Living the Promise: Chapter Nine


Coughing, Kanin hurtled down the tunnels through a haze of dust. Some vague shapes ahead of him were distinguishable only by the sounds of their voices, Cullen and Timothy. They'd been working a level above, and had reached the tunnel area where Kanin had been working twenty minutes earlier. The sound of stones being hauled about confirmed his worst fears.

"Don't move anyone if you can help it." It was Therese's voice behind him, calling out rescue directions. Father had immediately pressed her to accompany Kanin back below, citing his own bad hip and the time he would end up wasting in getting medical help to whatever catastrophe had jolted the work chambers. The communications pipes had become a frenzy of signals.

Kanin came through the opening of the storage area, stumbling over scattered chunks of stone in the process. He tripped on the heavy hammer Vincent had been using to square off the doorway. His friend was not within sight.

Against the far wall, though, in a jumbled heap of rock, metal, machinery, and dust, Cullen and Timothy were carefully crouched over two motionless figures.

Therese fairly flew past Kanin and down beside them as the other workers quickly gave her access. Kanin slumped against the doorway of the chamber with only one thought reverberating in his mind: Vincent had insisted on staying below and working, sending him up to have his meal with Olivia.

In safety.

Now, his friend was strewn across the floor, surrounded by shattered stone, face down, his powerful body partially covering Mouse's own still one beneath him.

That reality would have to be how Vincent would have been found -- protecting -- always protecting. God! Kanin raged silently within himself, why don't you ever protect him?

"I need some help. Kanin, here, please." Therese's voice pulled the stonecarver into the midst of the devastation, and the truth of his co-workers' injuries. The left side of Vincent's face was caked with dusty blood. Mouse's blond hair was also bloodied, at the back of his head, where Vincent apparently hadn't been able to reach a sheltering arm.

Therese was running her hands carefully over Vincent's prone body, her fingers coming away from his thermal shirt wet with more blood, near his left side. "We need to get him onto a stretcher. Where are those stretchers?!"

In a matter of moments, several other figures negotiated the debris-strewn entryway of the chamber with stretchers between them. Amos and Dominic brought one up to the wounded and carefully settled it on the cleared-away floor beside Therese.

"You'll need to move Vincent onto that one first. I can't get to the wound like this. Careful now. Slowly."

With as gentle a motion as they were capable of, Kanin, Timothy, and Dominic coordinated their movements enough to roll Vincent's limp body cautiously onto the canvas stretcher. A gasping shudder ran through Kanin when his friend was settled on the carrier.

The entire front left portion of his shirt was soaked with blood. The area where he had been lying gave evidence of a dark pooling that terrified Therese to a shaking fear she worked desperately to pull herself past. The wound was serious. For Vincent, it could be life-threatening, she knew, judging by the amount of blood that he'd already lost, blood they had no way of replacing through transfusion because of its unique characteristics.

Then Kanin caught sight of the apparent cause of the wound -- a shard of stone, half the size of the chisel Vincent had been working with, protruding above the torn flesh in his side. In a matter of seconds, Therese had cut away some of the blood-soaked fabric from around the injury.

"Sweet Mother of God!" Even as he fought a wave of nausea that hit him unexpectedly, Kanin felt his arm being taken hold of, his hand being set, against his will, to a padding of gauzes that the young medic had enclosed carefully about the wound.

"Hold these bandages in place for me, Kanin, while I at least get them taped down. It won't stop the bleeding with that shrapnel there, but it will slow it down."

Automatically, the stonecutter did as he was instructed, watching with heart-numbing

attention as her quick fingers temporarily secured the gauzes. They were soaked even before she was able to tape them.

Giving a cursory exam to the cut above Vincent's eye, she decided that it could wait. Instead she drew up the earpieces of her stethoscope from around her neck, coldly aware that even without the instrument, she could tell her patient's breathing was hoarse, shallow, and labored. His pulse was no better. Taking a bare instant to close her eyes, Therese was able to clear her thoughts.

"His lung's probably collapsed," she announced as she drew the stethoscope down from her ears. "The stone must have punctured it. Get him up to the hospital chamber -- Now!

Amos, get up to the pipe level and signal Father. Tell him to prep for surgery. I'll see to Mouse and get him stabilized here if I can. Move!"

The urgency with which Therese's slight form ordered the men about sent chills up Kanin's spine. He strove to keep an even hold on the stretcher as Dominic began to lift it from the floor. They were jogging down the tunnels in the next moment, trying to keep a steady but imperative pace. Kanin's shoulder struck against an outcropping of the rock wall in a turn. He didn't even notice.

His gaze was fastened on the bandages he could still see darkening on Vincent's side, his mind bent on the terrifying calculation of how long the life's blood had been pouring out of his friend's body instead of his own.

 

Father let Mary help him on with his surgical gloves as he listened to the clamor of voices outside in the ward, signalling the arrival of his patient. He had attempted to draw on his 40+ years of experience to bring his medical and professional demeanor to the forefront of his present awareness, but he couldn't fight the paternal anguish that was searing its way through his very being.

He knew his first patient would be Vincent.

Not from the SOS on the pipes, for Amos had only signalled the need for him to be prepared for emergency surgery. No, he knew that Vincent had been injured in whatever accident had occurred deep below because of Diana, and Jacob.

Mary had summoned him with urgency to Olivia's chamber where he'd been met by the shattering sight of Diana crumpled to the stone floor in agonizing terror, calling out to Vincent over and over again.

It was his son's nightmare coming true.

Only the victim of the unnamed anguish appeared not to be Diana. For an instant, yes, the physician had been shocked to think that the young mother herself was in some terrible medical distress, her gasping panic fueling his fear that she, or her child, were in imminent danger from some sudden manifestation of physical affliction.

But when he'd satisfied his anxiety with the apparent lack of Diana's physical injury, he was horrified to realize that the young mother's anguish was of an indescribably empathic one. Somehow, she, and even Jacob, had been projected into the depths of suffering their beloved husband and father was apparently enduring, at that instant.

Not Mary's gentle arms, not Olivia's soothing voice, not the feel of an equally traumatized Jacob placed close within her reach, had managed to quell the young woman's pain. Finally, fearful again for the baby as well as the mother, Father had injected her with a minimal dosage of a sedative.

The drug had had little effect on her, though, until she took Jacob into her arms, sobbing, holding the child to her breast. Finally exhausted, and aware of the little boy's turmoil as well as her own, Diana had been able to take hold of her terror. The moment she quit fighting its numbing effects, the sedative finally calmed her enough for William to gather her up into his ample arms and set her gently to rest on Olivia's bed.

Without a word, Jacob climbed beside his mother, nestled close to her heart in her arms, and fell into a disquiet sleep as well.

When Kanin and Dominic pushed through the partition curtain and into the operating room with their burden, Jacob Wells found himself leaning heavily against Mary, as his legs threatened to buckle beneath him at the sight. He murmured, "Dear God," from the depths of a father's anguish, and found himself momentarily paralyzed, stunned at the reality of his son's life slipping away from him before his eyes.

It was Mary who took the lead at that moment, ordering the stretcher bearers about, instructing Sarah on what was needed to prep their patient for the surgery. Tears filled the older woman's eyes, and when she looked up to Father, she saw him blinking away his own pain.

"I'd thought . . . I prayed . . . I'd never have to do something like this again," Father confessed quietly. "All those times before . . . when Catherine was alive . . . all the danger from the world Above . . . I never thought our own world could be responsible for . . . "

"Father, Vincent needs your medical help."

Mary's gentle words drew the elder physician back to the moment at hand. "You can help him through this, Jacob. He's depending on you, now."

Taking a deep breath, Father turned to Mary with gratitude. Her courage, a mother's courage, was remarkably evident at that instant. It gave him strength. "Get me a reading on his vital signs, Mary", he instructed softly.

Praying heaven that he'd indeed be capable of saving his son's life.

 

Diana's hand was gently enclosed by another's as she woke, but, instinctively, before she even opened her eyes, she knew the sheltering touch was not being offered by Vincent.

Olivia's kind face came into view, her other hand reaching over and tenderly brushing across Diana's pale cheek. "Livy, where is he?" The words were so difficult to pronounce. There was a weight, a pressure, bearing down on her heart that actually impeded her free breathing. It was hardly a physical sensation. Oliva quit the chair that had been drawn near her bed and came instead to sit quietly beside her dear friend.

"Father is still in surgery with him."

"How long?" Did she truly want to know?

"It's been a long while." Olivia watched as the young woman's soul ached visibly through her emerald eyes.

"Jacob?" Her next concern. The little boy had been as anguished as she at his father's pain, but he was no longer in her arms.

"He awoke about an hour ago. Jamie took him to get a bit to eat. He's with Samantha now; she's been reading to him."

"I have to go to Vincent."

Diana swung her legs off the bed and struggled to sit up, but the weight of her baby and the lingering effects of the sedative defeated her purpose. Olivia understood her urgency, though, and helped her to her feet. Had it been Kanin, she would have been doing exactly the same thing.

It could have been Kanin.

"Here, let me help you, Diana. You're still a little unsteady. We'll go to the hospital chamber together."

 

When Father finally removed his scrubs, he sank heavily onto the stool Mary had pulled over for him, and closed his eyes, but the sight was still before him -- blood, blood everywhere -- when he'd removed the stone missive, it poured out of the wound in his son's side -- so much of it lost. So much injury.

In the past, he could blame the madness of a world without conscience Above. This time, this time, though, his son was holding on to his life by a thread because of a simple accident of their chosen lifestyle -- a simple act of God.

Why was it, the weary physician thought darkly, that only devastating tragedies were called "acts of God?" Why wasn't Providence yet finished with exacting underserved pain from those he loved?

"Jacob, Diana is outside. She's been waiting. Will you speak to her? Or shall I?" Mary asked quietly.

The exhausted doctor, who was drained physically as well as spiritually, almost decided to pass his burden over to the gentle-hearted woman beside him. Wherever did she get her spirit? he wondered in tired awe. But, he needed to comfort Diana right now just as much as he guessed she needed to be held.

"I'll be there in a moment, Mary. Give me a moment."

When the partition curtain gave way and the patriarch of the tunnel community joined the small crowd that had gathered in the outer ward, not a word was uttered for the longest of moments. Kanin held Olivia more closely. Mouse, who'd refused to remain in his bed despite his fractured arm and sutured scalp, took hold of Jamie's hand. Samantha kissed Jacob gently on the forehead as he sat wearily in her lap, his little bunny clutched close to him.

Diana came slowly to her feet and met Father halfway across the room. The elder man had to marvel once again, at the young woman's courage, this time, understanding how his son could have come to love her so.

"Will you let me sit with him now, Father?" came the soft, pleading inquiry. Father pulled the young mother into his arms gently, noted the hagard appearance of her ethereal face. He would have done anything to protect the child from pain -- and at that instant, Diana was nothing less than his own beloved child as well.

"He's unconscious, Diana, and probably will be for some time yet. You should rest. The stress . . . the baby . . . "

Evidence of the quicksilver nature of his daughter-in-law's spirit was immediately visible in the flashing green eyes that met his own grey ones. Jacob Wells knew at that moment that Diana would face down Satan himself to take her place at her husband's side.

"Yes, yes, of course, child. Come with me." Father took a slender, trembling hand in his, then led Diana back past the curtain.

"He has a concussion, several broken ribs. One of them, with the stone shard, pierced his left lung. He's lost a great deal of blood, Diana. The next 48 hours will be critical."

"Thank you, Father. I'll be all right." The tone of Diana's voice told the physician that the time in the recovery room now belonged to her and Vincent alone. Quietly, Father retreated back out into the ward.

Diana took several slow steps from the doorway of the small chamber towards the bed. She felt herself suddenly within the indecipherable paradoxes of a dream. Though she knew only five or six steps would have taken her directly to her husband's bedside, she now seemed to be walking an interminable distance through a dense fog of pain and denial.

Mentally, though, she was already within reach of the reality: Vincent's unconscious body, lying under stark white sheets, barely alive.

That realization hit Diana full force, the truth of the possibilities twisting a knife into her heart . . . she might never speak to him again, see him again . . . she might never feel his arms around her, hold the radiant intensity of his blue eyes with her own gaze in silent communion . . .

She might never hear him laugh with Jacob again, at the tongue-twisting humor of

Dr. Seuss read aloud before bedtime . . .

She might never be able to give him her body again, hear him call out her name with a tenderness that melted her very soul . . .

In desperate confirmation of that reality, she sought in her mind, suddenly, to recall their last moments together that morning. Had they unknowingly actually been their last consciously shared moments together? My God! what had they been? she questioned herself fearfully. Had she even remembered to tell him how much she loved him before he'd left for his work?

The tears flowed freely at the recollections she sifted through with desolate anxiety. How had they passed their last moments together? Had it been their final morning?

. . . He'd awakened earlier than usual, needing to get to work on the digging sooner these past few days. It was almost Christmas, then Winterfest. School work and holiday preparations had begun to wreck havoc with labor schedules. The community had offered shelter to several elderly Helpers Below because the early harshness of winter Above had made their lives alone difficult. Room was needed. Work had to be done.

She'd made him some breakfast quickly at their small chamber brazier, above his protests, before she'd even dressed -- tea, fruit, oatmeal. Jacob had joined him in the meal, practiced his reading proudly with his father a moment or two. Diana hadn't eaten, her queasy stomach getting the better of her at the early hour. Instead, she'd simply sat between her husband and son with quiet satisfaction. A bowl of cereal later would do for her.

Vincent had suggested that she return to bed, but she'd refused, citing her own full schedule of classes, work, and activities for the day. She'd begun dressing as he finished his tea, exchanging her nightgown for a warm woolen dress behind the partition in the chamber.

And then she'd sat back down on the bed to struggle with her shoes.

If there was one thing that most annoyed her about being eight months pregnant, it was the fact that she'd been forced to wrestle with her shoes every morning like some toddler attempting a new skill. Father had directed that she wear laced up walking shoes instead of slip-ons because her feet were constantly swollen, but he wasn't the one who had to fight past a burgeoning mid-section with only a partial view of his feet, she thought defiantly.

. . . Then Diana felt her heart ache at the continued memory of the morning . . .

She'd been struggling for a long moment with her right shoe, to the point of frustrated embarassment, when Vincent had come away from the table and to the bedside. Without a word, he'd come down to his knees before her, removed her slouching sock which she'd inadvertantly put on inside out, and kissed the inner side of her ankle with a heated tenderness that swept instantly to her heart.

Carefully, then, he'd replaced her sock and shoe, lacing up the strings with the same patience he'd shown Jacob when the little boy had endured his own dressing struggles. Pulling her easily to her feet, he'd kissed her chastely on the cheek, though the sweet intensity of his sapphire eyes had offered her the same softly-embered passion he'd shared with her on their wedding night, when she'd been 30 pounds lighter and light-years more alluring. It still took her breath away. Even in her present state, he still was able to look at her in an awe-struck, tenderly acknowledging manner that made her feel like Aphrodite rising from the waves.

A powerful hand offered a gentle greeting to their baby over the woolen gown. "If you still find it difficult this evening, I'll be happy to help you remove those shoes as well, my love," came the somewhat less than innocent promise that lit her very soul with welcomed anticipation. She'd reached her hands up through his golden hair and, yes, she had whispered the words, although she knew they weren't even necessary: "I love you."

With a hug and a kiss to Jacob, he'd turned out their chamber door, and was gone.

Those had been their last moments together this morning. Typical for them. Not a hint of tragedy still to come. She and Vincent had been gently, totally aware of one another, looking forward to their evening together as they always did -- supper, reading, mending. Perhaps a walk to the Chamber of the Falls. An early bedtime, the blessing of lying in each other's arms in the sheltering dark, listening to Jacob's soft, even breathing.

The impatient quickening of the baby drawing both their comforting, reassuring hands to her body.

At least their morning had been one to cherish, one she could cling to. At least that much we have, God! Diana flung in agonized defiance. At least that much you've left me.

She'd managed to cross the interminable distance between her and the small hospital bed during her recollections, and now stood only a heartbreaking touch away from her beloved's unresponsive body. The deep breath that came to her involuntarily was ragged, and did little to steady her heart, which sought instantly to be settled beside the weakly beating one she'd never be able to exist without.

"Oh, Vincent," was all she could utter quietly, between the tears, as she reached out to set a shaking hand up to his bandaged forehead. She dropped her touch, in pain, to his wrapped chest, watched in torment as she noted how shallow his breaths came.

Taking up his right hand carefully in hers, Diana turned the palm towards her and kissed it with both her lips and her tears. The ache nearly overcame her then, the reality that his hand could not cup itself against her cheek just then, as it so easily did, with such tender familiarity. "I thought we were safe. You deserved to be safe," she whispered.

There was only a distant, flickering essence that Diana's heart could catch sight of, where there should have been a wellspring of nourishing, spirit-gifting love reaching out to her.

 

"Will Father die, Mama?" Diana drew Jacob closer to her on her lap, kissed the top of his curly head softly, before finding the courage to respond.

"I'm praying that he won't, angel."

Her every thought, every word and act, for the past three days, had been a prayer, the same prayer, but the very depths of her soul questioned with disbelief what now appeared to be the answer to her supplications:

Vincent's physical condition had stabilized, yes, something which every soul in the Underworld had breathed a relieved sigh for. His blood pressure and heart rate, his breathing, all still showed signs of trauma, but Father had found hope in the fact that, overall, his son's injuries had not caused a continuing deteriorization of his physical state.

But that did not alter the fact that Vincent remained unconscious still, three days after the accident.

And Diana had not left his side.

For the past three days, she had held her own spirit open and ready, hoping, praying, that she'd catch sight of a tiny movement in his still body, be blessed by the sight of fluttering eyelashes signaling the reappearance of life within the compelling azure eyes that could read her soul, feel a momentary acknowledging pressure to her hand as she held his.

There had been nothing.

Vincent had remained deeply comatose; even her sense of him within her heart was distant, indistinct, a tiny point of light visible for a moment, and then quickly swallowed up by the darkness of uncertainty.

It was killing her, too, moment by moment, the sitting and waiting, driving a pain through her soul that she felt in every cell of her being. She'd done it before, years before, as she and Maureen had sat and watched their mother dying, slipping away, too soon. Their dad had died instantly. Had it been a mercy?

"He is so far away from us, Mama. I feel him so far away." That Jacob could sense the same, immeasurable distance between his own little heart and his father's was a further agony to set Diana's very soul to shuddering pain.

"I know, baby. So do I."

"Why can't he find his way back to us?"

The blue eyes turned to hers for comfort were his father's eyes, startling in pained intensity far beyond the small boy's tender years. She had little to offer as comfort for her young son, except her own frightening, growing sense of . . . loss.

"I think he's trying, Jacob. His body's been hurt so badly, though, that he may not have the strength he needs right now to find his way."

"But Father's been hurt before. When my mother was alive, and after she died. He was hurt so badly when you found him, Mama. Still he came back to us."

"Yes, I know, angel," came her soft words, the memories flooding into her heart at the little boy's observations neither comforting nor capable of being denied.

She had been the one to see Vincent through his last life-threatening ordeal. He'd been in so much raging anguish then, desperate to battle the evils that had claimed his love, stolen his child. The powerful force of his spirit had been tortured beyond endurance and yet he seemed . . . compelled . . . to live, to take his own vengeance on those who'd murdered his hope.

Even so, at the time, he'd been so prepared to die, too, eager, almost, to die. To be with Catherine.

This time, though, this time, it all appeared so different.

Vincent seemed merely asleep, as though a gentle caress could waken him. There was no desperation, no fear fighting its way past his physical injuries to fuel his survival. Father couldn't seem to understand it, either, find some medical explanation to decipher why his son's body seemed willing to work its way to recovery while his spirit remained lost.

Within her bonded heart, though, Diana could feel what she recognized, with her own unexpected pain, as a distant sense of . . . warmth . . . pushing back . . . against . . . her own seeking, radiantly searching lifeline of love. The shudder in her soul began forcing its way through her body as well, now.

"He must know how much we miss him, Mama. He must know it, how much we need him back. Don't you believe it? He must be trying hard to come back to us."

Diana took her son's hand up into hers and kissed the little fingers, holding back her own tears. Jacob had felt it, too. Her essence of Vincent within her, despite its distance, had to have been reaching out, trying to touch her heart, Jacob's heart, with hope. But something was keeping it from doing so with any sort of conviction.

She attempted to grasp at what little hope she had left with her words to her son.

"Jacob, your father loves us very much. If there is a way for him to come back to us, he will find it. We have to keep believing it, and keep trying to help him."

The small hand came up to her cheek with tenderness. "You look so tired. Will you take a rest?" The little boy's words startled Diana: They were his father's, always seeking to comfort, never looking to his own needs first.

She understood, at last, in what possible direction that selfless giving could have turned itself; where Vincent's heart might have found itself, at that moment.

"I'd rather stay here, Jacob, but I need to ask you a favor." Looking into the sweet face holding hers with such devotion, Diana read the trail of turmoil that had been left behind across the little boy's features. He hadn't spent much time away from his father, or her, these past three days, either, and he would continue his vigil, she knew, unless she found a way to offer him some momentary respite away from the pain.

Away from what she knew she would soon be up against.

"Jamie mentioned she was going down to the river park to check on the plants this evening. Would you go along with her to help her, Jacob? The plants have gotten big, and it takes a while for her to water them all well. Two people could get the job done more easily."

"But you need me here, don't you?"

It was so obvious that Jacob was struggling with the idea of setting aside his mother's needs at the moment. Diana treasured the child's tender commitment to her, mirroring the best of what she loved in his father. She sought another avenue to protect him from the pain to come, even if for only a few precious minutes tonight.

"If you could bring me back a rose from our bush, it would make me very happy. They are so beautiful; I love how sweet they smell."

The added duty being extended to her request urged Jacob to rethink his hesitation about leaving Diana just then. If he could be capable of offering her the slightest hint of comfort by picking her a flower, he would do so, gladly.

Setting aside his own encompassing fear of the moment -- the fear that his father would die when he was away from him.

"I'll come right back when we are finished, Mama."

"I know you will, Jacob." Letting the youngster slide from her knees, she watched him with aching pride as he stretched up to his father's bed. Laying his head against the still, unearthly hand that rested atop the sheet, the little boy closed his eyes for a long interval.

Diana felt her heart skip a beat, as she realized the child was seeking to attune his spirit with that of his desperately-missed father. A transcendent glow seemed to pass over the little boy's gentle features, but then pulled away after only an instant.

With his eyes still closed, Jacob breathed quietly, "I will be back, Father. Mama is here alone. Don't leave her. We need you. The baby will be coming soon."

Unable to hold back the anguish any longer, Diana closed her own eyes. She heard her son's retreating steps, and assured that the child had indeed left the room, she swallowed hard, preparing herself for what she knew she must attempt to place herself within.

Coming to her feet herself, more than a bit awkwardly, because of the hours she'd spent in the chair as much as because of her pregnant state, Diana slowly halted at Vincent's bedside. For the longest breath of time she simply took in the beloved, familiar features with beseeching need -- his unique, finely-chisled face, bruised and bandaged, reminding her of another time she'd kept watch over his bedside, terrified at his torment, yet drawn irresistibly within the vulnerable power of his compelling presence so at the mercy of Fate.

She sank wearily now to the edge of the bed, feeling her legs giving out from under her, and not only from exhaustion. With a trembling hand she reached up to the thick silk of his golden hair and took hold of a precious lock possessively. Lovingly.

She'd done just that, the first night he'd been sheltered at her loft so long ago, never once fighting the need to touch him, claim a knowledge of him then that went beyond sight and simple observation, to the ready recognition her soul held for him.

The heavy softness, so unexpected, of his hair against her skin, sliding through her fingers, had fanned that sudden flame of recognition within her heart, for she'd already felt what it would be like to have that bewitching, arresting mass of gold brush against her own sensitized flesh before -- somewhere in the unacknowledged reaches of her most profoundly cherished dreams.

The talon-tipped hand she'd taken into her own, as she did so now, was never merely a weapon of avenging justice, to be feared. It was simply, remained simply, an eloquent extension of a soul's unspoken uniqueness, capable of both judgement and tenderness.

Beyond the edges of the fresh bandages, too, Diana's heart constricted at the visible evidence of Vincent's past, risk-charged encounters with the madness of the world Above

-- the healed over scars of the bullet wounds in his shoulders and chest. Now, the remarkable beauty of his treasured body would be again marred by the reality of risk and harm, only this time, it had reached him from the benevolent confines of his own home.

Diana set her head gently to his shrouded chest, longing for the sheltering comfort she'd always been able to find there. Instead, the smell of antiseptic, the sterility of the bandages, caused her to take in a ragged, pained breath: even his usual, gently enveloping scent, of soap, candleflame, leather, and his own uniquely complex maleness, was all but lost to the heartbreak of his present state.

Everything she knew of him, cherished of him: the eyes that spoke to her without need of words, the husky, comforting, gentle tones of his voice, the richness of his touch, the scope and wonder of his mind; all that Diana had taken to her heart of him as she had no other living soul, all now seemed suddenly, maddeningly, just beyond her reach. Perhaps it had never, indeed, been hers to begin with.

And she understood why.

When she lifted her head from his body, the movement caused her perception of the subdued candlelight in the chamber to glint off the golden band on his finger.

It shouldn't have been so; she should not have felt so totally bereft of his presence within her.

Vincent had taken that ring from her so freely, on their wedding night, let her slide it in place with a welcoming wonder she'd never dared to dream possible. They'd believed in the hope, found their way to it beyond the fear, committed themselves to it, to the rightness of their profound love, from this life till the next.

Still, the communing reality of their intertwined existences was yet to be subjected to ironic forces beyond their control. In the past, those forces had always been threatening, destructive, fates to be battled as sources of undeserved pain, and the uncontested brutalities of desperation that should never have attempted to claim a justified place within their shared hearts.

But, how could she struggle now against the powerful forces born of a love once as richly gifting as her own?

"I understand, Vincent, what's happened to you," she whispered, in quiet agony. "As much as you love us, Jacob and me, our baby, you could never bring yourself to cause Catherine pain . . . and coming back to us means leaving her behind again, hurting her, doesn't it? She's there with you now, isn't she?"

It all was falling into place. She'd managed to dig out the truth, understand the indecipherable powers that had torn her beloved from beyond the loving reaches of her soul.

Diana knew what the conflicting warmth was she'd felt, tugging aside her own reaching thread of connection to Vincent within her heart. It was the current of Catherine's love, urging him away from the cherished, familiar tides of his present reality of love and back into the sweetness of their shared past.

That was why Diana felt no fear or pain or threat to her husband in his present purgatorial state -- He was in no danger, facing no dark essence robbing him of his soul. He was only being sheltered in a loving presence from beyond, a presence still strong enough to hold him honorbound to a yet-treasured, extraordinary, transcendent, perfect love.

And where did the quietly ordinary devotion of her own soul stand in comparison, she wondered with pained entreaty? He'd been able to reassure her once, when she'd been forced to face the same contrasting truths with him on that night of reckoning in her loft.

But where could she find the courage to believe that her own day-to-day dedication to a

quietly gifting reality of existence could now stand the test of a love that defied the boundaries of life and death?

Realizing that, she could never blame Vincent for having to place himself, his very soul, in the unthinkable position that at present claimed the majority of his conscious spirit. He wouldn't be the profoundly compelling man that she loved with every fiber of her being if he'd been capable of totally ridding himself so easily of such a blessed attachment.

"I can't even blame you, Cathy," Diana spoke her thoughts aloud somehow, past the choking ache clutching at her spirit, as though the woman she was addressing was actually standing beside her in the room and had not been dead for over three years. Catherine's answering presence was suddenly so strong there with her.

Diana brushed the back of the unearthly hand she held with tender possession. Vincent had tied her shoes with that hand the last morning they had shared. He'd caressed their unborn child, and her, with that beloved, otherworldly touch. She understood the pain of needing that cherished oneness.

"If our places were changed, I know I'd want to do the same thing you are doing myself, if it was ever even remotely within my ability . . . I'd want to hold on to him and never let go of his love." Diana closed her eyes defensively against the flood of tears they held.

"But I can't keep from feeling it, keep from saying it to you finally," the spiritually assaulted young mother offered with righteous injury. "Why are you doing this to us? Here and now is all I'll ever have with Vincent." The shudder in her soul was nearly overpowering. "You have the undisputed right to eternity with him; you know that! I gave up that right when I put a bullet into Gabriel's worthless heart!

"I'd do it again, though, God help me, because that bastard would have never given up his determination to corrupt or destroy the man we both love.

"Eternity, Cathy: It will be yours without question. I won't be anywhere near Paradise when I die. You won't have to worry about me." The quiet, matter-of-fact acceptance of such an everlasting destiny only accentuated the astonishing courage that she'd been able to touch to in her softly outraged defense. Diana knew she was speaking nothing but the truth, a truth not even an angel could dispute.

"Here, now, this is my chance at heaven with him, Catherine, my chance at an eternity

of our own construction. Why, then, do you need my time, too?"

The tears, hot and catharic, drove Diana to voice every justification of her own position, their own position, hers and Vincent's, together, when she never believed she could find the conviction to. She'd held her own validity secondary for too long. It had to end. Vincent's life was at stake now.

And not only his.

There were two other lives hanging in the balance as well, two other futures moving towards undeserved loss and confusion.

The surge of indignant, personal threat died out with Diana as quickly as it had flared up within her. She'd lived in the shadow of Catherine's love long enough to understand what was of real importance in her unexpected struggle to win back her husband's soul.

Diana carefully shielded her unborn child in a comforting embrace. Her words, at present, were soft again, pleading. They came from the honest, selfless love that had always been her gift to Vincent, what had raised him up from a haunted heart, a hope-robbed shell of a man, to a beloved husband and father.

"Cathy, this isn't about you or me any longer. If it ever was, I'd give you no argument, because I've known all along I'd never stand a chance. The two of you, Vincent and you, what you had . . . it went far beyond anything I could have ever imagined . . . it was . . . lifted . . . beyond anything I'd ever come close to understanding. What little I've been able to bring him is completely . . . earthbound . . . in comparison. But it is a . . . future . . . one with discernible boundaries that reach out into . . . hope . . . in his life. It's a future you couldn't, or wouldn't, offer him, for whatever your reasons, whatever your choices.

"It's about his children -- Jacob, and this little one here."

Diana remembered with unconcealed awe the moment Vincent had first gifted her with the sound of their baby's heartbeat, channeled through his own. Her trembling voice became more certain. "You know what it was like to lose a child, the ache that must have permeated your being because of it.

"Do you want Vincent there with you now, knowing that it would mean robbing him of his children? His children of their father? Would you subject them all to that pain as well? Wasn't there a moment, before you lost him to Gabriel, that you longed to hold Jacob to yourself, be a mother to him for an instant?"

Reaching a shaking hand up to her husband's cheek, Diana willed her heart to remain strong. Quietly, she urged, "Do you think Vincent could feel any less loss, any less hurt, if he had to give his son up now? He offered Gabriel his life for that child, Cathy! Will eternity mean anything to him, do you think, when he knows he'll never hold his second baby in his arms? Can you possibly want to force him to choose between you and his children?"

The realities of what life had been for the man she loved in the past drove Diana to fearlessly hold up the truth of his present, promising hope as her own vindication for him. "He's found a peace and a fulfillment safe from the insanity of the world you could not give up for him. Will you keep him from a life blessed with that promise?"

One final truth remained that could be offered, for Diana to make her case with conviction against the profound reaches of a transcendent love. The words came unsteadily, shaken from the depths of her own remembered experiences of the past three years.

"These children need their father. If I have to give up any claim on his heart of my own, I might be able to find some way to do it, if it meant he'd be free to live out eternity in some sort of peace at last. But, Catherine, these children don't deserve to lose their father."

The fiery will to protect within her, lit Diana's soul, set her spirit to steal. "Damn it, Cathy! You can't be capable of wanting that, causing that to happen! The woman I've come to know through these years wasn't capable of exacting such a price, in the name of eternal love!"

Then, her words softened again, accepting the possibility of her own blame, her own failed instincts. "Or have I been wrong about you all along? Would you tear him from his life, his hope, his children? God! Jacob didn't even get to say 'goodbye' to him, Catherine! That little boy has spent three days at his father's side, praying for a miracle. He could never even dream that it might be you that was holding his father's heart away from his own."

The pain became almost suffocating, as Diana contemplated the final loss she might need to endure, herself.

"I didn't even get the chance to set our new baby into my husband's arms."

The ache, the bleeding agony, took ruthless hold of her hope, now, leaving her spent and so frail of heart. "That is the reality your holding on to him is offering him now," she whispered, from the depths of her desolate loss. "Even God took pity on you, Catherine, and let you die in Vincent's embrace. You were able to look into his eyes one last time and hold his heart until you left him. You had the chance to say 'goodbye.'"

Overcome by the emotion of her appeal, by the unending stress of her vigil, by the weary exhaustion of her condition, Diana could find no other breath of strength to cling to. Only the unequivocal certainty of losing her heart's sheltering, gifting partner resounding from deep within her soul, rising to a deafening, engulfing, smothering ache.

There was only one thing left for her to do, she knew suddenly, transcendent perfection be damned! She would at least offer her beloved one final moment of imperfect, shamelessly human, love. She'd be his wife for one last breath of time, offering him the tender communion of married devotion only she'd ever gifted him with.

Collapsing to Vincent's side on the small bed, Diana settled her body as closely to his as she could, trying to find the cherished, comforting position she always treasured in his arms, knew he treasured. Her head carefuly eased down to his chest, away from his wounded side, her hand resting softly, tenderly . . . holding his heart in place. His hand she lovingly touched to their baby sheltered between them in her womb.

If an eternity of perfected love beckoned, it was going to have to get past the here and now of her own hold on his soul.

Closing her eyes against the devastating truth that she knew would soon still her husband's faintly beating heart forever, Diana whispered in loving defiance, "I won't let you go without holding you one last time. But do what you need to, to find your peace, Vincent. It's the only thing I'll be able to give you up for. Be at peace, my love, wherever

you need to be."

The wrenching ache that wrapped itself around Diana's heart took its place the moment her words fell silent. She'd offered him that gift once before -- on their wedding night -- the gift, the freedom to choose in which direction the reality of his love lay -- within the desperate sweetness of his lost past, or the liberating freedom of a future still to be charted at her side. She tried to set her own spirit, now, beyond that reality, knowing she could never survive his having to make such a choice again.

For a merciful moment, the astonishing truth that had been the gift of that first choice came to her mind with tender acknowledgement: a new life that was the very embodiment of love accepted in all its blessings. Jacob's thriving, wonderfilled little spirit, too, had come to her with every breath of its sweetly innocent and uplifting devotion.

But those two small souls would now become casualties as well, victims of a love capable of reaching past even the limits of life and death. Sweet Jesus! she thought to herself in silent torment, how could she ever find the words to explain the extent of a broken heart to a three year old, be able to describe to a child a love so compelling that it could claim his father from beyond the grave?

Finally spent with the effort at holding to her courage, Diana was helpless to withstand the simple humanity of unfettered grief. Her tears soaked hot and hopeless into the sterile bandages she rested upon, the room echoing with inconsolable, disbelieving pain . . .

. . . So it was nothing less than a miracle of itself that she was capable of hearing the words through her torment -- whispered slowly, with great effort, barely above a breath:

"Don't cry, Diana."

Her immediate reaction was to let her eyes fly open, but she resisted, forcefully, the compulsion, terrifed of what she believed would meet her gaze -- the mythic, beloved features of her husband's face growing visibly pale as his hostage spirit pulled free from its final, earthly constraints before her eyes, the words only a final parting.

But, she couldn't mistake the touch, confuse it for a death-throe that would haunt her for the rest of her days.

No, the touch was gentle, not desperate, warm, and claiming possession of her and her child within her with infinitely sweet . . . life . . . And more words, just a shade louder this time, spoken with less painful effort than the first: "I'm here with you, my love."

He'd been freed to make his choice, not even the beguiling promise of an early, perfected heaven standing in his way. And remarkably, again, Vincent's heart had come to her, in all the generosity and humanity of their love.


Continued in Chapter 10