Center of Attention

PEAhopeless


Vincent had sat silently ... sullenly ... on their bed for quite some time, observing as Catherine moved hastily around their chamber.

She was getting dressed. A mundane part of life, granted ... but still a private display he usually took consistent enjoyment in. A simple act of intimacy, watching the transformation from unadorned, uncloaked beauty, to manicured, professional woman of above. A process reserved for his eyes only.

On this evening, however, the moment was cast in sadness. Her attire was formal, as she sometimes wore when they would sit in the tunnels, comprising a secret audience for the symphony. A vision for her husband alone. But tonight she was going elsewhere ... and he would not be at her side.

A rather prestigious volunteer association was honoring her with an award. Countless hours of her legal expertise had become her ongoing gift to this advocacy group, and at their yearly meeting, she was to receive an award of appreciation.

Vincent, however, would not be in attendance ... for obvious reasons.

It was an irony Catherine had noted immediately. Mere seconds after her announcement a week prior, she had made generous note of the truth. -- -- "I'd never be getting this award, Vincent, if it weren't for you. ... If you'd never shown me the ignored sorrows in this city. ... If you hadn't taught me."

Peter Alcott would be stepping in has her escort, Vincent eager that she not remain unaccompanied, but feeling rather particular as to who should be entrusted with the honor. What better choice than a helper who had known Catherine since her moment of birth?

"You'll be wonderful tonight." he finally voiced, as she sat before their mirror carefully applying her eyeshadow.

She paused, meeting his eyes in the reflection, then managed a smile. "Thank you." Regrets crept through her mind yet again, and for what must have been the tenth time that day she considered simply not attending.

"No, Catherine." he soothed, having felt her unease. "You must go, and you must take joy in this honor. It's well deserved."

Her nod was one of sad defeat. "I just wish ..."

"Some things simply aren't fated to be." he reassured when her few words tapered off. "And there are so many other things to be thankful for. ... I have a wife with such a generous heart. A trusted friend who will see her home safely." His weak smile began and he added, "And I shall have the pleasure of capturing Father's king at chess tonight."

While it offered Catherine no joy, it did offer relief, and she abandoned her cosmetics ... opting for a heartfelt "I love you" instead, and the safety of his arms for a few more minutes of the evening.

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"I must admit, you take the delight out of victory." Father commented as he removed Vincent's queen from the chessboard. They sat across from each other in Father's study, Vincent losing the game and doing so gloriously.

"I'm sorry, Father. Perhaps my cognitive abilities are not in proper form tonight."

The patriarch nodded his understanding, unsure of what to say. Moments like this were part of their life ... had been for decades. There was little point in pretending otherwise. On the other hand, now there was a permanent light at the end of the tunnel. All would be well again within a matter of hours.

"We're very proud of her, Vincent." Father offered, sitting back in his chair. "All of us." ... ... His emphasis was strong, and clear in meaning.

Vincent nodded his thanks, then returned his eyes to the chessboard. He wasn't really seeing it though, or even thinking about it, obviously, when his expression took on a faint bemusement. Father raised his eyebrows in curiosity.

"She's worried about her speech." Vincent explained. His hand rose to pat his midriff. "I can feel her butterflies."

Father chuckled, not the least bit surprised. "You know, William is planning a special dinner tomorrow evening, in Catherine's honor. It was supposed to be a surprise. But ... I thought it might be good for you to know. Perhaps you can persuade her to give an encore of her speech. That is, if you're not too weary of having heard it rehearsed."

Vincent's grin grew a fraction of an inch higher. "Yes, Father. I believe I can persuade her." He paused, concentrating on the vicarious fluttering in his stomach. "And hopefully she will feel a bit more confidence around friends and family."

He was still musing on the sensation, moments later, when his name was called from the chamber entrance. It was Mouse, running at full speed ... a pickaxe in one hand, a crowbar in the other, and flashlight's bouncing where they hung tied to the side of his helmet.

"Need your help, Vincent." he exclaimed as he tried to catch his breath. "Exploring old tunnels."

"Now Mouse," Father interrupted, raising his hand in that practiced, disciplinary pose. "You know you're not supposed to ..."

"Found something!" Mouse shot back excitedly. "Good. Better than good. Need Vincent to look."

A pause, while Father and son exchanged glances of frustration and amusement respectively.

"It's all right," Vincent assured the patriarch. "I'll go. It can't be too bad at this hour." Rising from his chair, he turned to the excited young man. "Show me, Mouse."

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Those butterflies in Catherine's stomach had passed beyond insects -- or even hummingbirds -- a short time later, and were now on their way to crazed eagles.

Dinner was pleasant, filled with the type of small talk at which she was well-practiced. And Peter was always a comforting influence.

They were seated at the head table, on the floor of an old ballroom. Two seats down from her sat the podium, and she eyed it suspiciously. Arguing a case before a jury of twelve was one thing. She always felt like a little pitbull, fighting the uphill battle for justice. This, though ... ... here she felt like the center of attention, sitting on a personal pinnacle and waiting to be knocked off at her first incorrect word.

And when dinner was finally over, and her name was announced, even 'crazed eagles' became a bit of an understatement.

Smiling politely, accepting an affectionate kiss on the cheek from Peter, she rose and made her way to the podium. Out came her note cards, shuffled nervously as she took a preparatory breath.

"It is with gratitude and honor, that I ..." She hesitated, her eyes glancing around at nothing in particular. -- -- Those eagles, quite out of the blue, had suddenly had their wings clipped.

It was with significant effort that she had forced such strength into her voice. A high tide called forth by sheer power of will, during those final moments before the microphone had become hers. And now, quite unexpectedly, she was calming. The confidence in her voice, in less than a sentence, had begun to feel almost natural.

She shifted her weight nervously, her eyes flitting around the room once more. That was when she saw it.

Of course, the question that would remain for years, was this ... ... had she also seen it, moments before, when her eyes had first scanned the ballroom upon her rise from her chair? What, exactly, was her first clue?

Never mind. She saw it now, up on the balcony. -- -- A shadow, moving among the stacked tables and chairs. Instantly, she knew it was him. His presence was near, and his eyes were upon her. Vincent had miraculously made an appearance.

Briefly, she smiled, realizing it would be passed off as simple nervousness by the rest of the audience. Vincent, though ... he'd know it was for him.

And this time, the strength in her voice was amazingly casual. ... ... "It is with gratitude and honor, that I accept this award on behalf of all of us ... each of us in this room ... who recognizes the duty we all share."

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The social hour would go on for a bit longer, but as soon as the awards were bestowed, Catherine made her getaway with a feigned visit to the ladies' room.

She found him, just as she knew she would, in the hallway behind the balcony ... his long cloak casting the same dark shadow she'd recognized earlier. A hushed exclamation of his name and an eager kiss as she flew into his arms.

"I told you you'd be wonderful," he declared proudly, adding another kiss to her head.

"How did you get here?" she demanded with delight. "I thought you said this area was beyond the traditional maps!"

"Mouse. It seems he stumbled on these old forgotten tunnels months ago, and has been working for days to open the route. He's down there now."

Catherine laughed, having learned the implications whenever it came to that young man "Probably in the basement looking for things to 'find'." The suggestion earned her Vincent's chuckle as well.

"So," she drew, as each continued to take in the welcomed sight of the other. "I sounded all right?"

"Oh Catherine," he sighed with a doting, breathy rumble. Three furred knuckles caressed gently along her cheek, recalling the image of his beloved standing poised and confident at the podium. "I believe I've fallen in love all over again."

His mate laughed bashfully and climbed back into his embrace. On the floor below, serendipitously timed as if also meant for the beaming Catherine, erupted a fit of applause and guffaws.

"Ohhhh," she complained, "I should get back. Before too many people come looking for me."

He nodded his reluctant agreement, then took another kiss before she could slip from his arms.

"Come home with Peter as planned," he instructed. "I'd prefer you not traverse such derelict tunnels until they've been properly updated and reinforced."

She nodded and took her first steps of departure. "Make sure you give my deepest thanks to Mouse," she insisted, "and tell him I know why he found them in the first place."

Vincent cocked his head, curiously beguiled.

"Like you said earlier." she grinned playfully. "Some things are simply fated to be."