by Linda S Barth

{Please note: In my imagining of the BatB world, Winslow recovered from the attack in the episode “To Reign in Hell.” He is alive and well as an active member of the tunnel community and good friend to Vincent.}

To look at a thing is very different from seeing it.

~ Oscar Wilde

In the silent hour just before dawn, Vincent slowly swung his legs over the edge of his rumpled bed. He leaned forward and braced his hands on his knees, trying to summon the strength to rise and start the day. His eyes felt gritty and swollen, and he knew the long strands of his hair were tangled from constant tossing and turning. It had been another sleepless night, full of turbulence, conflict, confusion — all because of…them.

He sighed heavily. If he could escape them for just a little while, he might be able to plan a counterattack. But he knew there was little hope of that. They were always there – relentless, unending, unavoidable — accosting him when he was least prepared to defend himself.

The onslaught had persisted for days. His tormentors lingered in every chamber; they hid around the curves and corners of every tunnel; they intruded into random conversations, eager to disrupt ordinary moments of everyday life. Not only had they resorted to using the children as a means of attack, they had invaded his dreams as well.

He knew the stealthy warriors would never simply give up. His only hope was to find a way to come to terms with them and with the life-changing moment that had generated such ferocious combatants. Still, he realized that simply because of who he was, a longed-for resolution would almost certainly remain just out of reach.

He sighed again. Whenever he thought he had gained a measure of respite and could contemplate his confused thoughts in peace, yet another assailant would appear. He was no longer certain he possessed enough energy and strength to withstand the relentless attacks.

He stretched his aching back and neck, then ran his hands through his hair as it lay in unruly waves over his cramped shoulders, wincing as he caught a clawed hand on hidden snarls. Hoping a quick soak in his private bathing pool might help, he rose and grabbed clean clothing from his wardrobe. As he entered the bathing chamber, he squinted his scratchy eyes in the dim light and surveyed the area. A wave of relief swept over him as he realized there was nothing waiting for him in the murky shadows or in the depths of the hot spring-fed water.

Maybe somehow today will be better, he mused, even while knowing there was little hope of that. The multiple incarnations of his nemesis were simply hiding, lying in wait to wound and torment him. Having gained strength, they refused to retreat.

As he eased himself into the comfort of the steamy water, he shook his head in wonderment. Who would have imagined an occurrence so unexpected, so momentous, so soul-stirring could have given rise to such relentless torture? And yet it had, just five days earlier.

It had all started with a kiss. Catherine’s kiss.

They had spent precious days together in his world as he helped her begin to heal from the sorrow of her beloved father’s death. They had talked of hope and love and promise, of moving forward with courage and care toward their shared someday. And just before she left him to return to face her life Above, she kissed him.

In the soothing warmth of the bathing pool, he trembled, recalling that moment for perhaps the hundredth time. How she had unhesitatingly pressed her lips to his, how soft yet sure those lips had felt as they’d caressed his unique mouth. How they had gazed into each other’s eyes, searching for unspoken promises. The moment had lingered, full of possibilities.

He had not anticipated her kiss, and the shock of it had stunned and entranced him. Yet while he’d been filled with unexpected joy, he’d become perplexed and lost in relentless contemplation. What had it all meant…why had it happened at last…why now…and would it ever happen again?

Since the moment she’d left, these unending questions had consumed him, while their elusive answers offered only frustration. There were too many factors to consider, too many possibilities, too many unknown elements. It was like trying to escape a whirlpool, swirling endlessly without focus, finding no direction that would lead safely to shore.

He had briefly pondered simply voicing his questions to her, but immediately dismissed the idea as impossible. How could he find the words…and what if her answers were not the ones he hoped for? Even the miraculous connection of their bond had been of little help, for he had discovered he could not separate his tumultuous reaction to the kiss from hers, and that realization only gave rise to even more turmoil.

As was his lifelong practice when faced with conflict, he spent hours deeply analyzing every detail. When all his effort yielded nothing more than continued emotional chaos, he finally turned to what had always been his reliable fallback plan. He forcefully pushed everything aside, transforming the miraculous moment from a milestone to a memory, isolating it in a special place in his heart. There it would remain, cherished and revered from afar, like a beautiful painting displayed in a museum, safe and secure but forever out of reach. A masterpiece that once executed would never be replicated.

For a while, it had seemed his plan was working. He felt he’d attained a sense of peace, although he knew it was actually a numbing of his senses. From time to time, he would allow himself to revisit the beloved memory, reveling in its undiminished beauty, but he would not dwell on it, for what purpose would there be in doing such a thing? And so, he went on with his life, never admitting to himself that just maybe even he had the right to dream, to hope for more…

He had not seen Catherine since that extraordinary event, and while he missed her terribly, he took comfort in knowing they would be together again when the time was right. The days passed as they always had, and his life went on just as expected, filled with his responsibilities Below.

Until they started to appear. One day they had not existed at all, then on the next they seemed to be everywhere. At first, he hadn’t known what to call them. But as they began to hunt and haunt him ceaselessly, revealing themselves to him in their many, varied disguises, he decided to refer to them simply as what they were.


Still half-submerged in the heated water, he thought back to when the first one had appeared. He had taken little notice of it at the time, for the first few encounters had seemed innocuous enough, even enjoyable. How was he to know an onslaught had begun?

It had been a casual comment at dinner the previous evening when a discussion of the limited availability of fresh produce had consumed the adults’ attention. Father had expressed the hope that William still might be able to prepare his delicious spring vegetable soup.

“I’d be glad to do it,” the cook had said, “but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

“Oh, no!” Mary had exclaimed. “It’s been such a nice tradition for the past few years.”

Cullen frowned. “Why won’t you be able to make it again?”

“Because we didn’t get any carrots, spring peas, or scallions in that last donation from Mr. Lee.” William shook his head, sorry to disappoint anyone who appreciated his culinary talents. “So, I guess we can kiss that one good-bye.”

No matter how hard Vincent had tried to isolate the memory of Catherine’s kiss, he found delightfully irresistible reminders of it wriggling their way into his mind when least expected, and sometimes he allowed himself to indulge in those small pleasures. A kiss good-bye… The image of Catherine at that moment of farewell, lifting her face to his, caressing his lips with hers, floated in his mind’s eye, and he had to hide his smile so as not to insult William.

It had been a pleasant though fleeting moment and was easily set aside; that is, until the next kiss appeared only an hour later.

He had been on his way to Father’s chamber for an after-dinner game of chess when Eric stopped him at the entrance to the study, a pad of paper and two pencil stubs clutched in his hands.

“Vincent, do you know how to play tic-tac-toe?” The little boy’s eyes had shone hopefully behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.

“Yes, Eric, I do, but I promised Father a game of chess and he’s waiting for me. Perhaps another time.”

Eric darted around Vincent and peered into the study. “Nope, he’s not there yet. Please, Vincent, just one game! Geoffrey keeps beating me and I bet you know some good – what do you call them –”

“Techniques?” Vincent offered, smiling at the boy.

“That’s it! You know, from when you were a kid and stuff.”

Vincent’s smile widened. “Yes, I know some techniques – and stuff – from way back then. Come, we can sit at Father’s table, but as soon as he arrives, we’ll have to put your game away.”

Eric raced to the table and ripped a wrinkled page from the pad. A few minutes later, he laughed in delight, anticipating the way he would use Vincent’s suggestions to beat Geoffrey at their next game.

At just that moment, Father entered the study, ready for what he hoped might be a miraculous opportunity to utter the word ‘checkmate’ to his son. “What’s this you’ve been up to?” he asked, picking up the paper covered in x’s and o’s. “Oh, noughts and crosses. I remember it well from my boyhood days.”

“Whats and crosses?” Eric frowned in confusion. “We’re playing tic-tac-toe.”

“It’s the same thing. You call it tic-tac-toe here in the US, but in England it’s called noughts and crosses. The x looks like a cross, and nought is another word for nothing or zero.”

“Oh, I get it now.”

“But no matter what it’s called, it’s very difficult to win a game,” Father added. “You must hope your opponent will act illogically or that he’ll fail to predict your next move.”

Eric laughed. “It won’t be hard for me! Vincent showed me a few — a few techniques –and I’m gonna use them to beat Geoffrey!”

Father raised his eyebrows, though his smile did not fade. “I should have guessed as much. Some things never change.”

Vincent smiled in agreement, then turned to Eric. “Now I’m going to use some different techniques to see if I can beat Father in a game of chess. And you need to be off to bed.” At the boy’s look of disappointment, he added, “You can dream about your victory over Geoffrey.”

Eric’s face brightened immediately. “Thanks, Vincent!” he yelled over his shoulder as he ran off in the direction of the boys’ chambers. “You, too, Father!”

The two shared a smile as they set up the chessboard. When they were about to begin their game, Vincent commented, “I wonder why those two symbols were chosen for tic-tac-toe. It really could be anything – squares and triangles, horizontal and vertical lines – just as long as opposing meanings are assigned to them.”

“I’ve absolutely no idea,” Father answered, clearly eager to begin their own competition. “Perhaps it’s because it’s just a simple game played between friends, often children. It’s an innocent, affable pastime, after all, so the o’s and x’s might have been derived from the traditional symbols for a hug and a kiss.”

For just a moment the word ‘kiss’ triggered thoughts of its other traditional meanings, but with lifelong practice, Vincent pushed the allure aside. He unlatched and opened the box. “I believe you have the white pieces this time, Father.”

Following an unexpected loss, which Vincent ascribed to his lingering distraction caused by the mention of kisses, he entered the sanctuary of his own chamber. He lit a few candles near his desk and then opened his journal, preparing to record his thoughts as he often did before sleeping. But the only words that came to him were reminiscent of the ones William had uttered hours earlier – a kiss goodbye.

Unbidden memories arose of the forced parting of two other lovers. Kanin and Olivia had been so happy. The life they shared was promising and full of hope, with a precious son and spacious new chambers to house their growing family. Vincent remembered how he had rejoiced for them as Catherine and he helped prepare the fanciful anniversary surprise Kanin had envisioned for his wife. And he remembered, too, how he had somehow found the courage to ask Catherine if she thought Olivia would like the romantic beauty of the new bedchamber. Conflicting pangs of hope and regret still resonated within him when he recalled her response, “Olivia will love this chamber.” He had not pretended he’d misunderstood, and yet he hadn’t found the words to utter a response, although he wished he had.

All too soon, the other couple’s joy was shattered when Kanin could no longer outrun his past. With heartbreak and honor, he left behind his beloved wife and child and the home they had made for one another. Their kiss goodbye would have been filled with sorrow and desperation, both knowing it would be an exceedingly long time before they could be together again.

He sighed, setting aside his pen and journal. Olivia and Kanin had found one another, had begun to live their happy life, only to be forced apart. The sadness of that thought weighed heavily upon him, compounded by an undercurrent of contrition. His friends had experienced so many things he could barely allow himself to dream of, and though they had been forced to part, their separation was not irreparable. They owned not only memories of everything they’d had but also the very real hope that someday it all would be theirs again. It was everything he wanted, too, but would never possess, and he could not entirely suppress a smoldering of envy.

But what was the point of feeling that way? A life such as the one his friends had shared, and would share again, was never meant to be for Catherine and him, no matter how much either might wish for it. He should feel nothing but happiness and hope for Kanin and Olivia.

Ashamed, he had risen from his chair and prepared for bed, praying his dreams would not be filled with images of lovers’ partings, promises unrealized, and the bittersweet sting of farewell kisses. But that prayer was not to be answered, and he had struggled through dark hours filled with nightmarish images.

Catherine suspended in the light at the threshold between their worlds. Catherine returning to him, so close that he could feel the sweet warmth of her breath on his face as he bowed his head toward hers. Catherine kissing his lips, and then softly whispering, “I’ll never forget you…Good-bye, Vincent.” Catherine turning to walk away from him forever.

Catherine kissing him so gently, so sweetly. Catherine waiting in vain for him to respond, to accept everything she offered. Catherine shaking her head sadly, murmuring, “Why, Vincent, why can’t we be together as we wish to be?” Catherine waiting for the answer that he never spoke. Catherine turning to walk away from him forever.

Catherine looking deep into his eyes and finding not even a hint of the joy and promise she hoped her kiss would bring to life. Catherine’s eyes filling with tears. Catherine pulling away from him, murmuring, “I’m sorry, Vincent. I was wrong. It won’t happen again.” Catherine turning to walk away from him forever.

Through the long hours of the night, visions of her kiss had played out in one devastating scene after another. The kiss should have been a beautiful memory to cherish. Instead, it generated terror that someday he truly would lose her and would live the rest of his life filled with anger and remorse for his fears and failures. How has it come to this, he asked himself, that I can deny such a precious gift, a symbol of everything I’ve ever wanted? How can I continue to be such a coward, such a fool?

The questions would continue to haunt him until he found the courage to face the answers. But now was not the time, and he forced them aside as he rose from the bathing pool and wrapped his dripping body in a voluminous towel. He was late, and realized he would have to hurry to dress and head to the dining chamber for a quick breakfast before teaching his first class of the day. He had lingered far too long, lost in the dark visions of his dreams, and he could not allow his personal torment to interfere with his students’ learning. This class was studying techniques for writing poetry, a topic requiring much thought and concentration, and he was grateful that for at least a while, the kisses and the regrets would leave him in peace.

A half-hour later, the sound of quarreling adolescent voices rumbled toward him even before he entered the designated classroom chamber. He paused in the entryway, observing his students so absorbed in an argument of some sort, they had not noticed his presence.

“No way!” Zach shoved the book across the table. “I told you – I’m not reading that out loud!”

Kipper grinned as he pushed it back. “Oh, yes you are. It’s your turn today.”

“Kipper’s right,” Samantha agreed. “Vincent gave us the list of assignments weeks ago, and this one is yours.”

“I don’t care,” Zach retorted. “Someone has to switch with me.” He turned to Jasmine, giving her a hopeful smile. “You’ll take my turn, right? And then I’ll read yours next class.”

Jasmine hesitated for a few seconds before shaking her head. “Sorry. Maybe if you hadn’t played all those practical jokes on Sam and me, I would’ve said yes.”

“You should have just asked Vincent to let you have a different poem,” Jonathan suggested. “I bet he would have been okay with it.”

Zach frowned. “Yeah, I should have, but – “

“But you didn’t even bother to read the poem until just a few minutes ago, and now you’re stuck with it, right?” Samantha grinned as she looked at Zach’s glowering face. “I knew it!”

“If you know everything, then you read it!”

Vincent strode into the classroom and placed his satchel of books on the long table. “What’s going on here? Is there a problem with today’s assignment?”

Kipper answered for the group, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smirk. “Not for most of us, Vincent, but I think Zach’s having some trouble with it.”

Zach glared at the younger boy, while trying desperately to think of reasonable answers to his teacher’s questions. One look at Vincent’s face told him he should opt for something close to the truth. “It’s my turn to read aloud to the class today.” A telltale blush began to creep up his neck and onto his face. “But I can’t do it – not this time.”

Vincent reached for the discarded book and handed it to Zach. “Show me which poem is causing you so much trouble.”

Still hoping to win a reprieve, Zach opened the book to the proper page and held it out to Vincent. “Here, it’s this one.”

Vincent quickly scanned the poem, but then, instead of making any comment, he seemed lost in thought. The poet’s words he had deemed so appropriate for the planned class discussion now seemed somehow wrong.

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune.

All eyes focused on Vincent’s face as the students awaited the verdict. When several seconds passed and he still had not spoken, Zach hoped it meant his teacher was about to take pity on him. Then, the boy’s eyes widened in something close to horror as Vincent handed the book back to him. “The focus of our discussion today is the poet’s use of figurative language. Robert Burns’s A Red, Red Rose provides fine examples of the use of similes.”

Vincent’s voice was calm and even as he continued, “Zach, you knew every student had been assigned to select a poem to present to the class. I gave out the list of options weeks ago, and evidently you chose this one. If you found you were having a problem with it, you should have come to me sooner.”

Everyone stared at Zach, waiting to see what he would do next. The boy hung his head for a moment and then looked up at Vincent. “I picked this poem because when I skimmed through the book, it looked like it was the shortest one…but I didn’t actually read it until a few minutes ago.”

Wishing to ease the boy’s discomfort, Vincent searched for a way to help. He knew he could not let him evade all responsibility, but perhaps Zach could lead the discussion after someone else read the poem aloud. He let his gaze take in the array of silent, upturned faces, and when he spoke, his voice was firm. “As you all know, part of being a good student is taking your studies seriously and following through on what is expected of you.” He focused on Zach’s stricken face. “And I’m sorry this is difficult for you, but you have to accept responsibility for your decisions. However, perhaps –”

“I can take Zach’s turn,” Jonathan offered. “I don’t mind.”

“That’s kind of you, Jonathan, but this is something Zach needs to resolve himself. Why don’t we see if there’s –”

Believing there was only one option left to him if he were to avoid his fate, Zach scrambled to his feet, knocking his chair to the stony floor. “I’m not going to do it!” The strident tone of his voice echoed through the chamber in counterpoint to the slap of his booted feet as he ran toward the entryway.

“Zach!” Vincent’s voice froze the boy in mid-flight. “I want you to wait for me in the passageway while I speak to the rest of the class.”

Still managing to retain the traces of a defiant glare, the boy nodded his head once before leaving the chamber.

Vincent turned to the remaining students, looking from one face to the next, each a reflection of shock and sympathy. “While Zach and I are gone, you can write in your journals. I want each of you to consider a time when you had to find ways to cope with a difficult situation.”

“Is anyone else going to read what we write?” Jasmine bit her lip as she looked across the table at their teacher. “Are we going to have to talk about it in class?”

Vincent shook his head. “Sometimes sharing our thoughts can be very comforting, but only if you choose to do so.” He waited as the children quickly pulled journals and pens from their bookbags, then left them to their own contemplation.

Half-expecting the passageway to be deserted, Vincent felt a sense of relief when he saw Zach slumped against the wall, waiting for him a few yards away. He rested his hands lightly on the boy’s hunched shoulders. “We need to find a quiet place where we can talk about what happened. Where would you like to go?”

“I don’t know – just somewhere they can’t hear us.”

Vincent nodded. “Then let’s walk for a while until we find the right spot.”

Zach pushed himself forward and walked in silence beside Vincent until they reached a stone bench carved into the wall of a wide curve in the passageway. The boy shrugged. “Here, I guess.”

Once seated at opposite ends of the bench, Vincent turned toward Zach. “Can you tell me what’s really bothering you? You’re an excellent student, and it’s not like you to refuse to do an assignment. What happened?”

Zach sighed heavily and looked sideways at Vincent. “I told you the truth. I really didn’t read the poem ahead of time – and I’m sorry about that, but I forgot it was my turn today. I’ve…I’ve had a lot on my mind lately…”

“That can happen to any of us.” Vincent’s voice was calm and reassuring. “But we could have worked out a compromise if you had told me about this situation before class started.”

“I know, but when you were late, I thought I could just take a quick look at it, so I’d sort of be ready to do the assignment after all.”

When the boy’s voice trailed off again, Vincent prompted, “And that’s when you found something in the poem that upset you, and you decided you couldn’t read it to the class. But there’s more to this problem, isn’t there?”

Zach nodded. “I started reading the poem to myself and – and when I saw what it was about, I couldn’t go through with it. I tried to get somebody to trade with me, but they all thought it was funny and I knew they’d laugh at me when I had to read it out loud. All that stuff about roses and melodies and – and – and being in love. I couldn’t say that in front of them.”

When he had compiled the selections for the class, Vincent had hesitated over the poem in question, wondering if it would provoke an exaggerated emotional response in his adolescent students. He ultimately decided to keep it on the list, but now realized he had made an unfortunate mistake.

“Zach, the poem was intended to be part of our discussion on the use of similes, nothing more. It was never meant to make anyone embarrassed or uncomfortable.”

When there was no response from the boy, Vincent continued, “The poem describes the ways the writer has chosen to tell us of his love for a woman, how he experiences their love in every part of his life, even in the simplest everyday occurrences. He goes on to pledge that he will always love her. He wants to show romantic love is an important part of his life, of the lives of most people. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that.”

Zach turned to stare fully at Vincent, his eyes wide with disbelief. “Nothing to be ashamed of?” he echoed. “They all would have mocked me if I said stuff like that!” His dark eyes filled with tears, and he turned his head away, trying to hide his distress. “There’s no way I could talk about those things. I thought you’d understand, even if nobody else would.”

Vincent’s heart constricted in pain. Of course, he told himself, I should have known. Even the children realize I’ve no right to speak of love as if it were a natural part of every man’s life.

“I’m sorry, Zach,” he said softly. “What can I do to help?”

The boy sniffed loudly and swiped away his tears with the back of his hand. “You can give me a different poem to read,” he suggested hopefully.

Vincent managed a small smile. “I think that can be arranged.” He started to rise from the bench. “Now, let’s get back to class and get on with our lesson for today.”

He waited, expecting Zach to join him, but the boy remained where he was, an anguished look on his face. “Uh, Vincent, I didn’t really tell you the truth, not all of it anyway.”

Vincent settled back onto the bench. “Go on.”

Zach took a deep breath. “I knew some of the kids would laugh or tease me, but I don’t really care about that. I can take it. The real reason I couldn’t read the poem to the class was because…because I was afraid she’d know I was thinking about her.”

Vincent tilted his head expectantly. “Do you want to tell me who she is?”

The boy nodded, blushing slightly. “The new girl – Jasmine. I really like her a lot. But I don’t want anyone else to know!”

“Then it will be our secret for as long as you wish it to be,” Vincent reassured him. “But did you ever consider that perhaps she returns your feelings, and she has been looking for a way to let you know?”

Zach’s eyes brightened as a hopeful smile returned to his face. “Do you really think so?!”

Vincent shrugged. “After all, anything’s possible.”

“But how can I find out? What should I do to show her I like her?”

“That’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. You’ll know what to do when the time is right.”

Zach’s smile faded. “Aww, that’s not much help. I’ve been thinking about this all week, and I thought you’d be the best person to ask.”

Vincent could not suppress the incredulous tone of his voice. “And why is that?”

Zach rolled his eyes and got to his feet. “Geez, Vincent, because of Catherine! You guys are always staring at each other, looking all mushy, and everybody’s seen you holding hands. You probably say all that lovey-dovey stuff when no one else is listening.”  At the shocked look on his teacher’s face, he grinned. “And I bet there’s a lot of kissing going on!”

For several seconds, Vincent could not think or move or even breathe. The kisses were back and in a way he had not anticipated. Although, he admitted to himself, I really should have expected as much. What better battleground for them than a group of hormonally charged adolescents? He shook his head and rose to his feet, still feeling somewhat disoriented but secretly pleased to have discovered the children’s view of him was nothing like he had imagined.

With an air of renewed determination, Zach gestured in the direction of the classroom. “I guess we’d better get back.”

“Yes, I guess we should.” Vincent followed the boy along the corridor.

Just before they reached the chamber entrance, Zach stopped abruptly. A worried frown shadowed his face. “What are you going tell the other kids?”

Vincent didn’t hesitate. “That sometimes certain ideas we believe to be right, can turn out to be wrong.”

“That’ll work!” Zach nodded vigorously. “And it’s even the truth!”

Relieved when the remainder of the day passed uneventfully in a blur of classes and chores, Vincent decided to stop by the kitchen to see if William needed some help with the evening’s dinner preparations.

“Sure,” William answered, “that’d be great. Cullen and Dominic finished repairing those cracks in two of the big tables, but they put them back in the wrong spot. Want to help me move them?”

The two men entered the large communal dining chamber, where Mary and some of the younger women were busy folding freshly laundered napkins and spreading out tablecloths. As Vincent and William began rearranging the tables, the cook commented, “Michael was supposed to help with this, but I guess in all the commotion of coming back last night, with everybody so happy to see him and all, he forgot to check the duty roster.”

“Yes, he probably needs some time to settle in again. But he seems happy to be home for a few weeks before his summer classes start.”  

As they continued to shove the long tables back into place, William hummed loudly under his breath, but Vincent was unable to ignore snatches of a conversation continuing nearby.

“And I also heard Michael is transferring to NYU,” Jamie said. “I wonder why he didn’t want to stay at Braefield.”

Taya shrugged as she reached for another pile of napkins. “I don’t know.” She glanced at Mary who was sorting silverware into baskets, then lowered her voice to add, “But I bet Brooke knows!”

Jamie laughed in agreement. “You’re right about that! Brooke knows all there is to know about Michael!”

“Shhh,” Taya hissed, “Mary will hear us!”

Mary turned immediately and frowned in their direction. “We’ve already talked about this twice today, girls. You shouldn’t gossip about your friends.”

“We’re sorry, Mary,” Taya offered. “It won’t happen again.”

Mary smiled as she raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know about that, but at least you can try a little harder.”

“And besides,” Jamie added. “we weren’t really gossiping about our friends, just sharing some news, right, Taya?”

“Right! And we don’t even know any really interesting stuff about Brooke and Michael anyway.” She looked at Mary with a hopeful expression. “Brooke never tells us anything good.”

“That’s beside the point. It still isn’t –”

“Because,” Jamie interrupted with a grin, “Brooke never kisses and tells!”

Taya snickered loudly. “And neither does Michael!”

Anything else Mary might have attempted to say was lost in shrieks of laughter from the two younger women, and with a good-natured shrug, she retreated to a storage alcove near the kitchen to retrieve more supplies.

William gestured in Jamie and Taya’s direction. “What do you suppose that’s all about?”

Vincent had overheard every word, but merely answered, “I don’t know, but it sounds like they’re enjoying themselves.”

William pushed the last bench into place next to the newly mended tables. “Nothing wrong with enjoying themselves,” he began, then raised his voice so he could be heard over the laughter. “As long as they get their work done, too!”

“We’re on it,” Taya said, catching her breath. “And we’re almost finished.”

“Good, because you two need to take trays of food to the work crew down near the nursery chambers. They sent word they’re running late on the repairs, and they want to finish up so the little ones can get to bed on time.” William pointed toward the kitchen. “Ask Mary to help you get everything ready.”

“I can do it,” Vincent said, “and while I’m there, I’ll see if they need an extra hand.”

Jamie and Taya exchanged happy smiles. “Thanks a lot, Vincent! Taya and I haven’t had a chance to talk to Michael yet, and we were looking forward to catching up with him at dinner.”

Several minutes later as he carefully carried a large tray of covered dishes through the tunnels, Vincent admitted to himself that his offer to help had not been entirely altruistic. While he had greeted Michael briefly upon his arrival home last evening, they had not yet had an opportunity to talk alone. The rift in their friendship had been mended, but there still lingered in Vincent’s mind the memory of the incident – the kiss — that had been the catalyst for an emotionally charged confrontation not so long ago.

Vincent knew neither he nor Michael wanted anything to disrupt their peaceful accord; so he had decided there was no need to ever mention that kiss again, and he was certain Michael would agree. However, considering the way things had been going lately, Vincent decided not to take any chances. He would visit with Michael at some later time.

Kisses. It was as if there were no longer anything else in the world to think about.

He was annoyed he’d let the kisses inveigle themselves into his consciousness again. He promised himself he would strengthen his guard. They would not get the better of him, no matter how persistent they might become.

Following a brief supper with the members of the work crew, who assured him they would be able to finish the job quickly on their own, he found himself without plans for the rest of the evening. Even though he was exhausted from the previous sleepless night, he felt restless and decided to walk alone through the underground world until some semblance of serenity returned to his heart and soul.

As he neared the classroom where the morning’s upheaval had occurred, he decided to retrieve the infamous book of poetry and then find a quiet place to read. His wandering footsteps soon brought him to a ledge near the top of the Great Falls, and he settled comfortably in a familiar place of refuge.

At first, he simply stared out into the vast cavern, willing the sight of the immense open space, the hushed roar of the falls, and the cooling breeze to soothe his inner turmoil and help center his thoughts. He breathed deeply as he felt tension slowly ease from his body and mind, and then opened the book he’d brought with him. He turned its pages randomly, hoping the words of someone else’s heart might bring him solace as they had so often in the past.

Almost at once, a word seemed to glow from its place on the page, and he knew he could not resist its allure. Another poem by Robert Burns… another kiss.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.

The words did not lend respite but instead renewed his despair, speaking of a kiss that signified not the promise of a sweet beginning but instead an eternal parting. He closed the book, unwilling to read further, and turned again to the vast expanse of the cavern, hoping to regain the tentative peacefulness he had found earlier.

But in a heartbeat, his attention was diverted by unexpected sounds of unrestrained laughter and pounding footfalls. The intrusion came from somewhere below him, on a level closer to the base of the falls, and he leaned forward to see who else sought privacy in this special place.

Panting after racing through the tunnels, Michael pulled an equally breathless Brooke into his arms and swung her around and around before setting her on her feet again. Their voices were made indistinct by the roar of the falls, but there was no mistaking the intent of their words as they gazed into each other’s eyes. Vincent knew he should look away but found himself mesmerized by the pair as they clung to one another, their luminous smiles slowly fading to something deeper and sweeter as they tightened their embrace. When they came together in a tender kiss, he forced himself to rise, to swiftly, silently leave the young lovers to share what should be known only to them.

When he reached the passageway leading back to the home chambers, he paused to try and still his racing thoughts, to think of some other place where he might find a moment of peace. But in seconds, he knew it was futile, and instead he returned to his private chamber, already anticipating with dread another long night of unquiet sleep and disturbing dreams.

After lowering the tapestry in the doorway to indicate he did not wish to be disturbed, he retrieved his journal from its place on the bookshelf above his desk, then collapsed onto the meager comfort of an old, upholstered chair. He paged back to an entry recorded several weeks earlier, and forced himself to recall a certain kiss, one that had filled him with the shame of jealousy and desire.

How conflicted he had been when he’d become aware that Michael, a young man who was like a son to him, was fervently kissing his own beloved Catherine. He had sensed immediately Catherine’s only response had been to comfort the young man, to ease his terrible pain, and that she had not returned even a hint of his desperate passion. Vincent would have expected nothing less of her, and it was not the kiss itself that evoked the torment that had followed.

It had been the furious jealousy that had ripped through him, the unquenchable yearning to have been the man who had kissed her, a man she might kiss in return. To realize himself unable to share Catherine’s love with anyone else filled him with shame. His torment had been eased only when she told him she understood the envy and possessiveness he so loathed, for she felt it, too. She had reaffirmed her commitment to him, to a life together where limits were yet to be defined, and once again she had tried her best to make him believe he deserved everything, especially her love.

Even now, long after the anguish and torment had lessened, Vincent found he could not entirely forgive himself. Seeing Michael return to visit the world that would always welcome him home, to reunite with the young woman who had captured his heart, should have brought only joy. But with it came the desperate wish that such exquisite happiness could come as easily to Catherine and himself.

He set the journal aside and reached again for the book of poetry, even while knowing there was no longer any hope of finding consolation in its pages. As if to punish himself for his self-perceived sin of daring to want, he finished reading the disturbing poem he’d started earlier.

I’ll ne’er blame by partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted –
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Again, it was as if some unknown force had begun to control his life, continually hurling painful reminders and implications at him. The poet’s words were so like the ones he had said to Michael when he’d sought to convey his understanding and forgiveness. How could anyone not love her?

He felt compelled to read the remaining stanza of the poem, even while knowing it would ensure another sleepless night.

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be like a joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, forever!

He wondered how the poet had continued to exist after experiencing the joy of loving and being loved in return, only to lose everything. Despite all his self-doubts and fears, he knew if he were ever to lose Catherine’s love, the resultant despair and darkness would never end. For him, there could be no life without her.

Sighing heavily, he shelved the book and began to prepare for what he hoped might be a few hours of rest. Much later, just before dawn, he awoke from what he realized with surprise had been a deep, dreamless sleep. Maybe today will be different, he told himself as he stretched and yawned, savoring a fragile sense of serenity he had not known for several days. Then, since it was still far too early to do anything productive, he let himself drift back to sleep for just a while longer.

And he began to dream.

Strolling through the moonlit park with Catherine at his side on a beautiful summer night. Stopping in the shadowy seclusion of a rose garden, savoring the blossoms’ sweet fragrance drifting through the air. Trembling as Catherine melted into his arms. Gazing at her upturned face, her parted lips…Then turning his face aside to merely hold her against his chest. Hearing her sigh of longing and frustration. Smothering his own…

Lying next to Catherine on a heap of patchwork quilts in a secret chamber above the Great Falls. Reading from a book of poetry in the candlelit shadows. Breathing in the evocative scent of her hair, her skin. Gasping as she pulled the book from his hand and snuggled closer, sighing as she caressed his face, gazed into his eyes, drew him forward…Hesitating, then gently but firmly pulling away from her, feeling a shattering bolt of anger and disappointment strike him through the bond…

Waking to the sound of soft footsteps entering his chamber. Blinking into the dim light. Watching Catherine approach his bed, her face alight with love and desire only for him. Sensing those same delicious sensations within himself. Feeling pangs of delight when she tells him she has come to kiss him good night. Reaching for her…and then turning away, hearing himself ask her to leave. Looking back as she hesitates but complies. Knowing this moment will never come again…

He shook himself awake, unable to endure another moment of his disturbing dreams. But even waking, the visions haunted him, Catherine offering a precious kiss again and again only to be met with his repeated rejection. While those images were illusions, the truth that had created them was not, and it was almost more than he could bear. There would be time later, whether he wished for it or not, when he would have to confront the escalating torment in his heart and soul, but for now he must find a way to set it aside, for otherwise, he feared, lay madness.

Realizing that dealing with his growing obsession had forced him to be late yet again, he hurried to wash and dress so that he might try to lose himself in the distraction and routine of another busy day. Intending to grab a quick bite of breakfast in the dining hall, he rushed from his chamber, then scrambled to a stop just inches from Samantha who was racing past in the same direction.

The startled girl jumped backwards, avoiding a collision with only seconds to spare. “Vincent! You scared me!”

“I’m sorry, Samantha,” he said, patting her gently on the shoulder. “I didn’t realize anyone else was there. Are you all right?”

The girl grinned as she looked up at him. “I’m fine. I shouldn’t have been running either. Good thing Father didn’t catch us!”

He managed a smile. “I see I’m not the only one who’s late for breakfast this morning. What happened?” He gestured toward the books she clutched in her arms. “Did you realize you had forgotten something back in your chamber?”

“Yes, I borrowed these from Mary.” She turned the books so he could see the titles. “And she needs some of them for an activity with the toddler group this morning.”

As the two walked toward the dining chamber, he commented, “You’ve always been quite an advanced reader. Don’t you think these books are a bit too easy for you?”

“They aren’t for me!” She giggled. “Mary has been letting me read a bedtime story to some of the youngest kids once or twice a week. I needed the books so I could practice for tonight. Mary said it’s a good idea to do that to be sure I’ve made the right choice.”

“And which one have you chosen?”

“Well, I wanted to go with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but then I thought it might get the kids too excited and silly right before bedtime.” She raised her eyebrows as she looked up at him. “Do you know why?”

Although he knew immediately, he answered, “Because then they’d all want cookies?”

“No, that’s not it! It’s because – you know – Mouse! Get it?”

“Ah, now I see. I think you made a wise decision to avoid that one at bedtime.”

Very pleased she had won her teacher’s approval, she continued, “So I chose Little Bear instead. I remember it from when I was their age, and I think they’ll like it, too. It’s a very peaceful story. They’ll probably fall asleep right afterwards.”

Hearing the hopefulness in the girl’s voice, he quickly replied, “I’m sure you’re right. You’ve given this a lot of thought, and you’re doing what’s best for the children. You would be an excellent teacher someday.”

“Do you really think so?” The sparkle in her eyes matched the excitement in her voice. “You know, I’ve been thinking about that. Maybe I will be a teacher when I grow up – or a writer – or maybe an artist – or –”  Her voice broke off abruptly as she scrambled to secure the books that had started to slip from her grasp. “Whew! That was close! I don’t want anything to happen to the books.”

“No harm done,” he reassured her. “And that was a quick save. Maybe you should also consider becoming an athlete in the future.” 

Her dark eyes narrowed in thought. “Maybe. I am pretty good at the soccer games up in the park. I’ll have to think about it.”

He smiled fondly at the young girl, so easily caught up in hopes and dreams. He knew how precious and yet fleeting all dreams could be, and he hoped it would be a long time before she had to realize it, too.

They were about to enter the dining chamber when he noticed a piece of paper protruding from one of the books. “Samantha, something’s about to fall out of that book. Be careful not to lose it.”

She pulled a folded paper from between pages of The Very Busy Spider and saw her name printed carefully on the front. “I wonder what this is. I read this book at bedtime a couple of nights ago, and I thought Mary would want it to go back in the library.”

He took the other books from her hands so she could unfold the somewhat crinkled paper. Seconds later, she grinned happily as she held it up for him to see. An array of brightly crayoned spiders danced across the page, surrounded by lopsided hearts and smiling stick figures. At the bottom in Mary’s neat handwriting were the words, “Thank you for reading to us, Samantha. We love you! From Javier, Leah, Sakura, Quinn, Gemma, Nathaniel, Susanna, and Timothy.”

“What you did for the children was very special. Your kindness means a lot to them.”

“I’m going to thank them back later today,” she said happily as she carefully refolded the note, intending to keep it safe in the pocket of her sweater. But as she did, she noticed some wiggly letters scrawled on the other side of the paper. She looked at them with a puzzled expression and handed him the note. “It says swak. What does that mean?”

He suppressed a sigh. Of course. They were back, and this undoubtedly would be only the first of many invasive provocateurs waylaying him throughout the day. “Not swak. It’s S-W-A-K. It means sealed with a kiss.”

She smiled fondly at the thank you note from the children. “Those little kids are so sweet. Thanks, Vincent!” Retrieving her books and the note, she hurried off to share her news with her friends.

Once inside the dining chamber, Vincent greeted several people who sat chatting for a few minutes over breakfast, but he did not linger. Instead, he wrapped a cranberry muffin, a piece of cheese, and an apple in worn linen napkins and put them in his pack. After obtaining a thermos of hot Darjeeling tea from the kitchen, he headed out toward the morning’s worksite near a storage area close to Cullen’s chambers, where he was to meet the other members of the crew.

Eager to be the first arrival so that he might have time to reorder his thoughts and regain his focus, he began to quicken his stride, but soon his steps grew slower. During the past few days, the energy he had needed to suppress the thought of Catherine’s kiss had impacted both his mental and physical stamina, making it increasingly difficult to sustain his typical strength.

Of course, the latest incarnations of kisses were only making things worse. As pleased as he was for Samantha, he could not entirely avoid the onslaught of disquieting thoughts this most recent incident had evoked. For all his fervent determination to relegate Catherine’s kiss to a singular precious memory, he somehow had disregarded a crucial detail of that wondrous experience. She had left him not only with her kiss but with her words, an expression of gratitude, and now that suppressed memory had been hauntingly resurrected.

“Thank you, Vincent.” He could hear her voice as if she were still there in front of him, gazing into his eyes, an enigmatic expression on her face, before she turned and walked away.

How could I have forgotten what she said? he wondered. The answer came to him in a heartbeat. Because I didn’t want to remember.

She thanked me, but for what? The possibilities chased each other through his mind. He could almost hear her voice whispering first one variation and then another.

Thank you for letting me stay Below so I could start to heal. Thank you for helping me find a sense of peace. Thank you for understanding and for being such a good friend.

Each individual expression was part of a greater truth. That understanding warmed him, but it lasted only a moment as his thoughts took a more unsettling turn. Or maybe, he considered, she meant something else, something colder and shadowed.

Thank you for holding me while I slept even though you felt it was unwise. Thank you for letting me stay even though you found so many reasons for me to leave you. Thank you for listening even though you chose not to hear everything I longed to tell you.

And then the darkest possibility of all.                      

Thank you for trying to hide how terrified you were when I kissed you. Thank you for not pushing me away and running from me. Thank you for accepting at least one small kiss when we both know you will never consent to anything more.

The possibilities demoralized him for he knew that once again each reflected another facet of reality, another side of truth. And still, he had no way of knowing which one held the essential meaning of Catherine’s kiss. Was it just one of those tormenting possibilities, or a complex fusion of them all, or even something else he had not yet imagined?

He shook his head hard, as if to make ordered sense of his chaotic thoughts, and was startled to realize he’d reached the worksite. His obsession with Catherine’s kiss was threatening to overwhelm him completely. He knew he must find a way to control its force if he were to maintain any sense of normalcy in his life and perhaps even to preserve his sanity.

Although he typically kept to himself when he was troubled, relying on his own contemplation to find solutions to whatever concerned him, he began to wonder if this time it might be best to seek support and help from someone else. Maybe there is someone I can talk to, he mused, someone who might understand.

Unable to consider the one perfect partner for such a discussion, his thoughts turned instead to absent friends. Kanin, who would have understood and could have provided insightful advice, was locked away Above. Winslow, who would have listened sympathetically and suggested a plan of action, had relocated upstate for several weeks, heavily involved in helping with Rolley’s rehab program. And Devin, who had always been a trusted confidante and beloved older brother, was somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-la.

His shoulders slumped as he expelled a deep breath. At first, the idea of seeking another’s counsel had seemed to be a viable solution, but clearly the execution of it would be more challenging than he had anticipated. Still, there were other men who currently lived Below, he reminded himself, and there must be someone who would be willing to help. Yet as his hopeful contemplation continued, he quickly realized he was running out of options.

Pascal was one of his oldest friends, always calm and caring, but he had no greater experience in matters of the heart than Vincent possessed. William, for all his short-tempered gruffness and sometimes rowdy humor, was a kind and considerate soul, but Vincent could not imagine approaching him for the advice he needed. There were other men, several close to Vincent’s age, but none he knew well enough to confide in about such a personal dilemma.

That left only Father, and even though Vincent was becoming desperate to unburden his anguished thoughts to some trustworthy soul, he knew turning to his parent would have to be his last resort. While the older man had become very fond of Catherine and gradually more accepting of her relationship with his son, a conversation about any physical expression of their love would only lead to unavoidable and destructive repercussions.

There was no easy answer, and Vincent knew that continuing his attempt to find one was only adding to the conflict already wracking his heart. Hoping to distract himself with practical matters, at least for now, he quickly ate his breakfast and surveyed the work area. He noticed several large pieces of furniture had been pulled from the storage area, each requiring some level of repair so they would be usable. As he began to inspect the warped supporting frame of a bookcase, he heard the voices of his approaching co-workers.

“Where’s Vincent?” Dominic asked. “I thought he was on the crew today.”

“I saw him stop by the dining chamber,” Marcus offered, “but he didn’t stay long. Maybe there was something else he had to do first.”

Cullen’s voice was firm and reassuring. “Don’t worry about Vincent. He’ll be here. He keeps his promises.”

Vincent felt his mouth curve in a slight smile. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of him before? Cullen had once been married to a woman he’d loved deeply, whose loss he still grieved. Surely, he can offer some perspective that would be of help.

He sighed in relief, promising himself he’d find a way to approach Cullen before the workday ended. Even though the two men were not close friends, they had known each other for many years; and, after resolving the terrible conflict stemming from Mouse’s discovery of hidden treasure, they had grown more comfortable with one another again.

And, Vincent realized, there was no other choice. Initiating such a discussion with anyone would be difficult, but he knew it had to be done before his obsession with Catherine’s kiss became his entire realm of reality.

“Hey, Vincent!” Dominic called as the crew entered the work area. “Good to see you! This job is going to be brutal – lots of heavy lifting and moving.”

“That’s why we’re the ones who got assigned to it.” Marcus laughed as he set down his toolbox. “’Cause we’re the only guys who could handle it – literally.”

Vincent smiled at his coworkers. “I think you’re right. Cullen, where do you want us to begin?”

“I went through the pieces yesterday, but I couldn’t get much of them moved by myself. The good news is it’s not as bad as it looks.” The expert woodworker pulled a list from his pocket. “The top priorities for today are the double bed, a small bench, a table, a dresser, and that wardrobe way over in the corner.” He gestured toward the oversized piece of furniture situated in the furthest reaches of the storage area. “They all need some work, but they’re in decent shape, so let’s see what we can do with them now. And then we can get to the rest of the list tomorrow.”

“Want to start with the bed frame?” Marcus asked. “We can get to that one without climbing over everything else.”

The others agreed with his common sense suggestion and immediately began pulling pieces of the bed from the clutter.

“Who are all these things for?” Dominic dragged the headboard into an open area where there would be room to work. “Are they all going to the same person?”

“These pieces are for the new couple that’s moving Below in a few weeks,” Cullen replied. “We voted on them at the last Council meeting.”

“Oh, yeah, I heard about them — the people Catherine met at the homeless shelter where she volunteers,” Marcus recalled, “the ones who were evicted from their apartment when the places they worked for went out of business, and they lost their jobs. And they’d just gotten their permanent work permits, too.” He shook his head. “It’s getting rougher and rougher uptop for a lot of people, worse than ever.”

“Life’s tough no matter where you live,” Cullen retorted. “Look at all the work we’ve got to do in the next two days. It’s not going to be any picnic for us either.”

Dominic nodded. “Yeah, but we don’t have to worry about where we’re gonna live or where our next meal is coming from. And didn’t Father say they have a baby on the way, too?”

Vincent carried the footboard into the workspace. “Yes, so we should see if there’s a cradle somewhere in the storage area. This couple endured a lot of hardship in the hope of journeying to this country to find a better life. From the way Catherine described them, they sound like decent, hardworking people who will appreciate the chance to make a fresh start.”

“I think they’ll fit right in,” Dominic replied. “He did construction work and she was a cook at a diner, right? I bet William will be happy to have someone who knows their way around a kitchen. And, Cullen, maybe you’ll get a new assistant, too.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Cullen muttered. “We’ll have to see if things work out that way.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to meeting them.” Marcus rummaged through a toolbox for a hammer. “They sound like they’re going to be a good match with our community.”

Cullen frowned. “Look, you never know with newcomers, so let’s wait and see. And if we don’t stop talking, this work will never get done. Don’t forget we also have to move the furniture all the way over to one of those new chambers. That’s going to be a hell of a job, too.”

As the four men began sanding and scraping the worn wooden pieces to ready them for further repairs, Vincent’s thoughts inexorably returned to his dilemma. He had convinced himself that approaching Cullen for advice might be the right thing to do, but the comments about the new tunnel residents reminded him that a strong streak of self-interest, rather than empathy, often colored the older man’s responses. Maybe Father, believe it or not, would be a better choice after all.

Over the next few hours, the work proceeded smoothly with little need for conversation, and Vincent’s mind wandered further and further from the worksite. Oblivious to a few comments from the others, and the resultant looks of confusion and consternation thrown his way, his body performed his tasks, but his mind could not have been less engaged in them.

He found himself wondering if Catherine, too, had been absorbed by thoughts of the kiss they’d shared, if she also was confused and unsettled by it, haunted by feelings of delight or disappointment or regret…or if she even thought about it at all.

Through their bond, he had sensed her conflicting emotions – happiness, melancholy, contentment, resignation – and had attributed them to the upheaval caused by the aftermath of her father’s death. But maybe some of those feelings stemmed from the kiss. It was impossible to be certain, and this new factor only added to his confusion.

“Earth to Vincent!”

Dominic’s loud, good-natured voice pulled Vincent from his contemplation, and he pivoted toward the other man. “I’m sorry, Dominic. Did you say something?”

“Yeah – I asked if you could help me move that big wardrobe out here so we can get started on it before lunch break.” He chuckled at the disoriented look on Vincent’s face. “Man, you were a million miles away! Got a lot on your mind?”

He nodded, embarrassed to be caught deep in his reverie. “Sorry. I guess I was elsewhere. But yes, I can help you with that.”

The two men made their way through the crowded storage space, carefully moving some pieces aside and climbing over others, until they reached the old maple wardrobe.

Dominic looked back toward the work area, then shook his head. “I wonder whose bright idea it was to put this piece way over here.”

“I don’t know, but it looks like it’s been here a long time.” Vincent ran a hand over the dusty surface of a solid wooden door. “It should have been moved elsewhere before all those other pieces got piled in front of it.”

“Yeah, and now it’s going to be even tougher to maneuver. Let’s take the drawers out to make it lighter.”

They quickly stacked the drawers to one side and then attempted to slide the unit forward, but even with their combined strength it barely budged a few inches.

Vincent examined the piece. “We could try removing the doors and reattaching them once the wardrobe is in place in the new chamber.”

“Yeah, that should help.” Dominic pulled a screwdriver from his tool belt. “If you hold the door on the right side steady, I’ll work on the hinges.”

The first door was removed with surprising ease, and they propped it against the wall before starting to work on the other. Dominic frowned and shook his head. “This door is gonna be tricky. We can’t open it too far since the wall is in the way. I think I can get at it though.”

Since he was somewhat slighter in stature, Dominic wedged himself into the tight space, quickly working the hinges loose, as Vincent supported the weight of the door.

“Damn it! The last screw is stuck. It was almost out and now I can’t get it to move at all.”

“What can I do to help?” Vincent asked, feeling a burning sensation start to course through his arms. “Do you want me to try?”

“Yeah, okay.” Dominic grimaced in frustration as he rose to his feet and grabbed hold of the door so Vincent could take his place. “Man, this door is heavy! Sorry you had to hang onto it all that time.”

Vincent reached for the screwdriver Dominic had left on the floor and awkwardly positioned himself in the cramped space. Even with his strength, the screw would not budge. Then, as he applied all the pressure he could manage, the screw snapped and the door ripped from its hinges, crashing forward with a glancing blow to Vincent’s shoulder, pinning Dominic’s left leg against the rocky floor.

Vincent leaped to his feet and lifted the weighty piece from Dominic’s leg. The man’s face was clenched in a grimace of pain. “Don’t try to move,” Vincent said, quickly setting aside the door and kneeling at his friend’s side. “You could be seriously injured.”

Disregarding the advice, Dominic pushed himself to a sitting position. “Nah, I’m okay. Probably just a bruise.” He started to rise to his feet, then collapsed back onto the floor with a harsh groan of pain. “Or maybe not.”

Vincent helped Dominic to a sitting position, easing him back against the side of a rolltop desk. “Try to hold still. I need to see if your leg is broken,” he instructed as he began a cursory examination of his friend’s injuries.

Having heard the commotion, Cullen and Marcus quickly worked their way through the jumble of furniture.

“What the hell happened here?!” Cullen turned from one man to the other.

Ignoring the question, Vincent continued to gently assess Dominic’s injuries.

“You okay, Dom?” Marcus asked. “What can I do to help?”

“I’m all right. It was just an accident.” Dominic’s voice was strained but calm. “A hinge on one of the doors was stuck and the whole thing snapped off. Guess I was in its way when it hit the floor.”

Cullen glared at Vincent who had risen to his feet. “Why weren’t you being more careful with a heavy piece like this? He could’ve been seriously hurt!”

Vincent’s voice was low and even. “We were being careful. It was an accident, just as Dominic said. The most important thing is to get him the help he needs – now.”

Even Cullen knew when to back off. He looked down at Dominic, worried lines creasing his forehead. “Is his leg broken?”

“No, it’s not,” Vincent assured everyone, “but we need to get him to the hospital chamber so Father can examine his injury and give him something for the pain.”

“I’ll send a message.” Marcus bounded toward the work area as quickly as he could. “Get someone to bring a stretcher so we can move him right away.”

Cullen nodded brusquely. “Tell them to hurry.”

Vincent crouched at Dominic’s side. “How are you feeling? Are you in a lot of pain?”

“Some,” he admitted, “but it’s not too bad. Guess it could have been a lot worse.”

“If we help you, do you think you can stand for a few seconds? If you’re closer to the passageway, it will be easier and quicker for the others when they bring in the stretcher.”

Dominic nodded, gritting his teeth as Vincent and Cullen lifted him carefully to his feet. They moved slowly through the maze of furniture to the open workspace, and minutes later, Mouse and Michael arrived with a stretcher. After assuring the others that Father and Mary were waiting in the hospital chamber, they, along with Marcus, transported Dominic back to the hub, promising to send a message on the pipes about the injured man’s condition.

As their hurried footsteps faded away, the tension deepened between the two men left in the work area.

Cullen ran a hand through the spiky strands of his hair. “So, how did this happen?” He waited for an answer that was slow in coming.

“I don’t know what more I can say. It was an accident, just like we told you.”

Cullen sighed heavily, then gestured toward a pair of wooden chairs. “Come on, let’s take our lunch break. Then maybe you’ll decide to tell me what’s really going on.”

Vincent followed him. He didn’t feel like eating, and he was unsure of what to say next, so he simply waited in silence.

“Look, I didn’t see what happened over there,” Cullen began a few minutes later, setting aside the wrappings from his lunch, “and if this was an accident, I’m not blaming you.”

Vincent nodded slowly, indicating his acceptance of the other man’s words but offering no further explanation.

“But, come on, you have to admit you’ve been out of it all morning. If you’re in some kind of trouble or something and you can’t keep your mind on the job, you shouldn’t be doing this type of work. Someone could get hurt even worse than Dominic did.”

It had never been part of Vincent’s nature to lie or make excuses for his behavior, and he would not start now. He turned toward the other man and looked directly into his eyes. “You’re right, Cullen. I have been distracted, and I’m sorry if it has affected my work. But that’s not why Dominic got hurt. It really was an accident, nothing more.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” Cullen’s smile was slight but unforced. “I didn’t really think it was anything else, but I had to make sure. It’s not like you to be careless or inconsiderate. You always do more than your share of the work, and there’s hardly ever been a problem.”

Vincent offered a tight smile. “Thank you.”

Cullen hesitated for a moment. “Look, I know we’ve had our differences over the years, but we’re still friends, right?”

“Of course, we’re friends. Nothing has changed that.”

“Yeah, but something else has changed,” Cullen persisted. “I’ve never seen you like this. It’s like you’re here, but you’re somewhere else.” Again, he hesitated, seeming to choose his words carefully. “So, do you want to talk about it? Since we’re still friends and all…”

Vincent felt as if part of the burden he carried eased from his heart. “Yes, I do. I think talking about it could help.” He nodded firmly, as if to further convince himself he meant what he had just said.

Cullen looked at Vincent expectantly. “Ok, so what’s going on?”

As much as he wanted to accept the offer of help, Vincent now found himself struggling to find the right words. How could he talk freely about such a personal matter, his miraculous relationship with Catherine, the love they shared? How could he reveal the turmoil he was undergoing all because of a single kiss, something that must be a simple act of love to anyone else…but not to him. And how could he even begin to consider expressing any doubts about his beloved Catherine and her reasons for offering that precious gift? No, he told himself, it’s impossible. There can be nothing to gain by even trying.

Cullen’s voice broke into Vincent’s musings. “Well, do you want to talk about it or not?”

“I thought I did,” he began, “and I appreciate your offer more than I can say…”

“But we’re not having this conversation after all, right?”

Vincent’s voice was low but firm. “Right.”

“Hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying to help.” Cullen shrugged and got to his feet. “Let’s get to work. Marcus should be back soon, and we can get a lot of it knocked off the list by dinner time.”

As if on cue, a message rang out over the pipes, informing them, much to their relief, that just as Vincent had suspected, Dominic’s leg was badly bruised but not broken, and Marcus was returning to the worksite along with Mouse and Michael who would help out for the afternoon.

Vincent rose to follow Cullen and then stopped to lay a hand on the other man’s shoulder, drawing his attention to the words he needed to say.

“I want to apologize for not working as well as I should have today. Even though I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, that’s no excuse, and I won’t let it happen again.” 

Cullen nodded in acceptance.

“And I want to thank you for trying to help me. But this is something I have to work out for myself.”

“Sure, Vincent, no problem. But I meant what I said, and if you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

Vincent felt the lines of tension in his face begin to relax, only to freeze into an expression of shock at his friend’s final comment.

“I’ve had my share of experience with women, you know.”

As he watched Cullen stroll back to the work area, whistling a slightly off-key tune, Vincent could only wonder how everyone Below seemed to understand more about his own life than he did.

Much to his relief, the rest of the day passed by quickly and mostly in silence as the men concentrated on their work. True to his word, he forced himself to focus on nothing but his assigned tasks, and by late afternoon the crew had made excellent progress on the repairs, many of which were not as involved as they’d first appeared to be.

“That’s enough for today.” Cullen pulled off his canvas gloves and wiped perspiration from his forehead with a rumpled cloth. “Thanks to the extra help, we’re ahead of schedule, and I think we can wrap all this up by noon tomorrow.”

The men exchanged grateful smiles as they stored their tools away carefully and then began to walk back toward the central chambers, eager to wash the sawdust and sweat from their tired bodies before dinner.

“I can check with Father and see if he can change the work roster so I can take Dominic’s place again tomorrow,” Michael volunteered.

“Me, too,” Mouse added immediately. “Good to help out.”

“That’s a great idea, thanks.” Cullen checked the schedule he’d pulled from the pocket of his shirt. “Find out and let me know later at dinner. And, Vincent, you’re teaching tomorrow morning, right?”

“Yes, the students in the senior American history class are presenting their final projects, but I can come by afterwards to continue working.”

“Sounds like a plan. And if we don’t need you after all, I’ll send a message on the pipes to let you know.”

When the weary workers reached the central hub, they veered off in the direction of the bathing pools closest to their own chambers. Vincent could no longer ignore the persistent ache in his shoulder caused by the accident, and he longed for a soothing soak in his private bathing chamber.

As he continued on his way alone, his thoughts returned to the morning’s events, and he could not help wondering if he actually had allowed himself to become distracted just before the accident occurred. He realized there was no way to be certain, and a wave of guilt and shame washed over him. While there had been no overt attacks by the kisses since earlier that morning, they evidently had taken advantage of his growing obsession with them and had widened the battlefield to include even greater insidious forays into his subconscious. And now, he realized, they had the potential to make others’ lives miserable as well.

This must stop, he vowed silently. I will find a way to –


A pair of cheerful voices ripped him from his reverie. Rebecca and Jamie hurried toward him, eager smiles lighting their faces. “You’re just the person we need!” Rebecca exclaimed. “Do you think you could help us with something?”

“It won’t take long,” Jamie promised, apparently noticing his dusty, disheveled appearance. “You’d still have time to get cleaned up before dinner.”

He suppressed a tired sigh. “Of course. What is it?”

“A big donation of books was dropped off an hour ago, and we need to get them moved onto a handcart,” Rebecca explained. “We’d wait until tomorrow, but the area they were left in is still really damp from when that pipe leaked last week, and they’re just sitting there in cardboard boxes.”

“We’ve already unpacked more than half of them, and we could do the rest ourselves,” Jamie added, “but we’re running out of time. The moisture is already seeping into the cartons, and we need an extra pair of hands.”

He nodded. “Show me where they are, and I’ll help you with them.”

“Thanks a lot, Vincent. Like Jamie said, it shouldn’t take long.” Rebecca smiled gratefully. “And if you help us load them now, we can sort and distribute them in the morning.”

Minutes later, they arrived at a spot not far from a hidden tunnel entrance beneath a secondhand bookshop owned by two longtime Helpers. A large handcart was nearly overflowing with stacks of various sized books, and several more boxes were waiting to be unpacked.

He crouched down to run a hand along the bottom edge of the nearest box. “I see what you mean. It would be much easier just to transport the cartons themselves, but with the condition they’re in, they won’t hold up and the books will be ruined.”

Rebecca nodded. “I think Wallace and Aubrey must have been in a hurry when they brought the books down earlier. They never would have left them here if they’d noticed the dampness.”

He rose to his feet. “We won’t be able to fit many more books onto this cart, but there’s another one in the storage room nearby. I’ll go get it.”

“Good idea.” Jamie pointed to a large, half-filled box. “Rebecca and I can finish this one while you’re gone.”

A few minutes later, he pushed the second cart along the stony floor as quickly as his tired muscles would allow. As he neared the book deposit site, he heard enthusiastic voices rippling toward him.

“Look what I just found!” Jamie’s voice was full of excitement. “The Highlander’s Legacy!”

“Really? Isn’t that the third book in the trilogy, the one Olivia has been hoping someone would donate?”

“Right! I know she already read The Highlander’s Journey and The Highlander’s Conquest. She’s going to be so happy about this!”

The rattling of the cart’s wheels announced his return. “I didn’t know Olivia was interested in Scottish history,” he commented. “What time period – the Earl of Montrose and Charles I, or later with the Jacobites at Argyle?”

Jamie and Rebecca exchanged quick glances, as the latter struggled to stifle an amused chortle.

“You know, I’m not really sure,” Jamie said, setting the book aside out of Vincent’s line of sight. “Rebecca and I haven’t read them ourselves.”

He pulled a handful of biographies from the nearest soggy carton. “Well, she always enjoyed our history classes when we were younger, so it sounds as if she’s still interested in learning more about various important eras and events.”

“That’s probably it, especially the more exciting and stimulating times,” Rebecca agreed, as Jamie worked hard to disguise a snort of laughter with a sudden cough. “Olivia always says there are so many new things to learn if you’re properly motivated.”

At the purposely innocent tone of Rebecca’s comment, Jamie’s counterfeit cough turned into a full-blown respiratory incident.

“Jamie, are you all right?” He gestured toward his pack where he’d left it nearby. “Can I get you some water?”

“I’m fine,” she hacked. “Must be the dust in some of these boxes.”

“Let’s get this finished as quickly as possible.” He began loading books onto the second cart. “But be careful not to overload the carts or they’ll be too difficult to move. Then, we’ll have to start all over again.”

Jamie surreptitiously rolled her eyes. “We’ve done this before. We can still fit a few more on this one.” She began piling several additional books onto an already sizable stack. “I’ll just empty the rest of this box.”  

As soon as the words were spoken, the teetering tower shifted, and several worn paperbacks tumbled to the floor, landing face down at the young woman’s feet. “Oh well, I guess you were right.” She shrugged and leaned down to rescue the fallen books. “Here, these can go on the second cart after all.”

As Jamie stretched across the cart to hand the books to Vincent, Rebecca caught sight of their covers. “Wait! I can take those!” she cried, reaching for them just seconds too late. Helpless to do anything else, she watched him examine their colorful cover art, his eyebrows arching in surprise.

Jamie’s gaze pivoted from the rosy blush coloring Rebecca’s cheeks to the incredulous look glazing the clear blue of Vincent’s eyes. “What’s the matter?” she began, making her way to his side. “Oh…”

Desperate to escape the scandalous illustrations of half-naked lovers entwined in various intimate embraces, he quickly turned the books so he could focus instead on their spines. And there they were, his enemies’ latest appearance proclaimed in boldly printed words. The Emperor’s Enchanted Kiss, A Kiss from A King, Magical Kisses for a Princess.

The kisses. They were back – with a vengeance.

“Oh, there’s the one I’ve been looking for,” Jamie exclaimed, pulling another of the books from Vincent’s grasp, although not before he caught sight of its cover portraying a beautiful, disheveled woman in a lacy, white gown eagerly kissing what appeared to be a bare-chested Viking. “The Warrior’s Secret Bride!” She stuffed the book into a pocket of her tunic and glanced up at him. “Mary told us it was one of the best books she’s ever read. I wanted to borrow it, but she said she lost her copy.”

Until that moment, he’d assumed he could not have been more shocked. “Mary?!” He winced at the strangled sound of his voice. “And you two? These are the kinds of books you like to read?!”

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed as she tilted her head at him. “And what’s wrong with that? It’s not as if we never read the classics or serious literature, too. These are just for fun once in a while.”

“She’s right,” Jamie added firmly, a defiant look on her face. “We work hard, and we deserve some time to enjoy something light for a change.”

“Of course, you do! That’s – that’s not what I meant,” he stammered. “It’s just that – well, they look – I mean I was surprised –”

Rebecca reached to take the books from his hands, holding them up to display the covers one by one before stacking them on the empty cart. “You’re more than surprised, Vincent. You’re shocked we like to read books about romance, right? About lovers and intimacy, about –”

“No!” he shouted, frantically trying to forestall Rebecca’s next words. “Well, maybe a little…”

Taking pity on her lifelong friend, Rebecca smiled. “Well, they do seem sort of risqué, I guess, but most of them really aren’t bad at all, kind of like fairy tales for adults.”

Jamie chuckled. “And sometimes there’s even a little actual history thrown in.” She stacked the last few paperbacks face down on the second cart, sparing him any further embarrassment.

He found himself smiling as he gratefully turned back to the task of placing several math textbooks on the cart. “So, I guess this means Olivia isn’t studying Scottish history after all?”

“Well, not the way you thought she was,” Jamie retorted, grinning widely.

The three friends worked quickly and soon all the remaining books were secured on the carts. As they trudged back to the home chambers, Vincent was glad to leave the embarrassing incident behind; yet there was a concern left unresolved. He cleared his throat and said quietly, “I know some of the rescued books will go to Father’s study and some to the classrooms and the main library chamber, but where will the, uh, the other ones go?”

“They’ll be in the main library chamber, too,” Jamie answered, her eyes wide with feigned innocence. “Why? Are you interested in reading them?”

Rebecca made no attempt at all to restrain her grin. “We’d be glad to give you some recommendations. Let’s see, you probably should start with The Pirate’s Stolen Kisses, and then –”

He shook his head firmly. “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass. It’s just that it might be a good idea to keep those books out of the children’s hands.”

Rebecca shrugged. “Evidently you never noticed but romance novels have been in the library for years, Vincent, and it hasn’t been a problem. There’s nothing very explicit in any of the ones we’ve ever gotten, at least not so far, so don’t worry about that. Besides, the younger children have no interest in them, and by the time they’re old enough to want to read them, they’ll find the books no matter where we put them.”

“And we shouldn’t make them think it’s wrong to read about love and romance,” Jamie added. “It’s part of life, and if they get a little extra education of another kind with their reading, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.”

He nodded reluctantly. “I suppose you might be right, but –”   

“We are right,” Rebecca affirmed. “And it’s not as if these books have photos and stories anything like the ones in the magazines Devin and you and the rest of the boys used to keep hidden in your chambers.”

He felt a red-hot heat burn his face. “How did you know about that?”

Rebecca patted him on the arm. “Face it, Vincent. We all respect each other’s privacy, but when you get right down to it, there are very few actual secrets around here.”

The trio paused for a moment at the juncture to Vincent’s chambers. “Thanks for all your help,” Jamie said. “We really do appreciate it, even if we gave you a hard time.”

Rebecca nodded. “Jamie’s right. Without your help, we might not have been able to save all the books, and it would have been a shame if we’d had to discard them.”

He managed to smile. “I’m glad I was able to help. I’ll see you at dinner in a little while.”

He had almost made it through the entrance to his chamber when he heard rapid footsteps approaching from behind.

“Wait! I almost forgot!” Jamie jolted to a halt next to him. “I meant to give you this.” She thrust a book into his outstretched hand, but before he could question her, she added, “It’s not really for you. It’s for Catherine, so can you give it to her the next time you see her?”

Already knowing what to expect, he forced himself to glance at the somewhat tattered paperback. It was even worse than he had anticipated.

He struggled to find words to answer Jamie, but she was already heading back toward the main passageway, calling over her shoulder, “Rebecca and I thought the picture on the cover kind of looked like the two of you.”

In the welcome silence his friends left behind, he walked slowly into his chamber and lit the lamp on his desk. He really meant to set the book aside, but he was unable to resist taking a closer look at its cover. In seconds, he found he could not tear his gaze from the vibrantly colored illustration of a beautiful woman semi-clad in a crimson velvet gown. She was locked in her lover’s embrace, her head thrown back, her honey-colored hair tumbling over her bare shoulders. Her jade green eyes were half-closed, but her rosy lips were parted as she looked up at the man who clasped her in his chiseled arms, nestling her against his heavily muscled chest. His long golden hair lifted from his wide shoulders on an errant breeze, his blue eyes sparkled, and his sensuous mouth smiled with pleasure as he leaned in to eagerly accept what was offered to him.

A kiss…another kiss. An extremely passionate kiss. And this was one that apparently Rebecca and Jamie – and quite possibly everyone else in the tunnel community — believed he and Catherine had already shared.

But they hadn’t, and that, he knew, was only because of the self-deprivation he had lived with his entire adult life. He could no longer ignore the fact that Catherine frequently made her feelings for him entirely clear. And while he secretly shared every heartfelt one, he continued to push them aside, rejecting all the sensual possibilities that would have delighted them both.

He found himself mesmerized by the illustration, and for just a moment he could not resist envisioning Catherine and himself in such an erotic embrace. But just as quickly as the vision arose, he forced himself to rebuff it. He had no power over the myriad fantasies, far more explicit than this, which so often appeared to him in his dreams, but he still could control his conscious thoughts. And why torture himself with the highly unlikely possibility he might someday kiss Catherine in this way? No, it was impossible…it could never happen…

And yet…

He groaned as he placed the book on his desk. As difficult as it was for him to believe, in his heart he knew Catherine longed for him, for his touch, his kiss, his caress. But even if by some miracle he found the courage to tell her he shared that same longing, how would he find a way to show her? Any other man would take her in his arms and kiss her as she longed to be kissed, but he had no idea how to initiate such a bold and ardent act. His awkwardness and uncertainty surely would inhibit him, leaving them disappointed and dismayed and even further from fulfilling their dreams. They had talked of following their hearts; yet, he had to acknowledge that his complete lack of experience would only add another barrier to their journey.

But perhaps if he had some form of reference…

He started to reach for the book and then hesitated. What was the sense of any of this? Why indulge in yet another fantasy that could never come true? He already had given in to enough of them in his dreams, his imagination, and his heart, only to be forced to live with the pain that always followed when he told himself they would never be anything more than illusions.

His harsh sigh echoed his thoughts. Later he would search his chamber for a hiding place for the book, for he would never show it to Catherine. Even the thought of such an act was both ludicrous and painful. And although it would hurt him to do so, he would lie to Jamie, tell her he had lost the book, and hope she would not see through his facade.

It was getting late, and he still needed to bathe quickly if he were to get to the dining chamber before dinner was over. With his lifelong practice of restraint clamping down on his heart like a steel trap, he forced aside all thoughts of a beautiful life that could never be.

After taking a set of clean clothes from a cabinet, he headed toward the bathing chamber. But as he was about to enter the connecting passage, he paused and returned to his desk to pick up the book one last time.

Emblazoned on the cover in fanciful script was the title, its intense gold lettering making him wonder how he hadn’t noticed it before.

To Kiss the Passionate Prince – Book One in the Wishes and Kisses Series.

Of course it was. What else could it be?

He shook his head, surprised to feel his lips start to curve in a small wry smile, amazed he could still find some shreds of self-deprecating humor lurking on the amatory battlefield. He placed the book back on the desk and then, just for good measure, concealed it with his journal.

The remaining hours of the evening passed quickly. With exhaustion starting to overcome him, Vincent turned down an offer of a game of cards with William and a cup of tea and a chat with Father. He knew he would not be able to concentrate on either, and he hoped the after-effects of the long, tiring day might permit him to sleep peacefully until dawn.

Yet just before the midnight “all’s well” would be heard chiming softly along the pipes, he was still wide awake. The ache in his bruised shoulder had subsided, and there were no pressing problems within the tunnel community that required his immediate consideration. The escalating fatigue resulting from several nights of interrupted slumber should have left him deeply asleep until morning. But that had not happened.

Knowing it was pointless to simply lie in bed, restless and increasingly frustrated, he slowly pushed himself to his feet and ran a hand through his tousled hair. Maybe a cup of chamomile tea would help, although he doubted he had the energy to walk all the way to the kitchen to prepare it. As he began to reach for the patched flannel bathrobe thrown across the end of his bed, he caught sight of his journal lying unopened on his desk and remembered he had been too distracted to write in it earlier.

Perhaps that would help, he considered, knowing how the nightly ritual of reflecting on his thoughts in writing almost always enabled him to find a sense of composure that might otherwise elude him. Rejecting the idea of a cup of tea, he sank onto the worn cushion of his desk chair and started to reach for his favorite pen, a birthday gift from Catherine, then hesitated and picked up a different book that had been hiding beneath his journal.

He had not yet attempted to find a suitable resting place for the novel Jamie had given him, but the task could not be put off any longer. Everything the book represented was a torment, and secreting it away out of sight, he reasoned, would help restore his peace of mind.

He opened a desk drawer, intending to hide the book under piles of papers and folders, but found himself taking one last look at its cover. Even while the provocative illustration still stirred discordant sensations of longing and loss within him, somehow it did not seem quite as unnerving as it had earlier. It’s just a picture, he told himself, overwrought and suggestive, but it’s meant for adults and there’s nothing wrong with it really.

He recalled the essence of Jamie and Rebecca’s comments – it’s not wrong to read about love and romance and intimacy…it’s part of life…just for fun…and maybe a little extra education…

Before he was able to talk himself out of it, he opened the book to a random page and began reading. Seconds later, he slammed the book shut, buried it deep in a shroud of papers, and shoved the drawer shut so vehemently that the entire desk shuddered, and the candle flame he’d been reading by threw wild shadows against the wall.

What was he thinking! He had been able to convince himself he could cope with the effects of the steamy illustration, but there was no chance of that happening with the few sentences of the story he had quickly read. Now, in addition to trying to ignore every image his own fevered imagination had conjured for so many months, he faced the impossible task of erasing the visions evoked by the contents of the book.

The written word had always resonated deeply within him, but this was no volume describing the wonders of faraway places or the impact of historical events or even the   creative expression of a poet’s contemplation. Should he continue to read this book, the allure and inspiration of the writer’s words would entice him to indulge in fantasies that, he had to admit, he did not truly wish to suppress, even though he would force himself to do so.

The short passage he had read was already creating passionate pictures in his imagination. He would throw open the doors of Catherine’s balcony and stride into her candlelit bedroom. He would pull her from the bed where she had been waiting for him. He would clasp her in his arms, hear her gasp of delight as he nipped at the silken skin of her neck. He would hear his moan of pleasure blend with hers as his mouth moved lower to press heated kisses to her bare breasts. He would savor the sound of her delighted cry as his lips parted to enclose —  


The single word was a harsh growl in the darkness of his chamber. He wrenched himself to his feet, and, clad only in the nightshirt and soft loose pants he wore for sleeping, he ran barefooted from the room. Desperate to escape such a complex storm of desire and denial, he raced onward until he reached an outcropping of rock above the flowing river near the Great Falls. Pausing only long enough to wrench the clothes from his body, he dove into the water, desperately hoping its icy force would cool and soothe the fiery passion stoked by his fantasies of Catherine, just as it had on so many other nights.

An hour later, he settled into his bed once again, wrapping himself in the inadequate embrace of quilts and blankets. Beyond exhausted in mind and body, he finally fell deeply asleep, and for once not seduced by dreams of kisses and caresses, he slept soundly for the few hours that remained until daybreak.

Still somewhat groggy from too many sleep-deprived nights, he entered the dining chamber, intending to have breakfast before meeting with his students for the scheduled history class. Too early for most of the tunnel residents to have arrived, the chamber was nearly deserted, save for Lena holding baby Cathy on her lap, singing softly to her cooing, gurgling child. Vincent immediately recognized the lullaby as the one Catherine had sung to Ellie as she tried to soothe away the girl’s pain before the darkness claimed her.

Although he hadn’t realized he’d uttered a sound, Lena heard his soft sigh and looked up to smile at him as he lingered in the entrance. “You can come in. She’s wide awake.” The infant waved a tiny fist at her mother, as if encouraging her to continue the lovely melody.

“Catherine taught me this song. I know it’s really supposed to help make the babies fall asleep, but I just like the words and so does she.” She laughed softly, her gaze returning to her child’s upturned face. “I sing to her all the time, and I think she likes it.”

“I’m sure she does,” he replied, his voice warm and low. “And she will always remember the sound of your voice, telling her how much you love her.”

Lena’s eyes gleamed as she smiled gratefully at him. “I hope so,” she murmured as she bent her head to brush a kiss on the child’s silky hair. “I love her more than anything in the world.”

He felt his eyes mist with sudden tears, and he turned to leave, knowing neither mother nor child would miss his presence. An image arose in his mind, enthralling and bittersweet, of his beloved Catherine holding her own child, singing softly as she cradled that precious gift in her arms, murmuring loving sounds as she kissed the child’s sleepy face. With practiced strength, he forced the vision aside, unwilling to contemplate something so full of heartbreaking beauty, so reflective of a life she might someday live but could never share with him.

He moved swiftly through the tunnels, as if he could outpace the haunting dream he had no right to wish for, and soon found himself in the classroom. It was not yet time for the students to arrive, and with effort, he lost himself in plans and preparations for future lessons, stifling all other thoughts.

The morning passed quickly, filled with the enjoyment and appreciation of observing his students’ well-constructed presentations, none of which, he noted with relief, had contained even the slightest reference to love, romance, or kisses. When the session ended and the children had dispersed for a break before lunch and afternoon chores, he walked quickly to the nearby central pipe chamber to see if Cullen had sent a message about any additional work for the afternoon.

Upon learning the furniture repairs and moving tasks were nearly completed and further help was not needed, he found himself unexpectedly without purpose for the rest of the day. However, there was rarely an hour in the tunnel community when there wasn’t work to be done, so he retraced his earlier steps to the hub in order to check the daily duty roster which was always posted outside Father’s study.

Once there, he lifted the clipboard from its hook and scanned the day’s schedule. The only unclaimed chore for the afternoon was to deliver a crate of art supplies to Elizabeth in the Painted Tunnels. He felt some of his fatigue fade away as he anticipated an enjoyable visit with the elderly artist and an intriguing exploration of her latest additions to the murals that chronicled the history of their community.

Shortly after retrieving the crate from the central storage area where recent donations from Helpers were temporarily housed, he arrived at the series of tunnels where Elizabeth painted images gleaned from memory and imagination. At first the area seemed deserted, but he soon found the diminutive artist carefully cleaning her well-worn paintbrushes at a cluttered table in an adjacent workroom.

She looked up as he entered and set the crate on the floor. “Vincent! How lovely to see you!” Her hazel eyes shone with delight as she set aside her newly cleansed brushes and hurried to inspect the contents of the box. “Thank you for bringing my supplies.”  She happily sorted through several tubes of oil paint, bundles of rags, and large bottles of linseed oil and dish soap. “This is exactly what I needed!”

He smiled at his old friend. “I was glad to do it, Elizabeth, and to have an opportunity to visit with you and see your latest work.”

She returned his smile, reaching up to take his arm and lead him toward the murals. “You haven’t visited my galleries in a long time. There must be a few new paintings you haven’t seen yet.”

“I think the last one was Sebastien performing magic tricks at our most recent Winterfest.”

“Then it has definitely been far too long!” She shook her head as she pretended to scold him. “And you look like you haven’t slept in days. I’ll have to tell Father he needs to stop making you work so hard!”

He laughed softly. “I don’t think he’ll agree with you, but it’s worth a try.”

“Well, never mind about him. You just take your time and explore as long as you wish. Of course, the newer scenes are farther along the next tunnel, but I know you always like to take a look at the older ones, too.”

“It’s like going back in time, so many memories.”

“It’s our history, all those moments big and small, the good times and the bad. They’re all part of our past.”

“And you make them come to life. You preserve our legacy with the gift of your talent and your vision.”

She looked up at him. “I do what I can with what I’ve been given. I only want to make sure no one is forgotten.”

They stood in silent contemplation at the entrance to the galleries. “I’ll leave you to it then. I’ll be in my workroom for now, but maybe I’ll come back and join you in a bit.”

“If you don’t, I’ll find you before I leave,” he promised. He entered the galleries, eager to explore the illustrated chapters of the stories shared by all who dwelt Below.

Deciding to start with the newest paintings and work his way back in time, he soon found himself moved to appreciative laughter and gentle tears by Elizabeth’s artistry. There was Bryan painstakingly trying to teach the intricacies of chess to a clearly impatient Mouse. Charles, distraught but trusting, allowing Devin to lead him across the bridge over the Abyss to a promise of safety and solace. Kanin and Olivia, their smiles glowing as they cuddled their toddler Luke, never suspecting their serenity would soon be shattered. Father, Mary, and William with faces contorted in anger and pain as they tried to find a way to deal with the violent intruders who had invaded their home.

So engrossed in thought, he did not hear Elizabeth’s footsteps until she was at his side again. “That’s one I wish I hadn’t had to paint.”

“But you had no choice,” he replied, his voice shadowed with remorse. “It, too, is part of our story. Even the times that bring us sorrow must be remembered.”

“To ignore the pain would be to negate part of our history, and that’s something I cannot do.” She sighed softly. “But that doesn’t mean we have to dwell on the sorrows we’ve shared. On this visit, maybe you should focus on the joys instead. What would you say to that?”

He felt her words begin to ease the sadness in his heart. “I’d say it’s a wonderful idea.”

“Good! And now I’ll leave you alone again. I didn’t mean to bother you, but earlier I noticed you looked so tired and even a bit sad. I just wanted to make sure you’re all right.”

Touched by her warmth and concern, he was quick to reassure her. “I’m fine. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. But I think remembering the good times we’ve all shared might be exactly what I need.”

She patted his arm. “I’m glad to hear it. Stay as long as you wish.” She headed back toward her workroom again. “And remember – look for whatever makes you happy!”

Determined to follow the wisdom of the artist’s advice, he sought out only images that evoked warm and pleasant memories. Laura and Jerry embracing in the sunlight near a shabby tenement, about to share a tender kiss. Lena in the hospital chamber, cradling her newborn daughter, leaning forward to gently kiss the infant’s rosy cheek. Rebecca and Jeremiah stealing a kiss in shadowy seclusion near the tapestries at Winterfest.

More kisses. His constant companions had not left him even here, always and forever demanding his attention. Yet, now there was something different, some subtle change he sensed but could not yet name.

He moved farther back in time and found Catherine tenderly kissing the top of Eric’s head when he’d fallen asleep as she read to him, safe and secure from the life he’d known Above. Henry and Lin radiant in the glow of candlelight, sharing their first kiss as husband and wife. Samantha blowing a kiss to a grinning William who had just presented the community with an elaborately decorated cake for her sixth birthday celebration.

Still more kisses. But they were no longer teasing and tormenting him. They seemed to be whispering tenderly, beckoning him onward, gently guiding…but to what end?

And then he saw them, so many images of himself. Blushing when a giggling Olivia quickly kissed his cheek as he was presented with the blue ribbon at the children’s annual spelling bee. Managing a teary smile at Mary as she soothed away the pain of a skinned knee with a warm hug and a gentle kiss upon his touseled amber hair. Grasping Father’s thumb in a tight grip and offering one of his first smiles at the tickling sensation of his parent’s bearded face pressing a kiss to the back of that tiny, furred fist.

Kisses. So many kisses. Each one so easily given, so happily received.

The realization hit him like a physical assault. The images in the Painted Tunnels were not illustrated fantasies. They were chronicles of reality that told of so much love…that gave proof of something he had always known and had accepted without question. All his life others had loved him, just as he had loved them, and he had thrived in the strength of their shared heartfelt devotion. The truth was right in front of him, undeniable and immutable.

It astounded him to realize that throughout all the years of his life he had rarely questioned his right to love and be loved. The few doubts he’d suffered had been painful, but they had been addressed and resolved as well as possible, allowing him to move forward…until Catherine. He felt a searing pain rip through his heart. If he had always deserved to be loved, if others had welcomed his love in return, then how was it possible he ever could have doubted anything about the love he shared with her? Why had he not been able to fully accept possibilities even more precious than anything offered by his cherished family and friends?

There was only one answer, and he cursed himself for having denied its truth for far too long. He had been willing to admit to the strength of the love he had for Catherine and to believe in her love for him, to revel in all its beauty and certainty, but only on his own terms. Only through eyes that had been distorted by his misguided perceptions. Only with the limitations he had imposed on both of them. Only by rejecting the truth time and time again.

He had allowed the suppressed memories of trauma — Lisa’s rejection, Father’s fears –and the enforced restrictions of a life spent apart from the world, to shape the way he saw himself as a man, as a lover, as someone’s dream. Even when he found his soulmate, he could not believe that someday they would share a life of all-encompassing love, one that would last forever. He had chosen imprisonment when he could have embraced freedom, and he had condemned her to the same dark fate.

And now, at last, he understood it had all been so unnecessary.

Catherine’s kiss had broken through the seemingly impenetrable barrier around his heart, while all those other inescapable kisses had led him forward to finally face the truth. Love was not reserved solely for everyone else. It was there waiting for him as well. Not only did he deserve to know love with his family and his friends, he was worthy of the love he shared with the woman he adored.

His heart raced with the realization that there truly were possibilities within their reach, joyous moments just waiting to be embraced. Yet, accepting such life-altering knowledge was far easier than determining how to act upon it. And how could they move forward toward love when he couldn’t even allow himself to kiss her?

But, he recalled, there had been those few times when he had dared to offer her a kiss. More than once, he had pressed his lips lightly to the top of her head, a sweet and tender touch that might have passed unnoticed save for the warmth and pleasure he had sensed from her through their bond. He had no doubt she’d welcomed those secret caresses and had hoped for so much more. And now, he asked himself, is there any reason to continue denying us the pleasure of kisses filled with far more passion and promise?

He smiled as he murmured the answer, “No, not a single one.”

He gazed along the expanse of the Painted Tunnels, imagining other images Elizabeth might be inspired to paint. Another Winterfest waltz, another embrace, another kiss. Perhaps, his heart raced at the thought, someday a Joining Ceremony. At one time, such a romantic depiction of himself with his beloved would have seemed beyond impossible, an image found only in his secret dreams, never to be shared with anyone else. But now, he realized with growing joy, that fantasy truly could become part of the tunnel world’s reality.

Maybe someday Elizabeth’s painting of that wondrous celebration would illustrate the permanence of the love that was always meant to be. The image would take its rightful and treasured place in the history of the tunnel community. And, best of all, it would bring so much pleasure and fulfillment to Catherine, who had never lost faith in their dream.

He found himself laughing softly, dizzy with the recognition that anyone viewing such a painting would smile and rejoice for him, for them, for the love that had begun the night Catherine first entered his life. His mind raced as other memories came to life. He could almost hear the voices.

Mouse’s question, “What’s it like, Vincent, to have a love?” And his own awestruck response, “For me it was the beginning of a new life and the end of my aloneness.” Winslow’s words spoken from the heart. “What’s between you is something I’ve never felt myself. But seeing it, I know it’s real. I believe in it.” Father admitting he knew that what Catherine and his son share “touches the best in all of us.”

Catherine. His need to see her was overwhelming, and he shook his head in amazement that he had been able to maintain their separation for so long. He ached to go to her but knew the slowly fading light of a late spring night would keep him from her balcony for a few more hours. With that thought, he walked quickly back to Elizabeth’s workroom, thinking he might accompany her to the dining chamber, and then find something – anything – to keep himself busy until nightfall.

When he reached the artist’s workspace, he found the area deserted, but as he turned to go, he noticed a folded piece of paper with his name on it, propped against a jar of brushes on her paint-spattered table.

Dear Vincent,

I came to look for you to ask if you were ready to go to dinner, and I saw you standing by some of the paintings from your childhood years. You looked so deep in thought that I didn’t want to disturb you again. So, by the time you read this note, I will have left for the dining chamber, and maybe I’ll see you there later.

I hope you found what you were looking for. And by that smile I saw on your face, I think you did.

It’s just like Proust wrote, isn’t it? “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”


After refolding the note and putting it in his vest pocket, he strode through the tunnels, eager to reach the main hub. But after a few minutes, his steps slowed as one final unsettling thought began to disrupt his newly realized happiness.

It was that relentless word – why – that rankled and began to erode his contentment. He still could not determine the meaning of Catherine’s kiss. All the varied possibilities that had agonized him for days remained unresolved. Had it, after all, simply been a kiss of gratitude to underscore her words? Or had it truly been a kiss of beginnings and promises soon to be kept? Or, he shuddered at the thought, maybe it really had been a kiss to say good-bye to what had once been a world of possibilities.

No matter what, he had to know the truth. Despite his renewed faith in their chance for a happy life together, he understood it would all remain out of reach until he had his answer. And the only way to obtain that answer was to ask her for it, even knowing there was a risk she might speak the words he never wanted to hear.

He quickened his pace again, eager to reach his chamber so he could bathe and change his clothes for something more suitable for his reunion with Catherine. An hour later, he lifted his cloak from its hook on the wardrobe door and walked quickly toward Father’s study, intending to let his parent know of his plans for the evening. Undoubtedly, Father would suggest first sharing some tea and quiet conversation; unable to think of anything else to do that might ease his nervous energy until it was safe to go Above, he decided to opt for exactly that.

As he approached the entrance to the upper level of the study, he was surprised to hear the sound of several voices. He stopped to listen, not wishing to interrupt if a meeting or some private conversation might be taking place. Upon hearing only laughter and what appeared to be a friendly argument, he ventured closer and paused in the doorway to look down at the small gathering.

“Okay, I’ll give you that one.” Peter nodded his head in Father’s direction. “And I agree it is a good choice, but it’s still not the best.”

“I’ve got to go with the doc on this one.” William’s naturally loud voice drowned out Father’s attempted rebuttal. “I say ‘Casablanca,’ too. Hands down, best movie of all time.”

“I agree,” Mary added with a sigh. “Romance, mystery, adventure. What more could you ask for?”

“You could ask for a much better film,” Father insisted. “’Citizen Kane’ for one.”  As he shook his head in dismay, he caught sight of his son. “Ah, Vincent, come join us. What a shame we’re not discussing the merits of great works of literature. If we were, you could surely set the record straight.”

Peter placed his mug on an end table, then turned in his chair to grin at Vincent. “But I have a feeling you’d agree with William, Mary, and me on that point, too.”

Vincent descended the metal staircase, then leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms at the waist. “This sounds intriguing, and I would enjoy a debate about literature. But if it’s movies you’re discussing, I’m afraid I won’t be any help.”

“Well, come on in and sit down anyway,” William said, starting to rise from his chair. “We’ve got some pastries Peter brought down, and I’ll go get you a cup of coffee.”

Vincent shook his head. “Thank you, but I can’t stay. I just wanted to let Father know I’m going Above for a while to see Catherine.”

“Poor dear, she must still be grieving for her father,” Mary said softly. “Please give her our love and tell her we hope she’ll spend time with us again soon.”

“I will, Mary, thank you,” he promised. “Now I’ll leave you to your discussion.”

He had begun climbing the stairs, hoping to find some other diversion until the sky Above had darkened, when another comment from Peter made him swerve and turn back to the group.

“Come to think of it, ‘Casablanca’ is one of Catherine’s favorite movies, too.”

Father scowled at his old friend. “If I didn’t know better, I might think you’re only saying that to coerce Vincent into agreeing with you.”

Peter laughed. “Not at all! We watched it together about a month ago. Susan and Ethan were visiting from LA. Catherine came over and we all watched the movie after dinner.”

“How did you manage to find a theatre that was showing it?” Mary asked. “I remember seeing it at a classic film festival at the Waverly years and years ago. Did you see it at a place like that?”

“No, we saw it at home. I rented a copy and we watched it on my new VCR.” Seeing everyone’s puzzled expressions, Peter explained, “That’s a video tape player you hook up to a tv. You can watch whatever’s on the tape. Ethan set it up for me, and it’s not as complicated as I’d feared.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that!” Mary’s voice rose in amazement. “Can you watch any movie you want?”

“Probably not any movie, but the video rental shop has a good selection of classics, newer movies, documentaries, shows for children, even sports.”

“Hey, maybe Mouse could figure out a way to hook up something like that down here,” William said excitedly. “It’d be great!”

“Absolutely not!” Father’s voice cut through their enthusiasm. “It’s all well and good to make use of devices like that Above, but there’s no place for them in our community.”

Wishing to forestall any heated argument he might have inadvertently inspired, Peter quickly offered, “Or if anyone wants to, you can come up to my place and watch some tapes there. You know you’re welcome anytime.”

“That would be lovely, Peter, thank you.” Mary studiously ignored the glare Father cast in her direction. “Let’s talk about it sometime soon.”

“Sounds like a great idea!” William agreed. “I’d like to give it a try.”

“Well, I won’t be joining you,” Father retorted. “Thank you, Peter, but there is no need for it, and besides, it would be setting a very bad example for the children. They should be reading, not watching movies.”

Before anyone could say another word, Vincent’s voice startled them to silence. “Do you still have that movie, Peter? ‘Casablanca’?”

His old friend’s eyes widened in surprise. “I had to return it to the rental place, but I can get it back again. It’s no problem at all.”

Vincent nodded. “Thank you. I think I would like to see it.”

For several moments no one said a word until finally Mary found her voice. “It really is a wonderful movie, Vincent. I’m not surprised it’s one of Catherine’s favorites, and I think you’ll like it too.” Noting the grateful expression on his face, she continued, “And not only is the story so engaging, it also has that lovely song. Oh, what’s the name of it?”

“’As Time Goes By,’” Peter answered. “What a classic tune!” He cast a wry smile in Father’s direction, and then his warm baritone filled the chamber.

You must remember this,
A kiss is still a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

Mary smiled delightedly before continuing the song in her lilting soprano.

And when two lovers woo
They still say I love you
On that you can rely.
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

To no one’s surprise, William took a deep breath and began belting out the next lines.

Moonlight and love songs are never out of date
Hearts full of passion, jealousy, and

“That’s wrong, you know.” Father’s commanding voice smothered William’s booming bass.

“What do you mean, that’s wrong?” William demanded. “I’ve heard this song a hundred times!”

Father shook his head. “Not you, William. You were fine, and I do apologize for cutting you off like that. It was Peter who was wrong.” He shot a smug smile at his old friend. “But it is a common mistake. It could happen to anyone, so not to worry.”

Peter shook his head. “All right, let’s have it. What are you saying I did wrong?”

Only too happy to oblige, Father continued, “The lyrics are ‘a kiss is just a kiss,’ not ‘a kiss is still a kiss.’”

Yet another kiss. Vincent didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh.

“I don’t think so, Jacob. After all, I just heard the song a few weeks ago, and my memory’s not that bad yet!”

“Nevertheless, you were wrong.” Father turned his serene gaze to Mary and William. “You both agree with me, don’t you?”

Vincent didn’t wait to hear their answers, and instead bounded up the stairs and continued on his way to Catherine’s threshold before anything else, especially another kiss, could delay him further.

Both versions are wrong, he thought with a wry smile. If nothing else, I’ve certainly learned that much over the past few days!

He recalled all the kisses. Expressions of gratitude, humor, comfort, passion. A portrait of maternal tenderness. The first stirrings of deepening affection, the pledge of eternal devotion. Each was a loving gesture in its own way. None could be considered “just” a kiss. Every one possessed a special meaning and had its own essential role to play in the lives of the people it had touched.

And, his thoughts continued, it would be equally wrong to say, “a kiss is still a kiss.” None of the kisses were immutable, all could yield to interpretation, and each had changed his life in some unique way. He realized that through the kisses’ relentless intervention, his perception of Catherine’s kiss had been transformed, over and over again. It was as if he had been looking at it through the twisting lens of a kaleidoscope, his vision altering and refocusing as each kiss appeared.

The kisses had shown him moments of torment and joy, affirmation and doubt, playfulness and gravity. They had intruded into every aspect of his life, had pushed and prodded him mercilessly, and yet, he realized at last, they never had been his enemies. They had been his guides, leading him in the direction he needed – and wanted — to go. But now as he neared his destination, he knew the kisses would no longer be there to accompany him. He would be left on his own to travel toward the uncertain ending of a long and complex journey.

He groaned. Despite everything he now understood, he still was left with the question he had asked repeatedly since the very beginning. What had Catherine’s kiss really meant?

He paced the corridor below her apartment building until he could wait no longer. Minutes later in the deepening shadows of night, he stood on her balcony. Through the glass-paneled doors, he could see her quietly reading by lamplight. Her emotions were untroubled as they floated to him through their bond. She has been through so much these past several weeks, he told himself, and now she is finally beginning to find serenity again. Perhaps it would be best to let her be at peace for a little while longer. He started to back away in silence, wanting only to do what was best for her.

But he could not leave her. Despite everything, he knew if he did not find the courage to move forward now, he might never do so. And then, the kisses would find a way to return. They would burrow into his subconscious again until they either drove him to insanity or delivered him to certainty. When Catherine answered his question, it might open a world of long-awaited ecstasy, or it might force a continuation of stoic acceptance. Nevertheless, he had to know, and so he chose the better course. Raising one hand that trembled only slightly, he knocked against the glass.

He was so filled with joy when Catherine raced into his arms, that for several moments he found himself unable to move, unable to speak, unable to think of anything but her beloved presence. The onslaught of emotions flooding back and forth through their bond translated sensation into unspoken words. How they had longed for one another, how they needed to be together, how they wished they would never be forced to part.

Still holding her in his arms, he gazed at her, savoring the warmth and joy that glowed in her eyes. He wanted to ask if she’d found ways to cope with her sorrow; he longedhaun to let her know how much he had missed her; he had to offer assurance he would continue to help her find her way. They needed to talk of so many things. He could ask her…that question…later. He had waited this long, surely he could wait a little longer. Yes, he convinced himself, it’s the right thing to do.

But when he opened his mouth to speak, he heard the words that had haunted him, his  voice low and raspy and unstoppable.

“Catherine, there’s something I must ask you.”

“Of course, Vincent. You know you can ask me anything.”   

He took a deep shuddering breath. “When you left my world to return Above, why did you thank me…and why did you kiss me?”

She continued to gaze up at him, an incandescent smile lighting her face, warm and reassuring and timeless.

“I thanked you because you helped me find my way back…And I kissed you because I’m in love with you.”

Her words resonated in his heart, and he felt all his fear and confusion melt away to nothingness, leaving only joy and hope. This was the answer he had dreamed of, the only one he had ever wanted or needed.

“As I am in love with you, Catherine. As I will always love you.”

There was so much more to say, but every word would have to wait. There was something else he had to do, something he had dreamed of, had wanted, had needed for such a long, long time. He gathered her closer in his embrace and without hesitation lowered his mouth toward hers.

And he kissed her.

“How did it happen that their lips came together?
How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds,
That the dawn whitens behind the stark shape of trees
on the quivering summit of the hill?
A kiss, and all was said.”

~ Victor Hugo