CHAPTER SIX


After breakfast, Vincent went off to join the work crews. Catherine tidied the chamber, made notes for her afternoon's class, and read THE SPOOKY OLD TREE to Nicholas before Mary appeared in the chamber entrance.

"Good morning," she greeted. "I heard Nicholas wasn't feeling well."

"I threw up," Nicholas said cheerfully. "All over."

"He's feeling much better now," Catherine added, in case Mary couldn't tell from the way Nicholas was wiggling.

"I'm glad to hear it," Mary said. "Catherine, I know Father's asked you to keep Nicholas isolated today. If there's anything you need to do, I can sit with him a while."

The thought of Nicholas's soiled bedclothes soaking in the laundry had been nagging her all morning, and she smiled gratefully. "Actually, there is something, Mary. If you're sure you don't mind..."

"Not at all," Mary said. "What do you say, Nicholas? Shall we read another book?"

"Yeah!" Nicholas agreed, and darted to his shelf of books where he selected one with care. "Sam-I-am," he announced, putting the bright orange copy of Dr. Seuss's GREEN EGGS AND HAM into her hands before joining her in the big chair. Neither seemed to notice when Catherine picked up her laundry basket and went out.

In the laundry, though, she found Vincent hadn't just rinsed the sheets the night before and left them soaking. He'd washed them - sheets, pillowcase, blankets and quilt - and hung them up in the drying chamber. No wonder he'd been gone so long.

And then she wondered why she was surprised. It was just like him to do this for her. She was smiling as she gathered up the dry bed linens and put them in her basket to carry back to her chamber.

Mary arranged for a tray of sandwiches to be delivered for their lunch and shortly after the dishes were cleared away, Vincent appeared.

"Hello," Catherine greeted him, surprised and pleased. "I didn't expect you so early."

"I thought I'd watch Nicholas while you meet your class," he said. "The children will be in my chamber at the usual time."

She'd supposed the class would be cancelled, and she hadn't looked forward to spending the rest of the afternoon cooped up with an increasingly restless and energetic Nicholas. "That's a good idea," she said. "Thank you."

When she returned from class, Vincent was on the floor, helping Nicholas build pens and ramps for his collection of carved animals. The menagerie was growing; Cullen had added a sea lion, a woolly mammoth, and, bowing to Nicholas's fascination with dinosaurs, a stegosaurus. Nicholas was penning the dinosaur with the elephants today; last week, it had gone in with the giraffes.

Vincent's patient attention kept Nicholas occupied until suppertime. He stayed to share the meal and help Nicholas get ready for bed. Nicholas coaxed him into retelling the story of the tunnels, and even after Nicholas was safely asleep, he lingered, lounging in the big overstuffed chair.

"He seems quite himself," he commented.

She smiled. "Yes. He's blessed with a strong constitution."

He gave her a curious look. "You sound inordinately grateful."

She hesitated. "I am. He's only been really sick once... he ran a fever for three days when he was still a baby. I was frantic. I didn't know what was wrong, didn't know what I could give him..."

"But surely, Catherine, a doctor..."

"I couldn't take him to a doctor."

"Why not?" His bewilderment seemed genuine; after all this time, he still hadn't thought through all the implications of Nicholas's existence. But then, he hadn't had six months of virtual solitary confinement to think about it, either.

"Because he's your son," she said quietly, and watched his face change as he absorbed her words.

"I am sorry, Catherine..." he began.

"For what?" she demanded. "For giving me a beautiful child who just happens to be a little different?"

"For the things you were forced to endure because of him. Because of me." He studied his hands, lying loosely in his lap. "I have thought to myself, over these weeks, that if it hadn't been for me, for our child, that man would not have kept you prisoner, made you fear for so many things."

"No," she said. "He'd have killed me."

He looked at her then, his eyes wide. "Why do you say that?"

"Because it's true. He kept me because he wanted my baby, but that isn't why I was taken. If it weren't for Nicholas..." Her voice trailed away as the conversation provoked all the things she tried to keep locked away; she closed her eyes and shivered. He reached across the space between them and took her hand, but she suddenly couldn't bear even that small confinement and pulled free, lurching to her feet.

"Catherine?" He leaned forward uncertainly, his voice colored with concern.

"I don't want to talk about it, Vincent," she said, more sharply than she'd intended. With an effort, she softened her voice. "Please. Why don't you read to me?"

She thought he almost protested, but after a moment he sat back in his chair. "Very well," he agreed. "What would you like?"

Her tangled thoughts offered up no ideas. "Whatever you choose," she said, and forced herself to resume her seat in the chair beside his.

His voice, reading from Robert Frost, was wonderfully effective in taking her mind away from disagreeable things, and she was relaxed and pleasantly sleepy when he put the book aside.

He looked in on Nicholas, who was soundly sleeping, then pulled her against his chest. "Don't be frightened, Catherine," he murmured. "I'm here."

"I know," she answered. When she tipped her face up to his, he kissed her mouth lightly and turned to go.

At the entrance, he paused. "There's a concert in the park tomorrow. Would you like to go?"

He looked adorably vulnerable standing there, and she couldn't resist an impish urge to tease him.

"What are they playing?" As if it mattered.

Surprise showed on his face, but he answered without hesitation. "Pachelbel. I understand there's to be a guest harpist."

"Playing Canon in D?"

He shifted his weight to lean comfortably against the doorway and she knew her inner delight had given her away. "I believe so," he answered equably.

"Then I can't miss it," she said. "I'd love to go."

Catherine hadn't been to the pipe below the outdoor bandshell in Central Park since her return, but it was a place she'd frequently visited in her memory during the dark, lonely years. She looked forward to the privacy and to the sweet sound of music wafting down through the ivy-twined grate.

She dressed with care, choosing a long, delicately patterned skirt in blues and greens. The warmth of layers was sacrificed for vanity as she slipped into a pale green blouse from the topside wardrobe she'd brought with her.

She curled her hair with an old-fashioned curling iron heated in the coals of the brazier that warmed the chamber, and brushed it 'til it shone. She even found her makeup and applied some lightly.

Nicholas, completely over his illness, watched with fascination. "Do me, Mommy," he begged at every turn. When Vincent arrived at the appointed time, Nicholas bounded to the door to greet him and show off the single curl on top of his head and the garish smears of blush on both cheeks.

"See me, Daddy, see me!" he chortled as Vincent swung him up. "I'm pretty!"

Vincent eyed him carefully. "You certainly are," he agreed.

"Look at Mommy," Nicholas prompted. "She's pretty, too."

Vincent turned his gaze to where she waited and let a long moment pass before he spoke. "Yes," he said, into the sudden hush. "She's lovely."

Catherine colored under his approving gaze. "You look quite distinguished, yourself."

But she thought privately that 'distinguished' didn't begin to describe him. Even standing quietly with their son in his arms, he was an imposing presence. It was evident he'd taken pains with his appearance, too. His mane was freshly brushed and pristine white ruffles showed at throat and wrists.

The effect wasn't lost on Geoffrey, who chose that moment to arrive.

"Hi, Vincent. You look great." Then his glance shifted and he lost all semblance of poise. "Catherine," he began, and flushed when his voice cracked.

She pretended not to notice. "Hello, Geoffrey."

"You look beautiful," he said, and his voice quivered with sincerity.

"Thank you."

"Goodnight, Mommy," Nicholas declared in a transparent ploy to refocus attention on himself.

Vincent set him down and Catherine bent to hug him and place a quick kiss on his cheek. "Be good for Geoffrey," she admonished.

"I always am," he answered, with an angelic smile. "You be good, too."

She resisted the impulse to glance Vincent's way. "I'll try."

Vincent crouched down beside her. "Goodnight, Nicholas. We'll have breakfast together tomorrow."

"Promise?" Nicholas's arms went around Vincent's neck, which brought his face so close their noses nearly touched.

"I promise," Vincent answered, then kissed Nicholas's nose and forehead in quick succession.

"Are you ready?" he asked her as he straightened.

She picked up a fringed shawl of softest lamb's wool and stepped past him into the corridor.

In the passage, he took her hand and adapted his long stride to her shorter one. She hoped he could feel the joy bubbling through her like an effervescent fountain. The subtly increased pressure of his fingers on hers said he could.

As they neared the upper levels, the joy faltered. Her grip on Vincent's hand tightened as an unexpected discomfort stirred; she edged closer to him. He might have glanced her way but she didn't dare turn to look. A slow, deliberate breath nerved her to go on, past the next junction and up a short, shallow slope.

And then, quite involuntarily, she stopped.

Vincent stopped beside her. The look he gave was gently puzzled. "Are you all right?"

She nodded with unaccustomed vigor. "Of course I am," she said, through teeth that wanted to clamp shut. "Fine."

"No." He turned to face her. "What is it?"

She closed her eyes and shivered. "I don't know. I'm scared."

"Of what?"

"I don't know," she repeated.

He took a long, audible breath. "Catherine, look around. There is nothing here to fear."

"I know that," she said, but kept her eyes shut tight. Only the barest edge of control kept her from either hurling herself into the protection of his arms or fleeing back to her own chamber, where she was safe. She struggled for words to define the fear welling up inside. "It's so close here."

"What's close?" She could sense his genuine confusion, his concern, reaching out to enfold her.

She forced her eyes open and looked up at the rough-hewn stone ceiling.

He followed her glance and then brought his troubled gaze back down to meet hers. "There's nothing there. Nothing but earth, and above that, green grass, trees. The sky, brilliant with stars."

"You're wrong, Vincent," she whispered. "He's there, too. He'll always be there. I can't ever forget that."

He closed the small distance between them and gathered her into his arms. "It's all right," he soothed. "He can't touch you now. No matter how close you get to the surface. He can't touch you."

She buried her face against his cloak, breathing in the smell of him, letting his love, his fierce protectiveness, wash away the fear.

"We don't have to go on," he said into her ear. "If you like, we can go back. Perhaps Robin would agree to play his violin for us."

She smiled against the rough wool and leather covering his shoulder. "I'll bet he would," she agreed, and lifted her head. "But I don't want to go back. I'll be all right, Vincent. I want to hear the music. I want to be with you."

He studied her for a moment, and nodded. "Very well." He didn't take her hand again. Instead, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and tucked her close to his side.

When they reached the small moonlit chamber, he hesitated, obviously reluctant to relinquish contact with her. The panic was securely caged now, though, penned in by force of will and the security of his presence and she was able to give him a genuine, if somewhat tremulous, smile. "It's all right, Vincent," she whispered.

He scrutinized her face for a moment and released her long enough to rearrange cushions he must have brought earlier in the day. When he was satisfied, he helped her sit before he settled down beside her.

Above them, the musicians tuned their instruments, sending a pleasant cacophony of notes tumbling down with the moonlight.

"So many memories here," she whispered.

He gave a small nod of assent. "Remember the first time I brought you here?"

"It rained."

"You knelt just there, under the grate, and laughed. And then, when you were quite thoroughly wet, you came and fell into my arms."

"You could have pushed me away," she said, smiling.

"There was such joy in you that night, Catherine. Such beauty. And I remember wishing for the words to tell you how much I loved you." A stillness in his tone made her look at him.

"I wish you had."

He gave his mane a tiny shake. "I couldn't. Because the other thing you were, that night, was unattainable. I knew I couldn't have you. Not the way I wanted."

"What did you want, Vincent?" She dared to ask it now.

His eyes took on a distant look. "You in my arms. The way you were that night. Laughing. Happy. I wanted it never to end, Catherine. I wanted to take you into my world and never let you go."

"You wanted us to be lovers," she suggested, keeping her voice very quiet.

His gaze dropped. "I wanted you to be mine."

"Oh, Vincent, don't you know, even now? I already was. All you ever had to do was ask."

"Ask? You make it sound so easy." His gaze, now, was fixed on his hands, lying clenched in his lap. "I knew what I wanted was something that could never be. That it was impossible. For me. For us."

She covered his hand, taut and trembling, with hers. "The impossibility was in your mind. You know that, don't you? It was never truth. Because the truth is, we belong together. We always have. I think we always will."

He lifted his gaze to meet hers, finally, in the filtered moonlight of the chamber. "I love you."

"I know." She gazed at him and knew her love for him was shining in her eyes.

He leaned toward her. Instinctively she lifted her face, feeling his breath warm on her cheek in the instant before his mouth closed over hers. Unbidden, her hands rose to tangle themselves in his hair. Her body, deprived for too long, responded eagerly, ignoring all her mind's attempts to rein it in. And at last she surrendered to the inevitable and let his half-shy, inexperienced kisses engulf her.

It was long minutes later when he pulled his mouth away, bringing her close and tucking her head beneath his chin. His breathing was rapid and unsteady. "Catherine," he murmured into the moonlight.

Above them, music played, sweet and compelling.

She slid her arms down and under his, winding them around his waist, holding him close. "I'm here," she whispered back.

"Do you remember the night you came home?" he asked, his voice hesitant. "You spoke of Nicholas, of how he came to be. You said you kept the memory. That you would tell me... when I was ready."

Her breath caught in her throat. "I remember," she said, her voice suddenly small in the stillness.

He shifted his head and she could feel his lips in her hair, near her ear. "Tell me now."

Neither of them moved as she pulled the precious memory out of safekeeping and began to describe it, struggling to keep her voice even. She'd often thought of what she would say to him about that night; now she chose her words carefully, wanting to be open and precise about what had taken place. He must know she was telling the truth, that she wasn't editing in an attempt to protect him.

He stiffened when she spoke of how he'd lunged at her, hand raised to strike, of how he'd stopped when she shrieked his name and gone down in a terrifying sprawl that took her with it. She spoke of his stillness and the frantic desperation she'd felt as she'd pummeled him, crying out her anguish at being left behind. And then she told of how she'd kissed him, hot tears streaming down her cheeks to taint the kisses with salt.

She described his first, tentative stirrings, the way she'd frozen into place, afraid she'd imagined it, and the joy that consumed her at his first deep, shuddering breath. She told him how, in her joy, she had been unable to resist touching him, stroking him, reassuring herself at every turn that he was alive.

"It had been a long time for me, Vincent," she said at last. "You were responding to me in a very basic way, and I didn't have the strength to deny you. To deny either of us. It wasn't what I'd imagined for us - not tender or romantic or even wildly passionate."

"You said I didn't hurt you." His voice, uncharacteristically wispy, pleaded for confirmation.

"You didn't. You never would. You were..." she hesitated, groping for words. "So innocent, Vincent. So trusting. I never felt I couldn't stop you, or change what was happening. I even thought, once or twice, that it was wrong, that I shouldn't let you because it was so clear that you didn't know what you were doing. But I wanted you so much, Vincent. I needed to know you were alive, that you wouldn't leave." She paused, momentarily lost in the memory, and pressed her face into the warm hollow of his throat.

"Afterwards, you went to sleep, and looked more peaceful than you had in weeks. I pulled your head into my lap and held you, and then Father came."

She felt the convulsive movement of his throat as he swallowed. "Our clothing, Catherine. If I was as dazed as I believe, as you describe... how did you manage?"

She held him more tightly, aware of his embarrassment and feeling an answering heat rise in her own cheeks. "Actually, there wasn't much to manage. I said it wasn't like what I'd imagined, when I dared to imagine. We were like teenagers, Vincent, fumbling in the dark, removing only what was necessary."

He was silent for so long that she imagined she could hear him thinking. "We did not disrobe?" he asked finally.

"No. Not completely. I took off more than you did." It was time to inject a note of levity, so she pushed back to see his face. "Good thing, too," she added. "You're pretty heavy, and afterwards you weren't much help. I never would have been able to dress you by myself."

He flushed, the color showing high on his cheeks, above the soft golden fuzz. His head was turned, his eyes averted.

"Don't be embarrassed, Vincent," she coaxed. "I told you before - the worst part of it all was knowing afterwards that you didn't remember." She smiled sadly. "For a little while, you couldn't even remember my name."

His gaze snapped back to meet hers. "I remember that. How anguished I was. How much I wanted to remember. But the word that meant you just wasn't there." He freed a hand and touched her hair, letting his fingers slip down to touch the smooth skin in front of her left ear. "My Catherine."

She closed her eyes at the note of reverence in his voice, and reached up to pull his hand away, kissing his fingers. "You've never asked," she said.

His hand, released, returned to her cheek. "About your scar? No."

She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears. "I had to leave it behind," she whispered. "Just as I had to leave so much of me behind. When I ran. I used to think, in my wilder moments, that it would have been easier to lose a finger, Vincent. Maybe even a hand. That scar was a symbol of you, of the love you gave, and the strength I found because of it. I used to cry when I looked in the mirror and it wasn't there."

His eyes were steady on her face now, meeting her gaze with understanding and love. "It doesn't matter, Catherine. It was only a symbol. The real truths lie here, in your heart. You know that."

She nodded shakily and he leaned forward, brushing his lips across the smooth skin where the ridged scar used to be. "Come," he whispered, and took her hand, drawing her to her feet. Only then did she realize that while she was talking, the music had stopped.

He was silent on the walk back, but now and again she caught him giving her sidelong glances. When their gazes met, he looked away. She clung to his hand and wondered what would happen next.

He paused as they neared the community chambers. "Shall I take you home?" he asked.

She blinked, confused. "Where else would you take me?"

He looked away for a moment, then seemed to gather his courage and brought his gaze back to meet hers. "I thought... hoped... perhaps my chamber."

Her lips parted and she drew a quick breath of astonishment. His intention, his invitation, was clear.

But the pipes running along behind his head were silent, the wide passage utterly deserted.

"It's late," she faltered.

His expression changed subtly. "Of course," he said, abruptly formal. She could feel the sudden distance between them. "I'm sorry. I'll take you to your chamber."

She caught at his arm. "Wait. I meant... Nicky. I can't..."

He looked momentarily perplexed, as if he'd forgotten Nicholas's existence. "Of course," he said, finally. His voice now was colored with disappointment. "Nicholas."

She kept his arm as they walked. He didn't look at her, though, and she wondered what he was thinking.

Light spilled from her chamber into the passage; inside, Geoffrey had put his books aside and was sprawled in the big chair, half asleep. He roused when they came in.

Catherine kept firm hold of Vincent's arm, releasing him only when he was well inside. "I'm sorry we're so late," she apologized.

"It's okay," Geoffrey answered, stifling a yawn as he gathered his things. "Nicholas was really good. We looked at the pictures in his books for a while, and then he went right to sleep."

"I'm glad. Thank you."

"You're welcome. Good night, Catherine. Good night, Vincent."

"Good night, Geoffrey," Vincent answered, and stood aside as the boy brushed past him and out the door. "It is late," he said finally. "I should go."

"Don't," she said softly. "Please. Stay."

He cast a startled glance at the curtain screening the alcove where Nicholas slept. "Catherine..."

"I know it isn't ideal," she said hurriedly. "It wasn't before, either. But he's only three, Vincent. He sleeps through anything. Unless he's sick, or has a nightmare." She managed a small smile. "And he hardly ever gets sick, or has nightmares."

After what seemed an eternity, Vincent shifted and the tension went out of his shoulders. He inclined his head in acquiesce.

Her heart stuttered and began to race as he stepped forward, holding out his hands. She gave him hers, and he drew her toward the big overstuffed chair and sank down into it, pulling her into his lap.

She took a moment to get over her surprise, then freed her hands and wrapped her arms around his neck. Her cheek fit comfortably against his shoulder, her face turned into the warm hollow of his neck. She rested there quietly, waiting, listening to the soft sound of his breathing.

Presently he stirred and moved a tentative hand across her shoulder, stroking down her arm. He turned his face to hers and she accepted his kisses, twining her fingers in his hair.

His hands grew bold, touching, stroking, gently caressing. After a while she sat up and tugged at the ties on his leather jerkin. He permitted the intimacy of her fingers inside his shirt, against his skin, and kissed her again more surely.

And then he stopped, drawing away and tilting his head as if listening. Catherine watched him.

"He's asleep," he whispered after a moment, and she realized he'd been reaching out for Nicholas.

"I told you."

"So you did." He shifted a little in the chair. "You're heavier than he is."

His tone was so calm and conversational that it gave her pause. "Do you want me to get up?" she asked, suddenly uncertain.

His arms tightened around her. "No," he said, and came to his feet in one smooth movement, taking her with him, cradled against his chest.

She tightened her grip on his neck and held her breath.

"Catherine," he said. "Are you very certain?"

She nuzzled his cheek. "I've always been certain."

It seemed to be all the encouragement he needed. He lowered her gently on the bed before stretching out beside her. "You'll have to help me," he confessed. "Show me."

"No, I won't, Vincent," she murmured against his throat. "You'll remember."

It was all the things the first time hadn't been; tender, romantic, sensuous, and incredibly passionate.

Nicholas slept soundly through it all.


Continued in Chapter 7