BEDSIDE MANNER

by JoAnn Baca

This story first appeared in Cyberdreams, volume 1.


Catherine tossed in a torment of fever. She was so hot . . . so achy . . . so thirsty. Her skin was flushed and tender, especially where her nightgown clung to her in sweaty patches. She had been drifting in and out of a restless sleep for hours. She tried to think, but focusing was hard. She'd felt tired and out of sorts for a couple of days. She remembered waking up shaking with the chills and calling in to the office -- was that Friday morning? -- but not much after that. She glanced briefly at the illuminated dial of her alarm clock: 4:30. So, I guess it's Friday afternoon . . . but it could be Saturday morning, she thought, concerned that she wasn't sure.

She licked her dry lips with her parched tongue, finding no moisture to relieve her. The bedclothes lay in a clammy, disheveled heap around her waist and legs, evidence of her uneasy rest, but she was too exhausted to pull them back into order. Her eyes were scratchy behind throbbing lids. Slowly she drifted back into a fitful doze.

 

***

 

Vincent had been aware since Friday that Catherine was not feeling well, but he could not discern the nature of her illness. He knew that she would not want to be disturbed if she were sick, and he used this argument to keep himself from visiting her. However, near dawn on Saturday morning his concern finally overwhelmed his caution, and he knew he had to check on her before the coming of day prevented it for another 14 hours.

He arrived on Catherine's balcony just as fingers of purple were beginning to lighten the sky. He knew he was cutting things too close, but he had to satisfy himself about her condition. He peered through the French doors leading to her bedroom and saw her lying in a tumble on her bed, moaning softly, surrounded by twisted sheets.

His first tentative knocking received no response, so he renewed his efforts to gain her attention, rapping louder and longer. Concerned that she still seemed unaware of his presence, he gave up politeness and turned the doorknob, letting himself into the room. Uncomfortable with such boldness, he called to Catherine from where he stood within the door frame. Her continued unresponsiveness alarmed him so much that he finally forgot his discomfort at being inside her apartment and moved swiftly to her side.

"Catherine! Catherine, are you all right?" She didn't seem to be awake exactly, but neither was she asleep. Through their Bond, he felt her confusion and disorientation. "Catherine, please, speak to me? It's Vincent."

Catherine turned her head in the direction of his voice, and croaked out, "Vincent? That you? Feel so . . . bad. Thirsty. Water?" She opened her eyes a crack, but could barely make out the outline of his figure, a darker black against the dawn's shadows.

Vincent brushed Catherine's damp hair from her face. "I'll get you some water. Rest now." He made his way through the darkened apartment to the kitchen, found a glass, filled it with water, then entered the bathroom and dampened a face cloth before returning to her bedside. "Catherine, I have water for you. Would you like me to help you sit up and drink?"

She shook her head and attempted to raise herself on her elbows, but slipped down immediately, the effort too much for her. Concerned, he placed an arm under her shoulders and cradled her gently against himself as he raised the glass to her lips, letting her take small sips until she pushed the glass away. As he laid her back against the pillow, he asked, "How long have you been ill like this?"

Catherine tried to open her eyes again and attempted to respond, but her words came out slurred and indistinct. "Dunno . . . I've . . . been sleepin' . . . a while. . . . "

Vincent began to bathe her face with the damp cloth. The coolness felt wonderful against her brow, and she smiled a small smile as she murmured, "Nice . . . thanks . . . 'm OK . . . really."

He shook his head worriedly. "If there's one thing you are not, it's 'OK.' You have a high fever. Do you have a thermometer?"

She nodded weakly and waved a limp hand in the general direction of the bathroom. He followed her sketchy guidance and searched the medicine cabinet until he found the thermometer, then sat on the bed and urged her lips open with its tip until he got it positioned properly. While her temperature registered, he returned to pressing the damp cloth against Catherine's face and neck. When he took the thermometer from her mouth and read the results, he wasn't surprised to find that she had a raging 102-degree temperature.

"Catherine, you are quite ill. You shouldn't be alone. Please call someone to come care for you for a while."

In a nearly inaudible mumble, she replied, "Can't. No one. . . . "

Vincent suggested some names. "Edie?"

"Albany . . . family wedding."

"Jenny?"

"Uh-uh . . . Bermuda."

He grew desperate. "Joe?"

"Useless . . . at this. I'll . . . be OK . . . don't worry . . . just need . . . sleep. . . . "

Vincent sighed in frustration. He couldn't leave her alone. He would just have to stay... Above...

in her apartment...

during the daytime...

until she was well enough to care for herself.

He hoped they would both survive.

 

***

 

After some initial fumbling, he managed to call Dr. Peter Alcott's office; since the doctor was with a patient, Vincent left a message for him, asking him to get word to Father that he was caring for Catherine and would not be home until she was feeling better. He then decided to set himself specific tasks, hoping to fill the time productively and provide a distraction against the panic rising in him at the thought of being in such a vulnerable position.

He was vulnerable on so many levels, his mind whirled.

The first thing he decided needed doing was the bed. The sheets were a hopeless tangle, and they were exceedingly damp from perspiration. He didn't think it would be healthy for Catherine to try to rest in them any longer.

Carefully lifting Catherine from the bed, he carried her to a couch in the living room, then placed a comforter over her to keep her warm. She stirred softly against him while he did this, but made no protest, nor even opened her eyes.

After assuring himself that she was secure on the couch for a while, he went back to the bedroom and pulled all the bedclothes from the mattress. He located clean sheets and a fresh comforter in the linen closet and expertly remade the bed. Living Below, everyone had to pitch in with the housework, and long experience made him quite a capable, if reluctant, housekeeper.

His reluctance stemmed not from the nature of the work, but from the fact that it was Catherine's bed he was changing. As he worked, he fought against the fantasies that threatened to overwhelm him at the thought of Catherine in her bed, at the thought of what he had dreamed of doing to and with her there. He pressed his lips together grimly and finished the job, then went back to the living room to retrieve his patient.

As he cradled her sleeping form against him, he realized that her nightgown was even more damp than the sheets had been. He couldn't place her beneath clean, cool sheets in a bedraggled, clammy nightgown. But he knew that, at this moment, Catherine was not capable of undressing and re dressing herself. Also, her hair was plastered to her head from her night sweats. It should be dried before she was put back to bed.

Groaning inwardly, Vincent roused Catherine as he laid her back on the couch, and whispered that he was going to run a bath for her. She smiled sleepily and patted his cheek affectionately, nodding as she said, "Perfect."

Yes, perfect, Vincent repeated silently. If I'd wanted to invent a more perfect torture for myself, I could not have done it. Still, it's for Catherine, so it must be...endured.

He confronted his options in the bathroom. The shower was definitely out. There was no way Catherine would be able to stand safely and wash herself, and the thought of entering the shower with her to hold her up, and becoming soaked himself in the process, was impossible. And the only way to prevent his own clothes from becoming wet was . . . no, absolutely not!

Resolutely, he turned to the controls for the bathtub and gingerly tried all the nozzles and spigots, eventually working out a comfortable level of warmth. He added some bubble bath for good measure as the tub filled. At least she'll be covered by something while I bathe her, he reflected. How are we going to get through this, Catherine? What will you think when you recover? Will you be as embarrassed as I am just contemplating it?

The tub filled rapidly, and he could avoid the situation no longer. He decided at the last minute that, since her nightgown was wet already, it couldn't hurt to leave it on her while she was in the bath. At least that spared him the ordeal of a naked Catherine in the bath, and having a wet, slippery and naked Catherine to contend with afterwards.

He retrieved Catherine from the couch, not relinquishing her until he could place her feet inside the tub. He slowly eased the rest of her into the bath water and folded a towel to place under her neck so she could rest against it instead of the cold hard tile.

Catherine sighed deeply as the warm water caressed her hot skin. Content that she would be comfortable for a while, Vincent retreated to the relative safety of the bedroom while he considered his next move. He decided that he needn't scrub her, that the soak in the tub would eliminate the perspiration and leave her feeling refreshed. He did, however, need to wash her hair. That didn't seem too bad.

After some time to allow Catherine a relaxing soak, he entered the bathroom again.

"Catherine, I am going to wash your hair. Is that all right?"

Her response was a small nod. Her eyes were still closed, but she had a ghost of a smile on her face now.

He stood indecisively a moment longer, then retreated again to the bedroom, removed his vest and tunic, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and returned to face his ordeal.

Gingerly he lifted Catherine from her reclining position to a seated one, averting his eyes from the sight of her languid form - soaking wet, with silk gown clinging like a second skin - only inches from him.

Catherine roused herself as much as she was able, and tried to help him by placing her hands on the edge of the tub to hold herself up while he repeatedly cupped water in his hands and poured it over her head. He then squeezed some shampoo into her hair and used one hand to massage it in while his other held her firmly upright, not trusting the strength in her arms in her weakened state.

As the lather foamed, he slowly ran his fingers through her hair from the crown of her head to the nape of her neck, then upwards again. He was actually enjoying this contact. It was devoid of overt sexuality, but there was an element of subtle sensuality in the movement of his hand through her slick, sudsy hair which thrilled him.

Get hold of yourself, he scolded. God knows, you're not here to enjoy yourself. Still, it was hard to deny that this, at least, was more enjoyment than torture.

Catherine, meanwhile, having been stirred from sleep once by Vincent's arrival, and again when he moved her from the bed to the couch, and still again when he shifted her to the tub, was thoroughly content to lie in the enveloping warmth of the bath water, resting, floating. As the bubbles died down and the water cooled a bit, she sighed in disappointment. But when Vincent began to wash her hair, sick as she was, she could have wept for the sheer delight of it.

She rarely went to the hairdresser's anymore -- her hectic life didn't allow for such indulgences. When she did go, it was only for a quick trim, not the more leisurely wash, cut and blow-dry. She had always enjoyed having someone wash her hair, but it had been at least two years since she'd last had that pleasure. And now, to have Vincent be the one to do it, and to be doing it so tenderly and gently -- it was almost too much to bear. Had she been well . . . well, it did no good to ponder "what if" -- if she'd been well, he would not be here washing her hair! She sighed deeply and pressed her head back, rubbing it against Vincent's hand, giving him a start. He'd become so engrossed in his actions, he hadn't realized how this must be affecting her. He guiltily ceased his massage and lowered Catherine slowly to rinse her hair in the bath water.

As he shifted his hold on her shoulders from front to back, he was faced once again with the revealing bodice of Catherine's nightgown clinging to her breasts and ribs. With her throat completely exposed and the line of her body arching back, she presented an achingly appealing vista to him. Grimly grateful that he'd had the foresight to leave her in her nightgown, he swallowed hard and pulled his eyes away.

Carefully he raised cupped handfuls of water and brought them to her forehead, rinsing the remaining soap away. He splashed water over her upper torso to sluice away the last of the bubbles, then raised her to her knees, repeating the procedure, made more uncomfortable because of the alluring cling of wet silk against bare skin.

Gritting his teeth, he bent to the task with determination, anxious to complete this procedure before the agony of holding her so intimately and gazing upon her so closely could cause him any more pain. When he raised her to her feet, he urged Catherine's hands to rest upon his shoulders while he rinsed her lower legs. Then he assisted her out of the tub and onto the thick cotton throw rug, which soon became waterlogged. He would have to deal with that later.

If Catherine had been unsteady before her bath, she was almost limp after it. She literally could not stand on her own, so slack did her muscles feel after the relaxing bath and Vincent's tender ministrations. She felt like a little child, and wanted nothing more than to be wrapped in a fleecy robe and tucked between cool sheets.

Vincent realized that Catherine was almost at her strength's end and could not be left alone to remove her gown and dry herself off. At this point, he nearly regretted having initiated this particular endeavor. He knew it was the right thing to do, but he was hideously embarrassed already, and his imagination could not extend to the next few minutes. Whatever was he to do?

He placed a towel on the lid of the toilet. "Catherine, we need to get your nightgown off. Do you think you can stand steady while I remove it? I'll have my eyes closed, and I won't be able to see if you start to fall, so please stand near the wall and lean against it if you need to."

She nodded bonelessly and leaned both arms against the wall. She tried to pull herself together, but the effort of holding herself upright caused her entire body to tremble.

After setting several large towels within easy reach, he raised Catherine's gown slowly by the hem. When he reached her thighs, he closed his eyes, held his breath, and lifted.

Catherine released the wall momentarily so that Vincent could pull the soaked gown over her head. He dropped it to the floor and, eyes still tightly shut, groped for the largest towel. As he shook it out, he draped the bath sheet over Catherine's shoulders. She clasped it about her, and he peeked quickly through his lashes to ensure she was modestly covered before opening his eyes all the way. Assured that she was, he led her to sit on the towel he had placed on the toilet lid, and she collapsed onto it gratefully.

Vincent then reached for another towel for Catherine's hair. He was completely stumped by what to do with it, though, so Catherine wrapped it for him, then her arms dropped wearily to her sides.

Taking yet another towel up, he began to dry her feet and legs. At this rate, he thought, I'll use every towel in the apartment! I'd better add laundry to my list of projects for the day. He pressed the towel tenderly against her now-rosy skin, blotting rather than rubbing the moisture away.

Being so close to her, breathing in her fresh warm scent, caused Vincent momentary panic. He wanted to touch her so much, but not in this careful, impersonal way. He fought down a sudden wild impulse to lick the beads of water from her soft, inviting skin, to slake the terrible thirst for her he had harbored for so long. Doggedly, he moved to her arms and back, repeating his gentle daubing actions, while he struggled to push his desires back into the tight box of his control. Finally, he finished drying her off. He exhaled a heavy sigh of relief, however he was unable to restrain a companion pang of regret that he was done.

Unwrapping the towel turbaned around Catherine's head, he used it to squeeze the excess water from her hair. Earlier he had noticed a comb by the sink, and he retrieved it now and carefully pulled it through her damp, slick hair, giving the few knots he encountered delicate tugs until they came free. In a short time he had it smooth and neat, but he was concerned about putting her back to bed with her head still wet.

Catherine herself suggested the hair dryer. He had never used such a machine, but she instructed him on how to plug it in and operate it. He gently ran his fingers through her hair, lifting it for the warm air from the strangely purring appliance, and shortly her hair was a slightly unruly but definitely dry mass of golden brown framing her face. Vincent caught his breath at the natural beauty before him. Even ill, with no makeup, and her hair very unprofessionally dried, she was incomparable.

Struggling mightily, he finally pulled himself from his contemplation. Leaving her for a moment, he went to the dresser in the bedroom and opened drawers until he found a neat pile of nightgowns, grabbing up the first one he encountered.

The things he saw before he found her gowns caused him to blush furiously, even though Catherine was not in the room. He didn't know if he'd ever live down the mortification of his actions this morning. It was all he could do to return to the bathroom, gown in hand, and hand it to her.

She smiled and looked up at him when she saw which gown he had chosen. He hadn't realized that he'd selected a low cut blue silk gown with daring straps across the back -- revealing, elegant and lovely, it was hardly appropriate for the sickbed. He blushed and made to take it back.

"I'm sorry, Catherine. If you would tell me where your . . . warmer gowns are, I'll get one for you."

Still smiling gently, she shook her head and tugged until he released the gown, then shakily rose to put it on.

"Vincent, help me?" She extended a hand to him. As he took it, she leaned heavily against him, and he turned his head and closed his eyes.

He heard the soft thud as the towel which had been wrapped around her hit the floor between them. For a short while, he felt only the changing pressure of her hand as she dressed, Startled by a muffled curse, he realized she was struggling to put the gown on one-handed and obviously having little luck.

He heard a plaintive "Vincent, please?" and turned toward her. She was gloriously naked, a vision devastating to his fragile nerves. He closed his eyes for a moment in an agony of rushing desire. When he opened them again, he looked into Catherine's face and found the mute appeal in her eyes for help, although he thought he could detect through their Bond a strange melancholy and a barely suppressed urge for . . . something more.

Fixing his gaze stubbornly on Catherine's left ear, he gathered the gown in his hands and held it over her head. As she raised her arms, she wobbled against him on unsteady legs, and he struggled to right her and slip the gown down to cover her at the same time.

This might be comical with another man, Catherine thought ruefully, but I know Vincent, and this is killing him. Please know, Beloved, if I could help this, I would. And if I weren't so sick. . . .

Finally, she was covered and, his relief visible, Vincent gathered her up in his arms once again. A few short strides took them into the bedroom.

When she saw the freshly made bed, Catherine was touched at the thoughtful gesture -- she hadn't realized that he'd been so busy tending to her other needs.

Bending low, he placed her gently between the crisp cotton sheets, tucking her legs in and pulling the top sheet up to her chin. But when he moved to raise the comforter to follow, she stayed him with one hand.

"Too warm."

He ducked his head in acknowledgment and instead folded the comforter back at her waist.

Catherine felt exceptionally coddled, wrapped in a cocoon of relaxation. She was refreshed, soothed and so comfortable in her dry gown. She thought she'd never felt so happy to be lying in her bed. Almost immediately, both relieved and exhausted by the effort expended for her bath, she dropped into a doze.

Vincent knelt watching her for a few moments, then tentatively reached out a hand to brush her hair behind her ear. When she didn't stir, he allowed himself a few moments more, stroking her hair tenderly. Then he placed a soft kiss on her cheek, sighed, and hefted himself up. The bathroom needed swabbing, the sheets and towels needed washing, and then he should think about getting something warm and nourishing into them both.

 

***

 

Bathroom and laundry duty took most of two hours, but by mid-morning Vincent had things well in hand. He next turned to the thought of food. The kitchen yielded few choices. Catherine was not a woman who relaxed by cooking gourmet meals -- or cooking much of anything, apparently. The refrigerator contained only eggs, milk, juice and a few vegetables and cartons of yogurt. Looking into the freezer, Vincent noted a couple of frozen dinners and a container of what looked like frozen spaghetti sauce. He searched the cupboards for a box of pasta and found some penne, along with a few cans of soup and some crackers. He decided to heat up one can of soup for his own lunch, and set another aside for Catherine's. Contemplating what he could do with what he had found, he determined that he had enough food for several more meals, if necessary. He would not need to return Below for supplies.

 

***

 

After eating lunch, Vincent made himself a cup of chamomile tea and sat in the living room to wait out Catherine's nap, first pulling a few interesting-looking books from her bookshelf to read. He realized that he had left his vest and tunic in the bedroom, but did not want to disturb her by entering again to retrieve them. The apartment was warm enough; he didn't really need the extra layers.

Before turning to the books, he allowed his thoughts to center on Catherine. He had kept himself busy in the hours since he had arrived, but now that he had the time, he wanted to consider and reflect upon the new sensations he had experienced in his time Above.

Catherine was, he knew, happy to have him here. She needed him to help her now, of course, but beyond that, he sensed a deep feeling of contentment from her, merely because of his presence. It was a feeling that, despite all his frustrations, echoed within his own soul.

He also had to admit that, despite the embarrassment of the bathing incident, he was quite comfortable now in her apartment. The building was quiet, and he no longer felt so apprehensive about being Above in the daylight. No one could get into the apartment, after all, without giving him ample warning. Being outside would have been something else, but here within Catherine's cozy apartment, he felt safe enough, and he treasured the hushed, peaceful atmosphere, so different from his own world during the day.

He didn't mind the chores. He was anxious to be of service in any way to his beloved. She gave so much to all of them Below, and there was so little he could do for her in return -- this was one thing he could do, and he did it gladly.

Being with Catherine -- alone -- was another thing, though. He was acutely aware of his body's response to her, and he feared to think that she might notice and be repelled by the inappropriateness of his feelings. She needed simple human kindness right now; she did not need to be bothered by his raging hormones. Yet . . . all he wanted was to press her close against him...kiss those incredible full lips and trail hot kisses down her throat...stroke her bare skin and caress her...everywhere...bring her to ecstasy through his deepening touches....

Abruptly, Vincent sat up and shook himself. This is exactly what I don't need right now, and neither does Catherine. Expelling a huge breath, he pulled a book open and began to read.

 

***

 

At around 3:00 p.m., he decided to look in on Catherine. She was awake, but resting. When she heard the bedroom doors pushed ajar, she opened her eyes and smiled weakly at him, managing a cheerful if tired, "Hi!"

Vincent ventured into the room, a shy half-smile on his lips. "How are you feeling?"

Because she had been made so comfortable -- soaked squeaky clean and popped into fresh sheets - she had rested well, and in fact was feeling much improved.

"Better." Then she added timidly, "Hungry."

He acknowledged her request as he stood by the bed. "Everything is ready. I 'll bring you something to eat right away."

She reached her hand out to him, and as he moved forward and took it, she pulled him down to sit on the bed. He obliged her, but sat gingerly, a wary look in his eyes. Catherine, however, refused to surrender his hand, certain that he would bolt from the room given the opportunity.

"Thank you, Vincent. I haven't been so well taken care of since . . . I can't remember when! You think of everything."

Her grateful smile warmed his heart. He wished he could tell her that all he ever wanted to do in life was take care of her, hold her close, be what she needed him to be. But he was not entirely sure he should be sitting here, holding her hand, considering what that did to him inside.

She seemed aware of what he was thinking, and squeezed his hand gently, making his blood race even faster through his veins.

Breaking the tension deliberately, he used his free hand to feel her forehead. She was less feverish now, and seemed a bit stronger. "Keep resting, Catherine. You are quite ill."

With a soft smile she replied, "With you here, I can rest well." She pressed her lips lightly to the back of the hand that seemed to rest so unwillingly in hers.

Flustered, Vincent rose, breaking that tender contact. "I must tend to your meal." That said, he turned and strode purposefully from the bedroom.

He nearly ran from the room, Catherine noted sadly. Being with me here distresses him so. I'm sure that part of it is being Above during the day, but most of it is because he is just so uncomfortable in my apartment . . . in my bedroom . . . with me. Her spirits, which had rallied a moment ago when Vincent walked into her bedroom, now plunged. Why must it be like this between us? Why must so much remain unspoken? I try so hard to play this by his rules, but I am so tired of ignoring the obvious. She punched her pillow feebly in frustration and a small tear crept from the corner of one eye. Buck up, Chandler, she warned herself. If he suspects he's upsetting you, he'll go for sure, daylight be damned.

 

***

 

As Vincent put the final touches on Catherine's lunch, gathered utensils, and poured her tea, he thought about his abrupt departure from her side. What's wrong with me? Why do I constantly pull away from the one person whose tenderness I desire most of all? What was so wrong with her holding my hand? Or even that tiny kiss? He resolved to relax and allow himself to enjoy these precious moments alone with his beloved. She's ill -- what could happen? Don't be such a fool.

After a few minutes, he walked back into the bedroom with a tray and set it on the end of the bed. Under his arm he was carrying some throw pillows from the couches in her living room, and these he tucked behind Catherine's head, lifting her so she could eat more comfortably.

She felt a bit woozy from raising her head so suddenly, though, and her hand trembled as she reached for the tray. Noting her shakiness, Vincent settled the tray in front of her and announced that he intended to feed her himself. She smiled. "Like old times?"

He returned her smile, nodding as the memory caught him. "Yes, like old times."

She didn't realize just how hungry she was until she smelled the soup he held to her lips. After the first spoonful, she couldn't help remarking, again with a smile, "It's good soup."

Her teasing comment provoked an entirely unexpected response. Vincent put the spoon down and bowed his head for a moment. When he looked up, there were bright tears glistening in his eyes.

"Oh, Catherine. When I look back on that time, I can't help but think of how I almost lost you . . . after I had waited my whole life to find you. To see you ill now . . . it breaks my heart to know you are unwell."

She was stunned. She reached out a small, soft hand to pat one of his large, work-roughened ones.

"Truly, Vincent, it's just a bad cold, and I'm feeling much better. Please don't worry. Please? Please?"

As she said the last two words, she tilted her head to the side and smiled up at him imploringly. He couldn't resist her when she spoke to him this way, and he nodded his head, his sad mood broken.

 

* * *

 

Catherine finished her meal of soup, crackers and tea, and Vincent removed the tray and bent to take the throw pillows from behind her back. With their faces in such close proximity, she longed to reach up and caress that downy cheek. He is so irresistible. It just isn't fair! She groaned inwardly. Aloud she said to him, "Please don't, Vincent. I don't want to go to sleep again so soon. Read to me?"

He was happy to oblige, and even, to her intense surprise, agreed to her half-joking request to sit on the bed so she could rest on his shoulder while he read to her. As he climbed onto the bed, he remembered that he still had not put on his tunic and vest. It was too late; he'd seem ridiculous if he stopped now to do so. He decided not to worry about that. He decided not to worry about anything right now. So, despite his misgivings, he pulled an unresisting Catherine against his chest with one arm as he opened a volume of the collected works of Shakespeare.

 

* * *

 

Catherine really wasn't sure what Vincent was reading to her. She was entirely given over to the almost casual intimacy of the moment, to the ecstasy of being held close by the man she loved. His bare forearm felt wonderful against the sensitized skin of her back. She stole an arm out to clasp him around the waist and snuggled more closely against his side. Delicious, she thought. She breathed in the aroma of him -- the light scent of the laundry detergent used on his shirt, the fragrance of the shampoo he'd used on her hair, his own unique musk. Heaven! Best of all, a few stray golden hairs peeked out over the top of his shirt to tickle her face. It was all she could do to keep from reaching up to unbutton that shirt and set her hand adrift across that gorgeous deep chest . . . to nuzzle against his neck and lick her way to his nipples . . . to stroke her way through the thick mat of hair she could feel through the fabric of his shirt until she got to the buttons of his jeans. . . .

Vincent became aware of the drift of Catherine's feelings and realized that she was not as totally absorbed in Henry V as he was. He ceased his reading, and the two of them sat together for a time, just holding each other, thinking their separate thoughts.

 

***

 

Vincent was the first to pull away. He gently disengaged himself from Catherine and urged her to lie down again and rest. She began to protest, but her yawn effectively silenced her opposition. She grinned instead, and lay down, curled close to him. He stayed beside her until she fell asleep, his hand brushing through her hair with a rhythmic stroke which lulled her almost immediately.

When he was sure she was slumbering, he left the bed and completed his clean-up chores from Catherine's meal. By the time he was done, the sun had set, so he let himself out onto the balcony, where he leaned against the balustrade, drinking in the late September air.

Catherine was feeling much better. He really didn't need to stay any longer. She could probably take care of herself now. Still...he thought he'd better stay at least through the night, just to make sure. He could always leave before dawn, and she did say that she could rest better knowing he was near.

He was surprised to find that all his initial trepidation had fled. He had gotten through the worst of it, and now he could look forward with some pleasure to spending time with an only-slightly-sick Catherine -- a Catherine who was happy, indeed anxious, to spend some quiet time with him.

The closeness, the casual intimacy of their time together, had left a deep impression upon him. It had presented him with a teasing glimpse of an aspect of life he'd never known before - the deep contentment, the quiet joy, of an unremarkable day spent with his beloved. No menace or crisis had brought them together for just a few intense moments, no crowd of loving friends had intervened to distract them - if he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine what living a full life with Catherine might be like.

Smiling, his thoughts turned to the kind of mundane matters that such a life would entail. He thought he might heat up that sauce and make some pasta for a late-night dinner, if Catherine felt up to solid food in a few hours. Happily, he returned to the kitchen and busied himself with preparations.

 

***

 

He had readied dinner as far as he was able, and was settled on the floor in the living room with Catherine's CD collection, boots off and cross-legged, rummaging through for something soft and peaceful to aid her rest. He was pulled from his scrutiny by a faint stirring within the Bond -- Catherine was beginning to awaken, and she was . . . dreaming of him.

He folded the bedroom doors open and padded across the floor on stockinged feet to kneel by the bed. She was on her side, facing him, hands tucked beneath her cheek, an angelic expression on her face. Moved, as always, by her extraordinary beauty, he was compelled to touch her. He found himself reaching toward her to stroke her hair again, the impulse impossible to resist.

Thus, Catherine awoke as she had fallen asleep, with Vincent's caress upon her. In her dreams, he had been by her side, running his fingers through her hair, so that when she awoke, she was momentarily disconcerted. As her sleepy gaze fell upon him, she asked in a small voice, "Am I still dreaming?"

He responded with one of his precious half-smiles and whispered, "Yes."

She closed her eyes again, wriggled happily under his hand and sighed.

Mesmerized by her reaction, Vincent ventured a question he normally wouldn't consider asking. "What would happen, Catherine, if you were dreaming?"

With her eyes still closed, she answered in a low tone. "I'd open my arms to you, and you would come and lie beside me and press me close to your heart." After speaking of her dream-wish, she opened her eyes and looked deeply into his intense blue ones. She shifted slightly on the bed, and Vincent found himself silently implored to join her as she opened her arms wide, and all the yearning and desire in her heart rushed to him through their Bond.

He hesitated only briefly before coming to her, settling gently beside her. She nestled against him, almost moaning with the pleasure of it. He relaxed in her arms and was not surprised when she repeated his question.

"What would happen, Vincent, if you were dreaming?"

He thought his heart would burst as he replied with quiet fervor, "I would take your beautiful face between my hands and place a kiss upon your lips, a kiss of gratitude and benediction for everything you have given me."

Catherine looked at him with a mixture of surprise and expectation, and Vincent knew he could not disappoint her now. He moved as if in a trance, his hands coming up to cradle her cheeks as his lips lowered to meet hers.

As he kissed her, reverently and slowly, Catherine drew him closer still to prevent his escape -- an escape he no longer contemplated. She deepened the kiss as sparks of pleasure jolted through their Bond. When finally their lips parted contact, she began to nuzzle his neck, running the tip of her tongue along the tender skin at the base of his throat, pressing soft moist kisses against the underside of his softly bristled chin, cherishing the exquisite freedom he had granted her to show him what his love meant to her.

Vincent groaned with the bliss of Catherine's touch, but he had a more pressing desire. He captured her chin and guided her up to resume his exploration of her mouth, so sweet and exciting, so delicious and enticing.

Catherine was on fire, her fever forgotten, replaced by a heat which could never be extinguished now that it had been allowed to ignite. Her first taste of him had transformed her instantly into a creature of enormous appetite -- she was obsessed now with her need to taste more of him, to keep on tasting him until she could sate her desire in a fiery consummation.

 

Vincent was breathless in the face of her sensual onslaught, and rode the crest of her unleashed energy. He was stunned by the force of her desire for him, always assuming that his was the stronger, darker urge. Now he knew that his deep, compelling need for her was matched by an equally powerful craving on Catherine's part.

She began to whisper something to him. It sounded like the words of a poem or song, but he couldn't understand her, her voice was so breathless. He asked, a bit breathless himself, "Catherine, what is it?"

In reply, she half-sang, half-recited the chorus from an old Bobby Darin song, "I want a dream lover, so I don't have to dream alone." She looked longingly at him and murmured against his ear, "Vincent . . . dream with me now?"

He was undone. He had emerged on Catherine's balcony this morning and, with considerable apprehension, had crossed the invisible barrier into her apartment. Since then, he had bathed and dressed her, had fed her and read to her, had watched her sleep...and had allowed his fantasies full sway. In the process, he had moved from acute discomfort to this passionate embrace. He was surprised that the trajectory had been so steep and short. Now, Catherine was giving him a chance to live his most cherished dream.

Catherine . . . his Catherine . . . her reality more wondrous than any dream, wondrous as they could be. The promise and the hope were before him now. A phrase from the past tickled his memory: one either moves toward love or away from it. With no apprehension, no second thoughts, Vincent moved toward his love . . . his Catherine . . . and enfolded her in a fierce embrace. "I have no need of dreams, Beloved, now that you are in my arms."

 

***

 

Vincent didn't make it Below for several more days. Father was most distressed, but Peter reminded him that Vincent had said he would stay until Catherine was feeling better. By the time Vincent left, Catherine was feeling very much better indeed.