O NEVER STAR
by Becky Bain
"Amy! It's five-fifteen. Aren't you going home?"
Catherine started, nearly dropping the videocassette in her hands.
"Sorry," Rick Sterns apologized. "I thought you heard me come in."
She shook her head and went back to pressing sticky labels onto a series of videotapes. She'd been Amy for almost seven months now and was used to the name, but Rick's sudden appearance had startled her.
She'd been feeling faintly edgy all day, but tried to shake it off. "In a few minutes," she answered, forcing a cheerfulness she didn't feel. "I'm almost finished labeling these new tapes."
Rick was her age, slight of build, with thick dark hair and engaging brown eyes usually hidden behind silver wire-rim glasses. He stood above her, hands on his hips, and scowled.
"The tapes will still be there in the morning," he pointed out. "You can label them then."
"I can, but I'm not going to." She pressed the last of the identifying labels into place and began to slide the tapes into opaque plastic cases. "I'm almost done."
He tried unsuccessfully to hide a grin and reached to help her. "What am I going to do with you?" he demanded.
"Give me a raise?" she inquired hopefully. The familiar banter might ease the apprehensive itch she felt creeping across the back of her neck.
His expression turned regretful. "I wish I could," he said. "But you know how tight things have been..."
She patted his arm. "I was joking, Rick. Naturally, you don't pay me what I'm worth, but the fringe benefits are nice."
It was a standing joke; Catherine, in her identity as Amy Eldin, worked in Rick's small video shop in Spokane, Washington, making barely more than minimum wage. It was unskilled work, but she was used to that now; almost three years of being on the run had taught her to be grateful for any work at all, and this job was one of the good ones.
Past lives had found her waiting tables, cleaning offices, stuffing envelopes, painting houses and babysitting. Her only requirement for employment was that she be allowed to have her son with her at all times. She couldn't risk being separated from him.
"Fringe benefits, huh?" Rick wiggled his eyebrows and tried to leer. "When are you going to come by my place and take advantage of them?"
Catherine couldn't help a giggle. "I don't know. I'll have to check my calendar."
"Yeah, right. Well, while you're doing that, how about dinner Tuesday? My place?"
"Only if I can bring my chaperon," she agreed promptly. A pair of two-year-old boys were more than adequate security against romance, even if she and Rick had any amorous interest in each other, which they didn't.
Only days after Rick had hired her, his wife had been killed in a car accident. With instinctive compassion Catherine had reached out, offering comfort, and in the aftermath of tragedy, a deep and abiding affection had grown up between them. Rick was her best friend here in this life, and she knew he regarded her in the same light.
"No problem," he answered now. "Mine'll be there, too."
"Then it's a date."
"Right." His expression turned thoughtful. "So when are you going on a real date?"
"With who?" Her surprise was genuine. Rick had never ventured an opinion on her private life, and she wondered if this was what had been eating at the edge of her nerves all day. Maybe Rick had been sending out subtle signals that her subconscious had recognized.
"Well, not me," he countered swiftly.
Catherine felt a mixture of relief and alarm. The quickly stifled notion that Rick had developed an interest in her was replaced by a cautious, protective reserve.
Rick recognized her reluctance. "It's still him, isn't it?" He knew little of her past, but of course he knew there'd been someone -- her son was living proof of that. The subject had come up during slack times in the store or on occasions when their friendship led to casual dinners, or afternoons in the park.
Of necessity, Catherine had never told him much, but she couldn't keep her love for Vincent from shining through, no matter how obliquely she spoke of him. Now she nodded quiet agreement. "It always will be."
"I never asked you before," he said slowly, obviously choosing his words with care. "But is your loyalty to him the right thing for you?"
She stiffened and he hastened to explain. "I mean, I see you struggling to make ends meet, keep the kid in shoes and clothes -- you never buy anything for yourself, and I know you're not getting any help. You're doing it all by yourself." His voice grew stronger with conviction. "And I just think if he was any kind of man at all, he'd be helping you."
She bent her head, all her attention focused on her hands and the rote motions they were making. Her edginess had increased, and the very discussion sent small alarms racing through her.
He mistook her silence for anger. "Amy? I'm sorry if I went too far... I know it's none of my business..."
"He doesn't even know he has a son," she said, speaking too quickly. That rocked him, and she could see him struggling for the right words. "It's a very long story, Rick, and I don't want to go into it now," she continued, forestalling further questions.
The tinkle of a bell heralded a customer in the front of the store and, with a backward look of apology, Rick went to handle the transaction. Catherine could hear the low murmur of their voices out front; the sound was punctuated by the high, light sound of children's voices from the back room.
The conversation had left her tense, almost shaking, and she breathed deeply, forcing the shivers of panic to subside. If Rick started asking questions about her past, it would make things very awkward. It might even be a sign...
The childish call put a swift halt to her reverie. "Just a minute!" she called back, and swiftly boxed up the new tapes. It was a matter of a few seconds to clear her work area and she picked up her purse and stuck her head into the front room.The customer had gone, and Rick was scribbling something on a clipboard.
"I'm going now," she said. "I'm off tomorrow, but I'll see you Saturday."
"Okay," he answered, without looking up. "Enjoy your day off."
"Oh, sure. I get to do my laundry."
The sound of his laughter followed her into the rear of the building. She stopped in a narrow doorway blocked by a child's gate. The room beyond was small, with one meager window, covered with steel mesh, high on one wall.
The faded linoleum floor was crowded with a heavy, padded mat topped with a tangle of colorful blankets, a small painted bookcase full of Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry, and a child-sized wooden table with two chairs. The little space left was taken up by a scattering of faded stuffed animals and a heaping pile of Lego blocks. This room, once a storage area, had been converted into a mini-nursery/day care center, and allowed Catherine, Rick, and the video store's third employee, Beverly, to bring their children to work with them.
The boys were in there now; Rick's son Jeremy was engaged in creating a formless structure from the large, toddler-sized Legos, while standing at the gate, his small face puckered anxiously, was the light and the star of Catherine's life.
"Hi, sweetie," she greeted him, ruffling his unruly shock of wheat-blond hair.
"Hi, Mommy," he answered, and rattled the gate. "Let me out."
She was already unfastening the child-proof catch and when the gate swung open, Nicholas tumbled out to be caught in her embrace. His small arms wound tightly around her neck, and he nuzzled in close, under her chin. "Don't be scared, Mommy," he admonished softly.
"I won't be, anymore," she assured him, mentally chastising herself for allowing her reaction to Rick's remarks to be felt. For, like his father, Nicholas was an empath. "Are you ready to go home?" she inquired.
He lifted his head and grinned. "Maybe the park?" he suggested sweetly.
Catherine expected this -- it was part of their ritual on days she got off early. "The park, huh?"
He nodded eagerly and she set him down. A word and a touch sent him scurrying for his jacket and the toy he'd brought that morning. Jeremy left his Lego creation and came to the doorway.
"'Bye, Nicky," he murmured around the finger in his mouth.
"'Bye, Jer," Nicholas replied, already halfway to the back door.
Catherine crouched down. "How about a hug before I go, Jeremy?" she asked.
He nodded and she took him in her arms, patting his narrow back and murmuring soft endearments. She had a deep fondness for the little boy who still missed his mother so very much.
"Your daddy's in the front," she said when his grip on her neck loosened. Turning him gently, she pointed him in the right direction. Jeremy wouldn't be content in the playroom without Nicholas there to keep him company, and she knew Rick wouldn't make him stay there alone. "You'd better go see what he's up to."
Released, Jeremy scampered toward the front of the store while Catherine let Nicholas and herself out the back, using her key to lock the deadbolt behind her.
The park was on the way home, and home itself was only a short distance away. Catherine had walked to work, as she usually did when the weather allowed -- the result of a combination of her current near-poverty and her New York City upbringing. Walking saved gas, as well as wear and tear on her shabby old car, and besides, in New York, no one would think of driving the short distance she had to travel. She took Nicholas's hand and set out on the path toward home.
"Mommy! Watch me!"
Obediently, Catherine looked up, shading her eyes with her hand and squinting at the top of the playground slide. "I'm watching," she answered.
Nicholas swooped down the slide with more enthusiasm than grace, landing on his bottom. He scrambled to his feet, blond hair glinting in the sunlight, and ran toward her. "Did you see me?"
"I saw. You were wonderful. Nicky, it's getting late. We should go now."
His face crumpled. "No! I didn't swing yet."
She glanced at her watch, confirming what her inner sense was already telling her -- it was already suppertime, and it would be a struggle to get Nicholas fed, bathed, and into his pajamas by bedtime. "I'm sorry, Nick. It's going to be dark soon. You'll have to swing next time."
"One more slide?" Eyes that were almost the bluest she'd ever seen pleaded with her.
She could never resist those eyes. "Okay. One more."
"Thank you, Mommy!"
Before she could move to help him, he was swarming up the steep steps to the top of the slide. From habit she stood by the ladder, ready to catch him if he should slip, but he didn't need her help. Surefooted and agile, he climbed easily; at the top, he flopped down on his stomach and peered over the side.
"Are you watching?" he asked anxiously.
"I'm watching," she confirmed, stepping back so she could get a better view. She took her eyes off him for a quick, habitual look around, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
"Mommy! Watch me!" His strong square jaw, a legacy from her, was outthrust in indignation.
"I'm sorry, Nick. I'm watching now."
Pacified and sure of her attention, he pushed off. She always cringed when he went down the slide head-first, certain he was going to land on his face, but he never did. Always, he managed to catch himself on hands and knees, as he did this time, sliding across the soft ground and sending up a miniature cloud of dust.
"All done," he announced, picking himself up and dusting his hands on the seat of his pants before examining the palms.
"Did you scrape yourself?" she asked, bending over him.
"Nope. Get my truck, Mommy."
"Please?" she suggested mildly.
"Please," he added, grinning.
The truck, a large yellow Tonka model, was where Nicholas had left it, half-buried in the sand. Idly wondering what she could fix for dinner, Catherine crossed the playground to pick it up.
"Cathy!" A man's voice cut across the park and instinctively she responded, half-turning to look before she caught herself. She ducked her head, trying to disguise her reaction, and waited. Nothing happened and after a moment she looked up.
A swift glance around showed a mother pushing a stroller down the sidewalk while a little girl trailed behind. On the far side of the park, a group of boys played an energetic game of football; nearby, an older couple gleaned aluminum cans from the park wastebaskets. A teenage couple was stretched on the grass beneath a nearby tree, fondling each other with adolescent passion, and a dark-haired man in running shorts and tank top jogged along the paved trail. The man clapped his hands and shouted impatiently, all without breaking stride. "Cathy!"
Catherine straightened, Nicholas's truck in her hands, as a medium-sized dog of indeterminate breed raced out of a copse of trees, long ears flying.
"Cathy!" the man called again, and the dog obeyed, frisking alongside.
Catherine forced a smile and permitted some of the anxious tension to bleed away. She couldn't afford to be too relieved, though; responding, even briefly, to her own name was a serious mistake, one that could cost her life, or her son's life.
All her senses were unusually heightened during the three-block walk home. Every passing car, each pedestrian, even a couple of kids riding bikes, were scrutinized carefully, weighed as possible threats, and observed until they passed out of sight. Long practice at suppressing her feelings kept Nicholas from picking up on her edginess; he chattered happily about the playground.
Home was a dingy two-room furnished apartment with a tiny kitchenette tucked into the corner of what passed for a living room. "Put your truck away, Nick," she instructed, and went into the little kitchen.
Like Old Mother Hubbard's, her cupboards were nearly bare; tomorrow she'd walk back to the video store to pick up her check. The local supermarket would cash it for her and she'd do her weekly shopping. But tonight, like most Thursdays, pickings were slim.
She found some leftover macaroni and cheese in the refrigerator, scraped it into a saucepan, and set the pan on the stove. The remnants of a package of frozen peas went into another pan and she set the table and read Nicholas a story while the meal warmed.
Nicholas wolfed his macaroni with gusto and picked at his peas until Catherine exerted parental pressure. She ate her own meal more slowly, remembering, with just a touch of wistfulness, a time when she'd dined on such delicacies as lobster thermidor and filet mignon. After dinner came Nicholas's bath and after his bath was bedtime.
"A story?" he prompted when he was snugly tucked in.
She sat on the edge of the bed. "A story about what? Tigers?" She pinched his toes, gently, through the blankets. "Bears?" She squeezed his knees. "Killer whales?" Her voice rose in mock threat and she lunged for his midriff.
He doubled over, protecting his stomach, and giggled wildly. "No!"
"No?" She sat up. "What, then?"
He sobered, but kept his knees raised in case she went for the tickle again. "Tell me about my daddy."
She was conscious of her voice lowering, as it always did when she spoke of Vincent. "All right," she agreed. "But remember..."
"...he's a secret," Nicholas finished for her.
"That's right. Don't tell anybody."
"Not even Jeremy?" His eyes twinkled with the familiar game.
"Not even Erin, or Jessica?" Those were the daughters of Beverly, the other clerk at the video store.
"Not even Rick?"
"Not even anybody. Not ever."
The ritual questioning over, he settled back on his pillow. "I promise."
"Good boy." She touched his cheek tenderly. "Your daddy is tall," she began. "He has long blond hair, just a little darker than yours..."
"And blue eyes," Nicholas prompted.
"And blue eyes," she agreed. "Exactly like yours."
"And he's strong." That was important to little boys.
"Very strong. But he's also good, and gentle and kind..."
The familiar litany continued; Nicholas knew the answers as well as Catherine did, by now, but he still loved to hear about his father.
After Nicholas fell asleep, she cleaned the apartment and sorted laundry for the next day's trip to the laundromat. It was difficult, after conjuring him up for Nicholas, to banish the image of Vincent but it was also necessary, if only for her own sanity. Long practice, along with fierce concentration on her chores, helped her accomplish it. Later, when she was in bed...
After expending so much mental, as well as physical, energy, she was tired by the time she thought of seeking her own bed. In the tiny bathroom she readied herself for sleep, finding comfort in the familiar routine of tooth-brushing and face-washing. Midway through, she caught her own eye in the mirror and paused; irrationally, because he was so near the surface tonight, it occurred to her to wonder what Vincent might think, if he could see her now. Pensively, she studied herself in the mirror.
Her face was thinner now, and a bone-deep weariness showed in the lines of her face. She touched her hair. Since her escape, she'd let it grow once and cut it short again, but she'd started letting it grow again; it was still layered, after a fashion, but the back and sides reached her shoulders now. Soon it would be long enough to comb it in the old way, parted on the side and brushed smooth.
Only she couldn't wear it that way because it made her look like the pictures she knew Gabriel must have.
She reached for her brush and dragged it through her hair with a swift, soundless fury, until her scalp was raw and hot tears stung her eyes. She no longer resembled the woman she'd once been. There was no point in pretending.
The sudden surge of irritation seemed to dispel the nagging urgency that had plagued her all day, but still sleep was long in coming. The anxiety usually came in cycles, ebbing and rising like a tide, but if it persisted, she'd have to take it as a sign. She'd learned, over the past years, to listen to her instincts.
When she finally slept, she dreamed of Vincent; he stood on the far side of a deep, fathomless chasm and no matter how she tried, she couldn't reach him.
Despite the disturbing night, she was up early the next morning to fix oatmeal for Nicholas's breakfast and help him dress. They were at the laundromat when it opened at nine, and by ten-thirty the laundry was done. Her paycheck wouldn't be ready until much later and all the hours in between could be devoted to Nicholas.
As usual, he wanted to go to the park and, also as usual, she indulged him. Catherine chose a bench in the sun and sat to watch him play, blessing the quirk of fate that had brought him to her.
The sun's warmth made her drowsy and she permitted herself to relax, just a little. It wasn't often she and Nicholas had an afternoon together in the park.
Lazily, her mind drifted back to the wisps of dreams she remembered. They weren't always like last night's -- scattered and frightening. Sometimes they were lovely, comforting and soothing. Sometimes she and Vincent were together. And when she woke from one of those beautiful dreams, there were always a few moments when still she could see him, still she could feel the warm glow of his love.
She'd once found a poem in an old edition of the Oxford Book of American Verse that always sprang to mind at such moments.
it is at moments after i have dreamed
of the rare entertainment of your eyes,
when (being fool to fancy) i have deemed
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise;
at moments when the glassy darkness holds
the genuine apparition of your smile
(it was through tears always) and silence moulds
such strangeness as was mine a little while;
moments when my once more illustrious arms
are filled with fascination, when my breast
wears the intolerant brightness of your charms;
one pierced moment whiter than the rest
--turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.
It might have been written for her, for them. Though every moment with Vincent had been cherished, she sometimes felt now that she hadn't valued them as much as she might. She wished she could go back and change that. She hadn't known how few those moments would be, nor how long they would have to last.
Nicholas looked up from his play and frowned at her, and reflexively, she turned her mind away from the memories that disturbed him.
It wasn't healthy, the constant repression of fear, of memories. She knew that, wondered sometimes if one day she would snap and tumble blindly into madness, but in truth, she had no choice. Nicholas was an empath and especially sensitive to her. She couldn't let him absorb either the terror or the terrible, aching loneliness that sometimes welled up inside her. She had to keep him safe.
So, for the most part, she quelled the memories and controlled the fear. A certain amount of fear was good. It kept her alert, wary. But she had to be careful. Too much fear could cripple her, take away her power to act. And that could very well be fatal.
As usual, Saturday was a busy day at the video store. Catherine was scheduled to get off at three, but Beverly called in sick so she stayed late to help Rick with an onslaught of customers. He finally shooed her out about six, claiming he could easily handle rentals of the four or five movies left in the store.
She smiled at his weak joke, but didn't argue. She was far too tired. She and Nicholas bypassed the park and went straight home. When they got there, the phone was ringing.
Catherine fumbled with her keys. The door finally opened and she hurried inside, snatching up the receiver before the caller could hang up.
"Hi, Amy, it's me." Rick's voice, mild and reassuring, came through the instrument. "You sound out of breath."
"I was outside," she answered, trailing the long cord as she moved to shut and lock the front door. "What's up?"
He seemed to hesitate. "Well, actually, something kind of funny happened right after you left."
She stiffened. Her inner alarms, oddly silent for the past two days, were sounding madly. "What do you mean, funny?"
"A guy came in -- a police officer. He showed me his badge and said he was investigating a strange car that had been spotted parked outside."
It was suddenly hard to breathe; across the room, Nicholas looked up from his truck. "Mommy?"
She waved him back and struggled to calm herself. "In a minute, okay, Nick? I'm on the phone."
"Amy? You there?"
She forced a deep breath. "Yeah, Rick, I just had to say something to Nicky. So what about this car? Why did he come to you?" Catherine, always abnormally aware of her surroundings, had not observed any cars doing anything she would classify as strange.
"That's the part that seemed funny. He just wants to know if either of us could give a description of the driver."
"Either of us? Did he know about me?"
"He asked if anyone else worked the store today; I gave him your name and told him you'd be here tomorrow."
"You didn't give him my address?" She held her breath, waiting for the answer.
"No. I started to, but something about this guy rubbed me the wrong way. I just told him I didn't know where you lived." He paused. "I don't remember seeing any cars acting strangely today, do you?"
She shook her head, forgetting he couldn't see her. "No."
"Yeah. Well, anyway, I just thought you'd like to be forewarned."
"Yes. I appreciate it, Rick. Thank you."
"No problem. See you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," she echoed faintly, and hung up.
Catherine had learned, over the past few years, to heed her instincts, and they were fairly screeching at her, telling her to get out. Now.
Panic wouldn't help. It would only upset Nicholas and impair her ability to think, to plan. So she forced a composure she didn't feel and opened a can of ravioli, responding automatically to Nicholas's happy chatter as the meal warmed on the stove. He ate his dinner and drank a glass of milk before she bathed him and put him to bed.
Tonight, his bedtime routine included a book and a lullaby; afterward, she sat beside him, stroking his hair. Only when she was sure he was asleep did she go to work.
She began with a systematic sweep of the apartment, gathering and sorting belongings. Things deemed essential, like jeans and shirts, underwear and socks, were carefully rolled and stuffed into nylon bags. Nicky's favorite teddy bear, abandoned in a corner of the kitchen, went in with the essentials; he didn't often cry, but not finding his bear when he looked for it would bring tears.
Around Catherine's waist, under her blouse, she wore a wide belt. The belt never left her waist except when she bathed; then, it hung within easy reach. Her bank account, opened to help establish her identity as Amy Eldin, held only a token amount. What was left of the thirty thousand she'd withdrawn from the Chase trust almost three years ago, along with the little she'd been able to save from her job at the video store, was tucked into several of the belt's narrow zipper compartments.
The belt also contained three driver's licenses, all from different states. The licenses bore Catherine's photograph and description, but the names varied; already she was prepared to leave this life behind and begin a new one.
While Nicholas slept, she packed the car, the sixth she'd owned since her son was born. It didn't take long. Non-essentials -- her skirts and dresses, Nicholas's toys -- went in the trunk.
There wasn't much. Her wardrobe, once an important part of her life, was inconsequential now; with her limited budget, she bought only what she needed for work. Nick's toys were mostly second-hand.
The nylon bags, zipped closed and bulging, went in the back seat where they would be easily accessible. Nick's car seat was already buckled into the front passenger seat. He liked to ride up front so he could see the cars, and Catherine enjoyed his company. He was extremely articulate for a child his age, and conversation was easier if he was beside her.
With most of her worldly possessions inside, she was careful to lock the car. She'd have to get rid of it soon; changing lives again meant changing everything. Names, residence, employment.
Thoughts of her job reminded her that Rick expected her to cover the store tomorrow, and a creeping sense of guilt nagged as she completed her preparations. She beat it back with reality; any warning to Rick, no matter how well worded, could be fatal. She wished, though, that she could let him know she was all right; she wished she could say goodbye.
By eleven she was ready, and went to get Nicholas. "Going?" he asked sleepily as she carried him to the car.
"Yes," she answered, buckling him into his car seat. "Going away."
He was asleep again before she'd driven two blocks, slumped comfortably against the straps that held him into his seat. Choosing a direction at random, Catherine headed east, leaving Spokane behind.
In the small hours before dawn Catherine decided she'd put enough distance between herself and Spokane to risk a motel; she found one in a small Montana town. Nicholas was so soundly asleep that he didn't stir when she carried him into the room and tucked him into the only bed. She brought in the nylon bags, kicked off her shoes, and crawled in beside him.
Exhausted, knowing the day ahead would be taxing, Catherine hoped to snatch a little sleep before morning. Her entire body was rigid with tension, though, and her racing mind refused to relax. Deliberately, she turned her thoughts to the past.
She was practiced at this. There were times when comfort could be found in her memories. She sifted through, remembering snatches, looking for just the right moment. When she finally found it, she closed her eyes, breathing deeply, and let the memory unfold, like a film clip, only better.
It was from their early months together, while things were still sometimes uncertain between them. She'd helped a boy, Tony Ramos, find his family again, and afterward, she'd returned to the tunnels, knowing Vincent would be waiting. He'd listened while she told him what had transpired above, and then, for the first time, he'd reached for her, his hand cradling the back of her neck as he'd drawn her close.
She could feel his arms around her, the warmth of his hand on the nape of her neck, the rough texture of his cloak beneath her cheek. She could almost smell the curious blend of candle-smoke and fresh earth that he always carried with him, feel his cheek resting against her hair.
When they'd finally drawn apart, he had reached for her hand, taking it firmly in his larger one. This was a new gesture, too, and she'd wished she hadn't worn gloves so she could feel his palm against hers. Together they'd strolled back to the entry below her apartment building. He'd been curiously shy as they said goodnight, perhaps remembering his earlier boldness in initiating their embrace, and she hadn't pushed him. She hadn't wanted to pressure him, or make him uncomfortable.
She didn't want to dwell on the moment of parting; there were too many such moments, and remembering them was always painful. Instead, she let her mind skip randomly, choosing its own path. It settled on another memory, one that didn't even include Vincent, except in a roundabout way. This one took place even earlier in their relationship -- before she'd established much of a rapport with the people who lived below.
Something had been wrong; she could feel it, vaguely, and knew it concerned Vincent. Unable to concentrate, she'd left work and gone to the tunnels to look for him. When no one answered her call on the pipes, she'd tried to find her own way and ended up stumbling over one of Mouse's 'express routes' -- a trapdoor over a long, sliding chute that terminated about twelve feet above his bed.
She could remember her first sight of Mouse, his blue eyes wide with curious apprehension beneath his tousled mop of hair -- and the delight in his voice when she'd identified herself.
"Vincent's Catherine?" he'd asked.
With a low moan, she broke off the memory and rolled over, pressing her face into the pillow. Beside her, Nicholas stirred restlessly.
She hadn't been Vincent's Catherine for a very long time -- hadn't been Catherine at all. She was Nicholas's Mommy now, and people called her Amy. Before that, she'd been Stephanie, and Karen, and Christine.
Vincent didn't even know where she was; since their bond had been damaged by his illness, he might even think she was dead. Sometimes she wondered what his life was like now, if he grieved for her, if he was all right, but she couldn't think about that now. Worry about Vincent sapped her strength and undermined her determination to keep their son safe, to protect Vincent's world, and by extension, Vincent himself, no matter the cost to herself.
It was why she'd never written him, never tried to contact him. She didn't dare. Gabriel wanted her, wanted her child. He would never stop looking, never. It was this knowledge that kept her moving, changing names, jobs, identities. She wasn't foolish enough to think he wouldn't still be watching people she'd been close to, people she'd cared about.
Peter Alcott would certainly have come under that heading, and so Catherine refused to even try to contact him. Gabriel might be watching. Contact might establish a link, allowing Gabriel to trace the message back to its source, and her; or the danger might go the other way, following the message to its ultimate destination -- Vincent.
There were other helpers, of course, people with no known link to her; she might have risked them, if she had only known how. But the names she knew were only first names; the addresses had never been written down, and were lost to memory.
And besides, she didn't know, couldn't imagine what it would do to Vincent to receive the only sort of message she could send him. The truth was unthinkable -- that she lived in constant fear, always only a step or two ahead of a madman who would have her killed as casually as most people might swat an annoying insect. Any lie would make him believe she'd left him voluntarily, without word, without apparent thought as to what her sudden disappearance might do to him.
No. Better to let him think... whatever he thought. She didn't have the courage to disrupt whatever belief he'd found to comfort him in the past three years.
It hurt that he didn't know of their son. She wished, with all her heart, that she could tell him. He deserved to know.
Her original letter to Peter, scrawled hastily only hours before Nicholas's birth, had long ago been destroyed, but in another of the narrow compartments in the belt around her waist, securely sealed in a carefully addressed and stamped envelope, were other, more carefully worded letters -- to Peter, and to Vincent himself.
Aware the letters might be read by others -- police, for instance, should her death be a violent one -- she had been deliberately vague about many things, but not about her son. She knew that Peter would move mountains, were it necessary, to get Nicholas and take him safely home to Vincent. If something happened to her, the risk would be justified. Nicholas couldn't be left unprotected, unloved.
Nicholas rolled over, nestling close to her side and she shifted to accommodate his new position. She was beginning to relax. Her mind wandered, bringing other memories. She had begun planning her life when she'd left Albuquerque the morning after the baby's birth.
She couldn't make another withdrawal from Margaret's trust. The authorization code changed once the trust had been drawn on, and she didn't know the new code. So she had to be frugal, to conserve her funds.
From Albuquerque, she'd headed north. After a only a few hours, her strength, depleted by stress and childbirth, had failed her, and she'd stopped in Pueblo, Colorado to spend the night. She'd gone on to Denver the next morning, reaching it by noon.
The first thing she did there was abandon her car; without it, she would be much harder to trace. Then she'd gone to a motel, where, for two days, all she did was sleep, eat, and tend her baby.
Thankfully, he seemed perfectly healthy. His appetite was vigorous and he grew stronger every day. Sometimes, when she held him, fascinated by the solemn wisdom in his eyes, it seemed they were connecting, he and she, on some level she didn't quite understand.
She didn't try. As she had done with his father, she simply accepted.
She opened her eyes to the pale pink glow of dawn and realized she'd fallen asleep. With her first awareness came a surge of adrenaline, and all sleepiness vanished as she rolled out of bed.
She dressed quickly and turned to Nicholas.
He roused when she shook him, blinking sleepily in the pale morning light. "Good morning, sleepyhead," she greeted him. He half-drowsed, too sleepy to help much as she dressed him.
She carried him to the car, buckled him in, and set out, still heading east, toward the rising sun. Awake but still drowsy, Nicholas cuddled his bear and stared silently at the road ahead.
The gentle thrum of tires on pavement was hypnotic, and as the miles unrolled, so did memories.
The first few months after Nicholas's birth had been nothing less than a nightmare. She'd been unable to shake the fear that any moment someone would step forward and tear Nicholas away from her; all her energies were directed toward protecting him. Reflexively, she tipped her head to the right and touched the smooth skin in front of her left ear.
Removing the tell-tale scar had been one of the most difficult things she'd done. She'd been living in Salt Lake City then, not working because Nicholas was still so young. The process itself had been simple enough. She'd made an appointment with a prominent plastic surgeon in Dallas. On the day, she'd flown first to Denver and then, using another name, to Dallas. Nicholas had gone with her and had slept peacefully in a corner of the doctor's office while she underwent the simple procedure to remove the scar. She'd flown back, repeating the change of flights and names, the same afternoon.
For a long time after that, she'd cried whenever she looked in the mirror, but that had ended long ago. She couldn't afford to cry anymore. It wasted energy and sapped her will.
The sun was high in the sky when Nicholas stirred himself and spoke. "I'm hungry."
"Well, hello, there," Catherine answered him, taking her eyes off the road just long enough to flash him a smile.
"Hello. I'm hungry." He wasn't impatient, or imperious. Just factual.
"Okay. We'll come to a town soon, and we'll stop for something to eat," she answered.
"McDonald's?" he asked hopefully.
She sighed. McDonald's was a rare treat in Nicholas's life and one he dearly loved.
"If there's a McDonald's, we'll stop there," she promised, thinking he deserved something special.
"Good," he said with satisfaction. Still not fully awake, he settled back to watch the passing countryside.
There were billboards advertising McDonald's even before they reached the next town, and it wasn't long before Catherine could see the trademark golden arches, temptingly close to the highway. She pulled into the parking lot and reached over to unbuckle her son.
"Hurry, Mommy," he urged. "I'm starving!"
Despite the urgency pushing her onward, she laughed. "I think you'll manage to last until we get you some breakfast."
"Maybe," he conceded grudgingly, and held her hand as they went inside.
He grumbled when she took him first to the bathroom to use the facilities and wash up, but at last they were settled in a booth -- he with an Egg McMuffin, which he proceeded to take apart and eat one ingredient at a time, and she with a Danish, orange juice and coffee. Afterwards he wanted to play in the playground, but she dissuaded him and he acceded gracefully.
"Where we going, Mommy?" he asked as she started the car.
Catherine's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "I don't know yet, Nick. Somewhere east of here, I guess."
"Going to see Daddy?" he inquired, leaning forward to see her face.
Her breath caught and she bent forward, resting her forehead on her hands. An instinctive 'no' rose in her throat, but she couldn't voice it. *Why not?* asked a persuasive little voice, deep inside.
*Because,* another, more rational voice answered fiercely.
*It's dangerous. They're still looking for us. For Nicky. I know they are. And New York is the most dangerous place for us.*
*But when would it ever be truly safe?* the other voice argued. *When could we ever be sure Gabriel had given up his search? It's been more than two years. How intense can the search be, after all this time? All we'd have to do is reach the tunnels... then we'd be safe...*
Safe. She hardly remembered what being safe felt like. And she was tired. So tired.
Tired of running. Of being afraid. Of being alone.
"Mommy? Mommy?" Nicholas's anxious voice finally penetrated and she took a deep breath before turning to face him. "Mommy okay?" he asked, straining against the straps on his car seat.
Automatically she reached to smooth back the hair that tumbled over his forehead, soothing him with her touch. "I'm fine, Nick. I was just thinking."
"Thinking about what?" he persisted. "Going to see Daddy?"
The earnest look in his eyes triggered a snap decision. "Yes, Nicky. Going to see Daddy."
Once the words were said, it was as if a great weight had been lifted from her heart. Right or wrong, the decision had been made; they were going to New York.
In Miles City, Montana, she abandoned her car as she had all the others she'd owned, and spent half of her last four thousand dollars on a tan 1987 Ford Tempo. It was more than she usually spent on transportation, but she wanted to be sure it would get the twenty-five hundred miles between here and New York.
It took three days to cross the continent. Catherine spent the three days watching her rear-view mirror, taking careful note of the vehicles she passed, and that passed her. She had too much experience to let down her guard now.
Even with her heightened sensitivity, the trip couldn't have been more uneventful. Nothing was even remotely suspicious. If this was a regular move, she'd have been thinking of finding a place to settle down by now, but this change seemed different. She approached New York with what could best be described as a feeling of dread.
Her grip on the steering wheel tightened. It was getting hard to breathe -- there was a tight band around her chest and something clutched at her throat.
Somehow, she got the car off the highway and parked safely. She was shaking violently, soaked with sweat and gasping for breath.
Beside her, Nicholas was frantic, tearing at the straps that held him in his seat. From somewhere, she found the presence of mind to unbuckle him and pull him into her lap. She held him tight, rocking and crooning instinctively.
It wasn't clear who was giving and who receiving comfort, but presently she felt able to lift her head and take a deep, unimpeded breath. She had control now. It would be all right.
"I'm okay now, Nicky."
He looked up at her. She was startled to see his cheeks were wet. She hadn't realized he'd been crying.
She pulled him against her breast, not in desperation this time, but with tenderness. "Oh, Nicky," she murmured into his hair. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you."
"What's wrong?" His voice quivered.
"I don't know. I'm scared, and I'm not sure why. But maybe, Nick," she paused and he looked up at her, trust shining out of those incredibly wise blue eyes. "Maybe we should go somewhere else. I could find a job, and we'd get a new apartment..."
She fell silent at the stark disappointment on his face. "But you said we could go see my daddy."
"I know. I know I did, and I want to, Nick, I really do. But something about this feels wrong, and it scares me."
"Are you scared to see my daddy?"
She caught her breath. It was an innocent question; all he knew about New York was that his daddy lived there. She opened her mouth to deny it... and couldn't.
*What if I am?* she thought. *What if it's Vincent I'm afraid to see? Afraid of what I'll learn.*
Because for the past three years, she'd clung to the knowledge that Vincent loved her. Whatever else happened, Vincent loved her. And if somehow things had changed, if somehow his feelings were different now...
*I couldn't bear it,* she thought unhappily. *I couldn't go on. And if I can't go on, what happens to Nick?*
And as soon as she had formulated the question, she understood the answer. Nicholas would be safe. Whatever Vincent's feelings for her, he wouldn't reject a child. His own son. Nicholas would be safe, and that was all that mattered.
She took a deep breath and felt the first stirring of determination. Nicholas felt it and twisted in her lap to look up at her. "Come on, Nick," she said, lifting him into his car seat. "We're going home."
It was long past the time they would normally stop for the night, but they were too close and now, with her new resolve, Catherine couldn't bear to wait. So they pressed on, crossing into Manhattan late in the evening.
The lights of the city blazed a greeting and Catherine found herself smiling as she wound her way through the late-night traffic. She'd spent the last hour of driving devising a plan, so she knew precisely where she was going.
She found a parking spot near Madison Square Garden, only a few blocks from where she meant to go. With the four nylon bags containing their 'necessities' on one arm, she balanced Nicholas on her hip with the other and gave a cautious look around. No one paid the least bit of attention.
She strolled down the sidewalk, grateful for the brisk disinterest of passersby. When sidewalk traffic thinned, she gave another look around, hitched Nicholas higher on her hip, and slipped into a narrow, filthy alley.
"Where we going, Mommy?" Nicholas's whisper sounded loud in her ear.
She shushed him, waiting, watching. There was no outcry, no curiosity from the sidewalk. No one followed her, and after a moment, she turned and picked a careful path through the refuse littering the cramped space. At the rear of the alley was a steep, narrow stair, fenced off by a rusting wrought iron railing.
She set Nicholas on his feet and took his hand to help him down the narrow stair. At its foot was a heavy steel door. "Here, Nicky, watch these," she whispered, setting the nylon bags at his feet. Shoulder against the door, she shoved, hard. With a moan of rusting hinges, it gave.
She pushed again, using the big muscles in her legs to power open the door. It moved slowly, protesting all the while, but at last the opening was wide enough. Catherine took a flashlight from one of the nylon bags and shined the light inside.
The room beyond was small and dank, festooned with dusty cobwebs. Remnants of a small fire occupied one corner, and the wall above was streaked with smoke; a half-disassembled packing crate sat nearby -- the obvious source of firewood.
Someone, probably one of the city's homeless, sheltered here, but the room's sometime inhabitant wasn't here now, and Catherine bent quickly to toss her nylon bags inside before she took Nicholas's arm and guided him into the room.
"It's dark, Mommy!" he protested in a whisper. "Dirty!"
"I know, Nick. Don't be afraid. I'm here."
"I'm not scared," he asserted bravely.
"Good boy. Here, hold the light while I shut the door."
The door closed inch by painful inch; despite the effort required to shut it, Catherine refused to stop until it finally fit tightly against its jamb.
Breathing hard from exertion, she went to the far wall of the little room and knelt, running her fingers over the rough stone surface. Her memory was accurate, and in a moment she located the section she was looking for -- a section Vincent had shown her once, years ago. "In case you are ever near here, and need to reach us," he'd said gravely.
She bit down hard on the memory; there was no time now for reminiscing. The section of wall gave to slight pressure, turning soundlessly on a central pivot point to reveal the damp darkness beyond. She put her head through the opening, shining the light to confirm what she remembered about this place.
"Come here, Nick," she said.
"Are you going to put me in the hole?" he asked fearfully.
The question rocked her back on her heels and it occurred to her that maybe she was going a little too fast for him. "Nicky, it's okay," she said softly, gathering him into her arms. "You know I'd never let you go anywhere you might be hurt, don't you?"
He nodded, his face tight against her breast.
"I know it's dark, but that's where we have to go if we want to find your daddy."
He lifted his head. "My daddy's in there?"
"Down there somewhere, yes. I hope so." She moved him a little away from her, hands on his shoulders. "I need you to cooperate with me, Nick, because there's a ladder and it's steep."
"I'm good at ladders," he said, casting a wary glance at the dark opening. "Will we have the light?"
"You can hold it if you're very careful," she promised. "I'll need my hands to close the portal."
He leaned toward the opening and she shined the light inside so he could see. "Okay," he agreed.
After dropping their bags, Catherine eased herself through the opening and fumbled until she found the metal staples that formed the ladder. She held on with one hand and helped Nicholas through, putting him between her and the ladder. "The steps are far apart," she warned. "Hold on tight."
When she was sure he had his balance, she handed him the flashlight and reached around him to close the entrance. Negotiating the ladder was a little tricky and Catherine kept one hand under Nicholas's arm in case he slipped, but she needn't have worried. He handled the steep ladder easily, and in a moment they were standing on the tunnel floor.
They'd made it. They were safe.
Catherine pressed herself against the tunnel wall, nearly embracing the rough, cold stone. It scratched her cheek and the air smelled damp and musty, like stale earth. She had never felt or smelled anything so wonderful in her entire life.
Nicholas caught her hand. "Okay, Mommy?" he inquired.
Only reluctantly did she pull away from the wall. "Better than okay, Nick," she told him. "Help me pick up the bags."
He did, and, taking his hand firmly in hers and shining the light before them, she set out. They hadn't gone far before she heard tapping on the pipe that ran along the ceiling. She didn't know pipecode but had no trouble guessing it was an intruder alert. Someone would be coming soon to investigate.
She knew who the usual investigator was, and her heart began to pound, whether with anticipation or trepidation, she wasn't sure. She walked faster.
When their path was finally blocked, though, it was by two figures smaller than the one Catherine had hoped for. The lantern carried by the shorter of the two cast enough light for her to recognize them. Mouse, who held the lantern, and Zach, grown up now, and carrying a long wooden staff.
"Stop," Mouse commanded imperiously, squinting to see in the dim tunnel. "Who?"
Zach stood beside him, silently defensive.
Catherine couldn't help a misty smile. "Hello, Mouse."
Mouse gave her a quick, startled look and glanced at Zach before edging closer. "Who?" he demanded again.
"Don't you know me, Mouse? Have I changed so much?"
It was Zach who gave a sudden start of recognition. "Catherine?"
"Yes. It's me."
Mouse dropped the lantern, and it went out. "Catherine?" he breathed.
Catherine turned her flashlight onto her face. "Yes, Mouse. I've come back."
"Catherine!" Surging forward, he enveloped her in an enthusiastic bear hug. "Catherine!"
"I'm glad to see you, Mouse," she said, laughing. "I missed you."
"Missed you, too," he confided shyly, stepping back.
She turned to Zach and hugged him, too. "You've grown so!" she marvelled. "I hardly recognized you."
"It's been a long time," he reminded her. "I'm seventeen." He glanced at Nicholas.
"This is Nicholas," Catherine said. "Nicky, these are my friends, Mouse and Zach."
Suddenly shy, Nicholas pressed himself against her legs.
"Hello, Nick," Zach said, squatting in front of him. "I'm glad to meet you." He offered his hand and after a moment, Nicholas took it and they shook hands.
Following Zach's example, Mouse offered his hand, too, and Nicholas returned the handshake solemnly. "Do you know my daddy?" he inquired.
"Of course they do," Catherine said smoothly. "Everyone here knows him."
Mouse and Zach exchanged quick, startled looks, and Mouse shrugged. "Better take you to Father," he announced, and turned to relight the lantern.
"Vincent's not here," Zach added in a low voice. "He's above. Won't be back 'til dawn, probably."
She nodded and gathered up the nylon bags she'd dropped in the excitement. Mouse took two of them, slipping them up over his shoulder. Zach tapped a quick message on the pipe and took the others. Catherine reached for Nicholas's hand.
"Carry me, Mommy," he said plaintively. "I'm tired."
She scooped him up and settled him on her hip. Mouse went ahead with the re-lit lantern while Zach stayed beside Catherine to help her over the rough places. The second time she stumbled, he stopped her.
"He must be heavy," he said, indicating Nicholas. "Let me carry him awhile."
Catherine gazed at her son doubtfully. She didn't know if he'd go to a virtual stranger, but her legs were tired and her hip had begun to ache from his weight. "What do you think, Nick? Can Zach carry you for a little bit?"
Nicholas considered the question, studying Zach carefully.
"I'll be right here beside you," Catherine encouraged.
"Okay," he acquiesced, finally.
Zach put down his staff and the bags he carried and took Nicholas in his arms, settling the little boy comfortably against his shoulder. "That okay?"
"Good. Mouse, get my staff, would you? Catherine, can you get the bags...?"
In a moment they were ready, and set out again. It had been a long day for Nicholas and soon his head dropped onto Zach's shoulder. By the time they reached the hub area, he was fast asleep.
Because it was late, they met no one until they were nearly to Father's chamber. There, the way was blocked by a slight figure, who peered toward them anxiously.
"What happened to the intru..." she began, and stopped, staring. "Catherine?" she asked in disbelief, and repeated it with certainty. "Catherine!" She offered an enthusiastic hug of welcome.
"Hello, Jamie," Catherine greeted, hugging back. "It's so good to see you."
Jamie stepped back to look her over. "Vincent said you'd come back when you could."
So he hadn't forgotten her. Catherine felt the first small ripple of relief. "I didn't think it would be so long," she admitted.
"No," Jamie answered. "Neither did he."
"I don't mean to interrupt," Zach said gently. "But Father's waiting."
Catherine nodded and pressed Jamie's hand. "Later, Jamie. I'll tell you everything later."
Father's chamber was just as she remembered it; crowded with furniture, knickknacks, and untidy stacks of books, and lit with the soft golden glow of a score of candles. Father himself sat at his great desk, bent over some huge ledger; he looked up at the sound of footsteps.
"Zach. Mouse. What did you..." He stopped at the sight of Nicholas contentedly asleep in Zach's arms. "A child?" He rose and came around his desk. "Bring him here..." he began. Catherine gently pushed her way between Mouse and Zach and paused at the top of the short flight of wrought iron stairs.
"Hello, Father," she greeted him, quietly.
For a moment, he simply gaped. He took his glasses off, polishing them on the hem of his shirt before putting them back on and peering through them. He had aged since Catherine had last seen him; his hair was more silver now than brown, and his face bore new traces of care and worry.
At last he spoke. "You've been gone a very long time." His words, mild though they were, struck with all the power of a blow. She flinched.
She understood, of course. His first concern, always, was for Vincent, and she'd hurt Vincent terribly. Of course he'd be angry with her.
The hurt spread. Nicholas, sensing her distress, stirred sleepily. "Mommy?" Only half awake, he reached for her.
Father's gaze flicked from one to the other; his eyes widened in shock and recognition as she took her son into her arms.
"It's all right, Nicky," she soothed automatically. She knew her expression must be one of defiance, and Father's opposition vanished in the space of a heartbeat.
"Catherine, forgive me," he said, and limped forward to put his arms around her. "I spoke without thought. Welcome home."
He meant it, and she melted, hugging him back fiercely. This was the welcome she had longed for.
Caught between them, Nicholas began to squirm. "You're squishing me!" he protested. Catherine stepped back, smiling.
"Father, I'd like you to meet my son, Nicholas."
Father acknowledged the introduction gravely. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Nicholas. Welcome to my home."
Nicholas eyed him warily. "Are you my daddy? We came to see him."
Father managed a chuckle. "No, Nicholas, I'm not." His glance went to Catherine, questioning, and she nodded. "I expect he'll be here in the morning," he went on.
"I want to see him," Nicholas protested.
"Yes, I'm sure you do. And he'll be very surprised to see you," Father said, with another glance at Catherine.
She nodded again, confirming his guess.
"Yes, very surprised, indeed," Father murmured. "Please, Catherine, come and sit down. Zach and Mouse, thank you for bringing Catherine and Nicholas to me. Tomorrow I'm sure there will be stories to tell, but it's late..."
"Sure, Father," Zach acknowledged. "Come on, Mouse. I still have half a shift to go as sentry..."
They went out, and as they left, Mary came in, speaking quickly. "Father, Jamie's just told me the most incredible..." She saw Catherine sitting with Nicholas in her lap and stopped, her eyes misting with sudden emotion. "It's true, then," she whispered. "Oh, Catherine, I am so very glad to see you."
Catherine put Nicholas down and rose to return Mary's embrace. "Not half as glad as I am to be here, Mary," she answered. "There were times I thought I'd never see this place again."
"Yes, of course," Father said. "You must tell us -- what happened? Where have you been?"
Catherine glanced at Nicholas. Young as he was, there were things he simply shouldn't hear. He looked up. "I'm hungry, Mommy."
Mary gave Catherine a knowing look. "Would you like to come with me, Nicholas?" she asked. "I'm sure William has something good to eat in the kitchen."
Nicholas shrank back uncertainly.
"It's okay, Nicky," Catherine encouraged. "Mary is a friend."
"Of my daddy?" he wanted to know.
It was Mary's turn to be startled, but Father handled it gracefully. "Yes, of course," he said easily. "Mary is a friend of everyone down here, and especially the children."
Nicky took a minute to think it over, and then extended a tentative hand. He looked back once, but Catherine smiled encouragement and he followed Mary out of the room.
"He is... a wonderful child," Father said, his voice breaking. "How old is he?"
"An extraordinary child," Catherine agreed. "He's two and a half. Nearly three, really."
He peered at her over the top of his glasses. "So you knew, before you left us..."
"That I was pregnant? Yes." She looked away. "I didn't know how to tell him, Father. I wanted to... meant to..."
He nodded in sympathy. "And then what happened? We know your car was found, abandoned, in a parking garage. A few days later there was an emergency call on the pipes. Pascal was certain it was you. Vincent followed the call to a warehouse... he saw you but couldn't reach you in time..."
She nodded. "I don't remember very much of that time," she confessed. "They kept giving me drugs. I was sick, and hallucinating. I remember calling for help on the pipes, but I don't remember Vincent. They must have given me another shot..."
"What happened after that? Where did you go? Vincent searched for you. Frantically, at first. He still goes above, every night."
"Looking for me?" Catherine's voice was very small. "After all this time?"
Father hesitated. "No," he admitted, finally. "I don't believe he's actually searching any longer. About a year ago, I had the feeling that he was slowly giving up hope of ever finding you."
"But he still goes up there."
Father nodded. "I think, now, he's punishing himself."
"For not finding me."
He nodded again. "I fear so. He prowls the streets, alone with his thoughts... and his memories. I think he goes places that meant something to the two of you." He leaned forward, his expression earnest. "He hasn't forgotten you, Catherine. He loves you still."
She bent her head. The small stirring of relief, begun with Jamie's matter-of-fact statement, swelled until the joy of it made her almost giddy. And ashamed, for doubting him. "I know," she whispered, and realized she really had known, all along. "I haven't forgotten him, either."
"No," Father agreed, glancing toward the door where Mary and Nicholas had gone out. "I don't imagine you have. But you were gone for three years, Catherine. Without so much as a word. Couldn't you have let him know you were safe? Couldn't you have done that much?"
She met his pleading gaze firmly. "No, Father, I couldn't."
Clearly stunned by her quiet statement, he leaned back in his chair and listened as she explained about her kidnapping, and Gabriel.
"He is ruthless, Father. Relentless. I knew he would be looking for me, trying to trace me somehow. So I ran. As far and as fast as I could.
"After Nick was born, I went to Denver, and spent a week getting a half-dozen birth certificates and ID's. I changed cars and took Nicky to Salt Lake City. We lived there for almost five months. Later, we lived in Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, and finally Spokane, Washington. I kept changing cars, changing jobs, changing names." She touched the smooth skin in front of her left ear. "I even had my scar removed because it identified me. It was hard, Father, and harder because I couldn't let anyone know. I couldn't risk it."
He nodded, a slow comprehension blending with compassion on his face. "Of course you couldn't." He got up from his chair and limped around his desk. Bending, he put an arm around her shoulders and pressed a fatherly kiss into her hair. "Thank you, Catherine, for all you've sacrificed for him. For all you've given him."
"I would do anything for him, Father. You must know that by now."
The sound of voices in the passage outside intruded and Mary came in, carrying Nicholas.
"I do," Father answered quietly, for Catherine's ears only. His eyes were fixed on the sleepy little boy in Mary's arms.
Catherine stood up, taking him into her own arms. "Did you get something to eat?" she asked.
"He ate a big bowl of William's vegetable soup," Mary said. She pointed to Jamie, who was behind her, carrying a tray. "We brought a bowl back for you, Catherine, because Nicholas says you haven't eaten since lunchtime."
There was fresh bread and sweet butter on the tray, along with the soup, and Catherine ate hungrily. Nicholas sat at her feet, nibbling on cookies, while Father took Jamie and Mary aside for a condensed version of the story Catherine had told him.
"Oh, dear," Mary said, when he finished. "What you've been through doesn't bear thinking about." She glanced down at Nicholas, who was yawning widely. "It's very late. You must be exhausted. I have Brooke preparing a guest chamber. I'm sure you'll be comfortable there."
Catherine laughed. "I'd hoped to make a quiet entrance," she said. "But it sounds as if everyone knows I'm back."
Mary smiled. "You can't expect us to keep such joyous news a secret, can you?" she asked. "But we all understand how tired you must be, and we've all agreed to let you rejoin us gradually."
"That's very thoughtful, Mary," Father agreed. "Perhaps you'd show Catherine and Nicholas to their chamber now. Jamie, will you go to Pascal and ask him to keep the news of Catherine's return off the pipes for now? And to have Vincent come straight to me when he returns?"
Jamie nodded and darted out. Catherine looked at Father quizzically.
"I fear what the shock might do, should he hear of your return as a rumor on the pipes," Father said gently. "I'll tell him as soon as he comes in, and send him to you right away."
Catherine nodded and lifted Nicholas, who tugged on her sleepily. "Thank you for everything, Father," she said, kissing his cheek. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Catherine," he answered with a smile. "Welcome home."
The guest chamber was not the one Catherine had used after her father died. "This one is better suited for two people," Mary explained, showing her inside. Brooke had just finished making the bed, and greeted Catherine warmly before saying goodnight.
"Will you need help getting Nicholas settled down?" Mary asked. "No? Then I'll leave you alone. You know how to call on the pipes if you need anything."
"I remember," Catherine nodded. "Thank you, Mary. Goodnight."
The chamber was L-shaped, with a massive carved four-posted bed, a dresser, a table, and two armchairs in the large main section. The ell was smaller, holding only a small cot and a nightstand. Catherine changed Nicholas into a pair of faded blue pajamas and tucked him under the blankets on the cot.
"G'night, Mommy," he mumbled sleepily, and closed his eyes. She bent to kiss his smooth cheek.
"Goodnight, Nicky," she whispered. "I love you."
His breathing showed he was already asleep -- not surprising, considering it was well past midnight. Catherine readied herself for bed, choosing the nightgown Mary had provided for her, rather than one of her own. After brushing her teeth and her hair, she got into bed, but tired as she was, it was impossible to sleep.
She was here, at last, and soon, in just a few hours, she'd see Vincent again. Her heart quickened and she felt the tremor of nervous butterflies in her stomach. Scrolling through old memories wouldn't help tonight. She rose and relit the bedside candle.
Three years was a long time, and Father's assurances weren't quite enough to dispel the anxiety. She'd changed, and not only in the way she looked. Most likely, Vincent had changed, too. Even if they still loved one another, things couldn't be the same between them. Not after so long. She couldn't imagine feeling awkward or ill at ease in Vincent's presence, but it might happen. How would she react? What should she say?
Shivering, she moved to light another candle. There was a selection of books on the table and she picked one up. It was an early edition of a story she'd read as a child. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. A story about the power of love.
She put the book down and checked on Nicholas. Thankfully, her agitation wasn't disturbing him; he slept peacefully. She wandered to the opening that led outside. The tunnels were quiet now; even the pipes were still. She wondered how long it would be before Vincent returned, how long it would be until Father sent him here, to her.
She hugged herself, suppressing another flurry of nerves. She lit another candle, and another, and walked the perimeter of the room, touching things, reassuring herself of their solidity. Reassuring herself that this wasn't a dream, or wishful thinking. She was here. This was real. And soon...
A sense of someone watching her from the doorway made her turn, and he was there, shimmering in the light of the candles. She stopped breathing.
His eyes were wide in disbelief and he put out a hand to steady himself again the rough rock wall. "Are you real?" he whispered, imploring.
He hadn't changed much; not as much as she had. His suffering showed mainly in his eyes -- in the pain and fear she saw mirrored there.
"I'm real, Vincent," she answered, surprised at how steady her voice sounded. "I'm here."
He took one tentative step, and another, as if afraid a too-rapid movement would make her vanish. She waited, and when he was finally standing before her, he put out a tremulous hand. Gingerly, he touched her hair and her face. "You are real," he breathed, his voice taut with wonder.
He blinked, and pulled his hand away. "Forgive me," he faltered. "The wonder of having you here, after so long... I have no right..."
Clearly, he was hesitant to take up where they had left off, wondering what had kept her away for so long, but his eyes told her everything she needed to know. She caught his hand and pressed it to her cheek. "I'm the one who should ask forgiveness," she whispered. "I let you hurt for so long..."
He shook his head. "There is nothing to forgive."
Catherine touched his face, feeling the velvety stubble of his beard as she trailed her fingers along his jaw. It was something she'd always wanted to do but never dared. "Hold me," she said suddenly, surprising herself. Her voice sounded loud in the chamber and she closed her eyes. "Please."
Still hesitant, he folded her tenderly against his chest. She clutched him, pressing her face into his cloak. Something inside her loosened, freeing all the pent-up fears.
"I was so scared, Vincent." The words tumbled out, nearly incoherent. "I missed you so much, and I couldn't tell you... and I was so scared."
Her arms were tight around his waist; she could feel his cheek pressed hard against the top of her head. He rocked her gently, making small shushing noises, and it dawned on her that he thought she was weeping. She wasn't, though she might have liked to. She had held the tears back for so very long that her eyes remained stubbornly dry. Only her heart cried out against the confusion, grief, and devastating loneliness that remained locked inside.
"Three years, Catherine," he whispered into her hair. "Three years."
"I'm so sorry, Vincent. I couldn't tell you where I was... it was too dangerous..."
"I looked for you..."
"I know. Father told me. And I knew anyway." She stepped back. Telling Vincent was even more difficult than telling Father. "I was kidnapped. By a man called Gabriel. At first he wanted a book, a black book that Joe gave me. Later, he wanted... something else. He kept me prisoner in a locked room for six months because of it."
"What? What did you have that he wanted?" His expression darkened. "It was because of me. He wanted to know about me."
"No. Well, not directly." She looked up, seeing the confusion in his gaze. "You haven't talked to Father yet, have you?" she asked, with sudden insight.
He shook his head. "No. I was on my way when I passed this chamber... and saw you..." He looked toward the doorway. "Perhaps I should see what he wants."
She clutched at his arm. "No. He just wants to tell you I'm here, break it to you easily, I think."
He managed a shadow of a smile. "Too late."
"Yes," she agreed shakily. "Too late."
"Go on. What did you have that this man wanted?"
"Oh, Vincent, this is so hard. I tried so many times to think of the words to tell you this..."
His expression darkened and she could see him brace himself for some terrible revelation.
She took his hand. "Maybe I should just show you. Come here."
She led him around the corner to where their son lay sleeping. "Gabriel wanted my baby," she said simply. "His name is Nicholas."
Vincent stood silently and looked down at the sleeping boy. His expression was closed, impassive. "He is beautiful, Catherine," he said at last, whispering. "He has a look of you."
"And of you," she said steadily.
Astonishment and wonder and fear chased through his eyes. His mouth opened and closed again, and Catherine wondered what she could possibly say to ease this moment for him.
He looked back at their son, who, either in response to their hushed voices, or, being who he was, because of the raw emotion flooding the chamber, chose this moment to stir sleepily and open his eyes.
His expression reflected no shock, no fear, only a drowsy curiosity. "Are you my daddy?"
Words were beyond Vincent, so Catherine answered for him. "Yes, Nick. He is."
Innate courtesy finally gave Vincent back his voice. "Hello, Nicholas," he managed, softly. "I'm very glad to meet you."
Nicholas merely blinked, squinting against the candlelight. Catherine could see that this was too much for both father and son, and intervened. "It's too early to wake up, Nick. Go back to sleep."
His gaze wandered from her face to his father's and back again. "Will my daddy be here when I wake up?"
Catherine glanced at Vincent, who was once more incapable of speech. "Yes. He'll be here in the morning."
"Will he tell me a story?" Nicholas persisted sleepily.
"Tomorrow," she promised. "He has lots of stories, Nicky. But for now, you have to go to sleep."
Already slumber was reclaiming the little boy. "'kay," he answered drowsily. "'Night, Mommy. 'Night, Daddy."
Catherine leaned forward to kiss his smooth cheek. "Goodnight, Nicky."
Her action seemed to prod Vincent, who put his hand out tentatively to touch his son for the first time, smoothing back the thick blond hair. "Goodnight, Nicholas," he murmured. Catherine plucked at his sleeve and he followed her back into the main chamber.
He was obviously still in shock; his gaze, when he looked at her, was incredulous. "How?" he asked, his voice barely audible, even in the hush of the chamber. "When?"
He was maintaining a careful distance between them now, and she didn't try to close the gap. "While you were ill," she said simply, answering him directly. "In the catacombs."
His eyes closed as a look of dread crossed his face; at his sides, his hands clenched into fists. "No." It was almost a moan, a denial of his worst fears.
Catherine searched for words, seeking a way to make him understand. "While I was gone, hiding, there were some very bad days, Vincent," she began. He showed no signs of hearing her, but he hadn't bolted yet, either. She drew a deep breath and went on. "I used to save my memories for the worst times. At night, before I went to sleep, I would take them out, one by one, and relive them, trying to remember every word, every nuance."
His eyes opened; he watched her intently. "I kept the memory of that night for especially bad times, Vincent."
He studied her carefully; she had the feeling, as she had so often in the past, that he was looking directly into her heart. "Was it a good memory?" he asked at last, and she could see a flicker of hope in his eyes.
She nodded. "Very good. But sad."
His expression faltered. "Sad? Why?"
"Because I knew it was a memory you didn't have."
He looked away. "No," he whispered. "I know nothing of what happened there. I remember none of it."
"I remember. When you're ready, I'll tell you."
He nodded, his gaze still fixed on something only he could see. "Were you afraid?"
She tilted her head, studying him. She couldn't see his eyes; his hair screened them, but she could tell, by the set of his head, his shoulders, that he was seeking reassurance. "Not for myself. I knew you couldn't hurt me. But I was terrified for you, Vincent. You were so far away from me, and I was afraid I couldn't reach you." She closed her eyes and shivered, remembering the dreadful moment when he'd dropped like a stone, unmoving. She'd been frantic with fear, and in a way, that fear had woven a thread through all the days that had followed. She opened her eyes to find him watching her.
"Are you afraid now, Catherine?"
It was her turn to look away. "I was," she said, too rapidly. "At first, when I learned I was carrying your child, I was afraid to tell you."
His breath caught. "Why?"
"You'd been through so much. How could I place another burden on you?"
"You should have told me."
"I meant to. I was coming, that night, the night I was kidnapped, to tell you."
"I searched for you. Everywhere. For months, years."
"I know you did. After I escaped, I was afraid to contact you, afraid of leading them here, somehow. And always, always, I was afraid they would find me and take Nicky away."
Speaking of those terrible months had wakened the memories. They were too close, crowding her and she couldn't push them away any more.
She could hear the alarm in his voice, dimly, but couldn't find voice to reassure him. She was trembling and couldn't catch her breath. The walls, so safe a moment ago, were closing in...
Then his arms were around her, holding her tight against his chest. "You're safe," he murmured, unconsciously echoing the first words he had ever spoken to her. "You're safe now. No harm will come to you here."
Instinct told her to resist. There was no room in her life for weakness; if she'd learned nothing else in the past three years, she'd learned that, and it had been a hard and bitter lesson. She could fight the weakness if she could move, could run. But when she struggled, he didn't let go.
"You're safe here," he repeated insistently. "It's all right now."
The fear was welling up now, overwhelming in its intensity. It filled her chest, her throat. She couldn't breathe and she tried, as she'd done so often before, to push the horror back, to cage it up where it couldn't interfere.
But it was too late. It was out now, choking her and Vincent wouldn't let her go.
"It's all right," he said. "I'm here. It's going to be all right."
Her body shook in long, uncontrolled tremors; she couldn't make them stop. And then the tears came. Long, wrenching sobs shook her, one after the other. Vincent's firm hold turned tender and she sagged against him. When the storm was over, she felt a vast weariness, as if she'd set down an immense burden.
"I'm sorry," she began, shakily. "I didn't know that would happen."
"It's all right," he murmured, low in her ear. He swayed just the tiniest bit, rocking her against his chest. "It's going to be all right."
"Is it?" she asked wistfully. It had been such a long time since things were right.
"Yes," he said firmly. "It will be."
She believed him, and looked up, surprised that his face bore traces of tears, as well.
"It's late and you're tired," Vincent murmured in her ear. "You should sleep."
He guided her toward the bed, but when he would have drawn away, she caught his hands. "Stay with me," she pleaded.
He faltered. "Catherine..."
She could see the uncertainty in his eyes. "Please. I don't want to be alone."
Still he hesitated and she felt a quiver of panic. If he stepped back now, after all she'd been through, she couldn't bear it. "Please." She heard the supplication in her own voice, and didn't care. "Please."
He looked down at her hands clutching his. "It means so much to you?" he whispered.
Words failed her; she nodded.
"Then I'll stay."
There was no mistaking his discomfort as he removed cloak and boots, but when she turned back the quilts, he slid between the sheets with only the tiniest of hesitations.
He lay stiffly on his own side of the bed, not touching her; it was almost worse than being alone.
"Catherine." His voice was soft in the stillness.
"I don't know what our lives will be like, now."
"Neither do I. It's been a long time for us, Vincent. That makes it harder. But we'll find a way." She reached for his hand, finding comfort as his strong, warm fingers closed over hers. "I found out a long time ago that nothing matters, as long as I have Nicky. And you."
"You have me," he affirmed swiftly. "Always."
She couldn't bear the separation, even of inches, any longer. She rolled toward him and, instead of flinching, he gathered her close.
She closed her eyes. She was safe. Nicky was safe. She didn't need to be afraid anymore.
For the first time in a very long while, she dared to dream about tomorrow.