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Arthur's Gift

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No question about it. Outside, it was a nasty, dank, perfectly dismal day. Heavy, pewter-colored clouds blanketed the sky and pelted the city streets with a mixture of snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Gusting winds made umbrellas utterly useless. People slipped and slid impatiently from one street corner to the next, fighting over taxis and shouldering slower folks aside, anxious to get out of the wet, miserable weather. Cabbies honked their horns, cursing a blue streak as they slithered in and out of the heavy noon traffic.

In the midst of this typical January work-day angst, Catherine Chandler’s beaming smile was completely out of place, as she hummed quietly to herself in the back seat of the cab, jammed between the window and the two harried lawyers who shared her trip from the courthouse to Central Park West. She barely even noticed that the woman’s File-o-fax was once again digging into her ribs or that the man’s sopping wet fedora had slid across the back dash to drip, drip, drip onto her silk scarf.

When the taxi finally pulled up in front of her building, Catherine handed the snarling cabbie a twenty, chirped, “Keep the change,” and waved an airy goodbye to the oblivious attorneys, now bickering over whose appointment was the more urgent. Her doorman met her on the steps with a sturdy golf-size umbrella and a friendly, “You’re home early, Miss Chandler!”

“Yup!” she grinned, as she practically danced up the steps beside him, “The ‘People of the City of New York’ got lucky today Freddie, and I got the rest of the week off!”

“That’s great, Miss Chandler,” Freddie smiled, opening the door. “You put in too many long hours. It’s about time you caught a break!”

“Don’t I know it!” Catherine winked, gathering up her mail, the afternoon paper, and slipping into the waiting elevator. “Take it easy, Freddie!” she called, as the doors whispered shut.

Once inside her apartment, Catherine dropped her briefcase on the floor, the mail on the desk, her purse in a chair, her drenched overcoat on the coat stand, and then proceeded to execute what her father long ago had dubbed her “Happy Dance” – a flamenco-like staccato of clicking heels combined with pumping arms worthy of a cheerleader and an exultant cry of “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Five days! Counting the weekend, she had five whole DAYS off, and Winterfest was TOMORROW!!! “Bless you, bless you Thomas Moran!” she shouted, as she burst into another rendition of the “Happy Dance.”

Not wanting to take any chances with her good fortune, Catherine curbed her enthusiasm long enough to unplug the phone from the wall. She hadn’t exactly had the best of luck with Winterfest. Her first had been marred by Narcissa’s serious injuries and Paracelsus’ narrowly averted attempt to kill Father and goodness knows how many other innocent community members with a bomb, but at least she had been able to attend and spend time with Vincent and her tunnel family.

Her second Winterfest had been completely sidelined by a bad case of the flu. Although Vincent, Jamie, and Rebecca had taken turns tending her and keeping her company, and William had sent up plenty of goodies and hot soup to tempt her appetite, she had been deeply saddened to miss the unique wintertime festivities Below.

This year, it certainly had looked like her bad Winterfest luck was going to come in threes. Catherine and ADA Joe Maxwell were deeply invested in prosecuting financier Matthew Magruder for the murder of his business partner, but the evidence was almost completely circumstantial, and they had been working day and night to shore up their case for the Grand Jury.

Just when Catherine thought she was going to have to give up her hope of having any time off for Winterfest, Magruder’s bookkeeper Thomas Moran, who had been “missing” for weeks while Magruder’s lawyers made a convincing case in the press that Moran was the real killer, had come forward that very morning with his boss’ secret second set of books. In exchange for witness protection, the timid Moran laid out Magruder’s entire embezzlement and money laundering scheme and provided both incontrovertible evidence and ample motive for the wily corporate executive to have murdered his partner. Even now, Joe was triumphantly hammering out an extremely tough plea bargain with Magruder’s cowed lawyers that would put the slimy crook away for at least 50 years before even the possibility of parole.

“Five days, beginning right NOW!” crowed the petite attorney, kicking off her heels and dancing across the living room carpet and up three steps into her bedroom, shedding her suit jacket, jewelry, blouse, skirt, and panty hose in rapid succession. “I can even help them finish getting the Great Hall ready!” she exulted, as she rapidly donned an old pair of jeans, sweat shirt, thick socks, and sneakers suitable for a cleaning detail Below.

Into her partially packed duffle bag, Catherine added several extra sets of clothing and underwear for her unexpectedly extended visit, followed by her travel toiletries, hairbrush, makeup bag, and the small velvet pouch with her beloved crystal necklace from Vincent and the gorgeous crystal and silver earrings that would be the perfect accompaniment for her new Winterfest dress. Hanging on the closet door in its protective bag, the dress was a vision of swirling deep blue velvet, accented with intricate silver piping on the bodice. She smiled. It was a feast for the eyes, as well as luxurious to touch, certain to please Vincent’s heightened tactile senses.

Taking the duffle and dress bags to the front door, Catherine put on her warm tunnel jacket and plugged the phone back into the wall. Her last burden for the trip Below waited by the door – a enormous double-handled basket containing her special thrift store finds, including extra linens for the large tables in the Great Hall, yards and yards of fluffy red and green garlands made out of old-fashioned bunting, and a special request from Mouse – four large bags of colorful marbles.

“I’ll be just in time for a late lunch,” Catherine chortled to herself, as she pushed the combination of buttons that would express the elevator car straight to the basement. The coast was clear, and soon Catherine was pulling the empty boxes back from the doors to the sub-basement and peering down the ladder, hoping to see Vincent’s beloved leonine features.

No such luck.

“Oh well,” she sighed, “He wasn’t expecting me so soon, and he’s bound to be busy in the Great Hall.”

Just as she was making her last trip up the ladder to reset the concealing boxes and close the doors, she heard an eager voice behind her.

“Catherine need help?”

She looked over her shoulder and smiled down into Mouse’s beaming face. The young inventor hopped excitedly from foot to foot, glancing from her grin to the bags and basket at the bottom of the ladder and back, caught between his joy in seeing her again and his curiosity about what she might have brought.

“Vincent sent,” he chattered on as Catherine came down the ladder. “Felt you.” Big soft smile. “Couldn’t come.” Head shake, sad face. “Chandeliers. Ropes all frayed. Not good. Need to fix.” Frown, bigger head shake. “Sent Mouse.” Huge smile. “Carry bags?” Eyebrow cocked, finger pointed.

Catherine laughed, giving Mouse a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and whispered in his ear, “It’s so good to see you, Mouse.”

The young man turned bright pink and tucked his chin down, pleased and abashed at the same time, and quickly tried to deflect her attention by pointing and murmuring, “Catherine take dress? Mouse take bag and basket?”

“Sounds like a plan. Thanks!”

The two friends shouldered their burdens, and Mouse led the way through the break in the brick wall and off into the tunnels.

“Had to change ways again,” Mouse explained. “Further on. Next building.” Finger pointed. “City workers came down.” Frown, head shake. “Restaurant. Gas leak.” Eye roll, another head shake. “Can’t take chances.” Pointed ahead. “Dropped false wall here.” Around corner. “Opened old entry there.” Shrug. “Easy!”

“Oh, I remember this way,” Catherine breathed in wonder, remembering her very first trip from Vincent’s chamber back to her building over three years ago. “This leads to that big spiral staircase, doesn’t it?”

“Right, right!” Mouse enthused, proud of her. “Catherine smart. Remembers old ways.” Big grin.

“Catherine also remembers that Mouse asked for something special for his secret project,” she replied with a sly smile.

Gasp. “Marbles?” Mouse asked, hardly daring to breathe. “Catherine got Mouse marbles?” Eyes huge, round.

“Ummmm hmmm,” she nodded, basking in his wonder. “Four big bags, lots of different colors! They’re in the basket.”

“Oh! Oh! Catherine come see? Right now?” Mouse squeaked, bouncing on toes. “Surprise all finished! Jamie helped! Just needs marbles!”

“Sure!” Catherine laughed, “Just let me drop off my things in the guest chamber, and we’ll go see your project. I can’t wait!”

“OK, good! OK, fine!” Mouse beamed, scuttling off. “This way!”

******

“Oh my!” Catherine stared goggle-eyed at the contraption that occupied an entire table top in Mouse’s chamber. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” she marveled, circling the table to admire Mouse’s unique creation.

It was an enormous, intricate, labyrinthine marble race constructed with multiple quasi-Escher-inspired mazes, marble-powered gears, and an elaborate, continuous-action, stair-step pulley system to bring the marbles one-by-one from the end of the race back to the top of the maze.

“This is just . . . amazing, Mouse!” she grinned, “But how will you ever get it to the Great Hall? It’s so BIG!”

“Easy,” he shrugged, smiled. “Latches here.” Point. “Here.” Point. “Here.” Point. “Open up.” Hands spread. “Breaks in three pieces.” Shrug. “Carry down tonight. Put back together.” Another shrug. “Easy.” Big grin. Proud. “Try it out?” Point at basket.

“Here you go!” Catherine laughed, pulling the bags of marbles out of the basket and handing them to the eager inventor, “They’re all yours!”

Mouse broke open a bag and showed a small handful of marbles to his pet raccoon Arthur. “See, Arthur? Marbles! Watch!”

Mouse loaded two entire bags, about two dozen marbles, into the receptacle at the top of the marble race, then opened the chute that fed the marbles one-by-one into the first section of the maze. When the marbles hit the first set of gears, a ratcheting noise began as the entire gear system set into motion and the stair-step pulley started swaying back and forth. The marbles raced around and around the maze, through and over the gears, up to another maze level, then down, down the track until they were caught one-by-one at the bottom of the stair-step and inched one marble at a time up, up, up, and back into the original receptacle.

“Works! It WORKS!” shouted Mouse, jumping up and down and hugging Catherine with uncharacteristic abandon. “Neat! NEAT! See! Even Father happy! No spills! Marbles clean up! All by themselves!”

“It’s just WONDERFUL, Mouse!” Catherine exclaimed.

“Surprise for everyone!” Mouse grinned. Proud, puffed. “Make everybody happy! Vincent, Father. Everybody!”

“It sure will,” Catherine nodded, “and it’s quite an engineering feat. Looks like it could hold at least four dozen marbles, maybe more. This must have taken you WEEKS to design and build!”

“Long time!” Mouse agreed. “Jamie helped.” Shy smile. “Catherine brought parts.” Big grin. Thinking face. Idea! “Catherine help tonight? After work? Before dinner?” Point. “Three pieces. Catherine, Jamie, Mouse carry? Use back door? Not need Vincent.”

“Of course!” she grinned, “I’d be happy to help!”

Catherine turned to pick up the drop cloth and help Mouse cover the incredible marble race. As they did so, she noticed for the first time that Mouse’s chamber seemed somewhat neater than she had remembered. In fact, the living area had been completely rearranged. The bed had been neatly made. Dirty clothes were gathered up into a basket by the door. Then she spied a small washstand in the corner with a mirror and a woman’s hairbrush, as well as a distinctly feminine bathrobe hanging on a hook.

Mouse followed her gaze and blushed a bit. “Oh. Jamie live with Mouse now,” he murmured. Shy. Proud. “Mouse has a love. Like Vincent and Catherine.”

Momentarily stunned, Catherine quickly recovered, closing her gaping mouth and giving Mouse a slow, sly smile, “Well . . . it seems I’m behind on the news here in the tunnels!”

“No! No!” Mouse quickly interjected. Big head shake. “No! NOT news!” Grin, head duck. “Secret. Not tell yet.” Soft smile. “Jamie says. Brand new. Just us.” Hopeful look. “Catherine not tell? Not even Vincent?”

The young man’s earnest face was completely irresistible. “Of course I’ll keep your secret, Mouse,” Catherine replied, “even from Vincent, although I’m sure he would understand. Besides, this really isn’t anybody else’s business, is it? You and Jamie are both adults now, and you can make your own decisions about how you want to live.”

Round eyes. “Right, right!” Big proud smile, head nod. “Mouse decide. Jamie decide. No one else!” Pat Catherine’s shoulder. “Catherine good at secrets!” Worried face. “Jamie not be mad?”

Catherine chuckled, “I think Jamie will probably be happy to have someone to talk to about this!” She looked around the chamber once more and then walked over to her basket. “Speaking of Jamie, I’m guessing that she’s probably in the Great Hall with everyone else. Shall we go help them finish getting ready for Winterfest?”

Sly smile. “OK, good! OK, fine! Take Catherine to see Vincent!” Point. “Carry basket?”

******

“OK Vincent,” Cullen shouted over the hubbub of workers in the Great Hall. “I’ve got the last hook bolted in place! Go ahead and slowly pull ‘er up so I can make sure she’s properly balanced!”

The morning’s work had required quite a bit of heavy lifting – hauling out the braziers to heat the large open space, unstacking and positioning all of the large, heavy wooden tables, and now lowering and raising the huge cast iron chandeliers to replace fraying ropes. Over the past several hours, Vincent had slowly shed his quilted vest, then his sweater, and finally his flannel shirt as he worked up a sweat. His last remaining layer – a long-sleeved thermal Henley – molded and stretched over his powerful, muscular torso as he slowly raised the heavy chandelier until it hung about three feet above Cullen’s work table.

This was the first sight that greeted Catherine’s eyes when she and Mouse entered the Great Hall through the back door – Vincent’s supple form angled to steady the chandelier for Cullen’s final inspection, arms stretched out along the rope, muscles flexed, feet planted, legs braced, upper torso arched back. “Magnificent!” she thought, as she drank in the beauty of Vincent’s unconscious display of raw power and a warm ribbon of desire spooled up her core and flushed her cheeks.

Just then, she noticed a sudden slight tightening in his neck. “Ooops!” she winced, “He felt that!” and quickly tried to suppress her natural response to Vincent in all his glory, not wanting to distract him while he was managing the heavy fixture. To her surprise, Vincent turned his head and gave her what she could have sworn was an almost sultry glance before proceeding to slowly and smoothly haul the chandelier up into position and tie it off on the wall bracket, each move a gracefully choreographed dance of rippling muscles arching through his full range of motion.

“I don’t believe it!” she gasped inwardly, thrilled, “he’s actually showing off!”

The fixture settled securely in place, the big man stretched out his arms, flexing his back and rolling his head from side to side, shaking off the strain of his latest feat of strength. He then put on his flannel work shirt, buttoning two of the middle buttons to keep it from flapping about him as he crossed the hall to greet her with a low, raspy, rumbling, “Catherine.”

“Vincent,” she breathed, placing her hand ever so gently over his great heart, her eyes shining with unspoken endearments, then sparkling with a bit of mischief. “Looks like I got here just in time for the finale of the floor show,” she purred.

“Catherine!!” he chuckled, blushing a bit, then laying his hand over hers and entwining their fingers to draw her further into the Hall.

“Show! What show?” Mouse burbled. Curious. Looking. “Stage empty.”

“A joke, Mouse,” replied Vincent. “Catherine enjoyed watching me raise the chandelier.”

“Oh.” Thinking. “Don’t get it.” Look down, up. Smile. “Catherine want basket, where?”

“Over there in the corner, I think, Mouse,” she replied. “I imagine Mary won’t want to start dressing the tables until all the cleaning is done and the dust has settled.”

“That’s right, dear,” said Mary, as she bustled over to greet Catherine with a big hug, while Mouse placed the basket in an out of the way corner. “Oh, how good it is to see you, Catherine! We weren’t expecting you today!”

“Yes,” Vincent added, “I felt a sudden elation and excitement in you this morning, and then I knew you were coming here. I can only assume there must have been a fortunate break in your case.”

“Oh, Vincent,” Catherine sighed, giving him a gentle hug and tucking her head in that perfect nook under his chin, “it was the best possible break – a witness with iron-clad evidence. Joe gave me the rest of the week off and was settling a really tough plea bargain when I left the courthouse.”

“How wonderful! You’ll be able to enjoy Winterfest and have a nice long visit with us afterwards,” gushed Mary. “Now, I’m guessing that you didn’t take any time to have lunch before coming Below, did you, dear? Well,” the Tunnel matriarch continued without waiting for an answer, drawing the young woman over to a side table, “you come right over here and sit down with Vincent, Cullen, Mouse, and Jamie. Mouse had his errand to fetch you, and Vincent, Cullen, and Jamie didn’t want to stop for lunch with the rest of us until they were finished with the chandeliers. William sent down plenty of food for the workers.” And off she bustled, calling, “Kipper! Geoffrey! Come help me serve our last group!”

“Great!” chirped Jamie, flopping down on the bench to Catherine’s right while Vincent settled more sedately to her left, “I’m starved, and William said he was making chicken and dumplings today, my favorite!”

“What’s in the mysterious basket, Catherine?” asked Cullen with a sardonic wink, as he dropped onto the bench opposite the petite attorney and accepted a mug of tea from Geoffrey’s tray.

Catherine laughed and leaned to the side so Mary could place a piping hot plate of chicken and dumplings in front of her, “Oh, nothing terribly exotic, Cullen. Mrs. Draper, the Helper at the Second Avenue Thrift Store, called late last week to let me know that a small hotel in the neighborhood had redecorated and was donating its old table linens and holiday decorations to the store. I thought we could use some extra cloths for these big tables, plus a few dozen more napkins, and then I also found some colorful garlands to help dress up William’s serving tables. All second hand, and all very inexpensive,” she reassured Vincent before he could object.

“Catherine always finding good stuff,” Mouse grinned. Took bread from tray. Thinking. Idea! “Jamie want bread?”

“Why, thank you, Mouse,” said Jamie, smiling extravagantly and proudly at Mouse for thinking of her needs, then glancing and slightly nodding her head toward the others.

“Oh. Right! Catherine, Vincent, Cullen want bread?” Hold up tray, eyebrows raised. Laughter? “What?”

******

Hours later, the cleaning crew was at last finished setting the Great Hall to rights and clearing out the accumulated dust and dirt from the vast underground chamber. As they headed up toward the main hub of the tunnel community, they naturally broke off into family groups or groups of friends to wash up in the various community and private bathing pools, before meeting again in the dining hall for a well-earned dinner.

Vincent and Catherine strolled together, hand-in-hand, talking softly about the fortunate new developments in the Magruder case, while Mouse and Jamie straggled along behind, whispering and conferring furtively. As they closed in on the forked intersection separating the hallway to Vincent’s quarters from the tunnel leading to Catherine’s guest room, the big man gathered up both of her hands, “I’m glad now that Mary insisted on preparing your guest room, even though we thought your case would prevent you from being able to spend much time with us for Winterfest this year.” He dipped his head, a golden fall of mane shadowing his unique features, “I trust you have everything you need?”

Catherine slipped one arm around his waist and reached up to cup and lift his chin, her green eyes caressing Vincent’s cobalt blue with the tenderest of glances, “I have the beginning of everything I could ever want or need right here in my arms, Vincent.” She placed a gentle finger against his lips as he opened them to object, “Shhh. I know you don’t believe me, but this is my truth, and someday I hope it will be your truth as well.”

“Catherine . . .” he rumbled, as she gently traced the curve of his lower lip before placing her hand once again over his heart.

“It’s all right,” she whispered, softly patting his chest, “I’ll see you in the dining hall.” Then she backed away a few paces, gazing at him with her heart in her eyes, before turning down the tunnel to her guest chamber.

As her shadow slipped around the corner, Vincent raised his fingers to his lips, still tingling from her touch.

Catherine . . .

******

Catherine had just begun gathering together a change of clothes and toiletries for the short trip to the guest bathing pool, when she heard Jamie call out, “Catherine, may we come in?” from the chamber entrance.

“Sure!” she chimed, dropping her things onto the bed as the young couple entered. “Let me guess, you want to take Mouse’s surprise down to the Great Hall now.”

“Right! Right!” chirped Mouse, head bobbing. “Go now. Everyone else bathing. Just be a little late for dinner.” Sly smile. “Keep surprise secret.”

“Besides,” Jamie interjected, “It makes sense to haul the pieces down now before our baths, rather than after.” She blushed a bit. “I was hoping maybe I could share your bathing pool when we’re done, Catherine. Mouse tells me you know our secret, and I’d like to explain . . .”

“No explanations are necessary,” said Catherine with a gentle wave of her hand, “but I’d sure love to have your company. You know we can talk about anything.”

“Thanks, Catherine,” Jamie sighed, hugging the pretty blonde attorney. “This is really important to me.”

“OK, good! OK, fine!” Mouse grinned, pointed at Jamie. “Told ya! Catherine knows. Catherine understands. Let’s go!”

As Mouse scampered ahead down the tunnel, Jamie linked arms with Catherine and confided, “First of all, I want you to know that nothing has happened. Yet. We’ve been friends forever, but . . . I don’t know how to explain it . . . something changed. For both of us. It happened about two months ago during a swimming lesson. Mouse has always been really nervous in the water, and it’s been a real challenge helping Vincent to teach him just the basics. You know, the dead man’s float, the dog paddle. Anyway . . . I was trying to help him relax enough to float on his back. I had my arms under him, talking to him, trying to get him to stop grabbing at me and just lay back and let me hold him up in the water. I looked down into his face and said something like, ‘Don’t you trust me?’ and he froze for a moment, looking up into my eyes. And then he just let go of all the tension in his body, reached up to touch my face, and said, ‘Mouse trust Jamie. Always. Mouse . . . love Jamie.’”

“Wow,” breathed Catherine.

“I know, right?!” Jamie exclaimed. “I’m glad we were in shallow water, because I think my legs gave out for a minute! I mean, just that one little touch and a few sweet words, and I knew.” She stopped and gave Catherine a huge hug. “Oh my gosh, Catherine!” she gushed, “It’s so good to talk about this with someone! I’ve been about ready to burst!”

Catherine smiled, “I’m honored you’re willing to share this with me, Jamie. And believe me, I know exactly how you feel!”

“Hah!” Jamie snorted, “I guess you do!” Then she stopped short again. “Wow! I never thought about it, but you really don’t have anyone to talk to like this about Vincent, do you?” Catherine shook her head ruefully. “Oh, Catherine! I’m ready to burst after holding onto this secret for just two months. But you’ve been keeping secrets – really BIG secrets – from your friends for years!! How do you stand it?!!”

Catherine patted the young woman on her shoulder, linked arms, and continued down the tunnel. “I won’t say it’s been at all easy. I can talk with Peter, especially about the tunnels, and that helps. But it’s more like talking to an uncle or a surrogate father, not like sharing secrets with a close girlfriend or a sister. And even if I could talk with someone, there’s only so much I can share,” she mused. “Vincent is such a very private person, and our relationship is so fragile. He has so many doubts about himself . . . .”

Then she shook herself and perked up, “Enough about that! I want to know how you managed to move in with Mouse and keep it a secret from everyone else! Especially Father!”

Jamie chortled, “To tell you the truth, almost all of my furniture and most of my stuff is still in my chamber, so it’s pretty easy to keep up appearances. And since Mouse and I work together almost all the time, nobody thinks twice about us spending a lot of time in his chamber. I just started bringing down a few clothes and necessities at a time, and then one day, Mouse looked around and asked, ‘Jamie live with Mouse now?’ We moved my washstand down late that night, and that was it. To tell you the truth, I’m looking at this as an experiment.”

“An experiment?” Catherine queried.

“Well think about it,” Jamie continued. “Mouse has lived alone almost his entire life. Even after Vincent finally convinced him to join the community, he chose a solitary chamber far away from the main hub. And he’s still rather wary about letting people touch him.” She sighed, “Look, I know Mouse is different. Really fundamentally different. Father thinks he might have Asperger’s syndrome or some form of high-functioning autism. Or maybe he built up protective mental walls in order to survive whatever trauma left him scrounging and hiding in the tunnels when he was just a little kid. He’s never been able to talk about that at all. I think he may have blocked it out completely.”

She impatiently wiped away a furtive tear. “I know Mouse loves me! But realistically, I don’t know if he’s capable of sharing a day-to-day life in close quarters with someone else. He’s come a long way, an amazingly long way from the almost wild animal Vincent brought home. But Mouse can still be pretty oblivious to other people’s feelings and needs sometimes, you know? So I want us to find out if we can share a life together before anything intimate happens.” She barked out a short laugh. “Then I’ll really have my work cut out for me!”

“What do you mean?” Catherine asked.

Jamie blushed, “Mouse is really, really innocent when it comes to the birds and the bees. Father never bothered to include him when he had ‘The Talk’ with the rest of the boys, and he’s gone to considerable lengths to make sure Mouse doesn’t get any ‘ideas’ about girls, so I’ll have to start at the very beginning.” She squared up her shoulders. “I’m going to treat it like a building project with lots of pictures and diagrams and . . . I don’t know . . . blueprints!”

The two young women laughed companionably together. “Well, it sounds to me like you have really thought this through,” said Catherine, “and I think you have a good grasp of the potential problems and a smart plan in place. But most importantly, you’re following your heart. I guess the only thing I would add is to be very patient and let Mouse take things at his own speed. I really do wish you well. You and Mouse both deserve to have someone wonderful love you back.”

“Thanks, Catherine. And I do have hope,” Jamie blushed again, looking at Catherine from the corner of her eyes. “Mouse likes to kiss me, and he was a surprisingly fast learner!” She grinned and tapped a finger to her lips.

Catherine gaped and then burst out laughing, “Why Jamie! You lucky girl!” Then, she sobered a bit. “Vincent will sometimes kiss me on the top of my hair, but that’s all.” She looked up at Jamie with a determined glint in her eye, “So far! I have hope too, and I’m hoping for a special gift this Winterfest. A real kiss.” She sighed and mirrored Jamie’s gesture, laying a finger briefly on her lips.

“It’ll happen, Catherine! You’ll see!” Jamie exclaimed, giving the older woman a one-armed squeeze. “Vincent really loves you, you must know that!”

Catherine was about to answer when Mouse came careening around the corner and nearly knocked them both down. “Oh! Oh! This is bad!” he shouted, bouncing up and down. “Worse than bad! Worse than worse!”

“Mouse, calm down!” Jamie soothed, putting a gentle arm over his shoulder and stroking his cheek. “What’s wrong?”

“Arthur!” Mouse squeaked, clutching her. “Gone! Looked all the usual places! Not there! Gone!” Bouncing again. “Bad! This is BAD!”

“Oh no!” Jamie groaned. “Did you check down by our spring? You know he sometimes goes there if his water dish gets empty.”

Mouse shook his head adamantly. “Not there! Not anywhere!”

“Did you check under the tarp? Around your project?” Catherine asked.

“Not there! NOT THERE!” Mouse shouted.

“OK, OK,” Jamie soothed. “Don’t shout at Catherine, she’s just trying to help.”

“Sorry, Catherine! Sorry!” Mouse trembled. “Father be so mad! Everybody mad at Mouse!” Fretting. Fretting.

Jamie glanced apologetically at Catherine. “We’d better head straight to the dining room and get a search started right away. Arthur has a history of getting into trouble when he goes missing.”

******

“WHAT?!?!?!?!”

Father’s bellow could be heard the entire length and breadth of the dining hall, turning heads left and right. Mouse cowered behind Catherine and Jamie.

“Father, please,” Catherine pleaded, “Calm down! Mouse is terribly upset already, and yelling at him won’t do any good.”

“Yes, yes,” the tunnel patriarch puffed as he struggled to his feet, searching for his walking stick. “I’m sorry, Mouse, I didn’t mean to upset you. But you must understand, Catherine. Arthur is naturally a very curious creature, and his escapades usually result in some kind of enormous mess, if not outright damage.”

“Oh my, yes,” Mary agreed, handing Father his cane. “Do you remember the time Arthur got loose in the laundry room? By the time we caught him, he’d overturned a wash basin and dumped an entire box of soap powder onto the floor. We were slipping and sliding everywhere trying to get it cleaned up, and it took gallons of water to get rid of the soap residue.”

“I came back to my workshop once to find that Arthur had unrolled an entire spool of candle wicking and tangled it into a hopeless knot all over my work bench,” added Rebecca. “That big blue spot on the floor came from a broken bottle of dye.”

Just then William came barreling up in a frenzy. “Please tell me, I heard wrong!” he shouted. “Don’t tell me that rodent is on the loose again!”

“Now, now, William,” tutted Father pedantically, “I certainly sympathize, but I must remind you that raccoons are not rodents. If I remember my taxonomy, they are actually much more closely related to bears than to rodents.”

“Fine, then,” William snapped, “I don’t want that animal anywhere near my kitchen and pantries! Need I remind you that last year just before Winterfest he managed to break into a twenty pound sack of flour, track it everywhere, and then polish off two entire mince pies? Not to mention how sick he was afterwards – all over my counters?!!!”

“Please, everyone!” Catherine urged, “Let’s not jump to conclusions!”

“You don’t understand, Catherine,” William boomed, “That raccoon is a menace!”

By this time, poor Mouse was hiding behind Jamie and clinging to her shoulders, weeping miserably. Suddenly, a huge roar echoed through the room, and Vincent strode up to put a protective arm around the trembling inventor.

“That’s enough!” Vincent quietly commanded when the echoes died down. “I don’t think there’s a single person here who hasn’t created a mess or caused a problem at one time or another. I’ve certainly been at the center of more than one disaster in my lifetime. You all seem to be forgetting the most important point here. A member of our family is missing! Arthur is very dear to Mouse, and you are all carrying on without any concern for his feelings! Arthur could be lost or trapped somewhere, perhaps even hurt or sick!”

“I’m very sorry, Mouse,” Father apologized, gently patting Mouse on the shoulder, “Very sorry, indeed. Vincent is absolutely right everyone. Above all else, Arthur is a beloved member of our tunnel family, and we need to organize a search right away. Kipper, I want you to run a message to Pascal and have him sound an all-clear and get the word out on the pipes for everyone to check their living spaces. Mary, would you and the older children help William start here in the dining hall, kitchen, and pantries? Rebecca, please check your workshop and the laundry. Sarah, I’d like for you to take the younger children and search the dormitories. Jamie, why don’t you and Mouse go check in with Cullen and search the other workshops and the foundry? Vincent, would you and Catherine be so kind as to help me search my library? Send word on the pipes as soon as Arthur has been found. We’ll all meet back here in one hour to report in!”

******

An hour later, most of the tunnel residents had returned to the dining hall with no news about the missing raccoon. Father sighed, “It’s getting late. Many of us still haven’t had any dinner, and the younger children need to go to bed.”

“Mary and the older children helped me to organize carry out meals for anyone who missed dinner,” said William.

“Thank you William. That will be very helpful as we expand our search,” added Father. “Rebecca, why don’t you and Sarah go ahead and get the younger children fed and off to bed. I’d like Eric and Geoffrey to stay and help William clean up the kitchen and prepare for tomorrow. The rest of us will figure out the next search pattern.”

As the others dispersed to carry out Father’s plan, Mouse moaned helplessly, “Jamie, Jamie. This is bad. Really bad. Arthur never gone this long!”

“I know, Mouse,” she replied, gently hugging him and kissing his temple. “Please don’t give up hope. We’ll find him!”

“Mouse,” said Catherine softly, rubbing his back. “When and where did you last see Arthur?”

Mouse sniffled and then raised his head from Jamie’s shoulder. “Catherine knows. In Mouse and Ja . . . In my chamber. When you saw . . . Um . . . You know!”

“Oh,” Catherine responded, thinking back. “Oh . . . Oh!”

“What is it, Catherine?” asked Vincent.

“Oh, Mouse!” Catherine goggled, “You don’t suppose . . . ?”

Light bulb! “Arthur . . . in Catherine’s BASKET?!?!?!” Mouse replied, eagerly, hope dawning.

“You mean the basket of linens and decorations from Mrs. Draper’s thrift store?” asked Vincent. “But that would mean . . .”

“Oh, my stars,” gasped Mary, “That would mean Arthur has been in the Great Hall all this time!”

The entire group groaned. “Quickly!” said Father. “We’ll take the back way!”

“I’m coming with you!” William insisted. “Eric and Geoffrey can manage the rest of clean-up detail – it’s half-done already. But all of the nonperishable foods for Winterfest were carried down earlier this evening. Goodness only knows what Arthur’s gotten into!”

******

As the search party gathered outside the back entrance to the Great Hall, Father cautioned them, “Now, no matter what sight may greet us behind this door, I want everyone to remain calm and quiet. If Arthur IS loose in the Great Hall, the last thing we want to do is to frighten him into running. We’ll just have a mad scramble on our hands, and the potential for an even bigger disaster. William, I know you’re anxious about the food, but please promise me you’ll remain calm!”

“Fine!” the burly cook gritted between his teeth. “You have my word. Let’s just get this over with!”

“Thank you, William” responded Father, somewhat sarcastically. “I believe Vincent should go in first to light some of the torches, and Mouse and Jamie can follow behind and softly call for Arthur. The rest of us will hold back for a bit. Hopefully, he’ll just come directly to Mouse, and we can accomplish at least that part of our task with a minimum of fuss. Then, we can begin assessing any damage.”

When Vincent had half of the torches lit, he waved Mouse and Jamie into the Hall. Just as Mouse was about to start calling for Arthur, Vincent suddenly threw up his hand, signaling for complete silence.

After listening intently for a few moments, Vincent whispered to Mouse, “Do you hear that?”

Mouse shook his head no, then suddenly stopped, focusing his attention on the corner where he had placed Catherine’s basket earlier that day. He pointed in that direction and whispered, “Squeaking noise. Like mouse.” Pause. “Real mouse. Not Mouse.” Pointed at himself.

Vincent quietly picked up his lantern and padded noiselessly over to the basket, peering carefully inside. “Oh my,” he breathed, then gestured, “Mouse, Jamie, come here slowly and quietly.”

Mouse and Jamie tiptoed closer to the basket, and then Mouse slowly sank to his knees, gaping in wonder.

“Oh my God!” Jamie whispered, placing an astonished hand to her cheek as she joined Mouse on the floor.

“Vincent,” hissed Father impatiently, “What is going on?”

“It’s Arthur,” said Vincent quietly and calmly. “SHE has had three babies.”

Stunned silence. Then, “Ex-, excuse me Vincent,” Father stammered, “I don’t believe I heard you properly. Did you say that Arthur has had babies?”

“Arthur,” murmured Mouse tenderly, “Arthur . . . a Mommy!”

“Baby raccoons!” hissed Kipper excitedly, “I want to see them!”

“Wait! Wait, everyone! Please!” urged Father, quickly regaining his composure and holding back an impending rush of eager children. “We don’t want to upset Arthur! New mothers are very skittish and protective of their babies. We all need to stay very calm and not get too close. In fact, I believe we should stay well back, and let Vincent, Mouse and Jamie handle this situation.”

“Oh!” whined Samantha, bouncing rather like Mouse, “but I want to see them!”

“Samantha,” said Vincent quietly but firmly, “some wild animals will kill and eat their babies if they feel they are being threatened. I don’t believe Arthur would do that, since he . . . um . . . SHE knows all of us so well. But do you really want to take that chance?”

“No,” pouted the pre-teen, “I guess you’re right.”

“Father,” continued Vincent quietly, “I don’t see that Arthur has caused any damage at all down here. In fact, I suspect he,” head shake, sigh, “SHE never even left the basket after it was brought down here. She was probably in labor the entire time. Since it’s already so late, I think the children should go back to the hub for some dinner and bedtime. There will be plenty of time for everyone to see Arthur’s babies tomorrow after SHE has had a chance to calm down and get some well-deserved rest.”

“No,” said Mouse with quiet determination. “NOT tomorrow. Tomorrow Winterfest. Everyone busy. All excited. Tomorrow Arthur rest. Take care of babies. NO visitors. See babies next day.”

“I think that’s very wise and very sensible, Mouse,” said Father proudly. When the children started complaining, he continued, “Now, now, Mouse is absolutely right. Arthur deserves the same consideration we would give to any new mother in the tunnels – a chance to rest and spend quiet time with her new babies.”

“Come along children,” Mary chimed in. “With William’s permission, I’ll get out some of the cookies he made for Winterfest, and we’ll have an early tasting party, how about that?” The children grudgingly moved off murmuring, “OK,” and “Oh boy, cookies,” and “But I really wanted to see the babies,” etc., with several of the adults joining Mary in shepherding the brood back to the main hub.

The remaining adults, including Father and Catherine, moved further into the room, the tunnel patriarch and the pretty attorney edging close enough to peer around Vincent and into the box.

“Oh my,” Catherine breathed, “Aren’t they just adorable?” The little raccoon cubs looked almost like tiny puppies except for the pointed noses and the already visible bandit mask across their tiny faces. Like most baby animals, their eyes were not yet open.

“Father, how on earth did you miss THIS?” asked Cullen impishly.

“Well,” the elderly doctor puffed, a bit embarrassed, “I’ve never actually examined Arthur. By the time we discovered that Mouse was raising a young raccoon in his chamber, he had already named him, um, HER, Arthur, and I guess I just assumed . . .”

Vincent chuckled, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Father! We ALL assumed Arthur was male.”

“Yes,” Father smirked, “well, clearly we were all WRONG! I just can’t figure out how this happened! Raccoons don’t burrow far enough underground to come even remotely close to our tunnels, and Arthur never goes outside. How on earth did she get preg . . . um . . . find a mate?”

Dead silence, suddenly interrupted by a quiet, “Oh . . .” from Mouse.

“Yes, Mouse?” asked Father. “Do you have something to tell us?”

Squirm. Shrug. “Well.” Squirm. “Long time ago. Before Thanksgiving.” Shrug. Sigh. “Arthur restless. Not sleep. Wiggle a lot. Get into everything. Annoying!” Gesture up. “Took Up Top. To park.” Shrug. Defensively, “Fresh air. Exercise. Good! Thought Arthur settle down.” Sigh. “Arthur not like sunlight. Ran off! Couldn’t find.” Fretting. “Looked everywhere. All afternoon.” Sigh. “FINALLY found him.” Remembers! “HER! By pond.” Wrinkle nose. “All messy. Brought home. Gave bath.”

“Ah!” said Catherine with a sly smile, “Well, you know the old saying, Father . . .”

“What would that be, Catherine?” asked Vincent with a slight smile, anticipating some sort of mischief.

She instantly sobered and looked directly and tenderly into Vincent’s startling blue eyes, “Nature finds a way.”

“That’s all very well,” hissed William tensely, “But I want to know what we’re going to DO about this situation. ONE raccoon in the tunnels is more than enough. We can’t have four – we’ll never have ANY peace! And you KNOW those children are all going to want to keep them! We have to decide what to do with them right NOW, before anybody gets attached to them!”

“NO!” Mouse shouted, jumping up and marching over to stand toe-to-toe with the big, pugnacious cook. “Arthur’s babies! Not yours! No one take . . .” Gasp! “STEAL! STEAL! No one STEAL Arthur’s babies! Make Arthur SAD!”

As William’s tenuous control on his temper began to unravel, Jamie immediately jumped between the two angry men and urgently whispered, “Mouse you have to stay calm or you’re going to upset Arthur. I know you don’t want that! Calm down, please!” She glanced meaningfully at William, “Nobody is going to take Arthur’s babies, OK? I won’t let them!”

“William, please,” said Vincent gently, “I know you have concerns, but this isn’t helping.” The cook threw his arms up in the air and walked away to gather his composure.

“Mouse,” Vincent continued, drawing the young man away from the angry cook and back over to Arthur’s basket, “Do you remember the wildlife book we read together so you could learn how to take better care of Arthur?” Mouse nodded, suspicious. “Do you remember what the book had to say about how long baby raccoons stay with their mothers before going off to live on their own?”

Wrinkled brow. Thinking. Remember! Not happy. “Three months. Sometimes as long as nine.”

“That’s right,” said Vincent. “You see, after a while, Arthur will WANT her babies to go live somewhere else.”

“But,” murmured the young man softly, “Mouse loves Arthur’s babies. Can’t just put them out!”

Catherine broke in softly, “If I may? I think I have a solution for this problem that will make everyone happy.”

“Of course – Please Catherine!” urged Father. “I know I’d be most grateful for your ideas.”

“Mouse,” she asked, “Do you remember the lady you met when you, Jamie, Mary, and I took the children to the Central Park Petting Zoo a few months ago?”

Mouse nodded eagerly. “Nice doctor lady. Red hair! Let Mouse give bottle to baby goat!”

“That’s right, Mouse!” Catherine smiled, then continued to Vincent and Father. “My friend Dr. Suzanne Metzner is the veterinarian in charge of the Central Park Petting Zoo. I met her at a fund-raiser for the Central Park Conservancy. She often schedules tours for people with special needs or circumstances, and she took quite a shine to Mouse. Once they’re weaned, I’m sure she’d be very happy to have three tame baby raccoons for the petting zoo.” Back to Mouse, “You and the children could visit Arthur’s babies any time you like. What do you think?”

Mouse looked down adoringly at Arthur and the baby raccoons, brow wrinkled, thinking REALLY hard. Look back up at Catherine. “OK, good! OK, fine! Hear that, Bandit? Rebel? Scamp? Get to have home in nice zoo!”

“Oh, dear Lord,” murmured Father, “They already have names!”

Catherine patted his shoulder and murmured back, “There, there, Father! It’ll be all right. And when the time is right, I suspect Suzanne would be willing to perform a little surgical procedure so this doesn’t happen again, in exchange for those darling baby raccoons, of course. Hmmm?”

“Yes, of course, my dear,” Father agreed, squeezing her hand. “As always, you have proven to be sensitive, wise, and resourceful. Whatever would we do without you?”

Cullen crept over to pat Mouse on the shoulder, as the young inventor basked in the wonder of Arthur’s unexpected gift. “Just one more question, kiddo,” asked the carpenter with a sly wink. “Arthur is a boy’s name. What are you going to call your raccoon now?”

Head up sharply. “Oh!” Brow wrinkled. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking REALLY hard. Huh!

“Arthur!” Mouse replied, firmly. “Always been Arthur. Still Arthur.” Shrug. “Just GIRL Arthur!”

******

Later on, as Vincent and Catherine watched Jamie and Mouse gently carrying Arthur’s basket home to Mouse’s chambers, the big man shifted their carry out dinners under one arm and placed the other gently around Catherine’s waist, leading her back towards her guest room and whispering, “I know about Jamie and Mouse.”

“What? How?” she stammered, looking up at him incredulously. Then, “Oh . . .”

He laughed softly as he placed their dinners on the small table in the corner and drew up two ladder-back chairs. “I may not share a Bond with them, as I do with you, but I can still sense the feelings that just pour off them whenever we’re in the same room together.” He looked down, his mane shadowing his face and shook his head in wonderment. “Mouse absolutely adores Jamie, and she loves him so completely, despite his many differences and challenges.”

“Yes,” replied Catherine, waiting for him to look back her way. As soon as Vincent met her eyes, she continued, her voice trembling with emotion, “That is their truth.”

He gazed at her for a moment, and then dropped his eyes, overwhelmed.

“Too much,” thought Catherine, sighing inwardly. “Too much, too soon, Cathy. When will you ever learn?” She drew in a calming breath and turned to get the kettle of hot water from the brazier to make some tea. But before she could move, Vincent’s hands settled, warm and possessive, on her shoulders, turning her back around to face him.

“Our truth, Catherine,” he rumbled, his voice nearly an octave lower than normal, his eyes dark, glowing with an inner fire, as he lowered his unique mouth to hers for a tentative, then increasingly ardent kiss.

One thought spiraled through Catherine’s mind before she completely lost herself in the astonishing gift of Vincent’s first kiss . . .

Thank you, Arthur!