Communities- The Sequel by CL

Part Three

 

Devin walked down the hall, adjusting his shirt, pausing as he reached the open door of Catherine’s bedroom. Jenny knelt on the floor, carefully picking up the glass shards. Looking up, she smiled as Devin stepped in then knelt to help her.

“So, you are Vincent’s brother?” Jenny asked as they worked together to clean up the mess.

Devin nodded. “So, how is it you know Vincent?” he asked as he took the trash can full of glass from her hand.

Jenny’s response was delayed as she turned on the vacuum. “Vincent saved our lives on Halloween night,” she answered as she wrapped up the cord. “We really haven’t known him very long.”

Devin took the vacuum from Jenny and she pointed him to the hall closet.

“Cathy mentioned that you rescued Charles?” It was as much of a statement as a question.

Devin nodded. “He was being used as a side-show attraction at a carnival I landed a job with.” Devin’s voice got harsh. “I caught his own brother using a whip on him.”

Jenny gasped at that comment. “That’s horrible!”

Devin just nodded. “I stole a van and got him to Father and Vincent.” Then he got a huge smile… “And went to the only person I knew who could pull my ass out of the mess I had just gotten myself into.” Jenny looked confused as Devin stopped to laugh. “I made the mistake of sneaking up on Chandler.” Devin nodded his head in Catherine’s direction as they walked into the kitchen.

“Why was that a mistake?” Jenny looked at her friend and then back at Devin.

“He startled me, and I laid him out,” Catherine answered for Devin.

“Why do you call her Chandler?” Nancy asked as she helped Jill climb onto the phone book that had been placed on the chair.

“I met her during my brief stint at the DA’s office,” Devin admitted sheepishly.

“Ahh, yeah. Cathy did say you were a bit of a chameleon when it came to careers,” Jenny commented. “But it seems you and Vincent both have the need to be a knight in shining armor.”

Catherine smiled as she watched Vincent duck his head shyly as Devin laughed. “Yes, well, I have to say, Vincent has great taste where damsels in distress are concerned.“

Nancy blushed while Jenny raised an eyebrow. “Ahh, yes, Cath warned us about that too.”

“About what?” Devin leaned back in his chair, enjoying the banter.

“You are quite charming.” Jenny leaned forward. “And quite the ladies’ man.”

Vincent laughed. “I don’t think your charm is working on her.”

“Oh, I am charmed,” Jenny admitted, “but I’m a city girl; you could say I have an immunity to charming players.”

Catherine looked up as she heard a noise at the door. Mouse meekly followed Father into the kitchen.

“Sorry I scared you, Catherine, and you got hurt.” He stepped into the kitchen, his head bowed.

“I’m ok, Mouse,” Catherine assured him. “Are you hungry?” She pushed a plate close to one of the empty chairs.

Mouse nodded and rushed to the table. Sitting down, he helped himself to some of the food and began eating ravenously. Catherine and Vincent looked at each other while Father just shook his head.

“How did you get here?" Catherine asked as she pushed more food in Mouse’s direction.

“Easy. I hid in the van,” Mouse admitted between bites.

“Why would you do something as crazy as that?” Father barked. Devin rolled his eyes as he watched how close to lecture mode Father was slipping.

“Everyone worried; Vincent leave tunnels. Not safe.”

Jeremy watched in awe as the little man next to him stuffed the food into his mouth. Reaching for a piece of scrambled egg, he started to cram it in his mouth. His hand was grabbed a hair’s breadth from his lips as Nancy took the piece from his hand and shook her finger.

“But Mom,” Jeremy protested.

“No buts.” Nancy handed him a fork. “You will eat properly,” Nancy insisted.

Mouse paused as he watched the exchange. Catherine quietly pushed a fork toward him and nodded.

“Sorry.” Mouse picked up the fork and started eating slower.

“Not safe?” Jenny asked as she watched the strange little man across from her. “What is not safe?”

“Vincent leaving the tunnels.” Nancy and Jenny looked at each other as Father, Catherine, and Vincent winced.

“Mouse,” Catherine interrupted before he could reveal any further information, “do you remember Ephram and Ashley?”

Mouse nodded.

“I have been working with them to make sure that this trip is safe for Vincent.”

“And the Tunnels?” Mouse asked.

“We have talked through this,” Father added. “The council will take care of the everyday matters.”

A lightbulb switched on for Catherine. “Mouse, I know you are worried about everyone’s safety.” Mouse nodded as Catherine continued, “And the tests on your alarm systems worked ok?”

Mouse nodded again as Vincent caught onto the direction Catherine was going. “We were counting on you, Mouse,” Vincent said. “We need you to work the alarm system so everyone is safe.”

Mouse’s eyes got wide. “I help keep Vincent safe too.” Pushing away from the table, he rushed to the door. “Come, I show.”

Everyone rose from the table and followed Mouse out the front door. Jill jumped down and ran after them.

Leading them out the front door, Mouse opened the door to the RV. Catherine gasped as she stepped up the stairs. She didn’t know what she had expected, but something this grand had not been it.

Everyone looked around in awe as they studied the opulence around them. Mouse led them through a living area into a tight hallway that contained curtained berths. Reaching the end of the hall near the larger berths, Mouse pulled the curtain back and crawled up. Pulling the coat hook, everyone watched in amazement as the wall slid back and revealed a small space the height of the bus. Catherine leaned out and opened the door at the end of the berth and discovered the water heater, and the next door revealed a small bathroom. The space was perfect for Vincent to hide in should there be a need.

“Mouse, how did you learn about this?” Vincent asked.

“Easy. I said I was Vincent’s friend.”

“Wait, you were here when they delivered the bus?” Nancy asked. “That was a couple of days ago.”

“You have been hiding here this long?”

Mouse nodded.

“So they told you where to find this?” Catherine asked. “We would have missed it.” She looked at Vincent. “We never would have known.”

“Mouse did good?”

Vincent nodded. “Mouse did good.” He patted his little friend on the shoulder.

“Then I go?” Mouse asked anxiously.

Father shook his head. “Mouse, we need you at home.”

Vincent led everyone off the bus. “They need you there.”

Leading Mouse to the living room, they sat him down.

“But how are we going to get him back?” Father wondered.

“I can help,” Jenny stated. Everyone looked at her.

“Nancy is going to take me to the train so I can ride it back to the city,” Jenny stated as Nancy nodded in agreement. “Mouse can ride with us and I will make sure he gets back. I assume once we get to the city then he will know how to get home? I know I don’t know much about these tunnels, and for Vincent’s sake, we won’t ask questions.” Father breathed a sigh of relief with that comment. “But you have to admit, this is the only option if you don’t want to have to backtrack and take him home.”

“That works for me; we have space in the car if we put the luggage in the trunk,” Nancy thought out loud.

“I had planned to ride to Grand Central and then go from there.” Jenny turned to Father, who appeared to be seriously thinking about the plan. Mouse, on the other hand, was looking more and more morose.

“Mouse?” Catherine leaned forward. “We really need your help with this.”

Mouse turned to her, surprised. “Need Mouse?” He perked up a little bit. “Not just saying that?”

“Mouse, have I ever lied to you?” Catherine asked.

Mouse shook his head. “No, you bring gizmos for Mouse to work with.”

“You are the only one who can work your alarm system,” Catherine pointed out. “Vincent won’t be there. Everything we planned, we did so knowing that your alarm system would help protect the others.”

Mouse sat back and thought for a bit. “You really need me.” Mouse sounded a bit surprised as Catherine nodded her head.

“Everyone has a job,” Vincent continued. “I have to meet the Taj Council. This is the only way I can do so without endangering everyone else.”

“Charles has a job?” Mouse asked.

Devin nodded his head. “Even Charles has a job.”

Mouse turned to Jenny and Nancy. “Ok, I go with you. We go now.”

Nancy and Jenny looked somewhat stunned. “Mouse, we can’t go now, but we will leave right after they do.”

Everyone took a deep breath of relief as Mouse bounded up the stairs.

“Charles has a job?” The quiet question came from the corner. Charles stepped from the dark corner as he looked at everyone in the room.

Devin stood, crossed over and motioned for Charles to come further into the room.

“We wanted to talk to you about it once we got here, Charles,” Catherine commented softly. “I think your past may help us keep Vincent safe.”

“Vincent won’t like to travel with a cage,” Charles stated bluntly.

Nancy and Jenny gasped and Catherine blinked back the tears as she was reminded of the cage that she had seen in the tent when Devin had taken her to the carnival.

“I promise, no cages,” Vincent stated, “but I have never left New York City before; I have never travelled.”

“I have been all over.” Charles perked up.

“Charles, can you tell us how to keep Vincent safe.” Catherine moved over to the chair next to where Charles sat. “I know that those days were bad, but maybe there were some rules that can help us.”

Devin sat forward in his seat. “Remember what Dr. Drine said?”

Charles nodded. “Sometimes it helps to talk about the bad times.” Taking a deep breath, Charles closed his eyes and started to repeat the rules that had been beaten into him for most of his life.

“Never look at anyone; stay covered.”

Nancy passed the tissues to Jenny as they listened to Charles repeat the rules he had been forced by his brother to obey. Tears flowed freely down their cheeks as they realized how horrible this gentle man’s life had truly been.

Catherine fought back the tears, pulling on her years of experience dealing with attorneys and victims she had talked to. She tucked the special part of her that could react to this into a safe place and allowed herself to hear the words, not feel the experiences. Reaching over, she squeezed Vincent’s hand. The horrors of what Charles had endured brought to light how fortunate he truly had been.

“Thank you, Charles.” Catherine patted his hand once his recitation had finished.

“Charles helped?” He looked up expectantly, his face crumpling as he saw the tears of those surrounding him.

“Yes, Charles, you helped,” Devin added.

“Charles, Devin said you liked chocolate chip cookies.” Nancy patted her face dry. “There are some in the white container in the kitchen. Would you take them and share with Jill, Jeremy, and Mouse? I think they are in the TV room.”

Charles perked up and dashed off to get the cookies.

Jenny jumped up and stormed to the window as Charles left the room. “His brother did that to him?” Jenny snapped once she knew he had left the kitchen. Turning on Catherine, she almost snarled, “And you let him go?”

Vincent stiffened as Jenny snapped at Catherine, pausing at the touch of her hand.

“There are worse things than what the system can do to someone,” Catherine spoke calmly.

“Like what?” Jenny rounded, her hands clenched in fists. “What could be fitting for what that monster did to him? You are supposed to be working to stop things like that.”

“I can’t save the world, Jenny.” Catherine could feel Vincent’s muscles tightening beneath her hand. She knew that Jenny’s words were not aimed at her. “To protect Charles, we couldn’t risk charges, even if it had been my jurisdiction.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Jenny challanged.

“I stole a car and kidnapped Charles,” Devin stated. “The law was on Charles’s brother’s side.”

“You kidnapped…?” Jenny stepped away from the windows. “It sounds to me more like you saved him.”

“He did, Jenny,” Catherine added. “But if we had let this go to the system, Devin would have ended up in jail, and Charles would have been put into some sort of institution, or worse, turned loose on his own.”

“So his brother just gets away with all that?” Jenny sank back into the chair as the enormity and complexity of the issue was beginning to take hold in her mind.

“Not really.” Devin leaned back, his grin almost evil. “Carnies don’t tolerate one of their own being abused. You don’t really think I managed to get Charles out of that cage, into a carnie van, and all the way to New York City before he was discovered missing, all on my own?”

“Please don’t tell me you are not only admitting to stealing that van, but that you had accomplices?” Catherine turned to Devin.

“Who, me?” Devin looked at Catherine with a huge grin on his face. “I would never admit something like that.”

Father snorted at that comment. “That much is true.” He knew that evil existed in the world and that Charles had been through a lot, but none of them had truly understood the extent of the nightmare that he had truly lived.

Turning to Jenny, Devin continued, “Some of the other carnies helped get Charles’s brother drunk the night we ran. It was several hours before he discovered Charles missing. Even then, he had to call the police and make the report on his own.” Devin leaned toward Jenny. “By that time, we were already in New York City and almost safely to Vincent.”

“Devin came and got me the next morning.” Catherine picked up the story. “He took me to visit Charles’s brother. I flashed my badge and made some veiled threats of what would happen if he were to cause any problems for Devin.”

“With no act, the managers of that group dropped him. No other carnival will accept him; he is black-listed.” Devin finished, “Charles’s brother is now living in his own hell, and I can guarantee you that it is worse than anything your system could ever visit upon him.”

Jenny nodded. “As long as he didn’t get away with it.”

“I can promise you that he didn’t.”

Jenny’s smile was harsh. “Good.”

Catherine pulled out the maps and spread them across the table - three different maps, each with a different route. As everyone moved closer, she passed out copies of her notes. “Here are the routes that Ephram thinks would be our best bet,” she told them.

“The first one is the shortest; that is how he got to New York so fast this last summer.” Catherine saw the look on Father’s face; his decision was obvious. “But it has the least amount of support.” She pressed on. “Vincent would not be able to leave the RV until after we reached the supported park in Colorado for the dedication ceremony.”

“That is almost three days.” Nancy looked at the documents. “Even with three drivers, you can’t drive all night,” Nancy protested.

 “What are these flags?” Peter pointed.

“Those would be our stopping points at night.”

Devin looked over the sections. “Where is this flag located?” He pointed to a flag outside of St. Louis.

Catherine handed Devin the AAA Triptik and watched as he flipped through it.

“I haven’t been there, but Charles has. The carnival group he was with had recently made a stop there before I joined with them.” Devin handed the booklet back to Catherine. “There were a lot of stories, none of them good.”

“What kind of stories?” Peter asked.

“Local kids and gang members attacking the RV camp, which was out of jurisdiction of the local authority.”

Father shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

Pulling the second map out from under the pile, Catherine showed a longer route. “This route takes us South.” Catherine laid out the second map. “The marks here are Taj-connected locations where we can stop, but they won’t know Vincent until after he meets the Council.”

“What does that mean?” Devin compared the map with the various locations he had travelled through.

“That we can’t guarantee he will be able to use them until after the meeting with the Council.” Catherine pushed that map aside, and placed another next to it. “This route is much further north. It will take us almost a week to travel.” Father started shaking his head as Catherine pressed on. “Every stop on here but one is manned by supporters by the Wives Council.”

~~

Vincent sat entranced at the window as the colors of the sunset painted the horizon. Everywhere he looked, the colors were so vivid and bright. Catherine sat on the couch beside him, curled up with her head resting on his shoulder. She had taken the first driving shift out of Connecticut and toward the highway. He smiled as he remembered Jill and Jeremy talking through the rules of a big family road trip. They had been so authoritative in their own little ways. Stay seated; stay buckled; don’t ask if you’re there yet, it only makes the driver mad; keep your hands to yourself; and don’t bug your brother. Devin had laughed at that one. Nancy blushed and clamped her hand over Jill’s mouth when she started talking about the rules of why you should not wake mommy and daddy up from naps. Catherine had just laughed at that one as she passed by with the boxes for the pantry.

Everything seemed so surreal. Father and Peter were seated at the table as they went over some of their old journals, trying to decide what the Council would be most interested in. Charles sat with his books, his face scrunched up as he worked through the worksheets of the home school curriculum that Devin had found for him to use.

They had decided on the northern route; it would take longer, but they were guaranteed more support from the Wives Council. Devin didn’t like that Catherine felt uneasy about the Taj Council, and had mentioned in private that very few people were able to brush past his identities as fast as she did, so if she was uneasy about something, then there was probably a reason for it.

Vincent tended to agree with him. He had mixed feelings. The chance to meet others like him was seductive, but Catherine’s unease about the situation had him concerned. Then there were the dreams - the ones he had told no one about, not even Catherine.

He felt Catherine stir and adjusted himself accordingly. Reluctantly, he felt his eyes drift shut. There was so much to see, so much he had already seen. Today seemed more like a dream than reality. As illogical as it seemed, a small part of his mind felt that, if he fell asleep, he would wake up into the reality of living in the tunnels as the only one of his kind.

He felt himself relax more as Catherine cuddled closer into his warmth and tangled her fingers into his vest. The last waking memory he had was of the smile in Devin’s eyes as they met in the rear-view mirror. Slowly, the rhythm of the tires on the road and the emotional turmoil took their toll, and Vincent drifted off to sleep.

~~

He could hear his heart beating as he looked at the terrain before him. They were hunting him. If he was captured, everything would be lost:  the safety of the tunnels, his freedom, and, most importantly, Catherine. Carefully he moved across the rocks and to the shelter of the trees. This area was too open for him to remain hidden. There were caves; while he did not know the area well enough to be completely comfortable with strange caves, his experience of growing up in the tunnels would serve him well.

Hearing a noise behind him, Vincent ran as fast as he could. There was a cave opening not far beyond the tree line. If he could just get there, he would be safe.

Scrambling across the rocks, Vincent slid down the hill, and dashed toward the tree line, his breathing paced to match the pattern of his feet. Running he knew, he did enough of it at home. The familiar rock formation loomed before him as he swerved around low-hanging branches and jumped over fallen limbs. The snap barely registered as he felt the net descend over him, the ground giving way to leave him hanging, trapped in a net, and at the mercy of his hunters.

Twisting his head, he watched as forms broke from the shadows - first Devin, then others like him. The older Taj pushed a bound Devin to the ground and exposed his claws. “You or him.” The ultimatum was simple. Vincent went with them quietly, or they would kill his family… starting with his brother. Bowing his head in defeat, he conceded. “Let him go.”

~~

Vincent sat up with a gasp, waking Catherine in the process.

“What is it?” Catherine stroked the hair away from his face, tracing the line of sweat that edged his hairline. Beneath her chest, she could feel Vincent’s heart racing.

“Just a dream.” Vincent took a few deep soothing breaths.

“You’re not used to sleeping in a moving vehicle; it is bound to throw you off a bit,” Peter explained. “I expect we will all have a few moments like that over the next few days.”

Catherine studied Vincent and sat up when he nudged her a bit. Watching cautiously as he rose, she studied him as he wandered down the small hallway, watching him carefully. She could swear there was something more to Vincent’s dream than a case of motion sickness.

Catherine got up and followed Vincent toward the bathroom. Messing around with her bunk, she waited until she heard the water finish running, cornering him before he rejoined the others.

“What is it you are not telling me, Vincent?” Catherine asked as he opened the door.

There was no way around her. “Peter is probably right,” Vincent responded, knowing that if her questions got more pointed, he would have no choice but to answer her.

“I am not believing that.” Catherine placed her hands on her hips and stepped forward. There was already not much room to move around. “We have never lied to each other.”

Vincent bowed his head. She was right. If she wanted to know, he would have to be careful.

“Is there something stressing you about this trip?” Catherine pressed. She didn’t want to push him too hard, but a distressed Vincent on a road trip was not a good combination.

Vincent merely nodded.

“Are you feeling motion sickness?”

 Vincent’s head snapped up with that question before shaking it. “No, I am fine.” Pausing, he thought through his words before continuing. “I think I share your unease about the Taj Council,” he stated simply.

 “It will be ok.” Catherine leaned forward, placing a kiss on his cheek. "We already have reason to believe they have a private agenda where you are concerned."

“But how does that help anyone?” Vincent always took his role as the tunnel protector seriously; he had a hard time adjusting to family protecting him.

“It helps to know when you are expecting something; we can all be on the lookout,” Catherine continued. “Besides, we are not in this alone. The Wives Council is on our side.”

Vincent relaxed a bit, feeling a little guilty; he had not revealed the true nature of the dream to her, or that it wasn’t the only one. But Catherine was right. Until they knew what the Taj wanted, then there wasn’t much they could do about anything.

~~

Five days later

Vincent stepped out of the RV just behind Catherine, Charles following with his books wrapped in his arms. During the past week, Vincent had become Charles’s private tutor, helping him sound out words and work on his numbers. Vincent loved teaching the children of the tunnels, but to have a student so starved for knowledge was unique. Charles’s grasp of basic concepts was shaky at best, but his determination made up for a lack of aptitude.

“Vincent! Cathy!” A woman’s voice rang out. Turning toward the sound, Vincent smiled as a much healthier looking Ashley came bounding out the front door of the resort down the front steps, and straight into Vincent’s arms.

Vincent returned her embrace before she slipped away and turned to Catherine.

“I was so afraid you wouldn’t make it,” she confessed. “The drive was ok?” Ashley peppered them with questions one after the other.

“We would have a better chance of finding that out if you weren’t so busy tackling the new arrivals,” Ephram stated from the top of the steps. “Maybe they will want to come in out of the cold.”

Vincent walked up the stairs and accepted Ephram’s extended hand. “Welcome to your first Taj gathering.” Hands grasped tightly and Ephram pulled Vincent forward into a brief hug. Holding Vincent closer than normal, he whispered, “We stand with you,” before pulling back.

Vincent’s brow creased at that comment. It seemed that Catherine’s instincts and fears were based on something other than concern for the unknown.

“You must be Charles.” Ashley smiled at the large man who stood frozen on the steps of the RV. “I am Ashley, Ephram’s lifemate.”

Devin patted Charles’s back, urging him to step forward, giving him a gentle reminder of the training they had been working on during the past few days.

“Nice to meet you, Ashley.” Charles stepped off the step and juggled his books before reaching for her hand. Barely closing his large hand around her smaller one, he gently shook it before letting go and jerking his hand back.

Ashley smiled. “We were trying to finalize room assignments, Charles. Do you want a room by yourself or do you prefer to share one?”

Charles’s eyes got wide as he thought about his options. Looking back, he watched Devin step out of the RV.

Placing a hand on Charles’s back, he greeted Ashley. “We would probably be better if we either shared a room or had one that linked.”

Ashley accepted Devin’s hand. “You must be the brother.” She grinned. “I have heard a lot about you.” Winking, she turned and headed up the stairs and blew a kiss Ephram’s way before opening the door.

“Normally, only the hosting Taji family stays in the Lodge, but Emily and Mom thought it would be better if your group stayed here with us.” Ashley led Catherine and Vincent up the stairs, directing them through the hallways. “We put Peter and Father here.” Ashley opened two doors next to each other. “Devin and Charles are here.” Ashley opened a door across the hall, and then led them further down the hall to the last two rooms at the end.

Ashley opened the last door and led Vincent in. “This is your room.” Then stepping to the back of the room, she showed him to a bookshelf by the door. “Should anything happen, there is a safe route here.” Reaching behind the nightstand, she pressed a button and the wall spun on its axis to reveal a spiral staircase.

Vincent sank down on the bed as Ashley showed Catherine out to the hallway.

“I have put you here.” Ashley’s smile took on a wicked twist as she opened the door, and directed Catherine inside. “This is one of my favorite rooms,” Ashley said as she showed Catherine the bathroom, “because of this.” The open door revealed a large sunken tub with jets.  A separate stand-alone enclosure revealed a shower with a tile bench against the wall and vents lining the bottom. “Press this button and the shower turns into a steam sauna; the bench can sit two rather snugly.”

Catherine laughed as she looked into the shower. The only way two people were sitting on that bench together was if someone was in the other person’s lap. Raising an eyebrow, she looked over her shoulder at Ashley.

“Rumor has it many a Taj was conceived on that bench,” Ashley whispered wickedly.

 Catherine burst out laughing. “And you know this how?”

“Well, a lady never kisses and tells.” Ashley winked before stepping out of the bathroom. “Then there is this.” Leading Catherine to a door next to the closet, she unlocked it to open and reveal another shut door.

Catherine shut the door from the hallway and leaned against it. “Ashley, what is going on?”

Sobering quickly, Ashley sat on the edge of the bed. “I am not sure, but the council location and date was changed once word of Vincent’s existence reached the Council’s ears.”

“But you expected that.” Catherine sat on a chair across from the bed.

“Yes.” Ashley paused. “But the way it happened….” Ashley looked a little confused. “I can’t explain it, but even Ephram and his father are concerned about something.”

“Are the tunnels or Vincent in danger?” The investigative attorney in her was throwing up questions and scenarios faster than she could process. Habit had her reaching for her notebook, only to find that it was no longer in her pocket. Turning toward the table, she grabbed a pad of paper and the pen.

“No, the thought of a Taj in New York is impossible for them to process.” Ashley leaned forward. “When Ephram, Emily, and I were questioned; we just told them that we were transported to the airport by members of Vincent’s community and that New York City was chosen because that is where you are based out of.”

Catherine nodded. “Is there speculation of where Vincent is living?”

Catherine jumped at the sound of knocking on her door. Motioning to Ashley to wait, she crossed to open the door.

Vincent stood with one of her bags. “Charles was carrying this up; I thought you might not want to be interrupted.”

Catherine nodded. “Of course.” Opening the door wider, she signaled Vincent in and shut the door behind him. “You may want to hear this.”

Vincent set the luggage down near the dresser before joining Catherine at the small table.

“They know that the RV was sent to Connecticut, and that Emily flew into New York City, as well as all of us flying out of the same location.” Ashley thought about it for a bit. “You would really have to ask Ephram about the Council’s thoughts, but I have heard the wives mention the possibilities of the eastern part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Rhode Island.”

 “Ephram said something to me when we got here.” Catherine turned and looked at Vincent. “That you stand with us.”

“What does that mean?” Catherine looked back at Ashley.

“It means that, whatever the Council has decided, Ephram’s family, my family, and the Wives Council back the two of you.”

Catherine reached back and threaded her fingers with Vincent’s.

“Thank you,” Vincent stated, “from both of us.”

“Do you trust everyone in your party?” Ashley asked.

Vincent nodded.

“Then we should go to dinner. Ephram and our parents can help bring you up to speed.” Ashley stood and as she opened the door she heard the sound of wailing coming from further down the hall. “It appears I am being summoned. I will see you at dinner.”

Catherine leaned against the door jamb as she watched Ashley all but skip down the hall. Looking at Vincent, she saw the concern in his face.

“We knew this wouldn’t be easy.” Reaching up, she soothed the lines between his brows.

“Catherine…”

She hushed him with a finger across his lips. “We will come through this.” Leaning forward, she replaced her finger with her lips.

“Ehehmmm.”

They broke apart at the sound of a throat clearing behind them.

“Sorry to interrupt, folks, but where do you want these?”

Turning, Catherine saw two young men, one Taj and one human, balancing suitcases between them. Pointing at the bags, she directed, “The brown ones go into the front room on your right, nlack go into the second room, green go into this room at the end of the hall.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Both boys had huge grins on their faces as they rushed in opposite directions, the human boy barely carrying Vincent’s two bags while the Taj lifted all four bags with no problem and ran down the hall. “First one done gets black!”

She turned to Vincent in surprise. “Were you that strong when you were that age?”

Vincent ducked his head and just shrugged.

Catherine laughed as the first boy in question dashed passed them, jumped onto the stair banister, and started to slide down.

“Andrew Thomas Harrington, you get off that banister right now!” A woman’s voice echoed through the hallway, followed by a series of thuds, a crashing noise, and loud yelp.

Catherine and Vincent looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Sounds familiar.”

Vincent had the courtesy to blush.

“I have really enjoyed hearing stories about you and Devin growing up,” Catherine whispered as she leaned closer.

Vincent laughed. “I could tell.”

Catherine nodded. “It gives me some idea of what to look out for when we have kids.”

“Hmmm,” Vincent thought out loud, “maybe I should ask Peter and Susan what sort of little girl we would have.”

It felt odd having this conversation. He had never allowed himself to dream of a family of his own before. That Catherine would talk of their children… he couldn’t resist. Leaning down, he poured all of his love and gratitude into a brief kiss as he remembered the reason for their conversation.

“Catherine,” Vincent whispered into her ear, “what were those bags?”

Catherine stiffened, pulling back a bit. “We decided that you and Father needed a more appropriate up-top wardrobe for this trip,” she replied sheepishly.

“Who decided?” a stern voice from behind her asked.

Turning, she saw Father standing with his arms crossed.

“ Emily, Ashley, Mary, Sara, Samantha, Brooke.” Peter came up behind Father and started listing off names. “Shall I continue?” Peter winked over Father’s shoulder at Catherine.

“Catherine…”

She knew that tone in Vincent’s voice. “I had little to do with this, Vincent.” Then she laughed. “For once, I really had nothing to do with any of this.”

“Little or nothing, Catherine, it can’t be both,” Father reprimanded.

“Yes, it can be, Pops.” Devin stood at the top of the stairs. “Emily and Ashley were concerned that your normal dress would give you away. Chandler got in touch with me; Peter talked to Mary and we coordinated the two groups.”

Catherine shrugged. “I just directed traffic.”

Vincent smothered his laugh as he watched Father process this information.

Holding her back, he watched as everyone turned to go downstairs. “You have a generous heart.” He cuddled her to him and whispered in her hair, “One of these days, you are going to get caught.”

Catherine laughed as she leaned back and looked into Vincent’s smiling eyes. This had become a challenge between the two of them. “I can honestly say that I didn’t spend a cent on any of this.”

Laughing at her careful choice of words, he pushed away from the door jamb and followed Catherine down the stairs.

“Seth! Andy! Both of you stop throwing that ball in the house and wash up for dinner.” Emily stood in the entryway with her hands on her hips. The boys Catherine and Vincent had met moments before stopped tossing a ball and moved past them, grinning as they went.

 “Vincent! Catherine.” Emily stepped forward and hugged both of them. “How was your trip?”

“The mountains are beautiful.” Vincent could still feel the awe he experienced the first time he saw them on the horizon.

“We will give everyone a chance to rest tonight. I suspect the guys are planning a skiing trip tomorrow.” Emily rolled her eyes as she turned and led the way into the dining hall.

Catherine was amazed at how empty the room was. Other than their travel partners, Catherine saw two other Taj men, one much older, the boys they had met earlier, Emily, Ashley, Ephram, and one other woman.

“The rest of the Taj Council don’t arrive until the end of the week,” Ashley told them.  “We thought you might want a chance to get your bearings first.”

“Vincent, this is Tom, my husband.” Emily introduced the older of the two men.

“You look just like her,” a deep voice said from behind him. Turning, Vincent looked into hazel eyes surrounded by darker hair and features.

“Her?” Vincent asked as he studied the new man, his heart racing. There was a sense of familiarity about the man, even though he knew they had never met before.

“Vincent, I would like to introduce you to Kevin and his lifemate Sarah.” Emily signaled to the younger woman. “Kevin is your uncle.”

The room got quiet. Tears ran down both men’s faces as they studied each other.

“I thought you were dead.” Kevin stood locked as if he couldn’t move. “If I had had even a hint, I would never have given up.”

“Hey, dude, what's with all the boohooing?” The brash comment from one of the boys broke through the silence.

Sarah broke out in laughter first. “Leave it to my monsters to break a mood.” She grabbed a box of Kleenex from a nearby drawer and passed it to Catherine; after taking a tissue she passed it on to Ashley.

“Dude, I think she’s talking to you.” The boy Catherine guessed was Andrew nudged the younger version of Vincent in the arm.

“Can’t be.” Seth nudged back. “I’m the better-looking one.”

“Says who?”

“Your girlfriend.”

The beginnings of a nudge war were threatening to break out in the doorway when Ephram placed his hands firmly on both boys’ shoulders. “We have company and you will behave with the proper respect.”

The boys froze and looked into the room. Andy blushed, while Seth ducked his head in a manner so reminiscent of Vincent that it melted Catherine’s heart.

“Andy, Seth, this is Vincent, Kevin’s nephew.” Sarah motioned them over

The boys stepped forward and politely stuck out their hands. “Nice to meet you.”

“So, dude, does that make you…like…our cousin or something?”

“Enough, you two. Go sit.” Emily pushed them toward the table. “Teenage boys, gotta love them.”

“Yup.” Seth snatched a roll from the table and stuffed it into his mouth, studiously ignoring the glares of the women surrounding him. “Because killing us would be illegal.”

“Don’t tempt us, scamp.” Ephram pulled out a chair for Ashley as everyone began to gather around the table.

Introductions were made as everyone settled in. Conversation was kept light as they talked about the upcoming naming ceremony and plans to prepare for the rest of the Taj.

“There are several cabins surrounding the lodge, some further in the woods than others,” Emily explained. “Only the host family stays here. We thought, under the circumstances, that you should stay close.”

After allowing the boys to excuse themselves to go play video games after the meal was through, the conversation turned to more serious matters.

Ephram rose and shut the door leading to the main hall then returned to the table. Nodding to Tom, he sat, as everyone’s attention turned toward the older Taj.

“There is a history that you are not aware of, but you can’t afford to be ignorant of it either. These next few days will be busy.”

Vincent leaned back in his seat as he watched Father, Peter, and Devin all exchange looks. He draped his arm over the back Catherine’s chair as she turned into him and leaned into his embrace, her hand resting calmly on his thigh.

“I understand that your life has, by necessity, been somewhat limited,” Tom continued, holding up his hand when Vincent would have spoken. “It is imperative that the location of your people stay hidden.”

Father and Vincent both nodded at that.

“Meanwhile, it is also best that you know what plans are being hatched since your discovery.” Ephram continued, “The Council is unaware of Kevin’s continued existence. We plan to keep it that way.”

Kevin picked up the story. “We don’t know for sure what the Council is planning, but I do know what they had planned for me.”

Catherine watched as Sarah tensed. Kevin’s arm moved and she suspected that Sarah’s continued silence had something to do with it. “The community your father and I grew up in no longer exists,” Kevin began. “First with the disappearance of your mother, then the death of my brother, I was destined to step forward as the next Taj of the Council. At that time I was unmated, and had no intention of settling down.”

Sarah smiled at that comment. “I was working on a research project outside of Boulder when I met Emily. Through Emily, I met Kevin; needless to say, he was a bit of a shock.”

“You fell in love with me at first glance.” Kevin lifted Sarah’s hand from beneath the table and kissed it.

“No, I wanted to strangle you within five minutes of meeting you. By the end of the day, I was ready to skin you alive.”

Emily laughed at that. “Yeah, some of these guys have that impact.”

“You didn’t feel that way, my sweet.” Tom pulled Emily’s chair closer and nuzzled her neck before ducking back from her playful swat.

“Is that why she shot you?” Ephram asked innocently.

“Wait, you shot him?” Catherine sat up. “This is a story I have got to hear!”

“It was my first job as a doctor after my residency,” Emily began. “I grew up outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and then moved north to the Raleigh-Durham area. Even my residency had been in a city so, to me, northern Wyoming seemed wild. There had been reports of some bear maulings at Yellowstone, and rumors of bears not too far out from where I was working. I hadn’t met the Taj yet, so one night when I heard a noise outside my house, I grabbed my gun and aimed at the first big, hairy thing I saw.”

“Lucky for me she couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in the daylight, much less in the dark.” Tom laughed.

Emily smiled. “Lucky for him I only fired a warning shot.”

Vincent laughed with everyone else as he combed his fingers through Catherine’s hair. “I guess I should count myself fortunate then.” Bending, he placed a kiss on the top of her head before continuing. “She only threw a headlight at me.”

Catherine groaned, part of her wanting to celebrate his open signs of affection with this group, while part of her had the rising urge to throw something else at him and not miss this time.

“Careful, little brother.” Devin laughed. “I think she may want to practice her aim.”

“He has quick reflexes.” Catherine focused her glare on Devin. “You, on the other hand….”

Devin had the courtesy to blush. “Yeah, well, I learned to never sneak up on you.”

“Ashley said that you had taken refuge…” Catherine paused, not wanting to expose the Wives Council.

“It’s ok, Catherine, everyone in here knows of the Wives Council.” Emily smiled her permission for Catherine to continue.

Sarah nodded. “Our world is changing fast. People are able to get phones in their cars now. technology is growing at a rapid pace, and if it continues, it will be harder for the Taj to hide.”

Kevin picked up her line of thought. “So certain members of the Taj Council decided that we needed stronger political connections.”

Father winced at that comment, as Catherine stiffened.

“Kevin was being pressured to form an alliance with the daughter of an up and coming politician,” Ephram told them.

“Unfortunately, that pressure began to take some uncomfortable directions,” Kevin continued. "On top of all that, my brother had just died, my pregnant sister-in-law was missing, and while I had met Sarah….”

“He had more on his plate than he was able to deal with.” Sarah threaded her hands through his.

“I started showing signs of an early burn,” Kevin admitted with some embarrassment.

“The psychological pressure that was being placed on him was designed to do just that. With his growing bond with Sarah, and the constant attacks on both of them, he became violent and lashed out,” Emily continued.

“We have reason to believe that was the intention.” Tom picked up the story. “They staged an accident designed to kill Sarah with the intention that their chosen female be placed in Kevin’s path at just the right moment.”

“Instead, they managed to kill my twin sister,” Sarah finished. “Kevin separated himself from the community for what he was convinced was their protection. When I found him, it almost cost both of us our lives.”

“One of the wives followed Sarah and we got them both to safety,” Emily explained. “It wasn’t long after that we learned that Sarah was pregnant.”

“So the wives formed a council; we assembled what connections we had and swore them to secrecy, creating our own pact. We got Sarah and Kevin to safety.”

“And now we raise Seth and our nephew Andrew together as brothers,” Kevin finished. “We have our family and the support of the wives. I will not be staying for the Council to arrive.”

With that statement, the room was silent, everyone lost in their thoughts and memories of what had happened leading up to this day.

“Do you think that they will try this again?” Father asked, concern for his son as well as their home foremost in his mind.

Most everyone at the table shrugged.

“What is it, Catherine?” Vincent could feel the turmoil in her, as if she couldn’t focus on which question to pose first.

“Paracelsus...” She winced at that name. “What was his role in all of this?’

“John?” Emily asked. “Why do you ask that?”

“In my line of work, you learn that there are no coincidences.” Catherine tried to organize her thoughts. “Vincent’s mother went missing and his father died at the same time the psychological attacks began on Kevin?”

Tom and Emily looked at each other as if only putting the pieces together for the first time.

“So it is safe to assume that Paracelsus has some connection to the Taj Council,” Catherine pressed before turning to Vincent, “and that he wants you.”

Father paled as the implications became clear. “And we left everyone unprotected.”

Catherine shook her head. “They are nothing to him.” Her eyes locked with Devin’s. The one thing she was sure of, as long as Vincent wasn’t near the tunnels, everyone there was safe.

“He has his sights set higher these days,” Devin finished, his words taking a double meaning.

“So it is safe to assume that they have something similar to what they planned for me in the works for Vincent,” Kevin stated angrily.

Everyone at the table nodded.

“Then Vincent comes with us when we leave.” Kevin rose from the table forcefully.

Tom and Ephram shook their heads.

“That isn’t a good idea.” Vincent’s comment surprised everyone.

Catherine nodded. “There are too many lives at stake.”

“You can’t seriously think you should stay here? Not after all this.” Father slammed his hand down on the table.

“If we don’t, then John will send them after Vincent. Who knows who will get hurt then,” Catherine countered. The one thing they needed to do was to keep this away from the tunnels.

“So how do we fight this?” Peter sounded somewhat defeated.

“I had a sore.” Charles held up his finger at the end of the table; his comment pulled everyone from their thoughts. “It hurt real bad.”

Catherine held up her hand to stop Kevin’s comment. “Let Charles finish.” Her voice was firm.

Emily hid her smile, the more she got to know this younger woman, the more convinced she became that Catherine was a great Taja in the making.

“What happened, Charles?” Catherine pressed him on when he realized everyone had paused to listen to him.

“Devin told me that to make it better, I had to find what was making it worse.”

“And did you find it?” Vincent urged.

 Charles simply nodded. “And then it got better, just like Devin promised.”

“Well, there you have it folks.” Catherine leaned back in her chair. “We fight this by finding out who is making it worse.”

“Paracelsus has to have a connection on the Taj Council,” Vincent voiced his thought.

“That makes sense,” Ashley stated. “It is the only way they could have done everything they did.”

“No, the Council protects us.” Tom sounded shocked; the idea that their betrayer could be one of their own was unthinkable.

“There is no other answer, father,” Ephram stated. “I don’t like it either, but John lured Ashley away shortly after her pregnancy was announced to the Council.”

“Paracelsus wants power and riches; it consumes him to the point of madness.” It pained Father to say those words of his old friend, but it was the truth.

“So, how do we handle this?” Ashley asked.

“Should there be need to extract you, we should have a plan in place.” Kevin was firm on that fact. He had just found his brother’s son; he wasn’t going to lose him again.

 “Agreed,” Father echoed. If he had his way, Vincent would be leaving now, but they were right, Paracelsus knew the locations of the tunnels. They couldn’t count on him not revealing their location to his connection on the Council.

Several hours later, Catherine pushed away from the table. “The truth of the matter is, until we know what they have planned, everything we do here is pure speculation.”

“It helps to be prepared,” Father countered.

“But not so overly prepared that we become inflexible,” Ephram countered. “Catherine is right, there is not much more we can do until we know what they are planning.”

Vincent followed Catherine up the stairs. “Catherine...” Vincent started, his concern about what she would face in the next few weeks showing in his eyes.

“I won’t lose you, Vincent.” Catherine, on the step above him, turned to face him, their eyes on the same level. “What we have is too precious to let someone else’s greed destroy.” Tangling her hand into his hair, she pulled his face closer to hers. “I will fight for this, for us.” She sealed her comment with a searing kiss, reminding him of what they both stood to lose.

“Well, I guess she told you, little brother.”

Vincent and Catherine broke apart. Turning, Vincent glared at Devin, who walked past with a huge, silly grin on his face.

The past week had been an exercise in restraint that Devin didn’t know his brother possessed. From the diligence that Vincent and Chandler had exercised in not getting caught in the RV’s hallway together, and what usually happened when they did, it was apparent to everyone that their relationship had moved beyond the next level. Yet the most shocking part of it all was Father’s reaction…or lack thereof. Looking at Ashley and Ephram’s baby was like taking a step into the past. He had been too young to remember Vincent as a baby, but watching Seth and Andy run through the house made his heart ache. That was the sort of brother he should have been.

~~

Vincent opened the door to the closet and was amazed to find not a closet, but a still-wet Catherine, her back to him, barely wearing a towel as she smoothed lotion on her legs. Frozen, he stared at the soft curved line of her upper thigh as it disappeared into the towel. Vincent felt the air slam out of his body as she changed positions, lifting the other leg, and gave him a glimpse of her inner thigh, up past where the towel parted, and gave him a teasing glimpse of her womanhood.

Slowly she shifted, causing the towel to shift a bit more. His eyes locked onto the part of her he had come to treasure. Vincent felt a flutter in the back of his mind and tore his eyes away from their target. Visually, he traced up the curves that he had become intimately acquainted with over the last few months, only to meet Catherine’s gaze in the mirror in front of her.

She had seen his every response and encouraged it. Placing the bottle of lotion on the table beside her, she straightened up, leaving her foot on the edge of the bed. She let the towel gape open then slide to the floor. From his position, he could see everything: her reflection in the mirror, and the heat in her gaze as she watched him watching her.

Helpless to stop himself, Vincent found his feet moving him closer. His palm cupped the curve of her behind then caressed the backside of her thigh. Carefully he traced each curve, each muscle, and every hollow. Carefully avoiding her core, he watched as her breath hitched and heard her heart racing as her pulse beat faster beneath his lips as he followed the column of her neck.

Reaching back, Catherine tangled her fingers into his hair and pulled him closer, the move arching her back and lifting her breasts to his attention. Vincent’s free hand slipped around her waist and traced up her abdomen to cup the underswell of her breast. Catherine whimpered as he purposely avoided the hardening nipple as well as the growing heat between her legs. They had both suffered through their abstinence in the RV for the past week; he had no desire to rush the issue now.

“Vincent, please!” Catherine cried out as she arched against him. Pulling his face closer to her neck, she was all but ready to beg, her body was so starved for his attention.

Removing her hands from his hair, she tangled her fingers with his and brought his hands to where she needed them to be. Vincent growled against her neck as she pressed herself back against his hardening erection. Once Catherine was sure Vincent wasn’t removing his hands from her body, she reached back and fumbled with the belt. The resounding thud of it hitting the floor was a welcome sound as she quickly went to work on the buttons of his pants.

Vincent’s teeth scrapped against her neck as she freed him from the confines of his pants. Cupping him, she eased him closer to the edge of the bed where she knelt. Pulling Vincent tighter to her, she bent forward slightly and felt his hardness probe at her opening. Leaning forward, she braced herself against the mattress and pressed backwards, crying out as she felt him sink completely into her.

Vincent rolled her nipples between his fingers as he gasped for air. The feel of her pressed against him, surrounding him, so open, so wet…. He brought a hand around and traced down the line of her spine. A sense of possessiveness that he had never allowed himself to feel before rose within him. Grasping her hips, he pulled her closer to him as his body began to take control over both of them. There was nothing gentle about this joining. It was a mating, pure and simple. Catherine whimpered and thrashed in his embrace; the feelings within her so intense they were frightening,

Vincent lost himself in their passions. Tracing his palm up her side, he caressed her breast as he slowly leaned forward. Catherine arched her neck, giving him more access as he scraped his teeth up her spine, across her shoulder, and nipped her neck.

Catherine’s body froze with that touch before breaking into violent tremors. “Vincent! Please!” Arching her neck, she cried out, begging him for more, her fingers grasping the sheets beneath her as she bucked against his forceful possession.

Vincent felt the primitive urge rise in both of them, the base need to mark and be marked. Catherine cried out her pleasure as Vincent’s teeth locked onto the tender part where her neck and shoulder joined. Almost to the point of violence, Vincent’s body pumped his seed into her as they both cried out in completion.

Gently licking the marks on her shoulder, he eased Catherine’s body forward on the bed. Still joined, he followed her down into the soft darkness of the night.

Four more times that night, Vincent woke Catherine, his body taking hers. Ever careful that his teeth never broke her skin, he still held her for his possession.

 

Wincing, Catherine covered her eyes as she shielded them from the rising glare of the sun. Carefully, so as not to wake Vincent, she eased out from beneath him, smiling as his hold on her tightened momentarily before letting her go. Last night had been a lesson in Vincent’s passion. Wincing a bit, she moved slowly, then bit back a laugh as she turned and saw the mess they’d made of the bed: pillows spread across the floor, blankets pushed out of the way and bunched up. Catherine blushed as she remembered exactly how Vincent had used those blankets with her.

Her body ached and the mirror revealed a series of hickies across her neck and shoulder. Carefully touching the marks, Catherine smothered a laugh and strolled to the bathroom. Taking a look at the shower, she remembered what Ashley had said and her smile grew decidedly wicked. That was one experience she was determined she and Vincent would have before they left.

~~

Catherine tried to stifle her laugh as Vincent looked over the skiing gear with confusion. Father was not overly thrilled with today’s schedule, but Devin and Catherine were beside themselves.

“Remember to take the lessons offered at the lodge.” Emily finished putting sandwiches into the bags. “I don’t care how many times you have gone skiing, it doesn’t hurt to get the refresher course.” She shook her finger at the boys. “And no hot-rodding it!”

“Yes, ma’am.” Andy and Seth rolled their eyes as Kevin helped Vincent gather the rest of the supplies.

“Don’t sass.” Sarah bopped both boys in the back of the head as she walked into the room. “Remember, there will be others on the slopes... so be careful of the newbies, you don’t want to run them over again this year.”

Vincent crawled into the van, moving to the next to last row. Making space for Catherine, he helped take the last of the bags from her.

“I can’t believe we are really doing this,” she whispered as she snuggled into the seat next to him.

Kevin and Sarah settled into the seat in front of them, smiling as they looked back. “Dr. Wells seemed overly stressed about this trip,” Sarah expressed her concern. “Will he be ok?”

“Father has always taken Vincent’s safety as a top priority.”

“He seems to have gone overboard,” Kevin stated dryly

“He did what he thought necessary, and like any other parent, he made mistakes, but he always made the point of erring on the side of caution where Vincent was concerned.”

“Uh oh, why do I think there is a story behind that?” Ashley scooted back to join Vincent and Catherine, while Ephram took the seat in the back row.

“You are going to find things are a lot different for you now.” Ephram settled down with a glare at the two boys in the back.

Emily and Devin took the driver and front seat while Tom sat with Kevin and Sarah.

“They already are.” Vincent’s hold tightened on Catherine as the van eased forward. “They already are.”

~~

Catherine watched through the huge picture window of the private cabin located off one of the minor ski runs. The men had taken no time in getting Vincent accustomed to snow-plowing and basic moves before tempting him to more trickier moves. He became the official and  impartial jumping judge. He found himself egged into a race down a brown slope and challenged to a black diamond run that he wasn’t exactly sure he was ready to accept yet.  Masked and gloved against the cold, he and the others looked like all the other skiers on the slopes. Catherine noticed that a few female eyes turned in the direction of the fine form of each of  the Taj men.  Even Vincent had eventually relaxed and began to enjoy the new experience.

She had been reluctant to come inside, but unlike the men, the cold finally got to her. The fireplace behind her and the warm mug cradled in her hand made the moment almost perfect. She could almost envision Vincent with their children when the boys started a huge snowball war that even managed to plaster the window. She wasn’t sure who was the more mischievous of the bunch; at the moment, Vincent, Devin, Seth, and Andy seemed to be tied for first place. The two sets of brothers had teamed up and snagged Ephram and Kevin into building forts and starting an all-out war. At this point, leaving the cabin was a risk of major proportions. The poor bystanders could find themselves victims of both teams.

“If I wasn’t seeing it…” Peter’s voice startled Catherine; she turned to face him.

“I convinced Father that we needed the break from the lodge,” he stated as he stepped next to her. “With everyone starting to arrive tomorrow.…”

He didn’t need to finish that thought. Catherine already knew. Tomorrow they met the members of the Council.

“Ashley had to go back to take care of the baby, so Emily drove us here.”

“It will be ok,” Catherine commented quietly.

“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?” Peter placed his arm around her, pulling her closer.

“Both, I guess.” Catherine sighed. “It will be a relief to finally know what will happen. This waiting is exhausting.”

Peter nodded. “We have a good support system in place.”

Catherine stepped away from the window. Turning, she caught a glimpse of Father. He was frozen, leaning heavily on his cane as he stared out the window, tears flowing down his face as he watched his secret dream for Vincent turn into a reality. Catherine walked over and leaned forward to kiss Father on the cheek.

“Was I too protective?” he wondered aloud.

Catherine’s heart broke at the doubt she now saw in the older man’s eyes.

“What parent isn’t?” It was the only answer she had. “You did what you had to do to protect Vincent and your community. You didn’t have the kind of support that the councils would have given you.” She paused for a moment. “Despite everything that you couldn’t give him, remember this: you succeeded in doing the one thing the Taj and all their years of knowledge and support failed to do. You successfully saved an orphaned infant.”

Father looked up; gratitude began to replace the doubt.

Catherine kissed his cheek again and turned to walk away.

Father reached out and grabbed her hand. “We haven’t always agreed where he is concerned, but I bless the day he found you.”

Tears filled Catherine’s eyes at his words. His blessing and approval meant more than anything she could have asked for.

~~

Catherine stepped out of the van and headed up the stairs to the lodge. Even Father had a smile on his face. Watching Vincent play in the snow, surrounded by family and loved ones, giving him a portion of what she used to take for granted, had been worth all the stress.

Freezing halfway up the stairs, she saw the change in Ephram’s demeanor. Standing at the top of the stairs, he blocked the door. Tom placed his hand on Catherine’s arm and moved past her.

“So, it has begun.” It was as much a question as a statement.

Ephram nodded. “Kevin, Sarah….”

Kevin held up his hand before threading his fingers through Sarah’s. Seth and Andrew stepped next to their parents. “We discussed this earlier, as a family; we are done hiding.”

Sarah looked at Vincent. “We stand with our family.”

Ephram nodded and held open the door. “She is here, Sarah; you don’t have to go through this again.”

“There is nothing she can do to us now.” Sarah touched Ephram’s cheek. “We may not have said the formal words to the Council, but I have given birth to and raised Kevin’s son. Not even the Council can dispute the validity of that.”

“Catherine and Vincent will now need the benefits of our experience.” Kevin handed the boys the bags from the back of the van before he followed Sarah up the steps.

Catherine turned and looked at Vincent as he walked toward her. Marks of concern lined her brow.

Stroking the back of his finger across the lines, he smoothed them and bent to kiss her. “We are not alone,” he whispered in her ear.

Catherine smiled and returned his kiss. “You’re right, we are no longer alone.” Threading her fingers with his, they turned together to see a statuesque woman glaring at them.

Realizing she had an audience, the woman plastered a huge smile on her face and stepped forward. She all but pushed Catherine aside in her determination to reach Vincent. “I just had to be the first to welcome our long lost Taj.”

Only Vincent’s grasp kept Catherine from tumbling down the stairs. Pulling her closer, he was grateful for the opportunity to place some space between himself and the advancing woman. Her perfume was strong, its cloying scent mixed with a strong smell of alcohol. Her voice grated on his ears.

Noticing Vincent’s discomfort, Catherine stuck out her hand. “I’m Catherine Chandler.”

“I am Marissa. Come, boy, give me a hug. No need to be shy. After all, we are family.”

Dismissing Catherine’s welcome, she moved past and pressed closer to Vincent before a hand reached between them and halted her.

“He is no relation of yours, Marissa.” Kevin’s voice was harsh and gravelly. The borderline growl did not deter the woman.

Turning, she looked at Kevin; her perusal was blatant. “Well, well, what have we here? For a dead man, you are looking absolutely delicious. I look forward to renewing our… acquaintance.” Marissa licked her lips and stepped forward.

Kevin’s hands moved to her shoulders as he held her back. “There is no acquaintance to renew, Marissa. I am just as mated now as I was then.”

“Which, according to the Council, was not at all,” Marissa purred.

“That was before me.” Seth stepped forward. Iit was one thing to watch his parents get lovey dovey with each other, but this woman was just gross.

Her eyes widened as she watched the gangly teen appear behind his father. The relationship was impossible to deny. The Council would not separate parents; her defeat where Kevin was concerned was complete.

Turning her eyes to her new target, she assessed Catherine standing at Vincent’s side and, with a wicked smile, dismissed her. The diminutive woman stood in ill-fitting jeans and a sweater three sizes too large for her. Leaning toward Vincent, she whispered, “You obviously need training on Council etiquette.” Patting his arm, she continued, “You don’t bring your playthings to official meetings.”

Vincent stood in shocked silence, unable to find words, barely suppressing a growl at the insult thrown Catherine’s way. This woman’s behavior was beyond his experience.

Catherine stiffened; she felt Vincent’s hand tighten on hers. Unconsciously, he positioned his body between her and the woman before him, as the meaning of the words struck home in her brain.

“You are mistaken, Marissa.” Emily smiled sweetly. “This isn’t a Council meeting, and it is accepted for a male to bring his intended to be introduced to the Council and the wives.”

Catherine watched as Marissa turned unsteadily and looked at the line of women behind her. Emily, Sarah, Ashley, and one other woman she didn’t recognize formed a solid line between Marissa and the door.

“Take a closer look at her, Marissa. She already wears his mark.” Ashley placed her hands on her hips.

Catherine blushed but stood her ground.

“Sarah can tell you, that doesn’t mean much.” Marissa sauntered toward Ashley.

“Maybe not to you, but it does to the rest of us.”

“Mother.” A younger version of Marissa walked out the door. “Now is not the time for this.”

“Of course, now is the time for it.” Marissa grabbed the young woman by the elbow and pulled her forward. “Helen, now is the perfect time to meet your intended.”

Helen sighed and looked at Vincent, her eyes filled with defeat and resignation. “We agreed to wait until the Council meeting. Let’s get you to your room.” Helen tried to lead her mother down the steps, unsuccessfully.

“Where are you going? Our rooms are this way.” Marissa pointed to the main lodge.

“No, Mother, that is where the host family stays. We are this way this year.”

~~

 

Vincent stepped into the bathroom as Catherine unwrapped her wet hair; he watched her expression through the mirror. "This hasn't been an easy day for you." Vincent spoke softly as he took the towel from Catherine's hands and started rubbing her hair dry.

"I have had better," Catherine admitted as she relaxed into Vincent's touch.

"I get the impression the boys will be avoiding you for a while." Vincent tried to keep the smile out of his voice as he reflected on their hijinks of the day.

"Yes, well, that would probably be best," Catherine agreed. "I admit it would have been funnier if they had plowed Kevin or Ephram into that snowdrift instead of me."

"I am not sure Kevin or Ephram would have agreed to that," Vincent concluded.

"I should dress...” Catherine sighed regretfully. She really didn't feel like dining with the group tonight, but with the new arrivals, it was best to show a united front.

~~

"Well, at least we know their original plan hasn't changed." Kevin leaned against the fireplace in the main room with his arms around Sarah.

Vincent followed Catherine down the stairs. Ephram stood behind Ashley as she gently rocked their son to sleep. Emily and Tom, seated on a nearby loveseat, gestured Vincent and Catherine to the matching loveseat.

"Yes, well, it might be a bit embarrassing for Vincent if Helen is anything like her mother.” Kevin flushed a bit at the memory Sarah's comment stirred.

"I doubt Catherine plans to leave Vincent alone long enough for that to be an issue."  Sarah nodded in their direction, causing both Vincent and Catherine to blush.

"How many of the Council are behind this plan?" Sarah continued.

"It is too soon to tell." Tom shrugged. "Vincent has not officially been presented to any of them, so at this point he is merely an unsubstantiated rumor."

"When is he going to be presented?" Ashley shot a concerned look over her shoulder to Ephram.

"Not until after our son's dedication." Ephram schooled his features as he felt the blast of Ashley's anger across their bond.

"What do you mean after?" Ashley stiffened.

"Why does it matter when Vincent is presented?" Catherine asked.

"Vincent will have no voice at the assembly. Without official recognition, he doesn't exist," Tom continued.

"I am not sure that isn't a bad thing." Father spoke as he carefully made his way down the stairs. He had a hard enough time accepting Catherine into Vincent's life and the tunnels; he didn't want to deal with outsiders trying to force another woman into her place.

"Without recognition from the Taj Council, you will not have the resources of their support," Tom pointed out bluntly.

"But it is possible to survive without their support," Kevin responded. "Both Vincent and I are proof of that."

"He has a point." Emily placed her hand over Tom's arm. "The Wives Council does not require recognition; they will have our support even if the Taj Council pulls theirs."

"Wait!" Ephram stiffened in shock. "You knew of the Wives Council?"

"Of course he knew," Emily replied.

"My mother formed the Council, son." Tom raised Emily's hand to his lips and kissed it. "Your mother leads it now."

"Why was this kept from me?" Ephram demanded of his parents.

"Because you were not ready." Tom shrugged. "As far as I know, up until recently, Kevin and I were the only male Taji aware of its existence."

"It was necessary for our protection, Ephram," Kevin stated calmly. “This was not a lack of faith in you, but a need to keep as few individuals involved as possible.”

"So does anyone have an idea of how we are going to handle this?" Ashley asked.

"I think I do."

Everyone in the room jumped at the sound of the soft voice coming from the door. Helen pushed it open further and walked shyly into the room.

Quickly the men stood, and Vincent moved to get her a chair. "I know I am probably the last person you want to see," Helen started.

"No, that would be your mother." Kevin glared at Helen from across the room, watching as the younger woman stiffened her shoulders and met his gaze.

She refused to be intimidated by any of these men. Nodding her thanks to Vincent as he brought her the chair, she reached out and grabbed his arm. "Please don't take this personally, but I am really not interested in the plans for us."

Vincent nodded before stepping back toward where Catherine sat.

"I have a suspicion that the feeling is mutual," she finished as she sat.

"Thank you. I do understand." Turning, he returned to his place on the loveseat and placed an arm around Catherine.

"You said you had an idea." Catherine could feel the building animosity in the room and wanted to defuse it.

"My Mother has always focused on her own personal agenda." Helen's voice was clinical, not looking for pity or sympathy; she simply told her audience the facts as if she were assessing a patient.

Catherine watched the reactions of the others as she listened to Helen's story. It wasn't new to her. Wealth and privilege did not assure a healthy family environment. She had been one of the lucky ones; it was sounding like Helen had not been.

"I know who you are."

Helen's statement pulled Catherine out of her musings.

"Mother did not recognize you. I doubt she will. East Coast society does not interest her, especially if you are not interested in politics. You have not been a threat to her yet, so you are under her radar."

Vincent felt Catherine stiffen next to him; the bond remained calm - too calm, almost as if she were shutting a portion of her emotions down while she listened to Helen's plan. Strategically he could find little fault, yet a small portion of his heart bled for this young woman who found it necessary to align herself with strangers against her own parent.

~~

"I don't like this," Peter stated again as he paced the floor by the desk that Catherine occupied.

"Neither do I." Cathy rubbed her temples. "But if Helen is correct, then the Council will be looking to push Vincent into a politically beneficial marriage. If not him, then they will go after Seth."

"We have survived without the benefits of the Taj Council to this point," Father pointed out. "You don't have to take this risk."

"Vincent won't stand by and let Seth be in the line of fire," Catherine countered. "Besides, if Paracelsus is really behind all this then we need to get to the bottom of it now."

Peter sank into the chair across from the desk. "I worry about you, Cathy."

"She won't be alone in this."

Both Catherine and Peter jumped, turning they watched Vincent walk into the office. Catherine's eyes widened as she saw Devin behind him.

"What are you wearing?" Catherine stared wide-eyed at Devin.

Devin pulled a hat from under his arm and set it smartly on his head. "Your car, ma'am." His smile turned wicked as he added, "I believe you were planning to go shopping today."

Vincent walked toward the desk where Catherine sat dumbstruck. "I can't go with you, but you won't be alone."

Peter hid a smile behind a cough as he watched Father's eyes pop open. It was one thing to hear of Devin's alter egos, another to watch him actually pull one out.

"So, you are taking me shopping?" Catherine asked Devon incredulously.

"Hell no!" Father winced at Devin's curse. "I have seen you shop. I am nowhere near your league…."

Catherine merely raised an eyebrow, studiously ignoring the sudden fit of coughing coming from all the other men in the room as she glared at Devin, waiting for further clarification.

"He is the driver." Ashley led Sara and Emily into the library. The women juggled coats and bags as they bundled up against the cold. "Helen is going to ensure that Marissa will be in town, so we can expect the necessary scene to play out."

Peter leaned back in his chair as he focused on Catherine. "Susan made it to the hotel last night. She will meet you for lunch at the club."

Cathy nodded. "We can guarantee that at least one of the aunts will be at the club for lunch this close to Grandfather's birthday. If Marissa pulls anything, we will have witnesses."

Vincent felt numb; his world was protected from the political positioning that seemed to poison most of Catherine's world. The more he learned about these people, the more amazing Catherine became, that she could come from such an environment with such a sweet and generous soul. Every part of him wanted to pull her from the toxicity of the situation she was walking into and surround her by the goodness and love she deserved. She was doing this not only for him but for Seth, Ashley and Ephram's son, as well as his family in the tunnels.

Catherine rose from the desk and walked across the room. Not even the prospect of shopping with friends could lighten her mood for what was about to come. She had been raised with and by the dragons of high society, a position she had chosen not to step into.

Avoiding Vincent's eyes, she allowed him to assist her with her coat before following the women out to the car. She knew what was destined for the immediate future, but the end results were out of her hands.

~~

Helen pulled her hood closer over her head as she wandered along the trail. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. She slowly exhaled, watching the white vapors dissipate in the cold air around her. Taking another deep breath, she blew out the poison of her day and let the peace of the surrounding woods calm and cleanse her.

"Bad day?"

Helen jumped at the sound of the voice. Spinning around, she saw a dark-haired man leaning against the opening of a gazebo tucked off the side trail.

"Excuse me?" Helen cautiously stuck her hand into her coat pocket, mentally cursing as she realized that her pepper spray was still hidden in her suitcase.

"I'm Devin." The dark haired man stepped forward, extending his hand. "I was watching you during today's drama."

Noticing her confused look, Devin smiled. "I'm Vincent's brother." His smile got wider the moment her memory clicked.

"You were her driver," Helen confirmed. "So you saw it all."

"Not all of it, but I saw enough." Devin stepped back and leaned against the gazebo post. "You really don't want to be a part of this, do you?"

Helen froze as she studied Devin more closely. "You don't know me. How can you be so sure of that?" Mentally, she winced as she heard the defensiveness in her voice; she was giving too much away.

"I am an expert at assessing people."

"So, you're a psychiatrist?"

Devin chuckled. "I was in a past life, among other things," he answered cryptically.

"So, what is your assessment, Doctor?" Great, just what she needed, another shrink swimming around her brain.

"I have been one of those too. Even delivered a baby once, but for now just call me Devin." Devin paused for a moment, his all-too-clear gaze probing straight to her soul. "You do your best to blend into the environment. You do things to try to make yourself smaller... or even invisible."

Helen blushed at his initial assessment, her embarrassment rising with his evaluation.

"You stay out of your mother's way until she has targeted someone else, then you redirect her attention to you.”

“You seem to have everything summed up.” Helen stuck her hands in her pockets and turned down the trail.

“Wait. Sorry.” Devin reached out and touched her arm. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

‘What do you want?” Helen heard the defeat in her voice, but was too tired to care.

“I want to help.” Devin shrugged.

“There is no help.” Helen shrugged. “She is what she always has been. She will never change, but she is all I have left.”

A movement coming from the gazebo behind Devin caught her eyes. Helen became very aware of Devin watching her reaction as she watched a very large deformed man move away from a table slightly hidden from her view by the decorative lattice work surrounding the gazebo. Glancing quickly at Devin, she read the defensiveness of his posture, almost as if he felt the large man needed to be protected from her.

“Devin, I finished it.” The man stood slightly to the side of the gazebo opening, hugging a workbook to his chest.

“That’s good, Charles; I will look at it in a moment.”

Helen hid a smile as she watched Devin’s reaction. He wasn’t the only one around used to studying people, and Devin wasn’t as good at hiding things as he seemed to think.

“My name is Helen, Do you mind if I look?” Helen stepped past Devin and held her hand out for the workbook.

“I’m Charles.” He looked over her shoulder at Devin for his reaction.

Devin merely smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

Charles smiled and handed the workbook to Helen and folded his hands in front of him as he watched her look over the work.

“This is a basic math book?” Helen turned to Devin for confirmation.

Devin nodded. “His early education was neglected in his former environment.” Devin didn’t add any more, not that he needed to. The large man’s body language said a lot.

“I see,” Helen calmly stated, and looked over the problems.

“I’m not good with numbers.”

Helen thought Charles might have blushed with his shy statement, but she wasn’t sure if his coloring was due to the tumors and scars stretching across his face.

“Few of us are when we first start.” Helen touched his arm as she handed him back his workbook. “I notice that you were doing better on the previous page. Can you tell me what the difference is?”

Devin snorted behind her as Charles dipped his head shyly. “He caught me counting on my fingers.”

“Hmmm.” Helen thought for a moment. “Counting on your fingers isn’t a good habit to get into,” Helen agreed, “but I can show you something that will help you visualize in the future.” Helen turned to Devin. “If you don’t mind.”

Devin shrugged again. “If Charles is ok with it.”

Charles nodded and Helen followed him back into the gazebo. “Do you have a ruler in your kit?” pointing to Charles’s school bag.

Charles nodded and pulled out his ruler and a writing tablet.

Helen took the tablet and pencil with a smile and sat down to draw a series of boxes and copied some of the problems from the workbook that Devin could see Charles had gotten wrong.

Leaning against the wall, Devin watched as Helen and Charles got lost in a world of numbered houses, mean tyrants, and magical sorcerers. By the time Helen was done with her story, Charles was looking at his workbook with a new light in his eyes and started erasing and fixing his mistakes without direction.

“You are good at that,” Devin commented as Helen stepped away from the table.

“I love teaching,” Helen told him. “I am supposed to go to Ethiopia this summer and work with some of the tribes there. It doesn’t look like it is going to happen now.” She shrugged, as if not following that dream had been unimportant.

“Why not?” Devin glanced at Charles; satisfied that his friend was buried in his work, Devin followed Helen down the path a bit.

“I don’t know what Mother has gotten herself into, but she is worse than usual.” Helen stuck her hands in her pockets. “There is something more to this gathering than she is letting on, and I can’t help but feel that something big is going to go wrong, and soon.”

“And Vincent?” Devin hated to force the issue, but he needed to know for sure where she stood.

“Vincent seems nice, but very committed to Ms. Chandler.” Helen paused. “I don’t think I am cut out to be a Taja, and honestly, my past experiences with the Taj community have not always been the most pleasant.”

Devin nodded. He watched Helen make her way further down the path before he turned back to Charles. Whatever Helen’s motivations, he was sure now that she was not the threat that Vincent was feeling.

~~

“Where is your daughter?”

The raspy voice jerked Marissa out of her drunken fantasy.

“The lazy slut is probably frolicking in the woods.” Marissa hummed a bit of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, then laughed at her own little joke.

“You’re drunk,” the voice sneered, “again.”

Marissa attempted to rise from her chair and stumbled. “Of course I’m drunk, you idiot!” She fell into an undignified lump on the floor before tipping the chair over on herself in a futile attempt to get up. “Today was a disaster of catastrophic proportions,” Marissa whined. “Sharlotte Cohn and her little court snubbed me at the country house today.” Hitting the chair, she pushed it away from her and cursed as it fell to the floor, barely missing her.

“And why do you think they snubbed you?”

Marissa didn’t appreciate the snide tone of the Taj elder’s voice.

“I don’t know, Mark.” Marissa sighed. “It isn’t like I did anything major today.”

“So, there wasn’t an incident at one of the town shops?” Mark turned and glared.

Feeling somewhat at a disadvantage, Marissa struggled to get to her feet. Suddenly the chair was yanked off her and placed in its normal upright position before rough hands yanked her off the floor and dumped her onto the seat.

“Nothing major?”

Marisa adjusted herself and shrugged. “I just ran into Vincent’s bimbo and made it clear to the shop owners that if they accepted her patronage then they would lose mine.”

“I told you to leave Ms. Chandler to me,” said a second voice.

The ominous tone froze Marissa to the bone. Looking up, she saw the cold eyes flickering behind the gold mask. Marissa looked back and forth between the two men looming over her, and for the first time she realized a potential for danger.

“John, she’s nothing, just some brainless bimbo he brought with him.”

The Taj elder distanced himself from the distasteful smell of the drunk woman before him. “She is Cohn’s granddaughter, Paracelsus raged. “She is the key to getting control of Vincent and Senator Cohn.”

Marissa paled. “NO!” she screamed. “You promised me a Taj!” Driven by rage, she grabbed a brass candle holder as she stormed toward Paracelsus. She froze before him with the candle stick held over her head. Mark watched as her face changed from rage to shock. Slowly the candlestick fell from her hand before she crumpled to the floor.

Paracelsus casually grabbed her scarf and let it slip from her neck as she collapsed. He used the scarf to clean the knife blade extending from his shirt sleeve then dropped it with a look of disgust.

“I will see what damage she has done with her greedy incompetence.” Paracelsus allowed his knife to slide back into its hidden sheaf. “You will need to see to the rest of the Council.”

Mark nodded as he looked down at the body in the middle of the floor. “What about her?”

“Not your problem.”

The tone was all the warning Mark needed.

“And Ashley’s baby?” he asked.

“Just a ruse. This always has been and always will be about Vincent.” John held the door open and motioned for Mark to go before him. Mark looked one last time at the body on the floor before walking carefully out the door. He had made a deal with the devil, and now he was trapped.

~~

Catherine stood under the hot spray and let the water wash the stresses of her day away.  Seth and Andrew had Vincent occupied by the time she and the others had returned from town.   Her family had never been close, but apparently nothing brought a dysfunctional unit together faster than one of them being the target from an outside source.

She had expected Marissa’s scene in the store. That was why they timed their arrival at a time that Helen had been sure they would cross paths.  She hadn’t expected the news to get back to the country house as fast as it had.  To see the look on Marissa’s face as the aunts formed a united front….  There was a reason they were called the dragons of high society. 

Raising her face, she let the hot water pool in her hands before letting it run over her face and hair, the heat relaxing her muscles and magically rinsing all the toxins of the day down the drain.  She ran her fingers across her face then through her hair. Slowly she let the caress travel down her neck, lingering on spots that tingled with the memory of Vincent’s touch. 

“Catherine?”  The sound was as much a whisper as a groan.

Turning, she saw Vincent standing frozen in the open doorway of the shower. She was amazed that the heat in his gaze did not vaporize the water. The hard outline of arousal pressed against the seam of his jeans told her that she had broadcast every sensual touch.  Turning to give Vincent a clearer view of her body, she tipped her head back and finished rinsing the conditioner from her hair. She suppressed her smile as she first heard his gasp, then his groan. 

Heedless of his clothing, Vincent stepped into the shower, pulling Catherine to him before taking her mouth in a heated kiss.  Hot water pouring over both of them, Catherine tangled her fingers in Vincent’s hair and let his taste take away the final strains of her day. 

Rubbing herself against him, she whimpered in distress as she felt the damp cotton of his shirt.  Their fingers tangled together as they struggled with the buttons and wet fabric. Buttons flew as Catherine grabbed the edges of his shirt and pulled them open. Tearing her mouth from his, she followed the direction of the skin she was exposing, nipping his chin, then nuzzling his chest and abdomen as she worked her way to the buttons of his jeans. Dropping to her knees, she let his hardness spring free as she wrestled the wet denim from his hips. 

“Catherine, no!” Vincent dug his claws into the tiles of the shower as he felt her mouth close over him. All movement from him froze as he felt her small hand circle the base of his arousal while the other hand got a firm grip on his testicles. Looking down in shock, he watched Catherine’s eyes as his hips jerked in rhythm to her touch. His guttural groan echoed off the tiles as Catherine’s mouth tightened over the rounded head and her tongue flicked across the seam.  Vincent’s legs locked as he closed his eyes to the sight before him, to no avail.  Catherine’s image was imprinted in his eyes as he stood there, his body at her total command.

Catherine smiled then groaned as she felt Vincent give control over to her. His hips moving instinctively in time with her caresses, she felt his groan of pleasure as he struggled with his need for release. Suddenly she felt his hands tangle in her hair as he pulled her away from him.  Her whimper turned to a gasp as she felt the tug in her hair guiding her to her feet. 

Vincent moved one hand to cup her backside and lift her as he spun them around. One hand remained tangled at the back of her head as he held her captive, his tongue plunging past the seam of her lips moments before he pressed between her legs and repeated the movement with is hips.  

Vincent swallowed Catherine’s shout of pleasure, returning it with a cry of his own as he pinned her to the shower wall, his body taking on a mind of its own as he pounded himself into Catherine’s wet heat.  The steam of the shower surrounding them only fed their hunger as Catherine’s fingers scrapped against his back.  The gentle poet in him was shocked at the wild, uncontrolled nature of their mating as Catherine’s escalating pleasure screamed its way through the bond, driving him further out of control.  Vincent felt the pull of Catherine’s body convulsing with orgasm after orgasm, pulling out his own. Tearing his mouth from hers, he tipped back his head as he let out a loud roaring cry as he spilled himself deep into her womb. 

Catherine locked her legs around Vincent’s waist, keeping him locked deep inside her as she felt him push away from the wall.  Stumbling, Vincent moved toward the shower bench as he felt Catherine re-position herself on his lap, slowly moving her knees to either side of him as he sank down onto the bench.  They clung together, trying to catch their breath, Catherine’s body still contracting around his in mini-orgasms with each move he made, her mind drunk on the pleasure of having him filling her. 

Slowly Catherine became aware of Vincent’s heartbeat against her cheek, the steady pulse soothing her as much as the feel of his hands sliding up and down her back. Pushing up, she felt the need  for a stretch make its way up her spine. Trusting Vincent’s strength, she leaned back into his hands and reached her hands way over her head. Vincent’s hands supported the small of her back as she arched back, enjoying the relaxed feeling as her muscles rippled under his touch. Slowly she relaxed back towards Vincent, and she smiled as his hands slid to her breasts. Catherine lowered her arms and gently tugged Vincent’s mouth towards her hardened nipple. 

Vincent groaned as he felt Catherine’s sheath contract over him in response to the tugs of his mouth.  He wasn’t sure how he could manage to be so hard again after such an explosive climax, but once again he learned how responsive his entire being was to Catherine’s every need.  Where their previous climax had been nearly violent in its intensity, now the soft pleasure was the polar opposite.  Gentle, loving, and soft as rain, he felt Catherine’s body rock against his as they both drove each other to higher pleasure. 

Slowly the hot water began to turn tepid and the steam was replaced by cooler air. Feeling Catherine’s initial shiver, Vincent thought to turn off the water. Catherine felt Vincent shift then felt the world tilt as both of them stumbled.  Vincent’s hand slammed against the shower as Catherine struggled to keep both of them balanced.  Stepping back, she quickly turned off the spray of water then, as she turned to Vincent, slapped her hand over her mouth to cover the burst of laughter. 

“This isn’t funny,  Vincent growled, his hair dripping wet around his face, the ripped sleeve of his shirt dangling off one arm where the buttons at the wrist had impeded the full removal, and his very wet jeans puddled around his ankles. 

“Of course it isn’t.” Catherine tried vainly to swallow her laughter. Leaning forward, she helped Vincent struggle to get his feet untangled from the pants leg. “At least you had the sense to take your shoes off first.” Catherine tried to smile up at him, her gaze pausing as she came eye level to his semi-hard penis. 

Vincent smothered a groan as he watched her eyes glaze before she leaned forward to kiss the head.  Both of them jumped apart at the sound of banging on her bedroom door. 

Grabbing a towel and robe, Catherine rushed out of the bathroom, making sure she was covered before yanking the door open. 

“Ephram needs everyone now.”  Seth was panting, and looked a bit pale.

Catherine nodded and watched as Seth turned towards Vincent’s door. “I will tell Vincent. Tell Ephram we will be there as soon as possible.” Catherine shooed Seth on down the hallway before shutting the door.

Turning, she watched Vincent walk from the bathroom, vigorously rubbing a towel across his chest as he used another on his hair.

“Seth seemed upset.” Vincent went through the adjoining doors to grab dry clothes as Catherine quickly rubbed herself dry.

“We will find out soon enough.” Catherine quickly stepped into a clean pair of underwear before snapping on the matching sky blue bra, and slipping into a pair of clean jeans. 

Vincent slowly buttoned a clean shirt as he watched Catherine shimmy the jeans over her hips, amazed that he had the freedom to watch her now. 

Catherine smiled as she tugged on a sweater and slipped on her shoes,

Vincent waited until he was sure she was ready before opening the door, the sounds of a woman crying hitting his ears almost instantaneously. 

Catherine and Vincent walked into the main sitting room to find Charles holding a workbook to his chest and pacing, Devin had his arms around Helen, who was crying inconsolably into his shirt.  Ashley stood in the room, hugging her son to her chest, her face pale as she rocked her sleeping son.

“We have a problem.” Ephram motioned for Catherine and Vincent to grab their coats before leading them out into the cold November air. 

“What happened?” Catherine pulled a hat over her wet hair as she followed Ephram and Vincent into the cold. 

“Marissa is dead.”

Vincent almost crashed into Catherine the moment she froze. “What do you mean - dead?”  She couldn’t believe her ears. 

Ephram led them down the short path before directing them to the open cabin door.  Vincent grabbed Catherine to pull her back as the initial smell reached him.  Blood and death had their own distinctive odors, and both of them hung heavily in the air around the cabin.  Father and Emily stood outside. Taking her cue from Vincent, Catherine braced herself before moving forward.

The body lay crumpled in front of the doorway, the scarf trailing its way out the door, floating in the dark pool of blood. Even to an inexperienced eye, this death was no accident.  Marissa’s arm lay extended away from her head, a heavy metal candlestick barely a brush away from her fingertips.  Her other bloody hand pressed against the gaping hole in her chest. 

Vincent growled and turned as he heard the sound of shuffling feet behind him. 

“Vincent, what has gotten into you?” Father jumped back and scolded before Emily motioned him forward. 

Vincent moved to block Father from moving any further.

“Let him by.” Emily motioned for Vincent to stop. “We need his expert opinion, and Peter is not back from his daughter’s yet.” 

Vincent nodded reluctantly; he stepped back to let Father pass. 

“We need to preserve the scene.” Catherine assessed the situation. 

“We can’t call the authorities,” Father protested.

“We may not have a choice,” Catherine declared. “This isn’t a natural death.”

“We have connections.” Ephram nodded to Emily, pulling the others aside to give the two doctors room to begin their assessment of the crime scene. 

“This is fairly fresh,” Emily stated.  “The blood is just barely starting to clot. I would say she bled out and has been dead a little over an hour.”

Father leaned heavily on his cane. “I concur.” Father locked eyes with Catherine and shuddered. 

Catherine simply nodded her head. She tried hard to keep her professional life away from the tunnels, but she didn’t know how she was going to keep it separate here. Motioning to the others, she said, “We need to clear the scene.” She stopped at the door, and looked around. “Was the door open or closed?”

“Helen had just returned from a walk when we heard her scream.” Devin stepped onto the path from behind Vincent.  “I came running and found her standing in the doorway.” 

“Did she go inside? Did she touch anything?” Catherine pressed. 

“Other than the door, no. I took her immediately to the main house. Charles stayed here and made sure nobody disturbed anything until Ephram and Emily got here.”

Catherine nodded. “We need to avoid trampling the path. Crime scene investigators will want to take a look around here.”

“Cathy, this will be handled internally.” Tom stepped up behind his wife. “We have our own laws where these matters are concerned.”

Catherine thought to argue, but stopped as she observed the men surrounding her. There was something different about Tom and Ephram; she couldn’t put her finger on it.

She jumped at the sound of a twig snapping behind her. 

Kevin stepped forward from the treeline. “There was a vehicle not too far from here. They left that way.” 

Tom nodded. “You can confirm the scent?”

Kevin rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Three decades is a long time, but yes, I am sure it is the same scent.”

Ephram growled, Tom’s hand barely restraining his son.  “Patience, son.”

“This betrayal nearly cost my mate her life, as well as the life of our son.” Ephram’s hands clenched at his side.  He didn’t have to follow the tracks to be able to tell that the smell was the same scent they found on Ashley’s car after her abduction. 

“We have enough evidence now.” Kevin added his hand to Ephram’s shoulder. “No other mates will be at risk.”

A very somber group made their way back to the main house.

Emily had taken a sheet from the bedroom and covered Marissa’s body before gathering some of Helen’s clothing.

“You can’t disturb a crime scene,” Catherine protested. 

“What would you have us do? Call the police?” Emily countered. 

Catherine paused then shook her head. “There would be too many unanswered questions.”

“We have our own resources. This will be handled in accordance to our laws.”  Emily paused. “Catherine, you understand about the division of laws between state, county and reservations?” 

Emily watched as the light dawned in Catherine’s eyes.  “I see you understand.”

“Understand what?” Devin looked confused.

“Tribal lands are considered their own legal territory,” Emily stated.

“Not exactly,” Catherine countered.

“True, but close enough to the truth that when I tell you that we have the authority to handle it…” Emily paused to let Catherine continue.

“That legally you have the authority to handle it.”

Catherine threaded her fingers with Vincent’s. She needed the contact as they walked away from the cold death behind them.

~~

Vincent suppressed the need to tug at the tight neckline of his shirt, suppressing a grin as he watched Seth and Andrew squirm in their suits.  Catherine moved regally next to him with her hand tucked into his arm, his hand possessively resting over hers. Together they had joined the processional with Ephram’s family. Dead silence followed by a wave of whispers travelled in their wake as they made their way to the front of the chapel. Tom and another Taj stood on the dais, each distinguished in their robes.

Taking their place in the front row, Catherine stood quietly between Vincent and Father, mentally assessing their placement. The Taj may not claim to be political but there were just as many silent symbols of the Taj society as there were in the ones she had been raised in.

Ashley and Ephram finished the processional as the last of the family were seated.  Standing facing the front, Ephram kept his arm securely around Ashley, who held her bundled son close to her chest. 

“That is Mark, the Council elder,” Kevin leaned forward and whispered softly for Catherine and Vincent’s hearing alone.   

“Since the dawn of time, the Taj have been named amongst the great guardian races.  The Dragons, Wolves, and Jaguars each lost their way and faced their destruction, but the Taj have alone remained faithful to our sworn oath, and are now the last of the guardians remaining.” Tom stood at the front of the altar and addressed the crowded assembly. 

The second Taj stepped forward.  “Since the dawn of time, the Taj makes it his duty to be present for the next generation, to guide them in the light and teach them the ways of honor and charity. I ask Ephram and Ashley who was present for your son’s first awakening.” 

Catherine squeezed Vincent’s hand as she felt him rise. Ignoring the gasp of the assembly, Vincent’s gentle voice still boomed across the hall, “I was.” 

“You are Taj in appearance but you were not raised in the Taj community, How do we know you are Taj? What oath have you taken?” Mark protested,  brushing Vincent’s claim aside

The murmurs increased through the hall at this break from the traditional ceremony.  Vincent was glad that Tom and Ephram had warned him of the possibility that this confrontation would take place.

“In accordance to the rules of my people, I have sworn to give help where help is needed, and to accept help where it is offered.”  Vincent spoke clearly, addressing the audience.  “I was raised by the man I call Father to provide protection for and accept protection from my family and community.” 

Catherine smiled. Vincent was confident and sure, prepared to face these strangers and fight for the right of his community to be recognized. 

“As have we all.” Tom stopped whatever argument the Elder Taj may have injected. “Do you understand the rights and responsibilities as first greeter?” Tom asked Vincent.

“I do,” Vincent affirmed.

“You are not mated, you cannot assume the rights,” Mark pressed.

“He is bonded,” Tom countered, gesturing to Catherine.

“I have my Taja; we have not made our formal arrangements.” Vincent took Catherine’s hand as she rose to stand beside him. 

“And Catherine, do you understand the responsibility that you will assume with Vincent’s oath?” Tom inserted before Mark could protest.

“I do,” Catherine affirmed.

“And what rights do you think those are?”

Catherine suppressed her dislike and distrust for the Elder. Looking Ashley in the eye, she confirmed their agreement. “I stand as their son’s Godmother.”  Catherine smiled at the Elder and continued, “It will be my duty to stand as family with Ashley and Ephram for this child and any other children they have.”

“It is my understanding that your community has its own naming ceremony,” Tom interrupted Mark again in an attempt to keep the ceremony on track.

Vincent and Father nodded.

“It is the wish of Ephram and Ashley for their son to be welcomed into our community with elements of both of the Taji ceremonies.”

Tom motioned for Father and Vincent to take the dais. Hooking his hand under Elder Mark’s elbow, he firmly escorted the man from the stage, ignoring the older Taj’s protests against the break from tradition of allowing an unrecognized person to officiate a Taj ceremony.

Father took his place on the stage, facing Ephram and Ashley. Clearing his throat, he started.  “It has been said that the child is the meaning of this life. Today we celebrate the child, this new life that has been brought into our world.” Father adjusted himself on his cane as Vincent picked up the next portion. 

“We welcome this child with love, that he may be able to love.”

Catherine stood with a package and placed it on the step in front of Ashley and Ephram as she continued the next portion. “We welcome this child with gifts, that he may learn generosity.” 

Father nodded and finished, “We welcome this child with a name, upon which I believe his parents have decided.” 

“We name our son Aston York,” Ashley stated as she gazed lovingly at her sleeping son. 
“Aston meaning east, so that the sun will always shine upon his days. And York in memory of the state where his freedom was gained,  Ephram finished. 

Tom stepped forward and lifted his grandson from Ashley’s arms. Carefully unswaddling the baby, he raised the naked child for the assembled crowd to see. “We welcome Taj Ashton York into the folds of our community.” Tom carried the infant to Vincent and Catherine, signaling them to both place their hands on the child. “Do you both understand the importance of the responsibility you accept?”  

“We do,” Catherine and Vincent answered in unison.

Turning to Ephram and Ashley, he asked, “Do you accept the responsibility of raising a Taj to understand his place in our history and his duty to our future?”

“We do,” Ashley and Ephram answered in unison.

Turning to the assembly, Tom raised Aston again and stated loudly, “Who takes responsibility for teaching this child the importance of Love, Charity, Duty and Responsibility?”  

“We Do,” the members of the assembly proclaimed loudly enough to stir the sleeping child.

Mark stepped forward, taking Aston from Tom’s arms as Aston began to pump his legs and arms in agitation. “We welcome Aston York into the Taj Community.”

Mark turned to hand Aston into Ephram’s arms just as a dismayed gasp escaped Ashley.  Mark barely contained his anger and embracement as Aston sighed and released a small fountain over the front of Mark’s robes. Ashley and Emily quickly jumped, trying futilely to get blankets and diapers between the Elder Taj and Aston. Mark glared at the audience as people tried to cover their laughter with coughs and by clearing their throats. 

“Well, now we know that our newest Taj has all the right working parts.” Tom patted Mark on the shoulder and motioned for someone to help escort him to get cleaned up. “Ashley and Ephram invite you to join them in a reception for their son.” 

Ashley finished bundling her son as Ephram escorted her down the aisle. Catherine and Vincent followed, with Tom and Emily right behind them. As they made their way into the main room of the chapel, they lined themselves for the reception line.  

Several hours later, Vincent sank into a chair. “I knew you said there were a lot of people, but I am not sure I will ever remember everyone.” 

Ashley laughed. “Fortunately, you don’t have to.” 

“Don’t worry, Vincent, you get to go through this again tomorrow.” Ephram patted him on the shoulder before handing over a glass. 

Vincent suppressed a groan as he imagined going through another session similar to the beginnings of Aston’s ceremony.

“I know what you are thinking.” Ashley smiled. “I promise it won’t be nearly that bad.”

Vincent looked at Ashley, confused by her comment. 

“What do you mean?” Catherine sank down on the couch next to Vincent, barely resisting the urge to take off her heels and rub her sore feet.

“Tomorrow is only the actual members of the Taj Council and their mates,” Ephram continued. 

“Plus, we are going to take some of the pressure off of you,” Kevin added as he and Sarah both sank into the remaining chairs with accompanying sighs of relief.

Vincent felt Catherine’s hand slip into his and tighten as Ephram and Ashley outlined the upcoming ceremony. 

~~

Catherine leaned against the bathroom door as she watched Vincent struggle with the tie. With a sigh, she touched the suit coat as she passed the bed. “Here, let me help.”  Catherine brushed Vincent’s hands aside and adjusted his tie, making sure it wasn’t too tight. 

“What is it?” Vincent brushed Catherine’s hair back from her face.

“This isn’t you.” She sighed as she smoothed her hands across the linen covering his chest, her mind’s eye seeing him in a different linen shirt modeled after a different time and place. 

Vincent's arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her closer.  Burying his face in her hair, he enhaled her special scent.  "You look beautiful," he whispered, her presence calming his nervousness about the upcoming meeting.

Together they stood, accepting the comfort the other had to offer. Neither had delusions that this day would be easy. 

With a sigh, Catherine leaned up and pressed a kiss on Vincent's cheek. "Lets get this over with so we can go back home." Stepping out of his embrace, she took one last assessing look at her appearance before following Vincent to the door.

"Stand still."

Both Vincent and Catherine raised eyebrows as they left the stair landing to see both Sarah and  Emily fussing with ties on Andrew and Seth.  Vincent hid his smile while brushing a kiss in Catherine's hair.  He understood how both boys felt.

"I don't see why I have to wear one," Andrew complained.  "Its not like I am going in front of the Council."

"No," Sarah agreed, "but you are standing with your family as your brother is presented, so you will be dressed appropriately."

"So if I tell everyone he is just my cousin, I can skip it?" Andrew asked hopefully. "Ouch!"  Andrew ducked and rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head. 

"If I have to do this, you are going down with me," Seth declared. 

A snort of laughter made Vincent and Catherine turn around.  Devin walked down the steps, shrugging on his suit coat, and  Charles following a few steps behind, hugging one of his workbooks close to his chest. "Don't worry, boy. To quote a great rock song, ‘Every girl’s crazy about a sharp dressed man.’"

Devin smiled at Catherine. "Aint that right, Chandler?" 

"I will let you know when I see one." Cathy crossed her arms and looked pointedly at Devin. 

Vincent stood behind her swallowing his laughter, while the boys had no such restraint. 

"She got you!' Andrew laughed.

"Charles, are you ready?" a soft voice spoke from the top of the stairs.

Everyone paused as they watched Helen walk down the stairs, her coat draped over her arm.  

Charles nodded and showed her his workbooks. 

"You are not joining us?" Emily asked as she watched the younger woman shrug on her coat.

Helen shook her head. "It was my mother's goal for the alliance with the Taj, not mine."  Flipping her hair out from the coat collar, she continued.  "I don't think it would be appropriate for me to attend the Council procession now that her connection to it is gone.” 

"I kinda like her," Seth commented after Charles and Helen shut the front door.  "She isn't anything like her mom." 

"I think you’re right." Devin ruffled the younger man's hair affectionately as he walked past and made his way to the front window. Charles was normally guarded around people he didn't know, but he had opened  up to Helen in a very short time. Even he had a hard time getting past Charles's defenses while they had been in the carnival together.  Charles had only responded that way to one other person, in Devin's experience.

Looking across the room, he looked at Vincent, standing in a seemingly relaxed manner, his arm around Catherine.  Only someone who really knew Vincent would recognize any stress and nervousness in his expression. Devin kept quiet about the nightmares he knew Vincent had experienced while travelling. He was sure Chandler was somewhat aware of them, but not to the extent of how badly they disturbed Vincent. 

Kevin stepped out of the dining room while shrugging on his jacket, Tom, Ephram, and Ashley following behind, Ephram tucking Ashley's hand through his arm and holding securely to it. 

"She will do fine," Ephram assured Ashley as they joined the group.

"I am sure, but maybe I should stay here just in case." Ashley fidgeted a bit.

"Is there a problem?" Catherine asked Ashley, a bit puzzled when Emily, Sarah, and  the others burst out laughing. 

"Ashley is having the first-time babysitter jitters." Sarah gave Ashley a hug. "They will both be fine. Jennifer is great with kids."

Seth burst out laughing. "Yeah, it can’t be any worse than the time Ephram had to watch the twins." 

Ephram stiffened up. "What do you know about that?" he demanded, glaring at his mate and mother.

Ashley sniffed and shrugged.

"Only that the only thing that saved you from being documented for posterity was the standing edict against photographing a Taj.”

"Too bad," Tom interjected, "A picture could have kept the stories from escalating." Smothering a smile at Ephram's rumbling growl, he patted his son on the back. "Don't worry too much, son. I hear you look great in pastel pink and purple bows."

Catherine attempted to conceal her burst of laughter with a slight cough, then failed miserably as Kevin continued, "You can't forget the electric blue mascara streaks in his hair." 

"Or the hot pink fingernail polish covering his hands," Emily finished.

Ephram growled a little louder as he clamped his hand over Ashley's mouth. 

Catherine was sure the only thing holding her up was the tight grip Ephram obviously had around Ashley's waist; the woman was laughing so hard she was at risk of falling over. She could feel Vincent shaking with supressed laughter as he buried his face in her hair. Years of training gave Catherine the ability to bite back any expression.

"Who are the twins?" She had to ask.

"You may not meet the terrible twosome," Ephram rumbled. "Count yourself lucky."

"Oh, they are not that bad." Emily waved off her son's comment. "It is all your fault for falling asleep when you were supposed to be supervising them."

"Why are we standing around here debating the terrible duo? Don't we have meeting we have to get to?" Ephram decided a change of subject was in order.  Hopefully a permanent change of topic.

~~

The processional moved in order down the path to the chapel. Vincent had walked this path every day since their arrival. The crispness of the air, the scents were not like anything in his experience. There was little in the way of car fumes or the traditional smells or regular stench of the city.  All his years wandering through Central Park, he had sometime dreamed and pretended he had been in the wilderness, far from the city.  Now that dream had come true, only today's walk was not as relaxing.

The glass chapel gleamed ahead of him like a lighthouse warning sailors away from their doom.  The nightmare had come back last night, waking both him and Catherine.  Together they had lain in the dark discussing his concerns, and his fears.  She had lain there and listened; she had asked him if he thought the dream had been prophetic, and he had been unable to answer.  Initially, it had seemed that way, but now, with everything that had happened, he wasn't sure. 

Tom and Emily led their small group, followed by Ephram and Ashley.  Seth and Andrew followed Kevin and Sarah, each group slowly making their way down the center aisle.  Father and Peter led Catherine and Vincent, with Devin bringing up the back of the processional, the response to their presence not causing as much of a stir as Kevin and Sarah's presence did during Aston's dedication.  Vincent could still hear some of the murmers happening around him. 

Several older Taj lined the front near the altar of the chapel, each wearing black robes with colored stoles. Tom and Emily approached the dais first, Emily taking a robe and holding it open for Tom to slip his arms in. Unfolding the fabric in her hand, Tom bent as she lifted it over his head and settled it around his neck. Kissing his cheek, she turned and made her way to her seat,  Ashley and Ephram following closely behind.

One by one they filed into the pew, taking their seats. Vincent felt Catherine settle next to him, her fingers threading through his, everything about her appearing calm and serene; even what little he could read through the bond was calmness. The only thing giving away any trepidation that Catherine was feeling was in the tight grasp she had on his hand. 

“One of the saddest things the Council has to do is to close a family line.” The first Elder stood and slowly made his way to the center of the dais.  His hair completely gray, the Elder stood stooped with age, yet his voice rang clearly through the chapel. “There have been all too many times in my life that I have had to officiate over the death of one of our own.” His cane shook under the strength of the tremor of the Elder’s hand. “This is the first time I have ever had the blessing to oversee the resurrection of a line thought lost.” He motioned towards the row where Vincent and Kevin sat

“It is not often we have the opportunity to welcome another into our midst.”  Tom stood before the small gathering.  The Elders represented each family line, the eldest Taj each wearing a black robe and the colored stole signifying a long-standing tradition. Taking a robe from the box, Tom motioned to Kevin, who rose with Sarah and moved towards the dais.

“Alliances between the Harrington and Carlington families have long existed.” Tom unfolded the robe and held it open. “It was my greatest sorrow to close that line.” He nodded at Kevin to turn and face the group, “Today I am pleased and honored to acknowledge that the line still continues.”

Alice stood, motioning to the other wives, who rose and followed her.  Stopping in front of Sarah, she took a box from one of the wives, and opening it, she presented a bronze-colored stole to the younger woman. “For years we have hidden you in secret,” Alice started. “Today we support you and your mate publicly, and together we make your status of the Council of the Taja officially public.” 

Catherine raised her eyebrows at the surprised gasps from the men in the chapel. Discreetly, she watched Taj Mark begin to tremble with rage as he watched Sarah accept the stole and drape it over her mate’s bowed head. Turning her head, she whispered to Vincent, “There is going to be trouble from that quarter.”

Vincent nodded. Glancing around, he noticed that others were watching the Elder just as closely. “I suspect they already know that.” 

Turning their attention to the ceremony, they watched as Kevin and Sarah declared their general territory. Kevin turned and made a slight bow to the Taj Elders on the dais before following Tom’s gesture to walk up the steps.  Once he reached the center, he turned and faced the small assembly and gave a slight bow before standing straight. Slowly he made contact with each of the 25 Taj Elders, and followed their wives to their seats. 

“There have been few times in our history that the Taj have been able to welcome a new Taj line,” Kevin spoke to the assembly. “Today I am honored that my first act as an Elder is to present to you to the newest Taj line.”

Kevin gestured to Emily,who moved to a podium at the side of the dais and pulled a packet of papers. Looking up, she nodded at a window above the balcony. The lights of the chapel began to dim as a screen slowly lowered from its container in the celing. 

“Today I present you with the gift of a lost Taj,” Emily began as the projector began to power up.

Vincent lost himself in Emily’s presentation, his fingers tightening slightly around Catherine’s as he watched her explain the science behind their research linking his genetic line.

“Now I would like to introduce Dr. Jacob Wells,” Emily concluded. “He will explain how he alone has managed to do what we have failed.”

Father joined Emily at the podium and turned to face the audience.  “It was the coldest day of the year.” 

Vincent felt Catherine’s arm sneak into his as the old familiar tale was repeated to the new audience. This time it was a bit different. Father talked more about the stress and challenges of  keeping Vincent alive, the trials and errors of different formulas, the additional challenges of their limited resources. Father talked of long sleepless nights working with Anna with a tiny Vincent curled up on her chest, both of them afraid to fall asleep because they knew that when they woke up, the infant would be dead.  He spoke of his friend’s descent into madness during this time, of John’s connection to the infant, and the moment of Anna’s death, when they realized that part of Vincent’s struggle was due to John poisoning both the infant and his wife.

Vincent saw Devin shift and wipe at his face when Father described the morning he woke to find Devin had crawled into Vincent’s crib, the two of them cuddled together sleeping peacefully. That is when they documented Vincent’s turn in health.  Young Devin and Vincent became inseperable over the years, acting more like brothers than any other two boys in their community. 

“Thank you, Dr. Wells.” Emily noticed that she was not the only one wiping tears from her eyes.  “The enormous struggle Vincent’s family has faced on behalf of an unknown,  obviously different infant demonstrates the core values the Taj try to enforce.” Emily waited for Father to sit as she faced each member of the Taj Council, the Taja, and their sons.  “Yet unfortunately, I cannot state that all of us have always followed those values.”

Tom rose and joined Emily at the podium. “In the process of researching Vincent’s genetic line, we have found a trail of treason, deceit, and murder committed by one of our own.”  Motioning towards the back door, everyone gasped as Helen entered the chapel.

"I thought she was working with Chuck," Catherine heard Andrew whisper to Seth. 

"Probably said that to throw everyone off,"  Seth whispered loudly back.

“Council members, I request to petition the assembly.” Helen made her way down the aisle, her head held high and a book clutched to her chest.

“This is neither the time nor the place.”  Mark jumped to his feet and pointedly stormed forward.  “How dare you desecrate a Taj assembly! 

Helen stood her ground and stared at the enraged Elder Taj, her gaze unflinching as several Taj males intercepted him before he could reach her. 

“How could claiming my birthright be a desecration?”  Helen paused for just a moment before  dropping the one-word bomb that froze everyone in the chapel. “Father.”

Mark sputtered to silence as every Taj stared between Helen and Mark. “That’s preposterous!” Mark denied loudly.  “She is as mad as her mother.”

“Silence, everyone!” Tom’s voice rang out, echoing through the chapel. “Be seated!” he commanded, before motioning for Helen to step forward. “You have evidence to present?”

Helen nodded and continued down the aisle, refusing to make eye contact with the group still holding the struggling Mark between them.

“I went through my mother’s diaries when I overheard her planning with someone to force me into a mating with the newly found Taj.”  Helen passed the book forward to Tom. “This one is from when she was much younger. I have marked some key passages.”

Tom opened the diary to the first bookmark and began to read. “I was taken to the Taj gathering today. Sarina and the other Taja welcomed me with open arms. I couldn’t wait to share my news!  Mark’s family has not been as welcoming. They want to arrange a political alliance and are pressuring him into an arranged marriage. I know he loves me; our bond is strong – well, or at least it was. After I tell them today, though, this will solve everything, and they won’t fight our mating any more.” Tom paused and looked at the final entry on the page before looking up in shock at Helen, then at Emily, who nodded for him to go on. Taking a deep breath, Tom read the final tear-stained entry. “He didn’t wait. Today Mark presented his mate to the Council and it wasn’t me.  How am I going to tell my family about the baby? What am I going to do if it is a boy?”

You could have cut through the silence in the chapel with a spoon, as the impact of the diary entry’s information became clear.

Emily took the diary from Tom and faced the assembly. “Helen approached me with this information some time ago. We have confirmed through DNA testing that Helen is Taj Mark’s  biological daughter.” Emily let the collective gasp die away before completing the rest of the shocking news. “Marrissa worked with John Pater and other Elders over 30 years ago to hide her pregnancy and force a mating with the Harrington line. When that failed, she found a normal husband, and passed her daughter off as his.”

Emily raised the diary over her head and showed it to the assembly. “Helen has presented us with her mother’s diaries, which document Marissa and Mark’s continued work behind the scenes of the Taj Council to manipulate them, and John Pater’s bribe cost of one male Taj child, which both attempted to provide, not once but twice.  First through Vincent, then again through my grandson.”

The assembly burst into discussion, groups arguing amongst themselves. Betrayal of the Taj by an Elder? 

"My mother was found dead yesterday afternoon." Helen's voice broke over the announcement.  "She had been stabbed, and left to bleed to death."  Pulling her shoulders back, Helen put more force in her voice as she turned and faced Mark.  "I demand the truth. Did you kill the woman that should have been your mate?  Did you kill my mother?"

All the fight appeared to go out of Mark as he looked at the woman standing before him. He didn't need a family bond to feel the disgust, anger, and even the touch of hate that she felt for him. His marital union had failed to produce any offspring, and the child he had wanted so desperately stood before him as someone else's daughter. 

"No, I did not." Mark seemed to shrink and melt before everyone's eyes, his already dishevelled appearance turning ghost-like.

Realizing that Mark was on the verge of falling, one of the other Taj grabbed a chair and pushed it under the collapsing Elder. Nodding his thanks, Mark sank into the chair and slumped over, burying his face in his hands.  "All the ways I wronged you and your mother, murder wasn't one of them, but I do know who did."

"How do you know who?" Helen pressed. She wanted this to end so she could wash her hands of the Taji. 

"I witnessed John Pater stabbing your mother when she attempted to attack him." Mark looked up towards Tom. "John stated that your grandson was never the target. He said the target was and had always been Vincent.”

Father sank into his seat and Catherine grasped onto Vincent's arm as tight as she could as Mark continued, "He had planned to drive a wedge between Catherine and Vincent by using her  maternal grandfather."

"I have no relationship with my mother's family,"  Catherine protested. "My grandfather disowned me years ago."

Mark shook his head. "After your father's death, your grandfather made it known that he wanted to lure you back into the fold.  John was going to play on that and put you in a position to force your hand."

"I don't understand how that has any bearing on Vincent."  Catherine looked confused. 

"Because of your grandfather's connection to Jacob's past." Peter wiped his hand over his face as the extent of Paracelsus's manipulations was becoming evident.

Father sat looking confused as he looked back and forth between Catherine and Peter.

"How is Catherine's grandfather connected to Father?" Vincent placed a comforting hand over Catherine's as she gripped his arm even tighter, as he asked the question on everyone's mind. Catherine's fear and confusion were both pulsing through their bond.

"Just  tell me."  Father braced himself for the worst.

"Jacob, Catherine had almost no exposure to her Mother's family," Peter started. "Charles and Caroline felt that environment was too toxic and dangerous to her. Cathy knows almost nothing about that side of her family."

"Just say it." Father watched Catherine for her reaction. By the expression on her face, she really didn't know about any connection. He held his breath and waited.

"Cohn, my grandfather is Senator Cohn," Catherine stated, as she watched Father's reaction.

His hand tightened on his cane as he winced, closed his eyes, and exhaled. 

"Jacob, she had no part of it." Peter placed his hand on his friend's arm "She had no part of any of that family."

Father nodded his head and struggled to his feet.  "I just need to be alone.” Slowly he made his way out of the chapel. Taking a deep breath of the cold crisp air, he let the coldness flow over him.  There were too many unanswered questions, and the last thing he wanted was to allow Paracelsus to destroy everything they had built.  But for now, the memories and hurt were too close to the surface.

Vincent watched helplessly as Father made his way out of the chapel. It wasn't often that Father asked to be alone, and Peter's gesture strongly suggested that Vincent and Devin needed to respect his wishes.  He felt Catherine shiver beside him. In an unconcious gesture, he drapped an arm over her shoulder and pulled her closer to his heat. 

The banging of a staff against the floor drew everyone's attention as the eldest Taj stood.  "We digress from the purpose of our meeting. Dr. Emily, do you have any doubt as to the validity of the claims laid before us?”

Emily shook her head. "No, the tests support that both Helen and Vincent are legitimate Taji heirs, and Seth's parental line is known."

"Then are there any objections to a vote? " This question was addressed to the general assembly.

The Taj shuffled their feet but otherwise remained quiet.

"All those who accept Seth, Vincent, and Helen, signify by saying ‘aye.’" 

The room echoed with acknowledgment.

"Opposed say ‘no.’" 

The very air around the chapel froze as everyone stared at Mark. 

Mark shook his head. "I have no objections to either." He carefully pushed himself to his feet and moved as if to reach out to Helen.  He winced as she tensed up. Nodding his head, he pulled his hand back, took a deep breath then, as he exhaled, the world went black around him and he melted to the floor.

A gasp and shout drew their attention as several men surged around Mark. Devin stepped forward and placed his arms around Helen as everyone watched the Elder collapse. Emily signalled to a couple of the wives, and at their command the Taji stepped back. One of the younger Taj men had stretched Mark on the floor as Emily took his vital signs, and shook her head.  Immediately, one of the Taj began CPR as Emily barked out orders for someone to implement their emergency proceedures. 

The Elder Taj stepped forward and placed a calming hand on the Taj trying to revive Mark.  "Peace be," he whispered. "Let the man find dignity and peace in his passing that he denied himself in life."  

Emily nodded and signalled for the others to step back as Tom stepped forward.

"It is known that a Taj never survives his mate. While Mark may have denied his connection with Marissa, the existence of Helen is proof enough that the bonding was there." Turning to Helen, he said, "We offer our condolances and support on your losses." Tom gave Helen a light hug and stepped back as Emily stepped forward.

"We offer our support and allegance." Emily hugged Helen. "You have only to ask for what you need and it will be provided." 

One by one, each of the Taji stepped forward, giving Helen a hug and words of support.  Catherine wiped a tear from her eye as she watched the procession protect Helen from the descreet removal of the body of the father she had never truly known. 

Slowly the chapel emptied of each of the families, Vincent and his small group all but forgotten in the overall drama. 

"Well, that was not what we were prepared for."  Andrew and Seth held open the chapel doors for Vincent and Catherine. 

"No, it wasn't." Vincent pulled Catherine closer to him, a strange feeling of foreboding settling over him as they headed towards the door at the back of the chapel.

"He will be fine." Peter patted Vincent on the shoulder. "Let him work through this."

"I don't understand." Catherine looked confused.  "What does my grandfather have to do with anything?"  Catherine accepted her coat from Peter and shrugged into it as Vincent donned his cape.

"What do you know about your Mom's family, Cathy?"  Peter adjusted the scarf around his neck as they headed out.

"I know that she always wanted me to have the happy life she didn't have." Catherine repeated the words her Father had told her so many times. “Other than that, I can tell you they were not fond of Daddy, so I really didn't have much to do with them until I was in college. It didn't take me long to realize that I really didn't fit with that side of the family. Grandfather always made me uncomfortable, and it made him mad that my attentions were not for sale.”

Peter nodded as Catherine continued, "Then I found out he had paid my roommate to report on my activities and send photos. Dad and I broke off any further communications after my roommate engineered some compromising situations that were later used to try to blackmail me.”

A gasp startled her and she looked up to see Father sitting on the bench set slightly off from the path.  Vincent stepped forward and helped Father stand. Nodding his thanks, Father reached over and touched Catherine's arm.  "It looks like we were both victims of your grandfather's ambition and greed.”

Vincent felt the shiver go through Father and became concerned. Noticing the look on his son's face, Father adjusted his cane and started to move. "I will be glad once we get home. I am not used to the cold or the thin air here."  

Peter, noticing Vincent's concern as well, patted his arm as he started with Father down the path back towards the main house. "I have to agree with you there, we are getting too old for this kind of excitement." 

"Father." Catherine placed her hand on his arm. "How did my grandfather hurt you?" She was afraid to ask, but could not let this potential threat against their still fragile yet growing relationship pass.

"You really don't know?" 

There was no mistaking the confusion in Catherine's eyes as she shook her head.

"Senator Cohn was one of  the members on McCarthy's committee." There was no inflection of emotion in Father's voice as he made that statement, no accusations, not even the customary bitterness that normally accompanied the memories of that horrible time. Father watched the shocked emotions flit across Catherine's face as she processed the implications of his news.  Amazingly he felt none of the usual pain and stress that normally accompanied the memories of that horrible time. 

Father reached out and embraced Catherine. "It was a long time ago." Pulling back, he looked into her expressive eyes and continued, "I just need some time to process this." Stepping back, Father steadied himself on his cane and slowly walked down the path, taking the offshoot that led away from the main cottage. 

Peter stopped Vincent from following. "Give him a bit." 

Vincent nodded and threaded his fingers through Catherine's as they started down the main path. 

~~

Catherine sighed as she smoothed the skirt of her formal gown before tucking her hotel key into her clutch and making her way to the elevator.  The hardest part of their final day had been going their separate ways.  So much of the past few weeks had shown her how wonderful it would be to have Vincent woven into the daily pattern of her life that she knew she didn't want to go back to the way things were, but wasn't sure how to move forward.  The ding of the elevator doors pulled her out of her mental ponderings.  

"Ms. Chandler." 

Catherine turned to see the concierge making his way across the lobby floor.

"Your car will be here shortly, and your party is waiting in the bar for you."

Confused, Catherine thanked him and made her way through to the bar.  It did not take long to see Peter and Emily sitting together at a table having a lively discussion with someone whose back was to her. 

"Catherine, there you are!"  Emily rose from the table and gave her a quick hug. "I hope you don't mind, but we thought it best if we shared a ride."

Catherine's shock was complete as she watched the final member turn in his seat.

"Father?" Peter and Father both rose as Catherine sat in the empty seat between them.  "I don't understand."

"Jacob is my date for tonight, dear," Emily stated matter-of-factly as she sat back down.  "We have all discussed it, and while he still plans to live in his normal family residence, it is necessary that he start making some healing transitions back into the world as we know it."  

"But grandfather's gathering?" Catherine looked at Father. "Are you sure about this?"

"I can't claim that I am comfortable with any of this, but Emily put forward some good arguments." Father rested both his hands on the handle of his cane while he took a deep breath.  "A strong-willed young woman I know has taught me a lot over the past few years about facing adversity, and having the courage to stand tall against tyranny, and pushy, grumpy old men." 

Catherine blinked back the tears as she gave Father a hug.  "I never would have called you grumpy."

Everyone at the table laughed and rose at the signal from the concierge that their car was ready. 

The family estate was just as elaborate as Catherine remembered.  The grand facade looking like something more appropriate for the English countryside than the Arizona desert. Accepting the hand of the valet, she allowed herself to be assisted out of the car and waited quietly while the others joined her side.  Taking Peter's hand, she followed Father and Emily up the stairs and into the main hallway. 

“They don't make them like this anymore," Peter exclaimed while he handed his and Catherine's coats over.

"I understand they give tours," Emily whispered. 

"I think I will pass," Father replied, grateful for the comforting pat she gave to his arm. 

"So, the prodigal returns to grovel." A well-coiffed blonde holding a cocktail glass sauntered towards the small party.

"Hard to grovel when you are summoned."

Catherine jumped at the sound of a familiar voice coming from behind her. 

"Susan! I didn't think you were coming." Turning to her friend, Catherine gave Susan a big hug.

"What, and leave you to all the drama by yourself?" Susan stepped away from Catherine.

"Dad, Father," she stated as she placed a peck on both of their cheeks.

"I see the old hard feelings still run strong." Susan nodded her head in the direction of the blonde sauntering off.

Catherine shrugged. “How have you been?”

Susan tilted her head and studied her old friend. “Well, things were really good with me until I got the oddest phone call.” 

“And what call would that be?” Peter smiled at his daughter.

“Why, Daddy, that would be the one where I find out that not only do a couple of my oldest friends know about a certain childhood friend of mine, but a third old friend is, well, um, shall we say involved with him?” Linking her arm through her dad’s arm, she stared pointedly at Catherine.

Catherine felt a tap on her shoulder and turned. She recognized her grandfather’s old butler and was not surprised that the older man was still as expressionless as ever.

“Your presence is requested in the family drawing room.”

“Translation: you are being summoned to appear before the great and powerful grandfather.”

Catherine had to school her features and suppress the urge to laugh at Susan’s quiet whisper. “Thank you, Carson.” Catherine turned and glared at Susan, and quickly had to break eye contact.

Emily, Peter, and Father were busy averting their eyes, and trying not to laugh at Susan’s disrespectful comment. Susan, on the other hand, looked concerned.

“It will be ok.” Catherine turned to follow Carson through the halls and towards the back region of the house. It was dark here, just the way she always remembered it.

Carson stopped before the grand library doors before turning to her and nodding. “You grew up.” His voice was soft, but still expressionless.

“People tend to do that,” Catherine acknowledged, She could swear she saw his lip twitch just a bit.

“That they do,” Carson acknowledged. “Perhaps it is best to remember you are not the child you once were.”

Catherine’s memory flashed back to several years prior, when she stood in just this spot, her head barely reaching the grand doorknobs that Carson opened then, as well. Her Mother had recently died; she had been lost, alone, and very frightened. Carson had told her then to always remember who she was prior to sending her in to face her grandfather alone. She hadn’t understood then, but now those words made sense.

Carson made eye contact as she walked past. “You remember. Good,” he stated before shutting the doors behind her and walking away.

Years ago it hadn’t made sense, but now it did. She knew who she was, what she was capable of. Stepping forward, she moved through the library to the back room. She didn’t have to be told where her grandfather would be. He always took his “appointments” in the small room he had claimed as his personal den. The room was decorated in dark mahogany wood and imposing colors. The purpose of that room was to remind people of the power he held, and how hopeless they were in the face of it.

Stopping in the middle of the room, she studied the man behind the desk. He was older now, more frail. Despite his wealth, there were signs that his life had not been an easy one.

“I see you still have not learned how not to stare.”

The voice was more raspy now than she remembered.

“There is a difference between staring and studying,” Catherine replied quietly before stepping forward and making herself as comfortable as possible in one of the chairs across the desk.

“I did not give you leave to sit,” her grandfather snipped.

“I didn’t ask permission,” Catherine calmly replied. “You requested my presence. I assume you have something to speak to me about. If not, then ….” Catherine rose as if she was preparing to leave.

“No. Wait.”

Catherine settled back down at the command then raised her brow as she watched him compose his thoughts.

“You have changed.” His comment was quieter than previously.

“I doubt anyone is the same person they were when they were ten years old.” Catherine shrugged.

“No, it isn’t just that. I have been keeping an eye on you. You are different than the others. You are different than your cousins.”

Catherine didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t really know any of her cousins well enough to pass judgment.

“Do you have no comment?”

It always shocked Catherine at how well he could read people, even now, in the dark, with his sight almost gone.

“What am I supposed to say?” Catherine leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs.

“You don’t even question it,” he continued. “You hold down a job, yet you find time to have friends and do charity work.”

“My cousins have jobs, friends and charity work,” Catherine countered.

“True, but the difference is, their jobs are token positions in companies I run. Their so-called friends have a price and I have managed to buy most of them, and their charities are high-profile and designed to help their social standings.”

Catherine just sat and listened as he compared her life to her family’s. While his opinion didn’t matter to her, her curiosity was piqued.

“Your friends are not for sale. Believe me, I have tried. Your job, while it has political potential, tends to be more menial work. You put in long hard hours. You risk your life. This means something to you.”

Those words sent chills up Catherine’s spine. Her grandfather was a master manipulator. He was up to something, yet he continued on.

“The charities you volunteer for, you are hands-on, working with victims, not just spearheading committees.”

There was some derision in his voice with that last statement. Catherine schooled her features, but she found pleasure in the fact that her hard work did not please him.

“I’m dying.”

Catherine jerked as if she had been slapped. Surely she had heard him wrong.

“No words?”

Catherine shook her head. “I’m sorry.” She had no words for him. “Do the others know?”

“Not yet. I want to spend what final days I have left in peace, not listening to my family bicker over who they think should get what. Besides, all the arrangements have been made and everyone gets what is coming to them.” He leaned back in his chair and chuckled, then started coughing.

Jumping up, Catherine grabbed a glass of water and held it for him while he sipped.

“You are also very predictable.”

Catherine froze at the voice that came from the shadows. Carefully setting the glass down, she stepped away from her grandfather and to the side of the desk.

“Paracelsus.” She angled herself between her grandfather and the threat.

“What are you doing, John?” Her grandfather leaned forward in his chair. He wanted to cough again, but that last drink felt wrong. A pain started in his stomach and began to spread up his chest.

“Guaranteeing the succession,” Paracelsus sneered.

Her grandfather tried to rise from his chair, and stumbled. Placing his hand over the corner of his desk, he triggered the in-house intercom system. “John, what have you done?”

Catherine turned and caught her grandfather as he stumbled.

“Your granddaughter here has secrets, secrets that she will be willing to pay to keep quiet.” John smiled wickedly as he watched the shock play across Catherine’s face. “You, on the other hand, are of no further use to me.”

“She will never bend to you,” Catherine’s grandfather declared. “I will disassemble the whole empire before you lay a finger on anything.”

“Too late. You see, you are not going to be alive long enough to touch anything. And your precious granddaughter is going to be too busy defending herself from murder charges.” Paracelsus smiled evilly. “Or have you not realized that you have been poisoned yet?”

“That glass was meant for her.”

Catherine’s grandfather denied  it. “I would not have harmed my heir.”

“Yet her fingerprints are on the glass that you drank from.” Paracelsus watched as Catherine became aware of the implications. “Tell me, dear, what is a forensics team going to deduce from that?”

Catherine paled as he continued, “I had planned on you drinking from that glass, but this will work so much better, my dear. If you want to avoid a murder charge, as well as protect your precious Vincent, then you will follow my instructions to the letter.”

“Over my dead body,” Catherine’s gradnfather declared, and with a final surge of energy he pushed himself away from Catherine and surged towards Paracelsus.

“That is the idea.” Paracelsus triggered his hidden knife and felt it sink into the man’s chest, through the ribs, and pierce the heart.

Catherine caught the falling body of her grandfather as Paracelsus pulled out the knife and pushed the body over. Sinking to the floor with her grandfather, she cradled his head in her arms as she tried to apply pressure to the chest wound.

 “Now we are both dying,” her grandfather stated smugly.

He allowed his arm to slide aside, and a small dagger slipped from his hands onto the floor.

“I hardly think your little scratch will harm me much,” Paracelsus sneered as he wiped the blood off his arm.

“It isn’t the scratch that you need to worry about, John,” the dying man sputtered, “but the poison on the blade.”

“Shhh, don’t talk,” Catherine admonished. She could hear the sounds of footsteps racing down the hallway. “Help is on the way.”

“Not enough time.” He coughed, and Catherine pressed harder on his chest in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding. She didn’t care that Paracelsus was sinking to his knees just steps away from her.

“I chose you.” Her grandfather’s voice was getting weaker, almost drowned out by the sounds of banging on the library door. “You are the only one worth anything out of all of them. You are the only one that can make a difference.”

Catherine shook her head. “We will get you help. You will be ok,” she denied.

“Your mother was right in keeping you from us.” Her grandfather rested his hand over hers. “You can save them from themselves.” He closed his eyes and let out his last breath as the office doors burst open.

Catherine felt arms surrounding her as the body was gently lifted from her lap and she was pulled away from him. Catherine felt a coat slide around her as she was led from the room.

“A statement… they are going to want my statement.”

“It won’t be necessary.” Carson helped support her as he and Emily led her to the nearest restroom. Emily turned on the tap water and tested the temperature before urging Catherine to wash her hands. Emily took the towel from Carson and patted Catherine’s hands dry.

“There are enough witnesses. You can give a statement later, if needed.”

“But it was just us. I have to tell someone what happened.” Thoughts whirled around in her head, trying to focus. In her job, she hadn’t ever had someone die in her arms. Not like this.

 

Time seemed to blur as officials came and went. She vaguely remembered answering a dozen questions, and Carson directing the police to the security tapes for the cameras installed in the room.

“Your grandfather never trusted John. He had a monitoring system installed in that office. The tape will show everything,” Carson assured Catherine. “He was especially troubled by John’s preoccupation with you.”

Catherine nodded and looked at Emily. “We have had problems from that quarter recently.”

“Well, there will be no further problems with him in the future.” Carson took the dirty towel and brushed her hair back. “Go, little Kate, I will take care of things here.”

Catherine smiled at the old nickname as Emily led her through the hallway and out the door. “Well, one thing I can say is that things are never dull around you.”

Father snorted. “One could wish for less excitement.”

Peter and Susan laughed as they climbed into the limo together.

“That they could,” Catherine agreed as she closed her eyes and rested her head against the cool window.

~April 12~

Vincent landed on the balcony with a slight thud. He had felt Catherine’s return to town earlier that day. It had taken all his self control to not race to the surface and take her into his arms. For the past six months she had been flying back and forth between home and her grandfather’s estate. He could feel her exhaustion, but he couldn’t stay away, not today of all days.

“Vincent.” The door flew open and he felt the whispered caress that her voice always gave his name just before she launched herself into his arms. He always felt that click the moment she made connection with him. She fit, right there in his arms cuddled up to him. He felt the last of the tension drain out of her as his arms went around to pull her closer. Bending down, he took a deep breath, inhaling in her scent. She had bathed, and there were the traces of the feminine items she always used, but ultimately there was her.

“It’s done.” She breathed out with a big sigh. “I don’t have to go back.”

“What about your grandfather’s companies?” Vincent let Catherine lead him in through the doors before settling on the couch.

“Firmly in the hands of the people who have already been running them.”

“And your grandfather’s wish that you be in charge?” Vincent felt Catherine settle next to him. Leaning back, he felt his world slide into place as she curled her feet up and tucked them to the side, the movement causing her to lean more into him. She obviously needed the physical contact as much as he did.

“Emily had a suggestion for someone to hire as my assistant.” Catherine smiled. “The family will be reporting to her, and she will keep me apprised. Meanwhile, they are setting up a new charitable trust for Emily’s research lab.” Catherine tilted her head up and gazed into Vincent’s eyes; leaning forward, she placed a quick kiss on his lips.

“And things here?” she inquired.

“Father insists that he is needed more below.” Vincent rested his forehead against hers. “I think the idea of going up top may be overwhelming.”

Catherine watched quietly as Vincent leaned back a bit. “

The resources of the tunnels have increased considerably,” she almost whispered.

Vincent merely nodded. “The council is having a hard time. Some of them feel that we can help more people, while others would like to see some of our helpers benefit after everything they have done for us over the years.”

“I am sure they will make a wise decision.” Catherine twisted and rested her hand on his chest. “What about you?”

Vincent sighed. “I am still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that I have options.” He slid his hand up her back and pulled her closer to his chest. “For so long I was so limited, I never dreamed of being able to leave the tunnels.” Vincent’s voice trailed off as he reflected on his first real trip away from not only the tunnels, but New York, as well. Unconsciously, his hand continued to stroke up and down Catherine’s back, as if he couldn’t get enough of the feel of her skin. “I can’t imagine my life away from the tunnels,” Vincent confessed.

“No one is asking you to leave the tunnels, Vincent.” Catherine studied his face. “You just are no longer limited to them now.”

“My limits are not where I once thought they were.” His voice was almost a growl. Vincent tightened his arm around Catherine and pulled her closer. Leaning forward, he touched his lips to hers. Catherine melted into the kiss before turning closer towards him. Vincent shifted so Catherine was pressed against his chest as he deepened the kiss, one hand snaking further under her robe as he threaded the other through her hair.

Vincent sighed as he pulled back. Keeping his fingers tangled in her hair, he rested his forehead against hers. Taking deep breaths, he tried to calm his racing pulse. He felt Catherine pull back a bit, and her arousal and confusion made their way across the bond.

Catherine shifted away from Vincent. Pulling her robe together, she gave him a final peck before sliding off his lap. She had learned early on that things with Vincent were always going to be back and forth as he worked over whatever barrier he ran into. She just had to be patient.

Vincent rose from the couch and paced to the French doors. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the dress Catherine had laid across her bed, the dress she would have been wearing had he not been so anxious to come.

He watched as she pulled a small package off her desk and walked towards him.

“I came too early,” he commented, his head dropping as he motioned to her bedroom.

“I was running late,” she corrected, and leaned in for another kiss. “I was anxious to see you, as well.”

Vincent smiled. He had felt her need tangled with his over the bond. The past few months had been an exercise in frustration to a level he had never known before.

“I got this for you.” She handed him a small package.

Vincent looked at the simple wrapping before carefully opening it. An old scarf wrapped around an envelope of papers. Vincent handled the fabric cautiously, worried about damaging it, and  laid it aside before opening the envelope. His brow creased in confusion as he worked through the formal official language. Suddenly it started to make sense. “Catherine?” He looked up.

“This officially assigns the Northern East Coast region as your assigned protectorate for the Taj Council.” Catherine picked up the scarf and held it out to him. “Emily and Ashley had a hard time finding this for me, but it is a remnant of your grandfather’s Elder stole. We thought you may want it.”

Vincent stared at the papers and the fabric. He put the fabric to his nose and inhaled. This was his Catherine, always quietly supporting him, no matter what. He placed the papers and scarf on the table before turning and taking Catherine in his arms.

“We have survived much,” he stated quietly against her hair.

She smiled as she remembered the phrase she had said to him the night he had saved her from the Watcher.

“Yes, we have,” she agreed, lifting her face up to his. Her happiness beamed through her smile.

Vincent leaned in to lightly kiss her before slipping the small bag from his neck.

Catherine looked at him, confused, as he opened the pouch and carefully slid out the porcelain rose. Setting it on the table next to him, he upended the bag, and light flashed before he closed his fist. Picking up the rose, he carefully placed it back in the bag and around his neck.

“Paracelsus is dead, and so is the worst threat to the tunnels.” Vincent took a deep breath before he continued. “I never wanted to limit you to the life I had, I never wanted to limit you the way I was. You are a woman of both worlds, and I couldn’t take you away from that.”

When Catherine would have interrupted, he gently placed his hand on her cheek and brushed his thumb across her lips. “I now know that is no longer true. My world is expanding.” Vincent opened his hand and heard Catherine gasp. Tears welled in her eyes as she looked at the small diamond and sapphire ring in his hand. “I want that expansion to include you.”

Catherine couldn’t speak. She finally launched herself into his arms and kissed him, hard.

Vincent pulled back and smiled. “Does that mean yes?” He could feel her joy flowing through the bond, but for this he still needed the words.

Catherine nodded her head. “Are you sure?” Part of her was afraid to ask. The attorney in her screamed at her take this and run with it, but the woman in her wanted him to want this as badly as she did.

Vincent took her hand and gently slid the ring onto her finger. “Yes” was all he needed to say.

“It’s beautiful.” Catherine lifted her hand up to view the ring closer.

“Father gave it to me after we returned from the Taj Council.” Vincent threaded his fingers through Catherine’s. “It has been in his family for several generations.” Vincent snickered as he led her back to the couch. “I mentioned that, as a family heirloom, it should go to Devin first, but he said it would be better placed with you.”

Sinking down on the couch. Catherine looked at him, a bit puzzled. “What is it you’re not telling me?”

“I caught Mouse eavesdropping the day that Father gave me the ring. He saw me put the ring in my pouch tonight before I came up this evening.”

Catherine groaned. “What did he say? What did you say?”

“Nothing, he took off too fast.” Vincent looked sheepish.

“So you are trying to warn me that everyone below was aware of what you were planning tonight?” Catherine hid her smile. Vincent was so cute when he blushed.

“I believe he was on his way to Pascal.”

Catherine pursed her lips and nodded, but her eyes twinkled with her laughter.

“You find humor in this?” Vincent was torn. Part of him could see the humor in their situation, while another part of him wished that they could keep this to themselves for a bit longer.

“They love you, Vincent,” Catherine whispered before she leaned forward and kissed him.

Sliding his hands around her, he pulled her closer to the kiss. “They love both of us,” he amended.

Catherine simply nodded as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed herself closer. “Tonight, this is ours. Tomorrow is soon enough to celebrate with friends and family.”

Vincent smiled. Of course, Catherine was right. They could celebrate tonight. Tomorrow would be time enough for their family.

Far below the city streets, the pipes rang out the news. Vincent was proposing to Catherine. No one had a single doubt as to what her answer would be. The tunnels would soon have their own Taja to go along with their very own Taj.