Catherine had fallen asleep waiting for him. As he completed his silent, graceful descent onto her balcony, he saw her - motionless, a still life illuminated only by the moonlight.
She had been reading; the book lay carelessly open upon her lap, slender fingers holding it loosely. Her head was bowed as if in deep concentration, her chin resting lightly upon her chest. She was wearing a light silky robe which clung to her charmingly from shoulder to thigh before flowing like gossamer to her ankles.
Over the past year, she’d let her hair grow long, as if she understood how much it beguiled him to feel the length of it graze smoothly, soothingly against his arm as he held her. The soft summer breeze had playfully lifted and parted her hair as she slumbered, and the long lustrous tendrils now obscured her face but left her neck exposed. As if by eccentric whim, the moonlight seemed to pool on the cool, pale flesh of her nape, making it gleam like polished porcelain. A lone curl, loosely coiled, burnished by the moonlight, lay gently upon her skin there.
Except for her gently wafting hair, she could have been a marble statue - unapproachable, unresponsive...untouchable.
Vincent gazed at her hungrily. A long, desperate sigh escaped his lips as his eyes caressed her. Everything about her called to him, and he longed to reach out to her. He ached in body and soul for her...for his Catherine. Even his fingertips craved her - craved a moment out of time to run through the lush glory of her flowing hair, to imprint the memory of it within his heart, to be recalled a lifetime hence.
Why must this be? Why must the secret still elude him - the secret of separating his deep love for her from the welling desire which coursed through him at the merest sight or thought of her? But he could never find a way to set those dangerous, carnal passions aside. They clawed at him, screaming to break free, to be allowed light and freedom, to be given rein, to be given...Catherine. He fought them constantly, these demons born of his dark desires for the woman of his dreams.
Fantasies rose unbidden into his mind, fantasies of desire fulfilled, of needs, cravings, of hungers sated within Catherine’s arms. They tormented him daily and - so much worse - every night. The need was not only for sexual fulfillment - although that urgency was ever-present - but for the gentle, all-encompassing embrace which he wished so desperately to sink within, to surrender to. He yearned despairingly for her special tenderness, for the compassionate comfort only she might ever provide. And he wanted more - to give it all back again, all he himself desired and craved...to be her haven, to fulfill her body’s needs, to love her completely, as completely as he wished to be loved. Yet he’d never, ever spoken of this to her...and he never would.
So many times, he’d been on the verge, the very brink - needing only the slightest breath, the merest nudge to impel him beyond retreat. But something always held him back. Whatever it was - the long years of denial, echoed words of fatherly admonishment, self-reproach - something within him would surge up, and the hand that reached, the words that leapt to the tongue were stayed. So, like a prisoner, he stood forever looking beyond the bars of his confinement into the sun of a new day - the gleaming, resplendent light of perfect love in the form of the warm, beautiful, compassionate woman he could not let himself claim.
He was very late; he’d promised to meet her at 8:00, but it was after 10:00 now. A sad smile played across his unique lips as he thought of her waiting for him so patiently, so hopefully until, overcome by the fatigues of the day, she’d closed her eyes to rest them and had drifted mildly into repose. She was tired; she needed her sleep. Perhaps he shouldn’t rouse her. But he might be able to lift her and carry her to her bed without awakening her, if he did it quietly and gently. Yes...that he could do. He’d become a reluctant expert at holding her only gently, at not allowing the tender passion of his heart to be expressed in any way. Gently, lightly, softly - these he could do, had trained himself to do, had disciplined himself to do...had forced himself to do. Only these.
He closed his eyes for a moment, as if to press the image of her into his memory, then he heaved a great sigh of regret and stepped toward the vision before him. With steps made light and soundless from long practice, he came to her, leaning forward to take her into his arms. But just before he made that contact, his eyes were drawn again to the marble smoothness of her exposed neck, with the lustrous tendril of hair snuggled so endearingly at its nape. The luminous flesh, softly enhanced by the moon’s rays, seemed to glow with an ethereal light. And the one soft curl seemed to caress the flesh there, highlighting its fragility, tantalizing his senses. He stood as he was, mesmerized. After a long moment, he shook himself, then gingerly edged the book out from under her loose grasp and placed it on the table behind her.
He was so close to her that the breeze tickled his chin and mouth with errant strands of her shimmering golden-brown hair. The whisper-kiss of her tresses fluttered delicately, tormenting the tender flesh of his lower lip, and he opened his mouth in an unconscious gesture of welcome. Several soft tendrils played along the sensitive inner flesh of his lips, and he nearly groaned from the incredible intimacy of it. What a thrill he always felt when he held her, nuzzling the crown of her head, inhaling deeply of her soft scent, enjoying the softness of her hair against his mouth for the briefest of moments. Now, to indulge in this secret fantasy felt almost sinful - to let the breeze play Pandar while he relished the contact, to allow the touch of her silken locks to continue, imagining them as feather-light kisses upon his hungry mouth....
He’d long dreamed of a night such as this, warm and benevolent...when anything might be possible. In his fantasies, he and Catherine would be together, holding each other, naked and unashamed. She would give him a secret smile full of promise and desire and his heart would stutter in his chest. Then she would roll atop him, her sweet, delicious curves pressed warmly against the hard planes of his body, and he would not pull away, he would not feel guilty about the hard, insistent arousal her nearness always awakened. And before the long night of love which he pictured stretching before them, before any other touches or caresses...she would allow her beautiful hair to cascade down upon him and she would tenderly ravish him with it - playing it down the length of his body, trailing it against his highly sensitized flesh, pleasuring him with the soft, seductive stroking of its glorious abundance. How he loved her hair...how he craved the feel of it in his hands, against his mouth...his body....
Without thought, he bent his head and lifted his hands in one motion, capturing handfuls of its lustrous beauty and pressing it to his lips in a reverent caress. She smelled of sunlight...of clean, fresh air...of possibility. He inhaled her essence thirstily, nuzzling his face deep into his hands where the glowing tresses lay compliantly, indulgently upon them. After a long moment he lifted his face and parted his fingers, letting the hair whisper against his palms and fall like silken threads into the air, where the breeze caught and toyed with them once more before letting them fall.
Vincent bowed his head as if in prayer, silently apologizing to Catherine for luxuriating in her nearness without her knowledge. He should be ashamed, he knew, for allowing himself this furtive gratification. But this secret thrill was more than he could deny himself - and he reasoned that he hadn’t harmed her, or taken any indecent liberties. Still, he shouldn’t have allowed his self-control even that tiniest of cracks. Who knew what would happen if he let himself grow careless, let himself reach out even in this most innocent of ways?
Resolutely, he put away his secret fantasies, the hidden, futile images which he clung to in all his long lonely nights. He shook himself. Dreams and imaginings only made his waking reality more unbearable, more desperate - for he could never act upon those dreams, and letting his mind revel in them only made it that much harder to put them aside in what passed for the light of day in his world. His world of darkness and shadows.
Ever so tenderly, he lifted Catherine from the chair and rested her slumbering form against his chest. She was as light as air, no more a burden than her hair in his hands had been.
As he carried her through the open French doors to lay her upon her bed, Catherine stirred slightly in his arms. He froze, but it was too late. She opened her eyes and blinked hazily at him, then broke into a sleepy smile, immeasurably glad to find herself in his arms.
He couldn’t help but smile softly back, but he shook his head when he saw she was about to speak, urging in a hoarse whisper, "Close your eyes. You might go back to sleep."
She half-closed them, and allowed him to lay her down. But before he could rise again, she lifted her hands to his shoulders and clung to him, imploring him silently to kneel by her bed. He had no will to refuse her, and so knelt, but needing to dislodge her hands, he quickly turned to grasp the comforter and pull it around her. Her touch burned right through him, made him hunger all the more for those beautiful slender fingers to touch him in other ways, in other places. He couldn’t bear her touch for too long, not now...not in such an intimate circumstance. The situation was too close to those long-harbored fantasies...and he relentlessly, savagely pushed them from his mind
Vincent was not as subtle as he’d hoped to be; his trembling hands betrayed his emotional turmoil, and Catherine’s loving gaze missed nothing. So she waited, hands at her chest, while he assured himself she was warmly tucked in, while he assembled the tattered remnants of his control firmly around himself once more. Finally, when she sensed his composure had returned, she raised one hand to his cheek.
"I was having the loveliest dream."
"I’m sorry I woke you then," he replied, and his eyes lowered in apology.
"Don’t be." She shook her head. "It was about you."
He couldn’t help himself - he looked up at her again, one eyebrow raised in anxious inquiry.
Seeing that, she smiled once more.
It was the secret smile of his dreams - the one that promised so much, that hinted at so much more. His heart hammered in his chest, but he ruthlessly dismissed his mind’s merging of his deepest fantasies with his present reality. He had to get a firmer hold on his control. Confusing his private dreams of Catherine with her here, now, was too dangerous. What if he slipped, acted as he might in his dreams instead of as he always had before?
He suddenly realized she’d spoken in reply to his unasked question.
"Actually...the dream was about you...and me."
"Yes?" Why was he asking? He didn’t have a right to know her dreams. But he wanted to know - desperately...and he held his breath in anticipation.
"I was dreaming...about your hair."
Surprise lit his eyes.
"Mmm," she murmured, and her eyelids grew lazy, becoming half-lidded. When she spoke again, it was as if to herself, as if voicing a cherished memory. Her eyes looked away toward some unseen distance. "It’s so long and wild, so thick and beautiful...and I’ve always wondered what it would be like...." She seemed to come to herself again, all at once, and her voice trailed off. Startled, he noticed a hot blush spreading across her face.
He expelled a long-held breath.
He lifted a trembling hand.
He tentatively caressed one long lustrous strand of her hair where it lay so supple and inviting upon her cool white pillowcase.
"So have I," he admitted shyly.
He felt her warm, fine fingers at his temples then, and he closed his eyes from the pleasure of it. He let his head fall back, unable to resist the lure of her touch upon him, so long desired, so precious. His brain would not be still - images from his delirious dreams were superimposed upon this new reality of Catherine’s touch, the mix confounding him utterly. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think. He tried to concentrate, to focus, to force himself back into total control, but he was helpless under her hands. He felt them smoothing back his tumbled locks, felt the tips of her fingers burrow delicately into the tangled mane he so despised, felt her loving attention as she whispered them through the length of his hair...once...twice...three times. He felt her shift beside him, then her cheek, hot upon his fevered skin, was against his own, and she brushed the hair from one ear, exposing it to her hot breath as she whispered, "I’ve dreamed of you... and me. I’ve longed for this...to touch you like this. I wish...I’d love to feel you touch me in the same way."
Slowly he raised his head, opened his stunned eyes. The look on her face as she gazed up at him was so incredible he couldn’t speak. It was the unguarded, lost look of a woman in the grip of strong passion - her head was thrown back, her long hair flowing in a cascade down her back almost to her hips. In disbelief, he watched his own hands come up and mirror her caress - tracing his own large, calloused fingers through her hair from her temples to the curve of her neck, savoring the silken sweetness of it, then raising his hands to let the length of her hair fall deliciously through his fingers. Amazed, he watched her eyes close in the same bliss he had so recently felt. Their Bond thrummed with it, echoing his own feelings, amplifying hers until his soul was filled to overflowing with the beauty of their shared delight. For long moments they shared the rapture as their Bond cradled them, and the gentle giving and receiving of harmless pleasure became a subtle suggestion that other shared pleasures - those even more intriguing, far less innocent - might also be possible, not merely phantasms of desperate yearning.
Her eyes were open now, and she gazed at him with an ardent, compelling look that was at once serene and disturbing. He’d seen this look in her eyes before - in those hidden fantasies, on all those long, lonely nights, when he’d wished, just once, she would pity him enough to look on him in just this way. Just as in his dreams, her eyes held no fear - they offered something, anticipated something, expected something. But this reality was so much better than his fantasies, for the look she gave him held no pity - only love...deep, abiding, profound. And that thought took his breath away almost more than the expectation in those glowing green depths.
All this while, as his thoughts ran riot within him, she made no move, just stared patiently into his eyes. She watched as one emotion swiftly replaced another within his azure gaze: confusion, disbelief, astonishment, gratitude, elation, then - with a decision she saw him make - the reflection of a depthless ardor which made her heart pound fiercely in her chest. When he could finally answer the question in her eyes, he responded not with words, but with his whole being.
Strong, hard fingers came up to encompass her cheeks, the warm, rough skin of his palms the most welcome of touches to her. Sparks of pure euphoria spiked through their Bond as Vincent felt her response and knew himself more than just tolerated, more than merely accepted - but wanted, needed, desired.
Fantasy, reality, the sudden and shocking consolidation of the two - his mind spun and he finally lost...or was it won?...the long battle within himself.
He bent to her and took her mouth with his.