JoAnn Baca

    "Hello?  Oh, hi, Sue.  What's up?  Oh, no!  Oh, my God!  How?  When?  Oh, Sue, I'm so sorry!  Yes, I'll tell Jen.  Is there anyone else you want me to call?  Anything I can do right now?  Of course.  I'll come up first thing tomorrow and go to the cemetery with you.  Sure, nine a.m. is fine, but I'll come up tonight if you'd like?  I understand.  I'll see you tomorrow.  Give my deepest sympathies to your Mom for me, won't you?  I'm so sorry, Sue. Okay.  Bye."
    Catherine dropped the receiver back onto the cradle from her suddenly nerveless fingers, her face a mask of stunned disbelief.
    Grabbing a handful of tissues to blot her eyes, she slowly rose from the couch where she had been relaxing with a copy of Miss Mapp . Recently, Vincent had introduced her to the series of satirical novels by E.F. Benson set in early twentieth century England, and they had spent several evenings discussing the delightfully vicious Miss Mapp and her social competitor Lucia.  She had been in a cheerful mood as she read.  Now, the book sat discarded by her side, forgotten in the face of overwhelming and unexpected tragedy.  Shaking her head to clear ft, Catherine turned back to the phone and punched in Jenny's number.
    "Jen, it's Cath.  I have some terrible news.  Nancy's sister, Sue, just called.  Oh Jen, I don't know how else to tell you this, but to just say it: Nancy and her husband and their two beautiful children were killed in a car accident on their way home from Disney World. -No, that's all I know..  But I'm going up to Connecticut tomorrow morning to be with Sue and her Mom, and I'll probably be able to let you know more then.  No, you don’t have to do that.  Sue’s contacting the rest of the old gang.  Yes, I know.  It's so tragic.  I will.  Okay.  Bye."
    Numbly, Catherine drifted into the bedroom and located her photo album and flipped through ft.  Blowing her nose, she sat crosslegged on the bed as she found what she was hunting for.  On her last long weekend with Nancy and her family she had taken lots of snapshots.  Everyone was goofing around, and someone had snapped several group shots of 'The Gorgeous Girls Of Radcliffe', as Buddy had dubbed them so long ago.  Now Catherine’s fingers traced over the sweet open face of her closest friend in college.  She had always been slightly jealous of Nancy---gifted with an extraordinary talent for photography, incredibly beautiful, enormously popular, and blessed with a fantastic husband and adorable kids.  And she seemed to be living a fairytale life in Connecticut.  Nancy's was always the life against which she measured her own.  Nancy was her touchstone, and the one friend she thought might best understand about Vincent.  In fact, she had given serious thought to introducing the two of them...sometime. Sometime.   Somehow, sometime had never come.  And now, it never would.  Oh, God.
    As Catherine sat contemplating the vivacious smile and kind eyes which would never again be turned her way, the grief began to rise fully to the surface.  She didn't even realize she was crying again until tears dropped onto the photos in her album, smearing the printed captions below each photograph.  After blotting the tears from her face, she carefully dabbed at the album page with a clean tissue, and then turned to other shots, those which she had taken over the years of Nancy and her family.  Her beautiful family.  Her happy family.  Now gone.  Forever.
    Closing the album, she returned it to the shelf, rose from the bed and stepped out onto the balcony.  The summer breeze which had sprung up since sunset was a welcome draft of coolness after the warmth of the day.  Leaning against the balcony railing, she dropped her head into the palms of her hands and gave in to the weeping.  She cried hard - for lost innocence, lost friendship, lost opportunity.
    The soft tread behind her warned her only moments before gentle arms encircled her.  Without a thought, she whirled around and burrowed into the enveloping warmth of  Vincent’s embrace.
    Sudden, tremendous pangs of sorrow had pierced the bond while Vincent was playing chess with Samantha, drawing him immediately to Catherine this night.  There had been no warning - his beloved's presence through their bond had been temperate and content, then suddenly everything had changed.  As he descended onto her balcony and approached her, Vincent was alarmed by the wracking sobs that wrenched her small frame.
      "Catherine," he murmured softly, "Please, tell me what’s happened to cause you such despair."
    Catherine lifted her face to his.  Tear-streaked and swollen-eyed as it was, her beauty still made his heart lurch in his breast.
    "I ...had some ...b...bad news…tonight," she managed between sobs.  "My old friend., Nancv Tucker...she and her family...her husband…children...were all killed a car accident."
    Vincent was visibly stunned by the news.  Catherine’s dear friend and her entire family?  Oh, dear God, no.  He remembered Catherine's wondrous stories of visiting Nancy in Connecticut, of her endearing little girl and her rambunctious son, neither yet school age, and of her husband, a successful lawyer and wonderful family man.
    "Oh my love, I'm sorry, so very sorry."
    Catherine pulled away slightly, needing to tell him what had been on her mind when he arrived.  "They were so full of hope, of plans, of possibilities, Vincent.  And now all that is gone!  They thought they had so much time - enough time…for everything.  I had planned to introduce Nancy to you, remember?  But somehow we never found the time." Tears welled up anew.  "'Where can it be found now, Vincent, where?"
    "Catherine, none of us can know our allotted span of time.  We must have faith in the future, yes, but we can only live each day..."
    "And what of possibilities, Vincent?" she interrupted.  "What of our dream of someday?  We have enough faith, you and I , but what if we don’t have enough time?"
    "What is it you are trying to say, Catherine?"
    "Vincent, can’t you tell me?"
    "Tell you ... what, Catherine?" He was genuinely puzzled by the turn this conversation had just taken.  He'd thought they were talking of Catherine's lost friend, but they now seemed to be talking about...themselves.
    "Oh, Vincent, can't you understand?  We have faith in our dream, but our dream could be taken from us in an instant, and then what would we have?  You and I have been through some terrible moments - each of us has been near death more than once, and only by grace and good fortune do we stand together tonight on this balcony.  It could so easily not be the case."
    Alarmed now by the tone of her voice, Vincent began, "You mustn't say such things..."
    "Why not?" she asked, searching his eyes.  "Every word I've said is true.  I could be here now, alone, contemplating the bleakness of a future without you.  You could be Below now, alone, with no bond and no one Above who is thinking of you.  Yet we shy away from our truths. We fear to express them.  We are so certain we have time.  But what if we were as certain we had no time left, Vincent?  What if tonight was all we had?  What would you say to me then?"
    He was still unsure of what Catherine wanted from him, what response she wished to hear.  "What are you asking, Catherine?  Do you wish me to...unburden...the secrets of my soul to you, here and now?  Must I truly do that when you are already aware of them?"
    "No, Vincent, I don't need to hear your secrets, but I long to hear your truths.  What do you want for us?  What do you need from me?"
    Now he felt panic clutch at his heart.  He thought he understood what Catherine was asking him, and he began to tremble inwardly from both the magnitude of the request and the unexpected urgency he heard in her words.
    "My ... truths?  There is but one, Catherine, and that is love.  I want only love for us.  I need only love from you."
    "You can have what you want and need, Vincent."
    "I…I…already do, Catherine."  He couldn’t say, or do, anything more.  This isn’t the time, he thought desperately.  I’m not ready!  Catherine, what you ask I cannot give, not yet, not now!
    Catherine stared at him for what seemed like an eternity, as though trying desperately to will him to make some small move - toward love.  But he said nothing more.
    Finally, she begged in a low voice, abandoning subtlety in her naked distress, "Vincent, I need you tonight.  Stay with me?  Please?"
    At that, Vincent stepped back as if she had slapped him.  His anxiety grew until he could barely breathe.
    Catherine pressed on.  "What would you do if you knew this was our last night together, Vincent?  Would you reach for me, as I am doing now for you?  Or would you turn and walk away?"
    His mind reeled with the effort he was making to overcome all of his fears and give Catherine what she asked - no, begged of him.  But he knew he could not.  The woman he cherished beyond his own life needed the gentle, comforting caress of a seasoned lover tonight.  His desire for her was too intense, his control too unsure, and he knew that his inexperience would prove poor consolation for the melancholy in her soul.  He could not face the fierce onslaught of her need, nor the great possibility of disappointing her.
    " are distraught.  You are…full of grief for your friend and your loss.  To take advantage of your...vulnerability... would be unconscionable.  I cannot.  I will sit with you tonight, and watch over you while you sleep, if you wish…but more than that…"
    For a moment, Catherine just stood there, staring at him.  Then her eyes closed, her shoulders sagged, and a resigned expression ranged across her features.  She sighed heavily.  It seemed to Vincent as if a candle had been blown out in his heart, and the cold emptv space left in its place chilled him.  Still, he knew what he must say.
    "I cannot, Catherine.  I am truly sorry."
    Her smile was one of irony mingled with surrender.  She nodded once, as if accepting an unhappy fact, then turned from him without another word or glance and walked back into her bedroom.  Closing the French doors behind her, she left him standing on the balcony - bereft, forlorn, alone.  Taking a step nearer to the door, he watched as she pulled out a suitcase and began packing for her trip to Connecticut.  He waited and he waited, but Catherine did not look out onto her balcony again.
    Finally realizing she would not talk to him again this night, Vincent turned, glanced back at her over his shoulder as he as he blinked away his tears, and left the balcony.


    The rest of the week was a blur - the funeral itself had been horrific.  Burying a beloved friend was terrible enough, but a whole family of them, and especially the children, was nearly impossible to endure.  Those little coffins… She simply hadn't been able to look at them; it was just too sad, too painful.
    She and Jenny had supported Nancy's remaining family as best they could through the ordeal.  Sue and her mother had been numb with grief, and Catherine had to handle virtually every arrangement.  That was okay, she was used to being in charge, being depended upon.
    If this terrible experience had occurred a few years earlier, she doubted she’d have had the strength to cope with it all, but since her attack she had developed reserves which she had not known existed within her - until Vincent had shown her they were there.  Still, between handling funeral arrangements and assisting the executor with legal filings, realty agents, banks, and going through the accumulation of four lives in a house once filled with love and happiness, she found herself in an emotional tailspin.
    Joe had been very understanding.  He had allowed her to take her accumulated leave, plus told her he would advance her any amount of additional leave she might need.  She’d wished she could take a few days more, just to unwind and get her perspective back, before returning to the grind that she knew would swallow her whole.  She had called Joe just this morning to advise him that she was back from Connecticut, but exhausted, and he himself had insisted she not return to the office until the next Monday.  That gave her the rest of today, and Thursday and Friday - practically five more days off.  It was a rare treat, but not one she could look forward to with very much enthusiasm.  Not considering what she had just been through, and not considering what she expected to face when she talked to Vincent again.
    What was she going to do about Vincent?  She had thought a lot about him in her quiet moments over the past week.  He had pulled away from her as though he’d been burned when she had begged him to stay with her, and the pain and humiliation of that recoiling had bruised her heart.  It hurt even now to recall their last conversation. Was the thought of making love with her so horrible to contemplate?  Could he not have overcome his trepidation to grant her that comfort in the depth of her need?
    He was wrong - she had not been made vulnerable by the deaths of her friends.  She had been made all too aware of the fragility of life and the unforgiving nature of time.  What she had wanted was to share an affirmation of life in that dark hour.  And he had denied her that.  He had forced her to face that long night alone - no, not alone, she corrected herself He had offered to sit with her, talk with her, watch over her as she tried to sleep.  Yet, how awkward would that have been, after his repudiation of her desperate request?  She couldn't have accepted his kindness or his sympathy.  Not after what had been asked ... and refused.      What did it say about them?  What did it mean for them?
    Perhaps that night had been the ultimate test; if he would ever have come to her bed, it would have been that night, when her need had been overwhelming, urgent, and  desperate.  All of these years, she had thought he wanted her as much as she wanted him, but that his natural reserve, inborn control and fear of the unknown had prevented him from approaching her.  Perhaps she was assuming desire where there was none, because she so ardently wished it to be reciprocated?
    Could it be that Vincent merely required her friendship, and her attempts to deepen their relationship made him uncomfortable because he simply didn't have those feelings for her, and he was too much of a gentleman to tell her? That must be it. Oh God, Chandler!  What a mess you’ve made of things.  You’ve invested your soul in this dream you share, and it’s hollow at its core.
    Caught up in her introspection, she hadn’t noticed that note had been pushed under her door.  Seeing it now, she knew it hadn't been there when she'd arrived home two hours earlier.  But since then she'd been busy unpacking, sorting laundry, and catching up on her answering machine messages.  She was sure no one had knocked. though.  That she would have heard.
    As she stooped to retrieve the note, she saw the flowing script in which her name was written, and knew immediately who it was from.  Usually eager to read Vincent's notes, Catherine opened this one with extreme apprehension.

My Dearest Catherine, I felt your return this morning and could not wait until tonight to speak with you.  Please come Below as soon as you possibly can?  I shall wait for you at the threshold.


    Catherine felt a guilty twinge that she had not noticed the note before.  He might have been waiting almost since her arrival, worrying about why she had not come.  Well, there was no help for that.  Grabbing a jacket and her keys, she started for the sub-basement of her apartment building, wondering why she wasn't feeling her usual anticipation after being apart from Vincent for so long.  Perhaps because she dreaded this meeting so?   What can I say to him?  What will he say to me?
    As she began her descent on the ladder to her threshold, eager arms reached up and lifted her down.  Vincent set her on her feet, and she turned to look at him.  Drinking in the sight of her, he found he was almost desperate to see, to touch her again, and so overjoyed that she was finally back, and so near.
    From habit, Vincent braced himself for her usual enthusiastic hug. but this time Catherine didn't reach out to greet him.  Trying to give her some privacy in her time of grief, he hadn’t intruded on her emotional state through their bond since they’d parted, telling himself he did this for her sake.  But he knew that more than a small part of his reticence to expand their connection was due to his fear of what her reaction might be to his denial of her last request.  Because of this, when he had sent the note  to her via Bennie, he had not known exactly what to expect.  Now he stood silently, arms held stiffly at his sides, his heart sinking as the reality hit him.  He had done serious damage to his relationship with Catherine; just how much he did not know, and he was afraid he was about to find out.
    "I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner, Vincent.  I only saw your note a few moments ago."
    Trying to ignore the sad, almost anguished tone of her voice, he replied, "I have not been waiting long.  Thank you for coming Below.  I ...wasn't certain you would."
    As a rule, Catherine's reassurance would have spilled from her almost before he had finished uttering the words.  Today, she stood quietly, regarding him, and his words fell into the deep, uncomfortable silence which had sprung up between them.  Finally, she spoke.
    "What did you want to say to me, Vincent?"
    Now that she was here, standing just in front of him, everything that he’d planned to say vanished from his mind, and he became tongue-tied and unsure of himself.
    "Catherine... I...I have no words to express to you how sorry 1 am."
    Shaking her head, she replied, "There's no need, Vincent.  I know you grieved for my loss as if it were your own."
    Then she said nothing more, resuming her silent watchfulness - not moving, not giving away her emotions through her eyes, or through the bond.
    Vincent couldn’t discern if she was deliberately misunderstanding him, but he admitted to himself that his statement was sufficiently vague that she could have honestly mistaken his meaning.  Catherine's unaccustomed formality with him in both posture and speech was causing him to lose what little nerve he had mustered for this conversation.  Perhaps he had hurt her too profoundly to expect forgiveness?  Perhaps he should allow her to believe he had only wanted to express his sorrow for her loss?  No, he owed her the correct apology at least, if she would accept nothing else of him.
    "Catherine, I…I wish to apologize to you... for my you the...comfort. you asked of me, the night your friends died."
    There, he'd said the words.  She could respond in any way she chose.  He would take all the recriminations she wished to heap upon him.  He felt like a coward, felt as though he had betrayed her on the balcony as surely as if he had turned his back on her the night he found her.  Nothing she could say to him could be worse than what he had already said to himself.  What had all his promises of courage and care amounted to - an ephemeral dream, which vanished in the light of day. His fear had choked that dream, dragging it toward oblivion with the weight of his uncertainty.
    Her tone imperceptibly softer, she murmured, "Thank you, Vincent.  I realize what it must have cost you to say those words aloud."
    That was all?  Now Vincent was truly at a loss.  He wasn't certain what he had expected, but surely not thank you.  He stood staring at her, hesitant and confused.
    Catherine had thought - hoped- he would tell her more.  Something.  Anything!  Explain his actions.  Express his love.  Honor their dream.  But she realized sadly that he had said all he had come to say.  At that realization, something long-nurtured and much cherished died within her.  That's it, Chandler. That's all.  Accept it.  You are his beloved friend. Nothing more.
    The softening Vincent had. felt from Catherine moments before slowly dropped away, and a steely reserve settled into its place.  His heart began to ache painfully with the depth of her ambivalence toward him.
    Catherine wanted nothing more than to retreat, to escape the confusion she saw in Vincent's eyes, especially knowing she'd caused it.  This was becoming mote and more painful with each passing moment.
    Straightening her shoulders, she began, "Well, I really should go back up.  I have some bills to pay, and phone messages I should answer."
    "Of...of course, Catherine."
    No. No!  He couldn't let her go just yet.  He hadn't seen her in six entire days, and the pain of the separation had been made all the worse by the knowledge that they had parted on such distressing terms.  Everything that had happened today reinforced his earlier assumption that irreparable harm had been done to their relationship, and it was entirely his own fault!  Catherine was cold and remote, she did not move to touch him, nor did she seem unhappy to be leaving him.  If she walked away now, would he ever see her again?  Despairing, he cast about almost frantically for a topic of conversation.
    "Will you be ... returning to work tomorrow?" It wasn't much, but it was all he could think of  in his present state.
    "No," she responded, "Joe's given me leave until Monday.  I really need the time to...think, to rest.  It's been a draining, difficult week."
    "Then ... perhaps you might come Below during the next few days?  Many people have been asking for you - Mary, Rebecca, Mouse..." Hoping to get her to smile, he continued, "Even Father says he misses you."
    Vincent's desperate little attempt to placate her struck a chord of sympathy in Catherine's heart.  He was trying so hard to be kind.  Sighing heavily, she relented.  It isn’t his fault if he doesn't love you the way you love him, so you had better take what you can get.  The alternative doesn't bear thinking about.
    Taking a deep breath, she pushed her misery aside long enough to give him some sign of friendship.  Vincent could be so easily hurt, she knew, especially by her.  Perhaps they were not meant to be lovers; perhaps that part of the dream had been hers alone.  Well, then, she would bear the sorrow by herself from now on.  She knew the true limits of his love for her now, and would be guided by that knowledge in the future.  These last days had been a valuable, if painful, lesson.  She promised herself that she would try not to do anything ever again which would make him the least bit uncomfortable.  And so, nodding her head, she accepted the invitation.
    "Yes, of course I'll visit, especially if Father is so terribly lonely for me," she teased back, trying to keep her voice mild and friendly.
    As Catherine's tone of voice lightened, Vincent felt his body go weak with relief.  She would not leave him.
    "Anytime, Catherine,"
    "May I come tomorrow night?"
    "Of course," he replied eagerly.  "For dinner?"
    Then she afforded him a hesitant smile, and Vincent's heart began to beat again.


    The following evening left Vincent more confused than ever.
    Catherine had come Below for dinner, as she had promised.  She had spent time speaking to Jamie, to Mouse, to Rebecca, to Olivia, to Mary, to Father, to Pascal, to William, to Samantha, to Eric - to everyone, really, including him.  She had been warm and friendly with everyone - including him.  She had not broached any topic that might be considered too personal or intimate with anyone - including him.  She had been perfect company.  But Catherine had not spent any time with him alone, had not lingered at the threshold to talk, had not suggested any plans for the rest of her time off.  She had treated him exactly as she had treated every other member of the tunnel community.  Exactly.
    Vincent paced his chamber feverishly as he contemplated what it all meant.  Catherine wasn't angry with him.  From the edges of their bond, he caught wisps of emotion from her, and he was certain she wasn't angry.  But neither was she ... loving towards him.  She seemed to regard him only... fondly.  That was all.  He still could not bring himself to open the bond further, to read her emotions directly.  Somehow, he knew she would feel it to be an unwanted intrusion, especially right now.  That she could feel that way chilled him to the soul.
    The uncertainty he felt begot a dread that draped over him like a shroud.  If he were to lose Catherine's love, it would mean the end of his existence, anguish too terrible to contemplate.  Was she pulling away from him in degrees, to accustom him to her absence?  Was she planning to sever their ties at some point in the not-too-distant future?  That night on the balcony, she had spoken of lost time.  Perhaps she felt she had lost enough time with him?  When she'd asked him what he would do if h was their last night together, he had thought it only a rhetorical question.  Now he considered the possibility that it had been their last night together - truly together.
    Oh, dear God, what had he done?  By fearing to act on what she had asked of him, had he driven a wedge between them that would pry them further and  further apart until he lost what was the most precious, wondrous part of his life?  He felt her withdrawal as a lessening of contact within the bond.  As her love diminished, would that bond disappear entirely?  He was almost paralyzed by the thought of losing that extraordinary closeness to her.  He must save it, he must, if it wasn't already too late!
    Grabbing his cloak from the edge of the chair by his desk, Vincent swept it over his shoulders and strode from his chamber.  As he ran toward the threshold leading to Catherine's building, he fought to draw a normal breath, but for some reason he found it nearly impossible.  He was terrified.  He was elated.  And he was desperately in love.  Tonight he would learn his fate.  Tonight he would confront his destiny.  Tonight.


    Having taken a long, soothing shower, Catherine emerged from the bathroom wearing a silk nightgown and slowly brushing her hair.  She'd had a pleasant enough evening Below, but the stress of restraining herself from the more intimate contact she craved with Vincent had given her a raging headache.  It had taken massive self-control to hold the bond in check, to withhold her emotions from him, to converse with others when she ached to rush headlong into his arms and pull him into the quiet of his chamber, to pour her love over him and receive his like a balm to her parched soul.  But such intense closeness obviously distressed him.
    She thought back on all of the times Vincent had pulled away from her when they had gotten a little too close.  He had consistently refused to take her subtle, or even her obvious, hints.  He virtually never initiated anything approaching an intimacy, other than brief hugs and handholding - which were, ultimately, only friendly gestures, exchanged also with his family Below, even the children.  How much more evidence do you need, Chandler? she scolded herself.
    So...she would strive not to make him uncomfortable in her presence again.  She hoped she could get used to it, that the pain would gradually lessen, that she would accept, in time, this diminished role in Vincent's life.  You don't want to lose him, Cathy. Another confrontation like the one last week, and he could run from you forever.  You saw how upset and embarrassed he was.  Oh, God, but I love him so!
    A hesitant tapping at the balcony door caught her by surprise.  Vincent was standing by the door, looking in at her, something he never did.  Catherine, aware that she was not wearing much, did not go to the door immediately; she spun to pull a robe from her closet first.
    Vincent decided not to wait.
    As she heard the handle turn, Catherine's astonishment grew.  By the time she'd belted her robe and swung back to face him, Vincent had entered her apartment - her bedroom - unbidden and uninvited.
    "Catherine, forgive me, but I must speak with you about ... your behavior tonight.
    Now her astonishment was complete.  "My behavior?  What did I do wrong?"
    Vincent approached her, moving around the foot of the bed as he spoke.  "It is not what you did, Catherine.  It is what you did not do."
    Now she was totally puzzled.  She thought she'd acted with perfect decorum while Below.  "I don't understand what you're trying to say, Vincent.  There was something I forgot to do?  What?"
    Vincent threw caution and control to the four winds. What if tonight was our last night together?  "You forgot to have faith in our dream, Catherine.  You forgot that we do not have 'world enough and time'.  We have only tonight.  We have only this moment."
    Reaching her side, Vincent stood extremely close, towering over her, a posture which would have intimidated anyone else but Catherine, who only looked steadily at his face to discern the meaning of these unexpected words.  And as she gazed into those extraordinary, seemingly depthless blue eyes, they suddenly spoke to her of a longing and a hunger she had finally convinced herself he did not truly feel.  Those eyes now gave silent testimony that they would never again withhold the full measure of his passion for her, his immense and untamable desire to become one with her.
    Catherine knew that her own expression now held a mixture of amazement and anticipation.  That cherished hope, the one that she had thought lost just yesterday, sprang back to life and filled her heart.  With everything she was, she yearned for him.
    "Catherine ... I ... I love you," Vincent whispered in a voice made raw and strained with the force of the emotion charging through him.  "Forgive me?  I was so fearful...before. You needed so much from me, and I was afraid I could not give you what you craved.  I took the cowardly way out, and in doing that, I betrayed our dream.  You were right to pull away from me.  But, please, Catherine, do not pull away now?  If you do, I truly will not survive it.  I hope against all odds that you'll forgive me, and learn to love me again.  I could not ask a greater gift than that you at least...try?"
    Hearing those precious words, Catherine hesitated no longer.  She threw her arms around Vincent's waist and hugged him with all her strength.
    "Learn to love you again?!  Vincent, I've been trying to convince myself that I had to unlearn it!  I thought that's what you wanted.  I thought...after last week...I thought you wanted only friendship from me, and I resolved to demand nothing more from you than what you could give.  It's been so hard for me to maintain a distance, to keep my hands to myself, when what I really want is to smother you with kisses and never let you go!  That week's separation devastated me, and then to come back and try to keep things light and dispassionate between us ... I had such a headache when I came back Above tonight!"
    Surrendering himself completely, Vincent collapsed into Catherine's ardent embrace.  Relief flooded through him in waves, bringing tears to his eyes.  He buried his face against the nape of her neck as he enveloped her within his arms, pressing her closer still against him.  The tears he shed were hot against her warm skin.
    Holding him tightly, she murmured into his ear, "I could never stop loving you, Vincent, no matter what."
    He had been so certain that all of this - Catherine's love, her tenderness, her need was lost to him that the sudden end to his inner torment left him stunned.
    "Catherine, I..." He was unable to speak, but knew he must find the words, words which would express his joy, his love, his hope; words which would seal their destiny forever.  It took a moment, but he did find them.  And this time, to this woman, he spoke those words aloud.
    "Through all of my life, I have longed for what I thought I could never have - just one moment when another's heart would touch my own and know me, all of me, and still have the courage to love.  I thought if I could only know that feeling one time, it would be enough.  I could ask no more of eternity.  I could exist on that one shining moment forever.  But I had been dreaming for so long, Catherine, when you came into my life."
    Taking a breath, he smiled shyly at her.  "I...I was afraid to hope that your heart would find mine, and when it did, I was afraid to believe it could know me and still love.  When that too, came to be, yet still I was afraid.  Until tonight, I was afraid, Catherine.  So when you offered me the chance to make my most precious dream come true, I could not accept the gift.  My faith failed me.  My fear overwhelmed the dream.  But I have always needed you, ached for you, yearned for the sweet oblivion of your lips, the comfort of your silken flesh.
    Putting one hand to the side of her dear face, Vincent studied her for a moment.  "Tonight, I am telling you that my fear still exists ... but, finally, love is stronger than the fear.  Let me stay with you tonight, Catherine?  And if this one moment is all that is fated to be, then it will be enough.  I will exist on it forever - if I have to.  Your love is ... everything I need, everything I want.  Everything I must have."
    Catherine's eyes were misty and warm as she stretched on tiptoes and pressed a lingering kiss to Vincent's trembling lips.  It was a soft kiss, a gentle kiss, a kiss which spoke of promise and fulfillment.  She sighed against his mouth as she pulled away, and her hot breath was a fluttering pledge of unbanked passion as she whispered, "You're safe.  You're safe now."
    She held him close again, and for a long time they stood wrapped together, not wanting to rush now that the decision had been made.  After a time, Catherine gently disengaged from his arms.  She moved about the bedroom turning off lamps and lighting candles to provide the soft illumination most comfortable to Vincent's eyes.  Then, taking one of his hands firmly in hers, she turned and crossed to the side of her bed, bent forward, and pulled the covers back.  Slowly, she turned to face Vincent and unhurriedly unfastened his cloak, letting it fall in a dark pool at his feet.  When she placed her hands gently upon his shoulders, the slight pressure of her touch urged him to sit.  Nervously, he complied.
    Startling Vincent slightly, Catherine knelt before him, but she only bowed to remove his boots, unlacing them slowly and placing them carefully to one side.  Then she knelt behind him on the bed and began to firmly knead the tense muscles of his neck and shoulders.  Gradually, due to her attentions, the anxiety that had clenched at his body began to release, and he finally allowed himself to completely relax.  She continued to massage his shoulders with sure, unhurried movements, until his eyes drifted closed and he groaned in pleasure from her loving touch.
    Gradually ceasing her ministrations, Catherine laid her cheek upon Vincent's head while her hands rested lightly on his upper arms.  After a while, she began to stroke down his arms and over his shoulders, and to rub his chest, in slow, rhythmic motions, giving him time to get used to these new sensations.  She was taking her time, lulling and exciting him in equal measure, as if nothing else existed in the universe but the two of them.  Vincent understood that Catherine was willing to wait for him, to ease him and gentle him into their loving.  This gift she offered him - her patience - dissolved the last of his diminishing agitation.
    He sighed deeply and leaned his head back until it rested against the silken robe covering her breasts.  Catherine took the opportunity to press closer to him, gently molding- her torso and thighs into his back.  Vincent remained quiescent as she began to untie the top laces of both his vest and shirt, letting the warmth of her embrace and her languid movements still the trepidation of baring himself to her eyes.  Even when her hands strayed to the top button of his cords, he neither demurred nor aided her, feeling safe and comfortable in her loving hands.
    Gently, Catherine tugged Vincent's shirt and thermal undershirt out of the now-loosened waistband of his pants.  He lifted slightly away from her to make this easier.  Then, with a feathery touch, she brushed the vest, shirt and undershirt up and over his unresisting frame.  His arms lifted as his clothes came off, then dropped to his sides, and he was astonished to find that his near-nakedness didn't disturb him.  He could feel through their bond that Catherine was pleased, even delighted, at the sight of the soft dense fur that covered so much of his chest and arms.  He was amazed but proud that she would find him so...was "attractive" the word he was searching for?  He gave up trying to define what she was feeling, content to know it was approval, acceptance.
    Catherine eased him down upon the pillows, then rose and stood beside him, lifting his legs and swinging them up onto the bed.  Vincent lay still, watching her, as she knelt again upon the bed, this time straddling his thighs.  She sat back upon his legs, lightly and easily, and smiled softly, almost shyly at him.  He smiled back, astounded that this beautiful woman had been touching him, caressing him, and relishing the contact.
    "I love you so much, Vincent," she murmured, as she unknotted her robe and slipped ft from her shoulders.  He was about to respond when, with a sudden movement, Catherine raised her nightgown and swept it over her head and to the floor.  She was kneeling before him now, gloriously naked - his Catherine, his life.
    Whatever he had been about to say died forgotten on his lips as he beheld her luminous beauty.  He was frozen into immobility from the force of his reaction to her.  His heart clutched and he thought his lungs could not take in enough air as he began panting, his pulse quickening wildly.  Still, he made no move to touch her.  His uncertainly held him back - how to touch, where to touch - these thoughts ran rampant through his brain.
    Catherine leaned down until she was resting on her knees and forearms, her body just brushing his.  With excruciating deliberation, she moved above him, stroking his broad furred chest with her breasts, taut nipples grazing over his sensitized skin, as she placed breathtakingly tender kisses upon his hard-muscled form, the strong column of his neck, and lastly, upon the remarkable leonine features of his face.
    Vincent noticed distractedly that Catherine's breathing was harsh and uneven, as if she were holding herself back only by great effort.  He was stunned to realize that her passions were aroused to a fever pitch, but that she was forcing herself to go slowly, to give him the time he needed to grow accustomed to this intimacy.  He knew then that she would continue to hold back until he made some move toward her, giving her some sign that he was ready to take the next step.
    Vincent raised trembling arms and encircled Catherine's slim waist, drawing her down to him.  He held her close against him, reveling in the intoxication of her bare skin against his, hungry for more, willing his heart to still its mad racing so that he could savor this singular feeling.  Finally, slowly, he removed one arm from around her, raised his hand and grasped her chin, maneuvering her mouth under his.  Then he lifted his face to hers and hesitantly captured her lips with his own.
    That kiss, the first initiated by him, pierced him to the soul.  He had forbidden himself this ecstasy for so long.  Now it awoke something deep within him, something long chained and bound within his iron will.  The fire of passion jolted through him like an electric charge freed from restraint; it banished his fear in an instant.  Stunned, he began to taste her in earnest, drinking in her essence like a parched traveler would at an oasis.
    Inexperienced he might be, but his desire and his dreams aroused the latent sensuality in him.  They surged though him now, and his inhibitions finally shattered.  Vincent devoured Catherine's mouth as no other man ever had, or ever would.  She was undone by the power of his kiss, by the voluptuousness of his ardor, and by the fierceness of his urgency.  He was consuming her, overwhelming her senses, as he tasted every part of her, moving from her mouth to her neck, to her shoulders, to her breasts, the curve of her hips, her nether lips, in an orgy, a frenzy of desire.  Her eyes drifted shut as she gladly gave up control to him and allowed herself, finally, to succumb to the rapture his maddened blood had aroused in her.  Rational thought was slipping away in the blossoming, the ripening, of Vincent's manhood.
    Vincent had no idea how he had overcome his shyness and hesitancy, but he knew nothing of restraint now.  He was lost in the heady combination of textures, scents, and tastes which compelled him further and deeper.  He was ravenous, insatiable, as he explored the wonders of Catherine's physical being.  Rumbling growls were tom from his throat as he sought and found every secret her body possessed.  He imprinted her possessively with his mouth, his teeth, his tongue, and his hands.  Never had he imagined that he bore such a wanton nature, nor that Catherine's erotic power could so utterly overwhelm him.
    Moved almost to the limits of his control, he pulled away and rose to his knees above her, frantic in his ecstasy, the remaining buttons of his cords bursting with the force of his arousal.  He reached down and yanked the pants off then, and his exhilaration was complete when he saw Catherine's eyes widen in both appreciation and craving.  Moaning low in her throat, she gathered him against her.  He pressed his unclad body full length upon her then, and their fevered flesh ached and throbbed, anxious to merge.
    For a timeless interlude, they knew nothing of the world beyond the rapturous entwining of their bodies.  Catherine skirmished lovingly to indulge in her own explorations, proclaiming her own potent desire in her rapacious claiming of his body with her mouth and hands.  But Vincent's need was too emphatic, and he could not long endure her ardent attentions when he had compulsions of his own driving him to consume every sultry sweetness her body offered.  And so they contended in an erotic duet, giving and taking in a blissful frenzy of passion and joy.  
    Incredible as they were, these sensations they had hungered for in silence for so long could not quench the thirst for ultimate fulfillment.  The craving for completion grew too intense to be denied.  Catherine watched in wonder as Vincent loomed above her, devouring her with his eyes, his hands compulsively stroking her, caressing her, familiar now with each inch of her flesh, as he had always been with her soul.  His body was on fire, tensed and waiting.  She knew what little composure he retained was cracking under the irresistible urges compelling him to possess her fully, to become one with her.  She- reached for him then, pushing him over the edge into erotic abandon with her panted words.
    "God, you're magnificent, Vincent!  I need to feel you deep inside of me.  Please, come to me now?"
    Vincent let out a powerful, majestic roar of equal parts glory and triumph as he arched against her, almost startled that his substantial thickness and length plunged so lubriciously within her, reveling in the feeling of her seeing and holding him, her moist depths welcoming and encouraging him further.  He poured himself into her then, his body a metaphor for the immeasurable rapture of his soul.  Their joining was frantic and intense, forceful and profound, and their orgasms shattered them against the shore of their longing.  Their bond overpowered them, magnifying the intensity until they were inundated with a paralyzing euphoria of spiritual union as intense as their physical one.
    Orgasmic aftershocks shuddered through both of them, and they clung to each other and rode the diminishing waves until they were spent.  Vincent was astonished to find he could not pull away, or even loosen his hold upon Catherine in the aftermath of their loving.  He wanted never to relinquish her to the world again, nor to ever disengage himself from her.  Catherine held him fast against her, inside of her, and even without the bond he would have known that it was the same for her.  He had joined himself, fatefully, finally, with the woman who, until now, he had adored with his body only in dreams, and the realization tore through him like a hurricane.  Out of an appalling tragedy had come this stunning affirmation of life - of their lives, together.
    His joyous tears fell disregarded as he pressed ecstatic kisses to the face of his beloved.  She was his now, and he was hers.  Irrevocably.  After tonight, neither of them could ever deny again the truth of their love.  For them, each night was to be as this one, as if it were their last.
    Their time had come.