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 4 ~ DRAWN

 

“William.” Vincent greeted the community cook while entering the kitchen. “I went to Dr. Wong and got some herbal tea for our guest. Would you please be so kind as to prepare a kettle of water and bring it to my chamber with a teapot and cups when you have a moment?”

“Certainly, Vincent.” William slid a tray of cookies into the oven, wiped his hands on a kitchen towel slung over his shoulder, and set a timer. “I’ll get right on that.” He reached for a kettle, casting a happy smile at Vincent.

Vincent glanced around the well-kept kitchen, smiling at William’s fastidiousness. The room stood neat and clean, with a place for everything and everything in its place, only revealing William’s baking through a mixing bowl of cookie dough sitting between a sheet pan and a cooling rack on the large island in its midst.

“Also, William.” Vincent waited until William faced him.

“Yes?” William turned expectant eyes toward him, eager to know what other service he could provide.

“I wanted to let you know the soup was delicious. Our guest enjoyed and appreciated it.” Vincent watched William’s features warm, his smile broadening, his shoulders pulling more upright, a rosy bloom suffusing his cheeks. “Thank you for preparing it for her.”

William nodded, humbly declaring, “It was my pleasure.”

Vincent gave a single nod, then headed for his chamber. As he neared the entrance, he felt a nightmare grip Catherine, her terror swelling, panic setting in. He quickened his steps, entering his chamber to find her writhing on the bed.

“No!” cried Catherine. “NO!”

“Catherine,” Vincent called gently, crouching, steadying himself with one arm beside her on the bed, lightly laying his other hand atop her head. “Catherine, you’re safe. It’s just a dream.”

She awoke, stilling with his touch and soothing words.

“Vincent?”

“I’m here.” He moved his hand away from her head.

“I’m sorry. I keep having nightmares. About the attack.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.”

“Vincent, how did I get down here? How did you end up taking care of me?”

He paused a moment, loath to revisit her trauma, then told her, “I happened to be in the park when…” His inner self growled at the memory of her thrown from the van. “No one else was around, so I brought you here, where I knew you could be helped quickest. I’m sorry, if –”

“Don’t be,” she beseeched him, her hand searching until she found his arm, then gripping it. “I’m not. You saved my life. Thank you.”

“I could do nothing else.” Watching her lips pull into a soft smile, he felt her gratitude, a balm settling his lonely soul. “Do you need anything? Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Well,” she faltered. “Yes. I, um… I need to… use the restroom.”

“I’ll take you there.” He rose from his crouch, ready to help when she needed it.

Catherine grasped the edge of the blankets, folding them off herself. Then Vincent slid his arm under her shoulders, helping her sit up.

“Do you feel strong enough to walk?”

“I think so.” Keeping a hand over her injured ribs, she carefully drew her legs from under the covers and put her bare feet on the floor. She pulled her toes away from the cool stone, an involuntary shiver running through her.

“What happened to your socks?”

“I must have kicked them off.” She lifted the leading edge of the blankets a few inches off the bed. “Do you see them?”

Vincent squatted beside the bed, propping the blankets on his head, and stretching his arms beneath them in search of the socks Mary gave Catherine. Unprepared for the pleasure that rolled through him at her scent mingled with his in his sheets, he forced down his inner self, creeping forward with an unfamiliar feeling of contentment and desire. He quickened his hunt, found the socks near the bottom of the bed, and pulled them out.

“Here –” Vincent paused, clearing his throat when his voice came out in the deep, rumbly growl that Catherine inspired. “Here you are.” He laid the socks in her waiting hand, then took a couple of steps back.

“Thank you.” She stretched her arms out and leaned forward to put the socks on, gasping as pain shot through her side, jerking her upright, forcing rigidity into every muscle, and robbing her of breath.

Vincent quickly stepped forward, running a gentle hand over her back, saying, “Easy, Catherine. Relax, take slow breaths.”

“How is it… I forgot… they’re broken?” Her harsh mutter dragged the words reluctantly from her throat.

He huffed a sympathetic laugh, then replied, “If you figure that out, tell me.” He watched Catherine’s lips curl up in a tight smile, heard her breath settle back into a regular rhythm, saw her body relax as the pain ebbed. “Would you like help getting your socks on?”

“Please.” She handed him the socks, then gathered up the hem of her gown to just below her knees.

Vincent knelt before her, one knee on the floor with his foot beneath him, took the socks, and slid them up her calves, meticulously keeping the wool between his hands and her legs.

“There you go.” He rose to his feet.

“Will you help me stand, please?” She cautiously held her arms out.

“Certainly. Here, take my arms.” He gently grasped her arms just above her elbows, raising her to her feet when she gripped his forearms. He held her steady as she wobbled a moment, adjusting to the movement, then leaned her head against his chest, letting her body adapt to being upright again. His inner self wanted to drop his nose to the top of her head and breathe her in, so he stared up at his ceiling and called chess strategies to mind.

She lifted her head a few moments later, saying, “Okay. I think I’m good.”

“I’m going to turn around. You can hold onto me while we walk.” He slowly turned, feeling her hands track his movement, and stopped with his back to her. Before taking a step, he waited to feel her grip his cloak halfway up his back. “Ready?”

“Ready.” Catherine followed Vincent, grateful for his steady pace, neither fast nor slow, so she easily kept up with him. She had never known anyone as thoughtful as him. She found herself wondering what he looked like. She knew he was large, could feel how tall and broad he was, and that he kept his hair long. She felt it, soft against her fingers, and nearly halfway down his back, as she grasped what felt like his cloak in her hands. She remembered the hair on the back of his hand, denser and slightly coarser, but still soft, and wondered if he had hypertrichosis. Her musings faded, interrupted by exhaustion, as her energy waned.

“Vincent, may we pause a moment, please?” She stopped, pulling gently on the back of his cloak.

“Are you all right?” He stopped when she did.

“I think so.” Her head resting against his back, her breath slow like approaching sleep, belied her words. “I’m just… suddenly weary.”

“Understandable. You’re recovering from blood loss. I can carry you… if you wish.”

Her hands slid down his back, resting at his waist. She leaned more fully against him, feeling safe and snug against his solid, comfortable support. She gripped his cloak, pulling herself up to keep from sliding to the floor when her knees tried to buckle.

“I’m sorry. My muscles don’t seem to want to work anymore.” She forced herself upright, pulling away from him, only keeping one hand lightly on his waist, afraid to be lost without the contact. “Perhaps you should carry me.” Her hand slid around him as he slowly turned to face her.

“No need to be sorry. I’m going to pick you up now,” he forewarned her, stepping to her side and wrapping an arm around her waist. Squatting slightly, he placed his other arm behind her knees, easily scooping her into his arms. She settled against him without awkwardness, resting her head on his shoulder, as if he held her every day. Surprise coursed through him when his inner self relaxed into a peace he never felt before. He worried what that might mean.

Catherine, amazed at being content in the arms of this virtual stranger, resisted the urge to nuzzle her face against his neck for the comfort of contact. Blinded by the bandages that covered her eyes, she felt cut off from the world, with no way to get her bearings. Vincent’s presence, the few times she felt his touch, eased the lost feeling that tried to overwhelm her. She nonchalantly moved her hand, as if wrapping her arms around herself, to where his hand held her waist, until her pinky rested against his thumb. She tried not to give away her awareness when she felt him turn his head for a moment, seemingly to look at her. When he said nothing, maintained his step, and left his hand where it was, she tried not to smile.

Vincent could not stop the smile that spread over his face when Catherine set her hand against his – he knew she would not see it – even as the joy that flooded his inner self frightened him. He felt her inner turmoil and wished for the power to stop it. For once in agreement with his inner self, he welcomed her to take whatever small touches brought her comfort and grounding.

Near their destination, Mary met them in the tunnel.

“Vincent, is everything all right?” Mary asked. “I was just coming to check on our guest.”

“Yes, everything is fine. Catherine, this is Mary; she helped us take care of you. Mary, your timing is fortuitous. Perhaps you can help Catherine where I cannot?”

“I’d be happy to!” Mary fell in step with them. “How are you feeling, Catherine?”

“Stiff, sore, a little weak.” The corners of Catherine’s lips curled up a bit. “Grateful to be alive.” She slid her hand over Vincent’s, gently squeezed for just a moment, then returned her hand to its place beside his.

When Vincent set Catherine down outside the bathroom, Mary said, “Here, Catherine. You can take my arm.” She lifted her forearm under Catherine’s hand. “Here we go. Careful here, there’s a bump in the floor. Now, right through here.”

Vincent leaned against the tunnel wall to wait. He could not prevent hearing what they talked about, though he was certain Catherine did not know he could, and Mary would not think about it.

“So, Mary, you helped when Vincent brought me down?”

“I did. I usually help with nursing duties for Father.”

“I’m sorry for making trouble for you.”

“Nonsense! You put that right out of your mind! We’re glad we could help you. You are no trouble at all.”

“Thank you. May I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“It feels like I’m wearing clothes different from my own. Is that correct?”

“Yes. We keep spare things on hand, should anyone have a need. Vincent asked me to bring you something that would be more comfortable to rest in, and I’ve cleaned your own lovely gown. Are you comfortable enough? Do you need something different?”

“No, no, I’m perfectly comfortable. It’s just…, well…, um, how did I… come to be in different clothes?”

In the tunnel, Vincent felt a rare sensation bubble up in him at hearing Catherine’s question. Humor was not the first, nor the strongest, emotion that vied for dominance in him at her query, but it was the safest, so he pushed it to the forefront – trying desperately to ignore the train of thought his inner self wanted to take – erupting in a short bout of laughter.

Catherine and Mary jumped at the roar of laughter that sounded briefly in the tunnel.

“I wonder what Vincent’s laughing about?” Mary mused. “We almost never hear that. Now your question.” Mary looked at Catherine for a moment, then understanding hit her. “Oh! Yes, I see. No, I changed your clothes behind an enclosed partition while Vincent and Father waited outside of it. We did all we could to protect your privacy.”

Catherine sighed with relief, saying, “Good. Thank you, Mary. This is much more comfortable.”

Vincent pulled away from the tunnel wall and faced the door as the women emerged.

“And here’s Vincent,” Mary told Catherine, the last of the brief directions she gave her, placing Catherine’s hand on Vincent’s arm. “Is there anything else I can help with?”

Vincent looked at Catherine, who remained silent, before answering, “Thank you, Mary. I think that’s all we need for now.”

“Very well.” Mary nodded and smiled. “Catherine, if you need me for anything else, just let Vincent know. You get some good rest now. Feel better soon.” She patted Catherine’s arm, then headed off into the tunnels.

“Shall I carry you back?” Vincent asked Catherine, stepping to her side to pick her up.

“Yes, please.”

He scooped her back into his arms. She once again positioned her hand to touch his. When they arrived at his chamber, Vincent noticed William had left the requested tea supplies on a tray on the table.

“I brought you some herbal tea.” He settled her back in the bed. “Would you like some?”

“That sounds wonderful. Thank you.”

Vincent prepared the tea. While it steeped, he helped Catherine sit up, propping pillows behind her back.

“Tell me about Mary,” Catherine requested.

“Mary has been below almost as long as Father has. She doesn’t speak much of her life before. She helped raise me. She was like a mother to me as I grew up. Her special calling is to care for the children below.”

“And your father? What’s his name?”

“Everyone below calls my father by the name Father. It is his name, as his role is that of father to all of us; he is our leader, our center. Also, our doctor. That was his profession above. He is… the father figure to the fatherless children below. But for me it is his title, not just his name. He is my father. What about you? What is your role in the world above?”

Catherine sighed, then said, “Nothing special.”

“Oh? I’m sure you’re special to someone.”

“No, really,” she insisted, the corners of her lips pulling down. “I’m just a corporate lawyer in my father’s firm. For a long time I’ve felt that my life has… little meaning, little value. Nothing I do seems to make any… real difference. There’s nothing lasting about it, nothing… substantial.”

He felt her self-deprecation, and replied, “I’ve come to realize that… it is people, and our relationships with them, that give true value to life. And we don’t always know whom we may touch or how it affects them. There may be those who think that what you did for them… or how you treated them while doing it… held great significance. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Hmm. Perhaps. And how about you? What is your role down here?”

“I perform a number of functions,” Vincent murmured. “The tea is ready. Would you like to hear some more from Great Expectations while we have some?” He poured them each a cup.

“Yes, please.” Catherine smiled softly, turning her head toward his approaching steps, and raising her hands to accept the teacup. When the saucer touched her fingers, she slid her hands around it until she felt Vincent’s hand. Then she grasped the saucer with one hand and his hand with her other, squeezing gently. “Thank you for all your help, Vincent. You don’t know what it means to me.”

He returned her grip, saying, “I can imagine. You’re quite welcome.”

Catherine let her smile widen a bit, then released his hand. She heard him settle in a chair as she sipped the tea.

“Mmm, this is very good tea.”

“It’s a special blend made by a friend. I’ll let him know you like it.” Vincent struggled to regain control of his roiling emotions as he set his teacup on the stand beside his chair and picked up the book. Her willingness to touch him both thrilled and terrified him. His inner self yearned for more; his mind believed it dangerous. He took a deep breath, breathing out the tension welling in him, determining to not borrow trouble with speculation. Then, he began to read.

As she listened, Catherine considered this man. His strength amazed her; he lifted her like she weighed nothing. She marveled at his gentleness, his always soft, careful touch, as if afraid of hurting her. He treated her with consideration and respect. Being honest with herself, she admitted she enjoyed being in his arms. She felt safe and secure there. She wondered again what he looked like and if they would maintain contact after she healed. She certainly hoped so.

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