To Hope Anew

Chapter Nine


The heavy water pitcher hit the end of the small bedside table hard, and smashed to pieces, pouring water over everything within reach. Diana cursed her stubborness with an expletive ^¿nconsciously absorbed from years of working in a male-dominated environment, then blushed at the thought that someone in this quiet, civilized world might have heard her. But, she was angry with herself. Here she had hoped to save Mary some work and instead she'd created more chaos for the gentle woman to attempt to handle.

It was Thursday morning, early, and Diana had at last felt somewhat back to her own strengths and resources again. The IV had been replaced days ago by William's delicious home cooking. The dear man had insisted on tempting her reluctant apetite daily with soups and breads and teas in a generous showing of attentive care that had helped her regain her strength. And Father hadn't even had to leave her any pain medication for the night. Yes, she felt finally that she had turned the corner in her recovery.

There had been a steady stream of community members coming through the entryway to the hospital chamber, each person willing to help her pass the time in pleasant, if confined, company, from Samantha to Jamie to even Mouse and Pascal. And when it was deemed necessary, Father himself shooed everyone away to check on her progress and minister to her needs.

Diana was overwhelmed by the sensation of peace and rebirth she found herself blanketed by with such welcome. The most wondrous part of it all was the very real knowledge that the care everyone was showering her with was a genuine outgrowth of the community's normal spirit. This was no show for a stranger unexpectedly dropped into their midst. Diana at once felt a beloved part of an extended, attentive family doing their utmost with their meager means to care for her rather overwhelming needs at present.

She could not imagine having lived so long under any other circumstances.

She felt more at home, loved and valued in this mysterious world of rock walls and candlelight than she ever did since leaving behind her family to set out on her own. No wonder Samantha's dreams returned her always here, home.

Feeling the slightest bit more renewed and confidant of her abilities, Diana had, this morning, decided to try and do a few things for herself, if only to give poor Mary a break in her overwhelming duties for her care. The dear woman had come to seat herself beside Diana soon after she opened her eyes first thing in the morning, to help her change positions in bed, to bring her fresh clothes and allow her to struggle into them, even to offer her a chance to refresh herself with a basin bath each day. Diana couldn't imagine when the poor woman took time for a bite of breakfast.

So, today, the patient decided she could at least wash her own face! Unfortunately, her damnably restricting injuries had other ideas. She may have gotten past the fearful helplessness of her painful injuries, but she was nowhere near able to return to being her usual fiercely independent self.

Still, she'd give it a try, if only to nudge herself back into the real world she'd have to soon return to, one that didn't give a damn about her needs these days.

Trying, however, was going to entail a bit of constructive thinking, she'd found out: The bed table with the pitcher and basin on it was on the right side of her cot. Her right arm was in a cast, though her fingertips were free. She could hardly turn her right leg when she was lying in bed as the cast on it was heavy and unwieldy, so swinging her feet to the stone floor below was out of the question.

The only possible solution was to reach, left-handed, across her body and attempt to stretch to within reach of the pitcher with just her upper body able to follow in the movements. She had finally managed to close her fingers around the handle when her contorted position forced her hand to give it up.

Then came the crash of ceramics and the water splashing over the table, against the bed, and down to the floor. Diana returned, defeated, to her original place in bed, eyes closed, the unladylike epitaph ringing about the small room.

After a moment she heard the unexpected sound of a voice, a velvet voice, that did nothing to soothe her. Instead, she felt her heart leap into her throat: "Diana, are you hurt?"

Vincent came into the room, balancing a breakfast tray in one hand as he pushed aside the doorway curtain with the other. Quickly surveying the damage, he set his tray down on a nearby storage cabinet and came over to the side of her bed.

It took more than a moment before the young woman could find her voice. The steady stream of visitors to her room these past three days had included pretty much everyone in the community, except the arresting figure before her. Since Sunday morning, Vincent had only appeared to check up on her state twice, the first with Samantha in tow and the second, yesterday morning, when he had brought Mary pen and paper to help her write a note to Joe.

Diana guessed, painfully, that he had distanced himself from her purposely. After that heart-stopping exchange between the two of them Sunday morning, she was not surprised. Their reactions to one another were so unexpectedly overwhelming. And dangerously welcome.

Tears came up into Diana's eyes, of anger, of pain, of joy that would not be denied at his nearness again at last. She was never going to survive the next two and one half weeks here Below in his world, seeing him day to day. She was never going to survive not seeing him, not feeling him close. What had they gotten themselves into? What undeserved turmoil had Fate served them up this time?

"I didn't want Mary to have to cater to my unimportant needs every morning. I'm doing nothing but imposing on her generosity and patience."

Vincent stooped down to the floor and began to pick up the pieces of shattered pottery in his hand. He guessed that the vehemence of Diana's words were caused not only by the frustration of her temporary handicaps. She was deeply in distress, something he could sense she was hiding from him; he prayed his presence wasn't the reason for her pain.

For, something had propelled him to her room this morning that would not be reasoned away or ignored. He had spent a total of ten minutes in her company since Sunday morning, a forced banishment on his own part, as a result of the undisguised emotions they had been helpless to contain during their last encounter. Vincent had quit the hospital chamber then in confused anguish, berating his errant heart for what he deemed a shameful display of disloyalty to Catherine's memory. And even more frightening . . . the very real evidence that his feelings for Diana, beyond the tenderness and gratitude she deserved, harbored the unfamiliar, forbidden fruits of reckless physical attraction he'd long denied could co-exist with his questionable humanity.

Yet, keeping away from Diana had not been the answer either. He had occupied himself fully with the repair work on the tunnels to the point of sheer physical exhaustion, but his mind was never so wearied that it did not find itself back in the sweet, bewitching glow of her eyes. And, he had been tormented by the dream again, reliving Catherine's last moments and finding, incredibly, that it was Diana's lifeless body in his arms instead, her apparent loss to him as searing a wound as Catherine's had left him with.

Coming back to his full height, Vincent calmly walked over to a small waste basket near a battered desk in the room and dropped the pieces of shattered pottery into it. He forced his voice to remain even, when he turned again to Diana.

"Mary loves to help anyone in need. You are not imposing, Diana. It is her joy to care for you at this moment. There is no shame in needing help, in asking for help."

Retrieving a small towel from a pile of cleaning cloths in a cardboard box, Vincent bent down once again to sop up the water on the bed table and floor. He kept his attention on his chore, but he was very aware that the young woman in bed was fighting her own losing battle with her emotions.

Diana swallowed hard, her gaze fixed on the deliberate movements of the man near her. For all the peace her unexpected plunge into the tunnel world had offered her till now, she was in control-shattering pain the moment she found herself in the presence of the mythical figure. She had hoped, despite her good sense railing against its possibility, that these moments together, forced by an act of God, would have given Vincent a glimpse of promise and belief in the possibility of a new life beyond his grief. Instead, she told herself, her selfish impatience was likely to force his still so fragile spirit into a dark storm of denial he would never survive. She would drive him away yet, to live his life in painful memory and regret.

For one incredibly able to observe others, discerning their thinking, feeling, and motivation with startling clarity, she was at a total loss, now, in reading the state of her own heart, and the heart of the man she'd love till her dying day. God, Cathy, she protested in silent torment, why did you bring us together if it was only to tear our hearts apart? He's never going to love anyone but you.

Vincent hung the wet rag across the back of a nearby chair, aware that Diana had pulled her gaze from him and settled it onto a carefully mended spot of the blanket covering her. Yet, he could feel her reaching tenderness in the quiet ache she left in his heart. Every reasonable fiber of his being counseled him to settle the breakfast try within her reach and walk out of the chamber door, now. Because he knew that if he wasn't capable of returning their relationship to the relatively benign stability of caring friendship, he would cause the battered young woman before him nothing but pain.

Yet, with the knowledge of the harm he was certain his lapse in emotional detachment could cause her, he was still so uncertain of what it was he truly felt for Diana, still so uncertain of what her heart was calling him to, still so very . . . afraid . . . he already knew the answers.

He couldn't be falling in love with her.

That was what her pleading eyes had been yearning for him to accept of the reality between them. Catherine had been dead less than a year. Her child, their child, wasn't even walking yet. Still, the terror of the truth held his heart every moment he spent vulnerable to the aching hope in those honest green eyes: His heart, so completely enraptured by Catherine's love first, and her memory now, was threatening to allow another, solace, and comfort, in her place.

That was his greatest fear, the source of Vincent's greatest pain, where Diana was concerned -- Not that he could even comprehend loving someone else, ever -- but the brutal injustice of loving someone else in Catherine's place.

Diana deserved better.

She needed to be loved for herself, for the incredible, confounding, bewitching, angelic reality that she herself was. Not because of the cherished possibilities she could bring him that Catherine had been robbed of. Not because her struggling heart was so willing to deny barriers that he and Catherine would never in their wildest dreams have crossed.

Determined to make things right between them, salvage a relationship he knew had literally drawn him from the brink, Vincent turned back to offer the needful soul before him some semblance of peace. He knew he needed to deny her his love, the sort of love that he could never give, no matter how compelling and enticing it could become, to bring her that peace, in the end. But, he would never withhold from her his friendship and trust. He would find the courage to distinguish between them.

"Shall we begin again? You wished to help yourself a bit more, today, I believe," he spoke evenly.

Diana nodded in agreement, far from certain that she could bear another minute of Vincent's presence in detached observation. But, she had watched him struggle with himself, moments before, knowing the cause, and she would endure any pain if she could keep it from touching him.

Vincent reached over to the tea kettle on the breakfast tray he had brought in and poured some of its steaming water into the basin left intact on the bed table. Then he picked up another pitcher of water from a table near the entryway and poured more of it into Diana's basin. "It isn't easy to keep water warm down here. You might find it more comfortable now."

Pulling a larger towel from a wicker basket set on a chair against the wall, he gently swung it over the covers on Diana's lap. Dropping a washcloth and a bar of soap into the basin from a store of them on an old dresser, he carefully set the water onto the towel within her reach.

Diana automatically thanked him and slipped her left hand into the basin gratefully. The water was warm and soothing, its comfort enveloping her slowly, easing her from the anxious uncertainty that had filled her heart till then.

She had been a fool to let frustration and hopelessness overcome her, threatening the precariously balanced essence of their relationship. Was an indistinct hope of future acknowledged sweetness between them worth the certain risk of losing, now, what little care they'd been able to wrest out of their fate-tested paths?

She'd thrown herself headlong into his pain a year ago, desperate to hold on to the wonder that he was, touching his life with only the most fearfully bridled expectations because she knew that he could very well vanish from her life in an instant, becoming only a half-remembered dream of tenderest promise in her spirit-ravaging existence. Now she was ready to throw that caution to the winds? She did need to begin again, she acknowledged in her usual candor with herself, in more ways than one. She would try to hold to his limits, if only to save him pain.

Taking hold of the washcloth in her single free hand, Diana sought to wring it out, letting only the sensations of the warm water fill her unsteady spirit, determined to pull her heart back into the sensible control of her formidable force of will. But not even the washcloth would respond to her directives, it seemed. It was actually a recycled section of a heavier bath towel, much bulkier when wet than a regular washcloth. One-handed as she was, it became a struggle for her to wring it out as much as was necessary.

Vincent had taken a small hand towel from the pile of clean linens and was ready to give it to Diana when he became aware of her conflict with the washcloth. But he made no movement to assist her, recognizing her need to gain some small foothold in her quest for a return to independence. She had said she wanted to do things for herself.

And he had said there was no shame in asking for help.

"Could you, please, Vincent? I can't get hold of enough of it."

The words were steady, even if she hated to admit she wasn't as in control as she would have liked. Knowing how hard it was for her to voice that admission, what poignant, and vulnerable humility it had taken for her, Vincent eased his powerful body to the small bed and sat beside her, mindful an instant, of her plastered leg beneath the covers. He drew the sleeves of his sweater up a bit on his arms and reached into the basin, easily wringing out the cloth for her use.

Diana's attention was locked onto his hands. They seemed anything but deadly at the moment, her heart stumbling at the thought of his touch. When he held the warm, wrung cloth out to her, she couldn't help but pull her gaze up from it, to his eyes, those crystal sapphire eyes that always took her breath away with their mysterious depths. She could never have helped herself then, not in a million years, not for the sake of her life or her soul . . . She let every breath of longing in her heart touch him, pour from her heart to the ragged breath she drew into her lungs, to the luminescent honesty of her own green eyes.

Vincent's hand remained suspended between them, holding the cloth out to her, as he read the sweet agony of love she'd revealed in trusting, beguiling, innocence. There was more than the promise of a refreshed countenance hanging, suddenly, in the balance. Diana longed to accept that promise from him. He ached to offer it to her then, despite his fierce strength of will that ruthlessly attempted to bury it once again deep within his heart.

But, it was no use.

With anguishing tenderness, Vincent brought the warm, wet cloth to Diana's face, to those ethereal features that only mirrored the grace of her soul. He gently rubbed the cloth over her cheeks, then her forehead. She could not bear to hold his own gaze, the startled, treasured outpouring of . . . love . . . from his eyes, the trembling of those deadly, beautiful, hands moving over her face with breathtaking devotion.

Diana closed her eyes, letting the wet, fragrant warmth envelope her, soothe her, cherish her, as Vincent pulled the cloth softly across her lips an instant and down onto her chin. She knew the truth, now, the heart-wrenching truth: That simple act of human kindness had become the tenderest of lover's caresses, hiding fearfully behind a recycled washcloth. It set every fiber of her being to trembling expectation.

Returning the now cooled cloth to the basin, Vincent wrung it out once again, seeming to gain a miraculous conviction of the rightness of his actions, where a heartbeat ago he would have thought himself completely lost of all his senses. He unbelievably then slipped the cloth gently over Diana's throat. Neither one of them was capable of breathing at that instant, the blood racing through Diana's veins palpable beneath his hand. Her skin was fragile with an opal radiance. It begged to be touched. Pulling the cloth over the sensitive area below her ear, Vincent lifted aside her braid with one graceful motion, and slowly wiped the loving warmth up the back of her neck, under her hair. Diana felt as though she could die from the sweetness filling her pounding heart.

Setting the wet cloth onto the dry towel on the covers, finally, Vincent sought out Diana's uninjured hand. She let herself be led like a little child. He carefully slipped the long sleeve of her gown up her arm part way, revealing the slender, porcelain limb. Then he eased her hand completely into the basin, rubbing it slowly with the lavender soap bar, running the length of each finger between his. After an eternal moment, he lifted the dry towel to her hand, patting it gently to wipe it.

Diana could not believe her senses, the flooding sensuality his tender ministration had driven straight to her heart. She was certain she could not trust her instincts, either. Just five minutes ago she was ready to accept the fact that her uncurtailed lapses of emotional control were going to cost her what little closeness she had managed to wrest from Vincent. She was certain that if she did not rein in her heart she would suffer the loss of any bit of friendship they had forged, she would shatter any particle of solace she might have been able to bring him.

Instead, he had confounded her perceptions, inexplicably accepted the unintentional revelation of her heart. And far from driving him deeper into his desperate grief, Vincent had given her a moment of soul-baring revelation of his own, a glimpse of the wondrous depth of love he was capable of gifting her with, for the most minute instant, unashamed, and, unafraid.

But, the heart-rending ecstasy of acknowledgment he was letting her cling to was not yet ended. Carefully, he lifted her broken arm up into his hand. Retrieving the washcloth again, he gently wiped each finger showing out from the cast, lingering over the bruised knuckles, willing the hurt away. Diana felt her heart snap, for she had read, in that instant, an aching need in his mystically arresting face, to reach her battered hand up to his lips. She prayed he could find the courage to do so, prayed she'd find the courage to stand it.

That was, however, the only tender contact he was willing to deny her. Carefully easing her hand back down to her side, he gathered up the basin and towels and came to his feet. Diana wasn't certain if she was breathing yet, if she had been drawn into a dream too real to be denied. Gracing her with a look that yet held the gentlest traces of communion, Vincent said quietly, "I'm certain Mary or Rebecca would be happy to help you with your hair if you like. I'll tell them you need a dry gown."

The soft words drew Diana, finally, back to an awareness of her surroundings. She hadn't even noticed, all this while: When the pitcher had shattered, the long sleeves of her night gown had been soaked.

The compelling figure opposite her, quietly holding her in a gaze that was once again familiar in its hesitant vulnerability, could never have just touched her soul with so much honest emotion and trust, she concluded. Had it been merely evidence of her impending emotional collapse, a sweetness she'd conjured as a result of injury and spiritual confusion?

Settling the breakfast tray back onto her lap, Vincent moved away from her side to exit the room. His face was unreadable, its usual stoic, accepting calm. If the tenderness he had found the courage to offer her had been real, had been a struggle for him, she could no longer find proof of it in his demeanor. He was once again the caring and attentive friend helping to make her trying circumstances less burdensome.

Or was he?

Diana was fully aware, in that moment, of the leap of faith the past ten minutes had cost the embattled man before her. He could simply have turned his back on her, dismissed her heart, despised her intrusion into the recesses of his torn soul.

Instead, he had given her a glimpse of what could be, what depth and honesty of heart he could be capable of sharing, with a loving, like heart, someday.

Knowing it was there, within him, was almost more painful to endure than any outright rejection or denial. But, she could live lifetimes on such pain. If the past year was any indication, she'd be doing just that, enduring more pain than any lifetime should be forced to acknowledge. It would probably be an entire lifetime before such glimpses of heaven's own mercy could ever truly become realities between them.

For now, it would have to be enough, knowing there was a breath of hope within reach. She would make herself believe it was enough, that glimpse, and would continue to remind her unsteady heart that he was still unable to offer her more.

"Thank you, Vincent," she called softly to his retreating figure, "for giving me your help."

He simply nodded, then eased beneath the curtained doorway. But, before he let the heavy fabric fall behind him, he turned an instant back to her. "Thank you for trusting that I could."

 

Diana released her hold on her journal binder and let it fall down onto her lap. She could feel the warmth surround her, cradle her, the barest breath of a touch, even now. Without realizing it, she lifted her fingers across her lips in the gentlest caress, placing herself within it, remembering. The lavender essence fragrancing the linens of her bed was a powerful catalyst to her memory, the smell of it taking her back completely into that moment of hopeful reckoning, into the maddeningly sweet impossibilities of a love, free and unafraid.

She had been right. It was there, profoundly evident, and not simply a bewitching projection of her aching heart. He had reached out to her that morning with the most loving of gestures, gifted her with a glimpse of the wondrous communion their humanity would be capable of reaching, beyond the barriers and limits, the fears and guilt and pain.

He had offered her a promise of tender fulfilllment, physical, human, and astonishing in its honesty, within the most innocent of circumstances . . . freed of his terrors, allowing only the love, all of the love, body and soul, to touch her in wondrous possibility, bind her to him in sweet completion.

No ecstasy of physical fulfillment could have been as deep, radiant, or true, as the gentle gift he had offered her that blessed morning. It had happened, and all it meant gave Diana a reason to rejoice and hope for today, to see the promise and reach for it at last. Despite everything.

 


Continued in Chapter 10