Part Two of “Communities- The Sequel”

by CL

--//--

Cathy looked over her pile of lists as she went over the details of their trip one last time. Peter was testing out the van they would rent for the first leg of their trip. Devin and Charles would meet them at the lake house in Connecticut, where they would finalize the plan for the drive to Colorado. There they would attend Ashley and Ephram’s son’s ceremony before heading to Nevada. Cathy would stay behind in Vegas for her Grandfather’s birthday then catch a flight to Phoenix, where she would reunite with Vincent and the rest of the crew.

She had faxed Devin the itinerary for the events that Vincent would be expected to attend. Long conversations had ensued between her, Devin, and Peter, and the consensus was that anyone connected to the tunnels would be provided with travel clothes, something a little more modern than what they were used to wearing, tuxes included. Catherine had made arrangements with the attorney at her father’s old office who was dealing with Margaret’s estate to wire funds to Devin for him to get those supplies. It was better for Peter and Devin to deal with that issue than her.

At the sound of knocking, Catherine restacked her lists, placing her Grandfather’s invitation on top of them before checking her watch. After two, five more hours than she had anticipated having before Nancy and Jenny showed up. She was sure that Nancy would have sent Jeremy and Jill home, but figured they would have beaten the path to her door shortly after that.

“Did you leave anything in the stores?” Catherine had to ask as she watched Jenny and Nancy juggle their bags through the door.

“You are one to comment, oh Ms. Kettle.” Nancy grinned as she placed her bags behind the couch. “I seem to remember a marathon shopping session or two with you in the old days.”

Cathy smiled. “Yes, that was the old days; I seem to never have time to shop anymore.”

Jenny and Nancy gasped in mock surprise. “Cathy not shopping?” Jenny pretended to faint onto the couch, barely ducking the decorative pillow as it flew past her head.

“Wow.” Nancy caught it as it bounced off the back of the couch. “Your aim is getting better.”

Cathy let her friends direct the conversation, knowing what they wanted to ask, but afraid to bring the subject up herself. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for both Nancy and Jenny to calm down and get to the point.

“Cathy, we have respected your need not to discuss certain things, if only for the sake of our friendship.” Nancy set the pillow aside and straightened up.

Jenny nodded in agreement. “But in light of what happened last night, we have some questions to ask.”

Catherine sat back on the opposite couch facing her two friends; she had expected this much. “You are right in that there are some secrets I am keeping. They are not mine to share, and a lot of good people depend on my silence.” Cathy watched both Nancy and Jenny stiffen up as she continued, “That being said, I will answer what I can.”

Jenny and Nancy looked at each other, thinking for a bit then nodding in agreement. “We can live with that.”

Assured that they would respect her decision if she declined to answer any question, Cathy relaxed in her seat and waited for the inquisition to begin.

“Was that a costume last night?”

Cathy winced slightly; she had not expected them to start that bluntly.  “Yes, and no.” She had promised to be as honest as she could. Pausing briefly, she thought before continuing. “He normally does not dress like that.”

“So the hands and face…?” Jenny pressed.

“Are as you saw,” Catherine continued Jenny’s sentence.

“From things you have said in the past,” Nancy picked up the line of questioning, “it appears you met him about the time of your accident.”

Cathy nodded in response.

“Was he connected to it?” Nancy continued.

“In a way.” This question was skirting shaky ground.

“Did he cause it?” Everything that Cathy had said in the past swam through her head. Nancy was sure she already knew the answer to this, but had to ask.

“No.” Cathy shook her head, trying not to take offense to the meaning behind the question. “He found me afterwards; he rescued me.”

“How?” The question popped out of Jenny’s mouth before she could stop it. “Everyone was looking everywhere for you.”

“Vincent found me before anyone knew I was missing. I might have died had he not been there.”

“And the work that was done on your face? Did he help fix that?”

Catherine shook her head. “I can’t answer that question, or any questions about where I was for those ten days.”

“But you do remember those ten days?” Nancy pressed.

“Not all of them. I was unconscious most of the time, but yes, I do remember and know where I was.”

Nancy and Jenny glanced at each other. “And can we assume that the rest follows under answers you can’t give us.”

Catherine nodded. “I am sorry, but I made a promise.”

“We are ok with that, Cathy; we are just trying to understand.” Standing up, Nancy crossed over to the couch and sat next to Catherine. “Do you love him?”

Tears prickled her eyes. This was the chance she felt she would never have, to tell someone what was in her heart. “With everything I am.”

Nancy reached out and hugged Catherine. The rustling of a bag broke them apart as they watched Jenny reach in and pull out a book.

Jenny tossed it on the table as Cathy and Nancy looked at her in puzzled confusion. “A dictionary?” Cathy leaned forward and picked it up.

Complicated.” Jenny pointed at the dictionary, “I need you to look up the word complicated. That is what you told us about this relationship.”

Nancy laughed and looked at Cathy. “To quote a really good movie...” Jenny and Nancy looked at each other then said in unison, “ ‘You keep using that word... I don’t think it means what you think it means.’ ”

Catherine hugged the book to her chest and laughed until tears fell from her eyes. There had been valid reasons for not telling anyone about Vincent, but for this moment, she had what she had needed all along: someone on her side of the river.

For the next several hours, the friends talked about the changes in Cathy’s life and Vincent’s connection to them.

A knock on the door pulled them out of their laughter and mental meanderings. Cathy opened the door, surprised to see Eric and Peter. Stepping back, she invited them in. Peter gave Catherine a kiss on the cheek as he walked past and in turn gave Nancy and Jenny hugs.

Eric handed Catherine a note and waited as she read it.

“Vincent wants to know if you want to meet him tonight,” Cathy said, then watched as Eric’s eyes opened wider.

Neither Nancy nor Jenny paused a moment before blurting out a firm, “Yes!”

Nodding to Eric, she watched as he dashed to the fire door to rush down the stairs.

“So, where will we go to meet him?” Nancy looked at all the bags, not overly excited about having to lug them around more than she needed.

Here.” Catherine smiled.

“Here?” Nancy and Jenny asked in unison again, while Peter laughed.

“Wait, why are we discussing this in front of Peter?” Nancy pointed to the older man accusingly.

“I have known Vincent since he was a baby.” Peter sat down on the couch and stretched his arms across the back. “In fact, Vincent and Susan were raised together.”

That got him the reaction he wanted. “Wait, Susan knows Vincent?” Cathy sounded shocked. She had never thought about it, but if Peter knew of the tunnels then it made sense that Susan would have known, as well.

“So, how will Vincent get here?” Nancy looked around. “I mean, you live on the 18th floor. He can’t just ride up the elevator, can he?”

Cathy and Peter looked at each other and smiled. She simply answered, “You’ll see.”

A sound from the balcony sent both women jumping as Catherine calmly walked to the French doors and opened them. Jenny and Nancy tried to keep their jaws from dropping as they watched Vincent walk through the doors and brush his hand against Catherine’s arm.

Catherine suppressed her sigh as Vincent walked slowly into the room. She understood his reticence in hugging her in front of an audience, but she so wanted that hug. Catherine took a deep breath and pushed those feelings aside as she turned and reintroduced Nancy and Jenny to Vincent.

Vincent stepped forward and found himself bracing as both women stepped forward and hugged him. Each giving him a peck on the cheek before whispering, “Thank you,” in his ear.

He ducked his head in embarrassment. This was not the reception he had braced himself for. Catherine leaned against the door as she shut it behind her and smiled at his reaction to her friends. A glance at Peter had her suppressing her laughter.

Jenny looked confused and pushed past Catherine and went out onto the balcony, looked down then walked back in the room. “Please tell me you were not waiting outside for us this whole time?”

She scowled at Cathy’s burst of laughter. “Trust me, you really don’t want to know,” Catherine assured her friend.

“No, I was not outside this whole time,” Vincent answered.

Nancy looked at Cathy then at Vincent and gasped. “Surely you didn’t climb up the side of the building!”

That question only made Catherine laugh harder.

“No, I ride up on the elevator,” Vincent replied.

“You came up on the elevator?” Nancy parroted Vincent’s answer back to him. “I thought you had to stay hidden.” Nancy and Jenny looked at each other in confusion.

“He rides on top of the elevator,” Cathy answered for him. “Then he comes down from the roof to the balcony.”

“Of course, on top of the elevator.” Jenny laughed as Nancy shook her head. “There is no way he is talking to Jeremy,” Nancy declared. “The last thing I need is that daredevil getting any ideas.”

Peter laughed at that comment. “From what I understand, your son doesn’t lack for ideas; I doubt Vincent would make that any worse.”

Nancy glared at Peter. “Just for that comment, you can go with Cathy and get dinner.” Nancy picked up Peter’s coat and tossed it to him.

“I can call and have something delivered,” Cathy countered as she crossed to pull out some menus from a drawer.

“That's fine, and then you can go downstairs and wait for it,” Jenny replied as she crossed her arms across her chest. If this man was Cathy’s choice then they had their own protocol to follow. Vincent’s special needs were not going to change that.

Before Cathy had the chance to protest, Nancy joined Jenny in front of Vincent and crossed her arms. “I am sure that if Vincent feels threatened by us, he can get to that balcony and out of here before we can cause any damage.”

“You agreed to the rules, Cathy,” Jenny reminded her. “We will respect the boundaries you set, but you agreed to the rules.”

Catherine looked at Vincent helplessly then nodded. “Vincent, if they ask something you don’t feel comfortable answering, they have agreed to not push the subject.”

After placing a quick call, Catherine picked up her keys and followed Peter out of the apartment.

“Cathy, are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked as they stepped onto the elevator.

Leaning her head against the back wall, she sighed. “I need them, Peter. I didn’t realize it until today, but I really need their support in this.”

“I understand.” Placing his arm around her, he pulled her closer to him. Catherine had always been like another daughter to him, especially since the loss of her father.

~~

Vincent watched Catherine shut and lock the door behind her. He had agreed to meet them tonight, but he had not anticipated being left alone with them this quickly.

Nancy and Jenny slowly turned and looked at him then laughed.

“Relax, Vincent, we promise we won’t bite,” Nancy assured him.

Vincent sat carefully on the couch as he faced Catherine’s oldest friends. Tonight, for the first time in his life, someone else’s opinion of him really mattered. He had always been careful to not let that happen. It was always safer to protect himself from the expectations of strangers, but by the nature of who these women were to Catherine, their opinion did matter.

Nancy sat on the end of the couch next to Vincent, while Jenny sat across from him.

“When we were in college together, we formed a strong friendship with Cathy and a couple of other women,” Nancy started.

“As we grew closer, we made a pact with each other:  if we found a man that we felt strongly toward, the others could ask him one question,” Jenny continued.

Vincent listened, enthralled as both women explained the reasons behind the pact.

“None of us know the question that is asked on our behalf. So none of us can sway the response that is given,” Nancy finished

“What happens if the answer is wrong?” Vincent was almost afraid to ask, but found himself needing to know.

“We tell Catherine our results, and the decision is up to her if she takes our suggestion or not.” Nancy paused. “Either way, we don’t have the right to make the decision for her, but we promise to support her, or help her pick up the pieces, as necessary.”

Vincent nodded. He was glad that Catherine had good friends like this, although he knew his heart would break when it was necessary to step out of her life.

“And what question do you have for Catherine?” He knew where this was leading, but these were her friends, he could never come between them.

“Simple,” Jenny stated. “What is Catherine’s worth?”

Vincent’s head jerked up, images swimming through his mind of her laughing with the children, dancing in the rain, crying over Ellie. Words poured out of him as he tried vainly to describe the beauty of her heart, the strength of her spirit, the generosity of her soul. He painted pictures of Catherine at her fiercest, and softened as he spoke of her at her weakest. He talked of the light that she brought to his family and smiled as he described that funny little smile she would get when she was feeling mischievous. Vincent talked of her tender moments with the children and the fiery arguments she tended to have with Father. As the words faded, he looked at Nancy and Jenny and saw the tears in their eyes and flowing down their faces, and realized that he had been lost in his words. Bowing his head, he ended, “I know I will never be enough for her, and that she deserves better than what little I can offer.”

Vincent felt a mental slam as the atmosphere quickly chilled.

Nancy’s next question was curt and clipped. “And just what do you think Cathy deserves?”

Jenny interrupted before Vincent could answer. “I warn you, if the name Elliot Burch ever so much as passes your lips, you will need that quick exit out the balcony.”

Vincent shut his mouth as he watched the women stiffen up. That was not the reaction he expected.

“I don’t understand,” Vincent said. “Why do you feel so harshly against him? He could give Catherine so much.”

“We asked Elliot this same question,” Nancy replied. “Do you know what his answer was?”

Vincent shook his head.

“Cathy’s financial portfolio, to the last penny,” Jenny answered. “Elliot Burch is interested in acquisitions that can benefit him. Once he is done with that acquisition, then he sells it and moves on to the next.”

“Mr. Burch uses whatever tools he can to accomplish his goals,” Nancy continued. “Cathy was never more than a tool, and a challenge. Being seen with her opened doors for him that would have otherwise been closed.”

Vincent leaned back on the couch as he digested the opinion of a man that he had identified as perfect for his Catherine. The picture they were painting of her future with him was not what he wanted for her. The click of the door pulled him out of his thoughts as he jumped over the couch and moved away from the hallway’s line of sight.

Catherine walked through the door with Peter; they carried numerous sacks with a familiar logo on them. Turning, she looked at Vincent, her unspoken question written all over her face.

“I hope everyone is up for Chinese.” Peter held up his sacks as he shut and locked the door behind him.

Vincent nodded and took the sacks from Catherine. “It’s all right,” he whispered when she looked up at him, her concern printed over her expressive face.

Nancy and Jenny moved to help start getting the table ready when Jenny reached for Cathy’s pile of papers. Reading the invitation on top, she picked it up. “Wow, it is that time already?”

“What time?” Nancy asked, reaching for the card in Jenny’s hand. Seeing the print on the invitation, “Oh, that time,” she scowled.

Jenny started flipping through the lists and other research that Catherine had neatly stacked. “Please tell me you are not thinking about going?”

“Going to what?” Peter asked as he placed his sacks on the table. Nancy handed him the invitation.

Peter looked at the invitation. “Cathy?”

Catherine stepped forward and took the invitation from Peter. “I don’t know. We will be in the area, so I’m not sure I can get away with not going.” Taking the invitation from Peter, she placed it on top of the stack of papers and she handed them to Vincent. “Here, just put these over there.” She pointed to the small desk. Vincent looked at the invitation before setting them down and grabbing the chair.

Joining the others at the table, Vincent set the chair next to the one Catherine was sitting on. “Is this man important?” he asked, as he accepted a plate from Nancy.

“He is from my mother’s family.” Catherine helped herself to the lo mien before passing it on.

“So why are you going to be in the area?” Nancy asked.

“We may have found my biological family,” Vincent replied. The significance of this simple meal was starting to sink in. He was sitting at Catherine’s table surrounded by her friends. Foregoing the fork, Vincent grabbed a pair of chopsticks and tore open the package.

“Oh, my God, you're one of those,” Jenny exclaimed as she watched Vincent expertly eat several bites.

Both Catherine and Nancy looked up then started laughing. “Just because you are an uncoordinated klutz, Jenny, does not mean the rest of the world is.” Cathy smiled as she grabbed a fork.

“Well, I notice you are not eating with them.” Jenny smiled innocently back.

“That is because I prefer to eat my food rather than wear it.” Catherine grinned back.

“Jenny, I hate to tell you this, but both Jill and Jeremy are proficient with them.” Nancy’s hand paused over the chopsticks before reaching for a fork. “And I notice that Vincent happens to be managing better with his chopsticks than you are with your fork.”

“Thanks for the warning.” Jenny smiled at Vincent. “Next time I run off with your little hurricanes, I will not take them for Chinese food.”

“No, you will just take them for hot dogs, ice cream, cotton candy, and all sorts of other junk food.” Catherine pointed her fork at Jenny.

“And what about you, Ms. Kettle?” Jenny pointed out.

“I made sure Jill had something real to eat before we got the brownies.” Catherine smiled.

“Yeah, before you almost wiped out the children’s section,” Jenny retorted.

“But she looked so cute; those dresses were just perfect on her.” Catherine smiled guiltily, “And I just couldn’t resist.”

“All right, children, am I going to have to separate you?” Peter interrupted.

“Well, I’m not convinced that either of you get my kids unsupervised again,” Nancy calmly stated before leaning over to Vincent. “Be careful with her, Vincent, she has sneaky ways.”

Vincent smiled as he looked at Catherine. “I never would have guessed.”

“And we are not going there.” Cathy glared at Nancy.

“Who, me?” Nancy leaned back in mock surprise. “I wouldn’t even dream of it.”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Peter responded. “Since there is not a single story you could tell that did not include you.”

All three women looked at each other before bursting out laughing.

“He has a point. The last thing I need is for one of them to tell any of those stories to my kids,” Nancy stated.

“Or Paul,” Cathy added.

“Or Vincent.” Jenny winked across the table.

Vincent found himself being drawn more into the banter across the table. He had not seen Catherine quite this way before.

Catherine put the last of the food in the fridge before joining the others in her living room. Everyone had taken a spot on one of her couches. Crossing over, she sat next to Vincent and leaned into him, allowing his arm to drape across her and pull her closer to his chest.

“You mentioned finding your biological family,” Nancy said. “How did you end up here?”

“I was found as an infant outside of St. Vincent’s hospital.”

Cathy listened to Vincent tell the story of his beginnings as they had known it for so long.

“So you grew up hidden here in New York City?” Jenny leaned forward, the publisher in her locking in on a good story.

Vincent nodded, relieved when they didn’t press him for more details about his home or the Tunnels.

“We thought he was the only one until this past summer,” Catherine added.

“What changed?”

“He found Ashley in the park.” Cathy picked up the story and brought Nancy and Jenny up to the changes that had happened to them all over the past few months.

“And your leave of absence?”

Catherine felt Vincent tense behind her as she cussed in her mind. She had not told him how she had gotten the time off.

“You left your job?” Vincent asked, his voice quiet.

Jenny and Nancy shared a look as Catherine turned to look at Vincent. “It was the only way I would have the necessary time off.”

“But your job…” Vincent stopped when Catherine placed her fingers across his mouth.

“The state is in a budget crunch. They are going to have to lay off or furlough some of the staff in my office.” Catherine felt Vincent relax as she continued with her explanation. “I needed the time, we needed the time, and it made sense.” Catherine paused, feeling that Vincent was still not convinced; the attorney in her played the final card that she knew would soothe Vincent’s concerns. “My reasons for working are not financial. I’m taking an unpaid leave of absence and leaving that position open for a member of the staff who has a family to support.”

All the arguments were logical; Vincent suppressed his feelings of relief. There would be no more dangerous nighttime rendezvous or last-minute dashes through the tunnels as he prayed that he got to her before it was too late. He wanted to support her in her career, but there were so many times he bit back the words to beg her to leave and find something safer. He believed in what Catherine was doing, he just wished there was a way for her to do it with less risk.

The room got quiet as he realized that while lost in his thoughts, he had been asked a question. “I’m sorry.” Vincent pulled himself back into the present.

Jenny and Nancy smiled at him while Peter suppressed the urge to laugh.

“What do you do?” Jenny repeated the question.

As Vincent thought about the best way to answer that question, Peter popped up, “A little bit of everything.”

Catherine snickered at that answer, while Nancy and Jenny looked confused.

“Vincent serves on the council for his community,” Catherine started.

“And helps out with any repairs that anyone may need,” Peter finished for her.

“I teach the younger members of our community,” Vincent continued.

“What do you teach?” Nancy leaned back on the couch; the muscle relaxer she had taken earlier was beginning to take effect.

“I help with the basic subjects for our youngest members, but also handle the literature classes for all the children.”

“Do you remember Beth?” Catherine asked.

Jenny and Nancy nodded. “She is teaching here at the university," Jenny stated. “I had lunch with her a couple of weeks ago.”

“One of her students is from Vincent’s community.” Catherine’s grin widened. She hadn’t gotten a chance to share with Vincent this morsel of information.

“Didn’t you sponsor a kid?” Nancy asked.

“Not really sponsor, but yes, Michael was one of Vincent’s students.”

“Michael?” Jenny asked. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

“Because he is the only student she has come across that can out-argue with her on Shakespeare.” Catherine waited for it…she felt Vincent’s laughter before dropping the other bomb. “And most of the time he is right.”

“What do you mean, most of the time?” Vincent stiffened.

“Wow.” Nancy sounded shocked. “You teach kids Shakespeare? I can barely get my kids away from cartoons about blue forest creatures.”

“They limit their exposure to TV,” Peter added. “So the children have more time for other experiences.”

“Speaking of experiences, what is this trip you are planning?” Nancy pointed to the lists that had been moved to Catherine’s desk.

Peter rose and gathered the documents and handed them to the others. “We have been invited to a naming ceremony.”

“This Ashley you mentioned earlier?” Jenny asked. “The one who had a baby like Vincent?”

Catherine nodded. “The Taj council wants to meet Vincent, and talk with Father and Peter to discuss how he survived.”

“How are you going to do this?” Nancy flipped through the pages, looking over Catherine’s notes. “I assume just driving to the airport and hopping on a plane is not really an option.”

“We will take a van out of the city, to the lake house, and then we have a special RV that is from one of the other Taji.”

“Is the RV going to be the only vehicle?” Jenny asked as she took some of the lists from Nancy. Cathy looked confused.

“Why would we need another vehicle?” Vincent asked.

“Well, the RV gets parked at various locations, but you will want a smaller vehicle to manage things like grocery runs,” Jenny stated.

“We hadn’t thought about that.” Catherine went to her desk and grabbed a pad of paper to take notes. “Can you see anything else we may have missed?”

This trip was already becoming a major production. Vincent found himself alternating between excitement and anxiety about the upcoming trip.

Catherine took detailed notes as they discussed the itinerary. Between Jenny’s experience in organizing cross-country book tours and Nancy’s experience of dealing with the insanity of coordinating numerous people on a family trip, they were able to point out issues that Catherine, Peter and Vincent had not thought of.

“I see what you mean about the schedule.” Nancy looked at their list of stops and dates. “It looks like you are going to be just a matter of hours away from your Grandfather’s for the date of the party.”

“Who else is travelling?”

“Catherine, Vincent, Father, me, and we are meeting with Vincent’s brother Devin and a friend, Charles.”

“You’re not travelling with your dress, are you?” Jenny looked at Nancy, trying hard not to laugh.

Cathy shrugged. “I haven’t even thought that far.” Closing her eyes, she leaned back against the couch. Just the thought of spending an evening with her Mother’s family could cause a headache.

“Who will be your date?” Nancy winced as what she had said hit her. She looked at Vincent. “Sorry, Vincent.”

Vincent waved the apology away.

“I will.” Peter’s reply caught everyone off guard.

Catherine sighed, “Thank you, Peter, but I don’t need a date for this.”

“There is no way you are walking into this alone, Cathy,” Jenny insisted. “There is enough warning; I may be able to get the time off.”

Nancy nodded.  “And I could ask Rebecca to help Paul with the kids.”

“We won’t be too far from Susan, so she is talking about meeting us,” Peter added, hiding his smile as he watched everyone’s reaction.

“Susan knows Vincent?” Nancy and Jenny glared at Cathy as if that was the biggest secret she had kept.

Vincent just nodded.

“Of course, you would have grown up together.” Catherine smiled as she put the pieces together.

Vincent smiled; Catherine’s support group was growing.

“How long have you known?” Nancy turned to Peter.

“Jacob and I went to medical school together.” Peter nodded at Vincent. “Father and I worked together to save Vincent when he was first found.”

“What about this Taj council? When are you meeting with them?” Nancy and Jenny paused as they watched Catherine carefully not react to that seemingly innocent question.

“What are you not telling us?” Jenny pressed.

“All the requests have been carefully worded,” Cathy admitted. “While they acknowledge that I am the main point of contact, it is clear that they want only Vincent, Peter and Father present.”

“Ouch.” Nancy thought for a bit. “There is something else, isn’t there?”

Cathy nodded. “Emily and Ashley keep telling me that Vincent and I have the full support of the Taja, and should we need, they will assist us.”

“And the Taja are the wives?” Nancy tried to clarify.

“Why would the Taja keep reinforcing that?” Alarms were going off in Jenny’s head; something wasn’t right with this picture.

“I am not sure,” Cathy admitted. “I was asked if we were mated.”

“I won’t go without Catherine.” Vincent’s declaration was final.

Jenny and Nancy looked at each other before looking back at Catherine.

“The contact from the Taji made it very clear that Vincent not appearing before the Council and at the christening of Ashley and Ephram’s son would result in them tracking him down.”

“And that is bad because you don’t want anyone knowing where he has been living,” Nancy summed up the issue.

“Which is why the borrowed RV is being delivered to the lake house in Connecticut.”

“That makes sense.” Nancy looked at Catherine. “What is your gut telling you?”

Catherine squeezed Vincent’s hand in apology. This conversation was going to be difficult for him, but he needed to be prepared for what he was walking into. To this point, she had not found a way to discuss this with him.

“Ashley has said that there are few unmated Taj males; I suspect they have an agenda where he is concerned.”

Jenny and Nancy rose and started gathering bags. “Cathy, if you decide to go, let us know.”

Vincent rose and suppressed his surprise as both women came forward to hug and kiss him on the cheek.

“Thank you,” Nancy whispered in his ear. “For everything.”

Vincent pulled away and backed toward the bedroom door as Cathy and Peter walked everyone to the door.

“Lunch?” Jenny asked Catherine before leaving.

“Tomorrow,” Catherine confirmed.

~~

Vincent leaned against the bedroom door with his head bowed. Emotionally, he was exhausted; mentally, he was confused. Catherine’s friends had welcomed him with no questions.

Catherine walked to the bedroom and leaned against the opposite door jamb.

“What are you thinking?”

“Their reaction to me, it was so….” Vincent paused, looking for the right name.

“Normal?” Catherine supplied. “They guessed about you.” Stepping toward him, she placed her hand on his chest. “After the accident. Today they talked and they figured it out before they came to see me.”

“They were not afraid?” Vincent asked. He knew the answer, had felt their feelings; there was concern and love for Catherine, their fear for her, but not of him.

“No.” Catherine pushed away from the door jamb and leaned into Vincent’s body. She felt his heart racing under her hand as she placed it on his chest. “Although there was something said about your incredibly sexy voice,” Catherine purred.

Stroking her hand upward, she tangled her fingers through his hair. Pulling his face down, she pressed tighter against him to feel the vibrations of his low growl against her breasts as he accepted her blatant invitation for a kiss. Her answering sigh graduated into a moan as Vincent snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her tighter toward him. Pushing away from the door jamb, he backed Catherine up and used the wall to press her body deeper into his. His hands stroked down her back before cupping her behind and using them to lift her closer to him. Catherine whimpered as she lifted her leg to wrap around his, pulling him closer to her core. Their clothes were a barrier that made her want to scream in frustration. Just the thought of pulling away for a moment, even to remove the barriers between them, was too much to bear. Catherine rotated her hips to grind herself against Vincent’s growing hardness.

Slipping his hands under her shirt, Vincent slid his hands up her back, breaking their kiss only long enough to pull the shirt over her head. Catherine’s hands left him to finish pulling the shirt over her arms, the move arching her back. Vincent bent his head and scraped his teeth over the hardening nub through the thin fabric of her bra.

Catherine’s muffled scream barely registered in his brain, as intense pleasure flooded the bond. Her legs locked around his waist as her body’s movements became more insistent.

Snaking his arm around her waist, he cupped her behind, holding her tightly against his hardness. Vincent took a step back, letting Catherine’s shoulders rest against the louvered doors; he slipped his other hand up her side to stroke the underswell of her breast. Following the seam of her bra, he made his way to the thin strip of fabric connecting the cups; with a flick of his nail there was nothing left. Vincent nosed the cup off one nipple before latching onto it, his hand brushing aside the rest of the offending fabric before pinching a hard nub between his fingers.

Catherine arched against him, the hardness of the door behind her keeping her head from falling back. Tangling her fingers into Vincent’s hair, she pulled him closer as her body convulsed against his. She felt the fire spread from her chest through her body. Her brain registered the shock of his ability to bring her to complete orgasm from a simple petting session moments before her world exploded.

Vincent held Catherine tightly as he moved them from the doorway to her bed. Sitting her on the edge, he eased the remnants of her bra off her shoulders. Catherine’s body fell back across the bed as Vincent knelt and gently removed her shoes then slid her pants down her legs. The scent of her arousal and release slammed through Vincent’s senses as he knelt; easing her legs apart, he gently rubbed the back of his finger across her honey-coated petals.

Catherine arched into Vincent’s caress; her breath shuddered as he stroked her again. The scent of her arousal grew as his strokes deepened. As Catherine twisted against his touch, Vincent laid his arm across her lower stomach, his shoulders forcing her legs further apart. Catherine lay open to his ministrations, vulnerable to his desires. Leaning forward, Vincent inhaled, taking into himself the very core of her essence. Catherine moaned as his hair brushed her inner thigh. Slipping his hand beneath her, Vincent lifted her, and slowly, he tasted her.

Catherine arched, her body stiffening in shock at the intimate kiss. Upon the second stroke of his tongue, her body crashed back into the bed. Vincent tightened his grip on her, holding her hips firmly as he slowly savored the salty, sweet taste of her response to him. By the fourth stroke of his tongue against her core, Catherine lost complete control, her body twisting and thrashing against Vincent’s firm hold.

Catherine’s cries rang in Vincent’s ears as he tightened his body against his response to her. Mercilessly, he led her through each orgasm, until she lay limp on the bed. Despite every response she had given him, he could still feel the call of her body for his. Slowly, Vincent slid off his vest, and then pulled his shirt over his head.

Watching him through partially closed eyes, Catherine whimpered as she tried to find the energy to reach for him. She needed his weight, to feel him fully with her. The thud of his belt hitting the floor matched the timing to her still-racing heart. Catherine arched sinuously, her legs stroking the outside of Vincent’s thighs as he stepped closer. Hands tangled with hands as Catherine struggled to undo the ties on Vincent’s pants.

“Vincent, please,” Catherine begged as she wrapped her fingers around his hardness, pulling him toward her. Vincent brushed her hand aside as he hooked his hands around her hips. Lifting her hips, he angled her so that she fell back on the bed as he expertly slid into her waiting heat.

Catherine’s hands twisted in the bedding as Vincent held her hips still against his uncontrollable surging. The emotions of this evening came crashing through as he let himself go, spilling himself over and over again into Catherine’s waiting heat. Slowly, Vincent fell forward - carefully, to spare her his weight. Vincent tucked himself to Catherine’s side. Catherine hooked her leg over his thigh, keeping them joined intimately as they drifted together into the dream world.

~~

“Nancy will meet the delivery truck at the lake house and help get the RV ready.” Cathy sorted through the piles of clothes on her bed as she tried to plan what to pack.

Jenny watched as Cathy held her favorite nightgowns in her hand as she looked at the stack. “Can’t decide?” She laughed.

“No, wondering if I should even take them.” Cathy sighed. “I am going to be the only female on this road trip; it makes more sense to sleep in my sweat pants and a t-shirt.”

“But then you also want to be prepared.”

Cathy scowled at Jenny’s smirk. Cathy sank onto the bed, the enormity of everything starting to dawn on her. So much had happened in the past few months, and so quickly. She had spent most of her time helping Vincent cope with the changes; she had never taken the time to review their impact on her. Looking at Jenny, she asked the one question that summed up everything she had not had the courage to face. “Am I crazy?”

Jenny pushed aside a pile and joined Cathy on the bed and sighed. “Nobody could ever classify any of your relationships as easy.” Jenny paused and grinned when Cathy snorted at that comment. “And none of your other boyfriends ever got you.”

“I feel like I am a better me because of him.” Catherine looked confused for a moment. “I know that doesn’t make any sense, but there is something about him that makes me want to do better at whatever I do.”

“You have made a lot of changes in your life over the past few years.” Jenny added, “Even though I never see you anymore, you seem more at peace than you did.” Jenny stopped and looked at Catherine. “Is Vincent behind those changes?”

“Yes and no.” Cathy laughed. “I know, such a definitive answer. When he first brought me back after the attack, the only thing he said to me was that he knew I had the strength, and for the first time in my life… I wanted to live up to someone else’s expectation of me.”

“So he has never pressed for any of these changes?” Jenny pressed.

“No, usually he tells me that I have to follow my heart and what I believe in. A few times he has questioned why I do something, but he has never asked me to change anything.”

“He gets you,” Jenny stated bluntly.

“Yes, he gets me.” Catherine smiled. “He was a bit surprised at both you and Nancy’s lack of reaction to him.”

“Well, I can’t say that we don’t have some concerns about this, Cathy, but the rules stand, we will support you in whatever your decision is.”

Catherine hugged Jenny with tears in her eyes. “You have no idea how badly I wanted to tell you about him.”

“Yes, well, if I had been lying in the dark for ten days with that voice reading to me... then I would have probably kept it to myself, as well.” Jenny winked “I assume Vincent is the reason you kicked me out after the issue with your stalker?”

Catherine nodded.

“Then you will probably need at least one of these.” Jenny stood up and dangled one of Catherine’s slinkier negligees.

Catherine laughed and snatched it out of Jenny’s hand. “I don’t think that will be appropriate on a road trip in a vehicle full of men.” Then with a wicked smile, she placed the gown on the bottom of the suitcase. “But just in case.”

 ~~

“I really think you should let more of us go with you.” Mary watched as Mouse carried the last of the supply boxes onto Mr. Cho’s delivery van.

Father shook his head. “Not this time.” Placing his hand on Mary’s shoulder, he walked with her back to the elevator. “There are too many unknowns.”

“But who will look after all of you?” Mary insisted.

“Mary, who will look after the children if you come with us?” Vincent stood to the side of the doors as Father and Mary entered the elevator.

“We will be fine.” Father pressed the button for the freight elevator. “Peter and Catherine will be with us, and you have a list of our itinerary and emergency contacts.”

“This Nancy and Jenny that you added. Who are they? Can they be trusted?” Mary continued. Vincent and Father shared a look. When Mary went into Mother Hen mode, it was best to follow along.

“They are Catherine’s friends.” Father had been reluctant to include any outsiders in the plans, but Peter, Catherine, and Vincent had all spoken up for the women.

“How can they be of assistance? How will you keep Vincent protected if they are helping you?” Mary continued to press.

“I won’t need to hide, Mary.” Vincent placed a hand on her shoulder. “I have already met them. They insisted on being included once they knew the reasons for this trip.”

“And they know Susan?” Mary was beginning to calm a bit. The fact that there were several helpers who were experienced with the difficulties of the world above made her feel better. She knew that Peter and Catherine had Vincent and Father’s best interests at heart, but two people against everything else up there….

~~

Vincent controlled his urge to press his face against the window. They had left the city well after dark,  Catherine, Father, Peter, and Jenny all arranged throughout the vehicle. Peter had driven the van at first, carefully maneuvering them through the last remnants of traffic as Jenny sat in the front passenger seat helping navigate. Catherine had curled up next to him in the back seat, and taken the opportunity to grab a quick nap. At their last stop, Peter had turned the wheel over to Catherine, and Jenny had relinquished the front passenger seat to him. Father had protested but, to Vincent’s amazement, had been out-voted when Peter pointed out that there was little traffic, so it would be safe, and this would give him and Jenny a chance to rest before getting to the lake house.

Without the lights of the city, the stars here were so much brighter. Vincent knew that they were driving through farm country, but it was too dark to see more than shadows.

“You will have a chance to see more once we get into the RV.” Catherine reached across and threaded her fingers with his. “Most of our travelling will be during the day.”

Vincent squeezed her hand slightly, unable to find the words for what he was feeling.

“We are almost there.” Catherine released his hand as she slowed the van to ease it onto the dirt road. Vincent watched as the trees gave way to occasional glimpses of moonlight reflecting on water. He thought he may have seen an outline of a deer or two, but the scenery was passing too fast for him to process all the shades of gray.

Both Catherine and Vincent gawked at the huge bus sitting in the circle driveway of her family’s lake house.

“I wasn’t expecting a bus,” Catherine exclaimed as she looked at the size of the vehicle. She pulled up beside the bus, and Vincent was hard pressed whether  to look over the impressive house spread before him or the vehicle that would be his home for the next several weeks.

“You made it!” Nancy opened the front door and gave Vincent, Jenny, and Catherine hugs. Smiling, she offered her hand to Father as Peter made the introductions.

“We have a light snack ready. I wasn’t sure if you would have eaten on the road or not.” Nancy grabbed a bag as she looked over the luggage stacked in the back of the van before smirking at Catherine. “Packing light?” she whispered in Catherine’s ear as they walked past. As far as she could tell, Cathy only had three cases. Nancy had never known her to travel with less than four on a short trip.

“She shipped the rest,” Jenny whispered back.

“Hush!” Catherine retorted, which sent both friends into a fit of laughter.

“Who is we?” Father inquired nervously as he looked around; even in the dark, the place looked impressive.

We are we.” Devin walked out the front door and into a huge welcoming hug from Vincent.

“Hello, Father,” Devin stated warily as he studied the older man.

“Devin!” Father exclaimed.

Devin was surprised to be offered a hug before the obvious questions that Father had to have. “I wasn’t expecting you.” Father looked accusingly at Vincent, then Catherine.

“Well, then, I guess you won’t be expecting the rest of us either,” Devin commented as he winked at Catherine.

“The rest of who?” Vincent walked ahead, not giving Father the chance to hold him back. Following Catherine, they entered the house to find Charles standing in the living room hugging a small picture book to his chest.

Ahh, I see the hurricanes set you free,” Nancy commented as she set the suitcases down. “Thanks for reading to them, Charles.” Nancy reached out and accepted the book before excusing herself. “I will go finish tucking them in.”

“Hello, Vincent,” Charles spoke carefully.

Vincent set the bags down before stepping forward. “It is good to see you again, Charles.”

Charles’ grin split across his face as Vincent gave him a welcoming hug.

Jenny raised an eyebrow as she watched the interaction of the strange-looking man before her.

“Hello, Charles,” Catherine spoke up, wincing when she realized that she had startled him.

Hhhelllo, Catherine,” Charles stuttered; he backed away as he realized that there were others present - people he had not yet met.

“Charles, this is my friend Jenny.” Catherine made the introductions as Jenny stepped forward.

“It is great to meet you, Charles.” Jenny stepped forward and offered her hand to him.

After looking to Vincent and Devin for confirmation, he carefully took her hand in his and shook it.

“I hear that Nancy roped you into reading to her little hurricanes.” Jenny grinned as Charles nodded shyly. “So I have just one question…” Jenny leaned forward and spoke with a loud whisper. “How many times did you have to read Goodnght Moon?”

Charles held up two fingers and Catherine laughed as Jenny turned and scowled at her. “See, Jenny, you are still the only one that managed to get suckered.”

“That is just not right,” Jenny fussed as she stomped into the living room.

Catherine stepped forward and placed her hand on Charles’s arm.

“She is mad.” Charles sounded forlorn.

“Not at you.” Catherine smiled up at him. “The last time she read to Jill and Jeremy, they got her to read the story seven times before we rescued her.”

“I just told them no after the second time.”

Charles’s response made Catherine laugh harder. “Good for you.” Catherine watched Charles cringe, realizing he was watching Jenny’s expressions. “Charles, don’t worry, it’s not your fault Jenny is such a wuss.”

Jenny turned her scowl toward Catherine as Nancy started laughing. “Jen, you can’t argue the facts, my kids have got your number.”

Jenny laughed as she turned to head up the stairs

“Jenny, where are you going?” Nancy inquired

“To say goodnight,” Jenny stated innocently.

“Not tonight. I have no idea how… but Charles just got them calmed down. You are not screwing it up!” Nancy pointed toward the living room. “Is anybody hungry?”

Everyone shook their heads as they headed to the living room.

“Chandler.” Devin greeted Catherine as she walked past him.

He relaxed as he watched the interactions around him. Devin suspected that Catherine had warned her friends about Charles. All his years of studying people was paying off. Nancy was acting like the ultimate hostess, yet something had her uneasy; her kids had responded to Charles in an expected way. They had followed their mom’s lead in welcoming him, but had asked the traditional pervasive questions that young children would ask. The younger girl had been more concerned with if Charles’s bumps hurt. Jeremy was more interested in how strong Charles was. Father was a little awestruck by the size of the house. Peter seemed tired. Catherine and Vincent were both a little tense. And if he was reading her right, Jenny was feeling anxious.

“I took the liberty of settling the kids down on cots in the master closet. Jenny and I can share that room.” Nancy started to outline everyone’s placement. “Charles and Devin are sharing the bedroom down the hall. Peter, I figured the two of you could share the next room. That puts you sharing the linking bathroom.”

“That’s fine, Nancy, thank you.” Peter got up and grabbed his bag. “I will head on up. We can go over the details of the rest of the trip in the morning.” Devin and Charles helped grab bags and led the two older men up the stairs.

“I am in my old room then?” Catherine had sunk on the couch next to Vincent and was not sure where she would find the energy to make it upstairs. She felt Vincent stiffen as he had heard the room assignments; they really had not discussed how this trip would impact their physical relationship. She wasn’t ashamed of what they were doing, but a very big part wanted to keep this between them.

“I wasn’t sure where you wanted Vincent.” Nancy looked apologetic. “I figured I would leave it up to you. There is the room next to Cathy’s but it shares a bathroom, and there are the maid’s quarters down here on the other side of the kitchen. It has its own bath.”

“Thanks, Nancy, for organizing everything.” Catherine smiled as Jenny and Nancy made weak excuses to leave.

“Why don’t I show you the options?” Catherine pushed herself up off the couch. “Before we both fall asleep here and solve the issue for everyone.”

“Catherine…” Vincent’s thought was stopped as she leaned forward and placed a quick kiss on his lips.

Shhh, I know.” Catherine took Vincent’s hand and led him through the kitchen to a small bedroom/bathroom apartment. He should have known that he would not have had to explain his reticence in sharing a bathroom with her. “We haven’t discussed any of this, but you do realize that we are going to be in tight quarters and sharing a bathroom for the next week?”

“I hardly think we can consider Father, Peter, Devin, and Charles being present as intimate.” Vincent laughed.

“Good night.” Catherine leaned forward for a second kiss, this one just a bit longer than before. Vincent resisted the urge to pull her closer to him. They were both tired, and she needed her rest.

~~

Catherine wrapped the towel around her head then shrugged into her terrycloth robe. The house was warm enough but the air across her wet body made her shiver. Hearing a rustling noise coming from the other side of the door leading to her bedroom, Catherine perked up. This might be the last night they would have alone for some time. No matter how tired she was, she hated to let the opportunity pass, given their history. Leaving her robe untied, Catherine opened the door.

“Vincent, perhaps this rendezvous would be better served ….” Catherine’s thought broke off as she realized that the shadowed figure moving through her darkened bedroom was way too small to be Vincent, and the wrong size to be any of the others.  Reaching for the lamp on the table next to the door, Catherine yanked it from the wall and, with a yell, she swung it just as the light switch flipped on. Dropping the lamp, her yell turned to a slight scream as she tried to yank her robe shut.

Vincent felt Catherine’s switch in emotions from welcome to fear and anger. With a roar he tore out of the room and across the house. Flying up the stairs, he burst into Catherine’s room, to find her standing barefoot, surrounded by broken glass. Her robe gapped open, showing a great deal of cleavage and barely reaching her upper thighs.

The source of her alarm sat huddled in the middle of the bedroom floor, looking back and forth at them in horrified silence.

“What is it?”

To Catherine’s embarrassment, everyone flooded through her door to see the source of the ruckus.

“Mouse?” Father exclaimed.

“I take it you know him.” Jenny finished slipping her robe on. She looked at the broken glass on the floor with concern before she bent down to pick up Jill.

“Hi, Mouse,” Charles stated shyly, remembering that the last time he had seen the little man, he had injured him.

Mouse stood frozen amongst the broken glass, his frightened gaze hopping among the audience at the doorway, Vincent and Father.

“What are you doing here? How did you get here?” Father tripped over the questions swimming in his head.

“Mouse!” Catherine exclaimed, dropping the remnants of the lamp. Most of the time she found Mouse’s eccentricities humorous, but right now the urge to throw what was left of the lamp at him was almost overwhelming.

“Mommy.” Jeremy tugged on Nancy’s robe. “Doesn’t Aunt Cathy know that you aren’t supposed to be naked in front of people?”

Everyone in the room froze as Catherine felt her face go bright red. Instinctively, she took a step backwards and then jumped as the bottom of her foot felt the initial poke of the shattered glass surrounding her. Peter and Devin looked as if they were trying hard not to laugh.

Nancy reached down and clamped her hand over Jeremy’s mouth and led him back to their bedroom. Father turned a bright purple, while Charles and Mouse looked down at their feet.

“Mouse, you can use the bedroom next door. We will discuss this in the morning.” Vincent stepped forward. Grabbing the bedspread, he wrapped it around Catherine before lifting her into his arms and walking out of the room, moving resolutely toward the stairs.

Catherine buried her face in Vincent’s neck, grateful that, just for the moment, the blanket was swallowing her up, even if the rest of the world was not.

“You're injured,” Vincent stated softly as he set her carefully on the kitchen counter. Unwrapping her from the blanket, he carefully inspected her leg and feet for the glass remnants. Using his claws, he delicately pinched each piece from her skin. Vincent reached over and turned on the faucet, diligently testing the water. Catherine pointed to where he could find the towels.

Catherine felt her breath hitch as Vincent ran the cloth down her leg, his hand briefly tightening in response to her reaction to his touch.

“Catherine.” Vincent’s voice was as much a groan as an entreaty .

“I’m not dead.” Catherine refused to apologize for her reactions to him. Sliding her hand across his cheek, she lifted his face for a brief kiss.

“We are not alone.” Vincent pulled back, fighting his growing reaction to the scent rising from her. Tuning himself to the noises around the house, he could hear the murmers of the others talking in their rooms: Father lecturing Mouse, Jill and Jeremy arguing with Jenny and Nancy about going back to bed.

There was no way Catherine could go up to the bedroom, not with the glass all over her floor. The desire to sleep with her wrapped safely in his arms was seductive, especially now, when he knew that the next several days would allow them no privacy at all.

“Nobody will come,” Catherine assured him. “Déją vu?” Her smile taking an almost wicked grin, she wrapped her legs around him and pushed herself closer to the edge of the counter as her ankles locked behind his waist. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she twisted her fingers into his hair as she pulled him into a kiss.

Vincent’s mind immediately went back to their first morning together, in her kitchen. His body responding immediately, insuring that was his last cogent thought as he pulled her to him.

Vincent locked Catherine tight in his arms as he lifted her closer to him. Turning from the kitchen counter, he let the blanket drop as he carried her to his bedroom. He felt her squirm against him, each step rubbing the hardness of his belt against her core.

Kicking the door shut behind him, all worries of privacy melted away in the heat that the two of them generated together.

~~

Vincent stood facing the crowd. Father and Devin stood behind him, dressed in uptop formal, frowns on their faces. Music started and everyone stood. Vincent turned to see a beautiful bride walking toward him. The dress was for- fitting, a classic yet simple style. Ephram walked beside her. Looking at the audience, he saw Ashley sitting near the front on the bride’s side. She was holding her baby and tears were streaming down her face.

Vincent smiled as Catherine approached him. Taking her hand from Ephram, he helped her ascend the stairs. Stopping next to him, she took her hand from his and lifted the veil. The world froze as Vincent stared at the person beside him; there were no facial features. The sound of a cry pierced his ears as he turned to see Catherine sobbing as a group of Taj men dragged her in chains from the chapel.

With a roar, he turned to race toward her, only to fall and find himself face down in the aisle. Looking back, he saw chains holding him, Father, and Devin at the altar. Helplessly, he watched as Catherine was carried away and forced into a vehicle that sped away.

Vincent sat up, Catherine’s name bursting from him as he struggled from the dream. The sound of running water pierced his frantic thoughts moments before the light in the room registered in his brain. They were safe, at Catherine’s lake house; it was nothing more than a dream.



Click here for Part Three....