Catherine stepped out of the shower, stood in front of the mirror and studied her body dispassionately. Her breasts were perky and firm but would Vincent think they were too small? Her waist dipped just where it should and she thought she had a nicely rounded backside but... Too boyish for Vincent? Her stomach too flat? She shivered, reached for a towel, and wrapped it around her hair. A second larger towel soon encased her body and she felt warm again—warm with the knowledge that she didn’t have to worry. Vincent would find her perfect—if he ever had the courage to look at her naked, that is. She chuckled. She doubted if he’d have the courage to stay in the same room with her, if she were naked. Then again… Well that cloak of his didn’t hide everything. She’d seen, and felt, the rise of his desire on more than one occasion. Each time she threw herself at him for a hug, she’d had the satisfaction of feeling his erection. Didn’t he ever wonder why she was such a fan of hugs?
If she had her way, there’d be more than hugs tonight. Much more. Her stomach fluttered in anticipation. Oooh, I bet Vincent felt that. Catherine giggled.
"Where would I find a mirror?" Vincent asked.
"A mirror?" Canin’s words sounded strained and he stared mouth agape.
Vincent sighed inwardly. Everyone knew he avoided mirrors and now here he was desperately searching for one. Canin would tell Olivia. Olivia would tell Mary. Mary would tell… The whole tunnel community would be speculating about this before the day was out.
"Yes. I need a mirror. A large one."
"I remember seeing one behind the chests in the storage chamber but it was badly cracked."
"That will suffice."
Twenty minutes later Vincent propped the mirror against his desk. Canin was wrong. It wasn’t cracked. It wasn’t tarnished. It was perfect. He’d get a better picture of himself than he wanted.
He endured two literature classes heavy with speculative looks from the oldest students, and a hasty dinner in the dining chamber where he was subjected to whispers and covert stares. Now, still damp from his bath, Vincent stood in front of that same mirror. He let his robe fall to the floor. He had never contemplated his body reflected in water let alone a mirror. When bathing he submerged himself and washed as quickly as possible. He'd never looked down at his limbs or torso when dressing—just pulled his clothes on swiftly. Childish behaviour? Yes. Cowardly? Yes. But he had never before succumbed to his curiosity and really looked at himself. He hadn’t wanted to have his worst fears confirmed.
Clad in sweats and short sleeved t-shirt he didn’t look too bad, he decided. Biceps to be proud of, flat stomach that didn’t need sucking in, well muscled shoulders—obviously there was something to be said for hard manual labor. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I can do this. For Catherine. He pulled the t-shirt over his head and divested himself of the sweats. He took another deep breath and opened his eyes. Several seconds passed. "Well, I’ll be damned," he muttered. Except for his face and hands he looked pretty darn normal. Considerably more hair than the men he’d seen below when they took their shirts off, definitely more hair than Devon, who claimed his chest hairs had worn off as was to be expected on any playground. But apart from that? Normal.
Ironically, his head and hands, the two body parts exposed to view, were really the only two that looked freakish. His feet were okay, the toe nails a bit long, but that the rest of him should be so… so... Normal, was the only word that came to mind. His hair growth patterns were no different than any other man. Surely, his body wouldn’t be a repulsive to Catherine. Not when she was so accepting of his face and hands. These hands are my hands. And the number of times her hands had reached for his face. She always resisted, at the last minute, those urges to touch. Why? Afraid of his reaction?
Catherine giggled again as she dried her hair. Olivia’s description of the look on Father’s face-what she wouldn’t have given to have seen for herself.
Olivia had greeted Catherine’s request with quiet aplomb. "Of course it has to be down here," she said.
"Well as much as I’d like to seduce him in my apartment, have him wake to sunlight…"
"I know," Olivia soothed. "Much safer down here."
"As long as Father doesn’t find out." Catherine made a face and the two women collapsed in giggles.
"Seriously," Olivia gasped when they had regained some control, "You don’t want Father to find out. Imagine what he would have to say."
"That’s the problem. I can imagine it. All too clearly." That set them off on another round of laughter.
"So where do we start?"
"We need a private, romantic place."
Olivia’s brows furrowed in thought, and then her eyes lit with glee. "Leave it to me."
Two weeks later Olivia led Catherine to an unused chamber near the hub. Most every adult was hovering around the entrance when Olivia and Catherine arrived. Catherine stiffened when she saw them, mortified that they knew her intent, and fought an urge to flee. She glared at Olivia who shrugged as if to say, What's a person to do? The helpless look on her face made Catherine relax. To be fair she hadn't asked Olivia to keep their plans secret. Oh, what the hell? They'd have all figured it out soon enough anyway. She shrugged her shoulders and smiled at Olivia.
"Vincent’s supervising the children swimming. No chance of him seeing us," Pascal said.
"We did our best. I made extra scented candles with rose petals." Rebecca's smile was warm and encouraging.
"Strong lock." Mouse jiggled the padlock that hung from the door handle by way of demonstration. "OK good, OK fine." He glanced at Catherine and ducked his head.
"Name your day, and we’ll have roses."
"Don’t forget wine and chocolate mints on the pillows," William admonished.
Lena and Rebecca exchanged mildly bawdy comments in low tones that Catherine was sure she was meant to hear and several of the men nudged each other with knowing winks.
Catherine was speechless. What they had all done… She couldn’t thank them enough. And not just for the creation of this idyllic boudoir, but for what their contributions said about their acceptance of her and their support of the advancement of her relationship with Vincent. She clamped down hard on her emotions. Vincent didn’t need to feel this.
"So when’s the big day?" Rebecca asked.
"Don’t you mean night?" Mary countered with a sly smile.
Catherine felt the heat rising and knew she was blushing when Pascal grinned, patted her on the arm, and offered a few soothing words.
"Friday. Night," Catherine finally managed to say. "I’ve told Vincent I have a work banquet to go to with Joe.
"Little white lie never hurt for a good cause." William came to her defence.
But it was Olivia’s story of Father that shocked her the most. He had come upon the chamber the next day and confronted Mary who apparently chickened out and sent him to Olivia.
"I tried to tell him the chamber was for Canin and me," Olivia said, "but he didn’t buy it. He harrumphed and stomped around as best he could with his bad leg, waved his cane at me, and muttered something about deceivers going to hell. I broke down and told him the truth."
"And?" Catherine had asked with bated breath.
"His mouth fell open, his eyebrows shot sky high—you should have seen it. He harrumphed a whole lot more and then said, ‘Don’t forget roses. Red ones. Lots of them. And champagne.’"
"He said what?"
"You heard right." Olivia grinned. "I was floored too. But I almost fell over when he said, ‘About time.’"
"I would have fallen over, if I’d been there," Catherine said, shaking her head in amazement. Unbelievable. She’d have to find a way to thank him.
Catherine chuckled again and felt a bit smug. She’d finally won Father’s approval. Now to win Vincent.
She had decided on a particular diaphanous negligee with a pair of fluffy high heeled slippers—not exactly tunnel proof but what the hell—tonight was special. She planned to wear her long coat over the nightgown—until she got Vincent to the chamber that is.
Something was up with Catherine. He could feel it. Her emotions were roller coasting between excitement, anticipation, and trepidation. She’d been this way for a couple of weeks. Surely, it couldn’t be the night out with Joe. Could it? Her mood swings worried him. Joe was picking her up at nine. There was time to go see her. He grabbed his cloak, swung past Father coming down the tunnel towards his chamber, greeted him with a quick ‘good night’.
"Vincent," Father called out. "Enjoy your evening." Vincent turned back to see Father looking at him with what he could have sworn was a smirk. He paused, curious, but just then Catherine’s anxiety slammed into him and he hurried to her building.
The familiar tap on her window alerted Catherine to Vincent’s presence. Damn, what was he doing here now? He was supposed to be below, occupied with the children. Then, at the right time, Canin was to bring him to the chamber where she’d be waiting. A second tap, impatient this time. She dropped the hair dryer and towel and made a mad grab for her robe stubbing her baby toe on the bed leg.
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" She sucked in her breath as she sank to the bed. Vincent stormed through the doors.
"Catherine, are you all right?" he called.
She stood and faced him grimacing with the pain.
"Catherine…" She would have laughed at the shocked look on his face if her toe hadn’t hurt so much.
"Catherine." He sounded like he was choking.
"Yes?" she purred.
"Catherine?" He still sounded like he was choking. His eyes widened and darkened. He gasped for breath. He took a half step toward her, one hand raised as if to caress her cheek. After a heart stopping moment he let his hand fall to his side, but he didn't back away. She was pretty sure he found no fault with her naked body.
Catherine stepped towards him slowly until she stood only inches away. She reached up to unfasten his cloak. He made no move to stop her. "Why don’t you take your clothes off, and stay awhile?" she said as his cloak slid to the floor.