Living the Promise: Chapter Ten


Vincent leaned up against the slim trunk of the ficus tree, trying to get comfortable, but too many of his muscles ached from disuse, as well as from the assaulting stones from the exploded chamber. He didn't mind the discomfort in the least, though. It reminded him that he was still alive.

Setting aside the small booklet of poetry he'd been reading, he took in a deep breath, forgetting, for a moment his bandaged ribs and sutured side. The pain could still be startling, but the peace of being in the river garden's bounty was worth the struggling effort he'd had to put forth.

The colors in the garden seemed wondrous, enchanted. Above, the world lay in blustery winter, a week before Christmas, but here before him, the various greens of potted plants and rainbow splashes of color -- african violets, gloxinias, and even a Christmas cactus -- were a riot of brightness and life.

Everything seemed blessed to him, in the past five days since he'd awakened from his coma, blessed and a gift held in special readiness for him alone . . . the colors, surely, the cool air, the gentle warmth of the radiating light. But even beyond that, what appeared touched by heaven especially for his benefit, was the blessing he'd been offered . . . of being returned to those that he loved.

He was back in his home, welcomed into the nurturing reality of his community. And back in Diana's arms. That was the most wondrous blessing of all.

Gazing across the width of the garden with a discerning eye, Vincent let his observations come to rest on the abundant and flourishing presence of the rosebush in the center of the space. He wasn't at all surprised at how closely that miraculous bush was mirroring his own experiences of life lately.

In the dead of winter, far below the city streets, in the incredible reaches of the river chasm and bathed only in a reflection of sunlight, the bush was a wonder of nature to behold, blanketed with gracefully-petaled flowers, the vast majority now of the mysteriously melded white blooms swept with swirling red detail. Here and there amidst the drift of bi-colored blossoms, there appeared a flower totally of one shade or the other, the exclamation points of their coloring accenting in completeness the beauty and bounty of the indescribable plant.

Nature had taken it upon itself to give evidence of an irresistible truth within the delicate petals of the flowers, it seemed -- the communion of heaven and earth, body and soul, spirit and humanity, that had nurtured a remarkable reality of love.

A love that had again gifted him with extraordinary promise beyond turmoil.

When he'd first found the courage to accept it within his heart, that love had drawn him out of the blackest anguish of desperate grief. Five days ago, that same devotion had again resurrected his hope, his very life, and given him the strength to hold the past as the past --

sweetly remembered, cherished for its dreams, but a past that could no longer claim the better part of his soul, set fearful limits to his humanity.

It was Diana's love.

The feeling of its gentle warmth, suddenly assailed by unexpected terror and loss, had been his last conscious experience in the collapsing chamber a week ago. The memory of his dream, and how he'd read its frightening portents incorrectly, had swirled about him as injury had claimed his senses in an engulfing tide of pain. He'd been agonizing with the fear of some catastrophe robbing him of Diana's sweet love, threatening their child. Instead, the circumstances had been the direct opposite, unbelievably so.

A simple accident would tear him from his beloved wife, from his children. Diana, they, would be the survivors, shrouded in pain, plunged into the reality of loss and desperate grief.

Closing his eyes, Vincent guided his thoughts back to the instant he knew he was no longer within the actual plane of existence that could be called living. He remembered it, remembered all of it, the experience of near-death that accident had plunged him into. It had been an occurrence that had brought to him anew the wonder of the blessing that sheltered his heart -- Diana's love.

He'd needed that awesome gift, too, he understood in confounding disbelief, to shield his own soul from a risk that he'd sooner die for than ever imagine capable of causing him pain: Catherine's own still encompassing loss, born of a love unable to release its hold on him.

 

It had all been so like a dream, but one he'd struggled to understand, the circumstances coming to him with maddening confusion.

At the moment he thought himself unable to survive the agony any longer . . . an anguish of the heart as well as that of his battered body . . . the brutal injustice of knowing he would die without ever being able to reach out to Diana again, or Jacob . . . the grief of understanding he'd never even see their new baby . . . at that instant of most profoundly agonizing loss, Vincent's being had been flooded with a warmth and light that sought to gently ease him past desperation and pain.

His heart leaped when he recognized the center of that radiance.

Catherine.

She looked every bit the angel he'd expected her to be, dressed in the white gown she'd worn at Winterfest so long ago. Her gentle eyes brimmed with love and . . . welcome . . . the barest trace of a smile gracing her mouth.

He couldn't help himself; he'd missed her so much for so long.

He reached his hand out to her, to touch her, assure himself that she was truly, really there before him. His tender caress to her cheek carried the truth of love still within it -- He'd never stopped loving her . . . he'd only been able to move his heart past the anguish of losing her.

Yet, when his hand slipped over her cheek softly, with aching sweetness, Vincent was astounded at her reaction -- Catherine drew away a breath, in astonished . . . confusion.

Then he'd read it in her eyes, the -- hesitation -- to accept his gesture, her essence pulling away from him in uncertainty. Why?

Hadn't they ached for such communion when she'd been alive? It was almost as though she didn't . . . recognize . . . that touch. Vincent's own heart shrank away in pain.

But, the love he yet carried for her helped him understand Catherine's reaction. Oh, they'd yearned for a loving, acknowledging communion, yes, between them, for so long; a fearless acceptance of what they'd only considered a dream. Far too long. Catherine had been so used to reining in her emotions, her need for him in life, that the validity and truth of those feelings had been finally lost to her in death. She'd never been able to justify the humanity in her love, because of the fearful limits they'd buried it within. She'd only, nobly, accepted the boundaries in quiet resignation.

Now, with Vincent reaching out so tenderly, and with so much of that denied humanity showing in his caressing touch -- she couldn't seem to recognize it, accept it, without guilt and pain.

Vincent withdrew his hand slowly, with regret. He'd forgotten how greatly they'd feared the growing power of their love, looked upon the rising, unacknowledged sensuality of their needs with shame. He'd become so blessedly used to the -- rightness -- of expressing his devoted heart without fear of any of its wondrous depths, now, that the very thought of shrouding that sharing from Catherine in uncertainty would not even cross his mind.

Suddenly, the only thing that kept him from crying out in pained confusion, was the memory of what he'd so long been able to share with Diana, what he knew to be the truth of the love that they'd been gifted with, beyond any barriers born of fear and denial.

There was no longer any guilt left within that blessed, shared existence. For Diana, there'd never even been any fear. She'd craved his love, body and soul, from the moment they first met, knowing, instinctively, that it would be the only reality they could claim that would set his burdened humanity free.

Catherine's generous acceptance of his limited acknowledgement of their love had somehow managed to help it transcend those boundaries in another direction . . . evolving it into a perfect, unblemished, spiritual bonding.

But Diana had dared to see past those boundaries, dared to urge him towards an imperfect humanity of seeking hope that had fully consummated every breath of their souls.

All Vincent could think about at that instant, then, was the fact that the cheek he'd ventured to caress in gentle, acknowledging union, was not Diana's. That the spirit that had shrunk unsteadily away from his own was not the fiery, challenging essence that had lit his own heart with welcome life. There was, in a heartbeat, within him, a desperate need to find himself back within that beloved, determined, hope; to be sheltered once again within a love that accepted no fearful limits. The need to be back in his beloved wife's arms.

A wave of compassion came over him, though, as he watched the confusion cloud Catherine's soft eyes. She was obviously struggling with her own attempts at understanding, and she appeared to be making little headway in the process.

That Vincent's love was great enough to offer her both the passion and the purity of communing souls seemed too difficult for her long-shielded heart to comprehend now. That he could still offer her such unfamiliar tenderness, amidst the aching need she could read in his spirit that still reached out for another's heart was also beyond explanation to her. That need accepted, she caught sight of, was both too . . . beautiful . . . and somehow too . . . foreign . . . for her to grasp.

Vincent accepted readily the blame for the state of Catherine's heart now. When her love had been at its own most open, most gently hopeful, in life, time and again he'd always been constrained to jar it back to sanity, acknowledging what he believed to be hovering with fearful proximity over their hesitantly searching hearts -- the dark reality of the depths of his own soul. Still, she'd continued to hold her heart softly expectant, in spite of his fears.

Before she'd been torn from his life, Catherine had, more than once, let her defenses slip, and allowed the total humanity of her love to anxiously peer through the crack. Yet, the limits they'd both willingly placed on their hearts, apprehensively forced onto their needs, quickly reinforced any threatening breeches in those defenses with spirit-robbing, hope-stifling fear.

"Oh, Catherine, forgive me," he'd called out with genuine repentance, once he understood what had truly been the cost of their vigilance. All the while he'd believed he was protecting her from the bodily harm he was convinced their love risked, he'd in reality only subjected her to the most ruthless spiritual and emotional injury. How could he ever hope to recompense her for that?

With his life, now, it would appear, he comprehended suddenly, as Catherine found the courage to gently set her own hand onto his arm, returning her heart to its usual, hesitant hope. The touch radiated warmth and light through them both, so like the bond they'd shared in life.

"There is nothing to forgive, Vincent. You are here, now."

And that would be the final reconcilliation that he could offer her.

Their sublimely, spiritually bonded love had kept her the beloved angel of his heart in life. Now, eternity lay beckoning before him, with that angel at his side. It would have been the fulfillment of his every cherished hope for them both.

It would have been . . . once.

With astonishing clarity, the sound of Diana's gentle voice filled his heart. "I understand, Vincent, what's happened to you. 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?"

The tears filled his eyes at that. How could this be happening? he railed against fate. Is this what heaven was to be for him, an eternity borne out in restitution for his fear to love Catherine, the agony of knowing he'd bound himself to such a sentence at the cost of Diana's pain? This could never be the concluding truth that would hold all three souls together forever -- that the hell he feared he'd visit upon his first love would be the purgatory he'd leave his second.

Vincent sank to his knees, attempting to come to grips with what actually faced him. In doing so, he inadvertantly pulled away from Catherine, her touch urged free from his arm. The cold that swept through him was instantaneous, and he looked up reflexively, trying to understand.

Catherine remained standing before him, but the loss of her contact with him had also affected her, he observed, in pain. The beckoning bright light that filled the space they were in seemed to shine all around her -- but she, herself, appeared to be . . . veiled . . .

somehow from its radiance. The brightness did not light her features. There was no reflection of it in her soft brown hair; it did not illuminate her skin.

She was surrounded by brightness, but not actually a part of it.

It was then that Vincent realized the truth of his first love's need.

"You haven't pulled free of the earth completely, Catherine, have you?"

The conclusion did not seem so strange to him. Narcissa, with her indefinable powers and perceptions of the world beyond the familiar planes of living and humanity, had often spoken to him of the hold life could continue to have on a spirit, even beyond death.

"I've been waiting for you, Vincent."

The gentle words should have rung tenderly in his heart. Instead they only seemed to deepen the cold he felt within his being.

To be loved like that.

He would have continued loving Catherine like that, beyond the limits of life or death, with all its anguishing loss and grief permeating every fiber of his being for all eternity -- had it not been for his own amber-haired guardian angel.

"My God, Diana! I've always believed you gave me back my very soul with your love. I had no idea what that completely meant, until now."

Vincent wasn't certain he'd voiced his words only within his heart, and he gazed up anxiously into Catherine's face, fearing the additional pain he'd read there that such an observation could cause. But, Catherine seemed not to hear him. Instead, she turned partly away from him, holding her head to one side a bit, as though listening to someone else's words, coming from somewhere else in the now-misty light around them.

Vincent knew without a doubt whose voice Catherine was becoming aware of, even though he, himself, didn't hear anything: Diana was still battling for his soul, he knew, as certainly as he understood anything about the steel-willed, quicksilver enigma that was his wife.

She'd flung defiant truth at him more than once, as they made their guilty, pain-strewn path towards each other in the past. If she believed herself in the very least capable of influencing the fates at this present moment in time for him, he knew she would expend her own spirit to do so.

Whatever she was saying was reaching Catherine's understanding, for the cherished figure before him turned towards him with a look that mixed love with . . . regret . . . and unexpectedly colliding confusion. Within his own heart, too, Vincent felt a steady, sheltering warmth growing: Diana, finding her way back to where she belonged.

That warmth turned to pain soon enough, though, pain he felt within himself, when Catherine reached back down to him and gently urged him to his feet beside her. Trying to still the hurt that was taking root in his chest, Vincent raised his hand to his heart, almost expecting to find Diana's slender hand there, praying that he would find it there, the soft, empowering tenderness that he'd told her kept his heart in place.

He needed her to do that for him, now, assure him of the gifting hope that had become his the moment he had welcomed the emerald-eyed angel into his very essence. There was only more pain, though, and a sensation of the sustaining warmth retreating once again from within him.

Catherine turned loving eyes to him overflowing with emotion, yet, they were not the green depths that could touch his soul with honest conviction. She set her hand once again to his arm confidently, as she'd only hesitantly allowed herself to in life, but it wasn't the touch he ached to share at that instant. With Diana's spirit pulling further and further away from him, he was granted the momentary mercy of hearing her words again, this time, not only spoken in his heart, but audible in the light about him, audible to Catherine as well.

"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."

To love like that.

To be willing to diminish one's need for another's.

To be able to let go, when every breath in your body yearns to hold fast.

Vincent's heart was flooded with awe at the power of Diana's love, the scope of its true depths. Catherine recognized the gesture, too, one that had been painfully embraced on her own behalf so long ago . . . by Vincent himself . . . for her.

"Let the memory of what we are . . . what we shared . . . remind you that love, in its deepest and purest form exists. Use that memory to give you the courage to love . . . someone else."

It had torn his very soul in two to utter those words to Catherine, when she had struggled against the apparent hopeless futility of ever finding a "happy life" within the complex reality that was her relationship with him. She'd been in such pain. He would have let his heart hold fast to her uncertain decision, "Let me live in your world, let me try." But he knew, even then, that her determination had been born only out of her confusion of heart.

He'd set her free, urged her apart from him, shut the door, literally, to the uncertain possibilities between them . . . and the agony had blazed its way into the very depths of his soul.

It was the same torment he felt taking hold of Diana's spirit within him. She was turning away from him, allowing him the freedom to follow his heart -- even if that path led away from her. She would love him like that.

His wife's unflinching generosity helped him take hold of his courage, pointed him yet again into the direction of truth.

Vincent raised his hand to Catherine's cheek again. He must make her understand -- she would be able to understand. Steeling himself against her anticipated hesitancy with his touch, he was relieved that she did not pull away from him this time. This time Catherine let him trace the path of a single tear that slipped down her cheek in breathtaking, heartstopping humanity, follow it with an unearthly hand she'd let him convince her would be ever unneeding of such tender communion.

"Catherine . . . I must . . . go. Please . . . "

The words were softly pleading, bleeding from the denial he had to show to her.

. . . "There was no gentle way to refuse her love." His own words echoed to him again, had once mirrored his acceptance of a heart bonded in sublime spiritual oneness with Catherine's own, a bond that had been able to allow him to set aside a very real, and sweetly offered gift of tenderly human love reaching out to him from Lena's fragile heart when she'd first come Below. Now, that denial, unbelievably must be meant for Catherine's own beguiling invitation to eternity.

"You will always be in my heart and soul, but Catherine, I . . . cannot . . . remain here

with you now. The light awaits you with its peace . . . and Diana's love calls me back to her . . . to our family . . . to Jacob and our baby."

Running his fingers softly over her hair an instant, he steadied his voice again. "Forgive me, Catherine, but I cannot, will not, stay."

She simply nodded her head, then, in compliance, almost a reflexive reaction, he thought, as though she were merely agreeing to his observation of the weather or the time. After a moment, quite unexpectedly, though, she came closer to him, stopping only a breath away from his body, as she seemed to decide something within herself.

Vincent held his breath, all of his love for her aching to offer her some small comfort, some tiny shred of hope and acknowledgement she'd be willing to hold. Catherine seemed to accept that need, in that heartbeat between them, without doubt, for it was she who broke the tension finally between them.

With hesitant shyness, she stretched her arms up to him, standing up on her tiptoes, as she always needed to, to reach her embrace around his neck. He let his own arms encircle her petite form against him then, still astounded at the gentle determinatoin in her manner, beyond her still obvious pain. A second later she offered him a chaste kiss, something she'd only found the courage to gift them with twice before in life.

That gentle communion brought a glowing breath of color to her pale skin. Vincent found himself astonished to perceive that color as a blush. An angel's blush. It was so beautiful.

Drawing herself away from his compelling figure, she let a sweet, encompassing smile rest on her lips, as she drew her arms away from his neck slowly. "You read Dr. Seuss very well," she observed quietly, with a hint of laughter in her voice, that same brightness and vivacity she'd so often offered him.

"Jacob will always honor you in his heart," Vincent whispered softly, relieved that the wound he'd been forced to inflict upon her could be accepted in love.

"Diana is so tender a mother to him. It brings me a great deal of comfort. And the love she has sheltered you in: You deserve such a love, Vincent, strong and gentle, truthful and unafraid. Cherish it always."

Vincent reached down to her hand, surrounding it with his own. Gently, he lifted it up to his mouth and kissed the fingertips with aching compassion. "We dreamed of such a love, too, Catherine."

Her soft eyes shimmered with a hint of tears, but the unburdened angel found the strength to keep them from falling. "Yes, my love, we dreamed it. But the reality of it --

that has been your doing -- yours and Diana's."

With a secure step, Catherine turned from him, and began walking away, towards what appeared to be the source of the light that surrounded them. Grateful relief filled Vincent's heart, as he realized that the brightness now not only radiated round about her, but it also seemed to become part of her, too, perhaps for the first time since he had lost her.

"Diana, you've given us both our souls," he marveled with wonder, as he watched Catherine's retreating figure for a moment longer, until the light completely claimed her

So often in the past, he'd ached when she'd need to disappear into the shaft of brightness that marked the limits between her world and his, the point where she'd re-enter her own reality of daily life. He would remain to turn, once again, into the shadows he'd never urge her to instead consider home. But now, now he knew, he felt, without painful regret and with only bearable loss, that she was where she needed to be, at last. They both were.

But Vincent's relieved joy at Catherine's new-found peace was cut short, as he realized he could hear a woman's sobs echoing through the now dimming space around him. Diana. It was her pain he was hearing, the apparent loss she was enduring that was born of her courageous selflessness. Desperate to comfort her, hold her heart to him, suddenly, he couldn't seem to take hold of her essence, though, within him again.

She was still holding her spirit away from his, giving him the freedom to respond to his needs, and Catherine's, in whatever direction he'd have the strength to move. The overwhelming scope of her love swept over him like a tide at that point. She would have given up his heart to the force of another still achingly possessive love, if only to bring him peace, free him from guilt and regret again, at last.

The only peace, though, he required at that moment was the knowledge that Diana was safe and comforted and reassured of his love. For her. He needed, he yearned with every breath of his existence, to be with her now, the reality of her distance coming as agonizing as his reunion with Catherine had been sweet.

Crumpling to the ground, Vincent fought his way through the gathering, darkening mists surrounding him, setting Diana's essence within him as his only goal of survival. He reached with all of his empathic, loving, life force deeply into his own heart, seeking out the thread of communion to Diana's spirit not even her generous sacrifice of love could completely sever from between them.

Sensations began to reach him from beyond the dark, with growing familiarity. The cool, musty air of the tunnels, intermixed with the tender fragrance of lavender: Diana must be resting her head nearby, he thought, the clean, gentle fragrance always drifted from her hair when she was.

Then he felt a moist warmth on his skin, somewhere on his chest, the reality of her sobs bringing understanding: They were her tears, hot and pained. Vincent dragged every flagging ounce of strength from within his battered body to his voice, and barely managed to form the words he needed her to hear, "Don't cry, Diana."

The tears still came, though, the sobs were anguished, heaping his tested soul with the reality of her pain. He must have spoken the words only within his own heart. He had to reach her somehow, tell her that her grief need no longer to be. "God, help me reach her!"

he pleaded, praying for the strength to end her pain.

A sudden, unexpected rhythm jumped into his consciousness, steady and full of life. The baby's heart. He touched to it, knew now he was sheltering the child beneath his hand.

Unable to gather enough will to lift that beyond human hand completely off Diana's beloved body, he only was able to slowly draw his touch across the familiar, ripened fullness of her form, over his own chest, to where he knew, without question, that her hand lay -- holding his heart in place.

The sobs had stopped. He formed the words with more strength now, certain she'd be able to hear them. "I'm here with you. My love."

When he found he could flutter his eyes open at last, the candlelight in the room swam indistinctly about him. Slowly, details finally came back into focus, the only details of importanct at the moment: A braid of amber hair hanging down, brushing the back of his hand. Porcelain skin, colored with emotion. Crystalline emerald eyes that visibly exchanged despair for relief, shining now with such enraptured joy that he could hardly find the power to hold them with his own -- Diana.

Long, slender fingers came up to his lips, trembling, as if seeking to assure herself that he was indeed alive, and back to her. She felt his breath warm on her skin, settling in a full, recovering cadence. That breath lit life back into her own soul.

With strengthening conviction, Vincent raised his own hand to hers then, pressing the fingertips to his mouth in an exhausted, but totally sensitized, kiss. He was where he belonged now, too. They were where they belonged -- in each other's gifting, acknowledging embrace.

Heaven of their own construction.

 

"What on earth are you doing down here?"

The stern, scolding tones called to mind the time or two when he and Devin, in adolescence, had actually managed to try Mary's boundless patience beyond saintly endurance. But the voice did not belong to his cherished foster mother. Vincent recognized it as he drew his attention back to the present, as the voice of his beloved, and obviously irritated, wife. Who had apparently negotiated the steep path to the river garden on her own in her unsteady pregnant state.

Knowing from past experience that taking the initiative in an agrument with Diana was the only way he could possibly hope to diffuse her righteous indignation, Vincent simply looked up to where his treasured soulmate stood beside him. Since he was sitting in the grass, their differences in height placed his head, at the moment, level with her rounded abdomen.

Resting his head, then, gently against it, along with the palm of his large hand, he simply stated with equally protective tones, "I could ask the same of you, Diana. You've come down here alone in your state. What if . . . "

He never got the rest of the words out because she set a silencing finger to his lips, then ran her other tender hand up the back of his neck and into the golden fall of his hair that sent a shiver of startling expectation through his entire body. How long was it that Father was determined to have him convalesce? he wondered with quietly amused exasperation.

"I'm not alone," came the softly defiant tones that Vincent secretly cherished as the real mirror of his wife's fiery spirit. Of course, he'd never let her know that . . . her confounding independence could be just as easily double-edged as it was gifting. This time, though, her Celtic steel was only polished and not sharp. "I knew you'd have to be here," she continued, "if you weren't in our chamber. At least you didn't get far! You're supposed to be in bed."

The tenderly lingering touch of her fingers through his hair spoke the rest of her admonishment in warm silence -- Even without me there. Lifting his head from its sheltering comfort on her sweet form, Vincent attempted to respond with sincere penitence, but the brightness his trip to the garden had brought his spirit was not about to be apologized for.

"Diana, I cherish our chamber as our sanctuary and home, but if I had to pass one more invalid hour there with only my books and the sound of the pipes as company, I would have gone mad!"

Expecting another barrage of sensible reprimands, the escaped patient pleaded for mercy with azure eyes that held too much inviting liveliness for a battered and nearly lost body only days into a recovery from a coma. Still, the anticipated scolding did not come; only a loving caress from beguilling fairy eyes as bewitching as her touch.

"I know," Diana replied with kinship. "I felt the same way too when my leg was broken -- helpless. Everyone is going about their business in calm certainty and you just lie there listening to the candles burn! I only wish you would have said something first. I was just as eager for a break down here as you."

With only a bit of awkwardness because of her changed body proportions, Diana reached her hand onto his right shoulder to steady herself. When Vincent realized she was coming down on her knees beside him, he quickly offered her his guiding hand, a reminding shot of pain across his chest making certain he continued to be aware of his own still-limited capabilities.

Feeling Diana's body, though, resting against his in the soft grass under the delightful shelter of the small tree was a wonder he'd always be eager to accept -- pained, recovering, or healthy. As she nestled close to his uninjured side, Vincent whispered a silent prayer of thanks for the wonder of having her near. Yet, that awesome gratitude did not rein in his teasing good humor with her, only added to it.

"You'd better not get too comfortable, my love. I'll be of little use to you when you need to get back on your feet."

The flashing green eyes matched in spirit the warm color on her porcelain cheeks. She graced him with one of those small, self-deprecating smiles of hers, that instantly went to his heart. "That's all right. I won't be of much help to you, either. We may just end up having to spend the rest of our earthly lives here like this until our old bones turn to stone!"

Kissing her hair softly as she wrapped both of her arms around his, Vincent whispered gently, "I could think of much worse calamities that could befall us."

Without a hint of uncertainty, Diana pulled herself up from his body a bit to hold his cherished features in her loving gaze. "I think they've already happened to us, don't you?"

Another kiss to her cheek acknowledged her observation. Could they actually believe that Fate had delivered its final ration of turmoil to them? Between the two of them, they could claim survival of more trials than even Job of old. But, that was enough of attempting to understand the wisdom of Providence. That they were safe and still in each other's sheltering embraces was all that mattered.

For a few long moments, Vincent and Diana let the gentle magic of the place overtake their spirits -- the muted tumbling of the distant falls, the soft glow of the reflected winter light, resting on a miracle of greenery nestled in a sanctuary of stone.

"You're still in a good deal of pain," Diana noted to her husband quietly, her eyes closed as she leaned against him. Her intimate knowledge of every inch of his body told her he was still stopping just short of filling his lungs completely with each breath he took. There was yet a great deal of physical healing for him to endure. She'd always thought him so powerful and forcefully alive, yet the reality of his last brush with death made the vulnerable humanity of him so much more precious to her these past days.

Even though he'd survived injury that a lesser man would have succumbed to, Vincent still was weak, tired easily, and became light-headed time and again from his still recovering blood count. And, the pain he always would deny still was capable of striking him with sudden intensity should he overextend himself. It left him feeling unexpectedly insecure, and very much in need of the reality of Diana's strength reaching out to him.

"It isn't anything I can't manage to bear. Having you here next to me erases it from mind."

Diana settled more closely to him, a wave of remembered loss coursing through her unbidden. In response, she reached down to his hand and held it up to her lips. He cupped it against her cheek in familiar, sweet acknowledgement, and the memory of how she'd thought she'd never feel that otherworldly hand caressing her so again sent an ache of

yearning into the very center of her heart.

Vincent felt it in his own and drew her to him in gentle abandon, taking her mouth with his in infinitely tender hunger, seeking to reassure her that he was safe and ever by her side.

She urged his hands to her without hesitation, craving the feeling of his touch, softly-embered want mixing with barely held in check grief. They were his own feelings, too.

"I thought I'd never know the smooth wonder of your skin again," he whispered in quiet intensity, as he slipped his hand along her throat, followed her own guiding fingers to the front of her woolen dress that had easily come unbuttoned. His lips came readily to the same enticing destination and Diana was only able to hold him to her for dear life a moment before she unquestionably, absolutely, had to redirect his mouth to hers.

"I thought I'd never taste your kiss again," she breathed between tears.

. . . "I'd never hear your heart beat close to mine . . . " was his aching response, as the tears fell gently from his sapphire eyes, too.

For a timeless instant every reality of terrified uncertainty that had besieged both their spirits mingled with every breath of their relieved comfort. Holding her body possessively to his, Vincent whispered his assurances, then, into her amber hair, trailed it softly with his touch across her cheeks and over her slender shoulders. Were it not for her swollen figure, he thought, she suddenly seemed no more than a frightened child . . . so strong, and yet so easily shattered in heart. But, they'd survived once again. Still, the stress and pain the ordeal had left his beloved were now so evident in her vulnerable emotional state.

At last, Diana was able to take hold of her remembered anguish and set it aside. "I'm sorry, Vincent. Everything turns to tears so easily lately." She wiped her hands across her face to banish the errant emotion, but Vincent anticipated her movement, and instead, held her angelic face gently between his two unearthly hands, softly kissing her tears away. Diana melted against him. "The thought of losing you . . . I can't bear it . . . can't believe it almost happened."

"We're safe now, and together. Don't cry, Diana."

They were his first words to her when he finally made his way back to her. With their sweet care, she reached deep within herself to gather her strength of hope again, not wanting to set Vincent's spirit into burden with her still so reachable anxiety. He seemed to have become even more acutely attuned to her heart since awakening from his near-death slumber, if such a thing were possible, and she, miraculously, found that more and more often, the wonder of his remarkable spirit was also open to her consciousness, bound to her own with a wealth of giving detail and wonder.

For all the pain and terror that his injury had caused, in its own way it seemed responsible for this heightened connection and awareness of their intertwined hearts. Letting herself drift with the sweet, sustaining possession of his gifting touch, Diana at last was able to hold to her peace of mind. A gentle smile lit her ethereal features at last, and, quite unexpectedly, she found her cheeks coloring in warm affection.

The beguiling glow was not missed by her husband, who only held her more closely. "From tears to a maiden's blush. Whatever are you thinking of now, dare I ask?" he questioned cautiously, though relieved at her turn of heart. The languid tracing of his hand over her sweet form spoke of his own return to reassurance.

"I was just anticipating Father's face, if he saw the two of us just now -- you recovering from near eternity, and me eight and a half months pregnant."

Apparently Vincent's imagination mirrored his wife's, for the sight of a more than mildly aghast parent popped into his thoughts immediately, and he was certain that the physician's consternation would have to do with more than simply the fact that they were, at the moment, runaways from parental exhortation.

"I guess, then, we should assume a more proper comportment at once," came Vincent's suggestion, along with his immediate attempt to retrieve his hand from its enticing shelter across her breast. Diana stopped the retreat with her own decisive touch, firmly holding his in place.

"Proper at the moment or not, I need you right where you are, my love." It would appear that the physician would be required to remain aghast, if Diana had anything to say about it, and she knew, from the softly drifting flow of her husband's touch, that she would have plenty of help backing up her convictions.

Almost in response to her defiant need, and her renewed hope, Diana felt the baby kick, hard enough, this time, to startle her into crying out with surprise. Vincent brought both his hands down to embrace the child with unconcealed awe. He'd almost been destined never to feel that quickening life stirring beneath his touch again, never to know the wonder of holding it in his arms. "I believe this little one is eager to join us," he noted with

quiet joy.

"I don't think she'll wait another two weeks," Diana added, resting her own fingers over her husband's hand.

It took a moment for Vincent to catch exactly what she had said, for the baby's heartbeat was strong and encompassing within him, almost as though it was responding to it's parents' attention. Or, actually, "her" parents' attention, as the comment did completely enter Vincent's understanding. He looked up to Diana with a puzzled smile.

"She?"

"Yes. We're going to have a daughter. I can feel it. I've been dreaming about her, too, almost every night this week. A little girl, Vincent."

Despite his own remarkable empathic and intuitive powers, Vincent had not yet really thought specifically about the reality of having another son, or a daughter, joining their family. Just the thought of a child, another child, was as wondrously confounding a certainty as he'd been able to accept. Still, Diana seemed so convinced that he was sure she'd gained some particular insight reserved for mothers-to-be alone.

"She will, no doubt, be the image of her mother -- red hair, green eyes, and temper to match, God help us!"

Flashing a lightning bolt from those eyes to her beloved, Diana nevertheless took pity on him. "Oh yes, she'll be a redhead, poor thing! You have enough of it in your own hair to tip the hereditary scales in that direction, I'm afraid! But, hopefully, she'll have your eyes. And your spirit," she concluded with quiet welcome anticipation.

"And your loving heart. That would be her most beautiful legacy, from either of us."

Diana held Vincent's eyes long with infinite care. She wasn't certain what exactly had been his experience during his unconscious state, and only the fear of resurrecting her still so ready anguish about it all kept her from asking him any questions. Still, her innate understanding of their precious love hinted at the fact that Vincent might have come to know exactly what she'd been forced to do to draw him back to the living.

Such complexities of the soul were still too overpowering for her to contemplate at the moment. All she really wished to do was enfold herself within the gentle, comforting routines of their homelife and believe, simply, that their lives would be free to go on in peaceful communion.

In her quiet musings, Diana's attention came to rest on the small booklet sitting in the grass beside her husband. Unlike the venerable leatherbound volumes in circulation about the Underground community, the booklet looked fairly new. Actually, with its appealing dust jacket of florals, she realized it to be one of those gift items available for purchase at card shops Above.

"I've never seen this book before," she commented, her curiosity piqued.

Vincent picked up the volume and handed it to his wife. "It is Olivia's. Kanin bought it for her for their anniversary."

"I thought that wasn't until February."

"Yes, it is. But, since he'd been forced to miss so many of them, when he found the booklet on a trip for supplies Above, he decided to give it to her right away, because of all of the time they'd had to endure apart. Olivia found the selections to be so insightful and touching, and thought we'd enjoy reading the book, too. She brought it to our chamber this morning when you were helping Mary."

Diana turned the slim volume in her hands. "Reflections of the Heart -- A Poetic Journey Through Married Love." Paging through the photo-accented collection, she couldn't keep from offering her own light-hearted observation. "You mean there's actually more we need to learn about love and marriage?"

"A dozen lifetimes couldn't begin to reveal what I've found with you as my partner, my sweet love. The words hardly exist."

The soft intensity of his conviction burned brightly within Diana's heart at that instant, as she watched him lift the volume from her hands, almost shyly. What, indeed, was there left for him to learn or understand of married love that Diana hadn't already found the courage to see him through, see them both through? A quiet longing within his spirit urged him, though, to offer her some small measure of acknowledgement due such gifting care of his spirit, in the written word, and he became momentarily intent upon finding something in particular within the pages of the booklet as he spoke.

"Sometimes, a person finds it so difficult to express feeling with words, especially if the feelings involve the miraculous workings of the heart." Holding the pages open at one point, Vincent handed the volume back to Diana. "The thoughts spoken in this poem I have found voice some of the very elusive, contradictory, but wondrously true characteristics, about being married. To you."

Looking down at the page to hide a rising blush, Diana was surprised at the author's name that headed the title -- "My Wife", by Robert Louis Stevenson.

"I had no idea Stevenson wrote love poetry," came her automatic response. Vincent understood her surprise as well. He'd easily rememberd "Treasure Island" and how he'd enjoyed reading the swashbuckling tale as a youngster, with Winslow, Devin, and Rebecca. Even now, it ranked as one of the favorite literary pieces of the children in the Underground community.

That the words he needed so to convey his state of heart to Diana at the moment should come from the pen of the same author, reinforced his own beliefs in the wonder-causing power of love.

"Why don't you read it aloud, Diana?"

The softly urging tone of her husband's voice gave his companion pause. She quickly reverted her attention to the book, in the hope that her startled surprise had not shown too clearly in her face.

For, in truth, reading aloud to one another had been Vincent's and Catherine's treasured passtime, she knew, a way of offering one another evidence of the depth of their intensely bonded love when they were willing to accept no more risk-charged communion between them.

In all the time that they had shared together since Catherine's death, Diana and Vincent had often enjoyed reading and discussing a various array of books, too, each comfortable with and open to the other's insights. They'd shared passages with one another on so many topics that they felt were especially significant in their lives -- but always be reading them individually by themselves. The . . . intimacy . . . of reading aloud, touching to profound truths between them in the written word, had been only freed of its tender connotations of remembered -- and lost -- love, when the stories shared were Jacob's innocent bedtime requests.

Anything else had seemed to remain, to Diana, unvoiced sanctity, where, despite the deep and nurturing devotion she'd been blessed by, she still felt unable to venture without trespass.

Thus, she suddenly found her husband's simple direction to be charged with all manner of unexpected meaning. Realizing that, she could not find her voice, nor the strength to take his gift to heart.

Vincent graced her unsure spirit with tenderness, and sought immediately to comfort and steady it. He picked the book back up, holding her emerald eyes long and searchingly as he did so. "These words mirror my own experience of you, Diana," he offered quietly. Then he began to read, the soft sincerity of his heartfelt tones projecting his state of hope.

 

"'Trust, dusky, vivid, true,

With eyes of gold and bramble dew,

Steel-true and blade-straight,

The Great Artificer made my mate.

 

'Honor, anger, valor, fire;

A love that life could never tire,

Death quench or evil stir,

The Mighty Master gave to her.

 

'Teacher, tender, comrade, wife,

A fellow-farer true through life,

Heart-whole and soul-free

The August Father gave to me.'"

 

For an eternity of a moment, Diana only sat, taking in the compelling figure of her husband, resting quite incongruously beneath a small tree, with a borrowed book on his lap. She could feel the warm color of emotion rising into her face, the remarkable words, and the manner in which he had presented her with them, setting a tide of gifted tenderness free within her soul. There were tears welling up in her eyes again, but this time, they were not ones of threatened grief.

"Do you really see me like that now, Vincent?" came her unsteady question.

The loving caress of his gaze gave her the response she could hardly accept. "You are, you have been, my protector, my own guardian angel, Diana, from the moment we both set eyes on each other. Even before."

Yes, even before.

She'd felt magnetically drawn to the very idea of his presence from the first moments that she had begun unraveling the heartrending tragedy that had been his love for Catherine, the beguiling evidence of his compelling spirit echoing to her own heart from written words left to comfort and acknowledge another woman's loving soul.

Lifting the book from her husband's grasp, Diana took both his beyond human hands into hers, setting her cheek against them. That they'd ever feared the sustaining touch of those hands was incomprehensible to her now. As was the fact that he could consider her possessed of the courage he described. He'd been the one to rescue her hesitant, fragile heart.

"What could I have possibly protected you from that you weren't already battling against on your own?"

The response was immediate, ringing with the truth he knew he carried of her within him: "Grief, despair, vengeance, emptiness. Exile from hope. The fear of ever loving again."

Three years. It had taken three years. And her heart trembled at the thought they'd almost lost each other a week ago. "I only offered you some guiding support through those times, Vincent."

The hand he slipped tenderly over her braided hair sent a shiver of intensity through her. "You offered me the courage of your own hope, the strength of your own heart, the generosity of your own love." Pausing a moment to call to mind what he knew to be the reality of her spirit, Vincent continued softly. "That selfless love allowed every breath of your own dreams to be eclisped by the needs of another heart. One no longer so able to respond in kind."

Diana eased down to Vincent's shoulder as she realized he was speaking of their experiences of the last few days. Carefully she set her hand up to his chest. She'd offered him her farewell thus, fully believing she'd never share his heart again.

"You freed my soul from the regretful power of loss, Diana, mine, and . . .Catherine's." Vincent's face mingled both pain and gratitude at the thought of how he'd come about the courage to reject even eternity. "I know what you did for me, for us, for our children." He gently turned his wife's hand in his, to breath a tender, communing kiss into its palm. Diana held to its sweet devotion, closing her eyes and attuning herself only to the wonder of their bonded souls at that instant.

"I was too close to it all," Vincent confessed with heartfelt regret, "held Catherine's pain as a burden I'd forced upon her too acutely to cling fast to our own love's validity. I feared causing you both pain, felt powerless to shelter either of your hearts from betrayal. But, you freed me, my love, and you freed Catherine as well."

The remembered conflict, in which she'd pitted herself against an angel's devotion, rose fresh into the gentle-spirited young woman's mind. That he could be thanking her for it wasn't something she could dare accept.

"We only talked it out, Cathy and I. Actually, I guess I did the talking, and she was generous enough to listen. We came to an understanding, that's all." The quiet words, breathed in such poignant humility, urged Vincent to enfold her gently in his arms. He let her conceal her tears in the comforting softness of his shirt, tears that had washed his own soul clean of burden yet again.

"I understand now, too well, that love is a power that can be both gifting, and . . . diminishing."

"Were I in Catherine's place, I would have done the same," came her soft, muffled words. "I would have clung to our love into eternity. I would have done everything I could to hold you to me."

Vincent gently lifted his wife's gaze up to his own with his hand. He read the hesitation in her heart, the fear that she'd crossed the line, that she was in danger of violating the sanctity of his memories. Without a question in his mind, he knew with the conviction shining true in her eyes what the real outcome of such a reversal would have been.

"No, Diana. You would have freed me to find my heart's desire again." His wife shook her head, denying his conclusion, but Vincent would not be kept from voicing his wonder. "You would have loved me to eternity, but you would have let me go. That I am sitting here beside you now is proof of the power of such selfless love, the gift that you have given to me, my sweetest angel."

Somehow he'd been a witness to the struggle she'd had to endure against the overwhelming power of Catherine's own love, even in his near-death state. And he was still willing to bless her for it. Diana came up from her sheltering position in his arms, now unafraid to voice her own truths.

"Not selfless, really. What I did was purely self-serving, Vincent. I claimed my share of your heart. There was nothing generous about it. I only took hold of your heart again -- because it was mine as well. Still is mine as well. I needed it to go on living. How could I hope to exist without it? It was self-preservation, that's all."

Vincent knew he was not going to gain the upper hand in this particular discussion with his beloved, though he felt her heart glowing with the reality his words had lit within her. She'd always been the motivating force, he knew, in whatever she'd felt compelled to commit herself to, body and soul, deciphering the most convoluted of circumstances into truth that could not be denied. Yet, she'd never take the credit for even one instance of pain turned to promise between them. Now, she was obviously willing only to accept a very small particle of responsibility for the encompassing, soul-lifting joy he carried in his heart. So be it.

He knew the truth: Without the amber-haired firebrand he held with such welcome acceptance, he would have found himself in an eternity that would have proven less than miraculously sweet, because it would have been an eternity . . . without her.

For a long moment, Vincent let Diana rest against him quietly, sheltering her like an exhausted child, focusing his empathic forces totally onto her spirit. She was weary, emotionally as well as in body, and he hadn't needed his special insights to see it. Mary had told him she'd not left his side all the while he'd been unconscious, and now that he was on the road to recovery, she'd added nursing his needs to her own normal daily routines.

The joyous anticipation for their child had been marred by heartache and struggle, and Vincent was startled at how fragile Diana appeared to be as a result. He ached to acknowledge her courage, gift her with sustaining tenderness. She would need more than a simple hour's break here at the garden, though, he realized as he held her gratefully to him. She'd never admit it to him, yet, he understood that her shaken spirit was very much in need of a gentle nudging back into her usual, easily touched to hope. What he would have given to be able to take her down to the deep river chambers once again, share with her the reality that every fiber of his being owed its very existence to her!

Their present circumstances would hardly allow such a luxury, now, he conceded reluctantly, though he would have been ready to pass the rest of his life as she had earlier described with humor -- in each other's arms till they'd become part of the very stones of the Underworld itself. As it was, he would need to discover some other small comfort to offer her to help her beleagured spirit find its way back to promise.

"Have you been in touch with Maureen lately?" he asked his wife softly. Diana's state of heart betrayed a gentle pang to his own at mention of her sister. He'd been right to speak to Father in the past about his concerns for her. Perhaps now there'd be a way . . .

Without lifting her head from his shoulder, Diana intertwined the fingers of her hand with his. "I wrote to her last week."

"When will you be seeing her again?" came his concerned inquiry.

Too quickly she responded, "I don't know. Whatever works out . . . I guess after the baby comes sometime."

Her words were bittersweet. Vincent breathed a soft kiss into her hair. It was actually six days before Christmas, and he knew she had been looking forward to spending an afternoon with her sister before the holiday. But the happy expectancy of that event had been lost to the turmoil they'd been forced to live through as well.

"I thought you were going to get together at Laura's house to bake Christmas cookies."

Diana pulled herself free from her husband's gentle embrace, almost momentarily believing him capable of reading her mind. But then she remembered such a flamboyant talent wasn't necessary when a talkative three year old worked just as well.

"Jacob told you, didn't he?"

Found out, Vincent sought to shield his son from blame in the matter. "He only asked me several times which was my favorite Christmas cookie."

Diana smiled in spite of herself. Of course Jacob would have asked his father such a question. He wished to be certain his parent's tastes would be treated as well, with their top secret project. But, the capricious winds of fate had, as usual, blown through even those innocent efforts at happiness in their lives.

"Well, that was before you were hurt. I sent word to Maureen that I wasn't going to be able to make it. We're planning on next year."

Although Diana had forged close emotional ties to many of the community women, especially Mary, Olivia, and Samantha, Vincent knew she did miss her own sister, deeply. Though distances had long separated them, they'd still been able to share some special times together, and holiday traditions, simple acts of family bonding, had been important reinforcements of their relationship, he knew.

Baking Christmas cookies together had been a family rite their grandmother had introduced them to, one they carefully had continued to follow beyond the loss of their beloved elder, and their own mother, too. He could easily understand the nurturing pull of familial ties that could stand disguised behind measures of flour and aromas of childhood, the quiet certainties that could ease a soul through even the most unexpected anxieties.

"I wish you would still meet her, Diana. It would do you a world of good."

Not quite certain she'd heard what she did, Diana looked deeply into the softly encouraging eyes of her beloved. He'd scolded her only a half hour before for coming to the river garden alone in her state, and that benign excursion was still within the sheltering confines of their world, only moments away from their chamber. Now he was urging her to go Above, in the blustery winter where he could not follow protectively, even if he were in good health? And she was only days from her delivery date, too. Father would, to put it politely, have a fit, should she even consider such a thing!

Still, the thought was enticing, nevertheless. She was missing Maureen more than ever these days, especially with the baby almost here. She'd longed to share her anxieties and concerns with her sister, who'd already experienced childbirth, for, as much as she loved and trusted Mary and Olivia, and depended on their guidance and care, Diana still felt bound, gratefully so, to the ties that held her to a common history with her sister. Maureen had already been forced, through no cause of her own, to miss Diana's wedding. Now she would also miss the birth of Diana's child, too.

Suddenly, the young mother-to-be realized her heart was completely open to the remarkable scrutiny of her husband's care. And had always been, she reminded herself. Thus, Vincent was seeking to offer her a special, tender gift he knew she would eagerly accept, most especially at this particular point in time. But, it had to be out of the question -- the practicalities alone -- she'd already declined meeting Maureen. Could her sister still make it out from Boston now?

"Vincent, aren't you worried about my going Above?" she asked with patient challenge, well acquainted with his so tender, but insistently protective care, for her in her pregnant state. "What if the baby does decide to come early? What if I start going into labor there?"

"First babies take their time, Diana. Mary has told you. And you can bring Samantha with you for extra help. You'll be in the tunnels most of the way, at any rate. If something should happen, you could still get word down here and we'll be ready for you."

"And Father? He'd go along with this?" came the inevitable question. The patriarch of their community, and her physician as well, had proven himself to be even more protective and cautious for her, too, if that were possible. If he'd have had his way, she'd have spent the last four months in bed!

Vincent lowered his eyes from Diana's puzzled face, attempting to suppress a smile. He understood his wife's disbelief. "I'm inclined to think that Father will be outranked in this decision. Mary, after all, has more experience in the matter at hand. She's the one who suggested to me that you not cancel your plans."

For all her growing excitement at the prospect of such an inviting possibility, a sudden insight of reality overtook Diana's expectation. Her heart lurched in unsteady anxiety, then.

"Vincent, I don't want to even think about bringing this baby into the world without you at my side. I'm going to need you right there, with me. You promised you'd be beside me."

Kissing her gently on the forehead, Vincent reassured, "Do you think anything could keep me from holding to that promise, my love? All I am saying is that you've been burdened beyond reason because of this accident that has happened, not only physically tested, but emotionally, too. If a few hours Above in cherished company sharing a pleasant activity can gift you with some momentary relief, why should we discuss it to death? I wish you to do this for yourself, Diana, if you so desire. Being in a positive frame of mind and spirit will be equally as helpful to you and the baby as being cautious."

Diana couldn't keep from noticing the still visible care reaching out to her from the depths of her husband's sapphire eyes. It was the same look she'd caught numerous times in his gaze when he was silently contemplating Jacob -- a look of hopeful, gifting trust, that also sheltered the seed of quietly accepted apprehension.

And there was still the memory of Catherine, there, in those eyes, she could see.

It had been, still was and always would be, one of Vincent's deepest held regrets, one he'd only been able to learn to accept and live with -- the fact that Catherine had labored Above alone to give birth to Jacob. He would have given his life to be there and protect her and his child, but a miracle of life had been turned into a hellish nightmare of anguishing loss. Was he capable of moving past such a fear now, risk leaving his wife to Providence now, with their new child?

"You'll be all right about this yourself, Vincent, if I should go?"

"My favorite Christmas cookies are shortbread."

It took Diana a long moment to take hold of the tears rising into her own eyes. He was still so fearful of leaving her unprotected, afraid that she'd need him and that something would keep him from being at her side. She could feel the ache within her own heart so acutely that it momentarily took her breath from her. Yet, Diana guessed, her husband's brush with the possessive force of love had tempered his own tendencies.

Though she yearned for no sweeter destiny than to be completely drowned within the totality of his love, forever, she accepted his gift of compassionate, empowering space with a heart overflowing with wonder.

"In that case, I'll be certain we make shortbread angels first. Our grandmother showed us how, when we were little girls."

Vincent let a relieved brightness fill his spirit, that managed to touch Diana's heart as well. With a smile that was both grateful and inviting, he asked her, "What are your favorite Christmas treats, Diana?"

A tantilizing glow filled her soft, deep eyes with gentle humor. "Gingerbread. I love gingerbread."

"I should have known," came her husband's reply. Spicy, sassy and sweet, elegant and homey, adaptable to a myriad number of forms. Surely fairy food!

Reaching back down to the grass beside him, Vincent handed the booklet he'd been reading to Diana with unburdened ease. "Will you read to me, now, Diana? I love to hear your voice."

There was no startled turmoil in her heart as she took the book from an indescribable, beloved hand. Paging through the volume a few moments, Diana was suddenly struck by the words on one page in particular, as her husband had been with the first selection they'd shared. The truth of love between them, set within the vibrance of the written word: In unhurried agreement, she read Sir Philip Sidney's, "The Bargain."

 

"'My true love hath my heart, and I have his,

By just exchamge, one for the other given.

I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss:

There never was a better bargain driven.

 

'His heart in me, keeps me and him in one,

My heart in him, his thoughts and senses guides;

He loves my heart, for once it was his own:

I cherish his, because in me it bides.

 

'His heart his wound receiv`ed from my sight --

My heart was wounded with his wounded heart,

For as from me, on him his hurt did light,

So still methought in me his hurt did smart:

 

'Both equal hurt, in this change sought our bliss.

My true love hath my heart, and I have his.'"

 

Then she set her head back down to her husband's chest and reached her hand over the wash-softened muslin shirt that concealed his bandaged body. Gently, Diana settled her hand back down to the fabric, letting Vincent's heartbeat caress it.

The fates had worked their worst against them, yet they were still in each other's arms, with new life expectantly quickening between them.

 


Continued in Chapter 11