Beauty and the Beast ~ Book 1

The Winds of Change

by Tee Hoagland

PART 1:

Once Upon a Time in the City of New York

CHAPTER 5 ~ CONNECTED

 

As Vincent neared the end of the chapter he read in Great Expectations, he heard Father approaching in the tunnel outside his chamber. He finished the paragraph, then closed the book.

“Is that the end of the chapter?” Catherine asked.

“Almost. It’s a good place to pause. I hear Father coming.” He sensed her rising apprehension.

She forced control into her breathing, assumed the bandages swathing her head prohibited her hearing the doctor’s approach, and worried about what he would tell her.

“Vincent,” Father called while traversing the short passage into his chamber. “I understand our guest is up and about.” He entered, eyeing his patient, and stepped toward the bed.

“Father, this is Catherine,” Vincent introduced them. Pulled by her increasing distress, he wanted to go to her and comfort her. One look at his father stayed such movement.

“Hello, Catherine.” Father stepped close to the bed, motioning for Vincent to pull a chair near for him. “How are you feeling?”

Vincent picked his chair up and set it close to Catherine’s head, helping Father pull it nearer as he sat down.

“Stiff, sore, weak,” Catherine told Father, as she had Mary. “My face hurts. Please, I need to know – how bad is it? What did they do to me?” She twisted the blankets in her hands, wishing for a more substantial means of grounding herself. Like Vincent’s hand. Then she wondered why she knew his hand would help more.

“Firstly,” Father began, “I believe it’s important that you know your injuries will heal fully. You will take no lasting damage from what happened, aside from potential scarring. Once you go back above, they may even be able to eliminate that. We found you unconscious, which I believe was a result of blood loss and trauma. Can you tell us when that happened? What do you remember of the attack?”

“I remember everything.”

When Catherine’s near whisper brought a trembling to her lower lip and an uptick in her breathing, Vincent took a step toward her. Another look at his father, however, prevented his taking her hand. Yet he smiled, proud of her strength, when she inhaled as deeply as she could, and he sensed her forcing out the tension and steeling her nerves with the exhale.

“I know they cut my face.” Catherine released her grip on the blanket covering her, willing her muscles to relax. “Vincent told me I have broken ribs. That probably happened when one of them kneed me in the side a couple of times. They punched me a lot. I stayed conscious until I rolled out of the van. I tried to stay alert because I was afraid they’d…” She clenched her teeth and swallowed hard. “But they didn’t.” She pressed her lips into a hard line, refusing to tremble anymore. “So, how bad is it?”

“You have bruising across your whole midsection,” Father gently informed her. “Four ribs on your left side have hairline fractures. And there are several lacerations on your face. You lost quite a bit of blood before we could tend to you. Had we taken you somewhere else, you may very well have died. Do you know why you were attacked?”

“It was a mistake.”

Vincent felt anger flood through Catherine as her lips trembled again and her breath adopted the cadence of one fighting furious tears.

“They meant to attack another woman. It sounded like they wanted to scare her away from informing on them. They thought I was her. I told them I wasn’t. They didn’t listen.”

Once again, Vincent sensed her steel herself with a couple of deep breaths.

“When can these bandages come off?” Catherine touched her face, gently running her fingers over the dressings covering her eyes. “It’s very disconcerting not being able to see after everything that’s happened.”

Father glanced at Vincent, then told Catherine, “They need to remain on for the time being. They will help ensure that the stitches do their job. And you’ll need to stay here for several more days; we want to ensure you’re healed enough for travel. With your permission, I would like to examine you. Just a few minor things: pulse, temperature, blood pressure. Is that all right?”

“Yes.” Catherine startled herself again at wishing she could hold Vincent’s hand, craving the comfort and grounding he gave her. Lost with her sudden blindness robbing her of her accustomed connection of sight, she missed the anchor his touch provided. A well of respect for those who lived every day without sight bubbled up in her.

“Hold this thermometer under your tongue, please,” Father instructed, beginning his examination. While waiting for her temperature to register, he talked her through checking her pulse, then sliding her sleeve up to take her blood pressure. With a nod at the reading, he removed the cuff and pulled her sleeve back down. “I’ll take this from you now,” he told her, sliding the thermometer from her mouth and noting the degrees. “Your vitals are good, though you’re running a low-grade fever, which is to be expected. Have you been able to sleep?”

“Not very well,” Catherine replied. “Mostly bad dreams disturb me; I wake up still feeling tired.”

“Would you like something to help you rest?”

“No,” Catherine answered immediately, her determination clear. “I know this will pass soon enough.”

Vincent smiled again at her strength.

“Very well.” Father tucked his accoutrements into his medical bag. “I’d like you to try and get some rest, for now. I need to talk with Vincent about a few things, but we’ll be close by should you need anything. He’ll be back shortly.”

“All right,” Catherine acknowledged. “And thank you for helping me.”

“You’re quite welcome.” Father patted her shoulder, then rose from the chair and stepped toward the entrance.

“I won’t be long.” When Vincent laid his hand on her shoulder, she surprised him by reaching up and clasping it. From the corner of his eye, he saw his father scowl at the movement. When she let go, he followed Father out of his chamber.

Father led the way to his study, took a chair on one side of a small table near his desk, and indicated the other chair to Vincent, who followed his suggestion. Then they exchanged a long look. Father finally huffed a sigh of resignation.

“Explain,” he instructed Vincent.

“I don’t know that I can. Her emotions resonate in me, stronger than anyone else’s ever have. And my presence, especially my touch, soothes her faster than anything else. I don’t know why.” He stood, moving away, and kept his back to his father. “But there’s more. My…” he knew this revelation would definitely upset his father, “my… inner self also settles at her touch and when she calms. There is… correlation.”

“What?!” Father stood as quickly as he could, approaching Vincent. “This cannot be!”

Vincent heard the imperative in his father’s tone. This was no question; it was a demand. He turned to face him.

“And yet it is.” Vincent chafed at his father’s controlling words, even as his inner self growled in defiance. “We have… an inexplicable connection. It just happened. I didn’t ask for it, and I certainly didn’t cause it.”

“Well, you need to end it!”

“Tell me how!” Anger pulled a slight growl out with Vincent’s words. He watched Father lean away from him as worry crossed his face. “How do you stop enjoying music? Or a favorite meal? Or fellowship with a friend?”

“Vincent, it’s dangerous! Don’t you realize –”

“Of course, I do!” He saw his father flinch at his roar and took a deep, calming breath. Then he lifted a hand to his chest. His next words carried unmistakable gravity. “He’s claimed her, Father. Declared himself hers. I cannot simply stop this.” He pointed to Father. “And you know the peril of trying.”

Father’s shoulders slumped as old fear and remembered torment settled on his features.

“You haven’t referred to yourself in the third person since –”

“I know.”

“Perhaps we should send her above. If she’s gone –”

“You just told her she would need to be here for several more days. It is a violation of your Hippocratic oath to endanger a patient by sending them into the world before they are healed enough to handle it. All we can do is… let this play out how it will.” Vincent sighed, shaking his head. “There is some… small hope that this won’t end in disaster. She already feels a connection to me, also. Even more than – well, you know. You saw how comfortable she was touching me.”

Father stepped close, laying his hand on his son’s cheek, pulling his face until their eyes met, then asked, “And when she sees you?”

Vincent sighed softly before replying, “I’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”

Father dropped his hand, nodding, then said, “You’d better go see to her.”

Vincent nodded once, then returned to his chamber. Though Catherine lay completely still, he could tell by her breathing that she remained awake. He entered silently and sat in his chair, waiting to see if she would notice.

“Is everything all right with your father?” Catherine asked.

“Did you hear me come in? Most people don’t.”

“No, I… sensed you. I don’t know how else to put it.”

“I know what you mean. Everything is fine.” He hoped she did not hear the lie. “Would you like me to continue reading?”

“Yes, please.” Catherine paused, turning her head in the direction of his voice. “May I ask… That is, would you… I’m sorry. Never mind.”

Vincent, smiling softly, sensed what she wanted, so he prompted, “Go ahead. You can ask me anything.”

“It’s just…,” she gave a short sigh, then rushed the question, “would you mind sitting closer and holding my hand? You don’t have to. It just helps anchor me, what with not being able to see.”

“Certainly.” He accommodated her, then resumed reading. Soon, she slept. Closing the book, he turned his eyes on her, leaving their hands joined, wondering where this would lead. He could not tell his father that the attraction he felt toward this woman was as much him as his inner self. Since his youth, so rarely had his two halves been in accord. She apparently gave them common ground. When he felt his inner self sigh contentedly, he carefully extracted his hand and left the chamber.

* * *

Vincent let Catherine sleep as much as she wanted during her first forty-eight hours below, then helped her reestablish regular sleeping patterns by waking her in the morning and keeping her engaged as much as possible throughout the day, only allowing short naps when her energy waned.

On the afternoon of her fourth day below, while he sat on the edge of the bed beside her and helped her eat a stew William made, Vincent asked Catherine, “May I ask where you live? I want to make sure we can get you safely home when you are recovered enough to travel.”

“Of course.” Catherine gave him her address. As the idea of going back into the world took root, her muscles tensed, her breath quickened, her hands fisted the blankets.

“Catherine? Are you all right?” He sensed a wave of anxiety wash over her, inundating all other feelings.

“Yes, I’m just…” She forced her hands to release the blankets and took as deep a breath as she could, blowing out the tension seizing her. “I’m sorry. I want to go home, but the idea of being back in the world frightens me right now. I don’t know how those I know will react or what they’ll think. And the thought of walking the streets, knowing those men are out there… What if something happens again?”

“You needn’t be sorry.” Vincent paused in feeding her, resting his hand over the back of hers. “Your response is normal and reasonable. But I’m certain you’ll come through this stronger than you already are.” He watched her smile tremulously; she turned her hand over, grasping his, and he felt calm suffuse her.

“Thank you, Vincent.” She wondered for not the first time how this virtual stranger knew just what to say to bolster her spirits and why his touch soothed her so well. She wanted to continue holding his hand but knew he could not help her eat with only one. So she squeezed his hand for a long moment, then released it.

Vincent finished feeding her, then said, “Will you be all right here for a few minutes? I need to return the tray to the kitchen and attend to something. I’ll be back shortly.”

“Please, don’t let me keep you from anything,” Catherine entreated, stretching her arm toward him and shaking her head. “I’m sure you have more pressing things to do than tend to me. I’ll just rest here and maybe doze for a little while.” She settled back against the comfortable pillows and felt him rise from the bed. She heard him gather the supplies on the tray and a moment later heard his voice behind her, where she guessed was the entrance.

“I won’t be long.” Vincent waited for Catherine’s nod of understanding before he left his chamber. On the way to the kitchen, he met Winslow in the corridor. “I was just about to come look for you,” he greeted his long-time friend.

“And I was looking for you,” Winslow returned as he followed Vincent toward the kitchen. “How fares your guest? Is it safe to have her here? She won’t endanger us, will she?”

“She is no threat to us. She has a good heart. And her recovery is slow but progressing.”

“What did you need to see me for?” asked Winslow.

“I want to make sure I can take her home when the time comes. I wanted to ask you and Kanin to please make sure her apartment building has access.”

“Isn’t that a permanent solution to a temporary problem?”

Vincent eyed Winslow for a moment on entering the kitchen and depositing the tray, then answered, “Catherine is not a problem. And consider her feelings. She will not want to go traipsing through the streets of New York with signs of an attack all over her face. Additionally, if we can get her home unseen, there is less risk of her being seen leaving the tunnels.”

“All right, Vincent, I see your point. I’ll get Kanin and we’ll look into it today. Where does she live?”

Vincent told Winslow her address and the two parted.

Throughout his brief time away from Catherine, Vincent remained aware of her futile attempt to rein in her anxiety, which had steadily increased from the moment he rose from her side. He discerned, also, that it stemmed not from her situation below but from the prospect of returning above. He had ceased wondering why his empathic sense of her lingered, assuming that it would fade with time and distance after she went home. For now, he let it help him tend to her needs. To that end, he hurried back to his chamber.

He quietly entered, finding her fingers white-knuckled while clenching the blankets under her chin, her breath quick and shallow.

“Easy, Catherine.” He rubbed his fingers over her hands and kept his voice soft. “This tension will aggravate your ribs. Try to relax. Deep, slow breaths.” He marveled a moment at her near instantaneous response to his touch and sensed her own surprise over the same. He perceived the steady, quick decrease in her tension level, and felt wonder fill him when she released the blanket and wrapped her fingers over his hand.

“I’m sorry,” Catherine murmured. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m not usually given to bouts of panic.”

“You’ve been through a very traumatic ordeal. It will take some time to adjust. But you are strong and capable. That you fought to survive tells me that. I have full confidence that you will overcome this. It will not beat you, because you will not let it. You will learn from it, let it make you stronger, and conquer whatever it throws at you to try to bring you down.”

“Thank you, Vincent.” She felt her strength bolster as he spoke and used it to wrestle back the anxiety trying to drown her. “You always seem to know just what to say.”

“I’m pleased I can help. Would you like me to read to you some more, to give you something else to think about? Or would you prefer to talk about other things?”

“Please read. I’d like to hear more about Pip and Estella.” Catherine felt the corners of her lips pull up as his soothing voice picked up the story where they had left off. Trying to decipher why she felt such comfort with this man seemed a futile pursuit, so she abandoned the effort to simply enjoy the feeling while it lasted. Then she pushed down the twinge of disappointment that flitted through her at the prospect of it ending. Perhaps they could find a way to maintain contact after she returned home.

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