"Welcome to New York, and thank you for flying British Airways." The practiced drone of the flight attendant was nearly drowned by the high-pitched squeal of jet engines, but Victoria Chandler ignored both. Beyond the window lay Kennedy Airport... and home.
Her stomach twitched with nerves as she gathered her things and disembarked. The line through Customs moved slowly, but at last it was her turn. The official gave her passport a cursory glance and handed it back. "Welcome home," he said, his tone perfunctory.
"Thank you," Vicky answered, just as automatically. Already she was looking beyond him, scanning the teeming terminal for a familiar face.
Scores of people stood watching the passengers come through Customs, but none seemed to be waiting for her and she didn't recognize any of them. She sighed and moved toward a row of molded plastic chairs. As she did, a man peeled himself away from the wall where he'd been lounging and came toward her.
"Vicky?" he called, in a voice that seemed familiar.
Even then, it took a moment to recognize him. She gaped wordlessly as he travelled toward her with an economy of motion that was pure poetry. Could this huge blond bearded fellow really be her brother Evan?
Any lingering doubts disappeared when he swept her up in a big bear hug, pounding her back with enthusiasm.
"Good grief, Evan," she protested, struggling free. "I've only been here five minutes. You're killing me."
"Sorry," he apologized casually, and set her down. "It's just so good to see you."
"You, too," she answered, and stepped back to look at him. "You've grown." It was something of an understatement. He'd always been tall, but in the three years since she'd seen him, he'd filled out tremendously across the shoulders and chest, transforming from a lanky teenager to a massively powerful man who rivaled their father for sheer presence. "You're huge," she expanded. "Bigger than Daddy, even."
"Yeah," he admitted modestly, and flexed an arm for her benefit. "I could beat him arm wrestling, I bet."
She gave him a friendly shove and bent to retrieve her bags. "Hey, strong guy, help me with these."
He picked up her suitcase and slung her big nylon carryall over his shoulder. "Don't tell me you lived in England for three years and this is all you brought back."
"I'm trying your way," she answered swiftly. "Travel light."
He put on a mock scowl and started through the terminal. "Victoria, I hate to tell you this, but a big suitcase, a huge carryall, a canvas tote bag and a purse does not constitute 'travelling light.'"
"Oh. Well, then, I guess it's safe to tell you I have a trunk and about a dozen big boxes coming. They wouldn't fit on the plane."
He grinned. "Figures."
The sleek, modern, mid-sized car waiting in the airport's vast parking structure surprised her.
"It's new," Evan told her, slinging her luggage into the trunk.
"Yours?" she guessed suspiciously.
"What are you, nuts? I have no use for a car. It's Mom's."
"What happened to the minivan?"
He shrugged and slid behind the wheel. "She said she'd been driving minivans for twenty years and she was tired of it. Now that we're all gone, she bought something her own size."
"And now we're all home again."
"Yeah." He grinned. "I guess if we all want to go somewhere, we'll have to make two trips."
"Right now, I just want to be home," Vicky said fervently. "Where is everybody, anyway? How'd you get saddled with airport duty?"
"We drew straws for it. I lost," he said cheerfully, swinging out into traffic.
She glared at him and he backed down. "Actually, Mom would have come, but she's in court. They've got a big family dinner planned, though. Charles and Elizabeth will be there, and Jacob and Amanda."
"Above or Below?" she inquired.
"Below. Mom talked about having it at the house, but too many people want to see you. There's a concert, too," he added laconically, "but you needn't think it's in your honor. I happen to know it's been scheduled for a long time."
"You happen to know a lot of things, considering you haven't been here much longer than I have."
He accepted the accusation easily. "I flew in yesterday, as a matter of fact," he admitted. "From Rio. Beautiful place, Rio. Exotic. Great pictures."
"Yeah. I saw the one you sold to JET SET."
He gave her a sly sideways glance. "Did you like it?"
"Who, me? Like something you've done?" she asked in mock horror. Then she smiled. "Yeah. I liked it. I showed it to everybody and told them my brother took it."
"No, you didn't."
"Yeah. I really did."
"Wonders never cease."
"The real wonder is, you're here," Vicky remarked, bringing the conversation back on track.
"That's not a wonder," Evan said. "A couple of months ago I called Mom, and she told me when you'd be home. She suggested it would be nice if I could be here."
Vicky snorted. "Strongly suggested, I'll bet."
Evan's answer was an abstracted grin as he weaved through the late-afternoon traffic. It would probably be better if she let him concentrate, so she turned to look out the window.
New York hadn't changed much in the three years she'd been gone. It was busy and noisy and even dirty; as she and Evan entered Manhattan, office buildings began to disgorge scores of people who soon crowded the sidewalks.
A slow-moving bus blocked their progress and Evan tapped the horn impatiently. It didn't help, of course. Horn-honking rarely did in Manhattan traffic, but the gesture seemed to make him feel better.
She could sense him, picking his restless impatience easily out of the mass of feelings brushing her from the teeming sidewalks and crowded street. She opened herself to him, enjoying the familiarity of his presence beside her. Though she'd had friends, close friends, in England, and had developed the ability to sense a select few without actually touching them, she'd always felt like an intruder, unfairly aware and unable to explain. She'd forgotten how comfortable the same sensation could be when it was a member of her family, who knew of her empathic ability and was comfortable with it. Certainly Evan showed no sign of distress, though to be fair, she wasn't entirely certain he was aware of her sense of him.
Out of politeness she tried to lessen her awareness. As Evan faded, she recognized another sense tugging at her, this one even more familiar. The thread of it grew stronger and she sank back in her seat, basking for a moment in the wonderful, soothing sense of love and anticipation that flowed from her father. There was something else, too, though, and it took her a moment to identify it. Anxiety. Apprehension. Why, he was nervous! As nervous as she was, from the feel of it.
Somehow, knowing he wasn't entirely secure about their first meeting in three years made Vicky feel more confident. After all, their emotional link, and her inability to block it off under pressure, had been a big part of her decision to finish high school as an exchange student in England. It also contributed mightily to her choosing to remain an additional two years.
The connection continued to grow and Vicky was able to pick out other threads, like puzzlement. Gradually, the anticipation faded, replaced by the faint beginnings of disappointment.
Puzzled herself, she pondered the confusing emotions flooding her heart as Evan circled the block, looking for a parking spot. Vicky only half-heard his cry of triumph. Her father was obviously making himself completely accessible to her, which was odd in itself; she couldn't remember him ever doing that before.
Her own block, consciously cultivated ever since she'd left, was firmly in place. It was automatic now, she realized. That was what was wrong. Her block was so complete that her father, who surely knew what time her plane was expected, had no sense of her. Even with the long plane ride and the excitement of being home, it hadn't slipped.
With a surge of triumphant elation, she opened herself as she opened the car door, and felt her father's answering torrent of relief and joy.
She flew up the steps and jigged impatiently as Evan sorted through the keys for the one that fit the front door. Finally he found it, and, with a cursory stab at the doorbell, he unlocked the door and pushed it wide.
Vicky raced through the vestibule and threw open the inner door. Her sense of her father was strong and sure now and she didn't have to look to find him. Her feet and her heart carried her up the wide staircase. Her father waited near the top, out of sight of any casual passersby. He stretched out his arms, and she threw herself into them gladly.
"Oh, Daddy," she whispered, into his shirt. "It's so good to see you."
He held her tightly, murmuring something unintelligible into her hair. His joy washed over her. At last, though, he moved her away from him, holding her shoulders so he could look into her face. She smiled and blinked away the tears she hadn't expected.
"You've... grown up," he said, with something like wonder in his eyes.
"Not your little girl any longer?" she guessed, her voice shaky. He'd changed since she'd seen him last, his face more lined and his once-bright mane more liberally streaked with silver. She felt a momentary pang. He was getting older and her excursion to England, however much she'd needed it, had cost her three years of her father - of seeing him, talking with him, even simply being with him. She was here now, though, and resolved to make the most of the opportunities she had.
He seemed to catch the gist of her musings, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders to lead her upstairs. "You'll always be my little girl," he promised solemnly, as they climbed.
In the vestibule below, Evan was complaining audibly about bringing in her luggage by himself. Today it was such a welcome sound that Vicky put both arms around her father's waist and squeezed. He smiled one of his rare smiles and tightened his hold around her shoulders.
"Don't tell him I said this," he confided, "but I'm pleased to have Evan here, as well."
His solemn teasing filled her with gladness. It was, truly, good to be home.
As Father's Chamber was the hub of the world Below, so the second-floor study was the center of their home. As they entered, Vicky disentangled herself from her father's arm and hurried across to one of the three wide windows to peer out. "Where's everybody else?" she asked, scanning the street below, so strange and yet familiar.
"Your mother is on her way," her father said. "Charles and Elizabeth should be here soon, as well; then we'll go Below. Jacob and Amanda are waiting there, along with many of your friends."
Vicky nodded. "Great." She turned from the window and let the heavy drape fall back into place. "And where's Carey?" She tried to keep her voice, her feelings neutral, but couldn't tell if she succeeded. Her father began to exude the warm glow that she associated with her mother, and then, quite abruptly, she found she was picking up her mother's sense, herself.
Downstairs, the front door closed with a resounding bang that wasn't at all the way her mother closed doors, even when she was in a hurry or excited. The sound of Evan, still complaining, explained it though; a moment later he appeared in the doorway with Vicky's bags variously slung, hung, and dangling from one strong arm. Tucked beneath his other arm was their mother.
To Vicky, Catherine had such presence that she never seemed small except when she stood close enough for Vicky's four inches of additional height to make a difference. But in the circle of Evan's arm, she seemed positively fragile. Her face lit when she saw Vicky, and Evan dropped his arm and grinned as Vicky rushed to close the gap between them.
"It's so good to have you home," she heard her mother say.
"Me, too, Mom." Her murmur was heartfelt. "Me, too."
After the greetings were over, Evan lugged Vicky's things up to her old room on the third floor and tossed them on the bed. Vicky left them there while she turned to the closet where some of her old clothes still hung and pulled out a long, softly flowered skirt and a pair of deceptively dainty boots. From hangers she took an ivory flannel blouse, its collar delicately edged with soft lace, and a loosely knit handmade sweater of pale blue wool. The neck and sleeves of the sweater were laced with leather ties; the ends of the ties hung down, forming a kind of fringe.
Tunnel clothes. It had been a long time since she'd worn them, but she'd wear them tonight to honor her father and the people of his world who loved her.
She donned them quickly and brushed her hair out, tying it back loosely with a length of ribbon she found in a drawer. When her preparations were complete, she paused in front of the mirror and examined her reflection carefully. Gazing back from the glass was not the Victoria Chandler whose photograph had occasionally appeared on the society pages of the London papers, wearing the latest fashions and attending the most elite parties, nor even the Vicky Chandler who had worked hard in school and spent alternate Saturdays volunteering at an English children's hospital. Now she was simply Vicky, her father's daughter. And that pleased her.
"Charles called," Evan informed her as she came down the stairs. "He and Liz are running late, so they'll just meet us down there."
"It happens frequently," her mother apologized, on Charles's behalf. "He gets so wrapped up in his work..."
"Unlike anyone else we know," Evan countered, with a sunny smile. Vicky had to grin. Their mother's penchant for becoming utterly and personally involved in her cases was legend. Evan hadn't always taken it so well, but apparently he'd mellowed. Now, with exaggerated gallantry, he offered Vicky his arm. "My lady?"
The gallantry didn't last long. The little passage between the basement and the tunnels proper, while only a few feet long, was narrow. Evan lingered to be sure the door, cleverly designed to look like a smooth cement wall, closed tightly. When they regrouped in the passage, Vicky found herself at her father's side.
The pleasure, she decided, was not in what they said or did, but just in being there; even though the way was smooth and her boots sensible, she tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow.
Being able to sense his pleasure was wonderful, too, and for a moment, she even wondered why she'd left.
"We'll go to the kitchen first," he said. "Jacob's preparing the meal himself, so I'm sure that's where we'll find him."
Vicky acquiesced a bit nervously; it felt odd, travelling the tunnels after three years above ground. And even though no one would ever accuse her of being shy, she found the thought of all the people waiting to greet her a bit unsettling. Her father seemed to sense her trepidation, though, and reached across to squeeze the hand still resting on his arm. She squeezed back and they entered the long chamber that served as the kitchen.
This chamber was always at least ten degrees warmer than those around it, and for as long as Vicky could remember, one end had been set aside for the community's elderly, who felt the chill more than most. Since they were almost certain to find a storyteller there, it was a favorite gathering place for children, too.
Restored rockers and shabby upholstered chairs stood near a wide wooden table with chairs and benches. Four or five older people were gathered there now and Vicky paused to greet them, bending to exchange hugs.
The remainder of the long chamber was strictly business, with no fewer than three stoves; one that burned wood, or sometimes coal, one gas, and one, Mouse's invention, heated itself improbably with steam. All were massive, and right now, all were in use.
Vicky spotted her brother immediately, bending to peer into the oven of the wood-burning stove. He said something to one of the boys assisting him. The boy nodded and began to expertly stoke the fire. Jacob wiped his hands on a towel and turned.
"Hey, Tinkerbell. It's good to see you. We missed you."
She was so glad to see him, she didn't even object to his use of her childhood nickname. Instead, she hugged him fiercely, and then embraced her sister-in-law Amanda. She didn't recognize any of Jacob's small crew of kitchen helpers, so she merely nodded politely in their direction before turning back to her brother.
"People are starting to gather in the dining chamber," Jacob told her. "Why don't you go on? 'Manda and I will be through here in a few minutes."
"'Manda's through here now," his wife informed him. "Come on, Vicky."
The kitchen was connected to the dining chamber by a short, wide passage. Amanda took Vicky's arm and pulled her through, leaving Evan and their parents to follow. On the other side, the small throng that was forming turned and voices rose in excitement. Vicky's special friends gathered close - Seth and Deirdre, Hannah and Mark, Abbey and Gena - all talking at once. "Oh, there's so much to tell you..." "We missed you..." "You were gone too long!"
"Can you stay tonight?" This was from Abbey, who caught her hands eagerly. "Please say yes!"
"Oh, do!" the other girls chimed. "We can stay up and talk..."
"I'd love to, but I can't. The flight... the excitement... I'll be lucky to make it through the concert tonight. And besides, my parents..." Instinctively she glanced around for them. They had tactfully drifted away and were now engrossed in conversation with some of the older adults, but Vicky knew they'd be stricken if she spent tonight away from home. "Maybe next weekend," she suggested.
"That's a good idea. Maybe we could get Marti and Rita down here, too," Deirdre said, naming a helper's daughter and a former tunnel resident whose parents had returned to the world Above.
"A slumber party! Vincent'll let us use the guest chamber if we promise to clean it up afterwards..."
"Jacob will let us make brownies and fudge and cookies..."
A touch on her arm drew Vicky's attention away from her friends' eager planning. She turned. "Nathaniel!" she cried, and threw her arms around his neck. He'd been her best friend from childhood and she'd missed him sorely.
"Welcome home." He embraced her, and when she lifted her head from his shoulder to smile at him, he bent and kissed her shyly on the lips.
It startled her and she glanced toward her father; he had his back to her, head bent attentively, listening to Ellen. He hadn't noticed, and she realized her block was still firmly in place. She could feel it there, shielding her.
The adoration shining from Nathaniel's eyes was another matter, but she brushed it off as a reflection of the deep affection they'd always shared. Her little group reformed to include him, and they migrated across the chamber and settled around one of the big tables. The next half-hour or so was spent in happy conversation, catching up on the details of lives that couldn't be told in letters and making eager plans for the future. The boys pretended to be crushed that they weren't included in plans for the slumber party, but Vicky suspected they'd show up anyway at some point in the evening.
Talking made her throat dry, so when members of the kitchen crew brought out the tall urns of lemonade and iced tea, she excused herself and went to get a drink. She stood by the urn of lemonade and drained her glass. As she was reaching to refill it, Jacob came up behind her.
"Having a good time?" he inquired.
"Yes. I really am."
"Good. It looks like the only people missing are the ones setting up for the concert, and I'm about to send one of the children to Father's Chamber to fetch them."
"I'll go," she volunteered instantly.
"You're having fun with your friends. Let one of the children..."
"Please, Jacob," she asked. "It's only a short walk. And to be truthful, I could use a break from talking."
His look of surprise changed swiftly to a smile of understanding. "I imagine it's pretty overwhelming," he agreed. "Okay, run and get them. Tell them to hurry - we'll be serving by the time you get back."
"All right." She paused by her friends to inform them of her mission, but turned down their offers to accompany her. "I need just a few minutes, guys."
"Okay," Seth answered for all of them. "We'll save your seat."
"Better not, this time," she decided regretfully. "I'm afraid my family will be disappointed if I don't sit with them."
"Probably," Deirdre agreed. "And at the concert, too."
Vicky laughed. "Probably," she echoed. "I'll be down again in a day or two, though."
"And there's always the slumber party!" Hannah reminded.
"Vicky, are you going?" Jacob called.
"Right now!" she answered, and, with a quick, apologetic wave to her friends, scurried off.
The route to Father's Chamber was a familiar one, even after so long, and she reached it in minutes. The shortest path brought her to the lower rear entrance and voices greeted her as she came in under the loft. A half-dozen teenagers were arranging chairs and benches in the center of the chamber. On the wide, waist-high shelf that curved around one side of the chamber, an older man tuned a guitar.
She paused in the shadows, watching. She recognized few of the people here, not altogether surprising when she considered that she'd been gone three years and that there had always been a transient segment of the tunnel population. No one seemed to notice her and she lingered in the shadows, letting the pure atmosphere of her father's world envelop her.
Her thoughts were disrupted when a young man, dark and bearded and accompanied by a pretty girl with honey-blond hair, came in through the main entrance. He turned, picking his way along the shelf to the solitary man, while the girl descended the short flight of wrought-iron stairs and moved to the center of the chamber.
Vicky's gaze went back to the dark young man. His presence wasn't overpowering, the way Evan's was. He was of average height and slender build, but his shoulders and chest looked solid. He looked familiar, and when he turned his head toward her she recognized him with a shock. Carey! But when she'd left, he'd been a gangly, sometimes awkward boy. In the interim, he'd grown up.
He said something to the man with the guitar, and both laughed. The warm sound brought her attention back to her errand, and she moved forward, into the light.
Both men turned to look at her, and Carey's face lit with recognition. He vaulted lightly from the shelf and came toward her with outstretched hands. "Vicky."
"Hi, Carey," she said, feeling suddenly, absurdly shy. She evaded his hands, moving between them for a hug. When they parted, the girl with the honey-blond hair moved to Carey's side. He stepped back and put a protective arm around her.
"Vicky, I'd like you to meet Annie," he said, giving the girl a squeeze. "She moved here with her father two years ago."
Vicky nodded acknowledgement. "Hello, Annie."
"Hello." Annie tucked herself more tightly beneath Carey's arm.
"Annie's shy," Carey explained. "But I'm sure when you get to know one another, you'll be friends."
"Yes, I'm sure we will," Vicky agreed, but privately she wasn't sure at all. Something unidentifiable flickered within as she regarded the other girl, but she quelled it sternly and forced a cheerful smile. "I've been sent to tell you it's time for dinner," she said. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah. We're done here, aren't we, Russell?" he called to the man on stage. "Dinner's ready."
Russell looked up from his guitar and nodded. "Be there in a minute," he said.
"We don't have to wait," Carey said, removing his arm from Annie's shoulders to take her hand. "Come on, you guys," he called to the teenagers, who were straightening the last row of seats. They abandoned their task eagerly and it was a lively, talkative group that made its way back to the dining chamber.
Vicky was glad of the crowd; she felt faintly awkward with Carey, and Annie still disturbed her. In the dining chamber, the group dispersed. Even Annie detached herself from Carey's side and wandered off to one of the little tables. Carey took Vicky's elbow and began to guide her to the family's table on the far side, but every few feet she had to stop and acknowledge someone else's welcome, making progress slow.
At last, though, she could make out the padded quilting of her father's vest. She aimed for it. Carey dropped her arm as the man sitting to her father's left rose from his chair.
"Hi, kid," her brother Charles greeted affectionately. "Welcome back." They hugged and he turned to a delicately pretty dark-haired woman. "You remember Elizabeth."
Vicky smiled at her newest sister-in-law. "Of course I do." She put out her hands and Elizabeth took them, squeezing warmly. "Now we'll have a chance to get to know each other."
"I'm looking forward to that," Elizabeth replied.
Vicky scanned the table, noting that Carey had already taken a chair at the other end, next to Evan. There was an empty place beside her mother, though, directly across from Elizabeth, and Vicky guessed that was hers. She sat down just as the older children began to bring out the meal - tray after tray of thick, crusty chicken and beef pot pies - one of Jacob's specialties.
The pies were excellent, though at their table, consumption of the meal was slow, impeded by constant conversation. By the time they finished, many others had already left the dining chamber. When they rose to leave, Vicky noticed Carey wasn't among them and wondered how she could have missed him slipping away. Before she could look for him, Charles had taken her arm. Evan, she noticed, was walking with Amanda, and Jacob had fallen into step with Elizabeth. Of the couples in her family, only her parents walked together, her mother's hand tucked into the crook of her father's arm.
Halfway to Father's Chamber, Nathaniel joined them and Charles discreetly faded away, leaving Vicky to walk beside him.
The chamber was already filling when they reached it but the family found a cluster of chairs near the side and spent a few minutes arranging themselves and talking back and forth. By the time they finished, the chamber had filled to capacity.
The older man Vicky had seen earlier entered the stage area and seated himself on a tall stool. A guitar leaned against the stool and he picked it up, strumming once or twice to check the tune. Vicky nudged Jacob, on her left. "Who's that?" she whispered.
"That's Russell. Moved down here a couple of years ago with his daughter Anne. He used to be a folk musician in the world Above."
"You mean we're going to hear folk music?"
"And what Carey refers to as soft rock, and a little country," Jacob confirmed.
"Wow. What does Dad think about it?" she asked, with a glance toward her father, who sat two chairs over in the row ahead.
Jacob grinned. "Well, he wasn't particularly enthusiastic the first time, but naturally he allowed it."
Vicky nodded. Of course he had. Just as he'd never tried to censor his children's reading material or musical preferences when they were growing up, so he wouldn't attempt to restrict the choices available to the tunnel residents. This was not to say that he didn't make an effort to influence appreciation for the classics, both in literature and music. "What happened then?"
"Well, Russell put on a couple of recitals, and more and more people went. One night, Mom decided she wanted to go."
"Yeah. She said even though she was too young to be a true child of the sixties, she remembered a lot of the music. So she went, and of course, Dad went with her."
"Did he like it?" Vicky almost giggled at the thought of her staid, conservative father listening to rock music from the nineteen-sixties.
"He did," another, deeper voice broke in. Vicky started guiltily, then grinned. She'd forgotten how acute her father's hearing really was. "Russell's music has a beauty all its own," he explained now, twisting to lean over the back of his chair. "And there's often poetry in the words."
Russell's soft strumming ceased and they turned their attention back to the makeshift stage. There was another tall stool to Russell's left and Vicky was just about to inquire who else would be performing when, to her utter astonishment, Carey came in from under the loft and leaped to the stage.
"We can start now," he announced to the room at large. "I'm here."
The audience chuckled. Warmth and good humor and a pleasant sense of expectation filled the chamber. It surprised her how much was directed at Carey. Evidently he'd carved out his own place here and showed every sign of being respected and liked. He picked up his guitar and settled himself on the vacant stool. After a couple of experimental strums and a short, whispered exchange with Russell, they began to play.
They were good together. Russell was clearly the superior musician, his fingers flying on the frets of his instrument, while Carey was content with a handful of chords, but Carey's voice was better and he sang most of the songs in a pleasing tenor. They played songs made famous by entertainers such as John Denver, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dan Fogelberg, Seals and Crofts and made them their own. Carey sang Denver's "Annie's Song" with muted passion and Vicky couldn't help noticing that he directed it toward the rear of the chamber, where the girl he'd introduced as Annie (Russell's daughter Anne, she guessed) stood. When it ended, Russell spoke into the hush.
"This one's for Catherine," he said, giving her what almost looked like a wink. "Because I know she likes it."
He played a short intro and Carey began to sing. "Starry, starry night..." Vicky recognized the song as Don McLean's "Vincent" and felt an extraordinary sense of warmth as she watched her mother's smile and her father's answering nod. Some of the affection was hers, but some was external. The crowd, she thought. Today's been such an emotional one, I'm just over-sensitized. But that explanation didn't quite fit. It didn't feel like a collective stream of emotion. It felt like one person. And it wasn't her father.
She glanced at Nathaniel, who was seated on her right. He seemed the obvious source, since he was so close, but the stream of consciousness wasn't right. It wasn't Nathaniel.
It wasn't her mother, or any of her brothers, though she could sense all of them right at the periphery of her awareness. Her questing gaze skipped across the stage, then stuttered to a halt. Grudgingly, she brought her attention back to Carey, who seemed to be singing this song solely to Catherine. And then she knew. The essence she was feeling so strongly was Carey's.
With rising dismay, she sat through the rest of the concert, barely hearing the lively rendering of "Duelling Banjos" that served as a finale. Nathaniel had to elbow her twice before she applauded.
"You okay?" he whispered, leaning close.
"Just tired," she lied, unhappy gaze fixed on the performers taking their bows. "It's been a long day."
"That's right," he sympathized. "You woke up in London this morning."
"Three-thirty New York time to make my plane," she agreed, and turned to the other side. "Jacob, I'm going home," she began.
"Not without a guide, you aren't," he informed her. "We've changed some of those passages and I don't want you getting lost."
"I grew up down here," she reminded him in a fierce, hissing whisper. "I'm not going to get lost."
"That's right. Because someone's going with you." He glanced around, as if to summon an escort.
"I'll take her," Nathaniel offered.
Vicky's heart sank. Normally, she'd have enjoyed a long walk in his company, but right now, she had some things to ponder. Before she could even begin to formulate a reply, her father was there.
"Thank you, Nathaniel, but there's no need. Victoria's mother and I will walk her back."
"Us, too," Charles volunteered from behind them. "We're ready."
Vicky wasn't sure she wanted her family's company, either, but obviously she couldn't refuse without creating a lot of questions. She made her goodbyes to Jacob and Amanda and turned to Nathaniel.
"It might be a few days before I get back down," she said. "But we'll spend some time together when I do."
"I'll be here," he promised and smiled his sweet smile. "Goodnight, Vicky."
As she turned, she spotted Carey. He had come down off the platform and was moving in their direction, but seemed to be impeded by those who wanted to compliment him on the concert. Vicky ducked her head instinctively, a useless move, really, when she considered she was standing between her father and her oldest brother, each of whom stood well above six feet and did not precisely blend into a crowd. Solicitously, her father took her arm and ushered her under the loft and out.
A glance back showed her mother, flanked by Elizabeth and Charles. No one else came through the opening and Vicky breathed a sigh of relief. She'd been back in this country for fewer than twelve hours and already she was avoiding people. She had her father looking askance at her, too, though he was too polite to inquire. His attention, subtle though it was, alarmed her. She examined her block, but it was still there, still sound. Clearly he knew something was wrong, though; it must be her behavior.
Consciously she took a deep breath, and another. They entered a long, rough, climbing passage and gratefully she concentrated on her footing. By the time they'd reached home, she'd regained most of her poise.
"Stay for coffee?" her mother invited, speaking to Charles and Elizabeth.
"Not tonight, Mother," Charles demurred, kissing her cheek. "It's late, and we need to get home. Vicky," he hugged her warmly. "It's good to have you back."
He stepped away and it was Elizabeth's turn. She, too, offered a hug. "I'll call you," she promised. "Maybe we can have lunch one day soon."
"I'd love that," Vicky answered. "I can tell you all sorts of things about Charles's wicked childhood."
"I'd love to hear them," Elizabeth answered, with a bright smile for her husband. "Charles contends he was a perfect angel, growing up."
"I was," Charles insisted, and tugged at Elizabeth's arm. "Come along, dear. I don't want my sister corrupting you."
"Wicked he wasn't," Catherine offered, walking them to the door. "But he wasn't quite angelic either."
Amid good-natured laughter, Charles and Elizabeth went out and the rest of the family climbed the stairs. "I'm really tired," Vicky told her parents when they reached the second-floor landing. "I think I'd better get to bed."
"Yes, I think you should," her mother agreed. "And I suppose you're too big for me to come up and tuck you in, so I'll say goodnight here."
"Goodnight, Mom. Daddy."
She was halfway up the stairs when her father's voice stilled her. "Victoria."
She turned, expectant. "Yes, Daddy?"
He stood at the foot of the stairs, his arm around her mother's shoulders. They both watched her tenderly, and an external rush of love and quiet pride washed over her. He'd lowered his block so she would know what he felt. He might even be channeling some of her mother's love. "I hope you know how glad we are to have you home."
Tears misted her eyes and clutched at her throat, making words impossible. She managed a nod, though, and threw open her heart so he would know, in return, how very happy she was to be here.
Their love followed her up the stairs, where she changed into an oversized t-shirt and crawled into bed. Despite her body's weariness, though, sleep refused to come, and she lay under the covers, thinking.
The strong sense of Carey was still with her; even now she knew of his well-being. She rolled over restlessly, and punched at her pillow.
Thinking of Carey made her think of the girl Annie, and she instinctively recoiled. Of course she had no way of knowing the extent of the relationship Annie had with Carey, but from their behavior, boyfriend-girlfriend seemed a good guess. She was afraid to wonder why that bothered her.
Muffled voices reached her through her closed bedroom door and her new inner sense told her that Carey was near. He and Evan must have just gotten home. It was only a moment before she heard their footsteps on the stairs. They paused in the hallway, whispering. Because they'd stopped near her door, some of the words carried clearly.
"That Annie's a heck of a girl." That was Evan's voice, bluff and good-humored.
"Yeah. She is." Carey's voice was lower and less distinct, blurred by sleepiness. "'Night, Evan. See you in the morning."
"Or afternoon," Evan countered cheerfully.
She heard separate doors closing and smiled at how odd that seemed, since Carey and Evan had shared the smallest room in the house for more than two years. Carey, she'd learned earlier, still occupied that little room. Evan, as a guest, was sleeping in the room that used to be Jacob's.
She could tell when Carey drifted off to sleep. He slept calmly, peacefully. Gradually her own nervous, fretful energy seeped away, replaced by that calm peace. She slept.
Her internal clock, still set on London time, told her she'd slept late, but the bedside clock showed it was only just past seven. Though she'd only slept a few hours, she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep again, so she pulled on a robe and tiptoed down the stairs.
Her father was in the kitchen, sitting alone at the little table, a steaming mug in his hands. He smiled a greeting when she came in.
"Good morning," she murmured, mildly startled to find him here. The half-cup of coffee cooling on the counter explained his presence, since she knew he always drank tea. "Mom just leave?" she guessed, pouring herself a fresh cup from the waiting pot.
He nodded. "Only a moment ago."
Vicky sank into a chair. "I'm sorry I missed her," she said. "She thinks the case she's trying will end early, though. If it does, she wants to take me shopping."
Her father nodded. "I know."
Vicky wrinkled her nose. "I don't know why, though."
His gaze was calm and blue, full of amusement. "Yes, you do," he disagreed, gently.
She grinned. "She wants to spend time with me."
He nodded. "Of course. Shopping is no more than an excuse. You'll visit a half-dozen stores, stop somewhere for coffee, or something to eat..."
She laughed. "The voice of experience."
He smiled, showing the tips of his sharp teeth, and rose to place his empty mug in the sink. "I must go," he explained. "Mouse expects me. If you do go out with your mother, you might remember to tell the boys so they will know they have to find their own dinner."
"I will," she agreed. "And send a message on the pipes for you?"
"No need," he answered, and bent to kiss her cheek. "I will know."
She felt the warmth of a blush rising. Of course he would. "I forgot," she murmured, and then realized her own sense of someone else was stirring. Carey. He was awake now; he'd be down soon, and she didn't want to face him. For a panicky instant, she considered joining her father in the tunnels today, but she hadn't showered yet and wasn't dressed.
Her father hesitated; his eyes looked worried. "Victoria?"
She shook herself. "I'm fine. Just a little tired still, I guess." She rose and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Bye, Daddy," she whispered. "Have a good day."
"My children are home," he answered. "It's already a wonderful day."
In the dining room, he opened a cleverly concealed panel to reveal the hidden stair that led to the tunnels. He stepped inside, sliding the panel closed behind him.
Vicky turned toward the main stairs. If she hurried, maybe she could get to her room before Carey came down.
It was too late. She could hear him on the stairs, feel him coming closer. Retreating hastily to the kitchen, she resumed her chair. When he came in, she was studying the dregs in her cup.
"Good morning," he greeted, breaking off the cheerful tune he'd been humming. "You're up early."
"I'm always up early," she reminded him.
"I know." He turned to the coffeepot. "Refill?" he offered.
Part of her still wanted to flee, but a cooler, more rational part reminded her they lived in the same house. She had to deal with Carey sometime. Now was as good as any. "Please," she answered, and held out her cup.
After he filled it, he put the coffeepot down and crouched to rummage in the refrigerator. "Breakfast?" he asked, over his shoulder.
"What's on the menu?"
He sat back on his heels and grinned. "Well, I was going to have a couple of blueberry bagels with cream cheese, but I'll fix you something else if you want."
The grin was boyish, belying the dark beard and she smiled back. "Real bagels?"
He raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "As opposed to what?"
"As opposed to those sawdust package things they sell in London supermarkets."
"Oh." He nodded. "Real bagels. Bought 'em myself, yesterday. At Kaufmann's."
Her mother maintained Kaufmann's Deli made the best bagels in the city. "I'll have one," she decided. "I haven't had a decent bagel in years."
Pulling her bare feet up under her, she cradled her steaming mug in both hands as she watched him prepare the meal. He worked easily, his hands moving with careful precision, absorbed in his task.
"You made me breakfast the first morning you were here," she remembered aloud.
"That's right. Eggs over easy with toast," he agreed. "That's when I found out you like to get up in the mornings."
"Yeah." She tipped her head to one side. "Now it's the other way around. You live here and I'm the newcomer."
"That's right," he said, swinging around, his expression one of revelation. "You should be fixing my breakfast!"
"Come on, Carey," she admonished him. "I haven't been gone that long."
He grinned and placed their bagels on a plate. "No. I remember that cooking isn't one of your talents."
"But understatement is one of yours," she countered, and reached for a bagel. It was still hot from toasting under the broiler, thickly spread with cream cheese, and smelled wonderful.
She took a blissful bite and sighed. "This is terrific. Thanks, Carey."
"My pleasure," he answered, dropping into the chair beside her.
"So how's school?" she asked after a moment, trying to make conversation.
He gave her a sidelong glance of pure disbelief. "It's summer," he reminded. "No school."
"I'm aware of that," she answered, imbuing her voice with all the sarcasm she could muster. "But you've only been out a couple of weeks. I thought you'd be able to remember that far back." She smiled. "I'm not even sure what your major is."
"History," he answered succinctly. "I'm passing."
"That's good. You'll be a senior, right?"
"So what will you do after college?"
"I thought you needed a master's for that, or at least a degree in Education."
"Either one, depending. But I'm hoping Columbia will accept me as a graduate student after next year."
She couldn't quite think what to say. Her gaze seemed to disconcert him and he looked away.
"I'm paying for it myself, you know," he said, and she could feel him bristling defensively. "School. All of it."
She frowned. "I didn't know, but does it matter?"
He had the good grace to blush and she wished she could ease his sudden embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I thought you'd think your mother was sending me to school. I didn't want that."
"Why not? It would probably please her."
A slow smile broke over his face. "Yeah," he agreed. "It probably would. I guess I'm just stubborn."
"Well, you come by it honestly," Vicky said placidly, and reached for another bagel. "Your dad's pretty stubborn when he wants to be. But where'd you get the money?"
He shrugged. "Sold the farm."
She gasped. "Sold the farm! But, Carey, you loved that place!"
He made a little I-don't-care gesture. "I'm not cut out to be a farmer, Vicky," he explained earnestly. "Never was. And much as I loved the farm, it seemed silly to hang on to it when it could put me through school. So I sold it."
Impulsively she reached out and touched him. Something electric leaped between them; he noticed it too, and stiffened, but she closed her fingers on his hand and held on. With an effort, he relaxed.
"I remember the first time I saw you," she said, to distract him.
"Yeah. Dripping wet, cold, hungry, not a penny to my name..."
"I thought you were terribly brave," she confided. "Coming all the way from Illinois by yourself after your mother died."
He shrugged. "I didn't really have a choice. I did what I had to do."
"You could have stayed with your aunt and uncle," she reminded him.
He snorted. His posture in the chair didn't change, but she felt something tighten, a thread of resentment he still hadn't conquered.
"Okay, okay," she relented. "Still, I thought it was brave. For a while there, you were my hero."
"No. I'm not."
He shook his head, grinning, and leaned back in his chair. "I never thought of what I did as being particularly courageous."
"My father says brave people never do," she countered.
She could see him thinking about that. "Well, if Vincent says it, it's probably true," he conceded slowly. "But I don't think it necessarily applies to me."
He glanced at his watch and his entire demeanor changed as he gave a small start and leaped to his feet, gulping the last of his coffee. "I'm late."
His abrupt change of mood startled her. "For what?"
He flashed a quick grin. "Work."
"Work?" she repeated in astonishment. "What do you do?"
"Promise you won't laugh?" he challenged.
"Promise," she swore, but already she was having trouble keeping it.
"I'm doing research. For a historical novelist."
"No. She's writing a book about medieval France and she needs lots of details."
"Like...?" she prompted him.
"Like clothes, food, housing, who the king's enemies were, and lots of other things I don't have time to go into."
"Just tell me one thing," she asked, following him to the front door. "Is she anybody I've ever heard of?"
"Oh, probably. Gabriella Sykes." He went out, slamming the door behind him.
Vicky found herself smiling. Of course she'd heard of Gabriella Sykes, who hadn't? She'd even read a couple of the woman's books.
More important, she'd just spent a pleasant half-hour with Carey and managed to keep her newly sensitive sense of him under control. She was certain he didn't suspect a thing; it was a great relief to know she wouldn't have to avoid him.
After tidying the kitchen, she went upstairs. Yesterday there hadn't been time to unpack more than her toothbrush, so she did that first. Her trunk and boxes weren't here yet, so she only had to put away the clothes from her suitcase and carryall. After that she made her bed and took a long, hot shower.
When she came out of the bathroom, she was moderately surprised to hear Evan moving around in the room that used to be Jacob's. She padded barefoot to the doorway.
"Hi," he greeted her, uncharacteristically cheerful considering it was still morning. "I'm going down to the darkroom. Want to come?"
It was a welcome diversion to what otherwise stretched out as a dull day and she spent the rest of the morning helping him in the revived basement darkroom.
The pictures were of the seamier side of New York City street life: dirty urchins, sullen teenagers, hopeless elderly. The stark black and white images were disturbingly gripping.
"Oh, Evan, these are great," she said as print after print was hung to dry. "What will you do with them?"
He shrugged and lifted another print from the fixative. "Not much chance to sell them in the magazine market," he admitted. "But who knows? Maybe I'll do a book someday."
Looking at his work, his perception, Vicky decided she wouldn't be surprised at all if he did just that.
After they finished in the darkroom, Evan surprised her by going out.
"Where?" she asked. "Taking your camera?" If he was, she might invite herself along. It would be fun to see how he went about getting those pictures.
"Not this time," he said, dashing her hopes. "I'm meeting some of the guys."
"Oh," she said, deflated. "Anybody I know?"
"Yep." His reply was deliberately brief. When she didn't rise to the bait, he grinned. "Jason and Scott, Paul and Marcus for sure. Maybe some of the other guys."
It was the group he'd hung out with in high school and of course she knew them all, but had no real interest in seeing any of them again. "Okay. Have a good time." As he went out, she shouted after him. "Don't stay out too late!" and heard his laughter as he slammed the door.
His absence left a void and Vicky imagined she heard her footsteps echo as she went up to the second floor study.
The room reminded her strongly of her father; if she tried, she could almost see him sitting behind his massive desk, head bent over a map or a book or even his journal. Suddenly, she was lonely for him.
Their bond had changed in the time she'd been gone, and now, unless she reached for it consciously, she had no sense of him. Slowly she reached out. He seemed preoccupied, but gladness rose in him as she opened more fully, and she realized he was sensing her touch. She thought of him, pausing in his work to think of her, and smiled. The connection closed slowly, as if by mutual consent, and she settled back in her chair and sighed.
The contact with her father reminded her that the other sense beating lightly against her heart wasn't his. Carey was all right, though, his emotions running on a pleasant, even keel, and she resolved to put him out of her mind.
When the phone rang, she leaped for it eagerly.
"Hi, honey," her mother said. "How's your morning?"
"Pretty good," she answered. "How's yours?"
"Not so good. Some new evidence has turned up and the PD and I have to meet with the judge in chambers at four o'clock. I won't be able to get away. I'm sorry."
Vicky didn't need to be an empath to sense her mother's regret; it came clearly through her voice. "Me, too," she answered. "We'll do it another time."
"Another time," her mother agreed. "I'll try to be home by six."
Vicky cradled the phone and looked around dismally. Until this moment, she hadn't known how she'd looked forward to spending the afternoon with her mother. Now she'd have to find some other activity to fill the hours until everyone got home.
She turned to one of the crowded bookshelves and ran her finger along one, scanning titles, but she wasn't really in the mood for reading. Besides, she'd read most of these already. Her finger came away smudged fuzzy gray and that gave her something to do. She had no intention of dusting all the books in the room; that was an all day job. But she could dust the shelves and the tables.
She got a dustcloth and a spray bottle of furniture polish and set to work. After she finished the furniture, momentum carried her on. With a clean rag, she wiped a film of dust from lampshades and picture frames. After that, she polished all the paperweights in her mother's collection and ran the cloth over the carved wooden birds her father liked so much. The polished wood of the chessboard, she noticed, hadn't collected much dust but its surface was smudged with fingermarks, so she buffed it until it shone. Then the floor seemed dull, so she vacuumed the rugs and pushed a dust mop around the hardwood floor. When she finished, the room gleamed and she looked around in satisfaction. Odd, how much she'd enjoyed this, when normally she hated housework. It must have something to do with being home again.
Downstairs, the front door opened and closed noisily. "Anybody home?"
It was Carey's voice. She'd been so absorbed in her work she hadn't sensed him coming. Somehow that unsettled her.
He came up the stairs lightly, two at a time. "Hi," he greeted. "Where's Evan?"
"Hanging out with the guys," she answered, and wondered if she'd ever be able to meet him without her heart leaping violently.
"Oh. You here alone?"
He seemed hesitant, and she could sense his uncertainly. "Well, listen," he began awkwardly. "I was going Below, but I could stay here, if you like. Or you could come with me," he offered.
Of the three choices - staying in the house alone, staying with Carey, or going into the tunnels - the last was the least daunting.
"Just let me get a jacket," she said and ran upstairs.
The trip down was uneventful and Vicky found herself at ease, once she'd gotten over the initial shock of Carey's sudden appearance. They parted at the entrance to Father's Chamber.
"I'm supposed to meet Annie," he said, looking apologetic.
"Don't worry about me," Vicky assured him. "I'll be fine."
"All right. I'll look for you later, to see if you want to walk back together."
She smiled. "I'd like that."
He strode off down one of the side corridors. Vicky went into the study. Her father was there, writing in one of the big ledgers. He looked up as she came in.
"Hi. I'm visiting." She dropped into a chair.
"So I see." He put down his pen and pushed the ledger back. "Have you enjoyed your first day home?"
She wrinkled her nose. "Sort of, I guess. I mean, there wasn't much to do. I helped Evan print some pictures and cleaned the study."
One highly arched eyebrow went even higher. "You must have been bored."
She laughed. "I was. But I have some things I want to do. Pretty soon I'll be so busy you'll hardly see me."
"Have I told you how very pleasant it is to have you where I can see you, even if only occasionally?"
"I believe you have, but you can say it again." She grinned. "You really didn't know how bored I was?"
He shook his head faintly. "No. Your control of our connection seems complete. I feel nothing unless you wish it."
She leaned forward with interest. "How would you tell if I'm wishing it, or it's just seeping through?"
"Because the only times I sense you is when you're thinking of me. Thinking warmly."
She smiled. "When I'm thinking warmly, how do you know it's of you?"
"It's difficult to express. But the warmth you feel toward me is different from the warmth you have for your mother, or your brothers, or your friends."
"Really?" She thought about it. "Well, I guess that makes sense. After all, when you let me, I can tell when you're thinking about me, as opposed to when you're thinking about Mom. I'm not sure I could distinguish your feelings for any of the boys, though."
"No. There's no discernable difference in your feelings towards them, either. Or at least, there wasn't three years ago. I'm not sure now."
"Because you can't sense me," she guessed.
"Not unless you allow it. So far you haven't done that while thinking of your brothers."
She smiled. "I have to tell you, Daddy, our connection feels really strange. For three years, I haven't had to worry about it. I mean, I practiced separating myself, just so I'd know how to do it, but it was different over there, because even when I slipped, there was no one to know. I missed you sometimes, at first," she confided. "I'd be feeling lonely or sad and I'd reach out, and you wouldn't be there."
"I know that feeling," he confirmed. "I missed you, too."
"Now it's the same thing in reverse. It feels odd to open myself and feel you there."
"Would you rather you did not?" His careful inquiry held a trace of stiff formality and she rushed to reassure him.
"Oh, Daddy, no! It's wonderful to have you there. I just have to get used to it again, that's all."
"You're certain? You're my daughter, Victoria, but you're also not a child anymore. You've grown into a lovely young woman and I have no right to intrude on your privacy."
"You don't. You can't, anyway," she pointed out. "You said yourself you can't feel me unless I let you."
"Yes, Victoria?" He waited patiently while she found the words.
"If... for some reason... because I'm distracted, maybe... and my control starts to slip..." She could feel herself blushing as she remembered that other time when her still unperfected control had fallen away, leaving her father as helpless witness to one of the most private moments of her growing up. "Could you let me know?" she finished in a rush. "Somehow?"
He nodded gravely. "I think neither of us wishes to repeat the incident with Sean," he replied. "If I begin to sense something I shouldn't, I will let you know."
She nodded jerkily, avoiding his gaze.
"Where are the boys?" he asked, and she wondered if he was changing the subject to ease her embarrassment.
"Evan went out with some of his buddies. Carey's down here somewhere. With Annie. Anne."
Vincent nodded. "And your plans?"
"I'm not sure yet. I didn't get to spend much time with my friends last night, though. I think I'll try to find them."
"Hannah and Gena are in the nursery," her father answered promptly. "Deirdre's shift as sentry ends in fifteen minutes, and Abbey has been helping Mouse."
"Do what?" she asked in amusement.
"I'm not certain," he confessed. "I only know it has something to do with the water supply. I'm trusting Abbey to keep the project within the realm of possibility."
Vicky knew Mouse well enough to smile at that. "But they should all be done soon, right?"
"Yes. It's nearly dinner time. I'm sure your friends would be pleased if you could join them for the meal."
Vicky nodded. "I think I will."
Her father closed the big ledger and pushed to his feet.
"Then," he said easily, "I think I'll go Above. Your mother will be home soon, and it's been some time since we've had a quiet dinner together, just the two of us."
"Ooh, romantic," Vicky teased. "She'll like that." But she couldn't ruffle her father's unshakable serenity.
"Yes," he agreed, and reached for his cloak. "I believe she will."
It wasn't hard for Vicky to find her friends. All she had to do was stop by the pipe chamber and ask Zach to send a message for her. He complied, and fifteen minutes later the entire group was gathered around a table in the dining chamber. The meal wasn't quite ready, but that didn't matter. It gave them a chance to talk and they were still going at it when Young William, no relation but heir apparent to Old William, signaled it was time to eat.
Halfway through the meal, Carey came in with Anne. Vicky found herself watching them as they crossed the large chamber.
"Carey and Anne are inseparable," Hannah commented.
"Really?" Vicky tried to keep her tone casual, all the while wondering why Carey's choice of girlfriend should matter to her anyway. "Is she nice?"
"Yes, she really is," Abbey said. "Pretty shy, though. It's hard to get her to talk."
"She almost never eats with us," Gena added. "Even though we've asked her. If Carey's not here, she waits and eats with her father."
"I think that's sweet," Vicky said. "To want to spend time with her father."
Deirdre laughed. "I guess it is," she agreed. "My parents are always after me to sit with them."
"My mother, too," Abbey chimed.
Hannah and Gena simply looked wistful; they were among the community's orphans and had no parents of their own.
"Anyway," Hannah said forcefully, "Anne and Carey have been together for so long, I figure we'll be hearing wedding bells any time."
There was a chorus of agreement. Vicky glanced toward the small table Carey and Anne shared. They did seem like a couple, she admitted. Her connection with Carey hummed with contentment, and she tried to be glad.
After the meal, she and her friends retired to the chamber Hannah and Gena shared, and were happily gossiping when the resident males in their age group - Nathaniel, Mark, and Seth - found them.
"May we come in?" the boys asked from the doorway.
A chorus of noes greeted them. Grinning, they came in anyway. Hannah seized a small crocheted pillow and hurled it towards the door. The other girls quickly followed suit and soon the air was filled with soft missiles. Cannily, the boys amassed pillows until the young women ran out of ammunition, then threatened to return fire.
The women dissolved in giggles and surrendered. The young men tossed the pillows aside and found places to sit. Mark, Vicky noticed, took care to find a seat next to Hannah. Nathaniel boldly sat beside Vicky.
An hour passed in laughter, teasing, and easy conversation before Vicky saw Mark nudge Hannah with his elbow and give a questioning glance toward the chamber entrance. Hannah smiled shyly, and they rose.
"Where are you going?" Seth asked. His voice held no surprise.
"For a walk," Mark retorted.
Vicky missed Seth's reply, as pressure on her arm drew her attention to Nathaniel. "Want to go for a walk?" he whispered.
Going out the door with him would be a commitment of sorts, she recognized. It was a sort of informal declaration, among their peers at any rate, that she and Nathaniel were a couple, like going steady in her own world. She wasn't sure she was prepared to do that, but Nathaniel did hold a certain attraction that hadn't been there before she'd gone to England.
Acting on impulse, she slid her hand into his. His look of pleasure was gratifying and she let him draw her to her feet.
"Ooh, another one," Seth began.
"Shut up, Seth," Nathaniel said pleasantly. "You're just jealous because none of the girls down here will succumb to your questionable charms."
"They're questionable, all right," Gena agreed, laughing. "Don't worry, you guys. We'll hold him down while you make a getaway."
The two couples made their escape. In the passage outside, Mark and Nathaniel exchanged some sort of silent message that Vicky couldn't translate; then Nathaniel was pulling her along one passage while Mark and Hannah moved down another.
"Pretty slick," she observed. "Alone at last?"
He had the good grace to blush. "I'm sorry. But Seth does go sort of overboard sometimes. He likes Natalie Shaw - I don't think you know her, her parents became helpers a few years ago, but it was after you left..."
She nodded silent agreement; she'd never heard of the Shaws.
"...anyway, he likes Natalie and she likes him, but they don't see each other often because Seth's down here and she's up there. She's in college at the University of Connecticut and doesn't get home very much."
"Can't Seth go up there? Maybe even find a job, go to school? To be near her?"
Nathaniel's gaze implied she was marginally crazy. "Why would he want to do that? He lives here. He's been teaching the little kids math and science and he really likes that."
"He could teach up there. If he went to school, I mean. Or go to college and then come back here."
"Well, I don't think he's going to," Nathaniel said. "And we don't want to talk about him, anyway." He still had her hand, and pulled her closer, turning into the long passage that led, eventually, to the Whispering Gallery.
"So tell me," Nathaniel asked as they strolled. "While you were in England, did you dance with the Prince of Wales?"
She giggled. "Don't be silly, Nathaniel, he's only a little boy. I did meet the King's brother, Prince Harry, though. At a charity function. He spoke to me, and was quite charming."
"You liked England."
"Very much. I have lots of friends there."
He put his arm around her shoulders. "I'm glad you're home now," he said, and pulled her close.
She swung around to face him and slid her arms around his waist. He was warm and solid when she rested her head on his chest, and his scent, redolent with damp earth and candlesmoke, reminded her of her father. She felt safe, and when he lifted her chin and bent his head to hers, she didn't resist. His kiss was pleasant if not electrifying, and she found herself a little disappointed when he pulled back.
His eyes searched hers a moment before he turned away. "Come on," he said, feigning a lightness she knew he didn't feel. "I want to hear the voices."
No, you don't, she thought, but didn't voice her doubts. Instead, she followed him onto the narrow span, moving patiently behind him until he found just the right spot. She let him pull her close so they could both hear. The sounds focused on this spot confused her. "What is it?"
"Isn't it great?" he asked. "It's the Yankee game. Sounds like we're right in the park, doesn't it?"
"No," she replied honestly. Vicky had been to Yankee Stadium. Besides, except for when Evan and Carey had played, she'd never been much for baseball. "Can't we find some music?"
He looked down, his expression puzzled. "Sure," he answered. "I guess so." He moved her slowly along the bridge. Once they hit a spot where they could hear something fast and loud and not very musical to Vicky's ear. He paused, but moved on when she shook her head. Other spots gave them the sound of a bitter argument, a long-winded political speech, and a baby's fretful wail. At last Nathaniel located a place where the soft tinkle of a piano playing bland versions of show tunes and easy listening songs could be heard. He raised a questioning eyebrow and she shrugged in response. It wasn't as if they could be terribly selective, and this was certainly the best they'd been able to find.
They listened in silence for a few moments and then Vicky became conscious that Nathaniel was turning her towards him. Instinctively she tilted her face up to accept his kiss but suddenly stiffened and pulled away.
Nathaniel's face showed confusion. "Vicky, what...?"
"Someone's coming," she whispered.
A moment later Carey emerged from the passage and stepped onto the bridge. "Oh," he said. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt anything."
"You aren't," Vicky assured him hastily, suppressing the urge to smooth her hair. Nathaniel's arm tightened around her shoulders. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you, actually. I'm on my way home and we said we'd walk back together..." He stopped in mid-sentence, glancing back and forth from her to Nathaniel. "Look, I'm sorry. I am interrupting."
"It's okay, Carey." Nathaniel's voice held a trace of strain, but Vicky couldn't quite place the emotion causing it. There was too much turbulence in the thread connecting her to Carey.
Nathaniel turned to her. "I have sentry duty tonight anyway," he said. "My shift starts soon, so it's probably a good idea for you to go on with Carey."
Nathaniel gave Carey a quick look. Then, with a surge of defiance that was almost palpable, he bent and brushed his lips across hers. "See you soon," he whispered, and with a squeeze of her hand, went on across the bridge and vanished into the tunnel on the other side.
Vicky watched him go, then moved slowly in the opposite direction. Carey had turned away and was busy examining his worn sneakers, but he looked up when she stopped beside him.
"I'm really sorry, Vicky. I didn't know things had gotten serious with you and Nathaniel."
She gave him her best smile. "I don't know about serious," she said, and fell into step beside him.
"You spent a lot of time together," he observed politely.
Not as much as you and Anne, she wanted to say, but recognized the urge as childish. "A little bit," she agreed, instead. "It's funny. Before, we were just good friends. Now, it's as if I'm seeing him in a whole new way."
Carey nodded his understanding. "Nathaniel's a good guy. I like him," he said, and Vicky felt a brief, irrational burst of irritation. As if she needed or even wanted his approval! She recognized the irrationality, though, and bit down on the impulse to offer a sharp retort.
The silence between them grew. Carey seemed outwardly comfortable, but underneath he was seething with something she couldn't pin down. It plucked at Vicky's nerves, stretching them tight and she nibbled at her lower lip, trying to think of something to say. Only idiotic banalities sprang to mind.
They hadn't gone very far when Carey stopped and put his shoulder against what looked like a sheet of stained plywood set into the cracked brick of the passage wall. The panel swung away, concealed hinges protesting, and Carey ducked through the narrow opening behind it.
"Wait!" she cried in confusion. "Where are you going?"
"Home," he answered. He looked back and offered his hand. "Come on. It's shorter this way."
After a moment's hesitation, she accepted his hand and let him assist her through to the dank, musty chamber on the other side. She waited while he pushed the makeshift door back into place, then followed him down a short, dark passage. "Where are you taking me?" she whispered.
"Above. It's quicker."
"You said that," she complained. "It didn't used to be."
"They've blocked off the passage between the Whispering Gallery and the drainage system under the park," he explained. "Basically, you can't get there from here anymore."
"Without going most of the way back to the main tunnels," Vicky agreed, understanding.
"Right." Carey stopped again, this time to pull a lever. A steel door, smaller than the one in the conduit under the park, slid open. He waited, peering through the opening; Vicky waited behind him. When he moved, it was quickly. He caught her arm and pulled her through, triggering the closing mechanism with his other hand.
Vicky was surprised to find herself on the platform of a nearly deserted subway station, but she didn't have time to look around. Carey still had her arm and dragged her across the platform, up the stairs, and out into the summer night. Only when they were on the sidewalk, walking away, did he release her.
Vicky looked around, getting her bearings; they were on Broadway, not six blocks from home. "Neat trick," she murmured, and started after Carey.
He set a brisk pace and she hurried to catch up. "Where'd you learn about that?" she asked, absently rubbing her arm.
"I have my ways," he said, raising an eyebrow in what was meant to be an evil leer. Then he noticed her arm. "Vicky, I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"
She shook her head. "Not much. You had hold of me pretty hard, though."
"I'm sorry. It only occurred to me after we were there that taking you through the subway had to be a pretty stupid thing to do."
"Why? Oh, because of the muggers and stuff."
"Right. I mean, they've cleaned the stations up a lot in the last few years, but subway stations - and subways, for that matter - are still not the safest places in the world. Especially at night." The unsettling weave of emotions was gone now and only Carey's customary calm touched her.
"The subway in London is like that, too," she said. "The underground, they call it. I never rode it."
"I never rode a New York subway, either."
He grinned. "A deprived childhood, right? And you never took shortcuts through subway stations, or along the tracks?"
She grinned back. "While it was common knowledge that such shortcuts existed," she said precisely, "it was also widely accepted that if we used them and the trains and muggers didn't get us, my father would. I didn't want to take the chance."
"He uses them."
"He might," she agreed, wondering how Carey came by that knowledge. "But I don't think I should."
They turned the last corner and reached home a few minutes later. Vicky had forgotten her keys, but Carey had his and let them in.
"You want something to eat?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "I had supper Below," he answered.
"So did I, but I could use a snack." She started towards the kitchen.
"Hey!" Carey leaned over the bannister, calling after her.
She turned and feigned indignation. "What?"
"When you come up, bring me something to drink!"
Carey was in the study, seated at her mother's desk, taking notes from a thick book. Vicky set a cold can of Pepsi down in front of him. "What are you doing?"
"Looking up some stuff for Gabriella," he answered, and reached for the can.
"Tell me about her," she urged. "I've never met a best-selling writer. You get to call her Gabriella? Not Miss Sykes?"
He laughed. "You'll have to meet her sometime. She's not what you're thinking. She's very open, very nice."
Vicky thought about the photographs of Gabriella Sykes she'd seen on the back of dust jackets and frowned doubtfully. "If you say so," she agreed. She glanced down at his work. "Mom's law books?" she asked, surprised.
"British Common Law," he explained, and showed her the spine. "I'm trying to find a precedent Gabriella can use for her hero, but it's actually pretty interesting reading."
Vicky made a note of that for the next boring afternoon, and went around her father's desk to sink into his big leather chair. "Where is my mom, anyway?" she asked.
"I don't know. Nobody was here when we came in."
Vicky glanced through the open door, into the hall. On the other side of the stairs, her parents' bedroom door stood ajar just far enough for her to be certain they weren't there. She started to reach out with her empathic sense, but suddenly checked herself. Maybe her father wouldn't want her contact right now.
Carey glanced up from his work. "You okay?"
She bent her head to hide her burning cheeks. "Yeah. Do they do this often?"
"Disappear. I mean, they didn't used to when I lived here, but it seems things have changed..."
"Sometimes they like to go off together, yeah," Carey replied. "Not often. If they're going to be gone long, one of them usually leaves me a note. So I won't worry."
She peered at him. "You'd worry? About Mom and Daddy?"
"Yes. Of course."
"But why?" she asked, bewildered. "Daddy can take care of anything that happens..."
"Sometimes he goes Above," Carey reminded her. "What could he do against a gun?"
She found the very notion bewildering. "You mean like a mugger? He'd never let anybody like that even see him."
"Not if he knew," Carey agreed. "But what if someone had a telescope? A camera with a long lens? He'd never even know... and they might come back later, armed..."
"Nothing like that could happen to Daddy," she whispered.
"It did, once," Carey answered flatly. "Before any of you were born."
"Someone shot him?" she asked in horror.
"With a tranquilizer gun. They took him to the university, put him in a cage. Your mother came to rescue him and two men died."
Her hand flew up to cover her mouth. "I never heard that. Who told you that?"
Vicky wanted to argue, wanted to refute everything he said, but Carey was quite calm, quite sure of himself. She found herself staring.
"And what if something happened to Aunt Cathy?" he went on. "I've heard those stories, too. I know what he'd do to protect her."
A long-buried memory pushed itself to the surface and she flinched.
"What? What's wrong?" Carey was beside her in an instant, taking her suddenly cold hand between his warm ones.
"When you said that," she whispered, reliving the horror. "I remembered something. Something that happened when I was a little girl.
"Something bad?" he asked gently.
She nodded. "Kind of."
"Want to talk about it?"
"I don't know," she answered. "Maybe telling you will help me understand it. I must have been eight or nine," she began. "Mom and I had been out. I don't remember anymore where we'd been, but it was dark by the time we started back. We were walking and I wasn't afraid because I was holding her hand. But as we started getting closer to home and there weren't as many people, or as much light, I could tell she was getting worried. I held tighter to her hand, and at the same time, I reached out for Daddy. Immediately I knew he was nearby and I was going to tell Mom so she wouldn't worry when some big boys stepped out in front of us. It didn't scare me until I felt how frightened she was. She pushed me behind her and I saw one of the boys had a gun. I started to cry. And then everything got red."
"Red?" Carey asked, startled. "You mean blood? Someone got hurt?"
"No. I mean red. In my mind. I mean, I could see what was happening, that they had Mom's purse and were making her take off her earrings and her wedding ring, but it was like it wasn't happening to me anymore. There was something red and angry and terrible washing over me, and I couldn't think of anything else. And then someone else... something else was there, and it was big and black and made a ferocious sound... later, when I first heard the phrase, sound and fury, that's what I thought of. And one of the boys fell down and the other one started running, kind of limping. And the big, black thing started after it... and my mother caught hold of it and stopped it."
"Vincent," Carey said softly.
Vicky nodded. "At first, I didn't recognize him. I'd seen him angry, but I'd never seen him like that before, never felt anything like that before."
"It was his fury you were sensing."
She nodded. "I guess he couldn't control it completely; I was getting the overflow. He turned around and he terrified me, Carey. His face... it was a minute or two, I guess, before he looked like Daddy again. And the whole time, Mom was holding his arm and talking to him. I couldn't hear what she said, but somehow she calmed him down. He looked at me before he left us, and his eyes were so sad and somehow I wasn't afraid anymore. I wanted to hug him, have him hug me, but the boy on the ground was moving a little and kind of groaning and Mom pushed Daddy toward an alley and grabbed my hand and hurried me away. She was walking so fast I had to almost run to keep up, and the whole time, she was talking, telling me that if anyone stopped us, anyone asked, we hadn't seen or heard anything. I can still hear how her voice trembled.
"When we got home, we didn't come inside. Instead, she made me sit with her on the steps, out front, while she talked to me."
"She didn't want you to be afraid," Carey guessed.
"And I think she didn't want me to hurt Daddy's feelings. So she explained to me that those boys could have hurt us very badly and Daddy had only been protecting us because he loved us, and stuff like that. And also, that I must never, ever tell anyone what I'd seen. I think that was the worst part. That I wasn't allowed to tell."
"You're telling me," Carey pointed out, and she knew he was trying to relieve the tension.
"Years after the fact," she answered, forcing a smile. "I told Grandfather, too, and he listened to all my fears and worries and answered all my questions."
"Did you ever talk about it with Vincent?"
She shook her head. "Never. At first..." she hesitated, wanting to choose the right words. "I wasn't afraid of him, but I was, you know? I mean, I knew he could never do anything to hurt me, but still, I had seen him large and loud and terrible..."
"Interesting phrase," Carey murmured.
"Yes, but that's how I thought of it. Large and loud and terrible. And red."
"The red part confuses me."
Vicky spread her hands. "I know it doesn't make sense. But that's what it felt like. Red. Angry. Vengeful."
"And you never felt it again?"
"One other time. Not too long before you came. I was in my room, reading, and I felt it. Not so strong that time, but still loud and terrible."
She forced a laugh. "I know it sounds funny. How can things I feel be loud? The same way they can be colors, I guess."
"What happened that time?"
"I don't know. My mother wasn't home when it happened, and of course, I was waiting when she did come, but she seemed fine, and I didn't want to ask because if she didn't already know, it would upset her. And I didn't think I should tell Daddy, either. So I just kept it to myself."
Carey nodded thoughtfully.
"Carey, I hope this won't change the way you feel about my father," she said hastily.
"Of course not," Carey said, surprised. "I think he's fascinating."
Vicky found herself bristling defensively. "What do you mean?"
"I mean the way he balances what he is, the way he makes it all work for him." What Carey was feeling was a kind of affectionate respect and Vicky relaxed. "I used to be in awe of him, you know?" he went on. "But we've spent more time together the last couple of years, playing chess or discussing books or points in history. Now..." he chuckled softly. "I don't think I could love him more if he was my own father."
The depth and truth of what he said and the quiet passion behind it showed her a Carey she'd seldom seen, and demonstrated that he was a man of sensitivity, of strength and perception. He was a man to be admired. She wanted to tell him so, but she'd told him only that morning that he'd been her hero. She'd been half-teasing then, but it might make him think what she wanted to say now was insincere.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs and a moment later Vicky's parents came in. Her mother was flushed and breathless, laughing, and she had to let go of Vincent's hand to kiss Vicky's cheek. "Hi, honey. How was your first day back?"
"Pretty good. Where have you been?"
Her parents exchanged one of those looks that had always made Vicky feel left out. "We went for a walk in the park," her mother admitted.
Vicky gave Carey a cautious glance, but he was leaning back in his chair, smiling. "Isn't that sort of dangerous?" she asked.
Her mother looked surprised. "Not really. We stay away from people; your father knows when someone's coming." She seemed to sense Vicky's concern, and smiled. "Don't worry, honey. We've been walking in the park since before you were born. We're careful."
She sounded calm, even matter of fact, and a glance at her father showed him to be equally unruffled. With an effort, Vicky swallowed her concern and forced a smile. "Okay, then," she said brightly. "I'm glad you had a good time."
The next two weeks were busy ones. Evan packed his cameras and duffle bag and set out to photograph a festival in Spain. Vicky missed him, but soon her trunks and boxes arrived and were duly unpacked. Her mother found time for their postponed shopping excursion and Vicky spent a pleasant afternoon in the study, listening to music with her father. She soon felt as if she'd never left.
She saw Nathaniel five times during those weeks, twice at informal gatherings below and three times to walk hand in hand through some of the less travelled tunnels. Her fondness for him grew, and she found herself anticipating their time together with a nervousness that felt silly when she considered that they'd been inseparable as children.
But often as she saw Nathaniel, she found herself more often with Carey. The disconcertion of having him not only across the hall but ever present in her heart, tugging at her mind, was something she was learning to live with.
He was easy to talk to and she often found herself discussing things she'd never talked about with anyone else.
"What color is happiness?" he wanted to know, one lazy Saturday afternoon.
She looked up from the chessboard where she was losing - badly - and frowned. "What?"
"You remember. You talked about it the other day, about feeling in colors." His expression was open, interested. Clearly, this was a concept that hadn't occurred to him and he wanted to explore it.
She pondered a moment. "Happiness is yellow, I guess. Bright and shining. Sometimes with peach or even orange overtones."
"Like a sunset?"
"Brighter. Maybe like a dawn. Contentment's green, though. Peaceful and cool and relaxing."
"How about sadness? That's blue, I'll bet."
"Purple?" he asked skeptically. "Doesn't sound sad to me."
"It is to me. Sadness always feels purple. Dark. I don't like purple."
"Anger's red. I remember that. How about fear?"
She shivered. "I don't think fear has a color. It's just cold. Still. Helpless."
"Like an icy rain," he said softly. "I know that feeling." He seemed to be looking inward, his eyes somehow bleak, but she felt strongly that he did not want her to ask about it.
"Right now," she announced instead, "I'm feeling relaxed and contented."
He took his cue. "That ought to be green."
"Nope. Not that kind of contentment."
He grinned. "Okay, I give. What color is it?"
She pretended to ponder. "Pink. I think it's pink."
It had been a long time since she'd had the leisure to spend a Sunday morning sipping coffee and reading the paper. That her family was there, too, simply increased the pleasure. Pushing a section of the Sunday Times off the coffee table to make room for her coffee cup, Vicky sank down on the floor beside it. "Has anybody seen the entertainment section?"
She received a noncommittal grunt from Carey and no answer at all from her father, but her mother looked up from the folded segment in her hand. "It was over here a minute ago," she said, stirring the haphazard stack of papers at her elbow. "Yes, here it is." She passed it over.
"Thanks." Vicky spread it open on the coffee table and paused to sip at her coffee.
"Did you see this article on Lionel Mason?" she heard her father ask.
"Not yet, but I will," her mother replied. "He's a fascinating man, and I want to..."
Vicky tuned the voices out and concentrated on the paper, turning pages lazily. "Look," she said, after a moment. "'Fellowship' is still running."
"That play's been running for months," Carey answered without looking up from what appeared to be the sports section.
"I know," she answered with a touch of acerbity. "It may have escaped your notice, but I haven't been here."
He peered over the top of the paper and grinned. "True," he conceded.
"Did you want to see it?" her mother asked.
"I'd like to. Want to go with me?"
"Oh, I don't think so, honey. I'm sure you can find a friend to join you. In fact, why don't you ask Nathaniel?"
Vicky darted a glance at her father. "Would that be okay?"
"Of course." He sounded surprised.
"Well, last time I asked if Nathaniel could go somewhere topside, you said no."
"Last time, you were both twelve years old and it was Nathaniel's father who didn't wish him to come Above. Nathaniel's grown now. He makes his own decisions."
Vicky called the box office the next morning to order tickets and took the newspaper along when she went Below that evening.
"Look." She showed Nathaniel the ad. "What do you think?"
"About what?" He peered at the paper. "'Fellowship,'" he read aloud, and grinned. "I haven't seen it."
"Good. Because neither have I, and I have tickets."
Something that looked like shock crossed his face. "To a play? This play?"
"Sure. What's wrong with it?"
"For one thing, I'm not crazy about plays."
"Oh, but, Nathaniel, you'll like this one, I'm sure you will. I really want to see it," she wheedled.
"You can go."
"I'm not looking for permission. I want to go with you. Together. Like a date."
"There's a concert in the park on Thursday," he suggested. "We could listen to that and it would be like a date."
"That's not what I mean. This is important to me, Nathaniel. Please?"
He squirmed. "Vicky, I'd rather not."
She sat back, puzzled and a little hurt. "Why not?"
"That's not a very good reason."
He sighed. "Because it's up there."
"What? Up where?" She stared at him. "Nathaniel, are you saying you won't go because it's Above?"
He nodded. "I don't like it up there," he muttered. "It's noisy and dirty and frenetic. People get hurt up there all the time, Vicky. Killed, even. It's safe here."
"It's safe there if you know the places to avoid," she argued, bewildered. "I love your world, Nathaniel, but it's dull. Boring, even. There's excitement up there, adventure. I live there," she added, stating the obvious.
"I know you do," he said with obvious reluctance. "I wish you didn't."
"You really mean that, don't you?" she asked softly.
He nodded, and despite all her arguments, refused to be moved. Finally she gave up and offered the tickets to Carey. "Take them," she said, trying not to let her disappointment show. "Take Anne. I'll bet she'd like to go."
"Annie doesn't care for plays," he said. "Doesn't care to come Above, either. Though she's not as adamant about it as Nathaniel is."
She stared at him. It hadn't occurred to her before, but in many ways, he and Anne faced the same obstacles she and Nathaniel did. "Doesn't that make it awkward sometimes?" she asked. "With you living up here, going to school, and Anne living Below?"
He shrugged. "No more awkward than if she lived across town, or in one of the boroughs. A lot of my friends live Below. Seeing them requires some travel, that's all." He grinned. "Besides, I like the tunnels. It's quiet there. The pace is slower. I go there and I come back refreshed."
Well, that was certainly true of her, too. She'd always loved to visit her father's world. But a deep relationship could mean a decision down the line - a decision Vicky wasn't sure she was prepared to make. "Could you ever live there?" she asked.
He took a moment to think it over. "Probably," he said finally. "I mean, I'd miss things like hot showers, movies and plays. Baseball. But it's peaceful down there. I could read, study. Teach."
She nodded dismally and he leaned toward her.
"Vicky, what is it? This thing with Nathaniel has you more upset than you'd like everyone to know, doesn't it?"
She nodded. "I keep thinking, what if we go on and it becomes truly serious? He won't live up here. He won't even visit. And, Carey, I don't want to live down there."
"Is that why you asked me if I could?"
"Yes, but the situation's not the same; even if you lived down there, you could still do the things you love - teach, study. It's the same. But me..." She laughed sadly. "There's no call for what I want to be down there."
"You never know," he said, sliding his arm across her shoulders and giving a little squeeze. "You've never told me, Vicky. What do you plan to do with your life?"
She bit her lip and looked away, and he gave her a little shake.
She squirmed, but his gaze, though mild, was implacable. "Okay," she said finally, "but you have to promise not to tell anyone."
He raised an eyebrow. "Is it that bad?"
"I don't think so, but my parents might."
He leaned closer. "Don't tell me. You're going to become a belly dancer."
She laughed. "No. Columbia doesn't offer that degree yet."
He raised his eyebrows. "Columbia?"
She nodded. "I've transferred my credits from my college in England and I'm registered for the fall semester."
"School is good," he approved. "That can't be what I'm not supposed to tell."
"I'm thinking of majoring in Political Science."
"You're right. That's worse than belly dancing. You're going to become a politician?"
He was so genuinely appalled that she had to laugh. "No, no, no. I just think the government and the way it works is interesting."
"Interesting enough to make a career out of it?" he asked skeptically.
She ducked her head. "Carey," she said softly. "I have a dream."
He stopped teasing and sat a little straighter. "One that includes a political science major?"
"No. It involves the other things I've been doing since I got home."
"I guess you could say I've been looking for a job."
"Belly dancing," he guessed.
She couldn't help a smile. "Wrong."
"Am I close?"
"Actually... closer than you think."
He removed his arm from her shoulders. "To belly dancing?" he asked, incredulous.
"You know I've always loved the stage," she began, and felt him nod. "While I was in England, I decided to do something about it. To try. So I went to some auditions."
He was gazing at her with awe. "And...?" he prompted when she paused.
"And eventually, I got a part."
"No. It was a very small part, but it was on stage. London's West End, as a matter of fact. That's sort of their version of Broadway."
"I know. Vicky, that's terrific!"
"The play only lasted three weeks, but I learned a lot, and another director noticed me. He asked me to audition for him and gave me a part in his play."
"A bigger part?" Carey guessed.
"Not very much bigger. I died in the first act. But dying on stage is good experience, and when the play ended this spring, the director gave me names of people to contact here. That's what I've been doing."
"So when can we expect to catch you on Broadway?" he asked.
"Not for a long time, I expect," she said candidly. "I'm not going to deceive myself about my chances, Carey. Acting's a tough business and it's hard to break in, but I do have an agent now and she's going to be sending me out on some auditions."
"That's terrific." The look he was giving her seemed a blend of respect and enjoyment, which pleased her. Her plans would seem much less possible if Carey disapproved. "Now explain to me how a poli sci degree is going to help your acting career."
His droll delivery made her laugh. "Oh, Carey. If you must know, I'm hedging my bets, as the saying goes."
"In what way?"
"If I haven't made any progress in career number one by the time I finish college, I'm thinking of going on - to law school."
That elicited a grin. "Really."
She bristled defensively. "Yes, really. Why? Don't you think I'd be a good lawyer?"
"I don't know. I never thought about it. I just know I'd make a lousy one."
"I've always thought what my mother does is fascinating."
"Not fascinating enough to get me to apply to law school," he answered swiftly. "But if you do, it'll please her. Did you know there have been attorneys in her family for five generations?"
"No." She scowled. "How come you know more family history than I do? Stuff about my mother, my father..."
"Probably because I ask," he answered. "After all, they're my family, too, now."
She gazed at him thoughtfully. "Yes," she agreed slowly. "I suppose they are."
In the end, she and Carey went to see "Fellowship" together. The pleasure she found in his company made her feel guilty, though, and the next time she went to see Nathaniel, she took a present. "It's Brigit O'Donnell's newest book," she said, putting it into his hands. "A collection of fairy stories. She says in the blurb that she can take time to write these now that there's peace in Northern Ireland."
He looked at the cover, turned the volume over and examined the jacket photo, and set it aside. "Thank you," he said. "I'll try to read some of it later."
"Try!" Vicky burst out. "Nathaniel, I don't understand you. My father showed me his copy and I couldn't wait to sit down and read it. I read the whole thing that same night."
"I remember how you like to read." He shrugged. "I'm not so hot on it."
She gazed at him, incredulous. "You used to read. Mark Twain, Jack London, Dickens and even Shakespeare."
His answering grin was charming and full of mischief. "Vicky, that was all required reading. For my classes."
"Didn't you have to read some of those things for your school? Up there?" The last was faintly tinged with scorn, but she ignored it.
"Well, yes, actually, but I never thought of it as assigned reading. Besides, I'd already read most of those books before my teachers ever started talking about them." She glanced at the discarded book. "Want me to take it back and find you a better gift?" she offered.
He leaned forward to brush her lips with a kiss that tingled all the way to her toes. "No. You gave it to me; that's enough. I'll find time to read it. I'll make time."
"Okay." She smiled. "Did you know my parents once met her? Brigit O'Donnell, I mean. A long time ago." This was new knowledge she was anxious to share; lately, she'd been following Carey's lead and asking questions. To her vast surprise, each of her parents seemed pleased to be asked, and more than willing to share stories of days gone by.
"I never heard that," Nathaniel said, without much interest. "Come on. Let's go for a walk."
Vicky was lying on the couch, reading, when someone grabbed her bare foot and gave it a vigorous shake. Abruptly dragged from the arid climate of Frank Herbert's Dune, Vicky looked up to find Carey standing over her. Her mind, still playing catch-up, finally told her he'd said something when he first came in.
"What?" she managed, finally.
"I'm going Below," he repeated. "Down. The tunnels."
She'd made the transition to the real world now, and he still wasn't making sense. "So?"
"So I thought if you were going, too, we might walk down together."
"Oh. No, not tonight. Nathaniel has sentry duty until midnight. I'm going to stay here and read."
He hesitated, then pushed her feet off the couch and sat beside her. "This makes three nights in a row," he informed her, as if she wasn't capable of counting for herself.
She sat up. "Nathaniel's been busy," she said quickly. "Did you know Jamie's made him responsible for ensuring that the routes from Harlem and the east side are changed properly?"
"No. I didn't," Carey responded. "That's a great responsibility. Jamie must think a lot of him."
"I think she does," Vicky confided. "I heard her tell Daddy that she thinks Nathaniel's ready for more."
"I'm impressed," Carey replied dutifully. "Jamie takes being in charge of security very seriously. But," he continued, not looking at her, "it seems to me that no matter how busy he is, Nathaniel could make time for you if he wanted."
"It's not just Nathaniel," she said, uncomfortably defensive. "It's me, too."
"You're busy?" he inquired, with a pointed look at the book in her hands.
She felt herself blushing furiously. "Not busy, exactly. And anyway, it's not your concern."
He retreated instantly. "Sure, Vicky." He was polite, but she knew she'd stung him.
"Carey, I'm sorry."
"Tell your mom I'll be late," he said, as if her apology had gone unspoken. He stood up, and the small canvas bag beside him toppled to the floor.
Anxious to smooth things over, Vicky bent to help him retrieve its scattered contents. "What's this?" she asked, picking up a pristine copy of COSMOPOLITAN.
"It's for Annie," he admitted, and plucked the magazine from her hand. From the tone of his voice, they were friends again.
"You take her presents?" she asked, anxious to keep the conversation going.
"Not presents, exactly," he said. "I have some magazines she misses, the chocolates she likes."
"Ooh, and a flower," she teased to cover an unexpected pang of envy. She reached for a soft pink carnation that had miraculously escaped injury.
"Annie likes carnations," he said, and replaced it in the bag with care. "Sure you don't want to come?"
"Three's a crowd," she reminded him with forced cheer.
He seemed to hesitate longer than necessary. "All right. If you're sure." His brief flare of acrimony had vanished, but something was still not right. But before she could identify it, he'd gathered his things and gone out.
With a sigh, she sank down on the couch, her book forgotten.
She was still trying to piece together the threads of Carey's feelings and behavior when she heard the front door close. A moment later she recognized her mother's step on the stairs. Glad of the distraction, she went across the hall to meet her.
Her mother looked tired from a long day; she'd already dropped her briefcase by the bedroom door and kicked off her shoes. As Vicky came in, Catherine pulled off her jacket, turned to toss it on the bed, and paused in mid-motion. Vicky looked to see what made her stop.
On her mother's pillow lay a single red rose, its petals velvet soft against the crisp white of the lace-edged pillow sham. The stem, carefully bare of thorns, anchored a folded slip of paper.
With a smile, Catherine dropped the jacket and reached for the rose. She inhaled its fragrance and then caressed the petals with her cheek as she read the note. Her smile widened and some of her weariness seemed to lift.
Vicky lingered in the doorway, curious but too polite to ask. Her mother noticed her at last and smiled a surprisingly girlish smile. "You must think I'm silly," she said.
"No. Just... enigmatic."
Catherine offered the note for her inspection. The message was brief - Meet me below the bandshell for a special evening - and signed only with the initial V.
"That's sweet," Vicky said.
"Your father is an incurable romantic," her mother answered. "You'll be all right if I go, won't you?"
Vicky nodded dutifully, but after her mother left, she sank down on the bed.
Her mother got a rose and an invitation to a concert. Even Annie got magazines and candy and a carnation. Small, thoughtful, romantic things.
What she'd told Carey was only half the truth. Nathaniel was busy, but he'd wanted her to come down anyway, and had expressed disappointment when she'd made excuses. But he would never think to send her a flower, or a book, or take time to arrange a romantic interlude. Even his impulsive invitation to the concert in the park was offered as penance for not wanting to attend the play. He was sweet and devoted - and without a romantic bone in his body.
She flopped back on the pillows and sighed.
Dinner the next night was a cozy family affair, just Vicky and her parents. "What are we having?" Catherine asked, unfolding her napkin. "And who prepared it?"
"I don't know," Vicky answered. "But it smells good."
"Young William prepared it," Vincent informed them. "It's called jambalaya. A Creole dish, I'm told."
"I had that once," Catherine said. "In New Orleans. It was delicious."
Vincent gave her a rare smile, showing the tips of his sharp teeth. "Let's hope William's creation gives you as much pleasure."
They exchanged one of the looks that made Vicky feel as if they'd forgotten she was there.
"Daddy," she asked as he served her plate, "will you tell me something?"
"If I can."
"When did you know, really know, that you were in love with Mom?"
His gaze moved, almost involuntarily, to her mother. His expression softened. "The first time I saw her, I knew she was... remarkable."
"Daddy, I know the story," Vicky interrupted. "She was unconscious, bleeding. How could you know anything?"
"I'm aware it defies all logic, Victoria. But still, I knew." He smiled and put out a hand to her mother, who covered it with her own.
"Are you going to ask me the same question?" Catherine asked lightly.
"Well, since you mention it..." Vicky let her voice trail away and, as she'd hoped, her mother picked up the thread.
"When I woke up, after the attack, I hurt all over, and I was so frightened. I couldn't see, and I didn't know where I was... And then I heard someone telling me not to be afraid. But it wasn't the words that comforted me. It was the voice... warm, soothing, and beautiful. Your father's voice. I think I knew then."
"You did not," her father contradicted. "It was months before you began to think of me that way."
"It was months before I began to think of you that way, yes," her mother agreed serenely. "But my heart, Vincent... I think my heart always knew."
If she hadn't been there, Vicky thought they might have kissed. As it was, their clasped hands tightened.
"What brings on this rash of questions, anyway?" her mother asked.
"It wasn't a rash, it was only one," Vicky defended herself. "I was just wondering."
"Are you, perhaps, wondering about Nathaniel?" her father inquired.
Vicky nodded reluctantly. "I don't know what I feel. I thought I was beginning to love him, but now I'm not so sure. Things are getting so complicated."
Her mother reached across the table and pressed her hand. "Love is certainly a complex thing," she sympathized. "But when it's right, you'll know. I promise."
"And if it's not right?" she asked, her voice a bare whisper.
"If you're patient, you'll know that, too," her father said. "Trust your heart, Victoria."
She nodded. Of course he was right. Her heart had always known the truth: about Sean, about Dylan, about Edward and James. It had always known she hadn't loved them, not truly. And if she listened closely, it would tell her about Nathaniel.
In fact, it already was.
She folded her napkin carefully. "Would you excuse me? There's something I have to do..."
"You've hardly touched your dinner," her mother objected, but Vincent stilled her with a glance.
"Go on," he said quietly.
Vicky changed into tunnel garb before going Below. She travelled the passages slowly. She'd only been this way a handful of times since coming home and the way had changed. Getting lost would mean the indignity of calling for rescue on the pipes and she didn't want that. Not tonight.
Tonight was going to be difficult enough. Once she'd heeded her father's advice, she'd known what she had to do. Locating Nathaniel was easy; she simply stopped by the pipe chamber. Nathaniel was on sentry duty up near the park, Zach informed her, and asked politely if she remembered the way.
She did; it hadn't changed as much as some of the other routes. It didn't take long to reach Nathaniel's post.
Once there, she moved forward slowly. She was behind the first line of defense where Nathaniel wouldn't be expecting anyone, and she didn't want to startle him. When she was close enough, she called his name.
He pivoted in surprise. "Vicky!" His welcoming smile quickly turned to concern. "You shouldn't be here. I'm on duty."
"It's okay," she said. "Zach said I could."
As Pipemaster, Zach's word was nearly as important as Vincent's, and Nathaniel relaxed. "Okay. Come sit down."
She did, gingerly, careful to keep a small distance between them.
"So what's up?" he asked, turning to give a glance out the peephole at his shoulder. When she didn't reply, he turned back and seemed to see her distress for the first time. "Vicky, what's wrong?" He reached out, but instinctively she shied away. Hurt rose in his eyes. "What is it?"
"I need to talk to you."
"Can't I touch you?"
"It's better if you don't. I can't think."
"Okay." He settled back against the wall and folded his hands in his lap, waiting patiently while she searched for words that wouldn't hurt. But there weren't any, so she plunged in.
"I have dreams," she began, her voice shaking. "Of what I want to do, of what I want to be."
A fleeting look of puzzlement crossed his face. "I want you to have your dreams, Vicky," he said softly. "Whatever they are."
"You don't understand them, though, do you?" She didn't wait for the sad, slow shake of his head. "Because it's not like that for you. You're not restless the way I am, Nathaniel. There are no dreams burning inside you, waiting to be fulfilled, no restlessness pushing you in new directions. You're content here, standing sentry duty, helping Jamie plan defenses, changing routes."
"Yes," he agreed slowly.
"Your place is here. But mine... my dreams are up there. My life has to be up there. Where you won't go."
Shock drained the color from his face. "If it's that important to you, Vicky, I'll go. Wherever you want."
She shook her head. "No, Nathaniel. Don't you see? You'd be as unhappy there as I would be here. More. We're different. Too different."
"Your parents do it," he whispered. "We could try that. With you Above and me down here."
"No." She shook her head. "It wouldn't work, Nathaniel. Not for us. There's something else." She glanced up.
He was watching her, his eyes wide and sad. "What?"
"I'm not in love with you." The knowledge had come to her as she listened to her parents; now, however much it hurt, she knew this was right.
He managed to keep his face neutral, but he must have forgotten she was an empath, and his shock and hurt flowed into her. "Don't say that."
"I have to. Because it's true. I care for you, Nathaniel, very deeply."
"But you don't love me."
"Not the way you mean. You're like a brother, a favorite brother."
"A brother," he said flatly.
She wanted to put her arms around him and hold him, but feared he might misinterpret it. So instead, she took his hand. "Nathaniel, I'm so sorry," she said, feeling ineffectual.
"I know you are," he answered, and carefully, gently, removed his hand from her grasp. "If it's all right with you, Vicky, I think I'd like to be alone now."
Vicky wondered if she was going to cry. "I do love you, Nathaniel," she whispered. "I just wish I could have loved you the way you wanted me to."
"Yeah," he answered, his voice sounding thin in the chill tunnel. "So do I."
The walk home wasn't long in distance, but it seemed to take forever. At one junction she heard footsteps and shrank back against the wall, unwilling to face anyone just now. A moment later, Carey strode through the intersecting passage, passing so close she could have put out her hand and touched him. He didn't see her, though, and she covered her mouth with her hand to keep from calling out. She needed time to sort through the churning emotions that had kept her from sensing his nearness.
At home, she climbed the stairs slowly. From the study, she could hear her father's voice, low and measured. He was on the couch, reading; her mother curled beside him, her head on his shoulder. Both looked up when she came in.
Her shield was still in place, so it must have been her face that betrayed her. "You've been to see Nathaniel," Vincent observed.
She nodded. "He's upset."
"If it wasn't right, then you did the kindest thing," her mother said, "even if it doesn't feel that way right now."
"I hurt him, Mom. So much. I never wanted to hurt him."
Her eyes stung and she swallowed hard. "I think I'll go to bed. Maybe things will be better in the morning."
"They will be," her mother promised. "Goodnight, honey."
She forced a smile. "Goodnight."
She turned, but before she reached the door, a shock of sheer terror struck violently. She stumbled with the force of it. Just as swiftly, it passed, leaving her trembling, gasping for breath.
Desperately she sought Carey. He was there, strong and solid. Somehow she knew he was trembling, too, with the aftermath of whatever had caused that brief surge of panic. He was calming now, and she was able to use that to calm herself.
Only then did she realize her father was beside her, his arm supporting her. "Victoria? What is it? Are you all right?"
She shook her head to clear it, and carefully distanced herself from the thread of Carey's emotions. "I'm all right. Just a shock. It's all right now."
He wasn't reassured. "A shock? Victoria, what happened?"
Her mother, at her other side, was more astute. "Whose shock?" she asked, her voice gentle.
Vicky looked down. "Carey's," she admitted. "Something scared him, I think, but he's okay now."
"Where is he?" her father asked. He looked puzzled.
"Below. He's Below."
"And you felt it here?"
She nodded. "I feel everything... all the time."
He looked alarmed, clearly torn between staying to comfort her and rushing down to see what had happened Below.
"He's all right, Daddy. Not upset or anything. Something must have startled him."
Vincent let out a long breath and nodded, accepting her judgement. "Do you wish to talk about it?"
"No. No. I just want it to go away."
"It's not going to do that, honey." That was her mother. "I think maybe you have to face up to it."
"I guess I do." She allowed her father to lead her to the couch. "And I guess the best place to start is with you, Mom, because only you can truly understand what it's like."
"I'd say that's a fair statement," her mother agreed, sitting on her other side.
"When did it start?" her father asked gently.
"When I came back. But before that, really. Remember, Mom? It was already happening before I went to England. But when I left, it went away. I thought... I hoped that meant it was gone for good."
"The bond returned, though, when you came home."
It's not a bond! She wanted to cry the words aloud, but didn't. Because she was afraid what her father had said was true. She nodded. "When I saw him."
Her mother leaned forward. "Vicky? What you said about Nathaniel earlier makes me wonder. Is it Carey you love?"
She jerked her head up, flaring with indignation. "No! I mean, I'm fond of Carey. But, no. No."
She could sense the thread of her mother's disbelief, but Catherine only nodded. "All right."
"It's not fair!" Vicky burst out. "Not to me and not to Carey, either. I feel everything he feels. Sometimes I think I know what he's thinking. The worst part is, he doesn't have any idea. It's like I'm eavesdropping or something."
"You believe Carey would be upset," her father said.
"Don't you?" she flung back at him.
"I think I must defer to your mother in this," he said, ignoring her outburst. "I have little experience with that side."
"You did with me," Vicky reminded him, her voice small.
"But I've been able to control what you sensed since you were a little girl. Carey doesn't have that ability. And, as I think you must know by now, the connection isn't the same."
"No," she agreed, whispering now. "It's deeper and fuller and..."
"More intimate?" her mother suggested.
Vicky could only nod.
"Well," Catherine began slowly, "I'm not certain I'm able to put myself completely in Carey's place. Because when your father first told me of his ability to feel what I felt, I'm not sure I believed him. It was a long time before I truly understood. Carey knows already. He believes already."
"What happened when you did understand?" Vicky asked.
She thought her mother's soft smile was more for her father than for her. "I didn't always know what to think. Sometimes I was angry, though. Your word is a good one, Vicky, and there were times I did feel as if he was eavesdropping, hearing things I never meant him to hear."
Vicky let out a soft moan. "He's going to hate me," she decided, burying her face in her hands. "He can't help but hate me."
"I don't think Carey is capable of hate," her father soothed. "It is true, though, that he may be angry, Victoria, and you must prepare for that."
"You think I should tell him?"
They exchanged glances and she envied their ability to communicate that way.
"I think you must." It was her mother who spoke, but it was clear her father agreed. A strong sense of compassion and strength touched her. It was her father's strength, lent willingly to bolster her, and her back stiffened.
"You're right," she admitted. "I have to tell him. It isn't fair not to." She sighed. "And what I'll do after that, I don't know."
Her father's arm came around her shoulders. "If there is a solution, you'll find it," he assured her, and kissed her brow.
Vicky hunched at the top of the stairs, waiting on the third floor for Carey to come home. She wanted to waylay him before he got to his room.
He was on his way; she could feel that much, though her own turbulent emotions were interfering with their usually clear connection.
She pressed her hands together to stop their trembling and wondered what she could possibly say to explain things to him. No matter what approach she tried, all her imaginary conversations ended with him exploding in fury at her temerity in intruding on his life. The enormity of what she had to tell him seemed to leave room for no other reaction.
She pressed herself against the wall, needing its support. If the connection between her parents was anything to judge by, she would be connected to Carey for as long as they lived. The thought, once she'd faced it squarely, was terrifying. How was either of them supposed to live a full life, marry, have children, with this hanging over them, binding them together?
Unless it could be broken by distance. That had worked before, when she'd gone to England.
She tried to picture herself in Japan or Australia or South Africa - all the far away places Evan and Uncle Devin loved - but while she was sure they'd be fascinating and exciting places to visit, her heart sank at the thought of living there. Forever. Isolated from her family. Never to see her father again, never to see Carey...
It probably wouldn't work, anyway. That earlier connection had been different, tenuous. Not at all like it was now. What they shared now was surely what her parents had. And that link was unbreakable.
Instinctively she reached out and it was Carey she found first. He seemed intent on something and she wondered what it was. Then, realizing what she was doing, she wrenched away, cutting him off as completely as she could. The loss of his touch cut keenly. She closed her eyes.
The landing below was dark; her parents had gone to bed. Lights from passing cars flickered briefly in the window visible through the door of Jacob's old bedroom, and she watched them dart across the glass and vanish.
He was close now, nearly home. Her mouth went dry and she wondered what she could say to him. Maybe she should try to prepare herself. She reached out cautiously, trying to gauge his state of mind. If she had to name his mood, she'd call it pensive, and wondered what had made him so somber.
She spared a moment to be grateful that, if she had to be bonded with someone, it was Carey, who was even-tempered and easy-going. If she'd had to contend with a constant barrage of emotion from someone mercurial - someone like herself, for instance - it could easily drive her mad.
There - that distant thump. It was Carey, closing the basement door. She shrank back against the wall, making herself small. Not that he was likely to miss her. She closed her eyes. "Oh, Daddy," she whispered. "I'm scared. Of hurting him, or scaring him, or driving him away."
Like an answer, her father's love and faith poured over and through her, giving her strength. She straightened. She let her love and gratitude flow so he would know she'd understood his message, and then carefully closed their connection. This wasn't his problem. It was hers, and she had to handle it herself, no matter how badly things might turn out.
And then there was no more time to think, to plan, to dread. Carey stopped halfway up the stairs.
He peered at her through the darkness. "Are you okay?"
She lifted her hands, palms up. "I don't know yet."
He resumed his climb, more slowly now. "Want to talk about it?"
What she wanted was to flee to the safety of her room and slam the door. Instead, she nodded.
He sat beside her on the top step, his hands laced loosely in his lap. "I'm here."
For a moment, she wanted to burst into tears. If she did, Carey would put his arm around her and hold her and murmur soft words of comfort. But that wouldn't solve anything, so she swallowed the tears and took a deep breath. "I have to tell you something," she said shakily. "And I don't think you're going to like it."
"All right." He waited in that patient, open way that reminded her so much of her father.
"You know how my father can feel what my mother feels?" she began. "All the time, no matter where she goes."
"Sure. Even when she went to visit you in England. He talked about it." He laughed. "I think it made him feel better. He feels what other people feel, too. If they're close enough. The way you do."
"You remember that?"
"Of course. It's one of the first things I learned about you."
She nodded, and looked at her hands. "Yes."
"Vicky, what is it? Nathaniel?"
"No. Nathaniel's over."
"I'm sorry." Carey frowned. "Somebody else? In England? Are you feeling what he's feeling, and missing him more than you thought you would?"
She smothered a laugh that sounded half-hysterical to her ears. "No. Not in England."
"Who, then? There is someone, isn't there?"
"Someone I'm feeling," she agreed sadly. "All the time. No matter where he goes." From somewhere she found the courage to meet his concerned gaze. "It's you, Carey."
He blinked once, twice, three times, as she held her breath, waiting for an explosion that never came.
"So that's it," he said softly. And to her utter shock, his words were accompanied by a soft current of amusement.
She caught his arm. "Carey, don't you understand what I'm telling you? Everywhere you go, everything you do, everything you feel... I feel it, too. It's like you're inside of me and I can't get you out."
"Do you want to?"
"Get me out."
"I don't know," she said in confusion. "I mean, I thought you'd want me out."
"Carey, think! If I'm feeling you - all the time, and wherever you go - how are you supposed to have a normal life?"
"I'm having one now," he said gently.
"Because you didn't know. Now that you know, it changes everything."
She squirmed inwardly, but it had to be said. "Anne."
"Annie? What about her?"
She rocked forward, burying her face in her arms. How could he be so incredibly obtuse?
Then she realized he was laughing.
She lifted her head indignantly. "What's so funny?"
"You. Or at least, your assumptions."
She scowled at him. "What are you talking about?"
"About Annie. She's not my girlfriend."
He shook his head. "Not anymore. Not for a long time."
She stared. "But Carey, it's not just my assumption. Everyone thinks you and she..."
"They do?" It was his turn to be surprised. "I didn't know that."
"You spend practically every spare moment with her," Vicky said, unable to keep from sounding cross.
"That's because she's lonely. And she's my friend."
"You take her flowers and candy..."
"Because she likes those things," he said. "We tried the boyfriend-girlfriend thing. It just didn't work for us."
"I'm sorry," Vicky said automatically, but inside, she wasn't sure she was sorry at all.
"There was another girl," Carey went on. "I know her from school. She works at the coffee shop around the corner from Gabriella's, and sometimes we talk. I was going to ask her out..."
"You can," she said softly. "I'll try to stay away..."
"No need. I decided not to. A couple of weeks ago."
"For one thing, she just wasn't right for me," he said slowly.
"And the other thing?"
"I kept feeling something tugging at me, trying to get my attention," he said. "I think it must have been you."
Shock coursed through her. "You can't feel me."
"Why not? I know your mother can sense your father sometimes. It's not impossible."
"It should be. Oh, Carey, I'm so sorry. I come back here and start messing up your life." She swallowed hard. "If you want, I'll go away."
That startled him. "Where would you go?"
"I don't know. Somewhere far away. When I went to England, it broke it before. If I could get far enough away..."
"For how long?"
"Forever, I think," she said miserably. "But I'll do it, Carey. It's not fair..."
"Not to you. This is your home. Your family." She could feel him bracing for something. "If it's that important, Vicky, I'll go."
She could feel the dread in him; it matched her own and instinctively she touched his hand. He might have been charged with electricity, so strongly did she feel the contact. She jerked her fingers away as if they'd been singed. "I don't want you to go. Oh, Carey, I'm sorry. Sorry about this, sorry about that girl..."
"Don't be sorry," he counseled. His dark eyes were fixed on her face and he absently rubbed his hand where she'd touched it.
"But someday, someone will come for you... And even after you find her, there's still me. Our connection. I'll know, Carey, and I don't think you can learn how to keep me from knowing."
"My mother never could."
"I suspect your mother never tried very hard," Carey said. "But it doesn't matter. Because maybe I've already found her."
Vicky's heart constricted. "Found her? Where?"
His hand came up slowly; his fingers grazed her cheek. "Here."
"Here," she echoed shakily. Her heart was hammering. "Me?"
"If you'll have me. I love you, Vicky. I think I always have."
She stared at him, trying to make sense of the maelstrom of sensation whirling through her. Carey... loved her? He leaned forward and his kiss, gentle as it was, shattered all her doubts and misgivings.
"I love you," she heard herself whisper. Of their own volition, her arms went around his neck and she pressed her forehead against his cheek.
He was shaking.
So was she. "Carey?"
"Yes?" he whispered into her hair.
"Am I really the one you've been waiting for?"
"I'm glad." She shivered and he pulled her closer.
"Kiss me again."
He pressed his lips to her forehead. She leaned against him and sighed. "Tell me something," he said softly, "before I kiss you goodnight."
"Anything," she promised rashly.
"What color is this? What we're feeling?"
She closed her eyes and let the passion, his and hers, sweep over her. "All colors," she whispered finally. "All shades of all the colors. It's a rainbow."