Chapter 6: Strawberry Goes Viral

“Well, what do you have on Strawberry?” the salmon-colored stallion barked from behind his mahogany desk.

“Not much; by all accounts, she lives a quiet life in her hometown of Misty Hollow,” Alan explained to Cecil. “Besides her writing career, she has a clerical position at the town’s veterinary clinic.”

Veterinarians!” Cecil scoffed, slamming shut the ledger before him. 

“Indeed,” Alan murmured with ostensible deference. Cecil was always raging about one thing or another, but everyone who worked with him was accustomed to that. And Alan had an idea of what track his superior’s thoughts were taking.

“My daughter left the family–ran off with that good-for-nothing stallion–to become a veterinarian,” Cecil raged, his hoof coming down solidly on the desktop with a satisfying thud.

“Very sorry, sir,” Alan said, nodding dutifully. Sure enough, ranting about his sole offspring’s ill choice in a marriage partner was a favorite topic of the Monk Publishing magnate. “How would you like to proceed with Strawberry?”

“Go and see her, get her contracted with Monk Publishing, of course!” said Cecil impatiently, returning to the matter at hoof. “Don’t be such a slowtop!”

“I’m on it.” Alan looked at his boss speculatively, certain that the next revelation would lead to more blustering. “But, there is one more thing you may be interested in…”

“Well, say it!”

“The veterinarian, sir, is your grandson.”

“I have no grandson!” roared Cecil.

“Be that as it may,” Alan said slowly and patiently, as if explaining things to a foal, “his mother was your daughter Caprice, so it would follow–”

“None of your impertinence!” snapped Cecil. “Anyway, it is of no matter. Get the contract with Strawberry, by any means necessary.”

“Yes, sir,” agreed Alan.

* * *

“Straw, hello? Straw?” Tabby asked, finding her friend seated at her desk, staring off into space and completely unresponsive.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Tabby,” said Strawberry with a start as she came out of her thoughts. “What were you saying?”

“I was just telling you that Belen went home for the day, so if you need anything, call for me.” Tabby looked at her quizzically. “What are you so mopey about?”

Strawberry sighed. “Oh, it’s just these meetings with publishers I have coming up. I’ll be glad when they’re over.”

“Oh?” Tabby asked, idly flipping through a stack of mail on the desk. “Is it the sales on your new release? Everyone wants to sign you on now that you’ve gone viral?”

“Apparently,” Strawberry said, who seemed to have uncertain feelings about her newfound fame. “I wish I could learn to just say no! I’m happy with Norman at the West Winds agency, but this Monk editor was very persistent.”

“A monk? Aren’t they more into, like, illuminated manuscripts than romantic mysteries?” Tabby asked, selecting an equipment catalog to peruse.

“What? Oh, Monk is just the name of the company,” Strawberry explained. “They’re not actually monks.”

Tabby looked at her friend archly, unable to resist twitting her. “Why would they call themselves monks if they’re not printing religious treatises?”

Strawberry rolled her eyes. “I assume it’s the family name of the founder.”

“I’m just sayin’,” said Tabby, shrugging her shoulders as Thomas entered the room. “But you said meetings, plural. Who else is after you?”

“Well, actually,” said Strawberry, looking at her boss, “Fairfax Publishing; is that any relation to your family, Thomas?”

There was a significant pause. “No,” said Thomas at length, a bit sharply. Then he added in a softer tone, “It is my grandparents’ business. But they disowned my parents after their marriage, and I’ve never met them.”

Strawberry looked stricken. “I’m so sorry; I didn’t know,” she murmured.

“Their reaching out to you is the closest contact I’ve ever had,” Thomas said grimly.

“That’s terrible!” said Strawberry, clearly scandalized. “I’ll cancel the meeting, of course.” She was already reaching for the phone.

“No, don’t do that on my account,” Thomas protested. “Hear them out. They’re… probably…. competent at business.”

“Well, even if I cancel with them,” Strawberry said prosaically, “I still have these Monks to deal with.”

“Monks?” Thomas choked out.

“Yes, the name of the company,” said Strawberry, mistaking his shock, “not–”

“I’m afraid you’re caught up in a turf war, Strawberry,” Thomas revealed. “The Monks are my mother’s family, bitter enemies of the Fairfaxes.”

“Oh, dear,” said Strawberry, greatly dismayed.

Over the course of this exchange, Tabby had become increasingly uneasy. This was one of those family dramas that she had no idea how to navigate, and certainly didn’t have any counsel to give. Still, this had clearly struck a nerve, and she would need to be there to support Thomas whether she had good advice or not. So when he stalked off after collecting some pages from the printer, she followed him back to his office.

She found him standing at the window, looking out contemplatively. “It’s not like anyone at the companies has pieced together the connection,” he said with a hollow laugh, and she wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or to himself. “I just never thought that our paths would cross in this way.”

“Oh,” said Tabby, feeling very awkward and useless.

“My mom sent them Christmas cards every year, and never received a word in return,” Thomas continued. “They couldn’t even be bothered to show up at Mom and Dad’s memorial service.”

The most insightful thing Tabby could think of to say was, “They don’t sound that great. I don’t think you’re missing anything.” Perhaps that was insensitive. She wasn’t sure.

“Yes, you’re right,” Thomas conceded, not appearing to take offense at the blunt assessment. “It’s just… they were responsible for my parents during their formative years, and I’ll always wonder… well, it doesn’t matter.”

“You have me,” she said, coaxing a smile from him.

“On that topic,” he said, turning to face her, “are you sure we can’t start telling ponies about the wedding? With Elaine moving here next week, it would be nice to not keep it from her.”

“Just a little longer,” Tabby said, feeling panic rising.

Thomas gave her a long, assessing look. “You’re really going to spring this on everyone at the last second, aren’t you?”

“Maybe,” she said in a whisper.

“You don’t have to be so afraid, you know.”

“Tamara and my mother, if they found out…” Tabby trailed off. “They’d take over the managing of things and tell me I’m wrong about everything and make all the decisions for me and–and–” She broke off, flustered and irate.

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it,” Thomas said placatingly, wrapping her in a hug. “In any case, don’t tell Elaine about any of this stuff with the publisher meetings. I don’t want to upset her.”

“I think she could handle it,” said Tabby, “but fine.”