TO THE OTHER SIDE
     by Jo Fredericks

    Catherine descended the ladder, careful not to entangle the hem of her outfit as she took careful steps down its rungs. Halfway down she tugged at the edge of the access door. It sighed softly on its hinge until it clicked shut, just like the screen door the hinge had once been a part of. She smiled to herself; Mouse’s little addition had made it so much easier to close off her hidden entrance to the Tunnels.

    As she placed her second foot on the uneven ground of the threshold floor she pivoted, an expectant smile on her face, already anticipating the bear hug of Vincent’s embrace. Her smile faltered a little as she saw the much smaller figure that awaited her before recognition brought it back in full measure.

    “Geoffrey! What a lovely surprise!” She approached the youngster who even now was brushing dirt from the seat of his pants, having obviously been sitting against the broken brick wall awaiting her.

    He offered her one of his endearing shy smiles. “Hi, Catherine! Vincent asked me to come for you.”

    Catherine tilted her head as she regarded the boy. He was several inches taller than the last time she’d seen him. He had that gangly coltish look that signified he was in the midst of a growth spurt. She stifled a sigh. He was growing up. Still, that wash of freckles on his face would make him look younger than his years for some time to come. 

    She held out her hand to him. “I can’t imagine a better escort. Thank you, sweetheart.”

    Even in the dim light she caught his furious blush as he placed his hand in hers. Seeking to ease his discomfort, she asked, “Do you often come down to this part of the Tunnels? I know my apartment building is a bit off the main pathways.”

    “Oh, sure. We explore all over.” He pointed behind himself with his free hand. “Back that way, on the other side of your threshold, too.”

    Catherine turned to look over her shoulder as they walked, the dim light from her threshold receding into the distance with every step.

    “The other side?”

    Somehow it had never occurred to her that the passageway in front of her threshold didn’t end at her access point to the tunnels. In her mind, the path from beneath her building led only one way: toward the Hub ... toward Vincent. She felt suddenly foolish that it had taken a casual remark from this young boy to point out the obvious.

    “I’ve never ... I didn’t realize ...” she stammered, abashed to find she had no words to reply to his comment.

    Unaware of her chagrin, Geoffrey continued to explain. “There’s this cool cavern not far beyond it. It has this neat waterfall. We swim there sometimes.”

    All of this was news to Catherine, and suddenly she was much more curious about the area surrounding her threshold. The idea of a “cool cavern” so close to her apartment building intrigued her, and she made a mental note to ask Vincent to take her there.

* * *

    As they entered the gathering in the music chamber, voices called out greetings to her, and Catherine waved and replied. Geoffrey pulled her through the crowd, headed for a loveseat in a far corner which was occupied by Eric. Eric was engaged in turning away a potential occupant of the empty seat beside him. When he caught sight of Geoffrey and Catherine, he blew out a sigh of relief.

    “It’s about time you got here,” he said, addressing Geoffrey. “It’s been hard holding onto these seats.”       

    “Please don’t blame Geoffrey, it’s my fault he’s late. Vincent asked him to escort me.”

    Eric nodded, his long bangs falling into his eyes behind the large lenses of his glasses. “He told me. That’s why I’m guarding this sofa. It’s for you.” He jumped up and made a flourish with one arm to indicate she was to sit.

    Amused by the gesture and charmed by the thought behind it, Catherine sat in the middle of the cushions and patted the empty spots on either side of her. Normally only two people could sit comfortably on the small sofa, but enough space was left on either side of Catherine’s petite form for the two skinny pre-teen boys to sit beside her. “Join me?”

    Eric and Geoffrey looked at each other, each apparently wondering if the other would accept the offer. Sitting beside Catherine was a much-sought-after treat generally reserved for the younger children and the girls Below. The glance they shared ended in anticipatory smiles, and they nodded at Catherine in unison before claiming positions at her elbows.

    Even though they were slender, it was still a snug fit for three, so Catherine draped her arms around the boys’ shoulders and urged them to lean close to her. When Vincent entered the music chamber some time later, he stood gazing at the trio, bemused at the sight of two boys who were beginning to squirm away from receiving hugs from their elders Below, now suddenly so content to be seen cuddling ... with Catherine. Then he began to notice the knowing looks from those surrounding the trio. Rebecca was pointing at the boys and smiling with Carole. Pascal was nodding and grinning as Austin nudged him and indicated the boys with the quick extension of his chin. Cullen was smirking as he imitated Eric, mimicking the boy’s position in an exaggerated fashion with the fellow he was sitting near, much to the amusement of several others close by.

    Vincent’s bemusement soon turned into chagrin as he realized that he likely wasn’t fooling anyone either. Just as with Eric and Geoffrey, who everyone Below knew idolized Catherine, his love for Catherine was the worst kept secret he had. With  sudden clarity he recognized that the looks Eric and Geoffrey were getting were probably the same as those his family leveled in his direction when he was thoroughly engrossed in Catherine’s company during events like this Below.

    Shaking his head at his own folly, he stood just inside the entryway until intermission, watching his Beloved as she enjoyed the concert, noting the beatific expressions on the two boys beside her as they sat, eyes closed, their heads on her shoulders ... and wishing he were one of them.

    As the final notes of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique faded from the chamber, Vincent detected tears on Catherine’s cheeks. The sad, yearning quality of that piece never failed to move her. But usually he was beside her, ready ... eager to give her comfort. He pushed himself away from the cavern wall upon which he had been leaning and strode quickly to her side.

    Eric opened his eyes first and gazed at the looming presence before him. “Vincent! Hi!” he squeaked. Geoffrey’s eyes popped open a moment later, and he jerked upright guiltily. Catherine’s eyelids fluttered open last, as if she were coming out of a trance into which the music had lulled her. Her slow smile heralded a shiver of delight through their Bond, a bright tendril that Vincent absorbed greedily, although his eyes betrayed no hint of the thrill it gave him.

    “Thank you both for taking such good care of Catherine.” His voice was pitched low, the rumbling purr of it sending a thrill up Catherine’s spine. One claw-tipped hand emerged from within his cloak and he offered it to Catherine. “I’ll escort her to the dessert table.”

    Eric rose and glanced at Geoffrey, an unspoken message passing between them.”Why don’t you stay here and we’ll bring you a slice of cake and some punch?”

    Vincent nodded, then turned to watch as the youngsters melted into the crowd queuing to claim pieces of Mary’s apple cake, an old family recipe she shared with no one, liking to bake the special treat herself on occasion throughout the year. He turned back to Catherine, who had moved to one side of the loveseat. Her hand was still clasped in his and she tugged gently. “Come sit. Tell me about your day.”

    He sank gratefully into the old cushions. Through the layers of clothing he wore he could feel the residual warmth of her body from the cushion she had just occupied. Her warmth - it filled him from within and from without ... the warmth of her heart, her words ... her hands. He dared to interlace his fingers with Catherine’s and lifted her hand to his mouth; the merest brush of his lips met her palm and he felt her tremble at it.

    That slight tremor shook him to his core and he struggled to formulate a reply to Catherine’s question. “A...a new family came to us a month ago. You met them.”

    Catherine nodded and squeezed his hand, lifting it to return a brushed kiss against the furred back of it, her eyes never leaving his face. Her warm breath stirred the hair at his wrist, and it was his turn to shiver with delight.

    This was not the place or the time to marvel at her reaction to this rare intimacy. But telling himself that didn’t stop his heart from suddenly beating faster.

    For the briefest of moments, Vincent contemplated the possible reactions of those in the chamber who might be watching them, recalling his observations earlier when the subjects were Geoffrey and Eric. Now he imagined Cullen rolling his eyes and making kissing noises to those nearby or Rebecca’s mouth twitching into a knowing smile, perhaps even Mary nodding in motherly approval or Father frowning with parental concern. And he found that he no longer cared what others thought - those who supported his relationship with Catherine or those who might not.

    That perception struck him with quiet force. His actions were not bound by what others thought ... not even Father. It only mattered how Catherine reacted ... and it was apparent to him that she was just fine with it.

    It took a major effort for him to return focus to their conversation. After a deeply taken breath, he resumed speaking. “The chambers Kanin was enlarging for them were finished this morning. I helped him clear out the remaining rubble and move furniture from our storage chambers into their new home. It took longer than anticipated.” He smiled wryly with good-natured aggravation as he revealed, “Geraldine was not sure about the best placement until each piece of furniture had been moved several times.”

    Catherine laughed, picturing Kanin and Vincent trying not to roll their eyes as they heaved heavy bedframes and armoires from place to place. “She’s satisfied now?” Her eyebrows rose with the question, her smile holding a hint of skepticism.

    Vincent shrugged and reply drily, “Kanin said it’s hard to satisfy a woman for long.” He was rewarded by a delicate snort from Catherine. “But for now ... yes, she seems happy with the arrangement of her furnishings.”

    “I”m glad. But did you have time for dinner? A slice of cake isn’t going to fill you up after such a hard day.”

    The anticipated piece of cake suddenly appeared before him and Vincent looked up at Geoffrey and thanked him. Geoffrey handed Catherine her piece, and with some reluctance she disengaged her hand from Vincent’s to accept it. Eric arrived a moment later with two mugs of punch which he set on the carpet beside them, just behind their legs, to protect the mugs from being knocked over.

    “Thank you,” Catherine said with a smile, “for this and for everything tonight. You were both wonderful company.”

    Geoffrey blushed hard and Eric shoved his glasses up his nose self-consciously. “You’re welcome,” they both managed somewhat mechanically, then drifted away to find their buddies and preen over having gotten to sit with Catherine for half the concert.

    “You mesmerize them,” Vincent confided to her.

    “I seriously doubt that!” she replied, smiling as she shook her head. “I’m just not around much. If I were, I’d be old hat, like all the other ladies in the Tunnels.”   

    He was about to object to her ever being regarded by anyone as “old hat” when Catherine changed the subject. “Now, you were about to tell me, did you eat? Because if not, before I devour this cake, I will begrudgingly share it with you.”

    Her fork hovered over the slice on her plate as she looked from him to the cake and back while she licked her lips in exaggerated anticipation of her first bite.
   
    “Your kindness overwhelms me, but it’s unnecessary.” He smiled to soften his sarcasm and watched her happily dive into the cake as he continued, “Kanin and I were late because we stopped to raid the kitchen before stepping into the bathing chambers.”

    “Well, you missed some lovely music, but I’d rather you be here sated and smelling sweetly, even though it meant you didn’t get to hear a beautiful rendition of Pathetique.”

    “I only missed the first notes. I’ve been over by the entrance listening.”

    Catherine gazed over at the entry, her eyes widening in surprise. “How did I miss seeing you?”

    “You had your eyes closed. You were very focused on the music.”

    “Ah, so I was.” She nodded, remembering. “It happens, as you know well.” She popped the last bite of cake into her mouth, then was nonplused when Eric’s hands reached out to take the fork and empty plate from her. He disappeared before Catherine could thank him.

    Vincent leaned toward her and whispered, “Mesmerized.”

    Deliberately pretending to misunderstand him, Catherine responded, “Yes, I was, by the music.”

    “Tchaikovsky does seem to have that effect on you,” he replied, his lips twitching, resigned to having lost the battle.

    He finished his cake, but no eager hand reached out to carry his plate away. So Vincent rose to take it to the table. Catherine used his temporary absence to drink her punch, and she was just sipping the last drops when she saw Geoffrey slip into position in front of her, one hand out to accept the empty mug. He nearly bumped into a returning Vincent, who chuckled at Catherine’s floored expression.

    “I have groupies,” she admitted to herself as Geoffrey rushed off to deposit her mug with the other empties.

    “What are those?”

    The musicians began to tune up, so Catherine merely murmured, “I’ll explain later.”

* * *

    They made slow progress on the journey back to Catherine’s threshold that night, since they lingered here and there, not keeping their usual steady pace. As they ambled through the torch-lit passageways, Vincent gave himself permission to be more bold in displaying his affection, rubbing his thumb across Catherine’s knuckles when they were hand in hand, pulling her close when they walked side by side, even nuzzling Catherine’s temple when she impulsively hugged him after he had helped her over a large pipe blocking their path.  But too soon, it seemed, they approached the familiar broken brickwork.

    Catherine stood with her face buried against Vincent’s chest, her hands grasping fistfuls of his cloak. She inhaled deeply, savoring the aromas which always clung to him - the scents of his world and his own unique one - and distinguished him from every other man she had ever known.
 
    “It’s late.” The regret in his voice was clear.

    “Do you have an early class tomorrow?” She gazed up into his face, begging him to say no.

    “I have promised to return to Geraldine’s chambers to assist her with any last modifications to her furniture placement.”

    Catherine groaned in sympathy as she buried her face once more against his chest, and Vincent chuckled. Then he asked, ‘Was there a special reason you asked?”

    He could feel her nodding. “I was going to beg a favor.”

    “Do,” he urged.

    She sighed and stepped out of his arms. “No. As you said, it’s late, and we both have early days.” At his intaken breath, knowing he would protest, she added, “It will keep, I promise.”

    Reluctance to accept the deferral of her unexpressed wish shone in his eyes, but he could sense her resolve. He continued to gaze into her face, ensuring himself that the request was not of real importance. After a moment he conceded. “All right.”

    They continued to face each other, both knowing the moment for parting had come, both wishing to postpone it for a little longer. Vincent thought about how the kiss he’d pressed to her hand had been received earlier in the evening, and about the absurdity of the pretense he insisted upon that their love was platonic. It wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all her. Catherine had resigned herself to moving toward love at his pace, which he recognized had seemed, for the better part of a year, more like standing still. It was time ... beyond time ... to move forward a step or two. 

    As he thought of moving forward, his body responded and did the same. Without conscious thought, he leaned toward her. Very carefully he cupped Catherine’s face between his hands. His gaze took in the delicate pulse at her temple, the raised flesh of her one remaining scar, the invitingly soft lips, and with an ease which surprised him, he kissed her. Her mouth beneath his was luscious, responding to him with a tenderness which drew tears. His lips moving gently over hers, and for a breathless moment their Bond rippled in delicate undulations, like waves gently lapping at the shore of expectation.

    The moment - delicious, promising, tantalizing - ended. Vincent stepped away, stunned at his boldness, thrilled by it. Catherine smiled, blew a kiss to him, and turned to go. At the ladder she paused and looked back at him. The time was coming, they both understood that, and the promise of it was enough ... for now.

* * *

    She knew it was silly, but that wasn’t going to stop her.

    Catherine descended the ladder, dragging a backpack down with her before triggering the hinge which closed the door above her head. After she got both feet on the ground she dug out her flashlight and shrugged the backpack over one shoulder. It held water and granola bars, extra batteries, a towel, and candles and matches in case her flashlight completely failed. In one pocket of her suede jacket she fisted a piece of chalk.

    She approached the broken brickwork which separated her threshold from the tunnels and took a deep breath. Intrigued by Geoffrey’s remarks on the night of the concert about that “cool cavern” somewhere down past this section of the passageway, she had been about to ask Vincent to take her there. But she was glad she hadn’t. He would have known where she wanted to go and would have led her there - all she would have done would have been follow behind him. There would have been little adventure in that. No, the thrill of discovery would be hers only if she pursued her goal alone. And really, it was as safe an adventure as she could imagine, going alone to a place not far from her own threshold that was easy enough for the youngsters Below to find. So instead of turning right at the intersection of her threshold and the passageway as she always had to head to the Hub, she turned left, flicking her flashlight on as she did so, and she set off on her exploration.

    The path was rocky but walkable, the turns not as twisty as she had anticipated, the forks fewer than in the part of the tunnels with which she was familiar. Still, she tagged her way with irregular chalk marks which she hoped would make sense only to her. She didn’t want to make it obvious that someone had passed through this area, but neither did she want to accidentally slip into a side passage on her way back and become hopelessly lost. Having to call for rescue from this far beyond the Hub would not only be embarrassing but would pull someone from their duties due entirely to her impulsive desire to explore. She didn’t want to think of what Father would have to say about that.

    The rock walls seemed to close in at points along her journey, but they never narrowed to an uncomfortable degree. She inspected openings as she went along and traveled short distances into side tunnels to see where they might lead. She found only some relatively shallow alcoves, nothing that remotely suggested a chamber, much less a cavern, and she found no pools or falls.

    From far off, the clacking of subway trains could be heard, but the sounds were becoming fainter. She suspected she was moving away from the subway lines as she angled downward, deeper into the earth. The air was still fresh, although cool, and she was glad for the jacket she still wore despite her exertions.

    Catherine had explored for about two hours and was on the point of deciding to take a break when she detected a new sound just at the limit of her range of hearing: the rush of water. Whether it was the harbinger of the mysterious waterfall that Geoffrey had spoken of or just water moving through the sewers, she couldn’t tell. 

    She followed the sounds, backtracking at one point when they became too indistinct, then heading down a branch of the main passage as they grew louder. The splash of water on rocks was clearly distinguishable now from somewhere up ahead, but the passageway dead ended. Catherine stared in disbelief at the solid rock. It was here ... but where?

    She closed her eyes, focusing on the tantalizing sounds which seemed so close, and realized the waterfall was somewhere behind her. She turned and, from the vantage point of the dead end, saw what she had been unable to see until she’d passed it - a rocky outcropping that hid a slender opening, noticeable as a blacker shadow in the dimness ahead.

    It was then she realized that the glow cast by her flashlight was weakening. She dug fresh batteries from her backpack and replaced the dying ones. Immediately the passage filled with brighter light, the stark contrast between the outcropping of stone and the opening very evident now.

    Anticipation urged her feet forward, but she checked her progress, knowing that care was needed in an unfamiliar place. She slid her backpack from her shoulder and carried it in her free hand to make her silhouette as slender as possible. Slowly she advanced, the flashlight illuminating what was before her in sweeps from the ground to above her head as she carefully placed one foot in front of the other, ducking to avoid bumping her head on the irregular ceiling.

    The entrance was deceptive. After two sharp turns, she entered a maze-like series of tunnels. Running the chalk along the rocks near her feet, she traced the correct path until the trail ended in a large opening. The thrum of steadily falling water was very loud now. This had to be the cavern Geoffrey had spoken of. Catherine took a deep breath and turned the beam of her flashlight straight ahead, shining it through the arched entry, playing it quickly from left to right, then up and down. The beam revealed a cavern much larger than she had expected to find.

    Catherine used her flashlight with more deliberation now, slowly running the light across the ground and ceiling just in front of her to ensure there were no hidden hazards then, as she stepped inside, extending the beam to once more take in the full chamber. No evidence of humans occupying the cavern met her eye, nor were there stalagmites or stalactites to run into or trip over. When she was convinced there were no impediments to walking, only a soft dirt floor, she advanced further into the cavern, intent on exploration.

    The waterfall drew her attention as the most dominant feature in the cavern. Water spewed in a rush from a fissure in the ceiling, tumbling and crashing down over jutting rocks until it cascaded, frothing, into a pool that extended the length of the rear wall of the cavern. A thin mist hovered at the base of the falls, and water droplets sparkled on the rock face for yards beyond it, evidence of the tumultuousness of the waterfall.

    Catherine traveled the length of the pool, playing the flashlight beam over glistening boulders, and noticed small rivulets descending from various heights and myriad crevasses to empty into the main body of water. As she reached the far end, she sat on the rough ledge of stone that edged the water at irregular heights. Here, farthest from the falls, the pool was calmest. She put her pack on the ground and look around her in awe, contemplating all she saw. It was like a childhood fantasy, to find a hidden world - or, in this case, to stumble upon a small version of the Chamber of the Falls here, so close to her apartment building. She wondered what other secret places there were in Vincent’s world Below.

    Bending forward, she ran the beam of her flashlight around the pool, wondering what kept it from overflowing into the cavern. Not finding an outlet, she assumed it was draining into a space beneath the level of tunnels she was in, possibly creating another waterfall on a lower level as it left this chamber. Perhaps this water eventually joined other sources to emerge into the Chamber of the Falls, which she believed was several levels below her present position, although several miles away. She would have to ask Vincent or Mouse; with all the mapping they had done, one of them was sure to know. But that information wasn’t important right now.

    Catherine took a deep, satisfied breath as she looked around. She smiled triumphantly, with a flush of pride, mentally patting herself on the back for finding this place. She felt she deserved a reward for the success of her solo exploratory mission and for the blossoming of her adventurous spirit.

    Dipping her hand into the relatively placid water beside her, Catherine was surprised to find that it was not very cold. While it wasn’t exactly warm either, any pool Above would have been deemed comfortable if it maintained this temperature. She decided what her reward would be: a soak in the pool. It would feel good to lean comfortably against some of the flatter boulders and immerse her tired muscles while the turbulent waters frothed around her like a Jacuzzi. She had brought a towel with her, determined she’d at least get her feet wet once she’d found the falls, having assumed the water would be too cold to do anything else. A nice relaxing soak sounded divine.       

    Catherine pulled out the candles she’d brought and set them along a shelf of rock near the sheltered area she’d decided to bathe in. To conserve her batteries, she turned off her flashlight and traded it for the towel in her backpack. After zipping up and tucking the backpack tightly into a niche close to her designated bathing area, she shed her clothes and folded them neatly next to the backpack. Lastly, she set the towel where she could reach it handily once she got out of the pool.

    The ambient temperature in the cavern was comfortable while clothed, but a bit chilly now that she was naked. She quickly entered the pool then felt gingerly with her feet for a shallow spot on which to sit. A long rock shelf just a foot below the surface seemed perfect; it wasn’t wide enough to sit on, but gave her enough purchase to lean her elbows on so she could keep her head and shoulders above the water. Soon she had done just that.

    The roiling water eased the aches that had blossomed in her lower back and the soles of her feet after hours of exploration, and Catherine sighed with pleasure, smugly happy with herself for having accomplished her goal. This cavern was indeed, as Geoffrey had promised, “cool.”

    She still couldn’t believe she had never before followed the passageway that led to it. What else had she been blithely oblivious to for the past few years? She knew the answer. Her lack of inquisitiveness lay in one direction: Vincent. He consumed her imagination, leaving no room for such mundane concerns as the world around her.

    The candlelight cast flickering shadows against the rock walls, a hypnotic effect that brought to mind the quiet comforts of Vincent’s chamber. It was so peaceful, Catherine let her eyelids drift shut as the water bubbled deliciously around her bare skin, and she allowed the sound of the falls to lull her into a reverie of sharing the pool with an equally naked Vincent ....

    A sound other than the rush of water penetrated her consciousness. Shocked into alertness, Catherine turned to lean her forearms on the rock shelf and bent low to hide below the level of the boulders edging the pool as she strained to catch the sound again.

    Voices.

    Coming closer.

    Catherine strove to contain her panic as she blew out the candles, plunging the cavern into deepest darkness. She felt incredibly stupid all of a sudden, having assumed she was completely safe in an environment with which she was not fully familiar. Now here she was, about to be caught in a cavern with only one exit, naked, wet and vulnerable. Although her clothes and backpack were a short distance from her, they were useless because she couldn’t access them without calling attention to her position. She’d be found before she could even pull the only weapon she had - her heavy flashlight - out of the depths of her zippered backpack.

    Cursing herself as seven kinds of fool, she crouched lower in the water.

    The voices grew louder.

    Young voices.

    Boys’ voices, entering the cavern.

    “... haven’t been here before.”

    “Well, now you have!”

    “Wonder who made those chalk marks we saw?”

    “Oooh, this is neat!”

    Flashlight beams fluttered all over the cavern.

    Catherine held her breath. The voices echoed eerily, bouncing off the high ceiling.

    “Over here!” called one, and she heard several sets of footsteps scuffing along the cavern floor, coming closer. “The pool isn’t real cold. Come on!”

    There was a sound of metal creaking gently - lanterns? Perhaps.

    Muffled noises that to Catherine’s ears sounded like things being thrown to the ground were ... rocks? Shoes?!

    Suddenly, “Last one in’s a rotten egg!” came a shout, followed by the sound of running footsteps. Something flew over Catherine’s head and cannon-balled into the water several feet behind her with a huge splash. She turned, agony in her heart, to face almost immediate discovery.

    Other bodies flew over the rocky barrier and dove or plopped into the water.

    A head popped up, mere inches from hers. Dripping hair streamed into the face of a young boy whose eyes finally opened ... to stare straight into hers.

    Whose surprise was greatest, Catherine didn’t know. She screamed at the same time as he did.

    Recognition dawned.

    It was Geoffrey.

    Startled, he gulped in water through a wide open, astonished mouth, then flailed for a moment before dog-paddling frantically sideways, paying no attention to where he was going. Catherine tried to shout a warning, but he didn’t seem to hear her, and he cracked his head on an outcropping of stone. His eyes rolled up and he sagged bonelessly into the water and sank beneath the surface.   

    The others were slow to realize what had happened. As one by one the boys discovered their unexpected interloper, they froze, staring.

    A long moment passed.

    Geoffrey didn’t rise to the surface.

    Catherine recovered first and dove into the deeper water. She was in full-scale panic, searching frantically, reaching around blindly in the murky depths until, finally, she found him, motionless, far beneath the surface. She grabbed one of his arms and hauled him upwards, breaking the surface and carrying him with her as she swam to the edge of the pool.

    With no thought for her nakedness, Catherine lifted herself onto the ledge, then pulled Geoffrey up and out of the pool and eased him onto his back on the dirt floor. She felt for a pulse and realized he wasn’t breathing. Immediately she started CPR, crossing one hand over the other and pressing stiff-armed on his chest below his breastbone. After a few compressions, Geoffrey began to cough up water. She turned him on his side and held him as he cleared his lungs and regained his breath.

    The silence around her was dismaying. As Geoffrey recovered, Catherine chanced a look over her shoulder. There stood Eric, Jonah, Carlo and Ali, freshly emerged from the pool, mouths hanging open and staring not at their friend who was until so recently in distress ... but at her.

    Naked.

    Dripping wet. 

    Chest heaving from breathing heavily in exertion and fear.

    Suddenly a roar filled the cavern, echoing madly and causing the youngsters to wince and shove their hands against their ears.

    Catherine’s eyes closed as she realized what was happening. She could feel the rush of  blood to her face as she imagined the picture she presented to the man who had undoubtedly raced at full speed for two miles or more to “rescue” her from this situation.

    When she opened her eyes, there before her stood a gasping, growling ... very confused Vincent. The rumbling in his throat slowly subsided as he took in the tableau before him in the light of several lanterns: four pre-teen Tunnel boys, naked, wet and wide-eyed, and Catherine, also dripping wet ... and so very ... very ... naked ... so completely ... naked .... Finally his gaze dropped to the trembling, coughing youngster in Catherine’s arms.

    Catherine managed to gasp out, “He ... almost ... drowned.”

    Vincent whipped the cloak from his shoulders, ready to drape it over Geoffrey. But he hovered in indecision, wondering if he should instead wrap Catherine in it.

    Catherine made the decision for him. She stood and, with as much dignity as she could muster, walked back to where she had left her towel. As she was wrapping it around herself, Vincent dragged his gaze from her and over to the youngsters, calling their names until they looked from Catherine to him, then holding their attention as he barked, “Boys! Come here!” Keeping his eyes in them, he tucked the cloak around Geoffrey and began to rub his arms and legs through the light wool.

    Eric led the other boys to Vincent, and they formed a semi-circle around him and Geoffrey, facing away from Catherine. She used the opportunity to dry off quickly and shove herself into her jeans and sweater. She then sat on an outcropping while she dried her feet and pulled on her socks and shoes. The towel she wrapped around her sodden hair, then surreptitiously tucked her underwear inside her backpack as she pulled out the flashlight. Finally able to face the others, Catherine took a deep breath to brace herself and returned to Geoffrey’s side.

    “Go dress now,” Vincent ordered the boys, and they swiveled away from Catherine with an alacrity born of deep embarrassment. Catherine knelt beside Geoffrey and murmured, “It was my fault, all of it.”

    “I doubt that,” he replied.

    Catherine shook the towel from her hair and began to dry Geoffrey’s sopping mop with it. By now the youngster could sit up, and Vincent asked Ali, the first boy to finish dressing, to bring Geoffrey’s clothes to him. Catherine returned to her backpack and stayed beside it, gathering her candles to take back home, as Vincent helped Geoffrey dress. She heard Geoffrey mumble, “I’m fine, honest” as Vincent tried to lift him in his arms to carry him back to the Hub.

    Vincent set him on his feet, watching his balance critically. He seemed to have recovered remarkably quickly, and Vincent had to admit that he seemed well enough to make the journey back to the Home Tunnels with only minor assistance.

    “We’ll help him, Vincent, don’t worry,” a subdued Eric told Vincent, and the other boys nodded vigorously. None of them glanced over at Catherine. In fact, they seemed in a hurry to leave. Ali approached Geoffrey and put one arm around his back, ready to help his friend walk. Jonah and Carlo grabbed the lanterns while Eric and Geoffrey picked up their flashlights. Vincent called, “Leave one,” and Carlo obeyed, handing a lantern to him. Then the sober troop walked single file out of the cavern, tugging at their jeans and sweaters, which had been donned in haste, without concern for proper fit.

    Their exit eliminated any other distractions. The time had come for Catherine to face Vincent.

    Vincent rose and shook out his damp cloak. His face was turned away from her, so Catherine couldn’t gauge how angry he was. She sat heavily on a flat rock, lowering her head into her hands. “I’m so sorry,” she moaned. “I’ll never live this down.”

    Vincent took up the lantern and moved close to her. He set it down then knelt in front of her, sitting back on his heels. “Tell me.”

    She barked a sardonic laugh. “Oh, trust me, it’s a tawdry tale.” Forcing herself to look him in the eye, she related how Geoffrey had mentioned this interesting cavern fairly close to her threshold, how after the concert she was going to ask him to take her there, how she decided that instead she wanted to attempt to find the place herself, thinking it a simple adventure where nothing could go wrong. By the time she got to the shocked look on Geoffrey’s face when he’d come out of the water and seen her, Vincent head was lowered, his shoulders shaking in barely suppressed amusement.

    Catherine wasn’t exactly sure what kind of reaction he would have to the situation, but in considering the likely options, amusement had not crossed her mind. Still trembling slightly from the shock of all that had happened, she glared at him. “It’s not funny!”

    He did his best to curb his response, but as he lifted his head to face her he couldn’t stop the corners of his mouth from curling upward just a little. Catherine was relieved that he wasn’t the least bit upset with her about being taken from his work to rush to her “rescue.” Grateful for that favor, she turned to her other worry: she couldn’t help feeling humiliated about what had occurred. “Geoffrey nearly drowned because of me. And all those boys got an up close and personal sex education lesson which Father will not appreciate, I’m sure!”

    Vincent snorted once, softly. He composed his face into a serious expression, although amusement still glinted in his eyes. “You are a goddess, Catherine. The boys could have done much worse than see you in all your glory. Besides, they’re old enough to know ... at least theoretically ... about female anatomy. We went over what is what in science class last year. True, they may not have seen a naked woman in the flesh, but there are ...magazines ...circulating among the young men in the Tunnels and those boys are at an age when they will see them soon enough, if they haven’t already. And having just experienced what they did, I can attest that you will be a difficult act to follow.”

    Catherine relaxed a little, hoping he was right, although still not convinced that Father would see it the same way. “Father ....”

    “I don’t intend to report this to him, and I somehow doubt those boys are anxious to either. When you think about it, nobody did anything wrong - neither you nor them. What happened to Geoffrey was an accident, and he seems to have suffered no lingering effects, although I’ll ask Mary to check him to be sure.”

    He rose to sit beside Catherine, drawing her into his arms. She exhaled a long sigh, allowing herself to fully appreciate his nearness, his warmth. His arms pulled her closer, and hers extended to wrap around his waist. They sat quietly, listening to the crash and rush of the falls, feeling the dewy spray that rose from the churning waters.

    He kissed the damp crown of her head. “Of all the ways I dreamed of seeing you that way, I confess this scenario never crossed my mind.”

    She smiled against his chest. “Surprise!”

    She could feel more than hear his rumbling chuckle. “Indeed. A glorious, happy surprise. When I entered this chamber, I feared you were hurt or in danger. After it became apparent you were neither, I could have taken you into my arms and kissed you. It was only Geoffrey’s condition ... and the other boys’ inability to tear their eyes from you ... that kept me from it.”

    She hesitated for the briefest of moments, considering his surprising revelation, then risked saying, “They’re not here now.”

    He stilled beside her, then murmured, “No.”

    As she pulled away to gaze into his face, he turned to her. They regarded each other in silence for a breath ... two. Then, as if such intimacy had long existed between them, they melted together, welcoming each other with a long, slow, deep exploration of lips and tongues that was a sweet anticipation of what was to come.

    Vincent broke from the kiss first. He sighed gustily and leaned his forehead against Catherine’s. “I want to make love to you so much, Catherine. But this place ...” He looked around, then back at her. “It’s not what I would have chosen.”

    “It’s perfect,” she responded. “We’ll have plenty of privacy. “ She smiled as she added, “Now that the boys are gone.”

    He smiled back. “And are unlikely to return.”

    “So, you see, we have all we need - a quiet space ... and each other.” She reinforced her response with another kiss as she claimed Vincent’s mouth-watering lips once more.

    Savoring the newness of the experience, neither of them was in any hurry to move past the moment. Kiss followed kiss. Trembling fingers delicately stroked cheeks and eyebrows. Blue eyes gazed into green, amazed and humbled by all that was reflected in their depths.

    Catherine buried her hands in the thick golden tresses which obscured her view of the cavern as Vincent’s head was bent to hers. He responded by cupping the back of her head with one large, strong hand, his fingers playing against her damp hair, ruffling it lightly.

    They relished the languid minutes of freedom to touch, their need subsumed for the moment in their burgeoning joy. Catherine could sense the battered, cracked walls of Vincent’s resistance crumbling ... giving way. He was finally and forever fully committed to this path they shared, their Bond thrumming with his passion, a passion she could feel inside of her, deep within her heart.

    Slowly they pulled away from each other, and by unspoken agreement they rose to prepare. Catherine reclaimed her candles, matches and towel as Vincent gathered his cloak and the lantern and moved to a shallow grotto beneath the towering rock face from which the falls emerged. He spread the cloak on the soft dirt; Catherine handed him the towel, which he folded and laid down like a pillow. As she lit the candles and placed them in niches in the rock walls beside the cloak, Vincent lowered the flame on the lantern until it was just a muted glow.

    All beyond the flickering light of the candles was dusky darkness, the cascading waters a veil of sound masking any others from within or without. Vincent knelt on the cloak and extended a hand to Catherine. But she didn’t take it. Instead she began to undress, sliding off shoes and socks, unzipping her jeans and rolling them down her legs, then tossing them to one side, and finally slipping her sweater up and over her head and sending it to join her jeans. This was not a seductive interlude, for there was no need to tease or titillate. She was just readying herself for him.

    Vincent sat back on his heels watching her. The unpracticed ease with which Catherine undressed relieved whatever residual strain he had been feeling over the moments to come. For Catherine, baring herself to him was simple, easy - she was certain of his desire, his acceptance. Surely he could take her lead and do the same.

    As she finished, Catherine took the hand which was still extended to her, allowing Vincent to steady her as she sank to her knees. He fixed his gaze on hers and began to unlace his vest, pulling the ties free and shrugging it off. The thermal shirt he wore beneath it had a lacing closure at the neck; this he worked open before tugging the shirt free of his jeans. Catherine stayed silent, not watching his clothes come off, just holding his gaze until he pulled the shirt over his head. After he shook his hair free, he found her eyes again, waiting for his. His hands fell to the buttons of his jeans; he forced the sudden trembling of his fingers to subside and pulled the buttons free from the worn buttonholes.        

    He hesitated the merest moment, gathering his courage. He had not been naked in front of a woman since he was a child. And this was not motherly Mary, but the woman he adored beyond thought, the woman whose approval and desire he desperately needed. Taking his courage in his hands, he shoved the jeans and his underwear down with one effort, lifting first one knee then the other to allow the garments to slide the length of his legs. He sat back, tugging the boots and socks off his feet and removing the clothing that now pooled at his ankles.

    Catherine’s eyes had never left his; she had not moved to assist him or even touch him as he had undressed. Still as a statue, she had waited for him. When he rose to kneel again, naked and vulnerable, she finally moved, edging up to him until a deeply inhaled breath would have allowed their bodies to touch. She leaned into him then, pressing her body to his as her arms came up and around his neck and her lips found the underside of his chin.

    Vincent groaned at the intimate contact, his mind reeling from the sudden sensory overload. His arms flexed and he reached out to pull her closer still. She reacted with her own moan, muffled against his neck, and her lips parted as her tongue flicked across his jugular, following the line of it to his collarbone, then slipping across it to the indentation where his clavicle met his breastbone. She sucked lightly here, drawing a gasp from him.    

    Catherine reached behind her and gripped Vincent’s forearms, gently tugging them from around her and placing them down by his sides. She loved being held so tightly, but right now she needed to be free to explore, to lavish him with all the love she had been holding inside for so long. Now, finally, she could do what she’d longed to, what she’d dreamed of.

    Sitting back on her heels, Catherine concentrated her attention on the furred chest, bare shoulders and strong forearms she had imagined caressing night after night. Her fingers stroked the outlines of each muscle, relishing the rock hardness, running her palms over the length of his arms, the tips of her fingers drawing shivers as they slid up his sides, accepting each sharp intake of breath from him as proof he relished her touch. As she roamed the planes and valleys of his torso, with reverent lips she pressed soft, lingering adorations to flesh and fur alike.

    Vincent’s eyelids drifted shut with the exquisite agony of his need as it battled with an immeasurable gratitude that Catherine found his body appealing, desirable. He stayed in a state of taut stillness, muscles tight with wanting her caress, anxious to know where her fingers might stray next, how her lips might follow. Her hands, her mouth were traveling lower, both of her palms now flat against his sides, now sliding together to meet at his stomach, now reaching back to slip around his buttocks as her tongue and lips slid ever downward.

    When her cheek brushed against the rigid steel of his erection, the tension within him was too much to bear any longer. With one hand he grasped Catherine’s shoulder and gently pulled her backwards as his other hand drifted downwards to cup her bottom. Her head lolled backwards, her eyes heavy lidded as she panted through parted lips. Vincent saw the growing pool of black crowding out the green of her irises, and a thrumming growl leapt from his throat in response. He laid Catherine carefully upon the cloak, sliding his hands from her buttocks and shoulder before straddling her in a kneeling position. They both looked down at the same time, noting the length and thickness of his erection. With a question in his eyes, he met her gaze. She responded by reaching out for him, her arms straining upward in the welcoming gesture he sought.      

    With a gusty sigh of relief, Vincent sank into her embrace, pressing his body to hers, reveling in the heat of her, the softness of her skin, the tension of overpowering passion flowing from her into their Bond. He pressed hot kisses against her forehead, her eyes, the scar at her temple, her chin, then slid his body downwards as his hands cupped her shoulders. On his knees, he lifted his torso so that he could take in the beauty of her lying naked beneath him. His nose twitched, sensing her need, her readiness. He was needy, too, and oh, so ready. But he held himself back, prolonging the pleasure just a little more to make the coming fulfillment so much more intense, so much sweeter.

    His head bent to her breasts. For so long he’d dreamed of kissing them, caressing them. Her dusky nipples were taut and taunting. She was even more tantalizing than his dreams had allowed - so delicate, so delicious, so responsive beneath his hand. His thumb brushed a nipple and Catherine squirmed with delight, a soft moan escaping her lips. With his lips and hands he worshiped her, Catherine arching her back to meet him, one hand cradling his head against her, holding him to her breast.
    Catherine reached down between their bodies, trailing her fingers along a torso created by the gods just for her - those chiseled muscles taut with restrained passion - until her fingertips found what they sought: the sleek hot thickness of his erection. She slid her fingers down its substantial length.

    Vincent gasped and raised his head, staring down at her in unabashed surprise at the intensity of the sensations she wrought within him with that touch. His lips pulled back from his teeth as he struggled to pull in enough air, panting with barely suppressed need, revealing sharp canines which glinted in the candlelight.

    Catherine was mesmerized by the sight of her savage-looking lover, knowing he was anything but that. She had dreamed so often of a moment like this, but the reality of him - his uncommon beauty, his mane of hair in wild disarray - was more than any dream. He was breathtaking.

     Wrapping her hand around his erection, her face reflecting her awe at the impressive girth she held, she stroked him from base to tip, again and again, as she murmured his name with mingled adoration and passion. Her thumb flicked across the tip and then around the underside of the broad head with each upward stroke; her hand squeezed the shaft lightly on each downward one. She felt him tremble as he held himself on stiffened arms so that he could watch her touch him so intimately.

    Vincent always loved to hear her say his name, but he’d never heard it sound more wonderful than coming from her passion-swollen lips. He watched in awe as she grasped him so intimately, amazement widening his eyes. He had never even dared to imagine what she was doing now, her fingers flaming his desire beyond thought. A tremor ran through his body, his need escalating to fever pitch. Reason fled as, head thrown back, he gave himself to the heat of her hand.

    Unable to wait any longer, Catherine urged him towards her, guiding him to her core. She was so ready, and he was almost beyond the point of no return. As the head of his erection met the moisture at the juncture of her thighs, they both gasped in anticipation, anxious for the joining that was now a breath away.

    Catherine’s hand released him and Vincent nudged himself forward, a worry still swirling beneath his own desperate desire - could she accept all of him? Tentatively he parted her nether lips with the tip of his penis and pressed an inch of his length within her. The feeling was exquisite - silken and hot, an invitation to continue. He was amazed at how her body welcomed him, enveloping him within a fluid embrace, and as he entered her he closed his eyes, concentrating on the subtle messages of her body’s reaction to him, waiting as it made minute adjustments, slowly opening for him further and further as he continued to bury himself more deeply inside her.

    He knew he was large - possibly too large for any woman, let alone one as petite as Catherine - and he tried to prepare himself for the possibility that their joining would be too painful for her, too much for her body to accept. Even now, as much as their Bond told him she wanted all of him inside of her, her body was unable to admit him further.

    Catherine had never been with a man as endowed as Vincent, but she felt sure that her internal muscles could accommodate his impressive girth. She put aside her own need for fulfillment to focus on that. Yet relaxing was not what she wanted to do - the urgency to move against him, to relinquish control to him and let him drive toward his own completion was so intense. She longed for all of him, to give him all of herself.  But her body was betraying her, her core unaccustomed to releasing tension after her long period of celibacy, and it was stubbornly struggling against her desire to be open to all he had to give. She could have cried with her frustration, which only made her internal muscles clench more tightly.

    “It’s all right,” Vincent whispered in her ear, their Bond reflecting the increasing strain within Catherine. She already had given him so much...as much as she could. He knew he was different from other men in so many ways ... why had he hoped for a moment that he would not be different in this way, as well. He couldn’t help the pang of disappointment that lanced through their Bond at that moment, although he struggled to suppress it.

    Catherine whimpered, “No!” when Vincent began to withdraw, rolling her legs up and around his waist, trapping him against her. “Wait ... if you can. I just need a little more time.” Tears sprang to her eyes as she realized she wasn’t sure if more time would tame her insubordinate body. But she couldn’t give up, not yet, not after these long months of patient waiting for the man of her dreams to believe enough to try to make them come true. Vincent was here now, with her, willing to accept that this was part of their destiny - to be a couple, complete in every way - and she was not going to let this moment end in defeat ... or it would never come again. She knew that in her soul: it was now or never.

    Vincent hesitated then nodded against her cheek, and she hugged him more tightly. He was as unwilling to give up as she was ... a moment of grace. It quieted the panic that had been growing in her heart, giving space to a kernel of an idea.

    She took a deep, deliberate breath and focused on the sound of the water crashing against the rocks. The flow was constant, unending ... just like her love for Vincent. The rocks seemed impervious, but the water was slowly, relentlessly breaking them down. Yet the water flowed without tension, strong because it fell openly, with abandon. She closed her eyes and became like that flow, letting it fill her senses, feeling it rise up within her, the surging waters spreading through her, bearing down against the rigidity of her internal muscles, loosening them ... and within herself she felt at last a slow stretching, a freeing of tension. 

      Vincent felt it too, felt himself drawn deeper, his gentle thrusting meeting no resistance, until he was fully sheathed within her. It startled him, the ease with which those last inches were received. Her body held him fully now, as he had hoped, had dreamed. They were one in body as they had always been in heart and spirit, their Bond flowing with unrestricted emotion between them, fully open, tendrils of passion and joy and love swirling together, as inextricably interwoven as their hearts were. 

    Catherine had been right all along: he was only ... and gloriously ... a man.

    Catherine sighed gustily in mingled relief and joy. She opened her eyes to find Vincent gazing down at her, tears filling his eyes.

    “I never believed ... never imagined ....” He choked on the words, abandoning them, letting his body express his joy, beginning to move now, first cautiously, then - feeling no resistance - more forcefully. Catherine clung to him, her hips moving against his, driving him forward to what he had so long desired. Each thrust thrilled him anew - astonishing, exquisite, life-changing. His climax almost caught him by surprise, its strength shuddering through him, pulling a growl from deep inside him as he crested a massive wave of inexpressible sensation until he finally fell from its heights, tumbling back to earth to find himself safely within Catherine’s arms.

    “Oh, Catherine,” he murmured, pressing kisses upon her hair, her lips, her eyes, his own eyes glittering with unshed tears, too overcome to spill the contents of his heart, to pour out all the words he needed to say.

    “I love you,” she whispered. She clung to him, tightening her grip on him to keep him close, to keep him inside. But despite this, Vincent slowly lifted himself away from her, ignoring her whimper of protest. Leaving the welcoming embrace of her body was almost painful to him, yet he knew with certainty now that he could ... and would ... return to her, for that welcome would always be there.

    He lay on his side beside her and placed an index finger against her lips.  She stilled, awaiting his words. When they came, they were a whisper brushing against her ear: “Now ... you.”

    Carefully he traced his finger across her lips, along her cheek, over her chin, down the side of her neck ... kissing everywhere his finger drifted. ...her shoulder ... her upper arm ... slipping across to her breasts. His hand closed over one breast very lightly, weighing it in his palm, squeezing it ever so slightly, sighing as he did so. The softly exhaled breath tickled Catherine’s sensitized flesh, causing her nipples to pucker even more tightly. The sight nearly robbed Vincent of breath, and in a haze of desire he bent his head to press a kiss to the ruddy tip of one nipple, then gently, languorously he lapped at it, nuzzling and suckling.

    Catherine struggled to control the urge to press herself bodily against him, knowing he wanted to be in control now, that he needed to offer her what she had just given him. She wanted to fill her eyes, her hands with his beauty - to heal him of his aloneness forever. But despite a nearly overwhelming desire to push him back atop the cloak and ravish him, she lay still, her eyes half-lidded, just watching him give her this pleasure, accepting the gift fully, knowing it meant almost more to him than the delight he was given by her.

    The candlelight played with the highlights of his hair, illuminating it in glints of gold as he lavished her body with attention, moving on from her breasts, after long minutes of adoration, stroking and kissing down to the concave of her stomach, the curve of her hips, then positioning himself between her thighs.    He lifted and parted them, and Catherine let her knees fall open, obeying his silent request. His hands caressed her shapely legs from ankles to thighs, bending to press kisses to the dimples in her knees.

    She trembled with anticipation as she realized what her lover was about to do for her. No flame could have burned hotter than the touch of his fingertips as they glided slowly up the inside of her thighs, no fire throw off heat like Vincent’s gusty breath as he bent his head to her center. When he finally tasted her, his tongue swirling hotly against the hard bud of her clitoris, she moaned aloud. And when his thumb pressed against her to add friction to his loving, she sobbed his name over and over, uncontrollably.

    A small part of Vincent’s mind was shocked at his boldness. The intimacy of this touch seemed forever beyond dreams - with his clawed hands and fangs, with his strangely formed mouth, he had always doubted he could truly give Catherine pleasure in this way. Yet it was undeniable - from the evidence of his eyes, from the intense emotions rippling through their Bond, he knew that Catherine was near climax. He gloried in the knowledge, even as the greater part of him gave himself up to the sensations of loving her this way - the texture of her slick flesh, the taste of her longing for him, the aroma of her arousal that called to the wildness inside of him ...

    Catherine’s back arched and she grabbed handfuls of the cloak beneath her, her head thrashing from side to side. She moaned his name more loudly and he increased the intensity, driving her higher and higher, until her climax shattered through her with such force she collapsed, limp and exhausted, gasping for breath.

    Vincent rose and lay beside her, wrapping his arms around her tenderly, and held her as she trembled. She clung to him, aftershocks of her orgasm shuddering through her, while he gentled her with kisses, stroking her back. She pressed herself hard against him, burying her nose against his chest, savoring the closeness and the quieting of the storm within.

    As her breathing slowed to a semblance of normal, she opened her eyes and pulled her head back so she could look at him. The candlelight shone through his tousled hair, giving it the look of a golden corona, and she smiled.

    “What is it?” he asked.

    “You. You’re so beautiful in candlelight.” She reached up to brush a few stray sweat-slicked hairs from his forehead.

    “It’s you who are the true beauty, Catherine.” He cupped her cheek with one palm and placed a reverent kiss upon her brow. “Your trust, your belief in me ... in us ... humble me.”

    She rose on one elbow to look down into his face. Heaving a relieved sigh and blushing, she said, “Thank you for being patient. My muscles picked the worst time to tighten up and I .... ”

    He stopped her words with a kiss. One led to several, each slower and more languorous than the one before. When he was sure she wouldn’t add to her apology, he said, “You have waited for nearly three years for me to come to my senses, Catherine. I only had to be patient for a moment.”

    “Still ...” she began.

    “No.” He shook his head, unwilling to entertain her apology. “Besides, it’s all my fault.”

    Thinking he was about to apologize for his size, she opened her mouth to protest, but then he added, “If I hadn’t made you wait so long for me to come to you like this, you might not have had that little problem.”

    Catherine’s jaw dropped, then her mouth snapped shut in surprise. She began to smile. “That apology I will accept!”

    He bared his canines with his answering grin.

* * *

    Catherine and Vincent spent the rest of their afternoon as it had started ...once the boys had left. Now, even after a break for water, a snack and a restorative soak in the pool, both of them were pleasantly exhausted, a little sore, and ravenously hungry. They dressed and re-packed Catherine’s backpack and languidly made their way to the Hub.

    Dinner was well under way when they arrived, and they stopped only to deposit Catherine’s backpack in Vincent’s chamber and to run a brush through their hair before entering the dining chamber.

    Those eating said their hellos as Catherine and Vincent grabbed bowls of chili and cornbread and looked for an empty table. But the only seats available were beside a couple of youngsters who seemed to be hunched over their dinners, spooning food into their mouths rather quickly.

    “Shall we?” Vincent prompted Catherine, who had stopped short when she realized the only two unoccupied chairs in the room were beside Eric and Geoffrey.

    “Don’t you think it might be awkward for them?” she asked, smiling with mingled compassion and humor as she indicated Eric and Geoffrey with a tilt of her head.

    “Vincent! Catherine!” Pascal, who was sitting at the same table as the boys, was waving them over. “There are seats here!”

    Catherine nodded, resigned, realizing the encounter was inevitable - whether now or later. She followed Vincent to the table.

    “Hello, everyone,” she said, smiling at the adults at the table before turning to the youngsters and acknowledging them in a kindly, affectionate tone of voice. “Hello, Eric ... Geoffrey.”

    “Hullo,” Eric mumbled, eyes on his cornbread. Geoffrey waved one hand while he shoveled chili into his mouth with the other.

    Rebecca eyed them disapprovingly. “You’ll get stomach aches eating that fast, you two. Slow down.”

    Both boys obeyed, but soon after Catherine and Vincent had settled into their chairs and begun eating, the boys excused themselves and left the table.

    “Don’t you want any apple pie?” Pascal called disbelievingly to their retreating backs.

    “They must have schoolwork to do,” Vincent offered diplomatically.

    Rebecca shook her head in wonder. “I’ve never known those two to skip dessert. And Geoffrey left most of his cornbread. He loves cornbread.”   

    Vincent and Catherine spared each other a quick glance, lips twitching with the effort to control their smiles. Then they resumed eating.

* * *

    Bedtime found five friends in a corner of the boys’ dormitory, sitting on their bunk beds whispering to avoid being overheard in the commotion of tooth-brushing, horseplay and story-reading.

    “So it’s agreed. We never tell anyone what happened, right?” Geoffrey pleaded with his fellows.

    Ali nodded vigorously. “I don’t even wanna think about the trouble we’d be in if Father ever found out.”

    Jonah shuddered. “You think she’ll tell? Or Vincent?”

    Eric considered the question, then said, “They’ve been back a couple of hours now, and nobody’s yelled at us. I don’t think they want to tell either.”

    “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to face Vincent in class again,” moaned Carlo. “I mean, we saw his girlfriend butt nekkid!”

    The boys subsided into quiet reflection. Nobody spoke for a long while, until Geoffrey broke the silence. “She’s awful pretty, huh?”

    All the boys nodded in solemn agreement.

* * *

    “There’s another concert this coming Friday, Catherine. Would you like to attend?” Vincent was leaning against the brickwork of her threshold, his arms around Catherine’s waist, nuzzling a curl near her cheek.

    She turned her head up and kissed his lips, a long, lingering kiss full of promise and passion. When she was able to take a breath, she smiled. “Only if you promise not to send one of the boys to escort me!”