ON A KNIFE’S EDGE

 by JoAnn Baca

(originally published in the 2015 con zine)

 

Catherine finally had the blood staunched and Vincent’s wound bound, and she could take a deep breath. She had ruthlessly banished her emotions before, when she knew she needed all her composure, but now her hands began to shake, and she trembled with the fear she could no longer suppress.

Taking several more deep, calming breaths, she closed her eyes and reminded herself that they were both alive…no matter what had almost happened. She clung to the word as a mantra: alive…alive.

Alive.  Its significance overshadowed what had gone before - the surprise, the confusion, the panic, the blood.

For a moment she couldn’t deflect the images which flooded through her once again. When her mind finally ceased skittering around the edges of hysteria and she could begin to assemble rational thoughts again, she opened her eyes and took in the aftermath.

 Here in the gloom of the deeper tunnels, long months past Winterfest, torches burned intermittently. They had been walking these passageways with a lantern, not able to depend on consistent illumination on their way. Even where occasional torches glowed, their flames flickered, wavering, tormented by updrafts here, so close to the stairs to the Great Hall and the wind which constantly scoured them.

The irregularly spaced torches cast weird, distorted shadows, and someone walking these paths alone would have had difficulty finding their way. Where she and Vincent were now, the faint glow of torchlight barely penetrated, only the glimmer of their lantern’s light pushing back the darkness.

Spying a cache of unlit torches in a side tunnel, Catherine rose from Vincent’s side and brought them back to where he lay. She fixed them nearby, safely situated between boulders, and lit them from their lantern. Now she could view his injuries more clearly. She itched to call for help, but she feared leaving him by himself while she sought out a pipe – so few lines reached this far down. Not knowing if their attacker had been alone or with others, Vincent was too vulnerable to leave while he was unconscious. She was taking a big enough risk of discovery just lighting the torches.

Coming back to the recumbent form of the man who had saved her life yet again, she pulled away the cloak she had used to cover him and checked the bandaging on his left arm. Her hands would not stop trembling, and her stomach roiled, knowing she knelt in dirt that was mixed with his blood. But she forced herself to concentrate, noting with relief that the bleeding hadn’t resumed while she had been lighting the torches.

Satisfied she had done her best with the limited supplies she had with her, she began to study his face. Deep furrows between his brows spoke of the tension within him, even in his unconscious state. Her heart constricted painfully at the sight.

His unconsciousness worried her gravely. She feared he had a concussion, and was anxious to check the dilation of his pupils. She was concerned too about his blood loss. It was imperative that he drink water soon, to help him stabilize. She shook the canteen they had brought with them to ensure there was more than enough for him to slake his thirst when he finally woke up.

 A heavy sigh gusted from her lips. All she could think of was how close she had come to losing him. Right before her eyes. In that moment, everything that had mattered in her life before had fallen away, leaving only him. He was her world. And her world had nearly been shattered, destroyed.

She drew in a shaky breath and bent to him, whispering into his ear that she loved him, that she was so grateful to him, that she needed him back with her, that she needed him…always.  Then she pressed a kiss upon his lightly bristled cheek.

In a small part of her mind, she was surprised to find that the short whiskers there were not rough and scratchy as she’d sometimes imagined, but soft, almost like velvet. That unexpected sensation intrigued her despite her worry for him, and timidly she nuzzled against his cheek, savoring the delicious texture.

This was not something he would ever allow her when conscious, though, and she couldn’t take advantage of this unique situation…much as she’d like to. So, albeit unwillingly, she pulled away. But she couldn’t help just…looking at him, gratefully watching his chest rise and fall, testimony to the life that still filled him. It so nearly had been otherwise.

 She’d had to rip his chambray shirt to pieces for bandaging  - her own pullover sweater not being appropriate for the task. Now his bare upper torso was no more than a foot from her curious eyes. Even wounded, dirty and bloodied, he was incredible to see. And a madman with a knife had almost taken all this beauty from the world…from her.

She observed him admiringly – the deeply chiseled musculature, the dusting of fur across his shoulders, upper arms and sides, the thicker covering of hair upon his forearms and chest and tracing downwards towards his navel. Even relaxed, his massive shoulders, rock-hard biceps, well-defined abdominals, and sculpted pectorals were a sight to behold. His torso, undressed, was - the words poured into her mind - imposing, splendid, majestic. She thought that few men could manage to look as good both in…and out…of their clothes.

 Then something caught her eye: a long, slender scar on his right shoulder where the fur was only lightly sprinkled. It marred the smooth perfection of that part of him, and the sight of it distressed her. If he had one….

As she inspected him more closely, gently stroking aside fur to do so, other scars revealed themselves on his arms and torso – some ragged, as if the flesh had been torn and healed untended, some obviously sutured closed. Today he had only added to the count. She realized with sudden insight that his life had not only been a lonely and arduous one, it had also contained great peril – and not all of it in defense of her.

A phrase from a movie bubbled up into her conscious mind: So much pain. Yes, he had endured much. His body was a testament to the battles he had fought, the physical suffering he had undergone. It was amazing that one body could absorb so much abuse, take all that pain, and yet still be as beautiful as his undeniably was.

Thinking of both the beauty and the pain, Catherine brushed her lips reverently against each patch of scar-knit skin. As she did, the tears which had welled in her eyes as she’d contemplated the evidence of the injuries he’d borne spilled over, baptizing his scarred flesh. Warm kisses splashed with hot tears were pressed time and again upon his chest, his ribs, his biceps – anywhere and everywhere she found that mute testimony to the frailty of skin and bone. She could never make up for all he had endured, but she made a silent promise to love away the memory of the pain and the anguish of the bloody encounters he’d suffered through, until his spirit was cleansed and free of the remembered torment. She couldn’t erase the scars on his body, but she hoped and prayed she would be able to do that for his mind.

A kind of tickling warmth broke through the haze of Vincent’s rising consciousness. Still lost in confusion, he felt gentle movement against his chest. One large hand reached up shakily, encountering a sweater-clad back. His eyes fluttered open once then closed again. Disoriented, he lay in a stupor, his hand lying heavily against the shoulder of…someone.

Someone? He tensed. Then the well-remembered scent of his beloved filled his nostrils and he relaxed as he found a name: Catherine.

The pain hit him a scant moment later, and he winced. He wanted to sink back into oblivion and leave the pain behind, but that would mean leaving the woman he loved behind, and he didn’t want to do that. He struggled with consciousness, wavering between wakefulness and the blessed relief of the black void from which he had just emerged.

“Vincent?”

The voice of the angel of his dreams melted against his heart. Did she know what the sound of his name on her lips did to him? Every time she uttered it, he wanted to die of happiness. She caressed it as it played across her lips. It made him imagine what those lips might do if he ever let them touch his own. So soft…so supple…so enticing….

“Vincent, if you can hear me, open your eyes?”

There was that voice, once more issuing its siren call. He wanted to respond, to kneel before it, to worship it. He wanted the benediction of that voice to fall upon him always. But even in the fog of disorientation and pain, he knew he had no right to ask anything of that voice. It did not belong to him…not in any way. No matter if it said it did, he could not allow it. Would not allow it. But he would obey it, through anything, everything…he would always obey its summons, even when spoken only from the heart.

His right hand closed upon her shoulder, lightly squeezing it.

Catherine leaned in to whisper in his ear once more. “Come back to me! Please, Vincent. Come all the way back.”

Suddenly his eyelids snapped open and alertness returned in a rush. Vincent took in his surroundings, noting he was lying uncomfortably on a relatively flat stone surface, a rough cavern wall directly beside him. Catherine’s face was hovering close.

The ambient air raised goose flesh on his arms, making him aware that he wasn’t wearing a shirt….if the fact that he could feel her small hands pressed warmly upon the bare skin of his sides hadn’t already informed him. The cool air made him shiver…or was it Catherine’s touch which caused the trembling?

Catherine saw the look of confusion, mixed with panic, as it filled Vincent’s eyes.

His eyes. Even in the distorted light of the tunnel, she almost felt the blueness of them. He had such compelling eyes. She always found it so easy to become lost in them. Sometimes it was a struggle to listen to him speak and then formulate a response when all she really wanted was to concentrate on what those eyes were telling her, to fall into their sapphire depths. For rarely did his speech and his eyes agree. Usually, his conversation treaded on “safe” topics – Tunnel news, innocuous matters - while those eyes spoke a language of their own, one of devotion, of desire, of delight in her presence. She longed to hear the voice of his eyes. She yearned to answer what that voice mutely asked.

With difficulty, Catherine tore herself from her rapt contemplation and re-focused on the situation they were in. Relief blossomed in her heart even as she forced discipline to the forefront of her mind. She had information he needed to hear right now.

“We seem safe for now. There may only have been one intruder. Whoever attacked us is…gone.”

Vincent struggled to rise to a sitting position. Catherine leaned back on her heels to allow him to move freely.

His back still rested against hard stone, but at least he was no longer lying on it. He shook his head once, sharply, trying to clear the last of the cobwebs away, to allow the memories to come flooding back. The movement made him grimace. He tried to speak but his mouth was too dry, and he accepted the canteen from Catherine, grateful for the cool water.

Vague recollections coalesced around one image. In a pain-roughened voice, he responded, fighting for words as well as memories, “His knife?”

Catherine stood and surveyed the area, finally bending over to retrieve a razor-sharp stiletto-like weapon which was protruding from a crack in a nearby boulder. Blood marred its tip.

“Here it is,” she remarked, gingerly handing the knife to Vincent.

He regarded it solemnly then nodded. After folding it and laying it on the ground, he placed one hand against the rock wall and the other on the ground, attempting to stand. His legs felt rubbery, his characteristic grace absent as he staggered upright.

Catherine rose and rushed forward to catch him before he fell. He landed heavily against the wall, but she kept him from tumbling to the ground. Together they controlled his descent until he was back sitting on the flat rock.

“Maybe it’s best if you stay seated. You’ve lost a lot of blood, and your head struck a rock during your fight. You went down hard and have been unconscious for a while.”

Vincent fought the wave of nausea that threatened him. His head was spinning from the effort of attempting to rise. Perhaps Catherine was right and he should sit quietly for a moment.

“I didn’t want to call attention to our location if other intruders were in the Tunnels. But now that you’re awake, I need to get help to move you,” she told him, the delay in calling for assistance making her feel guilty even as she realized she had done her best in an unknown situation.

Vincent put out his hand to stay her before she turned away. “Don’t leave me. Not yet. I know I need help but…I just need you right now. Just you.”

It seemed an effort for him to form the words. Seeing him wince after speaking, Catherine fell silent, kneeling beside him once more. If he needed some time to recover his equilibrium before she summoned help, she would do her best to be patient.

Vincent closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the unforgiving stone. Catherine retrieved the cloak and tucked it around him. A moment later, he felt her hand on his cheek, brushing at the tangled mass of hair which partially obscured his face. But even after she had smoothed it back, she continued to stroke it, quietly communing with him, touching him as much to reassure herself as him.

Long minutes passed in silence. But Catherine’s self-control was tottering; she could smell the blood – his blood – through his bandages, and it worried her more and more, until finally she tugged the cloak down so she could check his bandages again and satisfy herself that he was in no further danger after his abortive attempt to rise. But once more seeing the effects of the damage done to him, she could no longer keep her emotions in check.  

Catherine wrapped her arms around Vincent, a sob filling her throat. She choked out the words. “You…could have been killed.”

A hand reached up to capture one of hers and hold it to his heart. She could feel the strong beat there as he replied, “But I wasn’t.”

“No thanks to me,” she replied grimly.

Vincent frowned. He wasn’t entirely certain of the sequence of events. He recalled only the man, the knife, the struggle...and little enough of that. As for what Catherine was implying….

Belatedly, he realized that the cloak was no longer covering him. But he was warm enough with Catherine’s arms wrapped around him. He knew he should push her away and cover himself with his cloak again, but it felt so good to have her this close for a little while. He realized his mind was wandering though, and he tried to focus. What had occurred exactly? He could not pull details from his scrambled brain. He had to ask, “What happened? I only remember the knife.”

Catherine took a deep, shuddering breath. “You were taking me to the Great Hall to look at the tapestries. A man came down the passageway, running at us with a knife, screaming, incoherent. You pushed me behind you and grappled with him. He stabbed at your arm then sliced right through your vest. You shoved him backwards, and he stumbled. Then he…he turned and fell into the Abyss. I heard a sharp yelp, then…nothing. When I looked, he was just…gone.”

Vincent sat quietly, matching the snippets of his dazed memory with the version Catherine had related. He was trying to figure out how he was knocked unconscious.

But Catherine wasn’t finished. Reluctantly, she took her arms from around him so she could look him in the eyes. Embarrassed, she added, “As you stepped back, you…tripped over me.”

His eyes widened and she felt a hot blush steal over her face. “I was trying to stay out of your way, but the footing here is uneven, and the Abyss so close…. You fell backwards and hit your head hard on that outcropping.” She pointed behind him with her chin, and Vincent turned his head to see the jutting edge of rockface which matched the sizeable lump he could feel on the back of his head.

Her lower lip began to tremble and she bit it savagely to stop herself from betraying how shaky the whole experience had left her. It didn’t matter though; Vincent felt the surge of panic-laden anxiety pour through their Bond as she spoke and knew how deeply affected she was.

Gamely, she went on. “I couldn’t revive you. There was blood…everywhere. I tore off your vest, which was hanging off you already, but I think its thickness saved you; the knife didn’t even graze your chest. Your arm wasn’t so lucky though, with only your shirt protecting it. The laceration was bleeding heavily; your shirt sleeve was soaked through. I tore off your shirt to make strips to bind your arm, then used your undershirt and the vest to wipe up the blood and clean your wound as best I could. They’re a soggy mess…” Her voice finally lost its power, and she was no longer able to disguise the distress she’d felt in the aftermath of the attack.

“Thank you, Catherine,” he said, sighing, immensely grateful for the cool head she exhibited in the situation, which had likely saved him from going into shock as the result of blood loss. Any embarrassment he felt over his torso being bare was minimized by the knowledge that she had stripped him trying to save his life.

Vincent opened his good arm wide to her, and Catherine fell into his embrace. As she sank against him, he marveled at how warm she was, and how yielding her body where it pressed close to him. All he wanted now was to let her comfort him and to comfort her in turn.

When she was with him in the Home Tunnels, he always wished it could be just the two of them. Yet rarely could they ever escape the loving presence of his family for long. Tonight they had planned a rare evening alone to take a leisurely look at the wall hangings in the gallery of the Great Hall…free from prying eyes, from well-meaning interruptions, from danger…yet danger had found them, even here.

He bent to rest his cheek against the crown of her head, trying to shut the pain out. The answering pressure of her arms let him know she welcomed the embrace, was content to be held close. But although he could, for the moment, ignore the discomfort of his aching head and slashed arm, he couldn’t disregard the apprehension he felt in Catherine for his well-being. With a sigh, he relinquished his hold on her.

“I’ll send a message for assistance now?” she asked.

“Yes.” He attempted a reassuring smile, which he feared looked more like a grimace as another wave of nausea hit him.

Seeing his face, Catherine rose swiftly. She lifted the cloak around him again then, grabbing a heavy rock from the ground, she headed up the passageway in the direction of the nearest convergence of pipes. There she began tapping out her message, switching pipes to ensure someone would hear and respond.

When she was satisfied that she had relayed their location sufficiently for help to find them, she returned to Vincent. He was half-sitting, half-lying just as she’d left him, the cloak once again pooled in his lap.

“They’re coming.” She sat cross-legged on the ground beside him, reaching for his good hand and weaving her fingers through his. “How is your head?”

“I’ve felt better,” he admitted drily. He grimaced as he moved his injured arm, testing it. “This hurts worse.”

“It will need a lot of stitches,” Catherine replied, grim-faced. She lifted the cloak, which didn’t seem to want to stay tucked around him, and once more attempted to slide it up and over his bare torso. To ensure it stayed put, she knelt and shifted herself until she draped one arm around his shoulders, lightly holding the wool and suede cloak in place.

Catherine’s relief that Vincent was awake and cogent took expression in a moment of puckish humor. “This isn’t going to get you out of taking me to see the tapestries one day soon,” she warned him, a stern expression on her face belied by the humor in her eyes.

“They mean that much to you?” He echoed her mock-serious tone, trying his best to ignore the throbbing pain in his arm.

“Well…” She sighed, abandoning the banter. “Actually, I was looking forward to some time alone with you. Not that I don’t love visiting with your family. I do enjoy their company. But sometimes….” She rested her head against his uninjured shoulder. “Sometimes I want…I need to be with you…just you.”

Vincent considered her words, which reflected his own thoughts precisely. He tilted his head and lowered his gaze before admitting, “I feel the same way.”

Catherine hid her surprise at his frank admission, so uncharacteristic of him. She would have said more, but at that moment her eyes strayed to the knife, folded now and no danger to them. A flashback took her breath like a punch in the stomach.

“How do you deal with it?” she asked, meaning not just this incident, but all the violence he had encountered in defense of her and his family Below. “How do you reconcile what you need to do and the…the aftermath.”

Today, she knew, they had been spared some of that “aftermath” – the crazed intruder had dispatched himself into the Abyss. No one could have found his body, even had they wanted to perform a burial ritual for him.

Vincent gazed off into a distance which was not part of the passageway he was looking down. For a moment he did not speak. Finally, he said, “What must be done is done. I know intellectually I have no choice. Emotionally…I struggle, often, with my actions. Defensive or not, the violence, the darkness I go into to fuel my actions…these things mark my soul in ways I cannot describe.”

Catherine shuddered, but refused to shy away from the hard questions. “Does it get in the way? I mean, of how you allow yourself to feel about others? About…me? Does what you have done…like this…for me…make you love me less?”

His reaction was immediate. “No. You are precious to me. As my family is, as my world is. Love fuels me. Love makes those actions worth the sacrifice. There is a cost, but I gladly pay it to keep you all safe.”

“You love us all that much,” she murmured, awed.

“I…I love you that much and more, Catherine,” he admitted. “Without you…there is nothing. So how could I do less than fight with everything I am to keep you safe?” He picked up the folded knife and hefted it. “This is just one of many weapons that have been raised against me. If it’s not the last….” He shrugged one shoulder and threw the knife with unerring accuracy and amazing strength far into the darkness of the Abyss.

“You get very little back for all you sacrifice.” The observation came out of her mouth before she fully realized she was saying it aloud.

Vincent turned to her. “You have opened the world to me. You must believe that.”

She snorted. “No, not really. Things between us….” She struggled to find the words, and when she did, they were bitter. “You’re like a child with your nose pressed to a store window, looking inside at all the toys. You can see them but you can’t touch them, can’t play with them. They…they are a tease. That’s the world I’ve opened for you.”

Vincent contemplated her meaning. “That is my choice. You have left the door open. It is I who have not chosen to walk through it.”

Smiling, she replied, “That’s true. You can have all the toys you want, anytime, Vincent.”

He laughed, and so did she. He fell quiet and for a time they didn’t speak. Then he leaned his shoulder against hers in a gentle nudge, and she lifted her head to look at him again.

The gaze which greeted her when she did so was one of such profound adoration that she blushed from it. 

At that moment, Catherine felt as if, finally, he might make a move toward love. His eyes betrayed his intense passion for her, and for once, he didn’t try to hide it.

He leaned closer, until she could feel his hot breath upon her lips, and she felt his good arm reach around to press her close. She didn’t move, didn’t breathe even, afraid any movement of hers might break the spell and cause him to reconsider what it seemed obvious he was about to do.

Slowly his mouth descended toward hers. She could feel the blood rushing to her ears, sense her heart fluttering madly in her breast. She closed her eyes, awaiting the imminent pressure of those intriguing lips on hers. The Bond quivered and vibrated between them, twin desires reaching for fulfillment….

A shout from the passageway shocked them into stillness. Catherine’s eyelids flew open, and her startled green eyes found their reflection in profoundly blue ones. Almost guiltily, Vincent dropped his arm from around her, and Catherine sat back on her heels, so that when the voice’s owner shuffled into view mere seconds later, more than a foot separated the erstwhile lovers.

“Was close…heard the message.” Mouse panted as he shambled to a stop before them. Concern screwed his face into a mask of confusion as he took in the scene: Vincent, half-dressed, bloodied, bandaged…and Catherine, blood-spattered herself. “What…?”

Catherine rose and grabbed the young man’s arm. “Someone attacked us. Vincent’s hurt. Can you help me get him to his feet?”

Mouse nodded. He crouched and got his shoulder under Vincent’s good one, then slowly lifted. With Catherine helping and Vincent leaning against the tunnel wall, they got him unsteadily to his feet.

Catherine snaked an arm around Vincent’s waist, and together she and Mouse got about twenty yards down the tunnel with Vincent before pounding feet heralded the arrival of more assistance. Catherine and Mouse relinquished their spots by his side as stronger shoulders made light of their burden, and Vincent was rapidly carried upright to the Hub. Catherine ran back to retrieve Vincent’s cloak before following the others then carried it wrapped in her arms, hugging it tightly as she walked.

In less time than she would have thought possible, they arrived at the hospital chamber. Vincent protested, not wanting to be cared for in its relatively sterile atmosphere, insisting on being taken to his own chamber instead. Father, who had been waiting with instruments at the ready, shot Vincent a baleful look before packing up his black bag and following the small procession through the tunnels to their new destination.

Catherine heated water and found clean cloths at Father’s direction, then related the incident as Father inspected Vincent’s wounds. He had tried to ask her to wait outside, but that hadn’t met with any more luck than trying to convince Vincent to stay in the infirmary, especially with his son insisting that Catherine remain beside him. Pursing his lips in disapproval, he had gone about his doctoring, listening with growing horror as Catherine described what had happened.

“How is it possible that an intruder made it that far into the tunnels with no one the wiser?” He was aghast at the apparent breakdown in their sentry grid. Something would have to be done, shifts rearranged, sentries re-trained. Obviously, they had grown too lax.

No one added more to the conversation. Father finished attending to Vincent in silence. Finally he rinsed his hands and dried them off. “I suggest you rest now, Vincent.” He looked pointedly at Catherine. “And you, my dear, should return Above.” He turned back to Vincent. “I intend to call an emergency Council meeting immediately to discuss this horrendous situation.” Without waiting to see if either of them would obey his edicts, he exited the chamber, outrage in every line of his body.

Catherine expelled a long breath after he left. “He can be a whirlwind when he sets his mind to it!” She smiled broadly at Vincent, immeasurably relieved that Father had determined that the ragged gash on Vincent’s arm would heal nicely despite thirty stitches, that he didn’t seem to have a concussion, and that the bump on his head would only be an inconvenience, not a problem.

After rinsing the last of the cloths, she picked up the basin of blood-tinged water. Vincent made to rise from the bed, obviously intending to assist her, but she fixed him with a look that stopped him cold. “Don’t…you…dare! Do you want Father to come in here after me? Stay in bed. I’m perfectly capable of carrying this bowl of water myself.”

She made quick work of it, then retrieved the robe made from worn Indian blankets from Vincent’s wardrobe.

“Do you think it would help if you draped this over your shoulders? Hopefully it will stay put better than your cloak did. I suspect sliding a shirt on would be too painful right now.”

He nodded, grateful, and rose. She held the robe out and he bent down, allowing her to rest it upon his shoulders. After slipping his right arm through an armhole, he turned and she pulled the robe closed, cocooning his bandaged left arm inside. Then she gathered the belt and tied it tightly.

Catherine expected that Vincent would return to his bed, but he remained standing, staring at her intently. His gaze was disconcerting, and Catherine gave him a quizzical look in return. “Would you like me to leave?” she offered, unsure what he wanted. Father had expected her to go back Above, and after all that had happened, that probably was best. She didn’t want to leave him, though. She didn’t want to leave him ever again.

Vincent shook his head  then reached out with one arm to offer her a hug. She didn’t need to be invited twice; she closed the short gap between them and went into his embrace, nuzzling against his chest as she wrapped her arms around his neck. Pressing as close as she dared without hurting him, she allowed the tension to drain from her body. But as she thought back over the events of the day, the terror of it again washed over her, through her. They could have died. Worse, she could have lost Vincent and spent the rest of her life mourning all that could have been, if only they had had more time. She began to cry softly, then to weep hard, then to sob nearly hysterically. Vincent held her close, silently, letting her release the emotions she had been suppressing.

Long minutes passed, but finally her sobs subsided until only the occasional tear slipped from her tightly closed eyelids. She brushed at her cheeks with her fingers, wiping the remaining tears away. Then she reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a crumpled tissue, using it to blow her nose. When she felt she could speak, she lifted her head and said simply, “Thank you.”

A small smile quirked the corners of Vincent’s unique mouth. “It was the least I could do, after all you’ve done for me today.”

She looked thoughtful, then an odd light entered her eyes. Emboldened, she remarked, “Well, if you really want to repay me, there is some…unfinished business from earlier….”

His brow creased as he tried to recall what the “unfinished business” could be. “The visit to the tapestries? I promise, we’ll go soon.”

She shook her head. “Not that.” Her eyes glittered, hope filling them.

He stared at her, perplexed. Perhaps the bump on his head had caused more memory disruption than he first thought. Then, with sudden insight, he realized what she was asking. That thought caused him to color a deep red, a blush so intense, it was visible to Catherine even against the warm golden tones of his face. “Oh….”

Immediately regretting the impulse that had put him in an obviously uncomfortable position, she lowered her head and mumbled, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have….” She didn’t know how she’d been so bold, so reckless. Asking something like that of him, when they had never before…. She blushed herself, at her audacity.

His index finger touched her chin, gently urging her to face him, and she lifted her head reluctantly. When she had the courage to look directly into his eyes, though, she saw with amazement that they were calm, no trace of embarrassment lingering.

He tilted his head slightly, as if inspecting her cheek. His finger left her chin and traced its way to the scar near her ear. He stroked it gently, reverently. “You have scars, too, Catherine.”

She remembered the interval in the tunnel when she had honored his scars with kisses and tears. She had thought him unconscious, but apparently he recalled what she had done, the liberties she had taken – touching him so intimately, offering him the tenderness he had never allowed her to express to him in a conscious state.

She was startled out of her reverie by the feel of his softly stubbled cheek rubbing against hers, of his lips searching for, then finding, her scar…of the achingly tender nuzzling that followed.

Suddenly, Catherine forgot how to breathe.

The languid movement of his unique lips caressing her scar, the warm breath exhaled against her ear, the mere thought of Vincent loving her in this way, all combined to set her heartbeat madly stuttering. She stood with eyes closed, savoring the experience, treasuring it.

All too soon, she felt the cool tunnel air against her cheek as Vincent pulled away. A sharp stab of disappointment pierced her at the realization that this incredible intimacy was over. But now she had the memory of it to hold close, and that was so much more than she’d had when she woke up this morning. Thinking of that, she stood completely still, absorbing deep into her consciousness the so-recent sensation of his beloved lips against her skin.

Vincent, overwhelmed by what he had done, felt her disappointment clearly through their Bond and, stunned, he realized the cause of her dismay was that he had stopped kissing her.

Gazing at her upturned face – full lips trembling, lush eyelashes resting lightly upon her smooth, pink-tinged cheeks – he was struck anew by the delicate beauty of the woman he loved. Her posture…head flung back, neck arched…left her so exposed and vulnerable, yet she felt no trepidation. She offered all of herself to him so easily, as if he had the right to claim her, to love her as she deserved to be loved. His breath caught in his throat as he beheld her.

Slowly, as if mesmerized, he bent over her, one arm slipping across her back to hold her close. Strands of his long, shaggy mane brushed against her skin. Before he was half aware of what he was doing, he felt his mouth pressed fervently to her throat, tasting her flesh where the pulse point throbbed, sensing her hot blood coursing beneath the skin.

She made a small noise as his lips again touched her flesh - a soft sigh of relief, so slight it was almost imperceptible. Goosebumps rose all over her. His mouth was hot, searching; it grazed her skin as it traced down her throat to come to rest against the juncture of neck and shoulder. There he stayed, nuzzling, gently nipping her tender flesh, his hot breath tickling her skin. She wondered fleetingly if he could have known how sensitive she was in this particular spot; it was an erogenous zone which, when touched, made her squirm in delight. But he was doing so much more than merely touching right now. And what she felt in response was a melting, a clutching deep in her core, which caused her knees to weaken dangerously.

Her exhilaration was contagious. Vincent felt it swirling through the Bond they shared, and his own mounting excitement suddenly soared, spiking into peaks of elation more profound than any he had known. The undoubted knowledge that he was giving her pleasure – no matter that his unusual lips were so different from other men’s – bolstered his confidence at the exact moment he needed confirmation beyond what his eyes told him. Their Bond reflected Catherine’s feelings in ways he could not define, but neither could he refuse to acknowledge.

Death had been so close today – a knife’s edge away. If he had died without this between them, how poor a life he would have lived. And how much more there could be. It took his breath away to discover he no longer cared about holding back, about giving Catherine the time and freedom to make a choice. The knife’s edge had sliced right through that argument. There had been other times when life’s blood had drained away – hers, his – or danger threatened them mortally. Why had it taken him so long to see that Fate might enter before he let himself make a move toward love? No longer.

Fighting to keep from collapsing against him, knowing she might hurt his injured arm if she did, Catherine threw her arms about Vincent’s neck, pulling him down closer to her. She whimpered her pleasure then burrowed with nose and lips into the golden glory of his unruly mane until she found the hidden ear she had been seeking. Eagerly, she nuzzled him, finding his earlobe and taking it tenderly between her teeth, nibbling on it as Vincent groaned deep in his throat. He shuddered and she smiled, thrilled she could give him a taste of what was waiting for him on the other side of any resistance he had left.

Her hands drifted from his neck to capture his face between her warm, soft hands. She trailed her lips from his ear to his mouth, pressing worshipful kisses against the lips that had so recently brought her such bliss. His extraordinary upper lip – which she’d thought might be inflexible – was actually a pliant pad of flesh, incredibly soft to kiss. The delicate cleft in the center separated slightly with the pressure of her mouth, and when she flicked her tongue against it, tickling it lightly, Vincent’s sharp inhalation of breath told her she had found a sensitive spot, one she should treat very gently. She nuzzled a moment longer there, stroking that slick pink sliver of flesh until she felt him shiver with a rapture he couldn’t contain.

She then centered her attentions on his full lower lip, the one that seemed to express his deepest emotions when they spoke – it quivered sometimes with the force of his desire or his compassion or his anguish. He never could hide his most intense feelings from her – Bond aside, all she had to do was watch that lower lip, and she would know. Now she sought to know it in another way. To imprint it on her mind, her heart, by loving it, by cherishing it without words. Taking it between her own lips, she ran her tongue across its length, glorying in its ripe lushness. When she pulled it lightly into her mouth, sucking it gently, the eroticism of the action drew another shudder from him. It pleased her to know she could affect him so deeply – he wasn’t the only one who could cause trembling ripples of desire to cascade though their Bond!

Vincent fought to keep from floating up through solid rock and into the stratosphere. Every touch, every kiss, was a discovery of such intensity, it threatened to undo him. These sensations were so exquisite, so astonishing. He reveled in the riot of emotion engulfing him, in the exotic surges of desire so foreign to him despite all the dreaming he had done, so compelling. He delighted in the sweet hot power of possibility which blossomed naked and glorious within his heart, and in the amazing awakening of a kind of fierce possessiveness which stunned him.

But most amazing of all, the most unexpected part of this heavenly equation, was that Catherine was sharing herself with him as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He wanted to fall to his knees and thank her for the simple act of treating him as just a man – something he had never been sure he truly was until now, with her. And it was equal parts relief and exultation.

It took a moment for Vincent to realize that the dizziness he was feeling was not the result of the breathless kisses they were exchanging, but a delayed reaction to the injuries he had suffered earlier. Reluctantly, he pulled away, resting his forehead against Catherine’s. “I don’t want to…but I need to….”

He didn’t have to finish his sentence. Catherine understood and, instantly concerned, helped him into his bed.

“Father was right, you need your rest,” she murmured, stricken that she had forgotten this in the dazzling moments of intimacy they had shared.

Vincent clutched her hand. “Your medicine is powerful, Catherine.” He gave her a small smile even as his eyelids began to flutter closed.

As the brazier crackled and the sound of a subway train echoed softly overhead, Catherine sat beside Vincent, holding the hand that had not let her go, even in slumber. Watching him sleep, her heart filled to overflowing with possibilities and promise.

There might never be a day as eventful as this one in their lives again, but that was all right. Facing down death needn’t happen again, they had experienced that too often already. And if the only scars either of them gained in the years ahead were from paper cuts, that would be all right too. As for what had happened here just now…that, Catherine felt sure, would be repeated…and expanded upon…in a variety of ways over the many days they would have together going forward.

Something had given way today, something in Vincent. Resistance, argument, denial – all of them were gone now; they had expired at the point of a knife.

There would be time ahead to discuss it, all of it. Time to discover what the life they were meant to have would encompass. Changes had occurred; more would be made. In the time to come, she was certain they would look back on this day as the turning point. If it seemed strange that she might one day be grateful for that knife-wielding madman, she would not worry too much about the dichotomy. Almost dying…this time…had given them both a new chance at life.