JoAnn Baca


Catherine stole another glance over her shoulder, sighing slightly in disappointment as once again her eyes beheld no golden figure standing silently in the entrance to the music chamber.  The concert had started promptly at 8:00 p.m., and with minutes to spare she had seated herself in a secluded alcove close to the chamber portal, hoping to sit there unobtrusively, awaiting Vincent’s arrival.  But almost immediately she had been spotted by several of the Tunnel children and surrounded, each vying for the coveted seat beside her, and when it went to the youngest of them, the rest had settled for plopping down around her feet. So here she was, hedged in by loving youngsters, and the time for intermission was close at hand...yet still no Vincent.

An animal squeal pierced the quiet of the attentive audience, and every eye turned toward its source: Arthur, squirming unhappily in Mouse’s arms, apparently annoyed at his confinement.  Mouse was gamely holding onto him, asserting to his neighbor in a stage whisper, “Arthur loves music.” It didn’t seem to Catherine that he did, though - if his protestation and his attempts to break free were any indication. Well, perhaps Mouse could read something in Arthur’s actions that was not readily apparent to the rest of the assembly.

She heard someone clear his throat in irritation, and knew without looking that it must be Father.  Seconds later, she made him out at the front of the gathering, noting the highly displeased look on his face.  But if the look cowed Mouse, she couldn’t tell. He merely sat with his writhing bundle in his arms, oblivious and smiling happily. Shortly, Father gave up trying to intimidate Mouse into removing the nuisance - he was too far away to be effective without causing more of a scene - and he turned back to the musicians. Once again the only sounds heard in the chamber were the strains of Bach.

No...not the only sounds.  A muted shuffle nearby and slightly behind her caused her to look over her shoulder as she had only a minute before, but this time her vigil was rewarded by the sight she had longed for: last!

He was covered by a fine layer of dust, and there were patches of crusted mud on his worn jeans and tattered vest.  There was even a streak of mud along one cheek.  Still, it didn’t matter what he was wearing or the condition of his clothes, the first sight of him never failed to send a rippling thrill straight through to her soul.  She smiled as happily as Mouse had, immediately and completely enchanted.  To her eyes, even in this state, Vincent looked positively huggable.

He shrugged an apology, his finely arched eyebrows arching even higher as his eyes widened, seeking her forgiveness.  She nodded immediately.  Nothing mattered now that he was close by.  When he saw he was pardoned, he opened his arms, palms upward, to display his less-than-clean appearance, then inclined his head in the direction of his chamber.  Clearly he wanted to clean up before joining her.  She nodded again, and he disappeared down the passageway.

The fugue was over in less than five minutes, and intermission was called after the appreciative audience had first clapped enthusiastically for the performers. As soon as the applause ended, however, there was a small disturbance. A young girl rushed into the chamber to where Father was sitting and began yanking on his arm; after a hasty exchange of words, he stood and quickly exited the chamber. Using that commotion as cover, Catherine slipped out of the alcove and made straight for Vincent’s chamber, racing down the tunnels until, slightly out of breath, she requested admittance.  An apparently startled Vincent denied her entry, calling out in his breathy, gravel-textured voice that he was dressing.  Realizing belatedly that her eagerness to be with him should be tempered by good sense, she apologized meekly and leaned against the passage wall to await permission to enter, hearing the splashing of water within as Vincent hastily finished washing up.

Suddenly, she felt a heavy weight catapult against her legs, catch hold of the thick folds of her long dress and, using that precarious purchase, race up her back, ripping the cloth as it did so.  She let out a startled scream, disoriented by the unknown assailant. Sharp nails scrabbled against her scalp, forehead and cheeks, an unbalanced, furry mass temporarily blinding her.  She reached up to dislodge the attacker and encountered more fur, thick and stiff, receiving a sharp nip on her knuckles and a scolding chitter in response.  A breath of time later, Mouse barreled up to her, shouting, “Arthur! Stop!” as elsewhere a grumbling growl pierced the air. Catherine felt the presence of several people around her: one - obviously Mouse - distressed and grabbing ineffectually at the raccoon which was trying to gain a less precarious perch on her head, the other - apparently Vincent - intimidating the small animal into a terrified paralysis with low, guttural snarls of warning.  The weight was suddenly lifted from her head, the tail sliding away from her eyes, and she could see again.  Still stunned, she reeled back against the wall, trying to recover her equilibrium and her dignity. 

Vincent thrust the petrified animal into Mouse’s arms and growled, “Go!” at him, as Mouse tried to croon comfort to Arthur and apologize to Catherine at the same time. At first he didn’t heed the larger man’s warning, wanting to make Catherine understand that Arthur meant no harm.  But when he saw the blood trickling from Catherine’s face, he backpedaled furiously, calling out as he ran, “Didn’t mean it! Arthur likes Catherine!”

It had all happened in moments, and now that it was over, Catherine felt the strong, capable arms of the man she loved envelop her and lift her, carrying her swiftly into his chamber.  She protested weakly that she could walk by herself, but she knew she was trembling like a leaf in the aftermath of the unexpected attack and likely could not stand steadily.  Besides, he felt so warm...warmer than he’d ever felt while holding her before.  Warm...and soft...and...furry?

She remembered that Arthur’s ill-timed assault had caught Vincent while cleaning up; he had obviously been in the middle of changing clothes.  As he carried her within, she saw that the soiled garments he had been wearing were in a disorderly heap on the floor by his bed, and a fresh shirt and sweater had been laid out. He had on a clean pair of corduroys, but apparently he had not had a chance to put on even an undershirt before the commotion in the passageway outside his chamber had demanded his attention and the sheer terror that had flooded their Bond had brought him running to her.

Vincent seemed heedless of his partially undressed state as he deposited Catherine carefully on his bed and with slightly trembling fingers began inspecting the scratches and cuts on her face.  His hands moved over her as gently as a lover’s, but they were a doctor’s hands as they assessed her injuries. She was torn between savoring the tenderness of his touch and taking in the amazing sight of his bare chest just inches from her face.  The thick covering of reddish golden fur which she had expected - showing as it did from under his shirt cuffs whenever she saw him - was heaviest on his broad pectorals and massively muscled arms, while his shoulders and abdomen were nearly furless, exposing the corded bunching of the former and the deeply etched rippling of the latter.  The smooth column of his throat was completely bare of fur, and his skin there, as elsewhere on his trunk, was golden brown - a subtle tone slightly different than that of his fur. Her fingers itched to burrow into that dense covering on his chest, to find the tender paps and tease them languidly, to caress the hard sinews of his powerful arms, to trace that rippling abdomen down...down....

His touch...his body.... Whatever pain there was from her wounds never had a chance to penetrate her consciousness when there were so many other sensations vying for her attention.

The harsh rasp of Vincent’s breathing pulled her from this reverie and reminded her that he had only recently summoned the Beast within in automatic defense of her. She lifted her hand to his face to calm him, murmuring his name until he shook the fog from his brain and looked into her eyes.  “I’m all right,” she whispered shakily.

“No, you’re not,” he replied, his voice rougher, darker than usual. He turned his attention back to her wounds, bending her head gently to check her scalp and the nape of her neck, then tilting her head back to examine the length of her throat, and finally sweeping her hair away from her ears to check there as well.  When he’d satisfied himself that he’d found every injury, however slight, he left her for a few minutes, returning with a basin of water, clean cloths, bandages and medication.  He disinfected each small scratch carefully and thoroughly, then worked to clean and bandage the two cuts on her cheek and the one deep laceration on her forehead. Once he had applied the last dressing - a butterfly bandage midway between her hairline and her left eyebrow - his hands began to tremble, as if whatever control he’d marshaled had finally been exhausted.

“You should see Peter right away.  Have him give you a tetanus shot.” His voice had lost its rough edges, and now was a mere murmur of sound.

“I had one earlier this year,” she replied.  “I’ll check, but I think I’m still protected.”

He nodded.  “And your...other doctor. You should see him as well.”

Her brow crinkled in confusion.  “Which other doctor?”

Vincent sighed, then knelt before her and rocked back on his haunches, his hands on his thighs.  He looked down at them as he said, “The one who...fixed your face...before.  I’m concerned about the cut over your eye.  It’s deep.  It will likely scar.”

“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say to that.  The thought of needing plastic surgery never crossed her mind. It might have mattered once, but no longer - yet clearly this was important to him. Finally, she just agreed. “All right, I will.”

The pain in his voice made it clear he held himself somehow guilty for her injuries.  She didn’t know why he always took responsibility for anything that went wrong in her life - even things which were clearly not his fault. It was almost as if he was punishing himself for having the audacity to love her - as if she paid for this transgression of his every time life took an ugly turn for her. 

“Vincent...there was nothing you could have done to prevent this.  Arthur was agitated earlier, during the concert.  Mouse could barely control him.  When he finally got away, he must have run blindly. I don’t know why he took me for a tree he could climb, but the answer is locked away in his little animal brain.  I’m not hurt, despite these scratches.  Please, don’t burden yourself with guilt over this...accident.”

“Accident?” He was angry now, but not at her.  The self-recrimination dripped from his tone. “If I hadn’t denied you entry, you would have been safely in my chamber when Arthur ran down that tunnel.”

 “That’s ridiculous!”

  Catherine’s raised voice took him by surprise; her anger was palpable.

 “You can’t second-guess your whole life away, Vincent!  That raccoon could just as easily have scampered in here while I was standing or sitting or whatever, and still have used me for a climbing post!”

Subdued by her wrath, Vincent lapsed into silent introspection.

“Don’t do that, please!” She bent to him, reaching out and lifting his chin between a thumb and forefinger, and when she spoke again, her tone was placating, soothing.  “Don’t brood over this.  It was an accident, plain and simple.  I’m fine.  I could have gotten just as hurt tripping over my own feet out in the passageway.”

 He gazed into her eyes for a long while, reading her emotions through them, sensing the truth of them through their Bond.  Then, as if he suddenly became aware that he was only half-dressed, he rose to his feet and reached past her for the clean clothes he had laid out for himself. With sinewy masculine grace he slid his arms into the sleeves of his shirt, then, without buttoning it, he began to pull the sweater on over his head.  Catherine rose and placed a staying hand on his closest arm. 

 “Don’t, please.  Not yet?”

He stared at her, uneasy now about his vulnerable state, wondering what she was asking of him.  She reached up and took the sweater from him, then tossed it back on the bed.  Once freed from the confinement of the sweater, his arms dropped to his sides, and he stood before her in embarrassed silence. 

Catherine raised her hands to the topmost button of his denim workshirt and deftly fastened it.  She made her way down the front of his shirt, buttoning each button in quick succession.  When she had finished, she noted his expelled sigh of relief with an internal smile.  The cuffs came next - but instead of buttoning them, she folded them back to his elbows. Then she stood back to survey her work.

“I’ve always wondered how you’d look wearing your shirt that way.” She smiled her approval, capturing his gaze and letting him feel the pleasure it gave her to see him dressed so casually.  Then her expression changed to one of concern. “Are you cold? I didn’t think about....”

He shook his head, silencing her.  “I’m fine,” he replied, bemused.  His eyes strayed up to the bandage on her forehead, but before his thoughts could fix on her injuries yet again, she moved closer to him and lightly encircled his waist with her arms.  She felt him stiffen in surprise, but soon he relaxed and embraced her lightly in return.  She leaned back in his arms and smiled up at him.  “This is what I’ve been waiting for all night.”

The adoration in his eyes could not be contained, and the deep blue intensity of them thrilled her.  His voice was a hushed whisper as he shyly admitted, “As have I.”

At his words, her smile lit the chamber.  He marveled that it took so little to make her happy.  He, who had nothing, could bring that smile to her lips - had done so on numerous occasions - with as little as an endearment expressed or an embrace offered or a moment of unguarded joy shared.  He recalled the night beneath the band shell, when an unexpected rainstorm had melted his reserve and, when Catherine had laughed and collapsed into his arms, he had hugged her more fiercely than he’d ever dared.  That smile had lit her face all the way back to her threshold, and - he knew - it stayed until she fell asleep that night, and it even colored her dreams.  Her happiness with him was a thing he could not deny, and more and more, he longed with everything he was to give her every happiness he could. So when she cuddled close and hugged him more firmly, he responded the same way, pulling her deeper into the shelter of his arms, holding her to him tightly, despite the thin layers of clothing between them. 

Catherine rubbed her cheek and nose against the worn denim of Vincent’s shirt, savoring the soft feel of the furry down beneath the material, and below it, so powerful, his massive chest and the strong, vibrant beat of his heart, for once not muffled by thick layers of clothing.  She sighed in contentment.  This was heaven. 

Vincent lowered his head until his cheek rested atop the crown of Catherine’s head, and he nuzzled lightly against her hair, releasing her fragrance and breathing it in greedily. For Vincent, too, this was as close to heaven as he had ever been.  One arm loosened its hold on her so that he could stroke her back.  As he did this, his fingers snagged on a tear in the fabric of her dress, several of them gliding across the bare skin beneath.  He started at the unexpected sensation of warm, silken flesh.  Then gingerly, he pulled his fingers out of the torn area. He again ran his hand down her back, but now more in exploration than caress, and discovered several more rents.  His heart quailed. Her lovely dress was in shreds.

Chagrined, he pulled away from her.  “Catherine...” he began, but she had realized what was wrong as she felt his fingers upon her skin so unexpectedly.

“Arthur,” she murmured.  “He tore my dress as he scrambled up my back.”

Vincent nodded, his eyes betraying his embarrassment.  “I apologize. Had I realized, I never would have....”

She shook her head, smiling.  “Don’t.  It’s only a dress.” Then getting to the heart of his apology, she remarked, “And your touch is always welcome.”  She was rewarded by his sudden blush, but she covered it by asking, “If I could borrow something....”

“Of course.” He turned hurriedly, leaving her embrace so suddenly she almost stumbled forward, and he moved toward his wardrobe.  Shortly he returned to her side holding a sweater and sweatpants.  “These may fit you.  If you give me the dress, I’ll have Mary or Sarah fix it immediately.”

“I don’t think the dress can be salvaged,” she replied doubtfully.

 “They are experts at salvaging the unsalvageable, Catherine,” he reminded her.

Shaking her head, she demurred. “It’s not worth their trouble, honestly.  I have others.”

Vincent knew Catherine had many more clothes than any of the women Below, but the concept of willing waste was hard for him to accept.  Catherine belatedly realized this. So when she saw his brow crease in a frown, she said, “I can leave it, and if they have time, they can see if it’s fixable.  But please don’t ask them to make it a priority.”

This answer satisfied him, she could tell.  His brow cleared as he nodded.  “I’ll leave you to change then,” he murmured.

“That’s not necessary.” Did those words really come out of her mouth?

 He looked startled, then confused.  Quickly, she added, “I can slip these on easily.  Just sit and I’ll be done in a moment.”

She saw the tense set to his shoulders as he acquiesced. It saddened her that even after all this time, all they’d shared, he was still so uncomfortable with a simple intimacy.

Resolving to make quick work of her changing, she turned her back to him and, leaning down, pulled the sweatpants on under her dress.  Then, releasing the catch at the neckline of her gown and unzipping it to just below the waist, she tugged the dress forward and drew her arms from the sleeves.  She pulled the sweater over her head and down, shoving the too-long sleeves up past her elbows; the neckline clung loosely, barely covering her shoulders.  Then she slipped the dress over her hips and stepped out of it.  It had taken almost no time and she’d exposed only her back to him.  She hoped she hadn’t embarrassed him too much.

Catherine reached down and plucked the ruined gown from the floor, turning swiftly to face Vincent again. She caught him by surprise, apparently - he was staring at her intently, a look of undisguised longing on his face.  It amazed her, and her earlier attitude softened. So...he wasn’t uncomfortable because of the intimacy of her suggestion - he’d been secretly eager for her to share even that small bit of familiarity with him.  Perhaps it had been shame that had made him tense at the idea, for he knew how much he wanted it, and perhaps felt it was wrong to do so.

 Smiling gently, she closed the few steps between them and stood beside him as he sat in the chair.  He was looking down now, not at her, staring intently at his hands, which had apparently suddenly become fascinating to him.  The tension she had seen in him before was magnified a hundredfold; he was almost literally coiled, ready to spring away, to escape. 

Sitting lightly on the arm of his chair, Catherine draped one arm over Vincent’s shoulders.  She slung the dress across her lap, then slipped her other arm around him in front until her hands overlapped across his far shoulder. “Don’t be this way, please,” she urged him in a soft, seductive whisper.  “I’m not ashamed to have you see me.  And I would only share myself like that with you.” She leaned closer.  “Look at me?”

He dragged his eyelids up and, with an obvious effort, met her eyes. She read the anxiety there, mingled with a confused desire and, deeper than anything else, a hopeless yearning which tore at her heart.

“I love you so much,” she murmured, and watched his eyes take on a wistfulness which surprised her, saddened her. She couldn’t bear to have those words she’d longed to say cause him pain.  “Oh, don’t,” she sighed, then leaned closer still and took his mouth in a sweet, delicate touch.  She felt him draw a sharp breath against her lips, as if in protest, but she stilled it by applying the slightest bit more pressure to his mouth.  God, he felt good! 

She caressed his lips with hers, murmuring breathlessly of her love as she caught his lower lip between both of hers, as she nuzzled the deep creases at the corners of his mouth, as she brushed against the soft stubble of his muzzle-like upper lip. She longed to explore his mouth thoroughly, to learn all its secrets, to fathom its hidden depths, but she kept her kisses gossamer light, feathery, hoping to entice him into at least a shy response. 

But he didn’t move a muscle, made no effort to embrace her or tilt his head to adjust himself to her mouth, much less attempt to kiss her back.  He just...sat there.

Catherine began to feel as if she was forcing her affection upon him, as if he was suffering it only because she wished it...and the thought pierced her. Her heart plummeted. She felt a block of coldness like a tight fist settling in her lower abdomen. Suddenly, she wished she was anywhere but here. With a guilty start, she broke off her kisses and pulled back, dragging a deep breath into her lungs, then chanced a look into his eyes, almost sure she would not like what she saw there.

Vincent’s eyelids were tightly closed, his face tense, a deeply drawn crease between his eyebrows. He barely seemed to be breathing.  Tears began to prick the corners of Catherine’s eyes.  What had she done?  Obviously he hadn’t wanted this; she had forced this intimacy upon him.  Shaking her head to clear it, she forced herself to consider the blunder she had made, and how it might affect their relationship.  Half-rising from the arm of the chair, she managed a raw, strangled sounding, “I’m...sorry....” as she turned.

All she could think of was getting away, putting distance between herself and Vincent, before he opened those eyes and stared at her with a sad accusation which she wholly deserved. She took two steps and was about to run when she heard him rise and a large, rough palm and long, furred fingers grasped her forearm.  She froze and held her breath. Her heart didn’t even beat.  The only movement in her entire being were the tears which coursed hotly down her cheeks.  She felt her face flush in sudden shame as the firm grip tightened and she was gently but forcibly turned back to meet his gaze.

Her head drooped, and before he could begin a patient chastisement, she hastened to apologize again.  “I had no right.... It won’t happen again, I pro-....”

His husky murmur cut her off in mid-word. “Catherine, don’t.  Don’t apologize.”

Conscience-stricken, she met his eyes and shook her head, adamant that she must make amends for trying to force herself upon him. But her throat was closing with the effort not to cry harder, and the words wouldn’t come.

He saw how upset she was, and concern for her overrode his need to explain himself.  She needed comfort now - explanations could come later.

His arms came up and pulled her close in a comforting embrace that Catherine felt she didn’t deserve, and the thought made the tears flow harder, the sobs torn from her despite a valiant effort to hold them in. 

He held her close, her head on his shoulder, and let her cry. 

She wept her heart out, all the while wanting to disappear, to sink into the ground - anything so she didn’t have to raise her head and confront his pity and his understanding.  But the laws of nature refused to bend to her will, and she continued to be held within his strong arms - a place that, until this moment, she had always considered the most wonderful place to be.

“Don’t,” he whispered, and one of his large, warm hands cradled the back of her head, his claw-tipped thumb stroking her neck soothingly. “Don’t cry, please.  It’s I who should.... Oh, Catherine,” he sighed softly, despair in the rough timbre of his voice. 

Catherine could feel his warm breath on her neck, and a second later, a warmer feeling - that of his incredibly soft lips pressed lightly against her flesh. She nearly gasped at the unexpected touch, but a moment later she melted back against his shoulder as those tender lips explored her nape and traced lightly down her collarbone.  Her tears were forgotten, her shame, her guilt - she could feel nothing except the warmth of his mouth upon her. 

A nearly imperceptible moan escaped her throat as the bliss of his comforting kisses permeated her being. But he heard it and froze mid-kiss. Disheartened by the loss of that welcome tenderness, her heart clutched again in despair. Their Bond throbbed with a mixture of need and frustration - her reaction to the cessation of his kisses.

Vincent was stunned by his boldness...and by how easily Catherine had accepted his offered affection.  When he’d heard her breathless moan, he’d thought at first that she was uneasy about his caresses. But it was clear from the feelings now surging through their Bond that his initial impression was wrong - much as she had misinterpreted his astonished stillness before. She’d thought it was a rejection of the tenderness she was showering upon him as her mouth played against his.  In fact, the utter bliss of that touch had rendered him unable to move, and Catherine had inferred from his stillness that he was disconcerted at the least - and more likely upset - that she had initiated that astonishing intimacy. In truth, he hadn’t known what to do, how to react - so he’d stayed still so as not to interrupt her in any way. He’d made a horrible mess of their very first romantic encounter.  It was all his fault, but somehow, she was blaming herself. 

His lips descended once more to impart an apologetic kiss upon the silken skin of her nape, and he felt as well as heard her relieved sigh in reaction to it. Murmuring against the soft flesh there, he began to explain.  “Your kisses were...wonderful, Catherine.  So gentle, so.... I was overcome.”

Understanding flashed through her as she realized what had happened, that his lack of response was not due to discomfort with her kisses, but to his inability to recover his equilibrium fast enough to return her affection in kind. Pulling back to look at him, her eyes softened in empathy.  “Yours as well, Vincent,” she whispered.  Then she waited a breathless moment as his eyes focused on her lips, and as his mouth slowly moved to capture hers in the barest touch of flesh on flesh. 

He had no practice at this, no art, yet his was the most stunningly erotic kiss Catherine had ever experienced.  Her heartbeat trip-hammered in her chest and she felt a sudden dropping in the pit of her stomach as her entire body reacted to the startling beauty of his kiss. Her arms reached out to pull him close, and she tilted her head, eager for his next kiss, hungry for it in a way she’d never felt before.  She wanted so much, to share everything with this man, but first - she wanted another kiss.

Vincent’s every physical reaction matched Catherine’s - whether in sympathy with the emotions which cascaded from her through their Bond or because they were perfectly attuned to each other in every way, he didn’t know, didn’t care.  But suddenly his own need, his own desire, burned through his veins as never before. The mere fact of her in his arms was suddenly the most arousing phenomenon of his life. The way she seemed to melt into his embrace, how every curve and plane of her fitted so perfectly to his, her mouth an enticement beyond his ability to resist.  He craved the taste of her, and self-denial was no longer an option.

Her restless anticipation was rewarded by his eager second kiss, a heady fusion of innocence and desire, a moist nuzzling exploration of lips and tongue that liquefied her insides and curled her toes in delight. When it ended, she fought her desire to pursue another, giving Vincent a chance to catch his breath and understand how deeply he had moved her, how much his kisses had captivated her.  His eyes glittered, darkening, full of amazement and adoration. Then his eyelids drifted shut as he kissed her again.

Lost in the new-found bliss of their so-recent intimacy, they didn’t hear the hurried, shuffling steps outside the chamber entrance, nor the murmur of voices - one apologetic, one stern - which wafted across the threshold a mere breath before the voices’ owners entered.

The voices halted abruptly as Father and Mouse regarded the tableau before them. Vincent and Catherine were doing something neither had ever expected to see. Sheer embarrassment had stopped their tongues. And in that split second, realization that they were no longer alone swept over the two lovers.  They turned as one, both breathing heavily, stunned looks on both their faces.

Father was the first to recover. “I...we...Mouse....” He stopped to get a better grip on himself - his stammering was incomprehensible.  He took a deep breath and determined to act as if nothing unusual were if he and Mouse had not stumbled onto such an intimate scene, as if their failure to call out a request to enter had not precipitated this embarrassing moment, as if Catherine and Vincent were not staring goggle-eyed at them.

“There was quite a to-do once Mouse found me. He demanded I stop setting Geoffrey’s broken arm and come immediately. I apologize, but from his description of your injuries, I felt my first priority was Geoffrey, Catherine.” His eyes scanned her injuries quickly, professionally. “But I see now that perhaps I’m not needed after all. Unless....” He raised an eyebrow in polite, if sardonic, inquiry.

Catherine was beyond speech. She and Vincent hadn’t moved since they’d become aware of the intruders’ presence - they still clung to each other, still breathed erratically. But she managed to shake her head, indicating Father’s attention was not required.

Father gave a brisk nod in return. “Fine. We’ll just be on our way then.” Gripping Mouse quite firmly at the elbow as if expecting a protest, he steered the staring young man out of the chamber. Mouse craned his neck and continued to stare until Father’s momentum hauled him around the corner of the doorway and out of sight.    

As their footsteps faded away, Vincent and Catherine could just make out Father’s chuckle.

Slowly they let go of each other, unsure of what to do now that their passion had been interrupted in such spectacular fashion. “This will be Tunnel news in moments, I fear,” Vincent said with an oddly strained huskiness. “I apologize for putting you in such a....” He didn’t finish his remark, however, as Catherine had started to laugh softly, then to giggle, and now she was laughing so hard that tears were falling from her eyes. She grew weak with laughter while Vincent continued to stare at her, a puzzled expression on his face. He’d thought she might be embarrassed, or angry, or even rueful...but he didn’t know what was so funny. Their Bond provided him no clue. “Catherine?”

Catherine fell against him, too convulsed from laughing to stand without assistance. Shaking her head against his chest, her voice was muffled by his shirt as she replied, “In a million years, when I imagined our first kiss, I’d never have thought we’d have an audience...and that it would be Father and Mouse!” Her laughter finally began to subside a bit. “And for him to just...ignore it! To pretend we were just sitting around drinking tea! That’s the last reaction I would have expected from him. I was, after all, manhandling his son! I would have thought his reaction would be more like ‘Raise your hands in the air and move away slowly and I won’t shoot’ than ‘We’ll just be on our way then’!” She wiped her streaming eyes and gazed up at him adoringly. “That was wonderful!” she added, confusing him utterly.

What was wonderful?” His perplexity showed in every line of his frown.

Catherine pondered the question for a moment, then replied, “Everything. How Father found out - there’s one problem solved! How he handled it - no yelling, no outrage, just acceptance. But most of all....” She cuddled against him, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck, drawing his face down to hers. “Most of all...those incredible kisses of yours. ‘Wonderful’ is too weak a word for them.” She raised her face expectantly.

Vincent gazed down into her eyes, the laughter there fading as passion replaced the humor. Their Bond thrummed with her change in mood. All mirth had faded. What smoldered in its stead was a heat that seared his soul. His mind skittered dizzyingly - the delight of her mouth on his, the sudden interruption, Father’s strangely accepting response, all twisting back to the sweet expectation of her mouth once more beneath his.... He sighed gustily, completely undone. There was only one thing possible to do.

His eyelids drifted shut and he kissed her again.