To Hope Anew

Chapter 2


"Diana, if you have found a place in our hearts, it is because of your own loving care to us, your own generosity and devotion. Not because you are taking Catherine's place."

Vincent had read the gratitude in her eyes at his words that night, the relief. The words were true. They came from the open truthfulness of his heart.

His heart -- it was destined to be shadowed by pain. Feeling too little to hope, feeling too much to ever be comforted. Yet, his heart at that moment had been so sweetly pierced by the sight before him, by the sounds and the words echoing in his chamber.

 

Winterfest had just come to a close, and it had been an ordeal of the most painful sort. It was the first festival that had been celebrated since Catherine's death three and one half months before. Vincent had prayed for the strength to endure the memories, fought the overwhelming desire to quietly excuse himself from even participating. Surely, everyone would understand his absence.

But, the festival, and all it meant to their history, unity, and identity as a community was so important an occasion. And he was very much an integral member of that community. Setting aside his own struggles, he had to participate.

And he had to suffer the pain.

He could almost feel Catherine's hand in his, remembering how he had first led her through the darkened Great Hall last year. He could still see the warm candlelight glow on her serene face. He could still hear their happy conversation, standing together admiring the beautiful and equally mysterious tapestries on the chamber walls around them, those fairy pictures of long ago.

And when the night's events had ended and the Hall was theirs alone, he could still hear the music in the wind that played for them, as they danced. He had never allowed himself the sweet pleasure of holding her so, till then, of softly sweeping to the music of a phantom waltz, the rhythm of their hearts beating closely together keeping time. Holding her, holding Catherine.

But, this was another year, and another Winterfest. Everyone was politely, and awkwardly passing the evening away in little groups scattered about the Hall. The music was subdued; smiles faded quickly in guilt, the entire community feeling in its spirit a profound sense of loss.

Vincent had braved the pain in the company of the children. The hopeful promise of their lives had always served to brighten his. Yet tonight even they seemed lost.

Samantha, especially, fought back the tears as she held Jacob on her lap. She was not yet twelve, but already sheltered a sensitive, loving young woman's heart within her. And that heart ached for the grief she knew her beloved teacher was now nearly consumed by.

"Tell us a story, Vincent, please," she had asked quietly, hopefully, knowing how easily he could lose himself in far-off times, perhaps leaving his pain momentarily aside.

Vincent smiled a breath, then reached his had over to take Samantha's. She could not mistake the gratitude in his eyes. A story would shorten the interminable evening. "What would you like to hear?" he asked her.

Ordinarily such a question would have had the children calling out dozens of literary titles at once. Each had their favorite, and hearing it come alive through Vincent's wondrous dramatic abilities was a treat each child joyfully anticipated.

Yet tonight, almost as one, all eyes in the group turned to Samantha and her guidance in the matter. More than any of them, she could gauge Vincent's spiritual state with the tender compass of her own heart. She'd be certain to choose a benign story, with little reference to lost love and tragedy.

"How about 'The Last of the Mohicans'?" she asked. The consensus was unanimous. An adventure-laced tale of the pioneer spirit in early New York. Before long, the children were filling in the details of Hawkeye's world with Vincent's direction.

Across the banquet table from the children's group, and to one less-populated side of the Great Hall, Diana sat on a bench next to Mary in quiet contemplation of the gathering before her. Community members and Helpers came up to the women occasionally and held each in short passages of greetings and conversations. But like everyone else present in the room tonight, the women's thoughts were turned inwardly, seeking to make some sense of it all.

Diana's gaze rarely strayed from the scene across the room, that of Vincent and the children. Mary's gaze rarely strayed from Diana's face.

"They love to be with him, " Mary observed gently. She could see that Diana's eyes shimmered with a light not necessarily reflecting the candles in the Great Hall. She knew where that light came from, without surprise. The heart seeks its own solace, despite a woman's best efforts to discourage it. Mary herself had fallen victim to such a search, years ago. She was still searching.

Diana didn't have to ask Mary to whom she was referring. Already circumstances of the past few months had assured Diana that the elder woman would be a caring soulmate, understanding, perhaps like no other in the community could, the disarray of her emotions. Still, Diana tried some measure of detachment.

"He listens to them and treats them all with respect. Children thrive on that, " Diana answered.

"We all need to feel acknowledged." Mary had placed her arm around Diana's shoulder just then. The fragile-hearted young woman looked into the older woman's gentle face filled with quiet strength and found a soothing kinship within it.

"Jacob will have an extraordinary father." The words came out a little too hushed, she realized too late.

"A child could never be loved more." Reading the turmoil in the younger woman's spirit at that instant, Mary knew she had to bring her some comfort. "His heart is so full of pain now, Diana, his grief is still so new."

"What can I do for him, Mary?" Diana found the tears ready to slip from her eyes. She fought them back, but the words had already passed beyond her reach. She had not intended to voice her own pain and helplessness. Still, she had little control over her heart these days.

With calm understanding, Mary took both of Diana's hands into hers. She was so familiar with the nature of her companion's distress. And of what the outcome could be. She had missed her own opportunity, had to settle for only a shadow of what could have been. Was this young woman destined for the same pain? Mary prayed not.

"What can you do, child? Nothing more than what you have already done, are doing. And nothing less.

"Bring him back his hope. Help him find his peace. But don't think you'll be able to accomplish such a task without risking your own serenity." Mary looked out over the crowd of beloved, familiar faces in the large room for a long moment, obviously attempting to put the necessary words together. Diana found herself reaching a comforting hand out to her confidant now. She watched her gather her emotions quietly.

"I know what grief can do to a man's heart, how sweet the pain can become. And I know what fighting that grief can do to your own heart, how weary your own dreams can feel." Unconsciously letting a soft sigh escape her lips, Mary continued her train of thought with serene acceptance. "The years can tick away as quickly as the minutes. But all the risk can vanish, all the pain can be forgotten, if you have the strength to hope. For yourself, as well as for him."

The words carried so much quiet anguish with their hope.

Diana suddenly realized she was desperate to leave the Hall, the moment fate had thrust her into. She was treading on sacred ground. The very quality of Vincent's soul she had found herself captivated by would be the very essence of the pain she needed to battle: his unbounded capacity for love, total, pure, eternal. And that love was completely claimed by the soul of a murdered woman.

That any human being was capable of such love was the heart-stopping reality that had taken hold of Diana from the first moments she had spent in Vincent's presence. That unbounded love, not even tempered by the grave, was destined to be Diana's greatest obstacle in her own besieged heart's quest for fulfillment. She would be wresting with more than simply the memories of a grief-stricken soul. Eternity would be her enemy. How could she even attempt to fight it? The deepest reaches of her soul gave her the only answers, posed only the most painful of questions.

"You seem an eternity away, Diana."

Vincent's quiet voice, suddenly beside her, stopped Diana's heart. That word running through her mind: Eternity. It was as if he had read it there within her, touched her uncertain anguish.

She hadn't realized that he had completed his story for the children, nor that Mary was no longer seated at her side. As she had stared into the flame of a candle on the table beside her, battling her inner demons silently, Vincent had watched the turmoil play quite plainly across her face. Despite his own struggles of the evening, he knew he had to reach out to her. Because he understood the source of those battling emotions on her countenance, usually so composed. Even if he could never accept what those emotions revealed towards him.

Gathering Jacob up into his arms, Vincent had walked across the room to her side.

Diana forced herself to draw her pain to herself, reading the weary restlessness that not even his concerned generosity of spirit could hide, in Vincent's gaze. She would do nothing to cause him more torment.

"Time seems to stand still down here." Her defenses carefully replaced, Diana shifted her attention to young Jacob in his father's arms. "He is so alert, taking in everything around him."

"Yes. I believe Jacob will become quite an explorer in his time. But he's had a long day. I need to get him to sleep," Vincent responded, a warm sense of pride slipping easily into his words.

Gratefully Diana accepted the momentary easing of tension speaking about the baby had brought to both of them. She reached up to touch the little boy's cheek gently without looking up into his father's face again. Though she longed to.

Diana knew that the burdened man before her would be grateful for the excuse to leave the gathering, also. Where he had found the courage to participate in the evening's events, she could only guess, in awe. From that same fathomless reservoir of spiritual power that enabled him to diminish his own heartache in favor of the common needs of those around him, the common good.

"Here is Jacob's bottle." Samantha had joined them, appearing with that sudden burst of youthful breathlessness that was uniquely hers. Vincent took the bottle into his hand with familiar ease. Diana found that her mind had halted on the completely incongruous picture: a baby's bottle in those hands of his. It suddenly didn't even seem contradictory -- such hands nurturing a child and his needs.

"Don't you want me to feed him before you go?" Samantha asked. Vincent smiled down to her, a genuine, tender smile filled with obvious affection.

"You've been nursemaiding us all day, Samantha. Why don't you go join the other children and enjoy yourself a bit longer? We'll be all right. I know Jeffrey has been eager for a rematch at chess with you."

"Well, if you really don't need me, I'd love to beat Jeffrey again." Samantha's tone of voice brought an infectious good humor onto both Vincent's and Diana's faces, momentarily. She was obviously in her element, out to prove the superiority of the female race to all those doubting Thomas's, and Jeffrey's, in her world.

"I'd wish you luck, but I'm certain you won't need it," Diana called out to the girl as she retreated to corner her challenger. There was a familiarity with Samantha's mission in life that Diana recalled also espousing at her age.

"She is some young lady."

Vincent nodded, appreciatively. "In about ten years' time this world will be reeling from her presence."

Diana could not help catching the sound of obvious pride and admiration in Vincent's voice just then. He looked an instant to the feeding baby, an indescribable emotion taking hold of his eyes.

"I don't know what I'd do without her. She helps me so much with Jacob. She loves him so."

And she loves you so, too.

Diana prayed the observation she felt revealed to her silently had not been betrayed aloud. She is aching for your pain, Vincent; she aches for Jacob's loss. But she, at least, can do something for the both of you, offer you a care and love you can reach out to and hold without guilt..

"I will guide you out as soon as Jacob is asleep."

Had Vincent read in her the desperate need for distance between them at that moment? Or was he battling the same turmoil as she? Diana merely nodded her head to him, unable to trust her voice in response. But if Vincent's heart was a troubled as hers, he showed very little sign of it.

Settling little Jacob gently against his arm, Vincent easily offered the little boy his bottle with a practiced ease. Diana felt the pain in her heart melt away as she watched him care for the child's needs as expertly and tenderly as any mother ever could.

It was obvious that though the women of the community were all offering the child their kindness and care in any capacity necessary, and at any time, his father was very much the center of his moment-to-moment upbringing. They seemed to together embody the very essence of love.

Vincent's eyes, so full of quiet anguish these days, were gently brightened as he gazed into Jacob's sweet face. The little boy held tightly to his father's finger, secure against the world, and kicked happily. The peace that softly radiated out from both of them momentarily, easily enveloped Diana as well. Her heart was eased.

A tiny voice inside her counseled her to hold the moment and carry it within her. The nearness, the peace and fulfillment she desperately ached for in her experiences with the tested soul that was Vincent, would be offered her only in the most minute of doses, at the most limited and distant of moments. Such as this one.

"I think Jacob is thriving on all the attention." Diana couldn't help but smile at the bright mischief in little Jacob's face just then. His bottle was empty and he was nowhere near to falling placidly asleep for the night, despite his father's best efforts to coax him.

"I believe he thinks that some great wonder of the world will pass him by if he should close his eyes any longer than an hour or two at a time."

Vincent's voice was illuminated more by pride than troubled by exasperation as he contemplated his little son's emerging temperament. Diana agreed, and given courage by the promising warmth of the moment, she took the little boy up into her own arms with an easy movement.

The child's infinite blue eyes, his father's eyes, locked onto her features, as he reached a tiny hand up to her face. She felt a rush of emotion wrapping itself with welcome around her heart.

Vincent felt something suddenly pull at his heart, too. Jacob looked so totally serene and in his place in Diana's arms. A mother's arms. There were a dozen women in the community that were joyfully giving the little boy their love and care, but not one of them would ever be his mother.

"Vincent, do you have a moment or two to spare?" Father's appearance broke into Vincent's thoughts just then, mercifully. "Jerry says he has found a source for the plant lights we wanted to experiment with and I thought he should take a look at the chamber we were hoping to set them up in."

"Mouse has all the plans. I'll be with you as soon as I get Jacob to bed."

The elder leader of the Underworld looked over to his grandchild in Diana's arms with obvious devotion. "Ah, yes, bedtimes. A constant struggle for a child, as I recall. And for the adults, too." He gently held the little boy's hand for moment, moving his attention to Diana in the process.

An unmistakable aura of expectation -- and barely disguised pain -- surrounded the young woman, and reached beyond her to encompass Vincent as well. Father suddenly felt as if his presence had interrupted some vital exchange between the two of them, one they were grateful to be freed from, however.

Only lapsing in control for an instant, Diana responded to Father's comment. "Vincent seems to think Jacob is too busy observing the world to be bothered with such mundane details of life as bedtimes and sleep."

"So that's what I get to look forward to? Plenty of sleepless nights?" The question was posed by the remaining person who had joined in the small group, a handsome young man of about 24 or 25, with bright dark eyes and an engaging smile. Diana thought for certain that she had seen him before, but not in the Underground. Her feelings were confirmed when Father introduced him to her. Jerry was Laura's husband, the young deaf woman Diana had become acquainted with, a former tunnel dweller herself. Jerry was also a cop, an undercover police officer who'd once been involved in a case she had worked.

Diana wondered if there were any other people she knew from the world Above, her world, that also carried the secret of this so wondrous, precarious, world of shadows in their hearts.

Father warmly patted Jerry on the back. He smiled at Diana, in recognition, too. "Our Jacob will soon no longer be the youngest member of our community," the elder physician announced with happy warmth. The look of tender and slightly bewildered awe on Jerry's face was legible to all.

"Laura is with child?" Vincent asked the younger man quietly.

"Yes, the baby's due in May. I'm going to be a father. If I survive being a father-to-be," came the quietly embarrassed reply.

"How wonderful for you both," Vincent responded, with true joy filling his voice. Laura becoming a mother: It was such hopeful news. The deaf girl had had her trials since leaving the security of the tunnels for a life above. Vincent had cared for her, loved her, as his own child. Her leaving had been as difficult for him as it had been for her. But Jerry's love had been the foundation of her new life. And now she and her young husband were beginning their own family.

Diana added her own good wishes to those exchanged among the men. Yet, she almost felt an intruder in a family's personal moments of joy. In her quiet observation, she also sensed that Vincent himself was suddenly ill-at-ease. For all the warmth in his manner and words directed at the expectant father, there was a sudden -- shadowing -- in his face that Diana had caught sight of.

"Let me find Samantha for Jacob and I will be with you in a moment." Vincent seemed more than a bit willing to change the topic of their discussion back to the experimental plant lights. Diana read a nameless -- something -- in his manner that tore at her heart; she knew she had to intervene.

"I'll take Jacob to bed, Vincent. Samantha just started her chess game with Jeffrey."

"Yes, she has, hasn't she?" Vincent's arresting eyes could not hide the relief he felt at her words. "Thank you, Diana. Lana can lead you back to my chamber. I won't be long."

Diana got up, grateful for the opportunity to get her heart's bearings back in private, knowing that Vincent himself would be attempting to do the same as he excused himself in some work project that could hold his attention briefly away from his pain. But just as she turned to leave the group, Vincent reached over to offer Jacob a parting caress. His hand unexpectedly slipped over Diana's in the process. She had to call up all her strength and presence of mind to remain holding the child steadily.

Unaware of her unsteady state, Vincent softly brushed a fingertip over Jacob's cheek with heartbreaking tenderness. "Goodnight, my little one. Heaven's angels watch over thee till the morning light." Then he turned to join the other men, gratefully. There were concrete problems to solve. Confusion of the heart would survive the wait, he knew. And that unexpected contact with a near-trembling hand holding his child had only fueled that confusion.

Diana held the little boy closely to her, eyes closed, willing herself to move from the spot. When she had gathered her shaken spirit back to herself, she sought out Lana. It took her until the steps in the howling Chamber of the Winds before her heart finally began beating rhythmically again. By the time she was left in Vincent's chamber, Diana could almost trust her emotions were somewhat under her control once more. Still, the aching want that coursed through her soul would not leave her, nor the feeling that Vincent had instinctively reached out to her for help, help in finding his own uncertain way through the pain of the night.

Returned to more familiar surroundings than the Great Hall and a crowd of doting people, Jacob betrayed the fact that his little body was indeed weary to Diana. He allowed her to change him into his sleeping clothes without his usual playful tussle of impatience and seemed genuinely content to cuddle into the warmth of his blanket, a fine hand-crocheted one in the palest shades of cream, probably born from Mary's skill.

Diana absently recalled seeing other such beautiful handiwork, growing up herself. Her grandmother, who lived just a few doors away from them, was forever laboring on some such project for the new babies of the neighborhood. She had taught Diana to stitch as well, but the frantic pace of her lifestyle had never given her the opportunity to enjoy the calm hours of such loving work.

Of course, such work would be a given in the Underground -- meeting everyday needs simply but with all the loving care of the heart. Her surroundings now mirrored that spirit to her, thankfully so.

The quiet and gentle glow of candlelight in the chamber called out to Diana's unsteady emotions of the night. Giving in to temptation, she did not settle Jacob into his cradle immediately, but made herself comfortable on the old rocking chair in the room, holding the baby tenderly in her arms, feeling the scope of her fate surround her.

It was the first time she had been completely alone with Jacob. In the past three months she had spent at least a dozen evenings in this room, quietly delighting in the wonder of the young child, but she had always been accompanied by Vincent or Mary or Samantha or one of the other women of the community. She had yet to share a few moments completely alone with the little boy, and now realized how she had longed for the opportunity, though she couldn't, or wouldn't, attempt to understand why.

When Jacob fixed those indescribable eyes of his to her soul, Diana felt the guilt begin to tear at her, overwhelm her, the guilt she had felt in accepting that unexpected touch in the Great Hall:

Another woman belonged there, holding that little boy to her breast, softly surrounding him with the most enduring and undeniable love. It wasn't her place. Those eyes of his should be holding his mother's face, his little fingers should be clutching at Catherine's hand, not hers.

Catherine.

At Vincent's side, holding Jacob gratefully, it had been too easy to coax her mind into forgetting Catherine. But Vincent could never let such treachery overtake him. His memory, his love for Catherine were eternal. The momentary conflict of emotion in his face at Jerry's happy news of impending fatherhood quickly called that love to light:

Jerry could enjoy the hopeful expectation of a new life joining his. He could tenderly care for Laura. They could share the wonder of their child's imminent birth with joy.

Vincent had been able to experience none of those moments.

Catherine hadn't even been able to give him the wondrous news before she'd been stolen from his life.

And for all his complete, utter, and undying love and devotion for his little boy, Vincent could never change one heart-shattering fact that would color their relationship for their entire lives: The very hour of Jacob's birth was also the hour of Catherine's death.

His greatest joy had come at the price of his greatest love.

Letting the tears flow freely in the security of the room, Diana gently rocked the little boy, and let the truth of it all sweep over her, unable to stem the tide of pain, both her own and the one she sensed the baby and his father would ever be subjected to.

She wasn't Jacob's mother, but only a helpful stranger on the fringe of his life. She could give him nothing beyond a smile, a touch, a word or two of encouragement as he grew. If she was strong enough to let the years slip by her and watch him grow, from afar. If she could bear the thought of his father's anguished heart forever closed to her.

Why was it so important for her to be close to the child? She couldn't seem to completely touch to the reasons. They were just beyond her grasp, lying somewhere beyond consciousness, at the edge of her inner self. Some deep part of her being had been bound to the child, unexpectedly, to the fact that he'd had to begin his tiny life in horror and would forever mirror that horror to the one soul who would love him best.

That same innermost sanctity of her heart had been bound to his father, too, a vital corner of her soul that had clung instantly, enabling her to place herself so much into his tested spirit that she had fallen in love with him long before she had even set eyes on him, found him, that night, half dead, on Catherine's grave.

What her heart refused to accept, however, was the reality of the situation she'd been cast into helplessly, willingly: An eternity of love would call out an eternity of grief. And she would always remain a casualty of that eternity.

Swallowing her tears back, Diana took Jacob's little hand into her own. Drawing in a slow, unsteady breath, she calmly voiced the reasonable consequences of battling for her heart's desire aloud to the child in her arms. Aloud to herself.

"I guess this is going to be as close as you and I are ever going to be, Jacob. I would so very much love to be more to you, to give you more, give you what you deserve, but I don't think I have the strength to endure the wait."

The small hand reached up to Diana's face in wondrous exploration. Even amid the tears and frustration, Diana had to smile at that innocent touch. Everything was so hopeful and new for the child.

Diana touched a kiss to that little hand. It could have been a mother's kiss. Softly she continued her conversation with the child, giving voice to so many entangled emotions locked within her.

"I don't have to worry about you, Jacob, I know. Your father loves you more than you will ever be able to understand. He'll always be there to help you and guide you, to protect you.

"And Mary and Father, all the wonderful people here around you will help you grow and be happy. They are all your family."

Finding it so painfully difficult to put any other of her engulfing thoughts into words, Diana sat rocking quietly with the child, until she was capable of grasping the reality of the situation she was enmeshed in.

"Maybe from time to time I can come and spend an hour or two with you here, too. I could tell you stories, and let you know a little bit of the world Above, the good parts. Maybe we could be... friends."

The gentle-spirited young woman faltered over that last word -- "friends". It seemed more of a condemning sentence than a promising joy -- a sentence that would keep her safely on the edges of the little boy's life. And his father's. Anything closer and her own heart would truly be endangered, her serenity and hope in life besieged. Because Diana had to remind herself just then of the one person she could never become: Jacob's mother.

The truth was heartbreakingly simple: the child did have one, a mother, who had loved him with all her heart and soul, who had bravely awaited his birth alone, surrounded by pain, evil, and finally, death, a mother who now could only watch over him from a far off heaven.

Despite that truth, Diana's heart still refused to be bridled. So her sentence would be a condemnation to mere friendship. If it kept her at all within the child's life, it would be enough. She could bear the limitations, if it meant enriching Jacob's existence with her care.

A friend's tender hand could just as easily wipe tears away. A friend's caring and trust could almost ease pain, just as well. A friend's gentle touch could comfort and sustain... ... a motherless child...

But was this all really simply about reaching out to a motherless child? In her honesty, Diana had to accept the truth herself: A friend's gentle touch could comfort and sustain a motherless child. But it could never replace a beloved's hand.

 

Vincent turned down the final corridor towards his chamber with a measured step. His own room had seemed to offer the promise of solace, where he could sort through the emotions of the evening and attempt to get past them for another day. Yet that solace would need to wait even tonight. Diana would be in his chamber tonight, with Jacob. He would need to walk her the long way out to her own home. They would need to share the company of more minutes than his heart could handle without pain.

For there was pain within him where Diana was concerned, a pain of confusion, guilt, and unexplained -- oneness -- that he could not trust his heart to acknowledge.

He owed Diana so much: his life, Jacob's life. She had risked everything to help him, without questions. She had asked nothing, absolutely nothing, in return. Except in the depths of her green eyes.

Even now, she was reaching a hand out to him, hesitant, unsteady, reading the deepest recesses of his soul with a grasp of the truth that was terrifying -- as well as unexpectedly comforting.

Thus, Vincent wasn't entirely surprised at the feelings that battled within him when he at last came up to the doorway of his chamber.

The rocking chair in his room was facing at an angle away from the entrance, and the sight of Diana cradling Jacob in her arms seated there was something he could gently linger over without immediately being noticed.

He had to linger, to hold the sight and sounds in his heart, for they pierced him with a sweet ache he could not bring himself to interrupt.

 

Diana was suddenly plunged into the same situation as Samantha had been earlier that evening: She needed a benign way to defuse the volatile and painful combination of circumstances and emotions surrounding her, threatening to engulf her at any moment. Vincent would be returning soon, and she'd not cause him any more pain than he was already enduring. Even if she longed to unburden her heart to him, longed to feel his tenderness reach her own pain.

Something neutral was needed, to bring some surface balance back into her demeanor. A story. She would read Jacob a story. It would fix her mind on other, less catastrophic thoughts, pull her experience of the evening back within bearable limits.

Easing off the chair momentarily, Diana reached her free arm to the wooden chest that served as a table and storage space within the room. Numerous well-worn children's books had been piled upon it for quick reference -- "A Child's Garden of Verse", "When We Were Young", "Just So Stories".

Choosing the Kipling volume, Diana resettled herself and Jacob onto the chair. The little boy batted lightly at the book in her hand. Diana had no doubt that even at such a tender age, the sound of the written word coming alive was a familiar part of Jacob's world. He may not have understood the words yet, but the comforting sound of a beloved voice was clearly part of the respite that was his home.

Paging through the volume, Diana came to a halt at "The Butterfly That Stamped", one of her own favorite stories. She turned her attention momentarily back to Jacob.

"All the bigger children really enjoy it when your father tells them a special story. He's probably already telling you and reading you stories, too, right?" A little fist bobbing onto the page was the response Diana received. Settling Jacob a bit more comfortably in her arms, she continued rocking slowly for several moments.

But it was no use. Her conflicting hopes, her flooding emotions, would not be quelled this night by the gentle wonder of a beloved fairy tale. Only the truth would do, this night, both for the child, and herself.

Instead of reading from the pages of the oft-repaired book and placing both herself and Jacob into the "high and far-off times", Diana closed the volume and shut her eyes. No, tonight the little boy needed to hear a different story. Her own heart needed to be reminded of a different story.

"I'll tell you a very beautiful tale tonight, Jacob. It's very special, too, because it is a true story."

In the concealment of his position, Vincent shifted a little more into the room, sensing Diana's struggle for control even now. He could make out the brightness of tears where they betrayed themselves on the pale cheek turned closest to him, but he had neither the strength of heart nor the power of hope to reach out to her in her need. That need was, at the moment, too frighteningly intertwined with his own.

Diana bent her head down close to Jacob's face, so the little boy now and then could reach up to her easily as he lay serenely cuddled near her heart, wrapped in his blanket. It didn't take long for Vincent to understand the significance of Diana's course of action. He nearly held his breath to listen, to steady the rising tide of engulfing emotions pulling him into its wake, triggered by the gentle scope of love reaching out to his child. And with a burden of guilt -- to him.

"There was once a wondrous and brave knight who lived in a magical, shadowy kingdom beneath a great city. The knight was kind and good, with a heart full of truth and honor. The people in his shadow kingdom loved and respected him.

"But the knight had been placed under a terrible curse through some unknown evil of long ago: The beauty of his soul would remain always hidden by his beyond human body. The people of his kingdom saw him as the wondrous, magnificent being that he truly was. But in the city above his home, he would only be seen as frightening and threatening. He was free to walk the city streets only in the dark of night because of it."

A sudden chill ran through Vincent's body at Diana's eloquently anguishing description of his existence. Yet, he could not turn away from the sound of her voice, the depth of care softening her words to a pained whisper.

Diana continued her story, stroking her hand gently over Jacob's downy hair as she spoke.

"One night, as he walked the city alone in the dark, the knight came across a helpless young woman, injured and close to death. Even though she was from the land above, a stranger who might do him and his world harm, he risked himself to bring her to safety in the shadow land. For days he cared for her, helped nurse her back to health, and it wasn't long before he and the woman fell deeply in love.

"But, she was a princess of the world above, the city that was bright as day, and the knight could only be safe in the twilight of his shadow land below, far beneath the blue skies of her home."

Searching blue eyes held her face with astonishing directness. As she looked lovingly into Jacob's sweet features, Diana suddenly felt as though the child was listening to her with true understanding, not simply being lulled placidly by the soft sound of a familiar voice, but truly reacting to her words with transfixed attention. She smoothed the blanket wrapped round his sturdy little body with trembling hands. But the commitment to her narrative did not waver.

"The princess was kind and good as well. Her joy was in helping those around her, how ever she was able. She and the knight dreamed of living a happy life together someday. Their love would create a warm and safe and bright kingdom all their own, where they would always be free to share one another's hearts."

Another pause let the words penetrate to Diana's soul. A love like that... She could only imagine loving someone like that, being loved like that.

And Vincent could only remember.

Diana stroked the cheek of the child in her arms as she took in a ragged breath. That little boy was the very embodiment of that perfect love, precious, treasured, beyond price. Her own aching heart could hardly compete in the face of such perfection. Still, in the shadows, the truth of it held another grief-stricken heart entranced.

"Though the knight and the princess loved each other deeply and truly, there was no place in her world for him, and he would never dream of asking her to leave behind her own bright home for his shadowy existence. Their beautiful love was destined to remain incomplete. Still, they managed to find happiness in the times that they did share.

"One day, it seemed that heaven itself had blessed their love, all the pain and uncertainty they'd had to endure. The princess was given some miraculous news: the love she and the knight shared would bring them a truly marvelous gift -- a child. But before she could even tell the knight of their precious joy, the princess was stolen away by an evil ruler of the land above, one who destroyed anything good or light or truthful he could find because he believed only in his own dark power of fear."

Looking across the softly lit room, Diana was returned to a sunny morning when she had listened in pained attention to the details of a desolate man's futile search for the woman he loved. Vincent had stood before the windows of her loft, the bright light of day streaming in over his magnificent features, yet he had been surrounded only by the gray-black pain of grief and regret.

"The knight searched desperately for his princess for months, never resting. All of his people searched as well, night and day. No one could find her.

"Soon it was time for the princess to bear her child, and she was terribly afraid. She knew that the evil ruler meant only to lure the knight away from the safety of his home. He would use her and her baby without mercy for his terrible plan. And she would never live to see her beloved knight again."

The pain filling the quiet room was suddenly so palpable it overwhelmed Diana with its power. Her words were only a shuddering whisper. "As soon as the child was born, he was taken away from his mother. The princess was left to die, unable to even hold her little baby. And the knight only found her in time for her to die in his arms, as she told him with her last breath about the son he didn't know he had."

Looking away from the child she sheltered in her own tender embrace, Diana felt an horrific ache burn into her heart for an instant. Had it been Catherine's pain just then? "Oh, Cathy," she breathed in turmoil, "you are the one that should be here now. Not me."

Vincent clutched at his own chest, leaning heavily against the stone wall, tears streaming freely from his eyes -- tears for his beloved, lost Catherine, torn from the bright hope of his life; tears for himself; for Jacob, who would never know a mother's love. And tears for Diana; Diana, loving, and never knowing if her tender soul would ever be blest by its return to her.

After a long moment of battling complete, emotional torment, Diana realized that she had to give up her narrative or risk being found in total anguish upon Vincent's return to his chamber. Defensively, she moved to ease herself up from the chair, trying to understand how her attempt to steady her precarious control on her heart had descended into utter spiritual chaos. What had possessed her to throw herself into such turmoil? And she believed she could survive the wait for a grief-shattered man to find his hope in her? She couldn't hold on to the hope herself, let alone reach any of it out to Vincent.

Her gaze fell finally back to Jacob, the child settled without question to a total contemplation of her pain-darkened green eyes. She suddenly saw his father's face in that gaze, reaching, aching, yet so terribly afraid, so lost and alone. She knew she had to somehow find the strength to continue, for the child's sake. For her own. The seeming knowledge and comprehension she read in those startling blue eyes called out to her, willing her, pleading with her, to continue.

As was Vincent. Fighting the pain and turmoil in his own heart, he still found the capacity to wonder at the power of Diana's presence, at her ability to cauterize her own pain so she could give Jacob this precious gift, the story of his mother's and father's love and loss.

Wiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, Diana regained her voice and continued her fable. It was the only thing she could possibly do. It was the only way she could find her own path through the maze of assaulting pain.

"The little prince was lost to the world, a prisoner in the evil king's castle, without a mother or father to protect him. But the knight had not given up his search. He had lost his beloved princess. He would not lose his child, too. He dreamed of his little boy, risked everything to find him -- his freedom, his home, his own life.

"He gave himself up to the king, ready to die to save his child. The king would not release the little boy. Instead he kept the knight a prisoner as well, hoping to turn him to evil. Certain of his own death, the knight fell into his darkest hour, despairing of ever freeing his child. Still, when there seemed to be no hope left within him, heaven smiled down upon him and brought him help.

"People from both the knight's shadow world and the princess's bright city found their way to the dark castle. The evil king knew he would soon be defeated. Planning his own last horrible vengeance on the knight, he tried to kill the little prince. Knowing that his child was in danger, the knight found the strength to free himself and saved the child before the king could harm him.

"For a long, terrifying moment, the knight stood over the wicked king, remembering all the pain and horror he had brought into the world, into the knight's own life, all the loss. He ached to destroy the king, to send him and his evil power straight back to Hell where they belonged. But the knight knew that if he did so, the king would have indeed won his battle -- for he would have taken the knight's heart of honor and truth and turned it into a heart of darkness like his own.

"So, the knight simply turned away from the king, gathered his little child into his arms, and started on his way back to his home."

Diana sat silently at last, drawn back into that moment, the instant she knew that Vincent's torment at the hands of the evil of the world above would not yet be ended with Jacob's rescue. It had been her cursed destiny to end that torment. And her blessed burden to seek to restore his hope. The stillness surrounding her was so complete that she could almost hear the candlelight. Would heaven ever turn the remaining darkness shadowing her love to bright and tender light?

With a supreme effort to pull herself back to the present, Diana settled her thoughts to the child in her embrace. Jacob had yet to fall asleep. He was sweetly, easily, settled into the comfort of her arms, a look of soft, cherished acknowledgment reaching out to her from his face. It felt so right to be holding him so, such a merciful gift to love him so. But would it really ever be hers to accept? Gathering the child up gently, she moved to place him into his cradle, lest her anguish of the past moments be too evident to his father upon his return.

And what had that anguish accomplished this night? She had given the child the story of his parent's love, of all they had dreamed, all they had endured, all they had risked, in the name of love. It was an extraordinary story, an extraordinary love. Her own simple devotion paled in comparison, a trembling uncertainty destined never to survive. It would be best if she just accepted her fate. She could bring Vincent little beyond a hesitant friendship that he could willingly embrace for its tolerant shelter. Even if it was nothing more than a lie, an illusion of quiet acceptance drawn over a yearning need to hold him, heart and soul, to herself, for all eternity.

It would appear that even that lie was found out, now, because before she could come to her feet, Vincent had left the shadowed area of his chamber door to come to her side.

Kneeling before her, his uniquely beautiful face level with hers, he'd somehow been able to gather his courage enough to announce his presence to her.

Yet, a part of him wished desperately that he had never lingered long enough to hear Diana bare her soul. For that was what had transpired with her words. They had been meant as much for her troubled, guilt-ridden, loving heart as they had been for Jacob. And they had become a gift for him, too, one he could only stand in awe of and dream sadly that he could find the strength to accept.

Diana faced Vincent with a shuddering spirit. When she realized how long he could have possibly been listening, her heart snapped in two. What pain, what grief had her words set alight within him once again? Mary had counseled her to "help him find his hope." She would have done anything to reach him, to comfort him, to spare him pain. But now she had to face him in a state of turmoil of her own construction that had the power to crush his so desolate and fragile spirit to dust.

"I'm, I'm sorry, Vincent," she quietly stammered out, aware that his eyes had pierced her to her soul. "I'm sorry... I never meant to, to trivialize your pain." She covered her face with one hand in abject shame, even as she held Jacob protectively on her lap with the other.

Vincent didn't even have to think about what he should do. It came as a natural, so needful gesture to them both: He raised his own hand, that unearthly, deadly hand, to her face and lifted her gaze gently to his, drew her past confusion and remorse to breathtaking tenderness, his soft, comforting voice easing her anguish surely.

"The only thing you have trivialized, Diana, is your own role in our story. If Jacob is to know the truth, value his past, understand it, and use it as his strength for the future, he will need to know the whole story. I would have him learn the whole story as he grows. He will need to hear about another principle character in the fable."

Diana felt her heart tremble with an unexpectedly sweet ache this time. Would heaven indeed show them both a glimmer of mercy? Vincent's penetrating gaze never released hers as he spoke, his azure eyes alive with some indescribable emotion that was only partly sorrow and remembered pain. She could easily catch the trailing of tears that had found their way down his cheeks, still threatened to spill even within her sight. Yet, there seemed to be a very real breath of hope radiating out to her from him, an acknowledging care unafraid in its momentary revelation.

Vincent settled one hand on little Jacob's head protectively, and the other over hers on the chair arm. Diana held her breath. Then he continued the story for her, as he knew it should be remembered, as it was written within his own heart.

"When the knight returned to his home with his child, all his kingdom rejoiced at the little prince's rescue. With love they all joined together to help care for him,and his sweet, gentle spirit brought them all much peace, despite the pain of loss at the princess's death. The beautiful child carried the brightness of his mother's world in his heart, and his deep, truthful eyes mirrored the sheltering shadows of his father's home. "Still, the knight knew he would only be able to love his little son through a spirit veiled with tears and pain. He knew that without the princess at his side, he would never again feel the joy and wonder of love and hope. And, he so desperately wanted his child to know those precious gifts in his own life.

"In his aloneness, heaven once again took pity on the grieving knight, sending him someone to share his burdens -- a bright-haired angel, with a mind full of wonder, a soul full of courage, and a heart... full of unquestioning... love."

Pausing a moment, Vincent read Diana's soul in her face. She'd wanted so fiercely to protect him from her heart. Yet, she couldn't help but rejoice as well at its unveiling to him, rejoice and pray. Her prayer was answered. Vincent's voice became the sweetest sound of acknowledgment, his eyes filling with grateful, tender radiance as he held her heart, unafraid.

"The knight recognized the angel at once: When the little prince had been lost and alone, she had been his guardian spirit, bringing his father to save him. When the knight had been certain all was doomed, she had been the one to find help to free him, the one who protected him, and indeed, kept his heart safe from the darkness of evil threatening him. She had safely directed him and his child back home."

Vincent's hand, resting softly over Diana's on the chair arm, gathered her long fingers with his own, sheltering them. The sweet warmth of his touch pulled Diana's gaze up to his face, every breath of love she carried within her being for him totally unhidden. She'd always taken such pains to conceal the truth from his fragile spirit, but there it was, out in the open before the two of them -- a love unashamed to cling to hope, suddenly unafraid to, despite the long, rocky road destined to be the path before them.

Breaking the bond, at last, with her truth, Vincent drew his gaze back to her slender hand in his, overwhelmed at the trust and hope he had touched within her heart. His voice was even more of a silky-hoarse whisper than it usually was as he continued his story.

"And even when they were securely within the magical kingdom of shadows, if the little prince ever felt alone in the midst of all his loving family and friends, the angel was the one soul who could gently gather him up and offer him a tender mother's love... Beyond even that generous gift... When the knight himself despaired of ever feeling peace again, the angel's quiet presence offered... him... hope."

Diana lingered over the words a long moment before being certain she could trust her heart. She knew she couldn't trust her body, for her hand within his was trembling, with deeply held emotion and the even more deeply aching need to draw his touch to her lips, banish every breath of pain from his heart with her love. Yet, she knew that that mercy would not be theirs this moment. She could only offer him her words, her spoken truth.

"Vincent, I don't ever want to cause you or Jacob any pain. I don't ever want you to feel as though I'm trying to take Catherine's place in your hearts."

Then his own words, so blessedly comforting, returning her hope. "Diana, if you have found a place in our hearts, it is because of your own loving care for us, your own generosity of spirit towards us. Not because you are taking Catherine's place."


Continued in Chapter 3