Silent are the Bells Chapter Thirteen: The Ring
written by Sugarberry

The morning following their engagement found Brietta in her office early with Dorian following not far behind; the first thing he did was to ask her if she had any doubts about last night’s decision now in the revealing light of day.

“Not a single doubt,” she smiled, “but many, many hopes.”

They were seated on the window seat in close proximity when Colly arrived at work; peeking into Brietta’s office, she was well aware that the two ponies were not involved with a business discussion, yet she asked with a dark and glowering look on her face if the two had spent the night poring over a difficult case as it was unusual to see them at work quite this early in the day.

Dorian met this utterance with a bland smile. “Why, of course we didn’t work all night; Brietta had a dinner engagement with Keri and Bram, I believe, and,” turning to Brietta, “didn’t you say, my love, something about Keri’s brother as well?” He focused on Colly once more. “Have you ever met Trey, Colly?”

A slight flush crept up Colly’s cheeks, but she only flung her hair with an impatient gesture. “Briefly.”

“That was more than sufficient, I’m sure,” Dorian replied sardonically. “But enough of Trey. You might be interested to know that Brietta and I are engaged as of last evening; better to hear of it first-hoof than through the grapevine. You will dance at our wedding?”

This last query was delivered with an ingratiating smile that Colly found revolting. She turned a glare upon Brietta and said rather mechanically. “Congratulations.” Then she turned and left, the sound of her hoofsteps beating an indignant message of contempt.

Dorian grinned at Brietta. “That went well.”

“You are insufferable!” Brietta giggled. “Colly will undoubtedly make our lives here quite miserable after that putdown.”

“She wouldn’t dare; she knows that Aiden and Conrad wouldn’t condone such actions on her part where you are concerned; she and Keri put you in terrible danger last night with their ploy to put you in Trey’s way. And, for myself, I’d suffer anything just to know that you’re willing to be my wife.”

The two were shortly joined by Aiden who tartly reminded them that they would be expected to maintain a professional demeanor during business hours regardless of their personal satisfaction over current events, then favored them with such a warm smile that it negated any tangible compliance his little warning had evoked from them.

Arriving at the outer office in good time himself, Sloan was met with a look from Colly that forewarned the stallion that this day was not going to run any more smoothly than the last several days had gone for him; he had been thwarted at his every attempt to come to terms with Brietta after that fateful dance on Saturday night and was therefore in no mood to hear Colly’s announcement that she delivered with cold directness.

“Dorian and Brietta have decided to get married,” she told Sloan, watching for his reaction which she knew would be fierce; and she was rewarded to see a look of such deep consternation cross his face that she felt somewhat liberated from her own downcast sensibilities concerning the matter of the newly announced engagement.

Sloan almost immediately shrouded his own feelings and asked in a controlled voice, “Where did you hear this piece of information?”

“From the two of them,” Colly justified, nodding toward Brietta’s office. “They’re both...”

Sloan, however, did not wait to hear what the receptionist had to expound on the matter; he was already striding down the hall to Brietta’s office, his mouth set in a hard line and his eyes cold and dark. He walked in on the trio of ponies who, by their gaiety, were not discussing legal matters; the words that were on the tip of Sloan’s tongue were swallowed when he noted Aiden’s presence, and he forced his features into the semblance of a stallion in control of his emotions.

“So what has evoked this party atmosphere?” he asked, his gaze falling on Brietta’s radiant face.

Dorian came forward and clasped his friend’s shoulder. “It’s great news, Sloan; Brietta has consented to be my wife.”

For a brief moment, the words were met with complete silence as Dorian, Brietta, and Aiden waited for Sloan’s reaction; it was obvious that it took an intense measure of control for the stallion to finally force a weak smile and respond. “Congratulations. I would wish you happy, but I can see that you’re both quite pleased already.”

“Never happier,” Dorian grinned, then looked to Brietta for her admission.

The mare had experienced one heart-wrenching moment when she had recognized the look on Sloan’s face when Dorian had broken the news to him as a look that she remembered from their earlier years that meant that he had received a severe disappointment; but she did not dwell on it. If he was disappointed, it was due to his own decision to cast her aside and not her problem in the least. She, therefore, met his brooding gaze now with a sparkling smile. “‘Throned on highest bliss,’” she said, “to quote Milton.”

Conrad broke into the gathering at that time. “I’ve been waiting in the conference room for the last ten minutes; I wasn’t aware that today was a holiday.”

Sloan took advantage of this summons to slip out of the room; Aiden only chuckled. “This is an important time for these two.” But he followed his domineering parent out of the room, sending a silent yet succinct message to Dorian and Brietta that they, too, best come down from the clouds and face the reality of life.

* * *

“When is this wedding going to take place?” Lena asked as the family plus Dorian came together for dinner that evening at Whitehall Place.

“The sooner, the better,” Dorian supplied, with a wink at his bride-to-be.

Lena disregarded the stallion and turned to Brietta. “Have the two of you talked of a date yet?”

“We’ve discussed it briefly; but as it appeared that it would be the first bone of contention between us, we decided to stay away from that decision until we’ve had some input from others.”

“June weddings are always very lovely,” Lena offered hopefully.

“This is July!” exclaimed Dorian. “That would be nearly a whole year... way too far in the future. “How about this September?”

“There wouldn’t be enough time to get everything done by then!” gasped Lena, looking to her daughter for help.

Brietta simply shrugged and smiled. “Now you know what I mean.”

“There are a lot of serious decisions for the two of you to make which you can’t do on the spur of the moment,” advised Aiden. “You’ll need to have a home, for one thing.”

“My apartment will do just fine if we don’t find something better in the meantime,” Dorian said. “What more do we need?”

Lena frowned at the stallion. “I don’t want to see my daughter jump into some hasty decisions, making drastic changes in her life that she could regret later.”

Somewhat grudgingly, Dorian conceded. “How about October, then?”

Lena rolled her eyes. “You’re very generous, Dorian; an entire extra month!”

“Exceedingly generous.”

Lena threw up her hooves in mock exasperation. “How do you feel about this, Brietta?”

“I’ve always thought the springtime was the prettiest time for a wedding; but now that I’m faced with the actuality of it, I’m sure a fall wedding would be just as lovely.”

“And remember, Lena, that I have no family to speak of, so your guest list will be a breeze!”

Lena was not yet won over. “You’ll never find a house in that length of time, and there’s no sense in settling into an apartment for a short time and then moving again.”

“Dorian has already pointed out that if we don’t find what we’re looking for before the wedding, he will keep his apartment; it’s a very nice one, you know, when it’s straightened up.”

“But, dear, you just said the other day that it’s so refreshing to be back in this big old house; you aren’t going to be happy in an apartment.”

Clearing his throat, Conrad got into the conversation. “Any Manning should be proud to retain Whitehall Place as his home, and Brietta is no exception. I’ve often thought that the size of this place is unwarranted for the number of ponies living here; but now that the family is branching out, we could put the empty rooms to good use.”

“No, that would...” began Dorian, but Conrad waved a hoof to silence him.

“This place was built with a large family in mind, and several generations of ponies managed to co-exist quite well. I don’t take up that much space in these capacious rooms, nor do Aiden and Lena. And as for you, Brietta, you’ve always been crazy about that third floor where you insist on having your room amidst the silent emptiness of unoccupied space. It could be easily transformed into rooms for you and Dorian.” He fell silent, awaiting his listeners’ response.

Brietta had clapped her hoof over Dorian’s nearest to her, and stared at Conrad with eyes that revealed an inner excitement. “Do you mean that, Grandfather? You would let us share Whitehall Place?”

“It was my suggestion, wasn’t it?” he responded, raising an eyebrow. “This is Whitehall Place, and you have a right to it.”

“But I don’t,” Dorian said testily. “I’d like to provide my wife with a home of our own.”

“Her marriage to you is precipitating this arrangement, so you are providing it,” reasoned Lena, too enthralled by the idea of Brietta’s life remaining tied to Whitehall Place to let the notion get scrapped simply because Dorian was too proud to let his wife provide the home. “Besides,” she added with a certain amount of pique, “you were perfectly willing for Brietta to accept your apartment; there’s nothing wrong with you accepting her home.”

“I myself think the idea is a good one,” Aiden propounded, “but I feel it’s necessary to mention that what my father refers to as ‘easy’ in connection with the work involved to turn the third floor rooms into a separate apartment of sorts will take some serious planning which in turn will involve a fair amount of time. Most of the construction firms in the area are already swamped with work.”

“Not to mention that it would destroy the integrity of this place,” Dorian maintained, looking not at all pleased with the planning going on around him. “Brie has told me herself that changes around here wouldn’t be looked upon favorably.”

“We wouldn’t be changing anything really,” argued Conrad. “We’d just be putting some of those rooms to new uses. Niles would know how to handle it.”

“When we’re done eating, we’ll have to go upstairs and look over the possibilities,” Brietta suggested. “Dorian has never seen the area, so he’s in no position at this time to make a decision on it.”

“Excellent idea!” Lena agreed, standing immediately. “Anna, hold the coffee and dessert until we’ve returned.”

“I’m being railroaded into this, you realize,” Dorian whispered to Brietta as they, too, left the table. “Four against one, six if you include Clarence and Anna.”

Brietta patted his hoof in false compassion. “Learn to live with it,” she smirked. “You’re the one who asked a Manning to marry you.”

“I’m not taking the Manning name; you’re taking mine,” imparted the stallion.

“A mere detail,” winked Brietta, taking his hoof to hurry his pace to the stairs.

They passed the second floor where the family bedrooms were banked to the left while a number of guest rooms all standing at the ready strung to the right. The next flight of steps took them to Brietta’s level of the mansion, where the rooms, other than her own, were clean and neat but relatively empty except for the barest necessities to give them the impression of not being completely forsaken.

Brietta and Dorian stopped at the head of the stairs where Conrad, Aiden, and Lena were waiting. “This is Brietta’s room; it will give you some idea of what the other rooms can be made to look like with the proper furniture and window treatments,” said Lena, acting as tour guide.

“It’s nearly as big as my whole apartment!” Dorian commented in some surprise.

“And that’s just the beginning,” Lena voiced, taking advantage of what she saw as Dorian’s yielding ground. “The other rooms are of the same size and would accommodate anything you’ll need; you can be completely independent or you can make use of the downstairs rooms as your right.” She opened the door into the chamber next to Brietta’s room. “This would be a perfect nursery,” she advised, casting a maternal smile on the newly engaged couple.

Dorian trod into the room and crossed to one of the windows. “Nice view,” he said as Brietta came to join him.

“It’s always been a comfort to look out over the sweep of lawn from this vantage point,” agreed Brietta.

“This has been the only home you’ve ever known,” Dorian looked at her closely.

“And my father and my grandfather before me... and so on. Does that bother you?”

“I just can’t imagine what it’s like to have such deep roots; I’ve free-floated all my life.”

“You’ll be a part of this.”

“And what of these foals your mother is already filling the house with? Will they be root-bound or wanderers?”

“Some of each, I would imagine.”

Conrad appeared in the doorway. “Your mother wants you in the next room, Brietta.”

“And what are her plans for that one?” Brietta grinned at her grandfather.

“I’ll let her fill you in on that.”

On one pass through the hallway that fed the rooms, Dorian made the comment that even that space would make a functional sitting room. He surveyed the area, his attention settling on a smaller than average door that appeared to access a lesser room at the front of the house. He looked puzzled for a moment, then realization hit. “That door would take one to the bell tower, I suppose.” He reached out and attempted to open it, but found it locked.

“The bells are off limits,” Conrad said brusquely. “There’s no need for anyone to go up there.”

“I presume it wouldn’t be safe, either, with foals in the house,” pondered Dorian, although his interest in the door and what lay beyond it was apparent.

“Grandfather, it would mean a lot to me if the bells could ring for Dorian’s and my wed...”

She was not allowed to finish her sentence. “You know what my wishes are on this subject, Brietta. Not another word.” He looked at her sternly, the mien of his eyes warning her to go no further.

“Yes, Grandfather,” she murmured just as she had finally capitulated in her youth.

The entourage continued the appraisal of the rooms, and it was some time before the ponies returned to the dining room where Anna was hovering impatiently. She eyed Brietta with a questioning look, but Brietta could only shrug her shoulders. Dorian had been impressed by the size and potential of the third-floor rooms, but he had not stated definitely if he would go along with the plans that were swelling in Lena’s mind.

As they sat with their freshly baked cake and rejuvenating ice cream, Brietta and Lena discussed decorating options, although Brietta’s participation was brief and disjointed, her attention fixed on Dorian who seemed to be turning something over in his mind. Lena did not seem to notice the lack of enthusiasm as she was so caught up in what to her was the perfect solution of a home for the newlyweds. Aiden and Conrad were in a corner discussing, from the bits and pieces that Brietta overheard, the more mundane details such as cost and feasibility. The mare was relieved when a phone call came through for her mother, and Conrad and Aiden retired to the den to do some reading before bedtime.

Brietta slipped her hoof into Dorian’s. “Let’s go out on the patio and talk,” she suggested, pained to see the uncertainty that haunted Dorian’s eyes. The stallion followed her without a word and seemed to be in no mood to talk once they were outside; he walked to the edge of the stonework and stared into the now obscure night.

Having never experienced this behavior from Dorian, Brietta was unsure how to proceed. She stood silently, watching him from the corner of her eye while seemingly admiring the floral display that Clarence and her mother so diligently cared for. When she could stand the quiet no longer, she set a hoof on Dorian’s shoulder. “Come. Let’s go down by the pond.”

The stallion remained mute, but he set off with her across the lawn and onward to the spit of land that reached out into the small lake. There was no moon, but the stars were twinkling overhead; and Brietta found that she could see quite well once her eyes had adjusted to the absence of the lights that enfolded the patio. The sounds of the night life reverberated around them as they stood, side-by-side but not touching, both of them unsure of where to begin.

Dorian finally broke his silence. “This idea really means a lot to you.”

“It opened up a possibility that I’d never considered before.”

“You never fantasized about bringing Sloan into your family home like this?” His voice was sharp and tinged with anger; he did not bother to face the mare.

“So that’s what this is about.” Brietta turned and walked several paces away from the stallion, trying to sort out her thoughts over this unexpected attack. When she had given her yes to Dorian’s proposal, she had assumed that a door had closed on the part of her life that had revolved around Sloan; she had not considered that Dorian would find it difficult to consider that door locked.

She turned to face the stallion, but he was still staring off into the shimmering void of water. “I can’t wipe out the past; there are memories of Sloan and me affixed to every particle of Whitehall Place and the town itself. You have to trust me when I say that you are the one I’m willing to share the rest of my life with; we’ll make our own memories.”

He swung around now, ready to meet her, an agony of emotion that she caught on his face quickly suppressed. “It hit me tonight at the dinner table when the talk came around to a home for us that I have no practical experience to fall back on; your family is so close and loving that none of you can understand the isolation I felt as a foal... have always felt.”

“Your parents weren’t there for you, but you’re being assimilated into our family now.”

“Yes, and I feel smothered! I’m sorry, Brie, but I’m used to my own counsel- my own alone- on any decisions that need to be made that affect my life; and I feel as if I’m being pushed into things that I have no control over with all this talk about revamping the third floor rooms of Whitehall Place.”

“It’s only an option; we didn’t mean to rush you into anything.”

“You, however, seem to find no fault with the plans.”

“After being away for those years of my education, I was delighted to come back home to Whitehall Place. I guess I haven’t yet adjusted to the idea of leaving it again so soon.”

“So, you see, the choice comes down to no choice, because I can’t take you away from here.”

“You think my love depends on this setting? If you ask it of me, I will leave everything- the house, the town, the country!- all of it. Let me know what you think is best.”

“If I’m the reason for you losing Whitehall Place, you’ll soon despise me.”

“My love for you is not contingent on any other factor, Dorian. I could lose the house to wind or fire at any time and would have to accept it; you, however, I never want to lose.”

Dorian was finally able to smile, and he reached out to draw Brietta close to him. “You’re going to have to teach me how to handle this family stuff.”

“I remember how well you accommodated those colts not so very long ago; I think you’ll do just fine.”

With a snicker, Dorian grinned, “Your mother expects a houseful of foals, I gather.”

“And why not? Can you imagine how they’ll enliven our home, no matter where we decide it should be?”

“And pretty little things, the fillies,” he reflected, tracing the outline of Brietta’s face with his hoof.

“I would expect the colts to be as handsome as their father,” Brietta replied, her eyes soft and shimmery under the starlight.

“This family stuff... I’m beginning to like the sound of it,” Dorian confided, his lips meeting Brietta’s in a soft caress.

“Good,” said Brietta with a smile, “because Mother and Father and Grandfather are probably wondering where we’ve disappeared to by now; we’d better rejoin them.”

“In a minute,” Dorian whispered, finding her lips again.

It was well over that allotted time before the two ponies slowly retraced their steps to Whitehall Place.

* * *

“It’s been a rough week,” Dorian sighed as another Friday’s appointments came to a close. He threw a folder on Brietta’s desk and plopped down in a chair. “I’m sick of being cooped-up in the office day in and day out.”

“You and Sloan are taking a fishing trip this weekend, aren’t you?” Brietta reminded the stallion as she fussed with the paperwork still on her desk. She frowned. “What did I do with the notes from the meeting concerning the Silvia trial?”

“Is this what you’re looking for?” grinned Dorian, picking up a file balanced against several books stacked at the back edge of the desk.

“Yes!” clipped Brietta, tossing her mane back. “This has been a rough week.” She opened a drawer in the desk and swept all the papers into it and banged the drawer shut again.

Dorian laughed. “Are you sorry now that Conrad didn’t keep you under his supervision longer? You wouldn’t be so swamped with work.”

“I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ll worry about some of the problems all weekend and not have a moment’s rest.”

“Maybe I could come out to the house later, and we could walk around the lake to wear off some of this stress.”

Flashing him an appreciative smile, Brietta responded, “I’d like that.”

“Good,” Dorian said, standing to make his departure. “What time?”

“You might as well come for supper,” Brietta mused. “Are you free?”

“I’m at your beck and call.”

“As you should be. I’ll call Anna and tell her to set an extra place.”

* * *

After a leisurely meal of spaghetti, bread sticks, and salad followed by one of Anna’s decadent chocolate desserts, Brietta and Lena took Dorian through the third-story rooms that were in the process of being refurbished and incorporated into a private suite of rooms for Brietta and Dorian once their vows had been exchanged at the late October wedding that had been scheduled and was now being busily planned for. Lena nodded her approval over the sedate yet elegant wall covering that now graced the future dining room above the richly stained wainscoting. “Roger’s decorating scheme is shaping up quite nicely.”

“One thing puzzles me about the kitchen, though,” Dorian worried, looking through the doorway that joined the dining room to the future kitchen which at the present time was a vacant expanse of potential culinary finery.

“What’s that?” asked Brietta, coming to stand beside him.

“Who’s going to use it?”

“We are, of course,” Brietta assured the stallion as she stepped into the space, imagining the arrangement of the appliances and informal eating area.

“That’s an interesting idea, but I’ve never developed any cooking skills myself nor have I seen any proof of my lovely fiancee’s ability in that area.”

Lena came quickly to Brietta’s defense. “Brietta is a wonderful cook,” she assured Dorian. “Anna always took time to teach Brietta how to get along in a kitchen; she has a natural flair for it.”

Dorian arched a brow doubtfully. “If that’s the case, why haven’t I seen any evidence of it?”

“Because we have Anna,” Brietta reminded him. “She is rather possessive of her kitchen.”

“Yet she taught you to cook?”

“Teaching is one thing; turning over her domain is another.”

“Yes; but, Lena, you cook when Anna has her day off.”

“I muddle through one day a week,” admitted Lena. “But I’ve learned to put all the pans and utensils back exactly as I found them.”

“I’ll have Dorian to take care of that for me,” Brietta giggled. “I’ll do the cooking and he can be in charge of cleaning up.”

“If I have the strength for it after your meals,” teased Dorian, still unable to envision Brietta at home in a kitchen.

“You doubt my ability, don’t you?” inquired Brietta, coming to face the stallion.

“In a word, yes.”

“How about a home-cooked meal on Monday evening, then, prepared by me,” she railed.

“It’s a date,” Dorian grinned. “I’ll bring the flowers.” Then a new thought occurred to him. “Fish! I can provide the fish.”

“Assuming you and Sloan catch any.”

“Ah ha! Now you’re doubting my abilities!”

“Well, there are no guarantees.”

“If we come home empty-hoofed, I’ll pick some up at the store.”

“I’ve never cooked fish,” admitted Brietta.

“But a good cook should be able to handle anything,” dared Dorian.

“How hard can it be?” shrugged Brietta, mentally deciding to spend part of her weekend under Anna’s tutelage in all things concerning fish preparation.

“No harder than catching them.”

“And if you do get some, it wouldn’t be fair to leave Sloan out of the dinner,” reasoned Brietta.

“We’ll have enough for each of us to share.”

“Maybe so, but that’s beside the point. I heard him say that Finella is out of town for a number of days.”

“You want Sloan to come that badly?” Dorian raised a questioning eyebrow.

“He’s your fishing partner and your best friend,” wheedled Brietta; and seeing that Dorian was weakening, added, “not to mention that he’s going to be in our wedding party.”

“Has he tasted your cooking before?”

“Of course!”

“Well, I’ll ask him then and see what his reaction is. If he hesitates because of the caliber of your talents, I might consider cancelling myself.”

“Oh, you of little faith!”

Lena shook her head. “You two are worse than having foals in the house.”

“Why, Lena, I thought you were looking forward to that,” teased Dorian.

“I am. However, it’s one thing to listen to toddlers’ scraps, quite another to be a party to adults’... spats. I’ll call Sloan myself and invite him to dinner Monday evening. You, Dorian, will provide the fish whether from your own catch or from the seafood grocer.”

“Yes, Lena,” Dorian said contritely, his eyes twinkling with secret delight at this mothering that he had missed out on when he needed it most.

They walked through the remaining rooms that were in various degrees of turmoil before returning to the main floor where Brietta and Dorian left Lena in the company of Aiden and Conrad who were relaxing on the patio; Brietta and Dorian set off on a leisurely walk around the pond.

“You’re quiet.” Dorian cast a glance at the mare beside him as they neared the water.

“Menu planning,” Brietta responded distractedly.

“Forget that for the time-being and enjoy this time we have together. Sloan and I are leaving very early in the morning and won’t be home until late Sunday. I’m going to miss you something fierce.”

“Don’t forget to go to church.”

“I’m not a heathen, you know.”

A ring-necked pheasant was spotted strutting across the path ahead of them, his brilliant coloring catching the sunlight from the west. “What a beauty!” Brietta breathed. The bird’s mate scuttled from the taller grass to the side of the path and hurried to catch up to the splendid rooster.

“She’s a plain little thing,” Dorian commented. “Not at all like you.”

“I don’t have to sit on a nest and blend into my surroundings to protect my life and the lives of my offspring,” retorted Brietta.

“Aren’t you glad of that!”

The two ponies had reached the spot where they had sat fishing with Kent, Troy, and Chad and stopped to look over the pond. Several dragonflies darted over the water and a killdeer scurried along the water’s edge, leaving a lacy trail of prints behind. Dorian and Brietta stood in quiet contemplation of the serenity that surrounded them and let the pressures of the week melt away.

“I’m glad we came here,” Brietta said. “It’s so utterly peaceful.” She stared off across the water until she became conscious of Dorian’s intense gaze on her. She turned her head and smiled at him.

“I love you, Brie,” he murmured.

“And I love you, Dorian.”

“Come. Let’s walk over by the willow.” Dorian stretched out his hoof to Brietta, and she slipped hers into his. They went the short distance to the tree without a word; Dorian held back the drooping branches that touched the ground, and they passed through the green veil to sit against the wide, rough trunk.

“This tree has been here forever,” Brietta stated, leaning back to take in the sweep of branches that encircled them within the tree’s protective embrace. “Shayla and I shared many secrets under this old willow.”

“And you and Sloan?” Dorian had not intended to say those words, but they came unbidden.

Brietta picked a hoof full of grass and threw it at the stallion. “I wish I could make you forget that Sloan and I ever were childhood buddies.”

“I’m sorry I asked that question; I’ve been trying to curb my jealous streak, but obviously haven’t yet succeeded.” He grinned sheepishly.

“I’m sure if I knew any of the fillies from your past, I’d feel the same way.”

“Well, you have nothing to worry about in that department; I never found a one that I’d have trusted with my heart like I trust you.”

“Why do I find that hard to believe?”

“I have never loved anyone but you, Brie. That’s why I want to give you this.” He reached behind the trunk of the tree and brought forth a box which he opened to reveal a stunning diamond ring. He lifted the ring from the box, claimed her hoof, and gazed into her eyes. “Will you wear this ring as a sign of our betrothal?”

“Dorian, I’ll be proud to,” Brietta whispered with shining eyes.

The stallion gently slipped the ring on Brietta’s foreleg where it rested perfectly. “It’s beautiful,” Brietta murmured, looking up into Dorian’s eyes with such obvious devotion that Dorian was temporarily mesmerized before he leaned toward her and sealed their troth with a kiss.

When they rested back against the tree trunk with Dorian in possession of the jeweled foreleg, cradling it as if its significance was too profound for words, Brietta giggled. “I thought we were planning a trip to Capital City to look at engagement rings.”

“I hope you’re not too disappointed, but I was in the local jewelry store checking out the styles available so I’d have some idea what to expect, but I was so taken with this particular ring that I couldn’t suffer leaving it behind. You do like it, don’t you?”

“It’s the most exquisite ring I’ve ever seen,” Brietta admitted truthfully as she watched the play of the slanting sunbeam off the precious diamond. “It’s all the more special because you chose it.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “However, I’m very curious as to how the ring was so readily available at the base of the willow tree just when you needed it.”

“Clarence was kind enough to set the stage, my dear.”

“Clarence knew about this? No wonder he seemed so nervous while we ate.”

“Anna knew, too, if that wink she flashed me as we left the table was any indication.”

“We should get back to the house so I can show this to everyone.”

“I suppose we should,” Dorian agreed, but he made no move in that direction; nor did Brietta attempt to retrieve her foreleg from his possession. Instead, she nestled her head on Dorian’s shoulder.

“I am completely happy,” she sighed.

Dorian nestled his face against her mane and sighed in deep contentment. He, too, was pleased with the way things were going in his life.

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