Vincentís shout rang in her ears and reverberated through their bond echoing the distress she heard in his voice as she and Spuds raced up the stairs to see what was wrong. She concentrated on the bond as she went trying to determine what could have caused her usually sedate mate to elicit such a yell, but she was unable to sort through the myriad emotions that assaulted her. Finally gaining the third floor landing she rushed through the door of the library to find him staring at the monitor screen of his computer.
"Vincent, whatÖ whatÖisÖ it?" She panted, trying to catch her breath and pressing a hand into her side to alleviate the stitch her dash up three flights of stairs had produced, "WhatísÖ wrong?" For an answer he merely pointed at the screen. She moved to stand behind him, reading over his shoulder she began to understand what had upset him.
Ever since Catherine had gotten the computer hooked up to the internet Vincent had been an avid user of it able to tap into all kinds of information quickly and easily, but additionally he found it to be the perfect way for him to Ďmeetí people while retaining his anonymity. It was Vincentís love of chess that led him to the website where he met Illya Nickovetch. Illya, preferably called Nicko, besides being an excellent chess player was a professional clarinetist with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and shared Vincentís love of classical music. The two soon became e-mail friends discussing music in depth and exchanging thoughts and ideas on a variety of topics.
The words that appeared on the monitorís screen were an e-mail from Nicko telling Vincent that the orchestra would be coming to New York City on its first leg of a world tour. Nicko was eager to meet his friend Vincent face to face and asked if he would show him the sites of the city while he was in town. His request was the cause of Vincentís consternation.
Smiling with relief, Catherine finished reading the e-mail and straightened, thankful that it wasnít anything worse, "WellÖ it appears we are going to have a visitor."
"Catherine, what am I going to do?" Vincent groaned miserably. "He wants me to show him the city, I canít do that." The pain in his eyes as he looked at her constricted her heart. It was such a simple request of one friend to another, easy for anyone else, but for Vincent quite impossible, a jolting reminder of his Ďothernessí. Spuds whined in sympathy and sat close to Vincentís side, putting a paw on his thigh to gain his attention. Absent mindedly Vincent reached out and stroked the dogís head.
Pursing her lips and giving it some thought Catherine finally said, "As far as I can see you can do one of three things," she pulled his wheeled chair away from the computer desk and sat in his lap, curving an arm around his neck. "One," she held up her index finger, "you can say youíll be away for the time heís here. Two," her middle finger joined the first, "you can meet him. Or, three," her ring finger joined the rest, "you can have someone pretend to be you."
Vincent waited patiently while she went through her solutions, and then stood up almost dumping her on the floor. "Catherine, how can I say Iím going away? You read his itinerary, heíll be at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center his first week here and then heíll tour the country to come back to play Madison Square Garden a month later. You donít think heíll believe Iíll be gone both times heís here without thinking Iím avoiding him do you? And as far as meeting him, that is out of the question besides what good would that do? I still couldnít take him out to see the city."
"Well then how about having someone impersonate you?" She watched as Vincent prowled up and down the room.
"Who, who would you suggest?" He stopped and looked at her, cocking his head to one side, hands on his hips.
"How about Father, I know youíve saved all the e-mails you and Nicko have sent each other, he could read them so he knows what youíve been talking about, and he plays a decent game of chess should Nicko want to play. Why donít you ask him? It couldnít hurt."
Vincent rubbed his chin a moment with thumb and forefinger, thinking, "I suppose it might work."
"Vincent, itís absolutely absurd I canít go around pretending to be you, I wouldnít even know where to begin." Father retorted after Vincent had explained his predicament. "Besides I havenít been Above in a very long time I wouldnít be able to play tour guide to your Russian visitor. No itís out of the question." He moved his queen across the board, giving Jack a triumphal look before saying, "check."
Exasperated Father looked up at his son, "I said no and thatís final!"
Vincent recognized that phrase from his youth, well remembering that when it was said it was meant, so he shrugged his shoulders and turned to appeal to Bishop Jack.
"Bishop, you havenít been Below for that long surely you could show Nicko around New York?"
Jack sighed as he studied the board unable to think of a move that would prevent the inevitable check mate he could now see coming and looked up at the younger man, "Vincent, itís not that I canít, but that I wonít, itís the principal of the thing. Donít get me wrong I fully sympathize with your dilemma, but I just canít see myself in the role, it just doesnít seem right. And besides that wouldnít your friend think I was a randy old goat being married to someone so much younger than myself. No Iím afraid youíll have to think of someone else."
Vincent sighed deeply and headed for home all the while trying to think of someone who could be him for just a few days. He discarded all his friends who lived Below and began to consider the helpers, but none of them seemed to do either. His steps slowed as he neared home wondering what he was going to do, Nicko would be coming in next week and he still had no solution to his problem.
When he told Catherine what Father and the Bishop had said she sympathized with him, but she could see their point. Suddenly it hit her, "Vincent, what about Devin?"
"Let me get this straight you want me to impersonate you so that your Russian friend has a personal tour guide?" Devin asked enjoying Vincentís predicament.
Vincent sighed heavily, "In essence yes. It would only be for a few days. When the orchestra returns in a month you could say youíll be away."
Vincent held the phone anxiously while Devin considered his request.
After what seemed to be a torturous interval to Vincent he finally agreed, "Sure Iíll do it, Iíve been everything under the sun so why not be you? Charles and I could do with a change of scenery; mountains can get very boring after awhile, and besides look at the fringe benefits."
Startled Vincent asked, "What fringe benefits?"
"Well if Iím you Iíll have to pretend to be Cathyís husbandÖ" A menacing growl came through the line. "Ok, ok just joking. Whenís your friend coming in?"
Vincent gave him the details and Devin promised to arrive in time to meet Nickoís plane at Kennedy International airport.
After hanging up the phone Vincent got on the computer and asked Nicko for a description of himself so that he would know him. Nickoís answer came back that he was about 5í 10", blond haired and blue eyed. Vincent gave Devinís description and said he would be holding a sign with Nickoís name on it. That done he went down the hall to Catherineís office to let her know that Devin and Charles would be arriving sometime on Thursday.
Devinís arrival was anything but quiet, the old van he drove wheezed and coughed its way to the front of the brownstone and ran even after the key had been removed from the ignition. With an explosion of black smoke it finally shut down as Devin and Charles made their way up the front stoop and rang the bell. Alerted by the noise and Spudsí anxious barks Catherine was already there opening the door as the first chime rang through the house.
"Itís a miracle you got here," Catherine chuckled as she gave each man a hug and a kiss.
"No it isnít, it was gravity, I simply pointed it down the mountain and we coasted here." Devin quipped as he set his battered suitcase down in the hall. Vincent was down as soon as he heard the vestibule doors close; sweeping Devin into a hug that soon included Charles.
"Dev saidÖ weíre onÖ vacation." Charles said in his halting speech his face a light with happiness. "He saidÖ we could goÖ to the falls."
Devin laughed and clapped Charles on the back. "We have a pond by the house and I taught Charles how to swim. The whole way down here all he could talk about was swimming at the falls. I told him that you would take him, Vincent, since Iíll be busy."
Vincent inclined his head acknowledging the task Devin set him, "Of course, Charles, Iíll be happy to take you."
The following day with Charles safely ensconced with the tunnel community Vincent nervously paced the hallway of the brownstone Spuds close beside him. "Vincent, calm down the two of you are going to wear a rut in the floor," Catherine chided her husband.
"Heís going to be late," Vincent growled clearly not amused at her attempt at levity. He shot another look up the stairs mystified at Devinís total lack of time sense. A few more trips up and down the hall and Devinís tread could be heard coming down the stairs. "Itís about time," Vincent snarled as Devin came into view.
"Hey I wanted to look good for your friend," Devin poked a finger at Vincentís chest. "So how do I look?" He turned to give them the front and back views. His striking good looks where well set off by what he had chosen to wear. A lightweight, beige, cable knit sweater over dark brown cords topped off with a dark brown leather jacket. Catherine had to admit he cut a very dashing figure and considering it was early fall entirely appropriate.
"You lookÖadequate," Vincent reluctantly admitted. "Now go, heís expecting me to be there."
Catherine waived keys in front of Devinís nose. "Here take our van; I think Nicko would go flying back to Russia if he had to travel around in yours."
"Sticks and stones, sticks and stones, it got us here didnít it?" Devin retorted.
"Go!" Vincent roared in frustration.
"Iím going, Iím going." He took the keys from Catherine and gave her a peck on the cheek. "Iíll pick you up after workÖwife." Catherine giggled as Devin winked broadly at her and sauntered through the doors. Vincent rolled his eyes upward in exasperation.
Devin made it to the airport just in time to see the first of the musicians coming into the arrivals area. They were easy to spot as they were carrying various sized instrument cases. He studied the throng looking for one that fit Nickoís description, holding up the sign Vincent had given him. He craned his head looking this way and that grinning when he saw the poor tuba player struggling with his suitcase and his bulky instrument. Mentally he made a note that if he ever turned his hand to being a musician he would opt for a less cumbersome instrument, a trumpet perhaps or better yet a flute. Suddenly he was startled to find a beautiful woman standing right in front of him, staring at him.
"CanÖcan I help you?" He stammered his normally glib speech abandoning him for the moment.
"Da, you are Vincent, no?" She asked.
"NoÖI mean yesÖI meanÖ" He continued to stammer as he stared at the vision in front of him. She stood just shorter than he, with long blond hair that hung almost to her waist, and straight bangs that wisped over her high forehead. Suddenly it dawned on him, "Donít tell me youíre Nicko?" He stared in astonishment as she nodded her head.
"Da, you are surprised?" Her melodic voice sent a shiver down his spine. "You were expecting boy, yes?" Her cornflower blue eyes sparkled with merriment as he sheepishly ducked his head. "Not to worry happens all time. My parents wanted boy so they pick out boy name. I come along they decide to keep name." She shrugged her shoulders. "Sometimes is good, sometimes is not so good."
Devin gave himself a metal shake it wasnít often that his equilibrium was disrupted leaving him at a loss for words. Covering his momentary failure he turned to watch the other musicians congregate at a bus parked by the sidewalk just outside the terminal doors. "I have a van in the parking lot, are you free for the rest of the day?" He asked her when he finally found his voice.
She shook her head, her blond hair flying around her face. "We are to get on bus and go toÖ" she dug in her pocket bringing out a piece of paper. Scrutinizing it she continued, "Hotel called Park Central," she looked up at him, "You know this place?"
"Sure," he replied. "Itís across from Carnegie Hall, I can get you there."
She thought for a moment and then took his arm steering him to a man holding a clip board by the bus. She introduced him as Yuri Petrov, the orchestraís manager. She spoke with him in Russian for a few minutes. He left them to talk to a distinguished looking gentleman that stood to one side, aloof from all the turmoil going on around him. Nicko identified him as Evgeni Svetlanov, the orchestraís current conductor. The two men looked at Devin and Nicko during the course of their conversation and finally Yuri came back to say that Nicko could go, but only after checking into the hotel. Devin took her arm and steered her to the parking lot. When they got to the van he opened the back of it and took her suitcase, placing it inside. When he moved to take her instrument case she clutched it shaking her head. "This I keep with me, is my clarinet, it is who I am, you understand?"
"Sure," Devin replied closing the back and opening the passenger door for her. He got into the driverís seat, started the engine and joined the jostling line of traffic heading into the city.
As he drove they talked, well she talked, he mostly listened. She told him the flight had been long and uneventful, and that she was eager to get out and stretch her legs. He told her that he planned to show her some of Central Park and then they would pick up Catherine and go to dinner. By the time they traveled the 15 miles to reach the hotel Devin had a fair idea of what Nicko wanted to see while the orchestra was in the city. She had obviously looked up all the tourist attractions and had memorized them, rattling them off gun fire like, apologizing that they would have to fit sightseeing in between her rehearsal schedule and concerts. Devin assured her that they could probably fit everything in and then some. She graced him with a dazzlingly smile that almost stopped his heart, she was absolutely stunning. He grinned, thinking of the look on Vincentís face when he found out his supposedly male internet friend was in fact a beautiful, young woman.
Deftly Devin turned into the hotels parking garage where he turned the van over to the attendant. He escorted Nicko to the front desk where she signed in and was given a key. They rode the elevator to the 10th floor where her room was located and got her settled in. Devin excused himself and waited in the lobby while she got changed and freshened up. The bus load of musicians was just pulling up as they left the hotel to walk the short distance to Central Park.
They turned left when they reached Central Park South down to Columbus Circle, Nicko stared at the golden statue of the Maine Monument as Devin kept the persistent would be guides at bay. Entering the park Devin led her down the paved path and stone steps to The Pond where they stopped to admire the different birds and water fowl. Wollman Rink, which in the winter was covered in ice for skating, was currently occupied by a carnival. The typical rides and amusements were crowed with younger park goers screaming and laughing with pleasure. The visitorís center was housed in the Dairy and provided Nicko with her first American souvenir, a pink tee shirt with Central Park written across it in black, which she promptly pulled on over the shirt she was wearing.
Past the Dairy was the Carousel and they watched as children either clambered up on the colorfully painted animals by themselves or were helped by their adult companions. For a moment Devinís mind went back in time picturing a young Vincent riding this same carousel, it was a time of great turmoil in his life, it was a time just before he left the tunnels to make a life above, away from all heíd known. Shaking his head he realized heíd gone a long way just to come full circle, but he didnít regret a moment of it.
Next they strolled through the Mall beneath the rows of towering American Elms that were still a brilliant green; Devin described the many colors they would soon turn into as the fall progressed. The Mall led to the Bandstand and Nicko looked at it with a professional eye, "Is good place," She commented before Devin moved her on to Bethesda Terrace. The fountain in its center captivated her and she shoved her camera into Devinís hand so that he could take a picture of her posing in front of it. Laughing she came back to him to take the camera, "Is like Pushkin Park in St. Petersburg." She commented gaily. "Someday you will come to Russia; I will show you St. Petersburg and the palaces of Pushkin."
"Iíve been to many places," he mused out loud, "but somehow I missed Russia," He looked at her admiringly, "I can see I shouldnít have."
She looked at him bewildered, "I thought you wrote me that you had never left New York?"
Whoops thereís a slip, you better watch yourself, Devin old boy, he thought to himself. "Thatís true, thatís true, Iíve only left New York in the pages of books my dear, but I promise you if I ever find myself in Russia I will make it a point of visiting Pushkin."
Noting her puzzled look he glanced at his watch, "I
think we better get back to the van,
Cathy will be getting out of work soon." He took her elbow and steered her back to the hotel, cursing himself for his stupidity.
The black van with its heavily tinted windows crept slowly down Centre St. towards the Criminal Courts Building. Waiting on the sidewalk Catherine saw it coming towards her, a shiny black beetle among the numerous yellow taxis that clogged the street this time of day. She had special ordered the van after their close call in the limo on the way home from their honeymoon. If it hadnít been for Devinís quick wit Vincent could very well have been discovered. As it was everything turned out all right and she didnít even mind the funny stares she had received when she had gone back to work. She had ordered the van with four captainsí seats that comfortably accommodated Vincentís large frame and the bench seat in the back had a special trap door built under it that would allow Vincent to hide or to escape to the outside.
As the van drew closer she moved to the curb, and when it came abreast of her she ran out pulled the slider open and jumped in so Devin wouldnít have to stop. After closing the door she found herself seated behind a beautiful blond haired girl. Looking at Devin she tilted her head in the blondís direction questioningly. "Catherine, Iíd like you to meet Illya Nickovetch, Nicko for short. Nicko, this is Cathy my wife." Devin smirked sparing a glance from the traffic to see Catherineís startled expression. Catherine swallowed her surprise and held out her hand, "Welcome to the United States, Nicko," she managed to say.
They had dinner at The Tavern on the Green spending a delightful couple of hours over good food and great conversation. Nicko was as charming as she was beautiful with a quick wit and a wonderful sense of humor. Devin kept his eye on his watch and when it drew close to Nickoís curfew called for the check. He didnít want her getting into trouble her first day here. They arrived at the hotel just as the hands of the lobby clock moved to nine, they could see, Yuri, the orchestra manager, standing in the front of the hotel frowning. Nicko said goodbye and flew out the door, flashing a brilliant smile at Yuri as she passed him by. Tomorrow morning she would be rehearsing at Carnegie Hall, but then the afternoon would be hers until the concert that evening. Over dinner she had again expressed her desire to see the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Broadway, and a host of other tourist spots. Devin assured her that he would show her as much as he could in the afternoon, but that they had the rest of the week to see everything. Her concert at Lincoln Center wasnít until Friday and there were only two rehearsals for that, he was sure they could fit everything in. She had told the pair over dinner that she would have tickets waiting for them at the box office along with a back stage pass for tomorrow nights performance.
On the drive home Catherine and Devin exchanged a look and burst out laughing, they tossed a coin to see who was going to tell Vincent about his internet buddy. Devin won and Catherine stood demurely silent as Vincent helped her off with her coat.
"So how was he? Did you get to the airport on time? How was dinner? What have you shown him so far?" He peppered them with questions anxious to know how everything went.
Devin dragged out the suspense, deliberately taking his time taking off his jacket and shaking it out. Frustrated Vincent grabbed it and hung it on the rack. "Well?!" He roared. Catherine couldnít hold it in any longer and burst out laughing, Devin joined her and soon the pair had tears rolling down their cheeks. Vincent was astonished, "I donít see whatís so funny," he growled unappreciative of their levity.
"Go ahead Devin, tell him," Catherine wheezed catching her breath. Devin wrapped an arm around Vincentís shoulders and walked him toward the family room. "Well brother of mine, I went to the airport and picked up your chess partner, showed off Central Park, picked up your wife and went to Tavern on the Green for dinner, dropped off said partner at the hotel and here we are."
"Devin!" Vincent roared again completely frustrated.
"Ok, ok Iím just having a little fun."
"Yes, obviously, at my expense," Vincent grumbled.
Devin nodded still grinning. "To answer your questions, I picked Nicko up at the airport on time, drove her to her hotel, check her in and took her to Central Park."
Vincent had been nodding as Devin listed each item, his eyes grew wide as the Ďherí finally sank in and he looked at Devin shocked, "Her?"
"Yes," Devinís grin widened, "her."
Vincent looked to Catherine for confirmation, she was sitting on the arm of one of the couches and she nodded, her eyes filled with mirth.
"Her," Vincent repeated as he sunk down on the couch beside his wife.
"And what a Ďherí," Devin continued, "Sheís an absolute stunner, just my type." He added enthusiastically.
Vincent looked at him sharply, "Youíre supposed to be a married man, Devin."
"Oh donít worry I know my part." He assured him. "Sheís got rehearsal in the morning then weíll do some sight seeing. You wouldnít believe the list of things she wants to see. Oh sheís invited Catherine and me to the concert. Are you going to listen to it?"
Vincent nodded, "Yes thereís a spot in the tunnels where Iíll be able to hear it." He looked wistfully at Catherine.
"Iím sorry, Vincent," she told him sadly, "Iíd love to join you, but I promised Nicko Iíd be there."
"Of course, donít worry about it, Catherine."
The three trouped down to the tunnels where Charles happily told Catherine and Devin about his day swimming at the falls. It was late by the time they turned in and all too soon Devin found himself being shaken awake by his younger brother. "WhaÖwhatís the matter?" He asked sleepily, knuckling an eye.
"You have to meet Nicko at Carnegie Hall," Vincent shook him again.
"All right, all right youíre shaking my teeth loose, Iím up, Iím up." Devin swung his feet out of bed and looked around the chamber, Charles was already gone his bed neatly made.
"Charles has been up for hours already dressed and breakfasted, heís with some of the children now reading stories."
"Oh, ok," Devin propped his elbows on his knees and rubbed his head, noticing Vincent begin to pace. "Look Iíll be bathed and dressed in no time, stop worrying will you." He got up, grabbed a change of clothes and went off in the direction of one of the bathing chambers. A short while later he presented himself in Fatherís chamber shaved, dressed and bright eyed. "See here I am ready to go."
Vincent walked with Devin back to the house listening to his plans for the afternoon. He still wasnít sure how he felt about Nickoís being a woman; he had just assumed that he had been corresponding with a man. But really what did it matter, he mused. Briefly he wondered if the way he wrote to her would be affected by this new knowledge.
"Tell Catherine Iíll pick her up here for the concert," Devin told Vincent as he passed through the vestibule doors. "And Vincent," He popped his head back around the door, "Tell her not to be late, ok?" He ducked as a rain boot came hurtling towards him hitting the door where his head had been.
A short while later, after navigating the lunchtime weekend traffic, Devin stood at the front of Carnegie Hall. Musicians had started streaming out the door and anxiously he looked for Nicko. He caught sight of her just as she strode through the door; her blond hair streaming behind her, her face broke into a huge smile when she saw him. God, she was gorgeous he thought as she came towards him. She slung her gig bag and purse over one shoulder as they made their way to the first of their many stops. He steered her down 7th Ave to Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center, then to Times Square and down Broadway and 42nd St. They went in and out of shops, pausing here and there to buy souvenirs and take pictures. When they got hungry they stopped at Ellenís Stardust Diner for a meal, Nicko was delighted with the hamburgers and French fries, and especially enjoyed the chocolate malted Devin made her try and the singing wait staff captivated her. Afterward they made a quick stop into St. Patrickís Cathedral before hurrying back to her hotel so she could get ready for the evenings performance.
Bursting into the brownstone Devin took the stairs two at a time to the guest room where he had left his good suit. Following him up, Vincent stood outside the bathroom door as Devin showered and listened while he recounted the afternoonís travels and conversations. Vincent committed everything he said to memory just incase Nicko would refer to something in her e-mails to him. Catherine met them in the hallway as they came out of the bedroom. Devin gave her a low, appreciative whistle, "Chandler, you look stunning." She dropped him a curtsey, "Thatís Wells and you donít look so bad yourself." She was wearing a tea length, green chiffon, which brought out the green in her eyes. It had long sleeves that ended in points over the back of her hands, with a scooped neckline that fell in gentle folds showing her delicate collar bones and graceful neck. She wore her hair in a chignon with a clip made of green and blue geodes that matched her wedding ring and the earrings Vincent had given her for their anniversary. The ensemble was completed with a green and blue shawl that she had slung over one arm. Vincent looked at her proudly, she was a vision; he still had trouble believing this beautiful woman had chosen to spend her life with him. He escorted them to the front door, giving his wife a kiss and waited till they had pulled away before going Below to make his way to the underground listening spot underneath Carnegie Hall.
The concert was a tremendous success giving the audience, filled with New Yorkís elite, an evening filled with selections from such notable Russian composers as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Wagner. Devin watched Nicko play, captivated by her total immersion in the music. She wasnít just playing the notes on the page, the music filled her, passed through her and around her, she felt everything the composer meant you to feel when his composition was played. And even though she was dressed in the same white blouse and black long skirt as every other woman in the orchestra she stood out, her blond hair shone golden in the spot lights and swayed in time to the music as she played piece after piece. Afterwards she gracefully accepted, along with her fellow musicians, the thunderous standing ovation they received.
Catherine and Devin found her backstage swabbing out her horn and carefully putting it back in its case. She beamed at them as they showered her with praise and congratulations, then they whisked her away to Sardiís for a nightcap, there was no curfew for the musicians tonight. There would be only two rehearsals at Lincoln Center before the concert on Friday night so the rest of the week Nicko could do whatever she pleased and there was an awful lot she wanted to do, museums, art galleries, the Empire State building, the Statue of Liberty the list went on and on. Devin was glad Catherine was footing the bill for all of this because his meager funds wouldnít get through a quarter of Nickoís list. Catherine didnít care one wit how much money was spent, she had plenty of it after all, and she was delighted with Nickoís enthusiasm and only saddened that Vincent couldnít enjoy the girlís physical presence.
After they had dropped Nicko off and Devin had gone Below she and Vincent discussed the music and Nicko into the early morning hours. She tried to recount the entire night, describing everything in detail so that in some small way Vincent would feel part of the evening. Today Devin would be taking Nicko through the Village and then back to the brownstone for dinner. Catherine wanted to go over a menu with William so as soon as they were up and dressed they went Below. William had settled on a hearty beef stew with plenty of vegetables and a side of egg noodles. Devin wasnít quite sure when theyíd be home for dinner and William said the longer a stew sat and simmered the better it would be. So it was settled, Catherine went topside to get the ingredients, while Vincent took Charles to the falls for another swim. Later they met at the house to clean and straighten in preparation of their guest. Meanwhile Devin showed Nicko the sites of Greenwich Village, Soho, Chinatown, Little Italy and Tribeca he was exhausted and footsore by the time they got back to the brownstone. He announced himself loudly when they walked through the door to give Vincent a heads up to hide himself.
"Cathy," he shouted while he hung up Nickoís jacket on a hook on the vestibule wall. "Weíre home." Spuds had come bounding up the stairs from the kitchen the minute he heard the door open. He stopped short, inspecting the new comer, not many people came to the house as a rule and they were always the same ones. He approached cautiously but when Nicko squatted down and held out her hand he sniffed it approvingly and when she reached out to scratch behind his ear he was undone. "What a beautiful dog," Nicko crooned as Spuds lay down and flipped over on his back, inviting her to rub his tummy. "He looks little like laikas." At Devinís puzzled look she quickly explained, "Is dog in Russian who hunt." She rose when Catherine came toward her.
Vincent had felt Devinís approach and had quickly gone down to the kitchen stairs. He kept the door cracked to the hallway so that he could take his first peek at what Nicko looked like. He sucked in his breath when he caught sight of her, Devin was right, she was stunning. Hurriedly he shut the door and made his way to the tunnel entrance. Catherineís plan was to have dinner first and then give Nicko a tour of the house. Together they had set three places at the large, mahogany dinning room table taking great care with the floral arrangement and napkins. Catherine had felt a wave of sadness through the bond from him that he wouldnít be able to join them and she had wrapped her arms around his waist in sympathy.
"Nicko, welcome," Catherine greeted their guest with an affectionate hug, "Dinnerís all ready, I thought we would eat first and then Iíll show you the house." At Nickoís nod Catherine led the way into the dinning room.
Dinner was a great success, Nicko and Devin told Catherine of their day in such an animated and delightful way that she felt like she had been with them. After the table had been cleared and the dishes stacked in the dish washer, Catherine took Nicko through the house. Devin begged off saying that he had a few phone calls he had to make. He didnít want to have to answer any questions about the house as he practically knew nothing about it. They found him watching TV in the family room when they were done.
"Vincent," she clapped her hands excitedly, "Your house is very beautiful, and you live on all the floors! In Russia this house would have many families living in it; you must be very rich, da?"
Devin colored slightly and shooting a glance at Catherine mumbled, "We do all right."
"I see chess set upstairs, we play a game?" She asked hopefully, ready to finally play her internet chess partner face to face.
Devin glanced at his watch, stalling, he was a miserable chess player, "Itís getting late, Nicko and youíve had a very busy day with an even busier one planned for tomorrow if we want to get everything in that you want to do. Why donít I drop you at your hotel so you can get a goods night rest?" He waited holding his breath.
"Da," she nodded, "You are right, but I take taxi so you donít have to leave ok?" He agreed and Catherine phoned for a cab. They stood on the front stoop waving to her as the taxi pulled away.
"Whew that girl has practically walked my legs off, where does she get all the stamina?"
Devin groaned as they walked back into the house.
Catherine laughed at him, "Face it she only has a few days here, when will she ever get the chance to come back? She wants to get in as much as possible."
"Well I know one thing for sure," Devin grimaced, pushing a hand into the small of his back, "Iím going to sleep like a log tonight. Iíll tell Vincent the coast is clear."
Catherine laughed as Devin wearily headed for the stairs, "Donít bother heís already here." Vincent hadnít gone very far when he had entered the tunnels to hide from Nicko, and as soon as Catherine had shown her the basement he had reentered the house.
Vincent slapped Devin on the back, elicited a grunt of pain, as they passed each other on the stairs. "I know all this exercise is hard on you Devin, I just want you to know how much I appreciate it."
"Yeah sure, at least sheís easy on the eyes if not the feet," he grumbled as he continued down the stairs.
For the rest of the week Devin made sure he interspersed seated tours among the walking ones. A double-decker bus tour of the city, the Circle Line boat ride, a ferry ride, a horse drawn carriage ride, a Broadway show all helped to give him a respite from the many strolls through the myriad of museums and art galleries. Friday found the pair once again in Central Park having just come from visiting the American Museum of Natural History. The place was huge and would have taken days to see so they concentrated on the things that Nicko was most interested in. Cutting through the park on the 79th Street transverse road on their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few drops of rain began to fall. They were approaching the West Drive when it started falling in earnest and great sheets of it soaked them in minutes. Devin grabbed Nickoís hand and turned right running up past Shakespeareís garden and into the courtyard of Belvedere Castle. He pulled her into the small loggia directly opposite the entrance of the castle. They were thoroughly drenched and panting, out of breathe from their sudden dash. Subconsciously, Devin noticed that they were all alone; the larger loggia beyond, that overlooked the Delacorte Theater, was empty. They were facing each other, laughing when Devin saw her start to shiver; gallantly he removed his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. As his arms encircled her she looked at him all mirth gone from her blue eyes. He couldnít have stopped himself if he had wanted to and he didnít want to. He pulled her close, covering her lips with his own. She yielded to his kiss, her arms going around his waist, her lithe body molding to his. They clung to each oblivious to anything around them, the rain provided a shielding curtain as it cascaded off the roof of small building. Afterwards Devin couldnít say how long the kiss lasted, it felt like an eternity and yet it wasnít long enough.
She broke away suddenly, her head bowed, "Vincent, Iím sorry, that should not have happened. PleaseÖplease take me back to hotel." Her face was red with shame and what could he say, he was supposed to be Vincent, a married man. The rain had stopped as suddenly as it began and they made their way back to where he had parked the van. An invisible wall had sprung up between them as solid as if it had been real. At the hotel she stopped him from accompanying her to the door with a hand on his chest, which she quickly pulled away as if it had been burned, "No donít, please." She implored, her head bowed so that her long hair hid her face, "IÖI want to thank you for a wonderful time, butÖbut I canít see you anymore."
"NickoÖ," Devin began.
Her head bowed she stopped him, "No, no is not right you have beautiful wife, I have betrayed her trust." She looked at him now with such pain in her eyes, "Is better you do not come to concert tonight, okay?" And with that she was gone. He watched as she bolted through the doors of the hotel then sadly drove away. He drove around for awhile unsure of what exactly he was going to tell Catherine about the concert. Finally he decided not to say anything and go; he would just tell Catherine that Nicko had plans to go out with other musicians afterwards. But as he entered the house he heard Vincentís roar, "DEVIN!" the house reverberated with it. Catherine passed him, pulling on his arm, as she and Spuds once again ran up the stairs. "Come on letís go see whatís wrong." Reluctantly he followed her. Vincent was staring at the computer monitor again. Catherine stood beside him as Devin slowly entered the room.
"What did you do to her?" Vincent growled ominously as he looked up at his brother.
Devin shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor. "Nothing, I did nothing." He answered defensively, his voice subdued.
"NothingÖ NOTHING!" he pinned Devin with a steady stare, "She doesnít want to correspond with me anymore, she doesnít want to see meÖ you, anymore."
Catherine read over the e-mail Nicko had evidently sent from the hotels guest computer. In it she thanked Vincent for all his kindness, but that considering what had happened today she didnít want to see him or talk to him anymore. She ended with saying how sorry she was. Slowly Catherine looked from the computer screen to stare up at Devin, "What have you done?" He came further into the room, and walked over to the chess set picking up the white queen. Holding it in his hand he turned to them, "It was nothing, really. It began to rain, she got wet, I put my jacket around her andÖandÖ I kissed her."
"Kissed her?!" Vincent roared, "Youíre supposed to be me, I happen to be married, no wonder she doesnít want to talk to me."
Catherine shook her head, "Devin, how could you, she trusted you, we trusted you, how could you let this happen?"
"I donít know, I certainly didnít plan it, itÖit justÖhappened." He shrugged his shoulders, "Um thereís something elseÖ"
"What? What else?" Vincent grumbled.
"IÖI think Iíve fallen in love with her."
"Oh good lord!" Catherine sighed, "Now what do we do? We canít leave it like this."
That evening Devin and Catherine went to the concert as originally planned and waited by the stage door afterwards. The concert was just as good as the one at Carnegie Hall but they could both see that Nickoís heart wasnít in it. She took no joy in her music and when she stood with the rest to accept the applause her eyes were distant and she barely acknowledged the thunderous approval of the audience. When she saw them waiting for her outside she tried to avoid them in the press of the crowd, but Devin was too fast for her. He grabbed her arm and turned her to face him. She looked away from him, her eyes down cast, "Please Vincent, let me go, please." She begged him.
Catherine finally reached them, "Nicko, "she called to the distraught woman. Looking up shocked and ashamed Nicko tried harder to slip Devinís grip. "Nicko," Catherine implored her, "come with us, we have something to show you."
"No, no Iím so ashamed, please just let me go back to hotel, please," she begged as Devin firmly steered her toward the van.
He had to practically shove her into the van and Catherine sat beside her, holding her hand. "Nicko, really itís all right."
Tears had welded up in Nickoís eyes filling them until they slowly trickled down her face. "Iím so sorry," she sniffed behind the blond curtain of her hair.
"Really Nicko, thereís no need to be, you did nothing wrong." Catherine assured her.
"YesÖ yes I did," Nicko moaned miserably, "I fell in love."
Devin smiled as he pulled the van into the curb in front of the brownstone.
"Come," Catherine tugged Nicko out of the van and into the house. Nicko, now angry strode the length of the living room as Catherine threw her wrap on the arm of the couch.
"Why are you doing this to me?" she demanded "Donít I feel bad enough?" She stood in front of Catherine, "I fall in love with your husband, you should hate me!"
Calmly Catherine said, "You havenít, and I donít." She smiled at the woman, "I have to apologize to you."
Nickoís eyes widened, "ApologizeÖtoÖto me? I donít understand."
"This," Catherine indicated Devin with her hand, "Is not my husband." Nicko looked from Catherine to Devin in total confusion, then a raspy voice came from the hallway, "I am Catherineís husband," it said, "I am Vincent." Nicko whirled to face the doorway; a great shadowy shape stood there a hood pulled low to cover the face. They hadnít turned the lights on in the living room so the only light came from the hallway.
Nicko looked from the silhouetted figure to Catherine, "Why, why have you done this?"
Catherine went to stand in front of Vincent, "My husbandsí appearance can be quite frightening, we didnít want to upset you so his brother, Devin pretended to be him."
Nicko looked over to Devin, "Devin?"
He nodded, "Yes, un-married and completely un-attached." He gave her is most disarming smile.
She turned back to Catherine, "So you did not think I could stand the sight of your husband. What is wrong with him?"
Catherine looked behind her at Vincent then back to Nicko, "There is nothing wrong with him, his appearance is just different, like nothing youíve ever seen before."
Nicko took a step closer, "I would see my friend, Vincent."
Catherine moved to the side as Nicko came closer to stand in front of the shadowy figure. Without hesitation she reached for the hood that hung down below Vincentís mouth and pulled it over his head. Devin flipped on the light switch, everyone held their breaths. Nickoís eyes were locked on Vincentís taking in the sight of him. She smiled, "You are not frightening, my friend, you are magnificent." She took a step back and offered her hand, "I am Illya Nickovetch, I am happy to meet you, Vincent." Vincent took her hand, noting that she did not flinch away from his clawed and furred one. She rose up on her toes and kissed him on both cheeks in the European custom of greeting.
She turned to Catherine, "I understand why you did what you did, I wanted so to see the city this Vincent," she pointed back at Vincent, "could not show it to me, but this Vincent, she pointed at Devin, "could." She walked over to Devin and stood in front of him. "So is permitted that I do this?" She kissed him right on the lips, and then turned to Catherine questioningly.
"Perfectly," Catherine smiled, nodding.
Dazed Devin echoed her, stunned "Perfectly." He grabbed her arm and drew her into his embrace kissing her deeply. Vincent and Catherine exchanged a grin. When Nicko and Devin finally broke apart, more than a little breathless, she turned to Vincent,
"So maybe now we can play chess, face to face?"