“Mr. Morrow seemed very taken with you,” Strawberry said, eyes twinkling.
“Who?” asked Elaine innocently from across the table at the ice cream shop.
“Mr. Morrow… with Monk Publishing,” said Strawberry with a significant look.
“Oh! Yes, that kind stallion from earlier,” Elaine recalled. “Imagine, breaking down in front of him like that! He must have been glad to get away from me.”
“Quite the opposite, I should think,” Strawberry observed.
“You’re not saying–oh, Strawberry!” Elaine burst out laughing. “I know you’re accustomed to inserting romance into everything–and you’re very skilled at it, as your book sales show–but I think you’re very off-base on this.”
Strawberry shook her head, bemused. Had Elaine really missed the effect she had had on the stallion? “Why, look who it is,” she said with a sly look as Alan entered the establishment.
“Oh, hello! You must have some more points to discuss with Strawberry,” Elaine said politely as Alan took the seat next to her. “I will just get out of your way and leave you to business.” She made to leave.
“Actually,” Alan interjected quickly, “I wanted to talk to you, Elaine.”
“Really? What for?” said Elaine with wide, innocent eyes.
Strawberry tried to be unobtrusive as she watched the scene play out in front of her.
“I, uh, I don’t have any pets,” Alan stammered, “but what would you recommend for a first-time owner?”
“Oh, sure!” said Elaine, instantly warming to the topic. “Well, you’ll want to think about what temperament you’d like, and what would fit in your lifestyle. Dogs and cats are popular choices, of course, but there are plenty of options! You know, rats are gaining popularity, very affectionate. And,” here her expression turned very serious, “you must keep in mind that a pet is a big commitment; they need consistent care, and you might be looking at ten or twenty years or more, depending on the species.”
“I travel a lot. For my job,” Alan said.
“Of course,” said Elaine. “You might consider a reptile or amphibian; there is more set-up involved, but there are slow-release food options for time away. But,” she added warningly, “you have to worry about equipment failure.”
“I may not be in the right place to take on pet ownership right now,” Alan admitted.
“And it’s very responsible and mature of you to admit that,” Elaine said, patting his hoof.
“I… ah… it’s a lovely evening, and I haven’t had a chance to see this river walk the tourism bureau was pushing. Would you like to come with me?”
“Me?” Elaine asked disbelievingly. “Well, sure. If you want.”
* * *
Though not the most enthusiastic of responses, it was in the affirmative, and Alan counted it as a success. “It’s a pleasant evening,” he commented once they were outside. He berated himself for resorting to inane small talk, but any cohesive thoughts had abandoned him in such close proximity to this mare.
“It really is lovely, you’re right,” Elaine said with a heart-stoppingly sweet smile as if he had made some remarkable observation.
“You haven’t lived here long, have you?” Alan asked.
“Just two weeks,” Elaine said.
“I thought so. You’re not listed on the clinic website…” Alan reddened. “Er… not that I was researching Strawberry or anything.”
Elaine giggled. “Will your boss be mad that you didn’t win the contract?”
“Nothing I won’t weather,” said Alan glibly.
“Do you actually work with my grandfather?” Elaine looked at him curiously.
“I do… he’s semi-retired, but still keeps a hoof in talent recruitment.”
“I see.” Elaine sank into contemplative silence.
“You’re nothing like him, and I mean that as a compliment,” Alan said with a sidelong look and teasing a smile from her.
“Are you from Forest Brook originally?” she asked.
“I was born in Frostmont, but my dad took a job in Forest Brook when I was six,” Alan said. “It’s a nice town, you know… If you ever have the chance to stop by.” He darted a glance at her.
“I don’t think my presence would be appreciated,” Elaine demurred.
“Though there are some stubborn old fools in the place… not naming names… the majority of the populace doesn’t adhere to the old feud,” Alan assured her.
Elaine raised her brow. “So you’re saying there’s no rivalry between you and your colleagues at Fairfax Publishing?”
“Well, you have to expect some friction in any business setting,” Alan said. “But it’s not based on family associations.”
“That’s good.” Elaine smiled, and they continued their companionable walk, talking about everything from foalhood experiences, to movie and musical tastes; and even more mundane topics, like food preferences and the presence of garbage along the path. “Look at that,” she said, tsking. “How can ponies just leave their ice cream cup on the ground? The trash can is only three feet away.”
“Truly deplorable,” Alan readily agreed, who ordinarily would have ignored such a detail; but in this instance, he leapt into action and discarded the trash in the nearby receptacle. Elaine looked on admiringly, and his heart swelled.
“Oh, here’s the scenic lookout,” she noted, gesturing ahead and to the right. “Do you want to check it out?” Without waiting for an answer, she headed in that direction, and Alan followed. “It’s a great view,” she said, looking out over the river and the twinkling lights of the residences on the opposite bank.
“Indeed,” Alan said with an admiring look not at the scenery, but at his companion. “Elaine, I…” He drew in closer.
“Well, well, look who we have here!” The moment was shattered by this piercing exclamation. “Alan Morrow, cavorting with the black sheep!”
“Lydia!” exclaimed Alan, frowning. Elaine cocked her head curiously at the mare who appeared on the scene.
“Hello, dear. I don’t believe we’ve met,” said Lydia, stepping forward and offering her hoof to the mare. “Lydia Swanford, of Fairfax Publishing. You must be aware that you’re quite the object of curiosity, being of such… notorious parentage.”
“Lydia, you’ve gone too far,” seethed Alan.
“I mean no offense, but it is true,” Lydia said sweetly.
“You really do all hate each other on account of that feud,” Elaine said, eyes welling up with tears.
“No, Elaine, no…” Alan said, desperately trying to calm her while looking in exasperation at Lydia.
Another couple appeared on the scene, namely, Tabby and Thomas. “Elaine!” said Thomas, shocked. “What are you doing with these ponies!” He cast a withering glance over Alan and Lydia.
“Just thinking about the feud,” Elaine said with a sniffle. “I’m fine–I’m just a little overcome–”
Tabby sat on the bench with Elaine and ministered to her, while Thomas took Alan and Lydia aside. “Did you have instructions to harass us while you were here?” he demanded harshly.
“N-n-no…” was all Alan could muster.
“We’re not an exhibit to be studied and reported on. If they care that much, they can come in pony. Now, leave us be!”
“We’re sorry, it was misconstrued,” Lydia said, bowing her head. “We’ll be on our way now.” She stepped back, and dragged Alan with her.
Alan turned to say farewell to Elaine, but Thomas blocked him.
“Oh, Thomas, you didn’t have to be such a bear. He’s a perfectly reasonable stallion,” Elaine chided when she was able to talk.
“He was working an agenda, collecting data on us for our illustrious grandparent,” Thomas said, frowning.
“You’re too suspicious,” said Elaine, but with an uncertain tinge.
* * *
Alan was quiet on the walk back to the hotel.
“Alan, I don’t understand why you’re giving me the cold shoulder,” Lydia said, grasping at him as he tried to outpace her.
“Sometimes you don’t know when to mind your own business,” Alan snapped.
“I was just out for a walk,” Lydia pouted. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize I was interrupting a moment, but it’s not fair to shun me over it.”
“That may be, but you could have gone on your way instead of instigating a fight!”
“Her emotions are fragile; she took things too personally,” Lydia said, tossing her mane. “I was just making conversation.”
“I think you knew exactly what you were doing.” Alan glared at her.
“Oh, come on!” said Lydia, losing her cool. “The boss’s granddaughter, really, Alan? You don’t need to resort to that old trick to increase your prestige.”
“You think my interest is calculated?” he hissed.
“I mean, I can see that she’s an easy enough mark, unlike her brother, or I might have tried the tactic myself… I’m joking!” Lydia exhaled impatiently at his dark look.
“That’s enough, Lydia. Goodnight.” Nodding curtly, he turned aside at a fork in the path, and Lydia continued on by herself, greatly perturbed at her friend’s behavior.
* * *
“…Strawberry has scruples, and doesn’t wish to ally herself with someone who cuts off his own child,” Alan calmly summarized his report to his boss.
“What!” shouted Cecil, pouding a hoof on his desk. “That has nothing to do with the matter at hoof!”
“She seems to be attached to the siblings,” Alan observed. “You know… your grandchildren.”
“Hmm…” Cecil frowned. “She’s not in love with the boy, is she?”
“No, but–from what I gather–her best friend is,” Alan said with a significant look.
“Well, this is a fine kettle of fish,” snapped Cecil.
Alan looked steadily at his boss. “You have a lovely granddaughter, sir.”
“Harrumph! Out with you! Out!” huffed Cecil, sending Alan scurrying off.
* * *
Not too many days later, a bouquet of flowers arrived at the clinic, and Strawberry was all atwitter. “Oh, look, Elaine, at what came for you!” she gushed.
“For me?” said Elaine, bewildered, but taking the card to read. “Alan? Really?”
Thomas muttered something unintelligible and stalked off.
But Elaine tucked the card away; and later, when she had some down time, she dialed the number it contained.
“Hello… Alan? It’s Elaine.”
“I recognized your voice. It’s good to hear.”
“Thank you for the flowers.”
“It was the least I could do, after… what Lydia said was unconscionable, I should have…” Alan trailed off.
“What could you have done about what Lydia said?” Elaine said chidingly. “No, I won’t let you beat yourself up over it.”
“But I wanted to let you know I enjoyed our time together, and I’m sorry it ended in such a way.”
“Well, maybe we can try it again sometime… if you find yourself in town.”
“I’d like that.”