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An Unfortunate Oversight

 

by Kathy DeNormandie

 

 

“I want to make this Winterfest the one we will always remember!” Catherine thought as she stood in the little boutique, debating between the two dresses she had picked out. She couldn’t decide between a classic black dress with sparkling beadwork and a satiny red dress with a low cut bodice.

 

She hid a sly grin as she thought of what Vincent’s reaction would be to her bare back and peekaboo cleavage. Thinking of Vincent brought her such joy, but hidden beneath the layers was a level of sadness.

 

Their third year anniversary was in a few short months, and she realized she was at a dead end in her attempts to further their relationship. They had grown so incredibly close before he got sick, and these last few months his recovery seemed to shove their progress back a few steps instead of forward.

 

Vincent did express his love freely now, but words were the only way he conveyed them. They still had little to no physicality to their relationship, and Catherine was more determined than ever to change that. With a sigh, she returned the red dress to the rack and chose the black dress.

 

Returning home, she quickly hung the dress up, eagerly awaiting the day she would wear it.

 

***

 

It was a month before Winterfest, and Rebecca was separating the candles for their coming deliveries. Together, she and Father were carefully rereading their lists and double checking that the baskets each had the same amount of candles, as well as a list of who the lucky recipients would be. They had learned long ago, not to trust the memory of a child with such an important task as the Winterfest candle delivery. The children tended to forget who they needed to deliver candles to as their minds were occupied with the task of being the first to make all their deliveries.

 

Father and Rebecca both turned when they heard the sound of Vincent entering with the group of children who would be making all the deliveries.

 

Father smiled warmly at his young charges. “Here you all are...Rebecca and I were just finishing up.” His voice took on a more authoritative pitch when he continued. “I know I needn’t remind you of the importance of making all of your deliveries. The race to finish first is not nearly as important as the task of inviting our helpers to come share in this special day.”

 

The children each lowered their eyes at the light reprimand, but Father sighed as he caught them casting furtive glances at one another.

 

Rebecca hid her smile as Eric, Kipper, Zack, and Tyler as well as Samantha, Heather, Katie and Amanda waited anxiously for their lists and baskets.

 

When each of them was ready, Father nodded his assent. “Go with care, please.” He rolled his eyes as each of the six children ran out of the room. “It never changes...”

 

Vincent chuckled. “Perhaps you should stop worrying about the deliveries. No child has ever let you down.”

 

Rebecca nodded. “It’s true, Father! When we were young, even though it was a race, we always respected the importance of the task.”

 

Father grinned ruefully. “I suppose you’re both right. In all these years, I’ve never had anyone tell me that they weren’t invited.”

 

Vincent carefully chose a candle and twirled it in his hands. “I need to make my own delivery as well.”

 

Father smiled and winked at Rebecca then put on a serious face. “Before you go, Vincent... Could you see Cullen about fixing a table?”

 

Vincent sighed but nodded dutifully. Rebecca couldn’t help but add to Father’s teasing. “The one that was broken? That’s the main food table. Oh, Vincent...its imperative we get that fixed. I’ll make your delivery for you...you stay and help Cullen.”

 

“That’s a very good idea, Rebecca and most kind of you to offer,” Father added immediately.

 

Vincent’s mind scrambled for a way to refuse her help as he looked at her guiltily. His eyes narrowed with suspicion as he noticed the tell tale gleam in her eyes, and he realized she was teasing. “I’ll make my delivery later, but thank you for offering, Rebecca,” he said as he carefully put the candle in the pocket of his cloak.

 

Rebecca shrugged nonchalantly as she turned away to hide her grin. “If you’re sure...”

 

Vincent affectionately pulled at her hair. “I am...thank you.”

 

He and Father left together and made their way to the library. “Vincent, I truly do need you to see Cullen. I understand that a table leg was damaged quite badly and Cullen needed several of the men to help get it to his shop.”

 

“Catherine may not even be home from work yet. I’ll go see Cullen now, and we’ll see what we can do about the table.”

 

“Thank you,” Father said as Vincent veered off and took the tunnel that lead to Cullen’s chamber.

 

***

 

Vincent walked into Cullen’s chamber to find John, Matthew, Mouse and Patrick deep in conversation. The men stopped when he entered.

 

“Father said we have a table that needs fixing...” Vincent announced as he stepped fully into the room.

 

John nodded. “Yeah, we were just talking about the best way to get it here.”

 

Patrick shrugged. “I say up the back tunnel.”

 

Mouse shook his head. “Back tunnel no good....pipes leaking....need to fix soon.”

 

Matthew frowned. “It’s the fastest way, Mouse. That table is solid and heavy!”

 

Vincent looked over at Cullen. “Are you certain the table can’t be fixed in the Great Hall?”

 

Cullen frowned. “I don’t think so...I have to replace two legs, and where they connect to the base has to be fitted exactly...I need my tools and...”

 

Vincent stopped him with a light squeeze to the shoulder. “You don’t have to explain, Cullen. If you need the table here, we’ll bring it to you. When would you like to do this?”

 

John stepped forward. “We’re all here now, let’s get it done.”

 

Mouse nodded vigorously. “Father says...don’t put off...do now.”

 

The others nodded in agreement, and Vincent thought briefly of Catherine then sighed and nodded as well.

 

The men left and headed down to the Great Hall. Vincent looked at the legs of the table and agreed that it would be almost impossible to fix there. The men heaved it out the back entrance and down the back tunnel. They fought for their balance as they slipped through the muddy tunnel.

 

John grumbled aloud. “Damn it! We should have listened to Mouse! This way is treacherous; someone is going to get hurt!

 

With those words, Matthew lost his footing and fell against the wall. The table slipped from his hands and the weight of it fell to Vincent on the other side. He staggered and had almost steadied himself, but his feet flew out from underneath him and he landed on his back in the mud.

 

The men ran around and Mouse helped him to his feet. “Vincent...hurt?”

 

Vincent shook his head then looked over at Matthew. “Are you injured?”

 

“No...just my pride. I can’t believe I slipped like that. I’m sorry, Vincent.”

 

Vincent frowned as he looked at the tunnel floor. “My main concern is the amount of water in this tunnel. The passageway will be flooded within the next 48 hours. We need to get a work detail on this immediately.”

 

Mouse shrugged. “Tried...everyone too busy.”

 

Vincent looked first to Patrick, who was slowly shaking his head.

 

“Can’t...I’ve got sentry duty at the north entrance.”

 

Matthew nodded. “I’m on the south side.”

 

John smiled. “I didn’t know it was this bad. I can help. I was supposed to help William move some food containers around in the pantry, but it can wait until tomorrow.”

 

Vincent turned to the table and everyone moved back into their position. They heaved the table up again and slowly made their way to Cullen’s chamber.

 

***

 

Father looked up as Vincent, Mouse and John entered the library. He looked at Vincent’s clothing and gasped. “Have you been injured?”

 

“No, I slipped in the back tunnel while we carried the table to Cullen.”

 

Father frowned. “Slipped, you say?”

 

Mouse nodded. “Lots of water...real muddy. Told Vincent...fix now.”

 

Father looked at the sheet of duties that he needed to assign. “These jobs will have to wait then; clearly we cannot afford to have a flooded tunnel system.”

 

John glanced at the list Father had set down. “Hopefully, there is just a leaky pipe and we’ll be able to fix it straight away. We can get to some of these jobs first thing tomorrow.”

 

The men turned to leave when Vincent suddenly turned back to Father and handed him the Winterfest candle meant for Catherine. “Father, I’ll be unable to deliver this tonight. Please send the first messenger to return to Catherine’s apartment.”

 

Father knew how much his son had wanted to see Catherine tonight. “Of course, Vincent. I’m sorry, son. I’m sure you can see her tomorrow night and explain why you were unable to make the delivery yourself.”

 

Vincent left and caught up with John and Mouse.

 

Father set Catherine’s candle in the middle of his desk so he wouldn’t forget to send the first child who returned. He looked up from his papers as he was interrupted yet again.

 

Mary was rushing in with a child in her arms. “Father! Amy has a very high fever and I’ve been unable to get it down.”

 

Father stood and held his palm to the girl’s head. “Get her to the hospital chamber while I grab my bag.”

 

Father rushed from the room after Mary.

 

While he was gone, person after person came into the library and laid their reports on his desk. It wasn’t long before Catherine’s candle was at the bottom of a very large stack of papers.

 

Father was flooded with more medical emergencies. Samantha had cut herself on the subway and needed stitches in her arm, and Kipper had twisted his ankle when he slipped on a patch of ice.

 

Father came back after four hours and looked at the stack of papers waiting for him. He slowly shook his head, “This will have to wait.”

 

He blew out the candle and headed to his chamber for some much needed sleep.

 

***

 

Hours later, Vincent, John and Mouse made their way back. Each man was covered from head to toe with thick mud.

 

Mouse’s face was wrinkled with disgust. “Mouse needs bath.”

 

John laughed aloud. “That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.”

 

Vincent sighed as he felt the weight of his cloak dragging on the ground. He whipped it off and slung it over his arm as they made their way through the tunnels. “Perhaps we should stand in the waterfall and get some of this mud off of our clothing.”

 

John groaned. “That water is freezing!”

 

Mouse agreed. “Too cold!”

 

Vincent nodded. “I know, but everyone is overwhelmed with extra duties, and it will help the wash room if our clothes aren’t so heavily soiled.”

 

John’s shoulders sank as he realized Vincent was right. He clasped Mouse’s arm and steered him towards the waterfall. “He’s right...let’s get this over with.”

 

The three men trudged to the waterfall, and within minutes the mud was washed from their clothing. They shivered as they walked towards their respective chambers for a change of clothes and then met up again at the community bath.

 

Mouse smiled. “Water nice...Mouse warm.”

 

John sighed as he scrubbed the mud from his hair. “I just want to get to bed.”

 

Vincent was scrubbing his hair as well and had just gone underwater to rinse off the shampoo. When he came up, he turned to his friends, “It’s almost dawn...I guess I’ll have to wait and see Catherine tonight.”

 

Mouse frowned. “Can’t...remember...work for Mouse tonight...Mouse has to help Cullen...”

 

Vincent sighed. “I’d forgotten, Mouse.”

 

Mouse was worried. “Promised...still work, right?”

 

“Yes, of course, I will. I gave you my word. I’ll send a note to Catherine.”

Vincent stood and began to vigorously dry off. Mouse and John soon joined him, and the men headed to their chambers for some much deserved sleep.

 

***

 

Catherine was on her way into work when a messenger walked passed her and stuffed a letter in her hands. She looked down at the envelope and saw Vincent’s familiar writing on the front.

 

Joe came up suddenly and grabbed the note from her hand. “Love letter from the boyfriend, eh Radcliffe?” He looked down at the note. “Catherine, huh? Not Cathy?...you two not that close yet? Let’s read what he’s got to say...”

 

He pretended to open the envelope while Catherine stilled her anger and said quietly. “Joe, hand me the letter.”

 

Joe frowned at the tone in her voice and timidly handed it back. “Hey, Cathy...I was only kidding; I wouldn’t have read it...”

 

Catherine dropped the note in her bag and shot him a devilish grin as she lied. “It’s from Jenny, she wants to know who you’re dating...”

 

“Really?”

 

Catherine shrugged as she walked towards the elevator. “Maybe...”

 

“C’mon Cathy, is Jenny really asking about me?”

 

Catherine kept him guessing until they walked through their office door. “No, you were right the first time...it’s from my boyfriend. Now if you don’t mind I’d like to read it...alone!”

 

Joe made a face and walked into his office while Catherine headed to her desk and dug out the letter.

 

 

            Catherine,

 

           Preparations for the coming holiday have stolen my time as we are all frantically getting ready for the celebration. Flu has also managed to work its way into our midst, slowing things down even further. Father is overwhelmed and has delegated much of his work to me. Our time has become even more limited.

 

            Hope to see you soon...

 

            V

 

Catherine sighed as she put the letter into her purse. She knew Vincent was overwhelmed with Winterfest preparations. There were times when she thought she could feel his exhaustion. She picked up a pen to write him a quick note.

 

 

            Vincent,

 

            Miss you terribly but I understand. If I can help in any way please let me know. I’ve been swamped at work, but I could offer some of my free time on the weekends...

 

            Thinking of you always,

 

            Catherine

 

 

She folded the note and slipped it into her pocket so she could send it at lunchtime. With a groan, she opened a new case file on her desk.

 

That night she went home and found a reply under her door and opened it quickly.

 

            Catherine

 

            Come for Sunday dinner...perhaps spend some time at the waterfall...

 

            V

 

Catherine quickly jotted the answer “Yes,” on a note and put it on her briefcase to send in the morning.

 

***

 

The next two weeks were a flurry of activity. Father was called away from his desk to oversee one problem after another. He continued to delegate work out, and Vincent seemed to be the recipient of most of the time consuming tasks.

 

Vincent accomplished each task with no complaints. It was the Saturday before Winterfest, and Father once again took out the list as Vincent walked into the room.

 

Vincent held up his hand. “Father, I need a break.”

 

“Vincent, Winterfest is next weekend!”

 

“Father, I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do and more. My visits with Catherine have been severely limited because of all of this extra work. Tomorrow is Sunday, and I’m taking a few hours off for myself.”

 

Father frowned as he lowered his head. “Vincent, I’m sorry. You are quite right. We are all overwhelmed! This flu bug that went through here last week put us days behind.” He waved his hand over the stack of papers on his desk. “I’ve been trying for three weeks to get to the bottom of this and I can’t make any headway on it! I’ve been assigning you more and more, and it hasn’t been fair. I’m truly sorry.”

 

Vincent came over and hugged his Father. “I understand how it happened, and I’m glad I have been able to relieve you of some of your burden. I’m only asking for a few hours break.”

 

Father patted his hand. “Ask Catherine to spend the day Below tomorrow...”

 

“I sent her a note earlier in the week inviting her for Sunday dinner, and she has accepted. We’ll join everyone for dinner then she and I can go to the Chamber of the Falls and spend some quiet time together, perhaps reading.”

 

Father stood and walked over to a pile of books then handed the second one down in the stack to Vincent. “This is a new book that was just sent down from one of the helpers. It’s supposed to be quite good.”

 

Vincent glanced at the cover and agreed that it looked interesting. “Thank you, Father.” He grabbed the list of duties and quickly scanned down the column. He was interrupted by a group of children entering the room. They were sent by Mary to ask what work needed to be done, and Vincent quickly assigned tasks from the list. The children left, and Vincent handed the list back to Father.

 

“Most of these jobs have now been assigned. I’ll do the bottom three jobs this morning... This afternoon I’ll check to see how the children have done completing their tasks, then I’ll get Mouse to help me with the first two. By the end of today this list should be complete.”

 

Father sat back in his chair and smiled. “You deserve more than just tomorrow off.”

 

Vincent left, and Father turned to the insurmountable mess on his desk.

 

 

***

 

The next afternoon, Catherine made her way down the ladder at her threshold. Vincent was waiting at the bottom and she turned to him with a smile.

 

“Hi, stranger!”

 

He smiled shyly. “Catherine!”

 

He opened his arms and she melted against him. “Oh, Vincent, it seems like forever since I’ve seen you!”

 

“I’ve stopped by your apartment, but it was always so late that I didn’t want to wake you.”

 

“We’ve been swamped at work, and I’ve been coming home so exhausted I go right to sleep.”

 

“I’ve been busy as well...there were nights I never made it to bed. I’m sorry. I wish I could have come to you sooner.”

 

Catherine took his hand and started to lead him towards the home tunnels. “Well, we’re together now. Let’s not waste it.”

 

Vincent squeezed her hand as they walked. “I thought that after dinner we could go by the falls. I have a new book for us to share.”

 

“Sounds wonderful. As much as I love to hear you read, I have to admit I am looking forward to William’s cooking.”

 

Vincent smiled. “Then we should hurry.”

 

Catherine leaned her head against his shoulder and slowed her pace. “The food isn’t going anywhere, and this is nice too...”

 

“Yes,” Vincent agreed shyly as he dropped her hand and put his arm around her.

 

They walked into the dining hall, and Catherine was greeted with a flurry of hellos as they walked around the room towards the food table. She and Vincent made their trays and headed towards the table they usually shared with Father.

 

Mary was seated their as well, and both she and Father seemed extremely distracted.

 

Catherine raised her eyebrows in surprise and smiled at Vincent. Vincent shook his head with amusement. “Father, Catherine has come for dinner tonight.”

 

“Hmmm?” Father said, barely glancing up from his papers. “Yes. Hello...um...Catherine. It’s good to see you.”

 

“Hello, Father.”

 

Mary looked up and smiled warmly. “Hello, dear.”

 

“Hi, Mary. You two look busy.”

 

Mary sighed. “We’re swamped. Sara has just taken ill, and she was supposed to help me repair some table linen for Winterfest.” A thought seemed to strike Mary and she looked hopefully at Catherine. “Could you repair it?”

 

“Me?!” Catherine asked with surprise.

 

“It’s only some hemming along the edges...”

 

Catherine looked uncertain but nodded. “Sure...”

 

Mary proceeded to push a large basket towards Catherine. “Finish what you can and thank you!”

 

Brooke came up with a young Cathy in her arms, and Mary was momentarily distracted.

 

Catherine turned to Vincent with a smile. “I did say I would help anyway I could...”

 

“Yes, but not today.”

 

Father handed Vincent a stack of papers and a pencil. “Vincent, please go over these figures for me and verify my totals.”

 

Patrick walked up and tapped Vincent on the shoulder. “Sorry to interrupt, but I need you to look at the problem I’m having with the chandelier wenches...”

 

Catherine sighed as Vincent helped Patrick. She turned back to her food but couldn’t help overhear the conversation between Mary and Brooke.

 

“But, Mary, I have a whole list of names of people who haven’t responded...”

 

“Brooke, the candles went out 3 weeks ago, but some people just don’t respond until the last minute. Give it a few more days.”

 

Brooke pouted but walked away, and Catherine smiled at Mary. “More problems?”

 

Mary waved her hand distractedly. “It’s her first year in charge of the invitations...the Winterfest candles went out weeks ago, and Brooke is upset that not everyone has responded.”

 

Catherine looked over at Vincent, who was still speaking to Patrick, and asked timidly. “The candles were delivered already?”

 

Mary nodded. “Yes, yes...weeks ago! This is the fastest year for deliveries yet.”

 

Catherine put on her best courtroom facade as she hid her disappointment. “Maybe some people didn’t get theirs yet...”

 

Father jumped in to their conversation. “Vincent and Rebecca both assure me that never happens! No...I’m certain that anyone who was supposed to be invited received a candle.”

 

His words had come across gruffly, and Catherine looked down as she scrambled to compose herself. She had not received a candle and was torn between asking if she was invited or accepting the fact that, for whatever reason, she had not been asked this year.

 

William came up and handed Father more paperwork, and one of the younger children commanded Mary’s attention. Vincent was still occupied with Patrick, and Catherine sat in her seat debating what to do.

 

Vincent turned to her and sighed. “Catherine, this requires my attention...”

 

Catherine felt slighted but only nodded. “It’s okay...um...I’ll start this sewing.”

 

Vincent nodded.  “I won’t be long.” he said as she dug through the basket.

 

Catherine watched him walk from the room with Patrick and Matthew. Mary also excused herself, and it was just Catherine and Father at the table.

 

Father was interrupted time and time again for more problems than Catherine could count. She wondered how he was able to keep anything straight. She finished her food while she patched the seams on numerous table clothes and napkins.

 

Father scowled as he picked up the list of figures he left for Vincent to tally. “I bet he didn’t have time to re-add these.”

 

“I can do it, Father,” Catherine offered.

 

Father stood abruptly. “Thank you, dear. It would be most helpful. Give it to Vincent when you’re done.”

 

He was called away again and Catherine watched him leave. She frowned as she looked at the pages of figures he handed her. Included with them was the complete invitation list. Catherine scanned down the list and realized her name was not written in the columns of people. “So it wasn’t an oversight,” she thought as she glanced up sadly and realized the room was now empty.

 

She finished up the last bit of sewing and carefully laid the pieces back into the basket. Vincent still hadn’t returned, so Catherine started to tally up the figures on the papers.

 

William came out and smiled at Catherine. “Don’t tell me they put you to work, too!”

 

“I don’t mind, William.”

 

He took her dirty dishes and turned away but stopped when she called him back.

 

“William?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“What are all these dollar amounts?”

 

He nodded towards the kitchen. “They correspond to the invoices I have in the kitchen. Every year Winterfest costs us more and more money. We have to budget tightly for the next few months if we want to make it to spring...”

 

Catherine nodded in understanding. She looked at the bottom total and realized that although she thought it was quite inexpensive for the type of celebration Winterfest was, to the world Below the debt was overwhelming.

 

“You say you have the invoices for these?”

 

“Yes, on the counter in the kitchen.”

 

Catherine stood suddenly. “Let me just verify the totals with Father’s sheets.”

 

She followed William into the kitchen and took the stack of invoices. “I’ll give these to Father when I’m done.”

 

“Sounds good, Catherine. Thank you.”

 

Catherine hid the invoices in her purse. Tonight when she went home, she would pay all the vendors in full so the world Below would not feel the effects of the party.

 

Her work finished, Catherine wandered towards the library. Father sat behind a mountain of paperwork and Catherine could barely see him from the doorway.

 

“Father?”

 

Father looked up angrily. “Yes?”

 

Catherine blinked in surprise. “I’m sorry...I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

 

He nodded as he looked back down at the stack. “As you can see I’m quite busy, Catherine. What can I do for you?”

 

“Vincent is still tied up with Patrick and Matthew, so I wandered in here. Can I help you? I’ve never seen your desk this full!”

 

Father shook his head wearily. “I don’t even have all the reports back yet!”

 

Catherine looked around curiously, wondering how he knew what wasn’t there and what was. “What’s missing?”

 

Father waved his hands in the air. “The invoices for the food, for one. I must get them soon to see how to budget the over next few months. Then of course Brooke still has the invitation list.”

 

“Brooke has it? That’s a huge responsibility for one so young.”

 

“She has the RSVP list...Mary, Rebecca, Vincent, William and I actually made the list of who should be invited.”

 

“Wow. That must be a big job!”

 

“Not really. It’s always the same helpers year after year who get invited.”

 

“What about new helpers?” Catherine had seen the list but couldn’t bring herself to ask why she hadn’t been included.

 

Father shrugged. “Between all of us, I don’t think we’ve ever forgotten someone...”

 

Catherine fell silent as Father lifted the next stack of papers. She never felt so excluded from anything in her entire life. She understood how the others could have overlooked her, but Vincent... She swallowed hard and pushed back her emotions.

 

Vincent chose that moment to walk in. “Catherine, I’m sorry. It took longer than I expected.”

 

She smiled weakly. “That’s okay. I know you’re busy getting things ready.”

 

“Perhaps we could head to the Chamber of the Falls now.”

 

As much as Catherine wanted to go, she wasn’t sure how much longer she could hide her feelings. She shook her head slowly. “I forgot something I had to do. I need to go...”

 

Vincent blinked in confusion. “Could it wait until tomorrow? It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other.”

 

Catherine felt herself losing control, and before she collapsed in a heap of tears, she snapped back, “And whose fault is that?”

 

Vincent lowered his head guiltily. “I...um...I’ll...walk you out, then.”

 

Catherine felt like a heel but couldn’t stop the words. “I know the way. Goodnight, Vincent.” She cocked her head to the side and peered over his shoulder. “Father.”

 

Immersed in paperwork, Father had missed their entire exchange and looked up at the sound of his name.  “Huh, hmmm?”

 

Catherine left the room abruptly, and Vincent stood there looking forlorn.

 

Father looked up a while later and saw that Vincent was still standing there. “Where’d Catherine go?”

 

Vincent shook his head in utter confusion. “Father, I have no idea what just happened.”

 

“She left?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Odd. Well, as long as she’s gone, could you help me with this map?”

 

Vincent dejectedly turned to his Father to help with the latest project.

 

 

***

 

Catherine went home and walked into her apartment. She made her way through the living room and over to her closet. She held up the beautiful full length gown she had purchased just for Winterfest this year. Knowing she wouldn’t be wearing it, she undressed herself, put on her nightgown then crawled into bed and cried herself to sleep.

 

The next morning, her head was pounding from the restless night of sleep, but she got up and wrote checks to all of the vendors from Below and mailed them with the invoices marked “paid in full.”

 

 She kept busy the entire week and worked late each night. Hoping to avoid confrontation with Vincent, she did something she hadn’t done in over 3 years...she pulled closed her drapes at night to stop any late night visits.

 

She didn’t know that each night Vincent had come to her balcony and sat for hours hoping that she would come out and see him. Each dawn he went away, dejectedly, letting his sadness wash all hope from him.

 

It was Friday afternoon, the day before Winterfest, when Peter called her office.

 

“Catherine Chandler, can I help you?”

 

“Hi, Cathy. It’s Peter.”

 

Catherine smiled for the first time in days. “Peter?! How’ve you been?”

 

“Good. I just got back from visiting Susan again.”

 

“How is she?”

 

“Great, she’s waddling around and complaining she can’t see her toes. I keep reminding her it’s only a few more weeks.”

 

Catherine laughed. “What’d she say to that?”

 

“She said she’s been doing this for eight long months, a few more weeks is like a lifetime.” They chuckled together when Peter added, “She sends her love.”

 

“I’ll call her soon.”

 

“Good, she’ll like that.”

 

“So, what else is new, Peter? Did you just call to give me the news about Susan?”

 

“No, Cathy, I’m calling to see what time you’re coming over Saturday.”

 

“Saturday?”

 

Peter laughed. “I knew you wouldn’t remember!”

 

“Remember what, Peter?”

 

“Our date! Last year...you promised me we would attend Winterfest together!”

 

Catherine’s heart began to ache again as she sighed. “I did promise you, Peter but unfortunately I’m not going this year.”

 

“Not going?! You?! Catherine, the candles came out weeks ago, what do you have planned to do that you couldn’t change?”

 

“Nothing, Peter! I have nothing!”

 

“Then why aren’t you going?!”

 

“I wasn’t invited.”

 

“What?”

 

“I didn’t receive a Winterfest candle this year, Peter. I’m not invited.”

 

“Oh, for Pete’s sake. There’s been some kind of mistake!”

 

“No, in fact I was there last Sunday, and I questioned Father a few different times. I wasn’t invited this year.”

 

“I don’t believe it! You asked Father if you were invited and he said no?!”

 

“Well, no...I asked if everyone had received their candles, and he assured me that everyone that was invited received their candles.”

 

“Catherine, this is preposterous. I know the council makes a list every year...there is no way Vincent forgot to put you on that list.”

 

Catherine sighed again. “It doesn’t matter. Either way, I wasn’t invited.”

 

“Baloney...I’m inviting you. You can come as my guest.”

 

“I’m sorry, Peter. It wouldn’t be right. I’m not going to go. Can you tell William for me that all of the vendors have been paid in full? They won’t have to stretch the budget for the next few months.”

 

“Cat...”

 

“Peter!” she interrupted. “I’m at work, and this hurts enough without me falling apart in front of my colleagues. Please! Go and have a good time without me.”

 

“Catherine Marie...”

 

“Goodbye, Peter.” Catherine said right before she hung up the phone. She couldn’t believe she had been so rude, but she knew he was going to try to convince her.

 

She stood and made her way to the ladies room to splash cold water on her face. As she held back the tears, she dabbed at the wetness on her face. “Don’t lose it now, Chandler. You only have a few more hours to go!”

 

***

 

Peter had never been so angry in his life. He headed Below and stormed through the tunnels as he made his way to the library.

 

“You pompous ass!” he bellowed into the room.

 

Father looked up in surprise. “Peter! What are you doing here?”

 

“I’ve come to tell you to your face that you are a pompous ass. How could you do it to her, Jacob? Vincent walked in and Peter turned on him. “And you! That girl is one of the best things that ever happened to you and this world, and you cast her to the side like yesterday’s news.”

 

Father grew angry at the attack on Vincent. “Peter, would you mind telling us what this is about?”

 

“I called Cathy today to find out what time she was coming to my house so we could come to Winterfest together, and she’s not coming.”

 

Vincent looked up in surprise. “Not coming? She said that?”

 

“She said a lot of things. The one thing that stood out in my mind is she’s not coming...because she was never invited!”

 

Vincent looked confused. “Never invited?”

 

“Yes, no one bothered to invite her. She even asked about it last weekend and was assured all the invitations had gone out...” Peter was pacing the floor furiously. “Even after all that, she took the invoices from William and wrote personal checks to each of your vendors and paid their bills in full!”

 

A feeling of dread had come over Vincent as he turned to Father. “The day I had to help Cullen with the table...I handed you her candle and asked that the first child that came back be sent to Catherine’s to make the delivery. Who did you give the candle to, Father?”

 

Father nodded as he remembered. “Yes, yes... I remember...I set it here and...” He looked up from his desk and paled. “And I was called away...Amy had a fever and Samantha needed stitches...then Kipper came and he had his sprained...” While he spoke, he shifted piles of papers on his desk then sighed heavily as he picked up her candle and showed it to them. “Vincent, I am so, so sorry.”

 

Vincent took the candle from him and let his head drop forward. “I know. We have all been overworked this season. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied, I would have taken it to her as planned... ”

 

Peter’s anger melted as he saw the look of sorrow on Father’s face. “I told her it was an oversight...”

 

Father frowned. “She kept asking questions last week about the guest list...I thought she was making small talk...I...was too busy to actually listen to her words. Why didn’t she just come out and ask?”

 

Peter chuckled. “That’s her mother coming out in her. She was raised in polite society where one does not ask questions like that. Vincent, perhaps you could go and explain what happened?”

 

Vincent shook his head ruefully. “Normally her curtains are always open, sometimes even the door. This whole past week everything has been drawn, and her room has been dark. I know she’s inside, but she refuses to talk to me.”

 

“You must keep trying, Vincent!” Father pleaded. “Explain to her that it was my fault.”

 

“I would if she would speak to me...” Vincent now understood the conflicting emotions that he had felt over the bond this past week.

 

“Demand that she listen to you!” Father insisted.

 

Peter snorted aloud. “That’ll certainly work, Jacob!” he said sarcastically.

 

Mouse ran in and called out to Vincent. “Need you...now...water again...bad this time...can’t stop...”

 

Mouse took off again and Father and Peter watched the life drain out of Vincent as he sighed aloud. “I need to go with Mouse. We knew that the patch to that pipe was only temporary. I hoped it would get us through Winterfest.” He addressed Peter. “I’ll try to approach her later, Peter.”

 

Vincent left and Father sat down heavily. “This is all my fault, Peter.”

 

“Yes, it is.”

 

Father was hoping for sympathy but smiled briefly at Peter for his honesty. “I wish I could fix it.”

 

Peter thought for a moment. “Maybe you should try.”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

“You talk to Catherine. You explain what happened. It might mean more coming from you...”

 

Father looked at the pile of papers and nodded his head disgustedly. “None of this means anything if the ones we love aren’t here to share it with us.”

 

“Tell Catherine that...not me.”

 

Father nodded and stood and tapped the side of Peter’s arm affectionately. “You’re a good man, Peter. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get ready to take a very long walk.”

 

“Say...Jacob...I...um...I’m sorry about the pompous ass thing...”

 

Father chuckled. “Sometimes I can be. I’m glad I have friends like you to remind me of it.”

 

“See you tomorrow, Jacob.”

 

“Oh, Peter, thanks for letting me know...”

 

***

 

Father dragged out the sweater Catherine had given him a long time ago. He thought back fondly to how he was kidded about it being the perfect sweater for when he went skiing. It wasn’t something he would normally wear, but in the interest of time he put it on along with a pair of jeans he had recently acquired.

 

He made the long walk to her threshold and groaned as he climbed up the ladder. “She needs to move Below before this climb kills me...”

 

He gasped aloud then smiled as he stopped in the middle of the ladder and looked out at nothing. He had realized suddenly he would welcome her moving Below with them. In his mind, she and Vincent were already a couple, and there was no reason that they were still living apart. He decided to start to try to remedy that as soon as he could. So many of his fears had changed these past few years, and most of it was because of the kind of woman Catherine was.

 

On the elevator ride to her apartment, he leaned back and rested from his long walk. The doors to her floor opened all too soon, and with a weary sigh, he got off and proceeded to her door.

 

After hearing his quiet knocks, Catherine’s voice carried through the door. “Who is it?”

 

“Catherine, it’s me.”

 

“Father?!” she gasped as she opened the door.

 

For support, he was holding onto the door jam as he smiled weakly. “Yes.”

 

“What are you doing here?” she asked before she startled herself into action. “I mean...come in. Sit down, please.”

 

Father followed her, and she helped him take off his coat and get settled on her loveseat. She chuckled at the choice of sweater he had worn. “Wow! I never thought to see you wear that!”

 

“I thought I’d try some skiing today, but the walk here...” He shook his head slowly as the humor left him and he coughed, “Catherine...could I trouble you for some water?”

 

Catherine shot up from her seat. “I am so sorry! I don’t know where my manners are... how about some hot tea? I have the water heated up already.”

 

“I don’t want to trouble...”

 

“Father! Don’t be silly. I was just about to get myself a cup when the doorbell rang,” Catherine said as she headed to the kitchen. “Besides, how often do you get a chance to come here?”

 

“I hope it’s the last time.”

 

“What?!”

 

“I said you can be so kind...”

 

Catherine carried in a tray and set it down then proceeded to pour him a cup.

 

Father took it from her, took a sip, then blinked in surprise. “This is wonderful...”

 

“It is...isn’t it? It used to be one of my father’s favorites. I’d forgotten how good it was until I was cleaning his house out and came across the tin. I became addicted to it again.”

 

“I can see why, it’s delicious.”

 

Catherine set down her cup and looked at him cautiously. “You’re always welcome here, Father, you know that, but I know you didn’t come here to drink my tea...”

 

Father set down his cup as he looked sheepishly at her. “No, I came to tell you of a grave error I made a few weeks ago.” Catherine remained silent but nodded, so he continued. “Vincent was about to come here to deliver your Winterfest candle when I asked him to help Cullen and some others move a table that needed repairing. He returned, and once again was coming to you but was needed to help repair a water main break. Water pipes, of course, are top priority Below because of...”

 

Catherine interrupted him softly. “Father, I know how important fixing water problems is...you don’t have to make excuses for Vincent.”

 

“Good, because I’m not! Vincent entrusted me with the delivery of your candle...the children were already out delivering their candles to all the other helpers, and he asked me to send the first messenger that came back that day.”

 

“Go on,” Catherine prompted.

 

“I don’t know how it happened...but Mary came in with Amy who was sick, then three of the children were injured and I had to tend to their wounds. Then while I was in the hospital chamber, papers and reports got set on my desk and your candle was inadvertently buried underneath them. I realize that this is just a poor excuse, but it’s the truth. I was supposed to see to your invitation and I made a grave error. I’m truly sorry.”

 

Catherine’s shoulders sank as she let his words sink in. “I’m sorry too, Father. I know Vincent has been exhausted lately. I can feel it through the bond....but I guess when I didn’t see my name on the invitation list I jumped to conclusions.”

 

Father grimaced and looked down as he fiddled with his hands. “Your name wasn’t on the list?” Catherine shook her head and he sighed. “Another oversight, Catherine, I promise you.”

 

“Everyone just forgot about me, Father?”  

 

Father heard the pain in her voice as he answered her honestly. “No, in fact, our crime is much worse than one of omission.” Catherine looked at him curiously as he reached out and took her hand. “You’ve become such a part of our world we think of you as one of us. To us you’re not a helper, Catherine, you’re family. You belong with us. Our crime is that we have forgotten that you do not actually live Below, and yet we still tend to take advantage of your generosity and kind spirit.”

 

Catherine was touched to hear his kind words, and tears pooled in her eyes. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me!”

 

He squeezed her hand lightly. “It’s true!”

 

Catherine thought of Vincent, and a twinge of doubt flickered across her face. “I’m not sure everyone feels that way...”

 

Father narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at her comment. “Is everything all right between you and Vincent?” He saw her shock at the boldness of his question, and he quickly sputtered out an apology. “I’m sorry, dear; that is none of my business...”

 

Catherine ignored him as she shared her feelings. “I don’t know... Everything was going along so well before he got sick. We seemed to be reaching a new level in our relationship. Then he got sick, and I gave him the space I thought he needed to...heal...find himself again. Now, lately, it seems like he’s just...I don’t know...going through the motions. I know he’s busy, and I know when an emergency comes up he needs to handle it. I try to be understanding but sometimes... sometimes...”

 

Father saw her hesitation and gently prompted. “Don’t ever worry about speaking the truth...”

 

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t always have to be the one to understand! Sometimes I wish he would just say ‘No, sorry. I have plans...someone else can do it’ I guess maybe I read too much into our relationship...”

 

“Catherine, I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to say.”

 

“Maybe all Vincent ever wanted was for us to be friends...”

 

“I don’t think that’s true.”

 

Catherine shrugged her shoulders. “We’ve been in the same place for almost two years. I’ve practically thrown myself at him, Father and still... Nothing...”

 

Father blushed a deep shade of red as he realized she meant in the physical sense. “Oh...”

 

Catherine grimaced at his reaction. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything to you!”

 

“No, it’s all right.” Father chuckled as he shook his head. “I’m not so old that I don’t remember having those feelings too.”

 

Catherine sighed as she looked away. “I think I may have projected too many of my feelings into our relationship.”

 

Father knew she was mistaken, but he also knew that a big part of what they were going through was the direct result of his over cautiousness with Vincent. “Catherine, I know its last minute but could you possibly change any plans you have and attend Winterfest?” She shrugged uncertainly, and he pleaded with her. “Please! I’ve never wanted any person to attend more than you, and I can speak for the entire community when I say that it wouldn’t be the same without you.”

 

Catherine debated with herself then nodded. “I don’t have plans. I’ll be there.”

 

Father sat back, clearly relieved. “I’ll make sure Vincent comes and meets you Below...”

 

“No! I’ll come with Peter like we originally planned. I’ll see Vincent when we get there.”

 

Father wondered at her strange behavior but only nodded. “If that’s what you want...”

 

“Yes.”

 

He nodded then struggled to stand. “Thank you for the tea, but it’s a long way and I should start making my way back.”

 

“I’ll walk down with you...” Catherine said as she grabbed her coat and opened the door for him.

 

Soon enough they were standing at her threshold. Father leaned against the wall as he rubbed his hip gently. Catherine knew he had over exerted himself climbing the ladder and she put her arm in his.

 

“Why don’t I walk half way with you?”

 

Father leaned on her as they walked. “Peter mentioned that you took some invoices from William...”

 

“Yes, I did!” Catherine said defiantly as she interrupted him.

 

Father chuckled aloud. “I only wanted to thank you...”

 

She blushed sheepishly. “Oh...um...it really wasn’t that expensive.”

 

“But for us it’s monumental. It will be nice not to have to stretch the budget all winter.”

 

“I know it’s hard for you to accept, Father. But I don’t see why anyone would ever have to do without as long as I have the means to help. It’s the only way I can contribute, and fortunately, I’m able to.”

 

“I know, and it’s deeply appreciated.”

 

They talked amicably until they reached the bottom of the spiral staircase. They were interrupted when they saw that John was running towards them.

 

“Hi, Catherine...” John said then turned quickly to Father. “Father, that water break is worse than we expected. Cullen ran to get some pipes from Stu at the steel yard. With his current financial position, I’m not sure if Stu can give us what we need. Vincent, Mouse and Patrick are diverting the water, but its gaining ground. Vincent sent me to find one of the kids to talk with Catherine...but they’re all too busy decorating the Great Hall. I thought I could run here and get back to help them.”

 

Catherine jumped into action. “Walk with Father the rest of the way, John. I’ll go meet Cullen at Stu’s and make sure he gets what he needs.” She stood and placed her hand on Father’s arm then stepped forward and kissed his cheek. “Thank you for coming and straightening out the... misunderstanding.”

 

Father cupped her cheek in his hand and caressed it lovingly. “Catherine, you’re the most important person in my son’s life, hence making you one of the most important people in my life. I...like to think of you as the daughter I never had.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “We’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

 

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

 

“Good girl. Goodnight.”

 

“Goodnight, Father.”

 

***

  

Father headed to the library while John ran on ahead. With Catherine’s financial backing, Cullen was able to get more pipe than he needed as well as a gas powered generator to pump the water out of the tunnel.

 

Mary came into the library and looked closely at Father. “You’re in a lot of pain, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes, it was too much, but I needed to speak to Catherine.”

 

Knowing why he went to see Catherine, Mary nodded. “Yes, but now you’ve over done it and need to get some rest. Tomorrow is another long day on your feet, and if you don’t rest now, you surely won’t make it through the whole day.”

 

“I need to tell Vincent all is well and Catherine will be here tomorrow.”

 

Mary had dug into his medical bag and brought out the necessary pills. She handed him the bottle along with a glass of water. “Tsk, tsk...Vincent will see her for himself tomorrow. Now you take these and shoo...right now...get some sleep.”

 

Father did as she said, and within minutes of changing and climbing into bed, was fast asleep.

 

It was several hours before they were able to repair the water line, and a weary Vincent walked into the library. He was surprised not see Father in his usual chair. He cocked his head and listened then heard the soft sounds of snoring coming from Father’s sleeping chamber.

 

“We fixed the water problem, Father,” Vincent said quietly to himself as he left the room. He felt a twinge of guilt because he was angry with Father for not waiting up to hear if the problem was solved. He didn’t know Father was in so much pain after his trip to Catherine’s that he had taken some medication and had gone right to bed.

 

Vincent headed to the bathing chamber then right to bed. He was exhausted and was soon fast asleep.

 

***

  

The next day, Father walked into Vincent’s chamber and was shocked to that find Vincent still in bed.

 

“Are you ill?” Vincent remained silent and Father realized he was still asleep. “Vincent?!”

 

Vincent startled awake. “Father?! What is it?”

 

Father frowned at his son. “You’re exhausted!”

 

Vincent sighed. “Yes, physically and mentally.”

 

“Perhaps you should consider staying in bed for awhile longer?”

 

Vincent shook his head and swung his legs over the side of the bed as he sat up. “No...I’ll rest later. What is it that you needed?” Father hesitated and Vincent stood and slipped on a pair of his work pants. “I know you came in here for a reason, and as long as I’m awake, you may as well tell me...what did you need?”

 

“The table carried back down from Cullen’s work shop...William wants to start hauling the food down and he can’t do that until the table is there.”

 

Vincent slipped his vest on then nodded. “I’ll get the others, and we’ll get to it right now.”

 

Vincent took off, and Father thought belatedly about asking him how he felt about Catherine coming.

 

***

 

The day was filled with last minute details, and Vincent barely made it back to change into his ruffled shirt and dress pants.

 

Once again, he led the procession to the Great Hall, but he was reminded how different it felt not to have Catherine by his side.

 

The opening ceremony took place, and the festivities were soon in full force.

 

Vincent, Father and Mary were standing together enjoying a plate of food when Mary suddenly gasped.  “Oh, my! She looks absolutely stunning!”

 

Father and Vincent followed her gaze, and Father smiled when he saw Peter escorting Catherine inside. Catherine’s simple black gown sparkled in the candlelight as they made their way down the staircase.

 

Mary took off to greet them while Vincent felt his heart pounding in his chest. “Catherine! She’s here?!”

 

“Yes, of course, she’s here.” Father frowned at his son’s reaction. “Didn’t John or Mary tell you?”

 

Vincent was confused. “Tell me? Tell me what”

 

Father rolled his eyes at the lack of communication in the tunnels lately. “I walked to Catherine’s apartment and explained the entire mix-up with the candles. She was most understanding and promised she would be here today.” Father took the opportunity to prompt Vincent in the right direction as he pretended to be annoyed with him. “Honestly, Vincent! You should stop taking her for granted. Catherine is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met. I mean...I’m not sure what you’re waiting for, but you had better think about asking her to marry you soon before someone else does! Take it from me...you don’t let the good ones get away!”

 

Father knew Vincent was shocked as he walked nonchalantly towards Sebastian who was entertaining a group of children.

 

Vincent stood immobile, letting Father’s words wash over him. He looked up to see Catherine smile at him, but then she was immediately distracted by people coming up to greet her.

 

It had been a long time since Catherine had spent any significant amount of time Below, and Vincent watched as person after person made their way over to her. Catherine spoke several minutes to each one of them, and it was over a half an hour before Vincent was able to see her alone.

 

“Catherine, I’m glad you came.”

 

“Once Father explained to me what happened, I couldn’t stay away.”

 

Vincent cocked his head curiously. “I’m troubled about the unusual circumstances. Why did you think that you would not be invited to Winterfest?”

 

Catherine shrugged. “I don’t know, Vincent, lately you just seem...”

 

Sebastian came over and interrupted. “May I interest you in a dance, my dear girl?”

 

Catherine wanted to go into a dark corner alone with Vincent, but she didn’t have the heart to turn Sebastian down. “I’d love to dance with you.”

 

She took his arm and he led her onto the dance floor. They danced for a while and were soon interrupted by William, who wanted a chance to thank Catherine for paying the food bills, then Matthew who wanted to thank her for the supplies to fix the water main break. John took a turn to ask her advice about if she thought he should ask Rebecca to dance, then Mouse cut in to ask Catherine to show him how to dance so he could ask Jaime. Peter took a spin with his goddaughter, then finally Father cut in and drew her to the far side of the floor.

 

“You looked like you needed rescuing.”

 

Catherine blew her damp bangs off her forehead. “I did...thank you!”

 

“How are things between you and Vincent?”

 

Catherine looked around the room until she spotted Vincent. “I don’t really know. I haven’t spent more than thirty seconds with him since I got here.”

 

Father knew more prompting was in order. “Hmmm... Can I interest you in something to drink?”

 

“That sounds wonderful, Father!”

 

He led Catherine to the refreshment table where Vincent stood holding out two cups of punch for both her and Father.

 

“You’re thirsty,” Vincent said to Catherine as they walked forward.

 

Before she could respond, Father took the cups. “I am! Thank you, Vincent.” He handed Catherine her cup. “Here you go, dear.”

 

“Thank you.” Catherine said. She was drinking when she noticed Mary standing alone near the dance floor. “Father, Mary needs a partner to dance with...”

 

“Yes, she does. But Catherine...I don’t want to leave you alone...”

 

“I’m right here, Father,” Vincent pointed out.

 

Father waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, but perhaps I should wait until someone else asks Catherine to dance.”

 

“Father! I was just about to ask Catherine if she would give me the honor of a dance...”

 

“You!” Father said with surprise. “Vincent, I haven’t seen you dance since you were a young teenager. Do you think you can remember how? I mean...we don’t want Catherine’s toes stepped...”

 

Catherine knew Vincent was tired of being teased, and she interrupted Father as she looked lovingly at Vincent. “We danced alone a few years ago. Vincent is a wonderful dancer.”

 

“Yes, but since he hasn’t asked...”

 

“Father!” Vincent all but growled.

 

Father took the hint and quietly slipped over to ask Mary onto the dance floor.

 

“Catherine?”

 

Catherine looked at him uncertainly. “Yes.”

 

“Will you dance with me?”

 

“I would love to dance with you, Vincent.”

 

The couple walked to the floor and began to dance. Catherine kept a respectable distance, but when she felt the gentle pressure from Vincent’s hand on the small of her back pulling her closer she melted against him.

 

She was so overwhelmed with feelings as she laid her head against his chest that tears fell from her eyes. Vincent knew immediately something was wrong and lowered his head to hers, his hair cocooning them in privacy.

 

“Catherine, tell me.”

 

She sniffled and shook her head. “I’ve missed you so much...”

 

“I’ve missed you as well.”

 

“I miss being with you...spending time with you...”

 

Vincent drew her closer and ran his hand gently up and down her back. “I know...”

 

“Just hold me, Vincent...”

 

He tightened his embrace and led her from the dance floor. The children, unaware of what was going on, only knew their favorite helper was free and they ran to be by Catherine’s side.

 

They broke Vincent apart from Catherine, and she smiled up at him, then with a shrug, turned and ooohed and aaahed over each child’s special decoration. Vincent stayed by her side, and Catherine felt the constant pressure of his hand on her back as they made their way around the room and visited with everyone else.

 

It was hours later when the party finally started to break apart. There were only a few people left, and Catherine was helping Rebecca clean up when John and Vincent walked over to them.

 

“Let’s go girls, everyone else headed up a long time ago. Besides, Vincent organized a clean-up crew for tomorrow...” John said.

 

Rebecca and Catherine nodded, and the couples started the walk back to the upper tunnels. They separated, and Catherine continued to walk with Vincent.

 

Vincent stifled a yawn, but Catherine caught him. “Me too!”

 

Vincent blushed. “I’m sorry...”

 

“For being tired? How many times have I rested my head on your shoulder on my balcony?”

 

Vincent led her into his chamber, and Catherine plopped down in a chair. “I should have asked Mary if there was an empty chamber I could stay in...”

 

“This year we had and unusual amount of out of town guests. Those chambers have been spoken for, for weeks, Catherine.”

 

Catherine sighed. “It’s okay, I can make it home.”

 

Vincent sat on the edge of his bed and looked at the floor between his feet. “There is another option...” He knew Catherine was looking at him curiously, and he looked up at her nervously. “You...could stay here...with me...”

 

Catherine was shocked, and Vincent looked down again before she could answer. Catherine knew what it had taken for him to ask, and she stood up and walked over to sit next to him on the bed.

 

“I’d love to stay here with you, Vincent.”

 

Vincent shot anxiously to his feet. “I’ll go look for something for you to wear.”

 

Before she could protest, he ran from the room. Catherine had heard Mary tell Sara earlier that almost all of the guests had needed warmer sleeping gowns, and she knew Vincent wouldn’t be able to find anything. She looked around, found a folded basket of his clothes, and dug through it for a shirt.

 

She quickly slipped out of her gown and into his shirt. It went well past her knees, but for extra warmth she grabbed a pair of his socks and put them on as well. She looked down with a smile. “To think I’ve spent hours shopping for seductive lingerie, and the first night we spend together I’m in a gray thermal shirt.”

 

Ten minutes later, she was brushing her hair when Vincent came back into the chamber. “I couldn’t find...” Vincent stopped at the sight of Catherine in his shirt.  

 

Catherine smiled sheepishly. “I hope its okay...I borrowed one of your shirts...”

 

“I....um....yes...”

 

“Vincent? It is okay isn’t it?”

 

“Yes...”

 

“Good, but I’m freezing! I thought that I would climb in bed first, is that all right?”

 

“Yes...”

 

Catherine pulled back the covers and climbed inside. She smiled back at him and tilted her head curiously. “Are you going to go get ready?”

 

“Yes...”

 

Vincent grabbed some of his things and headed out the door. He stood in the tunnel way and leaned against the wall as his heart pounded in his chest. With a frown, he ran to Father’s chamber.

 

“Father?!”

 

Father came out from his chamber in his sleepwear. “I was just about to go to bed, Vincent...What is it?”

 

“Catherine is spending the night...”

 

“And this is the news you felt I needed to hear?”

 

Vincent ignored him and continued. “With me...”

 

“Well, keep it down. I want to get some sleep.” Father hid his smile and started to walk back towards his bed.

 

“Father!” Vincent growled at him for the second time that night.

 

Father sighed and turned around and placed his hands on either side of his son’s head. “Vincent, forget everything I have ever said to you. That woman loves you with all her heart. She’s the one, Vincent, the one that will forever change your life.”

 

“Great, and I’m struck silent. The only word I’ve been able to utter to her last four questions is yes.”

 

Father laughed aloud. “Sounds just like it did for the rest of us.” He spun Vincent around and clapped him on the back. “Be yourself, and everything will work out.”

 

“Father?”

 

“Vincent, I can’t help you with this one! I don’t think Catherine will approve.”

 

Vincent rolled his eyes. “I just wanted to say thank you.”

 

“Goodnight, Vincent.”

 

***

 

Vincent changed quickly, and Catherine was reading when he walked into the room.

 

She smiled and turned the book around. “I left this here last time I came. It doesn’t look like you’ve started reading it yet.”

 

“No...”

 

“Maybe we could read for a while...”

 

“Yes...” Vincent was disgusted with himself again and wondered why he couldn’t answer with more than one word.

 

“Why don’t I read first?” Catherine suggested.

 

“If you’d like...” Vincent sat on the edge of the bed and chuckled.

 

Catherine sat up with a smile. “What’s so funny?”

 

“I was just thinking how proud I was that I was able to form a three word answer instead of one word.”

 

Catherine scooted closer and put her arms around his shoulders. “I’m nervous too, Vincent, but remember it’s just me. If we don’t do anything other than sleep tonight, that will be okay, too. I just want to be near you.”

 

Vincent turned in his seat and grabbed her hand and coaxed her in front of him. “Catherine, I’ve had a lot of time to think about us, and I, too, miss you when we’re apart.” He looked down as he fiddled with his sock. “I know of only one way to rectify that.”

 

“Yes...” Catherine whispered.

 

Surprised she was just as nervous as he, Vincent slowly looked up at her. “Would you consider marrying me, Catherine?”

 

“No...” Vincent’s head fell forward and Catherine quickly cupped his chin and raised his head. Her voice was husky with emotion. “I don’t have to have to consider it...I would love to be your wife, Vincent.”

 

Vincent had tears of joy falling from his eyes, and Catherine began to kiss them away. She kissed both eyes, both cheeks and down his nose before she captured his mouth and kissed him.

 

The fire that had been smoldering between them had been fanned to life and now threatened to consume them. Catherine pushed Vincent back on the pillow and continued to kiss him until she felt him grow hard underneath her thigh.

 

She slipped off to the side and lay on her back as Vincent followed. His hand was resting uncertainly on her rib cage when she nudged it upwards. His hand slowly covered her breast and the nipple immediately pebbled under his touch. Catherine arched into his hand and then sat up quickly to take off her shirt. Vincent looked longingly at her nipple and Catherine drew his head down so he could suckle. She bucked again as she felt the wetness of his mouth and then the gentle pull. She grabbed the waist of his shirt and pulled it over his head. Vincent looked away in shame until Catherine grabbed his chin once again and turned him to face her. She immediately kissed him as she ran her hands lightly over his chest and back. Vincent felt her passion rise and knew she was reacting honestly. Relieved, he drew her to him and kissed her deeply.

 

Catherine gasped for breath. “Vincent?”

 

He knew what she asked as he gently let his hand slide down her body to her core. Once again, she bucked against him and moaned. “Please?!”

 

Vincent slipped his pants off and leaned over her uncertainly as he kissed her. “Catherine?”

 

“Yes, oh yes...”

 

Vincent slowly lowered himself into her body. He felt the warm wetness surround him and Catherine grabbed his head and pulled it down as she deepened the kiss. She wrapped her legs around his waist and gently drew him in even further. When he was fully buried inside her, Vincent asked aloud. “Catherine?”

 

Catherine moved her hips and brought him out then back inside again. Vincent moaned but continued her actions. The newness of each other took hold, and Catherine felt herself being carried over the edge as she grasped onto him. Vincent lost his control as well and he quickly followed her, collapsing off to the side of her when he was finished.

 

“Catherine?!”

 

“It’s okay.” She cuddled against him and felt his heart beating wildly in his chest. “I’ve never felt like this before, but now I feel it too, Vincent. It’s what it’s like when you’re with someone you truly love.”

 

“I love you, Catherine.” Vincent gasped.

 

“I love you too, Vincent.”

 

Vincent reached down to cover them and then pulled her closer to him. They fell asleep but woke twice more that night to make love.

 

In the future, Catherine would never again miss another Winterfest.

 

 

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