Catherine was truly suffering. It was April eleventh, the day before their third anniversary and she couldn’t think of the perfect gift to give Vincent. Since he had recovered from his illness, she had been spending much more time Below and finally she had found the excuse she needed to move into the tunnels. There was a psycho killer after her and she couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Well, maybe he wasn’t a terribly dangerous psycho killer, although the newspaper picture of the escaped convict she had prosecuted six months ago was wonderfully effective at convincing everyone in the tunnels of her need for round-the-clock protection. After all he did scream horrible threats at her as they dragged him from his sentencing. Of course, so had a large number of other criminals, many of whom were back on the streets also, but Catherine wasn’t terribly concerned about them.
Her big concern right now was Vincent’s gift. What in the world was she going to get him? She was standing in another bookstore waiting for another clerk to find another book that she already knew she didn’t want to give Vincent. It’s not that Vincent didn’t like poetry books anymore, but, somehow, she just didn’t feel right about giving him another of the same old thing.
Her last trip to the tunnels had disheartened her even more as a few of the tunnel folk had, by their expressions, given her the definite impression that Vincent had something picked out to give her and, by the look in their eyes, she knew, it was something incredible. Leave it to him to outdo me! she thought, frustrated with her lack of imagination.
The truth was the gifts of the years past had not really scratched the surface of Vincent’s real personality. The first anniversary gift had been special, she had to admit; it was from her own special possessions. But, since then, Catherine had concentrated on giving Vincent many literary gifts, some gifts that were designed to capture and disburse the candlelight in the chambers below, and a few knickknacks for his collection from her world travels. Since his illness and recovery, Catherine knew these things were not as suited to him as she had originally thought.
There was a unique wildness about Vincent, a restless emptiness that ached to be filled. Since his recovery, he was far less inhibited about showing it. Catherine, however, had no idea how to fill that emptiness, or even precisely what it was that he needed. She just knew the gifts she had been giving him would not do, and that there had to be something that hit the mark better than what she had picked in the past.
His illness, though frightening at the time, had done something unexpectedly beneficial to Vincent. It was as if he was now whole, content, and more self-assured than she had ever seen him. All of the long nights fighting his demons, his fears, and what he considered his "other" self were at an end. He had accepted his nature as not wholly bad or good, but only what he truly was—a being with the capacity for both. In accepting himself, he seemed to have altered his own existence and made a clearer path for himself. That path, however, was not always clear to Catherine. Although Vincent’s emotions were now much easier for her to read, indeed, he no longer considered it a safety issue to block them from her, he had yet to discuss with her where she fit into his new plan for himself. Lately, he even seemed to be distancing himself more from her, although she did not feel it emotionally, only physically.
Perhaps his hesitancy to discuss his new ideas with her was due to a lingering feeling of unworthiness, which she at times still felt within him. Did he still have trouble believing she could love him? But she suspected he hesitated mostly because he was giving her time to get used to the "new" Vincent. He was really a different person–still scholarly, still a poetry lover, but there was more to him now. He had been slowly allowing her to see many of the traits, urges, and inclinations that he had suppressed for years due to Father’s overwhelming disapproval of anything remotely "different." What Father didn’t realize at the time, what he had come to regret during Vincent’s illness, was that suppressing these natural impulses was not only making Vincent sick, but was teaching him, slowly and methodically, that he was unacceptable, unlovable, and undesirable the way he was.
The truth was that Father was afraid. He was afraid that people would not want Vincent around, that they would fear him if he continued to act on his impulses. What he found, after Vincent’s illness, when Vincent refused to suppress these traits any longer, was how wrong he’d been. No one seemed to mind that Vincent was being himself. In fact, they seemed to rejoice that Vincent was well and finally happy. The other tunnel dwellers had known all along what Father had been trying to hide–Vincent wasn’t allowed to be Vincent, and that fact saddened them. His suppression of all that was his true nature also made him suppress much of the enthusiasm and joy that was present in him as a small child. The more he suppressed, the more joyless he became.
Then Catherine came into his life. And although she would hate to admit it, that’s when Vincent’s problems really came to a head. She wouldn’t have hurt him for the world, but Father’s predictions seemed accurate when he’d warned Vincent that their relationship could only bring pain. Vincent, like any other man in love (truly in love), did not desire to hold back his true nature from Catherine, but his long years of training and his failed adolescent relationship with Lisa had only taught him to fear, not trust, his own heart. So he continued to suppress that which he longed to reveal, but the fight was much harder, being compounded with sexual frustration and the rage which could not be suppressed whenever Catherine was in trouble. He eventually lost the fight and became gravely ill, wishing for his own death to resolve the struggle rather than reveal what he believed would drive Catherine away for good.
But Catherine did not leave. Slowly, he came to realize that she would never leave no matter what he did. Her love was truly unconditional. During those first few weeks of his illness, after leaving the cavern, he had tried all manner of shocking behavior to drive her away. Her steadfastness finally got through to him. He saw, in her, his true worth and was able to believe it.
During his recovery he opened up more and more to her, revealing things he never would have before. One of the first things he started doing was purring. The first time it happened, they were in their music chamber. The music had just ended and Vincent had his eyes closed and was breathing softly. It looked as if he was asleep. She reached up to stroke his hair–something he had rarely allowed before his illness–when he started softly purring. Catherine was so surprised she laughed with delight. Vincent’s head jerked up and he looked sheepishly at her.
"I’m sorry, Vincent, I didn’t mean to wake you."
"I wasn’t asleep, just relaxed."
"I didn’t know you could do that; purr, I mean."
Vincent looked embarrassed, "I haven’t done it in a long time. Father always nudged me if I started purring to let me know I should stop. I guess I got the message."
"I like it. I don’t want it to stop," Catherine said with all sincerity. And so it didn’t. It was an incredibly soothing sound vibrating up from his chest. She could feel an immediate difference in the way he relaxed around her. He would stretch out in front of her very much like a cat and revel in the attention she gave him, allowing her to brush his hair and stroke his face. His differences that used to embarrass him so much became merely subjects of discussion between them.
Although it was still difficult for him to reveal what he considered large physical differences between him and other men, he was getting used to the idea that he could be considered attractive to Catherine and even to any woman. The fact that Catherine wasn’t the only woman to find him attractive took him by surprise. There had been Lena, of course, but he had always assumed that her need for comfort outstripped her need of someone handsome (or normal for that matter).
She had since met and married a very kind man who had recently moved to the tunnels, but her attraction for Vincent had never entirely subsided. Rather, it took the form of someone appreciating a fine work of art. Catherine could see that Lena still enjoyed looking at Vincent, as did many of the women of the tunnels. It took a while for Vincent to realize that he was the object of much admiration among the females, young and old alike. His amazement at the idea that he could elicit such responses from these women was almost laughable. Overall Vincent was much more comfortable with himself than he had ever been, though he was convinced he’d never get used to being admired for his looks.
The other changes in Vincent were another matter. Those things which Catherine came to think of as Vincent’s "pastimes" were more difficult for him to reveal. She still smiled when she remembered his embarrassment at admitting that he chased mice as a child. She just laughed and asked him if it was fun.
"Yes, but Father didn’t like it, so I stopped."
"Well, it’s fine with me as long as you don’t consider a dead mouse a fitting present."
"You wouldn’t want me to bring you my catch of the day?" Vincent had asked, snuggling up close to her like a cat asking for favor.
"I’m not sure that would please me," Catherine laughed back.
"Well, it would please you greatly to know how efficient I am at keeping these tunnels rodent free."
"I thought you said you gave it up."
"I did. But by then the rodents knew me well." Vincent snarled with a grin on his face that made Catherine laugh even harder.
Catherine smiled at the memory of those early revelations as she glanced at the back of the musty bookshelves for some sign of the man who had gone in search of her order. She wondered fleetingly how many mice could be found in the recesses of this establishment. Vincent would make short work of them, she thought.
It hadn’t really surprised her that Vincent was more catlike than he had at first let on. There was always something about him that made her think of the wild. Nowadays, he would go away on Fridays, since he had no classes, and come back smelling of sweat and wood smoke and something else almost imperceptible. It was a very attractive scent but she couldn’t quite name it–it was a wild, hungry scent that called to her and made her want to scream whenever he was near. And, although she had yet to admit it to Vincent, she had developed an almost irresistible, inexplicable urge when seeing him on Friday evenings. She desperately wanted to bite him. Thinking about it now, she rubbed her jaw as if her teeth ached.
She wondered how she would deal with being around him on a daily basis now that she was moving Below. She sighed, wishing she was moving in with him. Her relationship with Vincent had stalled, almost moved backward lately, and she was concerned that they would never get anywhere. Catherine had once said, "If this is my fate, I accept it, gladly." Now she wondered if she had ever really meant those words. Yes, if Vincent had been incapable of the intimacy she craved, she would have settled for whatever she could get. But she knew that wasn’t the case and she wanted so much more. She also wanted to give him so much more. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to settle her rising emotions. It would do no good to let Vincent know what was again on her mind. After she moved to the tunnels, he would figure it out soon enough, and maybe then he would be unable to deny what he’d been trying to deny for so long. She just hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
In the meantime, Catherine had the none-too-pleasant task of choosing one of the guest chambers for her own. She had put it off as long as she could, having trouble imagining sleeping in a chamber other than Vincent’s, but she had to tell Father this weekend which one it would be. She groaned in dismay at the thought.
Just then the clerk came back to tell her that the book she had ordered had not yet arrived and that he was sorry it took so long. "We just had a break-in and stuff is scattered all over."
"Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Well," She sighed, "it wouldn’t have been the best gift for my man of the wild anyway." Smiling lightly Catherine looked at him and sighed again, her frustration showing.
"Oh, the backwoodsman type huh?"
"You could say that."
"Well, you should just send him off by himself to fish," he said pointing at some kind of shiny silver fish mounted on a board next to the dusty head of a deer. An odd assortment of paraphernalia for a bookstore, Catherine mused. "We love that kind of thing," he added slightly wistfully.
Catherine nodded and sighed, realizing that maybe he was right. More and more, Vincent was enjoying being by himself. He wasn’t just going away to suffer like he used to; he was going away for fun now. And he wasn’t taking her. She paused, staring blindly up at the man’s rifle behind him. What the hell kind of a bookshop is this? she thought. But then just as quickly realized Vincent’s penchant for both books and hunting. "Thank you," she replied and quickly strode out of the shop with a small smile.
Vincent had been busy all week preparing Catherine’s present. He was keenly aware, almost painfully so, that she had been feeling neglected. He had been neglecting her for some time in his recovery and in the adjustments he had been making to suit his new lifestyle. He had rearranged his chamber. It had always been too cluttered for his taste. There were many things he liked to collect but many more his father had urged him to study or collect in order to control his urges to act "improperly".
These things were now packed away–not gone, but out of sight. He’d laid down an old round rug he’d found in one of the lower storage chambers. No one had wanted it because it was so rough textured. For years all this soft stuff had been thrust upon him, and he had to admit he liked his soft bed and an occasional nap on something soft. But, once in a while, he needed a good scratch.
His fur (it was fur, not hair) bothered him from time to time. The regular bathing that was required by Father (Vincent was required to bathe twice a day as a teenager) dried his skin and made him terribly uncomfortable. He did not produce the oils that most people produce over a daily period and so his skin suffered terribly from the constant bathing. (Not that this was one thing he was ready to give up.) He did, however, avoid constant bathing when he was alone.
Catherine, whom he saw on Friday evenings, after a no bath day, seemed to like his day-old scent very much and, if her flushed cheeks and dilated pupils were any indication, she appeared to be aroused by it. This pleased him greatly. His preparations for her move to the tunnels, which had recently been approved by the council, were almost complete, and thinking back on her reaction to him gave him confidence that he was doing the right thing in these anniversary arrangements.
He sat back in his large wooden chair and looked around the now sparse room. It wasn’t very welcoming but he liked it. He thought of Catherine and all that she had given him in the last few months. Her love had kept him alive, she had changed his entire outlook, she wouldn’t leave him no matter what he did and the fact left him dumbfounded and full of gratitude. Her sadness over the isolation she had felt lately was coming to an end. He would see to that. He was going to make sure their anniversary was a day she would cherish forever.
Catherine went to the grocery store for the present she had decided to get Vincent before heading back to her apartment. In the taxi, she wrote some notes, thinking about Vincent all the way. She carefully placed the notes in her purse and stepped out onto the curb. In her apartment, she placed her gift carefully in the fridge, changed into her comfortable clothes and quickly left her apartment to head below. Vincent wasn’t expecting her tonight. It was Thursday and he usually left Thursday night for his mysterious Friday trips. Catherine wasn’t sure whether or not his trip would be cancelled due to their anniversary celebration. Usually Vincent was back by Friday evening which would give them plenty of time to celebrate. Catherine was taking the day off work, but she hadn’t told Vincent that, not wanting to force him to change his plans if he didn’t wish to.
When she arrived below, rather than going to Vincent’s chamber as she usually did, she headed straight for Father’s library. Vincent was puzzled. He had felt her presence only after she had arrived below which meant she was working hard to mute the bond. Perhaps she wanted to surprise him, but when she did not show up at the entrance to his chamber, he worried that he had somehow forgotten to meet her. He went to where he knew she was and found her sitting and listening to Father read to the children. She looked up at him and smiled but he knew she was sad and a little anxious. When Father finished reading and sent the children off with Mary and Olivia, Catherine turned to him for a full greeting.
Hugging him, she said, "I wasn’t sure I’d see you tonight."
"Where would I be?"
"Oh, well I thought you might have already gone."
"Catherine," Vincent sounded mildly shocked, "tomorrow’s our anniversary. I’m not going away this week." He looked down at his boots sadly. She really believed he would leave on the day of their anniversary? He must have been even more neglectful than he’d thought. He studied his boots for another moment—another thing he wasn’t quite ready to give up despite the pain they caused him. No footwear fit him correctly, but he did not like the look of his feet. He sighed thinking how lonely Catherine felt and how silly he was being over something as simple as his feet. "I’ve been terribly negligent lately, Catherine."
"I wouldn’t say that."
"I would. I know you’ve felt I’ve been distant. I have. I’m still getting used to all this." He made a gesture to himself that included his bare forearms. Vincent had recently begun wearing short sleeves and found them exceedingly comfortable with the exception of the fact that they bared his arms. Catherine found them incredibly sexy and had a great deal of trouble concentrating whenever he wore a short-sleeved shirt. The women of the tunnels also found his arms more than a little attractive, which surprised Vincent greatly. It took him a while to get used to the peak of female emotions whenever he wore a short-sleeved shirt. But he was beginning to like it, which was another reason he wore them so often.
Catherine looked up at him with a look he couldn’t quite identify. Her eyes often made him feel as if the world around him stopped spinning. There was so much love in that look, a little sadness, and always, always her undying acceptance of everything he did, said, and was. Suddenly his heart overflowed with love for her and he grabbed her hand and pulled her along to his chamber, determined to take a step in the right direction. She asked no questions, only followed along, but when they entered his chamber he realized that maybe he should have warned her of the changes he had recently made to it.
She stood in the entrance completely at a loss for words. There was little left of the chamber she remembered and had come to love. His bed was still there although it was covered with wool blankets rather than the down comforter and handmade quilt that used to be there. There was an old outdoor rug on the floor near the bed which screamed "pain" to any bare foot daring to walk on it. His writing table and chair were still there, but no other chairs were in the room. The small one she always sat on was gone. Was she no longer welcome? There was a small set of shelves placed in a wall recess that she had never seen before. It contained all the small gifts she had given Vincent along with a few other books and knickknacks that he’d collected. His steamer trunk was at the foot of the bed with his quilt and comforter on it. The armoire was the only other piece of furniture in the room leaving lots of space for . . .what? What could he possibly be doing in here? Catherine looked at him and smiled weakly with a clear question on her face.
"I suppose I should have warned you. I’m redecorating," Vincent was clearly nervous and didn’t want to go into too much detail. "Uh . . . you know a lot of those things I had here weren’t really my . . . taste."
Catherine looked at him, trying hard to stifle her growing unease. "Stop this," she said to herself, "it’s just his room." But all the welcoming comfort of the space was gone. The room where she first met Vincent, the room where she recovered from those horrible injuries three years ago was gone. She had never felt unwelcome in Vincent’s world—until now.
"And I . . . needed more room," he continued, keeping a close eye on her face, "I’d like to put some different furniture in here. But not so much clutter." Vincent looked at her for some sign that she was accepting what he’d said. After all, it was the truth if only part of it.
Catherine was at a loss to understand this change but Vincent seemed perfectly comfortable with it. In fact, as she looked at him, she saw a revival of interest in his surroundings, his chamber. She thought maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe if his chamber was comfortable for him he would be more inclined to stay home. But, for some reason, she pictured a straw breaking a camel’s back and for the first time since she’d started this whole fight with Vincent’s illness, she felt the need to flee.
She looked down, having nowhere else to fix her eyes, and quietly whispered, "I think I need to take a walk."
"All right," Vincent quickly moved toward the armoire for his cloak.
"No, Vincent. I just . . . I think . . . I need a few minutes alone." Vincent saw the beginning of panic in her eyes. He had felt the need to flee often enough to recognize it in Catherine and it hurt him to think he had caused her to feel this way.
"I’m sorry, Catherine," he replied, desperate for something that would comfort her. He’d never felt her need to leave, not during the worst of his behavior, his terrible illness, his recovery which included constant mood swings. Now he’d rearranged his chamber and she was desperate to run.
"It’s not your fault," she said as she left his chamber and left him standing alone.
Vincent felt her go deeper into the tunnels and his heart relaxed. She was not going home. She was just walking. Then a moment of panic struck him–where was she heading? No, she wasn’t going anywhere dangerous. She was on her way to the candle chamber. She needed to talk to someone besides him. That thought comforted and hurt him at the same moment. He was glad she had friends down here that she could confide in. During his illness she had become much closer to his tunnel family than anyone she knew above. But he was saddened to think that she needed to talk to someone else, that she couldn’t confide in him when she was upset. Vincent followed her movements through the bond for some time. She seemed to be visiting everyone but not really staying in any one place. Then she went to the chamber of the falls and stayed for quite some time.
Catherine was stunned by the changes in Vincent’s chamber but she knew it shouldn’t come as a surprise. He had changed so much in the past few months. Not in essentials but his tastes and priorities had changed. Sometimes she wondered if she was still on the list. Surely she was, but maybe not at the top anymore. Along with the change in his taste for furniture, had there been a change in his taste for her? She loved him, all of him. She knew this. And if she had to be what he wanted her to be she would. She would show him that she could accept, even join, his new lifestyle and be the kind of mate he was seeking. Her mind went back to the gift she had just bought for him and the preparations she’d made for their anniversary. She had made the right decision. He would see her in a whole new light tomorrow.
Vincent was sitting on his bed waiting for Catherine while tuning in to her tumultuous emotions. By the time she started her trip back to his chamber, he knew that she had made a decision and he was scared. After all they had been through, after all her reassurances, had he finally driven her away? When she returned to his chamber he stood up and looked at her with trepidation. She smiled at him and sighed. "I’m sorry, Vincent. I definitely overreacted. I must be tired."
"Don’t be. I’ve put you through a great deal these last few months." Vincent could feel her determination, but her love was still there and he began to relax. Whatever decision she had come to, she would not leave for good. Maybe she had just decided on a vacation. It might feel like death, but he could live with that. After all, hadn’t he spent weeks at a time away from her whenever he was upset and she’d never taken time off from him. She was due. His realization that he deserved whatever punishment she meted out to him began to hit him full force and he gulped back the tears that threatened. "I . . . wanted to . . .I brought you in here to show you something." He smiled desperately at her, trying to hide his trepidation at what he assumed was her imminent departure.
She looked at him, not sure what to make of these feelings coming from him so she stayed silent and waited for him to tell her what it was he intended to show her.
"My . . . feet."
Catherine blinked and looked confused, "Your feet?"
"Yes. You said once you wondered if they were as hairy as my hands. I just thought . . ." Vincent suddenly felt foolish and sat on the bed to take off his boots. His boots and socks neatly on the floor, Vincent stuck out his feet and pointed. "There you have it," he directed her attention to them as if he were presenting a sideshow attraction, "the biggest, hairiest, ugliest feet you’d ever want to see." He smiled up at her to let her know he was laughing at himself.
She smiled back and came over to sit on the bed and look at his feet. She then took off her own shoes and socks and stretched them out beside his. At one time, the contrast would have unnerved and sickened Vincent. Now he thought of her shoes and his, side by side, next to his bed and smiled.
"I wouldn’t say they’re the biggest," Catherine replied with a teasing tone.
Vincent suddenly looked at her with utter amazement knowing full well she was laughing at him. He realized suddenly that she was much more comfortable around him now, though not entirely so, than she ever was before his illness. She never would have dared to tease him about his hairy feet, hands, face, or any other differences back then.
"Are you insulting my feet?" he bellowed in mock outrage.
"Maybe you should have kept your shoes on," she retorted with a smile, "if you didn’t want to open yourself up to ridicule."
Vincent groaned and lay back on the bed. "I can’t stand those boots. No footwear is made for feet like mine. I don’t wear them when there’s no one around."
Catherine looked at him in surprise, "Vincent, why do you wear them at all if you don’t have to?"
"I don’t know," Vincent sighed, "I think I’m not ready to walk around with bare feet. The other children always teased me mercilessly about my hairy feet when I was young."
"No one’s going to tease you now. But I can at least get a pair of shoes that are made for you."
"Catherine, it’s too risky. My feet are too unusual."
"Don’t be silly," she answered kneeling down and taking one of his feet in her hands to examine it, "I’m assuming, from the sores on your feet that the problem is width. There are lots of men who need much wider shoes than are readily available in stores. All we have to do is take a mold of your feet, the kind they provide from shoe makers. I was serious when I said your feet are not the biggest I’ve seen. They make shoes for feet your size all the time."
Vincent looked down at this woman who lovingly held his foot in her soft delicate hands. She lovingly stroked his foot as if it were a pet she was calming. It felt incredibly good and he couldn’t help purring his pleasure. She smiled up at him and he could feel her determination returning. He stopped purring.
"Catherine," he looked at her seriously, "I know I’ve been very difficult over the past several months. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt you needed some time away from me."
Catherine looked up at him mystified. What was he trying to do? Get rid of me? No. She could feel his sorrow at the suggestion. He was merely letting her know he understood her earlier feelings.
"Oh, Vincent. I’m so happy you’re well again. I couldn’t bear to be away from you." She looked down at his foot, still in her hand and lovingly stroked it again. "Even your Fridays are difficult for me. I know you need them but . . ." She stopped, unable to say what she really wanted to say. Take me with you. Don’t leave me.
Vincent looked at her. He wished he could tell her right now what he had planned for tomorrow, but he wanted to wait. Just one more day. He took her chin in his hand, lifted her face to look at him, and looked deep into her eyes. "I love you, Catherine. Your voice stops my heart. Your name is the sweetest music I will ever hear."
Catherine let out a soft cry, "I love you. I swear I’ll make you happy. I will become whatever you want me to be."
Her words distressed him and he rushed to reassure her, "You already are what I want. You have been since the moment I met you."
He stroked her head and she kneeled up to hug him. He nuzzled in her hair and drank in her scent. It was almost too much for him. His body responded to her as it had so often of late and he became dizzy. He reached for her shoulders and felt only slight disappointment from her as he held her at arms length. "You’ve probably got to get up early for work tomorrow."
She shook her head, "I took the day off."
Vincent was surprised but more than a little pleased. "Can you spend the night below? We could celebrate all day."
His suggestion surprised her, but she had already made her plans. "I can’t. I do have a few things to do tomorrow. But I can be here earlier tomorrow, say after lunch?"
Suddenly Vincent had a lovely picture of a romantic picnic lunch by the mirror pool or the falls. William could help! "Can you come for lunch?"
"I doubt it. I’ll probably just grab something wherever I am."
Vincent looked disappointed and Catherine was momentarily considering dropping the whole idea but then her determination took over again. No. The plan had to be stuck to.
"After lunch then," said Vincent, now wondering what she could possibly be thinking.
"I should get going. I do have to be up early tomorrow for an appointment."
"All right, I’ll walk you back."
They walked in companionable silence back to Catherine’s sub-basement where they said a quick goodnight. Vincent again began to worry about the determination he felt from Catherine but she smiled at him and her smile reassured him that she was not angry or put off. He would just have to wait to see what tomorrow would bring. His surprise would either be very well received or turn out very badly. But he would not turn back now.
Catherine closed the apartment door behind her and breathed a sigh of relief. She had tested the bond. He had not met her at the threshold, and his surprise at her arrival was evident. She knew that this meant he had not felt her presence until she had opened up again in the tunnels. This was critical to her plan. She hadn’t been sure if she could cut him off like that anymore. After months of this bond being freely open on both sides, she was out of practice. But it had worked and that was what mattered. She peeked into the fridge and smiled. All the pieces of her plan were in place. She took out his gift, placed it in a box, and carefully began wrapping it. Topping it with a small ribbon, she sat back and looked at it. It would fit nicely in the oversize pocket of her long rain coat. She thought that coat would be most appropriate not exactly knowing what type of temperatures she’d be running into.
In her bedroom closet she hunted for the perfect outfit to wear tomorrow—something old enough to be expendable if necessary but attractive, thin enough to feel her skin through and easy to take off when she was done with it. In the back she found a pullover flounce tank dress she’d gotten in Hawaii–long enough to keep her legs warm but thin enough to look playful. With that she pulled out flat ballet slippers (easy on the feet). She would not be wearing nylons or much of anything else she thought. Satisfied with her day’s work, she flopped on the bed and wondered if she’d ever get to sleep. Soon enough she was drifting into a soft and sexy dream about Vincent.
Vincent was also dreaming about Catherine when his own internal alarm clock told him it was time to get up. It was the one big difference he’d always wished he could train himself to ignore. But try as he might, he always woke up at dawn every day, usually interrupting the best dream of the night. Well, William was up. At least he’d have someone to talk to. He silently stalked to the kitchen trying to surprise William, but nothing ever surprised that man. "Morning, Vincent."
Vincent looked disappointed and puzzled.
"Now, if you stalked in here an hour late, that would certainly be a surprise." said William, "As it is, you have perfect timing and so, it’s never a surprise."
"Hmm," Vincent grunted, "Someday I’ll figure out a way to turn off that annoying alarm clock inside my head."
William chuckled, "So, big day today, huh?"
"Yes, Catherine’s coming after lunch. I was thinking we could have a picnic, but she said she’d grab something while she’s out."
"Hmm," William looked suspicious, "And when exactly have you ever known her to do that?"
Vincent paused for a moment. "You’re right! She’s going to come down here starving like always."
"Mm Hmm. I’ll make something and put it in a basket for you. We can get mouse to set out some blankets and pillows etc."
"This is wonderful!" Vincent perked up immediately, "She’ll love it. It’ll be the perfect start to what I have planned."
William and Vincent immediately started planning and while William cooked they planned some more. By the time most of the tunnel dwellers were in the dining chamber for breakfast Vincent was ecstatic. It soon got around that Catherine would be here earlier than planned and that Vincent had added a late lunch to the plan of the day. The tunnel dwellers approved and there were many suggestions as to menu and location. Mary looked on for a while and then quietly slipped away as breakfast was ending. She entered Vincent’s chamber with a note that Catherine had asked her to deliver. Mary knew the gist of the note although she did not know why Catherine was sending it this way.
Vincent hurried back to his chamber as soon as all the plans were finalized and in the works. He was rushing to prepare a few last minute things when he noticed the note. He almost ignored it but there was something familiar about the handwriting. He picked it up and realized it was from Catherine. When had she left it? It wasn’t here this morning. His heart filled with love at the thought of her. She had delivered him a note on the morning of their anniversary. He quickly opened it to read what his love had to tell him. His disappointment was almost unbearable as he read the words.
I’m so sorry to tell you that I can’t make it to the tunnels today. Joe just called me to say that three of our people are out with the flu and I’m needed in court on Monday for a case that can not be postponed. The research alone will take me all weekend. Perhaps we can celebrate next week when this dreadful case is over?
This being Friday, I’m sure you won’t mind too much. I hope you’ll enjoy your usual Friday trip and not let any worry over our disrupted plans disturb you. I will come Below on Monday evening and let you know how everything is going.
P.S. I was looking forward to spending time with you at the falls. I left you a gift there by our usual spot. I hope you will go there at exactly 10 am and find it. I will be thinking of you at that exact time.
Vincent couldn’t believe that Catherine had agreed to work all weekend instead of being with him on their anniversary. Did she really think it was so unimportant? He was stunned. Was she really disappointed? Did she actually think he would rather go off by himself? He tried to check her emotions through the bond but found that she was again blocking their connection. He stood up in frustration. What was she doing? Did she no longer want to be with him? "NO!" he said out loud, "Stop this thinking." He knew this was his own fault for neglecting her for so long. She had somehow gotten the impression that this day was not very important to him. It’s a setback, Vincent told himself. We’ve had a setback. We’ve had them before. He would live with his disappointment and they would celebrate next week. Then he would let her know how much she really meant to him. It may not be enough. She may not feel as she once did. Dejected, Vincent headed out of his chamber. He would do as she asked and go to the falls at ten o’clock. Perhaps her gift at the falls would give him some information that the now silent bond was refusing to reveal.
He walked back out to the dining hall where William was just finishing up his breakfast cleanup. "Vincent, now, what do you think—chocolate cake or apple pie? Vincent?"
Vincent looked at him dejected and sighed, "She’s not coming. She left a note. She had an emergency at work and she can’t come."
"Oh, Vincent. I’m so sorry. All your preparations." William thought of the dinner food that would not keep and cringed. "Oh, Vincent. She can’t even come for dinner?"
"I . . . could ask. She has to eat." Vincent brightened. He could take dinner to her. He wouldn’t have to stay if she was busy. He could just leave it with her. There was no sense wasting all William’s hard work.
William, however, was angry. How could Catherine do this? He wondered. Looking at Vincent he kept his thoughts to himself.
"I’ve got to go to the falls. Catherine said she left a gift for me there."
"Okay Vincent. Let me know about tonight."
Vincent walked away toward the falls slowly and dejectedly. As Vincent disappeared around a corner, William huffed his disapproval while Mary approached him with a smile.
When Vincent got to the falls it was just before ten o’clock. He looked around for the present and found a small wrapped package tucked inside an indentation in the rock. He wondered, fleetingly, if he should wait until exactly ten to open it, but decided it was close enough. Inside he found a chocolate truffle (a favorite of his) and a note. He ate the chocolate wondering if this was really the present he was meant to get and then read the note.
What you seek is not lost, merely hidden.
I saw you toss the kites on high
And blow the birds about the sky;
And all around I heard you pass,
Like ladies' skirts across the grass
Vincent read it again and sat puzzled for a moment. It was a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson called The Wind. The message was easy enough to decipher. She wanted him to look for something in the Chamber of the Winds. But why?
At exactly ten o’clock, Catherine opened the bond she had been keeping closed all morning. She felt puzzlement and then almost immediately surprise. He knew. She clamped down again on the bond and moved quickly away from where she was.
Vincent stood up and roared. What was she doing? She wasn’t Above at all. She was Below, and he got the distinct impression, from the brief contact, that she was in the Chamber of the Winds. And she was . . . amused. What else did he feel in that moment? Something akin to a challenge. He tilted his head as if to listen but it was gone. She had closed off the bond again. He thought hard for a moment. She was playing with him! She couldn’t possibly think she could hide for long. Even without the bond, Vincent could smell Catherine a mile away–cherry blossom shampoo, honeysuckle deodorant, green apple nail polish, mango scented hair spray, peppermint toothpaste, olive oil bath soap, oatmeal hand lotion, and coconut body wash. Catherine was a veritable fruit bowl of attraction, a cornucopia of springtime aromas. That, coupled with her own unique "Catherine scent" made her easy to follow in the tunnels (not to mention magically delicious).
Vincent paused a moment to consider how much of a head start he should give her. He decided to go to the Chamber of the Winds by way of the kitchen and tell William not to cancel lunch. He rubbed his hands together with delight. He would give her some time to make it a good game. After all, she worked hard to get this far. He laughed to think of all the hide-and-seek games he’d played as a child. After a while Devin was the only one who would play with him because he was so good at finding people so fast. Catherine had no idea how quickly he could find her. He would have to walk nice and slow to give her a sporting chance. Maybe he would sneak up behind her and watch her for a while. That might be fun, he thought with a small growl.
When William saw Vincent approaching, he knew it was likely that dinner was back on. Gone was the dejected look on Vincent’s face. Instead he looked like a man on a mission. "Where are you off to?" William asked a little too nonchalantly.
Vincent eyed him suspiciously, but replied, "Catherine is coming after all. Lunch is back on. In fact, she’s here already."
"Oh, Really?" William said feigning surprise.
At that Vincent threw up his arms, "Am I the only one who didn’t know she was coming?"
William looked sympathetically at his friend and found he had to explain himself, "I don’t think anyone knew until after we had made all those plans. Except maybe Mary. I think Catherine told her something of her plans."
"Catherine didn’t tell me much," Mary chimed in as she exited the kitchen. "She only asked me to leave the note. But I’m glad to hear that she came down."
"Hmm," Vincent grumbled, "She’s hiding from me right now. I’m supposed to find her" He shrugged. "Shouldn’t be too hard. We’ll probably have lunch earlier than we planned. Do you think you can pull it together that soon?"
"I wouldn’t be so sure you’ll find her that fast, Vincent," Mary put in.
"Mary, you forget how easy hide-and-seek always was for me. I won’t have any trouble finding Catherine."
Mary and William looked at each other, knowing Catherine probably had a longer day planned than Vincent expected. William made a mental note not to make lunch or dinner quite as soon as they had planned unless Catherine had been found.
As Vincent said his goodbyes, William, Mary, and several other tunnel folk conferred about how to feed both Vincent and Catherine throughout the day so that they wouldn’t starve by the time Vincent actually did find Catherine. It turned out, Catherine had already thought of that with Jaime’s help.
By the time Vincent arrived in the Chamber of the winds there was not only no Catherine, but no sign of Catherine. He couldn’t pick up her scent anywhere. This was not too unusual, he thought since it was terribly windy here. Still, he did think there should be some sign of her given the fact that she wore a dozen different scents. He looked around for a clue as to which way she might have gone and found another small box sitting in the corner of a low step safe from the wind. He opened it to find another chocolate and another note. Again he ate the chocolate and read the note.
Don’t eat too many of those. You’ll spoil your appetite for sweets to come.
Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,
haughty Healfdene, who held through life,
sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad.
How did she know he was eating the chocolate? He rolled his eyes at his own obtuseness. Of course she’d know. But what did she mean by "sweets to come?" And where was the quote from Beowulf leading him? He thought for several minutes and then remembered something he had told Catherine at the last Winterfest. He’d told her that one of the tapestries reminded him of the story of Beowulf. He looked toward the doors of the Great Hall not far away. Could she have gotten them open? Impossible! Yet that was all he could think of. He quickly went to the doors and opened them. Walking immediately to the tapestry he spoke of, he looked around and behind it for a sign or note from Catherine. There it was. How in the world had she gotten in here? He picked up the little box and opened it quickly. Ignoring her previous warning, Vincent shoved his third candy into his mouth and opened the note to read.
Really Vincent, where’s your self-control?
All through the night, your glorious eyes
Were gazing down in mine,
And, with a full heart's thankful sighs,
I blessed that watch divine.
I was at peace, and drank your beams
As they were life to me;
And reveled in my changeful dreams,
Like petrel on the sea.
He started feeling like he was being watched. He sniffed the air to pick up Catherine’s scent, but he could not detect anything. Again he thought how strange that was. She must be getting help. Someone must have opened the doors for her. Mary left the note in his chamber this morning. She must have enlisted a few others. But he knew she was below. At least she had been at ten o’clock. He concentrated on the bond again, trying to break through the block she had put up, but all he met was a wall of nothing. All right, she was determined to make him do this the hard way. He would work for it. The mystery of it was intriguing, he had to admit. This latest poem was by Emily Bronte. The name was Stars. She wasn’t making this part very difficult. It had to be the Mirror Pool. He closed the Great Hall doors and headed there quickly, anxious now to catch up with her.
By now, the rumor that Catherine and Vincent were playing hide-and-seek had gone through the tunnels. Several of the tunnel residents had seen Vincent on his travels toward Catherine, but no one was giving away her location. Devin, who had been visiting for what Father considered an exceedingly long visit (he wouldn’t admit to enjoying it), had started a pool, taking bets on how long it would take Vincent to find Catherine and had sent Mouse to follow the seeker in his quest and report the exact moment of the find whenever it happened. Father, of course, objected strongly to Devin’s activities until it was revealed that no real currency was changing hands. Pascal mentioned that William had graciously put up a cherry pie for the winner, at which point Father whispered, "in that case, put me down for 10:49 P.M."
"Yes, Devin, that’s what I said. I love my son, but any girl that can twist him around her finger like Catherine has, can get him lost in his own tunnels. I’m putting my money on her."
Vincent arrived at the mirror pool and finally picked up a faint scent of Catherine. He looked around and found another small box. The box itself smelled distinctly of Catherine, but not all her fruity toiletries, just her. He sniffed it again and opened his eyes in surprise. It smelled like she had rubbed it along her neck to pick up some of her sweat. Whatever she’d done he was going to keep this one. He opened it up and again shoved the chocolate in his mouth. This one tasted vaguely of Catherine as well and Vincent slowed down to savor the taste and scent on it. As he did so, he read the note.
You really should have saved that one! There are no more until you get your gift from me.
Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired: best be still.
You’re on your own.
Feeling almost guilty for indulging himself, he looked around to see if anyone was nearby. When he saw no one, he licked his lips and breathed deeply to pick up her scent again. He would find her quickly now. She wasn’t sending him to any more locations. This was a poem by Matthew Arnold called The Last Word, and apparently it was just that. Not a very pretty poem, he thought. But it got the point across. He sat quietly for a moment, blocking out all sounds and scents around him except Catherine. Closing his eyes, he once again breathed deeply. Her scent was faint but there. This was all Catherine, no fruit, and he found it more enticing than he had ever found all the other scents he so often associated with her. His head turned toward the scent, seemingly of its own volition and he rose to follow it. To the right of the Mirror Pool was a small tunnel where Vincent had to crouch down. He picked up Catherine’s scent more easily in this tunnel but when he came out into a large cavern it was almost too faint to pinpoint. Again he closed his eyes and listened, sniffing the air for signs of her presence. It was no use, he could not locate it here and he would need to do a tunnel by tunnel search. There were three tunnels leading out from the cavern. The first and second contained no scent of Catherine whatsoever. He growled in frustration. Vincent was sure he had come the right way and he was equally sure that the smaller tunnels would give him a scent to pick up. It had to be the third one.
As he approached the third tunnel, Catherine’s scent wafted toward him and he smiled. She was close. The scent would not be this strong otherwise. Vincent started trembling with anticipation. He quietly stalked to the tunnel entrance, but when he arrived, Catherine’s scent was clearly there, but not Catherine. He was puzzled and spun around to look behind him as if he’d missed something important. Further into the tunnel the scent grew even stronger as if she was embedded in the rocks. He sniffed again. He leaned on the rocks and then noticed a moisture on his hand. Sniffing at his hand, his eyes glazed over as he realized that this was Catherine’s scent, but this time it was not sweat. He sniffed again. His eyes rolled back in his head and a growl rose up from deep within him. This was the balmy scent of her arousal. He often picked up this scent, especially lately, when she hugged him or even just looked at him longingly. She had coated several rocks with this velvety nectar. He breathed deeply to take in as much as he could.,
Stopping abruptly and pulling back, he looked up and down the tunnel guiltily. When he was sure no one was in sight, he brazenly rubbed his face against the rocks she had marked. Growling and rubbing, he found he could not get close enough. With his hands above his head, he continued to rub his face on the rocks until he began to lick her scent off of them. This was sweeter than anything he’d ever tasted. Is this what she meant about the sweets to come? Finally, unable to gather anymore, he roared in frustration and ran through the tunnel frantically looking for the source of this new drug he’d found. On the other side, the scent had dissipated except for what was on Vincent, and he had a hard time picking up any more. Confused by what had just happened and wildly aroused, he shook his head trying to clear it.
He had no way of knowing if the scent he was picking up was on his face or in the air now. Throwing his head back he roared again. Loath to wash off her scent, he knew he would have to in order to track her. He ran through the tunnels for two miles to the closest swimming hole where there was a likelihood of privacy. Stripping off his clothes he dove in headfirst and swam down to the bottom with swift long strokes, cooling his overheated body and rinsing her scent off of his face. After several minutes of swimming, he climbed out of the pool and expertly shook his body off (something else his father never allowed, but an efficient method of drying without a towel).
He dressed his still damp body and headed back to where he had last scented Catherine. His determination grew as lunch time was quickly approaching. As he entered the tunnel where her mark had been placed, he noticed something had changed. Someone had left a basket just outside the entrance to that particular tunnel. He was sure it was not there before. He sniffed the air—William—the man of a thousand muffins! He opened the basket to find a meal and a note.
I’m sure you will find Catherine soon, but you know me; I’ve got to feed my family. So, here’s a snack to tide you over.
Vincent looked suspiciously at the food knowing it meant full well that his "family" did not believe he would find her in time for lunch. He wondered what time his brother had put down to win the pool he had no doubt started. At least he could be assured that his father would never be involved in such nonsense.
He ate quickly and left the empty basket. Concentrating once again on Catherine’s scent, Vincent blocked out all other distractions and found his body following the path she had taken. He started to feel a little giddy. He had never actually spent so much time focusing on her scent like this. He began to suspect that she was trying to drive him insane.
Meanwhile, Catherine wasn’t very far away and was enjoying her sense of Vincent’s reactions. Although she had cut off the bond on her end, she was still picking up his emotions loud and clear. He was confused, elated, satisfied (with chocolate), and then extremely aroused and a little dizzy. She couldn’t believe she’d done such a blatantly erotic thing as to mark those rocks. But his reaction told her what she needed to know. He still wanted her badly. William had sent her some food by way of Jaime, who had helped her plan her route, along with a note that said Vincent had hoped to have lunch with her (too bad), and dinner. She might let him find her by then, but she was in doubt as to whether they would make it back for dinner even if she did. Meanwhile, Catherine was being well supplied and sitting in a pool of very steamy water to wash away the tunnel grime. All the unscented deodorant, toothpaste, and soaps had paid off so far. Now, she was getting rid of the deodorant. She was going to sweat and let him follow that scent. She must admit, his reaction to her first "landmark" had elicited a reaction in her own body that, had she not been in the pool, Vincent might have scented. What exactly was he doing with those rocks she’d marked?
Vincent headed again for the strongest scent, this time it seemed to be coming from a steam vent. He knew this small opening led to a pool chamber below it. Ignoring the steam he looked through the vent and saw Catherine lying naked in a bathing pool with her eyes closed. She was reclining, waist-deep against the side of the pool on her back, exposing her breasts to full view, the darkness of the water covering her waist, hips, and thighs. The smile on her face spoke of her amusement and her relaxation. A low growl started in his throat and he reached through the vent as if to grab her. The vent itself, however, was thirty feet above the pool and the path to the pool was a circuitous four miles from where Vincent stood, the steam vent was a naturally occurring formation about one foot in diameter, but, the walls surrounding the bathing chamber were granite walls bearing the tunnels above them and could never be drilled into. All he could do was call to her. "Catherine!" He called loudly, but she didn’t seem to hear him. He stared at her breasts wanting to reach out and touch her. He unconsciously licked his lips as she reached her hands over her head and stretched. Oh God! She’s beautiful! he thought with a loud sigh. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her.
Catherine actually could hear him and was tempted to cover up, but then she would have to acknowledge that he had found her, even if he couldn’t reach her. So she ignored him, as hard as that was to do. She reveled in the feelings she once again elicited from him. His not knowing that she knew he was watching her bathe made it all the more exciting. But she wasn’t quite ready for him to see the rest of her, so she waited until he moved away from the vent before she got out of the pool. Knowing how fast Vincent could cover the distance between there and here, she knew it would not leave her much time to move on. But she had a few more tricks up her sleeve.
"Catherine! Wait for me there," Vincent called desperately.
She was tempted, but, no. He had not yet worked hard enough for her. He would consider the hunt a success only if it was a struggle. This she was sure about. As soon as she sensed Vincent move away, Catherine grabbed her clothes and left quickly, dressing along the way. Her lead was diminishing but that was about to change. He would have a hard time finding her when the steamy bath was full of her scent and it wafted absolutely everywhere. Flinging her towel in the tunnel she wasn’t taking, she hurried away to find a cold drink.
After twenty minutes Vincent was almost at the bathing pool and elated that he would soon see Catherine. She might still be in the pool. He would undress and join her. Wouldn’t she be surprised by that? He rubbed his hands together happily. He had found her, not before lunch but before the dinner he had planned. He would pipe a message to William that he should start getting the dinner going because it was most definitely on. Running into the bathing chamber, Vincent almost tripped over Catherine’s towel. Instead of calling at the entrance as he knew he should, he simply ran straight in. After all, if those rocks weren’t an invitation, he didn’t know what was. The empty bathing chamber threw him for a moment. How had she left so quickly? She had looked so relaxed only twenty minutes ago. He had known Catherine for three years and had never known her to dry off and dress in less than twenty minutes.
He roared in frustration as he realized her scent was everywhere. Then he looked back at the towel. She went down the tunnel he had come from. There was only one way she could have gone where he wouldn’t have met her. He ran as fast as he could for a mile without finding her scent, then another, then another, then three more. There was no way she could have traveled this far in so short a time and no way she could have traveled at all without leaving a scent. The towel must have been a ruse. He closed his eyes as he realized she was probably amused by his falling for her trick so easily. Wait, how would she know? Suddenly it occurred to him that she was monitoring the bond. She had cut him off but he had not cut her off. That wasn’t fair. He was suddenly sure that she knew everything he was feeling.
He gasped. That would include what he had felt where she had marked the rocks. Oh God! Could he have acted any more . . . animalistic? But wait. Why was she doing this if not to make him act this way? Did she like it or was she trying to show him they were not compatible? Was that what she had decided last night? No! Again he banished the thoughts from his mind, knowing they were based on his low self-esteem and not on her opinion of him. He remembered the one clear emotion he had picked up at ten o’clock this morning was playful. She would not play with his heart, no matter what she thought of him. No, she was serious about this hunt. She did want him to find her. But he had to earn his quarry.
He quickly returned to the bathing pool and picked up the towel. He smiled now at her ruse. She had bought herself some much needed time. No more though! He would hunt her down until he found her. And then . . . and then . . . he breathed in her scent from the discarded towel and his eyes darkened. He would find her. He would not be distracted by decoys. He breathed the scent again. It calmed him this time. This was his, all his. He felt the love he had for her flow through him and sent it to her across the bond. Then the ruthless efficiency of the hunter took over. It would be the last emotion she would get from him until he found her. He breathed in and out slowly and, for the first time in months, shut down the bond which held them together.
Catherine gasped as she felt his emotions change and then shut off. It was almost painful to her; she had become accustomed to paying such close attention to all his moods and emotions, to monitoring every little piece of Vincent. She suddenly felt betrayed, but just as suddenly realized how foolish that was. After all, she had cut him off and he must have come to the realization that she was monitoring him. She was actually surprised that it took him so long. Well, now she was left with very little skill and far less knowledge of the tunnels to keep her away from Vincent. She also knew he had determined to hunt her down quickly and efficiently. She would have to be careful and follow her plan to the letter if she was to succeed in staying away from him for even another few hours. She looked at her watch. It was approaching four in the afternoon. She smiled. She’d done much better than Vincent thought she would do.
Vincent meanwhile had picked up her scent again and found that she had slid through a narrow tunnel opening that he could not possibly have climbed into. He had no trouble figuring out which little Mouse helped her find that one. He growled and ran the three miles around to get to the other side. Catherine, meanwhile, was marking a few more rocks to delay and confuse Vincent.
Vincent realized that Catherine’s scent, though strong now in many places along the trail was not the easiest scent to pick up. She was obviously marking more rocks, which, as she probably realized, was distracting him, but he was trying to ignore them and follow the scent of what she was now carrying with her–a salami sandwich. She probably hadn’t yet thought about the strong smell of salami although she soon would. But, even then, she would have no time to dump it in a suitable location where he wouldn’t pick up her scent on a divergent trail. Suddenly, the salami was dead ahead. Vincent ran toward the scent and found the basket with a note.
This one’s for you. Sorry we couldn’t make dinner. William thought you might be hungry and so I asked him to bring you a little snack.
The salami sandwich was packed carefully along with the note from Catherine. Her scent was quite obvious on it, although it probably wouldn’t have been to William who had carried the basket for who knows how long. Vincent sniffed the air to make sure the muffin man had really been there and this wasn’t just another ruse to throw him of the trail. He could smell William’s unmistakable scent. Vincent sat and put his head in his hands. He’d fallen for another one. He wasn’t even sure where the last reliable trace of Catherine was. He sat and stared at the basket with the sandwich, his appetite suddenly gone. His dinner plans were ruined and Vincent was suddenly feeling sorry for himself. Slowly, he lifted his head as he began receiving a sensation he hadn’t felt since ten o’clock this morning. Catherine was opening the bond—not much but enough to give him a message. He stood up indignant at the message he got and just as quickly lost. She was gloating! Did she think he was giving up? He regained his determination to find her and began retracing his steps to where she had obviously been alone—the rocks she had marked. They all seemed to be in the same general location making it very difficult to pinpoint a direction of travel. Vincent stood in the middle of the chamber where four tunnels diverged and closed his eyes. Blocking out all sensation, all feeling, all noise, he concentrated on Catherine and did something he thought he would not do until he found her. He opened the bond back up. Sending her waves of love and heat, Vincent knew Catherine would eventually break down against the onslaught and at least give him an indication of where she was.
Catherine stopped. This was new. She gasped at the intensity of what he was doing. Was that Vincent? What in the world was he thinking? Does he know I can feel that? Of course he does Chandler. Don’t be stupid. Oh no you don’t, Vincent. Catherine smiled at his attempt to make her reciprocate by opening the bond thus giving away her location. She wasn’t planning on falling for it. But, boy was he good at that!
Vincent stood perfectly still in the middle of the chamber and waited. He knew it might take a few hours to find her this way, but he was ready to be patient. He would stalk her carefully and slowly so as not to allow escape this time. His breathing slowed and he blew slow breaths in through his nose and out through his mouth.
Catherine looked around for the slight breeze she was feeling on her neck. It was warm and pleasant, but she couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. No matter which way she turned, it stayed on her neck.
Vincent’s lips moved ever so softly as if he was slowly whispering to someone very close.
Catherine grabbed the back of her neck. "Vincent!" She smiled dreamily. How is he doing that?
His claws tingled as he pictured her flesh underneath them and he stretched out his fingers to knead the air.
Catherine gasped and grabbed her left breast. What was he doing now?
He groaned, sucking his lower lip.
Catherine fell to her knees and moaned grabbing her other breast. "This isn’t fair!" she said out loud. She grabbed the wall for support and slowly tried to get up.
Vincent licked his lips and growled, lapping at an invisible bowl of cream.
"Oh, God!" Catherine fell with her back against the wall, knees up and spread wide, groaning and panting. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to float away in the dizzying sensations.
Vincent’s eyes flew open; he shut down the bond, and started running. He only felt slightly guilty about what he had just done to her. She could think of it as a preview.
Catherine immediately knew she had made a mistake and looked frantically for an escape route. The bond securely shut down again, she began to run also. She slipped through an opening he could never get through just as he entered the chamber where she had been. He looked down the narrow opening at her as she climbed out the other side and ran away laughing. He had two miles to run, but he could cover it faster than she could. Before that he would teach her a lesson. He opened the bond again and made her scream. Yes, she wouldn’t be too difficult to find now. He smiled and closed the bond to let her recover while he ran toward her.
He had to admit he was having a great time. This hunt was the best anniversary gift she could ever have given him. The dinner would have been nice, but he had planned it mostly for her, thinking it was her kind of thing. He stopped, thinking about what she’d said last night about becoming what he wanted her to be. Was she doing that now? Yes, he was sure she was. He thought sadly about all she was giving up to live Below. Was she now giving up who she was to be with him? She seemed to be enjoying this also, but he couldn’t be sure with just small glimpses of emotion throughout the day. He was more anxious than ever to find her now and he quickened his step toward her last known location.
Suddenly he stopped short. Something was terribly wrong. Catherine had completely disappeared. He shook in confusion as he tried to focus more closely on her whereabouts. There was nothing there. She was never that good at manipulating the bond. Yes, she could cut of her emotions, even her location, but he always knew she existed. Now there was a frightening silence that overwhelmed him. He turned to look for the nearest pipe and signal for help when he felt a curious sensation. He gasped as he realized Catherine had been there all along.
Catherine reached out her tongue to her invisible target.
Vincent moaned and leaned against the wall. He was lost in the sensations between the two parts of his upper lip. As quickly as it had started, it stopped. Then a new sensation began. Vincent held out his hands in front of him, trembling.
Opening and closing her mouth slowly, Catherine looked as if she was working her way through a delicious Popsicle.
His fingers alternated between hot and cold, one finger at a time. Vincent had never experienced a sensation like this. It felt as if someone were drawing something up from the center of his body.
Now that Catherine knew how close he was, she continued as she walked, sending him the loving ministrations she’d always wanted to give in person. Who knew this hunt could be so much fun? She was pretty sure this would end better than she expected. But although she was elated by the latest occurrences, she was quickly becoming exhausted. It was getting late and if he didn’t find her soon, all they would want to do is sleep. Finally finishing with Vincent’s fingers, Catherine pondered over what to move on to while she sat on a rock to rest her feet.
Vincent smiled and slowly, cautiously stalked toward her. Her scent was tantalizing him now, making him shudder in anticipation. He quietly walked through the tunnel she had just exited. Coming out into a long narrow cavern with some small recessed chambers used for guest retreats, he saw her resting and rubbing her feet. Her back was to him and she was just getting up to move on. As she slipped back into her shoes and stepped toward the tunnel to her right, Vincent silently came up behind her. He released the bond and just as she gasped and was about to turn around, he gently, but firmly pinned her facing the wall. She tried to struggle herself free but he leaned his entire body along hers virtually immobilizing her. He grabbed her wrists and lifted them along the wall above her head and breathed on the side of her face as she tried to turn and look at him.
"Where’s my gift?" he asked in a deep growling voice that sent shivers of pleasure up and down her spine.
"Why don’t you sniff it out?"
He breathed deeply. "Hmm. It’s not chocolate" He looked her up and down trying to ascertain whether or not she was carrying something on her and then he saw a bright red bow hanging halfway out of her pocket. He laughed and grabbed the package. After he had the gift, he let her go, knowing she would not go far. His curiosity was piqued. He opened the gift and pulled it out of the box and looked at it, puzzled. It was a red and white can labeled "Whipped Cream." He looked at Catherine with a question on his face but wasn’t sure how to word it. He’d had whipped cream before, although it was a delicacy Below, but he’d never seen it in a can like this. William usually just made it himself when one of the helpers brought down some whipping cream for that purpose. Finally, after seeing her face go slightly pale with chagrin, he just asked, "What . . . do I do with it?"
"Anything you want to," was her sly reply. She was smiling slightly and waiting for him to decide.
Vincent stood up and looked confused. He looked at Catherine again and then back at the can. He read the side of the can. Under "Directions" it read, "Shake well. Depress nozzle to dispense."
Vincent shook the can while repeating the words to himself and then put one furred finger on the nozzle and pushed sideways. He jumped as a stream of whipped cream sprayed upwards and landed on the front of his cloak. Surprised, Vincent did it again and the same thing happened this time landing on his arm. Vincent licked it off and discovered it was very good. He decided he liked canned whipped cream although it definitely didn’t taste as good as . . .
Suddenly, his eyes shot up to Catherine’s face and quickly back to the whipped cream. Back and forth they went while he considered the implications of what he had surely already settled on doing. Catherine stood completely still, watching him deliberate, almost holding her breath in anticipation of what he would try next.
In a lightening quick move his arm shot out toward Catherine’s face where he sprayed whipped cream down the side of her right cheek. Catherine gasped at the suddenness of his move and instantly began shaking in expectation of what she knew was coming. Without a sound, Vincent moved until their noses were touching. She wondered, only for an instant if he were in his right mind. Then, in one fluid move, he turned his face, stuck out his sandpaper tongue, and licked the cream off her face as she moaned and her knees buckled. Vincent caught her around the waist and hoisted her up onto a long, narrow rock shelf a foot away and held her there with his own body. As she sat there, eye to eye with him, Vincent pulled his face back and looked at her for a moment. Then he sprayed her forehead and left cheek, rested the can beside her, took her face in both his hands, and licked her clean. Neither of them said a word as he took the can again and traced the outline of her mouth. Slowly, methodically, he began to lap up the cream starting with the corners of her mouth and working his way in, alternating between the top and bottom lip.
When he reached the middle of her bottom lip, Catherine could stand inactivity no longer. She began to lick the sides of his unique mouth first, and then moved to his top lip. Finally she slipped her tongue into the cleft in his upper lip and he growled at the contact. Spreading her legs apart and pulling her closer, he shamelessly rubbed himself against her making noises somewhere between a purr and a growl. Catherine thought she could go insane with the sensations he was causing. Her moans joined his growing growls, filling the cavern with sounds of three years of agony combined with the ecstasy of newfound freedom.
Almost crazed with this frenzy Catherine had elicited, Vincent now found her clothing an unbearable obstacle to what he wanted to do next. Knowing his thoughts, Catherine quickly pulled her dress up over her head revealing her naked body underneath. She was wearing no underwear. Vincent stared at her for a moment in awe and realized he had done exactly what she had planned for him to do. The whipped cream, momentarily forgotten, made a new appearance as Vincent found new and tasty landscape to cover. Circling her nipples with a mound of cream on each, he dropped the can and lifted her to his mouth, arching her back as if she weighed nothing. As Vincent licked and sucked the tempting sweets he’d been offered, Catherine let her head fall back and cried out as she felt his rough tongue circle her nipples. When she felt his teeth on her, she once again was overwhelmed with the urge to bite and she growled in frustration at her impossible position and instead dug her fingernails into Vincent’s shoulders.
When the whipped cream was cleaned from her breasts Vincent moved up to kiss her, truly kiss her, for the first time. He pressed his mouth hard against hers passionately, groaning as he strove to feel every nuance of her desires within him. He wanted to fulfill her every wish and was overwhelmed by her need for him. Suddenly he grabbed her hair and pulled her back from him gasping for air and looking down at her. "Catherine," he gasped, but he could say no more. He was overwhelmed with the emotions coming from her and combining with his own and he hugged her tightly to himself trying to make some sense of what he was feeling while his entire body was throbbing in response to hers.
Catherine clenched her teeth and cried, "Don’t stop, Vincent."
"I have to, Catherine. In another minute, we’ll be lying in the dirt."
"Dirt? Who cares? I don’t care where we are." Catherine was almost desperate to get back to where they had been a moment before. She was so weary of the sexual frustrations she’d experience for three years. She was determined that it would end tonight.
"I care, Catherine," Vincent was almost in tears, "I had this romantic dinner planned and the whole night and I’m ruining it with this urgency I feel."
Catherine looked at him and wasn’t sure whether to believe what she had just heard. "What do you mean you had this all planned?"
"Tonight. I was . . . I . . . there’s a very nice chamber all set up, out of the way," Vincent was gesturing in the general direction of the falls, his voice became very quiet, "no . . . dirt."
Catherine suddenly realized that he had planned to make love to her. Just when she thought he’d never be ready and that she was going to have to take drastic measures, he had caught up to her. She suddenly felt very foolish trying to seduce him like this when he had made plans for a more traditional romantic evening. "Oh, Vincent," Catherine reached up to touch his face and he shuddered at the contact. "I’m the one. I ruined it. I started this whole thing to get your attention and I didn’t realize I already had it."
"No, Catherine. You couldn’t know what this would do to me."
"Vincent, I knew exactly what this would do to you. You did not come up with that whipped cream idea on your own."
Vincent smiled. "I like canned whipped cream."
"So do I, Vincent," Catherine moaned.
"Catherine, this was very fun." Vincent looked down at her beautiful naked body and thought about what a work of art she was. "I . . . have had dreams like this," he admitted quietly.
"So have I Vincent. It would be special no matter where we were."
"It would. I don’t have objections to the dirt per se, Catherine. It’s just that, I would like to do something more … special for our first time." Vincent could feel that Catherine’s emotions had not subsided much and he wondered whether this was really worth the effort.
"Vincent, you’re right," Catherine said with determination she did not feel. "This should be special. Why don’t you show me that chamber?"
"We could take the whipped cream with us."
Catherine laughed, "You’d better believe we’re taking that with us!"
Catherine dressed quickly and walked with Vincent back toward the falls. Both of them were tingling from their close encounter and were anxious for more, but Vincent was more determined than ever to do this whole thing the way he had planned and that meant slowing down a bit more than Catherine would really like. Catherine could feel his trepidation and smiled up at him, thinking it was just the jitters of a first-time lover. She prayed he would not change his mind, but she was willing to be patient for a few minutes longer.
William was at the falls clearing up the meal they had never eaten as they entered. "Ah, I heard you two finally found each other. I wasn’t sure what had happened to you until Mouse told me he thought you’d met up back at the retreat." Both Catherine and Vincent looked slightly embarrassed wondering what Mouse might have seen, but knowing Mouse, they also knew he would have disappeared quickly after ascertaining their whereabouts.
"Oh, William!" Catherine exclaimed after looking over the table setting he had set out, "This looks wonderful! I’m so sorry to make all your hard work go to waste."
"It didn’t," William replied, "I brought all the food to the home tunnels when Mouse reported that Vincent would not find you in time for dinner. We had a good time without you and I trust you had a good time without us." William’s expression took on a mischievous gleam.
"I think we can promise you that," Vincent answered slyly while glancing sideways at Catherine.
"There are some snacks and tea in the other room."
After William had gone, Catherine realized she felt quite hungry despite the fact that she’d eaten only a few hours before. "Wait a minute," she suddenly chimed, "Did you eat that sandwich William left for you?"
"No, actually, I didn’t."
"That’s why I’m feeling so hungry. All you’ve eaten since breakfast is chocolate and a small lunch."
"And whipped cream, Catherine," Vincent added with a grin.
Catherine laughed, "Well let’s get some of those snacks."
"I was planning to take you somewhere."
"Where were you planning to take me?" Catherine was hoping that it was just to the room with the bed, but she suspected there was something up with Vincent before that happened and she hoped there would be no more long delays now that they had clearly established what they both wanted.
"Come, I’ll show you."
"Vincent took her out into the tunnel where they had entered. It now seemed so cold and dark compared to that brightly lit room they had just left. Down to the left was a small tunnel where they walked for approximately a quarter mile. Just as Catherine was about to object to the trip, Vincent stopped in front of a door. He looked back at her as if he was about to do something he wasn’t so sure she would like and then he opened the door. Inside was a storage chamber. There was a bed, but to Catherine’s chagrin, it was not one anyone would have wanted to lay on just then. In fact, as she looked around she noticed that there were several beds in this large chamber, all stacked on top of other furniture. The other furniture was antique dressers, armoires, desks, chairs, and all manner of odds and ends. Catherine looked questioningly at Vincent.
"You mentioned that you were leaving your furniture behind in the move below. I thought you could pick out a few special pieces and I’d have them brought up for you."
Catherine looked even more confused. She stuttered, "Ah, that . . . was . . . very thoughtful of you, Vincent." The last thing in the world she wanted to do was go furniture shopping at midnight but he encouraged her to look around.
"Over there, is a dressing table that might suit you." He pointed to the dusty back of the room where there sat an antique spiral legged dressing table with three small drawers, one under the mirror and one on each side of it. Catherine thought it was lovely. Vincent was right, it suited her. The small square mirror was in perfect condition and the entire piece was lovely in its simplicity.
"Yes, Vincent, it’s beautiful." Catherine looked at it almost sadly not understanding quite what she was doing here. He looked so hopeful, like he wanted her to love it. She sat on the matching stool and carefully opened the middle drawer. It surprised her when it slid so easily open as if someone had taken good care of this piece of furniture. She tried the other two drawers and in one of them was a small box wrapped in bright yellow wrapping paper and next to it was a note. She looked at Vincent and laughed.
She quickly opened the note and the two sentences made the smile disappear from her face.
My chamber is badly in need of furniture. Would you mind helping me redecorate?
She looked up at Vincent and shook her head to try and clear the confusion. He was looking back at her with an expectant look on his face. Was she missing something? She looked at the note again and then back at him. Then her eye fell on the little box. Opening it slowly she found a simple gold wedding band inside and she began to cry.
Vincent came and kneeled next to her. "Catherine," he looked up at her with all the love he felt for her shining in his gaze, "I love you, Catherine. More than the sunlight, more than my next breath, I love you. I have from the moment I saw you. In your eyes I see all the possibilities I have long denied myself because of what I am. Because of what you are, I see them all as possible; because you see them as more than possible; you see them as natural and normal for me." His eyes filled with tears and Catherine could hear the emotion in his voice, "Catherine, how can I describe what knowing you has meant to me? In your eyes I see the world. I did not live before you and if you were to ever leave, my life would be over. I can no longer deny the fact that you belong here with me, despite my trepidation about taking you away from the world above. My heart started beating the day I met you, and it beats only for you, now and forever. Will you move in with me? Will you put your furniture in my chamber and your shoes at the foot of my bed? Catherine, will you marry me?"
By now Catherine was bawling uncontrollably and completely unable to speak. She grabbed Vincent’s face and nodded her head between gasping breaths.
Vincent chuckled nervously, knowing Catherine’s emotions but never having seen her in such a state. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Catherine finally managed, gasping, "Yes, yes, yes! I love you; I love you; I love you." Breaking down again, Catherine collapsed in Vincent’s arms and he held her there, rocking her gently until she was able to compose herself. After a considerable time, Catherine was quiet, enjoying the sensation of being wrapped in the arms of her fiancé. "Fiancé," she said to herself and purred softly in Vincent’s embrace.
Vincent looked down at her, taking her face in his large hand, and quietly growled, "I’ve caught you. Now you’re mine." Looking at him with a start, Catherine’s thoughts moved toward the carnal activities his declaration guaranteed were in store.
Aware of the shift in her emotions, Vincent lifted her from the bench and, without a word, carried her back to the chamber they had recently left. As he passed the table, he bent over and picked up the can of whipped cream. Then, with a mischievous smile, he carried her into the bedchamber.
It was lunch time before Vincent and Catherine showed up in the community dining hall, considerably rumpled looking. They were lost in a world of their own until Devin broke in on their happy gazes to demand their attention.
"Vincent, Mouse didn’t have a watch so you have to tell us the time."
"Huh. It’s lunch time Devin."
"Not the time now, Fuzzball! The time you found Catherine last night."
"Oh, Um, I . . . Uh."
"Come on, you always know what time it is, don’t gimme you don’t know either. You’re just embarrassed because it took you so long to find her aren’t you?"
Vincent mumbled something that seemed to indicate the rightness of that statement and to his shock and chagrin, Father slapped the table and yelled, "That settles it. William, hand over my pie. I won the pool!"