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 6 ~ SEEN

 

Father entered Vincent’s chamber as he sat on the bed feeding Catherine breakfast.

“Good morning, Vincent. Good morning, Catherine. Catherine, if you are agreeable, I would like to examine you today. See how your ribs are healing, check your bruising. If you want, I can ask Mary to join us and help you with your gown.”

“That sounds reasonable. And I would appreciate Mary’s help.”

“Very well. I will go call her. It should only take a few minutes.”

Catherine heard Father leave, then remarked to Vincent, “I’ve met Father and Mary. But the way you spoke implied there are many others living here. I’m a little surprised I haven’t met more.”

“The morning after I brought you here, I gave instructions to leave you alone,” he explained. “I didn’t want you overwhelmed with visitors or well-wishers.”

“I see.” She grasped what he had not said; they wanted to limit her exposure to their world. But when she realized her expression, she chuckled, adding, “Well, not right now, but I understand.”

A grin beset Vincent’s lips, and he said, “It’s good that you can find humor in the moment.” When she stretched her hand across the blanket, fingers reaching for him, he grasped it, releasing it on hearing Father and Mary in the tunnel beyond his chamber. A moment later, they entered as Vincent fed Catherine a bite.

“Father, she hasn’t finished eating yet,” Mary chided. “Let the poor woman at least finish breakfast before you poke and prod her.” She turned to Catherine, asking, “How are you feeling, dear?”

“Better, but still a little sore. My sleeping has improved.”

“I’m glad of that. Father and I have a couple of things to discuss, so we’ll go and let you finish your food. Have Vincent call us when you’re ready.” Mary took Father’s arm, pulling him toward the opening. “Come along. I’m sure it won’t be long.”

“Mary, it would be just as easy to wait here,” Father remarked, though he followed her toward the entrance.

“And would you want a doctor you were unfamiliar with hanging around and watching you eat, just waiting to examine you?” Mary countered as they exited.

Catherine chuckled again, then said, “She seems to keep him on his toes.”

“Sometimes,” Vincent replied. He spent the next few minutes helping her finish breakfast. “Did you want more? Or shall I call Father and Mary back?”

“You can call them. I suppose it would be best to get this over with.”

Once they returned, Vincent and Father waited in the main tunnel while Mary helped Catherine change. With the examination gown donned, she returned to the bed, the blankets covering her legs and hips, the gown ready to be adjusted as necessary.

Vincent tried not to pace as anxiety built in Catherine. When Mary called them back, he marveled at the calm façade Catherine presented; only the quick hammering of her heart, which only he heard, belied the tranquility her soft smile and lack of movement implied. He stood by her head, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Just relax, Catherine,” Vincent murmured. “This will be over soon. I’m sure you’re healing well.” He shook his head at Father, pausing his exam preparations, then gestured to Catherine and patted his chest rapidly when Father frowned his confusion. At Father’s nod, Vincent looked at Mary, whose gaze held wonder and a slight smile when she saw Catherine grasp his hand on her shoulder. When Vincent felt the anxiety drain from Catherine, and her heart rate returned to normal, he nodded for Father to proceed.

“Let’s start with vitals, shall we?” Father again talked Catherine through checking her vitals, then said, “Now let’s check that bruising. Mary, help with her gown, please.”

Catherine appreciated Vincent letting her hold his hand as Mary raised the gown to just under her breasts and Father began pressing on her abdomen. She refused to question why Vincent’s touch soothed her, even as Father’s prodding fingers yielded winces.

“You’re still a bit tender, which is to be expected,” Father declared, motioning for Mary to readjust Catherine’s gown, “but the coloring of your bruises is improving, indicating proper recovery. Your ribs also show signs of healing, but I want you to continue to be careful of them for the next several days. They will take the longest time to heal.”

“What about my face?” Catherine tried to sound inquisitive rather than terse or demanding. “Do you need to check the stitches? Can the bandages be removed?”

Father glanced at Vincent, then replied, “No, not just yet. Some of the wounds were rather deep. I think it’s best not to disturb the bindings. We want to give them the best chance of healing well.”

Vincent felt Catherine’s fear intensify, her breathing and pulse increasing as she squeezed his hand, clenching her jaw to still her trembling lips. He squatted, letting his steady breath whisper over her hand. Within moments, her tension eased, her breath matching his. He ignored the scowl Father sent him.

“Don’t fret, Catherine,” Vincent murmured. “It won’t be much longer.”

“That’s right,” Father agreed. “A few more days, and I think you’ll be ready to go home. Mary, please help Catherine change. Vincent and I will wait in the corridor again.”

Father turned to Vincent as they stood in the tunnel, keeping his voice low and grousing, “What in the world are you thinking? You should not be encouraging this connection!”

“That’s not what I did, Father. Could you not see her anxiety? The uptick in her breath, muscles tightening, lips trembling? She’s frightened. I sought to comfort her, like an overtired child, who settles with the calm, steady breathing of a trusted adult. Don’t let your fear of a connection between us blind you to the stress this is putting on her. I know you’re a better doctor than that.”

Father’s shoulders slumped at the mild rebuke, then he replied, “Very well. Just… be careful.”

A moment later, Mary called them back.

“So, Catherine,” Father said, “I think it’s time to make a checkup after breakfast part of your daily routine. Does that sound acceptable?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. We’ll see you again in the morning unless you need either of us sooner. Come along, Mary.”

“Let Vincent know if you need me for anything, Catherine,” Mary said, laying a hand on her shoulder before leaving.

“Thank you, Mary. I will.”

As the sounds of their presence faded, Catherine asked, “Vincent? Are you still here?”

“Of course, Catherine. I would not leave without telling you.” He pulled his chair near her and sat, laying his hand beside hers on the bed. “Do you need something?”

“Just some information, please.” She shifted so her hand touched his. “Where am I, exactly? A medic area or a guest room?”

“No. You’re in my chamber. I thought it would give you privacy while allowing me to help you more easily.”

“I’m not taking your bed, am I?” Alarm swept through her at the thought of displacing him from his bed.

“It’s not a problem.” Vincent felt his cheeks warm at admitting he placed her in his bed. “I have a rather comfortable chair I can sleep in, and a chaise longue.”

“I’m sorry.” Feeling a strange combination of embarrassment and intrigue course through her, she fought off the unfamiliar tinge of excitement that followed, forcing her mind to safer areas. “How long have I been here?”

“This is the morning of your fifth day with us.”

“Five days? A piece of me can’t believe it’s been that long, and a piece feels like it’s been longer.”

“Well, I hope your time with us has not been unpleasant. Aside from healing from injuries, which I suppose is always unpleasant.”

“Aside from that, it’s been very pleasant. I’m glad I’ve gotten the chance to know you.” Catherine ran her fingers over the back of his hand, then squeezed it briefly. Not wishing to prolong the moment, in case it discomfited him, she released his hand and changed the subject. “So, you told me you enjoy classical music. Do you have a favorite composer?”

Vincent tried not to miss her touch as he followed her into a discussion of various classical composers.

* * *

The routine continued in the following days. Vincent helped Catherine eat, got her tea, read to her, talked with her regarding their common taste in music, literature, and art. While Mary helped in sensitive areas, Vincent continued carrying Catherine whenever her energy waned. Father examined her daily, Catherine always asking to remove her bandages, Father always advising against it. Intuition told Catherine that Father worried about what she would see; she could not fathom why it would matter. Catherine only encountered Vincent, Father, and Mary. Vincent stayed close, sleeping in his chair or on the chaise longue.

Vincent grew to love Catherine, drawn by her warmth, wisdom, courage, humor, and love of life. He found her as beautiful on the inside as the outside. Part of him roared in protest at the thought of her now dreaded impending departure.

Catherine treasured her time with Vincent, enjoying his sagacity, kindness, wit, and humility, and the safety, confidence, and significance she felt with him. She refused to speculate on why his presence comforted her. However, she grew restless of her bindings, wanting to see and know the extent of the damage she sustained.

On her seventh day below, when Father and Mary left after her check-up, Catherine said, “Vincent? May I ask you something?”

“Of course.” He sensed curiosity in her, directed at him, and felt his own interest, and a little trepidation, pique.

“May I ask what you look like? I’d like to put a face with your voice.”

“Oh, um…” Vincent cast around for a way to not answer, settling on, “I’m not much to behold.” Quickly collecting the breakfast supplies onto a tray, he added, “Excuse me a moment, Catherine. I need to return this tray to the kitchen.” Then he strode rapidly from his chamber.

* * *

Charles Chandler stood in his office beside Tom Gunther, facing Lieutenant Herman, the detective in charge of the search for Catherine.

Charles threw a newspaper onto his desk between them, pointing at the headline, “GUNTHER’S GIRL FRIEND MISSING,” followed in smaller script with, “EASTSIDE DEB VANISHES.”

“Lieutenant,” Charles said, “I’d like to know who leaked this story to the papers.”

“Well,” replied Herman, “it’s hard to keep something like this quiet. A socialite’s missing for a week, her purse was found in the park…”

“We don’t need these kinds of headlines,” chimed in Tom.

Charles wondered what concerned Tom more, Catherine missing or bad press.

“Have your men come up with anything?” Charles asked Herman.

Herman paused, then answered apologetically, “No.”

Charles’ emotions morphed from concerned to distraught; he lowered himself into his chair.

“Not yet,” Herman added quickly. “Mr. Chandler, Mr. Gunther, I’ll do everything I can to find her. That’s a promise.”

Charles remained more worried than hopeful.

* * *

Tenth day below,” Catherine thought, upset that Father still refused to remove her wrappings. With Vincent on an errand, she was alone for the moment. Her energy near normal now, she sat up on the edge of the bed, deciding not to remain there any longer.

She stood cautiously and took a few small steps, gasping when she hit furniture, the chaise longue by the feel. While using her hands to navigate to the head of the seat, she remembered Vincent holding her hand as she fell asleep. Moving on, she gasped again, hitting a small, round table holding what felt like a candelabrum and a few other indiscernible items. She took a few more steps, hands stretched out, then stopped. She did not know how, but she felt Vincent nearby.

As Catherine rose, Vincent arrived, crouching in the upper entrance of his chamber, watching her. He felt her agitation, her discontent with Father’s decision regarding her bandages, her anxiety about her injuries, and her determination to resolve the issue, which displayed her courage and inner strength. These attributes filled him with indefinable pleasure, a mix of joy, pride, and love. Watching her move through his chamber, careful but determined, a smile beset his lips. Then she stopped.

“I know you’re there,” Catherine said, frowning. “You can come in.”

“I’ll read to you,” Vincent offered, standing.

She looked toward his voice, saying, “It won’t help.”

“It might,” he countered. “We can finish Great Expectations.” He crouched again at the top of the ladder descending into his chamber. “Do you remember how it ends?”

She took a shuddering breath, saying, “Vincent, I’m frightened. I’m worried.”

“I know. I can feel it. You’re getting your strength back.” He watched her bow her head, attempting to control her breathing, and, he suspected, hidden tears. “I’ll get you some tea. The herb tea you liked.” Desperate to comfort her, he left just as she responded.

“Okay,” Catherine murmured. With Vincent gone, she turned and began pulling at the wrappings encasing her head.

* * *

Vincent found Kipper, led the boy to the fastest tunnel to Dr. Wong’s shop, and tasked him with retrieving Catherine’s tea.

“You take this one, three platforms down,” Vincent directed, bending to Kipper’s level and pushing his hood off, “right up the next tunnel to the first ladder, and start climbing.”

“And that’ll be Chinatown?”

“Unless you take the wrong tunnel,” teased Vincent. “You could end up in China.”

Kipper huffed a short laugh and shook his head, saying, “No way, Vincent.”

“Well, wherever you end up, hurry back with the tea.” He playfully tugged on the front of Kipper’s shirt.

“This one’s gonna cost you,” Kipper declared, grinning mischievously, then turned and ran off.

Vincent smiled, watching the boy go, then hurried back to his chamber, disturbed by the fear and urgency he felt spiking through Catherine.

* * *

Catherine unwound her bandages, looking around and getting her bearings, then put her hands to her face and searched for a mirror. With none in sight, she grabbed a reflective headlight casing, holding it up to see her wounds.

A scar angled across her forehead, from outside her right eyebrow to halfway between her left eyebrow and her hairline; another cut sliced from the end of the first into the inside of her left eyebrow. A gash on her right cheek pared from her cheekbone toward her mouth, intersected by a shorter slit from under her eye, forming a backwards y-shape. On her left cheek, a slash carved from her cheekbone into the corner of her upper lip, crossed by a long incision scored straight down from under her eye, creating an x-shape, beneath a third, smaller wound above her cheekbone, and beside a final laceration, ripping from her temple to her jaw, just in front of her ear.

Shock, anguish, despair, and fear welled up, stealing her reason. She could not think, nor process this, much less understand the ramifications.

“Oh, God,” Catherine murmured. “No.” The flood of emotions swamping her rooted her in place.

“Catherine!”

She heard a voice behind her, urgent, its owner unregistered to her frantic mind. Then a face appeared in the reflection, distorted in the curvature. An animal?

She screamed, spinning and flinging the makeshift mirror at the intruder, who roared, surprised and hurt, the reflector glancing off his head. In the moment, she heard something shatter and saw his face: leonine, flat nose, cleft upper lip, long, sharp canine teeth, mouth wide-open at the end of the roar. Long, thick, mane-like hair surrounded all. Then the voice registered – Vincent.

Regret and sorrow replaced the fear coursing through her, but she could not yet think clearly enough to apologize. Gradually regaining her senses, she watched him back away, bow his head in shame, then rush out. A moment after he disappeared, with her feet finally loosed, she followed him to the entrance, but too late. He was gone.

Catherine collapsed onto the chaise longue, bent over, and sobbed quietly; partly for her injuries, partly for the unknowns they brought, but mostly for the pain she had just caused the man who had only been good to her.

Time went unnoticed as Catherine sat alone in her grief. When Father arrived, she knew only that her tears were spent.

“I see you removed your wrappings,” Father said, stepping into Vincent’s chamber, cane in his right hand, bag in his left. “So, I’m Father. Let’s check these stitches.” He set his bag down and opened it.

“Father, where is he?”

“Vincent?” Father parried, surprised that her first thought was concern for his son. “He, uh… had some things to attend to.”

“Father, please,” she pleaded. “I need to speak to him, explain. I didn’t mean to hurt him.”

Father smiled kindly, saying, “He knows. He’s just… saddened that your first view of him… prompted more fear. He didn’t want that. Come.” He reached inside his bag. “Let’s check those lacerations.”

Catherine remained on the chaise longue through Father’s exam and unsurprising pronouncement that she could travel, and until Vincent’s return, quietly looking around, noting his books, trinkets, cast metal chess set with pieces resembling people, the upper chamber entrance above a ladder. Finally, she bowed her head, awaiting him.

She heard Vincent enter, keeping her eyes down and hands clasped in her lap, shame at her first reaction to him preventing her from meeting his eyes. Hints of the overwhelming emotions still pulled at her, coupled with anger once the shock, fear, and anguish subsided.

Vincent leaned against the entrance, his gaze on the floor, turning slightly away from her, still grieved at her reaction and cautious against scaring her again. His cloak and raised hood kept his face shadowed. He held a bundle in his arm.

“I’ve never regretted what I am,” Vincent said quietly. “Until now.”

Catherine raised her head, taking in his features and noting his hands, with thick hair and sharp claws.

“How?” Catherine whispered. “How did this happen to you?”

“I don’t know how,” he uttered wearily. “I have ideas. I’ll never know. I was born… and I survived.” He moved slowly, stopping before her. “It’s time for you to go back.”

She huffed a breath, refusing to cry again, then referred to her injuries, saying, “Tell me it’s a nightmare. That it didn’t happen. That it can’t be.”

He shook his head, replying, “It’s not a nightmare. It happened. And you’re alive.”

She continued breathing in anguished, angry huffs, casting her gaze back to the floor.

He knelt before her.

“Catherine, you survived.” Vincent watched her gaze shift to meet his. “And what you endured will make you stronger… and better.”

She shook her head, rejoining, “I don’t have your strength. I don’t know how to do it.”

Her pain pulled at him, so he dropped his gaze, stating, “You have the strength, Catherine.” He raised his eyes to hers. “You do.” Her tormented frown softened at his confidence in her. “I know you,” he continued.

A moment later he gasped, forcing himself to remain still when she slowly stretched her hands out, taking hold of his cloak hood.

Catherine pushed the hood off Vincent’s head, watching his eyes shift in search of a quick escape, though he continued kneeling before her. Holding his gaze, she smiled softly as he relaxed under her open regard, her unspoken message clear. She knew him, too, as kind, gentle, good, and safe.

Vincent resisted his inner self that wanted to respond to Catherine’s touch, instead distancing himself. He rose, letting his bundle, her own clothes, roll into her arms.

“It’s time,” Vincent said.

Catherine frowned, looked at her clothes, and wished it were not so. The thought of going back and facing the world filled her with dread. And sadness.

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