Moving Towards Love
by Kate Willis




Catherine Chandler stared at the clothes in her closet, imagining which dress might make Vincent forget the things that kept them apart. Which one would drive him crazy enough to take her in his arms and kiss her? 

She sighed and smiled wistfully, grabbing something pink and silky. “None of them, Catherine,” she said out loud. “You could walk into his chamber stark naked and he would politely turn away.”

As she dressed, she realized she was feeling a little sorry for herself, and she fought that indulgence. She knew Vincent loved her, even wanted her, and she understood why he held himself back from physical intimacy. She had accepted it long ago, gotten used to it, learned to be satisfied with his arms around her, his voice whispering in her ear, their bodies separated by layer upon layer of fabric and leather. But it wasn’t always easy. When he had invited her to the recital tonight, she had eagerly agreed – she loved spending evenings with him in the tunnels, surrounded by the people he thought of as family. It made her feel a part of his life in a way he would not otherwise permit. They were a couple in the tunnels, accepted that way – they were Vincent-and-Catherine. 

She assessed herself in the mirror. “Not bad,” she said, swishing the skirt of her dress a bit, watching the silky fabric move against her body. “Hey, at least he’ll WISH he could kiss me!” And she was off, her heart already rising in anticipation of seeing him again.


****


“Are you going to introduce her to Catherine?” Father asked. For a moment, Vincent said nothing. He was clearly uncomfortable with the question, but Father pressed him. “She’s sure to hear about Rhea from some of the others. I really think –”

“Yes, Father, I’m going to introduce them. Why shouldn’t I? Why should there be a problem?”

“There shouldn’t,” Father said simply. “But you must know what she will think. Perhaps you should prepare her first.”

“Perhaps.” Vincent sunk into one of the large chairs and sighed deeply. “What do I say to her that won’t make her think things between us will change?”

“Things between you will change ...won’t they?” Father looked at Vincent closely. “What do you want from Rhea, Vincent?”

Vincent seemed startled by the question. “To spend time with her, I supposed. To get to know her. She has so much to tell me – all about her life, her time with Devin. She says she’s free where she comes from; she doesn’t hide in the darkness. Do you know what that means to me?”

Father touched Vincent’s arm gently. “Yes, of course I do. Does Catherine?”

Vincent hesitated. Then, he felt the familiar pulse in his blood that signaled Catherine’s presence in the tunnels. “She’s coming,” he said. “I’ll meet her.” And he was gone in a flash. Father watched him go, more than a little concerned about what the future held for his son.



****


As he rushed to meet Catherine, Vincent thought about Rhea, who had shown up in the tunnels two days earlier. The news of her arrival had reached Vincent through Mouse, who reported that a woman was asking to see him – a woman who was very, very interesting.

“You’re going to like this woman, Vincent,” Mouse said, grinning. “She’s ...different.”

Vincent laughed. “Oh, is she? Different good, or different bad?”

“Just different,” Mouse said. “Not like Catherine. Like you, Vincent.”

Vincent looked at Mouse, intrigued. And then he saw her. She stepped out of the shadows, a golden image of a woman, tall and strong, with long, dark-gold hair and a face ...a face that was, as Mouse had said, like Vincent’s. She had his nose, his unusual mouth, his leonine beauty, and she took his breath away. She cocked her head and looked at him, moving her eyes over his own features, seemingly just as entranced. 

“So it’s true,” she said, her voice deep and resonant. “You are real.”

Vincent stared at her, speechless. Mouse nudged him. “See? Like you, Vincent.”

“Yes,” Vincent murmured. The woman was sleek and she seemed almost to glow with a deep golden light that radiated around her. Vincent knew that whatever he was, man or beast or something altogether different, she was the same.

She reached her hand out to Vincent – a graceful but furred hand, with small sharp claws not unlike his own – and said simply, “I’m Rhea.”

He took her hand, for the first time feeling the touch of another of his own kind. It was thrilling in unexpected ways. “Where do you come from?” he asked her, his voice betraying his emotions.

“From up north, New Hampshire I think it’s called by those who live in the cities and towns. We live in the mountains. That’s where I was born.”

Vincent gasped. “So there are others like you – like us?”

“No,” she said quickly. “There’s only me. There’s always been only me – until now.”

“And you don’t know why ...how . . .” He struggled with the questions he had pondered all his life.

“No,” she said, understanding at once. “I have no idea how I came to be born this way. I always thought it was some sort of genetic aberration – a freak of nature thing. But then I met Devin and he told me about you –”

“Devin! But how?”

“He visits us from time to time – I don’t think he will ever stay in one place for very long. He is too much the vagabond.”

Vincent grinned. “Yes, that’s Devin.”

“Charles is with us. Devin wanted him to live in a place where there was sunshine and fresh air. We accept him. His deformities don’t matter to us – they’re beginning to not matter to him, either. He’s part of us now, so I know Devin will always be a part of us, too. He loves Charles like a brother.”

Vincent was silent, remembering.

“He loves you like a brother, too,” Rhea said. “He told me all about you. ‘You’ve got to meet Vincent,’ he said. And the more he told me, the more I wanted to see you. A big part of me never really believed the things he said were true. You know, all the ‘Shangri-La’ and ‘Oz’ stuff – just so much fantasy. But I had to find out. So here I am. And here you are ...just like Devin said.”

Vincent looked at her. He was having a hard time believing himself, and here she was, right before his eyes. “Come meet Father,” he said finally. “I’m sure Devin told you about him, too.”

Rhea laughed, and something inside Vincent responded instinctively. Here was someone he connected with in a very different way than his bond with Catherine. Here was someone whose very presence touched a place inside him he had forever kept buried. Here was someone who proved he was real, alive, and a part of a world that existed far beyond the tunnels. 


****


Catherine was waiting for him at the threshold when he arrived. She was wearing the pink silk dress he always loved and for a second he imagined the feeling of cool silk against his skin. As always, he pushed the thought away.

“I’ve missed you,” she said, smiling.

They walked together, hand in hand, and it occurred to him for an instant that her hand and Rhea’s, although very different, both fit nicely into his own. “You look well, Catherine,” he said, his voice husky. “I like that dress.”

“Do you? I never knew that.” She teased him a bit, swishing the silk as they walked. He closed his eyes, steadying himself. It was easier if he didn’t have to look at her.

They walked in silence for a while, but as they approached the hall, he stopped her. “There’s something I have to tell you, Catherine,” he began. But before he could say another word, Samantha and Eric rushed up, bubbling over with news.

“Have you seen her yet?” Samantha asked Catherine.

“She’s really cool,” Eric said. “Like a super hero girl or something.”

“No, stupid,” Samantha said, “not like a super hero girl. She’s ...she’s magnificent.”

“Wow,” Catherine said, laughing. She looked at Vincent, smiling. “So, who’s the magnificent super girl?”

“She’s a visitor ...from New Hampshire,” Vincent said, and again he was interrupted.

“She’s special,” Samantha said as they entered the hall. “Like Vincent.”

Catherine smiled at the girl’s obvious admiration for the man she loved. Any woman who inspired such a glowing comparison must be special indeed. Catherine looked around the room, searching for an unfamiliar face. Vincent touched her arm, and she turned.

“Catherine, this is Rhea,” Vincent said.

Catherine was stunned. The woman was, indeed, magnificent. She had Vincent’s deep, sensuous eyes and his thickly furred hands and arms. Her hair was darker, though, almost auburn. It was thinner than Vincent’s thick mane, but it hung about her face and eyes just as his did. If he was a lion of a man, she was a cat woman – and suddenly Catherine understood completely why Eric had seen her as a super hero.

“Ah, so this is the infamous Catherine,” Rhea said, and Catherine wasn’t sure whether she was being friendly or hinting at a challenge. “Devin has told me all about you.” Rhea reached out her hand to Catherine, who took it quickly, marveling at the softness of the fur, the hardness of the claws. It was like Vincent’s hand, but feminine. Something inside of Catherine turned cold.

“Rhea heard about me from Devin,” Vincent explained quickly. “She came to visit.”

“I see,” Catherine said. She smiled at Rhea. “So Devin is in New Hampshire?”

Rhea and Vincent pieced the story together for Catherine, who watched the two of them with growing unease. There was something different about the way Vincent behaved around this woman, something new about the way he moved, the way he talked. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but her uneasiness intensified.

Father interrupted them to announce that the recital was about to begin. “Do you like music?” Catherine asked Rhea as they moved to take seats.

“Not particularly,” Rhea said. “I like the music of waterfalls and mountain streams and rain. Human instruments I find ...well, a bit artificial.”

“But beautiful,” Catherine said quietly, and the concert began.


****


Later, as Vincent walked her back to her threshold, Catherine was filled with questions she knew she would never be able to ask. What was his relationship with this woman? Once, over a year earlier, she had asked him that question about Lisa, a woman from his past who had resurfaced in his life. He had struggled then to answer the question, but Catherine understood his conflicting feelings. This time it was different. This wasn’t Lisa, a spoiled and silly fool who had flirted with Vincent and then pushed him away. This was something else entirely. This woman – Rhea – represented ...well, what did she represent? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

“I feel that you are troubled,” Vincent said. “Please know that there is nothing to be concerned about.”

Catherine wanted to ask the questions that plagued her, to hear Vincent assure her that he loved her, but she knew it would be impossible. Vincent seldom spoke of his feelings for her – “I love you” was something she had only heard him speak once, and that was when he was very ill. She did believe he loved her – she knew he did – but now, with this new woman in his life, it would have been nice to hear it. 

“I had a nice evening,” she said. She moved into his arms and leaned her head against his chest. He was warm and there was no place she would rather be. Too soon, he pulled back and they said their good-byes. Too soon, she was back in her own apartment, alone. 


****


Vincent watched Rhea stretching, her feline body flexing its muscles. She wore only a loose tunic that fell to mid-thigh and he felt slightly uncomfortable. Her legs were long and sleek, and he felt himself drawn to her. She laughed as if she sensed his feelings. 

In one swift movement she pulled the tunic over her head, revealing a lithe muscular body covered all over with fine golden fur. “I’m going swimming,” she said, grinning at him. “Coming?” She sprinted to the edge of the Mirror Pool and dove into the cool clear water. Vincent watched her in awe. She laughed again as she came to the surface and splashed at him playfully. “Hey, Vincent, come. It’s perfect.”

He hesitated. She was a startlingly exciting woman and something deep inside him responded to her in a primal way. He wanted to throw off his own clothes and join her ...but something else restrained him.

Again, she seemed to sense his discomfort. “Why do you wear all those clothes, anyway?” she asked him from the edge of the pool. “All those layers ...what are you covering up?”

Vincent shrugged, seeming to notice his clothes for the first time. He wore what he usually did – pants, shirt, sweater, vest, boots. It was what he had grown up wearing. 

“Come, Vincent,” she said again. “Play with me!”

He moved slowly at first, but gradually his hands worked faster, pulling at ties and buckles with increasing urgency. He removed his pants last, hesitating only a second, feeling her eyes on him. When he stood before her naked, he realized that no one but Father had ever seen him that way, totally exposed. “You’re extraordinary,” she called to him, and he dove into the water, feeling its icy coldness on his bare skin in a way he had never before experienced. She swam to him, teasing him, touching him lightly, first on his shoulder, then on his waist under the water. He touched her, too, more in curiosity than with passion. She felt soft and hard at the same time. They swam together and played like children. After a while, when they pulled themselves up onto the rocks again, exhausted, they stretched out together on the blanket Vincent had brought. Vincent no longer felt uncomfortable with her nakedness; he no longer noticed his own. 

“Is this where you and Catherine come to play?” Rhea asked suddenly.

Vincent was taken aback. “No,” he said. “We don’t swim here.”

“Ah, I see. You have your own private places. Well, that makes sense. You were shy with me at first. I thought it might have been because you had been here with her.”

“No,” Vincent said again. The mention of Catherine’s name filled him with an awkward uncertainty.

Rhea raised herself on one elbow and looked directly at Vincent. “I didn’t just come here for a visit, Vincent. I came here to find a mate.”

“What do you mean?” Vincent stammered, although he was pretty sure he knew exactly what she meant.

“You and I may very well be the only two living members of our species, whatever that species is. I’ve tried relationships with human men, and they’ve all ended in disaster. When Devin told me about you, I thought there might be a chance for me. Now that I’ve met you, I’m sure. I can offer you the things Catherine can’t – a home outside these dark tunnels ...and a family. Children, Vincent. I can give you children of your own.”

“Rhea ...we hardly know each other.”

She laughed. “That’s such a human thing to say, Vincent! You’re healthy and so am I. I feel something pulling at me when we’re together – I believe you feel the same thing. Both of us know a good mate when we see one.”

He was silent. It was such an amazing and unexpected suggestion. 

She moved closer to him on the blanket. “The place I live, well, it’s up in the mountains. We own all of it, have for generations. There are deep caves with beautiful pools and chambers, not so different from this world of yours, but there are also forests and meadows and rivers and ponds of glassy blue water. Have you ever run through a meadow of wildflowers, Vincent? Come with me and you can! Our children will be able to run with us, free and in the sunshine.”

When he still remained silent, she sighed. “Is it Catherine? Is your attachment to her so strong that you would give up this chance for a real life?”

“I won’t talk with you about Catherine,” he said quietly. “She and I ...we share a bond.”

“I know about bonds like that. I had a few myself, with more than a few men. It’s nice for a while – once or twice I even thought ...well, I let myself believe that a human man could really want me the way he would want one of his own kind. In the end, the sex wasn’t enough. It won’t be enough for Catherine, either, not for long. You’ll see.”

Vincent sat up, stunned. “You ...had sex with these men – these human men, as you said?”

“Well, that’s pretty much all human men want, Vincent. Does that bother you? That I’ve had other lovers? They weren’t mates, only playmates. And not very good ones, at that.”

“And nothing happened to them? You didn’t hurt them?”

Rhea cocked her head, momentarily confused. “You mean, did I rip them apart during the throes of passion?” She saw in his eyes that he meant exactly that. “Wow, is that the way it is with you and Catherine? She didn’t look all that ripped up to me – not a scratch on her, at least that I could see!” She grinned at him mischievously.

“Catherine and I haven’t ...we don’t . . .”

Suddenly, Rhea understood. “You and Catherine have never been together,” she said softly. “You’re afraid.”

Vincent turned away, fighting to control feelings that threatened to overwhelm him. “I never wanted to hurt her . . .”

Rhea moved closer to him. She touched his face and ran her hand through his thick mane. Then she pulled him toward her until her lips met his, and for the first time he felt a real kiss, warm and passionate, demanding. He reached for her and she came to him, folding herself into his embrace. Only when he felt her hands moving over his body did he stop himself. “I can’t,” he said. “We can’t.”

Rhea sighed again. “You are a bundle of contradictions, Vincent. Listen to me. You need a mate you aren’t afraid to touch. I’m not fragile – I won’t break. We can have a life together.” She stood then and put on her discarded tunic. “Think about it. I’ll be here until the weekend. When I leave, I hope you’ll come with me.”

He watched her walk away, wondering how he was ever going to make a decision he could live with.


****


“Father, I must talk with you,” Vincent said that evening. They were alone in Father’s chamber and the flicker of the candles was soothing, calming, but still Vincent felt on edge.

Father sensed the urgency in Vincent’s voice at once, and he had a pretty good idea what had caused it – or at least who. And for once it wasn’t Catherine. “Is it about Rhea?”

“In a way.” Vincent wasn’t quite sure how to begin. Ever since his swim with Rhea he had wondered how he would explain her proposal. Father had never accepted Vincent’s feelings for Catherine, not really. What would he think of a relationship – a mating – with Rhea? “She has made me a very interesting offer,” he said finally. “A proposal, actually.”

“Yes?” Father asked, probing for more.

“She wants me to return to New Hampshire with her ...as her mate.”

“Her mate!” Father shook his head and glared at Vincent. “You speak as though the two of you are ...not human, animals.”

“We are not human, Father. You yourself have admitted that at least part of me is not human.”

Father struggled to regain his composure, but that word ...it was too much. “Vincent, what this woman is suggesting is obscene!”

“But why, Father? She lives in a place where I could see the mountains, where I could explore the way you’ve always wished I could.”

Father shook his head even more stubbornly. “But Vincent, that’s not enough –”

“And a family, Father. Rhea is offering me the chance to have children, children of my own.”

“Children? Or do you mean a litter!”

Vincent turned on Father with unsuppressed rage, feeling his anger overcoming his ability to control it. For an instant he wasn’t sure he could control it. It was only when he saw the fear in Father’s eyes – true fear – that he found the strength to calm down. When he finally spoke, his words were measured but kind. “Father, I know this must be hard for you. You’ve wanted me to be the kind of man you have been, and I’ve wanted to be that for you. But Rhea has helped me see that part of me ...part of me is a different kind of animal. If, as I’ve always known, I can’t have a life with a human woman, then isn’t this the next best thing? I can have a family, Father. Children to raise, to watch grow up. Children I won’t have to say good-bye to when they leave and go off to live their own lives. It’s a chance for me to have something real, something that isn’t just a dream.” 

Father felt the pain his son suffered and his own heart melted. “Can you really leave us, Vincent?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about Catherine?”

Vincent was silent. He had thought of little else since his afternoon with Rhea. If he left with her, he would never see Catherine again. If he stayed, his life would remain what it was – a constant struggle to suppress feelings he no longer knew how to suppress. “She will understand,” he said at last.

“Will she? What will you tell her? That you’ve fallen in love with someone else, someone you’ve known only a few days?”

“It isn’t about love, Father. It’s about living.” Vincent began to pace about the room, trying to express his own frustrations to a man who was making things very difficult. “I’m tired of dreaming. Can you understand that? Catherine and I have a very beautiful dream together, but it’s just a dream. You’ve told me that time and time again. It’s a fantasy. Rhea is offering me a chance to have a real life.”

“A real life without Catherine. And without me.” Father’s eyes filled with tears, and he tried his best to disguise that fact from Vincent, but it was impossible.

Vincent came to him and sat beside him. He put his own furred hand over the old man’s wrinkled one. “I love you, Father. You will always be part of my life. If Rhea could come here to visit, I could come too ...with my children – your grandchildren.”

Father nodded. “Then you’ve decided.”

Vincent nodded, too. “I think it’s for the best. I feel a sense of relief, actually. For a long time I’ve worried that my love for Catherine has kept her from having the kind of life she deserves. I want her to have the same things Rhea is offering me – a home and a family. That can’t happen for her as long as we’re together the way we are.”

“It will be hard on her, Vincent,” Father said softly. “Harder on her than it will be on me, or the others here. She has given her heart to you. That’s as much as any woman can give any man.”

“I know that, Father,” Vincent said. But Father wasn’t at all sure he did know it.



****


Vincent meant to visit Catherine that evening, to tell her about his decision, but a burst pipe in one of the lower chambers kept him tied up until it was much too late. Which was why she received the invitation to Vincent’s going away party before she even knew he was leaving her. The small square envelope was delivered to her office by messenger – one of many sent out that day to tunnel Helpers all over the city. In Mary’s lovely hand, the card inside read: 

Be with us to celebrate with Vincent and Rhea

before they leave for their new life together.

Saturday, 8:00

She dropped the card when she read the words. Whatever she had imagined when she met Rhea, this was far worse. How could he not have told her himself? Feelings of anger, hurt, and grief washed through her, and she struggled to get control of her emotions. “I won’t have him sensing how much he has hurt me,” she said to herself. 

“Hey Cathy, you OK?” Joe called to her from across the room. “You look like your dog just died!”

She tried to smile. “Sure, Joe. I’m fine.” She sighed and tried to get back to work. But the only thing on her mind was Vincent and Rhea, Vincent and Rhea, Vincent and Rhea . . .


****


She knew he would come. She was waiting for him, actually. But when she heard the tapping on the balcony doors, she suddenly felt afraid. She went to him quickly, determined to get the whole thing over with before she broke down completely. “Let him tell me what he has to tell me, and then let him leave,” she told herself. Just let him leave quickly so I can fall apart. 

His face was filled with pain and concern for her – she could see it in his eyes. He didn’t touch her; he didn’t move closer. “I’m sorry, Catherine,” he said. “I didn’t know about the invitation. I meant to come to you last night –”

She felt anger flooding over her and she couldn’t help herself. “You’re sorry about the invitation, but not about leaving me. That you’re not sorry about.”

He looked away from her, stung by her words. “I’m sorry about everything. I want you to know that this was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make.”

Catherine shook her head and turned away, but he reached out to stop her. “No, you need to understand this, Catherine. Rhea is offering me the chance to live in a place where I won’t have to hide in the darkness. She is offering me the chance to have children of my own. These are things I haven’t even dared dream about, things I always knew were impossible for me. I know it is the right decision. I also know it will be hard for both of us.”

She looked up at him, ready to lash out again. But she saw the truth in his eyes. This gentle man wanted only the things every man takes for granted – the freedom to live in the open, the joy of raising a family. These are things the two of them had never even dreamed about, not really. And part of him was dying inside because he had hurt her, because he had to hurt her to make this new life possible. 

She let him hold her. She let him stroke her hair and tell her he would always remember her. And when he begged her to come to the party on Saturday night, she agreed. But when he left, she crumpled to the floor in a heap and gave in to her grief. It was as if the world she knew had ended, and she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to live in the one that had replaced it.


****


On Friday evening, the day before the going-away party, Catherine went Below and signaled for Mouse on the pipes. It wasn’t easy keeping her feelings in check, but she had gotten better at it over the past few days – she was pretty sure Vincent wasn’t aware of her visit to the tunnels. When Mouse showed up, he seemed confused. “Looking for Vincent?”

“No,” Catherine said, smiling. “Actually, I’m looking for Rhea.”

Mouse nodded and looked at her sadly. “Vincent and Rhea are going away together. Why, Catherine?”

“You’ll have to ask Vincent that one,” Catherine said quietly. “Can you take me to Rhea?” 

As it turned out, Rhea was staying in one of the guest chambers, the same one Catherine had stayed in after her father died. She had bittersweet memories of those days – Vincent had helped her through the crippling loss of her father; without him she knew she would never have made it out of the darkness. Now, the darkness she saw ahead of her was deeper even than the one she had suffered then, and she would have no one to help her through it. Mouse seemed to sense her pain, but she smiled at him reassuringly. “I’m OK, Mouse,” she said, and he left her alone outside the entrance to the chamber. 

Rhea actually grinned when Catherine walked into the room. “I was wondering when you would show up,” she said. Catherine felt this other woman’s eyes sweep over her body, assessing her, sizing her up. It was a disturbing feeling.

Catherine took a deep breath. “Do you love him?”

Rhea laughed. “Love is a human emotion. I have no interest in love.”

“Love is important to Vincent, even if it isn’t important to you,” Catherine said quietly. She watched Rhea carefully, evaluating her. 

Rhea shrugged, unconcerned. “Vincent will be a good mate. I need a good mate.” She smiled slightly, and added, “You need a good mate, too.” Catherine’s face flushed crimson, and Rhea laughed again. “I know there’s nothing between the two of you but words – that made it easier for me. If you were lovers, it might have been harder for him to leave. Now you’re both free. That’s a good thing.”

Catherine felt her eyes filling with tears, and though she fought with all she had to maintain her composure, it was a losing battle. “Do you read Shakespeare and Whitman and Keats? Do you admire art? You say music is artificial – Vincent loves the symphony, piano concertos, the violin. Will he ever hear any of them again if he leaves with you? Do you even know who he is, what he believes in, what he dreams of?”

“Yes. He dreams of being free. He dreams of children. I can give him those things. You can’t. None of the rest of it matters.”

Catherine felt everything inside her rising to the surface, all her anger, all her frustration, all her shattered hopes. “I would have given him everything in the world. I would have gone anywhere with him. I would have given him as many children as it was possible for us to have ...if only he would have let me.”

Rhea watched her, understanding things for the first time. “I see,” she said simply. “Then it was always Vincent that stood between you and what you really wanted. Remember that, Catherine, after he’s gone. It was never me. It was always him.”

Catherine could find no more words to say. Deep inside her she knew Rhea was right. There was nothing more to do but go home. 


****


The party the next evening was long and difficult, and Catherine regretted agreeing to attend. She spent most of her time talking to the children, who were overwhelmingly curious about Vincent’s decision to leave with Rhea.

“Are they going to get married?” Samantha asked. Catherine could only say she had no idea.

“Why does he want to marry Rhea instead of you?” Eric asked, and Kipper shoved him, saying, “Don’t ask so many questions!”

Catherine looked at the children and wondered how to explain. But before she could say anything, Samantha suggested, “Maybe we’re supposed to marry people that look like us. You know, Vincent and Rhea are the same type of person.”
“Well, maybe,” Catherine said.

“Like Winslow,” Samantha went on, “he should be with someone who looks like him.”

“You mean a black person?” Eric asked.

“Right,” said Samantha. “Black people should marry black people, freckled people should marry freckled people, and Chinese people should marry Chinese people -”

“Like Lin and Henry,” Kipper said.

Catherine shook her head, “No, I don’t think that’s what Vincent means at all – ”

“But it must be,” said Samantha, “because Vincent loved you, Catherine, but he isn’t going to marry you. Because he and Rhea are alike. So they should get married.”

That seemed to satisfy Eric and Kipper, and the children raced off to get something to eat. Father stepped out from behind the bookshelf and smiled at Catherine. “It’s not easy talking to children, is it?” 

She sighed. “No, it isn’t. I didn’t know what to say to them.”

“None of us do. This has all happened so suddenly.” He reached out to her and motioned toward his chamber. “Come,” he said. “Humor an old man. Talk to me.”

It was quiet in Father’s chamber, nice. Catherine dropped into an armchair, acknowledging how tired she felt.

“Are you all right?” Father asked her. “I mean, really all right?”

“I think so,” she said. “He does look happy, doesn’t he?”

Father nodded. “He does.”

“I’ve never seen him smiling so much, laughing. It’s like a great burden has been lifted. Rhea says he’s free now – maybe she’s right.”

“You can’t mean to say you approve of his decision!”

“Well, I don’t know if ‘approve’ is the right word. At first I was pretty angry – especially about the way I found out. Now, I think maybe he’s doing what he thinks he has to do.”

Father was silent for a moment. Catherine leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. She loved the tunnels, and she loved Father. All at once she realized how much she was losing with Vincent leaving. “Father,” she said tentatively, “would you mind very much if I visited from time to time ...came to see you, here in the tunnels?”

He took her hand in his and smiled warmly. “Dear Catherine, if you did not come visit I would be terribly offended. I love you as much as I could love any daughter.”

Catherine felt the dreaded tears filling her eyes, and she brushed them away, laughing. “If you make me cry, I’m leaving!”

“Well then, we must change the subject. Tell me whether you really think Vincent is doing the right thing.”

She sighed. “He’s doing the right thing for him.”

“But not for you?”

She wondered how much she could tell him, how much he really wanted to hear. “Father,” she said, “Vincent once told me that one either moves towards love or away from it – there is no other direction. Rhea doesn’t love Vincent, and I doubt he loves her.”

“But then he’s not making the right decision.”

“The right decision would have been for him to move towards love with me – but he can’t do that. I never realized the finality of that until this happened. He can’t allow himself to really love me. He can’t allow me to really love him. He’s always kept me at arm’s length, almost literally. With Rhea, he’s free to be who he really is. It isn’t love, but it’s important. And one day it could be love.”

Father shook his head. “He loves you. That won’t change.”

Catherine felt the tears coming again, but this time she let them come. “Then he should have let me love him back. He should have trusted that what we feel for each other would protect us, that he would never hurt me, that he could have everything he ever wanted – maybe even children – with me. He should have trusted me.”

Father was stunned. He took Catherine’s hand again, and spoke softly. “It’s my fault, Catherine. I was the one who convinced Vincent he couldn’t have a ...physical relationship with any woman. I made him afraid of his own feelings. I am so sorry.”

She squeezed his hand. “Yes, I’ve often thought that. But Vincent is a grown man. He must make his own decisions. We’ll both have to live with the ones he makes.”

Father spoke his next words carefully. “Catherine, I believe that if you asked him to, Vincent would stay with you.”

“I believe you’re right,” she said, and she smiled. “But I’ve never seen him as happy with me as he has been tonight with her. No, Father, we have to let him go.” She waited for a moment before continuing, but Father knew she had more to say. “He wasn’t strong enough, Father. He was too overwhelmed with fear and with doubt. He never believed in the two of us. He always talked about ‘our dream,’ and he always made it seem beautiful, but he never for one minute believed in it. I believed in it. Up until the moment I realized he was leaving me, I believed in it.”

She stood up and looked down at her wristwatch. “It’s late – I have to go. Will you say goodbye to Vincent for me? I’m not sure I can handle seeing him again.”

“Of course.”

“They’re leaving in the morning?”

Father nodded. Catherine smiled a little sadly. “Catherine, come tomorrow evening. We’ll have dinner together. It would be a big help to me.”

She hugged him warmly. “And to me. I’ll come. Goodnight.”

As she turned to leave, she almost bumped into Vincent, who was looking for Father. “Catherine, you’re leaving?”

“Yes, Vincent. It’s late.”

“Without saying goodbye?”

Father put his arm around Vincent and steered him into the chamber. “Let the lady leave, Vincent. She’s tired. I was just about to pass on her farewells to you.”

“But I should walk her out . . .”

Catherine brushed past him quickly. “I think I should be able to find my own way out by now,” she said a little too brightly. Then she turned to Vincent one last time. “Be well, Vincent.” And she was gone.

Vincent turned to Father, his face showing his concern. “Is she all right?”

“Yes, Vincent, she’s fine. Just a little tired and a little sad. We’re all a little sad.”

Vincent sank into the chair Catherine had just vacated – it seemed odd to Father that he had chosen the same one. “What were you two talking about?” Vincent asked.

“Just reminiscing,” Father said. “Catherine and I are quite fond of each other, you know.”

This struck Vincent as especially amusing, considering their history. “Will miracles never cease!”

“Actually,” Father said, “we were talking about you.” Vincent looked at him expectantly. “She said she thinks you’re doing the right thing.”

“I’m glad. I was worried about her. You know, I don’t seem to be able to read her as well these days – not since my decision to leave with Rhea.”

Father considered this. “My guess is that’s more Catherine’s doing than anything else.”

“You mean you think she’s purposely hiding her feelings from me? Why would she do that if she thinks I’m doing the right thing?”

Father hesitated. “Well, she said you’re doing the right thing for you. Not for her.”

“What do you mean?” Vincent’s voice was heavy with concern.

Throwing all caution to the wind, Father continued. “Do you remember telling Catherine that one either moves towards love or away from it?”

“There is no other direction,” Vincent murmured, remembering.

“Yes, that’s what she told me.”

“So, she thinks I shouldn’t leave with Rhea because I don’t love her?”

Father shook his head impatiently. “No, she thinks you should have had the strength ...to have had a real relationship with her, with Catherine.”

Vincent stared at Father in disbelief. “What do you mean, ‘the strength’?”

Father sighed and turned away. Perhaps it was not his place to speak of the things Catherine had told him. They had shared a confidence, a rare moment between them. 

But Vincent was insistent. He reached out and touched Father’s arm. “Please,” he said, with just a hint of frustration in his voice, “tell me what she said.”

Father hesitated once again, but then felt his resolve fall away. “She said you never really believed in the dream you shared ...that you weren’t strong enough.”

Vincent glared at Father. “I believed ...,” he stammered, his voice betraying his anger. “I believed in nothing else for almost three years!”

Father reached out and placed his hand on Vincent’s. When he spoke it was with a kindness that came from the deepest places in his heart. “Vincent,” he said, “for you it was only a dream. A dream that could never be real. Perhaps it was I who taught you that, who made you afraid of truly loving, I don’t know. But now, with Rhea . . .”

“Yes, Father? What about now, with Rhea?”

“With Rhea you have allowed yourself to believe that a dream could be real. That was what Catherine always believed, Vincent. I think . . .”

Vincent looked into Father’s eyes, waiting for words he knew would change everything, wanting at the same time for Father to speak those words and for him to remain silent.

“I think, Vincent, that you and I have made a terrible mistake. I think you were right when you told Catherine that one either moves towards love or away from it. There’s truth in that. And if you truly love Catherine –” 

“IF! You can say ‘if’ to me about Catherine? I have loved her in ways I never thought possible, not for me, not for any man. I have given up so much of myself to protect that love, to protect her!”

“But that’s just it, Vincent,” Father said. “Love isn’t about giving up. It’s about letting go ...having the courage, being strong enough, to let go.”

Vincent was speechless. These words, coming from Father, coming now when he was so sure he had made the right decision for all of them, were too hard to hear. “Letting go” was the one thing Father had always insisted he could never do. When he did, he lost himself in that dark other side that wasn’t quite human, the side of himself that Rhea insisted she knew and understood. He stood quickly and moved away from Father. He could still hear snippets of conversations coming from the Great Hall, and strains of the music that lingered as the party wound down. Rhea was there, waiting for him. “I must go,” he said quietly.

Father went to him and touched his arm. “I’m sorry, Vincent. Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoken of these things.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have,” Vincent said. Then he looked again into Father’s eyes. “She wouldn’t have loved the one I really am. Had I ‘let go,’ as you said, she would not have wanted me.”

“You never gave her the chance,” Father said quietly. Vincent lowered his head, hesitating for just a second, and then he was gone. Father sighed deeply and sank once again into his chair. It had been a long night, and he knew it would be a very difficult morning. Saying good-bye to Vincent, to this man he had loved since the moment he saw him, would be almost more than he could bear. 


****


Catherine sat in darkness in her living room, a cup of hot tea cradled in her hands. It was late, she knew, well after midnight, but sleep evaded her. He was leaving in the morning and she would never see him again. It all seemed so final, so irrevocable. She tried to imagine living her life without him. She would go to work as she always did. She would come home at the end of the day, tired and needing the comfort of this place that was hers, this sanctuary. She would sit here, on this sofa, and let the sounds of the city drift up to her from the streets below. She would look out at the city lights and watch them blend with the stars into a sparkling fantasy – the beauty of this city always took her breath away. All of that would still happen, even after he had gone. 

She took a sip of tea and settled into the darkness. Part of her wanted very much to drift off into sleep, to awaken late in the morning, after he was already miles away from her. But another part wanted to delay that unconsciousness – because every minute between now and then was another minute when he was still here, part of her life even though not with her. Knowing he was Below, even with Rhea, was a comfort to her. He was here. He was part of what made this city beautiful. She knew that she would never again be able to stand on her balcony and look out over the shimmering lights without feeling his absence.

The balcony. Would she ever be able to step out onto that balcony again without expecting to see him in the shadows, waiting for her? “Call a real estate agent tomorrow, Cathy,” she whispered to herself. “You can’t live here anymore, and you know it.”

That was the final realization, the one she had been refusing to look at. Every inch of this apartment and everything in it reminded her of him. Of them. And it was just too hard.

She put aside her tea and stood in the dark apartment. “Go ahead, Cathy,” she whispered. “You know you want to.” And she went to the balcony, pushing open the terrace doors, feeling the cold air on her skin. She wore only a loose nightgown and she felt goose bumps rise on her bare arms, but the chill seemed to strengthen her resolve. She stepped out and moved to the railing, feeling herself engulfed by the city and the stars and the night. When she closed her eyes, she could feel him standing with her. She could feel his arm around her waist. She could hear his voice, whispering, “Catherine.”

“Catherine.”

Startled, she turned ...and there he was. He was standing in the shadows, larger than life, his golden mane picking up the starlight and the moonlight and reflecting it all back to her like fire. She shook her head and backed away from him, seeking the safety of her apartment. “No,” she whispered. “Go, Vincent. Please. It’s just too hard.”

But he didn’t go. In a flash he was upon her and she felt something in him she had never felt before, something wild, something uncontrollable. Her heart beat faster and she felt the urge to run – it was an instinctual response, she knew – but she also knew that she wanted something else even more.

“I spoke to Father,” he said, his voice a growl. He was so close, looming over her, trapping her against the cold bricks. “He said I needed to let go. He said it was what you really wanted.”

Catherine gasped. “He said that?”

Vincent grabbed her then, in a way he had never dared before. He pulled her to him roughly, his sharp claws pressing into the tender flesh of her arms. She felt herself molded against his warm body and she was breathless. His hands began to move over her, one cupping her right breast, the other moving down her back, pressing, always pressing, his claws tearing at the fabric of her gown. “Is this what you really wanted?” he whispered, his voice angry, condemning. “Is this the man you say you love?”

She looked up at him, at his dark face glaring down at her, and desire flooded over her in a wave. In one fluid motion she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, really kissed him as she had done only in her dreams. She felt the breath catch in his throat and for a moment she was sure he would push her away. But then he was kissing her too, and his tongue was on hers, and his hands sought her breasts again, and a cry escaped her as she felt the urgency of his need. “Catherine . . .” he murmured, not sure what should happen next. “I’m not sure . . .”

She kissed him again, pressing herself even closer into the warmness of his body. “Yes, you are,” she whispered. She pulled him toward the bedroom doors and he went willingly. Inside, with the moonlight washing over her, he saw the tears in her gown and the light scratches on her arms. She felt him drawing away from her, back to that safe place he had created for himself, that place she could never enter. No, she thought wildly, not now, not again. Suddenly, without allowing herself a moment to think, she pushed back the shoulder straps of her silky gown and let it fall to the floor at her feet. Vincent gasped. He had imagined a moment such as this many times, but he had never once believed it would ever really happen. In that instant he knew that Father had been right ...Catherine had been right. He had not believed, not really. It had always been only a dream.

Her skin was creamy and glowing in the moonlight, and she was real, it was not a dream. She reached her arms out to him and in spite of himself, he responded. He touched her right breast, gently stroking the nipple, awed by the velvety feel of her skin. Catherine’s breath caught in her throat. It was not like it had been on the balcony, not wild and uncontrollable. Still, something magnificent was happening between them. He ran his hands slowly over her body, watching her face, feeling her through their bond. She opened herself up to him, flooding him with her desire and her own need for him. Both were speechless. 

Slowly, Catherine began undoing the laces on his vest. He did not stop her, but only kissed the hair at the top of her head. He allowed her to remove the vest, but when she went to work on the buttons of his shirt he pushed her hands away and pulled the cotton shirt over his head in one motion, dropping it on the floor next to her gown. There was a moment’s hesitation before he moved his hands to his belt, but it was hardly noticeable. He kicked off his boots, pulled off his jeans, and stood before her for the first time as he truly was. He felt as he had with Rhea, when the two of them had swum together at the Mirror Pool, totally free and himself at last. But this time it was with Catherine. This time it was with his heart’s desire.

Catherine marveled at the beauty of this man she loved. His body was strong and glorious, covered in most places with short golden fur that looked incredibly soft. She moved toward him and touched his chest, feeling the silky softness with her fingers. As she moved her hands over him, he pulled her close and kissed her deeply. He wanted her, she knew he did, but something was still making him hold back. Then she felt his fingers gently tracing the scratches on her arm and she knew. It was the old fear again, the terror that possessed him. He wanted her, but part of him – maybe the greater part of him – wanted her the way he had wanted her on the balcony. She was suddenly shocked to realize she wanted him that way as well.

She reached up and took his face in her hands, his beautiful face. “Touch me like you did before, Vincent,” she whispered. “Touch me the way you want to touch me. It’s what I want, too.” He shook his head and moved back from her a bit, struggling with himself. She knew this struggle and she let it build in him. “I am not afraid,” she said firmly. “I have never been afraid.”

“But I am afraid, Catherine.” His voice was quavering and uncertain. 

She moved into his arms, closer than she had thought possible, and savored the feel of his fur on her skin. Every millimeter seemed electrified and she sent those feelings into his soul, sharing with him her own supercharged excitement, her own need for the intensity she knew was raging within him. She felt rather than heard the low growl that was building in his throat. She threw back her head, offering herself to him fully. He brought his mouth to her neck and tasted her, his rough tongue stroking her flesh. Then his lips were on her skin and his teeth, his fangs were teasing her with their sharpness, the danger real but never real. She trusted him completely, and that trust was what gave him the courage let her see him as he really was.

He pulled her with him to the floor and took her breast in his mouth. She felt him biting her, sucking her, never quite hurting her ...but almost. And in the almost there was magic. She felt his claws on her back, sometimes pricking her in electric ways. The floor was hard – she would have preferred the bed – but he seemed to need it this way. He moved his mouth, his fangs, his claws over her body, and every inch of her was on fire. 

She touched him too. She wound his fur in her hands, she dragged her own claws down his back, over his buttocks, down the shaft of his rock-hard penis. He moaned when she touched him there and pressed his teeth into her throat, her breast, her shoulder. Then he moved lower on her body, licking and nipping at her stomach, then her thighs, then the soft hair between her legs. She gasped as he touched her there, his claws almost too hard, too sharp, too dangerous in that secret place. But again it was the “almost” that made it magic, as if any moment he would go too far, but in the seconds before he did she would experience pleasure she had never before imagined. 

And then he was on her, pressing himself into her with an urgency and a passion he could not control. He cried out as he entered her and she cried out too, and they moved together in wild abandon. She felt his claws pressing into her back, but she didn’t feel them. He felt her teeth on his neck, but he didn’t feel them. When his climax was near – only then – she felt him holding back from her again. But she moved against him purposefully, willing him with both body and mind to let himself go, and he exploded in joy and release, carrying her with him to an orgasm that was cosmic in its intensity.

Afterward, she found herself curled against him, his massive arms cradling her. She could feel his heart racing, and she knew her own heart was beating just as fast. Neither of them spoke. Then, slowly, she felt his hands begin to stroke her again, gently this time, softly, with a deep and enduring love. He nuzzled against her neck, and then looked up into her eyes. She knew what he was asking. She touched his face and then kissed him, softly but with new certainty. And she felt his tears on her face.



****


When they made love the second time, it was different. He carried her to the bed and took his time touching her, examining her, marveling at her beauty. The scratches on her body were real, and it took a little convincing on her part to assure him they were minor, insignificant, nothing that wouldn’t disappear in a day or two. She was surprised by the gentleness of this second encounter, and part of her wondered if he wasn’t holding back again, shielding her from his true desires. He seemed to understand her concerns, though, and he assured her that this, too, was part of him. They were together until the first light of dawn cast its glow into the bedroom. Vincent raised himself on his elbow and kissed her gently on her lips. “I must go, Catherine.”

“I know,” she said, glancing at the encroaching dawn. There was a question she wanted to ask him, something she needed to hear him say, but she couldn’t find the words. Still, he seemed to sense this.

“I need to tell Rhea I will not be leaving with her this morning,” he said softly. 

Catherine closed her eyes and let relief wash over her. “I’m glad,” she said. Then she looked at him, a new seriousness in her eyes. “But Vincent, I can’t promise you we can have children together. I can’t promise I can give you what she can, it may not be possible.”

“Hush, Catherine,” he said, smiling at her. “There is nothing in the world I will ever need except for you.”
“No, Vincent, that can’t be true. I heard you talk about having children. I saw your face when you dreamed of it, when you felt it could really be real for you.”

He pulled her close to him and kissed her gently. “If we can’t have children of our own, we will have a world of children to love and help raise. I grew up in the tunnels without real parents of my own, but I had more parents and more siblings than any child could ever need. We can be parents to as many children as we could ever wish for. I know that now, even if I didn’t know it before.”

“Are you sure, Vincent?”

He kissed her again. “I’m sure.” And she knew he was. 

She watched him dress, marveling at how comfortable they now were with each other. How much had changed in just a few hours! When he turned to leave her, she threw her arms around him one last time, feeling the smooth leather of his vest on her bare breasts. “If you keep doing this, Catherine, I won’t be able to leave at all!” She laughed and pushed him away playfully. He gazed at her in wonder, this woman who was now his lover. “Come Below tonight,” he whispered. 

She grinned. “Father invited me already. For dinner.”

“It wasn’t dinner I had in mind,” Vincent said huskily.

“Well, we’ll eat first,” Catherine said. “Then we’ll play!”

He pulled her into his arms again and kissed her one last time. “Yes,” he said. “We will.”



****


It wasn’t as difficult facing Rhea as Vincent had expected. She seemed to know everything the moment he walked into her chamber.

“Ah,” she said. “So my Vincent has conquered his demons.” When he said nothing, she laughed. “I should have known she would play that card. So she seduced you, did she?”

“I think, perhaps, it was I who did the seducing ...or the pouncing.”

Rhea looked at him quizzically. “Really? Well, then I have lost you, haven’t I?”

“Yes,” Vincent said. “But it isn’t such a great loss, is it? We didn’t love each other.”

Rhea sighed. “Catherine told me love was a big deal to you. It’s such a human emotion, Vincent. It gets all twisted up in other human emotions, like envy and jealousy and guilt and fear. You’ll find that out in the end. She can’t give you children, you know.”

“We will give each other everything it is possible for us to give. Beyond that, nothing matters.”

Rhea shouldered her pack, ready to begin her journey home. She looked up at Vincent and smiled. “I am glad I came. Meeting you gives me hope that somewhere out there someone waits for me, someone with whom I can share a life.”

“Must it be someone ...someone like us?”

Rhea shrugged. “Maybe not. I was certain before I came here that my only hope was someone of the same ...well, species. But, who knows? Maybe I was wrong.”

Vincent nodded, pleased at her willingness to look beyond her own certainties. “Tell Devon I miss him,” he said. “Tell him to come visit us.”

“I will,” Rhea said. Then she grinned at Vincent. “Hey, who knows? Maybe your brother will turn out to be . . .”

Vincent grinned back at her. “Who knows?”



****


Father was waiting in Vincent’s chamber when he returned from his talk with Rhea. The old man had not slept; Vincent could see the exhaustion and worry in his eyes, and he regretted the pain he had caused his father.

“Vincent, I was afraid ...I thought maybe you had left. But I was sure you wouldn’t leave without –”

“Stop, Father,” Vincent said, interrupting him. “I am not leaving.”

“What?!” Father was stunned. “Not leaving? What happened? Where’s Rhea?”

“I assume Rhea is on her way back to New Hampshire – I left her moments ago and she was packed and anxious to begin her journey.”

Father stared at Vincent in total confusion. How could so much have changed in just one night? Why, just hours ago Vincent had been happily focused on his new life with Rhea, and now ...

“Father, things have changed between me and Catherine,” Vincent said simply. 

Father said nothing, watching Vincent.

“We are ...in love,” Vincent said simply.

“And you are ...lovers,” Father added.

Vincent smiled in spite of himself, thrilled with the word. Lovers. Yes, they were lovers, in every sense of the word. He embraced Father warmly. “It’s all because of you,” he said, feeling his eyes fill with tears. “You said what needed to be said. And because you did, I was able to . . .get past the things that had kept us apart.”

“I’m glad,” Father said. “Oh, Vincent, I’m so glad!” And he hugged his son again, basking in the joy of Vincent’s happiness and his own. “So, what happens now?”

“Now, Father, Catherine is coming to dinner. She said you invited her.”

“Yes, I did. Although I must say, Vincent, we both expected to spend the evening consoling each other over our loss.”

Vincent lowered his head, ashamed again of the pain he had put Father and Catherine through. Father sensed his feelings, and reached out to him, reassuringly. “We both love you very much,” Father said.

“And I love you both very much.” He looked around his chamber then, taking in the books and artifacts and the stained glass panel behind his narrow bed. He and Catherine had spent time here together, but not as lovers. She had read to him, and he to her. He had nursed her through the terrible attack that brought her into his life three years ago. She had helped bring him back to himself during the dark days when he battled his inner demons. But now he was about to share this room with her as ...well, as her husband. That’s how he saw himself now. And somehow the room didn’t seem like the kind of place he wanted to bring his wife. He had never really envisioned himself joining with a woman in marriage. That dream was one he had not even dared to imagine. But now he wanted a place to bring her which would be as special as the one Kanin had created for Olivia.

Father seemed to know exactly what Vincent was thinking. “Come,” he said to his son. “I have something to show you.”



****


Vincent followed Father through the tunnels, taking the familiar circuitous route he quickly recognized as leading to the falls deep within the earth, the falls he had shared with Catherine during the days she lived Below after her father’s death. Asking no questions, he simply followed, wondering. 

When they reached the falls, they stood together for a moment admiring the cascading water. Vincent could feel the light spray that often reached visitors to this particular cavern. He remembered sitting here with Catherine, talking with her about their future together. She had asked him then if there would ever be a time when they would be “truly together.” She hadn’t said more than that, but he knew what she meant. Then, he had told her, “Only if and when we understand how great the sacrifice and how large the fear is, and are able to move through them.” How wise he had sounded then, but he had since learned that the only fear had been his own. Now, standing in this same place, he knew what it was to be loved by a woman, truly loved. 

Father interrupted his reverie by touching his arm and pointing toward a dark place in the rock beyond the falls. “There’s a path,” he said, showing Vincent the way.

“I never knew this was here,” Vincent said. “And I thought I knew all of the tunnels and pathways.”

Father smiled. “This one was mine. But it’s been almost two years since I’ve taken this path – not since Margaret died.”

Vincent was silent, remembering. Father and Margaret had had a great love. In fact, it was Father’s love for Margaret that helped him begin to understand Vincent’s love for Catherine. In a way, both were impossible relationships. But in another way, both miraculously blossomed. 

Father’s pathway wound behind the rocks until it ended in a chamber Vincent had never visited. Father entered first and lit several candles so that when Vincent first saw the room it was aglow with soft light. It was larger than it had appeared from the entryway, filled with comfortable chairs, a plush sofa, and bookshelves overflowing with books. There was a desk and an armoire and a rocking chair draped with several woolen throws. “This is where Margaret and I stayed when she was with us ...before she died,” Father said quietly. “Devon’s mother and I spent time here, too, during her pregnancy. And sometimes, I would come here to be alone, to be by myself. But not often. And not for a very long time.”

Toward the back of the room, in an alcove by itself, was a large bed covered with thick comforters and surrounded by candles. Just seeing it reminded Vincent at once of his night with Catherine ...and of the night to come. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered.

“Yes, it is,” said Father. “And I want to give it to you ...to you and Catherine. It can be your special place, a chamber where you and she can stay when she is here with us.” Father hesitated, thinking of something. “And if she comes to live Below with us, it can be your permanent chamber. Will she come Below to live with us?”

This was something Vincent had not yet considered. Would Catherine want to live with him Below? When she tried the last time, after her father died, she had decided against it. But part of him was sure that her reason for leaving no longer existed. There were no walls between them now, no fear. 

Vincent embraced Father and hugged him warmly. “Thank you, Father, for this great gift. I will bring Catherine here tonight, after dinner. If that’s all right with you, of course.”

“Of course, Vincent,” Father said. “I’ll ask Mary and Olivia to get it ready. It is a little dusty, I’m afraid.”

They walked back along the path together in silence. So much had happened over the past twenty-four hours. Vincent had planned to leave, perhaps forever, but now he was staying. He had said good-bye to Catherine with every intention of making a life with Rhea, but now his commitment to the woman he truly loved was without limitations and without obstacles. Father was overwhelmed with emotions, joy and relief the greatest among them. Vincent, too, was overwhelmed – with gratitude to this man who had raised him, and with love for the woman who would be with him again in just a few short hours.



****


Once again, Catherine Chandler stared at the clothes in her closet, wondering which dress might drive Vincent crazy with desire for her. She smiled, remembering their incredible night together, just a few short hours ago. He was crazy with desire for her! He would look at her with a lover’s eyes now, and they would enjoy each other passionately. Suddenly, she knew it would make no difference which dress she chose to wear that evening. She doubted she’d be wearing it for very long!

The one she chose was simple and blue – just the kind of dress for having dinner with Father. In fact, she might have chosen the same one even if things had turned out as she had expected them to – had Vincent really left with Rhea, she might have worn this dress to cry with Father over chicken and salad. Underneath the dress, however ...well, the lacy lingerie she selected had nothing at all to do with Father or dinner. She smiled to herself, hoping Vincent’s imagination would take him where she wanted it to the moment they saw each other.

Actually, it was that moment that concerned her, if only a little. She had known this man long enough to understand how big a step he had taken with her last night. Would he really be as sure of things this evening as he had been then? Or would he pull back from her again, building up the walls that protected him from himself? If that happened, she wasn’t sure . . .

Quickly, she threw on a light jacket and left her apartment, more than ready to meet the man she loved. Her heart pounded as she rode down on the elevator – would he be there at her threshold, waiting for her? Or would he wait for her in his chamber? She went to the storage area and pushed past the boxes to the ladder that led below. At the bottom, she stood for a moment in the shaft of light that flooded the threshold from Above. “Now, Catherine,” she whispered to herself, savoring the prickly and exciting nervousness that flooded over her.

“Yes, now!” Vincent cried, pulling her roughly into his arms. Before she had a chance to catch her breath he was kissing her, holding her closer than even seemed possible. She let herself melt into his kiss until they truly seemed one being, and she heard the gentle purr building to a growl in the back of his throat, signaling the growing intensity of his passion. That this was now familiar to her was a miracle in itself.

When he moved to kiss her neck, pressing her up against the cold stone of the passageway, she laughed and pushed away from him, playfully. “If we don’t stop now, we won’t make it to dinner, Vincent!”

He grinned at her mischievously. “And would that be so terrible?” he whispered, kissing her again. “I’ve missed you.”

She threw her arms around him and snuggled against him comfortably. “Me too,” she said. “Shall we forget dinner, then?”

He sighed and moved away from her, but just a little. “No, Father would kill us both if we didn’t show up. He has arranged something special, I think. A surprise.”

“Ah.” Catherine smiled and took his arm. They walked together back through the tunnels. They said little as they walked, but every once in a while, Vincent would pull her closer to him, or he would lean down and kiss her softly. 

Then, just at the entryway to Father’s chamber, he turned to her again and held her. “I love you,” he said. “I just want you to know that. To be sure of that.”

“I love you too,” she said. And they kissed, right there in Father’s entryway.

“And I love the both of you,” Father called from inside. “But if you don’t get in here this instant everything will be spoiled!”

Catherine felt her face flush with embarrassment, but Vincent only grinned. He guided her into Father’s chamber, which was alight with more candles than Catherine had ever seen in one place. A sumptuous feast was arranged on a table in the center of the room, and Father stood holding a bottle of Champagne. “I thought we’d have a little toast,” Father said brightly.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Catherine said, still amazed by the candles and the food. “It’s much more than I expected. I thought it was just dinner.”

Father smiled warmly. “It is just dinner, dear Catherine,” he said. “That and a welcome. You truly are a part of us now, you know.”

Catherine felt her eyes fill with tears and Vincent’s arm pulled her close. “One way or the other, I guess I was destined to cry tonight!” she said happily. 

Father motioned for Vincent and Catherine to take seats at the table. Then he poured the Champagne into tall crystal glasses, handing two of them to his guests. “There are some things I want to say,” he began. His voice was strong and clear, and Catherine could sense the joy he felt. It made her heart glad. “First, Mary and William prepared the dinner. They said it was their gift to you.”

Vincent and Catherine smiled at each other. “We must thank them, then,” Vincent said.

“And know they wanted to be here with us tonight. As did Mouse and Olivia and Pascal ...and, well, everyone. But I was feeling selfish and I wanted you all to myself. I hope you will grant an old man his whim every now and then.”

“Of course,” Vincent said graciously. Catherine just smiled, her heart growing ever warmer.

Father hesitated, and then began again. “Catherine, I must apologize for the role I played in keeping you and Vincent apart for so long.”

“No, Father,” Catherine said. “We’ve already spoken about this. You know how I feel.”

“Yes, dear Catherine. This is something I must say. Part of me truly was afraid of what might happen if you and Vincent ever ...well, if you ever truly expressed your love for each other ...physically.”

Catherine and Vincent were silent, but she felt him take her hand in his and squeeze it lovingly. She squeezed his back and smiled.

“But another part of me,” Father said, “was just afraid of losing you, Vincent.”

“What?” Vincent was startled. “Why would you ever have lost me?”

“For so long the two of us were like two parts of one whole, Vincent. We read together, walked together, talked for hours and hours about anything and everything. When Catherine came into your life ...well, much of that changed.”

“How did it change, Father?” Vincent asked.

“You had someone else to read to, I guess.” Father smiled and shook his head, a little sadly. “The bond between you was much stronger than any connection you felt to me. I was afraid of that. It threatened the life I had built for us here Below. And I want to tell you both how sorry I am that my fears and jealousy delayed this joyous moment.”

Catherine went to Father and hugged him. “I forgive you,” she whispered into his ear, just loud enough for him to hear. “And you know I owe most of ‘this joyous moment’ to you, don’t you?” He hugged her back and smiled.

“So,” Father said, holding up his glass of Champagne, “I raise my glass to you both, to Catherine and Vincent, who have taught me what love really means.”

“And to you, Father,” Vincent said, raising his own glass, “who taught me to trust in myself.”

“And to me,” Catherine said, laughing, “who put up with you both!”

They drank Champagne and ate Mary and William’s wonderful dinner and when they noticed Father’s eyelids growing heavy they said their good-byes. As they left the room, hand in hand, Catherine turned toward Vincent’s chamber, anticipating the moment they would at last be alone together. “No, Catherine,” Vincent said, grinning. “Come. I have a surprise.”

“Another surprise?” Catherine laughed. “I’m not sure I can take any more surprises!”

“Oh, I think you can!” He kissed her quickly and led her off toward the waterfall and the special chamber that awaited them.



****


Vincent guided Catherine down the dark narrow path beside the falls, keeping one arm protectively around her waist at all times. “Where are we going, Vincent?” she asked, completely baffled by this journey. Why didn’t he take her back to his chamber? She had thought of almost nothing else since the moment he left her at dawn, and now he seemed intent on some sort of side trip. What could be so important that it should delay their final reunion?

She caught a glimpse of pale light as they neared the secret chamber, but before she could ask Vincent what it meant he swept her up in his arms and carried her inside, setting her on her feet amid the glow of countless flickering candles. She gasped and looked around her in amazement, catching the soft scene of lilacs amid the dancing lights. “Like Kanin’s gift to Olivia,” she murmured, spellbound.

“It’s my gift to you,” Vincent said quietly. “And Father’s gift to us.” He watched her as she looked around the room, taking in the flowers and the books and the colorful tapestries that adorned the walls. He saw her eyes move to the bed in the little alcove, strewn with lilacs. He knew she remembered. “Do you like it?” he asked her.

She turned to him, her eyes full of tears. “I love it,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion. Then she threw her arms around him and kissed him, putting all of her love into it, sending him all of her heart, all of her soul in a mad rush of joy and desire. The bond between them crackled with electricity and she felt like every inch of her was touching every inch of him. Vincent scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the bed in two strides. 



****


Later, when it was over and they were breathless in each other’s arms, she couldn’t remember how her dress had gotten over in the corner or how his boots had ended up under the chair. Her body remembered every touch, however. Her lips remembered every kiss. And now, with her fingers entwined in the soft fur of his chest, she knew she was home at last. No more doubts, no more uncertainties, no more limits. 

“Come live with me and be my love,” Vincent whispered in her ear. 

Her heart responded to the words of Marlowe’s poem. “And we will all the pleasures prove,” she whispered back to him, delighted.

He pulled back to look at her, his face more serious now. “I’m really asking you,” he said. 

“And I’m really answering,” she said, kissing him warmly. 

He cocked his head slightly, considering. “Then you’ll . . .”

“Stay forever,” she said. And she moved into his arms again, the only place she ever wanted to be.