Love Has Come of Age
by Lynette Combs

Catherine Chandler stood waiting for the elevator that would carry her up seventeen storeys to her apartment. It seemed to take a long time and yet she felt none of her customary impatience, only gratitude that at this hour there were no other passengers. Her mind was elsewhere; there was a curious feeling of weightlessness to her limbs. Absentmindedly she reached up and removed the heavy, antique pearl drops from her ears, slipping them into her coat-pocket. Knowing, and not caring, that by tomorrow morning she would probably forget where she'd put them.

He had kissed her tonight.

Alone together finally in the shadows of the Great Hall, the last of the Winterfest celebrants, they had waltzed to a music none but they could hear. And been caught up in the magic of the moment, in the rare delight of that embrace. Catherine, smiling up into the crystal-blue of his eyes, felt his hand open and warm at the small of her back, pressing her close as he whirled her gently through the familiar steps.

Slowly at first, with all the decorum implicit in the dance itself... and then more swiftly, his arms holding her captive, his face shadowed and unreadable. Swept away, relying on him for balance, Catherine felt his body lean and powerful against hers, their thighs meshing. She gasped for breath as the room itself seemed to spin, and his arms tightened; her feet actually left the ground and he danced on, his "mane" a riot of gold flying out over his great shoulders --

-- until, spinning suddenly to a stop, he'd bent his head and with astonishing gentleness, taken her mouth by surprise.

Catherine, now stepping into the lift, could feel it still. There was nothing strange to her, any more, in the cleft cat-like upper lip; his mouth had been hot and sweet. Against her skin, the golden bristles of his cheek were soft... always softer than she expected.

The impulse seemed to have taken him, too, by surprise. There was innocence in his kiss, and uncertainty -- and a question. In another moment, she knew, he might collect himself enough to step away...

She opened her lips to his and sensed, in his sudden still-ness, a new startlement. Slipping her arms around his neck, beneath his hair, she was exquisitely conscious of his great hard body warming the length of her own. Could he be less aware of her?

His mouth opened a little (shyly, she thought, somewhere in the back of her mind) and she tasted joy as his tongue sought hers for the first time.

Desire long denied weakened her knees. He seemed not to notice, still holding her so that her feet barely touched the ground. One hand rose to the nape of her neck, his fingers moving up into the silken mass of her hair. The sensation made her whimper into his mouth.

Held thus, entirely captive, Catherine took her own revenge. Her tongue twined with his; would neither be abandoned nor denied. She kissed him more deeply, fearlessly exploring the sharp canine teeth, wondering why their alien shape so excited her.

But this was Vincent -- Vincent, who had become the very shape and embodiment of love to her... all she now desired in this world. How could anything about him fail to please?

He pulled away suddenly, gasping for breath, and she caught at the front of his leather vest to steady herself, and to keep him from moving away. Looking up, she saw pain and longing and regret touch his beautiful high-boned face. Sanity's inevitable return.

"No," she protested, the word itself almost a sob.

He caught her upper arms gently and stood there head bowed, breathing raggedly, his long hair falling forward and his brow nearly touching hers.

"I'm sorry," he grated. "I should never have -- "

"Oh, no -- " Blinking back the sting of tears and holding tight to the brushed leather, she pressed as close as he would allow and felt his short, sharp breaths against her cheek. "No, Vincent, it was so beautiful..." Bad enough that the moment was at an end; she couldn't bear it if he apologized for it.

"It's time for you to go back," he murmured, his face so bleak that she knew any protest would be futile. She despaired over whatever it was in him that forever disbelieved his own desirability -- and which attributed her desire to the pity he expected. Following him shakily out the door she saw, in his carefully averted eyes, that he was ashamed at having begun something he thought he could never finish. At the Threshold beneath her building she turned and, as she had done once before, leaned up to kiss him tenderly. His face, as she stepped back, mirrored her own longing and a hopelessness that broke her heart.

"I love you, Vincent," she said deliberately, her voice clear and soft. "I love... all of you." She lifted her hands between them, palms up, as though to encompass all she could see and more. "I'll go now because you ask it, but... you can't make me believe it's what you want. I need you," she said, and saw the words wound. Had he ever denied her anything it was within his power to grant? "I need you, Vincent. Can't you feel what I'm feeling?" Her blue-green eyes shining with unshed tears, she turned and disappeared into the light.

Now, as the elevator ascended, Catherine could feel it all again -- the kiss, the strength of his encircling arms, his breath upon her face...

Her eyes widened. She could feel it! This was more than memory, surely -- unless it was his. And if she closed her eyes he was there, inches away, his deepset eyes smoky with pleasure. She felt the desire he'd denied, as his touch moved down the line of her throat to her collarbone; and she shivered with returning heat.

She stopped the car between floors... leaned a feverish brow against the cool, polished metal of the doors. It was the bond, she knew. It had to be. But seldom had she been able to sense him reaching out to her -- only if he were in danger, dying or in desperate need --

She straightened, and decisively pushed the "Down" button.

In the corridor outside his chamber, some instinct made her pause and slip out of the slim white pumps. Dropping her light coat over them, she padded the chill remaining steps to the portal and peeked in.

He was standing by the bed, eyes shut and tawny head thrown back, the light of many candles gilding the magnificent column of his throat. Some dream had overtaken him in the midst of undressing; the heavy vest hung forgotten from one hand. The silken ties at his neck had been torn open and now trailed down his chest, the shirt itself open halfway to his belt. A wealth of dark-blond hair curled from that division, and she saw his powerful chest expand as he took a shuddering breath.

Her heart leapt at the sight and she thought, Vincent!

She never knew if she'd spoken it aloud, and yet his head snapped toward her. "Catherine -- " How could he not have sensed her return? How was it that she'd caught him unawares? Had he been so caught up, so preoccupied...? His face suffused with shame, as quickly concealed. "I thought you'd gone -- Is something wrong? Why...?"

"You called me back," she answered, a catch in her voice. "I -- I felt it." Her fingers rose to her slender throat.

His face darkened with pain, with humiliation at what he perceived as his own weakness, his lack of control. He had always needed her -- but often these days he was overtaken by fantasy -- by unbridled dreams in which he held her in his arms, savoring an imagined softness, drinking in every scent, every taste and texture --

But never had he allowed it to infuse their bond. He had struggled to preserve the purity of that empathic connection. And if at times he felt, beyond the ever-presence of her love, the rising tide of such needs in her -- well, he knew what he was and what he could never hope to expect of life; knew that it was his responsibility to protect her in this, as in all things. To protect her from herself, if necessary, and the generosity of her compassion.

She waited barefoot in the doorway, shivering, her eyes haunted, the white dress like a beacon to him. He gathered all his remaining strength. "It's very late," he said gently. "You should sleep."

"I'm not tired."

"I'll walk you back." Again.

Her chin lifted. "I'm not going back tonight, Vincent." Not again.

"The guest chamber -- "

"I don't want to go to the guest chamber." And then, "Please."

His eyes closed with pain at her tone. When they opened again she had moved nearer, without a sound. The candlelight was caught, and held, in the softness of her hair and he felt that he was drowning. "What, then?"

She came to him, knowing talk was a mistake; came and slipped her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek between the folds of silk, into the warmth of his chest. Closing her eyes, she could hear his heart beating, a steady thunder, beneath her ear.

He stood trembling with restraint, fists clenched at his sides. "Catherine," he pleaded.

She leaned upward and nuzzled the warm hollow at the base of his throat. She felt the breath catch there before she heard it, in that instant before he broke away.

"Catherine!" His voice was desperate, savage. "You know I can't -- "

"I know you don't, or won't," she said, as evenly as she could manage. "That's not the same thing, Vincent."

"Look at me!" he cried. "How can you possibly -- "

"I love you!" she flared. "I love you with all that I am -- all I might never have been, had you not come into my life! Knowing what you know, being who you are -- how can you doubt me? Can't you feel what I'm feeling? Vincent, open yourself to our bond!"

He stood staring at her, his soul in his eyes, as she rushed on.

"Do you know what it's like to want to touch you -- to want to all the time -- and never do it because you're afraid?"

"Yes," he said hoarsely, with a bitterness that silenced her. "I know what that is like, Catherine. And I am afraid. Do you know why?" And he stretched out his hands to her, those furred and taloned hands he thought so bestial. There were no mirrors in this chamber, and much of the time he could forget his overall apperance -- but those hands, those hands were always in his sight. "This is why -- "

But she'd stepped forward before he could draw back; and taking his hands in her smaller ones, she kissed their fur-covered backs and then, before he could recover, turned one to press her lips into his naked palm. "I'm not afraid."

"Perhaps you should be," he said harshly --

-- and she knew that he was remembering Lisa. Lisa, enchantress of his early years, whose innocent coquetry had, in the end, brought him such pain. They'd grown up together in the tunnels and yet, on the day he finally reached out for her, he saw fear and revulsion in her eyes, and the reflection of all that he could never be. If even a lifelong friend was terrified by his need to hold her, then what, Catherine thought, could he hope to expect from her? She knew too that that moment of adolescent and impulsive clumsiness was part of his fear of hurting her, and of his conviction that his love was a dangerous thing.

"You know I'm not afraid," she insisted. "Don't you?"


"Ask me why," she said.

But his lower lips quivered like a child's; he could neither answer, nor ask.

She looked past the tears standing in his eyes. "You're afraid of hurting me somehow... because of what you are. Don't you think I realize that? But Vincent, don't you know -- you could never hurt me, never. Remember when the crystal-dust drove you mad -- " (and she held harder to his hands, here, for he would have turned from the memory that she'd seen him as he was) " -- and even Father was afraid to approach you? And I came to you..."

Yes -- she had seen him, heard his strangled roars while in the throes of that engulfing horror; and alone she had walked straight into his arms. Her embrace had somehow saved him, restored him to himself. And yet, sensitive to his feeling of disgrace over the incident, she'd never spoken of it from that day to this.

"Even then," she whispered, "I knew I could trust you not to hurt me -- even then, Vincent. You're afraid of the -- the `beast' in you, I know; the part of you that's killed to save my life. But don't you see... It's only ever come to protect me, or others you love. How can I be afraid of it... of you?"

One tear escaped, to make its rebellious way down his cheek. When it reached his jawline, she kissed it away. "Even now, trying to send me away, you're still trying to protect me." Her eyes were steady. "There have been nights I've walked away from you... to protect you... because I felt your uncertainty, and because you thought it was best. But I can't walk away tonight, and maybe we shouldn't go on protecting each other... quite so much."


"It's been a long night," she said softly, thinking back over the evening's celebration; of the near-success of Paracelsus' deadly masquerade, of a Helper's death and Narcissa's injuries; of disaster barely averted. "I can't be alone tonight, Vincent... apart from you. I need your arms around me."

But tonight there was more to it than that, he knew; more than merely holding her while she slept, as he'd once done -- and that had been difficult enough. Tonight she was not incapaci-tated by grief. Tonight her need was... very different. "Catherine," he faltered, "there is another fear." "Tell me."

The blue of his eyes seemed to darken. "You cannot know whether or not I am... like other men."

"And you can't `know' you're not," she pointed out. "Can you?" And saw, with a fluttering stomach, the flush that swept upward from his collar.

"No," he admitted. "I've never..."

"I know," she said softly.

"Catherine, it may not even be possible for us to -- "

"Don't you think we owe it to ourselves, and our dream, to find out? Would a love like ours ever have come into being, unless it was meant to be fulfilled somehow?" She leaned her cheek to the back of his hand -- and he wondered wildly if she could possibly guess the effect it had on him. She went on, "It's always been our dream, hasn't it... that one day we could be together. Really together."

"Yes." It was no more than a breath.

"Every journey begins with a single step," she suggested, feeling the heat of his body across the little space still dividing them. "It doesn't have to happen all at once. We could take that first step toward our dream... tonight."

Joined to her by no more than a handclasp, he was was mesmerised by the sight, the sound, the scent of her; by the sea-sky color of her waiting eyes, and the almost-smile he sensed but could not see. It came to him that he was helpless before this woman -- that he was physically incapable of rejecting her further, of taking her arm to propel her out of this chamber and back to her world and safety, as he surely should.

He turned his hands then in her little ones, catching her hands in a vice-like grip, deliberately reminding her of his dangerous strength. "If I were ever to hurt you, even unintentionally -- "

"You can't," she promised him. "You won't."

"You're so certain..."

"Of you," she said. "Of all that you are. Yes."

He could feel the slender bones of her wrists -- incredibly fragile, like all of her -- in his hands; could feel, against his fingers, the warm pulse fluttering there. He fought an almost irresistable impulse to bend and follow it with his lips. "But how can you know... How can you want -- this -- " He shrugged, the gesture eloquent and full of self-doubt.

"Vincent," she answered, "you always know what I'm feeling. Am I such a mystery to you now? Open yourself to our bond. Can't you feel it? Do you feel anything there -- anything -- except my love for you?"

His gaze still locked with hers, he did as she had bidden -- and found it was all true. Her eyes but hinted at the tempest in her heart. She was brimming with her love for him... and hollow with a hunger crying out for his touch, for his body's answer to hers. There was no fear in her... nor reason for any.

In the instant before his eyes fell closed, Catherine thought that he had never looked so vulnerable.

He still held her wrists but did not seem, now, to be holding her away from him. Leaning forward, she opened both hands against the center of his chest, feeling the hair dense and springy under her palms, the heat of his skin and the racing of his heart. "`Oh, lie with me and be my love,'" she whispered, smiling.

A shudder went through him. He dropped her wrists and pulled her to him with a low sound that was half-groan, and half a chuckle. "How you torment me!"

He bent his head, and this kiss was not like the one before. This one was slow and searching, and infinitely gentle. Catherine slid one hand up around the warm strong curve of his neck, feeling the burnished softness of his hair as it fell across her forearm.

When she pulled away a little she was surprised to see that he'd been watching her all the time.

"I can't seem to stop looking at you," he admitted.

Masking selfconsiousness with sternness, she took his leonine face in her hands. Her touch feather-light, she traced the prominent cheekbones and the hollows below; stroked the velvety bristles growing up over his high-bridged nose. Then, cupping her face between his palms, she used her thumbs to smooth the russet wings of his brows. His deepset eyes widened with wonder -- until, stroking downward, she stroked them tenderly closed. She felt his lashes tremble against her skin as she kissed him then; felt his breathing quicken and his arms tighten possessively.

"Oh," she breathed finally, "I've wanted to touch you like this for such a long time!"

"Have you, my Catherine?" Was it really possible that she found him as desirable as he did her? With one hand he reached up and removed the clips from her hair so that it fell loosely about her face, to her shoulders. He nuzzled that shimmering softness as she pressed close, and he felt her lips trailing fire down his throat, to the hollow where she paused with slow kisses. One small, bold hand slipped into the opening of his shirt, push-ing the fabric aside to caress him. Vincent was so entranced that for a long moment he simply held her, his head thrown back, revelling in the rush of new sensation.

Catherine watched him with a profound and simple joy she could never have put into words. She knew that at any instant he might recover the control he'd struggled so long to maintain. Savoring the moment, she ran her hand over his muscled chest... found the small softness of a nipple, almost lost in the hair of his body. His breath rasped in his throat as she leaned her head there, and sought it with her tongue. She wanted to weep, that he had never been touched this way before.

Pressed so closely to him, she became aware of the growing evidence of his passion at, apparently, the same time he did. With a strangled sound of embarrassment he tried to break away, but she clung to his arm. "Vincent! What's the matter?"

His voice was hoarse. "To have you see me so -- "

Desperately she pulled him around to face her. "Oh, Vincent, don't you realize -- " (and she knotted her hands in the silk ties trailing from his collar) " -- don't you realize how natural it is... and how it makes me feel, to know that you desire me too?"

His astonishment, as he turned to look down at her, was absolute. "Could you ever have doubted it?"

She came back to him then, and snuggled warmly under his chin and down the length of his body. There was, still, that undeniable hardness growing at his groin; but she caressed him with her body only, pressing thigh to thigh, belly to belly, feeling the sweet, answering ache beginning deep inside her.

His arms went round her slowly -- slowly -- and she turned her hot face into his chest, inhaling the clean muskiness of him. He dropped his head to her shoulder -- surrender? -- and she felt the bristles of his cheek, and his warm breath, on the back of her neck. One large hand traveled the length of her spine, coming to rest just below the small of her back; and to her secret delight, she felt the pressure there increase as he drew her more tightly against him. But so gently... almost hesitantly, as though he still expected her to change her mind, to regain her senses and push him away...

She did, but only far enough to look up into his face as she reached for his lower shirt-buttons.

"Catherine -- "

"I want to see you, Vincent," she whispered. "Please."

And he stood silent, head slightly bowed, as she opened the garment. He didn't move as she eased the shirttails free of his trousers, and pushed it back off his shoulders.

Selfconsciously then, he shrugged it away to the floor. Now only the gift of her ivory rose, hidden and hung in a soft leather pouch, remained to tremble over his heart. Thus he awaited her judgement, humbly, watching her face for any faint sign of fear or revulsion.

Oh, God, she thought, stepping back. "Vincent," she breathed, "how can you not know how beautiful you are?"

The blue eyes widened disbelievingly, like a child's.

"Yes," she said. "You are." His shoulders, beneath the rich cascade of his hair, were very broad, his chest deep and well-muscled, so that the waist below seemed almost narrow. And he was covered, as she'd expected, with soft red-gold hair. In the candlelight he was fire and bronze, and the sheer physical presence of him overwhelmed her.

What he felt, through their bond, brought tears to his eyes. She did think he was beautiful -- why or how, he no longer questioned, knowing only that it was true. He felt her need as though it were his own. Her eyes, rising from his body to his face, were luminous with desire. It was a look he'd seen there before, and never allowed himself to contemplate.


She looked down and fumbled with the bodice of her dress where, he guessed, a clasp was hidden by the flowerlike design. Her hands were trembling. What was there, he wondered, to make his Catherine tremble? For he sensed no fear in her.

"Let me," he offered; but as he spoke some intricate arrangement gave way, and the material glistening about her shoulders loosened abruptly. Then to his surprise she was reaching up behind her, too, her slender body twisting --

"How many fastenings does this have?" he murmured, amused. He reached out and turned her; followed her wrist, still bent behind her, with his hand to the concealed zipper he would never (he thought later) have found himself. His fingers closed over hers, and together they pulled it down.

The Winterfest gown fell away at his touch, and seemed to sigh as it pooled about her feet. Beneath it she wore a brief satin chemisette, also white. He was enchanted. Growing up Below, he'd seen tunnel girls undressed now and then; had passed by chattering groups scrubbing their clothes and undergarments on wash day. But never, among that sturdy and practical collection, had he seen anything like this. Did she always, he wondered, wear such exquisite things where no one could see?

He held her still facing away from him, his heart contracting at the sight of the slim, straight line of her back, the tiny waist, the soft swell of her hips... Brushing her hair aside, he bent to kiss the nape of her neck --

-- and she gasped, feeling the shape of his lips there, and the unmistakable sharpness of his teeth. Her head drooped, inviting him on. His great hands dropped to her waist -- so slender, the skin so warm under the slipperly fabric -- and encompassed it easily. His mouth moved hungrily, lips and teeth alternating, from her hairline to the point of her bare shoulder. She could feel his long hair falling across her skin.

"Vincent..." Reaching for his hand, she lifted it slowly.

He felt the unbelievable softness of her breast, the nipple tautening against his palm. After an instant of surprise he accepted the gift she offered and caressed her as he had only dared dream of doing. Her hand still covered his there as, with the other, he drew her back into his embrace.

His hand was spread over the satin flatness of her belly. Catherine arched sinuously; he felt her breathing quicken, felt her buttocks pillowing the now-painful swelling at the front of his trousers.

She was doing it deliberately.

It came over him in a rush then, the force of her desire, the miracle of her acceptance -- and with a sound more growl than groan, he buried his face in her hair.

After a moment she stirred... turned to face him. But when she would have come back into his arms he held her away. "I want to see you," he echoed her softly.

She saw, in his eyes, that he was enjoying the subtle mastery, this test of his own restraint. She lifted her beautiful, impetuous chin... and dared him to look at her.

His gaze followed the smooth line of her fragile throat, down over the delicate wings of her collarbones. Her skin was a glowing amber above the sheer material. The crystal he'd given her glittered in the soft hollow between her small, perfect breasts. With reverent fingertips he traced the path his eyes had taken. Lightly... slowly.

"Oh, hold me!" she pleaded suddenly, throwing her arms around his neck, his hair -- her lips on his throat -- her body stretching against his, her breasts feeling the beat of his heart, her belly flat to the hardness of his -- and everywhere, everywhere, the silky-rough sensation of his fur against her skin. He felt he was surrounding her. How could defeat and triumph be so mingled, and so sweet? Her skin was no less soft than what she wore -- but fragrant, and he breathed her in, savoring that sweetness too...

But she was shivering now, and drawing back a little he saw gooseflesh on her shoulders and remembered that while he was accustomed to the chill of the tunnel air, she was not. Reaching down, he lifted her against his chest.

And hesitated, uncertain still. She saw his gaze flicker toward the bed and back again, shyly, not quite meeting hers. "Yes," she whispered. "Oh, yes."

She had always loved the feeling of being carried in his arms. Now he settled her gently on the quilts, and she felt the varied fabrics against her skin. Vincent stood looking down at her, his face in shadow but his powerful chest heaving and his desire startlingly apparent.

But... part of him was still afraid. Catherine thought, for a moment, that he was about to turn and walk out of the chamber. She sat up and, with calculated sensuality, drew the chemisette up and over her head... and lay back again, her eyes shining up at him, clad only in the matching underpants.

He forgot to breathe. Her skin seemed more like ivory now, against the dark coverlet... and she was so slender, so fragile in every aspect...

"Vincent," she said softly. "I'm cold."

He smiled at her for the ploy that it was but came to sit beside her, settling his weight carefully as though afraid to jar her. Averting his face, he bent to take off one tall boot, then the other; and the heavy woollen socks. When he seemed to be prolonging this task far beyond its normal duration she reached up and placed one hand along the muscled indentation of his spine -- and felt him straighten with surprise. "What is it?" she asked.

"Catherine." He turned, still barely looking at her. "We are so different." He shook his leonine head; felt her catch a lock of fiery hair between her fingers, and closed his eyes. He'd always thought of his body as oversized, animal-like, almost gross in its differentness. That's why there were no mirrors here. Now he could hardly reconcile himself to what he saw reflected in her eyes. Now, with his blood on fire and his body crying out for hers, he was paralyzed with the fear of causing her some harm.

Leaning forward, she pressed her lips to the down at the base of his spine.

Desire rocketed through him. "Catherine -- if I were to hurt you -- " Her arm slipped round his waist, as though to embrace him; her hand sought the unseen and impossible clasp of his heavy belt.

His hand covered hers, almost crushing it against the engraved metal. Then, letting out a long breath, he lifted her fingers away and undid the thing himself. The leather whispered through his belt-loops. She heard it thud solidly to the carpet.

"Come here," she whispered, kissing him again. "Come here and let me hold you."

He turned then, slowly, and lay down. The blue of his eyes transfixed her with wonder, and longing, and an innocence that took her breath away. His great warm hand covered her shoulder.

"Listen to me," she said, easing nearer to his heat. "It will be all right. I want you to love me, Vincent. All of me. I want to be everything to you."

"You are," he murmured.

"No." She shook her head against the pillow. "Not until now... tonight." Her eyes were heavy-lidded, pleading. "I need you, Vincent. Can you feel it?"

His hand moved gently down, along the side of her breast, to rest possessively on the satin swell of her hip. "But what if -- "

She pressed her fingers to his lips, silencing all protests. "This isn't a question we can answer by talking."

His eyes widened.

"Vincent, I know you're afraid of hurting me, and... there may be some little pain at first," she admitted, her hand lingering on his gold-bristled cheek. "And I couldn't hide it from you, you know that. But... my darling... I've been waiting for you, for you, for over two years. It's almost like being a virgin again." He saw the color sweep upward from her throat, and realized with a thrill of delight that she was blushing. She went on, "At least... I somehow feel as though I am."

"Then, Catherine," he said softly, "we must be gentle with each other." He kissed her then, feather light, and then more deeply; and his hand slipped down, along smooth satin, to cup a marvelous fullness, and bring her hips into uncompromising contact with his own.

There was a sound in her throat, like a sob, as they kissed. She knotted her fingers in his mane, pulling him closer, wanting to feel the hair of his chest against her aching breasts, the weight of his body over hers. She felt the force of his desire, still hidden, pressed to her thigh, and the throbbing between her own legs became almost painful. "Vincent -- "

Not answering -- at least not with words -- his mouth descended her throat, lingering over the pulse racing visibly, palpably, there... and then, pressing back into the pillow, he tasted for the first time her exquisite breasts, as they seemed to strain toward him. His tongue circled the shell-pink of her erect nipples for what seemed an eternity before he closed his eyes and sucked one slowly into his mouth.

The sensation -- the bristled softness of his face against her flesh, the heat of his mouth and the sharpness of his teeth -- was unbelievable. She arched against him, gasping, her fingers twined in the wildness of his hair as he teased first one hardening bud, and then the other.

Meanwhile, below, he'd discovered the elastic band of her briefs. He slipped searching fingers beneath it, behind her, and cupped her bottom with his naked palm. His hand was almost large enough to cover her, there. Catherine felt her hips wriggle back into his caress -- she couldn't help it -- inviting him to explore that humid cleft.

Surprised, Vincent raised his head from her breast. He saw that her head was thrown back, her watching eyes heavy-lidded, her lips swollen with desire. She moved into his hand again, and lifted her hips slightly from the bed. He sat up and gazed into her face for a long moment... then deftly peeled the soft under-garment down over her hips. She arched her body to make it easier for him; felt the satin and his claws passing lightly, erotically, over her thighs and calves...

He stared down at her in wonderment. She was trembling, quick breaths lifting her breasts, her skin flushed and glowing... everywhere. "Catherine, you are so beautiful."

She reached for his wrist; brought his hand to her lips, then pressed it to her breast.

He teased the tautened nipple gently, his claws tracing delicate fiery paths across her skin... over the roundness there, down her ribcage to the smooth flat belly that quivered expectantly at his touch... and finally to the dark triangle of springy curls below. He covered it with his hand, and felt her rise a little against his palm.

But the pressure at his groin was growing almost unbearable for him now. She saw his dilemma in the mingled longing and consternation in his face; and smiling, reached out to touch him there.

His breath left him in a groan. He caught her hand. "Catherine -- !"

"Take them off, love."

He slid from the bed; selfconsciously unlaced the trousers, and drew them down with a shy reluctance she found irresistable. Stepping out of them, he turned and stood there golden in the candlelight, taking her breath away.

He was magnificent. The broad shoulders and chest tapered to a taut waist and hips, to the strong pillars of his thighs... Catherine sat up slowly, her expression rapt. The hair that curled brightly over his breast and belly, thickened toward his groin; and from this bronze profusion his shaft arose, proud in spite of him, perfect and beautiful. He was very large, there... but proportionately, for he was large everywhere.

Swaying a little toward him, Catherine smiled. Her heart seemed to slow to a deep and languorous rhythm, beating not only in her chest but elsewhere, everywhere... and her fingers clenched in the hem of the quilt.

And Vincent, gazing down into her slitted green eyes, knew suddenly that it was going to be all right, that her marble stillness was born of something far removed from revulsion or pity. Her eyes drank him in, a deliberate caress, and it was as though time had stopped, or she thought it had --

"Catherine," he growled, his voice half-choked with impatience, a plea for mercy, and mirth.

"I can't seem to stop looking at you," she taunted him, her voice unexpectedly throaty; and she held out her arms and he came to her, catching her up with the swiftness that always surprised her, stilling her laughter with his demanding mouth, one hand in her hair and the other cradling her hips.

Fitted to him head to toe, she gloried in the feel of his gold-red hair against her bare skin... and his maleness, unashamedly hard and hot against her thigh. Her senses were reeling and if his kiss went on much longer she was going to faint...

She caught a handful of hair at either side of his head and gently forced him back; and before he could protest she'd moved to run her mouth down the bronze of his neck, feeling his hand seeking her breasts again as her tongue sought his nipple, feeling his chest muscles tense beneath her cheek as she drew the reluctant nub between her teeth... Behind him her hands roved his back, stroking the length of his spine with her nails, moving to cup the downy muscled buttocks that clenched with his surprise... She held him to her then, suddenly still, her head finding the broad shoulder that had so often offered a different sort of comfort; telling him with every part of her, but without words, that he was what she wanted, was all she'd ever wanted, all of him, like this. Embracing him thus, she had opened her thighs and captured the heated length of him there, letting him feel the fervid dampness as her entire body seemed to melt and flow toward him.

"Catherine," he rumbled into her hair, holding her slight body along his. Looking down, he could see his own darkly-furred hand spread against the pale skin of her back; and below, perfect twin moons... there, where she clasped him with a beckoning and incredible heat. Her hips moved, ever so slightly, and he clenched his formidable teeth against the answering thrust of his own pelvis. Not yet, he thought.

He drew away, hearing her kittenish sound of protest. "Shhh," he hushed her gently. Now it was his turn, and he tormented her tenderly, rediscovering tastes and textures, his long hair trailing back and forth over her impatient breasts. Gently he turned her onto her stomach, and began a further, leisurely exploration of her.

Catherine felt the hair of his chest against her back; felt him brush her hair aside to nuzzle the nape of her neck, and she shivered with delight.

Kissing any lingering tension from her shoulders, he stroked the slender slope of her back with claws and fingertips, follow-ing with his lips the delicate line of her spine downward.

Catherine buried her face in his pillow. The unseen kisses were like starbursts on her skin; and since she had no way of knowing where he might next put his mouth, the suspense increased her excitement a hundredfold.

She shivered again as he lingered over the small of her back, nibbling the dimpled concavity. His right hand cupped her bottom warmly, his thumb lying gently in the indentation dividing her there. She lay waiting, her outstretched legs slightly parted, willing herself to be still... but wondering wildly what he might do next.

Catherine knew that Vincent had never before been with a woman... And yet his actions bespoke more than mere curiosity. More than that, more even than his desire to give her pleasure, was his need to discover her completely; to learn every inch of this woman that he loved.

His kisses fell lightly, softly, unhurriedly down the backs of her thighs all the way to her knees, and she could hear her own ragged breathing. He moved upward again to brush his cheek over the soft swell of her buttocks. Nuzzling there, teasing with tiny nips, he smiled unseen as her muscles clenched in helpless reaction.

She felt his hands, so large and warm, parting her there... and opening her thighs a little further, she moaned to feel his breath along her innermost reaches. She rolled her face against the pillow, her hands gripping the bedclothes as with one finger he stroked downward into that sweet cleft, following it with pervasive kisses, pressing her wider...

"Oh, Vincent," she gasped, needing to say it, finding even the sound of his name exciting. She felt him move upward suddenly, and thought perhaps he would turn her to face him now... but instead his hand slipped beneath to seek her breast; and settling his weight a little -- only a little -- to one side, he covered her from behind with his body. One hard-muscled leg rose to cover both of hers and she slipped her hand round the knee she could reach, to caress the damp and sensitive skin behind it. The hardness of him pressed up hotly, unbelievably, between her thighs and although his chest heaved at her back, he held himself still, so still, against her there. Tenderly kneading her breast, he felt the tip growing maddeningly erect against his palm; and he brought his lips and teeth back to nuzzle the nape of her neck. It was the most intimate of embraces; beneath him she was gladly held prisoner.

Her warm, satiny bottom pillowing his thighs, his length cleaving to the hidden heat of her body... Vincent closed his eyes and shuddered against the compulsion to move, to thrust into her... to give in to the passion he had never before thought it possible to fulfill. If the very thought frightened him, would the reality of it not frighten her as well?

Catherine felt his hesitation... his reluctance to make any further demand of her. But her own impatience triumphed finally, and she turned in his arms, her kiss a plea and a demand. "Love me," she whispered, her eyes soft with unshed tears. "Please, Vincent?"

He leaned over her, stroking the silk strands back from her face with one fingertip. She was irresistible to him; her need of him, miraculous. He drew back a little, and pressed her back among the pillows. Gratefully, gladly he returned to her breasts, circling each fevered nipple again and again before coming to suckle there hungrily, one after the other, at last. She sighed and held his head to her bosom... but he would not be stayed. His attention, and his mouth, wandered downward; she gasped as his tongue invaded her navel and saw him glance up, his azure eyes glittering with triumph. He would remember.

He lifted her knees and she opened to him like a flower, her eyes glistening. He marveled at her -- at this most intimate offering -- and reached out to stroke those soft and secret petals...

She arched, whimpering so that he thought for an instant he had hurt her... but no. Through the bond he felt only pleasure; and her whole posture pleaded with him to continue. Delighting in the feel of her soft pubic curls, he spread her nether lips gently with his thumbs and -- careful, so careful of his claws -- began caressing her there. He was almost able to forget his own need (though it stood like forged iron now along his thigh) in the fascination of watching her growing reponse; watching her breathing change and her skin become rosy and beaded with excitement.

The allure of her thus, the sight and the scent of her, was overwhelming, and she opened her eyes in time to see his fiery head bending to her. She felt the raw-silk of his mane brushing her inner thighs, and the heat of his searching mouth.

"Vincent!" She writhed against the coverlet; and still looking down, unable to tear her eyes away, she saw the muscles in his massive shoulders tense as he took her hips in his great hands. With unhasty kisses he explored the velvety skin of her thighs, closest to her body. He kissed the tendons stretching taut on either side... and tasted the exquisite hollows beneath. He seemed to be tantalizing her; nearly touching the waiting core of her, only to ease away again.

When finally his mouth assailed her there, she rolled her head against the pillow and nearly wept his name with relief. He seemed not to hear. He held fast, and loved her with his lips and tongue.

She felt herself soaring... powerless to resist the tide rising inside her, carried perilously on the crest of something she could no more control than she could escape it.

"Vincant!" she cried, her hips rolling helplessly in his startled grasp.

Her climax almost took him too. Astonished, he felt the powerful eclipse of her senses; and knew in every part of him the heat of a psychic explosion that threatened to sweep him along in its wake --

Yet he refused to be overwhelmed and he did not take her then, in this extremity of their shared need, as every instinct clamored that he must. Instead he moved to her side to take her in his hard embrace, for she was trembling wildly everywhere. He held her tightly, stroking all he could reach as her shuddering breaths began to ease.

His expression, when Catherine looked up, was so concerned -- almost contrite -- that it evoked her weak and breathless laughter. "I didn't know," he began, "I didn't mean -- "

"My love," she smiled, nuzzling his neck, "where would I be if you did?" No longer in this chamber, she was certain; perhaps scattered across the sky in shooting stars... Of course he hadn't known what to expect of her. He was only beginning to comprehend the force behind this facet of their love; and she sensed his amazement at his own power to affect her so. And Catherine herself felt as though she'd waited a lifetime for his love. Heart, body and soul... She knew him in every part of her.

She could feel him against her, enormous with desire, and she eased her hips away from his a little to slip her hand between. She smiled at the way his blue eyes widened as she touched him there, taking the pulsing column in her little hand. She began an unhurried stroking, from its broad tumescent head to the tangle of rich gold at his body. She reached between his thighs to caress the pendant softness there as well; and watching him triumphantly, she saw the cords stand out in his neck and heard his breathing sharpen.

"Enough," he rasped, with a raw chuckle of surrender, and seized her hand to bring it to his lips.

"You are so beautiful, Vincent," she whispered, and saw that it was a thing he would always hear with wonder. He pulled her close again; she twined her legs with his, gripping one strong, furred thigh between her soft white ones... Thus they cradled each other, tenderness surmounting everything finally as they paused, gathering strength.

Her hands were clasped behind his neck. Vincent turned his head to kiss the inside of her forearm; tasted salt... and tasted her again. He felt her pelvis rock gently, persistently, against the pressure of his hard thigh between hers. Felt the moistening heat of her there, on his skin.

He felt everything.

Her eyes locked with his. She brought her hands forward to touch his face, to stroke the tangled hair away from the strong familiar planes of his cheek and brow. "Please," she whispered again.

He moved over her gently then, as though very conscious of his size; and she spread herself gladly beneath him, loving the feel of his weight pressing her back among the bedcovers, loving the sight of him above her. His eyes never left hers as, carefully, he slipped his arms under hers, beneath her shoulders, sliding his hands up behind her neck and into the silken dampness of her hair.

Held thus, gazing up into the face of her beloved, Catherine felt completely encompassed. He was so much larger than she, so long-bodied, that as he kissed her she could just feel the head of his erection nudging heatedly at her moist flesh. She tried to wriggle downward with impatience, surprising even herself --

-- but he was holding himself away from her. So small!, he thought desperately, looking down into her flushed face, feeling almost that she must be crushed beneath him. So fragile... "Vincent," she pleaded.

"Catherine," he answered. "My Catherine."

His voice, like dark velvet, stilled and steadied her... readied her. He slipped one hand down between them, the hair of his wrist tickling her tummy, and she could feel a great and fervid pressure at her most secret aperture. Willing her over-excited muscles to relax, she opened herself still more widely.

He kissed her then, taking her mouth once more by surprise; and with a sudden, sinuous movement of his hips, he entered her a little.

She tried not to gasp as he held her there, transfixed. Her entire being was focused -- there -- in a thunderclap of sensation.

Vincent felt her silken channel clench; and it was a feeling he could never in his wildest dreams have imagined. He held himself just there, barely within her, savoring the instant of this new connection... Watching her, and waiting.

Catherine opened her eyes, and lost herself anew in a gaze as blue and fathomless as the sea. She managed a tremulous smile and drew him back down to be kissed... and reassured, he pressed forward.

Her eyes widened, tears gathering in the corners at a slight pain -- almost a tearing -- within. She inhaled sharply in spite of herself. Vincent raised his head, alarmed. "Catherine?"

She took his face in her small hot hands again. "It's all right."

"But there was pain, I sensed it!" And he would have withdrawn and rolled away from her but --

"No!" she cried, clinging to him. "Don't leave me!"

"But there was -- "

"I said there might be," she reminded him softly. "But I'm all right, I promise. It just surprised me a little and... it's gone now." And it was, as she lay filling her eyes with the sight of him so close above and gilded by candlelight, his dear face glistening with the perspiration of his restraint... "Come back," she whispered.

"You're sure?"

And heart, body and soul, Catherine reached for him, rocking him gently into the wellspring of her desire; needing no words but only this, as she drew him down, to convince; knowing he could feel, as she did, her body's growing eagerness to accept all he could offer...

"Oh," she breathed. "Now, Vincent."

So tenderly did he impale her then, so deftly thrust and with such gentleness, that what might have been pain was turned instead to pleasure, and the exquisite sense of being filled with him.

In that moment nothing else existed for her. Shivering feverishly, she heard a sobbing moan -- her own -- mingle with the almost anguished sound he made deep in his throat as he felt himself fully and finally sheathed within her. He moved to her deeply, instinctively; held himself throbbing at her very center, this in itself a declaration, an act of possession. He felt the caress of her calves as they rose along the backs of his thighs.

She drew him like a river. She loved the weight of him on her, and the breadth of his hips pressing her thighs wider even as they strained to clasp him more tightly. They seemed everywhere joined, inside and out; every part of her was excruciatingly aware of his touch, his taste, the texture of his flesh against hers. Beneath their heated juncture, a soft-furred heaviness nestled into her welcoming hollow. Her hips rolled seductively against his, summoning a rhythm beyond thought, beyond his power to resist.

Now they rocked each other, moved in unison with a delicious languor -- surely even their heartbeats, Catherine thought, becoming synchronized. His loins seemed welded to hers and she imagined the hair mingling there, dark and bright. She rolled her head against the pillow; felt his lips in her hair, on her brow and eyelids, and opened her eyes to find herself curtained in the glory of his cascading mane.

Nothing had ever felt like this to him. Nothing in his life, no hope or dream of love, could have prepared him for it -- for this feeling of being enveloped, engulfed by her. It was a sensation he'd known only in his heart, and in the secret reaches of his soul. Now their bond sang between them, and looking down into her green eyes, he knew she felt it too. Her small eager hands were everywhere, enticing, stroking the back of his neck, tugging at his shoulders to pull him impossibly closer.

There was a fire in his blood.

She felt a heightening of their shared rhythm -- felt it becoming subtly his -- and was drawn inexorably after. The restrained rolling of his hips against hers began to sharpen. Catherine reached behind him to knead his downy buttocks, feeling the muscled flesh tighten, again and again, with the movement of his body.

The first time he withdrew from her a little, her whimper of protest brought a rain of his kisses down over her fevered cheeks. She gasped as he filled her again, as deeply as before, and wrapped her arms around him as though hoping to hold him there.

But raising up a little, he withdrew from her again almost completely. He held himself just inside her tender portal, waiting to feel her body calling to his... And then very slowly, watching her face, he thrust back into her molten softness.

Catherine ran her hands up the corded muscles of his arms and over his great shoulders, feeling the gold-red hair under her palms, flattening them high against his chest. Her fingers clenched in the dense gold there... opened and clenched again as his strokes deepened.

Vincent seared into her, moving with increasing power and certainty. There was an instant of disbelief as he realized that contrary to all his fears, his body knew what to do; that it had always known; and that with this woman, his eternal love, he need never again be unsure. No dark violence lay in wait for them here. Her love guided him. Her total trust and vulnerability touched in him a tenderness he had not known existed. She whimpered and he kissed the sound away, his lips teasing hers so that she caught at his hair to pull him down again.

Catherine felt as though, inside her, he was growing impossibly longer and more rigid, his heated flesh full to bursting. Her legs lifted suddenly higher along his back, the impulse taking her by surprise even as it angled her hips to draw him deeper.

It was Vincent who felt it first. It began as a point of white light, unimaginably bright and hot and centered somewhere within them... or they, within it. It grew until, even with his eyes closed, it seemed to light the chamber with the glow of a thousand candles. Catherine threw back her head, and he felt her quicken beneath him.

Completion beckoned, and he resisted it desperately. He wanted this never to end... but Catherine was calling his name, moving against him with an almost frantic urgency. With his last vestige of control he slipped his arms under her again, embracing her wholly, hiding his face in the damp curve of her throat --

-- and went with her at last into the light.

His soft, bellowing cry was muffled against her neck. Catherine cried out as he thundered into her, aware of nothing beyond that bursting fulfillment... losing all sense of her own singularity in their encompassing oneness.

When she came back to herself again, it was to the awareness of her body still cradling his... and to a sudden wetness on her cheek. She opened her eyes and saw his face only inches above hers. His eyes were brimming; it was his own hot tears she felt, falling to her skin. She slipped her arms up around his neck, under the wild softness of his hair, and brought him back to be kissed. When he would have spoken she hushed him thus, tasting salt on his lips.

Still large within her, he could feel small aftershocks as her inner muscles contracted rhythmically along his length. Yet he could also feel her slender legs trembling where they encircled him. His concern rising afresh, he moved to withdraw.

"No," she pleaded, clasping him tightly with every part of her.

He smoothed damp strands of hair back from her face. "Catherine, you're tired," he murmured. "I don't want to -- "

"I waited so long to hold you in my arms," she said. "I don't want it ever to end... Do you?"

Vincent reached back and, with gentle firmness, lowered one of her legs flat to the bed. Then, drawing her with him, he rolled carefully onto his side so that her other leg covered his hip. Still deeply joined to her, he ran his hand up the back of her thigh to capture the warm satin swell of her bottom. His voice was a rumble, barely audible. "Better?" he asked.

"Better," she sighed, snuggling closer to press a kiss into the hollow at the base of his throat. There she could feel his pulse beating steadily, but more slowly now, against her lips. To his surprise then she urged him further onto his back among the pillows, so that she could lay her tousled head on his broad shoulder.

"Am I heavy?" she whispered.

"No," he smiled. "Rest, now." His free hand followed her slender back upward, to the nape of her neck; and still cupping her behind with the other, he settled her more securely over him. Her slight weight seemed to warm him... everywhere. Her arm lay lightly across his chest, her fingers curled gently on his far shoulder. Through the bond he could feel her soul suffused with a glow of utter contentment as she drifted toward sleep.

Vincent knew he wasn't going to sleep. Not yet. The joy of holding her was still so fresh; the miracle of her love, still new. And wasn't it possible he might wake, and find it had all been a dream?

Catherine stirred warmly against him. In a little while she might begin to feel the chill again; in a little while, Vincent decided, he'd have to try to cover them with the extra quilt that lay neatly folded and just (he hoped) within reach.

Meanwhile, he would hold her while she slept.

It was much later -- hours, perhaps -- that he was awakened by the sound.

So faintly did it come, or from so far away, that had the pipes not been so quiet he might never have heard it at all.

Catherine felt him start with surprise, and drowsily lifted her head. "Vincent?"

"Shhh... listen." He was looking toward the chamber door.

"What is it?"

"I thought I heard..."


"Music." He turned widening blue eyes back to her. "For a moment, I thought I heard music."

Catherine snuggled closer beneath the quilt. The whisper of her answer tickled softly over his chest. "I told you you could hear it... if you tried."