A NOT SO DISTANT SHORE

(A Distant Shore - Marie Therese Squerciati)

The cool spring breeze ruffled Vincent's cloak and the noise of the city surrounded him. Normally, he savored those simple things with great reverence, but tonight anything other than the woman in his arms held no interest. Catherine's fingers were gently playing with a few stray strands of his hair; and he decided that if the world ended at that moment, he would have neither noticed nor cared. Her trip to California and the danger she encountered there had proven to be his worst nightmare come true. But right now his world was safe and secure in his arms, and that was all that mattered.

"I missed you so," he whispered in her ear as his hands tenderly stroked her back. "These last few days have been an eternity."

Catherine pulled back just far enough to look into his adoring eyes. "I know. It's been the longest four days of my life. My every thought was of you."

He smiled shyly. Whenever Catherine confessed her feelings for him, he never failed to be astounded. How could she love such as he so deeply? It was truly a miracle he would never understand, but he thanked God every day for it and her.

Their short separation had intensified their emotions and brought to the surface their deepest longings. Propriety and reason were rendered useless by an overwhelming wave of need. Those strong emotions gave Vincent the courage to push through his self-imposed barrier. Tilting his head toward hers, he cautiously moved his mouth closer to those full, inviting lips.

She remained still, although he felt a slight sense of shock, apprehension, then longing emanate from her. The intensity of that longing momentarily surprised him, but when contact was made, all conscious thought ceased. The pleasure he felt as her warm, moist lips began to move against his was like nothing he had ever experienced, read about or dreamed of in his life. He pulled back, afraid his passions were getting out of control. Fearfully, he forced himself to look into the eyes that held the answer to his unspoken question within their green depths.

No words were spoken, no rush of feelings pulsated through their bond. The answer was given by the subtle movement of Catherine's head toward him. She pressed her lips firmly to his and returned his kiss. His fear melted as he felt her total acceptance.

With a great deal of uncertainty, Vincent allowed himself to respond. His hands caressed her back, his body moved against hers in a desperate need for more contact. Each touch fueled the need for another until he felt completely lost. "NO!" he groaned as he forced himself to pull away from her. He was gasping for breath as he stumbled backward. Shaking his head in anguish, he tried to dispel the heated passion rising in him.

"Vincent, please don't go!" Catherine pleaded. "It's all right. You didn't hurt me. I wanted you to kiss me. I wanted to kiss you."

Confused and frightened, he began to climb over the balcony wall. Pausing a moment, he looked back at Catherine's tortured expression and saw the pain he was causing her. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I just... I'm sorry."

"Vincent!"

* * * * * *

All during his journey home, he admonished himself for leaving Catherine in such a state. Their happy reunion had followed a natural course, and he had ruined it with his inability to deal with his passions. How long could they continue like this? Hadn't the discovery of the strength and depth of their bond sealed their fate? Hadn't it proven once and for all the rightness of their love?

He stopped his blind rush through the tunnels and leaned against the cold, stone wall. He moaned in anguish. There has to be an answer, he told himself, and, as much as he dreaded another confrontation with Father regarding Catherine, he had to talk to someone.

The patriarch of the tunnels had been reading a rare volume of poetry that had managed to find its way Below via a long time helper and friend. Reluctantly, he forced himself to look up when he heard Vincent's familiar footsteps. After removing his glasses to rest his tired eyes, he studied his son's face. "Back so soon?"

Vincent nodded silently as he began to pace about the chamber.

Father recognized his son's errant behavior for what it was. "Is Catherine well?" he asked in an effort to prompt Vincent to reveal what was troubling him.

"She was when I arrived."

That ambiguous answer, followed by more irritating silence, forced Father to prompt him again. "Do you intend to tell me, or do we play twenty questions?"

With reluctance, Vincent told Father about his dream and that Catherine had heard him call to her about the danger. After that revelation, he paused a moment, not quite believing it himself. He then tried to find the words to describe their reunion.

"Tonight, when I saw Catherine, I could not deny my joy," Vincent continued. "We held each other close, we talked about our bond and how strong it has become, and we...." Words failed him as he remembered the passion of their kisses. "We - kissed. Father, I kissed Catherine, and she kissed me back." The wonder of that statement excited him. "Catherine did not pull away! She accepted and returned my kiss!"

The amazement in his son's voice both touched and saddened him. Father massaged the bridge of his nose as he tried to find the right words. "Vincent - I understand how happy you were to have her return safely, but you've crossed a dangerous line. We both know the consequences of your - desires. This lapse of judgment could very well compromise the balance you've struggled so hard to achieve. And think of Catherine. Do you think this is fair to her?"

Angrily, Vincent began his pacing again. "You don't understand."

"You are the one who doesn't understand, Vincent. How dare you take such a risk?"

"How dare I? Oh - I forgot who I was for a moment. You are right, Father." The words were spoken with a venom that surprised even Vincent. "How dare I believe I deserve even the slightest amount of happiness? How dare I believe, even for a moment, I'm worthy of Catherine's love? How dare I forget that, although my feelings and desires are human, I am not?"

"Vincent... "

"Don't bother, Father. I can see seeking your counsel was a mistake. You have taken great care to always remind me of what I must not dare. That has not changed despite the fact Catherine has proven her devotion to this community, and to me, time and time again. It has not changed even in the face of the power of our bond."

"I don't deny your bond."

"But you adamantly tell me we should deny the fulfillment of it. What would you have us do, Father?" Vincent didn't wait for his father to respond. "There's no need to reply. I already know your answer."

With anger threatening his control, Vincent turned and quickly left the chamber. He had to get away before the words that would destroy the relationship he shared with his father were spoken.

* * * * * *

Above, Catherine was doing some pacing of her own. Vincent's behavior had left her confused, hurt, and surprisingly, angry. "Damn!" she swore aloud. "I can't take this much longer."

As soon as the words were spoken, her anger subsided. That wasn't true and she knew it. She would endure anything to keep Vincent in her life - anything.

She sat down on her bed and stared out into the night sky barely visible through the sheers covering the French doors. "Why?" she asked as she pulled a pillow to her chest and hugged it fiercely. "Why?"

* * * * * *

After leaving Father's chamber, Vincent began walking toward - he didn't know where. He just wanted to get away from the limits, from the frustration, from - himself. His pace quickened until he was running blindly, totally unaware of just how far he had traveled into the dark tunnels. When he realized just where he was, he tried frantically to stop his forward momentum. As he fought to keep his footing, the rock and loose dirt began to slide beneath his feet. He reached out for the rock wall for support, but in the darkness, his hand found no purchase. Desperately, his body tried to regain its balance but found the ground beneath his feet giving way. A gasp of horror escaped him as he found himself sliding into the abyss.

* * * * * *

Unable to sleep, Catherine had been lying in bed staring at the ceiling while rehashing the night's events. She was beginning to wonder if things would ever change between her and Vincent even though since her father's death, their feelings for each other had grown increasingly stronger. Each moment they shared now was wrought with an almost unbearable sexual tension. Vincent had to realize it. He couldn't be that naive as to what was happening between them, she told herself.

As she was contemplating the absurdity of that possibility, an overwhelming wave of fear washed over her. Her heart began to pound, her breath came in labored gasps, she felt nauseated and very dizzy. Those feelings lasted briefly and were replaced by a sudden, devastating emptiness in her very soul. "Vincent!" she screamed.

* * * * * *

As awareness returned, Vincent moved slowly and painfully in an attempt to sit up. When his foot found nothing to support it and he felt himself slipping again, his senses returned in full force. In desperation, he dug his fingers into the rock and dirt wall. With every move now a calculated experiment, he finally managed to turn slightly and assimilate just where he was. That realization wasn't a pleasant one. Just beyond his foot, the solid ground he sat on dropped off into the nothingness of the abyss.

After taking a moment to calm his pounding heart, he began to assess his situation. Apparently, he had managed to land on a small ledge about fifteen or twenty feet below the opening of the abyss. The ledge was just big enough to let him sit up against the wall and possibly stand, but he could not move more than a step or two, in either direction.

He leaned back against the wall and waited far the dizziness to stop. The ache in his head and right shoulder indicated same damage from the fall but, considering what could have happened, he considered himself lucky. Now - if only he could find a way out.

* * * * * *

Catherine's legs could not carry her fast enough to Father's chamber. Vincent was in trouble and her only hope of helping him was to enlist the entire community, beginning with Father.

"Hello, Catherine. What..."

Before he could finish his question, Catherine was down the steps and standing in front of his desk. "Doyou know where Vincent is?"

"Actually - no. He stormed out of here some time ago. I have no idea where he was going. "

"He's in trouble." Her voice was amazingly calm.

Father found himself feeling some surprisingly strong animosity toward the small woman questioning him so curtly. "He told me what happened between you two, earlier."

Momentarily confused by his comment, Catherine dismissed it and plunged ahead. "We need to put together a search party for Vincent. We have to find him."

"Catherine, what are you talking about?"

"Did you hear what I said? Vincent is in trouble!"

Father could see that she was visibly upset and anxious about whatever she perceived to be wrong with Vincent. "You know how he can be sometimes," he offered in an attempt to reassure her. "Whenever something is troubling him, he disappears for a few days to sort things out. There's no, cause for alarm."

Catherine noticed that his explanation was delivered with a very guilty sounding don't blame me tone. That little voice inside her head immediately began telling her that there was some connection between that tone and Vincent's disappearance. Fighting her rising panic, she decided to find out just what that connection was. "You said he told you what happened between us. What did you say to him?"

"What I have always said. I warned him about the dangers of a more - intense relationship with you. I understood he had told you about Lisa?"

As her patience continued to grow thin, she stared at him defiantly. "He did. What has that to do with anything?"

"My God, Catherine! Can't you see what your refusal to accept the truth is doing to Vincent? You are tempting him with something he can't have. Why can't you see that?"

"Let me ask you something, Father. Just what gives you the right to decide what Vincent can or cannot have? You are the one who cannot accept the fact that your son is a grown man with all the needs and desires of a man. What I don't understand is why that threatens you."

"My only concern is my son. You weren't here to deal with the aftermath of his disastrous first attempt to express those desires. We almost lost him."

"I believe you're afraid of losing him," Catherine agreed, "but not in that sense. You're afraid of losing your power over him. He has always respected and looked up to you. He has been your companion, your confidante, and your protégé. You're afraid his relationship with me will destroy that. You have him earmarked to take over when you're gone. Tell me, have you ever once asked him if he wanted that? Do you care?"

"Of course I care. But you - you want him to be something he is not. You want him to be a man."

She glared into Father's eyes. As much as she wanted to let the matter drop and go in search of Vincent, she couldn't let that comment pass. "Tell me, Father. Just what is it you want him to be? Is his role as protector of this community, teacher, and general laborer all he is allowed? You want me to believe that you have no false conceptions of just who and what he is - well, I don't agree. You can't see the man I see."

The anger simmering just below the surface flared in Father's eyes. "Let's get to the heart of the matter. You insist on continuing this relationship, all the while aware of how much he desires you. I'm sure that's very good for your ego, but what happens when he can no longer control those desires? You well know that you are no match for his strength. If he loses himself, you could not prevent him from - taking what he desires. What will happen then, Catherine?"

After taking a long, deep breath, Catherine calmed herself and continued her defiant gaze. "Father, I want to make this as clear as I can, so forgive me for being blunt. I know him. He would never force himself on me. Whenever Vincent decides to act on his desires, I will be ready, any time, any place, without a moment's hesitation. Whatever else you think of me, I love him. I want to make him happy. He deserves everything. Whatever he will accept from me, I will gladly give."

"At what cost?"

"Love is worth the cost. Vincent is worth any cost."

Father ran his fingers through his hair. She wasn't going to back down and, in a way, he admired that. But she was still not being realistic.

This was not the time or place to argue this very personal issue between her and Vincent with Father, so Catherine turned the conversation back to the crisis at hand. "I came here," she began to explain again, "because I feel that Vincent needs our help."

"How can you be so sure?"

"I can feel it just like I did when the two of you were trapped in that cave-in. You know how connected we are. We have to find him as soon as possible!"

* * * * * *

Very carefully, Vincent stood on the small ledge. It was then he realized how close he came to finding out how deep the abyss was. He leaned against the solidity of the wall behind him to catch his breath and steady his trembling limbs. Looking up, he could see that reaching the top and climbing out was out of the question. There was nothing to get a good grip on and not enough ledge to attempt any jumps. One miscalculated step would send him into the abyss. There was nothing he could use as a rope or a ladder either. There was simply no way he could get out of this situation without help. To make a bad situation worse, he wasn't sure just how strong the small ledge was.

Cautiously, he sat back down and wedged himself as tightly as he could against the wall of the ledge. Okay, he tried to assure himself, think this through. You can't climb up, and you definitely don't want to go down. The likelihood of anyone just happening by is slim at best. The trouble is, you can't get out of here without help. The only choice you have is to sit very still and wait for someone to come looking for you.

That thought wasn't a reassuring one since the two people who would most likely worry about him were probably very annoyed with him right now.

* * * * * *

Father had relented to the point of calling for William, Pascal, and Mouse. As they gathered in the camber, Catherine explained her fears.

"Right now, he's calm but I can feel his fear. He's been hurt but not badly."

"Then how do you know he's in danger? I mean, Vincent can usually handle anything," William argued.

"He's not invincible, William," Catherine responded.

"If Catherine says Vincent's in danger, I believe her. We've all seen how powerful their bond can be." Pascal abruptly declared.

"Thank you, Pascal," Catherine responded. As usual, he blushed when she smiled at him.

"I'll put the word out on the pipes. Someone must have seen him. We'll form groups of searchers and begin to check everywhere he might go." Pascal was already halfway out the entrance as the last statement was made.

Father walked around his desk. "Catherine, do you have any sense of where he might be?"

"No, nothing concrete. He's feeling very confined. He can't move around very much. I sense a fear of falling. Does any of that make sense?"

"I don't know. Why don't you, Mouse, and I try to follow this - connection you have to him. The other groups can cover all the other possibilities. We'll stay in touch over the pipes. Have all the groups take emergency supplies."

As usual, Father was taking control, and this time, Catherine didn't mind. At least something was being done. She waited impatiently as the search groups were formed and sent out.

* * * * * *

Vincent closed his eyes and rested his head against the hard wall. As soon as the tensions eased, he was suddenly aware of Catherine's presence Below. Not only was she close, she was searching for him. "Catherine." he moaned softly.

"We always called her Cathy."

Vincent's eyes opened wide and he jerked his head up to look around. The sudden movement almost made him lose his balance.

"Take it easy. We can't have you falling, can we?"

Turning his head carefully to the right, Vincent got the shock of a lifetime. There, sitting nonchalantly next to him, was Charles Chandler! "Mr. Chandler!" he stammered.

"You can call me Charles."

Vincent stared at the apparition for a moment, then turned away to rub his eyes. When he looked again, the image was still there.

"I won't go away. At least not yet."

"You are not here. You can't be. You're dead!"

"You're quite right. But, as I know you're aware, the walls between the worlds can grow thin from time to time. Especially when the ones you left behind desperately need your guidance.

"Catherine?" "

 

"Well - this concerns Cathy, but it's more about you. You see, Vincent, we never had our what are your intentions regarding my daughter talk. I think the time has come."

Completely dumbstruck by what he saw and heard, Vincent seriously began to doubt his sanity. "This is crazy. I'm seeing things."

"Perhaps. I suppose that could be one possibility. This will go a lot easier, however, if you just play along with me."

Vincent closely scrutinized his companion. The man's sense of humor was as appealing as his daughter's. Now he understood where she had gotten it. "All right, Mr. Chandler, I'll go along with this illusion."

"I said call me Charles."

"I'm sorry - Charles. I'm very pleased to meet you. I wish I could have done so before you...

"Died? Yes, but I don't think I would have understood about you and Cathy. It was your pledge to love and protect her and the love I heard in her voice when she spoke of you that did the trick. I knew then that she had finally found what her mother and I always wanted for her - a once in a lifetime love. With you, no matter how complicated, I knew she would have her happy life."

A sigh escaped Vincent. "A happy life indeed. It seems I'm always causing her more pain."

"Your fear is what causes her pain. Look Vincent, I think the time has come for some decisions on your part. Tell me - do you truly love my daughter, and what do you intend to do about it?"

"Your daughter - is everything to me. She brings me sunshine, rainbows, crisp mountain mornings, tranquil sunsets, oceans - everything the world above denies me. She is every breath I take, every beat of my heart, and the inspiration of every thought and feeling I have. I would gladly lay down my life for her in an instant. Her happiness is the most important thing in my life."

"Is it? I'm not so sure. Lately, your fear has become more important. Vincent - how do you think Cathy feels about you?"

"I - think she loves me."

"Believe me, Vincent, I know my daughter. She loves you. You changed her life."

"I didn't change it, she did," Vincent corrected.

"You helped her find the courage to break free of being daddy's little girl. Because of you, she became the strong, independent, loving woman she is today."

"I... "

"Don't. I know the truth - now. Before, I would have rejected her love for you. I would have been disgusted by what you are. Believe me, I would have been too concerned about appearances to have looked beyond the exterior."

"Catherine did because of the love you gave her as a father."

"I think she got that from her mother. You still haven't told me what your intentions are, young man."

"I'm not sure I can answer that."

"All right, let me ask you this. What do you want for her?"

"A home, a family, a great enduring love."

"And you're convinced you can't give her those things."

"Look at me," Vincent demanded.

"Now who's making a big deal about appearances," Charles chuckled sympathetically.

Vincent folded his arms across his chest. "I'm being honest."

"No, my boy, you're feeling sorry for yourself. All I want is Cathy's happiness, and it seems you make her happy. I admit I would have preferred someone like Tom or Elliot, but I've learned a few things from you two."

The touch of sadness in his voice made Vincent turn to his ghostly companion and study his face.

"I came back to keep you from making the tragic mistake of turning away from my daughter's love. I hope you're not that big a fool. Also, I came to give you my blessing. For some reason, I think you need to hear that."

Vincent stared at him in awe.

"The proper thing for you to do would be to ask for my daughter's hand in marriage. That is what you have in mind isn't it?"

The emphasis put on that last statement almost caused Vincent to laugh out loud. "I wish it were that simple."

"It's only as complicated as you choose to make it, Vincent."

Vincent watched as the man, or image, rose to his feet. "Don't go."

"What is your answer?" Charles asked again.

What Catherine's father was suggesting gave new life to the hope he had harbored in the very depths of his heart. "If only..."

"No more if onlys. Ask her, Vincent. Let Cathy make her own decisions. Don't assume you know what is best for her. I had a very bad habit of doing that. Talk to her. Whatever you decide directly affects her - remember that."

"I will."

"I really must go. Cathy will be here soon with her posse."

Vincent laughed. "Yes, I can feel her near."

"That still amazes me," Charles commented with a touch of wonderment in his voice. "You two share something extraordinary. Take my advice, son. Don't blow it!"

The image smiled warmly then simply vanished. Vincent sat there suddenly feeling very alone. Shivering slightly, he wrapped his arms around himself and concentrated on his connection to Catherine. He could feel her fear for his safety and her determination to find him. Nowhere was there a trace of anger or any fear of him.

Content with the knowledge that she was near, he began to relax a little and think about his strange visitor. The things Charles had said echoed through his mind and, miraculously, gave his sagging spirits a boost.

* * * * * *

"This way," Catherine insisted.

"Catherine, that tunnel leads to the abyss," Father argued.

Catherine turned toward him angrily. "We can either waste a lot of time searching through these tunnels or we can follow my connection and find him. You can do as you please, but I'm going with my instincts."

As she turned to leave, Father grabbed her arm. "Catherine - I want to find him, too. Are you certain?"

"I'm sorry, Father. I guess I'm just worried about him. Yes, I am certain."

"All right then. The abyss it is, but please everyone, be careful. One false step and..." He didn't have to finish the thought.

* * * * * *

Vincent was sitting quietly on the ledge guiding Catherine through their bond and thinking about his strange visitor. His close brush with death and the visit had realigned his priorities. Now, if only he could get out of here and do something about it.

Voices in the distance signaled help had arrived. "Catherine!"

"Vincent!" she answered as she began to run toward the voice.

"Stay back, Catherine. The edge is too unstable."

Reluctantly, she stopped in her tracks as the others caught up with her. "Where are you?"

"I'm on a ledge about fifteen feet below the edge. I'll need help to get out."

Father stepped forward. "Vincent, are you all right? Are you injured?"

"Not seriously," Vincent replied.

"We'll signal for more help and ropes. Just be still. It won't be long."

"I understand. I'm not going anywhere."

As Father turned and began giving instructions, Catherine called again to him. "Vincent."

"Yes, Catherine."

"I love you."

A very large lump developed in his throat. He swallowed hard. "I love you too, Catherine."

His response brought tears to her eyes. "Hang on, Vincent."

Father heard their words and found himself deeply touched by the devotion those simple, eloquent words described. Catherine had been right. He had been guilty of placing his own fears between the two. His son loved this woman, and, miraculously, she returned that love. He had no right to bind them with his fears. To protect his son from life's tragedies, he had robbed him of the happiness he deserved. He could no longer do that.

Shortly after the message had been sent over the pipes, a crowd had gathered at the abyss. Strong ropes were brought down and the debate as to who would take them out began.

"I should go," Catherine declared.

"NO!" Vincent roared from the abyss.

"He's right, Catherine," Mouse interjected. If you fall, Vincent will jump. Can't lose both. Mouse will help. Mouse will rescue Vincent," the young man declared proudly.

"Mouse is correct, Catherine," Father added. "We'll tie a rope around him and let him feed these two ropes to Vincent. The rest of us will divide into three groups and anchor the ropes."

"But..." she tried to protest.

"Trust me on this, please."

"All right. Be careful, Mouse."

"Very careful!" said Father.

Quickly, the rope was tied securely around Mouse and he carefully crawled out to the edge. As soon as he located Vincent, he fed the ropes over the edge.

Vincent grabbed them and secured one around his waist. The other rope, he would use for climbing. "Okay, Mouse. Go back to the others. I'm ready."

"Okay good. Okay, fine," Mouse replied as he scooted back from the edge.

"We're ready here, Vincent. What about you?" Father asked.

"I'm ready. Let's go."

The groups pulled the ropes taut as Vincent began to climb. Everyone struggled to keep a tight grip as he slowly made his way out.

Vincent's arms and legs were trembling as he finally climbed over the edge onto solid ground. He continued to use the ropes and crawl until he was a safe distance from the deadly abyss. As soon as he had gotten safely to his feet, Catherine ran to him and enveloped him in an emotional bear hug. Her arms felt wonderful around him. The warmth and comfort of her body pressed to his felt so right. Without thinking, he pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "Oh, Catherine," he murmured softly.

She lifted her head and looked into his fear-filled eyes. "You're safe now."

Before, any impulse to kiss her would have been suppressed immediately. But after what they had been through with her trip and his near death, he was no longer compelled to hide his feelings. He leaned down and quite firmly pressed his lips to hers.

Catherine responded in kind and gasps could be heard behind them. The gasps were quickly followed by a few embarrassed laughs. Vincent ended the kiss quickly and pulled her back into his embrace. At that moment, he didn't care if the world was watching.

* * * * * *

The next night, after several hours of sleep, Vincent made his way to Catherine's balcony. There were many things they needed to talk about that would very likely change their relationship forever. He prayed for the courage to speak his heart. He also prayed that his reading of Catherine's acceptance was accurate.

When he arrived, she was already on the balcony. She was wearing that pale blue satin robe he loved and her hair fell loosely about her shoulders. In her hands, she cradled a cup of coffee as she stared out into the city lights. As beautiful as the lights were, they paled in comparison to her.

"Catherine."

At the sound of his voice, she turned toward him and smiled warmly. "Hello. Vincent. How are you feeling?"

He walked over to stand by her side. "I have recovered. Thank you again."

"Thanks aren't necessary between us."

"I know. It seems neither of us has a choice when the other is in danger."

"There are choices we do have, Vincent," Catherine commented as she turned back to look out into the lights again.

"Yes, Catherine - the discovery of how strong our bond has become, as well as the events of last night, have made me question the limits I've lived within all my life. Sometimes, I feel as if we're standing on separate shores in fear of trying the waters."

Thoughtfully, Catherine turned to him. "I'm not afraid. I never have been."

"It isn't your fear, Catherine. It's mine."

"I know, but we have to make a choice here, Vincent. Either we stay on our safe shores, forever apart, or we brave the waters. There is no in-between."

"If we dare the waters, we may drown," Vincent responded in an apprehensive voice.

Catherine placed the coffee cup on the small patio table then took Vincent's hand in hers. She lightly stroked it then held it to her cheek. "Just hold on to me. Vincent. I won't let you drown."

The strength of her love filled his heart. With his free hand, he gently stroked her cheek. "I don't want to stand on opposite shores any longer. We were meant to be together, Catherine, truly together. I'm convinced of that now. I love you and, if you'll have me, I want to ask for your hand in marriage."

The breath caught in her throat and she suddenly found herself speechless.

"Catherine?"

"I - wasn't expecting a proposal," she stammered.

"Does that mean you do not wish..."

"No! Vincent, I love you, and if you're ready for this then my answer is yes."

Her enthusiastic response stunned him. "Yes? We can..."

"Whenever you want," she laughed.

His face turned crimson when the meaning of her comment became clear.

She laughed then gently turned his very red face to hers. "We don't have to wait, Vincent. If you'll have me, I'd like to make love to you tonight."

"Catherine, I - don't know what to say."

"Yes you do. Just give me an honest answer. Tell me what you want, Vincent. For once, don't be afraid to reach out for what you want, what you need."

"I want you, Catherine, I need your love." he answered.

She smiled sweetly then stepped back from him. With his hand still in hers, she began to guide him through the doors to her bedroom.

Crossing the threshold into Catherine's bedroom was one of the most difficult things Vincent had ever done. On the few occasions he had been so bold, it had been solely to come to her assistance; tonight, it symbolized the crossing of a different threshold.

Once inside, he looked nervously around. He shouldn't be doing this. It was too much too soon. They were moving too fast. He stopped in his tracks. "Catherine..."

Catherine squeezed his hand to reassure him. "Vincent - there is no need to fear love. We have overcome the obstacles, and our love has endured. The two of us - together - is right. We both know that."

Doubt still clouded his eyes. "Vincent, search your heart. If you can honestly tell me that this is not what you want or that you truthfully believe it is wrong, I will not ask you to stay. I don't want you to stay if you do not believe in our love."

Her eyes and her words were pleading with him for a commitment of, not only words, but heart and soul. Suddenly, the rightness of it overwhelmed him and those lingering doubts were no more. It all made perfect sense.

"I love you, Catherine and - being with you tonight is right. But - there are things I must tell you."

"I know all I need to know."

Vincent smiled warmly. "Catherine - my only experience was with Lisa. I don't know for certain if I can..."

In response, Catherine squeezed his hand confidently. "I'm not worried. We'll find our way just like every couple does. We'll work through the awkwardness, we'll laugh at the mistakes, and we'll learn what pleases each other. But, more importantly, we will love each other completely and fully with no more limits. It is what we both deserve. I've never been more certain of anything in my life."

Vincent took a deep breath then released it slowly. "And neither have I."

Like the warmth of the summer sun, Catherine's smile warmed his heart. Her arms encircled him in a fierce bear hug that left no room between their bodies for anything but air to pass. He savored the feel of her body pressed firmly against his and, for the first time, allowed himself the desire that there were no layers of clothes between them. He found himself eagerly anticipating what lay ahead.

The new emotions Catherine felt flickering through their bond delighted and intrigued her. She could almost see Vincent opening himself to her like a budding flower. She wanted to encourage and explore that miracle in every way possible. "I can't tell you how much I've longed for this night or how often I've dreamed of it."

"It's difficult for me to understand how you could feel that way about me. Your capacity for love is - boundless."

"Love is love, Vincent. What we feel for each other is no different than what other lovers experience. The need, the desire, the longing - they're all very natural feelings between a man and a woman."

"I am not an ordinary man," Vincent reminded her.

"That's right. I would never fall in love with an ordinary man."

Vincent's arms slid around her waist and began to caress her lower back. "Are you sure, Catherine? Are you really sure?"

"I've never been so sure," she answered just before she pressed her lips to his.

The warmth of her kiss sent a shock wave of pleasure through every nerve of Vincent's body. He suddenly felt more alive than he had ever felt in his life. The need to hold her closer, to touch her body, to kiss her lips, to smell her hair descended upon him with such an overpowering intensity it frightened him.

Catherine ended the kiss then looked deeply into his eyes. "It's a little scary, isn't it?"

"A little."

"The first time always is. All those expectations can get in the way. Maybe, if you get out of some of those clothes, you'd feel more comfortable."

The moment of truth had arrived and he wasn't sure if he could go through with it. Any sign of disapproval in Catherine's eyes would surely destroy him.

"Vincent?"

With great fear in his heart, he looked into Catherine's eyes. "Please understand - no one has seen - me since I was a boy."

His meaning was obvious and the look of fear and embarrassment in his eyes was totally disarming. Her heart ached for the boy who had to hide his differences in shame. "I'm glad. It means you saved that particular delight for me," she responded with her warmest smile.

That comment and the playful grin that followed completely destroyed any lingering doubts he had. Impulsively, he pulled her closer and glanced down at her inviting lips. She leaned against him, placed her hands on his shoulders, and tilted her head to one side. Vincent didn't need the bond to tell him what that meant and, amazingly, he responded without hesitation.

His response amazed Catherine as well, because he initiated it. He wasn't sure what he was suppose to do, but at least he was daring to try; and she was more than willing to teach him. She began by moving her lips against his and sliding her arms around his shoulders. Patiently, she continued until she felt him mimicking her movements. It felt incredible! His soft bottom lip was wonderfully sensual and the cleft upper one felt strangely erotic. It was the tenderness of that kiss, however, that aroused her passions. The kiss, the sensation of his hands stroking her back, and the solidity of his body, brought to life feelings she thought had died.

When the kiss ended, they looked into each other's eyes. So affected were they by that kiss, neither of them could speak for several seconds. The bond between them was taking on a life of its own - pulsing stronger and stronger with every beat of their hearts. Finally, Catherine unfastened his cape and pushed it off his shoulders. When it fell to the floor, she gazed at the rest of his apparel as if looking for a place to start.

"I'll turn down the bed while you undress," she suggested in a soft, soothing voice.

The full impact of her words gripped his heart; not in fear, but in a strange, never before felt excitement. He watched as she walked by him and began to turn down the covers on the bed. Then, with shaking hands, he began removing his vest, belt, and shirt. When he got down to his thermal undershirt, he stopped and turned to her. She was standing by the bed watching him with a loving but hungry look in her eyes. It was a look that evoked the hunger in him. As he watched, Catherine opened her robe and let it slip from her shoulders to the floor. He could not tear his eyes away from the glorious sight of the woman he loved reaching out her hand to him, beckoning him. Surprising himself once again, he walked over to her and took her hand. Their eyes met in a heated stare.

"Would you prefer to undress in the bathroom?" Catherine asked.

"If you prefer..."

"No!" she adamantly replied. "I've dreamed of this moment for a long time. I don't want to be denied one single fantasy."

"What if I don't live up to your fantasies?"

"You are the man I love. You, dear Vincent, are the stuff fantasies are made of."

He was blushing. He could feel it and that was embarrassing in itself.

"Do you want me to help you finish undressing?"

He looked at her for a moment and considered her offer. That was one of his fantasies. "The shirt," he responded.

Catherine stepped forward and gently began pulling the shirt from his pants. Watching her as she freed the material then began to work it over his head fueled the fire of his desires. In that moment, he wanted her so desperately, but a small amount of apprehension remained. As her gaze roamed his upper body, he breathlessly awaited some sort of reaction.

A faint smile played across her face as she stepped closer and placed her hands on his chest. "Better than I imagined," she commented with obvious pleasure.

Those delicate hands, so gently touching his chest, sparked a myriad of sensations and he wanted more. "I do not sense any - repulsion in you."

Catherine looked up at him. "Repulsion? How could I find any part of you repulsive? I love you. I accept all that you are."

"I'm sorry. It's just that - it still amazes me that someone as beautiful as you would love someone like me."

"I happen to think you are beautiful AND desirable." Her fingers began working their way through the hair on his chest. "Sit down."

"What?" he asked in confusion.

"You can't take those boots off while you're standing up," she playfully remarked.

"I see your point." Reluctantly, he moved away from her touch and tried to concentrate on removing his boots. That task became almost impossible when she began running her fingers through his hair. Her body was so achingly close that her feminine scent filled his nostrils with every breath he took. Despite his trembling hands, he got his boots off in record time then stood up.

Her warm blue eyes twinkled with amusement for a moment, and then something more intense appeared. It was a look that literally took his breath away and caused a great deal of discomfort in certain parts of his anatomy. The stirring he felt was not an unfamiliar one but one that he had learned to suppress. At this particular moment, he didn't want to suppress it at all.

He watched as her hand slid the strap of her gown off first one shoulder and then the other. Her other hand clutched the gown to her chest. The seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness as she gazed into his eyes. Just when he thought he was going to roar in frustration, she let go of the gown and it fell silently to the floor. He couldn't stop the gasp that escaped him as his eyes beheld the body he had fantasized about for years.

"Vincent?"

"You are so beautiful, Catherine. Words cannot describe..."

"This is not a time for words." She stepped closer. "Touch me. Make me yours."

"Oh, Catherine..." Words truly failed him; but his desire to touch her grew stronger, and he no longer fought it. Tentatively, his hands stroked her shoulders and arms. He lacked the courage to venture a more intimate touch until Catherine took his hands and guided them over her stomach and upward over the swell of her breasts. When his palms slid over her nipples, they both groaned with pleasure. The small buds hardened beneath his touch.

Catherine reached up and pulled his mouth down to hers for a demanding kiss filled with the urgency of their passion. Their hands and mouths explored each other in response to that demand until all control was lost, and frantically they tumbled onto the bed. Feeling her body beneath him drove him into frenzy that frightened him, and he lifted himself up.

She looked up into two dazed blue eyes. "Vincent - what's wrong? Don't stop. I couldn't stand it if you stopped now." She watched him struggle to regain control.

"I'm sorry. What I was feeling - the intensity of it - frightened me," he responded.

"That loss of control you're feeling is normal. Your mind does lose control over the body's urges. Don't be afraid of that."

Her hands were stroking him as she spoke, and he found himself once again surrendering to the desire. The time had come to decide to walk away from love and break both their hearts or to commit completely. He hesitated for only a moment as the decision was made. He could not walk away.

Watching Vincent battle his desires frightened Catherine. If he pulled back now, it would destroy them both, but pull back he did. Her heart broke as she watched him lift himself off the bed. "Vincent..." she moaned in despair. But the despair quickly faded when she saw him reach down and began unfastening and then unzipping his pants. She could not tear her eyes away from the sight of him sliding the pants down his muscular thighs and then stepping out of them. When he straightened up and she finally saw all of him, she had to fight to catch her breath. He was all she had dreamed of and more. "Oh Vincent!"

That revelation had been the most difficult moment in Vincent's life, because so much hinged on Catherine's acceptance of him as a man. He couldn't breathe until the moment he saw the unrestrained desire reflected in her eyes and heard her sensual moan of appreciation. "Catherine - if you have changed your mind, tell me now while we are still able to stop. "

"I'm not about to change my mind. I love you. I want to make love to you - now!" After righting herself on the bed, she extended her hand to him in invitation.

The realization that Catherine was inviting him into her bed as her lover took a few seconds to sink in. He desired her, of that, he had no doubt; but the fact that she desired him just as badly astounded him. After gently taking her offered hand, he sat down on the bed unsure of what he should do next.

That moment of uncertainty touched Catherine deeply. Her Vincent was truly an exceptional man. "Vincent..." she coaxed softly, "I need you closer."

That feeling of fear mixed with anticipation rose again as he crawled up over her. Carefully, he balanced his weight on his hands and knees as he looked down into her eyes - waiting. His body quivered with excitement when he brushed against her thigh and her hands slid over his shoulders and down his sides. Her warm breath gently stirred his hair as her hands slid back up and cupped his face.

"I've wanted this for so long," she whispered.

"So have I," he responded as he felt her hands pull his face toward hers.

The kisses that followed began gently and tentatively but soon grew passionate and urgent. The distance between their bodies quickly disappeared at Catherine's urging. Her arms were pulling him closer, and he did not resist because the need to feel her body beneath him overpowered all resistance. He could feel her maneuver her legs around him as their bodies made full contact. The moment, however, that their lower bodies touched nearly made him roar in ecstasy. Her softness was an indescribable pleasure he had not been prepared for.

A deep sensual moan escaped Catherine as they touched. The sound of it evoked a response from the depths of his instinctive nature. He held her firmly beneath him and sought the side of her neck with his teeth. His whole body trembled.

"It's all right, Vincent. Control will come later. Don't fight your instincts. Let go."

She was right. He did not have enough experience to control his body's urges - not this first time. But her encouragement told him that she understood and accepted that. "I don't want to hurt you," he confessed in a voice that broke from the strain of battling his urges.

"It will hurt a little because it's been so long but the pain will be brief. You must ignore it."

"How can I?"

"For once in your life, Vincent, accept what is given you and don't question it." To make her point, she squeezed his buttocks as hard as she could then pulled him against her.

That sent Vincent over the edge. Instinct took over and he could not fight it. He was hard and aching to push against the warmth he was cradled in. The powerful muscles in his back and hips began flexing as he awkwardly sought to penetrate.

Catherine's own instincts came into play as her body prepared itself. Raising her knees, she could tilt her pelvis to give him better access. As soon as she did, she felt the tip press against her and then penetrate. The pressure made her gasp.

That gasp caused Vincent to hesitate for a second but he could not stop. The urge to thrust deeper for completion took over. As best he could, he tried to hold back his body's desire for the harder and deeper thrusts that would bring him release.

"Don't hold back," she whispered breathlessly.

He couldn't. With one arm, he lifted her lower body and pressed her more tightly against him. The other arm was underneath her and his hand had a firm grip on her shoulder. His mouth sought the side of her neck and his teeth gently pressed against her soft skin as he held her in place.

At that moment, Vincent lost all control. His body was driving him relentlessly toward climax. Every nerve and every muscle was striving for one purpose - the release of his seed in his mate. The thrusts were now hard and deep and Catherine's body shook with each powerful drive.

"Oh, Vincent," she moaned between gasps.

That final, convulsive frenzy ended in what Vincent thought was the end of life itself. His powerful ejaculation made him feel as if he had exploded in her. He was lost in total blackness and a roar that came from the unchartered depths of his being echoed off the walls of the bedroom. She was his - completely. He had claimed her in the most primitive way. And, in so doing, he felt completed in a way he had never experienced. That new feeling began to take root as her hands began to stroke his back in a soothing motion.

"Vincent?"

It took every ounce of strength he had to lift his head and focus his eyes on hers. "Catherine. I..."

"I know, Vincent. I know."

Her smile reassured him of her love and acceptance. That night, Vincent found the courage to reach out for the love he needed. In Catherine's arms, he found the love, comfort, and pleasure he had not dared to dream were possible for him. As he watched her sleeping peacefully by his side, he wondered what the future held for them. He even allowed himself the fantasy that perhaps they had created a child together that night. What he didn't know was that they had indeed created a new life, and a journey of great joy and turmoil had begun.