Conquest

Joan Stephens


Vivian had retreated to the safety of the tunnels when her last conquest had turned into a stalker and threatened her. As the child of a helper, she was given sanctuary until it was safe for her to return Above, and the first time she met Vincent she knew that he would be her next conquest. So, she had Ďset her cap for himí as her mother would have said. She set about to win him for herself and found inventive ways to be around him. She had never failed in a conquest and that was exactly what they were: conquests. When she had them firmly tied to her, she quickly tired of them and left them brokenhearted. A hunter of love, the challenge was the enticement that drew her.

The conquest of Vincent became all the more alluring when Catherine returned. She had been gone for a month on an exchange program with the Houston, Texas DAís Office. Vivian happened to witness their first meeting. At first, they just stood and stared at each other. Humpf, she thought, some romance. Then suddenly they rushed together in the most passionate embrace she had ever seen. She definitely had her work cut out for her.

She became Catherineís friend, always happy to see her, always around when she needed someone to talk with. And in this way she found the weapon that she needed to pry Catherine out of Vincentís arms and heart: Vincentís apparent inability to believe that Catherine could really love him. He had placed her on a pedestal, needing to adore her from afar, and Catherine was growing tired of it.

Never blatant, Vivian played on Catherineís uncertainty as to her position in Vincentís heart and in the community. Slyly, the hunter would insinuate that Catherine had no place in the world Below and, therefore, could have no logical reason to expect to remain forever in Vincentís heart.

She tried to alienate the couple by always being with him when Catherine was away. And when Vincent was on a work detail, she would work beside him. Catherine would never dirty her hands by grubbing in the dirt, but she would, proving to him that she was the right woman for him. Even as she professed her deep affection for Catherine, she made sure that the young attorney would Ďaccidentallyí find them together, hugging, even if she had to initiate it.

She dropped subtle hints about what she and Vincent had done while Catherine was away for that month or when she was Above. Subtly, she brought up to Vincent how Catherine would never consent to live Below, how she was only playing at loving him, that she would leave him when the going got too rough, or she found someone else more suited to her station in life. Sheíd poison his mind against the woman, and she was smart enough to do it too. Sheíd honed her skills with her other conquests. Catherine was no match for her.

*

One day as she confidently swaggered through the corridor on her way to Vincentís chamber, she was stopped by the sound of voices coming from within. Catherine was with Vincent, and they were chuckling over some comment that she had made. "I agree, Catherine, you only have to look at Jamie to see that she has realized that Mouse is more than a boy. Now if we can just get him to realize that he has becomeĖall unbeknownst to him--an adult and that love is waiting for him, all Jamieís problemís will be solved."

Ask me, Vivian thought, I can tell you what to do.

"Thatís the problem and Fatherís no help. He continues to treat Mouse as if heís a mischievous child caught with his hand in the cookie jar." Catherine quietly laughed in amusement at the picture her words had painted.

"Maybe if I have a talk with him I can get Father to see that Mouse has become a man."

"Good luck," Catherine commented. "Speaking of looks, have you noticed how Vivian looks at you?"

Gasping with shock, Vivian took a step backwards. Did she really want to hear what they had to say?

"Iíve noticed that she is everywhere I go, and she makes some very strange comments," Vincent answered. "Just what are you implying?"

"Iím not implying anything; Iím stating a fact. She canít keep her eyes off you. I think she has designs on you."

Squirming in embarrassment, the hunter mused, Maybe she wasnít as clever as she thought.

"Does that worry you, Catherine?" he purred.

"Not in the least. I know youíre mine just as Iím yours," Vivian heard and, peeking around the corner, saw them flow into an ardent embrace.

"I love you," Vincent whispered as he lowered his mouth to the lips of the woman he held in his arms.

"And I love you," she replied when they broke apart.

Vivian couldnít accept what she heard; she had never failed. She wondered where she had gone wrong. It never occurred to her that she was in the presence of a deep and abiding love that nothing and no one could separate.

She jumped when she felt hot breath on her ear as someone sidled up to her and gloatingly whispered, "It didnít work, did it?"

So intent was she on overhearing what the lovers said that she hadnít heard Rebeccaís approach. "What?" Vivian asked, spinning around to face her.

"Separating Catherine and Vincent."

"Iím sure I donít know what you mean," Vivian sniffed as she pulled herself up and away from the candlemakerís gloating presence.

"Iím not the only one who was aware of what you were trying to do. People have been talking about you for weeks. Havenít you noticed the cold looks directed your way? You werenít as cunning as you thought."

Vivian wilted. "I donít understand. Everything I tried failed."

"You really donít know why, do you?" Rebecca asked, pitying her.

The other woman looked at her blankly.

"They are connected; they have a bond."

"Bond? What are you talking about?"

"They are connected in such a way that they know what the other is feeling. There is no way that you could have convinced either one that they werenít loved by the other."

"Well, I tried hard enough." She shrugged an elegant shoulder and then added, "I had no idea what I was up against. I thought that I had lost my touch."

"No, theyíre just a force unto themselves that no one can stop."

Catherineís voice interrupted their little tÍte-Š-tÍte, "Rebecca, is that you?"

"Yeah, Vivianís here too." The other woman glared at her as if she wanted to throttle her.

"Come in." Vincent requested.

Rebecca gleefully hurried in, but not wanting to face them and needing to get away as fast as she could to salve her wounded pride, Vivian stopped in the doorway. "I really canít stay; Iím supposed to help with dinner tonight."

"Oh, then we wonít keep you," Vincent said. "By the way, what is William conjuring up tonight."

"I donít know, but itíll probably be very tasty," Vivian replied, trying, and not succeeding, to act as natural as possible. She spun around and almost darted away. She could hear Rebeccaís amused laughter follow her through the tunnel.

Vivian was so irate that she thought that steam must be spewing from her ears. Surely those she met on her way to the kitchen could see how angry she was, but they passed her by with only a cold stare or a smothered smile. They knew! Did everyone know? Apparently, yes. All along they had known and let me make a fool of myself. Why hadnít someone warned her? Rebecca, Lena, or even Catherine. It would have saved her a lot of embarrassment.

Suddenly her anger dissipated as a feeling like a cold shower swept over her. She deserved what she got, and she realized that she wasnít a very nice person. And it devastated her. It never had before; so, why the change now? In a blinding flash of insight, she knew. Suddenly she felt small and sordid, like a dirty little whore. Like a tramp, she had used all the men she had ever professed to love, used their submission to bolster her own lack of confidence in her abilities to search for and to find true love, her inability to give herself wholeheartedly in love to another.

At dinner that night, she noticed for the first time the icy stares and cold shoulders she received when she came out of the kitchen. As she looked for a place to sit, Catherine approached her. "Could we spend a little time together later tonight? I would really like to talk with you."

"I donít know, Catherine. I feel so rotten about what I tried to do. Is there anything to say?"

"I think so. You are my friend and I hate to see you unhappy. Maybe together we can put this in perspective."

"All right. Iíll ask William if I can be excused from kitchen duty. Donít count on it. You know how he is."

Catherine laughed, "Yeah, Iíve had to do my share too. Would you like to talk here or in my apartment?"

"I think Iíd like the privacy of your place."

"Ok," Catherine agreed. "Iíll see you there then." With a sincere smile, she returned to Vincentís side. Vivian found a seat at a corner table and ate her lonely dinner.

*

Catherine was in the kitchen preparing the tea when there was a knock on the door.

"Hi," Vivian said when she opened the door.

Motioning the other woman to a seat on one of her love seats, Catherine returned to the kitchen, returning with a silver tea set. Setting it on the coffee table, she settled into the opposite small sofa.

Glancing around the apartment, Vivian said, "Wow! This is a beautiful place."

"Thanks, itís all right."

"You have all this, but youíd rather spend your time in a cool, dark hole in the ground?" The young woman was finding it hard to understand why she would.

Handing the other woman a brimming cup of herbal tea, Catherine said, "My heart isnít here; itís Below."

Sipping at the hot tea, Vivian set the cup and saucer on the coffee table. "And youíd give up all this if he asked?"

Catherine shrugged. "He is my life," she stated simply.

Vivian bowed her head. "Iím sorry if Iíve caused you any trouble."

"And Iím sorry if we hurt you with our casual comments. We meant nothing unkind by them."

"I know. You know the old expression: ĎEavesdroppers hear nothing good about themselves.í I learned that Iím not a very nice person."

"Oh, I wouldnít go that far," Catherine demurred, trying to ease the other womanís distress.

"I would." Vivian replied firmly. "Iíve learned my lesson. Iíve seen what real love is all about, and Iím ashamed of all the pain Iíve caused: to you and all those before you."

"Maybe you can find them and apologize. I hear itís good for the soul."

"Iím going to give it a try. To do that I think I need to return Above. Iíve made a sufficient fool of myself." Vivian smiled grimly. "Rebecca made that plain enough."

"She has always looked out for Vincent. Sheís like a sister to him."

"Yeah, thatís one thing I donít understand. Hereís this gorgeous hunk of man down thereĖa little different, thatís true--and none of the women even think of him as a lover? Are they blind or something?"

With a merry laugh, Catherine said, "Oh, not all of them think of him as a brother or a son. Have you ever seen the way Lena looks at him?"

"Come to think of it, she does kind of gaze at him like a love sick cow. What did you do, have to fight her off with a stick?"

"No, we had a similar conversation to this. Poor Vincent was really distressed when he thought that he had hurt her. He feels the same way about you. He doesnít want to lose any of his friends."

"Am I his friend, Catherine? Really?"

"Of course, unless you prove yourself otherwise."

"Well, havenít I?" Vivian answered sadly.

"No." Catherine reached across the coffee table to lay a comforting hand on the other womanís arm. "You were just headed in the wrong direction."

"Yeah . . . well, Iím going Below to apologize to Vincent, and then Iím going to get a good nightís rest. Iím going to be very busy for a while."

"You donít have to apologize to him. He knows how you feel."

"How can he? Heís not here." Vivian objected.

Catherine smiled at her and said, "The bond."

"You mean he can read your mind?"

"No, but he can feel my emotions. And what Iím feeling now will tell him all he needs to know about you."

"Well, Iím going to apologize anyway. Letís call it practice." She nodded her head soberly but with a gleam of laughter in her eyes. "And Iím going to get a lot of practice."

Chuckling, Catherine rose and escorted Vivian to the door. "Iím sure it will get easier the more you do it."

Standing in the open doorway, the other woman said, "I certainly hope so. Thanks, Catherine, for being so understanding. I hope I can count you as one of my few friends." Impulsively, she hugged the other woman.

Startled, Catherine returned her embrace, patting her soothingly on the back. "Of course, you can. If you need any help here Above, let me know, and Iíll see what I can do." Standing in the doorway, she watched Vivian strut down the hallway to the elevator. Thinking to herself that the swagger would never go away, she closed the door. Vincent would be coming soon after he had graciously accepted Vivianís apology. She hurried into the bedroom to prepare for the coming evening.

Fini