have a software company.”
“But Baby Vanguard will be all grown up before I get a chance to see him,” said Splotch sulkily.
“Excuse me, but I thought Sugarberry and Vanguard’s foal was named Banderol,” interjected Tribute, sorting through his mental file of names he had learned while visiting Toby and Fern.
“Oh, it is,” Splotch waved a dismissive hoof. “But he looks like his dad- or so I’m told- so everyone in the family calls him Baby Vanguard.”
“Van cringes at the use of the Baby title,” grinned Icon, “which makes it all the more fun.”
“Sugarberry doesn’t bat an eye either way,” added Chiffon. “Baby Vanguard and Banderol are interchangeable with her.”
“Oh, there’s Vivi,” exclaimed Splotch. “We’ve got to talk with her; there are some problems with the scene in Venice.”
The two ponies got up and left the table; Tribute, looking confused, was enlightened by Chiffon. “Icon and Splotch and that group of ponies that came in the shop are involved with the local theater group; they’re rehearsing for The Merchant of Venice currently.”
“That Woodlawnians read Shakespeare?” asked Chiffon, her eyes twinkling.
Tribute flinched.. “Woodlawnians? That makes you sound like some mythical species, in the order of wood sprites and wood elves.”
They were interrupted by Jules, delivering the promised treats. Setting down an ice cream dish first in front of Chiffon, then Tribute, Jules explained, “I decided simple is best- two hot fudge sundaes with nuts and hot cocoa with just a hint of peppermint.” He added the two steaming mugs to the array. “Perfect for a quiet heart-to-heart.” Again he winked broadly at Chiffon.
“Don’t mind Jules,” Chiffon said, failing to meet Tribute’s laughing gaze and concentrating on the sundae instead. “Ever since he changed the name of this shop to Hood’s Place, he thinks he’s some sort of Don Juan like the pony in Sugarberry’s book.”
“I’m sure what you just said would make sense to any Woodlawnian, but I’m at a total loss.” He took a taste of the sundae and his expression registered contentment.
“This place was called The Ice Cream Shop until Sugarberry used Woodlawn for the setting of one of her fictional stories, naming the main character’s ice cream parlor Hood’s Place. When visitors to Woodlawn started asking the whereabouts of Hood’s Place, Jules decided to change the name.”
“I forgot that Sugarberry is an author. She was taking time off from the vet clinic after her foal was born.”
“Receptionist for Tabby and Thomas’ clinic is her day job,” Chiffon clarified. “Her first love is writing.”
“And here I thought it most assuredly would have been Vanguard.”
“What? Oh. They were very fortunate to find one another- fate actually brought them together,” mused Chiffon.
“Toby and Fern, too- fate... circumstance... destiny... whatever you want to call it.” The stallion looked at her acutely and Chiffon could only stare back at him. When she could move again, she set down her spoon and wrapped her hooves around the warm mug for reassurance that she was not spiraling out of control into an emotional vortex that could engulf her and obliterate her. She welcomed Icon’s return.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked, sitting in the chair he had abandoned earlier. He had a strawberry malt in hoof. “Splotch and Vivi are brainstorming some set designs, and I found myself being ignored.”
“We’re glad to have your company,” Chiffon smiled.
Tribute, on the other hoof, appeared to be perfectly willing to disregard Icon.
But Icon ignored the chagrin of the stallion and turned to Chiffon and engaged her in some of the humorous happenings at the theater rehearsal. His embroidered versions of some of the mishaps soon had garnered several of his comrades to join in the story telling, often with conflicting versions arising.
Chiffon laughed until she had tears in her eyes. Tribute, however, Chiffon noted with some dismay, looked bored to tears.
In an unsettling revelation, Chiffon realized that she had misinterpreted the stallion’s visit to her home and the touch that had awakened her to thoughts of a life spent in tandem with another rather than alone. A paralyzing feeling of helplessness washed over her as her newfound dream shattered.
She had finally put her trust in him; and he was only playing a part so that, when the time was right, he could put her down again as the country girl he so despised. She could tell by looking at him now when he was unaware of her study of him that his thoughts were far away, probably in Grayton, probably with the pink pegasus, probably laughing at how vulnerable Chiffon had turned out in the end. She hoped to never see another dimple again, ever!
She soon conveyed to Icon, privately and with no room for argument, that he was to accompany her to her home.
Icon, who had put two and two together as he had watched the interchange of conversation and eye contact between Chiffon and Tribute earlier, had correctly read his cousin’s interest in Tribute. Now he questioned her reasoning for jilting him.
“He’s pretending to be someone he’s not,” Chiffon hissed.
“He’s not Toby’s brother?” Icon asked in disbelief.
Chiffon rolled her eyes. “Of course, he’s Toby’s brother. He’s trying to dupe me, however, into accepting him so he can cut me down in front of his Grayton friends the next time he gets a chance... as if I’m ever going back there.”
“Toby’s brother wouldn’t...”
“Toby may be a saint, but that doesn’t mean Tribute is. Trust me on this, Icon.”
Icon grudgingly gave in.
Then, ascertaining that Tribute was staying at Blue Falls- not difficult, as it was the only motel in town- she went to him and informed him that it would be out of his way to walk her home when Icon would be headed in her direction anyway. Then with a charming smile that belied her inner turmoil, Chiffon bid the Grayton doctor good night and wished him a safe return home. Before he could utter a word, she had departed.
Tribute knew a cut when he received one. He scowled in Chiffon’s direction as Icon accompanied her out the door with Splotch hovering at her other side as if they were protecting her from something... or someone. What had gone wrong?
One minute, amidst the noisy conversation going on around him, anxious for a moment alone with the mare, his mind had been full of plans on how to approach Chiffon with his real reason for being in Woodlawn- and Chiffon was a big part of that reason- the next, he found himself facing a long, lonely night in a strange motel room far from home with no more assurance than he had upon arriving that his future was with a certain blue mare with green hair and warm, inviting eyes (when they were not flashing sparks of anger).
Entering his barren haven for the night, Tribute paced the room for some time before facing the facts- Chiffon had found it amusing to immerse him in Woodlawn’s quaint ways; then, tiring of the game, had discarded him.
So be it. She was the manipulative, domineering mare he had originally pegged her. He could find satisfaction in being proven correct.
Or could he?
* * *
“Blake, I did as you asked. I came to Woodlawn to see for myself what this job has to offer. I can see that you’re doing a great thing by bringing in better medical care for the local ponies, and I applaud your dedication to the cause. But it’s not for me.”
“You haven’t given it a chance, Tribute. Stay a few more days; you said yourself that you don’t have to be back in Grayton until Monday.”
It was the morning after Tribute’s visit to Hood’s Place and the two stallions were facing each other in Blake’s office at the clinic. Plans were in place to expand the capabilities of the facility as well as the hospital, necessitating the addition of another doctor in the near future and more to come. What had seemed like an easy task to Blake had turned into a tough battle- none of those with the competence that he was seeking were willing to relocate to a small town in the boondocks of Ponyland.
“I’ve seen everything I need to, Blake. It’s just not for me,” Tribute reiterated, remembering very vividly Chiffon’s dismissal the night before.
“You were my first choice, Tribute. When you finally relented and came to see the place, I thought I had a chance to convince you to settle here.”
“I was curious, that’s all,” Tribute said. “And I must admit that the glowing reports you sent me on the town and its inhabitants and the possibilities with the clinic expansion were honest enough; but there isn’t sufficient incentive to make me quit Grayton.”
Blake was silent for a moment, assessing the stallion before him. “Well, at least you didn’t outright hate the place. Don’t give me a final answer until you’ve had a chance to think about it for a time. It’s not like candidates are beating my door down. Once you’re back in Grayton, you might find yourself yearning for the peaceful lanes around Woodlawn rather than the fast track back east.”
Knowing there was no chance for that, Tribute still could not disappoint his friend completely. “Call me in a week. I’ll keep my mind open, but don’t expect any miracles. I’m satisfied where I am.” Or had been, he could have added.
“A week then,” Blake grinned, grabbing at any straw that was given to him. “Weigh the pros and cons, then make an informed decision.”
Tribute dumbly nodded.
* * *
It was not much later that same morning before Tribute was setting out for his trek back to Grayton. He left his motel with his backpack over his shoulder and was halfway through town when he caught sight of a string of small ponies being led by a familiar blue mare. Muttering over his misfortune, he nonetheless plastered a pleasant smile on his face and greeted the mare.
“You look like a mother duck with her ducklings in tow, Chiffon.”
“Why, thank you, Tribute; that’s a precious analogy I’ll bear in mind whenever I think of you... which won’t be often, I hope.” She looked back toward her students, finding it necessary to explain their outing. “We were at the library.”
Tribute looked down the line of curious faces watching him with their wide, inquisitive eyes. “Quite a treat by Woodlawn standards, I suppose.”
“We won’t keep you,” Chiffon stated, motioning for her charges to resume their pace behind her. “You have a journey ahead of you, it would appear.”
“Yes, I’m returning to civilization... and none too soon,” the stallion stated, unknowingly causing Chiffon untold grief by ending his heartless statement with a show of a lone dimple.
“God-speed,” she managed to say before turning her head away and continuing her own short journey back to the school.
Tribute watched until the line of foals had passed him by, then continued his own journey in unexplainable annoyance which was increased as he was soon face to face with another mare leading another line of colts and fillies. “Arabella!” he exclaimed.
“Tribute,” purred Arabella. “We’re on our way back to school after a trip to the library.”
“Yes, I just met Chiffon and her group.”
“Of course you did,” noted Arabella with a smile which quickly turned to a frown. “So you’re the one!”
“Excuse me?” defended Tribute, seeing her turn peevish.
“You’re the one responsible for having Chiffon out of humor and quoting Browning.”
“I did nothing....” attempted Tribute.
Arabella ignored the stallion’s remonstrance and continued with the quote in question.
“‘Was it something said,/Something done,/Vexed him? Was it touch of hoof*,/Turn of head?’”
Before Arabella could finish the passage, Tribute took over.
“‘Strange! That very way/Love begun:/I as little understand/Love’s decay.’”
Tribute turned to gaze after Chiffon and could just make out her green mane in the distance, still at the head of her string. It appeared that her head was dejectedly bowed; and, possibly, if one used his imagination, it could be construed that she was wiping a tear off her cheek. Tribute felt a searing moment of hope. Did Chiffon have positive feelings for him after all?
It was a brief interlude of optimism, for Tribute remembered in a blast of reality that it was Chiffon who had tired of his company at the ice cream shop and left him with a finality that left no possibilities. She was, after all, a managing mare; she had got what she wanted and had wiped her hooves of him.
“‘They seek each other all their weary days/And die unsatisfied- and this is Fate!’” quoted Tribute softly, then gave Arabella a constrained look. “Susan Marr Spalding.” He nodded to her, then resumed his travels east.