Shades of Love

Valerie Wells

He remembered the first time he had held Catherine close, when he escorted her to the sub-basement of her building for the first time. She had hugged him. A simple enough gesture, but the effect on him …

The feeling had shaken him to his core. Somehow, he had raised a trembling arm and closed it gently around her shoulders, afraid to truly embrace her, his heart beating so hard, his breath and hers intermingled. She hadn’t noticed, had only smiled up at him, and when voices from her building distracted her for a moment, he had fled.

He fled. From Catherine!

Even now, the memory made his cheeks hot. He could not face the feelings that he had for her, so sure he had been that she did not feel the same. From her, he sensed gratitude, friendship even, but not love. And he had been helplessly in love with her from the moment he’d lifted her limp body in his arms in the park and taken her to Father.

He had fought those feelings and tried to ignore the bond in the months that followed, and when he could bear it no longer and had found his way to her balcony, intending only to leave the book for her to remind her someone Below thought of her, she had caught him – and he had realized then that she could, possibly, love him too.

She hadn’t known it then. He had recognized that. And Father had counseled him repeatedly to forget her, to return to his life as if she had never been a part of it. As if that were possible.

Since that night on her balcony, as their lives had become more and more intertwined, he had watched as the realization slowly grew in her heart, too. As impossible as it was, as hopeless as it was, she loved him.

And tonight, she had told him so.

Death had been very close these last hours, as he had huddled next to Father in the Maze, listening to the sounds of the rescuers working hard to free them. He’d felt Catherine’s fear, her determination and her anger several times – anger at Winslow, at the circumstances, and at herself. Though he didn’t know what had passed between her and Elliot, he knew she’d gone to him for help and he had given it.

Elliot was the one man Vincent feared.

Catherine was not in love with Elliot, Vincent knew, but she was drawn to him and they had much in common. And … Elliot could give her all the things Vincent could not. He could take her places, show her things, provide for her in ways Vincent could not even dream of. The only thing Elliot could not give her that Vincent could was his whole heart. Elliot probably loved Catherine in his own way, Vincent reflected, but he did not live for her. And he could live without her.

Vincent could not.

And, as they had parted this evening, with both of them still dirty from the cave-in, Vincent weary beyond words from his ordeal and Catherine nearly as exhausted, she had told him the reason she had worked so hard and risked so much to help save him.

"It was love."

With that, she had left him. He suspected her retreat had been purposeful, to give him the chance to reflect on what she had said and a chance to take it in. She was right, he thought ruefully. He had thought of nothing else and had not closed his eyes, tired as he was.

Yet … was her love the love for a dearly beloved friend, or was it more? Even through the bond, he could not be sure. He had never known the romantic love of a woman and he knew – he sighed – that his own all-consuming, desperate love for her was no barometer to use as a measure for her feelings.

He did know she cared about him deeply, thought of him several times a day with warmth, and when she was near, those stolen moments when she held him close – always initiated by her; he didn’t have the courage to ask for such a gesture – her heart beat in those moments for him.

He rose and moved slowly down the passageway to the washroom. He had thought he wanted to go straight to sleep and that washing the dust off could wait until tomorrow, but if he was not going to be able to sleep, he might as well do it now.

Some past Tunnel denizen had found a way to tap the city’s water supply and run the water through the steam pipes for bathing. Catherine had once seen this contraption and had been enthralled with its ingenuity. Because Vincent had known it all his life, he had not considered, before then, how clever it really was.

Tonight he appreciated it anew, as the warm water ran over him, washing the dust, grime and sweat away, leaving him feeling physically refreshed, if not mentally. As he dried himself, he stopped to look into the mirror, really look at it. Usually his glances into this mirror were perfunctory at best; he used it only to see that his hair was combed or to brush his teeth. Now he actually examined his own reflection.

Catherine loves me.

Jamie had told him once, when she was much younger, that his eyes fascinated her. "No one should have eyes that blue," she’d said then. If I ever miss seeing the sky, Vincent, I come find you and look at them."

To Jamie, only a child of 8 at the time, the remark was undoubtedly long forgotten. To Vincent, however, it was something to cling to now. He did not think he imagined that Catherine seemed to seek out his eyes most often, to gaze into them and hold them with her own. When she did that, he found it almost impossible to look away, even as that onslaught of attention made him tremble inside. Yet, if the color of his eyes gave her some measure of enjoyment, she could look at them forever if she chose.

He had long ago come to some sort of acceptance of the way he looked. He knew his appearance was frightening except, perhaps, to those here Below. They were used to him. They loved him. Mouse, for example, didn’t even seem aware that Vincent looked different than the other people around him. Bless Mouse for that.

But to have Catherine accept him, love him, in spite of -- or, it occurred to him for the first time, possibly because of – his otherness, that was a completely new idea. He stepped back and examined his torso as well. That was all he could see in this mirror. He was so careful to keep her from seeing any of him that he could reasonably keep covered. Though here Below, he swam with the children, and sometimes left his collar undone, in Catherine’s presence he showed only his hands and face. She must realize, he thought, that his body matched his hands – almost completely covered in reddish-gold hair – but there was no need to confront her with that fact.

Was there?

Did Catherine know who … what … she loved?

A voice deep inside reminded him that so far, he did not know whether Catherine loved him as a man or merely as a dear friend. Catherine loved many people, he knew. She spoke so fondly of her friend Jenny, of Joe, Edie, Nancy … and Elliot. When she wasn’t exasperated past all patience with Elliot, at least. She seemed to have a large circle of dear friends and loved them, one and all.

Catherine loved easily, and completely. When someone touched her heart, she made no effort to hide it or keep up a polite façade, as so many did Above. Eric and Ellie both adored her, and Mouse, Vincent thought after seeing them together tonight, was in danger of developing a huge crush on her. Possibly only because she’d brought him plastic explosive, Vincent thought with a grin. A sure way to Mouse’s heart was through a "gizmo."

He shook his head and finished drying, then dressed in the clean clothes he’d brought with him. He returned to his chamber and his chair, staring thoughtfully at the flickering candle on his study table. He reached for the warm presence that was Catherine in his heart, and realized, with some dismay, that she was not sleeping, as he had assumed. Was anything wrong?

But the emotions he could touch were not fearful. She was worried … no, uneasy … but not due to danger. It was more like a struggle within herself, he thought. As if she were trying to make a decision, or had already made one and was now questioning the wisdom of her choice.

Perhaps it was something to do with her work. He could not get a clearer sense of her than he already had, try as he might. He could sometimes tell very specifically what she was thinking and feeling, and other times, like now, could only draw vague generalities.

"Sleep, Catherine," he said softly. "Whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow."

He should take his own advice. His eyes were heavy, his mind exhausted. He lay down, but immediately the same questions burned, over and over again.

Catherine loves me.

Yes, but in what way?

And what will I do about it?

He gave it a quarter of an hour, gave up, and pulled a journal toward him. It was the one he had written in during Catherine’s recovery from her attack, and during the months following, when he had intended to leave her to her life Above and try to forget, as he had eventually told her, "the dream of being part of you."

He turned to the entry where he had confessed to his journal for the first time that he loved this woman he had rescued.

"She’s sleeping peacefully now. For most of the first few days, her sleep was marred by disturbing dreams. She awakened screaming once. Thankfully, I was near and could calm her. I assured her she was safe and that I would not leave her alone in a strange place. Somehow that comforted her.

"My heart is full as I write, with her so near. I hope she does not realize how much time I spend simply watching her, as I read to her, as she sleeps, as we talk. Hers is a courageous spirit, a strong spirit, what Father would call ‘an old soul.’ We connect in a way I have never known before, as though we had always known one another or, perhaps, as if we once knew each other and have met again after being apart. I know without asking when she is hungry, or thirsty, or in need of comfort. My voice is all she knows of me, yet she responds to it as to an anchor. Perhaps because Father has left much of her care to me. He does not approve of my having brought her here and I understand, but what he does not know is that we can trust her with our lives and our secret. I know this as surely as I know my heart beats.

"And I have realized something else I know just as surely. She has captured that heart. It belongs utterly to her. Dear God, I love her."

He remembered that first flush of love as if he had just finished writing the entry. He had sat and stared at the words, trembling at their power and at the hopelessness of it. He did not know much of the world Above, but he knew enough to recognize the expensive cut of her clothing and the real diamonds she had been wearing, which he had carefully put away in her bag when they treated her injuries. He knew he had no place in that world of hers and to even dream of love was a sure path to heartbreak.

But he could not help it then, and he could not help it now.

Vincent sighed and closed the journal. After he had escorted Catherine home and had spent the next eight months trying fruitlessly to return to his own life, he had never spoken of her to Father or anyone else. He had poured his heart out into his journal, had found himself reading and re-reading Blake, Shelley, Shakespeare, the Brownings, so many times he had committed several of the more precious ones to memory.

"Thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings …"

At times he had been disgusted with his own behavior, acting like a lovesick boy. He was a man grown and should behave as one. This woman, he told himself many times, no doubt appreciated what he had done to save her, but would recoil in horror should he be so rash as to confess his love for her. In fact, he tried to believe she had someone already. A Helper to whom he had gone to collect some toys for the children soon after returning Catherine to her world had a copy of a newspaper lying in a stack with several others, and he had seen the headline calling her "Gunther’s girlfriend."

Rage had shot through him at that headline, that his Catherine – "his," he had realized later, was more than a bit presumptuous – had no more identity to that newspaper than "Gunther’s girlfriend." He had asked a few questions of the Helper, trying not to appear too fascinated, and learned that Tom Gunther was a rich and powerful man Above, well-known, while Catherine was apparently considered little more than a spoiled debutante. "Arm candy" is how the Helper had described her relationship with Gunther.

Vincent had tried desperately to believe there had to be more to it than that. The Catherine he had known for ten short days Below would not settle for being "arm candy" to a rich man. If she gave her time and attention to Tom Gunther, there must be more to it than that. He would not have Catherine cheated of love, even if he could not give it to her himself.

But in all their hours of conversation while she recuperated, she had mentioned Tom Gunther but once. She had told Vincent about the party and how she had spent so much time talking to an old friend who was in trouble, and the only time she had mentioned Gunther was to say that the reason she left alone was that her "date" – she had not used his name – had been annoyed with her for talking to her friend. That had made her angry, she said, and she had left.

If she loved Tom Gunther, she would have talked about him. Vincent knew from listening to lovers Below that they could not help but talk of their beloved, and Vincent seemed to be the person they all wanted to talk to. He had not minded until Catherine. In fact, he was touched that he was their confidant, that they felt comfortable coming to him.

After Catherine …

The most recent pair of lovers were hardly more than children. Elaine and Jared were still in their teens, but both alight with first love and bubbling over with it. Father, Mary and the other adults were indulgent with them, but both preferred Vincent’s listening ear to all others and sought him out for advice and counsel, as if he knew more about love than anyone else. It caused him such distress to listen to their chatter that he very nearly asked them to stop, yet at the same time he craved it because it opened a window to the ups and downs, the joy and pain of love that he had not truly understood before now.

And then the day had come when he could bear it no longer. Looking for a book Father had asked to borrow, Vincent had come upon "Great Expectations." It was his favorite Dickens novel, but after reading it for Catherine, he had put it away, unable to bear even the sight of the cover reminding him that she was gone. Holding it in his hands that day, he had come to a decision. He would seek her out once more, would leave the book for her and possibly catch just a glimpse of her, to assure himself she was well and happy, and then leave her to her life, for good this time.

Father had remonstrated with him in vain and had spoken of "the concern, the love you feel for this woman," which let Vincent see that he knew quite well his son was in love with "this woman." Vincent had thought he had hidden his feelings from everyone.

But he had gone in spite of Father’s pleading, and Catherine had welcomed him.

And now, she was so much a part of him he could never give her up.

 

He went to the threshold the following evening, knowing she would come Below to seek him.

She was waiting when he arrived and flew to meet him, throwing her arms around him and holding him tightly. "Oh, Vincent," she exclaimed, "are you all right?"

"I am," he said, drawing gently away. "So is Father. He has some broken ribs and is tired and bruised and coughs too much, but he will recover."

"Thank God," she said fervently. "I’ve been so worried about both of you. And Mouse? He said he wasn’t hurt, but –"

"He’s fine," Vincent reassured her. "A little sore and also bruised, but fine, really. He said to tell you," his eyes twinkled, "’Used too much. Not Catherine’s fault. Mouse’s. Great gizmo, though.’"

Catherine laughed and closed the little distance between them again, drawing her arm through his and leaning against him. "He’s a dear boy. He absolutely worships you, you know."

"He says I’m his best friend," Vincent said, with quiet pride.

"He told me, that, too, when I rather unceremoniously plopped into his chamber," Catherine said.

After the strain of the last two days and no sleep, Vincent’s defenses were very nearly nonexistent, and her nearness almost undid him. Again, he gently untangled himself and drew a little away, trying to keep the movement casual, but he could tell Catherine did not miss it.

"Vincent? Is anything wrong?"

He shook his head. "Not at all. We owe you a great debt, Catherine. Without you, Father and I would surely be dead now."

She regarded him thoughtfully for several moments. Finally, she stepped close again and he instinctively braced himself. "Do I make you uncomfortable, Vincent?"

"Of course not," he said, but his voice shook slightly.

"I do," she said, and thankfully, stepped back a little. She gazed up at him, that steady, serious look in her eyes that rested on his and stayed there. And, as always, he could not look away. "Why?"

"Why?" he repeated. His mind would not process what she was asking.

"Why do I make you uncomfortable?"

Under that unblinking gaze, he could do nothing but tell the truth. "It’s not you," he said. "It’s … your touch."

"I see," she said, and this time she stepped back far enough to lean against the opposite tunnel wall, but her eyes never left his. "Why does my touching you make you uncomfortable, then?"

He sighed and, with an effort, tore his eyes away and closed them, letting his head fall against the wall behind him. "I didn’t sleep last night," he said. "My control … is not as complete as usual."

"Control," she said flatly. When she didn’t say anything else, he opened his eyes again to look at her. The bond was no help at the moment; perhaps she’d learned to conceal her feelings from him when she wanted to?

"Catherine," he began, but found himself unable to explain. What would he say? He drew another breath and tried again. "What you said last night … your reason for coming Below to save Father and me …"

"When I said I love you," she said, gently, but quite steadily.

He nodded, unable to speak.

"That disturbs you?"

He shook his head. "No, but I … I don’t know … what to do with this … knowledge."

Her eyes softened. "Has no one ever said they love you before?"

"Of course they have," he began.

"Do you doubt the truth of it?"

This time it was he who sought her eyes. After a moment, he said, "No. But do you mean …" Do not ask her that!

"I mean I love you. How much plainer can I get?" She held out only her hand this time and without conscious thought, he took it, and before he could help himself, he had pulled her against him and put his arms around her. His heart beat so hard he could feel the pulse hammering in his throat and he knew she must feel it, too. She slid her arms around his waist tightly and laid her head against his chest, closing her eyes. The bond opened again, and the warm feeling that flowed from her soul to his enveloped his entire being.

Catherine loves me!

But, came the thought, unbidden and unwelcome, Catherine did not know what she loved. She did not realize the implication, the hopelessness of it. She did not know that holding her close made his blood race and his hands tremble and his entire being yearn to possess her in a way that he knew he never, ever could.

For a few moments, he allowed himself to hold her, breathe her in, feel her hands trustingly around his body, her cheek resting against his chest. He lay his head against hers, closed his eyes, put one hand gently on her hair.

She snuggled closer and the movement made his heart contract with such all-consuming love and desire that he had to hold his breath. He forced himself to release her.

"Catherine, I … leave me, please."

She was confused, and she opened her mouth to protest, but he raised a hand.

"Please," and his voice broke with the effort it cost him to say it.

Her eyes searched his face. They were a little moist, which almost broke his heart, but somehow she understood. She nodded and backed away.

"Good night, Vincent." Without another look or word, she turned and walked away.

Vincent sank down as soon as he heard the sub-basement door close and sat there, trembling. It was a long while before he found the strength to stand and return to his chamber.

Exhaustion gave him no choice but to sleep this night, but the sleep was troubled and full of disturbing dreams. He awoke late in the night, the tunnels silent but for someone tapping a message on the pipes. He rose, poured a cupful of water from the pitcher and drank.

He had hurt Catherine’s feelings earlier, he knew, and the thought made him choke with dismay and regret. He did not know how to explain to her without telling her more than was wise. And he had no one from whom to seek counsel. Father would only rant that he had warned Vincent that this relationship would only bring him pain. And Mary, who in many ways took the place of the mother Vincent had never known, would be sympathetic but would have no counsel for him. Mary had been a nun before coming to the Tunnels, and had gone into the convent as a young girl. She had no experience in these matters.

No one else Below was appropriate to ask. Most came to him or Father for help. They would not be able to help him.

He dressed slowly. Sleep was over for now. He walked silently to the Whispering Gallery, a place he was sure would be deserted this time of day, but was a near enough retreat for his troubled mind.

Except it was not deserted. Elaine sat on the edge of the precipice, crying.

"Elaine?"

She turned her head, wiping her eyes as she did so. "Hi, Vincent."

"What troubles you?"

"I had a fight with Jared," she said tremulously. "We broke up."

"Lovers often have disagreements," Vincent said. "Emotions run high. It’s not impossible that you will settle your differences when you are both calmer."

She shook her head. "I don’t think so. Not this time."

"But why?"

"He’s going Above to live," she said. "One of the Helpers has offered him a job. I can’t, Vincent. I can’t live Above. I’ve seen all of it I ever want to see. And he won’t stay here."

Vincent was silent. He understood her pain more than she knew.

She dried her eyes and took a good look at him. "You’re worried about something."

He started to deny it, but her searching eyes wouldn’t allow that. "Yes. Nothing that concerns you."

"Tell me," she said. "Maybe I can help."

"I don’t think so. Thank you, though."

"Come on, Vincent," she said, even managing to smile. "You’ve certainly listened to enough of my troubles. Even if I can’t do anything, it might help to talk about it."

He considered this. Finally, he sighed and told her about Catherine. Though Elaine was young, and he chose his words carefully, she grasped the situation almost instantly.

"Have you thought about the fact that she might want the same thing you do?" Elaine asked bluntly. "Maybe you’re protecting her from something she doesn’t want protection from."

"Even if she does," Vincent said, dragging the words from his throat because talking about his secret fears was so difficult, "we cannot. I don’t dare. I don’t … know what would happen."

"Want me to explain it to you?" Elaine asked with a wicked look.

In spite of his pain, Vincent chuckled. "Thank you, but that’s not what I meant. A life together is impossible for us," he went on, his voice thickening again, "and there is nothing I can do to change that."

"Maybe you don’t have to have a life ‘together,’" Elaine suggested. "Maybe what you can have is enough. Maybe, even though you can only have moments here and there, that would be better than not having anything."

He stared at her. She was right. Maybe it could be enough. Maybe the joy would be worth the pain.

"Why don’t you ask her?" Elaine said. "Vincent, if she loves you – and I don’t know how she could help but love you back when you love her so much – she’d be willing to at least try. But you won’t know if you don’t talk to her about it."

"Yet you are not willing to make the same attempt with Jared," Vincent said.

She shook her head. "No, but our situation is different, Vincent. I could go Above to live, and you can’t. Jared and I …" her voice shook, "we want different things. He wants to leave this place and his family here and really, I think he wants to leave me behind. It’s not the same. But you," she reached out and took his hand and gave it a firm squeeze, "you might be able to pull it off. Talk to Catherine. Tell her the truth, all of it. She can take it, Vincent, I’m sure she can. And it’s worth a try. You’re in pain," she paused when he flinched at that, "and she’s the only one who can take that pain away."

He put a brotherly arm around her and hugged her. "Elaine, you are wise beyond your years."

 

In the morning, he sent a note to Catherine with one of the children, asking her to meet him at the threshold that evening. This was not a conversation for her balcony, with the sounds of the city around them and the danger of discovery ever-present. He would take her to a quiet place Below, where they could be alone and where he could bare his soul for her, once and for all. That way, he thought with fear, if she rejected him, if she could not face what he was, he would not have to try to get home through a dangerous city while blinded by tears.

She was already there when he arrived and, he noticed, she had dressed for what could be a long and difficult walk in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He offered her his arm, and she took it as though they walked arm in arm always.

Of course, moving through the tunnels meant that they couldn’t continue to walk side-by-side, but as they walked, he took her hand and was surprised that he could remain in constant physical contact with her without that helpless loss of composure he had experienced the night before.

Maybe Elaine is right.

Astonishing, that a 17-year-old girl could see his situation more clearly, possibly, than he himself could.

Catherine had not asked him about their previous encounter or why he had asked her to leave. She had greeted him as if nothing had happened, except she had not hugged him, had only gently stroked his arm. Through the bond, he could feel her love and worry for him, but no recrimination. Concern. Puzzlement. Curiosity. Distress, but he could tell that was because she was afraid she’d crossed some invisible line.

If only she knew.

She would, soon enough.

They left the commonly traveled passageways and started through darker, less well-known ones. These, too, were used, but usually only by the children. Vincent remembered well the "fort," as he and Devin had dubbed it, a little-used chamber off the beaten path, where children went to pout after getting in trouble or to hide to share their secrets or to stash their little treasures they didn’t want the grown-ups to see. He didn’t know if Father even knew about this chamber, though he suspected he did.

They passed through a tunnel with no light, but Vincent knew it as well as his own chamber and could see enough to lead. Catherine allowed him to do so with no comment.

The chamber lay just in front of them. Vincent had been here earlier to place a couple of torches so they would have enough light, and to insure that there was somewhere to sit other than the dusty floor. He had left some cushions and old blankets in a corner, invitingly plumped up, and had even thought of bringing a thermos of Catherine’s favorite peppermint tea.

She saw all this and, he knew, realized it had been his foresight. She released his hand and walked around the chamber, smiling fondly at the crooked "Vincent was here" scratched in the wall at the height of a 10-year-old’s eyes.

"Let me guess," she said, cocking an eyebrow at him over her shoulder, "this was your hideout as a boy."

"It was," he admitted, "and several of the children still use it."

"It’s cozy," she said, running her hand along a set of shelves that one of the children – probably Mouse – had constructed. The shelves held various rocks, a magnifying glass, a few books and, a sure sign that Mouse had been here, some "gizmos."

She sat down on the pile of cushions and crossed her legs Indian-style, looking up at him expectantly. He obeyed the unspoken request and sat beside her.

"You want to talk," she said. "And you wanted to be sure we wouldn’t be interrupted."

He nodded, unable to meet her eyes at the moment. Instead, he stared down at his clasped hands and tried to think how to begin. He’d thought of nothing else all day – for a couple of days, really – and had thought it would be easier than this.

She waited patiently.

Finally, he drew a deep breath. "I did not mean to be abrupt last night," he said.

"When you asked me to leave."

"Yes."

"What happened?" she said. "You were trembling so."

He laid his head against the wall behind him and closed his eyes. She deserved an explanation, and she deserved to hear the truth. At last, steadying his voice with a visible effort, he said, "First I must ask you something I swore I would not. Answer me honestly and don’t spare my feelings."

"Of course."

"When you say you love me," his voice trembled in spite of his effort, "do you love me as you would … a man?"

She was silent for so long he finally had to open his eyes. He saw tears glistening in hers.

"Oh, Vincent," she said, taking his hands in hers, "you are a man. And the answer is yes."

"Then," he had to wet his lips and try again, "then you must know what it is you love."

Through the bond, he felt her dismay at his choice of words and knew he had caused her grief. Before she could protest, he shifted so as to face her. He would not shrink from this. If there were pain to be suffered, he would be the one to suffer it, not his … not Catherine.

"We do not know my origin," he said. "You realize that. You’ve seen the … Other. The blood that flows through my veins is not … entirely human. I speak, I walk upright, I feel and think in many ways as men do, but Catherine, I am not … a man."

She opened her mouth, but he forestalled her.

"Please, let me say it all first."

She nodded.

"Part of me is. In my heart, in my mind, in the way," he paused to swallow, "the way I feel about you is. But the Other is ever present, Catherine, and when you … when we are …" He couldn’t even say it.

Softly, she said it for him, "When we are holding one another."

"Yes." He tried to slow his thudding heart, and failed. "Something rises up within me that frightens me. I feel as if I’m losing control, as if I might be capable of, of anything."

Her eyes never left his face, and so far she did not look frightened or even surprised.

"I want to be closer. I want to … dear God, I want to possess you. That cannot happen, Catherine."

Still she continued to gaze at him with that soft expression and utter calm.

"Do you understand what I’m saying?"

"Yes," she said quietly.

Suddenly he took his hand from hers and fumbled at the neck of his shirt. Tonight he had not worn his vest, but the shirt fastened all the way up to his throat. He opened his collar and, hands shaking as he did so, the buttons. "Look upon me, Catherine. See what I am."

She looked, and still she did not look surprised. In fact, her eyes shone with a different light, one he did not recognize. Tentatively, she raised a hand. "May I touch?"

He was stunned into speechlessness. Mutely, and bracing himself for the onslaught of emotion he expected, he nodded.

Catherine laid her hand over his heart and he knew she could feel its frantic pace, which only increased as her warmth touched him through the bond and against his unclothed chest. He gave a shuddering sigh and tried, vainly, to steady his breathing. She stroked gently, smoothing the red-gold hair under her hand, and she also sighed.

"It’s so soft," she said, raising her eyes to his and … smiling. "Vincent, you are every bit as magnificent as I imagined."

This shocked him back into speech. "You imagined me?"

"Do you think I haven’t wanted to ‘possess’ you, too?" she asked. "Vincent, what you describe is completely natural. It’s only desire, it’s what lovers feel for each other. It’s nothing to be feared."

"In my case –"

"In your case, we have to overcome more," she acknowledged. "We may have to be much more patient. You are so afraid of so much, and you don’t have to be, but I am willing to wait."

When he was unable to speak, she came closer and rested her face against his chest.

"You will have to learn to accept and to cherish what other men take for granted," she said softly. "I will have to learn to respect that and not force or push you beyond what you can bear. In the meantime, we will take the blessings we have and wait hopefully for the blessings to come."

He put his arms around her and his heart constricted as before with love and need, but he let it wash over him this time, let it consume him if it so chose, and did not push her away. She rested trustingly in his arms with no sign of fear or distress at the thudding of his heart against her cheek. In fact, she slightly turned her head and pressed a kiss there. With a breath that was almost a sob, he touched his lips to her hair.

She turned in his arms so she could look up at him and the look gave him the courage to do what he never dreamed of doing before. He lowered his head and kissed her lips.

Catherine loves me!