December 25, 1988
Catherine was sure that Vincent had told her to meet him at the threshold at 7 o’clock. It wasn’t like him to be late. She had her hands full, with a bag of small gifts for all of the children in one hand and a bag with some treats for the adults in the other. She also had a tin of fudge for Vincent that Jenny’s mother had made for her and a tin of English toffee for Father. She wasn’t sure she could manage to carry it all to the hub without his help.
It had been a surprisingly busy holiday season for Catherine. Her first Winterfest had been a memorable experience. It had made her feel as if she had finally been fully accepted as a part of Vincent’s Tunnel family. She was sure she would always treasure the memory of dancing with Vincent in the great hall. She had been invited to celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah with Jenny and her family. Not to mention that the office Christmas party had been quite a revelation to Catherine. Her coworkers could really loosen up after a few helpings of Joe’s mother’s famous zabaglione. Catherine suspected that Joe used a little more rum in it than his mother did.
To top it all off she had spent a wonderful Christmas day with her father. They had talked most of the day and shared a lovely Christmas dinner in the late afternoon. It had been ages since she had felt that close to him. It felt like old times.
The plan was to meet Vincent here at 7 pm and there would be a small get together in Father’s chamber to round out the Christmas celebrations.
Catherine was looking forward to a quiet evening of mulled cider and cookies with Vincent by her side. She was beginning to worry that something was wrong. Oh well, she thought, I had better start walking or I will never get there.
As she turned the first corner she was so busy trying to juggle her packages that she didn’t see him until she nearly ran into him as he stood leaning against the wall.
“Oh, Vincent, I didn’t see you …” She stopped talking in midsentence. The look on his face concerned her. “Vincent?” she asked with quiet concern. “How long have you been standing here?”
“I’m not sure, maybe half an hour or so,” he quietly replied.
“Then why didn’t you…?” She put her bags gently on the tunnel floor. “Something’s wrong?” she asked. “Can I help? Do you want to talk about it?”
He tried to look at her and then he looked away.
“Does it concern me?” she asked slowly.
He still didn’t answer or meet her gaze.
“I see.” She nodded. She felt a shadow cross her heart. If he wouldn’t talk then she was left to guess at the problem. “You don’t want me to come after all? Is that it?”
Vincent’s head bowed lower on his chest, but he still didn’t answer.
She could feel her heart sinking. Attempting to keep the disappointment out of her voice as she said, “It’s all right, Vincent. I understand if I’m not wanted. I can go back up to my apartment.”
The last thing she wanted was for Vincent to see her cry over something so stupid. Still her voice caught in her throat a little as she said, “I have these little gifts for the children and everyone … Would you … please … deliver them for me?” She quickly turned to leave. She needed to make it back to the ladder in the subbasement before she could let the tears fall.
As she was reaching for the first rung, she felt Vincent’s hand reach out to stop her. “Catherine, please ... Please don’t go … not like this.”
She stopped but she didn’t turn. She didn’t want him to see her crying. His voice was so gentle and pleading. She didn’t know what to do. They stood like that momentarily and then he gently turned her to face him. Now it was Catherine who couldn’t look at him. She felt stupid and embarrassed. In spite of that she spoke bravely through her tears.
“I’m sorry, Vincent. Really … I do understand. I don’t have to intrude on every aspect of your life. If you want to spend this evening with your family … I understand.”
Vincent pulled her into his arms and held her while she buried her face in his chest. Her hair smelled so sweet and it felt like silk in his hand. “Oh, Catherine,” he breathed into her hair. “You are wanted. You can’t possibly imagine how much you are wanted. I would rather be with you than anyone else in all the world. Please know that. I’m sorry, if I made you feel otherwise, even for a moment.”
They stood like that in each other’s arms for a while.
When she felt she could speak she looked up and asked, “If it isn’t me, Vincent, then please tell me.”
In exasperation he finally said, “One of the helpers … sent down a big box of …” He stopped and took a breath. “… mistletoe!”
There! I’ve said it. Now she knows!
“Mistletoe?” Apparently she didn’t know, because she sounded very confused.
“Catherine,” he said in exasperation. “The children have hung it everywhere. Over every chamber entrance, it’s in the halls … even in several strategic places in Father’s chamber. FATHER’S CHAMBER!”
She was beginning to understand. “Oh … Mistletoe,” she whispered.
“I heard some of the children laughing about how fun it will be to see the two of us finally … kissing.” He leaned his head back in frustration. “I don’t see how you can possibly attend this evening, Catherine.”
“Yes, now I see.”
He didn’t detect the sarcasm in her voice. “Yes” he nodded, relieved that she understood.
“Because kissing me certainly would be a fate worse than death.”
“No! Catherine, that’s not what I meant!” He grabbed her shoulders and moved her far enough away from himself to see her face.
Looking him in the eye she tried mightily to keep a straight face. “Has it occurred to you, Vincent, that maybe I don’t want to kiss you either?”
For a moment he looked shocked and then a little bit hurt. “You … you don’t?” he stammered. It had always been his fear, but he didn’t think she would ever say it.
She decided to qualify her statement. “No, I don’t want to kiss you… not like that anyway.”
She certainly had his attention. She lifted her hand and gently caressed his cheek. “I don’t want our first kiss to be like that, Vincent … because you were tricked into it. And I certainly don’t want it to be in public.”
“Then you understand why I didn’t want you to be there?”
Shaking her head, she said, “No, Vincent, I don’t.”
“But, Catherine, surely we can’t …”
“Vincent, it’s Christmas.”
Unsure of what she meant, he waited for her to explain.
“We can’t disappoint the children, Vincent, not on Christmas. It just isn’t done.”
“What are you saying, Catherine? Surely you aren’t be suggesting that we …?”
Amused at his confusion, she smiled momentarily. “I have an idea.” Then a look of serious determination “How much do you trust me, Vincent?” She already knew, but she had to ask.
He didn’t hesitate, “I would trust you with my life, Catherine, but what does that have to do with mistletoe?”
“I need your complete and utter trust, Vincent. If you give me that, then I think we may be able to give the children what they want and still escape the terrible fate they have planned for us.”
He looked at her with a mixture of amazed admiration and gratitude. And yet he was still wondering how she would manage it.
“If you will help me with my packages, I will fill you in while we walk.”
As they walked Catherine explained, “You have to remember that in order for us to be trapped into the required kiss, we must both be caught under the same sprig of mistletoe at the same time.”
“But, Catherine, I thought the purpose of having you visit was so that we could spend some time together.”
Catherine laughed. “Yes, I know … and I promise … we will … but why not have a little bit of fun with everyone while we are at it? Now tell me, Vincent … who can we outsmart in this? Is there someone you might especially enjoy seeing trapped in this mistletoe snare?” Then her eyes widened and she asked, “Should we keep score?”
Vincent chuckled. “Catherine, I had no idea you could be this devious.”
“I’m a lawyer, Vincent … it’s a standard part of the package.”
Their laughter echoed through the tunnels and mingled in sweet unity as Catherine carefully laid out her plan.
“When I was in the eighth grade, I played Juliet in the school play,” she explained.
“I would like to have seen that,” Vincent replied. “Do you have any photographs?”
“NO! Thank goodness. Anyway, the boy who played Romeo absolutely refused to kiss me. He said he would rather die.”
“He was a fool, Catherine. I can’t imagine that any boy would pass up the chance to …” He stopped when he saw the incredulous expression on her face.
“Oh Really, Vincent? … You can’t imagine that?”
He looked sheepish for a moment and then bowed his head slightly and said, “Please continue ...”
“Anyway … as a result the teacher decided that he would teach us how to ‘kiss’ without really kissing. By the time we put on the play, we were very convincing.”
“How is that possible, Catherine?”
“It’s all about the visual … being careful about the way you stand and where you stand. Distracting the audience with your body, your hair, your hands. When it’s done correctly people are convinced you were really kissing, when you weren’t. Stop here and I’ll show you.”
By the time they neared the main tunnels, she had finished laying out her plan. Vincent stopped. “We can’t go any farther than this, Catherine. Not together anyway.”
“All right then.” Catherine nodded. “You go ahead of me. I will meet you in Father’s chamber. We can’t be near each other until we have spotted every twig. Then we can put our plan into motion.”
“Are you sure this is going to work, Catherine?”
She smiled and said, “Even the best laid plans can go awry, Vincent. Having said that though, I believe it will.”
As Vincent entered Father’s chamber he immediately noted a look of relief on Father’s face. “I see that Catherine isn’t with you. I take it you explained the situation to her?”
“Yes, Father, I did.”
“And she understood?”
Vincent smiled. “She certainly did, Father. She understood much better than you or I.”
Before he could ask for Vincent to explain, Catherine entered the chamber.
“Good Heaven’s, Vincent! I thought you said she understood!” Father exclaimed. “Then what is she doing here?”
Vincent laughed softly. “She did understand, Father, but you should know by now that Catherine is not one to give up easily, and she loves a challenge.”
Father was nearly ‘fit to be tied.’ “Surely, you can’t be serious! Do the two of you understand how dangerous this is?”
Vincent put his hand on Father’s shoulder. “Father, please … everything will be fine, I promise.”
“But, Vincent …”
“Father,” Vincent interrupted. “I trust Catherine… I’m asking you to trust her too. Trust us both.”
Vincent embraced his father in an effort to reassure him.
“Catherine!” Samantha squealed with delight. “I’m so glad you came!” Samantha ran to greet her.
Just as Samantha reached the chamber entrance, Catherine stepped to the side and Geoffrey came running in just behind her. The two children nearly crashed into each other.
Suddenly Eric and Kipper began laughing and pointing in their direction. “You are the first ones! Now you have to kiss!” They laughed.
Geoffrey and Samantha looked up and then looked at each other in horror. Hanging in the chamber entrance above their heads was a large sprig of mistletoe.
“You have to do it, guys,” Eric declared. “It’s the rule.”
For a moment they both looked defiant and then Geoffrey said, “I guess we better, Samantha.”
Samantha bravely closed her eyes and puckered up while Geoffrey leaned forward and kissed her with and expression on his face that was reminiscent of someone eating a lemon.
Hysterical peals of laughter came from the direction of their young cohorts. Catherine joined in the merriment. She looked over to Vincent and Father and winked as she held up her index finger and made a tick mark in the air.
Vincent laughed. “You see, Father. She has it well in hand.”
“I certainly hope you are right, Vincent.” Father was still not convinced.
“So do I.” He placed his hands on Father’s shoulders and leaned close to his ear and whispered. “Father, just remember that things are not always as they appear, and you can’t believe everything you see.” He turned and headed for a tray of cookies that William had just brought in.
Father stood watching Vincent retreat, wondering what in the world he meant by his last remark.
Catherine began passing out her treats to the children until she had one last gift.
“This is for you, Father.”
Jacob looked up to see Catherine holding out a Christmas tin. “You didn’t need to do this, Catherine,” he said, gesturing toward the children. “You are too generous with us.”
“I’m a helper, Father. I thought that gloves and mittens for the children would be helpful, not to mention practical.”
Father chuckled. “Yes, they certainly are, but from what I can see they were filled with candy. You are spoiling the children.”
Catherine smiled. “Oh well, it is Christmas after all, Father… and it wasn’t just candy. I put nuts in them too. Now this …” she said, holding out the tin, “… is spoiling … and it’s all for you.”
Father opened the tin and gasped. “Catherine, you shouldn’t have.” He popped a piece of English toffee into his mouth. “Ooooh… but I am so glad you did.”
They both laughed together.
“How is Lena doing, Father? I don’t see her here,” Catherine was concerned about the homeless and very pregnant young woman she had brought down several days before.
Father nodded. “She is doing fine, Catherine, but I have ordered her to rest. She is due any day now and too much excitement wouldn’t be good for her or the baby.”
The sound of laughter across the room drew their attention. Vincent was standing near Mouse and Jaime. He had somehow drawn them both to another sprig of mistletoe and they both looked as horrified by the prospect of kissing as Samantha and Geoffrey had been. Cheers went up from the children as they obediently kissed under the mistletoe.
Vincent glanced delightedly over at Catherine and made another tick mark in the air. Which was followed by Catherine laughing in glee.
“Catherine, if you don’t mind me asking, what are you and Vincent up to?” Father asked.
She smiled. “We just decided it might be fun to beat the children at their own game. We are keeping track of everyone we can lure under the mistletoe.”
The children quickly caught on to Vincent and Catherine’s game and they were sure they could win. After all, what chance did Catherine and Vincent have against all of them? Fun and laughter ensued as children and adults alike inadvertently found themselves under the ‘mistletoe traps’ that were placed around the room.
After an hour of good fun, laughter, visiting and copious refreshments, Father called for the musicians. The children excitedly went to their instruments for a short concert. Catherine spotted Vincent on a bench across the room. Looking above him, she could see that he was in a safe zone away from any threatening mistletoe. She approached him as everyone listened to the music and sang carols.
“Catherine, would you like to join me here?”
Smiling she replied, “Why, thank you, Vincent, I don’t mind if I do.”
She sat down and leaned her back against him as he wrapped one arm affectionately around her.
“I think it’s going well,” he whispered.
“Mmm Hmm. Was there ever any doubt?”
He didn’t answer. He just chuckled softly. “Did you see Father’s face when William kissed Mary?”
She giggled a little. “I’m not sure whose face was redder, William’s or Father’s. I noticed Brooke and Michael didn’t look too upset when they got caught under the mistletoe.”
“Mmmmm … No. We might have to keep an eye on those two,” Vincent mused.
“It’s almost time for our exit, Vincent. Are you ready?” she asked.
“Ready or not, I suppose. I believe I have a little stage fright.”
“I’m sure you will be wonderful, Vincent.”
She squeezed his hand to boost his confidence.
As the last notes of a beloved Christmas tune died away, Father stood.
“Would anybody like to hear a story before we call it a night?”
The children all cheered for one last Christmas tale.
“It’s time, Catherine … Are you sure you want to go through with it?” Vincent asked.
Catherine smiled mischievously. “Meet me under the mistletoe and find out,” she whispered so that only Vincent could hear.
Vincent took that as a yes. They stood together and Vincent turned to Father. “If you don’t mind, Father, I think I will take Catherine home now.”
Father nodded. He was relieved that they would finally be leaving and be out of danger. “That will be fine.”
Catherine approached Father and kissed his cheek. “Merry Christmas, Father, and goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Dear.” Now I can finally relax, he thought as he breathed a sigh of relief.
Catherine began walking up the spiral staircase as Vincent retrieved Catherine’s sweater and his cloak from the back of a chair.
“Catherine, watch out for the …” Eric began. “OWWWWWW! … Whad’ya do that for?”
“Shhhh …” came a voice from the crowd “You’re gonna ruin everything.”
Catherine stopped at the top of the stairs to wait for Vincent to catch up with her. She ignored the fact that all eyes were on her. She smiled as Vincent approached the top of the stairs.
A cheer went up from some of the children just as he began helping her with her sweater. “We got you, Vincent! Now you guys have to kiss.” Geoffrey declared in victory.
Vincent and Catherine both looked above their heads and looked at each other in shock. Catherine looked below her and shook her head. Then turning to Vincent she could see his wide eyed frightened expression.
“That’s the rule. You have to kiss,” Eric said.
“Yeah, everybody else did. It’s only fair,” Kipper agreed.
Father groaned. “I knew it was too good to be true!” he muttered under his breath.
“Children, children, please understand, Catherine is our guest, we don’t want to embarrass her,” Father pleaded.
A disappointed chorus of, “Awwww” went up from the children.
Not ready to give up, Samantha tried a different tack. “But, Vincent, it’s bad luck not to kiss under the mistletoe. If you don’t kiss Catherine you will both have bad luck until next Christmas.”
“Bad luck’s bad,” Mouse proclaimed. “Worse than bad. Worse than worse… Better kiss her, Vincent. Just to be sure. Mouse kissed Jaime. Don’t’ be scared. No so bad. Not bad at all.” He smiled reassuringly.
Everyone laughed except for Jaime who glared at him.
Father was watching the entire scene, frozen in horror.
“I suppose it is only fair, Vincent,” Catherine said with a look of resignation. “Really, I don’t mind. We don’t want to disappoint the children on Christmas.”
The children smiled in anticipation.
Catherine stood on her tip toes and whispered in his ear. “Break a leg, Vincent.”
Vincent whispered back, “Likewise, Catherine.”
She squared her shoulders and stood facing him like a brave soldier. Vincent’s was turned with his back slightly to the crowd below him, but they could see him take Catherine’s face gently n his hands.
“It’s so romantic. Isn’t it, Michael?” Brooke whispered excitedly.
Michael was too fascinated to reply.
As Vincent bent his head down to Catherine, his hair obscured her face. She buried her face in his hair on the other side and reached behind his head to entwine her fingers in his hair. “Pull me closer, Vincent and lift me up a little bit,” she whispered.
Vincent did as he was told. He was trying very hard to concentrate on their deception, but having her so close, smelling the sweet scent that always surrounded her was exhilarating and he felt his heart rate increasing.
Catherine realized that she was also affected by Vincent’s closeness. Focus, Catherine, focus! she told herself. “Now rub your hand slowly up and down my back,” she whispered.
As he did so she allowed him to pull her close against him and her body seemed to mold against his. She could feel his heart beating. She could feel the heat rising in her and the room seemed suddenly very warm.
After nearly a minute Catherine said, “That’s probably good. You can let me go now,” she whispered. She thought she heard him groan softly.
The last thing he wanted to do was let her go. He released his hold on her and slowly stepped back a little.
As they stood facing each other, Vincent searched her face … her eyes. She looked flushed and seemed a little out of breath. He wasn’t exactly sure what he saw in her eyes, but one thing he was sure of … there was no trace of fear.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
He nodded. “And you, Catherine? Are you all right?”
She smiled and nodded. “Mmmm Hmmm.”
Catherine reached up and pulled his head down until their foreheads touched.
During their performance the chamber had gone completely silent. Not even tapping on the pipes could be heard. As Vincent and Catherine looked around the room everyone seemed frozen in place with their eyes wide and their mouths slightly open.
“WOW,” Eric said in wonder.
Father stood frozen in place. His face looked very pale. He dropped into his chair, but didn’t speak.
“I think I will take Catherine home now,” Vincent calmly said.
“Merry Christmas, everyone,” Catherine said as they ducked through the chamber exit hand in hand.
They were nearly half the way to her threshold before either of them spoke.
“Do you think they were convinced, Catherine?”
She nodded. “They looked pretty convinced to me… Do you think it’s true?”
“That we will have bad luck until next Christmas … because we didn’t kiss?”
He shook his head. “It’s just an old superstition. I wouldn’t worry… Your eighth grade drama teacher taught you well, Catherine. You are quite an actress.” He sounded not only impressed, but also amused.
Suppressing her laughter, she said, “Likewise, Vincent, you are a very quick study.”
“Yes … well … you know what they say… desperate times …. desperate measures.”
She stifled a laugh. “It was worth it just to see the look on Father’s face.”
No longer able to hold it in, she began laughing and buried her face in his chest. He couldn’t help laughing at her pure delight in their little escapade.
When she stopped laughing she suggested, “I think maybe you’d better tell Father the truth as soon as you get back. He looked pretty pale when we left.”
Still smiling, Vincent agreed. “Yes, I believe I should. I told him earlier in the evening that he could trust you. I wouldn’t want him to believe otherwise.”
When they reached her threshold he was more somber. He took both of her hands in his and said, “Catherine … I’m not sure what to say. When I came for you tonight, I was so disappointed that you wouldn’t be able to join me and then you turned it all around. You turned it into an evening to remember … with joy. What you did for me tonight … Thank you … I owe you a great debt.”
“Vincent …” she said. “… you don’t have to thank me… All you ‘owe me’ is a kiss, and you strike me as someone who always pays his debts.”
He nodded. “Yes … I … do.” He was unsure of exactly what she meant.
She reached up and gently caressed his cheek. Her voice was a little husky as she said, “Just so you know, Vincent, one of these days … I intend to collect.” With a curious grin, she turned to climb the ladder.
He stood there looking at the ladder long after she had gone.
Illustrations supplied by the author