LION PRIDE

Lea


“ Hi, Ms Chandler ! ”

It took Catherine a few seconds to put a name on the smiling face. “ Sally, Sally Kendall! Oh hello ! How are you ? ”

“ It’s Sally Carson, now, Ms Chandler, I took back my maiden name, didn’t want to keep anything belonging to that bastard ! And I’m doing real fine now, thanks to you ! ”

“Thanks to your courage, Sally ! You do look a lot better than two years ago ! ” She could remember the thin, frightened thing in a hospital bed, covered with bruises and stitches. She was scared to death, but had finally accepted to depose against the savage brute she’d had the bad luck to marry, and Catherine had convinced the tribunal to send him to jail for three years.

“ I bet this is your little girl, Ms Chandler ? ”

“ Yes, it’s Caroline. ”

Sally bent and took the child’s hand. “ Hello, Caroline, you have the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. ”

“ I thought you’d moved to California ? ”

“ I did, I’m only here for one month, a training session for my job. ”

“ Still working as an aesthetician ? ”

“ Well, not exactly, I still do make-ups, but a different kind, I work for television now. Do you know  ' Effie the Werewolf Hunter' ” ?

“ Sorry, no, we don’t watch TV much… ”

“ Your daughter is still too young, teenagers are just mad about it. I do make-ups for the show, I’m quite good at werewolves, and they want me to create  some new characters, so I’m here to learn some techniques I'll need. ”

“ I’m really glad to hear  you’re doing well, Sally. ”

“ I really owe you, Ms Chandler ! ”

“ Catherine. And you don’t owe me anything ! ”

“ But I’d like to do something…I know ! Caroline, I’m sure you’re invited to a Halloween party. How would you like a professional-style make-up ? I could make a lovely kitten out of you…or a lion cub, maybe ?"

Caroline winced and looked at her mother. Sally laughed. “ It doesn’t hurt, you know…Hey, are you all right, Ms Chandler…Catherine ? ”

“ Yes…I was just thinking…maybe you’ve given me an idea. Where can I get in touch with you, Sally ? ”

***

Catherine took Caroline straight to the closest Tunnel entrance. The rest of their shopping could wait, and she had some planning to do. By luck Devin happened to be there. Since Charles’ death, two years before, he had resumed his wandering life, but his visits to the Tunnels had become more frequent, and  tended to last longer. She was glad of his presence. The ideas Sally had given her were appealing, but also risky…and in more than one way.  Devin was exactly the person she needed, because, just like herself, he’d always refused to take for granted the limits that restricted Vincent’s life. She’d also need his help to convince Father…especially as her projects also included her son…

But, with some careful planning, and a lot of persuasion, she would be able to offer her family a really memorable Halloween. The hardest thing would be to keep it a surprise, as the bond she shared with Vincent made it almost impossible to hide anything from him. He already knew she was excited about something, and she could feel he was wondering what it was, and why she was coming Below early. He was sorry to be stuck in the lower Tunnels for another two or three hours, and she did her best not to let him know that, for once, she was glad about it…

***

“ Do you think you can do it, Sally ? ”

“ Of course ! It’s not really difficult… and it’s beautiful ! Where did you get that picture ? ”

“ Oh…a friend of mine took it…a painted wall, somewhere. ”

She smiled, she was telling the exact truth….but God help Devin if Father ever found out he’d sneaked a camera into the Painted Tunnels !

***
“ Not so fast, Daddy ! ”

“ Sorry, Jacob ! ” Vincent slowed down to let his son catch up, and took his hand. The boy grinned.

“ You’re in a hurry to find out, aren’t you, Daddy ? ”

“ Find out ? ”

“ About the surprise ! Mommy and Caroline have a Halloween surprise for us, I can’t wait to know what it is ! ”

Vincent smiled. Something had been up for two weeks, something Catherine was happy and excited about, though she tried hard not to let too much of it seep through the bond. Halloween had always been a special time for them, and tonight was the tenth anniversary of the wonderful night they’d spent walking in the streets together.

Becoming parents themselves had made them more receptive to Father’s arguments about security, and for years now they had spent Samhain safely Below. But Catherine always found a way to make it a special occasion…what was she up to this time ? There was going to be a Halloween party in the Tunnels tonight, and the logical thing would have been for Catherine and Caroline to join them Below. But Mary, with a somewhat mysterious smile, had given Vincent and Jacob their costumes, two matching “ fairy-tale-prince ” outfits, all ruffles and shiny satin, along with a message from Catherine asking them to come to their house. And Jacob was right, Vincent was getting really impatient to find out what was waiting for them. But by the time they got there he could sense a change in Catherine’s mood. As she felt him approach, she was getting more and more nervous .

***

“ They’re coming, Mommy ! Are you ready ? ” Caroline was burbling with joyful expectation, but Catherine felt panic rise. What had she done ? How was Vincent going to react ? What if he didn’t like it ? If he was hurt by it ? She had been so sure it was a good idea, but all certitudes had deserted her by now. My God, what if…

“ Mommy, they’re coming up the stairs ! Remember what we said, come on, turn round ! ”

Catherine sighed, too late anyway, and turned her back to the wardrobe door that led to the hidden staircase, holding her daughter’s hand.

***
Vincent stepped in after his son and closed the door. There they were, facing the other way, expectably dressed in beautiful “ fairy-tale-princess ” costumes. He could feel Caroline’s happy excitement, and Catherine’s almost desperate anxiety. What could she have done to be so scared of his reaction ?

“ Mommy, Caroline, we’re home ! So what’s the surprise ? ”

Caroline tugged at her mother’s hand and slowly, reluctantly, Catherine turned to face her husband. He gasped. “ Catherine ! ”

In front of him were two feminine replicas of Jacob and himself.

Catherine, his beautiful Catherine, had made herself up to look like…him !

“ Hey, neat ! Now we really look like twins ! ” Jacob and his sister were looking at themselves in the mirror, laughing.

Vincent’s very first reaction was shock. His physical difference had always been a source of pain to him, it was not something to play with…but of course Catherine was not playing. She had found yet another way to tell him that she loved everything he was, that she was everything he was. And it made her even more beautifully Catherine.

“ Vincent… ” The green eyes were pleading, he could feel she was ready to cry.

“ Catherine, you are…I have no words to express… ” He smiled, and felt a wave of relief sweep over her. “ It seems to me that the only appropriate comment would be … ” he surprised her with a low, suggestive growl.

She smiled as widely as her fake upper lip allowed, showing sharp white fangs, and he suddenly understood better why she found his own smile attractive.

“ I take it that means you like it ? ”

“ I do. You are beautiful, Catherine. ” He pulled her into his embrace and whispered in her ear “ And you have the sexiest smile ! ”

Vincent did not very often use that kind of words, even in their moments of intimacy, and when he did, it always had the most devastating effect on her. She melted instantly in his arms. “ Vincent, I love you ! ”

They were called back to reality by Caroline’s voice. “ How do you like our Halloween surprise, Daddy ? ”

“ It is a wonderful surprise, Caroline, you are the two loveliest princesses I ever saw ! ”

She pulled him and Catherine in front of the mirror, and Jacob joined them. “ Have you seen, Daddy, we really look like a family, now ! ”

Vincent studied the strange picture the mirror reflected, a picture straight out of a fairy tale, the royal family of some fantasy kingdom. Or maybe the family he might have had, in a world where he wouldn’t have been born alone of his kind… He knelt and faced his son.

“ Jacob, we are a family, no matter what we all look like, it is what we feel that is important. Love is the most important of all, never forget it ! ”

“ I won’t, Daddy ! ” the boy promised solemnly. Then he threw his arms around his father’s neck. “ I love you ! ”

Caroline did the same. “ Me too ! ”

Catherine bent to hug them. “ I love you ! ” and Vincent closed his great arms around his most cherished treasures. “ And I love you ! ”

A few seconds of emotion were more than enough for Jacob, who wiggled out of his parents’ arms .

“ Are we going to the party, now ? ”

Vincent smiled. “ Yes, Jacob, you and I will have the honor to escort two beautiful princesses Below. ”

Catherine and Caroline exchanged a mischievous look.

“ We will go to the party… later. First we have something else to do. ”

“ Another surprise ? ” Jacob asked eagerly.

Caroline couldn’t wait any more. “ We’re going out ! ”

“ You mean out in the streets, really ? ” Jacob couldn’t believe it. He’d sometimes been out in the Park at night with his father, but that was all he knew of the world Above, apart from what could be seen from behind the curtained windows of their house. It was hard on him, more so as Caroline was free to come and go between the two worlds, even if she did her best to share everything with him. It was also hard on Vincent, who had to bend his son’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm, and explain to him why Above was a dangerous place for them without crushing his childish innocence with too much blunt truth about human nature.

“ Daddy, it’s true ? We’re really going out ? ”

“ Catherine… ”

“ It’s all right, Vincent, it’s safe. Even Father agreed ! We won’t stay very long, but it’s a unique opportunity to go out together, like any family. ”

Like any family…Vincent found the idea very appealing, but… “ Catherine, if anything should happen… ”

“ We'd take care of it ! ” said a familiar voice.

“ Devin ! ” Vincent turned to face a handsome tiger, followed by his tigress and their cub, in Victorian clothes.

“ Hello, little brother ! ”

“ Hi, Vincent ! ”

“ Lena, Cathy ? But what… ”

“ We’re your escort ! ” Devin answered. “ The more important a group is, the less the individuals will be noticed. And count on me to attract attention ! If a problem came up, I’d create enough diversion for you and Jacob to get to the closest Tunnel entrance. ” He offered Lena his arm, and Vincent noticed that, while the others were wearing gloves, Devin’s hands were covered with hair and tipped with sharp claws, just like his own…

“ And now, let’s go ! Samhain is only once a year, brother, so enjoy your time out ! And if people stare, it will only mean they think your costumes are beautiful…which they are…But as ours are even more spectacular, I bet we’ll get all the stares and you’ll go completely unnoticed ! ” Devin added with a toothy grin.

They all donned long cloaks, black like Vincent’s for Devin and Jacob, white for the ladies, and went down the stairs to the main door. Vincent took Catherine’s hand.

“ We have been living in this house for nearly seven years…and I never used this door. ”

“ Maybe you should make a wish ? ”

“ I already have everything I could ever wish for, including a very clever and extremely beautiful wife ! ”

***

On the way she told him the whole story.  Two friends of Sally’s had given her a hand with the tigers, but she’d insisted on taking care of Caroline and Catherine personally.

“ She has done a beautiful work indeed ! But how did she know what it should look like ? ”

With a certain embarrassment, she told him what Devin had done for her. “ I had to give Sally a model. By the way, she thinks you’re beautiful… but much too attractive for her usual line of work. Jacob ! Where do you think you are going ? ”

While talking, they had come to a wide animated street and Jacob’s eyes widened, trying to take everything in. Vincent  had to hold his hand firmly to prevent him from running from place to place. Caroline and Cathy, feeling  very experienced and streetwise, started explaining everything to him.

For nearly two hours, they walked through the brightly-lit streets. Catherine could feel Vincent’s happiness as he walked in the lights of the city with his family. They did get some stares, but not that many, as lots of other people were wearing masks or costumes. If someone looked at them too insistently, Devin made a show of some sort, snarling , bouncing, or chasing a giggling Lena. He even roared in a very convincing way. When Vincent made an appreciative comment he grinned.

“  You know I’ve always been  the wildest of the two ! ”

Something else made Catherine smile, it was the way Vincent, with his height, his hair, and the feline grace of his movements, seemed to attract feminine eyes. In his beautiful clothes he looked more wildly romantic than ever, and she felt rather smug at the idea that other women envied her her wonderful husband.

But finally the children slowed down, and even Jacob seemed to run out of energy…and of questions. Catherine was beginning to feel her feet.
“ I think it’s time to go back. ” she said

“ Mommy, I’m tired ! ” Caroline complained

Devin pointed to a cafe  on the other side of the street.

“ It seems everybody needs a rest, so before going Below we’re going to sit down for a drink, or an ice-cream. ”

The idea got the children’s instant and noisy approbation, but Vincent hesitated.

“ Devin… ”

“ Don’t be a spoilsport, brother, everything’s going fine ! This place looks nice, what do you think, Chandler ? ”

“ It would be nice to sit down for a while. ”

Vincent yielded. Devin conquered a  table in a corner of the brightly-lit cafe and they all managed to tuck in around it, sitting down with sighs of pleasure.  Jacob would have liked one of the huge ice-creams he saw at a nearby table, but Catherine made him lower his pretensions to a chocolate sundae, and, knowing how much Vincent loved chocolate, persuaded him to order one for himself, despite his protests. The others safely opted for sodas or milk-shakes, as eating with fangs in their mouths was something they lacked training for…

***

Joe Maxwell had  watched them come in, and was idly observing them. They were a happy-looking group, and their disguises were just beautiful. He particularly liked the lion-family. A tall, strong, gentle father, an enthusiastic little boy, a calm, dreamy-eyed little girl, and a gracious and attentive mother, all dressed and made up with a perfection that told of careful planning for a very special evening together. He suddenly felt cheap in his ill-fitting rented pirate outfit, waiting for a girl he didn’t really care about, and who was already twenty minutes late. Why had he accepted to go to that stupid party ? Why didn’t he have a family of his own, a woman he could look at the same way the tall blond man looked at his wife ? The man said something, causing the woman to laugh out loud, and Joe gasped. Cathy ? He looked closer. Yes, Cathy ! How hadn’t he recognized her ? The girl was Caroline, of course…and the tall blond guy had to be her father, Cathy’s mystery-man. Joe recapitulated what he knew of him, and  it amounted to very little, as Chandler was always very evasive about her husband. When she'd announced she was pregnant, she'd told him only what she thought necessary to satisfy what she laughingly called his “ mother-hen streak ”. The guy’s name was Vincent, he'd been raised in what Joe understood was a kind of secluded religious community or whatever…He suffered from some  non specified physical deformity, never went out in the day, and didn’t like to meet strangers.

And he made Cathy very happy, of this at least Joe was certain.

He took another look at the man, whatever was wrong with him had to be with his face, if he had to wear a mask. Poor chap, Halloween was the only time he could be out with his wife and children…children ? The little boy was obviously theirs, too. But to Joe, as to the rest of the world, Caroline was Cathy's only child…just as most people thought Cathy was a single mother.  That could only mean…

***
“ Catherine, there is a man, on your left, three tables away, dressed as a pirate…he has been watching us for some time…maybe we should… ”

She turned slightly, peeked from the corner of her eye. “ My God, it’s Joe ! He’s recognized me, and he’s seen you and Jacob ! Vincent, what are we going to do ? ”

He smiled and rose. “ There is only one thing to do. ”

“ Vincent ! ”

“ Do not worry, Joe is your friend…and I can feel how deeply  you trust him, much deeper than you think… Besides, I have wanted to know him for long. ”

“ Trouble, Vincent ? ” Devin enquired.

“ Just an old friend. ”

Joe watched him come to his table, noticing the man’s powerful stature, and the fluid grace of his movements. Some women in the cafe seemed to have noticed  too, and a few heads turned at his passage.

“ Joe Maxwell ? ”

“ Yeah. ”

“ I am glad too meet you. I am Vincent, Catherine’s husband. ”

The guy had a strange but pleasant voice, and penetrating deep-set blue eyes. Joe took the extended hand.

“ Great to know you at last, Vincent ! ”

“ Would you like to join us for a drink ? Catherine would be pleased. ”

Joe grinned. “ I’m not so sure about that…but, thanks, I’ll come ! ”

Catherine saw them coming back together, the Prince and the Pirate, and couldn’t help smiling despite her anxiety. It made Vincent so happy  to be able to meet someone in a normal way…and he didn’t get that many opportunities to introduce himself as her husband.

Joe bent to kiss her cheek. “ Gotcha, Radcliffe ! ”

She laughed. “ It would seem so ! What are you doing here, Joe ? ”

“ Waiting for my date. We’re supposed to go to a party, but she’s late. If you see a Cleopatra just let me know ! ” He looked around the table. “ Great masks you all have ! Where do you get that kind of stuff ? ”

She smiled. “ One of the good things with working in the DA's office is that you get to know many people, including genuine make-up artists... But let me introduce you to the rest of the party. Joe Maxwell, my boss, and my friend. Our friend Lena, her daughter Cathy, and Devin,
Vincent’s brother. ”

Joe shook hands, and turned to the twins.

“ You know Caroline… ”

“ Hi, Uncle Joe ! ”

“ But you haven’t met our son Jacob, yet. ”

The little boy looked at Joe with Cathy’s green eyes and grinned.

“ Hi, Uncle Joe ! ”

“ Hi, Jacob, you look a lot like your mother ! ”

The kid seemed to find this very funny.

“ Oh, no, I don’t ! ” he giggled “ But tonight, Mommy looks like me ! ”

Joe saw Catherine wince, and felt Vincent and his brother tense. What was that all about ? What was  so wrong with this child’s looks that it denied him a legal existence ? Then he noticed a troubling detail : the boy had missing teeth ! Caroline had too…usually, but tonight she displayed a perfect row of false white teeth, with pointed fangs. Jacob’s fangs were not fake…and if the kid took after his father…

Catherine knew Joe well enough to tell his sharp deductive DA's  mind was working at high speed. And that meant trouble. She saw him look at Vincent’s hands, and knew he’d soon have the solution to a number of old unsolved cases, if he didn’t already. She put a hand on his arm.
“ Joe… ”

“ Yeah ? ” Joe's brown eyes were intent, questioning.

“ There are things that can’t be discussed here. ” She exchanged a look with her husband, and Joe was struck by the force of what passed in that single glance. How they loved each other !

“ Would you come for dinner to-morrow night ? ” asked Vincent  “ Now that  we have met at last, I really would like to know you better, and as Catherine just said, this is not the place. ”

Joe barely hesitated. He  instinctively liked the man, and he’d learned to trust his first impression.  Just as he’d learned to trust Cathy’s judgement…And if, as it suddenly occurred to him, Vincent was the one who’d gotten her out of that madman’s car-trunk years before, then that was all Joe needed to know. He saw her anxiety and remembered the happy family scene he’d admired a few minutes earlier.

He knew he had the power, and probably the legal duty, to shatter that happiness to pieces. He also knew  he never would. He smiled, and felt Cathy’s almost palpable relief“ Yeah, thanks, I will ! ” he looked at Vincent “ Looks like I’ve got a lot to thank you for ! ”

“ A Cleopatra just came in, she seems to be looking for someone ! ” Devin had kept silent up to then, knowing no cooked-up diversion could be of  any help with Joe Maxwell. This was for Vincent and Cathy to handle, but he’d listened attentively, ready to knock the man down if necessary and hold him while Vincent and his family got away. He, too, was vastly relieved by Joe’s reaction.

Joe looked at his watch. “ Only forty minutes late, she’s improving ! See you tomorrow ! Bye, everyone ! ”

They watched him greet a conspicuous busty Cleopatra and go out with her. The table remained silent for some time.

“ Time to go Below ! ”  Devin finally said. No one protested and they all rose.

***
On the way back, Catherine turned to Devin. “ We’re going to have to tell Father about Joe. ”

He grinned. “ Yeah, and I just hate that way he has to say ‘I told you so !’ ”

Vincent chuckled  “ And  he enjoys it, too ! But I think it would be better to postpone it until after we have talked with Joe. ” He smiled at Catherine’s sigh of relief. “ Tonight we are invited to a party, and I want all of us to have a good time ! ”

Once in the Tunnel he purposely trailed behind, holding her hand, and at the first turn he stopped and took her in his arms. “ I have not yet had time to thank you properly for everything you have given me tonight, Catherine. ”

Kissing Vincent with that mask on was a bit awkward, but lovely, and when he finally pulled away she gave him a radiant smile, her green eyes shining with love. “ It was definitely worth it ! ”

“ That was only a beginning of a proper thank you…they are waiting for us. ”

***
As it could be expected, the children, exhausted by their long walk, fell asleep long before the end of the party. They were put to bed, after Catherine had carefully removed Caroline’s mask, the way Sally had showed her. As the parents came out of the chamber they met Lena, who'd just done the same for Cathy.

“ I’ll watch over them. Why don’t you go back Above, just the two of you…or whatever you like. Just take the night off, all parents need that from time to time. Come on, get away, I’ll tell everyone ! ”

They thanked her and quietly slipped away. The idea of a walk Above was tempting, but though their encounter with Joe seemed to have turned out all right, they reluctantly decided it might be better not to stretch their luck ,and headed for their house, with other less risky but just as appealing plans…

***

They entered their bedroom through the wardrobe door. It was dark, but Vincent didn’t turn the lights on, preferring to light a few candles. In their dim, flickering glow, Catherine looked mysterious and wild, and it stirred something very deep within him. He went behind her and slowly undid the fastenings of her dress. The layers of lace and shimmering fabric fell to the floor with a silky whisper. He remained still for a few seconds, looking at the graceful curve of her neck, and spoke softly.

“ Catherine… this…er…mask you are wearing…is it…very uncomfortable ? ”

“ Oh no, not really. It's not half as hot and itchy as I feared it would. Sally used the best and latest stuff…and she’s a real artist. ”

“ Then maybe… ” he came closer and put his hands on her naked shoulders “ …maybe you would consider… ” he bent and she could feel his fangs nipping gently at the nape of her neck, while the sharp tip of his claws trailed on her upper arms “ …keeping it on for a little while ? ” he husked.

She leaned  back against him. “ A little while ? ” she asked in a suggestive voice.

He let out a soft roar, so low-pitched it was almost out of her hearing-range, but she could feel it vibrate through her whole body, turning it into liquid fire. “ It might be longer… ” he conceded, closing his arms around her.