Chapter 24: The Conference (Part 2)

The next morning, Tabby was in the cafeteria, puzzling over the unnatural sponge-like consistency of the scrambled eggs on her plate, when a yellow mare swooped in.

“You work with Dr. Fairfax,” the mare chirped–entirely too perky for this early in the day, Tabby thought.

“Yes,” Tabby said guardedly, recognizing her as Thomas’ companion last night at the reception.

“I’m Deidre,” she introduced herself, setting her tray on the table and taking a seat. “I went to school with him in New Pony. It’s Tabby, right?” She schooched closer.

“Yes,” said Tabby again, not forthcoming with details.

“So, Misty Hollow, huh?” chatted Deidre, attacking her plate with gusto. “What do they have out there?”

“We have the largest apple-themed town festival in the country,” said Tabby without hesitation.

“Oh. Well, that’s… something.” Deidre was silent a moment before continuing. “I was surprised he had gone so far afield,” she went on. “There are plenty of opportunities in New Pony, you know.”

“It’s not the only place in the world,” Tabby pointed out, twirling her fork in the fruit salad.

“It’s just, I always figured he’d go on to a surgical fellowship like me,” Deidre mused, “and get a position at UNP or Blossomvale, rather than settling into general practice.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Tabby said, bristling.

“No, I mean, it’s fine; I just–” Deidre’s voice lowered conspiratorially. “–well, talent like that shouldn’t be wasted, know what I mean?”

Tabby had had some of these thoughts herself, but didn’t appreciate this stranger pointing them out to her. “He’s free to do what he wants,” she said, even as she considered the subcurrent of meaning. “Wait–are we still talking about work, or–”

“He’s a really good kisser,” Deidre said, a bit wistfully.

Tabby choked on a piece of melon.

* * *

“Good morning,” Thomas said, approaching the table where the two mares sat.

Tabby glared at him, picked up her tray, and stalked off without a word.

Thomas looked after her, bewildered. Had he offended her sensibilities last night? The memory was a bit fuzzy, and maybe he wouldn’t ordinarily have dared to be so familiar, but he couldn’t say he regretted the embrace… “What did I do?” he asked Deidre as he sat across from her.

“Oh, you know how it is, coffee hasn’t kicked in yet,” Deidre, who appeared none the worse for last night’s excesses, said vaguely.

“She doesn’t drink coffee,” Thomas said, shaking his head. “She’s addicted to caffeine pills. She won’t admit it, but I’ve found her secret stash, even though I’ve told her…” He trailed off, realizing that this must be of little interest.

“You know her pretty well,” said Deidre in surprise. “Hey, I, uh, hope I didn’t say anything untoward last night. About Dr. Cracker, and, um, well, it was the champagne talking.” She had the grace to look abashed.

“What? Oh, no, it’s fine,” Thomas said distractedly, still wondering more about what bee Tabby had in her bonnet.

“And anything I might have said, uh, later.” Deidre squirmed a little in her seat.

“Don’t worry about it,” Thomas assured her.

“Heey,” Deidre said, brightening, “you going to the party tonight?”

“I didn’t think there was an event on the schedule tonight,” Thomas said.

“Oh, it’s not an official conference event,” Deidre explained, “but some of us are getting together at this Sempronio’s place on the corner, and it’s going to be lit!”

“Maybe you should take it easy tonight,” Thomas cautioned.

“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” Deidre assured him.

“So, are you going to Dr. Conway’s talk?” Thomas asked, changing the subject.

“If that’s where you’re going,” Deidre said with a coy smile.

Thomas smiled back uneasily, still not entirely convinced that she had the right idea about their friendship.

* * *

Tabby slunk into a meeting room where only a few attendees were congregated, and took a seat in the back. She didn’t know what talk she was in for, but she needed somewhere to collect her thoughts. Deidre’s words had only brought a secret fear to the forefront of her mind–did Thomas find her so unkissable? He had never made a move, unless she counted the friendly hug from last night. Was she too socially awkward, too combative, not enough makeup? What was it? Tabby just didn’t know enough about these things! What was the big deal about kissing, anyway? When Toby kissed her, it was simply… not something to wax poetic about. But all the fuss had to be about something.

Coming out of her thoughts, Tabby realized that what had been a quiet retreat had turned into a rather packed session. An ecru stallion with brown hair sat next to her. Their eyes met, and they exchanged an awkward smile.

As Tabby looked down, her glance landed on his name badge. “Hey, you’re that Cracker guy,” she blurted out without thinking.

“Guilty as charged,” the stallion said, looking vaguely amused.

“Thomas told me about you,” Tabby explained in a flustered manner. “I work with him.”

“Oh, I didn’t think I was that noteworthy,” Dr. Cracker said with a grin.

Tabby looked at him with some scrutiny, searching for any physical similarities and debating how much she dared to say about the topic.

“Is something wrong?” Dr. Cracker asked after her continued inspection.

“No, no!” Tabby said hastily, but continued darting furtive glances at him. His mane was a bit more red, and body more tan, than Thomas’. Not to mention the shape of the chin was all wrong. But perhaps some comparison could be made between their eyes, or maybe that was just the lighting…

“I’m getting the impression,” the stallion in question observed, eyes twinkling, “that there is something you’d like to say.”

“I really shouldn’t get involved,” Tabby said, looking resolutely away and grinding her hoof into the floor. “It’s none of my business.”

“Oh, I see,” said Dr. Cracker, looking bemused.

“But–” Tabby turned back to him, biting her lip.

He looked at her expectantly.

“It’s just… well, he was very unsettled about your relationship with his mother,” Tabby said in a rush, and felt herself blushing to the tips of her ears.

Dr. Cracker looked taken aback. “Oh, I certainly didn’t intend to imply…. Caprice would never…” he floundered.

“Well, you’ve got to talk to him and convince him of that,” Tabby said in earnest, “or he’s going to fret, and expect to talk to me about it, and I don’t think I can deal with that long-term.”

“I’ll see to it,” Dr. Cracker agreed.

“You’re not, um, you know… are you? Because I told him… but I really don’t know anything,” Tabby said disjointedly.

“Everything is as it should be,” Dr. Cracker said sagely.

* * *

After what was actually a fairly insightful presentation on canine perimyocarditis, Tabby scurried off before getting caught up in more awkward conversation with Dr. Cracker. But as she exited the room, a blue unicorn swooped her up in an embrace. “Tabitha, why didn’t you tell me you were coming!” Agatha said chidingly, stepping back and giving her daughter an assessing look.

“Oh, hey, Mom,” said Tabby, instantly on guard.

“There was a bit of an AV crisis last night which required my attention, and by the time I made it to the reception you were gone,” Agatha chattered excitedly, steering Tabby out of the flow of hoof traffic. “I hear Guido was very taken with you!”

“Oh, Guido, yeah. We talked,” said Tabby noncommittally.

“I knew you would make a striking couple, even though you brushed off my efforts last year!” Agatha prattled on. “Tell me, did he make plans for today?”

“He said something about a tour of the city this afternoon,” Tabby reluctantly admitted, loath to give too much information to her mother.

“Oh, how lovely!” Agatha enthused.

“I’m not sure Toby would be pleased that this is how I’m spending my time,” Tabby said with a pointed look.

“Oh, don’t be silly. You’re authorized to have friends,” Agatha said with an unconcerned wave of her hoof.

“You literally just said we make a striking couple!” Tabby said in consternation.

“Well, yes, of course. I’m just saying you need to keep your options open, Tabitha!” Agatha said with great wisdom. “There is a whole world of experiences out there, so much more than you have access to in that charming little corner you still call home.”

Tabby frowned. “I thought you liked Toby,” she said.

“Oh, he’s lovely, naturally. Very fine family,” Agatha assured her. “But–are you really happy with him, my dear?”

Tabby paused to consider. “He fits into my life,” she said at length.

“Maybe you should consider someone who doesn’t fit into your life,” Agatha suggested. “Expand your horizons! How will you know Toby is right if you don’t have alternatives to hold him up against?”

“Are you saying I should cheat on him?” Tabby demanded.

“I wouldn’t quite put it in those terms,” said Agatha complacently. “But couples do break up all the time. I’m just saying, it happens, and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you go that direction.”

“Hmm,” said Tabby, not sure how she felt about maternally-sanctioned stepping out on her boyfriend.

“Under the aegis of the Casales, you would have access to unprecedented prestige and wealth,” Agatha continued.

“OMG, Mom! You are impossible!” Tabby wailed, rolling her eyes heavenward.

* * *

Thomas kept his eye out for Tabby throughout the morning, hoping to touch base with her, but their paths did not cross, which made him further fear that she was avoiding him on purpose. Finally, at lunchtime, he caught sight of her on the way out of the building. “Where are you going?” he asked, a bit more harshly than intended.

“I, uh, well… Guido’s taking me out to lunch, and then we’re going to the ruins of Vulcania,” Tabby admitted, putting her hoof on the door handle. “You know, it was a settlement just up the coast, but it was wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 48 PE, and was just rediscovered thirty years ago!” she said, her voice rising with excitement.

She was charming with the light flush of anticipation across her face, but was it more for the sights or for her escort? “It’s not exactly how I saw you using your time when I paid your conference registration,” Thomas said with a pointed look.

“Oh, they post all the talks online. I’ll catch up!” Tabby said breezily, pushing open the door.

“Well, have fun on your date,” Thomas said with a frown.

“It’s not a date!” Tabby said, bristling.

“Fine, fine, enjoy your totally platonic outing,” Thomas conceded facetiously.

Tabby threw him an exasperated look before dashing off to a sleek black limo parked in front of the building.

* * *

“Ah, Dr. Fairfax! How are you enjoying the conference?” Agatha asked, cornering the veterinarian during a coffee break.

“Everything is great,” Thomas said cautiously, not exactly sure where he stood in the regard of Tabby’s mother. “Very, um, organized.”

“Good, good,” said Agatha, nodding and looking at him inquisitively. 

“Moving the plenary lecture to the afternoon, that’s a bold move,” Thomas remarked, after racking his brain for a suitably safe topic.

“Indeed,” said Agatha, narrowing her eyes thoughtfully. “But, let’s not mince words. I need you to answer a few questions for me about Tabitha.”

“Isn’t that a conversation you should be having with her?” Thomas asked.

“Oh, she never tells me anything,” Agatha scoffed, waving her hoof dismissively. “Just give me an idea of how things are between her and Dr. Collins.”

Thomas groaned inwardly–discussing his employee’s love life was certainly not what he wanted to focus on. “They’re… good,” he said guardedly.

“Well, I need more than that!” Agatha complained. “I’m sure you’ve observed more than that. How often do they go out?”

“I don’t know, dinner, twice, maybe three times a week?” Thomas said, hoping to appease the mare with as little information as possible.

“Hmm,” Agatha said, frowning. “That’s a shame. I thought she would be losing interest by now.”

“What stake do you have in it?” Thomas asked with a sharp look.

“Oh, come now, I’m her mother; I want what’s best for her!” Agatha defended herself. “And Guido Casale, well, he is the top of his class. Any fool can see that.”

“Maybe she wants to make those determinations for herself,” Thomas pointed out.

“Tabitha has no head for these matters. She needs a mother’s guidance,” Agatha protested, looking offended.

“She has more understanding than you give her credit for,” Thomas said shortly before walking away.

* * *

After a tour by car of Vulcanopolis proper, Tabby spent an enchanted afternoon marveling at Vulcania, the city lost to time. Guido had procured a docent to guide their private tour, and the knowledgeable historian gave insightful commentary on the aqueducts, market square, amphitheater, and various residences. As the sun grew low in the sky, Guido dismissed the docent and beckoned to Tabby to follow him through a set of pillars leading into a sweeping hall.

“This is what remains of the villa of Senator Aulus Fulcinius, a most influential political figure in the ancient world,” Guido said, gesturing grandly at the crumbling walls with tantalizing remains of colorful mosaics. “His son, Aulus Caecius, was away on business at the time of the fateful eruption. He returned to rebuild in Vulcanopolis, and out of his line grew the Casale family.”

“It’s amazing,” Tabby said, though her attention was held more by the ruins than Guido’s words. She was silent as she reveled in the beauty of the mosaics, depicting colorful ponies, fanciful creatures, and abundant flora.

“Some of the designs you see here have been copied for my own abode,” Guido boasted. “And I have in my possession certain notable artifacts, such as the Scepter of Adauctus.”

“The Scepter of Adauctus? You own it?” Tabby asked, suitably impressed.

“Indeed. Long drained of magic energies, but perhaps you would still find it of interest,” Guido said, coming to stand beside her. “But there will be time for that after dinner.” So saying, he led her back to the limo to return to the city.

* * *

“Great party, huh!” shouted Deidre over the din in the sleazy bar, bobbing her head to the beat of the song that was playing.

Thomas smiled wanly in reply. With no sign of Tabby as evening drew on, he had agreed to go with Deidre to the gathering. With the noise of raucous conversation mixed with blaring music, there was limited understanding of any communication. Had he really enjoyed this sort of thing in the past? That life seemed far distant now.

“Is Tabby coming?” Deidre shouted. “You invited her, right?”

“She’s not available,” Thomas responded, keeping talk to a minimum. He thought back with concern to her last text–having dinner with G, don’t wait up. Just how were they passing the time? And what business was it of his, anyhow?

“Oh. Too bad!” Deidre said, taking Thomas by the foreleg. “Dance with me?”

Having nothing better to do, Thomas let her lead him to the dance floor.

* * *

“I hope everything has met with your approval,” Guido said, refilling Tabby’s wine glass and settling back into his seat with a lazy smile. 

Tabby squirmed a little. “Yes, Vulcania was really something,” she said, ignoring the personal innuendo. “My father was a hippologist, and–”

“Ah yes, the intrepid Hubert Fershund,” Guido interjected. “He published some breakthrough work on Skuspiosla. A pity that he was… lost.”

“He is missed,” Tabby said simply.

* * *

“Tabby looked pretty tight with Mr. Casale last night,” Deidre observed as she and Thomas walked back to the hotel later that night. “Had they met before?”

“He has business connections to her mother,” Thomas said vaguely.

“Nice,” said Deidre emphatically. “He has his own private jet, you know,” she prattled on, “and they say he bought his own personal island in the Crystal Sea.”

“Well, he’s still just a pony like any of us, not a god.” Thomas frowned, preferring not to think about the business mogul’s assets… particularly his easy access to transportation.

“Hey, thanks for watching out for me,” Deidre turned the topic, grasping his foreleg and smiling softly. “My presentation is at eight, and I need a sharp mind.”

“No problem,” Thomas said with a smile in return, though he parted ways with her at the elevator this time, to avoid a repeat of last night’s antics.

* * *

“Well? Am I going to have to tell Toby that you ran off and eloped?” Thomas asked Tabby when he caught her between sessions the following morning.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tabby snapped, pouring a glass of orange juice at the refreshment table. “We… we have common interests, that’s all. Did you know that Macrohard is funding a study on Sasquatch treatments for cancer?”

“Ah, so he is a true paragon of society,” Thomas said with a sidelong glance.

“Just because you don’t hold Sasquatch knowledge in high esteem, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned,” Tabby said stiffly, and sipped her juice.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make light.” Thomas sighed. “I just–”

“And anyway,” Tabby said with a censorious look, “the clinic is getting a free license of the management software, so you have no reason to be in a tiff with Guido.”

“Free license, huh? What does he expect in return?” Thomas asked cynically.

“You’re impossible!” Tabby threw her hooves up in the air and walked away.

In the wake of her leaving, Thomas felt a little bad for twitting her. In Guido, she had someone who met her at her level. What did Thomas have to offer, other than conventional experience? How could he compete with a billionaire who worked in support of her interests? Not that this was a competition that he had any part in, Thomas reminded himself. He was just watching out for her…

* * *

At first, Guido’s attention had intrigued Tabby. He could make the rest of the world disappear–not in the romantic sense, but rather, in that he literally made ponies disappear from the immediate vicinity. He held her apart from society, writing his own rules, and that was a novelty. But as the third day of the conference wore on, Tabby began to find the attention disconcerting… not to mention the feeling of disloyalty. Though Guido maintained boundaries, and behaved as a gentlestallion, Tabby felt sure that this way of spending her time was not quite in line with how a mare in a relationship should act.

The conference drew to a close that evening with a gala reception at the convention center. Tortellini and tiramisu were available in plentiful supply, and wine flowed readily. Ordinarily, Tabby had an endless propensity for pasta and dessert, but the wolfish looks Guido kept casting her way seemed to have robbed her of any appetite.

“So, what do you think?” Guido asked, having ushered her off to a relatively secluded balcony. “Be on our clinical liaison team. Join our partner clinic here in Vulcanopolis. Your mother would be thrilled to have you close, and as for myself–”

“It’s not the direction I saw my career going,” Tabby cut him off, though she wasn’t really clear, herself, on what direction she wanted.

“We have much more lenient strictures here around magic healing,” Guido pointed out. “You wouldn’t need to partake of an oppressive college experience in order to practice, which I know you’re adverse to.”

“How do you know so much about me?” Tabby demanded, feeling a little unnerved.

“I make it my business to know things,” Guido said with a cheeky grin.

“I’m not so incredibly knowledgeable as to be this important to recruit,” Tabby pointed out bluntly.

“You have hidden depths even you are unaware of,” Guido said softly.

Some memory surfaced from the back of her mind, something similar Tiny had said to her once… “To put it another way,” Tabby observed, “this isn’t purely a business decision, is it?”

“You intrigue me, Tabby,” Guido murmured, taking her hoof. “I’d like to keep you close at hoof.”

“I’m not a piece of property to own,” Tabby said, stiffening.

“No, of course not,” Guido said placatingly. “You’re an intelligent, passionate mare, worthy of every respect… which I intend to pay. We could do amazing things together,” he added, pulling her closer…

* * *

Thomas was at the reception, but not enjoying it very much as he fumed over Guido’s continued monopolization on Tabby’s time. Deidre, at least, had relaxed her dependence on Thomas, and was currently focused on a different group of friends. Thomas noticed Dr. Cracker approaching him.

“I’ve been hoping to have the chance to speak to you one-on-one,” the older veterinarian said when he was close. Thomas looked at him inquisitively. “I’m afraid some things I said could have been misconstrued,” he admitted.

Thomas gave him a shrewd look. “You were in love with my mother,” he said levely.

“Yes,” Dr. Cracker said without prevarication. “But nothing untoward happened. Your mother’s honor is intact.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” said Thomas stiffly, unsure of a suitable response.

“You remind me of your father–we met a hoofful of times. You have the same spirit,” Dr. Cracker continued, his gaze softening. “He looked at Caprice the way you look at your… assistant.”

Thomas flushed. “It’s not practical for any number of reasons,” he said, not denying the implication. “For a long time, I was accustomed to treating the mares I worked with as commodities.”

Dr. Cracker nodded thoughtfully. “And now you think you’re irredeemable.”

“Maybe I’m so inured to it that I expect them to fall for me,” Thomas said in a rush, “and it’s all I can anticipate.”

“Or maybe,” Dr. Cracker pointed out gently, “you just care for her.”

“I don’t want to use her,” Thomas said quietly.

“I don’t think that you would,” Dr. Cracker argued. “I wasn’t so different from you. When I left New Pony, I was angry at not having Caprice. I dated, thinking it would distract me. All it did was make me resent the mares for not being Caprice, and that was a disservice to them.” He lapsed into contemplative silence. “My story never had a chance to go in my favor,” he stated at length. “The only reason I met her was by her coming to New Pony as a young bride. But I am still happy to have known her,” he said softly, as if to himself. “My point is,” he continued, collecting himself, “your story is still open to every possibility. Don’t lose the opportunity while it exists.”

“It’s been awhile since I’ve had good counsel,” Thomas said ruefully, his mind going to Wexford and how that stallion had sent him down a self-centered path.

“When I heard about the cruise, I thought about looking you and your sister up… not that there was anything I could have done,” Dr. Cracker admitted with a sigh.

“It was tough,” Thomas admitted, “but Elaine and I made it through.”

“Well, if you’re ever in Pinepetal, look me up,” Dr. Cracker said with a grin, clapping Thomas on the shoulder. “But I’ve taken enough of your time. I think there’s someone else you want to be with, enjoying the festivities.” With a knowing look, he excused himself.

Thomas sighed to himself. Though Dr. Cracker’s assessment may be accurate, it hardly made Tabby available to him. He wandered away from the crowd, lost in his thoughts. Should he confess his feelings to her? What would she think? What would she say? Would it spoil the working relationship they had?

Thomas thought he was alone in the hallway he had found himself, but then he heard the hushed noise of conversation, and realized that there were ponies on a nearby balcony. He drew himself off to the side, planning to withdraw. But then he heard a raised voice–Tabby’s voice: “I don’t think I should let you do that, regardless of what my mother might tell me!” she said shrilly.

Thomas rushed forward, finding Tabby extricating herself from Guido’s embrace. Guido set her free, holding up his hooves in surrender, but also laughing. “Forgive me, I forgot myself,” he said, clearly amused. “Promise me you’ll keep my offer in mind… oh, hello, Doctor.” He nodded curtly at Thomas.

“Is everything okay here?” Thomas asked with a stormy look.

Tellingly, Tabby hurried in Thomas’ direction. “Yes, yes, it’s fine!” she insisted, her color heightened.

“You’re missing the party,” Thomas pointed out, taking her hoof and frowning at Guido.

“I was just getting some air,” Tabby said, not meeting his gaze.

“I made her a generous offer,” Guido interjected, “but she seems reluctant to leave her current employment. I can’t say that I fully understand the draw.” He looked sharply at Thomas.

“Uh… well, I’m going to get some more tiramisu,” a clearly flustered Tabby deftly changed the subject, scurrying off and leaving the two stallions glowering at each other.

“I don’t know what your game is,” Thomas said, unconsciously clenching his hoof, “but leave her alone.”

“And who is there to stop me?” Guido taunted. “Not you, certainly.”

“If you do anything to her, I’ll…”

“Now, now, Doctor. No need to fret over conventions,” Guido said lazily. “I play for keeps, as the saying goes. But why don’t you talk to her yourself, set your mind at ease. Everything is aboveboard.” With a chuckle, he withdrew.

Scowling, Thomas returned to the party in search of Tabby, but she was nowhere to be seen. This crowded, boisterous environment wasn’t where she would be drawn, anyway. Thomas walked out onto the veranda that led to the beach, and sure enough, he found the pink unicorn perched on a rock overlooking the sea.

“Tabby,” he said simply, alerting her to his presence.

She turned and sighed in resignation upon seeing him.

“What is going on?” Thomas asked quietly, picking his way across the rocks and sitting next to her.

“I just feel that everything has gotten out of control,” Tabby admitted quietly, folding her forelegs tightly around herself.

She was in over her head, and afraid. Thomas fought the overwhelming urge to embrace her, and kiss all her fears away. “Well, we’re flying back later tonight. Things will settle down,” he said prosaically, managing to sound far more level-headed than he felt.

“What if they don’t?” Tabby demanded. “What if he doesn’t let me go?”

“He doesn’t have any power over you,” Thomas pointed out.

“He knows things about me– what if–” Tabby shook her head. “I mean, he can make things happen…” she trailed off. 

Just what did the business mogul have on her? “He’s not above the law,” Thomas said staunchly. “I–we–won’t let anything happen to you.”

Tabby fell into pensive silence, but then seemed to rally her spirits. “Not a word of this to Toby,” she said, shaking her hoof sternly at Thomas.

“As you wish,” Thomas agreed.

* * *

Guido was not in sight the rest of the evening, but Tabby didn’t trust that he wasn’t somehow watching her from afar. Still, she was with Thomas now, and that alone calmed her rattled nerves.

So when she and Thomas arrived at the airport, Tabby was not entirely surprised to find Guido striding toward her. “I hope you didn’t think you would depart our fair city without a goodbye,” he said with a wicked grin.

“Um,” said Tabby, reluctant to have these words with him, but thinking that conversation in a public place would be safe enough. “Go on, I’ll catch up,” she said, waving Thomas off.

“Are you sure?” Thomas asked, frowning.

“Yes!” Tabby insisted, feeling bolder as she stepped aside with Guido.

“You’ve dismissed your protector,” Guido said, raising his brow. “But surely you know you have nothing to fear from me?”

“I have enjoyed your hospitality,” Tabby said levely. “But my life is in Misty Hollow, and I don’t want to unroot from there.” She wished he would show some negative emotion, as she thought that would be easier to handle than the perpetual unflappable nonchalance.

“You don’t wish to now…” Guido said, tapping his chin contemplatively. “Well, you have your life ahead of you. I think our paths will cross again.”

“I don’t want you to count on that,” Tabby warned. “I will value your friendship, but if I ever gave you cause to hope for more than that, that was not my intent.”

“Have it your way for now,” Guido said, caressing her cheek. “But make no mistake, I am in the habit of getting what I want, regardless of the cost.” Without another word, he stalked off.

Tabby, feeling extremely disconcerted, dashed off in search of Thomas.