CATHERINEíS GODCHILD

Gwen Lord and Chuckie Burge

Catherine picked up the telephone and stepped back to sit on the arm of the sofa. "HelloÖ oh, Hi, Nancy, Iím so glad to hear from you, I was getting worried when you didnít return my call last night."

"Iím sorry, but as you know, these past few weeks have been Ö so chaotic, with Mom being ill."

"I know Ė did she tell you I called her a couple of days ago? She sounded in good spirits."

"Cathy Ö she died a little over an hour ago."

"Oh, no Ö No! No! Iím so sorry, Nancy." Now, all Catherine could hear were sobs on the line, as she also cried for the lovely lady who had meant so much to her.

"Give me a few minutes Ö Iíll ring you back." With that Nancy was gone, leaving Catherine beside herself with grief. Placing the phone back on its rest, she brushed the cascades of tears away with her hand, then slipped off the arm of the sofa onto the seat where she curled up in misery, legs drawn up and her arms around her knees, as she sobbed and sobbed. When the tears subsided, she felt her thoughts overwhelming her, taking her to times past when she wasnít even yet a teenager.

The shock of losing her own Mom when she was but ten years of age was the worst thing to happen in all the world. Her dreams were shattered and life never again was quite the same. Charles Chandler was so deep in his grief for Caroline, his only child had to find much needed comfort elsewhere. Charles instructed Marilyn, his cousin and his right hand in the office, to keep an eye on his girl, with an open checkbook at her disposal to buy Catherine anything her heart desired. However, a little girl who had lost the mother she adored needed the loving arms of her father to ease away the pain, but Charles wasnít there, and kind as she was, Marilyn didnít quite fit the bill.

It was Nancy and her family Catherine turned to in her hour of need. The two girls had been firm friends from day one at kindergarten. Following the death of Caroline Chandler, Nancyís Mom invited Cathy to stay with them whenever she wanted. Even after Charles became a partner in his law firm and moved Catherine and himself into Manhattan, she still visited on occasional weekends and for as long as she wanted over the summer school holidays. This was such a major success, it became a regular summer treat, and much enjoyed by both girls and Kate, Nancyís Mom, took young Catherine under her wing and became someone she could turn to and rely on, almost a stand-in Mom.

The long summer days were always fun, as the girls went swimming, horseback riding, skating or spent endless hours shopping with Kate, who loved clothes and delighted in introducing both girls to the world of fashion.

* * * *

As the phone began to ring, Catherine was wiping away tears and saying aloud to herself, "Iím going to miss you, Mama Kate." Picking up the phone, her voice shaky from crying, she said, "Hi."

"Iím back," Nancy said, "sorry about that, itís all such a shock and I feel so raw and bruised with pain."

Catherine nodded in agreement. "I know, I felt that way when my Mom died."

"You were so young, Cathy, I donít know how you coped with the nightmare."

"Your mom helped me so much, I donít think I could have gotten through it without her. She was an angel and provided a safe haven for me."

"Cathy, Paul and I need to sort out so much in the next couple of days. Everything is so chaotic and confusing Ö can Carol stay with you?"

"Sure, isnít that what Godmothers are for? To be there with love and support at all times to back up the parents? What about Jimmy?"

"Heís going to stay with Paulís brother but the cousins are all boys and I know Carol would be happier with you. She loves you so much, I donít think sheíll be any trouble."

"Joe owes me some time off and I just finished a case, so I can come and get her right now."

"No, leave it until tomorrow, Cathy. I donít want you driving along these roads this late at night, alone."

"Then Iíll be with you in the morning, Nancy."

"Okay, see you tomorrow Ö Bye."

"Bye." Catherine hung up the phone and began making a mental list of the things to be done to get ready for her young visitor.

As ten oíclock approached, Catherine heard a familiar Ďthudí on her balcony and looking at her watch, a puzzled expression crossed her face. Opening the balcony doors, she saw Vincent coming towards her. "Vincent!"

"Catherine, I felt your sorrow. Our Bond made it crystal clear I needed to see you earlier than usual, so here I am." He reached out and took her in his arms.

As Catherine melted into his inviting embrace, a peace enveloped her and she instantly felt soothing contentment surround her, as it always did whenever Vincent was near.

After a long moment she leaned back and looked up at him. "My friend Nancyís Mother has died," she explained sadly.

"Iím sorry Ö youíve told me how close you were."

"She was like a second Mom to me, Vincent."

"Your grief is not only for her Öit brings back memories of your own motherís death, I can feel it."

"Yes, I know you can. I have to pull myself together though, so I can help. Nancy and Paul are overwhelmed so Iím going to Westport in the morning to pick up little Carol."

"How old is she now?" he asked.

"Three, well, sheíll be three in a couple of weeks."

"Are you to take care of her there?" he asked.

"No, Vincent. Iím bringing her back here for a couple of days. Sheíll be all mine for two whole days." A joyous look etched her face momentarily, a look Vincent had never seen before.

"You truly love this child, donít you?"

"I do, as if she was my own." A silence descended for a heartbeat.

Vincent sighed in regret. "One day you will find someone who can fulfill all your dreams and you will have a family; the children that you long for." Words so hard to say Ö yet he had to.

Catherine looked down at his words, because she had found that man, in Vincent, but he couldnít as yet take that final leap of faith in their future together. "For now, I have Carol. Iím glad youíll finally be able to see her, Vincent. You are so good with children, she will love you, as Ö I do."

"Youíre a hopeless romantic," he smiled, embarrassed.

"I guess I am, at that." They both laughed and embraced again.

After a restless night, Catherine dragged herself from beneath the peach colored silk sheets and got herself upright on the edge of the bed. Stretching and yawning, slowly she stood, then picked up her robe and headed for the bathroom. The warm spray of water on her soft skin helped to wake her up, the combination of soap bubbles and the water played on her senses, leaving her refreshed and ready for the day that lay ahead.

After a phone call and the expected brief argument with Joe over her absence from the office, Catherine quickly made herself a cup of coffee to go with her toast and a short time later was locking the front door and heading for her car in the garage beneath her apartment.

The early morning traffic of commuters rushing to work was slower now as she headed off the freeway to familiar country lanes. The miles slipped by until at last she was driving up Nancy and Paulís driveway.

The last time Catherine was here, Nancyís Mom had popped in to see her, as she always did. And when Catherine left, it was Kate who had stood at the open door and waved goodbye. The same door now was ajar awaiting Catherine, but she felt an emptiness as she hesitated at the doorway, wishing Kate could re-appear, if it was only to have the chance to say goodbye.

The spell was broken as Nancy rushed out of the door to greet her friend. "Cathy Ė oh, Cathy." They clung to each other, for what seemed like forever, and then Nancy took her hand leading her into the kitchen where Paul was helping to put his daughterís socks and shoes on.

"Auntie Kafy," she squealed, running to Catherineís arms.

Catherine scooped her up and hugged her close, "Oh, how youíve grown since I saw you last."

"Iím big," Carol boasted.

"You sure are, Sweetheart."

"Have you had breakfast?" Nancy asked. "Or do you want some coffee?"

"Nancy, Iím not stopping. You guys have a million things to do and if I stay weíll get nothing done but talk and cry. So I think Carol and I should go straight back."

"Okay, if youíre sure."

"Iím sure," Catherine replied.

"Do you have any idea how you two young ladies are going to spend your days?" Paul asked.

"Yes, Iíve got it all worked out."

"Paul, is this the same Catherine we know, the one who can never make up her mind?" Nancy challenged.

The longtime friends laughed, and although she didnít understand, little Carol joined in just because everyone else was laughing.

"Weíll go visit Vincent and his father and their family this afternoon and all day tomorrow. Weíll be in various locations but weíll be back at the apartment each night."

"Carolís a lucky girl Ö when do we get to meet Vincent?"

"Soon, I hope," Catherine said. "He and I have talked about it and he wants to meet you, too."

"So, I can only reach you in the evening at your apartment?"

"Well, yeah, but you can always leave a message earlier. And, if it was anything urgent you could call Peter. He would know how to get a message to me."

"Okay."

With hugs all round, Paul strapped the child safety seat in Catherineís car. Carolís bag of clothes and another of toys went into the trunk. Then with a beep of the horn and waving hands, the car once again took to the road, leaving the Tucker home and heading for the city.

"What! Catherineís bringing someone down here to visit?" Father asked in astonished tones.

"Yes, Father."

"But, she knows better - that is against all our rules," Father blustered.

"Rules Ö for a little three year old girl?" Vincent raised his eyebrows.

Father coughed and sputtered. "Ah Ö you never said Ö a child."

"You never asked," Vincent smiled mischievously.

"And you deliberately misled me," Father said without rancor. "What is this childís connection to Catherine?"

"She is Catherineís godchild and the daughter of her friend, Nancy, whose mother died yesterday. This woman was very kind to Catherine when her own Mother died and became a mother figure to her. She is keeping the child a few days while arrangements for the services are made."

"Indeed." Father walked across his candlelit chamber to his desk.

"Daytime theyíll be with us, here Below and in the evening theyíll return Above so Carol can talk on the phone to her parents, which, hopefully will keep her from getting too homesick."

"I see. Then weíll do our best to make her visit enjoyable."

"Possibly young Luke, Oliviaís four year old, will enjoy having a playmate close to his own age."

"That would be nice," Father remarked. "Oliviaís been sad because we donít have any children Below Lukeís age. Hopefully, he and Carol will get along well."

On their arrival back at the apartment, Carol ran around investigating everything, picking things up and putting them down, then running off to another exciting find. Meanwhile, Catherine put Carolís clothes neatly away and set out her toys. Looking up, she stood and took in the vision of this lovely little girl whom she adored and didnít get to be with nearly as often as she wanted. "Oh, I wish you were mine," she said half aloud.

At the prearranged time, Catherine and Carol took the elevator to the basement. There, waiting in the shadows was Vincent. This was the first time heíd met her in the basement instead of the tunnels. Catherine normally climbed down to meet him, but as she couldnít possibly manage a wriggly child and a bagful of toys and other child necessities, Vincent had agreed to come up into the basement.

"Vincent?"

"Iím here," he murmured from the shadows. Vincent looked at Catherine carrying Carol and the bag and his heart ached with impossible longing. "I donít want to frighten her."

"You wonít," Catherine promised. "Carol, this is my special friend, Vincent. The one I told you about," she added with a smile for Vincent.

Vincent stepped forward out of the shadows and pushed his hood back from his face. "Hello, Carol, Iím very pleased to meet you."

From the safety of Catherineís arms, Carol tilted her head back to look up at this giant of a man. "Youíre bigger than my daddy," was her only comment.

Catherine smothered a giggle and said, "Donít we get a welcome hug?"

As he gave them a gentle hug, Vincent felt two little arms trying to reach around his chest to hug him back. He stepped back and asked, "Are you ready for an adventure, Carol?" At her nod, he told Catherine he would get on the ladder first and then she could hand Carol to him.

When he held his arms out for Carol, she looked up at him. "Aunt Kafy woves you," she stated positively. "So, are you my Unca Vincent?"

Vincentís startled glance met Catherineís serene one, then he smiled tenderly at the little girl. "Iíd be very pleased to be your "Unca" Vincent," he told her.

When they were safely in the tunnels he asked Carol if she would rather walk or be carried. Carol chose to stay in the safety of his arms but after a while the strangeness of the tunnels wore off and she was skipping along between them, holding their hands. This was the family image Father saw as they entered his chambers, a precious memory that would stay with him and one he wished with all his heart he could make so.

"Ah, youíre finally here, Catherine, Ö welcome. And this little lady, is I believe, called Carol Ö is that your name?"

A shyness enveloped the small girl and she reached up for Vincent to lift her to safety in his arms, which he did.

"I see sheís taken to you, Vincent," Father said.

"Indeed," Vincent smiled, "and I to her."

"Heís a natural charmer, Father, I donít think you and I will be needed for babysitting, do you?" Catherine teased. They all laughed as Carol ignored them and snuggled up closer to Vincent.

The afternoon sped by as Carol became acquainted with Mary and the children; especially her new best friend, Luke. She followed him everywhere, much to the amusement of the adults.

Concerned there would be too much confusion and noise in the dining hall, Vincent carried trays to his chamber so he and his two ladies could dine privately. After dinner they went to Fathersí chamber to enjoy his story hour with the children.

Vincent and Catherine stayed for a cup of tea with Father and Mary before leaving for Above. Carol sat on Vincentís lap, happily munching a cookie while the grown-ups enjoyed their tea and conversation.

Catherine and Carol met Vincent at the basement early the next morning. The day passed swiftly as little Carol and Luke played together. Finally both children curled up, exhausted, and slept the innocent sleep of contented children on the cushions they had strewn around Vincentís chamber.

"At last they sleep," Vincent remarked drolly. "I was beginning to think they would never slow down."

"I believe this is what parents refer to as Ďour timeí," Catherine joked.

"Yes," Vincent agreed. "Iím sure Mary wonít mind keeping an eye on them. Come, letís go down to the Mirror Pool and Iíll read to you."

"Iíd like that," Catherine replied.

The air was brisk but not exactly cold as they entered their familiar place and quickly settled down. The gentle murmur of the water and the waterfall in the distance made it the most wonderful and serene place to be with the one you loved.

"Read to me, Vincent," she encouraged.

He opened the book, fingering the pages for just the right sonnet, but then, just when he was about to begin, he closed the book and looked thoughtful.

"What is it?"

"My mind is so full of Ö" he hesitated, not sure what he wanted to say.

"Tell me what youíre feeling, Vincent."

"That weíre fooling ourselves as we dared today Ö to dream."

"You felt it too?" Several times during the day she had allowed herself to daydream, to pretend that she and Vincent and Carol were a family.

"Yes," he sighed sadly in agreement.

"Is it so bad to dream?" she asked wistfully.

"It is when Iím a part of that dream."

"I blame Father for this."

"No, it is not his fault."

"Yes, because he has misguided you. In his own kind way he thought he was protecting you, saving you the pain of rejection, but he was wrong; what he could not foresee was that weíd find each other. Fate brought us together but Fatherís fears are keeping us apart."

"It is not Fatherís concerns keeping us apart, it is my conscience. I cannot let you waste your life waiting for me, Catherine, because we both know our dream is only a dream. This time weíve had together since I found you in the park, has been the happiest of my whole life, but we always knew it couldnít last forever."

"Why not?" she pleaded.

"Because you have a life Above, one I can never share because of our differences, because Iím not Ö" he hesitated, then said sadly, "human."

Catherine sat quietly for a long moment, unsure what to say; how to ease his torment. Finally she asked, "What about Devinís friend, Charles? Do you consider him human?"

"Of course," Vincent replied, looking at her in surprise.

"A lot of people would look at him and say heís a freak Ö or a monster, and not human."

"Thatís not fair Ö Charles cannot help the way he looks," Vincent said in protest, then fell silent as he realized the significance of his words.

"Thatís right," Catherine agreed. "Charles canít help the way he looks but you donít think it makes him less than human Ö why doesnít the same reasoning apply to you?"

Vincent shook his head in sorrow. "I will always be close to you, watch over you and love you, but more than that Ö we cannot cross the line."

"Yes, we can, but you have to have faith in yourself Ö in us. We can be together, we can cross that line."

"Catherine, what you want, what your heart yearns for, I want and yearn for also. Iím like any other man beneath this awful exterior. However, my fears are as no man before me, and the outcome of being Ö as one would be, could be, a disaster for both of us. I cannot put you through this, ever."

"Donít I get a say in this?" Tears filled her eyes.

"Youíre biased, dearest Catherine."

"I guess I am, but Iím not stupid, or blind to the problems we might encounter."

"Catherine, couples who are truly together Ö make love. They see each other Ö"

"Naked."

Vincent flinched and then nodded as she used the word he could not bring himself to utter. "I could never let you see me like that."

"Why not?" she asked, as she lifted his left hand and kissed the palm.

"You accept the differences you can see, my hands and claws Ė my teeth and features, and I am always grateful for your tolerance. But under the many layers of clothes, it gets even worse Ö my body is ..." His voice trailed off, unable to finish his thought.

Catherine sighed, "You think once I saw you totally naked, Iíd regret my decision and run and keep on running?"

"Yes, and I could not bear to feel your repugnance."

"Well, I have got a news bulletin for you, Vincent. I never intended to tell you this but I have seen you naked Ö twice, as a matter of fact."

A look of total disbelief and shock flashed across Vincentís face, followed by dismay. "What? Where? How can this be?"

"I wasnít spying on you, Vincent, each time was completely accidental. Once you had been swimming and you were getting out of the water. Iíd arrived Below early and wanted to surprise you Ö but I was the one surprised; Iíd always assumed you wore some kind of swimming trunks since youíre so modest. I stepped back into the tunnel and tried to block our Bond so you wouldnít realize I was near. The second time was when you were ill and had a high temperature and Father was giving you a sponge bath to lower the fever. Luckily I hadnít called out as I entered the chamber and I quickly left because I knew both you and Father would be embarrassed if you knew I was there."

Vincent sat quietly, trying to absorb this astonishing news. "And Ö you didnít find my body Ö repulsive?"

"On the contrary, I found the man I love to be excitingly sexy which made it even more difficult to keep my emotions under control and my hands to myself when I was around you."

"NoÖ. NoÖ"

"Iím sorry if Iím upsetting you, Vincent, but that is the truth. You are sexy to me, and Iíd love to have you naked in my bed Ö or yours."

With so much finally spoken between them, a silence enveloped them. Catherine knew he would need time to absorb these startling revelations before they could continue this conversation, but she was determined they would continue it in the near future. She was always wary of pushing too far and making him feel he had to run from her, so she tried to change the subject.

"Maybe we should head back, Vincent. I donít want to impose on Maryís good nature too much and if Carol is awake she can be a handful."

"I have enjoyed this time with your Godchild, Catherine, but Iíve been thinking. Carol is so young Ö she will not understand, and may be upset by the sorrow of the adults at the services, at least, thatís been our experience here Below. If her parents agree, we would be delighted to have Carol stay with us while you go to Westport."

"Iíll ask Nancy when I call tonight. I know they will appreciate the offer whether they accept or not. I donít have your experience with children, but Iíve wondered about this, as well. I remember how bewildered I was with everything when my mother died Ö and I was much older than Carol."

After dinner Vincent accompanied them to the basement and agreed to meet them later in the apartment.

Catherine gave Carol a quick bath and dressed her for bed. She sat down in the living room with Carol on her lap and called Nancy. After several minutes of childish chatter, Catherine took the phone back. "Nancy, Iíll call you back as soon as I can persuade "Miss Live Wire" here that itís time to go to bed."

"Good luck with that," Nancy teased. "Talk to you later."

Catherine hung up the phone and looked at Carol who was hopping around the room on some imaginary quest, wondering how to convince the tireless toddler it was bedtime. Before she came up with any ideas, salvation arrived in the form of Vincent at the balcony doors.

Carolís hopping ceased immediately and she turned to run towards her new favorite person. "Unca Vincent, Unca Vincent. Guess what? I just talked to my Mommy," she said as she lifted her arms to be picked up.

Vincent scooped her up and smiled at Catherine who was slumped tiredly on the sofa. "Did your Mommy tell you it was time for little girls to be in bed?"

Carol shook her head. "No, but Aunt Kafy did. I think sheís sleepy," the little girl confided.

"Well, why donít I read you a bedtime story so youíll be sleepy too? Do you have a favorite?" Vincent asked.

"Yes!" Carol squirmed to get down and then dashed for the bedroom and her books.

Catherine shook her head. "I canít believe the energy Ö I donít know how mothers keep up."

"A familiar story will soon put her to sleep," Vincent predicted, as Carol came running back with an armful of books. He picked her up and turned to Catherine. "If youíll show me where sheíll sleep, Iíll see if I can work some magic."

Catherine led the way into the bedroom and turned back the bedcovers. She took the books from Carolís hands and stacked them on the night table while Vincent gently put the reluctant child to bed.

Vincent sat on the side of the bed and picked up one book after another until Carol decided which one she wanted to hear.

As he started to read, Catherine put her hand on his shoulder and said softly, "Iíll go call Nancy back, and then make us some tea."

Vincent nodded and continued the story, which was already beginning to make Carolís eyes droop.

Catherine called Nancy back. After numerous assurances that everything was fine and Carol had been a perfect angel, she mentioned Vincentís offer to keep Carol during the services.

"Oh, my gosh, Cathy, that would be such an imposition. He must be a really nice guy, to even make an offer like that but Ö"

"Trust me, Nancy, he knows exactly what his offer entails Ö he has a great deal more experience with children than I do. There are a lot of children in his extended family and they all love him. In fact, heís reading Carol a bedtime story right now, or rather, he was," she said as Vincent walked back into the room. She held her hand out to him, and he came to sit beside her. "I assume our girlís asleep?" she asked him without lowering the phone. "Okay, mission accomplished, Nancy. What? All right." She held the phone toward Vincent. "She wants to talk to you."

He accepted the phone warily, looking at Catherine for a moment before putting it to his ear. "Hello, Nancy? ÖYes, itís good to finally talk to you too." He listened for a minute. "You have a charming daughter and my whole family is enchanted by her. It will be our pleasure to have her stay with us." He listened for another moment and then said, "I look forward to meeting you and your husband, as well. Yes, Iíll put Catherine back on." He handed the phone back, visibly relieved the conversation was over.

Catherine smothered a giggle at his expression. "Hi, Nancy." She listened a moment. "Okay, Iíll see you fairly early in the morning. If you need me to bring anything, just call. Bye." She hung up the phone and sat it on the sofa table before snuggling against Vincent.

"Did you talk to Father about the possibility of meeting Nancy and Paul?"

"Yes. He wasnít thrilled, of course, but he agreed it was the right thing to do, however, he does not want us to tell them about the tunnels, yet. I do not like being deceitful but there is too much at stake until we are sure they can fully accept me. I think you must talk to them tomorrow before you come home. Tell them about me Ö about my looks Ö so they will be prepared."

"All right, Vincent, I will. Donít worry so much. Nancy and Paul are two of the nicest people I know Ė it will be fine." Catherine reached for his hand and held it. "I think you should plan to stay here with us tomorrow night," she said matter-of-factly.

Startled, Vincent looked at her. "Why?"

"Well, it will be early or mid-evening before I get back from Westport to meet you and I hope youíll come up to the apartment and help me get Carol to sleep, since youíre so good at it," she teased. "By the time youíd return to your chamber it would be almost time to start back so you could get here before daylight. Youíd get very little rest. Staying over seems the sensible thing to me."

Vincent was amused. "Iím not sure Father will see it that way."

"If he gives you any argument, just remind him we will have a young chaperone," she said with a grin.

"Thatís true." He was quiet for a long moment. He was apprehensive about the idea but she was right Ė it was the sensible thing to do. "All right, Catherine, I will stay. Thank you."

"Good." She was delighted but wanted to change the subject before he talked himself out of it. "Letís go to the kitchen and make that tea I promised you."

Catherine moved through the crowd of people who had gathered in Nancyís living room after the services. She had known most of these people since childhood and chatted easily with them, although her mind was far away from the conversations.

In the midst of so many grieving friends, the loss of Kate was almost overwhelming, bringing with it the memories of the loss of her own mother and father and the desolate feeling of being alone.

Vincentís voice thundered in her mind, startling her *You are not alone, Catherine, I am with you, always*

A smile crept across her face as she realized he was reaching out to her through their Bond Ė comforting her as he always did with his presence. *Iím with you too, Vincent. I love you* she thought, hoping the Bond would carry her feelings to him over the miles.

"Cathy, Sarah and I have to leave now. I wish you were going with us instead of driving back by yourself."

Startled out of her reverie Catherine turned to look at Jenny. "Iíll be fine by myself. I probably wonít stay much longer, either."

"Okay." Jenny smiled, "Remember, when I get back from Chicago next week, weíre going out to dinner Ö and you are not going to cancel at the last minute Ė right?"

"Right Ė I promise." The two friends hugged goodbye and then Catherine was alone with her thoughts again. She wandered out into the back yard where she could sit and think without being distracted by well meaning people.

The one idea her earlier thoughts had crystallized was that life is uncertain and much too short. There was no time to waste. Vincentís fears about their future together became trivial compared to the fact that neither of them could predict how much future they would be granted. She had to make him realize this. They loved each other and whatever time they had, they had to make the most of it because it could be taken away from them too easily.

Satisfied with her conclusions and anxious to back to New York, she went back into the house to help Nancy and Paul with their guests.

A few hours later, she and Nancy and Paul sat in the kitchen, enjoying the peace and quiet and having sandwiches and coffee.

"I wish youíd stay over and drive back in the morning," Nancy said.

"I canít Ė Vincent and Carol are expecting me," Catherine reminded her.

"I know," Nancy admitted. "I was totally enthralled by Vincent when we talked on the phone last night. I told Paul later that Vincent should be on TV or something - he has a gorgeous voice."

"I would probably get jealous if I didnít know he had a beautiful girlfriend," Paul said, grinning at Catherine. "Are we going to meet him when we pick up Carol tomorrow morning?"

"That is what we have planned," Catherine said as she braced herself for what she had to explain to them. "But there are things I have to tell you first. You are both very kind, understanding people. If you met someone who had been Ö disfigured in an accident, I know you would not judge that person by their appearance Ö"

"Is that what happened to Vincent?" Nancy asked.

"No. And I donít consider him disfigured, although some people would. I consider him beautiful Ö but he is different and it startles people who arenít prepared. He was born this way and no one knows why. He was abandoned at birth and rescued and taken to the man who adopted and raised him." She smiled, "Jenny has been driving me crazy because she keeps Ďseeing thingsí that I canít explain. Nancy has had opinions running from Ďheís gayí Ė I can assure heís not Ė to Ďheís behind barsí Ö which in a way he is. He canít go out in public because his beautiful face resembles a lion." Catherine anxiously studied their faces as she waited for them to absorb the information she had given them.

Nancy spoke first, her voice stunned. "Thatís why none of your friends have met him?"

Catherine nodded. "Meeting new people is very difficult for him. He doesnít want to frighten people Ö or be rejected because of his face."

"How does he manage, Cathy, if he canít go out in public?" Paul asked.

"He lives in seclusion with his family," she replied. "He does go out at night sometimes, but he has to be very careful."

Nancy was puzzled. "But I spoke to him last night at your apartment. How does he get there?"

"There are some things I canít explain yet and Iím sure you realize his existence must remain a secret. The main thing I want you to understand is he is the most kind and gentle person I have ever known. And, of course, that I love him," Catherine said. "How do you feel about what Iíve told you? Do you still want to meet Vincent?"

There was no hesitation as her friends assured her they did.

"Okay, weíll see you tomorrow, then. I must get on the road if I want to make it back before Carolís bedtime."

Nancy reached across the table and clasped Catherineís hand. "Donít worry so much, Cathy, it will be fine. After all, Carol wasnít frightened, was she?"

Catherine smiled. "No, she trusted and loved him immediately, as all children do."

"And we trust our daughter, so we canít wait to meet Vincent."

Catherine sat in her car for several minutes after parking in the garage. When she was satisfied there was no one around, she got out and made her way to the basement. Again, she stood and waited quietly before going to her secret entrance and opening the steel doors. "Vincent," she called softly.

"Yes, Catherine, weíre here," Vincent said as he rose from the shadows where he had been sitting and stepped to the bottom of the ladder. He easily climbed up with a drowsing Carol cradled in one arm and handed her to Catherine. "Do your friends still want to meet me?"

"Yes, theyíre looking forward to it," she answered.

He nodded. "Iíll get my knapsack and Carolís toy bag," he said and descended the ladder.

When he returned, Carol was awake and could walk so Catherine insisted on taking the bags with her so Vincent wouldnít be burdened with them as he made his way to her balcony.

By the time they reached the apartment, Carol was wide-awake again. As she crossed the living room to open the balcony doors, Catherine wondered if the little girl would ever calm down enough to go back to sleep.

A few minutes later Vincent joined them, receiving an enthusiastic greeting from Carol Ė as if theyíd been separated for days instead of minutes.

When Carol returned to investigating her bag of toys, Catherine asked Vincent, "Do you mind keeping an eye on Carol while I grab a quick shower and get into something more comfortable?" She accurately interpreted his glance and walked over to put her hand on his chest as she looked into his eyes. "I donít mean a silky negligee, Vincent, I wouldnít do that to you. This dress was not designed for crawling around on the floor with a three year old so I need to change, okay?"

Vincent nodded, a bit embarrassed he had misjudged her intention, and wondering if he would ever learn not to jump to conclusions. "Take as long as you like, Catherine, we will entertain ourselves with this bag of toys," he said as he joined Carol on the floor.

When Catherine came back, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, she went to the kitchen and made tea for them and warmed a cup of milk for Carol.

Before the milk was half gone, Carol had nodded off in Vincentís lap. "I think Carol can sleep in her clothes tonight," Catherine said. "I really donít want to chance waking her again. In fact, I think we should all sleep in our clothes Ė and share the big bed."

Vincent started shaking his head but she went on. "We will be fully dressed and Carol will be between us. There will be absolutely nothing romantic about it Ė which you will realize after the little wiggle worm kicks you a few times." Before he could offer an argument, she added, "Iím just being sensible and practical again, Vincent. I know you would never agree to take the bed and let Carol and I sleep out here and this sofa bed is much too short for you to be comfortable."

"I have slept many times on hard rock floors in the caverns Ö sleeping on this soft carpet would be no problem."

"I know you could, Vincent, but why should you? I will certainly sleep better if youíre with us."

Vincent stood up. "All right, Catherine," he agreed, "if it will make you happy, I will join you."

She flashed him a bright smile. "It will make me very happy," she said, and then preceded him to the bedroom to turn back the covers so he could put Carol in the bed. Catherine was not trying to pressure Vincent but she wanted him to be at ease and feel like he belonged in her apartment. The idea of him sleeping on the floor like an unwanted guest was abhorrent to her. She tucked the covers around Carol before turning back her side of the bed.

"There are clean towels in the bathroom if youíd like a shower," she said as she turned to leave the room. "Iím just going to put our cups in the dishwasher before I turn in." She took as much time as she could tidying up and turning out lights, trying to give Vincent some privacy.

When she returned to the bedroom he was stretched out of top of the covers, lying on his side, facing Carol. Catherine kicked off her running shoes beside his boots at the foot of the bed, delighting in the domestic picture that was suggested. She turned off the bedside light and slipped into bed. "Sleep well, Vincent," she murmured, trying to keep things as casual as possible.

"You too, Catherine," he said softly, wondering if he would ever be able to relax and sleep.

Vincent woke to the sensation of tiny fingers on his face. He opened his eyes to see Carol peering intently at him as she lovingly patted his face.

When Carol noticed his eyes were open, she squealed in delight, "Unca Vincent, youíre awake!"

Vincent tried to shush her but it was too late. Catherine had been startled awake and was looking at them in confusion.

"Good morning, Catherine, Iím sorry we woke you."

Carol rolled over and threw her arms around Catherine. "Auntie Kafi, I dint know Unca Vincent stayed with us, did you?"

Catherine hugged the child. "Itís nice, isnít it, Sweetie?" She smiled over at Vincent. "Did you sleep well?"

"Very well," he replied, ignoring the fact that he had slept only after considerable time trying to absorb the wonder of being in her apartment; in her bed. His eyes, accustomed to the darkness of the tunnels, had no difficulty seeing her beautiful face in the dim light of the bedroom. He had reveled in being this close to her as she relaxed in sleep. Sharing her bed, however innocently, had caused him to reflect again on their conversation by the mirror pool. Was it possible for them to have a life together? He wanted this so desperately he wasnít sure he could ever think logically or objectively about it.

However, with an active three year old clamoring for breakfast, there was no time to think about anything but Carol.

Vincent and Catherine were sitting on the sofa watching Carol with her coloring book and crayons when the doorbell rang.

"Iíll wait in the kitchen, Catherine," Vincent said as he stood up.

Catherine walked to the door and glanced over her shoulder to be sure he was out of sight before she opened it. "Hi, guys," she greeted Nancy and Paul, "come on in."

"Mommy, Daddy!" Carol ran to them and scolded, "I thought you would never get here."

After hugs and kisses they stepped into the living room and put their chattering daughter down.

Catherine shut and locked the door, then they walked toward the sofas.

Nancy glanced around and then back at Catherine. "Isnít Vincent here? We really want to meet him."

"He thought you should have a moment to greet Carol first. Iíll get him." As Catherine approached the kitchen door, he opened it. She reached for Vincentís hand, giving him an encouraging smile and they walked into the living room.

Carol immediately deserted her parents and ran across the room. "Unca Vincent, Unca Vincent, look whoís here!"

Vincent caught her as she almost tumbled in her enthusiasm, and then carried her towards her parents.

Catherine laughed and held her hands up. "There she goes again, stealing my guy," she complained and followed them. "Nancy, Paul, this is Vincent."

Nancy and Paul tried not to stare at his stunning face and murmured their pleasure in meeting him.

"Iím glad to meet you too. Excuse me for not shaking hands but mine are rather full at the moment," he said as Carol wriggled around.

Paul laughed. "She is a Ďhandfulí when she wants attention, isnít she?"

"Yes," Vincent replied, "but a delightful handful." Within a short time he was astonished at the ease he felt around Nancy and Paul. He also realized they would be as compatible and comfortable with his friends Below as Catherine was.

After a while Carol got bored with the adult conversation and announced, "Iím thirsty."

Catherine laughed and said, "Iím being a terrible hostess. Come on, Nancy, letís see if we can remedy this situation."

Nancy leaned against the kitchen counter and watched Catherine prepare coffee and tea after pouring a glass of juice for Carol. "Well, has taking care of my Ďwild childí caused you to rethink your desire to be a mother?"

Catherine smiled at her. "Just the opposite Ė I canít wait. However," she joked, "I think I may sign up for some exercise and endurance classes first."

"Might help," Nancy agreed. "Seriously, Cathy, anyone with eyes and a heart can see you and Vincent truly love each other but Ö will love be enough to overcome the tremendous obstacles youíll face?"

Catherineís expression was bleak for a moment. "I donít know, Nancy, I only know I can no longer live without him. We have to find a way to make it work."

Nancy walked over and put her arm around her friend. "Youíre the smartest person I know Ö youíll find a way. Remember, Iím just a phone call away whenever you need to talk. At least now I can be a little more understanding about the difficulties you couldnít explain before." She started removing cups and saucers from the cabinet. "After we have our coffee, I think the Tucker family should leave for home. You and Vincent need some peace and quiet so you can have a chance to talk." She grinned slyly at her friend. "Or do whatever it is two people in love Ö without children Ö do in the afternoon."

After the Tuckers left, Catherine ordered a pizza to be delivered. She and Vincent lingered at the table after their lunch, just enjoying being together.

"Wouldnít you miss this, Catherine?"

Catherine was a bit confused. "Miss what?"

"Conveniences like being able to have food delivered." Vincent replied.

"Iím not all that fond of pizza," she laughed. "I assume youíre referring to missing conveniences if I moved Below?" When he nodded, she said, "It isnít as if I would be forced into kitchen slavery Ė you do have a very fine cook Below. In fact, I think William would be insulted if he thought Iíd prefer anyone elseís cooking." Catherine stood up, "Letís continue this conversation where we can be more comfortable."

Vincent followed her into the living room and they settled on one of the sofas. Catherine curled up sideways on the seat so she could face him.

"Iím guessing from your remark youíve been thinking about the conversation we had at the Mirror Pool?"

His eyes were downcast as he replied, "Iíve thought of little else, Catherine, my mind has been overwhelmed by the things you said and the possibilities Iím still afraid to consider."

"Then consider this, Vincent, you once said Ďone either moves toward love or away from ití. Itís really very simple Ė which do you choose?"

Vincent was quiet for a long moment, then turned his head and looked into her eyes. "I could never choose to live without you Ė you are my life."

A brilliant smile crossed her face. "Since I feel the same way Ö exactly what is our problem?"

"Be serious, Catherine."

She laid her hand on his arm. "I am serious. The thing I realized while I was in Westport is there are no guarantees Ė life is uncertain, and much too short. I canít think about the problems that might occur Ö I can only think of the tragedy of wasting time we might not have."

"Youíd give up all you have Above to be with me Below?"

"Yes, with absolutely no regrets, but I would gain so much more than I would give up," Catherine assured him.

"Youíre strong, stronger than I, Catherine."

"No, Iím not, but I can see the possibilities so clearly. I love you and I want to be with you and Iíd like to have children, be a family, if thatís possible for us. Neither of us are getting any younger, Vincent, and if Iím to ever be a mother, my biological clock is running out of time. Some of the girls I went to school with already have teenage children Ö and here I am with nothing but a career Iím no longer satisfied with."

"What if a child we made looked like me? He Ö or she Ö would be destined to a life in a shadow world."

"Like you, like me, it is of no consequence. It would be our child, born of our love, and we would adjust willingly. "

"You would risk having a child that might look like me?"

"I donít consider it a risk. I would dearly love to have a child that looks like you." Her fingers gently caressed his face. "I donít think you realize how much I love you."

"Then Ö we have to try Ö we must follow our hearts and live our dream."

"You mean it, Vincent?"

"Yes, I do. I can no longer withstand your argument. Joe has trained you well, you win your case." He reached out, wiping away a tear with a gentle fingertip. "You won," he reminded her, "why are you crying?"

"They are tears of happiness, Vincent. I know we have many problems to work out but now we can move forward. We can make plans for our future. We can start to live our dream."

She melted into his embrace and their lips met; truly a kiss to build dreams on. And, soon, they discovered how two people in love Ö without children Ö could spend a quiet afternoon.

THE END