UNREQUITED

by Becky Bain 

 


 

"Cathy, there's someone I'd like you to meet."

Catherine looked up from the files spread out on her desk and smiled at Joe Maxwell and the man who stood beside him.

"This is Josh McKenzie," Joe went on. "He's just starting as an investigator with us. Cathy's one of our best," he added, turning to the man. "I know she'll be glad to help if you have any questions."

"Of course," Catherine agreed, offering her hand. "Welcome to the D.A.'s office, Josh."

She hated it when men only grasped her fingers to shake hands; Josh McKenzie took it fully, his grip firm and his gaze direct. He looked about her age, blond and blue-eyed. His hair was cut a little longer than strict fashion dictated, but it was carefully styled and his warm smile had just the right touch of friendly charm.

"Thanks," he said. "Already I think I'm going to like working here," he added.

Joe smothered a grin. "I'm taking Josh out for a welcome lunch. Why don't you join us?"

Despite the grin, his expression showed no sign of an ulterior motive, so she nodded. "All right." It was amazing how quickly she'd evolved from novice to old hand. Joe had asked her to provide guidance for Rita Escobar when Rita was new; now, apparently, he was about to ask the same for Josh McKenzie.

The men moved away and she went back to her files. She was just straightening her desk so she'd be able to find things after lunch when Joe rushed up.

"Something's come up, Radcliffe. I'm stuck here. Can you take Josh to lunch, you know, make him feel welcome, maybe give him a few hints?" he asked hurriedly.

"Sure. Don't worry. I'll take good care of him."

"Thanks, kiddo." Joe vanished in the direction of his office and Catherine reached for her coat.

She found Josh at his desk, reading through some case files.

"Ready for lunch?" she asked brightly.

His face lit with a smile as he closed the folder on his desk and slipped into his jacket.

When they reached the street, Catherine suggested a sandwich shop within walking distance. Josh agreed and they strolled companionably, exchanging casual conversation along the way.

Like Catherine, Josh had been brought up within the narrow confines of money and society. He had attended all the "right" schools, and, until recently, had worked for one of the "right" law firms.

"Corporate law?" she guessed.

"Corporate law," he confirmed as they reached the restaurant. "One day I woke up and realized that I wasn't doing anything with my life. So I quit the firm and applied with the D.A., and was very surprised when I got the job."

"You sound like me."

That simple comment was apparently enough to pique his interest and while they ate, Catherine found herself giving him an abbreviated version of her own experiences. Josh listened attentively and she found herself making a mental list, the way she used to do when she met an interesting man. Josh was good-looking, intelligent, funny, charming, and shared many of her interests. But when she held the list up beside the reality of Vincent... and Josh McKenzie fell woefully short.

He insisted on paying for their lunches and protectively took her arm as they walked back to the office.

"Thanks for lunch, Josh," Catherine said as he escorted her to her desk and helped her off with her coat. "Even though I was supposed to be taking you out," she scolded gently.

"What, and crush my male ego? I can't be seen allowing beautiful women to buy my lunch!" The warmth of his laugh lingered as he walked away, and Catherine smiled after him.

Evening found her attending a glittery, upscale charity dance. She would have preferred to mail a check and stay home, but the chairperson of the organizing committee was an old college friend and had pleaded and cajoled until Catherine agreed to come. She hoped she wouldn't have to stay long.

As she gave her coat to the attendant, she heard a cheerful voice calling her name. She turned, pleasantly surprised to find Josh McKenzie beaming at her.

"I didn't know you'd be here tonight." He was clearly pleased to see her as he came forward to take her arm. "Are you alone?"

"Yes," she admitted. "I'm afraid so."

"Then you must give me the first dance," he told her, and pulled her out onto the floor.

He turned out to be an excellent dancer and she already knew he was good company. Much to her own surprise, she thoroughly enjoyed the evening and when it ended, Josh took her home. With a courtly, old-world insistence that reminded her somehow of Vincent, he asked the cab to wait while he escorted her to her own door.

She thanked him and he smiled and pressed her hand. "My pleasure," he answered. "See you in the morning."

"Goodnight."

It occurred to her, as she unlocked her door, to wonder exactly what Josh's perception of the evening had been, but once inside her apartment, a familiar silhouette on her balcony drove all other thoughts away.

"Vincent!"

"Catherine," he greeted her softly.

"I wasn't expecting you," she chided him gently. "I would have come home earlier if I had known."

"You were enjoying yourself," he answered, taking her hands in his. "I wanted only to see you for a few minutes on this beautiful night."

"It is lovely, isn't it?" she agreed, wondering how she could have missed noticing the soft radiance of the stars, the glittering brilliance of the city lights. "Have you been waiting long?" She moved closer, basking in the glow of his presence.

"Not long." His tender smile surrounded her, warming her from within. "There is a concert in the park tomorrow night. Will you come?"

Only one reply was possible. "Of course."

The pleasure he felt in her answer was reflected in his face and he pulled her to him. She pressed her face against the warm roughness of his cloak as he held her close. "I must go," he whispered finally. "One of the sentries isn't feeling well and I promised to take his shift. It begins soon and I must be there."

Reluctantly, Catherine released him. "Tomorrow..." she promised softly.

"Yes," he agreed. A last look and, with a fluid movement, he dropped over the balcony wall and was gone.

 

The following morning, Catherine was guiding Josh through some of the intricacies of the case filing system when Joe stormed around a corner and slapped a buff-colored folder on her desk.

"Joe?" she asked cautiously. "What's wrong?"

"I'll tell you what's wrong," he snapped. "Your witness never showed up at the hearing this morning! I was there. The judge was there. Even the defendant and his attorney were there. But your witness never came. The judge dismissed the charges for lack of evidence and raked me over the coals for wasting the court's time." His face was dark with fury as he stalked off, leaving her open-mouthed with astonishment.

"Cathy?" Josh asked after a cautious minute. "What happened?"

"I don't know," she admitted, turning to study the file Joe had left. "I'm sure I subpoenaed... yes, here it is." She held up a copy of the subpoena.

Josh perched anxiously on the edge of her desk. "Then it's not your fault the guy didn't show up. Are you going to tell Joe?"

Catherine smiled and shook her head. "Not now. After he cools off, he'll be back to apologize. I'll tell him then. And meanwhile," she added, reaching for the phone, "I'll try to find out what did happen to my witness."

She had just tracked down the elusive witness when Joe peered sheepishly around the corner. "Hi," he said awkwardly.

"Hi." She smiled back at him, enjoying his discomfiture.

"Uh, do you have that file..."

Still smiling, she pushed it across the desk.

"Thanks." He picked up the folder and toyed with the edges. "Listen, Radcliffe," he said finally, "I'm sorry I blew up..."

"It's okay, Joe," she interrupted. "And I found my witness. He was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy last night, but his doctor says he should be able to testify in a week or so." She propped her chin on her palm and grinned. "Guess you'll have to refile the charges."

Joe fumbled for a reply; she let him squirm for a few seconds before she let him off the hook. "Come on, Joe. It's lunch time. I'll buy you a sandwich."

"I can't, Radcliffe. I have a meeting with Levinson in..." he glanced at his watch, "...fifteen minutes. But... hey!"

He turned quickly and grabbed Josh, who was passing by, and dragged him over. "Take McKenzie instead," he suggested.

Catherine opened her mouth to protest and realized that Josh was regarding her uneasily. Joe's blatant matchmaking seemed as alarming to him as to her.

She relaxed and smiled. "Come on, Josh. My treat this time."

He blinked in surprise and smiled back. Catherine reached for her coat and they walked down to the same sandwich shop.

"So," Josh said a few minutes later, in between bites of an enormous corned beef sandwich, "are you doing anything tonight?"

Catherine couldn't help smiling as she contemplated the evening to come. "Yes. There's a concert in the park that I'm looking forward to."

"Tchaikovsky?" At her nod, he went on. "I was thinking of going to that. Are you going alone?"

"No, I'm meeting a friend," she explained.

"Oh. Well, I think I'll go anyway. Maybe I'll see you there."

"Maybe." Catherine was carefully non-committal.

That evening, she had just finished dressing when someone knocked on her front door. Puzzled, she padded to the door in her stocking feet to ask who was calling.

"It's Josh McKenzie," came the answer through the closed door.

Even more puzzled, she unlocked the door and swung it wide.

Josh's smile was awkward. "Hi. I hope I'm not bothering you..."

"I'm just getting ready to go..."

"To the concert?"

Catherine nodded.

"Well, actually, that's why I'm here. I only live a couple of blocks away, and you said you were meeting someone there, so, since I had to practically pass your place to get there, I thought I'd see if you wanted to walk over together."

Catherine was so taken aback that, for a moment, she couldn't think of anything to say. Flustered by her reaction, Josh began to apologize. "I'm sorry, maybe I should have called first..."

He looked so stricken that she found herself reassuring him. "It was very nice of you to think of it," she said slowly. She groped helplessly for an excuse, but she'd already told him she was ready to go and now couldn't see a graceful way out. "Let me get my coat," she said weakly.

It was hard not to show the despair she felt as they left her building, when she knew Vincent waited patiently below, and they were halfway across the park before it occurred to her that she needed some sort of explanation as to why there would be no one there to meet her after all.

"I guess it's a good thing you came," she told Josh finally. "My friend called to say he couldn't go, so I was planning to go by myself." It sounded lame, but Josh seemed to accept it easily.

"Then would you care to sit with me?" he invited diffidently.

She agreed absently and they found seats near the front, chatting idly until the music began. From her seat Catherine could just see the corner of the grate which covered the tunnel where she and Vincent listened to the music when they came to concerts together.

Fleetingly, she wondered if he was there now, alone. If he was, then he also knew she was here... or was he waiting for her still at the junction below her building? Perhaps he had climbed to her balcony. She wished she'd had the presence of mind to leave a note there. "I'm sorry, Vincent," she whispered to herself, knowing he would feel her regret, wherever he was.

Lost in these troubled thoughts, she couldn't keep her mind on the music. She was so distracted that Josh noticed and leaned over to whisper his concern.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry. I've developed this terrible headache..." She lied without hesitation. "Maybe I'd better go home."

Making sympathetic noises, Josh rose and guided her carefully through the narrow rows of seats and away from the crowd.

"Thank you, Josh, but you don't need to walk me home. I don't want you to miss the rest of the music because of me."

"Of course I'll take you home!" Josh was indignant. "You can't cross the park alone."

Not only did he insist on taking her home, but also on coming in to be sure she was all right. "My sister gets migraines," he explained as he unlocked her front door. "So I know how a bad headache can be."

He made her sit while he rummaged in her tiny kitchen, emerging a few minutes later with a steaming teapot and a bottle of aspirin. "Take three," he directed, pouring her a cup of tea. "Then drink this."

She did as directed, feeling guilty for deceiving him and, at the same time, wishing she could get rid of him without actually being rude.

As she sipped the tea, he moved behind her and began to massage her neck and shoulders. "This really helps my sister," he explained as he kneaded and rubbed. "You need to try to relax. I can feel the tension."

She did try, but it was useless. "I'm sorry, Josh, but it doesn't seem to be helping. I think it would be better if I just got some sleep."

He peered at her anxiously. "You're sure?"

She nodded. "Sure."

"Okay. Finish your tea though, huh?" He picked up his coat and paused in the doorway. "You're sure I can't get you anything else before I go?"

His solicitude was touching, but she shook her head. "No, really, Josh. I'm fine. I just need some sleep."

"All right. Lock up after me, okay?"

She got to her feet. "Right now," she agreed, and closed the door behind him with relief.

In the bedroom, she undressed, but instead of reaching for a nightgown, she pulled on pants, boots, and a warm shirt and dragged a warm jacket out of the closet. She fidgeted impatiently as the elevator made its slow way to the basement. No one else was down there this late so she didn't have to be careful about being seen. She hurried across to the access door, scooted aside the cardboard boxes that shielded it, and stepped through, finding the ladder with an ease born of practice. She reached the bottom and turned to find Vincent waiting, as she had known he would be.

"I'm sorry," she said simply, going to him. Briefly she explained what had happened. "I was so surprised to see him, I couldn't think of anything to say." She tucked her hand into the crook of Vincent's elbow and they began to stroll through the tunnels. "Even now, I'm not sure what I could have said that would have sounded plausible and wouldn't have aroused his suspicions."

"I knew you wouldn't miss our time together without good reason," Vincent said comfortingly. His eyes held a hint of a smile as he looked down on her. "Did you enjoy the music?"

"You know I didn't," Catherine told him, laughing, and added wistfully, "I kept thinking of you. Were you there?"

"For a time. While you were."

She'd known it, of course, on some basic level, but his admission pleased her anyway. "I suppose the music's over now."

"I imagine it is," he agreed. "But we could go see, just to be sure. If you like."

She could feel the radiance of the smile she turned on him; it glowed from within. "Let's do."

The music, as predicted, was gone, but the moon shone softly through the grate and a fresh breeze swept through in little gusts, making it a peaceful place, a welcoming place. They nestled together on cushions Vincent had placed there earlier and talked music -- the music they would have heard this evening, and of music they had shared at other times. Even after the conversation died away they stayed, savoring each other's company, and it was very late when Catherine climbed the ladder and returned, reluctantly, to her own world.

 

Signs of her late night must have shown on her face the next morning. Joe noticed, and so did Rita, but it was Josh whose overt concern raked at her nerves.

"You're sure you're okay?" he asked, pausing at her desk for the third time. "I could get you an aspirin..."

His well-meant interruption broke her concentration and she frowned, grasping for the shreds of the paragraph she had carefully composed in her head but hadn't yet written down.

Too late. It was gone.

"Cathy?"

Her patience, already worn thin, snapped. "Josh," she said, too carefully, "isn't there something you ought to be doing? Because I'm certainly busy."

His look of hurt incomprehension made her regret her hasty words, but before she could draw breath to explain, he'd mumbled something apologetic and backed away.

Wearily she followed him back to his desk. "Josh, I'm sorry. I'm just irritable this morning. I didn't mean to take it out on you."

"That's all right." He accepted her apology with a grace that shamed her and made one of his own. "I've been a pest this morning. Will you let me buy you lunch to make up for it?"

"I can't. Joe and I are going over the Riley case this afternoon and I still have a lot of work to do on it."

"Then how about this evening? Dinner and a movie?" He'd rebounded from her churlishness and his smile was boyishly eager.

"Josh, I can't. I'm sorry."

"Another time, then," he said agreeably. "Meanwhile, I'll try to remember not to ask how you're feeling."

His easy manner cheered her. Catherine laughed and returned to her work.

True to his word, Josh stayed out of her way the rest of the day, stopping by only on his way home to offer a quick goodnight.

The next day, though, he asked her again to dinner. This time, he added the incentive of an off-Broadway play and seemed undaunted by her gentle refusal.

Friday morning she found a small package neatly centered on her desk. As she picked it up, Josh appeared around the corner, smiling. "The other day at lunch, you said how much you liked Brigit O'Donnell's books. So when I saw her newest one, I picked it up for you. I hope you don't mind."

His apology negated the protest she'd been about to make. She shook her head in resignation. "No. I don't mind. It was very thoughtful, Josh. Thank you."

He looked pleased as he went back to his desk and she fingered the book uneasily. It was evident now that Josh hoped to be more than a friend.

She turned down his invitation to lunch, and escaped the office to interview a witness before he could make an offer for the evening.

On Saturday, Catherine found herself a little relieved she didn't have to go to work. She liked Josh, but his cheerful persistence was beginning to fray her nerves.

Her peaceful day at home didn't last long, though. The phone rang. It was Josh, asking if she'd like to play tennis. She explained patiently that tennis really wasn't her game, only to have him call back a little later to suggest a trip to an art gallery in the Village. Again, she made a polite excuse. Then, fearing another phone call, or worse, a knock on the door, she fled to the tunnels.

Vincent wasn't expecting her, but she was always welcome below and if he was busy, there were many others she would enjoy visiting. She hadn't gone far when she came across one of the tunnel children sitting on a narrow stone ledge and looking disconsolate.

"Samantha? Is something wrong?"

"No," the girl replied, sliding down from the shoulder-high ledge. "Just the boys are playing a game and they won't let me play because I'm a girl."

"That's not fair, is it?" Catherine offered in sympathy.

"No. May I walk with you?"

"Sure," Catherine said. She always enjoyed spending time with the tunnel kids.

"I didn't know you were coming today," Samantha said curiously as they walked.

"Me either. I'm running away," Catherine confessed wryly.

"Running away?" Samantha sounded suspicious. "I didn't know grown-ups were allowed to do that."

Catherine laughed. "Yes, we can run away, but usually we go back later. I'm just escaping for the day."

"Oh. Okay." A companionable silence ensued and they were nearly to the occupied portions of the tunnels when Samantha spoke again. "Catherine," she said suddenly. "Do you know how to make a French braid?"

"As a matter of fact, I do. Why?"

Samantha gave a casual shrug. "Some of us girls were trying to make one and we couldn't get it right. Mary and Jamie keep promising to teach us, but they never seem to have the time. That's all."

Catherine knew a hint when she heard one. "Would you like me to show you how?" she offered.

"Would you?" Samantha's eyes lit up. "And the others, too?"

"Of course. Where is a good place to do it?"

Samantha frowned. "I don't know. There's something wrong with the lights in our chamber and Mouse is trying to fix them. We're supposed to stay out of his way."

"Tell you what," Catherine suggested. "You find your friends and a comb, a mirror and some elastic bands. I want to stop by Vincent's chamber. Meet me there, and I'm sure Vincent will know of someplace we can go."

"Okay," Samantha agreed brightly and darted down one of the side tunnels, a short-cut, no doubt, to wherever she was going. Catherine stuck to the familiar route and was soon at Vincent's chamber.

Vincent held a small boy, perhaps six years old, in his lap, their heads bent together over an open book. Both looked up when Catherine entered the room.

"Hello, Catherine," the boy cried eagerly, squirming with obvious delight.

Catherine exchanged warm smiles with Vincent as she came to kneel beside the chair. "Hello, Ross," she said, giving the boy a hug. "What are you doing?"

"Vincent's teaching me to read," Ross announced proudly.

"Really?" Catherine assumed a look of amazement and pointed to the open page. "Can you read that for me?"

Haltingly he named each letter of the alphabet as he pointed to it, receiving only minimal prompting from Vincent. When he finished, he looked to Catherine for approval.

"That's very good, Ross. You should be proud of yourself."

Ross wriggled with pleasure and looked up at Vincent. "Can... may I get down now?" he asked.

"For a few minutes," Vincent agreed, helping the boy off his lap. Ross ran to the other side of the room and knelt beside a new addition to Vincent's decor -- an enormous stuffed ape. Catherine was afraid to ask where he got it, but Ross seemed intrigued. He sank down beside it, singing tunelessly to himself.

"He's doing well, isn't he?" Catherine asked softly.

"We've been working on the alphabet for nearly a month, and by tomorrow he'll have forgotten half the letters again. But every day he remembers one or two more."

"So you're making progress."

Vincent was non-committal. "Father believes Ross may be too severely retarded to learn to read," he reminded Catherine gently.

She smiled affectionately. "But you won't be happy until you've tried."

Vincent returned the smile before glancing at Ross regretfully. "Catherine, if Ross is to continue to learn, I must spend more time with him today, and I've promised him a story afterwards."

"That's all right. I have another invitation, anyway." She allowed a sparkle of mischief to show in her eyes. "I met Samantha on my way down," she answered his questioning look. "I offered to help her and some of her friends with their hair. The only problem, according to Samantha, is finding a place to do it. Any suggestions?"

"Why not here?"

"In your chamber?" She looked at him dubiously. "Are you sure we won't disturb you?"

"What would we find disturbing?"

"Well, probably the giggling."

"Giggling?" Vincent was plainly disbelieving.

"I'm afraid so," Catherine told him somberly. "There's an unwritten law that whenever girls get together to do their hair, they giggle."

Vincent pretended to give that serious thought before replying gravely, "I believe Ross and I can endure giggling, if it's necessary. Come, Ross," he said to the boy. "We'll sit over here in the corner." He lifted Ross into his lap and opened the book.

A moment later, Samantha burst noisily into the room, followed closely by four other girls ranging in age from eleven to fourteen. They all greeted Vincent and Ross cheerfully, if somewhat perfunctorily, before gathering around the table to watch as Catherine began to brush out Samantha's hair.

Their girlish chatter soon turned to important things, like boys, and the giggling Catherine had predicted began to surface.

There was a long discussion and much disagreement about which of the tunnel boys was cutest before the younger girls began to tease Michelle, who was fourteen, about a budding romance.

"Has he kissed you yet?" thirteen-year-old Molly wanted to know.

Michelle blushed and didn't reply.

"I think that's Michelle's business," Catherine interceded gently, her fingers busy creating an intricate braid out of Michelle's long blond hair. Chastened, the younger girls were silent for a moment before Samantha, laying aside the mirror in which she'd been admiring her own neatly braided hair, propped her chin in her hand.

"Catherine?" she asked seriously. "How old should you be before you let a boy kiss you?"

"Well, older than you, anyway, Samantha," Catherine evaded the question.

"No, really," Samantha persisted. "How old were you?"

There was a restless stir from the corner. "I was six," Catherine admitted with a smile.

"Six!" Samantha sounded shocked.

Catherine laughed. "My cousin David is my age, and when we were both six, we decided we were going to get married when we grew up. And of course, we had to kiss because that's what married people do. Our parents thought we were very cute."

The girls giggled. "Where's your cousin now?" Molly asked.

"I haven't seen Davy in years. He moved away when I was eight and I've only seen him a few times since." She sighed and tried to look heart-broken. "He married someone else."

The girls giggled again and Samantha doggedly returned to her original question. "How old were you when a boy really kissed you?"

Catherine was acutely aware that Vincent still sat in the corner holding Ross, who had fallen asleep. She wondered briefly where this typical adolescent girl's conversation was going, but she had no secrets from Vincent and felt confident of her ability to keep away from any potentially embarassing topics.

"I guess I was about fifteen," she answered thoughtfully, trying to remember exactly. She smiled. "We were convinced we would be in love forever."

"What happened?" Michelle inquired.

"Six months later, he found someone else."

"Oh, no!"

Catherine smiled and shook her head. "Young love isn't always true love. I think it's important to remember that."

"How do you know when it's true love?" asked Michelle.

Catherine thought a moment. "That's a good question, Michelle. I read something once that makes more sense than anything else I've heard. If you have to ask yourself if you're in love, then you aren't. When you truly love, there are no doubts or questions. It just is."

There was a moment's silence as the girls absorbed that. "You don't have any doubts, do you, Catherine?" Samantha asked at last.

"No, Samantha. I don't have any doubts at all." Catherine carefully did not look to where Vincent was sitting, but she could feel his eyes on her. She tied off the end of the braid she had just finished and handed Michelle the mirror. "Finished," she announced, flexing cramped fingers.

Vincent rose carefully from his chair and deposited Ross, still soundly sleeping, on his bed. "Michelle, will you take Ross to Mary when he wakes?" he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he reached for Catherine's hand and moved toward the door.

There was a burst of girlish laughter as they stepped out into the passage, but Catherine quickly decided she didn't want to know what it was about.

"I have the rest of the afternoon free," Vincent said softly. "What would you like to do?"

"Be with you," Catherine replied, just as softly. "Let's go for a walk. Show me something I haven't seen," she suggested. One of the things she loved was exploring Vincent's vast, complex world, especially with Vincent as her guide.

Vincent considered for a moment before leading her down one of the many side tunnels. Catherine was getting better at finding her way around the world below, but after a few twists and turns, she had completely lost her sense of direction. The tunnels they passed through became narrower and at last Vincent stopped before what appeared to be a wide crack in one of the walls. He leaned into the fissure and looked up speculatively.

"It's smaller than I remembered," he said, taking Catherine's arm to help her up into the crack itself.

"What am I doing?" she asked curiously, looking up too.

"Can you see that rectangular opening?" Vincent pointed to a dark patch about five feet above her head.

She nodded.

"Climb through there and go to your left."

She eyed the opening, looking quickly at Vincent and then up again. "What's up there?" she wanted to know.

Vincent's eyes twinkled. "You'll have to go and see," was all he would say.

The crack was irregular enough to provide plenty of hand and footholds, so, with Vincent's hand steadying her, Catherine began the short climb. She hesitated when she reached the opening because all she could see beyond it was blackness, but Vincent would never send her anywhere that wasn't safe, so she thrust her head and shoulders into the hole in the rock and wriggled through.

Remembering Vincent's instructions, she crawled to her left, feeling her way through the darkness. When she came up against a cold, rough wall, she turned to crouch against it. The opening was a faint, gray oblong that disappeared as Vincent pushed his cloak ahead of him and started to climb through.

He grunted softly and she could hear him breathing, but he seemed to have stopped halfway through the hole. "I'm caught on something, Catherine," he said after a moment. "Can you help?"

She reached out cautiously until she touched his shoulder, then stretched out in the cramped space and wormed her hand down between his body and the rough rock wall.

"A little farther down and more to the right, I think," Vincent said softly, his face very near hers.

Somehow, the awkwardness of the situation struck Catherine as funny and she began to giggle as she squirmed closer to fully extend her arm. Her forehead rested against Vincent's shoulder as she tried to find the snag.

"I don't know why you're laughing." His voice, low and resonant, was very close to her ear. "There's no other way out."

That seemed even funnier and she was still trying to stifle her laughter when her fingers found the small projection where his belt was snagged. She worked it free, carefully extracted her arm and scrambled back out of Vincent's way. With one powerful movement, he levered himself through to sit beside her.

Catherine heard a rustling, followed by a click and suddenly she could see. Vincent had produced a small flashlight from somewhere and he propped it against the far wall, letting the beam reflect dimly from the low ceiling, eerily illuminating what Catherine now saw was a very small cave-like room, perhaps four feet by six. The roof was only about four feet high in the center, lower as it joined the curved walls.

"This is wonderful, Vincent. I've always loved secret places." Her voice still held a trace of laughter as she looked around the cozy space.

"Devin found it," Vincent explained. "He called it his hideout. He showed it to me one day and it became my refuge... a place I could come to be alone, where no one could find me."

Her merriment vanished in the time it took him to say the words. "Did you need a place like that, Vincent?" she asked gently.

He bowed his head. "Sometimes," he admitted. "When the other children were allowed to do something I wasn't... going above for an adventure I wasn't permitted to share..."

She moved closer and touched his shoulder.

"It was here that I struggled with and learned to accept my differences," he finished quietly, his voice reflecting remembered pain.

"I wish I could have been here to help you," she said softly. "To be with you."

"You're here now," he answered, his eyes meeting hers at last. "You're with me always, now."

Her arms went around his neck and they shared a clumsy embrace of mutual solace in the cramped space.

Because the room was too small and the walls and floor too uneven for any kind of comfort, it wasn't long before Catherine descended, jumping the last few feet and stepping back to wait for Vincent. This time he managed to squeeze himself through the narrow aperture without incident and dropped easily to the tunnel floor beside her.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering aimlessly through the tunnels, enjoying the sheer luxury of hours together with no obligations to keep. As always, the time passed too quickly.

Facing each other, they leaned on opposite walls of the tunnel below Catherine's building, silently putting off the painful moment of parting. They could delay only so long, however, and at last Vincent straightened and held out his hand. Catherine took it and together they walked the last few feet to the doorway. Their embrace was brief, intense, longing. When it ended, Catherine stepped back reluctantly, her eyes fixed on Vincent's for a last goodbye before she turned and stepped into a bright spill of light from above.

In the pleasure of the afternoon, Catherine had nearly forgotten Josh McKenzie and his perseverance, but when she turned on her answering machine to check her messages, his was the first voice she heard.

"Hi, Cathy, it's Josh. I guess I'm probably being a pest again. I was going to ask if you'd like to go on a picnic in the park with me, but since you're not home... Anyway, I'm sorry if all these calls are making you crazy... I care about you, Cathy. I guess I'll see you Monday. 'Bye."

Long after the tape spun itself into silence, Catherine sat, still hearing the echo of Josh's words. She had tried, as gently as she could, to let him know she wasn't interested in him, but she didn't seem to be getting through. She liked Josh. He was interesting to talk to and fun to be with. She would enjoy having him for a friend and didn't want to spoil the friendship by rejecting him too harshly, but was beginning to think there was no other way.

To her immeasurable relief, the phone remained silent on Sunday morning and she spent the time tidying the apartment and working on the Sunday crossword in the Times. In the early afternoon, she took advantage of the balmy spring weather to take a walk in the park. Striding along briskly, she basked in the exercise, the sun, and her own thoughts.

Several miles were behind her and she was on her way home when she spied a familiar figure slumped on a park bench. Lost in thought, she was actually past him before the familiarity registered.

She stopped and looked back to where Josh stared sightlessly at a book open on his lap. She was sure he didn't see her and for a shameful moment considered stealing quietly away, but something in his posture, something on his face told her he needed comfort. She couldn't just abandon him, so she went back.

"Josh? Are you all right?"

He jumped, startled. "Yeah, I guess so," he said, looking down at the book he held.

She sat beside him. "What are you reading?"

"Poetry. A.E. Housman." He tilted the volume so she could see the cover. "Ever read any of his stuff?"

"'To an Athlete Dying Young,'" she said, naming the only Housman poem she could remember. "It's kind of sad... and cynical."

"Yeah. Most of his stuff's pretty cynical," Josh agreed, half his attention focused elsewhere.

Catherine gently removed the book from his hands and began to leaf through it, pausing to read random lines that caught her eye.

"Why do you sit in the park on a lovely spring afternoon and read sad poetry?" she asked at last.

He shrugged. "Sometimes, when I start thinking about my brother... reading Housman helps."

"What happened to your brother?" Instinct made her voice gentle.

Josh squinted in the sun as he gazed across the park. "He died."

Catherine waited patiently.

"Tim was my big brother... four years older than me," he began, his eyes still fixed on something far away. "I thought he was wonderful, perfect, could do anything. I idolized him." There was a long, painful silence. "One day, he took my father's hunting rifle, put the muzzle in his mouth and blew his brains out."

Catherine made a horrified sound and reached out to touch his arm.

"I found his body," Josh continued in a toneless voice. "I was sixteen. He was twenty. I still don't know why he wanted to die."

She squeezed his arm lightly, offering what comfort she could. He stared into the distance for a little longer, then seemed to shake himself mentally and turned to smile at her.

"It all happened a long time ago," he said in a lighter voice, taking back his book. "Thanks for stopping."

"What are friends for?" Catherine asked as she got to her feet. She hesitated. Something in Josh's eyes still troubled her, so she held out her hand. "Come on. I'm not leaving you here like this."

Josh demurred, but Catherine insisted and finally he gave in and accompanied her home. "I can see why Joe says to watch out for you," he commented drily as she unlocked her door.

Catherine laughed. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked, going to the kitchen.

"A soft drink would be fine."

"I have beer," she offered.

"No, thanks. I don't drink much."

"Okay." In the kitchen, she busied herself with glasses and ice.

"Hey," Josh called from the living room, "are you hungry?"

She had to think a second. "Now that you mention it, I'm starved," she called back.

"You like pizza?"

She stuck her head out the kitchen door. "Doesn't everybody?"

"Do you mind if I order one? I know a great place that delivers."

"It sounds good," she answered.

She heard him pick up the phone and dial. "Do we want everything on it?" he called.

"No anchovies!" she called back and picked up the tray with glasses, ice and pop bottles on it.

"No anchovies," Josh was saying into the phone. "Thirty minutes. Great. Thanks!"

He hung up and smiled almost shyly. "Pizza's on its way. I hope you don't mind... I feel like I've practically invited myself to dinner."

"Don't be silly. I asked you to come and if I didn't want pizza, I'd say so. Sit down," she invited.

He perched on the edge of the couch opposite her and fingered the book he'd laid on the coffee table.

"Read me one of Housman's poems," Catherine suggested on impulse, trying to put him at ease.

He seemed startled but pleased and picked up the book to leaf through it. "I don't know what you'd like..." he began diffidently.

"Choose something you like," she encouraged him, kicking off her shoes and tucking her bare feet under her.

"Okay." He turned a few more pages, paused to glance quickly at her, took a deep breath, and began to read.

 

"'Shot? So quick, so clean an ending?

Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:

Yours was not an ill for mending,

'Twas best to take it to the grave.

 

Oh you had forethought, you could reason,

And saw your road and where it led,

And early wise and brave in season

Put the pistol to your head.

 

Oh soon, and better so than later

After long disgrace and scorn,

You shot dead the household traitor,

The soul that should not have been born.

 

Right you guessed the rising morrow

And scorned to tread the mire you must:

Dust's your wages, son of sorrow,

But men may come to worse than dust.

 

Souls undone, undoing others,--

Long time since the tale began.

You would not live to wrong your brothers:

Oh lad, you died as fits a man.

 

Now to your grave shall friend and stranger

With ruth and some with envy come:

Undishonoured, clear of danger,

Clean of guilt, pass hence and home.

 

Turn safe to rest, no dreams, no waking;

And here, man, here's the wreath I've made;

'Tis not a gift that's worth the taking,

But wear it and it will not fade.'"

 

There was a moment of silence after he finished. Catherine said quietly, "You read very well. That reminds you of your brother, doesn't it?"

Josh nodded. "You probably think I'm morbid, reading stuff like that," he commented. "But somehow, it comforts me. I mean, maybe that's why he did it. You read about guys going to schools and fast food places and post offices with automatic weapons... maybe he was afraid... I don't know." Josh gave her a lopsided attempt at a grin. "You'd think, after eighteen years..." his voice faded.

"I still miss my mother," Catherine said softly. "Some days I think about her a lot." She told him of her mother's death more than twenty years earlier and of her father's death only a year ago.

That led to talk about grief and missing loved ones, even those long dead. The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the pizza and by the time they were settled on the floor, eating off the coffee table, the sadness was dispelled and they found more cheerful topics of conversation. Several friendly disagreements about poets and quotations ensued and soon the table and floor was stacked with books taken from the shelves to settle arguments.

The evening passed quickly and it was late when Josh rose and announced it was time for him to go home. He insisted on helping tidy the living room first, reshelving the books while Catherine dealt with the litter left on the table from their meal.

"Thanks for dragging me up here," he said at the door. "I needed somebody to talk to and just didn't know it, I guess."

"Thank you for the pizza," Catherine replied. "And the company."

Josh smiled and leaned forward quickly to give her a brotherly kiss on the cheek. "'Bye. See you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow," she acknowledged.

As she locked up and turned out the lights, she reflected that it had been an enjoyable evening. Josh had kept everything strictly on a friendship level. Maybe things were going to be all right.

Once ready for bed, she stepped out onto her balcony. It was almost a nightly ritual to go out and look at the skyline before going to sleep. Involuntarily she glanced toward the corner but no one was there.

The times when Vincent didn't come were much more frequent than the times he did, but she always half-hoped to see him and was always a little disappointed if he didn't appear. Tonight was one of the disappointing times and after a while the chill of the early spring night drove her inside.

The next day was Monday and Catherine dragged herself reluctantly to the office. Even when you liked your job, she mused in the elevator, Mondays could be depressing. Joe saw her come in and called her into his office to ask about the witnesses she'd interviewed on Friday and, as a result, it was nearly ten o'clock when she finally headed for her own desk. As she came around the corner, she stopped in surprise.

A simple, inexpensive glass bud vase was centered on her blotter. In it stood a single, perfect sweetheart rose. The petals of the flower were a delicate, creamy peach color and Catherine bent to inhale its fragrance before moving the vase to a corner of her desk and lifting the single sheet of paper it held down. Neatly hand-printed in the middle of the page was a poem.

 

THE ROSE FAMILY

by Robert Frost

 

The rose is a rose,

And was always a rose.

But the theory now goes

That the apple's a rose,

And the pear is, and so's

The plum, I suppose.

The dear only knows

What will next prove a rose.

You, of course, are a rose--

But were always a rose.

 

Underneath, in a less tidy scrawl, was a note.

"Cathy, I needed someone yesterday and you were there. Thank you for being my friend. Love, Josh."

Smiling, she read the poem again, then tucked the paper away and went around to Josh's desk. He wasn't there and she called to Joe, who was passing. "Where's Josh?"

Joe looked blank for a moment. "Who? McKenzie? He's out at the Tombs, taking a deposition. After that he has to go to Brooklyn to interview a witness." Joe's expression changed. "Nice flower he left for you, Radcliffe," he said with a pleased grin. "You and McKenzie, huh?" He walked away, still grinning and shaking his head.

It was Tuesday afternoon before Catherine actually saw Josh again. She came out of Joe's office with her head down, reading a file and literally ran into him.

"Oh, I'm sorry..." she began, apologizing before recognition set in. "Josh! I wanted to thank you for the rose and the poem. It was sweet."

He tried to shrug it off. "It was nothing... a small repayment for pulling me out of my depression." He gave a deprecating laugh, looked at his watch, mumbled something about being late and rushed off.

Bemused, Catherine watched him go before walking slowly back to her own little cubicle. Last week, Josh was actively pursuing her; this week he seemed to be avoiding her. And tradition had it that women were unpredictable! Still, she couldn't help smiling as she admired again the lovely peach colored rose that was starting to open.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Josh was carefully correct the few times she spoke to him... cheerful and charming but not too personal. Catherine became more and more convinced that he was prepared to simply be a friend.

Thursday was rough. Three separate cases, all important and all supported by hours of painstaking work, were thrown out of court on different technicalities. As a result, Joe was in a foul mood that affected everyone else.

Catherine worked late, going over all the painstaking details of one of the cases, looking for anything that would support a prosecution independent of evidence which had been ruled inadmissible. At last, though, she pushed the papers away tiredly and reached for her coat. The rest would have to wait for tomorrow.

At home, she dropped her bag and coat on a chair and went directly into her bedroom. Almost automatically she washed her face, brushed her teeth and changed into her nightgown. Then, pushing her feet into slippers and pulling on a warm robe, she stepped outside.

Leaning against the low brick wall that surrounded her balcony, she felt rather than saw the dark form that materialized beside her and turned to smiled wanly into compassionate blue eyes. Vincent opened his arms and she went into them gladly, grateful for the comfort he so willingly offered.

He held her tightly and she felt all the tensions and frustrations of the day slip away, leaving behind only a warm, peaceful contentment. She felt she could have stayed in his arms forever, but eventually his hold loosened and she tipped her head back to smile up at him. "You always know when I need you."

His eyes smiled back, full of warmth and love. "Your pain is my pain," he reminded her softly. "You know that."

"Yes," she agreed, resting her head against the solid comfort of his shoulder. "I do."

"Tell me?" he invited, and listened patiently while she described the day's events. Legal technicalities were beyond his expertise, so he didn't try to offer advice; instead, he simply held her, stroking her hair with one gentle hand. "If there is a way to salvage these cases, you will find it," he said when she finished, and as always, she was touched by his belief in her.

"I don't know if it's that simple, Vincent," she whispered into the folds of his cloak, "but I'm going to try."

"That's all anyone expects of you, Catherine. That you try."

It was late, so Vincent stayed only a few minutes more before giving a brief farewell and descending. Catherine remained on the balcony, looking wistfully out over the city. When she was sure he'd had time to safely reach the tunnels, still warm from the memory of his presence, she went inside and slipped into bed.

Friday at the D.A.'s office was just as bad as staff members tried to salvage something from Thursday's debacle. It was late when Catherine finally cleared her desk. Stiffly she rose to her feet, stretched, and gathered up her things. Bending for one last breath of perfume from her now fully opened rose, she switched off her desk lamp and started for the elevator.

"Cathy? Cathy, wait!" called a voice behind her.

She turned to greet Josh with a tired smile.

"I'll ride down with you," he said as the elevator doors slid open.

Inside the elevator car, Catherine leaned wearily against one wall as Josh braced himself against the opposite one.

"Is it always this hectic in the D.A.'s office?" he asked.

"Sometimes," Catherine admitted. "But fortunately, not often."

"That's good," commented Josh, rubbing the back of his neck tiredly and grinning as Catherine tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. "I couldn't do this every week. Hey," he suggested as they stepped off the elevator. "How about a cup of coffee before we go home?" He gestured toward the coffee shop.

Catherine considered the question carefully. She was tired; on the other hand, a cup of coffee might actually keep her awake long enough to reach home. Further, a pleasant conversation with Josh might get her mind off of work. Right now, half a dozen cases were whirling around inside her head.

"All right," she agreed, and followed him to one of the little tables in the coffee shop.

A disinterested waitress served them cups of coffee and retired behind a nearby counter.

"So," asked Catherine lightly, "How was your second week at the D.A.'s office?"

"Oh," Josh moaned theatrically. "Do I have stories to tell!" He began regaling her with anecdotes about the places he'd gone, the witnesses he'd seen and the depositions he'd taken. It wasn't long before he had her laughing and telling tales of her own first few weeks with the D.A.

Their mood quieted as the waitress apathetically refilled their cups and Josh toyed with the handle of his for a moment before glancing at her almost apprehensively. "I was wondering... I can get tickets for The Magic Flute tomorrow night. Would you like to go?"

Catherine felt a stirring of dismay. "Josh, I'm sorry. I can't," she said, as kindly as possible.

His mouth tightened and he glanced away; he seemed to be wrestling with something internal. When his gaze returned to her, she could see the hurt determination in his eyes. "Cathy, why won't you go out with me?"

She searched helplessly for something to say. He went on, doggedly.

"I think you like me. We seem to have fun together, but every time I ask you out, you close up. What's wrong?"

"Josh," Catherine began cautiously, choosing her words carefully, "I do like you. As a friend. But..." she stopped and sighed.

"What if I want more than friendship?" he asked softly.

Catherine bent her head, peering intently into her cup. "Josh," she said uncomfortably, "I want to be your friend, but that's all I can offer you."

"Why?" he demanded, looking suddenly very young and vulnerable.

She studied her cup; the silence dragged on and on.

"Just tell me why," he repeated, almost whispering.

Catherine glanced uneasily at the sullen waitress and back down at her own fingers grasping the cup. "I'm involved with someone," she admitted at last.

"But," Josh sounded bewildered now, "I asked around. Joe says you always go to parties alone. You never talk about anyone..."

"It's not something I talk about," she conceded in a low voice. "I feel funny talking about it now." She shrugged slightly. "I wanted you to know it's not you."

Josh leaned forward. "You don't talk about him. You never go anywhere with him. Cathy, what kind of relationship is that?"

She shook her head. "You don't understand..."

"I understand you're seeing some guy who won't take you anywhere... None of your friends have ever heard of him... He even stood you up the other night at the concert in the park..."

"No." She gripped the cup hard, frustrated by her inability to explain. "It isn't like that..."

"No? Then tell me what it is like, Cathy!" His voice rose in anger. "What does he offer you? A commitment? Marriage?"

"He loves me!" Catherine surprised herself with her fierce defense of Vincent. "He would give his life for me!"

Josh didn't look angry any more; instead he looked sad as he slowly shook his head. "Cathy, you deserve better. Maybe that's not me, but you deserve someone who appreciates you..."

"Josh, I don't want to argue with you. Thank you for the coffee." She pushed her chair back and walked out.

"Cathy, please wait!" She could hear him behind her but didn't look back.

She hesitated at the curb, suddenly annoyed with herself for having stayed so late when she hadn't brought her car. Josh had joined her on the sidewalk and the last thing she needed was for him to offer her a ride home.

He didn't. Instead, a cab appeared and he hailed it. He stood back, holding the door while she got in, but when he tried to close it, she stopped him. "How are you getting home?"

He shrugged. "Another cab'll be by soon..."

"No, it won't," she said wearily. "Not at this time of night. We were lucky to get this one." She pushed the door wide. "Get in."

He obeyed meekly, but seemed wary, keeping to his own side of the seat. She didn't try to ease the strain. Instead, she folded her arms stiffly and stared out the window. They were cruising north on Central Park West, almost to her building, when Josh broke the silence.

"Please don't be angry, Cathy. I didn't mean to tell you how to live your life. I just..."

"It's okay, Josh. I'm not angry." And she wasn't. Not anymore. She was just tired.

"...I care for you, Cathy. I want you to be happy."

She turned to give him a penetrating look. "I am happy. Whether you believe it or not, I am happy."

The cab pulled up in front of her building and Josh got out and held the door. Catherine paid the driver her half of the fare and followed.

"Goodnight, Josh."

"Goodnight, Cathy."

As the doorman opened the door for her, she glanced back. Josh still stood by the cab, watching her.

Inside, she leaned against the elevator wall and stared at the slowly changing numbers on the floor indicator, reflecting. No, she wasn't angry, not really, but she was upset with herself. She had said more, much more than she should have and accomplished nothing.

She couldn't really blame Josh for believing she was involved in an unhappy relationship... certainly that's the way it would appear from his side, given the few facts he had to work with. It was one of the reasons she normally never mentioned her relationship with Vincent to people she knew. If only she hadn't been so concerned about hurting Josh's feelings. Now she'd probably made things worse.

As the elevator slowed to stop at her floor, she took a deep breath and willed herself to be calm. If she continued to fret, she'd have Vincent up here wanting to know what was wrong and she didn't want to trouble him with this now. Later, after she'd worked something out, she could tell him everything.

She tossed her things on the bed and stepped out onto the balcony. She leaned on the wall and let the mild breeze ruffle her hair. Strange, how the air here seemed somehow fresher, sweeter. Illusion, she knew, but it made her smile.

She didn't know if it was the coffee she'd consumed or tension created by the argument with Josh, but all her tiredness had dissipated, leaving her wide-awake.

She had a sudden longing to see Vincent, not to tell him her troubles, but just to talk to him, be with him for a little while. Sometimes, just the sight of him was enough to make everything all right. Yielding to impulse, she changed clothes and was soon walking the familiar route to Vincent's chamber. It was late and she passed no one on her way.

When she reached Vincent's chamber, she was disappointed to find it dark. After a moment's thought, she turned toward Father's study. Perhaps Vincent was there.

She stopped in the doorway and looked around the candle-lit chamber. "Hello?" she called tentatively, seeing no one.

"Catherine!"

She turned to see Father, book in hand, leaning against the wrought-iron railing of the study's upper level. "Is something wrong?" he asked in concern.

Cathering began to feel a little foolish. "No, Father. I'm looking for Vincent."

"He isn't here," Father explained, limping slowly down the spiral staircase. "He's delivering some medicine to one of our helpers."

"Oh." Her disappointment must have shown, because Father smiled and gestured toward a chair.

"You're welcome to wait for him," he invited.

Catherine wavered a moment before sinking into the offered seat. "Thank you." Idly she examined the titles of the books lying on the table at her elbow as Father bent over a stack of papers on his desk.

Unbidden, her mind began running over the problem with Josh. After a few moments, she noticed Father studying her covertly and realized her thoughts must be reflected in her face. When he caught her looking at him, Father pulled off his glasses and laid them carefully on the table.

"Catherine, something's troubling you," he said kindly. "Would you like to talk about it?"

She recognized gentle compassion in his eyes.

"Or is it something you'd rather discuss with Vincent?"

"No," she said quickly. "I don't want to bother Vincent with this now. I don't want to..." she bent her head, "hurt him."

Father waited patiently and after a moment Catherine began to relate the events of the past two weeks, culminating with tonight's argument. "I told him too much," she finished. "I shouldn't have."

"Vincent knows nothing of this?" Father asked, toying with his glasses.

Catherine shook her head. "He knows about Josh," she said. "He knows I came down last Saturday partly to avoid him and he knows Josh asked me out and I refused. He knows why I missed the concert. But he doesn't know about anything that's happened this week. He doesn't know about the conversation this evening..." Her voice became small. "I don't want him to know what Josh said... it would hurt him..."

Father sighed pensively. "You know, Catherine, some of what your friend says is true. Commitment... marriage... these are things Vincent cannot offer you..."

Her head came up sharply. "Don't try to put limits on us, Father," she said. "I accept what Vincent is willing to give, is able to give. He's offered me his heart... I call that a commitment!"

Father made a pacifying motion with his hand. "I know, Catherine, I know, but it doesn't change the facts. Vincent can never be a part of your world. Never." His voice softened. "He only wants what's best for you."

"Vincent is what's best for me!" Even to herself, her voice rang with conviction.

Father studied her intently before sighing and leaning back in his chair. "Very well. What will you do about this man?"

"I don't know," Catherine said despairingly. "I thought tonight, telling him I had a relationship..." She lifted her hands in defeat. "He's so persistent."

Father's gaze sharpened. "Do you believe he is a danger to you?"

"No," Catherine reassured quickly. "It isn't like that." She smiled ruefully. "He's actually very nice. I like him. He just won't take a hint. Or a direct refusal. Tonight he told me he wanted me to be happy, and I think he really meant it."

Father worried the bridge of his nose. "There are no easy answers," he said at last. "I think you must continue as you have been, refusing his invitations, keeping him at arm's length."

"That would be easier if I didn't have to work with him," Catherine observed. "But you're probably right."

"I'm sorry I couldn't offer you more help."

"You lent a sympathetic ear," Catherine said. She leaned across the desk to plant a quick kiss on his cheek. "Thank you."

As if the sharing of her burden made it lighter, she felt all her weariness creeping back. Suddenly she wanted nothing so much as to go to sleep.

"I think I'll go home now," she told Father, smothering a yawn. "Tell Vincent I was here."

"I will," Father promised, rising to walk with her to the exit. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight," she echoed.

There was something strangely peaceful about walking the tunnels alone late at night. Even the pipes were silent. The only sound was the soft crunch of her footsteps echoing faintly.

Slowly she made her way through the long, dim corridors of rock, climbed wearily up the spiral stairs and started down the last twisting series of tunnels that would take her home.

A sudden grating sound from one of the side passages made her stop. She peered warily around the corner to find the source of the noise and smiled as she recognized the familiar, beloved silhouette of Vincent far down the tunnel. He was reaching overhead to replace the grate that covered the entrance he'd just used. There was the sound of metal scraping cement as the grate settled into place and then Vincent was striding toward her, cloak billowing gently behind him.

"Is this luck?" she called as he drew near. "Or did you plan it this way?"

His eyes smiled at her. "I knew you were here. Are you all right?"

She nodded. "Just lonely for you."

They exchanged soft looks before he moved to take her arm. "I'll walk you home."

"What's troubling you?" he asked a few minutes later, when they paused at the basement threshold.

Catherine smiled and shook her head. "It was just a long and frustrating day. I'm fine."

He studied her intently, making her feel, as he sometimes did, that he could see straight into her heart. He dropped his eyes and started to turn away and Catherine could sense his doubt. Somehow, he knew she was hiding something.

Impulsively, she reached out and caught his arm. "Vincent. Wait."

He turned back, watching her.

She looked down at her hands, twisting her fingers together as she searched for words that would reassure without wounding. "Something happened today," she began slowly.

She gave him a carefully edited version of her talk with Josh before recounting the events of last Sunday, when she'd found Josh despondent in the park and invited him home. She finished with the poem and flower he had left on her desk the next day. "I thought it was sweet," she said. "I looked on it as a gesture of friendship." Her gaze had remained fixed on her interlaced fingers throughout her explanation and only now did she lift her eyes to look at him.

She saw pain in his blue eyes, pain she had wanted to spare him, and knew he was thinking of all the things he believed she deserved to have, things he could never give her.

"Catherine," he said slowly, avoiding her eyes, "Perhaps..."

"Don't," she interrupted, catching his arm. "Don't say it. I don't want anyone else."

"I only want you to be happy," Vincent whispered, unknowingly echoing Josh's earlier words.

Catherine reached up to cup his chin, forcing him to look at her. "You make me happy, Vincent. Only you. Why won't you believe that?" She searched his face.

She could see he wanted to trust what her heart was telling him, but somewhere deep down he still believed that someday this would all end, that someday she would leave. The shadow of that fear was in his eyes.

She slid her arms around his neck and buried her face against his shoulder. I love you, she thought fiercely, letting the feeling well up inside her. I love you. I love you. "I love you," she whispered aloud.

His arms tightened around her.

"I love you," she repeated, releasing her hold. He seemed shaken by her intensity, but she was immeasurably relieved to see the shadow gone from his eyes. "Maybe tomorrow we can spend some time together," she suggested.

He searched her face and seemed comforted by what he found there. "I will try," he promised softly.

"Until tomorrow, then," she answered, and hugged him once more before turning to the ladder, and home.

 

Somehow, she made it through the weekend. Swamped with work, she still managed to steal a few hours Saturday to attend a violin recital below.

Vincent seemed himself again, his doubts and fears buried, if not for good, at least for now, and Catherine made herself the promise that someday, somehow, she would vanquish those doubts and fears, if only by sheer persistence. Then she wondered wildly if that was what Josh had in mind for her.

At work the next week, she avoided Josh whenever possible and was no more than polite to him when they spoke. It bothered her to treat him with indifference, but saw no other way to discourage him.

Things had eased off a bit in the crimefighting department, as Joe Maxwell liked to put it, but Catherine still put in some late nights trying to get caught up. It was nearly ten on Wednesday evening when she finally switched off her desk lamp and shrugged into her coat.

The offices were cast in gloom, lit only by a fixture near the door and someone else's desk lamp. She peered around the corner to see who else was giving the taxpayers their money's worth.

Josh looked up and smiled at her warily.

"I'm just leaving," she explained. "You'll have to lock up." She started toward the door.

"Cathy, wait. I'm done here. I'll walk you down." He rose hastily and reached for his jacket.

"No, that's all right..."

"It's ten o'clock at night," he said in exasperation. "This is New York City. You're not walking down alone."

"Josh..."

"As a friend, Cathy."

In the face of his calm determination, she capitulated. "All right. As a friend."

The elevator ride passed in silence. "Cab?" Josh asked as they crossed the lobby.

"Not tonight. I have my car."

"Where are you parked?"

Catherine opened her mouth to object, then closed it again. If she didn't let him walk her to her car, he'd probably follow her. "This way."

She was parked a block away, on a narrow side street flanked by darkened office buildings. Josh followed her silently. A nearby streetlight was out, leaving a puddle of shadow around her car. "I'm right there." She pointed and fumbled for her keys.

From out of nowhere, someone grabbed her and pushed her back against the wall. A surly teenager, no more than seventeen years old, brandished a knife and warned her roughly to keep still. His companion, larger and older, waved a similar weapon at Josh and demanded his wallet.

Moving with extreme care, Josh produced the wallet. The mugger snatched it and peered inside.

"Eight bucks!" he cried, giving Josh a vicious shove. "You gotta do better than that, man!"

"I have some money in my purse," Catherine interjected, hoping to keep a simple mugging from escalating into violence.

"I told you to shut up!" the younger boy shouted, punching at her shoulder with the heel of his hand for emphasis. His action brought the knife close to her face - too close, and she recoiled, but the building was at her back, crowding her. Claustrophopic terror surged up and for an instant she was back in that van three years ago, a razor coming at her face.

She fought back instinctively, sweeping her arm up, knocking the boy's arm away. He reacted with a furious yell, slashing at her with the knife. Across the sidewalk, Josh struggled with his own assailant; she could hear him shouting. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the attack was over. The two youths sprinted away.

Josh knelt on the pavement near her car, his suit scuffed, one knee of his trousers torn. "Are you okay?"

"No," she replied, her voice sounding unnaturally calm. "I don't think so." She extended her right fist to show him the dark blood seeping between clenched fingers.

He was beside her in a second, cradling her hand in his. "Open your hand, Cathy," he commanded. "Let me see."

"I can't," she said, faintly surprised that her hand refused to obey her mind's command.

Gently he pried open her fingers. Blood welled up from an ugly knife slash across her palm. Fruitlessly, Josh searched his pockets for something to stanch the flow.

"There are tissues in my purse," Catherine said, watching with a kind of detached fascination as her blood dripped steadily to stain the cement at her feet.

Josh found her purse where it had been flung during the scuffle and extracted a wad of tissues. He gently swabbed away the worst of the blood and laid some clean tissues across the cut.

"Close your hand on these," he instructed, curling her fingers as he spoke. "They'll help control the bleeding."

As he searched the sidewalk for her keys, she closed her eyes. She was trembling now with the shock of the encounter and for a brief, irrational moment she wished for Vincent. If only she could be in his arms, everything would be all right. And then, inexplicably, something shifted and suddenly she knew he was near; he had responded to her fear and was somewhere close, watching her.

He must be frightened, she realized. He must know she was hurt, must be feeling the helplessness of it. She grasped for the inner strength he'd helped her find and used it, forcing a composure she didn't really feel.

She swayed, and Josh was there, a supporting arm around her shoulders, his hand on her elbow. "Here," he said, unlocking her car's passenger door. "Get in."

Mutely,cradling her injured hand against her body, she let him assist her into the front seat. He tossed their briefcases into the back seat and slid behind the wheel. She couldn't resist a swift backward glance as he pulled away from the curb but nothing was there. Only shadows.

At the hospital, Josh sat with her in the emergency room, making cheerful small talk to distract her while they waited. A police officer came and filled out a report on the assault and afterward Josh held Catherine's good hand while a doctor stitched up her palm.

All this took time, and it was nearly three in the morning when Josh drove her home. He insisted on escorting her to her own door. He unlocked it for her, but she turned in the doorway to forestall his coming in.

"Thank you, Josh," she said firmly. "I'll be all right now."

"Are you sure?"

When she nodded, he handed over her keys and leaned forward quickly to kiss her gently on the lips. She stepped back, startled and he looked at her wistfully. "Goodnight, Cathy."

Only when she was sure he was gone did she close the door. She locked it carefully and hurried across to the french doors. She fumbled with the lock, haste and her injured hand making it difficult, but at last it sprang open and she pushed the door wide.

"I'm all right," she said, even before Vincent moved into view.

He pulled her into his arms. "There was blood on the sidewalk." His voice was taut.

"Mine," she admitted, pulling back to show him her bandaged hand. He took it tenderly in both of his.

"Nineteen stitches," she told him, moving her fingers gently. "The doctor says I was lucky... he's never seen a cut this deep without any nerve or tendon damage."

She looked up at his face and saw the distress there. "I'm okay, Vincent," she said urgently. "Truly. It's just a cut."

He shook his head slightly, as if to clear it. "It frightened me... knowing you were hurt, bleeding. You're in pain now," he added softly.

She looked down at her hand. "The anaesthetic is wearing off. It's starting to hurt."

"It's late and you're tired. You should sleep." He moved his hand as if to touch her cheek, then seemed to catch himself, pulling it away. "I should go."

"Vincent, wait." Catherine said the words quickly. "Please... will you stay to say goodnight to me?"

He turned back slowly, his eyes searching hers. "I'll wait," he agreed slowly.

"I won't be long," she promised, and went inside. In the bathroom, she tried to hurry through her evening routine, but her hand made her slow and inept. By the time she finished, it was throbbing badly. Before she went back out, she swallowed one of the pain pills the doctor had given her.

Vincent was at the balcony wall, gazing out over the city, but turned when she came outside. "I'll read you to sleep if you like," he offered.

She smiled. "I won't turn that down. What will you read?"

"Whatever you choose."

She went to the living room and ran a thoughtful finger along the books shelved there. She hesitated, but finally selected a tall, thin volume from among the children's books left over from childhood.

"What is it?" Vincent inquired, as she paused in the doorway.

She smiled and ducked her head. "I'm afraid you'll think I'm silly."

He stepped toward her and took the book. "A Child's Treasury of Beatrix Potter," he read aloud.

"My mother used to read the stories before I went to sleep. It always seemed like a going to bed sort of book."

Vincent leafed through the pages. "Father used to read this to Devin and me," he mused. "When we were very young."

She moved closer and he opened his arms. She lingered in the warmth and security of his embrace as long as he would allow, but finally he released her. "Get in bed," he instructed gently, making her feel a little like a child who's stayed up past her bedtime. She didn't argue.

Obediently, she slid between the sheets, curling on her side to watch Vincent in the moonlight. He sat in the open doorway, leaning back against the door frame, and opened the book. "Peter Rabbit?" he asked.

"Jemima Puddle-Duck," she answered, smiling. "It was my favorite when I was little. I loved the sound of her name. Jemima Puddle-Duck." There was still a certain satisfaction in saying the silly name.

Vincent regarded her with an indulgent look she thought he might have directed at a well-loved but recalcitrant child and she subsided into her pillow. Only when she was perfectly still did he find his place and began to read.

As the sound of his voice, soft and soothingly hypnotic, washed over her, she allowed herself to wish, just for a moment, that he would come inside. But it was a futile wish, so she pushed the thought away.

The pain pill was beginning to work, making her feel sort of fuzzy around the edges. She tried to keep her eyes open, to anchor herself in his reality and to savor the moment, but exhaustion and the medication were stronger and she drifted off long before Jemima finished sitting on her eggs.

When she woke the next morning, the sun was streaming in through the closed balcony doors and Beatrix Potter lay on her bedside table. She sat up and touched it gently.

She didn't have long to ponder the significance, though. A glance at her alarm clock sent her flying into the bathroom.

The hand felt awkward this morning -- it had stiffened up overnight -- and it was enough to make the simplest task seem difficult. She showered carefully, taking care to keep the bandage dry, and fumbled her way through brushing her teeth and drying her hair.

It wasn't until she had nearly finished dressing that she realized she had chosen a blouse which buttoned at the cuffs. She could button the right one easily enough, but her bandaged hand was too clumsy to manage the left. She glared at the open cuff in exasperation, then pulled her jacket on anyway and reached for her shoes. It would take too long to change.

It was just after ten when she reached the office, making her only a few minutes late for a meeting with Joe and D.A. Moreno. She hurried to her desk to drop off her things and was riffling through a pile of folders, looking for information she'd need in the meeting, when Joe interrupted.

"Radcliffe, what are you doing?" he demanded.

"I'm sorry, Joe, I know I'm late..."

"The meeting's been postponed. We didn't think you'd be in today."

She looked at him blankly. "Why wouldn't I be in?"

"McKenzie says you got mugged last night. Something about a knife and you got hurt." Joe was beginning to look puzzled.

Catherine held up her hand and waggled her fingers at him. "It's only a cut. I plan to live," she said drily. "Rita!" she called over his shoulder.

"Cathy!" Rita Escobar altered course, looking worried. "Should you be here?"

Catherine exhaled sharply. "What kind of story is Josh telling?" She didn't really expect an answer; instead, she proffered her left wrist. "Would you button this, please?"

Rita looked bewildered as she buttoned the open cuff. Again Catherine displayed her injured right hand. "Nineteen stitches. The patient is expected to survive. No other injuries. Spread the word."

"Okay." Rita laughed, exchanged significant glances with Joe, and left.

Catherine sat down and opened a file, hoping Joe would take the hint and leave, but instead he perched on the corner of her desk, his face bright with curiosity.

"Come on," he urged her. "Spill it. What happened?"

She looked up at him with resignation. "I don't suppose you're going to go away until I tell you everything."

"Nope," he agreed cheerfully.

Reluctantly she described the previous evening's events. "Josh took me to the emergency room, we filed a police report, he took me home. Satisfied?" she finished.

"Your version isn't nearly as exciting as McKenzie's," Joe grumbled good-naturedly, heading for his office. "But I guess it'll have to do."

A little while later, she heard Josh's voice and called out to him as he passed.

"Cathy!" he exclaimed, hurrying over. "I didn't..."

"...expect to see me today," she finished for him. "I know. Josh, what have you been telling people?"

He looked abashed. "I only told them what happened."

"And convinced everyone I was at death's door."

"No, I didn't," he protested, genuinely perturbed. "I said you only got cut. It's just, well, I guess I thought you'd stay home today to sort of... get over it."

"What? The mugging?" Catherine was surprised. "Being mugged is not the worst thing that's ever happened to me, Josh," she informed him. "I'm not fragile."

"I'm sorry." He looked so genuinely contrite that she couldn't stay annoyed with him. She smiled.

"It's okay. And Josh?" she added as he turned to go. "Thanks for the help last night. I was glad you were there."

"No problem."

What she'd said was no more than the truth -- she had been glad to have him beside her during the four hours in the emergency room, but he walked away looking inordinately pleased and she sighed inwardly. She hadn't meant to, but apparently she'd encouraged him again.

By the end of the day her hand was throbbing again and when Joe ordered her home at five, she didn't argue. She didn't want to take one of the prescription pills because they made her sleepy, but two Tylenol tablets dulled the discomfort enough for her to ignore it.

After a dinner of leftover Chinese, she struggled, per doctor's instructions, to change the dressing on her injured hand. "We don't usually cover stitches," the doctor had said, "but since these are on the palm of your hand, I want to be sure they stay clean. Keep them bandaged for a few days. You don't want this cut getting infected."

It was difficult, though. Working one-handed was awkward and when the dressing cooperated, the adhesive tape didn't. In frustration she crumpled the mass of gauze and tape and hurled it as far as she could with her good left hand. She took another sterile pad from the box on the table and was reaching for the tape when she was interrupted by a welcome tap on the balcony door.

With the sound, her frustration melted away. She stepped out onto the balcony. "Hi," she greeted him softly.

"Catherine." He stood over her but didn't try to touch her. "You're upset."

"Exasperated," she corrected. She showed him her hand. The flesh along the knife slash was reddened and puckered where the fine blue nylon held it together. Her palm glistened where she'd smeared it with anti-bacterial ointment. "I'm supposed to keep it covered, but I can't get the new bandage on."

Silently, he held out his hand; it was a moment before she understood. She ducked inside just long enough to snatch up the box of gauze pads and the roll of adhesive tape, and placed them on his palm.

He tipped her hand toward the light, laid a fresh sterile pad over the cut and taped it deftly. "Is that too tight?" he asked when he finished.

She flexed her fingers experimentally and shook her head. "Perfect," she announced. "You should have been a doctor." Suddenly conscious of what she'd said, she glanced up, trying to gauge his reaction.

He gazed down on her, his expression sweetly wistful. "Father used to say that," he said softly. "When I was a boy, sometimes I would find injured animals or birds in the park at night. I would bring them home and tend them until they were well. Then I'd take them back to the park and set them free."

"You don't anymore?"

Something curious and unreadable came into his eyes. "I had to give it up," he said softly.

"Why?"

His eyes, gazing deeply into hers, seemed to carry some special significance. "Because one night, I found something... someone injured there... and later, I couldn't bear to let her go."

 

Catherine yawned her way through the next morning. She'd stayed up much too late, sitting outside with Vincent and two late nights in a row were catching up to her.

"Come on, Radcliffe, wake up," Joe commanded.

"Hi, Joe. What's up?" She propped her chin on her hand and blinked at him.

"You might want to try to get a nap this afternoon, kiddo," he warned. "Big night tonight."

She looked at him blankly.

"You remember. The governor's in town. The reception for him..."

She'd forgotten, but Joe's reminder brought the memory flooding back. "Oh, that's right. I suppose there's no way out of it?"

Joe grinned. "You know how Moreno likes all his loyal troops to show up at these things."

"Yeah." Catherine resigned herself to an uninteresting evening.

"Hey, McKenzie," Joe called, looking past her. Catherine cringed inside as he approached.

"Yeah, Joe?"

"Did anybody remember to tell you about the reception for the governor?"

Josh nodded. "Attendance required, right?"

"You got it," Joe agreed.

"Cathy." Josh turned to her. "Will you need a ride this evening?"

Catherine hesitated barely a second before replying. "Thanks, Josh, but Joe's picking me up." She fixed Joe with a fierce stare, daring him to deny it.

"Uh, yeah, that's right," Joe confirmed a shade too slowly.

"Okay. Maybe next time," Josh said comfortably. He walked away and Joe turned on Catherine.

"Okay, Radcliffe, give," he demanded. "What's with you and McKenzie?"

"There's nothing with me and McKenzie," Catherine said, trying without much hope to dismiss it lightly.

"Come on, I'm not stupid," Joe persisted. "He lives two blocks from you and I'm on the other side of town, but you want me to pick you up." His face said clearly that he expected an explanation in return for his cooperation.

"It's just that he's asked me out a few times and he won't take no for an answer."

"Why tell him no? He's a nice guy." Joe was curious.

"I know he's nice, Joe. I just don't want to go out with him."

"Why not?"

"I have my reasons."

He was watching her, and she bent over her work, pretending deep concentration. If she ignored him, maybe he would go away. "Okay," he said finally. "You win. I'll pick you up at seven-thirty." He paused. "You know, Radcliffe, you have too many secrets. It's going to get you into trouble one of these days."

He strode off in the direction of his office; she waited until he was out of earshot before she answered. "Already has," she mumbled under her breath.

 

Evening found her rushing to get ready before Joe arrived; she'd forgotten, once again, to allow extra time for the clumsiness of her bandaged hand. She had managed her hair and make-up and was struggling with a recalcitrant zipper on her dress when she heard a familiar tap on the glass of the french doors. She yanked the zipper up the last few inches, crossed to the doors and threw them open.

Vincent took in her appearance with one incredibly blue glance. "You're going out," he observed, disappointment evident in his voice.

"Yes. Is something wrong?" She stepped outside to be closer to him.

"No. I came to invite you below this evening. The children have planned an evening of entertainment for us all. I wanted you to come."

Now it was Catherine's turn to be disappointed. "I wish I could, but there's a party I have to go to. Joe will be here any minute to pick me up..."

He nodded his understanding and turned to go.

"Wait. Please."

He turned back, his expression questioning.

"Will you stay and talk to me while I finish getting ready?"

Vincent hesitated, then tipped his head in acquiescence and came to stand in the doorway. Catherine went to her dressing table and began to fumble with her earrings. "What are the children planning to do?" she asked over her shoulder.

Vincent smiled, crossing his arms and settling himself comfortably against the door frame. "It's supposed to be a secret, but there's a rumor they've written their own play."

"Oh, I hate to miss it," Catherine said mournfully. "It sounds like a lot more fun than meeting the governor. Maybe I can leave early..." she added thoughtfully.

Vincent shook his head. "Go and enjoy your party," he urged. "If you like, I'll come later and tell you about the play."

His suggestion offered a bright end to an otherwise dull evening and she snatched at it. "Yes, please."

An impatient knock on her front door interrupted. "Cathy, open up, it's me!"

"That's Joe." Catherine started toward the living room, but looked back when she reached the doorway. Vincent was pulling up his hood, preparing to leave. "Please... wait?" she asked. "Don't go yet."

"All right," he agreed, and she knew he was as reluctant to leave her as she was to see him go.

Carefully she closed the louvered bedroom doors and went to open the front door for Joe. He looked her up and down and grinned. "I hope you're not going like that," he said, eyeing her stocking feet and pointing to the earring that dangled from her hand.

"Come in, Joe," she said wryly. "I'll only be a minute."

"Oh, no, take all the time you need," he urged her sardonically. "The governor can wait..."

"Sit down, Joe," she said impatiently. "I'm almost ready."

She retreated to the bedroom. Behind her, Joe was talking to himself. "If she's only going to be a minute, why do I need to sit down?"

She was smiling when she turned from closing the louvered doors, and the smile widened when Vincent stepped back into view. He glanced uncomfortably toward the balcony doors that led into the room where Joe was, but Catherine knew the drapes were drawn and she could still hear Joe muttering in the front part of the room. Vincent must have determined that, too, and some of his wariness eased.

She needed to hurry, though, before Joe became too impatient. Quickly she worked the second earring into her ear and located her shoes, slipping them on. Giving herself a critical glance in the mirror, she turned for Vincent's inspection. "Do I look all right?" she whispered.

The glow in his eyes answered her before he spoke. "You look beautiful."

She felt radiant as she stepped up beside him. "You'll come back later?" she asked wistfully.

"I'll come," he confirmed, bending his head close to hers.

"Radcliffe!" Joe shouted from the living room. "Your minute's up! Let's go!"

"I'm coming," she called over her shoulder. She looked up at Vincent apologetically. "I have to go."

"I know." He stepped back into the shadows. Catherine closed the french doors slowly, savoring every second he was in her sight.

"Cathy!" Joe bellowed again. "We're late!"

Sighing, she pulled the doors solidly shut, picked up her purse and coat and went into the living room. "We have plenty of

time, Joe. Stop worrying."

"I still don't see why McKenzie couldn't pick you up," Joe grumbled as he helped her with her coat. "Seems like he'd be just your type."

 

They arrived at the reception a few minutes before the governor was scheduled to appear and Catherine gave Joe a smug smile.

"Okay, okay," he conceded. "You were right. And Moreno sees us," he added, lifting his hand to acknowledge the District Attorney's nod. "So we're covered there. Want to dance?" He made it sound like a dare.

"Sure," she agreed readily. "I feel reckless."

They shared one dance, then went to pay their respects to a group of dignitaries that included D.A. Moreno, the mayor and the governor, who had just arrived. Afterwards, Joe excused himself and moved off to talk to someone from the public defender's office.

Catherine drifted slowly around the perimeter of the dance floor, pausing occasionally to exchange a few words with someone she knew. She'd paused to pick up a glass of wine when she spotted Josh across the room. He was watching her, and when he saw her looking, weaved a path through the other guests to join her.

"Hi, Cathy," he greeted her quietly. "Boring party, isn't it?"

"I'm afraid so," she admitted. "These functions usually are."

"All these people wishing they were somewhere else," Josh observed.

Catherine laughed. "Is it that obvious?"

"You'd rather be somewhere else," he said pointedly.

"Yes," she conceded, deciding it was senseless to deny it.

"With him." Josh's tone left no doubt about who he meant.

"Yes," she repeated softly.

"Did he stand you up again?" Josh asked conversationally. Was she imagining it, or was his voice tinged with bitterness?

"No." She tried to be gentle. "In fact, I had to turn down his invitation to come here. He wasn't able to accompany me." It was nothing more than the truth, but she could feel Josh's gaze on her as she deliberately turned her attention toward the dance floor.

"Cathy! Cathy!" Joe broke the tense moment, dashing up and speaking quickly. "I've got to get back to the office, Radcliffe. The cops picked up a suspect in the Stoppelman murder this afternoon and he wants to confess. Moreno wants me to make sure it's by the book; we don't want to lose him. Can you get yourself home?"

Retired grocer Myron Stoppelman had been brutally murdered in his home only a week ago. Putting his murderer away would make a lot of people happy. "Sure."

"I'll take her home."

Josh spoke at the same time she did, and she glanced at him uneasily.

Joe looked from one to the other and gave Catherine a helpless shrug. "Sorry," he apologized, and made for the nearest exit.

Catherine looked at Josh wearily. "I can get myself home, Josh. Thanks anyway."

"I think we went over this the other night," Josh reminded her. "I'll see you home safely."

Catherine sighed. "It's too early to leave yet, anyway," she hedged. Maybe, by the time she was ready to leave, Josh would be distracted and she could slip out unnoticed.

She hoped for too much, though. As she made her way toward the exit a half-hour later, Josh appeared out of nowhere and fell into step beside her.

"I'm taking you home, Cathy," he said firmly. "You don't have to like it."

"Josh, really..." The protest died on her lips as she looked at his implacable expression. "All right!" She surrendered gracelessly and let him help with her coat.

During the cab ride home, she managed to make polite conversation, but it escalated into argument on the steps of her building. "Thank you, Josh."

"When I take a lady home, I see her to her front door," Josh replied unyieldingly.

"This is my front door," she insisted.

"No, it isn't."

"Josh, please..."

"Look, Cathy, I'm going to walk into the building, ride up in the elevator and see you to your own door. The only way to stop me is to tell the doorman to keep me out." His eyes challenged her and she was suddenly aware that the night doorman was holding the door open and listening avidly to every word.

She'd been brought up to avoid public scenes and that early training wouldn't let her rise to Josh's challenge. "All right!" She capitulated irritably and went inside. Josh followed closely.

The atmosphere inside the elevator was heavy with tension. They were the only two passengers and she didn't speak to him during the ride. She was far too angry to trust herself with words. Instead, she used the time to calm herself and marshal her arguments; once they reached her apartment she would put an end to this once and for all. It had gone on far too long already.

On the eighteenth floor, Catherine unlocked her door and pushed it open before turning to Josh and drawing a deep, fortifying breath.

"Josh, I don't want to hurt you," she began. "But I don't want to see you here anymore..."

"Cathy," he interrupted, his eyes anguished. "Don't say that. I think I'm in love with you."

"No." Instinctively she stepped back and Josh followed her inside.

"Please, Cathy," he begged. "Please just let me talk to you."

Pain etched itself across his face and her innate compassion responded, halting the angry words she might have said. Sorrowfully she shook her head. "There's nothing to talk about. You're a good man, Josh. You deserve someone who will see your warmth, your sensitivity, your care and kindness. Someone who will make you happy."

"I want it to be you." The words came out in a painful whisper.

"No. Not me, Josh. It can never be me. I'm in love with someone else."

Her bluntness seemed to penetrate as all her gentle rebuffs had not. Slowly his expression shifted from harsh, painful longing to regret.

When he spoke, his voice was small. "I'm sorry, Cathy. I never meant to, but it looks like I barged in and started messing up your life. I'm sorry." He fumbled for the doorknob. "Be happy, Cathy."

For long moments after the door closed behind him, she stood, aching with regret. Josh McKenzie was a gentle, caring man, and she'd hurt him, badly. Sadly she crossed to the balcony doors and stepped outside for a much-needed breath of air.

"Catherine."

Startled, she swung quickly to face Vincent. "I forgot you were coming," she faltered. "How long...?"

"Long enough." He moved toward her.

Uncomfortable beneath the intensity of his gaze, she turned to look across the park. He came to stand beside her.

"You couldn't help hurting him, Catherine," Vincent said slowly. "You tried to be kind."

"I know," she acknowledged quietly. "But part of me wants to reach out to help him, even though I know I can't." She turned then and let the solid comfort of his arms engulf her. "He reminds me so much of you."

 

Monday morning, Catherine found a sealed envelope on her desk. She had just picked it up and was working on the flap when Joe appeared.

"I don't know what you did to McKenzie Friday night," he said accusingly, "but he asked to be transferred to another division this morning." Stunned, she was groping for an answer when his scowl tranformed itself into a grin. "I'm going to want details on this one, kiddo," he added, and sauntered back toward his own office.

She stared after him and only when he was gone did she resume her efforts with the envelope, tearing it open and unfolding the note within. Josh's now-familiar handwriting leaped up at her.

 

Dear Cathy,

 

I'm sorry things happened the way they did. It was my fault, but I want you to remember what Housman said...

 

'Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all's over;

I only vex you the more I try.

All's wrong that ever I've done or said,

And nought to help it in this dull head:

Shake hands, here's luck, goodbye.

 

But if you come to a road where danger

Or guilt or anguish or shame's to share,

Be good to the lad that loves you true

And the soul that was born to die for you,

And whistle and I'll be there.'

 

-Josh

 

 

THE END