Beautiful Things, also in Tunnel Tales.)
(Author’s Note: This story follows
Stroke, caress, feel, fondle, pet. Massage, rub, knead. Trace, handle. Hold. Did I miss any? No. Alone with Catherine in the stillness of his chamber, bathed in light from a single candelabra, Vincent considered every synonym for touch that he knew. As friends, he and Catherine had held hands, shared hugs, and exchanged casual touches to shoulders, arms, knees. And even, after the death of Catherine’s father, a fleeting kiss on the lips. But with his hands in her hair and his lips roving over her face, Vincent realized that he had no words for the quality of touch that he was experiencing tonight with Catherine.
Breathe, just breathe. Vincent paused between kisses and took a great gulp of air. It did little to calm his pounding heart. Past the floral-scented shampoo, the hint of lavender on her sweater and the fruity gloss on her lips, Catherine’s personal scent triggered a surge of desire that almost overwhelmed him. Any anxiety that he might have felt over his lack of experience was resolutely shoved aside. He had no more use for imaginary fears. His fingers flexed in her silky hair and he shuddered. Vincent knew that Catherine had wondered about the nature of his feelings towards her for a long time. He, however, had no doubt about her feelings. The bond broadcast them with such strength and intensity that he could focus on little else. He was also aware that she dreamed about him, but the fact that his dreams were dedicated to loving her had been his closely guarded secret. Now the long season of waiting and wanting was over. And so Vincent, former master of concealment, began to express everything that he had hidden in his heart and mind for almost three years.
Oh God. Oh, God! Not a curse, but a prayer of stunned gratitude for what was happening to her in this miracle world. Catherine gave an inarticulate cry and pressed her body into Vincent. After the first brush of his lips against hers, his mouth had not left her face, and he was everywhere, everywhere. She parted her lips and searched for his, but his hands had released her head and were running up and down her back from shoulder blade to hip, framing the dimensions of her body. Catherine’s head swung and she moaned. Breathing raggedly, Vincent tipped back his head and stared at her with such heat that she froze. And waited. Slowly his hands skimmed down her back once more until they reached her bottom. God, help me. And pulled her up against him.
He tilted his head and regarded her boldly. "Yes Catherine?"
"You’re not shy."
Laughter bubbled up in Catherine and she gripped his shoulders. "Oh thank God! Please, please kiss me again." His smile was the last thing she saw for several minutes.
What could she say? Catherine had never kissed lips like Vincent’s. It was a blessing, she realized, because as his mouth moved on hers, the memories of all her other kisses fell away. The passionate kisses she had shared with Stephen and Tom; the restrained kisses bestowed upon casual dates; the awkward, fumbling kisses from her teenage years. All forgotten, until there was only Vincent.
His mouth was so soft. As he dragged his lower lip along both of hers, she felt emotions wrap around her like many layers of tunnel clothes. Amazement, relief, desire, awe, and an enormous, piercing joy. She could not subdue it. He must have felt it through the bond, for his kisses gentled, and his touch upon her lightened to the merest brush.
"I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry," he whispered into her hair, her cheekbones, her lips. Catherine did not chastise him for his words. She knew that he was not apologizing for his passion, but for the flood of sensation that threatened to undo her. She let her tears flow, and squeezed him tighter.
"Vincent – I came here tonight thinking that you were going to let me down gently, and remind me that we had to proceed with caution and care. I never thought…" She swallowed the tremor in her voice, and looked at him searchingly. "I never thought you were going to look at me and touch me and kiss me to death. How did this happen?"
Again Vincent’s fingers wound through her hair and he cradled her head. "I made a decision to love you in every way that I can, if you will accept me."
"Oh, I’ll accept you." Catherine shivered with enthusiasm. She reached up on tiptoe and sprinkled kisses along his neck and jawline. She found the skin of his throat so tempting that she wondered briefly what he would do if she sucked just a little too strongly at the delicate skin. So tempting…but she decided to save that pleasure for later. Father’s observation skills were so keen. She nuzzled into Vincent’s shoulder and found his ear. "I’ll accept you," she whispered.
He breathed a laugh and kissed her temple. "I also talked to Father and to Mary…."
Her head jerked back. "Father? He encouraged us to move forward?"
"Well, he told me that I could do anything I wanted to. He didn’t know exactly what I had in mind, but that doesn’t nullify his advice."
She smiled, thankful to her dubious ally. "And what did Mary have to say?"
Vincent paused, remembering his conversation in Mary’s chamber. "She said that there is no fear in love, and that we should not leave each other burning."
"Mary said that?"
"Apparently the Bible says that, but I did not check the references." He bent his head again and took her mouth in another drugging kiss. Up to this point, Vincent had been the one to initiate the intimate caresses, and Catherine had been too shocked at this change of behavior to do more than respond. But now her natural assertiveness emerged, and she was curious to explore his unique anatomy. Very slowly, she touched her tongue to his mouth and began to outline his cleft upper lip. Immediately he stopped moving. His breathing grew harsh and it cooled her tongue as she traced back and up and down and back across the lines of his lip. Gathering her courage, she swept her tongue across his teeth. Vincent parted them in astonishment. And after that Catherine gave everything she had to this kiss. Probing deeply, she stroked his tongue with hers, bold in her movements, then tilted her head and discovered the deep ridges on the roof of his mouth. He groaned and bucked against her. Apparently, he liked that.
With effort Vincent leaned away and started to speak. How could he still talk? Catherine wondered in a fog. She herself was beyond speech, and it took a moment to process his whispered words.
"Love me tonight, Catherine. Make love with me!" It was the fiercest gentleness she had ever heard. She stared at him, then closed her eyes. I must remember this face.
"Oh Vincent. Yes." Then he was kissing her again and it was wonderfully hard to breathe.
His hands traveled from her back to her shoulders. He moved away one step. Then lifting his hands, he lowered them until they bracketed her ribcage just below her breasts. Vincent began a soft kneading motion, and she could feel the tips of his claws through her cable-knit sweater, grazing her sides. Her crystal pendant caught the candlelight. A quiet pant filled the room; whether it was his or hers, she did not know.
Catherine’s extreme arousal brought an ache to every part of her body. The scant inch between his hands and her breasts was so maddening that she yearned to sink down to close the distance. And their silly clothes! She eyed the lacings of Vincent’s vest and lifted her hands to untie them.
"Catherine." He looked at her dazedly, interrupting her progress with his vest. "If I do anything, anything¸ to displease you or hurt you, you must stop me." He rubbed his nose along hers, letting her feel the soft fur covering the top. His voice became thready; he could barely form the words. "My love for you will never change. But if I do not please you, you are not yet bound to me. You are free." Vincent trailed his nose toward her ear and nuzzled her there, nipping softly at her earlobe.
Catherine gloried at the love in his voice. She had restrained her feelings for so long that this sudden and unexpected release of passion made it difficult to think. You are free....She started to yank on the fastenings of his vest, and she felt his hands move to the hem of her sweater. If I do not please you….He stroked her stomach, a touch of fur to silk. She moaned in anticipation. You are not yet bound. Her fingers stilled on his chest. Not yet bound. Catherine held her breath. Not yet bound. "Vincent. Vincent?"
He met her eyes. She read the question in his look and responded with one of her own. "Are you giving me permission to change my mind if there’s something I don’t like about what happens next?"
"Yes, of course. I never want to hurt you."
She hurried to reassure him. "I know that. But why did you say that I am not yet bound to you?" She placed her hands on either side of his face, forcing him to hold her gaze. "What did you mean when you said I am free?"
Vincent fought against the impulse to turn away. He tried to gather his thoughts, but he was reeling from the heat that their kisses and touches had generated. The effort it took to control his body’s response was great. Before he could answer, Catherine spoke again. "I love you so much."
He brushed away a strand of hair that was clinging to her lip. "I know you do."
She caught his hands in hers and stroked them tenderly. "I am already bound to you. I have not been free for a long time." She paused, wondering how to phrase her next words. "If we made love tonight, whether it pleased me or not, I would not leave you." Now where were her oratory skills? she wondered. She had not meant to imply that he might not satisfy her, but she was addressing his fears, not hers.
Vincent was quick with his reply, but his tone was serious. "If I cannot love you the way you should be loved, I will not compel you to stay with me."
"If you cannot love me…? So what would disqualify you from loving me? Tell me."
"If I hurt you with my hands. If I hurt you with my size. If we…don’t…fit." There. More insecurities confessed. He looked away briefly then turned back to her. "I want to join with you, in every way, but we should do it with our eyes open."
Eyes open. Catherine closed hers, and shook her head. How could she answer that? And why on earth was she protesting so much? They should be making love right now! She mentally ran though an array of objections. But I want you to compel me. This is way too much pressure on you, and on me. Do you mean that if our lovemaking is not perfect, you will let me go? Will you agonize over one scratch? Will you give up if it hurts the first time? Will you make me give you up? I object! How strange, she thought, to have to fight for their love again after seeming to win such a decisive victory. She decided to abandon her objections and simply state her desires. "Vincent, do you remember what Pip said?" He looked at her inquiringly, wondering which reference from Great Expectations she alluded to. "Pip said that he saw no shadow of another parting from her."
The air in the chamber crackled with intention. Slowly, he raised a hand and stroked the curve of her cheek. Her green eyes gleamed with a reservoir of tears.
"I want no shadow of parting from you. None." She hoped that he understood her, because that was the best argument she had. Her voice lowered to a whisper. She gripped his shoulders and leaned in close. "I think our lovemaking will be perfect. But if it’s not, we’ll practice. We’ll learn. I accept you, Vincent."
He caught her in a fierce hug. The candles had burned low; the flames were sputtering near the ends of their wicks. After some time, Catherine spoke again. "How soon can we be joined?"
Vincent thought about the upcoming work schedules, the preparations to be made for the joining ceremony, Father’s aching hip and William’s blood pressure. "A month from now?"
She held her breath, then sighed. "Will you wait to make love till we are joined?"
He was surprised. "Do you care what the others think?"
"No, I care what you think. When we make love, I want you to have my promise that I will not leave you. For any reason." One heartbeat, then two. She wondered if he could hear it. "Will you accept me?"
Vincent’s own eyes were sparkling now. He nodded, smiled, and bent down for another kiss. "Two weeks. Two weeks, and not a day longer."
They say that in North America, a casual acquaintance will restrict physical contact to mid-body: a handshake, a touch on the arm or, for men, a slap on the back. A closer acquaintance can move higher up and pat the shoulder, or sling an arm around the neck. But only an intimate acquaintance can touch the head. Vincent reflected on this as he cradled Catherine on his bed in the dark embrace of the night. The candles had long since flickered out, and they had not bothered to replace them but crawled under a quilt, fully clothed, and sank down in slumber. What woke him up, he did not know. He looked at Catherine in wonder, and kissed her head. He had learned her scalp this night, every bump, every indentation, and the shades of her hair from root to tip. An intimate acquaintance. He breathed a sigh and closed his eyes. Soon.
He squeezed her and he did not stop.
"Oh! Father!" Catherine managed a startled gasp as Father engulfed her in a big bear hug. She had been uncertain how he would take the news that she and Vincent were to join. Although they had walked hand in hand to Father’s study, she had trailed a step behind until they stood before the antique desk barely visible under drunken piles of books. She needn’t have worried. Father rushed so quickly around the desk that Vincent had to place a steadying hand on her back. Now all she could do was try to gather enough breath to compose a whole sentence. "I thought you would try to stop us."
He pulled away only slightly from his embrace. "No, my dear. You don’t try to stop a waterfall, an avalanche, or an oncoming train. And I’ve heard the roar of all three for some time now." He landed a noisy kiss on Catherine’s cheek and stepped back. But what he saw in her eyes made him reach out once more to clasp her hand in both of his. "Catherine, I will be honored to welcome you into our family. I know I cannot replace your own father, but I will love you like a daughter." Old eyes searched young. Now the charmer, he leaned in and motioned toward Vincent. "See, you get two for the price of one."
Catherine gave a watery laugh. "Oh Father, I love you!"
Releasing her hand, he turned his attention toward Vincent. No words were spoken. Another hard hug, then he grasped Vincent on either side of his head and kissed his hair. Looking fatigued now, he limped back around the desk and lowered himself heavily into his chair. "Now what are your plans?" he inquired.
"We’d like to be joined in two weeks," Vincent said.
Father sputtered like an old jalopy. "Two weeks! But – but – couldn’t you stretch that out just a bit?"
"No." Vincent’s tone was clipped.
Father looked from one to the other. Catherine felt herself grow uncomfortably warm. His expression changed, and he chuckled. "Well, well," under his breath, then louder - "Who’s going to talk to William?"
"You’d better." His words were gruff but his smile belied it. "He’ll get over it. He’ll have many hands to help him." Father looked at Catherine again. "And where will you live, my dear?"
"Below, with Vincent."
"And you understand the sacrifices you will have to make…?"
"Yes, I do." She had learned that simple answers, unadorned with many words, were often best when dealing with Father.
"Hmm." Father looked at her appraisingly. "I believe you. But what will you do about your work?"
Here Catherine hesitated, and looked at Vincent. He inclined his head and waited for her answer. She decided to be transparent. "I don’t know. We still need to talk about that. I’d like to have your opinion too, and the opinion of the Council. This has all happened so quickly, I haven’t had a chance to think."
Father nodded. "You know Catherine, we’ll agree to anything that does not jeopardize your safety or the safety of this community. You two discuss it."
"Thank you. In the meantime, I’ve got weeks of banked vacation time. I’ll see my boss on Monday and arrange to take some of it."
Vincent, who had been quiet for some time, now addressed the tunnel patriarch. "Father, a joining is a celebration for friends and family. We should ask Catherine who she would like to invite to the ceremony."
Father looked thoughtful. "You’re right. What do you think Catherine?" Before she could do anything but blink, he carried on. "Incidentally, Vincent, where is Devin these days? Still up in Canada?"
"Vancouver Island, I think."
"Oh, uh-huh. Well, we should send word to him that his presence is required at home. I don’t think he’ll mind the interruption in his globe-trotting." He turned his attention back to Catherine. "My dear…?"
But Catherine was astonished. For three years she had not breathed a word about the tunnels or its inhabitants, even under difficult and dangerous circumstances, and now she was being invited to share this secret? If she was amazed at Vincent’s trust, she was even more amazed at Father’s. She looked from one to the other. "How can I invite anyone to the ceremony? I have told no one about this place." She shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "I have told no one about Vincent."
The two men exchanged glances. The father deferred to the son. "Catherine, we trust your judgment. Who do you trust to keep our secret?" Vincent asked quietly.
She was nearly overwhelmed with gratitude. Moment by moment, this fantasy was becoming reality. "My friends Nancy and Jenny could be trusted completely. I know they would be so happy for me." Joe. What about Joe? But she dismissed the thought as soon as it came. One look at Vincent and Joe would connect the dots between the unexplained deaths connected to her cases. It was too risky. "Just Nancy and Jenny," she repeated.
Father reached for his pipe. "Friends of yours are friends of ours. Invite them for tea at their convenience. We should meet them, and –" looking at Vincent – "they should meet us before the big day."
"Thank you Father," Catherine said sincerely.
"By the way," added Father, "I assured the children after your hasty exit last night that you would read to them again next story hour. Would you.…?"
"Of course, I’d love to!"
"Excellent. I have just the book for you." He passed her a well-worn picture book. "This should fit nicely with the times."
Catherine turned it over in her hands. The Owl and the Pussycat. "Oh, I’ve heard of this one…."
Vincent peered over her shoulder at the title. His raspy laugh rang throughout the chamber.
Catherine waited until Moreno left Joe’s office, then she waited ten minutes more. This was not going to be easy. She tried rehearsing different scenarios in her mind but abandoned the exercise. Lawyers should be able to think on their toes, after all. She squared her shoulders and set her jaw, and approached Joe’s office door.
"You still here, Radcliffe? Who’re you trying to impress? Moreno left ten minutes ago." Joe leaned back in the swivel chair and clasped his hands behind his neck. His smile told Catherine that he was pleased to see her.
"I gave up trying to impress you a long time ago, Joe. I’m all for the taxpayer now." She indicated one of the chairs in front of his desk. "May I?"
"Go ahead. What’s up?"
Catherine lowered herself into the chair and crossed one leg over the other. She regretted the movement when she saw his eyes linger on her slender calves, but she was determined not to let on that she noticed the attention. She fussed with the hem of her skirt and tugged it an extra quarter-inch over her knees, then put on her game face.
"I love working with you Joe."
When she did not immediately continue, his smile slipped a little and he straightened in his chair. "Why do I sense a but coming, Cathy?"
"Well, it’s like this. I – "
"Does this have anything to do with what you told me last Monday?" It was so quiet in the room that she could hear the ding of the elevator on the other side of the floor.
For the briefest second, the look that passed over Joe’s face was so agonizing that Catherine was forced to look away. "You’re getting married then?"
She nodded. "Yes." If she had not known him as well as she did, she would have sworn that his smile was genuine. She decided to pretend that it was. "Thank you for your support. It means so much to me."
"Always, Radcliffe." His jaw clenched. "What kind of time do you need?"
Get ready, girl. Another hurdle comin’ riiiiiight up. "Well, I checked this morning and I’ve got nine weeks of vacation time –" Joe looked ready to have a stroke – "but I would really appreciate four weeks. I know it’s asking a lot." She looked down at a coffee stain on the carpet. "If you would prefer that I resign, I’ll understand."
"Cathy, no," he sounded choked. He cleared his throat and continued. "You got your four weeks. Things’ll go to hell around here, but maybe that’ll convince Moreno that we need more help."
She leaned forward in her chair and looked at Joe pleadingly. "I have to tell you that at the end of the four weeks…I may resign anyway. I just don’t know right now."
He picked up an HB pencil and examined its chewed end. He addressed his question to the eraser stub. "So what’s he like?"
What do you want to hear, Joe? Catherine wondered desperately. Do you want to hear that he is my life? That he is more than everything I ever dreamed of? That he is the most wonderful, beautiful being I have ever met? How do I reduce my feelings for Vincent into an element that you can understand? She decided that Joe was very successful at channeling his tension because the pencil looked like it was going to snap.
"He’s down to earth," Joe looked up, "like you."
He gave a short laugh and shook his head. "Will I ever get to meet this guy?"
"One day, I hope. When things are less complicated."
Catherine stood up, thinking that this conversation was finished. Then suddenly she was seized by an impulse and, recklessly, she obeyed it.
"I love you, Joe!"
He looked at her. He knew what she meant. She was giving him the freedom to be honest.
"Love ya too Radcliffe. Now get outta here!"
She nodded, and smiled. She knew what he meant, too. Reaching across the desk, Catherine clasped the hand that held the pencil. Then she left the office and closed the door.
"Thanks for coming, guys." Catherine slid into the booth of the intimate, upscale restaurant and smiled at her friends. Nancy and Jenny displayed matching grins.
"Late again Cathy," Jenny said. "We took the liberty of ordering you the arugula salad with red onions."
"Sounds delicious." Catherine shrugged out of her raincoat and smoothed her hair. "Breezy out there tonight."
Nancy could barely restrain her impatience. "Okay, girl, spill the beans! You sounded so mysterious over the phone."
"I’m sorry. I know I haven’t been very forthcoming about –" The waiter glided by to take her drink order. "Water with a twist of lime, please." She addressed her friends again. "I haven’t been very forthcoming about my personal life, and I know you must have wondered many times what was going on."
Jenny snorted good-naturedly. "Not very forthcoming? The CIA is more forthcoming than you. What’s changed?"
"Everything has changed," said Catherine, in what must have been the understatement of the century. "But you have to keep what I tell you a secret…and that means you can’t even tell your husband, Nance."
Nancy nodded solemnly, and Jenny beside her. "All right. Does this have anything to do with…Vincent?" Nancy asked tentatively.
Catherine let out a breathless laugh and fingered the linen napkin in front of her. "Yeah."
"Okay, start from the beginning and don’t leave out a single detail!" Jenny commanded.
"Oh, well –" The waiter came by with Catherine’s water. "You know when I was attacked in the park and disappeared for ten days?" Nancy and Jenny looked at her expectantly. "Vincent found me."
Details. As Catherine described the significant events of her recent past, she found herself omitting many details. There was so much to say, and where to start and where to stop was unclear. She decided that her friends would ask what they needed to know, and that she would answer them as best she could. The arugula salad came and went, and a vegetable risotto that she barely tasted. As she shared her secrets in the dim restaurant, the faces of her friends were by turns shocked, intrigued, excited, and concerned.
"Do you have a picture of Vincent?" Jenny asked. When Catherine shook her head, Nancy chimed in. "Describe him for us!"
Catherine closed her eyes and pictured her beloved. Could she do him justice? Her fingers lifted to her face, as if in her own features she discovered his. "His eyes are sapphire blue, and slant upwards. His nose," her index finger traced her own, "is slightly flattened, and furred." Frowns appeared on the faces in front of her as her friends tried to assimilate this information. Catherine continued, "Fur covers the lower half of his face, but it’s not a beard. Vincent’s lip is cleft in the middle, and his canine teeth are long and sharp." She tapped her own teeth, then raised both hands to her head. "And he’s got this glorious mane of tawny hair that most women would die for."
She stopped to let Jenny and Nancy catch up with her. She could tell when they did. "But Cathy," Nancy shook her head incredulously. "From what you’re describing, Vincent is a cross between a lion and a Kiss rocker."
"Uh-huh." Now she stretched out her fingers. "His hands are furred as well, and he has claws for nails." Nancy and Jenny sat back in their seats, away from Catherine’s hands. "He’s very tall, and strong. But he’s also gentle and kind. He is loved by everyone in the tunnels, especially the children. And he is so sensitive that he can read my feelings. He’s never treated me with anything…but love," she finished softly.
"Weren’t you afraid of him at first?" Jenny asked after a moment.
Catherine gave a wry laugh, remembering the day that she removed her bandages. "Yes, at first. Until I heard his voice and realized who he was." She shrugged her shoulders and looked at her friends. "How can you be afraid of someone who gives up his bed and brings you soup and reads Dickens better than Richard Burton? There are no monsters like that."
Heedless of the dishes between them, Nancy reached across the table and gripped Catherine in a brief hug. "I can tell that you really love him! When can we meet him?"
"His father is inviting you both to come for tea anytime in the next week and a half." Catherine took a deep breath. "We’re going to be joined – married – next Sunday, and it would mean a lot to me, to us, if you two could be there."
"Oh Cathy!" they cried in unison. Nancy was gulping back tears, but Jenny seemed troubled.
"What is it, Jen?"
"Well – will we ever see you again, after you go down there to live with him?"
"Yes of course you will!" Catherine leaned forward to squeeze Jenny’s hand. "We’ll be able to visit whenever we like."
Jenny looked relieved, but not yet satisfied. She glanced at Nancy, who was obviously deliriously happy for Catherine, and decided to press her friend one more time. "Cathy – more than any of us, you’ve always been a woman of the world. You’re wealthy, you’re gorgeous, you’re a successful attorney and you can travel the world. You’re giving up so much." Jenny looked searchingly at the serene woman in front of her. "You’ll be buried underground like a seed in the soil."
Catherine paused, nodding her head slowly. "Yes, you’re right," she conceded. Then she smiled brightly. "But look what happens to a seed!"
Catherine used to hate being examined at close range. Stephen did that; he would seize her in a tight embrace and scrutinize every inch of her face. Why is he doing this? What is he looking for? She had wondered what blemish he would find. And she hated it, hated it. She knew that she was an attractive woman, but she also knew what flaws were evident upon close inspection. But when Vincent looked at her….this was bliss, and she forgot herself. Now in his chamber, curled on his lap, his face was a whisper away from hers. She smiled, safe.
"What are you looking at?"
He returned her smile; there was wonder in his eyes. "Your face….It is so…perfect."
"Vincent, no one is perfect. Trust me. I have my imperfections."
"Really? Name one," he said disbelievingly.
She decided to skip the scar for something less obvious. "See this mole here?"
"Here. I usually cover it up with makeup, but here it is. Look, see." She jabbed the offending blemish with her finger.
"Ah, yes, there it is." He gave her a sage look. "Now that’s a relief."
"Why do you say that?"
"We’re evenly matched, then." His raised eyebrows dared her to challenge him. Catherine’s soft laughter filled the room.
"Father, I’d like you to meet Jenny Aronson. She works for a publishing house in the city. And this is Nancy Tucker. She lives in Westport with her husband and two children. She’s also an accomplished photographer." Handshakes were exchanged and Catherine wondered, not for the first time, where Vincent was.
Kipper and Samantha had met the three women at the threshold below Catherine’s apartment building. Her friends seemed as charmed by the children as their mysterious surroundings. Kipper took Jenny’s hand and Samantha grabbed Nancy’s, and Catherine listened with amusement as the youngsters kept up a running commentary of their underground exploits while they traveled through the tunnels.
Perhaps Vincent’s delay was calculated, she thought, to allow the newcomers to acclimatize gradually. First the children, then Mary with a pot of tea and a plate of William’s raisin scones, then Father at his most urbane. Bless you, Father! Catherine looked at the patriarch fondly. He offered her a reassuring smile, but footsteps on the staircase diverted his attention. Nancy and Jenny turned their heads.
Catherine had prepared her friends as best she could. Still, Vincent was an entity to be reckoned with. One of the raisins from the scone that Nancy was holding broke off and fell to the plate.
"Ah, there you are…" Father began.
God, he’s magnificent, Catherine thought, and she grew warm with pleasure and pride.
Vincent came around to stand next to her. He smiled, but she could sense the tension in him. "Vincent," she linked her arm through his, "these are my friends."
The parties just looked at each other. Then Jenny spoke. "So you love our Cathy."
Nothing she said could have put Vincent more at ease. He blushed and cocked his head in that endearing way of his. "From the moment I saw her."
Nancy and Jenny melted before her eyes. "Come on then, give us a hug!" Jenny said, springing to her feet. And she whispered to Catherine in an exaggerated aside, "I guess he’ll have to do!"
"Cathy! Jacob told me the news. Congratulations!" Dr. Peter Alcott swept into the examination room, chart in hand, white lab coat swinging. Catherine jumped up and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"Thank you, Peter. I am so happy! Vincent makes me so happy."
Peter perched on the office stool and regarded Catherine warmly. "Vincent is an extraordinary individual, a king from another world. You have met your match, and he has met his." Looking at her soberly he added, "Your father would be pleased to see this day. Do not doubt it."
Catherine’s smile was only a little shaky. "I don’t doubt it. I sense that he is looking down on us with love." She gripped her knees through the blue cotton gown. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."
"Next Sunday, correct? I’ll be there." Peter rose and got out his stethoscope. "All right. Let’s check you over, young lady."
Catherine dutifully sat on the examination table while he parted her smock and placed the stethoscope’s chestpiece on her back. "Full breath in….Sounds good. Try to maintain some form of regular exercise when you’re living Below."
"I know the women like to swim in the underground pools. I’m a pretty fair swimmer."
"Excellent." Peter cuffed her arm for the blood pressure check. The cuff tightened like a vise, and she felt the blood pulse through her limb. Then the pressure eased and he made a note on his chart. "Good, normal. How has your general health been recently?"
"Oh, just a few colds, nothing serious."
He nodded, and sat back on the stool. "Most of the tunnel residents take a multivitamin and an additional Vitamin D supplement due to their limited exposure to sunlight. I’ll have you start on the same thing." Then he gave her his most doctorly look. "Cathy…have you and Vincent discussed birth control?"
She sucked in a small breath. "No, actually, we haven’t." She rubbed damp palms on her thighs. "Do you think that it’s even possible for us to conceive?"
"Anything is possible. Anyway, it’s something you two should talk about. Let me know if you have any questions about the methods available."
Catherine felt like an inexperienced teenager. She looked at Peter sheepishly. "I was on the pill with Stephen and Tom, but I didn’t like the side effects. I’d rather not go back on it if I don’t have to."
"I understand. Although if that turns out to be the best option for you, we can always look at changing brands or dosages. You may have a different experience next time around."
"What do you think about natural family planning…the rhythm method?"
Peter snorted and looked wry. "Well, you know what they call couples who practice the rhythm method."
Catherine groaned and Peter laughed, pleased that he had found someone who had not yet heard that joke. He took another look at her chart. "Let’s see, when’s the last time you had a pap test?"
"Oh, I don’t know…um…a couple years ago…maybe." She bit her lip and shrugged, purposefully vague. She detested pap tests, and had hoped that Peter would omit this test from the routine physical.
"It looks like it’s been four years. Lie back on the table. I’ll take a quick sample."
Willing herself to relax, Catherine lay down and spread her knees. Breathe, Chandler. Think of Vincent! She wondered what he was feeling through their bond right now and how he would interpret it. Peter took a speculum, inserted it, and began to release the handles.
She jerked, every muscle tense. "Ahhh! Peter! Don’t you have a smaller one of those?"
He looked up sharply and withdrew the instrument. "This is the smallest size. Does it hurt?"
She bit her lip and nodded. Peter leaned back on his stool. "Do you get yeast infections, Cathy?"
"Once or twice in my twenties, no problems since."
"How long has it been since you’ve had intercourse?"
"About three years."
"That could account for some of the discomfort, but…." He leaned forward and clasped his hands. His tone was serious. "Catherine, have you experienced sexual trauma?"
No. No, I don’t think so. She cast her mind back a decade to her time with Stephen Bass. That was when she had learned what it meant to close your eyes and think of England. Stephen was clumsy, hurried, and selfish in bed, and she had been too young to realize it. Sex was something she endured, then she laughed with her friends and embellished the details and told herself that it was just fine and she would get better at it with practice. Tom Gunther was a better lover, or perhaps it only felt better because he was…less endowed. Catherine remembered how she felt when she heard Tom’s suggestions on how to "spice up" their love life. Those suggestions had been one factor in her decision to end their relationship. But was it trauma?
"No. No trauma." Her voice was low and steady. Peter looked at her but did not press.
"Well, we’ll skip the pap test for now. Come see me a few months after the joining ceremony. We’ll do it then." His voice grew soft, fatherly. "In the meantime, talk with Vincent. Then stop talking."
Her eyebrows quirked, and he added pointedly, "Foreplay."
"Oh. Of course." As much as she was eager for this appointment to be over, she had one more question to ask the doctor. "I don’t know if I should ask this….I don’t want you to break patient confidentiality, but…." Oh Chandler just spit it out! "Is Vincent an average size?"
She focused on a chart on the wall about asthma triggers, and waited for Peter’s response. Eventually, it came.
"Oh, I’d say he’s at the upper end of the normal range." When her eyes flitted back to his, he added, "He’s larger than this speculum, Cathy."
He let that sink in, then offered one last piece of medical advice. "Sex in real life is rarely like it is in the movies or romance books. Vincent loves you. Take your time learning about each other. Enjoy each other. And don’t let a speculum discourage you. It doesn’t know much about love."
Vincent’s long strides closed the distance between them, then he was sweeping Catherine up and into his arms. A fierce kiss to the stress lines on her forehead, and another to her lips, then they were off through the tunnels. He did not put her down until they reached the Whispering Gallery. Kneeling her gently on the wooden slats of the bridge, he sat down, spread his legs, and tucked her in against his chest. Now she was protected and secure – his treasure. He nuzzled his cheek against hers. "Tell me about your appointment with Peter."
Catherine’s sigh could have held a whole conversation. Vincent knew that she had had a difficult afternoon. Through their bond he had felt many conflicting emotions, and a brief stab of pain. He had been poised to run to her, but he knew that she was with Peter and the pain did not recur. He observed the blush on her cheeks, and her lips looked like they had been bitten too many times. He lifted his hand and brushed a finger over her mouth. She caught the finger and kissed its clawed tip.
"Peter told me to start taking Vitamin D."
"Ah. Good idea."
When she did not continue, he carefully turned her around until they were facing each other. Giving her a look that said Let me, he parted her knees and lifted her legs until they rested on either side of his hips; a mirror of his own position. Wrapping his arms around her back, he said in a low voice, "This is called the Whispering Gallery. You can tell me anything here if you whisper."
Catherine had looked at him with wide eyes while he was arranging her limbs around his; now she lowered her gaze to a seam on his vest. She gave a small laugh and chewed her lip. "Peter said we should talk about…birth control." She raised her eyes and searched for his unguarded reaction.
But he had known this discussion would come. He had known that Peter would broach the topic, even if Father was too discreet to mention it. In fact, Vincent had decided his response before he had asked Catherine to join with him. He had watched her read with the children, nurse them, advocate for them, and cuddle them. And how they loved her! Even if the possibility of conception were remote, he could not deny her the chance to be a mother. And even if the probability of the child resembling him were high, he could not deny that child the chance to be loved by a mother like Catherine.
He looked at her intently and tilted his head. "Catherine…do you want to have my child?"
Her mouth opened and closed. "Do I want to have your child?" She stifled a giggle. She would not have guessed that this discussion would consist of a yes/no question that she could answer in her favor. "Would you let me have your child?" At his solemn nod, she gripped his shoulders and looked deeply into his glittering eyes. "Why are you making this easy for me?"
His hands moved from her back to frame her face, his thumbs gently massaging her bruised lips. "We may not be able to have a child together. But I won’t withhold anything from you that is within my power to give. If you could love a child of mine…I can’t think of a greater blessing."
Catherine leaned forward and gave him a powerful hug. The action brought their bodies from hip to head into intimate contact. She searched out his lips and kissed him hungrily. Their vulnerable postures made it impossible for him to hide his reaction to her, but he felt no shame. He kissed her gently, once, twice, then moved fractionally away -- just far enough. Her eyes acknowledged his purpose. She bent her head to his shoulder. "I would love to have your child. I would adore that child."
"Then let’s do nothing to hinder it…hmm?"
"Vincent, thank you!" She pressed a warm kiss to the side of his neck.
For several minutes they sat quietly on the bridge, lost in their own thoughts and in the profound joy of holding each other. Snatches of conversations floated down: a complaint about the weather, a plea for ice cream, someone’s travel plans to Bermuda. Then all was quiet.
"Hmm?" She twisted a lock of his mane around her fingers.
"What caused you pain this afternoon?"
His hair fell back to his shoulder. She disentangled their legs and hugged her knees to her chest. She looked out over the bridge, her gaze unfocused. "Oh, that was just…the pap test," she said nonchalantly.
Vincent knew what a pap test was; he had heard the tunnel women mutter about the procedure and knew it was not a favorite. But something about it was bothering Catherine. "Whisper it to me," he coaxed.
She leaned her cheek on her knee and regarded Vincent. "Peter didn’t get a sample. I had trouble with it." When he said nothing, she turned back to the expanse beyond the bridge. "Do you know how the test is done?"
"No. I know what it’s for, nothing else."
Catherine pursed her lips. "Well, the doctor takes a speculum – it dilates the opening – and when he releases the handles he can get a good look around and take a sample, a few cells." She tapped a wooden board at her feet then traced the grain with her finger. "It hurt when Peter released the handles. He abandoned the test and we’ll try again in a few months."
Vincent’s eyes never left Catherine, but his mind searched intently for an appropriate response. Herein lay her anxiety; the bond simmered with it, and he could guess why. Her finger had found a knot in the wood and she followed it around and around, an unending and futile circle.
"Catherine –" her finger paused – "how large is it?"
She made a small "o" with her thumb and index finger. "About like this."
Ah. He nodded. Then, a suspicion began to form in his mind. He inclined his head and leaned in close, keeping his voice gentle, begging her confidence. "Have you felt this pain before?"
Sound barely accompanied the movement of her lips. "Yes."
Immediately Vincent closed off the flow of his emotions through the bond and arranged a neutral expression on his face. Inside, however, he was strangling. "Did the men you knew before…rape you?"
Her eyes collided with his. She shook her head wordlessly at first, then hurried to explain. "No, Vincent. No. Stephen and Tom, they were just…they were just…." What? he wondered. His mind supplied several damning adjectives, but the one that she spoke was critical only of herself. "Mistakes."
And then there was more. "I know you’re worried that we won’t fit. But I know we will! I might be…delicate, but we will. Fit." Her hands left the knotted plank and reached for his fingers. Now she was coaxing him. "I want to make love with you, and no one else."
There on the bridge of the Whispering Gallery, Vincent began to understand that more could be mended through their joining than his own self-concept. Help me, he prayed to whichever God was responsible for him. Help me to love her the way she needs to be loved. He pressed his lips to Catherine’s palm, and closed her fingers over the spot. "I love you," he said quietly, fiercely. "I will love you the very best way I can."
They stood at the threshold, just beyond the cylinder of dusty light. She leaned against the wall and pressed her hands to the hard brick behind her back. She did not trust what her hands would do tonight unless she prevented them. He loomed over her, one palm braced on the wall beside her head. His eyes, so close, burned into hers. And when he spoke, his voice was a rasp so erotic that her skin prickled.
"This is the last time that I leave you here, Catherine."
Her gaze lowered to his mouth. She let out a shuddering breath. "Vincent?"
They did not move, or touch. She felt her whole body grow warm from the nearness of his. Or maybe it was just his breath that felt warmer, getting closer. One of her hands escaped its confinement at the wall and crept to the top button of her burgundy blouse. Too tight anyway. As the button slid out of its hole, he sucked in a harsh breath. Her eyes jumped back to his. "Touch me?"
How much temptation could he stand? He contemplated stroking her hair, tracing the curve of her cheek, just holding her near. That’s not what she meant. He looked down at her gaping neckline. How many more buttons would it take to…? Four. Then one touch. One touch. Keeping his left hand at the brick, his right hand moved to her blouse and he unhooked the second button – more skin. The third button – a glimpse of peach-colored satin. Vincent grimaced; his hand was not the only moving part of him. Catherine was breathing hard as he released the fourth button. A small shrug, and her blouse slipped off her shoulder to reveal a creamy breast barely covered by her bra.
No, not creamy. Mother of pearl. That was the color. And there, above the scalloped edging of the bra, another small, perfect mole just waiting…to be kissed. Vincent zeroed in on that point as he fought to control his body. But she was beautiful, and nothing, nothing in his existence had prepared him for the sight and smell of Catherine’s breast this close to his face. A gift to him. One touch…and maybe one taste.
Slowly, slowly, Vincent covered her with his hand. He heard her cry out, but did not know if it was words she spoke or only sounds. He knew what his hand looked like: the callused palm, the furred back, the long fingers with deadly nails. But not once did he notice it on her skin. Only the sight of her; how her contour changed with each lift and squeeze, the nipple pebbled against the satin, the wonderful roundness. Vincent allowed himself to touch the mole. A beauty mark, he would call it. He leaned in and pressed his lips to it. Wondered, briefly, if the other men had thought to do this. No! I will love her and make it new. He kissed the spot harder and then, still holding her breast, moved to her lips. He opened his mouth and devoured her with all of the heat that was surging through him. Her hands at his hips urged him closer and he complied, eliciting groans from them both. The bond screamed her need; his senses reeled. How much more could he give her? How much more could he take?
Vincent looked down at the bra. It closed in front. Using two hands now, he twisted the clasp and the material fell away. Oh…Catherine. Dimly he heard her moaning his name, but for this moment he could do nothing but look.
Vincent had seen illustrations of adult female breasts in his father’s medical journals; diagrams of normal female anatomy and pictures of women with breast cancer. He had also seen the magazines that Devin had smuggled into the tunnels almost two decades ago. Most of those women looked artificial, over-inflated; caricatures designed for mass consumption. He remembered staring at those pictures and feeling aroused in his body but empty in his soul. He did not seek out that kind of stimulation for long. What was the point, given who he was? But he had dreamed of Catherine’s body, yes, from the very beginning. And now one more part of it…was his.
Breathe, just breathe. This breast was soft, real, with a rosy nipple that hardened even more under his gaze. He lowered his head and pressed his cheek to her softness. Oh, so warm. The tip of her breast grazed his upper lip. Nostrils flaring, he took in her scent.
"God, Vincent!" Catherine started shaking so violently that he gripped her arms, but he did not kiss her again. This was all that he could stand.
"Tomorrow," he growled. He straightened slowly, painfully. His hand fondled her breast one more time, then fisted at his side. Another grimace; agony was the price of obedience.
Catherine sagged against the wall. Well, she’d asked for it. Mastery returned in small increments. When she risked a glance at his face, the look of love and longing nearly destroyed her. Deep breath, Chandler. Just one more night.
"Shall I come for you myself, or send one of the children?"
She refastened her bra and buttons with trembling fingers. "You’d better send one of the children."
His bright head inclined, then moved away. And the last thing that Catherine saw, before she disappeared into the circle of light, was the tender caress of his eyes and the promise of tomorrow.
* * * * * * *
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