LOVE'S SWEETEST GIFT

 

 

By Jenx and Jojo

 

Catherine and Vincent sat in their usual spot beneath the orchestra pit. The evening celebrated the work of Chopin, and the sounds emanating from above wove a magic web around them. It had seemed perfect.

Afterwards they walked back to the threshold below Catherineís apartment. Holding Vincentís hand in her own, a wave of desire washed over her. She wanted so much for him to kiss her. It took all her will power to listen to his voice as he spoke of how much he had enjoyed the music. All she could think about was how much she needed him. As Catherine stood with his strong arms about her and his chin resting on her head, she had felt the first stirring of desire awaken as he trembled against her. His breath came in labored gasps as he reached to pull her tighter only to release her in the next instance when he roughly pushed her away from him. Attempting to mask the hurt and disappointment, Catherine simply waited for Vincent to make the first move. He stared at her silently, then muttered good night and spun around. His cloak whipped around his magnificent body as he stalked into the darkness of the tunnels.

Later, tossing and turning in her bed, Catherine was unable to think of anything but Vincent. Beneath the pain was also a little anger. After having been together almost two and a half years, not once had Vincent kissed her. Couldnít he understand how that was affecting her? Her thoughts and dreams were filled with Vincent and her aching need for him. She knew they had to cross this bridge soon. Ignoring the problem was not going to make it go away. It was only making it more difficult for both of them. Impulsively, she decided it was time to do something about their impasse. She rose, dressed and went Below quickly before she changed her mind.

Quietly, she slipped through the silent tunnels after asking the sentry not to announce her. When she entered Vincentís dimly lit chamber she found him asleep. He was so beautiful lying in his bed, his night shirt halfway open exposing the blonde curls that clung to his muscled chest.

Catherine stood by the bed watching him. She could feel herself trembling and her heart pounding in anticipation. She wanted him, needed him so much that it became almost a physical pain that made her dizzy with desire. After another impulsive decision she shed her jacket and shoes and slid into bed with him. She then slipped her hand inside his shirt and stroked his silky chest and gently kissed him on the lips.

Vincent woke suddenly. His reaction was swift and immediate. In his haste to sit up he pushed her out of his bed. Catherine caught herself awkwardly in an effort to keep from falling on the floor.

"Catherine, what are you doing here?" Vincent demanded harshly. He was dismayed to find that his body had betrayed him by responding to the fiery desire that had been transmitted through the bond as he had slept. Catherine was broadcasting her urgent need through their link.

She pushed her hair behind her ear and tried to explain. "I...I came down to talk to you, but...when I saw you lying there I..." she halted, swallowing the lump in her throat. She was flustered, embarrassed and deeply hurt by his reaction. "Vincent, I wanted to hold you...to kiss you."

Vincent stared at her a moment before looking away. He could sense her distress which made him feel guilty for his actions. "I did not mean to push you, Catherine." He met her eyes again. "I was startled."

Catherine felt her throat constrict. She swallowed uneasily and sat on the edge of the bed next to her bond mate, facing him. "Vincent, we need to talk. Weíve been avoiding this, but we canít any longer. At least I canít. You know what Iím feeling. I love you, and I...I..." She was unable to continue.

Vincent had a momentary flash of panic. He wanted to get up and move away from her, but he did not have on any trousers. He felt trapped.

"Catherine that is not possible."

"Why?" Tears began to blur her vision. It took all her will not to break down in front of him. "You told me yourself that someday we would be together." She found her voice was rising, and made a conscious effort to speak softly. "That was months ago. Weíve gone slowly and carefully just as you said. Now tell me why we canít go any further."

"Catherine, I do not believe that type of relationship will ever be possible between us." Could she not see the danger? Did she not understand the risk to herself? He had explained what had happened to Lisa. Did she need to see her own body scratched and bloody to understand?

"Never?" she asked hesitantly.

There was no use in giving her false hope. He never should have told her that there might come a day when they would truly be together.

"No, Catherine, never!"

A tremor rose in her voice as she responded. "Why Vincent?"

"Catherine, I do not want to talk about this." Her nearness inflamed his body. It became torture to have her so close. He wanted so desperately to draw her into his arms, lay her down... He mentally shook himself to keep his thoughts from progressing.

"Vincent, we have to talk about it!" Her voice was sharper than she intended. She paused, took a deep breath. "There isnít anything that we canít discuss."

"Catherine, please you must go.."

"No! Vincent, I love you, and I know you love me. We need to come to an understanding on this."

"I will not discuss this any further. There is no point!"

She stared at him a minute while tears slowly began to trail down her face. He could not have hurt her any more if he had physically struck her. "All right. We wonít talk any farther tonight. But we will finish this conversation, Vincent." She stood, slipped her shoes on, and grabbed her jacket. She started toward the door, then stopped and turned. "I love you, and Iím not ashamed to tell you that I need you. Why canít you admit that you need me?" When he did not answer she reluctantly left.

Once out in the passageway, she could no longer hold back the tears. His rejection of her felt like a knife in her heart. ĎWhat is wrong with me?í she asked herself.

Catherine had hoped that Vincent would come to her the following night, but he had not. After three days of waiting, she decided to go below and see him. These past few days had given her time to consider what she had done. She knew how upset she would be if someone assumed they could climb into her bed and touch her. But then again, she would welcome Vincent with open arms. Of course, that was because she loved him. Could it be that he did not really love her? No, she knew better. His entire life had been built on fear of rejection. He had forced himself to keep a tight restraint on his normal sexual responses. She could not expect him to change overnight. But, (a little voice argued,) two years was hardly overnight! She realized that she would just have to be more patient and stand by him as he struggled to overcome the fear of his dark side.

When she went Below, she expected him to meet her as he usually did when he felt her presence in the tunnels, but he did not. She hesitantly entered his chambers to find him sitting at the table with a book open in his hands that she suspected he was not reading. Feeling as if she were intruding Catherine stood near the entrance wishing she had stayed Above.

Sensing her uncertainty Vincent berated himself for being the cause of her obvious distress. Laying down the book, he rose and went to her. He loved her so deeply and wanted her so desperately. If only he knew for certain whether he could control his dark side if he let down the barriers built over the years of denial. He put his arms around her slender body and held tightly. "I deeply regret to have caused you this sorrow, Catherine."

It was so wonderful to be held by him again that she was momentarily overcome by her feelings and had difficulty answering. "Vincent..." She clung to him afraid for a moment if she let go, he would retreat from her once again. She did pull away slightly so that she could look directly into his eyes. "Iím sorry I tried to push you..." She looked down shyly. "It was wrong of me to assume that I could come to your bed."

He drew her to him once again. He whispered softly, his mouth near her ear. "We need not speak of it Catherine." The fragrant aroma of her perfume and the warmth of her body threatened to overcome his senses for a moment. He knew he needed some distance, some time to clear his mind. With a last squeeze, he reluctantly withdrew from the embrace. "If you have time to stay, I have something I would like to read to you."

"Yes, I would like that," she agreed with a shaky smile. Her entire body was trembling. His fevered breath caressing her throat and ear had sent flaming tendrils up her spine.

"The book is in Fatherís chambers. I will be right back."

He returned and read to her for a while, happy to have resumed their familiar pattern. Later, they took a walk and visited with several of their friends. On the surface they appeared to be back to normal, but there was an uneasy undercurrent between them...a persistent tension that began growing more and more as time went by. Neither felt comfortable with the other...Catherine couldnít stop the flood of burning desire that filled her mind and body when she was around him, and Vincent was on edge constantly from his battle not to give into the relentless gnawing hunger that he felt from deep within.

Later, as Vincent and Catherine strolled through the tunnels toward her apartment, Catherine took his hand in hers as she usually did. She found herself wondering what it would feel like to have that strong hand touching her breasts and stroking her naked body. Before she knew it, she was once again drowning in her aching desire for him. Desperately she tried to close her mind to the rising tide of emotion, but the more she attempted not to think about her need, the more impossible it became.

As Vincent became enmeshed in her thoughts and desires, he pulled away from her both physically and mentally. It was becoming too difficult to halt the tide of his passion and escalating need. "Catherine, please stop," he finally pleaded roughly.

"Stop what, Vincent?" she asked bitterly. "Stop thinking about you? I might as well try to stop breathing." She reached for his hand again, but he stepped further away. Tears sprang to her eyes as she confronted him. "Canít you feel what youíre doing to me? Vincent, I need to touch you and be touched by you." She looked away determined not to let him reduce her to tears again. "You make me feel as if there is something wrong with me."

ĎSomething wrong with her?í Vincent repeated silently to himself. He wanted so desperately to reach out to her and tell her that there was nothing wrong with her...only with himself. He could not. He did not dare confess how much he desired her, nor tell her how difficult it was not to give in to those desires. Even to acknowledge it was to let down part of the barriers that he needed between them.

"Catherine, I do not wish to cause you farther pain. I want you to be happy and to have a full, complete life. You deserve so much more than I can give you."

Her head snapped back toward him. "When will you understand Vincent?" Her voice became agitated in her frustration to convince him of the sincerity of her need. "You give me everything. If you could just let go of the invisible chains that you drag around with you." She then spoke angrily emphasizing every word. "I do not want to WALK IN THE SUNLIGHT with someone else Vincent." She paused and then softened her voice. "You are the man I love. For me there will only be you."

Vincent felt a crushing agony flowing through the bond. All he could see was that he was causing her undue misery. Catherine must be free of him and the insurmountable problems he caused her. Their dream must die, only then could she continue her life above without the burden of this hold on her heart, and truly be happy.

He took her hands in his and forced out the words that would free her. "Catherine, you must go on with your life. I only hold you back from a complete relationship. You need a man who can give you the kind of security and love you deserve. You should have children and a home above. That is where you belong. It is where you have always belonged." He spread his arms wide as if to emphasize how little he truly had to offer.

Pain filled her and she felt as if she were slipping into a chasm of darkness. She tried to talk through her tears. "Vincent, youíre wrong. You have everything to offer me." Her voice was filled with love and held a promise that was unmistakable.

The hope Vincent saw in her eyes cut through him like a knife and he felt as if his heart would break. "No! Catherine you must forget me...this unfulfilled dream of a life that can never be. It must end! In time the pain you feel will lessen. You must not look back. Only then will the pain my words have caused you heal and then...you can truly be happy."

Catherine felt as if her whole life were falling apart. Could Vincent not see that he was the only person that mattered to her? Overcome with a deep sense of betrayal, she screamed in her anguish.

"No! You lied to me. You kept me believing all this time that there was a future for us." She had to stop for a minute unable to say more. She started to turn away from him, then faced him one last time. "Vincent, how could you want to destroy what we have? It means Everything...Everything!" She wiped the tears away before continuing softly. "I must really be a fool Vincent, because I still love you." She started walking away, and added over her shoulder. "There will be no happy life...not without you! I will always love you."

The tears coursed down Vincentís face as Catherine turned into the darkness. The weight of her despair along with his own anguish threatened to split his heart in two. He knew he could not live without her...yet he had sent her away. As Catherine disappeared up the ladder, he slumped against the wall drowning in bitter misery.

* * *

Catherine sat down at her desk gingerly placing her cup of coffee and brief case down. Confronted by the work load that awaited her attention, Catherine felt the cloud of depression that had hung over her since she and Vincent had parted threaten to overwhelm her once again.

Closing her eyes and leaning her head back, Catherine recalled the events that lead to their separation. It had been almost four weeks ago to the day...and still the pain of her loss threatened to overwhelm her.

Vincentís absence was like a raw wound. She felt as if she were slowly dying. Not a night passed, in that first week, that didnít find her crying out for him. She had been filled with a confusing mixture of depression and anger that was followed by a tremendous feeling of guilt. If only she had not tried to take their relationship farther and had been patient instead.

Desperately she tried to concentrate on the work in front of her. The night before she had stayed at work until past midnight attempting to keep her mind off of Vincent, and consequently she had slept longer than intended this morning and was late getting to work.

ĎFinally!í Joe thought when he spied Catherine seated at her desk.

"Hey Radcliffe," he hailed from his office door. He had been impatiently waiting for her since arriving to work that morning. ĎNaturally since I want to see her she picks today to be late,í he silently grumbled, although he was not really upsetójust anxious to talk.

Catherine greeted him with a fair imitation of a sunny smile as she strolled into his office. "Hey yourself, Joe." She sat down. "Are you that glad to see me or am I in trouble already this morning?"

Joe grinned at her as he shut the door; then walked over in front of his desk and leaned back. "Well, if I were the slave driver you always claim I am I would have noticed you are exactly 41 minutes, 55 seconds late for work. But, since Iím a decent human being, I never noticed that."

Catherine shook her head slightly feigning disgust. "Damn lucky for you that you didnít, Joe. I was here until midnight last night."

Joe opened his mouth to comment, then thought twice about it and grinned from ear to ear.

"Okay, Joe, did you want to see me about something specific or did you just have an urge to play time clock today?" Talking with Joe always seemed to lighten her mood and for this Catherine was grateful.

"Oh yeah," he said with enthusiasm. "Youíll never guess what I got my hands on last night."

Now it was Catherineís turn to restrain herself from making the obvious comeback for that remark, but the amused expression on her face said it all. She could see that Joe was blushing as he realized how it must have sounded.

"No, thatís not what I meant Radcliffe," he denied, in an overly patient voice. He pulled something out of his shirt pocket. "I have here in my hand two tickets to the Super Bowl."

"The Super Bowl!" Catherine cried excitedly. The game was the coming weekend and to get tickets within four days of the event was almost an impossible feat. "How did you get those?"

"You remember Paul Savino?"

"Isnít he the friend you roomed with in college?"

"Yes, thatís him. He booked this trip months ago for him and his wife, but he got called out of the country on business yesterday. He sold me the entire package for half price...plane tickets, hotel room, the works!" He paused a moment. When he spoke, his voice had taken on a more serious tone. "Cathy, I would really love for you to go with me."

"Me?" she asked surprised. That was completely unexpected. "Joe, I donít know what to say."

"Then say yes, Cathy. It would mean a lot to me, and Iíll pay all expenses."

"How many days away are we talking about?" The question was automatic since she knew how it effected Vincent when she left the city for very long. He always worried excessively whenever she was out of town. However, the way things stood now there was little reason to worry...he would probably be happy to see her go.

"Four days. Weíll fly out early Friday morning and come back Monday."

He looked so eager with a fragile vulnerability that reminded Catherine of a teenage boy asking for his first date. She didnít have the heart to say no. It did sound like a great vacation and that was just what she needed.

"Joe, Iíd love to go with you."

"Great, Radcliffe!" He could not believe that she agreed.

"But only on one condition...I insist on paying half of the cost."

"No Cathy, this is my treat. Let me do something for you for a change. Iíll clear it with Moreno to get Friday and Monday off for both of us." He walked behind his desk before turning back to her. "There is one little thing that I should tell you."

"Oh boy, here comes the other shoe," Catherine said as she rolled her eyes wondering what the catch was going to be.

"Paul and his wife were going down on their anniversary. Their hotel reservations are for the Honeymoon Suite. Itís part of the package and I canít get Ďem changed."

Catherine blew out a huff of air. "Joe, can you imagine what the office gossips would say if that ever got out? I think half of them," she indicated the outer office with a nod of her head, "think you and I have something going anyway."

"Does that bother you?" He asked softly as he sat down. He was aware of the rumors circulating about Cathy and himself. She was a very private person who confided little about her personal life and as a result she sometimes became the target of gossip. One of the more caustic, irritating busybodies from down the hall had referred to Catherine as ĎThe Bitchí because Catherine did not involve herself in their lunch time gab sessions. After Catherine had found out how intolerant they were concerning co-workers and the varied stream of people that descended upon the D.A.ís office everyday, she declined further invitations to join them. Her decision only spurred more rumors.

"No, it doesnít bother me," she answered honestly. "But I donít want you to take any flack because of me."

"You let me worry about that. But if anyone says anything to you, I want to know about it. You wonít back out on me at the last moment, will you?"

"Not on your life, Joe. Who knows, maybe Iíll get close enough to breathe the same air as Joe Montana."

"Just donít drool on me. Iím not going to the Super Bowl to check out the quarterbackís body." Joe replied, his brown eyes twinkling.

"Then you donít know what youíre missing," Catherine laughed while she stood up. "Iíve got to get some work done. Let me know all the details later."

"Wait, Cathy." He rose and walked around the desk, a worried expression on his face. "Iím afraid I havenít told you the worst of it." He stood staring at the floor.

"God, Joe. what now? Do we share the bed with the football team or what?"

"No, itís worse than that." He raised his head, a devilish look in his eyes. "The plane reservations are for coach. Youíll have to fly with us commoners." Joe laughed at her disgusted expression and turned quickly as she playfully swatted his arm.

"Iím sure Iíll survive somehow." She walked toward the door shaking her head, but laughing softly. "Iíve got a feeling Iím going to regret this."

Joe watched her leave, silently wishing that the office gossips were right. She certainly was beautiful, but he knew that she was also unattainable. She had been involved in a mysterious relationship for months and appeared to be deeply in love. Joe assumed her boyfriend must be very trusting if she accepted his invitation so readily. Catherine apparently wasnít concerned about him protesting.

Catherine went out to her desk to get organized for another hectic day. She felt happy for the first time in weeks and found herself looking forward to leaving New York for a few days. A break from her monotonous lonely life was exactly what she needed. After Vincent had broken off their relationship last month, she was barely existing anyway. She had immersed herself in the job working extra long hours six to seven days a week to keep her mind occupied.

* * *

Friday morning Catherine was packed and ready for the weekend. She called Peter Alcott the previous evening and let him know where she was going to be in case of an emergency. Without going into detail, she explained that she was not seeing Vincent any more, but she wanted to be notified if there were any serious problems below.

Peter already knew something was wrong between them because Father had spoken of it during one of his recent visits. Father confessed to Peter that although he was relieved in some ways that they had parted, he was also very worried that Vincent would never be the same. Peter knew that Catherine must be in just as much pain as Vincent. He promised to check on him discreetly for her.

The flight down to New Orleans was an adventure in itself. The plane flew into a lot of turbulence and the passengers were tossed around incessantly. Joe was practically green by the time they landed. Catherine took pity on him and insisted that he take some Dramamine and lay down at the hotel for a nap. He woke up feeling much better and they set out to take in the sights and sounds of the infamous southern city. Joe had been there twice before, but Catherine never had...that gave Joe the pleasure of playing tour guide for her. Like most tourists they ended up on Bourbon Street and after a delightful if not spicy meal, they spent the rest of the evening partying in the local hot spots. By the time they arrived back at the hotel it was difficult to tell who was supporting whom. After a short argument over sleeping arrangements...Joe wanted to give her the bed and sleep on the floor which she would not even consider...they shared the King size bed, immediately falling into an exhausted slumber.

It was Joe who woke first the next morning. His mouth tasted awful and the room was spinning crazily when he sat up. He thought for a while that he would have to crawl into the bathroom, but finally managed to stagger in and shower and shave. To his surprise he actually felt better afterwards. He didnít notice until he was ready to exit the bathroom that he had forgot to bring his robe in with him. Feeling a little foolish, he fastened one of the bath towels around him and crept out into the other room.

Catherine was awake, lying on her side of the bed. Trying to decide if a person could die from a hangover, she decided it was a definite possibility. Her head felt as though it were going to explode if she moved too quickly. She couldnít remember the last time she had drank so much, but she had to admit that she had certainly had a good time. In fact she couldnít remember having had so much fun. Joe was a wonderful person to be with and she couldnít help but ask herself why they had not done something like this before. For the first time in days her spirits lifted and she felt happy.

When she heard the door to the bathroom open, she glanced over and saw Joe emerging, obviously trying to be quiet. He didnít realize she was awake. He had a towel wrapped around his waist which barely covered the vital areas. Shyly she noted that though slim, his legs were lean and his chest was covered in a mass of dark curls that tapered off farther down.

Joe looked over her way and saw that she was watching him. He smiled sheepishly and explained. "I forgot my robe."

Catherine managed to smile and chuckling, she couldnít help but tease him a little. "Nice legs, Joe!"

He grinned back at her. "Iím surprised you can see them out of those red eyes. I sure hope you donít feel as bad as you look, Radcliffe."

"I feel like hell," she mumbled as she forced herself to sit up while her stomach continued doing flip-flops and she fumbled for her robe. "I know one thing," she declared as she looked over at her friend. "I would never make a good drunk. I couldnít stand to feel this bad every day."

"Iíll drink to that," Joe quipped, wincing at his own words. "Up, Radcliffe. Enough of this lying around in bed. Weíve got lots to see and do today."

"Oh great, first you try to poison me and now youíre going to torture me. I always knew there was a reason not to travel with the boss." She grabbed a small overnight case and disappeared into the bathroom to shower.

Joe quickly began dressing, trying to forget how good her body looked in the gown she was wearing. Even half asleep, wiped out with a hangover, she was beautiful. Joe stared at the closed door a moment shaking his head. This trip was going to be a real test for him. If he got through the weekend without her discovering how he really felt about her, it would be a miracle.

He grinned as he remembered last night. It was the first time he had seen Catherine really let loose and enjoy herself. She certainly was a terrific dancer and being with her in such a casual setting was more fun than he had had in a long time.

While Catherine finished with her shower and got dressed Joe ordered their breakfast and plenty of coffee. Catherine was putting the final touches on her make up when room service arrived. She thought at first she would be unable to eat, but after a little coffee, she was surprised to find her appetite had returned.

"Well, Radcliffe, are you feeling better now," noting that they had just finished off a second pot of coffee and all of the food.

"Yes," she answered blushing. "Sorry about earlier. I havenít done that much drinking since my first year in College...and all that Cajun food!" She exclaimed patting her flat stomach for emphasis.

"Donít worry, Cathy. I wonít go back to the office and tell them what a lush you are." He chuckled as she shot him a half-hearted glare. "Well, if youíre done, letís get out there. Weíve still got more of the area to see, Kiddo."

"No bars, okay Boss?" she pleaded wearily.

He answered as he pulled her out of her chair. "No bars and donít call me Boss. You make me feel like an old man."

They spent the rest of the morning exploring more of New Orleans. Over lunch, they decided to take an aerial view of some of the Bayou country for which Louisiana is famous. There were plenty of tours which took groups flying around the area, but Catherine decided to make arrangements for a small charter plane for two.

After phoning in the request, she joined Joe back at their table and explained to him how they were going. Joe couldnít resist teasing her. "Whatís the matter, Radcliffe? Not used to rubbing elbows with the tourist class? I forget sometimes that you werenít raised to mingle with us mere mortals."

She attempted to smile, but what Joe said had hit a nerve, and she asked quietly. "Is that what you really think Joe? Do I give the impression that I have to be surrounded by money and power to be happy?" She wondered if that was part of the problem with Vincent. If she unconsciously made him feel that he was not good enough for her, she might have driven him off.

Joe looked into her eyes and could see that she was not being flippant with him. "No Cathy. I donít think that. I know youíre not a power hungry climber. Although, I guess I did misjudge you when you first started working with me. I didnít think you would last a month, but any doubts I had disappeared when I got to know you. You have to admit, though, that our backgrounds arenít exactly similar." He glanced away then back to her. "There have been times...I mean..." he paused, then shook his head. "Never mind."

"What, Joe? Tell me," she urged surprised at his reluctance.

He dropped his eyes, obviously uneasy, then looked back. "When you first came to work, I really wanted to ask you out, but I never did get up the nerve. I certainly wasnít in Elliott Burchís class, and I just figured you wouldnít be interested."

Catherine put her hand over his. "Joe, You are ten times the man Elliott will ever be. For all his money and position, heís empty inside. You are one of the best people I know." Now it was her turn to look away for a moment embarrassed. "Iím really flattered that you were interested."

"Yeah?" he asked grinning.

"Yeah," she agreed. With a tug on his arm she stood and motioned toward the restaurant window where they could see a taxi pull over to the curb. "Come on, our chariot awaits."

His brown eyes twinkling, Joe joined her and they left to find the airport and their charter flight.

* * *

Catherine asked the pilot to take them off the normal flight path and show them some of the wild bayou country far to the west of New Orleans. It was amazing seeing miles and miles of swamps and forests, and it was also a nice change from the hectic, urbanized concrete jungles of New York. Their pilot, Bob Samilton, flew a wide zigzagging course revealing as much of the wild lands as possible. He noticed that his passengers were obviously enjoying themselves, and both were very friendly, so he was happy to give them a tour they would remember. Some of his passengers were so high and mighty that he just wanted to get the flight over and done. These two though, were happy as a pair of kids teasing and laughing together. People like them made his job more enjoyable.

He had just turned the plane back in the direction of New Orleans when smoke began pouring from one of the engines. They started losing altitude immediately as the motor sputtered and clattered. There was very little time from the first sign of trouble until Bob told Joe they were going down. They had been flying low to begin with and they were steadily getting lower. There was not enough altitude for them to parachute out. Bob struggled to keep the planeís nose up while he attempted to reach someone on the radio. Knowing there was little hope, he instructed Joe to open the door and get ready to jump. Then he searched frantically for some open water.

Joe opened the door of the plane and stared down at the land fast approaching them. The wind was whipping around them and Catherine and Joe were terrified to see how fast they were going down. They spun around as the pilot yelled at them to get ready to jump.

"Jump?í Catherine repeated incredulously, looking out the door. "Are you crazy?" All she could see below were trees and swamp. There were only small breaks in the vegetation. Then she saw open water, but it was hardly more than a stream. By this time they had descended so low that they were barely above the tree tops. The pilot couldnít really mean to jump, could he?

"If you want to live, jump. Now!" Samilton demanded wildly. He knew he couldnít keep the plane in the air much longer. The port engine was on fire and smoke was pouring into the cabin burning his nose and eyes. He could hardly see.

Suddenly, there was a loud scrunch as the wings topped off several trees. Joe took a deep breath, grabbed Catherine around the waist, and pulled her out the door with him. They dropped almost sixty feet to the water below still clinging to each other. Just before hitting the surface, they let go while the plane continued on past them. The last thing they heard was a deafening blast as the plane blew up, scattering fiery pieces in all directions.

Luckily, both Joe and Catherine were underwater when most of the debris hit around them. They surfaced in time to see a large piece of the burning fuselage sink into the murky depths of the swamp.

Catherine and Joe swam to shore. It was fortunate that the river was deep enough for them to jump into. They had submerged almost to the bottom before swimming back up. Both reached land at about the same time and crawled out on the bank to collapse, gasping and shaking. Joe coughed and choked as he rolled over on his side and vomited up the dirty water that he had taken in. He vaguely wondered what kind of nasty germs he had swallowed, and how soon before he became sick with something really vile. With a shudder, he slowly realized there was a warm hand on his shoulder.

"Are you okay?" Catherine gasped, her voice strained with worry. She was stunned at how close they had come to being killed. If Joe had not pulled her out of that plane when he did, she would have died instantly. It was a sobering thought.

"No, Iím not hurt," Joe managed to say between spitting and wheezing. "Iím just sick to my stomach." He cleared his throat and took a few deep breaths. "How about you?" He pushed himself up to a sitting position and wiped the water from his eyes as he turned to her.

She was sitting on her knees wringing the water from her hair as she raised her head to look at him. "Damn it Joe, Iím shaking all over. Iíve never been that frightened before." She wondered if Vincent had felt her terror, but knew without a doubt that he had. Clearing her mind and closing her eyes, she sent a message through the bond that she was all right. Regardless of what had occurred between her and Vincent she knew that he would be upset that he could not help her.

Her thoughts went to Bob, and in reflex her head tilted and she gazed at the clear sky.

"Joe, the pilot...he didnít get out, did he?"

Joe refused to meet her eyes and nodded. They were both silent for a few minutes thinking about Bob. Catherine wondered about his family. Swallowing hard, she silently thanked him. Marveling at his courage, she wondered what his last thoughts had been.

She looked up at Joe. "Thank you. If you hadnít pulled me out..." she trailed off unable to finish her sentence.

Joe put his arm around her and drew her close to him. She was not the only one who was shaking. He had been scared stiff himself. Joe said a silent thank you to the dead pilot. He had saved their lives by his quick action in keeping the plane level until they got close enough to the ground to jump.

Catherine shifted position and sat beside Joe, snuggled in his arms in a tight embrace. Once she stopped trembling, she became more aware of Joeís body next to hers. She could hear his heart beating and feel the firm muscles of his shoulder where her head rested. It felt so good to be held again. With a sigh she moved away slightly.

She looked up at Joe and noticed for the first time that he was watching her. Swallowing uneasily, she glanced away and asked. "Well what are we going to do?"

Joe shook his head disgusted. "I donít know, Cathy. If the pilotís call for help got through, then I guess we should stay here and wait. But if it didnít then..." He trailed off while he looked around. "Do you have any idea how far we are from any towns or houses?"

She thought for a moment about what she had seen just before the planeís engine went out. "No, I never noticed any buildings or anything that looked like civilization. She rose and scanned the area. They were on the bank of a small, winding river that disappeared quickly in both directions. It was about 250 feet across, and the trees were thick all around the far bank and covered with moss and vines. Around them, it was difficult to even see the sky through the dense foliage. It was a miracle that the pilot had managed to maneuver the plane over the water at all. Behind them the thick line of trees and bushes dropped off into a scummy, thick swamp. The air was filled with the sounds of wild life. There were shrill noises that must have been birds; and chirps, croaks, and squeaks that came from any number of creatures running, flying and crawling through the dense cover. Also abundant were hundreds of buzzing insects which seemed to hover all around them.

Joe stood and also began surveying the area, then turned toward his friend. "Well, Radcliffe, I think we should stay here and wait and see if a search party comes. If the pilotís call reached anyone they would start their search at the last place they heard from him." He looked at her as she shrugged and swatted away some of the pesky bugs. "Youíve got a say in this too, Cathy. Iím not a dictator, you know."

As she met his eyes, she saw that he was smiling softly at her. She shrugged. "I agree, Joe. Letís sit tight and wait for the cavalry to come over the hill," then with another quick look around, "or maybe theyíll come squishing through the mud."

Joe grinned at her attempt at humor. "Okay then I guess we should do something constructive like gather some firewood in case we have to spend the night here."

"Spend the night," she repeated with dread. "Here? God, what a thought."

"Donít tell me youíve never camped out before, Cathy? Maybe with the Campfire girls? Girl Scouts?" When she didnít answer, he continued in a teasing voice. "Oh, thatís right. You uptown girls donít like to sit in the dirt and rough it right?"

"Joe, youíd be surprised at just how often Iíve roughed it in the past couple of years," she replied ruefully. Although that was not really how she thought of her time spent in the tunnels.

The lack of modern amenities had never been a burden or a detraction from the magical, sometimes almost imaginary wonder of Below. Just thinking of the winding tunnels, wondrous caverns and chambers, waterfalls and endless pipes brought a deep pain to her soul. She felt the sting of tears and turned away forcing herself to hold together.

Joe silently approached and put his hands on her shoulders from behind. "Are you okay?" he asked softly.

She nodded. "Just a delayed reaction, I guess," she mumbled.

Joe didnít believe that was what was bothering her, but didnít pursue the real reason. He just squeezed her shoulders and said, "Come on, letís gather up some wood."

Finding dry wood was a problem. They followed the bank as far as they could in both directions before being stopped by a muddy bog. It seemed that they were actually on a small island of high ground. They had to settle for two huge arm loads of wood apiece because that was all they could find. It was around 70 degrees and very humid, but they were not certain how cool it got at night there. Both hoped that they would not have to find out.

They worked together to prepare the wood for burning later, then Catherine searched for kindling. Joe squatted and watched her as she sat down on her knees placing the kindling and some dried grass under the wood. She laid aside some sticks she had found that would be excellent to later start the fire.

"You appear to know what youíre doing, Cathy."

"Just because I wasnít a Girl Scout doesnít mean Iím useless," she quipped. She contemplated telling Joe that she had indeed been a Girl Scout up until her mother had died and that after her death she had lost all interest. Though her father had tried to bring a sense of normalcy to her life it had not been the same without her mother sharing in all the enthusiasm. Instead she had found herself jealous of all the other girls with their mothers by their side.

In a low voice she told him. "A friend taught me how to make fires easier and quicker than most folks."

Joe observed her for a moment not missing the pain that was reflected in her eyes. "Cathy, Iím here if you want to talk" he offered softly.

She glanced at him and then looked away. Her eyes were shining with unshed tears. "Not now, Joe." Her voice was soft, barely audible.

Joe wondered what was troubling her. He had noticed several times that while she was happy and laughing one minute, the next she had a sad, lonely look on her face and appeared to be listening for something. It was almost as if she were only half there. Perhaps she had been able to leave New York without protest from her boy friend because she no longer had a man in her life. That could mean there might be a slight chance that she would go out with him when they returned. Joe and Catherine had lunch together frequently, and often ate supper together on the way home from work, but they had never had a real date. Their relationship had never gone beyond the boundaries of friendship even though they spent a lot of off duty time together.

He glanced at his watch; it was 3:05. Miraculously enough it had survived the crash.

He was not optimistic about their chances of being rescued today. He just prayed that someone had received their position before the pilot died. "Well Radcliffe, how about calling Room Service and get some steaks sent up."

"Iíd settle for a large glass of iced tea."

"Ah, a cold beer would hit the spot."

"Oh, letís not torture ourselves." She lay back in the grass resting her head on her arm. "Why donít you tell me something, Joe."

"Okay, what?"

"Tell me about yourself...as a boy. What was your childhood like?"

"Well, not as exciting as yours. We couldnít afford vacations in Europe."

She turned her head away and spoke sharply. "Stop it, Joe!" With a frown, she turned back to him. "Lay off the rich girl jokes for awhile. Please?"

"Sure, Cathy. I didnít mean anything by that."

"I know, but...it reminds me of something that...that hurts."

He could hear the strain in her voice and began to suspect that her social position was perhaps behind the possible severing of her love affair. The last thing he wanted was to cause her pain, so he began talking to change the subject. "Well...I was a real problem case for my parents when I was little, Radcliffe." He continued on telling her about himself and his family.

She listened closely, very interested in what he was saying. Joe was an enigma to her in many ways. He was cynical, pessimistic and sometimes extremely irritating, but he was also charming, funny and compassionate. He would gladly do anything to help a friend, but could also be a very demanding person quick to anger and just as quick to cool off. Outside of Vincent, he was her closest friend.

Joe continued describing some of the things that had the most impact on his childhood. When he got to the age that his father was killed, Joe trailed off, reluctant to discuss how changed his life was after that. He was still unable to come to terms with a lot that happened and how his family life had turned upside down then. With a yawn, he laid down on his back beside Catherine and only intended to rest his eyes when he drifted off, lulled into sleep by the warm sun and late hours of the night before.

Catherine turned her head and took the opportunity to study Joe while he slept. She had always been aware of his boyish good looks. Smiling to herself she recalled Jennyís comment that Joe had cute buns! Jenny and Joe had become friends too, and even though Catherine thought they would be perfect together, they just never seemed to mesh. Catherine sometimes believed that Joe and Jenny were too much alike to ever be more than friends.

Joe could be so tough at times, and yet he could also be tender in spite of the fact that he seemed so uncomfortable with his emotion. Perhaps that was part of his charm. His features seemed so relaxed in sleep and Catherine found herself drawn by his vulnerability.

As if by reflex, her thoughts turned to Vincent. She needed him so desperately. Just the thought of him caused a deep ache which threatened to overwhelm her. "Vincent," she silently called through their bond. "I love you, and I miss you." Despite her best efforts, tears began trailing down her cheeks and she angrily wiped them away. "God, I need you Vincent." Rolling over on her side, she took a couple of deep breaths. She tried to push her thoughts aside and finally sheer exhaustion allowed her to fall into an uneasy sleep.

* * *

Hundreds of miles away, below in his chambers Vincent also felt the sting of tears. He could feel every emotion and many of Catherineís thoughts, and he knew how lonely and frustrated she was. Sometimes he couldnít tell which pain was hers and which were his. In the past few weeks, he had barely slept or eaten. He avoided his friends and especially avoided Father. Although he had told no one but Father that Catherine would not be returning Below again, everyone close to him had noticed her absence and his obvious distress.

He had rushed to Father when he had felt Catherineís terror earlier. He was uncertain just what happened, but knew that she was with someone and that they were still not out of danger. Father immediately contacted Peter who told him that she had gone to New Orleans with a friend for the weekend. Peter promised to make some calls and see if he could find out what had happened. So far, Father had no word from him.

Vincent suddenly jumped up and began pacing back and forth; feeling helpless to aid Catherine. He knew that she had left New York because of the sorrow he had caused her. Her aloneness had eaten away at his soul, especially during the first week. Every tear that fell from her eyes had carved itself into his heart.

* * *

Catherine slept for an hour. When she awoke and started to sit up, she found that she was a little stiff from lying on the hard ground. With dismay, she noticed that the sun was going down and it was already getting darker. The temperature was dropping also, but was not too cool yet. She stretched as something caught her eye. When she turned her head, she saw a three to four foot snake slithering a few feet away from Joe.

Her first instinct was to jump, but she was afraid to startle the snake. It might be just as frightened as she was and crawl away, but it might also strike at anything within reach and that would be Joe. While she did not know much about snakes, she could not take a chance that it might be poisonous. She froze, hoping the creature would just leave. Her heart began beating faster, and she shivered. She would rather face a man with a knife than a snake. Something about them seemed to spark terror into her. It was almost past Joeís waist when Joe opened his eyes and started to move.

Catherine whispered urgently, "Donít move." She watched as the snake stopped its journey and turned its head, tongue flicking out to sense the air.

"What...?" Joe started mumbling, but stopped at the look in Catherineís eyes.

She spoke softly. "Thereís a snake by your foot."

Joe slowly raised his head so he could see what had Catherine so afraid. Knowing her intense fear of snakes, Joe thought he would probably see a tiny garter snake, but was surprised to see the biggest water moccasin he had ever seen. "Damn," he cursed softly.

Catherine and Joe both stared at the reptile, silently wishing it away. Finally, the snake resumed itís course and soon disappeared over the bank. They both jumped up immediately and saw that it had started swimming across the water. "Damn, Radcliffe, I should have killed the thing and we could have eaten it for supper."

"Eaten it?" Catherine repeated horrified. "I draw the line at eating snakes, thank you."

Joe turned toward her. "Iíve heard that snakes can be real tasty cooked over an open fire."

"Iíd just as soon eat the wood it would take to cook the thing," she answered with disgust.

Joe started laughing at her expression. Catherine shook her head and then cried out, "Itís back by your feet, Joe."

He jumped backwards awkwardly. In his haste, he almost fell down, but quickly recovered his balance. He looked all around, but there was no snake. Glancing up, he noticed that Catherine was giggling.

"I guess youíd think it was funny if Iíd fallen into the water, right Radcliffe?"

"Not me," she answered with a smirk. "But...I wouldnít have minded seeing you fall on your rear."

A wounded look appeared on his face. "Damn, no respect from the hired hands." He walked over to her side and noticed that she was shivering. "Cold?"

"A little."

"You could get a fire going. Itís going to be awfully dark soon."

The sun had all but disappeared and it seemed like the noise from all the various hidden creatures was getting louder. "We donít have enough wood to last all night, Joe. Maybe we should wait."

"Yeah, youíre probably right." He sighed disgustedly. "Iím the one who wanted to get off the beaten track."

Their eyes met and Catherine was the first to look away. Joeís eyes were so filled with tenderness. Her feelings for him were far more intense than he knew. Though her heart would always belong to Vincent, Joe filled a void in her life. She was so confused. Part of her felt guilty...as if she were betraying Vincent by having the feelings that Joe stirred in her. Another part of her knew only that she needed the love that Vincent refused her. She was deeply in love with Vincent, and she had not given up hope that they could resolve their problems. At this point, however, she was not going to go to Vincent again. She had shown him over and over that she was committed to him and wanted a complete relationship. Now it was up to him to have faith and trust in their love.

"Why donít we sit down and talk, Cathy?" suggested Joe hoping she wouldnít notice the longing in his eyes that was getting more and more difficult to hide. He had been hiding his love for her for so long that it was almost unthinkable to let her know now. They were standing about a foot apart, but Joe could feel her eyes drawing him like a magnet. For the thousandth time he found himself wondering what it would be like to hold her, to brush the hair out of her eyes with a gentle caress, to feel her mouth yielding to his... He said a silent thank you prayer that it was dark enough that she could not see his bodyís obvious response to her.

Catherine followed his suggestion, and they sat side by side for awhile, silent, both letting their minds wander over the possibilities and implications of their thoughts. Catherine wrapped her arms around her chest trying to stop the shivering that was only partially due to the temperature.

Joe had a light jacket on over his pullover shirt, and he took it off and wrapped it around Catherineís shoulders.

"Thanks, Joe."

"Cathy, why donít you tell me what it was like to grow up a rich kid."

"A rich kid, huh?" she repeated wryly. "Okay, letís see, where shall I start?"

"Start with your thirteenth birthday," suggested Joe. His teenage years had not been happy for him and this caused him to wonder what hers had been like.

She talked for about an hour confiding things to him that she had never told anyone. Joe was really surprised to discover that she had been picked up by the police twice when she was sixteen. The first time because her boyfriend was arrested for driving under the influence, but the second time she was arrested with a dozen other kids at a party that had become totally out of hand. Catherine was not one of the teenagers who had been using drugs or alcohol so there had been no charges filed against her. It had upset her father so much though that she had made certain never to let herself be placed in that position again. Ever since her mother had did, Catherine had always tried to take care of her father and not worry him.

By the time she had finished talking, the temperature had dropped by fifteen degrees and they decided it was definitely time to start a fire. Catherine offered to show Joe the fine art of fire-starting as Vincent had taught her. She felt pretty good when she did it quickly and easily, and enjoyed seeing that Joe was impressed.

He smiled at her and patted her softly on the shoulder. "Way to go, Kiddo. Youíve got all kinds of interesting talents."

She grinned back at him and they sat down to warm up.

It was amazing how comforting a fire could be. Just having the warmth and light lifted their spirits. The only problem was it also attracted various flying insects. The lower temperatures helped in keeping the horde away, but there were still enough to keep them swatting and slapping the little pests frequently.

They were hungry and thirsty and although they tried not to think about food and water, it was still difficult not to. They talked a while longer then sat quietly enjoying the crackling and popping of the fire. Joe studied Catherine as she sat staring into the flickering flames. The firelight reflected the highlights in her honey colored hair. Her full lips seemed to pout, and he longed to feel them against his own. Several times, he caught her looking at him with a tenderness she had never shown before. If only he could be certain he was interpreting her correctly.

Almost as if she had read his mind, Catherine glanced over at him. The sparks from the fire reflected in her emerald eyes and caused embers of a different sort to stir in Joeís heart. He quickly turned his head and closed his eyes. If only he could be certain...

Catherine longed to feel the tenderness that came from being held and loved. She ached with a longing that was not new. She had been feeling it since Vincent had rejected her. Though this was the only time he had truly ended their relationship, he had turned her away other times. She only realized now with Joe, that each time had caused a hurt that had never healed, because deep inside she had known...Vincent would do it again. Their love was still so new, so fragile...

Joe loved her. She knew that now. He would never reject her!

Catherineís mouth suddenly went dry and her heart began pounding furiously. This time she was sure. She definitely saw the same longing in Joeís face. She edged closer until they were almost touching. With a sudden flash of sparks, one of the larger pieces of wood shifted position as it burned and rolled out of the fire. Catherine and Joe both reached for it at the same time. When their hands touched, it was as if an electric current exploded within them. Joe turned his head and gazed directly into Catherineís eyes. He was entranced by her and softly whispered her name. "Cathy..."

It was startling how that one word affected heróone word, and one tender touch that spoke volumes. Even in the flickering light of the low burning fire, Joe could see the naked vulnerability in her eyes. He hesitated, afraid of crossing the line from friend to lover.

Catherine almost stopped breathing as Joe wrapped his arms around her trembling body and drew her to him with a low groan. They melted into a long, gentle kiss that slowly turned to passion. The rational part of her knew that she should stop what was happening before it got out of hand.

Pulling her face gently away from Joeís, she breathed deeply. Closing her eyes she let the feelings run through her. Tears stung the back of her eyelids as she thought of Vincent. The hurt and feelings of betrayal returned and it brought back with it the need to be loved...to be cared for. She needed Joe. She needed the physical and emotional release that he offered so lovingly.

Catherineís mouth opened allowing Joeís tongue inside to eagerly explore a place he never thought he would know. He savored her sweet taste, delighting in each touch.

She had wanted to kiss Vincent for so long that this kiss brought her to the brink of ecstasy. Catherine basked in the sensations. She felt as if she were drowning as he inflamed her, arousing her more by a kiss than she would have thought possible.

Joe laid down on his back and drew her partially on top of him. As their tongues once again caressed each other, his entire body trembled and he moaned in response.

Catherine pulled herself up to look into his brown eyes. She could see the same vulnerability that she felt reflected there. He was just as confused as she was, but his need was as great as her own. She knew he would stop if she wanted him to, but she was helpless in his arms.

Joe reached up and tenderly caressed her cheek. She covered his hand with hers, then gently brought it to her mouth kissing the palm.

Catherine felt Joe pulling her back down for another long, blazing kiss. She slipped her hand under his shirt and ran her fingers caressing wherever they traveled. The hair that clung to his chest felt soft and silky. She pulled his shirt up and off. Starting at his waist, she ran her hands up his chest massaging and kneading.

Joe was panting, and he began to move his hips slightly pushing against her body. He unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it off. Joe stared, entranced as he unfastened her bra to allow himself better access.

She bent down covering his face in gentle kisses. The curly hair on his chest caressed her breasts, tickling and inflaming them. Moving lower, she brushed her lips across his throat, collarbone, and along his chest until she nuzzled her way lower still.

The feel of her tongue threatened to drive him mad. Joe was quivering as Catherine caressed him, and she looked up to see him close his eyes as a groan escaped his lips.

"Cathy," Joe whispered harshly. He couldnít believe how she affected him. It was almost as if he had never really made love before. Every feeling was intensified, heightened. He pulled her back into his arms and kissed her deeply and thoroughly. The taste of her excited him making him almost dizzy. He rolled over so that she was underneath him and began kissing her cheeks, eyes, ears, stopping long enough to gently bite her tender lobes before continuing from one side of her throat to the other.

Joeís heart was pounding fervently as he removed her remaining clothing. Tenderly he caressed her; his fingers letting her know in every touch how much he loved her...even if the words were too difficult.

For Catherine each touch and every sensation was magnified because of her long abstinence. He started to remove his fingers, but she captured his forearm and pleaded huskily. "Donít stop, please donít stop." He responded to her need and was soon rewarded as she shuddered, automatically drawing her thighs together as she climaxed.

As her breathing slowed, he tenderly covered his body with hers. "Joe," she whispered with a tremor. "Please be gentle at first. "Itís...itís been a long time for me."

He was surprised at her words, but he was unable to concentrate on that for now. He could only think of quenching his fire in her. He began to enter slowly. He could sense that it was painful for her, and he held himself in check, but as her body adjusted to his, their loving began in earnest as they moved together as if they were one. The pressure from her climax triggered his own and they both floated for a few moments in the sweetest feeling known.

Joe shifted position so Catherine was not supporting his weight, but he kept her in a tight embrace. They relaxed both their bodies and their minds while their breathing returned to normal. Catherine clung to him and gently kissed his cheek. As they looked into each otherís eyes, both were overcome by their intense feelings for the other. She sighed and laid her head back, closing her eyes. There were things that she wanted to say to him, but she couldnít then. She just wanted to be held in his arms.

Joe also laid back thinking. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, that he had always loved her, but he was afraid to. He was afraid it would drive her away and he didnít want to jeopardize this new relationship. He thought for a moment about what she said and turned his head in her direction. His voice was soft as he asked, "Cathy, can I ask you something?"

"Mmmmmm," she answered sleepily.

He rolled over so he could look into her eyes. He hesitated a minute. "You said it had been a long time. How long?"

She stared at him and answered honestly. "Joe, I havenít made love since before I was attacked two and a half years ago."

"But I thought you were involved with someone."

She didnít answer for a moment. "I was up until a few weeks ago, but...he...we were never intimate."

"Never?"

"No," she replied quietly. One lone tear slid down her cheek.

Joe wished he hadnít asked as the question once again opened the doors to the deep pain that had surfaced several times in the past couple of days. He drew her to him a little tighter trying to give her his strength. Instead of giving her strength, the tenderness that Joe showed her only made her realize the mistake she had made in making love with him. It hit her with a force that took away her breath in its intensity. She had betrayed Vincent.

Gasping for breath she pulled away from Joe. Studying her with concern etched on his face, Joe shakily spoke. "Cathy are you alright?"

Deep sobs racked her body as the build up of all the sorrow and pent up emotion rose to the surface. Not knowing what else to do, Joe simply held her. They remained that way for a few minutes; Catherine crying in Joeís arms. He had no idea what had triggered her reaction although he was sure it had something to do with this secret love that she had told him so little about. It was the first time he had ever seen Catherine with her guard down and sadly he realized that he would probably never get past that wall again. Suddenly with perfect clarity he realized that he could never tell Catherine the way he really felt about her. Her heart belonged to this other man. His own heart silently cried out at what could have been. Love for her filled him and he could only hold her and comfort her with his presence and the acceptance of his fate.

She cried herself to sleep in his arms. Joe did not sleep; instead he kept watch over her. Every once and awhile he stroked her cheek or her back.

Upon waking they dressed and nothing was mentioned about Catherineís outburst, nor about the intimacy that they had shared. They sat silently watching the flames of the dying fire.

The more Catherine tried not to think of Vincent, the more her mind refused to cooperate. She could feel something through their bond, but she didnít know what it meant. It was an intense emotional feeling, but whether it was grief, anger, or perhaps a combination of both, she was not certain. There was no mistaking that Vincent knew, and he was deeply affected by her actions. Regardless of the pain he caused her, she did not want to hurt him. There was never a desire on her part to make love with someone to get back at him. She loved him too much to ever want to cause him a moment of unhappiness.

Maybe the truth that faced her in the aftermath of the intimacy she shared with Joe, was that she was selfish in her desire, and not worthy of Vincent or his love. A feeling of shame slowly crept through her awareness dissolving the comfort she had shared with Joe only moments before. No doubt her careless and thoughtless act would cost dearly. How could she have betrayed the person whom she loved most in the world?

Yet even in her shame she knew that what she had done was done for love. Her feelings for Joe were real and what they shared was beautiful, personal and extremely important to her. But in her heart she felt that she had betrayed Vincent, for it was him she truly desired. It had been his caresses she had longed for. Desperately she tried to keep at bay the rising tide of emotion. Joe had not asked for an explanation, but she knew that he would if she were to give in to the sadness she felt.

What could she say to Joe? Her heart would be forever bound to Vincent. No matter what the consequences of her actions, she could never turn to Joe on the rebound. Now more than ever Catherine felt confused.

She noticed that Joe was putting more wood on the fire, and walked over and sat down beside him. He turned to gaze into her green eyes and she kissed him tenderly on the lips. They smiled softly and embraced. Both were overcome with their feelings of love for the other, but neither was willing to voice those feelings. They lay down and settled themselves into a comfortable position snuggling to keep warm. They soon fell into a deep sated slumber.

Some time later in the night, Catherine awoke. She shivered and raised up, noticing the fire was almost out. Gently, she pulled out of Joeís embrace and rose to add the remaining wood to the fire. She sat down in front of the warm light and them turned to look at Joe. He was snoring softly, curled on his side, his face bathed in the flickering yellow light from the fire.

Again her thoughts went to Vincent. In the blackness of the night she called out his name through the bond, trying to send the essence of her thoughts to him. "I wanted YOU. I needed YOU. Please donít hate me for tonight...Please." She wiped away the tears that filled her eyes, then moved over to snuggle down close to Joe again. She didnít understand how she could have such strong feelings for two very different men, but there was no denying that she cared deeply for both of them.

* * *

Joe woke slowly, trying to open his eyes, but the sun was shining into them. Disoriented for a moment he wondered where he was and why he was lying outside. A strange buzzing sound finally permeated his fogged senses. Suddenly, he realized he was hearing a boat engineóthey were rescued. He sat up quickly brushing against Catherine who rolled over and slowly began to stretch.

"Joe?" she mumbled sleepily as she saw him looking upstream.

"What is it?"

He glanced back at her, excited. "Someoneís coming, Radcliffe." He held out to her.

They waited quietly listening to the buzz that was steadily getting closer. Almost immediately, the front of a boat cleared the brush and trees at the bend of the water and they could see two men in a blue bass boat. They waved and smiled excitedly glad to see other people at last.

The man sitting at the controls guided the boat over by the bank with an expert hand and cut the engine. Both men looked over at the couple wondering what they were doing out here in the middle of the swamp.

"Man, are we glad to see you," Joe said.

One of the men, a tall, thin man with dark hair that stuck out from under a weather-beaten fishing hat jumped over on the bank. He had a full moustache that covered his upper lip. He looked around to see if he saw anyone else, then turned back to them.

"What the hell are you two doing out here?"

Joe realized then that they were not part of an organized search party, so it was just luck that they came upon them. "We were taking a charter plane looking over the bayou when the plane went down. We managed to jump, but the pilot was killed when the plane exploded."

The man shook his head. "Sounds like you two are lucky to be alive." He glanced back at the boat to his friend. "Brett, looks like weíre going to have some company." He turned to Joe. "You do want a ride out of here, right?"

He smiled broadly. "Do we ever!"

"Then lets get going. Thereís fish out there waiting for Brett and me." Then remembering his manners, he added. "By the way, my name is Matt Lawrence." He pointed toward his companion, "My buddy is Brett Parkins."

Joe stuck out his hand. "Iím Joe Maxwell, and this is Cathy Chandler."

Brett shook hands with both briefly. "Well, come on and climb aboard."

Catherine and Joe climbed on to the boat and settled down. They sped briskly down the winding river. Brett rambled on about fishing and which bait was best for this fish and which for that. Joe listened intently. He also enjoyed fishing whenever he had the chance. Catherine leaned back and watched the scenery pass by. The river had not only widened, but also straightened out, and they were able to make better time. She found herself lost in the beauty of the river and wildness of the bayou.

Several hours later, they finally reached the hotel. Both were worn out and desperate for baths. They drew a lot of curious stares as they trudged through the lobby, but they neither nor noticed nor cared. After entering the elevator both slumped against the wall. Joe took a glance at his watch. "The game starts in two hours if you still want to go."

She was exhausted, but didnít want to keep Joe from going. "Do you want to try and make it?"

"Not unless I feel a whole lot better after a shower," he admitted scratching a mosquito bite on his throat. "Damn, I feel gungy."

"Gungy?" Catherine repeated grinning.

"Yeah, as in dirty, smelly, and buggy."

"Thatís us for sure," she agreed. "Well, I get the shower first."

"Why you?"

"Because I started the fire last night. That should count for something."

He smiled shyly at her a moment. "Youíre right, Cathy. It does. That was the hottest fire Iíve ever known."

Catherine blushed, turned her head away a moment before meeting his eyes. They stared at each other, both of them remembering. Then they glanced away at the same time. Neither had spoken of the previous evening all day, although it was foremost in both their minds. She cared very deeply for Joe, in fact, she loved him. But her love for Joe was nothing like her love for Vincent.

Vincentís presence filled her body and soul, and her love for him held her in itís iron grasp. It wouldnít be fair to Joe to lead him on, and she knew that the time would come when they would have to talk. For both their sakes, the intimacy they shared could never happen again. Joe deserved a woman who could love him as deeply as he loved herónot a woman who wished he was someone else as he held her.

Joe was also feeling unsure and a little wary. He loved Catherine profoundly, but he knew that she was hurting. Someone had broken her heart recently, and he could tell that she was not ready for another relationship yet. Perhaps it was better to let things develop gradually and wait for a sign from her before proceeding. Yet he longed to tell her how much he loved her. Deep inside he knew that he would have to settle for being the second man in her life. This knowledge hurt him, but he knew that whatever the outcome would be, he would remain steadfast in his friendship with her.

As the elevator stopped and the doors opened, Joe laid his hand on her shoulder and squeezed tenderly. His tenderness drew a smile from her as they exited the elevator.

As soon as they were inside the door, the telephone began ringing. Catherine shook her head at the phone and went straight toward the bathroom. "Itís all yours, Joe." She paused at the door and looked back at the phone.

"Go," he responded as he pointed at the bathroom with a grin. He picked up the receiver while watching her go in and close the door. "Hello."

A muffled voice came out of the phone. "Mr. Maxwell?

"Yeah, this is Joe Maxwell."

"This is the front desk, Mr. Maxwell. I just sent a gentleman up to your room. He said he needed to see Ms. Chandler. I thought I should let you know to expect him."

"Do you know who it is?"

"No, I didnít get his name."

"Thatís okay," Joe replied. "Thanks for calling."

ĎDamn,í Joe silently grumbled. ĎThis better not knock me out of a shower.í He glanced toward the bathroom and sighed. Then he walked over and knocked on the door. "Cathy?"

"Yes?"

"Thereís someone coming up to talk to you. You donít have to hurry though. Iíll keep him company."

"Thanks Joe."

Joe went out into the other room and sat down to wait on their visitor. Closing his eyes, he leaned back and had almost drifted off when he heard a knock on the suiteís door.

Grumbling under his breath, he answered it hoping whoever it was didnít plan on staying long. He was taken back a moment when he recognized the visitor. "Dr. Alcott? This is certainly a surprise."

"Mr. Maxwell," Peter greeted.

"Well, come on in." Joe was very curious at what Alcott wanted with Cathy.

"Mr. Maxwell..." started Peter.

"Please," he interrupted, "Call me Joe."

"Okay, Joe. Iím sorry to disturb you, but I need to talk to Cathy. Is she here?"

"Yes, sheís in the shower." He used his hand to point to his clothes. "As you can see, weíve had a rough couple of days. We just got back from the bayou a few minutes ago."

"The bayou?" Peter asked. "Thatís a strange place to go on your honeymoon."

"Honeymoon?" Joe repeated. "Oh, you mean because this is the Honeymoon Suite?" He chuckled and shook his head. "Were not here on a Honeymoon. We just came for the Super Bowl. This," he indicated the room, "came with the package."

Catherine dressed quickly in jeans and a blouse and ran a brush through her wet hair. She had expected to find more police waiting and was shocked to see who it really was.

"Peter? What is it? Is..." she trailed off, afraid that something had happened to Vincent.

"Heís all right." Peter looked from Catherine to Joe and turned away slightly. He was beginning to suspect why Vincent had been so upset lately. Obviously, Catherine had found someone else and broken off with Vincent. Or perhaps she had already found him and Vincent had broken off their relationship himself.

His actions and obvious concern were easily read by Catherine. She glanced at Joe hoping that he would give them some time alone.

Joe could feel that he was holding back the conversation. "If you will excuse me, Iíve got to get cleaned up." And with that, he made a quick exit.

Catherine seated herself on the love seat opposite Peter feeling like a prisoner confronting her interrogator. "What is it you wanted to see me about?"

Peter studied Catherine carefully. She seemed distracted, and he suddenly wondered if it had been such a good idea to come to her rescue. With his connection to the tunnel world, Catherine would know that his visit had something to do with Vincent. Maybe, he thought to himself, she had finally ended her relationship with him. Perhaps she didnít need or want rescuing. He had suspected that Joe Maxwell carried a torch for Cathy, and they acted very familiar with each other. Deciding to say his piece and be on his way, Peter began.

"Vincent was extremely worried about you, Catherine. He knew that you were in an accident of some kind. He actually wanted to come to New Orleans himself to find you. When I found out that he had contacted Michael to see if he could drive him down here, it was all I could do to keep him there. I told him that I would come in his place. After I arrived, I heard about the plane crash from the police. Iím glad that you and Joe were not hurt."

Catherine looked away for a moment feeling guilty to have caused everyone so much worry. "Is..how is Vincent?" she asked softly.

Peter sighed heavily. "Heís not well Catherine. I donít think he has eaten for days, not slept for weeks. Father is beside himself with worry. Vincent misses you terribly."

Catherine felt her eyes begin to fill with tears. "I miss him too." Her voice broke slightly. "Believe me Peter, it wasnít my idea...to end..." she trailed off, unable to finish.

Peter could sense the pain emanating from her. Understanding a little more he realised it was Vincent himself that had broken off their relationship. He reached into his pocket. "Vincent asked me to give this to you."

She reached out to take a sealed envelope from him. She opened it carefully, her hands shaking slightly. Inside was Vincentís beautiful script. The note read:

Catherine,

Please forgive me for hurting you. I have felt your pain and loneliness...know that they are as great as my own. Please come home. I need you.

Always, V

Why couldnít he have come to her before she left New York? She felt the love seat shift and opened her eyes to see that Peter had moved over to sit beside her.

Putting his arm around her he gently held her while she struggled to halt the flow of her tears. Catherine and Vincent loved each other so deeply, but was that enough? Was their love capable of making an impossible relationship a reality?

He had always admired Catherineís courage in facing and conquering the obstacles that stood in the way of her life with Vincent. She seemed to love Vincent so much. Their relationship was so bittersweet.

"Peter, when did Vincent write this letter?"

He moved over a little so he could face her more easily. "When?" he asked perplexed. "Well, it was last evening. I left the tunnels after supper. I had a difficult time getting a flight out. All seats were booked, so I waited at the airport hoping for a cancellation, and finally got one around 4:00 this morning."

ĎLast night,í Catherine thought silently. ĎBefore Joe and I made love or after?í She wiped the tears off her face while new ones threatened to fall. What would Vincent think now? Would he still want her back? Would he still love her? Trust her?

"Catherine? Are you all right?" Peter asked concerned.

She nodded and looked at him. "What has Vincent told you? About us?"

Peter frowned and shrugged. "Heís told me only that you would not be returning to the tunnels. That was several weeks ago. Heís refused to discuss it since. He has not confided in me, nor has he with Father. That is most unusual."

She handed him the letter and let him read it. "I love him so much. Itís been pure hell trying to live without him. But I...I donít know if heíll still want me back now, Peter." Her voice had lowered to almost a whisper. "Not after last night."

Peter stared at her a moment, her words suddenly becoming clear to him. He took her hand in his. "Catherine, I canít answer for Vincent. But you owe it to yourself and to him to find out. If you donít talk to him youíll always wonder." He patted her hand and continued. "Vincent is not just any man. You above all should know that. He has been pressing you for some time to find someone else, even though it would cause him pain. Cathy...you simply did what he asked you to do!"

Fighting back her tears Catherine spoke quietly. "But Iíve always told him that he was all that I wanted. He could never understand Peter. If situations were reversed," her voice broke, "I would never forgive him. I wouldnít want anyone touching him...holding him." On the last note, she finally gave in to the tears, and Peter gathered her into his arms.

He whispered into her ear, "Cathy, Vincent is not just any man, and this is not just a case of you cheating on him. Itís much more. Trust him, trust in what you have together."

Giving Peter one last squeeze, Catherine pulled back to look up at him. She was grateful for the kindness she saw. "You can tell Vincent Iím all right." She took a deep breath.

"When are you scheduled to head home?" asked Peter.

"My flight leaves around 2:00 tomorrow afternoon. Are you flying United?"

Peter nodded. "Yes, flight 1365."

Catherine commented that she and Joe were scheduled to take the same flight, but she wasnít certain she would keep that flight.

"When will you leave, Cathy?" asked Peter.

"I donít know Peter...I think I need a little more time to think things out, but Iíll be okay."

Peterís hand still held her shoulder trying to gauge the varying emotions he could feel coming from her. He wasnít so sure that she would be all right, and in reflex he pulled her into his arms once more for another hug. "You know Iíll be there for you. I care a great deal for you. You know that, donít you Cathy?"

"Yes, Peter." She took another deep breath and returned his hug. "I know."

Letting go of her, Peter informed her of his plans to stay at a former helpers home for the night.

On impulse, Catherine said, "Look if youíre here anyway, why donít you go to the game with Joe. To be honest, I really donít feel like going now, and I donít want to let Joe down and have him go alone."

"Iíd love to go, if youíre sure Joe wonít mind a rather poor substitute."

"Iíll ask him and see how he feels, and if he agrees Iíll call you. Where can I reach you?"

"For the time being, Iíll be in the lounge downstairs. He can meet me there." Peter left still feeling a little worried, but hopeful that Catherine would work things out with Vincent.

Joe came out of the bedroom dressed except for his shoes. He saw Catherine leaning back on the door lost in thought. As she looked his way, he could tell that she had been crying. "Cathy?" He quickly joined her side. "You okay?"

She nodded her head. "Yeah, Joe. Peter brought me a message."

"Bad news?"

"No, good news I hope. I told you I had been seeing someone."

Joe nodded, dreading what was coming.

"I know Iím not being very fair to you, Joe. Iíve told you nothing, and Iím sorry that I still canít tell you anything." Shaking her head in confusion, she continued, "Itís all so complicated."

For a minute he felt like he had been hit hard in his chest. His eyes met Catherineís, and then he quickly looked away. The look in Catherineís eyes said it all. She was going back to him.

Joe turned and walked across the room. He wanted her to be happy, but he wanted her with him, not with some other man. He felt tears sting his eye and berated himself for letting his emotions get away from him. He couldnít remember the last time he had cried.

Catherine walked up behind him and slipped her arms around his waist. Laying her cheek on his back she whispered. "Joe, I love him. Heís a part of me in ways that I canít explain."

Joe turned around and drew her into his arms. They clung together a moment, both feeling lost. Catherine looked up at him. She had not realized how deeply Joe cared for her. "I never meant to hurt you. Iím sorry."

"I know." His voice was low, emotion-filled.

"Joe, these past few days have meant so much to me. I will never, ever forget what we shared together last night. You may never realize how much you gave me. You helped me put the pieces of my life back in place."

"Oh, Cathy, I know you donít want to hear this now, but...I love you."

Catherine hugged him tighter, burying her face in his chest. "God help me Joe, I love you too." She wished she didnít. It would be easier if she didnít care so much.

Joe wanted her, wanted to make love one more time before they returned to New York and the reality of their lives, but he wouldnít ask her. He didnít want to put her in the position of having to choose. He said instead, "Cathy, how about one final kiss goodbye?"

She gazed up into his brown eyes, saw the desire there, the unspoken question. She leaned into a long, lingering, bittersweet kiss. As she drew away, she said, "Thank you, Joe."

He knew she was thanking him for not asking what he really wanted. "Cathy, Iíll always be here for you."

They were both trembling. Joe felt the need to get out of the hotel room. They both needed a distraction. He glanced at his watch. "Weíve still got 45 minutes to get to the stadium."

"Actually Joe, I was thinking. I know we really planned on going to the game together, but Iím really feeling like I need some time to be alone, to sort things out. I hope you wonít be angry, but I kind of mentioned to Peter that I wasnít feeling up to going, and well, rather than waste the ticket, I was wondering if youíd mind if he went along instead of me."

He understood her suggestion, and knew it was best to try to return to their previous roles as friends. At least he would have the memories of this weekend and the knowledge that it had meant as much to her as it had to him.

"Sure, Cathy, you get some rest and Iíll go with Peter. Why donít you call him and tell him Iíll meet him in the lobby."

Joe took off to the bedroom to get his shoes on while Catherine went to the phone. Suddenly the day seemed brighter, clearer, and for the first time in weeks, she felt a ray of hope that somehow things would sort themselves out.

* * *

Catherine spent the rest of the day writing in her journal. When she was not writing, she was thinking about Vincent. The more she thought about him and what she had done, the more despondent she became. Though she knew Peter was correct in telling her that Vincent was no ordinary man and that he may understand and forgive her for what she had done, a part of her would not let herself hope. She could not forgive herself. Every time she tried to imagine how she would feel in his position, she would become upset. There was just no way that she would ever understand Vincent making love with someone other than her.

Night came and brought with it a blackness that reflected her mood. It also brought two very inebriated happy men. Grateful for the distraction, Catherine managed to steer them in the direction of the bedroom. They were both asleep almost before their heads hit the pillow.

Exhausted from the emotions the day had wrought, Catherine took an extra blanket and pillow and made herself comfortable on the love-seat. She soon joined her friends in sleep, although hers was a restless slumber.

* * *

The next day began overcast. Both Joe and Peter complained of hangovers. They met for breakfast in the hotel restaurant and though Catherine tried hard to express sympathy at their condition, amusement flashed in her eyes. Both Joe and Peter called her cruel and then filled her in on the highlights of the game.

When it came time to discuss departure arrangements, Catherine took both Peter and Joe by surprise.

"Guys, I think I want to have a few days to myself. With all the excitement of our brush with the big one, I feel like I need a little quiet."

Looking at Joe with eyes that pleaded with him to understand, she directed her focus on him. "I know thereís lots to get back to at the office and that this is not the greatest time to ask for time off. But just between you and me, Joe," she chuckled softly, "there is no right time."

Joe looked thoughtful for a moment and surprising Catherine, he smiled. "Yes, Radcliffe, youíre right about timing, but youíre also right about there being no perfect time. I guess we can survive for a couple of days without you. Iíll tell Moreno that you drank some contaminated water or something."

Catherine laughed at him and bantered him with "at least try and make it sound convincing. I do want a job to come home to. I need it!"

"Donít worry Cathy, Iíll cover your butt!" Then he grinned at his own remark, glanced at Peter who looked away smiling.

Catherine rented a car and drove Peter and Joe to the airport. The atmosphere remained light until it came time for them to board the plane. Taking Catherine aside, Joe asked, "Are you sure this is a good idea Cathy? You know, I can wait around. You can go right back to the hotel, get your things and we can head for home. I donít like the idea of you staying here all alone."

Smiling her biggest most reassuring smile, Catherine pushed aside his apprehension. "Really, Joe, Iím fine. Iím a grown woman. I just need some time to myself." Laughing she quickly hugged him, kissed him lightly, then pushed him away. "Now go home!"

A few more embraces and reassuring words and Peter and Joe disappeared through the gate.

The trip back to the hotel proved uneventful. The weather that had begun as merely overcast turned to showers. By the time she entered her room, it began to thunder, and lightening pierced the sky. Moving to the glass enclosed balcony, Catherine sat, tea cup in hand, and stared in wonder at the majestic scene before her. It seemed that the weather reflected the torrent of emotions she was feeling.

Her heart cried out for Vincent. She missed him so much. She longed for his warm embrace and tones of his hypnotic voice. Letting her feelings flow through the bond, she tried to let Vincent know that though she missed him and needed him, she was in no danger. Even if Peter proved wrong and Vincent was angry with her, she knew that he would always protect her.

* * *

Far beneath the city of New York, Vincent lay stretched across his bed with his head slightly raised on the pillows. His mane of gold tawny hair spread around him. In his large clawed hands he held the delicate white rose Catherine had given him so long ago. He felt Catherineís restlessness and knowing he must wait out the battling storms both around him, and inside him, he let the love he felt the her flow through their bond, hoping it would bring comfort.

* * *

The fog thickened around the building, and soon Catherine could see nothing, not even the lights of the buildings nearby. Her eyelids grew heavy and her breathing more deep as night beckoned once more.

Suddenly, a sobbing sound interrupted the silence, and while at first she tried to ignore it, the sound grew louder. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she rose from the wicker chair and followed the sound. On reaching the entrance to her hotel room, she was startled to find herself entering a chamber Below. Wondering how she could have arrived here, she was about to turn and head back the way she had come. This did not make sense. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of crying. Whoever was hurt certainly seemed to be in a lot of pain. Approaching the large bed that was so typical of the furniture Below, she noticed the small huddled form of a child who lay in a fetal position. With a start she realized that this tiny child was Vincent. Rather than question how this could be, she moved closer to the bed. The golden hair that surrounded his tiny quivering body seemed larger than he was.

"Vincent." Catherineís voice was soft and held the tenderness of all the love sheíd ever felt for him, child or adult.

The small head came up, and two large blue eyes stared up at her. Accustomed to Vincentís unique features, she stared in wonder at this beautiful child that was a perfect double of the man she loved, but in the form of this tiny child. He was dressed in brown corduroy overalls and a faded orange sweater that seemed to big for his small frame, and his feet were bare.

Startled, the child gazed up at her with tear filled eyes. "How do you know my name?" His voice was whispery soft.

Ignoring his question, Catherine asked quietly, "Whatís troubling you so little one?"

The child looked down as though the weight of his burden were far too heavy for his shoulders to bare, and then looked back up just a little hopeful at the beautiful woman who was so filled with concern.

"The other kids laughed at me. They said I was an Ďunwanted scardy catí because Father wonít let me go above. I wanna go, but Father says I musnít."

Catherine nodded her head slightly encouraging him to continue.

"Iím so ugly and different. Iíve seen my face in the mirror pool. Theyíre right. I am ugly!"

With his last words uttered, little Vincent buried his head in his pillow and began crying once again.

Catherine approached the bed and picking him up tenderly, enclosed him in her arms. She could not bear to see him in so much pain. The child clung to her and though his sobs continued, the love and acceptance he felt emanating from this strange woman comforted him as nothing else could.

No one had ever held him quite like this. Father and Mary were generous with their hugs, but Vincent had longed to be held. It make him feel safe and secure. It made him feel loved.

His sobs finally tapered off, and the sky blue eyes looked up into hers. His small clawed fingers reached up to touch her cheek, but when his eyes moved to where his fingers had touched, he quickly pulled his hand away to hide it in the folds of his sweater. Tenderly, Catherine retrieved his fingers and lovingly placed them back on her face.

"Vincent, you are a very special little boy." Her voice was soft and filled with love that she could not hold back. "Youíre not ugly...to me...youíre beautiful." She tenderly kissed the palm of his hand.

"Who are you?" His voice was almost a whisper.

"I am someone who loves you. I am someone who will always love you."

"Are you my mother?"

Catherineís heart ached for this small child that so longed for a motherís love, a motherís touch.

"No." She attempted a smile. "But sweetheart, no one will ever love you more than I."

The child buried his head in her chest and his small arms clutched at her tightly.

"Vincent, you must rise above your fears. You musnít let these hurt feelings stop you from reaching out and taking what you need. Itís your right. There are so many people who will cross your path who will count on you, who will need your strength, so you must never let these hurts fester. For they will tear you down. Think of me, Vincent. I will always be here," she touched his chest lightly. "There is no one like you. Father is right. But Vincent it is not just your appearance that is different, little one, it is WHO you are." Catherineís eyes looked away from the tiny form, unable to voice her feelings with his eyes so intent on her own. "There is someone who will need you. No one else will ever be enough. Just you." Catherine did not know whether she was dreaming, or how she came to be here in these chambers with this child who was surely Vincent, but she suddenly understood what it was that she must tell him.

"You must learn to be strong. You must learn to love yourself. You cannot alter your appearance, but there are those who will love you for all that you are Vincent. You must believe me Vincent. There will by a day..." her voice broke, "when your aloneness will end."

His grip loosened only to tighten when he felt her begin to pull away. The soft voice tugged at his heart. "Please donít go away...stay with me...I need you!"

Catherine kissed his forehead and then his cheeks. "I must go little one, but remember, you must be strong, and let my love carry you when you are too tired to carry yourself. Let it nurture those hurts that wound you. And most of all know that I will always love you. Even if you donít see me, close your eyes tight, and I will be there." Again she touched his chest where beneath her finger she could feel his heart beating faster. Then she cradled him in her arms. His eyes grew droopy and though he fought it, his lids slowly came down until his long lashes rested on his cheeks. Catherine closed her eyes and rested her lips on the top of Vincentís head. Softly she whispered a lullaby to the sleeping child; the only one she knew. It seemed a life time ago that she had sung the same lullaby to a dying child. Now letting her love for Vincent fill her, she held and comforted this child, as she had longed to do so for the man.

 

* * *

Vincent awoke with a start. He sat up and surveyed his surroundings. He was still in his room. The air was chilled and he shivered. But it was not the cold that cause him to shiver. The dream he had had seemed so real. It was of Catherine, only heíd been a child. He could still feel the softness of her breast and the tenderness of her gentle caresses. Her words had brought a calm to his troubled heart. Never had a touch seemed so dear, nor the tones of her voice as she had spoke so loving.

His mind pondered over this strange occurrence and he had difficulty sorting out his thoughts and feelings.

* * *

Cities away, Catherine fought the fog of sleep that had dulled her senses. Her eyes opened slowly and she was surprised to find herself in a strange place. Seeing the rain that pounded on the windows of the enclosed balcony she suddenly remembered where she wasóNew Orleans.

Her thoughts went to Vincent and with that came the memory of her dream. Picking up the cushion that sat on her lap, she held it against her chest and let the feeling of love settle over her. It had just been a dream, but it had seemed so real. She had actually held Vincent in her arms and had felt his pain subside. If only it were so simple. Even though it was just a dream, her heart rejoiced in the feelings of tenderness she felt.

* * *

Vincent clutched his chest as he felt the rush of emotion come flowing through the bond he shared with Catherine. He felt such love that tears burned his eyes. Was it possible that it had not been a dream, or if it had been a dream, had Catherine shared it with him? What else could it be?

Remembering, he relived the dream. He heard Catherineís voice whisper tenderly in his ear. He felt her arms around him once again as his mind played total recall. The words she uttered so earnestly..."There is someone who will need you. No one else will ever be enough. Just you! So you must learn to be strong. You must learn...to love yourself."

His eyes closed and tears slid down his cheeks. "Catherine..." His heart cried out. More sure of his feelings than he had ever been sure of in his life, his heart roared her name out. "Catherine...I need you..Please come home!"

* * *

The full impact of Vincentís message bombarded Catherineís mind. Breathing deeply, a feeling of intense emotion filled her senses. Her chest hurt, and it was moments before she could clear her thoughts.

Vincent needed her. He was calling her. He wanted her to come home.

Closing her eyes tightly, she tried to let him know that she was coming. She was coming home. Hoping that Vincent understood her message, Catherine jumped from her chair and hurrying to her room, began throwing things in her suitcase. It seemed to take forever to get everything packed.

Checking out of the hotel and the drive to the airport was a blur. Luckily she was able to book a flight for that day, and the three hours she had to wait seemed an eternity.

The flight home was bumpy. Once again there was a fair amount of turbulence, but Catherine barely noticed.

Hopping into the cab after finally reaching New York, she didnít know whether to ask the driver to take her to Central Park, or home. Realizing she would look a total fool running through Central park with two suitcases in hand, she opted for home. She was a block from her apartment when she opened her purse and pulled out a bill that amply covered the cost of her ride as well as a weekís groceries. She jumped out as soon as the car had pulled to a complete stop, yelling to the driver to keep the change.

* * *

Pacing the balcony, Vincent could wait no longer. He reached for the key that Catherine had placed under a planter in the hope that someday he would enter her apartment on his own.

Catherine came crashing in the front door and threw herself in Vincentís waiting arms. Clutching her to him tightly, Vincent kicked the door shut.

They held each other tighter and tighter, their breaths coming in deep gasps. Vincent opened his mouth to call out her name, and only a sob escaped his lips. Together they clutched each other as both of them wept. The moments they held each other stretched into longer than either could know. Finally Vincent was able to speak.

"Forgive me Catherine." His eyes pleaded with hers. "I was selfish to think that your feelings were so insignificant. How can you ever forgive me?"

"Vincent, itís I who need your forgiveness." She did not let go of him, but her eyes had glanced away, unable to face him.

"No, Catherine! I sent you to him...You only reached out for what you needed, and I will never forgive myself for not being there. Catherine...You needed me." Once more he crushed her against him.

"What did it mean...the dream?"

Vincent studied her carefully before answering. "It was your heart Catherine, trying to tell me what I should have know all along. It was reaching the child I once was, with the hurts I still carried. It..."

"What, Vincent?" Her voice asked softly.

"It was telling me that you love me...for all that I am!"

"Vincent." Her arms reached up around his shoulders and she clutched him tightly.

He pulled away after a moment and lifted her chin tenderly and shyly gazing at her partially opened mouth, he asked, "please...may I kiss you?"

 

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