“Do you understand why it has to be this way?”
She gazed out over the city while he spoke, pretending to see but seeing nothing. No buildings, no lights, no movement at all. And no sound except the ragged velvet of his voice. She was teetering on the edge, and this balcony was the drop-off. Folding her arms across her chest, she wished she had grabbed something warmer than a flimsy satin robe. She leaned against the wall and the hard concrete scraped her elbows.
“This dream we have – precious as it is – cannot sustain you forever. The pain I sense in you, the guilt I feel….” He drew a jagged breath and shifted his weight, his leather boot sending a stray pebble skittering across the balcony floor. “We’ve been through this before, but I cannot reconcile it. How can I let this go on, knowing what you want? Knowing it can never be?”
Her throat constricted with a barely suppressed moan.
Hold it together,
“What we have is more important than anything. I believe that with my whole heart. What you’re saying – what you’re asking me to accept – is to live without any hope of love.”
“I know you don’t see it this way, but I’m trying to give you hope. For a normal life. A normal love.”
The sound of traffic far below finally penetrated the haze. A litany began in her head. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. She looked for anger and found it. “I can’t believe this! This is the exact same conversation we had last year. I don’t do normal very well. I much prefer different.”
“You may not prefer it in two years, or five years, or ten, when it strips you of every option you have.” His tone was weary, resigned.
“I’ve looked at all my options, and made my choices.” Her mouth set in a determined slant. “You’re just telling me that my choices don’t matter. That’s screwed up, Vincent!”
He slumped against the wall and hung his head, his russet mane nearly concealing the agony on his face. She licked her dry lips and straightened her spine. “Vincent?” Her voice cracked. Finally, he looked up. “I love you.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “And I love you,” he whispered.
“Well then – ”
“I respect your choices, Catherine, but I have also made mine. Would you be satisfied being my forever friend?” An errant breeze lifted strands of his hair and ruffled the edge of his cape. Tears pricked her eyelids and she knew if she blinked, they’d escape. The pain and fear in his gaze seared her. She took a half-step back but she refused to look away.
And she refused to lie.
“No. I wouldn’t.” Here was the end of it: she had five more seconds of composure, five more seconds till collapse. She stepped away from the edge, opened the balcony doors, and snapped them shut behind her.
∞ ∞ ∞
Down he went. His knees slammed into the concrete first, sending a jolt through every joint. He swayed on his arms until they quivered and gave way, then his chest and cheek hit the ground. All the air rushed from his lungs, but he was past caring. Sirens wailed from the street below and the city lights blurred.
∞ ∞ ∞
“Good afternoon. This is a
pre-boarding announcement for flight 775 to
Catherine reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out her passport, wondering for the umpteenth time if she were running far enough, for long enough. When she had told Joe she needed a leave of absence, he had barely paused rifling papers. I can get you two weeks Radcliffe, he’d said. When she said no, two months, he’d fallen back into his chair. Like her words were gunshot, and he was bleeding out onto the brown leather. He stared at her long enough for rigor mortis to set in, but in the end he twitched and nodded. She took that as a yes.
She had to get away – farther away than the continental
Absently she thrummed the pages of her passport and stared at the diamond pattern on the carpet. She didn’t look up when the vinyl seat beside her squeaked under someone’s body weight.
It took a second, but the suave tones were unmistakable. Catherine went cold, then hot as her cheeks flushed with color. Slowly she faced her companion. “Go away Devin.”
He smiled and held up his boarding pass.
“That’s what I’m doing.
Going away to
She closed her eyes and groaned. Somehow she knew this was not going to go her way. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but what are you doing here?” Incredulity stretched her patience, and courtesy, thin. “I mean, how did you know…?”
He flashed a grin that was just a little bit wry. “I work in mysterious ways, my wonders to perform.”
“Of course you do.” She exhaled sharply and shook her head. “Did Father or…Vincent…send you to watch over me?”
“Nope. No one from Below knows you’re leaving, although Vincent will sense it, won’t he? When he told me it was over between you two, I thought to myself, what is this doing to Catherine? What is she going to do now? My guess was you’re long overdue for a vacation. And I love a good vacation, so….” Devin gestured expansively, as if joining her were the most natural thing in the world. He hooked an ankle over one knee and leaned back in his seat, inciting more creaks and another rakish grin.
Catherine shut her eyes. When she opened them again she found him assessing her, no doubt noting the dark smudges under her eyes, the hollows in her cheeks, and her hair hastily pulled into a ponytail with no thought to style or beauty. She licked her chapped lips and tried to smile. “Listen, Devin.” His gaze, now serious, fastened on hers. “I don’t need your company.”
He paused, leaned towards her. “I think you do.”
She leaned forward as well and lowered her voice.
“I didn’t choose this.
I don’t want this!
But Vincent chose for me and there’s nothing I can say.
I need to get away for awhile.
He nodded, ran his fingers through his hair. Catherine leaned back, relieved. Disaster averted.
“I get that,
She didn’t speak the word out loud, but boy, was it ever reverberating inside her head.
∞ ∞ ∞
She woke up on the third ring.
It had been four days since they had arrived in
The phone rang four times, five times while she stared at the giant bird of paradise hanging opposite the bed. Slowly, experimentally, she stretched her arms and legs, fingers and toes. She had been still as a corpse, her eyes wide open but her mind probing inwardly, assessing her strength, her capacity to function. Her self-concept had included Vincent for so long that without him, she had to wonder who she was. Who she could be. Four days of listening to the surf and staring at tropical kitsch had yielded no clues.
On the tenth ring she kicked off the blankets, stomped over to the wicker desk and yanked out the cord. Climbing back into bed, she pulled the covers up to her chin but not before she felt the cool slide of chain and crystal along her collarbone, coming to rest on the pillow below her ear. Throat aching, she huffed a painful breath. She grabbed the pendant and centered it once more over her heart. She didn’t know why she’d even brought it with her. It wasn’t like she needed a reminder.
She turned onto her side and gazed out the sliding glass doors, past the lanai with its garish lawn chairs, past the neat swath of lawn and bougainvillea hedge, to the clear blue sea. She began counting in her head, figured she might get to ten but before she was half-way there…. Yup. A sharp rap rattled the front door.
“Go away,” she whispered, hugging her pillow to her chest.
Seconds later a figure appeared on the lanai. She blinked and sat up with a jolt.
“Let me in,
“Dammit, Devin!” Her voice cracked from disuse. But she dragged herself out of bed, fighting off the sheet and kicking it to the floor. She flipped the lock on the door and stood back while Devin slid the heavy glass along its track and stepped inside.
White deck shoes and chinos. A toucan-inspired tropical shirt. Panama hat tilted at a jaunty angle. Ray-Ban sunglasses. Good Lord. “You’ve been shopping, Devin,” she croaked. She cleared her throat.
He tugged his collar and tapped his brim. “Your local ABC where, incidentally, I also bought you –” he reached into a bag he had tucked under his arm – “this!” He shook out some fabric in the same toucan print as his shirt. A matching muumuu.
Catherine shook her head for several seconds. “No,” she mouthed, no sound coming out. She tried again. “No way. I brought some clothes. I’ll wear what I have, thanks.”
He leaned back and surveyed her with a critical eye, taking in the baggy sweatpants and the wrinkled t-shirt with the unicorn and rainbow design. The hem had unraveled and a pale pink thread hung half-way down her thigh. “I have to admit you do look….” He paused, his gaze snagging in her hair. He flashed a lecherous grin. “Fetching.”
She snuck a peek at her reflection in the dresser mirror and drew in a
Rat’s nest would have been an
understatement. Before her
cheeks could flood with color he said, “No really, I saw that once on a
Catherine’s face wrinkled in dismay, but she pursed her lips and tramped to the bathroom. Considered the lock, then turned it. She really didn’t think that Devin had plans to accost her, but some kind of devilry was afoot. The muumuu slipped from her fingers and formed a striking blue, green and yellow puddle on the white tile floor. Wincing, Catherine made sure to step on it on her way to the shower.
When she emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later – wan but tidy and wearing the muumuu – the smell of brewing coffee drew her towards the kitchen. At the breakfast bar a place was set with a massive butterhorn, a few slices of pineapple and some peachy-looking juice. Her stomach growled on cue. “Devin….” He was lounging on the couch with a copy of the Maui News. He looked up, his steady brown gaze surprisingly gentle. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” He leaped up and pulled out the bar stool for her to sit down. “Tuck in. You haven’t eaten in a while.” He looked at her accusingly, but she only shrugged. “I found most of the groceries untouched. That means I’m gonna have to watch you more closely, you know that, don’t you.”
Catherine didn’t like where this was going, and she certainly didn’t come all this way to be chaperoned. “You don’t have to do this. You should be with…Vincent.”
“Nah, he’s got everyone Below tiptoeing around him. The last thing he needs is me harping on ‘im. Eat, sweetheart. We got places to go.” Devin eased onto the stool beside her, and seemed poised to feed her unless she did so herself. She took a small nibble of the butterhorn, savoring the warm pastry and sweet glaze.
“What places?” she asked around another bite.
“I’ve been to Boss Frog’s,” he said. She looked at him quizzically. “Snorkel gear,” he added.
“Oh. I’ve never snorkeled before.”
“Yeah, I figured you were more the suntanning type. There’s a whole other world down there. Got a bathing suit?”
“No, I –”
“And again I’m one step ahead of you. Looky-see.” He reached into the ABC bag again and pulled out a neon bikini. She almost choked and quickly gulped some juice.
“I am not wearing that.”
“Then we’ll stop at a mall on the way to the beach. Okay?” For the first time since he had become her unwelcome travel buddy, he was asking permission. With trembling fingers she set her glass on the bamboo mat. Swiped a tear tracking down her nose.
He leaned back and snagged his mug off the coffee table.
Took a long swallow, and didn’t look at her while he spoke.
“They all love you,
She finished her breakfast in silence.
∞ ∞ ∞
Where are you?
It throbbed in his brain, night and day. When he labored, when he rested, when he sat upon his chair and when he lay upon his bed, when he was alone in his chamber and when others streamed around him, always that question. Father and Mary had ceased trying to advise him. William left his tea and meal plate at the chamber entrance. The children came by every now and then, and some of them read to him, but he couldn’t focus on their words. He looked at them but didn’t see them.
Where are you? Where did you go? Tell me.
I can feel you still.
∞ ∞ ∞
“Vincent?” Father looked into his son’s chamber. Vincent sat at the table, shoulders hunched, scribbling in his journal, the candle beside him nearly spent. He acknowledged his visitor with only a brief lift of his pen, but this was not unusual now.
“Here is some welcome news.
A letter from Devin!”
Father tossed a long white envelope onto the table.
“Yes, well. You’ll pass on the letter when you’re through, won’t you? Mary especially is eager to hear.” He contemplated Vincent for a long moment, noting eyes that were sunken in their sockets, and hair and clothes filmed with a fine layer of dust. Father suppressed a heavy sigh. Leaning on his cane he stood and, favoring his hip, shuffled from the chamber. Faint words followed his departure.
“Thank you Father.”
∞ ∞ ∞
Maui No Ka ‘Oi –
How are you brother? Been
thinking about you, just want you to know I’m in
Gotta go, the lady awaits.
p.s. Here’s a picture to put your mind at ease.
The Kodak print bent and buckled between Vincent’s fingers. He held it for a long time, his senses swimming, his mind grappling for a reason why Devin was trying to torture him.
∞ ∞ ∞
Catherine flippered up onto the beach, her new green one-piece sparkling with surf and sun. Although Devin might have preferred the bikini, just on principle alone, even he had to admit that there was nothing that could have improved the sight before him right now. Well, maybe a few hearty meals, but he planned to work on that. As Catherine tugged off her snorkel gear, he saw the nearest thing to a smile since he had ambushed her great escape. He patted the oversize beach towel next to him, leaving a wet handprint on the pink hibiscus.
“So what do you think of snorkeling?”
She collapsed onto the towel and pried off the flippers. Her heels squerched out with a small gush of sea water. “Wonderful! Did you see the turtles?”
“There were three.”
“Yup, saw them.” Truthfully he had only seen two. He had been watching Catherine. Behind the thick Plexiglas goggles, her eyes had widened as she saw the coral reef for the first time. She gestured with excitement whenever a school of silvery fish swarmed past. She kicked through the waves as gracefully and playfully as a porpoise. And Devin was trying very, very hard to remember what he was here for. He shook the water from his hair and reminded himself yet again that she did not belong to him.
“We’re very close to an area called
“That’s crazy. Who’d do that?” Casting him a sidelong glance, she slipped on her sunglasses and lay back on the towel. Her crystal pendant glinted in the noonday sun.
“No, that’s all right. I got it.”
Ah, well. You miss every shot you don’t take.
Catherine applied the lotion in brisk, efficient strokes, then capped the bottle and tossed it back to him. She leaned back on her elbows and dug her toes into the hot sand. “Can I ask you something?”
“Anything, sweetheart.” He flashed a grin.
“At the airport, you said you’d had your heart broken too….”
“Ancient history. The less said, the better.” But when she smiled and closed her eyes, respecting his privacy, he realized how much he wanted to earn her trust. And he couldn’t hope to earn an ounce of it if he didn’t show some trust himself.
“Her name was Lindy.”
Catherine’s gaze flew to his. “Was she from the tunnels?”
“No. I met her on the
subway. She was a science
“So what happened?”
“After we’d been seeing each other a few months, I brought her to the tunnels. She fell in love with them…and Vincent.”
Catherine drew in a sharp breath. Of course she did. How long had it taken her to fall in love with him? No time at all. “And Vincent…?”
“Completely clueless. Didn’t hang around much when she was Below. I think he was still brooding over the fiasco with Lisa.” Devin shrugged and adjusted his sunglasses. “Lindy and me, we kind of fizzled, you know?”
She nodded and ventured a tight smile. “Thanks for telling me, Devin. I’m sorry that happened to you.”
“Anyone serious since then?” she asked after a pause.
“Nope. Rule #1: Keep it casual. Rule #2: Never break Rule #1.”
“I’ll just bet a handsome guy like you has caused his share of heartache.”
“That’s precisely it,
“Ah, and that would be –”
“Rule #3. Yup.”
They didn’t talk much after that.
Devin pulled out a dog-eared Tom Clancy and pillowed his head on
the backpack. It was hot,
each breath like a steam bath.
He tugged at the waistband of his swim trunks.
Normally he would have worn something briefer, but beach day with
Catherine wasn’t normal.
She gazed out over the
A little ways down the beach a middle-aged couple were strolling arm-in-arm, the woman’s head nestled against the man’s shoulder. Carefully Devin rose and jogged over to them.
“Say, can I ask you a favor? I’d love a picture with my wife.”
“Sure.” The shaggy-haired man waited patiently while Devin took his camera out of the backpack, and got into position beside Catherine. “Uh, aren’t you going to wake her up?”
“Nah, she’d love a shot just like this. The camera’s all set to go. Yeah…that button there.” Devin snuggled in alongside her sleeping body and gingerly placed one hand on the rise of her bottom. He laid his cheek on the towel, his lips whisper-close to hers, and gazed at her lovingly.
“Thanks buddy.” He took back the camera and the couple departed. He shifted away from Catherine, but only fractionally. His longing gaze turned grim. “Vincent, you fool.”
∞ ∞ ∞
“So we’re going way too fast, fifty-five maybe, and it’s still dark okay? I look over at my buddy and he has, he’s got a beer balanced on his chin. No, seriously! On his chin. ‘Can you hold it, Al? Do we have a record, here?’ I say. But I gotta watch the road. It’s twisting and turning, then whoa! Holy – what’s a bloody cow doing on the center line? What the hell? And I jerk the wheel and Buddy goes Hey man! And that’s how I got drenched in beer on my last drive up this volcano ten years ago.”
Catherine rolled her eyes. “Did you miss the cow?”
“Uh, yeah,” Devin conceded, then paused. “But she did leave a pretty big pile of --”
“Thanks, I get the picture.”
She leaned her head against the headrest and gazed out the window
of Devin’s sporty rental car.
He had insisted on a predawn drive up
She was almost too tired to contemplate it.
For the past three weeks, Devin had involved her in every
excursion and diversion the island had to offer.
They had gone snorkeling – several times – and hiking and
shopping, paddle boarding and beachcombing.
They had dined at
She watched him covertly as he navigated the curving mountain road. She had misjudged him on so many counts, dismissing him as a playboy, an imposter, a distant second to a much superior sibling. And she found herself considering whether he were every bit as mysterious as his brother. She stared at his profile, faintly glowing in the dim light of the dashboard. He was handsome, no doubt about that, if you liked men with classic good looks. She had never seen anything remarkable in him, although…. Suddenly he turned and caught her gaze. She couldn’t look away.
“You betting against another cow,
“I think we’re safe. Do you have a beer back here somewhere?”
He chuckled and geared down as they approached the parking lot. “I knew it, I gotta watch you like a hawk.”
As they climbed out of the car, goosebumps rose on Catherine’s exposed
skin. She had forgotten
She shook her head. “Thanks Devin, but the sunrise will look much nicer without me in it.” She tried to slink away but he hooked his arm around her waist and didn’t let go.
“Say, do you two lovebirds want a picture?” A senior citizen with a southern drawl beamed at them, her blue eye shadow and rouged cheeks matching the colors of the morning sky. Horrified, Catherine tried to escape Devin’s embrace.
“We’re not lovebirds,” she protested.
“We’re cousins, and we’d love a picture. Thank you, ma’am.” He handed his camera to the woman, who somehow managed to fit her false eyelashes over the viewfinder. He renewed his grasp on Catherine’s waist and drew her close. “Isn’t this great, cousin Cathy?” She blushed hotly.
And just as the woman pressed the shutter on the camera, Devin dipped his head and planted a kiss firmly on Catherine’s mouth. She was too shocked to register more than warmth and pressure, and he did not linger. But she did notice a look of consternation as he pulled away.
“Kissing cousins. Thank you very much.” As the senior sauntered away, he snapped his camera back in the case and ignored the murderous look in Catherine’s eyes. She turned on her heel and strode toward a trail the led down into the crater. “C’mon, Cathy!” he called, but she quickened her pace.
For about an hour they hiked in silence, their path sloping gently
toward the lush green
“Water, please.” She didn’t meet his gaze.
“What?” She looked at him with such a scowl, he took a step back. “What’d you do that for, Devin? Kissing cousins? What’s that?”
He tried for calm. “I was just having a little fun – ”
“Well I’m not here for fun! I’m not having fun.” Angrily she brushed her bangs off her forehead and wiped a finger under her nose. Devin realized that she had been crying. “I’m mad at you Devin. You tick me off.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“I know what you’re trying to do.”
“Now this is getting interesting. What am I trying to do?”
“Distract me. Make me forget Vincent.”
“Is it working?”
He raised his palms. “All right. Be mad.” He chuckled ruefully. “It won’t be the first time.”
She took a shaky breath and swatted away a fly. “It’s hard to be mad at you, actually.”
“You had no trouble before.”
“In New York. And at the airport.”
“Oh. Right.” She could feel the fight seeping out of her. “Devin, you’ve been…amazing. Buying me clothes, bringing me food. Playing tourist with me. Telling me your stories.” She shrugged, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “But I can never forget Vincent. He wasn’t a spring fling, and it’ll take more than some fun in the sun to get over him.”
They stared at each other. Long seconds ticked. “I know that, Chandler. You think fun is all I’m good for.” He leaned in until he was six inches away from her face. Beads of sweat pebbled on his upper lip and a shank of hair flopped across his forehead. His voice deepened with the intensity of his words. “But you’re mooning over him and he’s mooning over you, and someone needs to yank your head out of the sand!”
Catherine teetered on the edge of anger, searching for a way to diffuse the tension. She reached for his hand and gave it a tight squeeze. Surprised, he looked down at her slender fingers. “Good luck with that,” she said flatly.
“Sweetheart,” he replied, matching her tone, “I’ve got all the luck in the world.”
She dropped his hand as if it were molten rock and wrapped her arms around her middle. “I’m a lost cause, Devin. Why can’t you see that?”
He swung his backpack around, unzipped it and dug out a water bottle. Twisted off the cap and took a long swig. “You can’t figure it out?”
“No,” she said. Wearily, he pulled out the second water and held it out to her. After a moment she took it but made no move to drink. She was trembling, and he wondered how far to push this. If he went for broke – as he was tempted – it could turn out very, very badly. He narrowed his gaze and set his jaw.
“Well that’s a shame,” he said, his voice dripping sarcasm. Her head snapped up and she paled beneath his cold glare. “I misjudged you, Chandler.”
“How long are you going to cry over him? What’s it been, three years? You gonna waste another three moping? Or will you spend your whole life crying for someone you can’t have? No one is worth that kind of sacrifice.”
For a moment she was speechless. Then, a deep breath. “Of course he’s worth the sacrifice! You know your brother. He can’t just….”
“Oh, he could!” Devin turned his head a spat into the brush. “I bet he’s never even kissed you, has he?”
Right away, the scowl came back. “He has!”
“That’s right. I am. When did he kiss you Cathy?”
“After my father died. It was one of the worst times of my life, and I – ” she trailed off.
He took a step toward her, pushing hard. “That’s right. You. You kissed him. Not the other way around. Did he ever kiss you?”
“He did.” Her voice shook, but she met his gaze squarely. “Many times.”
“How did he kiss you.”
“He held me. He cherished me. He kissed…my hair.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” His chuckle held no mirth. “You’ve gotta find someone who’ll do more than that.” He gave her no time to process that statement before leaning in until they were eye to eye. She saw the amber flecks in his irises, his pupils skewering her to the spot.
“You know what I noticed when I kissed you Cathy?”
“I don’t really care.” But then she remembered the look on his face when he had pulled away. “What?” she said belligerently, glaring at him.
He bit off the words one by one, and the quiet truth of them sank deep in her belly. “You. Tasted. Hungry.”
Somewhere in the distant canopy of trees, a nene bird cried out. Catherine turned toward the sound, and caught the blue glint of faraway sea. Vincent’s eyes were just that shade, she thought. A sob rose in her throat and she swallowed hard. How do you surrender a dream without dying a little yourself? She looked back at Devin and lifted her chin. “It’s Vincent I love – who I will always love. He saved me, in so many ways.”
Devin shrugged, and delivered his last blow. “He’s a savior all right. He’ll save you from anything or anybody – including himself.” Tilting his head back, he drained his water bottle and tossed it beside the trail. Then he spun around and strode back up the crater.
∞ ∞ ∞
What makes a soulmate? she mused. Helpmate, companion, fellow warrior against the trials of this life…lover? Is it instant attraction or years of familiarity? How much can be hidden, and how much declared? She leaned against the chamber entrance and observed him bent over his books. Can one person know it and the other one, not?
Sighing, she straightened and cleared her throat. “Your tea, Jacob?”
“Ah, thank you Mary.” Father looked up and removed his spectacles. He moved aside some journals and she set down the tray, slowly pouring the steaming brew into two chipped china cups. She settled in the chair opposite and regarded him thoughtfully.
“Has Vincent shared Devin’s letter yet?” she asked.
The patriarch shook his head. “No. I don’t understand. Unless, of course, it concerns Catherine.” He picked up his own cup and took a careful sip. “And you know, another letter came just yesterday.”
“Oh! Addressed only to Vincent?”
“Yes. I’m ashamed to tell you that I wondered – for a moment – if I should discreetly open it…to see if it was a matter requiring my involvement.” Mary raised her eyebrows but said nothing. He took another hasty sip and returned the cup to its saucer. “But of course I didn’t.”
She nodded, understanding the concern of a parent. “I’m sure he’ll tell us in his own time.”
“Hmm. I suppose so.” He regarded Mary with a troubled eye. “But, this…depression… that he’s in. Is there any way it can end well?”
She passed him a plate of shortbread cookies, then chose one for herself. The buttery biscuit broke apart in her fingers. “We can only pray.”
∞ ∞ ∞
Maui No Ka ‘Oi – Maui is the Best
Having a wonderful time in Maui! Doing all the touristy stuff. And don’t worry: Cathy’s just fine. Terrific in fact. Took me a little while to calm her down, she was pretty upset, but now she’s plugged into the island vibe and having fun. And – wow – we’re getting along great! Just to prove it, here’s another picture. Sunrise on Maui, you can’t beat that.
∞ ∞ ∞
The ride back down the volcano was quiet. No more stories of cattle or beer. Catherine’s composure was so brittle she feared a mere bump in the road would shatter her. Devin was driving too fast but there was no way she was going to point that out to him. If I die on this road, she thought, it’ll save me a lot of grief. And therapy. She gazed bleakly at the tropical blur, wishing she were home.
Oh Vincent, I miss you. Why couldn’t it have been you kissing me? Why do I crave what I can’t have?
Devin pulled into the parking lot of the condo complex and switched off the ignition. Neither of them made to get out of the car. He leaned back in his seat and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and index finger as if staving off a migraine. When she ventured to speak, her voice shook. She didn’t care.
“Is he ever going to change?”
His gaze flickered to hers for a moment, then darted away.
∞ ∞ ∞
What is love?
How do I find it?
How does it behave?
Does it wait patiently for its proper time, or does it reach and strain and battle to be won? Should it speak, or should it listen? Who will tell me these things?
I heard these words once, from an old priest: Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Are you talking to me? I cried in my heart. Who is going to love me? Where is my mother? Gone. My father – he weeps for me.
These three remain. But the greatest…is love.
∞ ∞ ∞
Catherine burped. Out loud. Her eyes grew wide and she giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. The wine in her other hand slopped over the rim of the glass, forming a red blossom on the cream-colored carpet. “Oopsh! Shorry.”
“’S’all right. That’s why we pay a damage deposit.” Devin swallowed the last of his wine and put his glass on the coffee table. He couldn’t afford to have more than two drinks, not if he was going to make it through the night alive. Catherine had consumed way more than two, though exactly how many he couldn’t be sure. He just kept topping her up every time she set down her glass or turned away. They were on the living room floor of her condo, sprawled against the brightly-upholstered sofa. The dimmer switch was turned low, the sliding glass door open to the sunset and the surf, and the lovely Catherine Chandler was getting completely hammered. Everything was going according to plan.
“Ya know what?” she regarded him blearily. “I burp shometimesh. I do.”
“No, not you!” He grinned. She actually thought she was shocking him.
“Yesh,” she nodded, her gaze apologetic. “And shometimesh I even, you know…” She lowered her voice to a stage whisper, “f – a – r – t.”
“That’s some crazy shit, Cathy.”
“I know! Don’t tell Vinshent. Pleash.” She took another swig from her glass and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “Not that he would care anymore….”
He saw tears forming on her lashes and knew she’d had just about enough. He rescued the glass from her hand before any more wine could hit the carpet, and set it down beside his.
“He’s always going to care, sweetheart. You can bet your life on that.”
Tears were falling quickly now. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, her complexion pale. He hauled her close before she slumped over. She leaned her head on his shoulder, her hair tickling his cheek, her eyelids drooping. “You just about ready to go home, girl?”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“How about tomorrow? Better yet, how ‘bout the day after tomorrow? Wouldn’t want you coping with jetlag and a hangover on the same day, now would we?”
There was no answer except a quiet snore.
He held her for a long time, staring at the stretch of beach beyond the lawn and the shimmering ribbon of sea. He imagined he could hear the mournful strains of steel guitar in the background, a musical counterpoint to this doomed love story. He pressed his nose into her hair and breathed her in. Beyond the wine, she smelled like paradise. “Best get this over with,” he muttered. Stooping carefully so as not to wake her, he lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Laid her gently on the bed, then stripped the covers and eased her onto the crisp white sheets. Now for the hard part.
Devin retreated to the living room and got his backpack, pulling out a department store bag from the bottom. He’d never shopped for women’s clothing so much in his life. He grabbed the garment inside and slung it over his shoulder. Returning to the bedroom, he stopped by the bed and regarded her balefully. She was wearing a kelly green shirt and khaki shorts. Hadn’t he undressed dozens of women during the course of his travels? Well, not dozens; they had mostly accomplished that themselves. But it had never felt like torture before. This undressing was the whole show, not the first act, and he had never been sorrier for anything in his life.
He got to work. Pushing up the hem of her shirt, he cleared her bra then worked her arms out through the sleeves. Catherine groaned in her sleep, but nothing short of an atomic bomb was going to wake up this sleeping beauty. He lifted her head and tugged the shirt away. Shorts next. Button slipped, zipper down, hips raised –then all she wore was bra and panties.
Sweat beaded on his upper lip. Damn. He allowed himself one long look, just one. He reached for the silky material over his shoulder, and eased it over her head. Slipping her arms past the straps was easy as pie. Once more he snuck his arm under her hips – good God – and worked the midnight-blue fabric down her back and under her bottom. He let it pool around her thighs, then stood back with a harsh breath. Ah, her crystal – he tugged until it rested over her heart. Again he strode out of the room and came back with his camera. Stood a few feet away from the bed and gazed through the viewfinder. This was a dirty trick, he realized that. Vincent might never speak to him again. Catherine would never speak to him again, if she ever found out. That wasn’t the point.
He took a couple of snapshots from different angles, then put the camera down. Working swiftly, he took off the negligee and stuffed it in his back pocket. And before he could take another look at her body, he drew the covers up to her chin. He’d have a lot of explaining to do in the morning as it was.
He snagged his camera and turned off the lamp, closing the bedroom door silently behind him. This was one picture he was going to hand-deliver.
∞ ∞ ∞
Devin waved to the sentry and knew it wouldn’t be long before he met his brother: his identity and location rang out along the pipes. He knew Vincent better than anyone, except maybe Catherine. Vincent would want to conduct this meeting in private, away from the tunnel dwellers and away from Father, who would ply him with questions that were difficult to answer. He slowed his pace, debating whether to head for the Mirror Pool or the Whispering Bridge. He didn’t get a chance to decide. As he rounded a bend in the tunnel, Vincent was there, his black cape swirling about his ankles and his mane a fierce riot around his head.
“What is this?” Vincent spat, raising his right hand. Devin didn’t need to look to know that he was clutching the first two pictures of Catherine in Maui.
“Hello Vincent.” Devin knew exactly how much bravado he could get away with. “Just keeping in touch, man.”
Vincent looked at him incredulously. “Why would you take these pictures? Send me these pictures?” He stuffed them in an inside pocket of his cloak. “Are you trying to mock me?”
“Not at all.” Devin kept his tone conversational. “Someone needed to be with Catherine.”
“And you thought it should be you.”
“No. I thought it should be you, but since that wasn’t possible, I did what I had to do.”
Vincent’s breath came in rapid puffs. Devin wondered how far he had run to intercept him, or if his shortness of breath was due to anger.
“Why, Devin? Can’t you imagine how it makes me feel to see these pictures? Knowing it was you who took them?” His hands fisted at his sides. “Do you hate me?”
Vincent cast his eyes downward, bewildered. He did not speak for several moments.
“You were trying to make me jealous.” It was not a question.
Vincent spun away, slamming his hands against the tunnel wall. His claws scraped rock and Devin winced, prompting flashbacks to the times he had tortured Father by running his fingernails down the chalkboard in the old schoolroom. Then, he had been a cocky teen, so sure of himself. Now he was sure of nothing. He dove in anyway.
“Why are you giving her up? One day she’s going to wake up and say, You know what? This is b.s. I’m going to start living again, and then how will you feel?”
Vincent let out a ragged sigh. “That’s what needs to happen. My feelings are irrelevant.”
“And hers are too, I guess. That has a nice symmetry, doesn’t it? You suffer, and she suffers.”
Vincent gaped at him, baffled. “Devin…she’ll find someone else. Someone will come for her.”
“Someone did. She didn’t want him.”
Vincent sagged against the tunnel wall. Devin glanced briefly at his face, then looked away. He had his own pain to deal with.
When Devin was able to risk another look at his brother, he saw that he had taken out the pictures again and was examining them side by side. Devin jabbed the toe of his hiking boot into the dirt floor. He felt like a total ass.
“So she’s not…developing feelings…for you?” Vincent’s voice was so low and broken that Devin could barely hear.
“No.” Tension spread throughout his limbs, but he forced himself to hold his gaze steady. “The pictures are fake, Vincent. Completely fake.”
Vincent’s head snapped up, with such a gleam in his eye that Devin stepped back.
“You set her up,” he said quietly. Too quietly.
Suddenly all the frustration that had been brewing in Devin erupted in one long, angry stream. “You just don’t see it, do you? Someday someone’s going to come for her, alright. Someone who doesn’t know the score. She’ll be so worn down from loving you that she’ll give in. And that poor loser’ll be lying next to her, and kissing her, and watching her sleep every night, and wondering what the hell he’s gotta do to make her love him. He’ll give it everything he’s got, and it’ll bleed him dry. ‘Cause he’ll know, deep down, every damn time she opens her eyes, that he is not the one she wants to see.” Devin swiped the spittle off his mouth with the back of his hand. “It’s stupid, man. You’ve got it all, and you’re throwing her away.”
Vincent leaned against the tunnel wall and closed his eyes. Devin shook his head in disgust. “I’m outta here.” He turned around and started to walk away.
“Is she back too?”
Devin stopped mid-stride. He nodded tersely, remembering Catherine’s preoccupation on the flight home. On their last day in Hawaii, she had been embarrassed about getting drunk in front of him. She asked him if he had undressed her and carried her to bed. He lied smoothly, impressing even himself.
You had just enough wherewithal to do that yourself, sweetheart.
No, of course not. You were a corpse, for crying out loud.
Oh. I didn’t mean to imply –
I know you didn’t.
“But I’m not staying though. I need adventure. I’ll pick up Charles, head for the Maritimes maybe. By the way –” He reached into his pack and pulled out a couple of bags, dropping them on the floor. “Some souvenirs for Mouse…and something for you.”
He couldn’t look at Vincent again. His bravado had run out. “See you, brother,” he called over his shoulder. And he walked, and kept on walking.
∞ ∞ ∞
In the smaller bag – a photograph that shook in his hands. Three words on the back, in Devin’s broad scrawl: She’s all yours. And, at the bottom of the bag, a froth of dark blue fabric edged with fine lace. He looked at it for several minutes. Turned it over in his hands. Held it by the straps, so that it fell like an unfurled bolt to his feet. Pressed it to his face. Breathed deeply. And it absorbed his tears of want and need.
Love. Though it cost all you have—love.
∞ ∞ ∞
Which way shall I go? Toward, or away?
Away, then. There is no other choice.
Catherine had been home for three days. She had unpacked her suitcase, done laundry, sorted through the stack of mail and bills, and tossed out two dead houseplants. The rosebush on her balcony was still alive. Hmm. The city must have had rain.
She also slept. Slept and slept and dreamed, wild dreams of smothering heat and drowning and falling. And no one came for her, not her father, not Vincent, not even Devin. She woke up from those dreams damp with perspiration. It was like she was still in Maui.
She put the muumuu in the Goodwill box, but kept the bathing suit. She had taken no pictures, bought no souvenirs. Devin had gone silly with shopping, amassing an assortment of useless trinkets. When she’d quizzed him about the recipients of his largesse, he’d simply said, “Mouse.” And that explained that.
She almost called Joe several times. She had more than three weeks left of her leave and thought she might as well work. But every time she picked up the phone to call the office, something stopped her. She almost called Devin as well but he had given no number, no indication of where he was going to be.
She missed him. He was her last human connection to Vincent.
Perhaps Devin was right: she was mooning over Vincent and it was getting her nowhere. Every book and cassette on her shelf reminded her of him. Great Expectations, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Listlessly, she wandered into the bedroom and fingered the volume on her bedside table, Poems of Wordsworth. She had just opened the flyleaf of the book when the telephone jangled, making her start. She counted six rings, then,
“Hi, Cathy? It’s Elliot. I’m sorry…I know it’s after ten. I tried to reach you this afternoon at work, but your boss said you’re on a leave of absence. Listen…I’ve been thinking about you. A lot. Is there any way we could try again…?”
There was more, but she didn’t hear it. She stared at a shadow on her balcony, visible through the sheer curtains over her French doors. She’d know that shadow anywhere. The voice on the answering machine droned on and petered out, a beep sounded, and the shadow didn’t disappear. She took a breath and slowly moved toward the doors, opening them to the curling breeze.
She wanted to rush into his arms, inhale his fragrance of dark earth and candle smoke, feel the muscle beneath the layers. Instead she walked to the balcony wall and gazed over the city, seeing nothing. Waiting.
“You came back.” The soft rasp of his voice warmed her like a blanket. He came up close behind her but did not touch her. She breathed deeply, taking his scent into her body as if it were all she would ever have.
“Devin was with me,” she said. He was silent, so she started to babble. “God, he’s a handful. Helpful, sure, but more a handful. I don’t know what he was trying to accomplish. Keeping me out of trouble, maybe.”
“He must have…had his reasons.”
Catherine turned around. Vincent was looking at her with such intensity that she swallowed and groped the wall behind her for balance.
“I felt you,” he said hoarsely. “Five thousand miles away, I felt you.”
“What’s changed?” she whispered, gaining courage despite his unrelenting stare. “What’s changed, Vincent? You know what I want, and if you’re not willing to try, what’s the point in doing this again?” She shook her head, mystified. “What’s the point?”
Very slowly he reached out, his furred, clawed hand hovering above her hair. He still did not touch her, but followed the curve of her head, around her shoulder, down her arm. Then he brought his hand in front of her chest. Catherine tore her gaze away from his to watch what he was doing. After an interminable moment he lowered his hand to her skin.
The blood in her veins surged. And he feels this too, she thought. His hand rested in the V of her sweater, just above the swell of her breasts. Instantly she went from warm to hot. He had never touched her so intimately before. Her gaze jumped back up to his but he was looking at his hand on her body, his breathing labored. Before she could analyze her reaction she crossed her arms over his, not letting him go.
She waited for him to look at her again. Finally, he did.
“Do you choose me?” he asked, his voice rough but audible.
She couldn’t believe he had to ask the question, but she had some hope that this time he would listen to her answer. She licked her lips.
“Yes. I choose you. I choose this,” she squeezed his arm, his muscles jumping beneath her fingertips. “And I want…everything.”
Oh, the tick of seconds. How many did she count? She wanted to make the first move. She wanted to wrestle him down and strangle him. She wanted to writhe in his arms and press her mouth to his. Instead, she willed herself still and waited, again.
She felt his arm twitch, and let him go. Slowly, slowly he moved his hand upwards. The tips of his claws brushed her collarbone, skated across to the other side, then down again, following the neckline of her sweater. Up, across, down. Gooseflesh popped on her skin. He stared at her neck.
“You’re cold?” he asked.
Incapable of speech, she shook her head.
“You’re not cold.”
Under any other circumstances she would have laughed. Her Vincent, reduced to rhetorical questions. But she could not laugh. He bent his head to her chest, his cheek against her skin and his glorious mane tickling her lips and chin. His hands came up and gripped her shoulders; she gripped his in turn. A deep breath through flared nostrils, then his mouth was on her, a firm, wet pressure and she gasped. Her head fell back and he trailed his lip up her neck and along her jawline. When he reached her lips he pulled back, panting.
“Catherine…is there anything in this world more important than love?”
“No,” she whispered, her lips spread in a wide, amazed smile. Then his head lowered, and her smile disappeared.
∞ ∞ ∞
A while later, wresting an inch of space between them, these torn words –
She inhaled sharply. “Yes! Just give me –” but he was already gone. “Oh, God!” She hugged herself, giddy. Turning to the French doors, she glimpsed something out of the corner of her eye. A puddle of midnight blue on the ground, the city lights caught in the satin sheen. She bent down and picked it up by one narrow strap.
“Vincent? Where on earth….?”