The day following the anniversary party was also the day for Aiden and Sloan to depart for a business meeting scheduled for Monday morning in Winthrop. Appearing at the front door after lunch, Sloan, after the usual small talk, glanced toward the sweeping stairway and asked if Brietta would be free to talk to him for a few minutes before he and Aiden left the house. He was obviously disappointed by the answer he received from Lena.
“After church, Brietta went to spend the afternoon with Shayla; they both figured that last night’s dance was a cornucopia of information for them to discuss.” She laughed. “Brietta couldn’t wait to compare notes with Shayla on where the last seven years have taken some of the ponies they went to school with.”
A thin, tight smile was all the response Sloan made, so Aiden added his thoughts. “You must have run into some old friends last night as well, Sloan; you and Brietta always mixed with the same crowd.”
“Yes, it was quite a reunion.” The stallion was not in a talkative mood, however, and next suggested that he and Aiden commence their journey immediately. “There are storm clouds moving in from the west; I wouldn’t be surprised to find the two of us caught in a downpour before we reach our destination.”
Lena bustled to the closet to retrieve an umbrella. “This will protect you from the worst of it,” she said to her husband, noting with approval that Sloan had the foresight to have his own umbrella in possession as well.
The two stallions were soon underway, and if Aiden found that Sloan was even less communicative than ever, he had no way of knowing that the younger pony was mentally upbraiding himself for allowing the previous evening to end the way it did between him and Brietta when his plans had been so much more positive; Sloan found comfort only in the fact that Brietta was, at least, not spending the current afternoon in the company of Dorian, whom Sloan was beginning to find underhoof much more often than was agreeable.
He had no way of knowing what was going on in Brietta’s mind, having missed her when he had returned to the dance to search her out and continue the tete-a-tete that had been interrupted by Finella and again having the misfortune of not connecting with her at Whitehall Place before his departure with Aiden. Every time he tried to make his peace with her, something happened to interfere. It was becoming critical, Sloan reasoned, to set things right.
Regardless of these musings, it was probably to Sloan’s overall peace of mind that he was far from Whitehall and was not to be a firsthoof spectator of the events that would play out in his absence.
* * *
Brietta herself could probably not have explained what her mental state was through this period following the dance. One moment, she was reliving the sensation of having Sloan’s forelegs around her; and the next, she was burying any such feelings under those which surfaced when she remembered Dorian’s final words to her after he had delivered her safely home and had kissed her very longingly: I love you had been whispered so softly that she was not even sure that the words had been truly uttered or if they had just been imagined in the emotion of the moment. The stallion had left her suddenly, whether because of regret in having admitted such tender feelings, or because he did not trust himself to say more.
* * *
Monday and Tuesday for Brietta were consumed with legal duties, so by Tuesday evening she was ready to unwind in the company of Bram and Keri and make the acquaintance of Keri’s older brother, Trey. In her reasoning over the last several days, she had come to grips with both Sloan and Dorian, putting both of them on hold in her mind and getting on with the important matters of assisting clients. Having Sloan miles away certainly made that half of her effort to conveniently slot him away somewhere in the recesses of her memory quite simple, and Dorian was nearly as distant for he avoided any speech with her unless it dealt directly with a business question.
Brietta could only surmise that Dorian regretted having said what she thought he had said, and that he hoped that she either had not heard him or would discount the words if his actions did not follow through. So it was that she went to the visit at Bram’s house with a clear mind, having suitably tied up any stray thoughts of either of the stallions who had claimed her affection in the past.
When she arrived at the neat white home on Western Avenue, she was admitted by Bram and the two were allowed a brief conversation alone.
“Welcome, Brietta!” Bram greeted her. “You remember who used to live here, don’t you?”
Brietta grinned. “How could I forget? Do you ever hear from Colin?”
“I ran into him a year or so ago; he was just passing through town on his way to Cascade. He asked about you.”
Raising an eyebrow speculatively, Brietta made no comment. The class clown, Colin had made it a point to take the formality out of any occasion and to provide the light touch when events became bogged down; and although his sense of humor was welcome, he had the uncanny knack of highlighting a pony at the moment when the greatest amount of embarrassment would be accrued from the effort. Brietta had often been the center of his none-too-kind jokes.
Bram guided Brietta into the living room, filling in the gap in her lack of conversation. “Take a guess on what occupation Colin decided on.”
“Because you’re asking, I can only imagine that it is something completely foreign to his nature, like a bank president or something.”
“No. He has decided that he has a vocation to the religious life.” Bram said no more, enjoying the look of disbelief on Brietta’s face.
“You can’t be serious!”
“That’s exactly what I said to him, but he was totally serious. He’s studying at King of Kings.”
Voices infringed on Bram and Brietta as Keri and Trey came into the room from the kitchen. “How nice that you could join us this evening, Brietta!” Keri enthused. “And this,” she said, turning to the stallion who stood by her side, “is my brother, Trey. He’s spending a few days with us, helping Bram at the shop.”
“Nice to meet you,” Brietta murmured to the emerald green stallion, finding herself being studied rather too closely by a pair of dark, cunning eyes. “So you’re in the antique business as well?”
“Oh, no,” Keri answered for him. “Trey’s an insurance salespony, but he keeps his eyes open for collectibles when he’s on the road and sometimes finds a real gem. Then Bram allows him a commission when the piece sells.”
“Look at this,” Bram said, walking across the room to lift a long, slender glass vase. “Trey picked this up at a little resale store over in Dunklin for a couple of jangles; I’ve had customers willing to pay several hundred jangles for a piece that wasn’t in this good of condition.” His eyes sparkled as he handled the object. “I remember by grandmother having a vase just like this; she sold it at a rummage sale when she was trying to clear some of the clutter from her house.” He ran his hoof over the fluted mouth of the container, a sentimental look on his face. “I’m tempted to buy this one myself.”
“You’ll never get rich that way,” Trey said, the tone of his harsh voice indicating scorn. “The old mare was right; it’s nothing but a bunch of useless stuff. Who needs it?” He sent a raking glance at Brietta as if he had in mind better ways to spend his jangles and his time.
Brietta ignored Trey and crossed to Bram. “It’s a lovely piece, Bram. Mother has a similar one that belonged to my grandmother as well. The value of something like this is beyond price if it brings back special memories.”
“Grandma used to pick whatever flowers were in season for hers: lilacs in the spring, roses in the summer, and cattails in the fall. At Christmas time, she’s have in loaded with pine boughs and bright red berries from some bush or other,” Bram recalled.
“I remember when I was just a foal climbing up on the table to touch the bleeding hearts that Mother had just picked from the garden; they were cascading so wondrously that I couldn’t resist getting a closer look. Needless to say, my handling of the flowers caused the vase to topple.” Brietta grimaced at the recollection.
Bram only grinned. “What was the outcome of that transgression?”
“I heard Anna coming, so I tried to scramble down off the table and ended up falling to the floor; she was so distraught to think that I’d hurt myself that she never scolded about the spilled bouquet.”
“Brat!” Bram winked at her.
Trey had enough of their walk down memory lane. “If you decide to keep the vase, you’ll pay me top price for it,” he interrupted brusquely. “I’ve got to make some repairs on my house, so I need the jangles.”
Brietta returned a secret wink to Bram and steered the conversation in a new direction by asking Trey where his home was located. On learning that it was in Winthrop, she mentioned her father’s trip to that city and his anticipated return this very evening. Trey began to itemize the good and bad points of the city, most of which centered on the quality of food served at the particular restaurants; Brietta listened with polite interest while Bram slouched on the sofa in a bored fashion, obviously having heard his brother-in-law’s ranting enough to know them by heart.
Shortly, Keri announced that the food was on the table; and Bram ushered Brietta to the dining room with Trey trailing behind. Brietta caught sight of a massive hutch of an earlier day that graced the far wall. “That’s the perfect place to display the vase,” she commented, slipping into the chair that Bram indicated for her. “You’ve already collected some wonderful objects,” she added running her gaze over the eclectic array gathered on the dark wooden shelving.
“I collect cruets,” said Keri, glancing quickly at her brother as she said it. “And don’t believe Trey when he frowns upon collecting; he has his own downfall in that department.”
“And what might that be?” asked Brietta, an amused look crossing her face as she peered at the stallion.
Unwillingly, and with a scowl for his sister, he responded, “Action figures.”
“Action figures?” Brietta queried. “Such as...”
“Action Pony, G.I. Ed, Max Iron, Star Battles.”
“I’ve seen those dolls...” began Brietta.
“They’re not dolls!” Trey interrupted, a look of chagrin upon his face. “They’re action figures; there’s a difference.”
“Well, when I was growing up, we called them dolls,” Brietta insisted, looking to Bram for help. “What was that line that you and your buddies used to buy? Even Sloan had a figure at one time.”
“Sloan only went in for Heroes of the World,” Bram volunteered. “They were all the rage back then. I had Bucephalus, and I think Sloan’s was Rosinante; but why he wanted that bony thing, I’ll never know. I also had some of the Star Battles figures and still do, as a matter of fact. And, no, Trey, I’ll never sell them to you.”
Trey had recovered from his vexation by this time and needed to flaunt his acquisitions. “I’ve got the original Luke mint-in-box plus the rest of the line in near mint, only some minor corner rubs. And I also got all but one of the Ed figures.”
“Plus he’s currently buying all the Iron and Action Pony figures that come out,” said Keri.
“I’ll be needing a gift for Shayla’s little colt’s birthday,” mused Brietta. “Do you think a doll- I mean- action figure would please him?”
“Get him the Action Pony Mountain Climber,” suggested Trey. “He’ll love it. I could help you pick it out; just name the time.”
“Thank you, Trey, but I’ll enjoy hunting through the toy aisles to see what else might be available,” Brietta demurred..
“Shayla tells me she has a job lined up for when she’s back on her hooves,” Bram said, turning the conversation on a new course, carrying the meal to its conclusion. The dishes having been relegated to the dish washer, Keri made a suggestion.
“Trey has never been out to the ledge to see the view from there; if we walk out now, we should be in time to watch the sunset.” She looked at her husband with a set expression on her face that bore no argument, so soon the four ponies were headed on this pleasant summer evening in a westerly direction out of town, Keri walking hoof in hoof with Bram, and Trey accompanying Brietta, regaling her with stories of his rather uninteresting, as Brietta saw it, life history.
Soon, and Brietta noted that it was not entirely by chance, Bram and Keri had moved some distance ahead of Trey and Brietta, leaving Brietta solely at the mercy of the stallion’s self-absorbed rambling.
“I once found an original figure in the bottom of a box I picked up for a song, and some stallion in New Pony paid me more jangles than I normally would have made in weeks,” he said, bringing a long recital of his best finds to an end. “Keri tells me you live in an old mansion; I bet there are tons of antiques just sitting around for the picking; am I right?”
Trey frowned. “Surely you haven’t just thrown out all the old stuff; it’d be worth a bundle!”
“Most of it went to the restored Garvin House that’s part of the historical museum complex in town.”
“That’s too bad,” Trey scowled. “It’d take a fortune to replace those things.” They walked in silence until Trey asked, “Has the house itself been messed with much?”
“If you mean has the architecture been changed, no, it hasn’t. Whitehall Place even has an original bell tower on top. The house was built to last, and it’s been cared for by a continuing line of Mannings; but we’ve lived in it as a home, not a showplace.”
“I’d really like to see the house sometime,” Trey hinted.
“Oh, look! Bram and Keri seem to be waiting for us,” Brietta said, glad to have found something to divert Trey’s present course.
Bram was watching the approach of Brietta and Trey with a rueful look upon his face, and Keri looked somewhat disheartened. The reason was soon revealed.
“Keri just remembered that she was supposed to call one of her student’s parents tonight; we have to head back home so she can take care of it.”
“I’m so sorry to have to rush off like this,” Keri apologized, “but I’m sure Trey will make sure you get home safely, Brietta; Bram tells me that if you follow the path over there, you’ll reach Whitehall Place easily.” She smiled at Brietta, then glanced at her brother with what Brietta thought was a conspiratorial glance. Bram, however, did not seem to notice. “I’d looked forward to watching the sunset,” pouted Keri. “Brietta and Trey, you’ll have to stay and watch it for me.”
“I’m game if Brietta is,” Trey agreed willingly, grinning at Brietta, a gleam in his eye.
“It was great to spend this evening with you Brietta,” smiled Bram, taking Brietta’s hoof in his. “We’ll have to get together again soon.”
“Well, come along, Bram,” urged Keri, suddenly anxious to get on her way. She pulled her husband after her as they set off back toward town. “Goodnight, you two!”
Bram waved a hoof in their direction as he was propelled down the path; and Brietta and Trey were left to themselves, although not completely alone as there were other ponies enjoying the view from the top of the ledge which provided a fantastic panorama of the countryside for miles to the western horizon. The town of Porter was visible as a foal’s toy city on the plain, the streets in precise lines overshadowed by towering trees.
Their relative isolation, however, prompted Trey to take Brietta’s hoof in his as they turned to follow the path that meandered along the edge of the natural cliff that abruptly dropped to the ground so many feet below them. The steep incline was a rough and ragged display of the base rock that jutted forth in elemental ferocity, highlighted now by the sun’s rays slanting across from the west; Brietta inadvertently shuddered as she gazed down the abrupt drop-off, and Trey took advantage of the reaction to put a foreleg protectively around her.
“As beautiful as this place is,” Brietta admitted, “I’ve always felt nervous up here; it’s as if the world drops away...”
Showing an unexpected perception of her feelings, Trey pointed to a grove of trees that was ahead of them. “We’ll head for those box elders; they’ll give you a feeling of support.”
Upon reaching the trees, Trey cleared a patch of ground on which to sit; and the two ponies made themselves comfortable to watch the splendor of the golden orb of fire as it settled into a nest of chiffon clouds that took on the rich shades of orange, pink, purple, and blue, the natural light infusing them with vibrant color. As an added bonus, a late-flying gull sailed across the picturesque scene, adding his black silhouette to the panoply before them.
“This is beautiful,” Brietta murmured. “I’d forgotten how pretty the sunset was from this vantage point. And look at the sun now; it’s just ready to disappear!”
Trey, however, was no longer watching the sunset; he was intent on Brietta’s profile as she enjoyed the display of nature at its finest, and he found his own vision rather lovely. He moved closer to the mare just as Brietta turned to him to observe his impression of the vista which was now outlined in vivid gold, her eyes reflecting the glorious spectacle of the sky; she found herself gathered into an unexpected embrace and kissed so firmly that she was unable for some seconds to make a sound.
When she finally was able to protest verbally, she also pushed the stallion away and attempted to get to her hooves; Trey only laughed and reached out to claim her foreleg, effectively stifling her effort to put some distance between the two of them; but when he leaned toward her for another kiss, she delivered a resounding slap to his face that startled Trey enough that he released his hold on her, and Brietta found herself being forcefully pulled away from him by some unknown force that caused her to gasp in further alarm.
The force lifted her to her hooves and retained a grasp on her as Dorian’s voice chillingly cut through the gold-tinged air. “The mare obviously doesn’t want your attentions, buddy.” Dorian allowed himself a quick glance at Brietta, asking, “Are you okay?”
“Yes... now,” she managed to croak.
Trey was by now on his hooves and stood menacingly facing Dorian and Brietta. “She’s with me, so I suggest you butt-out, mister.”
“Brie,” Dorian addressed his words to the mare at his side, but his blazing gaze did not leave Trey’s face, “do you want me to leave you here with him?”
“No, Dorian! Please, take me home!”
“I was just about to do that,” Trey maintained.
“It didn’t look that way to me,” retorted Dorian. “The mare’s made her choice; you’d best get on your way.”
Trey glowered at the stallion but concluded that as he was in unfamiliar territory, it might be best to cut his losses now before he got himself into deeper trouble. With a last defiant look at Dorian and a mumbled, “I didn’t mean to upset you,” to Brietta, he set off down the path.
Alone in the falling dusk, Brietta leaned against Dorian’s strong shoulder and sighed. “Thanks for coming along when you did.” Then, realizing the uncanny chance of him being in the area, she lifted her head to face him and asked, “What were you doing out here?”
“I had a late meeting with a client from Porter and walked with him part way, glad to get some fresh air. I thought I recognized you as I was coming back up the path, but it wasn’t until you hauled off and smacked that jerk that I was sure.” He looked at her with worried eyes. “Why were you here alone with his sort anyway?”
“Let’s walk while I explain; I want to get away from this spot.”
With the sky radiating orange streaks across the darkening sky, Dorian and Brietta began the walk home to Whitehall Place as Brietta told Dorian what had transpired that evening, including Keri’s sudden departure with Bram, leaving her alone with Trey. “You know the rest,” she ended.
“This Keri is the orange mare with yellow mane that I met at the anniversary party?” Dorian asked.
“I’ve seen her in Colly’s company several times; they’re quite good friends.”
“So Keri could be trying to help Colly get a clear field for you; that would explain why she tried to maneuver Trey and me into a friendship.”
“I’ll talk to Colly about this tomorrow.”
“No, Dorian. She’s been with Father and Conrad for years now, and they’re both quite satisfied with her work. If you approach her with your accusations- and we don’t know if they are true or not- she might get in a huff and quit or something.”
“Well, I don’t like it, not one bit. Coming across you in the forelegs of this stallion tonight was a shock I’ll not soon forget; if it had been Sloan, that would’ve been bad enough... but this guy was a complete stranger to me. How many other stallions are out there that Colly and Keri will try to match you up with?”
Brietta could not help but giggle. “You’re overreacting, you know.”
“Am I? Every time I turn around, I see you with Sloan or someone else. The only answer as I see it is to marry you!” he replied with feeling.
“That’s rather an extreme solution, isn’t it?” Brietta responded in a teasing tone.
“Yes, but it’s a good one at that.” Stopping on the path, Dorian turned to her in the lowering light, his voice now soft and thick with emotion. He took her hoof in his. “Marry me, Brie.”
Stunned at the serious look on the stallion’s face, Brietta could only gaze at Dorian in astonishment; then, with an intake of breath, she gasped, “You’re serious.”
“Of course, I’m serious. I love you! I’ve loved you since I first saw you walk into the dining room at Whitehall Place the night of your welcome home dinner.” He looked into her eyes as if he were reading her innermost thoughts. “Do you love me?”
The question was so unexpected that Brietta, whose mind was already reeling, could only stare at the stallion with wondering eyes as her own emotions ran wild. Did she love him? She certainly enjoyed being in his company; they seemed to have common values and interests; she knew that her day was always brighter when he came into her presence- he could make her smile with a word or a touch. Was that love?
She remembered how safe she had felt when Dorian had showed up to defend her from Trey, how she knew she could trust him with her very life, how comfortable she felt in his company. Love or not, she was sure that she would be happy to be his wife, to be the one in whom he could confide, the one he would turn to, the one responsible for his happiness. In a brief flash of clarity, she knew her answer.
“Yes. I love you.”
“Will you marry me?”
“Yes, I will.”
Brietta was engulfed in a hug and a kiss that threatened to drown her, but she had no desire to be rescued from it; she had never been so perfectly happy, she realized. When Dorian released his hold on her enough that she could look upon his face, she saw her own joy mirrored back at her.
“This was meant to be, you know. We were meant for each other,” Dorian said softly.
Brietta could not disagree.
* * *
When the couple arrived back at Whitehall Place, they found Aiden back home from his business trip; when they walked into the living room where Aiden was sitting with Conrad and Lena, he advised Brietta that Sloan had hoped to see her but had missed her again.
Brietta, caught up in her own happiness, did not give Sloan a second thought. “Father, Mother, Grandfather... Dorian asked me to marry him...”
“And Brietta said yes!” Dorian finished proudly, looking at his beloved as if she was the only other pony in the world.
The recipients of this news were momentarily stupefied, Dorian and Brietta being treated to three entirely blank faces that slowly realized the import of the announcement to which they had just been treated. Lena was the first to recover her composure; she stood and crossed to her daughter, giving her a hug, then beaming at her with genuine satisfaction.
“I can see you’re very happy with your decision.”
“Of course, Mother; I wouldn’t have accepted if I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do.”
Lena then hugged Dorian. “I’ll trust my daughter to your care on your wedding day; I expect that you’ll not let her down.”
“How could I when I love her as much as I do? I’m totally committed to her happiness, I promise you.”
Aiden, too, was delighted to find that Brietta and Dorian were willing to embrace a lifetime of love together, and he gave them his blessing. Conrad, although impressed by their seemingly bright circumstances, still could not wholly hide a glimmer of worry over the news. He knew only too well that the perfect life that beckoned so winningly at this moment for the two of them could be shattered in a heartbeat, as his had been when his wife had died so young.
He could not deny the joy that diffused like an aura of light around his granddaughter and Dorian, but Conrad’s cautious nature prompted him to say to the stallion, “Brietta’s happy for the moment; if I ever see that light go out of her eyes, you will have me to face.”
Dorian, with a glance at his future wife that rivaled adoration, was quick to assure Conrad. “I’ll never give her reason to regret the choice she made tonight, sir.” And caught in the euphoria of the unplanned development of the evening, he wrapped Brietta in an embrace of perfect elation.