By Edith Crowe
Catherine was getting very tired--it seemed she had been digging forever--but even through her exhaustion a flicker of doubt was beginning to make its way through to her numbed brain. Not much progress was being made, despite all their work. Things would move faster if Vincent were here, surely, but he wasn't. Catherine frowned at that, but kept digging; people were depending on her. She wasn't doing a very good job, though...the dirt was very sandy, and it seemed that every time she lifted a shovelful outside the hole, almost as much slid down the sides to fill the bottom again.
Despite the agonizing slowness of her progress, she had managed to get the hole deep enough that lifting the dirt out was beginning to get harder and harder--and she was afraid she was reaching the limit of her strength. It was beginning to get scary. She was in deeper than her head, and the soil was so unstable--if it gave way, she'd be buried; she'd never have the strength to dig her way out. But she couldn't stop, it was too important. She tried to remember why it was so important, but couldn't seem to think over the noise. What was that, anyway? It hadn't been there a minute ago. Was it the pipes? Could they really sound that loud, no matter how urgent the message? It was so strident, but no one could possibly hear a siren down here...perhaps it was a...
"Telephone," Catherine groaned as she rolled toward the nightstand, trying not to entangle herself further in the bedclothes. "What in the name of God..." She opened leaden eyelids to look at the clock as she groped for the phone, then shut them again quickly as light stabbed into them. She'd been certain it was the middle of the night.
" 'Lo?" she mumbled, mentally cursing the fact that she'd forgotten to turn on the answering machine last night.
"Radcliffe? Is that you?"
"Joe? Why in God's name are you calling me on a Saturday at dawn?"
"Whaddya mean, dawn? It's almost eight o'clock. I thought you became an early riser when you renounced that frivolous socialite lifestyle you used to have."
"You have about two seconds to convince me I shouldn't hang up in your face," Catherine replied, as well as she could through clenched teeth. "I was up late working on those three new cases you just dumped on me. When I finally got to sleep, the cat decided to throw up mouse parts on my great-grandmother's quilt, and I had to do some emergency cleaning. I have gotten almost no sleep, I have had a very hard week, and if you're going to ask what I think you're going to ask, no jury in this city will convict me when I kill you."
"Aw, c'mon, Cathy, I wouldn't ask you to come in today if I wasn't desperate. I'm here myself--new evidence on the Wilson case and it's supposed to go to trial Monday."
Catherine rolled over on her back and plopped the phone on her chest, hoping to eke out just a few more horizontal moments. "So you want me to help with the Wilson case? I thought Bob Chen was working on that."
Something in Joe's voice alerted Catherine. It was the tone he used when he was about to ask her to do a major favor--something she'd hate. She sat up in bed and glared at the phone. "Just what do you want me to do, Counselor?" It was the tone of voice she used to signal that he'd owe her big time for this one and she'd find imaginative ways to demand payback.
"Well..." She could almost hear Joe loosening his shirt collar over the phone. "I need you to supervise ECAB today. Judy came down with appendicitis last night and had emergency surgery. You're the tenth person I've tried, Cathy, honest. Everyone else seems to be out of town."
I wish I were, Catherine thought. Or preferably under it. "You want me to supervise ECAB? Spend my Saturday looking over rookies' shoulders while they interview people on misdemeanors? Interview the most disgusting ones myself? What did I ever do to you?"
Catherine's spirits sank even lower, but how could she refuse under the circumstances? "How's Judy?" she asked.
"She'll be OK," Joe replied brightly. "They got her to surgery in plenty of time. So you'll do it?"
Catherine sighed. "Yes, I'll do it. But the next time a major dictionary of psychology comes out, you'll see my picture right under the definition for masochist."
Dragging herself out of bed with Joe's effusive thanks still issuing from the phone receiver, Cathering mumbled a goodbye and forced herself to get ready in record time. She remembered to feed the cat, hoping against hope that would discourage him from sampling more rodent delicacies in the basement. No time to make coffee; she'd have to pick up something industrial-strength on the way. Her last task before launching herself into the cold, cruel world was to go down to where the mice lived and tap out a message on the basement pipes. She'd half-promised Rebecca some help with candle-making today, and hoped there'd be enough other volunteers. If Vincent hadn't been away she probably would have escaped down there last night, and Joe would've had to try number eleven on his list. At least she'd gotten him trained not to call her first anymore.
The Early Case Assessment Bureau was even less attractive than her usual workspace. Some half-asleep police officers from the night shift still leaned on walls or sat on the grubby floors waiting to give their reports. The supervisor's cubicle was distinguished from the others only by the fact that it faced into the hallway. A bleary-eyed ADA who looked vaguely familiar almost leaped up when he saw Catherine. "Please tell me you're the cavalry!"
"Tim...Tim McMillan, right?" Catherine shook his hand briefly. "Thanks for holding the fort until I got here. It must have been a long night for you."
"Interminable. The citizens were pretty active for the middle of winter. In addition to the usual farebeats and drunks there was a drug sweep near the Village, a major neighborhood brawl on upper Broadway, and a lady whose elevator perhaps does not go all the way the to the penthouse. She got into fisticuffs with a neighbor because she keeps finding dog doo on her steps--which she insisted on bringing in as evidence, in an old plastic margarine tub, thank God. She wants to swear out a complaint against the guy upstairs, whom she knows for a fact is really an alien possessed by Satan and sent to test her." Tim scooped up his briefcase and almost ran out the door. "Have a nice day."
Catherine set her second cup of spoon-dissolving coffee next to the phone, which was bolted onto the battered metal desk, which was bolted to the floor. She took a deep breath, hoping the crumbling corkboard glued to her partition didn't produce particles small enough to be sucked into her lungs. There was an irritating buzzing noise but she was almost sure it came from the expiring ballast in one of the fluorescent lights, not from inside her head. Yet. As she picked up the first folder from the very large pile on her desk, she tried very hard to remember why leaving corporate law had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Later that day, strange noises in the outer office caused Joe Maxwell to open his office door, very cautiously. "I take it things haven't been going too well," Joe remarked tentatively, as Catherine slammed a file drawer shut with a force that almost took a chunk out of the wall behind the cabinet. Joe briefly considered mentioning that the anemic city budget didn't have much in it for replacement furniture, not to mention walls, but decided it might be more than his life was worth. "What brings you up here?"
"I brought the results of all that work I did last night," she answered pointedly, "so I won't have to lug it in Monday." Having left the file cabinet hovering on the edge of reincarnation as scrap metal, Catherine stomped to her desk and began abusing smaller items of office equipment. She kicked her work shoes under her desk and began to pull on her boots. "This isn't a city. It's one big asylum for the insane, criminally and otherwise...or just the hopelessly weird."
Joe tried to think of some encouraging response, but couldn't come up with anything. Cathy's description was all too apt. He decided to change the subject. "Going out for lunch?"
Catherine fixed him with a belligerent glare as she struggled with her coat. "Yes. Any objection? I need the fresh air."
Joe began edging back toward his office. "No, not at all. I think it's a great idea." His eyes flicked briefly toward the nearest window, noting that the air was fresh enough to rattle it every few seconds and plaster snowflakes to its panes. "Enjoy yourself." With great relief, he reached the sanctuary of his office and ducked inside. He knew enough to quit while he was ahead.
Catherine plunged into the wretched weather, head down against the biting wind. It was cold, windy, cloudy, and snowy. It fit her mood perfectly. At intersections, deceptively deep slush puddles lay in wait for the unwary, ready to fill too-short boots with ice water. Catherine sloshed through them deliberately. I love New York in June, she grumbled to herself, but it sure stinks in February. She hoped the physical activity would calm her down, but after many blocks of battling the elements, she was still brooding over the injustice of having to work on a Saturday, and missing both Vincent and the rejuvenating effect of a weekend escape Below.
As she lifted her head to see where her wanderings had taken her, Catherine's attention was suddenly caught by a colorful display in a nearby window, its bright colors luring customers even through the swirling snow. Realizing how close it was to Valentine's Day, she approached. Looking over the dazzling array of temptations, Catherine saw something that caused her to break into a delighted grin, dissipating the last vestige of her bad mood. Her smile became almost wicked as she considered the possibilities of the ideal Valentine present for Vincent that beckoned her from the window. Chuckling in anticipation, she entered the store. She could get that present for Vincent, and something unhealthy for lunch all at once. Perfect. Maybe this day was survivable after all.
Catherine's own front door had never looked so welcome. She was a little surprised that Bulwer didn't run to greet her as he usually did, demanding food and attention in that order. A note on the hall table soon explained that. Eric had spent a good portion of the day here using the computer. Bulwer had probably been fed and petted more than was good for him, and gotten completely blissed out napping on top of a nice warm monitor. Sure enough, a brief reconnaissance of the library showed one very contented feline sprawled on the sofa, dead to the world.
"Ingrate," Catherine grumbled as she climbed the stairs to the second floor. Eager as she was to divest herself of the miasma of 100 Centre Street, she didn't go to the master bedroom immediately, but quietly opened the door of the room opposite her home office. It had been used most recently for storage by the previous owner, but in years past it had been a nursery. Someday, Catherine hoped, it would be a again. Some superstitious fear of seeming presumptuous to the gods had kept her from doing anything to this room until she was sure she was pregnant. It had stayed unheated and largely empty, and Catherine seldom entered it now. But she needed a cool place to store Vincent's present. Quickly Catherine removed the gift and tucked it into the corner of a closet. Depositing the briefcase in her office, she hurried to the bedroom, and quickly began changing her clothes.
Today's work clothes went directly into the hamper. Amazing how ECAB could still smell like smoke when smoking hadn't been allowed there in years. The other smells didn't bear thinking about. A very long and very hot shower restored Catherine somewhat. As she was towelling her hair dry, the phone rang. Damn. She still hadn't turned on the answering machine. She thought briefly about not answering it, but as usual, conscientiousness won out. It could be important.
"Cathy! You're home at last. I was going to call the police after this time."
Catherine lay down on the bed, damp hair and all. "Hi, Jenny. Believe or not I got stuck working all day. I'm about ready to collapse."
"So I guess dinner tonight is out?"
Catherine groaned. "I forgot all about it! I'm sorry, Jenny. I really wanted to get together today--it's been too long. But I don't know..."
"Well, I do. I know you sound wiped out and in no shape to go out. What if I just come over? We can always scramble some eggs and toast some bagels. Or are you too tired for company?"
"I'm too tired to move, but I'd love company. About the only person I've had to talk to all week is Bulwer, and his vocabulary is more limited than I'm used to."
"Is Vincent still off repairing things and whatever?"
"He and a hefty percentage of adult Tunnel dwellers. It's amazing how everything seems to break down at once. I've had a lot of work to do myself this week and no one to distract me from it, unfortunately. I got Below once to visit Father on Wednesday but that's it. I planned to go down for part of today but Joe had other plans for me."
"The rotten slave driver. If he doesn't treat you better tell him I'll cut off his discount bagel supply. You just relax and I'll come by in a little while. I'll just let myself in."
That was the last thing Catherine remembered until she woke to the sound of quiet activity on the first floor and the smell of ... chicken soup? She launched herself groggily out of bed and down the stairs. The smell got stronger as she approached the kitchen, reminding her how little she'd had for lunch. "Jenny, what have you ..."
Jenny turned from slicing bagels at the counter to smile at Catherine and then to stare. "Uh ... what have I what?"
"Something smells terrific--how long have you been here? What time is it? I forgot to look at the clock when I got up. Why do you have that funny look on your face?"
"Well, let's see if I can answer these in order. Not long. I haven't been slaving over a hot stove, I just came to your house by way of Zabar's. Don't tell my parents I've been patronizing the competition. It's less than an hour since I talked to you. And have you looked in the mirror since you got up? You fell asleep with damp hair, didn't you?"
Catherine's hand flew to her hair as she rushed to the downstairs bathroom. Jenny heard a stangled squawk from that direction, followed by feet running upstairs and soon the distant hum of a blow dryer. Some time later, Cathering returned dressed in slacks and sweater, with a coiffure more appropriate to her species.
A selection of goodies from one of the best delis in Manhattan went a long way toward restoring Catherine's will to live. They moved to the living room afterwards and caught up on their activities of the last few weeks. Catherine's account of her recent activities sounded both dull and excessive, even to herself. Nose-to-the-grindstone legal drudgery alternated with vegetable peeling, clothes washing, nursing children with the sniffles, and cleaning storerooms. By the end of her recitation, Catherine was sounding a little guilty and Jenny was fixing her with that see-into-your-soul look that always made her friends squirm.
"Catherine Chandler-Wells, you have been backsliding."
Backsliding? That wasn't what Catherine expected to hear. Did Jenny mean ... "I know, we promised to spend more time together since you became a Helper and I don't have to hide things from you. It's just that--"
"Good grief, Cathy," Jenny exclaimed. "Here you are describing a schedule that makes Mother Teresa sound like a slacker, and you apologize for not spending more time with me! What the heck are you still trying to prove?"
"Trying to--what do you mean?" Catherine tried to meet Jenny's eyes but suddenly found it necessary to study the wallpaper instead.
Jenny leaned toward Catherine and began to speak in a serious tone. "OK, you had this frivolous reputation before you met Vincent but I know better. You've spent most of your life feeling faintly guilty because you had the good luck to be pretty and smart and well-off. You spent a lot of time hiding how smart you were, although you had enough sense not to do that at Radcliffe or Columbia. Must have been difficult--trying to get good grades to please your Dad, without making Steven resent you because you were always smarter than he is. In college you were always befriending the ones that didn't fit in, like Jewish scholarship students whose parents owned a deli or--"
"I didn't make friends with you because I felt guilty about something," Catherine interrupted indignantly.
"No," Jenny agreed. "But it's why you went out of your way to talk to me the first time. And it certainly was behind some of your dubious choices in men, like that pompous pseudo-radical activist, whatsisname. And..."
"If you start getting into my history of bad taste in men pre-Vincent, we'll be here all night. Can't I just concede that... and get points for getting it right at last?"
"Well, I'll certainly grant you big points for him. He's terrific. But in a lot of ways he's made an old problem worse."
"What do you mean? Vincent's been nothing but good for me ..."
"Once you two got over the noble sacrifice and unrequited everything routine," Jenny agreed drily. "But getting involved with him turned your old guilt trip into a round-the-world tour. Proving to Vincent you were worthy of him by taking a dangerous job that almost got you killed several times over--proving to Joe you weren't a flighty rich brat by letting him exploit your willingness to die trying. Proving to Father that you weren't Margaret, by topping off a more than full-time ADA job with being Helper of the Decade. Even throwing in a few other Good Works for the heck of it, like that suicide hot line. I'm glad I didn't know about all this when it was going on or I would have been tempted to bop you one, and Vincent too. For two years the two of you must have been running on nothing but adrenaline and sublimated libido. It's a miracle you didn't both end up in the loony bin or the morgue. Sheesh!"
Catherine winced. In retrospect, those years sometimes seemed as crazy as Jenny's summary made them sound. "Well, we don't act like that any more. We're just a couple of old married folks. We haven't been assaulted with intent to do bodily harm for... oh, years now."
"But you're still both trying to be all things to all people. You need to learn to say no once in a while. There are other people that can do what you do for the County of New York and the Tunnels and the world at large. But there's nobody else that can give Vincent what you can, and vice versa. Don't get so self-sacrificing you forget that. Don't try to be something you're not."
"Like a born and bred Tunnel woman, for one thing. Did it ever occur to you that one of the reasons Vincent was attracted to you--besides your Noble Soul, of course--was that you're different from any woman he'd known? He grew up with girls that were all flannel and braids, and here you were, all velvet and satin and designer haircuts and expensive perfume. Don't you think that just maybe he found that intriguing and exotic? And sexy?"
Catherine was quiet for a long moment, staring at her feet. Finally she said, "You know, I think you may have something there. I've been having a lot of dreams lately where I'm feeling kind of trapped and overwhelmed. And as for that exotic business--well, I can't deny that Vincent is pretty exotic, and about as far as you can get from the boys I grew up with. And I sure think he's the sexiest thing on two feet. I often find myself thinking about him at work ..."
"Hmm...yes, I heard about that famous Council meeting. Let's see, I believe your husband was forced to sit through the entire thing with a book on his lap. Speculation was you were bored waiting in court for your case to come up and amused youself fantasizing..."
""That's not true," Catherine replied. "I wasn't fantasizing, I was..."
Catherine gulped. "I was remembering," she admitted weakly. "And Vincent assured me no one noticed."
"Well, perhaps he was less aware of his surroundings than usual," Jenny grinned wickedly.
Catherine decided a change of subject was definitely in order. "I did buy Vincent a Valentine's day present today." As she described her find to Jenny, the germ of an idea began to form in her mind. The more she thought about it, the more she was convinced that Jenny was right. Suddenly, that spur-of-the-moment gift began to have the most intriguing possibilities ...
Vincent led the weary crew that returned to the Hub after two weeks of almost nonstop repair, rebuilding and maintenance. Only the thought of seeing Catherine again at last kept him putting one foot in front of the other. His only regret was that it was still early Friday afternoon, and his conscientious wife would still be at work. Probably just as well, since a trip to the baths was definitely in order for all his crew before they could inflict themselves on polite society.
Reaching his chamber--his and Catherine's for over two years now--Vincent smiled to see a note on the bedside table in her unmistakable hand. It was decorated with the print of her now just-as-familiar lips. He opened it quickly, with hands that showed only the slightest tremor. Reading it, a frown of puzzlement crossed his features, and stayed there until he heard a tentative voice call his name. "Come in, Mary."
As she entered the inner chamber, Mary smiled to see the note in Vincent's hand. "Oh good, you found it. Catherine asked me to make sure you saw it as soon as you returned."
"Do you know anything about this?" Vincent asked her. "I don't understand why she wants me to have dinner Below and come up to the house later. We haven't seen each other for two weeks, I would have thought..."
"Vincent, dear," Mary chided, "Hasn't it occured to you she might have something special planned and need time to prepare? Do you realize what day this is? I know you've been out of touch for a while but..."
"Valentine's Day!" Vincent exclaimed.
"Yes..." Mary smiled slowly. "Don't you think it's possible that on Valentine's Day after she hasn't seen her husband in two weeks, Catherine might want to make the evening something a little out of the ordinary? Perhaps she wants you there just for dessert."
The realization of what possibilities the evening might offer suddenly burst into Vincent's tired brain. He felt himself blush furiously, and greatly regretted the fact that there was no large book immediately at hand. He moved quickly (if somewhat stiffly) to sit behind his writing table.
"Oh, Vincent!" Mary shook her head, chuckling. "I've been a wife, and a nurse. You needn't look so mortified." Mercifully, she left the chamber at that point, sparing Vincent the necessity of attempting to explain there were certain things a man felt uncomfortable revealing--verbally or otherwise--to a woman who was, to all intents and purposes, his mother.
Two weeks eating trail food instead of home cooking had made the repair crew ravenous, so William had made extra in anticipation. Only Vincent seemed unable to do justice to the generous meal. William's and Father's expressions of concern were eventually squelched by Mary's remark about saving room for dessert, after which their attention was pre-empted by Vincent's sudden choking fit. Excusing himself as early as possible without being rude, Vincent escaped to his chamber to pace until the appointed hour came at last.
He steeled himself to walk, not run, along a familiar route, coming at last to the unobtrusive entrance to a stairway that led to the basement of a certain house in the West 70s. He even managed to take those stairs only one at a time, and open the concealed door carefully. He stood in the wine cellar a moment, taking several deep breaths, then entered the basement and climbed the stairs to the kitchen. He began to hear the sounds of music playing softly in the background. He opened the door into the dimly lit kitchen, and followed his unerring sense of Catherine's location.
The library was dim as well, lit only by a modest fire, and small lamps here and there. Catherine was seated behind the table they used for chess, and Vincent's heart began to race as he saw her. Her hair was piled softly on her head and caught with antique silver-and-garnet combs that had belonged to her grandmother. Little wisps and tendrils escaped with carefully orchestrated casualness. A dark red cut-velvet shawl covered her shoulders. Vincent became aware that the room was much cooler than usual. Perhaps his exquisitely tuned senses told him that. Perhaps he deduced it because his eyes were glued to Catherine's breasts, where her erect nipples were covered by a satiny fabric the color of pewter and apparently not a great deal thicker than tissue paper. Long on the bottom but very brief on the top, the dress clung like light on water.
"Hello, dear heart." Catherine's voice pulled him out of a hormone-induced coma. "It's nice to have you back. Why don't you sit down?" She motioned to the chair opposite her. "I thought we'd have a nice game of chess."
Vincent stared, unable to speak. She wanted to play chess? When he was ready to explode? When he wanted to do nothing more than remove their respective garments in record time, in pieces if necessary, and make up for two weeks of deprivation? She was usually just as eager as he after a separation--why this sudden interest in chess? What was going on?
"Mary," he managed to choke out, "thought you wanted me here for dessert."
"What a perceptive woman," Catherine said brightly. "I do indeed. I've just managed to discover a way to kill two birds with one stone, as it were." Catherine leaned forward. "Look closely at the chess set."
That was easier said than done, since as Catherine leaned, the top of her dress slipped even further downward. If she leaned any more, the top of the rook would touch the creamy skin of her breast, and he'd have to lick it off...Vincent's furry nose twitched as the import of that intriguing image finally reached his brain (having taken a circuitous route through his groin). "It--it's chocolate!" He tore his eyes away from Catherine's bosom to focus on the board. The unmistakable scent of dark and white chocolate wafted up to him; he couldn't imagine how he'd missed it before. "That's why it's so cool in here."
"Right." Catherine beamed at her star pupil. "Woudn't want the pieces to melt before the game is finished." She stroked the dark queen with a slender finger, brought the finger to her lusciously painted lips, and licked it delicately with the tip of her tongue. "In this game you don't just capture your opponent's pieces..." She smiled wickedly at her husband. "You eat them."
Vincent swallowed hard, willing his hands to unclench. He was still hungry. And he did like the taste of chocolate. Almost as much as--
"That's why I'm playing the black, dear." The sound of Catherine's voice wrenched him away from contemplation of a mental image that certainly would have brought a blush to Mary's cheeks. Or maybe not. "I know white chocolate's a bit too sweet for your taste. This way you get to eat the finest Belgian dark every time you take a piece away from me. Aren't I a thoughtful wife?"
Clearly Catherine had put a great deal of thought into this evening, Vincent mused, although he still wasn't too clear about her motivation. She hardly needed to seduce him, after all. She was well aware that his hunger for her was as constant as hers for him. If anything, he worried about needing more than she was comfortably able to give--although, come to think of it, that hadn't happened in almost two years of marriage. Hmm...maybe women weren't quite as delicate in that area as Father had implied.
"Your move," Catherine said.
Vincent marshalled his wandering thoughts and determined to concentrate on the game--or games. Whatever Catherine was playing here, it was certain he'd enjoy it. He looked at the board and studied Catherine's move. Years of chess training took over and hi his higher cortical functions began to awaken. This was going to be interesting. His mouth watered in anticipation.
Catherine played recklessly. One might suspect she didn't intend for the game to be a long one. Nevertheless, her strategy led her to be the first to capture a piece, if only a pawn. She pounced on it with delight. Vincent watched, mesmerised, as she licked it up and down. Slowly the whole tip disappeared into her mouth and a little sound of pleasure escaped her. Eventually the whole thing was devoured, and Catherine licked her fingers in between little sighs of satisfaction. "Delicious," she purred, "But rather small. I hope the next one is bigger."
Vincent nearly fell off his chair as every part of his body but one went limp. Holding on to the table for dear life, he determined to win this game quickly. Between his skill and Catherine's recklessness, the game continued at a breakneck pace. He didn't even pause to eat the pieces he captured, until at last he was in a position to take Catherine's Queen and....
"Check." As he was about to add the Queen to her pile of subjects, Vincent had second thoughts. Raising his eyes to Catherine's face he noted the flush on her cheeks, her parted lips, and way that silvery satin moved over her breasts as she breathed more quickly. He leaned back in his chair and raised the Queen to his lips. Catherine's eyes never left his mouth as he slowly devoured it, piece by creamy piece, and then licked each finger clean with his rougher-than-human tongue. After he was finished, Vincent looked at Catherine. "Your move."
Catherine looked at the chessboard, then at Vincent, then back at the board. She could only delay the inevitable. Or...she made her move. Then Vincent's hand reached out to take her King.
"I thought you'd never ask," Catherine breathed as she rose and moved toward him. Vincent rose at the same time and crushed her against him as he sought her mouth with his. The shawl fell to the floor unnoticed as Catherine raised her arms to entwine them around his neck and buried her hands in his golden hair.
The taste of Catherine and chocolate mingled on Vincent's tongue as she opened her mouth to his. He could feel her pleasure as she explored the unique shape of his mouth and flicked her tongue along his canines. Finally Vincent released her mouth and began to kiss his way down the side of Catherine's neck as her hands slid down his back, frantically pulling his shirt out of his pants. She gasped as Vincent suddenly swept her into his arms and carried her over to the sofa. Laying her down gently, he pulled the shirt over his head and knelt on the floor beside her.
"Oh, God, I've missed you!" Catherine cried softly as her hand reached out to stroke the silken fur of his chest. Vincent bent his head to continue his line of kisses to her shoulder, where he took the thin strap of her gown in his teeth and pulled it down as far as he could. At the same time his hand slid the strap down on the other side. He kissed his way along the line where the shimmering fabric still barely covered her breasts. Catherine moaned and arched toward Vincent's mouth as he slowly traced that line of demarcation with his tongue. she rolled toward him, burying her face in his chest as she exposed her back. As her tongue found the skin beneath the fur, Vincent's shaking fingers managed to guide the zipper down her back.
Vincent sat back as Catherine stood. A small movement of her shoulders caused the gown to fall in a liquid puddle around her feet. Vincent was not surprised to discover there had been very little under it. Her legs were covered to the thighs by shimmery stockings the same silvery color as her gown, with no visible means of support. Around her hips there was a nothing but the smallest silken triangle supported by a few lacy strings. Fascinated, Vincent stroked it with his hand, then rubbed with his nose. It seemed so delicate he was afraid his rough cheek would tear it.
Coming out of his daze, Vincent realized the effect his actions were having on Catherine and smiled. "Would you like to go upstairs?"
Catherine shook her head. "I don't think my legs would support me that far." They gathered a coverlet and pillows from the sofa and kneeled to spread them on the floor in front of the fireplace. Still kneeling, Catherine pulled Vincent against her and wrapped her arms around his back.
"I think I would die if I couldn't have this." Catherine raised liquid eyes to Vincent's face. "Do you have any idea how good you feel--all that silky fur against my skin?"
"If what I can feel through our bond is accurate, it must feel very good indeed." He pulled off his boots and lay back to let Catherine remove the rest of his clothes, which she did with alacrity. He countered by sliding that intriguing little wisp over Catherine's hips. When his fingers reached for the top of a stocking, Catherine placed her hand over his.
"Why don't you leave them?"
"Don't you think that might be interesting?" Catherine slid Vincent's hand along the fabric as she moved to lie on top of him. She moved her lips close to his ear. "Think of how they'll feel against your back when I wrap my legs around you."
After he stopped shivering from the delicate agony of Catherine's breath against his ear Vincent thought about it. Between that thought and the magic that Catherine's hands and mouth were working as they moved down his torso, the universe seemed to coalesce to the space between his legs. When Catherine's exploring hand finally reached that spot, he jerked spasmodically. "Catherine, I can't..."
Without a word, Catherine rolled onto her back. Taking Vincent's hand, she placed it on her breast and pulled him toward her. "Concentrate on something else for awhile."
Vincent proceeded to explore Catherine's body as thoroughly as she had explored his. Familiar as this had become to him, he never tired of it. He marveled at the softness of her skin against his work-roughened hands, at the pleasure she felt at the touch of those hands. The feel of her perfumed skin against his sensitive mouth was no less a pleasure for him than for her. Lost in a maelstrom of sensation, he was almost startled when Catherine clutched at him suddenly.
He raised his head to look into her eyes, a strange smoky green now, filled with a need as great as his. Their eyes held; her hand guided him as he plunged slowly into her depths. He held still for a moment, the overwhelming sensation of being one with his beloved in both flesh and spirit almost too acute to bear. As Catherine clutched at him in urgency he began to move, and she met him in a rythmn that had become as familiar and necessary to them as breathing. As he thrust faster and deeper, he felt Catherine's legs wrap around him. Surrounded by the scent and sound and feel of Catherine, the unexpected touch of sensuous fabric against his back and thrusting hips sent him over the edge. It was the last distinct sensation he remembered, as consciousness almost dissolved in the flood of overwhelming pleasure.
The first thing he noticed as awareness returned was Catherine, watching him with her chin propped on her hand. The last time he had seen that look, it had been on Bulwer's furry face after he'd knocked over a cream pitcher and gorged himself on the spoils. "Well," she said, "I guess you liked my Valentine's Day present a lot. I was mentally reviewing what Mary taught me about CPR."
"It was certainly the most interesting holiday I've had since the Winterfest we became lovers." Vincent stroked Catherine's cheek with the back of his hand. "I'm not complaining, mind you, but I'm curious--what brought all this on?"
Catherine sighed happily. "I just wanted to make sure life didn't get too predictable now that we've settled down. I wanted to add a little excitement to our lives that didn't involve life-threatening situations. I don't want to go back to our early days--I love the happily-ever-after part--but I don't want things to get too routine."
Vincent lay back, amazed. "You work as a prosecutor, dealing with people from every stratum of society. You're married to me--hardly the typical spouse--and lead a double life that you have to hide from most of the people you know Topside. You have a lovely old brownstone that happens to sit on top of a whole world that lies beneath Manhattan, and that's your second home. And you're worried that life is becoming routine."
Catherine pouted. "I don't want you to get bored. I don't want to become boring, just because I'm not getting shot at regularly now."
Vincent pulled Catherine down to rest in the curve of his arm. "If I did nothing for the rest of my life but sit and watch you do nothing every day, I would not be bored. You aren't really concerned about that, are you?"
Catherine snuggled against him and smiled. "Well, not really. But I had great fun planning all this, and buying the outfit. And it was nice to find out I could still be seductive. I was afraid I'd forgotten how. Let's face it, with you my wiles are about as necessary as lighter fluid in Kilauea. All I usually have to do to get you in the mood is be awake."
"Good grief, Catherine, you make me sound sex-crazed. If you'd prefer that I restrain myself..."
Catherine thumped him on the chest. "I'd prefer that you not even suggest such a thing. You know perfectly well that you can tell through the bond when I'm not in the mood."
"Which is only under the influence of complete exhaustion," Vincent pointed out.
"Sometimes not even then," Catherine confessed, "but I don't want to give you a taste for necrophilia."
Vincent laughed. "You come out with the most astonishing remarks at times. I can't imagine ever finding you predictable."
Well, good," Catherine responded happily. "I guess this little plan was a success. I was afraid for a moment there I was letting you get so frustrated you'd hurt yourself. It's hard to remember you were once afraid you didn't have enough self-control to m make love to me."
"I certainly will never worry about that again after tonight. I admit things were a bit strained at times, but that much anticipation made the eventual release extremely...rewarding."
Catherine gave a ladylike snort. "All the same, I'd better not try this too often. If things get any more 'rewarding' for you I may need to lay in a supply of smelling salts."
Vincent merely smiled in somewhat dazed reminiscence, as Catherine settled against him contentedly. It had been spectacular. What more could a man ask? They lay quietly for some time, basking in a lengthy afterglow and renewing their energy. Vincent could still taste the chocolate. He hadn't had it often as a child--life in the Tunnels provided little in the way of indulgences. Catherine indulged him shamelessly, however, and he had developed quite a fondness for it. Actually, he had developed a taste for quite a few other things Catherine provided that he had been deprived of for too many years. And chocolate was not the most appetizing... As if reading his mind, Catherine began to stroke his chest and run a stocking-clad foot along his lower leg.
"Catherine, do you know what Theobroma is?"
"Actually, I do," Catherine replied smugly. "It's the Latin name for chocolate. It means 'food of the gods.' Not a bad description, I always thought."
"Perhaps," Vincent said huskily. "But it's not what I think of as food of the gods."
Catherine's hand began to travel lower as her breathing quickened. "Would you like to tell me what you do think of?"
"I'd rather show you."
"Well--you've had a long day. Are you sure you'll be able to concentrate on your task?"
Vincent nodded solemnly. "Quite sure. It won't be hard."
Catherine grinned as her hand found its goal. "Oh, yes it will. Just watch." As the ever-conscientious Catherine bent to her task, she congratulated herself on the success of her plan. This was shaping up to be a very happy Valentine's Day indeed. And the there was still chocolate to eat.
"My Furry Valentine" © 1996 by
Edith L. Crowe
Comments & questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in A Kingdom by the Sea conzine (July, 1996)
About the Author: Edith Crowe is an academic librarian who has been involved in various fandoms (starting with Star Trek) since 1972. Beauty and the Beast, however, is the one she's most emotional about and the first (and so far only) one to inspire her to write fiction. She had seven "continuing classic" stories published in the late 80s and early 90s, in zines now out of print. Newer stories have been published in several in issues of Sanctuary.