Beauty and the Beast Forever - CATHERINE’S WHEEL

CATHERINE’S WHEEL
By Joan Stephens


Catherine was lonely and had been for what seemed an eternity.  Only one individual could ease her heartache, and she hadn’t seen him in seven days.  She missed Vincent’s loving arms and gentle voice
so much.  Each day she hurried home hoping to find a message from him but had been disappointed each time.  Evidently the project he was working on was taking more time than he had anticipated.
 
Trying to ease the longing for his company, she had filled her days and nights with work and social engagements.  Jenny was a godsend, always willing and eager to go to the movies, dinner, a stage play, or to just sit and talk.  It helped but didn’t eliminate the melancholy she always felt when she was apart from him for days.  Just the sight of him eased her aching heart.

The only activity that had brought her any real joy this last week was scouring the antique shop, bookstores, and specialty shops for Vincent’s anniversary present.  Their third anniversary was in two days on Thursday, and she sincerely hoped that his busy schedule Below wouldn’t keep him from her balcony.  She couldn’t imagine that anything would, but as Robbie Burns put it: the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.

A month earlier in a small back street in the garment district, she had found a leather craft shop that specialized in leather clothing.  She commissioned the owner/designer of the shop to make a deep  midnight blue--almost black–suede cloak for Vincent.  On one of her visits Below, she had taken a snapshot of his cloak.  Giving it to the designer, a gnome-like little man that looked more like one of Santa’s elves than a topnotch leather crafter, she asked him if it could be ready by April 12th.  He promised to have the cape finished by then.

Then last week, she had found his next gift in a tiny rock shop.  As she passed the small, shiny shop window, a geode filled with glowing yellow crystals caught her eye.  It reminded her of sun kissed daffodils.  She bought it immediately, taking it home to be wrapped in silver paper, topped by a bright yellow bow.

On Saturday, she and Jenny went to the Metropolitan Museum where a glassblowing exhibition was being held.  Along with showing how to blow glass into astoundingly beautiful creations, as much an art as painting, the craftspeople had their finished pieces on display and for sale.  Strolling through the exhibits with Jenny who had already bought several stunning pieces, Catherine spied Vincent’s third gift.  She had promised herself that she would only give him the two gifts, but when she saw the hovering glass hummingbird sipping nectar from a hibiscus flower, she knew she had to get it for him. It would reflect the candlelight in his chamber, seeming to come to life.  He would love it. All the presents were wrapped and ready to go.  She could hardly wait for Thursday night and had planned a lovely evening for them.  Going over the details one last time, a firm knock on the door banished all thoughts of details from her mind.  On reaching the door, she saw an ivory colored envelope on the floor.  She knew no one would be there, but she opened the door anyway.  Sure enough, the hallway was empty.  Retrieving the note from the floor, she settled into one of the small divans and opened the envelope.  Unfolding the vellum stationary, she read:


My Dearest Catherine;

Thursday is our third anniversary.  Meet me at the threshold Below. We will celebrate this anniversary in my world.  I have a special evening planned for us. Until then, my dearest Catherine,

Vincent
 

Hugging the note to her breast, she wondered what he had planned.  As romantic a man such as he would certainly have planned something wonderful.  It thrilled her to realize that he wanted to celebrate their anniversary Below where his family and especially Father would be aware of what was happening.  There seemed to be a new willingness in him to show his love for her in public.  Maybe he was willing to take a bigger step in their relationship.

                                                      *****************************

Alighting from the metal rungs with Vincent’s tender assistance, she couldn’t help but be pleased with the way his eyes traveled, appreciatively, over her body.  He stepped back to admire the vision she presented.  Dressed in an off-white sheath of liquid silk that flowed like water with her every movement, she slowly approached him, reveling in his gaze that touched every inch of her.  He noticed how the silk clung to her hips and how the deep cut neckline was highlighted by his crystal that glittered on her breast.  He nodded slightly as if it was nothing more than what he expected.  She was the most beautiful thing in his universe, and he thanked whatever gods there were for her unwavering devotion.

Catherine was thinking the very same thing as she saw how much effort he had put forth to appear handsome in her eyes.  From the top of his well-brushed hair to the bottom of his calf-high black boots, he shone with glorious masculinity.  Under a black velvet vest, relieved by silver buttons and buckles, he wore Catherine’s favorite shirt, the ruffles at the neck and sleeves as white as snow. Black denim hugged his hips and thighs, and she gave a happy sigh to think that he loved her and only her.  In her universe he was the most important and dearly loved person.

"Vincent,” she greeted him, suddenly eager for his kiss, and standing on tiptoes, she raised her lips for a welcoming kiss.  Two weeks ago, in a moment of hilarious abandon, she had taken both of them by surprise when she leaned over to him and kissed him lightly on the lips.  Vincent had been laughing silently at some anecdote she was relating about Joe and his rubber band when it caught her eye just how adorable he was with laughter in his eyes and a half smile on his lips.  Their levity promptly ceased and they stared into each other’s eyes.  With a deep heartfelt sigh, Vincent cupped her chin in his large hand, breaking the deadlock, and tenderly returned her kiss.  Now, as if he was making
up for lost time, he kissed her at any opportunity, and for her part, she encouraged him in this long awaited intimacy.

"Catherine,” he whispered in his silken, raspy voice.  "Have you been well?”

"Oh yes, but I have missed you terribly.”  She clung to him, wanting another one of his kisses.

He chuckled, knowing what she wanted, and bent down to bestow another kiss on her eager lips.  "And I have missed you.  I hope that what I have planned for this evening will make up for all the days we were apart.”

"I don’t know.  That could be a big order.  A day without you is a lost day of sunshine.”

"I know.  It is the same for me but shall we try anyway?” he asked, as he took her small hand in his and led her away from the home tunnels.  She soon realized where he was taking her: the Chamber of the Falls.  She gasped with amazement when she saw what he had done to transform the huge cavern into a celebratory chamber.  In the middle of a large rug that had been spread on the rocky floor sat a table and two chairs.  A snow-white tablecloth had been spread over the tabletop and William’s best china had been laid out.  Two wine glasses, different but oddly matched, were filled with wine.  In the center of the table was a vase filled to bursting with bright yellow marigolds.  Two large flaming tapers were on either side of the vase, and candles glowed in every available niche while several candelabra blazed forth from strategically placed positions.  The effect was marvelous.  He seated her then proceeded to serve the meal.  Vincent had asked William to prepare a special meal for this night, and as usual when it came to Vincent, he had outdone himself.  There were Rock Cornish hens stuffed with wild rice, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and for dessert, cherries’ jubilee.

During one of Mouse’s frequent ramblings, he had found a warm, moist cavern whose floor and walls were covered with a species of unknown mushrooms.  After careful testing by one of his friends Above who worked in a food laboratory, William had determined that the mushroom had a delicious nutty flavor and had bartered them many times for items he needed.  He had just delivered the special supper minutes before Vincent and Catherine arrived.  Despite his large bulk, he had melted into the shadows and returned, unnoticed, to his kitchen.

"Where in the world did you get all this?”  She knew this was not the regular fare that was served from William’s kitchen.

Shrugging his shoulders, Vincent replied, "I really don’t know.  I asked William to prepare a special meal for us, and this is what he has provided.  I didn’t even know what it was until just now.”

"Well, the next time I see him, I’m going to give him a big hug for such a superb meal.”

"From what I’ve been able to learn (we don’t pry into our people’s pasts), William had a restaurant in San Francisco and served a stint in the Army as a cook.”

"He certainly learned his trade well.”

The meal was spent in light conversation discussing their week apart, bringing them up-to-date on the other’s activities.  Suddenly, Vincent looked toward the cavern entrance.  Scuffling noises there had attracted his attention.  Then all was silent as he noticed a shadow darting out of the cavern. Catherine showed no surprise; she knew it was Mouse, delivering Vincent’s gifts that she had sent down yesterday.  Vincent tilted his head questioningly, not needing to say a word.

"That’s just Mouse running an errand for me,” she commented, smiling mysteriously.

"Ah . . . I see,” he said, feeling sure he knew what Mouse’s errand had been.  Catherine’s excitement flowed through the bond, echoing his own.

After the dessert had been served and consumed, Vincent raised his wine glass.  "A toast, Catherine,” he said as he rose to his feet.

Standing, Catherine locked eyes with his as her love and contentment flowed through the bond."Yes, a toast.”  She motioned for him to continue.

"To us, my love, to our love, and to our bond.”

Oh, he had called her his love.  He had never done that before and her heart soared with joy.  This night was definitely full of surprises.  "To us,” she agreed, her eyes speaking volumes, clinking her glass against his.  They took a sip from their glasses, then, laughing softly, Catherine came around the table.  With a gleam of mischief in her eyes, she entwined her arm with his and they drained the glasses.  "Reminds me of Bette Davis and Paul Henried in ‘Now Voyager.’  It was so romantic,” she sighed.

"I don’t believe I know those people,” he commented as he placed the glasses on the table.

"It’s a movie, love.  I’ll rent it one of these days and we can watch it together.”  As she snuggled into his body, he closed his arms around her, holding her tenderly against his heart.  Suddenly, she pushed him into his chair.

"Stay right there; don’t move.”  Literally floating on air, she moved to the entrance and returned with three silver wrapped packages in her arms.  "Happy Anniversary, my love,” she said, her heart in her eyes.  She handed a small package with a bright yellow bow to him.

When he took it, he wondered at the heavy weight of the small parcel.  Carefully opening it, he set the wrapping paper aside, and pulling the tissue paper apart, he found an ugly rough, not quite round, stone nestled in the paper.  He knew immediately what it was.  Separating the geode, he discovered that the interior was covered with rare yellow crystals that reflected the candlelight like sunlight.  He glanced up to find her watching him breathlessly, her hand at her neck, playing with her crystal.  "A piece of the sun for you to keep in your chamber.”

"It’s beautiful, Catherine.  Thank you.  I know just the place to put it.”

She motioned for him to stay seated as he started to rise to hug her–that could wait until later--and handed him another silver wrapped package with an iridescent green bow.  After opening the gift, he discovered a crystal clear hummingbird sucking honey from a lovely fluted flower.

Holding it up to the light of the candles, he exclaimed, "Oh Catherine, I don’t know what to say.  It almost seems alive with the light from the candles.”

"I knew you’d love it.  A hummingbird of your very own,” Catherine beamed at him.

As she approached him with the largest package topped with a lustrous blue bow, he expostulated, "Another one?  You’re going to spoil me if you keep this up.”

"Oh, I hope so,” she earnestly breathed.

Lifting the lid, he pulled out a heavy deep midnight blue suede cloak.  Running his large, calloused hands over the soft leather, he bowed his head, not saying a word.

Anxiously, Catherine questioned, "Vincent?”  Maybe she had gone to far, brought home the fact that she had money and he had nothing.  Nothing!?  To her, he was rich beyond measure with a loving family and the tunnels for his home.

Literally glowing with pleasure and gratitude, he raised his suspiciously shiny eyes to hers and smilingly whispered, "Catherine, this is beyond measure.  I have no words.”

Relieved, she returned his smile and exclaimed, "Oh, you like it!”

"How could I not?” he replied.  "It is beautiful.”

"Let me see you in it?” she begged.

Fluidly rising, he swung the cloak over his shoulders.  Catherine tied the leather straps at the neck and arranged the hood over his head then stood back to take a critical look.  He looked . . . smashing. The seldom used word just popped into her head; it fit him perfectly.  "Oh Vincent, you look terrific.”

"Thank you, my love.  All the gifts are wonderful.”  Then, with a playful look in his eyes, he glanced around.  "What?  No more gifts?”  And he grinned with deviltry.

Her hands planted squarely on her hips, her face took on a stern look.  "Well! I can see I’m going to have to nip this in the bud.”  Then snickering at his mock outrage, she fell into his arms, laughing with him.  Oh, how she loved him.  She shuddered, inwardly, at the thought of what her life would have become without him.   He was her light, her love, her life, And she squeezed him around the waist with all her might.

"Catherine?”

"Ummmm?” she answered, lost in her love for him.

"Shall we adjourn to my chamber?”

"Uh huh.”  She didn’t really want to move; she just wanted to stay where she was forever.

Chuckling at her obvious unwillingness to move, he took her by the hand, and with his gifts in his other, proudly--in his new cloak--led her to his chambers.

                                                       *******************

On the way there she wondered what he had gotten her.  Whatever it was, she was confident it would be something unique.  She was so wrapped up in her musings that she didn’t notice that the tunnels were oddly empty at this time of night.  Vincent had asked that they be granted privacy on this most important of nights and his tunnel family had gladly acceded.

Vincent seated her in his oversized reading chair and carefully hung his cloak in his chifforobe. Catherine thought it was strange that there was only one candle lit and started to light the others on the table beside her.

"No, Catherine, please don’t light the other candles.”

"Why not?”

"I have a surprise for you.”

"Really?” she asked, pleased.

"Yes.  Now close your eyes and don’t open them until I tell you to.”

Obediently, she closed her eyes.  It felt to her as if he had left the room then returned.  She heard the rustling of cloth and then his voice telling her to open her eyes.  He was standing beside his bed with a pleased, expectant look on his unique face.  Something was odd about the wall behind the bed for a heavy curtain was hanging there.  All fluttery with anticipation, she wondered what was behind the cloth, a painting, perhaps.  And as strange as it seemed, some kind of light was glowing faintly through the drape.  With a flourish, he pulled the curtain down, and there on the wall next to his radiant amber and green half-moon window was a perfectly round, three feet in diameter leaded window with a red rose centered in it.  Leaden spokes divided the window into panels of peach, plum, and light blue. Three inches in from the outer circle of the window was a concentric leaden circle dividing the individual glass panes.  It wasn’t elaborate but the very simplicity of it added to its beauty.

"Oh, Vincent . . .”  She was so stunned that she was speechless.  Tears sparkled on her eyelashes.

Waving a hand in the general direction of the window, he explained, "This is why I was unable to come to you this last week.”

"Where . . .”  She still couldn’t find her voice and managed only this one word.

". . . did it come from?” he finished for her, then at her wordless nod, he continued, "We have Mouse to thank for it.  On one of his ‘finding’ expeditions, he stumbled upon an old brownstone that is being remodeled, and this window was in among the trash to be carted away.”  He didn’t tell her of his frantic efforts to get the cracked panes replaced.  To make this a special occasion for Catherine, he had indentured himself for the next two months to the Helper who had repaired the glass, to Kanin and Cullen who had helped him install the window, and to Mouse who had found the window.  And, of course, William for providing the splendid dinner.  He continued, "How anyone could have thrown this beautiful window away is something I do not understand.”  He shook his head in wonder at the shortsightedness of the people Above.  "Do you know what it is?” he asked. Finally finding her voice, she replied, "It has something to do with St. Catherine, doesn’t it?”

"Yes.  It’s a Catherine Wheel Window.  It’s also called a marigold window, hence the marigolds on the table; a rose window, for obvious reasons; or simply a wheel window.”

Nodding vaguely at his explanation, Catherine was entranced by the beauty of his gift.  She climbed onto his bed to be able to run appreciative fingers over the muted splendor of the stained glass.  "Oh Vincent, it’s so lovely.  Thank you.”  Looking over her shoulder at him, the bond sang with her love and happiness.  "Your window . . . my window, side by side.”  She was overwhelmed by the implications of his gift.  There was nothing of permanence in the tunnels that belonged to her but now, in one fell swoop, he had given it to her.

 "Together . . . side by side,” she murmured, sensing that there was more to come.  She stepped down, and never taking her eyes from the softly glowing window, backed into his waiting arms.

"Together . . . forever,” he whispered into her soft, fragrant hair as he folded her in his arms, hoping she understood the symbolism behind his gift.  As he surreptitiously pulled a plain, golden band from the pocket of his vest, he recalled how proud Mouse had been to craft the ring for him.

"Forever?”  She was asking for much more than just a window and held her breath waiting for his reply.

As he took her left hand and slipped the  golden band onto her ring finger, the glow of love that suffused Catherine’s face as her dearest wish was about to be fulfilled, far outshone the light streaming from the two windows,  Then he uttered the words she had waited–it seemed--a lifetime to hear, vowing, "Yes, forever . . . and always.”
 

 
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