It had been an exhausting, frustrating week, and it was culminated by the decision to drop charges on a case that was supposed to go to trial in just two weeks.
"Have to," Joe Maxwell had said only this afternoon. "We know he's guilty, but there's no way we're going to sell this one to a jury."
"If we drop the charges, we'll have to release him," Catherine had argued feebly. "And we've worked so hard."
"If he's acquitted, we can't ever try him for this crime again," Joe argued back. "Let's wait until we have the evidence to get a conviction and go after him then."
Knowing Joe was right didn't make accepting his decision any easier and Catherine permitted herself to brood about it until her cab turned onto her street. Deliberately banishing all thoughts of work, she smiled, thinking how pleasant it was to know someone was waiting for her at home. Still, she couldn't help the weary droop of her shoulders as she mounted the wide steps leading to the front door.
Inside, fatigue made her clumsy and her fingers fumbled with the locks before she finally managed to turn them. When she turned from the door, she wasn't surprised to find Vincent there, waiting with open arms. She went into them gratefully, heartened by the strength and love he offered.
"Come," he murmured after a moment, and led her down the wide hall to the dining room. There, an elegant, candlelight dinner for two awaited. A scarlet rose lay across her plate and she lifted it, smiling faintly.
"Vincent, this is so thoughtful."
He returned her look with a loving one of his own and poured wine for them both. "I asked William if he could create something special for us," he said, "and Mary offered to keep the children so we could be alone."
Catherine managed a tired smile. "That's good of them," she said.
"You know how William loves to come up here to cook one of his specialties," Vincent said as he began serving the meal. "And Mary is happiest when she has little ones to care for."
"I know." Coming home, Catherine had thought she was too tired to eat, but the aroma wafting up from her plate was irresistible. Following Vincent's lead, she picked up her fork. Wrapped in a fuzzy cocoon of exhaustion, she was surprised, a few minutes later, to realize she had eaten everything on her plate, and that Vincent was refilling her wine glass.
"Come," he said, reaching for her hand.
"The dishes," she protested vaguely.
"Don't worry," he answered, drawing her to her feet. His arm went around her shoulders as he ushered her up the stairs. He left her standing in their bedroom while he went into the bathroom, where she could hear the rush of water running into the tub. A moment later he was back, guiding her to the little chair in front of her dressing table. She closed her eyes as he picked up her hairbrush and began to brush her hair.
His touch was light and careful, the gentle strokes of the brush soothing and hypnotic, and she couldn't help a small sigh of disappointment when he finally laid the brush aside. His fingers were still in her hair and when she opened her eyes, she could see, in the mirror, that he was fastening the length of it into a clumsy mass at the back of her neck.
When he finished, he took her hand and she followed him into the bathroom. There, he turned off the water still flowing into the steaming tub. She watched with a sort of weary detachment as he came back and began to undress her with loving hands. Guiltily, she wondered if she should stop him and get herself ready for bed, but there was something about being cared for in this way, as if she were a helpless infant, that was irresistible.
Her jacket was gone, and his lips caressed her temple as he began unfastening the buttons of her blouse. In moments he had undressed her completely. He turned away and she stepped into the large, old-fashioned bathtub, sinking into the fragrant, steaming water. She hadn't seen him bring her wine from downstairs, but suddenly he was pressing it into her hand and she giggled at the decadent image that floated into her mind - of herself soaking in a bubble bath, wineglass in hand, all under the cherishing eye of her husband and lover.
Casting her a look of amused adoration, he went out and she sipped at the wine, unwilling to do anything but luxuriate in the warmth of the water. Her eyes closed.
It seemed only seconds before someone was removing the glass from her hand and she opened her eyes to the realization that she had dozed off in the bath. Vincent helped her to her feet, enveloping her in an enormous, fluffy bath sheet that covered her from neck to calves. She was content to stand, swaying drowsily, as he dried her; then he swept her into his arms.
She felt like a child as he carried her into the bedroom and placed her carefully on the bed. Relaxed and pliant, she lay tranquilly while he arranged the folds of the bath sheet. When he began to massage her neck, she sighed.
His hands, strong and sure, travelled slowly down her back, rubbing and kneading away all the tension. Her eyes drifted closed.
When she opened them again, it was with the sleepy realization that Vincent was no longer massaging her. Lifting her head, she discovered him beside her on the bed, dressed for sleep and propped up by pillows, reading by candlelight. At her movement, he lowered his book to smile at her.
Uncomprehending, she stared at him. The damp bath sheet was still beneath her, but she was covered warmly by a soft old quilt. Turning her head and rising on her elbows, she looked for her alarm clock. The position of its hands made her sink back onto her pillow with a moan. "Oh, no. I fell asleep."
"Yes," Vincent agreed, reaching out to touch her hair. "You must have been very tired."
"I was. I'm so sorry."
He slid down to lie beside her. "Sorry? Why?"
"Because you spent so much time and effort planning our evening... the dinner, the wine, the bath... and I fell asleep."
He chuckled, a quiet sound of amusement that came from deep in his chest. "Catherine, don't." He gathered her, quilt and all, to lie against him.
"But, Vincent," she objected, her voice muffled in his embrace. "Our wonderful, romantic evening... I slept it all away... and the children..."
"They're here," he interrupted.
"While you slept, I went for them. They're in bed, sleeping." He smiled tenderly.
"But, Vincent, the candles at dinner, and the rose on my plate..."
"Were only because I love you," he answered softly. "No more."
"And the bath, and the massage?"
"Because I knew how tired you were," he explained, touching her cheek. "Because I thought you needed to be cared for."
Sighing, she pressed herself against his chest. "Oh, Vincent. You keep reminding me of all the reasons I love you." Smiling, she whispered, "So you weren't planning to seduce me, after all?"
Beneath her cheek, she felt the soft rumble of his laughter. "Perhaps I hoped for that," he said, "but my only wish was to soothe you."
"You did," she said, and eased herself back from him, suddenly conscious that under the quilt, she was naked. "Vincent?"
"Yes?" He was serene, tranquil.
"I'm feeling much more rested now." She saw the sudden passion her words kindled in his eyes.
"Are you?" he asked, his voice deceptively soft as he slid one hand beneath the quilt. His face was very close to hers.
"Yes," she whispered. "Very, very rested."