To Hope Anew

Chapter Twenty-Four

It wasn't long before a small bundle of sleeping sweetness was comfortably nestled under the quilts of Mary's bed, along with the very much loved bunny that was the little boy's still-treasured companion. Mary offered her good nights to Vincent and Diana in a softly reassuring, and urging voice that carried within it the unspoken understanding of her heart, and a mother's silent prayer that destinies should be set aright at last.

Finally, the new husband and wife found that they were treading the familiar corridors to Vincent's chamber alone. Speaking gently of the day's happy memories, each was, however, completely aware of the other's presence, as never before.

Then Vincent took Diana's hand in his and directed her through the doorway of their home.

Diana had spent many hours in that chamber over the past three years, time that so often was able to gently mirror a rising promise of hope amidst the sometimes burdening

reality of her quiet pain. Holding Jacob in the room, rocking him to sleep, speaking easily with Vincent about things that held her heart, tested her soul -- these moments of solace

had fixed themselves into Diana's perception of the room that was Vincent's sanctuary.

Because of those circumstances, she had always thought that it was an especially comforting place, that chamber, full of unexpected touches of imagination and vitality, too, mirroring its extraordinary occupants so closely.

Now, Diana found that the room had been changed.

Not greatly, not even enough to make it seem unfamiliar, but enough for it to exude a warm spirit of personal welcome, just for her, with a dozen small details.

For one thing, there were several bunches of fresh flowers scattered about the room,

complementing the warm candlelight shed by a score of lit tapers and pillars on the furnishings and into nooks of the rock wall. The soft brightness of the candlelight, and the welcome splash of the flower' colors, lent an easy aire of vibrance to the environment.

The furniture had been changed as well, moved about and even added to. The circular writing table had been eased to one side of the chamber and the center of the room had been claimed by a larger table flanked by two chairs. A delicate crochet doily rested snowy white on the polished surface, and set off one of the flower bunches in a small ceramic pot.

The parcels of Diana's gifts and belongings rested on one end of the table.

Jacob's crib and chest had claimed another corner of the chamber, a little alcove that Diana had never even noticed was niched out of the stone wall. The tiny enclosure had been made bright with a patchwork quilt hung up on the wall. The familiar rocking chair that had soothed the children of the community for over thirty years was carefully included in the small room, wearing now a pillow set made up in the same pattern as the hanging quilt.

A folding screen with fabric panels drawn across most of the opening to the alcove actually afforded some separation between the little boy's sleeping area and the rest of the room, speaking of a measure of privacy being left between occupants of the chamber.

Diana walked a few more steps into the room, ahead of Vincent, turning as she did to continue taking in the new features of her home, and focusing on the breathless state of

expectation that was rising within her as she realized all the effort that had been made to

make her feel welcomed into her new home.

With a quiet start, she recognized that the bed had been made up differently as well, the usually comforting, but eclectic collection of heavy quilts and pillows having given way to an antique chenille bedspread of a gentle ivory color.

That spread had been carefully turned back to reveal beautiful, lace-edged sheets and pillow cases. Where they'd ever come from in the world of cast-off frugality that was now her home, Diana could only wonder with quiet, delightful awe, easily seeing Mary's hand in it, surely.

Her linen gown, the special gift that had been presented to her by the women of her community last night, was laid out on the bed. A single red rose rested on the closest pillow, too. Those small touches of . . . intimacy . . . seemed suddenly to take hold of her heart.

With an unsteady rhythm to her breathing more and more in evidence, Diana turned momentarily back to Vincent, who had remained at the entrance of the chamber. She couldn't believe that he'd allowed the so obviously . . . romantic . . . transformation of his

room to have taken place. Recognizing Mary's influence on the night, though, Diana quickly decided that perhaps Vincent had no idea what he was coming back to, a gentle transformation that spoke the very embodiment of her hopes for the moment.

In an unwelcome return to her uncertain state of heart of that morning, Diana prayed that her beloved husband would not withdraw into his familiar anguish at so evident an effort to urge them towards the hopeful humanity set free between them. She was relieved to read that his state of heart had not stumbled: at the moment, he looked almost as . . .

enchanted . . . as the room, the dancing candlelight playing across the sculpted contours of his face. There was such a mix of emotions in that face -- hopeful expectation, hesitation, pride -- need -- the very same emotions that she felt coursing with mounting power within her own spirit.

Requiring dearly to pull her slipping control on her heart back to a somewhat functional level, Diana turned away from her husband, letting her attention rest on one final addition she'd discovered to the room that spoke to her of nothing but promise.

To one side of the bed, in the space formerly occupied by Jacob's crib, was a dressing table, an exquisite ladies' vanity that held Diana transfixed. It was a beautiful old piece of furniture, worked in unmistakable care, with delicately turned legs, carved drawerfronts, and an ornately framed oval mirror. On top of the vanity was a long dresser scarf of intricate cutwork, carefully ironed and starched.

Resting on the pearly length of fabric, to one corner, was a large porcelain pitcher and basin of a pale blue color. And at the opposite end of the vanity was a precious treasure:

a ladies' comb and brush set, finished in heavy, detailed silver.

Diana reached her hand out over the filigreed back of the hand mirror, the brush. In an instant, her mind returned her to a moment she held within her heart with the sweetest care:

It was the time she had awakened in the hospital chamber almost a year and a half ago, where she had spent a week recuperating from her injuries in the cave-in. Her first sight of Vincent, after she had regained consciousness, had been of him standing quietly to one corner of the chamber, watching, as Mary had kindly brushed her hair for her.

Every part of her body had been wracked with pain with her slightest movement, and she had laid on the pillow in almost total helplessness. Mary had taken up a small, wooden hair brush and had proceeded to gently smooth her auburn hair, a sweet mother's comfort for a hurt child.

But Diana's gaze had drifted past the older woman after only a moment -- to Vincent's figure in the shadows of the room. Her heart had ached with want at the sight of him, for she had finally read in his face, at that instant, an awestruck need, untinged by guilt: a need to run that brush through her hair himself. To offer her a loving comfort himself.

"You must have things of your own, but we . . . I . . . thought that perhaps you might accept something special to use . . . for your hair."

Vincent's voice behind her was soft and innocently apologetic, his first words to her since they had reached their chamber together. Even so, with the evidence of his quiet hesitation drawing his gaze from her, the words startled Diana back to the present moment.

Was he even capable of reading her thoughts? For she had been filled with longing just then, at the memory, longing for the breathless closeness that a hairbrush and his enveloping love could nurture.

With a hand almost trembling, Diana picked up the brush and turned back to her husband. "Oh, it is beautiful, Vincent," she said with tender gratitude, "everything is all so beautiful."

And almost promising.

"I . . . hoped . . . you'd be pleased." Vincent suddenly could not hold her eyes. Looking to the rock floor beneath his feet, he continued in a rush of words. "There will be room for any of your own things that you've brought with you. You may change anything around that you wish . . . "

"Everything is perfect, so . . . welcoming," was all Diana was capable of saying, aware,

unsteadily, of the electricity surging through the room between them. There was so much promise reaching out to her, so much hope. But, after three years of battling her desire for a sense of balance in her experiences with the -- tragedy -- that had always been Vincent's heart, she wasn't certain she could trust her own judgment of the situation rapidly engulfing her, nor did Vincent appear to be able to count on his .

Was she actually perceiving, still, that willingness in her beloved that had claimed her in a kiss earlier that evening, to completely leave his terrors behind him this night? Or was she only coloring the moment with her own passions that would stand refused no longer?

He'd still not come fully into his own chamber, standing instead only a few steps within the doorway. A sudden, hope-shattering thought forced its way into her mind, beyond the

insistent, aching need coursing through her body: For all his welcoming gestures, for all his reaching tenderness, perhaps the actual reality of their next choices would still prove too much for his long-tested heart to handle tonight. Could there be still too many fears looming darkly over them?

If she didn't do something quickly, Diana knew she would let herself be carried away into those fears herself. She needed to get back her perspective, and her hope.

Mention of her own things gave Diana a place to begin again on neutral ground to reassure Vincent's obviously growing hesitation. She moved over to the chair where she noticed one of her bags had been placed. Unzipping the top of it, she pulled out a book, thick and leather-bound, as well as a small velvet jewelry box, that had obviously been placed within easy reach in the bag. With a measured step, in a sweep of skirts and gently pleading hope, Diana walked back over to her husband's side and handed him the book, with as truthful a smile as she could muster from her shaky spirit.

"I wanted to give you this book for Jacob."

Vincent took the volume from her hand, running his own over the well-worn leather cover slowly. "Celtic Myths and Legends," he read with real interest.

Opening the book, he noted that the front inside cover had been inscribed, twice.

First, in an elegant, old-fashioned hand, was written, "For Dear Annie, one of the fairy folk herself, from Kevin, your brother -- Galway, 1921."

Then, in script he recognized as Diana's unflourished penmanship, "'Long, long, ago, beyond the misty space of time, a thousand years, in Erin old, there dwelt a mighty race, taller than Roman spears.' -- For Jacob and Vincent, who opened my soul to wonder."

He touched his hand softly to the signature in place beneath the passage from Thomas

D'Arcy McGee, "From Diana, on our wedding day."

"It was my grandmother's book," she explained. "It came over with her when she left Ireland. I think it was the most valuable thing she ever owned."

"'One of the fairy folk, herself?'" Vincent questioned Diana with gentle accusation, realizing, with wonder, that his beloved's fae spirit was a legacy.

Diana smiled, suddenly relieved at her husband's return to confidence and even humor, at her expense. She felt the need to defend herself to him. "When I was little, Grandma

Annie would read to my sister and me from that book. She was a wonder, herself. I think she was the only person my father ever truly was afraid of, but he adored her, too."

So that is where your fierce, beautiful spirit comes from, Vincent understood silently. A rush of tender gratitude, for Diana's obvious determination to keep certain hold of the promise of the moment between them, shone in his eyes. She held them with her own for a long moment, then pulled her gaze from a face that would have been very much at home

among the legends of that book. "She always seemed able to sweep us away into those

fairy lands full of heroes and great deeds and noble hearts."

Vincent took in the shining memories playing across his wife's face. He'd always known her to be a no-nonsense, down to earth person, rooted in present reality. But her heart had always been alight with childlike wonder and hope, he knew, a beguiling gift she was courageous enough to want to share with him.

He took hold of her hand in his, then. "It would be a great joy for me to go on such a mythic journey with you and Jacob at my side, Diana. Thank you."

She was at a loss for any other words. A journey at his side: They'd certainly found themselves enmeshed in one that had taken on the trials and setbacks of those mythic epics of old. Their first steps on that journey had been so hesitant, fearful, tinged with pain and guilt.

Three years had passed and there had still been just as much hesitancy threatening, clouding the hope between them, even only a moment ago. Would they still need to begin a life together with that uncertainty hanging over them like a lingering pall?

She had made him a promise -- whatever limits he felt were necessary.

To be at his side, for the rest of her life, she had conceded him even that, never dreaming that they'd have to face up to its reality this night. But, Diana could not keep her heart from hoping. The tenderness he'd offered her throughout the day, so bravely and openly offered her, had been unshadowed by fear, and only brightened with gentle expectation.

Vincent had always been so sure of his way, so secure of his convictions of himself, even when they offered him only a bleak reality of loneliness and pain. Now, he seemed anything but certain that such a reality was meant to be his only fate.

The right decisions made at the right moment . . . The threads of destiny woven and interwoven . . .

. . . She handed her husband the small jewelry box as well, praying that she'd made the right decision, one she'd agonized over for days.

"This is something for you, yourself, Vincent."

Holding her eyes with powerful emotion, Vincent then looked down at the little box and opened it carefully. The gleam of gold met his gaze.

"A wedding band."

Uncertain as to whether she'd heard his voice catch an instant with his words, Diana proceeded headlong with her convictions, nevertheless. She had to. For both their sakes.

"I wasn't sure how you'd feel about it, so I didn't consider exchanging it with you at the ceremony." She kept her eyes on the simple band, catching the light of the candles in the room around them. "But, I would really like you just to have it. It was my father's."

The hesitant, hopeful green eyes that pleaded gently with him caught at Vincent's heart. She was trying so fervantly to handle the insane situation they'd placed themselves in with healing acceptance. How could he fault her her hope? Her trust was unshakeable. He'd prayed earlier that he could find the strength to accept that trust. Perhaps, his heart now told him with perfect conviction, that strength was to be found only within that pleading love. All of it.

"Thank you," came the quiet acknowledgement that he fought to keep from faltering.

"It is a lovely gift, Diana. I will treasure it."

Still not quite certain she'd made him aware of her intentions with her gift, Diana found the words that echoed her heart.

"My father had three pieces of jewelry he was willing to wear: His St. Michael's medal, the topaz ring my mother gave him on their first wedding anniversary, and this wedding band.

"When he died, Mom didn't have the heart to bury them with him. She gave the medal to my sister, and the rings to me."

. . . Give it to the man you love as no other, Di Di, her mother had said about the wedding band. It had been locked away in her jewelry box ever since. She had never even considered giving it to anyone before last week. No one she'd ever opened her heart to seemed equal to that description. Until she'd found herself looking into azure eyes that touched her very soul.

Gently picking the ring up, Vincent gazed at Diana directly with the same indecipherable mix of emotion she had read within him when they'd first walked into their chamber together. He took a steadying breath.

"A ring is a beautiful symbol of committed love," he said softly.

Diana looked down at her own hand, now graced with the ancient Celtic symbol for love -- two hands holding one heart. How totally like Vincent to have made even her own wedding band into a special gift. Her own gift carried symbolism, too: the reality of a life-long love of deeply earthly humanity, unlike any other. She took heart and continued her thought to him.

"Mom told me once that one of the most beautiful things she'd ever seen was the sight of my father's hand, wearing that ring, and resting on her the day they got married. She said it always gave her a quiet, constant, powerful reminder of his love."

"Your mother was very wise."

A lump began forming in Diana's throat. She wasn't certain if it was from tears ready to fall, or hopes ready to soar.

"You, you don't have to . . . wear it . . . Vincent. I only wanted to give it to you to have, to share . . . its meaning . . . with you."

Vincent felt his earlier turmoil melt away at Diana's unsteady words. She was attempting so plainly to offer him all of her heart, to share with him her convictions, but she was stumbling up against the doubts that had haunted him for most of his life, doubts that even now were making themselves known, taunting his hopes with the stark reality of truth: A wedding band was meant for a -- human -- hand.

But, he would not give in to the fear or shame. Not this time. Diana deserved more. They deserved more.

"I would be honored to wear it." The words were his embracing hope for the promise of this night, and he prayed heaven again to see them through it.

Diana couldn't really believe she'd heard him say what she had, stunned that her instincts had proven so right about her decision. Yet, she was still so willing to temper her needs, diminish her expectations, for his sake.

He could read it in her lovely face, flushed with color, that radiated grateful, loving relief at the same time she would still allow him his limits with a generous spirit.

"There's a chain, there, under the batting, so you can just put it on, around your neck, "

she continued in breathless explanation, wondering at what sort of presence of mind had urged her to include such an option with her gift. "It can go under your shirt . . . so it doesn't have to show."

Her eyes, though, were not following in the instructions she was offering him. They were calling out to him, willing him to see what she saw between them -- a husband's loving hand resting upon her, blessed by the encircling brilliance of a golden band.

He would answer that unvoiced plea.

Vincent simply reached over to her hand, and gently dropped the ring into her palm. Then he held his own hand out to her steadily, that indescribable, deadly, tender hand, and awaited her intervention so that it might feel totally human for the barest instant of his life.

"I would be honored to wear your father's wedding band as my own, Diana, as it should be worn, on my hand, so that you may see it, so all may know my commitment to you."

A tear pulled free from her luminesce eyes before she could stop it, slipping down her cheek still blushing from her agitated spirit. Then, Diana gently took her husband's hand in hers, and slipped the golden ring past talons, over soft auburn fur, to rest on his finger.

Without even having to think about the words, she repeated the vows Vincent had earlier pledged to her. "Accept this circle of gold as a tangible symbol of my unending devotion, from this day forth."

He kissed her, then, affirming the gift of acceptance she had so lovingly offered him. The tenderness became a wellspring that flooded their beings, urging their searching hearts into the night's promise and uncertainty with equal courage.

That searching was instantly an act of undeniable, intertwining need, the gentle kiss deepening between them into waves of long-imprisoned emotion that took on a will of their own, a will that would not be deterred. It was strong, and sweet, and heated with a passion that was both bewitchingly hesitant and scorchingly real.

Despite his best efforts to believe otherwise, Vincent confessed to himself, with a startling honesty, the compelling need that burned to the depths of his soul, unshackled with that kiss, the need to carry Diana into the deepest recesses of his love for her, offer her the same willing, affirming, completing acceptance of her treasured devotion to him.

He knew it as certainly as he knew his own state of spirit at that instant: They could not subject their hearts to any further arbitrary limits agreed to in turmoil and fear. Their bodies had known the truth, all along, understood the flashpoint of reality they'd touched to in the simple exchange of sweetly heated lips: Those experiences were from a former life, an existence that seemed light years away to him now, an existence that would deny his humanity and shroud him in darkness all his days, beyond the reach of her tender mercy.

The trusting want being offered him silently, from the depths of green eyes shining, a revelation of all a heart's love, could indeed be his. Diana believed it. She'd pledged herself, body and soul, to it, before the entire community that afternoon.

They were married, joined as husband and wife, committing themselves to each other's desires as well as dreams. The specters of pain, blood, and inhumanity were not to be a phantom curse darkening their lives ever again. He needed only to trust in their love, trust, and believe.

Yet, there was still so much simple, stifling fear to get past, fear, doubt, and shame, that had been unwanted companions to his perception of himself for far too long. Fear that an amber-haired fairy could lead him beyond, if he let her.

He gave that bright spirit permission to work her wonder.

Diana blessed heaven as she let herself drift, at last, within the power of their liberated emotions. Suddenly, where they had only always disguised physical tenderness in guilt and uncertainty, they found themselves freely together now, embracing, touching, kissing, in an intimacy of bonded spirits not even her most fevered, ruthlessly dispatched dreams had been able to hint at. His strong arms around her felt so right, so welcoming; the heady sweetness of his innocent, just beyond chaste passion, the swirl of emotion encompassing them, magnifying itself with every shared breath, every hesitant, hungry, not to be denied touch . . . She would do anything to keep him believing in his humanity as he was in that instant, gifting them both with the astonishing truth of what they could share.

The fabric of their married love would be woven tonight, thread by breathtaking thread.

Such an intricate pattern of destinies embraced would require continued patience, she knew, even as her senses melted into one another at his mere touch, but she trusted that they could find within their spirits, an eye capable of envisioning all the beauty possible, all the exquisite detail each single thread of their physical love would contribute to the whole of their lives entwined.

Yet, even within the growing flood of their desire, even amidst the heartstopping, yearning that finally dared reveal itself to her within a spirit long ravaged by terror, Diana could detect still, with her powerful intuition, the hesitation capable of manifesting itself in her husband's soul: He would never allow his newly unburdened passion for her complete freedom because he still feared the harm he could touch to her in a moment rife with desire.

So, instead of feeding the reality of their combustible need with a volatile mix of reckless abandon, Diana chose to gently tend the flames with a carefully patient hand, knowing that a fire's embers, though less threatening, could still comfort and warm.

It would be the only way Vincent could accept the complete promise of the night, she knew, without mistrusting his own so beautiful, and aching, sensuality.

Withdrawing herself shakily from her husband's unexpectedly possessive embrace, she held his eyes lovingly for a long moment, reading the uncertain turmoil at her sudden restraint mixing with the dusky intimacy of searing need he fought visibly to keep from her.

Before he could retreat within the undeserved shame she knew would assail him in an instant, she sought to gentle the heat passing between them, praying that her pounding heart could find some semblance of rhythm. She let herself delicately trace the beloved features of his face with a cool, tender hand -- the upswept brows, the sculpted cheekbones, the cleft lips at once foreign and so beguiling, attempting to still her own need as much as reassuring his. The evidence she was in no way rejecting his unfamiliar passion lit a grateful wonder across his face, astonished that he'd not reduced them both to bloody hell with his touch.

With a gentle confidence she didn't believe she could possess at that instant, Diana walked over to the dressing table halfway across the room from where they now stood, offering him the freedom to follow, urging him to keep hold of his hope. She believed she knew exactly what it was she could offer Vincent at the moment, an intimate gift of herself that he would be capable of accepting without turmoil.

Leaning momentarily against the venerable old vanity to gather her courage, when all she wished to do was to dissolve within his embrace, her hand moved over the antique brush. She picked it up. Turning, then, to the man she ached to be loved by with every fiber of her being, she quietly asked, "Would you, help me, with my hair?"

The words were a shade less controlled than she expected them to be, her heart still pounding, the taste of his lips on hers, craving to be renewed. She seated herself, rather unsurely, on the small bench before the dressing table, without awaiting Vincent's reply, watching his reflection in the mirror, the rush of her pulse in her ears.

Her husband battled his doubts still, visibly, for a long minute, and then miraculously approached her. But his manner was so guarded, slow, and almost in . . . fear. So different from the quiet confidence of only a moment ago.

Suddenly, a thread of truth wrapped itself around Diana's thoughts beyond even the insistant need of her own aching humanity. She continued to watch Vincent make his hesitatant way to her, over what seemed like an interminable distance instead of a few feet.

It was then that Diana understood, with anguish, what force of doubt he was so reluctant to confront: Their two figures reflected together in the mirror of the old vanity.

There had never been a mirror in that chamber before that night, she realized with a pang of regretful comprehension.

Swallowing hard, she breathed a silent prayer for direction. Would there be no end to the chaos between them? Here she had hoped to guide their love gently and carefully to the consumation and completion that both she and Vincent longed for, and instead, she was now unexpectedly guilty of inflaming those very fears still hovering between them, with ready, suffocating pain.

For an instant, Vincent stood behind her without moving, holding the picture of the two of them, so near each other, with a thundering, disquiet heart. Diana could read the agony in his face so clearly, understand with a startling focus the reason why she'd never seen a mirror in that chamber before.

It wasn't that Vincent was ashamed to see himself reflected within that room. His depth of spirit had always given him the strength and courage to accept who he was. That was not the source of his anguish.

The pain was in the reflected differences between them, that came to him in that mirror, the physical realities that set him apart from the rest of humanity, from his community, set him sorely, everlastingly, apart from . . . her.

She had to lead him past those hardly important details of nature which he always considered so -- bestial -- and devoid of worth, to the reality of his own true beauty, to what she saw in him, loved in him, as in no other, both body, and soul.

He ached with the need to be so lead.

With a visible effort to quell the turmoil mounting within him -- an explosive melding of need, desire, shame, and guilt-riddled pain, Vincent struggled to reach out to her offered hopes.

How could she ever even think of gifting him with herself, as he was? How could she look at him, and see only the love? Yet, his heart yearned to believe. And somehow, through some unknown mercy of heaven itself, he let himself find the courage to believe.

Reaching down, shakily, to Diana seated before him, he gently, tenderly set his hands onto a relatively benign sanctity: the halo of flowers still crowning her beautiful hair.

Roses and rosemary . . . love and remembrance. Could tonight possibly be a night of love they'd both remember for its healing promise? Or for its murderous pain?

With a careful, suddenly confident touch, he gracefully lifted the wreath from off the braided hair and laid it down on the dresser before them. A small silver comb came next, one he was gently startled to find he recognized as Mary's. Then he slowly untied the satin ribbon holding the end of her braid and blessedly began to unplait her hair, as if it were the most familiar thing for him to do for her.

Diana managed to take in one audibly gasping breath, before her heart stopped completely at his courage.

The tendrils of amber locks wrapped themselves beguilingly around his hands as he quietly worked to free them from their intricate braiding, having to actually rake his fingertips through her hair because it was closely knotted to her head.

It felt like silk across his work-roughened palms, soothing, sensual. The play of candlelight through the golden highlights of the russet hair held him transfixed. There were so many different shades of brightness that colored the locks, burnishing them. Slipping his fingers through that treasured cascade, he set it, and his heart, free. When the hair lay completely liberated across her shoulders, it looked like a brilliant flow of candleflame itself, echoing his own state of heart.

Reflected in the mirror, Vincent caught sight of the visible heaving of Diana's breast, as she struggled to steady her breathing. The collision of her emotions within him was startling. Yet, she sat before him silently, her eyes closed lightly, only a brushing of betraying color tinging her normally pale complexion and attesting to her clamoring heart. When she had been able to ease the cadence of her spirit, she opened her eyes and held his reflected ones with enticing clarity.

He reached over her shoulder to the brush she still held within her hand in response. Another mercy.

Their fingers touched, lingered, entwined, the innocent contact now a sudden surge of magnetism between them. Mirrored back to him, the tenderness those linked hands portrayed couldn't possibly be real. His figure welcomed behind her couldn't possibly be real. The sweet closeness she was calling him to, wordlessly, couldn't possibly be real.

Yet, there it was, reflected back to him, and within her heart in his. The truth of their love.

Holding fast to some unknown source of emotional and spiritual strength, Vincent set the heavy brush onto Diana's hair and ran it down through the amber locks in a smooth, slow motion. The movement, caught in the mirror, took his own breath away, sent a weakness through his limbs he'd never experienced before.

Diana seemed not even to be breathing at all, existing in that instant, only upon her own hope in the moment. A transcendent glow of sheer, uninhibited bliss gently swept over her face.

Vincent could hardly accept that the simple, gentle, gifting being shared between them could be the source of such rapidly deepening fulfillment. Yet, he knew it would always be so, because such tender closeness, just brushing her loosened hair, had been an intimate pleasure he'd only reached out for in his unaccepted dreams, one that could never be allowed his questionable humanity, one he never imagined could offer Diana such breathless completion of heart. But, it was there before his own eyes -- a tenderness he could offer her devoid of fear and guilt and pain.

He brushed her hair slowly another stroke. Then another. Each movement became a growing, familiar enticement, a tiny triumph of his spirit entwining itself more profoundly with hers. Could it be possible? Was she there, before him in reality, unafraid? Yes, and she was lovingly his. His bride. Waiting with exquisite anticipation for him to embrace all that he was, all of his humanity. With her.

The thought was overwhelming, suddenly terrifying. But, so right. She believed in it with all her heart -- they were nothing more than man and woman, husband and wife, this night. And they were nothing less.

Taking in a ragged breath to steady his soul, Vincent reached over Diana's shoulder again to set the brush back down onto the dresser. He was startled to feel her unconsciously leaning into him, her head coming back against his ribs, as the movement brought their bodies gently together It spoke to him of how long she'd yearned for such

. . . fulfillment.

Standing over her as he was, he suddenly felt the compelling ache, a real, physical ache, to hold her to him as she wished, hold her closer to him than their present positions afforded. He didn't question whether such an embrace was ever destined to be his or not. He simply came down on his knees behind her in a graceful movement, the fragrance of lavender from her hair sending a shiver of recognition through his powerful body.

He'd felt his senses reeling once before from the clean, light essence of the perfume in her hair, when he'd carried her away from his world after the flood. The same question that had formed in his mind then, manifesting itself only in guilty shame, came to him again now . . . Where else on her slender form did the innocent fragrance rest? But unlike the first time he'd asked himself, there was no disgrace or guilt in his heart at the thought. Only the need to find his answer.

Vincent slipped his fingers through her hair again, the languid play of it against his hand bewitching. As was the delicate expanse of skin across her shoulders visible here and there beneath the fall of amber he had loosed. Unbelievable, he knew where to find the answer to his question.

Following the gentle urging in Diana's reflected features, Vincent softly swept the hair back to one side, over her one shoulder, baring the other. The opalescent skin that came back fully into his sight was what he could bring himself to accept, what he ached to accept from her so willing, so precious body now. It was the source, too, of the enchanting fragrance that gently seeped into his intimate awareness of her.

Diana wasn't ready to believe she hadn't slipped into one of her tormentingly sweet dreams of past nights. The talons of his hands had inadvertantly skimmed over her shoulder as he'd swept her hair over it. The unexpected surge of heat that sensation coursed through her was instantaneous.

As were the tears threatening to fall at a further, heart-gifting sight: Her beloved gently brushing his hands, and those talons, deliberately, over her bare skin, in a beguiling exploration. It was almost too sweet to hold, that sight that came to her, the wedding band on his finger glinting from the soft light in the room as he fearlessly offered her his tender, cherishing touch. Her mother had been right, she thought: It was the most beautiful sight she could have ever hoped for in that instant.

Diana closed her eyes and melted into the mesmerizing sensation of her body coming alive beneath her husband's heartstopping devotion. His breath was suddenly warm and deep over her astonishingly compliant flesh, his lips moist and caressing, taking possession of her again at last.

Vincent would have never dreamed of reaching for such an intimate gift on his own, dismissing his own unfamiliar want as shameless and even threatening. But, from where he knelt behind Diana, the brocade wedding gown scooped across her back slightly, revealing her slim shoulders and an ivory expanse of skin that was incongruously teased with a few scattered freckles. It was a childlike detail of nature that lit a less than chaste response within his own flesh.

He couldn't will himself to ignore the sudden, insistent need he'd had to touch her there, kiss her there, across her back, her shoulders, so he did, with a sensitized possession that should have terrified him in the past at its physical power. But there was no terror, now, only the feeling of her tender flesh beneath his hands, a feeling that was beguiling, hypnotic, and miraculously manifesting itself from nowhere more fearful than Diana's desire melting into his own.

That fusion of desire became part of his essence now, as well, to hold, to touch, if he dared.

It didn't take more than a moment for the wonder-filled exploration he'd willingly forced himself into to ignite the flames within both their hearts like an unknown flashpoint. Vincent felt Diana's want wrap itself enticingly around his heart, felt his own passion catch fire, feeding off hers.

With exquisite awareness, he let his hand reach from her shoulder to her throat, trailing sensitized desire along it until he felt the pounding pulse at the hollow of her neck beneath his fingers. His own long hair skimmed over her shoulder. Drawing his hand back up her graceful neck, he stretched his thumb delicately behind her ear. Without hesitation, she turned her head a bit, inviting his lips to where his hand had braved, a soft gasping whimper drawn from her throat when he answered her plea, confirming the melting heat the intimacy had coursed into her heart.

The sound of her gifted desire echoed within his own, pulling Vincent's attention to seek out her eyes, so that he might read her need, convince himself that he was truly offering her what she yearned for.

The movement that drew him back to her reflected want, though, forced him to catch sight of more than only her trusting, urging, emerald eyes. Their entire posture came back to him in that mirror . . . and his heart snapped in two at what he saw, what he suddenly realized she'd been watching being played out before her eyes.

Stopping dead still instantly in his tenderness, Vincent felt the cruel reality of their positions pour over him with the power to drown him: While he had been only blessed by the sight, the sensation, of porcelain skin delicately, remarkably blushing with need at his touch, with his kisses, she'd been compelled to carry a different image from the moment --

that of an unearthly hand running deadly talons over her so vulnerable flesh, a hardly-human mouth desecrating the angelic beauty of her body.

He had sought to love her, ached to love her, and all she'd been given was a picture of tainted, forbidding threat.

As they stood now, he took in with a shuddering spirit, their embracing pose of what should have been finally liberated consumation, would have been judged -- blasphemous, hellishly ominous even -- by souls unwilling to see only through the eyes of love. He'd been experiencing only gifting acceptance while she'd been enduring only profaning inhumanity.

Vincent turned away from the haunting image, pulled his hands off her flesh with a condemning shudder, turning his taloned fingers into fists so tightly clenched that he came close to drawing his own blood. Through some mercy he did not deserve, it had not been Diana's.

She felt a knot of aching disbelief, instead of a welcome blaze of passion, choking away her breath, as it had that night in her apartment when she'd almost lost herself in the nightmares of her work. Vincent had reached out physically to her too, that night, let her see for the first time, the depth of his longing need to make her one with him. They'd touched to a tender moment of completion that had quickly taken on the sweeping heat of a wildfire, but it wasn't to be then, either. Vincent had withdrawn his humanity from her in heartbreaking terror, always the terror, of causing her pain.

She'd believed this night that they could gently walk past the fears, somehow, encouraged by the truth of their love, sustained by the knowledge that they could reach each other's spirits for support no matter what the burden. Their love would create, not devastate, the reality of their joined souls.

But, this was a burden Diana suddenly realized she would not be able to lift from him alone. It was too heavy, he'd carried it for too long, its constant, grinding weight crushing his strength of hope to dust.

Her fearless honesty turned its judgment now to her own part in the pain that was rapidly threatening to drown them: She'd been selfish, wrong, determined to seeing only through the eyes of her own needs and beliefs. And this time, she could have very well cost them their love completely because of it.

They'd stepped beyond their self-imposed limits of hope, and hell had loomed so large because of it.

Vincent's inner truth was berating him as well. How could he have let her believe they could touch to such communion and remain unthreatened by the darknesses he'd been cursed by? Such tender mercies could never be his, and not even a public vow and a golden band could change that damning reality.

His soul ached at the pain he would yet now subject her fragile heart to, for the hellish realities that would always keep them apart. How could he have hoped, let her hope? The tender need in her eyes was for a husband's love. That blessed welcome, that hopeful, aching desire would change to terror in a matter of moments, he knew, when she was forced to face the reality of the lie he was.

Distance . . . boundaries . . . limits . . . he had to wrap his heart, their hearts, in them again. For Diana's sake. She had given him a promise -- whatever limits necessary.

How could he have believed such an impossible agreement could truly have protected them? How could they have possibly shared in one another's hearts, souls and minds, and yet denied each other's need for the physical expression of that love? For, that was what they'd believed possible.

He'd offered her a lie he didn't believe in himself, and he'd broken her heart with the truth she could hardly accept.

Suddenly in desperate need of time -- and distance -- to regain control of his heart, Vincent finally found his voice, the courage to set her back into a safe instant of, nevertheless, tormenting, denial. Yet, he still could not bring himself to shatter her soul with the truth.

In a faltering whisper, his conviction deserting him, he merely asked, "Do you . . .

would you . . .like a few moments . . . alone?"

She turned to him slowly, to face him, and all he could see was the shattering grief in her eyes, the gaping wound in her spirit his words had inflicted upon her. But he would even break her heart if it would keep her safe.

Diana fought the cold that gripped her. She understood what he could not say in his seemingly courteous inquiry of her needs. Her indescipherable ability to place herself within another soul's experiences made it possible for her to realize Vincent's renewed struggle against the demons that had forever darkened his existence. And she realized her own quickly faltering struggle to hold on to her hopes.

She would give him his limits.

If that was what her heart would need condemn itself to, even on this night, she would accept the sentence, if only to remain close. But her determination to keep her yearning heart in check couldn't even keep her voice at a reasonably audible level. A shuddered whisper, so close to revealing tears, simply responded. "Yes. . . thank you."

Vincent would have reached his hand to her face at that instant, to wipe the first of those tears from her cheek. God, why did she have to be so accepting! he raged within himself, realizing that the shackles he'd need place on their love would bind her spirit as well, turning it into a hollow shell of itself. He would have gathered her in strong arms to shelter her in her pain, find the words, the sanity, that would walk them through yet one more incidence of denial.

Yet, he didn't dare even reach such a comfort out to her now, because he had read the true state of her heart in those green eyes that would haunt him with her desolation: One more bare instant with him near her in detached refusal would have ripped her soul to shreds.

Without uttering another word, Vincent came unsteadily to his feet, towering over Diana's bent form. Heaven help him, but all he wished to do at that moment was to sweep her into his arms, hold her hard against him, and drown in the reality of her love. But before he could damn them both to hell with his faltering control, he swept out the chamber doorway. In the corridor beyond, he fell against the wall, his own spirit in confused anguish, tears of searing pain flowing freely down his cheeks, Diana's agony filling his heart.

Concluded in Chapter 25