SUSANíS FLOOR

Joan Stephens

Cold, wet, weary and decidedly hungry, Devin pulled his newspaper-lined jacket tighter around his shivering body. Huddled in a damp doorway, he tried to convince his hungry stomach that he had just finished a steak dinner with all the trimmings. His stomach growled in the negative. He wouldnít get much sleep tonight. What kind of a stupid man would trust an unknown pretty little thing? Him, thatís who. Not only did she take all his money and his clothes but she took all his fake IDís as well.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

The sound of voices close by intruded on the castigations he was heaping on his head. The voices grew louder and shriller, especially the womanís, and he wondered what a woman was doing in this part of town at this time of night. Suddenly a shriek propelled him to his feet, and he was running in the direction of the scream before he knew what he was doing. Rounding the corner, he came upon a large, burly man wrestling with a frightened woman. Devin dove at the struggling couple, taking them both off their feet. The man fell, striking his head against a fire hydrant. He rolled onto his back, unconscious. Devin turned to the young woman who was scrambling to her feet. His offered hand of assistance was summarily rejected as she shouted, "Stay away from me."

"Hey look, lady, Iím the one that rescued you," he replied testily. He was sick of women right now and her attitude didnít garner any points with him. "I was just trying to help you up."

"Oh, sorry." She had the grace to look chagrined. "I guess Iím just a little upset right now."

Upset? Hell, heíd be a lot more than upset if it was him. Heíd give the guy a kick or two in the ribs. "We better get outta here," he suggested. "Heís a lot bigger close up then he was when I first saw him."

She chuckled and he liked the sound of her laugh. "Yeah, he sure is." Turning to face him after she had straightened her clothes, she said, "Thanks for what you did. You saved me from a lot of trouble."

"What in the world are you doing down here anyway at . . ." He looked at his wrist and then remembered that he didnít have a watch anymore. "Ah . . . at this time of night." The ruffian began to stir and Devin grabbed her hand. "Come on, letís get outa here." Together they ran into the night, leaving the bully moaning on the sidewalk.

"This way." She pulled him into an alleyway and then onto a tree-lined street. "My house is halfway down the block."

She turned onto the walkway of a three-story house with a wide porch where several wicker chairs were setting. From the light of the corner streetlight, he was able to see that the house needed painting and some general repair. Laughing breathlessly from their run, they collapsed into two of the chairs.

"That was fun," Devin commented sarcastically when he had gotten his breath back.

"Yeah, heís a new one. I havenít seen him around before." She shivered a little as she recalled the feel of the manís dirty hands pawing at her clothes.

Devin blinked at her in horror. "You do this all the time?"

"Sure," she shrugged, "I find the homeless and bring them here out of the weather and feed them."

"Woman, youíre crazy!" Devin uttered in amazement. "Youíre going to get yourself killed or worse."

Shaking her head, she disagreed. "This is the first time Iíve had any trouble. Most of the homeless know about me and are always there to protect me."

"Well, they sure werenít there tonight."

"No, they werenít. I wonder if the cops chased them away. I have signs posted all over town, but they get torn down by those who donít or wonít understand." Reaching across the arm of her chair, she offered her hand. "Iím Susan Foster, by the way."

Devin hesitated for a second then decided to give her his real name. "Glad to meet you, Susan. Devin Wells, at your service." It felt rather nice to use his own name. He shook her hand. It was a nice hand, a little roughened from hard work but still lovely with long, tapering fingers and blunt, well cared for fingernails.

Silently, they appraised each other, liking what they saw. She was pretty in a down-to-earth way with black straight hair that fell to her shoulders. Her silver-gray eyes were the most dynamic thing about her. Susan saw a handsome young man with three parallel scars on his left cheek, dark-brown hair that looked almost black plastered to his head from the rain, and friendly brown eyes.

"Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee? Iím sure I have something stronger I can put in it that will warm you up inside."

"Iíd like that," he said as he rose to his feet and held the door open for her. Following her into the kitchen, he noticed the well-used furniture and threadbare carpeting. Along one wall was a large fireplace flanked by bookcases that were packed full. Just like home, he thought. The kitchen was spotless, the appliances matching in age the rest of the furniture in the house. She set two cups on the table and motioned for him to take a seat. Before opening a cupboard to pull out a bottle of whiskey, she handed him a kitchen towel to dry his hair. Uncorking the bottle, she liberally added some of its contents to the cups. Next came the coffee and she handed a cup to Devin.

"Ummm," he sighed. "That hits the spot." He could feel the warm liquid spreading throughout his body as it flowed from his mouth to his stomach. At that time his traitorous stomach grumbled loud and long.

"Are you hungry?" She laughed to herself. Of course, he was hungry. "Would you like a sandwich?"

"I sure would," he replied. "Can I help?"

"No, I know where everything is." Quickly she rose from the table. "I donít know what I have left."

"Anything, Susan, would suit me. I havenít had a thing to eat since yesterday."

"Oh, you poor man." Her voice issued from deep inside the refrigerator. She straightened up. "Youíre in luck; I have some ham left from last nightís dinner." He gave her a mighty grin.

In no time, she had the sandwich made and sitting in front of him. "Go ahead," she said. "You donít have to wait for me. Iíve had my dinner."

With a grateful look, Devin took a bite. De - li - ci - ous. Nothing like hunger to make you appreciate the food that is given to you.

Susan looked him over carefully. "You donít look like the average homeless person."

"Iím not," he replied around a bite of ham sandwich.

"What happened?"

He laughed mockingly. "I trusted the wrong person."

"A pretty girl?" she asked with a knowing look.

"Yeah," he answered as his face turned a bright shade of pink. "Me, whoís never fallen for a con gets taken by a little slip of girl."

"Didnít leave you anything, huh?"

"Nope, not a dime. And she took my ID." He wasnít about to tell her about all the fake ID the woman had taken.

"So, you have no place to sleep tonight?"

"Well, I was trying to sleep in a doorway, but you know what, itís not all itís cracked up to be." He grinned his famous knockíem dead grin again.

She grinned back at him. "You can sleep on the floor in front of the fireplace, if you want to. Thatís where all my guests sleep."

"Susan," he said with a relieved sigh, "that sounds like heaven right now. Iíd appreciate it." He had dreaded returning to the cold, damp night.

"Iíll get some blankets and a pillow for you."

Devin placed his empty cup in the plate, and climbing to his feet, he set them in the sink and followed her into the living room.

"Would you mind starting a fire?"

"No problem," he said as he watched her ascend the staircase.

In a short while she returned burdened with several pillows and blankets. Just as she reached the bottom step, they heard a light knock on the door. Giving Devin the bedclothes, she hurried to the door and flung it open to find a bedraggled young couple, not much over eighteen, standing on the threshold. "Come in, come in," Susan cried.

By the time Devin was able to crawl into his own blankets, he had helped her settle six different people into their pallets. When he awoke late the next morning, he was the only one left. Susan had quietly picked up all the blankets and pillows and was washing them. "Good morning, sleepy head," she said, smiling as she leaned casually against the doorjamb. "You must have been really tired."

"I was." Glancing around, he noticed that he was the only one still lying on the floor. "Where is everyone?"

"Oh, they left at sunup. Most people donít hang around very long. Places to go and things to do, I guess. Thanks for helping me last night."

"My pleasure," he said, handing her his bedding.

He stayed for a month. If he had stayed one night longer, he wouldnít have left at all, but his feet had started to itch after three weeks, and a week later, he bid her a fond farewell. She was one of the nicest people he had ever met, and he never forgot her.

*****

Ten years later as he was returning to New York for his regular five-year reunion with his father and brother, he was passing through her town and decided to stop in and see how she was doing. The house was even more dilapidated than before, and he almost gasped with dismay when she answered the doorbell. "Devin?" She smiled and held her arms out to him.

"Yeah, itís me, Susan." He pulled her into a bear hug, noticing how thin she had become. "How are you?"

"Oh, I canít complain," she said. Her words belied her condition. She was as pale as a sheet; her eyes had lost their bright luster, and her dull, lifeless hair had been cut short to make it easier for her to comb.

He shook his head. "Donít kid a kidder, Susan. Youíre not well. Whatís the problem?" He seated her on the threadbare couch as if she could easily break and then sat beside her. Keeping her hand in his, he said, "Tell me." My god, he thought, I sound just like Vincent or Father even.

"Iím just so tired all the time. I donít have any strength at all."

"Have you been to a doctor?"

"I donít have the money. I canít even keep this old broken-down old house. Theyíre going to sell it for back taxes."

"Isnít there anyone who can help you?"

"No, Iím all alone."

Devin sat back in the old sofa, thinking furiously. She had been so good to him, giving him room and board, and then when he left, she had given him enough money to get him to his next job. He owed her and he was one to pay his debts. Sitting forward, he smiled at her, "Let me help you."

"Oh no, Devin, I canít."

"And why not?" he challenged her.

"Well, it just wouldnít be right."

"Why the hell not? You helped me, didnít you?"

"Yeah, but that was different."

"How different? Or are you too proud to take the help that youíve given for years?"

That stopped her. "No, at least I donít think so."

"Ok. So itís decided, Iím going to return the favor." He winked at her.

She returned a weary smile to him. Suddenly a feeling of great relief flowed through her as she thought that it would be so nice to have someone take care of her for once.

"Susan, Iím going to take to you to the most wonderful place in the world. A place where people care about each other, where people go to be healed both physically and mentally. I suspect that a lot of your tiredness is sheer despair. Let them have this old house. Iíll take you to a place where you can get healthy, and if you want to continue to help people, the people there will be glad to assist you."

"Oh Devin, is there really a place like that?"

"You betcha. I grew up there, and it wasnít until I had left it that I realized what a special place it was. Come on. Letís get you packed and weíll be on our way."

"But what about the house?"

He shrugged. "Theyíre going to take it anyway, arenít they?" She nodded sadly. "Ok, just let them worry about it. Weíre going home."

"Home," she echoed breathlessly.

*****

Within half an hour, they were on the road, the back seat and trunk filled with her luggage and all the books they could pack in. Growing up in the tunnels, he couldnít in good conscience leave her books behind. Susan appeared more relaxed and cheerful than she had been when she opened the door. "Tell me about this place youíre taking me to."

He shook his head, keeping his eyes on the road.

"No? Why not?" she asked, obviously shocked by his refusal.

"I donít know how," he confessed with a grimace. "Youíll think Iím crazy. You need to see it to believe itís real."

"Now youíve really got me curious and a little scared. I really donít know all that much about you."

"I know. Thereís nothing to be frightened about though. What I told you is the truth, but will you trust me? I know itís asking a lot, but youíll understand when you get there." And meet Vincent, he thought.

Silently she looked out the side window. After a few minutes, she drew in a shaky breath and nodded her head. "Iíve trusted you so far; I guess I can keep on trusting you until you prove otherwise."

He reached over and squeezed her cold hand. "Thanks. You wonít regret it; I promise."

*****

The steady hum of the tires lulled her into the first worry-free sleep sheíd had in a long time. Waking up with a crick in her neck, she rubbed it with vigor before looking out the side window. When she did she was surprised to find that it was full dark, and bewildered, she glanced questioningly at the man in the driverís seat. "How long have I been asleep?" Still rubbing the sore muscle, she considered the busy city scene that flowed past her window.

"Long enough." Without taking his eyes from the road, Devin answered her, intent on negotiating their way through the heavy city traffic.

Bright lights and the constant honking of yellow taxicab horns told her that they were in New York City. "This is where youíre going to show me a wonderful place?"

He smiled at her confusion. Pulling into a public parking garage, he took the ticket, turned off the ignition after parking the car, and assisted her out of the car. "Yep, weíre going to Central Park," he answered, "Come on." He grabbed her one suitcase, slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, and captured her other hand, pulling her along behind him. He actually seemed excited, and she had to run to keep up with him. Wherever this place was, he couldnít seem to wait to get there.

Hanging back, she forced him to come to a stop. "Isnít it dangerous to be in Central Park at night?"

"Not if you know the right people," he chortled. "And I happen to know the right people." He pulled her into a trot again and stopped before a large cement drainage culvert. "Well, here we are."

"Youíre kidding!" she said, glancing around to see if she could find something that made sense. Devin certainly didnít.

He just grinned at her entered the conduit. She had no recourse but to follow him, and she certainly wasnít going to stand all by herself in the dark in Central Park; she was scared enough as it was. He stopped in front of a large circular hole that was filled with what looked like a heavy iron plate. Surely he didnít mean to go through that hole? He opened a barred door to the right and pulled a couple of levers. With a muted groan, the metal plate slid to the right, revealing a golden glowing tunnel. He motioned her to enter before him. Cautiously she stuck her head in the tunnel and looked around carefully. What she expected to see, she didnít know, but the tunnel was empty. Entering, she heard the door slide closed behind her, and she swung around, her eyes as large as saucers. Devin took her by the arms, and looked her straight in the eyes. "Remember? I told you there was nothing to fear. Trust me, Susan. Please. No one or nothing will ever hurt you here. I promise you."

"Ok," she said, fighting her fear.

"I can tell you now what you wanted to know in the car. Iím taking you to meet my father and my family. Yes," he chuckled at her amazement, "we live here under the streets of New York. There are miles and miles of manmade and natural tunnels. There are caverns of such beauty that you will gasp with awe when you see them. There are lakes and waterfalls, clear pools, warm springs and icy caverns. Wonders you canít imagine until you see them. Susan, you have a fantastic experience before you, but the best part of it all is my family. Nowhere else will you meet such loving and caring people. They donít care who you are or where you are from. Everyone here is equal except maybe for Father. Heís the leader of our world, but he abides by the rules more strictly than any one of us."

"You called this your world."

"Yes, itís my world, separate and distinct from the world Above."

"If it is, why are you living above?"

"Iíve always had an itchy foot, Susan, and I needed to see the world Above before I could settle down and become a proper citizen of the world Below."

"Oh."

"Are you ready to meet my family?"

"Uh huh," she answered unconvincingly.

"Come on, youíll like them and I know theyíll love you."

After many twists and turns, they were halted by a large bear of a man. "Who are you?" He brandished a large wooden cudgel.

"You must be new to the tunnels since I was last here," Devin answered, smiling easily while trying to ignore the heavy club.

"Yeah, well that donít answer my question," the other man growled.

"Iím Devin Wells, Fatherís son."

The sentry studied him for a minute. "Thereís a resemblance around the eyes all right. Let me send a message." Taking a short length of pipe from his belt, he tapped rhythmically on a nearby pipe.

"Ok. Weíll wait right here." Leaning close to the manís ear, Devin whispered, "But ask Vincent to stay where he is."

The other man started; this stranger knew about Vincent? "Oh, right." He glanced at Susan then pounded a short message on the pipe. She wondered at the strange look he bent on her.

Beginning to unbend, he held out his hand. "My nameís Matthew."

Devin shook the proffered hand. "Good to meet you, Matthew. This is Susan."

Susan smiled tentatively at the man, and he nodded at her pleasantly.

Matthew listened closely as a flurry of sound came from the pipe. "Ok, Fatherís waiting for you in the library." He swept them into a branching corridor with a courtly bow.

Susan giggled as she curtsied and then followed closely after Devin.

*****

The further they descended into the bowels of the earth, the more people they encountered. Everyone had a word or a hug for the man who was holding Susanís hand. She was impressed by their obvious love for him, and she was amazed at the clothing that they wore. They looked like they came from the middle ages. Devin introduced her to everyone they met, but in her rattled state, she doubted that she would remember any of their names. Maybe the odd young blond man who couldnít seem to stand still. Mouse was his strange name, and she thought that she would remember him.

At last Devin stopped in front of a large opening from which spilled the amber light of many candles. She gasped in wonder when they entered a large cavern. Every nook and cranny was filled to overflowing with all sorts of books. Now she understood Devinís insistence that they take her books with them. A man she took to be Devinís father was leaning over a large mahogany desk. He straightened up quickly as Devin said, "Father?"

Of medium height, his stern face creased with a happy smile as he haltingly moved around the desk to enfold his son in his arms. "Devin," he cried, "why didnít you tell us you were coming?" While the two men embraced, Susan took the time to study the older man. He was dressed in homespun and well patched homemade clothing similar to all the other inhabitants of the tunnels that she had met. His brown hair was liberally streaked with gray as was his beard, and his eyes were a compelling shade of steel gray. The lines and wrinkles of leadership covered his forehead and cheeks. He was a handsome man and in his youth must have caused many a young girlís heart to flutter with thoughts of love.

"Snap decision, Pop," Devin said as he pulled out of the hug and returned to Susanís side.

The older man frowned at the nickname his son called him. "And who is this lovely young woman youíve brought to us?" He glanced up at Devin with a look that Susan couldnít define.

"Father, this is Susan Foster. She once did me a great service when I had lost everything I owned."

"Hmm. Youíll have to tell us about that some day. Susan." Father held out his hand. "Welcome, my child."

"Iím happy to meet you . . . ?" She paused not sure how she should address him as she shook his hand.

"Father will do nicely," he said.

"Itís nice to meet you, Father." She began to relax. It seemed to be just as Devin had said: a gentle, loving place where she could heal.

"I assume that you have brought her here for a reason that only you know."

"Well, you are a doctor and she needs one badly."

Father stared at her, assessing her state of health. "You do look quite pale, my dear, and if those clothes fit you once, you have certainly lost a lot of weight. Have you seen a doctor?"

"She couldnít afford one," Devin cut her off before she could reply.

"Let the young woman speak for herself, Devin. Iím not an ogre, you know." Father took her hand and led her to a chair beside his desk. "Why couldnít you afford a doctor? Werenít there any free clinics where you live?"

"No, only the hospital."

"Father," Devin cut in, "she has spent all her money caring for the homeless of her area and was about to be evicted when I came back for a visit." He chuckled harshly. "No good deed goes unpunished. Anyway," he rushed on, not giving Father a chance to comment, "she had no one and nowhere to go; so I brought her here. I thought you would understand her plight."

"Oh, I do, Devin. Believe me. Now, I take it that my son has seen to it that you have been eating properly on the way here."

Susan couldnít keep from laughing. "Oh yes, definitely."

"Weíll have to have a council meeting," Father continued, ruminating out loud on the steps that needed to be taken to allow her to stay in the tunnel world. "With Devinís recommendation, I doubt that any of them will vote against your petition to stay here. You are petitioning for sanctuary, arenít you?"

"Sanctuary?"

"Yes, Father, sheís petitioning for sanctuary." Devin turned to Susan. "It doesnít mean that you canít leave if you want to; it only means that you have the right to stay here. You are free to come or go as you please." Father smiled in agreement.

She wilted with obvious relief. She had a choice. They would not keep her against her will, that is, if the tunnel leader meant what he said.

"Father?" a voice called from the corridor. A sweet faced older woman entered.

"Ah Mary, it seems Devin has brought us a guest," Father said.

"Devin!" Her face lit up with joy as she hurried to give the prodigal son a welcome home hug. "Itís been too long, you naughty boy," she scolded him.

"Well, Iím here now," he said, as he swung her around in a circle. "How are you, Mary?"

"Iím fine. Now put me down, you scalawag." Fussing with her hair, she turned to the bemused young woman.

"Mary, this is Susan," Father introduced them.

"Welcome, Susan." She took the younger womanís hands in her own, silently appraising her. Well, from the looks of her, it seemed that Devin had brought home a stray kitten and a sick one at that. This child definitely needed some good old-fashioned mothering, and she was just the one who could do it.

"Thank you," Susan whispered. This couldnít be such a bad place if a nice woman like this lived there.

Placing a hand on Susanís shoulder to get her attention, Father nodded in the direction of the doorway, "Would you go with Mary? Sheíll take you to your chamber."

Glancing at Devin, she got an encouraging nod and followed the older woman from the library.

"Iíll stop in and see you in a little while," Devin called after her. Turning back to his father, he asked, "Can you tell me anything?"

Father shook his head. "No, Iíll have to run a series of tests first. I think Iíll get Peter to examine her too. She looks to be totally exhausted which is not normal in healthy young women."

"Devin," Vincentís voice rang out in greeting.

He spun around to catch sight of his younger brother lithely bound down the four metal steps with a wide smile that showed his gleaming white canines. The brothers embraced enthusiastically, pounding each other on the back.

"Hey, thanks, bro, for keeping a low profile. Susanís in a very delicate state right now."

Father stood back, beaming at the brotherís reunion.

"Iím well aware that the first sight of me can be quite intimidating," Vincent commented quietly.

"I just never found the right time to prepare her, thatís all."

"Donít apologize, Devin. I know my limitations."

"Yeah well, it sure doesnít make me feel any better. Whereís Cathy?" he exclaimed, expecting her to enter the chamber at any time.

"Sheís sleeping. Running after Jacob all day tires her out." Vincent smiled contentedly as he thought of his family. "Oh Father, can you watch Jacob tomorrow afternoon? I have to help Kanin and Catherine has kitchen duty."

"With the greatest of pleasure."

"So, I see heís spoiling Jacob rotten already." Devin couldnít keep the comment to himself and grinned brazenly at his father. "Better watch out, Vincent, or you wonít be able to handle him."

Father scowled at his son, knowing that that was the reaction he wanted.

Devin had never seen his brother so contented and relaxed. Just goes to show what the right woman could do in a manís life. Hope Iíve found the right one for me. He stifled a yawn.

"You look tired, son," Father broke in. "Go see how Susan is and then get to bed. Weíll talk more tomorrow."

"It was a long drive," he agreed, "and somewhere a bed is calling to me." With a mighty yawn, Devin picked up his duffel bag. "Good night."

"Good night, son. Good night, Vincent."

"Good night, Father," Vincent said as he followed Devin from the chamber.

They parted at the entrance to Vincentís chamber with the promise that Devin could play with his nephew the next day. The young man hurried to the guest chamber, and calling softly, he waited for Susan to reply. When there was none, he peeked into the room to find her sound asleep. With the strain and tension gone from her face, she looked remarkably young. He was glad that he had talked her into coming home with him. Now they could really get to know one another.

*****

Pacing the tunnel outside the hospital chamber, Devin waited impatiently for Father to send word that he was finished. Finally Mary pulled the curtain aside and motioned for him to come in. Susan was perched on an examination table, tying the belt of her robe around her waist. She smiled brightly at him. "Looks like Iím going to live," she joked.

Devin made a face at her and then turned to his father. "Well?"

Glancing down at the paper in his hand, Father turned his gaze to the interested young man. "Itís not serious but would have become so if you hadnít rescued her." Devin grinned at Susan. "Sheís seriously anemic and wasting away from lack of proper nutrition," Father continued. "Weíll treat her with Vitamin B-12 shots, iron supplements, and Williamís nutritious cooking. But Iíll still have Peter look at her just to be sure."

Under Fatherís ministrations and the healthy diet she was fed plus plenty of rest, which Devin monitored much to her disgust, her health flowered, and she was soon pitching in wherever help was needed.

*****

"Devin, whoís Vincent?" They were taking their daily walk which was becoming longer and longer as her health improved. Devin anticipated the time he spent alone with her, and he sincerely hoped she felt the same way; she always seemed genuinely glad to see him. "Iíve heard so many people speak about him. Why havenít I met him?"

"Youíve met his wife, Cathy, and his son, Jacob." Now was the time to tell her about his unique brother.

Susan wondered why he was suddenly so serious. "Is there something wrong with him?"

"Wrong? No, not really. Heís different, but to me and those who love him, we think heís beautiful."

"How different?"

"Iíll try to describe him, but youíll think Iím putting you on. Itís the truth though . . . as amazing as it sounds. Heís very tall; well built, almost like a weight lifter; has long gold colored hair; and the kind of blue eyes that look deep into your soul. Now comes that part that will be hard to believe. His face is combination of human and lion. Oh yes," he said at her look of disbelief, then continued, "he has a flat nose like a lion, a cleft lip, upswept eyebrows, his eyes are slanted, and his cheeks and chin are covered with short soft bristles. His body is covered with short fine golden hair, but his hands are the strangest part about him. The fingers are tipped with lethal, sharp nails that he uses as a weapon to protect those he loves and the backs are covered with golden hair also."

Susan stared at him for a few seconds, they had stopped some time during his discourse. "My god, is he human?"

"Youíve seen his son. Could a nonhuman have had such a perfect child?"

"No . . . at least I donít think so. How did he get that way?"

"No one knows. He was found behind St. Vincentís Hospital in the trash. Someone had just thrown him away and to this day it bothers him."

"Well, I can certainly understand that. Thatís horrible. It wasnít his fault that he was born that way. He was born, wasnít he?"

Devin shrugged. "No one knows. We assume so."

"Poor guy." Susan shook her head in sympathy. "And I thought I had problems."

"Donít feel too sorry for him, Susan. He has a wonderful wife, a son, a father who loves him, and most of all me." He gave his chest a hearty thump. "The people here love and admire him. He really has the best of all worlds."

"Well, I for one would like to meet this paragon of virtue."

Devin hoped he had fully prepared her for the phenomenon that was Vincent. It was important to him that she accept his brother as the wonderful, decent person he was. "Heís been waiting to meet you for days now."

"Good, letís go." Her eyes gleamed with excitement and a wide smile settled on her lovely, full lips.

"Come on." Devin hauled her behind him as he practically ran to Vincentís chamber. Laughing breathlessly, they stopped in the corridor outside the entrance. "Hey, Vincent, you home?" Devin called.

"Yes, Devin, Iím home. Come in."

"I have someone here who wants to meet you."

"Come in." Vincentís voice had become flat and wary.

Giving Susanís hand a reassuring squeeze, Devin ushered her into the candle lit room. Vincent was standing in the rear of the chamber with his back to them. Looking around, Devin noticed that neither Catherine nor Jacob was there. Just as well, he thought.

"Iím very glad to meet you, Vincent," Susan said.

"I hope so," he replied. Slowly he turned around, keeping his body and emotions rigidly under control. Unsmiling, he waited tensely for her gasp of dismay.

She stared at him, her eyes wide with fascination. The expected gasp never materialized. Instead, she shook her head and finally found her voice. "Gee, Devin, you didnít tell me he was so handsome."

Vincent gaped at her and Devin let loose a donkey bray of laughter. Susan grinned smugly at them. With the ice broken, her questions tumbled forth and Vincent answered them as best he could. Soon the conversation became loud and boisterous, punctuated by periods of noisy laughter.

"My goodness," Catherine raised her voice to be heard over the roisterous bull session. "Whatís going on in here? It sounds like a party in here."

Vincent held out an arm to her. "Devin brought Susan by, and weíve been getting to know each other."

Catherine leaned into her husbandís warm body. "Hi Susan, Devin. Itís about time you know. It was getting very hard for Vincent to hide."

"Aw, Fuzz could always hide betterín anybody."

"Devin," Susan said shocked at the name he had called his brother. "Thatís not very nice."

"What? Fuzz? Iíve called him a lot worse, havenít I, Fuzz? Like Snaggle Tooth."

Vincent nodded, his eyes glinting with amusement. Watching the two, he had a feeling that Devin felt more than just friendship for the young woman. And the look she bent on him was . . . well, interesting.

The pipes rang with the call to dinner. The two couples separated with Vincent and Catherine going to get Jacob and Devin and Susan heading toward the dining chamber. They would meet later at the dining table.

*****

Devin found himself looking forward to spending more of his free time with her and discovered that he was actually thinking seriously of remaining in the tunnels if she wanted to become a member of the community. Susan and Catherine had become close friends much to Devinís chagrin as Catherine had many tales to tell the young woman about Devinís numerous escapades. Of some she had first hand knowledge and others she had heard from Vincent. Finally he protested. "If you keep this up, Cathy, she wonít have anything to do with me."

They were seated around the council table in the library, laughing heartily at an anecdote she had related that had taken place during the time he worked in the DAís office. Only Devin wasnít laughing with the same enthusiasm as the others. She was really sticking it to him.

Cathy reached across the table and patted his arm. "Aw, poor baby, youíre afraid that when she knows the real you, she wonít love you." She was finally getting her revenge for all the jokes and tricks he had pulled on her and Vincent. Served him right.

"You wish!" he grumbled, wishing he had her soft, white neck in his hands then heíd teach her a thing or two. When he sneaked a peek at Susan, he was pleasantly surprised to find her staring at her teacup, blushing a deep pink. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance. When Susan finally glanced at him, he shrugged his shoulders and grinned at her. The smile she returned to him was sweetly shy.

Vincent took matters in his hands; his wife was getting a little out of hand. "I think I hear Jacob calling, Catherine. Shall we find out what he wants?" He took his wife firmly by the hand and literally hauled her out of her chair. As they left the chamber, she said, oh so sweetly, over her shoulder, "Donít do anything we wouldnít do, you two." Laughing saucily at Devin, she waved as she was abruptly hauled from sight.

In their chamber, Vincent mildly admonished her, "Catherine, what were you thinking?"

"Hoisted on his own petard," she quipped. "He deserved it after all the trouble and heartache heís caused us." She crossed her arms and stood her ground. "Iím not sorry at all," she pouted, completely unrepentant.

Vincent could only shake his head at his unapologetic wife.

*****

"Ah yes," said Father, at a loss over the events of the evening. "I donít know what got into Catherine tonight. Usually sheís not so outspoken." Gathering the teacups together, he put them on a tray with the teapot and empty cookie platter. "I think itís time you escorted Susan to her chamber."

"Yes, sir," Enthusiastically Devin jumped to his feet. "I was just thinking the same thing myself." He held his hand out to the young woman.

She laid a willing hand in his and said, "Good Night, Father."

"Later, Pops," Devinís voice floated back to him.

"Devin!" Father growled, but the couple was already out of sight. He shook his head. Whatever possessed Catherine tonight. She seemed determined to embarrass both Susan and Devin. Hopefully Vincent would speak with her about it. Oh well, he was much too tired to worry about it now. He headed for his bed.

In silence, the young couple strolled slowly to her chamber. At the entrance they stopped and gazed longing at each other.

"Would you . . ." "May I . . . ?" They spoke at the same time then laughed self-consciously.

"You were saying?" Devin said as he tentatively reached for her hand. She smiled nervously at him as he clasped his hand around hers.

"Would you like to come in for a few minutes?" Susan asked.

"Yes, I need to talk with you." He felt her stiffen and the smile slipped from her face to be replaced by an uneasy frown as she avoided his eyes.

He was so sober that it scared her. She settled on the bed while Devin slid into the chamberís lone chair.

"What is it, Devin?"

"Have you decided what youíre going to do? Go back Above or stay Below?" he asked, gazing intently at her.

She slowly nodded her head. "If they will have me, I would like to stay. Why?"

Devin took a deep, shaky breath, almost afraid to think of what he was about to do. "I think Iíll stay too. My itchy feet are growing tired, and Iím seriously thinking about settling down, but thereís one thing that will make it certain."

"What?"

"I love you, Susan. Will you stay with me?"

"You love me?" He took hope from her smile that blazed in elation, lighting up the room.

"Yes."

"When did it happen?" Tilting her head, she let her curiosity overcome her.

"When?" He had to stop for a minute and think back to all the times they had been together. "I think it happened the night you fixed me that delicious ham sandwich. I didnít realize it at the time. But on the drive back here, I looked over at you while you were sleeping, and you looked so sweet and vulnerable that I knew I wanted to protect you forever." He waited a second then blurted out, "You havenít answered my question."

Delighted, she laughed "What question?" In her euphoria she had forgotten his request.

Women, he thought, why do they make it so hard on us poor guys? "Will you stay with me?"

"Well, of course," she answered as if it was a foregone conclusion. "Oh Devin, I love you too."

In one bound he was beside her and she was suddenly in his arms. Kissing her wildly, he murmured a constant stream of endearments. Surrendering gladly, she snuggled into his loving arms, whispering a few of her own. Devin had found his safe place.

Fini