Cynthia Hatch

from the zine “Tunnelcon III” (1994)



The light pulsed, green and eerie in the darkness, but he couldn't look away. Its meaning was slow to take hold in a brain that had been working for 16 hours straight. He had asked for this--and gotten it. The facts were falling obediently into place, adding up with inescapable precision. It was just that the equation was so dammed bizarre.


Joe Maxwell sat back, pressing a weary hand to his eyes, but when he looked again it was still there, spelled out in terse departmental rectitude on the monitor. His head was starting to ache. It might have been smarter to leave the lights on, but that could attract attention. What he was doing was nobody's business- not even Jenny's. . .maybe not even his.


He told himself that the nagging sense of guilt was stupid. It wasn't as if he had to do anything with the information. So Jenny had one piece of the puzzle and he had another. There were still plenty of pieces missing, and the last thing either of them wanted was to hurt Cathy. But there was no way to ignore the tantalizing clue handed him out of the blue, no way to resist following it to its unsettling conclusion.


Leaning forward again, he typed a command, and the tiny letters marching across the screen were replaced by the picture. Unbelievable. He thought of Catherine Chandler as he'd last seen her-sitting in his office, saying goodbye, her face aglow with some intense happiness the likes of which he'd never experienced himself. He tried to reconcile the memory with the image on the screen and could only shake his head. Whatever he'd imagined lay behind her oblique references to someone special in her life, he couldn't have come up with this.


But you did, he reminded himself sardonically. Now what in the hell are you going to do with it?




"Did you count the hours while I was gone?"


The question was uttered in smoky tones, half playful, half passionate, and, like smoke, it rose upward among the dust motes that twinkled in the column of light. Hands clasped around his neck, she leaned back in the circle of his arms and gazed, unblinking, into the warmth of pure blue.


This unprepossessing space with its rough walls and earthen floor had seen many an embrace, but the anxiety, so long an ingredient of those encounters, had been usurped by something more subtle and infinitely more powerful--the certainty that nothing could come between them, that the ease with which they held each other now was the deceptively casual manifestation of a far more invincible bond.


He skimmed a bristly kiss across her forehead and picked up the satchel, letting his hand slide down her arm to claim hers, and she smiled up at him as their fingers intertwined. "Catherine, you have every right to enjoy your time above--without worrying about me."


"Oh, I did enjoy it," she assured him as they stepped through the battered brick, "but there wasn't a single moment when a part of me wasn't thinking of you."


"That must have been distracting with so many decisions to be made."


"What decisions?" she laughed. "Jenny has everything planned down to the last detail. I think asking my advice was just a formality."


"Or a wish to share her happiness with you."


"I have more than my fair share of happiness already," she reminded him. "But you're right. She was just dying to show me everything--her gown, the china and silver she's picked out. We went for my fitting yesterday. The dress is long--an emerald green, very lovely. For someone who used to be ambivalent on the subject of marriage, she's going all out now that it's actually happening. But what about you, Vincent? Was it hard for you?"


"I was busy as well. Peter had arranged to send down some medical equipment, obsolete by the hospital's standards, but far more efficient than what Father was using. The party sent to meet him took a wrong turn. It took some time to find them."


"What a terrible way to be distracted. But you found them...everyone's safe?"


He nodded. "The children needed help with their lessons and I paid a visit to Elizabeth--to be certain she was well. Kanin discovered that ventilation was inadequate in the new chambers, so we started a second shaft. I've been occupied, Catherine."


"So it seems. You know, you really didn't have to come and meet me if you were busy."


"I did. . .have to."


"Really? Why was that?" Her voice sounded hopeful, perhaps a little eager.


"The ways change. There was no reason you should have to search them out."


"How much could they change in two days?"


She knew perfectly well why he'd been waiting at the entrance to her world. For the same reason she'd hurried down the ladder like a woman scrambling for a lifeboat. There was something amusing--even endearing--in his evasiveness, but she wondered how long he could keep it up. "So you weren't lonely."


"I was seldom alone," he said reasonably, pausing to let her pass through a narrow opening before him.


"Not even last night? That's very interesting. Who did you find to share your bed. . . maybe Lena ?"




That stopped him dead in his tracks. She met his shocked expression with a grin, pleased to see how thoroughly his maddening composure had been shaken. "I was joking." Her tone softened, and she marveled again that the love she felt for this man could be contained in one small body. The intensity of it seemed too great not to pour out, filling the tunnels and the whole world above. "I know what you're doing, Vincent. I know you're determined that I shouldn't feel guilty for spending time away from you, and I appreciate the thought, but I'm not sure I like this impression that you hardly noticed I was gone."


Blue eyes slid from hers and he shifted the tapestry bag to his other hand. "Thirty-five and a half."




"You were gone. . .exactly thirty-five and a half hours."


"Oh . . .that's so much better. I'd been longing for a more enthusiastic welcome."


A wave of seductive warmth swept through her and she was in his arms again. The satchel dropped forgotten to the rocky floor, as he pulled her tight against him, his mouth tender and hot against her neck.


"Catherine, you have no idea how enthusiastic a welcome I plan for you. Far too enthusiastic to take place anywhere but in our chamber."


Tremors coursed deliciously through her body, making her voice sound giddy as she breathed, "I'm not sure I ever appreciated the phrase before, but it really is true--there's no place like home!"




Joe loosened his tie another notch and read the file one more time. Would she blame him for this? Hard to imagine. She knew--maybe better than anybody--that a good investigator didn't ignore clues just dropped in his lap. Nobody took this job who wasn't curious by nature. And you didn't turn from the truth if it was staring back at you.


But this had nothing to do with the job, he admitted with another irritating prick of discomfort. It was personal, and it concerned someone who'd asked him to let it lie. Someone he cared for, trusted-someone who trusted him.


He stood up, running a hand over his dark curls, massaging the soreness in his neck. Belatedly, it occurred to him that he hadn't eaten since lunch, and midnight was closing in fast. That explained the pounding in his head, synchronized, it seemed, to the mocking blink of the computer.


Telling himself that it was because he cared for her that he'd had to check this out, he sat back down, elbows on his knees and ran over the events of the morning in his mind, looking for something that might quiet that persistent sense of disloyalty.




Through drowsy lids, Catherine watched the gilded thicket catch the firelight, glinting gold and copper. She blinked languorously, lashes brushing softly against the bright tendrils, and her own fingers came into view. If she concentrated, it was possible to feel each individual hair teasing against the sensitive tips of her fingers. His skin still held that faint musky scent, the warmth of their lovemaking. She signed, and her breath stirred visibly across the tawny plain of his chest. "You did miss me."


"Could you doubt it?" His voice was a whisper against the top of her head.


"Not really." Tilting her face back to look at him, she smiled, a slow, contented smile. "But I love the way you prove it to me."


"I am glad you enjoyed your time above."


"I know you are. It was fun, and it meant a lot to Jen, but I'm not anxious to repeat it."


"There's the wedding."


"True, but I won't have to stay overnight for that. I was fine while we were running around and talking--we must have talked half the night--but Jenny insisted I sleep in my old bed, and it was awful. I couldn't believe how badly I missed you. You must have felt that."


"I felt it."


"But you didn't respond."


"Did you really want me to?" His voice, tinged with irony, was mellow music in her ear, an intriguing rumble beneath her cheek

"Well, part of me did," she grinned, imaging Jenny's face if he had tapped politely on the terrace doors, "but I'm not surprised you succeeded in resisting. After all, you've had so much practice. I guess if I was never able to lure you into that room before, this was no time to start. I kept reminding myself of all the other nights I'd lain there--longing for you--and somehow survived. It seemed like I could survive one more, knowing we'd be together again tonight, but it wasn't easy."


His arms tightening around her told her it hadn't been easy for him either. "You're sleepy."


"A little, but I don't want to give in to it just yet. We have all those hours apart to make up for."


"Would you like me to read to you?"


"It's my second favorite thing you do, but only if you don't have to get out of bed." Just to emphasize the challenge, she snuggled closer, noting with delight the visceral response that surged through the powerful body beside her.


"The book hasn't been written that could make me do that." Still holding her close against him, he reached for the shelf beneath the window, coming up with a volume bound in soft black. "The Bible?" She regarded it doubtfully.


"Is there a favorite passage you'd like to hear?"


"Uh-uh, you choose." As she tucked one leg snugly between his, she thought it might not be such an unlikely choice after all. Heaven had never seemed more real, and no doubt he could make even the "begats" sound seduc­tive.


"The song of songs which is Solomon's."


Her eyes widened to meet a twinkle of blue, but he said with all solemnity, "These are beautiful verses, Catherine."


"Yes beautiful. . .and inspirational."


"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for thy love is better than wine," he began gravely.


Catherine smothered a smile against his chest confident that the thing he did second best would soon yield to the first.




"You're sure this isn't a bad time?" Jenny surveyed the staff room, fast filling up with workers. The difficulty of shifting gears after the weekend was plain on many a bleary-­eyed face.


"Don't let this bunch fool you. Most of them won't wake up for a couple of hours yet. Me-- I'm on my fourth cup of coffee. You want some?"


"No, thanks. I can't stay, but I thought you'd want to know-- I had a visitor this weekend."


"You're kidding!" Joe's eyes lit with understanding. There was no need to explain who she meant. "Come on inside." He waved her into his office, shutting the door, not bothering to take a seat as Jenny perched with nervous energy on the edge of her chair. "Is she all right? What did she say?"


"She's fine, Joe. I know she would have liked to talk to you, but to tell you the truth, I kept her so busy with the wedding plans, she never had a chance."


"Hey, I understand." If he felt slighted it didn't show. "So how did she seem?"


"She seemed great-- really happy."


"You're sure?"


"Oh, absolutely. I mean, you can fake being carefree. . .or excited, but there was a peacefulness to her, Joe, a sort of inner glow. Whatever she's been up to, it's good for her."


"Did she give you any idea what that is--where she's been doing it?"


"Not specifically--the 'where' anyway, but she did talk freely about some of her activities."




"Joe, I'm not sure what I should say. I realize you may know a lot more about what's going on than I do. If Cathy's said anything she's not supposed to . . . I don't want to get her in trouble."


"With me?" He was tempted to laugh. Knowing exactly zip about Catherine Chandler's whereabouts didn't put him in much of a position to judge, but he'd been warned that Jenny might assume Cathy's disappearance had something to do with her work. And he'd been asked not to disillusion her. He chose his next words with an attorney's care. "When the big boys set up a game plan, Jen, it's strictly on a need-to-know basis, and believe me, to them a deputy DA is just the guy selling peanuts. They're not about to let him in on the plays. This is just you and me-two people who care about her, okay?"


"Okay." Jenny nodded solemnly. "I just wanted to be sure. There were several different things that came up over the weekend. She mentioned working with children, teaching them to read. . .and a class she was giving adults on self defense--all that stuff that Isaac taught her. And once she said something about bookkeeping-- keeping track of some sort of donations."


"So she's still working."


Jenny shook her head. "I don't think so, Joe, not in the way you mean. All those things are too unrelated. You wouldn't find them in one job. It sounds more like volunteer work."


"Yeah, you could be right. So what do you make of it?"


"Well, I think it's a good sign. It must mean that she's financially secure. And I know it's not her own money--all that's tied up in the Chandler Foundation--so whoever this man is, he must be well off enough that she can devote her time to charity work and not have to worry about an income."


Joe nodded thoughtfully. "She say anything about him?"


'Very little. Whenever the subject came up she steered the conversation somewhere else, but the look on her face...well, you'd have to be blind to miss it. She's deeply in love." Jenny peered up at him uncertainly. "Did you know they're married?"


"I figured as much," he said, though he hadn't been entirely sure.


"She was wearing a wedding ring--very unusual, old-fashioned, really elegant."


"So she's married to an old-fashioned guy with plenty of bucks who might be anywhere in the world. Doesn't narrow it down much, does it?" he smiled.


"There was something more," Jenny ventured tentatively. "His name."


"His name?" Joe didn't try to hide his surprise. "She just came right out and told you his name?"


"Not exactly. She'd brought her things in a tapestry bag and that had an embroidered monogram--'C.W.' When I commented on how pretty the satchel was, she said it had been a wedding gift, and I asked if those were her new initials. She said they were, so I said--not really expecting her to answer--what does the 'W' stand for? She hesitated a moment and then said 'Wells'."


"You say she hesitated. Did you get the feeling she was just making it up to satisfy you?"


"No," Jenny's dark curls shook emphatically.


"It wasn't that kind of hesitation. It was more like she was savoring the word, as if she really enjoyed saying it, but she never used his first name at all. Still, it's something anyway."

"Oh, its something all right," Joe agreed, though privately he thought the mystery man might use a lot of names--none necessarily his own. "Did she say anything about the wedding itself--where it took place. . . or when?"


"No, except to say it was lovely, but how lovely could it have been, Joe--with no friends there to wish her well? I know marriage means a lot to Cathy; her own parents were so happy together. We used to fantasize about the perfect ceremony--flowers, music--something really personal. It just kills me to think she had to settle for the bare legalities, a registrar's office, everything cut and dried and impersona1."


"Hey, it was her call and from what you say, she's not complaining." Jenny still looked so genuinely distressed that he hastened to add, "So what about you? Is your own ceremony gonna be a little more ambitious?"


"Deplorably," she admitted with a grin. "We've invited everyone on the Eastern seaboard. You are going to come, Joe? Cathy will be there. I know she'd never let me down, and if you let yourself get side-tracked by work--a mass murderer or police corruption or something--neither of us will forgive you."


"Scout's honor--I'll keep my priorities straight--wouldn't miss it for the world."


"Good. Well, I should get to my office." Jenny stood, smiling. "I just feel so much better having seen her. It isn't like that many of the questions have been answered, but at least we can feel confident that there's no real need to ask them. She's happy, Joe. I'm convinced of that, and I knew she'd want me to put your mind at ease."


"Yeah, thanks, Jen. I appreciate your coming by." As she turned to go, he couldn't resist adding, "You know those dreams you have sometimes--like when Cathy was kidnapped? Haven't had any lately, have you? Anything that might show you who this guy is--or where he is?"


Jenny paused with her hand on the doorknob "No," she said, hesitantly. "I have dreamed about her, but I can't see the people with her. . . or the place. I just feel this aura of warmth and love around her. It's probably only wishful thinking."


Joe nodded, frowning slightly. He felt a little dopey pursuing this line of questioning, but there was no denying that Jenny had foreseen Cathy's brush with death at Stoney Point. "You don't think it really means anything?"


"It's hard for me to tell sometimes, Joe. I hope it's true--the feeling I get from it, which is very positive, but there's the baby. . "


"The baby? What baby?"


"Well…" Now she looked unmistakably embarrassed. "It's just that I see Cathy cuddling this baby and it's. . .well, it couldn't be real, that's all."


"Why not. . .it's got two heads or what?"


"No, actually it's an adorable baby. Blond, blue-eyed, but it's. . .there's something about it that's not quite. . .human."


"Oh." So much for straying into the realm of mumbo-jumbo. If Moreno was eavesdropping he'd probably already be making out a pink slip. "Guess they can't all be winners, huh, Jen?"


"No. . .thank goodness."


She left, but Joe remained in the doorway, staring at the desk that had been Cathy's.


Jenny was right--he had wanted to hear that she was well and happy, but the part about questions not needing to be asked--that he couldn't agree with. In his experience questions existed for no other reason than to be answered.




She hadn't cut her hair since coming to the tunnels.


He could see it still as it had floated down to enclose him in the moment that lit her face with an ecstasy so bright it burned even through the transcendence of his own. Now she lay, exhausted, the long tresses spread like a silken web across his chest.


Last night the lack of her delicate, warm presence in his arms had banished sleep, and now that same presence was tempting him to fight off oblivion a little while longer. How could he waste a moment of her satiny skin beneath his hand or let go of this soul-deep peacefulness that encompassed them both? To feel her safe again in his embrace. . .A sudden memory almost made him laugh, and she stirred, turning a sleepy smile toward him.


"What?" Her eyes were barely open, the long lashes almost meeting as she peered up at him, her chin on his chest. "Are you thinking about myrrh and roes and pomegranates again?"



"Catherine, your pomegranates are never far from my mind, but I was remembering something Mouse said to me before our wedding."


"Mm. . .he took his duties as best man so seriously. With Cullen coaching him, I'm almost afraid to ask what he said."


"He said that we should remember never to take each other for granted."


Lips still ripe with his kisses tugged into an enchanting smile. "Somehow I don't think there's much danger of that, do you?"


"No. . .none." He returned her smile, steeling himself against the impulse to taste her perfect mouth just once more tonight. The temptation seemed always to be welling in him, encouraged by the fact that she never resisted, that her desire seemed always to be smoldering, as quick to ignite as his own, but she needed her sleep--they both did. "Catherine, we will be apart for yet another night or two."


"We will.. .when?"


"Tomorrow," he said gently, caressing her hair. "There's a network of small passage-ways that have never been charted. If one of them could be widened, it would allow practical access to the frozen chambers--for storage. Zach has been asked to explore them."


"Why Zach?" she asked, trying not to sound dismayed that another separation loomed so close to the last.


"Because he's still small enough to make his way through them easily--and old enough to do it responsibly."


There was no need to ask why Vincent had been chosen to go along. In a situation that could prove hazardous, there was simply no one else as capable of keeping the boy safe. They had been spoiled, she thought. Sometimes their chosen tasks would keep them apart all day. . .but the nights. Always there had been the nights and the incredible joy of sharing the day's experiences--and each other.


She had been determined, since her move to the tunnels, not to interfere with the vital role he played, and she was no more anxious for him to feel uncomfortable about leaving her than he had been to begrudge her the visit above. "It's okay," she said brightly, "I was going to take some of the children to a performance in the park tomorrow night anyway. After that, I'll just plan an enthusiastic welcome for your return."


"Good." He sighed with sheer bliss as, naked she slid into the crook of his arm, a slender arm and leg still possessively spanning his body. It was the way she liked to fall asleep, and she did so after mumbling a few last drowsy words.


Something, he gathered, about pomegranates for breakfast.




Joe sat slumped in his chair. The face on the printout stared back at him. Even the poor quality of the outdated printer couldn't account for it. No way was this going to look like someone you could picture with Cathy Chandler.


Gunther. That's who she'd been dating when she first came, and then Burch. No loss there but both of them would have made any list of New York's most eligible young bachelors. And then after Burch.. . who? Silence. He couldn't remember her mentioning anyone she'd dated after that, and now he knew why.


He looked at the date again. That's when he'd unaccountably appeared and then--just like that--he was gone again. God only knew where. God and Cathy Chandler. She'd run to him. It was right there in the report, but it sure hadn't been with the knowledge of this office. Old-fashioned? Try fugitive from a time warp.


What was it, he asked himself, that could have sparked their relationship? Pity? Idealism? The lure of the forbidden? Some women were like that. Drawn by the mysterious, the hint of danger. Hadn't he accused her of recklessness more than once? He smiled ruefully at his own attempt to figure it out. What did he know about women anyway? He who had walked into Erica Salvin's trap with his eyes wide open. And Cathy had been more secretive than most. For all he knew, she simply had a thing for facial hair.


With a grimace, he reached for the bag that held the only nourishment he'd had since lunch. The contents had gotten a little stale. What he wouldn't give for a steaming hot plate of ravioli, but his stomach would just have to wait. There was a decision to be made, and putting it off wasn't going to help his digestion one bit.


The guy was an outcast. It made sense that he'd lay low, but that was a long time ago. Attitudes were different nowadays. And it was clear he'd gotten a bad rap on the most recent charge. They hadn't even ID'd him until after he'd vanished a second time.


So where was he now? What was he up to? Besides making one Cathy Chandler glow with happiness, he reminded himself with an incredulous shake of his aching head. Probably chained to a tree in a Brazilian rain forest or swooping down on the tuna nets in some souped-up trawler, rescuing the dolphins. Could be worse. As far as the records showed, his only mistake had been walking into a crime scene.


You're looking for something, he told himself. You're looking for something to nail on him, so you can justify probing into Cathy's private life.


Admitting it didn't make him feel any less disloyal, and it didn't mean there wasn't something shady going on. After all, there'd never been any investigation into his activities. Where did he get the bucks to support Cathy in the style she was used to? Not from being an idealist; this office was ample proof of that. A few phone calls, a well placed fax, and he could get the ball rolling, find out one way or the other whether there was a reason for concern.


Still, it was a long time before he rose determinedly from his chair, turned off the computer and pushed the fateful button.




A small, informal bon voyage party had gathered outside Father's chamber as he gave last minute instructions to the two explorers. A few of the children, sensing adventure in the air, had come to see them off. Jamie was there--probably for the same reason. And Mary. The woman's loving concern for everyone in the tunnel world wouldn't allow her to pass up a chance to wring her hands over even so routine a parting. As for Catherine, she was inwardly confronting her own character flaws.


Unreasonable, she thought. I'm unreasonable to mind being separated for a day or two. And the jealousy was downright embarrassing--jealousy of poor Zach, just because he was lucky enough to share this adventure with Vincent. The sight of the leather bag packed with supplies intensified her ignoble feelings. It was the same bag he had taken on the wedding trip when they had ventured deep into the earth. Oh, the long enchanted days. . .and the magical nights lost in their own private world.


She was glad when he knelt to talk to Willy, missing the look of longing that spilled over him. The beauty of his hair, pouring careless and golden across the wide shoulders, the incredible gentleness emanating from his powerful figure as he accepted the paper from the little boy.


"It's a picture of me," Willy explained. "So you don't forget while you're gone."


"I could never forget you," that gentlest of all voices assured him. "And I'll only be gone a very short time, but I'll be glad to have it with me. Thank you, Willy."


"You understand, Zach," Father was saying, "that you are to take no unnecessary chances. This mission is not so vital that you should risk injury to carry it out. If a passage becomes too narrow for you to continue comfortably, withdraw and try an alternative. Is that clear?"


"Sure, Father."


"And never--whatever you do--proceed so far that you and Vincent cannot speak to each other."


"I know all that," Zach paused, seized by a paroxysm of coughing. "I'm not a little kid, Father. "


"No. . .no, you're not. I expect you to use mature judgment."


"I will." Another series of dry, hacking sounds ensued, and he put down his canvas duffel.


"Under no circumstances," Father continued, "do I want to get word that you are wedged in some impassable opening."


"Uh-huh," the boy agreed, prevented from making a more articulate response by yet another cough.


"That's what happened to Winnie," Nathan offered solemnly.


"Winnie. . .Winnie Mandela?" Father abandoned his lecture long enough to throw the child a distracted frown.


"No--Pooh," Nathan clarified.


"Pooh!" Willy chortled with a four-year-old's instinctive appreciation for the word.


"He means Winnie-the-Pooh," Jamie explained.


"What? Oh, yes. . ." Father turned back to Zach, who was still coughing sporadically. "At any rate, you must be sure to . . .Zach, what is the matter with you?"


"Me? I don't know. I'm a little bit sick, I guess."


"Well, why didn't you say something earlier? Is your throat sore? What are your other symptoms?"


Zach shrugged noncommittally. "It's hard to say."


"You can't send the boy away if he's coming down with something," Mary said firmly.


"No, of course not. We'll simply have to postpone this expedition."


Vincent stood. "Surely that won't be necessary, Father. Everything is packed. I've arranged this time to be away."


"Yes, well I suppose if we can find someone else.. .perhaps you, Kipper--"


"I don't think so, Father. Cramped places like that--well, they make me feel kinda creepy."


"That's the truth, Father." Zach, whose affliction seemed to be in remission, hurried to agree. "Kipper's always looking for some excuse to go up top and get out in the open."


"Yes, you're quite right. I had noticed that. Someone else, perhaps. . ."


"I'll go." Eric peered up at the others, his small chest thrust out in a semblance of manly fortitude.


"You just don't want to cook," Kipper charged. "Catherine promised to show us how to make stone soup tomorrow, but he doesn't want to, cause she said it's what Girl Scouts do."


"That's not why. I just don't wanna eat rocks!"


"Oh, that reminds me," Mary interjected. "William asked me to tell you, Catherine. The supplies he was expecting didn't arrive. I'm afraid the soup will have to wait for another day."


"Well, in any case, I'm afraid you're a little too young, Eric. Jamie," Father turned to her with an air of inspiration, "you're slender enough for the task. Surely, it would appeal to your sense of adventure."


"I'd like to do it, Father--some other time, but I'm supposed to take the kids to a play in the park tomorrow night. It wouldn't be fair to disappoint them." Catherine looked at the girl, surprised. She could have sworn that assignment had fallen to her, but Jamie wasn't meeting her eyes. Nor, come to think of it, was anyone else. She felt suddenly like a spectator at some piece of improvisational theater. "What about Catherine?" Jamie continued. "She's no bigger than me."


"When one first comes below, Jamie," Father said patiently, "there is a natural feeling of claustrophobia. In time--for most of us--that fades and disappears, but Catherine has scarcely had two months to adjust. We needn't slow the process by sending her into even closer quarters." He turned to cast a critical eye at Zach who rewarded him with a dutiful cough.


It had taken Catherine a while to get the drift of this performance, but she knew a cue when she heard one. "That hasn't really been a problem for me, Father. Honestly, I'd be glad to do it." A look to Vincent for confirmation that she'd gotten her lines right garnered no response. He was leaning casually against the tunnel wall, arms folded, seemingly content to let the play run its course.


"Are you certain?" Father frowned, staring at the extraordinary young woman he regarded as a daughter. Why should it surprise him to find her impervious to the weaknesses of the average neophyte? He really must curb this tendency toward overprotection of those dearest to him. "If you'd care to do it, then. . . yes, of course, Catherine. That would be very good of you. Please--keep in mind what I've said to Zach and don't lose touch with Vin. . .well, I suppose I hardly need worry about that." He sighed, a bit surprised that this latest problem had found such a swift solution and then reached out an affectionate arm to both of them. "Safe journey, you two," he added with a paternal kiss for each. "Come along, Zach. I want to take a look at that throat."


"Bye." Jamie grinned, as she turned to follow them. "Have fun."


"Remember, Vincent, Catherine hasn't done anything like this before," Mary admonished in parting. "Give her time to get used to it. If it takes you a little longer than expected, don't worry. We'll all manage till you get back."


She moved away, herding the children before her, and Catherine blinked with the sudden turn of events, pleased to find her husband once again regarding her intently. "Is this really something you want to do?" he asked quietly.


"What do you think?" She knew he could miss neither the excitement shining in her eyes nor the sheer delight that must even now be making its way from her heart to his. Two days alone together, sharing the mysteries of hidden places, perhaps doing something that would ultimately make life easier for the people in her adopted world. Two days of depending on nothing but each other--uninterrupted. "I'll need to go back to our chamber and pack some things."


Vincent moved away from the wall, shouldering the heavy bag. "I think you'll find that everything you need is here."


A little gasp of laughter escaped her. "Amazing, isn't it, how conveniently everything worked out?"




"And we won't have to be separated so soon, after all."


"Fate works in mysterious ways, Catherine."


Fate--or a conspiracy of loving friends, she thought gratefully. "I love a good mystery. I just hope Father doesn't poke and probe poor Zach the whole time we're gone."


"His reflexes are those of a physician, but he's hardly gullible. By the time they've reached the hospital chamber, I suspect Father will have noticed the 'convenience'."


Thoughts of the adventure ahead--just the two of them far from anyone else--set her heart dancing. 'Will it really take two whole days?"


"Unless we dawdle."


His tone was serious, but she was listening on a deeper level--to the twinkle in his eyes. Dimpling, she slipped her hand into his. "Then let's get started--we have some serious dawdling to do."




Joe gazed out the office window. In the morning sunlight, it was easier to believe he'd made the right decision.


Wells was by all accounts brilliant and compassionate. He'd risked everything to protect people he didn't even know. Not the kind of man to be into something dishonest. The thought helped quiet his lingering dread that passion might have blunted Cathy's usual good sense. Passion? Jeez, the guy was old enough to be her father.


Well, there was Aunt Flo. Barely out of high school when she eloped with a 41-year-old man. What a ruckus that had raised! The whole family crying and carrying on about how she'd ruined her life. He'd only been in sixth grade at the time but could still remem­ber the protest reaching operatic proportions. Not that any of them would admit to it now. Aunt Flo and Uncle Sal still going strong after 20 years, still happy as clams.


"Excuse me, Joe?" He swiveled around to find Rita in the doorway. "Were you by any chance using the computers last night?"


"Yeah, I was." He folded his hands on his desk, hoping to look both authoritative and innocent. 'Why? Did I forget to turn something off?"


"No. Glenn found this next to the printer. I told him it couldn't possibly belong to anyone but you." Rita advanced into the room, holding the plastic bag with an expression of extreme distaste. "It's those chocolate-cheese things. . .ugh."


"Don't knock it unless you've tried it," he smiled.


"That'll be the day. I guess there's no accounting for taste."


Thank God he hadn't forgotten to turn off the paper shredder. That could have raised some eyebrows among this chronically suspicious crew. "Escobar," he said with conviction, "I couldn't agree with you more."




Posted for Winterfest Online, January 2005