To Hope Anew

Chapter Eleven


There had been nothing but utter confusion that early afternoon nearly a year and a half ago, confusion reinforced by pain, grief, and fear, and the aching need to share his heart with someone who could understand.

Vincent had gone to great lengths to shield all those around him from his pain, trusting only Father and occasionally Mary with the unwelcomed task of helping him shoulder his burden. To the rest of the community he attempted to present his bravest front -- he was grieving, surely, and deeply, but he had the strength to at least êP way through the routines of daily life: He could interact easily with the children; he could revel in Jacob's presence; he could consider the needs of the community and work for its continued hopeful and flourishing existence.

But nothing had penetrated beyond that front to touch the very wellspring of his pain: His greatest joy had come at the cost of his greatest love. And that love had been torn from his arms before he had ever had the courage to bring it completely within his soul.

Somehow, Diana's own spirit had managed to take hold of those agonizing truths within him. They touched upon his very humanity, his deepest fears and most profoundly sheltered dreams -- He and Catherine had been on the brink of true completeness when she had been ripped from his life. Their angelic child was the embodiment of their hope, one they'd never dreamed possible. But even the hope that Jacob had brought to him had been extinguished like a fragile candleflame in a windstorm, with Catherine's murder. The child, then, was only the sweetest of heaven's miracles left behind, a tiny soul left to mirror remembrance.

Seeing Jacob happily splash about with Katy and Luke now, Vincent couldn't bear the thought of the pain he had caused the child by his loss of promise. Every time he had looked into the little boy's face, he had seen only Catherine's reflected back at him, all that she had been to him, and all that she had never had the possibility of becoming. There was not only the loss of boundless grief left within him but the knowledge that it had been the loss of a beloved with so much yet left to give, to reach for, to dream.

Vincent had been startled to read the truth in Catherine's heart: While she had always been so willing to accept the painful limits of their existences, the abbreviated hopes of their linked hearts, their relationship had been changing just before he'd lost her, venturing hesitantly, fearfully, wondrously, into the deeply human terms of love.

He knew what the miracle of Jacob's birth truly meant: The little boy would never only be simply a child bereft of a mother's sweet comfort. He was, in reality, all that had been terrifying beautiful and impossibly beyond their dreams, the heaven-sent embodiment of a very earthly need within their love. That devastating reality would never leave his tormented soul, the haunting might-have-beens tearing his heart apart.

Then Diana had fought her way into his existence, past his warnings and recriminations and grief-driven rage. She had been so ready to take up his pain as her own; she had been able to see past the fear and bitter regret to hope and posibilities. And she had left her own generous, tender heart undefended to endure even the most fearful of blows he'd unleashed upon her in his anguish. . . his own fiercely held denials of any breath of rightness to their own futures together at some point in time.

Yet, the deepest part of his heart had acknowledged no such denials. It had clung to the promise of peace she had held out to him with a force that stunned him at the outset. He'd shamed himself, berated himself, cast himself as a selfish and conscienceless fool; still his heart would not let go of the possibility -- that Diana would somehow bring him through the dark terrors of his grief the same way that Catherine had brought him out of the dark madness of the catacombs. Diana's means, however, would be very different from Catherine's, wondrous and frightening in their total trust, their total belief in his humanity.

His heart had been right about her, in spite of everything.

 

"I didn't realize what day it was, Vincent." Diana longed to reach her hand to him just then, actually raised it to touch his cheek, but found every breath of courage desert her. She knew it would not be her own touch he would feel. Her hand was withdrawn at the pang that knowledge caused in her heart. There was only one person whose tender communion he would have opened his soul to just then.

Vincent struggled to put his pain into terms relative to the little boy he cradled in his arms, but the two spirits that clung to his essence would forever be linked in his heart, no matter how hard he attempted to embrace them separately.

"A year with Jacob in my life," he finally managed to continue, bringing his thoughts to their heartbreaking conclusion. "I couldn't imagine my existence without his sweet soul beside mine. He has brought me such beauty and wonder and fulfillment. I wished to remember that with him today, with you and all the community. I wished to find some joy to hold, to look to the future in hope, with him... "

His voice was left trailing, as if unable to even form the words for the rest of his anguish. Diana couldn't bear it any longer, and spoke the words herself, knowing instinctively that he had to hear them and claim them, or be lost. "There was another remembrance shrouding that anniversary, though."

"Yes."

The profound pain was spoken in that single word. Then, "I will never be able to offer Jacob anything but the regret of a broken heart... I could offer his mother no more than the most shackled of loves."

Diana watched in torment of her own as she realized Vincent had savagely fisted his free hand, the knuckles showing white, for one brief moment, before he pulled the hand down into the rumbled folds of the blanket at his side. Hiding it, unconsciously... Shamefully.

Yet, beyond the pain she was feeling at his, the amber-haired young woman suddenly fought with a rising anger that was also becoming so insistent within her, an anger of frustration and confusion. The defeated man that she was forcing herself to sit beside only at arms length was the soulmate her own heart was desperate to cling to. Every breath of his presence radiated to her only all that was loving, good, fulfilling, tender. How could he possibly consider himself lacking in his love for Catherine? What lie had obscured for him the wonder that had been his love for the murdered woman?

How could he believe he'd given Catherine nothing?

Diana had been overwhelmed at the evidence of the profound devotion she'd unearthed when she'd been investigating Catherine's death. She had been drawn into those pristine depths by merely reading Vincent's simplest expressions of that love, even before she had ever come to know him, come to realize the true wonder that he was. His notes to Catherine, the books they'd shared, the barest traces of their entwined existences as Diana had unraveled the reality: These had set her own tested spirit to aching, to yearning for such... completeness... in a love.

Vincent had given Catherine his total trust, the deepest recesses of his most sheltered dreams. How could he imagine there was anything in his existence that he had withheld from her?

Yet, that was his torment now, Diana realized, an agony that went far beyond the loss of a beloved.

There was little physical pain that he could not endure, she knew, little that he was truly afraid of. But the guilt-riddled grief that was his day to day reality was consuming him as surely as any deadly force of nature, threatening to permanently scar his very existence, his love for his son, his hope to live again at some point in time with some small measure of peace.

Diana refused to let that happen, her intolerance for anything less than the truth fueling her inner fury. She simply swore to herself an oath to the grave: She would not let him destroy himself over a lie. No matter how much it cost her, she would see him at peace with Catherine's memory.

Even if it meant she would never feel him draw nearer to her own dreams.

She risked everything in a single touch.

Drawing herself closely before him, Diana raised a trembling hand to his lips, silencing his anguishing words with a tender breath of rebuke. Vincent didn't pull away. For an eternity of a moment he held her eyes with startled pleading, awestruck at the fierce, protective hope he read there. He closed his eyes, then, slowly, and felt that hope, that promise, that aching guidance, reach deeply within his spirit, touch his pain with so much communing understanding that it drew the tears from his eyes. Oh, God, why did she have to understand?

The sound of her voice, cracking with emotion, still whispered reassurance he knew he had no right to expect from her. "Vincent, you gave Catherine all that you were. You opened a wondrous, nurturing world to her. You helped her find her own way in her life Above. You gave her the strength to trust herself."

Jacob stirred in his arms just then, reaching out to Diana unexpectedly, a questioning look clouding his sweet little face. He may have indeed shared an empathic link with his father's soul, grieved deeply with the loss and pain he felt there but was too young to understand. But, Diana's essence was not unfamiliar to the child, either, the loving generosity of her heart so often reaching hesitantly out to his own.

Thus, the sensitive child felt, at this instant, that he needed very much to be close to them both, to touch both their hearts and share in the fearfully denied connection he could perceive so readily with his innocent comprehension. Even though there was as much drawing the two souls apart, as there was holding them together. Without even thinking, Diana took the little boy's hand and enveloped it lovingly with her own.

If only his father would let her do the same with his soul.

But the floodgates of regret had burst open within Vincent's spirit, and no matter how anguishing it was for her to listen to his undeserved pain, she felt the need he had to voice his heartache to her or become lost within it. Even amidst her own pain, he knew she could help him make some sense of the incomprehensible. "I couldn't even make her simplest wishes come true, acknowledge her most innocent desires."

"You protected her, loved her as you had no one else. How could you possibly feel that you caused Catherine pain?" Diana's slight form trembled visibly with her emotions. Vincent had to look away from her, look away from the reality of her heart. When he spoke again, he kept his attention on Jacob in his arms, running his thumb gently over the little boy's cheek.

"Because I let her dream."

Steeling herself for the revelations he was willing to share with her, Diana desperately attempted to keep her own heart in check. For, she believed he was offering her this intimate glimpse into his existence with Catherine not simply as a way to resurrect his own fading soul, but as a warning to her as well, a warning to keep her heart safely beyond the reach of his star-crossed love.

It was a warning Diana refused to heed.

"We were here one day, in this very place, sharing a moment together away from everyone and everything else, reading. The images of the words set us in a beautiful pastoral scene that spoke such peace and contentment to us both." The memory of that incident played across Vincent's face with momentary tenderness. He looked up into the light beaming mysteriously into the great cavern, surely placing himself not only into that remembered time with Catherine, but also into the beguiling beauty they had been sharing.

"She began to reminice about a place from her childhood, a sheltered lake in the Connecticut mountains that had become a near-magical refuge to her, and before I was aware of what was happening, she began to... dream.

"It was a simple enough vision to her -- sharing that special place with me. It would only take some well thought out preparations to become a reality, preparations she could easily manage."

Turning an anxious face back to Diana, questioning with more than only his words, he continued with a pained defense that broke the young woman's heart, threatened her hold on her own besieged emotions.

"How could I have refused her? She never asked for anything for herself, never made the slightest request of me. All she wished to do was to bring me the pleasure of sharing this place with her, momentarily freed from the limitations of our relationship.

"Her eyes shone with the thought of her plans, with the possibility that we could actually spend an hour or two freed from fear, simply as lovers in a beautiful place, together. Standing together in the sunshine.

. . . "I let her dream that it could be possible... I let myself... dream."

Vincent swallowed hard and turned his attention again to Jacob who was nestled close to his chest quietly. Diana raised an unsteady hand to the tears that were coming down his cheeks. He let her comfort him silently, tolerated the painful uncertainty in her touch only because his own reality rested, at the moment, in the cool shelter of a mountain lake.

"Of course, it was... impossible."

The fatalistic sound of that last word was jarring to her heart, the way he accepted the painful reality with only quiet, contained anguish. Diana didn't believe she could stand any more of the hopelessness in his manner, her own grip on the situation becoming tenuous. What could he ever find to hope in again?

Vincent shook his head slowly as he chastised himself, still, with the memory. "It took an argument with Father to bring it all to light, but I knew within myself already that it was simply too perilous a risk to take for a tiny instant of peace. I didn't fear for myself, really, at the time, my own safety. I feared losing what little we had managed to build together, for the sake of an hour's freedom."

Bringing his gaze completely to settle onto the gentle, open features of his quiet companion, Vincent prepared her to receive the next burden of truth he was willing to share with her, a burden he would have done anything to spare her from, as he had Catherine, but one he knew she must take up if she were ever to remain safely beyond the fated reaches of his heart.

"I feared losing what little mercy Catherine and I had wrested from heaven's tolerance. But more than that -- I feared the reality of what I was, what I am. We might have made the dangers of the city disappear from around us. Still, the dangers of what I carry within me would always shadow us, no matter where we were to go."

Vincent extended his hand before him slightly at the words, releasing Jacob for a moment to sit at his side on the blanket. The deadly memories of his fiercely protective capabilities knotted within his soul, turning his blood cold.

Diana saw only a father's gentle touch for his child, remembered only the tenderest of lover's caresses, barely acknowledged, in those hands.

Vincent could see only blood.

"When she returned at the appointed time, I was unprepared to join her." The very real pain visible on Vincent's features, along with the regretful and guilty grief, stilled Diana's soul. For once, she couldn't reach past it to take hold of her own hope. She couldn't fathom what she could possible do or say to comfort him.

"The disappointment, the heartache, in her eyes was more than I could bear. Yet, she refused to give in to sorrow, she refused to let her tears be shed. She just stated that she understood the risk and apologized for her request.

"I had broken her heart and she begged me for forgiveness."

Vincent was immersed so deeply into the feeling of utter disillusionment of that moment that Diana wasn't even certain he was still actually sitting beside her. His mind, his heart, his pain, were all drawn back to that instant of reckoning.

She had had no idea of his struggle within his love for Catherine until that moment, his battle for his identity. Diana had believed his other nature to be only an extension of his all encompassing need to protect those he loved, a triggered, instinctive reaction to threats upon his beloved's safety made all the more deadly because of his unique strength and physiology.

But, what was he really agonizing over? Not the disappointment of a moment's closeness lost. Diana realized with a shuddering chill through her soul that Vincent had been agonizing over his very humanity.

How, in God's name, was she going to bring him past that?

"Vincent... " He nearly started when she softly spoke his name. "... Catherine loved you too much to dwell on the disappointments of your situation together. She knew you as she loved you: You were the man she'd give her soul to. She had no doubts about you. And she knew that any relationship would not be easy. They never are, for anyone."

Shaking his head and turning away from her, Vincent could never find the courage to hope in the tender words directed at him. She believed too deeply. Moreso than even he himself had believed, once, in that most fiercely denied place within his spirit that drew him to her despite the obstacles he'd thrown up defensively between them. This was selfish folly, baring his turmoil this way to her. The aching in her heart he felt surely joining his was for more than the pain she wished to ease from a friend's tested spirit. She ached for him, ached to free him, touch him with her love regardless of the cost to herself.

He couldn't possibly let her follow her heart. Her hope would murder her, with his deadly help.

Diana would not be swayed. She drew his face back to her with a fearless touch, certain that he must hear, he must hear what she would tell him. "Catherine chose to love you because of who you were, what you carried within you, Vincent. You have to believe that. She loved you because of the uncompromising care you never withheld from her, from anyone, the limitless hope you took hold of for both of you the moment you let her become a part of your life. She loved you because of your dreams. Those are the realities she saw within you. They couldn't possibly be a threat to her. You couldn't possibly be a threat to her. You completed her."

The beauty in those words could never have been directed to him. He should never have dared to let his heart whisper the actuality to him now, the words she carried in the deepest recesses of her own soul that he read shamelessly mirrored in her eyes: You complete me.

Still, she left her own dreams hidden within those profound places of her heart. Her own needs were not in question now. His soul was. She continued her argument and he wondered, in amazement, at the generosity of her love.

"What you had to give Catherine, what you have now to give to Jacob, to all those around you, is the gift of your life, Vincent. It can be a gift, still, nourishing, cherishing, believing in the possibilities of tomorrow, if you'll only let it happen. You didn't offer Catherine a shadowy life of fear that could become deadly at the faintest provocation. That is what life is like Above, not here, not with you."

"You are a dreamer, too, Diana."

The words directed at her personally, astounded her. Had she revealed too much of her own heart to him? She was attempting to help him reach his peace, knew she would bleed with him until he could find that place within his existence. Was he as aware as she that the final reality of his resurrected heart would mean the restoration of her own?

Even if he did, she would defend him, draw her own needs to the wayside, not wanting to risk his state of heart for anything, not even her own tender visions of fulfillment. "I know the difference between dreaming and real life, Vincent. But that doesn't mean I won't open my heart to hope even if my common sense tells me otherwise. I'm too stubborn to leave my dreams up to chance or fate."

Yet, you would leave your dreams up to me.

That was something the besieged, mythic presence beside her could never allow himself to accept, however. He would only bring her pain, impede her dreams, and reduce them to dust.

Diana did not even flinch when he brought the full intensity of his unearthly blue eyes back to her. She only let her own most cherished hopes reach out to him, despite his fervent attempt to push them away. His warnings would not weaken her resolve, because she knew the truth, without question -- She was not the one endangered by his love. Nor had Catherine been so. The only danger Vincent posed at the moment was to himself, as he allowed himself to plunge from the brightness of a world of possibilities to the eternal shadows of fear.

She'd be damned if she would let that happen.

Vincent could feel the determination steeling her seemingly fragile soul. She was so full of hope for him, so capable of overlooking the ugly realities of the truth. It would only, ultimately, bring her pain and disappointment as well. Yet, she believed.

"You would take the barest evidence of hope and conjure all manner of possibilities with it." Vincent's comment was not a chastisement but instead had been spoken in respectful wonder at the scope of her generosity.

"I can live a lifetime on one promising moment, if I have to."

Diana would not back away from this battle -- It meant her hope and his soul.

For a moment, the young woman who was struggling for her heart's desire thought that she might have actually broken through the quagmire of grief and guilt surrounding the man she treasured. Vincent came up to his feet with Jacob still in his arms, took a few steps away from her, and fixed his attention to the falls farther up the river. Diana felt her heart quicken, though from triumph or fear, she wasn't entirely certain. Then he turned to look back over his shoulder to her, the golden light of their surroundings burnishing his features like a benediction. One he long deserved.

"You would believe yourself capable of turning this cavern into a garden, see flowers spring up from desolate rock."

She knew the barren landscape he was speaking of had, once again, nothing to do with their physical surroundings. The rock walls encompassing his spirit were what called out to be so adorned, though he never believed it could actually happen, never believed himself worthy of such a miracle again in his life.

Diana looked him directly in the eye. "If I had the support of someone who believed in the dream, too, yes. I would. 'Stone walls do not a prison make,' remember?"

The defiance in her was only fueled by her total commitment to him. She had set herself up against him thus more than once in their stormy relationship, turning him from blind vengeance with it, forcing him to realize he need not stand alone in his pain.

Vincent came back over to the blanket and sat beside her, easing Jacob into her awaiting embrace. He did not withdraw his touch when he turned the child over to her, though, instead taking her hand in his. It was slender, fragile, and strong enough to shelter, all in one instant. So like her.

"Then you'd have me believe that you can get roses to bloom where there is only rock and shadow."

Holding to her courage, despite the unsteady state of her heart at his deliberate contact, Diana responded with continued determination. "Roses might take a bit of work. They need more care."

He could no longer doubt it: The russet-haired firebrand would be perfectly capable of taking on such a task, and succeeding at it, working beyond any obstacle heaven or hell might throw in her way. He lifted his hand from his child and her, to run it, with quiet, sweet acknowledgement, over her hair. She deserved her every happiness, each breath of promise she was willing to labor against the odds for. But, he was convinced beyond hope that the source of her promise could never spring from his own battered soul.

"I'm certain that the need for more care would not deter you from your vision, Diana. You will always be capable of seeing it, touching your hope to it: At some not so distant time, you would have this cavern abloom with beauty, nurtured by your own hand."

She turned her face into his palm, and before he could believe what he was doing, she had let him draw his fingertips tenderly over her porcelain features. The touch was more than he'd ever risked physically sharing with her, suddenly intimate, and needfully... human... It took his own breath away as he realized how deeply she was able to place herself within him, despite his vehement denials. Her words shook his heart as surely as that communing touch.

"I believe that's possible. If you allow yourself, you can be renewed by that vision, too."

Withdrawing his suddenly shaking hand from her face, Vincent willed himself to hold to the realities of the present, the truths of his existence, the burdens necessary that would neverthless keep her from harm. "Diana, you must remember one thing: For all their exquisite beauty, roses can cause pain. Their thorns can draw blood."

"But those same thorns serve to protect the flowers and keep them safe."

Vincent held her lovely features for a long moment, reading only conviction tempered by a tender and fearless heart. It was still so difficult for him to consider that heart for what it revealed to him, to accept what she offered in those emerald eyes. She could touch to so much more than he was willing to admit, the truth of that reality something that was as frightening as it was beguiling. It tolerated nothing that echoed the fearful limitations he had lived with for a lifetime.

Catherine had nobly borne the parameters of their shared existence, keeping them both safe within their boundaries. Diana would have no part of them, he knew. She needed far more. He should have been capable of offering her far more.

Even Catherine had reached that point in their relationship just before he had lost her, that place in their love where what could possibly lie ahead of them could only be perceived as precious and inviting as anything that had already transpired between them. She had begun to dream, too, and he had been so unexpectedly willing to let her do so.

But, their dream had been cut short -- by madness, by death, by loss that threatened his soul. All in a short year's time. Jacob had been born. Catherine had died, and with her all the tender promise they had just begun to reach out for. That was the only reality that could be his, Vincent knew, the only reality he suddenly wished to be his. Anything beyond it would threaten both his memories, and the defiant soul before him, that would see him capable of living past the agony with hope again.

"Catherine loved roses." The gentle caress in that short sentence sent a shockwave of reality coursing through Diana as well, a firestorm of emotion that quickly succeeded in scorching her belief in the moment She had accomplished what she had set out to do, aparently too well, it would seem -- She had, in some small measure, been able to guide Vincent beyond the regret of Catherine's loss and back into the warmth and wonder and sweetness of her memory, at least for one minute of one day.

That was what she had set out to do, wasn't it? Help him find peace in the remembrances that held him hostage to their insistent pain? She'd been determined to help him shed the crushing weight of guilt clinging to those memories, even if those moments of treasured sharing would prove far more fulfilling and cherished for him than anything she could possibly offer him now.

Just the manner of his speaking the name, "Catherine" had a heart-wrenching awe of profound devotion that Diana doubted would ever be uttered with her own name. It cut her deeply, unerringly, to realize that perhaps the only way to guide him past the anguish of his pain could be to remove herself from his existence entirely. She knew, with a guilty conscience, that so much of his turmoil of late had to do with herself, with his reactions to having another person care about him, reaching towards him in love. His momentary acknowledgement of her this afternoon, in his searching turmoil of spirit, would not be allowed to surface again, she believed without question. He would not let it surface again.

To see him save his soul, then, she would have to lose any claim on his heart.

If that was to be her fate, so be it. It didn't matter any more, her own hope for a life blessed in his love, as long as she was able to free him from his terrors.

The gentle, soft remembrance visible on the remarkable features of the man beside her told her she had indeed brought him some small breath of solace. He'd pulled himself past the confusion her own revealed emotions had drawn him into. The truth was that she ached to share in that solace, have him believe that it sprang only from her love and not from his unburdened memories. Instead, she fiercely willed herself merely to listen to his pain, let him remember his way out of it at last this day. If there was a merciful God, then she might be able to stand it.

"I watched her plant a rosebush once, one evening on her terrace. She was carefully placing it into a pot; her concentration on her efforts was so complete she didn't even sense my presence there with her."

Another pang of guilt struck Diana forcefully. The all-but-dead rosebush she had retrieved from Catherine's balcony at the onset of her investigation: It had to be the very same plant Vincent was now speaking of. She had brought it to her own home in the hope that through it she could gain some sense of the mysterious bond Catherine and the then unknown and shadowy figure of Vincent had shared.

When the bush had responded to her care, Diana had seemed strangely drawn to it, as if it truly did have some deep secret to convey to her about the wonder and pain it had beheld in its silent vigil of beauty. Even now, the plant was safely tucked into a corner of her loft, gracing her home with its profusion of vitality. She'd never told Vincent that it was in her possession, explaining her reluctance with the dubious observation that the tested soul beside her would hardly have been interested in a resurrected rosebush no matter where it came from.

Now, Diana was certain she understood the pull that the beautiful plant had exerted on her heart, she understood it, shamefully, in the aching tenderness she watched deepen Vincent's eyes.

"I watched her work. She was so free of the limits closing in around us. I felt something draw my heart to her as never before, a need to simply rest beside her, an ache to share the freedom in her soul. There was a tender glow about her that had very little to do with the city's lights that evening."

To be loved like that... Diana's mind halted on those words that echoed within it, from the time Vincent had been recuperating in her loft, his body healing, his soul lying ravaged within her sight. He'd been explaining, or trying to explain, the bond, the connection he shared with the woman he loved, how they'd felt themselves -- one -- despite the painful realities of their lives. Diana herself had described it thus... "To be loved like that. I could only dream of loving someone like that, of being loved like that... "

"... And I can only remember."

Her heart had lurched at the grief his reply had voiced. And now, those cherished evidences of love had to include that rosebush, Diana knew, because the plant was blossoming in her home, covered in a wondrous profusion of flowers, red and white, eloquently speaking of that love. Her heart had indeed been drawn to its beauty: she'd worked diligently to save the plant, bring it back to life. She never would have dreamed how treasured a memory it truly was for the desolate soul before her.

Vincent settled his gaze back on the falls far down in the cavern, unaware of the conscience-stricken state of Diana's spirit just then. He took in the sweeping power of the falls, plunging over the cliffs with raw, natural, wonder. Yet, that same forceful element transformed itself into the ethereal mist that gently clouded the river below it.

He had felt just such a power overwhelm him that night.

"Catherine caught her finger on a thorn unexpectedly and cried out. I came to her side, then, seeking to help her, comfort her, but she reassured me with a laugh that she was indeed safe. We spoke a moment or two about her plans for the plant. She even doubted aloud her ability to keep it growing adequately, citing her questionable gardening expertise. And then I noticed that her hand was indeed injured from the thorn she had caught it on. She was bleeding."

Without warning, Diana watched Vincent's gaze cloud with unabated pain. He pulled his attention from the river back to his hands, resting on his thighs, seeming to consider them as some foreign object he had only now come across. The shudder of turmoil, and wonder, that worked its ways through him was clearly visible to her as he fought to continue speaking.

"I took her hand in mine, wanting only to stop the hurt, the bleeding. I raised the small wound to my lips, without even a thought... and I... kissed... her."

The pounding of her heart in her ears was the only evidence Diana had that it was still beating and keeping her alive at that instant. Vincent's last words had been shared with her in a broken voice no louder than a sanctuary whisper. They were tinged with guilt, remorse, and pain, but through the anguish there was a desperate strain of tender amazement in the memory, too.

A wave of sensual communion washed over Diana, coming directly at her precarious defenses from the power of Vincent's memories. She understood, undeniably, that she must be feeling what Catherine had felt that night, her reaction to the tender sweetness that had unexpectedly been offered her. Diana realized, too, that Vincent must have been overwhelmed by the same indescribable sensation, and that he now remembered the fearless communion through the distortion of guilt and remorse.

Unable to continue baring his heart to her with words, the burdened soul before her instead locked his intense gaze onto Diana's, questioning, willing her to understand what she could not let herself believe: That instant when he had let his love claim a truly human and physical direction, momentarily freed from the constraints of years of self-imposed denial, had startled him, shaking his very soul to its core. It had been totally unplanned, a spontaneous acknowledgement of the depths of his love for Catherine, the very real and sudden need to probe those depths lovingly, in ways he had only considered forbidden him... in the ways of physical devotion between a man and a woman.

It had been the same sort of unfettered acknowledgement Diana herself had been blessed by last week in the hospital chambers -- an innocent, heart-stopping collapse of his inner defenses, which offered them both the briefest glimpse of what love could be truly like between them -- a communion of heart, soul, mind, and body. He had been totally unprepared for its revelation to Catherine that night. The fact that the very same yearning had become a reaching need to Diana, too, was terrifying to him.

Yet, the gentle comfort touching his heart from the young woman who was his companion now, spoke no terror or shame. "It must have brought Catherine so much sweet promise."

The conclusion seemed at once so foreign and yet so right to Vincent, as he slowly brought himself out of the anguishing tenderness of his memory. He looked at Diana with unexpected disbelief, wondering how this enigmatic soul before him could so completely understand his confused heart.

"I was despaired at my lack of control, Diana," he confessed with misery. "I expected Catherine to be, too. But the... longing... in her eyes when I finally had the courage to hold them again... It was as if our bond to one another was hovering just above another level of communion, drawing us there. Catherine seemed almost to -- expect it. It was as though she had been awaiting it."

"She was."

The even reply silenced his unsteady words. Vincent read the same aching expectation in the clear green eyes before him now, with a clarity that he'd refused to believe in until then. When had that yearning appeared? How long had it been since the fragile soul before him had opened itself up to the unwhispered, unacknowledged, desperately needful hopes of his own spirit? He couldn't let her dream. His feelings for her were only the pale reflection of promises shared with another heart. They must be.

"She deserves to be loved, Livy," he had confessed when they had rescued Diana from the flooded chamber what seemed years ago. She was worthy of her own realities of love, not be simply a vessel sheltering another's soul, another's hopes for a happy life.

It had suddenly overwhelmed him that night on Catherine's terrace -- that she could be willing, even longing, to carry their love into a deeper plane of shared communion, human and beguiling. She hadn't even questioned the possibility, hadn't even acknowledged the blackness of the risk involved. Only a knock at her door had kept them from taking those first terrifying steps. Mercifully so... And then he had lost her.

And Diana had found him.

 


Continued in Chapter 12