To Hope Anew

Chapter Four


She was enveloped by a comforting warmth that was powerful in its honesty, reaching out to hold her like the sweetest lover's hand. She turned her face to it and felt the barest caress of a kiss on her lips, tender and yet so new. Then a presence, close beside her, beyond the breathtaking sensations -- still, hesitant, aching.

Diana reached out for it, yearning to bring it close, hold her body to it -- and awakened. She lay shuddering from emotion in the bed for an eternity of a moment, uncertain as to whether she was alone in the room or not, fearing almost to roll over to her side.

But was she afraid of finding herself in the company of a shadow? Or of not finding herself so?

The bed sheltered only her own slim form, she realized again in pain, the heartbeat she heard struggling for a rhythm was hers alone. She sat up, still trembling, trying to adjust her eyes to the minimal light of a single night candle left burning in the chamber.

This was insane. How could she possibly hope to go through with it?

In the six months since she had accepted Vincent's pledge, she had attempted to remain committed to their promise: Whatever limits that were necessary, whatever boundaries he needed. She knew he had exacted that promise from her only to keep her safe, in his love for her, only to protect her. Yet, as if to test her resolve, her determination to bind her heart to him no matter what the cost to her, heaven had seemed intent to torment her with visions, night after night, of a beguiling fulfillment that might never become truth for them.

Were they only the tantalizing dreams of her own heart's desire, never within reach? Could fate be so cruel to them still? Had she been so mistaken to believe she could wed the love of her life and endure never being able to fully give herself to him, body and soul, in sweet communion?

She knew his fears were unfounded, rooted in the trauma and terrors of his burdening past alone -- and she was willing to risk her life to prove that to him. But, she knew it was necessary for Vincent to find his own courage in this. She could only guide him, trust him, and hope.

The love was there, Diana knew, from the very start, despite his engulfing grief. Even when he felt himself seemingly betraying Catherine's memory, allowing another's heart to touch his own. Slowly, painfully, he had somehow come to grips with his anguishing loss, and realized he could never have done so without her help.

In his own way he would love her as deeply and as wondrously as he had loved Catherine, if for very different reasons. Vincent had never found the courage to ask his beloved Catherine to join him in his life Below. He had never dared even dream of Catherine becoming his bride. They had conceived a child in an agonizing moment of surrender neither of them could apparently take hold of, cherish, and relive.

But Diana had been offered just such a remarkable fate -- to stand at his side as his partner in his world... Why? When did he decide within himself that such a life with her was even possible, and indeed, the fulfillment necessary for two souls united in the truth of love? When did he begin to trust her with his heart, and its deepest, most terrifying and closely held secret... that he longed to embrace his humanity and offer it totally to her?... that he ached to shed the shadows of his fears in her arms and feel her welcome?

She may not have been technically empathic as he, they may not have shared a soul-bonding link of consciousness as he had with Catherine, but Diana's compelling insight and intuition had read his heart just the same. And she knew the instant that his friendship, his trust, had been freed to deepen into the profound wonder of love he could hold for her.

Diana pulled herself up from out of the bed and fumbled in the low light on the small table beside her, looking for her watch. Finding it at last, she read the time: 4:05 a.m.. The Underground was blissfully quiet still, at such an early hour. Many of the community had been up late in preparation for today and now still lay in the comforting sleep of their world. Suddenly Diana envied them their peace of heart.

Sleep was not something she'd settle for as necessary at the moment for her comfort, however. Her mind was racing, skimming over the details of her life of the past three years, searching, daring to take hold as promise moments she'd only dismissed as her own failing discipline over a will that would no longer bury its needful humanity.

Despite her confident words of the night before to Vincent, she still sought reassurance, concrete evidence -- not of their love for one another, never that -- nor of the rightness of her decision to join him Below. What she needed to convince herself of was the hesitantly imploring look she had read in Vincent's eyes last night, the tremulous, possessive hold he reluctantly released from her shoulders.

She had caught them before in his attitude toward her in his unguarded moments, despite his compelling need to shield her from them, shield himself from their reality. That look, that touch, had given her an unexpected glimpse into the reality of his soul, made it possible for her to hope in their new life together. The feelings of welcome, trusting abandon she'd only barely been able to hold to herself came coursing through her body even now at the memory of his tenderness, pleading to be freed to gift her in love.

The cold, uneven stone floor beneath her bare feet helped to restore the clarity of her thinking. She reached up to a sideboard and lit a cluster of candles there from the night light. The enlarged pool of illumination allowed her to find one of the cardboard boxes that had carted her belongings here Below with her.

In secure determination, she hunted through the box. It would have to be in the very bottom of the carton, she cursed silently. Nothing was ever easy for them, was it? Finally Diana was able to pull the nondescript three-ring binder from the contents of her possessions.

Settling back onto the bed on top of the covers, Diana began leafing through the binder with familiarity. It was a printout of her computer journal from the past three years. Thank God she'd early taken up the habit of writing and attempting to decipher the complexities of her nature and the mad world about her. Setting her thoughts down in the journal, reading and re-reading the entries, had always been the best way for her to follow up on her insights, in her work as well as her personal life. Filtering through the words she could feel the emotions almost as they had been, touch the indistinct moments of reckoning and find her way through them to the honesty she sought.

After a minute or two of page turning, Diana finally stopped at the entry she had been in search of:

"October 1, l990. I'm typing these words now as a transcription of handwritten pages from the past three weeks. I've been away from this computer for that long a time, away from my loft. But, strangely, I haven't been away from home.

"I've been Below, because of an unbelievable series of events that could have ended in tragedy. Yet, now I can count them as the most wondrous moments of my life. They were almost my last."

 

Diana juggled the two bags of groceries in her arms with the practiced expertise of a veteran urban inhabitant. She didn't mind the fumbling. The groceries in the bags were going to be her treat for everyone Below this weekend -- mostly fresh vegetables and lots of fruits -- peaches, plums, grapes. Although no one would take more than a mouthful as their own indulgence, Diana knew that everyone in the Underground would really enjoy the opportunity for a refreshing bit of change beyond the basics of their diets.

Funny, how everything was so relative. If she were to ask any of the passersby around her how they would indulge themselves if given the chance, Diana was certain their responses would not come anywhere near the decadent subject of extra fresh fruit for dinner. Life was blessedly reduced to the important elements of existence in the Underground.

And Diana had taken to that existence with all her heart. The people Below, their caring acceptance of her, their generous support and nurturing of her spirit, had become very much a lifeline to her, even apart from Vincent.

More and more, her work, and her own total immersion into the investigations she was obliged to take on, were eating away at her own peace and stability of spirit. She seemed always to leave something of herself behind in each case that she worked on; she found herself having a more difficult struggle to free her own essence from the quagmire of violence, pain, and death each time she placed herself into the criminal labyrinth of her career.

One day, she feared, she would not be able to find her way back at all.

They knew about her struggles, Below, and offered her every opportunity at solace and recuperation. Even if she was reluctant at times to overstep what she perceived as being her proper place within the community.

But she could not help feeling the comforting rest for her troubled mind and heart she found in Vincent's presence. He, more than anyone else, understood her struggle for balance, for it had always been his own. Though his own heart was deeply etched with pain still, he never withheld his quiet strength from her, the reassurance of his comforting words, at times even the barest trace of a healing touch.

So Diana's presence Below was now a natural outreach of her life. Invitations to children's concerts, or performances of dramatic readings, or simply the offer of tea and conversation were sent her way with easy frequency, by Mary, Rebecca, Olivia, and even Father. Still wishing not to intrude upon Vincent's difficult healing process, despite the longing she carried in her heart to offer him the solace of her love, she would accept no more than one or two invitations a month. But those days became the high points of her routine.

She had helped Mouse find supplies he needed for his ongoing projects; she had helped fill the children's library shelves with wondrous books rescued from dozens of tag sales; she had discussed the psychological upheavals evident among maturing adolescents with Father, as boys and girls of the community who had known each other since birth suddenly became awkward, shy, and downright contentious with one another as they grew into teens and beyond.

And she had spent time in the happy company of little Jacob. For, whenever the blessed moments came for Diana to find herself in Vincent's company, Jacob was nearby. She began thinking that perhaps it wasn't always the father's protective presence sheltering the son, at these instances, as it was the son's effective ability to keep attention focused sweetly upon himself and the wonder of his blossoming from infant to toddler, that freely sheltered his father from all but the most casual experiences of her presence.

Jacob and his milestones in the growth process were a neutral, and safe, opportunity for Vincent and Diana to remain in close contact without touching to any possible deepening of their turmoil-wracked relationship. They could smile at the wonder in the little boy's face the moment he discovered he had toes that liked to be tickled. They could hold their breaths together as he sat up by himself. And they could, between the two of them, manage to keep the child somewhat safely corralled within Vincent's chamber when he began to explore that great new world on all fours, crawling happily about. All this without the fear of having to reveal their hearts to one another.

It was at just that time that Vincent offered Diana a gift sweeter than any she could yet hope for from him: With the warmth of summer days Above, he had actually consented for her to take Jacob on an excursion into the Park one Saturday morning, with Samantha as well.

It seemed like such a little thing at first, but Diana knew it went much deeper than a simple concern for Jacob's need for fresh air and sunshine. Vincent had placed his child, and Samantha, too, into her trusted care, for he did not want to deprive the little boy of the chance to experience something of his mother's world, that his father would never be able to share with him. Diana caught sight of an undisguised sorrow in Vincent's eyes as he turned little Jacob over to her for the first outing. It was the look of a lonely child, just waiting for someone to say, "You can come, too." It broke her heart.

The Park excursions came regularly until Diana became the happy organizer of a day's activities for the child nearly every week or so. Samantha was always at her side on those days, and Diana knew that Vincent meant the opportunities to be available to her as much as to his little son, to widen her horizons at bit, in gratitude for all her help with Jacob's care.

Today was just such a day, perfect for seeking out the sun's warmth in the Park. Diana and Samantha had made it a point to come up with a bit of gifting sunshine for everyone Below, too. Hence the fruit bags and plans for a special evening treat.

Samantha strode two or three steps ahead of Diana on the sidewalk, easily pushing Jacob in a lightweight stroller. The little boy was content to study every small object that came within his range of view. Diana breathed a sigh of thanks that this particular excursion had not been washed out. Mother Nature had been more than excessive in the rain department of late and Diana would have been as disappointed as the children had their morning together Above been disrupted. As it was, there had been plenty of sunshine, grass, giggles, and warm spirits. And soon they would be able to carry their happy dispositions Below, too.

Turning down the final block before reaching her loft, Diana was aware of the sound of sirens quite near in the streets surrounding them. They were a common enough sound to any city dweller, as well as police officer, and at first had passed right through her consciousness without stirring any alarm. Still, they seemed to be located not more than a few blocks away, and the acrid smell of smoke was drifting along on the breeze.

The entry way to her loft now within sight, Diana suddenly paused on the sidewalk to make certain she had seen who she thought she had seen come out of the building just ahead of them. She was right.

"Joe?" Her acknowledgment came out as more a startled question than a greeting. Though they had worked together often in the past months, Joe Maxwell, the young District Attorney, had not set foot in her apartment since their last confrontation during her investigation into Catherine's murder.

The DA had been Catherine's boss, friend, and confidant, and without even acknowledging it to himself, his regard for his co-worker had turned to love. When Catherine had been found murdered he had been hell-bent to discover the whereabouts of the person he perceived to be her killer -- Vincent. Diana had been equally hell-bent to protect the tragic, mysterious figure with her life, knowing the actually circumstances of the case, but unable to reveal them to Joe without threatening the Underworld community.

Yet, the DA had somehow trusted his instincts of Diana enough to allow her unquestioning freedom in her investigation, despite his own preconceived conclusions, and in the end, Catherine's murderer, the powerful, psychotic drug lord, Gabriel, had been caught.

But Diana had long ago come to recognize the influence of the world's manipulative and conscienceless elite in her investigations -- and she knew Gabriel would never truly need to pay for his crimes. He'd even haughtily thrown that reality into her face mere heartbeats after he had nearly murdered tiny Jacob in his crib. The child's life had been saved only because of his father's empathic awareness of the danger to him.

No, Gabriel would never pay. There would be only more murder and mayhem visited on the innocent as long as he was alive. And one of the innocent most assuredly threatened still by his vicious and encompassing evil would have been Vincent himself. So Diana had taken it upon herself to mete out justice in her own way, though now she could not even fathom having had the courage to take up such a burden. Still, because of that courage, and very much because of the love that it was founded on, she had spared Vincent the guilt of yet another life's blood on his hands, however despicable the man.

Joe had accepted her end to the tangled story without question, knowing her capacity to hold to nothing other than justice and the truth, though he struggled mightily with a need to learn the actual circumstances of Catherine's life and death. It had taken him an eternity to manage to live with the fact that he had set aside his mantle as upholder of the letter of the law to allow Diana to work for what was truly the reality of the situation.

Now, months later, Diana knew that the idealistic attorney struggled still with Catherine's loss here Above as Vincent did Below. She had correctly gauged his feelings for his co-worker at the very onset of her investigation -- the grudging admiration deepening into friendship and finally love, but a love never spoken of, never acted upon, for, to Joe, Catherine would always be the Radcliff debutante and he would always be the hard-scrabble kid from Brooklyn. If he only knew how alike he and Vincent truly were, when it came to their feelings for Catherine.

The gentle, dark eyes smiled at her for once before settling into a quiet pain. "Don't look so surprised to see me, Bennett. I do live in this city, too, you know, actually not very far from here. High rent district, like you," Joe commented breezily. Taking in the presence of the children at last, he continued, "Been on an expedition?"

"Yes, for some sunshine in the Park. It is Saturday morning, in fact, and summer. I'm allowed a few hours away from my shackles each year. It's in my contract."

Joe's face brightened at the remark. He enjoyed trading jabs with Diana. She was as bright and as honest as anyone he'd ever known. It was such a shame that her career choice would eventually devour her, as it had so many promising, righteous souls in their line of work.

"I know, I know; but I took the chance that you were home and brought over these files on the Abbott case. I thought you might find them interesting reading."

"Not this weekend. I have plans."

Samantha had started pulling Jacob's stroller up past the first stair at the entryway of Diana's building as the adults had been speaking. Joe easily leaned down and helped her keep the stroller level. He came face to face with little Jacob in the process, and found that he was momentarily transfixed by the child's limpid blue eyes. Diana held her breath.

"You carrying on a secret life, Bennett? I somehow never took you for the motherly type."

Joe's teasing insight was much closer to the mark than even he could realize. Diana knew she had to distract him with just enough truth to cover her tracks. Her year's involvement with the Underworld had taught her the need to deflect such inquiries into her private life.

"If you must know the details of my existence away from the office, Maxwell, Samantha and Jacob are friends. We were spending a fine summer day together, and I am not taking those files with me when we join their family this evening."

Samantha stood bemused, watching the adults and attempting to understand whether the man posed a threat or not. But the gentle brown eyes that met hers immediately set her to rest. "Hello, Samantha. I'm Joe Maxwell."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Maxwell," Samantha returned graciously. Certain he was someone Diana trusted, the young girl slipped back into her usual breathless friendliness in conversation. "Thank you for helping out. Jacob is getting bigger every day. I can hardly keep up with him."

Diana smiled reassuringly. Samantha was used to disguising her unusual homelife from strangers. She knew they had nothing, however, to worry about from Joe.

"Looks like Jacob is pretty lucky to have a big sister to take care of him so well." Joe's compliment brightened Samantha's face to a sweet blush, but she remembered not to correct him on his mis-assumption. Diana prayed he would not notice that the children shared absolutely no "sibling" traits whatsoever: Samantha was olive-skinned and dark- haired and eyed. Jacob was fair, with his reddish-blond hair reflecting the sunshine and his sky blue eyes startlingly clear.

Joe turned his attention from the children back to Diana and waved the files before her, unaware of the disruption his unexpected presence had caused. "If I can't ruin your weekend with these, can I at least give you a once over on them now? It'll only take 20 minutes, tops."

Diana turned an impatient look his way, then weighed her options and came to the obvious conclusion. "I'll give you fifteen minutes, and only if you make yourself useful first." Without awaiting his protest, she then proceeded to deposit one of the two grocery bags into his arms.

Searching about for her key in the purse she hated to carry, she then led the way into the building.

The slow climb on the freight elevator to her loft caused a pregnant pause in the conversation. Joe wondered why developers of these old buildings always thought that freight elevators were trendy and never replaced them with more practical, and quicker, ones.

But the halt in the give and take gave the unexpected guest the opportunity to study his companions at close quarters. Samantha seemed sweet and civilized, unlike some of the kids he'd run up against these days. Curiously, she wasn't dressed for the hot summer weather in anything he'd have expected as current attire for an adolescent; no jean shorts, no T-shirt or tank top. Instead, she was wearing a light-weight cotton jumper that looked hand sewn, and a short-sleeved blouse. Her long thick hair was neatly braided down her back.

Joe couldn't help but let his mind wander to the last time he'd seen an eleven year old dressed that way: It was at St. Joseph's Parochial School in Brooklyn; he was in the fourth grade, and madly in love with Teresa Esposito, much to the consternation of Sister Mary Ambrose.

Come to think of it, Joe noticed that Diana was almost similarly dressed, though her summer attire was a sleeveless, easy-fitting shift of cotton. He had never seen Diana in a dress before. At work she was all business -- in suits or slacks, wearing no jewelry except what appeared to be a man's large-stoned ring on her right index finger. At home she was usually in jeans or oversized sweats and sweaters that seemed to neutralize her femininity, her breathtaking long red hair always relinquished to a braid or ponytail as almost only an afterthought. In the bright sunshine today it had appeared spun of amber.

Joe noticed, too, that she was wearing hardly a trace of makeup. Unexpectedly he decided that she didn't need the makeup -- her skin was an opalescent shade of ivory that defied description and made her look almost like she'd walked off a Renaissance canvas, suspended in time. And that dress, too, seemed in a time warp. It was right off his mother's closet rack when he was growing up, the simple "housedress" that only a Mom could wear and still look the embodiment of femininity. Or so Joe had thought at the time. Diana now came pretty close to equaling that nostalgic sense of natural beauty thirty years later. He'd never seen her so... captivating.

The elevator finally came to a halt at Diana's loft flat and Joe was motioned onto the couch with an off-hand, "Be right with you." His hostess retrieved the grocery bag from him and set it on the countertop in the kitchen along with the one she had carried. Diana didn't unpack the bags, though, but instead bent down to the little boy in the stroller and smoothly swooped him up into her arms. The child giggled easily and threw his arms around her neck. Samantha loosened a small baby bag from the back of the stroller and unpacked it, retrieving a juice cup and a small stuffed rabbit for the child.

Setting Jacob on a blanket on the carpeted floor, Diana proceeded to change him. Joe came over to her side. She seemed so practiced about taking care of a baby. In fact, there was evidence that a baby, Jacob?, was regularly in residence in her loft: a high chair sat in a corner of the kitchen, a portable crib was visible just inside the open door of her bedroom, some toys and books were nestled in a laundry basket on the other side of the couch. Joe became more and more intrigued by the child and Diana's connection to him.

"You look pretty well equipped to handle children, Bennett. What's the story?" Diana matched his tone of voice with her reply.

"Jacob and Samantha stay with me often." Of all the times to have Joe start asking questions! Diana tried to keep her head clear.

Joe settled his gaze on the little boy that lay kicking and wrestling happily with Diana. There was something about the child that held his attention, the open honesty of his little face. It suddenly seemed familiar, but Joe could not quite grasp why it should be.

Then a thought occurred to him. The little boy was fair and close to red-headed. He obviously delighted in Diana's attentive care and she seemed to accentuate that care with a soft and tender touch, lingering gently to hold his small hand, smooth a little curl that had flipped mischievously into his face. She looked so much in her place caring for the child, more so than simply as a family friend.

Was the little boy hers? He knew she wasn't married from her file at the Department. But she was young and beautiful, with a mind like a steel trap and a temper to match. Her captain had once told Joe that half the men that had worked with her in her division would have loved to have taken her over their knees and given her an old-fashioned disciplining. The other half were afraid she'd be capable of doing it herself to them. And every one of them would have jumped into bed with her given half the chance.

She had had someone special in her life, he recalled, a schoolteacher, from what Joe had been able to piece together about her, but that relationship had apparently broken apart about the time she began working on Catherine's case. He couldn't really reconcile the idea that there hadn't been anyone else she cared for, except for the fact that he knew being a cop was hell on any personal relationship. Being a woman cop was even worse; too much ego threatening for most men to handle.

But Diana was truly unique; someone was bound to understand that, hopefully someday, for her sake, he wished. He sensed she needed the balance a good, stable relationship could bring her. Obviously, though, she didn't appear to be involved in one at the moment. Unlike the evidence of a child's frequent presence in her home, there were no tell-tale signs that a man might also be a conspicuous visitor to her flat.

And Samantha: how did she fit in? Maybe not Jacob's sister as much half-sister? In reality the two children looked nothing alike. Joe could almost place Diana as the mother of a toddler, but the mother of a ten or eleven year old? Yet, the girl seemed devoted to her, too.

Diana could sense all the questions Joe was simply bursting to ask her about the children. She knew, also, how persistent he could be in his own right. That was one of the things that made him the fine DA that he was. That, and his unflinching honesty. Diana unexpectedly felt a twinge of regret for having to keep him in the dark about everything. She guessed that Catherine must have felt the same way. Someday Joe would need to be told about it all, or he'd find out for himself.

Once Jacob was changed and comfortable, Diana pulled him to his feet. The little boy held tightly to her hands and began walking towards the coffee table, a look of sheer delight on his face at the wonder of being upright and mobile. Diana's face was glowing almost as much as his, and Samantha joined the group to cheer the little boy on.

"He's about ready to go it alone," Joe exclaimed, easily transported into the moment for once.

"Not quite yet. He needs to gather his courage a bit more," Diana responded with understanding.

Suddenly aware of all the steps he had taken supported only by Diana's hands, Jacob became a bit wobbly on his feet. Diana swept him up into her arms then. He burst forth with a happy, "Di, Di, Di," and patted both her cheeks with his little hands.

"I guess we'd better get going on those files." The young police officer let her attention slip reluctantly from Jacob to the paper work on the table before her. She nestled the little boy on the couch beside her with his cup and his rabbit.

Samantha called from the kitchen. "I'll make some lemonade. Would you like some, Mr. Maxwell?"

"Love it," Joe answered easily, then in a lower voice to Diana he observed, "That young lady is the most polite child I've ever come across. How'd her parents do it? I thought civility in youngsters was a contradiction in terms these days."

Smiling softly, Diana let a bit of pride suffuse her on Samantha's behalf. She knew all the children Below happily possessed similar traits. "Her family puts a lot of store in consideration for others and responsibility."

With files spread over most of the small table before them, Joe and Diana then proceeded to sift through the complex details of the current investigation they were working on together, a murky trail of betrayal and murder behind the closed doors of an elite boarding school in the city. Joe had come to value Diana's insights, her ability to pick up on the smallest detail and paint an accurate picture from it. She made connections to things no one else would even bother with as important. It was eerily as if she could transport herself, her mind, into another consciousness at will.

Still, Joe had noticed over the months of working with her, that there seemed to be a place within herself that nothing, and no one, could penetrate. There was a certain -- melancholy -- that seemed to pervade her in the unguarded moments he had managed to pick up on from her. He was certain her work had plenty to do with it. She put so much of herself into it, almost becoming lost within it at times.

Suddenly Joe felt a pang of guilt for invading her home with the work he had brought. He sensed she really needed time to simply lock everything else away from her, and gather her own sense of self back together.

But, he guessed that there was more to cause sadness in her life than just the constant bombardment of frustrating, hope-robbing chaos her profession of criminal psychology inflicted upon her day in and day out. He thought he came up with part of the reason in the way she kept a sheltering hand always within reach of the little boy beside her. Was she keeping him safe from harm, or was he extending to her some vital lifeline just by being near?

"Diana, there is hardly any water coming through the faucet." Samantha's words pulled Joe from his thoughts.

"They probably opened a couple of hydrants illegally to cool off somewhere nearby," Diana said.

The mention of hydrants caused Joe to add his own observation. "It's probably because of the fire down at that warehouse that's being redeveloped."

"I thought I smelled smoke," Diana recalled.

"Yeah, it was up to three alarms. I had to detour halfway back to the office just to get past it."

Silently Diana wondered if she and the children would have a problem getting back to the tunnels because of the blaze. But, they would be heading away from the fire and towards the Park. Besides, she was certain Samantha knew alternate routes home if they were detoured themselves.

Samantha remained occupied in the kitchen for a number of moments while Joe and Diana continued discussing possible avenues of investigation into their case. Then the young girl joined them with a tray overflowing with refreshments -- lemonade in icy glasses, a plate of blueberry muffins she and Diana had made earlier in the morning, and a bowl of mixed fruit. Plates, napkins, and silverware all neatly piled completed her offerings.

Joe smiled broadly at Samantha and quickly made a place on the coffee table for her to set her tray down. "Bennett, I should stop by your place more often. Especially when such gracious company is already here."

"I never knew you could be so charming, Maxwell," Diana accused lightly as she handed him a glass of lemonade.

"You never treated me so well," he returned, teasingly. Sliding down the couch a bit, Joe left room for Samantha to join them in their refreshments. The girl easily scooped Jacob up onto her lap and handed him a vanilla wafer.

"Your Mom must really appreciate the help you give her with Jacob," Joe complimented, noting the girl's confident manner with the little boy and the obvious affection showing in each of their faces for one another.

It was a simple enough statement and genuinely sincere. Joe meant only to praise Samantha for what he deemed unusually outstanding behavior. Yet, instead of pride showing on the girl's face, she threw Diana a furtive, unsettled look that Joe caught. He also caught Diana's response -- a wordless "let it pass" that showed plainly in her face.

"Thank you, Mr. Maxwell," Samantha spoke evenly. "Jacob's such a sweet-tempered baby. It's no work taking care of him at all."

"Now, maybe. But just wait till he starts walking and tearing around on his own," Joe answered brightly.

"That's when it gets tiring, I'm sure," Samantha exclaimed with a laugh, her good humor restored. As if to emphasize what the future would hold for his pretty caretaker, Jacob suddenly squirmed out of Samantha's lap and headed straight for the papers on the coffee table, supporting himself with only one little hand on the edge of the couch. His ever-vigilant young nanny was ready for him, though, quickly tossing him up into her arms as he was about to protest indignantly.

"I think I'd better keep this little urchin occupied some place safer." With that, Samantha set the little boy on the floor in the kitchen and then plopped down opposite him with a small rubber ball retrieved from the laundry basket of toys. A lively game of "roll the ball" ensued, leaving the adults reluctantly to return to their files.

"Diana, listen, I'm sorry I intruded on your weekend with these. It could have kept until Monday." Joe seemed to realize how difficult it was for Diana to pull her attention away from the playing children.

"That's all right, Joe. Don't worry about it."

"They're sweet kids." His words were almost as -- sad -- as his expression. The tone of his voice caused Diana to lock her gaze on her co-worker with concern. There were a few lines in his handsome face that she hadn't noticed before. And when his eyes were not twinkling with amusement at her expense, they really seemed -- haunted.

"Joe. You should take some down time. Burying yourself in work isn't going to help. I know."

"Work's all I've got, Diana."

And it was true. There had been little time in Joe's life to spend on building any special relationships. He'd worked two jobs and put himself through law school at night. Then the DA's office meant nothing but long hours, little pay, and stale coffee in styrofoam cups. A few short-lived romances had left him heavy of heart. Then there was Catherine.

Cathy.

He'd spent three years telling himself he was not falling in love with his co-worker and knowing it was a lie. It would have been so much easier for him to have resigned himself to the fact that some hotshot, like architect and developer Elliot Burch, had won her heart. He could have moved on from such a reality and even accepted Cathy's generous friendship as a true gift. But Elliot, as slick and charming as he was, had been left as bereft of her love as he had, apparently, despite his marriage proposal to her.

The reality, as Diana had at first steered Joe to it, was that Catherine's love was for someone on the shadowy fringe of the city's life, someone whose very existence needed to be questioned, someone who could quite easily murder for love. Was he real? Did such an avenging angel truly claim Cathy's heart?

And body?

Diana had been the one to break the news to him. Cathy had been pregnant, had delivered a baby just before she had been killed. That reality haunted Joe almost as much as her death. What of the child? No trace of it had ever been found. What of the father? The revelation of Gabriel as the murderer did nothing to answer those deeper, more painful questions surrounding Catherine's death. Diana had not given him any answers, either.

Diana. Sitting beside him reading through a transcript, she was a co-worker and a friend, a good cop with an uncanny ability to solve problems without explaining her actions. Her movements had been as indecipherable as the case of Catherine's murder had been. At first she had pieced seemingly disjointed details into a surreal puzzle of love, roses, tunnels, poetry, and a being who would protect Cathy at all costs.

Then she had backed away from her own conclusions, leaving Joe frustrated and on the edge of having her slapped with criminal charges for obstructing justice. When she had disappeared at gunpoint with Gabriel's men one night, he had despaired of ever finding her alive as well, surprised at his concern for her, which seemed to extend beyond that of one law enforcement official for another. The zeal with which she had attacked the investigation had both angered and awed him. Thankfully, she had resurfaced unharmed a few days later, and with the pattern of a floor tile, had managed to corner Gabriel in his lair, somehow. Joe's relief had been for more than simply the imminent resolution of a heartbreaking case.

That was when the imponderables began again. Joe, and half the city's elite SWAT teams, had stormed the fortress-like mansion on Staten Island only under heavy fire and resistance from Gabriel's men. When they finally got into the house, however, there wasn't a soul left alive -- except Diana. How she had placed herself within the fortress was something she'd never divulged. A half dozen armed guards were dead or dying, terrified domestics had fled throughout the grounds, and there was Diana, in the middle of it all.

Joe, himself, had come upon her in a corner of a room that had obviously been a nursery, outfitted with costly mahogany furniture and with a high-tech surveillance camera in place on the ceiling. The control panel of the camera, and others like it throughout the house, had been found shot out, a store of tapes turned to ash in the center of an antique Persian rug, in an office on the first floor.

The state of the equipment was nothing in comparison to the state Joe had found Diana in that nursery. She was standing with her back to the door, which appeared to have been ripped apart. She was disheveled, her blouse was torn, the side of her face bruising quickly from what obviously looked like a hard blow.

And her hands were bloody, fingers frozen around the trigger of her gun.

Joe then saw what her nearly catatonic gaze had locked itself on: Gabriel, in the opposite corner of the room, slumped up against the wall. His left cheek was dug with gashes, and his expensive silk shirt was sopping with his own blood from a bullet hole in his chest, square in the heart.

By the time they had gotten her to a hospital, Diana had become mostly coherent again. Painfully she managed to describe to Joe how she had been surprised by Gabriel in the room, battled him for her life, and then shot him in self defense. That was it. She could remember no more, could give him no more details.

He'd let himself be convinced that the apparent blanks in her story were as a result of shock . At the hospital he wasn't surprised to hear from the ER doctor that she appeared to be suffering from a form of post trauma syndrome. But his police training forced him to question just exactly what sort of trauma she may have witnessed. The gashes on Gabriel's face were too deep and too extensive to be simply the result of her defending herself against him. And the gun she held in her hands was not her service revolver. Unbelievably, it was Catherine's own gun. Everything seemed to point to the fact that Diana surely had not been alone in that room with Gabriel.

Still, did Joe really what to know the truth? Could he even believe the truth?

And what of the baby? There was no sign of it after the siege, not even a body to be found. None of the household help that the police rounded up would own up to even seeing a child in the house, despite the nursery furnishing, the store of formula and diapers in the room. Joe knew the domestics were only illegal aliens afraid of being deported, but even more terrified of an employer who had apparently sworn their loyalty to the death..

The most unbelievable piece of the puzzle was then found in the basement of the house: a cage, the size of a jail cell, made of tungsten carbide steel, electrified, with its door torn off the hinges.

No, Joe was not at all certain he wanted to ask Diana the questions he needed to. He was too afraid he already knew the answers. Because of that, equally unbelievably, a deep part of him wanted to do all he could to protect Diana against his better judgment. She had found Cathy's killer. That killer was dead. Whatever else she may have needed to do, may have needed to witness, to accomplish that end, would be something she would have to live with. As would he.

There was a lot Joe was attempting to live with in his own right. Foremost in his guilt-ridden heart was the fact that he had been the one to give Cathy the evidence Gabriel would have come after her for. That evidence put her in jeopardy the instant she took it up. There was no getting around it. Whatever life she had carved out for herself, with whomever it was she was willing to bind her heart to, had all been destroyed because of a cursed bit of evidence he had let her walk around with.

There wasn't anything he could do to bring Cathy back, though he would have gladly taken her place a hundred times over, damning himself for causing her peril every waking moment of every anguishing day since. But there was something he could do, did do, for Diana: protect her as she had protected... Vincent.

The DA knew she was doing so, all along, in her investigation, jeopardizing her career, even her life, for him, whomever he was. There was no other explanation to her leaps in the case which she never let him follow adequately. She was willing to lay her life on the line for a being who could kill as easily as he could protect. Why? It didn't make any sense. Still, Joe realized that whatever punishments society might have meted out to the shadowy being would never equal the condemnation to a life without Catherine, if he had truly loved her. Losing her would have been the ultimate sentence.

Incredibly, Joe had decided to let God judge them all in the end.

He hadn't realized it, but Diana had long set down the transcript she was reading to focus on the painful features of her companion. Her soft voice nearly startled him out of his thoughts. "What is it, Joe?"

About ready to turn the question to a light-hearted vein of conversation defensively, Joe thought better of it. Diana's eyes were gently caring, offering reassurance and trust. He desperately needed that reassurance.

"What it always is about, Diana," came the quiet reply.

"Catherine." It wasn't even a question anymore. She could read his heart too easily.

"I guess I just let my mind slip away a minute or two. With the kids here and all, I got to thinking about everything that happened. There was no way to help her. She would have enjoyed doing what you're doing. I bet she would have made a great mother."

Diana felt the tears well up in her eyes. How many times had she let the guilty thought overwhelm her, that Catherine should have been the one delighting in little Jacob's growth, that she was only sharing in the child's life now because of Catherine's death. Someone had to die for her to find her life's fulfillment, it seemed.

"Joe, listen to me. I can understand what you are feeling. But somehow you have to try and let go of it."

"She would have been alive, enjoying life with her baby. I set that bastard onto her, Diana. She's dead because of me."

Where had she heard such words before? "I was too late. I couldn't save her. She was my life and I let her die." Vincent's anguish echoed in those words. Diana knew her struggle to free him from the pain of Catherine's loss had to include a battle for his conscience as well, heavy with remorse at having been unable to rescue the woman he loved, keep his newborn child safe. As Joe's own was heavy with guilt at having subjected Catherine to danger.

"I know you are going to carry that around inside of you even if it isn't really true. But think of this, Joe. Even if Cathy wasn't romantically involved with you, she still loved you, deeply, as a trusted friend. What do you think seeing you now like this is doing to her? Watching you destroy yourself over her death has to be agony for her, Joe. Even angels can cry."

There was a powerful conviction in her words that Joe found he needed to hold on to, despite himself. And part of him also guessed that Diana would be attempting to resurrect another soul with the same words. That was the source of her own quiet sorrow, he knew now, surely.

"Cathy always brought out the best in me, in everyone. She deserved a happy life."

"So do you."

It was suddenly very difficult for him to keep his voice steady. Catherine would have said the same things to him, he knew. She and Diana were so different, yet both would do anything to spare those they loved pain. Struggling a moment longer, Joe finally drew himself past the agony again. For one more moment of one more day. He smiled sadly at Diana, guessing the torment she must be going through in all of this as well.

"I'm sorry I dropped all of this on you today, Diana, really." As he picked up the file folders from off the small table, the young police officer set her hand onto his gently. Joe looked up into her beautiful face, startled at the contact. There was a generous tenderness in her eyes that called suddenly out to him, trying to touch his pain and make it her own. The care in those eyes took his breath away. So P what Vincent must see when he found the courage to hold that gaze, too, he thought. That conclusion came to Joe without turmoil, now, knowing the truth at last.

Able only to swallow hard, Joe, whispered, "Thanks, Diana." Over her shoulder, he realized that Samantha was equally aware of his pain. Standing quietly near, and holding Jacob on her hip, the same reaching concern was mirrored in her sweet young face to him.

"Maybe we'll see each other again soon, Mr. Maxwell."

"I'd like that, Samantha." Reaching his own hand up, then, to Jacob's arm, Joe managed to gather himself out of the distress in his heart momentarily. "By then, I'm certain this little one will be off and running around here."

Jacob brought his attention directly to Joe at the feel of his touch, and turned all the unfathomable depths of his blue eyes onto the young DA. He looked suddenly like an angel from heaven itself, offering him the balm of peace for his soul in silent acknowledgment. Joe felt his breath catch within him again.

"I'll talk to you Monday." Diana's words brought him back to conscious thought as Joe headed for the elevator door.

Samantha came close to Diana's side then, almost wearily. The two of them stood watching the elevator long after Joe had left them. "I wish we could have said something more to help him," the young girl spoke sadly. Diana drew her and Jacob closer into her arms. "I know."

On the city street below, Joe quickly walked a block or two before hailing a cab. He was about to give the driver the DA's office address when he decided against it. All he really wanted to do was go home and think about Diana's words to him. Somehow, he knew that she was capable of helping him find his way back through the treacherous anguish of his heart. He prayed she would be given the same blessing.

A sudden picture flashed through his mind at the moment as he sat in the back seat of the cab -- Catherine, as Diana had described her -- an angelic friend shedding tears for him. "Sorry, Cathy. I'll try," he whispered.

He was rewarded by the fleeting memory of little Jacob's face as he had looked just before Joe had left Diana's loft. And again, the DA felt his heart stop at the image. Clutching at his briefcase for some tangible anchor to reality, he suddenly knew why the child's face looked so familiar to him... it was a mirror of Catherine's.


Continued in Chapter 5