Pushing away from the door, Catherine discarded her damp coat and toed off her boots. Maybe it hadnít been such a good idea to take the day off from work. Work wouldnít have been half as draining as the tasks sheíd taken on today. If she was completely honest with herself, she hadnít felt up to the high Christmas spirits she would have encountered at the office. Sheíd thought if she did something altogether different on Christmas Eve, the sadness about this first Christmas without her father might not weigh too heavily.
Sheíd been on her feet practically all day long, starting with a visit to the childrenís ward at St. Vincentís Hospital in the morning. Being with the children had been stimulating and pleasant despite the sad fact that they werenít able to spend Christmas at home with their families.
Reading stories to the little ones had reminded her of Below, and a bittersweet feeling had woven around her heart. Afterwards she had been in charge at the homeless shelter, serving food to people who lived on the street, people who belonged nowhere and to whom loneliness often was the only familiarity they knew. With every spoonful of soup sheíd passed out, she had thought of the people Below and how lucky they were to have one another. Every time sheíd met the closed expression on a worn and wrinkled face, she couldnít help but wish there was a place for everyone, a shoulder to lean on, and a pair of arms to hold them.
Her heart was still heavy with those impressions. Finally sheíd spent several hours on the phone at the Crisis Center hotline, listening to voices that pulled her even deeper into a vortex of sadness and despair. Catherine couldnít shake the feeling that she hadnít been of much help today. Those people needed someone who was able to give them her undivided attention, something she hadnít been able to do today. Her thoughts had kept revolving around her own sorrows and the ache inside her heart.
Catherine sat down on the couch and massaged her sore feet. She knew she had tried to drown out her own feelings of loneliness by taking on more duties than she actually could fulfill. Catherine leaned back against a throw pillow and closed her eyes, conceding to herself that she couldnít simply avoid the memories of past Christmases -- memories of a time of sharing, of belonging. She would have to face them in order to be able to eventually let go of her grief. Determined to do something, Catherine scrambled to her feet and went to her bedroom to get the Winterfest candle Vincent had given her one year ago.
Carefully, she unwrapped the precious keepsake and ran her fingers reverently across its smooth surface. How proud she had been to receive this gift from him, how touched that his family wanted her to be with them at a very special time of celebration. She had decided then and there that sheíd never light the candle. The mere thought of seeing it dissolve beneath a flame brought about a sense of panic, as if something precious within her might disappear along with the colored wax. Yet, Catherine realized, the candle had been made to give light. Its very nature was to be consumed in order to radiate light and warmth. To keep it in a drawer, no matter how safely it was wrapped and how fondly thought of, meant to keep it from serving its true purpose.
Returning to the living room, Catherine put the candle in a candle holder and placed it in the middle of the coffee table. Then, after fetching a box of matches from the kitchen, she hesitated for a moment before she struck a match and held it to the wick. Instantly the flame sprang to life and sent a ray of joy directly into Catherineís heart. The warmth that spread through her body had little to do with the fire of the flame. It was more like receiving the intimate gaze of a lover, a delicate wink of beloved eyes that held a world of meaning which couldnít be put into words.
Catherine reclined against the backrest of the couch and surrendered to the thoughts sheíd meant to avoid all evening. Thoughts of Vincent, of her longing to be with him, to have him take away the sadness and the pain through his mere presence. The knowledge that soon she would see him anyway, that she would spend Christmas Day Below, was barely any consolation at the moment. Why was it that Christmas Eve always made her feel so vulnerable? Maybe because in her family it had been the most intimate evening of the holidays. An evening of cozy moments, of stories, of simply being together. Just like it was for Vincent and the community Below on this special night. That was why he wasnít here, why he wouldnít come, because he had promised the children to be with them as he always had been in the past.
A sound from the balcony diverted her attention and she flinched as the flame all but burned her skin, but she hardly noticed the pain. Her heart was suddenly beating so fast that she almost forgot how to breathe. "Vincent?" she whispered to herself as she jumped up and hurriedly crossed the room to push open the terrace doors. Her heart sank when he wasnít there, and just when she was about to return inside, she heard his resonant voice softly calling her name. She pivoted and flew into his arms.
"You came," she whispered breathlessly. "Iím so glad youíre here." His arms tightened about her body, and she reveled in the feel of his solid strength against her. "I felt your sadness," Vincent said huskily, and she pulled back a little to look up into his face.
"Is that why you came?" she asked. "Iím sorry, Vincent. I didnít mean to draw you here. I didnít want to intrude upon your time with the children."
He returned her gaze silently, bringing up his hand to smooth the frown from her forehead with the pad of his thumb. "You didnít," he replied softly. "It was their idea that I come to you tonight."
She arched one eyebrow in surprise.
"The children suggested you come?" He nodded. "I suppose they didnít want
to put up with my absentmindedness any longer," he remarked with a twinkle
in his eyes. "They probably decided that I might just as well go to where
mind dwelled anyway."
Catherine laughed and hugged him tighter. "How wise of them," she said, "and how generous."
Suddenly she felt his fingers beneath her chin as he tilted up her face so that she had to meet his eyes. She waited for him to say something, but he didnít. He just gazed at her wordlessly and then tucked her close again. "Youíre cold," he whispered against the crown of her head. "Maybe we should...go inside."
Catherine noted fleetingly that she wasnít even overly surprised by his suggestion. After all, this was Christmas Eve, a proper time for miracles. She preceded him into the living room and when she turned around, she caught him regarding the burning candle on the table. "I think Iíve saved it for a special moment like this," she said quietly. One corner of his mouth lifted in a gentle half-smile and he nodded.
Catherineís heart turned over at the sight of him, a tall shadow in the middle of her living room, not quite belonging here but not really out of place either. He shrugged out of his cloak and she took it, automatically putting it over a chair as if sheíd done it a thousand times. They settled on the couches on either side of the coffee table and watched the silent dance of the flame.
"Youíre hurt," Vincent said suddenly.
Only now Catherine became aware of the pricking sensation on the skin of her palm. "Itís nothing," she said. "I didnít pay attention and got too close to the flame."
"Please show me," he demanded and she extended her hand obediently.
Cautiously, as if she were made of fragile porcelain, he cradled her fingers between his palms and studied her hand intently.
"Itís nothing," she repeated, but he kept looking at her hand thoughtfully.
"What?" she asked finally, slightly puzzled by his behavior.
"Why did you do it?" he asked.
"Do what?" she replied.
"Why did you reach for the flame?"
Slowly she withdrew her hand and rested it in her lap. "I donít think I had a particular reason," she said at last, lowering her gaze. She felt his eyes on her as he waited, and finally she lifted her head to meet his silent look.
"Maybe I craved the warmth so much that I was heedless of the pain heat can bring," she confessed reluctantly.
He said nothing, but she caught a brief flicker in his gaze before he looked away. She rose and walked around the table to sit beside him.
"Whatís upsetting you so, Vincent?" she asked softly.
"Itís my fault," he replied, "because I donít give you all the warmth you deserve."
"Donít be silly," she chided gently. "No one ever gave me more warmth and comfort than you."
"And yet it isnít enough," he murmured, still avoiding her eyes.
"You give me everything I need," she insisted.
Groaning softly, Vincent threw back his head and stared up at the ceiling.
"There are things one needs," he replied, slowly turning his eyes on her, "and things one might wish for."
She seized his hand and squeezed it tenderly. "Thatís true," she conceded, feeling him flinch at her candid admission.
"You crave the warmth, but the heat may hurt," he warned.
Wordlessly, she lifted his hand
to her mouth and when she felt no resistance from him, she pressed a gentle
kiss on his palm. He sat very still and she barely dared look at him, afraid
of seeing his reaction. "Did that hurt?" she asked, slowly raising her
gaze to his as she released his hand. His mouth curved in a smile and he
shook his head which seemed more like a gesture of indulgence than negation.
"How did it feel?"
Vincent stared at her without saying anything for a long moment, and she was just about to accept his silence when his low voice sent a shiver down her spine. "Too close to the flame."
"Iím sorry," Catherine murmured, "for playing with fire. I donít know what I was thinking. I just...wish so much that..." Suddenly she wasnít certain anymore if she should pursue the topic at all, but to her surprise she felt Vincentís hand on hers.
"Yes?" he coaxed gently.
Her heart skipped a beat as she met his crystal clear gaze. It was impossible to hide anything from those eyes. "I wish we could share more of the warmth," she whispered, "but itís also beautiful to simply look at the light."
Holding her gaze, he brought up her hand and smoothed open her palm. Slowly his head came down until she felt the touch of his mouth as he tasted her briefly with his tongue. Involuntarily, Catherine closed her eyes. She wasnít prepared for the softness of his lips, the incredible intimacy of the gesture. A sudden heat gathered in the pit of her stomach and she gasped helplessly with the intensity of it.
His arms came up and he pulled her against him, breathing a small kiss on top of her head. "The light seems so distant sometimes," he said, "and the darkness so close."
The hopelessness in his voice pierced her heart. "Even in the longest nights the light is never far away," she replied.
Vincent didnít respond right away, and for a long while they simply sat together, watching the dancing flame of the candle before them. Catherine listened to the steady ebb and flow of Vincentís breathing, grateful for the closeness he permitted on this night, this very special night. As if he had read her thought, he spoke into the silence, "Christmas is a time for wishes."
Catherine felt her heartbeat accelerate and she gently wriggled free from his tight hold to get a look at his face. He held her gaze with his, and as if drawn by invisible forces they leaned toward each other until their lips were only a breath apart. "A time to share the light," she whispered. "And to give warmth," he breathed before he closed the remaining distance between them.
His kiss was soft and hesitant,
yet she could feel his soul in it, his incredible tenderness, and an unmistakable
spark of desire. For an instant he paused, and she parted her lips slightly
to give him space to pull back, but he didnít. She felt his fingers tremble
as he wove them through her hair, cradling the back of her head with his
palm as he drew her closer still. To have him touch her like this, so confidently
and intimately, made her giddy with happiness and she felt like bursting
with joy. He released her then, regarding her with a wistful smile.
"Too close to the flame?" she asked breathlessly.
"Just right," he replied solemnly, "for now."
His thoughtful expression made her a little apprehensive. What if he regretted the step they had just taken? "Please tell me what youíre thinking," she demanded carefully.
"Once you asked me something, Catherine," he began slowly. "You asked if we would ever be together, truly together."
"I remember," she said, trying to ignore the rapid thumping of her heart.
He looked at her silently for a moment before lowering his eyes as he asked, "How close do you wish us to be?"
Catherine felt tears pool in her eyes. "Very close," she whispered, cupping his cheek with her hand as she guided his gaze back to hers.
He seized her wrist and leaned into her touch. "Be careful what you wish for, Catherine, because you might get it."
Catherine felt a tingling sensation spreading through her body as the implications of his remark sank in. "Because itís Christmas?" she asked. His eyes were dark and deep as he leaned toward her, and she savored his cool breath on her heated face.
"Because I love you," came his low reply, and she welcomed the velvety touch of his lips as he kissed her again.
He tasted of a winter breeze carrying the promise of snow. She inhaled deeply to take in as much of him as possible while she gently nibbled his lower lip. He gasped sharply as she released her breath into his slightly opened mouth. Suddenly Catherine felt herself being pulled into his lap. His large, warm hands caressed her back in slow, kneading motions, and she couldnít help but imagine his palms on her naked skin. She sighed, and his movements stopped abruptly. When her eyes opened into his, she caught him studying her intently. Sliding off his lap, Catherine knelt down between his legs and looked up at him.
"Tell me, Vincent," she demanded softly, "how much warmth do you think you can stand?"
He tilted his head to one side and cast down his gaze, but his hands seized her shoulders to pull her back up in his lap. She encircled his neck with her arms, moved beyond words when he buried his face in the folds of her sweater, murmuring, "I honestly donít know."
Pressing a reassuring kiss on the crown of his head, she replied, "Do you think we could try to find out?"
At that, he flung back his head and Catherine thought she detected the hint of a grin on his face as he cast her a sidelong glance.
"Okay then," she said, kissing his creased forehead, "letís work on it."
His features sobered, and his hand came up to cup the back of her head as he pulled her to him for another kiss. This time, he was the one who made a move forward by gently thrusting his tongue between her lips. Helpless to stifle a moan, she opened up to him, welcoming him as he explored her with complete abandon. Suddenly she felt the slight pressure of his thumb on her bottom lip.
"The feel of you," he mumbled against her mouth and she relished the warmth of his breath on her face. "It makes me hunger for you even more." Heat centered in her belly at his words, and the way he brushed his fingers over her lips in feathery touches left her breathless with desire.
"Vincent," she groaned, noting a desperate edge in her own voice. His mouth came down on hers again while his hand moved to her throat, encompassing it tenderly. He exuded no pressure, just rested his palm against the skin of her neck, and she felt her pulse accelerate even further as it fluttered against his warm touch. Without taking his lips from hers, he ran his hand along her shoulder and arm and pushed her back carefully on the couch, placing her amid the throw pillows as he shifted his weight to move above her. She threw her arms around his neck to pull him closer still, but he resisted gently.
Grasping her hand, he held it against his chest. "Feel my heart," he demanded in a raspy voice. "It pounds as if it would burst."
Smiling, she returned the gesture, pulling his hand to her breast. "Mine too," she whispered, and the way he looked down at the point of contact where he was touching her brought tears to her eyes. There was wonderment in his gaze, and awe, but a trace of fear as well, and she hastened to reassure him by lifting his hand and weaving her fingers through his. "Come here," she crooned, pulling him to her and cradling his head in the curve of her neck. With slow and tender strokes she smoothed his hair until she felt him relax against her. His arms tightened around her body, and he buried his nose in the hollow at the base of her throat, breathing her name. His softly bristled upper lip tickled her skin as he started nuzzling her neck. She sighed, and her resolve to take things slowly for a while melted away like snow in the sun. His actions aroused her to the point of pain, and her breath caught in her throat as she felt his tongue on her skin, licking her languidly and thoroughly until she thought sheíd go crazy with wanting him.
Gently bracing her hands against his shoulders, she whispered his name, and he froze, looking down at her contritely. She cupped his cheek and gave him a shaky smile. "Itís all right," she said huskily. "I just need you to be sure you really want to go where youíre leading us."
For a long, fragile moment he stared down at her wordlessly. Then he dropped his head to her chest, exhaling forcefully. "Iím sorry," he murmured. "I wasnít completely aware of what I was doing. I...couldnít resist...your responses to me." After another moment of silence, he added shyly, "I never thought that I would be able to affect you like this."
She expelled a brief, shaky laugh. "Believe me, Vincent, your effect on me is quite devastating."
That brought a smile from him, but he sat up nonetheless to distance himself a little from her. She followed him up, linking her arm through his as she leaned her head against his shoulder. "I didnít want you to stop," she told him quietly. "You know that, donít you?"
Vincent nodded slowly. "Iím grateful you kept a clear head," he said.
"Now, thatís a vast exaggeration," she retorted, grinning up at him just as he turned his head to cast her an amused glance. Growing serious again, she continued, "I just didnít want to pull you into anything you might not feel ready for."
His eyes remained locked to hers as he asked, "Are you certain that you are ready, Catherine?"
Her heart constricted with the implications of his words. "Yes," she whispered, not caring that her voice was trembling.
Heaving a sigh, he lowered his gaze and studied the furred backs of his hands. "I wish I could be certain that these..."
"I am certain," she replied to his unfinished thought, rubbing his back soothingly. "We donít have to rush this, Vincent. We have all the time in the world."
The light of the candle caught in his eyes as his head came up. He didnít dare look at her, but his words shook her to the core. "I want you so much that it frightens me, Catherine. If I were to act on those feelings, to give in to the overwhelming desire I feel..."
She sat up straight and brushed a kiss on his cheek. "Donít torture yourself so," she said. "Try not to fight your feelings. Things will happen in time."
Slowly his head swung around, his face only inches from hers. "Things...?" he said in a questioning tone, letting his voice trail away as he arched an eyebrow.
"Yes, things," she confirmed with a smile, poking his side playfully. He inclined his head, and his eyes conveyed a wealth of emotions before he averted them. "How about some tea?" she suggested, squeezing his arm affectionately.
"Yes, please," he said quietly, and the relief in his voice didnít go unnoticed by her.
As Catherine went through the routine of preparing tea, her mind kept revolving around the enormity of the step Vincent had taken tonight. That he had come to her, even inside her apartment, that he had kissed her, was telling her everything about his trust in her and his faith in their love. He had come so far, had taken so many hurdles, just because he had chosen to acknowledge her deepest wishes. And it touched her even more that he had come despite the fact that those wishes triggered the very fears in him which had kept them apart for so long. Tears formed in her eyes, and she reached blindly for the kettle, intending to pour boiling water over the tea leaves. Suddenly his hand was there, supporting her before taking the kettle from her and setting it down on the kitchen counter. Catherine turned and stepped gladly into his arms which closed around her instantly as he drew her into a comforting embrace.
"Iím so sorry," she whispered. "This has to be so difficult for you."
He shook his head, causing strands of his long hair to fall across her face. "I would hardly call it a sacrifice," he replied.
She looked up to search his face for any trace of bitterness, but his eyes were clear and serene, and a wistful smile played across the corners of his mouth.
"I love you," she whispered, "and I never meant to cause you any pain by feeling about you the way I do."
He bent close and placed a sweetly innocent kiss on her lips. "That we learn to live our love...as fully as we can...means everything to me," he said in a low voice. "Precious gems are deeply buried in the earth and can only be extracted at the expense of great labor. Iím not afraid of pain as long as I am the one who bears it. But if I ever were to..." His voice broke and he buried his face in her hair. Finally he added quietly, "Sometimes I think that you must be terribly disappointed, Catherine."
Her heart went out to him as he stood there, head bowed, and momentarily unwilling to meet her eyes. "Never," she said entreatingly. "No one in this world knows my heart better than you, but, Vincent, I donít expect you to fulfill every single wish you sense in me. As long as I know that I have your love, Iím not missing anything."
She felt the movement of his head as he shook it in denial. "Sometimes Iíve got a feeling," he whispered hoarsely, "as if Iíve wasted precious time by...hesitating. I feel as if I were stealing it away from your life."
She tilted her face upward, needing to see his eyes. "You told me once," she began carefully, "that we were setting out on a path none have ever taken. I believe that on a path like ours there can be no wasted time. Even the smallest step toward love will give you all the protection you need against doubts and fears." She cupped her hands on his jaw a moment, then ran them through his hair before placing them on his shoulders. "Let me be there for you, Vincent," she pleaded. "I want to protect you from fears -- always."
His shoulders fell as he let out a great breath. A shudder ran through his body, and she hugged him to her again to still the tremors that shook him. They stood together in silence, and Catherine felt peace and contentment flood her soul as she listened to the ebb and flow of Vincentís breathing and the steady rhythm of his heart.
Vincent leaned back on one of the couches in the living room and watched fondly as Catherine poured them some tea. They had both laughingly agreed it didnít matter that it had steeped a little too long. He sighed, grateful to be here with her, to be wrapped in her understanding and the current of desire that throbbed gently, but persistently, just beneath the surface of their peaceful togetherness. He watched with rapt attention as she handed him the sugar, and felt a pleasant spark of electricity course through his veins as his hands brushed against hers when he took the delicate bowl. He marveled that such a small thing could still affect him so after what they had shared earlier this evening. The memory of their ardent, intimate kisses drove a blush up across his neck and face, and he was glad that it wasnít likely to be visible to Catherine. She settled herself comfortably on the couch opposite him and regarded him calmly. He reached for his tea, dismayed that his hand was still shaking a little as he brought the cup to his mouth and took a sip of the hot, spicy liquid. Putting down the cup, he looked up to meet Catherineís heavy-lidded gaze.
"You must be tired," he observed solicitously. "Youíve been on your feet all day long." She cast him an alarmed look, and he glanced away briefly, watching the silent dance of the candle flame between them. "I felt your distress," he admitted at last, "and your fatigue."
Catherine set down her mug and came over to sit beside him. "But Iím not tired anymore," she said, "not one bit."
He smiled indulgently. "I didnít mean I was leaving," he reassured her. Her features brightened, and she slid over against his side. He took her hand in a gentle clasp, stifling a gasp when her fingers interlaced with his. This sharing of touches, the sensation of skin on skin was still overwhelmingly new to him. Having her so close affected him strongly; she was so...willing and ready, eager for any kind of intimacy he might allow. Sensing her eyes on him, he made a study of their joined hands. He wanted so much to kiss her, to pull her close to his body and give in to the rush of heat that filled the pit of his stomach, steadily spreading outward, downward, to finally, inevitably, center in his groin. Catherine flexed her fingers as if to withdraw them, but he maintained his hold on her, looking at her at last. At the slightest tug of his hand, she came into his lap, curling up against him and tucking her head beneath his jaw. He held her like that for a long while, savoring the tingling sensation the pressure of her slight weight caused in his lower body.
"Vincent," she said suddenly, "you fulfilled one of my most dearest dreams tonight. What about your secret wishes? I canít look inside you as clearly as you can do with me, so I need your help in this."
His mind reeled. He was holding the world in his arms -- all soft and yielding and smelling like Heaven, all his -- and she asked what he could possibly wish for. Helplessly he shook his head.
"Come on," she insisted, "thereís got to be something I can do for you, just like what you did for me when you kissed me at last."
"Thatís different," he replied. "Kissing you was my wish, too."
"Then if you donít tell me what it is, how can you know that it isnít my wish as well?" she offered.
"The price for finding out might be too high," he said simply.
She pulled back slightly and looked up at him concerned. "What do you expect me to do?" she asked. "Jump and run from you, if you trusted me with your innermost soul?"
"I would trust you with my soul any time," he said evasively. How could he ever hope she would understand that strange desire of his to...
"But you have difficulty trusting me with your body," she observed calmly, breaking his train of thought.
He slipped her off his lap and back beside him, and then rose up from the couch. Instantly she caught at his sleeve in an attempt to hold him back. "Vincent, please," she implored him. "Of course, you donít have to answer me. I didnít mean to push you and Iím sorry for causing you such distress. But donít distance yourself from me."
He raised his arms and let them fall in a shrug. How could he not trust her with his secret? She was right, he knew many intimate things about her simply because of his empathic ability which was heightened and intensified by the bond they shared. How could he deny her something that obviously was so important to her? She was giving him so much of herself. Of course, she deserved an answer. Gathering his courage about him, but still avoiding her gaze, he began to speak.
"From the time I was young, I dreamt of being held close -- close enough to someone to feel the warmth of their body against mine. I longed for it. Sometimes...I ached for it. To be held, tenderly, against the breast of a woman, to have my head stroked gently, to hear a voice whisper that all is safe and well." When his throat felt so tight that no more words could pass through, he fell silent, waiting for her reaction. He heard her rise from the couch and counted her soft footsteps as she approached him.
"That is something Iíve been wanting to do for a very long time now," she whispered close to his shoulder. Then she stepped around him and looked up at him with pleading eyes. "Will you let me be the one, Vincent? Will you allow me to hold you like that?"
He swallowed. "Because it is Christmas?" he asked, glancing at her and then away again.
"Because I love you," she breathed, "and because I want it, too. Very much."
She extended one hand and he took it, following her to the bedroom with legs that felt so heavy he thought he couldnít lift them for even one more step. His heartbeat was like thunder in his ears as he watched her discard the heavy sweater sheíd been wearing all evening. If heíd ever felt more uneasy in his life, he couldnít remember it at the moment. But she didnít give him time to change his mind. She reached for him and pulled him down with her as she laid back on her bed. His body felt so tense that his limbs wouldnít obey him as he tried to settle down at her side.
"Come," she crooned, "itís all right. Come here." With that she encircled his neck with one arm and drew him close. His body was still resisting her pull, so his head came to rest on her shoulder, but she tugged at his hair so persistently that he finally ended up lying against her breast. He felt the soft fabric of her blouse against his cheek, and just beneath it another texture which must be a piece of feminine lingerie. But he didnít have time to pursue the thought, for she ran her fingers through his hair, tenderly massaging his temples and scalp. It felt so good that he couldnít prevent himself from moaning out loud. Embarrassed, he tried to stifle the sound by burying his face against her soft body. Suddenly her scent invaded him with such force that he sucked in his breath greedily and then held it for a moment, reluctant to release her fragrance from his lungs. She continued stroking him gently, and when he briefly opened his eyes, he saw the swell of her breasts right before him. Curling up against her more tightly, he closed his eyes again and gave himself to her tender caresses and the steady rise and fall of her breathing until it carried him away on a cloud of contentment so irresistible that he was overcome by sleep at last.
Involuntarily, Catherine tightened her arms around Vincentís shoulders. She turned her head slightly, hoping to get a look at his relaxed features, but all she could see was the crown of his head as he rested against her, breathing calmly. Long tresses of his hair spilled out across her own body, and she would have loved to bury her face in it, but she couldnít move beneath the pressure of his body. He was heavy, and she shifted her arm and shoulder to better accommodate his weight. He stirred and nuzzled deeper between her breasts, and an involuntary sigh escaped him as he clasped her waist with one big, strong hand. Catherine knew that he was asleep, and it filled her with joy and satisfaction that he would cling to her like that. His trust moved her deeply, and she wept silently for the lonely boy he had been and for the mother he had never had. Careful not to wake him, she ran her fingers through his bangs, resting her hand on top of his head, and wishing she could hold him even tighter to her. She could barely contain the tenderness she felt for him and strained to lift her head and kiss his hair which was all she could reach. His fingers flexed as he gripped her waist even tighter, and she winced reflexively as his long nails dug through the fabric of her blouse.
He jerked awake, instantly alert as he stared down at her with wide and wary eyes. Silently chastising herself for her mindless reaction, Catherine reached up to stroke his face soothingly.
"Itís all right," she whispered. "Everythingís all right."
Slowly he sat up and brought his hands before his face to study them in confusion. "Did I hurt you?" he asked.
"No," she replied truthfully. His nails hadnít even stung her. She had reacted to the feel of them, just as she would to someone tickling her. "I felt...you flinch," he said haltingly.
She cast him a broad smile. "You tickled me," she replied, delighted when a furtive smile spread across his features.
"I didnít mean to fall asleep," he murmured.
She knelt up to frame his face with her hands. "I loved holding you like that," she said, "and the fact that you relaxed enough to fall asleep in my arms honors me."
He shook his head, hiding behind the curtain of his hair as he reached for her hand and pulled it to his mouth. It was such a small kiss, his lips barely touching her skin, yet it inflamed her instantly and completely.
Without releasing her hand, Vincent pulled back a little and looked at her thoughtfully. His expression was so serious that Catherine experienced an involuntary twinge of guilt for bombarding him with the intensity of her feelings. But he was so hard to resist. She ran her eyes over him as he knelt before her on the bed, his hair sleep-tousled and his eyelids heavy with drowsiness. She concentrated on the throbbing of the pulse at the side of his neck, wishing she could touch him there, but not quite daring to at the moment.
"Maybe itís time for yet another wish of yours," he said in a deep, raspy voice.
"You mean I can open another package?" she replied in a half-hearted attempt at teasing.
He said nothing, and Catherine thought her heart would stop beating as he reached up to the laces of his vest and started to unfasten them one by one. At a loss for words, she watched in stunned fascination as he slid the padded garment off his shoulders and arms. His hands went up to the collar of his heavy shirt, undoing its fastenings with deft movements. Only when the front of the shirt came open, revealing a tawny profusion of hair peeking out from beneath a patched undershirt, did Catherineís mind begin to function again. She was a little shocked, but not at all surprised, that Vincent knew of her secret wish to see him, to touch him, all of him. Heat rose in her cheeks at the image rising within her, an image that was quickly surpassed by the sight before her eyes. He had discarded his shirt, and his movements betrayed not the slightest hesitation as he pulled off the undershirt as well. Resting his palms on his thighs as he sat back on his heels, he waited silently for her reaction.
Catherine had known all along that she could never find him anything but beautiful, but the truth of him was so much more than she had expected. She dropped her gaze to the elegant, sensitive hands that rested on the tautly stretched fabric of his jeans. Her eyes traveled up his muscular, hairy arms to his wide shoulders, and then to his broad, heaving chest which was covered with soft-looking hair. Wondering if it would feel as silky as it appeared, Catherine brought up one hand. For a moment, she held it suspended in the air between them, as if touching him was something sacred she wasnít yet ready for. But suddenly his hand was there, holding and guiding her toward him. She leaned forward, combing reverent fingers through the sleek hair that covered him, not noticing her awkward position until he put his arms around her and drew her to him. Finally she knelt between his thighs, and the pull of him was so intense that she couldnít help but bury her face against his chest, pressing soft, searching kisses on his skin. He groaned, and she noted with silent joy that he didnít try to conceal it this time. Her mouth traveled up the valley between his strong pectoral muscles, and she lost herself in nibbling his throat and the underside of his jaw. Suddenly her blouse was being tugged from the waistband of her jeans, and Vincentís warm, rough palms slid up her back, stroking and caressing her tingling skin.
Her lips reached the corners of his mouth, and she probed gently with her tongue, begging for entrance. He took her in gladly, eagerly, and she grabbed his shoulders, clinging to him with something akin to desperation. The cleft in his upper lip was sleek and tender, and she found out quickly that it brought a devastating response from him if she touched him there. He was panting now, and his scent had changed from the usual odor of candlewax and night air to a heady muskiness that numbed her thinking, but sensitized everything else in her.
"No more turning back," was all she could manage before she drowned in his hot, ardent kisses. She felt herself being lifted from his lap as Vincent put her down amid the pillows, and for a moment he hovered above her as if he were hesitating. Instantly her arm snaked around his neck to prevent him from withdrawing.
"No more turning back," he reassured her in a breathy voice before he lowered himself on top of her, taking her mouth in a surprisingly gentle kiss. "No more barriers between us," she whispered into his ear, and he pushed himself to his knees again, watching as she sat up and started working on the buttons of her blouse. Her hands were shaking and she was glad when he tenderly brushed them aside and finished the task for her. She watched his face very closely as he undid her bra and pulled it off. His eyes were luminous and deep as he ran them appreciatively over her bare skin. Soon his hands followed, and finally his lips. She watched in a haze as he left her briefly to pull off the rest of his clothing, and she enjoyed his self-confidence when he freed her of hers. Only when she felt his furred belly brush against hers, did she take action again. She rose on one elbow and pushed him on his back, surveying the full length of him admiringly. "I love you, Vincent," she whispered, "and here is my last and ultimate wish."
He looked up at her with wonderment in his eyes. "Anything, Catherine," he promised, his voice hoarse with emotion.
She lowered her head and kissed him tenderly. "Be there with me," she demanded softly, "every Christmas and every day of my life, because you are all Iíll ever wish for."
He rolled her on her back, and she kissed the tears from his lashes as he joined their bodies at last.
The light of Christmas morning fell in through the bedroom windows as Catherine smiled down on her most precious gift who lay sprawled across her bed in all his naked glory. His eyes were still shut, but she could feel that he was close to awakening. Bending over him, she placed a tender kiss on his bristled upper lip.
"Merry Christmas, darling," she
whispered soulfully, "and a happy new life."