CHAPTER SEVEN


Icy water lapped against her chin, filling her mouth whenever she lost the small pocket of increasingly stale air. Panicky, she struggled to find a way out, beating her hands against the top and sides of the enclosure, kicking out with her feet. She choked on a mouthful of water and tried to spit it out, but the air was gone now. Nothing but water, cold and dark. The chill of it seeped into her very bones. Again and again she lashed out, struggling fruitlessly against the steel sides and lid of the car's trunk...

She woke with a gasp, drenched in cold perspiration. A lone candle guttered on a shelf across the chamber, its uncertain light casting the stone walls in sharp relief. She lurched up onto an elbow and drew a deep, shuddering breath, fighting down the panic, pushing it away.

"Catherine?"

The voice startled her and she was still scrambling between the dregs of her hellish dream and memories of the night before when Vincent's hand caught her shoulder and pulled her into a tight embrace.

"It's all right," he said. "It was just a dream. I'm here."

She had the panic contained and was drawing a long, calming breath when another voice came, this one small and anxious.

"Mommy?"

Instinctively she struggled up, but Vincent's hand restrained her. "I'll take care of him," he said, and slid out on the far side of the bed. She heard the whisper of cloth, the clink of metal against metal, and then Vincent was rounding the foot of the bed clad only in his trousers.

Vincent's state of dress made Catherine suddenly conscious of her own nudity and she pulled the sheet to her neck.

"What's wrong, Nicholas?" Vincent asked, bending over him. "Did you have a bad dream?"

Nicholas seemed unsurprised to see his father here. "No. Mommy did."

Vincent glanced her way sharply, then gathered Nicholas up in his arms. "Yes, she did," he said. "But it's all right. I'm here, and I'll take care of her."

Nicholas laid his sleepy head on Vincent's shoulder. "Will you make her be not scared anymore?" she heard Nicholas ask as Vincent carried him back to his bed. "I don't like it when she's scared."

"I don't either," Vincent answered softly. "I'll do what I can."

"Daddy?" Nicholas's voice was slurred now. "Rub my back."

"Until you go to sleep," Vincent agreed.

Catherine wondered what would happen after Nicholas went back to sleep. Would Vincent return to sleep beside her? Or, having wakened, would he gather the rest of his clothing and return to his own chamber? And if he did that, what should she do? She wished she'd had the foresight to lay out a robe or coverup of some kind the night before. If she'd known what would happen between them, she would have.

She lay in the near darkness, still shivering from the dream and straining her ears for the sounds beyond the curtain. At last it parted, and Vincent came out.

"He's asleep," he said, and paused to light a fresh candle from the one that flared wildly as it burned up the last of the wax.

"Good," she said into the steadier glow, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering.

"You're cold," he observed, and started towards her.

"Wait," she said, and he paused near the foot of the bed, poised expectantly.

"Would you... get me a nightgown?"

He glanced at her, covers pulled to her chin, and nodded. "Where?"

She had to think, and that helped quash the fear. "My bureau. Second drawer down on the left."

He obeyed, placing the garment on the bed within her reach.

She snagged it and pulled it open so she could sit up and wriggle into it in one movement.

He waited until she'd smoothed the simple gown down over her hips before climbing gingerly in beside her. He still wore his pants, she noted, as he pulled up the quilts and held out his arms.

She went into them willingly, glad to have him here.

"Tell me," he said presently.

"What?" she murmured against his chest. His presence had banished the fear and his warmth was seeping into her bones. She was beginning to relax.

"Your dream. A nightmare?"

She nodded reluctantly. "But it's gone now."

"Tell me about it."

"I don't want to. I want to forget it."

"Forgetting might be easier if you speak of it first."

She shivered. "No. I'm tired. I want to go to sleep."

He shifted a little and she could sense his unease, but he didn't press her. After a while she went to sleep, still cradled in his arms.

"Did you make Mommy stop being scared in her dreams?" Nicholas asked the next morning as they walked three abreast on their way to breakfast.

He'd been remarkably incurious about the new sleeping arrangements, but Catherine was grateful both she and Vincent were at least partially clothed when Nicholas climbed up on the bed to shake them awake. "Get up," he'd said with his usual morning imperiousness. "I'm hungry."

Vincent had gone to his own chamber for fresh clothing, affording Catherine privacy to get dressed. Nicholas dressed himself as he usually did, and when Vincent returned, they joined him in the corridor.

"Yes," Vincent said now, shooting her a sidelong glance. "I think I helped her not be afraid."

Nicholas looked to her for confirmation. "Did he, Mommy?"

She couldn't stop the smile that tugged at her mouth. "Yes, Nicky. He did."

"Good," Nicholas said. "You have too many bad dreams."

Vincent stopped walking. "What?"

"Bad dreams," Nicholas repeated. "Mommy has bad dreams. All the time."

"All the time?" Vincent repeated, looking at her.

"Not all the time," she protested. "I've had a few nightmares, that's all. It's nothing."

Vincent looked doubtful, but didn't argue. But later, as she helped Brooke and Edwin wash dishes, he sought her out.

She smiled when she saw him coming. It had been striking her at odd moments all morning - the memory of last night, and of what they were to one another now. Not only friends. Not only Nicholas's parents. But lovers, in the deepest, truest sense of the word. Lovers. Her body tingled with remembrance as he came to stand on the other side of a kettle of soapy dishwater.

The warmth in his gaze said he remembered, too, and she looked down, the color in her cheeks not entirely because she was elbow-deep in steaming water.

"Catherine."

"Vincent." How could she have forgotten how just saying his name could give her pleasure?

"Can we talk?"

She looked again into the big kettle. No more than a half-dozen plates lay in the bottom, waiting to be scrubbed. "Edwin!" she called.

Edwin looked over from where he was vigorously plying a dishtowel. "Yeah?"

"I'm almost done here. Can you finish up?"

He gave her a knowing grin. "Sure, Catherine," he agreed, and handed her the dishtowel. "Brooke and I will take care of it."

She dried her hands with the damp towel and turned her back on dishwashing without remorse. Brooke and Edwin were courting, and tunnel talk was betting they'd be married before the year was out. She was sure they'd appreciate the few extra moments alone.

Vincent took her elbow and guided her along a path she soon recognized as the one leading to the Chamber of the Falls. Neither spoke until they were seated in the little acoustical island of quiet.

"Where's Nicholas?" she asked. Last time she'd seen him, he'd been riding on Vincent's shoulders, ducking low as they passed under the stone lintel of the dining chamber entrance. She knew and trusted that Vincent would not leave him unattended, but still she had to ask.

"He's with Natalie," Vincent replied, unoffended. "Playing with Brian."

"That's one of the highlights of his day. Playing with Brian." She smiled. "I think it ranks right behind being with you. He adores you."

"He worries about you," Vincent countered. "More than he should, at his age. We talked about it."

Everything inside her drew together and became very still. "About what?"

"About you being afraid. About your dreams. Catherine, he says you dream nearly every night."

"Not every night." She shook her head in denial and looked across at the mist rising from the base of the falls.

"I'm not certain why it is that he senses your dreams and I do not," he continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "Perhaps because, until last night, he was nearer."

She continued to stare at the mist. There was a rainbow arcing across where an errant ray of light found its way down through some narrow fissure in the earth's crust and she studied it, noting how the colors blended seamlessly into one another.

"Catherine, it troubles me that you're having these dreams." He touched her arm, and she jumped.

"It's nothing, Vincent. I told you."

"You aren't having terrifying nightmares night after night over nothing," he pointed out. "I want to know what's troubling you, Catherine. Please."

Still she hesitated, and he sighed.

"It's him, isn't it? Gabriel."

She suppressed an involuntary shiver. "No," she said. "I never dream about him. Never."

"What, then?"

She folded her arms across her upraised knees and placed her forehead on them. Vincent moved closer and put his arm around her shoulders.

"You can tell me," he urged gently. "You can tell me anything."

She remembered her own words to him, years ago, and smiled, just a little. "I know I can. But they're just dreams. They can't touch me here."

"Then why do they keep recurring?"

"I don't know," she said wearily. "They just do."

"They're trying to tell you something," he said gently.

She turned suddenly and buried her face against his shoulder. "What if," she asked in a small voice, "I don't want to hear what they have to say?"

He pressed her no more that day; that night, he came hesitantly to her chamber.

"Shall we walk?" he invited.

"Not tonight, if you don't mind," she answered. "I'm tired."

A flicker of uncertainty crossed his face. "Of course," he said. "Perhaps tomorrow." He half turned as if to go, and she sprang up to stop him.

"Wait. I didn't mean... I just thought we could spend the evening here. Together."

He turned back. "Yes," he said simply.

Nicholas wasn't in bed yet, so he and Vincent read together for a while before Vincent tucked him in.

"You really enjoy being a father, don't you?" she asked when he emerged from the alcove.

"Yes," he answered, looking faintly surprised.

"I asked because... because of last night," she said, faltering a little under his intense blue gaze. "I didn't expect... I hadn't planned..." She felt herself flushing and bent her head. "I wondered how you would feel if there should be another child."

"Another child?" He sank slowly into the big chair. "Catherine, would you know...?"

"Not yet. Not for several weeks. But it's possible, Vincent. Look at Nicholas." She looked at him shyly. "And there's tonight, or other nights."

"Another child," he said again. "The thought is more than I can grasp."

"I could go talk to Father if you'd rather not take a chance," she offered.

He gazed at her for what seemed like a long time. "No," he said at last. "Unless it is your wish. The thought of another child terrifies me," he confessed. "But it's also a wondrous possibility."

"I'd like another child," she said. "I'd like you to be there this time. For all of it."

"I want to be," he answered. "I missed so much of Nicholas. His first smile. His first step. I missed you, growing large with our child..."

She ducked her head. "You wouldn't have known me," she said. "I was enormous." Fear prickled as she remembered that time.

"Thinking of it frightens you," he said, and took her hand.

She squeezed his fingers, clinging to the safety they represented. "I can't help it. I remember how scared I was. How hopeless it all seemed. I wondered if I would ever see my baby, ever hold him. If I would ever see you again..." Her voice broke and he let go her hand and came to his feet to gather her into his arms.

"It's all right," he murmured, into her ear. "Everything's all right. I'm here."

She clung to him. "I know you are," she whispered. "I know you are."

The razor glittered in the reflected headlights of oncoming cars. Strong hands held her wrists, pinned her shoulders; a fist tangled in her hair kept her from turning her face away from the sharp edge. It bit into her cheek and sliced downward. She screamed...

And sat bolt upright in bed.

"Catherine." Vincent was there, pulling her against him. "It's all right. It was just a dream."

Frantically she gathered up the horror and stuffed it down where it wouldn't disturb Nicholas. Where it couldn't hurt her. Curiously, Vincent's arms made the task harder, not easier.

Nicholas still slept in his alcove; her terror hadn't been enough to wake him tonight.

She clutched at Vincent's arms and pressed her face into his shoulder. "I'm okay," she gasped, still fighting for breath. "I'm okay."

"Another dream," he said. "The same?"

She shook her head, suddenly aware that her hair was clammy with perspiration, that her nightgown, donned for propriety's sake before they went to sleep, clung to her damply. "Not the same. No."

"Tell me."

"No, I... Vincent, let me go. I need to change..."

She could sense his reluctance, but he released her and she slid from the bed and crossed to the bureau, where she pulled a clean nightgown from a drawer. She hesitated a moment, conscious of his eyes on her. But the damp discomfort of her gown was enough to overcome her shyness and she pulled it off quickly, dragging the dry one on in almost the same movement. She raked her fingers through the hair at the back of her head, lifting it from her neck and fluffing it so it would dry more quickly.

Vincent, clad in his own nightclothes, watched from the bed. She avoided his eyes as she returned to slip in beside him. "I'm all right now," she assured him.

"No," he answered quietly, leaning over her. "I don't think you are."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Something's troubling you, Catherine. Something so fierce and dark that you only let it out at night, when you're sleeping."

"No," she protested. "No. I'm fine, Vincent. Everything's fine. I'm safe here. Nicky's safe."

He pounced on the opening. "Is that what troubles you? Your safety?"

"No," she insisted. "I told you. It's safe here. I know that. I know about the sentries and the paths that always change to make it hard to find the way. And I know you would never let anything touch me here. Or Nicky either." She turned her back to him, pulling his arm around her waist. "It's okay, Vincent. Everything's okay. Let's go to sleep."

He poised on one elbow for a long moment, then sank down into his pillows, pulling her securely into the curve of his body. "Don't be afraid, Catherine," he whispered low, into her ear. "I'm here. I love you."

"A picnic?" she asked the next morning.

Vincent nodded, pleased. "Just the three of us. I know a place near the river where no one goes..."

"Picnic!" Nicholas shouted. "Yay!"

Catherine smiled. "How can I say no in the face of so much enthusiasm?" she asked. "A picnic sounds wonderful. Shall I go by the kitchen and fix us a basket?"

Vincent put Nicholas off his lap and rose to his feet. "No need," he said. "I've asked William to prepare something."

She couldn't resist a coquettish smile. "Sure of yourself, weren't you?" she inquired.

She thought if he was going to blush, he'd have done it then. "I hoped," he answered instead, and held out his hand. "Ready?"

Catherine allowed him to help her up. "Get your jacket, Nicky," she instructed, and snagged a sweater for herself on the way out the door.

"We'll stop by my chamber first," Vincent said. "I have a blanket to sit on, and some toys for Nicholas to play with."

Mouse was waiting when they reached Vincent's chamber. "Vincent!" he said in evident relief. "Glad you're here!"

"What is it, Mouse?"

"Need you," Mouse answered, typically cryptic. "Now."

Catherine was sure she was the only one aware of Vincent's sigh.

"Now, Mouse?"

The young man nodded vigorously, shaggy blond hair flying. "My chamber. Quick."

"Is it an emergency?"

Mouse frowned. "Kind of," he decided. "New project. Arthur was playing, climbed up. Tipped it over. Can't pick it up. Too heavy."

"Your new project has fallen and you can't lift it by yourself?" Vincent translated.

Mouse nodded agreement.

"Can't it wait, Mouse?"

"No. Also blocks off entrance to Mouse's chamber." He ducked his head and grinned sheepishly. "Had to crawl to get out." He brushed at a dusty smear across his stomach.

This time Vincent's sigh was clearly audible. "Very well." He turned. "I'm sorry, Catherine. I'll be only a moment."

She gave him a smile full of mirth. "Don't worry about us, Vincent. We'll wait right here. Won't we, Nick?"

Nicholas nodded his agreement and Vincent followed Mouse from the chamber.

As usual, Vincent's chamber was utterly tidy. Nicholas trotted to a shelf of toys and books kept especially for him, but Catherine saw no small task on which to vent nervous energy. She trailed a finger along a row of books on a shelf above his bed, and then touched a pillow lightly. Years ago she'd imagined, when she dared to fantasize, herself in this bed with Vincent, loving him. Maybe one day soon they could ask Mary or Natalie to keep Nicholas overnight, and could make that fantasy come true.

She turned away. A folded newspaper lay on Vincent's writing table, and she stepped toward it, puzzled. A paper was an odd thing to find here, and she wondered where it had come from.

The date was two days ago, Monday, she noted. The day of the concert in the park. The memory of that day, and the night that followed, made her smile.

Nicholas was happily fitting shaped blocks into matching holes in the sides of a gaily painted wooden box, and clearly didn't need entertaining. Catherine sank into a chair and pulled the newspaper towards her, scanning the headlines. It had been so long since she'd read a paper that she felt curiously out of touch, as if the events described had nothing to do with her or the world in which she lived.

She turned pages idly, skimming and skipping along, reading a line or two here, a paragraph there.

And then a photograph, small and slightly blurred, caught her eye. She stared at it for a long time before she could bring herself to read the short article beneath. John Moreno was running for reelection as District Attorney.

His photograph made her skin crawl, but she clamped down on her revulsion and tried to block out her last sight of him, gazing at her with something that might have been regret as armed goons caught her arms and prepared to drag her away.

"Mommy?" Nicholas looked her way, a small, puckered frown on his face.

"It's nothing, sweetheart," she told him. "I'm fine."

After a moment he turned back to his blocks. Catherine pressed her lips together and turned pages swiftly, forcing a wedge of determination between herself and the photograph. And the memory.

She glanced toward the entry, hoping to see Vincent returning. The opening remained empty and she sighed and set the news section aside. Arts and Leisure was next and she unfolded it, wondering only idly about the latest fashions and what was playing on Broadway.

Donatello Sculpture Sold For Record Price. The headline caught her eye and directed her attention to another photograph. The Donatello sculpture was rendered beautifully in bright color and sharp focus, but her attention was fixed on the slight man standing beside it, his face gaunt and thin-lipped, his bearing at once arrogant and possessive. She began to tremble and put her hand to her mouth to keep from crying out.

Cruel, calculating eyes stared back at her from the page. I know where you are, those eyes said. I can wait.

She thrust the paper away and buried her face in her hands.

Nicholas tugged at her sleeve. "Mommy? Mommy!" His voice rose in agitation and then strong hands gripped her shoulders, drawing her up and she found herself crushed against Vincent's chest.

"It's all right," he murmured. "I'm here."

She clung to him helplessly, her own strength too feeble to hold her up.

"Take a breath," he instructed, and mindlessly she did as he told her. "And another."

The simple action calmed her and after a moment he moved her away and looked into her eyes. "Will you be all right for a moment?" he asked. "I must see to Nicholas."

Nicholas. She hadn't even thought of him, and she twisted in Vincent's grasp to seek him out.

He huddled on the floor by Vincent's bed, eyes squeezed shut and hands clapped over his ears. She moved toward him automatically, but Vincent was ahead of her. He took Nicholas by the shoulders and gave him a gentle shake.

There was no mistaking the relief that flooded the boy's eyes at sight of his father. "Daddy!" he cried, and hurled himself against Vincent's chest.

Vincent hugged him tightly. "It's all right, Nicholas," he soothed.

"Mommy's scared," Nicholas whispered. "I need to help her."

Vincent ran a big hand through Nicholas's unruly mop of hair. "I'll take care of your mother," he promised solemnly. "But, Nicholas, I need you to do something for me."

Nicholas raised his head, his eyes wide and frightened.

"Do you remember how to reach your grandfather's chamber from here?"

Nicholas nodded and pointed. "That way," he whispered.

"That's right. Are you big enough to find your way there, all by yourself?"

"Vincent, no..." Catherine managed through a throat so tightly constricted she could scarcely breathe. "He's too little..."

Vincent seemed not to hear. "I want you to go to your grandfather," he told Nicholas. "Go straight there, and wait with him. Tell him your mother's not sick, and that I will take care of her. Do you understand?"

Nicholas nodded solemnly. "Go to Grandfather and tell him Mommy's okay," he repeated.

"Good boy," Vincent said. "Are you ready?"

Nicholas nodded and gave an uncertain look to Catherine, who swayed unsteadily, unable to give further voice to any of the warnings that pressed her.

Vincent gave Nicholas a swift kiss. "Go now," he said, and watched Nicholas out of the chamber before he turned his gaze back to her.

Catherine had used the time while Vincent dealt with Nicholas to stuff her terror back into its box and clamp the lid on tight.

"I'm all right," she said unsteadily. "I'm okay."

"No," Vincent said, with certainly. "You aren't." His arm went around her shoulders and he guided her to a chair.

"I'm fine, now, Vincent," she insisted. "Really."

His steady gaze didn't falter as he knelt beside her. "What frightened you so?" he asked. "What triggered it?"

"Nothing," she said.

"Catherine, that can't be true."

"It is true!" she flared.

"Catherine," he tried again. "I felt your terror. I saw you, when I came in. You were ashen, trembling."

"But I'm all right now. You can feel that, too."

"I know you have caged your fear," he answered. "But you haven't faced it. It isn't healthy to deny the things that frighten you, Catherine."

"What choice do I have, Vincent?" she spat. "You saw Nicholas. Saw what it does to him. What else am I to do?"

"You can't sacrifice yourself for him, Catherine. He needs you. I need you."

She turned her face away. "I have no choice, Vincent," she said, her voice steely. "And I don't want to talk about it any more."

For a moment she thought he would press her, but instead he settled back on his haunches and sighed. "Very well. If you're certain you're all right, I'll go reassure Father and fetch Nicholas."

"I'll be fine," she assured him, and sat with fists clenched in her lap, studiously ignoring the crumpled newspaper on the table, until he returned.

Nicholas bounded across the chamber and into her lap. "Are you okay?" he asked, frowning.

"I'm fine, Nicky," she assured him.

He relaxed. "My daddy took good care of you," he said.

"Yes, he did," she answered, but avoided Vincent's gaze.

"I went all the way to Grandfather's chamber by myself," Nicholas bragged. "I didn't get lost even one time!"

"You're getting very big," she agreed. "I'm proud of you, Nick."

"I'm proud of me, too," he said. "Are we going on our picnic now, Daddy?"

"I'm not certain a picnic is a good idea now, Nicholas," Vincent answered. "Your mother's had a shock."

Nicholas turned to her, his mouth opening in dismay.

"I'm fine, Vincent," Catherine assured for what felt like the hundredth time. "Really. I think a picnic is just the thing."

Vincent gave her a long look and relented. "Very well. Come, Nicholas. You can carry the blanket."

The picnic was a rousing success, at least from Nicholas's point of view. He gorged himself on cookies, grapes, and cheese, and afterwards, Vincent pulled off boots and socks, rolled up his trousers, and took Nicholas wading in a quiet inlet of the river.

Catherine laughingly resisted their efforts to persuade her to join them, content to sit on the blanket and watch. And if the memory of the photographs in the newspaper sometimes threatened to intrude, she thrust it back ruthlessly. She would let nothing, and certainly not the man who called himself Gabriel, mar the remainder of the day.

If she was going to dream of him, it should have been this night. Despite her best efforts, his memory had returned again and again to gnaw at the edges of her consciousness. When Vincent joined her in her bed, his presence drove it away, but the image returned to haunt her as she lay in his arms afterwards. It was a long time before sleep found her.


Continued in Chapter 8