Caprice led and Dietrich followed through the streets of Forest Brook, to a neighborhood of mansions with wide sweeping lawns. Caprice took paths that cut through the back portions of various properties, but she clearly felt at home with the minor trespasses.
When the two arrived in a grove of oak trees at the back of one of the mansions, Caprice stopped. Under the shelter of one tree stood a large upright stone slab, the sort usually reserved for cemeteries.
Caprice pointed to the monument. ”There it is,” she said proudly.
The stone was inscribed with the name Thomas C. Underhoof, Esquire, followed by the years of his presence in this world. Various decorations were also engraved–paw prints, mice, fish, a rainbow. A profusion of flowers was planted all around, and various weathered cat toys were placed on the base of the slab. In the stone’s shadow was a stone bench.
“This is a fitting memorial to Mr. Underhoof,” Dietrich said at length, taking in the garish display.
Caprice beamed. “I knew you would appreciate it.” She sat on the bench and patted the seat next to her. “Sit,” she invited.
Staring into her eyes, Dietrich suddenly felt at a loss for words, and blurted out the first half-formed thought that came to mind: “I have three cats.”
Caprice touched his hoof. “Tell me about them,” she said, her eyes lighting with interest.
“Well, there’s Buddy–he’s a silver mackerel tabby; he was a stray I found in the alley next to my building.”
“That was so kind of you. I’d expect nothing else,” Caprice said softly.
“He’s not as young and spry as he used to be, but he’s doing okay,” Dietrich said a rush.
She squeezed his hoof reassuringly. “And the others?”
“Daisy belonged to a work friend whose girlfriend was allergic–I took her in,” Dietrich explained. “The cat, not the girlfriend,” he hastily clarified.
Caprice giggled. “What does she look like… the cat?”
“Orange tiger striped, but with calico patches on her legs and paws.”
“How delightful,” cooed Caprice. “And there’s one more?”
“Yes, Trixie, the youngest. She’s black and white. Runt of the litter from a neighbor’s cat.” This wasn’t the ordinary topic of conversation Dietrich would choose to have with a beautiful mare, but Caprice was far from ordinary and if she wanted to talk about cats, he was loath to dissuade her.
“Any health issues?” she prodded.
And thus Dietrich ended up giving her a complete medical history of all of them. He knew he was rambling, but her eyes encouraged him to go on, and so he did.
“..the worms cleared up, but then she developed an upper respiratory infection,” Dietrich was finishing Trixie’s analysis.
“Oh, that’s a shame.” Caprice was duly sympathetic.
“Yes, but fortunately the antibiotics took care of it in short order.” Realizing that it was perhaps time to steer the conversation elsewhere, Dietrich was emboldened to say, “I hope you can meet them one day.”
“I hope so, too,” Caprice said with a coy smile.
Then he leaned over and kissed her.
“Is it possible to fall in love this quickly?” she asked breathlessly when he released her.
“Yes,” he said simply.
* * *
Storen approached the office of Monk Publishing’s CEO. It wasn’t normal working hours, but Cecil Monk was often there after hours. And Storen made a habit of knowing his boss’s habits.
“What do you want, boy?” Cecil, seated behind his mahogany desk, said impatiently, not looking up from the paper in front of him. “Make it quick.”
“Mr. Monk, sir,” said Storen with deep reverence, “as an employee and, if I may be so bold, a friend–”
“You may not,” Cecil barked, stamping a paper with a loud thud.
“Of course–very wise, sir–fraternization is deplorable,” Storen back-pedaled, “but I feel it incumbent upon myself to report something that I witnessed at the assembly hall earlier.”
“Yes, well, just spit out what it is you have to say!” Cecil snapped.
“Your daughter, sir, was seen in company with Dietrich Fairfax!” Storen revealed. “Dancing with him!”
Cecil looked up in consternation. “What! I thought Reggie had run his boy out of town years ago,” he said, aggrieved. “Well, you sent him packing, I presume?”
“Well…” Storen hesitated. “It did not seem politic to do so–he had a look about him–well, I thought I should let you know,” he ended lamely.
“What you can do,” Cecil shouted, “is get back there and give the Fairfax colt what-for!”
“Of course, sir–very sensible,” Storen said, bowing his head. “Except that they’re no longer there.”
“Where are they?!” Cecil’s voice boomed.
“Th-they left the hall together,” Storen stammed. “West down Main Street. I don’t know where they were going.”
“You simpleton!” Cecil pounded his hoof on the solid wood desktop. “Stay!” he barked as Storen turned to go. “You’ll need to speak to the police,” he said, picking up the phone receiver. “You can do that much, at least.”
“Yes, sir. I’d be pleased to,” Storen said dutifully, dimly aware that he had once again been found lacking.
* * *
Caprice leaned back, safe in Dietrich’s embrace.
“You’re so lucky to have gotten out of this town,” Caprice sighed, stroking the side of his face. “Here it seems like everything comes down to which family you are on the side of.”
“There are poor attitudes wherever you go,” Dietrich said, “but I admit, there is much greater diversity and exchange of ideas in New Pony than… here.” He sighed.
“You’ve heard of my family’s feud with the Fairfaxes, I presume?” Caprice said, glancing at him shyly.
“Of course,” Dietrich said quietly. “I grew up here, after all.”
“I just wonder…” She trailed off.
“What do you think?” he asked gently.
“My father says they’re all rotten to the core,” Caprice prevaricated. “But… I don’t think it can be as bad as he says,” she observed after a moment of contemplation.
“Still, you don’t have any Fairfaxes as friends,” he said, a bit coolly.
“Oh, no,” Caprice said, scandalized. “Father would never allow it.”
“Do you blindly follow where your father leads?” he asked wryly.
“Well, I…” Caprice hesitated. “I am under his care, you know.”
“You’re an adult now,” Dietrich reminded her.
“Yes–I suppose so,” Caprice said with some hesitance. She hadn’t gotten used to that concept. Not that there was any way to get away if she wanted to. She had been trained in the keeping of a household, not in supporting herself.
“Caprice…” Dietrich trailed off.
“Yes?” she replied, turning her face up to his.
“I haven’t been completely forthright with you,” he said with reserve. “I was enjoying our time together and I didn’t want to bring it up, but…”
“You can tell me,” she said in a whisper, steeling her composure while feeling her heart sink. Of course, the little fool that she was–he must have a mare already that he was committed to!
“I want you to know,” Dietrich said earnestly, “I’ve never felt like this about anyone before.”
“What is it?” Caprice asked, feeling her eyes start to well up with tears and cursing herself for her weakness. “There’s someone else, isn’t there?”
“What? No!” He appeared offended at the suggestion, and she allowed herself to feel some relief. What else could possibly change her opinion of him? At length, he continued: “I’m Reginald Fairfax’s son.”
“What!” Caprice started in shock. “You–you’re one of them!” She looked at him, wide-eyed.
“There, you see, you do hate us!” Dietrich said bitterly, face clouding over.
“No–I didn’t mean it like that!” she apologized plaintively, reaching out for him. “I was just surprised!” She bit her lip. “This isn’t a… joke, is it?” she asked in a small voice.
An irreverent snort came from the stallion. “You’re just like your father and can’t help but suspect me of the worst,” he snapped, eyes flashing.
“No, don’t say that!” Caprice pleaded. Now tears were falling in earnest. “I take it back!”
“It’s too late,” Dietrich said stiffly, extricating himself from her grip. “You gave me your response.”
“Now aren’t you being just as bad yourself?” Caprice argued, standing her ground. “You won’t give me the benefit of the doubt, because I’m one of those Monks!”
He suddenly appeared deflated, the fight in him evaporating. “You’re… you’re right,” he said, sitting back down. “I like to think I’ve risen above it, but the early programming… it doesn’t go away,” he explained, looking at her with pain in his eyes.
“I understand,” she said, casting her eyes downward.
“Caprice…” he said, putting his hoof under her chin and drawing her gaze up to him.
“Yes?” she whispered.
“I love you. I’m not walking away from you,” he murmured.
“Oh, Dietrich!” she breathed, melting into his embrace.
* * *
“This is unconscionable!” Cecil blustered to the police officer that had come to the office to collect a statement from Storen.
“Completely beyond the pale,” Storen agreed.
“She’s an adult,” said Officer Morris, patiently, as if to a foal, “and she has the right to leave a party with whoever she wishes.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” Cecil snapped. “She was last seen in the company of a Fairfax!”
“A reprehensible thing,” said Storen, shaking his head.
“Any reason to suspect she was in danger?” Officer Morris asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I didn’t know they allowed dunces on the force!” Cecil seethed, pounding on his desk. “A Fairfax, I say! A Fairfax!”
“My grandmother was a Fairfax,” the officer observed wryly. “That’s not grounds for suspicion.”
“I’m calling the chief!” Cecil shouted. “He’ll have your head for this impertinence!”
“Yes, truly deplorable behavior,” Storen agreed, glowering.
“Storen, shut up!” Cecil shouted, picking up the phone.
* * *
Chief Meadows sighed as he followed the country club attendant to the reception desk for an urgent call. Who had tracked him down here?
“It’s Cecil Monk, sir, calling for you,” said the mare at the phone, handing him the receiver.
Meadows exhaled loudly before answering. “Cecil, this had better be good!” he barked. “I’m in the middle of a round of golf!”
“Your department is overrun with Fairfax sympathizers!” Cecil raged. “One of the cads has absconded with my girl. You need to get a team out looking for her!”
“Kidnapping? Someone in the department?” Meadows asked, frowning. He listened to Cecil’s story, the furrow in his brow deepening. “So you’re telling me that your daughter left a dance with a stallion, of her own free will,” he summarized, incredulous.
“A Fairfax!” Cecil reminded.
“Okay, Cecil, just simmer down,” Meadows said in a calming tone, tamping down his annoyance at the interruption. “Young couples leave parties together all the time. It’s no cause for concern.”
“You fool!” Cecil thundered. “You will find the Monk Publishing donation to the department greatly diminished this year if you don’t get on this! And another thing, make sure that Officer Morris is properly reprimanded for his impertinence! ”
“What?” Meadows asked, feigning confusion. “I can’t hear you. What was that? You’re breaking up.” Then he hung up. “If he calls again, make sure he gets disconnected,” he instructed the desk attendant. “I’m going back to the game.”
* * *
“Can you believe the chief gave priority to this case?” complained Stonecrop to his partner as they walked down Main Street. “It’s just because he’s old pals with Cecil Monk.”
“I heard Chief wasn’t going to get involved,” Morris corrected, “but Cecil got the commissioner on his side. They’re fraternity buddies.”
“Well, whoever made the call, this is wasting everyone’s time,” Stonecrop complained.
“I mean, this was bound to happen eventually,” Morris observed. “A Monk and a Fairfax, I mean. They all live in the same town.”
“Isn’t Dietrich your cousin or something?” Stonecrop asked.
Morris shrugged. “Second cousins once removed. That’s what my aunt says, anyway.”
“Oh, hey, I think I found Romeo and Juliet,” Stonecrop said, nodding his head to the left. The couple under consideration was framed in the ice cream shop window, looking very companionable.
“Hiding in plain sight,” murmured Morris.
“Ugh, I hate walking in on romantic trysts.” Stonecrop winced. “You wanna go talk to them?”
Shaking his head, Morris approached the table. “Dietrich.”
The aqua stallion looked at him cautiously. “Morris… hi.”
“Ms. Monk’s father is looking for her.”
“You can tell him,” Caprice interjected, “that Ms. Monk is an adult and can go where she pleases!”
“Just making sure there’s no trouble,” Stonecrop interjected.
“This is absurd,” Dietrich blustered.
“It’s not me, it’s the job,” Morris said with a gesture of helplessness.
“Well, there’s nothing to see here, so you can run along,” Dietrich dismissed the officers.
Morris stayed put, his gaze resting on Caprice.
“I’ll be home when I’m ready to be home!” she snapped.