Chapter 1

JoAnn Baca

Catherine stood forlornly, leaning against the balustrade of her balcony, gazing with unseeing, tear-filled eyes at the darkened vista before her. The bitter bite of the wind which had risen, blustery and carrying more than a hint of frost, chilled her body but didnít penetrate her consciousness. Wrapped in her misery, she had ventured forth onto her balcony just as the thin sunshine of the autumn day, barely enough to compensate for the inadequate covering she wore, was disappearing. Now even that scant warmth had fled, and the pale of daylight had transfigured into the gloom of evening.

The long day at the hospital had left her wrung out emotionally and physically. It was still afternoon when she had arrived home, but she had been so exhausted, she had immediately changed into her nightgown, intent on climbing into bed and pulling the covers up against the world. Yet despite her exhaustion, sleep had proven elusive. Thus, sunset found her wearily slipping out of bed and stumbling up the few steps to her balcony doors, swinging them wide and stepping through to stand where she still stood...an hour later.

Her bare feet were turning blue with the cold, but she barely felt them. Her arms and upper back, also bare, trembled with constant shivering. Her torso, covered only with the merest wisp of silk, shuddered with the effect of the chill wind. None of this did she notice, any more than she noticed the deeply shadowed park or the buildings on the other side of it, shimmering now with the thousand pinpoints of light flickering to challenge the darkness.

The darkness in her soul was complete - no light penetrated there. And so she stood, shaking with cold, oblivious to it, in silence and shadows.

"Catherine?"

The honey-rich rasp of a beloved voice intruded on her introspection as nothing else Ė not the cold, not the wind Ė could have done. Finally shaken from her reverie, she turned to behold the anxious face behind her. Confusion was written large across her face, worrying him.

"You must go inside, Catherine. Itís bitterly cold, and you arenít dressed for it."

She shook her head sadly, whether in negation or despair, he couldnít tell. Neither were adequate to the purpose, however, and realizing that she was, for the moment, beyond rational thought, Vincent bent to her, placing one arm around her shoulders and the other at the back of her knees, and lifted her with effortless grace. Turning in a fluid motion, he strode purposefully into her apartment, where he laid his beloved burden carefully on the mattress, then immediately turned away.

Catherine rose on one elbow and whispered hoarsely to his departing back, "Please...donít go."

As he turned to her, she noted with relief that he wore a shy smile. His response reassured her even more. "Iím not leaving...only closing the doors. The wind...itís..."

At her nod, he returned to his task, quickly and firmly shutting the French doors against the cutting blast of air which even now caused his cloak to swirl and eddy around his leather-clad calves.

Catherine seemed all at once to realize just how cold she was. She was shivering uncontrollably now, even in the slightly warmer confines of her apartment. Vincent removed his cloak, warm from his body, and draped it around her, then took her tenderly into his arms as she shook hard. Cradling her, he rubbed her back and arms with long, gentle strokes, then gazed, disconcerted, at her small, bare, bloodless feet. He took them both in one massive hand, curling his fingers protectively and warmly around them, massaging life back into them.

The prick of returning warmth to her toes made Catherine wince, but she burrowed deeper into Vincentís embrace so he wouldnít see it and imagine he was hurting her. Her stiff, frozen fingers she wove into the welcome thickness of his vest, letting his body heat gently suffuse them with warmth. She buried her nose in the crook of his neck, in part to seek the heat of his skin, in part to inhale deeply of the comforting scent that meant "home" to her.

For a long time they didnít speak, didnít move, as Catherineís body slowly warmed.

When he felt her shivering begin to subside, Vincent whispered against her hair, "What happened today? I felt a sudden fear in you, but not for yourself...and then an agony of worry...and finally, great sadness."

Catherine, rubbing her cheek against the coarse fabric of his heavy vest, seemed disinclined to speak. He could feel her begin to tremble again, but could sense it also through their Bond - an emotional resonance, not a physical one.

Pressing his lips softly against her ear in an almost-kiss, he urged her gently, murmuring, "Tell me."

Gradually, she gained some measure of control over her emotions. Reluctant to leave the warm, enveloping embrace of her beloved, nevertheless she pushed herself up and away so that she could look into his eyes. Their somber blue bathed her, caressed her with the intensity of his concern.