Better to Give

R. Goodfellow

“By all that’s holy, what was I thinking?  This way lies madness!”  Vincent paced through his bathing chamber, his massive chest heaving for oxygen. His state of desperation was rapidly spiraling beyond even his normally iron-clad control.  He felt a cold, nervous sweat born of panic and adrenaline burst out across his features.  “This is surely the worst idea anyone has ever had! I cannot go through with this.” He slumped against the cavern wall, his head thrown back in dejection.

Today was Catherine’s birthday and he expected her arrival Below any moment.  His inspiration for her birthday gift… Oh, this had seemed like such a good idea when it first occurred to him! Indeed, he’d thought it was the product of divine inspiration.  He had even convinced himself that this was, in fact, something for which Catherine had been hinting. Now that it was nearly time to present his gift to her, though, his confidence in it was rapidly waning.

He had been struggling for weeks to think of some present that could be worthy of the one that Catherine had given him for his birthday a few months ago.

* * *

Since the night he had rescued her from drowning in her stalker’s trunk, he’d allowed himself to enter her apartment.  They’d kissed that night for the first time, the most fleeting brush of lips, fueled by fear, desperation, and years of denied desire.  Crossing the literal threshold of her balcony that evening had begun a series of more figurative, yet even more meaningful, steps. Soon they were lovers at last. 

On the evening of his birthday, he’d arrived on her balcony to find the doors ajar, heedless of the January cold. Inside, Catherine was curled on the loveseat, surrounded by candle flames whose shadows licked her luminous skin. She was wearing a new sweater that night: a lush angora, the palest shade of pink, the color one might find inside some exotic shell.
As he approached her, he realized that the luscious, luxurious sweater was all she wore.

Eyes made of pale jade and moonlight surveyed him seductively. “Happy birthday, Vincent,” she had sighed.  “Would you like to open your present?"
“Are you my birthday gift?” he had managed to whisper, his voice made of distant thunder.

She nodded. “As you see, I have adopted the custom from Below of a gift being something that one does for someone, rather than something that one buys. So yes,” her dainty hands smoothed the angora across her chest, “here is your gift, wrapped in something I thought you might like.”
Exploring her body that evening... the slopes and summits of her firm breasts swaddled within the feathery sweater…the taste of her flesh mingled with the tickle of the angora’s delicate tendrils on his cheeks… not even its silken softness could match delicious down of Catherine’s skin… They had danced to unheard music again that night… a dance with music all its own… a song of delectable sensuality… its beat, a pounding rush of blood in his ears…

* * *

He shook his head to clear the memories that threatened to intoxicate him.

He raked his fingers through his mane of hair and groaned, “The best laid plans of mice and men… and morons like me… who come up with the worst, most cursed gift ideas in human history… I cannot do this. I cannot!”  His pacing resumed.

Just as he resolved to abandon his scheme and pray that the Fates would guide him to some plausible Plan B, he heard Catherine’s voice call his name. He’d been so wrapped up in arousing recollections and abject anxiety that he hadn’t caught the least hint of her presence Below.

So desperate was he for escape that he actually took several steps toward the passageway that led to Father’s chamber before skidding to a stop. No. That path was the only one less desirable than his present original course of action. 

She called down the hall to the bathing chamber, “Vincent, are you in there?”

Despite his nearly all-consuming urge to flee and hide, he realized that if he didn’t reply to her, she might come in here looking for him. There was no avoiding answering her.

“Yes, Catherine. One moment. Please.” He paced some more. At the entrance to the bathing chamber, he pulled his cloak off its hook. As he was draping it around himself, inspiration struck. “Catherine, why don’t you run down to the kitchen and get us a pot of tea? William just got some more of your favorite herbal mix.” Yes, that might buy me a few minutes!

“I’m way ahead of you,” Catherine replied amid the soft clink of china cups on saucers. “I passed William on my way in, and he insisted that I bring us some.”

Indeed, he caught the scent of tea as well as that of William’s scones. He cursed under his breath; now he wouldn’t be able to distract her with food either. What am I to do?

“Come on. It’s getting cold.”

“Yes! One moment!” He grimaced as he heard the desperation in his own voice.

“Vincent? What’s wrong?” His chin fell to his chest when he realized that she, too, had heard that panic. There was no way out now.
“Nothing,” he lied. “I’m coming.” He wrapped his cloak about himself as if it were armor and he were preparing for battle. He fastened its closure snugly at his throat, gulped a deep breath and stepped toward his chamber. Each footfall of his boots on the granite steps echoed in his mind like a countdown to certain doom.

How beautiful she looked sitting there at his table, more delicate than the mismatched Limoges china in her hands. Unable to meet her eyes, he pivoted, his back to her, and occupied himself with a meaningless shuffle of books on the credenza. “Perhaps you can go see if William still has some of the strawberry jam you like so well?” As soon as the words left his lips, he knew that she had seen right through his lame ploy. He could feel it. He stood there, miserable, fighting the urge to flee, the well of tears.

“Vincent…” Catherine set down the teacup she had been about to offer him. “Something is wrong. What is it? Tell me, please.”

Waves of her concern, her fear, jolted through the Bond to make his own stomach lurch. His absurd actions were causing Catherine to worry, and on her birthday, no less. Now he felt guilty as well as frightened and foolish. You dolt! Imbecile! Were these condemnations her thoughts or his own? He couldn’t tell amid the jumble of panicky emotions. He could control neither the clenching of his fist nor the fidget of his feet.

“Vincent.” She reached for the hand that peeked out from his sleeve, but he stepped away. He evaded her touch and in place of his fingers, she grabbed only a handful of his cloak. She twisted the fabric in her grip, strengthening her hold on it. She did not let him go.

Vincent wearing his cloak and nothing else.

As he took that step away from her, the lowermost left corner of his cloak was tugged back, revealing the calf and knee of his tall thigh-high boots. She pulled more on the cloak, exposing the tops of those boots, the part where the curved upper edges of the leather met his pants…
Only this time, there were no pants to meet.

Above the leather of his boots, there was only bare, golden, thickly muscled thigh.

Vincent froze; to take another step was to hoist himself higher on his own petard. He was unable to draw breath or let himself feel her through the Bond. She pulled back further on his cloak; he felt it slither across the skin of his upper thigh. A tremor raced up a muscle from knee to groin. The chilled tunnel air soon hit his bare derrière and he risked a glimpse in Catherine’s direction. He watched as her face transformed from concern into surprise, and then into… he could only call it predatory delight.

She licked her lips as her eyes met his.  She perused him from head to feet, lingering on the stiff leather encasing his legs, scaling the slopes and ridges of his taut stomach.  She held nothing back from him. He absorbed her every feeling as her eyes toured his body, watched her irises nearly vanish as her pupils widened. The licentious avarice that was broadcast to him by both her emotions and her expression left him genuinely shocked, utterly relieved, thoroughly gladdened, and - truth be told - more than a bit intimidated.

“Well…” she purred with a wicked grin. “Happy birthday to me!”

Vincent finally accepted a novel notion: Perhaps this gift is not, in fact, the worst idea since the last invasion of Russia during winter.

“So you…like your present?” he inquired, though he would have to confess that he already had the answer. He couldn’t help the shy, self-satisfied smile that flitted across his face, the evening's earlier agonies of self-doubt forgotten.

“As if you didn’t know.”

* * *

She would not later recall rising from her chair or moving to stand in front of him, but she’d never forget the sight that was revealed when she pushed back the edges of his cloak over his shoulders: the vision of Vincent standing naked beneath his cloak… naked save for the tall, tooled-leather boots covering his legs up to his finely chiseled thighs.

Once she had freed him from his cloak, she stepped over it carelessly as she walked around him, studying and appreciating the stunning gift before her. From behind him, she swept her fingernails down the hard planes of his spine; waves of shivers followed in her wake. She molded herself to his back, reached around until she could grab the fronts of the boots.  "I've wanted to debauch you in these boots for years, mister."
Vincent looked back over his bare shoulder. "Catherine! You libertine!"
“Took you long enough to get the hint.” She continued circling, her fingertips trailing idly along his skin, until she stood in front of him again.

“Then you like…?”

She wrapped her hands around the backs of his knees and caressed first the skin of the boots and then his own skin as she reached his thights just above the boot-tops. Ascending further to cup his bottom, she pulled him closer.
“Oh, yes. I love!”

She brought a finger to his collarbone and skimmed to one nipple where she drew lanquid spirals in a journey south toward his navel. She stood on tiptoe to brush his jaw line with her lips, and trailed kisses from his ear to his throat, then down his chest. She smiled inside as she felt, more than heard, the vibrations of his moan beneath her mouth.

Moments later - Catherine’s clothes strewn about the chamber floor -she twined her fingers through his hair and pulled his face to hers, searing their souls with the heat of their kisses.

Her leg snaked its way up his calf and around his boot-covered thigh as she leaned into his hard muscled body. His hands grasped the twin curves of her bottom, and she moaned as she felt the press of his arousal against her. She lifted her leg higher, rasping it along his leather-wrapped leg, drawing it up the outside of his thigh. Vincent groaned as he pulled her knee up higher, pressing her to his skin. It made her legs grow weak.

He bent his knees, reached around her. "Hold on," he commanded, and without giving her much time to obey, he stood fluidly, one arm around her back, the other supporting her bottom. Her legs reflexively wrapped about his waist. She anchored her arms around his back, fingernails digging into his flesh. She kissed him where his neck and shoulder met, nipped at the taut tendon there. His breath came shorter and shallower as her bites gnawed away at the last shards of his resistance.

She arched against him, leaned back slightly, never doubting that his strong arms would hold her fast. She pressed her moist core against him, against the edge of his control.

Secure in his embrace, she was carried to a bare spot of the chamber wall and braced against it. She felt his arm cushioning her from the roughness of the rock. He lowered her onto him, her legs gripped the small of his back, ankles entwined. He held her as still as he could and drove into her… once… twice…

Catherine’s heart, like a bumblebee trapped against a windowpane, beat a frantic tattoo against her ribcage. She gasped as lightning began to build within her body, then she surrendered to the storm of sensations.

Her legs lost their lock around his hips then, but it didn’t matter, pinned as she was between the granite wall and her lover’s hard body. She clung to him, muffling moans of pleasure into his shoulder as his thrusts built in strength and speed. She wrapped her legs lower around the trunks of his thighs, her calves and ankles finding purchase on the leather of Vincent’s tall boots.

Later, both of them spent and satisfied, they collapsed onto his bed, Catherine half-draped across his body.

“I’m glad you liked your gift,” he whispered.

She reached down and ran her hand along his thigh. She tucked it behind his knee and brought his leg to wrap around her hip, the boot cool against her skin.

“Best present I never unwrapped.”