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Climbing Ladders

by Gail

 

Diaphanous by candlelight, the folds of Catherine’s gown draped softly over her lithe figure.  Neither her attire nor the lateness of the hour had stopped her from climbing that ladder.  For a night demanding perfection, she thought dreamily, no detail was too small.  One slippered foot peeking out from beneath her long hem, her leg was raised in a modest arabesque to counterbalance her outstretched arm.  Surely, in a moment, she would reach the one candle that rested crookedly in the chandelier.  Just a little farther . . . .

“Catherine . . . what are you doing?”  Vincent’s gentle voice cut through the air of the Great Hall.  “You mustn’t . . . “  

Catherine felt rather than saw him approach, felt the strong grip steady the ladder, the familiar warmth of his well-loved form hovering protectively behind her.   She smiled inside, basking in a joy that never grew old, and in a presence of which she never tired.  

“It is almost time for the celebration, and I would rather we have a candle askew than for you to sustain an injury.  We will manage.”  

“Oh . . . hold on . . . I almost have it,” came Catherine’s benignly uncooperative response from above.

The mildest reproach crept into Vincent’s soft cadence.  “Catherine,” he repeated insistently.  “I would not have you fall.”

Eyes sparkling with amusement, she now blithely ignored his implied request.  Indeed, his presence had the opposite effect he intended, for she felt truly safe, and was emboldened to stretch even further.   There . . . the candle wax was nearly touching her fingertips.  . .  Rather like straightening a picture frame, she thought cheerfully; sometimes it just needed to be done.  

“Catherine!  Come down!  Please!”  

He placed a foot on the lower rung of the ladder, as if to climb, and his hand reached her shoulder, there gently to tug at her, just as she righted the errant candle.  She smiled at the accomplishment of her mission but even more at his gallantry.  For here was a man who had trusted her time after time in the face of true malice Above, but who now felt compelled to protect her from the perils of a ladder Below.  

She took one step down the ladder, and then another, Vincent continuing to monitor her safety as she climbed down.  Turning on the steps, she faced him.  His arms braced the ladder on either side of her, and her vantage point from the steps placed her at eye level with him.  “I could easily have tended to that, Catherine,” he chided affectionately, his eyes travelling from her face down the length of her skirts and back up again.  The message was clear; the skirts could hamper her, cause her to lose her footing and slip.  Unrepentant, Catherine grinned.  Vincent in turn sighed, knowingly, the exasperation in his eyes shifting to frustrated acceptance.  He had lost this little skirmish and could only hope that she would carry home with her the wisdom of his message for future reference.    

And then his gaze moved again, this time from resignation to wonder.  The recognition of what was present suddenly eclipsed the worry of what might have been.  Catherine could feel him taking in the view before him; it was not vanity that told her he could see the light dancing in her hair, or the glow lit so powerfully from within her that it had no choice but to radiate from without as well.  

His gaze steadied as a silent heartbeat passed.  “You look,” he said tenderly, “like an angel.”

The words that answered him were silent.  You are my angel.  She spoke instead in touch, her hand reaching with gentle impulse to stroke the golden strands beside his face, feeling the untamed silk beneath her fingers.  She understood the amazement in the blue eyes looking back at her; she understood it, for it was a reflection of her own undiminished astonishment.  In what world had she lived before Vincent?  Whatever fate might have in store for them, that other world was now lost to her; it was a place to which she never could return.  

She looked instead upon her new world, her eyes now roaming the lengths of his burnished hair to the lace knotted at his throat, across the broad shoulders and back again to his face.  Clearly staggered by the intensity of her regard, and of his own feeling, he made no effort to camouflage his thunderstruck expression.    

His willingness to hold her gaze, and not to retreat, made her tremble inside, so violently that even the fingers that continued to stroke his hair now shook.  Please, accept this gift, she prayed silently.  Please accept it, for I can give it to no other.   Slowly she took the final steps down the ladder onto the floor.  It was necessary for her to have solid ground beneath her.  She had to have balance before making her simple, yet, in her mind, symbolic request.  

It took her a moment to find her voice.  “Vincent,” she said quietly,” will you . . . I need you to dance with me again.  Please.  Tell me you’ll dance with me tonight.”

Were it not for the brightening of the blue gaze and the intensity of the emotions flashing there she would have thought him still as a stone.   Then with an alacrity that was almost alarming, he pulled her fiercely into the protective cove of his embrace, his cheek pressing intimately against her hair.  His voice was rough with emotion.  “What world could be complete, now or ever again, without you in my arms?”  

Clinging breathlessly to Vincent, Catherine fought her habitual denial.  What wall had crumbled just now, tonight, and why?  He was talking about more than dancing . . . surely he was talking about more than dancing.   He had to be.  Shaken to the very core of her being, afraid she was mistaken, yet afraid of not acting in response, her fears began to pour forth, and she felt powerless to stop them.  “I get so afraid,” she confessed, the words gushing forward, “so afraid that we’ll never find the life that was meant for us . . . truly meant for us.  That it will be just out of our reach, too far away, too high to climb . . . that something will take it away—“

Catherine!”  Pulling back from the embrace, Vincent took her chin in his hand, compassion warring with surprise in his face.  “Whatever we must do, we will.  No matter how far it seems beyond our grasp, no matter how difficult a climb, no matter how high. “  His voice softened.  “We have the strength.  We do.”

Whatever Vincent had planned to say next was forestalled by the rustling noise near the entry door.  Startled, their arms entwined about each other’s waists, Catherine and Vincent pulled abruptly apart, unaccustomed as they were to being viewed in such an intimate pose.  They focused on the door just in time to witness a hesitant and blushing Mouse stepping shyly forward and then circling away, as if thinking better of his interruption.  But he just as quickly turned back around, ducking his head and looking up at them from beneath his blond mop of hair.  “Father,” Mouse explained apologetically.  “Says Vincent, come quickly.  You, too, Catherine.  William in the kitchen.  Soufflé a big mess.”  He shook his head prophetically.  “Bad for Winterfest.  Worse than bad.  Worse than worst!  Hurry!”

He spun on his heel for them to follow, and then rotated back.   Resentful conviction briefly furrowed his brow.  “Arthur not guilty.”

Vincent’s head bowed as his familiar chuckle warmed Catherine’s heart.  If she was disappointed by the loss of a powerful moment, she was at least lightened by the relief of normalcy.  “In a minute, Mouse,” Vincent assured the interloper.  “We’ll be there.”  

Nodding his head as if Vincent’s reassurance had already mended all problems, Mouse moved back toward the door.  And then to Vincent’s and Catherine’s chagrined amusement, Mouse returned one more time and stood, silently, his head held lower than ever, his eyes cast to the floor.

“Mouse?”  Vincent’s voice evidenced both his puzzlement and concern.  “What is it?”

Tilting his head to one shoulder, Mouse smiled softly, a sly little shadow of a smile.  “Nothing.  Mouse just wondered.  Wondered what you and Catherine . . . what you were doing in the Great Hall.”  

Catherine’s eyes widened; she did not have a ready answer that might not compromise Vincent.  But Vincent did not look at all as if he had been compromised.  Inching closer to her, Vincent had a vibrant look in his eye that was assured and peaceful, even happy.  Though he spoke to Mouse, he looked at Catherine.  “Doing?” he reiterated softly.  “Many things.  Many things, Mouse.  We were dreaming.  And planning.  And building.  And going places we have never gone before.  Reaching for things we never thought within our grasp, until now.  Scaling new heights.”

And then in a gesture that could be construed as nothing other than deliberate, open affection, Vincent reached up with both hands, gently smoothing Catherine’s hair back from her face.  To ask the tears not to gather in her eyes would have been to ask the impossible, as she looked at her beloved.  The answering gleam in Vincent’s eyes was unmistakable.  “What were we doing, Mouse?” he continued, smiling.  “We were dancing.  And climbing ladders.”  

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