Ephram followed Vincent towards the water falls. The magnitude of this place amazed him, that such a place would exist in New York was mind boggling, for it to exist under Manhattan defied all credibility. Turning around, he took in everything he could see, Ashley would love this place. Ephram stopped as he saw Vincent sitting on the edge of the path, his feet dangling over the cliff side. He stepped back and leaned against the wall as he studied the man closer. From what he could tell, he was mightbe 5 or 6 years older than Vincent, yet right now he felt so much older than this troubled man.

“Tell me about the first time.” Ephram broke the silence. If he was going to be any help to Vincent, then he was going to have to find how close to the edge the man was truly dancing.

“His name is Devin; he is Father’s son,” Vincent started quietly.

“So you were raised together, as brothers?” Ephram was starting to put the pieces together.

Vincent simply nodded. “Devin had gotten the money together to buy a knife, against Father’s wishes. One of the kids told Father, Devin thought it was me. He got angry and confronted me with it, when I denied it, he struck at me.”

“And you struck back,” Ephram continued.

“Devin found out later that it was another kid named Mitch that had told Father.”

“Vincent, you were young, and defending yourself, have you looked at Devin’s face? I mean really looked at Devin’s face?”

“Yes, he is scarred now, because of me.”

“No, he is scarred because of something he started. Vincent, you were cornered, by an older boy who was intent on causing you harm. You have attacked others…what happened with them? Did they survive?”

Vincent shook his head.

“Devin has a souvenir of being foolish enough to put a Taj on the defensive. You would not have been given the training or the guidance on what to expect, much less how to control those urges; your reaction was natural. You will need to talk to him about this Vincent, if you are ever to put it behind you…”

“What about Father?”

“Tell me what happened there.” Ephram moved forward and sat on the edge next to Vincent

Vincent talked about Paracelsus, and his drug lab. He talked about the safety of the tunnels, and Paracelsus attacking him, first with the drug, then later with his knife.

“So, let me get this straight.” Ephram stopped Vincent’s story. “You broke Father’s wrist, while under the influence of a deadly hallucinogenic drug? There is more to this story than I am getting, Vincent.” Standing up, he urged Vincent to do the same. “Let’s see Father and get to the bottom of this.”

~~

Catherine stopped by the guest chambers, looking for Ashley. The curtain was open, and the room obviously empty, so she followed the tunnel to Father’s chamber.

It didn’t take long before she could hear the sounds of Ashley’s son crying. Stepping into Father’s office, she saw the three doctors standing around the table with open books scattered all around them. Ashley was standing to the side and her son was on the table kicking his legs and protesting every bit of his examination.

“What’s going on?” Catherine whispered in Ashley’s ear.

“The mad scientists have gotten a hold of my son.” Ashley growled. “That is what is going on.” Catherine laughed. “I take it they gave up on the chance to compare dissections of Vincent or Ephram.

Ashley glared at the chamber entrance. “No, it seems that the men have conveniently made themselves scarce. And our good doctors here felt it would be safer to examine a helpless baby than an embarrassed grown man.”

Catherine nodded. “I have some questions for you about your abduction. Do you think you can trust your son in the hands of these mad scientists and his grandmother?” Both women looked at Emily just as she rubbed her hands together over the baby. “On the other hand, maybe we should wait. I have to admit, I have never seen Father or Peter like this.”

“Good idea.” Ashley rolled her eyes. “Unfortunately, I have seen Emily like this before; she can get rather enthusiastic about her research.”

“What’s going on here?” Ephram demanded as he and Vincent walked into the room. “Ashley, why are you letting that nutcase examine our son?”

“Before you growl at me, Ephram, look…There are three of them and one of me!” Ashley placed her hands on her hips.

“Good point,” Ephram conceded.

“Ephram, I take great exception to you calling my colleagues nutcases.” Emily raised her voice to be heard over the noise.

“Mother, I was talking about you.” Ephram walked over and kissed her on the forehead. “You are the biggest nutcase in this room. OUCH!”

Ephram jumped back as he felt Emily yank a strand of hair from his head. “You should respect your elders, boy, and remember the nut doesn’t fall too far from the tree, son.”

Rubbing his head, he glared at his mother. “What did you do that for?”

“I needed DNA. This is the easiest way to get it.” Showing the other doctors around the table, she cut off the end of the hair that still had the skin tab.

“What do you need my DNA for, Mother, you already know about my history?”

“Yes, but we don’t know Vincent’s. I am going to use yours as a baseline, since all my research is back at my lab, and I can’t get it here.” Crooking her finger she signaled for Vincent to come closer. Opening up a tube with an overly large q-tip inside, she moved towards Vincent. “Open wide.” Sticking the tube into his mouth, she rubbed it across his inner cheek.

“Now wait, why does he get the swab and you get to pull out my hair?” Ephram continued to protest. “Besides, why is my son howling like a Banshee on the table while everyone watches?”

“Ephram, leave him.” Turning in surprise, he looked at the person who spoke. He had expected Ashley to back him on this.

“Ashley?” There was definitely more to this than he was picking up on.

“I need to know that he is ok.” She hugged herself. Ephram probed their bond as he began to realize something.

“You’re blocking something.” Ephram moved Ashley into his arms to provide the warmth she seemed to be missing. “What are you hiding from me?”

“They had me for three months, Ephram.” Moving closer to his embrace, she spoke for the first time about her ordeal. “For three months, I didn’t know if I was going to live, or die. For three months I lived in fear. And for three months of my pregnancy, I had no medical treatment. I just need to know that he is ok.”

Ephram nodded as he looked across at his mother and the other two doctors. “Make it quick. I won’t have them traumatized any more than they already have been.”

Emily nodded and turned to her bag. “Ashley, I need you to go pump, we will need a sample of your milk.”

Ashley took the pump and bottle then disappeared down the tunnel to the privacy of her chamber. Fortunately, she had seen this used enough times that she understood the general concept.

As Ashley returned, she exchanged the bottle for her son.

“From what I can tell, he is perfectly fine. A little underweight, but if his hollering is any indication, his lungs are fully developed.” Emily wrapped her grandson up in his blanket before handing him over to his mother. “Father said his APGAR ratings were high, and take a close look at his feet. He has the creases at the bottom, so he was obviously full term.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Ashley kissed Emily on the cheek as she cuddled her son close to her chest, before sitting down at the table. “I was so worried that everything I went through would have a negative impact on him.”

Catherine joined the group at the table. “I know you said that you really don’t know who took you, but can you tell me a bit about what you do know?”

“I don’t know where to start.” Ashley apologized.

“Start at the beginning.” Emily suggested. “Why did you leave the safety of the compound?”

“I didn’t.” Ashley’s response surprised them all. “I got a call from John, he was concerned aboutthe readings on some of the tests, and wanted me to come in and give a few more samples to make sure that everything was ok.”

Emily sunk down in the chair. “John?” she asked, her face going white.

“Who is John?” Catherine pulled out her notebook from her pocket and started to write.

“John is a brilliant scientist who has worked with our community for years. He came shortly after you were born, Ephram. He was helping us work on a formula for the babies.”

“Do you have a last name for John?” Catherine pressed, pulling out her notebook, she started writing

“Yes, of course. His name is John Pater.”

Father, Vincent and Catherine froze at that answer. “I am sorry, did you just say John Pater?” Catherine looked at Vincent; the link was too strong for it to be merely coincidence.

 “Yes, he is a chemist.” Emily continued.

“Yes, we know.” Catherine’s voice was harder than Vincent had ever heard before. The bond went ice cold before it went silent.

“I take it you know John Pater.” Ephram commented.

“Yes” Vincent said. “That drug I told you about…The one that I was under the influence when I struck Father.”

“The one that a man you called Paracelsus created.” Ephram nodded.

“Yes, well, Paracelsus’ given name is John Pater. He has been connected with these tunnels since the beginning.”

“There is more to it than that.” Father continued. “The woman that found you, the one that brought you to me, was Anna, John’s wife.”

“Impossible,” Emily declared. “I took him to the airport myself, he left two weeks before…” She suddenly stopped.

“Before what, Mother?” Ephram pressed.

“We don’t know for sure, Ephram, I don’t want to say until we know for sure,” Emily tried to stop  him.

“The test is only a formality at this point.” Ashley pressed. “Look at him, Emily. Really look at Vincent. Can you tell me that there is any doubt as to his relationship? Heck, take away the Taj features and everything else is almost exactly what Jennifer looks like.”

Ephram nodded. “And his movements are so much like Kevin’s that it is scary. Don’t you think they should all know that there is a survivor?”

“Besides, doesn’t Dena have a right to know for sure what happened to her sister, even if she can’t be told about the Taji?” Ashley picked up where Ephram left off. Emily was always amazed at how well a bonded pair worked together when the goal was mutual. To see that her son had found that made her smile, even as her heart broke with the news she knew deep inside that she had.

“We think your mother’s name was Debbie.” Emily stated as she watched Vincent. “She disappeared two weeks after finding out she was two months pregnant. Two weeks after John Pater had left our community to return home.”

“And my father?” Vincent had to know.

“Her mate, Marcus, was found in their bed, from what we could tell, he had been poisoned.”

“Who are Kevin, Dena and Jennifer?” Catherine asked.

“ Kevin is Marcus’s younger brother. Dena was Debbie’s sister, and Jennifer is Dena’s daughter.” Ashley stated.

“I have family? Blood relatives?” Vincent changed his phrasing upon seeing Father winced at the first comment. All his life he had felt separate from everyone, despite the closeness of the family that had loved and raised him.

“We believe so,” Emily stated. I will run these samples. I will check with Jennifer; genetically, she is closest to you.”

“What do you mean by that?” Father asked.

“While through familial connections Jennifer might be Vincent’s cousin, genetically she would read as his half sister.” Emily paused. “You see Dena and Debbie were identical twins.”

“How many of these people are still alive?” Father had to ask.

“Dena is in an Alzheimer’s unit. But Vincent would never be allowed to meet her anyway, she was never cleared to meet the Taji.”

“Not cleared?” Catherine asked.

“The Taji are very protected.” Ashley commented. “Only those who have been approved by the council, and have undergone rigorous personality testing, get to come into the inner circle.”

“How did Paracelsus pass those tests?” Catherine asked

“I don’t know,” Emily stated. “Exceptions might have been made in his case. A natural disaster resulted in several orphaned Taj children; we were desperate to come up with a formula they could accept in order for them to survive.”

“And John was involved in this?” Peter pressed.

 “Yes, we worked together. Much to Tom’s frustration.”

“Dad?” Ephram asked. “Dad had a problem with John.”

“No, your dad had a problem with me working in a lab alone with another man.” Emily responded. “Especially after you were born. At that time, it was expected that after giving birth, a life mate would drop her career and focus her entire life around the kids.”

“Well that was the normal expectations in the 50’s,” Father replied. “Men had careers, women worked at home, with the kids.”

“Yeah that is what Tom’s parents said… A lot!” Emily groused.

“I was breaking the mold, even back then. But I had worked too hard, through too much adversity to just drop being a doctor.” Emily looked at Ephram. “Your dad understood, he stayed with you and allowed me to keep working.”

“You were a great Mom.” Ephram confirmed. “Even if you were a little abnormal.”

“Besides, look at what you have accomplished.” Ashley pressed. “The Taji now have documented medical history, plus, all of the life mates that have been able to continue with their careers.”

“I have done almost everything but the one thing I set out to do.” Emily looked around the table.

“But it looks like someone else accomplished that for me.”

“What is that?” Catherine asked.

“There has never been a documented case of a Taj orphan surviving the first month of infancy. Until now.” Emily turned to Vincent, “I don’t think you fully understand what a miracle you truly are. Because of you, and your Father, we might be able to save others.”

Vincent bowed his head, it was hard for him to accept compliments of this sort, if these people truly knew what he was.

“She’s right.” Ephram added. Vincent looked up and made eye contact, “you might have some ghosts we need to excise, but you are truly a miracle, and worthy of the Taj name.” This is what Vincent came to him for. Judgment. Well he was going to give it, but not the judgment Vincent expected.

 “What ghosts?” Father asked.

Ephram moved around the table to stand behind his wife. Kissing her on the head he faced Father.

“Vincent told me about a drug that John created, he also told me about striking you.” Out of the corner of his eye he could see Vincent stiffen up, and Catherine closing her notebook and going to him to offer comfort. Good, that was as it should be. “I need to know your side of the story.”

Father noticed the marked change in the atmosphere around the room. “Okay,” he said, nodding his head. “We had discovered that Paracelsus was creating his drug in the tunnels. I had confronted him about it, with no luck. He made it clear that should anything happen to him, then he would expose the tunnels, and Vincent to the authorities.” Father’s eyes glazed over as he focused on the events as they had happened. Vincent had obviously gone to Ephram for judgment, he was going to ensure that Ephram had all the facts as they were.

“Vincent volunteered to keep Paracelsus from leaving the tunnels, until we came up with a better solution. It was during this time that Paracelsus drugged him.” Rubbing his eyes, “I remember hearing Vincent cry out. His torment echoed through all these tunnels. I went to Vincent to discover that he had trapped himself in a dead end. I approached him, calling his name. I had never seen him like that before, he warned me off, but I still approached him. He bared his teeth at me and tried to warn me off a second time, but I insisted. I approached him, slowly continuing to talk when he lashed out and knocked me away. I broke my wrist when my hand hit the wall.”

“So you are saying that Vincent warned you off not once but several times?” Ephram pressed. Father simply nodded. “He was like that for hours, nobody could get near him. Finally out of desperation, I called for Catherine.”

Ephram turned to Catherine, “What happened then?”

Catherine picked up the story from there. “Father explained to me what had happened. I was already working this drug case from the other side of this. Father explained to me that I was not to approach Vincent, but that he was hoping my voice, in combination with our bond, would calm him enough for them to provide Vincent with aid and care.”

“What did you do?” This story was turning out as he had expected.

“They took me to where Vincent had holed himself up, and had me call out to him. I had never heard him so tormented like that before. I remember moving forward, continuing to call Vincent’s name, and hands holding me back. Father reiterated the importance that I could not, should not approach Vincent. We argued and I went ahead anyway.”

“What was Vincent’s reaction when you came closer?”

“I could tell he was reacting to the light I carried, so I put it down and kept approaching. I kept calling his name as I walked closer and each time he got quieter and quieter. When I was finally standing directly in front of him, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye, a bit of light with it. Vincent protested, and lunged forward. I wasn’t sure who was behind me, but I knew that Vincent would never forgive himself if he hurt anyone while he was in that state, so I launched myself into his path. I just kept saying his name, over and over, the next thing I know Vincent’s arms came around me and he was saying my name. It took him a little bit longer before we could leave that area.”

“Were you frightened?” Ephram pressed.

“Of course, I was terrified!” Catherine exclaimed, but before anyone could add anything, she continued, “I knew exactly what this drug was capable of, and how deadly it could be. The effects of it should never have lasted as long as they did in Vincent. Before he even touched me, I could feel how hot he had gotten. Fever was not supposed to be one of the effects of this drug, when I was holding him, his heart was racing so fast I was afraid that it would suddenly stop, and take mine with it.” Catherine blinked back the tears she refused to let fall.

“Vincent said there were others.” Ephram decided that this was going to end here.

“Others?” Father and Catherine spoke at the same time.

“The others I have killed,” Vincent spoke quietly from behind Catherine.

“While saving our lives.” Catherine turned to Vincent, she realized what Ephram was doing. Well if Vincent was going to be on trial, he picked the wrong person to confront with it.

“Catherine.” Vincent started

“Don’t 'Catherine' me, Vincent.” Catherine had never been so mad at him before, she was not going to let him continue to flay himself with this. “Not a single one of us would be in this room if you had not protected us the only way you could.” She counted off on her fingers. “Those men in the brownstone had already attacked me once, and killed Carol. If you had not interfered, they would have continued coming after me and finished the job they had started months earlier. Do you think they were going to let me survive a second time?”

She raised a second finger. “The professor was insane; he had already killed two people and was in the process of sacrificing me to you of all things, when you broke in. It was the fire that killed him, not you.”

On her third finger, she continued, “You gave the Tong leader a chance to leave here unharmed if he promised to go away, it was the weapon of one of his own people that killed him, not you.” The fourth finger was Paracelsus’ minion that took her from her balcony so he could watch her die while Paracelsus had him fight to the death, with Erlik. The fifth was the martial arts instructor who killed himself when the rope he was swinging on broke. On and on, she named each situation where Vincent had been forced to protect her, or his world, from outside deadly forces.

Ephram sat down in the chair that Catherine had vacated. Letting Ashley lean against him, he watched as Vincent’s life mate read him the list of every heroic deed he had committed. This man had faced a lot, but he was surrounded by strong, supportive, loving people. Vincent was in good hands. As Catherine wound down her list, ending it with the list of people that she had killed to protect herself or him, Ephram decided it was time to finish this whole farce. “There is no judgment, here, Vincent, you are not the demon you think you are. You have defended your family, your home and your life mate in the honorable way of the Taj.”

Not willing to completely give up, Vincent threw up the one thing that he was still convinced would turn Catherine away. “And what about what happened with Lisa?”

“Who’s Lisa?” Ashley whispered in Ephram’s ear.

“Remember the dancer that Jess was complaining about?” Ephram whispered back.

“The one that went after Tara’s husband when she was 7 months pregnant?”

Ephram nodded. “That’s the one.”

Ashley paused. “What does she have to do with Vincent?”

 “It seems she grew up here in the tunnels. Vincent had a thing for her, then.”

“So this was the private education she was so secretive about.” Ashley thought for a bit. “Her career started when she was about what, 16? 17?”

“So Jen says.”

“You don’t have to tell me about Lisa, I can guess. Jess complained when Lisa was dancing with the company, that she went after anyone and anything in pants. Lisa was a flirt and a tease, and from what I was able to learn, a very accomplished one at that. I also remember Jess complaining about how Lisa would wear very little in the dance rehearsals. I went with Jess to one of the rehearsals, and I can tell you that she has no scars, so I know that whatever you think you did, there were no lasting marks on her.”

“Give it up, Vincent.” Ephram put his arms around his wife and son. Then leaning back, he smiled at Ashley’s little squeak as he pulled her into his lap. “Everyone has their bad first kiss/encounter stories. So the only thing that your dramatic Lisa encounter does is make you normal.”

Vincent looked around at everyone in the room, flabbergasted. “Catherine?” Someone had to be made to understand.

Catherine shook her head. “I don’t share your vision, Vincent.” Rubbing her hand up his arm.
“You are a man that I respect, admire, and yes, even love. How many times do I have to tell you that you deserve this?”

Holding out his hands to Catherine. “These hands…”

Catherine covered both of his and leaned into him. “Are mine.”

Ephram looked around, it was time to lighten the mood up. From what he could tell, Vincent was really good at brooding.

“You know, you are not the only person who had a bad first romantic encounter.” Ephram tightened his grip on Ashley as he heard her hiss at him. She relaxed slightly as he continued.

“Father? Peter?” He looked across the table at the two older men.

Clearing his throat, Father answered “Yes, well, of course.” Not really wanting to get involved in that subject.

Peter started laughing as Father turned and glared at him. “Vincent, did Father ever tell you about when we were interns?”

Vincent shook his head and let Catherine lead him closer to the table.

“Hmmm. Well, we were further upstate, working in a small town hospital.” Peter dramatically paused as if he was trying to remember. “There was this one volunteer, she was a cute little thing, not much younger than we were. The last day of our internship, we were all going to go celebrate and Jacob convinced her to come join us. What none of us realized was that she was the youngest daughter of one of the local dairy farmers. This farmer had six kids, the first five were all boys.”

Noticing that he had the complete attention of his audience, he grinned and continued. “Well, after dinner, Jacob was determined to be the gentleman and escort the lady home. The next thing I know he is tearing into our dorm, throwing our stuff into suitcases and pushing me to get into the car, we were going back to the city that night. It wasn’t until later that I learned that your father had been caught making a move on the farmer’s daughter, by her five older brothers…and their shotguns.”

Vincent’s eyes got wide as he stared at his dignified, and now somewhat flustered, father.

“That is not accurate, it was not her five brothers.” Father protested.

“I am sure you would love to set the story straight, Father.” Catherine leaned forward, with a spark in her eyes, this was fun, she tried to hide her smile. You could always count on Peter to tell some completely embarrassing tale; at least this time it was not about her.

“It was her father and uncle with shotguns. I decided discretion was the better part of valor and it was best to get out of town before her brothers joined into the fray.”

Catherine turned to Vincent and saw that he was enjoying Peter’s story.

Emily watched the interactions around her. She tried to imagine what Ephram would have been like if he had not had the privilege of being raised within a Taj community. It was just beginning to hit her how close a call it had truly been.

“What are you thinking about, Mother?” Ephram had felt the ripple in her emotions. While their bond was not as close as his and Ashley’s, it was still there.

 “Just thinking,” Emily smiled. “I seem to recall a certain someone who managed to get bitten when trying to get that first kiss.”

Ashley groaned “No we are not going there!”

Ephram buried his face in Ashley’s hair as he tried to suppress his laughter. All eyes at the table turned to them.

“Ephram, don’t you….” Ephram kissed Ashley’s lips just hard enough to stop her from talking. Vincent looked back and forth between Ephram, Ashley and Emily.

Finally settling his gaze on Ephram he had to ask. “Why did you bite her?”

Ephram’s laughter resulted in Ashley punching him in the shoulder before she pushed out of his lap and contemplated leaving the chamber. “That’s where you are wrong Vincent. Ashley bit me.”

Emily laughed, before Ashley could leave, she called out to the younger woman. “Ashley, you are going to have to tell them the rest of the story if you are going to save face.”

Ashley stopped and sighed. “Fine.” She turned around and looked at Vincent. “Ephram and my brother Cole are about the same age. “Not all the Taji live in the same area,” Ashley started, “In this case my brother Cole and Ephram lived in communities close enough that they grew up together, and were basically huge pains in my…Well you get the idea.” Vincent nodded.

“One night, Cole and Ephram were at a classmate’s house for a small party. It wasn’t common knowledge at the time that the girl’s parents were not home. Being a small town, that really didn’t make much of a difference.” Walking back to the table, Ashley continued, “Mom had sent me over to find Cole and ask him to come home. When I got to the house, I asked around for where Cole was, someone pointed me to a door and told me that he was in there, but they warned me to  be careful because the light wasn’t working in the hallway.”

Ephram picked up the story. “We were playing some typical games that teens play, I was given a dare from some of the guys that I had to kiss the next girl who walked into the hallway. So we disabled the lights, and I waited in the dark.”

When Ephram paused, Ashley continued. “I didn’t know what was happening. I opened the door and walked in, suddenly the door shut behind me and I was being picked up and kissed, I had been expecting to find Cole, and not to be accosted. So I bit first then kicked second. I laid Ephram out before he knew what happened. The next thing I knew the lights turned on, Cole and his friends were standing at the end of the hall, Ephram was writhing in pain on the floor behind me, and I was fit to be tied.”

Ephram laughed, “Yeah it took me a week to be able to stand up straight after that. But that was when I knew that Ashley was going to be my mate. Everyone laughed at me, those days she couldn’t look at me without giving into the urge to throw something in the general direction of my head.”

“I assure you, Ephram, the urge still comes on a regular basis,” Ashley growled.

Vincent watched everyone around the table laugh good naturedly at the stories. It was hard to imagine a smaller version of Ashley laying out someone like Ephram, and no matter how embarrassed the story made her feel, there was still a connection between them.

“Cathy, I seem to remember you have your own story.” Peter’s comment interrupted Vincent’s thoughts as he felt a flash of embarrassment through their bond.

“Nobody wants to hear about that, Peter, it wasn’t a big deal.” Catherine tried to dissuade Peter from going any further.

“I don’t know, Catherine, after all, we told our stories…so turnabout is fair play.” Ashley smiled. The other woman’s unspoken comment was clear, “Ok, fine.” Cathy sighed, she needed to do this for Vincent.

“I was in the seventh grade. I had been in school with Ricky and Tommy since second grade, and they were the bane of my existence. They liked frogs, ate worms and anything else they could do to gross me out. On this particular day, they had made a bet with each other to see how many girls they could kiss in school that day. I had learned early on that anytime they got together to do something, it usually spelled trouble for me. So when I saw them messing around under the big oak tree by the school, I knew something was up. It didn’t take them long to flank me near my locker. When Tommy moved towards me, I swung the locker open and hit him in the face with the door. I was reaching for my bag in the locker when Ricky reached in and beat me to it, so I slammed the locker shut on his hand. Ricky was now behind me howling like a banshee, holding his hand to his chest when Tommy decided to make another try, so I grabbed the bag out of my locker and swung. I was aiming to hit him in the head when he ducked; unfortunately, he was standing too close to a couple of steps and fell down them. At that point Ricky had a broken hand, Tommy had a black eye and a broken leg, and I had detention for a week.”

“Wow” Ashley replied. “that hardly seems fair.”

“That is what I thought. But Dad put it into a different perspective. First, yes, I broke a school rule, but so did they. They were slammed with In School Suspension for a month. Tommy had to walk around on crutches and had the added insult of sporting a black eye that had been given to him by a girl. Ricky had to miss out on the sports season, because his broken wrist prevented them from playing again that year. Me, I could go back to school, and not only that, but I had showed those two little boys that I could stand up for myself.”

“Wait that doesn’t count…you never got kissed,” Ashley said.

“True, but I ended up dating Tommy a couple years later, he kissed me then.” Catherine looked at Peter.

“Ok, but the initial story doesn’t count as a first kiss.”

“It does when she tells you what happened when Tommy did get around to getting to kiss her.” Peter commented.

Eyebrows went up around the table as everyone looked at Catherine, who was blushing.

“Well?” Ashley prodded.

“I threw up on him.” Catherine finished while everyone started laughing. “We had our High School reunion a few years ago, both Tommy and Ricky made a point of avoiding me.”

~~

JR heard the scraping noise first. Squeezing himself tighter into the crevice, he watched as the metal wall slid back to allow two boys to walk out. They pressed on one side of the iron gate and the whole wall opened up to let them out. Paying close attention, he watched where they touched to reclose the metal door before closing the gate behind them. This was all he needed. Falling back against the wall, he waited for the boys to leave before walking out himself. The boss would be happy about this. They could go get the little bitch’s baby, kill her and be done with all this before the day was over. Tomorrow he would be a rich man.

 “What do you mean, she went into the ditch?” Forget convincing Boss, he had to get past Flash.

“I mean I stayed there for most of this afternoon, and all evening and they didn’t come back out.” JR turned to Boss. “The kid was dressed funny like, but the broad, she was classy, dressed like she has money.”

“So you fell asleep.” Flash sneered. “And missed them when they came out, or you screwed up again and now you’re trying to cover it up.”
 
“I swear Boss, I didn’t fall asleep.” JR decided Flash wasn’t worth his time, he would never believe him anyway. “After the two chicks disappeared in the tunnel I followed them, nobody Boss, and I mean nobody was there. I hid behind a rock and waited, then two kids opened up this fake wall and walked out as calmly as you please, like they do this shit every day.”

Boss looked up at Flash. As the man rolled his eyes and gestured as if he was puffing a joint.
“Boss, just let me show you, if the secret door isn’t there, then you can do whatever.”

“Deal,” Boss stated, “that door isn’t there, then you go to the meeting point and explain to our client why we don’t have the baby. Then we will let him deal with you.”

JR ignored Flash’s cussing as the man stomped through the muck. Walking up to the bars, he grabbed the end he saw open before, planting his feet, he yanked hard and almost fell over when it opened easily.

It took him a bit longer to find the hidden latch that opened the door. JR stepped back and let Boss walk through first. Feeling in his pocket, he pulled out his knife, and fingered the gun he had tucked in for safe measure. Heck, if things went well tonight, mightbe they would leave the tunnels without Flash. That would be more money for him and Boss; who knew, mightbe he would find that classy broad he saw earlier and teach her a few lessons about what it was like to play in the gutter.

~~

Vincent jumped up as Father froze.

“What is it?” Ephram going on the alert.

“Intruders,” Vincent stated. “Three men, all carrying knives and weapons.”

Ashley tightened her hold on their son as she looked at Ephram. She hadn’t had the need to see that look in a long time, but she knew a Taj on alert when she saw one. Heaven have mercy on the men that threatened anyone under their protection, because the Taji would not.

“Not again.” Father sank back. The last thing he wanted to do was send Vincent back out; these events were beginning to take a toll on his son’s psyche. “If this continues we are going to have to close the entrance to the park.”

“They are armed, dressed in biker leathers.”

Everyone looked at Ephram. “I can guarantee they are not my crew, we were being followed. My team travels with an RV, I have a dummy rider who takes my bike when I need to make an appearance to outsiders. They were going to pick up a few more riders and should be well on their way to Sturgis by now.”

Ashley turned, shocked. “You let someone else ride your hog?”

Vincent ignored the conversation around him. He paid attention to the pipes; the intruders were following Ephram’s path to the maze. That was fine with him, as it was a good place to mount a defense.

“Try putting up the false walls, let’s see if we can lure them back out one of the other exits.” Father stated.

Walking up, Vincent placed his hand on Father’s shoulder. “There isn’t time.” Ephram stood up and placed Ashley down in the chair he vacated. His mate was at risk as well; once the order was given, Ephram would take his stand as well.

Father sunk into himself. Vincent was right, there was not enough time for alternative measures.

“Vincent,” Catherine approached him as he put on his cloak. Lifting the hood over his head, she whispered for him alone. “Come back to me.”

With those simple words she gave her understanding, her blessing and her love. He knew that he had something to come back to.

Ephram turned to Ashley and kissed her and laid his hand on their son’s head. “We haven’t had a chance to discuss names.”

“That’s ok, we can do it when you come back.” Ashley kissed him again then stepped back. Emily took her place as she hugged her son.

 “Vincent, wait.” Ephram called out as he quickly crossed the room.

“This is my family and home, I will defend them,” Vincent declared.

“As is your right, but my mate, my son, and my mother are here as well, you don’t have to stand alone in this. Not this time.” Ephram offered his arm to Vincent, in an age old gesture of comradeship between warriors.

Vincent stared at the arm, recognizing it for what it was. Ephram was right, he wasn’t alone in the world anymore, he was a Taj, and tonight he would guard his home in the way of the Taji.

“Lord have mercy on their souls.” Emily prayed out loud as the two men left the chamber.

“For tonight, the Taji will not.” Ashley completed the prayer.

~~

JR, Boss and Flash walked through the tunnels trying to find their way, there were no definite land marks, just rock walls interspersed with wide concrete drain pipes. Steam pipes travelling along the walls rattled, with a constant tapping sound that pierced the dark silence. The place was deserted, with the only signs of habitation being the footprints in the dirt beneath their feet. Prints that went every which way, but appeared to be going no place in general.

Flash cursed as his light flickered. A low growling noise reached their ears just as the light went out.

“What the hell did you get us into this time, dumb ass?” Flash pointed his knife at JR.

“Enough!” Boss stepped between the two men. “We don’t have time for this, let’s just find the bitch, get the baby and get out. If you want to poke something, then you can poke her once we get her back.”

More growling accompanied Boss’s words. The men felt the hair stand up on the back of their necks.

“Who’s there?” JR called out, swinging his flashlight around trying to catch any movement in the shadows.

“What do you want?” A rough voice echoed through the tunnel, stopping the men in their tracks.

“We don’t want any trouble, we are trying to find a pregnant woman that was in our care.” Boss figured a little diplomacy might do them some good at this time.

“Why do you seek her?” The voice replied.

“We just need to get her back, she is not well,” Boss replied.

“If you are so concerned, then why did she feel the need to leave your care?” A second voice spoke out.

“Like I said, she is not well. Not playing on all cylinders, if you know what I mean.” Another growl met that comment. Boss stepped back towards his crew as he continued. “Her baby’s father hired us to keep an eye on her and keep her safe until after she gave birth, then she would be free to go.”

“And who is this baby’s father?” the voice demanded. “Why isn’t he here with you?” Vincent’s voice insisted.

“Well, he is a busy man, that is why he hired us, to like keep the bitch…I mean, lady safe.”

“Go back and tell your employer that the woman is safe and does not wish to partake of his hospitality any further.” Ephram’s voice spoke out, they would give these men a chance to leave.

“Well, you see, it’s like this. We can’t do that.” Boss stated, “Our employer is the type of man who doesn’t take no as an answer, and he dislikes failure even more. So just turn her over and we can go our separate ways. No harm, no foul.”

“That is not going to happen. Your employer has no claim on the woman or her baby.” Ephram’s voice stated.

“Well, that is not how our employer sees it,” Boss shot back. “Now either bring her to us, or we fight our way through. Either way we get the bitch.”

“I will say it again, leave now, your employer has no claim here, and neither do you. Leave now, or face the consequences.”

Boss looked back at Flash and JR, this was not going well. People rarely told him no, yet this man hid himself in the dark, with what sounded like a large dog, threatening him. “Why do you think my boss has no claim?” It was time to change tactics. Motioning behind his back he signaled for Flash and JR to spread out. The voice was coming from somewhere in front of him now, they could flank the guy and take him down.

“Because her child is my son.” Ephram waited until the first assailant stepped in front of him before he reached out and grabbed the kid by the neck. Death was quick and merciful. Vincent lashed out at the same time, taking out the second man, leaving only the man in the center. Stepping forward out of the shadows, Boss saw for the first time what he was truly facing. Dropping his knife, Boss stepped back. Tripping over his feet, he went down into the dirt and landed next to Flash. Cold dead eyes stared back at him, showing him his future. His boss would not take failure lightly, at least with this creature his end would be quick. Reaching out, he grabbed Flash’s knife and rolled, as he got to his back he aimed the knife towards the monster that stood before him, only to find that the monster was not alone. A second creature stepped out of the dark, grabbing his wrist. Boss heard the crack of his bones before he felt the last rush of pain. Death came quickly.

Ephram looked at the carnage around them. Vincent was an efficient killer, yet the price took a heavy toll on the man. Stepping forward, he placed his hand on Vincent’s shoulder. “Let’s clean this up. There is no need for those we protect to know the extent of the damage.”

Vincent nodded. Picking up two of the bodies, he threw them over his shoulder and lead the way to the abyss. He would be feeding that darkness once again, with the evidence of his sins.

Ephram tossed his body into the darkness as well and stepped back to observe Vincent. “Thank you.”

Vincent turned, shocked at the simple gratitude.

“I know it isn’t enough, it never will be, but thank you.” Ephram continued. “I owe you the life of not only my mate, but my son as well.”

“What are we Ephram?” Vincent asked the one question that had plagued him his whole life. “What are we really?”

“Come, let’s go wash the stench of death from us and I will explain all that I can.” Ephram lead Vincent away from the Abyss. This was one soul that darkness was not going to get.

~~

The pipes sang out the ‘All Clear’ as people sighed in relief. Catherine and Ashley shared a look as they waited. As the time went by, Catherine became more and more dejected. There was no denying that Vincent had to kill again, which meant he would hide from her, again.

“I think it is safe for us to go home now.” Emily stated, sorting through her journals, she pulled select ones out and handed them to Father.

“Catherine?” Ashley’s heart broke for this woman. “I don’t really have much but can you come with me to the guest chamber, and help me get ready to leave?”

Catherine nodded her head and followed Ashley.

“Here are copies of my research in regards to the Taji. I trust it will be in good hands if I leave it with you.” Turning to Peter, Emily shook his hand “It was great meeting with you again. You know how to reach me, if you ever need anything.” The three doctors exchanged information as Emily promised Father that the tunnels would now have access to the full resources of the Taji Council. “They will probably want to meet with you to discuss how you were able to save Vincent.”

Father shook his head. “I only practice down here, the world above no longer recognizes my status as a doctor.” There was pain in those words, but not as much as there had been before.

“Oh, that reminds me.” Emily reached into her bag and pulled out something. “I have something of yours. I had my family send this to me with the journals.” Emily handed Father a folder, sealed tightly between two heavy sheets of plastic. Removing the rubber band, he carefully opened the protective case to the folder to reveal a document. Sinking down into his chair his heart stuttered at the title on the top of the page. “Congressional reinstatement of Dr. Jacob Wells.” It was an official apology for his ordeal, along with the reinstatement of his Doctorial credentials.

“How?” Father watched the page blurred before him.

“My niece did her master’s in political science before going on to law school. Her saster’s thesis was in about the danger of private agenda’s in politics. She focused on the witch hunts and was able to get Congress to reverse their decision on a number of the victims. You were one of them. While her work was published through the school, she had the official forms. Her goal has been to give them to everyone, but as you can imagine, most have become very hard to find. I had her send this to me.” Emily paused. “It was at my request that your name be included in her project, I wanted to be the one to give this to you.”

Father sat down at a chair, “I have no words.” Peter took the document and touched the words before handing it back to his friend. Both men wiped tears from their eyes.

“Of course to be able to legally request prescriptions, you have to be associated with a clinic or hospital. I can assure you that the Taji council will accept your status in this community and afford you every accommodation that you need to ensure its continued success.

“How is that possible? We do not live in a Taj community,” Father asked.

Emily looked at him puzzled for a moment before she completely understood. “The Taji community is not a single location. The Taji live all over the world, the council formed for their protection, it will be no problem at all to include this as another location.” Emily hid a small smile. “In fact can think of a few people who will be very happy to learn of a Taj connection in New York.”

~~

Catherine held Ashley’s son in her arms as her heart broke just a bit more.

“Please don’t give up hope.” Ashley sat on the bed. “He can’t see beyond what he thinks he is. He can’t see himself the way the rest of us do.”

Catherine sighed. “I love him, with everything I am, but he can’t seem to understand that he is worth that love.”

“They never do.” Ashley’s response surprised Catherine. “Do you think what I have with Ephram is easy?” Catherine shook her head. “I know that I have it easier than most of the Taja. My mother and family are part of the Taj community, my father is on the Taj council.” Ashley placed both hands on the bed and leaned forward. “Every Taj male is aware of the sacrifices his mate will have to face once she ties her life to him. He will fight it every step of the way. It is our job to show them the truth, that they are our lives, and that we walk into this willingly.”

Rising to her feet, Ashley went to the desk and tore a piece of paper off a pad in the drawer. Sitting down, she wrote out a series of numbers before handing it back to Catherine.
“The Taja have their own council. Emily and I will present your case before them, you are not alone anymore, Cathy, there are women in this world who have walked your path and will joyfully welcome you into their fold.”

Catherine took the paper and gave Ashley a hug. “Thank you.”

“Now don’t thank me so quickly.” Ashley teased, “I fully plan for either Ephram or myself to teach Vincent the rules of necking and petting before we leave.”

Catherine blushed even as she smiled. “I am sure I still have a mini skirt somewhere that I can fit into.”

Ashley and Catherine laughed. Gathering up the last of Ephram’s biker gear, Ashley straightened the room a bit before she followed Catherine out. The women hugged again as they parted ways. Ashley to wait for her mate to take her back home, and Catherine to return to hers.

~~

Ephram dove into the waters, they were warmer than he expected. Stepping out of the pool, he grabbed a towel and rubbed as much of the water off as he could. “Vincent, remind me to have someone send you a good supply of chamois. I think you will find that you will get dryer faster.”

“That would be nice.” Vincent’s response was more polite than interested in any conversation. He had fought beside Ephram today, and saw something that surprised him. The man that he had gotten to know as witty, and quick to crack a joke, had darkness inside him as well. The only difference in their cases was that Ephram embraced his. Vincent had reacted to Ephram’s first growl in the tunnels. It had called to something deep in him, but this time it was different. Vincent had let Ephram take the lead in their approach to the invaders, and Ephram had given them a chance to leave. Even knowing that they intended harm to Ashley, he had given them a chance to walk away. They had both heard the lead man’s offer to his companion to turn Ashley over after they were done. They both knew that those men had planned to use, and had already used a woman in the worst vile way possible.

“What are you thinking?” Ephram pressed.

“Does it ever get any easier?” Vincent sank into the pool, allowing the water to wash away the grime, knowing that it would never completely remove the blood.

 “Killing?” Ephram tried to clarify.

When Vincent nodded, Ephram continued. “No, it never gets any easier. When it does is when it is time to truly worry, Vincent. But for now, cleanse your body, then go to your Catherine and let her cleanse your soul.”

“I cannot.” Vincent’s soul cried at that answer as he stared down at his blood-stained hands. “I cannot let this touch her.”

“It already touches her, Vincent.” Ephram sat near the edge of the pool. “Every time we connect with our darkness, we take a piece of our mate with us. We have to have her light to balance us.” Sensing that he finally had Vincent’s full attention.

“Look at our mates, look at Catherine, at Ashley, heck even look at my mom,” Ephram started.
“They are so fragile, so soft, we make one wrong move and they will pay the price.” Vincent nodded, that he did know, too well. “But they are strong, too, Vincent, you have to have sensed it in your Catherine.” Vincent nodded.

“Do you trust her?” Ephram’s question got to the heart of the matter. “I mean do you really trust her?”

Vincent had to pause at that. He trusted Catherine with his life, the safety of the tunnels and even with his heart, but had he ever trusted her with all of him. The vision of her standing before him in Father’s chamber earlier today as she defended his every action and pointed out every time he had lost himself near or, for her, she had always come out unharmed, even when no-one else had. When it came down to it, the answer to that question was yes. He trusted Catherine with everything he was.

Ephram saw as Vincent finally made the connection. “You don’t have to trust yourself, Vincent, just trust her.”

“It isn’t that simple,” Vincent argued.

“Yes it is.”

“I don’t know how…” Vincent stopped, for once he didn’t have the words to finish, but it didn’t matter.

“You don’t have to.” Ephram did have the words. “All you have to do is let her know you are open to it, she will do the rest.”

“How?”

“I take it you never really got into necking or petting as a teen?” Ephram leaned back against the wall, as he smiled at a memory.

Vincent shook his head. “No.”

“It is simple, any part of the body that does not have clothes is safe to touch, the part of the body that is clothed, you might only touch the arms if she is wearing sleeves, her shoulders, or her back between the bra line and the waist line. She will let you know, by adjusting her manner of dress.”

“So I am just supposed to walk up to her and start rubbing?” Vincent was appalled at the thought.

“Of course not, I know you two exchange hugs, you can’t tell me you have been able to resist smelling or even kissing her hair.” Vincent blushed at that comment.

“Well next time, when you greet her, give her a hug and aim that kiss a little lower. Go for her neck, behind her ear, or even her cheek. Trust me, your Catherine will get the hint.”

“And the rest? I have no experience.”

“Trust your bond, you can feel her emotions, you will know if you are doing it right.” Ephram
paused, “Oh and before I forget, how long have you known each other?”

“Almost three years now.” Vincent was confused “Why?”

“Hmm,” Ephram thought. “Well, the likelihood that she has taken a partner since the establishment of your bond is highly remote, be prepared for her to experience a little discomfort at first.”

“Are you saying that I will hurt her?” Vincent was ready to find any excuse to put a stop to the direction this conversation had taken.

“No, it’s just that when a woman doesn’t use certain muscles for a while, they forget how to stretch, it will take a moment before her body remembers. Vincent, trust Catherine, trust your bond, they will both keep you both safe.”

“It will be safe for us to leave now, I am sure my mother has already made the arrangements.” Ephram rose from the pool side and started getting dressed. “Oh and Vincent, if you are so worried about your hands, remember your mouth can touch anyplace your hands can.”

Vincent nodded as he rose from the pool. Ephram had given him a lot to think about.
~~

Ephram, Ashley and Emily emerged from the tunnels to an awaiting taxi in the middle of the Alley, the driver leaning against the back of the van as if this were the most normal place in the world to be waiting for a fare.

Ephram held back to the shadows as Emily and Ashley stepped forward.

“I understood there was going to be one more with you, besides the little tyke.” The driver opened the door for the women. “Normally I don’t drive the van, but considering the circumstances, we thought it would be safer,” looking up, he noticed one last figure lurking in the shadows.

“Vincent, you about gave me a heart attack, hiding like that.” Stepping forward, the driver confronted the looming shadow, “You should know better than to skulk around your elders…You’re not Vincent.” Freezing in his tracks he looked the newcomer over in great detail.

“No, I am Ephram.” Holding out his hand, he waited for the response of the other man. He was not disappointed. The driver shook his hand without pausing, or flinching.

“Does Father know? Oh wait, does Vincent know? I mean this is huge!” the man was tripping over himself as the implications of another like Vincent existing.

“Yes, we are now returning home from the chance to enjoy their hospitality.”

“Well far be it for me to keep you from getting home on time.” Stepping back to the van, Ephram crawled in and moved to the back seat. Placing his helmet next to him, he watched the lights as the taxi drove through town, then passed through the gates to a private airplane sitting on the middle of the strip.

“It was great meeting you,” Ephram stated as he climbed out of the cab. “We look forward to meeting you again.”

The driver pulled out a card and handed it to Ephram. “If you ever make it back to the city, give me a call, we all stick together and look after them. I can make sure you get there safely.”

Ephram looked over the business card before sticking it into his pocket. “Thank you, Terri, we will definitely do that.”

~~

Vincent stopped at the base of the ladder. ‘Let her cleanse your soul’. That was Ephram’s advice. Vincent tuned his senses to the world above him. The coast was clear; slipping through the darkened hallway, he ducked behind some boxes as the passengers disembarked from the elevator. As usual, they were in a hurry to leave and did not notice the shadow slip onto the elevator just as the doors were closing.

He pushed the button then climbed through the top hatch, and settled himself for his ride up to her world.

Catherine stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself into a short terrycloth robe. These past few days had been very enlightening. Rubbing her hair with a spare towel she walked across her room to the table and picked up the piece of paper. Names and numbers, she was no longer alone. There were other women, like her, who protected a secret love from the harsh realities of the world. There were other women, who she could now talk to, and commiserate with.

The light tapping on the window brought her out of her thoughts as she rushed forward. Tearing the doors open, she stared longingly at Vincent.

“Are you well?” She asked as she stepped into his arms for a badly needed hug.

Taking a deep breath, Vincent decided to throw caution to the wind and take Ephram’s advice.

“I am well.” Bending his head, this time he kissed the edge of her hair, near her cheek instead of the top of her head.

For a moment, Catherine was frozen in shock. Leaning back in his arms, she studied his face, only for him to close the distance and give her a small peck near her lips. Ok, so she wasn’t imagining things. Shock gave way to action as she felt Vincent start to pull back. Tangling her fingers into his hair, she stopped his retreat. This time she brought his head back to hers and fused their lips together.

A sigh escaped her as she found herself right where she had wanted to be, in the arms of her lover. Little nips at his lips caused him to open up in surprise. Taking advantage of the opportunity, she tangled her tongue with his and coaxed it into her mouth where they tasted and tangled.

Her sigh turned to a moan as Vincent tightened his hold and pulled her closer to him. When the need for air became urgent, she tore her lips from him, both of them gasping.

Vincent buried his face in her neck, his deep breaths brought her scent deeper into him as he gave way to the urge to kiss and lick the soft skin right under her ear. Vincent felt Catherine shudder at that touch, as she arched into him. Leaning her head back, she gave him more access as his mouth travelled up and down the pulsing vein.

“Not here.” Catherine managed to gasp. Pulling slightly away, Vincent tightened his grip on her.

“Not here.” Catherine stated again, this time she pulled him with her, in through the doors he had always resisted entering and straight to the couch.

Lips tangled again as they sank into the softness. Vincent remembered Ephram’s advice, as he allowed his hands to stroke her back, one hand travelled up, waiting for the feel of his first barrier, he found his hands tangled in her hair. The second hand travelled down her back, once again finding no barrier, he found his hand cupping the soft curve of her behind, his fingers meeting bare skin where the bottom hem of her robe had travelled up.

Catherine moaned and arched into Vincent’s touch as she felt his hands touch the back of her thigh. His lips kept leaving hers to taste and nip at her neck. Slipping her hand between them, she grabbed the front tie and tugged it. If Vincent wanted to pet, well she was all for it.

Amazed, Vincent felt the robe slip open as he continued to nibble down her neck. Meeting the edge of her collar, he followed the path of the robe’s opening. He couldn’t imagine ever having the nerve to remove her clothes, but was grateful for Ephram’s suggestion. Whatever was exposed he could touch, and if Catherine’s response was anything to judge by, he was being given her blessing to touch anywhere.

The texture of her skin against his tongue changed. Catherine gasped and arched in Vincent’s embrace as he tested this new feel. It fit perfectly against his tongue as it fit into his mouth.

“Yes!” Catherine’s hands tangled deeper into his hair as she pulled him closer. “Harder, Vincent, Please, just harder.”

Vincent pulled her nipple further into his mouth, as he stumbled to the couch. Catherine felt her couch as Vincent pressed her against it. Using the strength of his arms as leverage she eased herself up so that she was half sitting on the back, wrapping her legs  around his waist, she held him to her. Arching further back, she panted and writhed against Vincent. She couldn’t believe how hot she was getting.

Vincent used his weight to press harder against her body. Catherine was going up in flames in his arms and taking him with her. He felt her legs tighten around his hips as she rubbed herself against him. The press of his large belt buckle hit her sensitive core, then he felt Catherine tense in his arms. The tightness lasted for a breathless eternity, before she fell apart in his arms. The only thing he could do was hold onto her convulsing body, as she scraped her nails across his scalp and burst into flames.

He felt the first ripple of discomfort and released her nipple, its hardened tip already softening in the replete relaxation that he felt flow through Catherine. His body was still hard, and painfully so, but that fact no longer concerned him. Pulling back slightly, he looked at the woman in his arms. Her head was still tilted back, resting completely in the safety of his hands. Her eyes were closed as her mind floated in golden haze of her pleasure. Her robe was hanging open, held across her stomach by one tie, that was tangled into knots. The other tie dangled from the open edge of her robe as it hung from her side, hiding nothing of her body from his perusal. She was as perfect as he had always imagined she would be. He was pressed between her legs, the smell of her pleasure rose and teased his nose.

Groaning, he pulled Catherine back to him, cradling her close to his body, he lifted her and carried her across the room to her bed. Gently he laid her down and started to pull away.

Catherine’s arms and legs tightened, holding him onto him as if she were afraid he would fade away as he had so many other times.

“I am here,” Vincent assured her as he settled her more comfortably across the bed. The one remaining tie on her robe was a hopeless tangled knot, so he applied his claw as close to the knot as he could and snapped it open.

Unable to leave her, Vincent tasted, touched and caressed every inch of Catherine’s body. Time and time again he lost himself in the bond as he brought Catherine to the depths of her pleasure over and over again. She begged him, pleaded with him and eventually cursed at him.

She tore at his clothes, pulled his hair and scratched his back, all to bring him closer to her. His polite refined lady had passed the edge of her civility, as Vincent took great pleasure in finding the beast that existed in his mate. Ephram was right, Catherine was right, they had all been right. She was his light, his anchor and balance. As he felt Catherine’s body sink into complete relaxation, he finally allowed the last of his clothing to be removed. Slowly giving his weight to her, he slipped deep inside. Catherine was so relaxed, so wet, and so anesthetized from her own pleasure that she felt no discomfort in his possession. For the first time in his life, Vincent sought  his inner beast, and put it in the one place it truly belonged.

Inside his Catherine.

Light slowly crept in through the window sheers. Night was done. And like Vincent, the darkness was finally gone. Together the lovers slept, peacefully, entwined, body, mind, heart, and soul.