Unmasqued

 

by Barbara L.B. Storey

(Originally published in Tunnels Vol. I, October 1988)

 

 

Cathy! Where have you disappeared to? It’s been almost four months since you left here in the middle of the night—borrowing our car because you couldn't wait an hour and a half for the train—and not a word from you! What's going on?"

 

Nancy!” Catherine felt more than a little embarrassed as she recognized her friend's half-amused, half-annoyed voice. She really should have called; it was pretty inexcusable, after the way she had flown out of Nancy's home that night. Anyone would have thought she was a mad thing; but no one, not even Nancy, would have completely understood her urgency. The call of the bond, muted by the deadweight of her depression, had surged through her, bringing her literally to her feet.  Her need to be with Vincent had been too strong, too insistent. 

 

"What can I say, except maybe that we always abuse the ones we love, the ones we know will always forgive us? Right?"

 

Don't try to get around me with that line, kiddo.” Nancy’s voice was trying to be stern, but the chuckle that escaped ruined the effect. “As if I didn't always fall for it. It's true, we've always been able to pick right up with each other, no matter how long between talks, no matter where we were."

 

It's only one of the truly great things about you, Nance,” Catherine replied warmly. “I'm afraid my excuses are just more of the sane old stuff—hectic life in general, a heavy load at work in particular. No rest for the D.A.’s office—or its 'fashion-law' investigators. The city's just too chic and too crime-ridden.” Catherine uttered a quick prayer that the weak joke would divert Nancy's attention from the line of questioning she was afraid was on the way.

 

And what about your hectic love life? It was ages ago, I know, but I can dimly remember a heavy-duty talk at three o'clock in the morning about a certain man in your life. . . . I also remember how good you can be at avoiding serious conversations." Nancy's voice lost its teasing edge and became subdued, concerned. "I mean it, Cath—I've been worried as hell about you. What was I supposed to think? First you come to my house in the middle of the night, looking like you're on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Then you wake me up out of a sound sleep two nights later because of some sort of nightmare—"

 

"No, Nance." Catherine firmly interrupted her friend. "That was no nightmare." She thought back to that beautiful dream of “what-if” that still glowed with a golden light somewhere in her heart. Many nights, when she and Vincent couldn't see each other for one reason or another, she played it back in her mind like a well-loved movie. And now, of course, she and Vincent were working to make that dream of hope as real as it could ever be. They knew how foolish it was to be afraid, to hold back. A smile played on her lips as she thought of Vincent; then she felt a sudden surge of heat as she realized that it was that particular smile that Vincent called “his”—one she had promised to save only for him from now on—and that he was sensing her happiness.

 

Well, you could have fooled me. You were hysterical and I didn't know what to do. And then when we talked, you seemed so much better all of a sudden—and then you were gone.”

 

Catherine could feel the frustration in her friend's voice, and she hesitated. She had felt so raw and vulnerable that night, she had let her old friend share some of the pain. Actually, she hadn't had much choice; she’d been so full of hurt that it had had to go somewhere. And she did trust Nancy, more than she trusted any of her other friends. But it all came back to that one, inescapable truth: this was not totally her secret to share. What she and Vincent had could be told, up to a certain point; she knew Vincent understood, expected her need for friends with whom she could speak of her love for him. But after that point she would be infringing on the lives of others who survived only because their world was hidden. Vincent first and foremost, of course. But what of Father, Mouse, Jamie, Mary, Elizabeth, and all the children? All these people she had come to cherish and respect as family and friends. To tell too much would be to reveal them, to destroy their hard-won safety, and that was something she could never do, not even for her own peace of mind and emotional comfort.

 

"Nance—" she began uncertainly, "I really don't know where to begin. . . .” Or end, either.

 

Nancy sighed heavily on the other end of the phone. "Cathy, I really don’t want to pry, honest. I know you've always been a very private person."

 

"It’s not that, Nancy. I just have certain . . . promises to keep."

 

"Keeping promises can be lonely sometimes, Cath."

 

Don't I know it, friend, Catherine thought to herself. But sometimes they are worth any price.

 

"And you've always been a little too lonely for my liking.”

 

Now you’re sounding like a real mother hen, Nance. Better watch that.” Catherine said lightly.

 

It is true, Cathy, you know it is. Especially since . . . Stephen.” There was a brief silence as the two friends let that memory go by. “But I got just a glimmer of a feeling that night that maybe, just maybe— What I’m trying to say is, don't tell me any details if you can't. Just tell me if you're happy, finally.”

 

Catherine grinned into the phone. Good old Nance. She could always count on her to care, to be there for her. “Yes, my dear friend, I am having a happy life, at last,” she said decisively, sweeping out of her mind all past sadness associated with the words. “And it's partly because of you, I want you to know.”

 

That was true. The words Nancy had spoken to her that night, about growth and change and choices, had really rung true for the first time. Catherine had always thought of herself as a modern woman, a feminist, someone who wanted to “have it all”. But it had taken the experience of Vincent's special love for her and Nancy's perspective on the joy and pain of a whole life to make her see that all she'd been doing was playing a role. No cares . . . and no chances, no commitments.

 

Always glad to help, Cathy," Nancy replied fondly. “You said that this one understood you. All I can say is I hope so, or he’ll have me to answer to.”

 

Catherine chuckled, imagining Nancy giving Vincent a piece of her mind. It was a good feeling to have friends standing on both shores of her life, friends who, although they couldn't really know each other, both knew what made her tick. As Nancy always had. As Vincent now did. . . . It made her very warm and content.

 

I’ll assume that's a private joke, since you're not sharing it with your dear friend. I guess there are some things that are better left to the intimacy of one's own chambers,” Nancy continued in an outrageously suggestive tone, changing the mood of the conversation completely.

 

Catherine gasped and laughed at the same time, almost choking. “I’ve changed my mind—you are the truly disturbed person, not Jenny!”

 

Takes one to know one, Ms. Chandler. But, speaking of getting together. . . .”

 

Were we?” Catherine said innocently.

 

You know what I mean, sweetie. Just because you won't give me the sordid details doesn't mean I can't tease you! Anyway, back to the second reason I called you. I'm having another party, I want you and your Vincent to come, and I am once again not accepting ‛no’ as an answer. I miss seeing you, Cathy. Those couple of days you were here really showed me that.”

 

 

Catherine sighed, the giddy bubble of their conversation broken by this return to the concerns of real life. There was no way she could take Vincent to a party in Westport, but explaining that to Nancy. . . . She'd revealed in their talk that night that there was no way for her and Vincent to have a life together, but not why. How to make that clear without telling the whole story? 

 

Nance, I’m sorry, but we just can't—”

 

Please don’t tell me this guy won't travel to Westport for a Halloween masquerade party. It's not that far to go, Cath."

 

It’s not a matter of won't, it's a matter of— What did you say? A masquerade party?" Catherine was stunned at the direction her thoughts were suddenly taking.

 

"Yes, a masquerade party. Tell him he can come as Prince Charming. The way you talk about him, he might as well! Saturday, October thirtieth, eight o'clock. I can’t promise you that Buddy won't be there, mooning over you, but that's your—and Vincent's—problem. And to avoid further argument, I'm going to hang up now. Good-bye! See you then!”

 

"Nancy! No—Damn it!" Her friend was true to her word and had actually broken the connection. Catherine slammed the phone down and sank back in her chair, frowning. It was crazy to even allow herself the pleasure of the fantasy now spinning in her head. Just because they had pulled it off last

year —attending Brigit O'Donnell's party and then roaming the city under the protection of darkness—was no reason she should even entertain the notion of taking Vincent to Nancy's house. He had to be near the tunnels. close to their hidden safety, even on Halloween . . . didn't he? And Father—the

words "apoplectic," "furious," and "speechless" came immediately to mind. He would ban her from the tunnels for the rest of her life.

 

Still, she smiled in barely contained excitement at the thought of being able to take Vincent somewhere, have him meet her friends, see another little corner of her world. That was what their dream was about, wasn't it? Sharing each other's lives, as two people in love were supposed to do?

 

She sat there for a while, basking in a daydream. Suddenly she felt a slight tug of curiosity: Vincent, wanting to know what had made her so deliriously, deliciously happy. Catherine pursed her lips, puzzling over the problem for a moment or two. Then she jumped to her feet, smiling again, and sent a

shorthand message through the bond for Vincent to meet her in the basement. Maybe she should just tell him about the invitation. It was not up to her alone to decide which risks were too great and which were acceptable; that was something she had taken him to task for, making such decisions for her.

It was his life, his dream that she shared, not just her own. And besides, he could handle Father better than she could.

 

Catherine grabbed a flashlight and a jacket and headed for the elevator.

 

 

####

 

 

Vincent stood uneasily outside the entrance to Father's chambers. listening to the end of the story of Ichabod Crane; it was normally one of his favorites, but tonight he couldn't concentrate on it. He knew that as soon as he stepped into the room, dressed in the new outfit Catherine had given him especially for this occasion, the argument would start again.

 

When Catherine had first told him about the party, Vincent had rejected the idea at once—a wonderful dream, but a reality far too dangerous—even though her crestfallen face had almost gotten the better of his common sense. She had quickly agreed that it was not possible, she had just wanted to pass the

invitation along to him, but he could feel the keen disappointment she'd tried to hide from him. The topic of conversation had been quickly changed, their meeting that night brief. But later, as he lay in bed, his thoughts reaching out to her, he'd marveled at the wisps of her night fantasies that had come to him through the bond. Catherine was actually proud of him, wanted her friends to meet him, wanted to enter a room on his arm. . . .

 

The temptation was very powerful, and he began to chafe against the restraints on his life that prevented him from a normal life with his Catherine.  Danger—always danger. The boundaries of their love always seemed to be measured by fear. He suddenly yearned to meet Catherine's friend Nancy, the woman who had done so much to relieve her depression and sadness when no one else could. Vincent knew he would like her.

 

The idea of an entirely foreign world within his grasp for a night, Catherine at his side, had stayed with him all the next day. And when he had shown up on her balcony the next night, as early as was safe, she had been waiting for him. They'd talked long into the night, finally deciding—together—that perhaps it was time to take a chance such as this. But only for a few hours. Caution could not be thrown entirely to the winds. Catherine promised solemnly to deliver him back to the tunnels before midnight, swearing that her car would turn into a pumpkin if she did not. When he'd reminded her that he was no Cinderella, she'd taken his hand and whispered, “But I am.” Vincent shivered at the memory.

 

It had seemed so simple: making the decision, making plans. But then he had gone to Father, to tell him of their decision. Vincent had known that Father would not be pleased, and there was certainly reason to object, but he had assumed Father understood by now the necessity of Catherine's presence in his life, the imperative nature of their relationship. But instead, when Father realized that they were actually serious about this outing, his face had gone white with shock, and he had left the room, refusing to speak to either of them for a whole night. The next day he had begun pleading with Vincent at every opportunity to be reasonable. When Vincent answered that, despite the risks, this was something he and Catherine must do, and that they would take all possible precautions, Father only grew silent again, and his anger and hurt moved like a cloud over all their dealings.

 

The intensity of this anger and pain disturbed and frustrated Vincent. He and Father rarely disagreed, and actual arguments were even rarer. Mary often teased Vincent that he alone had the magic touch that could neutralize Father's famous temper, a gentle reminder of their special bond, as natural to both of them as breathing. The first Vincent had ever formed, and as intense in its own nature as the union he shared with Catherine. Catherine. . . .

 

He had always known that parental protectiveness lay at the root of the infrequent clashes he had with Father, but since Catherine had come into his life, there had been an element of fear, a fear of loneliness, in Father’s blustering. Vincent also realized—acutely so since Devin's return—that Father had made many sacrifices of an extremely personal nature on his behalf, willingly and lovingly. But something was now becoming obvious, especially in the last two years, that had never before been a question for either of them. Father was not prepared, had never expected their relationship to change, had certainly never allowed for the admittance of another into their own previously unchallenged society of two. Vincent was amazed that Father could even consider that, one day, he might not be needed—by him and by Catherine—but he sensed the fear there nonetheless.

 

And there was one other thing: Vincent had also admitted to himself that Father, at least in the beginning, had seen in Catherine an uncanny example of history repeating itself. A rich, young socialite with a strong attachment to her father: he had undoubtedly feared she might leave Vincent, as Margaret had once left him, when commitment became too real, too necessary a thing. But that expectation had long been banished. Or so Vincent had thought.

 

Despite all these obstacles, of which Vincent made extra efforts to be understanding, Father had come so far in getting past his fears and resentments, accepting Catherine gradually but ever more warmly into their home below the city, even—eventually—approving of her decision to make Vincent's world, as much as possible, her own. He had seemed to accept that their love was destined, for whatever reason; Vincent remembered the beautiful words Father had spoken to him while they had been trapped in the cave-in, and then, later, as he’d left on his search for his anniversary gift to Catherine, the crystal.  Why was he reacting so badly now? 

 

This time he’s afraid I’m going to steal you away from the tunnels for good.”

 

Vincent started at the unexpected, soft whisper in his ear; he’d been so intent on his thoughts he hadn't heard her approach. He smiled and sighed, missing the days when she'd been new to the tunnels and he had had to meet and escort her to these deepest chambers.

 

Catherine.” He turned to greet her, and then caught his breath. “Catherine,” he repeated in a lower, softer tone as she turned slowly so he could admire her.

 

She was dressed in the simple, elegant lines of a medieval princess’s gown: square, low-cut neckline with matching back; close-fitting long sleeves that extended to points over the backs of her hands, with loops to anchor them over her middle fingers; a single inverted pleat set into the front of the dress from neckline to hem; and a gauzy train that trailed in the same position from the back. But the colors! The dress seemed to move with shifting colors: first an opalescent lavender, then a pale, iridescent green, next a combination of the two, all accented by the candlelight from the wall sconces. This must be the color of the sea, Vincent thought to himself.

 

He slowly took in the rest of her: the soft, loosely curled hair, the slight flush on her cheeks, the silvery powder sparkling on her eyelids, and the white satin slippers whose tips just showed beyond the hem of the dress. And the crystal. Tonight it hung on a different chain, a thick gold rope that was shorter than the one he had given her, so that the jewel rested on her fair skin just an inch from the edge of the neckline. Other than that, she wore no ornament.

 

"You are beautiful, Catherine," he said finally, simply.

 

As you are to me, Vincent,” Catherine replied softly, smiling her special smile.

 

He looked down, still a little self-conscious at such a declaration, and surveyed the clothing she had insisted on giving him. Part of the costume, she'd said. Silky white blouse with grandly flowing sleeves caught neatly into cuffs at his wrists, and smooth black velvet pants and vest, the latter fastened with gleaming, red-gold buttons that Catherine declared were the color of his hair. When he'd first looked at himself in the mirror, Vincent had almost felt beautiful, knowing he was wrapped in Catherine's love and pride as surely as if her arms had been around him.

 

Vincent made a slight obeisance. “As you say, Catherine.” He gathered her into his embrace then, and she slid her arms around his waist and snuggled in close. Vincent gave a deep sigh, savoring the safety he always felt at moments like this.

 

Are you ready?” Catherine's words were muffled slightly against his chest, but he had no trouble hearing the question.

 

"I am ready," he replied, "but there is still someone who is not.”

 

"I know. I could sense your thoughts. . . through the bond.”

 

She paused, and Vincent was warmed by the familiar thrill she still experienced at the evidence of this unexplainable connection of their souls.

 

"And I was serious," Catherine continued, "about what I said. Father is desperately afraid that someday I will take you away from here. And away from him."

 

Vincent pulled back and looked at her, his eyes showing his confusion. "But he knows that's not possible—we all know that. You would never endanger me just to satisfy your own needs, or ask me to choose between him and you. I know you, Catherine. You couldn't.”

 

Catherine's eyes were gray in the dim light. “I know . . . our dream can never come true, Vincent," she said in a husky voice. "Not as we would like it to.”

 

She gazed at him with such longing, and he could only answer her with the pain of his own silent desires.

 

After a moment Catherine shook herself and grasped Vincent's arms fiercely. "But we have decided this: we must live our lives in the fullest way we can, and that still makes him afraid. I think we'd better go talk to him."

 

"Yes."

 

Catherine sighed, let go of him reluctantly. "Oh, my God, I almost forgot,” she said suddenly, hand to her mouth. She went back down the corridor a few paces and picked up two large shopping bags; she handed one to Vincent, who had followed her curiously. He looked at her, puzzled, and then looked inside, raising an eyebrow in question.

 

Trick or treat,” she said sheepishly. "You said Father won't let the children go Above anymore for Halloween because of all the sick and twisted people who think razor blades in apples and rat poison in candy are entertaining. So . . . I brought some candy for the children." Catherine shrugged her shoulders and made a hopeful face.

 

Vincent continued to stare at her, but now he was grinning slightly, the white tips of his teeth showing. "Some candy?" He indicated the two overflowing bags. “For the children?" he continued, head tipped to one side.

 

Catherine gave an exaggerated sigh and rolled her eyes. "Okay, so it is a bribe! I'm desperate and I’ll try anything!”

 

Vincent laughed affectionately and put his free arm around her, marveling as he did so at how easy that gesture had become. Catherine slipped her arm around him with an understanding smile; they both took deep breaths as they stepped into Father's chamber.

 

Father was just at the end of his story, his eyes animated with the telling and focused on the children. As he finished, he looked up and saw Vincent and Catherine in their finery. The light in his eyes faded, and he suddenly looked quite old.

 

Vincent felt Father's pain in his own heart, and he closed his eyes for a second. There must be a way to make him see! He opened his eyes and stepped forward firmly.

 

"Children, Catherine has brought you a special treat . . . for Halloween. Now there is no need to risk going Above, and you can still have all the candy your stomachs will hold. Why don’t you thank her now—for you may not thank her tomorrow—and then take these bags to Mary so that everything can

be divided up evenly among us all." 

 

"Shall we save some candy kisses for you, Vincent?" Josie, a small girl of about eight with straw-blond hair, ran over to pull on his sleeve and smiled up at the two of them impishly. "They're his favorite, you know," she confided to Catherine in a stage whisper.

 

Catherine smiled and blushed slightly as she ruffled Josie's hair. Vincent noted that it only made her more beautiful, something he could scarcely have believed possible. Then he put on a serious face and knelt to look Josie in the eye, tapping her on the nose in mock reprimand and then stroking her cheek fondly.

 

"Thank you, Josie, for your offer, but there is no need. I am . . . going out this evening, and I would like you all to enjoy my share.” He glanced up at Father, whose frown grew deeper.

 

Kipper—who had been sitting at Father's feet, engrossed in the story—turned to Vincent, who could see the distress on the young boy's face. “It’s not fair, Vincent. Why can't we go trick-or-treating this year? We've always gone before, we're old enough, and I can take care of the ones who are younger. You've always said I was very responsible."

 

Vincent left Josie and walked slowly over to Kipper; he noted that Catherine remained where she was, carefully outside the circle, for the time being. This question was for him to answer.

 

Of course you are responsible, Kipper. Father and I trust you absolutely. But that is not the problem. There are many people Above who do not know the warmth and protection of the love we share here Below. Because of this, they would hurt you as easily as look at you, and for no more reason than that you were there. You are still too young to be able to judge people Above—who will hurt you and who will not. Such a judgment is difficult for anyone to make, even an adult. When you are older, you will have the greatest responsibility of all. You will be responsible for yourself.” Vincent paused and glanced up at Father, who quickly looked away. Vincent sighed, and then continued. "Until then, you must accept the care of others more experienced in life. It is difficult, I know. I remember.”

 

"All right, Vincent.” Kipper made a face, looking distinctly unconvinced. "If you and Father say so." He stood, picked up the bag Vincent had been holding, and began to make his way toward the stairs, in the direction of Mary's room. Josie wrested control of the other bag from Catherine, and Vincent watched as she laughed gently and bent to kiss the little girl on the head. All the other children followed, intent on the candy they’d soon be enjoying, and soon the room was empty except for Catherine, Father, and himself.

 

"Well, Vincent," Father said abruptly, "after that little speech, I suppose you think I am going to give you my blessing and send you and Catherine on your way." He limped over to his desk, leaning heavily on his cane, and sat down, hands folded uncompromisingly in front of him and face grim. “But I can't. There’s a slight difference between Kipper being responsible for himself and you being responsible for yourself that you failed to point out to him. He can, someday, move about freely in the world Above, if he chooses. You cannot.”

 

Vincent looked back and held out his hand to Catherine. She moved forward and grasped it firmly, then looked up at him with eyes full of love and encouragement, chin set determinedly. He smiled at her, and they both advanced to stand together in front of Father’s desk.

 

Father, please try to understand,” Vincent began softly. "I do know what the risks are, what the world Above is capable of. That remains unchanged, but my perspective, my attitude has changed. My life is different since Catherine came into it, and I must follow that different path. She and I share a life, but we have few enough opportunities to do so openly, and we must take the chance when it comes to us. We would like you to share, not just the worry and pain that fate has brought to us, but our happiness as

well, wherever we can find it.”

 

Father stared but said nothing. 

 

Catherine cleared her throat and brought her other hand to rest on top of Vincent’s. “I love Vincent,  and he loves me. We must live our lives according to that love.”

 

Father looked at her sharply. "Even if it kills him?" 

 

Father!” Vincent was aghast at the bitterness in the older man's voice.

 

"No, Vincent—let me finish.”

 

 

"I’m not finished yet, Father." Catherine's voice was inflexible as she let go of Vincent's hand and leaned over Father, her palms flat on the desk to support her. "Vincent and I love each other. We also respect each other. This is a decision that he has made—I would not have asked it of him. And I must honor his decision, if I respect him." She paused; Father was studying his hands. She continued in a gentler voice. "I know that you have the same respect for him—I’ve seen it. But your love, your desire to protect him is getting in the way of that. As my father's love for me sometimes does."

 

Catherine.” Father's voice was thick, his eyes suddenly bright with tears. “Please do not misunderstand me. Of course what you say is true, and my concern, my fears, are for both of you, you must believe me. I have grown . . . quite fond of you.”

 

Yes, I know—and I am very fond of you.” Catherine smiled and reached out for Father's hand; he gave it, gingerly at first, then more surely. Vincent let out the breath he'd been holding.

 

But Vincent needs more protection than you,” Father continued, still grasping her hand.

 

What Vincent needs—what we both need—is your love most of all.”

 

Father stared at Catherine for a moment. Then he held out his other hand to Vincent, scrutinizing him carefully. Vincent enclosed his father's hand in his and waited.

 

You both underestimate me, you know,” Father said finally. “I know about fate, destiny. It has stared me in the face, in the form of both pain and joy. I saw that you two were fated for each other long before either of you fully recognized it, which is why I fought against your relationship so hard, hoping to deter its path before your love could get a proper foothold. And not because I didn't love you, Vincent, or didn't want you to be happy. Because I did.”

 

Vincent smiled down at him. “I know that, Father.”

 

And I know, Catherine, that you thought I was being a grouchy old fool who couldn't remember what it was like to fall in love.”

 

Well . . . maybe in the beginning.”

 

Startled, Vincent turned quickly toward Catherine and saw her teasing smile as she gazed affectionately at Father, who chuckled at her response. Then the older man grew serious again.

 

Vincent, you will remember I told you once that I felt as if I stood on the banks of a raging river, watching helplessly as you and Catherine made your way, praying for you and admiring your courage.”

 

Vincent nodded carefully, wondering what Father was leading up to. Instinctively, he reached for Catherine’s other hand, so that the three of them formed an unbroken chain.

 

Please remember, both of you. . . .”

 

Father stopped, and Vincent suddenly realized that he was very near tears. He looked at Catherine, concerned, but she merely shook her head and gripped both of their hands a little more tightly.

 

"Please remember," Father finally continued, "that to stand and watch also requires a great deal of courage." He rose from his chair, relinquishing both their hands, picked up his cane, and slowly left the chamber.

 

####

 

 

Catherine peered out the windshield at the headlights coming toward her and then glanced at the digital clock on the instrument panel. Eight-thirty; traffic was fairly heavy tonight. She looked over at Vincent, who was staring out the window on his side of the car, intent on the countryside that whizzed by. It was almost completely dark, but she knew that he could see it far better than she could. Fulfilling her dream of walking in the sun, picnicking in the park, was more than they could hope for, but Catherine found herself wishing that they had been able to leave for Westport earlier, so that Vincent could have enjoyed the trip in daylight. That was far too risky, though; they'd both agreed that the entire outing should be conducted under only the light of the moon. No sunlight for Vincent. If there was one thing she ached to be able to give him, it was that.

 

That thought reminded her of the “gift” Vincent had given her just as they'd left that evening. After the difficult, emotional encounter with Father, Catherine had turned to leave his chamber, ready to head back through the tunnels to her basement and from there to her garage, only to have Vincent stop her.

 

l have one last thing to do, Catherine. If you wouldn't mind, perhaps you could go up to your apartment and wait for me there?"

"But, Vincent, I don't need to go upstairs. I’m ready--" But he had already melted into the darkness of the tunnel beyond her. She couldn’t even hear him anymore. Puzzled and shaking her head, Catherine had had no other choice than to go up to the eighteenth floor and wait.

 

After fifteen minutes, she'd really begun to worry. This was not like Vincent. What if something had happened to him? Father was right—this had been a bad idea, ridiculous from the start. She'd been about to become frantic when suddenly her intercom had buzzed. Now who the hell could that be?

 

"Ms. Chandler, a gentleman by the name of Vincent is here to pick you up?" The doorman's amusement was obvious as he inquired as to her willingness to admit what he certainly regarded as a well-dressed reveller who took Halloween very seriously. 

 

"Oh—my—uh, yes, George, yes, of course!  Send him up!" Catherine had waited, anxious and amazed,  until she heard a soft knock on her door a few minutes later. She'd flung it open to find Vincent standing there in his cloak, a self-satisfied smile on his face. 

 

"I believe your carriage is ready, Cinderella.”

 

"Oh, Vincent—you shouldn't have done this. Father would be furious! Even tonight, it’s not really safe.” But the look of pride on his face at being able to call for her on this one night had kept her from scolding him any further. She had accepted his offered arm and they’d taken the elevator down to the garage together. It had been like a dream come true: a small shred of normalcy in their otherwise distinctly un-normal lives.

 

But it was only for one night, Catherine reminded herself, one night out of three hundred and sixty-five. Would that really be enough for them? Or would it be too much? Would these special nights someday make the other three hundred and sixty-four unbearable? She and Vincent had decided to pursue as full a life as possible, but she had never thought of that particular cruel twist. Catherine frowned and bit her lip as she guided the car carefully down the freeway. 

 

Vincent turned suddenly from the window. Catherine’s thoughts had called him away from his study of the fascinating world outside the car. She was his world, and she was distressed. Carefully, he touched her hand on the steering wheel.

 

"Catherine, are you . . . nervous?" he asked quietly. 

 

"Oh—Vincent!" She started at his touch, lost in her imaginings, then smiled and squeezed his hand. “Well . . . maybe I am a little worried. What if Father is right? Maybe this step we're taking is too dangerous, too far off the safe, beaten path. There are risks here we haven't really stopped to consider."

 

Vincent sighed and caressed the back of her hand with his thumb. Six months ago he would not have dared to say what he must say now. "Catherine. I can sense your fears, what you're thinking. I also know now that our love is strong enough to survive any risk, even the risks of growth and change. A love that cannot risk those things would be no proper love at all—nor a love that we would be able to accept for or from each other."

 

Catherine looked at him for a moment with great tenderness, wishing that they were not in the car so she could give him a proper hug. "I love you," she said softly.

 

And I love you,” Vincent replied, in a voice that was little more than a throaty whisper.

 

They drove on in silence for another fifteen minutes. “We’re almost there,” Catherine said finally. “Nancy is going to absolutely flip when she sees us.”

 

"But she told you that she would not take no for an answer.”

 

Catherine laughed. “Nance always says that to me, but she’s still surprised when I actually do show up. My record of attendance is not exactly spotless, I’m afraid.”

 

"You are perfect in everything you do or don't do," Vincent said firmly.

 

Liar.” Catherine chuckled at Vincent's declaration of loyalty. "Eyes of love."

 

Vincent shook his head decidedly. “Eyes of truth.” 

 

And then—quite suddenly, it seemed—they were in Nancy’s driveway. Catherine looked at Vincent, and he returned the look. 

 

Now we are both nervous," Vincent said quietly. Catherine could see apprehension in his eyes for the first time since they had decided to come to the party. Discussing a trip to Westport in the tunnels was one thing; actually sitting in a car outside the house where the party was in full swing was another. She stroked his hair, smiling her most optimistic smile.

 

"We’ll be fine. Just hold on to my hand, and remember our story. Oh, yes—wait just a minute.” Catherine reached for the elaborate silk mask, tinted to match her dress, on the dashboard. She tied it on tightly, and Vincent checked the knot in the back when she was done. She felt his hands tremble as he touched her hair.

 

"Let's go," she whispered, and they headed for the door.

 

 

####

 

 

Vincent stood stock-still on the front porch of Nancy Tucker's house, wonderfully terrified by the fact that he was actually here, all his firm declarations of surety to Father forgotten. He felt Catherine squeeze his hand gently, reassuringly; she must be sensing the apprehension he was now feeling.

 

"It’s too late now," she whispered.

 

Just then the door opened, and Vincent instinctively stepped back out of the light that spilled over them. A dark-haired woman with lively, happy eyes peered out at them from the hallway. She was pretty, but—Vincent tried to be objective, and found he couldn't—she could not compare to Catherine. There was, however, a very . . . welcoming aura about her, and Vincent suddenly felt much more comfortable than held expected to.

 

"Cathy? Cathy!"

 

Catherine laughed heartily. "You’re not supposed to know who I am—no fair! And what are you looking at me like that for? You told me I had no choice, remember?”

 

Yeah, but I don't ever expect you to listen to me.”

 

Vincent could feel Catherine's joy at seeing her friend again. The two women hugged each other so tightly he wondered that they could breathe. He closed his eyes as the wave of their love for each other washed over him, through Catherine's heart. It was more wonderful than he had even imagined, sharing Catherine's life this way—worth every risk. He felt a slight (unexpressed) sigh of disappointment when Catherine and Nancy broke their contact, and Catherine stepped back to survey her friend more carefully.

 

Nance—what is the idea of this get-up?”

 

Vincent looked as well, and noticed for the first time the colorful, authentic-looking Japanese costume Nancy was wearing. She looked down at herself and shrugged good-naturedly.

 

"The geisha look? It was Paul's idea. He said I was going to spend the entire evening fussing over everyone, so I might as well dress the part.”

 

Catherine made a face and shook her head. “I'm going to have to talk to that man.”

 

"Don't worry, Cath, I'll get even. I'm going to make him wear it later. Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, finally turning toward Vincent. "You'll have to excuse us—we get a little silly when we haven't seen each other for a while. You must be. . . .” She paused and leaned closer, trying to see him better.

 

He took a deep breath and stepped into the light. “Vincent," he said politely. “Thank you for inviting me to your home.”

 

Nancy stared at him, a stunned expression on her face, and Vincent felt saddened by her reaction. Catherine had often told him that he was “impressive”, but he knew that the truth was often something more like “intimidating". He had wanted so badly to get to know Catherine's friend, just a little. His eyes met Catherine's in a helpless look, and she smiled gently at him.

 

Nance?” Catherine tugged at her friend's sleeve in an attempt to distract her. “Nance, I have to ask you something.”

 

Nancy roused herself finally and turned to Catherine, her amazement plain. “This is Vincent?”

 

Catherine nodded proudly, her arm twining around Vincent's and drawing him closer. “This is Vincent. I'm so glad you two have finally met. But, Nance, we have to ask you a fast favour before we go inside."

 

What?” Nancy's eyes were still fixed on Vincent; he ducked his head slightly, now uncomfortable with her intent perusal. She seemed to recover at that action, and covered her mouth with both hands for a second. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Vincent. Please forgive my rudeness. It's just that that costume is absolutely phenomenal. I'm usually not this socially inept. Cathy, tell him I’m not a jerk."

 

"Vincent, she's not a jerk, Now listen, Nancy." Catherine shook her friend gently; Vincent knew she was anxious to explain her plan for the evening before someone else came to the door. "Vincent and I are going to do a little role-playing game tonight, to go along with our costumes. I need you to back us up, just in case somebody gives us a hard time."

 

"Role-playing game?" Nancy echoed. "Whatever for? Everyone will know who you are at least, so why—"

 

Please, Nance. Don't ask me why, just help us if we get into trouble, okay?”

 

Nancy looked back and forth at the two of them. "In trouble? Cathy, only you could have trouble at a Halloween party." Finally she sighed heavily and smiled. "All right, I'll do what I can—but I, I’m still not sure exactly what it is I 'm supposed to do!"

 

"You'll know when the time comes, Nance—trust me."

 

Catherine kissed her friend on the cheek and proceeded into the house. Vincent, still holding onto her hand, followed, gazing at the bright white interior of the house in open curiosity. Nancy closed the door behind them and then hurried past Vincent to catch Catherine by the shoulder, whispering something hurriedly in her ear. Catherine grinned and whispered back. He looked at her with a question in his eyes.

 

"Never mind, Vincent," Nancy said mischievously. "Girl talk."

 

"Cathy! You made it! I'm so glad to see—"

 

Vincent turned back to the living room door in time to see a man with brown hair, slightly shorter than himself and dressed in a musketeer costume and false mustache, run toward Catherine. The man was brought up short as he realized Catherine was not unaccompanied, and he looked at Vincent skeptically, then down at their intertwined fingers.

 

Catherine smiled up at Vincent and gave a slight nod of her head. Vincent remembered that this was the signal to start the game Catherine had devised to protect him. He had not even realized, until she had pointed it out, that one of the biggest pitfalls of this outing was normal conversation. When people got together socially, what did they talk about? Their families, their jobs, their friends, what happened to them day-to-day. His life in the tunnels was not something that could easily be worked into a casual chat with a stranger. As Catherine had put it, what would he say when someone asked him what he did for a living? So, they would play a game. A role-playing game, she called it, where they would pretend to be the royal fairytale figures they were dressed up to represent, denying their real identities for safety's sake, and begging Halloween as an excuse. Vincent was doubtful, but he could think of no alternative.

 

"Excuse me, sir, but I do not recognize the name you call me," Catherine said grandly, then gestured gracefully at herself and at Vincent. "I am the Princess of Oz, and this is the Prince of Shangri-la, and we may only be seen by mortal eyes on this special night of Samhain—a night of masks, when the walls between the worlds grow thin, and anything is possible, and nothing is quite as it seems.”

 

Good God, Cathy!”

 

Vincent started and looked past Buddy to where a strong-looking woman with dark blonde hair and dressed as a clown sat in an easy chair, laughing. Catherine had described all her friends to him at length, and he guessed somehow that this was Jenny. He looked at Catherine inquiringly, and she nodded.

 

You lawyers are all alike,” Jenny continued, “melodramatic in the extreme. Although it is true that 'mortal eyes'—in the form of your friends—never get to see you anymore. You'd better watch out. We might just start remembering what you look like.”

 

Catherine stuck out her tongue but made no reply. Vincent was amazed at the easy way Catherine had with all her friends. Life in the tunnels was, of necessity, lived at a more intense pitch, a much more careful pace. Familiarity was only for those you actually lived with, your family—even contacts with the Helpers had to be cautious, stolen moments with business transacted and then separate ways taken. Like many of his encounters with Catherine. Vincent sighed, and then quickly chided himself for his indulgence in self-pity. He and Catherine only had a few hours here; he should not waste them.

 

He decided it was time to join Catherine in the game. Letting go of her hand, he daringly slipped his arm around her waist and drew her close, noticing as he did so that the man in the musketeer outfit frowned. He must be . . . Buddy, the older brother of Catherine’s friend Rebecca. Catherine told me he is very . . . fond of her. Vincent experienced an uncharacteristic smugness as he reflected on the fact that Catherine had chosen him over Buddy, even in her dreams. He nodded at the man and smiled, then marveled at his own boldness. Moving about freely in the world Above was definitely a heady experience, just as dangerous as Father had feared it would be—but it was just for one night.

 

Vincent moved around the room with Catherine. not speaking except to briefly acknowledge greetings. Most of the people seemed almost reluctant to talk to him directly, asking his "princess" for details about him instead and staring at him inquisitively. He also received many compliments on the intricacy and detail of his “costume”. Vincent smiled, careful not to reveal his fangs, at each comment.

 

Catherine, on the other hand, chatted glibly with all her friends, acknowledging them and their lives but refusing to let go of her mythical persona. When asked how she could know them all so well if she were not Catherine, she simply smiled and reminded them that she was from another place, a magic place. Eventually—after a few well-timed diversions from Nancy—they all gave up and played along.

 

When they had finished their circuit of the room, Catherine found a place for them to sit, slightly off by themselves in the corner of the living room, and then went to find them some food. She came back with only one plate, heaped with delicacies.

 

"I want you to try this. I know you didn't get the chance last year," she said with a sly grin, holding out a small cracker piled high with Beluga caviar. “You were too busy looking for Brigit—you didn't even know I was there!"

 

"Catherine. . . ." Vincent began to protest, but he realized she was only teasing him. He knew that Catherine admired Brigit as much as he did, and had told him she regarded that Samhain night as the night she actually fell in love with him. He touched her cheek gently, cherishing the memory of that first night spent together.

 

Then he turned his attention to the caviar, wrinkling his nose at it; he was not sure he wanted to try it now, after meeting it at such close quarters. But Catherine was insistent, and finally he took the cracker and its precious cargo whole into his mouth.

 

Well?” Catherine asked eagerly.

 

Vincent rolled his eyes and tilted his head as he savoured the taste of it. Finally he said, “Salty.”

 

"Oh, you!” Catherine said in mock disgust. "It’s an acquired taste, Vincent.”

 

One that I should not attempt to acquire then. Father would not approve of such an expensive change in my diet.”

 

Catherine laughed and turned back to the plate, selecting other morsels for him to try and insisting on feeding him with her own hands. Vincent was embarrassed, noting that a few of her friends were watching and smiling at Catherine's indulgence, and tried to prevent her, but she would have none of it. So, finally, he relented. Paul, Nancy's husband, came by with two champagne glasses; Catherine accepted one and looked at him questioningly, but Vincent shook his head. The pale, airy liquid was tempting, but he could not afford any dimming of his faculties when he was Above. Catherine nodded, understanding his reasons, and offered to bring him a bottle the next time she came down to visit. He wondered if he would like it any better than the caviar.

 

Vincent also managed to extract from Catherine the details of the whispered exchange between her and their hostess at the door, and turned slightly pink when she revealed that Nancy had been berating her for not revealing how “gorgeous” he was.

 

Most of the food was strange to him, and for the most part wonderful, and he enjoyed the meal almost as much as he enjoyed sharing it with Catherine. But as they finished, he detected a slight melancholy in her heart.

 

Catherine? Is there something wrong?” He leaned toward her, concerned that he had done something to make her unhappy.

 

Vincent. . . .” She paused and looked down at her hands. “I feel selfish. It’s so wonderful for me to be here, enjoying you, enjoying my friends—the best of both worlds. But I’m afraid I’ve made you feel out of place. You can’t even really talk to people, get to know my friends the way I’d like you to. Maybe this was a bad idea. I’m sorry.”

 

Catherine!” Vincent was genuinely surprised. “To be here with you, to share a part of your life in this way, is more than I’ve ever dared dream. We know that our worlds can never completely mingle, so we must take what we can. You told me so yourself.” He took her hand firmly. “It seems to me that we are taking turns being nervous.” Catherine smiled at him tentatively. “Please believe,” he continued, reaching up to caress her hair with his other hand, "that you are more than enough for me, for the rest of my life.”

 

They remained lost in each other for several moments, until a loud voice distracted them. Jenny was standing in the middle of the room, attempting to make an announcement.

 

I say we should do something really Halloween-ish, not just sit around and talk about how things went in the office this week. Does anybody know any good ghost stories?”

 

Catherine sprang to her feet. "Vin—" She stopped herself just in time. “The Prince," she said in a more composed voice, “is an excellent storyteller.”

 

"No, Princess, I do not think—" But Vincent's protests were blown away by the overwhelming enthusiasm of Catherine's friends. He looked at her, and realized how important it was to her that he was able to participate, feel a part of the evening rather than just an observer. So—again—he relented, settling cross-legged into the chair in his storyteller's pose, while the guests at the party gathered round his feet.

 

He told the story of John and Deirdre, the one Father always told the children on this night, and by the end, his soft, gentle voice had every person in the room wide-eyed and eager for more. Everyone except Buddy, who sat on the couch looking very unhappy, and Nancy, who moved in and out of the kitchen while she listened. When she was in the living room, Vincent had the feeling she was studying him intently. But whenever he looked directly into her eyes, she only smiled and moved back out of the room.

 

Vincent continued with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and then a weird Russian ghost tale he'd learned from Pascal's grandmother as a boy, before excusing himself with a dry throat. Paul further broke the mood by insisting that it was time to break out some records and start dancing.

 

“Dancing! That's a good idea." Nancy, in again from the kitchen, clapped her hands. "l'd like to see some people dancing." She looked pointedly across the room at Catherine and Vincent.

 

Catherine, who had been by his side throughout the storytelling, glanced up at him hopefully.

 

“Yes, I can dance,” he said quietly, and gave her a brief, whispered description of Mary teaching him and the other tunnel children proper ballroom deportment. Catherine giggled and offered him her hand.

 

“I've never danced with a princess before. Would you mind, Prince, if. . . .”

 

Vincent turned; it was Buddy. But Vincent was sensing something different from him now, not the resentment and hostility the man had been unconsciously directing toward him all evening. Now it felt more like . . . resignation.

 

"I know when I'm beat," Buddy continued, extending his hand to Vincent. "I can see it in her eyes.  But if it's all right with you—" 

Vincent took his hand, grasping it firmly as he would a friend's. “That is not for me to say, Buddy.  It is the Princess you must ask for permission.”

 

Catherine's face glowed as she gazed at him fondly; then she gave her hand to Buddy. "Why, of course, kind sir. I'd be delighted.” As she moved to the middle of the floor, she looked over her shoulder at Vincent. “I’ll be back for you later.”

 

Vincent settled into his chair, content to watch Catherine as the music started and she and Buddy began moving gracefully to the strains of a slow, moody song. It came to him suddenly that this was the first time he had been able to watch—or even think of—Catherine with another man without feeling either pain for himself or guilt that he was interfering with her life. There was no longer a need for those emotions. They were sure: of each other, of what must be. He had long since given up trying to protect her—or himself—from the love he now needed as much as he needed air. Two short years had brought about such a change in his life.

 

"Well, Vincent, aren't you going to ask me to dance?"

 

It was Nancy, standing at his side and offering a hand. Vincent looked at her and blinked.

 

“It’s considered rude to turn down your hostess.”

 

Vincent came to his feet, her challenge instinctively activating his upbringing. “I-I am not . . . accustomed to dancing much,” he said lamely. “But if you care to risk your toes. . . .”

 

“I’ll take the chance,” Nancy said firmly. “Besides, this may be my only real opportunity to talk to you before Cathy whisks you off to—wherever.” She took his hand and put her other hand on his shoulder. The music was soft and smooth, and she made no effort to move out of the corner of the living room they were in to join the other dancers.

 

Vincent concentrated on matching her rhythm and avoiding her eyes; she was studying him again. He was also aware that, with her touch, he was experiencing a very slight empathic connection. Certainly not of the intensity that he shared with Catherine, or even of the bond he could tell existed between the two women, but it was there. This woman was Catherine's closest friend; it made sense that they should both be sensitive, emotionally. He would just have to be careful not to let his own feelings escape through the tenuous link.

 

"Cathy told me about you—a little, anyway—when she was here visiting four months ago. She said she couldn’t tell me everything, which is okay, I understand. Cath has always led a very complicated life, and I’ve accepted that, over the years. But I worry about her, you know?”

 

Vincent nodded at the rhetorical question.

 

Nancy pursed her lips for a moment, then continued. "Now that I’ve met you, I can see why she was so upset, and so moved, that night. You are an unusual guy. There's something. . . ." She paused, at a loss for words. “What I'm trying to say is, I love Cathy like she’s my sister, and I just want to make sure she’s happy.” There was silence for a moment between them. “For some reason, I feel I can trust you to tell me the truth. So I’m going to ask you. Is Cathy happy? Do you make her happy?”

Vincent blushed at the frankness of the question; he was still not used to thinking of himself as the source of a woman’s happiness. But he knew what he must answer.

 

"Yes, to both questions.”

 

Nancy nodded, pretending not to notice his discomfort. "Now, the second question—though I'm not really sure why I'm asking this, since I’ve just met you. . . .”

 

Now it was her turn to feel embarrassed; Vincent could feel the emotion in her, and confusion as well. She must be getting some sense of him and his feelings, either through their light contact or through her connection with Catherine. He waited breathlessly, trying to tamp down his own apprehension.

 

Nancy took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “Does Cathy make you happy?”

 

Vincent had not been expecting this. Before he could stop it, a rush of his deepest feelings for Catherine exploded through his body. He felt Nancy start under his touch as he said, "I have never known a happiness as complete as the one Catherine gives me."

 

Nancy stared at him again, music forgotten; then a look of shocked recognition and wonder came over her face. She stepped away from him for a moment, then seized his hand and pulled him toward the kitchen. Vincent looked back to see Catherine, still in Buddy's arms, following them with a worried gaze. Their worst fears were about to come true, and he didn't know what to do.

 

Once they were in the kitchen, Nancy let go of his hand; she reached out as if she wanted to touch him. then drew her hand back and covered her mouth. She moved to the other side of the island counter. putting it between them.

 

"Cathy told me," she started nervously, "that you were . . . a very special person." She stopped, gulping air. “You are special, aren’t you?”

 

Vincent was at a loss for words: what could he say? It was not in him to lie, even to save himself, but how could he give her the truth? He stood paralyzed, eyes darting back and forth as he searched for words.

 

"Vincent!" Catherine came bursting through the kitchen door and then stopped short, out of breath but desperately trying to appear nonchalant. “Oh, there you are," she said, as if she had not had any idea as to his whereabouts. "They're playing an old favorite of mine, and I really would like to dance with you. You don't mind, do you, Nance? Thanks!” She grabbed Vincent and headed back out to the living room.

 

Vincent clung to her fiercely as they moved to the middle of the floor and began to sway gently. “Catherine. . . .”

 

“What happened in there?” Her eyes were wide as she searched his face for a clue. “I could feel that you were very upset, but—”

 

"Nancy has guessed what I am," Vincent said simply.

“Oh, dear! Vincent, how?"

 

"She seems to possess a certain . . . sensitivity to both of us, to our bond, which touched her while we were dancing."

 

"Vincent, I’m so sorry, it was so greedy of me to want this. We should have stayed home, with Father and the children."

 

Despite his fear and her distress, Vincent was pleased at her reference to the tunnels as home. It grounded him, gave him a measure of calm somehow. “Catherine—perhaps, along with her sensitivity, she has the understanding we need, that the people who love us can give. She has been your best friend for many years . . . could she be that different from you, in her heart?" He paused, remembering his light link with Nancy and his experience of her inner questions and emotions.

 

"I hope not," Catherine said quietly. "And if she is . . . maybe I don’t want to know it. I think we’d better make our excuses and leave, as soon as possible. It is almost eleven.” She turned her head suddenly. "Looks like we’re about to find out just what Nancy thinks."

 

Vincent looked at the far side of the room. Nancy had just reentered the room, and her eyes were fixed on them. For what seemed an endless span of time, her expression was unreadable; and then a slow smile began to grow, curving her mouth and making her eyes bright.

 

Vincent felt a warmth inside himself that he knew did not come from Catherine. He smiled with satisfaction, glad that his perception of Nancy had been sound. Pulling Catherine closer, he determined to enjoy these last moments and share her joy in her friend's love. This evening had been the right thing to do after all.

 

They moved in a tight circle in the middle of the living room; this was the first time they had danced, and Vincent revelled in the feeling of Catherine’s lithe body in his arms. It was a sensual encounter that left him quite suddenly weak, and short of breath. He let himself fall, deeper and deeper, into the luxurious comfort of their bond, unconsciously drawing her with him, neither resisting what they had formerly kept such a cautious guard on . . . melting to their very bones until they were connected at the deepest levels possible. Vincent saw Catherine’s face in front of him, so beautiful he thought his heart would break, and he leaned forward. To touch his lips to hers . . . just for a moment . . . not in his dreams. . . .

 

There was a hand on his arm: Nancy, shaking her head slightly at the two of them. Catherine blushed, a deep rose shading her neck and face. Vincent shook his own head sharply and let go of Catherine, breaking the spell. It was past time to leave. How had he allowed himself to lose control that way?· And then he knew: he was in the home of a friend.

 

Catherine began to speak, stammering slightly. "I—uh—we have to get going, Nance. "

 

“I know, Cathy.” Nancy reached out to steady her. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yes, yes, I’m fine, but we have to go.”

 

Buddy came over, looking very upset. “You’re not leaving now, Cathy? It’s not even midnight!”

 

“Duty calls, I'm afraid. I have a deposition to take tomorrow.”

 

Paul came over and put his arm around Nancy. “So, Cinderella has to hang up her shoes for another year, eh?”

 

Catherine turned to Vincent with a secret smile; he returned it and reached for her hand, his feelings safely restrained—for the moment.

 

"Not quite, Paul—not quite," Catherine said.

 

Nancy insisted on walking them to their car, leaving Paul behind to take care of the other guests. Vincent experienced a thrill of anticipation when they were alone, the three of them, by the car. What would Nancy say? Do?

 

“Vincent.”

 

He turned to her; Catherine stopped in the act of opening the car door. Nancy walked right up to him, slowly raised her hand and—gently, shyly—touched his cheek. Vincent stood very still. Nancy left her fingers there on the soft, reddish-gold down for a few seconds, then dropped her hand and quickly leaned forward to kiss him on the same spot.

 

"Take good care of her." Her eyes were bright, and she held him in their gaze.

 

“I will,” he replied solemnly.

 

Nancy nodded, satisfied with that. Then she gathered Catherine into a fierce embrace, kissing her on the cheek as well. "And you—you take care of him," she said, her voice unsteady.

 

“Nance. . . .” Catherine grasped her friend's arm. "Don’t worry, Nance, we’ll be fine."

 

Nancy nodded and kissed Catherine one last time, then turned and walked back to her porch. She waved to them, and went inside.

 

Vincent reached for Catherine then, as they stood in the dark, and she fell into his arms, sighing heavily.

 

"What a night, Vincent!"

 

Vincent only nodded, enfolding her in his cloak.

 

 

####

 

 

“So, Cathy—have you recovered yet from Halloween?”

"Nancy!" Catherine was surprised—and delighted—to hear her friend's voice on the other end of the phone. The masquerade party had only been last week; she and Nancy usually let months go by between contacts. Then she smiled to herself, remembering Vincent's discovery of Nancy's slight empathic sensitivity. The connection between them, a close one ever since college, now seemed to have an added element of strength . . . because of Vincent. It was wonderful to realize he had actually enriched her relationships with others, rather than hindering them, as he so often believed he did. She would have to remind him of this when she saw him, later that night.

 

"I just wanted to call, see how you were doing, and to see if you'd gotten my little package."

 

“Oh, yes, I did! I couldn't believe it!” Catherine reached across her desk for the envelope that had just come that morning and opened it. “You're getting pretty sneaky, Nance—I didn't even see your camera.” There were two sets of three different photographs from the party: one of her feeding Vincent caviar; one closeup of Vincent, which Nancy had written “Gorgeous!” across the back of—a judgment she agreed with; and a shot of the two of them dancing.

 

"Fast film and zoom lenses, my dear—they come in very handy sometimes. I . . . had the feeling Vincent wouldn't have sat still if I had asked him to pose. You, of course, were beautiful, positively glowing. I don't know if I've ever seen you look better. Um, can you give Vincent the other set?”

 

“Of course, Nance.” There was a slightly awkward pause then, with the inevitable question hanging. She had to ask it. "So, Nancy—what did you think of Vincent?" Her friend had seemed supportive at the party, but maybe she'd had time to think it over. Catherine heard a deep sigh from the other end of the phone.

 

"I like to think I can handle anything—good old unflappable Nancy, you know—but you keep throwing me these curves. Don't you ever have the desire to lead a simple life?"

 

"What do you mean, Nance?" Catherine said carefully.

 

"You know what I mean. Vincent is just what you said he was—special. I don't think I want—or need—to know any more than that. You said you had promises to keep, and I respect that. Not everyone is meant to lead a normal, boring life in the suburbs. We've been through that before, too. But I guess the only thing I can say is. . . ."

 

"What, Nancy, what? You're killing me with suspense here!" Catherine was relieved to hear a deep chuckle from her friend.

 

"I love him! He's terrific and wonderful and sensitive and shy, not to mention drop-dead beautiful! Wherever did you find— No, I don't want to know. It doesn't matter. The important thing is that you did find him, you’re both happy, and I’ll never breathe a word to a living soul. Not that I'd know exactly what to breathe. He’s not exactly someone you can describe and do him justice. You really have to . . . experience him, if you know what I mean.”

 

Catherine giggled—a little hysterically, with a sense of relief. She should have known. Nancy was a true friend; someone you could trust, someone who loved you unreservedly and only wanted your happiness, someone you didn't have to explain things to if you couldn’t. "Believe me, Nance, I know what you mean.”

 

“I guess”—Nancy seemed to be searching for words—“I understand now why you were in such a state that time four months ago. It must be awful to love someone as much as I know you love Vincent, and not be able to share that with the world."

 

“It can be, sometimes,” Catherine said quietly, "but we’re working on making the best of what we've got. It’s the only thing we can do."

 

“Mmm,” Nancy murmured softly. “If it will help you get through the hurt sometimes, kiddo, just remember that I’m here, rooting for you. Always have been, always will be. And the same goes for Vincent. He's now been officially adopted by Nancy Tucker, big sister."

 

Catherine nodded at the phone, her throat too tight to speak, her eyes too blurred with tears to see.

 

“So,” Nancy continued a moment later, her own voice suspiciously thick, “I guess I’m gonna have to have a masquerade party every year now. Just so I can see Vincent, I mean.” There was the slightest hint of a question in her voice.

 

“For you, we’ll try to make some special arrangements.” Catherine was suddenly inspired; perhaps, if Nancy could make it into the city from time to time for an overnight trip by herself, she could make a special dinner, invite Vincent to come. . . . She knew he would like seeing Nancy again.

 

"That would be great.” Catherine could feel Nancy’s smile over the phone. “Just take care of yourselves in the meantime. And don't ever let him get away from you, Cath. This is the right one, I can tell.”

 

This time Catherine didn't try to stop the tears from running down her face. “How'd you ever get so wise, old friend?”

 

“Life, Cathy—life and love. They make you wise.”