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 3 ~ FOUND

 

“No!” Catherine’s head twitched side to side, her mind fighting off the attackers in her nightmare. “No!” A quiet sob escaped as reality crept in.

“You’re safe.” Vincent kept his voice soft and soothing. “You’re safe now.”

Catherine stilled at this strange man’s serene voice and asked, “Where am I?”

“No one will hurt you. You’re safe here.”

“Hospital?” Catherine’s voice crept tremulously from her throat.

“No. But you’re going to be all right.”

“Why aren’t I in a hospital?”

“There was no time. You were bleeding.”

“What did they do?” moaned Catherine. She reached a hand to her face, panicked. “My eyes!” She gasped, feeling the bandages swathing her head.

“Your eyes were not hurt,” Vincent said. “We made sure. Rest now.”

Sleep pulled at Catherine. Reassured by the man’s kind, comforting voice, she allowed herself to drift into restful slumber.

Vincent watched as natural sleep claimed the woman in his bed. This woman pulled at his innate protective instincts. She sparked an ownership for his inner self that he could not yet explain, not as though she belonged to him, but that he was now hers. The peace that blossomed in her as she calmed at his words, her blind trust in the safety he provided, claimed a part of him that he had thought long lost. Vincent stood, his gaze on her face, as he felt her slip into deep, healing sleep.

“Keep a close watch.” Father stepped behind Vincent, pulled him close, then placed an arm over his shoulders. “If her fever rises, let me know at once.”

“I will.” Vincent turned back toward his bed, watching the woman a moment more as Father left, then he returned to his chair, resuming his vigil.

A few hours later, she stirred again. Vincent sat on the bed beside her.

“Who’s here?” Catherine asked when alertness returned. “Who are you?”

“Vincent.”

“Vincent?”

“My father and I treated your injuries.” When Catherine tried to rise, Vincent quickly added, “You have broken ribs. You need to be still.”

At the pain of movement, Catherine settled back in the bed, asking, “Where am I?”

“Where no one can hurt you.”

“My face hurts.”

“Tell me your name.”

“Catherine.”

“Catherine. Try to rest. If you need anything, I’ll be close by.”

Catherine felt Vincent rise from the bed and heard his steps move away.

“Don’t be afraid,” Vincent reassured her, feeling her courage present a calm face despite the fear roused in her. “Please don’t be afraid.”

“I’ll try.” Catherine heard him leave, wondering at her trust, even as fright still permeated her. She did not know him, had not even seen his face, yet his voice and manner conveyed safety here, wherever here was. The room held the muffled echo of a cave, and she heard soft clanging reminiscent of a toddler with a pot and spoon, or several toddlers, in no discernable pattern. She pushed curiosity to the back of her mind, relaxing into the soft, comfortable mattress and pillows, craving sleep.

* * *

Vincent found Father in the large library that comprised his study and meeting room, adjacent to his personal chamber, to let him know Catherine awoke. Father stood on the upper level of the library near a bookshelf full of encyclopedias, an open book in his hands, and turned toward Vincent when he entered.

“Is she awake?” Father removed his reading glasses, closing the book.

“Yes. She’s very frightened.”

Father sighed in exasperation, then said, “How could you bring a stranger down here – to where we live?” He crossed the balcony. “You ignored our most important rule.” Dropping the book on a stack of others, he descended the staircase, joining Vincent.

“I know that,” Vincent acknowledged. “But there was no other way.”

“Do you know what they’d do? If they caught you up there? Or found you down here? They’d kill you.” Father set his reading glasses atop another stack of books. “Or put you behind bars and make you… wish you were dead.” He dropped his gaze. His next words rushed out in a harsh whisper. “How could you?”

“How could I have turned my back on her and left her there?”

Father frowned his acquiescence, then stepped toward a stool holding his medical bag, saying, “Well, make sure she takes these, to prevent infection.” He pulled out a bottle and read the label.

“I’ll make sure.”

“I was saving them for an emergency.” Father brought the bottle toward Vincent. “In case anything happened to either of us.”

“Father, try to understand. This was an emergency – she would’ve died.”

Father nodded reluctantly, saying, “All right. We’ll help her regain her strength, but the moment she’s ready to leave, get her out. And, Vincent – don’t tell her anything.”

“Don’t worry.” Vincent stepped close to Father. “It won’t be very long. She’s already beginning to heal.”

Father smiled, saying, “You know, you have the soul of a doctor. When I studied medicine, they wouldn’t admit minorities.” His expression morphed into terrified curiosity. “I wonder what they would’ve done with you.” Sadness settled on his face as he blinked away tears that threatened to fall, reaching for Vincent. “Let’s not even think about it.” Taking Vincent’s face in his hands, he pulled his head down, kissing his cheek, smiling affectionately.

“Father, do you know where Vincent is?” called William as he entered the library.

Vincent turned, watching William take the few steps down into the room.

“Ah, Vincent, good. I was looking for you,” William began. “I heard about the woman you rescued. Will she be all right?”

“She will,” Vincent replied. “She’s resting comfortably right now. Father says she’ll make a full recovery.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I took it upon myself to make some nourishing soup for her. It’s ready when you want it.”

“Thank you. Will you please bring some to my chamber, so I have it on hand for her?”

“Will do.” William nodded his assent, then turned and left.

“Father,” Vincent turned back to him, “She’s going to have questions about where she is. I don’t know that refusing to answer them is for the best.”

“Vincent, it’s dangerous. We don’t know anything about this woman, or whether we can trust her.”

“I believe we can. Concealing the situation may only agitate her. It could even drive her to run away, further endangering her, before she has time to heal enough to move safely. I can sense that she has a good heart. Will you trust my judgment?”

Father sighed, then said, “Very well. But be discreet. No more than necessary.”

Vincent tipped his head in concurrence, then went back to his chamber. He met William on the way, carrying a tray holding a covered tureen of soup with a ladle and two bowls with spoons. Vincent accepted the tray with thanks. On reaching his chamber, he found Catherine in fitful rest. Anxiety over her injuries and curiosity about her situation kept her too alert to reach deep, healing sleep. He set the tray on his table, then stroked her shoulder, gently bringing her to wakefulness.

“Catherine, are you all right?”

“Vincent? Is that you?”

“Yes. I’ve brought you some soup. Are you hungry?” He watched the corners of her lips pull down slightly.

“I am,” she murmured, placing her hand over her eyes. “But I’m not sure how I would manage it.”

“I would be happy to help, if that is agreeable to you.”

“That would be fine. Thank you.”

“Would you like me to help you sit up a bit?”

“Yes, please.” Catherine tried to lean forward, winced in pain, and lost her breath. Then she felt Vincent sit on the bed beside her, slide his hands behind her, and pull her towards him. She noticed his breadth as she fisted the front of his clothes, holding herself against him, her forehead resting on his chest. With her pain subsiding and her breathing returning to normal, Catherine dismissed her mild surprise at how safe and secure she felt clinging to this strange man.

Vincent kept an arm around Catherine, supporting her, his other hand stuffing a few large, thick pillows behind her.  Careful of her broken ribs, he leaned her against the pillows, his body following as she continued clasping his shirt, unwilling to hurt her by pulling away. Even as he slid his arms from beneath her, she held him close.

Catherine relaxed against the soft cushions propping her up, then heard Vincent ask, “Better?” The feel of his breath on her chin and lips, the only exposed part of her head, revealed how close his face was to hers. His voice, a deep, rumbly growl, made her breathless for very different reasons than pain.

Catherine swallowed and murmured, “Much.” Then she realized she still clutched his clothes, preventing his moving away. She released him and felt him rise from the bed.

Vincent went to the table, inhaling a deep, calming breath, quashing the feelings rising in him at Catherine’s behavior. He ladled soup into a bowl, then took it to the bed.

“This will be easiest if I can sit beside you,” Vincent told Catherine.

“Go ahead.”

Vincent felt Catherine’s gratitude at his thoughtfulness to forewarn her as he sat down; it pleased him more than he expected. He began spooning soup to her mouth.

“You like it?” Vincent asked after a few bites.

“It’s good soup. Vincent, tell me – where are we? Somewhere there’s an elevated train? Brooklyn? Queens?”

“No. Not Brooklyn or Queens.”

“Am I still in New York?” Catherine’s tremulous tone exposed her fear. “Vincent, please tell me. Where are we?”

“I have to keep it as a secret,” Vincent explained apologetically.

“Why?” A hint of desperation clung to her word.

“Because… a lot of good people depend on this place for safety.”

“I’ll keep your secret,” Catherine declared. Addressing the metal clanging, she added, “And that tapping – it never stops.”

“It’s people… talking to each other, tapping on the master pipes.”

“You mean… messages?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Vincent, please. Tell me.” Her last words escaped in a whisper.

Vincent paused a moment, then explained, “We’re below the city, below the subways. There’s a whole world of tunnels and chambers that most people don’t even know exists. There are no maps to where we are. It’s a forgotten place. But it’s warm, and it’s safe, and we have all the room we need. So, we live here, and we try to live as well as we can. And we try to take care of each other. It’s our city down here.”

“What are you doing down here? Why are you here?”

“I was a baby, abandoned, left to die. Someone… found me, brought me here, to the man who became my father. He took me, he raised me, he taught me everything. And he named me Vincent. That’s where I was found – near the hospital, Saint Vincent’s.”

“I don’t know what to believe.”

“It’s all true.” Vincent raised the spoon to her mouth with another bite.

Catherine felt the spoon against her lips, then raised her hand to where his must be, for the comfort and grounding contact provided. She touched his hand, covered in thick, long hair, and gasped in surprise, jerking her hand away. She sensed Vincent go very still before quickly withdrawing his hand.

Neither commented on her alarm, nor said anything else, as he continued feeding her. The initial shock ended, leaving Catherine most surprised to find herself more intrigued than scared at the strange turn.

Catherine heard the spoon scrape the bottom of the bowl and received a smaller bite than the previous ones.

“I have more,” Vincent said a moment later. “Would you like another bowl?”

“No, thank you. I’d like to rest some more, but I don’t think I can. As weary as I am, my mind is racing.”

“Is there anything I can do to help? Perhaps read to you?”

“I don’t want to cause you any more trouble.”

“You are no trouble.” Vincent rose from the bed, set the dishes back on the tray, and picked up a book. “Ah, here’s an old favorite. Do you like Dickens?”

“Yes.” Catherine heard Vincent settle nearby and turn a few pages.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.’”

Catherine listened to Vincent’s voice, deep and gravelly, yet lyrical and soothing, and marveled that it brought such comfort. He read beautifully. She quickly lost herself in the narrative, and in the safety she felt in his presence, even as she wondered at instinctively knowing that this man would never hurt her. Then she found herself trying to stay awake so she could keep listening.

Vincent sensed Catherine’s slip into slumber, continuing to read until she slept fully. Closing the book, he watched her for a moment.

A naturally affectionate person, he craved the platonic touches indicating love and care for another, but aside from Father, and sometimes Mary, such contact remained limited in his life. Few others were willing to be so close to him. Only once before, in his youth, had he desired a girl in a more intimate way. Her rejection nearly destroyed him. Never since had he allowed himself to become so emotionally attached to another.

So, when Catherine responded to his nearness and his voice, his soul reacted powerfully. Watching Catherine sleep, feeling the stirrings that she could be more to him than anyone else had ever been, he determined to resist her pull. When his inner self roared in protest, craving connection with this remarkable woman, he rose, silently leaving his chamber.

Hoping for clarity through distance, Vincent took the tunnels to Chinatown. Traveling further away, and yet finding his empathic connection to Catherine only growing stronger, startled him. He knew she slept and dreamt unpleasant dreams. Instead of distance breaking the connection, it made him yearn to be by her side, to comfort her, to end her nightmares.

Reaching his destination, he cautiously entered the basement of the shop of a helper in the world above, via a tunnel entrance hidden by a moveable cabinet with a sink. Focusing his senses on the shop above, he ensured their privacy, then crept up the stairs into the back room.

“Doctor Wong?” Vincent called softly to the proprietor.

Wong turned with a smile, saying, “Vincent! It’s good to see you. What brings you here?”

“A woman was attacked last night, and I saw her dumped in the park. There was no time to get her help, so I brought her below. Father and I tended her wounds, and she is recovering. I was hoping you could mix an herbal tea for her to aid her healing. She lost a lot of blood and has cuts on her face, bruises, and broken ribs.”

“Oh, my! No wonder she’s still below.” Wong placed a sheaf of parchment paper on his work counter and began gathering various herbs. “I’ll be happy to mix something up for her.”

Vincent watched Wong prepare the tea, then fold the parchment around the loose-leaf mixture, sealing the handmade envelope with tape.

“I know you know how to prepare herbal tea,” Wong said, handing the package to Vincent. “I hope she recovers quickly.”

“Thank you.” With a parting smile, Vincent returned to the tunnels.

 

 

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