A Valentine Story
Linda S. Barth
The spacious kitchen chamber, usually a place of great efficiency and orderliness, suddenly erupted into chaos.
"But William can't be sick! He promised he'd help us!" Samantha's always cheerful voice became sharp with disappointment and near panic. "We can't do it without him!"
"We need him," Geoffrey joined in, hopping up and down as he spoke. "We don't know how to do this by ourselves!"
"Everything depends on him! Everything!" Ellie's distress triggered an echoing response in her younger brother.
"Yeah, everything's gonna be ruined now!" Eric's eyes clouded with tears behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.
Samantha's voice rose to a wail. "What are we going to do?!"
"Now, now, children, try to calm down! Surely there's some way we can solve this problem." Mary's voice strained to rise above the noise. "But, please just give me a moment to think!" Even her serene demeanor seemed close to the breaking point, and the children's high-pitched clamor wasn't helping at all.
Samantha pivoted toward the older woman, her dark eyes bright with sudden hope. "You can do it, can't you, Mary?"
The others joined in immediately, crowding around the woman who had become a mother to them all. "Yes, Mary, please! You can help us!"
Her gentle face tensed in a frown. "Oh, children, I wish I could, but it's impossible. With Brooke and Lena down with the flu now, too, there's no one else to take care of the babies. As it is, I've had to leave Jamie alone with all of them and it's far too much for one person to handle. No, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid my helping you is out of the question."
"What about Cullen or Father?"
"Can we ask Rebecca?"
One after another the children called out names of adults in the tunnel community, and Mary patiently explained why their various duties would keep them from assisting with this latest crisis, especially since those who were not yet suffering from a respiratory flu had already doubled up on their work assignments to compensate for those who were ill.
Mary shook her head sadly, hating to further disappoint her young charges, but she knew there was no other choice. "I'm sorry, children, but I'm afraid you'll have to give up on your plans for this year. You can't do it on your own, and there's simply no one else available to help."
"Will I do?" A rich, husky voice rumbled from the chamber entrance, and, as if on cue, everyone swung around toward the sound.
Vincent walked into the midst of the unhappy group, smoothing Samantha's tangled hair with a gentle hand, offering Eric a clean handkerchief, immediately bringing calmness and control to the chaotic situation simply by his reassuring presence. He stopped in front of Mary and reached down to clasp her hand warmly in his.
"I heard your voice as I was passing by on the way to my chamber," he said softly. "Is there something I can do to help?"
Mary sighed in gratitude, gently squeezing his hand as she spoke. "Oh, Vincent, I wish you could, but I don't think you want to get involved in this. In fact, I'm sure -- "
Before she could continue, the overly excited children interrupted. "He can help! He can do it!"
"Please, Vincent, say you will! Oh, please!" Samantha's big, dark eyes glowed as she looked up at her hero, her belief in his ability to perform minor miracles transparently clear in her hopeful expression.
Vincent smiled down at her. "Of course I'll help you, Samantha, but first you must tell me what disaster has occurred. Then we'll see what we can do about it."
Eric tugged at Vincent's sleeve, eager to obtain a share of his attention. Vincent turned toward the younger child and crouched down to his eye level. "Eric, would you like to explain?"
The child nodded excitedly, all traces of his tears now gone. "It's the cookies, Vincent!"
Vincent's expression grew puzzled. "Cookies? I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Over here," Ellie called, eagerly pointing to a large book lying open on a nearby counter. "We need to bake lots of cookies for the Valentine's Day party. William showed us this recipe, but now he's sick and we can't do it on our own."
Vincent rose to his feet and walked slowly in Ellie's direction, a sinking feeling churning in his stomach. "And there's no one else to help you?"
"We don't need anyone else, 'cause we've got you! You can do anything, Vincent!" The trusting looks on each face easily proved there was unanimous agreement with Geoffrey's happy proclamation.
Vincent looked down at the book, quickly scanning the directions for pink-frosted, heart-shaped sugar cookies, knowing that even if the recipe were simplicity itself for the most inept cook, it would be quite another thing for him. He could teach a class on nearly any subject, lift heavy burdens that would crush another man, tame Father's temper when no one else could, and offer words of compassion to touch a troubled heart which others deemed unreachable. But when it came to cooking, Vincent was -- and always had been -- completely hopeless.
"Surely there must be someone more qualified who can help you," he began, looking past the children to catch Mary's eye. The quick shake of her head and look of concern told him in an instant what the answer would be, and it contributed to his growing sense of dread.
"With so many of the adults ill, there's truly no one else, and the children's party is tomorrow," Mary told him with a sympathetic shrug as she began to make her retreat. "I'm sorry, but I did try to warn you. And now I must get back to the nursery." She paused at the threshold and looked back at Vincent. The sight of him surrounded by eager children all deadset on their baking project, brought an amused smile to her lips that she couldn't hide, even though they both knew he had her heartfelt concern. "Good luck, Vincent!" she called out before disappearing from view.
"I'll need it," he muttered under his breath before turning back to the enthusiastic brood surging around him, already wielding bowls and pans, bags of sugar and flour, cookie sheets and candy sprinkles. "And I'll need a lot of it!"
Four hours later Vincent lay collapsed on his bed, grateful for the soothing peace and quiet of his softly lit chamber after the excited squealing voices and bright, glaring lights of the kitchen chamber. He felt as if he had been on a long, strenuous test of strength and courage, and, he admitted with a wry, self-effacing smile, that's just what it had been. The children had looked to Vincent for leadership and guidance, but his lack of expertise had left him no more capable than the children in his charge, and it wasn't long before he deeply regretted his impetuous, albeit generous, offer of help.
He winced as he pictured the condition of the kitchen as they had left it. A twenty-pound sack of flour had fallen to the floor, splitting its seams and spilling its contents in a powdery cloud that now coated nearly everything in the room. Geoffrey had dropped an entire bowl of bright pink candy sprinkles all over the floor, and before Vincent had been able to warn him away, Eric had stepped into the mess, slipping and sliding helplessly while upending a pitcher of water he'd clutched in his hands. There was now a huge pink puddle turning into a glue-like blob that might never be pried from the stone floor.
Emotions already on edge, Samantha and Ellie had argued over who would cut out the first batch of cookies, the result being tears, hurt feelings, and a crumpled tin cookie cutter, its former heart-shape bent to something indistinguishable under Ellie's stamping foot. As if by instinct, several of the other children had learned of the adventure and had scampered in to join them, adding to the confusion as each wanted a turn breaking eggs, sifting flour, and measuring sugar, not to mention licking spoons, tossing globs of frosting at one another, and pilfering samples of the few cookies they'd managed to complete.
At last, Vincent had herded all the children toward the bathing chambers, first extracting promises from them to shampoo eggshells and icing from their hair and to scrub globs of dough from beneath their fingernails. When he'd turned back to survey the disaster they had left behind, he could hardly believe his eyes. The kitchen chamber looked like a bakery turned battle zone, and only the sight of eight dozen completed cookies resting on a nearby shelf helped him suppress a weary roar of frustration. Right before his eyes, a group of usually well-behaved, polite, cooperative children had turned into virtual "Cookie Monsters," each and every one determined to enjoy an interlude of wildly enthusiastic mayhem. It was something Vincent had never experienced before -- and which he vowed he'd never experience again. At least, he reminded himself weakly, no one had burned their fingers on the oven or made themselves sick eating raw dough and fistfuls of icing. It was small comfort, but he could not think of anything better.
Groaning, he rolled over onto his stomach, feeling gritty dried sugar rasp against his skin as he buried his face in a well-worn pillow. Every muscle in his body ached and he felt the pounding in his head increase as he remembered he would soon have to rise and return to the disaster area for clean-up duty. On any other occasion, he would have instructed the children to do their part in it as well, but this time, he admitted to himself honestly, he had wanted nothing more than to be rid of them before anything worse happened.
Fighting a deep desire to drift into sleep, Vincent promised himself he would get up in just another minute or two. Then, when he heard a soft, breathy voice, he felt sure he had fallen asleep and was now enjoying a lovely dream in place of his recent culinary nightmare.
"Vincent? Vincent, are you awake?"
He snuggled deeper into his bed, curving his strong muscled arms around a pillow and cuddling it to his chest. "Mmmm," he murmured contentedly. "Catherine...."
Immediately understanding his actions, Catherine's mouth curved into a smile as a tingling warmth rippled through her. In recent months their relationship had advanced, but not at all fast enough for either of them, although they had only admitted that to themselves. Now, as she watched him in his half-waking state, she knew he dreamed of her in his arms and in his bed, which was exactly where she wanted to be.
She reached out a small hand and stroked through the tangled mass of his bronze hair, frowning slightly at the unexpected stickiness and grit she felt there. "Vincent, please wake up," she urged gently. "Please, Vincent."
The touch of her hand merged with the sound of her voice, and the delightful combination suddenly told Vincent it was not a dream at all. His blue eyes shot open to see Catherine gazing down at him bemusedly, and in an instant he rolled over and sat up at the edge of his bed, confusion and delight warring in his expression.
"Catherine? I thought I was dreaming," he began, his voice husky with fatigue and pleasure. "How long have you been here in my chamber?"
"Not long," she answered, sitting beside him, as close as she dared without making him nervous. Tilting her head, she looked up at him, noting with growing curiosity the puffs of white powder that dusted his golden-stubbled nose and several smudges of a buttery, pink substance that streaked his cheeks, chin and forehead. He was obviously unaware of them, and Catherine decided she wouldn't embarrass him by mentioning it right away. "I know we'd planned to spend Valentine's Day together," she continued, "but Joe just told me that I'll have to substitute in court for one of the other attorneys and that's going to take up the entire day. By the time I can come Below, it'll be very late."
The look of disappointment that clouded his face mirrored hers. "I'm sorry, Catherine. But I know your job is important."
"Not as important as you," she told him firmly, edging a bit closer. "And of all days, too."
Vincent sighed, looking down into her eyes with an enigmatic gaze. "Perhaps we can postpone our plans," he suggested. "There will be another time."
"I suppose so," Catherine agreed resignedly. "But I'd looked forward to it so much -- the children's concert and party, and most of all being with you."
The mention of the children brought a most unwelcome reminder of Vincent's recent misadventures, and he could not suppress a tired groan at the very thought.
"Vincent, what's wrong?" Catherine asked immediately. "Are you all right?" She took his hand and noted that it, too, had an odd gritty feeling to it.
What's this all about, she wondered, but before she could pursue the question, Vincent answered it for her. He described the catastrophe in the kitchen chamber, and within minutes they were both weak with laughter.
"Oh, Vincent, you're not serious -- Samantha actually put a raw egg down Kipper's shirt?"
"Yes," he admitted, smothering a chuckle at the remembered sight. "It was right after he told her that she was going to make everyone sick with her cooking. Actually, that was about the time I gave up any hope of regaining control of them. I honestly don't know how it happened, but it was total chaos in there." He shook his head ruefully. "Unbelievable!"
As his tangled amber mane settled around his shoulders, something small, round and pink tumbled onto his shoulders and then rolled into Catherine's lap. She picked it up between two fingers and held it up to him. "What is this," she asked, "and how did it get into your hair?"
Vincent tilted his head as he looked down at her. "I believe it's called a candy sprinkle, and it probably got there sometime between Geoffrey dropping a bowl full of them on the floor and my scrubbing them off Eric as he wallowed in them."
Catherine laughed delightedly, and then without warning she reached up and popped the little candy into Vincent's mouth, lightly caressing his supple lower lip as she did. Seconds later, the look of surprise in his bright blue eyes deepened to something more, and before he could warn himself to think better of it, he parted his lips and captured one of Catherine's fingers in the moist warmth of his mouth. Her eyes grew wide as she felt his tongue swirl over the surface of her skin, and then when he slowly pulled away, she gasped in disappointment. The tip of his tongue skimmed over his lush lower lip. "So very sweet," he murmured, and both knew he had not referred to the tiny candy she'd offered him.
Catherine felt her heart flutter wildly, knowing it matched the rapid pace of Vincent's. She reached up to touch the pink smudge on Vincent's forehead, her eyes dancing with laughter and desire. "And I've always known you were very sweet yourself, Vincent. You needn't have gone to the trouble of adding icing and candy sprinkles."
Frowning slightly in question, Vincent tilted his head and looked down at the fingertip full of frosting Catherine held out to him; then he watched in fascination as she slowly brought her hand toward her own mouth and stroked the sugary stuff across her lips in blatant invitation. Heart pounding, Vincent hesitated only a moment before leaning forward to press his mouth to hers, nuzzling and caressing the softness he had dreamed of for so long. In a heartbeat, Catherine melted into his arms as he pulled her close in his strong embrace. Taking her mouth in heated abandon, Vincent deepened their kiss until their tongues danced together, tasting and stroking warm, hidden places, before they finally parted, gasping for breath.
Vincent's voice was deeper than she had ever heard before. "Catherine, the taste of the candy is sweet, but the taste of you is sweeter still."
Catherine's mind whirled with the sensations her body felt, and she knew instinctively that Vincent shared every one. Framing his face in her hands, she trailed hot, searching kisses over his skin, licking away the traces of frosting, leaving trails of fire in her wake. By the time she reached his lips once more, both were trembling with a desire that would not remain controlled a moment longer.
Groaning hungrily, Vincent urged Catherine backward, lowering her to lie upon his bed. Her tight hold brought him with her willingly and both moaned with the delicious sensation of his large, hard body pressing into the pliant softness of hers. Their mouths devoured one another until even the most passionate kisses were not enough. Raising up slightly on his elbows, Vincent stared down into Catherine's desire-glazed eyes. "Oh, please don't stop, Vincent," she moaned. "Don't stop!"
"I won't," he promised, his breathing heavy and labored. "I can't." He reached one trembling hand to the buttons of her suede jacket, swiftly unfastening them, and then moved to nuzzle his face against her neck and down onto the warm curve of her breasts. Suddenly, he stopped and raised his head again, rolling his body slightly to one side. His hand trembled as he pushed the jacket open farther, lightly stroking her breasts as if in search of some hidden treasure.
Catherine gasped in pleasure, arching up into his hand, and then whimpered as he withdrew the seductive caress. As she watched, Vincent stared down at the palm of his hand and then raised it to his mouth, sniffing appreciatively as his tongue flickered out to taste some intriguingly irresistible substance.
Squirming impatiently, Catherine begged for an explanation, watching his eyes twinkle with laughter and lust as he answered her. "Catherine, did you bring me a Valentine's Day gift?"
"Yes." She nodded dazedly, all thoughts of it having flown under the unexpected and far more desirable gift of his kisses and caresses. "Why?"
"Was it candy?" he continued, his low, warm chuckle making her melt a little more.
"A chocolate candy heart," she answered. "I know how you love chocolate."
He turned his hand toward her. "And you'd hidden it in the breast pocket of your jacket?"
Giggling with sudden awareness, Catherine pushed herself up just enough to see the sweet, sticky mess that had melted over the lining of her jacket, onto her pink silk blouse and all the way through to her creamy skin. "Well, I thought it would be safe there until I gave it to you for a surprise."
"It was a surprise after all," Vincent told her, his rumbling laugh turning to a low, heated growl. "I love it -- and now I'm going to enjoy every bit of it."
He felt her fingers entwine eagerly in his tangled hair as he lowered his head toward her breasts once again. The touch of his hot, searching tongue sent surges of molten desire through both of them and all thoughts but one slipped away in an instant.
"Mmmmm," Catherine murmured in delight, gasping at each new touch. "Happy Valentine's Day, Vincent."
But Vincent didn't say another word for a very long time. After all, he knew it was considered quite rude to carry on a conversation when one's mouth was full.
The End. . .