CHAPTER THREE


Nicholas played with Brian until lunchtime. After lunch, Mary came to Catherine's chamber with an armload of clothing.

"This is too much," Catherine said, gazing at pre-schooler sized shirts and sweaters spread across the bed. "I can't accept all this."

"Of course you can," Mary said. "Don't worry. When Nicholas grows out of them, there'll be some other child who needs them."

"Yes, but what about all these things for me?" There were blouses and skirts, sweaters, slacks, vests, pullovers, dresses, nightgowns, even underwear and socks. "I won't grow out of them."

"Catherine, you need clothing. What you brought with you is fine, but it can't be much, stuffed in those bags and that one suitcase. And in any case, much of it is topsider wear, and not suitable for the tunnels."

Catherine had to admit the truth of that. "But it's so much."

"Well, you'll need all of it eventually," Mary said pragmatically. "Now, choose the things you like and try them on. You don't have to keep anything you don't care for, and of course some of them may need alteration."

Catherine fingered a sweater, hand knit of soft wool, its seams stitched together with strips of supple leather. Her fashion sense, long dormant, flickered. This shade of blue suited her and she felt a sudden longing to be pretty for Vincent. She pulled off her own faded sweatshirt and pulled the sweater over her head.

"That's lovely on you, Catherine," Mary said.

"Yeah," Nicholas chimed from the floor, where he played with his new collection of zoo animals. "Pretty, Mommy."

"Thank you, both of you," Catherine said, glowing.

"Here," Mary prompted. "Try this dress."

While Catherine changed, Mary went to the washstand in the corner and picked up the china basin.

"What are you doing?"

"I thought I'd empty this while you try on clothes," Mary explained.

"No."

Mary stopped, startled by her vehemence. "But it needs..."

"I'm sure it does," Catherine replied, modulating her tone with effort. "But, Mary, you surely don't go around and empty everyone's washbasins. It would take all day!"

"Most people take care of their own," Mary said. "But..."

"Put it back, please," Catherine said. "When I'm finished here, you can show me where to dump it."

"I don't mind..."

"I mind. Please, Mary. I want to do my share of the work," she said. "I don't want to be a burden. Not me and not Nicky."

Mary looked at her in surprise. "Well, of course you won't be a burden."

"Then you have to let me do my share. Clean up after myself. Do my own work. Who does the laundry down here?"

Mary blinked. "Most people do their own."

"All right. You can show me how to do that, too."

"Catherine, you're our guest. It isn't necessary..."

"No, Mary," Catherine interrupted softly. "Not a guest. I live here now. I want to help with the other work, too. The community work. Whatever needs to be done."

Mary looked briefly troubled. "I don't know what Vincent will say..."

"I don't care what Vincent will say. I want to do my share. If you won't let me, I'll have to go." Something inside her quailed at the mere thought of going topside, but as she expected, Mary capitulated.

"Oh, no. We'll find something for you to do, Catherine. I promise."

"Tomorrow," Catherine said firmly.

"Oh, but wouldn't you like to rest a few days, first? You've been through so much..."

"Tomorrow, Mary," she repeated. "In the morning."

"If you're certain," Mary agreed. "Tomorrow morning."

After they sorted through the clothes, Mary showed her where a channel in a secondary tunnel floor ran with a narrow stream of water. Catherine poured out the wash water from her basin and followed Mary to an adjoining chamber. Unlike much of the tunnels, this room was steamy and warm from a huge kettle of water bubbling gently over what looked like a jerry-rigged gas burner. An ancient wringer-washer stood beside it.

Mary showed her how to fill the washer and how much soap to add, and demonstrated the manual wash and rinse functions.

Catherine laundered her clothes and Nicholas's with painstaking care, and hung them to dry among rows of other garments in a nearby chamber crisscrossed with clothesline and warmed by a potbellied stove.

"Are you done now?" Nicholas asked when she hung the last pair of his jeans.

"Until the clothes are dry," she said. "Mary says that takes about four hours."

"Good," Nicholas said.

"Good, indeed," she told him. "That's means there's plenty of time for you to take a nap."

She was folding their dry laundry when she heard a voice outside the chamber entrance.

"Catherine?"

"Daddy!" Nicholas squealed, and bounded out the door. He reappeared a moment later, safely ensconced in his father's arms. "Look, Mommy!" he said, his face a mask of delight. "Daddy's here."

"I see," she acknowledged, and gave Vincent a smile.

"Where were you?" Nicholas demanded. "I missed you."

"I am sorry, Nicholas," Vincent said gravely. "There was work to be done."

Nicholas pouted. "Mommy worked today, too," he said. "I thought nobody would have to work now."

Vincent regarded him with raised brows. "Everyone works here, Nicholas," he said. "It is a part of how we live. What work did your mother do?"

"She washed our clothes. See?" He pointed to the wicker basket at Catherine's feet.

"Mary showed me where to go," Catherine said, feeling unaccountably awkward.

"Who washes your clothes, Daddy?" Nicholas asked, with interest.

"Sometimes I do," Vincent said. "But more often it is Sarah, or Mary, or another of the women."

"Only the women?" Catherine asked, unable to resist teasing him.

He smiled in response. "Sometimes Pascal offers to do it," he said. "And I do his in return."

"Maybe Mommy will do it now," Nicholas offered.

"Maybe," Vincent countered, "I could do yours and your mother's."

"It's a deal," Catherine said quickly.

Nicholas giggled and Vincent set him on his feet.

"It is nearly dinner time," he said.

"Can we go with you?" Nicholas asked eagerly.

"May we," Catherine corrected, automatically.

"Only if it pleases your mother," Vincent answered.

"Please, Mommy," Nicholas entreated.

"Of course," she agreed swiftly. "Just let me finish this."

Nicholas fidgeted from foot to foot as she neatly folded shirts and rolled socks. "Hurry," he said. "I'm hungry."

She met Vincent's sympathetic look. "Maybe you could go on without me," she suggested. "I'll catch up."

"No," Vincent demurred. "We'll wait." He moved to help, picking Nicholas's things from the pile of freshly laundered clothing and folding them deftly. "Here," he said to Nicholas, when he finished. "Do you know where these go?"

Nicholas nodded. "I helped Mommy unpack."

"Good. Then you can help her now and put these things away."

Nicholas accepted the armload of clothing and carried it to the small chest Catherine had chosen to put his things in. He set the stack down in order to open a drawer; the items on top of the stack teetered and slid to the floor.

"You realize," Catherine said to Vincent in an undertone, "that nothing will be folded when he's finished."

"It is the effort that is important, Catherine. Not the result."

"Easy for you to say. You don't have to straighten out the drawer." But she was smiling as she said it.

The look Vincent gave her in return was warm and tender and her heart jolted absurdly.

"There," she said, keeping her voice steady by sheer will. "Finished."

"Good," Nicholas said, his clothing safely, if not precisely tidily, stowed. He reached for Vincent's hand. "Let's go."

Nicholas insisted on sitting beside Vincent at dinner. Catherine sat across from them, watching Nicholas fabricate questions and needs whenever Vincent's attention threatened to wander. His eager transparency was amusing, but Catherine couldn't quell a pang of wistfulness. In two days, she and Vincent had found only snatched moments together. Almost, she though painfully, as if he were avoiding her.

Biting her lip, she stared at her plate. Of course that wasn't it. It was just Nicholas. The newness of him. The miracle of his existence. She had marvelled over him herself, many times. No wonder Vincent had eyes for no one else.

"Catherine." His voice, pitched low across the table, roused her. "You aren't eating."

"I'm sorry," she said, her apology automatic. "I was thinking." She noticed, with consternation, that others at the table were finished with their meals; some had already risen and carried their plates to be washed.

"I want cake, Mommy," Nicholas said. "Chocolate."

She checked his plate, oddly pleased that in this, at least, he still looked to her. "Yes," she decided. "You may."

He slid down from his chair. "I can get it myself," he insisted, when Vincent moved to rise.

Vincent glanced her way and she nodded. Nicholas ought to be able to handle one of the small plates of cake that Brooke was handing out from a table near the kitchen.

"Use two hands to carry it, Nick," she warned him. "And tell Brooke you want a small piece."

He frowned. "I want a big piece," he said, and spread his arms wide. "This big!"

She laughed. "Nicky, you couldn't eat that much cake."

"Yes, I could! I could eat it all!"

"Well, maybe you could, but I want you to have a small one. Too much cake isn't good for you."

"Perhaps, Nicholas," Vincent suggested, "you could bring a large piece, and we'll share."

Nicholas thought that over for only a moment. "Okay," he agreed, and scurried off.

"He's a beautiful child," Vincent murmured, watching him.

"Yes," Catherine agreed. "Vincent, if he brings back a big piece of cake, you have to eat half. I don't want him getting sick."

"Of course," he agreed. "I told him I would." He paused. "Catherine."

"Yes?" She turned from watching Nicholas. "What is it?"

"I wondered." He paused again, and she frowned.

"Vincent, what is it? Is something wrong?"

"No." He shifted forward in his chair, leaning toward her. "I wondered if you'd like to go for a walk with me. Later."

"Oh," she said softly. "Oh, Vincent, I'd love to. But there's Nicky..."

"I thought perhaps someone could sit with him. After he's asleep?"

"You mean like a babysitter?"

He nodded. "It's not uncommon for parents here to have one of the older children in to watch younger ones. Samantha would do it."

She glanced at Nicholas, who was on his way back, concentrating fiercely on the plate of cake in his hands.

"Until yesterday, I'd never left him before," she said. "Not for a minute."

Vincent waited quietly. He wouldn't push her, she knew.

"He'll be safe, won't he?" she asked.

"Samantha will not let him come to harm," Vincent promised. "And we'll be where we can hear the pipes."

Nicholas arrived back and put his plate of cake on the table while he climbed up into his chair. "I got the biggest piece," he reported importantly. "Because I said I was going to share it with my daddy."

"That's good," Vincent told him. "I'm very hungry. How many bites may I have?"

"Two," Nicholas decided, and giggled at Vincent's resulting expression.

"Two isn't very many. You'd better let me have twenty."

"No! I get twenty. You get two."

"Very well." Vincent took his two bites, and then began bargaining for more.

Nicholas giggled again, around a mouthful of cake this time, and relinquished two more bites.

Catherine finished her dinner silently, enjoying the show as Vincent bargained and Nicholas relented, one bite at a time.

"Want some cake, Mommy?" Nicholas offered when she'd finished her meal and his cake plate held nothing but crumbs.

"No, you little rogue," she teased. "Because you'll try to eat it all."

A cake-smeared grin was her reply.

"And anyway, I'm not hungry for cake," she said. "Use your napkin, please, Nick."

He wiped haphazardly at his mouth, and then Vincent took the napkin and got the spots he'd missed.

"What are we going to do now, Daddy?" Nicholas asked as they left the dining chamber.

"I believe it's time to get you ready for bed."

From the indignation on Nicholas's face, it was clear he hadn't expected this sort of betrayal from his beloved daddy. "I'm not tired!" he declared.

"You're never tired at bedtime," Catherine observed. "But if you ask your daddy, I'll bet he'll give you your bath."

Nicholas looked up eagerly. "Will you, Daddy?"

Vincent looked pleased. "Of course," he said. He and Nicholas stopped long enough to collect Nicholas's pajamas and went off together to the bathing chamber.

Catherine put away her own folded laundry, left on the bed from before dinner, and turned back the covers of Nicholas's cot.

It would be safe to leave him. She knew that, understood it. Vincent would be no more willing to risk him than she was. And she'd done it before. Two nights ago, when she'd first arrived, she'd let him go with Mary to the kitchens to get something to eat. And to protect him from hearing the things she was about to tell his grandfather.

She'd left him again yesterday, when she went up to take care of the car. Left him with Vincent, who would die before he would allow harm to come to their son. But left him, also, because she was going into danger, a danger it was no longer necessary for him to face.

Protecting Nicholas, keeping him safe, and warm, and fed, providing him with a home, clothing, companionship, had been the sole focus of her life for three years. He wasn't spoiled. Not too much, anyway. She made him mind, limited sweets, and goodness knows he'd never been deluged with toys the way she had as a child. But everything she'd done had been for him.

Except the isolation. That had been for Vincent. To protect him, protect his world. Contemplation of an activity that was not directly concerned with keeping her loved ones safe seemed odd, out of keeping.

Walking with Vincent, talking with him, maybe even holding his hand. That would be something for herself. Once, she would have taken the opportunity as a matter of course. It would never have occurred to her to wonder if she could.

She straightened slowly as the sound of voices reached her from the passage. A moment later, Vincent came in, a damp and tousled Nicholas in his arms.

"My daddy's going to read me a story," Nicholas announced as Vincent put him down. He trotted into his alcove and emerged a moment later with a book in hand. "This one, Daddy," he advised, holding it out.

Vincent took it gravely. "The Spooky Old Tree," he read, from the cover. He gave Catherine a questioning glance. "Bears wearing clothing?"

"Berenstain Bears," she clarified. "Don't be misled by the illustrations. Although personally, I think they're cute. The story is good, and Nicky loves it." She didn't add that she knew the text by heart from reading it, complete with sound effects, so many times.

Vincent didn't look entirely reassured, but he lowered himself into the big easy chair anyway. Nicholas scrambled into his lap. "Read, Daddy," he commanded.

Vincent obligingly opened the slender volume. Catherine, unwilling to miss this, perched on the edge of the bed and watched.

"'Three little bears. One with a light, one with a stick, and one with the shivers.'"

"No, Daddy," Nicholas said. "Not like that. Like Mommy does."

Vincent glanced at her quickly, and she grinned. "How does your mother do it?" he inquired of Nicholas.

"Like this," Nicholas said, and demonstrated, wiggling from head to toe and drawing out the word. "'Shiiiivers!'"

Vincent repeated the word, complete with a shiver, and Nicholas beamed his approval. "Good."

The rest of the story was replete with shivers and at the end Nicholas sighed. "Read it again," he exhorted. "Please!"

Vincent's hesitation was minimal. "Since it is a short book," he agreed, and turned back to the beginning.

"Nicky," Catherine said, when they finished the second time. "Would you mind if I went out for a while?"

Nicholas, secure in his daddy's lap, looked up curiously. "Where?"

"Your daddy asked if I'd like to go for a walk with him. I think I would."

Nicholas's lower lip crept out. "I want to stay with my daddy."

"Nicholas." It was Vincent who spoke, his voice deep and even. "Your mother and I have had little time to talk since she's returned. We'll only go for a walk, and we won't be gone long."

"I want to go."

"You can't," Catherine said persuasively. "It's your bedtime. Please, Nick. This is important to me."

Nicholas's lip stayed out, but he folded his arms in grudging resignation. "Who will stay with me?" he asked, scowling.

Vincent lifted him from his lap. "I'll go ask Samantha if she's free."

"Wait! Who'll tuck me in?"

Vincent paused, a twinkle clearly visible in his eyes as he gazed down upon their small son. "Your mother can tuck you in," he said, "and I'll be back before you go to sleep."

"Promise?" Nicholas asked.

"I promise."

Of course, before Nicholas could get in bed, he wanted a drink of water, and then he needed to go to the bathroom. Catherine was just tucking him beneath the blankets of his cot when Vincent returned.

"Samantha will be here in a moment," he reported from the gap in the curtain separating Nicholas's alcove from the main chamber.

"Good," Catherine replied, a firm hand on Nicholas's shoulder to keep him in bed. "You want to come say goodnight?"

As Vincent moved into the little alcove, she slipped past him and hurried to the small dressing table. A glance confirmed that the partly drawn curtain blocked Vincent's view of her. She picked up her hairbrush and plied it hastily before checking her reflection in the small mirror mounted on the wall near the washstand. Her hair looked all right, but she was abnormally pale. She wondered where the small zippered bag containing her makeup had gone... she hadn't seen it since she arrived.

"You look pretty, Catherine," a voice said behind her, and she whirled to find Samantha standing in the chamber entrance.

"Do I?" Flustered, she felt the color rising in her cheeks, and then was absurdly grateful to the girl for her comment.

"Yes." Samantha came in and put a book on the table. "Where's Vincent?"

"Here," he said, and emerged from behind the curtain. "He isn't asleep yet," he said apologetically.

"That's all right," Samantha said cheerfully, peeking into the alcove. "Hi, Nicholas."

Nicholas mumbled something Catherine didn't quite catch.

"He's already had a drink and been to the bathroom," she said. "If you can keep him in bed, he should be asleep in a few minutes."

"Sure," Samantha agreed. "Don't worry, Catherine. I've kept lots of the tunnel kids. I know what to do."

Catherine forced a smile. "I know you do." She glanced at Vincent. "I don't know how long we'll be..."

"Not more than a couple of hours," Vincent said smoothly. "Goodnight, Nicholas."

"Goodnight, Daddy. Mommy!" he called, plaintively.

"What?" She peered in at him.

"You forgot to kiss me."

"I'm sorry." She went into the alcove and knelt beside the cot.

Nicholas wrapped his arms around her neck. "I love you, Mommy," he whispered into her ear.

"I know you do, Nicky." She smoothed his hair back from his face and kissed his cheek. "I love you, too. Now be a good boy and go to sleep."

In the main chamber, Samantha was already settling into a chair with her book. Catherine nodded a goodnight and followed Vincent out into the corridor.

She couldn't help one backward look, and Vincent paused. "He'll be fine, Catherine. You know that, don't you?"

She gave him a shaky smile. "My head does. My heart... that's not so sure."

"He'll be fine." He offered her his hand and she took it gratefully.

They walked a little way in silence before Vincent tipped his head to look at her in the flickering light of torches set in sconces along the walls.

"I don't know what to say to you."

His earnest confession made her smile. "It's odd, isn't it? Feeling so awkward with each other?"

"Not so odd, really. After three years."

"But we knew each other so well, once," she said.

"Perhaps we can come to know one another as well again," he ventured. "But it will take time."

"Yes," she agreed. "Just as it did the first time."

They walked on. She was conscious of her hand in his, the warmth of his palm against hers, the soft shaggy fur brushing her fingers. The sound of rushing water identified their location a moment before they emerged onto a wide, stepped ledge high on one side of a vast, arched cavern. A waterfall, caught in the rays of some unknown source of light, glittered and misted on its dramatic plunge into the pool below.

Vincent paused where the changing levels of stone made a sort of natural bench. She took the tacitly offered seat and Vincent chose to settle a few feet away, half facing her in the natural glow of the cavern. The roar of the water was muted here, some trick of acoustics that no one had ever explained.

"Do you remember the last time we were here?" she asked, to fill the hush.

He nodded. "A long time ago."

"When Daddy died." She drew her knees up and hugged them. "Do you ever wonder what would have happened if I had made a different decision that day?"

"And stayed?" His eyes were thoughtful, musing. "Sometimes. You'd be safe," he said. "None of the terrible things would have happened."

"No. Maybe not even to you, Vincent. If I'd been here, maybe you wouldn't have gotten so sick."

"You cannot blame yourself for that, Catherine. My illness was because of who I am. What I am."

She shook her head. "I don't think so, Vincent. I think it was me. I was so foolish in those days. So reckless. Depending on you to get me out of trouble."

"I will always protect you, Catherine," he said softly. "Know that."

"I do." She closed her eyes. "But sometimes I wish I'd stayed."

"If you had, Nicholas might never have been born."

She opened her eyes and looked at him.

"Without my illness... I would never have found the courage. Never would have risked it."

"You might have. We might have found our way."

The almost infinitesimal shake of his head was definite. "No. And the loss of Nicholas would be a great thing."

She nodded slowly. "He's worth all of it. The fear, the separation. Maybe even your illness."

"He is a beautiful child, Catherine." Vincent's voice took on a new note of wonder. "Bright and open and inquisitive. And he accepts me. Totally."

"Why shouldn't he? He's heard stories about you all his life."

"I have you to thank for that, Catherine. For allowing him to know me through your words and your memories."

"It was the only father I could give him for such a long time," she said, leaning toward him. "He deserved to know about you. As you deserved to be known. He adores you."

She half expected him to deny Nicholas's feelings; instead, he gave her an uncertain glance. "Sometimes I see you watching us, Catherine. And I wonder what you must be feeling. He is not precisely rejecting you..."

She smiled. "But he's definitely making his wishes known. He's good at that. My father would tell you he's strong-willed, just as I was when I was a child.

"Sometimes it's hard," she admitted. "Before, I had you all to myself. It was just you and me, together. I mean, there were others, friends, our fathers. But I always felt they were outside of some sort of invisible boundary, like a bubble. Inside was just us." She paused, marshalling her thoughts. "And then there was a long time when there was only me. That was a terrible time, Vincent."

He made a soft sound of sympathy and understanding.

"But then Nicky came and there were two of us again. We've been together nearly every minute since he was born. And now..."

"Now he seems to want to spend every waking moment with me."

She nodded. "I'm glad for that, Vincent. I'm glad to know he has you." She bent her head. "But sometimes, I can't help a little wistfulness. That I'll never have either of you all to myself again. Silly, isn't it?"

"No," he said gently, and moved closer, putting a tentative arm around her shoulders. "Not silly at all."

It seemed natural to move against him, into the shelter of his arms, buffered by his solidity. He seemed as content to hold her as she was to be held, and they stayed that way for a long time. At last, though, he stirred. She could sense his reluctance as he released her and offered his hand.

"Come," he said. "It's late, and our son is an early riser."

In his voice, pride overlaid the tenderness he offered her. Our son, he'd said.

She smiled and came.

The walk back was accompanied by a silence that was comfortable and thoughtful rather than awkward. At the threshold to her chamber, he paused. "I won't come in," he said. "You need your rest."

"You, too," she murmured, but lingered, loath to lose the moment.

He reached out slowly and brought her against his chest, cradling her like something precious and fragile. She closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of him, knowing it would be at least tomorrow before he would hold her again.

He stepped back, his eyes suddenly uncertain.

"What is it?" she whispered, conscious of Samantha just beyond the portal.

Instead of answering, he raised his hand slowly and traced her cheek with his thumb. "Sometimes," he said, his voice husky with suppressed emotion, "I still can't believe you are here."

His hand cradled her face, caressing softly; then he bent and brushed his lips across her cheek. "Goodnight, Catherine."

She was too startled to do anything but watch him go. Where the passage bent, he looked back and flashed one of his rare smiles. Then he was gone.

Trembling in reaction, she went inside.

Samantha looked up from her book. "He went right to sleep."

For an instant, Catherine was too dazed to comprehend. "Oh," she said, as rational thought returned. "Good. I'm glad he wasn't any trouble."

"Not at all," Samantha assured her, and gathered up her things. "You can call me anytime he needs watching. I like Nicholas."

"Thank you." Catherine saw Samantha to the door and returned to a blissful fog of memory, sleepwalking her way through her nighttime ritual of face washing and teeth brushing. She checked to make sure Nicholas was covered and blew out all but one candle before slipping between the sheets of her bed. A warm shiver travelled the length of her spine.

All by himself, with no prompting and no help from her, Vincent had kissed her.


Continued in Chapter 4