Catherine drew the veiled tiara from her hair, tugging at the hairpins that held her upswept style in place. Her chestnut-colored hair fell, full and thick, to her shoulders, as her dreams fell, crashing all around her.
Tears slid silently down her cheeks. Her bosom heaved in mute agony as she faced, in her heart, the staggering impact of what she had done.
Gone was Vincentís love. Gone was the possibility of what could have been. Gone, too, was the threat to the world Below. And therein lay all the reason.
There had truly been no alternative. She was convinced of that. If not, she could never have stood in that chapel, in front of dozens of important people, and pledged what she had pledged Ė to love and honor, all the days of my life . . .
Catherineís knees grew weak and she fell across the bed sobbing. As quickly, she leapt up, realizing it was this very place where she would be shortly expected to prove her recent vows. What a liar she was! No one would respect her! Not Elliot, not Jenny or Joe, not . . . Vincent . . .
She was ripped from her thoughts by the opening of the bedroom door. It was the wedding planner, alerting her to the photographerís call to the first floor great room.
"J-just give me a moment," Catherine responded, trying to sound natural. She stood before the mirror, swiped at her cheeks, ran her fingers through her hair, glanced toward the tiara, feeling overwhelmed.
"Mrs. Burch?" the strange voice, uttering the stranger name, came from behind her.
It was Lucette, the Australian upstairs maid, assigned to assist Catherine today.
"Sheíll be apples, mílady," soothed the young girl, sensing Catherineís distress. "Píhaps youíd like to chuck a sickie; heíll be off his face by 9pm anyways . . ."
"No, no," answered Catherine dutifully, not doubting that Elliot would indeed be drunk by 9:00. "Iím all right; I just need a moment."
"Sheíll be right. Give it a bash; youíre game!" Lucette smiled at Catherine, handing her the tiara, and infusing confidence into her.
Catherine walked down the grand staircase, her head high and her orchid bouquet clutched to her chest. She had chosen this . . .
* * *
"How can you even consider a union with such a man?" Vincent remembered his comment with both regret and resolve as he walked the chamber corridors.
Catherine could never be happy with Elliot Burch! Yet, what could he, Vincent, offer her? Only seclusion in a secret world below ground Ė only limitations . . .
Her felt her emotions now. Her remorse, her shame, her conviction. At stake, the work of lifetimes, everything they had built Ė and . . . Catherineís integrity.
"Itís not your decision . . !" Those words of hers had wounded him the most. Catherineís warmth and courage struck Vincent in the face, challenging everything he believed about her Ė about the two of them. How could he block her choice? How could he negate her decision?
Vincent stopped by his chamber briefly to procure some meager provisions, then he was off to the lower chambers where he planned to spend the next unnumbered hours.
* * *
The last guests had departed and the staff was closing the banquet and service areas downstairs. Catherine and Elliot were alone in his bedroom.
"Catherine! My beauty!" Elliot was usually not a heavy drinker, but seemed to be feeling the full effect of the champagne and cocktail toasts drunk to the wedding coupleís honor during the festivities. Catherine could not actually remember a time when Elliot had been under the influence like this. He reached drunkenly for his bride, sliding to one side then settled on the bed, a lop-sided smile on his face.
Catherine sat down carefully beside him. Elliot reached for her, cupping her face in his hand. His gaze was altered as he stared up at her.
"Cathy," he murmured, "kiss me . . ."
She leaned in over him and placed a light kiss on his lips. He scarcely returned the kiss; groping upward to grasp her breast. With the other hand, he fumbled at his trousers.
"Címon, baby," he murmured, reaching for her. She caught his hands, kissing them, saying, "Elliot, this isnít who we are . . ."
She thought as well that this is not who you are, Elliot! However, his condition was making it easier for her to leave the mansion as she had now decided she must do.
Elliot dropped his chin to plant kisses at her cleavage as his hands encircled her waist. He tugged her gown down over one shoulder, nuzzling her flesh.
"Aw, Cathy . . ." he exhaled, attempting to embrace her, before passing out against the pillows.
Catherine regarded him fondly, with regret and forgiveness. He was like an errant big brother to her. She understood him, she did not hold him responsible, she truly cared for him. And she was not in love with him.
Feeling as if she were moving in slow motion, Catherine removed her wedding clothes and dressed in the jeans, tee shirt and sweater she had worn when she came to the mansion to ready for the ceremony.
She paused to smooth Elliotís hair and press her cheek to his. None of this was his fault.
* * *
"Where is he?!" Catherine implored of Father, once she was Below.
"Heís not here, thatís all I know," Father replied, confused by her ardor.
"Someone must know where he is!" she continued.
"I know . . ." answered Mouse from the entryway.
"Take me!" Catherine entreated; and Mouse could see there was no denying her.
* * *
After some trekking time, Mouse said, "Going now. Catherine keep going past the hanging rocks," and he turned to leave.
Catherine reached out to give the reluctant Mouse a hug before he hurried off, then she turned in the direction of the stalactites.
Around the bend, Catherine detected the fragrance of burning wood and came upon a widening in the path. She gasped to see Vincent there, tending a small fire pit, a pallet for sleeping and ceramic pots positioned to catch trickling water from the rocks in the background.
"I felt your approach," Vincent said, without looking up at her.
"I could not stay away," she responded, not knowing what else to say.
He looked up at her then and his gaze burned through her.
"You are a wife," he ventured, emotion shaking his voice.
"No . . . not yet . . ." she responded, possibility in her voice, advancing upon him.
He stood still as stone as Catherine embraced him. She felt he was a statue, cold as marble, holding himself far away from her.
"Vincent! What am I to do!?" she implored him. "I love only you! I cannot give myself to another!"
"You have already . . ."
"No! There was only the ceremony Ė nothing else!" she countered.
Vincent held her away from him, gripping her arms and looking hard into her eyes. "Catherine! You have made a promise!" he said with conviction.
"Darling! Donít hold me to that! Itís not consummated! You know Iím not in love with him! You know why I did it!!"
"Catherine! Is this who we are? Dishonest?! Deceitful?!" Disappointment and passion were evident in Vincentís expression.
Tears streaking her face, Catherine threw her arms around Vincentís neck, pressing her body to his. No words exchanged between them.
As he felt her small body shaking with sobs, Vincent experienced the most formidable conflict of his life. How noble she was! She had sacrificed everything to save his family Ė and him. How could he deny her need? How could he ignore his own need Ė or disregard the fact that a tiny glimmer of hope had indeed opened in his heart when she told him her marriage was not completed.
But, no! NO! Honor and desire warred within him. Every decision in his life had been made with the utmost consideration for the truest and most highly principled concepts. He had always acted for othersí protection or advancement. But this . . ! But Catherine . . !
She was a wounded child, sobbing with her face buried in his chest, breaking his heart. Just then, she pulled a little away and he gazed down into her sweet face, upturned to him. Her beautiful eyes glistened with tears streaming and unshed and she was becoming breathless with crying.
Her voice was strained and she seemed burdened with sorrow, but Vincent saw a fierce light come into her eyes as she gripped his vest with both hands and clutched him to her.
"Vincent, do not send me back there!" she raged. "Donít turn me away!! Do not send me back . . . without . . . without this one chance to know you! Please, please Vincent! Iíll never have you this close again in my life!"
For Vincent, time stood still. All was lost or all was attainable in that one instant. The time was now Ė or never again. Passion became desperation and nothing could stop them.
His mouth opened over hers and her response was immediate and intense. Panting, gasping, they grabbed for each other without apology and tumbled in slow motion to lie upon the rough pallet. Swift clutches pulled clothing away and frantic action resulted in two naked bodies straining toward one another. Impulsive grasps brought lips, tongues, and bellies into loving alignment.
Catherineís legs parted wide as Vincentís erect phallus speared upward into her intimate space. His salty elixir gushed into her honeyíd fusion. They were consummated, they were joined; she was penetrated in the act of sexual congress; they were coital partners copulating in the heat of their forbidden, chosen commitment. Their cries mingled as their spirits merged.
* * *
Break of day found the lovers snuggled together between the coarse woven coverlets and the fire smoldering. Only Vincentís sense of time alerted the couple to the morning hour. Gently, he shook Catherine awake.
Vincent fetched water from the collection vessel and brought Catherine a cup to drink.
"You must go back," he said. His voice held the finality and reservation they both accepted.
* * *
Back at the Burch mansion, Catherine showered and dressed for the day. She joined Elliot in the dining room where a sumptuous brunch had been laid out for the newly-wed couple.
Elliot was bleary-eyed and sheepish over his coffee. "Cathy," he began, "what happened last night?"
"Oh, you were your ardent self!" she teased, taking his hand.
"I can only hope so!" he replied. "You know you are the love of my life!"
"Elliot . . ."
"Cathy, I just want you to be happy," he said almost too sincerely, kissing her hand as Catherine wondered if it could ever be true.
* * *
Days went by and Elliot played the dutiful husband in terms of social engagements and public displays. At home, in the bedroom, he met with Catherineís delays and excuses.
Finally, he confronted her.
"Cathy, you cannot go on refusing me! I realize you married me under certain circumstances, but I do love you and you knew that when we married! How long do you expect me to waitó?"
"Elliot, I still have a hard time reconciling the terms of our Ė agreement," she replied.
Elliot took Catherine in his arms, drawing her head onto his shoulder. "But I agreed to stop the Tower. And itís been stopped. Why are you still hesitating?" he asked. "Youíre everything to me; I told you I donít have any friends Ė "
"Yes, friends are inconvenient," she replied, echoing his former statement.
"Cathy . . ." he turned her face up to look at him, challenging her with his eyes and his voice, ". . . are we not going to make it in this marriage?"
Catherine kept silent and rested her head back against Elliotís body. He was her husband and she was in love with another man.
* * *
Meanwhile, Vincent was struggling with the heated memories of his night with Catherine. He remained in the lower chamber where he had retreated to be alone with his thoughts. He paced furiously in the dark corridors, striking his fist against the opposite palm, muttering to himself.
He scolded an unseen Elliot: "If you hurt Catherine, if you make Catherine cry, if you make her doubt, if you make her frown, I will kill you - youíll answer to me!" he growled, feeling a possessiveness he had never known. He replayed the scene between him and Catherine over and over in his mind. Now that they had consummated their love, Vincent felt emotional ownership of Catherine Ė her love, her loyalty, her . . . body. Her body!
Her hot, lavish body! How she had surrounded him! He burned with the memory of penetrating her sweet flesh, feeling her pause, then surrender, then open . . . open . . . open! He gasped for breath now, thinking of it.
Vincent still experienced shame and remorse that he had lost himself so completely in the moment. He had allowed himself to imagine intimacy with Catherine before; and, always, his fantasies had culminated in his courtly acquiescence and promises of a future time, when commitments could be honored.
Reflecting upon it now, Vincent was filled with fire and joy and a culpable excitement that brought forth a forceful roar from his throat. He roared again and again, venting the masculine pride and sorrow in his heart.
Spent, he collapsed against the tunnel wall. Yet, the memories were only the beginning . . .
His body thickened with desire as a low growl began in his chest. He was once again in full male arousal; ready to seek his mate.
He felt full of burning sunlight after so long in the cooling shadows. Where he had once been subdued, chilled into restraint, he now was hot with intent where Catherine was concerned.
He imagined drawing a long call of ecstasy from her soul and meeting it with his own roar of fulfillment. Still, he was alone in the depths of the earth.
* * *
The next morning at breakfast, Catherine and Elliot exchanged glances and took their seats at the table. Crystal bowls of fresh cut melon and silver trays of flaky pastries stood on the sideboard along with a silver coffee urn and china cups, saucers, and plates. Yvette, the downstairs maid, served coffee for the two of them then respectfully left the room.
"You know . . , donít you?" Elliot began.
Catherine weighed her options. She did not know what Elliot was referring to Ė however, she felt she should play this close to the chest and see where he was going.
"Why donít you tell me . . ?" she replied carefully.
"Cathy!" The pain on Elliotís face was real; "I know what I promised you! But . . . I canít! I simply canít stop the Tower! There are too many things to consider!"
"What?!" Catherine stood up abruptly, almost spilling her coffee. She felt a strange mixture of anger and relief, but the anger came first.
"What do you mean Ė you canít stop it?" she cried.
Elliot got up quickly and closed the dining room door. "Lower your voice," he urged, "we can talk about this."
"We have already talked about it!" Catherine shot back, not trying to lower her voice. "Before we were married!"
"Oh, yes!" Elliot returned with sarcasm. "Marrrrried . . . isnít that the arrangement where the two people have sex with each other?!"
"You are unbelievable!" Catherine retorted, heading for the door.
Elliot leaped after her, full of remorse. "Cathy, Cathy, sweetheart! Iím so sorry, I didnít mean it like that! Please let me explain Ė"
But Catherine was already at the front door, car keys in her hand. Though she boiled with anger, she was focused on a single action.
There was nothing keeping her with him now. Elliot had gone back on their agreement. Catherine burned with disgrace that she had entered the marriage with Elliot anyway; but now the responsibility was upon him. She hastened to make arrangements to go Below.
* * *
There was a wildness let loose within him now.
Vincent had always feared it and he feared it no less at this point, except that it seemed somehow to be a gift Ė one that he must use judiciously. He felt some measure of control over it now.
He remembered when this emotion was first unleashed. Young Lisa had been its target and the result was tragic. But now, the sentiment was tempered with true love and the intense longing was finding a direction Ė and a home.
He must be with Catherine.
He gathered his few belongings and prepared to go Above.
* * *
As Catherine passed through the lobby of her apartment building, her eye caught the headlines of the newspaper in the stand: "BUILDER BURCH ACCUSED OF BRIBERY FOR PERMITS Ė TOWER HALTED"
She paused long enough to feel a pang of pity for Elliot. So, his plans would not proceed after all. Lies, deceit, hidden agendas, justice, truth . . . Catherineís mind was swimming. She stood one moment more, staring at the headlines, then hurried to her apartment to prepare for her re-entry to Tunnels.
Inside her apartment, the sound of the answering machine caught Catherineís attention. She pressed the button to retrieve the message.
Elliotís voice came on the recording, an unsteady edge to his smooth tone: Cathy, itís me . . . they trumped up some charge . . . Iíll give you anannulment, if thatís what you want. I already notified my attorney to expect your call. líll be out fairly soon Ė thereís very little that money canít buy . . . and, Cathy . . . I am sorry . . . for everything . . .
* * *
Poetic lines resounded in Catherineís mind as she descended into Tunnels:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Oh Elliot! What have you done?! What have you lost?! Catherine thought as she wiped her tears and hurried along the subterranean corridors.
Suddenly, Vincent was there before her. They both stopped, looking hard into each otherís eyes, frozen in place.
Catherine spoke first. "Heís voiding the marriage," she said, her voice faltering on the last word. "He knows he . . . did not fulfill . . ."
"Nor did you; nor did we," Vincentís words opened wounds and healed them all at once.
They fell into an embrace that became another action. Vincent lifted her against his chest and began to run, carrying her through the torch-lit passageways. She felt the thudding of his heart and her own life forces began to pulse in synchrony with his.
They reached Vincentís chamber where they entered and he laid her tenderly upon the big bed. He turned from her to draw the tapestry across the threshold, and as he turned again to face her, she sat up in bed and reached for him.
They merged in a frantic clutching embrace, panting and kissing."Nothing feeds me . . . nothing quenches me . . . nothing restores me. . . except your love!" he exclaimed, unwrapping her heated body like a gift.
Their hands moved over each other, garments dropping to the floor.
"Vincent!" she gasped. "Itís you and I who should be together! Itís we who are husband and wife!"
"Thereís no joy beyond your touch," she breathed as her head fell back and his tongue swept over her throat. "Oh, Vincent! Your kiss, your Ė" Then she was speechless with pleasure.
Fire spread up along her loins as his strong hands smoothed her flesh. The scream died on her lips and exploded in her belly as Vincentís big body covered her. He suckled her right breast and clutched her left breast as she went mad with delight. Then he scooped up her hips and drove into her as Catherine soared to the peak of her emotion.
* * *
In the small hours, they stirred in their sleep, stretching out of their spooning embrace only to grip each other anew.
His voice was low and deep, as he asked, "Will you have me again?"
His request had a shyness that charmed her and a knowing anticipation that parted her thighs to have him fill her over and over.
* * *
In the afterglow, glistening with heat rising from their flanks, Vincent pushed the heavy quilts off their bodies and pulled the cool, white sheet over them. Catherine looked up into his beautiful face, combing his damp mane with her fingers.
"You lay all my years before me, Catherine," he purred in his rich register.
They laced their fingers, laying languid, holding sacred these moments and times.
"Elizabethís paintings . . ." Catherine began, and Vincent waited for her to continue.
"Theyíre safe now," she went on.
"Much is saved, because of you, Catherine," he replied, nuzzling her hair.
"All that remains of Burch Towers is a painting by Elizabeth on her history wall," Catherine said wistfully.
"Passions stamped on lifeless things," Vincent quoted.
"What do you think Elliot will do; where will he go now, Vincent?" Catherine pondered aloud.
"Ozymandias Ė" Vincent replied thoughtfully, "the name means the king of air, king of nothing." Catherine gave a sad little sigh.
"Elliot will build again," Vincent went on. Knowing Catherineís unspoken question, he said, "Perhaps, in time, Elliot will love Ė and be loved Ė again, as well. Until then, he seeks permanence through his works."
"It is we who have permanence," Catherine responded wisely, "Weíve created it through our love."
With his caress and his kiss, Vincent answered her.