Catherine woke to dim light flickering softly, to sheets softened by many washings. Her fingers traced careful stitches where the blanket had been mended. The air carried the scent of candles and damp earth. I'm dreaming, she thought with longing, and kept her eyes closed, wanting to linger in the dream. The muffled, rapid-fire metallic sound of tapping intruded and she sat bolt upright in bed.
It wasn't a dream. Memory flooded back with a rush, of her frantic flight from the west coast, of arriving last night and making her way, finally, to the tunnels. To safety.
The bed beside her was empty, though the pillow still showed where a head had rested. The chamber was eerily quiet. With a sudden, heart-thumping fear, Catherine scrambled out of bed and threw back the curtain blocking off the little ell.
The cot there was empty, the blankets pushed back as if in haste. Nicholas was gone.
"Nick? Nicky?" In the nearly three years since he was born, there had never been a single minute when she had not known precisely where he was. Not knowing, even in so safe a place as this, panicked her.
She found herself out in the passage with no memory of how she got there. There were so many places for a little boy to get lost down here, she remembered. And she had no idea how long he'd been gone. He could be anywhere.
"Nicky!" Her scream, echoing off the rock walls and ceiling, sounded raw, edged with terror.
"Mommy?" His answering call was soft in contrast to her shrill one; she spun toward the sound.
There, rounding a corner, was Vincent. Nicholas perched securely in one arm. At sight of her, he squirmed to get down and Vincent set him on his feet. He barrelled toward her and she bent to catch him up, burying her face in the sweet soft hollow of his neck.
"Nicky. Nicky." She thought she might cry.
"It's okay, Mommy," she heard him say, close to her ear. His small hand patted her back. "Don't be scared."
That, and the knowledge that Vincent was standing before them, watching, gave her the strength to relax her fierce hold on her son and put him down. Now that she understood, her near-panic seemed foolish.
"I'm sorry we frightened you, Catherine," Vincent apologized. "You were sleeping and Nicholas was hungry, so we went to breakfast. I thought you would know he was with me."
"I would have. If I had stopped to think. But I didn't. I just panicked." She folded her arms across her chest to hide the trembling. "It's hard to stop being afraid," she admitted in a whisper.
"You don't have to be afraid any more," Nicholas advised, looking serious. "My daddy will take care of us."
His somber assurance made her shy, and suddenly aware she was standing in a public passage in only her nightgown, the rough rock floor harsh and cold to her bare feet. "I know he will," she said. She dared a swift glance at Vincent, but he was looking down at their son.
"I'd... better get dressed," she said awkwardly. "Nicky, are you going to stay with me?"
He caught Vincent's hand. "I want to go with my daddy."
She looked at Vincent, who gave a brief nod of assent. "We'll be in my chamber," he said softly. "Join us when you're ready."
She dressed in jeans and sweatshirt from one of her nylon zippered bags, washed her face and cleaned her teeth at the china basin before picking up her brush. She'd worn her hair in a dozen styles in the past years, never keeping the same one very long, but not today. Almost defiantly, she combed it in the old way, parted on the side and brushed smooth. Her hair didn't want to cooperate at first but she persisted, until the face that stared back from the mirror looked more like "Vincent's Catherine." Someone she desperately wanted to be.
Vincent's chamber wasn't far and she remembered the way. She paused in the entrance; Vincent, sitting on the floor with Nicholas, looked up.
"Come in," he invited, rising quickly to offer a chair. "Sit down."
She did, smiling shyly. Nicholas was bent over something on the rug and barely glanced her way.
"You haven't eaten," Vincent observed. "Wait here and I'll bring you something."
Catherine realized she was hungry. "All right," she agreed. Only after he left the chamber, moving with the same powerful grace she remembered, did she turn her attention to her son.
"What do you have there, Nicky?" she asked.
"Animals," he said, showing her a carved wooden elephant, no more than two inches high. "My daddy gave them to me."
The carvings were of common zoo animals: a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a bear, a gorilla, a lion, a zebra. They were simple rather than intricate, the wood worn smooth from the touch of childish fingers.
"These were my daddy's when he was a little boy," Nicholas announced, with authority.
"I see," Catherine said with proper respect. She couldn't help noticing the way Nicholas managed to work the phrase 'my daddy' into almost every sentence. It seemed he'd already developed a severe case of hero-worship. Some of the men she'd known, like Rick Stearns, had done what they could to fill the gap in Nicholas's life, but she hadn't stayed in any one place long enough for a true relationship to form. She'd known her son needed a father figure, but had been helpless to fulfill the need, until now.
And now, she thought, watching Nicholas's face light up as Vincent return with a tray, she had provided him with the best possible father. His own.
Vincent seemed similarly fascinated with his son. Catherine ate the breakfast he'd brought - steaming oatmeal sweetened with brown sugar, a sectioned orange, toast with strawberry jam, and a small pot of scalding coffee - slowly. She was more interested in watching Vincent and Nicholas with the small carved animals.
"Are they mine now?" Nicholas asked.
"Where did they come from?"
"Someone made them for me. Long ago."
"Who?" Nicholas persisted. "What was his name?"
Vincent glanced up, catching her eye, and she grinned. It was entertaining to see someone else pinned down by Nicholas's insatiable curiosity. "His name was Robert," Vincent said. "He made them because I was sad."
"Because the other children had been to visit the zoo, and I couldn't go."
Again Vincent glanced up, this time uncertainly. Catherine gave him a tiny nod of encouragement and he looked back at their son. "Nicholas, look at me."
Nicholas put down the tiger and gazed into his father's face. Vincent held a hand up near his cheek, showing the thick fur, the alien claws. "This is why. I might frighten someone."
Nicholas contemplated the hand for a long, thoughtful moment. "No," he said finally.
"I'm not scared."
"It's not the same, Nick," Catherine intervened. "You heard stories about your daddy, ever since you were a baby. Someone who didn't know what to expect might be a little bit scared."
Nicholas turned and regarded her with open disbelief. "Like who?" he challenged.
It was Catherine's turn to glance at Vincent. "Well, like me," she suggested.
Nicholas's eyes opened wide. "You were scared of my daddy?"
"I startled her," Vincent said. "She wasn't frightened for long."
Nicholas glanced at her for confirmation and she nodded. "Not long at all," she agreed.
"Well, I'm not scared," Nicholas repeated firmly, and turned back to the carved animals.
They would have made an interesting tableau to a casual observer, Catherine mused. Nicholas played with the animals, pausing occasionally to ask a question. Vincent sat rapt, watching him. And Catherine herself watched Vincent.
It was hard to keep a certain wistfulness from creeping in. No one was gladder than she at the way Vincent and Nicholas had taken to each other. And yet she felt, inexplicably, a little left out. Surely, after three years, Vincent could find a moment to look at her?
As if he sensed her thoughts, and, she remembered, quite possibly he had, he turned to look at her. His smile was tentative. He must feel as uncertain as she did. The thought calmed her.
She turned her attention to Nicholas. "Yes?"
"I need my truck." He meant his big yellow Tonka model.
"Your truck's in the car, Nick." In the trunk, to be precise. Along with other of their possessions she'd been unable to carry the night before.
Nicholas stood up. "Let's go get it."
Catherine glanced at Vincent. "Not now, Nick."
Nicholas's lower lip trembled. "I need that truck, Mommy. I need it."
"I'm sure we can find a truck for you to play with, Nicholas," Vincent intervened smoothly.
"Right now?" Nicholas asked, diverted.
Vincent glanced her way. "If your mother doesn't mind."
She shook her head. "Go on. I'll sit here and finish my breakfast."
Hand in hand, father and son left the chamber. Catherine picked up her spoon and put it down again, pushing her breakfast away half-eaten.
Nicholas had reminded her of her car, still sitting on the street near Madison Square Garden. Its trunk held more than Nicholas's truck. It contained a full box of his toys, a suitcase of their clothing, and another box of household items. Nicholas's child restraint was still buckled into the front seat. It had taken Catherine a long time to accumulate those things, and Nicholas was fond of his toys.
And there was the car itself. If left unattended long enough, it would draw attention. Its serial number could be traced back to Montana, where she'd bought it; it might conceivably be connected with her, with her frantic flight from Washington state only days ago. It might lead her hunters here, to New York.
She looked up when Vincent came back. Nicholas followed closely, a large red dump truck clutched in his arms. "Look at my new truck," he urged.
"It isn't yours, Nicholas," Vincent said gently. "It belongs to Luke. He's allowing you to borrow it, but you'll have to return it when you've finished playing with it."
Nicholas's face fell. "But I want it," he whispered.
"You have your own toys, Nick," Catherine said persuasively. "Remember how sometimes you would play with Jeremy's toys, and sometimes he would play with yours?"
"Well, this is just like that. Luke is letting you play with his truck because you don't have yours right now."
"I told you. It's in the car."
"You better go get it," he decided, and crouched down to begin placing the carved wooden animals in the back of Luke's red truck.
Catherine looked at Vincent. "He's right, you know," she said. "I need to take care of my car."
For a moment, she thought he was going to protest. "Very well," he said finally. "Do you need help?"
Catherine balked at the thought of taking someone with her into danger. But there were too many things to carry in one trip, and two trips would be pressing her luck. She nodded.
Vincent went to the pipes outside his chamber door and tapped a message. Moments later, a young man entered.
"This is Timothy," Vincent said.
Timothy was in his mid-twenties, slim and wiry, with a tough look in his dark eyes. Catherine felt sure he must have heard all about her since her unexpected arrival the previous night, but to his credit he didn't stare. He nodded politely in her direction and turned to Vincent.
"Catherine needs assistance," Vincent explained.
Timothy nodded. "Sure. What?"
"Catherine will explain." Without moving, Vincent seemed to withdraw himself from the conversation, leaving her to deal with Timothy alone.
"My car," she said, awkwardly. "Some things..."
"Sure," Timothy agreed. "Where are you parked?"
"I'll have to go with you," she said. "There are too many things for one person."
"Zach'll go with me," Timothy offered.
Temptation was shockingly strong. To remain here, safe, while others went above, exposed themselves... "No," she said, faintly. "I'll go."
She turned to Nicholas, who had stopped playing and was watching her with a little pucker between his brows. "I need to go to the car, Nick," she said. "To get your truck, and the rest of our things."
He regarded her with suspicion. "I don't want to go."
She smiled. "No. You don't have to."
"I want to stay with my daddy," he insisted.
She glanced at Vincent. "That's a good idea. You stay with your daddy, and I'll be back soon. Okay?"
"Okay." He turned back to the animals and the truck.
With a backward glance for him, she started after Timothy, who'd already left the chamber. Nicholas's voice stopped her. "Don't be gone long, Mommy," he instructed.
She saw their son's plea echoed in Vincent's eyes, and mustered a small smile. "Don't worry," she said to both. "I won't be."
The effort required to step into the sunlight shocked her. She'd expected to be afraid, but this was powerful. Debilitating. She paused to gulp air, and Timothy turned.
"You okay?" he asked brusquely.
She nodded and pushed down the fear. "Fine."
Timothy had brought them out a different entrance than the one she'd used last night. On the street, he paused. "Where's your car?"
"This way." She pointed, and Timothy fell into easy step beside her. A half block from the spot where she'd left the car, she paused.
Timothy stopped behind her. "What is it?"
She made a small, impatient motion with her hand. "Wait."
Thankfully, he didn't ask questions. Instead, he faded back into a doorway and folded his arms.
Catherine studied the car. It didn't appear to have been touched since she left it last night. She turned her attention to the surroundings, surveying the street and the people on it. No one seemed to be lingering. No one showed interest in either her or the car. Windows of the surrounding buildings were empty of observers, though she knew how deceptive that could be. She dragged in a deep, steadying breath.
"Wait here," she murmured to Timothy. He nodded and remained where he was as she approached the car.
She missed the comfort of his presence behind her. She strolled down the sidewalk, scanning street and buildings all the while, and passed the car without pausing. Still no sign of watchers. After a half block, she turned back; no one seemed to notice or care. This time, when she reached the car, she stopped.
Her keys were already in her hand, and she unlocked the trunk before casting another look around. She'd identified herself now; if they were watching, they would come for her. But this time, she wouldn't allow herself to be taken. She glanced at the busy street. If they came, she would take her chances with the traffic. This time of day, it moved swiftly; lunging into it would be risky. She might be killed. But that didn't matter anymore. Nicholas was safe now, and no one was taking her again. No one was going to drug her, or hold her prisoner.
She swallowed hard, nerving herself. There was still no sign that anyone noticed her and after a moment, she reached into the trunk, lifted out a sturdy cardboard box, and set it on the sidewalk. Another box followed, and then a battered suitcase. She closed the trunk and unlocked the driver's door. It would be easier to take Nicholas's child restraint from the passenger side, but that would put the car between her and the street. She couldn't chance it. Warily, she slid into the seat and unbuckled the restraint. With a little effort, she dragged it out the driver's door and set it on the street beside the car. She stuck the key in the ignition and rolled the driver's window down a few inches before closing the door.
Still no one seemed to be watching. With a breath for courage, she waved to Timothy, who emerged from his doorway and loped down the sidewalk. She carried the child restraint around, laid it on top of one of the boxes, and picked up the whole. Timothy lifted the other box and balanced it on one arm, freeing a hand for the suitcase.
"Ready?" he asked, and glanced at the car. "It's not locked."
He peered inside. "The keys are in it."
"I know that, too." She smiled grimly and set off. After the barest hesitation, Timothy followed.
They had scarcely reached the safety of the tunnels, when she dropped her box and turned to peer out. "Were we followed?" she asked, her voice tight and anxious.
Timothy set down his own burden and gave the alley a long, measured look. "No," he said, closing the heavy metal door. "Not followed."
"Sure as I can be." He eyed her critically and nudged the suitcase aside with his foot. "We can leave this stuff here," he said. "Someone can get it later."
"I need Nicky's toys," Catherine said. She stopped, mortified by the edge of hysteria she heard in her voice.
Timothy appeared not to notice. "I'll bring them," he said, and hefted the box in his arms before leading the way to Vincent's chamber.
Inside, Vincent had Nicholas in his lap, reading to him, and Catherine's heart gave an unaccustomed flutter at the sight of the two blond heads bent together over the book.
Vincent finished a page and closed the book; Nicholas scrambled down and rushed across the chamber.
"You were gone a long time," he accused, as she swept him up.
"Not very long," she disagreed. "Did you miss me?"
He nodded. "But my daddy's reading me a story," he said.
"Good." She glanced at Vincent, whose gaze swept over her warmly before moving to Timothy, who stood stolidly by the door.
"She left her keys in the car," Timothy reported. "Wants it to be stolen, I think."
Vincent's gaze moved back, questioning, and Catherine nodded. "I get rid of all my cars that way," she said lightly.
"She was scared the whole time we were up there," Timothy went on. "Wouldn't let me go to the car with her at first. And worried about someone following us back."
Catherine pressed her lips together, annoyed and embarrassed by Timothy's factual recounting. He spoke as if she wasn't even in the room.
Vincent said only, "Thank you, Timothy."
Timothy nodded and went out.
There was a short, awkward pause before Catherine bent to the box Timothy had left on the floor. "Look, Nick," she said. "Your toys."
Nicholas made a joyful noise and began pulling old favorites out and setting them on the carpet. Catherine looked up, expecting to see Vincent smiling fondly at the sight. Instead, he had fixed her with a gaze that was unreadable and somehow unsettling.
Filled with sudden trepidation that was in some ways worse than the fear that accompanied the physical danger she'd just faced, she stepped toward him. He retreated, drawing her away from Nicholas, and paused out of the boy's earshot.
"Were you in danger?" he asked, quietly.
Catherine tried to make her shrug noncommittal. "I don't know. Probably not."
"But it is possible."
"Possible," she conceded.
"Timothy is an astute observer," Vincent said. "He would not say you were frightened if he wasn't certain."
She gave a reluctant nod. "I was more scared than I'd expected," she admitted.
"And yet you would not permit Timothy to accompany you to the car."
"They don't know about him," she said.
"Them. The ones who are after me. Him."
"Gabriel." He spat the name. "And his followers."
She nodded agreement and tried to remember what she'd told him last night, when she'd first arrived. Pathetically little, she feared.
His expression was grim. "You should not have gone."
Affronted, she lifted her chin. "I had to."
"You could have left the car. It made no difference. You endangered yourself..."
"It did make a difference," she interrupted, aware her voice was rising but unable to stop it.
Across the room, Nicholas stopped stroking a threadbare stuffed dog and looked their way.
Vincent subsided visibly, but Catherine could see what it cost him in effort. "How?" he asked, with deceptive quietness.
Nicholas went back to the box.
"Even though I used a false name and paid cash, it's possible the car could be traced to me," she said. "They could find me, Vincent. Even here."
"You wish the car to be far away when it's found," he said slowly.
She nodded. "It blurs my trail."
He studied her for a moment, his expression inscrutable, and then dropped his gaze. "Forgive me," he murmured.
"For what?" Catherine asked, in genuine bewilderment.
"For presuming to tell you what you may and may not do. I forget that we are not what we once were to one another. It is not my place..."
She reached out swiftly and touched his hand. "Yes, it is," she said softly. "I know things have changed, Vincent. I know how much time has passed, and how much we've each gone through, separately. I know we can never go back to what we were. But whatever we are to each other now, whatever we become, you're Nicky's father. You have every right to wonder why his mother deliberately courted danger."
His glance went to Nicholas, who had moved to the bed and was tucking a row of stuffed animals under a faded quilt. "Perhaps."
"Anyway," she went on, wanting to relieve his fears, "you don't have to worry. I won't be going back up there. Not for a long time." She paused, visualizing it. Her voice softened. "Perhaps never."
His startled glance came back to her. "You love that world, Catherine. You always have."
She shook her head. "Not any more," she whispered. "It frightens me now."
He regarded her solemnly. "You're safe here," he reminded her. "You're welcome here, for as long as you wish to stay."
She mustered a smile for his benefit. "I know."
His glance returned to Nicholas. "There are many waiting to welcome you back," he said. "Father wondered if an informal gathering in his chamber this evening might not be the simplest way to proceed."
Catherine considered it. The thought of facing so many well-wishers all at once was daunting, but it would be worse to drag it out and have to repeat her story a dozen times a day as she encountered different people. "All right," she agreed. "Will Peter come?"
"I believe Father sent him a message this morning," Vincent answered. "I'm sure he'll be here."
"Which entrance will he use?"
Vincent paused. "I'm not certain. Does it matter?"
"It might. He's a connection to me."
"Peter has been here many times since you left us. No harm has come of it." Vincent's voice was gentle, but his puzzlement showed clearly.
Catherine looked down. "It's different now."
"Because I'm here." The thought of Gabriel finding his way into the tunnels was chilling.
Nicholas looked up from his toys. "Don't be scared, Mommy," he said. "My daddy will take care of us."
With an effort, she damped the fear. "I know he will, Nicky," she said, forcing a smile.
Vincent's glance went to Nicholas. "He knows," he said, surprised.
"You are... connected?"
She shook her head. "No. Not as you and I were. This is different. More tenuous, I think. But if I'm near, he knows. He's your son, after all." She managed a small laugh. "It's a struggle, sometimes, not to frighten him with what I'm feeling."
He looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. "It has been doubly difficult for you," he observed. "This life you've led."
She gave a reluctant nod of acquiescence. "Sometimes."
"But not just because of Nicholas."
"No," she agreed sadly. "And the fear doesn't end, even now. Because I can't help thinking, what if Peter was followed? If Gabriel ever found this place..."
"He won't," Vincent promised. "We will not allow it."
"You don't know him, Vincent. You don't know what he's like. He'll stop at nothing to get what he wants." Her gaze went to Nicholas, playing on the floor.
Vincent followed her look and touched her hand. "We will protect him, Catherine. He's safe now."
Of course. She wasn't alone anymore. It was all right, now, to relax her guard. There were others willing to shoulder some of the responsibility. Her throat tightened and tears of relief prickled behind her eyes as she struggled to assimilate the idea that Nicholas's safety was no longer solely her concern.
Continued in Chapter 2