To Hope Anew

Chapter Twenty-Three


"I believe we are all here, Jacob." Dr. Peter Alcott gave his colleague a strong pat on the back. Father smiled up to him, pulling on his reading glasses with his usual easy dignity.

"Then we shall begin."

Peter took his seat among the community members, greeting several Helpers. Father signaled to Daniel, and in a moment, the Great Hall was flooded with the airy strains of Vivaldi's "Seasons", practiced for weeks by the young musicians of the Underground. The sweet melody lent the perfect touch to the perfect day, as well-scrubbed and seriously-demeanored youngsters eagerly offered their beloved mentor a gift of music on his wedding day.

Vincent moved over to where his father stood at the head of the community beneath a trellised and garlanded arch, Cullen's and Mouse's handiwork. With one man used to the practicalities of woodworking, and the other never far from the heights of inventive fancy, the decor was a miracle of propriety for the moment. It was amazing how everyone's best efforts for the day were simply melding into a wondrous, joyous, beautiful, hopeful whole-

like the love they were celebrating - becoming so much more than the sum of its already incredible parts.

Pascal took his place beside his childhood friend, easily holding little Jacob up and into his father's eager, awaiting arms. Never one to wax too poetic about anything other than his beloved pipes, the slight, earnest man actually felt as though a burden had been lifted from his own heart, as he took in the sight of his dear friend and his child.

There had never been such a look of peaceful anticipation on that so singular face before, not even when Catherine was alive, Pascal observed. Dressed in his best, profound blue eyes alive with a tender hopefulness, Vincent's princely, mythic bearing was made so beautifully human by the gentle care of the child in his arms. His friend was at last the recipient of heaven's unbounded blessings this day, Pascal knew, as surely as if the wonder of the moment were his own.

"Father, will I remember what I must say to Diana?" The sweet, boyishly quiet sound of his son's voiced anxiety prompted Vincent to set a reassuring kiss to his forehead.

"Don't worry, Jacob. Pascal, Grandfather, and I will remind you if you need help. You will do just fine."

Pascal was about to offer the little boy his own spoken support when his attention was captured by the leader of their community directly before him. Father had looked up from the notes in his hand and the paternal dignity of the leader of the tunnel community suddenly gave way to confounded -- awe -- audibly acknowledged. The ever so calm and cerebral gentleman slowly reached up to pull off his glasses as he stared, transfixed, at the mezzanine stairs several dozen feet away.

"Dear God!" he whispered undecorously, almost loud enough to be heard all the way to the third row of seated guests over the children's music playing. Vincent's attention was immediately pulled from his child to his father at the incredulous sound of the words.

Jacob, senior, somehow found the presence of mind to continue his thought. "Is that Diana?" Then, a look of sheer, marvelous recognition lit his face.

Pascal couldn't help himself; he had to turn completely around to take in the sight that had caused such a reaction from Father. He understood the need for incredulous wonder the minute his eyes rested on the stairway.

As did Vincent.

There, being carefully led down the stairs by Mary's hand, and following Samantha who was a lovely, arresting vision in her own right, was . . . Diana . . . or had some ethereal spirit of the fae world itself just stepped into their midst?

Pascal stumbled over his words, he who could find poetry in the sound of clanging pipes, but could be left literally shaking in his boots if Rebecca were to turn a word to him over the dinner table. "She looks like, like . . . "

"An angel," came Jacob's bright little voice, offering Pascal just the word he needed. "Like the ones in the book Mary has on her bed table."

"Yes," the pipe master replied, "an angel, Jacob."

Vincent might have wanted to add his own observations to the matter, but his words failed him. As did his mind. And as his strength was about to, just as he'd witnessed Jeffrey wavering in uncertain comprehension when he'd seen Samantha appear at the head of the stairs a moment or two ago. But his heart did not fail him. Vincent felt it . . . soar.

An audible murmur of appreciative astonishment rippled through the crowd as well. The sound, working its way through the music, did nothing to pull Vincent's attention from the sight that met his eyes.

Diana had reached the main floor of the Great Hall, and was gently leaning on Mary's offered hand, moving across the width of the Hall with a slow, graceful bearing of regal stature, every bit the mythic spirit Vincent had known her to be. She was completely enveloped in white, not just from the breathtaking flow of fine brocade that sheltered, yet outlined, her body, but from a whisper of gossamer veiling that completely enwrapped her form, like an vaporous mist that parted momentarily in the glow of candlelight.

She was both enveloped, concealed, by the whispy fabric, at the same instant that she was made to seem so beguilingly revealed; a being that could have existed only within the tenuous fabric of dreams, yet, Vincent knew her to be flesh and blood, and heart, hope, and truth, for even if "angel" was indeed the word necessary to describe her, that was not enough.

Her bearing was beyond the heavenly, somehow, holding still to the miracle of mortality and more, an elfin enchantress perhaps not even bound to the earth, made of mist and flame, flowers and gently blushing porcelain.

But still a woman, so evidently a woman, with the inner wonders of her spirit and heart no less captivating than her fairy-like beauty. Pledging her heart, her self, to him, for always . . . in earthbound, human love.

Gently setting Jacob down to his feet between Pascal and himself, Vincent let the reality of Diana's love wash over him in sweet wonder, from within and without. Tangibly, he could read it in her emerald eyes shimmering with hope and even a soft confidence. Spiritually, he felt it radiate through him from her soul, through his link with her very essence that sweetly doubled his every heartstopping moment's experience of her.

She looked the absolute picture of that love, long reaching out to him -- real and ethereal, revealed and sheltered, of heaven and earth, soul . . . and body. The aching wonder of that love, standing personified before him, was so beautiful it was almost too painful to bear. He could only succumb to it, find himself consumed within it . . . with joy.

As the two women came to stand before the entire community, Mary held out Diana's hand to Vincent. The look of true, hopeful, maternal pride on Mary's face made even Father pause in his contemplation of the scene, her . . . serenity . . . and acceptance of the love she had helped guide between two long-tested souls, burnishing even her own beautifully aging face.

Vincent returned Mary's loving, urging smile, with his own, then suddenly realized that Diana's hand in his was trembling. He locked his soul-baring eyes to hers, then, with a reaffirming communion she let her heart cling to gratefully.

The musical prelude came to an end, and the stillness in the Great Hall was so profound, Diana thought she could hear the beat of Vincent's pulse through their linked hands, as well as feel it. The look of sheer, awestruck, wonder, was not lost in his face, even as he sought to reassure her with a gentle squeeze of her hand with his. And even in her own unsteady amazement of the moment, Diana was able to take in the arresting sight of her husband-to-be with quiet, tender grace. She had never seen him so enthralling, a figure of epic tales and heroic deeds, powerful -- yet vulnerable as well -- and totally welcoming.

At last, Father managed to bring himself back to the matter at hand -- a marriage to be performed, two souls to be linked in public affirmation. He found his voice, and with relatively steady hands, replaced his glasses on his face to begin the beautiful, tradition-laced ceremony that was one of his favorite duties as head of the Underworld community.

"Who presents this couple to our assembly?" he began with a clear and elegant voice.

Mary responded to the familiar inquiry with gentle assuredness, maternal instincts freely coloring her words as never before, in all the years she had spent helping loving hearts unite. "I do, as a daughter and son of our hearts."

"What do you ask of this community, then, for this woman and this man?" Father had asked the question dozens of times over the span of his tenure as patriarch of the tunnel world. Never before had the simple description of the two souls before him, "woman and man," held him with such gifting awe. He wouldn't have ever believed it . . .

"That the joining of their hearts, as the joining of their hands, may be acknowledged with joy and nurturing support." As Mary spoke, she entwined a braided ribbon with familiar, graceful confidence, around Vincent and Diana's clasped hands. Then, with a final, tenderly uplifting smile, she retreated to stand behind the couple, to join Samantha and Pascal.

Father looked up from the wondrous reality Mary had conjured with her traditional symbolism -- Diana's slender-fingered hand clasped in Vincent's powerful, unearthly one, held together by love and a braided ribbon. The elder man never believed he would live to see the day, blessing heaven silently for its mercy to his beloved child, and to the young woman he loved as a daughter, too. Raising his voice to include all of the assembled community, Father continued.

"It has been written in Ecclesiastes, 'Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For, if they fall, one will lift up the other. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm. But, how can one be warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A three-fold cord is not quickly broken.'"

For a moment, Jacob Wells looked over the gathered numbers of his beloved family and the Helpers who were also so much a part of the nurturing community he had helped to found half a lifetime ago. The thread that had bound them all together had always been a need for shelter and compassion, a search for the opportunity to rest in acceptance and to be cherished. So many of the eyes turned up to him now, both old and young alike, had come to this underground haven as victims and cast-offs from society in the world Above.

Now, faces that had seen and endured many years of hardship, and bright, trusting faces of children and the young, were radiating a single emotion they had in common for the one person they each loved as their inspiration and consolation . . . joy . . . for Vincent, the soul that had withstood more pain than any of them, and for the fiery-spirited enigma that had brought him back his hope, Diana.

They deserved to love each other, Jacob Wells thought with uncontested certainty of heart, his never merely human son and the always totally human woman that had set him free to dream again. Yes, they deserved to steady one another, warm one another, as one miraculous melding of souls in love.

He turned to the two young people before him again, and felt his own heart soar, believe, and find strength.

"As we listen to Vincent and Diana pledge their love to one another, let us join our hearts with theirs in living the promise of love -- to lift one another up, to warm one another with our love, to protect, nurture, and encourage all hearts in this community and beyond."

Reaching down, Father slipped the ribbon off the entwined hands before him, handing it down to Jacob for safekeeping. Diana gave Samantha her bouquet of flowers to hold, then she turned to face Vincent. As they stood before each other, the crowded Great Hall became only a candlelit chamber where they stood alone. No one else was in the room, there was no other reality holding their attention except the feeling of Vincent holding Diana's hands in both his own with a gentle possession that encircled their souls.

His eyes reached into her essence to read the powerful, patient, generous truth of the love she had been cherishing for him over the past three years. Vincent never believed it could be possible, either-- than heaven's mercy could find him once again. But, it had taken an angel to carry that mercy into the depths of his spirit.

He and Diana had thought long and carefully on how they could possibly express the words they needed, to commit themselves publicly to one another. Not even the greatest minds of literature, nor the most beloved passages devoted to a heart's fulfillment, seemed to adequately define what they wished to voice. Thus, they had agreed to let only the heartfelt words of the ancient Celtic marriage rite mirror the state of their souls, the humble, poignant commitment described, very much the reality of their promises shared.

Vincent's voice was clear and tender. "I pledge to you, Diana, my heart, my soul, and my honor, my hopes and my dreams, all that I am, and all that I shall become, from this life to the next."

A radiant smile played across translucent skin and beguilingly sweet lips, that unexpectedly pulled treasured and breathtaking moments of communion to Vincent's mind. He did nothing to discourage their passage across his heart.

"I pledge to you, Vincent," Diana began in echoing response, " my heart, my soul, and my honor, my hopes and my dreams, all that I am, and all that I shall become, from this life to the next."

Even those sublime words of certainty were hardly necessary. Though spoken from the very truth of the love she carried within her, Vincent knew without a doubt that Diana had long gifted him with all that she was, gifted him through pain, doubt and fear, guilt and uncertainty, when only the brightness of her hopes could possibly shine through the dark turmoil of his soul, to help them both find their way.

To each other.

Pascal carefully set the golden claddagh band into Vincent's hand with a genuine smile of support. The gentle, awestruck tenderness of a freely soaring heart was not to be overlooked in the unique features of his childhood companion.

Taking Diana's left hand and resting it on his opened palm, Vincent carefully slipped the wedding ring onto her finger, marveling at how -- right -- and perfectly natural it looked. She smiled in recognition of the symbol, and at his efforts to share its powerful imagery as a source of inspiration for their love. A sweep of emotion filled his heart at Diana's silent thanks.

"Accept this circle of gold as a tangible symbol of my unending devotion, from this day forth." The words were like balm on his soul.

Diana felt the peace and accepting reality of his receptive heart so clearly that it took her breath away. If she ever had any doubts that they would be able to finally embrace their intertwined destinies in hopeful confidence, they were all washed away with the flooding radiance of their souls reaching out to cling to one another, in familiar, and now publicly acknowledged support.

It was all, at long last, so totally right.

Completing the hopeful circle of fulfilling reality, Vincent pulled his tender gaze from the cherished beauty and grace of spirit of his new bride to the treasured sweetness of his little son. With a practiced and familiar ease, he lifted the little boy up into his arms so that he was within sight and reach of the angel committing herself to them. There were more than several misting eyes in the gathered crowd of family, friends, and soulmates.

Vincent took his child's small hand into his and kissed it softly. An entrancing smile swept over the little boy's face as he touched to both the joy in his father's heart and his own sweet happiness in the moment -- the moment that would give him an earthly mother to guide his steps, wipe away his tears, and share his laughter, an earthly mother that had let her own soul shelter his tiny, so extraordinary one since the very first days of his life.

"Beyond my heart, I entrust to you my most cherished gift in this life," Vincent announced, "my son, Jacob, knowing the love and nurturing shelter you will offer him all his days."

Diana reached out, then, to the arms of her love, to accept from him, without guilt or hesitation, the small bundle of sweet boyish wonder that was his son. Jacob eagerly slipped his arm around her shoulder, the penetrating blue eyes he shared with his father alight with life.

"I pledge to you, Jacob, all my love and care, as your mother, always. You will be my son in name as you have been my child in heart."

Turning to his father for a momentary prompting, Jacob began the words he'd been practicing with Pascal, the words that his father had explained to him and that he rejoiced to be able to offer to the amber-haired angel he'd considered the earthly embodiment of mother for most of his young life. The small voice was strong and heartwarming in its careful recitation.

"I promise to love . . . cherish . . . and . . . respect . . . you as my own mother. Every day of my life." A broad, delighted smile crowned his beautiful little face with pride at having remembered all the words properly. Then Jacob let his actions speak as eloquently as his words: He set his head to rest on Diana's shoulder, gratefully. Vincent reached up to him and patted him softly on the back.

Father was one of the community that found himself holding back tears at the moment, but he could see the radiant support and intertwining spirits of the three beloved souls before him clearly, nevertheless. At that instant, he truly believed that with love, all things were possible.

"We have witnessed today, the birth of a new family in our midst, one born out of love and hope, that reaches out to all of us here. As a community, Vincent, Diana, and Jacob, we pledge to you our support and encouragement, our hearts to shelter and our hands always to reach out to you in whatever your needs.

"May heaven smile down upon you, and God's spirit of love always sustain you." With heartfelt wonder, the elder leader embraced his grandchild and daughter-in-law, then, his son. Taking little Jacob into his own arms, he directed his words to Vincent. "You may kiss the bride, my son."

For a breathless moment, Vincent let his soul-reaching eyes read Diana's heart. He could feel her tender, aching love resonate with her hopes, enveloping him. Yet, there was also the faintest breath of anxious hesitation reaching him as well from her essence. He read the unwhispered uncertainty even before she knew she had formed the thought completely in her mind: They had never, actually, so publicly acknowledged the love accepted within their hearts. For so long, even the honesty of eyes shining with urging welcome and need had been fervently withdrawn from revelation, both from each other, as well as from those around them who loved them and ached along with their pain.

He had told her that his newly-liberated and hoping heart could not yet fathom the wonder of the choices opened to them in their love, existing with tantalizing expectation just beyond the realm of fear and doubt. She'd become so used to his stoic restraint of emotion and her own quietly endured deprivation of communion, that even today, at this moment between them, now that they'd been formally committed to one another, she could still fear that he wouldn't find the courage to accept a simple call to tenderly affirm all they were to one another, all they had become.

She was afraid, Vincent read within her heart, with a wealth of compassion for her tenderness always on guard. She believed that even this day he would draw the barriers of denial like armor around his humanity, turning an invitation to touch her soul in a kiss into a still-haunting beguilement he had no right to believe he, they, deserved.

Knowing that such hesitancy was still within her spirit, Vincent felt his own stumble, at evidence of what his vigilance of fear had truly left her with. Oh, Diana, he thought silently, in guilty pain, you won't have to dread my heart's reaction to the tenderness within yours any longer. I swear it, my love, my wife.

How could he possibly hold on to his fears now? She looked so wondrously, damnably arresting, every breath of her love in her face, the truthful pools of her eyes. They pleaded silently with him to take courage. His own words to her from earlier that morning suddenly leapt into his mind, pushing aside the uncertainty. "Today is about what can be for us." She had drawn the truth out of him despite himself once again, that he ached for the possibilities of letting his humanity reach out to her. This day . . . this night. That drop of water had finally bored a hole completely through the stony armor of his denial.

With shy grace, Vincent reached out to the mist of veiling that still shielded Diana's face and form. The limits and boundaries that had surrounded them to that point, haunted them, haunted him, with images of terror and pain, could quite possibly be as insubstantial as the gossamer texture of the veil separating her lips from his now. He needed only to believe, to gently lift it aside -- and draw her, her intimately seeking love, into his arms.

He did, with a tender astonishment, a possessive anticipation that managed to stop her heart, and his, with its honesty.

Carefully, Vincent lifted back the veil up over the halo of flowers that crowned her burnished, braided hair. Samantha helped smooth it back for him. There was a maidenly blush on Diana's cheeks that had been hidden till that instant, a bewitching expanse of translucent skin revealed by her upswept hair. He caught, too, the reality of how her unsteady breathing was causing her chest to rise and fall in a catching, uneven rhythm.

Vincent's heart was every bit as fearfully expectant as hers. They'd shared moments of tenderness before, perhaps not within sight of the entire Underworld community, but instances of sweet acknowledgment that touched their needs and desires with promising enticement, nevertheless. But they'd only been moments stolen from rationality, moments to mistrust as much as delight in. They'd never been moments that were theirs, by right, and by honest conviction of heart, past the pain and fear.

This would be one such moment for them, Vincent decided with courage, the first of many, if heaven were willing to end all of their struggle, at last.

With the fearless urging of that decision made, he lifted one beyond-human hand to Diana's glowing cheek, and brought his cleft lips to hers, sharing her suddenly ragged breath. Her spirit within him trembled, and then ascended to the heights of her hopes.

There was the truth to cling to this day, for them both. Diana had abided by his limits for the past six months in quiet hopefulness, praying for love to work its miracle on his fears. She'd believed it when she'd made that maddening pledge to him, giving him his limits, but, at the same time, forcing his hand to acknowledge what could be possible. One either moves towards love or away from it. There was no other way. The threads of destiny did not weave themselves.

For a heart-sustaining instance, Diana knew it for certain: Their vigil of denial would never need extend beyond this present moment.

When they drew apart, Diana let her body rest, gratefully, against the strength of her husband's. Even though she realized he was leaning on her just as gratefully, in need of support from her slender form as well. Totally fearless, he slipped his hand over cream colored brocade to ease her way along the now eager crowd pressing to enclose them all with their good wishes. The soft feel of her body up against his felt so blessedly right.

"Well, then, my friends," Father's words managed to somehow reach the crowd above the rising sound level, "we have a wedding feast awaiting us all."

Music filled the Great Hall once again. And the impossible wonder of destinies accepted filled the hearts of an enigmatic force of nature and a mythic knight-protector

vanquished on the field of love.

 

William's contribution to the celebration of the day was indeed a feast. He and just about every member of the underworld community, and probably half of the Helpers as well, had had a hand in the magical abundance laden on the venerable tables in the Great Hall.

For a community whose frugal existence was an everyday fact of life, the opportunity to share in the joy of an occasion so long awaited called for an outpouring of tastes, textures, and quantities unheard of to that day -- platters of roasted poultry and meats, vegetables and breads in overflowing arrays, cookies and sweets and drinks all conjured by the happy efforts of dozens of pairs of hands long into even the first light of this morning.

And . . . an actual tiered wedding cake, brightened by bunches of delicately sugared blooms . . . violets, pansies, and rosebuds.

At the main table, Vincent and Diana were flanked by Jacob, Father and Mary, Samantha, Pascal, Rebecca, Mouse, and Olivia. The conversation throughout the great room was lively, easily punctuated by laughter, with a backdrop of musicians in an array of sizes, expertise, and instrumentations.

Father came to his feet amid all the expansive activity, and called on everyone's eager attention with the ease of a confident leader and a patient parent. When he was assured of everyone' attention, he led the grace for the meal. Pascal, then, lifted a glass filled with wine in the direction of the new bride and groom.

"To life, to love . . . To Vincent and Diana . . . To hopes and dreams and the possibility of their truth."

Everyone in the room raised a glass, whether it was filled with wine, cider, milk, or water, each eager to join their heartfelt wishes to Pascal's. The feasting began in earnest after the toast.

Throughout the meal, Vincent and Diana could hardly share in the comfort of each other's nearby presence. Their attentions were drawn into a dozen different directions by all those around them as the celebration settled into the lively rhythms of a family gathering. Very little food was actually touched by either of the couple, though William's solicitous attendance made certain that plates were heaped and glasses filled.

At one point, Diana finally was able to rest her head on Vincent's shoulder, a look of bewildered, patient amusement on her lovely face. "And I thought my family occasions were monumental!" she observed with gentle good humor, recalling the Bennett clan reunions of her childhood with tongue in cheek.

Vincent slipped a tender hand to her face. "You must be overwhelmed by this all," he said in compassionate understanding.

"Not really. I just feel like I've been thrust into the midst of my every family gathering all at once."

"And you won't be left on your own until you have hugged every uncle, let every exuberant aunt pinch your cheeks, and suffered through every mischief of cousins you'd sooner like to disown."

Diana lifted her head from her husband's shoulder to look him carefully in those incredible blue eyes with wonder. He had captured her every experience of growing up amidst the loving and sometimes overbearing extensive family circle of her childhood.

"You are amazing, Vincent," she whispered close to his ear, her heart alive with the feeling of having him so receptively near.

"And you are . . . bewitching," came his reply, in a voice that was dusky with rising emotion. Diana's heart leapt into her throat at the thought of what that emotion meant, even as they were surrounded by people, noise, and happy confusion. Perhaps Mary had been right: The truth of their love could indeed prevail this day, of all days. This night of all nights.

As plates emptied and were cleared, tables were pulled around to open a space in the center of the Great Hall. Father once again claimed the attention of his family and followers, relishing his duties obviously.

"I like to hope we are living in a democratic community here," he began, and was greeted by good-natured laughter and reminders of his occasional moments of autocratic

temperament. The teasing set a bright sparkle to his kind grey eyes.

"But, rank and age do offer some of us a few privileges down here as well. One of those privileges is dancing with the bride, though I'm afraid the best years of my capabilities in that realm are behind me. Vincent, if I may, I would like to assume that welcome privilege now, and lead your beautiful wife onto the dance floor first. Diana, would you honor me?"

A soft blush came over the bride's cheeks as she looked to her husband momentarily. Diana then took hold of Father's outstretched hand that assisted her courteously to her feet.

In the three years that she had known Jacob Wells, he had always seemed to her loving, nurturing, and a guiding force in the lives of all the Underground's inhabitants, from the youngest children to its more life-battered citizens. Diana realized now how he'd managed to govern so diverse a grouping of souls so well for so long: He had the inimitable gift of generosity, of being able to make anyone, and everyone, feel special, loved, and of worth. A trait he'd passed along to his son. A trait she'd witnessed so often in her own father, and one that was reaching out to embrace her as well today.

She may have missed having Timothy Bennett lead her in the first dance of a wedding celebration, but she very much still had a father whose heart was as filled with happiness and care for her as her own parent ever would be.

The musicians struck up a Strauss Waltz, and Diana let herself be easily swept around the floor in graceful, arching movements, if only a bit slowly, to compensate for Father's ailing hip. Indeed, she couldn't believe how well he danced, despite his state of health and her own tentative experience with the quaintly antiquated steps. Seeing the two of them so, one would have been hard-pressed to realize that Jacob Wells usually relied on a walking stick to negotiate the uneven surfaces of the tunnels, pipes, and chambers. At the moment, though, he was expertly slipping Diana across the floor.

Undeniably, too, he was lifting her heart, with his words softly spoken to her over the music. "I will never be able to thank you enough, child, for bringing my son to this day in his life."

Diana smiled softly, reading the genuine affection and care the elder man held for her. "I believe we brought each other here, Father, Vincent as much as I."

"Yes, my dear, but yours was the more lonely and painful route. You could have so quickly despaired of every finding your happiness with him, and no one would have thought the lesser of you."

"Father, I love him so much," was all she could say.

"He loves you, too, Diana, more, perhaps, than he will ever be able to tell you or show you. Believe that always, my dear. You are a treasure to him, a precious gift, a hope embodied. Hold your heart out to him . . . he won't let it languish in the cold."

Suddenly, Diana felt that an unvoiced confidence had passed between her and the leader of the Underworld. She knew he and Vincent spoke to one another about nearly everything, offering each other their support, advice, and encouragement. What exactly did Father know about their circumstances today, the conflicting realities and uncertain dreams?

She had bared her turmoil to Mary this morning, felt compelled to do so when she could not find her way to the hope of a love totally unburdened. The gentle lady had helped her find her convictions again, touch to the possibilities and not the denials.

Of course, Vincent must have done the same with his father at some point in time -- voiced his fears, sifted through his doubts. Had he been able to see the hope completely as well, at last?

The unexpected look of undisguised need in his eyes as they had spoken earlier at table gave her her reply, echoing the merciful freedom he'd touched to her in his kiss at the end of the ceremony: The only thing keeping the two of them, and their welcomed humanity, apart, was the extent of the celebration around them.

When they were left to themselves, when guests, family, and friends had offered them their final good wishes and good nights, she and Vincent would have nothing else left to keep them from one another's arms.

Or would they?

Father's elegantly accented voice pulled Diana from her thoughts. "I believe there is someone else ready to be honored by your hand, my dear."

Releasing his grasp, Father set a tender kiss onto her cheek. "Remember child, with love, all things are possible," he whispered softly into her ear.

Then he took up her hand once again -- and placed it into Vincent's, who had come to stand at the center of the Great Hall.

Holding her suddenly misting eyes with his, Vincent reached her hand to his lips, in a heartstopping, courtly gesture, then stretched his arm out with hers. He slipped his other hand across her back, resting it on the rich fabric of her dress lightly. Diana set her own unsteady hand onto his arm. Easily finding the rhythm of the continuing waltz, they began to sweep across the room.

But there was no room. There were no other people around them, no happy faces, no conversation or laughter.

There was only the two of them, and the music, at that instant in time.

If Diana had sheltered a breath of doubt at the end of the ceremony, as to the strength of Vincent's belief in the moment, she realized exactly what depth of conviction it had taken for him to cross that dance floor and accept her into his arms so willingly, with such sweet . . . expectation.

For, during a moment of soul-revealing torment in the early part of their entwined lives, Vincent had told Diana of the blessed wonder of the Winterfest with Catherine before she died.

He'd confessed with grief and guilt to her understanding kindness about dancing with Catherine for the first time at that celebration.

Despairing of the sweet hunger he'd felt reaching out to him that long ago evening across their bond, they'd had to wait until the Great Hall was emptied before they could touch to a moment of gentle communion -- he and Catherine, alone, in each others' arms.

They'd swept together to the strains of a melody they could hear only within their own hearts, lifting themselves beyond the limited hopes of earth and reality. Vincent had blessed heaven for the moment, awed by the sheer wonder of finding himself welcomed in Catherine's embrace.

It had been a sweet, gifting, magical moment between them, without a hint of darkness or pain. They'd been simply a man and a woman sharing their very souls to the sounds of an old-fashioned dance melody that played only in the wind beyond the wooden doors.

Vincent hadn't danced with anyone till that night. He hadn't danced with anyone since.

Yet, now, Diana was in his confident embrace.

A casual observer would have seen nothing beyond the charming, archaic propriety of the dance movements, but the gentle, hypnotic motions were very much, in reality, an enveloping, tantalizing, heart-beseeching embrace of need too long denied.

They were transported . . . within one another.

The measured slipping of cream-colored brocade against his body as Diana followed along his graceful movements set Vincent's breathing to catching . . . as though there were not a half dozen layers of heavy fabric shielding her skin from his. The distance their proper dance stances placed between them was hardly enough to keep one heart from leaping across it to join the other in completion.

Candlelight playing amongst braided, auburn tresses, and skimming over golden, loosened ones, could have been the bright warmth of a sunny spring day. No one would have noticed that a slender, pale-skinned hand was nearly lost in a fur-backed, taloned, unearthly one.

They would have seen only two lover's hands clasped joyfully within each other, two lover's bodies melding into the oneness of their love.

Diana let her astonished spirit cling to the details of a wondrous transformation that was taking part within her husband as they danced. She'd always been transfixed by his arresting presence. Even after three years, she still found herself momentarily stunned upon first sight of the mythic soul she'd come to love instantly, her heart taking an instant to grasp the reality of him, and his tenderness for her.

Now, the mysterious and for so long burdened presence that was Vincent had actually seemed to break free totally of every darkness that had ever haunted him. He was open, proud, secure, and . . . free. And that freedom made him appear not more heroic a figure, but instead, so much more human, so approachable and full of expectant promise.

To Vincent, their dance revealed only one truth: Diana was his . . . his partner, his soulmate, his friend . . . his wife.

Not a word had was spoken between them, yet, all that needed to be shared had been, in all its richness.

The music at last came to an end, a momentary pause before the next piece began allowing many more dancers onto the floor, many more unexpected hearts touching to one another within the sheltering rhythm of 3/4 time: Mary and Father at long last, comfortable in the years of their shared experiences, but somehow reaching past them at that instant to new hopes; Samantha and Jeffrey, incredibly, old enemies laying down their grievances and taking up their budding possibilities instead; Jamie and Mouse, independent spirits, each with their own unique perspectives in life, finding warmth in the generous space of their acceptance of one another's unparalleled characteristics.

Vincent and Diana let their friends and family members share in the beloved possibilities of the moment on the dance floor of the Great Hall. If they could take up their star-crossed destinies and find fulfillment at last in tender communion, then there had to be hope for them all.

Before the next waltz began, the bride and groom retreated to their seats, to contemplate the gathering before them, surely, but also to give their ever more receptive hearts the opportunity to ease a breath away from their insistently engulfing emotions . . .

and needs. Diana leaned quietly against Vincent's chest, silently, fervently praying that she'd live through her anticipations. The unsteady cadence to his breathing behind her did little to help her state.

Luckily, a powerful, sheltering arm embraced her, and Jacob who had climbed happily up into her lap, with enough familiar, reassuring ease, to keep her sane and whole, for the moment. But there was also just enough enticing promise in that embrace to set her senses reeling, too.

A sweet little voice coming from her lap broke in on her unsteady thoughts. "Are you really my mother now, Diana?"

The bride's attention was held to the curly-haired little cherub looking up to her with deep, searching eyes. She felt plunged into an unsettled confusion in another direction at the inquiry.

For an instant, Diana hesitated responding, her automatic state of heart at mention or thought of Catherine drawing itself quickly into gauging Vincent's reactions. She never was truly certain she would not cause him pain in any way she could answer such a question, innocently voiced by his son.

A reassuring pressure on her arm from a powerful, loving hand, told her she didn't need to be anxious.

Looking to Vincent first, whose gaze caressed her with tender urging, she spoke her own feelings to the child freely. "Yes, Jacob, I am. You will always have your mother,

Catherine, watching over you from heaven, but I will be helping your father care for you and help you grow."

The profound eyes touched her heart as surely as his father's were capable of. The little boy seemed to be attempting to grasp some puzzling concept for a long moment; then he lifted a little hand to a cool, soft cheek. "You've always been doing that for me, Mama."

Tears welled up into his father's eyes as easily as they gathered into Diana's. Vincent set a gentle kiss onto her hair. Diana, in turn, gathered the child more closely to her.

"I love you, Jacob. I'm so happy that you are my little boy."

"I love you, too, Mama," came the sweetest words she could ever hear from the child. It was as if the final thorn within both Vincent's and Diana's hearts had been gently removed by Jacob's generous blessing.

For three years, Diana had dreamed, dreaded, and despaired of ever hearing Jacob call her "Mama." She'd always spoken to the child of Catherine as such, always taken pains to be certain he knew of Catherine's place in his life, and her own in comparison. The little boy had once or twice asked her why Katy could call Lena the sweet, childhood endearment, how Luke, a big boy, could bring such a wealth of tender mercy to his tested parent, Olivia, with the word. It was difficult for him to understand why Diana should inhabit a lesser place within his little heart, be left bereft of such an obviously cherished gift.

Even with Vincent's patient guidance, even with his father's understanding ache of heart echoing his own, the little boy felt a . . . betrayal . . . of the amber-haired angel's spirit, at the need for distinguishing between his tenderness for the two women. To him, Catherine was the lovely lady in the storybook portrait that his father could only look at with tears in his eyes, a beautiful princess whose spirit lingered beneficently over the community, but one who could not reach out to hold him when he fell and skinned his knee trying to keep up with Luke's long strides down the tunnels.

That was Diana's place within his little heart. The comforting arms that scooped him up, the gentle hands that brushed away tears, the warm lips that kissed the hurt, the tender eyes that shared in his distress. She was the body he could fall asleep against when the music concerts went on a bit too long in Grandfather's study for him to endure with proper dignity. She was the bright smile that received his carefully penned efforts at writing his name with wonder and gifting appreciation. She was the scent of lavender and hot chocolate and sunshine.

She was the miracle that had made his father smile.

To Jacob, there was no other word for her, now that his long-practiced pledge had stated his heart to everyone in the community. She was . . . Mama.

Vincent heard a small sob escape from Diana's breathing. For all her resilient courage, he knew just how fragilely tender her heart really was. If he had long harbored doubts as to his worthiness of her love, he saw now how long she'd harbored her own doubt as to her place within his life, and within Jacob's, the poignant, humble, quietly uncertain state of her heart always sending his own to yearning in its sight -- yearning to set every breath of her anxiety to rest.

Jacob had done it for him, just this instant, acknowledged without urging or hesitation truly all that Diana was to him, all that she'd brought into his young life. Could he do any less for her now? I swore it to myself, Diana, with my pledge to you this day, Vincent reminded himself yet again. You will never need doubt my heart again.

Father and Mary were returning to their nearby seats, catching their breaths from a turn on the dance floor that had done nothing less than open their spirits finally, in complete acknowledgment, to one another. They reached the table in time to witness the loving scene being played out between the three souls they both cherished as no others, the very instant that Vincent had regained his hope and humanity, with Diana's, and Jacob's help.

Father reached a comforting arm around Mary's shoulders.

"May I dance with you, too, Mama?" The little boy's eyes brightened with his request.

Diana easily came to her feet and lifted the child up onto her hip, placing a kiss on his cheek.

"I would be honored, Jacob, to dance with you." With bright good humor, mother and child joined the crowd of dancers in a flurry of sweeping skirts and tousled curls.

Mary came around Vincent's chair, standing behind him as he watched his wife and son in overwhelming joy. Two work-worn, gentle hands, the ones that had cared for his own skinned knees so long ago, rested on his shoulders. "You've been blessed, Vincent, by the both of them."

"Yes," came the soft, wondrous reply, as he slipped his own hand over Mary's. He'd indeed been blessed. Jacob's treasured little soul had kept him alive, during all the long, black months of grief-stricken loneliness. Knowing the child needed him was the only mercy he could cling to during those days.

And knowing he needed Diana now was the only hope he could possibly accept. She'd nursed him, comforted him, confronted him, and loved him, since the moment she'd first laid eyes on him, with a courageous, patient, generosity that had withstood every test, every heartache, without counting the cost. He, now, was reaping the fruits of that love. She would not be left without the sweet fullness of his own.

"Jacob will be tiring out soon, I'm certain, with all this activity. And I'm sure I've only a few dances left in me as well before the day catches up to me, too."

Although it had already been arranged that Jacob was to spend the evening and night in the company of his grandfather and Mary, the gently leading words of the beloved lady that had been his own mother in heart came as a quietly urging shock to Vincent. Had the beloved lady read his mind?

Father had settled himself down to a game of chess with Jeffrey, no doubt offering the boy a few pointers on how to beat Samantha, though, it seemed the students concentration was straying. Mary patted Vincent's arm in motherly affection, without waiting for a reply to her observation from him. Then she joined the gamesmen at the far end of the main table.

Vincent was left to contemplate his beseeching heart, praying that he'd have the courage to hold to his promising vows.

 

Guests, Helpers, and family members were willing to extend their hold on the joy of the moment long beyond what was anticipated. The community having been forced to function under the lingering pall of grief for so long now clung to the opportunity to open their hearts again to one another.

Thus, the celebration continued in earnest for many happy hours. Between the two of them, Diana and Samantha had survived the notable honor of dancing with every male of the company, from the age of three to seventy-three. Mary was also similarly occupied for some time. The charming, radiant charisma of all the women exuded to those around them was infectious. Everyone wanted to touch to it. It was nothing less than heart's desires finally coming within reach.

Vincent was kept no less occupied the rest of the evening by the other half of the community. It was no great secret amongst the female members of the Underworld that each harbored some measure of tender attachment to the mystical presence that was their brother, father, childhood companion, mentor. Every heart reaching out to him at the moment, every good wish offered, every graceful step danced, only helped to reinforce the feeling of relieved joy at his long overdue blessings. And in the scheme of things, Diana was considered very much a rescuing soulmate and not a rival to them all.

The sum total of the situation ended up with the reality of many more hours being spent by all in the Great Hall in family fellowship. Even though the feast had begun in mid-afternoon, it was closer to midnight than twilight before the crowd had thinned to more immediate community members alone.

Samantha and Jeffrey were engaged in an interminable game of chess at one table, the play stretched out beyond normal limitations because there seemed to be as much contemplation of each other as there was of the playing pieces.

Father attempted not to let a bewildered smile escape him but was unsuccessful. "I've barely survived one stormy romance in this community before I'm faced with riding out another," he commented to Pascal.

"That one is going to hair-raising, I'm sure, too," came the reply.

William was still passing out portions of the meal's leftover bounty to departing Helpers.

Rebecca was collecting some of the still fresh flowers to offer them as well. Brooke swept out of the Hall with several bunches of them, too, to an unknown destination.

Vincent had appeared at Mary's side with a cup of tea, calling out his greetings to a departing Peter. Then he sat down beside Mary.

"Thank you for making this day so beautiful for us all," he said, gently kissing the elder woman on the forehead.

"It was a wondrous joy for me, Vincent. It filled my heart to be here with you, today."

She slowly sipped her tea, watching as the mythic figure beside her gazed across the great room, attempting to search its parameters with detached observation. Mary, though, could guess that his observation was not as casual as he'd have her believe.

Taking in the now rapidly emptying room, Vincent realized that since he'd begun seeing guests off, he hadn't caught sight of Diana for at least the past half hour or so. Casting a gaze again around the central part of the room, he couldn't see her anywhere.

"Mary, where has Diana gone?"

"I think she was trying to find a quiet place to sit with Jacob. He was getting tired. I offered to take him off to bed, but she told me she'd rather I sit and rest."

Vincent came to his feet and crossed the width of the Great Hall towards the entryway leading to the Chamber of the Winds. There was a small vestibule-type area of the room there that opened to one side of the huge main doors at that end. It would be out of the way and quiet enough to take a tired child, he knew.

Softly turning into the enclosure, Vincent felt his heart melt in a breath of time.

The vestibule held, on one wall, the mysteriously unearthed portrait that Kristopher

Gentian had painted of Vincent and Catherine four years ago. Without having actually had his subjects ever pose for the portrait, the equally indescribable Kristopher had created a stunning depiction of the scope of love he in some way knew existed between the two souls that had captured his secret attention.

In the painting, that could only be described as mythic and heroic in its stunning depiction, Catherine was breathtakingly portrayed, strong-willed, vibrant, dressed in a burgundy velvet gown that hung in sensuous folds around her body, turning her into a jewel-like presence beyond price. She stood before Vincent on the canvas, actually leaning closely against his powerful body.

He was depicted in an equally arresting manner, regal, mystical, in his flowing mantle, with leather gauntlets on his hands, challenging, and provocatively possessive of Catherine in his arms, one of which was thrown across her breast, holding her to him. The passionate acknowledgment of all they were to each other dared to be revealed.

The painting had been too heartbreaking for Vincent to behold after Catherine's death.

For all its incredible beauty, it seemed to mirror to him a profound level of humanity in their love neither he nor Catherine had ever dared to dream of touching to in reality. Kristopher had painted them as . . . lovers . . . in body as well as soul.

Vincent couldn't bear to keep it in his chamber, for all the pain and grief, all the lost moments it would have continually reminded him of. Yet, the . . . promise . . . of that painting was too beautiful to leave abandoned and languishing.

At last Winterfest, the portrait had finally been hung in the Great Hall. With the anguish of his loss slowly becoming more endurable, Vincent had consented to have the picture displayed in that gathering place of the community, so that it might enrich everyone's experience.

Still, its placement in the quiet vestibule and not the Hall proper, was as far as Vincent knew his heart could come towards accepting the present reality of the portrait's circumstances. And in the small room, it had almost taken on the aura of an icon.

At the moment, though, the painting was not actually what had filled Vincent's heart with tender wonder. Rather, it was the sight of the tiny space's human inhabitants that caught at his heart with overwhelming emotion.

An antique deacon's bench, cushioned with a rich, but worn, tapestry fabric, was placed against the wall opposite the painting. On it sat Diana, or more correctly, she reclined on the old furnishing, as she had her feet up on the bench as well. Nestled amidst the cloud of creamy fabric that was her wedding gown was Jacob, sound asleep, across her breast.

Diana appeared asleep as well, one hand holding Jacob's small one pressed up against her skin, above the neckline of her gown.

Vincent stole softly into the room. His heart was so full of the tender sight before him; a more profound portrayal of love could never be found.

One would have thought the gentle scene, being watched over by Catherine's suddenly so strong presence in the room, would have been too much for Vincent's tested heart to bear. Yet, the sweet sight only lifted his heart, not burdened it, as the truth of love rested quietly displayed before the dream of it. At this point in his life, Diana and Jacob were that

truth, a reality he took hold of with a tenderly soaring spirit.

He would have left the two sleeping souls, to seek out a shawl or blanket to offer them some small extra bit of warmth in the cool immenseness of the Hall, but Vincent felt himself so irresistibly drawn to remain in their presence that it was as if he had no will of his own that instant, the love that filled the tiny chamber taking hold of his heart and unwilling to release him.

Vincent came to the side of the bench, dropped to his knees, and lightly touched his baby's curls with paternal care. Jacob did not even stir, his deep, even breathing speaking of the total sheltered sense of repose he was in.

"Heaven's angels watch over thee, my loves," Vincent whispered. And without hesitation, without guilt or doubt or a troubled, haunted heart, he let his gaze move from his precious child to the cherished soul that was now his wife.

In this most . . . maternal . . . of all poses, Vincent was suddenly unafraid to accept the fact the Diana appeared as well so beguilingly . . . enrapturing . . .too. He never imagined battling the rise of emotions steadily encompassing him as he would have instantly, mercilessly, done not so very long ago. Instead, his every sense was totally aware of how

. . . beautiful . . . how actually . . . bewitching . . . she was -- hair of flame, carefully tempered into plaits that still glowed amber; translucent, opalescent skin bared over shoulders and throat, that ached to be touched by a lover's hand; a face whose image would have been treasured in a Renaissance palace, glowing with a radiant, ethereal grace.

He kissed her . . . and felt her take in his breath with her own.

Emerald eyes opened slowly, and were flooded with tenderness the instant she recognized he was near.

"I must have dozed off." Her words were apologetic, her momentary anxiousness eased by another kiss to her forehead.

"I didn't mean to wake you. It's been an exciting day. You must be exhausted."

Diana looked deeply into the features of her husband and read the tender warmth and possessive expectation in his so unique face. Its revelation coursed through her with certain welcome. She wasn't that exhausted, and she almost told him so, her rebelliously

hopeful spirit nearly causing her to forget she happened to be a newlywed bride who also was a newlywed mother.

She tried to concentrate on the restraint that had become ingrained within her during the long battle she'd fought to rein in her heart, and restore the one that beat within the powerful figure of the man kneeling beside her, but all attempts at quieting her spirit faltered in the light of azure eyes that looked upon her with as much consuming heat as tenderly innocent hesitation. And her single moral anchor, holding to her determined

commitment to patience and reason he had pleaded for from her, was suddenly set adrift with the recollection that they were now husband and wife, aching to search out every depth and breath of what that meant between them.

"I just needed a few moments to rest," she responded quietly, holding to the mythic

features that cherished her own for a long instant. Then she drew her attention down to

the little soul she held with sweetness that had gifted her with his own treasured

devotion. "Jacob, though, I'm afraid is done for the night."

Smiling, Vincent carefully helped Diana to pull herself to a more upright position, then he gently rolled Jacob from her body into his own embrace. Diana came to her feet, and slipped her arm through her husband's almost shyly. He turned a kiss onto her braided hair, warm with his breath, and their need.

"We had better get this little one settled in for the night with Mary, then."

Diana almost forgot to breathe, as she took in Vincent's words, spoken so naturally and without hesitation. Why? Because she actually, fully, had expected not to be spending the coming night alone with Vincent.

With all the unspoken uncertainty that had still found its path to their hearts in recent days, resting fully upon their pledge to not force their way past limits, the practical circumstances of this night had not even been discussed, not even hinted at. Diana had been prepared to sensibly take her place, both literally, and figuratively, at the foot of Vincent's bed. She would not be the one to step beyond their self-imposed boundaries

first, knowing that it had to be her beloved's decision to shatter those shackles of fear himself.

Oh, but she had ached at the thought of having to find herself sharing a bridal bed with a heart that might still need to see it as a bastion of denial!

Could she believe Vincent was, at this moment, as anxious to rid themselves of their fears and doubts as she was? That he was willing for them to share this night, their first night together, alone, knowing what they needed from one another?

Diana rested her head on Vincent's shoulder as they joined the remaining members of the community in the Great Hall. She'd been taken completely off guard, and her pounding heart was evidence of that fact. She'd dared him to love her, knowing that the battle would be hard-fought and rife with his fears.

He'd dared her to believe that he could, with a quiet passion that was even at that instant charring those fears into cinders.


Continued in Chapter 24