Chapter 23: The Conference (Part 1)

“Hurry up!” Thomas called impatiently, as Tabby had once again fallen behind, having been distracted by some local flora in a planter on the side of the street. “We’ve already completely missed the technology workshop, and now we’ll be lucky to even catch the opening ceremony!”

“OMG, just chill!” said Tabby, exasperated, as she gave up studying the foliage and scurried to catch up. “You’ve been very mean to me this whole trip,” she stated crossly, falling into step behind him. “If I’d known you were such a bad traveler, I never would have agreed to come to this conference.”

I’m the bad traveler?” Thomas echoed, looking back at her incredulously. “You’re the one that got called out by security and detained at the immigration counter.”

“Look, I’m not dwelling on the past or anything,” Tabby said in a self-righteous manner, “but at least I’m not the one who got us stuck talking to those travel agents immediately after the stewardess warned us to avoid them.”

“Well, maybe I could actually focus if I didn’t have to constantly listen to that squeaky wheel on your suitcase,” Thomas snapped.

“Now you’re just being petty,” Tabby said loftily.

Little more was said between them, allowing tempers to cool; and the two unicorns arrived at the Centro congressi di Vulcanopolis, a modern building of flowing lines. They made their way inside and stopped at the registration table to claim their name badges. As they were finishing that task, a pale peach mare with curling red hair approached them.

“Tabitha? Is that you?” the mare asked, smiling in a forced manner.

“Oh… hi, Gwen,” Tabby greeted her mother’s assistant without any great emotion. Gwen reached out her foreleg, and the two mares exchanged a somewhat awkward hug.

“And Dr. Fairfax,” Gwen said coolly, turning to Tabby’s companion. They were having some sort of feud, Tabby recalled.

“Hi, Gwen,” said Thomas, looking abashed. “How have you been?”

Ignoring the question, Gwen returned to Tabby. “Your mother will be thrilled to see you,” she said. “She didn’t mention it… does she know you’re here?”

“No,” Tabby admitted. “It’s… a surprise.” She was hoping to stay off her mother’s radar for as long as possible; time spent with her tended to turn disastrous. “So…” She glanced around, distracted by all the flashy banners and signs taking up space in the hall. “I guess with Macrohard sponsorship, there’s no shortage of budget,” she said disparagingly, speaking of the computer conglomerate. Tabby had actually once met the CEO, Guido Casale, at a party given by her mother, and did not recall being impressed.

“Guido has been very accommodating of supporting all the society’s events,” Gwen agreed. She glanced down at her phone. “Those trainees,” she muttered, shaking her head. “I have to go. I’ll see you at the reception, okay?” She looked at Tabby expectantly.

“Um, yep, sure. See ya,” Tabby said, and Gwen hurried off.

“Gwen’s worked for your mother awhile, hasn’t she?” Thomas asked as they made their way into the auditorium.

“Since I was twelve,” Tabby said flatly. “I spent about as much time with her as I did with Mom.”

“A second mother?” Thomas asked with a sideways glance.

“Nothing so warm and fuzzy,” Tabby said as they found seats in the crowded room. “She didn’t know how to deal with me, either.” She noted the Macrohard logo displayed on the screen at the front of the room, the Veterinary Medicine Society logo stuck inconspicuously in the corner. “This whole conference is just going to be one big sales pitch for this Macrohard clinic management software,” she changed the subject. “I don’t know what professional development you’re hoping to soak up.”

“There are a number of edifying talks,” Thomas insisted as the lights dimmed, and talking diminished to a low hum.

“Please welcome, Fernando Genovesi, chief operations officer of Macrohard!” boomed a disembodied voice, and the stage was cast in light. Out onto the stage jumped an energetic stallion, pumping his hooves and bouncing erratically.

“WHOOOO! Come on!” he shouted at the crowd. “Let’s get this conference started!” He continued skipping around the stage.

“Is he supposed to be doing that?” Tabby asked Thomas in a hushed voice. “I think he’s having a seizure.”

“Ssh!” said Thomas, seemingly unfazed.

“I think he’s losing it,” Tabby said, but bit her tongue and sank back in her seat. As the businesspony’s wild gesticulations and cheers continued, she realized her cell phone was buzzing. She pulled it out to check. It was a message from Strawberry–she was on vacation since Tabby and Thomas were both away; but apparently, a client had tracked down the receptionist, needing some files transferred urgently to Dr. Martingale; and Strawberry was at her parents’ without access to the necessary program. 

Tabby could do the task easily enough from her laptop, if she cut out from this show–with a glance at what’s-his-name’s antics, it didn’t look like she would miss much. Citing secretarial concerns to Thomas, she climbed over ponies in the row and went out to the lobby where she could politely teleport–non-unicorns tended to look down on spontaneous teleporting in the midst of social situations. And she was actually trying not to draw negative attention to Thomas.

Magic may have gotten Tabby to her hotel room easily enough, but mystical energies were no fix for the WiFi connection, which refused to work; so, in exasperation, she ended up using the public network in a cluster of tables near the skywalk to the adjacent conference center.

Some minutes later, though, Tabby was still thoroughly annoyed. “It’s just a simple export,” she grumbled to herself, clacking buttons angrily. “Ugh, it shouldn’t be this hard! Sure, go ahead and freeze again… this is so stupid!”

She must have been speaking louder than she thought, because a yellow stallion with lime green hair chuckled from a nearby chair. “You should tell that to the guys that make it,” he observed, standing and coming closer.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure they’d listen,” Tabby said sarcastically, brow furrowed and more focused on berating her computer experience than making small talk with a stranger.

“You might be surprised,” the stallion said, standing next to her at the table.

Tabby looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Do I know you?” she asked, tilting her head.

“We met last year at your mother’s Midsummer Ball,” the stallion said with an annoyingly smug smirk.

“Oh… oh. You’re Guido,” Tabby said, that piece of information falling into place. “We talked for, like, thirty seconds.”

“Ah, so you remember,” Guido said with a significant look.

Flustered, Tabby looked away. “My mom was in full match-making mode,” she muttered, turning back to her laptop.

“So that’s why you didn’t give me the time of day,” Guido said, letting nothing disturb his equilibrium. “But perhaps, if you look at me without the lens of prejudice for your mother’s plans, you might find something you like.”

“What I’d like is for this file to finish exporting!” Tabby snapped, turning the conversation from personal matters.

Guido was not put off, and instead just looked amused. “Your computer is five years old,” he pointed out, noting the model number. “The processor alone is three generations behind.”

Tabby looked at him in exasperation. “So your software doesn’t work without the newest computer?” she asked pointedly.

“My expanding financial horizons tell me that the business model is working,” Guido stated matter-of-factly, pulling out a phone and typing a message. He turned back to Tabby and grinned.

“What are you doing lurking out here, anyway?” Tabby asked. “Don’t you have rival businesses to ruthlessly crush into dust, or whatever big name CEOs do?”

Guido laughed. “I pay other ponies to do those sorts of things for me,” he said glibly. “Sometimes, just watching ponies is the best market research.”

“Are you even going to the talk?” Tabby looked at him inquisitively.

“And waste time listening to that old windbag, Fernando?” Guido scoffed. “I hear him enough at staff meetings. I’ll make an appearance at the reception, and that will suffice.” A purple mare with aqua hair approached them, carrying a sleek black case. “Ah, thank you, Mira,” said Guido as he took it from her and in turn hoofed it to Tabby. “I think you’ll find the user experience greatly increased on our latest model,” he stated with authority.

Tabby unzipped the case. “It’s purple,” she marveled, pulling out a glossy plum-colored laptop.

“It’s pre-loaded with all the latest,” Guido said with aplomb. “Just log in and see.”

Tabby got to work and tuned out Guido as she exported the file and sent it on to Dr. Martingale’s clinic. “Well, it worked,” she admitted, closing the laptop and tucking it back in the case, “but it’s still a bit putzy.” 

“Define ‘putzy’,” Guido requested, holding out his hoof and inviting her to walk with him.

Tabby, somewhat annoyed with herself for being intrigued by him, acquiesced.

* * *

Drinks flowed readily at the post-talk reception, and hors d’oeuvres were readily at hoof. A band was playing a gentle background song while ponies congregated in the atrium.

“…and after the surgical fellowship, I took a position at Cedar Springs,” chattered Deidre, a yellow mare with pink hair, who had been a classmate of Thomas in veterinary school. She had spotted him as they were filing out of the auditorium, and had planted herself securely at his side.

“That’s great,” Thomas said automatically, as his mind was more on Tabby and her whereabouts since rushing off on some errand immediately after the talk had started.

Deidre craned her neck for a better look of someone across the room. “Wow, that’s Guido Casale himself!” she said, looking impressed. “I was hoping he’d be here. I wonder if that’s his girlfriend? What a life she must have!” The mare sighed longingly.

Thomas followed Deidre’s gaze and frowned. “No, that’s my assistant,” he said, perturbed at the sight of the familiar pink unicorn, who looked very chummy with the yellow stallion at her side. “What does she think she’s doing?”

“Well, I’d say she’s off to a good start,” Deidre observed. “We’d better up our game.” She downed her drink, put the empty glass down on a waiter’s tray, and whisked Thomas off for socializing.

* * *

“You don’t want to waste all your time with me,” Tabby pointed out to her escort as they circled the room. “Aren’t you supposed to be schmoozing?” Guido, surrounded by the protective bubble of his security detail, was totally in control of the situation and provided Tabby with a safe haven, a buffer against the hustle and bustle all around them.

“I am at the top of the food chain, and I make my own obligations,” Guido said smoothly.

“Are you sure my mother didn’t put you up to this?” Tabby asked with a sly look.

“Your mother is a charming pony, but she doesn’t dictate who I spend my time with,” Guido said. “You’re not swooning over me, and I find that refreshing.”

“I don’t know how to swoon,” Tabby said, “but I didn’t realize that was a selling point.”

“You, my dear, have more charm than you give yourself credit for,” Guido said with a suave smile.

* * *

As Thomas and Deidre came near Guido’s protective circle, Thomas excused himself from Deidre. “I need to check with Tabby on something,” he said briefly, striding in her direction. Initially he was muscled out by the security detail, but he caught Tabby’s glance, and she whispered to her companion… and just like that, Thomas was allowed into the inner sanctum.

“Tabby, did you take care of that, uh, thing for Strawberry?” Thomas asked, all the while looking askance at Guido.

“Oh, yeah, that’s taken care of,” Tabby said with a wave of her hoof. “It’s cool. So, uh, this is Guido. You know, CEO of Macrohard. I’ve been giving him product feedback,” she hastily explained.

“I think you’ll find yourself looking for a new assistant soon,” Guido said in a matter-of-fact way, shaking Thomas’ hoof. “I have a position on our clinical liaison team in mind for her. She has a refreshingly direct mindset.”

“So I’ve noticed,” said Thomas, looking inquisitively at her. This wasn’t her style, latching on to a slick stallion like this. She wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“Well, I’m sure you want to get back to your colleagues, Doctor,” Guido said, dismissing Thomas and steering Tabby away.

“I’ll see you later,” she called, turning her head to look back at him.

“Um, sure,” said Thomas, feeling baffled by her uncharacteristic behavior. “I’ll be seeing you.”

“What was he like?” Deidre demanded as she drifted back to his side.

“Full of himself,” Thomas said, frowning.

* * *

“He’s jealous,” Guido said as they continued their walk around the room.

“I’m sure he is. I’ve outranked him at schmoozing,” Tabby said, feeling a bit smug.

“I think it’s more than that,” Guido said with a knowing look.

“You were threatening to poach his assistant, and he doesn’t want to train someone new,” Tabby observed, refusing to acknowledge the personal innuendo.

“You would be very difficult to replace,” Guido agreed. As they navigated around a boisterous group, he asked. “Would you like to go somewhere quieter?” He must have seen some hesitation in her face, as he quickly added, “My intentions are honorable.”

“I’m dating someone,” Tabby blurted out.

“And you can’t associate with anyone else?” said Guido, looking bemused. “We’ll talk business, if that makes you feel less disloyal.”

“Um… I guess,” said Tabby, allowing him to guide her out a side door.

* * *

As the evening wore on, Thomas had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched. He caught an unfamiliar ecru stallion looking his way, and wondered about him.

“You okay?” Deidre asked, looking at her companion curiously.

“That guy over there keeps looking at me,” Thomas said, surreptitiously nodding in that direction.

Deidre stole a peek. “No one I know,” she said, shaking her head.

The stallion in question appeared to notice their scrutiny, and made his way over to them. “Hello, I’m Dr. Cracker,” he introduced himself. “I knew your mother,” he added, looking at Thomas.

“Oh. Really?” Thomas brightened.

“I’ve actually seen you before, but you wouldn’t remember me,” Dr. Cracker said with a smile. “I was present at your delivery.”

“You’re Graham,” Thomas said, realization dawning. “The vet that delivered me.”

“Yes, that was me,” Dr. Cracker said.

“Oh, do tell,” Deidre broke-in.

“My mom was a volunteer at the animal shelter where Dr. Cracker worked,” Thomas explained. “She was at work when she went into labor, and, well, Dr. Cracker was there.”

“Oh, how fun!” said Deidre, clapping her hooves with foallike delight.

“I was very sorry to hear about the cruise incident,” Dr. Cracker said, a somber look on his face. “My condolences.”

“Oh,” Thomas said, surprised. “I wasn’t sure if you knew.”

“It was in the papers,” Dr. Cracker acknowledged.

“Whatever happened, they were in it together, and that’s how they would have wanted it,” Thomas reasoned.

“Indeed,” Dr. Cracker agreed, lapsing into pensive silence. 

“Mom always spoke very highly of you,” Thomas said, bridging the awkward silence.

“She was a very special mare,” Dr. Cracker murmured. “We… lost touch over time,” he admitted. Clearing his throat, he asked, “Where do you live now?”

“I opened my own clinic in Misty Hollow earlier this year,” Thomas said, with no small amount of pride.

“Your own practice, at your age? Good for you,” Dr. Cracker said, impressed.

“Mom said you’d gone to Pinepetal,” Thomas said.

“Yes, I’m still there,” Dr. Cracker confirmed as two ponies joined them, a magenta mare and cyan stallion. “May I introduce you to my colleagues, Dr. Sugarplum and Dr. Clark.”

Hooves were shaken all around, and when Dr. Sugarplum pressed for details of Dr. Cracker and Thomas’ connection, she was suitably impressed. “Oh, that’s precious,” she gushed upon hearing the story of the delivery.

“The society newsletter would eat that up,” Dr. Clark chimed-in.

“Ooh, what a good idea,” Dr. Sugarplum enthused. “I just saw Becky. Becky!” She waved across the room, and a green mare dashed over. “Becky, here’s a scoop for you…” She summarized the tale. “Isn’t that delightful?”

“That is so flippin’ adorable I forgot to breathe,” said Becky in a level-headed fashion. “Vet delivers future vet, it could go viral… let’s get a picture. Pot Roast, over here!” she hollered. 

A lanky gravy-colored stallion with a camera slung around his neck came running. “Yes, yes, I’m here,” he said breathlessly. “Let’s make it quick, because the mime show is about to start.”

“Mimes, that must be Lila’s addition,” said Dr. Sugarplum with a roll of her eyes. “The Program Committee has some funny ideas about their involvement these days. Back when I was Program Chair…” She fell back with Dr. Clark and delved into a lengthy discourse.

“This is more important than mimes!” barked Becky. “Over there, by the plants.” Pot Roast looked a bit mopey, but complied. Thomas and Dr. Cracker were poked and prodded into position, the camera flashed, and the photo was taken care of in short order.

“Hope you didn’t mind getting pulled into the spotlight like that,” said Dr. Cracker apologetically to Thomas as the crowd around them thinned.

“It’s fine,” Thomas said with a wry smile.

Dr. Cracker was then called away by a former resident, and Thomas was again left with Deidre.

“A very special mare, huh?” Deidre said with a smirk, another drink in her hoof as they meandered off. “Just when were Dr. Cracker and your mom acquainted?”

“What are you getting at?” Thomas asked, frowning, though it was obvious enough.

“It’s just, they knew each other before you were born, and you’re both veterinarians…” Deidre trailed off.

“No, that’s impossible,” said Thomas sharply. “My mom would never…”

“You didn’t know her then,” Deidre pointed out. “You’re similar in coloration.”

“I’m not having this conversation,” Thomas snapped. He would not stand for this besmirching of his mother’s character. He knew his parents, and they loved each other, and would never stray… But then Thomas thought of how his father had never seemed to understand him, had never really appreciated his ambitions, wanting him to pursue equine medicine instead of animals… what if there was a genetic component…

Finding that his nerves were rattled, Thomas took another drink.

* * *

Tabby found herself whisked off to a rooftop restaurant, magically cleared of other patrons at a word from Guido’s assistant to the maitre d. A waiter poured their drinks and then made himself unobtrusive as they studied the menu.

“This is much better, isn’t it?” Guido remarked conversationally.

“I can hear myself think again,” Tabby agreed, leaning forward. “So another thing, I think the log-in screen–”

“I have a confession to make,” Guido interrupted her. “I didn’t bring you here to talk solely about my business.”

“Oh… okay,” said Tabby with a slight frown, leaning back.

“Your mother told me about your work with Dr. Tini’kili’knit’nik,” Guido said nonchalantly.

“You’re well-informed,” Tabby said with reluctant admiration. “Not many ponies can pronounce his proper name.”

“I hope that gives me some bonus points in your esteem,” Guido said with an easy smile. “Your mentor is a significant figure in Sasquatch medicine, and very elusive.”

“Yes,” Tabby agreed.

“There were rumors that he even dabbled in using the Tlawma jewel,” Guido said, looking at her from over his glass, “but I don’t suppose you would know about that.”

“He uses a number of talismans and charms,” Tabby said guardedly.

“You wouldn’t forget the Tlawma,” Guido said, chuckling. “No, I wouldn’t expect you to give up your master’s secrets. I admire your loyalty. Consider me an aficionado of Sasquatch medicine. It has such a primal beauty, wouldn’t you agree?”

“If you mean to imply its charm is in folklore and not reality, then you are off the mark,” said Tabby a bit coolly, drawing back.

“Nothing of the sort,” said Guido, unoffended. “I think that equine medicine would benefit from adopting more ideas from the Sasquatch… but you understand, better than most, the rampant prejudice present in medical circles.”

“It’s preposterous that a doctor of Tiny’s caliber isn’t allowed to practice,” Tabby said, her eyes flashing.

“I agree with you,” said Guido. “In fact, Macrohard is backing legislation in Mestruna that might change things.”

“Oh?” Tabby said, eyes shining. “Tell me more.”

* * *

“Deidre, you’ve had enough,” Thomas admonished, taking the glass from her hoof. His own head felt fuzzy, and Deidre had far outpaced him in alcohol consumption.

The mare pouted. “That’s no fun,” she said, her words slurred.

“It’s time to leave the party,” Thomas said firmly.

“Oh?”  Deidre asked, batting her lashes coquettishly. “What do you have in mind?”

“No, I just mean…” Thomas sighed. “You need to sleep this off. Where are you staying? I’ll make sure you get there.”

“So chivalrous,” she said, stumbling on the word.

Thomas walked her to the door of her room, not trusting her to navigate the elevator and hallway under her own power. He hoped she didn’t misunderstand his intentions. With Thomas’ help, she found her key card and opened the door. She stepped inside, and looked back at him flirtatiously. “You don’t have to leave,” she said, holding the door open.

“No, Deidre,” Thomas protested, backing up. “It’s not appropriate.”

“A leopard doesn’t change his spots,” Deidre scoffed.

“I’m not like that any more,” Thomas said quietly.

“No one changes that much,” Deidre said dismissively. “What does a kiss matter, anyway?”

“I grew up, Dee. I realized there was more to life than chasing the latest pretty face.”

“Grown up, huh? I know plenty older than us that don’t subscribe to that belief,” Deidre said, flipping her mane. “It’s not like I’m some random filly. We go way back. Come on, just a kiss, for old time’s sake?”

“Goodnight, Deidre,” Thomas said firmly, walking away.

* * *

“I… I should really find my boss,” Tabby said, some time later, after hearing her phone buzz again. “He’s wondering where I am.” She had glanced at some messages from Thomas, but had put off replying.

“You don’t have any professional obligations at this time,” Guido pointed out, refilling her champagne glass. “He doesn’t own you.”

“It is getting late, though,” Tabby said, pushing the glass away, “and sessions start at eight in the morning, so…”

“So conscientious,” said Guido, merely looking amused. “Very well. At least let me see you to your lodging.”

Tabby neglected to remind him that she could teleport–perhaps stemming from a reluctance to part ways. He was remarkably well-informed. She would let him appease his sense of chivalry, she told herself, accepting his escort.

Guido chatted easily about historical trivia and noteworthy sites in town, and the walk to the nearby hotel went quickly. “Clear your schedule for tomorrow afternoon,” he instructed as they stepped off the elevator.

“Why?” Tabby asked bluntly.

“For a tour of Vulcanopolis, of course!”

“You mean one of those busloads of tourists? Not really my thing,” Tabby said with a cheeky grin.

“Nothing so gauche. You will be with me, naturally, and will see the city in a way only I can accommodate,” Guido said, pompously to be sure, but Tabby was willing to humor him.

Rounding a corner in the hall, they were faced by an irate Thomas. “Where have you been?” he demanded angrily, waiting in the hallway outside her door.

“Doctor, I assure you, she has been in very good hooves,” said Guido, as always, with a gleam of superiority in his eyes.

“You weren’t answering your phone,” Thomas said with a sharp look at Tabby.

“I wasn’t aware that my role here was to shadow you every moment,” Tabby said, drawing herself up imperiously.

“No, of course not,” Thomas said, softening. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“As you can see, she’s fine, so…” Guido nodded his head to the side, indicating that Thomas should go. 

But Thomas stubbornly stood his ground. “I do have some business to discuss with my assistant, so…” He looked at Tabby beseechingly.

“It’s fine, Guido,” Tabby said, positioning herself between them. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

“I’m looking forward to it,” Guido said, leaving her with a lingering kiss on her hoof.

When Guido was out of sight, Tabby looked at Thomas expectantly. “Well? What pressing business is there?”

“Uh–Strawberry’s good with that file?” Thomas asked, shifting awkwardly on his hooves.

“Yes, I told you that was taken care of,” Tabby said, looking perturbed. “You just wanted to get rid of Guido!”

“Well, I wasn’t going to leave you alone with him at your room!” Thomas said indignantly.

“How is that any different from you being here?” Tabby snapped.

“It’s different, and you know it!”

“You think a mare and a stallion can’t just talk?” Tabby challenged. “Not everything has to turn into a flirtation, despite what you think!”

“What–I don’t–” Thomas looked taken aback. He wasn’t as sharp as he usually was, Tabby thought.

“You can’t go five minutes in public without a mare clinging to you. Don’t deny it.” Tabby opened her room door. “So, if that’s all…”

“Uh… actually…” Thomas hesitated.

“What’s wrong?” Tabby sighed, pausing in the doorway. “You obviously have a bee in your bonnet. That’s an old Sasquatch expression; it means–”

“Yes, I get it,” Thomas cut her off.

“Well, then,” Tabby said, leaning into the doorframe. “What is it?”

“I met someone who knew my mom,” Thomas said in a rush. “Was close to her.”

Tabby looked at him strangely. “Okay…”

“I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But then Deidre said–oh, it’s not Deidre’s fault; I would have gotten there myself,” Thomas admitted.

“Deidre? Who’s Deidre?” Tabby asked, frowning.

“Someone I, uh, went to school with.” Thomas looked down; Tabby assumed there was more to the connection than that. An old flame, no doubt.

“Right,” Tabby said coolly, waiting for him to continue. Though, to his credit, that mare was no longer accompanying him; but he had just berated her for cavorting with a member of the opposite sex.

“What if he and my mom were more than friends?” Thomas burst out, looking mortified.

“Oh, good grief. I’m really not a qualified pony to be having this conversation with,” Tabby protested, putting a hoof out in front of her. “Trust me.”

“What if I’m not really a Fairfax, but… but…” Thomas swallowed heavily. “A Cracker?”

“You don’t really strike me as a Cracker,” Tabby said, eying him critically.

“But look at the facts,” Thomas insisted. “Fairfax, it even means fair-haired, and my hair is brown.” He looked horrified as the implications sank in.

“Well, that doesn’t mean anything,” said Tabby, brow creased in consternation. “What color hair did your dad have?”

“Brown,” Thomas admitted.

“Then, there you go,” Tabby said with some relief, thinking that would settle his uncertainties. She almost thought this had appeased him.

“But Dr. Cracker has brown hair, too,” Thomas argued.

“Right,” Tabby sighed. “Of course he does.”

“Maybe more of a burnt sienna,” Thomas said, frowning thoughtfully.

“That doesn’t prove anything!” Tabby insisted. “No, I think you’ve had too much to drink and aren’t thinking straight. Go get some sleep!”

“Thanks, Tabby,” Thomas said, impulsively hugging her.

“Errrmmm,” said Tabby awkwardly, jarred by the sudden whirling emotions that his touch brought on. “I don’t think I did anything.”

“I’ll see you at breakfast?” Thomas asked, drawing back and looking a trifle embarrassed.

“Yes. Now go!” She waved him off.

She was the confidante he came running to when he needed someone to talk to, Tabby mused as she went about her preparations for bed. Any secret dream of more than that would just leave her open for disappointment. And what of this new player on the field, this dashing Italian stallion?

But her last thoughts before drifting off to sleep were of Thomas, not Guido.