To Hope Anew

Chapter Twenty-Five


The angels in heaven themselves must have been shedding tears with the two shattered souls struggling to make sense of a hopelessly bewildering, horrifically painful maze of circumstances that would yet assault their fragile spirits:

 

Damn you, Catherine! Diana swore silently. Didn't you see what you were doing to him? There was no sense of justification or fairness to be found within Diana's heart now, where the murdered woman was concerned, as she realized the terror that had been planted within her beloved's spirit as a youngster had only been reinforced by his devastating experiences as Catherine's protector.

Had he not been forced to shed blood, again and again, to keep Catherine safe, Vincent would never have found himself doubting his very humanity with Diana now. It was no longer simple, profound grief keeping them apart, she knew. It was the horror that Vincent had plunged himself within time and again to prove his love for Catherine.

And this night, when he'd dared touch to the true, total humanity of his spirit, eager to begin a new life, with a new, valid love, in quiet, gifting . . . sanity . . . he'd only seen himself reaching threat and violence out to his own bride, never once believing completely that he was incapable of murdering her with his touch.

Diana threw her head back and closed her tear-drowned eyes against the pain, the injustice of it all. She knew what Vincent had seen in their reflection together -- the peril of darkness consuming her. But she'd seen only her husband's love, finally freed to entwine itself with her own, in all its wonder: emotional, spiritual, and physical. There had been only the most exquisite exchange of trust and the most cherishing of acknowledging devotion shared between them.

How in God's name was she ever going to be able to get him to understand, to believe?

She'd long been far from a virgin, having had to settle too often for mere shadows of commitment, that evaporated at the slightest hint of truly trusting intimacy in her life. Yet, the tenderness that Vincent had offered her, the sweet, wonderfilled, open sensuality of an untainted heart, had made her feel like a chaste innocent herself, on the breathless brink of her very soul's completion.

He was every dream she'd ever let her heart conjure, all that was good and nurturing and sheltering; truthful, tender, powerful in his convictions, capable of loving from the depths of his soul to the very last breath of his existence. And loving him, being loved by him, becoming love with him, was the only reality of heaven's mercy in her own bleak and painful life.

It was a long five minutes before Diana could trust herself to stand up away from the vanity. She was trembling violently with a rush of emotions that were battling within her -- despair, pain, battered hope, and even now, the still-scorching memory of losing herself to his beautiful, aching tenderness.

She knew full well that Vincent's inner battle, at the moment, was more fierce than her own, a battle whose reality he couldn't bring himself to subject her to, even if she would have somehow, some way, managed to help him find his path safely through it. Diana was merely struggling with the reality of her heart's desire finally coming true -- or not. He was battling for his very humanity, his own sense of worth.

What Vincent had feared all along between them had suddenly come to pass: That they could no more deny each other their physical expressions of love than they could deny each other the air they needed to breathe. Still, his terror of causing her pain because of that reality, the reflection of blood and rage that had so viciously taken hold of his perception of himself, would now cost them both their hope and fulfillment in every other facet of their lives together.

But not if she could help it.

Diana wiped the still falling tears from her eyes with trembling hands. The claddagh on her finger gleamed, seemingly with a light of its own: Two hands holding one heart. She was completely willing to shoulder her loving burden of carrying that heart once and for all beyond its fears. She simply needed to somehow convince Vincent he had the strength to take up his own share of the weight.

Their love had another purpose beyond the union of two kindred souls in search of peace and fulfillment within each other. Diana was unshakeably persuaded of it now, even more so than ever before. This was not at all only about sexual love between a husband and wife. She knew that embracing the physical expressions of their devotion to one another would be the very instrument of Vincent's redemption of his sense of self, his ultimate triumph over the uncertain conviction of his humanity.

He needed to believe himself freed of the dark spectors of the past; he needed to know, to feel, to see, that passion could exist apart from instinctive, protective rage. With the conviction of her own heart, she would need to guide him into that belief completely. There could be no acceptance of "otherness", of differences that meant nothing to the spirit and soul. There could be nothing less for them this night than the very consumation of their hopes.

Finally calmed enough to trust her judgment, Diana looked to her side in the candlelit room, to where a sweetly romantic bridal bed awaited them. A creamy linen gown was carefully laid out there. Gently, she lifted the night dress from the sheets.

That single movement, returning her towards the promise that had begun the night for them, blessed Diana with the solace she desperately sought.

She brought the gown up to herself with cherished acceptance. It was as modest a wedding night garment as anyone could ever have imagined -- simple, heavy, long-sleeved, and hopelessly old-fashioned. So much of this world, Vincent's world, and not the one Above. It was a gown of simple devotion, bright with innocent beauty and gently shielded promise, mirroring what could be theirs tonight -- a love embracing honesty of spirit and tender hope of heart. A love that called her husband to the ultimate reaches of his humanity, past the fears and pain.

Carefully, Diana set the gown back down onto the bed, then reached behind her to unzip her wedding dress, easing it assuredly from off her shoulders. She placed it onto the bench of the vanity, then drew the linen gown effortlessly over her slim form. The cool, crisp feeling of the simple fabric against her skin somehow offered comfort amidst the maelstrom of emotions assaulting her. It was like the caress of a lover's hand.

With growing conviction, Diana decided that Vincent had left her with the very opportunity she needed to draw him to their need. Even though she'd felt the agony blazing in his heart as he'd torn himself from her, he hadn't completely banished himself from the promise. There had been no voiced hopelessness, no visible retreat into despair. He had simply offered her a few moments to herself, even though she knew the gentle gift of modest preparation was only an uncharacteristic, distracting ruse attempting to conceal from her his terrors of the moment.

Well, she'd take him up on his offer, and she'd let the promising reality of the instant be reclaimed by both their hearts.

The Celtic steel within her spirit would not be denied this time. The fates had crossed their paths once too often with their brutal capriciousness. It was time to let the reality of love work its wonders and find its way to two hearts that were destined to be one. Knowing that she could no longer leave Vincent to his terrors alone, Diana swallowed hard and whispered a prayer for guidance.

At last she knew what was necessary: She simply let herself become a chaste bride, anticipating her husband's return to her, touching to the impending completion between them once again..

Once her mind was set to her course of action, she poured some water into the basin on the vanity. She was startled to realize that it was warm, and fragrant. Someone had obviously filled the pitcher just before she and Vincent had arrived, just as someone had lit the many candles, placed the flowers in their containers, and turned down the bed. All had been done with simple, urging acceptance of what should transpire in that chamber this night. Through the last of her tears, she smiled at the thought of her guardian angel, a greying-haired romantic who still believed in the power of love.

Diana splashed the comforting water onto her face, knowing it would relieve some of the traces of her tears. The color came back into her cheeks. She reached down to the nearest pillow on the bed and picked up the rose that had been left there. Inhaling deeply of the earthy perfume, she let her spirit fill itself again with the aching sweetness that had been offered to her, for an instant, without fear or doubt.

It gave her the momentary courage to softly call out Vincent's name, though all rationality would have her fully expecting him to have disappeared into the night, as a phantom of her imagination, an unearthly force of nature from her grandmother's book.

He was neither, though, she knew.

Diana let the truth steady her besieged heart -- what Vincent was, who Vincent was, was the love of her life. The completion of her soul. The man she loved as her husband.

 

The soft sound of Diana's voice barely pulled Vincent from the torment that had materialized before him in that corridor in those short moments away from her. Anguish and doubt had washed over him like a flood, and every breath of fear and pain he'd experienced because he'd ever dared to love swept over him with a suffocating blackness:

He was fifteen, and frantic, terrified at the sight of blood on his hands, Lisa's blood. The look of horror on her face burned into his heart. The pain and dread reality of that moment, and all it had meant, had almost cost him his very self. Its memory had colored even his expressions of love for Catherine years later.

Not even that blessed, radiant heart had been spared the effects of the terror:

He was holding Catherine, grief-stricken at the loss of her father, aching to comfort her somehow, aching to answer the pleading need for his presence, his love, in her eyes. He'd let her cry herself to sleep in his arms, offered her at least that bare instant of comfort, when all he'd longed to do was kiss away her tears, carry her battered spirit away to a sheltering communion of their souls.

Yet, such mercy was beyond his ability to offer her without leaving the way open for the dark essences buried within him to break free. He could only put her at risk, the shadows of uncontrolled passion and rage looming ever larger with each breath of denial they'd dared move past in their love. He could never love her as she deserved.

Not even when she had been asleep had he trusted himself to offer her a single instance of shared communion, to touch a kiss to her lips in comforting support.

He'd only taken that chance months later, when he had knelt before her lifeless body.

Certain he could do her no more harm, he had allowed himself the sweet agony of kissing Catherine goodbye.

But now, there was Diana's soft voice calling to him.

The angel that had helped him save his soul, that had eased him back from the depths of desperation with patience and truth and love. A stubborn love, that believed, ached, and asked absolutely, remarkably, nothing but love in return, believed in its return. A love that was deep enough, generous enough, to embrace a child not even her own. A love that would give up her home, her whole world, for a chance at a new life, with him.

A love profound enough to dare him to love himself . . . Diana.

Her gentle voice carried truth in its quietly hesitant tones, called him to promise and wonder and possibility. They'd touched it this night, let themselves be swept up into it all. She believed he could leave the dark past behind.

She deserved to believe.

He'd given Lisa only terror and her own blood.

He'd given Catherine only the blood of those who would threaten her, harm her.

He'd give Diana only her own heart -- treasured, sheltered, within his love. Their love. Body and soul. He'd find the courage, somehow, making her hopes his own again.

"God help us," Vincent whispered to himself as he pulled away from the stone wall supporting him.

What met his eyes when he came back through the doorway of his chamber, was the blessed answer to his prayer.

Diana stood before him, a vision in white once again, in a fine linen gown that draped softly around her body. When he'd caught sight, earlier, of that gown resting, expectantly, on the bed, he'd felt a momentary astonishment draw heat through his form, at the thought of Diana's willowy frame sheltered beneath it. It was so terrifyingly obvious that the fates, and whomever was working as their herald in the chamber tonight, took it as truth that a wedding night's sharing was to be the only certainty left to embrace between Diana and himself.

Hadn't he taken hold of the very same revelation of truth? Hadn't he gone out of his way to assure that he and Diana would be left free to accept all the promise of love tonight? When she had faltered this morning, he had urged her to see what was possible between them and not what was denied. Why should he be so amazed now that she'd taken up her hope again?

There was the tenderest, most tremulous breath of a smile on her face as she set the rose that had been resting on the pillow onto the vanity beside her. She turned back to him, then, wordlessly before him, in complete, total, profound trust. Offering him peace with only the truth of her heart, and her desire, as her terms of surrender. The tender passion she radiated was as soft and red-petalled as the flower she'd just held, and as beautiful.

Vincent recognized the vision that she was now -- the amber-haired angel of Jacob's fable from that Winterfest night so long ago -- mind full of wonder, soul full of courage, heart full of unquestioning love.

He knew, suddenly, he could hold fast to his humanity in that love, that she would be willing to risk anything, everything for that love. And that there was no longer any need to believe there even was risk between them. Her courage wrapped itself around his spirit as completely as her need, freeing him from the lie that had nearly consumed him..

Vincent could not take his eyes off her, could not help but feel his own need propelling itself, with certainty of conviction, into her beguiling reality. Dressed as she had been in her wedding gown, with her burnished hair crowned by flowers, she had appeared every bit the fairy spirit of her beloved childhood myths -- a regal force of nature itself.

Now, in the simple gown flowing about her, her hair loosed upon her shoulders, surrounded by candleflame and her own aura of promising comfort, she had totally become that redeeming angel -- supportive, affirming, selfless. Yet, she was also, somehow, fragile, and . . . vulnerable . . . offering peace at the same time aching for it herself . . . in his arms.

"You look like heaven's light," Vincent whispered, every particle of his being yearning to touch to hers.

Diana's heart leapt at the gifting words. She knew she didn't need to fear losing him to his pain again. She'd been ready to battle him once more for his faltering hope, and, again, he'd simply astounded her with his courage to trust her beliefs.

Taking a step closer to her husband, her husband, for that was who stood before her now, Diana's eyes shimmered with gentle, grateful radiance. She reached her hand up to his chest, resting it there lightly.

Vincent had to turn his head from her, to catch his breath at her poignant expectation.

When he found his voice, he said quietly, "I'll put out the candles."

Yet, when he turned away from her, he felt Diana's hand slip from his chest down to his arm, holding it, and him. He turned his gaze back to her, questioningly, his heart racing.

"You don't have to do that for me, Vincent," she replied with quiet conviction.

A sudden lump in his throat caught Vincent's breathing, as he read the meaning of her words in the deep emerald pools of her eyes. That meaning was nothing short of incredible to him.

"You would gaze on me in the light?"

For a long moment, Diana held his soul-searching eyes, reading the sudden confusion, and shame, even now, in them. He was fearful for her still, she knew, despairing of the fact that she would have to see him as no other woman he'd loved ever had, perhaps not even Catherine; see for certain in the truth-revealing light what she had dared given her heart to. The darkness, the shadows he'd always been forced to embrace, would have spared her from a truth he could still find pain within.

But, their love was not a thing of darkness and shadows.

Instinctively, her heart acutely atuned to the rising turmoil in his, Diana found what she needed to do to help him heal himself finally. She reached a trembling hand up to the leather laces on Vincent's doublet, untying the first. The beating of his heart, its confused rhythm, was echoing hers.

She expected what happened next: Her husband's hand quickly caught hers, stopping her continued determination in mid-movement. His words were incredulous, unbelieving, but with a strain of startled hope that nearly broke her heart. "How can you want to look upon me? How can you be so willing to give yourself to me?"

Diana knew the next instant would be the moment that would either help him free himself totally of his pain or drive him completely within it beyond survival. As she always found herself doing in the past, she held out to him the simple truth as her conviction, hope, and defense. In a quiet, pleading gasp, she whispered, "You're my husband, Vincent. I love you. And I know that you love me."

The tears had come up into Diana's eyes, shimmering, waiting to fall. How could she possibly convince him? His anguish would drown them both if he surrendered to it again. Their love would surely be lost, reduced to a shadow, if they continued to hold it hostage to fear past this night.

Vincent felt her hand trembling in his. His heart cried out to reach her.

What physical pain could he possibly cause her that could be any more wrenching than the heartache she was already feeling, had already been burdened by for months? What threat hovered about them still, beyond the limits he would yet set up around their love, limits thrown up around their hope, manufactured only by his own fears?

He had told Catherine once that she deserved a life without limits, a love without limits. But, Catherine had nobly, selflessly, accepted those boundaries, and kept them both safe.

Diana would not.

Because she understood with a comprehension born of anguishing experience, what those limits were doing to his soul.

Catherine had accepted his protection, their abbreviated hopes, the distant dreams they knew would never come to pass. She had dared to love.

Only Diana had dared him to love.

Having known nothing but pain, confusion, and denial between them, she had dared him to take hold of a yearning of heart that was so encompassing it could only be relieved by a fulfullment beyond limits, touch to a love that could only exist beyond limits.

Catherine dared to love.

Diana dared to be loved.

The courage and need of such pristine trust could be his only source of freedom. In her vulnerability, she would gift him with hope; in her shameless acceptance of the humanity of their need, she would lift him from the torment of doubt.

Vincent would never have dared reach for any comfort of heart for himself, wish for anything for himself, before he could be assured of easing Diana's pain, before he could find the courage to acknowledge how blessedly precious she was to him. He reached his hand to her luminesce face, gently pressing it to her cheek, cherishing her care.

Amazingly, it did not look so frightening to him just then, his hand, up against her skin. It was only a lover's hand, comforting a woman's pain, offering her a breath of solace and promise. Diana turned her face gratefully into it, brushing his palm softly with a sighed kiss. Then she covered his hand with her own, taking possession of his love.

He could bear the sweet ache no longer.

"Oh, Diana," he whispered, the words evidence of his total surrender.

Vincent slowly drew her close to him, then, enveloping her in his arms. For an instant, she wasn't even certain that it had all come to an end with his quiet exclamation, that it was all over -- the battle, the fears, the doubts. But the hopeful tenderness was back, sheltering her, cherishing her, through the possessive strength of his arms.

Diana looked up into her husband's face, into those azure eyes that had caught hold of her soul three long years ago. She'd known it even then, in the midst of desolation and grief and guilt: She would live to see the day that those eyes would hold her own with welcome, willing desire.

Yet, even with the wonder, tenderness, and gratitude he held her gaze, she could read, still, a wordless concern -- for her.

She reassured him even before he could say anything else, knowing now that it would only take a few of her encouraging words to direct him, help him believe.

"I'm not afraid."

The reassurance was offered him with such total resolution that it tore his soul free at last. Reading his regained hope, Diana then slipped her hand tenderly over his mouth, the barest light of her smile radiating over her face. And she gave herself to him completely in a kiss so sweet he couldn't imagine how he'd denied her hold on him for so long.

Tasting warm, remarkably urging lips, Vincent could only think of her. The world was composed solely of her, Diana, closely held in his arms, strong, hopeful, seeing within him the one truth he'd never had the courage to completely believe was part of his spirit -- the indescribable beauty of a loved one, of a heart and soul worthy to be cherished, of a body free to be shared -- a husband, companion, soulmate . . . lover. The need to acknowledge her faith, her trust in him was all that mattered.

Still, he yet hesitated to claim the hope, uncertain.

"I know . . . little . . . of love . . . Diana," Vincent confessed quietly, his eyes lowered in innocent shame.

Diana's heart skipped a beat at the tender poignancy of the words. Of course it was true, but in the turmoil ever present between them of late, the thought hadn't even occurred to her. She lifted his face up to hers gently, with a soft touch, as he had so often urged her to turn her honesty to him. Searching within the breathtaking, unique beauty of his face, she let her awareness move past the beguiling virility of his compelling presence, to read the untouched vulnerability beneath. The wonder of its revelation to her held fast to her heart.

Not even Catherine, she knew now for certain, had been able to give him such a gift. Those moments of consumated passion between them had been lost to him. And as much as Diana grieved for Vincent's pain because of it, she blessed heaven for the chance to create their own tender realities, unhaunted by the past.

The tide of achingly urging emotions rising within her, Diana kissed him again, gently at first, nearly chastely, as they had always shared their hesitant need. But ever so softly, she deepened the kiss between them, persuading him to follow her into the gifting of shared sensation. She felt him shudder at the intimate caress of her mouth within his,and his embrace about her tightened, then miraculously he eased his defensive hold on her and let his hands slip over her slim form in beguiling freedom.

When she was able to steady her heart again, that was pounding at Vincent's accepting wonder, Diana drew herself away from him long enough to actually turn emotion into a few coherent words. "What you've just offered me, Vincent, couldn't have been any more tender or beautiful. We have the love within us. We need only to listen to it with our hearts. And let our bodies follow."

The doubt in his eyes was no longer in the least shamed. It became, instead, the quiet uncertainty of inexperience, but an inexperience that was willing to learn.

Diana could have been given no greater treasure to hold in her heart. Oh my sweet wonder of a husband! she exclaimed to herself in silent, certain astonishment. What you could teach the world about love . . . !

Her quiet amazement was met only with Vincent's humble gratitude, as he offered himself up to her gentle guidance.

Reaching back up to his chest with still unsteady hands, Diana resumed unfastening the ties on his doublet with a firm patience she didn't believe herself capable of. Not at this moment. Vincent's eyes were fixed on her hands, the long, slender fingers, the marvel of having them eager and close upon himself.

In that wonder, he found the sudden confidence to slip his doublet off his shoulders when she was done, and set it onto the chair beside the table. One small miracle.

Yet, he couldn't quite find it within himself to remove his dress shirt in her sight.

Perhaps it was because his own hands were not as steady as he expected them to be, as he unfastened the buttons, or more so because he needed to regain his courage, which had slipped fearfully in the past two minutes; Vincent kept his back turned to Diana until he was able to ease the shirt completely off.

He could feel her gaze resting on him, in him, when he finally removed the garment from his shoulders. Defensively, he held tightly to it in his hand, suddenly unable to move towards Diana, frozen in uncertainty. He prayed that she would still have the courage to love him, now that he was nearly stripped of his every layer of denial.

Diana was praying at that instant too, as she fought hard to blink back the tears rising in her eyes again. Those tears came to her as she took in the sight of him, still humbly turned away from her; tears, not of pain or rejection, but of aching wonder. Her prayer was that she could will Vincent to see himself at last as she now was seeing him:

What he had shielded her from, what he had despaired of having her share in the light, was nothing more threatening, or alien, than a truly beautiful, beautiful, powerful, sensually sculpted man's body. There was no breath of shame in it. She'd never believed there could be. How could he have ever presumed otherwise?

Diana let her suddenly shivering heart be flooded with the discovery of him, knowing full well he had revealed more than just his body to her. He had opened his very soul to her in trusting humility. She let its wondrous reality sweep over her in a fulfilling cascade that bordered on ecstacy.

His golden red hair lay long and thick against the smooth power of his great, broad back, a fall of silk every bit as mesmerizing to her as she'd realized her own burnished locks had been to him. In the shimmering candlelight, it almost took on a color near to her own.

She reached out and brushed her hand over his hair, through it, with gentle awe, letting her fingers bury themselves within the heavy locks for a too-long denied possession. Vincent gasped, the shirt dropping from his hand. Diana realized that he had actually been holding his breath at her touch. His surrender to her tender exploration urged her to draw her attention even more intimately upon him.

A slender hand swept then beneath the golden hair, and out over the nape of his neck. She felt him lean into the caress. It gave her the courage to continue running her gentle touch across his olive-toned skin, stopping for an instant on a barely visible scar high on his left shoulder.

The small wound held her momentarily transfixed. She remembered it had been caused when Vincent had come after her in the flooded chamber of the cave-in. That had been so long ago, she felt, a dozen lifetimes ago, recalling even now feeling so cold and lost, so very much in pain. So willing to let herself die.

But, his blessed touch, the caressing sound of his voice calling out to her, had brought her back, drawn her from the brink. To him. Even if they had not been prepared to accept that undeniable fact then.

Diana never thought of fighting the need within her now: She kissed the scar tenderly, pained beyond endurance at the thought that he'd been wounded to keep her safe. The moist warmth of her searching, soft lips ignited a blaze of sensation at the spot.

Vincent fully believed he could die that instant from the tortuously sweet feelings overtaking him at Diana's devotion, feelings he needed, without question or hesitation, to reach back out to the incredible soul that was now his loving wife. But there was yet the shadow of doubt within his spirit. She was an angel . . . and he . . . .

. . . Still, the yearning he felt in her touch called to him, took his breath away.

Gathering his courage, Vincent forced himself to face his bride, awaiting her passing judgment with a heart unable to grasp totally the miracle of the moment.

At that show of poignant trust, Diana felt her own breath catch within her again, as she at last saw evidence of what she always believed was the truth -- that the beauty of her husband's body was no less than that of his spirit.

A lifetime of heavy, physical labor among the stone chambers of the Underground had molded his form with heartstopping care, that begged to be touched, despite, or perhaps because of, its virginal reality. His chest, rising and falling in his unsteady breathing, was muscled, taut, and broad, with very much a stoneworker's formidible proportions. Yet, the rock-hard power was visibly softened by an almost delicate brushing of auburn hair that curled over a majority of his skin enticingly.

The arms that had so often held her with compassionate tenderness that only was another face of love, were equally compelling in their revelation, with coiled steel strength visible in his slightest movement. Still, for all their raw power, it was easy to recognize how willingly they also could offer the promise of gentle support and enveloping comfort.

The only distinctive details revealed to Diana's breathless study of her love was the fact that his forearms were more abundantly blanketed by a coarser covering of amber hair -- the obvious reason he'd always worn his sleeves long. And his taloned fingertips, that somehow hinted only at tantalizing sensations that set her heart to racing with yearning want.

Diana's quiet awe came to its apparent conclusion easily, then, one she'd always known as truth even while it remained fearfully hidden: Vincent's total, virile, sensuality was not in the least threatening or -- inhuman. It was only overwhelmingly -- beautiful -- beyond words, in its untouched innocence.

But just as she was ready to hold that astonishing wonder to her, Diana's ingrained police training unexpectedly settled her awareness onto a reality of her husband's body that she was totally unprepared to find. That awareness nearly caused her heart to snap, for she had noticed more healed over scars across his flesh, and those were not small remains of accidental injury.

The scars were bullet wounds, she realized with keen pain of her own, not one wound, but, indeed . . .four. Her startled attention revealed one scar just below his left collarbone, and another lower than that, into the same shoulder. There was one more wound in his right shoulder, too.

Any of the injuries, she knew with a pang of cold-fingered fear, would have easily felled a less powerful man. A fourth jagged scar, just below his ribcage on the right side, she judged with a terrifying jolt, should have killed him.

Diana swallowed hard, wanting so to reach out protectively to the wounds as she had done to the small scratch he'd endured from the flood, but her heart could barely handle the reality of the circumstances that had probably caused such injury to touch him. Her mind settled itself squarely, once again, on what she'd been astounded to understand as the source of his continued terror of his very nature: His binding to Catherine and his continual immersion into control-shattering rage that binding called him to.

My God, Cathy! Diana cried out within her startled heart, how could you have subjected him to so much risk so often? How could you expect him to hold to his humanity when he had to keep following his heart to the madness you drew him to?

With every fiber of her being, Diana swore an oath that never again would the world's insanity reach down to him on her account. She would die first.

Diana let herself melt into the comfort of Vincent's arms then, without a hesitation, needed acutely to be held, praying that she could ever be sheltered thus, that she could ever shelter him thus, aching to find herself back within the gifting tenderness of his touch. Vincent softly kissed the top of her lowered head, aware of her suddenly turbulent and fiercely protective emotions, uncertain of their cause.

"What is it, Diana? What are you frightened of, my love?" he asked in quiet concern, running his hand over her hair.

She only held him tighter, her slender arms going around his formidible body as far as they could. One of the scars was just beneath her lips, as she rested her head to his chest. She softly touched a kiss to it now, a tear slipping from her emerald eyes kissing it as well.

"I couldn't live if I were to lose you, " she breathed from the depths of her soul.

Vincent understood then what had coursed throught her heart, and his own clamored at her selfless care. He held her as tightly to himself as she clung to him, both knowing the other as their very source of safety and solace. But Vincent knew that he was indeed the more gifted one of the two of them. His scars had threatened only his body. Diana's scars, the wounds she had borne because of denial and fear, had long threatened her every hope.

"We have only to gain, tonight, Diana. No one will be lost." His soft, reassuring words to her, when he'd been the one so much in need of conviction and hope this night, drew Diana from her momentary pain.

In an instant, the total promise reaching out to their spirits eased their souls again.

Vincent let himself drift once more within the heartstopping reality of having Diana pressed closely to him, the pull of holding her intimately against him urging their tender comfort to beyond simple sheltering care. The silken brushing of her hair over his untouched, bare skin had become like no other sensation he'd ever experienced, breathtaking in its gentle sensuality. He felt her shuddering heart slip into the feeling again as well.

What he was gaining this night, Vincent knew, with awesome gratitude, was the marvel of their love unburdened at last. It was the awakening of his every sense, of every fiber of his being, to the reality of Diana's nearness, and being unafraid to revel in that awakening. His hope, his wonder, his true, total, joy, could not be contained within his heart alone. He ached to make that treasured reality hers as well. What courage had it taken for her to bring him to that breathless point between them?

The same courage that she found to hold herself momentarily away from the tender comfort of his arms. With that strength, she could give him now the gift she had longed to hold out to him, the gift of her own self, her own body. She could offer it to him now without fear or hesitation, and know that he would welcome it with wonder. That peace, that trust, she could bring to him as no one else ever had. Only love would ever touch his body again . . . her love. Diana swore it to herself, to her husband in her heart.

She stood before him and slowly reached up to her own gown, unbuttoning the front of the crisp linen with a joy beyond description. She would give him everything he deserved, every expression of love she could offer. It would be nothing less than a precious treasure she'd be taking hold of for herself.

Vincent couldn't dare watch her work the tiny antique buttons free, see the porcelain skin begin to show where there had only been bright Irish linen, as Diana revealed the bewitching wonder of her tender body to him. He turned his gaze aside, as much from inborn modesty as from an overwhelming need to steady his heart, strengthen his shaking limbs.

She'd been willing to make him the same offering once before, he recalled with cherishing awe, when she had dared him to believe he could share with her a touch of passionate need without succumbing to his fears of darkness, without drawing blood. Then, he'd been so ready to lose himself in his desperation, believe the sublime gift of her sweet body beyond his acceptance. Even though he had burned to make her his.

But Diana didn't question now whose desire igniting within her heart was whose, or when it had actually dared to reveal itself. In that instant she had gone lifetimes.

Now, she surely knew that her natural and effortless actions had leapt from his receptive, errant heart to her fingertips -- the awestruck wonder in his crystal blue eyes was tinged with unmistakeable heat that struck her to the very marrow of her bones.

Yet, she knew his cautious tenderness would never claim her without her own acquiescence. Even that hesitation became a gift to her now.

Reaching down to Vincent's hand, she softly laid it onto the crisp white fabric she'd just unbuttoned, that now only barely sheltered her translucent flesh. She willed him to accept her trust . . . and his own need.

Vincent took in the sight for a long moment, afraid to breath, afraid even to move: his powerful, deadly hand on her ivory skin, as it had been that night, his taloned fingertips actually reaching beneath the unfastened front of the gown, near her throat.

For an instant, the cold fear that had haunted him gripped his heart, taunted his undisguised, growing desire -- A predator would seek out that so vulnerable point of her body, too.

He had told her that a touch in the heat of passion would be very different from the careful, controlled environment of limitation they'd been burdened, yet protected, by. With his heart racing to an unsteady cadence, linking itself to her own powerful, yearning need, how could he dare risk to touch her so intimately now? He could kill her in an instant.

"Let your heart trust, my love." Diana's soft words gave him the hope to believe: He was no predator. He was only the man she loved, his touch, the only reality she sought, without terror.

Holding to his courage, opening his spirit to hers within him, Vincent knew what it was he longed to do, what Diana was now pleading for him to do -- take possession of her body as her loving husband would.

With a beyond human hand trembling with emotion, he answered her plea.

Vincent slipped the bewitchingly demure gown free from her one shoulder. Then he slowly lowered his head to the soft tenderness of her skin and kissed her, brushing his cleft lips and unearthly hand across her throat and collarbone, renewing the slow, profound discovery of her that his terrors had denied him before.

That obvious return to the tenderness that had mesmerized them both, literally took Diana's breath away. She melted against him as she had been so ready to, gasping at the warmth of his breath on her skin, the gently suckling pressure of his unique mouth moist on her shoulder. The soft scraping of his bristled jaw and exquisite grazing of his nails over her skin heated her flesh to its very depths.

And then she felt the unexpected wetness of a tear, mingling with that devastating kiss.

Diana could hold her heart restrained no longer.

She ran her hands through his flowing silk hair, clasping him to her body for dear life itself, it seemed. Oh God, how cherished she felt! Yet she knew Vincent was only holding to the wonder of the gift he saw her as giving him, letting his tears fall at a treasuring that was so much more a marvel for her than any small mercy should could offer him.

Vincent could feel the pounding of Diana's heart beneath his ear. Her trailing, evocative touch, over flesh that had never known a woman's hand, immediately consumed any shred of restraint or hesitation they might have still clung to, in a mutually blazing fusion of need, wonder, and gifted love.

Reaching far beyond any experience of his own, Vincent parted her lips with his, taking possession of her mouth as he'd only dreamed of doing since that fateful, snowy evening when he'd nearly lost her to her work-incited horrors. They kissed instinctively, with a fevered, yet selfless, urgency, each wishing only to fulfill the other, to gift the other. Emotion and sensation fused into heat and warmth and discovery.

Hands traveled shivering, still not completely familiar, but beloved, bodies, as though the firestorm of desire building within each was a long-shared experience of intimate communion between them. Graceful curves fit perfectly against powerful angles. Breaths drawn were only essences shared. Lavender mixed freely with cedar and candlesmoke . . . and freedom. The modesty of white linen only molded itself between sensitized flesh.

Vincent let himself drown in the feeling of her, both of the tender body melting to liquid fire with his touch, and the trusting, aching, radiant spirit filling his own soul with hers. Their every sensation of each other was miraculously magnified back to them through their linked hearts, blending an incendiary mix of spirits with need and tender, selfless, welcome.

Having to read Diana's heart in her eyes, Vincent drew back from her a moment again, but this time, no haunting image of a dark threat met his gaze. He was only overwhelmed by the necessity of truly showing her how much he loved her, what it was she was actually giving him beyond the wonder of her precious body. Those emerald eyes of hers were pleading still, on the verge of tears still, as were his own. What was she calling him to? What could he possibly offer her in return?

Only what she quietly asked for. "Give me your want, my love."

He wavered a long instant in her arms at the whispered words, watching how her catching breath was setting her whole slender form to trembling. His inexperience may have caused him to question her enigmatic request, but his heart understood it in an instant, though he remained astonished at her honesty.

She was only asking him this: That he should give himself over to her with the same unbounded trust that she had offered herself to him; that he should free himself to accept her sublime hunger for him as easily as he was offering her an ecstatic, deepening fulfillment with just his barest breath of touch, his cautiously tender kisses.

She was only pleading for this: That he could let her give love, as well as receive it, enable her to gift him with every yearning need he'd long renounced.

The fear of burdening her with control of his iron-shackled will was still so large about them. She was only a fragile slip of humanity. He would have done anything to gift her alone. Yet, he saw that releasing his desire completely to her would only become a treasure for her as well. She ached with the need to draw him into the profound ecstacy of the moment, too.

Her words rang in his heart from when he'd pledged himself to her -- she would never take a kiss, a caress, from him unless she could return it to him in kind. The aching depths of her love called out to him now to embrace the totality of his humanity. He could love, exquisitely, sublimely. And he could allow himself to be loved.

Diana's need would only be fulfilled if he was willing to let her gift him with his own.

That fearfully enticing possibility suddenly seemed nothing more than the natural consequences of their love, no longer a forbidden want that shamed him.

He'd trusted her this far, Vincent decided in quiet wonder. Perhaps this was the very moment he'd needed to believe he could trust himself, too.

Diana's heart within him flooded with joy the instant she realized his resolve.

Determined that his liberating physical gifting should become as profoundly blazing an experience as hers already was, Diana swept desire over him, fervant in her urgency to answer his need. Comprehending how innately sensual his nature already was, she lovingly assailed him with sensation, sweeping her hands across his powerful body with heartstopping tenderness, pressing heated, searching kisses of her own along his throat, over his chest, into his mouth, lighting a searing gift for him of unburdened desire.

Her hands smoothing down his steel-banded arms trailed breathless invitation. When he unexpectedly drew her back hard against him, craving the feeling of her sweet flesh beneath his hands, a soft, wonderfilled smile crossed Diana's face. He understood it perfectly now, reading the joy in her face -- she knew she had given him what he'd yearned for, and that set her own spirit alight.

Diana had ached, desperately, for him to believe what a joy it was for her to know him so, see him so, to feel the beauty and power of his body shuddering beneath her slender hands, free to respond to her heart in her every sweet, ardent touch. They belonged to each other, were a part of each other, drawing to one another with magnetized need free of fear, hesitation, and guilt, need that was as revealing of his heart as much as it was of hers. It was only the ultimate truth of love . . . one is gifted in giving . . . one is trusted in trusting. They had no need of any other reality between them.

Nearly overwhelmed by a flooding sensation of relief as much as want, Diana laid her head against the warmth of Vincent's chest again, her whole body trembling against his. The tears could no longer be held back.

Vincent felt their release, the power of her emotion, and pulled himself away from her instantly. "You're crying?" he questioned her in immediate, guilt-riddled pain, ready to condemn himself for causing her some unknown grief somehow, even now, beyond their welcomed, growing passion.

Diana read how prepared he was to claim that undeserved blame and brought a reassuring kiss to his lips without a second thought. "They're only tears of joy," she answered, her face radiant with love.

She was blessed with yet another miracle she'd never believed would become hers without a battle -- Vincent leaned down to her and with one sweeping, sheltering movement, caught her up into his arms. His mouth welcomed hers, hungrily

sharing the taste of sweet, heated desire rising between them.

It was true. It was possible. They would be free to gift one another with their unburdened love beyond fear and limits. There was a peace and fulfillment surrounding Vincent's spirit tangible even within the racing pulse of his heart, the soaring, breathtaking sensations of accepting Diana as his bride. Not ever trusting that his tenuous hold on humanity could withstand an uninhibited release of his emotions, he never expected that -- solace -- to be a part of such -- abandon.

But it had become his, only because of the fearless hope an amber-haired angel had held out to him.

Oh, the comfort, the wonder and joy, that came to him with tears shed from emerald eyes! And the gifts that would be his now, too, offered from the depths of her love . . . She would remain at his side in his world . . . He would wake every morning to her tender closeness, the sweet familiar sensation of her body next to his, her soul within his . . . The darkness would never need to envelope his spirit again; there would be only candlelight, and love, shimmering, radiating from those eyes to his heart.

Diana's tears of joy were kissed away. She would have shed a flood of them, just to keep feeling the sweet tenderness of his lips across her wet cheeks. But those tears soon

evaporated from the heat still passing between them, an urging, enticing, intoxicating need

fueled by the astonishing reality that her husband was actually leaning her down onto their bed at that instant. Her heart stopped beating, and she found that she was existing only on the exquisite thrill of watching desire deepen in sapphire blue eyes whose profound depths seemed to go on forever.

Her head was rested gently onto the pillow where the single rose had been. Vincent followed her down with an innate grace that had her wondering just how much of an innocent he truly was. But the tender awe in his beautiful face spoke to her the truth -- he was astonished that she was actually lying in his bed, their bed, waiting for him to join her in her arms. She couldn't help herself then, throwing him a bit of a challenge, delighting in the true joy in his beloved features.

"Not at the foot, my love?" came the unexpected teasing admonishment.

It took Vincent an extra heartbeat before he comprehended what she was tormenting him about. Then he remembered, and a wealth of easy conviction swept over his spirit.

"Never there, Diana. Beside me only. Always."

His response lit a shiver of want through her that she could barely withstand.

Vincent eased his powerful body carefully along her almost fragile one, taking his place in her trust, wondering at how right it all seemed at last, how familiar and overwhelmingly liberating. How could anyone ever believe that they really understood the true wonder of love? He'd only found his freedom in his total surrender. The barest breath of a soul had shown him the courage to live. Completion would only be the sublime reality of hearts willingly shared in confounding, contradictory, empowering marvel.

Leaning on one arm, Vincent slipped his free hand down through Diana's hair and slowly smoothed it against the snowy whiteness of the pillows with a joyful possession he never hoped could be his own. Diana reached up to his face, softly shielded by his own golden hair falling forward over his shoulders.

He had never looked more beautiful to her -- mythic, vulnerable, accepting, and now so willing to hand over to her his long-imprisoned humanity. She traced his jaw, his mouth, with a fingertip no more substantial than a breath of air, then let her hand follow his strong arm in an inviting caress down to his hand, knowing he'd moved his soul past its final uncertainty.

Taking that beyond human hand in hers, Diana set it easily onto her gown again, but this time at the fullness of her breast, gentle urging in her eyes.

Despite his belief in the moment, his total trust in their love, Vincent's mind fought desperately for instruction, even as flooding need met her appeal with a purely instinctive, human response. He was not that unlearned in love. But his experience had always only been the detached knowledge of a scholar, a doctor's son, the gentle imaginings of a poet.

Nothing, nothing, however, had prepared him for the onslaught of emotions and sensations merely touching Diana so intimately and provocatively called out from him, an intoxicating melding of her desire with his, both set aflame.

With the greatest effort, Vincent let go of conscious thought and action and instead allowed himself to drift with the stunning feeling of her soft, willing body just barely shielded by a wisp of linen fabric. The innocent gown now molded itself around her flesh, from the pressure of his hand, no longer shielding her from sight but, indeed, enticing his possession. The torrent of yearning between them throbbed in breathless expectation. Her trusting love would not be denied. Nor would his need for her.

The joy in Diana's heart at his tenderly searching touch, the knowledge that he was willing to release his want to her, was so overwhelming when it came to her that she felt totally consumed, being completely overcome, with her willing consent, by a power greater than them both. He'd let his devotion evolve beyond hesitant chasteness into the realm of ignited passion with a confident acceptance that stunned her as surely as the miracle of his

sensual touch.

Held captive as well, by the beguiling feeling of the soft, tender flesh beneath his hand, Vincent began a slow caressing homage of gifting sensation that drove Diana to a plane of ecstatic abandon she'd never reached to before, her spirit as blissful as her body. With amazement she conceded to herself that perhaps she should have heeded her husband's warnings: The scorching intimacy he was offering her would surely devour them both.

It would be the most blessed fate she could ever have imagined for herself.

Desperate to be drowned within that maddeningly innocent desire, Diana set her guiding hand over a tenderly beyond human one and whispered in a voice tinged with liberated, enkindled need, "Love can . . . taste . . . as well as touch."

Vincent pulled his gaze to her glowing face with some effort, reading the dusky urging in her green eyes. Was she capable of placing herself within his own thoughts and desires now as well? Desires he would have buried in shame and guilt only half an hour ago? He felt his breath catch, his heart pound in uncertainty, but the hunger of his body fused itself to hers in response, without pain.

"It will . . . please . . . you," he answered in a hoarse whisper, not a question or a doubt, only an acknowledgement of the simmering, crystal clarity of her eyes.

"It will please us both," she replied in a quiet certainty.

Drawing his gaze from the bewitching entreaty of her face, Vincent closed his eyes a moment, knowing without a doubt he'd need take hold of all his courage to accept her reply. Its honesty struck him to the depths of his soul, ringing with the truth of their need, his need.

Breathing the gentlest of kisses, then, onto Diana's throat, he let himself draw it slowly ever lower down the porcelain skin showing with such tantalizing invitation along her unbuttoned gown. Even in the languid tenderness he was offering her at that instant, her heated body trembled from the unfamiliar, but so welcome, electricity of his unburdened desire taking hold of her own, the warmth of his mouth moving with such sweet intimacy upon her. She quivered in anticipated ecstacy, the kiss alone near to overpowering her hold on the moment.

Hesitating for an eternity to control the shaking of his own heart, Vincent at last carefully drew back the gently shielding fabric of her gown with a confidence that should have stunned him. He was only gifted with the beautiful sight of her full, sweet breast straining for its fulfillment.

Sighing at the vision, drawn inexorably onward towards their yearning expectation, Vincent carefully brought his hand to slowly cup around the tender flesh, setting his long, elegant fingers over its rounded contours with gentle wonder.

He'd never imagined the feeling, never dared form the thought in his mind, that his far from human hand could ever rest on so vulnerable a treasure to claim its sweetness without fear. Diana's body responded instantly, the nipple hardening under his touch, pleading for an even more intimate claim upon her. It leapt molten fire through him.

Giving himself the blessed freedom to accept her offering, Vincent lowered his head slowly to her. Parting his lips in sighed welcome, he softly drew the beseeching fullness into his mouth, tasting both tenderly aroused flesh and the depth of his wife's trust.

The reality of his courageous conviction sent strokes of sparking desire surging through them both. At that, some unacknowledged understanding of the searing force drawing them to one another compelled Vincent to pull the softly cautious exploration he was allowing himself totally into the domain of sheer, ignited passion: He stroked the nipple of her breast with a searching, insistant tongue, kneaded the soft fullness with an instinctively assured touch so that waves of flame swept through her.

Diana arched against the heat of his loving assault, feeling desire pour from her womb into every cell of her body. Astounded at her response to him, reading the forceful release of her passion within his own soul, Vincent pulled her hard and close to him, his hands traveling the stunning length of her in intimate exploration and discovery, searching for, and yet almost knowing already, what could most thrill her so totally receptive senses.

With every partical of her being resonating now to his genuinely tender, but so powerfully sensous loving, Diana lost her tenuous grip on the moment. As her husband's devotion moved from her breast, to her lips, to her soul, she found herself clinging instead to the selfless, rapidly consuming physical fusing of his body with hers, his spirit with hers.

And he'd only been gifting her with his touch, with his kisses that still bore within them both the awe and wonder of newness and discovery. The magnified effect of the aching devotion he was showing her, gifting her exquisitely yearning body, was beyond any climactic release she'd ever experienced, indeed, ever dreamed of -- for he was loving her with his heart and soul as much as with his body. God, how could she have known? How could he have ever doubted what he could give?

There was an undebated relinquishing of her own control over to him at that moment, as though the sweep of blissful passion encircling them both had been a long-standing extension of their combined hearts. Diana knew it for certain now -- there was no longer any need for her guidance. She was the one that stood ready to learn, blessing heaven to find herself at such a point in her existence. Her husband may have been an innocent of sexuality, but she was the one who truly had known so little of love. She welcomed Vincent's gifting instruction.

Incredibly, Vincent felt her give herself over to him completely as she wrapped her arms around his neck and let herself be pulled up to his heart in a powerful, sheltering embrace. With the sweetest of abandon, she realized it was time to leave herself clothed only in trust within her husband's sight. Miraculously, he followed her conviction the instant the thought formed itself within her mind, stripping her linen gown from her with wonderfilled expectation. She helped him draw it off her shoulders, to circle around her waist, hips, and past, to be left like a puddle of whispering moonlight on the stone floor.

He could barely steady his heart, then, when she was mercifully, completely revealed to him, lying in his arms, the heavenly angel guised in a woman's fragile beauty.

Her body was an astonishing delight, as he willingly drank in the reality of her without shame. It suddenly struck him that the scope of her loveliness was as enigmatic as her spirit. She was slender and softly curved, her beguiling form more that of a blossoming innocent herself than that of a woman ripe with sexuality; her long, strong legs like a colt's, alabaster skin touched with a heated blush, her light and russet coloring condemning her to more than her fair share of freckles. And that enchantingly approachable beauty was crowned with her freed, burnished, bewitching hair.

Diana had always only considered herself mildly attractive, more lines and angles than any vuluptuous femininity, but the light of tenderly gifted awe in Vincent's eyes, seeing her elevated to the loveliness of Aphrodite herself, set her heart to breathless clamoring. She knew for certain she would grow old beside him and he would still look upon her with the ability to make her feel capable of bewitching god and mortal alike.

Vincent easily recognized the rare power of her wondrous presence, the beauty of her body that was no less captivating and elusive than that of her spirit. She was all flame and porcelain, fragile and beguiling, the ethereal bewitchment of her form eclipsed only by the deep, honest, emerald eyes he would hold in his soul until his dying day.

With a possessive elation, he let his hands roam as freely as his gaze over her body, reaching a breathless plateau of shared wonder in each other's arms that erased any other awareness. And then, incredulously, Diana watched as an almost -- mischievous -- sparkle lit within his eyes, suddenly so different from the awestruck wonder of an instant before. She was compelled to find her voice and ask him, " What on earth are you smiling at?"

Slipping a finger along her side with a confident ease that returned her to speechlessness, Vincent let his touch rest at last at the soft curve of her left hip, where a small burgundy birthmark in the shape of a leaf, colored her fair skin.

"Diana," he spoke quietly, seriously, caressing the spot as her senses melted into one another. He was not in the least hesitant about exacting his revenge for her own earlier, heartstopping exploration of the small intimacies of his body. "I understand at last how you could have been capable of bewitching me so. You are a changeling. There is your mark."

It took Diana a long moment before she could clear her thinking enough to understand what he was accusing her of being . . . a fairy child . . . the birthmark his proof. Amazed at the freedom of his heart at the moment, that he could draw his experience of their tender sharing from the brink of enflamed passion to the bright sweetness of easy, affectionate challenge, Diana managed to somehow respond to his incongruous observation in kind.

"Then help me to complete my spell, my dearest mortal love," she whispered.

When Vincent lowered his golden-haired head without hesitation to place a lingering kiss to her betraying mark, the red-haired fairy wasn't at all certain she was the only creature in the room capable of bewitching tenderness.

That shared, confident, accepted sweetness drew them both to the wonder that they had become together. Heart to heart, flesh to flesh, soul to soul, they'd at last touched to every aching hope that had ever manifested itself within their hesitant hearts.

They only needed to extend that touch of hope into the reality of long-sought completion.

It took only a moment more before warmly teasing wonder deepened again into compelling, urgent need. In a heartbeat, Diana found her slim form completely molded to Vincent's, encompassed by his strength. It took her breath away. Powerful, muscled legs stretched warm and easily alongside her own slender ones, as somewhere in the unremembered moments, the last of his own burdening garments were shed, and their bodies were free and unencumbered by even the soft brightness of Irish linen or the warmth of homespun wool.

Their hands and lips continued to fall insistently over one another, in a heightened, needful discovery that bound them together in fusing want. Neither could tell now where one sense, one body, one soul, ended, and the other began, as they lost themselves to an uninhibited freedom of trusting passion.

Diana let herself be swept into the sensations of Vincent's breath on her skin, his heart pounding in her ears, as she touched to the unburdened, erotic power and desire flooding over her from his emancipated need. She let her hands trace hungrily over the coiled strength of his shoulders and back, the sculpted contours of his chest, lighting a firestorm of sensual abandon in a body so fiercely controlled for too long.

Barely tempered strength responded to her call, pulling her close, needing her close, immersing her into the powerful emotional melding of their yielding humanity. Diana was staggered by his gifting passion, conscious only of being carried off into the depths of his love for her. She only knew the sudden, welcome weight of his body on hers possessively, the beloved, familiar scent of him, of earth and candleflame and night air, the sweet taste and feeling of searching lips trailing their heartstopping exploration over her own maddeningly receptive flesh, the sight of azure eyes as deep as the Mirror Pool, reflecting within them a startling clarity of heart that was both his and hers.

Too long burdened by the pain and diminishing guilt of the past, they at last let themselves be lost to the flood of their every hope, joining the very essence of their souls intimately and completely to give love, receive love, become love. It could have been no different for them, their acknowledgement of one another and what they meant to each other. Even the passage of time was reduced only to shared heartbeats and langorous breaths as bodies and souls labored to become one.

It was an astounding reality for Vincent to take possession of: He who had despaired of ever knowing the simple, gifting joy of holding a beloved close and unafraid, now found himself hardly shocked at the amazing truth of that loved one's quiet urgings, her body's bewitching pleading for his continued belief in the moment, craving all that he could possibly bring himself to take from her as her only fulfilling release.

The words in Diana's heart leapt to his consciousness at the same instant he was able to define the insatiable hunger alight in his own spirit. They echoed one another in remarkable, uninhibited freedom: "Take all of me, my love . . . make me yours."

For a long moment they lay only locked in a caressing gaze that resounded the imploring request back to them. An instant of terror pierced Vincent's heart in that moment of decision. He prayed to keep it from Diana, never wanting to shadow her fulfillment with the fear he still knew. As she lay beneath him, she seemed so unbearably fragile.

That taunting voice within him still assaulted him with the truth: A simple shifting of his total weight against her could shatter bone, smother the life from her. A caress from still deadly hands could kill her.

Vincent sought direction desperately to battle the tormenting images that fought to take hold of his consciousness. That ingrained, diminishing, vigilance that had stifled his passion for a lifetime, held out an equally compelling truth to threaten his hope: What they had already shared between them was beyond his wildest imagined desires. How could he dare risk her so for more? How could he dare trust the enflamed want that had nearly consumed his every shred of control, and hers?

But Diana was prepared to deal with the suddenly wavering hope she read in his hesitation. She turned her unspoken pleadings into unmistakably audible direction with one single word. "Trust."

"Diana, if I should . . . " He was never allowed to put the fear to words as his breath was stolen from him by lushly moist lips that drew fire from his trembling body.

"Vincent, you have to trust." The breathless whisper was his undoing.

He was helpless, suddenly, against the slip of humanity holding him captive with merely her words and eyes . . . and the reality of his desire burning to answer her plea. To reinforce her directive to him, Diana drew him down to her, held him intimately imprisoned within the heartstopping trust of her need as well. How could he possibly deny her now, deny them? The urging eloquence of her body threatened to send his last shred of sanity into oblivion. With it she convinced him he no longer needed to care.

In tenderly cautious surrender, he let his body find its longed for resting place, again, enveloping hers. His every sense became filled with her, the scent of her heated skin, the feeling of her firm curves pressed intimately to his own flesh, the taste of desire sweet within her mouth, upon the satiny fullness of her breasts, the sound of her soft gasping as she sought to draw in his very essence with her every breath.

The yearning to hold themselves as one became the only sensation left for them to accept, a gift, a treasured acknowledgement of love, that drew them only to the brilliance of fulfillment and not to any phantom threat of pain.

Aching to reach that gift out to the woman he cherished, knowing how she yearned to offer it to him herself, Vincent fixed his eyes on Diana's then, with tender care. He would catch the barest evidence of anxiety or pain he might find revealing itself across her beautiful, expectant features, ready to extinguish any breath of threat should it make itself known within their incendiary want.

But there was no need for his protective care. When he at last took her to himself, slowly, exquisitely, in stunning certainty, he felt the intimate caress of her body for his own within her. He saw only a sublime, gifted fullness come into those eyes, an astonished, relieved welcome that brought tears to his own.

Diana lost herself, finally, gratefully, in the totality of his response to her, even despite his tenderly anxious doubts. She could barely keep hold of the instant, her body poised for the radiant ecstacy she knew, she knew with her every trembling breath, would come to overtake them now, holding them as one embodiment of two souls joined in love.

Vincent let the shivery expectation overcome him as well, no longer expecting it to hurtle him into darkness. It was yet another truth Diana had fearlessly offered him, one he'd so long denied himself, shrouded in soul-shattering fear and pain. That shiver heated into a wonderfilled reality he was so eager now to hold -- a reality of need, want, promise, and trust. He would treasure those honest emotions without dread, believe them only the most beautiful facets of gifting passion that would always bring radiant light to the lodestone of his devotion to her.

She deserved nothing less. He would love Diana beyond fear, savor her uplifting trust beyond limits. He would love her like that, in an extraordinary, perfected love. He would let her hold his own humanity in that love, as readily as he would let her hold his soul.

With intimate, instinctive confidence, two desires melded into one. Hands clung hungrily to heat-moistened skin, the rhythm of shared heartbeats keeping time with the rhythm of lovingly entwined bodies seeking completion at last. There was no confusion now, only a sublime ache of devastating longing reaching towards an incindiary flashpoint that beckoned like water to a thirst-maddened soul.

Diana felt herself swept into that engulfing, intense tide, which was emotion, sensation, thought and belief overwhelmingly intermixed. There was the trembling edge of ecstacy as well as a turmoil-burdened fear that still sought to cling to their hearts and their convictions. But now, that fear was no longer able to find a resting place.

The powerful, melded force entered Diana's mind suddenly, blazing its way apart from any of their shared physical experiences of the moment, needful and compelling in its own right. It was an ache, a . . . yearning. . . that she felt as a distinct presence within her own spirit ...beautiful . . . as well as . . . incomprehensible . . . holding itself just beyond the joy and wonder and sheer sensuous abandon of their loving. A need to actually . . . touch a soul . . . hold a heart . . . breathe a name . . . that could lend direction to a spirit awash in the sublimely terrifying unknown of passionately intimate consumation.

Where had it come from with such urgent insistence? She couldn't begin to understand.

Then she found herself reading the same emotions in the sapphire eyes that held her own with so much breathless, aching hope; and comprehension, stunning awareness gave her her answer: The ache, the searching need, was Vincent's, the state of his heart at that very moment of time, the reality of his spirit at their most profoundly intertwining instance of completion.

Diana was astonished at its revelation to her, at the depth of what was being shared with her in that empowering force. Until that very moment, she had only always felt that her sensitive connection with Vincent's heart had been due only to her own intuitive observation. Never in her wildest dreams did she consider that he might have formed a so trusting, empathic bonding with her spirit that truly held them as one, a bonding that he had described with such poignant tenderness to her before . . .only when he had spoken to her of his love . . . for Catherine.

But somehow, now, in their own sharing, blazing communion, he had drawn her very essence into his being and had allowed her to touch his thoughts and feelings as they existed within him at that very instant, in a bond of complete, trusting oneness, revealing to her both the pleasure and the doubt at war within his heart, the true courage it had taken him to embrace their sensual fulfillment.

To be loved like that . . . beyond the fear. To be trusted like that. . . She could only have imagined loving someone like that, being loved like that . . .

. . . And he could only have remembered . . .

 

Suddenly, Vincent's uncertain hesitation became clear to her as well -- so clear. Diana knew she would drown in the shattering clarity of the insight that came to her, overcoming her radiant joy with terrifying understanding: In the deepest part of his heart, he was aching for perfected love, a bonded oneness that defied description . . . a oneness that would always defy . . . equal.

Everything else within his experience would ever be rendered to pale comparisons.

The soul . . . the heart . . . the name . . . She felt Vincent reach out for them in fervant, pleading, acknowledgement, seeking solace and reassurance from them as the iron control of his body wrenched itself free of his will. Left in utterly vulnerable need without that control, she saw just how much fear could still shade his love at that instant.

Diana could feel it, touch it, beyond his burning desire, that anxious disquiet. She felt him tightening his hold onto his hope, cling to an unwhispered promise she suddenly wasn't certain the she had ever shared with him: A perfected love, beyond all others, capable of holding him to hope.

Was she, at that instant, the only embodiment of that perfection within his heart, the only reality capable of leading him past the unknown? Diana comprehended he was loving her, taking her to himself with aching tenderness. Yet, his heart was still burdened by a doubting uncertainty, sought to cling to a truth she wasn't at all sure she had managed to offer him.

It took Diana only a heartbeat to decide what to do with the devastating knowledge that had revealed itself from his bonded spirit to hers -- She would become for him whatever, whomever, he sought, vanishing into the miracle of the instant so that she could give him any reality he required to heal his still besieged heart at last. That was all that mattered to her now.

She would love him like that . . .

. . . Despite even her own hopes turning from flame to ash.

 

Tears stung her eyes. She ruthlessly fought them back. She barely felt the weight of his powerful body shifting needfully now upon hers, though he was twice her size. But she would lose herself in his tender hunger once again, focus her reeling emotions only to the thrill of his mouth lingering over her traitorously receptive flesh, his body accepted with intimate, sublime welcome within hers.

Even if she knew, suddenly, that they were no longer alone together in their fevered embraces.

Vincent caught sight of her struggle, though, the moment that it surfaced within her heart and mind, even amidst their searing responses to one another's desire. Stepping back a bare sigh from their enflamed union, he ached to understand what his still uncertain hope had caused to surface within Diana's spirit, and comprehension only brought to light more of her own selfless, tenderly gifting devotion.

Sweet heavens, how could he ever imagine that he truly deserved the wonder that was the scope of her love! The selfless depth of her profound devotion to him, the true generosity of her heart, stood completely revealed to him, and Vincent marveled that she'd ever believed him capable of holding it with the treasured understanding it deserved.

For, just as he had needed to pass beyond his own dark terrors with her sweet guidance,

Vincent recognized that she had needed to leave behind . . . hers . . . also . . . her terrors... the quiet, aching uncertainties that she had hidden from him until that instant.

Oh, Diana! he breathed with such wonderfilled, aching compassion as he caressed her heart with his own in silent astonishment. You've hidden them so well from me for so long, my love, carried their burden in silent anguish. You've held your own sweet hopes hostage to fears as encompassing as my own doubts. But, you are so wrong, my wondrous, confoundingly tender angel! So wrong.

Desperate to reassure the unexpectedly, profoundly needful soul in his arms, fervantly seeking to bring the bright fire of her spirit back to him in honest acknowledgement, Vincent brought his lips warm to her mouth, her throat, letting the eloquence of his body once again draw her back to the trembling edge of her need, and his, beyond the doubts. He would make it possible for her to believe -- she would never need to give up her own soul to restore his.

Taking each ragged breath with hers, then, matching his pounding heartbeat with hers, Vincent whispered close to her ear, in that voice at once vulnerable, and, to her, unexpectedly, assured. It was indeed a name that she heard him breathe, caress, on the brink of completion, the swirl of desire engulfing them both -- her own name, "Diana,"

a whispered prayer of love . . . the soul he ached to hold in completeness to his, trust his own to with certain, blessed, conviction . . . the heart he would cherish in everlasting devotion beyond any limits or boundaries . . . beyond any memories, treasured, or destined ever to remain lost.

Brushing his hands through her hair gently, he kissed her on the forehead with as much heartstopping tenderness as he'd gifted her with unburdened need. "Diana," he breathed to her again in sweet compassion, "look at me, my angel. Open your eyes."

She did so reluctantly, afraid to lose her hold on the tears threatening to flood her gaze.

Afraid to read what she most feared in the arresting depths of his own blue eyes. But the tender sound of his urging voice compelled her to do as he had asked.

When she at last found the strength to settled her attention upon him, she was startled to find that the profound reaches of her husband's love were still caressing her with breathtaking sweetness. She could read in the honesty of his unique face at that moment a still searing want, and the gentlest hint of reproach, echoed by his softly reassuring, blessedly reassuring, voice.

"Yours is the only love I am touching to at this instant, Diana. There is no one else here in my arms but you. I ache for no one else. Can't you read that in my heart now?"

A flood of emotions, more overwhelming than even the wonder of their physical communion, swept through Diana at the miraculous words. To be loved like that . . . To love like that . . . It was their hope-sustaining gift to each other -- theirs alone. How could she have ever let herself believe otherwise?

She couldn't respond to him with her own words, shamed beyond endurance that she could believe him capable of confusing their present, wonderfilled, completion with any past shadow of finally remembered tenderness. But he would not let her berate herself unjustly, knowing she was only responding to what she had perceived to be his true state of heart with selfless, totally selfless, love.

For, in all her determination and single-minded resolve to free Vincent completely from his fearfully denied humanity, Diana had never truly acknowledged her own quiet anguish. Even in this, their most longed-for and profound moment of consumated love, she had let her own fears intrude, distorting their circumstances into untruth: Within her heart of hearts, she could never bring herself completely to believe that he was holding her, loving her, taking her to himself as his bride, and not . . . Catherine . . . in her place.

The truth, however, would not be denied -- his truth, this time. It was her love that Vincent was accepting, her trust he was cherishing now. And it was her body he was delighting in possessing, gifting her with his compelling, unburdened humanity as he had no one else. No one.

Diana felt the shame drain from her with the quiet reality that held her with such sweetness and love it took her breath away. " Oh, God, Vincent, I'm sorry . . ."

She would have found the words to offer him, somehow, but her breath was drawn from her by insistently urging lips that swept want into every fiber of her body.

"Hush, my angel. Don't cry. It's all right."

"But, what I thought you were feeling -- what I thought you needed . . . "

A beyond human hand lifted itself to her lips and pressed a softly admonishing fingertip against her mouth. The utter, complete radiance of love that warmed her to her shaken soul held her speechless as his touch had urged.

"All I am feeling, Diana, is -- blessed -- by a gift only you could have had the courage to bring me. It is a wonder, my love, a joy I couldn't begin to deserve.

"All I need is to offer it back to you again, in all its beauty -- our love. I love you, Diana, my sweet, fearless, angel."

"And I love you, Vincent. With all my heart, with everything I am."

There was no shame or confusion or doubt left to linger within the spirit of that amber-haired seraph, as the wealth of tender acknowledgement reaching out to her from a mythic protector enfolded her totally within a renewed hope and promise. She felt herself drowning within the feeling, binding herself to it, to him, completely, in love. She would be loved like that, never needing to imagine its wonder again. And she knew, without question, reservation, or fear, that Vincent's memories would be fashioned of her own sweet devotion now, cherished and accepted.

The past had cost them so much pain, so much uncertainty of heart. Yet, the sweet fulfillment of all they were at that instant had been worth any pain and anguish. They would be totally one in all things, from that moment onwards, no longer shadowed by the unfulfilled dreams of long-denied hearts.

The angel had completed her task of redemption, by being redeemed herself.

Vincent's renewed, unburdened soul was free, and it would never need rest anywhere but alongside her own. She believed it now, the wonder of that truth burning strong and freely within them, as brightly and with as much searing, melding passion as two hearts entwined could ever dare to touch. A poetry of hearts and spirits, hopes and hands and desires overtook, then, every other reality of the moment. Now there was only the need for quickened breaths to be shared, heated flesh to be cherished, profoundly true eyes to be held with sure comprehension.

In unbounded certainty, Diana gave herself over once again to the engulfing tide of sweet, hungering, miraculously free emotions enveloping them -- hers, his, theirs. Only an instant, a breath, passed between them before Vincent drew her back to him with guiltless, fearless, possession. He would make of them one miracle of love, one beautiful tapestry of humanity, with a trembling, searing, honesty of heart neither of them could ever mistake for anything less than the truth. They would love each other like that.

 

"Indeed, this very love which is my boast,

And which, when rising up from breast to brow,

Doth crown me with a ruby large enow

To draw men's eyes and prove the inner cost, --

 

"This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,

I should not love withal, unless that thou

Hadst set me an example, shown me how,

When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,

And love called love.

 

"And thus, I cannot speak

Of love even, as a good thing of my own:

Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,

And placed it by thee on a golden throne,--

 

"And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)

Is by thee only, whom I love alone."

 

---Sonnets from the Portuguese XII by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


THE END