Rivals

by Becky Bain


Catherine Chandler drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as she peered through the driving rain. "Come on," she muttered impatiently.

No one appeared in the doorway she was watching. Behind her, a car tooted its horn and she glanced in the mirror with a sigh and took her foot off the brake. She eased forward slowly, still hoping to see her expected passengers emerge from the building, but to no avail. At the corner, she turned and accelerated, going around the block for the fourth time. If those kids didn't show up soon...

She pulled back onto 71st Street in time to see a car parked in the middle of the block pull out. She shot forward, claiming the space as her own, and maneuvered her car into it.

The rain had eased just a little and she hurried through it to a renovated brownstone. A discreet sign by the door read Madame Claire's School of Ballet.

In the foyer sat a girl, about eleven years old, engrossed in a book. Catherine stopped beside her. "Anna, where have you been? I've been waiting ten minutes. And where's your sister?"

The girl looked up, startled. "Oh, Mom, I'm sorry. I didn't realize it was so late." She glanced toward the rear of the building. "Caroline must still be in the studio. A friend of Madame's is here. They were talking."

"About dancing," Catherine guessed. Her elder-by-twelve-minutes daughter lived, ate, and breathed ballet; Catherine suspected she even included in her bedtime prayer a request that she not grow too tall to be a dancer.

"I guess." Anna took dancing lessons only because her sister did. She much preferred to escape in the pages of a book, and already her attention was straying back to the one in her lap.

Catherine left Anna reading in the foyer and went to the primary dance studio, in the rear of the building. Through the little glass window she could see Caroline, still in leotard and leg warmers, engaged in passionate conversation with Madame Claire and another, dark-haired woman. She pushed the door open and went inside.

Caroline looked up; her expression went from pleased recognition to momentary horror as she gave a hasty glance at the wall clock. "Uh-oh."

Madame Claire looked up, too. "Uh-oh?" she queried. "Caroline, were you to be outside for your mother to pick you up?" Her voice held the faintest trace of her native French accent as she faced Catherine, apology in her manner. "I am so sorry. A very good friend of mine has come to visit, and Caroline had so many questions!"

"Yes, please forgive us," the other woman said, rising from her chair. "Caroline is simply charming!"

The shock of recognition was instantaneous; Catherine barely heard Caroline's happily bubbled introduction.

"Yes, of course," she murmured politely, extending her hand. "How are you, Lisa?"

Lisa frowned prettily. "Have we met?"

Only innate good manners kept Catherine's mouth from dropping open; she wouldn't have thought the circumstances surrounding their earlier meeting could be easily forgotten. Then she considered that this was Lisa, and that Lisa remembered what she chose to remember. "Once," she answered Lisa's question. "A long time ago. I'm Catherine Chandler."

Even with the name, it was a moment before recognition flared in Lisa's eyes. "Oh! Of course." She smiled. "I meet so many people... How have you been? You have a beautiful daughter. She dances well."

"I have two beautiful daughters," Catherine answered evenly.

"Yes, of course. But your other daughter doesn't seem to care much for the dance."

There is more to life than dancing, she thought venomously. "No. She dances mostly because Caroline does."

"Ah. But Caroline has a passion, and a gift."

"Do I really?" Caroline interrupted eagerly.

Lisa gave her a brilliant smile. "Of course you do. I wouldn't say so otherwise, would I?"

Catherine's opinion of Lisa Campbell was based on a pair of very brief meetings, a little on what she'd heard Vincent say, and a great deal on what he'd left unsaid. Right now she wished Lisa wouldn't raise Caroline's hopes so casually. Still, she owed the woman courtesy, if nothing else. "How have you been, Lisa?"

"I'm fine," Lisa answered easily. "I don't dance anymore, you know. But I've been teaching a little. In fact, that's why I'm here. There may be a place for me at the American School of Ballet."

Catherine nodded politely while beside her, Caroline made noises of excitement. "Really? That's great! I want to try for a place at the School when I'm older. If my parents let me."

Lisa turned a mildly startled gaze toward Catherine. "Why would they not let you?"

"We want what's best for our daughter," Catherine replied tightly. "As all parents do. The intensive training at the School may not be what's best for Caroline."

"Of course," Lisa agreed, perhaps too quickly. "Tell me, Catherine, do you still see Vincent?"

Caroline was suddenly very still. Aware of Madame Claire beside her, mentally damning Lisa for her lack of discretion, Catherine nodded warily. "Often." No need to tell how often.

"How is he? Is he well?"

"Quite well."

Lisa sighed. "It would be wonderful to see him again. Perhaps, after I've been to the School..."

For a moment, Catherine resisted the very idea. But Vincent himself would wish to see Lisa, she was sure. Might as well get it over with. "Would you like to come to dinner? Tomorrow, perhaps?"

Lisa's eyes widened a fraction. "At your home? Can Vincent be there?"

Can, not will, Catherine mused silently. At least she maintains some sense of reality. "Yes," she answered aloud. "He'll be there."

 

In the car, Caroline repeated the entire conversation word for word for her sister's benefit and both turned to their mother, abuzz with curiosity.

"How, Mom? How can she know about Daddy? A famous dancer like Lisa Campbell..."

The last came from Caroline, awed and amazed.

"She wasn't always famous," Catherine reminded them. "Once she was a girl, just like you."

"Yeah," Caroline agreed dreamily. "But she grew up and learned to dance..."

"Probably not in that order," Anna inserted pragmatically.

"...and then one day, maybe, Daddy got to go someplace where he could see her dance, and he fell in love..."

That struck closer to home than Catherine was strictly comfortable with, but already Anna was objecting. "How could he fall in love with her? She's just a dancer. He waited until later, when he met Mom..."

Catherine cleared her throat. "Actually, girls, your father's known Lisa for a number of years. She grew up in the tunnels."

There was a moment's stunned silence and then both girls began talking at once.

"But how..."

"But when...

They were still bombarding her with questions, seldom waiting for answers, when they reached home, a converted townhouse with individual apartments on each of the four floors, and tunnel access in the basement. Catherine owned the building and occupied the first floor apartment. The other apartments were let to helpers.

The apartment itself was a comfortable four rooms: two bedrooms, living room and kitchen. The single bathroom was its only real drawback as far as Catherine was concerned; two soon-to-be teenage girls could and did spend amazing amounts of time closeted in there.

Vincent was waiting and the girls launched themselves at him before they were fairly in the door, both talking at once. "Daddy, Daddy, guess what!" Their jumbled explanation made little sense as they competed to tell the news. "And she's coming to dinner tomorrow!" Caroline finished triumphantly.

"Who?" Vincent inquired.

Anna sighed. "Daddy, weren't you listening? Lisa Campbell."

Catherine saw his eyes flicker with something remote and a little sad and he looked at her over their daughters' heads. "Lisa's here?"

Catherine nodded. "She was at Madame Claire's when I picked up the girls. She asked to see you."

"And she's coming. Tomorrow."

"Yes. Unless you'd rather not."

"No," he said slowly. "I would like to see her again."

At dinner, the girls plied him with questions about Lisa and their youth together. He answered them simply and easily, and if a trace of wistfulness sometimes slipped into his voice, it wasn't surprising. He'd known Lisa, cared about her, for a very long time.

Catherine struggled with her feelings. She knew very well that Vincent loved her. He proved it every day in a hundred ways. There was no reason at all to let Lisa Campbell's presence bother her. No reason at all.

 

After supper, Vincent went below. He'd promised to meet Mouse and Kanin to discuss an upcoming project.

The girls helped with the dishes and retreated to their bedroom to finish homework and giggle over the next night's dinner guest. Catherine settled at the dining table with her briefcase. Maybe she could get some work done this evening.

In a way, she'd been glad to see Vincent go; if he'd stayed, he'd surely have noticed her disquiet, but she thought she could keep him from sensing it while he worked. And maybe by the time he returned, she'd have worked through her feelings. Or maybe she'd just try to be asleep.

She hated feeling so unsettled. Especially now, when their lives had been smooth and peaceful for so long, a peace achieved only after years of hardship, struggle, and even strident dissent. Of its own accord, her memory took her back to their first intimacy and its resultant joy and hope and, inevitably, uncertainty. It hadn't surprised her at all that Vincent had proved to be a sensitive, tender lover; his insistence that there be no children hadn't been surprising, either. She had acquiesced because it seemed so important to him, and because, intellectually, at least, she could understand his reasoning.

He'd seemed understanding when, despite all their precautions, she became pregnant. He worried and fretted and distressed himself during the term of her pregnancy, but when she gave birth to identical twin girls, he became a doting father and it was clear to Catherine that no woman, no children, had ever been more loved.

But he had been adamant there be no more children. Ever. And with their two small, living reminders of the flaws in even the most effective of precautions, he had retreated to the most reliable of all birth control methods - abstinence. After weeks of fruitless argument and mounting frustration, Catherine had taken matters into her own hands; she'd gone to Peter Alcott and undergone a tubal ligation.

Vincent had been furious. He'd actually shouted, raving about how she'd irrevocably limited her future choices. She knew exactly what that meant, and found herself shouting back, telling him he was a fool and worse if he thought there was a chance in hell she'd ever want to have any other man's children. He'd stormed out of the apartment; she didn't see him again for three days. Even when he came back, he fumed silently.

She had waited him out. Nothing he could do or say would change what she had done, and gradually, he made his peace with her choice. But, looking back, Catherine wondered if it might have been her way of showing him she could be as stubborn as he - and, perhaps, a form of penance to make up for the other commitment - the one she had tried and failed so miserably to make.

For, at the end of her pregnancy and while the girls were tiny, she had tried to make herself a part of his world. She had left her job, her apartment, her friends, and had moved below. For a while it had been all right. The babies kept her busy, and there was Vincent, returning to their chamber each evening. There had been the joy of waking beside him in the morning, of long, lazy Sundays together, of quiet, intimate candlelight meals while the babies slept in their shared cradle. Blissful moments, never to be forgotten.

But those things took up only a small portion of her time. And the truth was, there was nothing constructive or fulfilling for her to do. Oh, she could help the women with the unskilled work - cleaning, laundry, simple mending. In the kitchen, she could peel vegetables for William, or wash dishes.

And she hated it. She wasn't any good at that sort of work, never had been. The only bright spot was the government class she taught to the older children, and that was only twice a week. Not enough to offset the other.

She tried desperately to mask her unhappiness, loving Vincent and determined to make it work, but in the end, it was Vincent who pointed out the obvious. "You must go back," he'd said.

"No."

"You must. You're unhappy here, Catherine. We both know it."

"I don't want to go. I don't want to leave you. I love you."

"I know that. And you must know how glad I am to have you here. How glad I am that you tried. But it doesn't work, Catherine. You must go back."

"And what happens to the girls?" she'd asked in a sudden rush of fury, even as she recognized that the anger was directed less at him for saying it, than at herself because it was true. "Do we split them up? One for you, one for me? Like The Parent Trap?"

That had given him pause. "What?"

Half-laughing, half-crying, she'd given him the gist of the movie she remembered from her childhood. "Identical twins. Both played by Hayley Mills," she'd added inanely. "Split up when their parents divorced, grew up not knowing of each other."

Vincent had crossed his arms and fixed her with a firm, unwavering look. "I have no intention of allowing my daughters to be separated from one another. Or from their mother."

"What about you?"

"Or from me. We'll work something out, Catherine, and they'll be with both of us and we'll be together whenever we can. And we'll be happy."

And he'd been right. As usual. Catherine had found a two-bedroom apartment in a building with tunnel access and Vincent came nearly every night to be with her and the girls. The District Attorney's office was happy to have her back, and when she worked, the twins went below, where they spent time in the nursery if their father couldn't be with them. Gradually, she'd come to realize the failing was not so much in the tunnels themselves, or in her, but in the differences in lifestyles. She'd have been just as miserable if she'd gone to live on a cattle ranch in the wilds of Montana.

Over the years, she'd learned to appreciate the happiness they'd carved out for themselves. And she'd come to understand that successful relationships are made up of compromise and sacrifice. She and Vincent had compromised and sacrificed no more than many other happy couples. What they had was more than they'd given up.

But still, sometimes, on nights like this one, she remembered... and regretted. And it didn't help at all to realize Lisa Campbell hadn't been able to live in the tunnels, either.

 

The next evening, Lisa arrived for dinner fashionably late. The girls leaped for the door when the bell rang, wrangling over who would open it. Caroline won and ushered their guest inside with an air of ceremony.

"Hello, Lisa," Catherine greeted her. "Welcome to our home."

"Hello." Lisa proffered a heavy bottle. "I wasn't sure what you were serving. I hope this will do."

The wine was a fine, dry claret. According to the label, it came from a fashionable French vineyard -- no California wines for Lisa Campbell! Catherine could guess what the bottle had cost and wondered who Lisa was trying to impress.

Behind her, Vincent stepped forward. "Lisa," he said quietly.

For a moment, Lisa seemed to hover, uncertain. Then Vincent opened his arms and she flew into them swiftly, gracefully. Her arms twined around his neck, her cheek pressed his. Catherine looked away, handing the wine bottle to Anna, sending the girls into the kitchen to put finishing touches on the meal.

When she looked back, Vincent had his hands on Lisa's shoulders, holding her at arm's length.

"Well?" Lisa teased him, playing the coquette. "Have I changed much?"

"No. You're still beautiful." His pronouncement was stated simply, sincerely, and Catherine escaped to the kitchen.

"You can't get the cork out that way!" Anna was insisting.

Caroline was stubbornly hacking at the neck of the wine bottle with a knife; Catherine intervened, glad of the disruption.

"Caroline, don't. Haven't you ever seen anyone open a bottle of wine before?"

"No."

"Well, there's a corkscrew in one of those drawers over there. Find it and I'll show you how it works."

The corkscrew turned up quickly and the girls gathered close for a demonstration. Catherine inserted the tip of the corkscrew into the cork. After a couple of turns, when the screw was firmly imbedded, she handed the whole thing to Caroline. "Keep turning. When the corkscrew's all the way in, you can use it to pull the cork out. Gently!"

Caroline nodded and went to work.

"Mom?"

"Yes, Anna?"

"Were Daddy and Miss Campbell very good friends when they were young?"

"They were very close," Catherine answered.

"Boyfriend and girlfriend close? Or just friends close?"

The conversation was skirting near areas Catherine would just as soon not think about now; she brushed the question aside casually. "That might be something you'd want to ask your father."

"But don't you know?" Anna persisted. "I mean, Daddy tells you everything. Doesn't he?"

"Most of the time," Catherine conceded. "But some things are not mine to tell."

"But it shouldn't be a secret," Caroline argued, joining in. "You told us about your boyfriend in high school. What was his name? Greg?"

"Gary. And telling stories on myself is not the same as telling them on your father."

"But you know," Caroline prodded, her blue eyes intense. "I can tell."

Catherine sighed. "Yes, I do. A little. And yes, if you must know, I believe there was some romantic interest between them. For a little while, at least."

"Ooh, neat," Caroline sighed with prurient approval; from her tone of voice, one might assume that even now, Vincent and Lisa were in the living room renewing their romance. "Are you jealous, Mom?"

That struck closer to home than Catherine would have liked.

Anna poked her sister. "Don't," she said indignantly. "Daddy loves Mom. And us. Not her."

It was past time to derail this particular line of discussion. Catherine put a firm clamp on her own feelings and addressed her daughters sternly. "What Anna says is true," she said, "but your father also has a deep affection for Lisa. Now let's get this food on the table."

The dining table occupied one end of the living room. It had been set earlier and it took Catherine and the girls only moments to carry out the meal they'd spent most of the afternoon preparing.

Vincent and Lisa were deep in conversation; from what Catherine could hear, they were speaking of those below: Father, Pascal, Mary. They came to the table readily, though, when Caroline called them.

The meal was a simple one: broiled Cornish game hen with wild rice and baby carrots, green salad and whole wheat rolls baked fresh by William this morning. Tall glasses of milk stood beside the girls' plates; the adults had Lisa's wine.

The initial dinner conversation was unexceptional as Lisa and Vincent continued to discuss tunnel residents and helpers, past and present. Vincent appealed to Catherine for an occasional comment or observation, but for the most part, this was a two-person discussion. Lisa scarcely seemed to notice anyone else was present.

Catherine bore this rudeness stoically, picking at her dinner and speaking quietly with her daughters. Lisa's self-centeredness didn't surprise her, but Vincent's apparent acquiescence did. She couldn't help a small swell of satisfaction when Caroline, bold and impetuous, interrupted.

"Excuse me, Miss Campbell?" She waited politely until Lisa turned to her.

"Yes... I'm sorry. Which one are you?"

It was not an uncommon question; many casual acquaintances had difficulty telling the twins apart.

Caroline laughed. "It's easy to tell, once you know the secret."

Lisa entered into the game with spirit. "Secret? I love secrets! Tell me!"

The twins glanced at each other and giggled. "Guess," Anna challenged.

Lisa looked carefully from one to the other, comparing. Both girls strongly resembled their mother, with her generous square jaw, wide mouth and delicate nose. Even their eyebrows were hers, arching lightly over wide-set eyes. Both were blond, their hair straight and silky rather than wildly unruly. Only their eyes, vibrant and expressive, were Vincent's.

At last Lisa sighed. "I give up. What is it?"

Caroline leaned close and opened her eyes wide. "My eyes. They're blue."

Lisa looked. "Yes. So?"

Anna duplicated her sister's pose. Lisa looked, and looked again. "Your eyes... what color are they?"

"Green," Anna said, with satisfaction. "Mine are green."

Lisa looked to Vincent. "Is that possible?"

"It's improbable," he admitted. "Since they are identical. But there they are." He made a small gesture, as if presenting her with something, and she turned back for another look.

"How unusual."

"Well, we're an unusual family," Anna pointed out. "Daddy's just glad we weren't born with fur and fangs." She grinned happily.

Vincent barely winced - the girls teased him incessantly and he'd become inured - but Lisa spun sharply. It was easy to read the shock on her face. "But I thought..."

"What? That 'Daddy' was just a courtesy title?" Catherine asked, more sharply than she'd intended.

Vincent touched her hand in an attempt to calm her, and turned to Lisa. "They are my daughters," he explained placidly. "In the eyes of the world below, Catherine is my wife."

Lisa's startled glance skimmed across her as if, Catherine thought bitterly, looking too long might contaminate her.

But a moment later, Lisa's smooth facade settled back into place. "How nice," she said easily. "Congratulations."

"Excuse me," Caroline said, interrupting again.

Lisa turned to her with well-disguised relief. "Yes. The blue-eyed one. You still didn't tell me which one you are."

"Caroline. I'm Caroline."

"Oh, yes. The dancer."

Caroline nodded vigorously. "That's what I wanted to ask you. Your first ballet, the first one you danced in. What was it?"

Lisa leaned forward, radiating charm. "You know, Caroline, I was thinking about that just the other day. I was eighteen, hardly old enough to dance in public, and I was very lucky. I won the role of Clara in The Nutcracker. And I danced right here in New York."

"Were you scared?" Anna asked.

"Terrified," Lisa confided. "But then I remembered something Vincent once told me." She paused - for dramatic effect, Catherine thought.

"What?" Caroline leaned closer, rapt.

"He told me I was brave, and strong. That I could do anything..."

It was too much. Catherine rose abruptly and began clearing the table. Lisa shifted to allow her plate to be removed without so much as an acknowledging glance.

Vincent followed her into the kitchen and took the soiled dishes from her hands. "What is it?"

She fought for composure. "Nothing. It's nothing. I'm being silly."

He placed the plates on the counter and took her into his arms. "If it distresses you, it isn't silly," he argued. "Tell me."

"Did you...?" Catherine faltered.

"Did I..." he prompted. "Did I what?"

"Did you really say that to her?"

"What?"

"What she said. Just now. About her being strong and brave..."

"I don't remember. I might have." He stepped back to look at her. "Is that what upset you?"

She shook her head. "Yes. No. Maybe."

His eyes held gentle amusement. "You seem unsure."

"No. I mean, I was already upset a little... the way she's been behaving, as if she's the center of the universe..."

"Lisa has always believed herself the center of the universe," Vincent acknowledged. "There was a time when I believed it, too."

That hurt, more than it should have. She nodded miserably. "I know. But when she talked about you telling her she was strong... you said that to me once... I guess I thought I was the only one. And she looks at me as if she can't imagine what any sane woman would be doing in your bed and I want to strangle her... Oh, Vincent, I'm not making any sense."

"Yes, you are," he contradicted. "I understand exactly what you mean."

One glance at his face convinced her he was telling the truth. "Vincent, I..."

"Hush," he commanded, placing a finger over her lips. "Listen. I want to tell you something."

She hushed. And she listened.

"I used to lie awake at night, and I would pray fervent prayers that somehow, God would make it possible for Lisa to be mine. I was certain that would make my life complete."

The ache she felt was worse, she hoped, than he knew. He touched her face, feathering her cheek with the soft fur on the back of his fingers.

"But He knew what He was doing when He took her away from me. Lisa could never have made me happy. She loves me, yes, but her love is in spite of my differences. I am fond of her. I always will be. But she isn't you.

"You see all of me. Your love encompasses all that I am, not merely what you wish me to be. You accept my limitations. You've sacrificed much for me, Catherine, made great concessions to make our dream possible. When I found you, I knew you were all I had ever dreamed of. You are the missing part of me; I need you to be whole."

It could very well have been the longest, most complete declaration of love and devotion he'd ever given her.

And suddenly it didn't matter any more that Lisa Campbell was cool and arrogant and utterly self-centered. Neither her selective rudeness nor her equally selective memory meant anything.

What mattered was Vincent. What mattered was the life they'd built together, the children they'd brought into the world, the love they'd always had for one another.

Nothing could change that, nothing could take it away.

And she could feel, at last, what she should have been able to feel all along. Compassion. Compassion for Lisa Campbell, who lived a stark, sterile life. A life without pain, yes, without hardships, because she chose not to acknowledge those things, but a life also devoid of deep passion, a life empty of laughter. A life without love.

In that moment, Catherine knew she could never again resent Lisa Campbell.

"Come," she murmured, into her husband's shirt. "Let's go entertain our guest."


The End