April showers in Manhattan were certainly living up to their name. The past five days had featured some form of constant rain, from thunderstorms to heavy misty mornings with endless drizzles that could break into a deluge with no advance warning. Friday’s thunderstorm with its strong winds had turned Catherine’s last good umbrella inside-out on her way back to the office from the courthouse, and she had arrived soaking wet from head to toe, much to Joe’s amusement.
After Catherine finally squished and dripped her way home late Friday evening with a borrowed umbrella that had clearly seen better days, she discovered, much to her chagrin, that her favorite watch had also become a casualty of the storm. It had been her mother’s, a dainty white gold and platinum bracelet watch Charles Chandler had proudly brought home from Tiffany’s as a gift for his beautiful, clever, and supportive wife to celebrate the establishment of his new law firm and thank her for all of the dinners and parties she’d hosted and the valuable introductions and connections she’d facilitated to help make their dream – Chandler & Coolidge – a reality.
Well, the lovely watch had definitely stopped working, and the crystal was fogged up underneath, a sure sign it would need to be thoroughly dried out and then taken to Mr. Dawson’s repair shop for careful tending. Yet another errand to add to the list for Catherine’s few days off this weekend, another task eating away at the precious hours she could be spending Below with Vincent and her Tunnel family.
As Catherine carefully nestled the cherished watch in a bowl of uncooked rice, gently burying the cloudy crystal until it was completely covered, she crossed her fingers, hoping the rice would absorb most of the water and dry out the interior of the watch case by morning.
Oh, she was so tired, and her soggy feet positively ached. Ugh! Her slacks were still damp almost to her knees and freshly drenched at the hems after her mad dash from the cab, up the steps of her building, and into the lobby. She draped her soaked raincoat over one of the kitchen chairs. And her shoes! Well, hopefully stuffing them with some dry gym socks and setting them in front of a fan would do the trick without ruining the leather. She sighed. With today’s luck, they’re probably a lost cause too.
What troubled Catherine most, though, had nothing to do with the rain, or her dripping clothes, or her soppy hair, or the bedraggled borrowed umbrella that had ripped at the seams the moment she stepped out of the cab and was now permanently residing in the lobby trashcan. Gee, thanks for the loan, Joe!
She deposited all of her wet clothes in a plastic laundry basket to sort out later. No, she thought, as she climbed into the tub for a nice, hot soak. My biggest problem is I still haven’t found an anniversary gift for Vincent, and I don’t have any good ideas, and I’m running out of TIME! Grrr!
Mulling over her problem made for a less-than-relaxing bath, and writing out her list of Saturday chores while downing the rest of last night’s reheated Chinese takeout certainly didn’t lift her mood or aid her digestion.
You know what, Catherine decided, as she started crossing errands off the list. The dry cleaning can wait until Monday morning, the car tune-up can be rescheduled for next weekend, and I’m just going to drop off my grocery list with Mr. Li’s son first thing tomorrow morning and pay for an afternoon delivery. That leaves me free to take Mom’s watch to Mr. Dawson and then spend the morning haunting the antique shops on his block to find an inspiration for Vincent’s gift.
TIME! Precious, precious time to search for the perfect gift for Vincent – a task she relished, but certainly one that was easier said than done. It had to be thoughtful – not another book! It had to be deeply personal, something no one else would give him. It had to reflect how important he was in her life and how profoundly she loved him. But, it couldn’t be lavish or obviously expensive, because then he would feel unable to reciprocate, and it would remind him of “all the things he couldn’t give her.” Oh, I am so tired of hearing that phrase!
“He gives me everything . . . everything that really matters,” Catherine murmured to herself. “But what can I give him to convey that message? I wonder . . .” she mused, as she settled into bed that night. “I wonder . . .”
Saturday morning proved as gray and ominous as the preceding week. The weather report on Catherine’s clock radio predicted more rain off and on throughout the day, so she tucked her jeans into a pair of sturdy rain boots. Since her raincoat still hadn’t dried from the day before, she dug into the back of the closet for her hooded anorak, zipped out the winter lining, and tossed it on over her white button-down shirt and pale green sweater.
Not exactly the height of fashion, Catherine concluded as she gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror. But with all these pockets, I won’t need to bother with a purse, and at least I’ll stay reasonably dry until I can buy a new umbrella.
She popped a top on the Tupperware bowl containing her mother’s rice-buried watch, grabbed her wallet and keys, and hurried out the door to catch a cab and quickly drop off her grocery list with David Li. Then she was on her way to Mr. Dawson’s watch and clock repair shop in Chelsea.
“Miss Chandler!” the repairman called, as he removed his special magnifying glasses and placed a protective Plexiglas cover over his current project. “I do hope your father’s pocket watch isn’t giving you trouble again.”
“Not at all, Ed,” Catherine replied, hugging the elderly Helper. “It still keeps perfect time. I can’t thank you enough for working on it so diligently. It was Dad’s pride and joy, plus it’s been in the family for several generations and very precious to me.”
“Well, it was a pleasure, my dear,” Mr. Dawson said. “They just don’t make watches like that anymore. Now, what can I do for you today?”
Catherine handed him the Tupperware container full of rice. “I’m afraid it’s my mother’s watch this time,” she stated. “I was wearing it yesterday for a court appearance and got caught in a downpour with a faulty umbrella.”
“Oh dear!” he exclaimed, taking the container back to his work bench. “Well, you did the right thing by putting it in a bowl of rice overnight. Now, what do we have here . . .”
Catherine was somewhat reassured to see the foggy crystal had cleared up. After a few tension-filled minutes of examination, Mr. Dawson smiled at her and said, “Well, young lady, you’ve caught a lucky break. I’ll need to keep this little Tiffany beauty for a few days of tender loving care, but I should have it in good working order for you by Tuesday at the latest.”
“Oh, I’m so relieved!” Catherine exclaimed, hugging the old man once again. “Thank you so much! I know Mom’s watch will be in the very best of hands.”
“And I’m happy to be able to give you a positive prognosis for this lovely patient, as Father would say,” joked Mr. Dawson. “I have your number, so I’ll call you as soon as Miss Tiffany here is well enough to go home. Now, is there anything else I can do for you today?”
Catherine sighed. “As a matter of fact, you might be able to give me some advice. I’m trying to find a wonderful gift for Vincent. Tomorrow will be the third anniversary of the day he found me in the park. You’ve known Vincent for so many years. Would any of your neighbors have something really special he might like? Otherwise, I’m going to spend the morning desperately browsing for inspiration.”
Mr. Dawson’s wrinkled face blossomed into a wreath of laugh lines. “As a matter of fact, I do. Are you aware Vincent collects clocks?”
Catherine thought for a moment, then replied, “No, but now that I think about it, there are clocks tucked away here and there throughout his chamber. Huh . . . I wonder why he collects them?”
“That’s a mystery I’m afraid I can’t solve for you, my dear,” said Mr. Dawson. “I just know several Tunnel dwellers, particularly that Mouse boy, have come to me over the years for help repairing clocks intended as gifts for Vincent’s collection. Now, you might want to visit Harland Antiques just across the street. Leonard Harland brought in a beautiful mantel clock last week that he’d found at an estate sale. Hand carved with a gold embossed face and genuine Swiss clock movements. Gorgeous piece! It needed some refurbishing, but I had it working like new in just a few days. He picked it up yesterday, and I saw it featured in his window this morning. It would make a handsome addition to Vincent’s collection.”
Catherine chewed her lower lip. “I don’t know. I was hoping to find something really unique and meaningful, something no one else would give him.”
Mr. Dawson took her hands in his and murmured, “Trust me, Miss Chandler. This clock is one-of-a-kind, and I know Vincent doesn’t have anything remotely like it. Just take a look, you’ll see.”
“All right,” Catherine replied with a smile, squeezing the repairman’s gnarled hands gently. “I’ll definitely go see this remarkable clock. Even if it isn’t what I’m looking for, perhaps it will spark another idea.”
“That’s the spirit!” exclaimed Mr. Dawson, as he walked her to the door. “But I have a feeling this clock was meant for you.”
Outside Harland Antiques, Catherine stared into the window for a moment in complete shock and then rushed inside to find the owner. Behind an oak-and-glass-paneled display case was a distinguished looking gentleman in his mid-50s carefully unpacking some delicate figurines.
“Excuse me,” Catherine greeted him gently. “I’m Catherine Chandler. Your neighbor, Mr. Dawson, sent me over to inquire about the mantel clock in your window. Are you Mr. Harland?”
“Yes, I am,” Mr. Harland replied, smiling and reaching out to shake Catherine’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Chandler. So, Ed Dawson thinks you might have the perfect home for my latest find, eh? Please, have a seat right here, and I’ll bring it out.”
Mr. Harland directed Catherine to a lovely arrangement of Victorian-era parlor furniture and settled her on a brocade loveseat in front of a low service table covered with a protective felt. Then he retrieved the mantel clock from the display window and placed it carefully on the table.
It was even more beautiful up close! Mr. Dawson had polished the gold embossed face until it gleamed. The crystal front had nary a scratch, and the delicate, precise tick-ticks of the Swiss clock movements were practically musical. But the case absolutely took her breath away! Ed Dawson hadn’t exaggerated when he said the clock was one-of-a-kind. The hand-carved walnut case was clearly the work of a master carver even Cullen would envy. Graceful roses and ivy curled about the base and climbed up and over the frame of the round clock face.
“Oh,” she whispered in awe, “this is just magnificent!”
The bell above the shop door jingled, announcing the arrival of another customer.
“Please, take your time examining the clock, Miss Chandler,” said Mr. Harland, waving and rising to greet a familiar client. “I’ll be back in just a moment.”
It’s gorgeous! Catherine whined to herself. But I bet Mr. Harland will want at least a thousand dollars for it. It’s too much, too expensive. Vincent would never accept it.
Sighing dejectedly, Catherine gently reached out and turned the clock around to look at the back and then gasped. Engraved across the back cover was the following inscription:
too slow for those who wait,
too swift for those who fear,
too long for those who grieve,
too short for those who rejoice.
But for those who love,
Time is Eternity.
TIME! What were they always searching for, scrambling for, only to measure it out in a few stolen moments here and there – hours, if they were lucky? TIME!
And then, the mantel clock under her hands softly chimed ten times. Ten o’clock. And she knew. No matter the cost, this was Vincent’s anniversary gift, without a doubt.
Catherine returned home with her treasure packed securely in a wooden box in plenty of time to meet David Li with her grocery order. In addition to the clock, she had also acquired a new umbrella from a local department store and a lovely 1950s-era cocktail dress she’d spied in a vintage clothing shop down the street from Harland Antiques and just had to have for their anniversary celebration.
She stowed away all of her purchases, ate a late lunch, and then slipped out to the library to see if she could find the author of the lovely poem engraved on the back of the clock. Bartlett’s was no help, and neither was the reference librarian on staff (clearly not a poetry fan), so the task occupied most of the afternoon. Just when she was about to give up, she found a clue leading her to a small volume entitled Music and Other Poems. Success at last!
When Catherine emerged from the library hours later, umbrella firmly in hand, she discovered the clouds at last had dissipated, revealing an evening sky painted with an exuberant sunset. Well, it just figures, doesn’t it? She laughed, shaking her head. I finally have time to buy a good umbrella, and the rain goes away!
On the way home, Catherine decided to treat herself to a gourmet takeout pizza from Vitelli’s for dinner, so she could spend her evening choosing just the right shoes, jewelry to go with her crystal necklace, and a warm wrap to wear with the vintage dress for their celebration. Vincent had planned a picnic luncheon for them in the Chamber of the Falls, so she already knew she needed to select low-heeled pumps or flats in order to be comfortable for the walk.
Catherine had just plated two slices of yummy sausage and mushroom pizza and poured a glass of wine when she heard the familiar “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits” knock on her front door. That knock, plus no phone call from the doorman downstairs, could only mean . . .
“Hello there, Kipper!” Catherine called, before she’d even opened the door.
“Hi Catherine!” the cheeky pre-teen responded, as he quickly slipped in the door before any of her neighbors could spot him.
“Let me guess,” she joked. “You could smell my Vitelli’s pizza all the way down in the Tunnels and just had to come by for a slice?”
“Not reeeeeally,” Kipper said drolly. “But I sure wouldn’t turn down a slice. Or two!”
“Here, why don’t you help yourself to this plate, and I’ll get you a glass of milk and serve up some more pizza for myself,” Catherine replied, as she scooped her wine glass and the bottle off the dining table and headed into the kitchen.
“Gee, thanks!” Kipper called. “This looks great! And you know me, I’m always hungry.”
“Oh, believe me, it is great – Vitelli’s has the best pizza in town,” Catherine explained, returning to the table with another plate of pizza and two glasses of milk.
As they clinked their glasses together and tucked into the delicious pizza, Catherine noticed Kipper’s hair was wet and still dripping a bit onto the collar of his patched flannel shirt.
“Did you just come from a swimming lesson?” she asked, hoping against hope that Kipper’s wet hair didn’t mean what she feared.
“Uh, well, no,” Kipper responded. “Actually, Vincent sent me with a message for you, since I was in the first crew released from working flood control. He’s probably still at the site.”
“Oh, no!” Catherine exclaimed. “Oh, is it bad? All the rain this week – of course, there’d be flooding in the Tunnels! Was anyone hurt? Do you need anything? More supplies? How can I help?”
“Whoa! Whoa! WHOA!” Kipper shouted, as Catherine jumped to her feet to go grab some boots and a jacket and hurry Below. “Easy there, Catherine! Everything’s under control. That’s why Vincent sent me.”
The boy gently took Catherine’s arm and steered her back to her seat at the table. “Here, go ahead and eat your dinner. It’s all right,” Kipper murmured soothingly.
“Listen,” he continued, around a large bite of pizza. “Vincent was going to come visit you tonight himself to let you know that his plans for your anniversary picnic were still on, despite all the rain. We’ve all been working overtime for the past few days on flood patrol to stay ahead of the storms. We know where the bad spots are, and we’d already set up flood control diverters, drains, grates, and sandbags to channel most of the runoff away from the home tunnels and storage areas.”
Kipper paused for a big slug of milk and another gigantic bite of pizza. “Ummm, this is so good,” he groaned. “I haven’t had any dinner yet, because I knew Vincent would want me to see you as quick as I could after my bath. This hits the spot!”
“Well, far be it for me to stand between a hungry working man and his pizza,” Catherine joked, rising to bring the pizza box out to the table. “My personal messenger should have as much pizza as he wants.”
“Reeeeeeallly?! Great!” Kipper exclaimed, helping himself to two more slices, and then a third at Catherine’s urging, plus another giant gulp of milk that emptied the glass, wiping his mouth on his sleeve before diving back into pizza heaven.
Catherine chuckled and headed back into the kitchen. “I’ll go get the milk carton, and you slow down there and tell me what’s been happening with the flood crew. They must be exhausted.”
“Oh yeah,” the boy blurted out between bites. “We’re all pretty tuckered, but excited too. The diverters and drains worked like a dream! It’s mostly been a lot of patrolling to catch any spots we didn’t anticipate, and then some mucky, dirty work to keep the drains and grates cleared and the diverters unclogged so the water doesn’t overflow.”
Kipper paused for several gulps of milk and then continued. “Everything’s been better since the Council made the decision to completely seal off the Maze. With no one going in there anymore, we can divert flood runoff into the Maze, which is huge, and let the water make its own way safely into a big tunnel that opens up into the Abyss. It’s pretty impressive to stand up on the bridge and watch all that water gushing out of the tunnel and falling down, down, down. Heh, I guess now when we get these big rains, we’ll have a new waterfall to watch!”
“I guess so,” Catherine replied with a weak smile, thinking about just how dangerous that water could’ve been, if the Tunnel community hadn’t prepared so well. “So, I suppose Vincent is staying behind to make sure everything’s properly shored up and all of the workers are safely out of the flood zone until the water recedes?”
Kipper snorted. “Not exactly! The water in the main flood area has pulled back quite a bit already, but it left behind a huge muddy mess right around the base of our rope ladder up to drier ground. Vincent was standing at the base to help steady the members of my work crew as we each mounted the ladder. It’s trickier than you might think when you’re soaking wet, and your hands are cold and achy, and your boots are all slimy, and your feet are numb from working in the mud. Anyway, Brooke was the last member of my crew to come up the ladder, and her foot slipped. Vincent grabbed her and kept her from falling until she could get a better grip on the ladder, but once he let her go, he was really off balance and had nothing to grab onto, so he fell backwards, SPLAT!!, right into about a foot of mud!”
Catherine clapped both hands over her mouth, trying desperately not to laugh, but a vision of Vincent rising up out of the mud onto his elbows from being flat on his back was just too much for her. She burst out laughing, and Kipper joined her with an odd chortle that alternately boomed and squeaked because of his changing adolescent voice, making Catherine laugh even harder.
“Oh! Oh!” Catherine groaned, shaking her head and trying as hard as she could to stop laughing. “We really shouldn’t be laughing at Vincent like this!” Giggle. “It’s not funny!” Snort. “It really isn’t funny!”
“Yes it is!” shouted Kipper, his face cherry-red with hilarity as he thumped Catherine on the back. “Vincent was the first one of us to laugh! That’s how we knew he wasn’t hurt in the fall. It was such a relief to hear him laugh!” And they both gave in and enjoyed a good belly roar together.
“Oh my!” sighed Catherine when their case of the giggles finally subsided. “Well, that explains where Vincent is, then. He’s probably still in the bathing pool trying to get all that mud out of his hair. Poor thing!”
“Yeah, I suppose he’s probably in the bathing pool by now,” Kipper agreed. “He said he was going to the Falls first to let the force of the water get rid of the mud before going to his bathing pool.”
“Oooh!” Catherine shuddered. “That water is soooo cold! I don’t know how he stands it. At least his bathing pool is nice and hot.”
Kipper yawned and then chugged down the last of his milk. “Well, thanks for dinner, Catherine, but I’d better head back before I fall asleep right here at your table. Oh, I almost forgot! Vincent said he would meet you at your threshold tomorrow morning at eleven o’clock to walk you Below for your anniversary picnic. He hopes you’ll plan to spend the day with him and maybe go to his music chamber to hear the concert in the park tomorrow night. He said something about a barber and a dodge ball with strings? Not sure what he meant by that.”
Catherine giggled as she hugged Kipper goodbye, kissed him on the top of his head, and walked him to the door. “Not a barber,” she explained. “Samuel Barber. He composed a beautiful orchestral piece called Adagio for Strings.”
“Okay, okay,” Kipper groused, pinking up a bit and wrinkling his nose as he rubbed the spot she’d kissed. “You know I’m not into that classical stuff. Is there a return message for Vincent?”
“Yes,” Catherine replied. “Tell Vincent his plans are perfect, and I look forward to our special day together, and I wish him pleasant dreams. You. Too. Kipper,” she emphasized, tapping him on the chest with each word. “You’re practically dead on your feet. Go get a good night’s sleep, hard-workin’ man!”
“Thanks, Catherine.” Kipper grinned, giving her a surprise kiss on the cheek as he slipped out the door. “Good night!”
Despite his best efforts to be patient and walk slowly, Vincent was still fifteen minutes early arriving at Catherine’s threshold the next morning. It took every ounce of his self-control not to pace anxiously between the break in the brick wall and the ladder beneath the access port to the basement storage area of her apartment building.
Oh, who am I kidding? Vincent thought, as he pushed off the wall and restlessly stalked back and forth, trying to bleed off his nerves and pent-up energy.
Catherine! How I have missed her! It had been two months since their “date” on the roof of Albert Johnson’s building on Columbus Circle and three months since their very first kiss after all the excitement over Arthur giving birth to three baby raccoons just before Winterfest. And Vincent had counted – and increasingly resented – every second they’d been forced to spend apart.
Since those occasions, between Catherine’s increased responsibilities and notoriety after the highly publicized Nolan trial and the challenges the Tunnel community had been facing with the broken water main in February and now the recent flooding, they’d only managed fleeting moments alone together. A five minute conversation as Catherine brought news of an impending delivery of construction supplies she’d generously purchased so they could engineer a genuine repair to the water main, rather than their usual series of temporary patch jobs. Sharing the lunch she’d helped bring for his work crew, and the wonderful hug she’d given him, even though he’d been soaking wet and so filthy he was shocked she’d been willing to even touch him. A few tender moments on her balcony, when she’d clung to him in exhaustion, arriving home well after midnight from work. Once, she’d actually fallen asleep while standing in his arms, and he’d carried her to bed, so tempted to stay with her. But he didn’t dare. Not yet.
And with every precious second alone together, Vincent kept measuring and testing himself, relaxing his iron grip bit-by-bit on his second nature and then reining it back in, experimenting with his ability to control and maybe even begin to trust his “Otherness.” Permitting himself to experience and relish Catherine’s visceral reaction to his display of strength at Winterfest, even to the point of showing off for her just a little. Initiating a kiss here, a touch there. That transcendent moment on the rooftop when he’d grazed her neck with his fangs and gloried in her thrilled response as she welcomed his nuzzling exploration with complete trust. Holding her in his arms and imagining . . . one day. One day, when he was sure he could trust himself . . .
But they needed TIME. Or rather, he needed time. Catherine had already shown him in so many ways that she trusted him – all of him – completely and without reservation. But he needed to be sure. And for that to happen, they needed time alone together. Time for him to test and try and learn and know. To be certain he was worthy of the precious gifts of her trust and her love.
But how were they going to find the TIME? He’d had such good intentions for making each day of the week leading up to their third anniversary special and memorable in some way by sending Catherine messages during the day and visiting her balcony with a book or flowers every evening, if he could manage it. Even if it meant waiting hours until she could finally get home from work. Even if it was only for a few moments. But all his wonderful plans had washed down the drain with the Tunnel community’s frantic efforts to prepare and deal with the record rainfall that had hit the city that week. No one could be spared to take a message to Catherine until yesterday, and even then, it had to be Kipper, and not him.
Vincent chuckled to himself as he recalled meeting the drowsy boy on his return trip from Catherine’s apartment. Kipper had practically waxed poetic describing the pizza dinner he’d shared with Catherine before delivering her message. He’d bragged, “Catherine gave me a kiss goodbye, Vincent, but I’m pretty sure it was reeeeeally meant for you.”
Then the cocky boy had rubbed the top of his head with his hand and “transferred” the kiss by rubbing Vincent’s cheek. “There ya go!” the lad had chortled and sauntered off down the tunnel toward the chamber he shared with Geoffrey, Eric, and Zach. Vincent shook his head. They were growing up so fast!
He turned his senses inward to the Bond he shared with Catherine. All morning, he’d reveled in her happiness and anticipation as she made preparations for a day Below. She was such a beautiful woman, yet he knew the daily thought and care she took with her appearance had relatively little to do with vanity (some, but not much, and not undeserved), but was instead an expression of respect for herself, for her job, for the crime victims and the city she represented, and for the friends and family she loved and admired.
And truthfully, there was also an element of feminine armor in the way Catherine dressed for her roles Above. Heels to give extra stature and authority to her small frame. Strong, elegant suits to accent her professionalism and competence. And always there was a grace and softness that made her approachable and underscored her trustworthiness for witnesses and victims and juries. He really admired the intelligence, good taste, and skill behind her careful, polished surface.
But when Catherine was dressing for him, well, that felt entirely different. It had always been different from the very beginning, even before she had discovered the truth of her feelings. There was an impression of occasion, of moment, an even more sensual pleasure in the textures and colors of fabrics, the smoothness of creams and lotions, the scent of perfumes, an exquisite delight in choosing something to please him, something that might invite his touch, the anticipation, the thrill. How these feelings had tormented him and yet at the same time pleased him profoundly down to his very core!
And now, now there was no reason to try oh-so-futilely to block these sensations, no reason not to enjoy this deep sense of knowing that Catherine was adorning herself, becoming as beautiful and pleasing as she possibly could, for him.
And then, he felt the moment shift with a sharp spike of joy, and he knew she was coming. At last, she was coming to him.
Vincent’s sensitive ears picked up the whir and groan of the elevator machinery coming to life, the ding-ding of the bell as it stopped at several other floors to pick up and let off passengers, a final ding-ding-clank-scrape as the doors opened in the basement, and the click-click of Catherine’s shoes as she made her way into the storage area.
Was she really wearing heels to come Below? How impractical! And then Vincent’s internal Father-like monologue ground to a halt when his second nature purred, I shall carry her everywhere we go. So there!
He heard the thunk of something solid and a bit heavy being placed on the ground, the scrape of boxes being pushed aside, the slight squeak of the handle on the access doors, and the squeal of the hinges.
Hmmm, he thought, I really should oil those things.
And then, light poured through the open doors revealing . . . an Angel.
Oh, she is lovely! A dream spun of honey and cream and peach and gold.
“Vincent!” she softly called, her voice sweet and rich and so full of love and yearning.
And without pause, his Otherness answered by swarming up the ladder and stunning her with a kiss that spoke volumes about longing and hunger and adoration and need and more. His free hand gently cupped the base of her skull, fingers kneading into her hair and stroking her scalp as he kissed her and kissed her.
And she, oh, she responded in kind! After the tiniest instant of astonishment, she caressed his cheek with the palm of her softly perfumed hand, gliding it sensually up his jaw, over his ear, into his hair, and around to the back of his neck to capture and hold him so tenderly as she returned his kiss, her rapture and joy and desire pouring into their Bond like a river.
How long that kiss might have continued, they would never know, because the clang and whir of the elevator being summoned back to an upper floor startled them both back to their senses, leaving them panting a bit, staring in dazed, slightly sheepish, wonder, still clasped together in a one-armed embrace.
Catherine was the first to recover the power of speech. “I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed each other,” she whispered with a bemused, gentle smile.
He just stared at her, panting, struggling for . . . words. Where had they gone?
“Vincent?” she murmured, softly stroking his hair, recognizing the dark, wild eyes of her Protector, now soft and hazy with want and a bit of confusion. “It’s okay. Thank you for such a wonderful kiss hello. But I think we should go Below now. It’s not safe here.”
“Catherine,” the Protector in him rumbled slowly. “My Catherine.”
Oh heavens! She’d never heard this voice before, resonating so deeply from his chest! I didn’t think he could speak when he was like this! she marveled inwardly.
“Yes,” she replied gently, sliding her free hand down his throat to rest over his thundering heart. “Yours, always yours.”
The Protector looked down at her hand and then back up to her face again, blinking, and then Vincent whispered, bashfully, “Catherine, my apologies. I don’t know what . . .”
“Hey,” she softly interrupted. “Don’t say that. You never have to apologize for kissing me or showing your love for me in any way.”
“But, I don’t know if it really was me,” Vincent explained, as he released her and began to back down the ladder. But she quickly grabbed his hand before he could retreat, and he looked back up at her shyly.
“In. Any. Way,” Catherine reiterated, pouring her love into their Bond. Then, she placed her small gold evening bag into his hand, like she was giving him her heart, and released him. He nodded wordlessly, securing the little bag in one of his cloak pockets.
“And of course it was you,” she continued, lightening the mood and passing him the wooden box with her surprise treasure.
“I’m not entirely sure about that,” Vincent murmured, as he set the box over in the corner and then turned around, only to spy Catherine’s dainty foot shod in a graceful cream and gold kitten-heel pump peeking out of the door (beautiful and practical, My Catherine) followed by a shapely stocking-clad calf and the hem of her exquisite cream and peach and gold dress.
Well, his words fled once again at the sight of that tempting vision, but his second nature drew him immediately to the base of the ladder to reach up and swoop her from the doorway into his arms, the soft caress of her creamy mohair and cashmere knitted evening wrap brushing across his face. He nestled her close to his body and touched his forehead to hers, nuzzling her nose and nearly kissing her again, when he drew in a rasping breath and implored her in that slow, rumbling, velvet-dark voice, “Catherine, help me. Help me stop!”
“Oh,” she murmured, taking his face tenderly in both hands and brushing her thumbs soothingly across his cheeks and the corners of his unique mouth and looking deeply into his darkened eyes. “Oh, if we were somewhere safe Below, I would never stop you, not for an instant, My Vincent!” her voice dipping to a low purr on his name. “But the doors are still open, and we’re not safe yet.”
At those words, his great head lifted with a low growl to glare accusingly at the open portal doors. “Not safe,” he rumbled slowly, as he carried her over to the corner by her wooden box and set her carefully on her feet.
“I will keep you safe, always, my Catherine. Stay here,” he rasped with another gentle nuzzle in her fragrant hair, and then swiftly and perfunctorily climbed the ladder to pull the boxes in front of the access portal, shut the doors, and climb back down, slowing his pace and grasping the rungs as he reached the ground once again, hanging and shaking his head slightly from side to side.
Gradually, Vincent drew himself up and turned to face her, abashed. “I . . .”
“Vincent,” she whispered, stepping closer and taking his hands in hers. “You don’t have to explain anything or hide any part of you from me. I see you, all of you, always.”
Vincent sighed and drew her close, draping an arm down her back to hug her waist, nuzzling her hair again, and taking solace in her presence and the deep contentment radiating through their Bond. She was happy, ecstatic to be with him, to be held in his arms, thrilled by the kiss, and completely unfazed by his second nature coming to the fore so unexpectedly – and talking! That had never happened before, at least, not out loud.
I need to consider just what that means. Later.
After a few moments to gather his composure, Vincent bent down to pick up the wooden box, but paused when he felt the weight of it once again.
“Catherine, what on earth,” he began.
“It’s an anniversary gift,” she swiftly interjected. “And please, I don’t want to hear a word, not ONE word, about expense, or ‘It’s too much,’ or ‘You shouldn’t have.’ I hear enough of that from Father. This gift isn’t just for you. It’s for us. Remember that when you open it. Please.”
Vincent chuckled a bit at her outburst. “I wasn’t planning to object to a gift I haven’t even seen. I was just wondering how you managed to carry it all this way. Wasn’t it a bit heavy for you?”
“A bit,” she agreed, laughing as he easily one-armed the box she’d struggled to carry with two, draping his other arm around her waist to begin their walk to the Hub. “But I only had to carry it for several short distances. Now, tell me about all your adventures this week. How long have you been working on this wonderful flood diversion project?”
And they conversed happily as they made their way to Vincent’s chamber.
“I don’t see our picnic basket yet,” Vincent announced as he set Catherine’s gift on the table and gestured for her to take her usual seat next to his big chair. “William must be adding the perishables now.”
“I heard the sentries announcing our arrival on the pipes,” Catherine responded. “Was that William’s cue?”
“Mostly,” Vincent answered, opening the chest at the foot of his bed and taking out an extra blanket to add to the ground cover he’d selected for their picnic. Catherine’s dress was beyond beautiful, but he was concerned her knitted evening shawl might not be enough to keep her warm at the Falls. Or I could just wrap her close to my side in my cloak, purred his Otherness.
Vincent cleared his throat and continued, somewhat hoarsely, “I assisted with breakfast and lunch preparations today in exchange for William’s help with the food for our picnic, so I can fully attest anything requiring peeling, chopping, or slicing was done by yours truly. It can get noisy in the kitchen, making it hard to hear the pipes. Kipper’s apprenticing in the Pipe Chamber right now, so Pascal and William agreed Kipper could deliver the sentry message and then bring our basket here when it’s ready.”
Catherine giggled and shook her head. “Kipper again, hmmm? I had a very interesting visit from him last night.”
“So I heard.” Vincent laughed. “Kipper’s vocabulary expands dramatically when describing a pizza dinner.”
“A Vitelli’s pizza dinner,” corrected Catherine. “I shall have to make sure you are thoroughly educated on the subject of gourmet pizza, Vincent, and then you’ll understand.”
“I always look forward to learning new things,” Vincent rejoined, and then quickly looked away when images of other things he’d like to learn more about quickly arose.
Catherine could sense he was discomfited by something, so she gently changed the subject. “If we have some time, perhaps you’d like to open our gift?”
“Oh, yes indeed,” Vincent replied, relieved to occupy himself with other things. “You have certainly roused my curiosity about this gift.”
“Just remember what I said,” Catherine added, as Vincent searched his tool belt for a screwdriver to pry open the wooden box. “This gift is for us.”
“I will,” Vincent promised, and then he carefully opened the box and lifted out the foam packing materials surrounding a good-sized velvet-wrapped object.
“Oh!” Catherine exclaimed. “Before I forget, I’ll need my evening bag. There’s something inside that goes with this gift.”
Vincent searched the pockets of his cloak, handed her the little gold bag, and then turned his attention back to the box to carefully lift out the velvet-clad gift and set it on the table, detecting a soft chime when the object connected with the table top. Slowly, he unfolded the soft wrapping to reveal the beautiful mantel clock and just stared at the magnificent carved roses and vines covering the walnut case.
“Here,” said Catherine gently, handing him the winding key from her evening bag. “I haven’t had a chance to wind it since Mr. Harland packed it up at the antique store yesterday.”
He took the key in a bit of a daze and gently turned the clock around to find the keyhole, and that’s when he saw the inscription. Time is . . .
“Aren’t you going to wind it?” Catherine asked after a moment. “Mr. Dawson worked on it for Harland Antiques and thought it would be a wonderful addition to your clock collection. I knew it was for us when I saw the inscription.”
“My clock collection?” Vincent asked, confused.
“Yes,” Catherine replied. “I didn’t realize you collected clocks until Mr. Dawson mentioned it, but then I remembered you do have clocks on almost every surface here in your chamber. What is it about clocks that you like so much?”
Vincent sat down rather abruptly after that question, as though his legs had suddenly failed him, which in a way they had. “My clock collection,” he repeated, gently touching the buttery smooth wood of the intricate carvings on the clock. “Oh, Catherine, I’ll tell you why there are so many clocks in my chamber, but I’ll need you to keep anything I say a secret.”
“Of course,” she promised, a little confused by his request. “I won’t breathe a word.”
“Catherine,” he said, pausing to figure out the best way to word the situation. “My beloved Catherine, I do indeed have a clock collection. But I . . . I don’t . . . collect clocks.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, paling a bit and gesturing around to the many clocks clearly visible on shelves and on the top of dressers and in cabinets about the room.
“Please,” he implored, taking her hands and gently stroking them, “don’t be distressed. The clock is exquisite. I’ve never seen one so lovely. The inscription alone . . . and the carvings . . . it positively takes my breath away. And it is a gift from you, from your generous heart.” He nuzzled her hands, dropping a feather-light kiss on each knuckle. “I shall treasure it, my Catherine, always.”
“But I don’t understand,” she continued, lifting a hand and softly stroking his dear face. “How is it you have so many clocks if you don’t collect them?”
“These clocks came to me in several ways. Most of them, like yours, are gifts from people I love, which is apparently how some folks concluded I must collect clocks and finally explains why I keep receiving clocks as gifts,” he responded, chuckling softly. “And I’ll gladly tell you about all of them, because they each have a story and mean a great deal to me. But first, I want to know about this beautiful clock and about the inscription, if you happen to know the origin. I would guess a late nineteenth century American poet, but I’m not sure.”
“Well, you would be right, as always,” Catherine replied, feeling somewhat better about her gift. “It took a good deal of research at the library yesterday when it didn’t turn up in Bartlett’s, but the author is Henry Jackson van Dyke, a late nineteeth/early twentieth century American theologian, educator, author, and poet. He wrote this poem to serve as an inscription for a new sundial being installed at a friend’s estate.”
“It’s beautiful and so appropriate for a sundial or a clock such as this,” Vincent replied. “Now, tell me, why is this clock for us if you intended it for my clock collection?”
“Hey, Vincent!” Kipper called from the tunnel entrance. “I’ve got your picnic basket, and boy, is it heavy! You sure you weren’t packing for three? Or four?”
Vincent glanced apologetically at Catherine and murmured, “Perhaps we should continue this conversation over lunch?” and then rose to collect the basket from the struggling boy.
“I thought we were picnicking at the Chamber of the Falls,” said Catherine, when Vincent veered away from their usual path to the popular Tunnel attraction.
“We are,” he replied, “but I’ve selected a much more secluded site at the Falls for our anniversary celebration. It’s a spot Devin and I found a few weeks before he left the Tunnels, and I’ve taken pains ever since to keep it as a secret sanctuary. At first, I felt somewhat selfish for not sharing it after Devin was gone, but not for long. You may not have noticed, but it can be difficult for me to enjoy a quiet moment or a private conversation here in the home tunnels.”
Catherine giggled. “Yes it is! Kipper’s intrusion was just the latest in a series of unintended interruptions. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve heard, ‘Oh, Catherine, I didn’t realize you were here,’ to the point I’ve inwardly renamed your chamber Grand Central Station.”
That drew a rare belly laugh from Vincent, who stopped in his tracks to put down the picnic basket and blankets and pull Catherine impulsively into a vigorous hug, swinging her around as they shared the laugh together.
“Ah!” Vincent’s deep voice rasped, raking in a purring breath to calm down his hilarity. “Grand Central Station! Very apt, my Catherine!” and he looked down to consider her smiling, glowing face for a moment with darkened eyes.
“A door,” the dark velvet voice whispered in Catherine’s ear, sending thrills down her spine. “I shall build a door for my chamber.”
“Oh, Vincent, really?” she asked, watching in fascination as his eyes lightened somewhat, but the darker voice remained. He’s taking down those iron barriers more and more readily and letting his inner nature come through!
“Yes . . . yes,” Vincent replied, his voice gradually lifting from its deeper tones, yet he still held Catherine closely in his arms, avidly watching every nuance and reaction on her face as he spoke, his darker voice fading in and out. “A door. Doors aren’t unheard of Below. We have doors to protect the Great Hall from the winds. Doors to help maintain temperatures in the cold storage rooms, and doors to secure William’s pantries and other storage areas. Most private chambers have tapestries or curtains that can be dropped to serve as doors.”
“So, Grand Central Station is finally going to have office hours?” Catherine gently teased, mesmerized by the play of light and shadow in Vincent’s eyes and voice.
“YES!” the dark voice rumbled emphatically, accompanied by a small, enticingly wicked smile that flashed briefly and then faded into an abashed grin, as Vincent dipped his head and then drew back slightly, still keeping her within the loose circle of his arms.
“Our time together is often so brief, Catherine,” he continued, his voice lightened once again. “It’s past time I took steps to safeguard the moments we do have and protect them from unnecessary interruptions.”
“Yes, Time,” Catherine murmured, barely restraining her joy. “Our Time.”
Vincent released her gently and retrieved the picnic basket and blankets, taking her hand to resume their walk to his hidden retreat at the Falls.
“Come,” he said. “Let’s have this conversation in a more private spot. The path may be a bit difficult for you in some areas, and I certainly don’t want you to spoil those lovely shoes,” he continued, then turned to appreciate her from head to toe with a smoldering glance.
“But I can easily carry you over the rough places, my Catherine.”
“Oh Vincent, this place is beautiful!” Catherine marveled, as he set her down gently at the crest of their last climb into his secret hollow.
The path they had taken initially seemed to wind in the complete opposite direction of the marvelous chamber with its golden shafts of light illuminating the lake and the enormous waterfall in the distance. But after several minutes of walking its twists and turns, Vincent stepped around a floor-to-ceiling column of stone jutting out at an oblique angle into the pathway and then turned directly back to slide sideways into an almost imperceptible crack just large enough to admit his mighty frame.
The dense shadow cast by the stone protuberance in the torchlight completely shielded the entrance from regular human eyesight, but Vincent’s augmented vision had spotted the deeper shadow within as a twelve-year-old exploring with Devin. And so the young teens had found the hidden switchback trail that climbed steadily upward, back and forth, until they emerged into a secret cavern several stories directly above the regular entrance into the Chamber of the Falls.
The cavern was spectacular, walled in shimmering pink feldspar shot with quartz and pyrite. From the dark entrance at the back, the small hollow swiftly opened out toward a large opening directly facing the shimmering falls in the distance and positioned perfectly to catch the golden light from one of the many shafts illuminating the larger chamber. During the day, the walls glowed with rosy pinks and salmons, and sparkled with crystal and gold, making the cave warm and inviting.
Sounds traveled up easily from the entrance below. Catherine could even faintly hear the music of the pipes echoing up from the chamber entrance, and Vincent would surely hear them well enough to decipher messages. But because of the chamber’s natural acoustics, sounds from Vincent’s hidden grotto traveled up and out to become lost in the thunder of the falls across the lake. They were perfectly alone.
Several feet back from the lip of the drop-off was a small, stone-lined fire pit with a supply of kindling and wood for their outing, as well as the picnic basket and blankets Vincent had brought up first before returning to carry Catherine over the last rough, steep turn of the switchback. About the cavern, she could see evidence of Vincent’s efforts over the years to make the grotto a more comfortable hiding place – waterproof plastic bins to protect supplies and cushions and a small selection of books, paper, and writing and drawing implements; two lanterns and a can of oil; a rickety folding card table set in front of a broad boulder honed into a serviceable bench; and a rolled-up canvas Army cot.
Vincent drew her close with one arm, watching her survey his version of a boyhood treehouse, and sighed. “All it lacks is a fresh water supply. Otherwise, I could have disappeared here for days, and no one would have known. Believe me, I thought about it many times. However, hauling enough water up that switchback was sufficient deterrent to any plans for a lengthy residency. Devin talked about rigging a pulley system to raise buckets of water up from the landing below. But it had to be a two-person operation – one above to haul up the water and one below to fill the bucket, put it on the hook, and keep a sharp lookout – in order to keep our place a secret, and then Devin was gone before we could find the supplies to put our plans into action. Still, to escape for an afternoon, or to slip away and spend the night on my own without interference and yet be close to home – oh, this is the perfect place!”
“It’s really wonderful, Vincent,” Catherine agreed. “I’m honored you would share this special secret with me. Shall we go set up our picnic?”
While Vincent built a fire, Catherine spread out the ground cloth nearby and retrieved several large, patched, full-length outdoor lounge chair cushions from the sealed bins to provide a comfortable seating area. Then she unpacked the tablecloth from the picnic basket and began unloading the wonderful lunch William had assembled – a fresh green salad, a large thermos of hearty beef stew and another of hot tea, freshly baked bread with a small container of honey-butter, sliced pineapple and cantaloupe with strawberries and blueberries, a small iced carrot cake decorated with a pink candy heart, and a cold bottle of Catherine’s favorite, and very expensive, champagne.
Vincent smiled when Catherine held up the bottle of champagne and cocked her head, raising an eyebrow. “Let’s just say I owe Peter a favor,” he replied to her unasked question. “Besides, I thought we weren’t going to discuss the price of gifts for us.”
“Touché,” Catherine responded with a smile. She passed Vincent the bottle to open while she unearthed dishes, mugs, flatware, napkins, and two carefully packed champagne flutes from the basket and began serving their meal.
Soon, Vincent handed Catherine her glass of champagne and raised his own in a toast, “To us. To three wondrous years together, and may there be many more to come.”
“Yes,” Catherine whispered earnestly and reverently, touching her glass to his. “To us and to the Time we will find and protect and spend together.”
“Yes, My Catherine,” came the velvet reply, as the Protector in him lifted her hand to his mouth to tenderly kiss each fingertip. But then Vincent raised his head, blinking rapidly, and took a quick sip of his champagne.
Catherine wisely chose to let the moment pass without comment and waved to the meal spread out before them. “William and his able assistant have really outdone themselves. This looks delicious! What would you like to try first?”
And they ate their meal, exchanging pleasantries and loving glances while enjoying the beautiful view of the Falls. After Catherine had served the tea and cake, Vincent took her hands in his and reminded her, “Before Kipper interrupted us, I do believe you were going to tell me why that beautiful mantel clock is for us.”
“Yes,” she replied. “And we were going to talk more about setting office hours for Grand Central Station and protecting our time together. But really, these issues are both parts of the same conversation. You see, Vincent, I did buy the clock for your collection, but truthfully, the clock isn’t my real anniversary gift for us.”
Vincent’s head came up as he looked searchingly at Catherine, trying to understand the turbulent feelings of anxiety, determination, love, and longing that were pouring from her into their Bond in a heady mix. “I confess I’m intrigued and a little unnerved,” he responded after a moment. “What do you mean?”
Catherine took a deep breath and tenderly kissed the back of his hand. Here we go, she thought. “The clock is a symbol of the Time I’m going to free up in my life to spend with the man I love more than life itself, for the relationship I hope we will build. We need time together, Vincent. The time you have pledged to protect. You’re giving us a Door so we can be alone, and I’m giving us Time.”
“Catherine, NO!” Vincent interjected forcefully, leaping to his feet and pacing anxiously back and forth beside their picnic spread. “I know how you spend your time Above, and the vast majority of it is taken up by the job that means so much to you and all the important work you do, saving lives, protecting the vulnerable, and getting justice for the wronged. You can’t give up your job – not for me!”
“Vincent. Vincent!” Catherine called, struggling briefly with her voluminous skirt and then plopping back down in frustration when she found herself entangled and unable to rise from their cushioned nest. She could see Vincent’s anxious pacing becoming more and more frenetic.
“VINCENT! WELLS!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.
Well, that got his attention.
“Catherine?” he asked, aghast and, if he were to admit it, more than a little impressed by her sudden temper, a side of her he had felt from time to time, but had rarely ever witnessed, and he’d certainly never had it directed at him.
His Otherness inwardly purred in appreciation at her lowered brows, flashing eyes, pursed mouth, and flushed features. Magnificent! Oh, she is wondrous in her anger!
“Come sit down, please, so I don’t have to chase after you,” Catherine said in a controlled, eerily and unsettlingly quiet voice, her body language brimming with intensity as she pointed sternly at his vacated spot on the cushions and waited for him to comply.
When he just stood there, gaping at her as though she’d suddenly sprouted a second head, Catherine dropped her arm and added a bit more gently, “Vincent, you’re jumping to conclusions. I’m certainly not quitting my job. Now please sit down and listen to me, and please, please don’t interrupt with assumptions or objections until I’ve finished explaining all of the reasons for my plans. You feel what I feel, but you can’t read my thoughts, and you have to stop assuming you know what’s best for me!”
Although gently delivered, Catherine’s last words slammed into Vincent like a subway car at full speed, and he immediately flashed back to his argument with Father more than two years ago over Lin Wong and Henry Pei – Only Lin knows what is best for Lin! Hoist with his own petard, to quote the Bard, and Catherine hadn’t even been present for that blistering confrontation.
When exactly did I become Father?
Vincent groaned and dropped his head into his hands, raking his mane of hair back from his face and giving it a hard yank for good measure. Idiot! What am I doing? How often had he fretted and chafed at the bit fashioned from Father’s love and overprotective need to dictate almost every aspect of his life well beyond his boyhood and adolescence? He was an adult, and though he welcomed Father’s often excellent advice on occasion, he was fully capable of making his own decisions about his own life. And yet, here he was, trying to tell his beloved Catherine – an experienced, intelligent, more-than-competent, fully grown woman – what she could and could not do! Imbecile!
Vincent slumped back down onto his cushion with a huge sigh of remorse, and then raised his head to behold Catherine’s amused, understanding grin and sighed deeply again, this time in relief.
He reached for her hands, kissed them both and murmured, “I’m profoundly sorry, Catherine, for being such a fool to think I have any right to dictate your life choices. I certainly don’t like it when Father tries to do the same to me, and I can’t believe I’ve been such a hypocrite to allow myself to fall into the same pattern of behavior. I promise to do my very best to respect your independence, and I hope you will forgive me for so egregiously overstepping my bounds as your friend and . . . as the one who loves you more than life itself.”
Catherine leaned forward to place a soft kiss on his forehead and then again on the sensitive cleft of his upper lip, correcting him with a tender whisper. “Of course I will forgive the man I love more than life itself.”
Then Catherine leaned back and considered the luncheon detritus still spread out between them across their cushioned ground cover.
“Let’s take a moment to clear up our picnic, so we can stretch out and be comfortable,” she suggested, knowing both she and Vincent needed a few minutes to cool off and regroup. “And then I’ll tell you about my plan to give us more time together.”
Vincent readily agreed, and they worked quietly together, gathering up the dishes, flatware, and linens, sealing up any uneaten portions of food, and stowing it all away in the picnic basket, leaving only their mugs and the thermos of tea to enjoy while they talked. While Catherine folded away the tablecloth and straightened out their cushions, Vincent fetched a few pillows, added more wood to the fire, and offered Catherine the extra blanket to help keep her legs warm as she reclined on the lounge chair pads, sipping her tea.
She’s so beautiful, he thought, surreptitiously watching her as he moved the picnic basket aside and settled into their nest, pouring more tea into his mug. How the reflected light from the cavern walls loves her! ‘The smiles that win, the tints that glow, But tell of days in goodness spent.’ Yes, she glows, my sweet Catherine.
Catherine finished her tea and reached wordlessly for his mug to set them both aside and snuggle against him, laying her head on his shoulder, his arm curling about her waist to tuck the blanket around her back. She took his other hand and kissed it gently, saying, “I promise you, Vincent, I have no intention of quitting my job. But I do intend to make some changes. No, ‘intend’ is the wrong word. I need to make changes.”
“Tell me,” he replied softly.
“The Nolan trial.” She paused and sighed deeply. “Joe and D.A. Moreno gave me an incredible opportunity and a profound responsibility to serve as lead prosecuting attorney on that trial and make sure that monster was convicted for abusing his family and beating his little son to death. We finally finished the sentencing, and the mountain of paperwork that came with it, this week. But Vincent, I’m completely frazzled. I’m worn to the bone, physically and mentally. I can’t keep putting in these hours. I just can’t – I’ll burn out!”
She sat up with a sigh and turned to look directly at him. “And the press! It’s been a nightmare. I expected to be hounded at the courthouse and at work. That’s what comes with being lead attorney on a high profile case. But now that the trial’s over, there’s this pushy Daily News reporter who’s determined to do a profile piece on me, and he won’t take no for an answer. ‘Crime victim turns avenging angel,’ or some other overblown tabloid drivel. He’s been leaving tons of messages for me at work and even on my answering machine at home. But Thursday was the last straw! He actually had the nerve to sneak past my doorman and show up at my apartment after ten at night to try to interview me.”
“What!” the Protector growled, and Catherine quickly moved to stroke his hair and soothe him.
“It’s all right! Everything’s okay,” she crooned. “I saw him through the peephole in my door and called security to have him removed from the building. He never even talked to me. In a way, he actually did me a favor by being so stupidly aggressive. I asked building security to report the incident to his superiors at the paper, and he’s been officially reprimanded and instructed to drop the story unless he wants to be fired for misconduct.”
“Oh, Catherine,” said Vincent, pulling her back into his arms for a comforting hug. “I saw all the articles about the trial in the papers, and I was so proud to see your accomplishments acknowledged in the press, but I had no idea you were being so pursued.”
She snuggled even closer to Vincent and sighed. “And that’s the other problem. If I continue to serve as lead prosecutor on trials, I’ll be in the press all the time. That’s the last thing I want for me personally, and it’s dangerous for us and for the Tunnels. I don’t need or want to attract media attention to my personal life in any way, and there are all too many reporters who don’t seem to understand the distinction between the professional and the personal.”
“I see,” said Vincent quietly. “What do you intend to do to solve these problems?”
“D.A. Moreno has given me a full week off as a reward for my successful prosecution of the Nolan trial,” she said. “He told me about it Friday evening while I was still finishing all the sentencing paperwork, and I was just too tired to talk with Joe about scheduling it. So, I’m going into work tomorrow, but only to inform Joe that I’m taking the week off starting immediately. A week completely out of the public eye will encourage the tabloid press to move on to their next victim. I don’t have any other pending cases right now, because my desk was cleared for the Nolan trial, and that stack of files I’m sure Joe has waiting for me can just be assigned elsewhere.”
“That sounds like a good start,” said Vincent. “But once you return to work after your well-deserved vacation, won’t your hours still be ridiculous?”
“Yes,” replied Catherine, gathering up her nerve. “And now we come to step number two. I will be informing Joe tomorrow that I need for us to work together to figure out a new job description for me with much more reasonable hours. I might even go so far as to say I want to cut back to part-time or become a consulting attorney, if it will drive home my message. And I don’t want to be considered as a lead prosecutor anymore. I’m happy to assist at trial, but I just can’t accept the public scrutiny that comes with first chair.”
Vincent shook his head sadly. “I understand, but it’s truly a shame. From all the accounts I’ve read, you were absolutely brilliant in the courtroom. I could feel your passion and conviction so vividly, and I’m certain those feelings translated to the jury.”
“Oh, I’m not saying I would never step in front of a jury again, especially on a case where my sensibilities and my status as a former crime victim could really pull weight,” Catherine assured him. “But I can still do that as second chair, and let the lead attorney handle the press conferences and take all the glory. I don’t do this job for the accolades. You know that.”
“Yes, I certainly do,” Vincent agreed, noticing lingering signs of tension in her and feelings of apprehension in their Bond. “Catherine, what else do you need? Tell me.”
She sighed and gave him a somewhat crooked smile, “I’m hoping this final change will be an easier sell – for you and for Joe.” She figuratively crossed her fingers and took a deep breath. You need to do this. You owe him. Buck up!
“I want to cut back drastically, if not completely, on field work,” Catherine continued. “I need to dial the danger quotient all the way back to zero. I’ve found myself in too many sketchy situations, either inadvertently or, if I’m really honest, from some misguided need to prove myself, even long after I’d won over Joe and the cops and the rest of the office. I’ve been kidnapped, threatened, beaten up, shot. And worse than that, I’ve put you in danger of being discovered or killed, and you’ve been hurt too many times, physically, mentally, and emotionally, through coming to my rescue. Even once is too much! I just can’t do it anymore.”
Her voice broke on those final words, and she began to cry. “Oh, Vincent, I’m so sorry!”
“Catherine!” Vincent exclaimed, gathering her up in his arms and pulling her across his chest to nuzzle softly in her hair. “Oh, Catherine, believe me, this pain you feel goes both ways. You’ve been hurt on my account as well. Please, please don’t cry!”
But her tears continued unabated.
“My sweet Catherine,” his darkened voice rasped, as his large hands stroked her hair and her back in long, sweeping, kneading gestures. “Danger may still come upon us unlooked for, both Above and Below. And I will always, always protect you, my Beloved, my Catherine. I must! Never ask me to stop! You are my life!”
And he held her close as she cried, crooning wordlessly in deep, velvet tones, a rumbling purr rolling through his mighty chest, soothing her with his voice and the gentle pressure of his hands, drying her tears with a furred knuckle. Her sobs at last subsided, and she clung to him, brushing her temple against his cheek, whispering, “I’m sorry about that. I got your lovely shirt all wet.”
The velvet voice replied, “There is nothing to forgive, my Catherine, and my shirt will dry. It proudly bears your tears. I only wish they were unnecessary. Even now, I still feel your pain and apprehension and remorse.”
He paused a moment, and then Vincent continued, his voice lightening. “I accept your apology, Catherine, as graciously as you accepted mine, and I understand your need to prove yourself to others and conquer your fears. We are both complicit in the hurts we have sustained. Please, let it go now. I fully support your desire to minimize as much as possible the dangers that can come with your job. You will have no quarrel with me on this.”
She smiled, stroking his face and fiddling a bit with the ruffled lace at his throat. “But this is my favorite shirt . . .” And they both laughed softly, finally releasing any lingering tension from their conversation.
Lovely, his second nature mused inwardly. She is lovely even in her remorse and her tears.
He softly drew her face up and kissed her, first with the greatest tenderness and then with a low groan and much greater urgency. She moaned in return, twining her arms about his neck and curling her fingers into his hair, like the graceful vines swirling about the mantel clock, and surrendered completely to his kiss.
How sweet she is, my beautiful, passionate Catherine! How I need her!
And then the words vanished completely, and the world consisted of nothing but the honey of her lips, the softness of her cheek, the strong line of her jaw, her tempting earlobe, and the smooth, white expanse of her long, graceful neck. He gathered her into his arms and rolled her onto her back, nuzzling and licking at the pulse point of her neck, when suddenly –
“Ow . . .”
Unbeknownst to them, the lounge cushions of their nest had shifted apart, and during their roll, Catherine’s head thumped sharply on the stone cavern floor. He lifted her immediately up into his arms, wordless still, a rasping croon communicating his distress.
“It’s all right,” Catherine soothed, stroking his cheek with one hand and rubbing the back of her head with the other. “I’m fine. You didn’t hurt me at all. It was the stupid cavern floor. Not you, never you!”
He looked down at the stone floor and growled softly in indignation, then pulled Catherine forward against his chest so he could examine the back of her head for himself, still emitting a rasping, purring croon.
“See,” she said, gently raising her head and kissing his cheek, “I’ll be just fine.”
He held her close and together they surveyed the disarrayed cushions.
“Perhaps this is not the perfect hidden sanctuary for a couple,” rumbled the dark voice with a low chuckle.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Catherine with a smile. “But it could use a nice raised mattress, don’t you think?”
“Hmmm . . .” he purred, “I happen to know of another chamber with a lovely bed, warm blankets, and an interesting array of clocks.”
“Mmmm, I like that chamber very much,” Catherine responded. “But it doesn’t have a door.”
“Yet,” he emphasized. “It doesn’t have a door yet.” He paused, and Catherine watched his eyes gradually lighten.
“And perhaps that’s for the best right now,” Vincent continued with a sigh. “I . . .”
“You need time,” Catherine interjected. “I understand. You need time to process and understand what’s happening between us. And we need time to . . . explore what we want, what we need, together, at our own pace.”
“Yes,” he sighed in relief. “Yes. Let’s go back to my chamber. The fire is almost out. Soon we’ll lose the light as well, and you will be cold, my Catherine.”
They snuggled together on Vincent’s bed, enjoying some hot tea, Catherine securely nestled in one of his warmest blankets. Her evening wrap was draped over the back of his tall chair, and her pretty shoes joined his boots at the foot of the bed.
“So,” she said, gesturing about the room, “tell me how you acquired all these clocks.”
He laughed softly. “Well, the first two have always been in this chamber.”
He pointed to a bright steel classic wind-up alarm clock with bells on top, which sat on the highest shelf of the large glass-front china cabinet taking up most of one wall in his chamber, and then to a small folding travel alarm clock with a red case sitting on the wide lower shelf jutting out over the bottom drawers of the cabinet.
“Those were Devin’s. He was always a night owl, and very much not a morning person. So, he’d set the two alarms ten minutes apart and place them in two different parts of the room, which forced him to get out of bed to turn them off.”
Catherine laughed. “Oh, there are mornings when I can completely sympathize with him. Too bad he didn’t have a clock radio with a snooze feature. But then, Devin would probably just hit the snooze nine times and never get up!”
They enjoyed a good chuckle at Devin’s expense, and then Vincent asked, “Now, leaving our lovely mantel clock aside, which clock do you think is my most recent acquisition?”
Catherine looked about the room, taking in each clock and its placement. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “It really could be any of them.”
Vincent pointed to a white plastic kitchen timer that had clearly seen better days, sitting on the shelf by the travel alarm. “Little Amy, our newest resident, brought me this just two weeks ago, declaring it was ‘A pesent; a cyock por Bincent.’”
They both chuckled at Vincent’s imitation of three-year-old Amy’s voice, and then he continued, “She and the younger children had been searching through a box of toys sent down by a Helper. Mary said Amy spotted the timer and was halfway down the tunnel to my chamber before she could catch up with her.”
“How sweet!” Catherine exclaimed, sipping the last of her tea and setting her mug aside. “Oh, you have to tell me more. These are wonderful stories!”
And so he told her about the antique brass wall clock that was Mouse’s first gift to him and perhaps had been “taken” from an old hotel during a renovation project.
About the white porcelain clock with delicate gold filigree, which had been a Winterfest gift from a Helper.
About the chainless bronze pocket watch he had received as one of Pascal Senior’s apprentices.
About the odd brass “perpetual motion” novelty clock Mouse had spent months “fixing,” completely fascinated by its inner workings.
About the black metal wind-up alarm clock with the bright red hands from his young children’s literature class.
And about the antique brass Big Ben-style pedestal clock with Roman numerals Mary had given him when he was old enough to tell time all by himself, which occupied pride of place on the lower shelf of his hutch.
And Vincent reveled in the love and delight and happiness that flooded and bathed their Bond as Catherine relished each tender story.
“Do you want to know what is most interesting about my clock collection, dear Catherine?” rumbled Vincent, his eyes darkening.
“Oh yes,” she responded, her passionate nature rising to meet his. “I want to know everything.”
“I don’t need a clock to know the time,” replied the velvet voice. “I have an inward sense of the time. Always. But I keep these clocks nonetheless and treasure them because they are precious reminders of the love of my family.”
“And now you have our mantel clock,” Catherine said with a gentle, lingering kiss.
“Yes,” he murmured, returning her kiss, a deep purr rising from his chest. “But that is not a clock, my Catherine. That is a promise.”
Oh, yes. The promise of Time.
They would have TIME.
And Time is Eternity.