JoAnn Baca

Two nights had passed since the stalker had kidnapped her. Two nights had passed since she had been consumed by overwhelming dread and horror as those events scarred her soul. The water had been so cold....

She had been brought back to life by the love of one special man, who fought even heaven itself to keep her close. On that night, Vincent had stayed with her until nearly dawn, holding her, calming her. But once he had left, the cold feeling had returned...and stayed. And two nights had done nothing to erase the disorientation, the anxiety that recalling that ordeal evoked in her.

The only thing she had accomplished in that time was to shield Vincent from the violent emotional aftermath of her ordeal. She had, through a tremendous force of will, muted the surge of her emotions through their Bond. It would torment Vincent beyond bearing if he experienced in full measure the terrible, powerful emptiness she now felt as the chill winds of mortality howled and screamed inside her soul. Two nights ago, they had been held at bay by the warmth she had found in his arms as he clutched her so tightly on the balcony....

The strain of her double dilemma -- dealing with the events of that night and keeping her churning agitation stifled within their shared Bond -- was ravaging her. Yet sleep eluded her. She lapsed into a fitful doze, only to start awake, frightened, shivering, bereft. Catherine glanced at the clock -- almost 2 a.m. She knew that nothing Above could ease that wintry feeling deep inside as she reflected on what had happened...and what had almost happened. She desperately needed to feel warm again. Blankets wouldnít do it. Turning the heat up in her apartment wouldnít work either. She needed one specific kind of warmth...his warmth. If she could just be held again, close and safe within his arms, she felt sure she could rest. If she could just...just lie with him tonight.

Resolve flooded her heart. Why toss in a sleepless bed all night, when Below lay what she craved -- the one person she needed. Thinking of him, her heart lightened a measure, and she threw the covers off and ran to the closet. Shrugging into her heavy winter coat, she thrust her feet into her sneakers, grabbed her keys from the mantel and flew out the door, heading for the basement threshold to his world.

The tunnels were still and hushed as she made her way to Vincentís chamber deep below the city streets. Occasionally, a sentry tapped a terse message on the pipes, or a subway train rumbled by overhead. Otherwise, all was quiet. Only a few torches burned along the way, making her going slow and her steps hesitant. Eventually, however, she reached the entrance to his chamber.

In the shimmering light cast by a solitary candle, she paused to absorb the sight before her. Vincent, always so guarded in her presence, lay abandoned to sleep, his hair cascading over his pillow. In sleep, his face took on an aching vulnerability that made her want to offer comfort more than receive it. She longed to stroke that hair, to caress that velvet-stubbled cheek. Sighing, she crossed the room and sat down on the edge of his bed. Afraid to startle him, she leaned down and crooned a low "Vincent?"

In an instant, his eyes opened and, startled to find her so near, he rose up on his elbows and stared at her. "Catherine! How long...."

She rushed to assure him. "I only just got here. I couldnít sleep." She shivered despite the heavy woolen coat she wore. "I feel...so cold...." Unable for the moment to continue, to give him the explanation he clearly sought, she shrugged and looked at him helplessly, imploringly.

In that moment, Vincent knew something of the turmoil in Catherineís heart. Despite her continued attempt to shield him, a tiny shred of control slipped and abruptly he felt the coiled serpent of fear still clutched within her, robbing her of peace. He felt her trembling through their Bond as if he held a tiny bird in the palm of his hand. But her sudden presence in his chamber -- on his bed -- unnerved him.

Always, he had to prepare himself before being with Catherine. He had to hold his own emotions severely in check, had to control the circumstances of their time together as much as possible, in order to remain composed, collected. The unpredictability of those infrequent occasions when he was with her without establishing such control -- such as last occurred two nights ago -- was to be avoided if at all possible. Only a life-and-death circumstance could be allowed to interfere with that preparation which was the armor he used to bolster his control. Now, here she was -- spontaneously, unexpected, and so very, very needy -- and he urgently searched for some measure of command over the situation.

Hoping to provide some physical distance between them to buy the time he needed to regain his composure, he grasped at formalities. "Just...let me get my robe, then we can talk." He reached for the fleecy robe which lay at the foot of his bed. "Would you like some tea? I can...."

Catherine placed a restraining hand on his arm. She didnít notice the muscles jerk in response beneath her fingertips, a conscious recoil from the intimacy of the gesture. With all that he was, he craved that touch; with all that he was, he knew he should not accept it.

Her voice was a raw whisper as she begged, her eyes searching his for understanding. "No.... Please, Vincent. I need...I need to lie next to you...to feel your warmth. Iím...so cold. Please?"

Consternation played across his features. He was torn between his growing apprehension and his desire to comfort his beloved. He wasnít sure what she was truly asking for...what she expected from him. And how could he control the situation under those conditions? How could he continue to act merely as the loving friend, when her sweet body was pressed so close to his? Regretfully, he came to his decision. He had to deny her...he had to.

"You may sleep in my bed, of course, Catherine." But as her anxious face began to relax into an expression of relieved gratitude, he continued. "Iíll...Iíll sit in my chair and watch over you as you sleep. Or...perhaps youíd be more comfortable in a guest chamber?"

She stared at him for a moment, stricken, her pain starkly etched upon her face. Then she shook her head "no." The sudden slump of her shoulders reflected her resignation as she murmured, "No...thatís not.... I really need...." She shook her head again, desolate and defeated, as tears began to form in her eyes. "Iím sorry, Vincent...I shouldnít have...." Uttering a last "Iím sorry," she rose, turned and fled the chamber.

Guilt and remorse slashed his heart as he watched the woman he loved retreat from his presence in despair. He knew he had hurt Catherine deeply by his rejection. And for what? Because he valued his own precious control more than her peace of mind? His thoughts immobilized him, paralyzed him where he half-sat, half-lay. In an agony of self-recrimination, he realized that he was useless to her. She deserved a man who could give her everything, who could fulfill all her needs. He wanted - so much! - to be that man. But he...he couldnít even offer her what little she begged for without establishing so many conditions that she fled from him in dismay. His reserve, which he had always thought was for her sake, seemed a shackle now. She needed him engaged in her life, fully engaged. She needed him -- all of him. How could he deny her that? If he loved her -- and he did, fiercely -- he couldnít, not any longer.

Catherine ran down the ill-lit tunnels, stumbling and careening her way through the maze of turns and steps, unaware of her exact direction any longer, just needing to...go. The tears she shed blurred her vision all the more. When she staggered into the arms of the person who suddenly appeared before her, she hung on to keep from falling.

"Catherine?" Maryís voice pierced her frantic thoughts, and she looked up into the older womanís concerned eyes. "What is it, my dear? Whatís wrong?!"

Catherine clung to her, gasping for air. "Iíll...Iíll be all right in a moment, Mary. Please, donít worry about me."

"Nonsense, Catherine! Itís the middle of the night, and youíre obviously upset. My chamber is nearby. Here, now, come with me." The matriarch of the tunnels wrapped one arm firmly around the distraught womanís shoulders and guided her down the corridor and into her chamber. As they walked, Mary silently blessed the fussy little one who had called her attention to the childrenís dormitory so late tonight - if she hadnít had to calm that child of her heart, she wouldnít have been available to care for this older but just as precious child who had appeared so unexpectedly and in desperate need of comfort.

Mary urged Catherine through her chamber entrance and over to a creaky walnut rocking chair padded with faded quilts. Sitting her down, Mary knelt before her, reaching up to brush the tears from her flushed cheeks. "Tell me whatís happened, child," she urged.

Catherine could think of nothing to say. How could she make this dear woman understand? She stared at Mary dumbly, her lower lip quivering uncontrollably.

Mary sensed the hesitation in Catherine, so prompted her with what seemed to be the obvious. "Does this have something to do with Vincent?"

Catherine nodded, but still could not speak.

"Have you two had an argument?" Mary found that difficult to imagine, but until tonight she would have found it impossible to believe that at some late hour sheíd find Catherine running hellbent through the tunnels, sobbing her heart out.

Catherine struggled to respond, her voice quavering with emotion. "Not exactly. Oh, Mary...I just canít explain. But itís...itís all my fault. I shouldnít have come Below...but I needed...." She could not go on, could not find the words to express exactly what she needed, exactly what Vincentís rejection of her need had done to her. She bowed her head almost to her knees, as shuddering sobs wracked her slight frame.

Suddenly, a massive shape loomed in the entranceway. As Mary turned, she saw Vincent standing there, arms braced on either side of the doorway, barefoot, panting. Unaccustomed to seeing him in such disarray -- his hair tousled, his sleepshirt untied to the waist, with no robe to guard against the chill of the tunnels -- she could only stare dumbfounded.

Vincent stalked into the chamber, his eyes focused solely upon Catherineís bent form. He reached the chair and leaned down, scooping Catherine into his arms as easily as if she were a child. He spared only a brief comment to the startled older woman. "Excuse me, Mary. I will tend to Catherine." Without another word, he strode from her chamber, his delicate burden cradled gently in his arms. A wry smile creased Maryís face as she watched them leave, and she nodded to herself as she rose stiffly from her knees. "Iím sure sheís in good hands," she murmured to herself.

Vincent didnít speak as he carried Catherine back towards his own chamber, but he nuzzled her hair softly and pressed tender kisses upon the crown of her head. Catherine was too stunned by the turn of events to say anything; she didnít remember when sheíd stopped crying, but knew it must have been almost immediately upon leaving Maryís chamber. Relief flooded her being, and she was content to lay quietly in his arms as they made their journey, concentrating on the enveloping warmth that began to thaw the icy, brittle space in her heart.

Once back in his chamber, he did not break stride until he had deposited Catherine gently upon his bed. As if she were unable to do it for herself, he drew her coat from her shoulders, removed her arms from the sleeves, and slipped the coat off her, tossing it upon the chair beside the bed. He removed her shoes deftly, placing them beside his boots. The covers were already pulled back, so Catherine burrowed into them to savor the lingering warmth that the sheets still held. Vincent sank onto the bed and swung his legs up, reaching for the quilt to drape over the two of them. At her astonished look, he bowed his head and murmured, "Forgive me, Catherine. I was foolish...and wrong." Then he snuggled down under the covers and reached for her, drawing her tenderly into his strong arms, arms which trembled only slightly from the effect her nearness had on him.

Gratefully, Catherine sank into his embrace and nestled against him, her face pressed to his bare, softly furred chest. She felt his hand stroke her hair, then his index finger drifted down to caress her face. "Sleep, my love. Youíre safe. Youíre safe now."

At his words, an echo of another time of crisis so long ago, she shed the last of the chill from her heart. She was -- at last! -- exactly where she needed to be.

* * *

When Mary looked in on them in the morning, she found them asleep, tangled in each otherís arms. An indulgent smile crossed her lips, and she located and placed an unlit lantern near the entrance to Vincentís chamber. She wanted no one to disturb them now. They had come through whatever storm was raging in the night, and they deserved this time alone together. Besides, they both looked so comfortable, so cozy, so...warm.