Living the Promise: Chapter Two


They'd been walking over two hours now, following the river upstream along a narrow ledge of bank up against the almost sheer cliffs that made up the walls of the immense cavern. The water picked its way through fields of strewn rocks, a miraculous, living ribbon of sound and unexpected color: Though the natural light here was much more muted than it was in the Cavern of the Falls, there was still enough of it to mysteriously brighten the water and the environment with an elusive quality of the outdoors.

Diana felt as if she were exploring an unkown Garden of Eden -- hardly lush and green, but breathtakingly beautiful nonetheless, with its rocky mantle of primeval wonder. Vincent seemed to know every turn in the stream, every challenging boulder in their path.

Since the trail was a narrow one, more often than not, they were forced to walk it in single file instead of side by side, but Diana was content to let her husband lead and she follow: She'd been willing to follow him to the ends of the earth, it already seemed, in their past, turmoil-riddled days, with only guilt and fear and denial awaiting them at every turn. Now, their journey's end literally promised so much more that was warm and welcome and intimately theirs.

That promising warmth and gifting closeness was accentuated to Diana with their every moment shared. The surefooted way Vincent picked his route over stones and around outcrops of rock, the swaying rhythm of his cloak over his powerful body, the sheltering, possessive, graceful reach of his arm back to her that instinctively helped her over rough stretches of terrain -- these all left Diana feeling as if she'd been transported to some mythic land of her grandmother's Celtic fables, and was now being proudly led through it by its mysterious and bewitchingly compelling guardian.

The stream was becoming narrower and more swiftly flowing as they made their way along, and the burnishing light was less capable of brightening their path. On a widened, dry stretch of gravel that marked a width the stream reached only in times of flooding rain, Vincent eased the backpack he carried slung over one shoulder down to the ground, next to a large rock. "We can rest for a while here," he explained. Diana settled down beside the rock and relinquished her own pack.

"How far have we come?" she asked, mentally calculating the distance they might have covered.

Vincent took his canteen and hers over with him to the edge of the water, filling them both again. "In a direct line, about three miles, but we've probably covered more than five, actually."

Offering her a drink of the sparkling, icy water, he sat beside her then, to quietly revel at how at home Diana's ethereal features made her seem here in this seldom-visited corner of his world. She could have been some half-imagined nature sprite that had just materialized from the burnished light and and flowing water around them. Feeling the marvelous wonder of their surroundings, too, Diana closed her eyes and took a deep breath, throwing her head back until it reached his shoulder for support. He wrapped his arms about her instantly, never feeling less than blessed by the feeling of her slender form in his arms.

"You aren't too tired, are you, Diana?" The soft tones of Vincent's voice betrayed concern, even though he knew they'd kept to an easy, leisurely pace, taking time to observe and immerse themselves in every impossible wonder that was revealed to them on their journey so far. He knew that his wife was in excellent physical health, although her leg occasionally still gave her problems with bouts of pain. But the concern did not stem from the lingering effects of her injuries in the flood. It sprang from an equally impossible wonder that Vincent was aware of -- the knowledge that Diana was carrying their child.

"No, I'm fine," Diana responded comfortably, nestling herself closer to the power of his sheltering body. His enfolding arms brought the fullness of his cloak to sweep deliciously over her, always fragrant with candleflame, leather, wool, and the unmistakable presence of his own heart-quickening essence.

"This is a wondrous place," she continued contentedly, slipping easily into the welcome gifts of the naturally beautiful environment they were sharing. And of the blessed opportunity they finally had to simply rejoice in one another's nearness. They could have been suspended in an entirely different plane of existence from the whole rest of the world at the moment, as far as Diana was concerned.

Still, curiosity got the better of her after a short period of dreamy repose. Somewhere above them, at least she thought so, lay a teeming metropolis that had once almost swallowed up her soul in its confounding perils of the spirit.

"Where would we be, if we were right Above, now?" she asked.

Vincent considered for a moment, following Diana's train of thought gratefully: The peace and wonder they were sharing lay beneath a sea of struggling and sometimes dream-deprived humanity. "I believe if we were to walk another half a block, we'd probably be able to turn into the Metropolitan."

The unexpected reply caused Diana to sit upright in Vincent's arms, a look of surprise brightening her face. "You're kidding! That is amazing."

A gentle nod of his head was Vincent's confirmation. Diana rested back against him with an amused sigh. It did seem to fit, the contradictory but so truthful place in the universal scheme of things they were now encompassed by: She and Vincent were hundreds of feet below ground, simply reveling in the incredulous, natural wonder of sheer, awesome creation. Above them, others were reveling in the creative wonder of sheer natural talent of another kind.

Vincent would have used some place like the art museum, too, as a signpost of their journey -- a place of beauty showcasing the possibilities of creative spirits left to soar freely. Anyone else in the world Above would have been prone to zeroing in on the traffic, noise, and crowds to gauge a journey's progress.

"How on earth did you ever find these places, Vincent?" Diana continued with marvelling interest.

"The river's course has been pretty well mapped for years. Several men of our community had already explored most of its course even before I was born, but its inaccessibility has kept it as a place of wild and untouched beauty even within our own world, a place of solace and contemplation for anyone who would venture this far."

Though the tones of Vincent's voice were even and softly remarkable, Diana thought she caught an undercurrent of memory that tinged his observations with a shade of past pain. She recalled he'd come here to these cliffs and stones when she had become stranded after the flood. On the anniversary of Catherine's death. He'd been so in need of solace then, and she so heartbreakingly incapable of offering it to him. A sudden painful pang caused Diana's heart to lurch -- Perhaps the reason he was so familiar with the stark beauty of this place was because he'd had to banish himself to it too often as he struggled with the anguish that had plagued his existence.

That heartbreaking thought seemed to be confirmed to her when Diana caught sight of a sudden clouding that darkened the blue depths of her husband's soul-baring eyes. But he fought with that visibly wrenching memory for only a moment before he was blessedly able to set it back into its own place within his heart. Diana reached her hand up to his cheek. He turned his cleft lips into her palm and kissed it, gratefully, knowing that he had been right in bringing her here with him this way at this point in time.

Taking her slender fingers into his, Vincent helped her to her feet. "If you are rested enough, we should go on. We've about another hour's traveling, and that will soon be in the dark. The river turns away from this cavern and into much smaller passageways we'll be lighting only with our lanterns.

"It sounds amazing," Diana responded, feeling very much, now, that their hearts would be able to light their way as easily as their lanterns. The return of the sustaining warmth of

Vincent's spirit reaching out to hers told her that they'd never again need to endure a loss of hope they couldn't find their way through, together.

From a niche in the rock wall she had only now noticed, Vincent reached a lantern out to her from a store of equipment and supplies that was obviously a frequented stopping point along the river's course. No longer a journey through pain and tears, their continued excursion promised only gifting welcome and long-sought intimacy.

 

Even though the stream had narrowed considerably at this point in its channel, the sound of the flowing current was becoming louder, filling the now restricted cavern with a rumbling vibration. When they cleared a final turn in their path right up against the river's edge, the reason for the disproportionate sound became evident.

A second stream, half again as wide, was joining the waters, its juncture, the impossible site of a waterfall, dropping from about 50 feet above them from the sheer rock face of the cavern cliffs opposite them. The falls reached the lower stream in a bed of fallen boulders, and cold spray spattered heavily across the trail Vincent and Diana were approaching from.

"I'm afraid we are going to get wet here. We need to follow the lower channel up ahead where it turns off. Stay up against the cliff as much as you can so you don't slip."

Diana listened intently to Vincent's directions over the mounting roar of the falls. The sight before her was inconceivable -- they could have been at the foot of a waterfall in the Rockies, instead of in the heart of New York City.

As Vincent had pointed out, the footing was a bit precarious over the rocky edge trail now soaked from the flying spray, but Diana wasn't in the least apprehensive. Vincent had swept his arms about her, shielding her with his cloak, keeping her closely against the cliffs of the cavern sides as they made their way along about 20 yards further up the trail.

Suddenly, to their left, the cliff wall opened up into a low passageway that became the lower stream's pathway, cut out of the sheer rock. Their own path widened out again, onto a flat stone ledge that paralleled the streambed into the dark.

"We can stop here for a while and get dried off. I'll build a fire." Vincent pulled his cloak free of his shoulders and Diana's, spreading it over the stone floor of the ledge to dry.

Disappearing a moment into a dark crevice in the wall, he returned with a bundle of firewood that had obviously been carefully stored to remain dry. Within a few moments, they were sitting beside a small, warm fire.

"A geologist would have a field day down here," Diana commented appreciatively, taking in the compelling surroundings.

"Jeffrey has the makings of one. He was identifying all the rocks and formations on our way down here the other day, though I didn't bring the children this far. The Crystal Cavern is off on a tangent series of tunnels closer to home, though deeper."

"I feel as though I'm exploring the world at the very beginning of time."

A gentle smile crossed Vincent's face, and he let his hand slide over the smooth surface of the rock wall behind them. "It has taken a score of milleniums to carve out this world for us. It is a wonder. Irresistible forces meeting immovable objects."

Without warning, a soft blush colored mythic features that were totally in their element within the primal forces of nature. The enchanting glow was not lost on Diana.

"I never knew geology was something that could make you blush, Vincent."

A bright radiance reached out to touch her loving soul with tenderness, enfusing the very cavern walls with warmth and expectancy. So different from the emotions these dark labyrinths had so often resounded with in the past.

"It wasn't exactly geology as much as physics that I was thinking about," came the slightly bemused confession. When it was obvious that his wife would require a complete explanation, Vincent continued.

"Father told me the day of our wedding that he saw the two of us as just that type of natural phenomenom: An irresistible force meeting an immovable object."

Diana let a bright smile light her face before she graced her husband with a sweet kiss that promised more forces of nature soon to be at work between them. Then, when she pulled reluctantly away from his easily possessive embrace, she teased, "We both know who the immovable object was, don't we?"

"Not always so immovable, my love," came the unexpected and welcomed reply, as Diana felt herself being swept gently to the stone floor beneath them in a beguiling captivity of powerful, sheltering arms, and warm, insistent lips. God, she'd never believed they could be so free to hold each other's hearts -- and each other's needs.

A sputtering ember from the fire brought their attention back only a breath from the warmly inviting nearness of beloved bodies. Vincent released his willing captive with some effort, and pulled her back up from the ground.

"It would probably be best if we ate something now here where we still don't need the lanterns." Though the cold supper William had packed them wasn't exactly what Diana hungered for at the moment, she agreed. Besides, they had until Sunday to share in each other's presence. She could wait. The anticipation was just as sweet as the fulfillment, she'd come to know. And she'd not need to live a lifetime on a single touch.

For a few moments, their time was spent quietly enjoying the sandwiches and fruit that they had brought along for their first meal, from the bounty of the Midsummer festival picnic. Then, when they were done with their portions, Vincent got up from the fire and searched once again through the darkened crevice which had sheltered their wood fuel. He returned with two relatively straight sticks.

"What are those for?" Diana asked immediately. The fire was burning down, and their dampened clothing was already nearly dry.

"You will have to show me," came the reply she wasn't certain she understood. But, after Vincent had retrieved a small plastic container from his backpack of supplies and handed it to her opened, Diana laughed out loud, throwing her arms around her beloved's neck with joyful abandon.

"I don't believe you did this!" Incredulous brightness colored delicate features that Vincent would hold in his heart till his final breath. It took so little to give her so much joy, he saw, feeling incredibly blessed to be able to offer her even that little now.

The small container carefully held six or seven marshmallows, about a dozen graham cracker halves and four or five square pieces of baking chocolate -- almost the makings of Diana's childhood campfire treat -- s'mores.

"William promised he'd try to find the proper chocolate, as he remembered making some mores when he was a boy, too. On short notice, all the had available, though, was from his baking supplies."

Diana was suddenly as close to the verge of tears as she was to surprised laughter. To think that Vincent had gone to so much trouble to give them the opportunity to share something she remembered with fondness from her home Above. She was suddenly overwhelmed by the sweet generosity of it all.

"Thank you, Vincent. This is just wonderful of you to do."

The deep green eyes were tender and acknowledging. Vincent blessed heaven that he could be the recipient of such merciful sweetness again in his life.

"Now, I need your instruction in this endeavor, Diana." The gentle, teasing words were more than just a request for guidance on the intricacies of campfire cooking. They were very much a projection of the reason he had asked her to join him in this journey in the first place -- to acknowledge to her just how far he'd been capable of coming through his dark loss and into the wonder of life nurtured by the tender guidance of her gentle, sustaining hand.

"Well, it's not that complicated, really," she offered with a smile. "All you have to do is get the marshmallow to stay on the stick and then be able to toast it without burning, althought some people like them burned. I don't. Here, let's try it. The fire's perfect."

With expert Girl Scout training, Dian skewered the marshmallows onto the sticks provided and then handed one to Vincent.

"Hold it over the embers there and watch it closely. This will be easy. The real challenge is when the fire is roaring: There's no way to keep the marshmallow from burning to ash then!"

In a matter of seconds, the gooey white puffs were delicately toasted. "I believe mine is ready." Vincent held his stick up for Diana's inspection.

"Perfect," she approved. Then she handed her bemused husband a graham cracker half and a chocolate square. "Now, pull the marshmallow off the stick between these and you are almost done."

Vincent followed his directions carefully, although most of his attention was focused on the delighted face of his wife following his progress. He could almost see a young Diana within her laughing eyes, sharing happy times with cousins on summer break.

Although he was being as careful as he could in removing the toasted marshmallow from the stick, Vincent wasn't quite repared for how tacky it had become and how tenaciously it clung to the stick, despite his best efforts to retrieve it. He was more used to marshmallows floating in Jacob's hot chocolate benignly. When the sticky puff in question finally came free with a bit of an extra tug, he nearly lost it back into the fire. A quick maneuver with the chocolate caught it, however, and Diana praised the outstanding rescue efforts.

When she gave Vincent the second cracker half, though, so that he might complete the sandwiched treat, the entire thing ended up crumbling to pieces in his hands, through no fault of his own. The baking chocolate was thicker than any regular candy bar and made for an overstuffed surface for the crackers to contain.

"You are certain that this is something children are capable of concocting?"

Diana smiled in sympathy. "Making extra ones because others have broken is half the fun. You get to eat the whole ones and the pieces, too." With little effort, Diana constructed another treat and handed it to her husband. "You can have mine. I'll take the pieces."

"I can see why William gave us extra ingredients!"

For several long, spirit-soaring moments, the scene, far below the streets of New York, could have been taken from a time-suspended depiction of young soulmates revelling in the promise of campfires and sweet treats, both offered, and stolen, with free and soul-nurturing tenderness.

Chocolate and marshmallows would never again taste as sublime as when they were enticingly lifted from love-warmed lips and shared.

 

About a quarter of an hour into the darkened course of the river, Vincent called Diana over towards a smaller tunnel that opened off the main passageway. Lit only by their lanterns, the new route was narrow and low, leading further into the stone recesses of their environment.

"You aren't claustrophoic, are you, Diana?" Vincent's voice ahead of her was only partly in jest.

"No, I'm all right. This is unbelievable in here."

Truly, what their lights shone upon was another wonderfilled scene. The sound of dripping water echoed around them, giving evidence to the natural forces at work. There were dozens of stalagtites and stalagmites filling the narrow channel they walked. Given a few million years, it too would become a great cavern with a river running through it on its mysterious course through time.

Around another bend in the trail, Vincent came to a halt and settled down to his knees. He reached back to guide Diana over to his side in the close confines. "Can you still hear the water dripping ahead of us?" he asked her. When she responded that she did, he set his lantern off to one side, throwing them into near darkness. "I will show you another marvel of this place, but you will need to lean over my arm to see it. Can you manage?"

Diana set her body closely to Vincent's in the tight quarters and let him reach across her with his strong arm.

"Lean out as far as you can," he instructed, and when she did so, she found she was nearly suspended over a much larger opening in the stone wall just in front of her. Though she was almost in total darkness, she could feel herself not exactly anchored to anything of substance beyond the stone floor under her knees and Vincent's arm across her ribs. She swallowed, but knew he would never expose her to any peril.

Her husband marveled at her instantly evident trust in him, and in his hold about her body. She'd never let that trust waver, not from the first moments she'd laid eyes on him. Whatever had he done so completely right and worthy in his life to have earned such a blessed gift? he wondered to himself now with joy.

Slowly, Vincent let the pool of illumination from his lantern fill the space before them. Diana gasped and pulled back up against her husband's side, but only for a reassuring instant, because she wanted to get another look at what she was being shown with so much patient care.

"Good God! That must be as deep the Abyss!"

What Diana found herself looking into just before her was a great, unfathomable schism in the rock surfaces, bristling with glistening formations far, far, below them. An unbroken surface of dark water leading into that bottomless vault rested just inches from where they were kneeling. It appeared that with a few more steps, they could have been propelled into the gash. Diana took in her fill of the sight, then eased back from the edge to the concrete security of her husband's body.

"I don't suppose it has ever crossed your mind that it could be dangerous stumbling about down here in the dark," came her defensively humorous scolding. But her trust never swayed. Vincent read her courage as surely as he read her love within her spirit. It was remarkable that he could feel so happy to be able to find himself again amongst these stone walls . . . with her unshakable devotion at his side.

"We are in no danger, Diana. Come and take a closer look and see why."

Something about the bemused way he was addressing her told Diana that all probably was not as it seemed. It wouldn't have been the first time she'd had to face up to that fact where her husband was concerned, she conceded in generous understanding. Vincent's steady hand helping her back to the sight was strong and sheltering, as always.

"How deep do you believe that chasm is?" he asked her with some patience.

"I'm going to say, endless, but from the look on your face, it is probably not."

Vincent set his lantern down right before her and let her see clearly what he was doing. He never could keep his secrets from her for long, and he blessed heaven for that happy revelation to him. Carefully, he broke the surface of the water before him with his hand, reaching, apparently as far down into the fault as it would go. The water barely came up over his fingers and to his wrist.

"What?" came the perplexed observation.

"Look up this time and not down."

When she leaned against Vincent's arm once again, Diana followed his urging and peered upwards into the chasm -- and understood that was the direction the rock actually opened into: Mere inches of water in a little channel before them was really only reflecting the height of the cut in the stone, hung with stalagtites from the high reaches of the ceiling above. The entire experience was an optical illusion.

"I hope I didn't frighten you, Diana, but I thought you'd be able to appreciate the sight.

"That is simply remarkable! It's all in your point of view . . . a bottomless chasm or only a reflection." The softly wondrous observation told Vincent his wife had seen the marvelous illusion just as he himself had understood it.

"Sometimes a thing that is frightening is only a distortion of what actually stands before us. We only need to have someone show us the truth and our new perspective can become a marvelous, gifting vantage point, revealing so much beauty we'd been afraid to see before."

Vincent was speaking about more than simply the miraculous geology of their present surroundings, Diana knew. She reached a soft kiss to her husband's lips, acknowledging his quiet wonder with their love as her own.

 

Her eyes now well used to the brightness of lantern light barely pushing back the surrounding dark, Diana was surprised to note that the small cavern they were at present walking through remained somewhat more illuminated. She could see why when she came up beside Vincent who'd been several steps ahead of her: They had come to the end of the riverbank trail inside an actual cave.

The stream continued to flow quietly beyond the rock ledge they were walking on into the darkness ahead of them. But their own path came to a halt up against a smooth stone wall jutting out in front of them and completely to the water's edge. It formed a sort of half back wall to the passage, and their lantern light bounced off it to softly brighten the entire cavern.

"This is where we will make camp." Vincent set down his light and pack and slipped his cloak from his shoulders. With her light, Diana saw that there were several well-bundled objects set up against the side stone wall, along with a number of piles of neatly stacked firewood. A half dozen stubs of candles were also scattered about the space, tucked into small, naturally formed niches and nicks in the wall.

Reaching over to one bundle, Vincent pulled two thick, frequently patched wool blankets he spread over the stone ledge near the wall. From another pack that was in the store of supplies, he pulled out some cooking utensils, retrieving a bent-bottomed metal tea pot, blackened from flame, which he carried over to a fire circle of stones about ten feet away from the blankets.

"I'll make us some tea. The fire will give us some light. We'll need to put out the lanterns to conserve fuel."

"Tea sounds great." Diana came to rest onto the thick blankets and eased her pack from off her shoulders. She felt that her sweatshirt jacket was damp, which was surprising to her. Even though it had been relatively warm in the home tunnels, in these far chambers the air had been cool. A bit of a mist unexpectedly hovered over the surface of the stream, and the environment within this small cave seemed warmer and more humid than she'd expected it to be. Another climactic whim of this indescribable world, she thought, as she unzipped her jacket as well and drew it off.

The climate didn't seem to be the only thing acting willfully at the moment, she conceded, as she watched Vincent set about starting the fire. Stretching her legs out

before her on the blanket, Diana was greeted by the familiar twinge of pain her injured one signalled her with when it was about to give her some sustained trouble. Luckily, she realized they had come to the end of their journey just before her limb had decided to really act up.

Even though they had taken their time traveling, she understood how Vincent was capable of being in the physical condition he was in -- the distance and terrain they'd covered would be a worthy challenge to any athlete in training. She looked forward to a well deserved rest, but, as she watched the lantern light and the slowly enlarging fire play over the mythical figure of her husband bewitchingly, she prayed her own stamina would hold out a bit longer this evening. They'd waited too long for this special time together.

Once the fire was well underway, Vincent set the tea kettle to boil with a practiced hand, and came over to sit closely beside Diana, watching the flames with her in quiet, total contentment.

"I hope this hasn't been too difficult on you," came the gentle words, accentuated by a beguiling rhythm of his large hands across her back and over her shoulders that was sweetly hypnotic in the presence of the flames before them.

"No, Vincent, it has been wonderful. Thank you so much for thinking of bringing me here."

"We can rest tonight and then tomorrow I will take you on further. There is a place up ahead, a passageway that leads off from the river here, that shows some evidence of ancient encampment. There must have been some opening accessible to the world Above at some time that has been lost." The quiet wonder in her husband's voice made Diana smile.

"Whoever might have made his way down here must have thought that he'd found the center of the earth."

"I still feel that way about this place."

Diana leaned easily against Vincent's body. Pulling her onto his lap to let her rest against his chest, he brought his hands to rub gently over her scarred leg. He hadn't missed how tentatively she had stretched it out beforehand. The delicious relaxation she felt in her limb with her husband's firm, tender touch soon radiated itself through Diana's entire body.

"You keep that up, my love, and I will be asleep in about five minutes."

A soft smile graced her in response. "That is fine with me, Diana. I brought you here so that you might have some time just to drift away, if that is what you wished."

With a mischevious look in her emerald eyes, Diana pulled herself momentarily back from the encompassing languid surrender her body was slipping easily into. "Is that all you brought me here for then?" A slender, long-fingered hand reached easily into the opened neck of Vincent's muslin shirt and brushed a tremor of sheer pleasure through his body.

Caught momentarily off guard by the rush of heat that passed instantly between them, a sweetly confused consternation came across his mythic features that was totally endearing to her, as were the words he chided her with. "Diana, for a young woman who was brought up in a strict, moral environment, you astound me sometimes!"

Reaching a gentle kiss to his cheek, Diana smiled in questionable reassurance. "My upbringing was no more strict than yours, and look where you've brought me -- unchaperoned -- the center of the earth!"

Only the tea kettle whistling kept more fervant examples of their argued points from being made.

Vincent came to the fire and pulled the kettle out, blessing heaven at the wonderfilled emotions that were now radiating within the small cavern so deep within the heart of his world. For too long, only pain and anguish had resounded within the stones here.

Pouring the water, then, over tea bags in two china cups he had carefully wrapped in towels to bring down for the trip, Vincent handed a steaming serving to Diana. She couldn't resist commenting. "S'mores. Tea. China cups. I have never been so pampered on a campout in my life."

The shy gratitude that radiated from her husband's face touched Diana instantly to her very soul. "You deserve to be pampered. These are just very small acknowledgements of all I owe you, Diana, and of how much I love you."

Setting her steeping cup carefully down, Diana ran her fingers up through Vincent's thick golden hair and pulled him closely to her, gifting him with a promise-sharing kiss. "All you owe me is the chance to offer you my love to the last breath of my existence."

He kept her close to his heart, needing so very much to put to words the feelings he held there at the moment, the ones that had urged him to return to the stark beauty of this place with her beside him.

"I've come here so many times because I found myself overwhelmed with pain and sorrow. I knew, somehow, that only these barely charted reaches of stone and darkness could possibly contain the anguish and loss I've carried within me so often through my life. These magnificent places of God's own construction became for me only fortified storehouses of my deepest desolation."

Diana wasn't certain exactly why Vincent felt the need to touch to the memories of his past soul-numbing pain with her now, and for a moment, she was afraid that the overwhelming power of his loss and his struggles had only been temporarily set aside with their marriage. She felt the tears beginning to rise into her eyes and rested a suddenly unsteady hand onto her unborn child defensively, protecting it from the threat of remembered turmoil and desperation.

But, the blaze of love that reached out to her from his heart lifted her spirit from the momentary anxiety with powerful conviction.

Vincent let his unhuman hand brush over her lips, across her cheek in reassurance. "Don't be afraid, Diana. We haven't been deceived in our love," he whispered softly as he caressed her mouth with his own. "I only wished to help you understand how precious you are to me, what it is you have truly been able to do for me, how your love has sustained me, even when I could only flee to these far-off reaches of my world in lonely pain."

Raising her hand up to his face, he kissed the palm, then pressed it to his cheek with tender, grateful wonder. "When I was last down here alone, with my pain and torment threatening to completely engulf my soul, I found my way back to hope and promise because of you. I felt you touch my soul, bear up my heart, with a tender patience as tangible and real as holding you now here in my arms is."

Letting his own touch run over her braided hair, Vincent gently left another kiss on Diana's forehead. Her heart was racing with echoing, exquisite, tenderness.

"You reached beyond my pain and found me down here, even among these stone walls, as surely as if you had accompanied me yourself."

Diana gazed deeply into the dark pools of his azure eyes and a pang of remembrace explained to her what he was attempting to put to words. She recalled, with such still

heart-numbing pain, that anguish-shrouded night of which he was speaking -- the first anniversary of Catherine's death -- that had been marked with so much desolation when she'd been stranded Below.

In her chamber, fearful, and feeling terribly alone herself, she had attempted to comfort little Jacob through a spirit-besieging struggle that was actually his father's pain. The desperation in Vincent's heart then had been so encompassing that it had even channeled itself to the child's little soul, through their bonded spirits.

She would have given her own soul to ease their pain that night. Instead, all Diana had been able to do was pray, pray that her love could reach both of them somehow and bring them back from the depths. She'd sat gently rocking the child, easing him back to comfort, peace, and sleep, in her arms, letting her care as well as her tears pour over him as she softly sang him a lullaby to love.

But, what was it that her husband was trying to explain to her now, about that horrific night? "You felt me reach out to you, down here, then?" The hesitant inquiry was both awestruck and yet, suddenly, unexpectedly, certain.

"'Remember me to one who lives there . . . She was once a true love of mine.'"

The familiar lines of a song-now-turned-poem took hold of Diana's heart. With the hushed tones of Vincent's voice repeating her own words, she felt the tears run down her cheeks, easily, unchecked. "You knew how much I longed to comfort you, how I prayed to be able to be with you and ease your pain?"

A beyond human hand softly wiped tears from a porcelain cheek. "You were with me, my love." Vincent breathed a heartstopping kiss onto the curling tendrils of amber hair at her temple. "You were so close to me I could even smell the lavender in your hair. The warmth of your heart brought my spirit back to life, helped me believe that love could touch me again."

Diana had to close her eyes for the wellspring of emotion overcoming her, recalling how deeply she'd felt herself being immersed within his soul that night. She'd prayed that she could hold him close to her heart, let her love wash over his pain-wearied spirit, just as she had let his little child take comfort from her nearness and total, committed devotion. She'd prayed that he could, somehow, take hold of the strength and courage and hope a true and yearning love would offer him. Not once, though, had she believed he would let her hold his pain as her own.

Diana drifted into Vincent's embrace with abandoned wonder, holding to his powerful body that she had sensed had been so battered by the anguish he carried within him that night. His words to her now, though, only spoke of hope reborn.

"I realized, at last, that the black pit that had become my life, my fear of falling into its bottomless darkness, was not the only reality that I'd need gaze into. The trust and hope of your love that night showed me there could be more of life for me, that I had been giving myself over, in desperation, only to a reflection that could show me nothing but fear and threat and pain, a reflection that I could only agonizingly endure, never transcend.

"You showed me how to look in a different direction for a new truth reaching out to my life." Vincent cupped his hand softly around the fragile, tear-stained cheek of the woman he treasured as his soulmate. "To be loved like that, Diana . . . to feel you love me like

that . . . taking on my pain as your own . . . I could only have dreamed of such a love."

The sound of those soul-baring words, now gifting, acknowledging her, filled Diana with the sweetest peace she could ever hope to imagine for herself.

"I wanted you to know that now, my love. I wanted you to know that I could come down here now with you actually at my side and share this place with you as the wonderfilled mystery of beauty it truly is. I can at last see this place as a marvel of creation. It no longer needs to be only the farthest reaches of my world, a place whose sole purpose of existence had been only to store up my desolation. Just as you filled my heart with hope, I want to fill this place with the revelations of love and promise I can carry now so willingly within soul."

Diana turned her face into the beloved hand that held it as a cherished gift. She never once doubted how blessed she'd been to have taken on Vincent's anguish as her own, nearly three years ago. And now, that anguish had surely been turned to joy, hope-sustaining joy, between them.

She gave herself over to the man she loved as her own soul without hesitation, drawing his entwining essence to her in a hungry, searching kiss he took to heart instantly. Tears mixed with gratitude and relief, soft laughter with freely embraced need. Diana guided a deadly, loving hand down along the slim curves of her body to rest surely on the khaki fabric of her pants, below her waist. Her words were both filled with that joyful, cherishing hope, as well as tenderly enkindled yearning.

"Then let me give you the first sweet new revelation you can shelter in this place, Vincent." A soft wash of gentle color tinged her opalescent skin, and a deep, undeniably beautiful rush of emotion lit the honest depths of her eyes with wonder. She drew her husband's other arm round about her so that she was surrounded by his strength, shielded, protected, and gifted by it.

"When you take me into your arms, my love, you are no longer holding me alone . . .

You are holding our child . . . I'm pregnant with our baby, Vincent . . . You're going to be a father again."

Turning in his embrace so that she could fully face him, Diana felt the tears well up into her eyes again at the sight of her husband's, trailing over sculpted cheekbones, falling from eyes that shimmered with breathtaking emotion. The hand that rested on her abdomen

stroked gently over the fabric covering her, in a tender caress that stopped her heart. She threw her arms around his neck then, speechless at the love she felt pouring into her very soul from his.

"Oh, Diana . . . I never dreamed . . . never believed . . . Oh God, how I love you! . . .

Thank you, my angel . . . thank you . . . "

Their tears mingling on their cheeks pressed together, Diana kissed her way across his unique features, to the cleft lips that were doing the same to her with such sweet, cherishing awe. They held each other close, her hands luxuriating in the dense fall of his golden hair, his running softly over her back, over every beloved, memorized curve of her. There was as much wonder, gratitude, awe, tenderness, and need binding their spirit together at that instant as they could ever have imagined. "I love you so, too, Vincent. You know how much I do. I couldn't begin to tell you."

"There could have been no more marvelous reality to bring to this place and share together, my sweetest angel."

Vincent's face was radiating a warmth and tender hope that his wife had only dreamed of seeing resting itself over features too long pained and tried. That morning, Mary had been able to read the wondrous news now revealed in a mother's gently shimmering joy. She had also urged Diana to let Vincent experience that marvel from that very moment. The matriarch of the tunnel community had been so right, Diana conceded now, gratefully. She truly believed the bright, tender wonder on her husband's face could have stood as the ultimate example of a father's awestruck acceptance of heaven's blessings in life. And the feeling of sweet, cherished, hope that it left her with was a gift for her in itself, too.

Drawing back from the tenderly possessive embrace that held her, Diana felt the radiating brightness within her turn her tears of wonder into the warmth of love. A sudden look of beloved chastisement filled her emerald eyes with teasing accusation. "Tell me you didn't know already what I was going to say to you."

Vincent pulled himself away from the bewitching enticement that her nearness always drew him into. He kissed her on the forehead, suddenly aware that the need they endured at present encompassed more than simply time to share their wondrous news with each other. The challenge in his beloved wife's manner carried a touch of that awareness, too, he was quick to note.

"I wasn't exactly certain . . . you held the wonder to yourself in your heart with such awesome disbelief . . . but when I felt that you'd accepted the possibility with so much joy, I wanted to let you tell me yourself." An unearthly hand encompassed a long, slender one with sweet devotion. And the barest trace of his own challenging, accepting certainty tinged profound azure eyes bright in their own wonder. "But, you also must have guessed that I knew."

Diana let a warm glow of remembered tenderness light her heart at her husband's words. "You don't honestly believe I could easily sleep through your touch, my love?"

With a guilty smile, Vincent gathered Diana so close to him in powerful, sheltering arms. For a long moment, the two of them simply drifted within the comforting, awesome wonder of love embodied that now bound them to one another as never before. Diana could never have imagined the happiness that filled her. She could hear her husband's heart beating strongly and true beneath her ear as she rested her head on his chest. A tangible circle of sheltering hope reached her from that reality. She felt the warmth of his breath in her hair as he kissed her gently among the beloved amber.

"Even if I was aware of what was happening, Diana, just hearing you speak the words to me, hearing you say what you did to me, that you are with child, carrying our child . . . I

can't seem to gather enough of that reality within me . . . it is too . . . encompassing . . . a gift."

The soft, deep tones of his voice in her hair, the sweet, cherishing touch of his hand upon her, echoed so very much that sensation he was describing to her: It was too great a joy to put to words. After all the pain, guilt, fear and hesitation they'd had to endure, to find themselves sharing such an awesome reality of love was like a glimpse of heaven itself. She couldn't have imagined having had any other reaction to the miracle, witnessing any other response from her beloved.

"I know what you're feeling, Vincent. It took me the longest time to believe it, too. I don't think it all actually became real until I told Mary this morning. Or actually, she guessed it." A shy smile crossed ethereal features. "She said I was carrying 'the radiance of heaven' in my eyes and that it had to be caused by more than simply your tenderness."

"Mary, as always, was right."

Vincent brushed a few stray locks of her hair back off from her face with sweet care, then drew his otherwordly hand over her porcelain features with cherishing tenderness. "You have given me such a gift, Diana, here today. Let me share one with you, too. Give me your hand."

Responding with warm interest to her husband's request, Diana offered him her hand. He kissed its palm sweetly, then set it carefully onto the wash-softened fabric of his shirt, over his heart, holding it there. He let his other hand return to rest lightly across her waist where she had first set it.

Diana was fascinated by the tender intensity in his mythic features. "Now, empty your mind totally, my love, of everything around us. Listen only with your heart. Open it up to mine."

The certainty of his instruction, that he could believe her capable of doing what he asked, sent a wave of grateful joy through her. In the past, her startlingly powerful, intuitive ability had only linked her awareness to pain, death, and madness. Now, instinctively, she realized her husband was enabling her to touch those capabilities to something as awesomely wonderful as her own revelation to him.

Diana closed her eyes, focusing her sensitive essence to the love that was radiating over her. It was so encompassing, that shelter, that her attempt to tune her spirit into it totally was effortless. She could actually feel herself wiping away the sound of the stream's slow current from her awareness, the feel of the cool breezes against her face. After a moment she no longer even heard the crackling of the fire. She could only feel Vincent's heart throbbing with a sustained, reassuring rhythm beneath her hand, the deep, even rise and fall of his chest that marked his breathing.

After only an instant, remarkably, those beloved sensations actually channeled themselves from outside of her own experience to flow directly within her own awareness, her own body. She could hear his heart now, feel it, beating in time with her own. A wondrous sweep of enveloping shelter blanketed her spirit at the evidence of their mystically united souls.

For a long moment, Diana held to the sensation of Vincent's heart beating within her own, aware of the imensity of his emotions revealed to her at that instant, as she had been on their wedding night. The intense tide of awe, tenderness, need, marvel and hope held her transfixed, warming her to the depths of her soul.

But, there was unexpectedly even something more to the intertwined sensations she was experiencing, though Diana wasn't at first certain what it was she was picking up on, hearing, or more correctly, feeling, within her. Several shared heartbeats passed between them before she recognized the perception her awareness had settled itself upon: Another rhythm, very soft and faint, much quicker as well, that had joined their own hearts, joined, but remained, somehow, totally distinct. She opened her gentle eyes wide with wonder, then, and saw her husband looking down upon her with equal awe and tender care.

"Oh my God! It's the baby's heart, Vincent, isn't it? You can hear it."

"Yes, it is our child," came the soft reply.

Diana let the tiny, miraculous sound fill her own heart for several long, blessed moments. The wonder of that revelation to her brought a feeling of encompassing bliss and sweetness that overflowed her spirit. She couldn't believe what she was experiencing, yet had absolutely no doubt whatever that her husband's love had made it possible for her to touch.

Drawing her hand, then, carefully, tenderly, from her husband's chest, she reached it up to his cheek. "Thank you," she breathed with all the love in her own being. Her response was a gifted, radiant smile, and a beguiling kiss that lit a gently-embered fire within her.

After another moment adrift in the wondrous sensations of their welcomed nearness, Diana asked, "Have you said anything to Jacob yet?"

Vincent shook his head, resuming his comforting touch over her tired limbs. "I wanted us to be able to tell him together."

"How do you think he'll react?" came the quiet inquiry, as Diana never wished to cause the beloved child any confusion or anxiety. Vincent smiled down at her in reassurance.

"For one thing, he will be relieved, I'm certain. He's been worried that you might be ill, because you've been sleeping more lately."

Diana was deeply touched at the thought that the little boy might be anxious for her. She thought that his quiet closeness to her in past days might have signalled something at work within the sweet child's heart.

"I hope he'll be happy for us all."

Vincent lifted his wife's gaze up to his own with a gentle hand. "He can read our hearts, too, Diana, the joy that is within us because of this gift. I don't believe he'll accept this revelation with anything less than promise and joy, as well." With a bit of a mischevious sparkle in his eyes, however, he couldn't keep from adding a bit more to his observation to his wife. "Though, that doesn't necessarily mean there will never be any sibling conflict between them."

Diana took the admonishment to heart easily, the many instances of laughter and tears she'd shared with her own sister readily called to mind. And she seemed to recall experiences of conflict Father had let her become privy to between two young boys each with their own unique characteristics of heart. "I hope I can be a good mother to them both. I could never imagine how my mother raised my sister and me and remained sane, with what we put her through!"

Vincent touched a tender kiss to warm lips with easy reassurance. "Diana, you are already a wondrously caring mother. There is no doubt in my mind that you will remain so, even with two children to nurture."

The quiet confidence of that statement sent a bright certainty of joy into Diana's heart. She let herself melt into the warmth of the love enfolding her, as well as the tender touch that was releasing her tired muscles from the effects of their long hike.

Vincent didn't miss the welcome acceptance she was giving his careful ministrations to her. He was happy beyond words to be able to offer her even the most minute evidences of his devotion to her. "You are certain you're not overly tired?" The concerned inquiry brightened Diana's spirit even further, though she was a bit worried that her husband might find himself living the next six months in constant anxiety about her state of health. She quickly sought to relieve his worry.

"No, I'm fine, really. And I'm certain the baby is fine, too. As soon as we get back, I'll have Father give me a complete check up. Mary and I knew there was no way that Father would be able to keep anything from you if I were to have gone to him before. Could you have seen him trying to pretend he didn't know anything until I got the chance to tell you myself?"

The thought of his beloved, usually so supremely composed parent attempting to keep such news to himself suddenly conjured up an impossible scenario within Vincent's mind. No, the dear gentleman would have fairly burst with the news, every bit of devotion that he held for both his mythical son and the amber-haired angel that was his daughter-in-law ready to shout the wonder from one end of the tunnel world to the other as evidence of the providential power of love accepted.

"I believe that you probably saved him from an episode of cardiac arrest by waiting to tell him," came the brightly amused reply. But then, the words turned serious and cautious with vigilant care. "But you must make certain that he gives you a thorough exam, Diana, and you must be ready to follow his instruction on taking care of yourself, especially now."

The quietly urging instruction caught at Diana's heart with their protective shelter. She immediately sought to reassure her beloved. "Don't worry, Vincent. I'll take good care of myself. We've another little life here to think about now. But, I don't want you to be afraid for either of us. You're a doctor's son; you should know better than anyone else that just because I'm pregnant I've not now suddenly become made of glass."

Strong arms held her closely to his heart, and the words whispered from the depths of his love for her echoed her own to him on their wedding night. "I couldn't live if I were to lose you. Either of you."

For an instant, Diana was fearful that her anxious uncertainties voiced to Mary earlier that day had come to pass -- that going through the waiting time of their pregnancy would bring Vincent as much pain as it could joy, because of his experiences with Catherine's loss. But then Diana realized that his words to her echoed only a fear every new father carried within the depths of their souls. She brought a tender kiss to his lips in comfort, reassuring herself as well.

A moment later, her husband resumed his gifting, healing touch on her leg, and Diana let herself sink into the tenderness of the feeling. A welcomed warmth, and ease of movement returned to her, and the mother-to-be soon found that Mary's admonishment to her would be a gift as well -- "Don't be afraid to need him . . . Let him be your husband in this." That gift would easily reach far beyond only the treasured care and solicitious devotion of a husband for his pregnant wife. Diana sank back into Vincent's arms luxuriously, reveling at the freedom in his heart as he offered her his attention.

"Does your leg feel better?" The shy inquiry was innocently expectant. He was still so amazed that he could do anything for her that could bring her the tiniest bit of comfort in heart, mind, or body. Diana would hold that poignant uncertainty within the very depths of her soul.

"It's much better, but don't you dare stop what you are doing." The playful instruction was drawn from a delicious freedom of her own building deliberately through her entire body at her husband's tender touch. Far from helping her ease into drowsy comfort, the feeling had begun lifting her senses to a wondrous state of expectation.

Not exactly certain whether or not her concerned husband would feel himself as free to respond to that expectation as she was, Diana simply let a sigh of pure contentment escape her. "I would love to just let myself melt into your touch right now. I don't need a single other thing, except maybe a three hour soak in a warm tub. But, since that isn't going to happen down here, I'm just fine, thank you."

The deep tones of his laughter resounded warmly around them, and Diana was amazed to realize that his comforting touch on her wearied limb was wandering, the gentle stroking drawing itself up over her knee and thigh, past the curve of her hip, to her ribs and along her spine. She leaned her head back against his shoulder, and suddenly found his lips at her throat.

"I don't know about three hours in a tub, but you might find a bit of similar comfort here after all. You can go for a swim." The words were as seductively inviting as she ever expected to hear from him, yet the reality of their circumstances and present environment drew her up out of his tender embrace in disbelief.

"In the river? Down here? You can't be serious!"

The brightly amused blue eyes of her husband hinted at something he wasn't telling her.

"Why don't you go over and test the water? You might be surprised," came the quietly challenging words that piqued her curiosity, but not far enough into belief.

"I can hardly stand the water in the river chasm at home where it is actually almost warmed by the light. What makes you think I would enjoy an icy plunge here?"

"If you put your hand in the water, Diana, and stop arguing with me long enough, you might let me pleasantly surprise you!"

The abundantly offended words completely surprised her, even if she was certain the temperature of the water would not. But, score one point for the unexpected exasperation the new father was enduring at the moment, for it elicited the action he required of her: Diana meekly stepped over to the edge of the rock ledge that formed the boundary to the stream and tentatively eased her fingers down to the water level, steeling herself for the cold shock she was certain she'd feel. Vincent laughed out loud at her hesitancy.

"Diana, it is only water you are placing your hand within, not the Mouth of Truth!"

Adequately acquainted with her Roman mythology, Diana had to smile at her husband's words despite herself. The Mouth of Truth he'd referred to was an ancient indicator of a person's moral character. If one were to be caught in a lie, when that person's hand was placed within the opening of the venerable stone carving, it would be painfully held captive by its jaws, as evidence of the untruth spoken. Obviously, few people would be willing to reach their hands into such dark, threatening depths freely.

Knowing she was in no danger of being painfully caught in a lie now, Diana simply did not want to lose the beautiful warmth that nestling in Vincent's arms had lit within her, because of her unwilling contact with an icy stream. Still, always ready to tackle an obstacle head on, she closed her eyes and plunged her hand into the water, certain of its effect.

She was shocked.

But not by icy tingles of cold.

"The water's as warm as bath water!" she exclaimed, amazed. "But, how?"

Vincent came over to her side, still smiling at her consternation. He'd managed to keep his secret from her, at least this once, he thought with easy warmth filling his spirit. Happily he explained the phenomenom to her. "There are several small hot springs that feed into the stream up ahead. The water is actually scalding there, but by the time the current reaches here, it has cooled enough to be quite comfortable."

"My love, you are astounding! This place is amazing!"

Without even a second thought, Diana sat down onto the stone floor of the cave and pulled off her heavy hiking boots and socks. Rolling both pant legs up above her knees, she eagerly let her feet and legs dangle into the warm stream. "It feels wonderful! Thank you!"

An easy smile graced Vincent's exotic features, and a gentle joy filled his heart. He was so happy to be able to offer the wondrous soul that was his wife these so small evidences of his care exactly because she was so totally appreciative of them. He fully believed, had he been able to walk alongside her on a Caribbean beach in full summer sun, she would not have been half as ecstatic as she was at this moment over a bit of warm water he'd been able to direct her to within his world.

"You don't need to limit yourself simply to wading, Diana. You can go completely in. It isn't very deep, probably only up to your shoulders in mid-channel. The sides slope gently and the bottom is sandy with little current."

"Can I really?" The words were a little girl's. So was the grammar. Vincent couldn't resist.

"Yes, you may. I've brought some towels along."

"But I don't have anything to wear for swimming," came the automatic reply, yet the sudden rush of heat through her at the look her husband dared give her spoke in an instant the fact that that particular little detail didn't even have to be addressed.

She was further assured when her husband softly noted, "We are alone here, Diana," without his gaze leaving sight of her.

Still, he was surprised by her own further reaction when she'd found her voice. Placing a gentle kiss onto her hair and turning to retrieve the towels for her use back at their supplies, he was suddenly held in check by an endearing touch.

"Will you come in with me?"

Vincent was unprepared for the sudden leap his heart took at the quietly promising invitation in those words. He'd read Diana's need for time to immerse themselves once again in the compelling, comforting depths of their physical expressions of love, without the little frustrations and details of day-to-day living intruding time and again. Still, he had thought that his own encompassing need to shelter her protectively in her present state of health would have somehow tempered a bit the enticing thrill the nearness of her obviously expectant body swept through him.

From the moment that they'd consumated their marriage, he had told himself he would do all he could to gift her in his love freely and with joy. It appeared, now, that his wife had made herself a similar vow where he was concerned. They'd taken this precious time to share more intimately in the gifting wonder of their love.

This time Diana read every breath of his heart in Vincent's wondrously aching blue eyes. "Let me build up the fire a bit. Even though the water is warm, the air currents are still brisk here. You'll be cold when we get out."

"I'll wait," came her nearly breathless reply, echoing the beloved freedom of the unburdened humanity they shared between them.

She watched patiently as her husband carefully enlarged their campfire so that it would continue to heat the small cavern comfortably for some time. With the flames and shadows playing over his indescribably arresting features, Diana felt as though she truly had been magically transported to a mythic fairy tale of legend, that she was waiting for Oberon himself to turn his attention back to her.

Her heart was beating with a quickened rhythm in expectation, almost as it had their very first night together. At that compelling moment, their wondrous, exquisite completion to their love had been surrounded by the tender awe and near disbelief of their shyly needful hearts and the astounding reality of beloved, but unfamiliar bodies reaching for breathless union.

The subsequent necessary contraints on their private moments during the past three months had forced them into abbreviated but no less gifting interludes of shared need. They'd found themselves able to reach a heartening communion with a single gentle caress. They could touch to a blessed, shared peace as they lay in each other's arms simply listening to little Jacob's even breath sounding in their chamber in the early morning hours of a new day.

Somehow, Diana sensed a completely different, delightfully overwhelming aspect to their time together now -- the bewitching enticements of being experienced lovers with the trust, time, and freedom to gift their relationship with simple, human wonder and cherished, welcomed pleasure in each other. And far from enforcing a cautious reticence in their physical reactions to one another's beguilingly dear presence, her present condition seemed to accentuate all that was compellingly human, physical, and natural in their love.

Smiling to herself at the hope of things to come, Diana chose to heed her breathless heart, succumbing to the powerful enticement of their sensual longings. She pulled her legs momentarily out of the water, to slip her trousers down her slim hips. An instant later, she had her legs back in the water as before, but they were completely free of interrupting constraints.

Vincent felt an insistent heat surround him that had absolutely nothing to do with his present task of fire tending. It came unerringly at him from Diana's heart, with blessed, accurate aim, and he was amazed to find himself so willingly caught up within it, despite his innate caution as to his beloved's present state.

With gentle wonder, he recognized, too, an unexpected flustered uncertainty that also hovered about her essence within him, a sensation that caught Vincent's breathing with sweet tenderness: She was actually fighting a complex battle within herself, he realized, pitting the still-hesitant, tenuous endearment of a school girl anxiously expecting her first kiss, against the scorching seductive power of a beautiful, compelling, enigma of a woman totally unaware of how heart-stoppingly wondrous, body and soul, she truly was.

Diana never ceased to amaze him.

In generous patience, Vincent let his wife have an extra moment to center her colliding expectations in private before he rejoined her beside the stream, carrying several towels.

During that instant, he noted, with a bit of a start, that she was now dressed only in her long, ribbed henly shirt. Her legs, hanging into the water, were bare, completely bare.

The long, strong, slender legs of a colt: It was the only way he could possibly describe them, as he took in their beguiling state, free of all constraints, that rushed a surge of electricity through his powerful body. Apparently, Diana's seductive intentions had won out over her more innocent expectations. Either way, Vincent knew, suddenly, he would come to cherish this evening with gifting remembrance.

Coming to sit closely behind his wife, he set his large hands gently to her shoulders, kneading them carefully, helping melt away the weight of the backpack she'd carried for the past several hours. She leaned easily into his body with confidant familiarity.

The humidity in the cave had already found its way into her auburn hair, pulling stray stands from her braid, curling them easily about her face . . . and releasing the fragrance of lavender resting there from the simple soaps she'd easily become accustomed to using in the Underworld.

The innocent aroma lit a captivating interlude of pure sensual magnetism between them. Once, Vincent had been left shamefully guilt-ridden by a so natural and enticing mystery, by wondering where else beside her hair the gentle fragrance might linger. He'd long since found out, with welcome, first-hand knowledge.

Diana straightened up from his supporting body to reach back a temperature-raising kiss to his tender, cleft lips, feeling the yearning need in his touch. Her searching caress within his mouth sent a shudder through his body, that was always amazed at the accepting desire she so willingly urged over him. Yet, Vincent let his protective instincts surface between them, hoping to keep a tenuous, still briefly balanced hold on their mounting, aching need. The bit of silent self-urging drew him to unbutton his shirt, reaching for a mind-clearing moment.

Quietly, he explained his restraint. "You'd better let me get in first. It can become rather slippery on the rocks."

Diana accepted his vigilance for her safety, but she would not be left bereft of her one, singular, joyous objective of the moment: With a firm hand, she caught hold of both her husband's unearthly ones as he worked to release the buttons on his muslin shirt. The thought that he was ready to remove that shirt so easily within her sight was another sparking catalyst to the heat drawing them both inexorably onward to the entwining fulfillment they both sought.

He hadn't even been able to take off his shirt before her on their wedding night. Now the thought of what he was doing hadn't even aparently stirred his consciousness, beyond the fact that the garment was an obstacle between the compelling planes of his chest and the silky, soft curves of her own.

The crystaline clarity of her emerald eyes blazed acutely within Vincent's own senses. "Uh, uh. That is my job, my love," Diana admonished him as she worked the buttons free on his shirt. When her task was completed, she pulled the muslin free of his jeans with certainty . . .

. . . And immediately set about searing a path of desire with her moist, parted lips across his flesh, stroking her fingers through the wealth of golden curls on his chest, kissing her way from the pulse at his throat, to his ribs, to the sensitive power of his muscles above his waist . . .

Any hope of a purely sheltering exhange between them evaporated in the heat of their fusing desires.

Still, Vincent attempted to remain cautious. There was more to think about now than simply their own needs. Pulling himself so reluctantly from the mounting ache to meld her bewitching body instantly to his own, he was startled at the forceful yearning of her sensual

tenderness. Shakily he confessed to her, "Diana, you keep that up and I will be anything but asleep in five minutes."

Looking only mildy reprimanded, the red-haired fairy he'd linked his heart to withdrew her attentions with great, long-suffering patience. Vincent set a soft kiss to her temple with a generous smile, amazed that the awe-inspiring seductress that was having her way with the vast majority of his control was actually his wife, who happened to be several months pregnant. He came to his feet behind her and stripped unselfconsciously.

A moment later, he was in the water, its level resting provocatively at his hips, flames and stream accentuating every taut muscle and powerful expanse of beloved, familiar flesh before her.

It did nothing to sensibly chill the heat between them. So be it.

Vincent stepped within her reach, then brought a confident hand to her braid that had come to rest over her left shoulder. He freed her hair with a practiced touch, raking his long fingers through it with welcome pleasure. Though he cherished watching her braid it in the mornings, it became an erotic delight he willingly lost himself in as often as possible when the cloud of amber silk was left free to sweep over her shoulders. At present, it was alight with the colors of the fire in the cavern.

Diana reached down to the hem of her own shirt, then, intent on relieving herself of its confinement as quickly as humanly possible, needing, without question, to feel her skin pressed intimately up against her husband's. She found herself, instead, momentarily stayed in her efforts by love-gifting hands and a heart-stumbling wellspring of erotic acknowledgement in compelling azure eyes.

"'Turn about is fair play', Diana. I believe that is my job, now." Without the slightest breath of past turmoil or denied humanity, Vincent evenly, languidly pulled the soft ribbed shirt up over his wife's exquisite body.

His heart clamored at the sight of her, as it always did, as it always would.

She hadn't worn anything else under her henly shirt, not even the comfortable, simple cotton camisoles she preferred as an underlayer to her clothing.

The unexpected reality of finding her so completely revealed to his sight just then caught Vincent momentarily off guard. Both his flagging discipline over his own body and his natural, ingrained modesty even in the heated exchange of their lovemaking, were quickly under besieging assault.

"Vincent, you're blushing," Diana pointed out to him for a second time that evening, the gentle, teasing words speaking of the sweet tenderness she felt rising within her at her husband's reaction to her sensual delights. To reduce her mythic figure of a companion to boyish dismay was too endearing for her heart to hold onto alone. It leapt with overwhelming joy to include Vincent's own spirit.

"I had . . . expected you . . . to be wearing . . . something else," came the preciously stumbling explanation from her normally elegantly articulate love.

Diana raised her fingers to her husband's lips with gentle explanation. "I thought you could use a surprise or two yourself, my love. Just because I'm going to be a mother doesn't mean I have to stop being a wife -- or lover." She leaned down to Vincent and graced his breathless, irresistible study of her with an empassioned kiss promising delights unimaginable.

Stunned by the erotic assurance of those words, Vincent had to momentarily close his eyes to steady the surging throb of his heartbeat. The gifting truth of those words rang through his body as surely as they echoed within his mind, and he was astounded as to how readily he accepted that truth from her.

Reaching deadly, gifting hands on either side of her still slender waist, Vincent eased Diana carefully off the ledge, slipping her slowly into the warm water with him, letting his hands support her until she touched the streambed with her feet. To be certain that she didn't become chilled in the cool air circulating round about them, he led her a few more steps into deeper water, the flame-splashed surface of the stream becoming a mesmerizing backdrop to their totally attuned desires.

Holding her close for a long moment, bewitched by the heady sight of her ripening body in the wild freedom of their stoney environment, Vincent still couldn't quite bring himself to accept the firestorm of passionate need gaining power within him. The sublime figure before him was carrying, nurturing their child, after all. Diana was both too compellingly, sensually beautiful, and too blessedly, arrestingly maternal at that moment in his mind and heart.

She read the hesitation in his touch as easily as she took breathless note of the overwhelming hunger in his eyes.

"It's all right. I won't break, remember?" The quiet words, and the aching sweetness in her face nearly convinced him.

"But the baby . . . our child . . . I could hurt you . . . "

"Vincent, the baby is safe. And it's perfectly natural for a husband and wife to love, even when she's pregnant. We'll only have to be more cautious later on."

Reaching below the water, Diana gently took up her husband's hand again and set it onto her breast as she had done their first night together. "It won't be any different than what we've already been sharing," she continued to softly urge. "Remember, I've been pregnant for a while, my love, probably since our wedding night. We haven't exactly slept in separate beds since then . . . and I've been feeling fine . . . nothing's been amiss."

The always heartstopping feeling of her tender flesh beneath his hands drew him to accept Diana's assurances, in spite of his still hesitant care. "Yes, Diana, I understand" he whispered softly to her, suddenly unable to resist the sight of her bewitching beauty before him, "but we didn't actually know for certain between us until now. It was never within my mind so clearly until now."

"So think of this, then, Vincent." The emotion-tinged tone of her voice sent a wave of trembling comprehension through him. "When you caress me in love, you will also be acknowledging what we have been blessed with -- the chance to nurture a new life born of that very love. You'll be touching to the source of that life, what created it."

The hesitant anxiety vanished from Vincent's heart at that, and he let the simple, powerfully liberating wonder of loving his contradictory bride, the mother of his children, set them both free to revel in one another's astonishingly gifting presence.

It was only a moment before Vincent brought his intensely attuned attention to Diana's acutely expectant body, taking up the wonder they'd both sought to share without constraints. He brushed his hand over her full, tender breast, the rounded curve peaking just above the surface of the water. Diana drifted against him at the touch, their bodies holding, molding themselves to one another with welcome.

He simply could not will himself to ignore the enticing siren call of her beloved form to his own, the sight of a now dusky-colored nipple slipping between his wet fingers too much for him to deny. Bending his golden-haired head down to her, Vincent pulled the remarkably compelling flesh into his mouth with sudden, uncontested hunger, savoring its tender sensations as well as the pure, clear water that washed around it. His long-fingered hands roamed freely over her water-splashed skin, dipping beneath the surface to hold her intimately to him. Then his lips trailed back up her throat to claim her mouth, drawing her breath within him as his own.

Diana felt a current of scorching want race through every inch of her body, that was hardly diminished because it was recognized. She was always astounded at what her beloved was capable of gifting her with, in even his most cautiously tender attentions, and she realized why he'd been hesitant to act upon his passionate need for her -- their sensations of one another, always so fervant and intense because of their bonded spirits, now seemed magnified to a nearly unbearably enflamed level this night, perhaps because of the wild freedom of their surroundings and its echo within them.

Its reality was leaving even her breathless and easily spent, the would-be seductress suddenly reduced to gasping helplessness.

Pulling a ragged breath into her lungs, Diana attempted to diffuse their want a fraction as her husband had done as well, reminding herself that they did have a blessedly entire weekend ahead of them to indulge in such heady, gifting pleasures.

Vincent felt the searing fire within her settle back a tiny breath and relinquished his own too-aching homage to her body, for the moment. He raised his head back up to her, and when their guilty eyes met, they both laughed quietly, wrapping each other in a welcome, sheltering embrace.

"It might have been easier on us both if this stream was still icy cold." Diana's words caused her husband to rest his forehead gently against hers. He picked up her hand and kissed the fingertips sweetly.

"I had no idea how beautiful a mother's body could be." A powerful hand brushed gently across tender, yielding skin beneath the water. Diana rested her head against his chest.

"You won't think that in a couple more months when I really begin to show. There'll be little beauty then. I'll just be fat and nauseous and cranky and demanding."

Vincent ran a wet hand up over her hair, then kissed it softly. "I hardly believe you'll become any less bewitching, though, my dearest Diana. Besides," he added, as a conspicuous afterthought, "I'm already used to you being cranky and demanding. I'll survive fat and nauseous as well, no doubt."

His comments elicted her expected response -- Diana reached far into the water with both her arms and began to splash her husband without mercy. "Cranky and demanding, am I?"

Long golden hair, totally soaked, Vincent shook it out of his face, then lunged at his assailant with determination. "They are your own words, my love." After several other facefuls of water, Vincent managed to get hold of Diana's arms and pinned them behind her.

That was not the most innocuous method of handling their sensitized experiences of one another. Her suddenly provocatively vulnerable position threatened to re-ignite their flames beyond endurance this time. Vincent somehow drew his attention past the inviting sight of water beading up across Diana's skin and he released her, gently kissing her on the cheek. "Come, let's swim for a bit."

"I'm a little out of practice."

Actually, Diana was a lot out of practice. Swimming in the brisk and pounding Atlantic never appealed much to her over the years, and doing laps in the pool at the "Y" had been only an infrequent indulgence because of her past caseloads in her work. The last time she really recalled ever enjoying swimming as it should be was when she was nine or ten.

Her family had spent an idyllic week then at a lake upstate as guests of her father's partner on the force. She and her sister Maureen, and Mike Santoni's three kids, had come out of the water only for the barest instances all that week, and because of only the most basic of reasons -- hunger and fatigue. It was a wonderful week to be a kid, she remembered.

"Don't worry. I'll watch over you." Vincent's reassuring words brightened her hesitant spirit. "You'll always be able to touch bottom if you need to." Stretching himself out into the water, he took a few easy strokes and glided effortlessly across the width of the stream.

Diana followed, a bit anxiously, as much from that implanted voice of parochial

conscience that told her she'd burn in hell for enjoying a swim without benefit of properly

modest attire, as from the fact that she couldn't remember the last time she'd really done anything more strenuous in water than soak her sweaters in the tub in her loft. But soon, she was able to relax and enjoy the rare treat as well, noting how her husband was

revelling in the experience they'd long been denied.

She did feel wondrous to be able to immerse herself, literally, into such a simple delight, and to be able to share it with the man she loved. It felt so natural, suddenly, to be beside him like this, two uninhibited bodies, two unfettered souls, simply enjoying the beauty of the environment about them. It truly echoed the completely reborn sense of the place that Vincent had described, what he'd wanted to initiate with their presence among the primeval wonders in this part of his world -- now no longer a stark and ungiving storehouse of anguish, but a special source of joy and freedom to be shared.

They swam a half dozen long laps downstream until the water began to lose its comfortable warmth away from the springs. Then, on another pass, Vincent urged her

to follow him a bit further down into the cooling water. "Come and see what is here, Diana," he called to her, an obvious delight in the marvels of his environment shining through the bright tones of his voice. His wife blessed heaven that he could find it so easy to explore this place with her and delight in its natural gifts, things she sensed he'd hardly had the opportunity to take note of whenever he'd been driven to these depths alone with his pain.

He stopped their further progress downstream at an area where the water's channel was interrupted by a rough outcropping of the cavern wall opposite the ledge they'd followed as their trail. The stone deviated the flow of the stream somewhat, causing a small pooling area up against it. "What is it, Vincent?" Diana asked, intrigued at what he could want to be showing her.

Unexpectedly, he dove completely beneath the water, disappearing for a moment, his

position relative to her only marked by the flowing gold of his hair under the surface. A moment later he broke the surface of the stream again, his hand closed carefully around something that he offered out to her own.

Diana couldn't imagine what it was he wished to show her so carefully, her attention momentarily unwilling to leave the beguiling sight of him with his hair drawn completely off his unique features by the weight of the water it had soaked up. But then she realized what it was he had given her -- a number of seashells, tiny ones, shimmering in the limited light of the cavern with their lovely opalescence.

"There is an access to this stream from somewhere along the sea Above. These shells would not have been found here unless they'd been borne up from some current. The outcropping catches them."

Taking one of the shells carefully up into her fingers, Diana smiled. "I've always loved seashells. I had a collection of them when I was little. They were only all tossed into a canning jar on my dresser, ones I'd picked up on vacation in Massachusetts, some I got from the Atlantic here, but I thought they were so special. I loved taking them out and sorting them and feeling how smooth they sometimes could be, inside."

Vincent's face radiated a true joy, at the thought that his spontaneous gift to his beloved wife had been able to draw from her such an obviously welcomed memory. Kissing her on the cheek, he said, "Then you should start a new collection, with those. And there is one other I think you'd like to see." Without a second thought, he was back under the water. In the crystal clarity of the stream, Diana could see him carefully reaching back to the outcropping of rock, his hand closing around something with immediate recognition.

When he came back up, she couldn't resist running her free hand over his wet hair to smooth it back from his face. He smiled, them placed what looked like a small stone into the palm of her other hand, amongst the shells. "This one has been around for a bit longer, I think," he explained.

Diana turned the stone over, carefully, not wanting to lose the small gifts that had drawn such a delightful exchange between her mythic husband and herself. Then she understood the specialness of his last offering -- it was a seashell, too, albeit a stone one:

an exquisite fossil of a scallop-like shell.

"Vincent, this is marvelous. How on earth did it get there? It couldn't have been washed into the stream, too?"

"That one is from our world, here, Diana. That outcrop of stone has a number of them embedded within it beneath the water line. The current of the stream occasionally frees one up."

Looking into her hand, Diana couldn't help but wonder at how the small tokens offered her by her loving husband seemed to mirror their very existences. The fragile beauty of the shells had been swept into a place of darkness and been set to rest beside another like them, already held captive by the ages. With the passage of time those small bits of the world Above would become rooted into the solid, solitary sureness of the stone, too.

"Do you think William has a canning jar he'd be willing to part with?" she asked with sweet expectation.

"I think we'll be able to find one in the kitchen upon our return. We can ask him,"

came the reply, spoken with a soft smile.

Their way back to the area of the stream opposite their camp was made simply walking through the water, as Diana didn't want to risk losing her precious treasures.

Unexpectedly, she found that though the stream didn't appear to show much of a current, she ended up expending enough of an effort laboring against its flow to tire her out. The total aerobic workout of swimming, on top of their long hike, was eroding her stamina more quickly than she would have admitted to.

Once opposite their campsite, Diana came to the ledge and carefully set her shells onto the stone floor of the cave. Then she turned to her husband and conceded her state to him with a bit of embarassment. "Would you mind if I just soak for a while?"

Vincent smiled patiently at her. "As long as it is not going to be for three hours." Then he lead her a few dozen feet farther upstream to where a wide ledge jutted out under the surface of the water, part of the wall that had stopped their own trail within the cave. When she sat down upon that ledge, the water came up to Diana's shoulders, and she slid happily against the rock edge where she could lean back for support.

"I'll take a few more laps, if that's all right." Her husband caressed her wet cheek, as she nodded, then turned to ease through the water past her.

Diana let the delicious warmth of the water encompass her. For a few long moments she almost thought she could surrender completely to the luxuriant ease enveloping her and fall asleep where she was. She simply closed her eyes and let the wonder of her present circumstances sweep over her.

It truly was as if they'd stumbled upon a magical fairy land down here in the center of the earth, she continued thinking. In all honesty, her entire existence had taken on the fabric of legend, it seemed. Who would have possibly dreamed she'd be where she was at the moment, with the remarkable man she'd entwined her heart to?

The threads of destiny again.

Diana recalled how much pain it had cost Vincent to realize that he would never be able to share the remotest portion of Catherine's world freely with her. Nor that he could ever bring himself to condemn his first love, as he always saw it, to a starkly limited existence among the shadows of his own world.

With tender pain, Diana remembered that afternoon when he'd first brought her to the river when she'd been injured, carried her actually down the steep path to the water's edge. He'd confessed how he'd ached to be able to grant Catherine one simple wish -- to fulfill her desire to have him share her special place in the Connecticut countryside with her -- to revel in the beauty of a late autumn day with the sun sparkling on blazing leaves, and on the two of them, freely walking the earth together.

Knowing he'd never share Catherine's world had slowly, but insidiously, robbed Vincent of his own as well. Diana's heart constricted at the memory. A place of wonder, and safety, for him, could never seem to compare.

"Oh, Cathy, whatever did you need to hang on to your life up there for?" Diana asked silently within her heart at the thought. Samantha had put it so eloquently, with such innocent pain to her when they'd been caught together in the flood: "I would have given up anything, everything, to be with the one I loved."

The words in her heart, directed at a murdered woman's spirit that would always seem to hover just out of sight of her own existence, echoed Diana's certainty with her own gifted hope. "You must have known he would never have asked you to join him here. He never really believed you could be happy here, with him. Oh, but God, Cathy, what gifts he had to offer you from this world, his world! There is beauty, mystery, sheltering peace, and his love . . . living freely and safely in these blessed rock chambers and tunnels."

Diana brought her thoughts back from the indecipherable twists of fate of the past to the radiant reality of the present. She gently cradled her arms about herself, with soft wonder at what she carried now within her body -- new life, born of the promise she'd been miraculously blessed by. "I hope we'll be able to show you just how precious a gift your are to us, my little one," she whispered softly. "I hope we can help you, one day, find the courage to love someone special. And to be loved. Your father and I both did, and we'll have you to always remind us of it."

Watching her husband make his effortless way back and forth through the water a bit further downstream from her, Diana let the peaceful radiance that had filled her mind and heart drift its way into her body as well. Before even realizing it, she had half turned back against the ledge she was leaning against, raising her arms up out of the water and onto the cave floor so that she could rest her head on them. The warmth of her surroundings further diminished her energy, and within a few moments she was asleep.

Vincent had taken his last few swimming laps underwater, admitting to himself that the small comfort he'd been able to offer Diana with their excursion had been equally welcome for himself, too. He felt reborn, an unexpected sense of wonder with his surroundings, long overdue, spilling over into his heart with happy abandon.

Surfacing once again just opposite their campsite, he smoothed his hair off his face and took in Diana's form a few feet away. A tender smile made its way over his unique features.

His wife, it appeared, had fallen asleep where she rested in the water, her amber hair flowing over her folded arms where she'd set her head on the ledge of the cave floor. Vincent took a long moment to study her, an unmistakable tide of gratitude filling his very soul for the sight he realized, with sweet awe, that was his own soulmate.

She could have been Miranda at rest from the tempest, or the Lady of Shalott before she was doomed, or even Ariadne, long from enduring the Minotaur's maze, those mythic ladies coming easily to his mind with the help of an art history book Michael had brought down Below for the older children's classes. Vincent slowly approached the vision before him, not wanting to disturb her slumber, the memory of sharing that book with his wife a few evenings ago in their chamber vivid in his mind.

They'd stopped at the section that described Victorian-era artists, romantics who'd created stunning depictions of legends and myths with their ethereal, dramatically charged paintings. One such artist, J.W. Waterhouse, had filled his visions of ancient epics with sublimely breathtaking models who embodied the spirits of their stories with their fragile, other-worldly beauty. So many of them had been auburn-haired, porcelain-skinnned, soulful-eyed nymphs that could have passed for Diana's own ancestry.

He'd always thought his wife was a fae spirit gracing his life through some mercy of the Fates. With gracious, blushing modesty, Diana had accepted the complimentary observations sharing that book with her had prompted him to voice to her.

But, even beyond the sheer, tender beauty of her form that he was still astounded could possibly inhabit the same plane of existence as he, Vincent treasure with such immeasurable thanks the spirit his love seemed to share with those women of long ago -- honor in living, a strength of heart, a vision beyond that which is readily seen, the courage to reach for love . . . or endure its pain.

The threads of destiny: His own life had seemed a tragic myth.

One love had been torn from his heart . . . but another had reached into the very depths of his soul. The why's or how's of that compelling truth were beyond his understanding. Some things are meant to remain beyond understanding, he'd long ago learned, mysteries that temper the spirit, draw the essence of a human heart to its ultimate reaches of desperation . . . and hope. One such mystery was, indeed, the love he cherished for the indescribable slip of humanity that was his wife. That he could ever have feared it, denied it, was neary impossible for him, now, to conceive.

Coming beside Diana softly, Vincent pulled himself up onto the ledge she was sitting on. He slipped his arms around her evenly breathing form and gently eased her head from where it lay, resting it against his chest instead.

She smiled, a quiet sigh coming from her lips, and for a moment he thought that she'd awaken, but their long trek, the warmth of the water, and the fact that she was in the early stages of pregnancy, had finally drained her reserves of energy this night.

Vincent was ready to pull himself from out of the water, bearing his sweet burden up into his arms and over to the fire that awaited them, but the spell of the moment had its way with his own practicality. "Rest, my enchantress," he whispered softly to her, and drew her more comfortably into his embrace, a beguiling mix of emotion filling his heart -- sweetly amused patience, tenderly awed devotion, a gently building fire of his own expectant need. He'd begun his day this morning cradling her in his arms as she slept,

and it would be his everlasting joy to renew that heartening task now, just as they were.

For a good twenty minutes, the only things that filled Vincent's mind were the happily reviewed experiences of the day, the morning in their chamber, their spontaneous performance of Shakespeare for the children in Mary's room, the warm vibrance of the festival activities, and the even more comforting, and enticing moments he'd spent with his beloved here in the far limits of his world. "Oh, Diana," he addressed her within his heart,

"I have found the very center of my existence right here in the center of the earth, with you." A kiss to damp amber hair reinforced his silent exclamation.

A moment later that hair was brushing enticingly across his chest when Diana came awake. He held her slightly bewildered green eyes with his own azure ones as she lifted her head from its resting place.

"Are you a bit more rested, now?"

"Don't tell me I fell asleep?" came her more than confounded inquiry. Her husband only smiled with gentle humor and raised her chin to hold her lips with his own.

"You were tired. We came a long distance."

"The water was so comforting . . . I just started thinking about how wonderful it was to be down here with you . . . "

Vincent ran his hand over her hair. "I told you I'd brought you here to let you just drift away, if that was what you wished, my love."

"Yes, well, I hope this doesn't mean I'm going to spend the next six months sleeping!"

"A woman with child needs her rest. Her body will take it whenever it can."

Diana sat up a bit at the knowledgeable tone of her husband's voice. "Since when are you so well-versed in the needs of a pregnant woman?"

"I've learned a few things along the way, being a doctor's son and all."

The mother-to-be smiled infectiously at that, then let her body resume its appealing resting place on her husband's broad chest. "Vincent, you never cease to amaze me."

"And you never cease to bewitch me."

A soft kiss was placed among the curling golden hair over his heart, and a slender, tender hand stroked possessively through it. This time it was Vincent that felt himself slipping into the beguiling ease of the moment. "Have you any idea how gifted my life has become with you in it?" he asked, with a breathtaking intensity that belied his enlarging contentment with the moment.

Diana left another kiss onto his shoulder, then nestled against it. "It couldn't be any more gifted than my own life in this place at this very moment."

Raising her hand to his lips, Vincent let himself be further carried into the gratifying

marvel of their nearness:

 

"'Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild,

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world's more full of weeping

than you can understand.'"

 

A cherished face that carried the tender beauty of a windswept fairy land of old itself smiled at the words offered by her own mythic companion. "I've left a world of tears behind, yes, my love."

"You've given up more than tears to be here." The simple observation was quietly spoken in grateful acknowledgement.

"No, Vincent," his wife contradicted, with conviction. "I've lost nothing. You've given me everything I could ever long for." Deep, honest eyes opened easily into a spirit a peace.

Another tender kiss only paved the way for their now eagerly reaching hearts. Vincent felt his quicken and entwine itself readily with his wife's, without conflict, guilt, or turmoil. It was at home there, sheltered and nurtured, within her devotion and desire. The green eyes grew warm and sweetly enticing.

"Which fairy folk were supposed to live underground?" came a suddenly cryptic and tangent question from the ever more animated beauty in his arms. It was obvious that the few moments she'd spent asleep there had re-energized her spirit, not to mention her enticing form. "Was it the gnomes?"

Vincent looked deeply at the enigmatic features of Diana's lovely face, and attempted to follow what she could possibly be leading up to with her query. He laughed softly. "I believe it was the gnomes, though the hobbits also inhabited Middle Earth. Whatever does that have to do with anything?"

The teasing life suddenly lit in her face warned Vincent that he was in trouble. She was in full control of her considerable senses now, and anything could happen, he knew.

"I was just wondering what sort of magical spirits we would be, living here like this. But, I'm not certain a gnome was what I was hoping to become."

His soft laugh turned into a considerably more decided one. "A small, round elf wearing a peaked cap and guarding an underground wealth . . . no, that does not exactly describe you, Diana, my love."

Letting herself melt in the strength of his embrace, Diana asked with a suddenly sultry expectation, "Then, how would you describe me, Vincent? What sort of fairy folk would

I be?"

The barest trace of a mischevious smile remained on her husband's mouth when she pulled away from him to capture his response. That challenge, too, in his eyes, spoke of a bit more allure than teasing, at the sudden thought of how irresistible his wife's confoundingly compelling presence could become within a single, expectant heartbeat of time. "So often I've realized I've linked my destiny to a precious, soul-lifting angel." A tender kiss to her cheek emphasized his words. "Normally, though, I'd need to say that my life is in the hands of a mercurial . . . imp."

About to protest the honest insult, Diana found herself at a loss for words, literally, when her husband quickly pressed an ember-flaring kiss to her parted lips. When they released one another to the sweeping power of their totally re-attuned desires, Vincent eagerly sought to complete his thought to her with heartening certainty. "Yet, at this moment, I feel as though I am none other than Hylas, being enchanted by the water nymph. You remember, my love," came the tenderly urging instruction, "the Waterhouse painting we saw in the art book Michael brought us."

Diana held her husband's earnest, and sparkling description to her heart. She remembered, too, the book they'd shared a few days past, when they'd poured over the beautiful depictions of classic stories with totally attuned awareness. The picture that Vincent was now singling out for her, quite unbelievably using as his response to her, was one that had mesmerized them both.

The story was one of Greek myth: Hylas was a companion of Hercules, and when the Argonauts stopped at a particular island in their journeys, he had been sent ashore to look for water to drink. He found what he was looking for, a spring, but the water was guarded by nymphs who enchanted him to remain with them within their watery home.

The painting that brought the story to life for them both was striking in its imagery as well. Within a verdant spring lush with lilypads and blossoms, a group of waif-like beauties rested, long tresses flowing over their shoulders, the porcelain of their skin glowing, not all of it concealed by the darkness of the water.

Hylas was at the bank, stopped in the action of filling his water container by what he sees, and what is reaching out to entice him to stay: Most of the nymphs were dipping their bodies beneath the surface of the water, modestly, or covering themseles with lily leaves or their hair. One, however, instead of shrinking away from Hylas' sight, actually was holding herself out of the water without shame, drawing his arm to her, a look of pure enticement, blushingly entreating, on her face.

She could have been Diana.

Hylas was lost.

 

"'And all, that might his melting hart entise to her delights,

She unto him bewrayed:

The rest hid underneath, him more desirous made.'"

 

The tender blush on his wife's cheeks called to mind the powerful, evocatively sensual image of what Vincent's heart sought to describe. "She was a naiad, born of the mysterious, shimmering beauty of the element itself, the guardian spirit of life's wellspring, tempting her love to another existence beneath the flood."

Diana was exactly the innocently confident enchantress embodied before him -- an ethereal creature of porcelain skin and entreating eyes, the face of a Renaissance angel and the body of Aphrodite with child.

She was also struck silent with the heartstopping description her love had just graced her with, every fraction of the devotion he held within the depths of his soul for her mirrored within the aching tenderness of his blue eyes. After a moment, she found her voice. "You can't possibly truly see me like that."

Heat-trailing hands and lips eager to take their sustenance from delicate flesh swept her into the truth of her response.

"Do you doubt it for a minute, Diana?"

A radiant, shimmering brightness lit its way into the farthest reaches of her heart at the fervor of his reply. She had to resort to her defensive humor to keep the tears of wonder from filling her eyes. "I won't remain a nymph for long, you know," she pointed out. "Will you still find me enchanting when I can't see my feet any longer?"

Vincent gave his questioning wife a reassuring smile, drawing her into his arms with easy confidence. "I will find you enchanting when you need me to help you put your shoes on . . . I will find you enchanting when we are up to our elbows in diapers . . . I will find you enchanting when we are both admonishing our adolescent children . . . I will find you enchanting when your fiery hair becomes streaked with grey . . . I will find you enchanting when I need you to help me put my shoes on!"

A sudden flash of green fire from her eyes lit Vincent's heart. Yet, with an innocent aire, Diana simply stated, "Just checking," then proceeded to blaze her enflaming need across the tautly muscled expanse of his body.

"Diana, you are an imp," came the startled description, as Vincent felt himself belovely besieged by all manner of heated sensations, directed at him by his now hardly demure wife. Hylas didn't stand a chance against such an assault, as he was reminded of one of the main reasons they'd undertaken the journey here today -- their need for a bit of concentrated freedom to share in the heartstopping wonder of their married love.

Long-fingered hands stroked surely across his sculpted chest, drifted below the water level and continued with powerful delight along his hips and thighs. He pulled her closely to him, as much to feel the marvel of her wet skin slipping bewitchingly along his own as to keep her from propelling him completely beyond human endurance with her insistently hunger-blazing touch. Sharing a ragged breath, they savored their incendiary need in an encompassing, compelling elixir of warm lips, yielding flesh, and fast-overwhelming trails of sensitized desire that reached readily beyond both Greek mythology and Victorian Romanticism.

Trembling with the suddenly rekindled force of their melding passions, they clung to one another for support a long moment. When his heart finally settled back into a slightly more regular rhythm, Vincent whispered in tones that stirred her to the center of her soul,

"I'll help you out in a minute." He stood up onto the submerged ledge, then pulled himself free of the water.

Diana's heart had no chance to settle into a more stable rhythm as she watched her husband dry himself off with one of the well-worn towels before the fire. He had to run the towel repeatedly over his long, golden hair to wring it somewhat more dry, and she found that intimate action powerfully sensuous to watch. The shadows of the flames licking over his arrestingly beautiful body immitated too closely what her own rising hunger urged her to discover anew.

Pulling the towel around his hips and anchoring it there, Vincent reached over to the dwindling fire and repositioned some of the still-flaming wood so it would continue to burn well. Then he drew the thick blankets strewn over the stone floor of the cave a bit closer to the fire. Retrieving a large, old bath sheet, he returned once again to the stream's edge.

Throwing the towel across his left arm, Vincent reached his right hand down to Diana who was still seated on the ledge. She took it and eased herself carefully to her feet, then up onto the dry cave floor. Vincent swept the abundant width of the towel quickly around her shoulders, then gathered her into his arms, carrying her to the blankets and fire.

He settled her carefully onto one blanket, then drew the second one round about her as well, over the towel. When he was assured that she'd be warm and comfortable, he took another small towel and proceeded to rub it through Diana's hair with enamored care.

She melted into the feeling of his stroking gentleness as he slowly wrung her heavy locks. They curled and twisted among themselves, glinting with the light of the fire. Vincent thought the locks seemed alive with shimmering vitality in his hands.

Reluctantly, he left her momentarily, then, returning to the stream edge, to where they'd slipped out of their clothing. He brought back their garments, and the thick elastic band that had held the end of her hair. Before Diana could realize what he intended, her husband had begun loosely braiding her hair for her. Her heart skipped a beat, as she was suddenly transported to their wedding night in her thoughts.

"It will chill you if it is left loose . . . It is still rather wet." Diana detected a hint of hesitant apology in his explanation, as though he should need to justify his actions. She only turned her head to hold his gaze with aching tenderness.

"I know," she managed to quietly stammer out a reply. "My hair always takes forever to dry."

The innocuous words did nothing to quell the sweet ache of mounting need sweeping through them both. For a long moment emerald eyes held sapphire ones, then Diana let the blanket round about her shoulders slide off . . . and Vincent reached an otherworldly hand up to the towel still wrapped around her form . . . and slowly drew it off, too.

For an instant, Diana felt her pulse come to a halt. There was so much compelling, intensely overflowing desire washed with sweet, hesitant astonishment, encompassing them each, that she knew it as the only thing keeping body and soul together -- for them both.

Then, with gentle confidence, her husband pulled the much-laundered softness of the towel across her skin.

With sweet concentration, Vincent soaked up the last of the water beading up over beloved, opalescent skin that reflected the flames of the fire nearby. The towel was caressed across supple shoulders, over bewitchingly full breasts, along slim, curved hips and strong, long legs, in a sensuous devotion that drew with it Diana's aching need to

astonishing limits. In his own acute awareness, though, her husband found that his tender ministrations to her had unexpectedly carried with them momentary pain.

He'd been suddenly transported as well, but to that terrifying night when he'd almost lost his treasured soulmate to her agonizing, work-incited horrors. She'd been close to freezing in the snow; he'd found himself forced to care for her fragile, precious body in a turmoil of heart that begged for release within hope and not heart-numbing loss.

At that moment of reckoning, he'd been helpless to keep from thinking that his gentle tending to her needs should have been a sweet prelude to their long, conflict-burdened path towards a consumation of their love. He'd wept at the beautiful, threated sight of her in his arms, vulnerable, tormented, and yearned to transport them to a tender moment of shared promise away from the madness pursuing them both. How could he have ever dreamed then that they'd be together like this, fulfilling that vision of compelling want in a devotion that had become familiar, blessed, welcomed reality between them for months?

But, she was safe, now, they were safe, in each other's love.

He let his hands and lips follow the beguiling path across her enchanting form that the towel had taken a few moments before: warm, moist breath flowed over supple shoulders; otherworldly hands tenderly kneaded bewitchingly full breasts; powerful, muscled thighs held fast to slim, curved hips and strong, long legs.

When he felt the beloved flesh shudder beneath his touch, Vincent drew his attentions momentarily back from their breathless reach across her body, and instead sought out Diana's shirt that he'd brought back from the stream edge along with his own clothes. Offering it to her, she, nonetheless, pushed it gently aside. "I don't need it," she explained, knowing for a fact that her tremulous response of an instant before had nothing whatever to do with the cool environment of their surroundings.

"You'll get cold," came her husband's instinctively concerned reply now.

"I don't think either of us plans to do that."

With her own gentle conviction, Diana brushed her hands down the length of his chest and across his abdomen, drawing a reflexive start from the rock hard muscles there. Vincent held his breath, not quite certain he believed what he had read in her heart -- the acute intensity of unburdened, uninhibited power of her love igniting a mutual abandon of scorching heat within his own. Diana slipped her fingers beneath the edge of the towel he still wore and loosened it with deliberate certainty, pulling it completely free of his body.

On their knees, they were in one another's instantly fevered embraces, giving themselves over to the heartstopping, welcome sweep of consuming, searing need, yet, each ached only to complete the other. Their sensitivity to one another's yearnings had lost none of its focus, as their lovemaking had become more familiar to them over the months:

It was still a body poem of trust translating into gifting physical tenderness and passionate awareness of their devotion to each other.

Vincent required little urging this time to rekindle his sensuous exploration of the ethereal, magical wonder that was his love. He drew his searching kisses from the fascinating sweetness of Diana's mouth, to the pounding pulse at the base of her throat and back again, to the fully aroused contours of her pearl and burgundy breasts. Their tender, yielding fullness, both under his languid hand, and suckled, without turmoil, into his mouth, was intoxicating.

Diana held him to her with ecstacy coursing through her veins, pulling her hands through the damp golden hair that veiled his face and her body, unafraid to give herself to the consuming heat that was overtaking the two of them breath by gasping breath.

"When the baby comes . . . there will be milk . . . for you both."

The dusky tones of her voice, the promised, unexpectedly erotic gift she was willing to let him hold in his thoughts, the reality of their love free to encompass such long-forbidden fruits between them -- each pulse-arresting sensation drew Vincent's spirit deeper into the flaming fusion of their bonding bodies, and ever-entwined souls. Without fear.

"Diana, you will consume me with only the thoughts you set alight in my heart," he managed to barely breathe when he pulled himself away from her an instant.

"Then help me to bring those thoughts to reality, my love."

What was in his reeling mind at the moment was the heartstopping fact that the more he tried to sensibly think of her as a woman soon to be ripe with child, the more astonishingly sensual her imagine became to him in his heart. And she read that amazed understanding with total, compliant wonder, ready to entice his enchanted expectations with a touch of her own uninhibited sensations.

Turning in his arms with her back to him, Diana let him encompass her with a sweeping, possessive embrace, drawing his hands to her, letting them settle onto her still firm abdomen. His touch instantly began to stroke over her soft skin, caressing her, and acknowledging the gift of life beneath his hands. She leaned into him, letting him envelope her with his strength. His breath was warm against her ear, the moist tenderness of his kiss following, as he drank in the fragrance of her hair and skin.

A moment later his cherishing touch became heartstopping . . . one stroking hand remained below her waist, but now sought to gift her with powerful sensual recognition . . . the other surely found its way to her breast, to draw from it the surging intimacy he yearned to release within her.

Diana dropped her head back against his shoulder in astonished surrender and she immediately felt his lips and tongue trail heat down her throat. When his erotically searching embrace moved to reach along the trembling length of her thigh, the kisses slipping along the slender straight length of her spine, she knew that Hylas' attentions could become as beguiling as anything the nymph could possibly have offered him.

Her own lips couldn't possibly stand one moment more away from his. She reached around to drown her hands in his hair, and he held her hard against himself then, just as eager to accept her mouth and her desire.

They stole one another's breath, her slender arms desperate to wrap themselves completely around the power of his body. She felt him lift her from her knees, lower her with infinite care to the stone floor beneath them, drawing the blankets more closely to them so that they might at least cushion some of the cold hardness from their bodies. He only rested himself above her, holding his weight off her on his own arms, still cautious and sensitive to her comfort, and the baby's. It left him hovering tenderly over her, every minute partical of sweet yearning for her in the stunning azure depths of his eyes that she could now easily hold.

"Oh Diana, what you've given me . . . what you yet give me . . . I'll never believe it is truly mine." Cleft lips came down to her own, took them with sublime sweetness.

"It is," she breathed with all her heart, "it always will be, and it isn't a breath of what I've found here with you." A gentle smile that was only a reflection of certain hope accepted was her response. With it came another gifting acknowledgement of caressing touch, radiant want, and joy immeasurable. Diana needed, without question, to hold it closely to her, press it to her and drink it in.

Reaching her arms up in invitation to her beloved, he yet held himself cautiously away from her. She couldn't tolerate it any longer. "Let me hold you, Vincent."

He tenderly kissed her fingertips as he came to rest alongside her, then proceeded to continue his heartstopping devotion to her bewitching presence. Diana let her own yearning readily answer his, fervantly returning every breathless sensation of fusing want offered her back to him: kisses to the broad planes of his chest, among the curling golden hair that softly blanketed him there; stroking, searching hands that outlined powerful muscles and taut sinews alive with breathtaking vitality and virility; an exchange of pounding heartbeats and langorous sighs of sheer, gifted pleasure that mirrored so closely the wild freedom and wonder of their surroundings.

But there still was too much distance between them, Diana realized with an ache, and she wouldn't hesitate to be the one ready to do something about it now, their totally attuned desires having had enough of caution and expectation.

With purposeful direction, she leaned against the solidity of her husband's prone body, intimately aware of the fact that his skin was now gleaming enticingly from the heat of their melding desires as well as the flames of the nearby fire. Taking hold of his shoulder nearest her, she urged him, with tender insistence, to roll from his side to his back. In a graceful sweeping reply, Vincent did so, taking her along with him, drawing her onto his body for comfort.

It was her usual place when they shared their bed, stretched beguilingly along his powerful length, and at this particular instance in time, it was so much more a seduction to become willingly lost in than any endearingly innocent posture for sleep.

Every inch of his form was suddenly driven to a totally sensitized awareness of her own, the familiar position anything but comforting. It was a discipline-eroding, breath-robbing, lovingly sensual dominance that propelled his beleagured grip on the instant to nothing more substantial than a hairsbreath. The erotic contradiction of Diana's angelic form submerging him ever more deeply into the realm of undeniably mortal passions was near to overwhelming. He let himself be overwhelmed, with welcome.

In intimate confidence, she pressed her lissome form completely to his compelling one, electricity surging between every rock-hard plane and tender, yielding curve. They kissed with fiery abandon, traveled hands over beloved flesh memorized in love. Their heady acknowledgement of each other, allowed to spiral, for once, with every possible expression of trusting freedom and urging want, sent senses reeling into an astonishing whirlwind of desire.

Vincent found it even difficult to believe his heart was still beating any longer on its own, unsure if the seemingly familiar creature holding herself to him was still really Diana, his wife, or truly had become some vaporous manifestation of the wild, natural world around them.

That doubt about the true nature of the amber-haired beauty pressed to him became totally encompassing for him the moment she slowly, tantilizingly, slipped her body backwards down along his . . . and then sheathed herself about him completely.

The instantaneous heat, slick and inviting, and the spasming caresses of her body clinging in a heartbeat to his, was the final spark that set the blaze within them to incendiary explosion. Vincent didn't believe he could bear it, as he lost himself to her in response, the sound of her gasping his name searing his awareness.

He held her powerfully to his trembling body, rolling back to his side with her still in his arms, unwilling ever to release her. Tender kisses of breathless completion were swept over her bewitching form, still holding fast to their entwined desires with tremulous intensity. When they finally managed the strength to free one another, they were hardly astonished to realize that tears were coursing tenderly from achingly honest emerald eyes and soul-baring azure ones.

Vincent touched a shaking hand to Diana's cheek, letting the tears fall over his fingers, knowing without a doubt that they'd been shed only because of the exquisite ache of their fused souls. To be loved like that . . . to be able to give love, receive love, like that . . .

. . . He reached behind him and pulled an end of the blanket up around them carefully, eager now only to shelter and protect. It took the better part of an eternity before both their pulses were able to reallign themselves into some recognizable pattern of rhythm.

During that long moment, Vincent couldn't help what suddenly appeared within his consciousness -- an anxious uncertainty that their intensely inflamed lovemaking had left behind that he knew he must relieve at that very instant. Gently, he rested his hand onto Diana's cherished body, now lying completely spent and near sleep again against his. It took a moment or two longer than usual, but he was at last able to center his empathic sensitivities past their still so totally intertwined hearts.

The tiny, strong cadence he sought followed quickly into his consciousness.

Diana was still close to tears at the overwhelming, encompassing love touching itself to her soul at the moment, that and the undisguised relief she knew filled Vincent's own spirit when he heard the strong and still-well rhythm of their baby's heart. A dreamy ease began to overtake her, and she nestled closer to her husband's own exhausted body.

Vincent set a gentle kiss to her forehead.

"You never asked me what sort of fairy folk I believed you would become." Diana's words were quietly urging. Vincent took her hand and set it onto his chest . . . to hold his heart in place.

"What sort of magical, mystical spirit of creation do you see me as then, my Diana?" came his patient and intrigued question.

Her response was immediate, and spoken with soul-blessed conviction. "I've no need of magic or myth to answer that, Vincent. You are my own heart, embodied, unburdened, and free to love."

In a cavern that once resounded only with angonized loss and shame, grateful tears now fell softly into amber hair as firelight touched souls at peace deep within the center of the earth.


Continued in Chapter 3