To Hope Anew

Chapter Twenty-One


Samantha was visible at the head of the stairs above the Great Hall. At least, Vincent believed it was Samantha. The face, as closely as he could see it from his angled vantage point, was the same he'd cherished since she'd been a toddler no older than Jacob, maturing, of course, but still the same mirror of spirit -- wide dark eyes that sparkled with wonder and anticipation, a smile that could light up the most shadowed chamber, and an off-hand grace and dignity that was in direct opposition to her favorite position in the tunnel world -- the bane of every teenaged boy in the community. Samantha wore her femininity like armor, and daily battled all those weak-hearted males in her domain who would ever be so foolish as to question the equality of the female members of the Underground.

Vincent found himself thinking that Diana must have been very much like Samantha as an adolescent.

And now, Samantha had seemingly become very much like Diana -- an arresting, formidable, and striking young woman, whose soft-eyed beauty masked a will of pure steel.

Samantha was close to breathtaking this morning, dressed as finely as any princess out to do battle for her fair sex, and turning just about every young man's head in the room to her

confident grace.

Especially, unbelievably, Jeffrey, her long-suffering chess partner, who was standing at the foot of the stairway near Pascal and Jacob.

Actually, the boy looked like he needed to ease down to sit on the stairway before he found himself face down upon it.

Innocence.

The blush of new-found physical and emotional attraction. The hesitant reaching out; the panic of suddenly seeing someone familiar in a totally foreign, but enticing, light. Every love should begin as such, Vincent thought, warmly, have the opportunity to mature between two kindred hearts in such shared wonder of discovery. It would not be too many years before the Underworld community would be celebrating another anticipated nuptial, its mythic protector realized with the quiet shock, joy, and heartache of a father: Samantha's.

Love had the most inexplicable capability of melding two diametric opposites into a whole that somehow was so much more than the sum of its parts, as wondrous as they could be individually.

Or, it was able to draw two equals, two companion hearts, two struggling souls divided by the very ends of the earth, through every trial by fire in existence -- and capable of setting them within the same instance of time, the same heartbeat shared -- as a rich and completed tapestry of spirits fulfilled.

Surviving the process had very little to do with strength, and everything to do with courage; nothing at all to do with preparation, and everything to do with the willingness to have faith in the moment : The right decision made at the right time, the right risk embraced at the moment necessary.

The seemingly insane incident of sanity.

 

Vincent came to his feet slowly from off the floor of Diana's bedroom. The bathroom door his gaze was fused to could have been no more formidable obstacle to him had it been constructed of steel and stone. The silence in the two rooms was so deafening it reverberated into his very soul. He came up to the door, found the courage to, and raised his hand, intending to knock.

They had to say something to each other.

They couldn't simply tear themselves from one another without another word between them. But, what could the words possibly be, which ones could possibly exist, to describe the need to embrace denial in order to placate darkness?

The only words, the important ones, the ones that rang with honesty and hope, had already been spoken: "I love you." The reality of those words espoused had already been shared without the utterance of a sound -- only with a touch. A kiss. . .

. . . A kiss . . .

He'd betrayed Diana with a kiss.

. . . Judas Iscariot all over again.

He could have withheld the truth from her, let her keep believing that he didn't ache for her as desperately as she did for him, let her believe they could continue the experiences of one another that they cherished without ever touching to the passion and turmoil of need that lay beneath.

He and Catherine had managed, somehow, to remain . . . chaste . . . and safe.

But Diana had drawn it out of him, the truth, as she was so singularly capable of doing, damnably proficient at doing. Her blazing honesty of spirit would tolerate no hypocrisy around her; she had no patience for shadings of the truth, for half-truths. She had made that clear to him more than once in the past three years that they'd battled each other.

She had made it sublimely, unmistakably, clear five minutes ago: Diana had already put her lifestyle, her peace of mind, her career on the line for him. She'd given him her dreams, her heart, her spirit and soul. There would be no hesitation within this heartbeat of time, for her to make the gift complete -- She'd give him her body as well, joyfully, in fearless abandon . . . with love.

He couldn't bring himself to knock on the door. Vincent simply leaned against it heavily, the tears coming of their own free will down his cheeks. As Diana's were. He could feel them, see them, taste them, through his link with her. If he ever needed evidence that that channel entwining them would be forced to bear only her most overwhelming emotions, her most soul-shattering experiences, her most heartfelt secrets, that evidence came to him now.

Diana had been terrified to find herself within Connie DeSalvo's soul earlier that night. Vincent knew now that he was deep within Diana's at that instant -- and the experience was as searing as sharing a murdered girl's heart.

Because Diana was blaming herself, berating her humanity, for the torrent of turmoil between them again.

"How could I have been so damn careless? How could I have let him see so much? God, why can't I survive this?!" Even the words in her mind were channeling through to his heart. She was scourging herself for wanting to share her truth -- with him -- the man she loved.

The man she loved.

That was the fearful crux of the agony between them, Vincent comprehended painfully. She loved the man, and saw no one else but the man. Yet, there was more to contend with here than mere mortality, simple human love. There was the inhuman, the dark, control-shattering hunter that would care little for the difference between another predator and a fragile whisp of loving humanity.

Flesh was flesh, to be consumed in one way or another.

Vincent pulled back from the door without a word, dropping his hand. It would be better thus, mercifully so. She wouldn't be at risk. She'd pull free, somehow, free and safe, go on living without the darkness hovering over her.

But, how painful it would be to go through life without her, without her blessed presence at his side! When he lost Catherine, he'd lost the possibility of love, the wonder of it. Losing Diana now would cost him the reality of it, its most tenderly human terms.

Bending down to retrieve his cloak from off the floor, Vincent swept it over his shoulders, shrouding himself against the ache. "Good-bye, Diana," he whispered, not even able to make the words audible to her, they pierced his heart so profoundly.

 

Diana sat on the edge of the tub, the cold seeping into her bare legs, looking at the pile of clothing in the center of the floor but not actually even noticing it. All she could see were blue eyes deepening with the reality of completion at last, drawing her in, with welcome. She'd seen it. No more barriers, no more fears, just simple welcome.

And she'd felt the blaze of loving need encircle her heart, shelter her soul, cherish her body. It was there. She had not mistaken it.

Just as she had not mistaken the rush of panic overtaking all the tender mercy of the moment, panic, and guilty fear. It had been intolerable, tormenting -- touching to their deepest, sweetest communion yet, and then feeling her heart slam up against a brick wall.

What could she have expected?

In the three years that they'd shared their lives, Diana had watched Vincent struggle from the despair of loss, to the cold reality of life without Catherine, to the benumbed state of duty and bare, unemotional existence he had sentenced himself to.

She'd thought she'd seen flashes of hope, a trickle of possibility, the barest breath of a newly formed dream, somewhere within his spirit in past months: When she'd been stranded Below, when she'd shared in his care of Jacob in his world. Could she have been so wrong? Could she have been so selfish and demanding as to dream?

All she'd been asking him to do was to set aside the love of a lifetime, the brilliant light of his existence, the mother of his child . . . and turn to her for the comfort and fulfillment of the long days -- and nights -- ahead of him.

It had only taken her three years to totally lose her control of her heart and actually believe she could be capable of offering him something cherished and true he could accept.

Not Catherine resurrected, not ideal, transcendent, grave-defying love . . .

. . . Only a shoulder to lean on, a hand to hold, a body to warm him in the dark of night -- whomever he'd need it to be.

Suddenly cold and achingly tired, Diana reached for the sweat pants half hanging out of the hamper and pulled them on. She found that she was limping as she took a step or two closer to the door, and cursed the cold weather she'd once enjoyed.

Ever since she'd shattered her leg, it had become a barometer of the atmosphere. The cold and damp of winter were particularly hard on her. Sometimes the leg would give out from under her completely. She wondered to herself idly how long she was going to have before she started failing the police physical.

Just like she was failing at everything else in her life lately.

There had been so much she had wanted to do, so much she had wanted to share. With whom? She was alone now -- she'd just seen to that -- rushing headlong once too often -- and she was going to pay for it for the rest of her life.

All because she had let herself believe in the promise of a kiss.

Part of her hoped in the impossible yet . . . that she'd open that bathroom door and find him sitting on the side of the bed, waiting for her. The investigator in her gave her heart a cause to leap momentarily in ridiculous reassurance: She didn't think she'd heard him leave. But then again, how many times had he simply materialized beside her, seemingly out of her thoughts, without a sound, a noticeable entrance? He was capable of vanishing just as easily.

And what if he was still there, in her apartment? What could they possibly say to one another? What could she tell him that would bring back the balance, the sanity, in their relationship? Had there ever really been any balance between them?

In her usual truthful candor, Diana admitted to herself that there had been nothing but chaos between them -- help offered and refused, love admitted and not accepted, passion touched to and fearfully buried. They'd shared every experience of each other -- support, concern, devotion, despair, helpless grief and terrifying near-madness. None of it had uncomplicated their love for one another, nor made it easier for them to accept.

The most wrenching fact she'd need to accept now was the knowledge that he'd slipped out of her apartment and vanished into the dark night for good. That she'd never see him again.

All she'd have left to hold would be the memory of a kiss . . . unburdened . . . dreamed of for an eternity . . . offering a passionate humanity she'd believed in without wavering. But an act of communion that had murdered love instead of lifting it to its breathless fulfillment.

There was no putting it off. Diana opened the door slowly and her bedroom came back into view: It was empty, as all reason had told her it would be. Only the bed covers pulled back and rumpled, her medical kit on the bedside table, and as she came fully into the room, the unexpected sight of her bathrobe on the floor.

Retrieving the robe, still damp and inexplicably somewhat -- cold -- Diana sank wearily onto the bed. She knew Vincent would be gone. Why did the realization have to feel like a knife twisting in her heart? She fixed her attention on the robe in her hands, trying not to notice the place on the floor where they'd been sitting, where she'd found herself awakening from hell in the shelter of his arms.

The comforter had been lifted up to the foot of the bed. Reaching down for it mechanically, a sudden glimmer caught Diana's eye. Smoothing the top sheet on the bed out a bit, she found herself staring at Ritchie Alavar's gold cross.

It was tinged with something again, caked, actually. She couldn't exactly understand what. It had been cleaned at the lab during her investigation. Picking the cross up in her bandaged right hand, she unbelievable realized what the substance was -- blood, dried blood, flaking off the metal once more. A sickening ache struck her deep in her stomach.

Her blood? And there was more across her fingertips, staining the nails. Diana's heart stopped at that, for she knew for certain where it had come from -- Vincent's blood.

It all began to come together for her, in frightful detail now, so clearly.

 

In desperation, she'd sought to wash the tainted feel of murder off her skin in the shower. She'd begun feeling dazed under the hard stream of water. It was steaming hot, she'd had little to eat since breakfast, and she was bone-aching tired. Anxious that she might collapse in the water, she'd reached for her worn terrycloth robe, pulling it on as she came out of the shower, not even bothering to dry herself or her hair off more completely with a towel. The robe soaked up the water and quickly became sopping, but she didn't even seem to care.

Another wave of faintness hit her momentarily in her room, and she stumbled to the kitchen, intent on finding something quick and benign to eat, to stave off the tremors that had begun to assail her. Her erratic habits of late, while she worked obsessively on her cases, had most likely triggered a return to the hypoglycemia she had suffered as a child.

Reaching for the first vessel she could find at hand, Diana pulled a coffee cup from out of the drainboard and managed to shakily pour some milk into it. The coldness of the drink cleared her head. When the faintness eased back a bit, she started back over to her bedroom.

It would be no use for her to attempt to sleep any time soon, despite her weariness. Her nerves were wound spring-tight. Setting the half-full cup of milk onto her bed table, Diana tossed a Christmas gift catalog that had turned up in the mail today onto her bed, letting her mind rest a moment on the children Below and the upcoming holiday celebration. She paged through the book momentarily, seated on the side of her bed, and was suddenly distressed by the impersonal pretentiousness of most of the articles within its pages, things without true value or feeling. Was nothing safe from adulteration any longer?

Deciding that she'd need to force herself to rest tonight, Diana returned the book to the stuffed chair in her room, and instead picked up the cotton sleep shirt that was draped over its back Her threadbare terry robe was dripping wet now, she realized. What was the matter with her? She'd hardly noticed that her heavy wet hair had drenched the robe.

Eager to get herself back into some semblance of hopeful control, she moved to untie the belt from around her waist. With impatience she noticed that she'd left the light on in the outer room, at her desk. Releasing the belt, she picked up her cup of milk and turned into the main living area of her loft, feeling a stranger in her own home, her own body.

She was only going to turn off the light.

Taking a last sip of milk, she was about to switch the light off when her attention was focused again on the file folders on her desk. Opening the top manila folder, Diana began sifting once more through the clippings and reports, as though she were searching for something specific. The fresh-faced teenagers in yearbook photos smiled out at her in all their promise. The chilling police photos reduced them to bloodied bodies in compromised positions. Another surge of nauseating faintness hit Diana with a vengeance.

The cup of milk dropped from her hand onto the desk, tumbling onto its side and spilling the remaining contents off the edge of the table top. Diana felt herself falling forward. The files scattered about beneath her grasping hands as she attempted to steady herself on the sides of the desk. Ritchie's gold cross came slipping from between papers. In terror, Diana gripped hold of it, whispering a prayer for help.

That was when she felt herself being pulled forcibly within the darkness that was encompassing the room, by some unseen terror that was dragging her away from sanity.

 

Vincent stood at the bank of windows near the kitchen area of Diana's loft. Unbelievably, it had been here that he had first felt the bright heat of the sun on his face for any length of time. When Diana had brought him to her loft after Catherine's death, he had stood in front of those windows without fear one afternoon when he had recovered more fully from his injuries, and he had opened the agony of his heart to the fearless young woman seeking to help him.

Perhaps he had wished to be seen, standing there in the light, seen, found, and sent to his death so he could be with Catherine. He couldn't even remember now what the sun had felt like, standing there. It hadn't even entered his consciousness that he'd been looking out of windows down onto a busy city block in the full brightness of day.

But, he'd been in no danger of discovery. The windows only melded anonymously with so many others along the street, along the skyline of commercial buildings. And he knew Diana would never compromise his safety.

Only three days into their encounter of one another, and he knew he could trust her totally with his life, the secret of his existence. He had fearfully disrupted her orderly lifestyle; she had simply taken it in stride. And without even knowing why, she had risked everything to help him, keep him safe, help him rescue Jacob and bring him home.

Taking in a deep, shuddering breath, Vincent had to amend that thought suddenly in his mind. She did know why she was acting as she was, jeopardizing her whole world for him. He knew it, too.

The . . . love . . . had been there, even then, reaching from her tenderly compassionate heart to him. He'd seen it in the courageous depths of green eyes that held his with uncolored honesty, he'd heard it in the breathless, catching sound of her voice . . . the love, aching, for the pain of this . . . stranger . . . this unhuman stranger . . . whom her soul had instantly recognized.

As had his.

Though he could never consider it love, bring himself to admit it as love, until these past few months when the sweet dream of a life shared and blessed suddenly could seem possible and right.

Now she was locked away in her bathroom like a frightened child staving off punishment for an innocent misdeed, blaming herself for shattering all hope of that bright possibility he'd actually nearly begun to touch to himself. Vincent couldn't leave her with that assumption as her final experience of him tonight, couldn't leave her awash in undeserved blame. At the very least, he had to leave her with the truth. He owed her that much.

So, he had waited at the windows for the moment that she would emerge from her self-imposed exile. This time, the light wasn't even there to turn his face into. The sky was only brightening a bit in the distance.

"I was hoping you would still be here."

The sound of her soft voice made his heavy heart leap, then plunge. Anger and recrimination were what he'd been preparing himself to deal with from her. Relief wasn't what he'd expected.

Only what he'd hoped for.

Vincent turned to see Diana standing in the doorway of her room, looking very much like that bewildered child peering tentatively around a door. She'd pulled on a pair of trousers under the cotton shirt. It was obvious that she'd only now stopped crying.

He'd felt every tear she'd shed.

"I didn't wish to leave before I was certain you were all right." And certain there was nothing left between us: The silent admission was to be expected from his heart now, the despair becoming familiar once again. Had it actually pulled away from his soul with her in his arms?

Diana was holding the bathrobe she'd been wearing earlier when he'd found her, holding it down to her side. Her gaze reaching out to him was . . . searching . . . unsure.

"Why was I feeling so cold?" She lifted the robe up to his view, seeking understanding. No, seeking confirmation.

The quiet reply came. "You were . . . up on your rooftop . . . when I found you." Vincent watched her nod her head in acknowledgment.

"In the snow." It wasn't even a question.

"Yes."

A long pause, and a visible reaching for words, an attempt to guide a faltering heart's hopes once more. "I thought I probably owed you my life again."

"You owe me nothing, Diana, but the chance to offer you the truth."

She looked up long into the arresting face that wondrously haunted her dreams, a face she could describe with loving detail even if she were destined never to see it again. The truth he sought to offer her was just as apparent as the pain in that beautiful face -- he was cloaked and ready to disappear into the night, carrying her heart with him, but never looking back. That was the truth.

"I think I already know what it is." Her words were quiet and bleeding, as his had been.

Vincent turned back to the windows, defensively, acutely aware of the searing emptiness that had overtaken her very soul, and of the still-startlingly urgent need that betrayed that soul in her eyes. "Then tell me what you know, Diana."

Reflected in the glass before him, he could see that she took a few steps to the kitchen table from the island against which she had leaned, unsteady steps. She pulled out a chair and sank down into it. A surge of compassion filled him as he followed her reflection. She was still drained and vulnerable from tonight's terrors.

Why did the anguish of this moment have to be added to her burden as well?

Yet, he knew that if he didn't tell her tonight, he'd never find the courage to again. She'd either be left to languish in painful uncertainly of heart or find herself endangered by forces unleashed and unable to be contained by his faltering force of will.

Diana looked down at her hands for a long moment, one bandaged, the other visibly shaking. When had she ever felt completely whole in the past two and one half years? She couldn't bear the reality of her own inner reply -- only when those hands had been sheltered in beyond human ones, when they'd been lifted to cleft lips that tenderly

worshipped them in tentative, poignant humility, those same lips that had drawn fire and sweetness from every fiber of her being. Only when he'd freed himself to love her, to let her love him. Only in a bare instant of sanity between them that she'd never know

again.

She pulled in a long, ragged breath, and began what she knew she must.

"I know you'll never love . . . anyone . . . the way that you . . . loved . . . Catherine. And I am not Catherine." The tears began to fall again. She didn't even attempt to hold them back, suddenly defiant in her pain. "God knows I am far from being anything like Catherine! I'm not noble and accepting. I live as much by my heart, by my gut and instincts, as by my head. And as much as my head wants to tell me its impossible, my body and soul tell me that I have found the one part of my existence I've been searching for for all of my life, that part that can cherish hope and dreams and . . . love . . . with as much absurd . . . promise . . . as I can . . .as I need."

Vincent turned at the awesome truth of her words to him, his heart lurching at the pain and struggle he both sensed, and saw within Diana. How he longed to take hold of that truth, the depth of care she was so willing to offer him! How he longed to share in her conviction, see the wonders between them that he and Catherine had never had the courage to see. He found the momentary resolve to offer Diana now the faintest reality of his own truth. It would be the only gift he could give her this night, and keep her safe.

"No, you are not Catherine." His response to her was sadly awed. No, she would never be anyone but herself, Diana, fierce in her hopes for him, but the blaze of protective promise would only bring her pain, he knew.

Yet, she was undeterred, battling him still for the possibilities he would not see. "Then, who am I?" came the inevitable words, hurt and lost , and . . . challenging.

Diana watched as Vincent cast his gaze down to the floor for a long moment. He seemed to almost disappear into his cloak with the effort to respond.

"You are the woman that I love."

She tried desperately not to hold to those words with her heart, never expecting to hear them uttered aloud to her with such honest acceptance. She had to see the reality of their present situation, would force herself to focus on that reality -- he was ready to walk out of her life for good -- love or no love. Castigating her still receptive hopes, she prayed that she was completely wrong.

"That hasn't gotten me very far, has it?" The words were sharper than she'd intended, more for her benefit than his, she knew. But they struck him as well, like a blow. He stood faltering for an instant, then swept his cloak off his shoulders to rest on the chair next to hers.

Diana felt her traitorous heart leap when he came to stand closely before her, the considerable height of his powerful body towering over her seated form in overwhelming solidity. Then he dropped to his knees in front of her, slowly, with that breathtaking grace that set her heart racing. He reached for her hands that were resting anxiously in her lap, drawing them both gently, tenderly, in his.

What she needed to make herself whole.

"It has gotten you into my heart, Diana, something I never believed possible, not because of anything that is lacking in you, but because I never dreamed I could be blessed with love again."

She couldn't help herself. The tears came again without her approval or control. When had she totally lost her grip on herself? It didn't matter, though. There was nothing she could do about it. The trembling of her heart began the instant he set his hand to her cheek, brushing those tears away.

At least her mind was somewhat functional, determined to fight her way through the turmoil between them. "If that is the case, then why are we pulling away from one another whenever we even attempt to be near?"

Vincent tried to put into words for her what he knew himself defied description or understanding. "You were right to say that I would never love anyone the way I loved Catherine. What she and I shared was so totally -- right -- for the two of us. She gave me the wonder of love, the awesome comfort of knowing someone could love me, such as I am. She brought me out of the darkness. I will never be able to feel the same about anyone else, about you, because our experiences of one another will never be the same."

Diana let her gaze pull from Vincent's arresting features to her lap in tentative anxiety, and a quiet -- anger. "Such as I am." His description of himself stung her as though he'd slighted her and not his own wondrous essence. He'd never feel himself worthy of love, and yet, he carried his experience of loving Catherine with wonder and astonishment, cherishing it as a gift unlike anything anyone could ever experience again.

And her place in the scheme of things? She knew where that settled her own devotion to him.

"An extraordinary, perfect love. The . . . ordinary . . . pales in comparison, doesn't it?"

This time the slight really was to herself, and one Vincent picked up on immediately, pained beyond words that she could belittle all that she'd done for him, all that she'd given him, all that she'd wished for him. For them.

"Your place in my heart, Diana, is hardly ordinary." He lifted her gaze back to him with a gentle hand, willing her to understand why he needed to do what he didn't wish to.

"And so is your love. It is deep . . . intimate . . . hopeful . . . and so very . . . welcome."

"Then why the uncertainty?" Sweet Jesus, how was she ever going to comprehend what was happening between them, ever?

"Because your love is also so very -- human -- rooted in the humanity you cherish of me. But, Diana, there is more than mere humanity to contend with between us. There are powers, forces, darknessess I have very little control over. These are also a -- part -- of me. A part your love may find able to will away, but that does not change the fact that they are still -- what -- I am."

It was his gaze that lowered itself from her this time, in uncharacteristic shame and uncertainty. Diana reached her hand up to his wounded cheek, softly, reeling from his words, so desperate with stoic acceptance of a reality she barely comprehended, let alone believed as his actual sense of self. The knot tightening itself around her heart was making it difficult for her to breathe.

She'd seen those "forces" at work within him, and accepted them too, without wavering in her love, because she knew them to be only the natural consequences of his unique reality, of his protective care that would offer his own life to shield those he loved from harm. But what was he describing to her now with his softly aching words? An existence he wasn't even certain that sheltered a . . . human . . . soul?

"You . . . touch . . . to those . . . powers . . . only when you are forced to, Vincent, only when you are compelled to protect those you love from the terrors of the world. Any person is capable of 'inhuman' acts they'd never dream of committing, when they are forced to choose between the safety of the innocent and the 'humanity' that would condemn them to evil. My God, Vincent! Even I am guilty of that!"

Vincent started at her words, at the knowledge she could reach her own black secrets so readily, and with so much courage, to help him find his way. She'd kept him from exacting a just vengeance upon Gabriel himself. But the murderous psychopath had not survived his encounter with a quietly unyielding angel of retribution. Still, her courage, the daunting scope of her generosity of love, would not be enough to keep her safe now, he knew.

"Those forces become a part of me more often than I dare acknowledge, and for more reasons than I can bear." He sank back onto his heels then, releasing his hold on her hands reluctantly.

Diana felt completely bereft without his touch at that instant, a touch he saw as only a death-dealing curse. She couldn't believe he could truly carry such a burden within himself for so long, and survive.

"You can't be afraid that will happen between us?"

"Passion can be as overwhelming as a just rage."

The words were quietly grieving. She had to lift him out of the desolation that threatened to engulf him again.

"You can't know that, Vincent. You could never hurt me, or anyone else you love, for that matter, passion, rage, or not. How can you let yourself believe such a thing?" Coming down to the floor beside him, Diana took hold of his arm forcefully, to pull him back from the pain she saw washing over him in waves.

Almost startled at her touch, he closed his eyes against images he'd attempted to keep safely buried deep within his soul. He needed to let her see those images as well, though, if she were ever to understand the peril she could truly find herself in, if they ever let the beguiling enticements of intimacy spring freely between them. He had to find the strength to deny her, if only to keep her safe, somehow.

Taking a long, deep breath, Vincent came to his feet with renewed resolve. Reaching his hand down to her, he helped pull Diana up, then led her wordlessly to sit on the couch a few steps away. She followed without hesitation.

When they were seated facing each other, Vincent again took both her hands in his, running his thumbs gently across the backs of her hands. She would understand, she needed to understand.

"Do you recall your first encounter with love? The first time you truly knew love had touched your heart as it never had before?"

She looked deeply into his intensely blue eyes, attempting to connect his request with the painful experience of the moment, trusting somehow that it was necessary. "Of course I remember. Every woman remembers a moment like that."

"Do you cherish it as a memory you can hold willingly?"

Diana sent her thoughts back for an instant, to the moment she knew he was urging her to touch. "There was some pain to it. But, like so much in life, their was sweetness unexpectedly within it, too, and sadness."

"Could you find it in your heart to share that memory now with me, Diana?" The words were close to pleading. She knew he would never ask her to give more than she was capable, even if she wasn't certain of the reason it was important.

Quite unexpectedly, Diana was left momentarily speechless, and blushing, at her memories. How could he have known the tenderness, and the tragedy, of those first moments of real and true love for her? His eyes were gently reassuring and grateful as she began her story.

"It wasn't so much different than any other fifteen year old's experience of first love, I guess, at least not at the beginning. I wasn't exactly a social outcast at the time. I mean, I'd gone to school dances and movies with friends, even on a date or two. But I wasn't the most popular girl at St. Elizabeth's, either."

Vincent listened quietly as Diana's tone became rather shy, wistful. "I was a good student, involved, classmates were always talking with me about their problems. I guess I just wasn't the first girl any boy ever thought about as someone they'd like to be with."

The softy self-deprecating observation rang with a sad ache in Vincent's heart. How could she ever think of herself in such uncertain terms? The tender disbelief in his eyes made Diana's heart stumble an instant, as she realized he was willing her to see herself as he did. It took her breath away.

A little unsteadily, she continued with her words, trying to quell the rising need within her to draw him totally to herself once again, pain, doubts, guilt and all. She let a thread of defensive humor she'd honed in her friendship with Joe ease her back to reality safely. "The braces had just come off my teeth, thank God, but there was still this lovely red hair of mine. And I was pretty tall, too, compared to most of the other girls my age. Just right to keep myself out of the limelight.

"Plus, my Dad was a cop. If that didn't chill adolescent ardor in a hurry, nothing else ever could! I think every sophomore boy in school lived in eternal fear of bringing Sergeant Bennett's youngest daughter home late from a date."

Diana was relieved to see a glimmer of humor shine in Vincent's eyes, too, at her memory, despite the pain. It was typical of his generous heart.

"Everyone was excited about the homecoming dance coming up. I didn't particularly care because I knew I'd probably not be asked until the last minute by some boy whose first choice had turned him down.

"Then, with three weeks to go to the dance, Sister Mary Joyce, my Geometry teacher, asked me to stay after class. She told me that Kevin Sullivan was in danger of flunking Geometry that quarter. Kevin was one of the best football players on our team, even though he was only a sophomore. Sister said that she had agreed with the coach to allow Kevin some tutoring before quarter exams in the hope that he could pass his required class and keep playing till the end of the season."

"You became his tutor then?" Vincent questioned.

"Yes, for a whole week, every day after school at my house."

"And he, of course, was the object of every young girl's fantasies and affections. Am I correct?"

Diana looked a moment with incredulous wonder at the near-mythic figure beside her. He could understand the angst of teenage romance and the complexities of high school social life with his background and circumstances? A new wave of respectful admiration simply layered itself onto the already multi-faceted devotion that was her love for him.

"Yes. Even though he was such a good athlete, he was really very down to earth. He towered over everyone else, but he had this sort of shy grace about him that was just endearing. Every girl in school would have given anything for the chance to get close to him, even the seniors."

"And you had a week of one-on-one contact with him over Geometry books."

Diana smiled softly. "It was the most wonderful week of my life. I was the envy of every girl in school. The funny thing about it was, it was actually fun just to get to know Kevin. He was kind and had a generous sense of humor, and was not in the least conceited about his position in school. We quickly became friends.

"As the day of the dance approached, I was informed by at least half a dozen of my classmates that Kevin didn't appear to have asked anyone to go with him yet. With their enthusiasm fanning my own hopes, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, he was planning on asking me."

"So, you let yourself dream."

The sudden -- futility -- in those few words drew Diana's attention to Vincent's face again. He knew exactly what she had felt, so long ago.

"I let myself dream," she agreed. "When he called me at home the week before the dance, I just knew he wanted to ask me out. I could hardly talk, I was so excited. Looking back on it now, it was just all so silly, such a fuss over an evening at a dance."

"But it meant more to you than that, didn't it?"

Stunned at his ability to read her pain, Diana found that she was again without words for a long moment. "Yes. It meant that I was -- accepted -- that someone, a boy, could look at me and see more than just the outside, more than just the grades and my Dad and the uncertainty with whom I wanted to be. I guess I wanted to just feel -- beautiful -- for once."

"His call was not to ask you out, though." Vincent's conclusion was true. Suddenly Diana felt awkward and . . . vulnerable . . . ashamed that the long-ago denial could still take such a hold on her sense of worth.

She smiled with a melancholy resignation. "He wanted to thank me for all my help. Sister Mary Joyce had let him know he'd scored an A- on the Geometry test. It was enough to lift his quarter grade up to a passing C. He was really generous with his thanks, kind enough to make a special phone call to say he'd appreciated my help. I just felt my heart fall out of my body.

"The next day at school, he was back to drawing girls like a magnet. He ended up taking Denise Orsioli to the dance. She was the president of the pep club, the kind of high school girl that football players were supposed to date."

It was amazing how that incident so long ago was suddenly so vivid in her mind now, the disappointment, the frustration and embarrassment. The look of compassionate reassurance in Vincent's face was equally as amazing. He knew it still hurt for her to think of that rejection.

"There is more pain than sweetness in your memory, Diana. Still."

She looked at him and fought against her will from clinging to the quiet tenderness in his words. God, there was so much of him in her! she realized with sad wonder, the communing melding of their spirits revealing so much that was bound between them. He could make even the pain of a long ago memory into a bewitching entwining of their hearts. She felt, at that instant, that should could share anything of herself with him, anything. Except her intimate need of him. That he would never accept from her, she knew; it would cause him only pain, never sweetness.

With the tender urging of his startling blue eyes drawing her past her sorrow, Diana knew she had to carry her remembrance past the pain, if she were ever to help him move beyond his own. He knew she had more to say to him, too, when he lifted his hand to her hair and softly smoothed it back from her face. "But there is more sweetness than sadness."

"There was so much . . . sweetness . . . and the incident with Kevin was only the catalyst," she continued with quiet conviction. The feeling of his hand gently stroking through her hair did more than comfort her unsettled heart. It proved to her that her need for him was not in vain. A gentle, faraway look held her emerald eyes, and Vincent felt a sudden pang of understanding within his own heart.

"That sweetness came to me from the most unexpected source, later that evening. I was on our back steps, crying over my American History homework, and swearing I was going to become a nun. Chris Jennings, our next door neighbor, came over to see what was the matter. He was a year older than me, quiet, thoughtful, a promising writer. We didn't go to school together, he went to the public high school in our neighborhood, but we spent a lot of time together, talking."

"He was someone you trusted with your heart."

Vincent's words startled Diana. How could he see so deeply into her soul, and still be so afraid of opening his own to her?

"He and his family had moved onto our street about two years before. They were one of the first black families to. His Dad was a young executive with some insurance company I think it was, and he'd been transferred half a dozen times in as many years. Chris and his little sister were parceled from school to school. It was tough on them, always moving, never being able to put down roots, though they knew their father was only trying to make as good a life as he could for them.

"Still, Chris and I became friends." Diana felt a soft blush suffuse her skin. The warmth in her heart was still there, after all this time. Vincent had known. "More than friends, actually. We could talk to each other about anything. He made me feel safe, valued. He always listened and helped me find my way. And he told me about his dreams for life."

"He . . . cherished . . . your friendship."

Only as much as you . . . cherish . . . it now, Diana thought suddenly. Then it struck her with confounding clarity . . . the gentle support of her spirit, the quiet, unobtrusive reality of care, the tenderly innocent passion, the heartbreaking realization that it was never to be . . . She'd recognized it within Vincent's own burdened love . . . for her. It had been the wondrous sweetness of her heart's first stirrings, returned to her with all its promise . . . and pain.

The tears welled up in Diana's eyes. That was why she could feel so . . . complete . . . in Vincent's arms: He'd given her back her innocence in love.

"I . . . cherished . . . his . . . friendship, too. I trusted him in it, without question, and he never gave me cause to regret it. That night I just collapsed into his arms and poured my heart out to him about Kevin, and the dance, and the total injustice of life at 15."

"He brought you comfort." The blue eyes holding hers were suddenly as profound and deep as she remembered Chris's brown ones had been, and, as questioning.

"He held me and wiped the tears from my face and then he told me that Kevin had been a complete fool for giving up the chance to know a 'truly incredible young woman.' Then, he . . . kissed . . . me."

The green eyes before him barely held the tears ready to mist them in a heartbeat. Vincent felt a deep and gentle wonder channel itself from within her spirit to his, full of poignant care, vulnerable hope, and yearning need. It was only partly a memory. So much more of it was born from the sweet reality of her present dreams.

"You felt . . . love . . . in that kiss," Vincent whispered, afraid to even breathe, lest he should lose sight of what he'd set out to do this night: keep Diana safe from the beguiling peril of their aching souls.

Diana knew for certain now that she'd been right: She'd found the key to the deepest part of her long-shackled heart -- in the tenderness offered her from a beyond human one. She had to make him believe in the gifting wonder they truly could become for each other, had to make him believe there was nothing beyond love that he was condemning her to.

"I'd never been kissed -- like that -- before, never felt so -- within -- another person before. It was so totally unexpected, and yet, not; so totally -- wondrous. I looked up into Chris's face and almost didn't recognize him anymore. There was such a radiance of . . . love . . . reaching out to me from him."

"You'd never realized his feelings for you?"

"I think I did, somewhere in my heart, but I'd never had the courage to touch them before, believe that . . . love . . . could be there for me, Chris's love. We were good friends, kindred spirits, that's all, I told myself. We knew what the social climate was around us. Things were far from easy for an interracial relationship back then. We were lucky that people, even our families, accepted us as friends."

"But you wished you could acknowledge that there might be more between you."

Diana held her gaze to a face that should have been familiar only in one of her grandmother's fairy tales. Yet, those features, so full of hesitant, touching, guilt-riddled longing were the ones that she would treasure till her last breath. Could he ever come to acknowledge what there truly was between them, beyond the fear and uncertainty? The ache to reassure him, to will him to believe, that she would face down hell itself for him, was nearly unbearable. How could she get him to see that his torment was founded only upon a fearful lie? How could she help him touch to the humanity he seemed capable of only denying?

"I wished we could find out if there was more between us."

The words were whispered with Diana's heart racing, as she knew, without a doubt, that their conversation had long ago ventured far from only the sharing of a memory. Vincent looked up at her, with a pleading awareness, too, at her words. It caused her to momentarily lose her train of thought, swept her mind from the sad recollections of denial in her past, to the heartbreaking reality of denial in the present instant. She didn't dare risk what little her heart had the courage to cling to.

Forcing herself to pull away from the need to abandon all sanity between them, Diana reminded herself of the pain and fear stifling the very essence of the man she loved before her. She must be able to show him that she feared nothing in his care. She must make him believe that her heart would welcome the faintest breath of promise he could offer her, as she had welcomed an innocent promise of cherished devotion the first time she'd ever truly opened her heart to love.

Again, she continued in her story, the pain, sweetness, and sadness overwhelming a young girl's heart very much fusing itself with the turmoil, yearning, and denial facing her at the present moment. "Fate intervened, before we ever had a chance to understand where our hearts rested. Chris's father was offered another job, this time in California, with the promise of stability and permanence for the family. He had to take it; it was too good an opportunity to pass up. It took Chris a week before he found the courage to tell me they were going to move."

Looking back now on that twist of destiny, Diana could see that their hearts had forestalled any inclination that preconceived reality would have used to separate the young lovers without a breath of fulfillment to hold to. Just the opposite had occurred: The capricious maliciousness of Fate had only turned them towards each other as they sought to shelter and comfort and ease their hearts together from pain, even with separation and denial their only certainty. Had her own past months been so different?

"I guess the realization that we'd probably never see one another again helped us face the truth of what we'd unconsciously held in our hearts for each other." The sudden glistening return of tears in Diana's eyes cut Vincent to his soul. She turned away from him a moment to attempt to steady her spirit, but the painful parallels of that time so long ago and her own state of heart at the moment were becoming too staggering. Yet, she continued on, knowing the haunted man beside her was someone she'd love to eternity herself, someone in desperate need of solace and direction for his heart.

"The night of the dance, the doorbell rang. I'd buried myself at my desk with some English project that wasn't even due for another two weeks. Chris came up to my room. He brought me a corsage, a beautiful one of rosebuds, and pinned it on my uniform shirt. Then he invited me out for pizza and a walk in the park. We danced to the music of the radio on his dad's car."

A sudden . . . ache . . . took all the soft color from Diana's already pale cheeks, and she began to tremble. Vincent reached his powerful embrace around her shuddering shoulders, feeling the penetrating . . . sorrow . . . that engulfed her heart reach his with undeniable certainty. Soft words, pained, tender, unbelieving, were whispered against his chest. "Chris and I . . . loved . . . each other under the moonlight of an autumn sky."

For a long moment, Vincent let the memory hold her spirit, let her grieve, and wonder. Then he gently drew her back from the shelter of his body so that he could urge her gaze back up to his own, bright with unshed tears as well. He understood her pain so surely now, and also understood the pain of the evening's beginnings that seemed an eternity ago.

"That is why your spirit became so overwhelmed by Connie's tonight, Diana, isn't it? Your pain for her was so real because you'd lived through the promise she'd hoped to take hold of in her love in your own young life."

The feelings had been so much the same, striking the same chords within her own soul as she had worked the heartbreaking investigation into the murders that had so consumed her. She could admit it now. Diana had been not only touching to the terror of death; her heart had held to the tenderness of love fulfilled, her own memory of love fulfilled from long ago, and her own dreams for a return to that promising, trusting, wonder in Vincent's arms.

In her empathic compassion, she had seen Connie De Salvo and Ritchie Alavar loving in the park on a brisk autumn night. She had remembered the stunning sweetness of finding herself in Chris's arms when all she'd ever expected of her far-off experience had been sorrow, rejection, and doubt.

And she had dreamed of long-scarred hearts opening themselves up to a tender humanity that could no longer be denied -- the humanity of blessedly shared need she and Vincent might never find their way to.

Letting Diana rest once again against his shoulder, Vincent helped her move past the memory into the present, a reality that he would need force upon her besieged heart with more pain and diminishing limitations. Memory was a sweet, forgiving thing. Reality mirrored only threat and darkness now between them, unbelievably rooted in the very tenderness that had taken hold of both their hearts this night.

"Did you keep in touch after his move?" Vincent fought the wave of intense need to comfort Diana within his love, faltering at the trust she'd gifted him with in sharing the intimacies of her gentle heart. That the fragile-spirited angel had been compelled to endure such loss with such fulfillment was somehow no longer surprising to him. It was fully in keeping with the hoping, desperately aching love she'd been long reaching out to him. A love brave enough to stare pain in the eye and stand its ground. But, it would not keep her safe.

Diana felt him drawing the depths of his compassionate care shakily onto a less profound plane. God, he wanted so fervently to take away her pain! She could feel it in his shuddering breath whispering across her hair, in the tender possessiveness with which he had drawn her once again against his body. Still, he struggled, with the very notion that he could ever give her anything, anything, beyond peril and inhumanity. The hopelessness that reached her chilled even her own most promising expectations.

With more controlled words, and less revealing emotions, Diana answered his question with equally forced detachment. There would be little to hope in past this night, despite their courage.

"We wrote back and forth for a while, family Christmas cards, birthday wishes. Our own personal notes were full of dreams never reached and disappointments always mounting. Then Chris went away to college, and the letters necessarily got fewer and farther apart. I guess we both knew we were just prolonging the pain. We stopped writing all together. The last I heard, he'd become the director of a Social Service Agency in Denver. He never became a writer. And he married a girl he met in college."

The reality of life's choices forced onto young hearts: Promise, sweet and gifting, had simply been allowed to seep quietly out of their dreams. "Should have been's" evolved irrevocably into the "here and nows" that were the mundane details of life. Dreams were only silent echoes that haunted the lonely night. New realities, never as shining or honest or true, took hold of existence and held spirits to less gifting paths that only seemed to grow longer and more strange with each passing day.

She'd survived it somehow, once. It had left her doubting and wary and less than whom she could have become. How could she ever survive it again? And what had Vincent been forced to endure that had burdened him with the silent agony he carried now with such accepting futility, one that would surely devour her own hopes along with his?

"Your memory doesn't have more than a momentary sweetness within it, either, does it, Vincent?" she questioned, certain of the reason he had asked her to reveal her past heartaches to him.

Coming to his feet, Vincent paced several times in front of the couch, attempting to diffuse somewhat the powerful images that came to his mind. Diana's memories were treasures to cherish, in comparison, for all their confusion and pain. They were a part of her heart that rested fleeting promise in quiet resignation. He dreamed that his own experiences could have been so comparatively -- bearable.

How could he even think of burdening her with his own pain, tonight? But, there would be no way past it, he knew, forced himself to concede. To spare her now would be to bring her certain anguish in the long run, at the very least. At the worst . . . he couldn't abide even thinking of the worst . . . ready to send his own questionable soul to oblivion before he would let her experience the worst . . . at his hand.

"It is not a memory I can hold willingly, but it has been a part of my daily existence since the moment it happened."

"Can you find it in your heart to share it with me now?" His own words softly voiced by Diana should have been balm on the still searing wound. It only magnified the pain because he knew no matter how much he ached for the solace of love that she held out to him, he could never allow her to risk herself for his uncertain humanity.

Vincent came back to sit beside Diana on the couch, but could not lift his eyes to her. It took a long moment before he could steady the thudding of his heart. A slender hand hesitantly reached out to him, then. Diana rested it on his chest. He let his own hand cover hers, press hers closely onto the wool fabric of his doublet.

"You've given me so much to hold in my heart that is precious, Diana."

"Then let my heart hold what is painful for you. It's pretty strong, I think you know that by now."

"I would rather give you the tenderness and hope you deserve."

Diana ached for the desperate confusion she watched cloud the exotic features of the man before her. Something of her extraordinary insight had already attached itself to his spirit, and she realized he was struggling with an anguish beyond endurance, one he'd called up again only for her sake.

They'd had enough of heartache, guilt, and uncertainty between them for her to comprehend that they would not be able to extend their experiences of love without one final, defining tragedy shared. She prayed her soul could withstand it, because she could never walk away from it now, allow him to walk away from it . . . from her. She was almost startled when he finally found his voice, and his courage.

"My experience of love came at about the same age as yours, Diana. I was just past 15, and like yours, there was sweetness, the promise of it. And then there was pain.

"I found myself . . . in love . . . with a girl of our community. Lisa, was her name. It was one of those sweet and tender realities of living for years beside one another, growing up with one another, and suddenly finding yourself looking at the other person in a completely different light.

"We'd been children together, argued over games together, played tricks on our elders and been banished to our chambers more times than I can even remember. She'd been my sister, my confidant, my friend, ever since I could recall."

"And one day she was the girl that took your breath away." It was Diana's turn to help him, guide him, through the maze of memories, images, and emotions assaulting him with ready confusion. Vincent held her eyes a moment in gratitude for her understanding which pronounced no judgment of his heart. Even Catherine had been caught within a whirlwind of confounding reactions when he'd bared his heart to her about Lisa, one night.

"She was breathtaking, yes," he answered with quiet, shamed wonder. Diana's gently urging gaze drew him onward. "She was studying dance and was very gifted. Father had arranged for a teacher for her to come Below, a Helper, and Lisa was very dedicated to developing her gift. She would spend hours practicing, dancing; and she would let me watch her work."

The fathomless blue eyes suddenly darkened with painful -- regret -- a reaction that tore through Diana as profoundly as she knew his memories were tearing through him. She steeled herself to listen to what he was willing to reveal to her, all the while praying that he might find, at last, that those moments of reckoning in his past needed to have nothing whatsoever to do with their future. That hope was blown to dust with the self-diminishing words Vincent used to continue his story for her.

"I couldn't believe that Lisa would want me there with her, but she truly did. We spent time exploring the tunnels, swimming, reading, doing our chores, but so many hours we passed simply imagining life Above. Lisa was certain of her coming successes in the dance world, and always included me in her plans, wherever she dreamed they'd take her. She always showed me a generosity in our friendship that I held to with so much awe."

The torrent of words that seemed compelled to be revealed were stopped suddenly, as Vincent bent his head down from Diana's gaze, the fall of his golden amber hair hiding his face. It was so much a gesture of stoic . . . shame . . . as though he didn't even have a right to recall the memories from his heart now, hold to the momentary gifting that they had brought him as an uncertain adolescent.

Diana willed herself the courage to brush his hair back from his face, slip it back over his shoulder. The ache, to pull him near to her, was close to intolerable, but she knew she had to keep herself now at an acceptable distance from him, emotionally as well as physically so. The need to cauterize the long-festering wound was one only he could accept.

"I realized that our experience of one another was . . . changing." The conclusion was more guilt-riddled confession that simple descriptive observation. Diana's heart lurched at the evidence that Catherine had not been his only unreachable, unattainable gift in his tested past.

"The change was so subtle at first," Vincent continued after a moment to resettle his heart, "so easily overlooked. But then, all at once, we knew there was more we needed to be to one another, more we were suddenly unafraid to consider."

A single tear slipped down his cheek from the wealth shining in his eyes. Diana didn't dare reach out to it.

"One evening, I met her in the Great Hall where she was practicing." The struggle to take hold of those moments and not let them overpower him with stifling self-recrimination, was a battle he nearly foundered within, at that instant. How could he possibly give voice to those terrors now, within Diana's presence, use them to define for her the reality of who . . . what . . . he was? It would shatter her very soul to accept such truth. Yet, it would be the only truth that could help keep her safe from harm.

"At first, it seemed there was nothing different about our time together. She danced, and I watched -- and saw, perhaps for the first time, just how exquisite she was, like a moonbeam radiating across the floor . . . graceful, beautiful, and so willing to draw me into her dreams."

A flicker of unburdened -- cherishing -- lit across the pained features of legend. Diana thought her heart would burst from the realization -- that he could consider, still, a treasured moment of love discovered only as a forbidden beguilement he could never be trusted to hold. The knife twisting within her plunged more deeply with his quietly awestruck words, yet so unbelieving of his worth.

"She drew me into her dance as well, that night, let a hand rest on my shoulder, pirouetting around me as though I could possible actually become her . . . center. When she came around before me again, she stopped her dancing -- and walked slowly over to me.

"There was a -- determination -- in her that, at first, I couldn't understand. But with each step she took towards me, I felt more and more of myself drawn to her. It was as though my own soul had leapt from me and sought only to rest within her."

Vincent pulled himself suddenly to his feet, and crossed the lightening expanse of Diana's loft to the windows once again. He ran his hand unconsciously across the brick work of the window sill, losing himself to the sight of the city awakening before him for a long moment. It was still benevolently disguised beneath the blanket of snowy whiteness, but it wouldn't be long before reality would replace the gentle, clean wonder of the scene beyond his gaze: The snow would turn to dirty slush beneath the relentless stream of traffic and humanity.

His own relentless torment would catch up to him again, and this time its casualty would be the merciful, hopeful heart he could feel reaching out to him from across the room, reaching past the pain. Then her soft voice urged him back to the reality he had left unfinished, as he had sought, still, to protect and shield her from his truth, even though he knew the price they would both need to pay with its necessary revelation.

"It was as though she was bringing within your reach all you never knew you needed."

Diana had joined him, stood beside him, unable to allow him the gulf of distance suddenly between them that extended far beyond the width of her living room. She sensed so acutely that there were words he was desperate to utter to her, but could not. They must be voiced, she knew, if they were to ever find peace between them, if they were ever to work their way through the trail of pain they had both been forced to walk. The fear he held his heart hostage to had to be named, and thus, set within limits they could understand, and resist.

The intense azure depths of his eyes at that instant were heartstopping. She cold see both love and torment in them, intertwined. Could he read the strength of unburdened love within hers? And could he gather courage from it, somehow?

He did. A long ragged intake of breath did little to help him control the pounding of his heart, but he let his resolve pull him past the terror of losing her to the possibility he'd been given of keeping her safe.

"I'd never dreamed I could become so completely . . . filled . . . by another person's essence, never dreamed she'd bring her spirit to me so willingly, drawing me to her so easily." He spoke more to the windows than to Diana, trying, still, to understand the inconceivable -- that he could come to love a young woman with all the passion and tenderness of a young man of 15.

"She'd kissed me, on the cheek, first one, then the other. She let her hand slip over my face, with sweet . . . acceptance. She rested her head an instant on my shoulder. I was . . .

drowning . . . in the reality of her; I wanted to hold her, keep her close to me as she seemed so incredibly eager to have herself held. It was the most wondrous, terrifying moment I'd ever experienced."

That is how it had been for her in Chris's arms, that night so long ago, Diana thought, the confusing, beguiling awe of finding herself -- cherished -- by another heart. Why did Vincent now have to believe it was such an undreamed of treasure to have someone yearn for his closeness, his touch? He was only describing the sweet ache of young hearts reaching for one another, an experience he should never have believed was prohibited him. But, the soft radiance of . . . love . . . accepted, was ruthlessly draped with . . . disgrace . . . darkening mythic features that should only have been clothed in quiet, gifting honor.

Vincent gripped the edge of the window sill and closed his eyes for a long moment, visibly shuddering from some inner battle he couldn't bring himself to allow to surface. Diana was about to reach her hand out to him, but he drew away from her without even seeing her gesture, as though he had sensed her intention of consolation and, fled away from it, undeserving.

"I felt Lisa pull away after an instant, or . . . wanting . . . to pull away, from my embrace. I only knew the existence of her in my arms; the bare skin of her shoulder was beneath my hand, like cool silk. I remember thinking that all I'd ever wanted in life could never compare to feeling her near to me like that, holding her to myself. But, beyond the wonder, I realized something was happening, something was . . . wrong."

Diana held her breath, knowing without question what it was she was going to hear him say next. She closed her own eyes to the image that was conjured within her heart, not because of any physical -- horror -- of the past it might reveal to her, but because of the present torment it was forcing Vincent through.

"Lisa was . . . struggling . . . pushing herself away from me." The words were only a hushed, ached whisper, yet with the power to shatter his very soul, and Diana's. "She'd lifted her head from my shoulder and was looking at me with eyes brimming with

. . . fear . . . pleading fear. I couldn't understand where the terror was coming to her from. And then I finally did." The tears ran down Vincent's cheeks, pouring out his soul with desperate abandon. "It was coming from . . . me. Her terror was of . . . me."

The reality of that last sentence snapped Diana's heart in two, as did the reflected anguish, pain, and remorse that showed in his beautiful eyes. She willed him to put an end to his own torment, but knew his heart would never hear hers now.

"She was pleading for me to let her go," Vincent continued, almost as though he were compelled to be totally re-immersed into the sorrow of that long-ago evening

"I believed I was doing what she was asking me to. Her pain and turmoil, the thought that in some way I could be their cause, were filling me with terror as well. I suddenly wanted to run from her sight, vanish into the very rocks of the walls, for I still didn't understand why she was looking at me so, with such startled fright.

"Only when she finally pulled free of my hold did I realize." Diana watched as Vincent forcefully clamped his hands into tight fists. She swallowed hard, knowing without a doubt why he had hidden those hands from his sight, and hers. They were the source of his adolescent shame.

"I'd never released Lisa from my grasp." The words fought to be heard, awash in guilty self-loathing. "She'd been horrified to literally feel the reality of my true nature upon her, and struggled to free herself. But the more she had sought to pull from my. . . embrace. . .

the more closely, insistently I had held her. I had no consciousness of it. All I knew was that she pulled away from me at last, and I saw . . . blood . . . on my hands, her blood."

Leaning his head against the window now heavily, Vincent fought for the strength to utter the next words to the woman he loved, fought for the courage to reveal to her what she had actually been willing to commit herself, body and soul, to: a reality of existence that would bind her to . . . bestiality . . . his own.

Ruthlessly, he pulled his head back from its defeated resting place to look Diana squarely in the face, willing her to see, at last, what was truly inside of his soul, what could truly . . . touch her . . . in the yearning need she sought for him to answer. His words were purposefully hard, fierce, in their truth. He willed her to loathe him, and thus, set her free.

"In the grip of a passion I'd believed to be rooted in the humanity of love, I'd caused Lisa physical harm. These hands, Diana, the hands that I'd hoped could always feel the tender wonder of her body , had drawn blood, wounded a 15 year old girl to the point of bloodshed. In the name of love."

Diana would not heed his plea that she should turn her heart from him in fear and abhorrence. She knew the truth he would not see, could not see after such a burden of guilty shame. Throwing her arms around his powerful body, now wracked with sobs, she let him rest against her heavily, the weight of shattering remorse pounding at his spirit. He kept his hands clenched at his side, though, never reaching for the solace of her touch, fearful even now to rest those hands that were the mirror of his true nature, onto tender, vulnerable flesh.

She would not let him submerge himself into his grief. Whispering soft reassurances, she drew his arms around her with conviction, attempting to give him a footing, somehow, with the truth of her love. But, he was fast sinking into the sucking quagmire of desperate guilt, shame, and desolation.

"Vincent!" she called sharply to him, as he had done for her only hours before, pulling her from a nightmare that had nearly engulfed her sanity. "Vincent, that is not the only reality of your touch," she continued with determination, urging him to believe what he felt he didn't deserve. "You were an innocent, overwhelmed by emotions that would bewilder and confuse any boy, any man, in your place!"

"Diana, please . . ." The words were weary and defeated. He turned to draw free from her fervent embrace, but she would not allow him, holding him fast with a fierceness of protective care that belied her slight form and embattled spirit.

"There are other realities these hands are capable of," she began, in earnest commitment, lifting his trembling touch to her cheek. "They cradle your child, they wipe away tears of frustration. You have helped Father set broken bones with these hands, put thoughts to paper that heal hearts." Then, in a desperate attempt to wrench him from his pain, she pulled open her own shirt front with one hand, fumbling with the buttons a moment, until she was fearlessly bare-chested before him, an offering to placate the demons that would haunt him for all eternity.

Vincent turned his head away, but she pulled his left hand up forcefully, pressing it against her throat, against her pulse. He struggled to free himself from what she was compelling him to see, compelling him to believe was true and possible, but the pleading in her tear-drowned eyes stopped him short.

In merciful submission, he let her pull the deadly talons of his hand over her porcelain skin, from her throat to her breast, now heaving with the struggle of her breathing. With words that were only a cracked whisper, Diana dared him to accept her gift. "They can trail the exquisite sensations of loving, physical passion that was meant to be between two souls entwined."

Spent by the torrent of emotions engulfing them both, Diana let every breath of her love touch him through the anguish in her eyes. How could he believe himself of threat to her? How could he see only blood and risk and peril where she could find the sweetest and most longed for humanity to be shared? She freed his hand from her grasp, finally, to let it rest on the tender fullness of her breast . . . a lover's hand . . . a lover's touch. Why could it never truly be so between them? Why must they believe there were realities that would devour the blessed solace they would be capable of finding in each other's arms?

For the longest moment, Vincent let his eyes rest on the unthinkable sight before him. She would still allow herself to believe. . . that he could offer her the same touch in the swirl of overwhelming, needful passion capable of igniting itself between them, and it would not lay her tender flesh open to the bone . . . that their consummation of love would be an act of sublime, physical sharing, and not a baptism of bloody hell.

Not even Catherine had dared risk believing such an awesome truth. When he had confessed the shame Lisa's terror had devastated his heart with, Catherine had simply taken hold of his hands in hers and declared them her own. She hadn't pronounced his fear as unfounded, only nobly accepted what he'd shown her of himself . They'd shared their tears and regret at what he believed his reality of nature would force them to hold as the limits between them. But they'd never presumed that the threat he feared he could become had no place in the love they shared.

Diana wouldn't even conceive of the notion, now. She'd taken his hand in hers, blessed it with her trust, and all but dared him to murder her where she stood.

Vincent rested his head to hers, struggling to hold to his perception of himself against the beguiling nearness of her mouth, longed to taste the precious sweetness, and trust, she had let him willingly hold earlier on that night of reckoning. Fulfillment was only a breath of an instant away. It should be so possible, so within reach, so welcomed and not feared.

But he knew better.

Pulling the cool fabric of her shirt back up over her bare skin, Vincent fastened the buttons slowly with those hands that could outwardly reveal only the faintest truth of what really shrouded his soul. His words were shadowed with as deep a sorrow as he had ever shared with her.

"A touch in the abandon of the moment will be very different from the tenderness you have allowed me to take just now."

"You don't know that, Vincent." He recognized her pleading was only for him. Now that he'd shared the depths of his burden with her, she was still only attempting to carry it for him.

"Yes, Diana, I do know it. Risking . . . intimacy . . . would be risking your life." He turned away with numbing acceptance, but Diana held him yet.

A sudden flash of anger lit her green eyes. She would never tolerate untruth, and for her, his terror was the ultimate lie.

"Then it is my risk to take. It is my body, my life. The risk is mine to accept or refuse."

The steel within her was so prominently visible in her spirit with those words. But Vincent had to sway her from her beliefs. For both their sakes.

"The risk is ours because my soul hangs in the balance as well, Diana. Do you think I could actually survive if you were to come to harm from my doing?"

Her green eyes met his unearthly blue ones with fearless equality and determination. Just as she'd nearly dared him to kill her, she was now daring him to prove her belief in their love, all of their love, wrong.

Then the thought formed in her mind with unexpected clarity -- this was not really about the extent or lack of his humanity at all. How could it be? The breathtaking passion of smoldering need he'd touched to her before was anything but inhuman, or phantom.

"You were willing to let Catherine take the risk."

That was where the untruth between them hid. It was the only answer. Catherine's spirit still held his soul, would always hold his soul, despite what he had offered her as evidence to the contrary. And the unearthly nature of that soul? It could only be a shroud of fear he would hold fast to in the face of anything that would force him to live past Catherine's loss with any semblance of hope. What had Mary said to her that Winterfest evening when she'd first admitted her helplessness in bringing Vincent any comfort? "I know what grief can do to a man's heart, how sweet the pain can become."

Diana understood the scope of her plight, at last. Well, he might be willing to obscure the promise of the present with a tragedy of the past, but she was not going to find herself battling a memory that was too sweet for him ever to leave behind. She would know the truth of what truly held his soul before she would risk her own.

"For God's sake, Vincent, you and Catherine had a son. She conceived a child, and survived the . . . horror . . . of your . . . inhuman . . . intimacy!"

The words were out before she realized she'd said them and not only formed them in her racing thoughts. But they were not words spoken in the turmoil of the moment. They'd long been buried deep within her heart for what had seemed an eternity of itself. She knew that the nagging doubt in her mind rested fully upon that reality: Catherine had borne him a child, and Diana believed in only one chaste conception.

For a timeless instant, a flash of . . . disbelief . . . and anger, true, incredulous, anger, worked its way from deep within Vincent's spirit to just momentarily become visible in the blue blackness of his suddenly stormy eyes. Diana could see sheer, focused hostility ready to flash out at her with searing, deserving accuracy. And then she saw him quell that tide with a force of will that was beyond description or comprehension. The trembling effort he put forth succeeded, in a matter of stopwatch seconds, to bring his usual serene calm back to within reasonable reach.

Diana stood awestruck.

How could he doubt his hold on himself, when she had just witnessed his beyond human capability to reign in a just and righteous indignation of heart? He could believe himself able to lose himself enough in the abandon of a moment between them to become of threat to her?

My God, Diana recalled, she had even seen him stay his hand against Gabriel himself, the fiend that had murdered his love and nearly done the same to his child. Only her own pleading voice had turned him away from exacting a just vengeance against the demon. Only the sound of her voice, Jacob's cry, and the quiet reminder that Father awaited him to guide them both back home. That had been all he needed to trigger his control back to a plane of sane and safe endurance.

And now he was willing to let her believe she'd need to fear the full extent of his emotions, fear to touch the passion that she'd felt was so right and consummate between them? Catherine had never found herself burdened with such terror.

Diana's righteous outrage was quickly spent, however, when she saw how her words had wounded the desperately tested man before her. The torment and pain on his face was as visible now, at the sound of her stinging accusation, as they had been when he first touched to his disheartening memories with her that night. Because of it, she wasn't prepared to hear his next words.

"I have no memory of that moment, Diana. I have no way of knowing now what happened between us at that instant, what peril Catherine was forced to face, simply because she chose to love me, and chose to deepen our experiences of one another."


Continued in Chapter 22