To Hope Anew

Chapter Twenty

It was hard for her to breathe. She fought to fill her lungs, but it seemed as though the air she needed was halted in her throat, unable to find its way any further within her body. A profound darkness surrounded her, cold, and lifeless.

At length, how long? she felt a . . . presence . . . pull away from her, reluctantly, actually pull from within her, to disappear into the featureless blackness, leaving a deep sadness in its wake. Then, she began to breathe again, felt the air rush into her lungs too quickly for her to absorb it. She gasped, shuddered, then found the rhythm she needed to handle the exchange of respiration.

But she wasn't certain if she knew where she was.

The darkness gave up a shade of its depth, then another and another, until there was almost the recognizable glow of light pushing through to her, welcome, warm light. It held her cradled within its comfort, seeping into her very pores with life and shelter, supporting and strengthening her still confused soul . . . Love.

Her vision began to clear, too. The perception of light gave way to actual sight, and she began to pick out things with concrete form -- the subdued colors of a wall, a small, cluttered bookshelf that needed dusting, a framed crayon drawing bright with wonder. She knew now where she was -- in her bedroom.

A hand enveloped hers. She felt it, pressing against hers with gentle but distinctly possessive power. A hand unlike any other, beautiful in its tenderness. Blue eyes looking down at her filled with profound relief, and . . . love. Her soul would cling to the truth in those eyes and finally find its home.

She tested her voice. It was a hoarse whisper. "Vincent?" The question pulled radiance from that unbelievably mythic face.

"Oh . . . Diana." His words were so awash in relief and grateful acknowledgement that she couldn't quite be certain of the reason for it. Had he been fearful for her? Why? Then she felt her hand being pulled up away from the broad strength of his chest, being encircled by long, slender, fur-backed fingers that clasped and intertwined with hers. A moment later her hand was pressed up to his mouth, his warm breath comforting on it, his cleft lips brushing the sweetest of kisses within it.

The feeling of it trailed light to the deepest part of her soul.

Diana wasn't certain of what had happened, but she blessed the circumstances nonetheless. Whatever had transpired had given her the gift of Vincent's unburdened humanity at last.

She needed to touch him, make certain he was real, make certain the feeling of heated tenderness that was alive between them was real, too. She shifted her weight to reach her hand from his gentle possession up to the tear that had slipped down his cheek. Her body felt suddenly wracked with unremembered pain and her movement was cut short.

Powerful arms drew her instead closer to him, nestled her against him lest she be visited again by pain. She was stunned to realize she was lying in his embrace across his lap, wrapped, for some reason, in the comforter of her bed. And, she gathered now that they were on the floor of her room, backed up against her bed.

"What is it, Vincent? What's happened?" Her words immediately belonged to the seasoned investigator. A look of concern mixed with the relief on his face.

"You don't remember anything?"

Diana tried to send her thoughts back to the instant before she became aware of her surroundings, but only -- blackness -- met her efforts. She knew there were experiences just beyond her reach in the dark there, for some unexplanable reason, but she couldn't seem to touch to them.

Instead, she settled to the present moment, and the unexpected wonder of its apparent circumstances: For some reason, Vincent had come to her, to her home. They were inside her loft where he hadn't dared enter for over two years, and she was in his arms.

The wonder, though, was removed by a sudden ache that hit her when she glanced back up to his face, holding her confused gaze with such tenderness. She reached her fingers again hesitantly over to his right cheek and her heart stumbled at what she touched:

dried blood, flaking off his flesh into her hand. He was hurt. Three parallel scratches crossed over his face, from beneath the eye nearly to his jaw.

Diana pulled herself up into a sitting position, past the pained weariness of her own body, to look at him more closely. She drew her right hand out from under the blanket with the intent of reaching up to him with it as well -- and then she caught sight of the gauze bandage around that hand. It stopped her short in her movements.

"What the hell happened to us?"

The sudden fire in her words, and her lapse in vocabulary, reassured Vincent once and for all that it was indeed Diana back in his arms, the Diana that would not rest until she had deciphered the truth of her situation, no matter how fervantly he believed now that he needed to keep it from her.

"I felt tonight that you were . . . struggling . . . with something . . . painful. I came up to be certain you were . . . safe."

"Struggling?" She sought to find more of an explanation from him but found nothing in his face that could satisfy her. "I remember . . . what do I remember?" She was talking more to herself than to him at the moment as she attempted to sort through the convoluted trail of her recent memory.

"I came home from work. We'd put DeSalvo away, at last. Joe asked me to gather my files on the case to hand over."

"You sent word you wished to come Below for a rest." Vincent's continuation of her train of thought was a momentary comfort for her. At least he was able to touch to her experiences as well, for now.

"Yes. I wanted to set it all behind me. It had . . . hurt . . . so badly for so long, being in that case. I wanted to give myself a chance to breathe free again, regain my bearings and perspective."

Her words sent tides of emotion through Vincent. How long had it been that he'd felt his home, his wondrous world, was nothing more than a prison, a tomb, for him? He'd lost his sense of grateful awe for the refuge and solace that was his home, considering it only within the limits it had forced onto his relationship with Catherine. It was the dark place of shadows that could never be her home, the only place he could roam with abbreviated freedom. But Diana had just described it as the place where she could breathe free again, restore herself with welcome.

"I remember gathering all of my evidence together. I was done with it. I didn't want anything else to do with it. Yet, when I looked at the photos of those kids . . . they were just kids . . . in love. It shouldn't have gotten them killed. My heart . . . I felt it . . .

breaking . . . for them, all over again. I couldn't get past it. And then . . . and then . . . "

Diana could not seem to put her memories together any further. She sank back into Vincent's embrace, spent and weary with her efforts. Why couldn't she remember anything else? The case had consumed her for so long. How could she simply -- lose --

her reactions to it now? All her work, all her personal anguish to find justice for the innocent -- it had brought her to -- where?

Then, the reality broke through to her in a frightening current of recognition. Feelings, experiences, hopes, terrors, that had never been hers, had actually taken hold of her heart and soul. It struck her like a blow, hard and indiscriminantly, realizing what had actually taken place in the quiet confines of her loft. She could see herself collapsing onto the chair at her desk, felt the shudder of abject horror sweep through her as if it had been her own.

"Oh . . . God!" she breathed, with real fear, seeking to bury herself deep within the sheltering warmth of his embrace for support. "Oh, God, Vincent." She was trembling now, violently.

He couldn't bear to let her walk through the nightmare again. Vincent pulled her close to him, kissed her hair, drew his hand over her shuddering shoulders. His voice was thick with emotion. "You are safe now, Diana. It's over. Don't torture yourself any longer."

But the truth had to come out. She would not rest until she was able to follow it, no matter how frightening it could become. "I . . . lost myself . . . didn't I?" He didn't need to speak any words of confirmation. She knew she'd understood it all by the sudden flash of remembered pain that rushed across his face.

"I lost myself inside Connie. I was there, in that girl's mind, in her . . . soul. The night she was murdered."

The tears were sobbing ones again, filled with disbelief and fear. Vincent wanted to protect her, would have given his life to protect her, from the pain. Yet, she needed to hear the truth, or she'd spend her soul to find it out.

"I tried to draw you out, Diana, but you couldn't seem to find me." The quiet confession pulled at her heart with its love.

"My God, Vincent . . . I wasn't just there. I was her. I saw and felt . . . everything . . . she did. One moment she was safe and sheltered in his arms, in Ritchie's arms, hoping, dreaming . . . loving. The next moment there was . . . blood . . . everywhere . . . all over me . . . his blood. He was loving me . . . her . . . and he was . . . dying."

Vincent's spirit recoiled at that shared memory, both in relief and anguish, as he comprehended the depths of Diana's confused terror. Yes, she had been experiencing the images that had coursed through him too, earlier that night, images of -- murder -- profaning the tenderness of love. But the experiences had held the soul of Connie DeSalvo, not herself. The sweetness and the horror that Diana had felt had been the dead girl's experiences, not her own.

Yet, she'd projected herself somehow so completely within the girl, taken on her pain so completely as her own, that Vincent had sensed the images as Diana's own fears, her own vision of the hell that he himself could possibly have visited upon her.

He reached out and held Diana's tear-stained face between both his hands, attempting to quell her rising panic, knowing acutely what it was to endure a loss of self, knowing the fear of never finding the way back to his soul. He couldn't let her believe herself damned.

"Diana, you are safe. It is . . . over. Come Below with me now. You can rest. Father will make certain that you are well. It is . . . done."

His quietly pleading words would not penetrate the agony enveloping her, though. "I was lost in her, Vincent, completely lost. And I knew I was. I knew those moments were not really mine to live, that it wasn't my own life I was seeing, but I couldn't find my way out. And then, he was there, her father. His . . . hands . . . were . . . on me . . . her."

A cold revulsion hit Diana in the pit of her stomach without warning. She could feel DeSalvo cornering her earlier today in his office, she could feel his body push up hard against hers, leaning the threat of his power against her. And if he hadn't been bound, she knew with abhorrent certainty, she would have recognized the feeling of his hands coursing the reality of his infernal jealousy over her vulnerable flesh. Her words became only a cracked whisper. "She . . . I . . . was trying to get away, fighting for my life . . ."

In an instant, the truth hit her with honest shame. Diana reached up to Vincent's face once again with a trembling hand, with pain and remorse in her eyes. "I was fighting -- you! Oh, Vincent, I'm sorry. God, I've finally gone insane, completely insane. Please, God, don't let me get lost in the dark again. Please."

The frightened prayer was only breathed into the woolen fabric of his doublet. Vincent could stand her turmoil no longer. She was abandoning every shred of hope and courage to the very real terror of losing herself in madness, seeing the gift of her empathic insight and compassion as only the evidence of a mind losing its grip on reality.

He would not let her give up her hold on herself now. He would not let her battle her demons alone.

"Listen to me, Diana!" Vincent's words were more abrupt and fierce than he'd ever used with her. She pulled a fraction away from her panic at their sheer force. He continued then with a quiet agony that stilled her heart with its compelling care. "You are safe now. What happened to you will not happen again. You were overwhelmed by the anguish of the girl you sought to help. That is all. You found your way back to me. That is the only thing that matters now."

Those last words suddenly echoed in her mind. She had heard them before, in the darkness: "Come back to me. Find your way back to me." He had penetrated the nightmare she'd been plunged into and had helped pull her free, with those words, and with the ones that had followed, the ones she'd never believed he could find the courage to utter to her.

Diana lay completely still in his arms for a long instant, gazing deeply at the face of the man she loved, finding the truth she needed in the depths of his beautiful eyes. They were pained now, tinged with aching compassion that took her breath away. A very real sense of urgency had swept over him, leaving him breathing hard and erratically.

The truth was there, touching her heart with a poignant humility that would never let him accept what she knew as fact: that he'd suffered as much as she through the ordeal she'd just endured and had yet found the courage to pull her free from hell with the reality of -- love -- spoken, acknowledged, unfeared.

"I love you," she had heard him utter from the depths of his need for her. It had drawn her from beyond oblivion. She had felt the anguished honesty of the words caress her with a fledgeling hope that held out to her a lifeline even in the midst of his own guilty, burdened pain.

"You helped me find my way back." Her words now were a quiet statement of the truth, colored with tender, grateful awe. "You came into that darkness and helped me find my way."

"I would have followed you to the gates of hell and back, Diana."

The nearly whispered explanation caught at her soul. The azure eyes embraced hers with uncertain spirit. He could manage to hold her shamelessly tender gaze for only a moment before he let the golden fall of his hair hide his face from her, but Diana was able to let the reality of his admission cascade over her nonetheless.

Vincent wasn't certain if his breathing would ever steady itself again, if his heart would ever stop its pounding. All he was certain of was the fact that she'd heard his words to her. All of them. That she believed them. And that he meant every one of them.

Heaven or hell . . . The only reason he'd been given a choice in his life for the past three years was because she had been there to quietly, patiently, and not so patiently, steady his heart, shore up his hope, love him without question, limit, or ambiguity.

She'd been nothing less than a tender angel of mercy, bending far down from heaven to offer him a drop of water and quench his hell-fired thirst. She'd leaned far out over the edge of courage and compassion, indeed, she'd reached right down to the pit of Satan's blackness itself to bring him a glimmer of solace and repose when all he'd known was grief, fear, and loneliness.

Never even caring about the risks to herself.

Not ever being afraid of falling into the depths of his desolation in the process.

But her radiant soul had lost its precarious footing, and she had tumbled into her own pain and fire, because of her maddening commitment to her work for justice, surely, but so much so because of the fragile state of her heart and her spirit, caused for so long by the incessant turmoil between them.

Diana's hopeful heart had been threatened with the despair surrounding them both, was still threatened. Her tender essence was in danger now of being consumed by the flames of everlasting oblivion only because she had no anchor to hold her spirit fast, could count on no sustaining strength of hope to restore her tested soul.

He would not let her succumb to such a fate, deciding then and there, trusting only to the -- rightness -- of holding her in his arms, enfolding her in his love.

If they were never to find refuge beyond the scorched blackness of the nightmares pursuing them both, at least they could face them together in each other's shelter. Vincent refused to relinquish his role as protector, now not so much a burden as a gift, one with which he could truly keep her safe. He would carry Diana's heart within the reality of his love, cherishing her trust and belief in him, even if they were to find themselves the last two souls in the universe left to agonize through life .

And he would damn himself to the blessed welcome in her eyes, because he knew no other way to keep her safe.

With the most profound act of self-preservation he could bring himself to offer her, Vincent drew his arms more closely around the slender shoulders of the fallen angel before him, urging her near, condemning her to a life in his love, a sentence he knew she would bless as a gift from heaven itself. He slipped trembling hands over softly yielding flesh in reality and not in a conjured nightmare of tenderness, a wave of frighteningly true consciousness coursing through his unsteady heart.

He brushed his thumb lightly across warm lips that were already parted, waiting only to be allowed to take every breath with his, drawing life from him. This would be the only truth between them, strong enough to shelter their battered souls, resurrect them to a new haven of possibility . . . Love . . . born of pain, freed from guilt, glowing with the radiant tenderness of human hearts shared beyond any limits of fear. He would let himself believe this truth, the one she'd never wavered from.

And he would let her hold the reality of his own truth . . . in a kiss tinged with eternity. .

hesitant at first . . . searching . . . for welcome. Then, blazing in startling, long-denied sensuality shared, a communion of bodies and souls offering promise, and yet, at the same time, asking for the tender hope of acceptance.

That acknowledgement was not long in coming to him.

Diana let her body melt against his, stunned by the honesty of his reaching tenderness. Sweet Mother Mary, had her own descent into hell truly brought her to the brightest elevations of heaven? The sensations touching her were beyond her most forcefully denied anticipation. It was as if she had suddenly become -- magnetized -- at the touch of his lips, feeling drawn, compelled to be drawn, to him, in him, helpless, but in all actuality, only doing what needed to be done -- making herself a part of him as she always knew she was.

There was no uncertainty, no confusion, no nightmare of deception or threat. Hands, long-fingered and possessive, Vincent's hands, unbelievably trailed loving passion over skin so receptive she couldn't understand how she'd been able to keep herself whole so long without it. Their bodies knew each other, recognized each other, accepted each other's long-burdened want with intoxicating freedom.

Vincent felt the torrent of Diana's emotions wash against him, surge about him, through his link with her spirit, a flood of yearning, strengthening, guiltless need. He never expected the power of it. He never expected his own helplessness within it.

An instantaneous shading of fear came over him, as he felt himself drowning, with welcome, in the heated responses of her body to his. Defenses of a lifetime, reinforced, unbreechable, were swept away in a heartbeat, leaving him open and vulnerable, to more than just the heady passion of two shackled souls finally freed to search for fulfillment between them.

There was no way they could survive it, he knew, in agony.

Vincent forced himself to give up his hold on Diana's desire, pulled himself back from the bewitching feel of her soft skin, the hypnotic pulse at her throat, the silk of her hair in his hands at last. He felt her heart cling to him, desperately, even as he unwillingly wrenched his from her reach. He watched eyes filled with grateful, ecstatic abandon darken with disbelief and the reality of what was happening that shouldn't be: He would deny her yet. Deny them, yet.

Because he had felt the iron will of his control snap.

It had only taken a shared, ragged breath, the moist sweetness of lips and the honest heat of a caressing tongue, the softness of tender flesh that molded itself perfectly to his own. Those forbidden, denied, terrifyingly beautiful sensations had ignited within him the firestorm of awareness: Diana was willing, aching, to give herself over to him totally in that instant, body and soul, taking up his condemnation as the blessed gift she always believed it was.

Could the black truth within him be far behind?

Breathless, and trembling, with the effort to quell his consuming need for her, Vincent rested his forehead on Diana's wearily. He could see the tears welling up into her eyes, tears he had caused, he had drawn from her shattered hopes.

But, he would even break her heart to walk her safely through this hell, tonight.

His hell.

"We had better get you Below." His voice was only an unsteady thread.

He watched her stop breathing for an instant, watched her soul drop out of her being and extinguish its light from out of her betrayed emerald eyes. He didn't even stop her as she pulled herself out of his now exhausted embrace, pulled herself onto her own feet and back into a reality she'd sooner die denying than surrender to.

It was then that she noticed she'd been clad only in her white cotton sleep shirt beneath the blanket in his arms. It made no difference to her now. If she'd been shrouded in the voluminous weight of his heavy cloak, she could have been covered with no more defiant and rejected dignity than she claimed at that moment, barelegged, before him.

The desperate disbelief in her eyes crucified him.

Turning on her heel, Diana went through the bathroom entry way, slamming the door in her wake.

Vincent could only throw his head back against the bed and close his eyes against the pain.

Continued in Chapter 21