There were times of turbulence in Catherine and Vincent’s relationship, but there were also times when all was well and there were few demands upon them. These were the most precious moments of all, when they were able to devote themselves to exploring the unique and wonderful connection they had.
Vincent seemed able to maintain the spiritual nature of their love without apparent difficulty and ignore the possibility of a more intimately physical relationship, or at least postpone it with vague promises of someday. Catherine, on the other hand, couldn’t always disregard the more earthy demands of her own passionate nature. It was at these quieter times that she found herself wanting to remove the strict controls imposed upon them, and focusing on what was missing rather than what was present. She saw no reason why they could not, should not, be lovers in every sense of the word, but was prepared to go slowly in deference to Vincent’s reservations.
Hugs and chaste kisses were all very well, but Catherine wanted to touch Vincent in more intimate ways, in ways that would satisfy her yearning for more sensual contact and enable her to express her love in direct and unambiguous ways. She didn’t truly believe that Vincent was afraid to make love to her, but she could well believe that he was afraid of the censure and criticism such a move might bring down upon them. Many tunnel-dwellers believed that without Vincent their world would be a vulnerable and unsafe place, and they saw Catherine as a threat, as the one person who could lure Vincent away from the world Below and his duties as its guardian and protector. Only Catherine knew that the truth was that Vincent and his world could very easily tempt her away from her world to join them. Given the right encouragement.
In a few days it would be Vincent’s birthday – what better occasion to mark with a step forward in their relationship? But for days now Vincent had been irritable whenever mention was made of the forthcoming celebration. His attitude, which sometimes verged on rudeness, confirmed to her that he hated anything that put him at the centre of attention, and only amplified all his deeply buried fears. Catherine suspected that this was not the right time to initiate a discussion of the kind she had in mind.
‘Come on Cathy,’ she scolded herself. ‘It’s not like you to give up. Maybe deeds, not words, are called for here.’ She nodded to herself, her quick mind already reviewing possibilities.
Regardless of Vincent’s own feelings, his birthday clearly meant a great deal to the tunnel-dwellers, and it was their custom to celebrate it each year with exuberance and joy. It was an occasion marked by music and some of William’s unrestrained flights of fancy in the kitchen. Catherine had already delivered boxes of ingredients for the dishes that did not normally feature on Tunnel menus, party clothes were being aired, pressed, repaired and, where necessary, replaced, and there was an unusual atmosphere of frivolity in the air.
There would be gifts, made with love and care or sought out from places known only to the tunnel community. Their intention was always to please, never to impress, and Catherine was well aware that though she could afford to lavish rare and valuable gifts upon him, Vincent would always prefer something he could conceal, to look upon with his eyes alone, a symbol of the precious secrecy of their love.
Catherine searched for days, in bookstores, in bric-a-brac shops, even in the ateliers of the more unusual clothes designers. A gift of clothing seemed appropriate and while she would have loved to have seen him dressed in something outrageously sexy – Vincent, though endowed with the height, shape and virility that any fashion designer would have dearly loved to dress, saw clothes only as a necessity for warmth and modesty.
It was while browsing through the pages of a book on theatrical costume design that Catherine found inspiration for not one but two gifts – one for everyone’s eyes, and one that would indeed be highly personal and a secret he might not be immediately aware of, one that would give her great pleasure while she waited for him to discover it. With her connections, the first was easy to arrange. She commissioned a jacket in blue velvet of a shade her art teacher had once told her was called ‘Prussian Blue’, a colour that would set off Vincent’s eyes to perfection. Thinking this, she squirmed uncomfortably.
‘Oh Cathy,’ she whispered to herself, with a grin. ‘I can just imagine what Vincent would have to say about me choosing a jacket to set off his eyes!’
Vincent really did look very handsome in blue, and the only garments he seemed to possess in that colour were serviceable sweaters that had seen a fair amount of wear. But Catherine wanted to present him with a jacket to be worn on special occasions; one that would do more for Vincent’s impressive looks than merely flatter his eyes.
He was very sensitive about drawing attention to his physical attributes, and insisted on wearing shirts and tunics that reached to mid-thigh at least. Her beloved seemed adept at concealing himself in layers of clothing at all times. His wardrobe consisted for the most part of functional clothing, though Catherine had to admire the skill and imagination of whoever had sewn these garments. The lack of materials in the Tunnels had called for great ingenuity when it came to patchwork and padding, and the clothing of the tunnel-dwellers, especially of Father and Vincent, had a theatrical beauty and eccentricity of its own.
Catherine had enlisted Mary’s help in obtaining Vincent’s measurements, knowing she could reply on the older woman’s discretion. She had chosen a design with a certain military flair, enhanced by a double row of silver buttons and a certain amount of frogging. The collar could be left open to reveal the soft ruffles of one of his favourite shirts. The design was carried out by a theatrical costumier and when it was modelled for her by a dancer from the theatre, it took Catherine’s breath away and she could hardly wait for the opportunity to see Vincent himself wearing it. Her other present, her very private gift, would have to wait for the right moment.
Vincent’s mood had deteriorated as the days progressed, and the signs were ominous. His usually quiet voice had been heard raised in anger as he argued with Father, demanding to know why, for once – just once – he could not be absolved of the responsibility of providing solutions to everyone’s problems. The sound of his fist slamming down on William’s kitchen table, and of cutlery rattling, had reverberated along the passages. He had lost his temper with Mouse and spoken uncivilly to Mary and he had even snapped at Catherine on a few occasions.
‘Vincent, what is wrong? I’ve never seen you like this!’ Catherine asked after one of these episodes.
‘Catherine I am sorry – I am not fit company at the moment. There is something – there is so much I need to think about. I need to be alone – perhaps it is better if you leave now.’
He turned his back on her and hung his head. Vincent had never spoken to her with such asperity before but Catherine remained calm, fighting the instinct to snap back at him. There was something on Vincent’s mind, and she knew that he would not share the problem with anyone, not even her, until he was ready.
She moved to his side and touched his shoulder. He moved away from her again, peering under the curtain of hair that partly obscured his face. Angry blue eyes softened and took on a pleading expression.
‘Don’t touch me, Catherine. I – I have a decision to make and you are making it very difficult for me.’ With one last anguished look, he walked away swiftly, leaving her with confused doubts and fears, and many, many questions.
The birthday party was to be held on Saturday evening. Catherine waited for the invitation from Vincent – nothing formal, but at least an intimation of when she was expected to join him. Halfway through the week, she found a note had been slipped under the door of her apartment.
‘This evening – at the threshold Below. V’
Not very gracious and the writing was perhaps a little less fluid than usual, but she was incapable of ignoring a summons from Vincent, however brusque.
He was waiting, pacing back and forth.
‘Catherine!’ he sighed huskily, as he pulled her into an unusually rough embrace. He cupped her face in his hands - hands covered with nicks and abrasions. With his thumbs he smoothed the hair back from the face that was turned up to his with absolute trust.
‘Catherine – I am sorry. I have treated you so carelessly. I have not been myself – oh, dearest Catherine, say you forgive me?’
How could she ignore such a plea? ‘It’s all right Vincent, I know you’ve been busy, and …‘
‘No! Catherine, no excuses! Just be patient with me, and you will understand. Later.’
She had rarely seen him so nervous, and so filled with energy that he seemed unable to control.
‘Can you come Below on Saturday morning? I want some time with you before the party, and I will have finished by then.’
‘Of course,’ she agreed.
‘And, Catherine –‘
‘Will you stay Below on Saturday night?’
Surprised, she nodded. ‘If that is what you want Vincent?’
The first smile in days curved Vincent’s lips very slightly. ‘Oh yes,’ he said with surprising fervour, ‘that is indeed what I want.’
There was something intriguingly exciting about preparing for the weekend Below – a sense of occasion that was rare. Catherine wore her usual warm and practical layers, but packed her party dress in the soft bag that was capacious enough to accommodate Vincent’s birthday present as well as the few other items she would need. She had chosen a dress that she knew Vincent would like though his appreciation was rarely expressed in any other way than through the medium of his eyes. It was of fine teal-coloured wool, long-sleeved and flatteringly clinging, with a skirt that fell with a swirl to mid-calf. The colour was a perfect foil for her eyes, and with it she would wear soft boots. When it came to choosing a nightdress, her fingers hovered undecidedly between the warm one and the one that was designed to raise the temperature in a decidedly blatant way. Something made her pack both. Vincent had asked her quite directly to stay the night, but she had done that before, and he had always made it quite clear that the barriers between them were not about to be breached. Why should it be any different this time? Still – just in case…
She arrived in the Tunnels just before midday, and was welcomed by Jamie.
‘Vincent asked me to take you to his chamber,’ said the girl, with her usual directness. ‘He said if you were hungry I should bring you some lunch. Are you?"
‘No,’ Catherine replied with a smile. ‘Thanks anyway, I’ve had something already. Where is Vincent?’
‘He’s gone down to the bathing pool. He’s been working very hard, even today.’
Catherine smiled again, and when they reached his chamber she hung her dress in his closet and then sat on the bed to await Vincent’s return.
When he appeared, he was still decidedly damp and delightfully rumpled. He wore one of his voluminous shirts, and fidgeted with a bandage on his left hand.
‘Vincent! What happened to your hand?’
‘A small accident – I was in too much of a hurry to finish something. But Catherine, I need your help. I cannot use the brush with my right hand. Could I ask that you brush my hair and dry it for me?’
There was a look in his eyes that Catherine was afraid she had misinterpreted, a sly, mischievous look that she had never seen there before. A look that could almost be interpreted as flirting!
Catching her breath, she patted the bed beside her invitingly. ‘Of course I can help. Sit down; I’ll dry it a little more first.’
She knelt on the quilt and like an obedient little boy he sat down with his back to her. She couldn’t believe that it was going to be so easy to achieve the second stage of her birthday surprise. Pulling her handbag towards her, she told him she was going to use her own brush, and at the same time she pocketed the small accessory she needed.
Vincent had never shown such physical ease with her before, and she warned herself not to read too much into it. He was tired, slightly injured, and his defences were down and this was surely no more than the simple fact that for once he needed her help.
Still quite wet, Vincent’s hair was darker than it usually appeared to be and felt quite coarse. As she patted at it with a towel, however, the moisture disappeared and it became lighter in colour and texture. He sat quietly, with his back to her, and it was all she could do not to lean her hot cheek against that broad, straight body and abandon her task completely.
His hair was not like that of any other person she had ever known. A thick top layer of almost metallic hairs crinkled and curled and glittered when, as now, it was freshly washed and its owner was at the peak of his health. Beneath this strong outer layer softer hair grew densely; continuing from his nape to become the downy pelt that eventually outlined his spine, though this was something she could only guess at.
This copper-coloured hair was a living entity, a flaming beacon that was a symbol of Vincent’s role in the hopes and hearts of all those who loved him and depended upon him.
Catherine guessed that the differences between Vincent and other teenage boys must have been obvious, but there had surely been many ways, too, in which he had been just like all the others. Impatience with his hair was probably one of these, one that had continued into manhood. Mary had told her once how proud he had always been of the striking mane of hair that set him apart, how he refused to even consider cutting it, but that like most boys, brushing or combing it was held to be a waste of time. She said he would bathe, wash his hair, shake it furiously and leave it to dry. Father realized he was expected to protest, but it was a mere formality. Catherine allowed herself to imagine Vincent shaking his head, shedding droplets in a vast arc of spray, and knew that this was something she had to see for herself –one day.
She brushed and combed gently but firmly, wielding the brush with long strokes, humming under her breath. Before long she realized that Vincent was on the verge of sleep. She smiled and continued to brush, but more gently, less because it was really necessary than because she felt a deep and sensual satisfaction in doing so.
Vincent so rarely initiated or encouraged any physical intimacy between them, apart from his hugs and top-of-the-head kisses. For once she was being given an opportunity to handle him in the way she really wanted. In fact, she realized, she was also being given the opportunity to carry out her tentative plan and to give him a very special birthday present, one that he might not know he had been given for a very long time, if she knew anything at all about his habits.
She was going to braid a lover’s knot into his hair.
Catherine had for a long time wanted to bind Vincent to her in some romantic, old-fashioned way. Plaiting a lover’s knot into his hair without his knowledge seemed utterly fitting, especially tonight, on the occasion of his birthday. She had equipped herself with a length of tan leather and a tiny blue bead – to match his eyes, to ward off bad luck, to catch her eye in private moments.
He was breathing deeply, leaning back now, leaning on her. Pushing gently at those great strong shoulders, she persuaded him to lie down on the bed, his head in her lap. He sighed contentedly, on the brink of sleep, and let his head relax more deeply into the soft embrace of her thighs, threatening to upset her plans entirely. Never, never before, had he made himself so vulnerable to her. Her fingers shook, her resolve wavered, but something forced her to continue.
Concentrating hard, she sifted her fingers through his hair, looking for the best place. For the first time ever, she exposed his ears, and drew the thick hair back to see them properly. There was nothing unusual about them, except that the backs were covered with a fine layer of soft hair that darkened slightly along the rim. He twitched slightly, acutely sensitive to touch even now that he was in a deep sleep, and she retreated, to the back of his head, beneath the outer layer of curls. This would be the perfect place. Gently, she divided a section of hair into three strands, braided them around the leather thong and finished them off with the tiny blue bead. Looking upon her handiwork, she felt deeply aroused and longed to be able to pursue those feelings freely. But he began to stir and the moment passed, and what was done, was done. She wondered how long it would take for him to discover it. He seemed to rely on his hair to groom itself without the aid of a mirror, and she might enjoy this little secret for a long while yet.
‘I was asleep,’ he said with wonder, blinking up at her with disarming innocence.
‘Yes, you were,’ she replied, smiling down at him, her heart beating just a little faster at the sight of this powerful man lying so quietly across her thighs.
‘Only with you, Catherine, could I find the peace to do that,’ he whispered. ‘You are the only one who accepts me so completely, who does not try to change me in some small way.’
For a moment she felt guilty, and he must have sensed it, for he frowned. ‘What is it Catherine?’
‘Nothing,’ she lied. ‘ I’ll go to the guest chamber and change – is it the usual one, next door?’
Vincent seemed to hesitate in his reply, then murmured an affirmative and lifted himself off the bed with his usual grace. He ran his hands swiftly over his hair and Catherine drew a quick breath, but he simply smiled and thanked her.
Before she left to change, she said: ‘Vincent, I have brought you a gift – I want you to wear it tonight.’ She handed him the parcel containing the velvet jacket, and watched while he unwrapped it. His lips curved in a small smile of pleasure and his hand stroked the velvet lingeringly.
He sent her one of his inscrutable glances and she was able to see just how well the Prussian Blue enhanced the colour of his eyes.
‘Thank you,’ he said simply. ‘I shall wear it with pleasure.’
He laid it almost reverently across the bed, the silver buttons gleaming softly in the candlelight.
Catherine’s preparations didn’t take long – this was a special occasion, but not one for flaunting elaborate make-up and expensive jewellery. Here in the tunnels there was no competition or jealousy as in the world Above. Besides, she was aware that Vincent disliked artifice, and though he might not comment outright, she sensed that he preferred her hair and skin to look, feel and smell natural. With another man, she would have asserted her independence, but with Vincent her desire to please him prevailed. Tonight was his night, after all.
She returned to his chamber, and the look in his eyes was all the approval she needed. His own appearance, however, elicited a gasp of admiration from her.
‘Vincent!’ she exclaimed. ‘You look … ‘ she wanted to say beautiful, but she knew that would embarrass him. ‘You look so handsome,’ she finished, and ran her hands lightly over the jacket that so well suited him. ‘Turn around,’ she commanded.’ The jacket sat perfectly upon his body, reaching just below the tops of his thighs. Shorter than he was perhaps accustomed to, but he was clearly comfortable with that. He spun obediently, and held his arms wide, inviting her comment. He was wearing lighter-coloured, more closely-fitting pants than usual, and black knee-high boots polished to an almost military perfection, and her heart skipped a beat when she looked upon this wonderful, unique man in all his exotic beauty.
‘You don’t think it’s too short?’ he asked anxiously and it was all she could do to keep her reply non-committal and reassuring.
‘Anything but,’ she murmured.
He moved to stand before her, and took her hands in his. The bandage was gone, and she could feel the roughness of his hands, work-worn as she had never seen them before.
‘Catherine, I have been very pre-occupied recently. ‘He looked down at her hands, kneading them with his fingers. ‘I have been giving a great deal of thought to this birthday. I wanted to give you a present too, a token of my love.’
Her thoughts flew to her own love-token, the braid in his hair. Once again, their minds seemed to be pursuing the same course.
‘You see, my dearest Catherine, I know you feel it is time we found the courage to move forward. Or rather –‘ he placed a gentle finger tip on her lips, opened to voice a protest. ‘Or rather it is time I found the courage – you have always been ready for such a step.’ He smiled down at her and she dropped her eyes for a moment, a little ashamed that she had not been able to hide her feelings as well as she thought she had. ‘You are right. But I cannot be impulsive, not about this – it’s not in my nature; I needed to plan and prepare. That is what I have been doing.’ Then with no further explanation, he added: ‘Come with me.’
He led her along familiar passages; until he turned off in a direction she had never traveled before, and stopped before a short flight of steps that were apparently of recent construction. Tall candles lit the way, and their soft light reflected off the surfaces of something that Catherine had never seen before in the tunnels.
‘Vincent! ‘ She gasped in surprise. ‘It’s a door!’
‘Yes’ he affirmed simply in his usual way, but went on to elaborate. ‘To be precise, it is your door.’
He smiled and led the way up the few steps. The wooden door, obviously newly-made, opened smoothly to reveal a bed chamber that held a huge bed lavishly piled with quilts and pillows, and softly lit with a multitude of candles placed in a medieval-looking candle-holder.
‘Is this my chamber?’ she asked, with a tremor in her voice.
‘If you wish, but I had hoped it could be our chamber.’
She whirled to face him, finding no words. He laughed gently at the expression on her face, and wrapped his arms around her.
‘I have realised, dear Catherine, that if we are to have any privacy in this world we need a room of our own, with a door that locks. There are no doors here, this one is unique and as such everyone will respect it. I made it myself – I can’t pretend it was easy, but Cullen helped me and for the most part, it has been a labour of love. This is my love-token to you, Catherine. Now, come here, and let me kiss you.’
And he did, more thoroughly and expertly than she had imagined possible. He quite literally took her breath away, and in one moment of lucidity she found herself thinking that his preparations for this moment had gone a great deal further than she could have expected.
‘Vincent!’ she demanded, a little breathlessly. ‘Why? Why now?’
‘I think Horace can answer that for us. Carpe diem ,Catherine, or maybe ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’!’
Laughing, lovingly entwined and not caring who saw them now, they made it to the party, and it was the best one ever. Everyone realised that something was changing.
Catherine walked proudly beside the man who had fought his doubts and fears to commit himself to her in every way. Her loving and quite openly possessive glances did not go unnoticed – indeed, they seemed to encourage people to be even more festive. Only Rebecca seemed to notice the well-hidden braid however, and one look of warning from Catherine effectively forestalled her comment and brought a sly smile to her lips.
When the party came to an end, Vincent and Catherine strolled back to their new chamber, wrapped in each other’s arms, trying to hide their impatience to be alone and away from the many revelers who still thronged the passages and shouted out greetings.
Catherine’s door at last closed behind them, with a bold click of the latch and the smooth turn of the key.
‘And now, Vincent –‘
‘And now my sweetest love, perhaps you could brush this one small tangle out of my hair. I can’t think how you missed it before. You seemed to do such a thorough job.’
His eyes were dark and sultry, his voice deep and teasing, as he raised one hand to the back of his head.
‘Oh I am sure I didn’t miss anything, Vincent. Trust me.’
‘How could I do otherwise Catherine? There has never been anything but truth and honesty between us, has there? I know you are not capable of deception. ‘
He pulled her into an enveloping hug, and over her head, he smiled broadly, just as capable as she of a little harmless and loving deception.
Hours later, passion swiftly awakened and lingeringly, temporarily, satisfied, bedclothes tumbled, limbs tangled, hair tousled, they drew apart slightly while Vincent searched beneath himself with a puzzled expression. He held up a very small blue bead. ‘Ouch,’ he remarked. ‘Now I wonder where that could have come from?’ He handed it to Catherine with an innocent expression. ‘Perhaps we should do it again.’
Catherine was taken aback. Such a bold demand was not what she would have expected from her once shy, reserved Vincent. She took the bead with a bemused expression and scrutinized his face, but found no sign of deviousness in his clear blue gaze.
‘Do what exactly, Vincent?’
‘Why, braid my hair of course. Whatever did you think I meant? ‘
Catherine emitted one of those unladylike snorts of laughter that she was prone to when really amused. Once again, Vincent had astonished her.
‘I’d be delighted,’ she replied, surprised her secret had survived this long. ‘As a token of my love.’