SECRETS

 

*March - June 2015*

 

The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.

- Sophocles

"Chandler, you're heartless."

Charles put his hand against his chest without looking up from his book. "No. It's still there."

"Maybe you're just inhuman!"

"Quite possibly," Charles replied equably, knowing his roommate had no idea he'd struck upon a hidden truth. As he'd expected, his wry comment made no impact.

"You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" David demanded.

"Yes, I have. You're hot for some girl who won't go out with you."

"She'll go out with me," David protested. "It's just there's a catch. But there's a bright side, too." David grinned. "I found you a date."

Charles stiffened imperceptibly. "I don't need a date."

"Ah, but I do, and this is a package deal. Come on, Charles, do me a favor, just this once."

"You said that last time," Charles countered.

"Yeah, I know, but this is different."

"It's always different, Dave." Charles and David had been roommates since their freshman year at Harvard, and despite some deep philosophical differences, had become and remained close friends. "What's so special about this girl?"

Sensing a shift in his friend's formerly adamant position, David Ackerman perched on a nearby windowsill and propped a foot against the corner of Charles's desk. "Are you kidding? Valerie Manning is the most gorgeous woman on campus. I've been trying for weeks to get her to go out with me."

"If she's so gorgeous, why don't I take her and you go with her mysterious friend?" Charles inquired.

David didn't even pretend to give the suggestion serious consideration. "Elizabeth isn't mysterious. Valerie says she's really nice..."

"'Damn with faint praise.'" Charles quoted Alexander Pope softly.

"What?"

"Nothing." Charles leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "Tell me what I have to do."

Brightening, David leaned forward. "There's this play Valerie's dying to see. I can get tickets, but she won't go with me unless I find a date for her roommate..."

* * * *

In the gloom of the darkened theater, Charles leaned his head on his hand and sighed. So far, the evening had been an unmitigated disaster, beginning when David's car wouldn't start. By the time David found someone to give it a jump start and they'd rushed to the undergraduate dorm to pick up their dates, they were nearly twenty minutes late. Charles barely had time to acknowledge the hurried introductions before he found himself squeezed into the cramped back seat of David's little import. When he studied the girl beside him covertly, she seemed cool and aloof, gazing out the window without expression.

Arriving at the latest 'in' Boston restaurant, they learned their reservations, carefully made by David two days before, had been lost; David had been on the verge of erupting in fury when Charles took his arm and pulled him away.

"Easy, Dave," he advised. "No big deal. We'll go somewhere else."

Muttering, David acquiesced, sparing them an unpleasant scene. Friday night crowds made it impossible to find another stylish restaurant in time to eat and still make the opening curtain so they settled for a snatched bite at a fast-food place.

Now the second act of the play had begun; so far it showed no signs of improving on the first. Charles wondered exactly what the reviewers who had given this play its many outstanding reviews had been watching.

"Now I know why they call this *In The Dark*. I certainly am."

Beside him, the muttered remark was barely audible; at first, Charles wasn't certain he had heard correctly. "I beg your pardon?" he whispered.

He didn't need his father's empathic abilities to know his sharp hearing had embarrassed the young woman in the seat beside him. "I'm sorry," she whispered back. "I didn't mean to disturb you."

Someone in the row behind hushed them. Charles bent his head closer.

"The play. It's confusing," she confessed finally. "It must be me. It's supposed to be good."

Charles glanced at David, who seemed absorbed in the action on stage. A further look revealed that he was holding Valerie's hand. Charles turned back to his date, placing his lips close to her ear. "Come on," he whispered. "Let's go."

"I'm sorry," she apologized when they reached the lobby. "I didn't mean to drag you away..."

"From that? Don't worry about it." Charles grinned and it seemed to reassure her. "There's a problem, though."

"What's that?"

"We came in Dave's car, remember?"

To his surprise, she laughed. The sound was pleasantly musical to his ears. "Let's walk," she suggested.

"All the way to Cambridge?"

"Until we don't want to walk anymore. I have money for a cab if we need it..."

He smiled. "All right," he agreed. "Let's walk."

He knew who Elizabeth was, of course; he'd recognized her name when David introduced them. Like Charles, she had grown up in New York, but they moved in different circles and had never met. He recalled seeing her picture in the society pages once or twice, however.

He glanced at her strolling beside him, her coat buttoned tight against the November chill, realizing she wasn't quite what he expected. She was attractive, with chin-length brown hair and blue eyes, but somehow didn't strike him as the sophisticate so often pictured with her father.

Absently, he repeated her name aloud.

She looked at him. "What?"

He grinned. "What do they call you? Elizabeth? Beth? Liz?"

She smiled back. "Elizabeth, mostly. My brother calls me Liz or Lizzie. Sometimes my father calls me Lissa. How about you?" She tipped her head inquisitively. "Is it always Charles?"

"Always."

"Okay." She tried it out. "Charles Chandler. What's your middle name?"

He told her, and she added it.

"Charles Vincent Chandler. It'll look impressive when you hang out your shingle."

He laughed aloud.

"What? Val told me you're a med student. Won't you have a shingle someday?"

"I plan to go into research," he told her. "Not much call for shingles there."

"Unless your roof leaks," she added facetiously, and he laughed again.

"There's a cafe up ahead," he said. "Would you like to stop for some coffee?"

"I'd love some," she answered.

The restaurant was pleasantly warm and they lingered, sipping hot coffee, picking at apple pie, and talking. When they stepped into the dark street again, Charles suggested a cab, but Elizabeth demurred.

"Not yet. It's a beautiful night to walk."

Falling into step beside her, Charles had to agree. The night was cold, but a full moon shone brightly out of a crystal clear sky, silhouetting the bare tree branches and lending a romantic glow to the very air.

He held out his hand, offering support across an icy patch; when it was safely traversed, she didn't let go and he found pleasure in the feel of her small, gloved fingers grasping his.

The cold finally won out, though, and they ducked into an all-night convenience store to telephone for a cab.

The ride back to campus was filled with light conversation and occasional laughter. Charles thought he held his end up well enough despite the distraction of Elizabeth slipping a casual arm through his and leaning against his shoulder for much of the ride. She offered to pay, claiming the cab had been her idea, but Charles disagreed, paying the driver himself.

"Sexist," she said as the cab drove away, but the remark was tempered with a smile.

Charles returned it. "You're my guest," he explained. "Next time you can invite me, and I'll be glad to let you pay for everything."

"Next time?" she asked.

Charles felt himself blushing. "I mean... if there is a next time?" His voice rose as he turned the stammered statement into a question.

Elizabeth smiled widely. Suddenly, in the moonlight, she was beautiful. "Oh, I'm sure there'll be a next time," she answered softly, and went inside.

* * * *

A week later, Elizabeth called to invite him to a concert. "It's Chopin," she explained, rather ruefully. "I don't know if you like that kind of music."

"Chopin's my father's favorite composer," Charles answered. "I'd like to go."

"There's one other thing..." Elizabeth sounded uncertain.

"What is it?"

"It's formal. Is that a problem?"

It was amazing how she could make him laugh. "Don't worry, I won't embarrass you."

He could almost hear her answering smile. "Okay. I'll pick you up at seven, okay?"

He was waiting outside when she pulled up in a bright red sports car. His height made it a tight fit, but he managed to fold himself into the small front seat. "Nice car," he said.

"Yeah." She grinned. "My father spoils me. Hang on," she warned, and whipped into the flow of traffic with practiced ease. She seemed a competent driver, handling the little car with a kind of dashing skill as she wove through the moderate evening traffic, but she also drove very fast, and at last Charles felt compelled to say something.

"Elizabeth."

"Yes?" She changed lanes, slicing neatly through the narrowing gap between a pickup truck and a family sedan.

Charles drew a deep breath. "You're a very good driver," he ventured. "Just... a little too fast."

Immediately, her foot came off the accelerator and she slowed to a sedate pace suitable for a Sunday afternoon drive. "I'm sorry."

"Are you always in such a hurry?"

"Yes, and I have the speeding tickets to prove it," she said regretfully. "Any more and I'm in big trouble; I guess it's good you're here." She pulled adroitly into a parking space. "I love the color of this car, but it just begs traffic cops to pull it over." She laughed, climbing out without waiting for him to open her door. Accepting his offered arm, she glanced up at him curiously.

"What about you, Charles? Do you have a car?"

He shook his head. "Dave lets me borrow his if I need one," he explained. "I don't need one often, and in the city, I use the family car."

She nodded understanding. "Speaking of David, where are he and Valerie tonight?" she inquired as they found their seats.

"Hockey game," Charles answered. "Harvard and Cornell."

"Oh. Val was in such a hurry when she left, I didn't get a chance to ask. I guess they're really hitting it off." She looked sideways at Charles. "Would you rather be at the hockey game?"

"No. I know it goes against the typical masculine stereotype, but I'm not much of a sports fan."

"Really? What do you like?"

Charles regarded her curiously, but she truly looked interested. "Computers. Medicine. Genetics."

She poked him. "But what do you do for fun?"

"Those things are fun, if you look at them the right way," he answered. "I like other things, too, though. Music, especially the Russians - Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky. I read a lot. History, philosophy, biographies..."

"Any fiction?"

"Sure. And poetry."

"Mmm, poetry. Not many men will admit to that," she teased, leaning on his arm. "What poets do you like?"

"All kinds," Charles admitted. "Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, A.E. Housman, e.e. cummings, Conrad Aiken..."

"That's certainly a variety," Elizabeth agreed. "Recite something for me."

Charles glanced around uncertainly. "Here? Now?"

"Why not?" She glanced at the stage, where the orchestra was only just beginning to tune up. "We have time. Please?"

Much as he might have liked to, Charles found himself incapable of ignoring the plea in her smile. "All right. Let me think a minute..." When words came to mind, he spoke them in a voice just above a whisper so that others might not hear.

"'Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes...?'"

Her gaze never wavered through the poem's six stanzas; when he finished, she smiled.

"I always liked that one," she said. "William Blake."

"That's right." Her recognition and enjoyment of the piece pleased him. It had been one of Charles's childhood favorites, and even now it reminded him strongly of his father, but of course he couldn't say that aloud. "What does it make you think of?" he asked her.

"Besides the tigers in the zoo?" she asked. "Believe it or not, my father."

She answered his look of disbelief with a smile. "I'm serious," she insisted. "Not when he's at home, but when he's working, when there's some big contract or project at stake, he can be singlemindedly fierce." She laughed. "I guess he used to be worse. My mother once told me there was someone my father knew, before he met her, who somehow made him understand he can't always have what he wants. I remember thinking that it must have been an unhappy love affair and how tragically romantic it seemed."

"And was it? An unhappy love affair?" Charles asked.

She shrugged. "I don't know. All I know is my mother said it made him a better person. And he is."

"You admire your father," Charles observed quietly.

"Yes. I do."

After the concert they went for coffee. Later, when Elizabeth dropped Charles at his apartment, he stood on the sidewalk for a long time, looking after her. Almost ten days passed before he found the courage to call her again.

"There's a new exhibit opening at the Museum of Fine Arts," he said shyly. "I wondered if you'd like to go this afternoon."

"I can't," she said, sounding distracted.

"I'm sorry," he said, feeling clumsy and stupid. He must be interrupting something. "Maybe another time..."

"What? Charles, I'm sorry, can you hold on a minute?"

"Sure," he agreed dumbly, and in a moment she was back.

"I'm sorry about that," she said breathlessly. "Somebody else was asking me something."

"It's okay. I thought you might enjoy the museum, but if you're busy..."

"I have an exam tomorrow," she said morosely. "I have to study."

"Oh." Charles felt suddenly lighter.

"But listen," Elizabeth said, sounding instantly animated. "If you want, you could bring your books over and we could study together. Val's not here."

"I know. She's with David."

"Will you come?"

Charles had no hope of resisting the fragile plea in her voice. "Sure. Shall I bring anything?"

She thought for a moment. "Yeah. Microwave popcorn."

Charles found pleasure in the walk to her dorm; even with a quick stop to pick up popcorn, it didn't take very long, and he arrived to find her waiting breathlessly on the front steps.

"Hello," she called gaily.

"Hello," he called back, waving. "I thought you were studying."

"I decided we could use a reward once we've learned everything there is to learn," she answered coquettishly, leading the way to her dorm room. "I ran to the Student Union and rented a movie."

"No kidding. Which one?"

"An old movie," she elaborated, teasing him.

"How old is old?" Charles asked, playing along. "Nineteen nineties?"

"Older."

"Eighties?"

"Older."

"Fifties."

"Good grief, Charles, we'll be here all night at this rate!" She pulled out a digital disc and waved it at him. "*Raiders of the Lost Ark*. It's practically required for archaeology students."

"But I'm not an archaeology student," Charles teased.

"No, but I am, and it's my room." She pretended to glare.

He threw up his hands in surrender. "*Raiders of the Lost Ark*. Good movie."

"I have to study first," she warned him.

"I brought my books," he said, showing her.

Charles intended to study diligently, but after a while his attention wandered from his notes. His gaze was naturally drawn to Elizabeth, who reclined on her bed, absorbed in her studies and completely unaware of his scrutiny. Charles was surprised at how pleasant it was to simply watch her, noticing how her hair waved around her face in studied disarray, the way her lips moved as she tried to fix a particular passage in her mind. He couldn't see her eyes, but he could remember how blue they were, fringed with dark lashes; he couldn't see her chin, either, because it was propped in her hand, but he could visualize the delicate cleft in the center of it...

Abruptly, he pulled his mind away from its musings, forcing his gaze back to the page before him. He had to remember who he was, what his limits were. Unless it was already too late...

* * * *

Elizabeth looked up from her chapter on relative chronology. Charles looked endearingly serious, bent over his notebook, and she wondered what he was thinking. Was his mind truly on his studies, or did he sometimes permit other thoughts to intrude?

There had been other young men in Elizabeth's life, even a couple of cases of undying puppy love, but what she was beginning to feel for Charles Chandler was something else entirely. She was completely comfortable with him. Conversation was easy, and when a silence fell, that was easy, too. That he knew of her father was clear, but she had no sense of that influencing him; for the first time, she felt as if she could have been anyone's daughter. It didn't matter. Charles liked her.

She found it doubly endearing that, after two dates, the greatest intimacy they had shared was holding hands. Elizabeth was accustomed to deflecting unsubtle advances from the very first date. Charles's courtly reserve was a refreshing change.

It was past midnight when she took him home and there was time, on the drive back to her dorm, for dreamy reflection. After studying, she'd stuck the popcorn into the microwave while Charles started the video machine.

The only comfortable place to sit was on her bed. Since she didn't want him to feel uncomfortable, or pressured, or seduced, she'd pushed it closer to the wall and rearranged the pillows to make it into a daybed/couch. They'd started out with a decorous distance between them, but halfway through the movie, she'd shifted, settling closer to him and resting her head against his arm. He hadn't reacted, but she'd seen him turn his head to look at her and knew he shared her quiet pleasure in the gesture. And already they'd made plans for next weekend. They were going skating.

* * * *

"I haven't done this in a long time," Charles confessed, lacing up his rental skates. "I hope I won't embarrass myself."

"Oh, I don't know," Elizabeth teased. "You'd look kind of cute sprawled on your posterior."

The look he bestowed upon her was supposed to be baleful, she was sure, but somehow the amusement lurking in his eyes spoiled the effect. "I assume that means I'll get no sympathy from you when it happens."

"Oh, no. I'll even help you up... if I'm not laughing too hard."

He chose not to dignify that with an answer. Instead, he tied off the lace, stood, and offered her his hand. "Shall we?" he invited formally.

Elizabeth smiled widely in answer and joined him on the ice. As he'd warned, he was a little wobbly at first, but she stayed beside him, lending support, and he was soon skating with confidence.

"I'd forgotten how much fun this is," he confessed.

Elizabeth made a graceful turn in front of him and began skating backwards. "You're not bad," she observed aloud.

"I'm not? Maybe I won't fall down, but I can't do that." He pointed to her feet.

"What, skate backwards? It's easy!"

"Not for me. I could never figure out how to move my feet."

Shifting her weight, Elizabeth checked her momentum and skidded to a graceful stop. Charles looked momentarily panicky and tried to avoid her. His skates flew out from under him, and he ended up in a heap at her feet.

"Are you okay?" she asked, bending over him anxiously.

"I should have warned you, I can't stop, either," he told her ruefully. "You could have been killed."

"I'll bear that in mind next time," she laughed, offering him a helping hand. "Come here."

"What?" Indulgently, he let her pull him to her side.

"Now watch my feet," she instructed sternly, and began to show him the footwork necessary to skate backwards.

The sun was low in the sky and the temperature had dropped before they left the ice. It had taken awhile, but Charles had finally mastered the rudiments of skating backwards and stopping. He had a natural grace and balance and after the lessons they had enjoyed the simple pleasure of circling the ice in tandem. Like Elizabeth, Charles enjoyed the exhilaration of speed, and they were both breathless as they took off their skates.

"We had a tradition in my family," Charles said. "After skating, we always had hot chocolate."

"Is that an invitation?" Elizabeth asked.

"I think it's more of a requirement," he answered. "There's a place just around the corner..."

"Did you skate often when you were a boy?" Elizabeth asked when they'd been shown to a booth.

"Depends on what you call often," Charles answered. "My mother used to take us to Rockefeller Center three or four times a year. Then, when I was about thirteen, my youngest brother decided he wanted to play hockey, so my father arranged for a place to be flooded with water; when it froze, we had an ice rink. My mother made sure there were skates for us and our friends, and for a while we skated almost every day."

"Then what happened?"

He grinned. "The ice melted."

"Oh. Spring."

He nodded. "By then, the attraction had pretty much worn off, anyway," he admitted. "It was a long hike to where the ice was, so none of us was too disappointed. The summer gave us time to regain some of our enthusiasm, and I know we skated a lot the next winter, but not like the first year. After a couple of years, I quit going. Other interests, I guess."

"What about your brother?"

"Evan? Well, the hockey didn't quite work out."

"Why not?"

Charles bent his head to examine his cup of chocolate. Elizabeth had the impression he was choosing his words carefully. "I don't want to make him sound mean, or vicious, because he's not, but he does have a temper, and he can be very... aggressive when he's provoked."

"You mean he got into fights," Elizabeth guessed. "I thought that was part of hockey."

Charles smiled. "Evan was only six when this started," he explained. "They prefer the peewee leagues to be non-violent. Hockey's a contact sport, and my parents were afraid that Evan would get shoved into the boards or elbowed or something, and he'd lose his temper and hurt someone."

"A six-year-old?" Elizabeth couldn't keep the skepticism out of her voice.

"Evan's always been big and very strong for his age," Charles said. "They didn't want to take a chance."

"You make him sound like he's part gorilla, or something," Elizabeth observed, propping her chin in her hand. Did she imagine it, or did Charles wince? "Does Evan get in a lot of fights?" she asked hastily.

Charles shook his head. "My father believes in non-violence," he said slowly, "and he's impressed on all of us the need to restrain our tempers. Being bigger or stronger or better armed doesn't necessarily make someone right. We discuss things. Sometimes we argue. We don't fight."

"Never?" Elizabeth couldn't help remembering some of her own brother's boyhood tangles.

Charles grinned. "Well, there was one time..."

She leaned forward eagerly. "Tell me about it."

"Evan must have been about nine, and Jacob, that's our other brother, would have been about eleven. I can't remember anymore what we were doing, but we were all four in Jacob's room..."

"Four?" Elizabeth interrupted. She could only account for three.

"Our sister was there, too. She's the youngest," Charles explained. "Anyway, Jacob said something that made Evan mad and the next thing I knew, they were rolling on the floor, punching at each other and yelling."

"Jacob's two years older, right?" Elizabeth asked, trying to get it straight.

"Yes, but I told you, Evan's always been big for his age. They were about the same size then, and Evan was stronger. I tried to separate them, but I couldn't, and then all of a sudden my father was there. I think he literally picked each one up by the collar and held them out at arm's length." Charles demonstrated, holding his hands widely apart. "For a second I was afraid he was going to crack their heads together, you know, like in the old slapstick comedies? I've never seen him so angry. And Vicky was crying..."

"Vicky's your sister," Elizabeth clarified. "Was anybody hurt?"

"No, but she's very sensitive. I think the anger and violence just upset her."

"What happened to your brothers?"

"My father marched them down into the study and spent an hour with them. I don't know what he said, but I know Evan's never tried to hit anybody since."

"How about Jacob?"

"Jacob's a pacifist," Charles explained. "He'd never hurt anybody. He was only defending himself."

"Well, it's good he'll do that. Some pacifists don't even believe in that much."

"We'll all fight back if we're threatened," Charles explained earnestly. "Our parents don't expect us to let ourselves be hurt or killed just on principle. In fact, we all had lessons in self-defense from a friend of our mother's."

"Even your sister?"

"Especially my sister," Charles said. "Because girls and women are more vulnerable. Don't give me that look," he added defensively. "They are. And you know it."

Elizabeth smiled, pleased that he felt comfortable teasing her. "I wanted to take karate when I was twelve," she said. "My father wouldn't let me. He didn't want me to get hurt. I don't think he thought karate was feminine."

Charles frowned. "Maybe you should let me show you some moves," he suggested.

She looked down at his hand, resting on the table between them. "You're worried about me," she teased, sliding her own hand forward to touch his.

"You should talk to my mother sometime," Charles said seriously. "She'll tell you what can happen to a woman who can't defend herself."

"Did something happen to her?"

"She was attacked; they cut her face."

Elizabeth couldn't help an involuntary recoil of horror.

"It was pretty bad, I guess," he continued. "She had to have plastic surgery. She still has scars, but she says it was worth it; if it hadn't happened, she never would have met my father."

"How can she mean that?" Elizabeth's vivid imagination set the stage; in her mind's eye she could see the sharp glitter of a knife coming close, could feel unseen hands holding her down. She shuddered and Charles closed his hand over hers.

"I guess because it's over and she survived it."

She forced a smile. "Well, you've convinced me. I'll take self-defense lessons anytime you want to teach me."

"Good."

She focused on their joined hands, deliberately separating herself from the grim conversation. Charles's hand was large, dwarfing hers, but his touch was reassuring. She pulled it closer, bringing her other hand up and placing on the back of his. "I like your hand," she said playfully, glancing up at him. He looked embarrassed, but didn't try to pull away. "It's warm," she continued, studying it with interest. "It looks strong, but I know it can be gentle," she noted with approval, glancing up again to find him smiling at her. Encouraged, she slid her fingers across the back, toward his wrist. "There's a lot of hair here, but it's soft," she observed. "Almost like fur..."

Abruptly he stiffened; gently but deliberately he removed his hand. "It's getting late. I'd better get you home," he said, dropping a bill on top of the check and reaching for her coat.

"All right," Elizabeth agreed, bewildered. She couldn't imagine what she'd done wrong. She liked his hands; she'd said so. Could he be self-conscious about the light brown hair that grew so generously across their backs? She couldn't see why. "I'm sorry if I offended you," she offered tentatively. "I didn't mean to."

To her vast relief, he smiled. "No. You just reminded me of something."

"Of what?"

"Of something I can't permit myself to forget," he said cryptically. "If I can get the gym, do you want to meet me Tuesday night?"

So, despite whatever she'd done, he intended to keep his promise. "Of course," she answered promptly. "What time?"

"I'll call."

* * * *

He did, three days later. Elizabeth arrived at the gym early and changed into the sweatsuit he'd advised her to bring. The soft green of the outfit suited her and she wondered if Charles would notice.

He didn't seem to, but Elizabeth consoled herself with the idea that it was simply because he was out of breath from hurrying across campus. It didn't take him long to recover, however, and soon Elizabeth was the one out of breath.

"Try it again," Charles said patiently. "What do you do if someone grabs you like this?"

Elizabeth went through the moves slowly, talking them out. "Fall back against you, to surprise you and make you loosen your grip."

"Right," he said, approving. He seemed unaware of the way his thigh was pressed against her hip, and even less aware of the way he was making her feel.

"When you let go, I twist free and run like hell," she continued, struggling to concentrate on her lesson, and not the solid feel of his arm around her.

"Good. Now," he went on, coming around to stand in front of her, "suppose I take your arm like this." He gripped her forearm in one hand. "How will you get away?"

"Well, instinct tells me to twist, but I'll bet there's a trick to it," she answered. His hand was large enough to circle her arm completely.

"You're right. You twist, but make sure that when you do, you're putting pressure against my thumb, and not my fingers." He showed her what he meant. "Twist far enough and I won't be able to hold on. Try it."

Her first attempt failed.

"You're tentative," Charles explained. "Don't be. Remember, this is someone who's trying to hurt you. You don't need to be nice."

"Okay." She waited for him to take her arm again. When he nodded, she twisted her arm violently down and out, pulling away at the same time. To her surprise, his strong hold broke and she pulled free, dancing away from him. "It worked!"

"Of course. And on that note of success, we'll call it a night," he said. "Next time I'll teach you some New York City street-fighting."

"Sounds like fun," she teased him. "Will you wait while I change?"

He agreed, and was outside, leaning comfortably against the rough stone wall of the building when she emerged. "Did you bring your car?" he greeted.

"Not tonight. Sorry."

"Don't be. It's a lovely night for a walk." He held out his hand and she took it, falling into step beside him. "Shall we take the long way, along the river?" he suggested. "Or are you in a hurry?"

"No hurry," Elizabeth answered softly, marveling at how dark his eyes looked in the half-light of dusk. "I'd like to walk along the river."

"Let me take your bag." He slung her gym bag over his shoulder. "Did you enjoy your lesson?"

She smiled at him. "Yes."

"I'm glad. Now remember, if someone grabs you, get away first and ask questions later."

"Wouldn't that be a little embarrassing if it turned out to be a friend?"

"You worry about that after you're safe," he said sternly.

"Yes, sir," she agreed with a mock salute. "Any other orders, sir?"

"Yes," he said quietly, after a moment. "Be careful. If anything happened to you..."

The wistful quality in his voice stoked the warm glow she always felt when she was with him, but he didn't turn to look at her. She started to ask him what he meant.

'No man is an island... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind....' Out of nowhere, the words of John Donne flitted into her mind and she held her tongue, suddenly afraid of what he might say. Never less than gentle, Charles was very involved in mankind, caring about others without thought.

Some of that came through when he talked about his chosen career: genetic research. "Every day, children are born with genetic characteristics that affect the way they live their lives," he'd said once, his voice vibrating with passion. "Some children die because of the genes they carry." In his eyes, she'd seen that he cared about those children.

What if he cared what happened to her not because she was special to him, but only because he would care if anyone was hurt?

He didn't seem to notice her hesitation, and, lost in her own musings, she was surprised when he stopped suddenly.

"Look," he whispered, pointing.

The moon hung full and low just above the horizon. Massive oaks, still waiting for spring to coax fresh greenery from bare branches, stretched in stark silhouette against it. A fresh fall of spring snow lay all around, glittering in the moonlight.

"Oh, Charles. Isn't it beautiful?" Elizabeth breathed. What came next seemed perfectly natural. Turning, she slipped her arms around his waist, resting her cheek against his chest.

He stiffened, and for a panicky instant she thought she'd made a dreadful mistake, but then his arms came around her. Something almost painful constricted in her chest when he bent his head, resting his cheek against her hair.

Elizabeth would have been content to stand forever on the concrete path, secure in Charles's arms, but eventually he stepped back. His eyes were shadowed in the pale moonlight, making it impossible to read his expression. When he spoke, it was in a voice so low she couldn't read it, either.

"Come on," he murmured. "It's getting cold."

"It won't be for long," she answered, trying to keep the conversational ball rolling. "Spring's almost here."

"Yes," he answered abstractedly. When she reached for his hand, there was the briefest of pauses before his fingers closed over hers.

It was impossible not to glance sideways at him, not to wonder what he was thinking. He seemed oddly affected, almost embarrassed, by their almost-intimacy and she wondered if it had been a mistake to embrace him, yet she was certain he'd liked it as much as she had.

"My father likes to take moonlight walks," she said, trying to distract him. She was relieved when he turned his head to smile at her. "Whenever we go somewhere, to a party or a play, I make sure I wear comfortable shoes, because I know we'll end up walking at least part of the way home. He loves the city at night."

"Does he often take you with him?" Charles inquired.

"Since my mother died, I've sort of been his stand-in when I'm home," she explained. "He likes having me there."

"I'm sorry about your mother," Charles said gently. "I didn't know."

Elizabeth managed a casual shrug. "It happened when I was sixteen. A car accident."

"It must have hurt very much."

"It did. It still does, sometimes." Elizabeth heard her voice grow wistful as she allowed herself a moment to remember. "It was harder on my brother," she added. "He was only fourteen and it devastated him."

"I didn't know you had a brother," Charles said, sounding surprised.

"Didn't you? His name's Steven. He's seventeen now, and goes to prep school in Vermont."

"Do you visit him often?"

"Never."

"You sound very adamant."

"I am," Elizabeth said firmly. "Steven can be a jerk."

"He's your brother," Charles said, sounding faintly scandalized.

"So?" Elizabeth could feel herself becoming defensive. "I don't believe you have to like people just because you're unlucky enough to be related to them."

"Okay," he said, too carefully.

His diplomacy annoyed her. "Look, Charles, I know you're close to your brothers, but that doesn't mean I have to be close to mine." She gave him a wary glance, but his expression was gently curious. "It's hard to explain," she began slowly. "When people meet him, they think he's great." Charles's manner didn't change, and she went on with more confidence. "He's neat, polite, charming in his own way, I guess."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

"What I don't like about Steven is hard to pin down," Elizabeth said. "I told you he makes a wonderful impression, but it's just a veneer. It's not real. There's nothing underneath."

Charles's expectant silence made it necessary for her to go on.

"He doesn't make friends because he likes them, or because he shares their interests. He chooses people because they can do something for him. He's very goal-oriented, and other people just don't matter to him, except as a means to an end."

"That's sad. Were you closer when you were children?"

The question surprised her and she paused to consider it. "Not really," she admitted finally. "There are almost three years between us, and we're completely different. We always have been. But I think he was nicer when he was little."

"You said he was devastated when your mother died."

"Yes." She paused, thinking.

"What is it?" Charles gripped her hand more firmly and drew her closer to his side, so that her shoulder brushed his arm as they walked. They left the river path and turned back toward the Harvard campus.

"My father and I have always been really close; I told you he spoils me, and though I hate to admit it, I've usually taken advantage..." she shrugged. "Steven was always closer to our mother."

"Her death must have been very difficult for him," Charles observed.

"He seemed... adrift... for a long time," Elizabeth found herself admitting. "Daddy and I had each other; I used to go into his office and we'd sit and talk about Mom, and maybe cry together. It never occurred to me to wonder where Steven went to cry." She looked at Charles. "God, I'm horrible. My own brother, and I never even thought about him."

"You were young. You'd lost your mother, your father needed you. I don't think you can blame yourself for not seeing that your brother needed someone, too."

They had reached her dorm. Charles led her to an old stone bench and urged her to sit. She did, feeling suddenly weary. "I know Daddy used to try to talk to him, but Steven would just blow up and storm out of the apartment." She managed a small laugh. "Mom used to say that he and Daddy were too much alike to ever get along. He's changed so much that I don't know anymore what he thinks or feels."

"But you're still angry with him."

"Yes," Elizabeth said, thoughtfully. "I am. I know it was hard for him, but it was hard for me, too. He doesn't even try, Charles. He doesn't want to be different."

"Maybe he does, but just doesn't know how," Charles suggested gently. "Perhaps he just needs someone to help him."

"Don't you think we've tried?" Elizabeth demanded. "Daddy's sent him to the best psychiatrists, I've tried to talk to him... He doesn't hear us. I don't think he wants to."

"Then perhaps you must just let him know you are here if he needs you; that you will be his friend when he's ready. People can change, Elizabeth. Don't judge your brother too quickly."

"Oh, Charles." Wearily, she rested her head on his shoulder. "You always see the best in people. I wish I could do that."

His arm was around her shoulders and she leaned into him.

"I just think everyone deserves a second chance," Charles said quietly.

She smiled, tilting her face to look at him in the moonlight. He brought his hand up, brushing her cheek with the back of his fingers.

"You are so beautiful," he murmured, and Elizabeth was lost. Her arms went around his neck of their own accord, drawing his head down. He didn't resist. His breath was warm against her face, his hand warmer on her cheek, and when she kissed him, his lips were warmest of all.

Surprisingly, the kiss he gave her in return was shy, untutored, as if he hadn't done much kissing.

"Charles," she whispered, wanting the sound of his name.

He pulled back, blinking; his expression was uncertain, and when he spoke, his voice was unsteady. "It's cold. You should go in."

"Come in with me."

"No. Not tonight."

She couldn't understand his determined refusal.

"I need to get home," he added.

Home, when they'd just kissed for the first time? It was with difficulty that Elizabeth found her voice. "At least let me drive you home."

He shook his head. "No. Please, Liz," he said, stifling her protest. "I need to think."

It made no sense, but it seemed important to him. Slowly she nodded. At the door of her building, he handed over her gym bag and would have turned away if she hadn't taken his hand. His expression was at once wary and expectant as she pulled him toward her, dropping the gym bag to slip her arms around his neck. Their second kiss was as sweetly tentative as the first.

"Goodnight, Charles," she whispered, and knew he stood watching long after she disappeared into the building.

* * * *

Charles scarcely noticed the walk home as he relived the wonder and enchantment of Elizabeth's arms around him, the softness of her lips pressed to his, the sheer joy of holding her close. He'd never felt like this before, as if he were floating. His prior romantic experience was negligible, limited to shy kisses with one or two of the tunnel girls his own age. Kissing Elizabeth had been different, stirring him in a way nothing ever had. It troubled him a little, but the sweet elation sweeping through him was stronger, and he basked in it.

Other kisses followed during the next weeks. Some were shy and tender, some deep and compelling. Soon it became clear that Elizabeth would welcome any advances he might choose to make. There were nights when it required all his self-control not to make them.

The magic had been going on for more than two months when Elizabeth announced she was going to spend a weekend at home.

"I really have to, Charles," she explained. "It's already the first of May. I haven't been home since February, and my father misses me."

"You'll be gone all weekend?" Charles was surprised by the desolation he felt.

"Yes," Elizabeth answered softly.

"I understand." Charles sighed. "I guess this would be a good weekend for me to visit my family too. My mother's been asking when I'm coming home."

Elizabeth's smile was wistful. "So we'll both be in New York this weekend."

"Maybe we could..." Charles began hopefully, but Elizabeth was already shaking her head.

"I couldn't. My father is really looking forward to this. I can't disappoint him. He wouldn't understand."

"I suppose you're right," Charles admitted. From somewhere he found the courage to press his forehead against hers. "I'll miss you," he confessed, and was rewarded with a brilliant, if somewhat melancholy, smile and a warm kiss before she hurried into her dorm.

* * * *

Saturday night found Charles not home as he'd expected, but in the pretentious, glittering atmosphere that he always associated with high-society events. Idly turning a glass in his hand, watching the lemon wedge bump up against the ice cubes, he was simply glad, for the moment, that he wasn't undergoing an interrogation by one of his mother's friends.

"Not friends, Charles. Acquaintances," she always chided him. "Friends are people you enjoy being with. Acquaintances are just people you know."

"Yes, Mother," he always replied, dutifully, but in truth, he didn't understand. If these people weren't her friends, why did she bother to come to these boring functions? For appearances, he supposed. People might wonder more than they already did if she simply dropped out of the social scene altogether. Besides, the functions she chose to attend were always charitable; this one was to benefit the Big Brother/Sister program, which matched volunteer adults with underprivileged children.

Lost in thought, he started when someone touched his arm.

"Hi."

"Liz!" He felt himself smiling widely. "I didn't expect to see you here..."

"Me either." Her delighted smile dazzled him.

A niggling suspicion touched him and he voiced it before his conscience could squelch the impulse. "Are you with someone?" Belatedly, he hoped he didn't sound jealous... and hoped, if she said 'yes', that he'd be able to maintain his composure.

"My father," she said, waving airily across the room. "I think I told you he likes me to accompany him to these things."

"Yes, you mentioned it."

"What about you, Charles? You're not here by yourself, surely?" Was he wrong, or was there a trace of anxiety in her eyes?

"No. I'm my mother's escort this evening."

"Oh." The single syllable could have meant anything, but probably meant she didn't know what to ask next.

"My father wasn't able to come," Charles added.

"Oh." She frowned. She looked as if she wanted to pursue the subject, but was interrupted by a man who came up beside her.

"Elizabeth," the man said, with a wary glance at Charles. "Are you having a good time?"

"Oh, yes, Daddy," she answered, taking his arm. Turning to Charles, she smiled. "I'd like you to meet Charles Chandler. Charles, this is my father, Elliot Burch."

Elizabeth's father must have been sixty, at least, and was inches shorter than Charles's own six-three, but he carried himself like a much younger man. His handshake was strong and sure.

"It's a pleasure, Mr. Burch."

"The pleasure is mine, Charles," Elliot said easily. "Elizabeth's told me a lot about you. And since I know your mother..."

As if on cue, Charles heard his mother's voice behind him, and half-turned to look for her, his mind still stumbling on Elliot's last statement.

She was coming toward him and as he stepped back to include her in the group, her eyes widened and so did her smile. "Elliot!" she said, sounding nothing short of delighted.

Elizabeth's father took her proffered hands, drawing her close enough to kiss her cheek. "Hello, Cathy. It's been a long time."

"Yes, it has," Catherine agreed. Withdrawing her hands, she touched Charles's arm. "Have you met my oldest son?"

"Just now," Elliot answered. "And this is my daughter, Elizabeth." He smiled. "It seems history repeats itself, Cathy. Elizabeth is an undergrad up at Harvard, and I understand she and Charles have been seeing a lot of each other."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Elizabeth, and I'm glad you've been keeping Charles company. He spends entirely too much time by himself." Her voice was dispassionate, but Charles could sense his mother's astonishment and cringed. He hadn't wanted to mention Elizabeth to his family until he'd resolved some of his doubts and reservations.

Elliot reached for Catherine's hand. "I believe they're starting a waltz," he said. "Would you like to dance?"

"I'd love to," she said.

In all the years he'd been acting as her escort, Charles could only remember his mother dancing a handful of times, all with old friends, like Joe Maxwell, or Nancy Tucker's husband Paul. Never had she accepted the invitation of anyone Charles hadn't known since boyhood.

Charles watched in astonishment as his mother accompanied Elliot out among the other dancers. She was smiling, and looked oddly comfortable. It made Charles feel strange. "I didn't know my mother knew your father," he murmured to Elizabeth, who had moved to stand by his elbow. "Did you?"

"Not until last night," she said slowly. "I started telling Daddy all about you, and he knew who you were."

"What did he mean when he said 'history repeats itself'?" Charles asked, still gazing to the spot where Elliot and Catherine had disappeared among the other dancers.

"They were going to be married."

That bombshell was enough to make Charles look away from the dance floor. He gazed at Elizabeth in astonished disbelief. "What?"

"For about five minutes, Daddy said," she added. "I guess they had a disagreement and decided to call it off, but he says they're still friends."

Charles wondered briefly about this old friendship before deciding it was foolish to brood over his mother when Elizabeth stood patiently beside him. "Would you like to dance?" he invited.

There was an odd hesitation before she nodded and put her hand in his. She seemed distracted on the dance floor, her movements uneven, making him wonder what was wrong. When the music ended, he led her to where her father and his mother stood talking.

"Ah, there you are," Elliot greeted them genially. "It's getting late, Charles, and I was just suggesting to your mother that she let me take her home. That way you two can stay and enjoy the party."

Charles hesitated. The prospect of time with Elizabeth was nearly irresistible and he'd like to find out what was troubling her, but he felt a strong sense of obligation and responsibility toward his mother.

"It's all right if you'd like to stay," she said, catching his eye. "I'll be fine with Elliot."

Elizabeth looked suddenly pale. "No, Daddy," she said. "I'm not feeling very well. I think I'd better go home, too."

Elliot was immediately solicitous. "What's wrong, Lissa?"

"Just a headache. Please, Daddy, don't fuss."

He backed off. "All right. Cathy? Can we drop you and Charles at home?"

"If Elizabeth's all right," she agreed. "That would be nice, Elliot."

Alone, Charles and his mother would have taken a cab; Elliot travelled in a chauffeured limousine, and as it pulled up outside the hotel, the chauffeur jumped out to hold the door. Elliot helped Catherine in first and stood discreetly back so Charles could assist Elizabeth. They were finally settled, with Catherine and Elliot together on the back seat, while Elizabeth and Charles occupied the facing jumpseats.

Casual small talk filled the time until the limousine reached the Chandler home. Elliot got out first, reaching back to help Catherine, tactfully allowing Charles and Elizabeth a moment alone.

She'd been unusually quiet during the drive and Charles felt a protective rush of tenderness when he turned to her. "Headache better?" he asked.

"A little."

She still looked pale and he reached to brush her hair back from her face, letting his fingers linger on her cheek. "I'm sorry. What you need is a good night's sleep, and you'll feel better in the morning."

She smiled wanly. "I hope so. Goodnight, Charles." It sounded like a dismissal, but her eyes seemed to be pleading with him. Hesitantly, he leaned to kiss her. She seemed oddly resistant at first and he wondered if it was the headache, or because her father and his mother were standing on the sidewalk, but after a moment she melted against him, her lips warm and responsive.

"Goodnight, Liz," he said softly, his hand brushing her cheek in one last caress.

She nodded. Was it a trick of the light, or were tears shining in her eyes? He wasn't sure, but she had already turned away. He was halfway out of the limo when he heard her whisper his name.

"Yes?"

"I... nothing. It's nothing. Goodbye, Charles."

"Goodnight, Elizabeth," he corrected her.

She nodded again, half-heartedly, rubbing at her temple.

"Take something for your head when you get home," he advised through the open car door. She nodded again without turning to look at him; after a moment he straightened, looking for his mother.

She and Elliot were standing near the flight of steps that led to the front door, and they were hugging each other with obvious affection.

"Goodnight, Cathy," Elliot said.

"Goodnight, Elliot. Thank you for the ride."

"My pleasure," Elliot answered cheerfully. "And remember my standing offer."

"I remember, Elliot, but don't count on me."

"No." His smile was oddly sad. "I don't."

Catherine shook her head and smiled. "You're incorrigible, Elliot."

"I know. Goodnight, Charles."

"Goodnight, Mr. Burch. It was a pleasure to meet you."

As the limo pulled away, Charles and Catherine climbed the stairs. "What's his standing offer?" he asked curiously, sorting through his keys for the one to the front door.

His mother sighed, and looked after the rapidly diminishing taillights of the limousine. "That if I'm ever unhappy with my life, he's there."

"So it's true, what Liz told me," Charles said, opening the door and standing back to let her go first.

"What did she tell you?"

"That you and her father were going to be married."

His mother looked briefly astonished and laughed. "I guess you could call it that. It didn't last long."

"No, that's what she said. About five minutes."

"Probably not that long," Catherine said, taking off her coat and hanging it in the foyer closet.

"That was before you knew Father." Charles made it a statement.

His mother paused. "Well, no, actually, I knew your father then. It's a very long story, Charles, and I'll tell you all about it another time, but tonight I have some questions for you."

"I know. I've been wanting to talk to you about it."

She nodded. "Why don't we make some tea?"

In the kitchen, the refrigerator door stood open while Evan and Carey built impressive-looking sandwiches, going back and forth for various ingredients. "Hi," Evan greeted. "How was the party?"

"The party was fine. Close the refrigerator," Catherine said automatically.

"Okay," Carey answered, replacing a jar of mustard in the refrigerator door and pushing it closed with his foot.

Catherine took the kettle from the stove and moved to the sink to fill it with water; meanwhile, balancing plates and full glasses of milk, the boys said their goodnights and departed.

Methodically, Catherine took out a small, earthenware teapot and measured out spoonfuls of an herbal tea mixture. "Have you known Elizabeth for long?" she asked.

Charles slid into one of the chairs at the small table. "Since the beginning of March."

"I see." His mother brought mugs, spoons, and a small pot of honey to the table and sat down opposite him. "Are you friends?"

Charles studied his clasped hands, considering his answer. "More than friends," he admitted finally.

The kettle began to sing and she rose to pour the boiling water into the waiting pot. "Why didn't you say anything, Charles?" she asked, bringing the steaming teapot to the table.

"Because of all the things I'm not sure of. All the questions without answers..."

"Like who you are?"

"I know who I am, Mother. It's what I am that's the problem."

"I know. You talked about this with your father, a couple of years ago." She smiled at his look of astonishment. "You must have known he'd tell me," she said.

"Yes, I guess I did. But that was theoretical, Mother. This is real. And we've reached a place in our relationship where I have to tell her something before we go on."

Catherine poured tea into each mug and busied herself with the honey pot, stirring honey into her tea. "I wish I knew what to tell you, Charles."

"It's not like I can just bring it up in casual conversation," he said bitterly. "By the way, Liz, how would you feel about our children possibly bearing a resemblance to a lion?"

"Your father doesn't deserve that, Charles." His mother didn't raise her voice but it had hardened and he knew he'd made her angry.

"I don't mean it that way, Mother. You know I don't. I'm proud of my father. I love him, and I wouldn't want him to be any different than he is. It's just that it's so hard sometimes..."

"Don't you think it was hard for us? For your father?"

"Of course it was. But at least you knew what you were up against. He didn't have to think of how to tell you he was different, because you could see it."

Her gaze was steady and after a moment she nodded. "Yes."

Charles looked down at his hands. "And now I find out that you and Liz's father are friends." He looked up in sudden hope. "Does he know about Father?"

Catherine shook her head slowly. "No. He knows there is someone in my life, that my children have a father I love very much, but Elliot and your father have never met." She looked at him. "It would be so much easier for you, wouldn't it? If Elliot already knew."

"What do I do, Mother? What do I say?"

She looked at him, her eyes sad. "I wish I knew what to tell you, Charles. I wish I could say 'tell her everything, and bring her home to meet us.' I really do. But there's Elliot to consider now."

"Do you trust him?" Charles asked.

His mother stared at her teacup, frowning. "There were times, before you were even born, that I did trust him... with certain things... and he never betrayed my trust. But to trust him with knowledge of your father, of what your father is.... With your father's life...."

"You think he might betray that."

"I don't want to think so... but Elliot can be ruthless when it suits him."

"Liz says he's changed," Charles said, trying to sound objective. "That after he met her mother, he became less... fierce, I think is the word she used."

"Fierce. That's a good word to describe Elliot." She let out a long, slow breath. "Meeting and marrying Susan Ellis was the best thing that ever happened to Elliot. If she were still alive, I'd be more willing to trust him.

"I don't know what advice to give you, Charles, but know this. If you want to make Elizabeth a part of your life, a permanent part, you have to tell her. You have to make her understand why it must be a secret from everyone, even her father. And before you can do any of that, you must be absolutely certain you can trust her. Once you've spoken, there's no going back."

Charles didn't sleep well that night, tossing and turning as longing battled with caution. In the morning, he found himself covertly studying his father, trying to imagine what it would be like to meet him for the first time, but it was hopeless. He'd known him too long, too well. He couldn't see Vincent as anything but his father.

Charles was still unresolved when David came to pick him up. He was quiet on the drive back to Boston, and for once David left him alone to think. Back at school, Charles let two days pass before he picked up the phone to call Elizabeth.

"I've been thinking maybe we shouldn't see each other for a while," he said hesitantly, after the usual pleasantries had been exchanged.

Elizabeth didn't answer, but he could hear the swift catch in her breath.

"It isn't you," he rushed to assure her. "It's me. There are some things I need to think through. I need to resolve them, and it's going to take some time. Please, Liz, try to understand."

When she spoke, her voice was low, nearly inaudible. "How long?"

"I don't know yet. A couple of weeks, maybe. I can't be sure."

"I understand." Her voice sounded dull. He silently cursed the circumstances that made this necessary.

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth."

"Okay. Goodbye, Charles."

"Goodbye." He cradled the phone gently, when what he wanted was to strike out at something, anything.

Their daily class and study schedules kept them on different parts of the campus, so it wasn't surprising they didn't encounter each other during the last two weeks of school. During finals, Charles hoped Elizabeth was able to concentrate better than he could.

When he finally picked up the phone to call, on the morning he and David were driving back to New York, it was only to give her his home phone number, in case she should need to get in touch with him. Her roommate answered and informed him tersely that Elizabeth had already gone home.

"Then could you give her the number, Val? Please?" Charles rattled it off and made her repeat it back to him, but her manner was surly.

"I've got it," Valerie told him. "I'll give it to her tonight. And if she's smart, she'll burn it!" She slammed down the phone.

Charles stared at the instrument in bewilderment before turning to David, who was busy cramming dirty laundry into a already bulging suitcase. "Dave? Do you know what's wrong with Valerie? She was pretty abrupt with me on the phone just now."

"No idea," David grunted, wrestling with a reluctant suitcase lock. "Val and I stopped seeing each other about a month ago."

"Oh," Charles said dumbly. "I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it," David said breezily, finally forcing the suitcase closed and snapping the locks triumphantly. "You've been sort of preoccupied lately. I figured you and Liz broke up, too."

"No," Charles said pensively, and reached for his own suitcase, already packed. "Are you ready? Let's go home."

* * * *

Charles had the phone number for the Burch's New York residence written down on a scrap of paper Elizabeth had given him the weekend they both came home. Over the next few days, he took it out of his pocket many times, but never made the call. His mother's quiet question was what haunted him. Did he trust Liz? With all his heart, he did, and he wanted nothing so much as to trust that instinct, call her, and arrange for her to meet his family; all of his family. But if he was wrong, the consequences could literally be life-shattering: for him, his parents, his siblings, possibly even the tunnel world itself. The responsibility was enormous and he was quite simply afraid to take the risk.

His family seemed aware he needed time for introspection and left him alone. He wondered if his mother had told Vincent about their talk, and decided she hadn't. Knowing her, she would protect his father from painful knowledge as long as she possibly could. Still, Charles doubted his father missed much.

* * * *

"Aunt Cathy?" Carey put his head in the study door. "There's a man downstairs who says he needs to see you."

Charles didn't bother to look up from the chessboard, where his lack of concentration was resulting in a thorough trouncing at his father's hands. His mother received a fair number of visitors and messengers in the course of her work; such an interruption, even on a Sunday, wasn't unusual.

"Did he give his name?" Catherine asked automatically, already starting for the stairs.

"Elliot Burch."

The name sent a mild shock through Charles, who looked up in time to see his mother hesitate almost imperceptibly. He glanced at his father, who was suddenly alert, too.

"Thank you, Carey," Catherine said faintly, and went past him, into the hall.

Carey looked at Vincent quizzically. "Should I go with her?" he asked.

Vincent shook his head. "Catherine and Elliot are old friends. There is no danger."

Carey shrugged and went out. Reining in his racing imagination, Charles tried ineffectually to concentrate on the chess board. It was a moment before he realized that his father was even more distracted than he was.

"Father? What is it?"

"I'm not certain." Vincent paused, head tilted a little to one side. He looked vaguely worried. "Charles, your mother's upset," he said suddenly. "Would you go down and be sure she's all right?"

"Of course." Charles moved quickly, pausing only to be sure the study door was securely closed before he went down the stairs. He could hear someone speaking angrily before he was half-way down, and quickened his step. As he reached the first level, he began to make out words.

"...done to her!" he heard Elliot say furiously.

"There are difficulties, Elliot. Charles has been trying to work through them." His mother spoke calmly, persuasively. The voices came from the living room. Charles paused in the hallway.

"Work through them! What in the world can there be to work through? Either he loves her or he doesn't! And if he doesn't, then she sure as hell deserves to have him tell her! Stringing her along..."

"That's not true, Elliot, and if you'd calm down, you'd see that."

Charles could not have moved away from the door if his life depended on it.

"What I see is my daughter, hurting." Despite the words, Elliot sounded as if his wrath was fading.

"I've always thought one of the hardest parts of being a parent was standing by and letting your child stumble through alone, when all you want is to help." His mother's voice grew more distinct, as if she'd moved closer to the door. "My child is hurting, too, Elliot."

Elliot's voice changed, sounding somehow softer, almost wistful. "When Liz came home full of this wonderful man she'd met, and told me who he was... I could see what she felt for him... she was so full of hope... and now she's gone."

*Gone? Where?*

As if she could hear Charles's frantic thought, his mother asked the question aloud. "Where did she go, Elliot?"

"She had an opportunity to go on an archaeological dig. She left this morning."

Charles couldn't stop himself; he moved to stand in the doorway. "Where is she, sir?"

Elliot stared at him, and Charles didn't need to be an empath to see the sudden anger flaring up. "She doesn't want to see you," he said evenly, controlling his temper.

Charles felt as if someone had hit him. "How long will she be gone?" he whispered.

"All summer." Elliot reached in his jacket, coming up with a long white envelope. "She left this for you."

Charles accepted the envelope numbly, still trying to grasp events. Elliot was gazing at him with a long, appraising look that Charles couldn't begin to interpret. At last, Elliot gave a short nod, as if he had come to a conclusion, and turned away from Charles.

"I'm sorry I disrupted your Sunday, Cathy," he said stiffly, following her into the hall. "I guess I knew what I was talking about when I said 'history repeats'."

Charles was still standing in the living room door when his mother came back from showing Elliot out. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Charles managed a nod.

"Do you want to talk?"

"No," he said hoarsely. Forcing the single syllable out was more effort than usual.

"All right. I'll be upstairs if you need anything," she said. When he didn't reply, she patted his arm and went out.

Charles stood for a long time, just holding the envelope. Eventually, he moved blindly toward a nearby chair, sinking heavily into it. Irrationally, a snatch of poetry flitted into his mind. *So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more*.

Even without opening it, he knew somehow that in the envelope he still held in his hand was Elizabeth's goodbye to him. Still he hesitated, as if a delay in reading her words would hold back time, make it not so. There was really no other option, though, and at last he opened the envelope with trembling hands. It contained only a single sheet of paper. Unfolding it tenderly, he tipped it toward the window to catch the fading light.

* * * *

Dear Charles,

I've always believed that sometimes, things just aren't meant to be. That belief helped me when my mother died, and I hope it will help me now. I've come to realize, over the past two weeks, that I was seeing things that weren't truly there.

I've been offered a chance to go on a real dig, and decided I couldn't pass it up; by the time you read this, I'll be gone. It's best this way, Charles, but I'll always cherish the memory of our friendship.

Elizabeth

* * * *

It was a perfect summer day. Fluffy white clouds drifted lazily across a bright June sky; Charles could see them reflected in the glassy surface of the mirror pool. With a jerky, almost violent movement he hurled a pebble, breaking the peaceful image into choppy ripples. Another stone followed sharply, and another.

"Charles."

His father's voice startled him, but he didn't turn. He didn't throw the next pebble, either.

"May I join you?" Vincent asked.

Charles shrugged, fingering the smooth surface of the pebble in his hand, and didn't answer. His father seemed undisturbed by his silence, coming to sit beside him. Charles tossed the pebble into the water, but with less vehemence than before. Somehow his father's presence soothed him.

"I've always liked to come here," Vincent said presently, gazing up to where the sun streamed in. "To see the sun, the stars..."

"You didn't come here to talk about the sky," Charles interrupted bluntly. He could feel Vincent looking at him.

"No. I didn't." The compassion in that simple statement nibbled at the barrier Charles had erected between himself and the rest of the world.

"I can't find her," Charles said at last, shoulders slumping in despair. "I've tried everywhere... The Dean of Women's office says she's not coming back to Harvard; they've sent her transcripts to her father's office. The dig she's on isn't connected with the university, and nobody in the archaeology department knows where she might be."

His father nodded gravely.

"Her father's office says he's out of the country. They wouldn't tell me where he is. I even tried to call her brother in Vermont; he says he hasn't heard from her."

He stopped; his father waited patiently for him to continue.

"I talked to her roommate; Valerie's furious with me, but she says even she doesn't know where Liz is."

"Why is she angry, Charles?"

Charles bent his head. He could still hear the echo of Val's fury. "If she's dumped you, good!" she'd snapped when Charles called. "She cared about you, and you didn't even think enough of her to tell your mother about her!"

"Elizabeth thinks I don't care about her," he admitted finally.

"That isn't true." Vincent observed gently.

Charles shook his head. "I love her, Father." His shoulders slumped beneath the weight of his despair; his avenues of search were exhausted, and so was his capacity for joy.

"What am I going to do?" Even to him, the question sounded bleak. "Without her, I don't know what to do."

"I know that feeling," Vincent said quietly. "I know how it hurts."

Charles lifted his head. *How can you*? his heart cried. "Mother never ran away from you," he said with conviction.

"Yes, she did," his father corrected gently. "You mustn't think it was easy for us, Charles. There came a day when your mother was unable to carry the burden of our secret any longer. So she went away."

Incredulity seeped in to crowd the despair. "What did you do? Did you try to stop her?"

The look in Vincent's eyes was mildly reproving. "Of course not. I would never try to discourage your mother from doing the things she must do." His voice grew softer. "I thought I would never see her again."

"But she came back."

"Yes."

Charles rested his forehead on his upraised knees. "Liz isn't coming back."

"You can't know that."

"Yes, I can. I wrote her a letter," Charles admitted softly. "Last night. It was all I could think to do."

"What did you tell her?"

"That I understood why she was hurt; that I understood why she had to go. That I cared for her; that I would always care for her... but that there is a barrier in my life... and that only I can find the way around it. That finding my way around it may take a very long time. I told her to find someone else, Father. Not to wait for me. I sent it to her father's office, with a note asking him to forward it. He'll be able to get it to her."

Charles looked up, able at last to face the compassion in his father's eyes.

"I'm certain he will."

Charles looked across the shimmering surface of the quiet pool, aching with sorrow and loss. At last he'd made peace with himself, and when he spoke again, his words had all his heart behind them. "I hope she finds happiness."

Somehow, life went on. Summer passed, turning to fall, and autumn gave way to winter. The cycles continued despite the sorrows of those caught in turmoil; the world went on.

* * * *

Like an old tree uprooted by the wind

And flung down cruelly

With roots bared to the sun and stars

And limp leaves brought to earth --

Torn from its house --

So do I seem to myself

When you have left me.

- Conrad Aiken

The End