A deep purple stallion and a spring green mare walked hoof-in-hoof through the fallen leaves of the Dream Valley park. Many of the trees were already barren and only the most hardy of the autumn flowers were still blooming, but nature seemed radiantly alive to the two ponies who had just confirmed the fact that a second foal would be born to them the following spring. Neither pony said a word, all their happiness expressed in a tender touch or a telling glance.
Arriving at the fountain that still sent its silvery streams arcing toward the deeply tinted blue sky, the stallion brushed some scarlet and gold maple leaves from the seating and grinned at his wife as he assisted her to a comfortable rest.
"This is where it all began for us."
"Not that I remember," Fern retorted, rolling her expressive blue eyes.
Toby laughed. "I remember it clearly enough for both of us. I knew you were special the first moment I laid eyes on you."
"Only a doctor could look down on an unconscious- and a considerably unkept- filly and get hit with cupid's arrow," responded Fern, pulling her husband down next to her and snuggling into the curve of his body. "But I'm very glad it was you who found me."
The homeless pony who had collapsed from the intense heat and a lack of proper food three years earlier had blossomed into a healthy young mare with a protective husband and a now eleven-month-old daughter. The news that their family was on the increase mantled Fern in a contented glow that Toby smiled on appreciatively.
Toby brushed Fern's nose with a tender kiss. "Our coming together was in the Master Plan."
And so it was. Toby, the dedicated physician at the Dream Valley hospital, had fallen irretrievably in love with the then dejected waif of a girl who had so suddenly and so unexpectedly come under his supervision. So unlike the regal Princess Tiffany with whom his name had once been linked and the total opposite of the worldly Miranda who had once tried to capture his prestige rather than his affection, Fern had mesmerized Toby with her sweetness, her innocence, and her compassion... without even trying.
Fern had found that she was utterly captivated by the stallion; the only problem for her was believing that he could find such a young, inexperienced, insignificant pony as herself desirable. But Toby would not allow her doubts to cloud the issue of their love, and a Christmastime proposal had met with a satisfactory answer for both of them.
A fairytale wedding had taken place the following June. Although Fern's family was small (Her Great-aunt Maisie was her only living relative), Toby's parents and siblings had accepted Fern into their ranks with joy. And as Toby's family was centered in New Pony, it was decided to hold the ceremony there. Ribbons n' Lace was more than happy to take charge of arranging for the church and the reception facilities, leaving Fern with only her bridal finery to worry about, having Chocolate Chip, Garnet, and Lemon Treats as her advisors in organizing her style in gown and hair dressing. Toby benevolently allowed the wedding preparations to go ahead without much input, trusting in his mother's experience and in his betrothed's common sense.
Buoyed up by the enchantment of having found the love of her life- and a new family besides- to cherish her, Fern lived in a dream-come-true world, planning via long distance discussions with Ribbons n' Lace for the June 1 wedding, spending quality time with her adoring fiancÚ, keeping up with her part-time class-work at Pony Pride, chumming with her friends, and working at Lemon Treat's Boutique at the mall. Her troubles that had mushroomed at the death of her grandmother were now behind her; she was safe in Toby's love.
When her classes at Pony Pride ended mid-May, Fern was hesitant in accepting Ribbons n' Lace's invitation to come to New Pony for the remaining two weeks until the wedding, but she had to agree with her soon-to-be mother-in-law that it would be wise for her to become more familiar with Toby's family members and with the locations of the wedding functions.
It was a teary-eyed filly who had watched Toby depart from his parents' swank home in New Pony after he had accompanied her to the city and had assured himself that she would be safely and comfortably accommodated.
"I leave you in good hooves," Toby had assured his bride-to-be as they said their goodbyes. "You're to consider my parents as your own, Fern."
"I can't help but love them, Toby, for it's through them that I have you." Fern's intensely blue eyes so caressed the stallion that it took all of Toby's resolve to turn from her and return to Dream Valley.
The days in New Pony were a swirl of activities for Fern as Ribbons n' Lace introduced her to relatives and friends, most of whom would attend the forthcoming wedding. Toby's sister, Tendril, made a point of seeking Fern's companionship, pleased that her brother had shown wisdom in his choice of a life-mate. With no siblings herself, Fern soaked-up the sisterly affection Tendril showered on her; and Tendril found that having a younger sister had its own rewards in that Fern was a wonderful confidant who could be trusted to keep private any shared thoughts and who was competent to offer sensible advise as well. To further strengthen the sisterly bond forming between them, Fern had also instantly taken a personal interest in Tendril and Copper's foals, four-going-on-five Patina and sixteen-month-old Quill.
It was because of this blossoming friendship that several days before the wedding, Tendril treated Fern to lunch at the exclusive Peerless, New Pony's fashionable and highly popular eating spot. Leaving her two youngsters in the capable hooves of her regular sitter, Tendril was set on showing Fern a good time.
"Fern, I want you to know how happy I am for my brother in that he fell head-over-hooves in love with you," Tendril confided after the elegantly prepared dishes had been placed in front of them. The mare chuckled. "Can you imagine that we once thought Toby would end up tied to the Princess Tiffany?" She nodded in the direction of a sparkly white pegasus several tables away.
Princess Tiffany, too, was in New Pony finalizing some elaborate plans for her own wedding which was to take place in Dream Valley the week following Fern and Toby's. Fern stared at the beautiful and regal mare and felt somehow inadequate. Princess Tiffany, in Fern's eyes, was everything Fern was not: poised, sophisticated, fashionable, respected, and very lovely. To top it off, the princess was sitting with, of all ponies, Miranda. The conversation coming from their table was light and bubbly.
"Certainly, you've met Miranda," Tendril stated, noting Fern's interest in the neighboring ponies, yet unaware of Miranda's attempt to foil the attraction that had budded between Toby and Fern. "Her parents are longtime friends of my parents." She grinned. "Being younger than Toby, I didn't always understand what was going on in his life; but there was a time when I imagined Miranda was sweet on my brother. But trust me, she would have made Toby a terrible wife. She's so calculating," Fern ended, then giggled. "No pun intended." Miranda was a financial counselor, and her life revolved around calculating ponies' fortunes.
"Yes, I've met Miranda," Fern admitted dryly, but did not clarify. She saw no reason to tell Tendril of Miranda's spiteful words if Toby had not already done so. She concentrated instead on Tiffany. "The princess will undoubtedly have a magnificent wedding."
"All pomp and circumstance with no true emotion," Tendril huffed. "I think Guido is blind to her grasping nature. But enough of Tiffany. You're the bride I'm interested in. Is Mom satisfied that everything will proceed smoothly on Saturday?"
"Even if a problem comes up, Ribbons n' Lace will have it solved with a wave of her hoof. She has connections everywhere."
"She hasn't denied you the right of making your own decisions, has she?" Tendril queried, suddenly worried. "She can be rather intimidating when she's in full swing."
"She's allowed me plenty of opportunities to make suggestions," Fern said. "She then gently prompts my thinking to see the fallacy behind my reasoning and the sense of doing it her way. So I almost always bow to her superior wisdom."
Tendril laughed. "You've learned early that Mom can be rather intimidating in her gentle way. But, trust me, you must stand up for your own opinions occasionally, or she'll organize you're entire life for you."
"After my year alone without Granny, I treasure having someone to look out for me," confided the young mare.
"I'm sorry, Fern." Tendril reached across the table to pat Fern's hoof. "I didn't mean to bring back unhappy memories now when you should be only thinking pleasant thoughts."
"Since the day I promised Toby I'd marry him, I've had nothing but pleasant thoughts," Fern admitted shyly.
"My brother is one lucky stallion," Tendril grinned before being interrupted by an attendant with a telephone.
"A call for you, ma'am."
The two mares exchanged a questioning glance, Tendril's look of worried apprehension quickly conveying itself to Fern. The ensuing conversation verified that there was an emergency. Little Quill, in an attempt to reach the cookie jar, had taken a tumble from a counter and had received a rather nasty bump on the head for his efforts. The foal was inconsolable and wanted his mother. Could Tendril come to the foal's aid? the concerned care-giver wanted to know.
Nothing would keep Tendril from her son in his need, and both she and Fern made ready for a hasty departure. Their duress, however, had not gone unnoticed; and they found Miranda and Tiffany at their table, curious as to the unwelcome news.
On hearing of Tendril's plight, Miranda was quick to make a suggestion. "Neither of you have finished your lunch; surely there's no need of Fern to leave such a delectable spread, Tendril. Your little one will want only his dear mother. Leave Fern with me and I'll ensure that she enjoys her lunch, and I'll see to her return home."
"Oh, Miranda, would you?" the harried Tendril said. "Fern, you don't mind, do you? I'm so sorry this had to happen on our special day out, but I can't enjoy myself knowing Quill needs me."
Having no desire to spend time alone with Miranda and Tiffany yet not wanting to increase Tendril's distress, Fern capitulated, although she felt as if she was caught up in something over which she had no control. "You run along, Tendril. Just remember to give Quill a kiss from me."
Tendril was gone in a flash, and a discreet motion from Miranda soon had a waiter at the table transferring Fern's unfinished lunch over to join Miranda and Tiffany's setting. Fern nervously took her place, feeling out of her element without the friendliness of Tendril to support her. Seeing Miranda and Tiffany share what appeared to be a smirk, Fern called up all her hidden reserves of self-confidence and flashed the two socialites a brave smile.
"Princess Tiffany, I assume you have all the details of wedding planning in hoof just as I do," she said as coolly as possible, assaying the princess with a show of tranquility she was far from feeling. "Of course, mine is occurring in just a couple of days while yours will be in another week, if I remember correctly?" She made the statement a question.
Loath to admit that her elaborate plans were far from complete, the princess waved a languid hoof through the air. "I give orders and I assume they are obeyed. Everything will be as it should be a week from Saturday." The princess could not stop herself. "As money is no object, any problem that might occur can be easily remedied... although I'm quite sure that Toby and his family have been very generous toward their orphan bride."
Unable to believe that Tiffany had made such a tacky remark, Fern reverted to speechlessness and timidity. How did one enter combat with royalty, especially in so public a place as Peerless? Surprisingly, it was Miranda who stepped into the void to defend Fern.
"Now, Tiffany, that smacks of snobbery. Surely you can't begrudge Fern winning such a prize as Toby. Why, there was even a time when you had cast your lure in that direction, am I right?"
Princess Tiffany sniffed, pushing her unfinished salad away. "You didn't live in Dream Valley when the stallions were scarce, and a mare didn't have much choice," she grated. "Luckily, I was spared making a dreadful mistake." The pegasus shuddered, thinking how different her life would have been with a hard-working doctor as a husband rather than a globe-hopping billionaire like Guido, the stallion she would be marrying so soon. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment with the orchestra that will be playing at my reception; there are some changes I'd like them to make." She made her exit with a toss of her silver-laced mane.
Miranda grinned impishly, completely baffling Fern; Miranda leaned toward the younger mare as if they were bosom friends. "The princess has an exalted impression of her status; it was a pleasure to bring her down a notch or two."
"I... I wouldn't want to make her a... angry with me," Fern stuttered, fearing some sort of reprisal from the white pegasus. "S... she is, after all, a p... princess."
"And it would be remiss of Toby if he doesn't consider you a princess, Fern," Miranda responded with a raised brow. She laughed over Fern's answering blush. "Well, it's nice to know that Toby hasn't lost his gallant address."
Before Fern could respond to that hint of an earlier familiarity between the mare and Toby, Miranda went on.
"You might not have a royal background, but you'll make a stunning bride. You're in New Pony, I assume, for your final fittings on your gown? Did Ribbons n' Lace refer you to Reginald's or Champagne's?"
"Neither, actually. We both thought it would be best to work through Lemon Treats' Boutique."
"Lemon Treats doesn't carry bridal wear."
"Oh, but she has all the accessories. And because she handles Clare's Creations and is a personal friend of Clare, I had access to Clare's wedding line. Lemon Treats is actually thinking of opening a bridal shop at the mall if I 'come across well'."
"Well, that is a choice piece of information. The Princess Tiffany has obtained her wedding finery from Clare as well. It's nice to know that you will be equally fashionable."
"I'm sure Princess Tiffany will be much more up to the mark than I could ever be," Fern countered. "I didn't see fit to spend a great deal of money on an outfit that I would wear only once, even if it is the most important occasion of my life. My grandmother would never have countenanced such foolish..." Fern came to an abrupt stop when she saw the disbelieving look in Miranda's eyes, and she wished she could retract her incautious words. She struggled to erase the impression she must have conjured up in the discerning mare's mind. "Granny always advised quality, but without the frills. I never lacked for anything under Granny's care, but we did live simply..."
"Don't feel it necessary to explain, Fern," smiled Miranda. "I'm sure I would've liked your grandmother very much. Don't forget that it's my job to help ponies get the most out of their jangles."
Fern's soft green complexion was suffused with a rosy glow. "You must think me a veritable country bumpkin."
"Of course not, my dear! But you surely haven't skimped too much, have you? This is a very important day in your life, as you said. I'd hate to think that you were gypped of your chance to shine."
"T... Toby agreed that I should dress simply. He said I'd be lost in too many frills and ruffles."
"Describe your attire," Miranda ordered, leaning back in her chair with an assessing gleam in her eyes.
"Well, I'll wear a white circlet of roses and pearls with a lacy veil that trails to the floor..."
"That's all very well and good," mused Miranda, "but isn't it rather... commonplace?"
"It's traditional, if that's what you mean," Fern defended rather tartly.
"Have you never dreamed of breaking free of the ordinary, Fern? Just this once, wouldn't you like to make your own statement, set your own trend?"
"I'm satisfied with what my friends and I've decided on."
"And I'm sure it's lovely! But imagine the light in Toby's eyes if he was to see you come down the aisle in an original creation by someone like... Nate."
"His styles are... weird," Fern shuddered.
"But noteworthy," Miranda responded. "And that's what you need, Fern. Something that will set you apart so ponies take notice of your union with Toby. Imagine the stir you'd create wearing something extravagantly unique!"
"But that's not my style!"
"Ponies will talk, Fern. They'll note the drab little mouse Toby chose and compare her to the fashion-plate bride that Tiffany will be. You don't want ponies to make an uncomplimentary comparison, do you? Some might think that Toby would have been better off with Tiffany after all."
A vision of Tiffany elaborately gowned and bejeweled in the latest fashion flitted through Fern's mind, stirring a twinge of jealousy over the princess who had lived her life with every advantage at her disposal and who would now glitter in magnificence on her wedding day as all of Ponyland watched while insignificant Fern Feather would march down the aisle in veritable obscurity, even thought Toby and his family were highly respected in their own sphere.
Doubts began to invade Fern's mind. Had her friends advised ordinary dress because they knew she would not be able to carry-off a more dazzling ensemble? Had Ribbons n' Lace wanted this wedding to remain low-key so as not to call attention to their son's pathetic alliance? Did Toby himself prefer to keep his bride commonly attired, knowing full well that Fern could never shine as the Princess Tiffany could and would?
A little fire of indignation began to burn within Fern. Her snapping eyes met Miranda's amused ones. "You have a point, Miranda. But it's too late to do anything about it now."
"Maybe not, Fern," Miranda said, leaning forward over the table. Her mind had been as busy as Fern's in the last few minutes. "Nate happens to be a good friend of mine, and he owes me a favor. How would you like to consult with him now and see what his recommendations would be?"
"On such short notice? There'd be no time..."
"You'd be surprised what can be accomplished if you have the right incentive. And Nate will jump at my command. Trust me, Fern. You'll be spectacular!"
* * *
It was a tired- no, exhausted- Fern who finally arrived home much later that day to find a note from Ribbons n' Lace explaining that Quill had been so distraught after his bump that she and Andrew had gone to assist Tendril by entertaining Patina until Copper returned home from a late shift at work. The note stressed that Fern was to make herself comfortable. Fern would have liked to relax, but she found herself pacing the flower-perfumed patio instead, going over in her mind the strange events of the afternoon.
Miranda had proven to be as good as her word, taking Fern to the posh setting of Nate's suite of offices and workrooms. Whatever Miranda held over the stallion's head must have been substantial, for he dismissed the client with whom he was conferring and greeted Miranda with a fawning deference that embarrassed Fern who was nonetheless swept along in its wake.
Once Miranda explained her mission of seeing Fern outfitted in the first stare on her wedding day, Nate's eyes began to gleam with delight. Ribbons n' Lace was a highly respected matron of New Pony, he well knew, and her fashion sense was never suspect. Her daughter-in-law dressed in a Nate Original on her wedding day would ensure an influx of business.
In all honesty, Nate would have to admit that the demand for his outrageous designs was meager. If he was brutally honest, he would admit that he could barely make the rent. His clientele came from a thin slice of the New Pony elite, mares who were not afraid to make a striking statement or to raise a few eyebrows. Even in this eclectic city, many mares tended to lean toward the more conventional designers.
However, if Ribbons n' Lace's name became linked with Nate's, it would lend a new respectability to his label. The well-known names of the prestigious Dr. Andrew and his charitable wife would go a long way to raising his reputation to a new level. Even if he had to go without sleep for the next forty-eight hours, it would be worth it.
Disconcerted to have Nate's assessing gaze so brutally surveying her, Fern was ready to run from the designer's office; but Miranda, sensing her distress, sent her a quelling glance before speaking to Nate. "What do you think? Do you have time to design a masterpiece?"
Unbeknownst to Fern, Miranda had managed to place a call to Nate while Fern was freshening up after their luncheon. For a brief moment, Nate's gaze slipped from Fern to her companion; an intense look of understanding was exchanged between the two before the designer's eyes came back to Fern. After several more minutes of keen scrutiny, he pushed some papers from his desk to clear it, then reached for a pristine sheet of drawing paper and began to sketch.
The only sound in the room was that of the pencil on paper. Fern sat, barely breathing, as the artist scratched out his vision of her as Toby's bride. His brilliantly red, spiked mane jerked with his movements like a rooster's comb, Fern noted, the similarity bringing a genuine smile to her face, replacing her worry lines. Nate looked up just then, surprised to see the softened expression that made the young mare's face truly beautiful. His artistic flow arrested, he smiled back at the mare.
For the first time since her arrival at Nate's, Fern relaxed with this expression of camaraderie. Nate might be a maverick designer, but he had Miranda's approval; and even if Fern and Miranda had gotten off on the wrong hoof when Fern had first arrived in Dream Valley, Miranda was a long-time friend of Toby's, and her response to Fern after Tiffany left was all that was friendly. And Nate was only a stallion, after all, even if he was considered by some to be a demigod and by others a notorious fake. Fern convinced herself that she should have no qualms about trusting her wedding attire to him.
"When can I see the sketch?" she asked.
"Look now. Understand, however, that this is only tentative." He turned the sketch to face Fern as she crossed the short distance to his desk, and she gasped when she saw Nate's image.
The first detail that caught Fern's attention was the representation that Nate had made of her own face. In his drawing, her meek countenance had been highlighted with quick, bold strokes of his pencil; her eyes were outlined in deepest charcoal, giving her an exotic look. She could only imagine what colors he would expect on her lids, but she knew with certainty that they would not be her usual pale mauve and beige.
Only belatedly did Fern note the design of the headdress that Nate had concocted. Rising from her severely coifed hair rose a feathery fan of fern-like fronds that dwarfed her petite stature. From the downy feathers gems sparkled, and a cape of the same feathers draped to the floor and cascaded behind.
"It's rather... showy," Fern mumbled. She was ignored.
"It need more pizzaz," Miranda conversely observed, frowning.
"It needs something," Nate pondered, tapping his chin as he concentrated, his eyes taking on a faraway look.
"Are the jewels diamonds?" Miranda asked.
"Of course," Nate murmured, still deep in thought. Suddenly his eyes cleared and lighted. He reached for his chalks and added color to the drawing, bringing it to life. With a deft sweep of his hoof, the headdress took on a pale green hue that blended with soft blue over the back and became a shimmering metallic blue as it flowed to the train of the cape. The effect was that of a cluster of ferns budding forth from the edge of a pristine mountain stream. Nate quickly added a luxurious bouquet of ferns and brilliant red tea roses to the ensemble, then stood back in satisfaction. "It's you, Fern," he stated simply.
From over Fern's shoulder, Miranda expressed delight. "Nate! This is wonderful! It's exactly what Fern needs to give her countenance with New Pony society. Fern, you'll be the talk of the town."
Not exactly thrilled to fuel the tattle-mongers no matter how highbrow, the gentle Fern shook her head, trying to rationalize this beautiful but flamboyant outfit with the softly romantic white lace, pearls, and flowers that lay waiting for her wedding day. "I'm not sure..."
"You're going to shine, Fern," Nate interrupted. "I'll get my staff right on this, and I'll help them myself every step of the way. Never fear; everything will be ready by Saturday."
Fern smiled weakly. She wished she shared Miranda and Nate's enthusiasm.
* * *
"Tendril, can I talk to you for a minute?" Toby asked his sister. He had arrived in New Pony two days hence for the final countdown to his wedding; and now that the eve of that occasion had arrived, he needed some advice.
"Why, of course, Toby. What's on your mind?" The mare grinned. "Other than Fern, of course."
"That's just it, sis. Did you notice how tense Fern seemed at the rehearsal tonight? And even at the dinner afterwards, she didn't seemed to be enjoying herself."
"Bridal jitters." Tendril waved a negligent hoof through the air. "It's to be expected, what with all the changes that will occur in Fern's life now."
"She was happy when she left Dream Valley; now she seems to be under some kind of dark cloud. Did something happen while she was here in New Pony?"
"Lots happened, Toby. We've been very busy with last minute preparations, and Mom made sure Fern met everyone. And Fern was worried about Quill when he cried himself into a fever after his fall. She really is a compassionate pony, Toby; I think she was nearly as worried about him as I was."
"But Quill is fine now, and she still seems distracted by something."
"Did you ask her if anything was bothering her?"
"Of course, I did. She denied any problems, but she couldn't seem to face me squarely. I'm worried, Tendril. What if she's having second thoughts?"
"Toby! Don't even think it! That girl loves you with her whole heart and soul. Trust me on this one, brother dear." She kissed Toby's cheek and gave him a sisterly hug; but deep down inside, she wondered if maybe Toby had seen something she had missed. She vowed to keep a close eye on Fern for the rest of the evening.
* * *
It was Tendril's covert attention to Fern's mood that prompted her to corral Chocolate Chip, Garnet, and Flower Drift (a former classmate from Fern's hometown of Bushley) shortly after Fern's abrupt announcement that she was exhausted and needed to retire if she was to be a bright-eyed bride on the morrow. Tendril was especially troubled to note the rather cool goodnight Fern had bid Toby, leaving the stallion with a pained and worried expression on his face. After a whispered alert to Fern's bosom friends, the quartet slipped away from the rest of the wedding party to make their way to Fern's chamber.
When a soft knock on the young mare's door brought no response, Tendril turned to Chocolate Chip. "What now?" she queried softly.
It was Garnet who responded. "We bust down her fortification," the red mare said, matching her actions to her words. She turned the doorknob and pushed open the door. "Fern? Are you in here?" she asked, finding the room in relative darkness.
From the center of the bed came a muffled sob followed by a raspy, "I'm here. Just go away."
Garnet, Chocolate Chip, Flower Drift, and Tendril shared a perplexed glance; then, as one, they marched into the room, circling the bed.
"Okay, Fern; what gives?" queried Garnet.
"N... nothing," Fern sniffed, sitting up and blowing her nose.
"Fern, dear, we're all your friends. You can confide in us," Flower Drift said, dropping to Fern's side and smoothing back her mane.
"I... I know that," Fern stuttered, then covered her face with a clean handkerchief from which she mumbled, "There's... there's just nothing to talk about."
"It's obvious that something's troubling you," Chocolate Chip declared, taking up a position on the other side of the sniffling bride-to-be. "We're here to help."
"N... no one c... can help."
"Fern," Tendril said, "have your feelings for Toby changed so suddenly?"
At this notion, Fern uncovered her tear-stained face abruptly. "No! How can you even think such a thing?"
"Then what's made you so terribly unhappy?" Tendril questioned, sitting down in front of Fern. "You can't doubt my brother's love for you."
"I... I don't doubt his love," Fern sniffed, "but I've proven to be a disappointment to him." She was then engulfed in a stream of silent tears.
"What makes you say that?" Garnet joined the others on the bed.
"H... he thinks I'm a drab little m... mouse," Fern mumbled, picking up one of the bed pillows and hugging it to her. "H... he'd rather have s... someone of T... Tiffany's c... c... caliber for his bride."
Garnet's, Chocolate Chip's, Flower Drift's, and Tendril's mouths slacked open in astonishment. "What are you talking about?" demanded Garnet, the first to find her voice. "The stallion adores you!"
"M... Miranda said..."
"Miranda... said... what?" Tendril asked in a deadly calm voice that caused Fern to stop her sniveling and to dry her eyes. She took a deep breath as she glanced from one to the other of her friends, then gulped uncomfortably before she poured out her story to the interested onlookers.
* * *
"So that's what Miranda meant when she said that she couldn't wait to see Toby's face when Fern walked down the aisle," Chocolate Chip grated. "I ran into her when Wigwam took me to lunch yesterday," she explained further.
The mares were gathered around the Nate Original that had been secretly hanging in Fern's closet next to the snow-white finery that she had brought from Dream Valley. The showy outfit had been delivered to her only that morning, put into her hooves by a courier with orders to consign the package into Fern's care alone. She had secreted the parcel to her room without anyone in the house being the wiser and had been burdened with feelings of guilt ever since.
What had seemed so right, so exciting, when she had been with Miranda and Nate had seemed like a betrayal once the shimmering green and blue work of art had been hanging in her closet. For all its expensive trappings, it appeared to be a gaudy costume compared to the virginal innocence of the wedding attire she had so lovingly decided on with the help of her true friends.
"It sounds to me like Miranda was setting you up," Garnet knowingly informed Fern. "And look how well she succeeded," the mare added, touching Fern's still wet cheek.
"Setting me up?"
"She planted the seed of self-doubt in your mind, then goaded you into accepting this spectacular outfit knowing full well that Toby would prefer something less ostentatious."
"She did that on purpose?" the meek and mild Fern questioned. "I thought she'd come around to seeing me as a friend."
"Miranda probably still feels slighted that Toby chose you over her," Chocolate Chip rationalized, "even though she's dating Jack now. She was trying to get even in her own way."
"This Miranda sounds like a real shrew," Flower Drift snorted.
Tendril laughed. "That wraps up her personality fairly well. Thank goodness Toby never got snarled in her web." The mare gave Fern a hug. "He chose you instead, Fern; and for that we're all grateful. Haven't I told you that before?"
Fern grinned ruefully. "Yes, you did; but Miranda came on so strong that I believed everything she said."
"She's a salespony at heart," Garnet reminded the bride. "It's her business to convince ponies to see things her way."
"Well, I'm definitely wearing the white apparel tomorrow," Fern stated firmly, then frowned. "But what am I to do with Nate's Original?"
"Send it back," suggested Garnet. "Explain to this Nate what Miranda did."
"Who's getting the bill?" wondered Tendril, touching the feathery headdress to feel its softness.
"As to that, Miranda said this was her wedding gift to me and Toby," explained Fern.
"Well, then," giggled Flower Drift, "it's yours to keep."
"I'm not sure I'd want it around," admitted Fern.
"But just think, Fern. When Snuzzle plans her next fund-raiser ball, you'll have the perfect raiment!" Chocolate Chip chortled. "No one will even come close to this finery."
"That's perfect!" agreed Garnet. "As the wife of Dream Valley's number one doctor, you'll be expected to dazzle everyone. And you'll certainly do that in this number!" She held up the Nate Original and twirled around the room, causing the diamonds to seemingly explode in a rainbow of light.
The young mares talked and laughed for some time before a yawn from Fern alerted them to the fact that the bride did truly need some beauty sleep before her wedding day. With another round of hugs and best wishes, Chocolate Chip, Garnet, and Flower Drift departed, leaving Tendril behind.
"A little advice, Fern," Tendril said as she stood in the doorway. "I'd suggest that you hunt up Toby and let him know what was going on in your mind tonight. He was in a bad state earlier, thinking that you were unsure about marrying him. I doubt he'll get a wink of sleep if you don't set things straight with him."
"Oh, my gosh!" Fern cried out. "I thought I had my inner turmoil under wraps."
"Well, my dear sister-to-be, get used to having your moods read by Toby; he's so much in tune with you that you'll have a hard time keeping a secret."
"Where will I find him?"
"When he's got a problem, he often paces out on the patio," Tendril said, then grinned. "Scat, sister dear, and put him out of his misery."
Fern did not need a second nudge.
* * *
The house was quiet as Fern made her way downstairs, the only voices coming from the direction of the kitchen. Fern had not realized how late it had gotten while her friends were coaxing her out of her doldrums, but she was grateful for the privacy as she stepped to the patio doors and peered out into the gently lit outdoors.
Toby was there as his sister had said, but he was not pacing. Rather, he was standing next to a fragrantly blooming fruit tree with his shoulder leaning heavily into the rough bark as if he needed the tree's support. Even a less conscious pony than Fern could have read the despair in the stallion's stature, and Fern mentally chided herself for letting Miranda get to her. Quietly closing the space between them, Fern was within a pace away from him when he heard her approach and straightened, turning to face her. Her heart thudded painfully as she read the concern in his eyes.
"Toby, there's something I've got to tell you," she whispered, her voice tremulous due to the embarrassment she was feeling in having to admit that she had allowed Miranda to cause her to doubt his feelings.
For Toby, Fern's words were like the tolling of a death knell. He had been reliving the last forty-eight hours since he had returned to New Pony and had realized some unsettling facts. True, Fern had flown into his forelegs when he had first arrived at his parents' home, a radiant smile upon her face; but she had soon adapted a reticence that had kept him at foreleg's length as if they were good friends but nothing more.
What reason could there be for her reserve except that she had changed her mind about their future together? What else would she have to tell him at this last moment? He felt numb as he tried to prepare himself for her dashing of all his hopes and dreams for the two of them. He found he could not voice a single syllable, so he simply nodded.
Taking a deep breath, Fern dove into her confession. "I've been such a dunce! I never thought I'd question the depth of our love, Toby; but I realize I've made a terrible mull of things. I've let another pony come between us, but I never meant to hurt you. Can you forgive me?"
So this is what it feels like to have your life-blood cut off, Toby thought, unable to take in any air as he stood frozen in front of the mare that meant life to him. She had found someone else! His face blanched, causing Fern a moment of panic.
"Toby, say something!"
The best the stallion could do was to manage a brief shake of his head which was the final straw for Fern. Getting a grip on her own emotions, she blasted him with all her pent-up worry and self-recrimination.
"You've known from the start that I was raised a simple country girl, and you saw how easily Aunt Maisie's husband bamboozled me out of my inheritance. Can't you see how easily Miranda could do the same thing, convincing me that you would someday come to regret my background? All I wanted to do was prove that I could be as elegant as the likes of Tiffany and Miranda if I was given the chance. And now you refuse to talk to me?"
Fortunately, Fern had to stop to take a breath, giving Toby a chance to intervene, for at the mention of Miranda's name, his heart had started beating again. Anger could do that to a pony.
"What has Miranda been up to this time?" he growled menacingly.
"Haven't you been listening?" Fern accused, certain that her explanation had been succinctly recited, forgetting that Toby had not the least idea what had gone on between her and Miranda in the past week and was therefore receiving a less than complete picture of events. The mare's emotions got the best of her, and tears began to trickle down her cheeks again.
What could Toby do but gather her into his forelegs and kiss away the tears?
* * *
Not a bit of nervousness assayed Toby as he stood in front of his family and friends waiting for his young bride. He could almost be grateful for the torment Fern's mistake in trusting Miranda had caused the two of them. Unable to stifle a satisfied grin from appearing on his face as he remembered how good it had felt to hold Fern is his forelegs while she explained the near fiasco that had developed the day Tendril had left her in Miranda's care, Toby caught a cynical glance from his brother, the eldest of Ribbons n' Lace and Andrew's offspring, who was in attendance on the groom.
"Smile while you can," Tribute drawled, straightening his brother's tie for the umpteenth time. "Soon enough, you'll be under the cat's paw."
"And what a gentle paw it is," Toby responded, flicking Tribute's tie in place. "Some day, brother, you'll understand. Someday..."
The swell of organ music ended the siblings' sniping. Toby's glance was drawn automatically to the point where he knew Fern would be standing, and the sight of her draped in flowers and white lace was the answer to his prayers; the look of love and promise in her eyes took his breath away. Their eyes met, and life began anew.
* * *
As Miranda had informed Chocolate Chip, her eyes were on Toby when the organ music filled the church; and her stance was reminiscent of a feline huntress waiting for its prey to inch just within reach.
At her side, Nate restrained himself from craning his neck to catch his first glimpse of Fern in the eccentric original he had fostered. He was feeling a bit ashamed of himself for allowing Miranda to coerce him into taking advantage of such a genuinely naive mare; but the reward for his cooperation had been too enticing. Miranda's financial expertise would go a long way in helping him avoid his jangle-hungry creditors.
Nate was lost in his reverie of a more lucrative cash flow when he heard Miranda gasp, and his attention was brought to the events at hoof. One look at Miranda's face was enough to know that her plan of embarrassing Fern and Toby had somehow backfired. A glance at the bride coming down the aisle verified Miranda's abysmal failure.
Unable to stifle a chuckle, Nate received a sharp punch in the ribs from Miranda; but he did not let that stop his enjoyment of the situation. Nate had liked Fern, found her innocence refreshing after the jaded mares of New Pony, and was pleased to see that she had circumvented Miranda's revenge. And the sweet young thing looked lovely in her flowing white garment with the fragrance of lily-of-the-valley lingering in her wake.
Turning his attention to Toby, Nate felt a moment of envy as he saw the look of love and pride that the purple stallion showered on the bride as Toby received her hoof from Raven who stood in place of the parents that Fern had lost when she was just a foal. That same look was mirrored in the glowing face of Fern as she accepted Toby's guidance to the altar.
At that point, Nate stole another glance at Miranda, and the mare glared back at him. He shrugged his shoulders, letting Miranda know that he had upheld his part of their bargain in good faith; he had no control over Fern's last minute change of plans. It was Miranda who was now stuck with her portion of the agreement, to be Nate's financial advisor until solvency was realized. It would be a pleasure to whisper that piece of information to the bride and groom.
As for Toby and Fern, they wasted not a thought on the mauve-colored mare or on her attempt to cause trouble between them. They had both learned, once for all, that their love was a reality, tried and true.