To Hope Anew

Chapter Sixteen

"There, it's finished, Diana." Rebecca straightened out the ends of the satin ribbon that she'd just completed tying onto the thick auburn braid. She handed the soon-to-be bride the small mirror from off the bed table.

Diana caught sight of her own reflection, and very nearly did not recognize herself.

What was it about the morning that was leading even her own reflection into a dreamy, warm realm of hopeful possibility? It had to be more than the simple fact that her burnished hair had been intricately braided into a coronet around her head, the plaits easily catching the candlelight and glowing, leaving her to feel uncharacteristically attractive and self-confident.

She'd always only tolerated her red hair as a curse in the past, something that forced her to stand out in a crowd when her sensitive nature would have rather melted into the air. Still, she'd never given in to the whims of modern fashion and changed its color, believing instead that the fiery tresses should remain her link to her beloved grandmother's land of fairy legend. This morning those locks seemed made of braided gold, a gift to her and not a curse.

It was also more than the fact that her face had a gentle radiance about it as well, as though it reflected a softly-embered fire from within. Her eyes, too, were bright and deep, pools of emerald light with a hint of expectation shimmering in each one. Diana had never considered herself a beautiful woman -- those eyes were too large, her complexion too pale, her hair too bright. But, at the moment, there was a powerful essence of -- majesty --

about her that even she could see in her self-critical observations.

And it had so much more to do with the reality of her inner state than with any outword characteristics of nature.

"Rebecca, thank you. My hair looks beautiful! I would never have believed it."

The self-conscious young attendant blushed easily. "It isn't much of a wedding gift, but I'm glad you like it."

"Now, don't mess your hair, dear. Careful," came the gentle admonishment from Mary to Samantha, who was being helped into her maid of honor's gown by Brooke and Jamie. As the young girl settled the garment carefully around her, there were general expressions of delight from all the women in the room.

"Samantha, you look simply beautiful!" Olivia was the first. "Where on earth did you ever find the fabric, Mary? It is just lovely!"

"Such a perfect shade of blue, too," returned Brooke. "It looks like an early summer evening's sky."

"Lin brought down several bolts of cloth for us to choose from," Mary explained. "We were so lucky to get them. Some importer had gone out of business and Lin had bought dozens of bolts of his fabrics for next to nothing, silks even. She is sewing costumes for traditional Chinese dolls she is selling in Henry's restaurant. The fabrics were all just wonderful for the patterns we'd chosen. We couldn't decide for days, they were all so beautiful."

Diana got up from her chair and came over to give Samantha a warm embrace. "You look like a princess, Samantha."

The young girl fairly glowed at the compliments. She truly deserved the praise, too, because the adventurous young scholar had been transformed into an arrestingly attractive young woman of nearly fourteen in her own right.

Rebecca had braided her long, dark hair as she had done Diana's, in careful and intricate plaits. Her sweetly maturing face blushed with natural color. And a dress unlike any she'd ever worn draped gracefully over her young figure.

In an indescribable shade of China blue with tiny sprigs of white flowers strewn over it, the gown had a rounded neckline and long, tight sleeves. The bodice fit carefully to a sweeping skirt.

"There is not going to be a boy over the age of ten and under the age of twenty-one left standing in the Great Hall when you come in, Samantha," Brooke teased with an assured smile.

"I've never dreamed of wearing something like this ever in my life! Thank you, Mary. And thank you, Diana, for asking me to stand with you today."

"Now it is the bride's turn," Olivia instructed. "I'll go get the flowers for both of you."

All eyes turned to Diana. Ordinarily reticent about calling attention to herself for any reason, the bride blessed heaven for the help she was getting this day. She wanted her appearance to speak her heart, for once, and knew that each of the women in the room with her understood perfectly what she hoped. The dreamy ease of the moment needed to

translate itself into the very fabric of romantic possibility.

There was no doubt that radiant likelihood would become reality when Mary retrieved a clothes hanger from out of her wardrobe that was carefully covered with part of a sheet. Hanging it on the outside of the cabinet, she pulled the covering back, and a collective sigh of approval filled the room.

In the close quarters of the Underworld community, Mary and Diana had actually managed to keep the particulars of a wedding gown a special secret until that very moment, no mean feat of itself. Now, their care with the details of the creation came at last to worthy light.

"Oh, Diana. It is just . . . stunning," Rebecca acknowledged. All the women agreed. The gown was beguilingly simple, yet elegantly from another age of honor and enchantment. It could only have come into being in a world of gentle candlelit hopes and whispered promises. And no one except the burnished-haired young woman in their midst could ever have worn such a gown for such an anticipated miracle of love.

Cut from the same pattern as Samantha's dress in the always frugal ways of the Underworld, Diana's gown had, however, been tailored for a slender and graceful woman's body. Where the girl's dress was of lightweight silk, giving it an airy silhouette, the bride's gown was of a heavy, draping brocade in the palest shade of cream, enriched even more by the interwoven pattern of scrolling vines and leaves on the fabric just a hint of a shade lighter in color.

The neckline scooped a bit more deeply than Samantha's gown, both front and back, but still remained at a comparatively modest line. The bodice fit closely down to a dropped waist, and the long, tight sleeves tapered to a point over the backs of the hands. The skirt was a trailing sweep of soft gathers that ended in a train.

With silent acquiescence, all the younger women in the room agreed that Mary alone should be the one to help Diana at the moment. The bride stepped out of her robe and into the gown Mary carefully held for her, pulling it easily up over her slim form.

The neckline and her braided hair bared an inviting expanse of porcelain skin that Diana had decided to keep unadorned as usual -- no necklace, no earrings. The heavy fabric draping over her curves seemed suddenly to be made only of cloud mist. It moved easily with her at the same time that it clung to and outlined an undeniably beautiful woman's figure, radiant in innocent, yet bewitching anticipation. Fair Rosamund herself had stepped from a Victorian canvas and claimed her bridal right.

Where everyone had been so eager to offer their comments to Samantha's appearance, the women accompanying Diana were all stunned into appreciative silence. Mary's eyes misted.

"Here are the flowers," came Olivia's bright voice back through the chamber doorway. Then, when she caught sight of the bride, she, too, fell to amazed silence, but only for a moment. "Oh my lord, Diana!" she exclaimed.

Without a word, Mary took the small hatbox from Olivia's hands and lifted the lid. Within the box were the fresh flowers that she and Olivia had worked on last night -- airy halos for the hair and small bouquets to carry. The blossoms had been Laura's gift.

With quiet care, Mary lifted a white halo out of the box. It had been woven of small white roses and sprigs of baby's breath, all on a delicate circlet of rosemary and the tiniest ivy leaves. The older woman came over to the bride and gently set the wreath onto her auburn hair just above the braiding. Then she returned to the sheet-covered hanger and retrieved a luxurious length of gossamer veiling.

Olivia's aid was needed with this ethereal detail, and she helped Mary drape the whisper of fabric over Diana's flower-crowned locks, to hang in front of her and behind, until she was presented formally at the wedding ceremony. The veiling, traditionally intent upon concealing a bride from all eyes save her husband's, did nothing of the sort at the moment. It only served to accentuate the vision that Diana had become.

"You look like an angel," was all that Mary could manage to say when she had finished her cherished duties. Diana smiled at her from the bottom of her heart, feeling every bit as capable of soaring as the heavenly being she had been compared to.

The rest of the ladies in the room finally found their voices, too. "You will simply take Vincent's breath away," Brooke observed, her words the very thought that was immediately on everyone else's mind, too.

Diana felt the gentle blush rising over her cheeks at the mention of her beloved's name. "Do you really think so?" came the inquiry almost before she could think better of it. But it was suddenly so important for her to know at that instant: Would she truly be able to sweep her husband-to-be into the realm of breathless dreams this day? Would he welcome that torrent of feelings Diana now acknowledged was rising within her with cherished anticipation?

"Diana, he doesn't have a chance against you." Jamie's conclusion at last brought a total round of sisterly communion into a bright and warmly joyous plane. The mythic protector they all loved had finally met his match, this day, they knew, with happy certainty.

With the feelings in the room elevated into a general state of total good humor, the final details of the morning were completed. Olivia set a wondrous halo of forget-me-nots and rosebuds onto Samantha's beautiful dark hair. It was the perfect touch to the young girl's transformation as well -- she looked every bit an embodiment of springtime's youthful promise.

A small bouquet of fragrant lily of the valley and white roses, tied together in a profusion of blue and white ribbons, was handed to Diana. Samantha had a similar, smaller nosegay to carry, made of tiny white rosebuds and forget-me-nots. When both bride and maid were completely dressed, a happy round of embracing ensued. Then Mary remembered one last important detail.

"Diana, you have something old, something new, and something blue, but you still need something borrowed." The ladies went over the traditional necessary charms of the day as they had been offered to the bride: A tatted bit of linen handkerchief of her grandmother's had been sewn into the abundant folds of her wedding gown, which, itself, was the "new" part of the custom. The ribbons of the bouquet took care of the "blue." Mary returned from her dresser drawer with the still-remaining necessary element: A silver hair comb that she let Diana borrow.

Carefully, she lifted aside the misty veiling from the bride's hair to tuck the small comb into the plaits of hair on one side. "My father gave my mother this when they were first married. It would make me very happy to know I can share it with you today, Diana."

The bride gave the elder woman she considered very much her own foster mother a truly heartfelt embrace. "Thank you, Mary."

"We'd better get to our places. The guests have already begun arriving," Olivia reminded. Everyone began to file out of Mary's chamber with happy conversation echoing down the tunnels before them. Samantha gracefully bent to retrieve the train of Diana's gown, but Mary gently urged her on with the rest of the women. The young girl smiled in understanding and followed the other women to the Great Hall.

Diana was more than grateful that the matriarch of the tunnel community had remained behind with her for a moment. She wanted so very much to thank the gentle woman again, for all her so generous, nurturing support.

"Mary, I never believed I'd be standing here in a wedding gown." Diana lifted back her veil a moment to be certain she could touch to all the gentle, warm reassurance radiating from her cherished mentor's face.

"Love is a powerful force, dear. It can move mountains. It can heal souls."

"Thank you for always reminding me of that." The two women shared an embrace. Then, thinking back on the uncertain start to the morning's preparations, Mary let her maternal instincts override her polite courtesy.

"You are all right, now, Diana, truly?" A nod of the head set her mind at ease.

"A little nervous, I guess, though." The gentle hazel eyes urged her to continue. "And a little scared."

"Feelings I'm certain Vincent is experiencing at the moment as well."

"Oh, Mary, I want desperately to make him happy!" The uncertain tone of voice was not totally unexpected. Mary raised a gentle hand to Diana's cheek.

"My dearest child. You have stood beside him through years of pain and helped him find his way through it. You love his little boy as your own. You have joined him in his world and made it your home. You have accepted his love. What else could there possibly be left for you to offer him for his happiness?"

The quiet rebuke helped pull Diana to the truth she believed in her heart. She had to try to hold to it through the day. "I guess there is always a small part of me that -- wonders."

"Whether when he sees you, holds you, he is not dreaming of someone else?"

Diana's gaze came up quickly from the small bunch of flowers in her hands. She was about to protest, but knew the woman who'd become her dearest friend in the community Below was too familiar with her heart. The response was truthful, and from that heart. "Yes. Even now."

Mary took the bride's hand into hers firmly. "Diana, in a few moments you will pledge your lives to one another. You will share a love as husband and wife. Vincent is joining his heart to yours as he never had the courage to pledge to Catherine. Your love for one another is on a different plane from his for Catherine. When you join him in the Great Hall, he will see only you, and all you have given him. You know his heart. Don't doubt him."

"It's myself I doubt, Mary. Never him."

"What could you possibly doubt in yourself, dear?" came the softly unbelievable voice.

Diana thought for a long moment before responding. Vincent's words to her from this morning sounded so hopeful -- "Today is about what can be for us, not about what is denied us." She prayed that clinging to that belief would be enough for them. Something warm and radiantly promising had been left to surround her with those words, but did they truly reveal Vincent's own state of heart? He would do anything to keep her from sorrow, she knew, just as she would do anything to keep him from pain. Were they still loving at cross-purposes, on this day of all days?

Mary's presence was so . . . sheltering . . . at the moment. If Diana had to be denied a mother's counsel on her wedding day, knowing that Mary's heart was open to her could be as comforting and welcoming as a mother's care. She had to share her burden of doubt with the gentle lady, give voice to the tiny seed of catastrophe that would yet take hold on her hope today.

"I'm not certain that I can live up to Vincent's -- ideals -- of love for us. His relationship with Catherine was so, so -- transcendent. I don't know that I can reach that place with him. He had to lose Catherine for me to find my heart's desire. She had to die before I could find my happiness."

"And you believe that that is the reason Vincent has had to struggle for so long before accepting your love?"

Diana sat down on the edge of Mary's bed and focused her attention totally on the flowers in her hands. They were so beautiful, so delightfully bright in their natural loveliness, and so fragile. Her own hold on her hope seemed just as fragile just then, even though she'd believed otherwise in Vincent's arms earlier that morning.

"I don't believe he's struggled to accept my love, Mary, as much as he's been afraid to acknowledge all of its parts. I've felt his deep devotion to me even when we were both so afraid to call it 'love'. It's always been there, I've been so blessed to always feel it there for me. But there is a part of our love that has seemed to bring us more fear and pain than anything else."

The quiet words may have faltered to describe an indescribable situation, but Mary read more of the meaning from what Diana didn't say than from what she was willing to give voice to.

"The part of your love that aches for a touch entinged by doubt?"

Relief, profound and long-awaited, evident in Diana's deep green eyes, told Mary she had deciphered the very root of the enigmatic pain insisting on manifesting itself within such a cherished soul on such a promising day. The older woman lifted a work-worn hand to the suddenly unsteady hand of the young woman beside her.

"We are gifted with the ability to express our hearts eloquently when even words fail us," Mary continued softly. "You know that, Diana, and treasure that ability as we all should. A look, a touch, a shared heartbeat in a moment of complete oneness, can only be considered wondrous opportunities to speak of our love to the one soul we can commit ourselves to without doubt or reservation. But, for Vincent, those outward, physical expressions of love have held only fear. Unjustly so. Undeservedly so."

Diana's entire body seemed to plead for understanding with the words quietly offered her in unexpected counsel. "Then you do believe it, too, Mary. It is undeserved fear, isn't it? It's a shadow of the past that needs to be left in the past. Or else it will darken our own hopes for the future. We will begin our life together haunted by it, shackled by it."

Mary's usually serene face clouded painfully. It was so much a mother's face just then.

"I know it is difficult to comprehend how something so beautiful could have become so terrifying to Vincent. It defies reasonable explanation except in the fact that Vincent is totally incapable of thinking ill of anyone he loves. He would believe himself a spawn of hell itself before he would accept someone he loved as less than what he believed them to be.

"But, I was there when he was a boy, after Lisa, when he woke in the night screaming from the dreams, terrified that his merest touch could harm those he cared for." A single tear made its way down the gentle, care-worn features of the elder woman, as she felt, even now, the hopelessness, and pain of that long-ago time.

"It nearly drove him mad, the thought he could habor a soul of only questionable humanity, capable of turning protective power into mindless, instinctive bestiality that could threaten at a moment's provocation.

"As he grew in strength and mercifully matured in spirit, I watched him shroud his deepest feelings, his most fragile dreams, in layers of defensive denial, so that he'd never need fear a loss of control ever again. In that vigilant mindset he was even capable of denying his own worth, certain he'd only been placed upon this earth as an instrument of terror and darkness."

Diana felt the tears slip down her own cheeks at the words of a mother's sad torment. "But, Mary, could he possibly have felt so even with Catherine? They conceived a child, in love."

Sadly, Mary shook her head. "Especially with Catherine," came her quiet conclusion, "and especially because that moment of consumation between them was lost to him, shrouded in that fear. I think that so much of his pain at her death had to do with being robbed of the opportunity to grow in their love beyond the fear. They were edging towards that path, so hesitantly, when she was taken from him.

"I'd prayed that he could find and accept the reality of his soul, in love. But even Catherine had been compelled to hold her beliefs captive to his pain. She accepted him, in her love, as he presented himself to her -- acknowledging only a shadow of worthy humanity within himself that she could love in generosity and nobility."

For a long moment, both women fell silent, holding with painful recognition all that Mary had revealed from her maternal experiences. -- Generosity and nobility -- Diana knew that her responses to Vincent's uncertainties in their relationship to date had been anything but generous and noble.

She had been unflinchingly honest in her expectations, challenging, defying him to take hold of hope and wonder within his life, daring him to love beyond limits and fears and the haunting shame of the past. Was her own answer to the troubled heart of the man she loved any more capable of turning him away from his pain? She had believed it to be.

"Mary, how do we ever get past all this now?"

The words were not totally defeated, a distinct trace of accepting determination lifting itself past what should have been evidence for total surrender to the inevitability of heartache. Mary, herself, took heart from the faint promise that sought her encouragement.

"You two must have come to some sort of . . . belief . . . about what was . . . possible

. . . between you, even if it wasn't actually anything you'd . . . spoken of." Mary's delicate probing of the condition of the two hearts she'd willingly shelter within her own sought to find some sense of the positive, and the possible, in which hope could once again

be grounded.

Diana's mind drifted off momentarily: The promise of what could be. Vincent had voiced that to her in an instant of unforced, unfeared, tenderness. Yet, there still would be so much between them that he would deny. And in that denial, so much between them could be diminished as well. She confessed that the eroding fear was alive even in the promise they'd made each other that she now admitted to Mary. "We pledged not to test any . . . limits . . . unless Vincent was certain he could work through them without fear."

A gentle smile began slipping over Mary's subdued features. Diana couldn't seem to understand what the older woman could find to be so reassuring in those words.

"You will simply have to touch his heart with the reality of what married love could be for the two of you, offer him all of its gifts. Tonight. You do believe that is what is necessary, Diana, don't you?"

Suddenly totally in agreement with what Mary was demurely urging her to, Diana responded in certain conviction. "If I didn't, would I be sitting here agonizing over it all like this?"

Mary offered Diana a hand up off the bed, then carefully smoothed a nearly invisible wrinkle from the skirt of her wedding gown. Gently she eased the misty veil back over the bride's face.

"This is the day you will begin sharing in your beloved's life as his wife. No one else has ever had that tender welcome, Diana. You are a breathtaking bride. You believe in your love with every fiber of your being. All you need to do is follow your heart. Vincent's will lead him to you.

"There is nowhere else he can possibly go, nowhere else he can possibly find his completion. He's acknowledged that to you himself. You've read it in his heart. You are the only one offering him the fulfillment of his humanity, the only one brave enough to hold him to his hope.

"And believe it, Diana: If he wasn't ready to accept that gifting challenge from you, even if it should only be within the deepest part of his heart, he would never have asked you to pledge yourself to him. Have faith, dear. Love doesn't always have to be compliant and conceeding. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to someone we love is the fearless ability to stand our ground in that love. Now, we'd better get to the Great Hall."

With a gentle kiss to her forehead through the veil, Mary led the way out of her chamber. Diana stooped to gather her train over her arm, her mind not exactly certain it was capable of processing the colliding tides of expectations and directions assaulting it. She certainly was having a hard time accepting the fact that the quietly reticent soul of the Underworld's matriarch had all but urged her to a clash of wills of epic proportions she thoroughly believed to be the only way to re-establish promise within a heroic, yet too resigned heart.

One thing seemed suddenly clear from the discussion the two women had just shared, though: The respective male hearts their own sought to hold in total, gifting love, were not going to have an easy time of it. Destinies hung in the balance here, this morning, and those destinies could no longer be left to linger within the comfortable confines of mere chance.

"Diana, at this point in our lives, I think we are responsible for making our own luck." Vincent's words to her brought the barest traces of a smile as well, finally, to her face. He had no idea what it meant to confront the luck of the Irish. If there was one thing Grandma Annie had always insisted on impressing upon her young and so receptive soul, it was this: Her Celtic ancestors had long believed in the miraculous intervention of Providence itself within their lives. They also long believed in their own responsibility to direct that providential care.

Diana was totally familiar with that hope-sustaining concept.


The Great Hall had never looked so wondrous, not even at Winterfest. It was ablaze with candles and the air was heady with the unimagined fragrances of dozens of spring flowers. Laura had coordinated many of the Helpers and together they had turned the stone-walled chamber into a spring garden for this so promising and hopeful celebration.

Diana and Samantha stood in a small recess at the head of the mezzanine stairs, out of sight, so far, of most of the people finding their places in the main area of the great room below them. The celebration was running a few minutes late, so as to allow time for all the participants to reach the Hall safely. How typical of the community Diana was becoming a part of -- the celebration would not begin until everyone was given the opportunity to share in it from the outset. The sense of time here Below was so different, so wondrously benign.

Letting her gaze drift over the growing crowd of well-wishers, Diana felt drawn into the wonder of the moment. And it was a wonder filled moment, truly, because it was one she'd never have dreamed possible.


It seemed such a powerful word, imbued with an irresistible force that could hardly be overcome. Yet, standing at the head of the flower-garlanded stairs, Diana realized that for herself and for Vincent, destiny had been woven of only the most fragile of threads.

Decisions made, or not made, had brought them down one path and not another. A word spoken, a touch risked, at a particular moment, had set into motion events and freed feelings that were a part of that destiny before they even realized it. Incidents in the lives of other people, the hopes, fears, and unacknowledged dreams of others, had somehow all found themselves woven into the fabric that made up this day, too.

It could have so easily turned out differently, from the very beginning:

If she hadn't let the desperate pleading in Joe's voice, "I have nowhere else to go," sway her decision, she would have never taken on the investigation into Catherine's death.

Why had she broken her own rules then? She never let one case intrude on another. She was used to hearing desperate voices in her line of work. By the time she got the cases she worked on they were desperate ones, maddeningly unsolvable. Why should Joe have been able to persuade her to take on his own frustrations?

Because she had caught sight of the heartache in his eyes as he had spoken about Catherine to her.

And what about Catherine herself?

What forces had compelled her to make the decisions she did?

She had apparently never said a word to anyone about being pregnant with Jacob. Joe hadn't known. Her own doctor and family friend, Peter, didn't know. She had never even told Vincent before Gabriel had kidnapped her. Why?

Diana found herself suddenly propelled into that moment forcefully in her mind. "My God, Cathy! You loved each other. You were carrying his child. Why didn't you tell him right away? Why couldn't you tell him?"

Knowing Vincent now, Diana was certain of what he would have done with such news: He would have persuaded Catherine to remain Below. He would have kept her and Jacob safe. He would never have let the madness of the world Above risk harming the woman he loved, the child she was bearing him.

Catherine, though, had not been able to share her heart with him just then. If their places had been reversed, if Diana had found herself in just such a situation, would she have acted differently?

The threads of destiny.

If Catherine hadn't died, Diana would never have come to know Vincent.

Even now that she was becoming a part of the Underworld community, Diana realized her own place in shaping the destiny she would be sharing with Vincent, her own responses to the circumstances that had been leveled at her.

When Vincent had left her apartment after she had nursed him back to life, she had sought him out even after he had warned her away from the hellish nightmare that had become his life. She'd been compelled to the tunnels one night by a force she could not deny, wouldn't dream of denying. And Vincent had been compelled to reveal his dark nature to her when she was threatened there.

Even so, her heart would not let her heed his forceful instruction: "You must forget me!"

"I can't," she'd replied, in agony of losing touch with him.

"Then remember me as you would a dream."

She could have listened to his words. She should have set their encounter down in her heart and mind as one of those indecipherable moments that a person can't even be certain had happened in reality. She could simply have offered it to her conscience as evidence of her crumbling mental health.

But, she had not.

And because she had not, because she had remained at his side for the past three years, despite of, or perhaps because of his best efforts to dissuade her, she had been able to help Vincent find Jacob, help him heal his heart enough to bring them both to this day.

She had helped him learn to love again.

Yet, would destiny still control their lives, or would they control their destinies?

Diana was so very much aware of one more decision that loomed so large and untellingly important in their future together. They had convinced themselves that the fears and doubts of the past needed to also play a role in their present lives. Because a terrified youngster had stumbled into his manhood through a heartbreaking accident of chance, the humanity of their love was going to be held imprisoned for the rest of their lives.

It didn't have to be so.

Diana had followed enough of the intertwining threads of the existence she and Vincent had managed to pull together for themselves to know that deep within her beloved's own heart there was just enough hope to cling to, just enough belief to hang their destiny on.

All it would take was the right decision made at the right moment.

The humanity was there, so aching to be reassured, so needing to be acknowledged and shared. The tender wonder of a loving desire was no longer able to be denied. Vincent had revealed it to her in so many tiny, breathlessly beautiful instances.

There was no need for her to seduce his humanity.

What she needed to do was seduce his soul, into believing it could be possible.

Considering all they'd been through together the past three years, all they'd survived, a seduction of the soul would be very much in keeping with their experiences of one another.

Mary's words echoed within her now. "If he wasn't ready to accept that gifting challenge from you, even if only in the deepest part of his heart, he would never have asked you to pledge yourself to him."

He'd known it then, six months ago, when they'd accepted that their need for one another was one that would last a lifetime, and that they could only survive that lifetime if they were together as partners, as soulmates.

They could simply have walked their paths in life on the continued, heartbreaking, occasionally intersecting roads they could safely negotiate without too much risk. But they had chosen then to tread the same paths, together, stumbling together, possibly, finding themselves lost at times, but still always together.

As had become a familiar entity in their experiences of one another, destiny had played a role in even that decision, had led them to conclusions that they might have never had the courage, the hope, to draw. It had taken one of those situations totally beyond their control to head them into the proper direction. And, unwittingly, Joe had initiated the process again.

Diana let her eyes sweep over the happy, now so familiar, crowd of people that was gathered to celebrate this special day with her and Vincent. Joe was not there.

A momentary sorrow filled her heart at the thought: Joe would never know how important a role he had played in their destinies. Diana would never be able to tell him that he'd probably done as much to bring her to her happiness as her own Celtic stubborness had, only by much more labyrinthian means.

Thank God they were working together on this through it all somehow! . . . Joe's subtle impact on her life, and her own head-on tenacity . . . Together they had managed to bring Vincent to a point where he was forced to face his own heart's desire, and the demons surrounding it only he could decide to vanquish.

As always, it had taken an act of God, completely unrelated to any of them, to set it all in motion.

Continued in Chapter 17