TILL THE SUN GROWS COLD

June - September 2016

 

 

I love thee, I love but thee,

With a love that shall not die

Till the sun grows cold,

And the stars are old,

And the leaves of the Judgement Book unfold!

Bayard Taylor - BEDOUIN SONG

 

 

Outside his window, the sky was a vivid blue and somewhere nearby, a bird sang a merry good-morning song. Charles Chandler yawned and stretched himself into full wakefulness and spent a quiet, introspective moment looking out at that blue sky. As on every morning of the past year, his first thought was of her.

Elizabeth.

He wondered where she was at this moment. Did she look up into the sunlit summer sky, or did the lovely, tranquil light of the moon shine on her now? Was she well? Most important, was she happy?

Telling himself, as he did each day, that he'd done the right thing in sending her away, he sighed and rolled to his feet.

The unhurried sounds of Sunday morning - voices, the clink of forks on plates, the rustle of a newspaper - reached him even before he entered the dining room. His father looked up when he came in.

"Good morning."

"Good morning, Father." Charles took his customary place at the far end of the table and reached for one of the fat sections of the New York Times.

"That you, Charles?" his cousin Carey called from the kitchen.

"Who else?" he countered, and got a muffled chuckle in return.

"Put in your order quick," Carey instructed, coming to the door. "I'm about done in here."

Charles glanced at the plate at his father's elbow. "Are those banana pancakes?"

"Yeah. Or I can make plain. And I've got some eggs out."

"Banana pancakes sound good. Thanks."

Carey nodded and retreated into the kitchen. Charles poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the table and opened the paper. A few minutes later, Carey put a plate of pancakes beside Charles and sat down with his own breakfast and section of paper.

The table seemed spacious with only three occupants. Charles's mother habitually rose later on Sundays when she could, and even if Evan hadn't been away, he wouldn't be up this early. Vicky was still in England, and Jacob, of course, had been absent since his marriage last year.

Charles finished his pancakes and two sections of the paper and was lingering over his second cup of coffee when his mother came in. She greeted them all with a not-quite-awake-yet smile and poured herself some coffee.

"Did you save any of the paper for me?" she asked.

"Father and I have the news sections, and Carey's reading the sports," Charles informed her. "Here, have the society page."

"Oh, yes, just what I wanted," she murmured sardonically, but settled down with it anyway.

Charles finished his coffee, put aside his paper and carried his plate and mug into the kitchen to rinse them and place them in the dishwasher. Later, because Carey had done the cooking, he'd clean up the kitchen; now he went back into the dining room to enjoy his family's company.

His mother still had part of the paper open before her; when he came in, she closed it quickly, folding it and setting it aside. She looked as if she wanted to say something, so he stopped. "Mother? Is something wrong?"

She hesitated too long before shaking her head, and besides, his father had stopped reading and was watching her closely. Something was wrong. Charles glanced at Carey, who shook his head slightly. He didn't know.

"Catherine?" That was his father, leaning forward now in concern.

"I'm fine, Vincent," she said, too brightly. She moved the folded section of newspaper to the chair beside her and smiled. "So, Charles, when do you start your internship?"

"In two weeks," he answered slowly. "I told you that. Mother, what's in the paper?"

"Nothing," she said, a shade too quickly. "There's nothing there."

Charles glanced at his father, who nodded. He rounded the table and reached for the section of paper. She made an abortive move to stop him and then subsided, reaching for Vincent's hand instead.

Charles stood beside her chair and opened to the page she'd been reading when he came in. It took him only seconds to find what had disturbed her. In the upper left corner of page three was Elizabeth's face, smiling softly at the camera. At him. He caught his breath at the reminder of how lovely she was and then his eye dropped to the caption below. BURCH-DUVET NUPTIALS SET, it read, and he felt the blood drain from his face. Elizabeth was engaged to be married.

"Oh, Charles," his mother whispered, and put her hand on his. "I'm so sorry."

He forced a smile. "It's all right," he managed. "At least she's happy." And then he could no longer bear the commiseration in her eyes, the puzzlement on his father's and Carey's faces. He dropped the paper and plunged blindly into the kitchen.

He hesitated there, long enough to hear his father's softly murmured, "Oh, no," and Carey's sympathetic, "That's too bad," and knew he couldn't face them. Not now. Not while his grief was so fresh, so new. The kitchen offered him two avenues of escape. The back door, which led to the back yard and nowhere, and the stairs, which led to the basement... and the tunnels.

The passages Below were cool, welcoming, but they couldn't soothe his aching heart. He walked faster, but the pain followed. He began to run. It was some time before he lurched to a stop, gasping for breath, and leaned his cheek against the jagged coarseness of a tunnel wall.

The sound of rushing water reached him and he realized he was near the Chamber of the Falls. He staggered towards it. It was a place he'd visited often during the past twelve months.

There was a ledge down low, close to where the torrent of falling water entered the pool, tumbling over itself and throwing up a fine spray that wet his face and hair. The roar of the falls was loud enough, insistent enough to drive away most thoughts, but it couldn't overcome what filled him now. Liz was gone. Now, she'd always be gone. He'd never hold her again, never kiss her, never even hear her voice speak his name. She was gone.

Foolishly, he'd thought he'd accepted losing her, thought he'd made peace with his decision to let her go, to let her find happiness somewhere else. He hadn't realized that all along, he'd been nurturing hope, fragile and delicate as a robin's egg, that someday he'd find her again, that someday they could be together. Now that hope had been crushed, shattered beyond all repair.

In that vast chamber, filled with the incessant rush and roar of the water, he bent his head and cried.

 

Over the next few days, Charles felt as if he was moving underwater. Everything, even his mother's anxious looks, his father's heartfelt compassion, seemed distant and unimportant. The first shock of anguish had receded, replaced by a kind of numb despair. Each day was a struggle; he didn't dare think of the future - for Charles was his father's son. For him, there was only one woman. Without her, he was destined to spend his days alone.

It was a relief to begin his internship at St. Vincent's Hospital. The work gave him somewhere to focus his thoughts; the hours demanded of a fledgling intern exhausted his body so that sleep, when it came, was dreamless.

He'd just finished a long shift and was walking two blocks over to catch an express bus home when a cab pulled up to the curb ahead. The rear door swung open and a young woman stepped out.

Charles blinked. He'd only slept four of the last thirty-six hours. Surely it was the lack of sleep that made her look so familiar - so very lovely.

When she turned toward him, he stopped breathing. The sun on her hair brought out chestnut highlights, and even from here he could see the blue of her eyes. She was trim and poised in a pale green linen suit that complemented her skin and brought color to her cheeks.

She looked past him, down the street, and made a little frown of disappointment. Charles hung on the moment, knowing that any second she would disappear into one of the stylish shops or perhaps into the tea room on the corner. Then she'd be gone.

The cab pulled into the midday traffic and Elizabeth turned toward the nearest doorway. Her casual gaze swept over him unrecognizing. He drank her in like a man stranded too long in the desert, like a man who knows that too soon, the nectar he needs to survive will vanish.

She faltered and her gaze came back to him swiftly. He saw her eyes widen in surprise and recognition. He waited. In a moment the old resentment would return, in a moment she'd turn from him, but for now... for now she saw him, knew him. He savored the moment, memorizing details that would have to last him the rest of his life.

And then, incredibly, she was moving toward him, smiling, calling his name. When she reached him, she offered her hand. If she felt the jolt that shook him at her touch, she gave no sign. Her fingers were small and surprisingly cold in the summer heat. He closed his hand around hers, thinking to warm it, and bent his head to be heard over the traffic.

"Elizabeth." To his own ears, he sounded gruff, but she answered with a smile.

"Charles. How lovely to see you."

"Yes." As soon as he'd said it, he thought the single word of agreement must sound idiotic, but her smile didn't falter, and gradually it dawned on him that she really was pleased to see him. It took longer for him to notice he was still holding her hand. "I'm sorry," he apologized, releasing it. He rubbed at his eyebrow, his cheek. "I've just come off duty at the hospital," he explained, hoping she'd accept it as an excuse for his behavior. "I'm afraid I'm not thinking too clearly." Or possibly not thinking at all, but he didn't say that.

She smiled. "That's right. You're a doctor now, aren't you?" She caught his arm. "Look, there's a restaurant down the street. Do you have time for a cup of coffee?"

He had time to drink arsenic, if it was time spent with her, so he nodded.

Coffee was probably a bad idea, he thought a few minutes later, the warm cup steaming in his hand. With his inner sense of time already disrupted by his chaotic work schedule, he'd never go to sleep. But it was worth it, worth anything to sit across from her and watch the neat, precise movement of her hands as she stirred sweetener into her cup.

"Tell me about what you're doing," she urged, leaning forward. "Are you at a hospital?"

He nodded. "Doing my internship."

"Where?"

He told her and she nodded.

"What happens after that? Are you still going into research?"

"I plan to. But after my year of internship, I have three years as a resident."

She made a face. "That doesn't sound like fun. Do you have to do that to be a research physician?"

"Not absolutely, no. But I'm told there's no adequate alternative to internship and residency at a good teaching hospital. I want the experience."

She nodded thoughtfully. "Four more years, then. That's a long time."

"Yes. But worth it." He paused. "What about you? You didn't come back to Harvard for your last year."

She seemed intent on her cup. "No. I transferred."

He waited and in a moment she went on.

"I went on a dig last summer, in the south of France. That new cave they found, near the petroglyphs?"

He nodded. He'd read about that, a prehistoric cavern uncovered during excavation for an office building. According to the experts, it was the archaeological find of the decade. "How'd you get to work on that?"

She flushed and looked away. "My father. He knew somebody.... Anyway, I was just a flunky," she went on. "I hardly got into the cave. Most of my work was with photographs."

"Still, it must have been exciting."

She smiled. "It was. I transferred to the university in Grenoble so I could stay close, and they let me do some work on weekends."

"I see." He drew a long breath. "I wondered where you went."

"Charles, I'm sorry. I should have spoken to you before I left..."

"It's all right. I wasn't very coherent last year. I know you didn't understand. I know I hurt you."

She was silent a moment. "Yes," she agreed quietly. "You did."

It was an awkward moment; Charles shifted uncomfortably, wishing he knew what to do with his hands, his feet. For an irrational moment, he wanted to tell her how much he still loved her.

"I saw the notice in the paper," he said instead. "About your engagement. Congratulations."

Her cheeks flushed. "Thank you. He's French, you know."

Charles nodded. "Did you meet him at school?"

"At the dig. He specializes in petroglyphs and cave paintings."

"So you have your work in common."

She nodded, looking soft and vulnerable. He ached to touch her.

"Does he make you happy, Elizabeth?" he asked softly instead.

She looked up, startled. "That's important to you, isn't it?"

When Charles had given his heart, it was without conditions, without restrictions, and it made him sad that she would never understand that. "Yes," he replied. "It is."

She offered a shaky smile and covered one of his hands with her own. "That means more to me than you can possibly know," she told him. "That you care about my happiness. But what about you, Charles? You were so troubled last year. Were you ever able to work things out?"

He was supremely conscious of her hand on his; the simple contact made it hard to concentrate. "Yes," he managed slowly. "I believe I did."

"So whatever it was is all right now."

"No. It was never wrong. I only thought it was."

She frowned. "I don't understand."

He didn't even think about what he said. He just said it. "It's my father. And because of my father, of who he is, of what he is, it's me, too. And maybe I'm still wrong, I don't know. But my father... he's different, but he's not wrong. I know that now." He rose to his feet. "I have to go, Elizabeth. I'm sorry."

If he had thought about it, he never would have kissed the cheek she offered; as it was, he only grazed it lightly with his lips, his cheek, but the nebulous contact was enough to remind him of how soft her skin was, enough to fill his nostrils with her scent, to touch the fall of silk that was her hair. "Goodbye, Elizabeth," he whispered. "Be happy."

Leaving her was one of the most difficult things he'd ever done. At the door, he glanced back. Elizabeth watched him with a small, sad smile. With an effort he tore his gaze away. He didn't look back again.

 

Elizabeth watched for a long time after Charles was no longer visible. She'd imagined herself over him, convinced herself theirs was only a transitory relationship... but seeing him today shattered that illusion. Despite her new love for Raoul, some vestige of the old feeling for Charles remained. It bothered her; she didn't want to feel that way, didn't need the complications it would create.

Disturbed, she abandoned her errands and went home. Home was a spacious luxury apartment on Park Avenue, staffed by a housekeeper/cook, a valet for her father, and a maid to do the cleaning. Once there, she settled into the deep, overstuffed chair in her father's office, long her favorite room, to brood over a cup of tea. She was still there when her father came home that evening.

"Elizabeth? Why are you sitting in the dark?"

She shrugged and set down her cup, the tea long cold. "Thinking."

He pulled up a chair and sat down across from her, taking her hands. "Is something wrong?"

She didn't want him to worry; he worried too much. She tried to force a smile and failed miserably. "I saw Charles Chandler today," she admitted.

He stiffened. "And?"

"And we had a cup of coffee."

"That sounds innocuous enough," he said cautiously. "It doesn't explain you sitting here brooding."

She laughed sadly. She'd never been able to hide anything from her father. "He wished me well. He wants me to be happy."

"But him saying that makes you sad."

She nodded. "It shouldn't, I know. After all, I have my work, my schooling."

"Me," he suggested with a smile.

"You," she agreed swiftly. "So why does seeing him once, briefly, affect me this way?"

"It's interesting," her father said, his expression compassionate, full of love, "that in your recitation of what you have, you never mentioned Raoul."

"Raoul, of course," she said, too quickly.

"But it's not Raoul you want," he observed. "Not really."

"Raoul's a good person," she argued faintly. "He's kind and considerate and even noble."

"I agree," he said briskly. "Raoul's a man to be admired. But Lissa," he added softly. "Admiration's not love."

He'd put his finger on it precisely. With a helpless sob, she slid from her chair and buried her face in her father's lap. He stroked her hair while she cried.

At last she was able to compose herself, pulling herself back up into the chair, scrubbing at her wet cheeks with her hands, pushing back her hair.

"Better now?" her father asked, handing her a tissue.

She nodded shakily. "A little. Oh, Daddy, I think I still love him. What am I going to do?"

"I don't know, baby," he said sadly, and stroked her cheek. "You know I'd do anything to make it better for you, but I don't think this is something I can fix."

That earned him a small laugh. It was a joke between them that he'd buy the world for her if it was only for sale. She knew he'd used his considerable wealth to smooth many paths for her. But he was right. He couldn't fix this.

"I wish I could make it right for you," he went on. His words reminded her of something and she sat up straighter.

"Daddy, what do you know about Charles's father?"

His expression abruptly changed, becoming distant, shuttered. "Why do you want to know?"

His sudden change of demeanor frightened her. "It was something Charles said. About the wrong not being in his father, but maybe in him. It didn't make any sense to me. I thought maybe his father had been ill, or something..."

"No. Not ill."

"Charles's mother would tell you, I guess," she ventured.

"I don't think she would," he said slowly. "And in any case, I haven't spoken to Cathy in over a year. Not since right after you left."

"Because of me and Charles?" she guessed. "Oh, Daddy, I'm sorry. I never meant to ruin your friendship..."

"Don't worry about that," he consoled her. "To tell the truth, I don't think my friendship with Cathy Chandler can be ruined. Sometimes we go years without any contact, and this isn't the first time we've shouted at each other, but there's something deep between us. Permanent. Our friendship can't be broken."

She gazed at him, shocked. "You still love her. The way I love Charles."

He smiled a little, and shook his head. "Not the way you love Charles," he disagreed. "Not even the way I loved your mother, who was a far better wife for me than Cathy ever would have been. But yes, I love her. I do what I can to protect her, though I'm not sure she knows, and it wouldn't matter if she did."

"Protect her? You mean, like bodyguards?" There'd been a brief period in Elizabeth's youth when her father had been threatened. He'd refused to give in to the demands made of him, and instead had hired a security firm to protect his family. Elizabeth recalled how she'd had to remember to tell her guard where she was going and how long she planned to stay, and wondered how her father could provide such protection for Charles's mother without her knowledge.

To her surprise, he laughed. "No. The last thing Cathy needs is a bodyguard. What I try to do is keep the questions away, stop people from prying too deeply into her personal life."

"I don't understand. What's the big deal about her personal life?"

Her father gazed at her, long and hard, before answering. "It has to do with her husband," he said at last. "Her children's father."

"There is something wrong with him, isn't there?" she whispered, her voice low and shocked.

"I doubt Cathy would agree that wrong is the proper word," he said. "And from what you've said, Charles wouldn't, either." He rose and crossed the room to his desk. He pressed a key on an electronic panel, and a small section of the far wall slid away, revealing a recessed steel door and another electronic keypad. Her father touched a series of numbers on the keypad and the recessed door opened. He reached inside and withdrew a small steel box.

"What's that?"

He set the box down between them and fingered the lid. "Cathy's life," he said finally. "The part she doesn't share with anyone."

"But you have it?"

He nodded. "She doesn't know." He looked at her. "Elizabeth, I'm going to show you what's in this box, but I want you to promise you'll never tell anyone what you learn."

He was so deadly earnest, he frightened her. "I promise," she whispered.

"If Cathy finds out I have this..."

"She'd be angry," Elizabeth guessed.

"Angry doesn't begin to describe it," he said grimly, and opened the box.

Inside was a small leatherbound book and a stack of envelopes held together with rubber bands.

"Read them," he told her, and rose to his feet. "Afterwards, I'll try to answer any questions you may have." He left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

Slowly she removed the little book and the envelopes. The book was filled with page after page written closely in her father's handwriting, but she didn't try to read it yet. Instead, she picked up the stack of envelopes. The rubber bands were so old they crumbled when she touched them, sending the sheaf of envelopes sliding across her lap. She caught them before they reached the floor, shuffling them back into their original order. They seemed to hold a series of neatly typewritten reports from a private investigator named Cleon Manning. They dated from the late 1980's.

Elizabeth settled more deeply into her chair and began to read.

 

More than three hours later, she emerged from the office, her sense of reality shaken to its core. "Daddy?" she whispered, when she found him bent over papers spread across the dining room table. "Is it true?"

He nodded solemnly. "As far as I know, it's all true."

"Charles's father... what is he?"

"Let's just say he isn't like the rest of us," he suggested.

She sank, trembling, onto a dining room chair. "Is Charles really his son?"

"You mean biologically. Naturally, I've never come right out and asked, but as far as I know, yes. It's actually a pretty good argument for the man's humanity, if you think about it. He's fathered five children."

"Five?"

"Cathy lost a baby at birth," he explained. "A twin to her second son. At least, that's the story that was given out. I've always wondered, though, if that child might not simply take after its father, and have to be hidden away."

Elizabeth felt something cold gnawing at her stomach. "That could have happened to me," she whispered, shocked. "If Charles and I had ever married. I could have had a child..."

"I thought of that," her father admitted.

"You never said anything."

"He made you so happy the short time you were together," he said. "How could I destroy that?"

"That's what Charles was so upset about, last spring," she realized. "That's what he couldn't tell me."

Her father said nothing.

"You're so calm," she accused. "You aren't usually so calm about things like this."

"Things that threaten my little girl?" he asked with a small, self-deprecating smile. "I suppose not. But this particular issue's been around since before you were born. I used up all my outrage twenty years ago."

"Over Charles's mother."

"You saw it. It's all in the diary. I would have died to protect her, Elizabeth, and it took me a very long time to learn, once and for all, that she didn't need, didn't want, that kind of protection. She loves him. Enough to bear his children, to live with the secret and the whispers and the gossip. For over twenty-five years she's done that. Even the time she agreed to marry me..."

Elizabeth nodded; she remembered that. "She must have loved you."

His smile was sadly ironic. "She's fond of me," he admitted. "But it's him she loves. Even when she agreed to marry me, it was to protect him."

She frowned. "What?"

"She placed a condition on our marriage," he said. "I was constructing a tower - The Burch Tower, it was to be called. It was my dream, the building I'd always wanted to build."

She shook her head. "There's no Burch Tower in New York."

"She said if I'd halt construction on the tower, she'd marry me," he said softly. "That's all I had to do. Stop the tower. She meant it, too. She'd have gone through with it. Because she's an honorable woman."

"But you never married."

"No. I couldn't give up my dream, Lissa. Not even for Cathy."

"But there is no tower," she repeated.

"No. I wanted that tower so badly. There was a group. They planned a class action suit on behalf of the neighborhood's residents."

There was such regret on his face, it frightened her. "Daddy, what did you do?"

"I arranged for the group to receive donations in such a way that it cast suspicion on them. If they were under a cloud, under investigation by the D.A.'s office, their funds would dry up." He shrugged. "Someone in the D.A.'s office was able to trace it back to me and they got a court order. I had to stop the tower. It was never built."

"Charles's mother works for the D.A.'s office," Elizabeth whispered.

"Yes. I've always suspected it was Cathy. She was desperate to stop that tower. But I've never asked."

"It was because of those tunnels," she guessed. "The ones you wrote about."

"Yes," he agreed. "I guessed that, too. She'd have married me to stop that tower and protect those tunnels. Protect him."

"You think there are people down there."

"I know there are people down there. You read the reports. Oddly dressed people coming out of drainage tunnels in Central Park, returning hours later and going inside again, staying there. Cathy opened a gate to let me out the night my father was killed. I left, but she went back inside. She knew where to go. Nothing we found down there surprised her."

"I know. I read it. It's just... it's all pretty fantastic, isn't it?"

He nodded. "Yes. It is."

 

"Miss Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth looked up to find the maid standing at the library door. "Yes, Luisa?"

"You have a telephone call. Mr. Duvet."

Raoul! Lately, she'd scarcely had time to think of him. He must be wondering why she hadn't called. She thanked Luisa and picked up the library extension. "Raoul?"

"Good afternoon," he greeted her, his native French accent adding charm to his voice. "I hoped you would be home."

"Well, I am." No point in telling him she hadn't been anywhere else the past few days.

"I'm hoping you can give me the name of a reputable hotel."

"In Grenoble?" she asked, bewildered.

"New York," he corrected, laughter in his tone. "I'm at the airport."

"Kennedy?"

"Yes. I'm about to catch a taxi."

"Raoul's here?"

Elizabeth spun around, startled. She hadn't heard her father come in. "Yes," she whispered, covering the mouthpiece with her hand. "He's at the airport. He wants me to recommend a hotel."

"Nonsense. He'll stay here." Her father smiled. "Don't look so surprised, Lissa. We have plenty of room."

Well, she knew that, of course. "Raoul?" she said into the phone, wondering why it seemed so hard to speak. "Tell the driver to come here. You can stay with us."

The doorman rang to announce Raoul's arrival forty minutes later. He stepped off the elevator looking dark and Gallic and handsome and she lifted her face for his kiss. His touch spoke of tenderness, and restrained passion, and she wondered why she couldn't summon a response.

"You didn't miss me as much as I hoped you would," he observed, and she knew he'd noticed.

"Of course I did," she said, too quickly, and took his arm. "Come. Let me show you to your room."

While Raoul unpacked and freshened from his trans-Atlantic flight, Elizabeth changed for dinner and went to the dining room. Her father, after instructing the housekeeper to prepare an elegant, if hasty, dinner, had conveniently remembered a prior engagement. He hadn't forgotten to order the more basic accouterments first, though. The table was set with the finest china and silver, the ambiance enhanced with candles and flowers. A bottle of fine champagne was chilling on the sideboard.

Elizabeth seriously considered sweeping away the more obvious of these trappings, but it was too late. Raoul, resplendent in a dinner jacket, came into the room.

"You look lovely," he said with sincerity, and bent over her hand to press a kiss to the inside of her wrist.

She'd always found that gesture exotic and titillating, but tonight it merely made her uncomfortable and as soon as she could, she withdrew her arm. "Let's sit down," she urged, and Raoul pulled out her chair with a gallant flourish.

Luisa served each of them a tossed green salad with some of Mrs. Hampton's special dressing, smiled shyly at Elizabeth, and went out.

"Dr. Cliburne thinks she's found the meaning of that glyph that's been troubling everyone," Raoul said.

Elizabeth forced a smile. "Has she? What does it mean?"

He smiled. "I don't know. She and Dr. Clement have been arguing over it for days and neither of them is talking until they've reached a consensus."

That did make her smile. Drs. Clement and Cliburne were highly respected in their fields... and hotly competitive whenever their areas of expertise overlapped. Their arguments, which often took place simply for the sake of disagreement, were legend, and a source of amusement to their colleagues on the dig and at the university. "A consensus could take weeks," she offered lightly.

"Quite possibly," he agreed. "What about you, Elizabeth?" He gave her name the English pronunciation, so she knew he was serious. In moments of intimacy, he gave it a French inflection. "Have you laid your ghosts to rest?"

She looked away, a painful breath catching in her throat. She'd been seeing Raoul for nearly a year, but when he had asked her to marry him, the specter of Charles had risen between them. She'd confessed to her lost, hopeless love and Raoul had promptly dispatched her home to face her past.

Raoul waited patiently for an answer. She thought of how kind he was, how gentle, of how he could make her laugh. And then she thought of Charles.

She shook her head. "No. I haven't." Slowly she slipped the engagement ring off her finger. "I realize now I won't be able to. I'm sorry, Raoul." She placed the ring on the table between them and fled.

 

It was more than an hour before her father knocked on her bedroom door. "Raoul's gone," he said quietly. "Want to talk about it?"

"Oh, yes, Daddy, please," she answered, and let him in.

If he noticed her tearstained face, he didn't mention it. "I guess I jumped the gun with that announcement in the Times," he said wryly.

She nodded. "I guess so."

"I'm sorry it didn't work out for you, Lissa," he said gently. "But if he wasn't right for you, then it's best you found out now."

"I think he could have been right," she said, her voice small. "Except..."

"Yes." He rose and kissed her forehead. "That's a very big 'except,'" he told her. "And the only one who can do anything about it is you."

 

Even with Raoul removed, her choices weren't simple. It had been a year since she and Charles had been close. When they'd met, Charles had been kind and generous, but had given no sign he still loved her. What right did she have to disrupt his life?

The next day found her walking in Central Park, hoping the exercise, combined with the pleasant surroundings, would help focus her thoughts. The day was hot, even for June, and after a while, she found a clear spot beneath a tree and sat down to rest.

A group of teenage boys, stripped to the waist, played an energetic game of football on a grassy slope nearby and she watched them idly. A large tan dog dashed across the playing area, temporarily disrupting play and she shifted her attention, following the dog's progress down the hill. He paused several times to sniff at random spots in the grass and she was about to turn back to the football game when the dog put on a burst of speed and disappeared behind a concrete abutment. He didn't immediately reappear and she couldn't quite figure out where he might have gone. Curious, she rose and dusted the seat of her shorts before weaving a cautious path through the trees and shrubbery, seeking a better angle.

In the shelter of a grand old oak tree she paused. Beyond the concrete retaining wall, flanked by another on the opposite side, was the round, black mouth of a drainage pipe. She had scarcely begun to wonder if this could possibly be the same pipe as the one described in her father's journal when two children - boys, she saw, as they came into the sunlight - emerged from the pipe and began to run. One tossed a black and white soccer ball onto the grass and the other altered stride to kick it away. Laughing, the boys pursued the ball, alternately kicking it and elbowing one another out of the way.

Elizabeth stood for a moment, paralyzed with shock and wonder and the realization that it was all true. Before she had time to think, she'd left the shelter of the tree and plunged down the hill and into the tunnel.

It was dim inside and she paused to let her eyes adjust. When she could see again, she moved into the center of the little room at the end of the tunnel and stopped, taking in her surroundings. To her left was an open pipe; the available light didn't penetrate far and she had no desire to go in. She turned instead to the metal gate that barred the entrance to another tunnel, this one blocked off by a smooth metal panel. She reached through the bars to touch it. The steel was cold on her fingers, solid and unyielding, and she withdrew her hand. Footprints in the dust led away from the pipe - probably left by the two boys she'd seen.

Her heart pounded wildly. This must be the tunnel, the door, the chamber described by her father. He'd said the solid steel panel opened, but if he'd mentioned how it was triggered, she didn't recall. She tugged on the barred gate, and to her surprise, it swung open easily.

She stepped around it and squatted in front of the solid plate, examining it closely. There was no sign of a handle or latch, no place to catch hold and pull it open. She put one palm against it and pushed tentatively. It didn't budge, so she added the other hand and put her weight behind it. Still nothing.

The underground chill was making itself felt on her bare arms and legs and involuntarily she shivered. With a half-regretful, half-apprehensive look, she pushed the barred gate closed and left the tunnel.

Discovery of the drainage pipe had taken her mind away from her troubles. She hurried home and went straight to her father's home office to open the safe. She had the journal in her lap and was rereading the portion that recounted her father's experience in the drainage tunnels when he came into the room.

"Aha," he said, looking at the open safe. "We've had a burglar."

She managed a wan smile. "Don't be silly, Daddy. You gave me the combination a long time ago."

He smiled in return. "So I did." He glanced at the journal. "I thought you were through with those."

She flipped the little volume closed. "I am. What I want isn't in there."

He arched an eyebrow. "What?"

She shrugged and looked at her hands. He perched on the corner of his desk, listening quietly as she recounted her afternoon's discovery. "I was wondering how Charles's mother opened the sliding panel, that's all," she concluded. "I thought it might be in here."

He frowned and she could tell he was looking back, reliving the old memory. "You know," he said slowly, "I think there was some sort of catch. Like a lever. She pulled it and the door slid open." He looked at her. "But that was from the other side. It may not open from the outside."

"I saw some boys come out," she argued. "They had to get back in somehow."

"They might just signal for someone to let them in," he said. "And anyway, I'm not sure it's a good idea for you to be wandering around down there. Once you're inside, the tunnels branch off in all directions. It would be very easy to get lost."

 

Despite her father's warning, Elizabeth was back at the drainage tunnel the next morning. This time she dressed in jeans and comfortable shoes and brought a jacket and a flashlight. She concentrated her efforts on finding a lever, a latch, any kind of trigger. She started her search at the door itself, examining it closely before extending her inspection to the area around it. It took a while for her to reach the innocuous grate set into the side wall. She shined her light through the mesh and there, on the other side, was a small black lever.

Remembering how the big barred gate had opened yesterday, she gave the mesh grate an experimental tug. It swung toward her easily, soundlessly. The hand she put on the lever was trembling and she took a deep breath to steady it and looked toward the flat surface of the steel plate. She pulled the lever.

With a grinding, scraping sound, the steel plate began to move. Elizabeth watched it for a long, spellbound moment. Beyond the opening glowed a warm golden light that seemed to beckon her. Slowly she stepped through, pulling the gate closed behind her.

It took less time to locate the lever on this side; it was at shoulder level, right by the door. She pulled it and watched the door slide closed again, shutting her off from her own world.

She started off, but hadn't gone far before the tunnel she was travelling joined another. She paused at the junction. Should she continue the way she was going, or take one of the side branches? There were no clues to help - the surface underfoot was concrete and no marks showed on its smooth surface.

She nearly turned back. It would be easy - easier than she'd imagined - to lose her way down here and the thought of getting lost was daunting. But after a moment she steeled herself and went on. It was the last time she hesitated. If she didn't know where she was going, it didn't matter which way she went.

She'd been walking perhaps fifteen minutes when she heard the tapping. The sound intruded subtly on her consciousness and she stopped to listen. It was regular - too regular to be random but not rhythmic enough to be something as prosaic as water dripping. Besides, the sound was wrong. It sounded vaguely like metal on metal, but hollow and far away.

She trudged on. The tapping sound followed and presently she realized it was coming from the pipe that ran along one side of the tunnel. She placed her hand on the pipe to feel the vibration. Yes, the sound was definitely coming from the pipe and with a sudden burst of inspiration, she identified it as communication. Morse code, maybe. If there was a community here, surely they'd be concerned about safety. The sheet steel door under the park showed that. So maybe there were sentries. Watching her.

She turned a slow circle in the center of the passage. She was quite alone. The tempo of the tapping changed and she wondered if that was in response to her actions. "Hello?" she called tentatively. Her voice sounded hollow, ringing off the curved sides of the tunnel. "Hello!" she called again, more loudly. "Is anyone there?"

The tapping ceased for a moment, then went on with renewed vigor.

"Hello!" she said a third time. "My name is Elizabeth. Elizabeth Burch." A name came to her; she'd seen it scrawled in her father's hand, the marks on the page looking almost angry. "I want to see Vincent," she said firmly. "I won't go until I do."

They knew she was here; she was certain of it now. If she just stayed, someone would come. They'd have to, wouldn't they? They'd consider her a security breach. Determined, she sank down to sit crosslegged in the center of the tunnel. She'd wait until someone came for her.

It took a long time. By her watch, more than an hour passed; Elizabeth was beginning to lose confidence when, at long last, a figure appeared at the end of the tunnel.

Elizabeth scrambled to her feet. It was a woman, maybe forty, with dark blond hair pulled into a careless ponytail, dressed in a leather-patched sweater over mended jeans. She was slight and didn't look particularly strong, but one glance at her face made Elizabeth suspect she'd be formidable in an altercation. She reached Elizabeth and swept by her without breaking stride. "Come on."

Elizabeth hesitated; the woman was leading her back the way she'd come. When she didn't follow, the woman stopped and looked back. Her irritation was evident. "What are you waiting for?"

"Where are you taking me?" Elizabeth asked, wishing her voice sounded stronger.

"Back," the other woman replied tersely. "You have no business here."

"No. I won't go."

"You can't stay here. I'll show you the way out."

"No," Elizabeth repeated, more firmly this time. "I want to see Vincent."

The woman swung around to face her squarely. "Vincent doesn't see strangers."

"I'm not a stranger," she protested. "I'm Elizabeth Burch."

"I know. You're still a stranger."

"No. Not really. I haven't met Vincent, but I know his family. Please. I have to see him."

The woman's previously unshakable confidence seemed to falter. "Why?"

"Please. I won't give away any of your secrets. I just need to talk to Vincent."

"You haven't answered my question."

Elizabeth's voice dropped. "Because I'm in love with his son."

That startled the woman, she could tell. But still she wasn't convinced. "Which one?" she demanded. "Vincent has more than one son."

"He has three," Elizabeth answered, understanding the test. "Charles, Jacob, and Evan. I love Charles."

The woman studied her, then nodded abruptly and reversed direction. "Come on, then," she said. "I'll take you to him."

She paused once to tap a pattern on a pipe, confirming once and for all Elizabeth's guess that they were used for communication. A little later, they met a boy in his early teens. He, too, was dressed in patched and mended clothing. He eyed Elizabeth warily as he spoke to the woman. "Vincent says to take her to his chamber," he said.

The woman nodded once, briskly. "All right. Thank you, Joshua."

The boy vanished down one of the side tunnels that were becoming more prevalent and presently Elizabeth followed the woman into a small, cozy - well, with her archaeological experience to guide her, she wanted to call it a cave. It was, after all, carved out of solid rock. But caves didn't have carpets on the floor or booklined shelves on the walls. Caves didn't have beds or tables or stained glass windows or any of the myriad other objects that met her eye.

The woman stopped, looking around with an air of expectation. Elizabeth looked, too, but there was no one to be seen.

"Vincent?" the woman called, sounding puzzled.

"I'm here, Jamie." The voice was quiet, restful even, and imbued with a tranquility that soothed the nervous butterflies wreaking havoc on Elizabeth's insides.

The woman - Jamie - turned her attention to a high corner of the room. "I brought her," she announced. "I think you should talk to her."

"I will. Thank you."

It was a dismissal, and the woman called Jamie left. Elizabeth strained to make out detail in the shadowed recess above her head. "Are you Vincent?" she asked.

"Yes." It was all he said.

"I need to talk to you."

"I'm listening."

Elizabeth closed her eyes. This wasn't going the way she'd expected. "It's about Charles. Your son." She managed not to make it a question.

"I know."

Conversation with a disembodied voice, no matter how soothing, was disconcerting. "I need to..." She broke off and lifted her hands in a gesture of supplication. "Please. Can't I see you?"

There was a pause. "It wouldn't be wise," he answered finally.

"Why? I know you're different."

"I might frighten you."

"No," she insisted, though her insides were quivering. "You wouldn't. Please. I have to see you. I have to know..." She let her voice trail away, and waited.

"Very well." He sounded unhappy. She heard a rustling, and gradually a form, dark and shapeless, took on substance. It descended the iron ladder bolted to the wall; at the bottom, it hesitated.

He was, she could see now by the light of the candles, cloaked in something long and black. A hood was pulled up over his head, hiding his face.

"Please," she said again. "I won't be afraid. I promise."

"Don't make promises you may not be able to keep," he replied, and she wondered why it sounded like a warning. He turned slowly. The hood still shadowed his face, but she could see his hands now. They were large and strong; their movement, when he lifted them to grasp the edges of his hood, was curiously graceful. They were covered with hair not unlike the downy growth on the back of Charles's hands. Only more of it. The fingers, though, were tipped with thick, pointed nails. They looked dangerous.

His hands had stopped there, gripping his hood, and she realized he was watching her study his hands. She felt herself blushing. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I don't mean to stare."

"No apology is necessary," he said softly, and pushed back the hood.

She gasped. She couldn't help it, but she did resist the impulse to step backwards, away from him.

His hair was golden, tumbling long and shaggy around his face. His eyes were incredibly blue. And his face... she studied it in the wavering candlelight. Gradually, the braced wariness left his face.

"You're smiling," he observed, giving her a glimpse of sharp white teeth. "Why?"

"I was just thinking..." She paused and he questioned the hesitation with a tiny, eloquent tip of his head, an expressive quirk of the eyebrow. "I was wondering at how much Charles looks like you."

She'd surprised him, but it was true. The resemblance wasn't evident at first glance, of course, but the similarities were there - in the line of the jaw, the chin, the set of the brow, the shape of the eyes.

He smiled, and except for the teeth, which she could see clearly now, the smile was Charles's, too. "You were right," he said softly. "You aren't afraid."

"How could I be?" she answered. "You're Charles's father." Her knees were shaking, though, her hands trembling. Probably from adrenaline, she guessed.

He noticed and moved swiftly, gracefully, to offer her a chair. "Please," he said, when she hesitated. "You are my guest here."

Chastened, she took the offered seat. A few seemingly random taps on an overhead pipe produced a small girl in mended dress and apron. Vincent spoke to her solemnly, asking her to run to the kitchen and request tea. She agreed with equal gravity and dashed out.

"The children take their duties very seriously," he explained as they waited.

"I could see that," she agreed. "Did Charles ever do that here? Have duties?"

"When he was young," Vincent said, sitting in a massive carved chair that seemed made for him. "Not any more. Charles has chosen to live in his mother's world."

She frowned. "You mean he could have lived down here? If he'd wanted?"

"Of course. He was born here, you know. In this very chamber."

Chamber. The perfect word for this wonderful place. But she wondered about its suitability as a birthing room. "Here?" she repeated dubiously.

"Because we didn't know," Vincent went on, watching her carefully. "What he would be like."

Chagrined, she felt herself blushing. "Of course. I'm sorry..."

"There's no need," he said kindly.

The tea, brought by yet another member of this strange community, this one a teenage boy, arrived just then. The conversation lagged while Vincent poured her a steaming cup and offered cookies from a heaping plateful that had accompanied the tea.

"No, thank you," she answered, and took a sip of tea. "That's what Charles was so worried about last year, isn't it?" she asked, when the boy had gone. "About himself, and me, and the children we might have one day."

"Yes. And, perhaps, concerned about your reaction, should he bring you home to meet his parents as tradition demands."

She nodded. "I can understand that now. I wish he'd told me, though. I wish..."

"Sometimes things happen for the best," he said soothingly. "You must not concern yourself for Charles."

"I don't... what do you mean?"

"You are engaged to be married," he answered. "You must look forward to your new life, happiness with your husband. Not back, at what might have been."

"But I'm not," she said softly, and showed him her ringless left hand. "I gave the ring back two days ago."

"I see," he said thoughtfully, but she wasn't sure he did.

"I saw Charles," she hastened to explain. "Did he tell you?"

"No."

"Last week, it was. We had coffee together."

He made a small affirmative movement with his head, and waited.

"I knew when I saw him, even though I wouldn't let myself believe it," she went on. "Until I saw Raoul. That's when I understood. That's why I had to give him back his ring."

"Yes?" he prompted softly when she hesitated.

"Because it wasn't fair. Not to Raoul. Because it's Charles I love." The words seemed to fall to lie heavily between them, and she hastened to explain. "I know it's been a year and he's probably over me by now. After all, I left him. I wouldn't tell him where I was..." She let the words trail away. He was smiling.

"Elizabeth," he said clearly, and she realized it was the first time he'd used her name. "Charles loves you."

She found she was gripping the teacup so tightly her knuckles were white. Deliberately she relaxed her hand and set the cup on the table. "How do you know?" she asked, and wondered why her voice sounded so far away.

"I know."

He sounded very certain and though she couldn't believe he'd deliberately mislead her, her heart doubted.

He tipped his head slightly and changed the subject. "How did you find this place? Find me?"

"I knew where to look," she answered. "My father has a journal..." She stopped abruptly, remembering her promise.

To her surprise, he smiled. "I've often wondered if Elliot did not understand more than he allowed anyone to know."

His easy use of her father's name surprised her. "You know him?"

"We have not met," he assured her. "But," and here his voice grew quiet, reflective, "he once saved my life."

That startled her. "He says you saved his," she countered.

"Catherine was in danger," he said, sounding suddenly remote. "Elliot simply happened to be there."

"He says you saved him," she insisted, stubbornly. "He says you helped him, too. And besides," she added, on impulse. "He's grateful to you."

The look he turned on her was gently questioning.

"Because he thinks you make..." she stumbled, wondering what name to use, and settled on simple description. "Charles's mother happy."

His expression softened in a way she hadn't seen before. "I know she's happy," he answered. "I hope I'm a part of that happiness." He stood abruptly. "Come. I'll take you home with me."

 

What Charles hated most about the thirty-six hour shifts expected of a new intern was what it did to his sleep pattern. By now, he was so thoroughly disrupted that when he did get to bed, he couldn't fall asleep; once he slept, he couldn't get up again. This evening was no different. He rolled out of bed and stood swaying, rubbing his face. When he felt in command of his balance, he made his way to the nearest bathroom.

Growing up, he'd rarely used it. It was situated between his room and his sister Vicky's room. Back then, it had simply been easier to cross the hall to the bathroom shared by his brothers. Quicker, too.

But Vicky was in England now, so Charles let Carey have the other bathroom, while he used this one. He stood under the shower for a long time, letting the strong, steamy pulse of the water clear his head.

More alert, he dressed and went downstairs. Lights were on in the study, so he went in. He saw at once there was a visitor - someone small and dark-haired, seated beside his mother on the couch, their heads bent together over something in their laps. A photo album, he guessed, as he heard his mother mention his name.

"Here's Charles when he was five..."

His father was across from them, which wasn't altogether surprising. It happened once or twice a year - someone would come - a former helper, someone who'd once lived Below. Charles wondered only mildly about the identity of this one.

His father looked up and greeted him and Charles started across the room, prepared to be introduced to the newcomer.

For a moment he thought he was imagining things. His mind, starved of the sight of her, had dreamed her up. He blinked hard, waiting for his vision to clear, her delicate features to blur and mold themselves into someone else's face.

Instead, his mother pulled the photo album aside and the other person rose, still wearing Elizabeth's face. It was Elizabeth's voice, too, that spoke.

"Hello, Charles."

He had to swallow hard before he could answer. "Elizabeth."

She smiled softly, tentatively, and only then did it strike him anew that his father was in the room. He glanced that way in horror.

"Elizabeth came to visit me this afternoon," his father explained. "She's a very resourceful young woman."

Charles looked back at Elizabeth. He still couldn't quite make himself believe she was here.

"Why don't the two of you find someplace quiet to talk, Charles?" his mother suggested. "I'm sure you have a lot to say to each other."

Dazed, he took the hand Elizabeth offered and led her from the room. On the landing, he paused. "Where shall we go?"

"I don't care. Anywhere."

Her hand was small and trusting in his and he closed his fingers around it, tightening his grip. An answering pressure reassured him. "A walk?" he asked. "Or we could just sit downstairs."

"Just sit, if you don't mind," she said shyly. "I've done a lot of walking today."

"Of course," he said, and started down the stairs. On the main floor, he drew her into the parlor and offered a chair.

"I like your father," she said, surprising him. "I like him a lot." She ignored the chair in favor of the couch; he sank down beside her.

"He doesn't frighten you?"

"How could he?" she asked softly. "When he looks so much like you?"

That reminded him, abruptly, that, pleasant though this visit was, she was engaged to marry another man. Instinctively, he drew back. She caught his hands.

"I gave back Raoul's ring," she said clearly. "I couldn't marry him."

"Why?" His voice emerged as a bare whisper and part of him wondered if he was really still upstairs in his bed, dreaming the unsettled dreams of one whose rest is disturbed.

"Because I love you," she said in a rush, and then smiled and looked away. "Your father said I should tell you and not let pride stand in my way."

"My father," Charles answered, feeling choked, "is a very wise man."

And then there was no more need for words.

 

It was well past midnight when he used his mother's car to drive Elizabeth across town; when he returned home, lights still glowed behind the stained glass fanlights on the second floor. His parents waited for him in the study.

"You talked a long time," his father observed.

His mother was more direct. "What did she say, Charles? What did you say?"

"I asked her to marry me."

Neither of them bothered to ask what Elizabeth's reply had been. Instead, they rose to embrace him, murmuring congratulations and making Charles wonder exactly what had gone on while he'd been sleeping.

"Charles, that's wonderful..." his mother began, but let her voice fade away when Vincent put his hand on her arm.

"No, it isn't wonderful, is it?" he asked quietly.

Head bowed, Charles shook his head.

"What is it, Charles? What's wrong?" Catherine asked anxiously.

"Elizabeth's unhappy," he said.

"Because of her father," Vincent said gently.

Charles nodded, gaze fixed firmly on the floor between his feet. "They're very close," he whispered. "She's afraid he'll be hurt that she won't... can't confide in him. She knows he can't possibly understand. I thought about telling her I changed my mind, that maybe we'd be better off apart, but then she looked at me and I couldn't."

His mother's smile was laced with sorrow. "She wouldn't have listened, Charles," she said gently. "She loves you."

"But to make her choose between me and her father..."

"Perhaps she shouldn't have to," Vincent said slowly.

Charles's head snapped up.

His mother half turned, protesting. "Vincent, no."

"Catherine." His father put his hand on hers and bent his head to speak to her. She said something in a voice too low for Charles to hear and shook her head sharply; his father answered, his tone insistent.

Their only point of contact was where Vincent's hand rested on Catherine's as they argued in low voices, but there was no denying how they felt for each other. Charles studied his mother's earnest face, and suddenly realized where he'd seen that expression before. Earlier this evening, when Elizabeth had turned to kiss him goodnight, she had worn that same look - of unerring trust and infinite love shining through the unhappiness.

That his mother was unhappy with whatever his father was saying so earnestly Charles had no doubt, but the love was there, too, and the trust. Just as obviously, though, they weren't reaching anything resembling agreement.

"Vincent, you can't," she said. "Please."

His father squeezed her hand before releasing it and straightened to his full height. "Catherine. I must."

Charles could see her helplessness as his father crossed to his desk and drew out a thick sheet of stationery. Vincent wrote for a moment, then stared at the paper with the faint beginnings of a frown puckering his forehead.

"What's wrong?" Charles asked.

"It's customary, in your world, to use a surname," he said. "I'm wondering what Elizabeth's father will think when he sees I don't have one."

"You could use Wells," Charles suggested. "Like Grandfather."

The little frown transformed itself into a subtle smile. "That was Father's name, and it's Devin's, and even Carey's, but I have never felt it was mine."

"I'm sure Father wouldn't mind," his mother said. Obviously, she'd decided to accept with grace what she could not prevent.

"No. I think not."

"Well, it's usual for the wife to take her husband's name when they marry, but we're different, and always have been." Her gentle smile held things that Charles suspected he wasn't meant to see. "You're welcome to use my name, if you like."

His father gazed at her deeply, and Charles wondered, for a moment, if either of them even remembered he was there. "I've often thought, if I were to adopt a surname, that it should be yours. It's the name my children bear, as well." He glanced again at the invitation. "But lack of a surname is a small thing. I suppose Elliot should know, from the beginning, that I am different."

 

"He already knows that," Elizabeth said, when Charles recounted the conversation the next day.

"He thinks he knows," Charles countered. "The reality may be quite different."

Elizabeth thought that over. "Yes," she agreed. "You're right."

"Does he know yet? About you and me?"

She shook her head. "He was asleep when I came home last night."

"Would you like me to come with you?" he asked, and indicated the invitation she held in her hand. "To answer his questions?"

"I was under the impression that most of the questions didn't have answers," Elizabeth answered, her eyes dancing. "But yes, I'd like you to."

Her teasing comment made him think of something he'd shoved to the back of his subconscious. "Elizabeth... about children..."

The mischief in her eyes vanished, replaced by compassion and understanding. "I've met your father," she reminded him gently. "I know what could happen."

"No. You don't." He squirmed for a moment, then decided the easiest way was to simply tell her. "I tested myself," he said. "After you left last summer. I used the lab at school."

She frowned at him. "Charles, what are you trying to tell me?"

He swallowed. "I can't father a child. I'm sterile."

She gazed at him wordlessly and he hurried to fill the silence. "Jacob's not. I checked him, too. I haven't seen Evan..." He let his voice trail off and spread his hands. "I thought you should know. If it makes a difference... if it matters to you... I understand if you want to change your mind..."

Her expression changed to mild surprise. "Change my mind about you? Over a little thing like children?" She slid her arms around his neck. "It occurs to me, Charles," she murmured, lips against his neck, "that you don't know me very well."

Later, when he'd recovered his balance and his breath, Elizabeth drove them both to her father's office and they talked again of children.

"We can always adopt, if we're determined to be parents," Elizabeth said firmly. "There are lots of children who need to be loved."

The office building housing Burch Enterprises had a private parking garage and an elaborate security system, but Elizabeth was recognized at every checkpoint and whisked through with impeccable courtesy, and presently Charles found himself following her into a carefully appointed office. The room was large. Two walls of windows added to the spaciousness and announced the owner's importance - corner offices were always considered choice.

Elizabeth tugged on his arm, drawing him across the room. Elliot Burch, comfortably rumpled in shirt sleeves and loosened tie, was on the phone, but he looked up and smiled, waving them to chairs.

Elizabeth sat easily, leaning back and crossing her legs, but Charles couldn't relax. He perched nervously on the edge of his seat. In a moment he was going to have to speak to the father of the woman he loved, and he very much feared the reaction he'd get. Elizabeth was sure her father had showed her his journals and the private investigator's reports to encourage her, but Charles wasn't. It was entirely possible he'd meant the information as a warning. He might not be happy about this at all.

Elliot cradled the phone and came around his desk to kiss his daughter's cheek before offering Charles a friendly hand. Charles was already on his feet, driven as much by nerves as by manners, and returned the handshake with all the firmness he could muster.

"Charles. Good to see you," Elliot greeted him. "How's your mother?"

"She's fine, sir." He glanced at Elizabeth, who picked up her cue smoothly.

"I didn't get a chance to tell you, Daddy. I met Charles's father last night."

Elliot's only reaction was the delicate arching of a brow. "Did you?" He shifted his gaze to Charles. "And that's how she wound up with you again."

His spine stiffened at the implied challenge. "Yes, sir."

"We love each other, Daddy," Elizabeth broke in. "Charles asked me to marry him."

"Did he?" Elliot's voice seemed deceptively mild; his eyes never left Charles's face.

"I said 'yes'," she continued.

"I see."

Charles wished he hadn't resumed his seat; his superior height would give him a psychological advantage if he were standing, and right now he could use all the help he could get. In lieu of that, he sat up straight and squared his shoulders. "Mr. Burch, I come from a very traditional, if somewhat unorthodox, family." He didn't dare glance at Elizabeth, who was staring at him in unabashed horror. "I may not be the ideal suitor; I know I've hurt Elizabeth in the past, and as her father, you must resent that. I can't promise I'll never cause her pain again, although I can tell you I'll try my best not to. But I can promise you this: I'll love her, cherish her, honor and keep her for the rest of my life."

"Those sound like wedding vows," Elliot observed softly, his expression neutral.

"Yes, sir. But it's truly the way I feel. I won't ask for your permission, because I'm certain Elizabeth knows her own mind. But I want to marry your daughter, and I'd be happier if we could have your blessing."

"It almost sounds as if you're asking for her hand."

"Yes, sir, I suppose I am."

"Traditionally, I suppose I should ask how you expect to support her, but since I know your family..."

Charles cleared his throat. "Actually, sir, you may as well know that my mother's told me to expect nothing from her estate besides the modest trust fund she established at my birth."

That surprised him, Charles could tell.

He rushed to explain. "She's establishing a charitable trust with the bulk of her estate. My brothers, my sister, and I are all capable of earning a living and we all have trusts that will support us, but she feels her money could be put to better use in other ways."

"Yes," Elliot mused, half to himself. "Cathy always did have a soft spot for those less fortunate. So am I to suspect you're after my daughter for her money?"

Elizabeth reached across the space between them and caught Charles's hand. "Stop it, Daddy," she said firmly. "I'm going to marry him."

Elliot studied their faces for a moment. "Yes, I can see that," he admitted. He smiled, offering his hand once more. "Congratulations, Charles. Welcome to the family."

 

The next evening, Charles paced the downstairs hall nervously, striding from the dining room to the front door and back again. Occasionally he detoured into the living room to look out; the fisheye lens in the front door peephole distorted things.

Elizabeth's father's reaction had been curiously neutral when she'd handed him Vincent's handwritten invitation yesterday, but he'd agreed immediately to come. Charles knew his mother was less enthusiastic, but nevertheless, she waited upstairs with the rest of the family.

He half-expected to see a limousine pull up to the curb, but it was Elizabeth's little red sports car that scooted around the corner and parked neatly just across the street.

Elliot Burch climbed out of the passenger side, looking as discomfited as Charles always felt after being subjected to Elizabeth's dashing style of driving.

He had the front door open by the time they mounted the steps. Emboldened by her father's acceptance of him, he greeted Elizabeth with a quick kiss before offering Elliot a more formal one.

"Good evening, sir."

"If you plan to become my son-in-law," Elliot said genially, "you'll have to get over this 'sir' business. Call me Elliot."

"Yes, sir," Charles answered dutifully, and grinned. "Elliot."

Elliot and Elizabeth began to move along the wide hallway, aiming, Charles suspected, for the living room door he'd left ajar. "This way," he redirected them, and pointed to the stairs. Elizabeth smiled, but Elliot looked puzzled.

"Upstairs?" he inquired.

"Yes, sir... Elliot," Charles answered. "We don't often use the rooms down here. My father's more comfortable in the study."

Elliot nodded briefly.

On the second floor, the study door stood ajar; beyond it were lights and the muffled sound of voices. Charles tapped on it and the voices stopped, replaced by the rustle of people moving about. He pushed the door open and led the way inside.

His mother moved to meet them. The room was well lighted tonight and Charles couldn't help wondering what Elliot Burch must be thinking as his father glided silently forward in her wake. He hesitated, wondering what he should say, and Elizabeth stepped past him, smiling, and took the decision out of his hands.

"You know Charles's mother, of course," she said to her father.

"Of course," he murmured. His gaze, riveted on Vincent since he'd entered the room, never wavered.

"This is Charles's father," Elizabeth continued. "Vincent, this is my father, Elliot Burch."

Elliot stared a moment longer, then extended his hand. "I've waited a long time for this," he said.

Vincent took his hand slowly. "As have I," he replied. "I've wished for the opportunity to thank you."

"I owe you my life," Elliot began, arguing.

"No, no, you're not doing this now," Catherine interrupted. "You can form a mutual admiration society later. Elliot, what kind of greeting is a mumbled 'of course' when you don't even look at me?"

Her half-teasing tirade broke the tension and Elliot smiled. "Cathy, I'm sorry. As usual, it's wonderful to see you." He started forward, then checked his movement and glanced at Vincent.

Vincent's expression remained bland, and after a moment, Elliot took Catherine's hands and lightly kissed her cheek.

She returned the affectionate gesture and turned. "Elliot and Elizabeth, we want you to meet our son Jacob..."

Elliot again offered his hand. "Jacob," he said, smiling. "You look like your mother."

Jacob returned the smile and the handshake. "So I'm told," he agreed. "May I present my wife Amanda?"

Amanda, clinging shyly to Jacob's arm, managed a smile and a nod.

Catherine turned to the last of the family gathered there that evening. "And our nephew Carey."

Elliot shook Carey's hand and gave Catherine a suspicious glance. "Nephew?" he asked. "I happen to know you're an only child."

"Actually, he's Vincent's nephew," she explained. "Vincent has a brother."

Elliot's eyebrows rose in genuine astonishment and he turned to give Vincent another long look.

"Foster brothers is the way it was explained to me when I first came here," Carey offered.

Elliot turned to him gratefully. "You didn't grow up here?"

"No, sir. I'm from Illinois, originally." Elliot was interested, so Carey went on to tell about his unexpected arrival on the Chandler doorstep and his first meeting with Vincent.

Elizabeth persuaded Amanda away from Jacob's side and the two were soon in deep conversation on the far side of the room. Charles's mother stood with Elliot and Carey, talking; his father stood behind her, patient and attentive, answering gravely whenever she turned to draw him into the discussion.

Charles stood back and watched. Jacob drifted to his side. "It's going pretty well, don't you think?"

Charles nodded. "Mother's still worried, though," he observed as Carey detached himself from the older group and came to join them.

"It's always hard for her when Vincent meets new people," he agreed. "I remember how she was with me."

"I think he's glad she's not always there when new people come Below," Jacob added. "But it is going well. It's good of Elizabeth to talk to Amanda."

"They both look as if they're enjoying it," Charles said. "Maybe they'll be friends."

"Amanda would like that," Jacob agreed.

"I know planning the wedding is the responsibility of the bride's family, Elliot," Charles heard his mother say, "but I hope you'll let me help."

"I haven't asked Elizabeth what she has in mind," Elliot replied, "but I'm sure she'd appreciate your advice."

"Actually," Charles broke in hesitantly, "we talked about something small. I was going to call Judge Marshall in the morning."

"Nick Marshall?" his mother asked. The judge, now retired, was an old family friend.

He nodded. "To ask him to marry us."

"Oh, but, Charles..." she began, protesting.

"We don't want a fuss, Mother. We just want a small, private wedding. If both our fathers can't be there..."

"Actually..." Elizabeth interrupted from across the room and Charles looked at her, startled. "Amanda's been telling me about her wedding. In the tunnels."

From the corner of his eye, Charles saw his mother flinch and give Elliot an anxious glance.

Elizabeth saw it too, and stumbled. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I am and am not supposed to talk about. But I was thinking... maybe we could be married with our families - both our families - there."

"It's true Jacob and Amanda were married in their world," his mother began, speaking cautiously. "Vincent and I were married there, as well. But, Elizabeth, ceremonies conducted there have no validity up here. If you and Charles want this to be a legal marriage..."

"I know about that," Elizabeth said. "Amanda explained it. But I was thinking, and I believe there's a way. In France," she continued, "there's a complete separation of church and state. To the point that church weddings aren't recognized as valid by the government, and the Catholic Church, of course, doesn't recognize civil services. So most Catholic couples have two weddings. A small, civil service followed by a large church wedding." She looked at Charles. "And I thought, while I was talking with Amanda, that maybe we could do that."

"Have a small wedding in the judge's chambers and then another one, a big one, in my father's world?" Charles asked. It sounded like a wonderful solution to him. He glanced at his parents. His father met his look and nodded approval. His mother looked worried, but Charles trusted his father's judgement, as well as his father's ability to persuade his mother. He smiled. "I think that's a great idea."

 

The small, legal ceremony took place on a brisk September morning, attended only by immediate family. Charles's mother and Elizabeth's father were there, along with Jacob and Amanda, Carey, and even Vicky, who'd flown in from England especially for this. Jacob and Vicky acted as witnesses and the whole thing was disconcertingly brief.

The larger, more festive ceremony took place the same afternoon. They'd asked Vincent to preside and Elizabeth had chosen the traditional custom of having her father give her away. Charles felt nothing but joy when Elliot put her hand in his. He was supremely conscious of her standing beside him as they faced his father.

Difficulties lay ahead. Elizabeth's work would sometimes demand her presence elsewhere - there were few archaeological digs in downtown New York - while Charles was bound to the hospital for the term of his internship and residency. Even later, he'd be spending time in a research lab.

But those were small things. He'd endure the separations just as his father had always borne the times when his mother had been away. What was important was that Elizabeth was his now, just as he was hers. They belonged together. And whatever else happened, they'd always love one another.

His father was speaking now of the importance of the promises they were about to make to one another; Charles stole a look at Elizabeth. She must have sensed it, though her attention seemed to be on Vincent. Her hand, tucked into the crook of his arm, tightened perceptibly and a little smile touched the corner of her mouth. And he understood that in her heart, the promises had already been made.

 

The End