MORE THAN LOVE

December 1997 (December 1991-Summer 1992)

The little diamond-shaped panes of glass in the antique shop window sparkled in the winter sunshine. Beyond them stood a Christmas tree hung with unusual and antique ornaments. One, a delicate blown glass peacock, caught the light and reflected it back in colors, like a prism.

Cathy would love that, Jenny thought automatically, then flinched, shying away from the empty spot where friendship used to be.

She turned from the window and went into the coffee shop next door. She put her packages - painfully few, this year - beside her in the booth and ordered hot chocolate. It came topped with a frothy mound of whipped cream and she stirred it absently. She'd nearly finished her shopping. There were gifts for a few friends, for her brother and his family, who lived in California. She'd even found something for her mother-in-law.

Did one have a mother-in-law when one no longer had a husband? Not that it mattered. The woman lived in New Hampshire and Jenny had never met her.

At least she wouldn't have to worry about Winterfest this year. The candle had been on the floor in front of her door last night, but she hadn't bothered to pick it up. She wouldn't be going.

She sipped at the chocolate. It was too sweet, and she put the cup down again, thinking of another cup of chocolate. A cup of chocolate that brought back memories of her first Winterfest.

 

*****

 

"Hurry up with this," Jenny said, handing over a piece of green wire. She sipped chocolate from the mug in her other hand. "I want to get to the tree."

Catherine looked up from the pine boughs she was wiring into a garland and laughed. "You're worse than Charles."

"Hey!" Jenny pretended indignation. "At least I haven't tried to eat any of the ornaments."

"He's teething."

"I think you just don't feed him," Jenny countered, and put her mug down to take a small wooden marionette of Puss in Boots from a nearby table. She held it up, pulling the string to make its arms and legs move. "I think he put teeth marks in this one."

"Oh, well, it just adds to the history. I probably teethed on it when I was little."

"Is that where all these great ornaments came from? You?"

"Sure. Where'd you think?"

"I thought Vincent's world, maybe."

"There are a couple. But most were my mother's." Catherine smiled a soft, nostalgic smile. "She loved Christmas. Every year, she'd spend days making sure the tree was just right, decorating the house..."

"So why haven't I ever seen any of these?" Jenny dangled a winged snow baby, shiny white and iridescent with glitter, from a forefinger. "You never used them in your apartment, and the only time I was in your dad's house at Christmas, the tree was done up in red velvet bows and little white lights, like somebody'd bought it right off a department store floor. It wasn't even real."

"Daddy and I didn't have much heart for Christmas after my mother died. Most years, we travelled... so we wouldn't have to be home Christmas morning."

"I remember," Jenny said softly. "I always envied you, going to London or Bermuda for Christmas while I went home to Queens. I never thought about why you didn't stay home."

Catherine's smile didn't look forced, or even sad. "I think my mother would like me using her things for my first Christmas in my new home."

"For Charles's first Christmas."

Catherine laughed. "He thinks we're putting all these fascinating objects up just so he can pull them down and chew on them. Come on. If we hurry, we can get this garland hung before he wakes up from his nap."

"Which will keep the needles from getting chewed," Jenny observed as they lugged the heavy garland to the wall where Catherine wanted to put it.

Catherine took the end in both hands and stretched, but she lacked two inches of being tall enough to reach the hook to hang it on.

"Stand on a book," Jenny suggested, only half kidding.

Catherine eyed the hook and its mates, trailing at an equal height down the row of bookshelves, then turned toward the far end of the room. Vincent sat at a massive mahogany desk, writing. He looked up at the sound of his name.

"Come help us," she begged. "We're not tall enough."

Vincent must be the very soul of patience, Jenny thought, watching him cross the room. Cathy'd had him up at least a half-dozen times already this afternoon: pulling Charles out of a box of ornaments, hanging a wreath, distracting Charles when he tried to climb the live tree in the corner, putting up the hooks for the garland, putting Charles down for a nap.

"Hang this for me, please," Catherine said. "Oh, but wait a minute. I forgot I wanted to put a bow on it..."

She trailed off, rummaging through a big box of ribbon, tinsel, and strung popcorn.

Vincent stood, end of the garland in hand, and watched her fondly. "She's having a good time," he said to Jenny, quietly. "Thank you for coming."

"I'm glad to be here," Jenny answered, "but I don't think her good time has anything to do with me."

He glanced at her inquiringly; as usual, she felt nearly overwhelmed by his sheer presence.

"It's you," she told him. "I've known Cathy for fifteen years, and I've never seen her as happy as she's been the past eight months."

"She is happy," Vincent admitted, turning his gaze back to Catherine, who was emerging from the box with a large red bow in hand. "It humbles me to think I am a part of that happiness."

His unpretentious manner was typical of what she'd seen of Vincent, but Jenny knew Catherine well enough to know she understood exactly how lucky she was to have found him. Or been found by him.

He hung the garland and, after they all stood back to admire it, Catherine began to search through boxes for something to put on the mantel. A faint, insistent ringing sounding from somewhere far away made her pause, rocking back on her heels. "Someone's here," she said, but to Jenny's surprise, it was Vincent who left the room. "Someone from Vincent's world," Catherine explained. "Mouse put in a bell. So visitors wouldn't have to just walk in."

Jenny had met Mouse only once, at Catherine and Vincent's wedding. He seemed sweet, but he hadn't struck her as the type of person to be concerned with anyone's privacy. According to Catherine, he was something of a mechanical genius, though, and the bell was there. She'd heard it.

A moment later Vincent returned, accompanied by a dark-haired, freckle-faced boy about twelve years old, dressed in the layered and patched clothing typical of the tunnels. From the basket he carried on one arm, he drew something long and slender. He crossed to where Catherine knelt beside the box and presented it to her with an air of ceremony.

She accepted the object with gravity. It was a candle, tri-colored, with a long, untrimmed wick. "Thank you, Geoffrey."

Jenny couldn't imagine the significance of such a gift... for a gift it clearly was. Catherine held the candle almost reverently. Before she could question it, the boy turned in her direction.

"You're Jenny, aren't you?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied, startled.

He took another tri-colored candle from the basket and held it out. "This is for you."

She took the proffered candle, feeling awkward and confused. "Thank you," she murmured automatically. "What is it?"

"It's a Winterfest candle," the boy answered. "You know."

"She doesn't know, Geoffrey," Vincent interceded. "This will be her first Winterfest."

"Oh." He turned an anxious face to Vincent. "I have to deliver the rest of my candles, Vincent. Nobody told me..."

"Go on, Geoffrey," Vincent told him indulgently. "Catherine and I will explain."

"Thank you, Vincent!" The boy darted out.

Jenny eyed the candle in her hand. "Interesting place you live, Vincent," she said. "Where the kids go around giving away candles."

"It's not just a candle, Jen," Catherine said. "Think of it as an invitation."

"To what? Somebody's Bar Mitzvah?"

She'd done it. She'd succeeded in making Vincent smile. "No, Jenny," he said gently. "To a celebration. Every year we gather, those who live Below and those who help them. We call it Winterfest."

It was beginning to make sense now. "And I'm invited?"

"You're a helper now," he explained. "That makes you one of us."

 

*****

 

On the appointed day, Jenny arrived at Catherine's townhouse and smoothed her skirt nervously as she waited for someone to answer the bell. She'd consulted with Cathy about what to wear - just like when they'd double-dated in college - and had been assured that her calf-length blue wool skirt, with a soft cashmere sweater, was perfect. She was glad her boots were comfortable; she'd been to the Great Hall for the wedding, and knew how far they'd have to walk.

Catherine finally answered the door. She looked radiant in teal silk that made her eyes greener than ever, and Jenny felt suddenly dowdy. Catherine didn't seem to notice, though, and reached out to catch her arm, drawing her inside.

"Vincent's getting Charles's things together," she said breathlessly. "I need to get my wrap, and we'll go."

With Charles perched lightly on one arm, Vincent led the way. Jenny and Catherine followed, Winterfest candles in hand. They had reached a level where tapping on the pipes was constant when they came upon another, larger group milling about uncertainly.

Vincent paused only long enough to pass Charles to Catherine before stepping forward. "What's wrong?" He addressed a woman wearing a dress that clearly marked her as a topsider.

She murmured something and pointed. Vincent turned in that direction and the small crowd parted before him. On the far side, a stout, elderly woman sat on the tunnel floor. A red-haired man in tunnel garb crouched beside her. Round wire-rim glasses made him look bookish, but his shoulders looked broad, even under all the padding. As Vincent approached, he looked up and grinned, relieving much of the tension.

Vincent bent down beside them. "Louise?" he asked gently, his voice carrying clearly in the sudden hush. "Are you ill?"

The woman gave him an abashed smile. "Just old, Vincent. Wore myself out getting this far, and had to rest."

Vincent exchanged glances with the red-haired man, who smiled reassurance. "She'll be fine, Vincent. I think she'll be able to go on in a moment," the man said. "If you'll take the rest of my group, I'll wait with her."

Vincent regarded the woman a moment longer, then nodded agreement. With a minimum of fuss, the group reformed and set off. Jenny glanced back once to see Louise and the red-haired man following slowly. The man's implied tenderness, inherent in the way he helped the older woman along, impressed her, and she wondered why he seemed familiar.

At last, only a wide, wind-swept stone staircase stood between them and the Great Hall. Though the sheer drop made her nervous, Jenny made Catherine walk next to the wall; she was carrying Charles, after all. Vincent, at the head of the group, looked back once and Jenny imagined she saw him nod approval. Others were already gathered outside the Great Hall, torches flaring wildly in the wind. Vincent lifted the massive bar from the doors and pushed them wide. Guests and hosts alike streamed in and began to find seats around the long tables by the uncertain light of the flickering torches.

Jenny wondered where she, a newcomer, should sit, and tried to protest when Catherine drew her to a chair at what was clearly the head table.

"It's all right," Catherine assured her. "You're with us, and Vincent has to sit here because he's part of the ceremony. Hold Charles while I take off my coat."

It took surprisingly little time for so many people to find places. When everyone was seated, someone doused the torches, plunging the chamber into darkness. The blackness was so intense that Jenny slid her hand across the table, seeking Catherine's. She found it, and Catherine gave her a reassuring squeeze. Then a single flame flared into life and Father, sitting three places to Jenny's left, began to speak. A moment later, Vincent took up the liturgy, followed by a woman Jenny knew to be Mary. The single flame became three, and five and seven, as the flames passed to either side of the table. As the solemn ritual went on, the light grew. Someone touched flames to candles in round, wheel-like candelabras and hoisted them high. By the time the ceremony ended, the chamber was brightly lit and the very air seemed festive and expectant.

 

"Who is that?"

Catherine looked up from Charles. "Who?"

Jenny pointed across the crowded chamber. "That man. He's the one we saw earlier, in the tunnels, helping that woman."

"Louise."

"Right. I've seen him before that, though. What's his name?"

Catherine hitched Charles a little higher on her hip. "That's Quinn."

The name was exactly the jog Jenny's memory needed. "Quinn. That's right. He's the one who guided me down last summer, when you were so sick. I remember how kind he was."

"He's a nice man," Catherine agreed. "He and Vincent are great friends."

Jenny's eye was drawn again to the man across the room. "What do you know about him?"

Catherine grinned. "He's available, if that's what you want to know."

Jenny's cheeks burned. "I didn't mean that," she objected swiftly. "But he was so gentle with Louise. Most men wouldn't have been. That makes him interesting. Has he always lived down here?"

"I don't know. To tell you the truth, I don't know Quinn that well. You should ask Vincent."

Vincent, who had been making a circuit of the room playing host, chose that moment to return. "Ask me what?" he inquired, and Jenny flushed again.

"Jenny was wondering about Quinn," Catherine explained, guilelessly. "How long he's lived here."

To Jenny's everlasting relief, Vincent didn't question her motives. "Quinn came to us about ten years ago," he said. "His wife had died after an illness. He was despondent. A helper brought him to us, and here, he was able to find peace."

"How sad," Jenny murmured.

"A tragic loss," Vincent agreed. "I believe he loved his wife very much. But he's happy here."

"Jenny wondered what he does," Catherine said helpfully.

Jenny cringed, but Vincent gave no sign he'd noticed.

"He is part of the engineering crew. He helps with construction of new chambers, repairing water lines, changing the passages for security."

Jenny mustered a smile. "And here I was, thinking he looked artistic."

The strolling musicians struck up a waltz and couples stepped out into the small area cleared for dancing. Catherine eyed it longingly, and shifted Charles to her other side.

"I'll take him," Jenny offered. "Go dance with your husband."

"Are you sure?" Catherine began a half-hearted protest. "You're supposed to be having fun, not babysitting."

"Holding Charles is fun," Jenny argued. "Hand him over."

Catherine complied without further argument. "Thanks, Jen," she murmured, and took Vincent's arm.

Jenny waited until they'd whirled out among the dancers, then edged away. If she stood and watched, Cathy'd feel guilty about leaving her with the baby. This way, maybe she'd relax enough to enjoy a dance or two.

Talented helpers and members of the tunnel community acted as strolling entertainers, and Jenny paused to watch an itinerant magician and a group of aspiring acrobats before becoming absorbed in the skill of a pair of teenaged jugglers.

"They're good, aren't they?" someone beside her asked.

"They're delightful," she agreed, and turned to see Quinn standing beside her. Charles saw him, too, and, giving a delighted squeal, held out his arms.

Quinn took him with practiced ease. "Hey, sport," he said, ruffling Charles's thick dark hair. "I'll bet you're dying to get hold of one of those balls."

"A red one," Jenny agreed, ignoring the nervous flutter of her heart.

"I'd get him one, but Ben and Zach would get mad."

Jenny watched the brightly colored balls whirl in a carefully practiced circuit and nodded. "I'll bet they would."

Quinn shifted Charles to one arm and offered his hand. "You probably don't remember me. I'm Quinn."

"I do remember," she demurred. "Last summer. I'm Jenny."

"Catherine's friend. I know. Are you enjoying Winterfest?"

"Very much. There's such camaraderie here. Such friendliness."

"You're among friends," he answered. "Even the people you don't know yet are your friends."

"I'm finding that out."

"I'm about to get some punch and try some of William's lemon cake," he said. "Care to join me?"

"I haven't had dessert yet," Jenny admitted. "I'd love to."

Quinn reached out and caught the arm of a passing girl. "Brooke," he said, and passed Charles over to her. "Keep an eye on him, will you?"

"Sure, Quinn," the girl answered. "Come on, Charles."

Helplessly, Jenny watched her charge being whisked away. "I don't know what Cathy will say..." she began.

"Catherine won't care," Quinn assured her.

"She might," Jenny answered, but it was too late. Quinn had taken her hand and was threading his way across the chamber, pulling her in his wake.

 

The lemon cake was a confectionery masterpiece, light and flavorful, with a rich cream filling and fluffy frosting, but it was Quinn's mild wit and good humor that was truly absorbing. Jenny was genuinely surprised when they were interrupted.

"What did you do with my child?" Catherine demanded from behind her.

Jenny jumped guiltily. Impossible as it seemed, she'd managed, over the last half hour, to completely forget her abandoned responsibility.

"We gave him to Brooke," Quinn answered for her. "By now there's no telling where he is."

Cathy cherished that baby; Jenny braced for any of a range of unpleasant reactions, from irritation to icy fury.

"Whoever's got him now is probably spoiling him rotten," Catherine said instead, and dropped into a chair. "That cake looks delicious."

"I'll get you some," Quinn offered, and jumped up.

"You're not mad about Charles?" Jenny ventured. "Or worried?"

Catherine looked surprised. "Not here. Everyone knows him. Everyone knows all the children. Wherever he is, he's safe."

"Will you get him back?"

"Eventually." Her smile was full of mischief. "I can always send Vincent after him."

Jenny relaxed and looked around. "Speaking of Vincent, where is he?"

"I don't know. Mouse came for him twenty minutes ago. Something about a leaking water pipe. It didn't sound serious. They should be back soon."

"And here I've been imagining you dancing blissfully all this time."

Catherine smiled. "One blissful dance, and part of another," she said. "It's enough."

"You always say that," Jenny answered, not sure if she was admiring or complaining on Cathy's behalf.

"It's always true."

"If you haven't been dancing, how come you didn't come seeking your son earlier?"

Catherine's smile widened. "I told you everyone knows everyone else's children down here. I've been watching little Caty so that Lena and Wesley could dance."

Quinn brought Catherine's cake and a glass of punch, and then excused himself to answer a summons from Kanin. Moments later, a teenaged boy Jenny didn't know appeared with Charles in his arms.

"We've been looking for you," he said, as Catherine reached up to take her son. "I think he's getting sleepy."

"I think you're right," Catherine agreed, as Charles rubbed at his eyes with a sticky fist. "Thank you, Kipper." She turned to Jenny. "I think I'd better take him into one of the side chambers and see if I can get him to take a nap," she said. "You'll be all right here, won't you?"

"Of course," Jenny agreed. She finished her cake and carried the plates - her own plus Quinn's and Cathy's - to a table stacked with soiled dishes before wandering into the crowd again. She was watching the dancers, admiring the fragile grace of an older couple, when someone touched her arm. She turned to find Vincent at her elbow.

"You're back," she greeted him. "Get the pipe fixed?"

"Not yet," he answered. "Mouse and I were able to turn off the water and isolate the leak. Quinn and Kanin are repairing it. They should be finished in time to return to the party."

"Job-sharing," she said in approval. "Good idea."

Amusement lurked in those blue eyes. He nodded towards the dance floor. "Do you dance, Jenny?"

"Sometimes."

"Is now one of those times?"

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Did Cathy put you up to this?"

"Inviting you to dance? No."

"Are you sure? Because it sounds like something she would do."

"I haven't seen her since my return."

"She's getting Charles to sleep."

"I see. You haven't answered my question."

"What question?"

"Would you like to dance?"

Despite her nagging conviction he'd asked only out of politeness, she accepted. The idea of dancing with Vincent was just too intriguing to pass up. Waltzing wasn't something she'd done often, but he made it easy, and she was breathless and glowing when the dance ended.

Gradually the party wound down and it was a subdued group, satiated with the pleasures of the day, who formed a large circle. Jenny found herself between Catherine and Pascal as Father recited what sounded like a traditional closing speech. It ended with the participants raising clasped hands in a triumphant gesture. It seemed an odd way to end a party, and yet felt right for this particular gathering.

As the circle broke, she spied Quinn on the far side, looking grubby and damp. He chose that moment to look across at her; when he caught her eye, he winked.

Blushing furiously, she turned to help Catherine gather things for the long walk home.

 

*****

 

Jenny spent Christmas with her brother's family in California, but was back in time to accept Catherine's invitation to spend New Year's afternoon at the townhouse.

One of the best things about going to Cathy's was playing with Charles. Jenny was on the floor helping build a tower with blocks when she heard the same dim ringing as the last time she visited. "Good grief, it's like Grand Central around here," she observed.

Vincent rose and went out. Catherine looked troubled. "Actually, it's not. We were expecting Geoffrey last time because we knew you'd be here, but I don't know who this could be. I hope there's nothing wrong."

Vincent was back moments later. Behind him, grinning self-consciously, was Quinn. Vincent went to his desk; Quinn crossed the room to where the women were.

"Hi." Quinn greeted Catherine first. "Vincent will be a few minutes."

"Hello, Quinn," Catherine answered, ever the gracious hostess. "Can I get you something to drink while you wait?"

"Got any beer?"

"Of course." She went out and Quinn settled on the couch.

"Hey, kid," he said to Charles, who grinned and babbled a happy reply. "Hi, Jenny."

"Hi," she responded, from her place on the floor.

"Pretty good tower you two have going," he observed. "Can I help?"

Jenny glanced at Charles, who clearly had no opinion. She shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"

Quinn's approach to tower-building was less pragmatic than hers. He began erecting an airy structure of colonnades and turrets and imaginary flags.

"That won't hold up," she warned.

"Why not?" he asked, and began on a curving row of battlements.

Intrigued, Charles reached out and plopped a large rectangular block rather crookedly onto the top of the tower. Quinn snatched it away, but it was too late. The structure swayed alarmingly and collapsed. Charles clapped his hands in delight.

"That's why not," Jenny said, smiling. "He knocks them down."

Catherine came back with drinks and Jenny and Quinn moved from the floor to the couch.

"So, Quinn," Catherine said, after serving them and taking her own glass of wine. "What brings you here?"

"I brought a message to Vincent," Quinn explained, and took a long swallow from his glass. "That tastes good. I haven't had a beer in a long time."

Catherine refused to be dissuaded. "An important message?" she persisted.

"Not an emergency, if that's what you're getting at. I think Father's wondering where to find a book, or something."

"And he sent a message about it?" Catherine was clearly incredulous.

Quinn gave a little shrug and grinned. "It must be kind of important, huh?"

Jenny could tell Cathy'd given up when she settled back in her chair. "It must be," she agreed, without conviction.

Vincent joined them and pressed a slip of paper into Quinn's hand. "I believe this will provide the help Father needs," he said.

"Thanks, Vincent," Quinn said, and slipped the paper into a pocket. He made no effort to leave.

Jenny caught Cathy giving Vincent a surreptitious what's-going-on look, but for once, Vincent seemed oblivious.

"Don't you have to get that to Father?" Catherine asked finally, pointedly.

"Not right away," Quinn said easily, and settled more deeply into his seat.

"Jenny plans to spend the afternoon," Vincent told him. "I don't know what she and Catherine have planned, but perhaps you'd care to join us?"

Quinn grinned. "Sure. That sounds like fun." He looked at the women expectantly.

"Actually, we don't have any plans," Catherine admitted. "We're open to suggestion."

"Contract bridge," Vincent said promptly.

"I didn't know you played bridge," Catherine responded, clearly surprised.

"I never had a reason to mention it," he said reasonably. "I know you and Jenny play; you told me."

"We played together all through college," Catherine confirmed, and glanced at Jenny, who nodded her willingness to play. "What about Quinn?"

"I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't know he played," Vincent said. "We've played together before."

"Not in a long time," Quinn warned. "I'm out of practice. But I'll play."

"If you can find some cards, Catherine, Quinn and I will set up a table," Vincent suggested.

Catherine agreed, and Jenny joined her on a search for playing cards. "I had some in my apartment," Catherine muttered after several minutes of fruitless effort. "I just don't remember where I put them when I moved."

"Someplace logical," Jenny counseled, digging through a cupboard.

"Thanks a lot," Catherine said wryly, and delved into a drawer.

"Here's a deck," Jenny said a moment later. "Hiding in this bottom drawer."

"Keep looking. There should be another one in there." Catherine moved closer and lowered her voice. "I think Quinn likes you."

"What?" Jenny looked up from rummaging in the drawer.

"Quinn. I think he likes you."

Jenny pulled out the second deck of cards and pushed the drawer shut emphatically. "I think being married has gone to your head."

"What?" Catherine's expression was almost comical, and Jenny smiled.

"It makes you see romance when it isn't there," she explained. "He came on an errand."

"Those kinds of errands are handled by the children," Catherine informed her. "He came to see you."

"He didn't even know I was here." Jenny's protest was automatic, but inside, she began to hope Cathy was right.

"I'll bet he did," Catherine countered. "I'll bet Vincent told him."

"Vincent again." Jenny rose, the decks of cards in her hand.

"Vincent again, what?" Quinn inquired as they approached the table.

"I can't believe Cathy didn't know he played bridge," Jenny said, thinking fast.

"Oh, yeah," Quinn said, and pulled out a chair. "Vincent's a man of many hidden talents. Who's my partner?"

"I have to play with Cathy," Jenny said. "Because I always do."

"Because I'm the only one who can figure out what she means when she bids," Catherine added.

Charles toddled over and Vincent lifted him into his lap. "No, my son," he said, chiding. "You may not eat the cards. Catherine..."

Quinn jumped up and fetched a small handful of blocks. "Here, Charles. Build another tower."

As Catherine shuffled and dealt the first hand, Jenny turned her attention on Vincent. "So what else can you do that nobody knows about?"

He regarded her with amusement. "Despite what Quinn says, few of my skills and abilities are secret."

Because he was usually so solemn, teasing Vincent was fun. Also, because of his quick wit, challenging. Jenny thought of the most ludicrous thing she could. "Can you roller skate?" she asked.

"I never have," he answered.

"But probably could," Quinn added.

"How about break dancing?" Jenny asked.

Vincent smiled, just a little.

"He's better at ballroom dancing," Catherine said, taking a long, critical look at her cards. "One heart."

Jenny scooped up her cards and arranged them hurriedly. Bidding suggested her hand went well with Catherine's and they ended up at four hearts. Jenny waited until the hand was played before turning once more to Vincent.

"Have you ever played poker?"

"Occasionally," he said. "My brother Devin taught me to play blackjack and five card stud."

"Good. We can play that later," she said. "Can you sew?"

"Buttons."

"How about music? Can you play any instruments?"

"I can pick out a tune on a piano. One handed."

"One fingered," Quinn added. "Ask him if he yodels."

"Do you yodel?" Jenny asked, agreeably.

"I do not."

"Sing?"

"Not in anyone's hearing."

"I've never heard you shout, but I'll bet you do." She eyed him critically.

"He can quiet a noisy room quicker than anybody I know," Quinn observed. "He's pretty compelling when he raises his voice."

"Fortunately, he doesn't do it often," Catherine murmured, half under her breath.

She didn't sound upset; in fact, Jenny thought Cathy rather liked her to tease and flirt with Vincent. Most of the time, Vincent seemed to enjoy it, too. Jenny examined her cards, while Quinn, who'd dealt, opened the bidding.

 

It was a pleasant afternoon and Jenny was sorry when it ended. "I had fun, Cath," she said, hugging her. "Thanks for having me."

"Anytime," Catherine answered, her eyes bright. "You know that."

Jenny turned to Vincent. After a moment's hesitation, much to Vincent's embarrassment, she reached up and pecked him on the cheek. "I've always wanted to do that," she confided to Catherine, who appeared on the verge of laughter, and turned toward the door.

Quinn waited patiently, her coat in his hands. "I'd like to see you home, if I may," he murmured as he helped her into it.

She paused, surprised. "We don't go the same way," she said, rather stupidly.

He grinned. "It's okay. I can reach the tunnels almost anywhere."

"The north park tunnel entrance is closest to Jenny's home," Vincent advised.

Jenny looked at him, startled. "You've never been to my apartment."

"Vincent knows where all the helpers live," Quinn told her. "And all the ways to get there."

He ushered her out into the cold, damp evening. "A cab?" he asked.

"It's about twenty blocks," Jenny apologized, "but I usually walk."

"Then that's what we'll do," Quinn said cheerfully.

The trip went quickly and Jenny was sorry to see her apartment building loom up ahead. She paused on the front steps.

"Thank you, Quinn. I enjoyed the walk."

"So did I," he answered. "I hope I can see you again."

His earnest, hopeful look made him look childishly endearing, and she smiled. "I'd like that. Very much."

"Good." He didn't ask for her phone number, though, and after a moment's confusion, she remembered he didn't have a phone. No telling how he'd contact her if he wanted to ask her out.

He didn't try to kiss her. Instead, he stood before her, smiling, for a few beats too long, and then reached, rather formally, for her hand. He squeezed it warmly. "Goodnight, Jenny," he said. "Happy New Year."

"Goodnight, Quinn," she answered. "Happy New Year to you, too."

As she rode up in the elevator, she thought that it showed signs of being a very good year, indeed.

 

*****

 

"I need your opinion on something, Cath."

It was mid-January; outside, a crust of new snow was rapidly turning to dirty slush. Jenny's desk was piled high with manuscripts, contracts, and galley proofs, but she had her back turned, the phone cord stretched over her shoulder.

"Sure, Jen," Catherine replied, in her ear. "What's up?"

"There's a book signing next week. It's one of Emily's authors, but she has to go to a wedding in Pittsburgh that day, so I'm covering."

"I thought you had publicity people to do that sort of thing."

"We do," Jenny admitted, "but this author's kind of ticky and Emily wants her specially taken care of."

"Okay. What's the problem?"

"I was wanting to ask Quinn to go with me."

There was a slight pause. "Okay. He'd probably enjoy it."

"You think he'd go?"

"Why wouldn't he? He likes you, Jen."

"He'd have to come up here."

"So?"

"So you think he'd go."

"Yeah. I do."

"Great. How do I go about asking him?"

She wrote a note and, on Catherine's instructions, sealed it in an envelope, put Quinn's name on the outside, and delivered it to the hot dog vendor on the corner. The next day, an envelope bearing her name in spiky, barely legible script was pushed under her apartment door. Inside was a short note of acceptance.

 

*****

 

The following Thursday, Quinn was waiting when she reached the bookstore. He peeled himself easily from the brick facade and moved to meet her. He was dressed conventionally, in a sports jacket over slacks. Curiously, she found she rather missed the more exotic tunnel clothing.

"Hi," she greeted him, and offered her hand.

He accepted it easily. "Good evening."

"Have you been waiting long?"

"Only a few minutes," he assured her, and guided her the few steps to the shop entrance.

Inside, a table had been set up for the signing, but the author was nowhere in sight. "Is she here, yet?" Jenny asked the store's proprietor.

He nodded. "In the back. Says she's not sure she wants to do this now. After I've advertised, and put up a display..."

"I know, Mr. Hinson, I know," she soothed. "Let me talk to her. Quinn, I'm sorry..."

"I know you're working," he said. "Go on. There's plenty here to keep me occupied."

It took a while, but eventually she pacified the panicky writer's nerves, bolstered her confidence, and persuaded her to give signing a try. Jenny hovered behind the signing table at first, but the readers were garrulously admiring, and presently she felt able to drift away and look for Quinn.

She found him in a corner, perched on the bottom rung of a library ladder, poring over a wide volume full of glossy photographs.

"What are you reading?" she asked softly.

He jumped and clapped the book shut.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

"I was absorbed," he said. "I didn't hear you coming."

"What's so fascinating?" She glanced at the book's cover. "Trends in Modern Set Design?"

"I was looking at some of the sets," he explained, half apologetic.

She looked at him quizzically. "It just seems like an odd choice of book."

He sighed and spread the book open on his lap, flipping rapidly through the pages until he found the one he wanted. Jenny bent forward for a better look.

"Looks like someone was trying to create the interior of a medieval castle," she said, studying the picture.

"For an off-Broadway production of Camelot," he agreed. "Carla loved those sets." There was a sad wistfulness in his voice.

"Who was Carla?" she asked gently. "Your wife?"

He glanced at her, surprised. "You know about her?"

She nodded. "Vincent told me. I'm sorry she died."

He bent his head over the photograph. "It was a long time ago, Jenny. It doesn't really hurt anymore. It just makes me sad. She was so young. So talented."

"Did she design sets?" Jenny asked, looking for a connection.

He gave a soft laugh and shook his head. "Costumes. She did the costumes for this production. It's where we met." He

paused. "The set design is mine."

 

*****

 

Later, after the signing was over and the writer dispatched to her hotel, they sat over coffee in an all-night diner and talked.

"A set designer. I told Vincent I thought you looked artistic, and he laughed at me."

"Vincent doesn't laugh at people," Quinn said, and sipped his coffee. "Besides, I'm not sure he knows what I used to do. Not many people do."

"Why'd you stop? You were good." She'd looked at the photographs and read the detailed captions; Quinn had been touted, in the book, as a rising star in set design before he'd abruptly dropped out of sight.

"When Carla got sick, I was working on a play for Edgar Miller. The producer, you know?"

She nodded; she'd heard of Edgar Miller.

"I was half crazy. Carla was sick, and none of the treatments were working. And Miller kept insisting on changes. Of the stupidest things, sometimes. Well, some producers or directors are like that. You learn to put up with it. But I had so much going on. One day, I lost it. Told Miller what he could do with his sets and walked out.

"After Carla died, I couldn't stand the thought of walking into a theater knowing she'd wouldn't be there. So I never went back."

"How'd you end up Below?"

"Buddy of mine was a Helper. I guess he couldn't stand seeing me fall apart. One day, he came to my place and started packing a suitcase. Told me he was taking me someplace where I could heal. Later, I learned he'd cleared it with Father and the Council, but at the time, I was too heartsore to care where I was, or even take in some of the more fantastic aspects. The first week, I doubt I said ten words to anybody. But they were all patient and caring and after a while I started living again. Feeling. Noticing.

"I decided I liked it there, and asked if I could stay. They said yes."

"And you never think about coming back up here?"

"Sometimes." He grinned. "Especially when I'm in the mood for pizza. It's hard to get delivery down there. But I know I'll never live up top again."

Jenny sighed. "If I had talent like yours, I don't know if I could give up expressing it."

"You mean sets? Heck, I still design them once in a while. If you're not busy Saturday evening, why don't you come down and see?"

 

*****

 

Just before dusk on Saturday, Jenny presented herself at the mouth of a drainage pipe in the north part of Central Park. She glanced nervously at the surrounding area; the deepening shadows reminded her that the park was no place for a lone woman after dark.

"Jenny?"

The voice, echoing hollowly out of nowhere, startled her. "Who is it?" she quavered, and looked for the source.

"Vincent." He sounded closer now, his voice less distorted. "In here."

Ducking, she peered into the pipe. Faintly, she could make out his stooped form. "Where's Quinn?"

"He's been detained. He asked me to come for you."

"Oh." With a hand on the curved roof of the pipe to balance herself, Jenny went inside. The low pipe ended abruptly a few feet in, opening into a square junction. Other pipes, larger in circumference, radiated out from it. Vincent waited stolidly in the center.

"I'm sorry if I frightened you," he said. "I cannot go out in daylight."

Jenny knew that. "Of course not. I was just startled. I didn't know exactly what to expect."

Vincent looked mildly surprised as he showed the way into one of the big pipes. "You've been to our world several times," he said.

"I always came through your house," Jenny answered. "Cathy's told me about some of the other entrances, but I've never used them."

"I'll see to it that you are shown others," he said. "In case you ever need to reach us."

Jenny nodded. "I'd appreciate that. Where did you say Quinn is?"

"There was some difficulty during construction of the new chambers. The workers struck an underground spring, and Quinn and Kanin had to devise a way to contain it temporarily. It made them late getting back. They were just beginning to clean up when I left."

"But everything's all right?"

"Of course. Before, there was no drinking water available in that area, so it will be a blessing, once Kanin's figured a way to channel the excess safely away."

"Good." Jenny couldn't think of anything else to say, and they walked a little way in silence.

After a while she decided she liked Vincent's silence. It didn't make her feel pressured to fill it with words. It was comfortable, and made it easy to use the time for thinking.

"Quinn's important in your world, isn't he?" she asked as they neared the common chambers.

"All of our people are important to us," Vincent answered equably. "But the work Quinn does is important, as well." He glanced her way. "That is what you wished to know?"

She nodded. "Yes. Thank you."

They entered Father's study, where the tunnel folk were already beginning to gather. Jenny spotted Cathy seated among friends, baby Charles in her lap. She started towards her when someone touched her arm.

Quinn, his bright hair slicked damply across his forehead, stood beside her. "You're here," he said simply.

"I said I would be," she reminded him.

"I know." His glance moved beyond her. "Thanks, Vincent. I owe you."

"It was no trouble, Quinn," Vincent said. "If you'll excuse me...?" Tactfully he removed himself, and Quinn took Jenny's arm and led her in the other direction.

"I have to sit over here in case they need me," he explained. "Some of the sets are moveable, and sometimes the stage crew gets confused about what goes where."

Jenny nodded agreeably. Quinn's very presence made her feel warm and secure. She didn't much care where they sat. Across the room, Catherine caught her eye, and smiled.

 

The play was simple. In between scenes, Quinn confided that the children had written it themselves, and the editor in Jenny was impressed. Though the plot was simple, there was one, and the dialogue moved the story along effectively. Mostly, though, she examined the sets. They, too, were simple.

A tall expanse of cardboard, mounted to a wooden frame and painted to resemble a stone fireplace, was the biggest flat. Reversing it revealed a tree flanked by flowers and grazing sheep. Other bits of painted cardboard depicted a room with a bookcase and window; another was a chicken coop, complete with painted chickens. There was even a cardboard piano.

Though simply constructed, the sets created the appropriate atmosphere for each scene. They were ample demonstration not only of Quinn's artistic talents, but also of his ability to share and pass them on to the children who created the finished sets.

When the young actors took their bows, Jenny clapped as hard as anyone. Quinn excused himself to help the stage crew stack the sets and props up for storage and Jenny made her way across the chamber to speak to Catherine.

"I've never been to one of these before," she said. "What happens now?"

"Now Mary chases all the actors off to bed while the adults hang around and talk. Kind of a cocktail party without the cocktails."

"There's lemonade," Jenny pointed out, having had some during the brief intermission.

Catherine laughed. "Right."

Vincent materialized beside her. "Ready?" he asked.

Catherine nodded and hoisted a sleeping Charles higher on her shoulder.

"You aren't leaving?"

"I have an early morning tomorrow," Catherine said. "You'll be all right, won't you? Quinn will see you home."

Jenny hesitated; she'd never been Below without Cathy, and here, she knew the meaning of the expression, "stranger in a strange land."

"Or you can come with us now," Catherine offered quickly.

Jenny turned and found Quinn's distinctive head of red hair across the room; he was weaving a path through the crowd. "No. I'll stay. But thanks."

Catherine squeezed her hand and was gone.

"Sorry I was so long," Quinn apologized. "But you had Catherine to talk to."

"I was fine," she assured him. "What now?"

"We could stay, if you like," he said, "but I thought you might enjoy a walk."

"Here?"

"Sure. There are lots of places to go. But we don't have to. Whatever you want."

She felt no qualms about slipping her hand into his. "Let's walk."

He showed her some of the magical places she'd only heard about: the Mirror Pool, the waterfall, the Whispering Gallery. It was late when he finally led her up through an exit that came out in an alley not fifteen yards from Broadway.

"It's a little farther to your home from here," he explained as they emerged onto the still-busy sidewalk, "but it keeps us out of the park."

"Good," said Jenny, smiling a little at his notion that she'd object to a longer walk home after they'd seemingly crisscrossed Manhattan a half dozen times in the course of the evening.

As he'd done before, he stopped outside the building. "Thank you for coming, Jenny. I liked having you there."

"I liked being there," she answered him, softly, and when he leaned toward her she closed her eyes, giving herself up to his warm kiss.

"I'll see you again?" he asked when he released her.

She nodded. "Soon."

 

*****

 

Over the next few months, they saw each other often. Sometimes Quinn came Above and they had dinner, went to a concert, took in a play or movie. Other times, Jenny went to his world. On occasion, there was entertainment there, but most of the time they simply walked, or went to the Mirror Pool to sit at the water's edge and talk.

"Coffee?" she asked him one late spring evening as they arrived at her apartment after visiting an art gallery.

"Not tonight. Jenny, come sit with me."

He sounded odd. Suddenly nervous, she sat beside him on the couch.

"I have something I want to say," he began.

"All right." Hands twisted together in her lap, she waited.

"When I lost Carla, I swore I'd never fall in love again," he began, not looking at her. "I swore I'd never be that vulnerable. That open to hurt."

It was evident the memory was still sensitive and with instinctive compassion, she touched his arm. His hand came up swiftly to cover hers and he raised his eyes. "That was before I met you," he said. "You must know that since we've known each other, I've come to love you."

He hadn't ever said it before, but it seemed he was just affirming something she'd already known.

"Yes," she breathed, and waited.

"I don't have much to offer. My work earns me a place to live and keeps me fed, but it won't ever buy vacations or jewelry or anything like that."

"I know."

"But if you understand that... if you can live with that... Jenny... I want you to be my wife."

She'd never thought he'd ask. Given his lifestyle, his home, it didn't seem possible. For a stark instant she stared at him; only when his gaze faltered and he started to look away did she react.

"Yes." Her arms went around his neck. "Yes, I'll marry you."

 

*****

 

Father, according to the third-hand version she got from Catherine, nearly had apoplexy. Not at the thought of her marrying Quinn - as near as anyone could tell between the ranting and the raving, he seemed glad about that. It was their living plans he objected to. For Jenny had her life, her work, Above, and Quinn wanted to remain Below.

Only after they'd found a garden-level apartment in a converted brownstone a dozen or so blocks south of where Catherine lived did Father relent. An in-house tunnel entrance wasn't absolutely necessary, since Quinn could appear Above with impunity, but constant coming and going would attract attention. Quinn and Kanin spent extra hours digging out a connecting passage and, by the time of the wedding, it was complete.

Jenny's mother insisted on a formal wedding for her only daughter; the best Jenny could do was keep it small. Catherine served as her matron of honor; Quinn asked Kanin to be his best man. Few of the tunnel folk attended either the wedding or the reception afterward, but when Quinn and Jenny returned from the modest honeymoon she'd been able to persuade him to let her pay for, a celebration was held in their honor.

And then, at long last, they settled into their new life. A life together. Jenny had never imagined such happiness.

 

*****

 

The first effervescent excitement couldn't be sustained, of course. With the passing of years, it modified itself into a deep, abiding contentment whose boundary was love.

Six days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Jenny's secretary came into her cramped cubicle, a smudged envelope in her hand. She looked puzzled.

"What is it, Beth?"

Beth extended the envelope. "This is for you."

Jenny accepted the envelope warily. "Where'd it come from?"

"Some kid... I don't know how he got past the lobby guard... dressed in the strangest clothes... he brought it while you were in the meeting. Said it was important. I almost threw it away. But he looked so serious."

Jenny's blood turned to ice. "How long ago?"

"A half-hour, I guess."

Her hands shook with the effort it took not to rip the envelope open before Beth's startled eyes. "You did the right thing," she said instead. "Thank you, Beth."

Only when the door to her little office was securely closed did she reach for the letter opener on her desk. The message inside was in an unfamiliar hand, unsigned.

Come at once. Emergency.

Nothing else.

Jenny snatched up her purse, stuffed the crumpled note into a side pocket, and ran.

There was no one to meet her at the nearest tunnel entrance, but that didn't matter any longer. She knew the way. Quinn's chamber, when she passed it, was dark and empty, so she hurried directly to Father's study.

There, a small cluster of people, mostly women and the elderly, gathered. Their anxious voices hushed when they saw her.

"What is it?" she asked, her voice sounding shrill in the sudden silence. "What's happened?"

The group shifted, and she saw Catherine seated in their midst. Mary stood over the back of her chair, looking protective. At sight of Jenny, Catherine lurched to her feet, brushing off the hands extended to help her.

"You're here," she said, and put her arms around Jenny's shoulders. "Oh, Jen."

Bewildered, Jenny hugged her back. Catherine, heavily pregnant with her fifth child, was trembling. "Cathy? What's wrong?"

Catherine stepped back, her face ashen. "You haven't heard."

"Heard what? All I got was this note that didn't say anything at all..." She fumbled for it.

"There's been an accident."

Jenny felt her own face go white. "Accident?"

"A cave in," Mary said gently. "They were shoring up a section of tunnel and the ceiling gave way."

"Dear God."

Mary forced the next part out with difficulty. "Three men were trapped. One - Kanin - has been rescued. He's not badly hurt. The other men..."

"It's Quinn, Jenny," Cathy said. "Quinn and Vincent."

 

Waiting was agony. News was sparse and came slowly. Peter Alcott had been summoned and he and Father stood by at the cave-in site, medical bags at their sides. Despite a broken leg, Kanin was directing the rescuers, instructing them on how to shore up crumbling slabs of granite to prevent them shifting as smaller chunks of rock and debris were removed.

Jenny and Catherine sat together, holding hands, as others milled around them. "How are the children?" Jenny asked, to fill the dreadful hush.

"They don't know. Brooke and Elaine have them in one of the schoolrooms." Cathy's voice quavered dangerously, and Jenny squeezed her hand.

It was the one thing Jenny envied her friend... children. Jenny and Quinn had been trying to have a baby for as long as they'd been married, but though fertility experts had found nothing amiss with either of them, they were still childless.

Jenny's empty arms ached and she drew her hand from Catherine's to wrap her arms around her herself. "Quinn," she whispered, too low for anyone to hear. "Please come back to me."

 

"They found them!" Eric burst into the chamber and came to a skidding stop. "Both of them. Right together. They're digging them out."

Jenny was on her feet; beside her, Catherine clutched at her arm.

"Are they all right?" Mary asked.

Eric's excitement faltered. "Somebody's alive. I heard Father and Peter talking about a pulse. But Kanin told me to come quick and tell you. I didn't wait to find out any more."

Afterwards, Jenny thought it couldn't have been more than half an hour before the sound of men's voices, subdued and defeated, drifted into the chamber.

"...hospital chamber," someone said. Father, from the sound of it. "That arm's almost certainly broken..."

"Later, Father." The voice was brusque, almost angry, but clearly recognizable to those listening. "I have to..." His voice faded as Vincent entered the chamber. Dirty, disheveled, bloodstained. One arm was bound tightly against his body. His free hand was torn and bloody.

Beside her, Catherine sagged with relief and took a step forward.

Jenny's gaze shifted, moving beyond to the others coming into the chamber. Father, Pascal, Peter. Kanin, moving slowly on crutches. William and Zach, Timothy and Mark and Simon. Jamie and Rebecca. One by one, the rescuers filed in, their expressions grim.

Jenny's gaze went back to Vincent. She fully expected him to stop, to take Catherine in his good arm and hold her.

He didn't. Instead, it seemed his glance skimmed over Catherine with only the briefest pause for a swift, comforting look before he brushed by her.

Jenny heard Catherine's choked sob even before Vincent stopped before her. Panic welled and she stepped back. If only she could go quickly enough, maybe everything would be all right. Maybe she'd find Quinn in the corridor, hurt like Vincent or Kanin, bruised, scraped, limping, but alive.

Vincent's voice, gentle and husky and filled with compassion, checked her. "I'm sorry, Jenny," he said. "There was nothing any of us could do."

 

*****

 

The rest of that day was a scattered, disjointed handful of impressions. She remembered being held against Vincent's broad chest, his arm around her shoulders as he murmured helpless words of regret. Mary and Sarah took her to Quinn's chamber, gave her tea, asked her if she wouldn't like to lie down. When she insisted on going home, Jamie was assigned to guide her safely up, and she remembered the stark expression of grief in Jamie's eyes when they said goodbye. But what stood out most clearly was Cathy.

Cathy, who'd suffered through the agony of waiting alongside her.

Cathy, whose story had a happy ending.

It wasn't fair. Cathy had her children... Vincent's children... to comfort her. In two months, there'd be the new baby to care for and love. Jenny had no one. Nothing.

Of everything, that was what she couldn't forgive. She stepped back, turning away when Cathy reached out to offer comfort. First in Father's chamber and later, at the funeral. Jenny had Quinn brought above, and buried him near her parents. She never attended the memorial service held Below.

She avoided all Cathy's efforts at reconciliation. Notes, phone calls, even gentle overtures from mutual friend Nancy Tucker went unanswered. She heard, through Nancy, that Cathy had a baby girl in September.

She heard through other helpers that Vincent had recovered from injuries suffered in the cave in. She even heard about the accident - more than she wanted to know, actually. Of how Vincent and Quinn and Kanin had all been working to fix timbers into place to hold the unsteady roof. How the roof had suddenly given way. Vincent had held it, according to others who had been there. Quinn had stayed with him, both of them struggling to shore up the sagging timbers. And then, suddenly, the whole thing collapsed in a roar of dust and rock. One of the heavy timbers had caught at an angle, creating a small space, by some miracle protecting Vincent from being crushed. Quinn hadn't been as fortunate. A different beam, falling at a different angle, had pinned his shoulders, holding him helpless as tons of rock poured down on him. His death, all had assured her, had been instantaneous and painless.

It wasn't Vincent's fault. It certainly wasn't Cathy's fault. There was no one to blame. No one whose actions could have changed things. Except perhaps Quinn himself. If he had darted out of the danger area instead of staying to help Vincent with the falling timbers, he could have saved himself.

But then he wouldn't have been the man she'd married. The man she'd loved for five years. And she knew, guiltily, that he wouldn't approve of the way she'd lived for the past five months, isolated, shunning her friends.

Nobody's fault. Nobody to blame.

Jenny thought of the Winterfest candle lying carelessly by her door. Winterfest would be next week. Maybe it was time to go back. Maybe it was time to make peace - with others, and with herself.

"Excuse me, ma'am? Are you all right?"

With a jerk, Jenny straightened and stared uncomprehending at the round young face of the coffee shop waitress.

"Excuse me. You've been sitting here half an hour. Is anything wrong?"

Jenny collected herself abruptly, and gathered her packages. "No," she said, and dropped a five dollar bill on the table. "Not anymore."

She hurried out, scarcely hearing the waitress's effusive thanks. The shop next door was still open and she rushed inside.

The shop's proprietor looked up. "May I help you?"

"Yes, please," she said, and pointed. "I want to buy the peacock from the tree in the window."

He nodded and reached for it.

Jenny leaned across the counter. "And could you gift wrap it, please?"

 

 

The End