TOUCH

JoAnn Baca

Standing at the balcony wall, Catherine reveled in the warm breeze so unusual for early December. A rare weather condition had produced a balmy, spring-like climate on a day when temperatures normally wouldn’t have topped 40 degrees. It wasn’t expected to last through the night, though, and she was anxious to spend as much time enjoying the extraordinary weather as possible. So, having eaten a light dinner as soon as she arrived home this evening, she had hurried outside to watch the first stars peek out of the blanket of cloud cover which had settled over the winter sky. She stood still, face upturned, basking in the lulling warmth of the gentle wind, wishing upon the brightest star in the heavens.

Catherine was so absorbed in this pleasant reverie that she did not hear the soft rustling noises of Vincent’s arrival, nor his light tread. Until he touched her shoulder, his warm palm squeezing her lightly, she had no notion he was near. But the inevitability of Vincent’s visit made the touch a natural outgrowth of the dream-like moment. So instead of startling in surprise, she leaned back, expecting to find him immediately behind her. He did not disappoint her. Noting that his hand had not yet been removed from her shoulder, she bent her head to place a soft kiss against his furred knuckles and murmured, "I knew you’d come."

Vincent slanted his body towards hers, molding against her lightly, and rested his chin on the top of her head as she cuddled deeper into his warmth. The night seemed magical to him, filled with impossibilities....and, more bewitching yet, possibilities of the most beguiling sort. The soft sigh he uttered tickled Catherine as it fluttered the hair above her brow. She could feel his jaw work as he responded, "I hated to disturb you. You had a look of intense peace on your face just now."

Turning part-way to wrap her left arm about his waist, Catherine looked up into his face for the first time that night and responded, "Because I was waiting for you."

Her turn caused Vincent to finally remove his left hand from her shoulder. He set it upon the balcony railing rather than embracing her as she had hoped he would. But the momentary pang of regret Catherine felt was soon quelled as she realized that, instead, he was lifting his other arm and placing his right hand gently against her back. Almost immediately, his fingers began to caress her, stroking back and forth, his large handspan sending his fingers straying from her shoulder blade to the small of her back.

Tonight, atop a pair of black gabardine slacks, she was wearing a short-sleeved, cropped cashmere sweater in a soft pink shade. It was all she had needed on this temperate evening to keep her warm...until Vincent got there. She often sought out clothing with a lush "hand," knowing how fabrics such as velvet, velour, silk or cashmere pleased Vincent’s tactile sense. He denied himself so many things, but this was a way to delight him with a kind of innocent sensuality, one which he accepted and enjoyed. When she’d seen this sweater in the shop window, she had guessed that he would find it appealing -- it was intricately cabled, providing lots of texture in addition to its tempting softness -- and she was happy to note that her guess had been correct. For tonight he had allowed himself to touch her in what was - for him - quite an intimate way...and she was sure that the texture of her sweater had something to do with it..

Vincent’s thoughts at the moment closely mirrored Catherine’s. He was intrigued by the sweater she wore -- it looked so incredibly luxurious, and he couldn’t help but reach out to test his impression. He had fully intended only to confirm his opinion, but the sensation was so pleasurable that he found a moment’s touch was not enough. And now that his fingers were upon it, and not just his palm, he could not muster the discipline to pull away. Instead, his hand began to stroke the sweater almost absently as he gazed adoringly down into Catherine’s eyes. Something about the sweater reminded him of the delicate softness of Catherine’s skin on those few occasions when he had encountered flesh instead of cloth as he touched her. He felt himself blush as the memory of his reaction to such unexpected delights flowed through him -- treasured memories, indeed, of forbidden fruit tasted almost secretly, no less achingly sweet for the briefness of the contact.

As they stood captured in each other’s gazes, the mild breeze stirred the mantle of hair around Vincent’s face, flinging it softly against Catherine’s cheek, where it swirled with feather-light softness before billowing airily away. She felt she was under some beneficent spell, so captivated by the enchantment of the moment that she could almost swear he had willed the strands of spun gold to caress her face.

Enraptured as he was by the love he found in his beloved’s eyes, he wasn’t even consciously aware that his heavy golden mane was tickling Catherine’s face; if he had been, he might have flung it back in embarrassment, depriving her of the ethereal pleasure of its delicate caress. Instead, he was aware only of her deep green eyes, and the light breeze fingering her hair into delightful wisps which brushed his neck, his chin so intimately, softer than anything he’d ever experienced before.

For Vincent, the night held a mysterious aura. Coming to Catherine had been a foregone conclusion -- their Bond had literally coiled itself around his heart and tugged him here. And now, to be in her arms, drowning in the sea-green depths of her eyes...and feeling the muscles of her back quiver delicately as his hand skimmed across them, so responsive to his slightest touch.... She might believe that he was fascinated by the textures of the sweater she was wearing, and he was. But even more than that, Vincent was captivated by the pliant warmth of Catherine’s lithe body, far more enticing than the sweater or even the balmy night.

She was pressed tenderly, unselfconsciously against him, exuding a subtle mixture of innocence and seduction through her eyes, through their Bond. He knew he shouldn’t allow himself to give in to the enchantment of this touching, but it felt so good. Surely it couldn’t hurt to indulge...just a little...in such a harmless action. He meant it to be soothing, calming to her, and to him as well. He truly did. Besides, this night that they now shared in silence - so rare, so special - was like a moment out of time. When the bitter winter winds again blew, would this one intriguingly warm night seem only a passing dream?

Unable to fully trust this reflective mood which seemed to envelop them both, Vincent cast vainly to find his way back to reality. Dragging himself painfully into the mundane, he tried to find his voice, but only managed to whisper softly, "How was your day?"

Catherine was bemused by the sound of Vincent’s voice after the lulling silence which had descended between them...although she thought he could make even the most ordinary of questions sound like the loveliest poetry. Drinking in the look of devotion in his glittering blue eyes, so incongruous after the oddly perfunctory question he had asked, she almost forgot to reply, and when she did, her words were disjointed, as her mind really wasn’t on her response.

"Oh. My...day? Fine...it was fine." Although still mildly flustered -- the intensity in his eyes always had that effect on her -- she didn’t forget her manners. "And yours?"

A rare small smile graced his unique mouth. "Better...now."

Although she smiled in response, Catherine wasn’t inclined to continue the conversation. This night was too special to mar it with insubstantial talk. With one last wistful look at his beloved face, she broke eye contact and snaked her right arm around him to meet her left at his waist. Placing her cheek upon his broad chest, she snuggled as closely as she dared against him, delighted just to breathe the same air as he for the moment. With a deep sigh of contentment, she relaxed fully. Everything was right in her world, all dragons were slain, no worries creased her brow -- Vincent was in her arms and she was... "happy" was too small a word to contain her feelings. Elated? Exhilarated? Enraptured? She gave up trying to define it. Whatever it was, it felt wonderful.

Vincent’s right hand continued to graze her back. He seemed almost mesmerized by the feel of the sweater. His movements became measured, repetitive -- his hand rose almost to the neckline, then stroked downward until his palm nearly made contact with the ribbed hem, then he repeated the stroke. Again and again, his hand made the journey from neckline to hem and back. Catherine could feel it as a complement to his heartbeat, strong and slow, a lulling cadence. All at once, an impish thought struck her and, gathering her courage, she timed her move j-u-s-t right...and lifted her arms to entwine at his neck just at the completion of the downward glide of his hand. Her action had the effect of causing her cropped sweater to ride up a few inches...and to reveal the bare skin beneath.

Several of Vincent’s fingers made contact with that now uncovered flesh. Catherine held her breath, waiting for his reaction. But rather than ceasing his caress as she had half-feared he might, Vincent continued the petting action. And, instead of shortening the stroke to stop at the edge of the sweater’s hem, his hand continued on its original path, now encompassing a thrilling if brief caress of her exposed lower back.

For Vincent, the shock of smooth, warm, bare flesh, so different from the texture of the sweater, resonated deeply. His control shook, but resolutely he ignored the warning his mind frantically sought to communicate to his hand. No...not now, not yet. She stood so still against him, so trusting...and she felt so good. He wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t. There was nothing wrong in this touch, no shame, no guilt. There was only flesh against flesh, intoxicating, yes...but innocent.

Catherine struggled to control the fluttering in her stomach at this intimate touch -- by far the most sensual caress Vincent had ever allowed between them. Eyes closed, she pressed ever slightly closer to him as his hand claimed this small victory. His work-roughened fingers kindled a tingling sensation along her exposed flesh, raising goose bumps, and her entire back became more sensitized to the motion of his hand. Suddenly, the soothing nature of his touch had been transformed into an erotic caress, a lover’s incitement. Catherine’s heart beat faster, her breath becoming slightly labored, and she fought to control the responses roiling within her. If he realized what effect he was having on her....

Then, suddenly, she didn’t care. She wanted him to know how he affected her. He had a right to know that he could excite her, arouse her just by his presence, by the simple touch of his hand. She raised her head until she could place her lips against his neck, just above the collar of the shirt he wore, then tentatively, gently, she began to kiss him there. Almost from the first, she expected that he would pull away, but she literally couldn’t help herself. At that moment, she needed some outlet for her passion. Of all the ways she could think of to express it, kissing him like this seemed the way he might find least objectionable.

Again surprising her, Vincent reacted to her mouth upon his flesh by throwing his head back, giving her complete access to the glorious column of his throat. Encouraged and emboldened, Catherine slowly deposited moist, hot kisses along its expanse, standing on tip-toe to taste each delightful inch. She lifted her hands to burrow them into the enticing mass of his wind-tousled hair...and her sweater rose obligingly higher to accommodate her movements. More of her back became exposed - and more of Vincent’s hand made contact with bare flesh as he continued to caress her back.

After reaching his chin, Catherine gradually sank back to her heels as her lips descended along the length of his throat, nuzzling and nipping, trailing more kisses against the pulsing vein she found there. As she did so, her sweater crept down a bit, just as Vincent’s hand began an upward surge. His fingers slid under the descending edge of the sweater, and suddenly his whole hand was beneath the garment, entirely resting upon her now fevered flesh.

Catherine had loved the feel of the sweater so much when she put it on that, on impulse, she had dispensed with a bra. The supple fabric felt lushly sinful against the sensitive flesh of her nipples, yet the cabling hid any overt sign of the physical reaction which such contact might produce, so she had felt comfortable in going without a bra. She now had reason to be thankful for her whim, as it left Vincent an unencumbered expanse of flesh upon which to run his hand. If he stayed where he was, that is.

He did.

Without breaking his rhythm, Vincent continued to glide his hand up and down upon Catherine’s bare back, letting his wrist push the sweater up as if he had no concern at all about the fact that her clothing was becoming disarrayed. For with each upward stroke, the sweater now rode higher not just in back, but in front also. The ribbing at the sweater’s edge was now just below the underside of her breasts. In some remote corner of his mind, Vincent was aware of these things, but they didn’t matter. All that did matter was the smooth, tender flesh which lay so invitingly beneath his calloused hand, the implicit trust of the woman pressed against him, the love which pulsed through their Bond enfolding him, urging him on. And her mouth...her lips...beguiling him, intoxicating him.

What had he done to make her react in this way? He had only...touched her. Only touched. Could his hands, his touch have such a powerful effect upon her? Oh, God.... He had hardly known a thrill so deep as the knowledge Catherine’s lips imparted, branding his skin with their heat, baptizing it with the dew of her mouth. The only thrill deeper was the knowledge that it was his hand which had summoned those lips to him, his touch which had kindled the spark of Catherine’s ardor. He felt almost faint, the hand which clutched the railing all that seemed to be holding him up. How had he lived without this all his life? How could he ever live without it again?

Framing his upturned face with her hands, Catherine urged it to lower to hers while lovingly stroking her thumbs across his cheeks. His eyes, which had been tightly closed as he absorbed the sensation of her lips against his throat, drifted opened, and he gazed at her hazily. She reached out hesitantly with one thumb to brush it lightly across his full lower lip. It trembled in response, and his golden lashes fluttered as his eyes closed again to revel in the ecstasy of her touch. Catherine continued to stroke his face reverently with her fingers, now running one gently from the tip of his nose to his eyebrows, now trailing another down his jawline.

As she caressed him, Vincent finally removed his left hand from the railing, where he had been clinging for support as the sensual onslaught of passion had coursed through him. Raising it to join its mate, he splayed both hands firmly across Catherine’s bare back, pulling her tightly into himself. His whole body was thrumming in an agony of desire. He hadn’t meant to start whatever had obviously begun -- but he resolved to permit himself to go where his yearning led...at least for a little longer. If this was a night out of time....

Now, as Catherine held his face with her delicate, expressive hands, he bravely opened his eyes to find hers half-lidded, smoldering, fervidly engaging his. The hunger revealed took his breath away. Her emotional state mirrored his own, her need plain, her desire clear. She had never before allowed herself the luxury of this revelation, he knew that. Neither had he. How odd, then, to find it at once so strange and so familiar, as if what was happening had occurred before, as if throughout lifetimes they had gazed at each other in just this way. And what he wanted...what she wanted...what they wanted now....

Vincent had tried once before to speak, to break this spell; now, he wanted nothing more than to find the words to prolong it, extend it...deepen it. But all he could manage was a hoarse, strangled sound...just one word from the depths of his soul: "Please?"

Catherine’s head moved up and down once in the briefest of nods, and the corners of her lips twitched upwards slightly in the ghost of a smile. Her lips parted expectantly, quivering in anticipation, awaiting him, awaiting his next move...toward love.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, dimly, a protest was lodged and overruled. Whatever happened, he felt safe in Catherine’s hands. She would not let him fall.

Slowly bending his head to hers, his muzzle-like upper lip touched Catherine’s mouth first. His lower lip, quivering in anticipation, followed the merest moment later. He pressed his mouth to hers and trembled at her response - so exquisite, an angel’s benediction. When it was over, he sighed gustily against her mouth, undone by the sweetness just experienced. Well...he’d had the one kiss he’d sought. Perhaps - although to do it required a courage he wasn’t sure he possessed...perhaps he should pull away.

Catherine was delighted to feel the pliant, supple flesh of Vincent’s upper lip, covered by a surprisingly velvety nap. And as she had always imagined it would be, his lower lip was astonishingly dextrous, sensitive to the slightest pressure of her own lips, her tongue. As he lowered his mouth to hers to claim one amazingly tender, incredibly warm, deliriously delicious kiss, her mind skipped dizzyingly. She become wholly touch, wholly flesh -- no thought intruded in the sublime ecstasy of the moment. When he would have pulled back from this first exquisite contact, she drew him back by tenderly tracing his lips with the tip of her tongue, drawing a shuddering response from him. After that, he had no thought to pull away.

Her tongue found the unique cleft in Vincent’s upper lip, and as she teased and stroked it, he groaned in shear pleasure, a groan which quickly transformed itself into a rumbling half-growl, half-purr. This last action of Catherine’s, so lusty, so provocative, broke Vincent’s passivity. Continuing the kiss was now his idea, and he ardently proved himself a capable and quick learner.

As his tongue sought hers, entwining and caressing it, she was stunned by the force of his passion. The release of his desire was like a tidal wave. As he tasted her mouth, the tender flesh inside her lips, he claimed her utterly, searing to ash the memory of every other man’s kiss. Then he left her mouth to discover the taste of her chin, her eyes, her hair, cascading kisses upon her until she was breathless. She opened her eyes and stared in wonder as the moonlight cast its soft glow upon him, making his hair shimmer like spun gold, his eyes sparkle like brilliant blue sapphires. Was there ever anyone as wondrous as this man? Ever a moment as glorious as this one? Ever a night as magical? Ever a woman as lucky?

Suddenly, awareness seemed to shudder through him, and Vincent wrenched himself away from his beloved. The stark realization of what he had been doing had finally broken through the haze of his passion and now it thundered within his mind, and he became paralyzed as he imagined what Catherine must think of him. He didn’t even trust his impressions through their Bond, convinced that those incredible emotions churning through it were being interpreted as his heart wished them to be, not as they were.

Catherine was stunned, the impact of his withdrawal upon her senses as harsh as if he had thrown cold water in her face. He’d been so accepting of everything tonight - the touching, the kisses. All they had shared had been perfect, beautiful...so right and so, so good. What had happened?

Vincent grasped the balcony’s edge as he willed the turmoil in his breast to cease. "I...I apologize, Catherine. I’ll...go now." The last thing he wanted in the wide world was to leave her side, especially after the intimacy they had just shared. But he’d allowed himself to lose control, and for that he deserved no pardon. Yet before he could gather himself to take one step more away from her, Catherine reached out and laid a restraining hand on his. When she met no resistance, her hand slipped around his arm, and she pulled him around to face her once more.

Vincent stood with head downcast, fearful to look into Catherine’s eyes. What recrimination might he find there for his presumption tonight? He had taken much more than she had expected, he was sure. She had offered a kiss...and he had taken liberties of which he was astounded and ashamed.

Catherine struggled to understand the mixed messages coming through their Bond. Desire, confusion, shame, love, delight, embarrassment --- he was a study in contradictions. How could she make this easier for him, suppress the negative emotions and encourage the positive ones? It had to be something unexpected...something to shock the impulse to apologize and leave right out of him. Suddenly, an idea came to her.

"Vincent? You...like my sweater, don’t you?" she murmured softly as she tilted her head and bent low, trying to pierce the heavy curtain of hair which hung over his face, determined to make eye contact with him.

Puzzled by her question -- he’d been sure she’d been about to express her disappointment with him -- all he could do was nod.

"Then...would you like to have it?"

What?! His mortification momentarily forgotten, Vincent lifted his head to stare at her incredulously. He almost doubted what he’d heard, thinking that perhaps she was speaking in some strange new language that only sounded like English.

Once she had his full attention, Catherine made her move. In full view of his startled countenance, she calmly drew the sweater up and over her head, then held it out to him, intending him to take it.

Obedient hands automatically responded to the offer. He reached out to relieve her of the pale pink garment, clutching it in nerveless fingers. Standing before him was the woman he loved -- the woman he desired with a breathless, aching intensity -- with not a stitch on above the waist. The crystal he had given her dangled provocatively on its chain as it nestled between her breasts. Her breasts -- bare and glowing pale as ivory in the moonlight, perfect and tantalizing and mesmerizing and.... Gasping, his eyes focused on the taut nipples, compelling evidence of her desire -- desire for him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow. All he could do was stare.

The sweater fell to the cold brick unregarded.

* * *

It grew late. The moon set. The clouds closed in. The warm breeze died away...but there was no one on the balcony to notice.

* * *

In the gloom of pre-dawn, a crisp winter chill once again descended over the city. Soft footfalls once again echoed against the balcony floor, and a furred, clawed hand reached down to scoop up a scrap of discarded cashmere and stroke it tenderly before tucking it away within a patched suede vest for the journey Below.