DREAMS AND PROMISES

Catherine looked up and down the street in vain, but Jenny Aronson was nowhere in sight. It was a quarter past twelve and Jenny had promised to be here by noon so they could go to lunch and shop for baby things.

Catherine sighed and rubbed absently at her side, where a little foot protruded obstinately. The early October sun was warm and the trees across the street in the park were resplendent in their autumn colors.

"Cathy! Over here!"

Looking in the direction of the voice, Catherine saw Jenny waving enthusiastically from a nearby cab. With a smile and a return wave, she crossed to the cab and climbed in.

"Sorry I'm late," Jenny apologized. "I went into the office this morning, intending to stay for just a minute, and ended up spending two hours on the phone! Writers!" She threw up her hands and made a face.

Catherine laughed. "Don't worry. We have all afternoon."

"Speaking of writers, I forgot to tell you I have to stop and pick up some galley proofs from one of my authors. She only lives a short way from you. Sorry." Jenny shrugged helplessly.

The cab stopped in front of a stately old brownstone. "Her name's Julia Dennison. She's an illustrator of children's books and has just written a book about illustrating children's stories," Jenny said as they reached the top of the steps and rang the bell. "I think you'll like her."

Shortly, the door was opened by a tall, dark haired woman in her mid-thirties.

"Hi, Jenny," Julia Dennison smiled and rubbed her paint spattered hand down her faded jeans, adding another color to the bright smears already there.

"This is my friend, Cathy Chandler," Jenny made a perfunctory introduction and Catherine and Julia exchanged polite smiles as Julia stepped back to let them in.

They followed her into a vestibule about six feet square. The inner door was propped open with an old iron doorstop and Julia guided them through it and into a wide hallway that jogged around a gracious staircase and led toward the back of the house.

"I put the galleys where Brian couldn't get to them," Julia said. "Brian's my son. He's six, and into everything," she added to Catherine, eliciting a smile.

Catherine and Jenny followed Julia past the stairs and into a large, cluttered room. As Julia began rummaging through an ancient filing cabinet, Catherine gazed around at the enchanting array of curios and objets d'art that filled the room. There were shelves of old children's books and wood printer's engravings. Antique illustrations, matted and framed, covered the walls. Plants were everywhere, interspersed with an extensive collection of cats made of every possible material. A sleepy Persian was stretched out in the sun that streamed through the only window.

"Here they are." Julia pulled the sheaf of galley proofs from the back of the filing drawer and offered it to Jenny, who stowed it carefully in her bag.

She grinned as they walked to the front door. "So where's the whirling dervish today?"

Julia grinned back. "He's next door playing, and with any luck, he'll stay there. I can't wait until we get back to Vermont so he can play outside without being in the street."

"Have you had any luck selling your house?"

Julia shook her head. "I'm thinking about listing it with a realtor, but the commissions they want are unbelievable. Still, if I want to get rid of the place..."

"Yeah," Jenny agreed, glancing out one of the narrow leaded-glass windows which framed the front door. "I thought I told that driver to wait!" she exclaimed in frustration. "Didn't I?" She looked at Catherine for confirmation.

Catherine shrugged and smiled. "I didn't hear you."

"Damn! I think I'm losing my mind. Julia, can I use your phone to call us another cab?"

Julia directed her to the phone in the hall and turned to Catherine. "When's your baby due?" she asked with a gesture towards Catherine's expanding waistline.

"The second week of January," Catherine answered with the soft smile that thinking or talking about the baby always produced.

"Your first?" At Catherine's nod, Julia beamed. "You must be excited."

"I'm getting to the point where three more months seems like a very long time to wait," Catherine agreed.

"I know what you mean. Nine months is too long to have to be pregnant."

They both laughed and Catherine looked thoughtful.

"I heard you tell Jenny that your house is for sale?"

"Yes, it is," Julia answered. "Would you like to see it?"

"I'd love to!"

 

They stopped in the hall to see if Jenny wanted to join the tour.

"I'm on hold," she said in disgust. "Anyway, I've seen the house. Go on and I'll catch up if I ever get off the phone."

Julia led Catherine up the stairs to the third floor. "I don't know why, but I always like to start at the top and work my way down," she explained as they climbed. "My grandmother left the house to me a year ago, and I love it, but I just can't work in New York. Too many distractions, I guess. When I sell, Brian and I will move back to Vermont. The house is far too big for just the two of us, anyway."

As they reached the top floor, Julia flipped a switch and the hallway was dimly illuminated by a small overhead fixture. "These rooms haven't been used in years," she said, throwing open some of the doors.

Catherine counted six small rooms, each filled with stacks of old furniture and boxes. A heavy layer of dust covered everything.

"My grandmother never threw anything away," Julia explained. "I don't even know what's in some of these rooms... and I'm not sure I want to," she added, brushing aside a dusty cobweb. "Brian and I live down here," she continued as they descended to the second floor.

"This is mine," she said, opening the door to a large, light-filled room. French doors on the far wall led to a spacious brick-walled terrace and sunshine streamed through the open drapes. Two windows on the left-hand wall added to the light, but seemed incongruous since they were in a townhouse that shared side walls with its neighbors. Catherine wandered over to peer out.

"The back half of the house is six feet narrower than the front," Julia explained. "The layout next door is the same, but mirror fashion, so there are twelve feet between us. It's not much of a view, but we do get light and air." She went to a closed door in the corner of her room.

"I'm almost afraid to open this," she said with a laugh. "Brian's room is always a mess!" Behind the door was a small, narrow room with hand-painted animals decorating the sunny yellow walls. "I did the murals when we moved in last year."

At the opposite end of Brian's room was another door and Julia paused with her hand on the knob. "This... is my pride," she said emphatically. She opened the door with a flourish and stood back to let Catherine precede her. "My studio," Julia explained unnecessarily as they entered.

All the dividing walls in this part of the house had been removed, leaving one large, rectangular room with three enormous arched windows along the front wall. More of Julia's collection of curios filled shelves and spilled onto the window sills and floor. A drafting table, set up in the light from one window, displayed a partially finished watercolor illustration. Along a side wall stood a fireplace with an ornate mahogany mantel, framed with Delft ceramic tiles. Catherine walked around slowly, surveying the prints on the walls and some of the more intriguing artifacts. She smiled at a plaster bust of a man, adorned with a child's battered cowboy hat.

"That's Vincent," Julia said from behind her. "Don't you think it looks like him?"

Catherine blinked.

"Vincent Van Gogh," Julia explained quickly, noticing her confusion. "I found that bust at a garage sale years ago and bought it because I thought it looked like him. He's my muse." She reached past Catherine to remove the cowboy hat and pat the bust affectionately. "You looked totally lost there for a minute." She waited, inviting a response.

Catherine just smiled and shook her head. With a shrug, Julia took her back out into the hall to see the outdated bathroom.

On the main floor again, they passed through the large living room to the parlor, where Julia's cat still slept in the sun. Sliding doors in the parlor led to the dining room and from there they went into the antiquated kitchen.

"It needs a lot of work, but the building itself is sound," Julia said as they descended a flight of steep, narrow wooden steps into a basement which ran the full length of the house. A good portion of it was taken up by a monstrous gray boiler which clanked ominously and Catherine eyed it with suspicion.

"It's okay, it always sounds like that," Julia said quickly. "Actually, it's a very clean and efficient way to heat the place."

 

Somewhat reassured, Catherine nevertheless kept a cautious eye on the noisy piece of equipment until they left the basement.

Completing the tour, they returned to the main floor and rejoined Jenny in the entry.

"You have a lovely home," Catherine said. "Thank you for letting me see it."

"It was my pleasure," Julia replied warmly as they exchanged goodbyes.

"What was that all about?" Jenny queried as she and Catherine slid into the new cab.

"Nothing. I just wanted to see the house." Catherine was noncommittal.

Jenny knew her better than that. "Cathy, what possible use would you have for a house that size?"

Catherine looked over her shoulder as they pulled away. "I don't know," she replied honestly. "But I'm going to have to move eventually," she patted her midriff by way of explanation. "Why not a house?"

"You've lost your mind," Jenny stated flatly. "There's no hope for you."

* * * * *

Catherine spent several days trying to convince herself that Jenny was right. She had no business considering a house that big. But something about the place had captured her imagination and she kept visualizing what it would be like with some major renovation. At last, giving in to the possibility, she sent a message to Father, asking him to have Mouse meet her at the basement entrance. If she went Below to see Mouse, Vincent would know she was there, and she didn't want to tell him anything until she knew whether or not it was a realistic idea.

Mouse was waiting at the appointed time and his face brightened at sight of her. "Catherine!" His greeting was enthusiastic.

"Hello, Mouse." Catherine returned his smile. "I need your help."

"What can Mouse do?" he asked eagerly.

"First, I need you to promise that you won't tell Vincent about this."

Mouse frowned. "A secret... from Vincent?" He sounded dubious.

"Not a secret, Mouse," Catherine explained. "It's a surprise and I don't want him to know about it yet."

"A surprise!" Mouse's expression cleared. "Okay. Promise. Won't tell Vincent, won't tell anyone! What is it?"

"There's a brownstone not far from here. I need to know how difficult it would be to make a tunnel entrance in the basement. Can you tell me?"

"Sure!" Mouse was proudly confident. "Got a map?"

"I brought a map of the city." Catherine produced it and she and Mouse spread it out against the wall. "The house is right... here." She pinpointed the spot and stood back to let Mouse examine it more closely.

A minute later he turned to her and grinned. "No problem! Easy!"

"Mouse, are you sure?" Catherine wanted to believe him, but Mouse's enthusiasm sometimes led him to overestimate his abilities.

"Know these tunnels better than anyone!" Mouse was clearly hurt by her doubt. Suddenly, his face brightened. "Show you!" he offered.

"Okay," Catherine agreed, and followed him as he led her unerringly through a series of tunnels. Her sense of direction and distance had been sharpened by many trips through the passages Below, so she was pretty sure they were in the right area when Mouse stopped and pointed at a spot with authority.

"Here," he announced. "House here."

"How far would you have to dig, Mouse?" Catherine wanted to pin him down. The house was probably right where he said it was, but was it five feet away, or fifty?

"Not far. Maybe..." Mouse frowned and began to pace off a section of tunnel. "...this far." He turned and looked at her expectantly. He had travelled about ten feet.

"Oh, Mouse, are you sure?" Catherine asked again, this time with eagerness. "How long would it take to make an entrance here?"

Mouse considered the question carefully. "Kanin's back now," he mused. "If he helps dig... maybe two weeks... maybe three."

"Mouse, you're wonderful," Catherine told him, and put her arms around him for a quick, impulsive hug.

He squirmed with pleasure and embarrassment. "Take you back now?" he offered.

At her nod, he guided her back to her own entrance. "Remember, Mouse, don't say anything to Vincent yet. I want to surprise him," Catherine reminded him as she turned to say goodbye.

"Mouse remember!" he said importantly. "Won't tell anyone!"

* * * * *

Through a real estate attorney who had been a friend of her father's, Catherine arranged to have the house inspected for potential problems. Within a week she had the good news - the house was structurally sound, though the electric wiring, plumbing and heating systems all needed work. Through the attorney, she made an offer and was delighted when it was accepted.

After the closing, four weeks later, the house was hers. Julia had already packed up most of her things and was completely out of the house in a matter of days. Catherine went over on the day Julia finished moving out to pick up the last set of keys and say goodbye. Together the two women walked through the empty rooms, their footsteps echoing.

"I'll miss this place," Julia said, with a last look back. "I'm glad you'll be living here, though." She gave Catherine a sideways look. "It's silly to feel this way about a pile of wood and stone, isn't it?"

"I don't think it's silly at all," Catherine told her. "I felt that way the first day I saw it."

"I know you did," Julia smiled. "'Bye, Cathy."

Friendship had taken root quickly and Catherine was genuinely sorry to see Julia leave New York. The two women embraced affectionately.

"Goodbye, Julia." Catherine watched Julia descend the steps and climb into a waiting cab. She waved until the taxi disappeared around a corner before going back inside.

She wandered again through the empty rooms, imagining what they would be like when the house was renovated. An architect had already been at work, redesigning the floor plans to Catherine's specifications and a contractor had been chosen and would begin work in two weeks. The job would take several months to complete, but Catherine planned to live Below for the first few months after the baby came anyway.

With Father's approval, Mouse and Kanin had already started the new tunnel which would connect the basement with the world Below. Kanin estimated that they would reach the basement wall in ten days or so, and Mouse had designed a door that would look like the unbroken basement wall when it was closed.

At last came the day when Kanin and Mouse and their work crew broke through. Catherine had come to the house, as she did most evenings, to walk through and daydream and was delighted to see the ragged hole in the basement wall.

Mouse peered at her through the opening. "Look!" he crowed. "Mouse told you!"

"Yes, you did, Mouse." Catherine smiled at him as she bent to look through the aperture. Just as Mouse had promised, the basement wall was no more than ten feet from the old tunnel. She exchanged greetings with Kanin and Nathan, who were packing up their tools and preparing to go home for dinner.

"Mouse, will you do something for me?" She made the request knowing Mouse would be hurt if she asked anyone else to do this particular favor.

He looked back at her eagerly.

"Will you find Vincent and ask him to come here? Tell him I have a surprise for him."

Mouse had been living for the day when Vincent would find out about Catherine's wonderful surprise and he scrambled away so quickly Catherine had no time to say anything else.

Kanin and Nathan finished stowing their tools and said goodnight. Catherine followed them a little way down the passage to wait for Vincent. Tired, she considered sitting down, but when you're seven and a half months pregnant, getting up again isn't easy. Not wanting to alarm Vincent when he arrived, she leaned against the wall instead.

She was feeling the beginnings of anxiety, wondering what Vincent's reaction would be, and hoped she wouldn't have to wait long. But Mouse must have run all the way, because soon Vincent was striding down the tunnel toward her.

"Catherine?" He was plainly concerned. "You shouldn't be wandering these tunnels by yourself. If something should happen..."

"Vincent, if anything happened, you would know and would come for me." She reached for his hand. "I have something to show you."

"Mouse spoke of a surprise..." Vincent broke off as they reached the new short passage.

Catherine smiled at him and pulled him gently toward the small break in the wall. She climbed through carefully and waited for Vincent to follow.

"Where are we?" Vincent wanted to know, looking around with interest.

Catherine faced him nervously. "I did something a few weeks ago, Vincent. I waited until now to tell you because I wanted you to see... Mouse and Kanin just made the entrance today so you could come..." She realized she was rambling and stopped to gather her thoughts. "This is my house," she said finally. "I bought it so I can live here with the baby and be closer to you."

Vincent gazed at her for what seemed like a very long time before he nodded and smiled slightly. "It will be easier," he agreed.

"Let me show you!" Buoyed by his acceptance, Catherine took his hand again and led him upstairs. Vincent was very quiet as she guided him through the rooms, explaining the changes she planned to make. They ended up on the terrace off the bedroom on the second floor, and Catherine told Vincent her intent to create a garden where they could be outside together if they wished.

Vincent walked slowly to the wall of the terrace and looked at the tiny yard. Trees lined the back fence, screening the terrace from the house behind. Catherine shivered a little as she waited for him in the brisk November air. At last he turned and came back to her.

"Don't you like it?" She knew by his silence that something was wrong.

"I like it..." he said hesitantly.

Catherine spoke softly. "This house will make it easier for us to be together. It will make it possible for our child to spend the days Below with you, and still live with me Above."

Vincent looked troubled and she put her arms around him. "I love you, Vincent. You are all I need. Even if I can't have all of you, it's enough."

He folded her into his arms, heartened by her steadfast faith in their dream, but still afraid to believe it might be possible.

* * * * *

During the next few weeks, Catherine was occupied with making arrangements for her maternity leave.

She was deliberately vague about where she would be for the six months, telling her office only that she would be out of touch. Joe Maxwell, with his strong mother-hen streak, worried about her and one morning he called her into his office.

Slowly she sat down and looked at him expectantly.

"Look, I know this is none of my business," he began uncomfortably. "But I worry about you..."

"Joe..." she tried to interrupt him gently.

"No, Radcliffe, hear me out. I've been wanting to say this for a long time." He stood and looked out the window. "I'm worried about you," he said again. "You've bought that old house that's far too big for you, even after you have the baby. You don't have a husband... I'm not judging you," he assured her quickly. "I'm just pointing out the facts. It's your business, not mine, but from a couple of things you've said, I think you're still seeing the guy."

Joe leaned his hands on his desk. "Speaking as your friend and as a man," he said intensely, "I don't have a lot of respect for a man who fathers a child and then won't take responsibility for it. No, let me finish!" Again he waved off her attempt to say something. "All I'm saying, Cathy, is what assurance do you have that this guy will be around if you need him?"

Catherine smiled softly and got laboriously to her feet. "It's sweet of you to be concerned, Joe," she told him. "But if there is one certainty in my life, it's that my baby's father will always be there when I need him."

* * * * *

Catherine's main concern about her long absence had nothing to do with the office. Since she would be Below for most of that time, she needed someone Above who could handle all the minutia of her life for her. Peter Alcott was the logical choice, but Catherine knew just how busy he was and she hesitated to ask.

Because Vincent didn't like Catherine trying to negotiate the ladder in the basement of her building, he came to the balcony almost every night. One frosty evening in early December he climbed over the wall and looked in the window before knocking.

Catherine was sitting at the glass-topped dining table, preoccupied with papers strewn across it. Near her elbow was a crumpled cellophane package containing one partially eaten Twinkie, a half-empty bag of potato chips and an open jar of peanut butter. She was holding a spoon upside down in her mouth and sucking on it absently.

Vincent tapped lightly on the window. As she removed the spoon from her mouth, he was rewarded with a welcoming smile.

"I'm not getting up," Catherine called through the glass. "You'll have to come in!"

Vincent was still not entirely comfortable inside Catherine's apartment, but between the intense cold outside and her advanced pregnancy, he was spending more and more time indoors. He opened the french doors, crossed to the table and looked down at the peculiar display of food. He touched the Twinkie package with one finger. "What are you eating?" His tone of voice was at once reproachful and repulsed.

Catherine took the spoon out of her mouth again and looked at it in surprise. She dropped it into the peanut butter jar and pushed the jar away. "I was hungry!" she explained, half-contrite and half-defensive. "I'm drinking milk!" She showed him her half-full glass as if that made up for the less nutritious items on the table.

Vincent poked at the Twinkie wrapper again. "These are almost pure sugar," he reminded her. "And potato chips! These things are not good for you, or for the baby."

"I was hungry for Twinkies and potato chips," Catherine tried to justify herself. "And peanut butter and milk are good for me!" She looked up at him hopefully.

Vincent sighed and relented. "Pregnant women do eat strange things sometimes," he conceded with amusement as he pulled out a chair.

He looked at the papers Catherine had been poring over. "What are you doing?" he asked curiously.

"I need someone to handle my personal business while I'm Below," she said. "I know Jenny will do it, but it's difficult to explain where I'm going to be for six months. I'm making a list of all the questions she could possibly ask, and trying to think of plausible answers."

"Why don't you tell her the truth?" Vincent asked calmly.

Catherine's head jerked up and she stared at him. "Tell her about you?"

Vincent tipped his head in assent. "She is your friend. Can she be trusted with our secret?"

Catherine was stunned by Vincent's suggestion. "I... I...

Yes, I'm sure she can, but..." She stopped, unable to think of anything to say.

Vincent's reply was matter-of-fact. "Then tell her."

 

* * * * *

Catherine had kept the secret for so long that the notion of telling Jenny the truth had never even occurred to her. But once Vincent had proposed the idea, it seemed simple and obvious.

The following evening, a gentle tap on the french doors sounded just as the doorbell rang. Catherine saw Vincent's shadow move as he stepped back out of the light. With a loving, apologetic smile toward the balcony, Catherine went to answer her door.

"Okay, I'm here," Jenny announced. "What's up?" She had been more than intrigued by Cathy's phone call this morning. Cathy had insisted that Jenny come over this evening, but refused to say why.

"Come on in," Catherine smiled, pulling Jenny inside so she could close the door.

Jenny looked at her expectantly and started to take off her coat.

"Better leave that on," Catherine suggested.

Jenny raised her eyebrows. "Are we going somewhere?"

"No, but..." Catherine paused, unsure where to start. "You've been more than supportive all during my pregnancy, Jen. You've never asked, but I know you've wondered about my baby's father..."

Jenny interrupted gently. "It's none of my business, Cathy. You don't have to tell me anything."

Catherine smiled impishly. "You mean you don't want to meet him?"

Jenny's eyes widened. "Meet him? Tonight?"

Catherine nodded and Jenny almost squealed with excitement.

"I'd love to! Where do we have to go?"

"We don't have to go anywhere, but there are things I should tell you before you meet him." Catherine was suddenly very serious and Jenny responded to the change.

"Like what?"

"There are reasons why I don't talk about him, why you've never met him before." Catherine groped for the words to explain. "He's... different. Very different from anyone you've ever seen."

"Different how?"

"The way he looks... it can be... startling... if you aren't prepared for it."

"Was he in an accident of some kind?" Jenny asked gently, seeing Catherine's struggle to express herself.

Catherine smiled softly. "No. He was born this way. I can't explain it..." her voice drifted away as she turned toward the balcony. "He's outside waiting for us."

Jenny was truly curious as she followed Catherine through the french doors. Silhouetted against the city lights, a tall, broad-shouldered figure stood with his back to them.

"Jenny, this is Vincent," Catherine said simply. As she spoke, the figure turned slowly and faced them, his features in shadow.

"Hello, Jenny." Vincent spoke quietly and Jenny was entranced by his voice. Then he took a step forward, into the light and Jenny caught her breath. For a moment she just stared, transfixed.

"You have the most beautiful eyes..." she blurted when she finally found her voice, and blushed furiously. "I can't believe I just said that!"

Vincent was a little discomfited by the impulsive compliment but quickly regained his composure and smiled gently. "I'm sorry for staring," Jenny apologized quickly, and stole a look at Catherine, who seemed to be enjoying this far too much. "I don't know what to say..."

"Your apology is not necessary," Vincent said. "It is a pleasure to meet you at last. Catherine has told me much about you."

Jenny mustered a shaky smile. "I wish I could say the same. She's never said a word about you until tonight."

The night was frigid, and Catherine pulled her sweater around her more tightly, shoving her hands more deeply into its pockets.

Jenny and Vincent both noticed, but Jenny spoke first. She had been disconcerted by both Vincent and her own spontaneous remark and was grateful for a chance to focus on something else. "Where's your coat?" she demanded. "It's freezing out here! You should be inside."

The expression on Vincent's face said he agreed with her wholeheartedly, and Catherine sighed. Between Vincent, Jenny, and Joe, she had somebody protecting her all the time. They were driving her crazy. She turned to Vincent. "Will you come in?"

He shook his head regretfully. "I must go."

Jenny saw the way they looked at each other and excused herself hurriedly. "Vincent, it was wonderful to meet you. I hope I'll see you again sometime. Cathy, I'm going in to fix us something hot to drink."

She went in and closed the doors behind her, still not completely sure she believed what she had just seen. She looked back at the french doors in time to see one shadowy silhouette separate and become two. Then Catherine was opening the door and when she closed it, the shadow that was Vincent had vanished.

Jenny pounced. "Tell me everything! Where, when, how and why!"

Catherine talked past midnight. Jenny's instant acceptance of Vincent had touched Catherine deeply and she knew Jenny would understand anything she told her. Catherine reserved some of the details about the tunnels, speaking only of a `safe place,' but to be able to talk about Vincent without being evasive or secretive was pure joy.

* * * * *

The entrance to the brownstone had been completed and Mouse's door was an unequivocal success. When it was closed, only the sharpest eye could discern the tiny crack around it. The door appeared to be as solid as the rest of the wall and even pounding on it betrayed no difference. But when the hidden catch was activated, the door swung open noiselessly to disclose the tunnel behind it.

The renovation on the house was underway when Catherine moved Below. Twice before the baby was born, she prevailed on Vincent to accompany her to see how the work was going. He didn't like to see her travel so far with the baby so close, but she was insistent and he knew that if he didn't go with her, she would go by herself.

The baby's birth seemed to forge a new tenderness between them. Vincent would never forget the miracle of hearing his son's first cry and the wonder of holding him in his arms for the first time.

Vincent and Catherine had been sharing the same bed since before the baby was born, but as Catherine recovered from the birth, Vincent began to feel ill at ease. While she was pregnant it was easy for him to hold her at night and feel her pressed closely against him. The baby's presence was strong then and served as a kind of barrier between them. But now that Charles slept in his own cradle a few feet away, the sensation of Catherine's body touching his evoked desires that Vincent wasn't sure he could restrain.

It was his loss of control, the feeling that he couldn't stop himself, that had frightened him so last spring, when Charles was conceived. The fear of losing his hold on himself again was overwhelming.

When Charles was almost three weeks old, Vincent stood in the entrance to his chamber, watching Catherine pensively. It was bedtime and she was settled on the bed in her nightgown, nursing Charles and stroking his head gently. Completely absorbed in the baby, she didn't see Vincent until he came and sat down beside her.

Her smile disappeared as she looked at him. "What's wrong?"

"It is time for me to move back to the other chamber." Vincent spoke softly without meeting her eyes.

Catherine bent her head to the baby. "Look," she said after a moment, in a not quite steady voice. "He's fallen asleep." Carefully she passed the limp, relaxed form to Vincent and busied herself with the ties on the front of her gown.

Vincent took the baby automatically and put him to his shoulder, patting the tiny back gently. Charles obliged with a burp and Vincent carried him to the hand-carved cradle, tenderly covering him with a light blanket. He remained bent over the cradle for a moment, his fingers lightly caressing the infant's cheek, before he straightened and turned to Catherine.

She had been watching and as their eyes met, she spoke. "I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable..."

"No. You haven't. The fault is mine..."

She looked away, not wanting him to see the tears in her eyes. "I'll miss you."

He inclined his head in silent acknowledgement of her pain. "Goodnight, Catherine," he said quietly, moving toward the door.

"Goodnight, Vincent." As the sound of his footsteps faded away, she whispered, almost inaudibly, "I love you."

* * * * *

Time passed and Catherine began to feel restless. With nothing to do but tend the baby, she felt less than useful. It seemed everyone Below had a job to do. Even Vincent, after the first few days, had returned to his duties. Sometimes Catherine would sit in when he taught the children, but even then she was only an onlooker.

One evening, while Vincent was at the table writing in his journal, Catherine sat across the room trying to read. She couldn't seem to concentrate on the book, however, and her fidgeting disturbed Vincent to the point where he laid down his pen and came to sit beside her.

"I'm sorry, Vincent," she apologized. "I don't know what to do with myself tonight."

His eyes smiled as he looked at her. "Perhaps you need a day Above," he suggested.

Catherine started to protest. Hesitating, she gazed at him thoughtfully. "Maybe I do," she agreed at last. "I'd like to take Charles," she added a little uncertainly.

"Of course," Vincent said easily reaching for her hand. "When will you go?"

Catherine was smiling now in anticipation. "I think... day after tomorrow."

Two mornings later, Vincent walked with her to the exit in the park. Even in the drainage pipe, the winter chill could be felt and Catherine buttoned her coat securely and pulled on her gloves. Vincent waited while she adjusted the diaper bag some of the older girls had made. He gave the baby a last cuddle and kiss before placing him in his mother's arms. Catherine made sure Charles' blanket was tucked around him before lifting her eyes to Vincent.

"It feels strange, leaving like this," she said awkwardly.

Vincent looked at her for a moment before pulling her into an embrace that she couldn't return because of the baby in her arms. "Take care," he whispered into her hair.

"I'm coming back. I'll always come back." She lifted her face to nuzzle his neck briefly before he released her. He let her go reluctantly and she entered the pipe which led to the park without looking back.

Outside, the air was frigid and patches of snow lay on the ground, but the sun was shining brightly and Catherine turned her face up to it. A whimper from Charles made her look down to see him squinting and trying to turn his face away from the light.

Turning him away quickly, she laughed at him. "I forgot! You've never seen sunlight before, have you, sweetheart?" She pulled a fold of the blanket to rest loosely over his face and began to walk briskly across the park.

A few hundred yards later, she was beginning to wish she had listened to Vincent and used an exit that didn't require so much walking. She had wanted to enjoy a walk in the park, but her endurance, only six weeks after childbirth, wasn't what it normally was, and Charles grew heavier with every step. Her breath was short and her shoulders and arms were aching when she finally reached the street and flagged down a taxi.

She slid into the cab gratefully and gave the driver her destination. She had carefully planned her day to make the most of her time Above and the first stop was the D.A.'s office.

Catherine timed her visit well. Almost everyone was taking a mid-morning break and she was instantly surrounded. "Cathy's here and she brought the baby!"

Catherine surrendered Charles to Betty, one of the secretaries, and laughed as her friends abandoned her to follow the baby. The D.A.'s offices were warm in contrast to the winter chill outside and Catherine unbuttoned her coat. Betty, a grandmother of three, began to remove Charles' outer clothing, deftly loosening the blue and white blanket, untying and removing the tiny knit hat Sarah had made for him, and unbuttoning the hand-knit sweater Vincent had worn as an infant.

Charles' wardrobe consisted chiefly of tunnel clothes but no one seemed to notice anything odd about what he wore as they passed him around.

"Gee, Cath, he doesn't look much like you," someone commented to a chorus of agreement.

"No, he doesn't," Catherine admitted.

"Must look like his father, then?" One of the interns was clearly fishing.

"Sometimes I think he does, a little, in the shape of his face, his forehead and nose. Mostly he just looks like himself."

Deputy District Attorney Levinson passed by on his way to the coffee pot and stopped to take a look. "Cute kid," he commented. "When are you coming back to work?"

Catherine blinked. "I have four more months of leave, sir."

"Oh. Too bad. We could use you." He continued on his way.

Catherine smiled after him, pleased by the gruff, back-handed compliment.

"Hey, Radcliffe!"

Catherine turned to find Joe Maxwell grinning at her foolishly. He was obviously delighted to see her and Catherine was touched.

"So that's the kid, huh?" Joe looked to where Rita Escobar was taking her turn at cuddling Charles.

Catherine couldn't resist the impulse to bedevil Joe a little. "Would you like to hold him?" she invited.

Joe's eyes widened and he began to back away. "No, I'd better not..." he put out his hands in a gesture meant to fend the baby off, and Rita chose that moment to plop Charles into Joe's outstretched arms.

Joe looked uncomfortable and awkward and tried to pass the baby on to Catherine. She laughed and refused to take him, showing Joe instead how to cradle Charles in his arms, supporting his head and back.

Defeated, Joe grinned down at the little face and was rewarded with a huge smile. "Hey! He likes me!"

"Of course he does," Catherine assured him. "You're his Uncle Joe."

Charles was passed on to the next pair of waiting arms and Joe drew Catherine aside.

"So, Radcliffe, how're you getting along?"

"Everything's fine, Joe," she assured him.

"That's good. So, when are you coming back to work?"

Catherine tried to muffle an explosive burst of laughter. "You and Levinson!" she gasped.

"He already asked you, huh?"

Catherine nodded. "And I'll tell you what I told him... I have four more months off." She looked at Joe curiously. "Are you really that shorthanded?"

He shrugged. "You're gone, Harrison broke his leg skiing and is in the hospital in traction, one of the interns quit and the flu went through here like gangbusters last month. Everybody's behind." Joe stopped and gave her a contemplative look.

"What?"

"I just had an idea... We've been taking stuff down to the hospital for Harrison to work on, you know, desk work, research kind of stuff... I don't suppose you'd be interested?"

"Joe, I..." Catherine hesitated. Her first impulse was to refuse, but taking work Below would give her something to do when Charles was sleeping.

"I could give the stuff to Jenny once a week or so and she could bring me back what you'd finished," Joe pressed, sensing her uncertainty. "I know Jenny knows where to find you."

Catherine looked at him helplessly for a moment and gave in. "All right. You get what I'll need to Jenny and I'll do it."

Joe grinned in triumph.

Rescuing Charles from his latest admirer, Catherine bundled him against the cold again. There were hugs and kisses as she left, and many voices urging her to bring the baby back soon!

Yesterday, Catherine had arranged to meet Jenny for lunch. Arriving at P.J. Clark's, she found Jenny waiting impatiently.

"Cathy!"

"Hi, Jenny!"

They exchanged greetings and hurried inside, out of the cold. Catherine requested an out-of-the-way table and the hostess led them to a far corner of the room.

Charles started to fuss and let loose with a plaintive wail as Catherine deposited him in Jenny's arms. "Just hold him a second while I get my coat off..." Her actions matched her words and she reached for the baby.

"He's hungry," she explained, removing his outer garments as quickly as she could. Draping a blanket over one shoulder, she began to open her blouse and a minute later, Charles was nursing contentedly, the blanket over Catherine's shoulder covering everything but his feet.

"My concession to modesty," Catherine explained, fingering the blanket. "Nancy Tucker taught me this trick last summer. It's the first time I've had to use it."

"I'm amazed," Jenny shook her head. "Crying babies always fluster me and you're so calm."

Catherine laughed. "I've had lots of practice," she pointed out. "He eats every three or four hours around the clock, and I have the advantage of knowing why he's crying, and being able to fix it." She peeked under the blanket to make sure everything was all right. "You can meet him properly when he's done eating," she told Jenny. "Although he'll probably be asleep."

The waitress came and they ordered before launching into conversation. "Listen, the work on your house is going great! We'll go by later and see it," Jenny said as she dug through her portfolio. "I brought a couple of things I need you to make a decision on," she went on, sliding some papers across the table. "And here's something you need to sign..."

As Catherine had predicted, Charles went to sleep as soon as his stomach was full, but not before Jenny had a chance to hold and admire him.

Since Jenny had taken the afternoon off, she and Catherine went shopping after lunch. The first thing they bought was a stroller at Bloomingdale's.

"He's heavy!" Jenny said as she deposited Charles into their new purchase and strapped him in. "I don't know how you carry him."

"I don't," was Catherine's quick reply. "Today is the first time I've gone anywhere with him."

They laughed and embarked on a high-powered shopping spree. Catherine had not bought anything major for the baby before he was born, in case he was like Vincent and had to remain Below, so she needed everything. While still in Bloomingdale's, they bought nursery furniture, choosing a crib and a matching chest of drawers. They selected a high chair and a car seat and, with the major purchases out of the way, headed toward the stores on Fifth Avenue. Jenny dragged Catherine into practically every shop they passed, ignoring her laughing protests. They sorted through racks and shelves of baby clothes and Jenny migrated to the toys in every store they entered. Catherine tried futilely to convince her that Charles was much too young for most of the things she chose, but that didn't stop Jenny from playing with every toy in FAO Schwarz.

The larger items would be delivered when the brownstone was finished, but Catherine and Jenny were both laden with bags and packages and the basket behind the stroller was crammed as they left the last store.

"We can't possibly have forgotten anything, can we?" Jenny laughed as she surveyed their afternoon's work.

"I don't think so." Catherine began pushing the stroller down the crowded sidewalk as she and Jenny scanned the traffic for an available cab. Abruptly, she stopped and seized Jenny's arm. "Watch Charles. I'll be right back," she said, and bolted across the sidewalk to disappear into Godiva's.

"Cathy!" Jenny called after her in disbelief and began edging the stroller toward the shop. She finally made it into the candy store with Charles, the stroller, and all the packages intact.

"Truffles," she heard Catherine tell the clerk. "Five pounds."

"Five pounds of truffles? Are you crazy?"

Catherine ignored her. The man behind the counter weighed out five pounds of assorted truffles and Catherine eyed the pile dubiously. "Maybe you'd better give me two more pounds," she suggested.

The man gave her a look that questioned her sanity, too, but he obligingly measured out the additional candy.

"One more pound," Catherine told him and he shrugged and added it. At her nod, he quickly boxed the enormous mound of candy and accepted her American Express card.

"I thought you were supposed to eat weird stuff before you had the baby!" Jenny hissed. "What are you going to do with eight pounds of truffles?"

Catherine smiled serenely as she took the package of candy and rearranged the basket behind the stroller to fit it in. She gathered up her other packages and got back out on the sidewalk just in time to hail a passing taxi. It was a good five minutes before everything was safely transferred to the cab and they were on their way to see the progress on Catherine's house.

 

* * * * *

Vincent spent the day feeling Catherine's joy, her pleasure in being Above, in seeing her friends and showing off Charles. He was glad she was enjoying herself, but a part of him was sad. He had always known Catherine planned to return to her life Above when her maternity leave was over. He had accepted it. But until today, he hadn't realized how accustomed he had become to feeling Catherine's presence Below, knowing he could go at any time to see her, talk to her, touch her. Her absence today reminded him that soon would come a time when she would be apart from him, and once again, their meetings would be measured.

He knew she would be taking Charles to live with her Above, and Vincent loved his son with a ferocity that he wouldn't have believed possible. While Charles would be coming Below during the day when Catherine worked, it wouldn't be the same as living with him.

Vincent sighed and tried to drag his attention back to the council meeting. A new family had been proposed as residents and the council was hearing testimony from those who knew them. The meeting was taking much longer than Vincent had expected and Catherine would be returning soon.

After a few more minutes, Vincent excused himself and stepped out into the passageway. He caught Mouse scurrying by on some unknown errand.

"Mouse, I need you to do something for me."

Mouse stopped in his tracks and grinned. "Sure, Vincent!"

"Find one of the older children and send them to wait for Catherine. She will need help with the baby and I must stay here for the council meeting."

"Mouse will go!" He adored Charles. Catherine had laughingly told Vincent that she believed Mouse thought they'd had a baby just so Mouse would have someone to play with.

Vincent couldn't help smiling at Mouse's eagerness. "All right. Go to Catherine's house. Wait in the tunnels, Mouse. Catherine may not be alone. She will open the door when it is safe to do so."

Mouse nodded his understanding, impatient to be off. "Okay, good, okay, fine!"

"Thank you." Vincent sent him on his way with a pat on the shoulder and reluctantly returned to his meeting.

* * * * *

Catherine and Jenny arrived at the townhouse just as the workmen were leaving for the day. Asking the cab driver to wait, they lugged the day's loot into the vestibule.

Catherine hadn't been to see the house since right before Charles was born, so Jenny took her on a whirlwind tour.

"I come out once a week or so, just to keep them honest," she explained. "They finished the heating and cooling system last week. They're almost done with the new plumbing and they say they'll install all the new bathroom fixtures next week. And the electrician starts the wiring on Monday." They were picking their way through piles of rubble on the second floor as she spoke.

Sections of flooring had been taken up to facilitate the installation of the new heating and cooling ducts and there were large holes in some of the walls where the plumbers had needed to put in new pipes.

"Are they still giving March fifteenth as the completion date?" Catherine wondered, thinking that the place looked more like it was undergoing demolition.

Jenny grimaced. "They're less precise now. Third week in March is all I can get the contractor to commit to."

Catherine made a face of her own. "It figures. Good thing I don't need to move in right away."

They finished looking over the work in progress and descended to the main level. Jenny thought it was a little odd to leave Catherine and Charles alone in the big old brownstone, but Catherine insisted and Jenny knew enough not to ask questions. She said goodbye and went out to the waiting cab.

Catherine gathered up an armload of packages and began ferrying things down to the basement. When she was done, there

was a respectable pile next to the secret door. She lifted Charles from the stroller where he'd been peacefully sleeping and smiled in anticipation as she activated the catch.

Mouse scrambled to his feet as the door swung open and Catherine's smile faded.

"Where's Vincent?"

"Council meeting. Couldn't come. Sent Mouse," the young man said importantly as he took the baby from her. "Help with Charles," he added as he started down the tunnel.

"Mouse!" Catherine called after him and he stopped and cocked his head inquisitively. "I have a lot more to carry," she told him gently, and he sheepishly retraced his steps.

Between them, they managed to convey everything to Vincent's chamber and deposit it on the bed. The stroller had been left in the passageway to the house - the uneven floors of the tunnels made it impractical for use Below.

Mouse sat cross-legged beside the cradle and entertained Charles while Catherine tried to find a place to put all the things she and Jenny had bought. She succeeded in stowing away the last of the toys that Jenny had insisted on buying and gave Mouse the boxes of truffles.

"Take this to William, please," she requested. "It's a special treat for everyone after dinner."

Always glad to be needed, Mouse took the boxes and hurried out, passing Vincent in the doorway.

Catherine's face lit up as she met Vincent with an ecstatic hug. "Vincent, I had such a good time! Thank you for suggesting it!" She loosened her arms enough to lean back and see his face. "But I missed you," she added more softly.

"And I missed you." Vincent gazed at her as if memorizing every detail of how she looked. Very slowly, he bent his head to hers.

As their lips met, Catherine closed her eyes, afraid to move, afraid even to breathe for fear of shattering this moment. She was terrified that Vincent would suddenly realize what he was doing, and yet his kiss was so sweet... Too soon, it was over and he was drawing back, looking at her with a deep, unfathomable expression she couldn't quite read.

"Catherine..." His voice was huskier than usual, thick with emotion.

As they stared at each other, Charles began to fuss and the moment was lost. Vincent moved to the cradle and lifted the baby in his arms. "I missed you, too," he told Charles in a more steady voice.

In an effort to smooth over the uncomfortable silence which ensued, Catherine showed Vincent some of the things she had bought for Charles to wear and soon the awkwardness was gone. Hand in hand, they walked to dinner, joining Father and Mary at one of the small tables in the large dining chamber.

After the meal, William brought out the shiny, gold-foil boxes of truffles. Sweets were a luxury Below, and the candy was a big success. Everyone ate at least one piece, and many of the children were able to talk William out of a second.

* * * * *

Catherine was more content in the tunnels now. Vincent's kiss wasn't mentioned or repeated, but it had held the promise of their dream. Perhaps now he was less frightened of the differences between them. She had her own work to do, too. At prearranged times, Jenny picked up bundles of files from Joe and left them in the basement of the brownstone. Later, she went back to pick up the finished work. Catherine made several other trips Above, but they were all brief enough that she could leave Charles behind.

One of these short trips was on a morning as Vincent met with one of his classes. Because it was March fifteenth, the lesson included Julius Caesar and the Ides of March. Vincent was having a difficult time keeping the young minds on Shakespeare, however. There was to be a wedding in the tunnels that afternoon and all the children were looking forward to the party that would follow.

At last, Vincent gave up. He dismissed the children early, after extracting sincere promises that tomorrow they would study. They straggled out, chattering excitedly.

Miranda, an inquisitive eight-year-old, stopped by Vincent's chair. "When are you and Catherine getting married?" she asked ingenuously.

Vincent was taken aback by the unexpected question. "Why do you ask?" he hedged.

Miranda's answer was direct and sincere. "You love each other and you have a baby. Don't you want to get married?"

"Miranda, it isn't that simple." Vincent searched for words to explain. "Catherine and I are different. I am different. It wouldn't be fair..." The look on the girl's face said clearly that she didn't understand, so Vincent tried a different tack. "Part of marriage is being together and sharing. That isn't possible for us now. We are from different worlds..."

Miranda still looked confused. "Go on, now," Vincent urged her gently. "Mary is waiting." He sent her on her way and bowed his head, resting it against his clasped hands. A sound from the entrance made him look up. Zach stood near the entry and, from the boy's expression, Vincent knew he had overheard the entire exchange. He was old enough to understand what Vincent had been trying to say, but still young enough to believe that any obstacles could be overcome, and he faced Vincent almost defiantly.

"I heard what you said. And I think it's really dumb that you don't marry her." His courage failed him and he made a rapid exit, leaving Vincent staring after him.

Vincent tried futilely to put the children's words out of his mind, prowling his chamber restlessly as memories flooded him. He had promised her father that he would protect Catherine and love her until his last breath. He remembered standing in her apartment, just before that darkest time when he had lost himself, telling her that whatever happened, he loved her.

Marriage implied physical intimacy, which frightened Vincent most of all. And yet no one seemed appalled by the idea that he and Catherine had once been intimate, even though Charles was living proof of that intimacy. At last Vincent allowed himself to remember that night, last April, and he relived the joy that had been his... had been theirs... for a few brief moments.

He stopped beside the cradle and looked down on Charles, who was sleeping soundly. Once again he marvelled at the perfection of the minute features. Father had once told him that part of him was a man. Surely only a man could have sired a child so perfect - so completely human.

Slowly, for the first time, Vincent began to believe that a life together for him and Catherine might actually be possible.

 

He stood quickly as he felt Catherine approach and recognized the warmth in her smile as she hurried into the chamber.

"I'm late!" she told him breathlessly, dropping the files she carried onto the table. She looked at him more closely. "Vincent, you aren't dressed yet!"

Vincent's mind was still on other things and he looked at her curiously for a moment before he remembered the wedding.

"I'll be back for you in ten minutes," he promised, going to the nearby chamber in which he'd been sleeping the last few weeks.

Both changed quickly, and ten minutes later, Catherine lifted a drowsy Charles from his cradle and they walked together to Father's chamber, where the ceremony would take place.

Vincent found a chair for Catherine and stood behind her as they waited for the ceremony to begin.

The bridegroom was Wesley, a tall, robust young man, born in the tunnels. He was a part of Kanin's work crew, and highly thought of by those who knew him.

His bride was Lena. She had lived Above and been a prostitute, but her unhappiness with her life had led her to Catherine, who had brought her Below. Lena's infatuation with Vincent had vanished the moment she met Wesley.

Lena had been pregnant when she came Below, and her baby had been born here. Little Caty, in her best dress, sat safely upon Mary's lap.

As far as Wesley was concerned, Lena's past was just that - past, and he adored Caty.

Vincent's hands were resting on Catherine's shoulders as she sat holding Charles on her lap. Father began to recite the service solemnly. As Lena and Wesley gazed at each other in love, Vincent felt Catherine's fingers entwine with his. Lifting his hand, she pressed her cheek against it. There was a longing in her, but more, there was an acceptance and love that filled him to overflowing. With a sense of wonder, he understood what she had been telling him for so long - that she loved him, completely. He was enough for her, no matter the limitations or restrictions. At last he truly believed that she was never going to leave him.

He heard little of the rest of the ceremony. During the celebration afterwards, he was completely wrapped up in Catherine. He watched her talking and laughing, enjoying the day. She was happy, brimming with joy and love as her eyes found his across the room.

After the festivities were over, Vincent and Catherine walked slowly back to his chamber with Charles cradled securely in one of his father's strong arms.

"You seem lost in thought today, Vincent," Catherine observed as they walked. She tilted her head to look at him.

"I've been thinking... soon you must go back." He sounded sad and Catherine reached for his free hand.

"I have a few more weeks," she reminded him.

"This time together has been special."

"Yes." Catherine dropped his hand to precede him into his chamber. "I wish it could last forever."

Vincent looked at her for a long time before speaking again, almost shyly. "Perhaps it can."

Catherine looked at him in bewilderment. "What are you saying?"

"I don't want to be apart from you."

Catherine perched on the edge of the bed. "Are you asking me to stay Below?" she asked carefully.

"No," Vincent answered quickly. "I would never ask you to give up your life Above."

"I would give it up for you, Vincent, if you asked me." Catherine's voice was very low.

Vincent shook his head. "No. You could never be truly happy living down here, not even with me."

"Then... what?"

Vincent drew a deep breath. "Miranda asked me a question this morning."

Catherine smiled. "A very personal one, I'm sure."

Vincent nodded. "She asked me when we were getting married."

Catherine looked down at her hands, trying to hide the sudden pain his words had caused. "What did you tell her?"

Vincent laid Charles in his cradle. "I tried to explain that we were different..." He smiled in memory. "She didn't understand. Zach said something..." He crossed to the bed and dropped to his knees so his face would be level with Catherine's. "Something that made me think, made me realize that perhaps the differences between us are not that great..." He took Catherine's hands in his. "I don't want to be apart from you, ever again. I want to try..." He stopped.

Catherine's head had come up when he knelt before her and now she searched his face. "Vincent, are you asking me... to marry you?"

Vincent nodded slowly. "I think I am," he said in wonder.

Catherine stared at him for a few more seconds as her mind absorbed what had just been said. Slowly and carefully, she put her arms around him and leaned forward to bury her face against his neck. He felt her stunned joy and it was not until he felt wetness on his neck that he realized she was crying.

 

* * * * *

 

Things seemed to happen very quickly after that. The most difficult thing for Vincent was telling Father. Instead of the expected outburst, Father just shook his head.

"I don't know, Vincent. It is a life I never thought possible for you, and yet now it seems so reasonable, so right for you and Catherine to be together." He was more concerned about the proposed living arrangements, for Vincent and Catherine planned to live Above, in the house.

"I will not ask Catherine to give up her life, Father," Vincent told him. "There is already a staircase leading from the bedroom to the tunnel entrance. Mouse has designed a false wall to conceal the stairs from those who might wish me harm."

But it was Catherine who finally convinced Father that the arrangement would work. "You know I would not willingly endanger him," she said. "Vincent can come and go without ever exposing himself. Surely he will be safer than he ever was coming to my apartment."

Father had to concede that she was right, and, with his approval, intensive preparations for the wedding began. Selecting a date was one of the first and easiest things to do. April twelfth was only four weeks away and, as the anniversary of their first meeting, was an obvious choice. Four weeks wasn't much time, however, and almost everyone was busy organizing some part of the festivities.

Catherine went Above almost every day. She and Vincent had decided they would like to spend their wedding night in the new house. Unfortunately, as often happens with renovations, the contractor had fallen behind, and the projected completion date kept being revised. But Catherine's constant presence and repeated phone calls acted as a spur and it began to look as if the basic work would be finished in time, after all.

Impatience became a new factor in the relationship. Having committed himself to Catherine completely, Vincent no longer pushed away all thoughts of physical intimacy.

"It's difficult to wait," he murmured one evening, during an embrace which had become more passionate than he had planned.

"We don't have to wait," Catherine answered him softly.

"I know that. But after all this time, two more weeks is not long." He smiled down at her. "I want everything to be perfect. Not like before..."

"That was perfect, too, Vincent," Catherine told him firmly, tenderly. "Only the aftermath was painful."

* * * * *

Vincent moved back and forth restlessly in the narrow space that had been partitioned off in a corner of the Great Hall. He couldn't remember time ever passing so slowly. He peered through a gap in the partition and observed the guests, tunnel dwellers and helpers alike, finding places to sit or stand for the ceremony soon to begin.

Vincent straightened the ruffled stock of his dress shirt and adjusted his soft leather vest. He dipped two fingers into a small pocket and withdrew a ring. Made of rose gold by one of the craftsmen Below, it had been fashioned according to Vincent's specifications. It was actually two separate narrow bands, twisted around each other, giving the appearance of being braided. To him, it symbolized their lives, his and Catherine's, irrevocably intertwined with no way to separate them without destroying them.

He turned the ring between his fingers and carefully replaced it, looking out at the guests again. Surely it was almost time for the wedding to begin. He spied Peter Alcott talking to Pascal. Beside Peter stood Vincent's own surprise for Catherine. Without her knowledge, he had invited Jenny Aronson to the wedding and arranged for her to be brought down a few hours early. Catherine had been delighted.

Peter Alcott had provided masses of flowers and greenery. There were daisies, delphinium, baby's breath, ferns and, of course, roses. Some of the older children had spent the afternoon spreading the flowers around the Great Hall in carefully casual arrangements. Candles and torches lit the room and a small group of musicians were playing softly.

Finally, Sarah was standing at the edge of the partition, smiling at him. "Are you ready, Vincent?"

He nodded, moving toward the opening as the musicians reached the first sweet notes of the adagio of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Vincent picked up a single, perfect white rose and stepped out from behind the partition.

Across the Great Hall, Catherine emerged from behind a similar partition and began to walk slowly toward him. He moved to meet her, unable to tear his eyes away.

She was wearing a new dress, made for her by Sarah and Mary. It was of some soft, champagne-colored fabric shot through with metallic gold thread and touched here and there with accents of pale blue. Her hair was pulled back on the sides and fell softly over her shoulders. On her head was a wreath of daisies and baby's breath and she carried a single red rose.

Her love poured through their bond and was reflected in the luminescence of her face.

They met in the center of the room and Catherine offered him the crimson flower in her hand. Their fingers brushed as she exchanged it for the white one he held. There was a long moment in which they just looked at each other before turning to face Father. He gave them both a fond smile as he cleared his throat and began to speak.

 

"`Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For love is sufficient unto love.

Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

But if you love and must needs have desires, let these beyour desires:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melodyto the night.

To know the pain of too much tenderness.

To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks foranother day of loving;

To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;

To return home at eventide with gratitude;

And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in yourheart and a song of praise upon your lips.'"

While Father was speaking, Vincent glanced sideways at Catherine, who was listening intently with a soft smile. She looked beautiful, and he reflected again that she could have had anyone. Yet, here she was, telling the world, his world, that she wanted him. That she belonged to him. As always, the wonder of it overwhelmed him.

He shifted his attention back to Father, who was looking beyond them to the guests, saying, "Catherine and Vincent have asked us here today to witness their union and the beginning of their new life together. Let us hear the words they have chosen to speak to each other."

Catherine turned to Vincent and lifted her face to his. Her voice was clear and firm as she began to speak.

"`A woman may love a man because he is brave, or because he is comely, or because he is wise, or gentle -- for a thousand thousand reasons. But the best of all reasons for a woman loving a man is just because she loves him, without rhyme and without reason, because heaven wills it, because earth fulfills it, because his hand is of the right size to hold her heart in its hollow.'"

She reached for his left hand and he held it out between them. From somewhere she withdrew a narrow, flat band and began to fasten it around his wrist. Made of one piece of dark leather perhaps an inch wide, all but the very end had been cut into thin strips and woven into a flat braid. The ends were tied off in intricate knots, leaving a short fringe. She secured it and released his hand slowly as she looked up and smiled.

Vincent was mesmerized by the words she had spoken, the look in her eyes, and the feelings that surged through their bond. It was a moment before he could speak.

"`Amid the gloom and travail of existence suddenly to behold a beautiful being, and as instantaneously to feel an overwhelming conviction that with that fair form forever our destiny must be entwined; that there is no more joy but in her joy, no sorrow but when she grieves; ...let me of all men then believe, that that combination of beauty and grace, of fascinating intelligence and fond devotion is but the promise of a better world.'"

He took the ring from his pocket and slipped it on her finger, holdinng her hand in his as they listened to Father once more.

"`You were born together, and together you shall beforevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death

scatter your days.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of yoursouls.

Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the sameloaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each oneof you be alone.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.

For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart,

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other'sshadow.'"

Their hands were still firmly clasped as Father ended the ceremony with the traditional tunnel closing. "May your life together be a long and happy one," he said with a smile.

Custom called for a kiss at this point, but Vincent hesitated. Kissing Catherine was still a new experience for him and so many watching eyes made him shy. Her look of love told him she would understand if he preferred to forego the kiss and Vincent's heart swelled with his own love as he drew her toward him. He leaned down to touch his lips to hers, lightly, fleetingly, and his eyes held a promise for later.

Catherine and Vincent shared the first dance before somehow Vincent found himself with Charles in his arms, watching benevolently as Catherine was swept away by a succession of partners. Even Father, declaring that his hip felt better than it had in years, managed a few slow steps with her.

After wedding cake and champagne, there was more dancing, accompanied by a great deal of laughter and merriment. The gaiety showed no signs of abating when Catherine found a quiet corner to feed Charles for the last time before giving him into Mary's competent, loving care for the night. Hand in hand, she and Vincent began the long walk to the brownstone, escorted by a large group of loud, excited children.

"It is a custom here," Vincent explained in a low voice that Catherine could barely hear over the noise the children were making. "The children always follow a newly married couple to their chamber."

At the entrance to the house, Vincent started to reach for the catch that would spring the door. To his surprise, it opened before he touched it and Zach and Erin scuttled out, casting mischievous grins at the other children.

"What..." Vincent began, but it was too late. With a whoop and a chorus of goodbyes, the children pelted away down the tunnel. As they disappeared around a corner, the sudden silence seemed to ring in the air.

"What do you suppose they were doing in there?" Catherine whispered after a moment.

"We'll find out," Vincent told her, reaching for her hand. The children had taken the lanterns with them and the hidden staircase was narrow and unlit. Catherine could see nothing in the inky blackness but she held Vincent's hand tightly, trusting him to lead her safely.

They stopped at the top of the long stair while Vincent fumbled for the catch that activated this door. As it slid open silently, Catherine caught her breath. The room was a fairyland, filled with candles whose flames danced gently in the breeze that wafted through the open french doors. Several sprays of lovingly hand-picked flowers scented the air.

"It's beautiful," Catherine managed to say at last.

"Yes..." Something about his voice, softly drawing out the single word, made her turn to him. His gaze was warm, intimate, caressing.

Feeling suddenly shy under his ardent stare, she turned away to unpin the now wilted garland of flowers from her hair. "The children made this for me," she explained unnecessarily, studying the wreath in her hands.

Vincent looked toward the open terrace doors and gestured to the balcony beyond.

"Go on," Catherine answered his silent invitation. "I won't be long," she added quietly.

Shedding his cloak, Vincent went outside and crossed to the low balcony wall. Bracing his hands against it, he gazed up at the night sky, reflecting on all that had happened this day.

A few minutes later, Catherine approached the balcony. Her hair was brushed out loosely and she was barefoot in a lovely, floor length nightgown of ivory silk. Delicate lace edged the high, round neckline and trimmed the matching robe as well. It was a demure, romantically Victorian look. Seeing Vincent silhouetted in the glow of the candles on the terrace, she stopped in the doorway.

Vincent turned and was spellbound by the sight before him. For a moment, nothing else existed. "Catherine..." He found his voice at last. "You look... so beautiful."

"So do you." Her voice was tense with longing.

His face was gold and silver in the blend of candlelight and moonlight. She came toward him slowly and he opened his arms to her. For a long time, they were content just to hold each other in the strangely familiar setting of a candle-lit balcony.

It was Catherine who finally broke the spell. "Come," she whispered. "Let's go inside."

Just inside the doors, they stopped at the sound of a sharp, metallic click. Suddenly the ceiling was starred with pinpoints of light. Another click and a hidden speaker began emitting the soft sound of ocean waves breaking gently on a beach.

Catherine gave Vincent a bewildered, delighted frown, but the expression on his face said he was as surprised as she. The serenity of the ocean was broken by the impatient chatter of a raccoon. "Arthur! Shhh!" A muffled thud followed Mouse's hissed scolding and then the quiet sound of the waves resumed. They both laughed as Catherine followed the sound to the tape player Mouse had hidden in a corner. She bent down and turned it off. An old slide projector was throwing the image of stars on the ceiling. After a moment's hesitation, she left it on.

"Mouse's wedding gift," Vincent said in amusement as she came back to him.

"It was very thoughtful of him, really," Catherine said. "Very romantic - stars and the ocean."

"And the children lit the candles..."

Catherine slipped her arms around his neck. "I've dreamed of making love with you by candlelight."

He smiled slightly. "And starlight. And moonlight."

"We have all three," she said softly.

"Yes," he said, as he kissed her tenderly. Catherine's arms tightened around him in immediate response, and her body molded itself to his intimately. She returned his kiss with an exhilarating intensity. The softness and warmth of his lips was intoxicating.

Finally parting, they stared at each other for a long moment. With an unaccustomed boldness, Vincent pulled at a pale blue satin ribbon at her throat. His hands brushed the cloth aside and the garment slid unnoticed to the floor. The gown beneath was sleeveless and he caressed her bare shoulders lightly before lifting her in his arms. She kissed and nuzzled his neck as he carried her with infinite gentleness and placed her tenderly on the bed. Sitting on the edge, he gazed at her, watching the candles make dancing shadows on her face.

To him, she had never looked so desirable. One step would take him across the threshold into a life that would be the fulfillment of all his dreams. He hesitated and instinctively began to wonder whether he could meet Catherine's expectations. Her smile as she stroked his arm gently through the thin material of his shirt reassured him and, with a feeling approaching adolescent nervousness, he bent to pull off his boots.

As his boots dropped to the floor, Catherine gripped his shirt sleeve and pulled him down to lie beside her. He kissed her again and her hands, touching him, brushing his face before moving down to his shoulders and chest, encouraged him to begin his own tentative exploration through the delicate fabric of her gown.

The soft leather vest Vincent wore was held closed by a belt and Catherine reached for it, fumbling a little before it finally came free. Discarding the belt, she pushed the vest from his shoulders and he moved back from her to take it off. Slowly, her hands went to the ruffled stock at his throat and he watched her face as she wrestled with it. A fleeting frown of concentration came and went as she discovered how the knot was tied and began to loosen it.

With the stock untied, she tugged impatiently at the buttons on his shirt. They came open easily and she pulled the tail of the shirt free, running her hands underneath it. She was immersed in him... his face, golden in the candlelight, the sound of his voice whispering her name, the masculine scent that was uniquely Vincent, the taste of his skin and his mouth. Her hands roamed the wide expanse of his chest and the dense, soft hair that covered it. She stroked his shoulders and back, feeling the sparse velvet down that grew there and his warm, satiny skin. Unyielding muscles bunched and slid beneath the softness, reminding her of the savage power under her hands.

Belying that power, he was all gentleness, raining light, tender kisses on her face and neck. Deliberately, she took his hand and guided it to the row of buttons that fastened her gown.

He drew back, contemplating her for a moment before he began undressing her with a hand that shook slightly. Feeling the trembling in his hand, she brought it to her lips, kissing the palm tenderly. His fingers trailed along the side of her face before returning to her gown. The rest of the buttons went more quickly and he allowed his fingertips underneath, hardly daring to touch the warm, silky skin that held the delicate fragrance of her perfume.

They kissed again, deeply and more urgently as his hands moved over her with an arousing gentleness. Pulling her mouth away from his, Catherine began to kiss his throat, his shoulder, his chest. Vincent's eyes closed and his head went back as he gave himself up to the sensations. Her hands were still under his shirt and she tugged at it. "Take it off," she whispered hoarsely. "I want to see you."

Of all that she could remember of their first time together, she could not, no matter how she tried, remember how Vincent looked. Isolated images were stamped indelibly on her mind... the feel of his shoulders under her hands, the fierce, insistent pressure of his mouth, the exhilaratingly sensual growling sound he made... but nothing visual remained.

With both of them pulling at it, the soft material of his shirt seemed to tie itself into a knot. When it finally came off, Vincent tossed it aside heedlessly. Bending his head, he kissed the hollow of her throat, tracing a path along her collarbone to her shoulder, brushing aside her gown as he did so. All his carefully nurtured restraints were falling away and he, too, wanted to see as well as touch.

She helped him ease the fine lace and silk off her shoulders and down over her hips, kicking it aside when it tried to tangle with her legs. When she reached for the waist of his pants, he drew back and she pulled her hands away.

"Vincent?" Her whisper was at once a question and an encouragement.

He stood and unfastened his trousers, hesitating only an instant before sliding them down and stepping out of them. Straightening, he stood bathed in candlelight. Her eyes explored him, taking in his broad shoulders, slim hips and well-muscled thighs.

While Catherine admired his body, Vincent was similarly engaged. He drank in the sight of her... beautiful, entrancing, alluring. Her fair skin glowed in the flickering amber light of the candles. As she held out her arms, he went into them eagerly and she welcomed his warm strength.

Vincent had possessed her body once, but that had been a mindless joining, a spontaneous reaction to the explosive release of something both had tried to suppress for too long. Even after a year, he remembered everything about that night in copious and vivid detail. A detached part of his mind noted the differences in her body as he touched her. Her breasts were fuller, her waist thicker and less firm... evidence, he realized, of the most cherished gift she had ever given him... their son. Now she wanted to give him another gift... herself.

Soon they were in an enchanted place where nothing but them and their loving existed. Minds, bodies and souls united with shared hopes, dreams, and destinies. Long afterward, the only sounds were two lover's names, whispered in the darkness.

THE END