You Win Some...
written by Sugarberry
With Valentine's Day fast approaching, Sugarberry noted the return address of the package on the table with interest. "It's from Clare's Creations," she informed her husband. "What would Clare be sending us?"
Vanguard looked at the package. "Well, it's too little for a hat box; maybe it's an array of new ribbons for your hair."
"Or one of those sparkly hair nets I saw at Lemon Treat's shop," offered Chocolate Chip who was making preparations for supper.
"Why don't you just open the box and find out?" suggested Wishbone.
"You set the table, and I'll do just that."
Once the package had been stripped of its confining tape, Sugarberry found a smaller pastel box nestled in white tissue paper; pulling it out of its nest, she squealed. "Oh! It's that new fragrance that Nello was telling us about!" Releasing the lid of the box, she pulled out an attractive glass bottle with the name, Winsome, engraved on it.
"Can I try it, too?" Chocolate Chip asked, leaving her main course softly bubbling on the stove and coming to peer at the decanter curiously.
Popping off the cap, Sugarberry sniffed the nozzle tentatively. "Not bad," she grinned, spraying a liberal amount into the air.
Wishbone retreated to the far side of the kitchen table while Vanguard waved a hoof to dissipate the concentration. "It's... intense in that quantity."
Chocolate Chip misted some of the perfume onto her body. "I think Winsome is a lovely fragrance," she said, moving toward her brother with the bottle in her hoof. "I'm sure Garnet will think so, too."
Thinking fast, Wishbone held up a plate from the table, successfully deflecting the burst of spray that came in his direction and wresting the pungent weapon from his sister. "You win some and you lose some!" he laughed, keeping the bottle at a safe distance from the young mare. "And, anyway, something on the stove is oozing out of the pan."
That bit of news succeeded in facilitating Chocolate Chip's retreat back to the stove while Sugarberry began to help with food preparations. Vanguard was picking up the shipping box and tissue when he noticed something still within the package. "There's more here," he said, lifting out a stiff envelope with some hurried writing on it.
"What's it say?" queried Sugarberry, drying her hooves on a towel.
"'Pictures from Woodlawn. Enjoy! Nello.'"
Sugarberry's eyes sparkled. "The pictures he took in the park! With the excitement at Berryville on Christmas, I'd forgotten all about them!"
"Pictures?" Wishbone asked. "What pictures?"
"Nello and Mooncurl were in Woodlawn for the holidays; and Nello was bored, so he took a bunch of us to the park for an impromptu photo shoot," revealed Sugarberry as she waited for Vanguard to draw the shots from the envelope.
"Not bad," Vanguard whistled appreciatively, seeing the first photo was one of his wife.
"Let me see!" that mare said, confiscating the pictures from his hoof. The second one in the stack was of Vanguard and herself, and she cooed, "Don't you look handsome!" with a loving glance at her husband.
"Nello is one talented photographer to achieve that," Wishbone teased as he and Chocolate Chip snuck a glance at the pictures. "They are of professional quality," he admitted, however, as more of the glossy prints appeared.
"These are only the ones of you and me, Sugarberry," Vanguard noted. "I wonder if he sent Stillwater and Morning Dew a set of their shots."
"I hope so," said Sugarberry. "And Petal and Caravel, too."
"Petal was in on this fantasy?" quizzed Wishbone. "She never mentioned it."
"There were others there, too, like Icon and Bonanza and Biscuit; they had the dubious honor of being photographed with Mooncurl herself," revealed Vanguard, winking at his wife.
"I bet the guys enjoyed that," giggled Chocolate Chip.
"True to form," Sugarberry grinned.
* * *
The dishes had just been finished, and Chocolate Chip and Wishbone had set off to the casino to catch some time with their dear-hearts when the phone rang; Sugarberry answered it and found that it was Lemon Treats.
"Hi, Sugarberry. Would you and Vanguard be able to come over to my shop this evening?"
"I just wanted you to see a shipment I got today from Clare."
"If it's her new cologne, we received a bottle, too."
"Well, it's tied in to that... could you come, both of you?"
After a quick check with Vanguard, the mare informed Lemon Treats that they would be over shortly and ended the call; the thoughtful look on her face caused Vanguard to ask, "What was that all about?"
"Lemon Treats has something she wants to show us; by the sound of her voice, she expects us to be surprised."
"It's from Clare, so I have a funny feeling that..." She paused to consider.
"Icon suggested that Nello take those pictures to get shots for the Winsome campaign; they wouldn't really use them for that, would they?"
Vanguard grinned and picked up the single shot of Sugarberry. "Look at that face," he needled her. "Would that sell Winsome or not?"
Sugarberry cast him a beguiling glance. "For the female set, the pictures with you in them would sell more."
Laughing, Vanguard stated, "Clare wouldn't do that," but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he looked at his wife in mortification, saying, "Would she?"
* * *
Lemon Treats finished with her customer quickly and hurried to where Vanguard and Sugarberry were looking over a display of jewelry cases. "I'm so glad that you could come tonight," she bubbled, her eyes dancing. "I needed to run something by you before tomorrow."
"Since when do you need our input on how to handle your business?" queried Vanguard with an arched brow.
"Follow me to the back room, and you'll find out," she blithely said, heading off toward the "Employees Only" doorway; she opened the door, and stood back for Vanguard and Sugarberry to precede her into the room.
Lemon Treats had planned her surprise well, and Sugarberry and Vanguard were suitably stunned, for facing them was display art for the Winsome product line; and that art, bold in its life-size portrayal, was centered around a photo of the two ponies who now stood in silent astonishment before it.
"Isn't it great?" Lemon Treats squealed, finding that neither Sugarberry nor Vanguard could find tongue for their thoughts. She went to the display and turned to her mute guests. "You two are perfect for the Winsome theme!"
"This is for real?" Sugarberry managed to squeak, overwhelmed by the close-up that Nello had snared of her and her husband. It was unlike any of those that she had already seen from the set that had been delivered to their house. This one, with Sugarberry wearing a soft, enchanted expression as she looked at Vanguard whose own expression was one of profound devotion, was a candid shot, taken when they were no longer knowingly under the camera's hold.
"Of course. Why are you two so dumbfounded? You should feel like celebrities; you will be when this gets moved out front tomorrow morning."
Vanguard finally found his voice. "That's not exactly comforting." He stood studying the picture for several moments longer before stating, "But Nello did capture a beautiful face on his film; maybe it's time all of Ponyland knew just how beautiful." He looked at his wife with a tender smile. "I'm very proud of you, my love."
"I find your image much more alluring," Sugarberry smiled back.
"This is what Poeticus would call a poetry moment," Lemon Treats said. "And I quote, 'Two souls with but a single thought, two hearts that beat as one.'"
"How sweet!" Sugarberry lisped.
"My poster girl," Vanguard said as he gave her a kiss.
"Oh!" Lemon Treats started. "That reminds me... although you two are the center of the advertising campaign, there are other ponies on the auxiliary posters that might look familiar to you as well." She unfurled one of Petal and Caravel "for the younger crowd" and a very romantic shot of Morning Dew and Stillwater and one that, according to Sugarberry, caught the essence of Winsome most effectively-- a poster displaying Mooncurl on the bridge in Woodlawn's park surrounded by the three stallions: Icon, Bonanza, and Biscuit.
"This is well worth it, to see Icon immortalized in such a trenchant circumstance," giggled Sugarberry. "I'm only sorry that Chiffon isn't among the faces; Icon tormented her so horrifically that even Nello couldn't catch a winsome look, I imagine."
"You're not giving Nello enough credit," Lemon Treats replied, holding up still another poster of the fair Chiffon in profile, her mane softly encompassing her dreamy expression. "He knows how to capture a moment."
* * *
Meanwhile, away in Vulcanopolis, Mooncurl, finished with her captured moments for the day, waved a brief farewell to Nello as she left the studio and was nearly out the door before Nello could deposit his camera on the counter and rush to catch the elusive mare before she was gone.
"Wait up, Mooncurl."
The mare stopped and looked with some irritation at the photographer. "You did say the session was wrapped up for the day, didn't you?"
Nello sighed. He never knew if he would get this cold treatment or a bright smile from Mooncurl, and it always hurt him when it was this self-possessed attitude that met him. "I just wanted to verify that you haven't forgotten our date tomorrow night; you won't be needed in the studio, but..."
"Date?" Mooncurl said distantly. "Oh, you mean dinner?"
"Yes. Dinner at Agostino's." He flinched a little thinking about the cost of such a venture, for Agostino's was top of the line in Vulcanopolis; it was his Valentine gift to Mooncurl, several days ahead of the romantic holiday because Clare had scheduled a business party on the actual day. "I'll pick you up at seven."
"Okay, Nello. Goodnight."
Nello was left alone, and he muttered to himself. "Not even a smile for me; you would think I was the plague or something." But he soon reprimanded himself. "She's been facing the camera for hours; I can't expect her to keep smiling when the shoot is over."
He was reassuring himself in this vein when Angela rushed into the room. "Clare wants to see you!"
"Now?" asked Nello, looking at his watch."
"I hope it's nothing important; I'm beat."
"You do look a little down, but stifle it; Clare is on a roll and won't appreciate anyone dragging their hooves."
"Great!" Nello moaned, then sighed again.
"Mooncurl has been summoned, too; is she in the dressing room?"
"She left already."
"Left?! She can't be gone! Clare will be furious!"
"Well, she's been gone a couple of minutes, but maybe you can catch her in the lobby."
Putting a call through to the security guard, Angela uttered frantically, "Has Mooncurl left the building yet?"
"Yes, Miss Angela. She went out the door no more than a minute ago. Should I run after her?"
Angela paused for consideration; Clare expected her to return with both Mooncurl and Nello, but Angela realized that intercepting Mooncurl after a long day and sending her back to Clare would only frazzle the model's nerves-- not to mention her disposition-- leaving her in no position to face what Clare was going to lay on her and Nello. "No, let her go; but if Clare should happen to mention this, say she went through the door at least five minuted before I called."
Now it was Angela's turn to sigh, and she did just that as she set off down the hall after Nello.
When Angela slipped back into Clare's office, she found that Nello had discerned enough to realize that his life was not going to be easy for a number of days, for in one of the chairs sat none other than Ignacio, a stallion that Nello had never had the privilege to meet personally but had seen plastered on advertising for everything from computers to sunglasses.
This stallion also had the undistinguished honor of being the only pony in all of the world who could disconcert Clare, as Nello had learned from any of the conversations that had occurred concerning him. Clare abhorred his pride but yearned to have him commit to an ad campaign for her products. This discrepancy tore her to pieces.
For his part, Nello automatically disliked the stallion from the moment they shook hooves, for he got the distinct impression that Ignacio would have preferred not to contaminate himself by touching someone beneath his dignity. But Nello knew that Clare would expect him to go to any length to guarantee Ignacio's favor, so he swallowed his anger and played the perfect gentleman. One thing puzzled Nello, however; Ignacio was not due to report for several days yet.
"Ignacio has an unexpected set of free days, Nello, and he was wondering if we could move up our schedule to accommodate him." Clare sat in her chair behind her desk, her hooves tapping steadily together. Nello could not help but wonder if this was in excitement over having Ignacio finally under her control or anger that he was usurping her authority with claims of his own.
But the mare continued. "I'm aware that you'll have to rearrange your schedule, Nello, and Mooncurl as well." She stopped her nervous tapping and drilled a look at Angela, who calmly stated that Mooncurl had finished for the day and was not available. Clare's eyes flashed fire, but she resumed her drumming and discharged her tenuous plans. "If we get an early start tomorrow..."
Here she was interrupted by Ignacio himself. "I never appear for a shoot until ten at the earliest," he said matter-of-factly. "I can't begin my day without a thorough workout." He looked along the length of his body as if admiring his successful efforts.
"What is on your schedule tomorrow, Nello?"
"The morning is blocked for the foal's fashions; after lunch, I'm to meet with the city administrator for pictures of his award ceremony." He said this rather maliciously for the city administrator was Clare's father-in-law, and she would in no way wish to offend him by reneging on her offer to have her best photographer available for the occasion, not to mention that her husband would be involved with some aspects of that event as well. Clare glowered at him as if he had set her up on purpose.
"We'll just have to accomplish as much as we can from ten until noon," she decided. "Ignacio, how does that sound to you?"
Ignacio condescended to smile at Clare, albeit briefly, before responding. "That will be fine." The stallion stood up. "Now that is settled, I'll leave any details up to you." He bowed to Clare and Angela and left.
Clare was fuming. "That ungrateful wretch!" she seethed. "He presents himself here because of a change in his plans and then leaves all the scheduling to us... as long as we work around his idiosyncrasies. I should have told him to pack his bags and leave!"
"You've been trying to lure the wonderful Ignacio for years, Clare. You can't let this chance slip through your hooves now that he has condescended to share his talents with your company," Angela said soothingly.
"If I could afford to do so, I would not have allowed him to walk all over me that way," she griped, pacing the room. Suddenly she remembered Mooncurl's absence. "Angela, you will have to alert Mooncurl; and tell her to be here tomorrow in time. Plus we have to..."
It was to be a late night for the staff of Clare's Creations.
* * *
Mooncurl, upon hearing of the impending presence of the great Ignacio on the following day, could not stop her nervous pacing. "Ignacio!" she said over and over again. She was not unfamiliar with the premier stallion model of Ponyland for had not she herself worked with him when she was first gaining some acclaim in the modeling field back in New Pony?
But that fact did not help to sooth her. "He won't even remember me," she groaned. "I was playing second fiddle to Gadfly for that shoot; he didn't even notice me!"
She stopped her impatient wandering as she passed in front of the mirror and took a good look at herself. She had learned a lot since then; now she would be equal to Ignacio's professional bearing. She brushed her mane with a hoof and imagined how she would appear to him when she had been made-up on the morrow; he would find her delightful and gorgeous as well as professional.
Her blue eyes stopped to stare into the identical blue eyes peering out at her from the mirror. She had been successful in her career as a model; Clare made sure of that. But one thing worried Mooncurl, and that was not so much concerned with her career as with her private life. She found herself yearning for a special stallion in her life, someone who would be there for her like Giorgio was for Clare-- and Vanguard for Sugarberry. Her eyes faltered from those that looked at her so closely from the mirror. If she was honest with herself, she would admit that her heart's desire was for Ignacio to find himself enamored of her.
Looking back over the stallions in her life, she remember Gideon in the third grade, who sat in the seat behind her and entertained himself by pulling her mane during class; she had always wished that he would at least sit with her at lunch, but he never did. And Drake in the eighth grade never so much as gave her the time of day even though she worshiped him. And her senior year in Woodlawn was no better; Vanguard refused to accept her advances as anything other than an annoyance. Giorgio had already given his heart to Clare, and Gabriel... well, Gabriel was another story. Unfortunately, Nello never entered into her reverie.
Realizing that the night was fast receding, Mooncurl tried to sleep but found it useless. She was so wound up about working with Ignacio so soon that her eyes would not close. She finally gave it up for a lost cause and slid out of bed to retrieve a book from the sofa where she had left it.
The book did succeed in getting her thoughts off of the next day's trials. Mooncurl had written home asking her mom to send her the books that she had left there; when the box had arrived, it contained not Mooncurl's books but some older Regency romance novels that her mother had read when she was a filly. The stories were not deep, but she had found them fun and entertaining. The idea that no matter how destitute the heroine was portrayed, she always managed to unconsciously draw the attention and love of the hero, who was always wealthy and handsome, dashing and daring; and they assuredly lived happily ever after. Ahh, the stuff that dreams are made of!
The white mare curled up with her copy of a Clare Darcy tale and lived indirectly the tender looks that passed between the beautiful filly and the handsome stallion, looks that she had seen passed between Vanguard and Sugarberry, between Giorgio and Clare, in a way that no one ever had looked at her.
If she had only opened her eyes, she would have seen Nello look at her that way on every occasion they were in the same room together; but for Mooncurl, the obvious was not that easy to see.
* * *
For all her sleepless night, Mooncurl was bright-eyed the next morning as she sailed into work much earlier than anyone expected her. The amount of time that she spent with her make-up and styling went far beyond what was ordinarily necessary, but she was determined to make the most of this opportunity to garner the attention and-- hopefully-- the affection of Ignacio.
Nello had spent a long morning posing tiresome foals for pictures that they had no desire to cooperate for, so he was short on time to prepare for Ignacio's appearance and had no chance to even catch a glimpse of Mooncurl before the stallion's arrival.
Mooncurl, watching for Ignacio, aligned herself in his path, and demurely stepped out to make herself known to the dashing figure that was coming her way. To her surprise and satisfaction, Ignacio stopped in his tracks as he came to her position, bowed, and took her hoof in his. "Mooncurl." He kissed her hoof. "What a delight this will be to work with you."
Mooncurl was so impressed that he remembered her that she was momentarily unable to say a word, but when her voice became operational, she said smoothly, "The delight is all mine, I'm sure."
She smiled at Ignacio with such pleasure that Nello, if he would not have been a gentleman, would have decked Ignacio on the spot. But he restrained himself, and got down to the business at hoof, finding the next two hours to be some of the worst he had spent, due to the overbearing manner of Ignacio and the condescending response of Mooncurl. It was well that Nello had no time to spare when the noon hour rolled around as he would have found the conversation of the two models to be quite to his dislike. He left for his rendezvous with Vulcanopolis' administrator as soon as possible.
Mooncurl, hesitant to have this wonderful time end, continued to monopolize Ignacio's attention, and she had the satisfaction of observing that he was in no hurry to part from her either. Everything went well until Mooncurl, realizing that she had skipped breakfast, found herself exceedingly hungry.
"There's an excellent cafe near here," she began. "We could have lunch there if..."
But Ignacio stopped her with a wave of his hoof. "No, no, my dear. I really must get back to my suite for some important business." Mooncurl's crestfallen face must have tugged at some sympathetic chord, for the stallion touched his hoof to her chin and lifted the sad countenance until the eyes met his. "Tonight, however, I would be free for dinner. I believe there are several fine restaurants in the city that we could make use of. Will you join me?"
The light that had so recently been extinguished in Mooncurl's blue eyes rekindled in a moment. "I would be honored," she breathed.
"Will seven be all right with you?"
"Seven will be fine."
Mooncurl stayed where she stood for a long time after Ignacio had bid her farewell; it was all she could do not to shout it out at the top of her lungs that he-- Ignacio-- had invited her to dinner! She could not believe her good fortune; it was a dream come true.
Shaking herself out of her trance-like state, the glowing model forced herself to face the present reality and found her way home.
* * *
Nello had no time for lunch; he barely had time to breathe. His afternoon was filled with ceremonies presided over by Giorgio, Sr., and he had to stay alert to every opportunity to photograph the movers and shakers of Vulcanopolis who were receiving and/or presenting awards for their time and effort on behalf of the prospering city.
Nello was grateful when the last award had found a home, and he was able to pack up his equipment and beat a hasty retreat back to Clare's Creations to finish all the necessary details of the day's work. When he finally looked at his watch, he realized in a panic that he had very little time to rush home and make himself presentable for his dinner date with Mooncurl. Locking his studio, he made good time, but still found himself arriving at Mooncurl's hotel much later than was even fashionably acceptable.
Crossing the lobby at lightspeed, the stallion was rattled to hear his voice being called by the desk clerk, a vivacious young mare who knew him by sight. "Mr. Nello, there's a message for you." She waved a white note card in her hoof for emphasis.
Cursing the delay, Nello slowed his pace to receive the memo; stopping at the elevator door, he tore open the message; and upon reading it, the frown on his face deepened. The note read, "Nello, I'm dreadfully sorry, but Ignacio and I are meeting for dinner tonight; I'm sure that you will understand that this is an opportunity that I can not pass up. Mooncurl."
Crushing the note in his hoof, Nello muttered a few choice words before realizing that the dancing eyes of the desk clerk were on him. He forced himself to bring his emotions under control and had succeeded in assuming a nonchalant air when the filly decided that he was taking the situation too well.
"Mooncurl looked divine when she left here with that hunk," she smiled sweetly.
Nello needed none of this; he turned to leave and just then became aware of the corsage he had picked up for Mooncurl still in his hoof; he stared at it blankly, then tossed it on the desk in front of the filly. "A gift for you, my dear," he said as brightly as he could muster, then stalked from the hotel and went home in the worst spirits that he had ever been.
* * *
Mooncurl spent an enchanted evening with Ignacio from the moment he called for her ("You are breathtaking!" the stallion had said with approval showing in his eyes.) until they said goodnight ("I have been captivated by your charm, Mooncurl.").
The interlude had been a dream come true for Mooncurl, being escorted by the handsome Ignacio to Agostino's where the service had been regal for the acclaimed stallion and the food fit for a king. Mooncurl could not take her eyes off her companion-- nearly idolizing him-- which suffused her attractive face with a soft flush that made her irresistible in the eyes of the stallion as well.
Their waiter was efficient yet discreet, and as far as Mooncurl was concerned, she and Ignacio were the only two ponies in the world this fine evening.
As Ignacio told her of humorous experiences from various assignments he had been on, Mooncurl listened in rapt attention and would have denied anyone's attempt to point out that the stallion's conversation was entirely "I" oriented. As long as his dark brown eyes rested on her, Mooncurl was satisfied.
Dinner was followed by dancing, and Mooncurl had never felt so light on her hooves as she did with Ignacio's hold on her as they glided effortlessly across the floor, words forgotten in the euphoria that encircled the two.
Onlookers whispered among themselves about the striking couple, more than one mare envying the position of the white beauty and any number of stallions resenting the kind words that their mates had for the dashing stallion. One unfortunate fellow, his patience sorely tried, made the mistake of pointing out that if his partner looked as ravishing as that dandy's did, he would be inspired to new heights of gallantry and style himself. His wife was rather cool to him for the remainder of the evening.
Mooncurl was oblivious to any tension that might have been created by her presence or that of her partner and only floated down to earth when Ignacio, with a twinkle in his eyes, pointed out that, by the looks of things, this would be their last dance as it was time for the musicians to quit for the night. He smiled at the piquant look that descended on her face, and promised they would have another such evening before he left Vulcanopolis, which restored Mooncurl's sunny disposition once more.
* * *
Clare's Creations' personnel were swamped with activity not only due to Ignacio's presence among them but also due to the much anticipated Valentine's Day extravaganza that Clare had ordained as a huge bash to show her appreciation not only for her own employees but also for all the business ponies who distributed and sold her products throughout Ponyland. Guests were coming from near and far, and everyone was looking forward to the occasion with high hopes for a delightful time at Clare's generous expense.
Having previously been looking forward to the party, Nello now found himself dreading the fast approaching night. He had not brought up Mooncurl's unfeeling neglect of the date they had scheduled and that she had broken; one look at her face the following morning was enough to proclaim to him that Mooncurl had no second thoughts in choosing Ignacio over him.
His work was made difficult for this reason, for even though Mooncurl and Ignacio's fascination with one another made them excellent photographic material, Nello was forced to face at excruciatingly close range the infatuation of the mare who was the light of his life with a stallion whom he had not an iota of respect for, seeing Ignacio as an egotistical, opportunistic, odious rogue. It hurt him deeply to see the look of love that Mooncurl gave Ignacio, a look for which Nello would have died for.
In addition, the double workload he had to handle in covering all that was needed to fit Ignacio into an already full schedule prevented him from having any private conversation with Mooncurl; and by the time he got home at the end of his late days, there was no answer to his repeated calls to her number.
In the course of each successive day, he could not help overhearing snatches of conversation between Mooncurl and Ignacio that gave him a fair idea of their busy schedule as well, for it seemed that each evening was spent at one or the other of Vulcanopolis' major entertainment spots. Worst of all, Nello could see in Mooncurl's eyes that she had fallen helplessly, hopelessly in love.
* * *
The night of Clare's party arrived, preceded by a very lonely day for Nello amidst the general enthusiasm that pervaded Clare's Creations. All the shots of Ignacio and Mooncurl were finished early; and when his studio was quiet, he had spent his time straightening up his domain after the whirlwind week that had passed. It was there that Clare found him.
"Nello! Everyone is going home early to get ready for tonight. Why are you still here?"
"Maybe I'm not coming to your bash, Clare."
"I realize that you've probably had your fill of seeing Ignacio's narcissistic face; we all are. But I expect you to be there; our guests will expect it as well."
"I wish you would never have succeeded in luring that... that stallion here."
"You'll get your share of fame out of the work you've done, too, you know," Clare wheedled him.
"At what price?"
Clare patted his shoulder in a comforting gesture. "After tonight, you'll be free of him; and so will Mooncurl, I suspect."
"Does she realize that?"
"I've tried to warn her, Nello; honestly, I have. She won't listen." As Nello made no response, she continued. "I'll see you later."
* * *
The ballroom was festooned with yards and yards of liquid gold fabric accented by red swaths that draped from cornice to cornice; extravagant bouquets of red roses sat on fluted pedestals, the sweet scent of the flowers lingering on the air. Dance music came from the musicians in the corner, and a number of ponies were already on the dance floor. Guests, either from Clare's Creations itself or from points many miles away were being greeted by Clare, bedecked to the hilt with specially designed adornments that flattered her orchid and yellow coloring, and her husband, Giorgio, looking sharp in his black bow tie.
A yellow mare and her pastel blue husband were the next ponies through the arched floral doorway. "Lemon Treats! Poeticus! I trust you have a pleasant journey." Clare hugged the mare. "You're looking great. It won't be long until you have that foal in your forelegs."
"She's going to be a dancer," Lemon Treats replied. "She's been getting ready for this night for weeks, practicing her steps."
"You will have to talk to Hydrangea; you and she can compare notes on this mothering stuff," Giorgio advised.
"And Pacificus and I can compare notes on just how many baby outfits an expectant mother can buy in the course of a pregnancy," grinned Poeticus. "We're covered for triplets in either the male or female variety." He received a gentle poke from his wife before they wandered on to mingle.
Before long, the room was crowded with ponies, all having a good time. Angela, in close company with Gabriel, hunted up her brother, Pacificus, and his wife, Hydrangea. "Have either of you seen Nello?" she asked. But both ponies shook their heads. "I was hoping that he would be caught up in the festivities," she frowned.
Pacificus, looking around the room, observed, "I doubt that, Angela; Mooncurl is still doting over Ignacio." He nodded to where those two were surrounded by clients of Clare's
"There he is," Gabriel noted, seeing the stallion just coming from a welcome by Clare and Giorgio. He waved his hoof in the air to draw Nello's attention.
"What have I missed?" asked the stallion as he approached his friends.
"You're just in time to dance with me," Angela said, taking his hoof in hers. "Gabriel, you can hunt up Amity; she was coming by herself."
Gabriel protested. "I did not come to spend time with Amity," he said. "I came to spend time with you!" But Angela was already twirling away with Nello, and Gabriel had no recourse but to do as she had requested.
Hydrangea allowed her husband to draw her to the dance floor, but her gaze was on Nello and Angela. Nello, she noted, was talking with Angela as they danced, but his eyes were directed to Mooncurl and Ignacio's movements. Hydrangea admitted to her husband, "I wish that Mooncurl would stop tormenting Nello with this 'on again, off again' friendship she offers him."
"Yes, I can sympathize with Nello from past experience." Pacificus' gaze settled on his wife; his somber tone, however, was betrayed by the sparkle in his eyes.
Hydrangea scoffed. "Our relationship, my dear, was never 'off again'; it was merely on hold until I could make sense of things." Hydrangea had stumbled on the fact that she had been adopted; this revelation came at the time that she and Pacificus were newly in love, and that information had opened up a number of doubts that, thankfully, had resolved themselves to the best benefit of everyone concerned. "Mooncurl, on the other hoof, seems to spurn Nello's attentions at every opportunity."
"The sad part," Pacificus perceived, "is that Mooncurl doesn't even realize that she's doing it."
* * *
When Angela and Nello finally met up with Gabriel, the stallion had succeeded in finding Amity, a pale pink mare with soft green hair, who had now joined him. Amity was a new employee at Clare's Creations on the production end and had been brought to Nello's studio for his ten-minute tour during the course of the week when he did not have time for one more interruption, and his welcome to the mare at that time had been rather cool and brief.
"How has your first week with Clare's Creations gone?" he asked mechanically when Angela and Gabriel conveniently deserted the two of them.
"Oh. You remember that you met me then."
"I never forget a pretty face." He smiled at the mare and then turned his attention to catch sight of Mooncurl as she leaned against Ignacio, her hoof in his.
Amity looked at Nello shrewdly. "That surprises me; by the way you can't take your eyes off Mooncurl, I'd think you have to refresh your memory quite often."
Nello's gaze came back to the mare before him. "Touche!" he grinned, seeing the smile in her eyes. "Would you like to dance?" It was an effort, but Nello forced himself to keep his attention focused on Amity rather than on Mooncurl, which really should not have been a problem for Amity was a very attractive mare and she danced gracefully. Her entertaining insights on some of her adventures since signing on with Clare's Creations achieved a certain amount of success in that Nello actually began to enjoy himself.
"You're very easy to talk to," he complimented her as they left the dance floor to rest a moment in an alcove fitted with cushioned chairs.
"That's because, according to my mom, I haven't stopped talking since I was nine months old."
Nello grinned. "Practice makes perfect, they say. Could I get you something to drink?"
"Anything, as long as it's cold."
When Nello returned with the refreshments, he sat down beside the mare. "I ran into Angela again; she says to tell you that Trent is looking for you."
"Oh," she giggled. "Then I'm glad I'm sitting out of sight; he's a terrible dancer."
"Don't look now, but he's headed this way," Nello said, spotting the stallion.
Trent's face broke into a smile as he came upon them. "Good evening, Nello. I see you've found the prettiest mare in the place."
"Definitely a contender," Nello admitted, looking at Amity in such a way that she lowered her eyes and blushed considerably.
"She did, however, promise me another dance."
"That was before she found out that combat boots were a requirement to survive a dance with you."
Trent feigned a hurt look. "Was my dancing such a disaster, Amity?"
"There is always room for improvement," the mare said, handing her glass to Nello as she stood and offered her hoof to Trent. "All you need is a little more practice." She turned and winked at Nello as Trent led her off.
For awhile, Nello stayed in the shelter of the alcove, looking out over the dance floor. He had to grin as he watched Trent and Amity; Trent was now so self-conscious of his movements that he had lost all suppleness and appeared more robotic than equine while Amity was obviously adding to his discomfort by appearing to be quite amused with his efforts.
Nello stayed in his nook until he was spotted by several co-workers who bore down on him. "Hiding in the corner is so unlike you, Nello," Elena shook her head. "Hydrangea said I should look you up for a dance."
"I'll keep your spot here reserved for you," grinned her companion, Cisani, one of the designers for Clare's Creations.
"I'm perfectly capable of finding my own partner for a dance," Nello complained, but he came forward to accompany Elena.
But at that moment, all the action in the room seemed to converge in their area as Clare and Giorgio joined their group and the ending of the musical number happened to land Ignacio and Mooncurl in front of them, too. Clare immediately went into action.
"Ignacio," she cajoled, "this is your last evening with us and I have yet to share a dance with you." She moved to his side and batted long, dark lashes at him.
"My pleasure, Clare," the stallion bowed. "You, my dear," he said to Mooncurl, "I will entrust to Giorgio."
Giorgio courteously advanced to receive his charge; and Clare, as if anxious to get to the dance, ushered Ignacio away. At the same time, Elena abandoned Nello to take Giorgio's hoof, and Cisani melted away into the crowd. All that remained were Nello and Mooncurl.
"May I have this dance?" Nello asked.
"I'd like nothing better," Mooncurl responded, allowing him to take her in his forelegs and lead her across the floor. Nello was vaguely conscious of Amity grinning at him, but he could not move his eyes from Mooncurl's face.
They moved without words until Mooncurl broke the silence. "I'm so glad to have this dance with you."
Nello's heart skipped a beat. Did she realize by now that Ignacio was a waste of her time? "I'm happy about it, too," he murmured, pulling her closer.
But Mooncurl prattled on. "I'm so hungry! And Ignacio refuses to eat at the buffet. He says he's never trusted food set out in that manner." She looked at him coquettishly. "Will you lead in that direction?"
His heart hitting rock bottom, Nello nevertheless agreed to escort her to the spread. "We can't have you starving," he said with a forced smile. He delivered her with a flourish near the tables. "What's m'lady's favor?" he asked gallantly.
"Some of each," she giggled.
This was the highlight of the evening for Nello, having Mooncurl at his side sampling the array of dishes as if they were a couple of foals let loose at a smorgasbord with nary a care in the world. They polished off a fair amount of food while engaging in playful chatter before Mooncurl grew thoughtful.
"You got my note the other evening?"
"I'm sorry I forgot; I didn't remember until I heard your message on the machine that you'd be late. And I felt I couldn't just call Ignacio at that time to cancel the date I made with him."
"Well, Clare was very explicit when she told me I was to do everything I could to make Ignacio's time here pleasant."
"I think Clare would have expected you to use common sense on that."
"You're angry with me?" she pouted.
"What do you think?"
"You've been a great friend."
"Friend... yeah, that's me-- always there when you need me."
"Is my make-up okay?"
"You look stunning."
"Thanks, Nello." Mooncurl smiled at him momentarily, then her eyes roved the room. "Oh, Ignacio seems to be looking for me." She moved off, then suddenly turned to look back at Nello. "Happy Valentine's Day."
She was gone before he could respond.
* * *
Having mixed with the party goers long enough, Nello began to melt toward the exit when he bumped into Amity.
"Sneaking out?" she said.
"I think I've been here long enough that Clare won't come down on me too hard."
"I was hoping for one more dance."
Nello looked down at her hooves. "You're up to it after all the dancing you've done with Trent tonight?"
"He has improved tremendously under my tutelage."
It was a slow song that the band played, and Nello and Amity joined the dance.
* * *
Moving across the floor in time to the music, Mooncurl was perfectly at peace with Ignacio's foreleg around her. The dancing could go on all night as far as she was concerned. She sighed contentedly as she looked into her partner's eyes, those warm brown eyes that saw her in a special light. Ignacio smiled at her. "I have found this past week to be splendid, Mooncurl."
"We worked well together, didn't we?" she replied.
"Very well." Ignacio's eyes held hers with such a tangible caress that in the moment he looked away, Mooncurl felt it as a physical slap. She also became aware of a change in him as his gaze fell on something-- or someone-- behind her. He pulled away slightly and seemed unconscious of her presence.
"What is it?" Mooncurl asked, turning her head to see what had impacted him in this way.
At the same time, across the room, Nello released a long, low whistle. "Now there's a face no one will soon forget," he said to Amity, nodding toward the entrance.
Amity turned to look, and caught her breath. "Nello, who is that? She's beautiful!"
* * *
If coming late was designed to make a spectacular entrance, Mirabella, watching discreetly out of the limelight, was pleased to see that her plan had worked perfectly. As her protegee, Heavenly Heart, came through the arched entrance that was wreathed in flowers and vines, the combined breath of the assembly of ponies seemed to halt as if it was one entity caught by the entrancing comeliness of the mare that Mirabella deemed to be the next super model in Ponyland and environs.
The mare who had caused such a stir was indeed beautiful, as Amity had observed-- one might even have said devastating. Her canary-yellow body, youthful and shapely, shimmered like starlight; her silver hair, swept up into clusters of curls which caught the light in ethereal scintillation, crowned her with majesty; her exquisite face framed with ringlets boasted eyes that would have put the purest amethyst to shame; the classic curve of her nose, the alert ears, and the ruby softness of her lips completed the flawless vision.
Many of the couples on the dance floor missed a step or two, then recovered; some dropped out to question their neighbors, "Who is she?" One stallion, however, took direct action.
Ignacio, halting his dance steps, led Mooncurl toward the vision of loveliness who was being introduced by Mirabella to Clare and Giorgio. Ignancio, however, stopped short when he neared the mare; turning to Mooncurl, he said, "Be a love and wait for me here." He flashed her a stiff smile, then left her alone as he made his way to the debutante.
The music just ending, Nello, ever aware of Mooncurl's whereabouts, joined her with Amity following. Mooncurl, looking lost and slightly forlorn, glanced at Nello and asked, "Who is that mare?" in a querulous voice.
"That's the model that Mirabella has been grooming, I would imagine. I'd heard rumors."
"That's Heavenly Heart?" gasped Mooncurl, her face stricken. "No pony can be that perfect!"
She watched as Ignacio put himself forward, placing himself at Heavenly Heart's command. The belle obviously accepted his invitation, for they moved to take their place on the dance floor, causing Mooncurl to utter a low cry.
Nello took her hoof in his and, in the company of Amity, guided Mooncurl to the sanctuary of one of the alcoves, but she refused to sit down, preferring to stand where she could keep a sharp eye on the couple that now dominated the scene, as most of the guests were satisfied to watch the glamorous pair from the sidelines.
What pained Mooncurl the most was the way Ignacio now showered Heavenly Heart with as radiant a look as he minutes earlier had bestowed upon her. By the time that the dance ended, Mooncurl was not only hurt; she was very, very angry.
Mooncurl showed the good sense not to accost Ignacio immediately, but waited until he and Heavenly Heart conversed with ponies anxious to meet the latest diva; after some time, Heavenly Heart, with a whispered promise to Ignacio sealed with a glorious smile, floated off with one of Clare's guests.
Mooncurl saw her chance, and made a beeline across the floor to Ignacio. When she reached the stallion, she swallowed her pride and her anger, and simply suggested, "Let's get something to drink." Taking his hoof, she led him away; Nello and Amity, hovering in the background but prepared to back Mooncurl if trouble developed, were then intercepted by Lemon Treats and Poeticus.
"Sugarberry and Vanguard were very impressed with your Winsome shots," she told the photographer, "and everyone else in Dream Valley, too."
"Thanks," Nello absently responded while Amity stepped into the breach.
"Angela tells me you have a boutique in Dream Valley; my name's Amity, by the way, and I'm involved in getting Clare's fabulous creations produced."
While Amity kept Lemon Treats and Poeticus otherwise engaged, Nello was free to monitor Mooncurl's success-- or lack of it-- with Ignacio.
* * *
When the two ponies reached a relatively quiet part of the hall, Ignacio pulled his hoof away from Mooncurl, forcing her to stop and face him. She did not like what she saw; those warm brown eyes had now turned cold, brooding and bitter. The words he said were laced with frost. "Heavenly Heart expects me to share the next dance with her; she had requested a waltz from the musicians."
"She's very beautiful."
"More than beautiful." He began to turn away.
"I'll be waiting for a dance of my own," Mooncurl persisted.
Ignacio looked back at her with a haughty and disagreeable expression on his face. "Could you find someone else to walk you back to your hotel? I have implied to Heavenly Heart that I'm not committed to anyone, and she expects me to escort her."
"My contract with Clare is over, Mooncurl. I don't have to ingratiate myself in her interests any further."
"What do you mean by that?" Mooncurl quivered.
"Do I have to spell it out for you?" he said in a derisive manner. "You are one of the star models I condescended to work with; but as of tonight, you have become an encumbrance; there is a rising star on the horizon with whom I intend to share the glory." He cast one last withering look at her and left.
No tears came; no angry words erupted; but Mooncurl would not have been able to move from the spot if Nello had not come with his support. He had not heard the words Ignacio spoke, but he had read well the dismissive attitude of the stallion. "You look exhausted Mooncurl; let me walk you home." And to Amity, he added, "Say goodnight to the others for us."
Mooncurl allowed herself to be guided toward the floral arch which no longer seemed quite so lovely as it had on her arrival; but before she passed under it, she looked back as the strains of the waltz began. Her eyes sought only one pony; and seeing his attention spent, she dropped her gaze and submitted to Nello's steadying hoof.
No words were spoken as they walked to the hotel, but Nello could not leave the mare at her door without some reassurance to her. "Everything will look brighter in the morning."
Those words broke the dam, and Mooncurl's tears began to flow. "How can you say it will be better?" she sobbed. "I've lost him."
Nello gathered her to him as the tears continued to fall, giving her his strength and support while wishing that things could be different... that she could be in his forelegs because she wanted to be there, not because her heart was broken over another stallion. Nello would have stood there for eternity, but Mooncurl's tears came to an end and she sullenly pulled away.
"I can't believe it's all over; it wasn't supposed to end this way." She was thinking of the happy endings in the books her mother had sent; the mare was always caught in a crushing embrace by her stallion of choice.
"But it is over," Nello said somewhat caustically.
"Why can't anyone love me?" She looked up at Nello, her eyes too clouded with tears to see the emotion that swept over him, being asked such a question and having that love to give.