For Your Consideration...
written by Sugarberry

"This was a good idea... to get away from that crowd," Guido said to Tiffany as he helped her get seated. The two ponies had left Tabby and Thomas' wedding reception to find a quiet place to talk. The Café Carousel was nearly deserted, providing the perfect setting for a cozy tete-a-tete. Flower Bouquet had directed them to an out-of-the way table where their privacy was assured, and had scampered off to fetch each of them a cup of espresso.

Tiffany, still wearing her floral crown, responded with a smile. "Yes. The riffraff that Tabby invited to her wedding was appalling." Mental images of Davey and Jones and the Xtreme Ponies-- not to mention Malteeze and the rest of Barnacle's crew-- caused a frown to temporarily darken her face, but it was replaced with her most dazzling smile when Guido grinned at her.

"Not your idea of the ideal ceremony?" he asked, his mane still slightly damp from his unorthodox encounter with the punch bowl.

"Actually, the ceremony itself was nice; but the quality of the guests was rather demeaning. I think Tabby should have been more careful with her invitations."

"I was surprised, too, that Agatha went along with her daughter's plans," Guido agreed.

Tiffany sighed like one persecuted. "Agatha has become way too lenient since her husband has returned home."

"As I hadn't met Hubert until today, I was unaware of that development in the Fershund character," Guido reflected. "I'm surprised that a pony of her breeding would have become entangled with such an... eccentric stallion."

"Yes. How Agatha puts up with either of them is beyond me!" Tiffany complained. Then, smiling sweetly, she asked, "How was your flight to Dream Valley?"

"Excellent, of course. I have my own private jet, you know."

Tiffany raised her eyebrows, greatly impressed. "You do? How convenient! And you travel all over the world?"

"I keep a close eye on my investments, and am constantly searching for new ventures that will increase my financial coffers," Guido responded smugly. "Macrohard is still expanding its horizons."

"Macrohard..." Tiffany wrinkled her brow in thought. "I've heard that name before."

"You may have heard it on the news," Guido sighed. "First there was that problem in court with the internet software, and now this whole monopoly business."

"That's it!" Tiffany exclaimed. "So you really are wealthy!"

"Quite wealthy," Guido acknowledged. "And I intend to stay that way."

"Your life must be very exciting!" Tiffany drank in the richness of her companion.

"And I would think that the life of a princess would have its advantages, too," Guido smiled.

"Well, some, I guess," the princess admitted. "But with so many of us princesses available, it seems as if we are not truly appreciated. And many of the citizens take us for granted, as if we are nothing but commoners."

"I can't truly believe that, Tiffany," replied Guido. "You radiate royalty."

"I do?" coyly asked the princess as her eyelashes instinctively fluttered furiously.

Guido leaned forward, and covered Tiffany's hoof with his own. "You are the most charming pony I've ever had the pleasure of meeting."

A rosy glow lit up the white cheeks of the princess. "Enough about me, Guido. Please tell me more about yourself."

"You've heard about my jet and my business, but I also own a large villa on the edge of Vulcanopolis; some say that it is rather extravagant, but I find it a fitting place to relax at the end of a long day of business."

"I'm sure you do," Tiffany agreed. "Describe the house for me!" she urged.

Guido was more than pleased to comply. "It's a rambling country home surrounded by floral gardens that are beautiful to behold. The dining room is huge, and the walls are decorated with colorful frescoes of life in early Vulcanopolis-- very impressive if I do say so myself."

"It sounds delightful!"

"The living room has a tile floor done in a mosaic pattern of shades of blue and green, and there is a sunken fountain in the center of the room surrounded by potted plants. And then there is the private ballroom."

Tiffany nearly swooned. "Oh, Guido, it's magnificent!"

"I'd like to show it to you personally someday, Tiffany."

The princess, however, changed the subject. "Tabitha and Thomas will have a mansion, but it is nothing compared to your home, I'm sure."

"I hear that Agatha and her husband gave the family dwelling to the new bride and groom as a wedding gift," Guido prompted.

"Yes, that's true. Tabitha and Thomas would never have been able to afford such a place on their own." She took a sip of her coffee, then cast an inquisitive glance at Guido. "This friend of yours-- Clare-- she and you are very close?"

"We grew up next door to each other and went to school together. After college, I helped her get her fashion house up and running. So, yes, I guess you could say we are close."

"Oh," Tiffany responded with a bit less spirit in her voice, and with a great deal more frigidity to it. But Guido seemed not to notice.

"I was able to get my computer company started while I was still in school, and it took off so well that I was already quite established by the time I graduated. The business has mushroomed since its founding, which has put me in a rather sweet financial position." He paused as he noticed that Tiffany seemed to have lost interest in his life history.

Noticing his puzzled look, Tiffany continued to interrogate him on the one fact that now bothered her. "So you and Clare are more than just business partners?"

Guido reflected for a moment before answering. "Clare and I are great friends, actually. I've always confided in her, and she in me."

"I see." Tiffany's manner visibly cooled.

Sensing a loss of companionship from the dazzling white pegasus across from him, Guido sat in a quandary for several seconds before he realized what he had said to alienate her. Brightening, he said, "Clare's kind of like a sister... someone to watch out for and to keep out of trouble. We've never been more than just... friends."

Those words came to Tiffany's troubled mind like salve to a blistering hoof. "Really?" she asked in a honey-coated purr.

The two had been concentrating on each other so much that they had not noticed the entrance of another couple from the day's wedding. Princess Dawn and Perry Winkle had entered the café and were being seated by Flower Bouquet at a table across the room. Dawn, however, caught sight of Guido and Tiffany in their secluded corner, and came directly to them with Perry following close behind.

"So this is where you ran off to!" Dawn chided Tiffany. "Poor Toby has been looking everywhere for you!"

"T... Toby?" stuttered the princess. "Whatever for?"

"Because he and you were supposed to be sharing a dance."

"Well, I... that is, Guido and I... we needed to talk."

"So what about Toby?" questioned Dawn.

Tiffany was getting exasperated. "So what about Toby? Toby can do as he pleases, just as I can. And right now I am here with Guido."

Princess Dawn looked bewildered. "You are just going to let Toby worry about you for nothing?" She cast a withering glance at Guido for good measure.

"It might be just what he needs," Tiffany affirmed with a wave of her hoof, which sent Dawn and Perry back to their own table.

"She can be so cruel!" Dawn hissed to Perry. Flower Bouquet was just coming to take their order when Dawn grabbed Perry's foreleg and whispered, "Let's go find Toby!" And with a look of astonishment, Flower Bouquet watched her two most recent customers dash out of the building.

"And Toby... he is a very close friend?" Guido asked in imitation of Tiffany's earlier query.

Tiffany smiled. "He has been a friend of sorts, but nothing special... just a friend." She stopped short of her constant refrain concerning the absence of a diamond ring on her foreleg.

Guido sat in silent contemplation for a time; and then, as if making up his mind on something, spoke. "Tiffany, when I came here today, I thought that my destiny was drawing me to Dream Valley because of Tabby; but now, I think that destiny had an entirely different path for me... although it centers here."

Smiling dreamily, Tiffany agreed. "I think I know exactly what you mean."

"Could you suggest a hotel where I might stay? I think that I'd like to spend a few days in your lovely city."

"That would be Regal Ridges," Tiffany stated. "It's four blocks east of here."

"Great!" Guido was in good humor. "And may I take this opportunity to invite you to have dinner with me tomorrow evening at the most glamorous spot in town?"

"I'd be delighted!" Tiffany cooed.

"And now I should be walking you back to your abode," Guido offered, rising to assist the princess out of her chair. They had just reached the door when it opened, revealing a purple stallion with yellow hair.

"Toby!" Tiffany stated in surprise, a soft pink blush spreading across her cheeks. "What are you doing here?"

Toby looked from Tiffany to Guido, and back to Tiffany. "I was worried about you, Tiffany. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

Guido put a foreleg protectively across Tiffany's. "She's fine. I'll see to that."

But somewhere within the depths of Tiffany's heart, a tiny bit of guilt began eating away at her. She smiled at Guido. "I really do owe Toby some of my time tonight, Guido. You won't forget about our plans for tomorrow evening, will you?" The fluttering of her eyelashes punctuated the question.

Guido reluctantly relinquished his possession of the princess over to Toby while keeping his gaze on Tiffany. "I'll call you tomorrow with the details," he promised.

"Goodnight, Guido," murmured Tiffany, and she shifted her attention to the rather dejected-looking stallion in the doorway. "Toby, you may walk me home now."

Toby shot a quick glance at Guido, but neither stallion said a word. Toby guided the princess from the Café Carousel leaving Guido standing alone; the two ponies walked in silence in the direction of the Royal Paradise.

After some time, Toby made an attempt to break through the cloak of isolation that Tiffany seemed to have engulfed herself in. "You were very lovely as a bridesmaid, Tiffany."

Tiffany briefly reached up and touched the floral headpiece as if reminding herself that she had actually been in the wedding party that day. She smiled sweetly, but not at Toby.

Toby tried again. "You seemed rather distant today, Tiffany."

"Did I?" she responded. "I hadn't noticed... the wedding and all..." Her voice faded away.

The waiting lights of Royal Paradise illuminated the couple before Toby spoke again. "You're attracted to that Guido, aren't you?"

Tiffany glanced sharply at Toby, and attempted to contradict him, but fell silent. Toby waited patiently until she found the right words. "I find him to be a fascinating stallion, yes." She found the courage to look into Toby's eyes. "I think I would like to get to know him better. He's rich, Toby! He's got his own plane and a magnificent villa and he heads a very successful company! Just think of the things that I could do... the princess that I could be!"

That revelation should have hurt, but Toby was surprised to find that it didn't; it simply made him feel empty inside. He stared into Tiffany's eyes, remembering the good times and the bad, and reached up to touch her mane as if for the last time. "You are free to do what your heart tells you, you know."

"And you wouldn't mind too much, Toby?" she asked, visible relief flooding her face.

"No, Tiffany. I only want you to be happy." He leaned toward her, and gently kissed her cheek. Then with a last pensive look at the pegasus before him, he whispered a final goodnight.

Tiffany watched him turn to go and for a brief moment felt a twinge of regret, but instantly visualized the bright yellow Italian stallion waiting to show her the best things in life, the things she had always craved after as her princessly due. As she considered the possibilities that a friendship with Guido might entail, she gave one last thought to Toby.

"Toby?" she called.

The melancholy demeanor of the purple stallion lifted for a moment as he swung his gaze back to Tiffany... but only for a very brief moment. "Yes, Tiffany?"

The sparkly-haired princess had the last word. "Goodbye!" she called cheerfully, waving a hoof as she opened the front door and disappeared inside.

* * *

The town house in Vulcanopolis that Saturday stood empty with Vanguard in Dream Valley for the wedding-- empty and silent. Yet in the third story guest room there was movement as the bookcase that stood against the shared wall with Ivetta and Gile's home slowly began to swing away from its position. A giggle was heard as Ivetta, and then Marissa-- a younger pale blue mare with yellow mane and tail-- appeared through the opening concealed by the shelving.

"You're positive he's gone?" Marissa whispered.

Ivetta answered in a normal voice. "Yes, I'm sure of it. He's away in Dream Valley." But after a moment, she said, "Just to be on the safe side, let's go through the entire place."

The young mares cautiously descended the two flights of stairs to reach the ground floor, and checked all the rooms for any sign of Vanguard's presence; once they had been through the entire structure, they both relaxed.

"What is it you're supposed to snoop out for Giorgio this time?" Marissa queried while leafing through a magazine on the kitchen table; finding it too technical for her tastes, she threw it aside.

"A book," Ivetta frowned. "A book of love poems."

Looking around the room, Marissa advised, "Then shouldn't we maybe, like, find a bookshelf or something?"

Ivetta rolled her eyes. "I know there are some books in the living room on the second floor, and then there is the big bookshelf that hides our entrance. I don't think Vanguard has anything but textbooks in the den."

The two went back up the first flight of stairs. "I just love these curving stairways," Marissa sighed. "I wish I had a place like this."

"Well, don't plan on it if you stay mixed-up with Giorgio," counseled Ivetta.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Marissa edgily replied. "You're on his payroll, and you're doing okay."

"And what happens if we get caught?" Ivetta asked passionately. "I don't like any of this."

"Then why are you involved?"

Ivetta threw herself down on the black leather sofa. "Because I made some really dumb decisions in my life."

"Such as?" Marissa seated herself, sinking into the couch's softness.

"Such as buying test answers to Giorgio's class while I was in my first year of college," Ivetta confided. "Even though I aced math, I flunked out in most of the other subjects."

"Really?" Marissa was surprised. "I thought you were smart."

"I am smart," Ivetta defended herself. "I said I made some dumb decisions."

"Well, that still doesn't explain to me how you got involved in Giorgio's side business from this end."

Ivetta sighed. "It's rather ironic. After I flunked out, I met Giles; and my life seemed to be going great. We got married, and moved into the town house next door."

"So far, so good."

"The stallion that lived here when we first arrived was from Ponyland; his name was Decagon, and he was very friendly and helpful. But as it turned out, he was just temporary; when that school year ended, he moved back to his home; and Giorgio came back to the town house."

"Did he remember you as one of his students?"

"Remember me?" Ivetta spat bitterly. "Down to the last detail! He came out one evening while I was watering flowers, and casually mentioned that he knew about my cheating during his class that year."

"What did you say?"

"I told him it hadn't done me any good anyway, and he told me that maybe not back then, but it could prove beneficial for me now. He went on to outline some work I could do for him."

"So that's when he got you hooked into his scam."

"I said no, that I wouldn't help him," Ivetta justified herself. "But he threatened to tell Giles about my dishonesty, and you know how my husband feels about cheating, Marissa."

"You realize that what you are doing now is basically the same as cheating, don't you?" Marissa asked.

"Now I do, but at the time I was too upset to think straight. He said all I had to do was to keep track of all the 'purchases' made by the students; he even bought a computer for me to use."

"How did you explain that to Giles?"

"I told him that Mom had gotten it for me to keep household accounts on. And that's basically all I had to do the first year, keep Giorgio's accounts. But when he went on another of those exchange things, he showed me the secret door between the two houses, and told me he expected me to keep track of the new teacher who would be moving in-- like where he kept the test sheets and things like that. Before I knew it, I was stealing test keys and duplicating for the runners that Giorgio had on campus."

"Like me," Marissa grinned.

Ivetta stood up, and ran a hoof over the books on the end table next to the couch. "These are all too big; Giorgio said that it's a slim book with a bright red cover." She led the way back to the third floor. The two interlopers first went into the den to have a look around.

"Hey! Is Vanguard married?" Marissa asked as she caught sight of the framed picture on the desk.

"No, she's just his friend," replied Ivetta. "Giorgio was interested to find that out."

"Why would he care about something like that?"

"He collects information about ponies."

Marissa swung her head in Ivetta's direction. "Information? What do you mean by that?"

"He finds things out about... them," Ivetta answered, then seemed to regret her words. She immediately changed the subject. "Vanguard always keeps his briefcase locked. That's something else I've got to do-- find the key and get a duplicate made."

The desk was locked, too, so the mares checked out all the other likely places, but to no avail. They then retraced their steps through the entire house, but came up empty-hooved. "Giorgio isn't going to be too pleased about this," Ivetta grumbled. "But there's nothing more we can do about the key. Let's try to find that book again."

She and Marissa returned to the spare bedroom through which they had originally entered the town house, and began a perusal of the bookshelf. "Do you remember the title?" Marissa asked.

But just then, Ivetta pulled a red-covered volume from the shelf. "This must be it," she exclaimed "Poems of Life and Love. It meets the description." She began thumbing through the thin book; then, when no picture became visible, she held the book by the spine and turned it upside-down. Still no picture. Shaking the book irritably, she screamed, "Where is that stupid picture?"

Marissa grabbed the book from her accomplice, and searched through it thoroughly. "It's not here, Ivetta."

"Shhh... did you hear that?" Both mares stood in complete silence. Somewhere in the depths of the building, a door closed. "Giles must have gotten home early!" Ivetta whispered in a panicked voice. "Quick! We've got to get out of here!"

Swiftly stashing the book on the shelf, Marissa then helped ease the bookshelf away from the wall, and they disappeared into the chasm that was revealed. As the case settled once more into position with an audible click, a lone book dropped to the floor.

* * *

The morning after the wedding, Vanguard approached the back door of Sugarberry's house and knocked. He had slipped from the motel early, leaving a message for his parents that he would breakfast with Sugarberry rather than join the morning gathering that Agatha was hosting for all the out-of-towners. Clare, too, would be attending Agatha's function, so Vanguard chose this time to sneak away for some private time.

It was Strawberry Shortcake who opened the door. "Good morning, Vanguard. Come on in," she invited. "Sugarberry is sleeping-in this morning, but you're welcome to a cup of coffee while I stir up some muffins." She bustled to the counter and poured coffee for Vanguard, and set the steaming mug before him at the table. "You're up bright and early," she commented as she went back to her baking.

"Didn't want to waste any time while I'm back in Dream Valley," the county blue stallion grinned.

"Strawberry Baskets was up early, too. He likes to walk through town every time we come back to see all the improvements and changes that have occurred."

"You've been in Berryville for how long now?" Vanguard queried.

"It will be coming up on seven years. Sugarberry had just graduated from high school. And you know, it all seems like just yesterday," Strawberry Shortcake mused. "But on the other hoof, I guess a lot has happened since then. Look at Tabby... all grown up and married now. She and Thomas sure looked happy yesterday, didn't they?"

"Yes, they did," said Vanguard.

"Well, they'll have a good life ahead of them," she predicted as she put the muffins in the oven, and got herself some coffee. She sat across from Vanguard at the table while Raptor, the black-tiger kitten, sat on a chair and watched them with half-closed eyes. "And how about you? How long can you stay here in Dream Valley?"

"Just until tomorrow, I'm afraid. Clare and I are scheduled to fly out after lunch... unless she can persuade Guido to fly us out on his own jet."

"Clare's a lovely mare. She seems to think highly of this Guido."

"Yes, " Vanguard replied, "although Guido might not realize just how highly."

"Guido did seem a bit taken with Princess Tiffany yesterday," Strawberry Shortcake agreed. "What did Clare think of that?"

"She's used to his ways," Vanguard guardedly admitted.

"And things are going well with you in Vulcanopolis?"

"As well as can be expected," said Vanguard. "But I'll be glad to get back to Pony Pride for good in December." He took advantage of a pause in the conversation to reach a hoof into the backpack that he had set on the floor, removing a photograph. "I've been hoping that we'd get a chance to talk alone," he informed Strawberry Shortcake.

"I thought you had something on your mind that was bothering you," she acknowledged. "What is it?"

He leaned across the table, setting the picture upside-down on the table ahead of her. "I found this in a book at Giorgio's Italian home," he explained.

Strawberry Shortcake stared at the back of the picture; even without seeing the image captured by the camera, she knew what it was. She slowly reached out, and turned the photo over-- a photo of herself, her two eldest daughters, and Giorgio, Sr.

"And so it still comes back to haunt me?" she said in a soft voice. She looked up to face Vanguard's penetrating gaze. "They say it's a small world, and I guess this proves it."

"I don't know the history of that photograph, but I thought it was best if I brought it to you."

Returning her gaze to the photo, Strawberry Shortcake remained silent for a time. "I didn't expect to ever see this picture again; there were only two copies, and one has already been destroyed."

"I hope it hasn't upset you," stated Vanguard anxiously. "I could have left it where it was, or gotten rid of it myself."

"No, you have a right to know the story behind it." She placed the picture on the table between them. "This is Giorgio, the father of the teacher who has taken your place at Pony Pride. Sugarberry's father and I met him on an out-of-town excursion, and Giorgio and I had the opportunity to spend several pleasant afternoons together watching over Raspberry and Gooseberry while their father was learning more about fruit propagation." She stopped to relive some of the memories that were again flooding her mind.

"This was before Sugarberry was born?" Vanguard asked softly, considering the possibilities presented by the image before him.

"Two months before, to be exact," Strawberry Shortcake replied with a smile, reading the stallion's mind. "Giorgio and I spent our time sipping lemonade by the pool side while the girls played with the other foals staying at our hotel. It was all very innocent, but Strawberry Baskets frowned upon my befriending the dashing, dark green stallion anyway."

"I can well imagine," frowned Vanguard, remembering his mistrust of Wigwam.

Strawberry Shortcake caught the innuendo in his brief statement. "Don't worry about Sugarberry," she commiserated. "Her heart is solely yours."

The smile that lit Vanguard's face at hearing those words was stored away in Strawberry Shortcake's mental file of unforgettable treasures; Vanguard had won a spot in her heart simply by loving her daughter.

But for the present moment, she continued their previous conversation. "Sugarberry knows the story of myself and Giorgio, and she is free to discuss it with you if you want to know more about it, and there are some interesting details I've left out. But please don't mention it around Strawberry Baskets; after all these years, he is still a bit sensitive about it."

"Of course, I won't."

"And Vanguard, if I can offer you a bit of advice, don't ever allow secrets to get in the way of your life with Sugarberry."

"Did I hear my name mentioned?" asked Sugarberry as she entered the kitchen with Fluff trailing behind. " 'Morning, Mom." She slipped into the chair next to Vanguard, linking her foreleg with his. "I thought I heard your voice. It's so good to find you sitting in my kitchen again!"

"It feels like home," he smiled, and kissed her cheek.

The oven buzzer informed the trio that the muffins were done; before going to the oven, however, Strawberry Shortcake instructed Vanguard, "Show her the picture; then, please burn it."

A puzzled Sugarberry looked from one to the other, and Vanguard pointed out the photo still lying on the table. "Mom, I thought you had destroyed it years ago!" She picked it up to study it more closely. "Giorgio does look exactly like his father." She glanced at Vanguard. "And acts like him, too."

"Your mom has told me the story behind the picture. I found this copy accidentally in Giorgio's town house. It's amazing how our lives have been thrown together again now."

"Isn't it? To think that of all the teachers in Vulcanopolis, the one sent to Pony Pride would be this stallion's son. But even more astounding is that you would come across this picture while there."

Strawberry Shortcake set a baking pan on the table and a book of matches. "Right now?" Vanguard questioned.

"The sooner the better, in my estimation," responded Strawberry Shortcake.

So, lighting the match, Vanguard had soon disposed of all traces of the photo. Rinsing the ashes down the drain, Strawberry Shortcake breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm glad that's done with."

At that moment, the back door opened to reveal Strawberry Baskets arriving back from his walk. He carried a basket of grapes, fresh from the vine. "I smell freshly-baked muffins," he observed, sniffing the air. "Although they might be a tad over-baked," he added, catching the scent of burning.

"The muffins are perfect," his wife informed him, shoving a plate of the delicately browned blueberry delights under his nose. "You got back just in time."

"I stopped by Leafy's place, and he picked these grapes for us," he explained about the basket of fruit. He set them on the table, and pulled up a chair. As soon as he sat down, Raptor jumped onto his lap.

"They look scrumptious," exclaimed Sugarberry, helping herself to a bunch. "Yum. They taste best fresh off the vine."

"No kidding," mumbled Vanguard as she fed him some.

"Leafy was asking about the wedding, and wondered if Tabby had ever learned to cook," Strawberry Baskets stated. "I told him that if she and Thomas are setting-up a new home, she must have gained some culinary experience somewhere along the line."

Sugarberry giggled. "No such luck. The gang went together on her shower, and got her a beautiful and expensive set of pots and pans. Tabby wasn't impressed."

"She'll learn over time," determined Strawberry Shortcake. "If you will remember," she directed at her husband, "I wasn't of much use in the kitchen when we were first married either."

"Then there is hope for Tabby," declared Vanguard as he took a bite of muffin. "These are delicious!" Fluff sat patiently next to his chair, waiting for any crumbs that might drop.

"Can Thomas cook?" Strawberry Baskets asked. "I'm not half bad, if I have to get something ready." He winked at his wife. Then, seeing Chocolate Chip standing in the doorway, he called, "Well, sleepyhead, you finally decided to wake up! Come, join the party!" He moved a chair out for the brown filly.

"Did you leave anything for me to eat?" she grinned as she hugged the stallion before sitting down. "Good morning, everybody!" she greeted the rest of the ponies. "Nice to see you here, too, Vanguard."

"No place I'd rather be," he confessed.

"What's the plan for the rest of the day?" Strawberry Baskets asked. "I need to know when I can fit in a nap later on."

"And you call my sleepyhead!" tormented Chocolate Chip, much to Strawberry Shortcake's delight.

"You'll keep him in line," she patted the filly's hoof. "As for the schedule-- after church, we will get ready for lunch. Vanguard's folks will be here along with Clare and Wigwam, and our girls, of course." She looked at the assembled ponies for verification. As the heads all nodded in agreement, she continued. "We'll spend a quiet afternoon visiting, as Grapevine and family will be leaving for their home later on about the same time that Floral Breeze and Whirlpool say they want to get underway; is that correct, Vanguard?"

"Yup. They want to get on the road by four o'clock to get them back to Woodlawn by dark. And Sugarberry, Clare, and I are dining with Giorgio at the Estate Manor this evening."

Strawberry Baskets choked on his coffee as he heard that name mentioned. "'Scuse me," he apologized, looking at his wife. "I'll never get used to hearing that name again."

Chocolate Chip perked up. "Am I missing something?"

"Nothing, really," Strawberry Shortcake explained. "Sugarberry's dad and I met Giorgio's father years ago..."

"And his name was Giorgio, too," interjected Sugarberry.

"And Strawberry Baskets wasn't too impressed with the stallion," Strawberry Shortcake finished.

"He's smooth, Dad says," Chocolate Chip recalled. "And I'll have him for one of my classes when school starts." She looked to Vanguard with pleading eyes while clasping his hoof in hers. "Please say you're staying in Dream Valley for the first semester classes!"

"Yes, please do!" chimed in Sugarberry. She threw her forelegs around his neck for emphasis.

Vanguard looked totally distraught. "Stop, you two! You know that I have to leave for Vulcanopolis tomorrow!"

Feeling sorry for the stallion, Strawberry Shortcake intervened. "Girls, If you have so much energy, you can get started on the dishes. And Strawberry Baskets, didn't you want Vanguard's help with that broken hoe handle?"

The ponies dispersed, and the morning proceeded smoothly. It was later in the day that Sugarberry and Vanguard joined in pleasant conversation with their families and guests.

"That orange chocolate cheesecake was fabulous," Floral Breeze complimented Strawberry Shortcake. "I've got to have the recipe."

"Yes, Mom," Sugarberry agreed. "The white chocolate and the mandarin oranges were perfect together." She, Vanguard, and Raspberry were helping with the dishes while Chocolate Chip and Clare were out on the lawn playing a game of croquet with Gooseberry and Grapevine's foals. The sounds of their excited laughter carried through the open kitchen window. Little Baby Gooseberry, the newborn foal, had needed her mother's attention and was now being sung to sleep in the quiet living room. Strawberry Baskets, Whirlpool, Wigwam, and Grapevine were engaged in a game of poker, playing for sugar cubes.

"And it's easy to make," Strawberry Shortcake informed them. "Just remember to drain the oranges thoroughly."

"I remember when Vanguard was young and decided to fix himself a snack. He cooked up a box of pasta for macaroni and cheese, but didn't realize the need to drain the macaroni after they were cooked," Floral Breeze shared.

"Mom!" protested Vanguard.

Floral Breeze ignored her son. "But he added the cheese packet, butter, and milk, and ended up with cheese and pasta soup, which might have been good if it wasn't for the watery consistency."

"It was disgusting," Vanguard admitted.

Sugarberry giggled. "I'm glad Chocolate Chip isn't in the room to squeal on me," she said, remembering her pan of water-logged brownies."

Vanguard raised an eyebrow. "Is this something I should know about?"

"Let's just say that not all my attempts at baking turn out right," she confessed. Turning to Floral Breeze, she asked. "Are there any other cute little stories about Vanguard that I might be interested in?"

"Enough already," Vanguard put his hoof down. "I've been picked on adequately for one day!"

But Floral Breeze was happy to continue. "The worst he ever did was break an antique vase."

"That she found about, anyway..." Vanguard quipped as an aside.

"My oldest son, Stillwater, was watching the other two colts while their dad and I went to a business function. Stillwater wasn't too interested in taking an active role in his responsibilities, and ended up spending the entire time in his room listening to music and talking on the phone. In the meantime, Vanguard was practicing softball in the house, which was a definite no-no, and ended up hitting the vase with a wild ball. The vase broke into a number of pieces."

Interjecting a point of fact, Vanguard said, "Seven, to be exact. I remember because I thought it was strange at the time that the number of pieces matched my age."

"Well, not to be caught with an obvious misdemeanor, Vanguard decided to glue the thing back together, which he did."

"And it looked pretty good, too," the stallion recalled.

"He replaced in on the walnut table in the corner of the room where it had stood for many years, and thought he was free and clear. But Icon, who was just a toddler at the time, had seen his brother working on the vase and went over to check it out. He had the misfortune to trip over the carpeting, and succeeded in knocking the vase to the floor a second time."

"Oh, no," Sugarberry gasped.

"Whirlpool and I happened to arrive home just then, and found Icon in tears with the shattered vase laying at his hooves. 'Me knocked vase down,' he admitted, while Vanguard kept his mouth shut. After I had reprimanded Icon for playing too roughly in the house, I relegated him to his room and returned to pick up the pieces of the vase. That's when I found the broken edges all covered with glue, and knew that more had occurred than I was aware of."

"Oops!" Raspberry sympathized with a glance at Vanguard.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Naughty baby pony," Sugarberry frowned at her friend, shaking her head.

"Hey! What did I do? Icon told Mom that he'd knocked the vase off the table, and he had. No one asked me for any information, so I just kept quiet," Vanguard defended himself.

"To his credit, Vanguard came forward when he realized that the truth was going to come out and admitted what had actually happened," she ended her story on a positive note.

"Just imagine what I had to go through," said Raspberry. "I not only had to put up with Sugarberry; but as Tabby was with her half the time, I had both of them to contend with. I think they purposely targeted me as their victim."

"For example?" Vanguard inquired.

"They'd fill the entire house with those My Little People dolls. Agatha must have gotten every one of them for Tabby, and Sugarberry had a large enough bunch of them herself."

"There was nothing wrong with us playing with our dolls," Sugarberry reminded her sister.

"That's true. But you had dolls and doll playsets all over the place. A pony couldn't sit down or take a step for fear of squashing one of them."

"It really wasn't that bad," whispered Sugarberry to Vanguard.

"The embarrassing part was that whenever a colt came over to study with me, those two would hold a wedding ceremony in some conspicuous place where it was impossible to ignore them."

"Driftwood was one of those suitors," she mentioned conspiratorially to Vanguard. "And it was just coincidence that the guys chose to come over at the time the weddings were held."

Raspberry ignored the interruption. "Well, all I know for sure is that each of you had only one male doll. Let's see... Tabby's was Kevin, I believe, and Sugarberry... yours was...?"

"Grant," Sugarberry provided.

"Yes, Grant. Tabby would always insist that Kevin be the groom-- he must have married every doll in the house at one time or another-- and Grant always had to stand in as the priest."

"It obviously was good practice," Sugarberry retorted. "Tabby was absolutely beautiful as a bride, and she performed wonderfully. Wasn't her burst of eloquence at the wedding the best? If anyone had any doubts as to her sincerity, they were answered fully with that reply to Guido. And Thomas-- he looked like the happiest stallion on the face of the earth." She sighed. "It was so romantic!"

"It was very sentimental; I had tears running down my cheeks," Strawberry Shortcake admitted, hanging up the used dish towels.

The dishes being finished, the group went their separate ways to enjoy the afternoon. Strawberry Shortcake and Floral Breeze went into the living room to check on Gooseberry and the foal. Raspberry joined the poker game, and Wigwam opted to get outside "with the foals," he said-- but everyone knew that Chocolate Chip was the draw. He, Vanguard, and Sugarberry went out back to watch the croquet game in progress. Sugarberry was pleased to note that Vanguard and Wigwam had entered into a much more companionable friendship since Chocolate Chip had captured Wigwam's attention.

Gooseberry's eldest daughter, Wineberry, was attempting to drill the ball through the last two hoops with miserable results. Huckleberry, her younger brother, whooped with pleasure every time she missed.

"Here, let me show you how to do that," Wigwam said to the discouraged foal. He took the mallet from her hooves and demonstrated the proper form; then, guiding her as she made her shot, the ball went smoothly through the hoops, hitting the stick.

"No fair helping," chided Chocolate Chip as she saw the downcast face of Huckleberry. "To make this impartial, I'll have to help Huckleberry a bit." She guided his small hooves on the mallet, and between the two of them, made a decent play.

Laughing, Clare protested. "Who's playing this game anyway, the foals or the adults?"

"Me no play anymore," stated Huckleberry, throwing his mallet to the ground. "Hunt bugs, Winebee?" He tugged insistently at his sister.

"Let's go get a jar from Grandma first," Wineberry instructed.

As the foals ran off, Wigwam issued a challenge. "Anyone think they can beat me at a game of croquet?" He picked up a mallet, and took a few practice shots.

"I know I can," Chocolate Chip responded as she grabbed one as well.

"I'm in," said Vanguard.

"Me, too," chimed Clare.

Sugarberry reluctantly agreed, knowing she was doomed to failure.

So then began a competitive round of croquet with a fairly even beginning. But it was a no holds barred approach when it came to shooting the opponent's ball away. Sugarberry groaned as Wigwam sent hers to the far reaches of the lawn. "Thanks, buddy," she griped as she realized how far it had gone.

Soon Vanguard did the same to Clare, but Chocolate Chip showed her mettle by sending Vanguard's into the outer limits as well. On his next turn, however, he was able to get back into play.

"Lucky shot!" scoffed Wigwam.

Through some rather unfortunate swinging, Clare and Sugarberry got farther and farther behind. "I hate sports," Sugarberry fumed to Clare as she brushed her mane out of her face.

Clare only laughed. "Be glad it's not soccer."

Finally managing to hit a smooth shot, Clare distanced herself from Sugarberry who was left alone near the rock garden where Wineberry and Huckleberry were searching for insects. A sudden cry from Huckleberry pulled Sugarberry's attention from the game; she found her nephew lying next to one of the large, rough rocks in her garden setting, his knee scraped and bleeding.

"Me fall off rock," he sobbed while at the same time trying to appear brave.

"Oh, my! You poor little thing," Sugarberry commiserated. "Let's get you to the house and clean that up."

Signaling to the rest of the players to continue the game, Sugarberry and Wineberry helped Huckleberry into the house. Upon seeing his tears, Gooseberry immediately came to the rescue. "Here, Sugarberry. You hold the baby while I take care of Huck. Mom's warming a bottle in the kitchen."

Sugarberry accepted the small foal into her forelegs, and went to find the baby's bottle. "Is Baby Gooseberry still not able to fall asleep?" she asked her mother.

"No. She misses her home. Gooseberry thought a warm bottle might settle her down. Do you want to feed it to her?"

"Sure. I'll take her out to the porch swing. Maybe she'll like the out-of-doors." Settling into the swing with the foal, Sugarberry smiled down at the little pony that was a miniature of her mother. "You're a Twice-As-Fancy beauty, little one," she whispered softly. Baby Gooseberry accepted the bottle, and sucked contentedly; soon she was fast asleep. Sugarberry enjoyed the quiet time rocking the swing slowly back and forth.

Hearing a hoofstep, she looked up from the sleeping foal's face to see Vanguard coming up the stairs. "Your mom said I'd find you here." He sat on the swing next to Sugarberry.

"Who won the game?" she asked.

"Clare," Vanguard admitted good-naturedly.

"Clare?" Sugarberry was unbelieving.

"As it turned out, Wigwam, Chocky, and I were having so much fun sending each other off the playing field that Clare slowly but surely worked her way to the end of the course, and finished us all off."

Laughing, Sugarberry queried, "How did Wigwam take that?"

"Not bad, actually. But he claims that he let her win."

"Typical," Sugarberry responded.

"How's the foal doing?" Vanguard asked as Baby Gooseberry's tiny hooves darted outward as if something upsetting had occurred in her dream.

"She's fine, if not a little homesick. Isn't she the most precious thing?" Sugarberry said softly, caressing one soft cheek with her hoof.

"She's special, all right," Vanguard agreed. "But all foals are." They sat in peaceful companionship for several minutes. Vanguard contemplated the whimsical smile that played on Sugarberry's face as she looked down at the sleeping baby, a smile that appeared whenever a little one was in her presence. "You'll make an enchanting mother someday, Sugarberry," he stated softly.

She looked at him tenderly, but the moment was lost in the sudden burst of the opening door as Huckleberry raced out to show off his wounded knee. "Look! Look! Me got Superspritz band-aid!" The colt had been cleaned up and a colorful band-aid decorated with the cartoon hero, Superspritz, and his helper, Coombie, covered the torn flesh.

Soon Wineberry appeared, too, with a band-aid on her foreleg. "I didn't need one, but they were so cool that Mom let me have one," she explained. Her band-aid had Coral Blaze as the main character.

Gooseberry, Floral Breeze, and Strawberry Shortcake followed the foals out onto the porch. Baby Gooseberry opened her eyes for a brief moment on hearing her mother's voice, then settled more comfortably into Sugarberry's forelegs and returned to sleep.

"You're doing a good job there, Sugarberry," her sister complimented her.

"I think she just couldn't keep her eyes open any longer," Sugarberry rationalized.

"The fresh air was good for her," surmised Strawberry Shortcake.

"It's a perfect day to travel," Floral Breeze observed as she walked to the porch railing and let the gentle winds play over her. "I'm so grateful to Agatha for including Whirlpool and me at her daughter's wedding."

"I am, too," both Vanguard and Sugarberry said at the same time, and grinned at each other.

"That means seven more years together for the two of you, as the old mare's tale goes," Strawberry Shortcake laughed.

"I hope for more than that," Vanguard admitted.

The afternoon passed quickly, and soon Raspberry, Sugarberry, and the other ponies began preparing a backyard supper before the travelers began their journey home. Not only were Vanguard's folks leaving that afternoon, but also Gooseberry and her family, as well as Raspberry to help with the foals. There was a good array of food for everyone to eat their fill and lots of conversation still to be discussed, so it was a lively get-together.

As the ponies finished eating, the mares gravitated out onto the lawn to admire the flowers that were blooming in various locations around Sugarberry's property. As they were enjoying the beauty of the rock garden, Huckleberry ran up to them, and pointed out one particularly craggy rock in the array. "T'at one 'urt me," he stated. "Me fall off."

"What were you doing on top of the rock?" his mother questioned.

"Chasin' bug," he stated.

"Did you catch it?" Clare inquired of the little colt.

"Nope!" he shook his head. "Bug jumped."

"I had a rock garden when the boys were little," Floral Breeze reminisced. "Vanguard questioned me once when I was watering it as to why I was bothering to do that as rocks don't grow anyway."

The mare's laughter caused the stallions to look their way, and Vanguard, feeling all eyes focused on him, rolled his eyes. "I don't even want to know," he lamented with a resigned grin on his face.

In too short a period, it was time for the travelers to leave. First Floral Breeze and Whirlpool said their goodbyes; then Gooseberry's family and Raspberry packed up the foals and prepared to depart as well. Once they were gone, Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Baskets went for a walk, accompanying Clare back to her motel as she wanted to take a quick shower, and Sugarberry's house seemed terribly quiet. "No more little giggles and running in and out," she sighed.

"Peaceful, isn't it?" Wigwam winked at her.

"Not until you leave," grinned the mare. Vanguard snickered.

"She's getting feistier by the day," Wigwam directed to Vanguard. "I thought she'd soften up a bit with you around."

Vanguard shrugged his shoulders. "I don't see a problem." To Sugarberry, he said, "Don't forget that we're to meet Giorgio a little later."

If the two stallions exchanged a cautious glance, Sugarberry didn't notice. "I better go and freshen up a bit. Wigwam, would you be a dear and clean the cats' litter boxes?" she added as she slipped from the room.

Chocolate Chip laughed at Wigwam's scowling face. "I'll do it," she offered. "But you have to fill the food dishes-- and Raptor wants only Whiskas, so don't make a mistake and put Friskies in the wrong bowl."

Sugarberry and Vanguard picked up Clare at the motel, and then went on to the Estate Manor to meet Giorgio. Vanguard had set up this rendezvous as the dean of his department at Leonardo University had instructed him to deliver some important papers directly into Giorgio's hooves. There were also some problems for both teachers that needed to be discussed. Vanguard had included Clare in the evening to keep her mind off Guido, and she was excited at the prospect of dining with Giorgio.

They had barely arrived at the supper club when Giorgio came in, and they were soon seated. For Vanguard, this was his first face-to-face meeting with the stallion who was the cause of his being uprooted from Dream Valley. This evening, Giorgio came across as the professional he was meant to be, and talk centered around university affairs in both cities.

It was a shock for Sugarberry, therefore, when Giorgio directed a surprising statement at her. "My father would love to meet you."

"Wh... Why do you say that?" Sugarberry stuttered.

"He always thought Twice-As-Fancy ponies were special for some reason; and he said that if he ever saw one with a strawberry pattern, he knew she'd be the most special of all."

"And why did he say that?" Vanguard asked for the stunned mare at his side.

"I'm not entirely sure," Giorgio admitted, "although I once saw a picture of him with a mare and two foals who were Twice-As-Fancy."

"Maybe the mare was a sweetheart of his," Clare surmised. "Was she strawberry patterned?"

"Just the foals were Twice-As-Fancy," Giorgio mused. "But I think you may be right about his having felt something for the mare; he insinuated that if he had met her earlier in his life, things would have been very different for him."

Sugarberry darted a quick glance at Vanguard, and then busied herself rearranging the food on her plate. She hoped no one noticed her trembling hoof.

"So why he was interested in a particular Twice-As-Fancy pony remains a mystery," Clare considered.

Just then the waiter came to ask them about dessert, and the conversation drifted to other subjects. When the meal was over, Giorgio was the first to leave.

"It was nice to meet you, Clare; I'm sorry our paths haven't crossed before," he said to the lavender milliner. "I'll make it a point to correct that when I return to Vulcanopolis."

Clare smiled sweetly as he kissed her hoof. "I'll look forward to hearing from you."

Sugarberry steeled herself for his signature method of parting with the mares, and tried to look nonchalant for Vanguard's sake; but once he had her hoof in his, and their eyes met, she succumbed to the same mesmerizing effect as her first meeting. After the kiss, he still held her hoof, murmuring, "There's something...", but he didn't finish his thought, and simply released her hoof. Sugarberry was too bewildered to notice what parting remark was made to Vanguard as Giorgio left the table, but she saw the worry in Vanguard's eyes when she turned to face him.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

Clare, too, was concerned. "What's wrong, Sugarberry? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Sugarberry shook her head as if to clear it. "There's something about that stallion," she reasoned. "He's unsettling." A tremor went through her body.

"Well, his father is an important stallion back home and I think Giorgio radiates some of his repute," Clare offered.

"Are you two ready to go?"Vanguard asked, sensing that Sugarberry was still feeling uncomfortable after her encounter with Giorgio. He moved back his chair, and helped the mares with theirs. They were about to depart when the restaurant doors opened to reveal Tiffany and Guido arriving to dine. Both seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, and Guido appeared surprised to run into his friends.

"Vanguard, didn't expect to see you here," he jovially remarked. "Good evening, Clare. And Sugarberry." Tiffany smiled graciously.

"Guido, I'm glad we ran into you," Clare bubbled. "Vanguard and I have tickets for a commercial flight out tomorrow, but I wasn't sure if you'd be taking us home on your jet instead."

Guido looked at Tiffany before answering Clare. "I've decided to spend some time here in Dream Valley, studying my options. You do understand, don't you, Clare?"

Before Clare could answer, Tiffany tugged at her companion's foreleg. "The maitre d' is waiting for us," she stated, pulling the stallion away from the trio.

Watching the pair as they were escorted into the dining room, Clare's temper surged. "I'd give anything to give him a piece of my mind!" She took a step in Guido's direction, but Vanguard stopped her.

"Not here, Clare."

She glared at him for a moment, then relaxed. "You're right, of course. Now's not the time or the place."

Vanguard and Sugarberry walked Clare back to her room at The Corral and then continued on to Sugarberry's house. "How do you feel about that conversation with Giorgio about his father's memories about your mother?" Vanguard asked now that they could talk freely.

"Confused," admitted Sugarberry. "His father seems to have been more affected by the time spent with my mother than she was aware of."

"You told me earlier that the first time you met Giorgio that you felt like you were reliving an experience, and you claimed that it had stayed in your memory since the time you were an unborn foal, and strengthened by the sight of the photo when you were young. How did you feel tonight?"

"I was fine until he started in on that Twice-As-Fancy talk. And when he went through his farewell routine that I can remember so well from the past, I felt frightened, like some sort of premonition hanging in the air." She looked at Vanguard with an expression that tore his heart; he couldn't assuage her fears even if he would have been free to divulge the full reason for his acceptance of the exchange program in Vulcanopolis. Knowing the truth would only cause her to worry more, he was sure. But keeping the secret did not make him happy.

"What are you thinking about?" Sugarberry finally asked as Vanguard wrestled with his own thoughts.

"About how much I'm going to miss you when I head back to Vulcanopolis tomorrow," he responded, glad for a chance to bare his soul. "These days back home have been an answer to my prayers-- to be with you again."

"I miss you already, just knowing you're leaving tomorrow."

"But remember-- the next time I come back, it's for keeps. Hang on to that."

"I'll try. But a million things could change your plans!" She brushed a tear from her eye, vowing that she would not succumb to weeping. In that moment, she was swept into a tight embrace and smothered with a convincing kiss, then released.

"I'll be back in December, Sugarberry. You can count on that."

Sugarberry was grateful for the darkening night so her tears would go unnoticed. Her being cried out in anguish as an unaccountable dread of some unforeseen difficulty engulfed her. She was grateful when, upon arriving at her house, she found her parents in the porch swing. Right now, the only place she felt safe was under their protection.

She wore a bright smile as Vanguard accepted an invitation to breakfast and said goodnight, but as soon as he was gone, Sugarberry drew her parents into the kitchen where she unburdened her fears and presentiments to them until their words of reassurance had calmed her storm-tossed spirit. Her mother led her to bed and sat at her side as if she was still her little girl; and even after Sugarberry fell asleep, Strawberry Shortcake kept silent vigil, suffering her own agony that she had ever dared strike-up a seemingly blameless acquaintance with an unknown stallion twenty-five years before.

* * *

The new day-- Monday-- dawned sunny and bright with an uncomfortable humidity in the air that dampened already dark humors. After breakfast, Chocolate Chip went off to work and Strawberry Baskets and Strawberry Shortcake made preparations to leave for Berryville. Strawberry Shortcake kept a concerned lookout over her daughter, but Sugarberry covered her apprehensions well and apologized for her dark spiral of thoughts the evening before.

She kept up a playful banter with Vanguard that she hoped sounded natural, although she felt as if her heart was breaking inside. When her parents finally bid her farewell, she had progressed to a state of numbness-- her words and smiles were cheerful, but automatic; they only masked her true unhappiness over the partings of the day.

Entering the empty house after a round of fond farewells, Sugarberry sighed. "The party is over now, isn't it? Tabby's wedding was my lifeblood for months. Now it's all in the past." She picked up the floral crown that had been her headpiece and touched the wilted flowers.

Vanguard took the circle from her hooves and set it back on the end table. He took her hooves in his own, and smiled into her tortured eyes. "It's just the beginning, Sugarberry... for Tabby and Thomas, and for you and me. It's the little things, the day-to-day things, that matter the most-- in good times and in bad. Please let go of the dark mood you're in. Don't let Giorgio affect you this way."

"I despise him, Vanguard! I truly do. He's like a catalyst for evil." It felt good to have anger replace her depression. "I think he's a horrible pony!"

The phone rang, and taking a deep breath before answering it, Sugarberry had herself in control when she finally said, "Hello?"

"Sugarberry! It's Elaine," the voice on the other end met her ear. "I've got a problem!"

"What is it, Elaine? You sound distraught. Nothing happened to Tab..."

"No, no," Elaine cut in quickly. "It's just that with the clinic closed today, I got an emergency call here at Thomas' house. Blueprint's bulldog is in some kind of distress and he's rushing it to the clinic. I'm to meet them there, Sugarberry, and I can't find the key Thomas left for me!"

"Don't get excited, Elaine. I've got a key. Get yourself to the clinic; I'll be there shortly." Putting down the receiver and picking up her key off the desk in one fluid motion, Sugarberry grabbed Vanguard's foreleg and headed for the door, explaining the situation as they went. The heat was oppressive, and their near-run to the clinic had both of them sweating and short of breath by the time they arrived.

Elaine was already waiting, and Blueprint was coming down the street with his dog, wrapped in a wet towel, clutched in his forelegs. The grieved look on the stallion's face told of the gravity of the situation. Elaine threw open the examining room door, and Blueprint gently eased his burden onto the table.

"Taking the time to apply the cold, wet towel was well worth it," she explained to Blueprint as she worked. "The symptoms you gave me over the phone along with the weather we are experiencing today point to heat stroke."

As she checked the temperature of the panting animal, she gently massaged his muscles "to improve blood flow," she explained. "We've got to cool him down." Reading the thermometer, she looked hopeful. "One hundred and seven. We'll apply more cold water and bring this down to an acceptable level. You responded quickly when you found him this way; that's a big help," she smiled at the owner.

Sugarberry and Vanguard left the veterinarian to her work, and got a glass of water for themselves. "She's taken control of the situation like a pro," Sugarberry beamed. "And she was nervous about her first day on the job tomorrow."

"It looks like she'll do fine," Vanguard agreed. "How about you?"

"Don't worry about me," she responded. "I may shed some more tears, but you know that's to be expected. It'll help to be back at work tomorrow; Elaine and I will both be so busy that we won't have time to think about our particular problems."

"Are you going to wait here at the clinic with Elaine and Blueprint?"

Sugarberry considered her options. "Would you mind if I hang out a little while longer, just in case she needs my support?"

"Actually, I just remembered an errand I had forgotten about. I'll take care of that, and meet you back here."

"Okay. I'll be waiting." She smiled at him reassuringly.

"Later, then," he grinned as he went out the door.

Figuring the time of day, Vanguard headed in the direction of Wigwam's Casino, calculating that the stallion would be organizing things for the day with Butch, who-- Vanguard was surprised to learn on his return to Dream Valley-- was now employed as general manager of the casino since his completion of the work on Agatha's mansion.

Having never before been to the casino, Vanguard was unsure as to where he would find Wigwam, but upon entering the building, he saw the stallion he was looking for just coming into the lobby from a larger room off to the left. "Vanguard!" he called. "You're the last pony I expected to see today. Where's Sugarberry? She didn't dump you, did she?"

"We've got to talk, Wigwam. Can you spare me a few minutes?"

"Sure. Come into my office."

When the stallions were seated, Vanguard came to the point. "I appreciate your watching out for Sugarberry while I'm gone; I just wanted you to be aware that there's been a new development in her personal life concerning this Giorgio."

"What's that?"

"She senses something untrustworthy about him, and you know how much she worries about things. I can't explain matters to her, so I'm asking you to make sure she doesn't get caught up in something she can't handle."

"I'd be doing that anyway," Wigwam replied. He studied Vanguard carefully. "Is there something else?"

"I don't know. Maybe Sugarberry's uneasiness is getting to me."

"What makes you say that?"

"It was something in Giorgio's manner last night, like he's gathering pieces to a puzzle."

"You think he is on to our undercover operation?"

"Maybe that's it. I'm afraid that when he finds the last piece, Sugarberry will be jeopardized."

Wigwam sat in thought before answering. "I'll watch out for her, Van. And Tawny will, too. But I don't think she's in any danger. Things are going smoothly on this end; from what you told me on Saturday, I'd expect new developments in Vulcanopolis once you return there."

Vanguard rose to leave. "You're the one with the training in problems like this, so I have to trust in your judgement. But I'm not particularly comfortable with it."

"Hey! If you want to talk about uncomfortable, I'm the one starting a calculus class in a few weeks. I'm a little rusty, so a solution sheet will be worth a fair price to me," he grinned.

"Just don't let things get out of control."

"I don't plan on it."

"What was it Sugarberry said last night? 'A million things could change our plans.' "

"You both worry too much," Wigwam scoffed. "But have a safe trip back to Vulcanopolis."

"Thanks," Vanguard replied, and hurried off to meet up with Sugarberry again. Elaine was going to spend the next several hours monitoring Blueprint's pet, so she bid her farewell to Vanguard and wished him well. Sugarberry and Vanguard spent their remaining time together at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe which was a quiet place at this time of the day, but it erupted into a boisterous circus when Agatha and Hubert showed up with all Agatha's Italian friends fresh from a shopping spree at the mall.

"Hi, you two!" Clare called as she slipped into a chair at their table. "Look what I got!" She pulled a copy of one of Sugarberry's novels, Ginseng and Sassafras Tea, out of her shopping bag. "Will you autograph this, please?"

"Sure," Sugarberry consented. "It would be my pleasure."

"And guess what?" Clare babbled excitedly. "I was in Lemon Treats' shop admiring her artistic arrangement of merchandise when Agatha came in and introduced the two of us. We had a grand time discussing fashions and one thing and another; and before I left, she'd agreed to handle some of my designs!"

"Wonderful!" Sugarberry was pleased to see Clare in such an upbeat frame of mind.

Liborio, who had overheard Clare's announcement, winked at his wife. "Do you hear that, Maria-Giuseppe? Think of all the pretty hats that will get shipped over here, and you won't have a chance to buy them!"

Maria-Giuseppe, who collected new hats like Tabby gathered up eighties toys, expressed concern. "Clare, you'll save the best for me, won't you?"

Battista laughed. "All Clare's designs are the best!"

"I'll be very happy to have a source of your work here in Ponyland," Agatha stated. "We can't get styles to meet your quality even in New Pony."

"Clare, when are you going to add stallions' styles to your line?" Saberio asked.

"Oh, wouldn't you be handsome in a straw Panama with Clare's distinctive trim!" teased Lucia.

Catherina had to add her own thoughts. "Actually, I picture him in a black bowler; and Vanguard in a trilby."

With a sigh, Maria-Giuseppe offered her own thoughts. "I'd love to have a black silk hat for my Liborio."

"And for you, Hubert," Clare contributed, "I will whip up a striking felt fedora to wear on your next adventure!"

The festive mood of the bustling shop was the perfect atmosphere to drown any unhappy thoughts or misgivings, and the cold ice cream was the unparalleled antidote for the sultry weather outdoors. When it was time to get to the airport, everyone was in good humor and a party mood prevailed.

There were hugs all around at the terminal and the inevitable last second exchange of information. When the call came that the flight was loading, Sugarberry and Vanguard said their final farewell; she, Agatha, and Hubert watched as all the passengers boarded the plane, and rushed to the observation deck to wave until the plane was off the ground and on its way.

Hubert, who had turned and was facing the western sky, commented. "Look at those black clouds on the horizon, girls. We're in for a storm before this day is over."

Sugarberry stared at the thunderheads forming in the distance and shivered even though the temperature was still high. "Yes, quite a storm!" she agreed as she followed Tabby's parents down the steps and back home again.

* * *

It had been a long two days for Ivetta. She had succeeded in contacting Giorgio concerning her failed attempt to find either the key or the picture in the town house next door, and his reaction was not pleasant. He chided her for not being more thorough in her search; he could understand that the key might be with Vanguard, but the picture would most assuredly have to be in the book. If not, it might have dropped out to the back of the case, or onto the floor, or under the bed. Giorgio had been quite adamant that she find the photo, and soon.

But as the next day was Sunday, Giles was home with her; and on Monday morning, Ivetta herself had to travel across town for a doctor's appointment that consumed the entire morning. She ended up eating lunch at the sidewalk café where she and Giles had first met, so it wasn't until mid-afternoon that Ivetta had a chance to once again enter the spare bedroom through the hidden doorway.

Once inside the room, Ivetta reached for the book on the shelf where it had been found earlier, and stared in shock. The spot on the shelf was empty, a thin vacant slit that seemed to swallow up any hope Ivetta had of finding what Giorgio was so desperate to have. Pulling out the books on either side, she reached her hoof to the back of the shelf hoping to touch the glossy surface of a photo, but nothing was there. She crouched down to look under the bed, the dresser, the antique writing desk, even behind the curtains, but to no avail.

Ivetta sat on the floor to think. She and Marissa had left in a rush on Saturday. Could Marissa have put the book back in the wrong place? Quickly she surveyed the book spines, but none were of the brilliant red hue as Poems of Life and Love. One by one, Ivetta pulled out every tome, even going so far as to flip through each of them on the outside chance that the picture itself was misplaced. But all the volumes were empty, except for a few with newspaper clippings that had obviously been used as bookmarks.

Leaning her head against the bookcase, Ivetta groaned. If Giorgio was angry before, what would he feel now? What was she going to tell him? Her only recourse was to explain that she wasn't home on Monday morning, and whatever became of the book had clearly happened then. Giorgio couldn't expect her to monitor everything that went on in his town house while he was gone. She cringed when she realized that her excuse seemed flimsy even to herself.

"I've got no choice," Ivetta murmured. "I've got to let him know." She took one last look around the room, and escaped through the wall to her own home, steeling herself for her contact with Giorgio and dreaming of the day when she was no longer under his influence.

* * *

The citizens of Dream Valley were treated to plenty of gossip in the days that followed Tabby's wedding, for Guido and Tiffany were a constant pair around the town. Dining at the Estate Manor, a night out at Wigwam's Casino, opening night at The Tableau-- wherever events were happening, the executive and the princess were there.

Evenings at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe were quiet. Gone from the scene were three of the usual players: Tabby and Thomas off on their honeymoon, Tiffany out with her dream stallion. And, of course, Vanguard back in Italy, too. Those members of the gang that gathered nightly would include Toby in their circle of friendship so that he was never alone.

It was the end of the week when an exceptionally large crowd had gathered at the ice cream parlor, including Spike, Friendly, Quarterback and Merry Moments, Sugarberry, Tamara, Toby, Clever Clover, Dawn and Perry, and even Tex and Sweet Pop. The old friends talked and laughed the night away, and it wasn't until it came time to break the good times up that Sugarberry realized that without Tabby, and with Wigwam and Chocolate Chip at a movie, she faced the walk home alone-- she, the pony in her mid-twenties, who was still afraid enough of the dark to feel apprehensive about being alone outside after sunset. Every rustling leaf, every cracking twig, every furtive footfall of some scurrying nocturnal creature caused her to shiver.

A haunted look came over the mare's face as she confronted the reality of her situation. "I miss Tabby!" she sighed to no one in particular. "First Vanguard leaves, and now Tabby! And Chocolate Chip gets all starry-eyed over Wigwam. It just isn't fair!"

"Fair?" asked Quarterback. "Did I hear you mention 'fair'?" He winked at Merry Moments as he continued to rake-up the past. "I don't remember that you worried too much about fairness in your dealings with me a year or so ago."

"As if you aren't happy about the way things turned out!" she spat back with a smile at the stallion who had once been the one who would have stood beside her at a time like this.

"I'll walk you home, Sugarberry." Toby came to her rescue. "It's a beautiful night," he added as several ponies threw an inquisitive glance in his direction.

"Thanks, Toby," Sugarberry replied. "But that's not necessary. I can brave it on my own."

"I'm sure you can. But why be nervous all the way home, looking over your shoulder at every sound, when I'd be perfectly happy to accompany you? Anyway, it's not as if Tiffany's waiting for me."

Quarterback snickered and whispered an unheard remark to Merry Moments. Sugarberry mentally debated her choices, and decided to risk more verbal tormenting from Quarterback rather than suffering from fright on her way back to her house. "Okay. If you're sure, I'd appreciate the company, Toby."

And so it was that Sugarberry left the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe with Toby at her side. "This is really sweet of you," she cast a quick peek at her companion. "You must think I'm terribly silly."

"Not at all," the professional doctor replied. "More ponies than will admit it are nervous when alone in the dark."

It struck Sugarberry suddenly that she knew very little about this stallion; he had always been overshadowed by Tiffany's strong presence. "How did you decide to become a doctor, Toby? Was it a lifelong dream?"

Toby laughed softly, causing Sugarberry to look at him closely. "What?" she asked curiously.

"It just struck me that Tiffany never once asked me a searching question like you just did, not in all the months we had been seeing each other." It did not escape Sugarberry's notice that Toby had used the past tense in making his statement, but she ignored the implications. Toby proceeded to answer her question. "It actually came quite naturally. My dad is a physician in New Pony, and my older brother took up the same profession in Grayton."

"And why did you choose Dream Valley?"

"My decision to come here was prompted at first by the beauty of the area; but once I visited the facility, it was confirmed by the compassionate and caring nature of the ponies who live here."

"You must have met Snuzzle on your first visit," Sugarberry giggled.

"As a matter of fact, I did. She's a wonder, isn't she? She's always there to lend a helping hoof to anyone who's suffering for whatever reason. She's the anchor of the hospital's volunteer program."

Sugarberry reflected for a moment. "Your mother... you didn't mention your mother."

Chuckling, Toby replied. "It's interesting that you would ask about Mom while we were singing the praises of Snuzzle. My mother is very much like Snuzzle; she's always organizing charitable programs for whatever need exists in the community. She's constantly busy; she isn't truly happy unless she is helping someone else. And yet she always finds time to sit down and listen. "

"Sounds like a wonderful pony, Toby."

"From what I've seen of your mother-- let's see, that was last Christmas when I first met her, wasn't it, and then again at the wedding Saturday?-- I'd say she's a very special mare, too."

"Yes, she is. I guess we sometimes tend to take our parents for granted, don't we?" Sugarberry philosophized. "Is your brother your only sibling?"

"Oh, no, there's also a younger sister, who is married and teaches in New Pony. She has an energetic foal, and one on the way."

"How wonderful!" Sugarberry acknowledged.

They were nearing Sugarberry's house when the roar of a jet leaving the airport drowned out any conversation for a moment; they watched its blinking lights flash through the sky. "Tiffany tells me that Guido has his own jet. I wonder what she's doing tonight, Sugarberry; she and Guido will soon have exhausted all of Dream Valley's hot spots. Have you heard from her in the last couple of days?"

"No, Toby, I haven't. And neither has Tamara, which is odd. Those two always confided in each other. But Tamara says she's going to go over to the Royal Paradise tomorrow and find out for herself what is going on."

The porch light to Sugarberry's house was on, and she and Toby caught sight of two figures on the stoop-- Chocolate Chip on the top step, with Wigwam sitting comfortably on the bottom step. Sugarberry knew he was weaving a tale of the Native Ponies for his rapt listener; Chocolate Chip never tired of hearing the old legends from long, long ago. But Wigwam's voice broke off when he saw the new arrivals coming up the walk. He stood to greet them.

"Good evening, Sugarberry... Toby," he called. "Kind of a late night for you, isn't it Sugarberry?" he teased.

"With Chocolate Chip working longer hours this summer, I think I could ask the same of her," Sugarberry said in her sternest voice possible.

"But it's such a wonderful evening to just sit and watch the stars and listen to the crickets chirp," rationalized Chocolate Chip, taking in a deep breath of the refreshing night air.

"My sentiments exactly," stated Toby, "and that's why I volunteered to walk Sugarberry home tonight. It's a perfect summer evening."

"And I was just beginning to worry about her getting home all by herself. After that last story, I was going to suggest to Chocolate Chip that she and I should go off searching for the lost authoress; with that white body, she'd be easy prey for those monsters of the night." He grinned at her vexingly and mimicked the call of his pet wolf, Manitou.

Sugarberry shivered and proceeded up the steps to sit next to Chocolate Chip. "Manitou himself would have better manners than that," she directed at Wigwam. "Given the two of you, I'd say you are the most untamed."

"Speaking of Manitou, I've got to get an appointment to have his paw looked at. I noticed he was limping slightly before I left home; I couldn't find anything myself, but I thought maybe Elaine should have a go at it. Do you think she will have any qualms about examining him?"

"Not if you stay in the waiting room," Sugarberry responded.

Toby laughed. "Before tonight, I though you two were friends."

"No. He's Chocolate Chip's friend; I'm just his proofreader," the mare quipped playfully.

"Actually, Sugarberry and I became quite close working on my manuscript, but now that it has gone to the publisher, she's afraid I'll become more successful than she has," the orange stallion bickered.

"In your wildest dreams."

Wigwam stood up, feigning disappointment. "On that note, Chocolate Chip, will you walk me to the front gate so I can make my departure?"

Giggling, Chocolate Chip jumped up and went with him to the end of the sidewalk. Toby turned to Sugarberry. "Well, you're safely home now, so I'll be on my way, too. It was nice having someone to talk with for a change." He smiled a sad little smile.

"Things will work out for the best, Toby. Tiffany is... well... Tiffany. She'll come around sooner or later."

"Will she?" Toby hauntingly asked, staring off into the darkness as if hunting for a glimpse of the future. Facing Sugarberry again, he wished her goodnight. Then trotting down the sidewalk, he set-off in the company of Wigwam while Chocolate Chip returned to the porch. The two mares watched the stallions disappear into the shadowy distance.

Chocolate Chip sighed, and leaned her head against Sugarberry. "I'm tired!"

Brushing back the brown mane from Chocolate Chip's face, Sugarberry agreed. "Time for bed." As they went into the house, Sugarberry took one last look out into the gathering darkness. What is Tiffany up to? she wondered to herself, and she closed the door.

* * *

It was early the next morning when Queen Serena called Friendly, the Bushwoolie, to her room and entrusted into his keeping a sealed letter. After briefing the blue furry fellow, she asked, "Do you understand?"

"Yeah. Yeah," Friendly responded in typical Bushwoolie fashion. "Me deliver, yeah." And with that, he was on his way.

Queen Serena next summoned Cheery, her own personal Bushwoolie, and directed him to gather all the princesses together in the breakfast room. When he returned with word that all the princesses were assembled, Serena left her room and joined them there.

The chatter of the princesses ceased upon Queen Serena's arrival, and they greeted her with curiosity hanging like a tangible element in the air. Serena stood before them, and cleared her throat.

"You may have noticed that one of our ranks is missing from this group this morning." She paused while the others did a peremptory headcount, and came up one short. "Princess Tiffany has asked me to explain her sudden departure from the Royal Paradise." A spattering of whispered comments caused her to pause temporarily, but when silence returned, she continued. "Tiffany was extended an invitation from the parents of Guido in Vulcanopolis to be their houseguest for an unspecified amount of time. Tiffany accepted their hospitality, and she and Guido left last night on his private jet for Italy. The princess asked me to convey her farewell to all of you and to assure you that she will, in time, return to us here in Dream Valley. The suddenness of the plans made it impossible for her to say her goodbyes personally, but she hopes that you will all understand her actions, and wish the best for her."

The surprising nature of the queen's announcement caused a stunned silence for a few moments, then the room broke out in a buzz of comments and questions. "Isn't this so like her?" "Imagine! Running off with that wealthy stallion!" "What does she think she's doing?"

Only Dawn remained silent. She moved to a quiet corner of the room, and stood looking out the window. She jumped when she felt a gentle touch on her shoulder, and looked to see Queen Serena standing by her side. "Tiffany left a letter for Toby. It should be in his hooves by now, if Friendly had no problems in finding him."

"I'm surprised that she remembered to let him know of her latest plans," Dawn muttered.

"Honestly, it didn't occur to her until after some not so subtle prodding," Queen Serena admitted. "I thought she owed Toby that much."

Dawn looked gratefully at the queen. "Thanks, Serena. At least someone is looking out for him, even if Tiffany isn't." She gazed out the window a moment longer, then jerked her head back to stare at Serena. "But what did she tell him, I wonder?" she whispered in sudden dread.

* * *

Whistling softly as he straightened up the kitchen after a nutritious breakfast, Toby was in the best mood he had been in days. He had enjoyed the camaraderie of the crew from the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe, and felt renewed faith in all that life encompassed. He was looking forward to a busy day at the hospital, when a sudden pounding sounded at his front door. Raising an eyebrow quizzically, he hurried to face the unknown.

A smile lit his face when he saw the blue Bushwoolie on his doorstep. "Good morning, Friendly! What brings you to the medical part of town?" His doctoring instincts were slow kicking in this morning, but when they did, his face darkened. "Is Tiffany okay? Did something happen?"

Friendly, not fully aware of what his message contained but somehow sensing the worst, avoided eye-contact with the purple stallion hovering over him. He simply held out the hand which was clutching the letter that Queen Serena had given him. "Letter, yeah, yeah."

Toby looked from Friendly to the white envelope, and slowly reached out to accept it; he recognized the flowery penmanship of Tiffany which inscribed his name on the front. Without a glance at Friendly, he stated a hollow "Thank you" and left the Bushwoolie to face the closing door.

Toby took the letter to his desk, and stood staring at it. Part of him wanted to leave it sealed; somehow, not knowing the contents of the letter seemed better than facing the truth. But he knew he had to face up to it sometime. He broke the seal with the royal-looking "T" stamped into it, and opened the flap. He slipped into the desk chair before removing the pink pastel stationary from the envelope; his heart skipped a beat as Tiffany's perfumed fragrance wafted up to his nostrils. Swallowing hard, he spread out the sheet of paper and read:

Dear Toby,

I'm deeply grieved that I had to run off like this, but there are richer

stallions in the world. Please don't think too harshly of me; I'm sure you'll find

another mare to your liking someday. Maybe our paths will cross again, but

I doubt it. For now, I'm off to Italy with Guido. Tah-tah!

As always,


Toby stared at the words for a long moment, reading and re-reading them until he couldn't have forgotten them if he wanted to. The emptiness he had experienced the other night engulfed him, and he sat as if frozen in time. He had been dating Tiffany for over a year now, since the night she had come to the emergency room at the hospital with a slight case of frostbite. He remembered her flirtatious manner with him, and the invitation to a dinner party at the Royal Paradise that had led to a more or less steady friendship between the two ponies. Not a perfect relationship, Toby knew only too well. He had never felt entirely comfortable in the world of royalty. A friendship with Tiffany was one thing, but a permanent commitment was quite another; he would always have felt somehow inferior to her imperial bearing.

A light knock on the door brought Toby out of his reverie. He tucked the letter back into the envelope before crossing the room to admit the latest visitor, who turned out to be Princess Dawn. She smiled stiffly at the stallion. "May I come in?"
Toby mechanically moved to the side to allow Dawn to enter his house, and quietly asked, "You're here about Tiffany?"

"Friendly has been here, then?"

"Yes. He gave me her letter, which was brief, but to the point. Maybe you can fill me in on some of the details."

"How much do you know?"

Returning to the desk, Toby again removed the letter from its place and held it out to Dawn who reached for it uncertainly. "Go ahead. Read it," Toby insisted.

Dawn took the letter, and skimmed over the words, feeling as if she was invading the privacy of this personal communication. But when she realized the cold-hearted content of the message, she began fuming. "That witch!" she spat.

"Dawn, don't..."

"Don't what, Toby?" Dawn interrupted. "Don't tell it like it is? This note is cruel, and she had no right to be so impersonal and snobby."

Toby looked at her with more amusement than sorrow. "You're taking this worse than I am, you know."

Dawn looked at the stallion as if seeing him in a new light. "You're not angry with her?"

Grabbing a couple coffee mugs off the rack on the counter, Toby poured both himself and Dawn a cup. Pushing one across to the princess, he sat on one of the stools and waved a hoof for her to do the same. She silently seated herself, placing the letter to the side. Only then did Toby respond to her question. "It's weird, but all I feel right now is relief."

"What do you mean?

"I loved Tiffany in a way. Don't get me wrong. But she was a princess, for Pete's sake. How could I have ever been able to make her happy?"

"A princess is no different than any other pony, Toby," Dawn replied knowingly.

"Any other princess, but not Tiffany."

"Just because she's more conceited and obnoxious than the rest of us?"

"No. You know what I'm getting at. She's a princess through and through-- she was born to be in a position of nobility, not some poor doctor's wife sitting alone at night while her husband is off delivering some other mare's foal or putting a cast on a broken limb."

"You're serious about this? You're glad she found someone like Guido?"

Toby took a sip of coffee, and thought awhile before answering. "I'm not saying that it doesn't hurt, and I will admit that right now it seems as if a huge vacancy has developed in my personal life, but the bottom line is, yes, I'm glad she found someone who can give her what she wants and deserves."

"You're bluffing."

"Do you want me to cry, or what?"

Dawn shook her head. "I thought you would be devastated."

"If I was sure of one thing, Dawn, it was that Tiffany and I would never share a permanent future. That's why I couldn't get her that engagement ring she was always hinting at... by the way, did Guido come through for her in that respect?"

"Not that I've heard," Dawn relayed. "Queen Serena is the only one who talked to Tiffany before she left, and she didn't mention any ring. As I heard it, Tiffany will be the guest of Guido's parents in Vulcanopolis for as long as the two of them find that arrangement mutually beneficial. Tiffany came to the Royal Paradise long enough to pack her things and tell Serena her plans, and she and Guido flew off into the night sky."

"What time would that have been?"

"Tiffany left about eleven o'clock last night according to Serena, so sometime after that," Dawn calculated.

"The jet Sugarberry and I watched fly over," mused Toby, more to himself than to Dawn. "I should have known." To his guest he said, "Well, it's not a question of gossip anymore, is it? Now we have the facts, and we can go on from here."

"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" Dawn fretted, but they were interrupted by another knock at the door.

This time, Toby admitted a pink unicorn. "Good morning, Tamara," he said smoothly. "Coffee?"

Tamara looked puzzled. "Does he know yet?" she whispered to Dawn.

Dawn rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Yes, he knows. And what are you doing here anyway?"

"I could ask you the same thing," Tamara responded peevishly. "I went over to the Royal Paradise to talk to Tiffany, and find that she's flown the coop, so to speak."

"Excuse me, girls," Toby grinned, "but I've got rounds to make. Consider yourselves at home and enjoy the coffee, but I'm out of here." He turned, and left the two speechless.

Tamara eventually looked at Dawn and asked, "Am I missing something here?"

Dawn poured a fresh cup of coffee for her friend and replied, "And stallions think mares are hard to understand." She then proceeded to fill Tamara in on all the morning's events, and the two never did quite figure out what made stallions tick.

To be continued...

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