To Hope Anew

Chapter Twenty-Two


The threads of destiny: Words spoken, or not spoken; fears voiced and shared, or left to multiply in silent torment.

Diana had cursed her loss of good sense, her usual grasp on the subtle necessities of holding Vincent's heart within hers, that early morning in her loft. How she had ever broached the subject of Jacob's conception in the heat of the discord passing between them she'd never been able to understand.

At the time, she fully feared she'd totally thrust Vincent out of her life, out of her hopes, with the words. Looking back at the moments, now, Diana recognized that her angry frustrations voiced that morning were very much the words Vincent needed to hear, to bring him to this day's celebration with a sense of peaceful expectation in his heart.

 

She had looked at him long and in total disbelief at that instant, her mind unable to filter through all the connotations and conclusions those words had given rise to in her heart.

"You can't remember that moment with Catherine?" She needed to repeat the concept to make certain she knew what exactly she was facing, what trauma she was still up against in her battle for his hope and heart.

Vincent turned from her to pace across the loft floor for several strides. He stopped to lean against the kitchen countertop, a suddenly tragic, mythic figure, in the incongruous confines of her familiar household's parameters. So distantly separated from her, he appeared so uncharacteristically lost and defeated.

Diana would have given her life just then to take back the words.

Yet, Vincent accepted that they'd only been flung at him in search of the truth, as all her defiance of him had proven to become over the past three years. Her only words of challenge to him had always been attempts to seek out the honest reality of their circumstances, hold up the truth to him, no matter how forcefully he might have fought against its revelation and acknowledgment.

"I was close to death . . . near madness. She came to me in the blackness of the catacombs Below without fear. She placed herself within reach of my darkest terrors and pulled me free, somehow. When I came to myself finally, mercifully, I was spent, weak, and near helpless, with no knowledge of the agonies that had gripped me. I awoke in her arms. With no memory of any tenderness offered me in my anguish."

Diana felt her heart reach out to the indecipherable turmoil so evident in the features of the man she loved. Only hours ago, she'd been faced with the same chilling realization: that there were moments, experiences within her present existence, that she was suddenly incapable of touching. The fearful pain of that uncertainty had been staggering to her tonight. How much more so had Vincent's experiences been?

She came to stand quietly at his side for a minute, letting her hand settle gently on his on the countertop. "You've never remembered anything about that time, not even now?"

"The moments have remained lost to me. I couldn't even remember her name. It took me all of a week to gather the courage to admit it to her, to ask her her name."

The cold ache that had settled itself around Diana's heart a moment ago threatened to become an indelible facet of her spirit with every passing instant. The totality of Vincent's loss had become clear to her now, so heartbreakingly clear: He'd not only lost Catherine herself, but had lost even the most cherished memory of her, one that could have helped sustain him throughout the long, black nights of solitary grief he'd endured since her murder. The memory that could have at last laid to rest his own terrifying doubts about his questionable humanity and the forces at work within his soul.

"Vincent, just because you can't remember what happened doesn't mean you'd put Catherine at risk. You'd suffered a violent psychological ordeal. You'd endured a physical collapse that almost cost you your life. Those are perfectly reasonable explanations for your loss of those moments."

"Reasonable, but not likely," came the quiet reply. "I know the truth within me, Diana. Those moments were lost to me because they were not actually my experience."

Diana raised a silencing hand to his mouth, just then, refusing to allow him to conjure up the frightening specter that she knew he carried in his heart. How could he possibly believe it?

Vincent simply drew her hand gently away from his face and held it protectively within his own. What would he have given, what would he have sacrificed, to be able always to offer her shelter, thus, tenderness so deserved?

"You can't think that you . . . were not . . . yourself . . . when you and Catherine . . . loved." The stumbling words were too generous, the tears streaming down her porcelain cheeks too ready to hope.

Drawing her close to him, Vincent sought to steady her for the burden of truth he was about to share with her. It would be the most crushing weight she could ever subject her heart to, he knew, and he must be the one to lay it upon her shoulders.

"Diana, she was troubled, disturbed, by some turmoil she could not bring herself to share with me during those first days when I was slowly recovering my strength. Even with our bond lost, I could sense it within her. She was burdened with some truth she couldn't bring herself to trust to me."

"And you believe that truth was the fact that you were . . . less than human . . . when you'd consummated your love with her."

Coming from the soft sounds of Diana's voice, the plague of agony that had haunted him for three years seemed somehow less encompassing. But the reality would not be changed. No matter how much they willed it to be.

He couldn't respond to her; the acknowledgment would be too hellish for his besieged spirit to survive, and hers.

Still, Diana was not ready to let despair overtake her completely. Every fiber of her being railed against the impossibility of what he was asking her to believe. She had to make him see the hope of a different truth in that painful past.

"Vincent, Catherine could have been troubled because she was concerned for you, your condition. She could have been holding a hundred different things within her heart . . ."

". . . She could have been fearful of the life she was carrying within her."

Releasing his gentle hold on Diana, Vincent walked slowly over to the windows again. The sky was brightening, the promise of a new day offering itself once again to the teeming city. For its inhabitants, it signaled another day's possibilities. For him, it only offered proof of his -- otherness -- once more. Daylight would force him into the realm of shadows, a -- creature -- never to be blest by the warmth of the sun. As he would never be blest by the tender promise of a new life shared in hope with Diana.

He made a move to reach for his cloak, even though he longed to feel the morning sun rest brightly on his face, just once, with a gentle, sustaining heart beside him. But, it would never happen.

Diana came over to the chair where his cloak lay and picked it up before he did, holding it close to her with tearful possession. It couldn't be possible: He'd need to shroud himself within the most agonizing of fears just as he needed to shroud himself within the folds of the garment she clung to. This simply could not be the final truth between them.

And then Diana found herself thinking of the little soul that had unwittingly been so much the center of the turmoil they had been attempting to unravel that night . . . Jacob.

Diana's heart reeled with the devastating scenarios they'd proposed that could have surrounded the child . . . It was impossible . . . How could Catherine ever have felt less than . . . blest . . . with the knowledge of the life she carried within her?

"You can't believe Catherine wasn't overjoyed at knowing she was bearing your child."

But, even as she spoke the reassurances, Diana found that her heart was not as compliant with her attempt at fairness and understanding. For all her undying devotion and commitment to the man she loved, the fact of the matter was that Catherine had never chosen to completely bind her life to his.

Samantha's words to her in the flood, "I would have given up anything, everything, to be with the one I loved," came to Diana's mind with an explanation, and a vindication she would have rather denied with her dying breath than acknowledge as a possibility.

"I don't know what to believe anymore, Diana." The words were bleeding from a reality too painful to endure. And suddenly, Diana saw that Vincent's pain sprang from a

fear that drove its roots even deeper within his soul than the horrifying thought he might have in some way forced his unbridled passions onto Catherine against her will . . .to the agony of having to consider, even against his most fervent denials, that the woman he loved might have not welcomed the physical embodiment of that lost moment between them . . . a child of less than human parentage conceived in the throes of a passion that was less than loving.

Diana could not let him lose even the miracle that was his child.

"You can't possibly look into the eyes of your baby, your son, Vincent, and doubt the humanity of his conception. You can't be capable of believing such a lie as that!" When he refused to respond to her, Diana knew she would do anything to help him past such a devastating, haunting torment, even convince him of something she herself was now too ready to discount.

"Catherine could have been troubled by the fact that she was pregnant, yes, but not because she feared that baby's possible -- characteristics -- not because he could have been fathered by a being -- less than human -- in an instant of consummation that was -- less than loving.

"Life Above is hardly supportive of single women with children, Vincent, " she continued, attempting to persuade herself of her conclusions as much as him. "It is hardly as nurturing as your world Below. Catherine could have simply seen herself facing a barrage of circumstances ready to change her life that maybe she wasn't quite prepared to handle just then. Any woman would have been worried about them, unsure about how to deal with them.

"There was no black specter of inhumanity hovering over her, Vincent. She was just unmarried, with child, and facing a dozen lifestyle decisions she wasn't ready to share with you."

Vincent found himself looking long and deeply into the emerald eyes that held his with so much urging tenderness that it took his breath away. How could she be so certain of her hopes, so blessedly sure of her trust in him? How could she justify another woman's heart to him and only diminish her own?

The reality of that heart shone with aching care in those eyes now. Catherine's motivations slipped back into the familiar pain of grief and loss he'd managed to learn to bear these past few months. What drew itself to the forefront of his unsettled spirit's perception was the fact that at this moment in time, now, in the presence of a fiercely believing, protective, amber-haired angel, love was reaching out its uncertain invitation to him, daring him to take hold of it and press it to himself with willing possession.

He had carried within his soul so much of the darkness and pain of uncertainty, never once daring to question whether his assumptions were based on the truth, or only simply on the truth he told himself he deserved to experience. There did not exist a soul in creation today, he knew, within his own world Below, nor across the teeming world of the city Above, that deserved the depth and breadth and unshakable truth of the love Diana was offering him. Yet, there she remained, staring pain in the eye and standing her ground. Trembling with the uncertainty that his own cursed soul might not find the courage to take up her offer -- and bless her with its acceptance.

Coming to stand beside Diana at last, of his own free will that early morning, Vincent removed his cloak from her arms and held her before him for a long moment, letting his gaze travel the length of her enigmatic presence, her belovedly enigmatic presence, both fire and rain, searing his uncertainties and washing his newly found hopes in her tears.

The weary struggle they'd both been engulfed by was clearly visible on her drawn face, tracked by the remnants of those tears, and her defiant hope. She looked no older than Samantha at the moment, a slip of humanity that very truly believed she was capable of taking on the burden of his haunted heart and survive.

It was a beguiling hope.

He let her drift closer to him, in a gentle embrace that was warm with intimate acceptance. He felt the weight of the turmoil she'd been forced to carry in her slender, fragile frame as she laid her head on his heart in grateful comfort, not hesitating to take the mercy momentarily offered them in the solace of each other's arms.

"Diana, I love you as I never believed myself capable of ever loving anyone ever again," he whispered into her hair. A hand he'd long considered only capable of inflicting pain and terror, held her against him, felt the finely sculptured structure of her slim body as it fearlessly roamed over a simple cotton shirt. Her spirit came alive within him, with hope, yearning, and expectation he did not immediately, virulently deny. "I cherish your fearless belief in what could be for us," he breathed, but then he let reality work its way past the wonder in his heart.

"Yet, there is still so much standing between us. Too much. You know there is." He formed the next words despite the ache that had taken hold of him, an ache to never utter them within her hearing. "What you hope for is a beautiful, sweet . . . impossible . . . dream."

She pulled herself up from his sheltering arms and reached her hand up to his wounded cheek, feeling how unwilling he truly was to deny the possibilities between them. There was no more fear hurtling itself against her heart. It was only quiet resignation.

It was too ironic, she thought. They'd been agonizing over the threat he could become to her in a moment of abandoned control, and she'd been the one to cause him injury, to draw blood in an incident of precarious sanity.

"Vincent, you said you didn't know what to believe in any more, " she began in soft conviction, certain of what she had to reach out to the tested soul before her, certain, at last, that he could at least hear her objectively make her case to him, and not have to listen to beguiling arguments through a black haze of desperation.

"Let me give you something to believe in now, what I believe in: Believe that inside you beats a heart that is no different than mine. Believe that your soul is capable of no more deadly intentions than my own. Believe that there has come a time for you to wake from the nightmares and embrace the dreams instead, that it isn't a mistake, a cruel twist of Fate -- the time is right here, now, and the dreams are for us to reach for, you, me, and Jacob, the time is ours.

"You nurture everyone's hopes. You can see possibilities in everyone's lives. Why can't you do the same for yourself, for us? Where are your own dreams, Vincent? Why can't you find the courage to embrace them? They can't be so much different from mine."

He had come to her that night, knowing somehow that she was in desperate need of his presence, that she was being faced with a flood of emotional and spiritual anguish she could not bear alone. He'd confronted the very real and terrifying prospect of losing her to the heartbreaking pain and darkness threatening her mental state, her very hold upon herself. He'd been able to pull her free from that torment to rest in his grateful and so willing embrace, sheltered within the truth of his love.

And he had opened up the very depths of that love to her at last, the profound and cherished desires revealed that were no longer to be denied: that they loved each other, were in love with each other, longed to become love for each other in every bewitchingly possible way that was open to two hearts entwined: mind, heart, spirit, soul . . . and body.

Could it actually be within his grasp at last? The fulfilling peace and hope held out to him in a slender, trembling hand? Taking hold of that hope would mean leaving behind him his very sense of self, one he now no longer could accept on blind faith as being only fraught with terror and uncertainty.

Could heaven at last be smiling upon them? Had they truly wearied the malicious fates and instead endured the arrival, at last, of a bright destiny of hopefully intertwined lives?

Dare they accept their dreams this night?

Diana's fragile form seemed so much a part of him, resting against him in weary helplessness. Yet, she believed so deeply, without fear or reservation; she was willing to dare and risk and battle and confront, knowing almost instinctively, from their very first moments together, that they had been meant to share their lives . . . as lovers and soulmates. The truth of that belief in her eyes was not to be withheld.

Gently, with trembling possession, Vincent lifted both his hands to rest softly around her face. Could those deadly hands be capable of offering her nothing more threatening than a lover's sweet passion? Could that passion find its wellspring from nowhere more inhuman than a loving, devoted heart?

A soft kiss to her forehead took Diana's breath away as easily as any moment of total, loving abandon ever could. It took Vincent's away, too, as he watched the steel-willed fairy sprite that had bedeviled his convictions of himself tonight, turn into the tender-hearted Renaissance angel that had sheltered his soul from despair, and then from there, become the maddeningly confident, and bewitchingly beautiful young woman that had stolen his heart and stirred his humanity. He would answer her questions with his own truth.

"Where are my dreams, Diana?" The sound of his whispered words rang gently within her heart. "They are intertwined with yours. They are the same as yours: I dream of reaching out to you in tenderness and not being haunted by the specter of death in that touch. I dream of having you by my side in my world, waking to the warmth of your body next to mine every morning of every day.

"I dream of watching Jacob thrive in the welcome of your nurturing love, as his mother in reality as well as in spirit. I dream of holding another child in my arms . . . your child. . .

our child, born of a love that is true and right and fearless in its hope.

"I dream of watching those small souls entrusted to our care grow in strength of body, mind, and spirit, seeing them one day begin their own lives with those they love.

"I dream of growing old beside you, sharing treasured memories and delighting in every line that the passage of time has written on our existences together.

"And when it comes time for me to leave this world behind, I dream of carrying the tenderness of your eyes, the sweetness of your touch, with me beyond the grave. Those are my dreams, Diana."

She couldn't hope to find her voice to reply. The words did not exist for her to describe the feeling of unburdened promise alight within her very soul at the sound of such cherished, accepted, conviction, in Vincent's soft tones. Everything was now said between them. Nothing else existed, only the need to hold to the truth of the words and believe in the reality of their fulfillment. They only needed to open their hearts now to the possibilities, and work to bring them to pass.

"They are my dreams, too, Vincent. God, they've been my dreams for so long!" She began to cry then, deep, sobbing tears, pouring the weight of her struggle out of the depths of her soul at last. Her physical reserves vanished as the burden of the night's battle hit her with full force. Vincent simply gathered her up into his arms and sat with her back onto the couch, cradling her much as he would have comforted one of the children Below nursing a skinned knee and a bruised spirit. But the kiss that he offered her in consolation was not one for a wounded child. It was a tender offering, full of hesitant promise, left upon soft lips ready to believe in miracles once again.

Diana felt no barriers thrust against her, to collide with her fragile heart, the truth of their accepting promise sweeping around the both of them at last. It was a truth that was ready to step away from fear and into the warm light of hope. And even though she knew that half a lifetime's terrors would not be washed away in an instant of gentle, sustaining expectation, she recognized the single step towards a new destiny that they had both taken this night, together.

As easily as though he'd always been free to offer her his unburdened heart, Vincent let himself cherish the welcome feeling of Diana's body sheltered so willingly in his arms. He let her tears run their course, never once considering them anything more than evidence of the . . . joy . . . in her heart, a joy that reached his own with boundless relief. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to hold himself to some sort of recognizable boundaries necessary yet between them, the burning ache to accept all of their love suddenly too heady for him in its long-denied freedom. Their uncertainties weren't totally to be set aside this night, he knew.

Diana felt his restraint with nothing more than accepting gratitude, this time, knowing it to be only his ingrained care and the tender caution with which he would always treat the sweetness between them. She let him raise both her hands in turn to his lips, as he attempted to keep some tenuous hold of the moment. An instant later, he was struggling to find the words he sought to offer her what else was still in his heart for her.

"I could dream of no more treasured gift than to be able to keep you in my arms just now and promise you the fulfillment of every aching need in both our hearts, Diana. I can no longer pretend that my love for you does not carry within it the longing for a deepened commitment to one another, one that acknowledges a yearning for the sweet physical communion that is so natural and true between two hearts joined in love, a yearning that is very much alive between us."

With a sweet, innocent, consternation, he turned his beautiful face away from hers to steady his voice. "You have touched to . . . emotions . . . and . . . needs . . . within me I never would have believed possible, that burn with a warmth I never dreamed could comfort me. But to allow myself the . . . freedom . . . to make that commitment to you, to allow myself to share in the . . . depths . . . of those emotions and needs with you -- I'm not certain my heart can fathom those choices just yet."

Diana knew she was facing a risk at that moment that would either bring her the most longed-for treasure of love accepted and welcomed in all its wondrous facets, or the reality of a fragile hope overwhelmed at its very conception.

For once, she chose to pursue the truth through less direct means than she was accustomed to.

"Vincent, I won't force you past boundaries that you can't yet leave behind. I will accept whatever limits you place on our relationship, if only to bring you the peace you need to find your direction with certainty." Taking hold of a beyond human hand, she drew it up to her cheek, caressing it gently, her heart leaping as she felt his answering pressure against her skin. "I can survive half a lifetime with a single touch."

Something in the blue depths of his eyes told her, though, that it would be far from easy for her to hold to her offered restraint, when evidence of a simmering heat searching out its release came to her from his compelling presence. Knowing it was there, having him acknowledge that it was there, and having to wait for its liberation, could prove to be more agonizing than facing its total denial.

"But, you must promise me one thing," Diana continued, certain that she must say the following words or risk the very promise they had sought to take hold of tonight. "Those boundaries you need will not remain the eternal limits to our love. There has to be some point in time towards which I can set my hopes, a time when you will be able to move past those limits totally without fear, and see the same reality that I do right now -- that our love is to be shared, deepened, and nurtured, all of it, and not shrouded with guilt or fear."

Vincent smiled softly down at her, conceding with generous surrender that she was still capable of astounding him with her force of will. She would give him his limits, and let the beguiling enticements of a life beyond those limits work their way through his heart. He knew he was vanquished, even as she let him feel in control of his choices. Dear Lord, he thought to himself, it was a good thing he'd never taught her how to play chess!

The very fact that she felt an unburdened . . . freedom . . . lift itself from his strained spirit to sweep about her own, gave Diana her answer. But, the words came, too, soft and hopeful and touched with wonder and . . . possibility. "Diana, that moment in time cannot come quickly enough."

There was a sudden beam of sunlight that lengthened itself across the floor of the loft, the first bright light of a wintry day that reflected off the still-pristine snow cover of the night before. Even though the light held very little warmth at this time of year, it was enough to keep the day's hopes bright, to nurture life and keep it believing in the promise of the moment.

The beam stretched out to spread across the couch where Vincent and Diana were sitting. Used to lowering his face away from such light, hiding his features in the lingering shadows, Vincent instead turned fully into it. Drawing Diana more closely to him, he closed his eyes and let the morning sun pour over them both in benediction.

Diana wished never to move from the spot. She could hear his heart beating strong, powerfully, and true, beneath her ear. Her hand had returned to the shelter of his, and had at last steadied itself. She took courage from it, from the stirring sounds of Vincent's acceptance of their needs voiced, and raised her head enough to hold his features in her gaze with powerful possession.

In the burnishing light playing across the exotic details of his face, Diana saw the man she loved bathed in the hope he so desperately deserved, certain for once that he could at last see himself as the man she loved. She had never seen a more beautiful face, mythic, angelic, and at peace. The unearthly blue eyes opened to hold her own features with a blessed, tender acceptance she'd never believed possible.

Vincent bent down and kissed Diana's hair softly, let his hand slip gently over her shoulder and arm, leaving a path of sensitized sweetness in its wake, that coursed as much through his body and spirit as it did her own. He felt as though they'd been together thus, in each other's nurturing embrace, showered by sunlight, for all eternity.

It had to have been for all eternity, he thought to himself in incredulous certainty, this feeling of . . . belonging . . . and holding to another part of himself, another depth of his soul. This feeling of total, fearless . . . love. When had he begun loving her? There was no point in time he could truly touch to . . . no, that was not right . . . he had felt his spirit reach for it, a compassion, a tenderness, a . . . love . . . slipping quietly over his devastated heart, even before he had set eyes on the fiery-haired young woman. When his soul had been torn to shreds, when he cursed the reality of another day, when he had endured another haunted night of grief and pain and aloneness. He had felt it even then.

And when he'd longed to plunge into the oblivion of death, with Catherine gone, Jacob lost, his heart shattered into scabrous shreds of agony, he had seen that love in emerald eyes that shamelessly reached into his soul and willed him to hold onto her for the strength he could no longer find, the hope he no longer believed could exist.

She had given him so much, offered him so much, subjected herself to so much, dared him to dream with her, the breathtaking dream of a fragile-spirited angel, sensitive, intuitive, and too human to hold herself above his pain. How does one repay another for their very soul? Vincent could see his way to the truth now, and that way led directly to Diana's heart, and more than what she'd ever dreamed he could accept.

Vincent touched his hand to Diana's chin, slipped his thumb over her soft lips. Her heart stumbled over the wealth of emotion overtaking her spirit. She could feel the unburdened possession with which he reached for her, held her, and for an instant she lost her breath, uncertain she could maintain her restraint against the gentle onslaught of want her own had been drawn to with that touch. His words were quiet, but so sure.

"I could dream of no more sweet fulfillment than to be able to remain here in the light with you, being warmed by both the sun's grace and your own heart. But that can never be our reality."

For a minute, Diana thought she felt her soul shatter, the words capable of robbing her of life as surely as any weapon of violence she had ever faced. Yet, the infinite promise in his fathomless sapphire eyes, in his courageously tender touch, reassured her instantly.

"My heart could find no more profound completion that to rest beside yours, for all my days. I have shared with you my dreams, Diana. The reality is that I have little to offer you, except my love, my son, and my world. They are yours, given joyfully, and with more hope than I ever dared think possible for me to hold within my heart."

Then came what Diana never believed she would hear, the words mirroring the tenderest recesses of her soul with the only truth that could possibly exist between them. The words Vincent had never had the courage to voice before, not even to Catherine, echoing a gift he never felt he deserved to reach out for.

"Stay Below with me, Diana. As my love, my partner and soulmate, my . . . wife. My life would not be complete without you at my side." A graceful, indescribable, beyond human hand slipped gently over her cheek with bewitching familiarity.

"I've never before yearned to pledge my heart, never before thought it possible to dream such a dream, and believe in the truth of its possibility. You are a part of me I had no idea I had been existing without." A soft kiss to burnished amber locks held her in promise.

"I want nothing more than to love you, cherish, honor, and protect you, share with you all that I am, such as I am, all that I could ever hope to become."

Diana pulled herself up to look at Vincent, her emerald eyes melding to his now so tender and questioning azure ones. There was such hope, such possibility, brightening his long-haunted features. Even his description of himself to her just now, "such as I am." It was no longer weighted down with the regret and shame he'd used earlier that night. He'd amended it with words alight with beginnings, "all that I could ever hope to become."

It was so tempting to believe her own pain would soon come to an end with the freedom he would embrace between them. Yet, her racing heart would not lead her astray, not if she could help it, this time. He'd spent too many years in stifling denial, a denial that had robbed him of his humanity and his own sense of worth. But like a prisoner who'd been set free of his bounds after a lifetime of limitations, would he find his new sense of liberation a blessing or only another form of pain?

Diana couldn't imagine that she had truly heard what she had heard, understood the gift he was holding out to her in apparently total, expectant trust. He was willing to not only accept her love, their love, but he was asking her to become his bride? To live with him in his world? He'd even denied Catherine such a gift, more than once, from what he and Father and Mary had shared with her of his past pain. And Catherine had been his ideal, the woman who was life and breath and light to him. Now she was reading a pleading hope in Vincent's eyes for her to share his life in his world?

She couldn't believe it . . . she wanted to believe it . . . she'd never dreamed it . . . she'd always known it . . . that their love would not be an elevated binding of souls beyond the limits of humanity . . . only that their love was meant to be earthbound and real and made of the things of ordinary souls, a lifestyle accepted, a child to be nurtured, a bed to be shared, a dream of home and hearth and love grounded in the here and now of life.

The tender possession in Vincent's touch, the welcome embrace of his eyes, told her she was looking at the truth of love . . . his love . . . their love. Free to thrive in blessed mercy.

Almost.

"I don't know how long I can last, accepting that love from you from the foot of your bed, Vincent." The words should have been flung in challenge and defiance, would have been so, had she had any remote hold on her runaway spirit and hopes. Instead, they were only softly spoken and questioning, a minor detail that needed to be worked out between two consenting adults.

He should not have had the faintest glimmer of humor in his eyes as he responded to her words, either, her fears having been very much his own terror up until the previous two seconds of his life. Humor had no place at this point of their discussion, there was no way he could possibly make light of what they were proposing.

But, it was there, the spark of his own defiance radiating out at her, daring her to believe. Using her own tactics against her. She was shocked beyond recovery to come to that conclusion, hardly able to accept the words that followed.

"There will be no need for you to find yourself at the foot of my bed."

Something of her own defiant Celtic nature broke free from the wonder of the moment to toss reality into their midst. They'd both been celibate too long; they both ached to embrace every expression of love between them. How long, in God's name, were they going to have to wait before Vincent could see his way past the lingering uncertainties he carried in his spirit, before they could truly become husband and wife? Or even more maddening . . . how could they pledge themselves as husband and wife and then deny themselves the very gift that would bind them to each other in total, trusting, commitment?

Diana reluctantly pulled herself from his sheltering embrace and paced impatiently before Vincent, attempting to find the words she needed to say without risking her heart's completion. Oh, the nuns at St. Elizabeth would have thought it heavenly justice for her to have to find herself in such a plight! But, beyond the specter of divine retribution for adolescent indiscretions looming before her, she took courage from the brightness still unbelievably visible within his gaze.

"Then you have no idea what being close to you is capable of doing to me, do you?"

she responded, shaking already with emotion at the very thought of what they needed, or might have to yet deny, between them, to set this all finally to rest.

Vincent came to his feet -- and halted her anxious movements by drawing her closely within his arms again, his hand softly grazing over her face, tracing her finely sculpted features, slipping, lingering his fingertips over her lips. Her reaction was precisely what he, and she, knew it would be: She felt her heart leap into her throat, her limbs giving way beneath her.

"I know exactly what it does to you, Diana," came the husky answer to her plea. "My own heart reacts in just the same way by having you . . . near. You've felt it."

"So, how is this going to resolve itself, my love?" came the shaky inquiry.

A kiss that was a fraction less chaste than she expected it to be startled Diana to complete speechlessness, even as it warmed her body from its depths with breathless expectation. "The limits necessary around our love at the present time need only to address my experiences, not yours. I will gratefully offer you whatever you need for your fulfillment until we are able to move past those limits."

"Without touching to your needs?" She'd felt the enticing heat in his kiss, the need to learn more, the bewitching innocence in him that sent coursing want into every cell of her body. And she'd felt the aching urgency in his own flesh responding to hers. It was torment, sweet torment, surely, but agony nonetheless. But, knowing him as she did, Diana understood full well that Vincent was capable of just such generosity in his love. "What sort of fulfillment could that possibly be for you?"

"The only kind I can accept . . . for the moment."

There were never more contradictory, hopeful, insane words spoken between two battered hearts reaching out to one another in disbelieving communion. The guys in her division at the NYPD would have been taking bets on the outcome of this situation, if they could ever believe it. But, she was never one to shrink from a battle when she understood what was truly at stake. And the reality of this night's circumstances would mean the release of a wondrous, mythically blessed soul into the world of promise and freedom it had been too-long denied. She was up for the challenge.

This time, a slender, long-fingered hand slipped in loving outline over cleft lips that had drawn a powerful, sensually staggering response from her body. She would not bury that feeling, the promise of that intoxicating feeling, willingly again, force it to untruth because of limits that should never even be dreamed of, let alone considered and accepted as a necessary experience of love.

"I will never take from you a touch, Vincent, a caress, a kiss, unless I can return it to you in kind. You can't deny me that. You can't do that to our experience of one another and expect love to survive, no matter how caring and protective your motives."

Taking in a long, ragged breath that revealed more of his state of heart than he might have wanted to at the moment, Vincent pressed a tender kiss to the bandaged palm of her hand. "I will attempt, with all my heart, not to deny you that."

Just hearing those words sent a shiver of long-confounded desire through Diana she was helpless to hold in check. She seriously questioned now whose torment was going to be whose in the days to come, but such anguish could be as sweet as her most deeply treasured hopes, she suddenly realized. The only thing that mattered was the fact that they were both standing in the sunlight together, their spirits entwined in a gentle solace that offered only the most promising of endings . . . beginnings

 

The next night, Jacob's little angel was joined by two others in the snow, left in a sheltered bank untouched by the imprint of the city's reality, a reality that was so often cold, unfeeling, and unforgiving. There was nothing but warmth, hope, and possibility surrounding the three souls whose earthly impressions were left within those snowy works of art, three souls finally blessed with the freedom to dream past their limits.

That evening came to a close over simple gifts untroubled by harrowing terrors: Cups of hot chocolate, and a walk through the Hundred Acre Wood, an evening of baby giggles shared, cold fingertips kissed warm, and tender hopes nurtured with newfound confidence, into the wee hours of the candlelit night.


Continued in Chapter 23