She knew he would listen, share the depth of her sorrow in his gentle, deeply empathic manner. He would do everything he could to alleviate her burden by taking it onto himself. He would give her his warmth, his understanding and the healing balm of his soft-spoken words.
She needed all that, craved the comfort only Vincent could give her, yet she felt reluctant to revive all the emotions the biting cold had somehow managed to numb. Fear, agonizing worry ending in the sharp pain of loss, and something else Vincent must have felt too, but hadn't mentioned: devastating feelings of guilt, and failure. Not only had she lost a dear friend today, but she felt responsible: she had given her word and failed to keep it.
Catherine knew Vincent wouldn't see it that way. He would tell her that she had done her best, that it wasn't her fault, and lost in the warmth of his embrace and the soothing tones of his velvet voice, she might even believe it. But right now she was not ready to accept that comfort. She didn't deserve it.
"Catherine?" The beloved voice was harsh with worry, and she realized she could hardly see Vincent's face through the tears that finally welled up in her eyes, overflowing to roll down her cheeks in a helpless stream.
"Oh, Vincent..." was all she could utter before her throat constricted in a deep sob. Without a word Vincent pulled her back against him and held her close, rocking her like a child as she wept her heart out, soaking his vest with hot tears. He tried to push his own worry aside to concentrate on comforting Catherine, aware that the terrible pain he'd felt in her needed to be let out, that mourning had to follow its course. For Catherine was mourning someone's death, he had no doubt about that. Only the brutal, unexpected loss of someone she held dear could have caused the devastating grief he felt in her, and Vincent couldn't help wondering who that was. The only people he could think of were Joe Maxwell, and her friends Jenny and Nancy, and he silently prayed it wasn't so.
What worried him most was the overwhelming self-reproach he felt in her. Whatever had happened, Catherine was blaming herself for it, and Vincent knew all too well the depth of the wounds culpability could inflict. He tightened his arms around Catherine's trembling body, concentrating all his heart and soul on sending waves of strength and comfort to her. Not long ago she had told him that their connection was getting stronger in her, that sometimes, when he was close, she could feel what he was feeling, too. He had found that progress in their relationship both thrilling and a bit scary, but right now he was grateful for it. He felt her relax gradually, until she gently disengaged herself from his arms and looked at him with a fleeting, trembling smile, her eyes still swollen with tears.
"Thank you, Vincent."
"Tell me..." he softly prompted again.
She took a deep breath, and he felt her gather her strength before she finally spoke. "It's Tina, Tina Benson. I don't know if I ever told you about her. That was not very long after I started working with the DA's office, before you... came back."
He nodded encouragingly. "When you were 'learning to be strong'.
"Yes. Joe sent me to a hospital where the ER had notified us of a woman they suspected of being abused by her husband. It was the third time they had seen her in two months, and every time her injuries were more serious. They had tried to talk to her, to no avail, and they thought maybe someone from the DA's office could convince her." She smiled wryly. "Joe probably thought I needed the experience. A good brush with reality. He was teaching me to be strong, in his own way."
Catherine's eyes brightened up a bit. "The hospital happened to be St Vincent's, and in the taxi I thought about you. I wondered if I'd ever see you again, and I hoped I would. I wanted to thank you for everything you'd given me, to tell you about my new life." She extended a hand to touch Vincent's face, and felt him quiver at the contact. "I needed you to be part of that new life, and you felt it. You came to me. You always come to me when I need you."
He took her hand in his and gently removed it from his cheek to press a fervent kiss in her palm. "How could I not?" he whispered.
For a few seconds Catherine almost lost herself in the warmth of his presence, in the love shining in his gaze. She almost threw herself in his arms to seek oblivion in his embrace. But she was too old to believe that hugs and kisses, however delicious, could make a hurt go away. Only words could do that, in some measure. She straightened, sighed and went on. "It was such a shock when I arrived at the hospital and saw her! It brought back so many things.... You see, her head...was entirely bandaged. More than forty stitches just for her face, the nurse had told me, a fractured cheekbone, and some damage to her eyes, too, so after taking care of her wounds they'd just wrapped up the whole thing. Oh Vincent, seeing her was like seeing myself!"
He pressed her hand. "It must have been difficult..."
She nodded. "Yes it was. But I tried to focus on Tina. I knew just how helpless she felt lying there in the dark, with her whole body hurting. She had cracked ribs, too, bruises all over and a broken leg. And she was alone. The nurses did their best but they had too many patients to spend more time with her than was strictly necessary for her care." She sighed. "That first visit didn't accomplish much. When she knew I was from the DA's office she became immediately wary. She said that she had only fallen down the stairs, and it was no one's business. I answered that the doctors didn't think that likely, and neither did I. Then she turned her face away and said 'Believe what you want, I'm not saying one more word about it.' So I tried to make her talk about other things, her job, her two little girls, but just when I was finally getting a few words out of her, her husband arrived.
Catherine shook her head. "I don't know what I'd expected, some kind of Neanderthal brute, I suppose. But of course it would be too simple if people's hearts were reflected on their face." She saw Vincent wince and amended "Of course there are exceptions. You are an exception. Your face is just as beautiful as your heart!"
He stared at her with shocked surprise and she held his gaze, daring him to deny her words, but he only squeezed her hand, urging her on, and she resumed her story.
Bruce Gaines hadn't looked like a brute at all. An attractive man, handsome in a juvenile kind of way, with dark blond hair, laughing chestnut eyes, a big, easy smile and charming manners. It was almost impossible to imagine him capable of violence, much less the kind of ruthless rage resulting in Tina's injuries. He was intrigued by Catherine's presence, and she introduced herself as 'a friend of Tina's', noticing that the wounded woman did not deny it, and that told something.
As Catherine took her leave, she told Tina she would come back, and the husband smiled at her, saying it was very nice of her, but it would be better if she didn't. Tina needed rest, not visitors. 'Don't you, darling?' and very soon she'd be back home. Catherine was aware he was directing the full strength of his charm at her, to compel her into doing as he wanted. Just as Tom had done, she remembered, but she was immunized against that now, and it just made her more certain that the man was wearing a mask. She nodded her assent with an equally charming smile, left the room and went straight to the nurses' desk for a little talk with the staff.
Bruce Gaines' charm hadn't had much success there either, she found out. The experienced ER nurses had seen too much of that kind of thing to buy into his nice manners. They knew better. They told Catherine that he behaved very tenderly toward his wife and appeared genuinely worried for her, but seemed suspiciouly intent on taking her home as soon as possible, and when the nurse had told him Tina would have to stay in the hospital for at least a week, he'd started arguing, loudly. He'd not listened to the intern, a woman, either, and finally it had taken a male resident to convince him. 'Macho type, ' the head nurse said 'For all his smiles, he just can't stand a woman to contradict him! You'll have to sneak behind his back if you want to talk seriously to her.'
"And that's exactly what I did," Catherine went on. "With the complicity of the staff I went to see her every night after visiting hours, on my own time. I knew I only had a week to convince her. First we just talked about this and that, I brought magazines and books and read to her. Trust was developing between us, but not fast enough. She still refused to talk about how she'd been injured, or to discuss her relationship with her husband."
She stopped and remained thoughtful for a while. "There was only one thing I could do to gain her full trust, but I didn't think I'd have the strength. Then I thought about you, and I heard your voice in my heart telling me 'You have the strength, Catherine, you do! I know you.' Your trust in me gave me the courage to go forward. I told Tina about what had happened to me."
Vincent's eyes filled with concern. "Catherine, it must have been so hard for you!"
"It was hard, but it also felt good in a way, to let it all out. Apart from you and the tunnels I omitted nothing, spared her no detail, and I felt her react to it. A the end we were both crying, and there's no telling which one of us comforted the other..."
Vincent pulled her against him and she gladly leaned her head on his shoulder to go on, her voice unsteady. "I was a bit hard on her, then. I said 'Tina, no one chooses to be a victim, but you have the choice not to remain one. I made that choice, and it wasn't easy, but I'm glad of it, now. What choice are you going to make? Will your daughters grow up seeing their mother as a victim?' I think that did it, but she was afraid. Afraid he'd kill her or the girls if she did anything against him."
Catherine lifted her head from Vincent's shoulder to look at him with distress. "I promised her he wouldn't. I gave her my word everything would be all right, that she and her children would be protected against him. I truly believed it, and she believed me. She agreed to file a complaint and testify. When I reported to Joe he told me to handle it. 'Your case, Radcliffe, court and all.' I was panicked. I'd never been to court for the DA's office before, and I'd hoped someone more experienced could take the case. Joe was testing me, but I wished he'd chosen another case for that, one with not so much at stake."
"Joe is no fool, Catherine," Vincent answered softly. "I think he knew you would give your best, precisely because very much was at stake. He certainly was also aware that it touched you on a personal level, and wanted you to deal with that, too."
She nodded. "I know that now, but at the time I thought he was just trying to make things hard for me. It made me angry, and even more determined to win the case." Catherine saw the shadow of a smile on Vincent's face and mirrored it with one of her own. "Yes, I guess he knew that, too!"
"I had the man arrested," she went on, "He protested of his innocence, and managed to have the judge at the preliminary hearing let him out on bail, but when he went home Social Services had moved Tina and her girls to a home for battered women, and they remained there until the trial. It infuriated him, but he was clever enough not to display any violent words or behavior that might be used against him. He played the perfect, loving husband, claiming that was all a mistake and if he could only talk to his wife, the misunderstanding would be cleared in no time. When that didn't work he seemed to give up, but I noticed him several times in the street outside the DA's office, so I only talked to Tina by phone."
"The trial was a close thing. Gaines' lawyer was far more experienced than I was, and he nearly broke Tina down. She did go through her testimony, but it sounded insecure and shaky.. Fortunately the ER intern and the expert psychologist were not so easily intimidated, but even that might not have been enough. Bruce Gaines was exerting all his charm on the judge and jury, looking so good-natured, so innocent, so affectionate with his wife and worried for his children that even I could have fallen in for it. I was almost desperate for a moment. Then I remembered what the ER nurse had said about his contempt for women, and I used that. During the interrogation I was bossy, authoritative, contemptuous toward him, and he just couldn't stand it. Despite his lawyer's objections and efforts to calm him, he began to show his true nature. He lost his charming smile and raised his voice. Just a few more pushes and he jumped over the bar to raise his fist at me. He would have knocked me down if his lawyer hadn't stopped him. He got five years."
Vincent didn't like the idea of anyone raising his fists at Catherine. "It was clever, but dangerous," he said. "He could have hurt you!"
"Yes," she admitted "but it was a small price to pay to know he wouldn't hurt Tina any more. Oh Vincent she looked so happy and relieved, and proud of herself! She hugged me, and thanked me for giving her the courage to free herself from him." She smiled wryly. "I must admit I felt rather smug myself, winning my first case in court, and one I took very much at heart. If I had known..."
"Catherine, one can never know," Vincent comforted her. "All we can do is act for the best according to what we do know, and that's what you did. You had the right to feel proud of yourself! What happened? Did he escape from jail?"
She shrugged. "No, nothing so spectacular. After doing half his sentence he was paroled on good behavior. Oh, I'm sure he was a model inmate, with no women there to order him around. The trouble is that no one saw fit to advise either his wife or the DA's office about that. The moron who let him out probably thought that the restraining order forbidding Gaines to approach his ex-wife and children was enough to keep them safe." Catherine shook her head in despair, new tears welling in her eyes. "Tina had made a new life, a good life for herself and her little girls. I advised her to move to another state, but she didn't want to be too far apart from her mother and sister. She got a divorce, changed her name, her job, and moved to Brooklyn. We kept in touch, talked regularly on the phone, and sometimes managed to get together for lunch. She was much more than a case for me, she had become a friend! And now she's gone!"
Vincent held her as she cried, gently patting her shoulder. When he felt her calm down he softly inquired. "What happened?"
Catherine reluctantly drew away from him and took a deep breath. "I got a phone call this morning. Bruce Gaines." She shuddered. All her life she would remember that voice. That ice-cold, smirking voice. 'You know what you can do with your restraining order, Miss Chandler? You thought you could take Tina away from me? I got her. I'm going to teach her. And then I'm going to teach you!'
"Tina was found about two hours later in an abandoned warehouse, by a bag-lady who called the police. She was still alive, though barely. As soon as I knew I ran to the hospital, but the doctors said there was no hope. Her face had been beaten almost to a pulp, and she had severe brain and spine damage. She never regained consciousness. Oh, Vincent, I had told her it would be all right, I had promised her it wouldn't happen!"
He pulled her back against his shoulder, torn by the agony of self-blame he felt in her.
"Catherine, if she had stayed with her husband he would have killed her anyway. You did what you could, with the means you had."
"It was not enough!" she cried
"No, sometimes doing your best is not enough," he quietly admitted. "But you cared, and you did help her. Please don't blame yourself for something that was not your doing. You are not responsible for her death, he is. Has he been found?"
She shook her head. "No. There's a warrant, and an extensive police search, but no result so far."
"The little girls?"
"He didn't touch them, thank God. They were at school. Social Services will move them to a foster home upstate until Gaines is arrested, then they will go and live with their aunt and grandmother. Poor little kids, as if losing their mother was not enough, they'll have to live with strangers for all the time it will take to catch that monster. I hope for them it will be soon!"
Vincent was thoughtful. Tina's little girls were not the only ones in danger. That man had clearly threatened Catherine, too. He glanced at the window. In a couple of hours dawn would be there, and he hated the idea of leaving her there alone, grieving... and without his protection. He made a quick decision, and taking both her hands in his, looked earnestly at her for a while, gathering his courage before making his request.
Catherine, please come Below with me!"