In all his thirty-three years, Vincent had never been to a party in the world Above. When Father read the invitation to a special Halloweíen gala for all the residents of the tunnel world, a note had been addressed to Vincent alone. James Goodman, a wealthy stockbroker, longtime Helper, and host of the affair had written:
Please come, Vincent. It will be safe. This is a party for all the Helpers and our friends Below. I look forward to seeing you on Oct. 31st.
Vincent decided that this time he wanted to go and, as usual, ran into Fatherís strenuous objections.
All the old, tired, and trite arguments were trundled out: it wasnít safe, he was jeopardizing the safety of the tunnel world, he might be killed, or worse, captured and caged.
Weary of always living a sheltered life, Vincent brushed aside all of Fatherís words with one sentence, "James would never intentionally put me in harmís way."
"Not intentionally . . . no, but no one can insure your absolute safety."
Vincent heaved a disgruntled sigh and agreed. "Of course not, but he will do his best." He swept his arm out indicating the tunnel world. "I am not even absolutely safe here."
"Then you are set on going?" Father fumed.
"Yes, and if you are so worried about my safety, come and see for yourself what safeguards James has installed," Vincent replied in a reasonable tone of voice.
"I just might do that," Father snapped, irritated by his sonís calm demeanor.
So now Vincent was slowly pacing around the room watching with great enjoyment the children playing games and bobbing for apples and the dancing couples. He stopped to chat for a few minutes with Helpers that he knew. There were a few people that he didnít know. He trusted that James would only invite those who were no danger to him.
As he leaned a shoulder against the wall, to spend a few minutes enjoying Kanin and Olivia waltzing around the dance floor, the back of his neck began to itch. Feigning unconcern, he let his eyes rove over the crowd until he met a pair of emerald green eyes gazing at him over the top of an unfurled white lace fan. Uncomfortable, he nodded slightly and turned away. The woman returned his nod but kept her eyes on him. Every time he looked up or around the room, he found her eyes fastened on him. What did she want? he wondered. What did she find so fascinating about him?
Just as he decided that he should return Below, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder.
"Enjoying yourself, Vincent?" James gruff voice asked. "Whew! Itís kind of hot in here."
Vincent chuckled. "Iím sure the heavy knightís costume has nothing to do with it."
"You really think so?" James laughed lightly. "I wish there was some way that I could get a handkerchief inside this blasted helmet. The perspiration is getting into my eyes."
Vincent offered a simple solution. "Take it off. That would solve your problem."
"I think Iíll do that." As he removed the helm, James asked again, "Are you enjoying yourself?"
Scanning the group, he looked for the green-eyed woman. He wondered where she had disappeared to. "Uh . . . yes." He couldnít bring himself to ruin his friendís belief that he had given his leonine companion an enjoyable evening. But how he wished that he were on his way to the tunnels, safely away from the unsettling gaze of the woman with the fan.
"Nice party, Jim. Very interesting people." A womanís clear, cultured voice emanated from behind Jamesí shoulder.
Wiping his face, he turned to the woman. "Cathy! Iím glad youíre having a good time."
"Who said I was having a good time?"
"Youíre not?" He sounded genuinely disappointed. Stepping back, he allowed his friend to see a young woman behind a white owl mask. Clasped in her hand was a white, lace fan.
With a light, tinkling laugh, Cathy tapped him playfully on his arm with her fan. "Of course, I am. I always have a good time at one of your parties. This one has been especially interesting. You have such a wide range of friends that your parties are never dull."
She looked pointedly at Vincent, who lowered his eyes, embarrassed, and then turned her attentions to James, nodding slightly in Vincentís direction.
"Oh, excuse my bad manners. Cathy, may I introduce Vincent Wells? Vincent, this is Catherine Chandler."
"Pleased to meet you, Vince." She noticed his wince and concluded that he didnít like to be called by a nickname. As she clasped his hesitantly extended hand, she commented, "You donít like nicknames?" She noticed that his hands were as well made up as his face. She wondered who did his make-up. Whoever it was, he or she was definitely an artiste.
"No," he shook his head. "Iím very pleased to meet you, Catherine." Gallantly he bowed over her hand. "What a lovely costume you are wearing."
Her gown was made of pale green chiffon in the empire style with cap sleeves and a square neckline, the waist set high under her breasts. From what he could detect of the face behind the mask, it was lovely too. "And the wearer is undoubtedly lovely as well."
She colored slightly because she felt with this man it wasnít just courtesy; he meant it. Dropping a small curtsy, she replied, "Thank you, kind sir."
James interrupted, "I see Augustaís waving at me. She must need me for something. Excuse me, you two." He threaded his way through the dancers to his wife, forgetting that he had left Vincent in a tight spot. He didnít know the woman, and she didnít know that he wasnít in costume.
They stood in strained silence for a while watching the dancers but surreptitiously watching each other. "What an interesting costume." She reached up, but he grabbed her hand before she could touch his cheek.
"Please," he protested, looking vaguely dismayed, twisting his head out of her reach.
They stood that way for several long seconds, staring into each otherís eyes. He saw that he had confused her, and she saw that he was almost frightened. She couldnít understand why he should be afraid of her, but she nodded her understanding and then in an effort to ease the tension, asked impulsively, "Do you dance, Vincent?"
"Yes," his voice rumbled with laughing release. "Shall we?" Where the courage came from to escort her to dance floor, he had absolutely no idea. But as he placed his hand on her hip and grasped her hand, it felt as if she had always belonged there. Their dance was effortless and floating.
Soon the other dancers stopped to watch them. Everyone was smiling as they watched the couple glide by, except Father whose mouth had dropped open when he had seen them on the dance floor. Peter, who had just arrived, reached over and closed it with a snap. "What in the world does he think heís doing?" Father sputtered.
"Enjoying himself, I would say," Peter answered. "They certainly know how to waltz."
"Humph!" was Fatherís comment. "I wish Iíd never taught him how."
"Oh come now, Jacob. What harm can there be in a simple little waltz?"
"What if she should find out that itís not a mask heís wearing? I warned him that this could happen. But he wouldnít listen."
"Jacob, for goodness sake, give the boy a little credit. Iím sure he knows how to defuse any situation that will arise."
"Iím not too sure about that, Peter. Who is she anyway? Iíve never seen her before."
"Sheís my goddaughter," Peter boasted, "and sheís a lovely person. Iím glad that she and Vincent have finally met."
"What are you saying? That you planned all this?"
"No! Of course not. I just mean that itís high time that Vincent met a woman worthy of him. And Cathy certainly is."
"Well, I for one, will nip this in the bud. She wonít get her claws into him. Iíll see to that."
"Get her claws into him? Jacob, thatís my goddaughter youíre talking about," Peter said, indignantly. "I suggest that you calm down; youíre blowing this all out of proportion. Iím sure after tonight theyíll never see each other again. Itís just nice that he can enjoy himself with a young woman for once in his life. Let him have this night; itíll probably never happen again." He was finding it difficult to soothe his old friend, and heíd never seen him in this state before. Of course, heíd never been around when Vincent was with a woman who wasnít as close to him as a sister. Now that he thought about it, he knew why Lisa had left the tunnels so precipitously. Jacob had interfered.
"Heís going to get a lecture from me when we go back home; thatís for sure." Jacob yanked down his jacket for emphasis.
The music had stopped and the couple stood staring into each otherís eyes. Slowly they became aware of the fact that they were the only ones on the dance floor. Cathy grabbed Vincentís hand and dragged him out onto the terrace. Laughing, she collapsed against the parapet. "Iíve never danced with a better partner, Vincent. You seemed to anticipate every move I made. It was flawless."
"It was lovely," he conceded with a small smile. She noticed that he rarely smiled and wondered.
"Where did you learn to waltz like that?"
"My father taught me."
"Oh, is your father here?"
"Yes, my entire family and all my friends are here. We were all invited."
"Iím so glad you were."
He bowed his head not wanting her to see his smile that would reveal his long canine teeth. "Iím glad that youíre glad," he murmured.
The rest of the evening was spent together: talking about their varied interests, dancing, and conversing with his friends. He introduced her to as many as he could. Even Father was fairly cordial to her. The others were downright effusive in their pleasure to meet her. The more time she spent with this most interesting man the more intrigued she became. It seemed that he inspired great affection from his friends and family and that tonight was a very special night for him. She had spent the evening trying to figure out what he looked like under the mask and couldnít. The mask was so perfectly made that she couldnít tell where it ended and he began. He was a puzzle. One she meant to solve before the night was over because she was determined that she would see him again.
As she watched him smiling at a joke that his friend, Cullen, had told him, the answer came to her in a shocking flash. It wasnít a mask; it was his real face. At that moment he turned and caught the shocked look on her face. His face fell as he realized that she knew his secret, and without a word, he hurried from the room, practically running. With a gasp, she darted after him. She was able to squeeze through the elevator doors just before they closed completely.
"Itís not a mask, is it?" Reaching behind her head, she untied the owl mask, baring her face to his scrutiny. It was as lovely as he had surmised.
He refused to answer her, shaking his head, and turned away. But she had other ideas. He was going to tell her, or she would follow him wherever he went.
"Answer me, Vincent. I have the right to know who the man is that I danced with all night." She shook his arm. "Answer me."
"Please, Catherine, just forget that you ever met me. Just remember this night as a gala Halloweíen ball, and let me return to the shadows to remember this night as the best night of my life."
"No, Vincent, I wonít. I canít forget you; my heart wonít let me. Youíre the most special man Iíve ever met, and I want to know you better." She placed a finger under his chin and turned his face toward her. Smiling up into his troubled azure eyes, she asked, "Who are you and where did you come from, my lion?"
He shook his head. "I donít know." He laughed bitterly. "I was born and I survived but that is all I know."
"I know a few more things about you," she said as she took his fur-covered hands into hers.
He tried to pull his hands free; she wouldnít let go. Not wanting to hurt her, he stopped. Gently she ran her fingers over the fur on the back of his hands.
With trepidation, he asked, "What do you know about me?" He braced himself for the worst.
"Well . . . youíre kind. I could tell that from the way your friends responded to you. Youíre gentle. The children love you, thatís easy to tell. I was amazed at how well read you are; youíre a scholar and I bet a good teacher. Iíll bet youíre patient and understanding. A loving son. By the way, is he your real father?" After his no, she continued, "Youíre very strong, but I donít think you use that strength for bad purposes."
At that he couldnít keep from smiling. "And how do you know that?"
"Hey, I could feel your muscles when we danced. Theyíre quite impressive. But youíre more than a muscle man; youíre a highly educated, thoughtful, and gifted human being."
"No, youíre wrong there; Iím not fully human. There is a part of me that I have difficulty controlling, that is the antithesis to everything I admire and love." How he hated confessing this to her, but she had wanted to know what kind of man she had spent the evening with. Now she knew.
If he expected her to turn away from him, he was mistaken. She nodded. "We all have our secrets, Vincent. None of us is exactly what we seem. We all have our dark mysteries."
The elevator ground to a halt. "Where are you going, Vincent, or is it a secret?"
"What makes you ask that?" He was impressed by her intuition and her perception.
The open doors revealed a dim basement. "Well, I canít see you living in the open. I believe that you have a safe haven where you can be secure."
"Youíre a very wise and astute woman, Catherine."
"Not really. But Iíve always been able to put two and two together and come up with four."
His eyes lit up with suppressed laughter. "Let me escort you to the exit and then we must say good night." He took her by the elbow and began to steer her toward the door.
"Why?" she asked, forcing him to stop.
"This is as far as I can go."
"No, itís not. Tonight is Halloweíen. Thereíll be people walking all over Manhattan in stranger costumes than yours. Youíll be with me, and Iíll keep you perfectly safe."
Laughing silently to himself, he mused on the spectacle of a small woman protecting all six feet plus of him from the vagaries of the night.
Gazing with pleading eyes over the top of a white lace fan that she had snapped open with a flourish, she appealed to him. "Please, Vincent, say you will. Itís a lovely night, and we have the whole city to wander in."
He gazed down into intense green eyes and thought to himself. I can refuse this woman nothing. He didnít stop to wonder why; he just nodded his head and led her to the exit. Pausing at the doorway, he took a deep breath. When he smiled down at the small woman hanging on his arm, he knew as surely as he lived that his future awaited him outside that door. Then clasping the small hand that rested on his arm, he bravely stepped into the night.