To Hope Anew

Chapter Three


It was so familiar now, to be standing in the tunnel outside his chamber, speaking in muted tones with the woman at his side. Diana seemed so much a part of his world these days, as if she had always been a member of their community, a trusted confidant, a daughter of the Underground. She had slipped into their routines as though they had been hers since childhood. He felt he knew her that long.

Yet tonight, Vincent found something else coloring his experience of her that brought the unbelievable, fearful wonder in his heart ever closer to its surface: By this time tomorrow, they would be pledged as husband and wife.

Just allowing the realization to pass through his mind, with all its frightening enticements intact, was extraordinary. It was something he had never dreamed possible, not even with Catherine. And yet, it would be so. Another miracle in his life.

He'd thought that he'd need stop believing in miracles. The ones that had become part of his life in the past had been only, ultimately, sources of the deepest pain for him. Father had constantly sought to protect him through the years, keep him safe from life and the confounding nature of dreams coming true. But the battering reality of life found its way even to him: Dreams had a way of sometimes turning to nightmares.

And there had been nightmares.

Even now, in the hush of the late night chambers, with Jacob safely asleep nearby and Diana's hand in his, Vincent felt a momentary wrenching within his heart -- the thorn of remembrance.

There had been a time when the joy of tomorrow's celebration would have been a joy to be shared with another miracle in his life. Yet, they'd never even dared dream it, he and Catherine, a life together in love as one, blessed by the happiness of those around them.

Their dream had been left unfulfilled, their miracle profaned by an engulfing evil that had not only cost them their love and even her life, but had threatened his very soul as well.

Still, God had been merciful. Amidst the agony of loss, the hopeless grief, the nights of tears and days of hidden anguish, Vincent had found his saving miracle again -- in the redeeming presence of his tiny son.

Jacob became, simply, the tenuous source of his salvation. To live for the little child, to help open the world up to him, to nurture the precious life entrusted to him -- this had been Vincent's saving grace, his very lifeline. Without Jacob, in a world alone, he would surely have lost his soul to the despair.

Still, it had not been Jacob alone who had redeemed him from certain, total desolation.

Vincent became aware of Diana's voice directed towards him, through his thoughts. She had come closer to his side, setting her hand onto his arm with a gentle ease of shy familiarity. "What are you thinking about, Vincent?" she asked quietly, though she could guess.

"About how far we've come, and all that has transpired between us."

Vincent watched as a soft and knowing smile made its way across Diana's treasured features. Her face belonged to another time; the light of her smile brightening it with a medieval glow. There was as much an aire of mystery about her now, after three years of shared experiences, as there might have been between two beings of completely different spheres of existence -- human and supernatural. Vincent knew even now he couldn't be certain that she was completely of the former type of being and he only of the latter. She seemed to enter his very essence at times as though she was not burdened with any limiting existence of her own, a fairy spirit indeed.

"You mean about how far we never might have come, and all that's conspired to place itself between us." Diana's judgment of their shared past gave Vincent pause -- but only for a moment. He drew her gently into his arms. She easily followed his invitation and rested against him in complete comfort and trust, her head lying on his shoulder. It seemed as though she had been thus at his side for most of his life.

But he knew that was not the reality. She had had a life Above, filled with dreams and experiences he could never be a part of. To think that she would be willing to leave them all behind, for him, to live in his world, was the sweetest reality he could ever dream of for himself. Could it truly be possible? Even tonight, he had to ask. She was giving up so much -- for him.

"Diana, are you certain that... ?"

He was kept from finishing his inquiry by flashing green eyes and a cool, long-fingered hand pressing against his mouth. A rush of confident words followed, as always, when she was certain she needed to enlighten him with her truth.

"Am I certain that I love you? Am I certain that I want to spend my life with you? Do I really want to be able to care for Jacob as my own? Do I really want to give up a life in the world Above, with all its anger and ugliness and disillusionment, to spend the rest of my days here Below with friends who love me? Would I rather stop placing myself into the minds of killers and users and instead share the minds of children blossoming into life? Yes, Vincent, I am certain."

The vehemence of her response was not surprising at all to the powerful, compelling man who held her tenderly. Vincent had come to realize very early in his experience of her that Diana existed very much on a level plane with him, having to show him neither deference nor false reserve in her manner. If she ever had something to tell him, some conviction to share with him, she was totally capable to putting it into terms that would seize his attention immediately, complete with the language that years on the NYPD had instilled within her vocabulary. He smiled to himself at that last thought. Her vocabulary had been one of the few things he'd been able to soften with his influence.

Pulling back from his embrace to look him fearlessly in the eye, Diana continued her defense with her own question to him. "And what about you? Are you certain, Vincent?"

This time she'd issued the challenge with his own words, although she almost thought better of her nearly defiant response: Her arresting companion had withdrawn his gaze from her and turned partly away from her as she spoke.

But when he raised his golden-haired head back to her, Diana realized she had not caused him any momentary confusion of heart with her words -- He was actually attempting to disguise a smile that was making its way across his own extraordinary face. Her spirit brightened instantly at the sight of it.

"Yes, I am certain, Diana," he began almost gravely, but his startling blue eyes were throwing her challenge right back at her with tender humor. "I am certain that I'll be pledging myself for all eternity to an obstinant, opinionated, red-haired force of nature... and that I could be blessed by no more wondrous fate."

Diana held Vincent's carefully controlled features with an incredulous stare. Had she truly heard what she thought she had? Coming from him? The answer was a delightful, "yes", and acknowledged to her how far, indeed, the both of them had come together. There had long been nothing but pain and confusion between them. Now there was even an easy, affectionate banter.

"'Force of nature', am I?" was the mock-injured reply as Diana eased her head back to Vincent's shoulder in offended repose. Still, the strength of his arms around her never ceased to bring her comfort, stir her heart, and his easy state of spirit helped hers to soar. "I suppose I can live with that. I've been called worse."

"But you've never been loved more." A gentle kiss to her hair helped Vincent prove his point to her, one that her quickening heartbeat did not miss.

"No. And I've never wanted to love anyone more."

They stood there in the hallway, clasped in each other's arms for several long moments, with a sweet peace enveloping them both. Tomorrow their life together would be acknowledged and begun in the company of their friends. Yet, each knew that, somehow, their destinies had been linked long before they had ever set eyes on one another.

"Good God! Are you both still up? And together?" Father had been drawn to Vincent's chamber at the sound of voices. Finding his son and the woman who had healed his heart in tender companionship outside the chamber door had allowed the leader of the Underworld the fulfilling luxury of playing authoritative parent one final time this evening. He relished the opportunity of unsettling the two lovers. In fact, he relished the idea of the two of them as lovers, and the joy he knew had replaced the anguish in his son's heart. Who would have dreamed?

"It is past midnight. You two should not be seeing each other until the wedding. Now, off with you"

Diana and Vincent responded at the same time with a repentant, "Yes, Father," that made the older man's heart melt. For, his son was far beyond the need of parental admonishment at this point in his life, and his future daughter-in-law had proven herself of like spirit. But Jacob Wells knew his concern for each of them, for their well-being and happiness, was ever appreciated.

Easing from the support of Vincent's arms, Diana offered an acknowledging kiss to Father on the cheek. The so dignified leader and scholar felt his spirit brighten at the gesture, as it always did. Vincent added his own similar affection, unselfconsciously. "We were about to say 'good night', Father. And you need your rest, too, for tomorrow."

"I know, I know. But who can sleep before the prospect of such a momentous occasion?" The older man turned then with a smile, to make his way back to his own nearby chamber, leaving Vincent and Diana to complete their farewells for the night.

"Father seems like he is getting younger these days," Diana observed as the respected and beloved leader had turned the corner in the tunnel.

"You bring him a great deal of joy as well, Diana. He deserves it. There have been too many burdens for him to carry in the recent past. You help him lift his heart. You help me lift mine."

A tender and open caring filled Vincent's voice, his features, as he spoke to her. Diana found it difficult, still, to truly believe: that so radiant a display of love was hers, despite everything. It wasn't so long ago that he could barely hold her gaze with his, the veil of anguish reaching beyond his heart clouding any contact he could allow himself to hold with her.

Still, her keen insight, her deeply intuitive nature, had yet managed to read the growing endearment he felt for her, day by day, and her own heart was able to fix itself to the tiniest hints of promise revealed in his most unguarded moments with her.

A less compelling soul would have fled the ordeal of resurrecting his hope long ago, with spirit in wracked pain. Only Diana could pinpoint the exact instant she realized the friendship, trust, and gratitude she knew he carried with welcome within him for her were capable of transforming themselves into the sweetest and most profound experience of love: that born out of shared pain and flourishing in spite of all the odds.

She had truly been most generously blessed. In almost all things where he was concerned, at last. Almost. It was difficult to force that last thought to the back of her mind. For, there was still the shadow of pain left to linger between them, even on this night. She would learn to live with that shadow, somehow. It would have to be the price she'd need to pay to shelter his soul with hers.

Vincent turned her gently in his arms, holding her lightly by the shoulders. His piercing azure eyes held Diana's for one long instant as he watched her struggle momentarily in controlling the rhythm of her heart. There was something yet, some hidden particle of her spirit, that she guarded still. It unexpectedly forced her to look completely vulnerable at that instant, poignantly in need and uncertain, despite her usually formidable, decisive presence.

Vincent felt his own heart tremble at its revelation, at the compelling ache he felt arise within him to wipe every bit of her disquiet pain away, fulfill her every unvoiced yearning. Whatever the cost. It urged Vincent to reach out to her tenderly, breathing a sweet, reassuring touch of a kiss to her forehead. "Good night, my love," he whispered softly. "Until tomorrow."

She couldn't keep from sinking into the comforting, yet suddenly heart-stopping power of his body with those quiet words. Lifting her eyes to meet his once again, her heart revealed itself completely to him. Echoing his own words with a betraying tremor in her voice, Diana whispered, "Good night, my love." Then she pulled herself from his now uncertain embrace reluctantly, stepping down the corridor towards the guest chamber beyond before her control betrayed her.

 

Jacob had kicked his blankets off again, curling himself into a little ball at one end of his crib. Vincent shook his head at the sleeping child, a loving smile easily forming on his face. Carefully, he drew the covers back up over the little boy. The extra warmth reaching him in his sleep after a moment allowed Jacob to stretch himself out of his constricted pose. One small hand carried a well-worn stuffed animal with him in his more comfortable position --It was a small version of a much-loved Velveteen Rabbit -- very real from the worn look of him. It had been Vincent's own, as a child. The total peace enveloping his sleeping son drifted deeply, gratefully within Vincent's own spirit.

He was an extraordinary child, parental prejudices not withstanding. Jacob's very essence seemed to radiate light like the candles in the room. And not only his physical presence, though that was captivating enough: tousled, golden-red curls like a halo round his head, a gentle mouth easily turned into a smile, small, curious hands that loved to touch and hold and be held, and a soul that was mirrored in its grace through limpid sky-blue eyes, eyes that made even Vincent feel that the child could pass directly into one's own soul.

It seemed as though the very life source of the little boy's spirit was not confined within his body but shimmered gently round about him -- knowing, learning, loving, with all his little heart.

Vincent rested his hand lightly on Jacob's curls in fatherly benediction. The tiniest breath of a smile passed over the little boy's face, aware, even in his sleep, of his father's protective touch. With a startling, momentary ache, both proud and sad, that was reserved for parents of young children, Vincent realized that Jacob was very quickly outgrowing his crib, as he had outgrown his cradle. Time would not keep from racing away, taking with it the precious discoveries of babyhood and toddler years, leaving confusion as well as celebration in its wake. Jacob was already hurrying towards his future, day by day, moment by moment. But he still needed the loving protection and presence of his father near.

Once or twice this past month, Vincent had awakened in the middle of the night to the endearing feeling of the little boy asleep in his arms, in his own bed. Jacob had climbed over the crib rails and sought out the sheltering warmth of his father's body in sleep.

Not having had the heart to carry the little boy back to his crib on those nights, Vincent instead had safely tucked a protective arm about him and let the child cuddle close. Jacob didn't seem to be awakening from fear or dreams. It appeared that he simply needed to rest himself close to a loved one's body, feeling his father's heart beat close to his own, offering gentle, sustaining support. Having him near on those nights had brought as much peace to the powerful, indescribable man as it had to the little boy in his embrace.

Turning to his own bed, Vincent recognized an unexpectedly disquieting thought that insisted on forcing itself into his mind just then. It was a thought that had surfaced into his consciousness with unsettling frequency in past days and he wasn't certain he could come to grips with it yet, with the very idea of having to acknowledge it within his suddenly unsteady heart: He would be sharing his bed once again, tomorrow night.

They had made each other a promise in the turmoil of a heated moment, each desperately afraid of losing the other forever to the pain consuming them.: A promise that no boundaries would be tested until he could find his way past them without fear. But he had also accepted the hope of that promise with his pledge -- that no boundaries would be accepted with blind faith as the limit to their experience of love. A love that had grown more profound, tender and breathtakingly human with each passing day.

Sharing his bed with Diana... the very thought of it conjured a too-sweet and beguiling ache in his mind and heart that refused to be willed away. Though they had easily shared sheltering embraces, offered one another gentle, supporting gifts of tenderness, moments of shared closeness unafraid to touch to the depths of their love -- the mere thought of holding Diana close beside him in the revealing dark of night was more than his besieged spirit could handle at the moment.

Listening to the heartbeat of a beloved resting close beside his own, setting his beyond-human hand on a slender shoulder miraculously without fear -- these were as profoundly intimate images as Vincent could manage to allow himself possession of where Diana was concerned. Their sweet, hopeful promise took his breath away. Could such closeness ever be truly theirs, beyond the fear?

Vincent unexpectedly lingered over the memory of just such a tender moment, one he had inadvertently become a part of more than three years ago. It was at the time that Laura had left the tunnels behind for a life Above and had found herself struggling in a harsh and unfamiliar world.

He had sought her out one night, with Catherine's assistance, intent on bringing her back home -- to safety, to security, to a life she once knew and loved. Any parent would have attempted to do so, protect her, help guide her steps as they faltered, and Vincent had become more of a parent to her than even Father.

Still, when he had finally discovered Laura's whereabouts on that night, in a rundown tenement, all his resolve to "rescue" her from the world Above had instantly vanished. He knew his efforts would be futile. The reason? He had discovered Laura was not alone in that world.

Vincent had come upon them simply by chance, when he had glanced into her window from the fire escape, intending to get her attention so that they might speak about the important things that needed to be said: Laura and the young undercover police officer, Jerry, asleep in one another's arms. The sweet peace and comfort, the devotion and love their tender posture radiated, erased any of the ugly seediness of their surroundings. It was as if they were suspended in their own little pocket of Eden, besieged all around by the Fall, yet somehow untouched. It took Vincent's breath away.

And when he was finally able to speak to his prodigal daughter, when she had quietly slipped from Jerry's embrace and joined Vincent on the fire escape, there were no reproaches in his message to her, no outrage -- only a concern for her safety and happiness and a question whose answer he already knew: Did she love the young man?

Her beautiful sign language said it all -- that, and the shimmer in her eyes -- With all her heart. It was nearly a challenge to him.

Vincent had taken a moment to read her unfamiliar defiance, then had shaken his head slightly, the beginning of a bemused smile on his face. When had he missed it? When had she stopped being a little girl? When had her heart become capable of such emotions? "You've become a woman," he had observed of her simply. She had smiled a grateful, tender, woman's smile.

Thus, despite the obstacles, despite the pain, fear, anger and frustrations, she had opted to remain Above -- to follow her heart, with Jerry at her side, in a love they could share in fully now as husband and wife.

The sweet remembrance of the young lovers gave Vincent a moment's heartache, despite his joy at their fulfillment: such dreams were never destined to be his and Catherine's. The very thought of lying so beside her, holding her to him in a lover's embrace, had been only a terrifying, uninhibited wonder -- to be explored only upon pain of death -- literally.

Even beyond the ever present shadow of his "otherness", there were more equally compelling obstacles to their paths of completion in love. The very fabric of their devotion seemed to mirror all the unspoken doubts Vincent carried in his ravaged soul as to his worthiness of so sweet a blessing of heaven.

For Catherine was his dream, his miracle, the shining light that had brilliantly opened the world to him. The tapestry of their love was woven in threads of silk and gold, in colors rich and rare, all worked into a marvelous, fragile, costly portrait of love at its most totally pure and elevated reaches.

Yet, in the weeks before losing her, when he'd never dreamed the world's vicious evil could rip her from his life, Vincent had begun reading more from Catherine's emotions through his bond to her heart. Only in those deep places of her soul did he realize that her total and unshakable love for him could still ache for more total and complete fulfillment for them both... that the spiritual wonder that was their love still could long for the emotional, the physical, outpouring of that love between them.

In beguiling moments that hinted at eternity, they had begun to shed, ever so cautiously, the carefully erected defenses around their humanity. What would the future have held for them then? What would they have been willing to risk?

Catherine had been torn from his existence before they could ever even begin to contemplate such a heart-stopping turn in their lives together.

And now there was Diana.

He somehow already almost knew what it would be like to feel her asleep in his arms in the middle of the night, to shelter her body as willingly as he sheltered her spirit within his soul. The deep, uncharted waters of any physical completion for their love were still so unknown, risk-charged and threatening, but for some unexplainable reason Vincent believed himself capable of grasping to the possibility of a safe haven somewhere beyond the murky depths. It would require all his courage and a complete trust in Diana's love. He already knew where her fragile heart stood in the matter.

She was so different from Catherine... indeed, his love for her was so different, too. There was less of the awe and incredulous wonder and more of the indescribable -- rightness -- of it all. The fabric of their compelling devotion to one another was more a woven homespun than silk, soft, warm, comforting, beautiful because its intricate patterns of care and trust and shelter were the hard-won possibilities born of their own hands and hearts. They could wrap themselves within it easily and be consoled. Its gentle, familiar patterns were gifts of home, hearth and humanity, difficult to refuse. Sharing his life, his dreams, his world... his bed... with Diana meant only accepting the natural consequences of a love based on the shared needs of very human souls.

Catherine had been a miracle in his life, a rare gift he never felt completely worthy of accepting.

Diana was a reality born from his own spirit.

And they would be pledged to one another in marriage tomorrow. She was not only ready to embrace him as her partner, her soulmate, for life, but accept his world as well, his child, Catherine's child. There was something so extraordinary in that part of the reality of her love for him.

Even Catherine had had her doubts about giving up her life Above. When she had come Below for his comfort as she grieved the loss of her father, he had risked hellfire in allowing himself to hope that her experience of an existence Below, with him in his world, might have been one she truly would rather never want to leave behind. But it was not to be.

He had comforted her in her feelings of failure then, pointing out sensibly that there would be other moments to consider such a step in their lives, moments not charged with foresight-robbing emotion that would cloud their thinking. Still, he had bled inside that she took his words to heart in total trust. He would never ask her to give up the promise of her world for the shadows of his.

Diana had come to accept his world, though, as her own personal sanctuary over the course of time they'd shared, separate even from him. The world she was leaving Above was one rife with emotional anguish for her, a draining, daily immersion into the belly of the beast that was so often the city. The quiet, spirit-nurturing support of the Underworld was of a kind her beleaguered nature accepted readily, with little doubt or turmoil. And in that acceptance there had been a wealth of hope for them both.

There was still so much fear to work past, though, so much uncertainty between them. Their steps together up to that moment had been hesitant and plagued by the guilt and doubt of their individual responses to a love unlike any other. They had promised to work past it all with tender patience, the very reality of sharing their humanity with one another the unthinkable, but very center, of their pain. Could it be possible?

He had taken one small step, allowed himself the thought that it all could be right for them, opened himself up to the admission that he truly ached to be husband and lover to Diana. And dreamed that she might welcome him with the glowing candlelight of her own precious, generous love, one fearless of boundaries and limits.

Vincent left the side of Jacob's crib quietly, intent upon reassuring himself of his heart's conviction. He pulled open a drawer in his wardrobe, trying not to awaken the child. Even in the dim light of the room, he had no trouble finding what he sought in the drawer -- a rectangular-shaped bundle caught up in a worn length of toweling.

Setting the bundle onto his writing table next to the few still-lit candles, he carefully eased a wooden box from the cloth -- a beautiful box of old mahogany gleaming in the light. Moving aside a small metal latch, he opened it and removed the precious contents from the satin-lined interior.

There were three pieces: a comb, a brush, and a hand mirror, each of heavy, ornate silver -- a Victorian ladies' dresser set. The metal glowed softly in the candlelight as Vincent held the brush in his hand.

Even just a few short weeks ago, he would have seriously questioned his hold on his sanity for even considering such a gift for Diana on their wedding day -- such a personal gift that seemed to overstep the boundaries they'd willingly agreed to concerning what would be possible for them to embrace as physical expressions of their love. But just like most every other aspect of their singular relationship, it seemed that forces beyond their control or understanding were guiding their paths to each other in a direction that hardly steered clear of the depths of passion that could prove blessing or curse in their lives. The gift had come to him in like manner -- unexpectedly, and bewitchingly disguised within the tenderness of a humanity they both craved, yet feared:

 

When Mary had ventured to offer him her idea of planning a ladies' evening for Diana, Vincent had already been struggling for several days in an attempt to find a way of doing something special for her himself, offering her some sign of welcome and acceptance into their community, for he realized from the rather distracted nature of her manner during past days that joining the Underground would entail a great deal of upheaval in her life, and cost her a good part of what she cherished in the world Above, for all its trials and heartaches. Vincent hoped to find some small way to ease her transition, make her feel less like she was abandoning her existence Above for the unknown and unfamiliar world that was his home. It suddenly had become so important for him, to help her feel at home, as if she were now not so much in his world, but in their world.

Mary's idea of a shower would assure his bride-to-be of the friendship of the women, and indeed of everyone, in the community. And Vincent thought he might be able to help Diana adjust in another way: He would make his chamber a little less like his sanctuary and more like their home.

It was quite a momentous decision, for the only change his room had seen since Devin's departure and the packing away of children's books and toys, had been the addition of Jacob's cradle and dresser, and then, as the little boy had grown, the exchange of the cradle for a crib. But, he felt it was a small gift he could present Diana with, in light of the drastic turn her own life would need to take, no matter how anticipated, by living Below.

So, Vincent, Mary and Olivia had headed down to the storage tunnels one afternoon in search of items that could make his chamber a bit more welcoming to Diana.

Their success had been almost immediate, which he took as a positive sign. A small drop-leaf table was found, along with a pair of matching chairs, to replace the writing table that seated only himself in his chamber. A hinged screen was retrieved from a far corner of the storage area to serve as a divider for Jacob's alcove in the room, once it was brightened with clean fabric on its three panels. A bright patchwork quilt that was sadly torn on one side was deemed perfect for the wall behind the child's crib after it was cut down to size. The extra fabric bits from the damaged end could be used for a pillow.

Those finds easily decided to, Mary then asked Vincent a practical enough question in light of their endeavor. "Will Diana need a dresser or chest, do you think?"

Vincent considered the question a moment before responding. "There is plenty of room in the one I already have. But I'm certain she would appreciate some small furnishing of her own."

"What about this, Vincent?" Olivia had ventured far into the recesses of the stored furniture, chests, candlesticks and beds, to draw a sheet from off one intriguing item.

It was a turn-of-the-century ladies' dressing table of finely carved cherry wood, standing on slim, turned legs and crowned with a marvelous framed oval mirror only slightly hazy. Several small drawers were finished with carved fronts, and a padded bench with a tapestry seat fit into the recessed leg area.

Mary's face lit up when she recognized the dresser. It had been brought Below years ago, as part of the estate of a dear and valued Helper who had bequeathed her few, but exquisite possessions to their world. Antique dealers had offered intermediaries next to nothing for the piece, citing the need to have the mirror re-silvered, so the possibility of selling the dresser had been dropped in favor of its use by the ever expanding community. Father, himself, had offered the furnishing to Mary for her chamber, to replace her own unsteady chest of drawers, but she had promptly declined it, observing that such a fine dressing table deserved a lovely young lady's reflection in the mirror, and not her own graying one.

Vincent stood in silent contemplation of the dresser for a long moment. Mary guessed he wasn't simply assessing the quality of the workmanship, knew from a mother's pain exactly what he was thinking instead -- that he had never had a mirror in his chamber before. The realization almost shook Mary's faith in the rightness of their actions, dreading having caused turmoil instead of encouraging hope. But then the matriarch of the community watched gratefully as the quiet warmth of Vincent's intense eyes deepened. She was certain now of what he could see in his heart: A gentle-spirited, amber-haired young woman seated on the bench before the mirror, attending to her grooming in the peaceful glow of their home. "I believe Diana would be very pleased with it, Olivia," Vincent pronounced quietly.

Mary breathed a silent prayer of thanks.

"We will need something for the top of it. A lace scarf, perhaps, and maybe a small keepsake box." The elder woman had the situation well under control, it seemed, again.

"Would there be anything in the 'Bride's Chest' like that, do you think?" Olivia questioned. Mention of the "Bride's Chest" assured Vincent he had absolutely no place in the continued proceedings in the room, but the two women would not lose their reluctant companion so easily.

"I'm certain there is," Mary replied. "You must help us, Vincent. The chest is down over there. I'm afraid it's been all but buried since Laura's wedding."

Vincent followed Mary's directing hand and managed to free a large steamer trunk of ancient pedigree from the surrounding clutter of dusty furnishings. He could not help himself, despite his misgivings: The mystery of the "Bride's Chest" was of interest even to him, as he recalled its history:

Mouse had been the hero of the day where the chest was concerned. He had come upon the trunk buried in the rubble of a leveled building several years ago, during one of his foraging expeditions with a number of the other boys. Finding the trunk, and getting it Below, were two quite separate stories, replete with adventure in their own right.

But when the chest had been opened, Mouse was disappointed to find that it held not preciously useful tools or hardware goods. Instead, the chest sheltered a wealth of "ladies' doodads" as he called them -- fine embroidered linens, bolts of exquisite fabrics, silver candlesticks, and carefully preserved letters and momentos, all in marvelously good condition. Beneath it all was a silk wedding gown and veil, and the dried remains of a flower bouquet in a small hatbox.

Mouse's discovery may have been a distress to him, but he became very quickly a hero to the women of the Underground who could still appreciate the fine hand-worked treasures that were obviously a part of a bride's trousseau from at least eighty years ago.

The letters told the story of a young English bride -- Jane Elizabeth Wentworth, who had come to America to join her recently emigrated Irish husband, Michael O'Neill, in New York. The couple had been faced with parental opposition, the letters revealed, and they hoped a new life in the U.S. would bring them happiness free of prejudice.

Unfortunately, Michael was killed during the First World War, just months after Jane had come to New York, and their dreams were left unfulfilled. Jane never married again, instead devoting her life to helping poor immigrant girls without families. She died in an influenza epidemic at the age of 28. Her precious possessions were lost through the years, ending up somehow in the ruined building, untouched.

Having learned the story of Mouse's treasure, it was unanimously decided by the community's council representatives that the contents of Jane Elizabeth's chest be held for similar use as her own life's work: Each young woman of the community was to have the opportunity to choose a small gift from out of the chest at age 16, and then again at the time of her marriage. The older women and those already married could also choose something from the chest upon the birth of a child, or a milestone birthday or wedding anniversary.

In the eight years that the "Bride's Chest" had become a part of the Underworld, nearly every woman over the age of 16 had been given the opportunity to share in its treasures. But there were still many more articles left, as the women had been claiming only the smallest of items -- a single doily, a lone yard of fabric. And the most precious articles, the wedding gown, the flowers and the letters, had been carefully repacked within the chest to someday be displayed with honor therein.

Mary had been placed in charge of the wondrous chest and it was one of her particularly pleasurable duties to help a young bride choose her gift. She had never dreamed she would someday be doing the same for Vincent's love.

Olivia carefully removed a long dresser doily of cutwork and lace for Mary to consider. "Is this one long enough?"

"Bring it over here, Livvy, and we can see what it will look like," Mary instructed, as she dusted off the dresser with part of the sheet that covered it.

As the two women contemplated the appropriateness of the linen, Vincent was drawn to the remaining contents of the chest and what they represented. Here was a story of tragic love that somehow had managed to gently touch the lives of people Jane Elizabeth would never know. But her kindness and courage amidst tragedy would be a legacy to be cherished by strangers who would consider her always as a beloved benefactor.

Moving his hand lightly among the snowy linens in the chest, Vincent suddenly felt something hard beneath a pile of tatted handkerchiefs. He reached into the pile and carefully guided a heavy rectangular wooden box free of the delicate fabrics surrounding it.

A polished metal latch held the top of the box locked into place. Vincent slid it free and curiously opened the lid.

Inside it was something metal, and substantial, though the years had coated it with layers of tarnish -- a fine ladies' comb and brush set, obviously of silver.

Mary and Olivia had returned to Vincent's side. "So that is still in there, too," Mary observed. "We really should pack it away with the gown and the letters. None of the girls wants to choose that set for themselves. They all think it is much too special."

"It is beautifully worked," Vincent responded, running his hand over the intricate styling of the brush back appreciatively.

Mary, taking another chance on her mother's intuition, and following the urgings of her heart, that would see her beloved foster son freed of pain and regret, continued speaking casually to Vincent. She did not mistake the look of quiet wonder in his eyes as he handled the hair brush.

"The only way that set will find its way to a new bride's trousseau these days is if it is given to her as a gift." She knew she couldn't expect Vincent to respond outright. His iron will had held the tenderness of his heart in check for too long. So she paused, instead, a moment, to allow him the luxury of conjuring up the image in his mind that she knew he was nevertheless carrying within his tested soul. And she innocently voiced the necessary words. "Do you think Diana would accept it as a gift? I hate to think of the poor thing just tarnishing in a box, unused."

Olivia, long deprived of her own heart's hope, was just as observant of Vincent's thoughtful manner and came easily to the same conclusion that Mary had. She added her voice to the weighty argument. "It would be perfect for her, Vincent, as a special gift. She has that beautiful, long red hair. Any woman would love to use such a fine brush on her hair."

Or have someone she loved use it on her hair for her.

Mary could follow Vincent's silent train of thought, miraculous as it was for him, in his eyes. She hadn't been wrong. At the moment, those azure eyes were focused on the brush in his hand, and seeing the silken amber locks that would slip through it with breathtaking ease.

Yet, he struggled mightily to bury that image deep within him again. Mary almost lost hope. She folded the dresser scarf carefully in her hands, catching Olivia's distressed look as she did so, as well. Vincent set the brush back into the box and closed the lid.

With suddenly heavy spirits, the women turned to leave. Coming back up to his feet, Vincent reached his hand to Mary's arm and questioned her directly, then. "Do you think William has something I can use to clean the tarnish off?"

Another prayer of thanks joined Mary's first one.

 

Vincent reset the wooden box into his wardrobe drawer. He wasn't exactly certain how he had been able to convince himself of the appropriateness of the gift to Diana. Lately, he had found he was treading on ground he would never have dared dream of as anything but vehemently forbidden him. Yet, something of Diana's inner strength seemed always within his spirit as well, gently guiding him past one obstacle after another.

God only knew what the coming day would bring.

Vincent realized then that he was desperately tired. The hour was late, and he very much wished to ease into bed and sleep. It took him only a few moments to slip out of his layers of clothing and under the quilt on his bed.

Gazing one final time to Jacob asleep in his crib, Vincent at last let the gentle darkness of the room envelope him. Tomorrow was already here, with all its incredible possibility reaching out to him. Whether the day would be one to treasure or dread had a great deal to do with the direction the fates had pointed him into of late.

As the sheltering release of sleep at last overtook him, Vincent's heart left behind the reinforced defenses of the day. In that vulnerable freedom, he received his answer to tomorrow's unnamed promise: It rested in a pool of candlelight, reflected in a mirror... And in the wonder of amber silk hair framing porcelain skin, tender green eyes holding to the most fragile of hopes with welcome -- his.


Continued in Chapter 4