Just Desserts


                                                                                        Adrianna MacNeely


                                                                                               Chapter 1

Catherine was truly suffering. It was April eleventh, the day before their third anniversary and she couldn’t think of the perfect gift to give Vincent. Since he had recovered from his illness, she had been spending much more time Below and finally she had found the excuse she needed to move into the tunnels. There was a psycho killer after her and she couldn’t have been more thrilled.


Well, maybe he wasn’t a terribly dangerous psycho killer, although the newspaper picture of the escaped convict she had prosecuted six months ago was wonderfully effective at convincing everyone in the tunnels of her need for round-the-clock protection. After all he did scream horrible threats at her as they dragged him from his sentencing. Of course, so had a large number of other criminals, many of whom were back on the streets also, but Catherine wasn’t terribly concerned about them.


Her big concern right now was Vincent’s gift. What in the world was she going to get him? She was standing in another bookstore waiting for another clerk to find another book that she already knew she didn’t want to give Vincent. It’s not that Vincent didn’t like poetry books anymore, but, somehow, she just didn’t feel right about giving him another of the same old thing.


Her last trip to the tunnels had disheartened her even more as a few of the tunnel folk had, by their expressions, given her the definite impression that Vincent had something picked out to give her and, by the look in their eyes, she knew, it was something incredible. Leave it to him to outdo me! she thought, frustrated with her lack of imagination.


The truth was the gifts of the years past had not really scratched the surface of Vincent’s real personality. The first anniversary gift had been special, she had to admit; it was from her own special possessions. But, since then, Catherine had concentrated on giving Vincent many literary gifts, some gifts that were designed to capture and disburse the candlelight in the chambers below, and a few knickknacks for his collection from her world travels. Since his illness and recovery, Catherine knew these things were not as suited to him as she had originally thought.


There was a unique wildness about Vincent, a restless emptiness that ached to be filled. Since his recovery, he was far less inhibited about showing it. Catherine, however, had no idea how to fill that emptiness, or even precisely what it was that he needed. She just knew the gifts she had been giving him would not do, and that there had to be something that hit the mark better than what she had picked in the past.


His illness, though frightening at the time, had done something unexpectedly beneficial to Vincent. It was as if he was now whole, content, and more self-assured than she had ever seen him. All of the long nights fighting his demons, his fears, and what he considered his "other" self were at an end. He had accepted his nature as not wholly bad or good, but only what he truly was—a being with the capacity for both. In accepting himself, he seemed to have altered his own existence and made a clearer path for himself. That path, however, was not always clear to Catherine. Although Vincent’s emotions were now much easier for her to read, indeed, he no longer considered it a safety issue to block them from her, he had yet to discuss with her where she fit into his new plan for himself. Lately, he even seemed to be distancing himself more from her, although she did not feel it emotionally, only physically.


Perhaps his hesitancy to discuss his new ideas with her was due to a lingering feeling of unworthiness, which she at times still felt within him. Did he still have trouble believing she could love him? But she suspected he hesitated mostly because he was giving her time to get used to the "new" Vincent. He was really a different person–still scholarly, still a poetry lover, but there was more to him now. He had been slowly allowing her to see many of the traits, urges, and inclinations that he had suppressed for years due to Father’s overwhelming disapproval of anything remotely "different." What Father didn’t realize at the time, what he had come to regret during Vincent’s illness, was that suppressing these natural impulses was not only making Vincent sick, but was teaching him, slowly and methodically, that he was unacceptable, unlovable, and undesirable the way he was.


The truth was that Father was afraid. He was afraid that people would not want Vincent around, that they would fear him if he continued to act on his impulses. What he found, after Vincent’s illness, when Vincent refused to suppress these traits any longer, was how wrong he’d been. No one seemed to mind that Vincent was being himself. In fact, they seemed to rejoice that Vincent was well and finally happy. The other tunnel dwellers had known all along what Father had been trying to hide–Vincent wasn’t allowed to be Vincent, and that fact saddened them. His suppression of all that was his true nature also made him suppress much of the enthusiasm and joy that was present in him as a small child. The more he suppressed, the more joyless he became.


Then Catherine came into his life. And although she would hate to admit it, that’s when Vincent’s problems really came to a head. She wouldn’t have hurt him for the world, but Father’s predictions seemed accurate when he’d warned Vincent that their relationship could only bring pain. Vincent, like any other man in love (truly in love), did not desire to hold back his true nature from Catherine, but his long years of training and his failed adolescent relationship with Lisa had only taught him to fear, not trust, his own heart. So he continued to suppress that which he longed to reveal, but the fight was much harder, being compounded with sexual frustration and the rage which could not be suppressed whenever Catherine was in trouble. He eventually lost the fight and became gravely ill, wishing for his own death to resolve the struggle rather than reveal what he believed would drive Catherine away for good.


But Catherine did not leave. Slowly, he came to realize that she would never leave no matter what he did. Her love was truly unconditional. During those first few weeks of his illness, after leaving the cavern, he had tried all manner of shocking behavior to drive her away. Her steadfastness finally got through to him. He saw, in her, his true worth and was able to believe it.


During his recovery he opened up more and more to her, revealing things he never would have before. One of the first things he started doing was purring. The first time it happened, they were in their music chamber. The music had just ended and Vincent had his eyes closed and was breathing softly. It looked as if he was asleep. She reached up to stroke his hair–something he had rarely allowed before his illness–when he started softly purring. Catherine was so surprised she laughed with delight. Vincent’s head jerked up and he looked sheepishly at her.


"I’m sorry, Vincent, I didn’t mean to wake you."


"I wasn’t asleep, just relaxed."


"I didn’t know you could do that; purr, I mean."


Vincent looked embarrassed, "I haven’t done it in a long time. Father always nudged me if I started purring to let me know I should stop. I guess I got the message."


"I like it. I don’t want it to stop," Catherine said with all sincerity. And so it didn’t. It was an incredibly soothing sound vibrating up from his chest. She could feel an immediate difference in the way he relaxed around her. He would stretch out in front of her very much like a cat and revel in the attention she gave him, allowing her to brush his hair and stroke his face. His differences that used to embarrass him so much became merely subjects of discussion between them.


Although it was still difficult for him to reveal what he considered large physical differences between him and other men, he was getting used to the idea that he could be considered attractive to Catherine and even to any woman. The fact that Catherine wasn’t the only woman to find him attractive took him by surprise. There had been Lena, of course, but he had always assumed that her need for comfort outstripped her need of someone handsome (or normal for that matter).


She had since met and married a very kind man who had recently moved to the tunnels, but her attraction for Vincent had never entirely subsided. Rather, it took the form of someone appreciating a fine work of art. Catherine could see that Lena still enjoyed looking at Vincent, as did many of the women of the tunnels. It took a while for Vincent to realize that he was the object of much admiration among the females, young and old alike. His amazement at the idea that he could elicit such responses from these women was almost laughable. Overall Vincent was much more comfortable with himself than he had ever been, though he was convinced he’d never get used to being admired for his looks.


The other changes in Vincent were another matter. Those things which Catherine came to think of as Vincent’s "pastimes" were more difficult for him to reveal. She still smiled when she remembered his embarrassment at admitting that he chased mice as a child. She just laughed and asked him if it was fun.


"Yes, but Father didn’t like it, so I stopped."


"Well, it’s fine with me as long as you don’t consider a dead mouse a fitting present."


"You wouldn’t want me to bring you my catch of the day?" Vincent had asked, snuggling up close to her like a cat asking for favor.


"I’m not sure that would please me," Catherine laughed back.


"Well, it would please you greatly to know how efficient I am at keeping these tunnels rodent free."


"I thought you said you gave it up."


"I did. But by then the rodents knew me well." Vincent snarled with a grin on his face that made Catherine laugh even harder.


Catherine smiled at the memory of those early revelations as she glanced at the back of the musty bookshelves for some sign of the man who had gone in search of her order. She wondered fleetingly how many mice could be found in the recesses of this establishment. Vincent would make short work of them, she thought.


It hadn’t really surprised her that Vincent was more catlike than he had at first let on. There was always something about him that made her think of the wild. Nowadays, he would go away on Fridays, since he had no classes, and come back smelling of sweat and wood smoke and something else almost imperceptible. It was a very attractive scent but she couldn’t quite name it–it was a wild, hungry scent that called to her and made her want to scream whenever he was near. And, although she had yet to admit it to Vincent, she had developed an almost irresistible, inexplicable urge when seeing him on Friday evenings. She desperately wanted to bite him. Thinking about it now, she rubbed her jaw as if her teeth ached.


She wondered how she would deal with being around him on a daily basis now that she was moving Below. She sighed, wishing she was moving in with him. Her relationship with Vincent had stalled, almost moved backward lately, and she was concerned that they would never get anywhere. Catherine had once said, "If this is my fate, I accept it, gladly." Now she wondered if she had ever really meant those words. Yes, if Vincent had been incapable of the intimacy she craved, she would have settled for whatever she could get. But she knew that wasn’t the case and she wanted so much more. She also wanted to give him so much more. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to settle her rising emotions. It would do no good to let Vincent know what was again on her mind. After she moved to the tunnels, he would figure it out soon enough, and maybe then he would be unable to deny what he’d been trying to deny for so long. She just hoped it wouldn’t take too long.


In the meantime, Catherine had the none-too-pleasant task of choosing one of the guest chambers for her own. She had put it off as long as she could, having trouble imagining sleeping in a chamber other than Vincent’s, but she had to tell Father this weekend which one it would be. She groaned in dismay at the thought.


Just then the clerk came back to tell her that the book she had ordered had not yet arrived and that he was sorry it took so long. "We just had a break-in and stuff is scattered all over."


"Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Well," She sighed, "it wouldn’t have been the best gift for my man of the wild anyway." Smiling lightly Catherine looked at him and sighed again, her frustration showing.


"Oh, the backwoodsman type huh?"


"You could say that."


"Well, you should just send him off by himself to fish," he said pointing at some kind of shiny silver fish mounted on a board next to the dusty head of a deer. An odd assortment of paraphernalia for a bookstore, Catherine mused. "We love that kind of thing," he added slightly wistfully.


Catherine nodded and sighed, realizing that maybe he was right. More and more, Vincent was enjoying being by himself. He wasn’t just going away to suffer like he used to; he was going away for fun now. And he wasn’t taking her. She paused, staring blindly up at the man’s rifle behind him. What the hell kind of a bookshop is this? she thought. But then just as quickly realized Vincent’s penchant for both books and hunting. "Thank you," she replied and quickly strode out of the shop with a small smile.


Vincent had been busy all week preparing Catherine’s present. He was keenly aware, almost painfully so, that she had been feeling neglected. He had been neglecting her for some time in his recovery and in the adjustments he had been making to suit his new lifestyle. He had rearranged his chamber. It had always been too cluttered for his taste. There were many things he liked to collect but many more his father had urged him to study or collect in order to control his urges to act "improperly".


These things were now packed away–not gone, but out of sight. He’d laid down an old round rug he’d found in one of the lower storage chambers. No one had wanted it because it was so rough textured. For years all this soft stuff had been thrust upon him, and he had to admit he liked his soft bed and an occasional nap on something soft. But, once in a while, he needed a good scratch.


His fur (it was fur, not hair) bothered him from time to time. The regular bathing that was required by Father (Vincent was required to bathe twice a day as a teenager) dried his skin and made him terribly uncomfortable. He did not produce the oils that most people produce over a daily period and so his skin suffered terribly from the constant bathing. (Not that this was one thing he was ready to give up.) He did, however, avoid constant bathing when he was alone.


Catherine, whom he saw on Friday evenings, after a no bath day, seemed to like his day-old scent very much and, if her flushed cheeks and dilated pupils were any indication, she appeared to be aroused by it. This pleased him greatly. His preparations for her move to the tunnels, which had recently been approved by the council, were almost complete, and thinking back on her reaction to him gave him confidence that he was doing the right thing in these anniversary arrangements.


He sat back in his large wooden chair and looked around the now sparse room. It wasn’t very welcoming but he liked it. He thought of Catherine and all that she had given him in the last few months. Her love had kept him alive, she had changed his entire outlook, she wouldn’t leave him no matter what he did and the fact left him dumbfounded and full of gratitude. Her sadness over the isolation she had felt lately was coming to an end. He would see to that. He was going to make sure their anniversary was a day she would cherish forever.


Catherine went to the grocery store for the present she had decided to get Vincent before heading back to her apartment. In the taxi, she wrote some notes, thinking about Vincent all the way. She carefully placed the notes in her purse and stepped out onto the curb. In her apartment, she placed her gift carefully in the fridge, changed into her comfortable clothes and quickly left her apartment to head below. Vincent wasn’t expecting her tonight. It was Thursday and he usually left Thursday night for his mysterious Friday trips. Catherine wasn’t sure whether or not his trip would be cancelled due to their anniversary celebration. Usually Vincent was back by Friday evening which would give them plenty of time to celebrate. Catherine was taking the day off work, but she hadn’t told Vincent that, not wanting to force him to change his plans if he didn’t wish to.


When she arrived below, rather than going to Vincent’s chamber as she usually did, she headed straight for Father’s library. Vincent was puzzled. He had felt her presence only after she had arrived below which meant she was working hard to mute the bond. Perhaps she wanted to surprise him, but when she did not show up at the entrance to his chamber, he worried that he had somehow forgotten to meet her. He went to where he knew she was and found her sitting and listening to Father read to the children. She looked up at him and smiled but he knew she was sad and a little anxious. When Father finished reading and sent the children off with Mary and Olivia, Catherine turned to him for a full greeting.


Hugging him, she said, "I wasn’t sure I’d see you tonight."


"Where would I be?"


"Oh, well I thought you might have already gone."


"Catherine," Vincent sounded mildly shocked, "tomorrow’s our anniversary. I’m not going away this week." He looked down at his boots sadly. She really believed he would leave on the day of their anniversary? He must have been even more neglectful than he’d thought. He studied his boots for another moment—another thing he wasn’t quite ready to give up despite the pain they caused him. No footwear fit him correctly, but he did not like the look of his feet. He sighed thinking how lonely Catherine felt and how silly he was being over something as simple as his feet. "I’ve been terribly negligent lately, Catherine."


"I wouldn’t say that."


"I would. I know you’ve felt I’ve been distant. I have. I’m still getting used to all this." He made a gesture to himself that included his bare forearms. Vincent had recently begun wearing short sleeves and found them exceedingly comfortable with the exception of the fact that they bared his arms. Catherine found them incredibly sexy and had a great deal of trouble concentrating whenever he wore a short-sleeved shirt. The women of the tunnels also found his arms more than a little attractive, which surprised Vincent greatly. It took him a while to get used to the peak of female emotions whenever he wore a short-sleeved shirt. But he was beginning to like it, which was another reason he wore them so often.


Catherine looked up at him with a look he couldn’t quite identify. Her eyes often made him feel as if the world around him stopped spinning. There was so much love in that look, a little sadness, and always, always her undying acceptance of everything he did, said, and was. Suddenly his heart overflowed with love for her and he grabbed her hand and pulled her along to his chamber, determined to take a step in the right direction. She asked no questions, only followed along, but when they entered his chamber he realized that maybe he should have warned her of the changes he had recently made to it.


She stood in the entrance completely at a loss for words. There was little left of the chamber she remembered and had come to love. His bed was still there although it was covered with wool blankets rather than the down comforter and handmade quilt that used to be there. There was an old outdoor rug on the floor near the bed which screamed "pain" to any bare foot daring to walk on it. His writing table and chair were still there, but no other chairs were in the room. The small one she always sat on was gone. Was she no longer welcome? There was a small set of shelves placed in a wall recess that she had never seen before. It contained all the small gifts she had given Vincent along with a few other books and knickknacks that he’d collected. His steamer trunk was at the foot of the bed with his quilt and comforter on it. The armoire was the only other piece of furniture in the room leaving lots of space for . . .what? What could he possibly be doing in here? Catherine looked at him and smiled weakly with a clear question on her face.


"I suppose I should have warned you. I’m redecorating," Vincent was clearly nervous and didn’t want to go into too much detail. "Uh . . . you know a lot of those things I had here weren’t really my . . . taste."


Catherine looked at him, trying hard to stifle her growing unease. "Stop this," she said to herself, "it’s just his room." But all the welcoming comfort of the space was gone. The room where she first met Vincent, the room where she recovered from those horrible injuries three years ago was gone. She had never felt unwelcome in Vincent’s world—until now.


"And I . . . needed more room," he continued, keeping a close eye on her face, "I’d like to put some different furniture in here. But not so much clutter." Vincent looked at her for some sign that she was accepting what he’d said. After all, it was the truth if only part of it.


Catherine was at a loss to understand this change but Vincent seemed perfectly comfortable with it. In fact, as she looked at him, she saw a revival of interest in his surroundings, his chamber. She thought maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe if his chamber was comfortable for him he would be more inclined to stay home. But, for some reason, she pictured a straw breaking a camel’s back and for the first time since she’d started this whole fight with Vincent’s illness, she felt the need to flee.


She looked down, having nowhere else to fix her eyes, and quietly whispered, "I think I need to take a walk."


"All right," Vincent quickly moved toward the armoire for his cloak.


"No, Vincent. I just . . . I think . . . I need a few minutes alone." Vincent saw the beginning of panic in her eyes. He had felt the need to flee often enough to recognize it in Catherine and it hurt him to think he had caused her to feel this way.


"I’m sorry, Catherine," he replied, desperate for something that would comfort her. He’d never felt her need to leave, not during the worst of his behavior, his terrible illness, his recovery which included constant mood swings. Now he’d rearranged his chamber and she was desperate to run.


"It’s not your fault," she said as she left his chamber and left him standing alone.


Vincent felt her go deeper into the tunnels and his heart relaxed. She was not going home. She was just walking. Then a moment of panic struck him–where was she heading? No, she wasn’t going anywhere dangerous. She was on her way to the candle chamber. She needed to talk to someone besides him. That thought comforted and hurt him at the same moment. He was glad she had friends down here that she could confide in. During his illness she had become much closer to his tunnel family than anyone she knew above. But he was saddened to think that she needed to talk to someone else, that she couldn’t confide in him when she was upset. Vincent followed her movements through the bond for some time. She seemed to be visiting everyone but not really staying in any one place. Then she went to the chamber of the falls and stayed for quite some time.


Catherine was stunned by the changes in Vincent’s chamber but she knew it shouldn’t come as a surprise. He had changed so much in the past few months. Not in essentials but his tastes and priorities had changed. Sometimes she wondered if she was still on the list. Surely she was, but maybe not at the top anymore. Along with the change in his taste for furniture, had there been a change in his taste for her? She loved him, all of him. She knew this. And if she had to be what he wanted her to be she would. She would show him that she could accept, even join, his new lifestyle and be the kind of mate he was seeking. Her mind went back to the gift she had just bought for him and the preparations she’d made for their anniversary. She had made the right decision. He would see her in a whole new light tomorrow.


Vincent was sitting on his bed waiting for Catherine while tuning in to her tumultuous emotions. By the time she started her trip back to his chamber, he knew that she had made a decision and he was scared. After all they had been through, after all her reassurances, had he finally driven her away? When she returned to his chamber he stood up and looked at her with trepidation. She smiled at him and sighed. "I’m sorry, Vincent. I definitely overreacted. I must be tired."


"Don’t be. I’ve put you through a great deal these last few months." Vincent could feel her determination, but her love was still there and he began to relax. Whatever decision she had come to, she would not leave for good. Maybe she had just decided on a vacation. It might feel like death, but he could live with that. After all, hadn’t he spent weeks at a time away from her whenever he was upset and she’d never taken time off from him. She was due. His realization that he deserved whatever punishment she meted out to him began to hit him full force and he gulped back the tears that threatened. "I . . . wanted to . . .I brought you in here to show you something." He smiled desperately at her, trying to hide his trepidation at what he assumed was her imminent departure.


She looked at him, not sure what to make of these feelings coming from him so she stayed silent and waited for him to tell her what it was he intended to show her.


"My . . . feet."


Catherine blinked and looked confused, "Your feet?"


"Yes. You said once you wondered if they were as hairy as my hands. I just thought . . ." Vincent suddenly felt foolish and sat on the bed to take off his boots. His boots and socks neatly on the floor, Vincent stuck out his feet and pointed. "There you have it," he directed her attention to them as if he were presenting a sideshow attraction, "the biggest, hairiest, ugliest feet you’d ever want to see." He smiled up at her to let her know he was laughing at himself.


She smiled back and came over to sit on the bed and look at his feet. She then took off her own shoes and socks and stretched them out beside his. At one time, the contrast would have unnerved and sickened Vincent. Now he thought of her shoes and his, side by side, next to his bed and smiled.


"I wouldn’t say they’re the biggest," Catherine replied with a teasing tone.


Vincent suddenly looked at her with utter amazement knowing full well she was laughing at him. He realized suddenly that she was much more comfortable around him now, though not entirely so, than she ever was before his illness. She never would have dared to tease him about his hairy feet, hands, face, or any other differences back then.


"Are you insulting my feet?" he bellowed in mock outrage.


"Maybe you should have kept your shoes on," she retorted with a smile, "if you didn’t want to open yourself up to ridicule."


Vincent groaned and lay back on the bed. "I can’t stand those boots. No footwear is made for feet like mine. I don’t wear them when there’s no one around."


Catherine looked at him in surprise, "Vincent, why do you wear them at all if you don’t have to?"


"I don’t know," Vincent sighed, "I think I’m not ready to walk around with bare feet. The other children always teased me mercilessly about my hairy feet when I was young."


"No one’s going to tease you now. But I can at least get a pair of shoes that are made for you."


"Catherine, it’s too risky. My feet are too unusual."


"Don’t be silly," she answered kneeling down and taking one of his feet in her hands to examine it, "I’m assuming, from the sores on your feet that the problem is width. There are lots of men who need much wider shoes than are readily available in stores. All we have to do is take a mold of your feet, the kind they provide from shoe makers. I was serious when I said your feet are not the biggest I’ve seen. They make shoes for feet your size all the time."


Vincent looked down at this woman who lovingly held his foot in her soft delicate hands. She lovingly stroked his foot as if it were a pet she was calming. It felt incredibly good and he couldn’t help purring his pleasure. She smiled up at him and he could feel her determination returning. He stopped purring.


"Catherine," he looked at her seriously, "I know I’ve been very difficult over the past several months. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt you needed some time away from me."


Catherine looked up at him mystified. What was he trying to do? Get rid of me? No. She could feel his sorrow at the suggestion. He was merely letting her know he understood her earlier feelings.


"Oh, Vincent. I’m so happy you’re well again. I couldn’t bear to be away from you." She looked down at his foot, still in her hand and lovingly stroked it again. "Even your Fridays are difficult for me. I know you need them but . . ." She stopped, unable to say what she really wanted to say. Take me with you. Don’t leave me.


Vincent looked at her. He wished he could tell her right now what he had planned for tomorrow, but he wanted to wait. Just one more day. He took her chin in his hand, lifted her face to look at him, and looked deep into her eyes. "I love you, Catherine. Your voice stops my heart. Your name is the sweetest music I will ever hear."


Catherine let out a soft cry, "I love you. I swear I’ll make you happy. I will become whatever you want me to be."


Her words distressed him and he rushed to reassure her, "You already are what I want. You have been since the moment I met you."


He stroked her head and she kneeled up to hug him. He nuzzled in her hair and drank in her scent. It was almost too much for him. His body responded to her as it had so often of late and he became dizzy. He reached for her shoulders and felt only slight disappointment from her as he held her at arms length. "You’ve probably got to get up early for work tomorrow."


She shook her head, "I took the day off."


Vincent was surprised but more than a little pleased. "Can you spend the night below? We could celebrate all day."


His suggestion surprised her, but she had already made her plans. "I can’t. I do have a few things to do tomorrow. But I can be here earlier tomorrow, say after lunch?"


Suddenly Vincent had a lovely picture of a romantic picnic lunch by the mirror pool or the falls. William could help! "Can you come for lunch?"


"I doubt it. I’ll probably just grab something wherever I am."


Vincent looked disappointed and Catherine was momentarily considering dropping the whole idea but then her determination took over again. No. The plan had to be stuck to.


"After lunch then," said Vincent, now wondering what she could possibly be thinking.


"I should get going. I do have to be up early tomorrow for an appointment."


"All right, I’ll walk you back."


They walked in companionable silence back to Catherine’s sub-basement where they said a quick goodnight. Vincent again began to worry about the determination he felt from Catherine but she smiled at him and her smile reassured him that she was not angry or put off. He would just have to wait to see what tomorrow would bring. His surprise would either be very well received or turn out very badly. But he would not turn back now.