Chapter 9

JoAnn Baca

The night was brilliantly clear and dangerously cold. Midnight found Catherine, as on another night not long ago, standing immobile on nearly frozen bare feet, clad in a slender silk wrap entirely inappropriate for the weather. As she gazed out over the now silent city, conflicting thoughts roiled in her head: her actions had helped ensure that Gaines was no longer a threat to those sheíd promised to protect and to the one she loved, yet her failures had had devastating repercussions to one of those sheíd promised to help. Anger, frustration, self-reproach, pride, relief - all warred in her mind as she struggled to come to terms with the wild swings of emotion coursing through her. At one point, she began pounding her clenched fist against the stone parapet surrounding her balcony. Again and again she beat her tender flesh against the uncaring stone, accepting the bruising of her hand as a small punishment for the greater tragedy that she had helped set into motion by letting down a friend. Yet...hadnít she also, finally and forever, removed the cause of pain and fear from the most helpless innocents in this tragedy, who now could live without looking over their shoulders, without dreading who they might see? Groaning with mingled frustration and pain, Catherine turned abruptly from the vista before her...and bumped her nose against the quilted softness of a familiar vest.

"Again I find you half-frozen in the night, Catherine," she heard as a raspy whisper breathed close to her ear. "You must take better care." Warmth enveloped her as a woolen cloak scented with candle smoke and earth settled itself around her shivering shoulders. Then a gloved hand encased her bruised one, the suede soft and soothing against the hurt. "Why?" he rumbled. "You have done nothing wrong. Why hurt yourself?"

Catherine shrugged, unable to look him in the eye. "It was my fault to begin with," she mumbled, reluctantly admitting what was in her heart of hearts.

"Gaines is the only one at fault. You must not take on his sins. He was a monster, even if he had a kindly face and a pleasing manner which bewitched others for a time. He is the sole cause of this tragedy, not you." Vincent tempered his remonstration with an embrace, pulling her closer and holding her gently against himself.

"I...I guess I know that," Catherine agreed, if reluctantly. "And...well, I am happy that I was able to help ensure he was stopped before he could do more harm." She sighed her frustration. "Itís...Iím...things are so confusing. Itís overwhelming. So much has happened, so much more could have happened - I feel responsible and yet I know Iím not...I feel proud that I could help stop him and yet I canít take the credit for how things turned out...."

Vincentís arms tightened around her. "Itís understandable that you would have these conflicting feelings, Catherine. The situation was complicated. I myself have struggled over the actions of the recent past. But are safe, and so my mind can rest easy despite everything."

"Thatís true for me, as well," Catherine admitted. "Uppermost in my mind, selfish as it sounds, is that you are safe, your secrets and your existence remain protected. I feel guilty about that, but...there it is."

"Shall we forgive ourselves for our selfishness just this once? Weíre only human," he replied, his voice a velvet rasp, his words doing much to dispel the competing worries in Catherineís mind. And suddenly the peace which had eluded her fell into place: she was human, she would make mistakes...and she could also try to correct those mistakes, which was all anyone, including herself, could expect. To ask more of oneself was to set an impossible standard - perfection, foresight bordering on omniscience, the ability to move others to oneís will. How could any human being measure up to that? No, she could be sorry and yet bear no guilt, and she could be happy yet know she was not responsible for all the things she was glad for. After all was said and done, what mattered was caring and acting. Too many people did neither. Her internal conflicts were natural, but in the end she had both cared and acted, and her mind could rest easy.

With a deep, relieved sigh, Catherine settled more deeply into Vincentís loving arms. "Thank you," she murmured, her heartfelt emotions thrumming through their Bond, proving to Vincent that she had weathered this storm...and that he had helped her through it. He was content, as the frustration and agony that had burned through their Bond all day and into the night finally dissipated, leaving only a tender glow of gratitude and love. This was the Catherine he wished could always exist - emotionally secure, untroubled, peaceful. With the job she had and the life she led, these moments were unfortunately fleeting for both her and for himself. Treasure this, he instructed himself. Unaware of his actions, his arms tightened imperceptibly to hold her even closer, as if he was ever a satellite seeking her sunís warmth.

Catherine snuggled into his tightened embrace, rubbing her nose deeply against the hard plane of his chest, which was discernable despite the soft coverings of quilting and suede. The tension in her melted away, and her awareness of both the cold of her feet and the warmth of Vincentís embrace sharpened. Moaning softly in the face of both, she reached her arms up to surround his neck and stood on tiptoe. "Take me inside, itís freezing out here," she begged.

"I shall tell Mary that what you really need for Christmas is a pair of warm slippers," he chided as he complied with her request, lifting her easily and swiftly striding to the opened doors of her bedroom. Once inside, he eased the doors shut with one booted foot, then bounded down the short steps and to her bed with his typical fluid grace. She just had time to marvel that a man as big as he could move so smoothly before he sank to his knees and sat her gently upon the covers of her bed. She felt the gentle kiss he placed on the crown of her head, but refused to unlock her hands from around his neck when he then tried to move away from her.

"Now that Iím proper company, you want to leave," she complained in a teasing voice.

"Itís very late, youíve had an emotionally exhausting day, no longer need me," he stated, as if that explained anything.

"True...true...and definitely not true," Catherine replied, then responded to his quizzical look by adding, "I know itís late and Iíve had some issues to work out...but thereís never a time when I donít need you."

Vincent bent his head, hiding his visage from her frank eyes, as he answered, "You are your own woman, Catherine, and I...."

She didnít want to hear his next excuse, and cut him off, saying, "And as my Ďown womaní I know my own mind. And I know how much I need you...always."

Vincentís sigh might have disheartened her, especially when he added, "There is so much I can never be for you...because of what I am. Your needs...."

Again dismissing his well-worn argument, a newly inspired Catherine insisted, "You told me just a minute ago that Gaines was a monster, despite his pleasing face and manner. You were right. If you truly believe that itís whatís inside that counts, then how can you say you canít give me what I need? Thereís no one more wonderful than you, no man as good and loving and generous and...."

Now it was Vincentís turn to stop an often vented argument. "Even if I were all you say, that doesnít change the fact that I am not a man."

"Prove it!" Catherine challenged him. Her jaw set stubbornly, she added, "If you arenít a man, as you claim, then this wonít affect you at all." She lifted her face to his and kissed him soundly, directly upon the lips which sheíd longed to taste, the lips that, while unusually shaped, had always intrigued her, beckoned to her.

At first her kiss was sharp, unemotional, meant to shock more than to entice. But when his startled gasp caused those extraordinary lips of his to part slightly, and to soften against hers, she couldnít help herself - she took advantage of the momentary advantage of surprise and threw herself wholeheartedly into the kind of kiss sheíd always dreamed of taking of him. Her own mouth grew soft against his, and she nuzzled and nipped along his lush lower lip, then licked tentatively along the muzzle of his upper lip, taking a long time to explore the soft pink cleft.

As she continued her ardent exploration, Vincentís surprise melted away, and soon enough he proved he was wrong - that he was a man, a thoroughly besotted man, who desired her kisses as much as she longed to give them. Leaning into her, he wrapped his arms around her back and shoulders, pulling her off the bed to kneel in front of him, so that their bodies were pressed close from knees to lips, and like a man dying of thirst offered a precious cup of water, he drank from her as if she were his last link to life.

Long moments later, forced to concede that breathing was necessary, the kiss ended and, panting and stunned, they leaned their foreheads together and contemplated the wild turn their relationship had just taken. Their Bond sizzled with anticipation and a heady blend of emotion that was part lust and part adoration.

"I wonít say I told you so," Catherine murmured breathlessly. When she won a shy, if dazed, smile from him, she added, "And donít you say I shouldnít stand out in the cold. If this is the result, Iím willing to lose a couple of toes to frostbite."

His smile brightened the night. Catherine could have sworn the sun came out in all its blazing glory. Then he bent to her for