By Darlene Jones
“We have to do something,” Jamie said.
“I know, but what?” Rebecca twisted a handkerchief between her fingers.
“If we can come up with a plan,” Olivia said, “it can be our Winterfest present to them.”
“Am I interrupting?” The three women jumped at Mary’s knock.
“No, no, not at all. Come in.” Olivia gestured to an empty chair. “You can help.”
“It’s Vincent and Catherine,” Olivia said. “They’re hopeless.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “All the roses and poetry and sighs and loopy eyes are fine—for a while—but, really, they need more.”
Mary chuckled. “Couldn’t have said it better myself. But what can we do to get them between the sheets?” She looked at the others. Their mouths hanging open made her laugh. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t look so shocked. I didn’t always live down here you know. And,” she paused for emphasis, “I was young once.”
“Yes, but…but...” Rebecca sputtered to a stop. “Sorry,” she said. Mary smiled and patted her shoulder.
Olivia shook a finger at Jamie. “You’re smirking. What have you got up your sleeve?”
The young girl danced on the balls of her feet. “Mouse has an idea. A good one.”
“Yes! Mouse.” Jamie glared at the women. “He may not be much in the talking department, but he knows a thing or two, if you know what I mean.”
Rebecca laughed. “You’re red, girl, red, red, red.”
Jamie squirmed. “Do you want to hear his idea or not?”
The three women listened intently to a convoluted plan that involved training Arthur with towels, of all things.
“It’s so crazy, it just might work.” Olivia sounded doubtful.
“What do we do about Father?” Rebecca asked. “We can tell everyone else to stay away and they will, but he’s liable to barge into Vincent’s chamber like he always does at the exact wrong moment, if you know what I mean, and then what?”
“I’ll take care of Father.” Mary tapped her temple. “I’ve an idea that will work.”
“I’ll take an invitation to Catherine now,” Jamie said.
“Hello,” Catherine called cheerily as she entered Father’s chamber late Friday evening.
“Come in, my dear.” Mary beckoned to a chair as she poured a cup of tea and slid it towards Catherine. “Another, Father?”
“I shu…n’t… had three already.” Father held up his cup at an impossible angle. Mary winked at Catherine and patted Father’s shoulder as she poured.
Father’s speech was slurred, his nose glowed, and his cheeks had a ruddy hue. Surely he wasn’t drunk. And Mary? Caressing his shoulder that way?
Catherine sipped her tea and choked. She gasped as the fiery liquid slid down her throat. Peter’s best brandy? She took another cautious sip. A lot of Peter’s best brandy. She raised her eyebrows.
Mary grinned. “Tea as it should be. Just the thing we need on this cold wintery night, wouldn’t you say?”
Father straightened. “Indeed.” He slurped his tea. “Best you ever made, Mary.”
It was Catherine’s turn to grin. “Very good.” She took a couple more sips and felt the stresses of the week recede. “What’s new down here?”
“Shenanigans.” Father jammed his cane at the floor and shook his head and almost fell off his chair.
Mary steadied him with an arm around his shoulder. “Maybe we should get you to bed.”
“Shenanigans. Mouse and Arthur. Roaring around the tunnels. Got to put a stop to it.”
Catherine stifled a smile. Father was always grousing about Arthur. “What’s Mouse doing now?”
“Training, he calls it. Nonsense, I say.” Father’s head fell on the table, his snoring muffled by the scarf that had fallen over his face.
Mary giggled. “We can’t leave him here. Maybe the two of us—”
“Arthur!” Mouse called as the raccoon ran into Father’s chamber dragging a once white towel behind him. Mouse swept the animal into his arms, threw the towel over his shoulder. “Okay good, okay fine.” He bobbed his head at the women and left.
Catherine giggled. “What’s that all about?”
“Lord only knows.” Mary grunted as she and Catherine hefted Father to his feet and half carried, half dragged him to his bed. They settled him in. Mary yawned. “I think I’ll just lie down a second myself. I am a bit sleepy all of a sudden. Too much tea.” She climbed onto the bed and snuggled up to Father.
Before Catherine could ask where Vincent was, she heard Mouse calling from Father’s chamber. She hurried out to find him scrambling about.
“Arthur! Arthur! Where are you? Catherine, you go that way.” He pointed to the tunnel leading out from behind the bookshelves.” Okay good, okay fine. Find Arthur.” He left still calling for the raccoon.
Oh, hello Mouse.”
“You see Arthur?”
Mouse scooped up Vincent’s clothes. “Take to laundry for you, Vincent. Okay good, okay fine.”
“No-o-o,” Vincent called after the retreating Mouse. “Those are my clean pajamas, not my work clothes.” He could hear Mouse’s steps fading in the tunnel. “Mouse!”
Vincent sighed and settled back into the bath. “Ah, well, at least he left me a towel and my slippers.” He reached for the tea Mary had given him. A bigger mug than usual, but he wasn’t complaining. Tasted great and warmed him inside as the bath soothed and warmed his aching body. The tunnel repairs had been particularly onerous the last few days. Thankfully, they were done. For now.
Catherine soon realized that Vincent’s whereabouts would remain a mystery for a while longer. She could hear Mary’s gentle snores mingled with Father’s. She crept back into the bedroom and covered them both with Father’s quilt, then dutifully followed Mouse’s instructions and made her way down the poorly lit tunnel wondering where it led. She didn’t have to wonder for long. In moments she found herself in Father and Vincent’s bathing chamber. She also found Vincent.
He was submerged in the water, his back to her. He reached for a mug and took a swallow of the contents and replaced the mug on the edge of the bathing pool. Mary’s tea? She hoped so.
Catherine inhaled as she watched the play of muscles in his arms and shoulders, and admired the fall of his wet hair on his back. Her fingers twitched with the need to touch.
“Catherine?” Vincent breathed. He spun around to face her standing chest deep in the water. “Catherine!?”
“What?” she purred. Her hands, as if of their own volition, reached for the hem of her sweater and began to lift it.
“Catherine! No! Please!”
“Vincent, don’t tell me you’re not ready for me.”
He glanced down. “Damn!”
Catherine giggled. “The water is awfully clear, isn’t it?”
Vincent’s face reddened as he covered himself with his hands. “Please pass me my towel.”
Catherine took a step
toward the basket. A large white towel was draped over it. “She turned
back to look at Vincent. “And, if I don’t?”
“Catherine. Please. Have mercy.”
Catherine bit her lip. The heat of the air in the bathing chamber, the heat of Peter’s brandy, the heat of her desire… Could she do what Vincent asked? Did she want to?
Arthur solved the problem for her. He scurried into the chamber, grabbed the towel and fled dragging it behind him. Jamie’s invitation… The brandy… Mouse’s training… So they were all in on it. Okay then, so was she.
She turned back to face Vincent, sashayed over to the edge of the pool, pulled her sweater off and let it fall to the floor. Her bra next. She had the satisfaction of hearing Vincent’s indrawn breath and a muttered oath or two. She toed off her runners, bent to pull off her socks, and slowly, ever so slowly slid her jeans to her ankles. Then her panties. She stepped out of them. Another indrawn breath.
“I’m ready, Vincent. I have been for a long time. Are you?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. He reached for her. He held her by her waist. She slid her hands up his arms to his shoulders, reveling in the feel of his skin and the muscle beneath as he lifted her easily into the bath. They stood facing each other for a long moment and then he bent, his mouth drawn to hers, hers to his.
Hours later they sat side by side in his bed with a large tray on their knees. They’d raided the kitchen for snacks. Catherine had found the bottle of brandy, half empty, and laced a fresh pot of tea.
“Very good.” Vincent said with a knowing grin. “Every bit as good as Mary’s.”