IT WAS LOVE

(Shades of Gray - George R. R. Martin & David Peckinpah)

The explosion had been deafening. The flash of brilliant light had quickly been swallowed by the eternal darkness of the underground caverns. Catherine coughed to try to clear the dirt and grime from her mouth and lungs then strained to see any movement in the shades of gray, swirling dust the explosion had stirred up. No one spoke - no one moved until the immense silhouette of Vincent could be seen moving in the darkness. "Vincent," Catherine called out as she ran to his waiting arms.

"Catherine," he responded as they embraced.

His strong arms and solid body was exactly what her aching soul needed, and she clung to him. But more urgent matters needed to be taken care of, and after an appreciative gaze from Vincent, she stepped aside to assist Father.

"He's badly hurt," Vincent explained.

They knelt down beside him, and Vincent lifted his head. Just then, Catherine thought of Mouse, the brave young man who had saved Vincent. "Mouse?" She began to look around the chamber for him. "He stayed behind to set off the explosives." Over in the corner, she saw Winslow lift a stunned Mouse to his feet then hug him fiercely. He was all right.

They all gathered around Father as he regained consciousness and looked around him at all the concerned faces. Catherine watched as he thanked Mouse then, surprisingly, placed his hand on her cheek. She grasped his hand in response.

"Catherine - I have - no words to thank you." Father's voice broke with emotion.

Still holding his hand, she looked over at Vincent and met his totally adoring eyes. A connection was made on a much deeper level than she had experienced before; and, at that moment, she knew beyond doubt.

A makeshift stretcher was quickly put together and Father was carried back to the hospital chamber. Catherine took Vincent's hand as they made the journey. As they walked, she couldn't help but notice the stares from Vincent's friends, especially the tall, black man and the strange young man they called Mouse. He seemed quite fascinated with "Vincent's Catherine". Odd, until that moment, she had never thought of herself that way.

Later, in the hospital chamber, Father supervised the treatment of his own injuries despite Vincent's protests. Luckily, he wasn't hurt as badly as Vincent thought. Cuts, bruises, a mild concussion, a couple of broken ribs, and a sprained knee was the extent of the damage done by the cave in. Add to that - shock, exposure to the cold and dampness of the cavern, and the thick dust he inhaled and it became obvious that he would be bedridden for several days.

As they cleaned Father up and settled him into a bed, Vincent stood dejectedly in the passageway. After insisting upon caring for Father himself, Father had silenced him by reminding him of his duties as leader of the community while he recovered. It was a role that Vincent apparently did not want to assume, and Father's insistence that he did had unnerved him. Catherine studied him thoughtfully. No one was giving much thought to the issues Vincent was dealing with - no one but her, that is.

She walked over and really looked at him. He was covered in mud and grime and, to her, he was visibly shaking. "Vincent - are you hurt?"

When he turned around and she saw his eyes, she wanted to take him in her arms and cradle him against her chest. He was scared, and she wanted to comfort him. "No," he answered.

Before she could respond, Mary walked into the passageway. "All right, Vincent. It's your turn now. We need to take a look at you."

"I'm fine," he insisted.

"Father will not rest until he knows you have been cared for - now, don't argue."

"I'll take care of him," Catherine offered suddenly. Mary's shocked look quickly changed to one of dawning understanding and affection.

"That would be such a big help, dear. I'm sure Vincent would rather have a beautiful, young woman attending to him." She placed her hand on Catherine's arm and gently squeezed it. "I'll have Kipper bring you fresh water and a first aid kit in case you find anything. Call me if you need me. Oh - make sure you check his back carefully."

Mary's acceptance of her role in Vincent's life meant a great deal to Catherine. After battling Father for so long, an ally was very welcome. "I will." Mary walked away and Catherine turned to Vincent. The look on his face was priceless. She had never seen such a mixture of astonishment and absolute fear in her life. "I promise to be gentle," she laughed softly. Immediately, his face turned scarlet.

"Catherine. I..."

"Come on," she chuckled as she grabbed his hand and began to lead him to his chamber.

As soon as they entered the privacy of Vincent's chamber, Catherine wasn't sure who felt more awkward, she or Vincent. She watched him closely as he sat down wearily at his table. He looked tired, completely filthy, and his hands were trembling. After sitting down in the chair next to him, she clasped his hands in hers. "You're trembling almost as badly as I am," she commented.

They sat there holding hands in silence until Kipper and Ellie came in with the wash water and cloths. "How is Father?" Vincent asked.

"He's resting." Ellie replied. "Vincent. I'm so sorry. It's all my fault. I should have kept Eric away from the maze." The tears were gathering in her eyes.

Vincent turned to her and touched her cheek lovingly. "You did not cause the cave-in, but - you shouldn't have been there. It was a tragic accident. Father could have been killed, and that is an issue we will deal with when everyone has healed. How is Mouse? Was anyone else hurt?"

"No - no one else was hurt. Mouse is okay."

"We were all fortunate. How is Eric's ankle?"

"Sarah is looking after him. He'll be okay."

Taking a deep breath, Vincent sat back in the chair. "Kipper, you help with Father, and Ellie, you look after Eric. Maybe you can atone for your mistake by helping the injured."

Kipper nodded and Ellie smiled the tiniest hint of a smile.

"Now - if you'll excuse us..."

The children left obviously feeling better than they did when they came in. Catherine noticed. "You handled that very well. I think I would have been screaming."

"They feel bad enough. Screaming at them would serve no purpose. They know their foolishness nearly cost us our lives. By having them be responsible for the injuries they inadvertently caused, they will think before they act in the future."

"Hopefully."

"Yes - hopefully."

Catherine responded, "Vincent - are you okay?"

"I'm not injured."

"That's not what I mean."

He stared down at his clasped hands. "I was frightened - more at the possibility of losing Father than my own death though."

"I was frightened too. To lose you...." The words caught in her throat and her body shuddered in fear.

"How did you know?" Vincent asked.

"I can't explain it. I just felt this horrendous pounding in my head and suddenly I knew you were in danger and needed me. Vincent - nothing would have stopped me from coming to you - nothing."

"I felt your fear, Catherine. I also felt your determination. Until now, I thought this connection we shared was only one way. I had no idea you could - sense things too."

"I didn't either. Nothing like that has ever happened to me. It's like - we're two halves of a whole. Whatever happens to one of us is felt by the other. Vincent, I'm not as - perceptive as you, but I do feel that we are connected in a way that no two people ever have been before."

They looked at each other then, completely lost in the wonder of their discovery and in each other. The softness of his clear blue eyes seemed to engulf her in their tenderness. She had never felt more loved in all her life then she did at that moment.

"I never thought I would say this to you, Catherine but - your face is dirty."

The totally unexpected comment was all Catherine's frayed nerves needed to finally relax. She started laughing uncontrollably and Vincent soon gave in to it himself. "Now that you mention it, yours is too," she countered. "I think it's time we got cleaned up. Take off your shirt and vest."

She watched as his eyes grew alarmingly wide with disbelief. "I need to make sure you're not hurt. You've probably got cuts that need cleaning. Come on - off with the shirt."

Making herself busy by preparing the washcloth and medications, Catherine tried to make Vincent feel more at ease. The trouble was, she could not help but be aware of every move he made as he removed his vest and then his shirt. Glancing tentatively at him, she allowed herself to examine his broad shoulders and strong back with her eyes. She soon found herself staring at him a little more lustfully than she intended.

"Catherine, I can do this myself."

 

"Uh - no. Don't be silly. Sit here." Moving aside, she waited until he sat down in front of her. Those shoulders, that hair, and those arms were so close and so vulnerable. She had to force herself to concentrate on the job at hand. Carefully, she used the washcloth to clean away the dust and grime that covered his neck. Beneath her fingers, she could feel the tension in his muscles as she touched him.

"Vincent, you have a very bad bruise on your shoulder. Does it hurt?"

"A little," he answered between clenched teeth.

"There are a few scratches but nothing serious. Turn around. Let me see your chest."

"I'm fine, Catherine. You don't have to..."

"Turn around," she said again.

Slowly, he turned toward her with downcast eyes. His shyness touched her deeply. He had the most gentle soul and the noblest heart of anyone she had ever known. With one finger, she lifted his chin so they could make eye contact. She smiled sweetly, and he responded.

Quickly and efficiently, she removed the grime and checked for injuries. The few she found, she treated as gently as she could. "There - no major damage." Once again, she lifted his chin. "Let me see your face." For an instant, she was lost in the erotic beauty of that face. Those clear blue eyes, those arched eyebrows, that cleft in his upper lip completely enthralled her. Her hands trembled as she used the cloth to clean away the dirt. Her fingers trailed over the unusual planes of his features as she sought to memorize each one. Just being this close and touching him like this was one of the most erotic experiences she had ever had. Their eyes met as Vincent clasped her hand in his. Indeed, the laws of physics were circumvented because time seemed to stop completely.

"Catherine...."

"Do you have a brush?" she asked suddenly.

"What?"

"Your hair. I'd like to get some of that dust out of it."

He looked at her incredulously. "You want to brush my hair?"

She nodded then answered, "We've got to do something. This is a mess." To prove her point, she picked up a few strands and shook the dust off.

"I see your point," Vincent responded.

While he stood up and looked around the chamber for his brush. Catherine allowed herself to simply admire him. His body was more compact than she had imagined but still looked powerful. The padding in his clothes made him look much larger than he actually was, but she well knew the strength of those tightly coiled muscles. His upper body was covered with soft, thick hair but in all other respects, he was not that much different from any other man. The most obvious differences were his hands and face but she found them beautiful. His movements were graceful; and, if any man could actually ooze sex appeal, Vincent did every time he walked into a room. Perhaps it was just her own hormones raging out of control every time she was near him, but it couldn't be helped. Her reverie came to an end when he sat back down and handed her a brush.

"Are you sure you want to do this? I can manage."

She took the brush from his hand. "I want to do this. Now sit still. I'll try not to hurt you." Carefully, she began to brush out the dust and work out the tangles in his long hair. It took her a while but she was enjoying it and she could see Vincent relax beneath her touch. "Are you feeling better?" she asked.

"Yes. Thank you. Catherine - for everything."

Sitting down by him again, she placed her hand on his arm. "I couldn't bear to face a life without you. You are the best part of me."

Vincent stared at her for a moment then, without a word, reached for the washcloth. He rinsed it out then very gently began to wipe the dirt and grime from her face. With every stroke, she wanted to capture his hands and kiss them. More importantly, she wanted HIM to kiss her.

"Mouse told me you acquired the explosives and drill bits. How?"

Catherine looked down at her hands. The truth would hurt him, but a lie would hurt him more. "I went to Elliot. I had no one else to turn to, Vincent."

There was a look of confusion on his face as well as fear and pain. "And what did he ask in return?"

Although he didn't say it, Catherine knew what he was asking. "Surprisingly, nothing. I think perhaps I may have misjudged him a little." Catherine could almost feel Vincent wince in pain and she looked up. "Vincent - you have nothing to fear from Elliot. Whatever I felt for him in the past is long dead. I intend to make that very clear to him."

"Catherine - if you - love this man...."

"I don't, Vincent. I've never been more sure of anything. You must believe me."

His eyes searched hers for several timeless seconds. And then - he smiled and Catherine's heart melted. Tenderly, she brought his hand to her mouth and kissed it. The gesture shocked both of them with its sensuality. They stared into each other's eyes, both feeling the tension of their awakening feelings. Finally, Vincent pulled his hand away.

"It's almost dawn," Vincent commented. "You should be returning to your apartment. You need to sleep."

The disappointment Catherine felt was difficult to hide but she tried her best. "Yes, it has been a hectic day. I'm sure you could use some rest as well."

They finished cleaning up then walked back to the hospital chamber to check on Father. After finding him sleeping comfortably, Vincent walked Catherine back to her apartment building.

"You're walking awfully slowly," Catherine commented. "Is your back bothering you?"

"I'll be fine," he responded.

"It's not going to kill you to admit pain, Vincent."

He stopped and straightened up slowly. "My back and shoulder are getting sore and stiff. I'll sit in the hot springs later to ease it."

Tilting her head and raising her eyebrow at him, she sighed. "Men. You're all alike."

Now, Vincent tilted his head and raised his eyebrow. "I would venture to say that I am like no man you have ever met."

She knew he meant his appearance, but Catherine knew the comment was true in several areas. "I would most definitely say that." She reached over and rubbed his back for a few minutes. "Better?"

He sighed. "Much."

They began walking again and soon drew near to the threshold to her world. They stepped through the broken tunnel wall and Catherine noticed just how slowly Vincent was moving. In fact, she had to wait for him to step through. Slowing her gait, both out of a reluctance to say goodbye and to match Vincent's stride, they finally reached the threshold. They faced each other and Catherine could sense he was trying to put into words his feelings.

"Catherine...."

Her feelings were much easier to express. "I've never been so frightened."

Vincent looked down at her with wonder. "Your courage saved our lives."

"I felt like I was losing the best part of myself. I would have done anything," she declared adamantly. Looking up into his amazed eyes, she stated a truth she had only now come to understand. "It wasn't courage, Vincent. It was love."

He stared back at her with a stunned look of amazement and she felt the need to have his arms enfold her. As she leaned against his solid chest, she felt him wrap his arms around her then rub his cheek against the top of her head. He was accepting her affection for a change. Did it mean that he was finally accepting her love?

She lingered as long as she could then reluctantly pulled away but not without one last, long look into the face of her future. In that moment, she realized that something had drastically changed between them. They were a part of each other, and living without the other would be unbearable. She knew she would never be complete or find happiness with another man. Slowly, she turned and walked toward the ladder. She could feel his eyes watching her as she walked away to return to her own world.

* * * * * *

After a shower and an hour or two of sleep, Catherine arrived at work and slumped behind her desk. She was tired, sleepy, and so sore she could hardly walk. Every muscle she had ached. As she rubbed her shoulder, she wondered how Vincent was that morning. "He's probably sleeping like a baby," she mumbled under her breath.

"Rough night, Chandler?"

Startled, Catherine looked up to find Joe leaning on her desk. "You could say that." Curiosity and a tiny hint of jealousy were evident in his eyes, and she couldn't resist the temptation to play with his mind a little. "I've got to remember to save all the kinky stuff for the weekend."

She watched as Joe's face turned a deep shade of red and he could no longer meet her eyes. He straightened up and looked nervously around the room.

"Uh...." he stammered uneasily.

Catherine laughed wickedly. "You didn't think led a celibate life did you?"

Joe's face was turning redder by the minute. "Cathy - I don't want to know."

"Strange - you're always telling me about your conquests," she replied.

"That's different," he argued.

"How is it different, Joe?"

"I'm a guy - you now....

"Yes, I know you're a guy but how is it different?"

"It just is. Now get on that Martinez deposition. I needed it yesterday."

It was all Catherine could do to keep from breaking down into hysterical laughter. That was exactly what she needed to get going this morning and it got her through a very boring deposition.

* * * * * *

As she got off the elevator, Catherine walked down the familiar hallway to her apartment. Just as she turned the corner, she caught a glimpse of a bundle of roses propped up against her door. For a brief instant, her heart fluttered with the hope that they were from Vincent but soon realized that he lacked the means to shower her with such extravagant gifts. She didn't need them from him anyway.

She knelt down and removed the attached card. It read. "I was glad you came to me for help. Thanks for the second chance, Elliot."

A flood of mixed emotions came over Catherine as she studied the card. Her feelings for Elliot had died painfully months ago. They had been replaced with anger. Now, there was only sympathy. Her heart belonged to Vincent.

She gathered the flowers and took them inside. After putting everything down on the sofa, she took a deep breath and was suddenly aware of him. Vincent was waiting on the balcony. With renewed vitality, she hurried across the room and out onto the balcony. He was there waiting for her and she immediately threw her arms around him. He returned the embrace and they both savored the connection.

"How are you feeling?" Catherine asked. She pulled back and looked at him. "And how is Father?"

"We are both very sore but recovering. Father is alert and back to running things again." Vincent smiled slightly.

That smile told her volumes that his words didn't. "Good. And Mouse?"

"He's fine." Vincent tilted his head admiringly as he spoke. "He is quite taken with you."

She smiled as she thought about the odd young man. "He's definitely different, but there's a great deal of genius buried in there somewhere."

"Then you see it too?"

"Oh yes."

Again Vincent looked at her with appreciation as if he had just discovered something incredibly interesting. "You amaze me, Catherine. You are so intuitive about people."

"I learned that from you," she responded.

"You can't learn that. It's something you either have or don't have inside you."

"I wish I could be intuitive about Elliot." After the words came out, she realized their possible effect on Vincent and regretted them immediately.

A very uncomfortable silence fell between them at the mention of that name.

"I suppose Father and I owe him our lives - in a way. As we do you." Vincent's eyes focused on her with an unnerving intensity.

Catherine stepped closer and placed her hand on his arm. "Vincent, I..." Before she could finish her comment, the doorbell rang loudly and they both turned toward it.

"You have a visitor," Vincent declared in a soft voice.

"Whoever it is can come back. I want to be with YOU right now." She meant what she said. She had no intentions of moving from that spot.

The doorbell rang again.

"Catherine, you must answer the door. I should go."

She tightened her grip on his arm. "No. You wait here. I'll get rid of whoever it is."

"Catherine...."

"Stay!" she ordered.

The doorbell had rudely interrupted her time with Vincent and Catherine found herself becoming angry with whatever poor soul had the misfortune to be ringing that bell. She opened the door quickly and found herself looking into Elliot's blue eyes. He was standing there giving her his most charming smile.

"Hello. Cathy. You said I could call."

"Elliot this is not a call."

"I know, but I couldn't wait any longer. I wanted to see if the roses had arrived."

She sighed in frustration. He was up to his old tricks all over again. "As you can see they did. You shouldn't have, Elliot."

Holding up his hands in mock surrender he replied, "But I couldn't help myself. May I come in?"

"It's not a good time, Elliot."

Her hint fell on deaf ears. He pushed by her and walked into the apartment. "I won't take up much of your time."

Catherine was well aware of the fact that Vincent was still on her balcony and that left her feeling very uncomfortable about Elliot's presence. She had to get him out quickly before Vincent decided to leave. After she closed the door, she saw Elliot walking toward the balcony doors.

"May I?"

"No!" she answered much too quickly. "It's too cold out there. I'd rather stay in here."

After giving her a strange look, Elliot walked back over to the sofa. "I assume everything turned out all right - your emergency, that is."

Catherine sat down on the sofa and watched as Elliot sat down across from her. "Yes, everything is fine now. Thank you for trusting me. You helped save the lives of some close friends. "

"Like I said earlier, I'm not one of the bad guys. Despite what you think, I do love you and I regret losing you."

"Elliot...."

Her protest was silenced as if she had not even spoken. As usual, Elliot was wrapped up in Elliot's idea of the world.

"In fact, I want to marry you, Cathy."

Catherine's breath caught in her throat. "Elliot!"

"I know, I know. I'm rushing you but I really don't expect an answer tonight. I mean - you just started talking to me again, but I wanted you to know what my intentions are."

"Elliot," Catherine responded through clenched teeth. She had felt the pain Elliot's proposal had caused Vincent and it angered her. "Just because I've gotten past the anger doesn't mean that I've changed my mind. I'm not in love with you. The most we could ever be is friends. If you can't accept that then perhaps you should stay away. You're only going to be disappointed."

The confident expression on Elliot's face changed quickly during Catherine's response. "I refuse to believe that you don't feel something for me."

"That's just it, Elliot. YOU refuse to believe. You don't respect my feelings. I don't think you ever have. That's why I could never marry you." She brushed her fingers nervously through her hair. "Elliot - you don't love me. I'm someone you deem as being on your social level that turned you down and that makes me a challenge to you."

"Cathy...."

"Don't, Elliot. Don't go on believing that someday I'll change my mind. It's not going to happen."

He stared at her defiantly, refusing to believe her words. "There's someone else isn't there?" he asked.

She looked deeply into his eyes and answered honestly. "Yes, Elliot. I'm in love with someone else." The hurt in his eyes was obvious, as was the joy and wonder she had felt in Vincent's heart as he listened to her admission.

Elliot stared down at his hands. "Well - that does change things - at least temporarily." He stood up.

Catherine rose and stood across from him. "There's nothing temporary about it. I've found the man I want to spend my life with, the man I want to have a family with - you need to accept that. "

His look of defeat suddenly changed into one of determination. "I'm not a man who accepts defeat easily. I don't quit and I won't give up on you. I can be a very patient man and you're worth waiting for."

Anger and frustration welled up in her. "I don't want you to wait for me."

He continued to glare at her then suddenly turned and walked toward the door. When he reached it, he turned and looked at her once again. "I'm the only man worthy of you, Cathy. Someday, you'll see that and I'll be waiting." Before she could respond, he opened the door and walked out of her apartment.

Catherine stood there for several seconds battling her anger. He had earned her respect by vowing to help put Max Avery away and by helping her save Vincent, but his assumption about her feelings only proved she had been right about him. She was a challenge to him and his pride would not let him accept the truth. But what Elliot could or could not accept was irrelevant to her. What mattered the most to her was waiting on her balcony.

As soon as she walked onto the balcony, her eyes began to search for him. She found him standing in the shadows beside the doors. "Vincent, he's gone."

"I know," he replied as he stepped out of the darkness to join her at the balcony wall.

"Did you hear?"

"Everything," Vincent answered.

Catherine studied him, trying to gauge his feelings. "I meant everything I said."

Vincent looked out at the twinkling lights. "I know you did. Catherine - what we feel for each other is more than I ever thought it could be. I knew when I first found you that we were connected somehow, but I never hoped it could become something more."

"But it has, and you know it. You can feel it too."

"Yes, I do. Especially since the cave-in. Father helped me understand."

"Father?"

"He told me that he understood our bond. He said that our hearts, in their effort to unite, would seem to circumvent the laws of physics. Then he told me the story of how he met Margaret. It gave me hope that perhaps...."

"I know. Vincent, almost losing you, feeling the bond in much the same way you do, made me realize the truth. What I feel for you is more than friendship. I'm in love with you."

Slowly, Vincent turned to her and looked deeply into her eyes. "I can feel it in you."

"Can you deny those same feelings for me?" she asked.

He shook his head. "No, I cannot. Heaven help us both, Catherine. I love you."

A warmth filled her and she couldn't stop the tears that filled her eyes or the smile that spread quickly. She wanted him to take her in his arms and kiss her.

"I don't know what we are to do, Catherine. This is impossible. I do not have a place in your world and you cannot give up your life Above."

"You know something, Vincent? You worry too much. I know you cannot live in my world. I just don't see you in a suit with a nine to five job." They both chuckled at that image. "And you're right about me. I'm not the kind to make candles and quilts all day. We are unique - something that has never been. We will have to make our own way. You can spend time here when it's safe and I can come Below other times. It can work if we really try. Love always finds a way. I truly believe that." She could feel his turbulent emotions as he considered her words. A lifetime of denial had destroyed his hopes and she realized that mere words just might not be enough.

"Life is not a fairytale, Catherine. There might not be a happy ending for us. There are so many obstacles."

The tortured sound of his voice nearly broke her heart. "We can overcome them - one by one - together. What are the obstacles you see, Vincent? Tell me."

Several moments passed as he sought the courage to express his fears. "I doubt my ability to give you all you need."

"You give me your love. I need nothing else," she responded.

Vincent turned to her, his eyes blazing with conviction. "You need - you deserve the fulfillment of your dreams. I know that you long for a home and children. You will never have those things with me."

Emotionally, she wanted to respond by throwing her arms around him and love his fears away, but she knew she had to appeal to his logical side. Calling to the front her legal training in arguing a case, she began. "Let's address these obstacles. As far as a home is concerned, I have this apartment, and I have the tunnels."

He looked at her with surprise that she considered his world her home.

"Yes - I could live there on a part-time or full-time basis. It's not where you live but with whom. You taught me that." He seemed to accept her feelings - at least for the moment, so she continued.

"Now - about a family. The people in your world are my family. I feel I really belong there. I haven't felt that way in a long time."

Vincent shook his head again. "I mean children, Catherine. You were meant to be a mother. I could not bear to know that my inadequacies could deprive you of something you hold so dear."

"Vincent, you would be the perfect father. It would mean a great deal to me to be able to give you a child." The words came straight from her heart.

Once again, he looked at her. This time, however, his eyes were full of tears.

"Let's tackle the real issue between us. You're afraid of physical intimacy. You're afraid to cross that line."

Vincent looked away. "The darkness I see there frightens me."

"I see no darkness," Catherine responded. "When I think of making love with you, I see only the light and feel only joy."

"This darkness that lives in me.... I do not know what is hiding there, Catherine. If somehow you were hurt.... I could not live with myself."

Placing her hand on his arm, she tried to comfort him. "The darkness in you has saved my life many times. This - darkness, this - other is a part of you. If you love me - then that part of you loves me as well. I have no fear of it. In fact, I am drawn to it."

His expression turned from one of apprehension to one of disbelief. "Catherine?"

"Vincent, there's more to this, isn't there?"

Nervously, he backed away then paced the length of the balcony. "I do not know if I can.... I have never...."

His admission confirmed her suspicions that he was a virgin. "All of us are frightened by the unknown. I remember...." She stopped, realizing that her confession would cause him pain. "Your fears have been exaggerated by your doubts about your humanity."

"Valid doubts, Catherine."

"Maybe - maybe not. Vincent, do you mind if I ask you some extremely personal and very blunt questions?"

He looked at her uncomfortably. "If it will resolve these issues, I will answer your - questions."

Catherine took a deep breath to clear her mind. She had to do this with a great deal of detachment. Although she hated to invade his personal thoughts and feelings, he had to face his fears. "Are you any different - physically than other men? I'm talking about certain aspects of the male anatomy."

"I know what you're talking about, Catherine. The answer is - in that - area, I am no different. "

They could not look at each other as the tension mounted.

"Are you - functional? Do you experience - arousal?"

He rocked back and forth on his heels and closed his eyes. "Whenever I am near you - every time I dream of you, I experience the - normal male response. Sometimes, I cannot suppress it."

"Forgive me, Vincent but I don't understand your doubts. From what you are telling me, you have the urges, you can be aroused, you have - erections and, I assume, you can produce semen." As clinical and cold as that sounded, she had to make her point. "The only unknown factors here are whether or not you produce sperm and if that sperm can fertilize an egg."

She regretted the bluntness of her statements but in order to reach him on a logical level, she had no other choice. They had to put emotions aside. "A simple test can provide the answer." He didn't respond. "Vincent, I would love to give you children of your own but if that is not possible, there are a lot of other options."

Vincent lowered his head and let her reasoning sink in. Catherine couldn't read his emotions and that disturbed her.

"All the physical arguments aside, Catherine, are we prepared to risk everything we are - everything we have?"

Catherine walked over to him. "I am. Almost losing you made me see that."

"Being trapped in that cave, not knowing if I would survive, made me think about our - relationship, about the possibilities. I love you, Catherine. I didn't dare say the words before because I thought they would frighten you away."

"You're not going to scare me off so easily. I love you, Vincent."

Their eyes met in an intense gaze. His eyes were asking, hers were answering. He moved to stand before her then tentatively captured her face between his hands. "I need you, Catherine. This desire that draws us together is too powerful to deny." Leaning toward her, he awkwardly pressed his lips to hers.

The tenderness in that brief kiss was perhaps the sweetest, most loving gesture Catherine had ever felt. But Vincent was so unsure of his actions, he ended the kiss before she could fully respond. When she opened her eyes, he was looking at her desperately seeking her approval. A warm smile reassured him, and she could literally see his apprehension drain away.

Catherine gave him a few moments then reached up and began to explore his lips with her finger. At first, he seemed startled and pulled back slightly. "Relax," she whispered softly. "If this is really uncomfortable for you, I'll stop."

He seemed to think about it for a few seconds before he responded. "No - I like it. It's just that no one has ever done that before."

"We'll go through a lot of experimentation as we get to know each other. But, as long as we're honest with each other, we can overcome any awkwardness we may feel."

Slowly, he nodded then slid his hands down over her shoulders and rested them on her waist. "I still don't think this is wise. I know Father would call it lunacy."

Inching closer and closer, Catherine's lips were almost touching his once more. "It's a wonderful kind of lunacy, trust me." Parting her lips slightly, she captured his bottom lip and tenderly ran the tip of her tongue along its fullness. His whole body shuddered in response. When she did the same with his upper lip, his response was much more than a shudder. He pulled her body against his and she could feel his every contour. She could feel his chest rise and fall with every labored breath and every beat of his heart.

His lips were parted and he was trying to find just the right angle to capture her lips with his. When he found it, they both gasped softly then savored the pleasure. His eagerness reminded Catherine of a child who had tasted candy for the first time - he wanted to binge himself with it and she was perfectly happy to feed that hunger.

When they finally pulled away from each other, they were both breathless and completely caught off guard by how quickly they had become aroused.

"You're right, "Vincent finally managed to say. "This is a wonderful kind of lunacy." He smiled his most charming smile. "What WAS that?"

Catherine smiled back at him warmly. "It was love."