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Classic Round Robin

Chapter 1
Valerie Wells

Oh, no, not again!

In some part of her mind, Catherine knew she was dreaming, but that thought faded as fast as it had come when she saw the woman again. Everywhere she went, there that woman was. Small, slender, with dark hair and startlingly blue eyes, the woman was in the halls at work, on the street when she stopped to get her newspaper in the morning, lurking around the hot dog cart when she grabbed a bit of lunch, and even on the corner when she arrived home at night.

There was nothing inherently frightening about the woman herself. Thanks to Isaac, Catherine knew she could hold her own, especially with someone smaller than she was. But it was creepy, that this woman was everywhere.

What does she want?

Catherine averted her eyes as she returned to work after an afternoon in court, refusing to let the woman know she’d seen her, but somewhere in her mind, she had to admit that the woman knew she had. She never spoke, but she was always just there.

Wracking her brain for some memory of having seen her before she started this stalking business got Catherine nowhere. She’d never seen her before. Was she a relative of someone Catherine had helped put away? Was she in trouble and hoping Catherine could help her? Was she connected to the Tunnel world somehow?

It was well past dark when Catherine left work. She went to the parking garage and got in her car, tired and dispirited. The day hadn’t gone well and all she wanted was to go home and get into a hot bath. Maybe Vincent would have time to come by tonight …

Her heart shot into her throat when the woman suddenly appeared in her rearview mirror, in her backseat. Catherine screamed, but she had no time to do anything else. In one shockingly fast move, the woman grabbed her hair, yanked her head back, and cut her throat. Blood spattered everywhere, all over the inside of the car, all over Catherine and the woman, and as things went dark, Catherine fell over in the seat …

And woke up.

Her heart was still pounding and she was grateful she’d left the bathroom light on. It helped return her to reality.

God, what an awful dream!

Catherine shook her head to clear the last vestiges of the fear away and as she did, felt the unmistakable sense of Vincent’s concern. She didn’t often feel the bond from her end, except occasionally in moments of great emotion. Tonight it was very strong, and she even thought she could sense his sudden awakening. He was throwing the covers back, on his way to her, because he felt her fear.

It’s okay, Vincent. It was just a bad dream. I’m safe. I’m home in bed. Don’t worry.

Below, Vincent received the message with clarity he had seldom known. Usually all he could feel from Catherine was a sense of her feelings. It was so clear that he relaxed against his pillows without thinking.

If you should need me, I am here, he sent back.

I know. I love you. Good night.

Amazing. He could actually understand her thoughts. Could she understand his? She must – she had answered his silent communication.

Awake now, and unable to sleep again with this new knowledge burning in his brain, Vincent put his hands behind his head and stared at his stained glass window with wonder. But what had frightened her so badly?

Just a bad dream … but he had felt so much terror from her that it had shaken him awake as surely as if someone had thrown cold water over him.

A bad dream, indeed. Why would Catherine have a dream so frightening?

He had been aware of her nightmares before. Immediately after her attack, while she was in his care here Below, she had had one every time she dozed off. After returning Above, she had nightmares several nights a week for some months. Those had ended, he recalled with a warm feeling, after he had made contact with her again. She had told him this, but he had known without being told. She had them again with Stephen and with the stalker, but only for a couple of weeks afterward. They always went away quickly.

What could have brought this one on? Was she in some danger? Danger that she perhaps sensed only dimly?

Vincent slept only fitfully the rest of the night, his worry for her safety giving him his own bad dreams whenever he slept. And he was awakened very early, for Winterfest preparations were underway, and the Tunnel denizens were busy from early in the morning until late at night.

Vincent and several of the other men were charged with cleaning and making repairs to the Great Hall, which was rarely used except at such times. There was much to do and not much time to do it in. Two of the tables required extensive work, and Cullen had already handed out assignments by the time Vincent arrived to report for duty.

“Vincent, thank goodness.” Cullen wiped his brow and shook a screwdriver at Mouse, who was underfoot but not in a helpful way. “You! Go find somewhere else to hang out. You’re in the way. Vincent, grab an end of this, I gotta turn it over.”

Mouse scurried backward but didn’t leave, and Vincent obeyed orders and helped Cullen turn over one of the large and ornate chairs. The seat had split. Cullen shook his head over it.

“Can’t fix it,” he said, more to himself than Vincent. “Gotta make a new one. Mouse!”

Mouse shrank. He was a little intimidated by Cullen, who tended to bellow when he was in the throes of a job like this.

“Don’t do that, boy,” Cullen thundered at him. “Run to my chamber and get me a piece of wood big enough to fit this. Make yourself useful.”

Mouse vanished, and Vincent chuckled. “You frighten him.”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “Dumb kid,” he muttered, going to work removing the chair seat. “He knows I ain’t gonna hurt him.”

“I’m not sure he does,” Vincent said.

Cullen glanced up with a grin – his bark was far worse than his bite – but the grin faded when he got a good look at Vincent. “You look like hell. Didn’t sleep well?”

“No.”

“Wanna tell me why?”

Vincent smiled a little. Cullen, bless him, was the kind of friend who would easily accept a negative answer to that question with no hard feelings. “Catherine had a nightmare and her fear woke me,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep again after that.” He did not elaborate, thinking his own fear might be a bit irrational, and Cullen nodded.

“If I wake up in the middle of the night, I can’t go back to sleep, either,” he said, busying himself with his work. And that was that.

Vincent could not dismiss his fear as easily as he had hoped to, and made up his mind he would visit Catherine that night to satisfy himself that she really was safe and in no danger.

And again, as clearly as if she stood beside him, her thoughts came to him.

I’d love to see you tonight, but I really am fine.

Vincent gasped before he could stop himself, and Cullen paused and looked up. “What’s wrong?”

Vincent sank into another of the ornate chairs. “I can hear Catherine’s thoughts.”

Cullen frowned and sat back on his heels. “Huh? What’s new about that?”

“No, I can understand actual messages from her,” Vincent said, stunned. “Our bond … I have always before simply had a sense of her emotions. If she was happy, or sad, or frightened. These are actual words. I can hear what she’s thinking, if she wants me to. Like … telepathy.”

Cullen’s eyebrows rose. “Wow. Can she hear yours?”

Vincent concentrated on Catherine’s face in his mind. Can you hear me?

Yes, came the answer.

He gasped again. “She can!”

“Are you sure?” Cullen said skeptically. “If it’s never happened before, maybe you’re just, well, imagining it.”

Catherine wondered the same thing, but because she had never completely understood the bond, she accepted this new development more easily than Vincent did. To her, it was mysterious, this connection, and perhaps this clarity of communication had been one way – from her to Vincent – all along. Perhaps the reason it was now two-way was simply because she and Vincent had been experiencing an unusual comfort and closeness in the last couple of months. He had told her some things about himself and his life that he had never shared before, beginning one night near Samhain, and that had opened the floodgates for many more confidences since. Catherine smiled to herself, thinking about it. She didn’t know what had caused it, but she was thankful.

And now they could communicate both ways!