Hot August Night

Valerie

Even eighteen floors above the city, the heat was oppressive. Catherine sat on her balcony with a tall glass of lemonade next to her and turned her face gratefully to the slight breeze. Of all days for a power outage! She’d heard on the car radio that Con Ed wouldn’t even hazard a guess on when it would be fixed, which meant no lights, no air-conditioner …

No motorcar, not a single luxury … a voice sang in her head, the theme from "Gilligan’s Island" and that made her smile in spite of her discomfort.

She wearily pushed the hair away from her face, lifting it off her neck and idly wondering if she shouldn’t just get it cut and be done with it. Then she grimaced at the image of herself with short hair, the scar in front of her left ear exposed for all the world to see. No, she didn’t want that.

The heat and the power outage which had gone on for several days had made tempers short. She’d been busy at work with a disturbing murder – a teenaged boy knifed to death on a busy street in broad daylight and no witnesses. None who would admit to being witnesses, she amended with a sorrowful sigh.

Thanks to her Tunnel experience and her own tastes, she had plenty of candles. And really, she knew she had no complaints, either. Up here, she had a breeze, a safe terrace to sit on and, if all else failed, she could retreat to the blessed cool of the Tunnels where, she knew, several of the older and infirm Helpers who lived in small, stuffy apartments in unsafe neighborhoods had already been taken. She thought of the other elderly and infirm New Yorkers in hot apartments who spent summers without so much as a fan to stir the air, even when the power wasn’t out, and was ashamed for having thought she was uncomfortable.

She would take a shower, change into something cooler – whoever had invented pantyhose deserved a beating, she thought with a grin – and then she’d go Below for the evening.

Vincent was waiting for her, as she’d known he would be, his mantle forsaken for the first time she could recall. He always wore it when he left the home tunnel area but even Below, the heat had penetrated far enough to make such a heavy garment uncomfortable.

"Are you well?"

"I’m fine," she said. "How is Sam? I know you took him Below, but with his blood pressure and the heat –"

"Sam is much better since he’s come Below," Vincent said. "He and Father were engaged in a chess marathon when I left and both were so absorbed I doubt they’d notice if a marching band happened by."

Catherine laughed. "And the other Helpers?"

"All who live within the power outage – including you, Catherine – have been invited Below and several have accepted, but most remain Above. Except for our elderly friends, we did not insist. The invitation remains open, however."

"I know," Catherine said, leaning closer to take his hand, "and I do appreciate it, but your resources are stretched thin enough already and I can cope. Really," she added when he looked dubious. And as she looked, she also noticed his hair was damp – too damp than mere perspiration could account for here where it was so much cooler. "What have you been doing?" she asked, reaching up to touch the wavy hair at his temple.

His eyes twinkled, but his voice was very solemn as he said, "Swimming."

She didn’t have to feign amazement. "Swimming?"

"Watching over the children," he said. "The water in the Chamber of the Falls is quite deep in places, and not all of them are strong swimmers." One broad shoulder lifted in a shrug.

"Vincent," Catherine said coaxingly, "it has been awfully hot lately…"

He laughed. "Is that a hint?"

"I’ll beg if I have to."

"That won’t be necessary." He crooked his arm invitingly and she slipped her hand through it. He led her past people laughing, working and talking to the Chamber of the Falls. About a dozen of the children were splashing and playing in the cool waters, watched over by Jamie. Her blonde ponytail streaming behind her, she called commands to the more daring youngsters, ordering them away from deeper water "until Vincent gets back." She heard their steps and looked over her shoulder at them with obvious relief.

"Thank goodness you’re back, Vincent," she called to him. "How you ever get these little idiots to listen to anything you say is beyond me." She turned her head. "Samantha!" she yelled. "Am I gonna have to hog-tie you?"

Catherine felt the rumble of Vincent’s laughter. He shook his head.

"Samantha is a very good swimmer," he said softly. "Actually, much better at it than Jamie is." As if to prove his words, Samantha clambered up on a ledge, shook back her long hair, and executed a very acceptable swan dive. Moments later, her small head broke the surface and she tossed a saucy grin at Vincent, who acknowledged her with a lifted hand. He turned to Catherine. "I believe you wanted to swim?"

Catherine needed no further urging. She was clad in a T-shirt and shorts and stopped only to kick off her shoes before climbing down into the cool water. Vincent seated himself on the rocky ledge, dodging repeated attempts by the children to splash him, but keeping his eyes on Catherine. She swam with an easy grace, and he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Laughingly, she accepted a challenge to a race with Samantha, and was not surprised when she lost. She cast several glances at Vincent as she swam, but he showed no inclination to join her, though he’d said he’d been swimming, too.

"Did Vincent get in the water earlier?" she asked Eric, who was paddling around safely in the shallows.

"Sure, he did," Eric said. "He taught me how to float. Watch!" He turned over on his back, arms spread wide, lower lip caught between his teeth in concentration. Catherine made an appropriate fuss over him, but her eyes wandered back to Vincent.

"Why don’t you come in, too?" she called.

He shook his tawny head. "I’ve had enough."

She swam over to him and held onto a rock for support, looking up at him until his eyes dropped. "Please?"

He started to reply, but at that moment one of the little girls let out a piercing scream. Before Catherine had time to turn her head, Vincent had shot to his feet, yanked his shirt off over his head, and dived into the water, swimming with sure, strong strokes across the water toward the sound, his shirt clenched between his teeth.

Five-year-old Cassie had wandered too far over her head and was flailing at the water, panicking, while the other children seemed too frozen in horror to help. Vincent stopped a couple of feet away and tossed one end of the shirt toward her. Very calmly, he said, "Take the shirt, Cassie." At the calm confidence in his voice, Cassie stopped thrashing and grabbed the shirt. "Turn over and float," he ordered in the same tone and she instantly obeyed. He swam back to the shallows, towing the child behind him, and as soon as it was safe, he scooped her into his arms and carried her to the edge. By this time, Catherine had recovered her wits and fetched a towel from a pile near the entrance to the chamber, and she met him there, taking the child and wrapping the towel around her. Cassie began to cry and clung to Vincent’s leg as if she would never let go.

He knelt and gathered her close, soothing her with quiet words until she calmed. "Go to Mary," he said. "I think you’ve had enough swimming for today."

Still sniffling, the child turned to go, but she stopped at the entrance and turned back. "Thank you, Vincent."

He smiled. "You’re welcome. Go on, now."

Catherine glanced at Vincent. Water streamed from his hair and pants, which were clinging to his body like a second skin. He, too, was shivering, though Catherine hadn’t noticed at first in her concern for Cassie. She pulled two more towels from the pile and gave one to him, using the other to dry his hair while he dried his body. Neither of them said a word for a long moment. Finally, Catherine dropped the damp towel over his bare shoulders and gave him a grin.

"Water becomes you."

He flushed and reached for the soggy discarded shirt at his feet, but Catherine took it away from him to squeeze out the excess water.

"Why did you have her hold the shirt?" she asked curiously. "Why not just carry her?"

"I wanted her to remember, next time, to turn over and float if she gets in too deep," Vincent said, still not looking at Catherine. "I wanted to force her to stop and think and be calm. I might not always be nearby."

His shivering had not stopped. "You should go get into dry clothes before you freeze," she suggested. She lifted her eyes to his and repeated his order to Cassie. "Go on, now."

Vincent fled – there was no other word for it – leaving Catherine behind with a giggle bubbling to her lips, and a group of subdued children. "Maybe you’d all better go get dried off now," she said to them. "You don’t want to catch cold."

They clambered out of the water one by one, overseen by an equally shaken Jamie, who had been too far away to reach Cassie when she screamed. Only once they were all out and on their way down the tunnel did she follow, using one of Vincent’s damp towels to dry her hair as she went.

When she reached Vincent’s chamber, his back was to her. His wet hair made a large damp spot on the back of his shirt, but he had changed and was no longer shivering. He didn’t turn, though she knew he sensed her presence. She put a hand on his back. "Vincent? Are you all right?"

His head inclined downward in what she took to be a nod, but he still didn’t turn, and the lines of his back were rigid with tension. Finally, she simply walked around to face him.

"What’s the matter?"

He shook his head, and so softly she almost missed it, he said, "I never intended to …" Trailing off, he indicated himself.

"Vincent!" She put her hand under his chin and raised his head so he had to look at her. "Don’t be silly," she said firmly. "Don’t you understand?"

His eyes met hers for a moment before he dropped them again. He couldn’t look at her; she had every reason now to turn away for good. She’d seen how different he really was.

"Look at me," she commanded, softly but insistently.

His eyes rose of their own accord to meet hers again and this time he didn’t look away. He couldn’t. She was gazing at him with so much love he couldn’t take it in. Suddenly he pulled her against him tightly and when she raised her head to look at him again, he kissed her.

Her arms went around his neck and she clung to him, all consciousness of her surroundings gone, her entire being focused only on him. Not since she was a schoolgirl had a simple kiss had such an effect on her. Her heart pounded, she trembled, and when her lips parted and Vincent accepted the silent invitation to deepen the kiss, she moaned.

He pulled back and gazed into her eyes and then released her and stepped away. "Catherine, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me …" He shook his head as if to clear it. "You’re wet. You must be cold. I’ll find you some dry things."

"I’m not cold and you’re not leaving." She threw herself against him and held him tightly. "Please don’t apologize. Don’t ever apologize. Just do it again."

"We mustn’t …" But there was no conviction behind the words.

She pulled his head down to hers and kissed him this time. He gave in willingly, and his warm hands on her wet shirt, so close to bare skin, made her shiver. This time he didn’t ask if she was cold; he knew what caused the shiver. He was shivering a little himself, and when her hands went under his untucked shirt to stroke the skin on his back – the hair there was sparse and finding skin beneath was easy – he actually shuddered. And stepped away again.

"Catherine, I –"

She let him keep his distance this time, sensing he needed space. And she kept her eyes on his face, though their closeness of a moment ago had told her all she needed to know about his reaction to her. She wouldn’t embarrass him by looking.

"Why haven’t you ever done that before?" she asked, her head a little on one side.

He shook his head, his eyes downcast. "I am afraid of my own …"

"Passion?"

Even in the candlelight, she saw the flush on his cheeks. He simply inclined his head once in agreement. After a moment, he said, "I cannot be certain of my ability to control it."

"And why should you control it, Vincent?" It was time they faced this issue, she thought grimly. She wouldn’t back down this time.

"It wouldn’t be right to – it isn’t – Father says – "

She found his incoherence endearing but a surge of anger at Father superseded it. "Father says what? That you shouldn’t love me," she answered her own question. "That you must spend your whole life alone. Do I have it right?"

He looked at her then and there was pain in his eyes. "That I could be dangerous to you."

"Vincent," she said, her throat thick with the same sorrow. "You are not dangerous to me." When he opened his mouth she lifted a hand. "Listen. Let me finish. Do you remember the first time you came to my aid? In the brownstone?"

He nodded.

"What happened when I took your arm and pulled you away from those men?"

A pause. "I came with you."

"And you were perfectly calm in a moment." She waited for that to sink it. "How about when you rescued me from Stephen? When you … " She didn’t know how to phrase it.

"Attacked him?" Vincent finished for her.

"Fine. Attacked him. Fighting for me. You stopped the moment I asked you to."

"Yes," he said slowly.

"And when you were in the grip of the drug Paracelsus made, when you didn’t even know where you were and you were hallucinating. What happened when I touched you?"

"I … came back to myself."

"And recognized me, and said my name."

"Ye-es," he said, slower still.

One more, she thought, and he’d see the pattern. "And when you were lost in yourself in the cave."

"I raised my hand to you!" he said with agony apparent in his voice. As his memory had returned afterward, he had remembered everything, unfortunately.

"Until I called your name," she insisted. "And you stopped."

"I passed out."

"You stopped," she repeated. "You recognized me. And you stopped."

He dropped his eyes again, but he nodded, too.

"Don’t you see, Vincent? No matter what, when you’ve had chance after chance, you have never once harmed me. Ever. You always know me, no matter what condition you’re in. Always, Vincent." Now she did come closer and she wrapped her arms around his waist, and laid her head against his heart. It was pounding against her cheek. "I know you are different from other men. I don’t care. You are the man I love, and I want to love all of you. I am not afraid."

He held her tightly, almost crushing her against his body, and by the hitch in his breathing, she was sure he was in tears. She said nothing more, only snuggled against him and closed her eyes and willed her love and faith through the bond into his heart.

A moment later, he put his hand under her chin and tipped her face up so he could look into her eyes. His were damp. He lowered his head again and kissed her with such infinite tenderness that it brought tears to her eyes as well. Not passion this time, but overwhelming love.

"My love, why are you crying?"

"They’re happy tears," she said, smiling. "How I have longed for this moment!"

He sighed deeply. "I am sorry I have put you through such anguish."

"Don’t be sorry." She reached up to stroke his golden hair. "Things are more precious when you have to work for them."

"I … cannot release my fears so easily."

"No, but we can work through them together," she said. "If you will try," and her voice trembled a little.

"I will try," he promised. He dipped his head again and captured her lips and she came to him willingly. With a little cry, he pulled her against him tightly, releasing her mouth and burying his face in her hair.

"What?" She stroked his hair and kissed his cheek. "Vincent, what is it?"

He shook his head mutely and she waited, realizing he needed a moment to master himself before he could speak. Finally, his face still concealed from her, he said, "It’s too much to take in. For so long, I have believed I must never … allow myself … that you would not wish … "

The incoherence was back, and she smiled tenderly. "But I do wish," she said, and she stepped back so he had to let her look at him. "I won’t ask for more than you can give, but I will keep wishing."

As if of its own volition, his hand rose to stroke her bare shoulder gently. "I never thought to touch you …"

"And I have thought of little else," she said, just a bit mischievously.

He smiled. "Nor did I dream I would ever be like this before you."

"I dreamed of that, too."

He sobered. "I have sometimes been aware of those dreams." At her startled look, he flushed. "Not intentionally, Catherine. When I have awakened in the night with the pictures of your dreams before me, I have – usually – closed off the connection between us so as not to invade your privacy. Apparently when we are both asleep, I have less control over that … invasion."

"You knew?" She felt her own cheeks flush.

He sighed. "You cannot control your dreams," he said. "I did not … I tried not … to take them too seriously. I told myself the dreams were not your true desires."

"But they were," she said. "Vincent, awake I have tried not to dwell on what you do to me, out of concern for you. I know you can feel what I feel. But asleep, as you say, I haven’t that control. Asleep, the truth comes out."

"Then, what you dream is … "

"The only way I’ve been able to have what I’ve wanted all this time," she said. "Until now?"

He closed his eyes and drew a shuddering breath. "Now?"

"Well, part of what I wanted, then." Vincent was too shaken by the very idea to consider it now, anyway. She realized, with a little bemusement, that she would have to go very slowly indeed, as if Vincent were – and he probably was – an innocent virgin. The thought shook her, too. He did not even know, really, what she asked of him. He was looking at her with that uncertainty and wonder again. She touched his cheek. "I told you I wouldn’t ask for more than you can give. I will honor that promise, Vincent. But know that I am ready. You have only to ask and it’s yours. I am yours. Wholly and completely."

"I cannot ask –" He broke off with a gasp, and put a hand over his own heart for a moment as if to slow its wild beating. "Catherine, I have no right. You have a life Above –"

"And why must that change simply because we love one another?" She took his hand away from his heart and put it over hers. "Feel that? It beats for you, Vincent. Yes, I have friends and responsibilities Above, and they’re important to me. But my life," she paused and reached with her other hand to touch his face again, "is with you."

He was mesmerized by their hands, clasped over her heart. He couldn’t seem to look away and Catherine hid her fond smile at the expression on his face. This moment was too fragile and might shatter. Vincent was unlike other men in more than appearance. She could not imagine any of the other men she’d known being so reluctant to take what she offered, or that any of them would treat it as a gift, and a momentous one at that.

At last, he raised his eyes to hers, gently freed his hand, and drew her against him. He was trembling. "I do not deserve this love," he whispered against her hair. "Yet I am grateful and humbled to accept it."

Her heart swelled with relief and love and she felt her eyes burning. They held each other for a long time, and this time when she shivered, it was with cold. Tunnel temperatures were not suited for wet clothing.

"You are cold," Vincent said, drawing away. "Come, you must get into dry clothes."

He found the dress she had worn when she stayed Below after her father’s death and considerately left the chamber to allow her to change. When he returned, he had a tray with hot tea.

"I should take you home. You must be tired." But she could hear the reluctance in his voice.

"I’m not that tired," she said, smiling. "Are you?"

He shook his head.

"I’ll promise to be good if you’ll read to me for a few minutes before I go," Catherine said.

He chuckled, a bit tremulously. "What would you like?"

"You choose," she said, settling in to her usual chair.

He stood before his bookshelf for a few moments before suddenly choosing one and bringing it back to his table. He sat down and riffled through the pages, looking for something in particular. When he found it, he glanced at her. She waited.

"All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee:
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea:
Breath and bloom, shade and shine, -- wonder, wealth, and – how far above them –
Truth, that’s brighter than gem,
Trust, that’s purer than pearl, --
Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe –
All were for me
In the kiss of one girl."

The words didn’t bring tears to her eyes so much as the heartfelt emotion in the reader’s voice, and when he saw those tears, Vincent tossed the book aside and came to her, gathering her up close against his heart and kissing her hair, then her lips, with infinite tenderness.

"Shall I come to you tomorrow night?" he whispered into her hair.

She nodded, unable to speak.

The workday dragged with the enticing vision of Vincent before her all day, and for once she didn’t stay a moment past five o’clock. She had preparations to make, and when she started packing up her briefcase to leave, Joe was astounded.

"Did you get the Martin files finished?"

"Yes."

"How about the deposition on the armed robbery?"

She handed it to him.

He narrowed his eyes. "Do you have a hot date?"

"Yes." She grinned at him. "And I am not staying late, I don’t care what you have under your arm there."

He looked at the files under his arm as if he’d just noticed them. "These?" he said, eyebrows rising. "This is my grocery list." His eyes twinkled roguishly. "Get outta here, Radcliffe. Go have some fun. Is he cuter than me?"

"I’m afraid so, Joe." She patted his arm as she passed. "But don’t be jealous," she said over her shoulder. "You’re a much better lawyer."

"Gee, thanks," Joe said sourly, but the twinkle hadn’t left his eyes.

"Oh, Joe?" Catherine said, just before she was out of earshot. "I might be late tomorrow."

He laughed outright and reflected that if she didn’t come in at all, she was within her rights. She put in a lot of overtime, and she’d earned a day off.

Catherine stopped to buy ingredients for dinner on her way. Thank goodness her stove ran on gas and not electricity. Her part of the city was still without power. She also bought wine after much mental debate. Would Vincent drink wine? She didn’t know. So much she didn’t know.

He wouldn’t arrive before nine, giving her time to prepare. She usually kept her apartment immaculate, but she did some last-minute straightening-up and lit some fragrant candles. Dinner was a simple matter to get underway and then she went to bathe and dress. In the back of her closet, waiting for the right moment, was what her mother would have called a "hostess skirt." It was long and silky and made her look as if she were floating when she walked. With it, she would wear a simple white satin camisole top and Vincent’s crystal, perhaps her mother’s diamond earrings, with her hair loose.

The table was set with her mother’s wedding china and two long taper candles in brass holders when she heard his tap on the door. Lifting her skirt a bit so she could run, Catherine hurried to let him in.

Vincent, too, had dressed carefully. Forsaking his usual clothing, he had worn the white ruffled shirt he saved for special occasions, a pair of trim black trousers she’d never seen before, and a black vest. His hair was still a bit damp around the edges and caught the candlelight with its gleaming highlights.

For a moment, they simply drank in the sight of each other. Vincent was the first to move. With one long step, he took her into his arms and gently kissed her. "You look stunning."

She flushed. That was the reaction she’d hoped for. "So do you."

He smiled, a real smile, and touched her hair. Then he raised his head and looked toward the kitchen.

"I made dinner for us," she said. "I hope … that’s all right."

"It smells wonderful," he said. "But so much work, after you’ve already worked today –"

"I don’t mind," she said. "And it wasn’t that much work, really. It’ll be ready in a few minutes. Will you … I bought some wine … ?"

This was ridiculous, she thought. She felt as giddy as a girl on her first date. But Vincent, the one who should have been feeling most shy, seemed instead in complete possession of himself. That or he was a very good actor.

He went into her living room, a place she had once despaired of ever seeing him, and sat on the couch she had pulled in front of the fireplace. There was no fire, of course; it was still far too warm for a fire. She brought two glasses of wine and gave him one. He sipped it as if he’d always done this. And when she sat beside him, he laid his free arm across her shoulders and kissed her hair.

As they ate dinner, Catherine continued to be amazed at Vincent’s demeanor. He complimented her cooking and drank another glass of wine, all while she secretly trembled.

They returned to the living room after the meal. She snuggled against him and he put his arm around her again, but this time she felt the trembling in his body. He was nervous, but was hiding it from her. Somehow that calmed her own nerves and she closed her eyes, content simply to be near him.

"I thought of you all day," he said at last, very quietly. "I fear I was not much help in our latest project Below."

She smiled. "I thought of you all day, too, but it made me that much more efficient, so I could be sure Joe wouldn’t have an excuse for keeping me late tonight."

"Did he try?"

She laughed. "No. He asked me if I had a ‘hot date.’" She turned to look up at him. "I told him I did."

Vincent smiled. "I think I can safely say I have never been described in quite that way before."

Their eyes met and she reached up to kiss him. It was tender and sweet at first, with Vincent holding her as carefully as a longed-for treasure, but in moments their hearts had sped up and both were breathing hard. He pulled her tight against his body and rained kissed across her forehead, eyelids, cheeks and neck, kissing his way down to the scooped neck of her top before he seemed to realize what he was doing and pulled back. His eyes were glazed.

"I’m sorry, Catherine," he said breathlessly. "I shouldn’t have –"

"Did I ask you to stop?" she said, a bit breathless herself.

He shook his head. "But you will, won’t you? If I –" He flushed and dropped his eyes. "If I –"

"If you do anything I don’t want you to do, I’ll say so," she said softly. "But I can’t imagine that happening, beloved."

His eyes came up at the endearment and flicked back and forth almost as wildly as they had the first time she saw his face. "I know your dreams," he said, seeming to force the words past his lips. "But you don’t know mine, Catherine, and they … they frighten me. I – I shudder sometimes, to imagine what you would think if you … if you knew."

"Bet I wouldn’t," she teased gently. "Maybe if you didn’t close the bond when you realize you’re seeing my dreams, you would see the same things in mine."

"No –"

She stopped him with a soft hand to his lips. "Let’s just trust ourselves, Vincent. Please don’t worry so much. Show me."

He continued to gaze at her for a long moment, and the love she saw shining in his eyes told her what he was feeling before he spoke. "I have not said it often enough, Catherine. I love you. With all that I am or ever shall be."

Her eyes misted. "As I love you, Vincent."

He kissed her again, softly, and this time, though the desire was there, it did not flame out of control. Instead it was a quiet, insistent thing, slowly building as Vincent, for the first time, allowed himself to freely touch her, kiss her, and hold her close. He finally returned to the soft skin above her top, and his breath against her skin, so close to her breasts, made her clutch the back of his head and arch toward him. He hesitated only a moment, and obeyed, touching her there with a shaking hand and drawing a quiet moan from her at the contact. Encouraged, he became slightly bolder, stroking the nipple with his thumb and watching in amazement as it rose toward him. He looked up at her and was amazed afresh because he expected her to be startled, or uneasy, or anything but what she was. What he saw on her face was raw need – for him.

"My love!" He reached for her, pulled her against him and buried his face in her hair. "I did not know. Forgive me. I did not know."

Catherine was confused. "Forgive you? Vincent, I don’t understand."

"I did not know. You … you want this so. I did not understand. Catherine, I never realized … I was thinking only of myself, my fear, my need, not yours. Oh, Catherine, I am so sorry."

"Vincent, wait." She sat up. "Yes, I want this. Very much. I want you. But I have been willing to wait until you were ready. I understand your fears. I didn’t think you were being selfish, my love, never."

For answer, he turned, lifted her in his arms, and carried her to her bedroom. A thrill rushed through her blood as she realized what he intended. Very gently, he laid her on the bed and knelt on the floor next to her. "If this is what you want," he said steadily, love shining in his eyes and mixed with barely-banked flames of desire, "you shall have it, Catherine. I will make you wait no longer."

"Are you sure?" She had to ask. He had been so afraid for so long.

He nodded, swallowed hard. "I will not pretend I am not … uneasy," he said, a flicker of humor in his voice. "I have no idea what to do. I shall have to ask you to guide me."

"I can do that," she said mischievously.

He chuckled softly. "You are enjoying this."

"It is supposed to be fun." She sat up and started working at the fastening of his vest. It was laced around his waist, leaving the ruffled front of his shirt exposed. He took over and unfastened it in a moment, sliding it off his shoulders and letting it fall behind him. The shirt buttoned under the ruffled tie, and she could do that without assistance. He let her do it, and when she had it undone, she ran her hands over his chest luxuriously. He closed his eyes at her touch and let his head fall back. It was the most erotic thing she had ever seen him do. She pulled the shirt loose from his waistband and it, too, fell behind him. When she reached for the belt, he put his hand over hers and looked searchingly at her.

"There will be no going back," he said, a little anxiously.

"I don’t want to go back," she said, meeting his eyes. "Do you?"

He shook his head, but he unfastened the belt, pulled off his boots, and stood. Keeping his eyes on her face, he let the trousers join the shirt and vest on the floor, and Catherine drew a shaky breath.

It was a moment before she could speak, but she knew she must. He was showing such trust and faith in her, to let go of his inhibitions this way. She tore her eyes away from his magnificent body long enough to look up at him with shining eyes. "It was worth the wait."

She surprised a chuckle out of him, and he shook his head. "Catherine, you astound me."

"I try," she said, but her eyes drifted back to his body so temptingly displayed. "I hope you don’t intend to stay over there."

"Not at all," he said, coming to the bed and sitting beside her, letting his hand drift from her bare shoulder down her arm. "May I…?"

She nodded, and he carefully lifted the shirt over her head. She wore nothing underneath, and he took a sharp breath. Forgetting to put the camisole down, he simply worshipped her with his eyes and finally lifted his hand – the same one holding the shirt – to touch, seeming surprised to find the camisole still in his hand. She took it from him and tossed it toward the pile of his clothes without looking to see where it actually fell. He touched her so gently, as if he was afraid she would break, that it almost brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them away, and then he bent to kiss her breasts, first one, then the other, tenderly.

"I am dreaming," he said hoarsely. "This cannot be real."

"It is real, Vincent."

He drew a deep breath and raised his eyes. "What of this?" That little spark of humor was back – his emotions changed back and forth so rapidly that Catherine was fascinated and enthralled – and she realized he meant the skirt.

"Elastic waist," she said, her own humor returning. "Just pull down."

One of his eyebrows rose, but he hooked his thumbs under the waistband, stretched it and slid it down her hips as she lifted them to help him. She had not bothered with shoes since the skirt was so long, and her panties were a thin wisp of white lace that Vincent disposed of quickly. He lay beside her and pulled her close so that the entire lengths of their bodies touched and Catherine caught her breath at the sensation, so longed for, of his skin and hers, together. She could feel the evidence of his arousal and his breath had started to come and go quickly, in concert with hers. The fires were banked no longer and soon, she knew, they would rage.

But the self-control that had served Vincent so many years did not desert him. He took his time exploring, tentatively at first, then more boldly, finally finding the courage to take a nipple into his mouth as Catherine gasped. He paused, but only for a moment, and as he worked his way down her abdomen, even the touch of his sliding hair against her skin was almost enough to send her over the edge. He touched her aching center with the tip of his tongue and she gasped again, tangling her hands in his hair, her eyes closed, lost in the sensation.

Again he paused, glanced up, but satisfied that she did not want him to stop – quite the opposite, he realized with a thrill of masculine pride – he let her reactions be his guide and continued to gently explore and touch with his tongue.

With any other man she’d been with, Catherine would have urged less restraint, but because this was Vincent, and because she had waited so long, even the slightest touch was enough to set her aflame. He sensed that, and increased the pressure, and she cried out as she went over the edge and when her breathing slowed, he pulled her close again, nuzzling into her hair, kissing her hungrily.

"Do you need to rest a moment, my love?"

She shook her head, unable to speak as yet, and reached for him. As she took his masculine length into her hand, he shuddered and gave a soft growl deep in his throat. She found that almost unbearably erotic and it made her shiver.

"I’m sorry –" he began but she shushed him.

"Make any sound and every sound you want, beloved," she whispered into his ear. "Don’t hold anything back from me. And stop apologizing," she added with a teasing lilt to her voice. She was rewarded with a husky and slightly tremulous chuckle.

She gently pushed him onto his back, and he obeyed. She kissed and nuzzled his neck, working her way to his chest, and almost couldn’t tear herself away. She had imagined his bare chest for so many nights alone that having it here at last was too sweet to rush. When she did reach his erection at last, she took her time, also, and was very gentle at first until she discovered how much he could take. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him clench the sheets in his fists and even through the thick ruddy hair on his hands she could see his knuckles were white.

"Too much?" She paused and glanced up.

He shook his head, eyes closed, and she saw his throat move as he swallowed. "Catherine …" he said, choked, unable to say more.

"Don’t be afraid to touch me if you want to, Vincent," she said, smiling a little as she returned to her task.

It was a few moments before she felt one shaking hand on the back of her head, stroking her hair, and she knew the self-control he must be exerting to keep from urging her head down. He was very near the edge.

"Catherine," he said in a different tone, barely able to speak at all. She stopped, understanding, and he rolled onto his side, urging her upward to face him. He pulled her against him and held her, trembling, for several moments until he gained a measure of control. "I have never …" he couldn’t go on.

"There is world enough and time," she said, with a gentle kiss to his brow.

He returned the kiss, his breath raspy and harsh, his hands wandering over her until her own senses fled and there was nothing and no one but Vincent and her aching need for him.

"Vincent, now, please. Now!"

In a single movement, he had turned her onto her back and hovered above her, his mighty chest heaving and his eyes gone dark with desire. He was very gentle in spite of his desperately beating heart, even now, because his first concern was for her. Slowly and carefully he entered her, his arms shaking with the effort. It had been so long for Catherine that it was a tight fit, in spite of her considerable arousal, and the feel of him filling her was all she had dreamed it would be.

Once he was all the way in, he lowered himself, taking care to hold most of his weight on his arms, and waited until he had again regained some measure of control. Slowly he began to move, and as Catherine gasped and wrapped her arms around his back, closing her eyes and burrowing her head into his shoulder, he moaned and moved faster, gasping great heaving breaths interspersed with little growls that thrilled Catherine. He was honestly letting go and as she drew nearer completion, she held him so tightly they were as one, and she went over only a moment before he did.

Afterward, he rolled to his side to keep his weight off of her and held her almost desperately against his body, hiding his face and breathing in gasping sobs. Gradually, his breathing slowed and he fell onto his back, eyes closed.

"Vincent?" She stroked his cheek gently.

He shook his head once, still unable to speak but his eyes opened and he gazed at her with his heart in his eyes. His brow was damp and a little perspiration had pooled in the hollow of his throat, where the pulse beat rapidly.

She laid her head on his shoulder and slid one leg between his, molding her body against him. His arm came around her, tucking her head under his chin, and she felt his lips brush her hair. Still he did not speak.

She closed her eyes and had almost drifted off when he whispered, "Thank you, Catherine."

She looked up and his eyes were still unfocused and hazy. "Thank you?"

"For loving me," he said. "It is a miracle. An unexpected dream I never dared hope would come true."

"Dare to keep dreaming," she said. "I intend to."

He laughed shakily. "I did not realize I would be so … lethargic."

"Do you have somewhere you need to be?" She propped herself up on her elbow and gave him a wicked grin.

"Nowhere at all," he answered, with a touch to her cheek.

"Good. Because when you’ve rested …" She let that sink in, and returned to her position cuddled against him. "Perhaps we could repeat the experience."

He nuzzled the top of her head. "Dearest, we will repeat this experience many, many times in our life together. There is world enough and time."