Balancing Charles in one arm, Catherine tried to empty her bulging briefcase with the other. The edge of a file caught on the briefcase and it toppled, spilling file folders, trial transcripts, loose papers and envelopes across the desktop and onto the floor.
"Damn," Catherine muttered to herself. Kissing the top of Charles' head, she placed him firmly on the carpet at her feet. "Stay here, Charles," she cajoled, and began to gather up the
files on her desk, attempting to keep them in some sort of order.Charles, ignoring her instructions, crawled around to the papers on the floor and reached for them.
"No, sweetie," Catherine said, moving him. "I need those. Here, play with this." Handing him her key ring, she scooped up a few more files. Abandoning the keys, he went after the forbidden jumble of papers.
"Charles, no!" she said, picking him up. "You little imp!" she scolded playfully. "What am I going to do with you?"
He smiled back happily and patted her cheek with one chubby little hand.
"It appears you need help, Catherine," Vincent observed, coming into the room.
Turning, she smiled at him. "I tried to do two things at once," she explained. "It didn't work."
"So I see," he said, crouching to gather up the mess on the floor. Catherine let him, consoling herself with the thought that she was keeping Charles out of the way.
Vincent succeeded in transferring everything from the floor to her desk, leaving it there for her to sort later, but when he turned toward her, his sleeve brushed the pile, dislodging an envelope. His reflexes were quick and he caught it, but the flap wasn't sealed and its contents, two stiff, glossy white rectangles printed in shiny gold, slid to the floor.
Picking them up, he turned them over, fingering them gently. "Tickets..?"
Catherine looked up from playing with Charles. "What? Oh, those are for a benefit performance of the musical, Man of La Mancha. A friend of mine is one of the organizers and I couldn't say no." She was casual, much more interested in the baby in her lap. "I'll call around to see if anyone wants them."
* * * * *
Later that evening, Vincent lay awake, listening to the sound of Catherine breathing. He felt the beat of her heart where their bodies touched, the gentle pressure where her hand rested on his arm, and the softness of her cheek against his shoulder. Turning his head carefully, he looked upon her, sleeping contentedly beside him.
Contentment filled her these last months, occasionally swelling to burst into bright sparkles of joy. Rare and short-lived were the occasions when she descended into sadness, loneliness or despair.
As unbelievable as it seemed to him, he made her happy, truly happy. He could always feel the anticipation in her heart as she neared their home, her delight when she picked up Charles and her gladness when she came into his arms for a welcoming embrace.
As he watched, she stirred, stretching and shifting to a more comfortable position beside him. In these last months he had spent many hours in this fashion, holding her gently. Requiring less sleep than she, he frequently lay awake while she slept.
When she finally realized it, she reproved him gently. "It's silly, Vincent, for you to lie there just because I'm asleep. Do you think I'll disintegrate if I wake up and you're not here?"
Now, in the wake of her urging, he sometimes stayed up after she went to bed, reading or writing in his journal. Occasionally he left the house, going Below to visit with Father, or Above to listen to the city, but there were still nights like this one, when lying beside Catherine as she slept was all he needed.
He looked toward the french doors, closed and locked against the night; moonlight streamed through the trees, casting shadows across the drapes. Who would ever have imagined him lying in a room Above, the most beautiful woman in the world sleeping in his arms?
Catherine. She gave up so much to be with him, and while he had finally vanquished the fear that she would someday choose someone else, he couldn't avoid the grim knowledge of the sacrifices she made.
The tickets he'd found symbolized all he could not offer her; he knew she would have liked to attend the play with him if such a thing were possible.
Two days later, he was still troubled by the image of those tickets and all they represented.
He entered Father's chamber, carrying Charles. "Father?"
The older man looked up from his desk. "Good morning, Vincent," he greeted. "Hello, young Charles."
Charles displayed all seven of his teeth in a wide grin, babbling happily as Vincent sank into a chair.
"Don't you have a reading class this morning, Vincent?"
"I do," his son confirmed. "One of our helpers sent word of usable clothing and blankets discarded after a warehouse fire. Some of the children went with Mouse and Jamie to carry them, so class will be a little late today."
Charles wriggled in his father's lap, wanting down. Vincent set him on his feet, waiting until Charles had a secure hold on the chair before letting go.
"It won't be long before he's walking," Father commented with satisfaction.
"He's almost ready," Vincent agreed. "Catherine is afraid he'll take his first steps while she's at work," he added.
"A child's first steps are a significant milestone," Father said. "I remember yours, and I remember how pleased you were to have mastered this new method of getting from place to place."
Vincent's slight smile acknowledged Father's words, but he seemed distant as he watched Charles lower himself carefully to the floor and crawl to the small box of toys Father kept handy for very young visitors.
"Vincent? Is something wrong?"
The almost imperceptible shake of Vincent's head was not reassuring. Father had never seen a couple quite so blissfully happy as Vincent and Catherine seemed to be these last months, but he was not blind to the enormous difficulties they faced and couldn't help worrying. "It's been several weeks since Catherine has been Below for a visit," he prodded.
"Her work," Vincent explained vaguely.
"I see," said Father, who wasn't sure he did. Catherine had always been able to make time to come Below. On the other hand, things were different now, and she didn't need to come into the tunnels to see Vincent because she was with him every night in their home. Perhaps she was simply working too hard. "You've heard the saying about 'all work and no play,' Vincent," he counseled cautiously.
The look Vincent turned on him was more intense than the simple comment warranted. "What is it, Vincent?"
Vincent sighed. "Catherine has purchased tickets to a play, a musical."
Father was horrified, half-rising in his chair. "Vincent, you can't possibly be thinking of..."
"No, Father, of course not. Neither Catherine nor I would consider such a thing."
Relieved, Father sank back down. "I don't understand."
"The proceeds from the play will go to charity," Vincent explained. "She bought the tickets as a favor to a friend."
"I see." Father waited patiently, knowing there was more.
Vincent sighed and bowed his head. "She says she can find someone who will want to go in her place."
"And you think she wishes to attend this play."
"I don't know, Father," Vincent said slowly. "She seems quite untroubled with not going, and yet I sense a wistfulness..."
"Do you believe she's unhappy?"
Vincent thought it over before shaking his head slowly. "No."
Father rubbed at his forehead. "Vincent, I think sometimes you tilt at windmills. You look for problems that don't exist."
"I don't try to look for problems, Father." His voice grew wistful. "There are so many things I want to be able give her, so many things she deserves. Our life together places limits on the simplest thing. I wish..."
Leaning across his desk, Father covered one of Vincent's hands with his. "I know, Vincent. I know."
Just then, Geoffrey and Eric burst noisily into the chamber. "We're back, Vincent! Are you ready?"
"We'll meet in my chamber," Vincent answered. "I'll be there in a moment."
"Okay!" As noisily as they had entered, they clattered out again.
"Thank you, Father," Vincent said. "I'll take Charles to Mary..."
"Don't be absurd, Vincent. Look at him." Father cast a fond glance at his ten-month-old grandson, who was sitting in the middle of a rug, busily chewing the arm of a rag doll. "He's happy where he is. Don't disturb him."
"All right, Father. The class shouldn't last more than an hour."
"Take your time, Vincent," Father urged.
Forty-five minutes later, Father was wishing he hadn't been so sanguine about watching Charles as he bent painfully to peer under the large, heavy table that occupied one corner of his study. "Come out of there, you young rascal!" he scolded.
From far under the table, Charles regarded Father with merry gray eyes and refused to budge. Father sighed in exasperation. It wasn't Charles he was worried about; there wasn't much under the table to hurt a baby, but before he'd crawled under there, Charles had taken a book from another table. If it was the volume Father thought it was, it was a first edition in excellent condition, and he wanted it back.
Eyes full of mischief, Charles lifted the book in his chubby baby hands and brought it to his mouth.
"Talking to yourself, Father?"
Whirling, Father encountered the sardonic brown eyes of his other son. A hundred thoughts leaped into his mind, but right now, one took priority. "Devin, please, get him out from under there!" He pointed with his cane and, cocking one dark eyebrow inquisitively, Devin looked under the table.
"Oh, no, you don't," Devin said, going under on hands and knees and emerging a moment later with a squirming baby in one arm. "Yours, I believe?" he asked, proffering the precious book.
"Thank you, Devin," Father said gratefully. "I had just about determined that I would have to crawl under there myself."
"Hello, Devin. How are you, Devin. Nice to see you, Devin," his son replied. Once, he had said those words in bitterness; now there was a touch of laughter in his dark eyes.
"Yes, of course, what am I thinking of?" Father asked. "How have you been, Devin? It's been months since we've heard from you!"
"I've been fine, now that you ask," Devin answered cheerfully. "I'm passing through New York and thought I'd drop in for a visit." He still held Charles in one arm, bouncing him gently, and the baby seemed perfectly content to stay where he could study this fascinating new person.
"Devin! I heard your name on the pipes!" Vincent's voice preceded his entrance and he came rapidly toward them. Charles's face lit with a smile and he leaned out, extending his arms in a sudden move that took Devin by surprise.
With a practiced motion, Vincent caught the child in one arm while pulling his brother into a hug with the other. "It's wonderful to see you," he said. "Will you stay long?"
"I was just telling Father, I'm passing through. Don't know how long I'll stay." Devin shrugged and grinned at Charles. "Who's the little guy?" he asked, diverting attention from his still unformed future plans.
Vincent stood a little taller as he answered. "This is Charles." He allowed the moment to develop before adding, almost casually, "My son."
Devin's reaction was stereotypical astonishment as his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "Your..?" he managed at last.
Vincent thoroughly enjoyed Devin's incredulity. Devin was one who had always treated him as an equal, as a person, as a brother, and Vincent understood that his reaction was as much surprise as anything else. Sometimes Vincent himself was still astonished at being a father.
Devin swallowed hard and regained some of his composure. "Chandler," he said, making it a statement.
"Damn," Devin said, with feeling. "Way to go, Chandler. Damn," he repeated, still staring. "When did all this happen? I mean, obviously it happened quite some time ago." He looked at Charles. "I've got to start coming home more often," he concluded.
"It's been nearly two years since your last visit," Vincent observed. "I tried to write you at the addresses you sent and all my letters came back."
"Yeah, well, I don't usually stay in one place very long," Devin apologized sheepishly.
"You're here now," Father interjected. "Come, sit and tell us what you've been up to, Devin," he urged, nudging them all toward chairs.
"Okay," Devin agreed, "but then Vincent has to tell me what's happening in his life. It's obviously been at least as exciting as mine."
* * * * *
"Are you sure this is okay, Vincent? I don't want to cause any trouble."
Evening was fast approaching, and the brothers were walking through the upper level of tunnels. Charles rode happily on Devin's shoulders, while Vincent carried a basket in one hand and had Devin's well-worn duffle bag slung over his shoulder.
"Devin," Vincent said patiently, "I know, better than anyone, how you feel about sleeping Below. You are a welcome guest in our home."
"Yeah, but shouldn't you ask Chandler first?"
Vincent sighed in exasperation. This was the fourth time he and Devin had gone over this, and he couldn't understand his brother's reluctance. To him, the facts were evident: Devin was uncomfortable staying in the tunnels, and the home Catherine and Vincent shared had four unoccupied bedrooms on the third floor."Devin, what is wrong with you?"
"It's not me... it's Chandler."
Vincent stopped in surprise. "Catherine?"
Shifting Charles to his arm, Devin scuffed a foot through the dust on the tunnel floor, adopting a devil-may-care attitude that didn't fool Vincent a bit. "Sometimes I don't think she likes me much."
Vincent found the idea astonishing. "Why wouldn't she like you?"
Devin shrugged. "She disapproves of my lifestyle." He walked on. "Sometimes she reminds me of the old man," he added over his shoulder.
Vincent lengthened his stride until he caught up with his brother. "We speak of you sometimes," he said. "Catherine knows what you meant to me when we were boys together."
"Yeah, but she thinks I'm irresponsible."
"I think she doesn't understand the choices you make," Vincent agreed, "but I sense an affection in her when I mention you. I think, perhaps, she likes you in spite of herself."
"Yeah?" Devin sounded encouraged. "How much farther is it to this house, anyway? Your son is getting heavy!"
"Not much farther," Vincent answered, showing the way down the final passage. At the house, he triggered the mechanism which opened the heavy door leading to the home he and Catherine shared; Devin peered inside.
"It's dark," he protested. "Where are the lights?"
"There aren't any," Vincent answered. "Mouse hasn't installed them yet." Reaching to the side, he pushed against the wall and it swung silently away from him. "We'll go this way," he said.
Devin followed him, looking around what was clearly a laundry room, complete with washer and dryer, as Vincent closed the heavy outer door and pushed the section of inner wall back into place until it latched with an audible click. Leaving the laundry, they climbed a flight of wooden stairs, emerging in a large, modern kitchen where Vincent set his basket on a table.
"Catherine is home," he remarked, crossing the kitchen to another door. He guided Devin through a cozy dining room, down a wide hallway, and up another flight of stairs.
"Vincent?" Catherine's voice floated out of an open door on the second floor. She sounded puzzled. "Is that you?"
"Yes," he answered. "We have a guest." He was reassuring, explaining, and warning, all at the same time. He'd felt her small flicker of apprehension when she heard footsteps on the main stairs, but it evaporated at his words and she appeared in the doorway, already changed from her work clothes.
"Hi, Chandler," he greeted her shyly. "Vincent invited me home with him. I hope that's okay?" Clearly, despite Vincent's reassurances, he was still uncertain of his welcome.
She stared at him for what seemed like years, though it was actually only a few seconds. "Of course," she answered, recovering. "Here, let me take him..." Coming closer, she took Charles into her own arms. "How have you been, Devin? Vincent has worried about you." She looked at him over the top of the baby's head.
"I've been busy," he answered, not at all disconcerted. "But not as busy as you," he added. To his amazement, she blushed.
"Devin." Behind him, Vincent's voice held a mild warning.
"Sorry," he apologized easily, more amused than contrite. "Somebody want to show me where I'm sleeping?"
Handing over the worn duffle bag, Vincent directed him to the third floor and Devin went, grinning.
"How long will he be here?" Catherine asked Vincent quietly.
"I don't believe he knows," he answered. "Will you mind him staying here?" Vincent had felt Catherine's surprise and discomfort at Devin's needling and began to wonder if his brother's earlier uncertainty had been justified.
"No, of course not. Why?"
"Devin worries you don't like him."
"I don't... I..." Catherine stammered to a halt. Taking a breath, she tried again. "I do like him, Vincent, it's just he's so..."
"Irresponsible?" Vincent supplied.
Sighing, she leaned her cheek against the top of Charles' head. "I suppose. But I also know what he means to you, Vincent, and he'll always be welcome in our home."
* * * * *
Devin became even more welcome when he revealed a hidden talent - he could cook!
"That was delicious, Devin. What a wonderful surprise to come home to," Catherine said the next evening after dinner.
"Yeah, I figured I'd better cook something," Devin said nonchalantly. "From what the old man says, you've been living on what William sends you."
Catherine laughed. "You make it sound like a form of torture. William's a very good cook."
"He's okay," Devin conceded, "but he cooks for a hundred people and does it with limited resources. That doesn't leave much room for creativity."
"The meal you prepared tonight was excellent, Devin. Thank you," Vincent said.
Catherine pushed an envelope across the table. "Here, Devin. I thought you might be interested in these."
Devin pretended horror. "You don't have to pay me, Chandler. For you, my services as a chef are free!"
"You idiot," she said tolerantly. "I wouldn't give you money. You'd just spend it."
"Exactly," Devin agreed, picking up the envelope. "Bet you didn't know I really was a chef once."
"I believe you mentioned it once, but we're long past being surprised at any of your past lives, Devin," Vincent said in amusement. "Are you going to tell us about it?"
"I won't bore you with details," Devin said smugly. "Actually, I was an apprentice pastry chef at a small, but good restaurant in Paris, but I could never quite develop the touch that a really good pastry chef has to have." He shrugged and opened the envelope.
"Man of La Mancha," he read aloud. "For tomorrow night." He cocked an eyebrow. "Got any single girlfriends, Chandler?"
"Not that I'd introduce to a rake like you," she answered. "Get your own date."
"Aw, come on," he wheedled cheerfully, enjoying the game. "I don't know anybody in New York."
"You know Catherine." Vincent spoke quietly. An idea had been born when he recognized the envelope.
"What?" Simultaneously, two heads jerked around to look at him in astonishment.
"You should go," he continued, addressing Catherine.
"Vincent..." Catherine began.
He interrupted gently. "Catherine, there are many things you have had to sacrifice for me. Seeing plays is not one of them."
"I've seen this one," she argued, sounding bewildered.
"You've heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, too, but you'll go again the next time they play it in the park," he said reasonably. "I know you would like to go, Catherine. Devin will take you." He turned to his brother for confirmation.
Devin looked uncertain. "I'm not in the habit of dating other men's wives," he said, giving Vincent a sideways look. "Will I get to kiss her goodnight?"
"Interesting scars you have on your face, Devin," Catherine said conversationally.
"I take it that means no." He shrugged. "Well, I tried."
"Vincent..." Despite her comment to Devin, Catherine was still unsure.
"'As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune's dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despis'd,
Whilst that this shadow dost such substance give,
That I in thy abundance am suffic'd,
And by a part of all thy glory live...'"
Catherine listened quietly as Vincent quoted Shakespeare's thirty-seventh sonnet; when he finished, there were tears in her eyes.
Devin appeared equally moved."Chandler, would you like to go see Man of La Mancha with me tomorrow night?" he invited formally.
Besieged on all sides, and finally understanding Vincent's motive, Catherine surrendered gracefully. "It would be my pleasure, Devin."
"Great. Pick you up at seven-thirty."
* * * * *
"Which one should I wear?" Turning from her closet, Catherine held up two gowns for Vincent's inspection. Head tilted a little to one side, Vincent considered the garments carefully. He'd never seen Catherine wear either dress; the extent of her wardrobe was something to which he was still becoming accustomed.
"The one on the left," he suggested. He'd seen her wear that particular shade of smoky blue before and knew it suited her. Besides, the neckline of the other dress was cut too low for his peace of mind. He, who had never in his life been possessive, found himself quite possessive of Catherine.
"I think you're right," she said, hanging the rejected gown back in the closet and tossing the other one on the bed. Wrapped in a fluffy robe, still damp from her shower, she picked up a wide-toothed comb and began working tangles out of her long, wet hair.
When Catherine was Below, or on lazy days at home, she rarely bothered with makeup, and hairdressing usually consisted of pulling it back in a ponytail. She took more care with her appearance on days she worked, but she was typically rushed, doing three things at once, and Vincent had learned to keep out of her way. On other occasions, he had seen her dressed up, but this was his first opportunity to observe the process. With Charles playing on the floor nearby, he settled comfortably into a chair to watch.
The entire procedure was more intricate and time-consuming than he had imagined. After blowing her hair dry, she spent ten minutes twisting and weaving it into what he knew was a french braid, tucking the plaited end under for a neat, elegant effect.Make-up was next and his brow furrowed as she smoothed on foundation. "Why do you wear that?"
She glanced at him, startled. "Well, for one thing, it covers up the scars," she said. Vincent knew that one of the finest plastic surgeons in the country had repaired the damage done to her face those years ago, but even his matchless skill had not been able to completely erase the evidence of what had been done to her. Fine, spidery white lines ran like threads across forehead and cheeks, barely noticeable except in bright light. Although Catherine wasn't self-conscious about them, she didn't see the need to display them, especially when they might evoke sympathy she didn't want or need. "It also evens out my complexion and covers up anything else I don't want the world to see," she added.
She did something to her eyes, added color to her cheeks and lips, touched perfume to wrists and throat and was done. Slipping out of her robe, she eased the dress over her head. "Vincent, would you zip me, please?"
Rising, he went behind her and coaxed the zipper gently upward as she arranged and adjusted folds and seams. When the dress was zipped, he allowed his fingers to lightly caress her bare back. The nape of her neck was exposed, vulnerable as she looked down, and he couldn't resist bending to place a delicate kiss there.
With a sigh, she closed her eyes and rocked back against him, warm, soft, and fragrant in his arms. The mirror on her dressing table framed their reflected images and Vincent studied it.
It had taken a long time to accustom himself to the presence of mirrors; when he was young they had been his enemy, reminding him brutally of his differences. Even as an adult, there had been no mirrors in his chamber. This one still bothered him sometimes, especially when he came upon his own image unexpectedly, but now it was a window, permitting him to see something he was ordinarily denied.
Catherine was lovely; her efforts had enhanced her natural beauty, transforming her into an exquisite, exotic woman he hardly recognized. He was pondering his own reflection, wondering, for the thousandth time, at the strangeness of the picture before him, when she opened her eyes. Meeting his gaze in the mirror, she smiled, her eyes dreamy, and for an instant, he saw himself as she did: golden, noble, magnificent. For that moment, she belonged nowhere but in his embrace and he turned to press his lips against her cheek, trailing warm, intimate kisses down her neck.
"Vincent..." Her soft murmur wasn't quite a protest, but not quite an encouragement, either. He thought she could not make up her mind whether she wanted him to stop or continue. Neither of them moved when a light tap sounded on the door.
The knock came again a moment later and Catherine gave a sigh of resignation, calling, "Come in, Devin." It was Vincent who moved then, releasing her and taking a step away.
Devin entered cautiously, a length of black fabric in his hand. "Sorry to bother you, but does anybody here know how to tie one of these?"
"For heaven's sake, Devin, why didn't you ask for a clip-on?" Catherine asked a minute later.
"I did," he protested defensively, chin raised rigidly as she struggled with his tie. "Someone must have made a mistake."
"Lucky for you my father couldn't tie a tie, either," she said. "I think I remember how to do this. You look nice in a tux," she added.
"You're not bad yourself, Chandler. Let's you and me run off together after the show."
"Oh, my god, we're not even out the door and already he's propositioning me," she said out loud, completing the bow. As she stepped back to appraise her handiwork, Devin grinned.
"How 'bout it? I'm lots better looking than Vincent, and I'm loaded with charm." Devin was selling himself shamelessly.
Catherine couldn't help a laugh. "I don't think so, Devin."
"Come on! What's Vincent have that I don't?"
"Me," she answered succinctly, and reached for her wrap.
Vincent smiled, recognizing Devin's outrageous flirting for what it was. Catherine seemed willing to take it in stride tonight; curiously, it was Devin who seemed ill at ease, his chatter both a defense and a cover up.
Standing apart from them, Vincent couldn't help noticing what a handsome couple Catherine and Devin made, far different from the exotic pair reflected in the mirror moments ago. They smiled at each other, and he felt suddenly bereft and alone.
As if sensing his thoughts, Catherine stopped in the middle of what she was saying to Devin. Going to Vincent, she took his hands in hers and regarded him steadfastly, her head tilted a little, while Devin stood in the background, watching. Slowly, carefully, Catherine did something she had never before done in front of someone else - she kissed him, sweetly, tenderly, full on the mouth.
"We won't be late," she said quietly.
"Stay as long as you like," he answered, just as quietly. "This evening is for you."
Vincent watched Catherine depart on Devin's arm, and not until the front door closed behind them did he acknowledge the wistful sadness laced, to his shame, with a breath of envy.
* * * * *
The affair was as much a party as a play, with the city's more affluent members gathered to socialize as well as be entertained. Devin was at his most charming and gracious; Catherine mused to herself that he played the part of society gentleman to perfection. She was the one, suddenly, who felt out of place. It should be Vincent beside her, Vincent meeting her friends and acquaintances; in a world where justice prevailed, it would be.
Stop it, she told herself firmly. Vincent wants you to do this. It's important to him. If you don't have a good time, he'll know, and he'll blame himself.
Grimly, she applied herself to enjoyment, and by the time they found their seats, pretense had become reality. Devin was an affable companion, and his whispered asides regarding some of the other patrons, while not necessarily the essence of tact, were surprisingly accurate and very entertaining.
Man of La Mancha was one of her favorite musicals, and while they waited for late-comers to be seated, she told Devin of how her father had first taken her to see it when she was eleven.
"I made him explain it to me, and he did okay until he got to Aldonza."
"Aha," Devin said wisely. "And how did he explain her?"
"Very carefully," Catherine laughed. "The poor man. I was much older before I realized how embarrassing it must have been for him to explain the concept of prostitution to his daughter. I love the music," she added. "Some of the lyrics are truly beautiful." As the lights dimmed, the music swelled, and each sat back to enjoy the performance.
* * * * *
At home, Vincent stepped back from the window where he'd been silently perusing the dark street. Closing the drapes, he relit candles extinguished earlier. He rarely spent time in the study alone; it felt different without Catherine, but he was here by choice. He could have taken Charles Below for the evening and Father would have been pleased to see them, but Vincent knew he wouldn't be very good company tonight, and had determined to wait in solitude for Catherine's return. Now his young son slept, leaving Vincent with far too much time to think.
Lowering himself into a chair, he laced his fingers under his chin and sighed. It is absurd to feel this way, he scoldedhimself. There is no reason for Catherine to be denied a pleasant evening just because I cannot accompany her. Devin is a trustworthy escort.
Logic didn't help, and he remembered his meeting with Irish writer and peace activist Brigit O'Donnell, years ago. The heart knows nothing about sense... The words she'd spoken to him that night echoed in his ears.
He might as well admit it. He was jealous, not of Devin, but of circumstance. He resented a world that embraced the woman he loved, yet would not permit him to enter.Head down, he brooded.
* * * * *
At intermission, Catherine and Devin went out to the elegant foyer with the rest of the crowd. Complimentary champagne was being served by tuxedoed waiters and Devin liberated two glasses from a passing tray, offering one to Catherine.
Thanking him, she sipped it absently as they reviewed the first half of the play.
"It's a nice idea, but nobody's as noble and self-sacrificing as Don Quixote," Devin argued.
Catherine was opening her mouth to disagree when someone called her name.
"Jenny!" Careful of the half-full glasses both held, she embraced Jenny Aronson affectionately. "I didn't expect to see you here," she added.
"I sure didn't expect to see you," Jenny returned, turning an inquisitive glance on Devin. "Who are you?" she asked him bluntly.
He grinned, prepared to charm his way into her good graces. "You're the first person I've met tonight who hasn't thought I'm Charles' father," he informed her.
She regarded him skeptically. "I've met Charles' father."
Astonished, Devin groped for an intelligible answer and Catherine interceded gracefully. "Jenny Aronson, this is Devin Wells."
"Ah," Jenny said in recognition. "The long-lost brother."
Devin made a sketchy bow. "Not much family resemblance, I'll admit," he said, determined to win her over. "Vincent got the brains, but I'm devilishly handsome and got all the personality."
Catherine made a noise that was suspiciously like a snort. "Vincent got the humility, you got the conceit," she added sweetly.
Jenny laughed out loud and Devin smiled. "Are you married, Jenny Aronson?" he asked.
"He doesn't waste time, does he?" she asked Catherine rhetorically. "No," she answered him. "I have a date over there somewhere," she waved airily, "but I hate to admit he's a terrible bore."
"I thought you told me you didn't have any single friends, Chandler," Devin said, accusing.
"What I said was, I didn't have any I'd introduce to you," she replied with a smile.
"Semantics," he said dismissively, and turned a brilliant smile on Jenny. "So you've met my little brother," he began.
"Several times," she agreed cheerfully. "Even danced with him at his wedding."
"What?" Catherine's attention had been wandering, but Jenny's statement brought it back with a snap. She felt a completely irrational flash of indignation. "When?"
Grinning, Devin put an arm around her shoulders. "Got to watch out for these jealous types," he informed Jenny. "I'll hold her while you make a getaway."
Jenny laughed. "You were busy dancing with every man in the room," she told Catherine. "Vincent looked lonely, so I very brazenly asked if he'd settle for me."
Her momentary pique set aside, Catherine smiled and shook her head in wonder. "I never saw," she said. "Every time I looked at him, he was holding Charles and watching me."
"The wedding of the decade, and I missed it," Devin mourned aloud. "Is it safe to let go of you now?" He grinned down at Catherine.
"I think I have my more savage impulses under control," she told him sweetly and he removed his arm.
The talk turned to more innocuous topics and after a few moments, Jenny's date joined them. He was attractive enough, and seemed nice, but after a few minutes of conversation, Catherine could see why Jenny said he was boring. "Hey," he said, as the guests began to make their way back into the theatre for the second act. "We're going out for coffee after the show. Why don't you join us?"
Catherine bestowed her most gracious smile and declined. Jenny's smile was one of understanding and Catherine could hear her making excuses as they turned away. "...new baby..."
"New baby, my foot," Devin whispered in her ear. "The kid's practically walking. It's that brother of mine you're anxious to get back to."
Catherine didn't bother to deny it as they found their seats again. She missed Vincent, but she was also thoroughly enjoying the evening, and dared to hope that he was enjoying it too, through her.
* * * * *
Vincent was still conducting long, involved arguments with himself when Catherine's swiftly stifled reaction to Jenny's comment reached him. He didn't know what she was responding to, but it reminded him, suddenly, of something she'd pointed out long ago; that jealousy was a normal human emotion. Not an admirable one, to be sure, but natural under the circumstances. Perhaps what he needed to do was accept that he would never be entirely happy when Catherine went out. Father's right, he mused. I tilt at windmills.
Suddenly he found that, though his feelings hadn't changed, his mood had, and he resolved to spend the rest of the evening enjoying Catherine's pleasure.
Crossing to an elegantly carved wooden cabinet, he opened it. He had watched Catherine operate the cleverly concealed sound system many times, though he had never before touched it, and felt reasonably certain of his ability to make it produce music. Compact disks and cassette tapes were neatly shelved, and Vincent quickly found the disk he sought and slipped it into the machine. After a little cautious trial and error, he pushed the right combination of buttons and the music began to play.
Reaching out for Catherine, Vincent leaned back and relaxed, prepared to listen and enjoy in harmony with her.
He had read Cervantes' Adventures of Don Quixote De La Mancha, of course, and last night, Catherine had told him a little about the play, so he had a fair idea of what was happening.
When Don Quixote sang of Dulcinea, the ideal dream-woman he had visualized, Vincent closed his eyes to let the words and music envelop him. He felt closer to Catherine than usual, and he wondered if she could feel it, too.
"...I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea, and thy name is like a prayer an angel whispers..."
Catherine, his mind whispered. My Dulcinea.
"...If I reach out to thee, do not tremble and shriek at the touch of my hand on thy hair. Let my fingers but see thou art warm and alive and no phantom to fade in the air..."
There was a time when she did shriek, but that was long ago. Since then, she had come to welcome his touch and he wondered if he had momentarily lost sight of that.
If he closed his eyes, he could see her in the darkened theatre, head tilted slightly, eyes closed as she listened intently, and even as he envisioned her, he saw and felt her smile.
Captivated by the music and lyrics, Vincent was listening to the sixth playing of the recording when he sensed Catherine near and heard the front door open. Rising, he went to the top of the stairs to wait. Music drifted behind him.
Devin was putting forth a slightly off-key version of the musical's title song and his valiant, if somewhat mangled attempt to carry a tune had Catherine breathless with laughter. He carried her shoes in one hand and they leaned together, arms entwined in mutual support. They seemed unaware of Vincent standing on the shadowed landing and again he felt an ignoble rush of bitterness.
"Watch your feet, Chandler," Devin warned in between bars of the song.
"My feet are just fine," she answered him tartly. "It's your feet that need watching."
To the accompaniment of more giggles and song, they continued their unsteady progress up the stairs. Catherine was the first to notice their observer and she greeted him with a wide smile.
He returned the smile gravely; her pleasure at sight of him did much to dispel his momentary lapse.
Devin didn't bother with greetings. "Here," he said, shifting Catherine's weight to Vincent and thrusting her shoes into his hand. "She's all yours. I'm telling you, Vincent," he added, lowering his voice confidentially, "You don't ever want to take her where they're serving alcohol. She has no head for it. Three glasses of champagne, and look at her!" He rolled his eyes and grinned.
"Two!" Catherine said indignantly.
"Three," Devin countered.
"It was two," she argued back. "I'm fine."
"You see?" Devin said cheerfully, as if she'd made his point. "Three glasses of champagne and she forgets how to count!"
"Speaking of counting, you drank four glasses!"
"Children..." Vincent felt compelled to intervene.
Catherine burst into merry laughter and buried her face against Vincent's arm. "I'm sorry. We've been getting progressively sillier all evening. I can't imagine what you think."
What Vincent thought, he kept to himself.
Plucking her shoes from Vincent's hand, Catherine squeezed through the narrow space between the two men and started up the four remaining stairs to the second floor. Vincent kept one steadying hand on her elbow until she turned and looked at him indignantly. "I'm fine, Vincent. Devin, as you know, is given to exaggeration."
With a courtly gesture of apology, he released her arm. "Where are you going?" he inquired.
"To change," she tossed back.
"Slipping into something more comfortable?" Devin called, and she closed the bedroom door with more force than absolutely necessary.
Vincent was able to regard his brother with amusement. "I assume you enjoyed the evening?"
Devin jerked at his bow tie and tugged fiercely at the top two buttons of the shirt, leading the way into the study as he did so. Vincent followed closely.
"Yeah, I had a good time," Devin said. "I think Chandler did, too."
"I know she did," Vincent said quietly. "Thank you, Devin."
Grinning, Devin burst into cheerful song again, his voice a dissonant counterpoint to the music still pouring from the stereo. He plopped down in the chair Vincent had recently vacated. A few moments later, Catherine joined them, face scrubbed, hair brushed out and wearing a long fuzzy robe.
As she curled up beside Vincent on the couch, she noticed the music. "You're playing the stereo," she said in astonishment. She listened. "Man of La Mancha." Pressed her cheek against his shoulder, she whispered, "I'm glad you got to enjoy it, too."
Vincent smiled at her. "I did enjoy it," he admitted softly. A new song was beginning, one whose lyrics had only served to fuel his earlier discouragement.
'I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me there, naked and cold and too hungry to cry...'
He bowed his head, feeling again the impact of those words.
"Vincent," Catherine whispered, so softly that only he could hear her. "I've always believed your mother must have been terrified... that she just didn't know what to do with such an unusual baby. I've always believed she loved you."
Vincent was touched by her faith; Catherine, he knew, was the sort of woman who could love an infant such as he had been, and it was like her to assume that others could easily feel the same. His arm tightened around her and the music played on.
'You showed me the sky, but what good is the sky to a creature who'll never do better than crawl...?'
Those words had stayed with him, too, and he glanced from Devin to Catherine and back again.
"That's what the two of you did for me," he said quietly. "Each of you, in your own way, showed me the sky, and kept showing me until I believed that I could have a part of it, be a part of it." He looked at his brother. "You, Devin, dragging me on midnight carousel rides and moonlight adventures. And you, Catherine, wanting so much for me and believing I could have it. I will always be grateful that neither of you listened when I said 'I can't.'"
Devin grinned and heaved himself out of his chair. "On that somber, sentimental note, I think I'll say goodnight. Perhaps another time when I've not battled so long..." With an elaborate bow, he gave Vincent a devilish grin and bent to press a quick kiss to Catherine's cheek. "'Night, Chandler. I had a good time."
"I did too," she said. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Devin," Vincent added.
Devin grinned again and cuffed Vincent's shoulder affectionately as he left the room.
With no one to see, Catherine cuddled more securely into Vincent's arms. "I'm glad you like the music," she said.
He rested his cheek against her hair. "I felt my aloneness tonight." Sharing his pain was difficult, but was something he was learning to do with Catherine.
"Because I wasn't here?" she guessed.
"Because you were somewhere I wanted to be."
"I only went because you wanted me to, Vincent."
"I did want you to go. I'm glad you went. Only, sometimes I can't help wishing..."
"I know," she said, and her hands tightened possessively, protectively against his arm.
"You know, there's a line from one of the songs that reminds me of you," he said, to distract her.
"It's from the song about Dulcinea being a dream, and how wonderful the world would be if everyone could have a dream...
it says, 'There is no Dulcinea, she's made of flame and air...." He paused. "Sometimes I feel you're made of flame and air... and if I don't hold you tightly enough, or if I hold you too tightly, you'll vanish... and I'll open my hand to see there's nothing there at all...."
"That can never happen, Vincent," Catherine said. "I'm real and I'm here for you. For always."
"I know that. It's only that dreams can be fragile, impossible things...."
She tugged at his arm, interrupting. "Listen."
'To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go...'
"That song's about you, Vincent."
"It's a song about impossible dreams," he pointed out softly.
"No," Catherine said firmly. "I don't believe any dreams are impossible anymore."
Looking into her eyes, he was reminded again that their dream had always been the same, and that it had, miraculously, come true. The windmills at which he had tilted had tossed him to the ground, just as Don Quixote's had, but Catherine was there to help him up. Catherine wanted to be here. With him. Always. Forever.
As she nuzzled against his neck, he smiled.