THOUGH THERE BE THORNS

 

Hurrying to get there before his nerve failed him, Joe Maxwell took the twelve steps leading to Catherine Chandler's front door two at a time. One edge of the buff-colored folder in his hand was damp from perspiration, though the May evening was really too cool to have prompted it. At the top, he hesitated, remembering the last time he'd been here... the day last October when he'd brought Cathy home from the hospital where she had given precipitous birth to her fourth child. Things had happened that day... things he still had trouble putting into perspective.Catherine's first day back at work had also been the first time he'd seen her since that day. He had both anticipated and dreaded their meeting and, in his eager apprehension, he hadn't handled it well.

 

* * * * *

 

"Chandler! Can I see you in my office for a minute?"

Intent on the computer printout lying on his desk, he didn't look up when she came in. "I did some checking on you," he said. "Prior cases. Things you've been involved in, especially the first couple of years you were here." He tapped the printout for emphasis. "I put some pieces together. I think I know what he's done... I think you do, too." He looked up, seeking some sort of confirmation. She didn't move, and he went on. "I don't know him, Cathy, but I know you. I trust you."

Pointedly, he picked up the printout and tossed it in the trash. "I'm going to forget about it. I just wanted you to know..."

She began to tremble violently and for the first time, Joe noticed her unnatural pallor, how tensely she was holding herself, and realized, in horror, how much he had frightened her."God, I'm sorry, Cath," he said. "What you must have thought..." Not knowing what else to do, he put his arms around her. She leaned against him, shaking.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." It was all he could think to say and he repeated it over and over, patting her back. He was uncomfortably aware that the blinds between his office and the larger one outside were open and he could almost feel curious stares boring into him.

At last she pulled away from him, giving him a shaky smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to fall apart..."

"I scared you," he said, understanding.

She nodded almost imperceptibly. "I could see it all... the beautiful, fragile world we've carved out for ourselves... I could see it crumbling... all lost... forever." Her voice broke and she stopped, biting her lip.

Still uncertain, Joe backed away to perch on the edge of his desk. "Will you be okay?"

She gave him a crooked smile, one meant to reassure. "'Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.'" She quoted it softly, but Joe could hear the passion in her voice and see its glow in her eyes. "I know how precarious my palace is, Joe," she told him. "But it's so beautiful, and it's filled with so much love and joy that having it, for however long it lasts, is worth anything that might follow." She ducked her head. "At least, I keep repeating that to myself. I even manage to believe it, until the times like today, when something happens... and all I can think is that it isn't enough, I want a little more, need a little more..."

 

* * * * *

 

With a start, Joe realized he was still standing on Catherine's doorstep. Reaching for the bell, he paused. Had he already rung it? He couldn't remember. Another minute went by before he punched the lighted button firmly. Dimly, he could hear its muted buzz from inside and rocked back on his heels as he waited restively for someone to answer it. Time dragged on and he began to have second thoughts, looking down at the dog-eared folder he clutched.

Why hadn't he called first, or better yet, just left well enough alone? If Cathy needed the file in his hands, she knew perfectly well where to find it. He had begun to hope that no one was home and was on the verge of turning to leave when he heard the rattle of locks.

Cathy herself opened the door. "Joe! Come in!" Her smile said she was genuinely happy to see him.

Feeling awkward, Joe stepped past her. "Hi," he said, with what he felt must be a foolish grin. This was a different Cathy than the one he normally saw. Her cool, professional demeanor had vanished with her designer business clothes and she seemed somehow younger in jeans and a loose shirt that pretty well concealed her five-month pregnancy."You have something green on your face," he said to cover his uncertainty, pointing to her cheek.

With a corner of a cloth tossed casually over one shoulder, she scrubbed at the spot. "Either I'm feeding Evan or he's fingerpainting me," she explained.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bother you..."

"You're not," she assured him, taking his arm as she turned toward the back of the house. "Have you eaten?"

Things were not happening the way Joe had imagined. "No, listen, I just came to bring you this..." he handed her the buff-colored folder.

She frowned at it. "The Brandon case? I thought I had everything..."

"Oh, well, maybe you do," Joe said quickly. "I just thought, well, I was in the neighborhood and I'd drop it by."It sounded lame, even to him, and her eyes narrowed as she regarded him thoughtfully. Voices from the rear of the house were punctuated by a baby's insistent shouts and, more than ever, he felt like an intruder. "Listen, you're busy. I should go..."

"Please stay. We're just sitting down to dinner and there's plenty."

The invitation was tempting and Joe hesitated. Home was a cold, lonely place these days. Cathy smiled at him, exerting all her charm. "Come on, Joe. Be brave."

He raised a suspicious eyebrow, prepared to surrender but not yet ready to let her sense victory. "Does that mean I'll be eating your cooking?"

"Even I won't eat my cooking," she informed him, and laughingly pulled him into the dining room.

There he was immediately confronted with his own personal dilemma, in the form of Vincent. The computer printouts he'd thrown away that day were gone, but not forgotten. In the end it all came down to Cathy. He accepted it for her, but that didn't make the actuality of Vincent any less formidable.

Vincent had taken over feeding Evan and when he stopped to greet Joe cordially, the seven-month-old bellowed in outrage. Catherine moved past Joe quickly and took the small spoon from that large, furred, clawed hand with absolute confidence, saying, "I'll finish here. You've been with them all day."

Vincent seemed grateful to surrender the task and moved to what was obviously his own chair at the head of the table. Joe, taking courage from Catherine's easy manner, settled into one of the other chairs cautiously.

A slender, dark-eyed youth emerged from the kitchen with six-year-old Charles and two-and-a-half year old Jacob on his heels. "Are you..." He saw Joe and stopped in mid-sentence.

Catherine looked up from spooning pureed peaches into Evan's eager mouth. "Kipper, you've heard me speak of Joe Maxwell. Joe, this is Kipper. Without him, our house would collapse in a tremendous cloud of dust."

The young man grinned. "You exaggerate, Catherine." He extended his hand across the table and Joe shook it warmly.

At dinner, he was initially intimidated by Vincent's presence, but as he listened to the easy conversation that flowed between Vincent, Catherine, and Kipper, and watched Vincent's gentle patience with his children, Joe began to feel more comfortable. As his confidence increased, he occasionally joined the conversation and eventually his natural bent for teasing Catherine came to the fore.

"Hey, Chandler," he said, a gleam in his eye. "Don't you have a case on Judge Byrnes' docket tomorrow?"

She looked across the table at him, surprised. "The preliminary hearing for Rhodes. Why?"

"He had some chest pains this morning and they took him to the hospital," he said. "He's okay, no heart attack, but he'll be staying for some tests."

"Who's hearing his docket?"

Joe couldn't hide his grin any longer. "The Honorable Ronald P. Morgan."

Her eyes widened in dismay. "No. You're kidding. Tell me you're kidding."

"Would I lie to you?" Joe was all innocence. Seldom did he see her disconcerted and he was enjoying this.

She frowned. "You would, but somehow I don't think you are."

"What's wrong with him, Catherine?" Kipper asked curiously.

"He doesn't like me," she answered grimly.

"Be fair, Radcliffe," Joe said. "It isn't you in particular he doesn't like. It's your gender in general."

"Yes, but of all the women in the world, I'm one of the ones he likes least."

Joe regarded her gravely. "Maybe that's because you stood in his courtroom and told him he was an insensitive, narrow-minded... what was it?"

"Never mind. Anyway, he found me in contempt. You'd think that would have been adequate revenge."

Vincent was listening with mixed amusement and intrigue, but Kipper was openly inquisitive and Joe explained.

"Judge Morgan isn't a bad judge... it's just that he's old fashioned."

"Antiquated," Catherine muttered under her breath.

Joe ignored her. "Professional women distress him. Competent professional women irritate him. Cathy knows exactly what she's doing in the courtroom and he doesn't like it." Having slipped in a neatly disguised compliment, he gave Catherine a sideways glance.

She smiled wryly. "Do you think it would help if I took my shoes off?"

"Watch it, Chandler. That's what got you into trouble last time, remember?"

"Last time, he asked me, point-blank, why I wasn't home taking care of my husband and having babies," she said tartly.

Kipper's jaw dropped. "He didn't."

"He did," she affirmed. Joe didn't miss Vincent's hand moving to touch the back of hers. She smiled a little. "It wouldn't have bothered me so much if I hadn't been trying so hard to have a baby then. As it was, I lost my temper."

"Boy, did she," Joe added, grinning. "You should see the transcript..."

"Joe..."

"Okay, okay." Gallantly, he surrendered the subject and wondered, belatedly, just what Vincent thought about his wife being teased. Vincent was retrieving a spoon that Evan had thrown to the floor and Joe couldn't see his eyes to judge his reaction. His glance went to Cathy. Was she really Vincent's wife? He'd asked her once, when she was being more open than usual and he was feeling particularly brave.

 

* * * * *

 

"Cathy?" He hesitated, his eyes dropping to the ring she wore on the fourth finger of her left hand. "Are you married?"

"Get real, Joe." Her voice was laced with scornful derision, but her eyes held something else so he gazed at her patiently. She sighed and her tone softened. "Where would we go to get a marriage license? Blood tests?"

Joe blushed crimson. "I just thought... common-law marriage, maybe?"

Her voice was cool and impersonal. "Common-law marriage isn't legal in New York, Joe. You know that." Sensing his deep embarrassment, she suddenly relented. "There was a ceremony... after Charles was born. In the eyes of Vincent's world, in our own eyes, yes, we are married."

"Good. I'm glad." Joe had seen further into her heart than he felt comfortable with... yet, while she was so open to him, there was another question tugging at him. "Can I ask you something else?"

"You can ask," she said cautiously. Her expression warned him that she might not answer.

"Your kids... Vincent's their biological father, isn't he?"

She considered the question before nodding briefly, her eyes wary.

"Doesn't that scare you... that it might be... hereditary?"

She searched his face but saw no condemnation or horror there, only compassion and concern. "It's something I think about, yes. With Charles, especially. But every child seems to affirm that it isn't genetic... or, at least, it's not a dominant genetic trait."

"Jacob?" It was a quiet, sympathetic question.

"We don't know. He may have inherited his lip from Vincent, but facial clefts are not that uncommon. And," Catherine's eyes clouded with remembered pain, "you forget that there was something wrong with both of my babies in that pregnancy. It's a very real possibility that somehow I came in contact with some substance that causes birth defects. It might have been my fault..." She shook herself, brushing it off. "Anyway, I think three children are enough."

Joe grinned at the memory. It had been little more than a week later that she had informed him, with no small measure of disconcertion, that she was pregnant.

From her place across the table, she caught his expression and raised a questioning eyebrow.

Kipper interrupted, glancing at his watch and reacting with alarm. "I'm going to be late!" He began stacking dishes hurriedly.

"Leave them, Kipper," Vincent said quietly.

The youth paused. "Are you sure?"

"Go on, Kipper. We're perfectly capable of cleaning up," Catherine said, adding her encouragement.

"Okay. Thanks!" He said a hasty goodnight and vanished.

Joe looked at Catherine. "Hot date?"

She smiled. "Must be. They study together almost every night. I think Kipper may be in love." She turned to Vincent. "Which do you want, the children or the dishes?"

Joe couldn't help but notice the affectionate look that passed as Vincent opted for the dishes. Catherine had Evan on her hip and herded the older boys up the stairs before turning to Joe.

"I probably should go," he said slowly. "You're going to be busy."

"Please don't," she said. "I mean, not unless you really want to." She gave him a crooked half-smile. "There aren't many people we can ask to our home. I'm enjoying it." Evan squirmed and she shifted him to her other side. "I just have to bathe the boys. It won't take long."

"Okay," Joe conceded. This evening was turning out to be far more interesting than he could ever have imagined and he wasn't yet ready to end it.

Catherine took Evan upstairs and Joe finished stacking the dishes on the dining room table and carried them into the kitchen. He still found Vincent a little intimidating, but he was determined to comport himself well. Making a good impression on Cathy's very unusual husband seemed vital.

"Thank you." Vincent took the stack of dishes from him and put them in the sink. Loading the dishwasher was a one-man job, so Joe leaned back against the edge of the small table and watched. Vincent, with his exotic appearance and medieval clothing, looked very out of place in this modern kitchen, but his hands were quick and sure as he rinsed each plate and placed it in the dishwashing rack. Joe found himself staring at those fur-covered hands and their wickedly sharp nails. It was a moment before he realized Vincent had stopped moving, and was deliberately allowing him to look.

He reddened and shifted his embarrassed gaze to meet steady blue eyes. "You don't like being stared at," he realized aloud.

Those eyes assessed him for a moment longer. "No," Vincent admitted. "Not as a curiosity."

His serenity gave Joe courage. "Yet this is the second time you've let me look at you. The first time, the day I brought Cathy home... and tonight. Why?"

There was another pause and a trace of a smile showed in Vincent's eyes. "Because you are someone Catherine loves."

Joe's heart gave an unsteady lurch. "We're friends," he protested quickly.

"There are many kinds of love, Joe. Catherine's heart holds many."

Joe grinned suddenly. "Yeah. She's pretty special to me, too."

"I know."

Joe raised a curious eyebrow at Vincent's calm certainty.

"When you brought her home that day... she was truly angry with you. Yet you risked the loss of her friendship in order to see that she was safe."

"Well, of course," Joe said. "Besides, I was pretty mad, too."

When all traces of the recent meal had been removed from the kitchen and dining room, Vincent led the way into the hall toward the main stairs. Joe had visited a few times, but had never been beyond the living room and mounted the stairs curiously. Much of the furniture in the living room had come from Catherine's apartment and it always had the slightly too-formal air that goes with a room that is rarely used. The large, comfortable study which took up more than half of the second floor was completely different, more casual. The furniture was darker, of worn leather, polished woods and soft fabrics. A child's dirty sneaker lay on its side near a chair, an abandoned baby bottle stood on a table and hand-carved wooden building blocks spilled from an overturned box.

Children's voices and the sound of splashing emanated from the rear of the house and he could hear the murmur of Catherine's voice from an archway at the far end of the study.Excusing himself, Vincent went through the archway and Joe found himself alone for the first time. Solitude was something he'd been avoiding lately... it gave him too much time to think of things he wanted to forget. In an effort to keep memory at bay, he deliberately directed his thoughts to Cathy.

She seemed truly happy. Despite their restraint, her love for Vincent and his for her was obvious, but it was more than that. There was friendship, and mutual respect. He remembered the way Vincent had taken over feeding Evan without fuss and the easy way Catherine had relieved him of the task. Joe could remember feeding his own daughter when she was small and becoming indignant when no praise was forthcoming.

Without wanting to, he began to make subconscious comparisons. How many times had he come home late to find Karen furious because he hadn't called? How many times had he come home on time, expecting dinner on the table, only to learn that Karen had a late day and was too tired to cook?

 

* * * * *

 

"Karen? I'm home! Karen?" Tired from a long day in court, he wanted nothing more than to sit down, take his shoes off, and relax with a cold beer.

Karen came in from the kitchen, her mouth set in a grim line. "Where have you been?"

"At the office. Where else?" He was already beginning to bristle at her tone of voice.

"How about home?" she asked icily.

"Karen, I have a job to do!"

"You might try remembering that you also have a wife and a daughter!" she snapped. "You promised to be home for supper this evening!"

"I what?" Dimly, he remembered her talking to him last night about getting home early, but half his mind had been elsewhere and he had forgotten. "Look, Karen, I've had a bad day. I'm sorry I forgot, okay?" He dropped emphatically into his favorite chair and hoped the subject was closed.

"Did it ever occur to you to extend the simple courtesy of a phone call?"

Okay, so the subject wasn't closed. He was turning to deliver a stinging retort when he belatedly recognized the little hitch in her voice.

"Karen? Aw, Karen, don't cry. Please?" He hated it when she cried.

"I was worried about you! And you didn't call, and Alexandra is asleep and didn't even get to see you..."

 

* * * * *

 

So many of their fights seemed to end that way... Karen in tears and Joe feeling angry and guilty. At the time, he had blamed her, but now he wondered how much was his fault.

And Alexandra. He loved his daughter and had taken part in some of the care involved when she was small. He had changed diapers and given bottles, gotten up at night when she cried and even given her an occasional bath, but somehow, he had always expected someone (Karen) to pat him on the back for it. He never quite looked at it as being part of his job as a father.

He was rescued from his thoughts by Vincent, who came back with Evan in one arm and a bottle in his hand.

"I should probably go," Joe ventured again, hoping to be dissuaded.

Vincent didn't disappoint him. "I wish you wouldn't. Catherine is enjoying your visit. She likes it when you tease her," Vincent added. "It brings out a side of her I rarely see."

Feeling more confident, Joe ran a curious eye across a short stack of books on the corner of a nearby desk where a familiar title caught his attention. "Philip Marks' A History of World War II," he observed aloud.

"Have you read it?" Vincent asked, his interest aroused.

"Yeah, finished it a few weeks ago," Joe said, picking up the volume in question. "I've always been fascinated by World War II."

"It is a period in history that intrigues me, as well."

"Really? Have you read..."

With that brief exchange, they went from two men making polite conversation for the sake of a woman they both cared about, to friends, excitedly exploring a new-found common interest. When Catherine came into the room accompanied by two clean, damp little boys, they were poring over a map spread out on Vincent's desk. Joe had Evan balanced contentedly in his lap and was remembering, from time to time, to be sure the bright-eyed little fellow still had hold of his bottle.

She seemed pleased to see them thus engrossed, offering Joe a crooked smile as Vincent took a moment to say goodnight to his older sons. When she came back from putting them to bed, Joe politely started to get up, but she waved him back down. "You two look like you're enjoying yourselves," she said. "I have a few things I need to get done, anyway."

Joe couldn't help making another quick, guilty comparison between her easy attitude and a memory of Karen, hovering resentfully in the background while Joe and his brother Mike spent a Sunday afternoon watching football.

After a while, Evan grew sleepy and Catherine stopped what she was doing to take him from Joe's lap and put him to bed. While she was in the nursery, the phone rang... once... twice... Vincent behaved as if the instrument did not exist and Joe was wondering if he should answer it when Catherine breezed in and picked it up. His ears perked up when her voice changed from casual to business.

"Yes. Yes. Where?" Cradling the phone between shoulder and ear, she jotted some quick notes. "All right. I'll be there."

When she hung up, he cocked a curious eyebrow in her direction. "Mark Patterson," she explained. "He's located that witness and set up a meeting for me."

Joe nodded his understanding. Mark Patterson was one of the better detectives operating out of Manhattan's fourteenth precinct and the witness in question had disappeared after his initial interview with the police.

"Where's the meet?" he asked automatically.

She named the neighborhood and he frowned, his protective instincts coming to the fore. "Let Michaels go."

"Why? One of us will be enough."

"I know. I want you to let Michaels do it."

Her jaw dropped. "Joe, this is my case..."

"I don't want you down there..."

"Why not?"

"Because it's dangerous, Radcliffe..."

"I can take care of myself, Joe..."

Their voices were rising in familiar combat. Oh, God, he thought suddenly. We're fighting. In her home. In front of... He spared a swift glance for Vincent, who was sitting very still, head down. He had not moved since the argument began, but there was something tense in the way he held himself.

Continuing the argument out of habit as his mind scrabbled for balance, Joe was about to invoke his authority as her superior when Vincent intervened.

"Catherine."

That one word, softly spoken, brought the hostilities to an abrupt end. Catherine's furious gaze broke as her eyes shifted from Joe to her husband and back again.

"All right!" she conceded ungracefully. "Michaels can do it. I can't fight both of you." Lips compressed, she stalked, with resentful dignity, out of the room.

"Thank you," Vincent said.

"You helped," Joe responded, feeling gratefully awkward. "She doesn't usually give up that easily."

"No," Vincent agreed.

Joe cast Vincent a sideways look. "Can I ask you something?"

Vincent tore his gaze from the doorway and looked at Joe directly. "Of course."

Joe swallowed, part of him appalled at what he was about to say. "Is it my imagination, or is she harder to get along with when she's pregnant?"

Joe hadn't realized 'til this moment that he had never heard Vincent laugh. It was low and quiet, but definitely a laugh.

"You aren't imagining it," Vincent assured him with the widest smile Joe had ever seen on him. "Her temper is shorter with me, but I was not aware that she had extended it to you."

"Some days I don't even dare say 'good morning,'" Joe confessed.

A flash of memory took him back to when Karen was pregnant with Alexandra; feeling fat and ugly, nothing Joe said could dissuade her. Her patience was non-existent and everything Joe did seemed to irritate her. Hormones, his younger brother, the father of three, had advised with a world-weary attitude of vast experience.

"Be patient with her, Joey," his mother had said. "Tell her every day how beautiful she is and how much you love her and how proud you will be when the baby comes. She'll be better. You'll see."

Joe came back from the past. "Will she be mad at you for long?" he asked Vincent quietly.

Again he heard the low, quiet chuckle. "No," Vincent said. "Her anger dissipates almost as quickly as it comes."

"You won't have to sleep on the couch, then."

Vincent seemed highly amused with the notion. "I doubt it."

A few minutes later Catherine came back barefoot, wearing a nightgown and robe. She approached the desk, looking contrite. "I'm sorry, Joe. I know you're just watching over me, and you're probably right about this one."

"My god, she just admitted she was wrong," he said without thinking. A small, warning movement from Vincent coincided with the return of his common sense. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" he said quickly, placatingly. "I didn't mean it."

She grinned at him, her earlier pique gone. "Yes, you did, but I forgive you. Don't," she added when he started to get up. "I've come to say goodnight, but you don't have to go yet. Vincent'll be up for hours and he's enjoying your visit, I can tell." She exchanged a look with Vincent, who added his own voice.

"It's been years since I've had someone with whom to argue the politics of the Second World War."

Catherine had come around to stand behind Vincent, her hands on his shoulders. Joe looked from face to face and shrugged. It was early yet and he was enjoying the talk as much as Vincent. "Okay, you've convinced me," he said. "Just promise you'll throw me out if I stay too long."

"Deal," Catherine said promptly. She seemed poised for something, but hesitant to act and Joe suddenly found himself very interested in studying a small portion of the map that still occupied most of the top of Vincent's massive desk. There was motion beside him and after a moment he felt Catherine's hand on his shoulder; as he looked up, she leaned down and kissed his cheek.

"Thanks, Joe." Her voice was low. "Goodnight," she said more loudly.

"'Night, Cathy."

"Goodnight, Catherine."

Joe watched her leave the room. Karen would never have done that; she would have stayed, making sure everyone knew of the sacrifice she was making. Later, she would have harangued Joe for allowing his friend to stay when she wanted to go to bed.

Reaching out, Joe fingered a slim volume from a stack on Vincent's desk. "You've read this?"

"Of course."

"Tell me what you think. Be honest."

Vincent leaned back and folded his hands thoughtfully. "His facts are correct," he began. "He is quite well-informed about events which took place between 1932 and 1938."

"Go on," Joe prompted.

"I disagree with his contention that more skillful negotiations with Hitler could have prevented the war." Vincent cocked his head, waiting for Joe's reaction.

"He says all war is an abomination," Joe pointed out, enjoying his role as devil's advocate. "That bloodshed should have been avoided at all costs."

"Sometimes the shedding of blood is necessary," Vincent said softly. "Sometimes evil cannot be stopped any other way." His eyes were distant.

"Eleven million innocent people died... families torn apart..." There were too many things Joe didn't want to think about. A devastating sense of pain and loss made him stop speaking and he bowed his head.

"Joe." Vincent's voice was low and compassionate and Joe looked up quickly.

"Do you wish to share what's troubling you?"

Joe's eyes widened. Cathy'd told him a little about Vincent's sensitivity, but he hadn't known he could be so easily read. He opened his mouth to demur, politely, and heard himself say, "It's Alexandra."

"Your daughter."

Joe nodded and looked at his hands. Ever since Karen had called this morning, he'd been trying not to think about what she'd told him.

"Come," Vincent said, rising. "Let's move over here."

Numbly, Joe followed to the other end of the room and sat in the worn leather chair Vincent pointed out to him. Vincent sat down opposite and leaned back, his gaze calm and accepting. "Tell me," he urged gently.

"I don't know where to start," Joe stammered. "I don't know what Cathy's told you about me..."

"She shares stories of her friends with me," Vincent said, "but if you have told her something in confidence, she will not have betrayed that."

"Not even to you?" Somehow, Joe had a hard time believing that.

"Not even to me," Vincent confirmed. "Is your daughter well?" he asked after a moment.

Joe nodded. "Yeah, she's fine, she's great. She's... Karen called me this morning... you know who Karen is?"

"Your wife. Alexandra's mother."

"Ex-wife," Joe corrected, and Vincent nodded his understanding.

"She called to tell me..." he paused for breath; just saying the words was painful. "She's moving... in two weeks." He stopped. "She has a new job... in Boston."

Vincent's eyes reflected a distant, remembered pain and Joe had a sudden, inane memory of Cathy, years ago, accepting and then rejecting a new job in Rhode Island.

"Your daughter lives with her mother?" Vincent's question was softly compassionate.

Joe nodded. The image of Alexandra, dark eyes huge in an elfin face framed by fawn curls, imprinted itself on his consciousness.

"I hate this!" he burst out. "I hate being a part-time father! I hate seeing her alternate weekends and Tuesday nights. If she goes... if she goes... I won't even have that." He finished in a whisper, tears tightening his throat and dampening his cheeks. Blinking furiously, he looked to see if Vincent had noticed, and was startled to see tears in his eyes as well.

 

* * * * *

 

It was well over two hours later when Joe left the Chandler brownstone. Encouraged by Vincent's empathy, he'd poured his heart out, telling more than he ever had about himself, Karen, their brief life together and the beautiful child they'd been blessed with. As Joe spoke, Vincent's entire being conveyed the impression that nothing was more important.

"So much of it was my fault," Joe had said. "I can see that now. I watched you and Cathy this evening and I wondered; if Karen and I could have been as generous with each other as you are, maybe we could have made it work. Maybe we could have been happy."

"Perhaps," Vincent had said, noncommittally. "Did you love her very much?"

"Yes, I loved her. We were happy once..." his voice softened. "I remember the day we were married... Springtime... the sun was shining..." He smiled. "We were married in the Church... it made my mom and Karen's folks happy, and we didn't care, as long as we could be together.

"We used to go on picnics. Karen would pack a lunch and we'd go to the park to eat and feed the ducks and walk under the trees, holding hands...

"When Alex was really little, we'd bring her to our bed on Sunday mornings so we could sleep a little longer, but it never worked, because Alex would never go back to sleep. She'd want to play, and you know how irresistible babies can be.

"I don't know what happened, Vincent. We lost the happiness somewhere. We learned how to hurt each other, and we couldn't make it right anymore." He sighed. "We were both too stubborn to admit when we were wrong."

He'd paused. "I can live with that, though. It's Alex. She's the best thing that ever happened in my entire life, Vincent, and I'm losing her. What if it were you? What if someone was taking your boys?"

Vincent's eyes had closed briefly. "I cannot imagine such pain," he'd said slowly. "But you are not losing her forever, Joe. She will still be there, alive, happy and well. You will see her from time to time, she will know you."

Vincent had tilted his head, his eyes full of sad wisdom. "Though there be thorns, it's the rose you remember." He'd sighed. "What of Karen? Will this move be good for her?"

It was a thought that hadn't occurred to Joe and he'd pondered it carefully. "I guess it will be," he'd said slowly. "She can help people more in her new position, and she has a hard time being independent here in New York. Her parents mean well, but they spoil her, and so do her brothers. In return, they expect her to be this perfect picture they have of a daughter. Nobody lets Karen be Karen." He'd paused as realization swept him. "Not even me."

Somewhere in the course of the conversation, it occurred to Joe that the finest thing he could do for his daughter, and for his daughter's mother, was to give Karen his approval for whatever she needed to do, to let Karen do what was best for Karen, without applying pressure or doling out guilt. Alexandra was a sensitive child; she would suffer if her mother was unhappy, and would thrive if she had the contented home she deserved. God knew Joe couldn't provide that, not with his job.He'd call Karen first thing in the morning, he decided, and give his blessing on the new job in Boston. He could see Alexandra summers and holidays and long weekends; there would be plenty of opportunities for visits.

His step grew lighter as he determined to make the best of the situation, and gradually his thoughts turned to Vincent, who had provided the focus that made it possible.

He'd been prepared to tolerate Cathy's husband; he hadn't expected to like him. Yet there had been a feeling of cautious rapport from the beginning, which had blossomed as they began to know one another. Joe found himself looking forward to his next visit.

I have that book on the war in the Pacific, he thought. Vincent would enjoy it. Maybe I'll take it to work and give it to Cathy.

He grinned wryly.

 

THE END