When Brietta trailed into the breakfast nook off the kitchen the next morning after her welcome home dinner, she found that her father and grandfather were already gone to the office. Her mother, however, seemed to be waiting for Brietta’s appearance.
“You look well rested, dear.”
Brietta looked at the clock. “I should be, Mother. It’s ten o’clock.”
“You have no commitments today; the sleep was good for you.”
“Yes, Mother,” the mare grinned.
“So, did you enjoy the evening?” Lena questioned, settling in as if for a good chat.
“It was wonderful. Thank you for thinking of treating me to such a special coming home party.”
“Your father and I are so happy to have you back and your grandfather, too, of course.”
“And I’m happy to be here.”
“What did you think of Dorian?”
Brietta laughed. “He’s cute,” she answered without any serious commitment.
Lena frowned. “You’re right; he’s not handsome like Sloan.”
“You’re fishing, Mother.”
“Can you blame me? You and Sloan were always such good friends; I guess I still had hopes...”
“Sloan has Finella; I don’t think any of us are naive enough to expect him or me to suddenly slip into the old compatibility we used to share.”
“I just thought...”
“I’m back home to practice law, Mother, not to snare a husband... not yet, anyway,” she softened her response.
Lena sighed. “Of course, you’ll be busy once your father and Conrad get you caught up in your work. Just don’t let yourself get so submerged in it that you ignore your personal life.”
“Not at all. I’m looking forward to any number of good times.” Brietta patted her mother’s hoof soothingly, then grew sober. “I just wish Grandfather wouldn’t have thought it necessary to bring an outsider into the firm when I was so close to getting my law degree.”
“Whitehall is growing faster than you realize, Brietta. Your father agreed that Dorian was needed even with your impending arrival.”
“And Sloan recommended him?”
“Yes. They’d been good friends during law school, but went their separate ways upon graduation. When talk turned to hiring a new associate, Sloan informed your father and Conrad that he knew someone who would be interested; they’d kept in touch, you see.”
“Where did Dorian practice law before he came here?”
“A small firm in Dunklin, I believe... or was it Denton?”
“And he’s worked out well?”
“Your father is satisfied; your grandfather, on the other hoof, finds him to be a bit too self-assured for his liking, but can find no fault with his results.”
“Yes. I felt he was going overboard in trying to impress me last evening.”
“Well, you are the bosses’ daughter; he might feel intimidated by your entrance into the firm.”
Brietta smiled to herself. Intimidated was the last thing she would accuse Dorian of being. She would not admit it to her mother now, but she had found it difficult to get Dorian’s appealing face out of her mind when she crawled into bed last night.
Their late breakfast out of the way, Brietta and her mother made their way into town. Lena had called her husband to warn him of an anticipated stop at the law office and lunch had been arranged. Along the way, Lena gave a rundown on the residents that lived in several of the new homes they passed.
Brietta was amazed at the construction that had occurred at the edge of town. “We’re closer to the city without having moved; it’s coming to us!” she exclaimed as they passed a new restaurant, a computer shop, and an eclectic assortment of houses.
They strolled past the expanded library and the latest apartment building and went into an antique store. “You’ll be surprised to see who owns this place,” Lena had grinned at the entrance; and Brietta was flabbergasted when they had entered and Bram came across the crowded showroom to meet her, his forelegs outstretched to give her a welcoming hug.
“Bram!” Brietta cried. “What are you doing here?”
The stallion winked at Lena over Brietta’s shoulder. “I own this place; where else would I be?”
Brietta looked at him doubtfully. “You wouldn’t know the real thing from an imitation.”
“Now there’s where you’re wrong!” He drew her to a display of paperweights and proceeded to give her the age and history of each. “Satisfied with my credentials now, Brietta?” he grinned.
“You are a wonder, Bram!”
“And how is Keri?” Lena asked.
“Sweet as ever,” Bram replied. “She’s gone over to Durand to an estate sale.”
“When will I get to meet this wife of yours?” asked Brietta.
“Soon, I hope. How about dinner at our house some night?”
“Shouldn’t you ask Keri for her approval first?” laughed Brietta.
“We’ve already discussed it; I was going to call you with the invitation.”
“Then I readily accept; but I’ll be tied up for a couple of weeks while I’m settling in, so can I take a rain check?”
“No problem; it will give you time to consider some lucky stallion to bring with you.”
“That would be no one, if that’s okay,” she said peevishly.
“Well, if you change your mind...”
Brietta changed the subject instead. “That paperweight- the glass dome with a seashell inside- can I afford it?” She had seen several price tags that had made even her genteel skin crawl.
“You like it? It’s yours,” Bram lifted it from the shelf and headed for the counter.
“I wasn’t asking for a give-away,” Brietta argued.
“It’s the least I can do for such an old friend,” Bram chuckled and busily wrapped the paperweight carefully and bagged it. “Welcome home, Brietta,” he said as he handed her the parcel.
Brietta sighed dramatically and said in a feeble, cracking voice, “I guess I should be grateful that you didn’t give me a cane... considering my age and all.” She glanced at a display of wooden walking sticks, then smiled flippantly. “You’re a dear; thanks, Bram.”
Strolling further along the store fronts, Brietta was surprised to see that a number of businesses had changed ownership since her departure from Whitehall. Others, once with windows filled with clothes, novelties, or jewelry, were now starkly converted to office space. Brietta’s eyes sparkled when the historic building that housed her father’s law offices came into sight.
“Mother, it’s never looked more wonderful to me than now, knowing that I’ll be a functioning part of it,” Brietta sighed, her eyes feasting on the solid, stone structure with long, narrow windows, the edifice surrounded by trim, green grass and colorful flowerbeds. A modest sign proclaimed the name: Manning and Associates.
Aiden, obviously awaiting their arrival, came to the two mares as soon as they stepped into the office, hugging each in turn. “Come Brietta, I want you to see your niche.” He led her through the outer room to the hallway that fed a suite of offices. Her grandfather came out of his chamber to share the moment.
Brietta clung to her parents as she was directed to the office door that was etched with her name. “Monday morning, Brietta, you will be officially in business.” Aiden fairly beamed.
“Brietta Manning,” she read slowly, her eyes shining. She reverently opened the door and stepped into her office to face the imposing desk with the leather chair and matching side chairs. Wooden file cabinets stood unobtrusively along one wall, while a floor-to-ceiling bookcase ran the length of the wall behind the desk. A cushioned seat along the windowed wall cut the severity of the room.
Slipping into the chair behind the desk, Brietta gaily extended an invitation to her family. “Please be seated,” she said, with a wave of her hoof. “How may I help you today... problems with employment contracts, unfair competition, or possibly a merger?”
Conrad shook his head from where he stood at the back of the room. “You’ll scare your clients away, girl!”
Aiden, however, looked on his daughter approvingly. “You’re perfect as you are, and you belong right there, Brietta; our office is complete.”
At that moment, Colly, the pale green mare who kept the office running smoothly, made her presence known. “Conrad, your one o’clock appointment is here.” She cast a withering glance at Brietta behind the desk. “Nice to see you back, Brietta.” Her words were civil but the tone of her voice was cool; before Brietta could reply, the mare briskly turned and left. Conrad quickly followed her.
Brietta smiled to herself. She and Colly had been in the same grade at school, and Colly had always seemed to resent Brietta’s ability to score well in any subject; Colly also gave the impression that she thought it unfair of Brietta to garner Sloan’s attention for so many years while the two fillies were in high school; if anyone had been happy to see the split occur between Brietta and Sloan, it had been Colly. Not that it had advanced her suit in Sloan’s direction, however, Brietta though bitterly. No one could counter Finella’s influence on that stallion.
“Ready for lunch, darling?” Lena asked her husband. “Brietta and I ate breakfast late, but I think we’ll be able to face a salad at the hotel while you and I continue to enlighten our daughter of more of the changes she’ll have to adjust to in our growing town.”
“Can you tear yourself out of that chair, Brietta?” Aiden smiled. “You’ll be spending plenty of time here soon enough.”
“Not soon enough for me, Father. I can’t wait to put my knowledge to work in the real world.” She sighed but stood up. “I’m going to be very happy here.”
As the three ponies were leaving the offices behind on their way to Grady’s Hotel, they met Sloan and Dorian who were themselves just returning from a working lunch. Brietta found herself thinking by the bright light of daytime that both of the stallions, although so different in coloring, were both equally handsome. But it was Dorian who made it a point to gather her hoof in his as the two parties met.
“I dreamed of nothing but you and frogs all night,” he said in a somber tone. “Fortunately, it was you I got to kiss.” He grinned at her pink blush and turned his attention to Lena, although he retained Brietta’s hoof. “And thank you, beautiful lady, for a supplying such a wonderful evening.”
“I’m glad you were able to share it with us, Dorian, and you, too, Sloan. We’ve just made sure that Brietta is satisfied with her office, and she seems to have no objections to the furnishings.” Lena turned to Brietta. “Dorian seemed to think you’d prefer a more feminine atmosphere over the sedate and rather masculine decorating that permeates the rest of the offices.”
Loosening herself from Dorian’s hold, Brietta frowned at him. “You expect something pink and cozy, do you, Dorian? I don’t think a majority of our clients would feel much confidence in a setting like that.”
“I beg your pardon!” Dorian stepped back in mock disgrace. “I’ll refrain from offering any decorating advice in the future. Although now that I’ve met you, I can see that your cool professionalism will be perfectly at home in that solemn den.”
“By that, am I to infer that you think I’m too unemotional for one of my gender?”
Dorian’s eyes raked across Brietta, all too obviously remembering that moment by the lake when he had pulled her into his forelegs to prevent her from tumbling into the water. “Be assured... that thought never crossed my mind.”
Realizing that she had not scored well on that assay, Brietta turned her attention to Sloan who had stayed on the perimeter of the street-side gathering. “Finella was no worse for wear from her near encounter with nature last night, I hope.” That mare had taken a violent dislike to a brown bat that had swooped close to her as they had made their way back from the lake to the house. “She’s fortunate that you were there to protect her.” Brietta had not missed the mare’s immediate collapse into Sloan’s protective custody at the time; interestingly, she did not bother to compare it with her own rescue by Dorian.
Sloan looked as if he would have liked to make a snide remark- Brietta could well imagine what it would be after his coming upon herself and Dorian in what could have looked like a compromising moment at the lakeside last night- but he swallowed the words and replied simply, “Finella’s fine. And as you appear to be on your way to lunch,” his glance took in Brietta and her parents, “I think Dorian and I better let you resume your progress. We’ll see you on Monday, Brietta.” He looked at her as he said those words as if he was not sure if that was a good thing or not.
Dorian, however, jumped on the bandwagon. “Yes, Brie, it will be great having you in our ranks; some new insight will be invaluable, especially as it will be coming from a feminine perspective.” Brietta glowered at him; and Aiden cleared his throat, expressing quite clearly that it was time for them to move on.
They had not yet reached the hotel- Brietta and her mother were chattering about some of the pieces they had seen in Bram’s antique shop- when Aiden slowed his steps; Brietta looked at him in some concern, but Lena was smiling as if expecting something significant to happen. Seeing that look on her mother’s face, Brietta took stock of her surroundings and found that they were now standing outside one of Whitehall’s oldest establishments- Raffery’s. Like the Manning’s, the Raffery family was among the first of the settlers in the area and had instituted a niche for themselves in the new environment by continuing a family tradition they had carried with them from the more heavily settled eastern environs- they had opened a jewelry store to provide the finest grade of precious metals and stones to the local families. It was a heritage that the current family members continued to take much pride in, offering only quality merchandise that would become family heirlooms in their stead.
“Why are we stopping here?” queried Brietta cautiously. Both of her parents now appeared to be very pleased with themselves.
“We were remiss in not getting you a gift when you received your law degree and passed the bar exam,” Aiden stated. “Your mother thought that a present of the caliber that we had in mind should have some input from the receiver.”
“We’re here for you to decide on a set of jewelry,” Lena continued. “Your father and I have had Rafe set aside several choices that we have pre-approved; it’s up to you to make the final decision for yourself.” She beamed her pleasure.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Brietta, placing a hoof against her heart. “I expected nothing other than a position with the firm; nothing can beat that.”
Her mother scoffed. “You can’t wear a job description, Brietta. The jewels we have in mind will brighten many an occasion in your future.” She prodded her daughter to go into the store while Aiden held the door. Brietta entered the clean, crisp interior to be met by Rafe himself.
“Miss Brietta! I’ve been looking forward to welcoming you back to Whitehall. And all grown-up and more beautiful than ever, I see!” He eyed the mare in open approval.
“Thank you, Mr. Raffery. It is indeed a pleasure to be home again. And your establishment looks even more prosperous than I had remembered.” Her hoof waved to encompass the cases protecting handsomely exhibited pieces of costly elegance.
“Only the finest jewels adorn our displays,” Rafe bragged, his blue eyes glittering like sapphires. He looked questioningly at Aiden and Lena.
“We’d like Brietta to examine the pieces that we discussed,” Aiden relayed to the store proprietor.
“Ah! It is as I thought. It is time for the princess to receive her adornments.” Rafe effected a pompous bow as he directed the stunned Brietta to a seat in a private parlor before a velvet covered table dominated by a gold-trimmed mirror. Never had she been treated with so much pageantry.
An attendant materialized at Rafe’s side with a tray of jewelry that sent flashes of colorful light playing through the air. Aiden and Lena, seated to Brietta’s right, exchanged a smug smile while Brietta’s mouth fell open as Rafe picked up the first piece, a amethyst necklace, and placed it around Brietta’s lavender neck.
“They’re magnificent!” Brietta breathed, catching her parents gaze in the mirror. “But...”
“No buts,” Aiden reprimanded. “You’ve only one duty while here, and that’s to examine each of the sets in question and then decide which of the three you’ll choose.”
“What could be more beautiful than this?” softly asked Brietta, touching her hoof to the necklace as Rafe added the matching earrings and bracelet to complete the ensemble.
The attendant had reappeared with another tray, this time sporting an array of pearls, each piece vying for supremacy with the added sparkle of diamond accents. As Rafe draped the necklace in place of the previous one, Brietta caught her breath for the translucence of the pearls was enchanting. She realized that the decision as to which of the jewels impressed her the most was going to be a difficult one.
“You aren’t making this easy,” Brietta said to her parents. “You’ve chosen too well.”
“Let’s see what you think of the final offering,” Aiden gloated.
Rafe took the tray from the attendant and set it before Brietta, and she gasped with delight. The final choice was diamonds, a treasure of sparkling gems that lay against their royal blue background like so many stars in the night sky. The play of light off the facets was dazzling to the eye, and Brietta was stunned at the magnificence. Her eyes wide, she watched in wonder as Rafe hooked first the necklace, then the coordinating ear rings and bracelet. She moved slightly to send rays of color flashing like bursting fireworks.
“These are too grand,” she breathed, unable to resist running a possessive hoof over the glittering masterpiece that encircled her neck. “They’re out of this world.”
“They’re perfect for you,” Lena asserted. “Both your father and I prefer the diamonds; we just wanted to verify your thoughts on the matter, and we can see in your eyes that these are the ones for you.” She directed her next remark at Rafe. “The diamonds, please,” and stood to end the matter right there.
Aiden followed suit, directing Rafe to have the set delivered to Whitehall Place that afternoon, and left Brietta with nothing to do but sit in paralyzed disbelief as Rafe now removed the gems from her and placed them in an attractive case that nestled the diamonds in compact perfection.
“You’ve chosen well, Miss Brietta,” Rafe said, cradling the case reverently in his hooves.
Brietta, at a loss for words, could only smile weakly at him and follow her parents.
* * *
“That was entirely uncalled for,” Brietta argued as the three of them settled into a table reserved for them at Grady’s. “How many opportunities will I have to wear such splendor? And even if I get the chance, I’ll be afraid of losing them or something!”
Lena tossed her head. “You’re young yet and will have many engagements that will require a certain flair that these diamonds will be sure to grant you.”
“Besides,” added Aiden, “you are our only child, and your needs have been minimal. This is our way of letting you know how much you mean to us.” He patted her hoof. “We are very proud of you, my dear.”
Before Brietta could get too weepy, two stallions of Aiden’s years approached their table.
“Aiden, Lena, we couldn’t help but notice that your lovely daughter is home once again.” They smiled on Brietta with as much fatherly pride as Aiden did.
“Brietta, you remember Connor and Ryan, I’m sure,” Aiden prompted his daughter.
“Of course I do,” Brietta smiled charmingly. “And I’m delighted to see you again.” She held out her hoof in turn to each of the gentleponies. “From what I’ve seen around town, your real estate business must be humming these days.”
“It’s a good time for Whitehall,” Ryan agreed. “Ponies are beginning to realize what a treasure our community has to offer to those who want a stable yet progressive community in which to raise their families.”
“Yet Grandfather questions how much growth will occur before we lose those very qualities that so attract others,” Brietta offered.
“Growth is the lifeblood of a town like ours,” replied Connor. “We can’t sit on our laurels of the past and expect to remain a vibrant community. Look at Freemont; it’s growing by leaps and bounds, yet monitored in such a way as to prevent the heart of the local society from being compromised.”
“Speaking of Freemont...” interjected Ryan. “They’re having an interesting controversy over there concerning Ravenridge.”
“That’s the big house that sits on a peak above the city, isn’t it?” asked Brietta, remembering a trip to Freemont when she was younger.
“Yes, a rambling old mansion. It’s up for sale, and some of the townsponies are concerned that a business venture will take over the property.”
“For what use?”
“For whatever they see profitable,” Connor shrugged.
“That house is a landmark,” argued Aiden. “If it falls into the wrong hooves, it will be at risk. Freemont should purchase the land as a historical site.”
“That’s what’s evoking the controversy,” explained Ryan. “This is the first opportunity the city has had to buy the property as it had remained in the Raven family until recently. The cost of maintaining the property, however, could be detrimental to the town’s resources.”
“And what will a developer do with it?” asked Lena defensively. “They’ll have no respect for the history of the place or the legacy of the family that lived there. What will they do with the land around the house, and what changes will they effect within the house itself? It was built to house a family; and if it isn’t practical for that purpose any longer, then it should be preserved for all to enjoy as a museum like Whitehall’s Garvin House.” Lena ended, nodding her head for final emphasis.
“Your ancestors would be proud of you, Lena,” smiled Ryan. “But the fact remains that a house such as Ravenridge would eat-up more revenue than it could muster, therefore becoming a detriment to the city. However, if the right investor gets his hooves on it, it can become an economic asset to the community, generating income, jobs, and tax monies.”
“The key there is finding the right investor,” sparred Aiden. “No matter what some pony says up front, once he gains control of the property, he can do whatever he wants with it. There is no guarantee that Ravenridge will retain that which makes it special to Freemont.”
“Well, from what I hear, the interested parties involved are willing to maintain the historical heritage of Ravenridge to the best of their ability while converting it into a rather elegant multi-purpose lodging and country club of sorts.”
Lena huffed. “That’s the end of Ravenridge, then.”
The arrival of the Manning’s lunch ended the confrontation at that point, and Lena and Brietta breathed a sigh of relief to be rid of the unsettling presence of Ryan and Connor. Aiden began talking soothingly of his foalhood days at Whitehall Place, and soon the optimistic mood of all the ponies had been restored; and Brietta could allow herself to dream of appearing in public for the first time wearing her expensive and exquisite diamonds. It confounded her that every scenario she envisioned involved two stallions vying for her attention: one with saffron yellow mane and steel blue body, the other whose light grey body was accented with long violet hair. Interestingly enough, she could not decide which one to favor.