Like The First Time
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Anna carefully picked her way down the alley behind St. Vincentís Hospital. It was one of the best places in the city to find things like bed linens and blankets, sometimes even dishes, utensils and trays. The hospital threw out anything they considered no longer usable. Some people might consider it wasteful, but the people Below were becoming experts at making the necessary repairs and making them usable again. Or turning them into something completely different but just as useful.
Tonight she was glad that she hadnít had to walk very far. The cold was brutal. Thank goodness Saul had given them a key to the back door of his shop and allowed them to use his threshold. It was safer than going through the park at night, although she was sure that no mugger in his right mind would be out on a night like this.
Anna spotted a stack of boxes near the first row of trash cans. One had some fabric spilling out of it and looked promising. She started toward them. Over the sound of the wind that was whistling around the buildings she heard what sounded like a kitten mewling. Poor thing would freeze to death on a night like this. Saul had cats in his basement to take care of the mice, if she could find this one she would leave it there, heíd never notice another one. She followed the sound, but as she got closer it turned into full fledged cries and sounded more like a baby than a cat.
She looked behind the cans and didnít have to go far before she saw what looked like a bundle of rags on the ground. It was moving and the sound was coming from it. She quickly snatched it up and pulled the rags away from the end that was making the noise. As soon as she removed them the baby stopped crying and looked up at her. And it was a baby, at least she thought it was a baby. Poor thing looked like it had some major birth defects, a cleft lip for one, and seemed just a little hairy for a newborn, but then her sister, Agatha, had been born with a strip of pitch black hair running down her back from the base of her skull to her bottom. It had all fallen out when she was about a week old and had never grown back.
She wrapped the baby up as snugly as possible and tucked it inside her coat. The blankets and sheets would just have to wait for another night. She had to get this baby Below to Jacob before the bitter cold did irreparable damage.
The child stayed quiet all the way back to Jacobís study. As Anna entered he looked up from his book in surprise.
"Anna, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" he asked.
"Jacob, I found something while I was Uptop. Itís a baby. Someone just left it by the trash behind St. Vincentís."
"A baby? Are you sure? Is it alive? Why didnít you just take it inside the hospital?" The questions just spilled out.
"It is different, Jacob. That may be the reason it was left outside. It seems to have some birth defects."
Jacob stood and cleared some books off the table he used as a desk.
"Bring it over here, Anna and letís have a look."
Jacob was truly hoping that Anna hadnít picked up a doll somewhere, or worse yet, a dead baby. She hadnít been very stable since her last miscarriage, her third. Sheíd spent a lot of time wandering about the tunnels. Theyíd found her standing in the middle of the nursery watching the children sleep. She had seemed better of late.
Anna carefully placed her parcel on the desk and started to unwrap it as Jacob peered over her shoulder.
It was a baby, that much was clear, and Anna was right about the deformities, there seemed to be several, and as Anna pulled away the dirty rags that it was wrapped in the child started to cry. Actually crying didnít do the sound justice; it howled; sounding angry. The last rag came away and Jacob saw that it was a boy and a newborn at that; the cord had been tied off and was still attached and soft, but he hadnít even been bathed.
As soon as Jacob knew that the baby was alive his doctor instincts took over, and he all but elbowed Anna aside. The childís skin was ice cold.
"Heís a little pale, but from the noise he is making, Iím sure that his lungs are fine, so the paleness could be the first stages of frostbite. Anna, run to the nursery and get one of the basins used to bathe the babies. There is already warm water in the kettle on my brazier. We will give this little one a warm bath and see if we can make him more comfortable."
As Anna hurried toward the door of the chamber he thought of something else.
"Bring some diapers, clothing and blankets too."
Half an hour later they had the child warmed up, dressed and swaddled snugly in blankets, but he was still wailing.
"What on earth is that infernal noise?" asked John as he entered Jacobís study.
Jacob looked up at his friend from where he was trying to help Anna feed the baby.
"Anna found a baby Above, but he seems to be a little upset with us at the moment. He didnít take very kindly to his first bath," he said.
John moved across the chamber to look down at the child in his wifeís arms.
"A newborn?" he asked.
"Not more than a few hours old," Jacob told him.
John leaned over and peered at the child. "He seems grossly deformed," he observed.
"John," admonished Anna, "heís a baby and right now what he needs is warmth, food and love. Who cares what he looks like?"
John pulled Jacob over to the side of the room. "Is it even human?" he asked in a low voice so he wife wouldnít hear.
"He appears to be. Most of the differences seem to be confined to his face, the rest of his body is normal, except for hair. He is small; probably premature."
"Isnít your friend Alcott a pediatrician?" asked John.
"Heís a general practitioner, but he has a family practice, why?"
"Maybe you should call him; he might be able to make the thing shut up." With that John turned and stalked out of the chamber.
Anna looked up with a sad smile. "Heís not very good with babies," she said unnecessarily.
"He has a point. I think I will send a note to Peter," said Jacob as he moved to his desk. "He might be able to give us some insight."
Two days later, Vincent, as they had decided to name him, was still wailing. Peter had been down several times with different formulas. Vincent was eating, but it seemed that most of what he took in came right back up; nothing seemed to agree with him. No one was sure if it was digestive problems or if it was just because he was so agitated from crying.
There were several nursing mothers Below, but when the idea came up to get one of them to try to nurse him Anna pointed out that the tiny thing already had four teeth, two on top and two on the bottom and that could make nursing very painful for the woman brave enough to risk it. So they asked if one of the women would be willing to express some extra milk for him. Abby Winslow was willing, but she had no idea how to do it. Peter went above to see if he could find instructions or a breast pump. He usually left this part of his practice to the nurses.
In the meantime, Jacob and Anna were discussing what else they could do.
"Is he sick, Jacob?" she asked as she rocked the baby.
"It is hard to tell, he is so agitated. His temperature is a little elevated, but not much...Do you think he might be teething?" he asked suddenly.
"Well, he does have teeth, that is very odd in a newborn," she admitted. She looked into Vincentís mouth when he opened it again to cry, then she used her index finger and felt his gums. "There do seem to be some more bumps, he might be getting more."
"Is there anything we can do to ease the pain? Devin never seemed to have an trouble teething. He just woke up one day and had teeth."
"My mother used to rub brandy on my baby sisterís gums," Anna offered.
Jacob went to a cabinet, opened a drawer and took out a bottle. He poured a little of the amber liquid into a glass and carried it over to Anna.
"Iím willing to try just about anything at this point," he said as he held the glass for her as she dipped her finger in it and massaged some into Vincentís gums.
"I donít know if it actually eased the pain or if the alcohol just put my sister to sleep," she said with a tired smile.
Vincent quieted for a moment, smacking at the new taste in his mouth, then he started to wail again.
"I donít think that is going to work," said Jacob, as he took the baby from Anna and started to pace the chamber with him. It was the one thing that made him quiet a little, he still cried, but it wasnít the incessant wailing that he kept up at other times.
Jacob and Anna had been taking turns caring for Vincent since the night Anna had brought him down. Neither of them had slept much, and both were beginning to fray a bit around the edges, although Jacob marveled at Annaís patience. A pity she couldnít seem to have her own children, she would be a wonderful mother.
An hour later Peter arrived with a breast pump and Abby was able to fill two small bottles for them. Her son was almost a year old and she had been weaning him, but she promised to use the pump and fill bottles for Vincent as long as he needed it.
Vincent took the whole bottle, and he kept it down. Then he started to cry again. For the next twenty-four hours or so the only time he was quiet was when he was eating. Jacob was wondering how long a newborn could go without sleep because this one hadnít slept since he arrived Below.
Suddenly, on the afternoon of the third day, he quit crying. Jacob jumped up from his chair and rushed to where Anna was pacing with the child. He was sure he was going to find that the child had suddenly died. Anna was looking stunned and the silence in the chamber was deafening. Jacob took the baby from Anna and carried him over to a table. He put Vincent down on it and quickly stripped away the blankets. Pulling his stethoscope out of his bag he put it on and leaned over to listen to the babyís heart. It was beating, and he was breathing normally. He was asleep.
Jacob looked up at Anna with a smile. "I guess he finally wore himself out," he said with a relieved smile.
Six hours later, Vincent was still asleep, and Peter, Jacob and John were gathered around a table discussing the situation. They had sent Anna back to her chamber for some well deserved rest.
"So when did you say he finally went to sleep?" asked Peter.
"About two this afternoon," Jacob answered.
"Then he will probably be waking soon. You probably remember from Devin that babies eat about every three to four hours."
Jacob nodded. "I have a bottle warming next to the brazier."
"Have you any information on his deformities?" asked John.
"Iíve never seen anything like it," observed Peter. "Iíve seen a lot of cleft lips but never one as symmetrical as that one, they are usually placed to one side or the other of the philtrum and extend into some kind of abnormality inside the mouth; the upper teeth at the very least and sometimes into the palate. But Vincentís seems to be confined to the lip. And when I examined it, I found that it isnít like any cleft lip Iíve ever seen; it seems to be there instead of the philtrum. I had nothing to compare it to so I went home and subjected poor Jack, Janineís cat to a thorough examination and Vincentís lip is more like Jackís than a true cleft lip. Then there is the nose. The bridge is flattened, and the cleft of the lip extends up to the septum, just like Jackís. His eyes are unusual too. He seems quite sensitive to light and they react much faster than a newborn usually does. And his brow ridges do not go straight across his forehead they angle up. I examined his body and it seems to be formed normally, at least externally, except for two things."
"And those are?" asked John.
"He has claws on both his hands and feet and his muscle tone is much better than any newborn Iíve ever seen. More like a two to three month old."
"And what about the hair?" asked Jacob.
"The hair is the least unusual thing about him, Jacob," said Peter. "Babies are often born with hair in unusual places. Iíve seen babies born with a short fuzz completely covering their bodies. It usually falls out in a couple weeks."
"Iíve been checking his temperature and it is still slightly elevated," said Jacob. "His heart rate is also a little lower than normal for a newborn. Do you think we should be concerned?"
"Jacob, Iíll be honest with you, I think we are dealing with something beyond the norm here. The slightly elevated temperature and lower heart rate just might be normal for him. We will just have to wait and see."
"What are you suggesting, Peter," asked Jacob.
"I donít know, just that we may have to play this by ear and learn as we go." Peter shrugged and looked first at one man then the other.
John had been very quiet through the entire exchange, now he decided to speak his piece.
"Personally, I think it is either a genetic mutation or the result of experimentation. It is more than likely an imbecile and we will be stuck feeding, bathing and changing a mewling overgrown baby for the next half century, if it lives. At best it might progress to the mental capacity of a three or four year old. I hear that even some chimps have been toilet trained."
Both Peter and Jacob were surprised at Johnís vehemence.
"What makes you say that, John?" asked Jacob.
"Peter mentioned skull deformations, the flattened nose, the brow ridges. I think it may have an unusual form of Downís Syndrome compounded by a cleft lip. If it is the result of experimentation, then it could very well be a hybrid: human and animal; from Peterís observations, possibly a cat of some kind. It has a good chance of having the brain of whatever the animal part is. I know my wife is attached to it, so I wonít suggest any drastic measures be taken, but Iím afraid we might have bitten off much more than we can chew here, gentlemen."
"I think we should just wait and see," put in Jacob. "As you said, he might not even live, but if he does, we will do the best we can for him. At least he will know comfort and care here, probably more than he would get Above in some institution."
Peter nodded agreement and John just walked out in disgust.
"Caring kind of guy, isnít he?" observed Peter once John had left the chamber.
Vincent slept for another twenty four hours and when he woke, Jacob braced himself for another bout of wailing and crying, but it didnít happen. From that day forward, Vincent was a dream child. He had a sunny disposition, seldom cried, was never sick and Anna was in heaven. She finally had her child. Two days after he woke from his thirty plus hour nap, she moved him into the nursery that she had prepared for the last baby she had conceived. She had carried that one for almost six months and had felt that it was safe to prepare a nursery. Two days after it had been completed she had gone into labor. The child, a girl, had been born dead.
Vincent was also proving John wrong, he was leaps and bounds ahead of any other baby his age Below or Above.
The only baby that Jacob had known well was Devin, and at one month Devin had just begun to smile and show better muscle tone by being able to lift his head and turn it. At one month, Vincent was not only doing all that but was rolling over, cooing and laughing and was showing unusual coordination for a one month old. By two months he was sleeping through the night and by four months he was eating solid foods, drinking from a toddler cup and trying to talk. At eight months, he was still small but he was doing anything that most one year olds did, including walking. He called Anna "Ma" but no one else was made to feel special. He could actually say "John" and knew who John was. When he said Jacob, it sounded a bit like he was chewing on it but he got most of it out.
He adored Devin. "Dev" was his favorite playmate.
When Vincent was ten months old tragedy struck. Anna had been unusually tired, she was blaming it on having an active toddler to look after. She would usually put Vincent to bed and go to bed herself. One night she told John that she was tired, she kissed his cheek and left the chamber. John followed her to bed several hours later and found her dead. She looked like she had just laid down and gone to sleep.
John was devastated. He was lost without Anna, and he had absolutely no idea what to do with Vincent. He just couldnít seem to relate to a child under the age of twelve or thirteen. It was the only time Vincent had really cried since his first few days. He had wandered through their chambers looking for Anna and calling "Ma" in a mournful voice; John just couldnít take it. Three days after Annaís funeral service and her internment in the catacombs, he had taken the boy to Jacob.
"I donít know what to do with him, Jacob," he told his friend. "He misses her as much as I do, but we are no comfort to each other. How do you tell a child his age? How do you make them understand? You know more about children, and maybe the change of scene will get his mind off missing her. Maybe he will stop looking for her."
Jacob had never seen John in such a state before. He knew that John had loved his wife, but he never really realized how much until now. He agreed to take Vincent and he watched as John walked away down the tunnel.
John was almost a recluse for a while after that. Vincent was nearly four years old before John was seen regularly in the dining chamber and at community functions again. Vincent barely knew him by then.
Vincent and Devin shared a small chamber off Jacobís study, but they were growing fast and when Devin turned twelve Jacob suggested that he might like to move down the tunnel to a new larger chamber that had a small bathing chamber. Devin was very excited at the prospect, but when he saw that his little "brother" didnít want to be alone he invited him to share the new chamber.
The boys decorated their chamber together as only boys could, with odds and ends that they found discarded Above and in storerooms Below. When Devin brought the stained glass window down, even some of the adults were eying it with longing. Devin began to enlarge a hole in the wall above their beds. It had been the source of a bad draft and the boys had hung a rug over it to begin with. It took several months, but together they managed to make the hole big enough to hold the stained glass window. A Helper, who worked in stained glass changed one of the panes so it could be removed. They started putting long burning candles behind it to illuminate it. As far as both boys were concerned, it was the perfect finishing touch to their chamber.
Devin was very headstrong. Vincent, as young as he was, would try to talk him out of some things. He was at odds with Jacob a lot as he grew. One day, not long after his fifteenth birthday, he and Jacob had an argument. When Vincent woke up the next morning, Devin was gone. After weeks of searching, everyone Below seem to think Devin was dead, even Father. The general consensus was that he had fallen into the Abyss or had wandered off somewhere and gotten lost, Vincent didnít agree. Vincent was sure that Devin had left the tunnels. If he hadnít, why would he have packed his backpack and taken his favorite book: Jules Verneís Around the World in Eighty Days? He mourned the loss of his "brother" but never thought he was dead.
After that, Vincent and Jacob grew closer. Jacob had never encouraged Vincent to call him father or dad, as Devin had; heíd always expected John to reassert his parental role at some point, but beyond making sure Vincent was well educated, John hadnít had much to do with him.
All the children Below received excellent educations, but Vincentís capacity for learning was immense; Jacob thought he would never fill him up. He was always asking questions and prowling Jacobís and Johnís extensive libraries, reading books that no one would ever believe that a boy his age would understand.
When puberty arrived everything in Vincentís life was turned upside down. He started growing like a weed, he was always hungry, and seemed to lose much of his interest in things academic. And he discovered girls, or more correctly, they discovered him. He waited until he was sixteen before he had his first real crush, and he was sure that she returned his feelings.
Lisa had come Below with her parents when she was only a baby. Her mother had been sick and had died, and her father had just left one day and never came back. She and Vincent were about the same age and after Devin left he and Lisa had became friends. As they got older Vincent had started to dream dreams.
Lisa loved to dance and they had a dance teacher who had been teaching all the girls ballet for several years, but only Lisa showed a real interest and talent. The teacher even made arrangements for Lisa to audition for a school of the arts where she would be able to study ballet and maybe go on to dance like she had dreamed.
Lisa had been working very hard on her audition dance. She invited Vincent to the Great Hall to watch her rehearse one evening. Vincent thought she was dancing for him only and he discovered he wanted her, but when he reached for her she just danced away. He finally caught her and held her. But she didnít want to be held and when she pulled away from him he scratched her. He was appalled at what heíd done. Lisa had initially been frightened but had recovered quickly and gone above to her audition and then on to school and Vincent had never seen her again.
He was remorseful about what had happened, but never got the chance to apologize, or to hear her side of it. He thought she had left because of him and he worked himself up so badly that he made himself sick. Jacob was afraid that he was going to lose Vincent too. At one point Vincent stopped breathing for almost a minute, but then he gasped and his recovery began.
After Vincent recovered he was much more of a scholar and John started taking an interest in him and his education.
One evening a few years after Vincent had started studying with John he was helping him draw plans for repairing and reinforcing the bridge over the Abyss in the Whispering Gallery.
"How old are you Vincent?" John suddenly asked.
"I was eighteen my last birthday," answered Vincent.
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
Vincent felt his face heating up, and he concentrated on erasing something from the margin of the drawing. John always had been blunt; he should be used to it by now.
"Not since Lisa left, but then Iím not sure if she was my girlfriend."
"But you liked her." It was a statement, not a question.
"I loved her, and I thought she loved me," said Vincent candidly.
"What made you think that? Did she have sex with you?" John was sitting back watching the effect his questions were having on Vincent.
Vincent blushed again, he felt as if his head was going to burst into flames. "John!" he protested.
"Well, did she?"
"No. We didnít. Iíve never done that."
"I can see that Jacob has neglected an essential aspect of your education," said John with a dry chuckle.
"He has taught us biology, and that included reproduction," protested Vincent.
"Did he teach you that the act can be more than reproduction?"
"Of course, but he also told us all that we should practice restraint." Vincent was beginning to feel the need to escape.
"Good advice for the most part, at least for the youngsters. We donít want our population down here exploding because all our young people let their hormones take over, but you, Vincent, are eighteen, and a fine specimen of...well, of whatever you are."
His words bruised a little but Vincent seldom paid much attention to Johnís comments.
"Iíve noticed that some of the young women watch you with a little more than idle interest," John continued. "You might want to take advantage of the interest they are showing."
"What do you mean, John?" Vincent was hoping that he didnít mean what he thought he did. He didnít like the sound of the words Ďtake advantage ofí at all.
John changed his tack and went off in what Vincent thought was another direction altogether.
"You fell ill right after the incident with Lisa, am I correct?"
"Yes you are."
"Jacob said that it started with nightmares. What were those nightmares about?"
"Mostly I dreamed about what happened when I scratched Lisa," Vincent said softly.
"Can you tell me in more detail?"
Vincent knew that John would persist, and to tell the truth he was curious about where John was taking this, so he related the dream that heíd had over and over in the weeks before his illness had finally taken hold.
"The dream always started the same. Actually it was just as everything really happened up to when she started dancing. After the usual class in the Great Hall the teacher had left all the candles burning so Lisa could practice.
"Lisa asked me to stand in the middle of the room and she started to dance. She was dancing for me. I was sure that she was doing it, not because she needed the practice but because he loved me. As I watched her I was aroused. At first I just stood and watched; after I while I started reaching for her, but she would dance away, just out of my reach.
"Finally I managed to catch her. That is where the dream changed. What really happened was that I grabbed her shoulder, and I think it startled her. She pulled away, I didnít let go and I scratched her. But in the dream it was different. In the dream, when I grabbed her, she let me pull her into my arms, and she seemed to be willing when I kissed her, but then she started to struggle and cry. She was trying to get away, but I didnít want her to leave. I dreamed that I pushed her to the floor and forced her. I dreamed that I raped her." Vincent was almost in tears as he finished the story.
"I thought as much," said John with a sigh. "Vincent, I think part of what caused your illness was the fact that youíve forced yourself not to succumb to certain urges that are quite normal in the adolescent male."
Vincent didnít catch on right away, so John continued. "Have you ever had a dream where you were aroused and the climax woke you up?"
"You mean a Ďwet dreamí?" asked Vincent with a sheepish smile. "Of course, all boys have them."
"Have you ever made it happen?"
Vincent drew a blank for a moment then it dawned on him what John was talking about, and he turned bright red and began to stammer.
"I can see that you have," said John with a knowing smile. "I hope that no one has told you that there is anything wrong with that," he stated, not really expecting an answer. "Itís a normal outlet, but you are approaching the age where you should move on to more adult activities. It is 1973, after all, but Iím not surprised that the so called Ďsexual revolutioní managed to pass us by."
"Adult activities? You mean sex?" Vincent was incredulous. "But who would...?"
"From the way some of the girls and young women look at you, I would think that you would have any number of willing partners," John told him.
Vincent was intrigued now. "You really think so?" he asked.
John nodded. "But if you do indulge, I would give you some advice."
"First of all, protection. Condoms. I donít know that you would be susceptible to things like syphilis, gonorrhea or anything like that, but it is always prudent not to take chances. And I also donít know that you would be able to impregnate a woman, but it is probably not a good idea to leave that to chance either. We are a small community and discretion is always a good idea in these matters. My second piece of advice would be to learn how to please a woman. Use that famous empathic ability of yours and let it lead you. Regardless of what you might have been led to believe, women will talk to other women, and if you get a reputation for being a good lover, it will get around and women will beat a path to your chamber. You will have plenty of willing partners. But you should not get emotionally involved, at least not now." Johnís advice up to this point had sounded good, but now Vincent wondered.
"But isnít that why it is called Ďmaking loveí?" he asked, a little confused.
"Yes, when it happens with someone you are in love with, but if you let the women know right in the beginning that all you are looking for is a mutually satisfying sexual encounter you wonít have to deal with all the sticky emotions later. Never tell a woman that you love her just to get her into your bed. It is dishonest, and it can get you into some very trying situations. Always be honest. There will be time enough for more permanent relationships later."
As he finished speaking, John reached into a drawer and pulled out a sizable paper bag that he handed to Vincent.
"What is this?" asked Vincent looking at it as if he thought there might be a snake in the bag.
"Condoms. There are several kinds and sizes, you can experiment. The Pharmacist also included a booklet that shows how they are used."
Vincent stared incredulously at John. He couldnít believe the conversation that had just taken place, but he did take the bag with him back to his chamber, where he promptly hid it in the back of his wardrobe, without even opening it.
Vincent had all but forgotten the conversation with John when several months later Jacob asked him to go Above to pick up some things from a Helper.
"This is the address," said Jacob, handing Vincent a piece of paper. "Do you know where it is?"
Vincent glanced at the paper. "Yes itís in a neighborhood that is being Ďrevitalizedí...I think that is the word that they are using. If I remember correctly this is in an old warehouse."
"Itís Lara," continued Jacob. "I donít know if you remember her, she was only with us a short time a few years ago. She left us after she graduated from college. She must be about twenty five or twenty six now."
"I remember Lara," Vincent said with a smile. "She was the tall blond who taught all the children how to play baseball."
"Yes, thatís her. She is teaching elementary school now, at least that is what Peter has told me. She has some text books for us. She said that whoever picks them up should just go up to her apartment, she has the loft on the top floor of the building, but that was before I knew that everyone was going to have colds and I was going to have to ask you to pick it up."
"It isnít anyoneís fault that they are sick," Vincent said. "They should all stay here Below where they can keep dry and warm. They would get soaked and wind up with pneumonia with the way it has been raining. Iím sure there is a fire escape. I can go up to her apartment that way. She knows me, Iíll knock on a window or something."
"You know which apartment she is in?" asked Jacob.
"I think that block has several small buildings. They all have only one apartment on the top floor. Iíll be careful, Jacob," he assured the older man.
"I know you will, Vincent, but I still worry." Jacob smiled as Vincent hurried out to accomplish his errand.
He went Above through a manhole a couple of blocks from Laraís loft, but he was familiar with the neighborhood and it wasnít a problem. What was presenting a problem was the heavy rain. At least it kept foot traffic to a minimum and he didnít have to worry about anyone seeing him. He reached the building and verified the address, and he was right, there was only one apartment on the top floor. The fire escape was on the alley side and he ran quickly and lightly up, trying not to make any more noise than he had to. There was no window from that apartment on that side of the building, so he knew that she must have roof access.
He knew he would surprise her, knocking on the roof door. He could see that it was just off the kitchen area, and he hoped that she would hear him.
He knocked and seconds later the door cracked open and she peeked around it. Surprise registered then she threw the door open and greeted him.
"Vincent! Come in!" she invited. "Youíre soaked," she added.
"Hello Lara," he said with a smile. "I just came to pick up those books. I donít want to come in, Iíll drip all over everything."
"Donít worry about that," she insisted. "This is the laundry, you can drip all you want. At least come in, dry out and warm up a little before you head back."
Vincent was convinced. Heíd always liked Lara, she was a friendly girl when sheíd been Below, and she had loved tutoring and playing with the younger children.
Once she got him inside she took his cloak and hung it in front of the radiator in the laundry. He pulled off his boots and followed her into the kitchen.
"How about a snack and something warm to drink before you go back out into the rain," she suggested. "Hot chocolate, tea?"
"Hot chocolate, please, if it isnít too much," he answered enthusiastically.
"And let me see, I seem to remember that you also like chocolate chip cookies. Iíve got some that I made last weekend, or I would you like a sandwich," she offered.
"The cookies will be fine, Lara," he said with a smile. "I ate dinner before I left."
Lara busied herself making the hot chocolate and putting cookies on a plate while Vincent admired the "artwork" tacked up on a huge corkboard on the wall behind her sofa.
"My kindergartners" she said coming up and standing beside him.
"Budding artists," observed Vincent.
"They are always gifting me with their artwork, I couldnít bear to just throw it out like so many of the teachers do. I have another board in the classroom and I rotate and swap the pictures all the time."
"No wonder the children Below loved you so much," he remembered.
A few minutes later they were settled on the sofa drinking chocolate, eating cookies and becoming reacquainted.
"I hope all the rain this fall doesnít have you swamped down there," she said, remembering the problems the spring rains had caused.
"It was a dry summer, so this hasnít been much of a problem so far, but five straight days of rain is bound to cause a few. A storm drain that runs over the laundry started leaking yesterday morning, but we managed to patch it. Hopefully it will hold until everything dries out and we can replace that section of pipe."
"Youíre working with the men now?" she asked.
"Iíll be nineteen in January," Vincent told her. "I still study with John, but Jacob has put me on the work roster and Iím teaching the reading class for the five and six year olds."
"How do you like teaching?" she asked with a smile.
"I love it," he said with a grin. "Their minds are like sponges at that age, they learn so fast."
She nodded. "I love it too..."
She was quiet then got up and turned on her stereo. She sat back on the sofa next to Vincent, this time a little closer, and they both relaxed to listen.
"Now that is something that I would like to have Below," he observed. "We wouldnít have to wait until summer for the concerts to hear music."
"Maybe several Helpers could get together and put together a system for you," she suggested. "Doesnít Father have an old record player?"
"He did but it finally stopped working. No one could fix it. It never sounded this good."
He leaned back, relaxed and enjoyed.
Vincent glanced over at Lara and he could tell she was thinking, maybe remembering.
"So youíll be nineteen in a couple months," she mused when she noticed him looking at her. "Youíve really grown up and filled out in the three years since I last saw you."
"I think all the heavy work over the last year with the construction and maintenance teams has a lot to do with it. Mary had to find new clothing for me because a lot of my shirts were getting too small," he said, not without a little pride.
Lara reached out and ran her hand up his arm, squeezing his bicep as she did. "Impressive," was all she said.
Not many people knew about Vincentís empathic abilities. Jacob knew, and so did John and Mary, but there were few others. Sometimes, when a person touched him, or he touched them, he would establish a temporary connection with them and as long as they were in physical contact, he would be able to tell what they were feeling. He couldnít read their minds, but he did know what they felt. It was stronger with some people, like Jacob, and non-existent with others, like John.
When Lara touched him he was slammed with a wave of something he didnít recognize at first. He closed his eyes and let her feelings wash over him and immediately felt it center itself in his groin. She felt desire. His eyes flew open and he found her looking intently at him.
"Is something wrong, Vincent?" she asked backing up a bit and removing her hand from his arm.
"Um, no, Lara," he said nervously starting to stand, "but perhaps I should go."
"You havenít finished your chocolate yet," she pointed out. "And it is still raining. The weather on the TV said that it should let up a little later tonight. Why donít you stay until it does,"
"Are you sure, Lara?" he asked, wondering where this was going to lead.
"Very sure, Vincent. Iím enjoying your company, and besides, you donít want to get the books wet."
He nodded, settled back and continued to sip his chocolate.
A few minutes later she moved closer again and placed her hand on his shoulder. This time he was able to keep his eyes open and control his reaction to her feelings. As he listened to her talk with half his brain, he analyzed her feelings with the other half. He could tell she was curious, and he was also pretty sure that she was feeling desire, and he was having a hard time believing that it was for him, but John had said that the girls looked at him. Ever since that talk with John the previous spring he had been covertly watching the girls, the ones who lived Below and the daughters of Helpers from Above, and even some of the older women. Heíd been exploring the empathic link he sometimes established and he had been surprised to find that John was right, some were interested and looked at him speculatively. He had kissed a few of the girls who had shown an interest, but he hadnít had the courage to take it any farther. Lara had that same look at the moment.
"Vincent, can I ask you a personal question?" she asked, dragging his attention back to her.
"Certainly, Lara," he answered a little tentatively.
"Have you ever been with a woman?" she asked, her eyes not meeting his.
"Been with a woman?" he repeated is a slightly strangled voice.
"Made love to a woman," she provided.
Vincent turned red and dropped his eyes. Heíd been right about what she was feeling.
"No, Lara, I havenít," he answered after a short hesitation.
"Would you like to?" she asked, bolding meeting his eyes.
"Lara!" he gasped, shocked.
"Well would you?" she asked moving her hand from his shoulder to his cheek, caressing it with the backs of her fingers.
"Well, of course I would...someday." he stammered, "but why are you asking?"
"Because I would really like to make love with you, Vincent," she said honestly.
"Why?" he asked, shocked.
"Honestly?" she countered.
She leaned close to him. "There is just something about you, Vincent," she said, and since she was still touching him, he could tell she was telling the truth. "You have this sexy, uber masculine aura. You even smell sexy. I find that Iíve very attracted to you. You have a beautiful body and Iíd like to find out what you can do with it."
Vincent blushed again, and lowered his eyes to study his hands. "I donít know Lara," he said hesitantly. "Iíve never done that before, Iíve only kissed a few girls. I wouldnít know what to do."
"Vincent. Iíve done it before," she assured him. "I know what to do, I can show you." She leaned toward him and kissed his cheek and then worked her way to his mouth.
Vincent groaned and backed off to look at her.
"I had a talk with John a few months ago, and he told me that if I should ever decide to do that, I should use protection. He gave me something, but I didnít bring any with me."
"Condoms?" she asked.
He nodded mutely.
"Iím on the pill," she told him. "We donít need condoms."
She stood and pulled him to his feet then she started leading him toward her bedroom.
He couldnít believe this was happening. He was sure his heart was beating at least four times faster than normal and the pressure building behind the zipper of his jeans was making it extremely hard to walk or to concentrate on anything else. He wasnít even sure that he would survive the act.
Several hours later he woke with a start, then relaxed when he remembered where he was and what had happened. He smiled at the memory, then he glanced over at the clock and then down at the soft, sweet smelling woman who slept with her head pillowed on his bare chest. The memory of what had happened had his body tightening again, but he knew he had to leave...and soon.
"Lara," he said softly, kissing her ear.
"Ummm?" she hummed and cuddled closer.
"Lara...I must leave. It will be light soon."
"Do you have to?" came her muffled question.
"Yes, I have to get back Below before the sun comes up. I might have some explaining to do if Jacob noticed that I didnít get back last night."
"Itís Saturday, canít you stay?" she suggested.
"I wish I could, but I have sentry duty at noon." He managed to pry himself out of her arms and rose reaching for his clothing. "But the shift is only four hours. If you like, I can come back this evening." He suggested shyly.
"Umm...I like," she agreed. "I really like the sound of that."
While Vincent was dressing, Lara rolled off the other side of the bed and pulled on a robe. When Vincentís head emerged from the sweater he was pulling over his head she was there and she pulled his head down for a kiss.
"You are a fast learner," she told him when they both came up almost gasping for breath.
His arms went around her waist and he pulled her to him for another quick kiss. "You are a good teacher," he told her before he released her and headed toward the laundry room where heíd left his boots and cloak.
He had them on and was about to leave when she turned and ran back into the kitchen. "Wait!" she called back over her shoulder.
She returned carrying the box of books.
"You canít leave empty handed," she quipped as she handed him the box then raised up on tiptoe to drop a quick kiss on his lips. "At least it has stopped raining."
Vincent returned the kiss and was halfway across the roof when she called out to him again.
"Tonight," he agreed then disappeared over the wall and down the fire escape.
Apparently no one had missed him the night before, and no one noticed him when he came in that morning. He knew all the hidden ways and could easily avoid being seen by the sentries. Heíd been doing it for years. He listened outside Jacobís study and when he heard a faint snore he knew that Jacob was still asleep. He tiptoed in and left the box on the desk then headed back to his own chamber where he quickly changed and put on his nightclothes. Hopefully he could get a couple more hours of sleep before anyone started looking for him.
That was how it all started. He continued to see Lara once or twice a week until the following spring. He knew that she wasnít in love with him, and although he knew he loved her, it was only as a friend. And Lara was a very good teacher. Between her and the empathic connection he had with her, he learned a lot in those few months.
Over the ensuing years he put everything that Lara taught him to good use. John had been right, the girls did talk to each other and it didnít take long for word to get out that he was a very considerate, giving lover. The girls werenít exactly lining up outside his chamber, but he didnít have to endure too many extended periods of celibacy.
It was almost a year before Jacob found out what was going on. He wasnít very pleased and he called Vincent into his study for the discussion that Vincent had known was probably inevitable, but had been dreading.
"Vincent, I donít know where you got the idea that this kind of behavior is acceptable," Jacob admonished.
"Iím sorry Jacob, but it was actually John who first brought it up. He seems to think that part of the reason for my illness a few years ago was my repressed sexuality." Vincent sat on the chair opposite Jacob.
"John and I did discuss that possibility at the time, but I never quite agreed with his theory," he pointed out.
"Well, if it bears any weight in this discussion, ever since I started doing this, Iíve felt better. Not just physically, but mentally. Like Iím letting off steam; like the sex is some kind of a relief valve."
"But it just isnít right to use young women that way, Vincent," Jacob moaned.
"Jacob, Iím not using anyone. Every time Iíve had sex with a woman it has been mutually rewarding. She gets as much from it as I do," he pointed out.
"You are sure, you know, women can fake it." Jacob still looked concerned.
Vincent laughed at that. "Not with me," he said. It would have sounded arrogant except that he followed it with an explanation. "I use the connection that I have with some people. I know what she is feeling and I just make it better. I know she is enjoying it and that makes it more enjoyable for me."
Jacob groaned and closed his eyes. "Damn you John," he said in a low voice.
"Jacob, please donít be angry at John. He gave me some very good advice. Made sure that I am responsible and use protection. Iím not planning to father any fuzzy little creatures like myself, if that is even possible. And I have rules."
"First of all any of the women who live Below are off limits. The ones my age are too much like sisters anyway. I wonít sleep with anyone who is married, and the woman has to be just that, a woman. No girls and no virgins. If I touch a woman, and there is no empathic connection then I will not sleep with her. Part of the reason Iím able to make it good for both of us is that connection.
"I always make sure that they understand that we are just having sex, not a love affair or any kind of permanent relationship. If they donít understand and agree to that, and the connection helps there too, I donít take it any further. And I do not bring women back to my chamber."
The talk didnít settle Jacobís mind completely, he still didnít approve, but he acknowledged that Vincent was grown and could make his own decisions. He was just glad that he hadnít gone into it as cold heartedly as he was sure John would have advised.
Vincent didnít tell Jacob everything. He didnít tell him the reason for not bringing a woman Below to his chamber. He didnít plan it at first, but when he noticed how well it worked; how easy it was for him to leave is current loverís bed just by reminding her that he had to get back Below before the sun was up, he just kept doing it. In the few instances where he had slept with a woman who had access to a private threshold, he just reminded her of his responsibilities Below, and as he got older those responsibilities did increase.
That became the pattern of Vincentís life, and as far as he could see it was mutually satisfactory for all concerned.
"Iím just worried about her, Jacob," said Peter as he sat across the chess board from his friend.
"Not Susan, I hope," said Mary as she entered the chamber with a tray of tea and snacks.
"No, an old friendís daughter, Mary. Iíve known her all her life. Her father and I were in college together and Iíve been their family doctor ever since I set up my practice. I delivered her."
"Why are you worried?" she asked as she handed the two men cups of tea, picked up the third and made herself at comfortable in a chair close to their table.
"She has been through a lot in the last few years," he explained. "She was beaten up and almost raped. She ended an engagement. Sheís a lawyer and works at her fatherís firm, and just when she seemed to be recovering and getting back into the swing, taking more of an interest in her job, her father had a stroke and died. That was late last winter and she has just been drifting since then. She has taken an extended leave of absence from work, and has confided in me that she is thinking about giving up law. I asked her what she would do and she really didnít have an answer."
"Maybe she does need to find something else to do," suggested Jacob. "Maybe going to work in the office where she worked with her father is too painful, too much of a reminder."
"Or maybe she just needs a little push," put in Mary.
"What do you mean, Mary," asked Peter.
"Well, thereís Kanin. I was talking to Livvy and she isnít very happy with the court appointed lawyer that he has. Kanin is pleading guilty, and that is to be expected, but she feels like the lawyer just doesnít care, he told Kanin that he could be facing as long as ten to fifteen years in prison. She is frightened that Luke will grow up not knowing his father. He needs a real lawyer, one who will argue for him and try to get him the lightest possible sentence."
"But Cathy is a corporate lawyer. Sheís never practiced criminal law," argued Peter.
"But donít all lawyers get the same basic education, and then choose a specialty, just like doctors?" asked Jacob.
"Pretty much," agreed Peter. He hesitated a moment. "I guess I could ask her," he finally said.
"If it works out, if she snaps out of her doldrums, maybe you can approach her to be a Helper," suggested Mary. "It would give her something else to think about."
Both men nodded and went back to their chess game.
Later, when Peter got home, he called Cathy and invited her out to dinner.
"Whatís the occasion, Peter?" she asked.
"Does there have to be an occasion?" he countered. "I just want to see my favorite patient on something besides an office visit."
They met at one of Cathyís favorite restaurants and over dessert Peter laid out the proposal.
"It would be quite a challenge," she said, "Iíve never really done that kind of thing before."
"There wonít be a trial," Peter pointed out, "he is pleading guilty."
"Well, I could at least take a look at it," she said and pulled out one of her business cards. She turned it over and wrote her home number on the back. "See that this Kanin gets this and have him tell his lawyer to call me at the number on the back. Iíll take a look at the file and then talk to Kanin. If I feel that I wonít be a detriment to his case, Iíll take it."
The court appointed lawyer called the next afternoon and before Cathy was off the phone she had decided she would take the case. After listening to what the lawyer said, she was convinced that Kanin would have been better off with no lawyer rather than keep that one. She knew she would do better than he would have.
The case was set to go to court at the end of October. Cathy would be given an opportunity to speak on behalf of her client, outlining any extenuating circumstances in the attempt to keep the sentence from being the maximum.
The only people in the courtroom besides the judge, that morning were Kanin, Cathy and a Deputy DA by the name of Joe Maxwell, who had to fill in at the last minute for one of his assistants whoíd had an accident.
Mr. Maxwell made a short statement, then the judge turned it over to Cathy.
She didnít speak long, but she got her point across. Kanin was young when the accident happened. He was scared and he ran. She went into other things, and when she was done she felt that she had done a good job. From the look on the judgeís face, she had a feeling that she had achieved the goal of getting Kanin a lighter sentence. How much lighter remained to be seen. The judged told everyone to be back in the courtroom the next morning at 9AM for sentencing.
Cathy arrived early and thirty minutes after walking into the courtroom she walked out, stunned. She had done it. Out of a possible ten to fifteen year prison term, Kanin had been given a sentence of twenty four months, with time served going toward that time. With good behavior, Kanin could be home in as little as nine or ten months.
"Miss Chandler," Deputy DA Maxwell called after her.
Cathy stopped and turned. "Yes, Mr. Maxwell?"
He approached her, his right hand extended. She reached out and placed hers in it and they shook hands.
"I like your style, Miss Chandler," he said with a boyish grin and a twinkle in his eye. "If you ever decide to leave Chandler and Coolidge, Iím sure that the DAís office can find you a desk in our bullpen. We might even be able to round up a chair too."
She laughed at him, and shook her head. "Criminal law isnít my usual cup of tea, Mr. Maxwell. I just took this case as a favor to a friend."
He handed her one of his business cards. "Seriously, keep us in mind. We are always looking for good lawyers."
She took the card and slipped it into her suit pocket. "Iíll do that, Mr. Maxwell," she said with a smile, "and thank you."
She turned and left the building leaving Maxwell standing in the middle of the lobby watching.
Cathy called Peterís office as soon as she got home.
"May I speak to Dr. Alcott please, this is Cathy Chandler," she said to the receptionist.
"One moment Miss Chandler."
There was a series of clicks then Peter answered.
"We did it, Peter," she crowed as soon as she heard his voice.
"Fantastic! What happened?"
"In a nutshell, Kaninís sentence is twenty four months, with time served subtracted, bringing it down to eighteen months. With good behavior, heíll be home next July or August."
"His family will be thrilled to hear that," he said. "I was just heading out to lunch, Iíll let them know."
As soon as he hung up the phone, he grabbed his coat and headed out. He walked the six blocks to the nearest threshold, in the back of a restaurant owned by a Helper, and went Below. He stopped at the first pipe and tapped out a brief message.
Jacob. Meet me in your study ASAP. Peter.
The answer came back almost immediately.
Peter. Copy. Jacob.
Jacob was in his study with Livvy and Mary when Peter arrived. He looked first at Jacob then at Livvy, and grinned. "Kanin should be home next July or August if everything goes well. At the latest he will be home in eighteen months."
Livvy burst into tears and Mary put her arms around her and patted her back.
After the women left the chamber Jacob turned to Peter and shook his hand.
"Thank you, Peter," he said.
"Donít thank me. It was Cathy who did it."
"But you were the one who asked her. We must think of a way to thank her," Jacob said, then he had an idea. "Peter, were you planning to come Below tomorrow evening for our Halloween party?"
"I wouldnít miss it, you know that. Susan used to love it when she was little. It has become a tradition. She insists I still go then call her and tell her all about it."
"Do you think that your Cathy would like to come? It would be a way to introduce her to us and the tunnels."
"All I can do is ask, and wheedle. I think I might be able to convince her,"
"Convince who of what?" asked Vincent as he entered the chamber, book in hand.
"Did you hear the news?" asked Jacob.
"About Kanin? Yes I did. Mary sent one of the children to tell me."
"We want to introduce the young woman, the lawyer who helped him, to the tunnels. I asked Peter to ask her to our Halloween party tomorrow evening," said Jacob.
"Good idea, then I wonít have to stay out of sight and I can meet her too," said Vincent.
Peter looked over at Jacob then back at Vincent in confusion.
Vincent laughed and gestured at his face and held up his left hand. "Halloween?" he hinted. "Built in costume?"
Peter laughed. "I can be a little thick, Vincent. Iíve known you so long that I sometimes forget you donít look like everyone else."
Vincent shrugged and turned to leave the chamber. "Wish I could," he called back over his shoulder as he left.
"Tell her she can wear a costume if she likes," Jacob was saying. "Some of the adults like to come in costume and all the children will be in costumes. Maybe sheíd like to be a judge in the childrenís costume contest."
"Iíll drop by her place tonight and ask her. Iíll let you know if she is coming."
Back in his office, Peter called Cathy to make sure she was going to be home that evening.
He arrived at her door a little after 7PM; just as Cathy was cleaning up after her dinner. She gave him a glass of wine and joined him in the living room.
"So, what were you being so mysterious about on the phone?" she asked.
"Remember when I first asked you to take Kaninís case and I told you that I couldnít tell you where he had been living?"
"Sure do. I was hoping that the judge wouldnít ask for that information. His file said that he was transient, following odd jobs, and I kind of skimmed over it, but I had an answer ready in case I was asked for details; Iím not too sure how convincing it would have sounded," she said.
"Well, now Iím prepared to tell you where he has been for most of that time, and if you want to, Iíll take you there to meet his friends and family tomorrow evening."
She tilted her head to one side and looked at him expectantly.
"It is hard to know where to start..." he said. "Have you ever heard rumors about people living in tunnels under the city?"
"Everyone has," she told him. "And some of the stories are true. Homeless people live in old abandoned subway tunnels, old steam tunnels, in sub-sub basements under some of the larger buildings."
"That is right, some of the stories are true, but what everyone doesnít know is that under those shallower tunnels are a network of mostly natural caves and there is a whole community of people who have made themselves a home there. They arenít the usual homeless, those tunnels are their homes. They live in surprising comfort."
Cathy looked like she thought heíd taken leave of his senses and he laughed.
"I know, it sounds pretty fantastic, but it is all true. And if you will come Below with me tomorrow, Iíll show you."
"That is how we refer to it. There is a network of people Above called Helpers who help the people who live Below. It is kind of like code. I can talk to another Helper using words like Above and Below and to anyone overhearing us it would sound like we were just talking about something in the basement or on the floor above us. If we used words like Tunnels, it might draw more attention."
"And you want me to go Below with you tomorrow?" she still sounded a bit unconvinced.
"Yes. They have a party for the children every Halloween. Jacob thought you might like to help them judge the costume contest. Some of the adults will be dressing up too, so if youíd like to go in costume you are welcome to."
"They have children down there? she asked incredulously. "And who is this Jacob?"
"Yes they have children," Peter told her. "There are probably about thirty or thirty-five between the ages of three and fourteen or fifteen. I think there are maybe three or four babies and maybe half a dozen between ages fifteen and eighteen. Total there are probably about a hundred people living in or close to the community. Jacob is one of the leaders; a founder of the community."
"A hundred? And that is where Kanin has been?"
"Yes, with his wife and his son Luke."
"Heís married?" she croaked.
"Well, not legally. His wife Olivia, was born Below, so she isnít documented Above, but they had a joining ceremony and as far as anyone Below is concerned, they are married."
Cathyís head was swimming with all the new ideas and images that were popping up as Peter talked, but in the end she agreed to accompany him the next evening, and she told him she would be in costume.
Chandler & Coolidge always had a rather stiff and staid, masqued ball on Halloween. Several years before she had seen a costume in the window of a costumer that was going out of business. They were selling all their costumes. The dress had reminded her of the pictures on a French Sevres Porcelain boudoir clock that her mother had owned. It was straight out of 1770ís France, panniers and all. It even came with a white wig, which she had never used. The first year she had worn the dress, sheíd had quite a few compliments and although, in her circle she wasnít likely to wear it again, she didnít want to part with it because it reminded her of her mother. Sheíd be able to wear it again and enjoy the way she felt in it.
When she arrived at Peterís the next evening she was giggling when he let her in. She had to turn sideways to step into the house.
"Whatís so funny?" he asked, looking at her costume.
"Iíd forgotten how hilarious it was to try to get in and out of a cab in this dress. Thank God I didnít decide to drive." She placed her hands on the panniers that extended almost a foot on each side. "They make good arm rests," she joked as she slipped off the cape she had worn.
"Hold on to that," said Peter. "Youíll need it until we get to the dining chamber. The tunnels are cool."
"Youíre not wearing a costume?" she asked.
"I never have. We used to take Susan down to this every year. She loved the parties Below," he said as he led her toward the kitchen.
"Susan knew about this?" she asked in surprise.
"Since she was about six and could understand the need for secrecy," he said as he put on a corduroy sports jacket.
"How do we get there?" she asked.
Peter had asked her to come to his place early and she was curious about just how they would get to where they were going.
"There are thresholds all over the city," he told her, "and I happen to be one of the lucky people who has a private one in my basement."
He led her down the stairs and to a door set into the rear wall. When sheíd been a child and asked him about it, heíd told her it was an old coal chute. Now he flipped a light switch on the wall and opened that door.
"Not a coal chute, I take it," she said.
"No," he affirmed with a smile. "Watch your step as you go through. It turns pretty sharply to the left and the stairs are steep."
She did just that and when she reached the bottom of the wooden stairs she found herself in surreal surroundings. The room at the bottom of the stairs was about twelve feet square, and there was an opening in the opposite wall. Peter followed her down and ushered her through into the subterranean world. The air was kind of hazy with dust and there was a damp chill, but other than the slight smell of damp, dust and wood smoke she didnít detect the other odor she hadnít even realized she was expecting. She had a picture in her head of people living in the storm drains and she guessed that sheíd expected the smell of sewer gas.
As they walked she started hearing what sounded like pipes rattling. Peter knew what she was thinking when she cocked her head to one side to listen.
"They use the pipes as a communication system. Thatís a form of Morse code. Iíve learned a little and we just passed one of their sentry posts and he just sent a message announcing us."
At first the floors of the tunnels were soft sand and it was a bit slow going in the heels that Cathy had worn, but as they approached the inhabited areas, the floors became smooth rock with some spots filled in with concrete. They walked another five minutes and began to meet people who greeted Peter and nodded courteously at her, but they hurried on their way, not stopping long enough for introductions.
"Iíll introduce you to everyone once we get to the dining chamber," he told her.
As they entered the large brightly lit dining chamber, Cathy saw an older man standing on a raised dais on one side.
"Iím going to briefly go over the rules for the childrenís scavenger hunt, just in case anyone has forgotten since last year," he said with a smile. "Everyone will work in pairs. Half of you have drawn a name out of the basket and you should now be with your partner." He paused as a few of the children who were gathered around him scrambled over to their partners. "In a moment, each team will draw a clue out of the basket, and when I tell you to, you will all start your hunt. This is the only basket where each clue is different, so that all of you will be going to different places on the first clue. When youíve found the correct place, you will know it, because you will find a basket of clues and a basket of a particular type of treat. Each team will take one clue from the basket, they will all be the same, so donít go sifting through it; and each member of the team will take one treat from the other basket. While you are searching you must remember that if you come to blocked tunnel, you must not go that way, all the clues will lead to only places within the main hub; and you must listen to the messages on the pipes. When you hear the message telling all the hunters to return to the dining chamber you must all return as quickly as possible. If anyone takes more than ten minutes to return after that announcement goes out, they will be disqualified. Once everyone is back we will count the treats in each team basket and the team with the most will be declared the winner. That means it would not be beneficial to eat any of your treats as you are hunting. Empty treat wrappers will not count."
The clue basket was passed and each team was avidly reading their clue and whispering.
Suddenly the man shouted, "Go!" and the children scattered.
Peter chuckled and took Cathyís cape and handed it to one of the older children who was in charge of the coats.
He took Cathyís arm and lead her to the man who had just sent the children off on their hunt. He was stepping down off the dais with the help of a cane.
"Jacob," Peter called. "Youíve memorized that speech. It is the same every year."
Jacob smiled and shrugged, "the children are different, Peter, yet they are the same. This must be Cathy." He extended his hand to shake hers.
"Cathy, this is Jacob Wells, Dr. Jacob Wells, actually, Jacob this is Catherine Chandler."
"Cathy, Iíve heard a lot about you and Iím glad to finally meet you. We are very grateful for what you did for Kanin," he said.
"Iím happy I was able to help," she said with a warm smile.
"Kaninís wife Olivia made me promise to let her know when you arrived," he told her. "Iíd best go find her. You two help yourself to some dinner, the real fun wonít start until after the scavenger hunt is over in about an hour."
Peter pointed out the refreshment table and they went and joined the throng there. Cathy was amazed at how good everything was.
"Yes, William could probably be cooking at any of the better restaurants in the city, but he would rather stay here with the people he loves. Wait till you taste his desserts."
Peter had seated her at a table with her back against a wall so she could see everything that was going on. He had left to take away their plates and get them some dessert when she noticed a man on the other side of the chamber. He had his back to her, but the rear view was still outstanding, in her opinion.
He must have been at least several inches over six feet. His black leather pants fit him perfectly, not too tight, but not a bit too loose either. He had on a matching black leather vest and black boots that came almost to his knees. When he dropped his arm down to his side she could see that he was wearing a white shirt with full sleeves that were gathered at the wrist; the ruffle fell over most of his hand. He had long reddish gold hair, and it caught the candlelight and fairly glowed. She wondered at the attraction she felt, she didnít normally like long hair on men, but her fingers itched to touch that liquid gold to see if it was as soft as it looked.
As she watched, he turned to face the room and moved to lean against the wall. He was talking to a tall blond woman who was probably in her late thirties or early forties. Cathy noticed that the white shirt, from the way it draped it had to be silk, was open halfway down the manís chest, and the woman had touched his chest every now and then as they talked. Cathyís eyes dropped to the manís feet again and then traveled slowly up his body taking in every bit of him.
The way heís dressed and even the way he holds himself he looks like a pirate off the cover of a romance novel, she mused, as her eyes traveled up. When she got to his face she was momentarily taken aback, then she remembered it was Halloween. From across the room his mask, or maybe it was make up, was fantastic. The face of a lion with beautiful, human, blue eyes looking out of it. Looking into her eyes.
Oh, damn! she almost gasped. Iíve been caught staring. She quickly dropped her eyes and didnít look up again until Peter appeared with plates of cake.
Vincent was near the door, talking to Lara when he felt eyes on him. He tried to concentrate on what Lara was saying, and he could tell from the way she touched him that she was still interested, but the feeling that he was being watched was distracting.
He moved as if to step out of someoneís way and he turned to face the center of the chamber as he leaned against the wall and feigned interest in what Lara was saying. He hoped he wouldnít have to respond with something intelligent until after he figured out who was staring.
His eyes were drawn to a woman sitting at a table on the other side of the chamber. He watched as her eyes traveled up the length of his body until they finally got to his face. After a moment of hesitation he saw surprise in her eyes as she realized that he was looking back at her. She hurriedly dropped her eyes and didnít look up until Peter approached the table carrying two plates.
She must be his friend Cathy, he thought as he dragged his attention back to Lara.
"Did you hear a word I just said?" she asked with a smile.
"Um...not really," he admitted, smiling back.
She turned and looked in the direction heíd been gazing so intently, but Peter was in front of Cathy, so she didnít see her.
"Must have been a woman," she said, turning back to him.
"What makes you say that?" he asked, not willing to admit it.
"I know that look," she laughed. "OK, then. Go. Off to another conquest." She kissed his cheek. "I didnít realize what I was creating when I decided to educate you."
Vincent leaned in and returned the kiss on the cheek. "For which I will be forever grateful," he whispered before he straightened up. "I do need to find Jacob. I promised to help him when the scavenger hunters return."
"Then off with you," she patted him on the chest appreciatively. "Iíll see you later."
Vincent did need to find Jacob, but he was also determined to meet Cathy.
Someone had brought a tape player, and a there was a small group of dancers in the center of the room so he started working his way around the perimeter to the opposite side. Everyone wanted him to stop and talk and it took him nearly fifteen minutes to finally reach where Cathy and Peter had been sitting. The table was now occupied by Mary and Rebecca. After he spoke to them he turned to scan the crowd. He didnít see Peter anywhere, but he finally found Cathy seated on a bench on the edge of the makeshift dance floor. She was flushed and fanning herself with the pretty ivory and silk fan sheíd carried as part of the costume. This time he reached her side before anyone stopped him to talk.
It had warmed up considerably in the dining chamber once it filled up with people, and that romp that the young man curiously named Mouse had called a dance had really got her blood moving. She closed her eyes and put the fan to work. Every once in a while she felt a slight cool draft from somewhere and she put her head back, arching her neck a little trying to catch it.
Something blocked the light and she thought it must be Mouse returning with the cup of punch heíd promised. She opened her eyes to the sight of a silver belt buckle with black leather above and below. Remembering where sheíd seen black leather only a short time before her eyes traveled up and met the same beautiful blue eyes.
He smiled slightly, and she marveled that the makeup was so good that it even moved properly when he smiled. She wondered how much of that face was his and how much of it was latex and foam rubber. She was curious what he looked like under it all, the makeup, that is.
Cathy couldnít help but smile back.
"You must be Catherine, Kaninís lawyer," he said in a soft, gravelly voice that sent shivers through her body. "My name is Vincent."
She extended her hand to shake his; he took it, turned it and kissed the back in a very courtly manner, very in keeping with her costume and his.
"I didnít know that lawyers Above were so beautiful. If I had I might have arranged to break the law."
Normally she would have been just a little offended at such sexist comments, but delivered in that unbelievably sexy voice she couldnít conjure up any ire and she had the feeling that he was sincere; she blushed.
"Thank you for what you did for, Kanin," he added.
"Iím just happy I could help," she said again for the umpteenth time that night.
Cathy saw that even his hands were made up and in character. She stood so that she didnít have to look up at him, and found that even when she was standing he had to be at least nine or ten inches taller than she and that was with her wearing shoes with three inch heels. Now that she was on a level with his chest instead of his belly button, she noticed that the chest hair that was peeking out of the unbuttoned silk shirt was the same color as his hair, but instead of being curly and course like most men, it was sleek and looked as soft as a kitten. She understood why the woman heíd been talking to had been touching him, she was tempted, if only to find out if it was as soft as it looked. She doubted that it was; probably part of the costume.
She backed off a step and looked up at him with a weak smile. She never reacted to men this way, she admonished herself. Sheíd been reading way too many of those trashy romance novels that he looked like heíd stepped off the cover of.
When Vincent had touched her hand, heíd noticed the instant connection, and had felt her surprise when he had kissed her hand instead of shaking it. He smiled down at her.
"The scavenger hunters will start returning any minute now, the call just went out on the pipes. Would you like to help me count treats to determine a winner?" he asked.
"Iíd love to," she answered with a smile forgetting all about Mouse.
He took her hand and led her over to a table next to the dais. When she was seated he handed her a pencil and a notebook. When the children started coming in they went directly to Vincent with their baskets. He told her the names of the team members, which she wrote down, then he counted the treats and told her the total. When they were done he leaned over and looked at her list.
"Looks like Team Samantha has done it again," he observed in an amused tone. "She is a very competitive young lady. Anyone who teams up with her is almost guaranteed first place."
Vincent stood and got everyoneís attention then he announced the winners.
"Third place, each receiving paperback copies of H.G. Wellsí The Time Machine is the team of Mandy and Zach." He passed the books to the children.
"Second place, with hard cover copies of Charles Dickensí A Tale of Two Cities goes to Lana and Kipper, and first place was taken by the only team to solve all of the clues...Samantha and Geoffrey. Samantha and Geoffrey will be receiving volumes containing the complete works of William Shakespeare." He handed the large volumes to the dark haired girl and the freckled boy with dark auburn hair. Cathy was surprised that young teens would be so thrilled to receive volumes of the classics instead of something that she would have expected to be given as prizes in contests Above. She said as much to Vincent.
"With no TV, and very little of anything that is run by electricity or batteries, the children learn to use their imaginations and really appreciate books. To be given one that is their own and doesnít have to be shared is even more of a privilege," he told her. "We are very lucky to have several Helpers who either own bookstores or have access to used books from the library or schools."
Just then Jacob came up and invited Cathy to help them judge the costume contest. Again she was surprised to find that the prizes given were books. Even the youngest group received picture books.
"Catherine," Vincent said when the judging was over and the children were being herded off to bed. "Itís warm in here would you like to take a walk in the tunnel where it is cooler?"
"Oh, yes please!" she exclaimed with a smile. "Itís a lot warmer in here than I expected it to be."
"With all the people, candles and torches, it does warm up quickly. Traditionally, this party has always been held here, but so many people have begun attending that Iíve been trying to convince Jacob that we should move it down to the Great Hall, but he is resistant to changing the tradition. And he is right that it would make it more difficult to have the scavenger hunt. We wouldnít want children falling on the stairs."
As he was speaking heíd tucked her hand through his arm and led her out into the much cooler tunnel.
"It must be twenty degrees cooler out here," she commented as they walked along.
"At least," he agreed. "At this level it stays about fifty-five to sixty degrees most of the year. We tend to wear a lot of layers. The living chambers are kept warmer with braziers but the corridors and common rooms can get pretty chilly sometimes."
"Peter told me that I would be amazed at some of the wonders Below," she said conversationally.
"You probably would. Iíll give you a guided tour sometime, if you like," he offered.
"Thank you," she said with a smile. "I just might take you up on that." She looked around. "Where are we going now?"
"Jacobís study. A lot of people retreat there at these functions when the heat and noise get to them. Youíll find a slightly more mature crowd there and Iím sure Jacob will join us shortly. William always sees to it that there is a refreshment table set up there too. Tonight I think it might include an adult beverage or two if you are interested."
They entered a chamber that Catherine would have mistaken for a library if sheíd stumbled on it by herself. About a dozen people sat or stood in groups talking. Music played in the background and Catherine indentified a Chopin Etude. The atmosphere here was quieter and much more relaxed than the dining chamber had been.
She saw Peter sitting across a chess board from a man in what she mistook at first as a priestís cassock, but looking closer she didnít see a priestís Roman collar. Considering the interesting way everyone else here Below dressed, she glanced surreptitiously at Vincent and wondered how he dressed every day. The man in blacks clothing wasnít at all eccentric. He wore a goatee and moustache, both white and managed to look quite distinguished in spite of the world weary aura he exuded.
Vincent noticed her gaze.
"Thatís John Pater. He and Jacob have been responsible for leading this community for almost forty years."
"He doesnít look nearly as friendly and approachable as Dr. Wells," she commented quietly.
Vincent laughed. "Youíve summed him up. John likes to say that he is the brain of the community and that Jacob is the heart. I know that sounds a bit arrogant, but that is just the way John is. Weíve all come to accept him. It was Johnís wife Anna who found me and brought me Below. I lived with John and Anna for almost a year before Anna died."
"So heís your father?"
"Not really. After Anna died I came to live with Jacob and his son Devin."
"Did I meet Devin?" she asked, trying to remember.
"No, Devin doesnít live Below. He left when he was fifteen and we didnít see or hear from him for twenty years. He came home for a visit last year and has been much better about keeping in touch since then.
Vincent glanced over Catherineís shoulder and smiled.
"Olivia," he directed at the person behind Catherine, "it looks like Luke is still going strong."
Cathy turned as Vincent held his arms out to take a toddler from a smiling dark haired woman.
Luke fairly launched himself out of his motherís arms and into Vincentís.
"Vin! Sing!" he crowed. Catherine was surprised that child so young would recognize a friend though the makeup. Maybe heíd worn it before.
Vincent laughed and looked at Catherine. "Donít worry, I wonít sing," he assured her. "He wants me to swing him. Heís gotten so big that Iím about the only one who can still do it." He swung the laughing child up toward the ceiling, as Olivia turned to Catherine.
"Iím Kaninís wife," she introduced herself before she hugged Catherine. "Iím so grateful you agreed to help him."
"Iím happy I could," said Catherine with an embarrassed flush. "So many people have thanked me. Kanin must a beloved member of this community.
"By me, anyway," Olivia said with a happy smile. "I miss him, but knowing that the longest he will be gone will be another eighteen months makes it all so much easier to bear."
"And if it makes you feel any better, he is in minimum security, not with the hardened criminals. He was lucky to draw a judge who believes in keeping the people who have been convicted of non-violent crimes separate from the hardened criminals. Kanin will stay right here in the city. I know you canít go Above to see him, but if there is ever anything you want him to know or even if you want me to deliver a letter, let me know. As his lawyer, I can get in to see him at any time," Catherine told her.
"Really? That is wonderful! I will take you up on that offer."
She turned to Vincent and held out her arms to Luke. "Now that you have sufficiently stimulated him so he wonít go to sleep for at least another hour, I think I will take my son, Vincent."
Vincent handed him over and looked a little contrite. "Iím sorry Livvy. It is just that his laugh is so contagious, and I love to hear it."
Olivia took Luke and patted Vincentís arm. "Donít worry, heíll play quietly in his crib while I read. He might even sleep a little later in the morning and let me sleep in for a change." She leaned in and gave Catherine a one armed hug then reached up and patted Vincentís cheek. "Iíll see you two later." Then she turned and left the chamber.
Vincent escorted Catherine over to an antique settee in one corner. "Make yourself comfortable, Catherine. Iíll go and get us some refreshments. Would you like a glass of wine?"
Catherine nodded and Vincent made his way over to the table as she sat down. As she had been doing most of the evening she forgot about the panniers and sat too close to one end and was jabbed in the hip for her trouble. Thatís gonna leave a mark, she thought to herself as she scooted toward the center and chucked. She filled the entire settee.
"I hope Vincent wasnít planning to sit next to me," she said out loud as she smoothed out her skirts.
"Actually, I was," he said as he walked up, "but we can remedy that." He handed her both glasses of wine and crossed the room. When he came back he carried a footstool that he set next to her feet. He sat down and took one of the glasses of wine. He leaned sideways against the settee and they sipped their wine in silence.
Catherine had been sneaking looks at his makeup every chance she got all evening. Now she looked down at the top of his head. She could see his scalp. So the hair is his, she noted. Her glance dropped to his cheek. But whatever he has used to make the mask sure looks like real skin. It is an amazing job!
Vincent could feel her eyes on him and he could almost tell what she was thinking. He wasnít touching her but he still felt her curiosity and he knew she was trying to see though the "makeup".
He looked up and smiled at her. Heíd been smiling at her all evening, even laughing, but heíd never given her the all out toothy grin that exposed his canines until now. He felt the initial shock that quickly turned into curiosity. He wondered what her reaction would be when she found out that all she saw was real; he would love to be a fly on the wall during that conversation.
Catherine became so engrossed in her conversation with Vincent that she didnít notice right away when Peter and John finished their chess game. Jacob had come in earlier and he and Peter made their way across the room to where Catherine and Vincent were deep in conversation.
"Did you have a good time tonight, Cathy?" asked Peter as they approached.
Vincent smoothly rose from the stool and held a hand out to Catherine.
"This has been fantastic, Peter," she said with a smile at Vincent. "I honestly havenít enjoyed myself this much in a very long time!"
"Iím glad to hear it." Peter looked around.
"Cathy, my dear. I wonder if you could spare a moment to talk," said Jacob.
"Certainly, Dr. Wells."
"Please, I havenít been Dr. Wells in years, call me Jacob." He offered his arm and he and Catherine walked across the chamber toward John as Vincent gazed after them.
"Now donít go treating Cathy like one of your harem," said Peter using the word that many Below used to describe the young women who all but fought to spend time with Vincent. He smiled to soften the admonition. "She is very vulnerable right now. She just lost her father last winter. I donít want you to go breaking her heart."
"She has no one?" asked Vincent.
"Just me and Susan, and a couple of close girl friends from college."
Vincent shifted his gaze from Catherine to Peter. "Donít worry, Peter. I donít break hearts," he said with a smile. "They all know that Iím not looking for commitment when I start visiting them. If Catherine is looking for more than what Iím willing to give then we will remain friends, nothing more...Is she going to become a Helper?"
"I donít know," answered Peter. "It is up to Jacob and John to ask and to her to say yes."
Catherine was back a few minutes with a large smile.
"Peter, Iíve been invited to be a Helper," she announced.
"Are you going to do it?" asked Peter.
"Yes, of course. Weíve already discussed how I might be of assistance in a legal sense, to both the people who live Below and to Helpers. I still havenít gone through Dadís place. There are all his clothes and a lot of furniture." She really sounded enthusiastic. In fact, was smiling and seemed more alive than she had in months. Peter was grateful that Jacob had suggested this.
"Itís getting late, after eleven," Peter finally reluctantly said. "Are you ready to leave?"
"I guess Iíll have to," she answered. She turned to Vincent. "I guess we will have to finish our discussion at another time, Vincent."
"Iíll go and get your coats and meet you at the main intersection. Iíll walk with you," Vincent offered as they left the study together.
The walk back to Peterís threshold didnít take long. Catherine found herself wishing that it had been longer. At the bottom of the stairs, Vincent said goodnight and again he took Catherineís hand and kissed it.
"I hope you will visit us again soon Catherine," he said before he turned and left.
Catherine didnít know quite what to make of Vincent. She wondered if all his courtliness, that was the only word she could come up with to describe it, was an act to go along with his Halloween costume, or if he was really like that all the time.
When they reached Peterís kitchen, Peter invited her to stay for a while.
"I can put on a pot of decaf and," he reached into his coat pocket, "I managed to filch a few of Williamís apple turnovers. Theyíll be good with coffee."
Catherine removed her cape and folded it over the back of a chair. "Sounds great to me," she said with a smile. "I hope I get to meet William eventually. I could happily get fat eating his food."
Later, as they were sipping coffee and eating the turnovers, Catherine broached the subject of Vincent.
"Is he for real, Peter?" she asked.
"How do you mean?" asked Peter with a grin.
"I mean, is he for real. He is so nice, and heís smart, well educated, well read, polite. I didnít think they made men like him anymore. Please tell me he wasnít putting on a persona to go with his costume."
"No, that is the real Vincent," Peter told her. "They definitely broke the mold when they made him."
"Iíll say. Does he live Below or is he a Helper?" she asked.
"Oh, he lives Below."
"Why? Iím sure he could do most anything he sets his mind to; we talked about anything and everything...Did he do his own makeup? If he did, Iím sure he could get a job on Broadway, or even in Hollywood. Thatís talent!"
"Well, Cathy," started Peter. "Thatís something we need to talk about. Vincent thought that it might be a good idea if you met him before you learned his story."
"He told me some of it. He told me that someone named Anna, Johnís wife, found him and took him Below, but he was raised by Jacob."
"One of the wayís the people Below live is that they forage Above. They know all the best places to find things like produce, clothing, fabrics, just about anything you would imagine. Itís only been in the last ten years or so that theyíve had a good network of Helpers Above. There have always been Helpers, but just not such a large diverse group. Anna found Vincent near the trash bins behind St. Vincentís hospital."
"Someone just left him there?" she asked, shocked.
"On a bitterly cold night in the middle of January. He was only a few hours old. Itís pretty obvious that whomever left him meant him to die."
"How could anyone do that to a tiny baby?" she asked. "At least they could have taken him inside the hospital."
"Well that is the other part of it. It all turned out well, and in the long run it is probably better that he wasnít taken inside the hospital. He has probably had a much better life. Heís been educated, loved, he has friends. Iím sure that if heíd stayed Above his life would never have been this good."
Catherine was confused by Peterís words. "Howís that Peter?"
"You asked if Vincent was for real. I can tell you that he is. He doesnít always dress like that, of course. Heís usually in jeans, heavy work boots and sweaters, but the rest of what you saw was the real Vincent." Peter looked at her closely, trying to judge her reaction.
"I know the hair is his. I saw the top of his head and I could see his scalp, but what does he look like under the makeup?" she said.
"That is what Iím trying to tell you. That isnít makeup. That is Vincent. That is the way he looks."
Catherine, just sat there, her mouth open and her coffee cup halfway to her mouth.
"Youíre joking," she stated.
"No, Iím not. You asked why someone who is that charming, intelligent, well educated would live Below. That is your answer. If he was to be found Above, heíd probably wind up in a cage in a lab somewhere being studied."
"But how..." Her voice kind of trailed off.
"We have no idea. Jacob, John and I have been asking that same question for thirty-five years. John seems to think that he is the result of a genetics experiment, Jacob used to talk about birth defects, and Iíve always leaned in the direction of spontaneous mutation of some kind, but none of us have any proof for our pet theories." He looked at her closely. "Are you OK Cathy?" he asked with a smile.
"Yeah...I think so. Iím just kind of shocked...I guess...Maybe not shocked, surprised would be a better description." She looked at Peter and smiled. "Iím really glad you did that the way you did. It gave me the chance to get to know Vincent without the distraction of his differences. Thinking it was makeup let me concentrate on the man."
Below, Vincent was walking briskly back to his chamber and he was taking the long way so heíd have an opportunity to think. When heíd turned around and noticed Catherine staring at him heíd felt an immediate connection. Not the connection that he felt with some people when he touched them, something a bit more tenuous, but almost as if heíd known her for a long time. It had been enough to make him cross the dining chamber and introduce himself. When heíd touched her hand that initial connection had strengthened, and something happened that had never happened before: heíd been able to feel the connection even when he wasnít touching her. They had stayed close most of the evening and for the entire time it had been just as if he still held her hand in his. His main reason for telling them that he would go after their coats and meet them was to test it. The feeling hadnít diminished one iota, even when he was in the storage room off the dining chamber and she had been several hundred feet away with rock walls separating them.
Now, as he walked away from Peterís threshold he could still feel her. Not long after they parted heíd felt her amusement and then curiosity. Then a few minutes later heíd felt a wave of sadness, tinged with anger, followed soon after by a momentary shock that had subsided into surprise. This had never happened before and he wasnít at all sure what to do about it. He knew she lived in an apartment on Central Park West and was probably almost two miles from the main part of the community Below, but this thing wasnít diminished by distance. Heíd already walked a good three miles from Peterís and he could feel that Catherine was moving away from him, probably on her way home. He could tell she was moving, but the "signal" wasnít weakening at all. He wondered if she had any sense of him. In the past, heíd asked some of the women heíd established a connection with if they could sense him, and none of them could, but this was different and he had to wonder. He decided that he would explore this connection, before it disappeared. He had to find out how she was different from the others.
The following Friday, Vincent had his usual date with his current girlfriend. He and Alexis had fallen into a routine with him visiting her every Friday evening. He would arrive as soon as it was dark enough, they would have a light dinner, then settle on the sofa to watch something on TV. Alexis would cuddle up to Vincent and after a short time he would initiate a few kisses, and eventually they would move into her bedroom. Afterward, Vincent would nap for a short time and he always left before 4AM. They had been doing that for several months, but this particular evening was different.
Even though he was holding Alexis and could feel her emotions, he could still feel the connection with Catherine, and even though she was miles away, that connection was stronger than the one he had with Alexis. He knew before they even sat down on the sofa that it wasnít going to happen tonight.
He could feel Alexis waiting expectantly for him to do something; then he felt her emotions shift. She must have decided that she needed to make the first move because she slid her hand up his chest and into his shirt through the gap between two buttons. Vincent deftly caught her hand, brought it up to his mouth where he kissed it, then he carried it back to his chest, where he continued to hold it as he feigned interest in the news program on TV.
"Vincent," she spoke a few minutes later. "Is something wrong?"
He turned his head and smiled down at her. "Iím sorry, Alexis. I guess Iím just tired. It has been a busy week. Weíve been making preparations for the cold weather. I probably should have stayed Below tonight."
"Would you like to take a nap?" she suggested hopefully. "You might feel better when you wake up."
"I donít think so." Vincent rose and stretched a little. "I should leave." He picked up his cloak and put it on.
"Next week?" she asked as she walked him to the window where he could go out to the fire escape.
"Iíll let you know," he promised. "This is a busy time for us Below. Iíll be in touch." He knew it sounded like a brush off, and he could feel her disappointment when he drew her into his arms and kissed her. "Iíll send a note or call from somewhere," he promised again.
That night he walked in the park for a long time before he finally went Below and to his bed.
Jacob walked into Rebeccaís candle shop to find Vincent instructing the children on the protocol of delivering the Winterfest candles.
"It isnít a contest, Samantha," Vincent reminded. "Speed is not the goal. We want to make sure that the candles are delivered to the correct addresses, that all our Helpers get their candles," he was handing out lists as he talked, "and we want all of you back here safely."
Six children quietly filed past the table, picking up baskets of candles as they passed. They all walked very sedately out the door, but as they turned the corner Vincent could hear them breaking into runs. He looked at Jacob and shook his head.
"I think I wasted my breath," he observed as he picked up a candle and slipped it into his pocket.
"As I always did when I gave that same speech to Devin, Rebecca, Olivia, Winslow, Pascal and you," Jacob pointed out with a laugh.
"Children never really change, I guess," said Vincent, joining Jacobís laughter.
Jacobís eyes went to Vincentís pocket. "Are you inviting Peterís friend Cathy?" he asked.
"Yes, I thought I would. She seemed to enjoy Halloween, I thought that an invitation to Winterfest was in order. She did so much for Kanin, and since Halloween she has sent down a mountain of clothing and furniture, not to mention a whole kitchen full of pots and pans; if anyone should be invited it should be her."
"I agree. Peter said that she has been putting off clearing out her fatherís home, but he said that she has been hard at it all month and the place sold almost as soon as she listed it."
Vincent nodded. "She sent a note down a couple of weeks ago explaining where all the stuff came from and saying that if there was anything in particular we needed she would see that we got it. She also sent a list of things that she had in her storage asking if any of them would be useful."
"Such as?" asked Jacob.
"Some sports equipment...golf clubs, tennis rackets, racket ball equipment, skis, crutches and a cane, a back brace. It was quite an eclectic mix. I sent her a list back. I took all the medical equipment, and some of the sports equipment and a few other items. They arrived a few days ago."
"When are you delivering her candle?"
"I thought I would take it up tonight."
"You know where she lives?"
"Yes, I got her address from Peter. She is in a building on Central Park West, near the south end of the park. I can use the threshold in the park. She is on the second floor from the top of the building, and she has a balcony. I shouldnít have trouble getting there. Iíll go later, when Iíll be fairly sure I wonít meet anyone."
"Be careful," Jacob started.
Vincent put his arm around Jacob and hugged him, "Iím always careful, Jacob," he said with a smile.
It was a little after 10PM when Vincent dropped onto Catherineís balcony. He could only see one small light on in the living room and he could tell that the apartment was empty. Before heíd left his chamber heíd checked the connection and heíd known that Catherine was not home, but he had been hoping that she would get back before he arrived. No such luck. Over the last month, heíd learned how to damp down the connection he had with her. He had found it distracting and he also felt a little like a voyeur at times, like he was invading her privacy. It was one thing to be connected temporarily with a woman when he was having sex with her, but to have that same connection all the time was something altogether different. Heíd spent several days working on a way he could push it all to the back of his mind when he needed to.
Just in case, before heíd left his chamber, heíd written a note to leave with the candle. Now he looked around the balcony for a place to put them. He noticed that the balcony was clean, but it had an unused air to it. There were no plants and the small wrought iron table with matching chairs were neatly pushed against a wall and looked like theyíd never been used. If he left the candle there, would she even find it?
On a whim he tried the handle of one of the French doors and it opened. He peeked in, it was her bedroom. That was perfect, he could leave the candle on her pillow, sheíd be sure to find it there.
He slipped into the room, it was only a few steps to her bed. He put the candle and note on her pillow and was back on the balcony in a matter of seconds. But heíd been inside long enough to smell the perfume that lingered in the air. He smiled as he closed the door behind him and headed back to the end of the balcony where he could climb back up to the roof.
Catherine was smiling as she closed and locked her door behind her. She was wondering why she had waited so long to take her friend Jenny up on that invitation to dinner and a movie. When they had parted they had both promised that they had to do that more often.
Catherine dropped her keys on the mantle after she finished locking up. She walked into her bedroom and flipped on a light. At the closet she hung up her coat and kicked off her shoes. She leaned over to pick up her robe and noticed a white, yellow and orange candle on her pillow.
"Where in the world did that come from?" she asked the empty room. Then she looked around nervously and noticed that the balcony door was standing slightly ajar. She had automatically picked up the candle and the note now she reached for the small handgun she kept in the drawer of her nightstand.
She moved quietly to the balcony door and eased it open. She glanced at one end of the balcony and then at the other. There wasnít much there, and no place for anyone to hide and she drew a breath and looked down at the note in her hand. The first thing she saw was the signature "Vincent"; she looked up again and called his name. This time he stepped out of the shadow where he had instinctively blended when she had come in. He wasnít sure she was alone and he didnít want to take any chances.
As he moved toward her he opened the connection completely and was amazed at what he felt. She was truly happy to see him, and curious, but not about him, it was the candle.
She invited him in and he accepted. Once in her living room she took his cloak and invited him to have a seat.
"It is chilly out there tonight, would you like something warm to drink?" she asked. "Coffee, wine, brandy?"
"It is a little cold out," he agreed. "Do you have tea?"
"Only teabags," she told him. "Iíll be right back. Do you take anything in it?" she called from the kitchen.
"No, nothing, thank you."
It didnít take long to boil the water and she was back with two mugs and a saucer.
"I read the note, Vincent," she said as she dunked her teabag up and down. "Winterfest sounds like an interesting celebration."
"It is quite an occasion Below. We celebrate all the other holidays, but Winterfest is special. It is for the whole community and our Helpers. I hope you can come."
Catherine put her teabag on the saucer and took a sip of her tea.
"I wouldnít miss it," she told him with a smile.
Vincent smiled back and sipped his tea.
She tilted her head to one side and studied him.
"You, know, I should be angry at you," she told him.
He was a little taken aback at that. "Why is that?" he asked.
"Not just you, but Peter and Jacob too. The three of you conspired and really put one over on me. I spent an entire evening with you thinking the whole time that you were in costume."
"I was in costume," he argued with a smile. "You donít think that I go around all the time wearing silk shirts and leather pants do you?"
"OK, you were in costume, I probably should have said makeup. Why didnít someone tell me ahead of time?"
"Would it have changed anything?" he asked.
"Well it might have..." She hesitated in thought. "On second thought, you were probably right. I wasnít distracted and I got to know you. If Iíd been told a head of time what to expect, I might have spent the whole time staring and not getting to know you..." She smiled at him again. "I withdraw my previous statement. All of you were right."
Vincent stayed only long enough to finish his tea. He thanked her and rose to leave.
"Will you visit again?" she asked as he put on his cloak.
"Yes, I would love to, if you would like me too."
"Yes, I would."
"Iíll send a note ahead of time," he promised, before he left. She stood on the balcony looking out over the park. She noticed a figure in a cloak crossing the street near the corner and she watched as he disappeared into the park.
Vincent did visit often during the time before Winterfest, at least twice a week. Catherine wasnít going in to her office regularly, although she was working on some things at home. Vincent always arrived late, usually around 10PM and he never stayed more than a couple of hours, but during that time they talked and found that they had a lot in common: a love of music, literature, poetry. Vincent also continued to explore the connection that he had with her. He got more adept at pushing it into the back of his mind when he didnít want to be distracted, but even after he learned to do that he didnít go back to visit Alexis.
Vincent also recruited Mouseís help in opening up a threshold in the subbasement of Catherineís building. He managed to convince Mouse that the job didnít warrant the use of one or two of the six sticks of dynamite that had found their way into his possession, so they patiently chiseled way mortar from between the bricks and stacked the bricks neatly to one side until they had an opening large enough for Vincent to get through. The next evening he told her about it and explained how she could access it. When she went Below for Winterfest, he met her there.
"You are lovely tonight, Catherine," he told after heíd lifted her off the ladder and set her on her feet on the sandy floor.
Catherine ducked her head and even blushed a little as she smoothed her hands down the deep green velvet of the dress she wore. "I went shopping," she told him. "the first time Iíve even felt like it in a while! I wanted something special and festive for the occasion."
He nodded approvingly at her choice of a black velvet opera cape and a relatively high necked dress, it came to barely below her collarbone, had long sleeves and the skirt brushed the floor. "You should be warm. It can sometimes be a little drafty in the Great Hall. Not to mention the wind on the stairs and in the chamber outside."
She stuck her foot out in front of her. "I wore flat shoes too, this time," she said referring to the ballet style shoe she had on. "I wish Peter had warned me the last time."
Catherine was surprised that it was such a long walk from her threshold.
"It isnít that far from there to the main hub of the community," Vincent told her, "But the Great Hall is several hundred feet below the living quarters. We are going straight there to shorten the trip a little."
Catherineís eyes widened as they stepped out of a tunnel and onto the windy stairs.
Vincent leaned close so she could hear him over the wind. "Stay close to the wall, and Iíll be right behind you."
When they reached the bottom of the stairs they were greeted by a few early arrivals. Vincent put the torch he carried into a sconce on the wall and drew her to one side and out of the wind as much as he could.
"I hope the wind didnít ruin your hair," he said as she pulled her fingers through it and brushed stray strands out of her face.
"Peter did warn me about the wind," she said, "so I didnít do much to it. I have a brush in my pocket and Iíll repair the damages once we are inside.
Vincent had explained to her that it was traditional for him to open the huge doors, and she was very surprised at the number of people who had made the trip down the stairs when Vincent finally moved toward the doors.
She watched as he lifted the heavy plank that held the doors closed. He was wearing the same silk shirt heíd worn at Halloween, except that this time it was buttoned all the way up and he wore an old fashioned neckcloth made out of the same silk as the shirt. The shirt was far from fitted, but she saw muscles bunch and ripple as she watched him move the plank then push the doors open. She dropped her eyes trying to control the flush that rose up her neck and into her face. She almost missed it when Vincent turned to her and offered her his hand to lead her into the darkened chamber.
There was very little light in the chamber as everyone took seats. Catherine was surprised when Vincent led her to a chair next to his at the head of the T shaped table. Jacob and John sat in the center with Vincent on Jacobís left and Mary on Johnís right. Catherine sat at the end of the T on Vincentís left and an elderly gentleman sat on Maryís right. The rest of the community and Helpers arranged themselves down both sides of the long part of the T in what looked to Catherine to be roughly order of age. The children under five or six either sat on adults laps and the rest stood behind a parent or other adult.
Catherine leaned toward Vincent. "How did I rate a seat at the head table?" she asked.
"You sit on my left in a place of honor as our newest Helper," he explained. "Abe," he nodded toward the man at the other end, "sits on Maryís right as our oldest helper, in time as well as age, in his case. Jacob and John share the position of president of our governing council, I am the vice president and Mary is our secretary."
"I was wondering how you ran things," Catherine said, as the torch was extinguished leaving only the candles in front of Jacob and John lit. Jacob cleared his throat and she turned her attention toward him as he started to speak.
"The world above us is cold and gray; summer, a distant memory. Our world too has known its winters, so each year we begin this feast in darkness, as our world began in darkness," said Jacob as he looked down the table at the people gathered there and then touched his lit candle to the candle in front of Vincent.
"Long before the city above us raised its towers to the sky, men sought shelter in these caverns. In those days these tunnels were dark places, and those who dwelt here dwelt in fear and isolation," added John as he lit Maryís candle.
Mary spoke next. "This was a land of lost hope, of twisted dreams, a land of despair, where the sounds of footsteps coming down a tunnel were the sounds of terror. Where men reached for knives and rocks and worse at the sound of other men's voices." She lit the candle in front of Abe.
"At last a few people learned to put aside their fear. And we began to trust each other, to help each other. Each of us grew stronger - those who took the help and those who gave it," said Vincent as he reached out and placed his hand over Catherineís and squeezed it as he lit the candle in front of her.
Then John took it up again as the two people at the top end of the long table lit their candles from Catherine and Abeís. "We are all part of one another: one family, one community. Sometimes we forget this, and so we meet here each year to give thanks to those who have helped us and to remember:"
Catherine watched as the flame was swiftly passed from candle to candle down the table and up onto the chandelier that had been lowered over the table.
"Even the greatest darkness is nothing, so long as we share the light," finished Jacob as the chandelier was cranked high and light completely illuminated the large chamber.
The opening ceremony had ended and a buzz of conversation immediately rose in the chamber, Catherine still sat, taking it all in.
"Is something wrong, Catherine?" Vincent asked, sensing something strange in Catherine.
"No...no, nothing," she said with a bright smile. "That was beautiful! ĎEven the greatest darkness is nothing, so long as we share the light.í I love that!"
Vincent had seen Catherine smile many times since heíd met her, but this was the first time that heíd seen her look truly happy. "You are one of us now, Catherine," he said pulling his chair closer and taking her hand again. "Part of our family."
She surprised him by allowing a tear to escape and roll down her cheek, even though she continued to smile. "Thank you, Vincent," she said softly as she leaned her forehead against his shoulder. "I thought I would never feel as if I belonged to anyone again when my father died."
Vincent didnít know what to say to that, he just put his arm around her and hugged her.
They sat like that for several minutes, drawing questioning looks from both Jacob and Peter, not to mention Alexis who felt she now understood why she hadnít seen Vincent in almost two months.
"Catherine," Vincent whispered, "I suggest that we go and claim ourselves something from the buffet before the children get all the best stuff."
Catherine giggled, surprising Vincent at her quick change of mood, he even felt the shift through the connection.
"Oh yes, Williamís cooking. Did he make any more of those scrumptious apple turnovers?"
They didnít separate for more than a few minutes at a time all evening. Vincent introduced her to community members and Helpers that she hadnít already met. He told her the history of the Great Hall, as far as they knew it, and as much about the tapestries that covered the rock walls as he knew. He said that an expert had told them that judging from the style of the figures, the colors and the type of weaving they had been made in Germany or Switzerland in the mid to late 1400ís, but how they made it here was anyoneís guess. John had discovered the chamber almost forty years ago and most of the tapestries were hanging in it when he found it. The rest had either fallen from the walls where they had been hung or were draped carelessly over the carved ledges and benches that lined the room.
At one point Jacob found himself seated next to Alexis. He knew that Vincent had been seeing her recently, and he suspected that he was no longer seeing her. He hoped that Alexis didnít feel bad about it. He was wondering about that as he watched her watching Vincent and Catherine.
"Itís OK," she assured him, glancing at him with a smile. "I wondered why he stopped visiting and I suspected it was a woman, but I didnít expect this."
"That he has actually fallen at last," she said with a sigh. "And to paraphrase Carole Bradshaw ĎThere are hearts breaking wide open all over the world tonight. Unless sheís a fool, that boy is off the market.í"
"Alexis, my dear, what are you talking about?" asked Jacob, totally confused.
"The quote is from a movie made a few years ago. A woman is talking to the female lead and she is referring to the male lead. Heís the playboy, love Ďem and leave Ďem type, and he has finally met the woman, the female lead. That is what has happened to Vincent, heís in love, canít you see it Jacob?"
Jacob looked across the chamber to where Vincent and Catherine were leaning companionably against a wall. They seemed oblivious to all the activity around them, focused only on each other. He had to admit that Alexis might be right.
"Hmm, I see what you mean," he agreed. "I hadnít noticed, but then this is the first time Iíve seen them together since they met at Halloween."
As the evening ended, Catherine found the closing ceremony just as beautiful and moving as the opening one had been. The group formed a circle, holding hands, and Vincent drew her into the circle next to him, with Jacob on her other side.
"As we part for another year," said Jacob, "let us remember...darkness is only the absence of light, and all winters end."
After they left the Great Hall there was another first. Vincent invited Catherine back to his chamber for a while before he walked her back to her threshold. Other women had visited his chamber over the years. Women who lived Below, his friends. He had reading classes there and people were in and out all the time, but no woman from Above had ever been in his chamber. Lara had been there, but only while she still lived Below, never after she and Vincent had become lovers.
Vincent had left a low fire burning in his brazier and it was cozy and warm when they entered. He took her cape and hung it on a hook by the door and turned to watch as she slowly turned and discovered the chamber. She finally turned to him with a smile.
"Itís just like you," she said.
"What do you mean?" he asked as he waved her to his chair and he sat on the bed.
"Well, warm, comfortable and...golden!"
"Iíve never been compared to a room before, but I can see what you mean. Your apartment suits you too."
They talked until Catherine, who had picked up enough pipe code to decipher the time hacks that were sent out every half hour, noticed the time.
"Itís later than I thought it was," she said as she heard 2AM followed by Ďallís wellí. "Time flies...I should leave."
They didnít talk much as they walked. Vincent seemed lost in thought, Catherine thought he must be tired, heíd told her heísd been up since very early helping with the finishing touches for Winterfest. He was more lost in her feelings than anything. He was weighing and gauging, trying to judge if sheíd really enjoyed herself or if she was just being nice. As far as he could tell, what she was saying matched her feelings. She had truly had a good time and was very moved to have been welcomed into the Ďfamilyí so warmly.
They reached her threshold and Catherine turned and thanked him again.
"I had a wonderful time tonight, Vincent," she said, smiling up at him. "I know youíll probably want to spend Christmas Eve with your family but Iíd like to invite you to diner at my place on the twenty third." She had picked up a gift for him and she wanted to give it to him then.
"Iíd love to, Catherine," he accepted. "What time?"
"It is dark so early, is 7PM all right?"
Vincent though for a moment. "I think I can stick to the shadows and as long as I keep my hood up I should be safe. The fire escape will be the hardest part but it is on the back of the building in deep shadow."
"If it is too dangerous..." she started.
Vincent pulled her into his arms and hugged her. "It isnít. I doubt that there will be many people out on foot even that early and people in cars donít seem to see me."
Vincent looked down into her eyes and slowly lowered his lips to hers. He kept the connection open the entire time. If heíd felt the slightest bit of fear or distaste he would have pulled back, but all he felt flowing along the connection was complete trust and welcome. He kept the kiss simple and short, but he still felt a slight surge of arousal along the connection before he let her go and said good night.
When Catherine woke on the morning of the twenty third she had to admit that she was nervous. More nervous than sheíd been in quite a while. First she was cooking. She didnít do it much. Her fatherís housekeeper had taught her some basic stuff before she went off to college. Sheíd perfected a few dishes when she and Steven had lived together, but she hadnít done much cooking in the last few years.
Catherine spent the morning cleaning her apartment and the afternoon shopping. While dinner was simmering, she quickly showered and dressed. When she went shopping for the dress for Winterfest she had also found a silk lounge set: deep red pants and a matching tunic, very simple and very elegant, and very comfortable.
She planned to serve dinner on the coffee table in the living room with them sitting on large floor cushions. Just before Vincent was due she built a fire in the fireplace and stood back to admire. Very cozy with Christmas music playing in the background and the only lights in the room coming from the Christmas tree, several candles and the fireplace.
When Vincent arrived, only a few minutes late, she greeted him on the balcony.
"Itís cold out here," he told her. "You should be inside."
"I came out for some fresh air," she told him. "It was hot in kitchen." She didnít tell him it was more the running back and forth from the kitchen to the French doors than the heat of the kitchen that had overheated her.
Inside she took his cloak and indicated the coffee table set for dinner.
"I hope that will be OK, I thought being close to the fire would be nice."
"The fire feels good," he agreed, moving toward it and holding out his hands to warm them.
Dinner went well, without a hitch. Nothing was burned or underdone and Vincent ate enough that she believed him when he said that it was all delicious. She thought it tasted pretty good, but then she was used to her own cooking.
While she was carrying the dinner dishes into the kitchen and loading the dishwasher, Vincent got a closer look at some photos that he noticed on the mantle. Catherine joined him and handed him a glass of wine.
"Those are photos of some friends and my family," she started on right and worked her way across. "That one was taken at graduation from Radcliffe, it is me and my friends Nancy on the right and Jenny on the left. The next one is my mother, then mom and dadís wedding photo, and the last one is a picture of dad and my ex-fiancť. I only kept that one because it is such a good picture of dad."
Vincent heard the tone in which she said the words ex-fiancť and made a mental note to talk to Peter.
Catherine and Vincent moved to the sofa. The sofas looked delicate, but Vincent knew they were comfortable and sturdy enough. A lot like Catherine, he thought as he sat down.
Vincent had decided that he would conduct a small experiment tonight. When he had kissed her at her threshold after Winterfest, heíd felt only welcome and enjoyment from Catherine through the connection, tonight he thought he might carry it a little farther to see what happened. For some reason he felt he should be much more cautious with Catherine that heíd ever been with another woman. He didnít really understand it himself, except for Peter and Jacobís warnings, but he knew it felt right.
When she sat on the opposite end of the sofa from him he stretched his left arm across the back of the sofa and mutely invited her to sit closer. After a short hesitation she moved and snuggled into his side. He closed his arm loosely around her. Their conversation never missed a beat.
As they sat, he occasionally caressed her arm or her side, all the while listening to what the connection was telling him. At first she tensed up and he felt her unease, but as the evening went on she relaxed and even enjoyed his touches.
"Catherine, do you have plans for tomorrow evening?" he asked, referring to Christmas Eve.
"No, I wasnít planning anything," she told him. "I thought Iíd have a quiet evening at home."
"Itís your first Christmas since your father died," he observed. "You shouldnít be alone. Come Below and spend it with us."
"It will be OK, Vincent, and I wouldnít want to intrude," she protested.
"I didnít put that very well," he said. "Really, everyone will love have you join us. I want you to come Below for Christmas. Pack an overnight bag and stay. We have guest chambers."
"If you are sure," she said hesitantly.
"Iím sure. Will you come?"
She nodded and he hugged her, then tilted her face up to his and kissed her.
Catherine was surprised at how much she enjoyed his kisses. After she had been assaulted, her skin had crawled at the thought of a man just touching her hand, much less kissing her. When her fiancť had made advances, she had totally panicked. But when Vincent kissed her there was no pressure. It was as if he kissed her for the sake of the kisses only, not as a concession to her on the way to the bedroom.
She had set aside his Christmas gift earlier in the evening, but now that she had agreed to go Below for the holiday, she decided to wait and give it to him on Christmas Eve.
When they parted for the evening Catherine agreed to meet Vincent at her threshold at 5PM the next evening.
Vincent was up early on Christmas Eve, he went to speak to Peter before he caught his flight to Santa Fe to spend Christmas with his daughterís family. He wanted to know more about what had happened to Catherine but he hesitated to ask her, afraid he might upset her.
Peter wasnít able to tell him much.
"I donít know that much about what happened. I do know that when her father and I arrived at the hospital she was hysterical. She had told them that she hadnít been raped, but they were insisting that they had to do an exam. She had a slight concussion and the doctors thought she might have been unconscious and been raped while she was out. She kept telling them that she hadnít been oun conscious and that she was sure she would know if sheíd been raped. She just didnít want to be touched. She didnít go into details, but what she said made sense to us and Charles told the doctors to leave her alone. She wasnít badly hurt, just bruised and scraped up."
"Was she raped?" asked Vincent.
"No, Iím pretty sure she wasnít. Cathy was right that she would have known, even if sheíd been unconscious and she would have at least told her father. Especially later when the guys were caught and she testified. But her fiancť was another story."
"Her fiancť?" he gasped.
"Unsympathetic bastard, in my opinion!"
"What did he do?" at the look on Peterís face Vincent jumped to a conclusion. "He didnít force her, did he?"
"No, I didnít mean it that way. Cathy did tell me that he did try to force himself on her, but she threw him out and broke the engagement the next day. That coming only weeks after the assault didnít do much for her confidence, though. She was just starting to get back to normal when her dad died. Why do you want to know this?"
"I know you know that sometimes I establish an empathic connection with some people. I have with Catherine and Iíve sensed something in her that I just canít put my finger on."
"Please take it easy with her, Vincent, she is fragile right now," warned Peter.
"Donít worry Peter. I donít think she is as fragile as you think she is, but I also donít plan to proceed with her as I have with other women Iíve known. This is different, Catherine is special," he assured Peter. "There hasnít been anyone else since I met her."
"Special?" questioned Peter.
"I canít explain it, but the connection I have with her is different, and I find myself wanting...no needing...to be different with her." Vincent shrugged. "Like I said, I canít explain it."
"Iím glad to hear that. And now..." Peter rose and carried his coffee cup to the sink. "I think you can find your own way out. I have a plane to catch and grandchildren to spoil. Iíll see you in a couple of weeks."
As Vincent walked back to his chamber he pondered what he had told Peter. Catherine was special, very special. So special, in fact, that he was beginning to think of her as Ďmy Catherineí.
In his chamber he removed his cloak and sat in his chair, pulling his journal toward him. He had fallen in love and he hadnít even noticed. He shook his head and picked up his pen, he had a lot of thinking to do.
They exchanged their Christmas gifts in the privacy of Vincentís chamber on Christmas Eve. Catherine had been browsing in a used bookshop in the Village and had found a Tennyson first edition that had immediately made her think of Vincent. He was thrilled and amazed that anyone would give him anything so unique and precious.
Vincent had made a special trip to some crystal caverns that Narcissa had told him about. There he had found a perfect quartz crystal point. He had taken it to Mouse who had polished it and fashioned a setting with gold wire. Suspended from a gold chain it was a beautiful part of his world that Catherine could keep with her in her world. She was as thrilled with it as he had been with his Tennyson.
The next few weeks passed in a rosy haze for both of them. Vincent spent New Yearís Eve at Catherineís and at midnight they exchanged kisses and wished each other a happy new year. After they toasted with their wine, Vincent leaned down and kissed her again. This time, for the first time, he didnít keep the kiss an innocent, friendly kiss, he really kissed her.
Catherine almost forgot to breathe when it happened, and he felt so good. He was strong but he wasnít using that strength to overwhelm her or force her to do anything, it just made her feel secure and protected. One of his hands slid down her back but it stopped just above her waist as the other came up and cradled the back of her head. When his tongue caressed her lower lip her mouth opened almost of its own volition. His tongue was a welcome invasion. She felt as if it had been her own idea. His kisses were intoxicating, and left them both gasping for breath.
"Happy New Year, again, Catherine," he whispered close to her ear.
"Yes, you too," was all she could manage. Her lower body was pressed against his and she was very aware of his arousal. She was aroused too, but she wasnít sure what she wanted to happen at this point.
"Catherine," he said, attempting to take his mind off his bodyís reaction to the kiss, "Iím going to be away for a few days. There is a member of our community who lives by herself, at a very deep level. Somehow she is able to provide much of what she needs for herself, but we take her supplies once a month. I usually take them to her because I can carry heavier loads and move faster, but I also enjoy my visits and usually stay a day or two. While Iím down there this trip Iím supposed to inspect some of the deeper caverns."
"How long will you be gone?" she asked, stepping away from him.
"It takes me most of a day to get to Narcissa, and I plan to stay a day. The areas I need to look at are a little off the return route so I will take two days to get back; Iíll be gone four days."
"Will you be leaving tomorrow? Well I guess that is today now."
"Yes, I want to get an early start, and Iíll be back Thursday afternoon or evening."
"Then I guess youíll be leaving here soon so you can get Below and get some rest before you leave."
Vincent picked up his cloak and put it on, he was almost out the door when Catherine called after him. "Iíll see you at the end of the week?"
That stopped him in his tracks and had him going back to her and sweeping her into his arms for another mind bending kiss that left her knees weak and her heart pounding. He was out the door and gone before she could say anything else.
She covered her face with her hands and leaned back on the couch. "God, I love that man!" she said to the empty room. She was surprised at her revelation.
She went to bed that night determined to call Peter the next day and talk to him. She knew he was at Susanís. Maybe sheíd get a chance to talk to Susan, and maybe Peter could answer some questions for her.
The next afternoon she hung up the phone after a heart to heart with Peter. She could tell that Peter hadnít wanted to throw a wet blanket on her feelings, but he had been honest about Vincentís past and the other women. Peter had made it sound as if Vincent had been with a different woman every night, but then he had assured her that Vincent had told him that he hadnít seen any other women since heíd met her. She didnít know what to think.
While Vincent was away, he tried to keep his mind on what he was doing, but it still occasionally strayed to Catherine and what she was feeling. When he had left her the night before, she had been quite content and had gone to sleep very soon after he left, but when she woke in the morning he could feel determination, and then later she started swinging back and forth between confusion and what felt almost like anger and hurt. He was confused and he actually cut his trip short and arrived home on Wednesday afternoon instead of Thursday.
He stopped in Jacobís chamber to give him the report of his inspection and when he finished, Jacob handed him an envelope.
He could tell from the scent that it was from Catherine, and he waited until he reached his chamber before he opened it. The note was short, but not very sweet.
Iím going to Connecticut to visit my friend Nancy. Iím not sure how long Iíll be gone. Iíll be in touch.
Vincent had been managing to keep the connection damped down to the point where all he could feel was her presence. Now he opened it and probed it deeper. He could still feel her, but could tell she wasnít in the city. Her feelings felt as confused as her note had made him feel.
"Iíll just have to wait until she comes back," he said as he grabbed his robe and headed for his private bathing chamber.
Time passed and Vincent was beginning to worry. He knew that Catherine was back home. Sheíd been gone for a week and had been home for another week. Vincentís thirty-fifth birthday had passed, heíd hoped to spend it with Catherine. But then she didnít know when his birthday was, no one had told her.
Finally he couldnít stand it any longer. He knew she was in her apartment at the moment, but maybe sheíd be there by the time he arrived. If she wasnít heíd just wait for her. He had to talk to her and tell her everything; first about the connection and then, if she was still willing to listen, about his feelings for her.
Vincent arrived on Catherineís balcony, but she still wasnít home. He wrapped his cloak around his body and tried to make himself comfortable on one of the hard wrought iron chairs.
It was late when she finally got home. Vincent was dozing and didnít notice until the light went on in her bedroom. He moved swiftly to the door and raised his hand to knock but he wasnít quick enough. She already had her dress off and was heading for the bathroom in her slip. He was going to have to wait a little longer.
Catherine had been out with Jenny again. They had begun to discuss their relationships and Cathy had admitted to Jenny that she had met a man and had fallen in love. She had discussed it with Nancy too and was surprised when Jenny repeated what Nancy had said. Theyíd both told her to follow her heart. She had come home determined to go Below and talk to Vincent first thing in the morning. She had to know how he felt and where she stood. She was mentally rehearsing what she planned to say as she showered and dried her hair.
He didnít want her to think he was peeping so he let himself into the room after she went into the bathroom. He sat on the vanity bench to wait for her. He heard her in the shower, then heard the hair dryer, it is a good thirty minutes before she finished. He noticed the door handle turning and it dawned on him that for all he knew she might sleep nude and she might be coming out of the bathroom naked, so he closed his eyes.
Catherine was confronted with a rather comical sight when she exited the bathroom: Vincent sitting on her vanity bench with his eyes closed, hands clasped in his lap.
"Vincent, what are you doing here?" Catherine asked when she saw him, then she noticed his eyes were closed. "Vincent, are you OK? Are you asleep?"
"No Catherine, Iím awake. It is just that...um...are you clothed?"
"Of course I am," she answered.
He gave a sigh of relief and opened his eyes. "As I was sitting here waiting to talk to you, it dawned on me that I didnít know what you slept in, and that you might sleep nude. I didnít want to embarrass you, so I closed my eyes."
Catherine almost laughed at that candid confession, but her humor didnít last long. "What are you doing here Vincent?" she asked seriously.
"Catherine, there is something I need to talk to you about. Itís important and I didnít think I should wait any longer. If Iím disturbing you, Iíll leave and come back some other time."
"No, thatís OK. Come out to the living room, would you like some tea?"
Since Vincent had begun visiting Catherine had developed a taste for tea. She had invested in a teapot and a collection of fine loose teas. After she settled Vincent in the living room she went into the kitchen and made a pot of an herbal that she knew he liked. As she waited for the water to boil she tried to calm her jangling nerves. She had made a decision to tell him how she felt, but even with all the mental rehearsal, she didnít feel ready. When she entered the living room with the teapot and mugs on a tray, she noted that Vincent looked as agitated and unsure as she felt.
"What was it you wanted to talk about?" she asked as she poured tea and handed him a mug.
"Iím not really sure where to start...Has anyone said anything to you about me having certain empathic abilities?" he asked.
"No, what do you mean?"
"It is something that Iíve been able to do ever since I can remember. For a long time I thought everyone had the ability," he explained. "With some people, Iím able to establish a connection when I touch them, it is stronger with some and non-existent with others. I canít tell what a person is thinking, but I can feel what they are feeling. And I will admit that Iíve used it in relationships with women. It tells me if they like what Iím doing, when, well when we are..." he as hesitant to speak of his relationships with other women.
"When you are having sex with them," Catherine supplied rather harshly.
"Um, yes." He was surprised at the her vehemence and wondered just how much she knew. He was feeling something from her that he hadnít felt before. He couldnít identify it. "It makes the encounter more enjoyable for both of us," he added defensively.
"Do you have this connection with me?" she asked without looking at him.
"Yes," he told her. "When I touched your hand the first time it was there immediately, but Catherine, that isnít all of it."
She looked up at him. "What?" was all she asked.
"It different with you. It doesnít stop when Iím not touching you. Itís there all the time. It took a few weeks, but I have learned how to mask it, so that Iím not constantly listening in on your emotions. All I can feel then is your heart beat. If I leave it open it makes me feel like Iím invading your privacy so I try to keep it in the background."
She looked at him and he felt the unidentified emotion being replaced by confusion.
"And you say you canít read my mind?" she asked.
"No, I canít. If Iím with you and we are talking, I can tune into your emotions as you are talking and it gives me insight into what you are saying, but not beyond that. And when we are apart I can tell if you happy, sad, angry, frightened, frustrated, and I can tell if you are asleep or awake. And I can occasionally pick up on a physical sensation such as pain."
"And when you are touching me?" she asked softly.
"It is all very much enhanced. Whatever you are feeling, I feel it as if it was my own emotion.
Catherine was confused and embarrassed. Heís just told me that he knows exactly what Iíve been feeling and he is probably here to let me down easy. That is why he showed up so suddenly this evening, she said to herself.
Catherine set her mug down and rose from her seat on the sofa across the coffee table from Vincent. She went to the French door and stood with her back to him. Tears had started to flow and she didnít want him to see, but if what he said was true, he probably already knew that she was crying.
Vincent wasnít sure, but he suspected she was crying.
"It just isnít fair," she said her voice muffled because she was facing away from him.
"What isnít fair, Catherine?" he asked.
"That you have that connection with me, that I canít hide anything from you, but it doesnít go both ways. I have no idea what you are feeling."
"I can always tell you what I am feeling," he suggested as he rose and moved slowly across the room toward her. He stopped an armís length behind her. He moved quietly and he knew she didnít know he was there.
"Will you tell me the truth?" she asked, tentatively.
"Always, Catherine." He reached out and drew her back against him, into his arms.
"And?" she prompted, resisting the impulse to melt into his arms and just give up and give in to her emotion.
"Do you want me to tell you what you are feeling, or what Iím feeling?" he asked.
"What you...no wait...what am I feeling?" She stiffened slightly.
After a moment he spoke. "You are feeling confusion mostly. A little frustration, exasperation, anger and something else I canít quite figure out," he answered quickly. His hands slid down her arms to grasp her hands, then he wrapped his arms and hers around her middle. "And I think you like me holding you, even if you are angry with me. Why are you angry with me, Catherine? Is it because I didnít tell you about the connection sooner?"
"No, not really. I can see that something like that would be hard to explain." She hesitated for a few moments before continuing. "Itís not just anger. I think Iím hurt too, but whatever it is, I think itís because you didnít tell me about the other women." She paused a moment then shook her head. "No that isnít reasonable. I have no right to expect you to answer to me for things you did before you met me. Friendship doesnít demand that kind of accountability. Itís not fair."
Then Vincent knew what the other emotion was, it was jealousy, and if she was jealous of his other relationships, that might mean that she returned his feelings.
"If it would make you feel any better, there have been no other women since I met you on Halloween," he told her.
"None?" she asked a little breathlessly.
"I did have dinner with Alexis, but it went no further than dinner and talking, anything else just didnít feel right," he told her.
"And why is that?" she asked, still gazing out at the night.
"I think it was because I had met you."
Catherine squeezed her eyes shut to keep the tears from rushing down her cheeks.
"Vincent...Youíre used to physical relationships with women. What if Iím reluctant to have sex with you?" she asked in a small voice.
"Catherine, I donít want to have sex with you," he told her quietly.
She gasped and he felt her body go rigid before he continued. "I donít want to have sex with you, I want to make love with you...but if you are hesitant then I understand. I know Iím different and you might not be able to accept that."
That was when she pulled her arms free, turned around and caught his face between her hands. "No Vincent, it isnít that at all. Itís me. Canít you feel how beautiful I think you are? Canít you tell how I feel when you take me in your arms and hold me and kiss me?"
Vincent looked into her eyes. "It feels like love, but Iíve never really felt that from a woman before so Iím not sure."
"None of them loved you?" Catherine asked incredulously.
"I think they were all fond of me, but I think it was partly because Iím different and partly because Iíve always tried to please them that they were all so willing," he told her candidly.
She gazed up at him for what seemed like an eternity before she spoke again.
"I love you Vincent...Iím not sure when it happened, but I know that when Peter told me about the other women, I was hurt, even a little panicked. Itís not that I expected you to not have had other lovers, Iíve had a couple, but I think it was that, from the way Peter told it, it was sport to you. Just a game. It just didnít seem like you."
"And that isnít me. First of all, there havenít been that many." He smiled a little. "I think my exploits have grown with the telling. I donít keep records, so I canít immediately give you an accurate number, but I think I might if you gave me time to check my journals. My first was when I was eighteen and it has been seventeen years. It might surprise everyone how few there have been. Each time I have entered into a relationship with a woman we have both known that it wasnít permanent. And I think if you were to ask them, none of them ever regretted it; Iím still friends with all of them and for the record, Iíve never deflowered a virgin."
"And if you have sex with me?" she asked.
"As I said before, Catherine, I donít want to have sex with you. I want to make love with you. If that happens, then you will be my last, Catherine; if you will allow it."
"Your last?" she whispered.
"I love you, Catherine," he said, looking into her eyes. "I never thought I was capable of loving a woman the way I love you. I cannot picture the rest of my life without you. I donít see how I could ask you tie yourself to me. I donít even exist in your world, but I will pledge myself to you, as I hope you will do to me. But if you donít want that, then I will take whatever you are willing to give me. Even if it never goes beyond holding you like this. But no matter what, there will never be another woman because now I realize what has been missing in my life all these years; what I was looking for with those other women."
He pulled her closer and buried his face in her hair.
"What?" she asked in a whisper.
"The connection; a true connection, not just of bodies but of souls. I have that with you, and Iím not just talking about the empathic connection that I have with you. We connect on so many levels. You accepted me as the man, before you realized that the rest was real."
Suddenly the ramrod tension went out of Catherineís body and she went almost limp. Vincent quickly caught her up and carried her back to the sofa where he sat and held her on his lap.
"Are you all right?" he asked with concern.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his chest. She nodded an answer to his question.
"Then what is it?" he asked.
She drew in a breath and tilted her head back so she could look up at him.
"You have kissed me, but youíve never tried to push it any further, youíve always kept your hands on my arms or on my back; Iíve never felt pressured or threatened," she stated.
"Is that good?" he asked. "It was exactly what I was striving to convey. I donít want to rush you."
"Do you know what happened to me three years ago?" she asked. Even though she rested quietly in his arms her body felt like a tightly coiled spring.
"Peter told me that you were kidnapped and beaten, then dumped in the park."
She still looked intently at him, but her eyes took on an unfocused look, as if she was seeing something else.
"I met Tom, my fiancť, and a couple of his clients for dinner one night. I went straight from work, and was late. Tom wasnít happy with me. Tom accompanied his guests back to their hotel to go over some plans, and I decided to go on home. Two men grabbed me outside the restaurant while I tried to flag down a cab. They thought I was someone else. One of them kept calling me Carol. I tried to tell them I wasnít Carol, but it was dark and I guess they couldnít see me much better than I could see them. They threw me in a van and tied me up. They drove somewhere and when the van stopped they started beating me. My hands and feet were tied so I couldnít even try to defend myself. Then one of them started telling me what else they were going to do to me. He said their boss told them to rape me and to make me understand what happens to girls who donít go along with the program. I could only see one of the men at first, I think the other one was up in front somewhere. The one I could see untied my legs then he used his knife to cut my clothes off, all while he was touching me and telling me what he was going to do, in graphic detail. Maybe Iíve led a sheltered life, but I didnít think some of the things he talked about where even possible.
"He was just starting to unzip his pants when the man in the front yelled Ďwe got the wrong broad.í The one I could see looked disappointed. He asked the other guy to let him do it anyway, but was told that if they didnít hurry theyíd miss getting the right woman then they would be in trouble with Ďthe boss.í The one I hadnít seen until then grabbed the otherís guyís knife and I thought he was going to kill me, but he rolled me over and cut the ropes on my hands, then he opened the back door of the van and just rolled me out of it onto the wet grass. They threw my purse, shoes and the rags that had been my clothes out after me and just took off. I was on my knees trying to get my coat around me when a mounted cop saw me and came to help. He called an ambulance and they took me to a hospital.
"Once I was there, they insisted on a rape exam, even thought I told them I hadnít been raped. I just didnít want to be touched, and by the time my father and Peter got there I was completely hysterical and had to be sedated. I convinced Daddy and Peter that I hadnít been raped, and they told the ER doctor to leave me alone. Sometime during the night I woke in a hospital room. Daddy was asleep in a chair. I got up and went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. I got in and washed and scrubbed until my skin was almost raw. I donít know how long I was in there. Daddy never woke. They sent me home with Daddy the next day. I wasnít really hurt, just a lot of bruises and scrapes. I was stiff and sore. I found out later that the men who beat me up had been told not to leave any visible marks or do anything that would leave a scar. The woman they were after was an escort and although her boss wanted to teach her a lesson he didnít want to do any permanent damage or make it so that she couldnít continue to work and earn the money she obviously was bringing into his business.
"It took a couple weeks for all the bruises to fade, and during that time my fiancť, Tom, was very sweet. I think he felt a little guilty for letting me go home alone that night. He dropped by nearly every day, brought flowers and I thought he was doing everything in his power to make me feel better; and it was working. We went out to dinner one evening about a month after the assault. It was the first time Iíd left my apartment after dark since Daddy let me go home. Tom and I had a very nice dinner and I enjoyed myself. When we got back to my place I asked Tom if heíd like a drink, and he came in. While I was in the kitchen he came up behind me and put his arms around me. Since the assault he hadnít done more than kiss me. But I could tell that he wanted more than kisses that evening. We had been intimate for nearly a year before the assault and weíd been engaged for three months; he often spent the night. But when he touched me that night, all I could think of was that other man touching me and the things that he said he was going to do.
"I told Tom that I wasnít ready yet, and I asked him to give me some more time. I told him that I had made an appointment to see a psychiatrist. He backed off a little and told me that he didnít think I needed a psychiatrist, all I needed was to Ďget back in the saddleí and Iíd be fine. Then he moved in on me again and trapped me between his body and the kitchen counter. He got the zipper on the back of my dress down and as soon as his hand made contact with my bare back, I lost it. I went berserk! I pushed him away and kneed him in the groin. While he was rolling around in the kitchen floor I came out here to the living room picked up his coat, opened the front door and waited for him recover enough to get on his feet again. When he limped out of the kitchen, I threw his coat at him and told him to leave, and if he didnít I was going to scream like a banshee and the neighbors would be sure to call the police. He left. After he was gone I went to the shower again and repeated the washing and scrubbing that I had done after the assault. The next day I sent Tomís engagement ring back to him. He showed up at the office later that day, but I didnít see him. I havenít seen him since and I donít want to."
Vincent had listened quietly to the whole story as she told it. When she was describing the assault he had felt his anger rising, but he had suppressed it. When she had reached the part about Tom, the man she had been engaged to be married to, the man who was supposed to love her and protect her, he had been so enraged that if the man had walked into the room at that moment he would have ripped his head off and cheerfully thrown it and the body off the balcony.
"Catherine," he said gruffly, as he tried to clear the red haze that had clouded his vision. "I would never hurt you or rush you and especially wouldnít try to force you. That will be your decision to make. When and only when you are ready, will we make love."
He felt all the tension go out of her body as she relaxed and slid her arms around his waist. "Thank you," she breathed.
She snuggled in his arms like a trusting child, totally relaxed. But he could feel his body responding to her even though he willed it not to. He hoped that she wouldnít notice and if she did that she wouldnít be upset.
She did notice and started to move away from him.
"Iím sorry, Vincent..." she began.
He pulled her back into his arms but kept them loose enough that she would know she could leave if she wanted to. "I didnít say it would be an easy wait," he said as he dropped a kiss onto her hair.
She understood and settled back into his arms. "I did see that psychiatrist," she told him. "I went every week for a while. She told me that even though I wasnít physically raped, my reaction to it was the same. She told me that it would just take time, and if I had a man in my life, he would just have to learn to be patient."
"I can be very patient," he told her before he kissed her.
He held her for a long time then kissed the top of her head and asked if she was still awake.
"Mostly," she answered.
"Why donít you come Below tomorrow? Stay the weekend." he suggested. "I can give you that guided tour I promised you."
"Sounds like fun," she agreed, then yawned.
"Youíre sleepy Catherine. Let me put you to bed then Iíll leave so you can get some rest."
She nodded then Vincent surprised her by carrying her to her bedroom. He sat her on her feet so she could take off her robe and get into bed where he tucked her in.
She caught his hand as he turned to go back for his cloak.
"What time should I come Below, Vincent?" she asked.
"Whenever you wake and are ready," he told her. "Iíll feel it and Iíll meet you." He leaned down to kiss her.
"Vincent, can I ask a favor?"
"Yes, Catherine, anything."
"Can you stay for a while, just until I to go sleep. I had terrible nightmares after the assault. Theyíve tapered off, but I still have one every now and then. After telling that story and dredging it all up again, Iím scared Iíll have one," she said.
"Of course, Iíll stay Catherine." He sat on the edge of the bed and took off his boots. Catherine moved over to the center of the bed and Vincent settled himself half reclining against the headboard and she cuddled against him.
"Thank you, Vincent" she said, as she drifted off to sleep.
Vincent stayed longer than just until she went to sleep. He knew that the worst part of a nightmare was the waking from it and finding yourself alone in the dark with no one to comfort you. He didnít want that to happen to Catherine so he stayed as long as he dared. The dawn was starting to lighten the sky as he entered the culvert in the park.
Vincent was trying to make his way back to his chamber as unobtrusively as possible when he ran into Jacob as he was passing his study.
"Out late or up early?" Jacob asked as Vincent changed direction and fell into step beside him.
"Out late," confirmed Vincent.
"Cut it kind of close, didnít you?"
"Itís Saturday and there arenít many people out at this hour, especially not in Catherineís neighborhood."
"Catherine?" Jacob looked closely at Vincent. "You do realize that she is like a daughter to Peter, donít you?"
"Yes, and Iíve actually spoken to Peter. Catherine has been through a rough time the last few years. We were talking until late. I stayed to comfort her."
"Is that all? Comfort?" asked Jacob with a wink.
They had reached the dining chamber and Vincent handed Jacob his cloak and waved him toward his usual table in the corner. There was no one else in the chamber.
"Iíll get our breakfasts; you go have a seat. I want to talk to you about something."
Jacob was a little surprised at the tone of authority in Vincentís voice, but he did as he was told, if only because he was curious about what Vincent wanted to talk about.
Vincent approached the table with a tray a few minutes later. He served them both then set the tray aside and sat down opposite Jacob.
"What is it Vincent?" asked Jacob after a few minutes of silence.
"I think I need some Ďfatherlyí advice," said Vincent with a wry smile.
"What about John?" asked Jacob.
"Iíve never really considered him the Ďfatherlyí type," admitted Vincent. "Any advice he would give me would probably more of what he has always told me."
"And that would be?"
"Go ahead and do whatever I want to do, as long as no one gets hurt, physically or psychologically, use condoms and donít get the girl pregnant; I mean if it is possible for me to do that."
"I always wondered what Ďthe talkí was like coming from John," said Jacob with a chuckle. "That advice isnít adequate now for some reason?"
Vincentís eyes were on his hands as he methodically picked apart a muffin. He realized the mess he was making and dropped the muffin then picked up his mug of tea.
"Iím in love, Jacob," he said with a half smile. "Irrevocably, unequivocally, in love..."
Vincent nodded as he studied his mug.
"And how does she feel about that? You have told her?"
"She says she loves me."
"Then I donít see a problem. Unless you think she is just saying that as not to hurt your feelings, or worse yet, to sample the product?"
"No, nothing like that." Vincent shook his head. "She is sincere, and as far as the other goes. She is in no hurry. Did Peter tell you about the assault a few years ago?"
"Not much, only that she wasnít really hurt, physically. I assume the attempted rape left some psychological scars."
Vincent nodded. "And an impatient, unsympathetic fiancť didnít help the matter any. When she was telling me the story, I was angry at the men who beat her up, but when she told me about what her fiancť did only a few weeks later I could have easily ripped the man into tiny pieces if he had presented himself at that moment. Iíve never felt such rage before."
Jacob observed Vincentís clenched fists and didnít have any trouble believing the extent of his feelings.
"Most men, and women too, would go to great lengths to protect the people they love. You are no exception," he pointed out.
Vincent opened his hands and laid them palm up on the table in front of him. Jacob could see tiny points of red, some of them oozing blood, where his claws had bit into his own palms.
"Everyone might feel that way, Jacob," he said quietly, "but few could really inflict the kind of damage Iím afraid I could."
"Then we will just pray that you never cross paths with the man," Jacob said in an equally soft voice. "What triggered that extreme reaction, Vincent, do you know? Was it just the love you feel for her?"
"No, Jacob, that was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. I could feel her fear and loathing as she was telling me the story..." He looked back up at Jacob as he continued. "Itís the empathic connection."
"Has that happened with Catherine?"
"In a way, yes. But with her, I donít have to be touching her. I donít even have to be in the same room with her. I can tell what she is feeling even if she is on the other side of town, or in Connecticut, maybe even if she was on the other side of the continent. And when I am touching her, it is enhanced to the extreme. The stronger her emotions, the more I feel as if Iím inside her skin experiencing it right along with her."
"And this has never happened with any of the other women you have been with?" asked Jacob.
"Not to that extent. I have established connections with women, but we always have had to be in physical contact."
"I can see where that might enhance a relationship," Jacob mused with a twinkle.
"Jacob, Iím serious," admonished Vincent.
"And I might have said it in a joking manner, but it was a serious observation. I can also see where it might go in the other direction and the woman might feel as if you were invading her privacy, especially if the connection is there all the time. Have you told Catherine about it?"
"Yes, I did. I wanted to be totally honest."
"And what was her reaction?"
"She was a little upset at first, but not so much because she felt like I was invading her privacy. At first she was a little upset about the other women, she had talked to Peter, and Iím afraid he didnít paint me in a very good light. It is understandable, he was trying to warn her and spare her feelings. We talked about it and Iím sure she understands, but when we talked about the connection her upset seemed to be more because it didnít go both ways and she didnít have the same connection with me."
"Maybe it will grow, or can be cultivated," suggested Jacob.
"That is possible."
Vincent and Jacob talked a little more as they finished their breakfasts. Vincent told Jacob that Catherine was going to spend the weekend Below, then he went back to his chamber to sleep.
He woke a few hours later, thankful that he didnít need as much sleep as most people. He could tell that Catherine was awake so he got up, quickly bathed and dressed. He reached her threshold just as she reached the bottom of the ladder.
She turned into his arms and he could feel that she welcomed the embrace and the light kiss.
"Did you have lunch yet?" he asked.
"I had a late breakfast," she told him as they walked.
"Weíll drop your bag in the guest chamber," he told her. "Then we will go and make ourselves some sandwiches to carry with us. Weíll eat when we get hungry."
Their first destination was the Mirror Pool. Catherine was surprised at the bright sunlight and how still the surface of the pool was.
"Itís very deep" explained Vincent. "It is spring fed, but the spring is so deep that you can hardly feel any movement of the water. Even the place where it drains is several feet below the surface." He picked up a small feather from the floor and dropped it to the surface of the pool. It moved, but not swiftly. "Itís a perfect mirror surface. Weíll come back at night sometime and look at the stars."
They left the pool and walked quietly until they came to a long tunnel.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"One of my favorite places," he told her.
When they exited the tunnel and Catherine saw the wide chasm in front of her she stepped back instinctively.
"Itís safe," he assured her, nodding toward the bridge. "We inspect it and make necessary repairs every month and the whole thing was rebuilt and reinforced when I was a teenager."
"What is this place?" she asked, peering apprehensively into the chasm.
"That is the Abyss. As far as anyone knows, it is bottomless...well, we know it must have a bottom somewhere, but none of us has ever plumbed it. For about a year Mouse tried. He started out with a piece of cord that was about five hundred feet long. He tied a weight to one end and tied the other end to an upright of the bridge and he dropped the weight and left the cord to hang. Every time he found more cord that was suitable, he would add it to the length already there. After a year of that, he was sure he hadnít hit the bottom he started pulling it all up. John had to make him move it off the bridge because he was blocking traffic, he had it all piled up along the ledge. He wasnít sure how much there was, but then he got the bright idea of tying a flashlight to the end and dropping it back down. The tiny spot of light disappeared into the dark. So he started pulling it all up again. When he finally measured all the cord he found he had over a mile of it and he was quite sure that he hadnít reached the bottom. But that isnít the reason I brought you here."
He took her hand and led her out to the center of the bridge. They stood quietly for a few moments then Catherine heard it. Snatches of conversation, music, sounds from Above.
"Where is that coming from?" she asked.
"As far as I know, all over the city. Sometimes when there is no wind there is nothing but silence, but when there is a breeze, I can hear all kinds of things. There have been times when Iíve stood very still in just the right place and Iíve been able to hear whole concerts or even lectures. But Iíve never figured out exactly where any of it was coming from. It might not even be this city or even this time."
"You come here often?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Not as much as I used to. After Devin left, there was a time when everyone thought he was dead, but I didnít. I knew he was alive and I used to come here hoping to hear his voice.
They stayed a while longer but the breeze had died and it was silent.
"I know the perfect place for our lunch," he told her when he sensed that she was getting hungry.
He took her hand and led her off the bridge and into the tunnel on the other side. A short walk and she began hearing a sound that she hadnít noticed before. It sounded like a muffled roar, almost like a passing subway, but it was continuous and getting a louder as they walked.
"What is that noise?" she asked.
"Youíll see," he stepped through an opening and drew her thorough behind him.
The sight took her breath away.
"Itís beautiful!" she exclaimed.
The sight was truly amazing. They stood on a cliff overlooking a river. The chamber was huge and was lit with sunlight. There was even moss growing in a few places. To her right was a waterfall that fed the river.
Vincent spread his cloak and invited her to sit as he unpacked their lunch.
She complied as she looked around her.
"Where does the light come from?" she asked.
"Above," he answered. "It gets dark here when the sun sets, and it is not as bright on overcast days. There seem to be several sources of light, but no one has ever scaled the walls. What is puzzling is that we arenít all the far from the main community laterally, just deeper. The main hub is almost directly under the park. Iím sure we are still under the park here, but Iíve never been able to match anything above to where that light comes from. Or the water. It is perfectly clear and pure and ice cold. It isnít storm water runoff and the flow never changes. It isnít coming from above."
"Itís magical," she said accepting her sandwich. She smiled over at him. "This is a fairy realm."
"I must have been the changeling left behind then," he said in a self deprecating tone.
"No, you have the story wrong," she told him. "The fairies steal children, leaving their own offspring in their place. The fairy babies are sickly and donít thrive, so the parents take the baby that they think is a changeling out to a special place and leave it over night with gifts for the fairies, usually trinkets and a bowl of milk, in hopes that the fairies will return their child and take the changeling back. If you are the changeling then Anna must have found you before the fairy folk did."
"You know a lot about the stories," he commented.
"A little," she admitted. "We have a place in the woods up in Connecticut, and one day when I was little I was out walking with my mother. We came on a circle of mushrooms in the grass of a clearing. Mom called it a fairy ring. When we went back to the city, I started reading about fairies and the next time we went up there I started trying to communicate with them. I left them gifts in the clearing where the circle was. Just trinkets, and toys for their children; I read somewhere that fairy children donít have toys and love them, often steal them from human children. I left bowls of milk. I took to lying in the tall grass in the late afternoon into the evening, hoping to see them. I never did, naturally, but I did see other things; animals. A deer and her fawn once came so close to me that I could almost touch them. That was almost better than if Iíd seen the fairies."
"You had a vivid imagination as a child," he commented.
"I was an only child, and during the summers when school was out I didnít often see my friends, except for Susan." She smiled at the thought of Susan. "You know, I was thinking about Susan the other night and I realized that she once told me about this place and about you."
"She did?" he asked in surprise. "She knew it was supposed to be a secret."
"She didnít give anything away," she assured him. "Mom had gone out of town with Daddy for a conference. I was ten and it was only a few months before my mother died. I was staying with Peter and his family. Susan and I had somehow started telling stories to each other. I told her about my fairy fantasies up at the cabin, and she told me this wild fantastic story. I loved it at the time." Catherine smiled at the memory. "She started it out with ĎOnce upon a timeí and she told a story about a little girl who fell off a subway platform and no one noticed. She was walking along the wall trying to find a way back up when she came to an opening and she heard a voice calling to her. She went into the opening and walked a little way and met a boy. He was taller than she was, she assumed he was older and he wore a hooded cloak and kept his face hidden. He asked her what was wrong and she told him she was lost, and he told her that he would take her back to where he lived and the grownups there would help her find her way home. He did that and while the grown-ups discussed how to get her home without giving away where they where the boy brought her tea and cookies. But he still wouldnít let her see his face. But she did see his hand and noticed that it was covered with a golden hair and had claws. She finally convinced him to show her his face and she saw what he looked like. The way Susan put it was that Ďhe looked like a noble lion with long golden hair,í" she giggled. "I talked to her on New Yearís Day, but I didnít remember the story then. Just wait until I see her again. I think that even at that young age she must have had a crush on you. That story was central to my fantasies for the next few years. Anytime missing my mother got to be too much I imagined myself in Susanís fantasy world with that boy. We would just sit and talk and I would feel better. I didnít know how right I got it."
Vincent blushed. "Iím happy to be of service, in whatever capacity," he said with a smile. "Although that is certainly different."
They spent the rest of the afternoon there, just resting and talking. They walked back and were in the dining chamber for dinner, and Catherine finally got to meet William. After she complemented him on his cuisine, he measured her bicep with his eyes.
"She needs fattening up, Vincent," he observed. "Peter said you liked the apple turnovers, I think I might be able to find a few in the kitchen."
He walked off and was back in minutes and set a plate with three turnovers on it in front of her.
"Enjoy," he directed and left before she could thank him.
She did as directed, only sharing one of the pastries with Vincent.
"Do you have anything planned for tomorrow?" she asked as Vincent escorted her to the guest chamber later that evening.
"The younger children are planning a concert in the afternoon. Vocal, not instrumental. I heard them rehearsing earlier in the week and they are singing simple songs and they are surprisingly good. Would you like to attend?"
"Iíd love to!" she exclaimed enthusiastically.
"Then we can spend a quiet morning and go to the concert after lunch. It will be in the dining chamber at 2PM."
They arrived at the guest chamber door and Catherine turned to hug him and kiss him lightly on the cheek. "I had a wonderful day," she told him. "It is so restful down here. Seems a million miles away from all the chaos Above."
Vincent returned the hug but after she finished speaking he gathered her closer and kissed her. "Iím glad you enjoyed yourself," he told her before turning to go.
Vincent woke with a start. The only light in the chamber was the pale golden glow from the stained glass window over his bed. Had there been a sound or had it been dream that woke him? He wasnít sure. He sat up in bed, a little disoriented from being abruptly pulled from his dreams. He was just about to probe the connection to check on Catherine when she appeared in the door of his chamber, barefoot and wearing only a thin cotton nightgown.
"Vincent?" she whispered. She sounded like she had been crying and her breath was coming in small gasps.
He knew as soon as he saw her that sheíd had a nightmare and that was what had awakened him.
He didnít think about his actions, but quickly moved over toward the center of the bed, then held up the covers inviting her in.
She ran lightly across the chamber and burrowed into the warm spot heíd left, getting as close as she could to him. Vincent responded by tucking the blankets around her and then wrapping her in his arms.
"What is it, Catherine?" he asked.
"A nightmare. All I could think of was how you held me last night and kept them away. Thank you, Vincent."
"You are always welcome, Catherine." He wasnít sure if he meant she was welcome to his comfort anytime or in his bed...probably both.
He woke the next morning to the exquisite feeling of waking with Catherine in his arms. He had also woke with an exquisitely uncomfortable erection pressed against Catherineís backside. He had almost groaned with the effort it took to not turn her into his arms and kiss her and try to convince her to allow him to make love to her. She woke soon after him and he could tell from the connection that she was aware of his arousal. He was also aware that she had become immediately ill at ease because of it. She rose, apologized for disturbing his sleep the night before and swiftly ran out and back to the guest chamber.
The next couple of months went on as they had been. Vincent was being patient as he had promised, even though it wasnít always easy. There hadnít been a repeat of Catherine seeking comfort in his bed even though she spent time Below quite often.
Catherine had been on an emotional rollercoaster all day, and Vincent was experiencing it with her. He was at a loss as to what was causing it.
He knew when she arrived home and also knew that she was going to be heading for her threshold in just a few minutes. He dropped what he was doing and went to meet her.
Vincent was at the bottom of the ladder as she started down and before she was halfway to the bottom she felt his hands at her waist and he lifted her down. She turned in his arms, wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him.
"Umm, thatís nice," she said as she started to relax for the first time all day.
"Catherine," exclaimed Vincent as the connection expanded and he was able to tell the extent of her tension, "youíre tied in knots! Whatís wrong?"
She stepped back and smiled up at him. "Nothing, at least not now, it all worked out, much to my surprise. Letís go back to your chamber and Iíll tell you all about it."
Neither spoke much as they walked back. Vincent did ask if sheíd eaten and she told him that she had stopped at her favorite Chinese restaurant on her way home. They stopped in the kitchen long enough to make a pot of tea and get some cookies to take with them.
Catherine had become very comfortable in Vincentís chamber, it was like a second home. As Vincent poured the tea, Catherine kicked off her shoes and shed her suit jacket and hung it up. Vincent noticed her stretching and trying to work the kinks out of her neck and back. He pulled her over and made her sit on a bench and he stood behind her and worked some of the worst knots out.
"Oh thank you...thatís wonderful. I donít really know where to start. Iíve had this idea for a while. I actually spoke to Dad about it the week before his stroke. He seemed to think it was a good idea and asked me to write out a proposal so we could go over it and then present it to Jay. Since his death, it all kind of got away from me, and I didnít even think of it until a couple weeks ago."
Vincent moved to sit on the bed facing her. "What is it, Catherine?" he asked.
"I donít know if you have any idea what kind of law we practice at Chandler and Coolidge."
"I donít think youíve ever really mentioned it," he answered.
"Corporate Law. I think the only other law specialty that is more unexciting would probably be real estate law. I remember Daddy asked me once if I found corporate law exciting and I told him that excitement wasnít exactly first thing that popped into my head when I thought of corporate law. But it made him and me a good living, and the law firm is very successful.
"While I was working with Dad, I helped a friend get his business off the ground. I took care of all the legal paperwork for him, pro bono, just to help out, and I found that I did enjoy that. There is a certain satisfaction to seeing someone launch a dream and to be part of it; to see that it gets off on the right foot, at least in the legal department.
"My suggestion to Dad was that Chandler and Coolidge start a division that would specialize in small businesses. We have a lot of expertise in the corporate arena and I know that it could be helpful to the small business person. Naturally, that would mean a reduced fee schedule for that part of the practice, something that a small business could afford.
"Dad actually liked the idea and told me to develop it, but when he had his stroke I forgot all about it. But in the last few months, since I met you and heard the things you tell the children here Below, Iíve been inspired. I decided to drag myself out of the dumps and get to work on my proposal. I showed it to Jay Coolidge, dadís partner, last week. He said that Dad had mentioned it to him and was as enthusiastic as Dad was. His son Mark was in the office too, and he didnít like the idea at all, but then Mark has never really been for much of anything that might require any extra work and doesnít look like it is going to make a stack of money for the partnership. He also resents me. I inherited a share in the law firm when Dad died. Iím now the Chandler of Chandler and Coolidge and even though I havenít actually been working, I own the controlling interest. Jay is a partner, but Mark hasnít been offered a partnership. He may never be offered one if he doesnít start working a lot harder. Iím not a partner either, not in the legal sense, but the difference is, that doesnít really matter to me."
"Tell me about your idea," prompted Vincent.
"Simply put, it would be a division of Chandler and Coolidge that would specialize in helping small business with startups any legal matters they might have. Jay had me present it to all the senior members of the firm today. There was a lot of discussion; Mark panned the idea at every turn, but in the end they liked it and gave me the go ahead. Rob Banks even had the idea to move it out of the Chandler and Coolidge offices and open offices in a smaller, less upscale location so it might not be as intimidating as walking into the downtown offices of Chandler and Coolidge. I got the go ahead to find a suitable building, canvass the practice for three other lawyers, two secretaries and a receptionist to staff it, or to hire to fill the positions if I canít find anyone who is interested. And they put me in charge. Rob even suggested a name: Chandler and Coolidge -- Small Business Annex."
As Catherine talked, Vincentís mind drifted. It wasnít that he didnít find what she was saying to be interesting, he did, it was just that heíd never seen her like this before. So animated, and enthusiastic. Her eyes sparkled. She had an excited glow about her. He was almost intimidated. He was beginning to wonder how he had ever thought he could win this woman; beginning to despair that heíd made the biggest mistake of his life allowing himself to fall in love with her. He knew that she wasnít planning to hurt him, but he could almost feel the wedge being driven into his heart; the one that would split it wide open.
"Do you know of any Helpers who have a buildings or offices for rent or lease that might be suitable, Vincent?" she asked.
She noticed the faraway look in his eyes when he didnít answer.
I must be boring him, terribly with all this, she thought. "Vincent?" she said aloud.
"Huh?" his eyes refocused on her. "Oh...um. Iím not sure Catherine," he answered. "I know some have what you are looking for, but Iím not sure if any of them are available at the moment. Iíll ask around for you." So he had been listening after all.
"Is something wrong, Vincent?" she asked.
"No, why do you ask?" She had his complete attention now, as he chided himself for drifting off like that.
"You just seemed so far away there for a moment. I thought I must be boring you."
"You could never bore, me Catherine. I was just trying to remember if Iíd heard anyone mention that they had vacant offices," he lied.
Catherine looked at him closely, and his eyes slid away from hers looking down at his hands in his lap.
"Are you sure that was all it is?" she asked. "I might not have the connection with you that you have with me, but Iím feeling something different. "Do you see something wrong with my plan?"
Vincent smiled and leaned forward. "No, Catherine. Youíve put a lot of thought and effort into your idea, and I know you will do a lot of good extending your knowledge and background in corporate law to the smaller businesses at a price that they can afford." He smiled, but the smile looked a little sad to Catherine. "This is the first opportunity Iíve had to see you in your element; I donít think Iíve seen you quite this happy and animated since we met. And I think I might be a little selfish. This is going to keep you very busy for a while, and Iím not sure that I want to share you."
"And you donít like it?" she asked with some trepidation.
"I didnít say that, Catherine," he answered quickly. "I think Iím just a little intimidated, that is all," he admitted.
"Intimidated? By me?" she almost laughed, but then she saw how serious he was.
He ducked his head and let his hair hide his face, a gesture she hadnít seen before. "I donít know that many Ďprofessional womení; intelligent, yes, but usually not formally educated."
Catherine was quiet for a few moments and Vincent took the opportunity to study her face. It was her turn to drift off in thought.
"Catherine?" he questioned, a little worried that he might have said too much.
Her eyes returned to his face and she smiled softly. "Iím back to my old self because of you," she told him simply. "Vincent, since Iíve been an adult, no one but my father has loved me just for me. Except for maybe my friends Jenny and Nancy, everyone I know wants to know me for a reason, because of the Chandler money, or the law firm. Steven and I were engaged and I thought he loved me, but Iím pretty sure now that I was just an easy way to a good job and a possible partnership somewhere down the line; married to the bossís daughter, and all that. To Tom it was the Chandler name and prestige. But you met me at one of my lowest points, I wasnít even able to offer you my body, but you still love me, no strings, no demands. Youíve been willing to just hold me and be there for me when I need you. Most of the time I couldnít for the life of me see what you were getting out of all of it, but it made me want to be better, to be the woman you deserve to have. To meet you as an equal, not as the needy little girl I was a few months ago. Iíve always felt that a successful relationship is based on equality; two people meeting on equal footing, each carrying an equal part of the responsibility."
"But, Catherine, no one can be strong all the time. Sometimes one or the other has to carry more of that responsibility for a while. Iím used to being the one who carries the majority of the responsibility. Not just with you, but most of my life. Even as a child I was always stronger than the others my age, sometimes smarter. I more or less automatically assumed a leadership role."
"Would it bother you to share that?" she asked, some of the old timidity creeping back into her voice.
"No Catherine!" He was adamant. "I think that is one of the reasons none of my other relationships ever went anywhere. I donít think I could love a woman who wasnít willing to share that."
Vincent was up and pacing and Catherine rose and went to stand in front of him. "And this connection we have, has nothing to do with it? You donít love me just because of the connection?"
"No Catherine, I think the connection developed because I finally found someone I could love. I finally found you. There is a story in Greek mythology; it went that people originally had two heads, four arms and four legs. They did something to offend the gods so Zeus caused them to be separated so that each person only had one head, two arms and two legs each, but they still shared a soul. They were doomed to wander the world searching for their other halves for eternity. I found my other half when I looked across the Dining Chamber and saw you."
Catherine was relieved at his words, he felt the same way she did. She slid her arms around his waist and hugged him. "Iím so glad to hear you say that. I feel the same way. Iíve even thought about going to Peter and chewing him out for not bringing me Below when I was a child and introducing me to you then. It sure would have save me a lot of heartache along the way...I wish you had been my first."
Vincent barely heard her last words; they brought tears to his eyes. He sat down in his chair and pulled her into his lap. He nuzzled her hair and held her tightly.
Catherine was relaxed against him and they were both enjoying the quiet interlude, when Vincent felt something inside Catherine shift. As if she came to a decision. He sat very still as she unbuttoned two of the buttons on the work shirt Vincent was wearing and ran her hand up his chest to the side of his neck. She tilted her head back and that put her lips in the perfect position to kiss the other side of his neck. When he tensed, and the tendons popped out on his neck a little, giving her something to nibble on. He continued to sit very still.
Catherine hoped she wouldnít wake up and find herself alone, as she had a few times in recent weeks. She leaned back a little and took in the sight before her. Vincentís head was leaning against the back of his chair leaving his throat exposed; very tempting; but there was also that impressive chest only inches in front of her. He looked delicious! She had a momentary fantasy of unbuttoning his shirt then searching out and tasting his male nipples; of running her hands over the impressive muscles under them. This was the most extensive, graphic waking fantasy she had indulged in since the assault almost three years ago. But he wasnít a fantasy, he was right there, in front of her, holding her.
She returned to her previous position, this time kissing and nipping her way up his neck to his jaw and finally to his lips. This kiss was nothing like the sweet, almost innocent kisses that most of them had been until now. She wanted him to have no doubt about her intentions.
"Catherine?" he questioned looking into her eyes after they finally broke for air.
"You said you would wait until I asked, Vincent," she said, looking into his eyes. "Iím asking now. Make love to me? Please?"
Vincent moved into another soul snatching kiss before he answered. "Yes, Catherine..." he stood and set her on her feet in front of him. Then he pulled the tail of his shirt out of his jeans and finished unbuttoning it. The need to touch that impressive chest had her helping him push it off his shoulders.
Her hand was still resting on his chest when he spoke. "Your turn."
"My turn?" she asked.
"To take something off," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Actually, I think I might already be way ahead of you as I was only wearing three items of clothing to begin with, that is unless you want to count my socks as two."
She did a mental count: jeans, shirt and socks...no underwear? She felt her face flush. She was wearing a blouse, slacks, bra and panties; sheíd pulled off her stockings when sheíd stopped to change her shoes.
"I have four, does that mean I have to take off two now or are you going to do your socks one at a time?" she asked, relieved that he wasnít one of those Ďsex is serious businessí men.
"Whatever works for you," he said with a smile.
Catherine almost giggled as she unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it off her shoulders. She was about to let it slide to the floor with Vincentís shirt but he caught it and draped it over a chair.
"Itís silk," he answered her questioning look. "Itís too nice to let it lay on the floor."
His next move was so swift and graceful that it was more like the big cat he resembled than the man she knew he was. He reached out and looping his left arm around her waist he pulled her against his chest. She immediately wished he had waited until sheíd taken off her bra before heíd done that. The hair on his body grew in the same pattern as other menís, at least what she could see of it, but it was fine and soft instead of coarse. She wanted to feel it against her bare breasts. As if heíd read her mind, the hand at her back deftly unhooked her bra and his arm relaxed putting a few inches between them so she could pull it off. When she had dropped it on top of her blouse he pulled her back into his arms.
The sensation was the most erotic thing she had ever experienced, she didnít even have anything to compare it to.
"Now weíre even," he whispered in her ear.
"Then that makes it your turn," she whispered back.
He swiftly released her and bent down to take off his socks.
"Not fair!" she protested, pretending to pout.
"Allís fair in love and war," he countered. "Besides...how ridiculous would I look standing here naked, except for my socks?"
Her only answer was to put her hands behind her back to unbutton and unzip her slacks. Once they slid to the floor revealing the ivory silk bikini panties she wore, she stepped free of them, hooked them with a toe and brought them up to her hand. She dropped them with the rest of her clothes on the chair.
"Nice move," he commented on the toe trick. "Where did you learn that?"
"Necessity," she answered. "After the assault I had some pretty bad bruises and cracked ribs; it was hard to lean over and sitting down and getting back up was an effort."
He let his gaze travel down her perfect body and hated to think of it covered with painful bruises.
"Next?" she prompted.
"You are so beautiful, Catherine," he said as if he hadnít heard her. "So sweet..."
She glanced pointedly at his jeans and then almost lost her breath at the sight of the erection straining behind the heavy denim.
"...I want to love you over and over again, all night long," he continued.
She was having trouble thinking, and was beyond speech. Vincent had put his arm around her again and was lowering his head to her breast. When the angle proved to be too steep he sat back down in his chair and pulled her to stand between his knees. He leaned forward and took her nipple in his mouth, gently sucking on her.
"Oh, Vincent," she moaned as he bathed her nipple with his tongue.
Suddenly serious, he stood, looking down at her breast, the nipple erect and dark. He took her hand and led her toward rug that hung against the back wall of the chamber.
"Where are we going?" she asked, looking back over her shoulder at the bed as he pulled the hanging back and ushered her through.
"I have a private bathing chamber," he answered, as he guided her down the dark tunnel. "There is a small pool, fed by a hot spring that rivals any hot tub. Just the thing for your sore muscles."
When they entered the chamber Catherine noticed that there were candles placed strategically around it. A sweet smell hung in the air; she identified vanilla, and something else, something floral.
"Scented candles?" she asked looking at the candles.
"Rebecca makes special ones. I like the vanilla," he admitted as he watched her shed the last scrap of clothing.
The pool had a wide bench carved into the rock at one end. The water was probably less than eighteen inches deep there, where it was at least four feet deep in the rest of the pool.
He helped her down into the pool. She stepped down into the water and found that it was just warm enough. He directed her to steps at one end of the wide bench and she stepped down again into water that came up just high enough to cover her breasts.
Once she was in the pool he stood to his full, impressive height, made even more impressive by her position in the pool, and slowly unbuttoned the five buttons on his button fly jeans. Five buttons, she knew there were five, because she counted them as he unbuttoned them. The jeans were a snug fit and he had to sit down on a bench to peel them down his thighs, blocking her view.
When he stood up again he took her breath away. He stood with his feet braced apart and let her look. He felt her look as if it was a touch and she watched as he grew even harder.
Suddenly he was no longer the joking, flirtatious Vincent who had bantered with her about clothing. Now he was the dominant male. The change was palpable. The raw masculinity of him was more arousing then anything she had ever experienced.
She had been right to wait...even a week ago she would not have been confident enough to hold her own with him, no matter how gentle and considerate a lover he was. Now she was sure, no matter how intimidating and dominant he might look, heíd never hurt her, physically or emotionally.
Before she had a chance to put voice to any of her thoughts Vincent stepped down into the pool and moved to her side. Without so much as touching her he leaned close and whispered. "I love you, Catherine. You are my life." He leaned closer and kissed then lightly licked the spot just below her ear. She trembled and her mind went blank.
Vincent turned her so that her back was to him and he slowly began to knead the tight muscles in her shoulders and down into her lower back. It was delicious and for the first time in a week she felt herself start to relax. Then he stepped in front of her and she gasped as he pulled her gently toward him. He reached under her bottom and lifted her. She understood what he was doing and she opened her legs and wrapped them around his hips. He backed up and sat on the wide bench. She was on his lap straddling him. The position put their faces on the same level and he looktook her mouth in a kiss that was almost rough.
It was forceful at first, then it softened. His tongue darted out and licked at her lower lip, coaxing her to open for him. Her eyes drifted shut and she let him in with a sigh of pleasure. His tongue teased and played, driving her to a fever pitch. She clutched at his shoulders and tried not to wiggle too wantonly. The feel of his hardness against her fueled her need for more.
"Vincent," she breathed between kisses, "I want you inside me."
Her words shot though him, arousing him more, if that was possible, He enfolded her, pulling her against his chest. The soft hair, made dark by the water, caressed her breasts. His hands caressed her back and bottom. She felt like she would explode if she didnít have him inside her soon.
Then, with no warning he pulled away from her lips and she groaned. When she opened her eyes she found Vincent smiling at her. Before she could think, he moved her back a little and lowered his eyes to her chest.
He leaned forward and kissed one breast then the other.
"Perfect," he pronounced.
"Theyíre too small," she argued.
"Theyíre just right," he assured her. "Soft, sweet, and...perfect."
She caught her breath as he sucked one peak into his mouth, the lethal canines just barely touching her.
The wild sensations sent shivers from the top of her head to her toes. He licked and nibbled and Catherine wanted more. He moved to her other breast giving it the same loving attention. He finally released her and then pulled her back close to his chest.
"Donít you think theyíre too small?" she managed to ask remembering comments from both Stephen and Tom and how both men used to ogle big breasted women.
"The notion of bigger being better is a myth, my love," he told her, softly.
She didnít really believe that, but she had to ask. "Really?"
"Really," he answered with a loving smile, "You are just right. Just enough to provide a comfortable pillow, fill my hand," he demonstrated. "You are perfectly shaped, absolutely beautiful!"
"Tom never said anything, but he never paid much attention to my breasts and he always stared at women with big boobs."
"Tom is an idiot. He didnít know a treasure when he had it. He drove you away."
While they were talking Vincent had started gently kneading her breast and he was watching every move his hand made. The sensations were beginning to scatter her thoughts again and she lost the thread of the conversation.
"His loss is my gain," he said huskily as he lowered his head back to her breasts. He sucked then nibbled just hard enough to make her moan deep in her throat; so deep it sounded like a purr. His touch drew things out of her that she didnít even realize were there.
She loved what he was doing, but she was beginning to feel as if he didnít soon start paying attention to another part of her body she would burst.
Again, as if he read her mind, his left hand left her breast and she felt it travel through the water, down her body. He stopped just short of his goal and raised his head to look into her eyes.
"Iíll be careful," he said enigmatically, then she felt his furred knuckle contact her clitoris. The sensation sent what felt like an electric shock, a very pleasant electric shock, through her whole body; it pulled a moan from her and she almost climaxed right then and there. He quickly pulled his hand away and let her settle. That was when she realized that he was using the connection to monitor what she was feeling.
She managed to drag herself back to reality. "Vincent," she protested, "this isnít all about me. I want to give you pleasure too."
Vincent kissed her lightly. "You are, my love. You donít know how much. Remember, I feel what you feel, almost as if we are one."
His hand descended again and the exquisite pleasure this time nearly took the top of her head off as Vincent captured her moans with his kisses. Her climax shook them both and he wrapped his arms around her and held her close as the last spasms shook her body.
When she was finally able to lift her head again she looked up at him with tears in her eyes. He kissed them away.
"Why the tears?" he asked.
"No one has ever done that before; just given me pleasure with no demands of his own."
She reached down through the warm water and for the first time touched him. She wrapped her small hand around him causing him to moan this time. "Now I want to give you the same kind of pleasure, Vincent."
"How would you do that," he managed to ask.
"However you would like me to," she offered, looking into his eyes.
Vincent was stunned by her words and he knew she meant them, she would do whatever he asked of her.
His eyes never left hers as he lifted her. The head of his erection nudged at her, then slowly, ever so slowly he entered her. She felt her body stretching to accommodate him. He was bigger than anyone else sheíd been with and it had been nearly three years since sheíd last had sex. Her body wasnít used to it, but the feeling was like nothing else in her experience. Vincent went slowly, as if he had all the time in the world; he had said something about all night long, she remembered through a fog. She knew he was holding back, moving slowly and steadily onward when he probably wanted to plunge ahead to his own climax.
Vincent slipped his hand down Catherineís stomach again. The backs of his fingers feathering, barely touching her. She moaned and arched, clearly asking for more, even if he hadnít had the Bond, yes that is want it was, a Bond, to tell him she was ready for more he would have known. Only then did he start moving inside her.
He moved slowly, easily at first, letting her passion build again. The feel of her inner muscles squeezing him was almost too much. He wanted to move harder, faster, but his love for her told him to please her. He needed to please her; needed it as much as he needed his own release.
Catherine began to move faster, trying to bring him deeper causing a growl to escape him. "Not yet, Catherine. You first, always first."
"But I already did," she gasped.
He gathered her close. "I want to feel it this time," he explained. "With the Bond and with my body."
He started moving inside her again, losing himself in her and in what she was feeling. Suddenly she tightened her legs around him and pushed herself down on him as far as she could, taking him even deeper. Her low, moaning gasps would have told him what he wanted to know even if the Bond and his body hadnít. He loved the sounds she made as she climaxed, he wanted to hear more of them. As often as possible.
Her climax caused Vincentís control to snap, he had been kissing her shoulder, now he bit down, not hard, but enough to hold her, not to do any harm, and finally gave into the urgings of his body. He thrust into her hard. As he moved toward his first climax she was rushing to her third and as she went off the cliff she took him with her this time.
She felt his liquid heat filling her and if she hadnít had him to hold on to she thought she might have drowned, right then and there. Her bones had turned to Jell-O.
Vincent waited for his heart to slow to a normal rate, and when he was finally able to breathe normally again he moved her upper body away slightly so he could see her face. Her eyes were closed and she had a look of blissful tranquility. He bent and kissed first one nipple then the other, then he moved back to the first one and started to suckle again; nipping it ever so gently. That pulled Catherine out of her reverie and she wrapped her arms around him and held his head against her. He paid equal attention to both breasts before he backed off and looked into her eyes.
"And small breasts are more sensitive," he said conversationally, picking up where they had left off.
"Really?" she asked again.
"In my experience," he assured her.
She snuggled close to him again, sliding her arms around him and tightening her legs around his waist, loathe to have him leave her body yet.
He held her like that for several minutes. Hearing her sigh of regret as he finally slipped out of her he hugged her and suggested that they move.
"But it is so nice right here," she said without moving.
"We will turn into prunes if we donít move soon," he told her.
She leaned back and looked into his eyes and was surprised at the troubled look she saw.
"What is wrong, Vincent?" she asked.
"Nothing," he lied, then thought better of it. "When was your last period?" he asked.
Wondering at is strange question at a time like this she answered, "About two weeks ago, why."
He groaned and looked worried.
"What is it!" she demanded.
"I just did something that I have never done before," he said.
"In the heat of the moment I forgot to protect you. I didnít use a condom. Iíve always used them before and this time I just didnít think. You are right in the middle of your cycle, possibly ovulating. I donít know if we would be genetically compatible but..." He seemed frantic and very upset with himself.
"Wait Vincent," Catherine interrupted.
He stopped his self recrimination at her order.
"Iím on birth control pills. I have been for several years. I always had very irregular and painful periods and Peter suggested I try birth control pills and it worked. Iíve been on them ever since. It makes life so much less painful and more predictable."
Vincent pulled her back into his arms and breathed a sigh of relief that surprised her.
"Would it be so terrible, Vincent?" she asked.
"For us to have a child?" he asked.
At her nod he just shrugged. "If there was some guarantee that a child of ours would turn out to look like you, no, but I wouldnít wish this," he gestured at himself, "on my worst enemy, much less my own child."
Catherine was shocked at what he said. "Why?" she asked.
He almost dumped her into the water as he abruptly stood and left the pool. She followed as quickly as she could. He had wrapped a towel around his waist and had another in his hand offering it to her when she reached his side. She took the towel and repeated her question as he turned his back on her.
"My life has been so limited, Catherine. If Iíd been an imbecile, as John thought I would be, I might not have noticed, but Iím not. Iím intelligent, I read and I know what Iím missing. Damn, Catherine," he said, surprising her, sheíd never heard him curse before, "I live in a cave; as Devin always calls it: Ďa hole in the groundí; albeit a comfortable Ďhole in the ground.í Iím not able to walk in the sunshine. I have no idea how I came to be. I never knew my parents, my family. I have nothing to offer you, except my love. You think I would want to give that legacy to a child? Force a child of mine to live like I have?"
Suddenly Catherine was angry. She quickly toweled off and then wrapped the towel around her body; she felt chilled.
"First of all, who the hell cares where you live? The people you live with all love you, they are your family; you love them. And you offer me everything, Vincent. Everything! I have enough of my own stuff and plenty of money to buy more if I want it. That isnít what is important. You give me yourself, your love, that is what is important. It is what I need. I could live without anything that I have above, but I couldnít...I wouldnít want to...live without you. You are part of me, my other half, like the myth...like you said. Iíve found my other half." Catherine was crying now, but Vincent still stood with his back to her. "You think the only thing you could give a child would be the way you look? If that is what you think, you are sadly mistaken. Iíve seen you with the children. They love you and you love them. You would be a wonderful father and it wouldnít matter to you if the child looked like you or like me, once you held it in your arms you would love it....And if you want sunshine, well, Iím sure I can arrange that. I have the cabin on a lake in Connecticut. It is only a couple of hours from here. I could get a van or a car with dark tinted windows. Itís deserted up there in the winter, spring and fall, and even during the summer, we seldom see anyone since the place is on ten acres of land and it is all posted ĎNo Trespassingí even if it isnít fenced."
Catherine had really worked herself up, She hadnít been this angry since she threw Tom out of her apartment that night three years before. She was crying and actually felt sick to her stomach. She felt as if she was fighting for her life and losing.
Vincent could have been ignoring her, for all she knew. He stood like a statue, his back to her, his hands clenched into fists. She couldnít take it any longer, it was either pound on his back to get his attention or run; she chose to run.
Back in his chamber she hurriedly started yanking on clothing. She swore as she realized sheíd left her panties in the bathing chamber, but she wasnít about to go back for them. Fully clothed again, in record time, she grabbed her keys off the table and left the chamber at a dead run. When she finally had to slow down because her muscles and her lungs couldnít give any more she realized she was lost. The tunnels surrounding her didnít look remotely familiar.
She stopped to catch her breath and retrace her steps. She decided that she should have turned right where she had turned left at the last junction. She headed back and took the other tunnel. As she walked she started to cry again. It hardly registered when the tunnel floor gave way beneath her feet and she fell.
She hadnít fallen far and she was unhurt, but she was blinded. She realized within seconds that the chamber she had fallen into was dark, the only thing wrong with her eyes was some dirt and dust.
She coughed and brushed dirt off her face and tried to look around. Sheíd always been a little scared of the dark, but sheís never experienced anything like this. Even after she cleared the dirt out of her eyes and they had time to adjust, it was so dark she couldnít see her hand in front of her face.
She didnít know how long she sat trying to keep the panic at bay. Finally, she started reaching out on all sides of her trying to find a wall. She could hear her gasps echoing off the walls and was pretty sure the chamber wasnít very large, but she was afraid to move for fear that there might be another hole and this time it might be deeper; like the Abyss. She reasoned that if she stayed on her hands and knees she could move along feeling the floor in front of her until she found a wall, then she could work along the wall until she found an opening. She would get out.
It didnít take her long to find the wall then she turned to her left and crawled along the wall for what seemed like forever. Either she had circled the room several times, or the chamber was larger than she thought. Suddenly the panic overwhelmed her and she curled into as small a ball as she could, her face pressed to the wall.
"Vincent!" she cried mentally.
Vincent didnít know how long he stood in the bathing chamber, but when he finally came to himself he looked around and was surprised to find that Catherine wasnít there. Her panties were still on the floor, he picked them and his jeans up as he left.
Back in his chamber he found that Catherine was gone. There was no trace that she had ever been there. He reached out along the Bond to her. He got back a jumble of emotions, the strongest of which was anger, and he assumed that it was aimed at him.
At the time it was happening he hadnít been completely clear on why she was so angry; it had taken a while for it to sink in. Catherine wouldnít tolerate anyone attacking the man she loved, not even him. God, he was such an idiot.
As he was dragging on his pants he felt a momentary jolt of fear, then it was gone, and the Bond was oddly quiet. He could still feel Catherine, he knew she was awake and well, but it just felt strange. She had probably reached her home. He had to follow her and make it right. He would do whatever he needed to do to make it right.
He stuffed her panties in his pocket then grabbed his cloak as he headed out of his chamber. He passed Jacob as he was swinging the cloak around his shoulders.
"Vincent," called Jacob. "Where are you going?"
"After Catherine, we had a misunderstanding and she left. I have to go after her," he hardly slowed down as he spoke.
"Wait, Vincent. Was she going home?"
Vincent stopped impatiently and swung to face Jacob.
"Jacob, I must go after her. Yes, I assume she went home."
"I donít think so. I was just on my way to tell you, in case you didnít catch it on the pipes. One of the sentries reported that he saw Catherine heading east. Her building is to the west."
"Which sentry?" asked Vincent.
"Stephen, down on near the park threshold. Maybe she was going out through the park," Jacob suggested.
"She doesnít know about the park entrance," said Vincent as he turned and ran off toward Stephenís post.
As he trotted along the tunnel he tried to tune into the Bond, but all he got back was Catherineís steady heartbeat, he couldnít even sense the direction it was coming from.
When he reached the sentry post he called out to Stephen.
"Jacob said you saw Catherine coming this way," he said as Stephen stepped out into the tunnel.
"Yes, she was running, looked like she was crying."
Vincent muttered something under his breath, that if Stephen hadnít known better, he would have sworn was a curse.
"Did you see if she took the left or the right fork up ahead?" asked Vincent.
"I couldnít see from here, but you should be able to tell. No one but Catherine has been this way since Mouse came through pulling something on a litter right after I came one duty. It was dragging pretty low and it should have smoothed the sand out from whichever direction he came from."
"Thank you, Stephen." Vincent reached up and took a torch out of a holder on the wall and continued down the tunnel at a slower pace.
At the fork he checked both sides. Stephen was right, the litter had smoothed out the sand in many spots. He turned down the fork that where the sand had been smoothed out and after only a few feet he knew that Catherine hadnít been that way. He went back and followed the other one.
Several hundred feet along he was suddenly hit by a wave of panic. He nearly hyperventilated before he realized it was Catherine and was able to control his reaction to it. He quickened his pace and the next thing he knew he had dropped through the same hole that Catherine had. As he fell he dropped the torch and the dirt on the floor around the hole smothered the flame.
He landed with an "Ooof"; unhurt, but he knew as soon as he hit the dirt that he had found Catherine.
The panicked, raspy breathing led him to her. Where she could see nothing in the blackness, once his eyes had adjusted he could see shapes. He could tell she was huddled in a ball on the floor as he crawled to her.
He pulled her into his arms and wrapped his cloak around them both.
"Catherine, are you hurt?" he asked.
It took only a few seconds for it to register that Vincent had found her but to Vincent it seemed an eternity.
"Catherine?" He shook her gently.
"Vincent?" she gasped. "Oh, thank God, Vincent; you found me!"
She plastered herself to him as if she was trying to get inside him.
"Are you hurt?" he asked again.
"No, I donít think so. Itís so dark, and I was afraid there was another hole. I didnít want to fall into the Abyss," she burst into sobs, "I was so scared that Iíd never see you again."
Vincent settled himself more comfortably against the wall and pulled her close. He rocked her and spoke to her softly as if soothing a frightened child.
"Youíre safe, Catherine. I would never let anything happen to you. Weíll just sit here for a little while and when you are feeling better we will go back to my chamber."
"But how will we get out of here, Vincent?" she asked. "I went all the way around along the wall and I never found an opening."
"We will go out the same way we came in."
He could tell she glanced up but he knew she couldnít see what he could see.
"How high is the ceiling," she asked.
"About four feet. I can boost you up though the hole then I can pull myself up."
She groaned and bounced her forehead off Vincentís chest a couple times. "God, Iím stupid!"
"No Catherine, you were being smart and careful. For all you knew you could have just fallen onto a ledge in a shaft as deep at the Abyss. It was the prudent thing to do to stay low where you could feel what was in front of you, then to stay in one place when you didnít find a way out."
"How did you find me?" she asked.
"One of the sentries saw you pass and thought it was odd that you were heading east instead of west toward your building. He sent a message back. When I reached him he pointed me in the right direction. Normally I would have been able to use the Bond to locate you but it seemed to suddenly go quiet."
"I was trying not to panic," she admitted.
"When you finally succumbed to the panic I knew exactly where you were, but by that time, I had inadvertently joined you."
She went still and the sudden quiet was deafening.
"Iím sorry Vincent," she said in a small voice. "I shouldnít have gotten angry and yelled at you like that."
"Catherine, I donít think that this is the best place to talk about this right now. I want to get you back to my chamber so I can make sure you are all right."
Vincent stood as well as he could, he was bent over by the low ceiling, and Catherine had to smother a snicker when he produced a small flashlight from one of his pockets. He flashed the light around showing that the chamber she had dropped into was roughly round and about eight feet in diameter. She crawled over to a spot under the hole and sat looking around her.
"I must have circled the chamber half a dozen times. I crawled forever. I thought I was in something at least as large as the Great hall," she said, smothering another giggle.
"Catherine, please be careful, you are a little giddy with relief and Iím afraid you are getting a little hysterical. Stand up and Iíll boost you up through the hole."
He stood the flashlight on end so she could see the hole. She started to stand and yelped in pain as she grabbed for his arm. He was shocked at how clearly he also felt it. The pain, even though it wasnít severe was enough to squelch her impending hysteria.
"You are hurt," he exclaimed as he sat down next to her where she had dropped back down into the dirt. His hands went right to her knee.
"Itís not bad," she said as she rubbed it. "It is just my knee. I think I hit it on the side of the hole as I fell. I can stand."
Vincent moved back under the hole.
"Stand up with your head and shoulders in the hole and Iíll lift you up. When you pull yourself up Iíll follow you."
She did as she was told then watched as Vincent rose up through the hole, he was a tighter fit than she had been. He handed the flashlight to her then lifted himself out. He swept her up into his arms and started walking.
"I can walk, Vincent," she protested.
"Not until we are sure you havenít done any real damage," he told her.
He stopped at the sentry post long enough to let Stephen know to put up warning signs in the tunnel, then he headed back for his chamber.
"Arenít you taking me home?" she asked.
"Iím taking you to Jacob so he can look at your knee, then we will decide what to do."
She didnít say another word until they got to his chamber. He deposited her in his chair, then straightened and took off his cloak.
"Youíll need to take your pants off so Jacob can look at your knee, but I donít want you to put any weight on that leg. Iíll help you."
He helped her balance on one foot as she took off her suit jacket and started to unzip her slacks. Then she remembered she wasnít wearing any underwear.
"Wait," she said. "I left my panties in the bathing chamber."
"Oh, here." Vincent reached into his pocket, pulled out the scrap of silk and handed them to her. I thought you were going home, I was following you. I thought you might want them."
He helped her get her get out of her slacks and into her panties then he bent and examined her knee. There was a huge bruise developing on the outside of her right knee. He made her move it, he poked and prodded and asked her if it hurt, but he still wanted Jacob to look at it. He handed her an afghan from the bed then told her he was going to get Jacob.
Jacob must have still been awake because they were back in minutes. Jacob gave her knee the same exam that Vincent had already given it, then he made her stand up and he went through the whole routine again.
"Itís only bruised," he pronounced after Catherine sat back down. "It might swell a bit, you can put a cold pack on it if it does. And the swelling will cause stiffness, but the best thing you can do for that is to keep it moving. I just donít want you overdoing it. Stay off your feet as much as possible for at least the next 24 hours, then let me take a look at it again. Or if you are Above, go have Peter look at it."
"Thank you, Jacob," she said with a sigh of relief. She had been pretty sure that it wasnít bad but there was always the chance.
"You must have taken quite a tumble, young lady," he said as Vincent handed him his cane.
"I didnít think it was bad," she said, "but it was obviously more than I thought."
Jacob rubbed his finger gently down her cheek. "And into a coal mine, from the looks of it." He showed her the blackened tip of his finger. "You are filthy." He looked up at Vincent. "You both are."
Catherine looked up at Vincent and then down at her clothes as Father left the chamber.
"We do look pretty bad. I guess I should go home and get cleaned up."
"I think you should stay here tonight, Catherine," said Vincent. "Jacob said to stay off your feet for a while and walking back to your threshold, climbing a ladder, and going back to your apartment isnít exactly following orders. I can help you get in and out of the pool in my bathing chamber. It will be easier than standing in your shower."
"You donít mind?" she asked.
"We do still have a few things to talk about," he pointed out as he picked her up and carried her into the bathing chamber.
He allowed her to undress herself and get into the pool on her own, but he stayed until he was sure she was safely in. He moved a basket containing soaps and shampoos closer so she could reach it and left towels on a bench close to the side of the pool.
"Iíll go get you something to wear," he said. "Donít get out of the pool by yourself, Iíll be back in a few minutes."
Catherine sighed as she watched him leave the chamber. He sounded angry and she wasnít looking forward to the talk he had promised.
Vincent went to the guest chamber where he knew he could find what Catherine would need for the night. He was back in the bathing chamber a few minutes later with a nightgown, robe and even a pair of slippers.
"Do you need help with anything?" he asked as he watched her rinse shampoo out of her hair.
"No, Iím good so far," she told him.
"Iíll go get us some tea and a snack and Iíll be right back."
He made another quick trip to the kitchen this time and was back with a pot of herb tea and some scones. When he reached the bathing chamber this time Catherine was just finishing.
"I think I can make it out on my own," she told him as he moved to the side of the pool and offered his hand.
He stepped back and picked up a towel which he handed to her. He pointed to the other towel on the bench.
"You can sit while you dry off," he told her as he started stripping off his clothes preparing for his bath.
Catherine quickly finished and dressed, keeping her eyes averted as he stepped into the pool.
As she slowly limped down the short tunnel to his chamber Catherine was mentally kicking herself the whole way. When she reached the chamber she was glad to see the pot of tea and scones. She hoped that the tea would restore some of the warmth sheíd felt before the argument. She knew that Vincent could feel what she was feeling and she hoped that he would understand how sorry she was. When he had found her, heíd been wonderful and comforting, but after they had reached his chamber, she began to feel the chill, and it wasnít just the ambient temperature of the tunnels.
She pulled a chair closer to the brazier, then poured a cup of tea and picked up Vincentís comb before she sat down and began to comb her hair and dry it in the heat from the brazier. Her tea was almost gone and her hair was almost dry when Vincent walked into the chamber. He was wearing nothing but a pair of sweat pants and slippers, and he was blotting water from his hair with a towel as he walked. He pulled his chair over close to the brazier and joined her with his cup of tea.
She wordlessly handed him the comb and he ran it though his hair a few times, shook his head then tossed the comb to the table.
Catherine took a big breath and braced herself. "Vincent, Iím sorry," she began.
"No Catherine, I shouldnít have shut you out like I did. It was unforgiveable."
He was apologizing? She was surprised but relieved.
"You could never do anything that was unforgiveable," she insisted. "I was out of line, I have no idea what your life has been like, and if you feel that you shouldnít take the risk of fathering a child, then we wonít even consider it. There are plenty of children here Below for both of us to love."
"Catherine, if that decision is made, it is a decision that we should make together; but I think we are putting the cart before the horse. You are using birth control, so there is something like only a point zero one or two chance that you could get pregnant. We donít even know if Iím capable of fathering a child or if our genetics are compatible. Before we even begin to think about things like this we need to concentrate on us," he told her, leaning toward her, and taking her hand.
"Then I didnít ruin everything by getting angry and yelling?"
Vincent smiled wryly at her. "Did I ruin everything by turning my back on you and shutting you out?"
She shook her head and blinked back tears.
He captured her other hand as he stood. Then he tugged her up and into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested against him.
"Catherine, you are an exception to the rule. I know a lot of people and I have a lot of friends and a large extended family, but very few of them see me; the real me. The person, the man that I am inside. You do, I donít know why. Maybe it is because you thought my appearance was a costume the first time you met me and you thought of me as an ordinary person right from the beginning..."
"You are far from ordinary, Vincent," she interrupted. "You are the most extraordinary man Iíve ever met. I thought that right from the beginning; when you introduced yourself. You are also the most unselfish man Iíve ever known."
"Catherine," he continued as if she hadnít spoken. "You were arguing for the man you love. I could feel it. You wonít tolerate any criticism of me, not even from me. I canít be upset with that." He looked down at her and smiled.
She smiled back and stifled a yawn.
"Youíre tired Catherine," he said as she stepped away from him. He went to the brazier to bank the fire for the night. When he turned back to her he was surprised to see her limping toward the door.
"Where are you going Catherine?" he asked.
"To the guest chamber," she said, turning to look back at him.
"Do you want to go to the guest chamber?" he asked quietly.
"No," she whispered.
"You really arenít angry?" she asked.
"Catherine, what happened to the strong, self assured woman who was here a couple hours ago?" he asked.
"I think she got lost in the dark," she said. She breathed deeply and took a step back toward him. "I forgot just how scared of the dark I am," she told him. "I couldnít see anything and I felt like it was smothering me." She crossed her arms in front of herself protectively.
He crossed the room to her and swept her up in his arms and carried her to the bed. He set her on her feet and she took off her robe. He pushed the blankets back for her and watched as she climbed into the bed.
He went around the room blowing out candles. He intentionally put them all out, leaving only the faint glow from the long burning candle behind the stained glass window.
Catherine moved to the center of the bed and watched as he made his way around the room blowing out candles. He stopped beside the bed and looked down at her, and as if he came to a decision, he pulled off the sweat pants and climbed into the bed bare.
He smiled when he heard her gasp.
"I just want to feel you against me," he told her as he reached for her.
The light was dim but he saw her smile. "Well, in that case," she shifted and pulled the nightgown up over her head and off, tossing it toward the foot of the bed. Then she allowed him to pull her close.
"Umm, youíre nice and warm," she murmured into his chest as she snuggled close."
"My body normal body temperature does run a little over a hundred degrees..."he began.
"I didnít want the science, Vincent," she told him, with a chuckle, "I was just observing that you are nice and warm and very cuddly."
"Cuddly?" He pushed back and looked down at her. "Iím too big to be cuddly. Cuddly is a stuffed toy or a puppy."
She gave him a shove and he rolled over onto his back, and she leaned on his chest and looked down at him. She ran her hand through the soft hair on his chest.
"This is soft," she told him as she leaned down and rubbed her cheek on his chest. "And it makes you cuddly, even if your chest is like solid rock underneath."
"Iím not rock," he told her as he wrapped his arm around her waist and rolled her over onto her back.
His kiss actually started as a little nibble along her jaw. He moved to her lips and teased her, nipping and dropping light kisses to the right and the left but deftly avoiding her lips and her invitation. She finally reached up, grabbed his head and tried to pull him down to her. He grasped her wrists and drew them up over her head and then he kissed her. She was gasping in seconds. She felt him move over her, but instead of pushing her legs apart he straddled her hips. He released her wrists and looked down at her.
"If I asked you to stay, would you?" he asked.
She looked stricken at the question. "Vincent...I,"
He interrupted. "No, wait, I put that wrong. Maybe I should ask: If I asked you to stay, would you want to?"
She smiled. "Yes, and we might even be able to come up with a way I can stay with you Below and still work Above."
He smiled back and bent to kiss her gain. This time it was gentle and sweet. He kissed his way down her body to her breasts, suckling and kissing until she was moaning.
"Please Vincent," she said, as she pulled his lips back to hers. "Please, love me!"
"Patience, Catherine," he said, but he did move between her legs, still supporting himself on his knees and hands.
Catherine hooked her legs behind his and tried to pull him down, but he didnít budge.
She looked up at him.
"Are you teasing me?" she asked.
"No, I was looking at you," he told her and dropped a kiss on her shoulder. "I want to see your face, your eyes when I do this."
Then he lowered his body to hers and nudged into her slowly.
"I didnít really see you the first time. We were both in too much of a hurry."
His strokes were slow and sure, and she couldnít look away from his eyes. She was lost in them.
The Bond warned him of her climax and he was able to hold on and not follow her, not yet. He held her tight, as he felt her muscles clench around him. He was still, deep within her as he waited for her to catch her breath. When she did, he started moving again. This time he quickened his pace and she was gasping and writhing again in a very short time. The second time she climaxed he followed. She wrapped her arms around his torso and her legs around his hips and she didnít want to let him go.
"Catherine, Iím too heavy. Iíll crush you," he protested.
"No, donít move. I want to keep you right where you are as long as I can. I love the feel of your weight on me, of you inside me. I feel like we are one of the original people before Zeus split us apart." She paused a moment and it was as if she was listening. "We are even breathing together and our hearts are beating in time."
They stayed that way for a time and Vincent managed to keep most of his weight off her. She finally allowed him to roll to his left side. He pulled her with him and she pillowed her head on his chest. He pulled the blankets up over them both and then settled her closer.
"It was like the first time," he murmured.
"The first time?" she asked.
"Not like the first time I had sex," he corrected himself, "But new, like it was the first time."
"It feels like the first time, feels like the very first time," Catherine sang lightly.
"What is that?" he asked her.
"A song that was popular when I was in college. I think I still have it somewhere. Iíll play it for you sometime."
He kissed her again and pulled her close.
"Good night Catherine," he whispered. "Sleep well, my love."
"I will...I love you Vincent.
It Feels Like the First Time
I would climb any mountain
Sail across a stormy sea
If that's what it takes me baby
To show you how much you mean to me
And I guess it's just the woman in you
That brings out the man in me
I know I can't help myself
You're all in the world to me
It feels like the first time
Feels like the very first time
It Feels like the first time
It Feels like the very first time
I have waited a lifetime
Spent my time so foolishly
But now that I've found you
Together we'll make history
And I know that it must be the woman in you
That brings out the man in me
I know I can't help myself
You're all that my eyes can see
And it feels like the first time
Like it never did before
Feels like the first time
Like we've opened up the door
Feels like the first time
Like it never will again, never again
Feels like the first time, it feels like the first time
It feels like the very first time, very, very, it feels
It feels like the first time, oh it feels like the first time
It feels like the very first time
Open up the door, won't you open up the door? Yeah
Feels like the first time
And it feels like the very first time
And it feels like the first time
It feels like the very first time
And it feels like the first time
It feels like the very first time
Oh it feels, it feels like the first time
Yeah it feels like the first time
By Mick Jones
Recorded by Foreigner in 1977 (1st Album)