WHEN MY WORLD DIVIDES AND SHATTERS

Jo Fredericks

As he neared the balcony ledge high above New York City, Vincent nearly lost his footing when he felt another jolting stab of the misery that overwhelmed his belovedís heart. That misery had drawn him inexorably upward this night, as waves of anguish crashed against his soul -- anguish he, in large part, was causing. Ruthlessly dismissing his concern for the moment, he concentrated on his climb. As familiar as this path had become in the last few years, it was still treacherous, especially after a summer rainstorm left the masonry slick and slippery. Finally achieving his goal, he dropped soundlessly upon the tile flooring, sweeping it with his cloak as his flexed knees sank to break his fall.

Catherine was standing at the French doors leading into her bedroom. Though it was very late, she was still clad in her work clothes -- a shimmering green silk blouse and simple light wool beige slacks. The blouse, however, seemed ruined -- spattered from her tears in places, soaked through in others, mute evidence of a long night of the soul...that wasnít over yet.

She caught sight of the shadowy figure crouched upon her balcony and turned a tear-stained face to him. He gazed up at her, into the tormented eyes which did not flinch from his, despite the fresh rush of agony he felt through their Bond as she beheld him. As he rose to stand, her eyes continued to hold his. Then, without breaking that contact, she opened the doors and walked out onto the balcony. For a moment, she seemed to hesitate. Whether waiting for him to make some move or because she herself was contemplating one, he wasnít sure. The moment stretched out, until suddenly she seemed to sag, her head bowing in a gesture of defeat. Recovering slightly, she swept past him, coming to a stop at the ledge and leaning against it in a posture of abject misery.

Catherine looked out over the city. The lights seemed so far away, and despite his presence, she still felt so alone...so terribly alone. "Iím sorry, Vincent. I try so hard...but sometimes...like tonight...I just canít stop these...feelings from overwhelming me."

He still stood where he had landed, several feet behind her, silent and watchful. Her voice carried back to him on the slight breeze -- rarely had she sounded so completely bereft. As the emotions behind her words washed over him, he closed his eyes tightly and threw his head back in reflected anguish -- absorbing the pain, the admission, the burden.

When he did not speak and still made no move toward her, Catherineís agony grew even more intense. He had come because he had no choice, not when he felt this unutterable torrent of feeling lancing through their Bond -- wave upon wave of hopelessness, despair, desire, frustration and craving, all mixed together into an agonizing brew that poisoned her until she felt close to nausea. He had to understand what was behind this torment in her mind. Still, she wondered why he would come all this perilous way to see her, yet not cross the few tiles that would bring him to her side. Perhaps hers was not the only bruised soul this night; perhaps the pangs of her sorrow pierced him too deeply, until the fear of what she might do if he touched her kept his natural sympathies in check. But despite it all, she longed for the solace of his embrace, no matter that it would bring her greater pain -- knowing that, despite everything, that was all he could...or would...offer her.

As if replying to her unspoken need, a whisper crossed the chasm between them, compassionate and caressing. "Iím here, Catherine. Tell me." Not hearing his step as he closed the distance between them, she was startled to feel his left arm come around in front of her to rest upon her right shoulder. Surprising her further, he pulled her back against him and held her there, pressed close. Knowing how she felt, what she yearned for, how had he managed to overcome his reserve so far, to give her this measure of consolation? She knew how much it must be costing him, but she sank into the embrace nonetheless.

He felt so...good...so right. Why couldnít he see that, why couldnít he understand? Why was something so intuitive in her so utterly beyond his scope of comprehension? That they could...should...be together seemed so natural, so obvious to her. To him? It was to be avoided at the cost of both their hearts, if necessary. But...why, then, if he still felt that way, did he hold her like this -- so intimately, so tenderly?

Vincent felt her struggle, felt the tiny seed of hope, of pleasure that grew in her as she accepted his comforting embrace. The gesture was being accepted, but in her heart, its import went far beyond what he had meant to imply. He began to regret the impulse to pull her close in this way. Oh...God.... He strove for calm, willing himself to remain as still as possible.

Lifting her head, Catherine laid it back against the strong column of his throat. She could feel his gentle breaths on her brow, the exhalations making her soft bangs flutter, tickling against her temple, her eyebrows. She wished she could match the beating of her own heart to his, so slow and steady; she wished she could relax and enjoy the delicious feel of him pressed against her, his strong arm holding her firmly to him; she wished she could concentrate on only him, on inhaling that intoxicating, spicy breath that even now warmed the planes of her face. But try as she might to succumb to his tender concern, her thoughts skittered and lurched, and she was unable to hold off the constant ache, the terrible throbbing emptiness that threatened to consume her tonight.

He asked her to tell him...but how could she? How could she express it all -- how she longed for things she could not have with him...things she wanted to give only to him...things she desperately needed from only him? With a sobbing catch in her voice, she finally responded, "What can I tell you? What can I say that you canít already sense? Donít make me say the words...please."

Vincent sighed. He knew too well the tortures of her heart. They were the tortures of his heart as well...no, his soul. It was because of him...because of his limitations....and because, despite them, she had her needs. This had been a mistake. Coming to her tonight had been wrong, when he couldnít offer what she wanted, when he couldnít assuage the ache, couldnít satisfy the deep, swelling desire within her for the kind of physical love he could never give. Because to do so would be to acknowledge a connection between them far more permanent than even their Bond allowed.

Frustration and a sharp, gnawing guilt overtook him. Gently, reluctantly, he took his arm from around her, dropping it to his side as he took a step back from her, leaving her chilled from the sudden withdrawal of his warmth -- a chill that was part physical, part soul-felt. Her entire body seemed to clench with that withdrawal, as if an essential part of her was being torn away by force.

He ached to see her standing so stiffly immobile before him, felt the piercing shards of the tears that pulling away had drawn from her. Trying to rectify the error he had made, he sought to remove himself from her presence, acknowledging as he did so that by being here, she had been forced again to confront his inability to slake the welling hunger within her. Whatever she was going through tonight, she could gain no true comfort from him. Far from it.

"Perhaps...perhaps I was mistaken in coming.... I ...seem to bring you only...more pain." Distressed and miserable, he turned to go. But before he could take more than another step, Catherine whirled and caught at his arm with both hands.

"No! Please...no. Donít leave me! I canít...I canít bear to be alone now. Please. Stay." She pressed her cheek against his shoulder, her arms snaking about his own, her hands entwining with his, effectively preventing his departure.

He could only leave now if he forced her to let him go, and he was unwilling to do that to her. What she needed from him....was so much more than just this simple contact, it was...everything...everything he couldnít give, had no right to offer. So how could he take even this small consolation away from her? But she was clinging to him so fiercely, as if she would never let go...as if by acquiesing to her request to stay, some other promise might be inferred. Confused, head bowed, he stood rigidly before her, wary and fearful and wishing he had not come.

Sensing his discomfort, Catherine lifted her face and looked longingly at him. The face before her was not an exceptionally expressive one. But she had learned to read within it all his emotions, to sense what lay beneath the slightest twitch of a slanted eyebrow or quirk of that extraordinary upper lip. Even with his eyes averted, his face partially sheltered within the fall of his mane, she could see what he was feeling. What she could see now was that he wanted to be far away from the turmoil in her soul, not because he didnít care, but because he cared too much...and believed he must do nothing to ease it.

Suddenly, the impossibility of their situation lanced like liquid fire through her heart. Here she was, aching with desire for him, with a bottomless need that she couldnít contain...and there he was, knowing it...and unable...unwilling...to do anything to alleviate it. With a barely uttered groan, she released his arm, setting him free. Futility and despair gripped her hard, and as her heart sank, so too did she, collapsing slowly, quietly onto her knees, her face in her hands. Sobbing, she implored him, "Just go, then...go."

Vincent looked down at the woman he loved, literally on her knees before him. What was he doing to her? Why had he come Above tonight, if it was only to torment her with his unyielding presence? It was cruel, and the thought that he had placed a heavier burden upon her by his unintentional cruelty shamed him deeply. No, he should not have come. His heart tore at the sight of her...and of what loving him had brought her to.

"Catherine! No. Please...." What he was asking for, he didnít know. But he knelt and took her into his arms, not worried any longer that such closeness might be a danger. She needed his comfort, at least, and that he could not deny her. "Hush, please...hush," he murmured, as he stroked her back soothingly, feeling the tension in her slight frame, the bunched muscles of her shoulders and neck as she fought the tears that consumed her. He let her cry, accepting the hot, wet tears that soaked his vest and penetrated even through the thermal shirt beneath it to his bare skin. These tears were shed because of him. No one else had hurt her...it was he, himself, who had done this. Because he hadnít the strength to let her go, to send her away before things had gone too far between them, before she had come to love him as he loved her.

He pressed her weeping form closer, and she huddled in his arms, miserable even as he gave her the solace of his embrace. This was all there would ever be. This.... Her crying increased in intensity, as hopelessness coiled its insidious tendrils around her heart.

He felt it as she lost her hope, and he raged within that his love could tear her in two as easily as his claws could. Blinded almost to insensibility by the force of her passionate despair, Vincent ignored his inhibitions and began to press reverent kisses onto Catherineís bowed head. Meant only to convey his loving concern, he had no thought as to the consequences. His immediate intention was only to calm her, to soothe her, this woman he worshiped, he cherished.

Catherine felt the press of his lips, always so tentative before, now firm and warm upon the crown of her head. Her sobbing eased just a bit as the surprising shower of affection continued. Gradually, her tears ceased, but the steady stream of kisses did not. Stunned, she lifted her face to meet those slightly parted lips which had mesmerized her for so long.

Sensing she was changing position slightly, Vincent raised his head a fraction to make way for her. When her eyes were level with his, he found himself rapt, nearly drowning in the thankful, loving look she offered him. So little...he had given her so little...and she was so grateful.

He ignored the warning bells in his head and cautiously, gingerly, he lowered his face until their foreheads touched. Pressing lightly, he rolled his brow against hers, a gentle massage which she accepted without a word. Moving forward slightly, his flat, lightly furred nose came into contact with her perfectly proportioned one, and he nuzzled against her, rubbing lightly from the tip to the bridge of her nose, stroking her softly with the furred tip of his. An involuntary whimper sounded from her lips, coupled with the smallest rolling wave of calm, warm pleasure which reached out to lap against their Bond, but other than that, she made no sound, no move.

Vincent marveled at the effect his tentative caresses were having on Catherineís state of mind. Her tears had entirely stopped, and he sensed gossamer threads of serenity beginning to weave their way into the depths of her battered heart. Gently, he continued to explore her face, sliding the tip of his nose across her delicate closed eyelids, barely grazing them. He found that if he moved his head downward ever so slightly, his cheek would be flush with hers, and he brushed against her there, cheek against cheek. He sensed her enjoyment of the slight tickling sensation his softly bristled cheek was creating on her smooth skin, so he continued the light stroking action. It was almost hypnotic -- for him as well as for her. He felt a mist of sweet contentment drifting to his soul through their Bond. He knew he was making her happy...and himself as well.

Amazed at both their reactions, he began tentatively to nuzzle the scar by her ear -- that badge of honor she would not remove, because it served to remind her of all she had gained on the night of her mutilation. Any other woman would have been quick to erase all evidence of such a horrible encounter, but not his Catherine. She savored this scar, treasured it -- she had told him this. And she had told him why -- because it had brought him to her, to all they had shared these past few years. He closed his eyes as his mind traveled back through those years, to special moments, remembered conversations, cherished touches. In all that time, her love for him had grown and deepened until it was a rich tapestry made up of equal parts admiration...devotion...and passion. His eyes snapped open at this last thought, and he found himself pulling away from her. Still she did not move.

He took in the expression on her face, which was still only inches from his -- the full, ripe lips, softly trembling......the thick carpet of lashes fluttering against her slightly flushed cheeks...the stray lock of hair lying across her brow. His lifted one hand to brush that errant lock away, and as he stroked it back, he found his hand lingering on the lush brown glory of her hair -- so silky soft under his fingers, almost begging to be touched. He couldnít resist. His hand, almost of its own will, began to run through the fullness, dipping under the waves to trace its way down from temple to nape. When he got to that point just above her neck, it seemed so natural to cup her head there and pull her slightly closer. She came easily, lightly, and in one fluid movement he had brought her face to within a scant breath of his own.

Her momentum had carried her to a point where her lips ever so lightly brushed against his, before her head settled back again into the cradle of his hand. But that brief touch had almost undone him. He had never felt anything in his life as soft as Catherineís lips. Craving that feeling again, he extended his pliant lower lip a hairís breadth and captured her mouth. Silky...supple...sweet...his mouth began to water as he tasted her for the first time. Those full lips were slightly parted now, and from them came short gusts of warm breath -- a delicate panting which he dimly noted was related to an elevation in her heart rate and a strange sensation curling smokily through their Bond. Her breath...it bathed his slightly moist lower lip, cooling it and heating it at the same time.

Vincent hazily realized he had just kissed the woman of his deepest dreams. Something inside him was cautioning him to leave her now...quickly...but something even stronger was urging him to remain. He made a conscious choice to listen to that stronger voice. Those lips were too tantalizing to give up just yet. He hadnít made a thorough exploration of them. And they seemed to promise such a wealth of treasure for the intrepid explorer.

Harkening that siren call, he bent back to her mouth, taking her by surprise with the sureness of his kiss. His tongue -- long, slightly raspy -- began to caress her lips with short, shallow strokes...tasting her, savoring her. When he had completed his tour of her lips, she felt his tongue dip curiously into her mouth. Apparently finding the satin smoothness of the inside of her lower lip compelling, he began a gentle sucking action, drawing her lip between his own, kneading it and licking it almost fervently.

Catherine had been trying to maintain her equilibrium ever since Vincent began this tender exploration. She desperately clamped down on her reactions so that the surge of desire she was feeling would not frighten him away. But this last move of his -- every sucking motion brought a corresponding shiver to her lower abdomen as she helplessly responded to his sensual onslaught. Unable to hold it back any longer, a low moan emanated from between her lips, and the sound began to bring Vincent back to his senses again. As he raised his head once more, he regarded the woman before him with eyes befogged with a kind of innocent ardor. Befuddled, unsure of himself, he felt with sudden surety the effect his caresses and kisses were having on Catherine. He dropped his hand from her neck then, ashamed and embarrassed by what had passed between them.

Catherine reached up to place her hand on the back of his neck, emulating the hold he had so recently had on her. Still caught up in the web of sensual intensity he had woven around her, she rose up slightly and burrowed beneath his chin, finding the sleek skin of his throat. She began caressing him with her lips, leaving an ardent trail of moist kisses upon his heated flesh. He knew he should stop her, but he couldnít seem to move -- she was tantalizing him so with those unexpected kisses, with the heat and the moisture of her mouth, so recently tasted and enjoyed. So he knelt there unmoving, allowing her to do as she would, while his mind whirled and his body began to respond in a way he could not have predicted.

Always before when being with her, he had borne a certain amount of sexual tension, but he had resolutely and savagely banished his bodyís reaction to it, subsuming it by sheer force of will. Such feelings could never exist...could never come to fruition between them, and so he had subdued his body, banished the thoughts, forced himself to focus on the danger of such desires. But somehow, tonight he couldnít muster the willpower to overcome his bodyís reactions to Catherineís passionate incursion. Throwing back his head, he gave her freer access to the broad column of his neck, the thick muscles there twitching as she tickled and teased them with her teeth, her tongue, her lips.

Completely undone, he hadnít the strength to deny her. Instead, he lifted his arms and reached out to pull her close. But this time, comfort wasnít what he had in mind. There was nothing mindful about the move --- it was a totally unthinking act, designed to bring into closer proximity the one person in all the world he desired, craved, yearned for. All his life, he had been denied these feelings -- denied them to himself, thinking that way lay madness, blood, death. As Catherineís mouth created a different reality for him, spasms of pure pleasure roared through his veins, heating his blood to a fevered intensity.

Suddenly, reason overcame him. Wrenching himself away from that source of excruciating bliss, he looked at her in shock, his fingers digging uncomfortably into her upper arms. Catherine was nearly wild-eyed at the sudden cessation of intimacy. One moment she had been rapturously licking her way up to his earlobe, intent on capturing it between her teeth...the next she was a foot away from him, being held in a painful grip, shocked into sudden awareness of her surroundings.

"No!" She tried to shake his hands away, fighting him. He dropped them quickly, afraid sheíd be torn by his claws if he attempted to hold on. With a plaintive "No, Vincent!" she reached out, captured his face between her hands, and kissed him, hard. There was nothing subtle about the kiss. It conveyed everything -- her desire, her insistence, her belief in the rightness of it. It shocked and stilled him, giving her a momentís respite to think. Their Bond shimmered with the aftermath of the rapture he had been feeling. This was what she wanted to nurture -- not the fear, the denial...but the enchantment of their loving this way.

"Please, let me..." she began, murmuring against his mouth. When he didnít move away, she kissed him again, but tenderly -- a humble intercession. As she brushed her lips against his, he felt their quivering and knew it betrayed the strength of her emotions. She was holding back with great effort, her self-control asserting dominance over the blossoming of her passion. Captivated by the sensation of those succulent lips on his, he closed his eyes and allowed her to continue. Catherine pledged her adoration through a series of delicate, velvet kisses placed upon his mouth, his chin, his cheeks, his forehead, creating a vortex of desire which was drawing him down beyond rescue. She pressed joyous kisses upon him -- eyelids, nose -- until she made the slow journey back to his mouth, where she lingered hungrily, tasting him now with an unbridled delight which astonished him. But she did not force her advantage. Before her caresses could ignite a conflagration of need, she pulled away.

Vincent opened his eyes and found her regarding him calmly, but with eyes which spoke to him of her desire. It was up to him now, he realized. She had not let him leave before, when he would have run in fear and shame from her. But now...now she seemed willing to allow him to decide for both of them. What was it to be? He stared deeply into her shimmering eyes, sensing even without the evidence of their Bond all the love and pleading her heart contained.

As if in a trance, Vincent bowed his head to hers, claiming her lips with a fervency which surprised them both. He kissed her again, then over and over, in a frenzy of too-long-contained need. Joyfully, Catherine responded, her eager mouth willingly offering up its secrets. He plumbed them, tasted them all. After a long while, the demand for air parted them, but only a bare inch. As they both breathed heavily, Vincent found his eyes straying to gaze in wonder at Catherineís supple neck...and lower, to the buttons of the pale silk blouse which graced her upper torso, concealing the even paler silkiness of the flesh hidden beneath it. Almost unaware he was doing so, he raised his hand to the base of her throat, and he began to stroke her soft skin, running his fingers along the pulsing vein which betrayed her bodyís excitement as it throbbed with the hot blood of her desire...desire for him.

Without another thought, his fingers dropped to the neck of her blouse, and he began to finger the button there. It came undone so easily...as did the next one...and the next. Slowly the scraps of silk parted and revealed what they had enclosed -- her gleaming white skin...a delicate, lacy bra cupping twin treasures. Bewitched, he simply beheld her, beheld the slightly heaving chest, the taut nipples barely covered by the deep scoop of the bra. His mouth went dry. Just as he had never felt anything as soft as Catherineís lips, he had never beheld anything lovelier than this vision before him. He could not look away - even if he had wanted to.

He reached out to caress the fair beauty before him. Tentatively, his fingers made contact with Catherineís collar bone. He swept them slowly towards her shoulder, pushing the blouse open a little wider as he did so. The slim lace strap of her bra intrigued him, and he rubbed one finger against it wonderingly, admiring the texture. But the texture of Catherineís bare skin was even more compelling, and he resumed his scrutiny by tenderly running the backs of his fingers across her chest and down into the cleft between her creamy white breasts. He could feel Catherineís response, the quivering inside her as well as the sudden goose-bumps which raised on her flesh. Seeking to warm her, he moved his hand over one round breast and cupped it, amazed at the weight and suppleness that greeted him. This was his belovedís own sweet body he held in his hands -- a part of her he had never thought to see, much less touch. And she welcomed his hand on her in this way, he knew it, felt it.

Feeling her hands burrow under his, he began to pull his own away, but she stopped him, stroking the back of his hand reassuringly and pressing it back where it had been. She reached between her breasts to the clasp of her bra and made a small twisting motion. The bra fell open at her touch. He did lift his hand then, as it seemed clear she was going to remove the one remaining bit of fabric which stood between it and her bare flesh.

Catherine grasped the edges of her bra where the clasp had been undone and with deliberate slowness, she pulled apart the lace to reveal her naked breasts to his wondering eyes.

Her beauty stunned him. Her flesh intoxicated him. He could not move for a moment, he was so completely fascinated by the sight of her. He felt his hand being grasped again and the warm flesh of her bare breast was suddenly beneath his palm. He squeezed ever so gently, amazed as he felt her nipple tighten beneath his fingers. This was heaven! Tenderly, he stroked the firm, soft flesh. Catherineís eyes closed in bliss, and her head sank back as she luxuriated in the ecstacy of her belovedís touch.

Vincent was intrigued by the darker flesh of her now taut nipple. He ran his thumb over it again and again, and was surprised at the response this elicited from Catherine. Her breath seemed to catch, and he saw the muscles of her abdomen begin to quiver. He was amazed that this smallest touch could have such an effect on her. But touch wasnít all he craved. The tantalizing nub beneath his thumb seemed to cry out for the warm moist cavern of his mouth. It seemed so cold and lonely, and he could give it such comfort, he knew. And with that thought, his mouth descended to capture and enfold it between his lips, then his tongue took over the stroking action of his thumb, that caress which had so pleased his beloved. As he grew more comfortable with his actions, he suckled harder, pulling her nipple deeper into his hot mouth.

Catherineís womb clenched and she struggled to keep her need in check. Vincent was at her breast, suckling and nuzzling as she had always dreamed he someday might. But this reality was more precious, more fulfilling than in her fantasies. Because his mouth, his tongue, were different from other menís, the effect of his attentions was unlike what she had anticipated. The unexpected friction of his raspy, agile tongue combined with the erotic pressure which his cleft lip afforded created an experience so unique it was as if this was happening to her for the first time. And his hands...they never stopped moving over her breasts, stroking and rubbing and squeezing -- tormenting her -- until she felt herself unable to think a rational thought except for one -- Yes! Yes! Yes! So she gave herself over to, gloried in, both the attention and the sensations, thrilled to her soul that Vincent felt comfortable enough, free enough, to share such intimacies.

For a long time, Vincent engaged in this exquisite torture, fascinated as he was by the taste and texture of Catherineís flesh, and by her bodyís reaction to how he was loving her. Each time he felt a contraction or a flutter within her, he exulted. He was pleasuring her, banishing those dark emotions of earlier tonight, replacing them with joy and contentment and satisfaction. And the dark places in his own soul were being cast out as well -- to be replaced with the light of Catherineís acceptance and love.

Her hands clung to him, urging him on, and he breathlessly sought to comply. He moved back and forth in an agony of indecision, wondering which breast needed his attention more, which tasted sweeter, which nipple responded more delightfully to his tongue. It was a joyful conundrum. But gradually, he sensed that the limits of Catherineís control had been reached. She wanted so much more from him, although he sensed she wouldnít ask, not tonight. And much as he wanted to grant that unspoken request, much as he desired to catch her up in his arms and stride with her into the bedroom just a scant few feet from where they knelt...he couldnít. Despite his own raging need. Not now...not yet. So, all unwilling, he relinquished her, pulled his hands away from their new-found home, and sat back on his heels, breathing heavily.

"Catherine..." It was the first word he had spoken in so long, the sudden sound, soft as it was, startled them both. She heard within it a strong measure of regret, but also a finality.

"Itís all right, Vincent. I understand." She rose to her feet, ignoring the protest of muscles too long held in one position...and her heart, which desperately wanted him to stay. He needed time to absorb this sudden change in their relationship, time to weigh it, examine it...and reflect. She reached down a hand to help him to his feet. Vincent smothered a smile as he imagine her trying to heave him up from his kneeling position, but he took her hand and allowed her to guide him up beside her.

Looking deeply into her eyes, into her soul, he asked the question. "Do you?"

Catherine smiled tenderly and nodded. With reluctant fingers, she bent to the task of rearranging her clothing, and soon she was standing as she had been when he had first seen her, looking very business-like and unapproachable. Vincent appreciated her understanding more than he could express.

Anxious to explain despite her apparent comprehension, he persisted. "Itís...not that I donít want...."

She shook her head. "Of course not. I do understand. You need time...this is all so new.... Donít worry, Iíll be fine."

Her smile of encouragement tugged at his heart, for he knew how much she was suppressing her need. She was doing that for him. His love for her swelled within him, and he caught her up in a tender embrace, unable to tell her in words what this patience meant to him.

Suddenly, he knew he didnít want to be parted from her tonight. He wanted her close, wanted her to know he was nearby so she wouldnít begin to fear that he might regret what had happened between them tonight. If she did, he wanted her to be able to walk to his chamber and discuss it. And if he needed to talk...he wanted her close for that, too. On a sudden impulse, he begged, "Come Below tonight? I know itís very late...."

Sensing his need and knowing it matched her own, she finished his sentence for him. "...But tomorrow is Saturday and I was planning to come Below then anyway?"

He nodded, smiling, suddenly shy with her, and she laughed and hugged him hard. "You know I will. Give me a few minutes to change and Iíll meet you at the threshold."

Giving him one more quick squeeze, she turned and fairly ran back into her apartment, grabbing her overnight bag from under the bed as she began to tick off a mental list of what she would need while Below. Vincent stood at the French doors for a long moment, watching her, savoring the warm feeling in his heart...and wondering just what he was doing. Then he shook himself, turned, and began his descent.

* * *

Their journey through the deserted tunnels in the late evening quiet was more intimate than Catherine could ever have imagined that walk could be. They had strolled with arms around each otherís waists, feeling the press of hip, thigh and calf as they hiked the uneven tunnelways, unable or unwilling to give up that closeness except only when the way demanded it -- a gap to be jumped across, a narrow crevass to be negotiated. Far from cooling her blood, Catherine found the whole experience stimulating, and she arrived at the guest chamber entrance flushed with more than exertion. But resolutely she quelled her impulse to pull him inside after her. Now was not the time.

Yet Vincent did enter the chamber...to light the candles which soon cast a cozy glow about the small room. Sensing her surprise to find the bed made up and her nightgown folded neatly on a nearby chair, he quickly explained, "The chamber was made ready earlier today in anticipation of your arrival, Catherine, so you should find all you need." He gazed longingly at her dear face, wondering how he had been so bold as to ask her Below tonight. It was well past midnight, and the common sense thing would have been for her to have remained Above to get a good nightís rest before coming Below in the morning, as planned. But common sense had not played much of a role in his thinking tonight.

Rising on tiptoe, Catherine placed a soft kiss on Vincentís cheek, lingering only briefly to luxuriate in the so-recent freedom to do so. Murmuring a softly spoken "Thank you," she turned toward the bed. As she did so, he mumbled a quick "Good night" and left.

As he walked on to his own chamber, Vincentís mind cast back to the past few hours. He was still in the grip of the enchantment of the evening, and his dazed brain could barely absorb the stunning emotional reversal of the night. When he went Above, Catherineís misery and pain were foremost in his mind...and now, mere hours later, there was nothing but a haze of surprised pleasure where all that anguish had once been. Hers...and his.

* * *

The sentryís "allís well" tapped out at 2 a.m. Vincent heard it clearly, as he was still awake, visions of Catherine and how she looked...tasted...felt...making sleep an impossibility for him. His discomfort was not all physical, although his arousal was so intense it was painful. He also felt the vibrations of Catherineís sexual tension thrumming through their Bond, an exquisite agony of desire and yearning that shattered his composure. Trying to ignore it had been the useless striving of nearly an hour. He could sense that she was trying to mute the transmission of those sensual impulses, but she was having less luck than she imagined. Either that, or her hunger was so overwhelming that despite her best efforts, it broadcast itself at the level of a shout through the Bond. Yet she hadnít come to him. She was honoring the unspoken pact they had made when he had asked her Below -- she knew he wasnít asking her to come to his bed, only to be near...for comfort. So, no matter that she was in a torment of need, she would not impose that need upon him. Just as earlier tonight, she was willing to go through the pain alone, until he had come to her...so now, he understood that she was prepared to wage this new battle alone...unless, once again, he went to her....

Vincent threw the quilts off and began to pace his chamber. Barefoot, clad only in his nightclothes, he was impervious to the chill air in the tunnels as he sought to clarify the situation in his mind. He loved Catherine with his whole being, and he knew that she loved him. Their mutual desire could not be denied, not after what they had shared tonight. Whatever his objections or intentions before, all the warnings and attempts to control his instincts, the imperative now was nearly overpowering -- to be with the woman he loved...desired...no matter the cost. But what was the cost? So far he hadnít hurt her as he had feared he might, that was true. But neither had they explored the realm of physical expression very far. What might happen as he truly loosened the bonds on his control? What began as a sharing of joy might end in tragedy. Was he prepared to risk everything they were to each other, everything they already had together, for the promise of physical fulfillment? For the chance to show each other by touch all that words and looks could not adequately express?

His vision clouded and he was again in the guest chamber, marveling at the subtle golden highlights cast by the candleglow on Catherineís hair... the creamy perfection of her skin...and earlier...how it felt beneath his hands...and the warm, musky scent of her skin when he had held her, so receptive and unresisting, in his arms.

Without stopping to pull on boots or a robe, Vincent strode from his chamber, intent on seeing Catherine. Perhaps he might gain a measure of peace by discussing these feelings with her...or perhaps, by the time he arrived at the guest chamber, she would be asleep, and he could drink in that sweet repose until its essence calmed his spirit....

* * *

Catherine had tried without much success to calm the turbulent emotional storm raging within her heart. Vincent didnít need to feel her agitation, her excitement, her anticipation, her incredible gnawing need. Dampening her emotions as much as she was able, she sought the respite of sleep. She counted sheep, she counted backwards from a thousand, she tried relaxing each part of her body in turn. Yet she was still strung as taut as a high-tension wire and as awake as before. Frustrated by more than an elusive sleep, she raised up and punched her pillow into submission. Plopping down on it again, she tried to get comfortable. No luck. Rising, she flung the covers aside and decided she was too warm to sleep well. Splashing cool water on her face from the basin by her bed didnít help appreciably, so she pulled off the warm tunnel gown she always wore on her rare overnight visits Below. That was better! Shivering slightly against the chill air, she dove under the covers and burrowed beneath them. Finally, she was comfortable.

But then she began thinking back to the feel of Vincentís large calloused hands stroking her bare skin...of his luscious lower lip, and how agile his tongue was...of how he seem to know instinctively exactly how she liked to be caressed...or was it the fact that he was touching her that made it more exciting than any other sexual encounter in her life? She had nearly...nearly...let herself go and given herself over to the raw physical release she craved...and it hadnít been much more than petting!

She was getting too warm again....

A soft rustle outside the chamber heralded a visitor. Catherineís head peeked over the edge of the comforter. A shadow by the entrance resolved itself into Vincentís welcome form.

"Catherine?" The normally silken huskiness of his voice seemed a bit strained. "Are you awake?"

Realizing she had taken her gown off and wasnít entirely "decent," she sat up only slightly, pulling the covers up to her shoulders. "Yes."

Now that he was here, Vincent was unsure. What would Catherine think about him suddenly appearing at her chamber entrance? He could feel her stress level rising and began to have second thoughts about remaining. Perhaps it would be best to wait until morning.... Reluctantly, he said, "If...Iím disturbing you...I apologize. I...."

"Youíre not disturbing me, Vincent. Iím...a bit too...wound up to sleep," she admitted wryly. Well, that much was true!

He let out the breath he hadnít known heíd been holding. "As am I," he chuckled ruefully.

Catherine thought fast. If he found out about her state of undress after he came in, he might become uncomfortable and feel he had to leave. Better to keep him out for the time it would take to get presentable. "Let me just put something on and you can come in," she called in a loud whisper. Thinking that would hold him at the door, Catherine quickly tossed the covers away and rose, reaching for the discarded nightgown. But in his agitation, Vincent hadnít understood precisely what her words implied. He had seen her throw a robe on over her nightwear before, or get a sweater before stepping out onto the balcony, and thinking thatís all she meant, he stepped into the chamber.

The sight that greeted him in the light from a single candleflame set his heart stuttering in his chest. Catherine...his beautiful, magical Catherine...gloriously naked, hair tousled, glowing golden in the shimmering incandescence. Her breasts swayed slightly...evidence of that delicious heaviness he had known so briefly and had come to crave...and in her hands she clutched...her...nightgown?

Realizing belatedly what her invitation had actually meant, he lowered his head and murmured a hasty apology. Abjectly sorry he had intruded on her privacy, Vincent was ready to leave her to it. Suddenly, a soft touch on his arm made him look up. Catherine stood before him, nightgown in hand, but this time it was draped to cover her in front. She held him rooted to the spot by only the lightest pressure of her hand.

"Donít leave."

He nodded numbly.

As she turned to gather her gown up and drop it over her head, he glanced at the perfection of her retreating form -- the dimples at the base of her spine, the gentle swell of her hips, the smooth, beckoning roundness of her bottom, her slim, shapely legs.... Groaning inwardly, Vincent closed his eyes and waited until Catherine told him it was safe to look again.

"Vincent?" Her voice was muted in deference to the lateness of the hour, but it beckoned him nonetheless. He opened his eyes and saw her sitting demurely on the edge of the bed, hands at her sides, her legs, crossed at the now-covered ankles, swinging gently. She was shaking her head, indicating she did not want another apology, and when she saw him looking at her, she patted the bed beside her. "Come. Sit down."

He moved to her side and stood uncomfortably for a moment, gathering the courage to sit on her bed. She scooted back until she was leaning on the headboard, her knees drawn up to her chest, giving him more room, silently acknowledging his discomfort and taking whatever steps she could to alleviate it. He sat, then leaned toward her, capturing one of her hands in both of his. Looking down at the slender fingers he held, stroking them gently, he murmured, "This has been...a night of...firsts."

Laughing, she squeezed the hands holding hers. "Itís been...a wonderful night."

Surprised, he looked up and saw that she was no longer laughing. She had meant those words seriously. Despite the anguish of the early evening, she truly felt this had been a wonderful night! And even his disturbingly premature entrance into her chamber hadnít diminished her assessment. He sighed. She was an amazing woman.

"I..I couldnít sleep, Catherine. I was hoping...we might...talk."

She regarded him solemnly for a moment. "Yes" was all she said in reply.

Hesitantly, Vincent began trying to express the myriad emotions swirling through his heart. "Catherine...what we...shared.... I donít know how to explain...."

A sympathetic smile graced his face. "I was there, my love. You donít have to explain anything to me." She sat up, then knelt on the bed and reached out to him, enveloping him in a warm embrace.

Grateful, Vincent returned the hug, holding Catherine tightly in his arms. An involuntary shiver ran through him as he recalled the image of her he had beheld, unclad and unashamed, just moments ago...and now all that beauty was right under his palms...just beneath the nightgown covering her. He tried to ignore the feelings that image compelled, and the enticing fragrance which surrounded him when she was near. It called so deeply to him, drew him, and it was all he could do, in his agitated state, to let her go when he felt her begin to withdraw.

Catherine noted his shiver and came to a sudden decision, pulling back from him, then tugging up on the quilts beside her. She slid under the covers and lifted a corner invitingly. "Youíre cold. Come under here with me." At his disbelieving look, she added mischievously, "I promise not to bite! Seriously, itís too chilly to sit around in our nightclothes, and I donít want you to leave. You donít have to lie next to me -- Iíll move to the other end of the bed. Weíll each have plenty of room."

To show her good intentions, Catherine did just that -- scooted over as far as she could, leaving more than half the bed empty. Still, Vincent hesitated. What would Father say about this? Well...what would he have said about what happened earlier tonight! Blushing furiously, Vincent nonetheless stood and pulled back the covers enough to allow him access to the very corner of the bed. He laid down gingerly, then covered himself. He felt awkward, but Catherine was right -- they each had plenty of room.

After they lay there quietly for a time, Catherine ventured a question. "Why couldnít you sleep?"

Vincentís lack of response spoke volumes. She decided to answer her question herself. "I think...probably for the same reason I couldnít." He didnít need to acknowledge this for her to know that it was true. Her voice took on an adamant edge. "I hope...I hope...you arenít...sorry for what happened. Because...Iím not. I never could be." She took a deep breath and let it out in a heartfelt sigh. "It was...beautiful." Vincent felt the corresponding emotional resonance through their Bond. She had, indeed, found it beautiful...and found him beautiful...and the feelings behind what they had shared, she found them beautiful as well.

He felt her warm hand on his shoulder and, surprised, he flinched, but she did not pull away.

"Vincent...I love you. I welcome your touch. I understand that you need some time to assimilate all that happened tonight. Thatís OK. I just want you to know that...that Iím here for you, whenever you want me."

Before she could remove her hand, he reached up and clasped it gently, bringing it to his lips. As he did so, she rolled over slightly to accommodate his movements. He pressed his lips reverently to her fingertips, then turned her hand and placed a fervent kiss upon her palm. As he lifted his face from her palm, her fingers curled, capturing his chin with the tips. He let go of her hand and she rolled over onto her stomach so that she was lying very close to his side, though their bodies still were not touching. With her hand now free, she brought her fingers to his face, slowly tracing the high cheekbones and eyebrow ridge, running them down tenderly against his furred nose, trailing them across the surprisingly soft pads of his upper lip and sweeping down to rub soothingly against his slightly trembling lower lip. Then she cupped his face with her hand and leaned farther toward him, until she could rest her cheek on his shoulder and press her body gently against his side. She relaxed her hand until her arm draped casually across his chest, and her fingers began to track lazily through his thick hair. Snuggling softly, she exhaled and closed her eyes, contentment seeping through her to dampen the shafts of surprise and apprehension which had shot through their Bond from Vincent when she had first touched him.

He felt a gentle relaxation fall over him. He couldnít sleep -- not while lying next to Catherine in her bed -- but he did allow much of the tension to leave his body, and he breathed deeply for the first time in hours. Catherine also could not sleep, but lying next to the man she loved, being warmed by his closeness, filled her with a sense of peace she hadnít known since she was a child. This, she thought, was as close to heaven as one woman could get on this earth.

After a time, Vincent turned onto his side and, gathering his courage, he cradled Catherine against him. She seemed boneless, totally compliant, and he nestled closer, his arms drawing her into himself, cuddling her warmly. Catherine slipped one foot between Vincentís calves and gradually wrapped her lower leg around one of his. They lay like this for a long time, drinking in the warmth of each otherís body, calming their disquieted spirits. Desire and need remained, but they were muffled by the sympathetic vibration of one soul reaching out to another in the quiet, silent night.

* * *

The sentryís "allís well" had rung again before Catherine stirred. "Vincent?" she whispered.

"Mmmm," was the relaxed response.

"Youíre much better than a pillow," she advised him.

"Thank you," he replied solemnly.

She didnít seem inclined to continue the conversation, so after a moment Vincent ventured, "Catherine?"

"Mmmm," she replied.

"Youíre much nicer to sleep next to than Devin was."

A delicate snort was all the answer he got from her.

She was much nicer than Devin...warmer, softer, cuddlier...more sensual. Vincent considered that last. His body considered it as well.

Catherine felt his hesitant, inquiring nuzzle against her forehead. She smiled in delight, then lifted her face to his. His soft kisses rained like a benediction upon her face. She accepted them gladly, gratefully, making no move to distract him from his purpose. When his mouth came at last to hers, she parted her lips and encouraged him to explore her there as he had done before. She doubted sheíd ever get enough of the hot raspy pleasure of his tongue as it delved inside her mouth, tasting tentatively at first before becoming bolder, teasing her, tantalizing her. His kisses seemed to go on and on, drawing her deeper and deeper into a hazy universe where only his mouth on hers had any meaning.

At some point, Vincentís kisses became tender once more, his tongue lapping gently at the soft flesh just inside her mouth. Catherine sensed that this was not a prelude to other intimacies, but another instance of him moving forward a little, only to withdraw for a time. And she couldnít bear that, not now. So before he could end this interlude, she wrested him back by the simple expedient of drawing his tongue further into her mouth and sucking gently. She could feel the surprise in him at this, her first aggressive move since he had begun to kiss her. But she also felt a kind of shy excitement through their Bond, and pressed her advantage by turning in his arms until she was positioned above him. Her arms slid up to cradle his head, and she held him firmly in place as she now began to explore him with the same enthusiasm he had recently exhibited. Those gleaming, deadly canines had always intrigued her -- he rarely showed them, preferring not to reveal his differences to others, even to her. Now she slid her tongue rapaciously across them, behind them, again and again. His mouth was subtly different from other menís -- not just his tongue, his teeth and his cleft upper lip, but even inside...the roof of his mouth was ridged, and the flesh just inside of his upper lip was fascinating, much softer, more pliant than she expected. And his breath! It was spicy and delicious, just as he was.

Vincent groaned softly at this intimate invasion, evidence of the growing excitement within him. His arms came up to clasp his beloved closely against his chest, and his hands began to stroke her back from shoulders to the dip at her waist. This stroking became more frantic the longer her loving assault continued. He wanted...needed...more. To touch her again, as before. To bury his face against her, to feel the supple, rounded warmth of her breasts against his cheek,

And to taste her sweet flesh again...those ripe nipples which responded so shyly to his nuzzling, tightening into peaks as if to hide themselves from his probing tongue.

Without conscious thought, his hands began to tug on Catherineís nightgown, gathering it up in his hands as he tried to get closer to that tender flesh he craved. When Catherine realized what he was doing, she shifted subtly to allow him to pull the gown up more easily. It eventually lay bunched at her waist, and she swiftly rose to her knees, pulled it deftly over her head, and tossed it aside. It slithered unnoticed to the floor of the chamber as she lay back down beside and slightly on top of Vincent.

Stunned at what she had done, Vincent momentarily forgot that in his yearning it was he who had instigated the removal of her gown. He was flustered, taken aback by Catherineís bold action. But then his hands made contact with the warm exposed skin of her back and his arousal suddenly intensified - wildly. Oh...God...! She felt like silken fire beneath his hands. And she lay above him as if waiting...waiting for him to decide which way he would go. He half rose in the bed, bringing her up with him as he did so. The struggle to decide -- flee or stay? -- was fierce but brief. As she half-sat, half-lay beside him, he looked down at her naked splendor. Her breasts heaved slightly, a soft sheen of perspiration dappled her chest...and a pink flush was spreading across it, even as he watched. His eyes devoured her hungrily...and his decision was made. With a low rumbling growl, he reached for her again, turning as he did so, so that now she lay on her back on the bed beneath him.

He was immobilized with indecision for a moment longer, but this time it was to decide what part of her he would taste next. That pale, slender column of her throat with the intriguing pulsepoint? Those delicate shoulders which cried out to be nibbled tenderly, sucked and nuzzled? Or the twin delicacies he had tasted earlier, so captivating, so bewitching, which seemed to beckon to him, begging to be loved, worshiped...devoured?

Through their Bond, Vincent felt the ache within his beloved -- her breasts...yes. In a sudden rush of inspiration, he thought of what she had done to his tongue - might she not also like the feel of her tender flesh drawn deep and tantalized in that same way? His mouth descended and captured one taut nipple, pulling it deeply into his mouth as she had taught him by her actions a moment ago. He moaned softly as he felt her enjoyment as a spearing shaft of pure euphoria which pierced their Bond.

Catherine was undone by Vincentís boldness. She had taken a calculated risk with her nightgown, aware that breaking his mood even momentarily might cause him to retreat. But she had won the bet with herself -- that once he saw her naked, he would be induced to stay. Now, engrossed as he was in this erotic spell they were weaving around each other, she hoped he would have no more reason to consider fleeing her side. No matter how far theyíd go...or not go...tonight, she fervently hoped they ended the night together, safe in each otherís arms.

Vincent was lost in a timeless moment of rapture. Where before he had been somewhat tentative in loving Catherine this way, now he had no restraint. He suckled so strongly, pulled her into his hot, wet mouth so deeply, that each tug was echoed by a responding clutch in her deepest core. Through their Bond he could feel her pleasure and...an odd tendril of...triumph? But he spared no further thought to that puzzling element within their Bond -- he wanted to concentrate instead on his five regular senses.

Ecstasy warred with desire within Catherine. As much as she craved the intimacy Vincent was giving his ardent "all" to, she was desperate to give him a taste of the sensual delights he could experience at her caring hands. While he was getting a great deal of pleasure from his ministrations -- his arousal was clearly and potently evident to her, pressed tightly as she was beneath him -- most of this was for her benefit. She was determined that he encounter the limits of his own libido...or at least start on that road. So, even as she moaned with the fever of his touch, his mouth...she began to slide her arms across his back, tugging at his thermal nightshirt. Managing without difficulty to dislodge the tucked shirt from the sweatpants he wore, she slipped her hands beneath the soft cotton shirt and splayed her fingers against his back, grazing his skin gently with their tips.

At her first touch on his bare skin, he had frozen against her, still, waiting. He knew she could feel the quivering tremors in his back muscles as his body reacted to her hands upon him there. But the last time heíd experienced such an intimate contact was when he was a small child, when Maryís comforting maternal strokes and pats had been his innocent introduction to the mysterious world of feminine touch. Since then, there had been no one...nothing...until his flesh was almost raw with the wanting of warm, soothing hands -- a womanís hands. And this was so much more -- the tender caress of his...he could hardly frame the word even in his mind...his lover. For the first time in his life, his body was being loved by another.

Catherine was stunned by his initial reaction to her touch upon his back -- his very flesh seemed to tremble at it. Her eyes grew wet as she realized that for him, this was a moment of overwhelming intimacy -- revealing himself to her, literally putting himself into her hands. Because no other woman had ever touched him in such a way. She couldnít imagine what the lack of such touch must have done to him. But no longer. She made a fierce promise to him -- wordless, soundless, but no less fervent for that -- that she would make up for all those desolate years, for all the nights heíd spent alone in his lonely bed, despairing of even the softest, kindest touch.

She dug her fingernails into the light, soft fur on his lower back until she encountered the tender warm flesh beneath. Stroking him gently, she ran her fingers up against the growth pattern of his fur, ruffling it, teasing it, baring the skin beneath briefly with her fingertipsí passage. When she got to his shoulders, she reached up to pull him down closer to her, regretting not at all that this would mean the cessation of the recent and so devastating occupation of his hands and mouth.

Dazed by the incredible feeling of his bare skin in contact with Catherineís agile fingers, Vincent felt a hard shudder course through his body. He had never...never...ever felt such bliss as this. What to another man might be a commonplace caress, only a pleasant diversion, was to Vincent a transporting event --- a blissful ravishment of his private being which was almost too intimate to bear. It brought everything he was doing...everything he was thinking...to a stop. All he could focus on was Catherineís hands...Catherineís delicate, supple fingers...Catherine wanting to touch him in this way.

She gloried in the feel of him -- where his skin was bare, it was smooth and so velvety, never having been exposed to harsh weather or sun...where he had fur (and it was fur -- nothing so common as hair), it ranged from little more than a dusting to a lush, silky mat of softness reminiscent of a kittenís. She knew his forearms had a dense profusion of fur, and she could hardly wait to feel that luxurious abundance against her bare skin. But for now, she reveled in the fascinating textures of his back. The rock-hard muscles made a delightful rippled obstacle course for her fingers...and his fur was a delicious counterpoint of softness against that solid strength.

As another tremor passed through him, Catherine murmured against his ear, "Itís all right, beloved. Itís only me, loving you." Gently she rocked him, cuddling him, stroking him, until she felt him relax into her touch. Then she rolled them both over, sliding her hands out from under him as she did so. As he lay before her, gazing into her eyes with an innocent vulnerability that made her heart break, she slowly slid his sleepshirt up his chest, nudging him out of his paralysis, asking him without words to assist her, just as she had earlier aided him. He wriggled enough to allow her to pull the shirt up to his neck, then raised his head and arms as she removed the garment. It joined her gown on the floor by the bed, as she tossed it aside without concern.

Catherine could feel the heat of his blush as he lay with closed eyes, bare-chested to her scrutiny. But before she would allow her hungry eyes to gaze their fill upon him, she bent to kiss her love, pressing soft, moist adorations on his eyes and cheeks. She felt a trace of wetness on her lips and realized he was weeping quietly. Her heart plunged as she felt his intense discomfort and sensed that he was holding himself still only with great effort -- again, he had the urge to flee. She had to do something to take his mind off of his unwarranted mortification... And she thought she knew exactly how to do that.

Stretching out full length above him, Catherine slowly lay flat against him. As her bare breasts brushed against his chest, his eyes opened wide in shock. She didnít give him time to get used to the sensation, however, moving closer until their naked flesh was pressed tightly together. She almost groaned with the ecstasy of it; she suspected he was speechless. Through the Bond, Catherine was pummeled by impressions bombarding her from seemingly every direction -- amazement, shock, disbelief, hunger, desire, fascination, pleasure...more feelings than she could comprehend roared through the Bond. But, as sheíd hoped, he had left all embarrassment behind.

Satisfied, she wriggled slightly against him, giving him just a little more of what so clearly both excited and stupefied him. His arms moved to wrap lightly around her, the calloused pads of his fingers resting tenderly against her back. Pleased that he was allowing her free rein, she decided to expand the scope of this exploration. Rubbing against him more sinuously, sensuously, her nipples became an assault force as she skirmished lovingly with him, breasts against chest. Catherine began to moan softly as she became caught up in her own erotic game. Her skin was so sensitized, the feel of her taut nipples against his hard-muscled chest was an exquisite ache, an almost-pain which nevertheless was exceedingly arousing. Vincent, too, was caught up in the enchantment, and he began to move tentatively in counter-rhythm to her, which had the effect of bringing their hips together, his still-clad arousal pressing hard against her moist cleft.

Catherine gave an involuntary groan of pleasure at the feel of his manhood, aware of its heat and hardness as it throbbed within the confines of his sweatpants. Wanting to touch him there -- now! -- she restrained herself, sure that she needed to make Vincent more comfortable with his nakedness before he would allow that part of his anatomy to be revealed. Instead, she lowered herself down the bed slightly, so that her mouth was against his chest. This had the delightful consequence of pressing Vincentís arousal against her belly, so she did not lose contact with him in that way. Ignoring for the moment the enormous enticement throbbing so insistently against her, she concentrated on the broad expanse of toned muscle and fur that was Vincentís chest.

As she ran her fingers down the sides of his body, she traced his shape with her hands. Perfect...he was perfect. Sleekly designed and beautifully executed, he was the image of masculine perfection, from the high, taut chest muscles to the well-defined, rippled abdomen, to the enticing slimming at the waist where his bareness disappeared into his sweatpants. His skin was burnished a dusty bronze, which puzzled her. A sudden mental picture made her smile to herself -- Vincent in swim trunks, lying on a towel on the grass in Central Park, oblivious to stares as he basked in the sunís rays, working on his tan. Despite that fantasy, she concluded that this unusual skin tone was natural for him, and she shivered in delight as she wondered what other marvels awaited her discovery.

Lying still beneath Catherineís questing hands, Vincent wondered at the odd expression on her face. A ripple of humor seemed to flit across their Bond, gone in a moment. The thought that she might find his body...amusing...began to filter into his stunned brain, dismaying him, but a moment later that thought was dispelled by a wave of pure lust which followed in the trail of Catherineís smile. Relaxing slightly, he concentrated on the feel of her hands...her lovely, delicate hands....

She didnít know where to touch him first. Every part of him cried out to be claimed. Deciding to let her mouth do some of the work, she continued to stroke him -- chest, sides and arms...oh, yes, those incredible rock-hard biceps, she hadnít had quite enough of those just yet...while she lowered her head to his chest, placing gently sucking kisses down his breastbone and across his stomach.

The heat from her mouth was driving him to distraction. As she swept back up his chest, cool air hit those moist sections of skin and sent tiny shivers through him. But almost immediately the coolness turned again to heat, as the warmth cast by her body suffused him. He opened his eyes to gaze at the incredible image before him - of his Catherine, his beautiful beloved...naked and aroused...engrossed in loving him. His eyes closed again in ecstasy as he held that image in his mindís eye. Her ripe breasts pressed close to him, her mouth trailing fire against his heated flesh....

As soon as Catherine reached his tawny pink paps, she became mesmerized --- the few men sheíd been intimate with before had had smallish nipples, rudimentary. But Vincentís, partially nested within a liberal sprinkling of satiny fur, were large and almost delicate-looking, in marked contrast to the firm muscles supporting them. Drawn to taste them, she licked lightly, causing the tips to tighten convulsively. Now she understood what attracted a man to a womanís breast -- that delightful reaction to her tongue intrigued her, and she ached to take his nipple closely into her mouth and tease it some more. With that thought came action, and before long she was hungrily nibbling and suckling, relishing the hard muscle beneath her lips which framed that delicious inch of flesh.

The pull of Catherineís lips against his nipples drew incredible feelings from deep within, centered in Vincentís groin. She was more than tantalizing him, she was pulling him down into a well of erotic bliss heíd never thought to know. Each time she touched him, it was as if nothing could be more wonderful, as if the pinnacle of ecstasy was now his. Yet in the next moment, she would touch him in some new way, redefining the meaning of ecstasy on a different, wilder, higher plane. He could barely restrain himself now. His need to complete himself within her was so strong, so urgent. And suddenly, as if sheíd read his mind, Catherineís head came up, a sultry, smoky look glowing from her eyes.

In a husky murmur, she demanded, "Do you trust me, Vincent?"

Distracted, he nodded once, his own voice barely a whisper. "With my life."

She shook her head as if unhappy with his response. "Right now, my love, I need more than that. Do you trust me with your body? And will you allow me to do something for you? Something that Iíve dreamed of doing for you for so long?" As she spoke, one of her hands drifted down to the waistband of his pants and lay there, waiting.

Confused, uncertain, Vincent studied her face intently. His beloved was asking for an odd kind of trust.... But all he saw within her eyes and all he felt within her heart was an overwhelming love and desire. Surely he could trust her with all that he was. And the promise in her eyes was so compelling.... He reached out to cup her face between his palms and breathed a single word: "Yes." She rose up as his hands urged her to him, and they kissed deeply, languidly. Then Catherine smiled at him, whispered, "I love you," and began to trace a path of kisses down his neck, across his chest and stomach, coming to a stop where her hand lay just at his side, atop the band of his sweatpants.

Tugging the pants down just an inch, she uncovered his belly button. It lay coiled like a burnished shell upon the slight concavity of his taut stomach. Catherine dipped her tongue into that sweet recess, swirling it against the tender flesh within. An involuntary inhalation of breath at that touch made Vincentís stomach tighten and draw away from her slightly. She pressed her face full against his stomach then, dropping gentle kisses upon the lightly furred skin, reveling in the warmth of his flesh here, breathing in the aroma of his sex as his bodyís reaction to her became more and more apparent. She could feel the pressure of his arousal now - long, thick, pulsing hotly - along her throat as she scooted her body down so she could press closer to him.

His stomach muscles quivered as she kissed him. He couldnít control the trembling either within or without wherever she touched him. God, he loved what her hands, her mouth were doing to him! Everywhere...anywhere...he would accept anything from her, as long as she didnít stop touching him. He didnít know how heíd lived so long without this rapture - it was as intoxicating as the strongest liquor, and he craved it now as if it were an addiction. More...he needed more. A groan was torn from his throat, consisting of only her name. All his desire was in that utterance...every unexpressed longing was captured in that one word...that one thought...Catherine!

Knowing he was ready now, Catherine drew down the waistband of his pants. Using both hands, she gently guided his hips up so she could slide the garment down over them, past the delicious curve of muscled bottom she could only glimpse for now, down until she revealed his manhood -- heavy, swollen with need, throbbing, impressive -- to her hungry eyes. Dragging herself almost physically from that sight, she managed to remove his pants entirely, tossing them aside with undisguised impatience. Then she lay again by his side, now stroking his outer thigh, now running her fingers across his stomach, while the tremors passed through him again. He reminded her of a frightened bird, fluttering against her hand, except that he wanted to be here with her, she knew that. He desperately wanted her here.

The long length of his thigh, furred and heavily muscled, quivered and then tensed as she continued her caresses. Her face was inches from his arousal now...so close...so very close. Catherineís hand drifted up as her mouth descended, and both met at the apex of his erection. Her fingers twirled lightly around the head, then curled protectively around his shaft and slid down to grasp it firmly -- her fingers scarcely meeting as she encircled him. With her tongue she lapped against the head of his arousal, the flesh there flushed a deep red, looking as hot as it felt against her tongue. She could feel his pulse pounding within the steely length in her hand, and she was just about to take him into her mouth when she felt a staying hand upon her shoulder.

Without releasing her grip on him, she looked up to see his startled blue eyes fixed upon her face. He was shaking his head no, almost ready to speak, when she hushed him. "I love you so much...and you taste...so good. Donít hold back, my love...please?" Not waiting for a reply, she turned her face to his hand where it lay squeezing her shoulder almost convulsively and pressed a tender kiss upon it. She felt him ease his grip, and she rubbed her cheek against his fingers until he released her and turned his hand to cup her chin. His fingers were trembling. She bent into his hand, kissing his palm and mouthing the words, "I love you" into it. Then she turned her attention back to his enormous erection. Slowly, deliberately, she opened her mouth wide and took him in.

The first touch of her hot, wet tongue upon his most sensitive flesh nearly undid Vincent. He would have stopped her at that point except that in his shock he was rendered briefly immobile. He hadnít truly understood what sheíd meant to do until this moment, and now that he realized what his beloved intended, his fears reasserted themselves. Grasping her shoulder, he hoped to stop her, to explain that this was...too much. She couldnít want to love him in this way. Even in his most fevered dreams of her, heíd never allowed himself to even imagine her in such a submissive role. Pleasuring him...giving her mouth to him to...to.... No...he couldnít...wouldnít form the thought. But as he began his protest, sheíd let him know she was getting pleasure from this, too. And as she reassured him -- with her words, her actions, and through their Bond -- he felt himself relax enough to reconsider. He thought of her, on her knees, holding him so... intimately...and how incredible it felt to be warmed by her soft, willing lips...her supple tongue....

He thought again of her words: she didnít want him to hold back.... Not to hold back was to...let go. To...let...go?! Her meaning now clear, his mind spun crazily at the thought. No! He couldnít! But then her mouth captured him in a slow, persistent enticement, her tongue slithering around his shaft as she sucked him deeper and deeper into her...and he thought he might just explode with the sheer exhilaration of it.

Catherine wished she could draw him in totally, but his arousal was immense. She had to settle for taking the rest of him tightly in hand and loving him with both her mouth and her fingers. She let her free hand stroke the dense cluster of curls at the base of his shaft, slowly reaching lower until she could cup his scrotum. It was pulled tightly against his body, evidence of his fierce need for release. Resolved that he shouldnít have to wait any longer, she began to quicken her pace, urging him to give in to the primal instinct of his flesh. In response, he grew even larger, until she could barely keep her mouth around him, but still she urged him...with her tongue, her teeth, with the insistent pressure of her fingers.

At some point, thought became impossible, and Vincent gave himself over to the demanding mouth and hands of his beloved. She wanted this, wanted to love him in this way, and he was beyond any resistance, now anxious for her to continue this tender ravishment, to lead him where he would willingly go...deeper, harder...focused on the gathering contractions at the base of his shaft...until...in one incredible spasm of pure bliss, his climax exploded upon and within him, a delirium of sensation which defied expectation or understanding.

He had begun to move against her, as if desperate for the humid sanctuary she offered him, and she let him take over the rhythm of their movements, as he hurtled off the precipice from desire to completion, spiraling upward and outward in the ecstacy of the moment, climaxing hot and hard, filling her mouth with his seed. She held him close and tight, letting him carry her with him into the unknown, feeling their Bond open so that she was somehow there with him...his excitement building to the precise moment of his release. It was...incredible!

As he became rational once again, the bliss of his release was replaced by a spearing panic which lanced through him. In those last moments...he had...forgotten himself. He had allowed himself to lose control. And Catherine was so...vulnerable. He frantically reached through their Bond to her very soul, desperate for reassurance that she was all right, that he hadnít hurt her, either physically or in any other way. What he found was only a languid, lulling rapture of contentment...a shy pride...and a glorious sense of joy.

Catherine felt Vincentís tension and soothed him with her mind, sending waves of comfort and happiness to him to surround his heart and reassure him that all was well, that she was fine, that nothing could be more perfect than the moment they had just shared. She felt him seize upon her emotions, an almost physical act within their Bond, as if he was desperate for confirmation. She opened to him fully, willing him to take the serenity and joy from her heart into his own. Gradually, he seemed to be reassured, and when she felt him relax again, she gently released her hold upon him and rose to lie beside him again, encircling his shoulders with her arms and urging him to lie against her.

He came to her quickly, urgently, to burrow within her loving embrace and weep fierce tears of relief and joy. Nearly choking on his emotions, he whispered distractedly, "I...didnít know....oh, Catherine...." She held him tightly, letting him release the strain and tension which had built within him for so long...the repression of a lifetime which could not be let go without a harsh, bitter, wrenching dismantling. She knew this was only the first breach of that wall, perhaps the most painful one, but certainly not the last.

Gradually, the warmth of her body and her murmured assurances calmed him, and he pressed closer, wishing he could merge fully with this woman who had given so unselfishly to him. He needed her so...more than heíd ever needed her before. The walls of restraint had crumbled within him so completely that he felt himself utterly defenseless now. The merest breath of disfavor would devastate him, the tiniest hint of revulsion crumple his spirit beyond recovery. If she were to reject him now.... Fear built within him again, as he struggled to find the courage to ask her for the love he could not longer deny he craved with every fiber of his being.

Catherine hugged him close, sensing the battle raging within her lover. He was like a new-born colt, trying to stand on wobbly legs, anxious to begin his life, but unsure of the next step. She felt a wave of pure compassion rise within her. Tenderly she urged him to lift his face to hers. His blue eyes shimmered amid his tears, filled with an almost palpable fear...and overflowing with a passionate adoration. She stroked his face reverently, as if she were touching the finest crystal, knowing it to be more precious than gold. His eyes shut in ecstatic relief at the tender love expressed through her touch. "Beloved, you are so beautiful. I love you so much...I love touching you, looking at you...pleasing you."

His breath caught at her words. Tears spilled again from grateful eyes. Nothing had changed in her heart. What they had shared...she had found it beautiful too. "Catherine...." His voice was rougher than usual, huskier. "What you have given me...."

"...Is only a beginning, my love. We have so much else to share. I want to give you everything...share...everything." She let her eyelids drift shut as she tilted her head back, exposing her neck to him. Her need poured through their Bond like liquid fire, and he realized she craved his touch as much as he desired hers.

Vincentís eyes fastened upon the pulsepoint at the base of her throat. He could see Catherineís lifeblood flowing within her, and the siren call of it pulled him down to taste her there. He felt a moan rise in her throat as his lips caressed her. Emboldened, he began to make love to her as he had never before allowed himself to do -- with joy, with abandon, with his goal clear. Her reactions to his every touch moved him, encouraged him, inspired him. He explored her body with his mouth and hands in ways that shocked him with their brazenness, yet Catherineís need was as a torch guiding him through the night. She desired him...craved these touches...and his sensual nature blossomed under the warmth of her eager acceptance of his every loving offering. And as he loved her, tasted her, branded her with his hot, wet mouth...his own desire mounted again until his need was as raging and demanding as hers.

She was lying face down as he bent to her, holding her hips up slightly, her legs splayed, while he tongued her sweet cleft, drinking in her juices as if from some heavenly fruit. She never wanted him to stop...but if he didnít, she was afraid she might have a heart attack from the sheer need of him. She yearned for completion...but with him. She tried to stop her panting, but her need was so great she could barely control her breathing. She had to make him understand the power he held over her, the force of the love which held them both in its thrall. He was everything to her -- and to hold him inside of her now, to know that he had accepted her love, their destiny, was a rapture too deep for tears.

As she felt another pulse of her hot essence flow from her, to be captured yet again upon her belovedís eager tongue, she groaned, "Do you see what you do to me, Vincent? How ready I am for you? Oh...God...Vincent! Donít make me wait any longer!" Barely able to speak coherently, undone to distraction by his fervent lovemaking, she begged again, "I need you...please...I need you...inside me...now!" All she could think of was what it would feel like for that thick, rigid shaft of his to sheath itself deep within her. Wild with desire, she moaned, "Please!"

Vincent needed no further encouragement. Much as he wanted to continue his erotic explorations, he was aching with longing himself. If he had needed relief earlier, when she had loved him with her mouth, now he yearned for the sweet merging of his flesh into hers with a rapaciousness which amazed him. He must have her, must possess her...must be possessed by her. In a way which left no doubt, which was a true joining, which would anchor him forever to a new life with her.

He let his grip upon her hips go lax, and Catherine took her cue, turning so that she was on her back. She reached out to him then, opening her arms in a welcoming gesture he was quick to respond to. Eagerly he rose up, coming to rest on his knees and forearms above her.

He stared deeply into her darkened eyes --- so dilated with desire that almost no green showed within them. "I love you, Catherine," he whispered, then bent to kiss her, and she wrapped her arms and legs around him, drawing him down and into her. Without the slightest hesitation, he descended, feeling with surprised pleasure the slick warmth of her sleek sheath open to accept the broad tip of his shaft, engorged and throbbing hotly as it was. Deeper and deeper he sank into her welcoming womanhood, until he found himself completely encased within her sweet body, held firmly and tightly inside her. He stilled, stunned by the glorious moment when all of him was within her, when they were joined as completely as possible.

He tried to absorb the incredible experience of his bodyís first joining with Catherineís. He wanted never to leave this heaven he was in. To be encompassed by her moist hot depths...to be clutched and drawn so deeply. That she wanted him here within her was an amazement, a joy, a bliss so profound it was beyond thought. He wept then, hot tears of joy and desire mingled, coursing down his cheeks, splattering against the pillow.

Catherine locked her heels together, pulling him even closer inside her, but she made no other move, allowing him to absorb this new reality that existed between them. And absorbing it herself - after all those long, desperate months of unassuaged desire, this culmination was sheer paradise, an ecstacy so profound than she truly felt an orgasm at this moment would only be the merest icing on an already perfect cake. She whispered over and over to him the one reassurance he would ever need: "I love you. I love you so much...."

After a time, he felt her hips nudge his, almost imperceptibly. His body responded, pressing back, setting in motion a delicious friction which was torment and ecstasy combined. How many nights had he lain awake torturing himself with impossible fantasies of loving her in this way, never truly believing that she would find such a being as himself acceptable as a man, as a lover? And now, beyond all belief, his Catherine had made this place for him within her, had invited him inside - and it was far beyond mere acceptance, it was ravenous need, overwhelming desire. For him. For his body. For this act of intimacy which was now coming to such glorious fruition.

Panting heavily, Vincent quelled his tears and looked into his belovedís face. Her eyes, too, were filled with tears, but her ecstatic smile made it clear that no pain or revulsion had caused them. Her heard her urgent plea - a fiercely whispered, "Now!"

That one word freed him from his distracted introspection. Time enough later to ponder the beauty of this moment. His own body was urgently demanding release, and within their Bond he felt a corresponding impatience as Catherineís body insisted, demanded...more.

Vincent began to move more powerfully, filling Catherine deeply with each thrust, then pulling back, only to plunge hard against her again, the tip of his erection invading to her womb. Catherine clutched him to her, desperate now to know the feeling of completion which she would share with him in full measure through their Bond. This was the gift she longed to give him: the knowledge that he could give her such a moment of pure bliss.

His deep, powerful thrusts were building, growing more urgent, more insistent. Catherineís own pleasure was rising to meet his. The tension of imminent release was upon her almost before she was aware of it, and she fell over the edge of that precipice, hurtling deep into ecstacy, a cry of rapture escaping into the air. Her orgasm shattered Vincentís remaining control and he half-shouted, half-groaned her name as he exploded within her. Catherine felt the pulsing hot jets of semen as her belovedís body gave of its deepest essence to her, a sharing so intimate, so profound, that she was left breathless, defenseless, shattered by the knowledge of what they had just shared.

Rational thought left him for the merest moment as, lost in the sexual fulfillment he had so long desired, he hungrily clutched at each receding tendril of pleasure, anxious to prolong the feeling, to imprint it in his memory to be recalled a lifetime hence. And not just his own - Catherineís, as well. Her climax crackled through their Bond like a lightning flash, all power, energy and bright light, searing him with its brilliance, branding him with the knowledge that he had given her this sublime pleasure - he, with his body, had given her this longed-for consummation. With his body. With his own clawed, furred, densely muscled, fanged, imperfect form. Despite everything he was....because of everything he was...she desired him, gave herself to him...willingly...wantonly....completely. It stunned him, that knowledge, that revelation. All that he was...she loved all that he was!

Collapsing against his beloved, Vincent searched their Bond for confirmation that what had happened between them held no pain or fear for Catherine, only the joyous rapture which he himself felt bursting from his soul. He found within it the echoes of his own heartís euphoria, his own bodyís shivers of delight.

Catherine felt the Bond between them stretch, swell, intensify in ways she couldnít have imagined. With that expansion came a clearer, closer contact with her belovedís soul. What she felt - so much more than mere impressions of feelings now, but the whole tumultuous expanse of emotion within him - stunned her. She knew his rapture, felt the staggering array of sensation as he realized, amazed, that she really, truly, deeply, in every way...and for always...loved him...all of him.

"Catherine..." A mere breath of sound fluttered past his lips, as Vincent began to try to find a way to express what was in his heart.

"I know," she murmured against his neck.

He rose slightly, leaning on his forearms, his lower torso still pressed firmly, intimately upon hers. Dazed, he responded, "You truly do."

She smiled her delight. "You were worth the wait, Vincent."

Amazed that, after all that had passed between them, he would be embarrassed by anything, she saw him blush furiously. He tilted his head down, giving her a shy glance and an even shier smile. "You overwhelm me, Catherine. Your love...your desire....your need.... To know that you come to me...and that I can...fulfill the hunger within you...."

"Only you, beloved." Her avowal was fierce, and he felt her tighten her legs around him as if to give support to her statement. That movement had the effect of reminding him that he was still lodged deep within her body. He was suddenly concerned that he should not be so greedy for the sensation of being held inside her, that he should let her rest. He began a reluctant withdrawal, but her legs tightened further and he felt her heels digging into his thighs, fighting his attempt to remove himself from within her.

"Donít," she begged.

He relaxed immediately, content to accede to her request.

Catherineís hands came up to capture his face, drawing him slowly down to where her mouth was waiting to claim him once again. Willingly he allowed himself to be led, willingly he allowed himself to drown in her kisses. Soft kisses, torrid kisses, searching kisses, comforting kisses....they shared dozens, each unique, each special, each intensely satisfying. Before long, Catherine felt the hot pulsing within her as Vincentís body responded to hers - with each beat of his heart, it seemed, his arousal grew in size and power, until he was fully engorged yet again, hot and thick and hard...so hard...within her.

She pulled away slightly, biting her lip in mock consternation. Shaking her head, she remarked, "I thought we might make it to breakfast...but it looks like somethingís...come up."

His eyes widened as he considered for the first time that his belovedís body might have...other needs. "Are you hungry, Catherine?í

She nodded, her eyes smiling, and he caught the humor and the subtext of her look. He blushed again, then admitted, "So am I."

"I know. Youíve made that fact...quite...clear," she responded, and now she laughed aloud, throwing her arms about his neck and squeezing him. Rocking with laughter, she held him tightly. Vincentís answer - a rumbling chuckle - filled her with delight.

After a moment, they quieted, the release of laughter dampening only for a moment the intensity they felt. Staring into Vincentís eyes, Catherine placed the heels of her hands against his shoulders, gently urging him to turn. He obligingly rolled over, still holding her - careful to ensure they did not separate in the process. When she was lying atop him, she carefully moved her legs until she was kneeling astride him, his arousal held tightly deep within her. Leaning forward, she took his mouth in a devastatingly sensual, demanding kiss. Vincent lost his heart to her all over again as he realized that her passion for him had not been diminished one whit by their earlier lovemaking. She wanted him even more desperately now.

His hands moved over her feverishly, stroking her everywhere, as her kisses deepened and lengthened. He couldnít stop touching her, his innately sensual nature fully freed after years of denial by the complete acceptance of Catherineís love, by the knowledge that she craved his caresses with a depthless urgency. He settled his attention for a time upon her breasts, massaging her tender flesh, astounded to feel her press against his hands as if begging him for still more pressure. He gave it to her, cupping and tugging upon them even more firmly, teasing the tips until he wrested moans of pure carnal pleasure from her. She leaned upon his hands then, her own resting lightly upon his shoulders, so that her entire weight was upon his ardent palms, and she rubbed wantonly against them, inciting him, fanning the flames of both his need and hers. After a time, she leaned back, sitting upright astride him once again, and her hips ground against his, starting a hypnotic, rhythmic rocking.

Reaching down, he cupped her bottom, squeezing and rubbing those luscious curves, as he felt her begin to rock more insistently against him, the delicious friction increasing as he slid up and down within her slick depths, never leaving her completely, stimulating his already heated arousal still further. His breathing was harsh, heavy, filling the chamber with a hoarse, low growling of which he was entirely unaware, but which thrilled Catherine to the marrow.

Catherine was a living flame, igniting his desires, fanning the raging firestorm of his need. She moved him beyond the physical, into some deep place where her body compelled him, someplace primal and fierce, someplace savage and unbridled. He let out a rumbling roar as the intensity of those feelings swept through him, carrying him to heights he hadnít known existed. Within her, Catherine could feel his erection straining, growing hotter, harder, longer, and suddenly he grasped her hips and stilled her, taking all the movement upon himself as he bucked forcefully against her, deep, powerful thrusts of pure, raw, dominant sexual primacy, astounding and overwhelming.

His rumbling, growling panting changed, his breathing becoming hoarse groans of pure desire. His heart beating wildly, Vincent drove as deeply as he could, filling Catherine completely, again and again. Overcome by the indescribable feeling of being sheathed within her so tightly, so deeply, he could hold back no more, his pace growing more frantic as his control vanished and he was carried away by the instinctive rhythm of coupling which was as old as mankind. Catherine need no further urging to climax hard and long, and her peaking pushed Vincent over the edge into an orgasmic cataclysm from which he thought he might never recover. His rational mind left him for a moment, as, lost in the rapture and the sensation, he roared his ecstasy and triumph to the universe.

A short time later, Vincent opened his eyes to a fall of golden brown hair which was both tickling his nose and hiding the chamber from sight. As he brushed the damp tendrils back behind Catherineís ear, he noticed his hand was shaking, evidence - if he needed any - of how drained and spent he was. He smiled tremulously as he took in the sight before him. An exhausted Catherine lay with her head upon his chest. Sometime after their mutual consummation, he must have slipped from within her, for she lay now fully against him, draped over him in a protective posture that moved him beyond words.

"Beloved?" he murmured tenderly against her ear.

"Mmmmmm," was the immediate reply. "I love it when you call me that." Languid eyes regarded his own as she lifted her head to look at him. "That was...incredible!"

A small voice in the back of his head made him ask for the reassurance he still needed. "Are you...all right?"

A sleepy chuckle rose in her throat. He thrilled at the erotic tremor that shivered through their Bond at that moment. "Oh, no. Iím most definitely not Ďall right.í I have never been further from merely Ďall rightí in my life!"

One final assurance was needed. "That last time...I lost all control...I...."

"Hush," she admonished him. "Trust me...trust what you feel through our Bond. You were wonderful...we were wonderful together."

"Yes," he sighed, finally convinced. What he sensed from her, what had surrounded him within their Bond...it had been as sheíd said. He had almost not dared to hope that it was true...but it was...gloriously, amazingly, blissfully true!

Catherine laughed again, a kind of rueful chuckle.

"What?"

She shook her head, a dazed expression on her face. "I was just thinking...was it only a few hours ago, I was in such despair? And now...look at me! Iím happier than Iíve ever been in my life...more fulfilled emotionally...and physically..." She bent to kiss him soundly, lingeringly, then resumed speaking, "...than I ever thought possible. Life is funny sometimes." She paused, then added thoughtfully, "Our life...."

"Our life?" He stared at her intently, as she spoke of his deepest desire.

She nodded. "Our life...together, Vincent. This begins our life. Tell me you believe it, too?"

Solemnly, he whispered, "Yes. Our life begins now, Catherine." He lifted his head until he could reach her lips - those lips which had given him everything this night - and kissed all the doubts, all the fears, all the painful past away.