To Hope Anew

Chapter Fourteen


"Everything looks beautiful, girls! Thank you so much for your help this morning." Mary began passing hugs to the small gathering of women in the room awaiting the start of their traditional Bride's Breakfast. The glowing faces amid the china cups, linen napkins, and spring flowers attested to the infectious happiness of the day for them. They'd waited so long for this particular meal. No one could fault them if they were eager to show their exuberant feelings at last.

Mary, of course, was the center of the group, her usual homespun, demure, and reserved manner having given way to that of an elegant and conscientious hostess intent upon her guests' comfort. Her heartfelt gratitude and relief that her beloved foster son would finally be rescued from his life of lonely pain played easily over her beautifully care-worn features.

Then there was Olivia, with her soft-spoken, shy care. It had been such a long time since she'd been able to feel genuinely happy. Kanin had been gone almost three years, and during that time, the only reason she had for getting up in the morning was that it would be one less day she had to wait for his release from prison above. She'd let her care for her growing son, Luke, occupy the painfully long days, and she understood, deeply, what it meant for Vincent to be able to begin again. At least she would have Kanin returned to her soon. Vincent had had to endure until his heart could gain the strength to love once more, and to be able to love someone other than Catherine.

Rebecca was filled with joy for the man that had been her trusted friend since they were both children. She welcomed the opportunity to embrace Vincent's bride as a treasured friend, also. The peace and joy Diana had finally been able to bring her beloved kindred were all the reason Rebecca needed to extend her heart to the young police woman. Perhaps, someday, such joy would be hers. She knew that Vincent and Diana would be there for her then, surely, to share in the wonder with her.

Brooke and Jamie, the latter having arrived in Mary's quarters almost late, and breathless, from her early morning excursion with the children, were another special pair of hearts lightened with hopeful expectation this particular day. On the threshold of a sweet and deepening relationship herself, with Michael, Brooke could so easily touch to the tender wonder of the day, looking forward to the time when the young man she'd come to care for could return from his studies Above and take his place within the community, with her.

Jamie could rejoice that her own mentor, the man who had helped her nurture her uniquely pioneering spirit without judgment, was able to find some of the loving support and encouragement he was constantly offering to everyone in the community. Diana was surely a sister, too, in her own independent and confident way, someone she could look to for understanding and direction in her quest for individuality.

And finally there was Samantha. All of thirteen, blossoming into a wondrously assured, yet sensitive young woman. Her own tender heart would forever carry the wonderful blessing and warmth that was Vincent's so special love and care. To her, Diana would always be the patient and gentle angel who brought her beloved teacher his hope once again. She could treasure no one else's friendship more.

So, the uniquely characterized women of the Underworld had gathered this morning in the comfortable and homey chamber to embrace and support another young woman they all saw as nothing less than a redemptive friend. Diana had made the impossible possible -- she had brought the radiance of joy back into Vincent's eyes. She had fought for his very soul, and won.

As a result, when Diana came around the chamber entrance she was greeted by a half-dozen faces glowing with welcome. If she'd experienced any momentary confusion or pang of anxiety at separating herself from her more familiar world up until that point, she had nothing whatsoever to fear at the moment. The sisterhood and nurturing support she needed was being offered to her now without the slightest reservation.

It took the new arrival a moment or two to actually understand the transformation that had occurred in Mary's chamber in the past hour -- a transformation that was undertaken in her honor, of all things. The simple, personable room was elevated into a lovely gathering place, complete with a linen-covered table, fine china plates only minimally chipped, and bunches of tulips, daffodils and crocus. A wonderfully inviting aroma permeated the air.

Diana was close to speechless.

"What on earth? . . . Everything is so lovely . . . I don't know what to say."

Samantha hopped up from the high stool she'd been sitting on to offer explanation. "Happy Wedding Day, Diana! We've been waiting for you. Come and sit down."

The young girl led her slightly bemused companion around to the head of the dining table and motioned to her to make herself comfortable. Diana surveyed the room and suddenly wasn't certain she was still in the Underworld.

Life Below meant mismatched dishes, homespun fabrics, portion-extending stews and recycled housewares -- a simple, frugal life that placed very little emphasis on the niceties of living that were only civilization's frills. It was one of the things that had immediately endeared her to the existence and the community in the candlelit world. At the moment, though, Mary's simple, unencumbered living quarters could have held their own against the most fashionable English tea rooms of the city Above.

As soon as Diana was comfortable, the rest of the women filled in the remaining seats around the table, with Mary taking the chair opposite Diana. She bowed her head and offered grace for the meal. "Father of us all, we thank you for our meal this morning, and for the occasion we are celebrating. Shower your blessings on us all today, and in a most special way, on our sister, Diana, who will begin a new life with the man she loves. Give them, and us all, your strength to sustain us, your faithfulness to inspire us, and your love to shelter us. Amen."

An echo of soft "Amen's" followed, with the guest of honor feeling a warm sense of consolation fill her at the prayerful supplication made on her behalf. Mary's unobtrusive nature truly disguised a deeply feeling, and articulate soul, and Diana offered her own silent thanks for the gift of the elder woman's care.

Happy sounds of comfortable conversation and generous plates being passed around the table were immediately forthcoming. The appreciation was well deserved -- the meal was a sheer delight. There were piping hot apple-cinnamon muffins, raisin scones, and William's buttermilk biscuits. Several jams and marmalades glistened in a charming, eclectic collection of cut-glass serving bowls. A large pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice stood ready to fill the glasses at each place. And in the center of the table was an unheard-of luxury -- a coffee pot offering its fragrant and rich delight.

Diana was overwhelmed. Her happy confusion drew smiles and laughter from the rest of the women. Olivia gave her the details that escaped her.

"Life here Below seems to require the most adaptation from the women of our community. But that doesn't mean we've completely given up on the small details of civilization. Whenever we have a very special, very important occasion to celebrate, we like to remember it with a little bit of the good from the world Above."

"In other words, " Rebecca seemed to feel a further translation was in order, "we have to give up the most from life Above, so we can indulge ourselves once in a blue moon!"

The laughter was completely unrepentant at that remark, and its underlying truth.

The next half hour was pleasantly occuppied with happy and humorous reminiscences by the women gathered . . . stories of past wedding celebrations, anectdotes of the children who had grown into adulthood, and friendly advise on the intricacies of living below the earth. Finally, as the coffee pot emptied, the conversation took on a more serious tone, and one more directed at Diana herself. Mary looked across the table to the amber-haired woman she had come to truly love over the past nearly three years.

"In a short while, Diana, we will all gather as a community to offer you and Vincent our support and acknowledgement, as well as our prayers, in a formal manner. But what we've always done here at our Bride's Breakfast has been to offer a few more personal wishes to a young woman staring out on a new journey in life. We make you these wishes, now, from the bottom of our hearts.

"You must know, dear, that this wedding is something everyone in this world has been waiting to celebrate for such a long time. Vincent has given each of us so much of his life. It has been so difficult for any of us to ever show him what he truly means to us. And it has been so difficult for him to find his own peace and fulfillment."

A quiet nodding of heads showed the agreement Mary found for her words among the women around her. She held Diana reassuringly in her gentle-eyed gaze for a long moment. "You've made that possible for him, despite all the pain. We will never be able to thank you enough for that, Diana. But, even more, we welcome you into our company because of the wondrous generosity of your own heart, your own spirit. You are a so special person in your own right, and we wish you every blessing and happiness."

Diana felt the tears suddenly well up inside her. If giving up the world Above meant becoming a part of the lives of these women with her, Diana could only count it a blessing and not a hardship.

"We wish you love, Diana," Samantha offered, her sweetly maturing face shining.

"We wish you health and happiness," continued Rebecca, who was seated next at the table.

"We wish you the comfort and support of friends," came Jamie's pronouncement.

Brooke's gentle eyes shone. "We wish you long, sweet nights of tenderness in each other's arms."

The tears finally did begin to flow down Diana's cheeks at that. How close, dear God, were these heartfelt entreaties to her own most cherished hopes?

Olivia smiled softly at the future bride, and then shared her thoughts. "We wish you children, and the blessing of helping them grow."

"We wish you years of shared memories, and the cherished wonder of growing old together." Mary's face carried an almost wistful . . . sadness . . . despite her gentle smile.

Diana suddenly felt as though the older woman had just graced her with a glimpse of her own soul unexpectedly. They all had.

She looked down at the crisply ironed and carefully mended napkin sitting in her lap for a long moment before raising her eyes to meet the women's once again.

"I never thought I could be blessed by anything beyond the sweetness of loving Vincent, and Jacob, and being loved by them. But what you have given me here this morning is so precious to me, such a gift. I'll treasure it all, your words, your encouragement. Your love. Thank you, all."

By now, tears were flowing all around the table. It took Mary's return to composure to bring them all back to the matter at hand.

"Well, ladies, we have a bride to help get ready, and time is slipping past us."

"Yes, we'd better get going, Diana, or you'll be late for your own wedding," teased Brooke.

Many hands helped clear the remains of the meal from Mary's quarters. The anticipation of the day filled all the women with thoughts and experiences of their own lives, and the bride-to-be was no exception. Yet, her anticipation was slowly taking on an unexpected edge of disquiet, admitting to herself that she also knew its cause -- A promise made that was becoming increasingly difficult to contemplate without the pangs of painful disappointment, especially because of the hopeful wishes just offered her. Diana simply shook the feeling off as unfamiliar jitters. Still, she whispered a prayer deep within her heart that the wishes shared with her would not fade into illusion.

 

"Oh, Father, they are grand!" Fathomless blue eyes sparkled in sheer delight. "Just like the big boys wear."

Vincent smiled happily at his ecstatic son. He knew the extra time he'd spent in hunting through the collection of children's clothes stored away was well worth the effort: A pair of brushed seude boots, hardly used before outgrown, had been his reward, the perfect touch for a little boy's dress-up clothes for such a special day.

Jacob plopped himself down onto his father's bed and eagerly pulled the special boots up on to his feet. Unfortunately, they weren't exactly on in the right order. Vincent came over and helped his little boy try again to solve the mystery of directions. Even though the child's mind easily worked far beyond its chronological reality, the concept of right and left still seemed to slip his grasp, the elusive fundamentals made more confusing because the child was nearly as ambidextrous as his father.

Once the footwear was corrected, Vincent stood the child up on the floor before him. "You must remember, though, Jacob, those boots are only for special fine occasions, and not for any expeditions to the river."

"Yes, Father," came the easy reply. Then, breathlessly, "May I go show Diana?"

A quick arm swept the little boy off his booted feet just as he was about to tear out of the room. "Just a moment, little one. The ladies are probably busy helping Diana get ready, too. You may show her later."

"Oh, please, Father . . . May I go find her now?"

There was something about the way the child's entire face was pleading that melted a father's heart instantly. Beside -- he'd been banished from seeing Diana before the ceremony this morning. No one had said anything about Jacob being likewise admonished.

Vincent started inwardly with guilty amusement. Something of his own boyhood logic, and Devin's, echoed in that last thought.

"You may go for only a few moments," Vincent conceded. "But before that, let me make certain you are presentable."

The little boy stood still quickly, after smoothing out his attire in anticipation of the inspection. Vincent had to marvel at how the child had grown. He was almost three. The long boots disguised the forever-too-short length of his pant legs. But at least the dark cordouroy dress trousers he was wearing this morning fit properly, as did the crisp cotton shirt Mary had ironed for him. A long, finely woven wool tunic of a warm cream color was only slightly too large, and Vincent had tucked it around the child's waist with a leather belt the little boy thought was very grown-up looking. Shaking his head, the mythic father realized his son was so very eager to be eight or nine years old, these days, instead of merely three. He remembered those times, himself.

A mischevious lock of curly golden hair flipping into his face seemed to prove, though, that Jacob was still very much a little boy, despite his impatience with nature.

"You look so very handsome, Jacob, except for that hair. It is being more than unruly this morning." The offending lock sprang again onto the child's fair features despite being finger-combed back.

"It likes to be unruly," came the quick reply, unphased by vocabulary.

"Yes, I've noticed," Vincent concluded with humorous exasperation. He gave up attempting to will the curl to stay put and instead reached over to the bed and picked up the little boy's hairbrush where he had set it. In a moment, he was attempting to tame a wondrous abundance of curling silken locks he had only moments before thought somewhat under control.

"Perhaps it is time to get you a big boy's haircut as well as big boy's boots," Vincent

thought aloud. No matter how angelic the hair made the little boy look, it had become more than a bit of a chore to keep it appearing somewhat neat. Still, the thought of subjecting the child to a haircut wasn't exactly comforting. He couldn't imagine the small boy looking any other way than he did.

The pleading words of his child were not comforting, either. "Oh, no, Father. I want my hair to grow long and beautiful, just like yours. Please don't cut it."

Vincent felt an sudden pang at the child's entreaty, as well as an unfamiliar confusion at what was a back-handed compliment to his own appearance. He'd never thought of himself as anything remotely pleasing in his physical reality. He kept on grooming the little boy. "Well, if you'd rather not, Jacob, we'll see what we can do to keep you looking proper and orderly."

"I promise, I'll be patient when you brush my hair. I'll try not to let it get too unruly."

A smile crept across Vincent's unique face despite his best efforts to keep a neutral

perspective on the matter. The child could persuade anyone of anything, he thought. God help us . . .

Finished in his attempt to control the baby curls once more, Vincent set down the brush and drew the little boy easily into his arms. His sapphire eyes locked onto the child's equally arresting ones with an overflowing mixture of joy, pride, uncertainty, and grateful wonder.

"Will you be getting ready soon, too?" Jacob asked.

"Yes, I will. With Grandfather, in his chamber. He has my things stored there in his large wardrobe."

"Do you have new boots also for today?" Vincent patiently caressed the child's cheek at the seemingly endless series of questions he was capable of coming up with at any given moment of the day. His little mind was never at rest.

"I have some boots that I haven't worn too often. They should be special enough for today."

"Then you will look so very handsome, too, Father," came a sweet and warm observation that held the powerful man's heart unexpectedly.

"Thank you, Jacob . . . I hope that I shall be . . . presentable."

"Is Diana going to be dressing up special for today, too?"

Vincent set the child on his knee as he sat down on the bed. "Yes. She will be dressing up especially, also."

"What will she wear?"

The thought of the enigmatic young woman who'd captured his heart drifted through his mind. Even in the comfortable, oversized clothes she favored for warmth when Below, there was a striking . . . presence . . . about Diana that stilled his spirit momentarily each time he saw her. She seemed a -- fairy sprite -- caught in a mundane, human world. A sudden vision of that fae being, going to any lengths at all because she wished to possibly please him, was difficult to contemplate.

Vincent lowered his eyes from Jacob's as he replied. "Ladies often wear a beautiful white dress for their wedding day. I believe Diana and Mary have been working on one for quite some time."

Indeed, the mysterious goings-on in a small chamber off the centrally located tunnels had intrigued a goodly number of the community for nearly a month. The sewing machine could be heard humming for long periods, and several Helpers had gone straight to the room with featureless parcels balanced in their arms. Mary had directly banished anyone else from entry into the room in recent days. She was often humming in blissful contentment along with her machine.

"And the ladies are helping her get dressed today?" Jacob's question drew Vincent's attention back from his unexpectedly anticipating thoughts.

"Yes, they are helping her."

"Will you brush her hair, Father?"

Vincent looked down into his son's face with undisguised astonishment. The child had an uncanny capability of tying unrelated incidents into plausible realities.

Not unlike Diana.

A more than subtle blush of confusion -- and expectation -- colored Vincent's features at the child's innocent remark. "That is something . . . I'm certain Diana would . . . rather do . . . for herself."

"She does a good job, too, doesn't she, Father?" the child continued, not even noting his parent's consternation. "Her hair is always beautiful, never unruly. It smells like --

sunshine. May I go find her now?"

Vincent admitted he needed a moment to take hold of his heart before he could trust his voice to respond to the child's guileless observations. A suddenly recalled drift of lavender overwhelmed his senses. He set the child back down to the floor.

"She is in Mary's chamber, Jacob. But you may stay only for a few moments. We will need to meet Grandfather."

"Will you come?" Jacob turned at the entrance to their home before leaving his father.

"I'm not to see her before the ceremony. But I will come for you in a few minutes."

A "thank you, Father," echoed pleasantly off the rock walls as the little boy skipped down the passageways to his destination.

Remaining seated another long moment on the bed, Vincent found his son's words repeating themselves in his mind. An ethereal vision played across his heart without warning -- Diana, dressed in white, her burnished hair shimmering in the candlelight. Vincent attempted to focus on some familiar object in the room to diffuse the sudden rush of emotions that vision conjured up beguilingly. He looked to the table across from him, but before he could close his eyes to steady his spirit, he caught sight of an antique walnut box on the surface.

Coming to his feet, purposefully, Vincent gathered the box up in one hand. He had planned to offer it to Diana when they returned here, to their chamber, later this evening, as a special gift, but he was beginning to think better about that gesture; indeed, even about the reality that this room would no longer merely be his own room, but their chamber after today. Hesitating an instant in wavering uncertainty, he opened the fine wood box and retrieved the heavy, silver hairbrush from within.

The sweet agony of fearfully colliding feelings within him assaulted his besieged heart without mercy. To have her with him, here, tonight, to draw that brush through her fiery, silken locks . . . If only imagining what it would be like to have Diana standing there before him, expecting his love in yearning humanity . . . if only thinking about having to endure such a tender condemnation could send such welcome torment through the carefully erected defenses of his heart . . .

. . . How could he have even dreamed of such a moment being possible between them?

It shamelessly voiced all the breathless expectations his errant heart had come to harbor in the past few days. Dangerous expectations.

Forcefully, Vincent brought back to his mind the pledge they'd made between them when he'd miraculously found the courage to ask her to remain at his side forever. It was a pledge he knew she'd accepted from him only because she'd felt certain they would never need actually to call upon its reality to keep them safe. A pledge that no -- boundaries --would be tested between them before he felt as ready to accept the risks of his uncertain humanity as she was.

He'd thought the pledge had been made to exact a commitment to patience and prudence that could ultimately keep Diana safe from harm. Her desperately needful heart was so willing to believe she had nothing to fear from him . . . that there was nothing dark within him that could consume her, body and soul, in an instant.

Vincent never dreamed that the limits of that pledge would be first assaulted by his own heart. He never imagined a lifetime of rock-hard denial would crumble at the slightest touch of a tender hand, at the imagined touch of their yearning need . . .

. . . This was insane . . . The balance, and reason, between them had to be restored, for Diana's sake. It had been possible for Catherine and him to transcend the physical in their loving relationship. He must find the strength to pull away from the tantilizing possibilities Diana's unfaltering hope for him had conjured. He had to keep her safe.

The necessary restraint, though, he knew, could still cause a devastating a wound to his beloved's dream-filled heart. They'd been slipping past their own defenses too often, as of late, letting themselves forget the realities that were his true nature. It was his responsibility to see her past his floundering control.

A first step: He would simply forgo the gift in his hand.

At a convenient time he would just return the box to the Bride's Chest with an excuse to Mary about Diana having already had her own brush. There would be no need to dread the implied intimacy that could shatter the safe haven of their denial. Diana's determination to remain faithful to their pledge had been more than evident, even in her moments of unguarded, honestly revealed need. He would do nothing that would hold her generosity in vain.

Yet, with reason, discretion, and fear, fueling his protective instincts yet again, something kept Vincent from tucking the brush back into its box and securing that box back into the drawer of his own wardrobe. Something warm and reaching, settling around his heart. Something unafraid to believe.

Closing his eyes, the mythic figure held uncertainly to the feeling. It was so . . . beautiful . . . so unburdened. It acknowledged no dark threat, called only to the -- humanity -- he knew could never be completely his. God, where was the feeling coming from, so free and . . . possible?

Taking a cleansing breath, Vincent suddenly decided on a course of action he could momentarily live with, beyond the phantom tenderness and the cold steel of denial. He walked with the box in his hand to the side of the vanity that had just been moved into his chamber that morning for Diana's use. Carefully, he set the comb and hand mirror onto the polished surface of the furnishing. Sitting there, the fine pieces could simply be a lovely decoration that Mary had chosen to accent the old vanity. There was no need for any tender, dangerously enticing connotations to be attached to their appearance. And he would not need to totally reject Diana's hope.

Settling the brush to the vanity top, Vincent's hand was reflected in the mirror just as he accepted his seemingly balanced resolution to the volatile situation. He was arrested by the sudden sight, as though he'd only then ever seen his own hand.

The reflection was painfully mesmerizing -- the hand, strong, elegantly long-fingered. And unmistakably covered with rust-colored hair that could only be described as fur.

The nails on the tips of those long fingers -- they could only be described as talons, deadly claws. A chilling voice from within berated him with infernal mockery: This was the hand he would expect Diana to welcome, running through her hair? Slipping over her skin? This was the hand he'd love her with, as her husband?

Vincent shut his eyes, defensively, against the reflection.

He'd been right in exacting that promise from Diana. The boundaries, the limits: They would keep her safe. He and Catherine had managed to find peace within those confines, for nearly three years.

But he and Catherine had never forced themselves to face the aching wonder of a wedding night in each other's arms.

With his heart in profound turmoil, Vincent swept through the chamber door and after Jacob. He, too, needed to find Diana. Desperately so.

 

Diana pushed herself up through the cool water, breaking the surface of the pool at the shallow end, breathlessly. She ran her hands over her face and back against the heavy, wet, weight of her hair, smoothing it out of her way. Several bunches of dried herbs tied together with string floated past her shoulder on the water, fragrancing it: rosemary, mint, lavender. Flower petals collected in a bit of tulle netting also lent their aromas.

The small details of luxury made Diana smile, as she recalled the sweet care she'd been showered with this morning from the women of the Underworld. Those luxuries had been delightfully simple enough -- the welcome companionship of a shared meal, encouraging words of support, a half hour in the bathing pool, all to herself, complete with scented accents. She found that she felt actually regal at that instant, free, unburdened, and deliciously drawn into the earthy sensuality of the moment and her surroundings.

It had taken her long enough to enjoy those surroundings, she confessed to herself with amusement. Mouse had long ago rigged up a small reservoir on one edge of the pool that heated a few gallons of water by battery and then released them into the pond. It only raised the temperature of the bathing water a few degrees, but it was enough to make it bearable, even for Diana.

Ever since her exposure to the frigid waters of the flood, she had seemed unusually sensitive to cold, finding it difficult to remain comfortable when her body was subjected to quick fluctuations of temperature. She never thought she'd be able to progress from basin baths to the pool on her overnight stays in the Underground, but the inviting thought of the deep, clear waters overcame even her reluctant body metabolism at last.

Overcoming her modesty was another thing.

Community members were assured of complete privacy on trips to the pool by reason of schedules kept to and an easily visible "Occuppied" sign that could be posted in the small antechamber of the bathing area. Still, the occasional lapse in protocol had brought about a few far between incidents of blushing apology among bathers, simply accepted in stride because of the close confines of the community. So far, Diana had been spared such embarassment, thank goodness.

Still, it was at first difficult for her to actually managed to shed her clothes before stepping into the deep waters, twelve years at St. Elizabeth's Academy having ingrained within her a very distinct limitation as to what was actually bathing and what could only be considered a questionably moral swimming excursion that was worthy fodder for weekly confession. Withdrawing from the pool was just as bad -- she always made certain she could reach the well-worn towels on the pool edge before venturing out.

Try as she might, despite all the reassurances, and her own reluctant admission that she was perhaps more inhibited than she ever thought she was, she couldn't quite overcome her fear of being interrupted in her private moments. She just knew she would one day forget to post her presence and then find herself in an embarrassing position she'd never let herself live down. This, from a woman who had lived together with a man for many months without benefit of marriage in her life Above. Some of the sweetly innocent and reverent romanticism of the Underworld had surely rubbed off on her hardened spirit, she conceded, ruefully. Gratefully.

Yet, the wondrous feeling of being in the pool, beneath the sweeping rock ceiling of the chamber, bathed in candlelight as much as the cool waters, was worth the momentary anxiety of being compromised. She'd be content to stay as she was for ages, especially with the growing ease that was enveloping her; but she only had half an hour. Reluctantly, she came to the edge of the pool and reached up for the towel on the rocky surface surrounding the water.

A sudden cool shiver ran through her body that had very little to do with either modesty or the temperature of the water or air. Diana confessed to herself the source of the feeling, guiltily: She'd let her mind slip, momentarily away, on the tide of senses and emotions made acutely aware of what was in her soul at the moment -- the image that flashed across her stumbling heart of having her bath unexpectedly interrupted by someone in particular.

Drawing the large towel around her, Diana stilled her spirit with a force of will she longed to relinquish once and for all. But that could never happen. Not yet. She couldn't possibly let her determined hope be overwhelmed by her aching needs. Especially not today.

She'd made a promise, swearing it would be worth the heartache if only it would see Vincent through the fears and terrors that still haunted his compelling soul.

With a smaller towel, Diana vigorously rubbed her long hair nearly dry, defensively, ignoring the tears that threatened to mingle into the heavy locks. A cool current of air slipped over her bare shoulders, suddenly, one of the intriguing masses of atmosphere that caused the Underworld to have such a mysterious range of natural climates. She felt the cool touch of the air brush over her skin with a heart-stopping, tangible reality, no longer an indistinct element of nature, but seemingly possessing a decipherable form -- a lover's hand.

Diana straightened up quickly, certain she was no longer alone in the bathing chamber. The feelings within her assailed her relentlessly, keeping her from mastering them, and her heart, for the longest moment. In that moment, she yearned to turn round, to acknowledge the hand that had gifted her with such a sensually welcoming touch.

But she was alone.

The water still beaded up on her arms and shoulders where she had not yet drawn the towel. She was suddenly cold, shivering actually, losing all the welcome radiance of the feeling. The wetness on her cheeks returned even after she'd buried her face into the towel.

Shakily pulling on a long tunnel robe she'd borrowed from Rebecca, Diana sat at the edge of the pool on the rocky chamber floor for an eternity of a moment.

All she wanted was to hold that sensation back to her again, the warmth, the welcome, of Vincent's touch upon her. That was what she knew she had felt, even though she was totally alone in the chamber. Whether she'd actually experienced it or merely conjured the sensation too mercilessly precisely in her mind, she knew that he'd extended a loving, possesive hand to her in mutual want, and then withdrawn it in the shame that was turning the reality of his spirit within her to leaden denial.

Everything else Diana knew she could endure: Giving up her home Above, her ties to friends and family. She could live with everything else: Never being able to walk in the sunlight by his side, never being completely certain that he could actually love her for herself and not for some tender dream that still clung to his heart.

Being fearful of his touch, though, despairing of ever losing themselves to the emotional flood of passionate human need between them -- these were the anguishing realities she could never bring herself to acknowledge. Never. Her total commitment to the truth and honesty of their hearts cried out against it all.

There could be nothing they could not share, nothing they needed to fear at each other's hands. There was nothing Vincent could do to hurt her -- except ask her to accept him as less than he truly was, accept their love as less than the true gift it could become.

She'd hoped that by now they'd worked past their fears, that their tenderly entwined hearts would help lead them past the unfounded terrors he could not rid himself of alone.

Yet, she also knew that the love she shared with Vincent had evolved along very different

paths than the devotion he and Catherine had shared. Theirs was a meeting very much of

equals, of similarly besieged spirits that begged to be embraced in a beguiling humanity neither was prepared to turn away from. Vincent's love for Catherine had instead been a tenderness so painfully rooted in denial, in the quietly, insiduously devastating lie that the woman he loved could only be a dazzling treasure he'd never dare reach for in his uncertain worthiness.

Those very differences, that to her spoke only of hope and possibility, she knew he considered only rife with deadly risk. She'd prayed that today would truly be a beginning for them, that tonight would be the first of many "long, sweet nights of tenderness in each other's arms", that bore witness, not only of the physical wonder of sharing their love, but of his own finally embraced hope in himself, of his own belief that he was worth her love.

The possibility that such a beginning would remain ever a dream between them suddenly tore at her very soul.

Diana gathered up her things from the pool's edge and turned into the antechamber, her mind racing with the flooding outrage, and pain, of her heart. There was no way she could go through with a wedding today, a marriage. There would be no new life together as one to celebrate, only a lingering, aching torture of half-truths that would do nothing less than completely deaden both their hearts to love. Vincent was wrong in this. She knew it, believed it, with every fiber of her being, every breath of her soul.

This marriage would either be a marriage in reality, a true sharing of beliefs and hopes, a trusting commitment to each other's promise, or she swore that she'd force herself to awaken from the sweet and tender dream, a dream that was in danger of degenerating into a crucifying nightmare of shackled hearts and fear.

Heading through the chamber entrance and down the tunnel, Diana was blinded momentarily by her hot tears. She stumbled hard, almost losing her balance as she walked, near to dropping to her knees in defeated confusion. Instead, a powerful form encompassed her softly, a strong arm reaching out to help her catch herself. Immediately, she was drawn into a sweeping embrace that was all wool, leather, and heartbreaking, mind-reeling love. Despite her frustrating anxiety, she let herself sink into the warm shelter that was his arms, never once fighting her need of him as she knew he would ever battle his own for her.

"Diana. You're . . . crying." The words close to her ear caught momentarily in his throat. The soft ache in their tone caught at her heart. Why couldn't he hold onto the love,

the completeness of the love, those tender words confesssed?

She pulled herself away from his arms with a supreme effort of will, repeatedly wiping the betraying tears from her eyes with either hand, never daring to look up into his face. If she did, she knew she would lose all her resolve. Instead she just murmured something about being "a little edgy" through the fingers she still held before her eyes.

But Vincent knew her heart too well.

He lifted one of his hands to her face, and gently, but firmly pulled hers away, holding them both in his large palm. With the other hand he touched a finger to her chin and lifted her gaze up to him. His eyes were an intensely azure depth that drew her in, in spite of her

outraged spirit. Or because of it.

"I felt that you might be . . . troubled . . . by something. What is it, Diana?"

All she wanted to do, at that instant, was to lose herself within those eyes, let her cold, wet body melt against his, and be at peace, know him to be at peace. She could feel the love enveloping her, as it always did. And all the defiant accumulation of pain poured out of her.

"I'm just a little nervous this morning. I'll be fine." The hard-muscled arms drew her back against his chest as she cursed her cowardice, knowing she would only welcome the shelter of his embrace and never force herself to refuse it, no matter how limiting he would keep its truth.

"Are you certain that is all?" came the soft inquiry, still insisting, for he knew her to be as anguished in heart at the moment as he was.

He'd followed Jacob to Mary's chamber after an agonizing interval of turmoil, needing to see Diana at that very moment, look into her eyes, feel her hand in his, and acknowledge once and for all the half-life of aching barriers he was actually allowing her to condemn herself to.

They would be wed today, yes. She desperately needed the solace and refuge of his love, indeed his world, for her own peace of mind. Her existence in the world Above had long grown dark and fearful, full of unspoken agonies that were sucking the lifeblood out of her soul moment by moment. She had to come Below to safety, to refuge, to his love, or risk losing herself totally to the madness Above. He had to know she was within reach of his own battered soul.

But what was she committing herself to with that longed-for peace? An existence on the fringe of the reality of their souls? A melding of hearts and minds and spirits that lived in terror of the certain melding of their humanity?

Yet, the terror was only his.

Diana harbored no such fears. Her blessedly confidant heart offered her only a promise of complete fulfillment at the cost of only a bearable amount of transitory adjustments. They'd simply begin their life together, share their dreams and hopes in equal freedom. Then they'd meet on the mutual sanctuary of their profound love for one another and embrace that love in all its expressions without fear or anguish of heart.

Love would conquer all.

Vincent believed otherwise, though, with the black despair of his inhumanity haunting his most treasured dreams, his most tenuous hopes. He and Catherine had been able to transcend the temptation to risk all they had managed to forge together for a breath of fleeting completion, a fragile instant of unpredictable passion that could surely only drown them in the overwhelming darkness he feared as his true essence. Nothing could erase that truth, no matter the tears shed nor the dreams reached for. He'd been able to accept himself for what he believed himself to be. Catherine had been able to accept him.

Diana would not. Still.

Her dreams were made of more earthbound fabric; she refused to give up her faith in his own total, earthly, humanity, seeking only a truth she believed in without wavering. She was willing to risk her heart, her soul, her very life, to convince him of it.

And he would let her try.

The sudden realization, though, that she was deeply troubled this morning, pulled him back from the brink of his own confused uncertainties, his own near-abandoned defenses. He had never even hinted to her the astonishing fact that over the months, as their hearts drew ever closer, he'd felt that his spirit had somehow miraculously also become linked with hers, not so much as he and Catherine had become as one in an elevated binding of souls, but very much in an indescribably shared consciousness. He was awed that he could not only sense what she was feeling, but why, the workings of her incredible intellect and spirit as open to him as her heart, making him a part of her as he never dreamed was possible.

In that shared spiritual essence, he had read her formidable capacity to hope, the generosity of her dreams that kept him more than once from willingly losing himself to the blackness that forever shadowed him. She had never stumbled in her hope for him.

Until this morning.

And he had felt her pain as if it were his own, not only known that she was struggling in anguish but sensed the searing disappointment deep within himself. Her pain was, in fact, his own.

At that moment, he had wanted nothing more than to set his tested soul forever beside hers, let her capacity to dream draw him into the selfless wonder in her heart, too. She could envision his complete and total humanity, touch to it with an overwhelming power that yet was breathlessly innocent in its total trust.

He'd almost let himself believe.

But the startling reality of their differences had overcome him in the reflection of a mirror. The knowledge that she was so willing to condemn herself to those differences, giving up her dreams for life-sapping limits, was suddenly more than he could stand.

He had grieved for Catherine regretfully because he had let her dream alone. Now, he confessed in shame to himself, he was guilty of a far greater crime in his relationship with Diana -- He had let her draw him into her dreams only to reduce them to barely recognizable shadows unworthy of acknowledgement. All in the name of the greater good. All in the attempt to protect her from what he truly believed to be only illusions of peace and completion.

She was standing before him now, begging for mercy from the stormy depths of her green eyes. She would willingly embrace even those shadowy reductions of her dreams, he knew, if only he would hand them back to her with the faintest trace of promise holding them together somehow.

Seeking her out for his own desperately needed reassurance, hoping to let her powerful honesty of spirit lead him to the truth they both sought with such struggle, he now realized that it was she who was in need of support and hope, her vulnerable certainty of soul suddenly revealed and incapable of surviving any longer, alone.

Diana rested her head wearily on the heavy wool fabric of his doublet, shaking it slowly in denial of what she herself wasn't exactly certain. She had told herself she could give up even this -- the bound and limited expressions of their hearts that they'd allowed themselves up to that moment, if he were not willing to attempt to pull himself free of the torment he carried within him with too much ready resignation. She'd been wrong.

Her heart told her she would accept the slightest acknowledgement he could bring himself to offer her as a parched soul would accept a drop of water; seeing it as a cherished treasure whose refusal would cost her very survival. If that phantom expression of their shared hearts was distined to be her only gift of his unburdened humanity, so be it. She would accept it with gratitude.

If the love in his eyes was fated to forever be tinged with uncertainty, she would find the strength to look past it and cling only to what he could be sure of.

She could no sooner give up his troubled heart than she could give up her own.

Something of her indominable spirit broke free then and helped her find her way through the doubt, urging her to accept what was offered with the wonder it deserved, and not reach for the unattainable.

"I'm sorry, Vincent. I guess I was just overwhelmed at what could lie ahead for us."

Vincent took in the vulnerable and unsteady light in her eyes. It fervantly sought to brighten her fragilely beautiful features. When that light was at its greatest point of power, it had always let her spirit shine through her as an unfettered force of nature.

Wavering as it was now, her essence seemed to lose itself in the torchlight around them.

He knew exactly what he needed to do at that moment, some prodding angel of Providence urging him past the fear. He had to bring that shining spirit back into her weary features, as though he'd always been free in his heart to accept her hope. Anything less would deny all they meant to each other, all she'd given him.

The seconds slipping past them ticked off lifetimes. He could either open his heart to her completely, or shatter her very essence to dust. It had come to that point between them. One either moves towards love, or away from it. There was no other way. He'd told Catherine that once, but never had found the strength to take up that truth completely

with her. Perhaps that had been meant to be. Perhaps his soul's restoration was held within the fragile possibilities only a red-headed fairy sprite could see.

Setting both his hands around her face gently, Vincent whispered simply, "Diana, I love you." And in a moment of tenderest compassion he brushed her cool lips with a gentle, breathless kiss that was anything but phantom.

When he pulled slowly away from the sweetness of her mouth that seemed suddenly so familiar, he let his hands drift softly down her arms over the robe, finally clasping each of her hands in his, entwining them in his. They were so cold that his heart ached for her pain.

Diana held his face with incredulous eyes, for the longest moment of her life, uncertain if she was even breathing still. There was so much . . . promise . . . in that kiss, so much that was open and willing to believe, a gentle sensuality that had gone far beyond anything they'd ever shared, anything they'd ever confessed they'd needed from one another. Too afraid that she was projecting only her own expectations onto the radiant gift, she dropped her head against his chest, closing her eyes and attempting to somehow set the moment to her memory as the one instance of freely touched passion he'd offered her that she'd have to live on for the rest of her life.

"I love you," she responded softly at last, with every grateful breath in her heart. It would be enough. She would live a lifetime on that one breath. There was no need to battle his defenses for an instant more.

But heaven smiled down upon her just then,too, when she would never have imagined she needed it to, planting a seed of certainty within Vincent's heart that suddenly offered her a promise of more than just that one whisper of humanity reaching out from him to her. Fearlessly he released her hands to instead draw her back to himself again, letting his hold of her slip around her waist, his long fingers lightly stroking over the small of her back in gentle possession as though it were a familiar thing for him to do.

The unexpected contact of their bodies, held in expectant intimacy from shoulders to thighs, was immediately incandescent between them, bewitchingly . . . right. Diana almost didn't hear his words over the pounding of their hearts, whispered into her hair in tones that

fanned embers into heat. "Today is about what can be for us, Diana, not about what is denied us. Believe in that. And we will find our way, somehow."

The shining warmth in her rekindled spirit easily found its way to his.

Finally able to trust her heart, and her body, once more, Diana eased back from his loving embrace. There should have been some visible change that she could read in his face, giving evidence of the leap of faith he'd just drawn her into. Yet, should she have actually read something -- different -- about him, she'd have been hard-pressed to believe she was still in the arms of the same man who had steadied her faltering steps a few minutes ago. Who, exactly, was she committing herself to in a few hours' time today?

A haunted soul who could never trust himself with her? Or the man she loved, loving her

freely, at last? Could she truly believe she'd need to distinguish between them now?

The light in sapphire eyes that betrayed nothing unfamiliar beyond a bewitching --

certainty -- suddenly shone in gentle humor. Diana couldn't believe it, and couldn't not.

She smiled in return, from the heart, relieved of every breath of doubt. At that instant, she knew the day would indeed be about possibility and not denial. Every possibility.

"Have I rendered you speechless, my love?" came the soft challenge.

"Not speechless as much as senseless."

A brush of his lips across her forehead was both patiently reassuring and sparkling with bright acceptance. Diana felt the shiver slip through her as it had when she'd been in the bathing pool earlier, an unburdened release of expectation that threatened her equilibrium.

Reassured within his own spirit that she was indeed relieved of her turmoil, Vincent reluctantly loosened his hold on her now so sweetly beguiling body. The sensation of having her so welcomingly near was unlike anything he'd ever believed himself capable of accepting. The true joy that glowed from her ethereal face was worth any struggle he'd need to face.

Perhaps he could hold onto the truth of his words to her himself this day, allowing himself to believe.

"We'd better get you back to Mary," Vincent said. "I'm afraid I gave her quite a start when I came looking for you."

Diana raised a hand to his high cheek, brushing her thumb gently across his lips, touching her spirit again to the wonder of the moment. She wouldn't need to live a lifetime on that single, liberating instant. Only survive the chaos of a wedding day unlike any other.

"I hope you realize that we've risked all manner of bad luck here this morning," she teased accusingly.

Drawing her palm to his mouth, Vincent breathed a caress across it with astonishing ease. "At this point in our lives, I think we are responsible for making our own luck."

With a welcome arm around her shoulders, Diana let herself be led down the corridor towards Mary's chamber, no longer doubting the existence of miracles in her life.

 

"When will Diana return?" Jacob's sweet voice seemed to echo jarringly in Mary's quarters, probably because everyone else in the room had been forced into stunned silence for the last half hour. It hung over the earlier so easily hopeful atmosphere like a pall.

Mary was the first to respond to the child. "She'll be back in a few moments, Jacob, I'm sure."

"But Father said he wasn't to see her today until the ceremony."

"I know, dear, but he needed to speak to her about something important."

Jacob slipped off Olivia's lap and came to stand beside Mary who was sitting on the larger parlor chair near the wall. The little boy may have been bound to his father in spirit and could easily touch his heart because of it, but he could also sense very readily the sudden turmoil everyone else in the room had been plunged into.

"Mary, will Diana not become my mother today?"

The gentle older woman drew the little boy into her arms protectively. How she had hoped for him, for his father! How she had prayed that the light and warmth of a renewed life filled with promise might shelter their hearts again. The Fates had been too cruel up to that point. It was time for them to relinquish their shadowing hold on Vincent's life.

But, apparently, her prayers would not be answered this time. The desperate ache of uncertainty that Vincent's entire presence had seemed to mirror in the tunnel beyond the chamber door had been enough to chill her own soul.

Mary had heard the anxious edge in the distinctive voice immediately, calling to her. She had smiled back at Jacob who was sitting on Olivia's lap, in automatic reassurance, grateful for the fact the child was watching in rapt attention as Rebecca braided Samantha's dark hair expertly. Something was wrong, something she wished to instinctively keep the child protected from.

Turning into the tunnel, the matriarch of the Underworld community had been stricken with maternal anguish at the sight of blue eyes awash in visible uncertainty and defeat. "What's wrong, Vincent?" she had asked in concern, her heart constricting at the possibilty of pain making its way into what should have been a joyous day.

"I must speak with Diana, Mary. It is important. Please."

The words were quietly pleading. It never even occured to her not to tell Vincent where Diana was. "She's at the bathing pool."

He was sweeping down the length of the tunnel even before she'd finished her sentence.

What in God's name had caused the sudden threat to Vincent's happiness this day? He had seemed so at peace with his decision, Diana had seemed so blessed. What specter of

catastrophe had decided to enter the picture and distort it yet again?

Mary was intimately aware of Diana's struggle to love Vincent in spite of his near-mortally wounded heart. She'd watched the ebb and flow of their stormy relationship since the moment she first met the young police woman at Jacob's naming ceremony. Vincent's pride and gratitude as he held his child had been so evident to all, so welcome. But the light of fulfillment had gone out of his eyes; the struggle he endured day by day to simply exist without Catherine had etched a profound sorrow in his beautiful face that never was relieved.

Still, Diana had reached out to him, quietly, assuredly, with the patience and generosity of heart that would become his ultimate salvation.

They had struggled towards one another with guilty hearts for the past three years, had managed to share their painful dreams on the neutral ground of trusted friendship. And that friendship had evolved to a depth of love that was profound in its own right -- a binding of hearts and souls so startlingly alike that it seemed at times as if each were an actual element, a part , of the other's very essence.

In her care for them both, Mary had prayed to be able to guide and support them, wonderously hopeful of their eventual triumph over pain. Their need for one another had obviously grown as powerfully as their love, too, despite their startled attempts to disavow it. Mary, herself, long loving from afar, knew how sweet the most innocent of shared moments could become to two denied hearts. Diana's soul was always completely in her face whenever she'd been near him. Vincent had visibly fought with emotions that Mary knew were becoming so easily cherished and welcomed.

Somehow, they'd found their way to the hope of this day, and the joy within a mother's heart could not have been any less than the joy that two like souls could share in finally accepted promise.

But now it was all threatened with some unknown force of divine retribution. Mary couldn't bear the thought of it ending this way. She knew it simply could not end this way.

Running a maternal caress over the little boy's soft curls, she attempted to reassure him. Jacob would be suffering the pain of loss this time, too. It was all so devastatingly unfair.

"Diana is wondrously happy to become your mother, Jacob. Your father loves her very much, and she loves him, and you, with all her heart."

Samantha, who'd come beside the elder woman and child, was now also on the verge of tears. She had heard the unvoiced, "but" in Mary's reassurance, and it tore at her heart as well. As it did to everyone else in the room. The anxiety flowing in the chamber was so thick it was almost suffocating.

"I understand there is a handsome young man in here that simply can't wait to show me something special."

The bright and easy sound of those words, coming from the chamber doorway, nearly startled the women present out of their respective seats. But relieved smiles, and a few tears that could not be urged back from falling immediately transformed the mood of the room.

Diana came fully into the doorway, wrapped in her tunnel robe, her amber hair still damp and pulled away from her face. She'd obviously been crying -- her soft green eyes seemed misted still -- but a gentle color of emotion illuminated her pearly skin. The reason for that was also made quickly obvious to the nearly-stricken women: Vincent was standing behind his bride-to-be, one strong, indescribable hand resting with ease on Diana's thinly-clad shoulder, holding her against him warmly.

Jacob rushed to her side in an instant. "Diana! Diana! You're back!"

The object of his affection came down to her knees, and without a hesitation, she enclosed the litle boy with the most welcome hug he'd ever been blessed by from her.

"I'm sorry we kept you all waiting." Vincent's deep voice was both apologetic and

unrepentant. Olivia brushed an errant tear quickly away from her cheek at the sound of it.

"We have plenty of time. Don't worry," she noted happily.

Rebecca, though, was not so tolerant with her childhood friend. "Surely we do! Thanks to you, Vincent, we have less than an hour to get your bride ready for this wedding!"

When a rising blush made its way over mythic features in endearing consternation, everyone burst into heartfelt laughter. Mary thanked heaven at the joy she felt radiating again within the room. Vincent lifted eyes full of gratitude to her.

"See my new boots, Diana?" Jacob turned the attention back to the important details at hand.

"Yes, Jacob. They are wonderful. You look so handsome in them, too." A kiss to a soft little cheek was rewarded by another sweet embrace of chubby arms around her neck.

Diana felt renewed.

"We had better leave the ladies to their important work, then. We've kept them long enough." Vincent reached his hand down to his son who took it eagerly.

"Don't worry, Diana. You'll be ready in time. You look so beautiful even without your special dress."

Diana was the one that blushed at the child's words this time. She turned to his father, shyly, but with a newly-found ease of heart, she reached her arms around his neck and offered him a soft kiss she felt him leaning into with welcome. "Till the ceremony, then," she quietly greeted him.

Vincent brushed his hand over her drying hair with a lingering touch. Then he swept Jacob up off his feet amid giggles of delight, urging the child back to their own chamber.

Reluctantly, Diana finally turned her attention back to the women of the room, knowing they were about to burst with questions and startled amazement at the abrupt turn of circumstances of the morning. She simply deflected their wordless appeals for details with casual observations about what needed yet to be done in their business of preparation for a wedding. Her heart was alight with a mischevious turn of spirit.

Finally, Brooke bravely accepted her silent election as spokesperson for the group, taking hold of Diana's hand and fairly dragging her to sit on the side of Mary's bed. "All right, Diana," she conceeded. "We won't ask you what happened just now. But, you'll carry the guilt of abandoning us to our imaginations this entire day."


Continued in Chapter 15