THE OTHER KINGDOM BY THE SEA

Catherine pressed the dirt firmly around her potted rosebush. After deciding the terrace needed some plants, she had spent an hour browsing in the rosebush section of the local nursery. The very polite salesman selected what he said was a very special bush and promptly sold her, not only the bush, but everything else that went with it.

Vincent will love these, she thought as visions of spring nights and beautiful, aromatic rosebuds filled her mind. She sat back a moment to admire her handiwork only to discover a dead branch that needed pruning. She picked up the pruning shears to snip it off when her other hand encountered the thorns. "Ouch - damn it!" she swore as she dropped the shears.

"Catherine - are you hurt?"

That deep voice suddenly booming from the other side of the balcony caught her completely off guard. She wasn't expecting him quite this early. When she turned to look at him, she couldn't help being somewhat awed by his unassuming sex appeal. His innocent concern and intimidating presence almost overwhelmed her power of speech and intelligent thought. "How long have you been..." she stammered.

"Only a moment," he assured her. "You were so absorbed in your work. I didn't want to intrude."

He sincerely meant it and she suddenly found herself feeling very embarrassed. Looking away from his intense blue eyes, she chuckled softly. "I must have appeared pretty ridiculous."

To Vincent, she looked anything but ridiculous. Watching her working so diligently planting the bush enthralled him. The soft blue and white turtle neck sweater she wore complimented her pale completion and blue-green eyes. The way she had her hair pulled back into a ponytail at the base of her neck gave her a. soft, little girl look. No. ridiculous was not an accurate description of how she appeared and he had been content simply to sit and watch until she hurt herself. "No," he corrected her. "You looked - determined."

She was blushing and she hated that. Vincent was the only man in years who had that power over her. When he pulled up the stool and sat down close to her, she became very aware of his nearness and the blush deepened. At that point, she desperately wanted to say something. "The terrace gets so much morning sun, I thought a rosebush might do well here."

Vincent was trying to focus his attention off of how good Catherine smelled and onto whatever it was she was planting. "Roses?" he asked as he examined the plant.

"The man at the nursery said that this is a very special bush..." Vincent's gaze drifted from the bush to Catherine's delicate hand. "...if I don't kill it with my gardening," she continued.

"Catherine - your hand!" he exclaimed as he saw the blood on her finger. Instinctively, he grabbed her hand and brought it to his lips.

His action not only surprised her, but she found it strangely arousing as well. The feel of his soft, moist lips sucking gently on her finger sent an unexpected wave of pleasure through her. When the contact was broken and he raised his head, she was mesmerized by the look of longing in his eyes. It was a look that awakened long denied desires in her.

Immediately regretting his impulsive action, Vincent looked up expecting some sign of repulsion in her eyes. Instead, he saw, as well as felt, her longing. It was a longing that echoed his own. For an instant, he allowed himself to hope, to believe that maybe... But the moment passed quickly as the reality of who and what he was crashed down around him.

With great pain, he looked away.

The pain in his eyes triggered something in Catherine akin to anger. He had every right to desire. Why couldn't he accept that? Impulsively, she captured his chin with her hand and refused to let him turn away. Their eyes locked onto each other with a never before felt intensity.

At that precise moment, someone had the audacity to knock on her door and shatter the moment. Vincent turned away with a deep sigh of frustration and Catherine found herself suddenly even more embarrassed then she was before.

"I...I should go," Vincent mumbled. What had almost happened between them was a terrible breach of the unspoken trust upon which their relationship was based. He had to get away soon or what little control he had would vanish and the pain that might cause would be too great to bear.

"No, don't. Please," Catherine pleaded. She couldn't let him leave without discussing what had almost happened. To turn away now meant giving up ground they had struggled so hard to capture.

"You have visitors," he argued.

Damn interruptions, she cursed silently. Just when things were getting interesting, it was either the phone or the door. No! she declared to herself. Not this time. Once again, she reached for his chin and made him look at her. "I'm not home."

Vincent was speechless. All he could do was stare into her determined eyes.

"I once told you, it was all right to want, to desire - love for yourself. You deserve everything."

Morally, he knew he should leave and avoid the temptation, but her words froze him to the spot and he was simply unable to flee. His heart began to pound violently as he watched her move toward him in slow motion. Her eyes closed as she tilted her head to one side. She was going to kiss him!

This would not be their first kiss but that brief thank you kiss after her father's death had been an expression of her gratitude. Tonight, gratitude had nothing to do with it. It was time they moved forward.

Again someone pounded on her door and, again, she ignored the interruption. She was determined not to squander this unexpected opportunity so she held his chin firmly as she moved toward him. Nothing was going to rob them of this moment.

Vincent felt her soft lips press firmly against his mouth and marveled at the sensation. Although he had pressed an occasional awkward kiss to someone's forehead or cheek, he had kissed no one on the mouth before. That lack of practice left him totally in the dark as to how to respond. He finally decided to remain absolutely still.

To Catherine, his mouth felt incredibly different and extremely erotic beneath her lips. His lack of response was such a totally innocent and inexperienced reaction it almost made her cry. But instead of shedding tears, she pulled back slightly and smiled as she looked into his amazed eyes. His breath returned in gasps and he had the most fascinating look of wonder on his face.

When she pulled away, Vincent felt as if he were going to collapse in on himself. The balcony spun wildly about him so he leaned his-forehead against hers for support. "I'm sorry," he whispered in a barely audible voice. "I don't know how to - do this properly."

A comfortable sigh escaped Catherine. "It's all trial and error really. Don't worry, we'll find what's comfortable for us. Just be patient and don't be embarrassed."

"Comfortable? My mouth is not like yours."

"I know that. But it doesn't mean we can't find a way." To emphasis her point, she once again pressed her mouth to his. This time, however, she began with his bottom lip then pressed upward into the soft skin underneath his cleft upper lip. There, she discovered an incredibly pliant rim of flesh. She also discovered that by turning her head at just the right angle and moving in an up and down motion she could achieve a wonderfully pleasing sensation. It wasn't like any kiss she had ever shared before. She again pulled away to catch her breath.

Vincent was so affected by the kiss, he slid off the stool and landed on his knees in front of her. They were both now kneeling before each other. A feeling so strong it frightened him rose dangerously within the uncharted recesses of his soul. He was overcome by a need to hold her, to feel her body pressed against his. It was a need he had felt before - with Lisa.

Feeling his trepidation, Catherine slid her arms around him. "Hold me. Don't be afraid."

Cautiously, he enfolded her in his powerful arms and pulled her tenderly against him. He held her there, warmly against his chest, until he gently pushed her back far enough to look into her eyes. There, he found only acceptance and encouragement. That encouragement gave him the nerve to try his first kiss.

Sensing what he was about to do, Catherine remained motionless as Vincent leaned toward her. He was actually going to initiate a kiss and nothing short of the end of the universe would move her from that spot. Breathlessly, she watched as he debated his next move for a second then tilted his head to one side.

He very carefully caught her upper lip with his mouth then pushed downward so that the inner lining of his upper lip made contact with hers. Her earlier discovery of that most pleasurable area was something he wanted to explore a little further and he did so.

Somewhere in the back of Catherine's mind, she was thinking about how fast Vincent was catching onto this. His gentle kisses were becoming more and more passionate and confident. It was time, she decided, to teach him something new. She pulled back and Vincent responded by tensing and tightening his grip on her.

For a second, it was Lisa all over again pulling away from him. The fear of losing her rose up in him with a vengeance.

As soon as she felt his grip tighten on her, she remembered the incident with Lisa he so painfully told her about. She tried desperately to assure him. "I'm not pulling away, Vincent. I want your arms around me. I want your kisses. I will never pull away."

Her words reached him and healed the remaining wounds of that innocent young boy. He believed her. She would not reject him and he would not hurt her. He could control his desires. After taking a deep breath, he relaxed his hold on her.

"Vincent, she said in a sweet, steady voice. I want you to open your mouth a little when I kiss you this time. Just a little and please - don't bite down."

"What?" he asked in a dazed and confused voice.

"Just do it."

When her lips touched his, he obeyed her direction as best he could. To say he was shocked when he felt her tongue push into his mouth and touch his dangerous incisors was a gross understatement. His first instinct was to pull away, but that wasn't what he felt Catherine wanted. This act was apparently desirable to her. To be honest, he was finding it more and more desirable as well.

After she ended the kiss, he had the irresistible urge to do the same to her. His doubt lasted only a moment before he pulled her to him and pushed his tongue tentatively into her mouth. Surprisingly, she accepted his invasion and responded in kind.

Catherine was more than ready to take this as far as Vincent felt comfortable going. Whether that meant stopping at a little necking or taking him to bed, she was fully prepared to go the distance. Hell - she was more than ready to ravage him on the spot if she could.

The fire ignited in Vincent that night was getting dangerously close to raging out of control. "Catherine - we must stop. I can't...I don't think... I think I should go while I can. This is all so new, I must take some time to think."

Here we go again, she said to herself. "Don't think too much. Sometimes it's best to just let go and accept what life offers."

"It's too much, too soon. I feel - overwhelmed."

She hadn't really thought about that. Perhaps it would be best for both of them to cool off a bit. "Maybe you're right. Vincent - I don't want to pressure or rush you into something you're not ready for yet. I want you to set the pace. I don't want you to do anything you're uncomfortable with."

"Thank you, Catherine," he sighed then rose to his feet. With her hands in his, he guided her to her feet as well. He stared down at her tiny hands in his. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" she asked in alarm. Was he already regretting their first step toward physical intimacy?

"For disappointing you."

"Disappointing... Vincent, tonight we moved closer to our dream. We pushed aside the fears and moved toward love - toward each other. I'm very happy about what happened tonight. I want us to continue to move forward."

"Are you sure, Catherine? Soon, there will be a point of no return. What then, Catherine? I don't want you to have regrets about us, I couldn't bear that."

"The only thing I could ever regret would be that we never explored the limits. Not knowing what is truly possible for us would be - a life unfulfilled. You didn't disappoint me, Vincent. What we shared a few minutes ago was beautiful, honest, and pure. It was a moment I will cherish forever. It was also a beginning."

"Yes - a beginning. I truly must go. I will see you soon?"

"Of course you will."

With a smile, Vincent moved toward the balcony wall. Just as he was about to step over it, Catherine grabbed his arm. "Haven't you forgotten something?"

Confused, he turned to her. "What?"

"It's customary for a gentleman to kiss his date good-night."

"Are you my date, Catherine?"

"I'd better be!"

He liked this new playfulness. Too often their evenings were spent trying to pack a lifetime into a few hours on her balcony. He also realized she was challenging him to make a move just as she had that night after the incident with Michael. She knew him well enough to understand how important it was for him to reach for her.

Pulling her into his arms, he looked down into her mischievous eyes. Seeing only an open invitation, he leaned down and once again tasted her lips. "Goodnight, Catherine," he stammered. "Sleep well."

"Goodnight, Vincent."

Reluctantly, he pulled away and disappeared into the night. Catherine watched him then stood for some time looking into the darkness and simply smiling.

* * * * * *

Catherine didn't see Vincent again until the night after she spoke with Elliot. She didn't want to tell him of that meeting because it would-cause him great pain, but she needed his advice and possibly his help.

When she first saw him, his sheer presence both reassured and excited her. But what really moved her was his action of immediately taking her into his arms and gently kissing her. He had taken her words to heart and he did it with such pride and ease it was almost as if he had been doing it for years. After the kiss, he blushed and stepped backward.

"I'm sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have presumed..."

"You presumed correctly," she assured him.

Their conversation was brief yet Catherine could feel the pain rise up in him at the mere mention of Elliot's name. His agreement to help surprised her a little but then again, Vincent had the most generous heart she had ever known.

After that meeting, events moved swiftly. They freed the old man from the hospital then all hell broke loose as the assassination squad cornered Elliot and Catherine. Vincent stayed close by doing all he could to protect them and in the process suffering a deep gash to his hand. The pain of that wound and the agony of killing yet again was almost too much to bear. Feeling somehow that Catherine was safe, he made his way home.

* * * * * *

Sending Elliot on his way was difficult for Catherine because she knew he harbored some hope of their getting back together. Tonight, she had to put an end to that hope. As clearly as she could, she let him know there was no possibility of that happening. The pain she saw in his eyes would remain with her forever.

Those thoughts were on her mind as she entered Vincent's chamber. She found him sitting in his favorite chair staring at the chess board in front of him. The pain he was suffering was obvious. "Vincent..." she said softly as she walked into the room. His lack of response told her just how deep his self-doubts were. As she walked toward him, her eyes caught sight of the bandage on his hand. She moved toward it with concern. "You're hurt," she remarked. Gently, she took his hand in hers then knelt beside him.

"It's the kind of hurt that heals easily."

His comment and refusal to look at her were further symptoms of that old self-doubt. Those doubts always rose to the surface whenever Elliot came into the picture and. once again, she was forced to do battle with them. "Tell me what you're feeling."

Carefully, Vincent picked up the king chessman and studied it for a moment. "Elliot is a - king in your world?"

Catherine studied the chess piece. "Yes. In a way."

After replacing the piece, Vincent slid, it slowly across the board until it stood beside the queen. "He can offer you so much; the power to do great good, beauties undreamed of. He can walk beside you in the daylight."

He took a deep breath and tried to get to the heart of the matter. "Last night, I felt your fear for him, the sorrow you shared, your joy when you knew he was alive and, when death was at its nearest, when he- he - he..."

Catherine now realized what this was all about. Vincent would never admit it but he was jealous of the kiss she had shared with Elliot. "When he kissed me?"

"Yes. I felt - that too," Vincent sighed painfully.

Searching carefully for the words, Catherine tried to dispel his doubts. "I've never felt closer to Elliot than I did last night."

Vincent closed his eyes in pain and turned away.

"I saw so much of what he's always kept hidden; the boy he once was, the man he could be. We almost died together - and when he kissed me, just for an instant, some small part of me responded. Then I wished... I wished that it was - you."

That admission astounded him and he turned to look into her emotion-filled eyes. She still chose him! She could have the world yet she wanted to be with him and not Elliot.

Slowly, Catherine rose to a standing position beside his chair. She held his hand lovingly in hers and their eyes were still locked in an unusually passionate stare. An idea to share something with him she had always longed to suddenly entered her mind and she decided to act upon it. Stepping in front of him, she turned and seated herself on his lap. His surprised look was her reward.

"Catherine..."

"Did I hurt you?" she asked as she put her arms around his neck.

"No," he answered hesitantly. "You just - surprised me." Over the years, a lot of children had perched themselves in his lap but never a grown woman. The sensation was strange to say the least but he found it quite enjoyable. He put his arms tentatively around her and relaxed a little as she cuddled against him.

With great tenderness, she brought his injured hand to her lips and kissed it slowly and possessively. "From now on, Vincent, I want only you to kiss me. Tonight proved that to me once and for all. You said we would soon reach a point of no return - well, this is it. I don't want to go back."

"I don't either, Catherine. I..."

Although convinced she knew what he was going to say, Catherine still would have liked to have heard the words. She realized, however, that would have to be it for now. Tonight, she was content simply to be in his arms.

By the time Catherine left the tunnels that night, Vincent's doubts had vanished. He no longer saw Elliot as a threat to his relationship with Catherine but as a mortal man with his own triumphs and tragedies. This king in Catherine's world might possess a wealth of material goods but he would never possess the one thing he desired the most - Catherine's heart.

* * * * * *

The following night, Vincent and Catherine stood on the balcony and looked out at the twinkling lights. Vincent stood tall and proud as his hair and cloak ruffled in the breeze. Catherine's satin robe was a striking contrast to her companion's handmade wool and leather apparel just as her soft beauty contrasted with his rough masculinity.

Vincent broke the silence by expressing his feelings about Elliot. "Once I thought I could never understand this man. Now, sometimes - I understand him all too well. He has his own kind of nobility."

A sad smile appeared on Catherine's face. "And his own kind of tragedies."

"So many contradictions," Vincent commented. "Light and darkness, good and evil, pain and joy. How can these things live side by side in one man - one world?"

 

 

It was a question that had no answer. "How doesn't matter, Vincent - they do." She shrugged her shoulders. "It's - life."

Something behind him caught her attention and she gasped. "Look..."

He turned in the direction of her gaze. To his astonishment, the rosebush she so lovingly planted was in full bloom. He stared at the incredible sight of two different colored blooms side by side on the same bush. Those two blooms poignantly dramatized life's contradictions. It truly did not matter how he and Catherine came to be who they were. What mattered was that they found each other and their contradictions blended together as beautifully as the roses. In response to that thought, he slipped his arm around Catherine's back as they gazed at the bush.

A brilliant smile graced Catherine's face. She turned to look up into his blue eyes and saw, as well as felt, his completeness. The joy she felt at that moment made her feel invincible and content with her world. Turning into his arms, she hugged him playfully as she rocked from side to side.

While she was in his arms, Vincent stroked her back and nuzzled into her hair. His heart was filled with joy. Barriers had been crossed and obstacles had been shattered in these most remarkable few days. He knew now that he and Catherine had a shared destiny to be fulfilled. The prospect frightened him a bit but also excited him. Step by step, they would find their true destiny.

       PROOF

By Emily Dickinson

That I did always love,
I bring thee proof:
That till I loved
I did not love enough.
That I shall love alway,
I offer thee
That love is life,
And life hath immortality.
This, dost thou doubt,
 sweet?
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary.

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