CHOICES – A WINTERFEST STORY

by Linda S Barth

Please note: This story takes place in First Season between “Shades of Grey” and “China Moon.” However, its plot alters the scene in “Dead of Winter” when Vincent invites Catherine to attend Winterfest for the first time.

“Choices” was inspired by an intriguing question Vicky C asked on BBTV about Catherine and the Winterfest that must have occurred during First Season.

Vicky, this one is for you.

***

We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.
~ Khalil Gibran

Father issued a third call to order. When it, too, was ignored, he waved an arm in the air, muttered a few very un-tunnel like oaths, then reached for an old wooden gavel. Glaring at his inattentive audience, he rapped repeatedly on the surface of the mahogany table that stretched along a wall in his study. The staccato beat cut through intermingling strands of excited conversation and finally managed to produce the desired result. There was silence among the members of the Winterfest Planning Committee, and every gaze turned toward the tunnel patriarch.

Father gritted his teeth while summoning a tight smile. “Thank you for your attention at last,” he began, raising his eyebrows to further emphasize his point. “Now, I fully realize the topic of Winterfest is one that engenders much excitement. I’m eagerly looking forward to the festivities myself.” As a murmur of voices immediately resumed and began gathering strength, he quickly raised his hand again. This time he achieved the desired result.

“But this special event is only two weeks away, and we must review our plans to make certain all preparations are in place.” He examined the list on his clipboard. “Shall we begin with you, William? Do you have everything you need for the refreshments?”

“Just about.” He opened a battered loose-leaf notebook and indicated a handwritten spreadsheet. “Some of the kids helped me do an inventory of the supplies we have on hand, plus everything we’ve gotten over the past couple of weeks. We’re in good shape except for a few items.” He ran a finger along the printed columns. “We could use some more coffee, and we’re short on a few spices – ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. We really need more of them for the cookies and mulled wine.”

He chuckled as he looked around the table at his friends. “I can think of a few people who would have my head if we ran short on those! And you know what would be a real treat – some chocolate fudge. My grandma used to make it with dark chocolate, walnuts, and cherries. I bet I could duplicate her recipe. And we have that sack of walnuts I haven’t used yet.”

“That sounds amazing! Maybe Mr. Long or Mrs. Martinelli could help out,” Olivia suggested. “Do you think someone should contact them?”

William frowned. “I don’t know — maybe as a last resort. They’ve already sent down a lot – raisins, butter, walnuts, flour, rice, oranges, and lemons. Some other things, too. I don’t think we should ask them for anything else. Really good chocolate is pretty expensive, and with cherries being out of season, they’d cost a fortune.”

“William’s right,” Mary agreed. “That would be too much to ask. And just because some of our Helpers own restaurants and grocery stores, we can’t take advantage of their generosity. When they help us, they lose money they might have earned from their paying customers.”

“Winterfest is supposed to be a gift from us to them,” Pascal added. “We can’t make it a hardship for our friends.”

“When I visited Sophie and Mischa last week, they said they would like to donate some supplies for the celebration,” Vincent told the group. “We can’t ask them for much, but maybe the coffee would be manageable. I can get word to them about it.”

“Sounds good – thanks, Vincent!” William entered the information in his notebook. “That’ll be one less thing to worry about.”

“I just thought of something.” Kanin gestured toward the ledger in front of Father. “Do we have any funds left we can use? I’ve got that construction job up top next week, the one I’m doing in trade for the tools Jack O’Neill gave us. I can check in a few stores, maybe find the spices or the chocolate and cherries on sale somewhere.”

Father turned to a page marked with a paperclip. “Our budget is quite strained as it is, but that’s a reasonable suggestion, Kanin. Please look into it, and once you have the necessary information, we will make a final decision.” He passed a folder to Mary, the Committee’s Recording Secretary. “Please make note of this.”

William shook his head. “That’s not going to work. Chocolate’s not that hard to come by, as long as we can pay for it. But cherries in winter would have to come from one of those fancy specialty shops That’s way too rich for our blood.”

Vincent hesitated, knowing there was a good chance the suggestion he was about to make might not be well received by his parent. “I can ask Catherine to see about providing the chocolate and cherries for us, maybe the spices, too. I know she’d be happy to do it.”

Despite immediate agreement from the others, Father shook his head. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary. We’ve already agreed to follow Kanin’s plan.” He shuffled through the papers in a bulging folder and avoided his son’s eyes.

Kanin shrugged and cast a look in Vincent’s direction, an apology for the unintended results of his suggestion. “I’ll do my best, but I think what Vincent said makes sense. Catherine would have a much better chance of finding ingredients like that than I would.”

Ignoring the stonecutter’s proposal, Father continued, “Jamie, have you and Mouse finalized all the arrangements for the entertainment?”

Before she could reply, Mouse’s excited voice captured everyone’s attention. “Vincent’s right! Kanin, too! Catherine’s good at finding things! Better than good! Remember when I needed those drill bits and –”

The message on Father’s face was clear even to Mouse, who immediately clamped his lips shut.

“Jamie, will you please give us your report — now?”

With obvious effort, Jamie relaxed the tight expression on her face. “Yes, Father. Everything’s all set. The musicians are prepared, and Sebastien has volunteered to do his magic tricks – some new ones and some old favorites. We have a list of board games we’ll bring to the Great Hall a few days ahead of the party.”

“And have you given a copy of the list to Mary?”

Mary waved a sheet of paper in his direction. “Yes, Father, she has, although I’m sure it wasn’t necessary. Mouse and Jamie can handle this on their own, just as they have several times in the past.”

“I’m sure that’s true.” Father looked at her over the rim of his glasses. “But I do feel it’s important to keep accurate and complete records. You’ll make sure the list is put into the proper folder?”

Mary nodded rather curtly, then smiled at the woman seated opposite her. “Jamie also told me Elizabeth has come up with a wonderful idea for the younger children.”

Father turned toward the elderly artist. “What do you have in mind, Elizabeth?”

“I thought we might set up a crafts table for the little ones during the first hour or two of the party. It will be stocked with materials for several activities they would enjoy doing. They’d have fun and it would also keep them occupied.”

“Excellent idea!” Father smiled approvingly. “Even though our youngest leave the celebration far earlier than the rest of us, it’s still well past their bedtime, and they can get a bit rowdy. This should help immensely.”

“Samantha, Geoffrey, and Ellie have volunteered to help,” Elizabeth added. “And I have all the supplies we need, so that’s not a problem.”

“Mary, please make note of that,” Father directed as he turned his attention to Winslow and Cullen.

“I already have,” Mary muttered under her breath, then offered a serene smile in counterpoint to the quick questioning glance Father cast her way.

Smothering a smirk, Winslow informed the group that all security measures were in place for the sentries’ duty roster and for the tunnel dwellers who would lead the invited Helpers to and from designated entrances and the Great Hall. This was quickly followed by Cullen’s report that a work crew had been set up to make sure all tables and chairs would be ready for the festivities, and that several volunteers had been assigned clean-up duty afterwards.

Father made several more notations on the papers attached to his clipboard. “Mary assured me earlier that all preparations for the table linens, cutlery, and dinnerware are in place, so I believe that leaves us with you, Rebecca.”

“Everything is ready,” the candlemaker announced with a smile. “Taya has been a wonderful assistant. And Zach has shown a lot of interest in organizing the candle distribution. The children will make the deliveries on Saturday morning right after breakfast.”

Father began to instruct Mary to record this information, then evidently thought better of it. “Splendid! Your work is invaluable to this essential part of Winterfest, Rebecca, and I’m glad the assistance you were given has proven worthwhile.” He paused and looked toward Pascal. “Zach is still maintaining his apprenticeship with you, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” Pascal answered quickly. “He’s making excellent progress, and his interest in helping Rebecca hasn’t interfered with his work in the Pipe Chamber at all.” He blushed slightly as Rebecca threw him a quick, grateful smile.

“That young man is showing fine leadership potential. I must have a word with him and let him know his exemplary behavior has been noticed and appreciated.” Father studied his list once more and then looked pointedly at the candlemaker. “As for the deliveries, Rebecca, you have followed the final guest list I gave to you this afternoon, haven’t you?”

Rebecca’s smile faded. “Yes, Father. Except for Mischa and Sophie, it’s exactly the same as last year’s list, so there were no other changes to be made. I had thought there would be at least one more addition…but I guess I was wrong.”

For a while, Vincent had let his mind wander, lost in lovely thoughts of Catherine. As soon as the meeting ended, he would make his way to her balcony, and he contemplated the words he’d carefully chosen to tell her of the special celebration his world would soon enjoy. He felt a flurry of anticipation as he pictured the surprise and happiness he would see on her beautiful face when he offered his invitation, one he was certain she would accept.

But something in the brief exchange between Father and Rebecca invaded his reverie, and he felt its radiance dim, as an unexpected snowfall shrouds the sun. His pulse quickened as he looked toward Father. He must have forgotten about the request I made. I’m sure once he realizes it, he’ll correct his mistake.

When seconds slid by in ominous silence, Vincent knew he must speak. “Father, about the guest list, I think you’ve forgotten that I asked you to add Catherine’s name to it. This will be her first Winterfest.”

He heard quick comments of approval from the others as he waited for Father’s response, but his words were disregarded by the older man as if they had never been uttered.

“If no one has anything further to add,” Father paused for a few seconds and glanced quickly around the table, “our meeting is adjourned.” The sharp rap of the gavel echoed in the chamber. It was impossible for him to be unaware of the confused faces looking anxiously from father to son, yet he ignored them and pretended to study his notes.

Chairs slid across the worn carpets covering the stone floor. The committee members stood, hovering between discomfort and disbelief. The stillness seemed to draw all air and energy from the room, and they turned to one another, uncertain if silence or speech would be the better choice.

The seconds ticked by like hours. Then, William shrugged and shook his head. “We’ve got cookies left over from tonight’s supper. If anybody wants some, follow me to the kitchen.” Without waiting for a response, he stomped toward the adjacent passageway.

“Sounds tempting, but Brooke has been babysitting, and I promised her we’d be back right after the meeting.” Olivia walked quickly to the entryway and waited for her husband to join her.

“I think I’ll stay here for a while, but I’ll bring you a couple of cookies – if there’s any left,” Kanin called. His smile faded as his wife glared at him before hurrying off in the direction of their chambers.

Winslow shook his head, then elbowed Kanin in the ribs. “You don’t get it, do you?”

“Hey!” Kanin frowned at his friend, clearly affronted that his attempt to soothe the tension with humor had not been well-received. “Oh, I get it all right,” he replied. He took one last look at the anxious group and then quickly followed the path his wife had taken.

Pascal cast a worried look in Vincent’s direction before nearly bolting from the study, mumbling something about needing to get back to the Pipe Chamber. Rebecca watched him go, then sighed harshly. “I’ll go on ahead and get the kettle started for tea.”

All but one of the remaining Winterfest Committee members followed her, choosing, without further words, to offer privacy to what was certain to be a difficult confrontation between father and son.

Vincent rose to his feet, searching for words that would not immediately escalate the growing uneasiness.

“Vincent, would you mind staying behind for a moment? There’s something I wish to discuss with you.”

The solemnity of his father’s voice sent a deepening wave of apprehension through him. “Of course, Father.” He returned to the chair opposite his parent, as both men looked toward Mary where she hovered at the chamber entrance.

“Would you like me to stay behind as well? Is there something I can help either of you with?”

“We will be along shortly, Mary.” The dismissiveness in the older man’s tone was unmistakable.

Mary’s shadowed smile was forced and could not disguise the concern in her eyes as she looked from one man to the other. “Let me know if you change your mind.” Her footsteps faded to silence.

Vincent knew her well-intentioned kindness could not change what was to come, yet he was grateful to her for trying. He waited for Father to speak, but the older man deliberately avoided his gaze, and suffocating silence again filled the space between them. Knowing there was no point in pretense, Vincent leaned forward and rested his arms on the table, his hands upturned as if in supplication.

“Why, Father? Why have you refused my request that Catherine join us for Winterfest?”

Father’s head snapped up and he focused on his son’s face, clearly taken aback by the stark questions uttered in poignant uncertainty. For a moment he hesitated, then summoned a tight, rueful smile. “Before I say anything else, Vincent, I must apologize for not discussing this matter with you in privacy before tonight’s meeting. That was wrong of me, and I am sorry for it.”

“Yes, you should have told me earlier, but that still doesn’t answer my question. I don’t understand. Why are you unwilling to invite Catherine to Winterfest?”

Father sighed deeply and rubbed a hand across his face. “I have given this a great deal of thought, and the decision was not an easy one. Winterfest is, and always has been, a celebration shared by our community and our Helpers. There has never been any deviation from that tradition.”

Vincent felt a disquieting flare of something uncontrollable burn within him, but he kept his voice even. “I know that. But it still does not explain your reason for excluding Catherine.”

Father’s eyes narrowed slightly as he looked across the table. “But it does explain my decision in the simplest and most direct way. Catherine is not a Helper.”

“Not a Helper!” Vincent gripped the arms of his chair as if to hold himself in place as he stared at the implacable expression on his father’s face. “How can you say she is not a Helper? Have you already forgotten that not even two months ago, Catherine saved your life – and mine!” He waited for a response that did not come, then took a deep harsh breath. “Or that she risked her life to rescue me from my captors Above? And compromised her position in the District Attorney’s Office to free you from prison?”

He stared with appalled disbelief at the increasingly cold look on his father’s face, as he searched his heart for words that might transform that austere mask. “It was Catherine who brought Margaret back to you. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

A sharp flash of anger flared in Father’s eyes. “Of course, it does! And I am grateful – extremely grateful – for Catherine’s assistance.” He paused, struggling to compose himself, and when he spoke again, the tone of his voice was as impenetrable and unyielding as the rock walls that surrounded them. “But none of that makes Catherine a Helper. You know as well as I do, Vincent, that for someone to be named a Helper, the Council must go through all the proper channels. The designated person must be thoroughly investigated and then must receive a unanimous vote of acceptance. Those procedures have been in place since the beginning. They are part of the rules we live by, the practices that keep us safe.”

It was as if his rational mind could not quite comprehend what he had heard, and for several seconds Vincent could not speak. Then, a wave of anger rarely felt surged within him, both horrifying and giving him voice. “Then change the rules. Make an exception for Catherine.”

Father shook his head firmly. “No, that cannot and will not be done. Perhaps in the future, Catherine becoming a Helper might be considered if, in fact, she wishes to take on that responsibility. But the process requires at least two months to complete, and we simply do not have enough time to even discuss the matter before Winterfest.” He gathered the last of his papers together and reached for his cane. “It’s unfortunate, but at the present time, there is nothing more to be said on the matter.”

Vincent braced his hands on the table and shoved himself to his feet, his chair crashing backwards onto the stone floor. The glittering ice in his eyes matched the frozen fury in his voice. “You’re wrong, Father. There is much more to be said.” He took a deep shuddering breath and shook his head hard. “But not now. I cannot discuss this with you now.” He spun away from the table and strode toward the chamber entrance.

“Vincent, I really am terribly sorry about this, you know. You must understand.”

The deceptively placating words paralyzed Vincent where he stood, then he turned back to face the older man. He clenched his fists tightly against his thighs and willed himself to speak in a low subdued tone. “No, I don’t know, and I don’t understand.”

Father huffed slightly as he rose to his feet. “I’m certain once you’ve had time to think this over, you’ll see that I’m right. Why, if it were only up to me, Catherine would be welcome at Winterfest.” He shrugged. “But I’m afraid that cannot happen.”

Never had Vincent felt such rage toward his father. “If Catherine is not welcome at Winterfest, if she is not welcome here in our home, then I am not welcome here either.”

The shock in his father’s plaintive cry, “Vincent, wait!” meant less than nothing to him, and he bolted from the chamber without looking back.

Hours later, when the sentries were quietly issuing a midnight call of “all is safe and well,” Vincent made his way back to the home tunnels, exhausted in body and spirit. He had tried to outrun the overwhelming sensations of anger and shock, needing to distance himself from the man whose betrayal had incited them, and he had only permitted himself to return once he had regained a sense of control.

Now, with a deepening sadness having smothered all but the embers of his anger, he approached his chamber. He knew a sleepless night awaited him, full of questions for which there were no answers. But that’s entirely not true, he admitted, there might be answers, ones I never wanted to consider…

As he entered the short connecting passageway to his chamber, he was startled by the unexpected glow of candlelight from within. Moving cautiously, he advanced into the room, then halted as he took in the sight of the woman curled up in his reading chair and the book resting on the faded carpet, having slipped from her hand as she’d fallen asleep. He approached her slowly, not wishing to startle her, and felt his heart clench as he noticed the dark circles under her eyes and the nearly imperceptible tracks of dried tears across her pale skin.

He gently shook the woman’s shoulder as he murmured her name. “Rebecca?” He waited for a moment and then watched as her red-rimmed eyes fluttered open. “Rebecca, is everything all right?”  He shook his head. How foolish such a question sounded tonight, even though he’d meant it as a sign of solicitude.

The candlemaker sat up and rubbed her eyes, then blinked several times as she looked up at Vincent. “I’m sorry I fell asleep. What time is it?”

“It’s very late, well after midnight.”

“It can’t be!” She started to rise from the chair, only to slip back onto its cushions when her cramped legs proved unsteady. She winced slightly. “Sorry, I think I need a minute.”

Vincent pulled a chair closer to hers. “Take as long as you need.” He glanced at the small brazier nearby, its coals glowing steadily. “Would you like some tea?”

Rebecca stretched her spine and legs, then eased back into the chair. “That’s better. And no, thank you. I won’t stay much longer.”

Vincent settled himself in his chair and leaned forward, resting his arms on his thighs. “Something is troubling you. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you came to talk with me. What can I do to help?”

For a moment, her eyes clouded with tears, then she briskly wiped them away. “You can forgive me.”

“Forgive you?” he echoed. “For what?”

“For what Father did.”

Vincent again felt an ominous burgeoning of the anger and tension he thought he had outrun. The urge to pace the chamber, or to leave it altogether, was strong, but he fought it off. “You were not responsible for that.”

The shadows in her hazel eyes contradicted him. “But I was responsible for not talking to you about it. He only gave me the list late this afternoon, and as soon as I looked it over, I tried to find you. But when I tapped a message to you on the pipes, there was no response.”

Vincent sighed heavily. “I never heard it. I was still with the work crew in the lower tunnels. We didn’t get back until dinner was almost over, just before the meeting was to start.”

“And by then it was too late to talk privately with you. I kept thinking there must be some explanation. Maybe you had already told Father that Catherine couldn’t come to Winterfest this year for some reason or other. Or maybe it was just a simple mistake, and her name was supposed to be on the guest list after all. I never dreamed…”

“He would deliberately exclude her?” Vincent heard the hurt and bitterness in his voice. “Neither did I.”

“It wasn’t until the end of the meeting that I realized what he had done. Even then I couldn’t quite believe it, but when I heard the tone of his voice and saw the look on your face, I knew something was terribly wrong after all. I think we all knew.” She sighed and shook her head. “But why, Vincent? Why would he do such a thing?”

“He said he did it because Catherine is not an officially designated Helper. He reminded me that Winterfest is only for our Helpers and those of us who dwell Below, and no exceptions are ever made.”

“But that’s ridiculous!” Rebecca sputtered. “Of course, Catherine is a Helper! Has he forgotten about everything she’s done for us?”

“He remembers, but he has chosen to disregard it.” Vincent’s expression hardened further. “Instead, he took advantage of the Council’s rules about the procedures for accepting new Helpers, and he refuses to consider making an exception for Catherine.”

Rebecca took a deep breath. “I don’t understand. We all like Catherine so much. Why can’t Father warm up to her?”

Vincent hesitated. He had always assumed the rationale behind Father’s behavior toward Catherine was known and understood by everyone, perhaps even approved of by some. But with Rebecca’s question, he realized his assumption was flawed and he needed to question that belief.

“It’s because he wishes to protect me.” The startled look on her face amazed yet heartened him. “He thinks my…relationship…with Catherine will only cause me pain.”

Rebecca’s voice was shattering. “How can he think such a thing! You’ve been so happy since you met Catherine, happier than you’ve ever been. Everyone can see that – and we’re all delighted for you!”

Vincent felt a warmth seep into his heart. “Thank you, Rebecca. To know that means the world to me.”

Rebecca smiled at him. “I’m just saying what’s true.” Her smile faded. “But why doesn’t Father agree?”

“Because of Margaret.”

“But that doesn’t make sense. They were so happy together those two weeks. It was tragic that they found each other only to part again, but at least they had some time together. It was more than a lot of people have.”

Vincent had not overlooked the shadow that drifted across Rebecca’s face, but he would not question her, knowing if she wished to say anything more, she would do so in her own time. “Yes, and I know he’s grateful for that gift of time…But there’s more to their story…”

“Oh, Vincent, I’m not asking you to tell me anything Father wants kept secret!”

“I know you’d never do that. And I can’t betray the trust he put in me when he told me something of his past.” He paused, considering his next words carefully. “But I think it explains his feelings toward Catherine. It happened many years ago before he came to live Below. A sacred trust was broken, his life was shattered, and he lost everything that meant the most to him. Now he associates that terrible pain with the world Above, and most of all with Catherine and everything she symbolizes to him.”

The two friends sat in silence for long moments, lost in their own thoughts.

Rebecca’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “I think I understand. Margaret somehow broke his heart, and now he thinks Catherine, another woman from Above, will break yours.”

Vincent nodded. “And I believe he has vowed to do whatever he feels is necessary to keep me from experiencing that same pain.”

“He loves you, Vincent. He’ll do anything for you.” Rebecca shook her head hard. “But that doesn’t mean what he’s doing is right!”

“I know. I walked through the tunnels for hours after the meeting ended, trying to think of a way to show him he’s mistaken about Catherine, to explain that welcoming her into our lives will never bring me harm.” He took a deep breath and forced out the words. “But there’s nothing I can do.”

The anger that flared in Rebecca’s eyes was startling. “There certainly is something you can do! You can prove to him that he’s wrong!”

He shook his head. “I’ve already tried reasoning with him. It’s useless.”

“So, you’re just giving up?” Rebecca glared at him. “I never would have expected that of you!”

Her response shocked him, and he rushed to explain. “I felt such anger toward Father tonight, it was like nothing I have ever felt before. It terrified me. That’s why I had to leave…before I said…or did something we’d both regret forever.” He looked at her, willing her to comprehend everything he could not say. “That’s something that, thankfully, you cannot understand.”

“Oh, I understand. I understand all too well.”

He heard the conviction in her voice, but he knew she had not understood, that she could not. He must try to explain, to somehow find a way to tell her what he knew of himself without terrifying her. His thoughts were chaotic. If I tell her the truth about how I felt, I will frighten her. Our friendship will change forever. But it is unthinkable for her to walk away believing me a coward. Someone who would not stand up for what is right, who would not fight for Catherine. The words he sought continued to elude him, and he turned his head, letting his long hair curtain him from her.

Rebecca’s voice intruded. “You don’t believe me, do you? You think you’re the only one who ever feels this way.”

His gaze snapped back to her, and he saw the sadness in her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I mean there can be anger, terrible anger, in anyone’s heart when they realize their most precious dream is being stolen from them.” She reached forward and grasped his hands. “That must be how Father felt when he saw his dreams destroyed. I’m sure his pain made him horribly angry. And he has never found a way to deal with it. It’s not just you who feels that way, Vincent, it’s everyone.”

Never had he considered the fierce emotions he experienced might be felt just as deeply by anyone else. He had always believed those powerful, relentless urges were part of his unique differences, yet another quality that set him apart as someone – or something – unlike all others. But now his dear friend, a woman he had trusted and respected since childhood, was telling him he was wrong. That he had always been wrong.

He felt their intertwined fingers tighten. “Tell me, Rebecca. Tell me how you know this to be true.”

She gently pulled her hands away and leaned back in the chair. “I know because I’ve felt that anger, too, an anger so powerful I thought it would destroy me. That feeling was horrifying, disgusting. How could something like that be a part of me?”

“And yet it was.”

She nodded. “Yes, just like it’s a part of you, a part of all of us. Those feelings can stay hidden, maybe forever, but sometimes something happens and then…”

When she fell silent, Vincent knew he must offer her a chance to reconsider saying anything more. “I know you only want to help me, but you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”

She looked into his eyes. “I do want to talk about it. I think it’s something you need to know.” A small, sad smile shadowed her face. “Do you remember when Andrew lived Below?

“Yes, I remember. A Helper, Mr. Lassiter, arranged for him to find sanctuary with us. It was a long time ago, when we all were about fifteen, not long before…”

Rebecca finished the thought for him. “Not long before Lisa left.”

He nodded. “And by the time I had recovered from…my illness…Andrew had returned Above to live.” He tilted his head toward her. “But you stayed in touch with him for a few months, didn’t you?”

“For almost three years. We exchanged notes and letters with the help of Mr. Lassiter, and sometimes we met Below in secret. That little chamber just beyond the Mirror Pool was our special place. No one knew. I’ve never talked about this until now.”

“I had no idea. I thought once Andrew left, he chose to cut off all contact with our world.”

Rebecca’s smile turned bittersweet. “He did, except for me.”

Vincent watched her gaze into the shadowy depths of the chamber, sensing that she was becoming lost in damaged dreams. His voice was as gentle as his words as he drew her back. “You two were very close.”

She blinked hard, refocusing on his face. “We were in love.”

“Oh, Rebecca, I didn’t know.” He started to reach for her hand, but she waved him away.

“Don’t, Vincent. Don’t feel sorry for me now, or I’ll never be able to finish the story.”

He nodded and sat back in his chair. “Go on.”

She took a deep breath. “I know we were very young, but that didn’t make any difference. We fell in love the moment we met. At first, I think neither of us could quite believe it, but it was true. It was like we had known each other our whole lives, like it was meant to be. We thought we’d be together forever…I know you understand, Vincent, better than anyone else possibly could.”

His voice was hushed. “I do…and I think I understand, too, what his leaving our world must have done to you.”

“It nearly killed me,” she admitted. “He found he couldn’t live Below. But I never blamed him for feeling that way. It’s just not the right place for everyone. And Mr. Lassiter was willing to become his legal guardian. He even offered Andrew an apprenticeship with his construction company. He would have a home and a future like he always wanted. It was perfect for him. Except –” She hesitated and looked pleadingly at Vincent.

He knew at once if she said the words, they would tear open old wounds and inflict another assault of excruciating pain, so he took that burden from her. “As wonderful as his new life would be, it would not be perfect because you would not be part of it.”

Rebecca’s sorrowful gratitude was unmistakable, and it seemed to give her the strength to continue. “He wanted me to go with him. All the letters, all the visits, every time we were together, he begged me to join him Above. We even talked about getting married as soon as we both turned eighteen.” Her eyes glazed with tears, but she seemed not to notice. “And I wanted to go! I wanted to be with him more than anything else! I couldn’t bear the thought of living without Andrew, without his love.”

It would hurt her, but he knew she needed him to ask. “Why didn’t you go with him?”

She shuddered and took a deep, harsh breath as if she were tearing her heart out once again. “Because I was afraid. I was afraid to take a chance. I’d lived my whole life Below. I didn’t know anything about the world Above except what I’d heard from others – how cruel and demeaning life was up there, how out of place I’d be, how if I left, I’d lose everything and everyone I loved.”

“Not everyone,” Vincent murmured before he could stop himself.

“No, not everyone,” Rebecca agreed, bitterness corroding her voice. “I would have Andrew. I would have love. But you need more than love to build a life together. He belonged to a different world, one that would never truly be mine. And how long would it be before he realized what a mistake he had made in choosing to join his life with mine?”

Her pain radiated toward him in jagged waves, and he rose to pull her from the chair and gather her into his arms. She clung to him, and the tears he heard her shed were heartbreaking.

His mind reeled. He’d had no idea Rebecca’s secrets were so like his – the crippling doubts, the insurmountable fears, the unending sacrifices, all the lost possibilities. The fragile hope of what might be, the irrevocable reality when hope died. The realization that sometimes even the greatest love might not be enough. For Rebecca and Andrew, it had all ended in such terrible loss. He felt his heart shudder. His dear friend had suffered through his own most devastating nightmare.

The minutes passed slowly, and he held Rebecca in his strong, gentle arms until her sobbing subsided. Then, they eased apart and sat facing one another again.

She pulled a worn linen handkerchief from the pocket of her skirt and wiped away the physical scars of her sorrow, then looked searchingly into his eyes. “You know why I decided to tell you all of this now, don’t you?”

“Yes, and I am very grateful to you. I know how hard it was to share this with me, to find the strength to tell your story so that it might help me…make other decisions.”

“It’s more than that! You still have a choice. You don’t have to make the same horrible mistakes I did. I want to do everything I can to keep you from having to live with that for the rest of your life. And from feeling the rage that almost destroyed me.”

Vincent looked at her in confusion. “I understand your sorrow, your regret, but not your anger. Did someone convince you not to follow Andrew Above?” His eyes narrowed. “Was it Father? Did he force you to give up your dreams?”

“No, Vincent, it wasn’t Father. I never even talked to him about any of it. You’re the only one who knows what happened.” She sat up straighter, seeming to gather enough strength to finish the story. “The anger I felt once I’d made my decision was so overwhelming. It consumed me. I couldn’t feel anything else…and for a while, I didn’t think I’d survive it.”

She took a deep shuddering breath. “All the anger I felt was toward myself. I was the one responsible – only me. Because I chose to be a coward, I killed my own beloved dream. And I killed Andrew’s dream, too, all because I couldn’t find the courage to reach for it like he had. I hated myself for it…and for a while I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on.”

“I wish I had known! I wish I could have helped you.”

She shook her head. “No one could have helped me then. I had brought it all upon myself, and in time I knew if I was going to survive, I had to find my way on my own terms. It took an awfully long time, and it wasn’t easy. But I learned to move beyond it, to find a way to be happy again.”

“You have healed, you’ve found a happy life?” He heard the note of hopeful pleading in his voice.

“Yes, I have, but I will always have terrible regrets. I’ll never know what might have been if only I’d taken the chance, and that’s something I will have to live until the day I die.”

She leaned forward, staring hard at him. “You need to understand. I let fear and doubt destroy the possibilities we had for a life together. You can’t let those same feelings control you! Don’t do this to yourself and to Catherine – promise me you won’t let it happen! It’s too late for Andrew and me, but it’s not too late for Catherine and you.”

His heart broke for her. “But maybe it’s not too late for you. Maybe –”

The quick, harsh shake of her head cut off his well-meaning words. “People don’t always get a second chance, Vincent. Oh, I believed for a while I could change things. After the worst of my anger and pain had eased, I thought maybe it wasn’t too late. Even though almost two years had passed since I’d seen Andrew, I convinced myself I could make things right after all. So, I went Above, to that world I couldn’t face, to ask Mr. Lassiter to try and help me contact him. He was very kind when he told me.” Her face was a portrait of pain and resignation. “Andrew had found someone else, and they were going to be married. They had moved away. I didn’t ask where. I’d thrown away our dreams, but he found his happy life anyway…without me.”

She sighed softly. “For a while I let myself believe he might think of me from time to time. Maybe he wondered, just like I did, about what might have been.” She looked into Vincent’s eyes. “And I was – I am — happy for him. I only ever wanted what was best for him. I just thought it would be with me…but because of what I did –” She shook her head. “Because of what I didn’t do, I’ll never know if that dream might have come true.”

She pushed herself to her feet and walked slowly toward the chamber entrance, then paused and looked back when he called her name.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Rebecca, for always caring, for being such a true friend. You have given me much to think about, and I’m grateful and honored you shared your secrets with me. I won’t betray your trust.”

She nodded. “I know. But I’m not sure it did any good. You didn’t promise you’ll do everything possible to keep your dream from being destroyed, that you won’t be the fool that I was.”  She sighed heavily. “I wonder if you’ll make the right choice.”

Her quiet footsteps faded away, leaving him alone in silence and shadows.

* * *

Despite deep, draining fatigue, Vincent spent a restless night, haunted by visions of the past and premonitions of the future. Over and over, he berated himself, How could I have thought, even for a moment, of giving in to Father’s demands? Catherine deserves so much more than that…so much more than my weakness, my cowardice.

The words she had spoken not so long ago echoed within him. “It wasn’t courage, Vincent. It was love.” He could still hear her voice, still see her standing before him, her pledge and her promise reflected in her eyes. She had not been afraid to say what was in her heart.

And yet once again I have chosen fear over truth. How many times has Catherine shown that she believes in our dream, that she cares deeply…for me…and how many times have I remained silent? Our moments together are always so brief, so measured. We cannot continue this way. I cannot throw away another chance to show that I want and need her to be part of my life.

He thought again of Rebecca, of the guilt and pain she still felt because of the choice she had made, not only for herself but for Andrew, of how she had let her fears and doubts control their lives. A searing pain ripped through his heart when he forced himself to admit that he had done exactly that to Catherine and himself, time and time again. He shuddered, remembering Rebecca’s words, and found himself whispering them aloud. “People don’t always get a second chance.”

How many more chances will I ignore before there are no more left for Catherine and me?

And how much longer will I let others decide what is right for me – for us? I know Father only means to keep me safe, to save me from the pain he endured because of Margaret. But Catherine is not Margaret, and I am not Father…and whatever the risk, I will not turn my back on what might be…on the dreams…the possibilities. Our dream is worth everything…She is worth everything…

How could I have doubted even for a moment?

The question chilled him, but the answer he finally found strengthened his resolve. And in that hour just before dawn, he knew what he must do, what he would do.

A tapped message on the pipes proclaimed the time was six a.m. Vincent rose and dressed quickly, then strode toward the dining chamber for an early breakfast before joining the work crew. His resolve was unwavering, yet he could not entirely suppress an undercurrent of dread, knowing that in moments he would see Father seated in his usual place among their friends and family.

He exhaled a deep breath when he found the dining chamber empty except for Mary, Cullen, and the members of the work crew. The rest of the tunnel community would be arriving soon, so he hastily wrapped his food in a large, cloth napkin, filled a thermos with hot tea, and told the other workers he would meet them at the construction site. He winced, ashamed of himself for being so relieved at postponing the inevitable confrontation with Father; yet he felt when the time was right, he would be ready to face whatever might come.

The workday passed quickly and uneventfully, filled with hard, determined labor and a shared sense of grateful relief that the project was nearly finished. After a late afternoon inspection, Winslow, the construction foreman, announced that another day should do it, and told everyone they could quit a half-hour earlier than expected. No one needed to be told twice, and soon the site was deserted save for Winslow and Vincent who had stayed behind to secure the tools and materials for the night.

As they worked, Vincent was aware of several glances Winslow made in his direction. It was obvious his old friend had something he wanted to say, and equally clear he was having trouble finding a way to say it.

Vincent stowed a sledgehammer in one of the large equipment cases. The sound of the padlock clicking into place was unexpectedly sharp and loud. He turned toward Winslow and smiled in an effort to dispel the growing anxiety that tormented the other man. “If you’re ready to talk, I’m ready to listen.”

Winslow’s head snapped up, and he nearly dropped the toolbox he was holding. He shrugged, then grinned at his friend. “Well, then I guess it’s time I get started.”

He shoved the toolbox into place in a nearby alcove, and as he turned to Vincent, his grin faded. “This won’t take long. Just got a few things I need to say.” He gestured toward a wall where the adjacent floor was flat and clear of debris. “Come on, we can sit over here. I don’t know about you, but I’m worn out.”

The two men lowered themselves to the floor, groaning softly in harmony. Winslow’s eyes narrowed as he turned his head toward Vincent. “Look, you know I don’t go poking my nose into other people’s business, right? Never have, never will.”

“I know that, Winslow. And I have always respected you for it.”

Winslow nodded once. “Well, this time what I’ve got to talk about is everybody’s business. But I don’t think anybody else is going to say much to you. So, I will.”

Vincent was certain he had guessed the cause of Winslow’s discomfort, and he wanted to spare his friend further embarrassment. Yet, he needed the counsel of someone who knew him and their world so well, and he trusted his friend to be honest and forthright. “This is about what happened between Father and me after the meeting last night, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. The rest of us weren’t talking behind your back or anything. Nobody said much, but a few of us figured out what must’ve happened.” Winslow rubbed a dusty hand across his mouth. “And we think Father is dead wrong.”

“So do I, but he refuses to reconsider.” Vincent tried to keep his voice calm and even. “He said Catherine cannot be invited to Winterfest because she’s not a Helper.”

Winslow’s eyes opened wide and he flung up his hands. “What the hell is he talking about?! After all she’s done for us! That old man would be dead under a pile of rocks if she hadn’t come through with those explosives.”

“I told him that. I reminded him of all the times Catherine has reached out to us, offered us aid when no one else could. How she has taken so many risks for us. How she never thinks of herself, only of our needs.” He sighed harshly. “But none of that matters to him.”

“Then, we’ve got to do something about changing his mind.” Winslow glared toward the tunnel entrance. “Want me to go talk to him? I’ve got plenty to say!”

Vincent clapped a hand on his friend’s muscled arm. “No, but I’m grateful for the offer and for your concern. He won’t give in. He said inviting someone who is not officially a Helper goes against our established rules.”

“Yeah, well, us sticking to his almighty rules almost got both of you killed. But I guess that don’t matter any either.” Winslow leaned back against the rocky wall, then looked at Vincent for several moments before speaking again. “Look, I’m not claiming I know what’s really going on here, but I know it’s about more than Winterfest. More than following rules. Maybe Father thinks he’s got good reasons for doing what he’s doing, but that doesn’t mean he’s right.”

He shook his head. “I don’t mean no disrespect. Father gave me a home when no one else would, and I’m always going to be grateful for that. Without this place – well, I don’t know where I’d be or even if I’d be.”

“Yes,” Vincent said softly, “that’s something you and I share.”

Winslow nodded. “And it’s not just us two either. We all owe him a lot. He’s good at what he does. Our community couldn’t function without a strong leader. But that’s not saying it’s okay for him to keep trying to run everybody’s life. Make decisions he has no business making.”

Winslow’s words echoed much of what Vincent had told himself through a long sleepless night. For nearly all his life he had obeyed the rules, had found ways to accept limitations others never even had to consider. There were so many times when he had given in, had given up. But then Catherine entered his life and everything changed. He had been offered a chance for his most precious dreams to come true, dreams that had always been entirely out of reach. To abandon them now to the rules and demands of others would be a self-inflicted death, and that was no longer something he would tolerate.

“I know you’re right, and I know what I need to do. But…it’s difficult. Father has felt the need to protect me all my life. He’s only trying to do what he feels is best for me. I can’t just dismiss that, no matter how much I want to.”

“Hell, Vincent, you’re not a kid anymore! You don’t need your dad’s permission – you don’t need anyone’s permission. You gotta live your own life on your own terms.”

“Yes, and I will. But –”

Winslow shook his head hard. “Look — what you and Catherine have is something special. Everybody knows that – but not everybody is lucky enough to have it themselves. You can’t let anybody – not even Father – keep you from doing what you damn well know is right!” He took a deep breath. “And one more thing. Nobody gets any guarantees in life. None of us knows what’s going to happen from one day to the next. You let this chance go, you might never get another one.”

As silence stretched out between them, Winslow pushed himself to his feet and waited for Vincent to join him. “I guess I’ve said more than enough. Now it’s up to you.” He picked up his pack and started toward the connecting passageway. Vincent’s hand on his shoulder stopped him, and the two friends faced each other.

“Thank you, Winslow. You’re right – now it is up to me.” A hint of a smile began to ease the tension he was certain his friend shared. “I know what I have to do – what I will do. I will talk with Father – I owe him that – but then I’m going Above to see Catherine.”

Together they trudged toward home and paused as they neared the bathing pool closest to Winslow’s chamber. “So, you gonna tell me what the plan is? We going to be seeing Catherine at Winterfest after all?”

Vincent raised his eyebrows and stared at his friend, fully knowing he had mastered a spot-on imitation of one of Father’s signature expressions. “I thought you said you don’t poke your nose into other people’s business. So, you’ve changed your mind about that?”

Winslow’s guffaw of laughter echoed through the tunnel long after the two friends had parted.

* * *

Vincent watched as Father quickly left the dining chamber without finishing his dinner. The tunnel leader had not waited for William to announce that dessert was ready, nor had he strolled about the room, stopping to chat with various members of the tunnel community as was his usual practice.

Vincent waited a few minutes, then followed his father. At the top of the metal stairs, he looked down into the study. What he found was a portrait he had seen a thousand times before. Father was alone, slumped in an old easy chair, appearing to rest comfortably on its frayed needlepoint cushions. A mug of tea was close at hand on a side table, and a book lay open on his lap, seeming to hold his attention in the golden haze of lamplight.

Vincent hesitated, knowing what he must do, yet dreading it all the same.

“You can come in, Vincent. I know you’re there.” Father closed his book but did not look at his son, and instead stared into the shadows darkening the far reaches of the chamber.

Vincent had heard the resignation in his father’s voice, yet the cold imperiousness of the previous night was gone. The realization gave him the smallest glimmer of hope. He descended the stairs and leaned back on the edge of a table, facing his parent.

Father’s gaze turned to his son’s face, and he managed a forced, fleeting smile. “You’re not here to offer me a chance to best you at a game of chess, are you?”

Vincent shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Father. I think we both know why I’m here.”

“Yes, I suppose we do.” He stiffened his shoulders and sat up straighter in his chair. “Go on then.”

“I know this is not what you wish to hear, but it’s what I must say. I mean you no disrespect, but I cannot abide by your demands. I am going Above to invite Catherine to join us at Winterfest.” He waited, but the expected storm ended even before it ever began.

“I had expected as much.” Father’s lips compressed to a thin, tight line as if to forcibly hold back words he had chosen not to utter.

“And that’s all you have to say?” Vincent pushed himself to his feet. “Nothing more?”

Father took a deep breath, then expelled the air in a harsh rasp. “I have a great deal to say to you on this subject, but I can see this is neither the time nor place for it. Go! Go Above to see Catherine. Invite her to Winterfest.” He waved a hand toward the chamber entrance, but his gaze held Vincent’s. “Clearly, nothing I’ve said on the subject means anything to you. But we are far from finished with it. We will speak again when you return.”

Lamplight glinted on the lenses of Father’s glasses as he bent his head and opened his book.

For several seconds, Vincent stood in silence. Then he turned and strode away until he reached his own chamber. There he retrieved his cloak and settled it over his shoulders, barely pausing before he was once again on his way. The measured beat of his rapid footsteps suppressed the echoed confusion in his heart and head. Nothing mattered now but Catherine.

Minutes later, he reached the chandlery, and he entered to find Rebecca hard at work in the smoky, sweet-scented chamber. He waited, but it seemed she had not noticed him.

“You weren’t at dinner tonight. Is everything all right?”

She shrugged her shoulders and pulled a handful of clean straw from an overflowing basket. “I had a lot to do.” She nestled the straw around the top layer of Winterfest candles and slid the lid onto the small wooden crate. Then she added it to the top of a stack of identical boxes.

As she dusted off her hands, she turned and walked toward Vincent, her expression unreadable. “Are you here to tell me you’ve made a decision?”

Vincent smiled at her. “I’m here to tell you I’m going to keep that promise.” He held out his hand, his empty palm upturned.

Rebecca’s smile rivaled the glow of her finest creations as she took a ribbon- and tissue-wrapped candle from her worktable and placed it in his hand.

Vincent’s gaze flickered from the invitation he held to the light suffusing his friend’s face. “You had this ready for me. You knew.”

Her eyes glistened with reflected light. “I hoped.”

Whispering “thank you,” he enfolded her in his arms. Then, she smiled as she gently pushed him away toward the chamber entrance. “Now, get going and be careful with that candle. It’s very special, you know!”

“I know.”

Rebecca gazed toward the chamber entrance as his rapid footsteps faded. She brushed away a single tear before it could reach the fragile smile lingering on her lips. “Thank you, Vincent,” she murmured, “for making me believe some dreams can come true.”

* * *

As Vincent left the chandlery, William ambled to the head of a long dining table. He crossed his arms over his stomach and surveyed the group. “So, what do you think? Is this one a keeper?”  A satisfied grin stretched across his broad face at the enthusiastic response. “Okay – you got it! Apple Almond Spice Cake is officially on the menu for Winterfest!”

“Hold on a minute!” Cullen waved his empty plate in the air as he yelled above the applause. “You only gave us enough for one bite each! How can we make up our minds with that?”

Zach grinned. “Cullen’s right. We all need another sample!”

“Or two!”

“Or three!”

William’s booming laugh filled the room, rolling over voices clamoring in agreement. “Well, you’re not getting any more until the party, so –” His voice dropped off abruptly when he noticed Father standing alone in the entryway. “Hey, Father, have you changed your mind about dessert? We’re sampling some cake I was thinking about making for Winterfest. I can get you a piece.”

All heads turned toward the doorway where Father stood in somber silence, leaning heavily on his cane as if it were the only thing that would lend him support. Smiles faded from faces and good-natured laughter gave way to silence. Mary started to rise from the bench, then sank back down upon it when Father cleared his throat and began to speak.

“I have an announcement to make regarding an unfortunate situation that has been brought to my attention.” He paused and let his gaze sweep slowly across the upturned faces. “It seems a regrettable error has been made concerning our guest list for Winterfest.”

* * *

Vincent slipped silently onto the balcony, mindful of the gift he had secured in a pocket within the voluminous folds of his cloak. The bright glow of light from Catherine’s apartment guided his way as his booted feet slid along the tiled floor, leaving uneven tracks in the dusting of snow. Through the sheer gauzy curtains, he could see her within her bedroom, moving from closet to bed, adding items to heaps of clothing spread across its surface.

For a few moments he simply watched her, treasuring the sight of his beloved engaged even in such a simple, ordinary task. It was another of the countless bits and pieces of the days and nights they had never spent with one another, all the little moments that make up the warmth and comfort of lives shared with family, with friends, with…lovers. He sighed and tucked yet another image into his memory so he might recall it when he allowed himself to think of her, of a life that lived only in his dreams.

He raised his hand and the gentle tapping on the glass made her spin toward him. She threw an armful of clothing onto the bed and raced forward, flinging the doors open wide and herself firmly into his arms. For a few moments they simply held each other, their shared sensations mingling and intertwining within their bond. Breathing fragrances of candle smoke and snow, rose-scented perfume and soap; feeling the rapid pace of heartbeats through layers of wool and leather, cashmere and silk; imagining nights Above and days Below when stolen moments might become uncounted hours.

He felt her shiver in his arms, and he started to pull away. “I’m sorry, Catherine. It’s too cold for you to stay out here.”

She snuggled closer, immediately protesting, “I’m fine. Don’t go.” But her continued shivering through jeans and a light sweater belied her words. She drew back to smile up at him. “Wait here, I’ll get a jacket.”

How he wished he could follow her inside her apartment as any other man would do. How he wished he could become part of the life she lived Above, even while knowing it was impossible. And yet the voice of his heart whispered perhaps…

“There, that’s better.” Her voice called him back from tantalizing dreams of someday to the wondrous reality of now. He smiled at the sight of her, bundled into bulky boots and a puffy, bright blue jacket, its large hood partially covering her honey-colored hair. “Catherine, you look very…warm.”

She glanced down at herself, then laughed up at him. “I know it’s not my usual look. Dad and Kaye made reservations at a ski resort in Stowe, and they asked me to go along. I haven’t skied in years, so I had to shop for some new outfits.” She stretched out her arms. “What do you think?”

“I think you always look beautiful, no matter what you’re wearing. And I’m glad to know you won’t be cold when you’re outside in the mountains of Vermont.”

Her glowing smile gladdened his heart. How wondrous it was that his opinion could please her so.

“Well, I’ll probably be spending most of my time in the lodge by the fire with a mug of hot cider and a good book. I’m not actually a big fan of winter sports, but Dad and Kaye really want me to come along, and I haven’t had a chance to be with them in quite a while.”

He nodded. “Spending time with family is very important. Even in my world, it’s far too easy to let those opportunities slip away and to regret it later.”

“I know what you mean. Since I usually have to work through part of every weekend, I almost told them I couldn’t go, but I knew how disappointed they’d be – and so would I. I couldn’t believe it when Joe agreed to give me a Thursday and a Friday off, so now there’s really nothing holding me back.”

“I’m very happy for you. You have a wonderful opportunity to become closer to your father again, and you deserve some time away. You work extremely hard and do so much good for others.”

“Because of you.” She raised her hand to his lips to forestall the words of protest he was about to utter. The sensation of her cold fingers on his flesh sent a flash of heat through him and he trembled.

“I’m sorry!” She pushed her bare hands into her jacket pockets. “I should have brought gloves out here.”

He could not reveal the true source of his reaction; it was still too soon, he was still too uncertain. “Catherine, even with your winter clothes, it’s too cold for you to be out here. I will leave in a moment, but first I have something I want to give you.” He reached into the hidden pocket of his cloak and placed the small, wrapped object in her hand.

“What is it?” Her voice echoed the delight of a child on Christmas morning.

He laughed softly. “Open it and find out.”

She carefully untied the ribbons and stowed them in her pocket before tearing apart the tissue paper. He watched as she gazed down at the sunset-colored candle nestled in her hand. “It’s beautiful! Is it one of Rebecca’s?”

“Yes, it is one of her special Winterfest candles.”

Catherine looked up at him. “Winterfest?”

“A special celebration held every year at mid-winter. Everyone Below comes together with our Helpers to recall how our world came to be, to give thanks, and to remind ourselves that we are one family, one community.” He savored her expression of fascinated interest. “We rejoice in being together, being a part of one another. The celebration begins in darkness. Everyone holds an unlit candle; then one by one the candles are set aglow until the entire room is filled with light.”

“It sounds wonderful! And this is one of the candles you use?”

 “Yes, it is one of the candles that will be lit at Winterfest this year.” A smile curved his mouth as he watched the realization dawn in her eyes. “If the person to whom it is given   brings it Below on that special night.”

Her growing smile reminded him of the waves of candlelight they would see together in the Great Hall. “Are you inviting me to Winterfest?”

“Yes, I’m inviting you. Will you join us, Catherine?”

“Of course!” She looked down at the candle she held carefully in her hand, then up at his beloved face. “I would love to come to Winterfest!”

A sudden shadow clouded her eyes. “But you said Winterfest is just for everyone who lives Below and the Helpers – and I’m not either one. I remember when Mischa and Sophie had to receive the Council’s endorsement before they became Helpers. I’ve never done that.”

He refused to let anything or anyone destroy this moment. “You are a Helper in every other way, Catherine, and you will be my special guest.”

She bit her lip as she gazed up at him. “Are you sure that will be good enough for…everyone?”

“Yes, I’m sure. You needn’t worry.”  And in his heart, he knew he had spoken the truth. Somehow, everything would be all right.

The light returned to her eyes. “Then, tell me more! What else happens at Winterfest?”

“After the opening ceremonies, the party begins. Musicians play, there are various games, and this year there will be crafts for the younger children. William prepares an array of delicious food and his special mulled wine. If someone has a particular talent, they offer to share it with everyone. Marcus is an amazing juggler, and one of our Helpers, Sebastien, is a magician.”

“It sounds like so much fun! What do you like best about it?”

He had no need to consider his answer. “I like everything about Winterfest, I always have, even as a young boy. But now I most appreciate the chance to set everything else aside and spend time just enjoying everyone’s company.”

Catherine sighed happily. “I can’t wait to go to my first Winterfest! Oh, you didn’t tell me when it’s being held.”

“Two weeks from tomorrow night, at seven o’clock. I can meet you at the threshold and escort you to the Great Hall. Along the way, you’ll see many people arriving from various entrances, and –” The look on her face sent a shiver of ice through him. “Catherine, what is it?”

Her voice shimmered with unshed tears. “Two weeks from tomorrow night I’ll be in Vermont with Dad and Kaye.”

They both stared down at the candle still cradled in Catherine’s hand, knowing it would not lend its light to Winterfest nor to their dream. Moments ticked by as both searched for words that might shape another reality, but they only found those that could offer no hope, no promise.

Suddenly Catherine shook her head hard, sending the hood of her jacket flying back and her hair swirling around her shoulders. “I’ll tell them I can’t go!” Her voice rushed between them like wind in a snowstorm. “There’ll be other weekend trips. I’ll go next time. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

It crushed him to know he would have to destroy the hope in her eyes. “No, Catherine, you can’t do that.”

“I can! I’ll call Dad tomorrow and –”

He shook his head. “You need this time with your father. You told me it has been a long while since you’ve seen him.” He held up a hand to gently preclude the protest he knew would come. “You’ve both looked forward to this trip, to the days you will spend together. You must go.”

“Vincent, I can make this work! It will be fine. I’ll plan another trip with Dad and Kaye in the next few months. Winterfest only comes once a year. I’m not giving up the chance to share such a special night with you. Please don’t ask me to.”

He felt his heart break. “I must.” For a moment, his gaze swept out toward the darkened park and the world that lived beneath it, before returning to the sadness in her eyes. “I want nothing more than to share this special night with you, but there will always be other Winterfests. That much is certain. Yet now, at our age, the time left to spend with our fathers is not.”

He could not help picturing Father as he’d left him earlier, and the image ate at his conscience. “You’ve told me of your concern — how hard your father works, how stressful his job is, how rare the moments are when he can be with you. If you give up this time with him, I think you’ll always regret your decision. It’s a chance you can’t take.”

Her voice was laced with bittersweet acquiescence. “I know you’re right. I can’t disappoint him. No matter what…”

They fell into each other’s arms, holding onto the certainty that was still left to them, but when she finally pulled away, he felt colder than he’d imagined possible. She held out her hand. “Here. Please light it for me at Winterfest.”

Without hesitation, he closed his hand over hers. “Keep it. And next year we will light it together. I promise.”

* * *

Vincent trudged along the passageways toward the home chambers, his heart filled with shadows where he had thought there would be light. He took comfort in knowing he had kept his pledge, that he had found the courage to do what was right. Yet that uplifting feeling diminished quickly when the images of all he had hoped for, everything he had dreamed of for so many days, began to vanish like bittersweet smoke.

How he had treasured the imagined sensation of Catherine clinging to his arm as he guided her down the carved stone steps to the entrance of the Great Hall, watching her face glow with delight as she shared for the first time the warmth and wonder of this special night in his world. He had pictured her chatting with Rebecca and Mary, accepting a shy request for a game of checkers with Geoffrey or an exuberant demand to make a pipe cleaner doll with little Susanna. He could see her laughing and applauding a demonstration of Sebastien’s magic, selecting special treats under William’s appreciative eye, meeting some of the Helpers for the first time…and dancing in his arms to the music of violins and cellos…

But none of that would happen now. Every sweet, imagined moment would be forced to wait for another chance to become real, a chance that, despite his promise, he knew might never come to be. He could almost hear a door slamming shut.

He halted his steps and closed his eyes for a moment. Catherine would do what was right, would make the choices she had to make. And just as Rebecca and Winslow had done for him, he had helped her find the courage and strength she needed. They must take comfort in that, and they must set aside their regrets. He knew all too well how sorrow and disappointment could erode the soul.

There was nothing more to be done. He opened his eyes and stared into the dim light of the passageway, then moved forward, murmuring a single word, “Enough.”

His long strides soon brought him close to the hub and the confrontation with Father that awaited him. Upon leaving Catherine, he had deliberately kept himself from thinking about the older man’s oddly unexpected behavior, but now the questions it had provoked could not be ignored. Why had Father refused to discuss his actions toward Catherine, instead insisting it must wait until I returned from Above? Vincent felt a disquieting resurgence of pain and anger. Why did he tell me to invite her to Winterfest — and how will he feel when he finds out he has won after all?

A panel in the brick wall slid open silently, and the unexpected movement pushed the unanswered questions from his mind. “Hey, Vincent, wait a minute.” Dominic pulled a folded sheet of paper from his jacket pocket. “Mary wanted me to give you this.”

“Thank you, Dominic.” A frown creased his forehead. “There’s nothing wrong, is there?”

The sentry shook his head. “I don’t think so. She didn’t look upset when she gave me the note. Actually, she was smiling like something really good was going on.” He glanced up and down the corridor. “But I’ve been on duty since before dinner, so I haven’t caught up on any news.”

“You must be looking forward to the end of your shift. I won’t keep you.” Vincent took another step toward the home chambers.

“That’s okay. I have to wait until Michael gets here to replace me and that won’t be for a while yet. But Mary said you need to read the note right away. I’ll see you later.” The panel slid shut again, blending seamlessly with the tunnel wall.

As he entered his chamber, Vincent pulled off his cloak and hung it on a wrought iron hook just inside the doorway. He lit the lamp near his desk and remained standing as he unfolded Mary’s note. The instinctive tension that had begun to grip him slowly slid away as he read her familiar handwriting. He had not seen it in a long while, but it was the same flowing script he’d learned to read on all the notes and cards she had given to him when he was just a boy.

Dear Vincent,

I don’t know how late it will be when you return from seeing Catherine, so I’m going to leave this note with one of the sentries in the hope you will get it before you talk with Father again. There’s something you need to know.

After you both left, nearly everyone else stayed in the dining chamber for quite a while. We all were surprised when Father returned to talk with us – and even more surprised at what he had to say. He told us a terrible mistake had been made with the Winterfest invitations, that Catherine’s name had been left out, and you had gone Above to invite her.

I’m smiling as I write these words because I can just picture your face when you read them. You’re probably as shocked and happy as the rest of us were! Father was quite adamant in explaining that even though Catherine is not an “official” Helper (yet), she has been of great assistance to our world many times, and a special exception will be made for her so that she can attend Winterfest.

Vincent, only a very few of us know – or have guessed – what really happened after the planning meeting, and I’m certain it will not be spoken of again to anyone. But surely you understand that we disagreed completely with what Father tried to do, and we’re thrilled he had a change of heart.

 I can imagine how hurt and even angry you were, and probably still are. I don’t understand Father’s reasoning for his feelings about Catherine, not entirely, but you must know he has only wanted to keep you safe so that you’ll never have to experience the pain he endured from his life Above. I’m not saying he’s right, just that he does what he does out of love, however misguided and just plain wrong he often may be.

Someday, he will accept that you are no longer a child in need of a parent’s constant protection or permission. You are a man with every right to make your own decisions, to follow your heart. I am not alone in saying how wonderful it is that your heart has led you to Catherine. She is becoming a loved and respected member of our community, and we all are looking forward to having her join us to celebrate Winterfest.

Much love,
Mary

Vincent refolded the note and returned it to its envelope, then secured it under an amethyst geode on his desk. He longed to talk with Mary, to express his gratitude for her kindness and honesty, and to share some of his disappointment with her, knowing she would help ease his pain. But it was growing late, and she must rise early to care for the youngest children. He would speak with her in the morning.

Now, there was no reason to delay the inevitable. He walked quickly to the study and found Father much the same as he had left him hours earlier. The older man looked up as his son entered the chamber. “I see you’ve returned.” He indicated a comfortable chair that faced his own. “Please, come in.”

Vincent settled himself in the chair and met his father’s somber gaze. “There’s something I must tell you,” he began, “about Catherine and Winterfest.”

“Yes, but if you’ll indulge me, there’s something I would like to say to you first.”

Despite the news he’d learned from Mary’s note, Vincent half-expected to hear a further diatribe to justify Father’s decision to exclude Catherine from Winterfest. He did not anticipate the raw, resolute direction their conversation would take.

“I once told you I believed Catherine could only bring you unhappiness. Do you remember how you answered me?”

Vincent felt a warning thrust of pain and anger stab at his heart, but he forced back the darkness. “I said then I will be unhappy, but I can’t forget her.” He leaned forward. “Do you still believe what you said?”

He waited but there was only silence in response, and again harnessed rage seared him. “You were wrong then, Father, and you are wrong now! Catherine brings me great joy. She has opened a world to me, one I thought I could never be part of. You must know that.”

“Yes, I do know. It’s quite obvious to everyone.”

Vincent’s eyes narrowed. “Including you?”

Father sighed. “Yes, including me. However –”

“There is no however!”

“Of course, there is!” Father flung out his arms. “How can you refuse to see it? There can be no happiness without grief, no dreams without nightmares. You are only deluding yourself if you believe otherwise.”

With great effort, Vincent remained seated. “I don’t believe otherwise! But it’s a risk I’m more than willing to take. Catherine means everything to me. There is nothing I will not do for her.” He studied his father’s face, not expecting to find acceptance, yet still hoping to see a glimmer of understanding. “She is my life, Father, and without her…”

“You will have no life.”

Father’s voice seemed to have come from the depths of a catacomb, forever dark and unreachable. ‘You seem to have forgotten I was once deluded by those same beliefs. I may have even said those same words.” He sighed, a sound full of pain and resignation. “And you see where it has left me. You don’t want to believe me, Vincent, but I know what can happen. I know what is true.”

The anger that had flared within him died. “Father, I think I understand something of the pain you felt when your dream of a life with Margaret could not be.”

“You mean when Margaret made her choice to turn her back on me, to throw away everything we had!” There was the sound of bitter tears in his voice. “You cannot truly understand my pain now, but you will when Catherine –”

“No.” The razor-honed steel in that single word cut through his father’s assertion. “Catherine will never betray me. What happened with Margaret and you was tragic, and I know you will always carry those scars. But you must try to understand that it is not the same for Catherine and me.”

“That’s what you wish to believe. That you and Catherine will somehow find a way to be together.” Father shook his head slowly, as if it took the last bit of his energy for just that small, sad gesture. “But you cannot know what lies ahead of you.”

Vincent laid a gentle hand on his father’s arm. “I do know, Father. There is a bond Catherine and I share, a bond that can never be broken.” He paused and waited for Father to look up at him. “You even said so yourself when we were waiting for rescue in the cave-in. Do you remember?”

Father’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Perhaps, but why don’t you remind me?”

“You said you knew Catherine and I share a destiny, that we are inextricably linked. That our hearts search for union beyond any laws of physics and probability.” He waited, gauging Father’s reaction.

Much to their mutual surprise, the smallest shade of a smile ghosted across the older man’s mouth. “Do you really think it fair, son, to throw my own words back at me?”

Vincent felt the beginnings of his own smile. “Actually, yes, I do. Especially when they’re true.”

Father’s smile wavered. “From the moment I met Margaret, a day never passed when I did not think of her. I thought we would share a life, that we would never part.” He gazed into the distant reaches of the chamber, seeing images of dreams that had never entirely left him, no matter how hard he had tried to bury them. “There was a time when I, too, believed in miracles…”

Vincent reached for his father’s hand, enclosing it with gentle firmness in his own. “I know. How could anyone question that? Just look around you. Look at the world you founded, the community you created, the lives you saved…just look at me. All of this is nothing short of a miracle.”

He tightened his grip on his father’s hand. “My heart breaks for you, knowing your most precious dream could not come true. But you mustn’t lose faith. Think of all the miracles you have nurtured into being…and know that there will be others as well.”

“Others?” Father sighed heavily.

“I feel certain of it. We can’t know what lies ahead of us, but surely there is still a miracle or two just waiting to be realized. And you will be part of what brings them to fruition.”

“Do you truly believe that is possible?”

Vincent nodded. “Yes, I do, and you must find the faith within yourself to believe it, too.”

As moments slowly passed, the shadows began to slip from Father’s face, and he turned his gaze to his son. “Thank you, Vincent.”

“You needn’t thank me, Father. I’ve only said what is true.”

“But I do need to thank you. For being willing to listen. For not hating me for what I said. For…forgiving me.”

Vincent clasped Father’s hand tighter. “Always.”

Father pulled his hand away, then collapsed back in his chair. “And you do understand, son, I was only trying to protect you, to save you from pain. I never considered that you must have the chance to find your own way, to learn from your own decisions, no matter what the outcome. I never imagined I could be wrong about any of this.”

For several moments, Vincent wondered if the words he’d just heard were imagined or real.

An amused smile began to brighten Father’s face. “You needn’t look so shocked. That’s quite insulting, you know.”

Vincent’s laugh warmed the chamber. “I’m sorry, Father, but it seems that another miracle has already occurred.”

Father huffed as a frown creased his face. “Well, enjoy it while you can. I doubt you’ll be experiencing another one in the foreseeable future!”

He knew his father’s joking words were meant to evoke another laugh, but instead they produced a wave of sorrow, and he could not suppress a harsh sigh.

“What is it, Vincent? What’s wrong?”

The revelations of the past several minutes had pushed aside the initial reason for this conversation, and now everything rushed back at him. “Mary told me you spoke with everyone and told them a mistake had been made. That Catherine would be invited to Winterfest.”

“You did invite her when you went Above, didn’t you?”

Vincent’s eyes clouded. “Yes, but Catherine won’t be coming to Winterfest this year.”

Currents of conflicting emotions merged in Father’s eyes. “I’m so sorry to hear that. She did not wish to join us after all?”

The question forced an edge of frozen steel to Vincent’s voice, and he worked hard to soften it. “She wanted to join us, she wanted to very much, but she had already made plans to spend time with her father that weekend.”

“I see,” Father murmured.

“I’m not sure you. She told me she would cancel her plans just so she could be here in our world, so she could be with me.”

Father waited for him to continue. “Then, what’s to prevent her from doing so?”

“Her love for her father.” The simple words seemed to echo in the chamber. “We talked about it at length, about how wrong it would be for her to give up a rare chance to be with the only parent she has, the father she loves. It was…difficult…for both of us, but we have agreed that it’s the right thing to do, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise.”

Father’s voice was soft. “I’m truly sorry, Vincent. I hope you believe me.”

Vincent’s voice was a ragged sigh. “I do believe you.” He pushed himself to his feet. “But I think it’s best if I turn in now. It has been an exceedingly long day.” He started toward the chamber entrance, then turned back. “I will invite Catherine to Winterfest again next year.”

“Of course!” Father smiled at his son. “But I truly hope we will see her again long before that.”

Vincent surprised them both with a laugh. “Catherine said much the same thing. And yes, we will see her again long before that!”

He climbed the short flight of metal stairs and paused at the top. “Good night, Father, sleep well.”

“And you, my son, and you.”

* * *

Winslow helped Vincent heave the wooden plank into place and secure it within iron brackets. “So, that’s it for this year.” He pushed hard against the doors and felt no movement. “Everything’s safe and sound.”

“Funny thing about Winterfest,” Winslow continued, as they ascended the steps carved into the dense rock wall. “When we were kids, it felt like it would never get here. But now it feels like we’ll be doing all this again in a few months.”

Vincent smiled at his friend as they reached the top. “Thank you for that thought. I hope you’re right.”

They extinguished all but one of the torches in the sconces embedded in the walls. Winslow examined it carefully. “This one’ll burn itself out soon. We’d better leave it just in case somebody comes back this way tonight. We don’t want any accidents happening.”

“Good idea. I think everyone must be home by now, but there’s no sense taking any chances.”

“It was a real nice party,” Winslow commented as they walked along the connecting passageway, “but it was a damn shame about Catherine having to go off on that trip this weekend. Especially after all that business with Father.”

“Yes, it was, but there was no other choice, and we have made our peace with it.” He followed Winslow out into the tunnel that would lead them home. “And we will have next year to look forward to. As you said, it will be here –” He fell silent and stared back over his shoulder, as if searching for something in the dimly lit passage.

Winslow pivoted in the same direction. “What did you see? One of the guests get lost on their way home?”

Vincent raised a hand to his heart and whispered a single word. “Catherine!”

Winslow frowned and shook his head. “What are you talking about? Catherine’s gotta be at least three hundred miles from here.”

“She’s close. I know it.”

He did not look back to see Winslow’s bemused expression. His racing footsteps kept pace with his rapidly beating heart until he saw ahead of him the hazy light glimmering within the brick-edged threshold, and his beloved emerging from it to enter his world.

He spoke only her name and then she was in his arms. They held each other for long moments, then slowly, reluctantly parted. He gazed down at her, wondering if it were all a dream. “How is this possible?”

“I couldn’t do it, Vincent. I tried – I really did – but I wanted, I needed to be with you.” She made no attempt to disguise waves of love and happiness and – miraculously, joyfully – desire, all shimmering in her eyes.

His voice softened to a whisper. “I missed you so.”

She raised one hand to let it drift lightly over the planes of his face. He leaned into her caress, allowing himself to savor this small treasure, and felt her echoing pleasure through their Bond.

“Oh, Vincent.” She let her hand come to rest upon his shoulder as she leaned into him, nestling her head against his chest. “I tried so hard to get back in time. I even thought I’d be able to go up and get my candle. I thought we’d still be able spend Winterfest together.” Her voice quivered. “But I was too late. It’s over now, isn’t it?”

He sheltered her in his arms. “I’m sorry, Catherine, yes, Winterfest has ended for this year. But having you here means so much more than that. It means…everything.”

He hadn’t known he would speak those final words aloud, although they had resonated in his heart with every breath he took. Then, her tremulous joy billowed through their Bond, and he knew he was right to have given them voice.

He reached for her hand, and they began to walk slowly through the tunnels. “You must tell me what happened in Vermont.”

“You were right to convince me to go. Spending time with Dad really was great, and we’ll have wonderful memories. But I couldn’t stop thinking of you, even though I thought I was hiding it well.” She laughed softly. “Then, today when we were having lunch, evidently I was daydreaming about you – again. That was when Dad and Kaye said that if whoever the man I was thinking about every waking minute really meant that much to me, I should be spending time with him instead of hanging around with them!”

His eyes widened and he felt his mouth curve into an astonished smile. “They really said that?”

“Yes – and then they told me to leave and practically pushed me into the car! They said they’d take the train home tomorrow or maybe Monday.” She grinned at him. “I think they were actually glad to see me go, so they could have some time alone without a chaperone.”

“I can understand that.” He felt a sudden blush spread over his face at the words he had not intended to utter, and he was grateful it seemed she hadn’t noticed.

She sighed softly. “But I couldn’t get here in time, no matter how hard I tried. It had snowed earlier, and the interstate was a mess. The traffic just crawled and – “ Her voice trembled. “I’m so sorry, Vincent.”

He squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t be sorry. You’re here now…and you will join us for Winterfest next year.”

She stopped and offered him a teary, raised-eyebrow smile. “I won’t have to wait that long to see you again, will I?”

He chuckled and hugged her to his chest. “No, absolutely not.”

Her voice was muffled, but he heard the meaning in every word she spoke. “Good, because waiting is not something I’m especially good at!”

He again clasped her hand in his as they continued on their way through the silent tunnels. The Bond told him that she, too, was imagining other days, other nights, other possibilities.

When they reached a turn-off unfamiliar to her, he pointed toward its shadowy reaches. “Come. There’s something I’d like to show you.” He led her through the darkness to the top of the carved stone steps. The guttering light of the single torch flickered in the wind that still whistled through the passageway.

Her hair lifted on the breeze as she looked down the length of the stairway. “Where are we?”

“Do you see those doors at the bottom of the steps? Beyond them is the Great Hall, where Winterfest is held. We all gather right here, and then make our way down to that entrance. When everyone is safely inside, we recount our history, our reasons for gathering together each year. That’s when the chamber becomes filled with the light of a hundred candles.”

“I can almost see it!” She grasped his hand tighter. “I can’t wait until next year. I know it will be wonderful.”

“Yes,” he murmured, his heart now lighter than he could have imagined, “it will be wonderful.” He felt her shiver in the chilled air. “But it’s too cold to linger here, and you must be tired. I will walk you back.”

She shook her head firmly. “I didn’t drive over 300 miles in a snowstorm to only spend fifteen minutes with you!”

He could not resist her, nor did he have any desire to do so. He had told her the truth; he had enjoyed the night’s festivities, but the pleasure had been suffused with the pain of her absence. And she too had felt the pain of being apart from the one she loved. That intensity had driven her choices — to risk disappointing her father, to travel for hours on icy, snow-covered roads — for no other reason than her need to be with him, to say yes to the invitation he had offered, to be part of his world, part of his life. He understood and shared it all, and nothing could force him to send her away now.

“Then if you’re sure you’re not too tired, we could go to the kitchen for tea. And I’m sure there are some treats left over from tonight.”

“I’m not too tired — and that sounds perfect!”

Hand in hand, they wandered back along the main passageway. The urgency and upheaval they’d felt melted away in the contentment of simply being together.

“Will you tell me more about Winterfest? I want to know everything.”

“Everyone enjoyed the celebration,” he began. “Almost all our Helpers were able to be there. Mischa and Sophie were sorry to have missed you, but I told them you and I might visit them one evening.” He looked at her cautiously, wondering if he’d been too forward.

“What a great idea! It’s a date!”

That familiar fluttering around his heart grew stronger, and he wondered if there would ever be a time when she would not amaze him.

When he found his voice again, he continued, “And one of Father’s oldest friends had looked forward to meeting you.”

She looked up at him, a question in her eyes.

“He’s a doctor and has been a good friend not only to Father but to all of us for many years. He visits us often, and – it seems I might have mentioned you to him once or twice.” He felt that now familiar blush redden his face again, deepening still as Catherine tilted her head and smiled up at him.

“Has he known you all your life?” She waited for Vincent’s affirmation. “Then, I’ll look forward to meeting – and talking – with him, too.”

Her comment unknowingly answered his earlier question. No, she would never cease to amaze him – and that realization made him very happy.

Her voice broke into his reverie. “Did your magician friend perform? And did the children have fun with the crafts and games?”

He loved hearing the eager interest in her voice. “Yes, everything went very well. Father even managed to best one of our Helpers, Lou, at chess, but I suspect that might have had something to do with the amount of William’s mulled wine that Lou had enjoyed earlier.”

Catherine laughed. “And did you have a chance to spend some time with everyone?”

“Almost everyone. I had hoped Narcissa would join us once again, but she did not.”

“Narcissa? I don’t think you’ve mentioned her before.”

“Narcissa is a wise and wondrous woman, one of the oldest members of our community. She lives far from the rest of us, in a…magical…realm of her own, and we rarely see her unless we journey to her chambers. She follows her own beliefs, the old ways, yet she is part of us. She somehow sees what others cannot, and she has often helped me with her advice and understanding.”

“She is very special to you,” Catherine responded. “I would love to meet her sometime. Do you think that would be possible?”

He nodded. “Yes, I do, and, if you’d like, someday I will take you to her.”

“I would love that.”

In their hearts they heard another promise, another possibility…

“What else did you do tonight? What was your favorite moment?”

“It was the moment when I felt you near, when I knew you had returned to me.” He heard her joy singing through the Bond, and he tilted his head at her. “But if you mean my favorite part of this year’s Winterfest, then it would be the music. The musicians always play through the night, but the music changes from year to year, depending on who has joined us and what instruments they have brought. Jeremiah has become quite skilled on the guitar, and tonight he helped Brooke and Michael organize a sing-along.”

“That sounds like fun! What sort of songs did they choose?”

“I wasn’t really familiar with most of them,” he replied, “but Jamie and Mouse taught us several they’d learned from listening to that old radio he reconstructed. And Laura signed some of the lyrics. Later, the musicians played traditional folk songs and ballads.”

“I can just picture all of it. I can almost hear the music.” Her voice grew soft and dreamy. “And did the children’s choir perform? They have such lovely voices.”

Vincent smiled. “The children are usually too busy enjoying the festivities, but this year they decided to surprise us with a special song. It was to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’ and they wrote the words themselves, using phrases from the Winterfest opening ceremony.”

Catherine sighed softly. “It all sounds so beautiful.”

“It was.”

For several moments Catherine fell silent, and he glanced sideways at her, wondering what she was thinking.

She looked up at him, an enigmatic smile lighting her face. “About the music…was there music for dancing, too?”

He did not hesitate. “At Winterfest there is always music for dancing…”

Their Bond shimmered as another dream began to awaken. They could almost see the candles glowing in the Great Hall; they could almost feel the love radiating within the gathering of family and friends.

And in their hearts, they heard the music.

**************

Oh, world, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise.
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.

~ George Santayana

8 Comments

  1. For part of the story I am angry at Father for finding something to exclude Catherine from this beautiful celebration after all the good things she has done. He injured Vincent in the process and left the rest of the family in a daze.
    I like the acceptance of Catherine by the community members. Rebecca’s story is touching and so similar to Vincent’s situation. Everyone is very loving and compassionate to our couple.
    Vincent made the right decision to fight and not give in to fear. The father also came to his senses:).
    I really like this conversation between Vincent and Father: “There was a time when I, too, believed in miracles…” Vincent reached for his father’s hand, enclosing it with gentle firmness in his own. “I know. How could anyone question that? Just look around you. Look at the world you founded, the community you created, the lives you saved…just look at me. All of this is nothing short of a miracle.” Then Father asks for forgiveness and they will explain so much to each other…
    Even though Catherine and Vincent didn’t spend the celebration together, the ending is great.
    She arrives, sent by her dad and Kaye to her wonderful, only love.
    Both longing, they greeted each other so tenderly… and another beautiful words are Vincent’s answer to the question about his favorite moment of the celebration: “It was the moment when I felt you near, when I knew you had returned to me.” I melted here and then they spend such a nice time together-yes! it was definitely a date!:)
    This is so emotional and touching. How good to have this story in my collection. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Paula, I wish you could see how much I’m smiling as I read your comments. Thank you so much — more than I can adequately say — for so many things. For taking the time and care to write to me about “Choices”, for enjoying the story, for seeing in it what I hoped I was conveying, and for valuing what I’ve written. I couldn’t ask for anything more!
      (And yes, even though Devin isn’t sure if he’s on a date or not in your “Changes”, I think Catherine and Vincent are quite sure that they are! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Linda, I’d ask, ‘How do you do it?’ if I didn’t know you at least a little – charming and warm and compassionate and giving … sounds so much like our Vincent and Catherine, doesn’t it? No wonder, then, you write their stories so perfectly.
    This is a wonder-filled Winterfest piece. It thrums with longing and love and happiness all awaiting expression in the Beloved’s arms.
    The sweetness as well as the angst, even the fear and anger, all come to coalesce beneath your ‘pen’. You really are Gift to us.
    Thank you for Choices – A (poignant and lovely) Winterfest Story.

    Reply
    • Nancy, you are such a blessing and a balm to my heart. I am so grateful for your comments and humbled as well. This has been a frustrating, sad, annoying, etc. few weeks for me, but everything you’ve just said, as well as the gift of your friendship, has made such a difference. Thank you, my friend!

      Reply
    • Absolutely loved it. I was also very mad at Father early on but glad he thought better of his actions
      I also felt sad Catherine missed Winterfest and Vincent was without his beloved.
      Alls well that ends well . Really appreciate your time to keep our dreams alive

      Reply
      • Karen, a million thanks to you for your very kind comments! I am extremely happy that you enjoyed the story and that you found in it exactly what I was trying to convey. While I love writing about the tunnel world, it’s so difficult to know if what I’ve written resonates with others who love and support our batb dream. You have made me feel more confident and energized, and I can’t thank you enough.

        Reply
  3. Linda, what a MARVELOUS story! I particularly love the contrast between the reactions of the two fathers — Jacob and Charles — one trying to prevent Catherine from attending Winterfest, the other urging his daughter to go be with the man she loves SIGHT UNSEEN! How I do wish Vincent and Charles Chandler would have had an opportunity to know one another, other than that sad hospital visit in Orphans.

    So glad that Father did come around in the end, that his better angels prevailed. I also particularly loved Mary’s under-the-breath reactions to Father’s micromanagement tendencies during the Committee meeting. Delightful!

    You’ve tremendously enriched our Winterfest dreams and visions, Linda. Brava!

    HUGS,

    Karen/Lindariel

    Reply
    • Your comments are always such a delight to receive! I’m smiling as I re-read them and feeling so grateful to you for sending them.
      I’m very appreciative of the way you mention story details that particularly resonate with you, and also for always seeing what I had intended to convey. That is both a relief and a joy.
      I totally agree with you that Vincent and Charles C should have had the opportunity to know one another. And Father could have learned a lot from Charles and his approach to an adult child’s love life. So glad you enjoyed Mary’s subtle rebellion. I’ve always thought she’s just biding her time before letting Father have a sizable piece of her mind. lol
      Thank you very much for everything!

      Reply

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WATER FUN

by AM

“Local temperature is 89 degrees with a heat index of 102. Stay inside if you can. Drink plenty of water and remember, don’t overdo it. It’s a scorcher out there today, folks”.

Catherine cursed the weatherman as she wiped the sweat off her forehead.  “Great. What a perfect time for the air to go out.”

The thought of going outside made her cringe. It was Sunday, so her office would be locked.

“I need to get out of this heat. I’ve got it!” Catherine giggled as she had a wonderful idea.

She went through recycling looking for something she could use.

“Nothing,” she said, frustrated.

She hurriedly changed into a comfortable t-shirt and jeans and hurried to the nearest store. She would’ve run if it hadn’t been so hot.

She sighed with relief when she stepped foot into the cool store.

She picked up some water guns.

No, too violent, and would be frowned upon, she thought as she put the guns down.

She went searching for safer things.

Balloons? No, leaves a mess to clean up.

Her eyes lit up when she saw them. “Spray bottles!!! Perfect!! Hmmm. There’s 50. That should be plenty.”

She grabbed up all the bottles and headed to pay.

It seemed like forever before she headed back to her apartment with her treasures. Instead of going directly to her apartment, she headed to the tunnels. It wasn’t long before she ran into Eric.

“What’s in the bags?” he asked

“It’s a surprise, and I need you to do me a favor. Could you gather all the kids and bring them here?”

“Okay.”

“Oh, and Eric?”

Eric turned to look at her.

“Bring as many buckets of water as you can.” She winked at him.

He returned in record time with all the tunnel kids, each carrying two buckets full of water. Catherine passed out the spray bottles and helped fill them up. Once all the bottles were filled, boundary lines were drawn, and safe places declared, they were ready.

“On your mark, get set, GO!” Catherine yelled.

The fight began in full force. Laughter, shrieks, and happy screams echoed through the tunnels as the children chased and sprayed each other. Catherine found herself in the crossfire several times, but laughed as hard as the children. When bottles emptied they were quickly refilled, and the fun continued. Soon adults came to find out where the happy noises were coming from. Some smiled, shook their heads and went back to their previous activity. Some helped by refilling empty buckets. Others just couldn’t help joining in the fun. Catherine noticed Vincent walking towards them.

“I need to borrow that,” she said to Kipper.

He smiled and handed her his full bottle. She placed the bottle behind her back, walked calmly up to Vincent, and sprayed him in the face.

His look of shock made Catherine laugh. Vincent calmly watched the children play for a few minutes before casually picking up a bucket that was a quarter full. He turned to Catherine.

“Vincent, you wouldn’t dare.”

“Perhaps, but then how would I return the favor?”

With that, he dumped the bucket over her head. The children erupted with laughter to see Catherine soaked.

A tapping on the pipes made them all stop. Dinner.

Groans quickly spread among the children. They reluctantly started handing the bottles to Catherine.

“Vincent, why don’t you keep them for the next time?”

The children’s eyes danced with glee. Vincent put the bottles in the buckets and handed them to the children to carry.

“Would you join us, Catherine?” Vincent asked.

“I would love to.”

Vincent took her hand and they followed the children to dinner.