Lost

by Becky Bain


"I think that's everything." Catherine looked at the boxes and bags piled in the back of the minivan.

"I've checked the cabin," Vincent answered. "We've left nothing behind."

She sighed and leaned against him. "It's been a magical three days. I'm not ready for them to end."

"All things end, Catherine," he reminded her softly. "But there's always next time."

"Next time." She smiled. "I can live with that."

"So can I." He squeezed her shoulders, then climbed in the back of the van to settle himself among their odd assortment of luggage.

She frowned. "I wish there was a way for you to wear a seatbelt. You seem so vulnerable back there."

"You're a careful driver, Catherine," he reassured her. "I'll be fine."

"I suppose." She closed the sliding side door and went around to the driver's seat. Settling in, she fastened her own seatbelt. The rear of the van was designed for cargo, so not only was it without seats, it was without windows, rendering the rearview mirror useless as a driving aid. She adjusted the mirror until she could see Vincent's face. "Ready?"

He looked comfortable enough, reclining against plastic bags full of bedding and towels to be laundered. He nodded and she pulled away.

The long Labor Day weekend had been idyllic. It had been Vincent's idea to come to the lake. She'd been reluctant, remembering his own arguments of the year before. She could understand, now, about not risking what one had for the sake of having more. But he'd been quietly insistent and at last she'd acceded.

Father, she'd been given to understand, hadn't been so acquiescent. In fact, she rather thought Father had had a fit. But Vincent had been quietly insistent there, too - or perhaps he'd been loudly insistent. She wasn't sure. But he'd prevailed, and the weekend had been worth every moment of discord.

She pulled out on to the rural two-lane highway and glanced in the mirror again. "Want some music?"

He smiled, showing the tips of his teeth. "If you like."

She reached between the seats and nudged the case of cassette tapes, glad she'd kept them even after switching her home system over to CDs. The rented van only had a tape player. "You choose," she said. "I'm driving."

Vincent obligingly crawled up to the front of the van to look through the case. After a moment he held out a tape. "This one."

She glanced down to see what he'd chosen. He'd passed over the classical tapes in favor of Broadway. Man of La Mancha. They'd listened to it twice on the way up, just so Vincent could hear "The Impossible Dream."

She took the tape from its case by feel and slid it into the player. In a moment, the sound of trumpets swelled around them from the stereo speakers, grand and majestic. Vincent crawled back to his padded corner and closed his eyes to listen.

Humming, Catherine returned her attention to the road. Dusk was gathering, so she turned on her headlights. It wasn't dark enough yet for them to help her see, but they'd make her more visible to other drivers.

She wished the car behind her would follow suit; it was hard to see it in the gloom. Besides that, it was all over the road, veering from side to side in a way that made her wonder if the driver was intoxicated. She kept a careful eye on it in the side mirror.

When they topped the next hill, the car pulled out to pass; she slowed and pulled to the right, giving it plenty of room. It roared past; in the glow of her headlights, she could see the driver giving her the finger.

"Jerk," she muttered to herself, following the careening car into a curve.

A pair of headlights flashed in her peripheral vision. Moving headlights, her mind registered. Instinctively she hit the brakes and yanked on the wheel.

Squealing tires, the scream of tearing metal and the sharp shattering of glass filled the night. Impact threw Catherine hard against the seatbelt and shoulder harness; something heavy slammed against the back of her seat.

Dazed, she sat in the sudden silence, gripping the wheel, staring through the crazed windshield. Then she remembered, and groped frantically for the seatbelt release. "Vincent?"

There was no answer, and that panicked her even more. She got the belt undone and pushed it off her shoulder, turning in the same motion. "Vincent!"

This time she was answered by a low growl that told her he was alive, but also meant something was terribly wrong. Frantic, she started to crawl between the front seats when someone wrenched open the driver's door.

"Lady! Are you okay? I didn't see you. I swear I didn't see you!"

The other driver couldn't have been much more than sixteen. Blood smeared the side of his face; he looked more panicked than she was. Beyond him, on the roadway, other motorists had seen the accident and stopped to help.

Catherine fought her instincts, forcing herself to turn and climb out of the van. "I'm okay," she said, and pushed the door shut. "Just shaken up."

"I'm sorry, lady," the boy insisted. "I was watching that other car and I just didn't see you. I'm sorry."

"It's okay," she repeated, even though it wasn't, and couldn't be until she knew Vincent was all right.

"I called the police," a bystander said, waving a cellular phone. "They'll be here in a few minutes."

Catherine forced herself to nod and moved away from the van, drawing the onlookers with her. "Are you hurt?" she asked the other driver. "Anywhere besides your head?"

He touched his forehead gingerly. Already the blood on the side of his face was clotting and drying. "I don't think so."

She heard sirens, and saw the distant flash of emergency lights. A state police car pulled up, followed by an ambulance and a tow truck.

"You one of the drivers, ma'am?" the police officer asked.

"Yes," she agreed, and pointed out the boy who'd been driving the car. The officer asked them both about injuries, then took them to his patrol car to fill out a report. It was then that Catherine learned that the other driver had been waiting to pull out of a side road. Distracted by the car that had passed her, he hadn't noticed her van at all until after he'd pulled into its path. There was nothing she could have done to avoid the accident.

None of it made her feel better. Vincent was hurt - maybe unconscious, maybe bleeding - and she was sitting in the back of a police car, making out a report.

The police officer took names of witnesses and dismissed the ambulance. The tow truck had already moved the boy's car. As she climbed out of the police car, Catherine saw a second truck backing into position in front of the van.

"Wait!" she called. "Wait!" She hurried to it. "I need... my purse is in there."

The tow truck driver nodded laconically, still hooking his chains to the mangled front of the van. Catherine wrenched the door open and climbed inside. "Vincent?" she whispered cautiously.

There was no reply. She leaned between the front seats, straining to see in the darkness.

The back of the van was a tangle of bed linens and the contents of an overturned cooler. Vincent wasn't there.

The van's side door stood open a few inches; whether it had come open upon impact or Vincent had opened it later, Catherine wasn't sure. She looked across at the forested verge. He must be in there somewhere. Hiding. Waiting for her.

Someone thumped on the door. "Hey, lady! You okay in there?"

She snatched up her purse and climbed out. "I'm fine," she told the tow truck driver. "Fine."

She watched silently as he hoisted the van's front end into the air, then leaned out his window. "Can I give you a ride into town?"

There was nothing she wanted less. But without a car, she had no way to move Vincent once she'd found him. And asking to be left alone on this deserted stretch of rural highway would only arouse suspicion. She forced a smile. "Thank you."

She wasn't sure exactly where "town" was, and when the driver told her the name, it evoked no memory. "Is there a place where I can rent a car?"

He glanced sideways at her. "Have to go all the way into the city for that," he answered. "Bus comes through in the morning."

That was much too little, and far too late. "I have an appointment," she lied. "Do you know of any way I can get a car before morning?"

"Bud Hill over at the garage has a couple of clunkers he uses as loaners," he offered, after a moment's thought. "Might be he'd let you use one."

"I'd be happy to pay for it," she said. "Do you know how I can get hold of him?"

He nodded. "I'll call him for you when we get into town."

An hour later, the keys to a battered Ford sedan of indeterminate year and color were dropped into her hand. "Thank you," Catherine said. "I'll have it back to you tomorrow, probably."

"No problem," the garage owner said, pushing back his greasy cap and pocketing the hundred dollars she'd paid him. "Glad to help."

 

Dark. Trees. Tangled underbrush.

Pain.

The sharp scent of blood.

He growled softly, instinctively.

Fear.

He must go. He rolled over and groaned. His head hurt. His ribs. And mostly his leg. He growled again, the sound low and savage, and pushed to his feet.

Fear. Calling him. He must go.

He staggered forward, his injured leg in agony as he forced it to support him. He pushed through the trees, taking the most direct route. Letting the heavy underbrush hold him up.

Follow the fear.

Something wet and sticky was in his eyes, and he brushed it away.

His head hurt. He was dizzy, and had to keep clutching at trees to keep from falling over. His leg hurt. Breathing hurt.

But there was the fear. Steady, constant fear. He must go. Faster, because the fear was going faster. Going away from him.

When he broke into a jagged, stumbling run, his leg collapsed under him in a burst of searing pain.

There was no time. Unable to stand, he hitched forward on hands and one knee, dragging the useless leg behind him.

More of the sticky stuff was in his eyes, blinding him. He rubbed at it and his hand came away wet, and smelling sharply of blood.

 

Catherine worried she wouldn't recognize the stretch of highway where the accident occurred, but knew it at once when she reached it. Bits of glass still glittered on the shoulder, and black skid marks showed where she had tried to stop. She pulled the Ford well off the highway and got out.

There was no traffic and no houses within sight, so she felt safe in shouting. "Vincent!"

Nothing moved in the tangle of woods, and she heard no answering cry. Heart pounding, Catherine switched on the flashlight she'd bought at a convenience store and pushed forward, entering the wood where Vincent probably had. She called his name again and listened.

Nothing.

He wouldn't have left this area. She was sure of it. He would have known she would come back for him. He would have waited.

Unless he was too badly hurt to think clearly. Unless...

She pushed away the image of him lying somewhere bleeding, or unconscious. Or worse...

He was here. She'd find him.

 

Hours later he was still missing. Trembling with exhaustion, sick with dread, Catherine pushed her hair back from her face, then covered her eyes. She'd tramped back and forth, crisscrossing the forest, peering under trees and reaching into thickets. Nothing. Not a trace.

She choked back a sob. He had to be here. And she had to find him. But stumbling around in the dark wasn't the way to do it. Reluctantly, hating every step that took her away from him, she reeled back to the car and turned it toward town.

 

His face was pressed into the crushed stems of something soft and fragrant. He blinked, trying to orient himself.

Dizzy. And his head hurt. And his side. And his leg.

His sense of her was receding. She was going away.

She.

Catherine.

The name came to him suddenly, along with an awareness of who he was. Where he was. He lifted his head, ignoring the pounding behind his eyes, and looked around.

He was lying on a grassy slope, halfway between a stand of trees at the top of the hill and a group of buildings at its foot.

It was still dark, but his instincts warned it wouldn't be for long. Lying on the slope, in the open, made him horribly vulnerable, and the constant agony in his leg meant he wouldn't be able to travel far. He squinted at the trees at the top of the hill. They looked impossibly far, and he couldn't tell from here how far back they went.

The buildings looked a safer bet. There was a large building of dark brick and white-painted trim. Probably a house. Several smaller buildings of the same dark brick stood nearby. All were darkened, but only the big house seemed deserted. A smaller one seemed occupied, though Vincent couldn't define how he knew this. Another of the smaller buildings held livestock. Horses, maybe, or cattle. He wasn't sure. The smallest building of all wasn't brick at all, but wood. It smelled of fresh paint, and Vincent could see, as he crawled toward it, the white trim around its eaves.

The eastern horizon was streaked with pink and purple by the time he reached the building. He dragged himself right up against the foundation and lay there, exhausted and trembling. In a moment, he'd crawl around and see if he could find a way in.

Fatigue was his enemy now and he wanted nothing so much as to put his head down and close his eyes. He wondered if that, coupled with the dizziness and intermittent nausea, meant concussion. Or if he was simply worn out from the excitement of the weekend, the stress of the accident, and the sheer effort of getting to this place.

His sense of Catherine was fuzzy and hard to hold on to, but he could tell she was no longer nearby. She must be calling for help. Soon there would be people here, looking for him. All he needed to do was stay safe until they found him.

 

The little town was just beginning to stir when Catherine reached it. She drove slowly, looking for a pay phone. A lighted sign caught her eye and she pulled up in front of Ann's Restaurant. It seemed to be a popular place; even at this hour the parking lot was nearly full.

A pay phone was inside, near the cash register. Catherine dialled quickly and waited for the tones that meant her calling card had been approved. The phone on the other end began to ring.

A man's voice, gruff with sleep, answered.

"Peter?"

"Yeah. Which one is it?"

"It's Cathy."

"Huh? Oh, Cathy! I thought you were the answering service. I'm expecting babies to be born tonight. How was your weekend?" There was a moment's silence; she could almost hear his smile vanish as he took in the early hour. "Wait. What is it? What's wrong?"

The sudden concern in his voice made her want to cry. She fought the tears. "We had an accident."

"An accident?" He sounded fully awake and alert now. "Where? Were you hurt?"

"We're still in Connecticut," she answered. She told him the name of the town. "I'm okay. But Vincent..."

"How is he?"

The question brought a rush of tears; she choked on a sob. "I don't know. I can't find him."

 

Peter promised to come at once. Catherine found an empty booth and sank down into it. "Coffee?" a middle-aged waitress asked.

"Yes." Catherine turned the heavy china mug over so the woman could pour.

"Menu?"

She wasn't hungry. But she hadn't eaten since yesterday's lunch, and she'd need her strength. "Could you just bring me some toast?"

The waitress's brisk expression softened. "Sure thing, honey. Be right back."

Three hours later, Catherine was still hunched in the booth. She'd gone through at least a pot of coffee, but the food on her plate was barely touched.

The outside door squealed and she looked up, just as she'd done every other time it opened. This time, she lurched to her feet. "Peter. You came."

But he wasn't alone. Behind him, eyes blazing accusation, was Father.

Catherine wanted to look away, but her own sense of guilt held her fast. "I'm sorry, Father," she said when he reached her. "I know it's my fault..."

"Your fault, indeed! I told Vincent this was a foolhardy idea, but he was so determined to please you. And at what cost? He's missing, maybe hurt. Maybe worse." Father was just getting warmed up when Peter cut him off.

"Cathy knows all that, Jacob, and your fixing blame isn't going to help us find him. There'll be time for that when Vincent's back home safe and sound." He laid a bill on her table and took Catherine's arm. "Let's go outside."

Father and Peter hadn't come alone. Waiting in the parking lot was a veritable army: Jamie, Zach, Michael; Brooke and Simon and Rebecca; a handful of helpers she knew by sight but not by name.

Enough to search the woods and be sure Vincent wasn't missed. Catherine nearly sagged with relief.

"We'll need you to show us where to look," Peter was saying. "Come ride with us."

She nodded and climbed into the front of Peter's minivan, so like the one she'd been driving just a few hours earlier. Cars driven by helpers pulled out behind them. She guided them to the accident site.

"Right here," she said. "The van came to rest over here. I think he must have gone out the side door when no one was looking and gone into the woods here."

"Then this is where we'll begin," Peter said, and gave swift instructions to the rest. They fanned out and began combing the woods; occasionally a voice could be heard calling Vincent's name.

 

Vincent opened his eyes to blurred shadows. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, and turned his head. One of the shadows moved, reaching toward him. He growled, low in his throat, and raked the air with his claws.

The shadow leaped back, knocking something over in its haste.

"Damn it." The voice was young and female, whispering in the darkness.

The pale flicker of a flashlight, half-covered by a muffling hand, shot out, faintly illuminating his surroundings. He blinked again, willing his vision to clear. Gradually it did.

He was in a small, windowless room. Two walls were closely hung with tools and other implements. Bulky burlap sacks were stacked against a third wall. The fourth wall was mostly taken up by a wide, sliding door. A tool shed.

His companion was a teenage girl of perhaps fourteen. She set the flashlight down and rubbed her elbow through a tear in her flannel shirt, scowling. She was careful to keep her distance.

There was no harm in her; he knew it instinctively. Shamed that he had frightened her, he relaxed, letting his head drop to the floor. Something padded the cold concrete; he lifted a hand and found a folded blanket stuffed under his head as a pillow.

"Sorry," he rasped. It was difficult to find words to fit his thoughts, and that scared him. Reassuring the girl came first, though. "Didn't mean to frighten you."

She shook her head and edged closer. "It's not the first time. Here." She held out a plastic cup. "Drink some of this."

His lips and tongue were dry; he raised himself as well as he could and sipped water as she held the cup to his lips. "Thank you," he said when he settled back. "Better."

"Good." She sank back on her heels. "Do I get to know your name?"

Instinct urged him not to tell; inbred good manners argued the other way. He thought it through carefully, a slow, lumbering process that made his head ache. Good manners won out. "I am Vincent," he said slowly.

"I'm Melissa," she answered.

"Melissa," he repeated. "A lovely name."

She grinned a little and blushed. "Thanks."

Vincent glanced around the little shed. The last thing he remembered was lying in the grass outside. "How did I get in here?"

She bent over him. "You don't remember?"

"No."

"I found you in back of the shed. You talked to me. Don't you remember that?"

He searched his memory, but things seemed fragmented and hard to hold. He was sure he hadn't seen the girl before, though. "No," he answered.

"Well, you did. If you hadn't, I don't know what I'd have done. But you kept saying you had to hide, so I helped you in here."

"How long?"

"Have you been here? Since this morning. It's Tuesday," she added.

"What time? Now?"

"Just past dark."

The whole day gone! Catherine must be frantic. He tried to struggle up on his elbows, setting off fresh torment in his wounded ribs and leg and making his head pound.

"Don't do that," she chided him. "You'll make your head bleed again." It was ridiculously easy for her to press him back down.

"Looking for me..."

"Who?"

He struggled for words to explain. But all he could say was, "Catherine."

"Who's Catherine? You said her name before. Outside."

"My... Catherine."

"Like, your girlfriend?"

For a moment he wasn't sure what that meant. Then, suddenly, the word had meaning. If he'd been capable of blushing, he would have. "My friend."

"Oh." The girl sat back on her heels. "How do I find her?"

For that, Vincent had no answer. Catherine was nearby. She was frantic with worry. He knew that. But he had no idea how far he'd travelled last night, had no clear memory of the area where the accident had occurred. His connection with her was fuzzy, and he couldn't tell exactly where she might be. "Don't know."

The girl frowned. "That's a problem. I'll think about it, okay?"

It would have to do. He nodded.

The effort of talking had intensified his headache, and exhausted him; keeping his eyes open was an effort. The last thing he remembered was Melissa pulling his cloak up to cover him.

 

In the woods, the long shadows of evening faded swiftly into twilight.

"Catherine."

She'd spent the day crisscrossing the woods with the others, keeping to as straight a path as she could manage, stopping often to crawl beneath low-hanging branches or delve into thickets of underbrush. She straightened from peering behind a fallen tree. Michael waited, looking as tired and dirty as she felt. "Come on," he said. "It's getting dark."

She pulled away from the helping hand he offered. "No. I have to keep looking. I have to find him."

"We're going to find him," Michael answered. "But it's dark now. None of us have eaten since Peter brought the sandwiches for lunch."

Catherine hadn't managed to choke down more than two bites of the thick ham-and-cheese someone had thrust into her hands. That, coupled with the little breakfast she'd eaten, might account for her lightheadedness. Or was that because Vincent was hurt? Unconscious, maybe. Unconscious almost certainly, or he'd have responded to one of the many voices calling his name.

Wearily she pushed lank, dirty bangs out of her eyes. "Okay," she conceded.

The other searchers were already gathered around the parked cars. Catherine searched each face hopefully, but there was no encouragement. Only an endless repetition of small, unhappy headshakes. No one had found any trace of Vincent.

"That's everyone," Peter announced, after a quick head-count. "We'll head back to town for a hot dinner. Father and I found a motel that can accommodate us all..."

"No!" Catherine's protest was instinctive and involuntary. "We can't stop looking..."

"Cathy." Peter's voice was very kind. "We're all exhausted. It's too dark to search properly. We'll eat, we'll get a night's rest, and we'll be back here at dawn."

But Catherine could not be persuaded. "No," she insisted. "He's out there. Hurt. Maybe..." she stifled the thought. "He's hurt. I can't just leave him. I have to find him."

"We will, Cathy. Tomorrow. We can't find him in the dark. You know that."

Catherine turned on the others. "You can't just leave him here. We have to keep looking..."

"We will," an anonymous male voice said. "Tomorrow."

The faces around her were resigned and oddly sympathetic. She wanted to weep with frustration. They weren't going to listen. They were going back to town, and nothing she could do would stop them.

Discouraged, she turned back toward the woods. Peter caught her arm.

"Where do you think you're going?"

She was astonished that he'd even ask. "To look..."

"Not tonight you aren't."

She wrenched away from him. "I have to find him!" she shouted. "Don't you understand? He's lost and he's hurt and I have to find him."

"We all want to find him," Peter said, his voice steady, placating. "But not tonight. We'll find him tomorrow, but tonight you have to sleep. You have to eat. It won't do Vincent any good if you collapse."

Her mind saw the sense in what he said, but her heart resisted even when he took her arm again and drew her to the van.

All the way back to town she slumped against the door, staring out at the moonless sky.

While the rest of them searched, Peter had found the town's one motel and rented enough rooms for everyone to have a bed. When their little caravan pulled up in the little parking lot, he assumed control, assigning roommates and passing out keys. Finally he turned to Catherine. "I thought you and Jamie... but Jamie can go in with Brooke and Rebecca, if you like."

"No," she said hastily. "No. Jamie and I will be fine." She managed to smile at Jamie. "I think I'll be glad of the company."

In addition to finding the motel and providing lunch, Peter had also managed to secure Catherine's personal items from the wrecked rental van; she was relieved to find clothes and toiletries waiting in her room.

After a short break to wash up, all the searchers gathered in the room Father and Peter would share for the night. Peter had ordered pizza and soft drinks; Jamie and Michael spread out maps and leaned over them, marking out where they'd searched and where they hadn't, formulating a search plan for tomorrow.

Catherine sank unfeeling into a chair and accepted the plastic cup of soda someone pressed into her hand. She drank absently, only now aware of how dry her throat was after a day of climbing and calling.

Once, she looked up to meet Father's gaze, sharp and recriminating. She couldn't summon anything resembling indignation in her own defense.

She chewed listlessly on a slice of ham and pineapple pizza someone gave her, but she was too scared to have much appetite. She hardly noticed when someone else took the cold remnants away.

At last people began to drift off toward their own rooms. Jamie caught Catherine's eye and nodded; Peter walked them to the door. "We'll find him, Cathy," he said, bending to hug her. His voice was pitched so only she could hear. "We will."

"I hope so, Peter," she whispered. "I hope so."

Catherine lay awake long after Jamie's breathing had settled into relaxed regularity. She'd known before when Vincent was in trouble, even when she had no reason to know. Perhaps, if she concentrated very hard, she could pick up some small sense of him. She made a conscious effort to relax, breathing deeply, centering herself. Then she deliberately opened her mind, banishing stray thoughts that drifted in. After a while, her head began to ache, and her right leg throbbed dully above the ankle. She flexed the ankle and sighed, and ran a hand over her ribs on the same side; for some odd reason, they'd begun to ache, too. Probably from lying in the same position for so long.

But she wasn't giving up. She shifted slightly and reached out again. Sometime during her effort exhaustion overcame her, and she slept.

 

Melissa hurried through her chores the next morning so she'd have extra time in the shed. Vincent's eyes were open when she slipped inside.

"How are you?" she asked, kneeling beside him.

He still looked disoriented, but he no longer looked strange to her. "Better," he rasped, and sipped from the cup she offered. "My leg hurts."

She frowned. He hadn't mentioned the leg before, and she had been too intimidated by his appearance and size to check for more than the obvious injuries. "Which one?"

He pointed and, after a questioning look that met with a nod, she lifted the blanket and probed gently. "Here?" she asked, when he gasped and flinched.

"Yes."

"I think it might be broken," she said. "It's really swollen, but it's too high to be a sprain. I think."

"Me, too," he agreed.

She frowned. "Would it help if I put something around it?"

"A splint. We have to immobilize it."

The mere thought of setting a broken leg was enough to make her heart leap into her throat. "Maybe just a bandage?"

He shook his head, then looked as if he regretted it. "A splint," he insisted. "I know how. I'll help."

She wondered how he could, with his head hurting as she knew it did, but she didn't argue. Her father had finished his morning chores and was in the house fixing breakfast; to avoid him, she ran across to the barn. There were some horse bandages in the tack room and she grabbed three or four of them and raced back.

"Here," she said, spilling them out where he could see them. "Will these do?"

He nodded. "We'll need a short piece of wood. Or maybe some cardboard..."

A length of wood meant going to her father's shop, which meant crossing the yard where he might see her. She couldn't risk his curiosity. But there were empty cardboard boxes in the garage. She could reach that without being seen. She brought a box back quickly. "Now what?"

Following his directions, she hacked the cardboard into a rough square, then folded it, making a double thickness rectangle. She shaped the rectangle into a kind of cradle for his lower leg. He gasped once or twice as she maneuvered his leg into the cradle, but didn't cry out. She concentrated on her work; too much attention to his pain would distract her and make her hurt him more.

She pulled the sides of the cardboard cradle up and around his calf, then wrapped it tightly with the horse bandages. When she finished, his leg was encased from just below the knee to the sole of his foot in cardboard and bandages, and was thoroughly immobilized. "How's that?"

"Better," he mumbled, but his face was ashen under the peculiar golden tone, and sweat beaded his forehead.

"I'm sorry," she said, offering him a sip from the water cup. "It'll be better now."

"Yes," he agreed. "You have a doctor's touch."

To her surprise, she found herself blushing. "I don't know about that..."

"I do. My father is a doctor; he has the same way about him - be gentle, but do it quickly."

"I want to be a vet when I grow up," she admitted, and then blushed even harder. "I mean, I don't mean you'd need... I mean..." She hid her face in her hands. "I don't know what I mean."

"I do." His smile showed the tips of his long, sharp teeth, but his differences no longer had the power to frighten her. He was far too gentle.

She scrambled to her feet. "I have to go. I have school. I'll smuggle you some food before I go, though, if you feel up to eating today?"

"Perhaps some toast," he said, after reflection. "Some tea, if you have it?"

"I think we do. I'll look after Daddy's gone out."

She closed him into the shed and ran to the house.

"Where've you been?" her father asked. "You're late." So late that he'd started eating breakfast without her and now was nearly finished.

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Don't miss the bus," he warned. "I don't have time to drive you. I've got to get the pasture mowed, and it looks like rain this afternoon." He pushed to his feet and carried his plate to the sink.

Melissa waited until she heard the roar of the tractor before sweeping the uneaten breakfast toast into a napkin and setting the kettle to boil. She put the dishes in the sink and ran water over them, then searched the cupboards for tea bags. She finally found them, a little dusty but still smelling of tea, behind an old box of baking soda. By then the kettle was boiling. She took one of the big, heavy mugs her father favored and poured the boiling water over one of the tea bags.

Vincent was resting, but opened his eyes when she came in. "I found the tea," she whispered. "And brought some toast."

She sat on the floor beside him and offered breakfast. He reached for the mug. "You can take the tea bag out now," he told her after a first experimental sip.

"Is it okay?" she asked anxiously, pulling out the soggy bag. "I'm not good at this kind of stuff."

"It's fine," he assured her. He drank the rest of the tea, but only managed half a piece of toast before sinking back down on the folded horse blanket that served as his pillow.

"You're still sick," she accused.

"Head hurts," he admitted. "Nausea..."

She knew enough to know that nausea could be a symptom of a head injury, but not enough to definitely diagnose it as his problem. But his thinking seemed clearer today. She bit her lip. "What should I do for you?"

He didn't answer.

"Vincent?" She bent over him. His eyes were closed; from the sound of his breathing, he'd fallen asleep.

He was sleeping an awful lot - every time she'd checked on him yesterday he was asleep, and she was pretty sure he'd slept all night, too. She wondered if that was normal, or if she should worry about it. And then she wondered if what she thought of as normal even applied to him.

She wished she could stay home and keep an eye on him today, but there was no chance of that. If she hurried now, she'd just make the school bus. With a last look to be sure Vincent was resting comfortably, she locked the shed and ran.

 

The second day of searching proved as fruitless as the first. Catherine chafed at the slow progress they made. There were so many places - fallen trees, patches of heavy growth, outcroppings of rock - an injured Vincent could have crawled to hide himself, and every one had to be carefully searched; most had to be approached on hands and knees. A light rain had fallen all afternoon, creating images of Vincent lying hurt and wet, unable to protect himself from the weather. Looking at their grim, grey faces, she knew the other searchers imagined the same thing.

When night fell, though, she went back to town without protest; she was soaked to the skin, bruised and scraped, and so tired she ached all over. She desperately needed to rest before she went on.

Once again, though, she lay awake long after Jamie's breathing quieted and became regular, reaching through the darkness for the slightest sense of him. And once again she failed.

 

The next morning, Peter insisted they all walk across to the diner for breakfast. Catherine wasn't hungry, but she accompanied them anyway. Hot coffee couldn't hurt. While they were there, Bud, the man who owned the garage and the car she had rented, approached.

"Miss Chandler," he said, touching his cap.

She offered a wan smile. "Good morning, Mr. Hill."

"'Scuse me for saying so, Miss, but you don't look too good. Not sick, are you?"

"No. Just tired. Still shaken up from the accident, I guess. What can I do for you?"

"Well, miss, I was noticing that you have friends here now," he nodded politely to Jamie, Brooke, and Rebecca, who shared the booth, "and wondered if I couldn't have my car back. Mrs. Jennings needs a new transmission, and she's going to need something to drive while I put it in."

"Of course." She scrabbled in her purse for the keys. "It's parked across at the motel."

"Yes, ma'am, I saw it there." He hesitated.

"Is there something else?"

"Well..." he rocked forward and back, as if thinking. "I hear you people have been searching Danson's woods."

"Is that what you call where the accident took place?" Catherine asked.

He nodded. "A rich feller named Danson owns all that land around there. Doesn't use it for anything, either. Just owns it."

"I see." Catherine paused, but there really wasn't any way to hide the fact that they'd been searching. Dozens of people must have driven past and seen them the past two days. "Yes, as a matter of fact, we have been searching up there."

"Thought so. What are you looking for? Maybe some of the locals can help."

Catherine glanced at Brooke, seeking inspiration. Brooke gave a tiny helpless shrug.

"Her dog," Rebecca broke in. "He was in the back of the van, and got out somehow. We're trying to find him."

"That's right," Catherine agreed, relieved. "My dog."

"Seems like a lot of effort to find a dog," Bud observed. "An awful lot of people up here."

"He's a very special dog," Catherine said, wracking her brains to think of an exotic breed. All she could think of was Golden Retrievers and poodles. But Golden Retrievers made her think of something else. "He's a trained seeing-eye dog."

Bud raised an eyebrow. "Thought you said he was your dog? You don't look blind to me."

"She's not," Brooke broke in, helping. "What she means is, it's her dog for right now, but she was taking him to a school where he'll be matched with a blind person. Then he'll be the blind person's dog."

"That right? Mighty fine work, miss, training dogs to help blind people. Must be fulfilling."

Catherine didn't correct his assumption. "It is," she agreed.

"Maybe you should put up flyers or something. Chances are one of the locals has seen him."

"That's a good idea," Catherine said. "We'll do that."

"And if I hear of a loose dog, I'll let you know." He touched his cap. "Ladies."

They watched him exit the diner, then all sagged in relief. "I thought we were done for!" Jamie muttered.

"Thank goodness for Rebecca," Catherine added. "For thinking of the dog."

"But a seeing eye dog? Really, Catherine."

She smiled for the first time in three days. "It was dumb, I know. But at the time, it was all I could think of."

"Well, it worked, anyway," Rebecca said. "That's all that counts. Come on. Peter's leaving."

 

On the way to the accident site, Catherine told Peter about what Bud Hill had said. He frowned. "That's not good. All we need is for local kids to get the idea there's something to be found in those woods. If one of them came across Vincent, there's no telling what might happen."

"You can't think he would hurt a child," Catherine protested.

"If he's as badly hurt as we suspect, he might not recognize a child. He might only perceive danger, and strike out. It would spell disaster, Cathy."

"We can't stop looking for him. Not until we find him."

"I agree," Peter said, surprising her. "But not so many of us. We're attracting too much attention."

She started to protest, but he shook his head, cutting her off.

"We'll be done searching the woods today anyway, and after that it'll be more a case of asking questions, finding out if he's been seen, than of sheer manpower searching every square foot."

"You're sending them back. All of them?"

"All that will go. Jacob may insist on staying."

 

Vincent slept much of Wednesday evening, barely rousing to sip at a mug of chicken noodle soup Melissa had warmed from a can and chew on a couple of crackers. He was still lethargic Thursday morning, but more alert when she got home from school that afternoon.

He'd managed to move himself while she was gone. This morning he'd been lying flat in the middle of the shed's concrete floor; now he lay with head and shoulders propped on a burlap bag full of seed.

"You're feeling better," she declared.

He accepted the cup of water she held out. "I thought it might help to raise my head."

"Does it?"

His lips quirked. "A little."

"I wish I could give you something. Aspirin or Tylenol..."

He shook his head gingerly. "Doesn't help. I need time. And Catherine." He seemed to look inward. "She fears for me."

Melissa had no solution for him. "You should drink your water," she said, to distract him.

He turned the cup in his hands, but didn't raise it to his lips. "Who are you, Melissa?" he asked instead. "What do you want of life?"

She frowned. No one had ever asked her that before. "Well," she began slowly. "I'm Melissa Rawley. I'm fourteen. I live here with my dad."

"And your mother?"

She looked away. "She died. A couple of years ago."

"I'm sorry."

She looked and saw in his eyes that he meant it. "Yeah. Anyway, after that, my dad quit his job and we moved here."

"Where is here?"

"Here - the Danson estate. My father's the caretaker. We live in a cottage between here and the big house."

"Are there many people here?"

"Just me and my dad, most of the time. Mr. and Mrs. Danson come maybe once or twice a year. Sometimes they only stay for a weekend."

"It must be lonely for you."

She shrugged. "Sometimes. I like the solitude, though. I have the whole estate to wander in. More than a thousand acres. Trees to climb, neat hiding places..."

He smiled. "Sounds like a child's wonderland. But you aren't precisely a child anymore."

His observation made her blush and duck her head. "No," she agreed, too swiftly. "I have to go do my chores now, but I'll come back later, okay?"

He nodded slow acceptance. "Okay."

 

"I can't go!" Father stormed. "Not until he's found!"

Catherine, trapped in the middle seat of Peter's van, made herself as small as possible; beside her, Jamie was doing the same thing. In the seat behind them, Michael, Simon, and Rebecca were also drawing back from the noisy altercation taking place in the front seat.

Peter took his eyes from the road long enough to give Father a fierce look. "You have to, Jacob," he insisted. "You can't look for Vincent properly with your bad hip. You can't drive a car, so you can't bring food and drink to us. And I know as much about Vincent's physiology as you do; I'm perfectly qualified to treat him."

"I can't just go home, Peter," Father protested. "Not and leave him here..."

"You can't help here," Peter told him. "So many people are attracting unnecessary attention; you're needed in the tunnels. Catherine and I will find him."

Catherine fervently wished her name hadn't been dragged into it, but the expected explosion didn't come. Instead, Father twisted to look at her.

She looked back, trying to keep her face impassive. After a moment he looked away.

Peter reached across to grip Father's hand. "Look, Jacob, I know how worried you are. We all are. But at this point, you're more a liability than a help. Go back with the others. Wait. We'll bring him home. I promise."

Father was silent so long that Catherine began to suspect he'd given up the argument and planned to simply refuse to leave. But a moment later he stirred. "You'll get word to me..." His voice was soft, pleading.

Her heart, already raw and bruised, went out to him. He was scared, too.

"The moment he's found," Peter promised. "I won't let you worry any longer than necessary."

As they pulled up in front of the motel, the other searchers scattered to collect their belongings and pack for the trip home. Catherine lingered outside, wanting to thank them all and say goodbye.

The rain had finally stopped, and the sliding side door to a helper's van stood open for loading. Weary and discouraged, she sank down in the opening and buried her face in her hands. She'd been fighting despair, but now it rose up to engulf her. She began to weep, quietly, into her hands.

A touch on her shoulder made her catch her breath; she swiped hurriedly at her tears and looked up.

Father stood there, looking faintly absurd in suit and tie. He gestured. "May I?"

The van's doorway was plenty wide enough for two people. She scooted over and he sat gingerly beside her. She held herself stiffly, waiting to be reproached yet again for her foolishness in bringing Vincent out here.

Father's posture was just as stiff. Hands on knees, he looked straight ahead.

She wondered if now he would be willing to hear her apology. "Father, I'm sorry," she said in a rush. "It's all my fault he's missing, I never should have agreed..."

He brought his hand up swiftly, cutting her off.

She wrapped her arms around her middle and waited to be chastised.

Instead, Father put his arm around her shoulders. "Dear Catherine," he said softly. "This has been hardest of all on you, hasn't it?"

His unexpected sympathy was too much; her pent-up anguish released itself in a gush of tears, a torrent of choking sobs. Father held her, rocking gently, and offered a snowy handkerchief when she finally stopped crying. "Dear Catherine," he said again.

"But it is my fault," she whispered. "I know it is."

"No," Father disagreed. "I was angry, Catherine, and frightened, and I said things I regret now. Vincent wanted to go - not only to please you, but for himself, too."

"It was my idea. If I hadn't said anything..."

"Vincent would never have seen a mountain, or a lake, or even stood unafraid in the sunshine. You gave him those things, Catherine, and I am grateful." He paused, and his voice turned wistful. "Would you indulge an old man and tell me about your weekend? I'd like to hear about it."

"He picked me flowers," she said, remembering. "Big bunches of wildflowers - I don't know the names. We went wading in the shallows of the lake, and even fished from the bank, but we didn't catch anything. We lay in the tall grass and let the sun beat down on us... we had a fire in the fireplace at night and toasted marshmallows over the flames. Silly things. Little things."

"And he was happy?"

She thought back to the last time she'd actually seen him, standing beside the van, taking a last look around. "He talked about next time."

Father sighed. "I expected that. Once he'd tasted freedom, he would have chafed at the restrictions our life and his differences placed on him."

"Don't do that." Catherine was surprised at how harsh her own voice sounded.

"What?" Father asked, surprised.

"Talk about him in the past tense. He's alive. He's alive, Father, and I'm not giving up until I find him."

 

"Strangers have been searching the property along the highway," Melissa's father said, dropping the words casually into their dinner conversation.

Melissa's heart stuttered. If strangers were searching, they were looking for Vincent! His friend Catherine would be among them. "Strangers?" she repeated carefully.

"City folk. Bob Nelson stopped by this morning to tell me about it. Seems they're looking for a Golden Retriever dog. You seen a dog around here the past few days?"

The dog was a ruse, Melissa was sure. "No," she answered. "No dog."

"Me, either," he said. "I went up there this afternoon, talked to them. They've about decided the dog moved on; today was the last day they were going to spend looking."

Melissa's heart sank. From the moment her father first mentioned the searchers, she'd been planning how she'd approach them, how she'd find Catherine. How she'd tell Catherine about Vincent, where he was, that he was safe. Now she couldn't. "Do you know where the people are staying, in case we do see the dog?" she asked.

Her father shrugged. "Sounded like they were going back to the city," he answered. "Probably leave a phone number with the sheriff, maybe put up a notice down at Ann's..."

"Yeah," Melissa agreed, disheartened. For a moment, she'd thought Vincent was rescued.

After supper, she filled a plate with leftover macaroni and cheese and peas. She hid the plate under a dishtowel while she washed the other dishes.

"Homework done?" her father inquired as she headed toward the back door.

Most of the time, Melissa finished her homework during study period at school, and today was no different. But his question reminded her of something else. "All except a report I have to do for social studies. I need a book from the library for that."

He nodded. "We'll get to the library this week," he promised. "Now where are you off to?"

"Just out," she answered as casually as she could. "The rain had me cooped up all afternoon. It's stopped now, so I thought I'd try to find Skeeter's kittens."

Her father snorted. "She's had a half-dozen litters and we've never found a one of them."

Melissa grinned. "I know. But it's fun looking."

"Well, enjoy yourself. But don't expect to see those kittens until they're old enough to come find you. And don't forget about bedtime. You have school in the morning." He went back to his newspaper; Melissa snatched up the plate she'd fixed and ran out, letting the screen door slam behind her.

This time, Vincent managed to eat some of the solid food, and drink two cups of water.

"Thank you," he murmured when he was finished.

"I wish you'd eat more," she fretted, looking at the food still on the plate. "I don't know how you can get well if you don't eat."

"I'm fine," he assured her.

"Yeah," she said doubtfully, wishing she fully believed him. He didn't look right. "Listen, Vincent, I have to tell you something."

He was always a polite and attentive listener; his expression didn't change as she told him about the searchers. "They're all done looking now," she said mournfully. "I wish I'd known they were there; I would have gone up and told them where to find you. But they've all gone back to the city now."

His eyes glistened, but whether in humor or in sadness, she couldn't tell. "Catherine is not in the city," he said soberly. "She is still nearby."

His certainty confused her. "Here? But how do you know?"

He shook his head slightly, and closed his eyes. "I know."

Perplexed, Melissa sank to sit crosslegged on the cement floor beside him. "You can tell where she is?"

"Yes." His admission seemed grudging, but there was no doubt in his voice.

"So, then," Melissa said, carefully, "why can't you tell me how to find her?"

His lips quirked in the ghost of a smile. "She is east of here - perhaps a bit north, as well. And not far enough to be in the city. Which is south, in any case."

She gaped at him. "You can tell that? Just by, what, thinking of her?"

"Even when I am not thinking of her," he whispered. "She is always there."

She couldn't resist the urge to tease him. "Where? East and a little north?"

His eyes popped open and this time there was no doubting the mirth. "No, silly. In my heart. My heart tells me where to find her."

"And now, that's east and a little north. Sounds like town, to me. Hey!" Another idea flitted through her mind. "Wonder if she's staying at one of the motels?" She scrambled to her feet. "I'll go right now and call."

But when she got back to the cottage, her father was waiting. "I was about to come look for you," he said. "Past your bedtime."

"Is it?" Melissa glanced at the clock in confusion. She didn't know it was so late.

"Find the kittens?"

It was a moment before his question sank in. "Huh? Oh. No. Not Skeeter, either."

"Didn't think you would. But I hope you had fun looking. Now get yourself to bed."

In the morning, she had to wait until her father left the house before she could call around looking for Catherine. She took Vincent his breakfast while she waited.

He listened quietly to her explanation of why she hadn't called yet. "Don't worry," he told her. "Catherine isn't going anywhere. Not until I'm found."

She nodded, a little awed by how calm he was. When he'd finished picking at his food, she took the dishes back to the house. Her father was on his way out.

She watched him cross the yard toward the big barn, then sprang for the telephone. Fifteen minutes later, she cradled it in disappointment. None of the town's four motels had someone named Catherine Chandler registered as a guest. None would tell her if people from New York were now or had recently been guests at their establishments.

Remembering what her father had said, she put in a final call to the sheriff's office. No one from New York or anyplace else had left a number to be called if a lost dog was found.

And she didn't even have time to go tell Vincent of her failure. She snatched up her backpack, grabbed the paper sack containing her lunch, and pelted up the long drive, hoping the school bus hadn't already left her.

 

Catherine slept more soundly than in recent nights, but still woke early. The soft sound of Jamie's breathing was a comfort in the still, pre-dawn air, and she was suddenly, fiercely glad that Jamie had refused to go back with the others. Peter was fine, but having another woman along made a difference. It meant she didn't have to sleep alone, for one thing; Catherine's thoughts were dark enough without solitude to encourage them.

The sun was well risen by the time they finished breakfast. As usual, Catherine merely picked at her food; she couldn't help wondering at each meal if Vincent had enough to eat.

Over coffee, Peter began a discussion of the day's plan of action.

"He's not in the woods," Peter said, confirming what they all knew. "If he were, we'd have found him. I'm actually encouraged by that," he added.

Jamie cocked her head in a question.

"It means he was able to travel on his own," Catherine explained, her voice barely above a whisper. "If he'd been too badly hurt - if he'd been..." she faltered, skipping over the dreadful possibility "...we'd have found him."

"Unless," Jamie said, pragmatic and grim, "somebody else found him first."

Catherine didn't want to think about that, but it was something that would have to be faced. "If someone has," she managed, keeping her voice steady with effort, "how would we find out? How would we look? We can't ask if anyone's seen him."

Peter rubbed his chin. "I don't think we have to worry about Mr. Rawley - the man who talked to Michael yesterday."

"The caretaker," Jamie remembered. "Yes, Michael said he just wondered what we were doing on his employer's property." She flashed a quick grin. "And said he hadn't seen any Golden Retriever dogs running around."

"I'm never going to live that one down, am I?" Catherine asked ruefully. She even managed the ghost of a smile.

"Doesn't look like it," Peter agreed, and patted her hand. "I agree Rawley's unlikely to have Vincent locked up anywhere. Now, this connection I keep hearing about. This bond. How does it work?"

Catherine sighed. "I wish I knew."

"I know he can find you through it. Can you find him?"

During the early mornings, she'd been trying to do just that. All she'd managed was to assemble a montage of vague impressions. None of them was particularly helpful.

She sighed. "If I could, I'd have done so by now. I know he's not dead; I'd feel it if he were. I think he's nearby; I think he may be in some pain. But I don't know where to start looking to find him."

"I guess," Peter said slowly, "we assume he'd be moving in the direction of New York, trying to get home. So let's drive back out to the accident site and work our way toward the city. We'll knock at doors, we'll ask discreet questions. Maybe somebody's seen something."

Jamie and Catherine nodded agreement; what else could they do? But when Peter prepared to turn south off the highway near the accident site, Catherine stopped him. "Not this way," she said, surprising even herself. "He's not down there."

Peter stopped the van and looked at her in astonishment. "I thought you couldn't tell where he is?"

"I can't. I just know he isn't down there. I just know."

Peter let out a long breath; in the seat behind them, Jamie was unnaturally still. "Okay," Peter said slowly. "You tell me, then. Which way?"

Catherine closed her eyes and waited for something to nudge her one way or another. Nothing did. When she opened her eyes again, there were tears in them. "I don't know," she whispered.

"I do," Jamie said, from the back seat. "He wouldn't be trying to go back to the city. He'd be trying to find Catherine. He'd be working his way toward town."

It made sense; more, to Catherine it felt right. If he was lucid, he'd know where she was. He'd know she was looking for him, and that she'd have a way to get him safely home. And even if he wasn't lucid, if he was too badly hurt for that - surely his instincts would bring him to her? She wondered if she ought to remain in town, give him a steady beacon to home in on. But she couldn't bear not to be involved in the search.

"We can skip the Danson place, since Michael talked to the caretaker yesterday," Peter planned. "We'll start with the next farm toward town and work our way in. Guess that means another night in the motel."

They'd checked out that morning, but it would be easy enough to check back in if it was necessary. Catherine prayed fervently it wouldn't be. She didn't want another sleepless night on room 107's sagging mattress; she wanted to find Vincent, to hug him and kiss him and bandage his hurts. And to take him home.

As Peter turned into a farmer's narrow, rutted driveway, she began planning the questions they'd ask.

 

Vincent accepted Melissa's failure to locate the searchers from New York with more equanimity than she'd expected. She wondered if he was just putting on a good front so as not to worry her.

"Anyway," she told him, "I brought you some soup. Dad's making hamburgers for supper, and he only makes enough for us, so I can't steal one."

"Soup is fine," he assured her. "I haven't much appetite anyway."

She passed over the tall, thick mug and a handful of crackers wrapped in a napkin, and settled down beside him. "Do you get bored lying here in the dark all day?"

He sipped from the mug. "No," he answered, when he'd swallowed. "Not bored. Anxious, because I know my friends are worried for me. And I sleep a lot."

She already knew that part, of course. "You sleep too much," she answered. "Is it because you're hurt?"

"Perhaps," he answered, and took another sip of soup. "At any rate, it keeps me from spending too much time lying here thinking. And of course I have the occasional visitor."

Melissa sat up straight, alarmed. "Visitors?"

He smiled, showing the tips of his long sharp teeth. "There are mice."

"Oh." She knew about the mice. They were always getting into the burlap bags of seed Vincent rested against, and her father was always setting out traps and poison. "My dad complains about the barn cats not doing their job."

"One of them visited me this morning, as well."

"One of the cats?"

He nodded. "A brown tabby, I believe it was. Came right up and sniffed me."

Melissa couldn't help a small bounce of excitement. "That's Skeeter. She's just had kittens, so I'm surprised she was here."

"Don't be. I think there must be a hole under the shed floor - I can hear the kittens mewing."

"Really?" Melissa flew outside to investigate. Sure enough, on the back side of the shed was a small hole that started close to the foundation and turned back underneath it. She put her hand in and touched a warm, inert mass of sleeping kittens. She disentangled one and lifted it out. Its eyes were still shut; it struggled to lift its oversized head and mewed.

"Hi, there, little one," she crooned, stroking it. "You're beautiful." She glanced up to see Skeeter picking her way across the field. "Oops, here comes your mama. Better put you back."

She returned the kitten to the nest and stood back. Skeeter approached daintily, then sat down and licked a paw.

"Too late," Melissa told her. "I've found them. And I won't hurt them, so you don't have to move them. Okay?"

The cat stopped washing and stared, then bolted past and dived into the hole. A chorus of tiny, plaintive mews sounded; Melissa imagined the kittens swarming to find dinner.

She chuckled and went back inside.

"You found them," Vincent observed.

"I held one," she answered. "Oh, Vincent, it was so tiny, and so perfect! I'll bring you one tomorrow so you can see it."

He smiled. "You like animals."

"I love them."

"You'll make a good veterinarian," he predicted.

She looked away. "If I ever get to be one."

"You said it was what you wanted. Is there a problem?"

"My dad says the work's too hard for a girl. And vet school takes a long time, and costs a lot." She tugged at a loose thread hanging from the untucked hem of her shirt. "I might not even get to go to college."

"If you want it badly enough, you will."

She shook her head. "Not if Daddy has his way."

His large, furry hand covered hers. "Your father loves you."

She swiped at a furtive tear. "Of course he does. I love him, too. But he tries too hard to protect me, and worries and stuff since my mom died."

"It must be very difficult for both of you." He seemed to look inward. "I have... a very dear friend... who lost her mother at about the same age you were when you lost yours."

"Catherine?" she guessed.

He looked surprised. "Yes. How did you know?"

She grinned. "You get this look on your face when you talk about her."

"A look?"

"Yeah. Kind of soft and quiet and happy."

If she had to guess, she'd have said she embarrassed him. He looked away.

"You miss her, don't you?" she asked softly.

"Yes," he answered, still gazing through the open shed door. "Very much."

She pressed his hand. "She's looking for you, Vincent. You know she is. Somehow we'll find her, or she'll find us, and everything will be okay."

 

Melissa rolled out of bed early the next morning. It was finally Saturday, so she could spend the whole time with Vincent. He was still sleeping when Melissa went out to the shed. She knelt, careful to keep out of swatting range, and called his name. He was hard to rouse, but finally his eyes opened and focused on her.

"Good morning," she greeted cheerfully. "I brought some scrambled eggs and bacon with your toast this morning."

He rolled his head away from her. "No food."

Now that he was awake, it was safe to approach. She crawled over beside him. "Is the nausea back?" She laid a hand on his shoulder; even through all the layers of clothing he wore, she could feel the heat of his body. She moved her hand to his forehead. "You're so hot!"

"Feverish," he admitted, turning back to face her.

Now that she saw him clearly, he didn't look well at all. His eyes were filmed and sunken, his lips dry. His skin looked dull. "Infection?" she wondered aloud. "But you only had the one cut on your forehead, and that looks like it's healing just fine."

"Sometimes... injury affects me this way," he explained haltingly. As when she'd first found him, he seemed to find it difficult to vocalize his thoughts.

His appearance and lethargy scared her. "What should I do? I suppose you can't take aspirin for this, either."

He gave a weak chuckle and shook his head. "Nothing helps. Except, perhaps..." His voice faded away and his eyes closed.

"Except?" she prompted him, hoping he wasn't asleep.

He seemed to rouse himself from a great depth. "...a cool cloth for my head?"

"Sure. I'll get one right away." She raced all the way to the house; her father intercepted her on her way back out with a handful of rags and a small basin of cold water.

"Where are you going with that?" he asked.

Melissa thought fast. "I found Skeeter's kittens," she said. She hated deceiving him, but at least it wasn't an out and out lie.

"Oh. Rags for a soft nest, I suppose. And water for the weary mother?"

Melissa made a noncommittal sound that he took for agreement. "Okay, but hurry back, okay? I'm going into town; I'll drop you off so you can go to the library for that book you've been hounding me about."

Melissa was stricken. "Oh, Daddy, no. Not today. I have stuff to do."

"Like play with the new kittens, I suppose. But you can do that later. You said you needed this book for a school report you have to turn in, and I won't be going back to town until mid-week. So make the kittens comfortable and get back here. I want to be home before noon."

When he made up his mind like that, there was no use trying to change it. "Okay, Daddy," she agreed.

She hurried to the shed, slopping water from the basin in her haste. There was still enough to wet the cloth, though. She laid the wet rag across Vincent's forehead. He thanked her without opening his eyes.

"I'll be gone for a while," she whispered. "I have to go into town with my dad. But I'll come out as soon as I get home, okay?"

His nod was perfunctory; she wondered if he'd even understood.

 

"I'll drop you at the library," her father said as they passed the town limits. "Meet me at the feed store when you're done. About an hour?"

"About," she agreed, and climbed out of the truck. She waved. "See you!"

His hand out the open window was his reply. It didn't take her long to find the book she needed for her paper. She chose a few novels from the young adult section while she was there, and bundled the short stack of books into a crumpled plastic grocery sack provided by the librarian.

She had just reached the feed store when a passing car slowed and honked. Her friend Paula Morris leaned out the car's window and waved. "Hey!" Paula shouted. "I didn't know you'd be in town today!"

"Me, either!" Melissa shouted back.

"We're going to the diner for ice cream. Want to come?"

Paula's older sister, at the car's wheel, smiled and waved.

Ice cream was tempting, but Melissa thought of Vincent, hurt and maybe sick, waiting back in the shed. "I'd better not," she said, reluctantly. "I'm meeting my dad." She gestured vaguely toward the feed store.

"We'll take you home!" Paula volunteered, even though Melissa's home was a good ten miles past where Paula lived. "You know Celia's only had her license a few weeks - she loves to drive!"

Celia nodded agreement. "We'll take you home!" she confirmed, leaning around Paula.

Melissa's father chose that moment to step down off the feed store's low loading dock. "Hi, hon," he greeted her. "Find your book?"

She hefted the grocery sack in reply.

"Good. Hi, Paula. And Celia, isn't it?"

"Hi, Mr. Rawley!" Paula shouted back. "Can Melissa go with us for ice cream at the diner? We'll bring her home."

He looked surprised and then pleased. "Sure she can," he answered, digging in his pocket. He handed Melissa a crumpled five dollar bill. "You don't get to spend enough time with your friends," he told her. "You go and have a good time. Just be home before dark."

After that, there was no graceful way for Melissa to escape. She handed her father the sack of books and climbed in the car beside Paula.

The diner was always crowded on Saturdays; they had to wait about ten minutes before a booth emptied. Melissa used part of the time to take a surreptitious look at the notice board posted near the cash register. There were no "lost" notices about Golden Retriever dogs, with or without New York phone numbers.

When the booth was finally ready, the girls slid into it, giggling, and gave their orders to Ruthie.

If she hadn't been harboring a niggling worry over Vincent, Melissa would have loved the afternoon, but even her concern wasn't enough to keep her from having a good time. One of Celia's friends from high school joined them and they passed a pleasant half hour talking and eating ice cream. Then Paula decided the huge chocolate and strawberry sundae she'd had wasn't enough, and ordered french fries. "For dessert," she announced happily when they came.

Talk turned to boys, and Melissa's attention began to wander. She was beginning to notice boys, but horses and kittens still held far more appeal.

She glanced at the booth beside theirs. It was occupied by an older, lean-faced man and two women. The women were much younger and she speculated whether they might be his daughters. All three looked tired and drawn. Maybe they were travelling and pushing themselves too hard. Or maybe they'd gotten some bad news recently. There was a sadness about them - especially about the older woman.

"Don't you think so, Melissa?"

Startled, she turned back to the conversation. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Trevor Emmons. Don't you think he's the cutest boy in eighth grade?"

Trevor Emmons was the cutest boy in eighth grade. No contest. The trouble was, he knew it. Melissa didn't like his stuck-up attitude, and said so.

"But he's so cute," Paula sighed. "Who cares if he's stuck up?"

"I care," she argued. The people in the booth beside them got up to leave, and the older woman knocked her purse to the floor.

"Here, Catherine," said the man. "I'll get it."

"What someone looks like isn't as important as what they're like inside," Melissa continued her argument. "I'd lots rather be friends with a boy who's maybe not that cute, but who's really nice."

The older woman from the next table overheard, and looked up from checking the contents of her purse to smile approval.

Paula began passionately arguing her own viewpoint, but Melissa only half heard it. What the man at the next table had said when the purse spilled registered several beats late, like a delayed double-take. She pushed to her feet. "Excuse me," she muttered, and hurried after the trio.

They were well ahead of her; they'd already crossed the street, heading for the nearest motel. By the time Melissa caught up with them, they were gathered around a mini-van with New York plates. "You girls are sure you have everything from your room?" the man asked.

The younger woman nodded. The older one pushed a hand through her hair in a weary gesture and said, "Yes, Peter. It's all in the van. Go ahead and check out."

"Excuse me," Melissa said.

All three stopped and looked at her politely. "What can we do for you?" asked the man. Peter.

What she was about to say seemed absurd, even to Melissa. But she'd never forgive herself if she didn't ask. "I know this sounds stupid, but it's important. Really."

"Go ahead," the man urged. She could see she had his full attention. But it was the older woman she turned to.

"Over at Ann's... I didn't mean to listen, but I heard him call you Catherine."

Suddenly she had the woman's full attention, too. "Yes."

Melissa was so nervous her hands were shaking. Breathing was suddenly difficult. "Do you know someone named Vincent?"

Catherine's face, pale to begin with, went ashen.

The younger woman clapped her hands together and gasped.

Peter muttered something that sounded like a prayer of thanksgiving. "Yes, we do," he said strongly. "Do you know where he is?"

Melissa nodded.

Catherine clutched her arm, as worried as Vincent had said she was. "Is he all right?"

"Kind of, I guess. He has a broken leg and maybe some ribs and he hit his head. He was feverish this morning. I didn't want to leave him, but my dad made me."

"Your father's with him now?" That was Peter.

"No! Daddy wouldn't understand about Vincent. I had to leave him alone."

"Can you show us where he is?" Catherine's voice and eyes were frantic.

Melissa had been conditioned from childhood never to accept a ride with strangers, but this was Vincent's Catherine. These other people were Catherine's friends. Surely it would be okay, just this once. "Sure," she agreed. "Just let me say goodbye to my friends."

An adult would never have allowed her to go off without calling her father to check, but Celia merely looked uncertain, then nodded. "Sure," she agreed. "If they're friends of your family."

Guilt pricked over the lie, but Melissa didn't let it deter her. She hurried outside and climbed into the front passenger seat of the van.

Peter, who introduced himself more fully as Dr. Peter Alcott, drove; Catherine and the other woman, called Jamie, perched anxiously in the seat behind them. Melissa directed them to the highway. "It's about fifteen miles," she apologized.

"Near where the accident happened," Catherine said. "Danson's woods?"

"Yeah. We live on Mr. Danson's estate. The woods are the farthest part from the house, because they're right on the highway. Mr. Danson doesn't like the noise, but he likes the woods."

"You found Vincent in the woods?" Peter asked.

"No. Behind the shed. I think he crawled there..."

"You said his leg is broken," Catherine interrupted. Her eyes were stark.

Melissa didn't want to distress her, but couldn't lie any more. "It is."

"I'll examine him when we get there, Cathy," Peter tried to soothe her. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him on the road to recovery; you know how quickly he heals."

Melissa thought of the feverish gleam in Vincent's eyes. "I don't think it's his leg that's the problem," she ventured. "I think it's where he hit his head. He sleeps most of the time."

Behind her, Catherine caught her breath.

Peter must have heard her, too. "It's okay, Cathy," he said quickly, and reached back between the seats to press her hand. "That's what happens when Vincent's hurt," he explained, speaking mostly to Melissa. "He goes into a deep, healing sleep. I'm sure we'll find he's on the mend."

"I hope so."

Melissa glanced back; Catherine's hands were clenched so tightly the knuckles were white. Jamie touched her arm and murmured something comforting. Catherine nodded, but there was no appreciable slackening of tension.

"I tried to find you," Melissa said, to break the silence. "After my dad said people were looking." She looked over her shoulder at Catherine. "Vincent told me your name, but you weren't at any of the motels."

Peter let out a low moan. "We should have thought of that," he said. "All the rooms were in my name - I never thought about Vincent having someone call. And of course he wouldn't have known I was here."

"None of us thought of it, Peter," Jamie tried to mollify him. "It's not your fault. And we've found him now."

"Yes," Catherine repeated, softly. Her gaze was distant. "We've found him now."

They neared the turnoff to the estate. "The driveway is right up here," Melissa directed.

Peter made the turn and followed the graveled drive, going perhaps a little more quickly that was strictly safe. None of his passengers protested.

They emerged from a stand of trees and saw the complex of house, caretaker's cottage, barns, and sheds spread out before them. Melissa gasped.

The door to the tool shed stood open; her father was running toward it from the cottage, something long and ugly in his hands.

A shotgun.

Behind her, Catherine let out a low cry. The van leaped forward.

 

Vincent's head ached. His side ached. His leg, forced to support him, ached most of all. Still he pushed himself up, clinging to the doorframe, and stared at the dark barrel of the gun. If he was going to die, let it be with whatever shreds of dignity he could muster.

Sudden panic beat at him; Catherine's panic. He needed to go to her, but remaining upright demanded fierce concentration; he gripped the doorframe hard and tried to find her through the dizziness.

A dark-colored minivan careened up the driveway and skidded to a stop in a spray of gravel. Catherine was in that van. And terrified.

The man with the gun stood between them. Vincent blinked hard in an attempt to clear his fuzzy vision. He let out a low snarl and tried to move forward.

The shotgun lifted and steadied, aimed at him. At this range, the man couldn't possibly miss.

Something strong and irresistible surged up in him. Catherine was powerfully afraid. His own danger was irrelevant; he must protect her. Vincent gathered himself to leap.

A slim figure that had to be Melissa thrust herself in front of him, blocking the line of fire. "Dad! Stop!"

"Get back, Melissa!" the man shouted. "It might be dangerous!"

It. Even through the haze of pain and dizziness, the word cut deeply.

Melissa stood her ground.

The man who was clearly her father lowered the gun's muzzle and reached out for his daughter. "Melissa, get out of the way!" he bellowed.

Melissa dodged his hand and remained where she was.

And then there were others in front of him, shielding him. Vincent shook his head to clear his vision. It didn't help, but he didn't really need to see clearly to know who was there. "Catherine," he breathed.

Melissa's father still had the shotgun. Vincent lurched forward, intent on protecting Catherine.

Melissa still shouted; with some dim, disconnected part of his mind, he could hear her. "No! Please, Daddy, he won't hurt you. He won't hurt me. He's my friend."

Vincent swayed dizzily; his ribs flared in protest and his splinted leg stabbed sharply with every step. But Catherine was frightened. He pushed forward.

"You must have startled him, Daddy." Melissa's voice was lower now; she spoke quickly, as if to get all the words said in time. "He must have been sleeping, and you woke him up. Please."

His will wasn't enough; his knees buckled. He fought the inexorable pull, fought the pain, fought his own damaged body.

Peter Alcott was there, suddenly, standing beside Melissa, talking to the man. "Please believe me," he said. "Vincent is no danger to you or your daughter."

"Who the hell are you?" Melissa's father demanded, but Peter's presence must have reassured him; he lowered the gun's barrel, though he kept the weapon cradled in the crook of his arm.

Peter began talking rapidly, but there was a rushing in Vincent's ears and he couldn't hear clearly. He couldn't find Catherine, either, though he knew she was close. His eyes wouldn't focus properly, and his legs wouldn't hold him up.

Catherine cried his name and caught his arm as he fell. He lurched toward her, jolting his ribs painfully, and felt the ground rush up to meet him.

With a strength he didn't know she had, Catherine pulled him into her lap and cradled his head in her arms. "Oh, dear God," she whispered. Her voice was frantic. "You're hurt, Vincent, you're so hurt..."

Racked with pain, he still tried to reassure her. "I'm all right," he managed. "Don't worry..."

Disbelief sped through their bond. "You're not," she objected. "I was so scared for you."

He'd known that, of course. Her fear had been a constant refrain through the past days.

His vision began to clear, and for the first time he saw the pallor of her face, the deep lines framing her mouth and eyes. "I'm sorry," he faltered.

She smoothed his mane from his face and shushed him.

Melissa knelt beside them and fixed Vincent with a stern look. "You should never have tried to get up," she scolded. "Your leg..."

Now that he wasn't standing on it, the pain in his leg was almost tolerable. "What was I to do?"

Melissa seemed to hear his unspoken question: Lie there and let him shoot me? She flushed. "I'm sorry he scared you."

"I'm sorry I scared him," he answered, and smiled, just a little. "I didn't mean to; he startled me."

Her answering grin was crooked. "Yeah. I'll bet."

The dizziness finally passed, and so did the rushing in his head. Now he could hear Peter talking in the background.

"I know what he looks like," Peter was saying. "Believe me, I do. But he won't hurt your daughter, and he won't hurt you."

"He tried to attack me!"

"He tried to defend himself," Peter said quickly. "And I suspect he was trying to defend Catherine, as well."

Melissa's father glanced their way. "Catherine. That'd be the one with his head in her lap."

Peter smiled. "Yes."

"Hmph. Have to admit he doesn't look dangerous right now."

"And you'll notice your daughter is holding his hand."

"Yeah," Rawley admitted. "I noticed that. And Melissa has pretty good instincts about animals and such." He reddened. "I mean... I didn't mean..."

Peter clapped him on the arm. "I know what you meant."

Vincent was glad they didn't know he could hear them. It would be easier for Melissa's father that way.

Peter came and crouched in front of him. "Looks like you should have worn your seatbelt," he said lightly, taking in Vincent's bruised forehead. "Let's get you someplace where I can examine you." He looked around. "The back of the van will do."

"He can't walk," Melissa said quickly. "His leg's broken."

"I see that," Peter said. "Jamie, can you pull the van up close?"

Jamie's eyes widened. "I can't drive, Peter. You know that."

Peter's gaze strayed to Catherine, who tightened her grip on Vincent's shoulders and glared back at him. He sighed and pushed to his feet. "I'll get it," he said. "Be right back."

He eased the van to within a few feet of where Vincent lay. "That's the best I can do," he said. "Vincent, can you make it if we help you?"

Vincent steeled himself and nodded. "Yes."

Melissa's father gave a small start when he heard Vincent speak, then gave him a long, appraising look.

Peter braced himself against Vincent's good side and Catherine supported him on the injured side. Together they heaved while Vincent tried to lift himself with his uninjured leg. Fire shot through his ribs and his head pounded.

"Here," Rawley said, and finally set the shotgun down, propping it against the side of the shed. "Let me help. No offense, ma'am," he nodded at Catherine, "but you don't look strong enough to lift a big fellow like him."

Catherine stepped away reluctantly, and Vincent mourned the loss of her touch. There was only the briefest of hesitations before Melissa's father knelt at Vincent's side.

"He can understand me, right?" he asked, directing his question to Peter.

"I can understand you quite well," Vincent answered for himself. "Thank you."

Rawley's reaction was mostly squelched; Vincent thought he was the only one who noticed him flinch. And of course he was the only one who could have sensed the combination shock and wonder that shot through the man.

Once his mind was made up, though, Melissa's father didn't hesitate. He and Peter got Vincent to his feet and helped him the few steps to the van. All three were breathing heavily by the time Vincent was lowered to sit in the open side doorway.

"Let's see," Peter said when his breathing eased. "If you can just scoot back a little, Vincent, I think I can examine you right here..."

"No." Vincent and Peter both looked up in surprise. Rawley stood over them. "Let's get him into the house."

Melissa, standing behind her father, put a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, Dad," she murmured.

With Catherine and Jamie steadying Vincent in the open doorway of the van, Peter drove slowly up the drive and parked as close to the caretaker's cottage as he could.

Having done it once made moving easier this time; Peter and Rawley flanked Vincent and helped him inside, where they lowered him to a shabby brown couch in the cottage's living room. Peter bent to lift the splinted leg, but Melissa stopped him.

"Wait," she said. "He can do it."

Catherine, who'd followed closely, had one of his hands between hers. It was both a distraction and a comfort. He squeezed her fingers and disengaged his hand. If he clenched his fingers in pain or effort...

She seemed to understand, putting a cool hand to his face to stroke back his hair.

Melissa waited while he lifted the sound leg to the couch, then bent to support the injured one. "Ready?" she asked.

He nodded and lifted. Melissa lifted with him, not moving the limb so much as steadying it, as she had done so many times since applying the splint. Peter jammed a cushion into place just in time for Vincent to set the leg down.

He was breathless, and his brow beaded with perspiration, but the leg wasn't stressed any more. Gradually the pain began to subside.

Catherine took his hand again; this time, he allowed her to keep it.

Peter opened his black doctor's bag and proceeded with an examination.

Catherine looked tactfully away, but turned back at Peter's soft exclamation when he opened Vincent's shirt.

"Who strapped your ribs, Vincent?" Peter asked.

"I did," Melissa answered him. "They were hurting him so much, I thought they might be broken."

Peter started to unwrap the bandages, then thought better of it. "The strapping helps?" he asked.

Vincent nodded, wishing Peter would cover him again.

"Very well." Peter pulled his shirt together again, but didn't button it. "Jacob and I will want a closer look when we get you home, but for now we'll leave it."

He glanced at Melissa. "You did the splint, too?"

"It was Vincent's idea," she said. "I just helped."

"We won't remove that just now, either," Peter decided. He looked at Vincent. "No other injuries?"

Vincent shook his head, then wished he hadn't. "I don't think the head injury's serious," Peter told him. "A concussion, perhaps. I'm more worried about the fever Melissa said you had this morning." He frowned. "Although it seems to be gone now."

Vincent's head was much clearer now, and he thought he knew why. "It's not my injuries," he said. His gaze went to Catherine, still holding his hand. "It was you."

"Me?" Her voice went high in surprise.

The others in the room stared.

"I have felt, all along, your fear for me. Your distress. To feel that, and be unable to come to you..."

"Made you sick?" she finished doubtfully.

"I think so. You were so very frightened, Catherine, and I felt so helpless."

Catherine bit her lip, looking unconvinced, but Peter sat back with an air of satisfaction. "Then I won't worry. Unless, of course, the fever returns." He looked at Melissa. "This is a fine bit of doctoring, young lady. Vincent's fortunate you were the one who found him."

"She was practicing," Vincent said, and paused so his next statement would have the proper impact. "She wants to become a veterinarian."

Melissa ducked her head. Peter, Jamie, and Rawley looked embarrassed... and Catherine swatted him. "That's mean," she accused.

He smiled. "It's also true." He gave Melissa a fond glance. "She has a healer's hands."

"Healer's hands or no, there'll be no veterinary school for her," Rawley said, looking unhappy.

"Why not?" That was Jamie, speaking up for the first time.

"It's no work for a girl."

Jamie, as capable as any man, began to bristle.

Vincent forestalled her. "Women do all sorts of work these days," he pointed out mildly.

Rawley flushed. "So they do," he admitted. "But there's the cost..."

"Vet school costs money," Melissa added, busying her hands by buttoning Vincent's shirt. "We don't have it."

"You will now." It was Catherine's voice, strong and certain. "College, too."

Melissa looked up sharply. "Oh, no! I never meant..."

"I know you didn't. But I've been wondering how I could possibly repay you for looking after Vincent... keeping him safe. Now I know."

"It's too much," Melissa's father protested. "I couldn't allow Melissa to accept such a gift."

"I want to do this, Mr. Rawley. Please let me. It's a small thing compared to what Melissa's done, and it would be a shame to let her healing gift be lost."

Rawley looked from one to the other. "It's too much," he repeated. "Just too much."

"But she saved his life. That's worth something."

"Something, maybe," Rawley admitted. "Though she'd have done it for nothing. Did it for nothing, if I know her." He spared his daughter a fond glance. "But vet school's too expensive. Something else, maybe? She's been wanting a new pair of riding boots."

"She'll have them," Catherine said promptly. "But it's not enough."

"It'll have to be, Miss. I'm sorry."

Catherine didn't answer, but Vincent knew this battle wasn't over. Already she was thinking of ways to get around Rawley's refusal; he expected that sooner rather than later there'd be a scholarship fund set up for girls named Melissa who lived in rural Connecticut and wanted to go to vet school.

From Peter's grin, he knew it, too, but he tactfully said nothing. Instead, he turned to Vincent. "We need to get you home."

"We should call Father first," Catherine said. "He's frantic, and we promised."

"You can use our phone," Melissa said. "It's in here."

Catherine squeezed Vincent's hand and followed Melissa into the kitchen.

Peter and Rawley helped Vincent up and got him out to the van. The worst part was getting in; unlike the van Catherine had rented for their trip, this one had seats installed in the back, and Peter wanted Vincent in the wider rear seat.

After much maneuvering, most of it painful, he made it. Melissa had left Catherine to her phone call and brought pillows from the house. Peter used them to prop Vincent sideways on the seat with his leg up, and cinched the seatbelt tightly around his hips. "There," he said, with satisfaction. "Comfortable?"

"It's not exactly uncomfortable," Vincent answered. "I'll be fine."

"Good."

Catherine emerged from the house and came to the open side door. "Long will get word to Father," she said. "He'll have someone meet us at the 14th Street entrance with a stretcher or something so Vincent won't have to walk."

Vincent grimaced; the thought of being carried flat on a stretcher from the 14th Street entrance to his chamber wasn't exactly compelling. But maybe he'd be lucky and they'd bring some kind of chair, instead.

Catherine stepped away from the opening and he followed her with his eyes; unlike the van she'd rented, this one had windows all the way around. All but the windshield were deeply tinted, and he'd noticed earlier that no one could see in. He had no difficulty seeing out, though. Through the side window, he watched Catherine and Peter speaking to Melissa's father.

Melissa came to the van's open doorway. "I came to say goodbye," she said, a bit wistfully.

"I'm glad you did," he answered.

She climbed in and knelt on the seat in front of him, bracing her folded arms on its back. She offered a crooked grin. "The tool shed won't be the same without you."

"I confess I will not miss it," he answered. "But I will miss you."

"Yeah," she sighed, sinking down. "I'll miss you, too. I like talking to you. I like hearing the things you say."

"If you'd like, I will write to you."

She bounced in her seat. "I'd like that! And I'll write back..."

He smiled. "Catherine will see that your letters reach me safely."

"Catherine will what?" The party in question stuck her head in the open side door. "I heard my name."

"So you did," Vincent told her. "You've been pressed into service on my behalf."

Her answering smile was tender. "Okay. Do I get to know what I have to do?"

Melissa giggled. "Not very much," she said, offering assurance. "Just let me send my letters for Vincent to you."

"Absolutely," Catherine promised. "And forward his on to you, no doubt?"

"Please," Vincent answered. "Melissa's is a friendship I would not care to lose."

"Nor should you," Catherine answered briskly, and now her smile was for Melissa. "I owe you more than I can ever repay, Melissa. I've given my address and phone number to your father. If you ever need anything, I want you to let me know."

"I didn't do anything," Melissa protested. "I just helped a little."

"You may have saved his life," Catherine contradicted. "And that's worth everything to me. So if you ever need anything..."

"I'll call you," Melissa said, giving in.

"Right."

Melissa let her breath out in a long sigh and turned back to Vincent. "I guess it's time to say goodbye," she said sadly.

"Not goodbye," he told her. "Until we meet again."

She leaned across the seat back to hug him fiercely. He returned the embrace; he would miss this young woman whose good heart and stout determination had protected him.

When she released him, Melissa's eyes were wet with tears. She backed hurriedly out of the van. Catherine climbed in to take her place, where she could reach back and touch Vincent.

Peter and Jamie climbed into the front seats. Peter buckled up and looked back over his shoulder. "Everybody ready?"

Vincent closed his hand over Catherine's and nodded. "Ready," he answered.

Melissa slid the side door closed and retreated to her father's side; her father slung an affectionate arm around her shoulder and she leaned into him, smiling. Even though he knew she couldn't see him through the darkened glass, Vincent lifted a hand in farewell.

"She's very special to you," Catherine observed, her voice soft.

"Very," he acknowledged. "I'm fortunate to have found such a friend."

Catherine smiled and squeezed his hand. "So is she."


The End