Living the Promise: Chapter Thirteen


 

Joe set his signature to one final document, and then let it fall onto the pile beside the phone with a decided flourish. Andrea had outdone herself, this time, he thought, gratefully. She'd stayed late to help make sure he'd be able to get every last bit of paperwork off his desk before quitting for the Christmas weekend. The least he could do was see to it that everything was officially signed, sealed, and parceled off to its proper destination. Paperwork would be the death of him yet, even though he knew law as a career would involve becoming buried in torrents of it every day.

Pushing back his chair, the DA came to his feet and stretched, feeling the muscles in his legs protest in response. Now, Maxwell, he chided himself. That was never going to do. Too many hours behind a desk. He was going to need to get to the pool at the "Y" again on a regular basis, soon. Between his work and his mother's holiday cooking, he was certain he'd end up like so many of the veterans he knew in law enforcement around him -- either wearing their belts high, or low, over a pronounced gut.

Sheepishly, a warm smile stole over his handsome features as he took in the steady snow falling outside his window. Having Rita in his life would keep him in line. There was no way on God's green earth that he'd even consider being anything less than his very best, in everything, for the wonder that was the young lawyer in his existence now.

Damn, he missed her, terribly. Boy, you've really crashed and burned this time, Joseph, he told himself, happy to be able to find himself in such dire straits, at last. He was head over heels, lock, stock, and legal pads, in love. And it felt . . . like heaven.

He prayed he'd be able to survive til tomorrow evening. Rita would be back tomorrow.

She'd gone back down to Baltimore to spend a couple of days with her brother's family again for Christmas, hopefully without any outbreak of infectious childhood diseases looming over the festivities. He'd wished to be able to join her, was anxious to accept her

brother's generous inclusion, but he couldn't get out of his blasted office that easily.

But this weekend would be theirs, his and Rita's. It was the only reason he'd stayed behind to clear off the chaos of his desk -- he didn't even want to think about work for the next forty-eight hours. That time would be reserved for the earnest young attorney, for the both of them, and nothing short of all out criminal warfare was going to intrude.

A day and a half to spend together: The quiet before the storm that would be the delightful, and overwhelming reality that was Christmas spent at his mother's house in Astoria. Rita's initiation into his own family circle was bound to have a monumental effect on the festivities there, that was for sure.

For now, Joe let the smile radiating across his face reach inwardly, to his heart. They'd be able to survive the outpouring of familial warmth only by focusing all of their energies onto one another this weekend -- phone off the hook, egg nog to sip and soft music playing in the background of his flat. The quiet closeness of their love enveloping them.

He ached to hold her. It was there, inside of him, the need, to hold Rita, feel her in his arms again. He never believed he could want someone, all of someone, as much as he did Rita, want her in his life, in his heart and soul.

Joe reached down and opened the side drawer of his desk, pulling out a small jeweler's box, as he had done probably for the seventeenth time in the past three days.

Opening the box, he fingered the ring inside it -- delicate, simple, the diamond much smaller than he'd have wished to offer her, but he knew she'd never want anything pretentious. Rita wasn't pretentious. She was quiet, supportive, warm . . . and undeniably the one person he could dream of sharing the rest of his life with.

It was amazing.

The past three months had seemed as though he were a prisoner unexpectedly let out of years of solitary confinement. The freedom, the wonder of it, was close to terrifying. The brightness made him blink, brought tears to his eyes -- he hadn't been certain that he could actually believe the reality before him. Yet, knowing that Rita's gentle support had been there for him, waiting, had been worth surviving all the confusion, pain, and guilt.

He'd finally been able to set Cathy to rest.

He'd taken up his own life again, unafraid of the gifts reaching out to him, and since then, everything had seemed to fall into place, as though only awaiting his final liberation. And now, now, it all felt so . . . natural . . . so right . . . to be with Rita, open his heart to her, let her help him carry his hopes and dreams and frustrations. It felt so natural to take her into his arms, like she'd always been there beside him, would always be there beside him. God willing, he'd always be there for her, wanted to be there for her, wanted to spend his last breath speaking her name.

Diana had been right.

Love had reached out to him from the most unlikely of sources -- the quiet strength of his co worker -- and he'd been able to find the joy, and the courage, to accept it.

For a moment, Joe's thoughts settled back onto Diana as he slipped the ring box into his pants pocket. He owed his amber-haired colleague a lot, too.

She'd redirected his life with her own selfless, truthful support. She'd dared him to begin living again, forced him to survive the agony of guilt that had been Catherine's loss to him, challenged him to seek out his own heart's desire once more.

He'd relish being able to give Diana his news face to face. Knowing her, she'd probably chide him for having taken so long to see it, recognize Rita's caring support for what it really was -- love. She'd turn that enigmatic smile of hers on him and thank heaven that he'd finally come to his senses, sigh with satisfaction that he'd yet again been forced to see things her way at last, swallow his emotional Italian outlook on life and give in to her formidable Celtic foresight.

Trying to remember their last correspondence, Joe struggled for an instant to recall when he'd last heard from his former colleague, wondering if there was any chance that they might actually get to see one another again, for more than a few windswept, anonymous moments in a graveyard. She'd been pretty regular with her letters to him, notes full of support and encouragement, radiating with her own joy and expectation. God, he found himself thinking, she should be pretty close to having her baby by now. That should effectively keep any prospect of seeing the young police woman face to face from becoming a reality any time soon, Joe realized with a pang.

He prayed a moment, silently, automatically, that she was all right. That feeling of protective care, loving, acknowledging care, he knew, would always be there inside him for the firebrand force of nature that was Diana. She deserved her happiness, too, any breath of happiness she'd been able to find . . . with Vincent.

It had been about a month since Joe had last written her, though, at the usual post office box address she'd provided him with, and her response hadn't come back to him yet. A nagging bit of worry tugged at his insides because of it. She'd looked so . . . at peace. . .

standing beside her mythic husband, and her little son, that night in front of Cathy's grave. Her last letter gave no indication of concern or conflict. So why hadn't she written back yet?

Common sense told him that a woman in the final stages of pregnancy a few days before Christmas might have other, more pressing demands made upon her time and attention than those required for timely correspondence between long-distance friends. Still, Diana's presence in his life of late was yet very much an integral facet of his renewed hope.

She'd told him that evening when she'd come to his office months ago to announce her impending departure from the police force, and, indeed, from her own existence in the city: There would be no need for them to lose their ties to one another. They were trusted friends, and Joe knew that she'd have kept their links to each other within reasonable reach somehow, wherever her heart had taken her. She'd always be there for him, offering support and encouragement, sharing hope, like Rita would always be there.

Joe prayed that Diana knew she would always be able to count on his care for her, too.

Taking another look out the window at the falling snow, the DA let his momentary concern slip to the back of his thoughts, conceding that Diana was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, no matter what. He'd had enough run-ins with her outraged temper when he'd had the stupidity to doubt that within her hearing. Quite unexpectedly, he wondered to himself how her husband might be faring in the face of such a confoundingly independent personality. Maybe Diana wasn't the one he should be worried about, he thought, with softly amused kinship.

Reaching over to the coat rack, the DA pulled on his woolen overcoat and then turned out the lamp on his desk, eager to be getting home. There were a few parcels on his kitchen table that needed to be wrapped. To them, he'd have to add the small ring box in his pocket. Suddenly, the entire idea of celebrating Christmas became a total joy within his heart, no longer the near blasphemous secular excuse for consumer excess, but an actually welcome, beautiful opportunity to share in caring for those around him.

Leaving his inner office, he walked past Andrea's desk, the family photo of herself with her parents and three brothers gracing his view. Now, he really must be needing some psychiatric care, or, at the very least, some heartfelt counseling -- He was actually looking forward to spending time within the loving, overbearing reaches, of his extensive family in the walls of the house in Astoria. How lucky could he get? He'd even have Rita there at his side, helping to diffuse the concerned speculation as to his marital status once and for all.

That is, if Rita would say, "yes," to his proposal.

For an instant, his heart dropped out of his body.

Then Joe let his hope encompass even that unexpected possibility -- Rita would accept. He knew it, with every fiber of his being. It was right, for the both of them. She would look at him with those beautiful dark eyes of hers and he would just melt at the sight of the tenderness they held for him in their sweet depths. And it would take every ounce of his self control for him to wait for her response. "God, I don't deserve her," he whispered as he locked the outer office door behind him, "but I sure need her, and I love her with all my heart."

Taking two steps out into the only partially lit corridor, the sudden ringing of a telephone startled him out of his softly petitioning thoughts. Damn, Joe thought, his heart thudding at the unexpected sound. Why on earth would the phone be ringing at this hour? It was after six on the Friday before Christmas.

Joe's first instinct was to simply let the phone ring. But his own office extension should not have been receiving the call. It should have been picked up at the switchboard, with the recorded message announcing that offices were closed and emergencies should be rerouted. Whoever was on the other end must have been trying to get a hold of him, specifically.

It was probably Rita, calling from Baltimore, he decided, quickly fishing his keys out of his coat pocket once again. He would end up fumbling with the lock in his hurry to catch the call. Rita would know he'd be working late, trying to tie up all the loose ends before they could call the time they looked forward to their own without guilty consciences. Finally, the lock clicked and the door swung open. Did he ever want to hear the soft sound of Rita's gentle voice! Just the thought of her kept his heart quickening, even though he'd gotten over the momentary startlement of the phone ringing.

Eagerly, Joe took possession of the receiver on Andrea's desk. "Joe Maxwell," he announced, a bit breathlessly.

The voice on the other end of the line pretty nearly struck him dumb.

"Joe? This is Diana."

He didn't answer right away, absolutely incredulous. The voice repeated itself, a note of anxiety threading through the no nonsense tones. "Joe? Can you hear me? It's Diana."

Finding his voice, the DA responded at last. "Hell, Diana! You are the last person I expected to hear from tonight!"

"Well, it's nice talking to you, too, Maxwell," came the curt, and familiar, sarcastic humor he'd learned to survive over the last three years. He apologized.

"I'm sorry, Diana You really surprised me, that's all. I was just thinking about you. It's been a while since you've written."

Then, suddenly aware that the voice that had addressed him had been shaky before it was defensive, he asked, "Is something wrong? There's nothing the matter, is there?"

A long pause on the other end of the line sent Joe's nerves coiling within him. Those alarms in his head, that always seemed to go off sooner or later somewhere along the line when he was dealing with the young police woman, had started. There was the sound of other voices in the background, coming to him through the receiver he held, and the sense that the phone, on Diana's end, was obviously being passed back and forth. Now the DA felt himself break out in a cold sweat -- something definitely was not right.

"Mr. Maxwell?" A younger, plaintive voice came on line finally. Joe searched his memory desperately in his rising alarm to gauge who he was talking to now. The voice continued before he found his answer. "Mr. Maxwell, it's Samantha." And in a rush of barely concealed anxiety, "You have to come to help us! Diana is having the baby, and we need to get her back home. Please, Mr. Maxwell. We don't know who else to call."

There was the definite edge of panic in the girl's words, something Joe had never heard before in the confident, self-assured young lady. He tried to hearten her as he asked for more details. "It's all right, Samantha. Of course I'll help. Don't be scared. Now, calm down, and tell me exactly where you are."

"At a coffee shop in Chelsea." Carefully, the girl gave him the address as though she was double checking it with someone there with her.

"Samantha, I'll be on my way. Don't worry. Just let me talk to Diana again. Can she get to the phone?"

"Here she is, Mr. Maxwell. And, thank you." The girl's voice was still just as pleading as it was relieved.

A moment later Diana came back on the line. Her voice now was breathless, too, and unmistakably weary. "Joe, I'm sorry . . . but you said . . . if I ever needed help . . . "

"God, don't even think about it, kid! I'll be there in ten minutes. Hang on. It'll be okay."

"Joe, you're . . . a real friend."

The DA barely remembered to pull the door behind him as he shot out of the room. The feeling was cool and crisp His breath came out in puffs of vapor -- and his heart was so light, warm and light, and wonderfilled.

Sounds, images, swept in a dizzying cascade over him: brightness, music, the crunch of snow under his feet. And then a true treat . . . motion, rhythmic and keywound, keeping time to a charming, tinnie melody. Words filled his resting consciousness, too, breathlessly

generous with their eager delight -- "They're old toys, Father, wind up ones, like in the story of the stick horse!"

Vincent felt the tears well up into his eyes, even before he came awake. His spirit was so full of Jacob's as he himself lay resting in his chamber far beneath the city that the sweet child was exploring. With innocent generosity, his son was seeking to channel his every experience and sensation beyond the distances that separated them, drawing his father's spirit with heatfelt welcome within his own, sharing the untainted wonder readily and happily. His mythic figure of a parent would have lingered in the enchanting images with him for hours.

Other sensations soon took hold of Vincent's spirit though, and his little boy's sheltering connection to him was softly turned aside by one even more powerful, and enticing, at the moment. There was the feeling of warmth now, instead, a steady, building

heat that he recognized came at his unsuspecting heart from an amber-haired fairy's. His image of her within him was quietly bewitching -- he could feel, suddenly, the silky weight of her hair in his hands, tumbling, actually into his grasp, the sweep of burnished locks cascading with luxurious abandon through his fingers.

The lavender drifting from that auburn treasure was instantly surrounding him, as he buried his face into it, found the smooth skin of her neck beneath it and brushed his lips over it with cherished acceptance. The graceful length of her neck seemed to be not the only place where he could touch beguilingly bare skin, either, as the insistent fervor of their melding awareness drew the reality of Diana's tender flesh pressed up against his own nearly out of his dreams and into his actual consciousness. But he was cognicent enough at the moment, to know he'd need to have a few words with his precious wife upon her return, to remind her she wasn't helping him adhere to Father's strict recovery instructions.

The soft, tender amusement that scene left him with began to draw him back from the gentle restoration of sleep. He had to admit, he wasn't quite ready to give up his hold on such welcome images, when he was suddenly jolted awake by a slash of stabbing pain that left him breathless and trembling .

Throwing his long legs over the side of his bed in reflexive reaction, Vincent was suddenly buffeted by a lightheaded panic that was overtaking his state of heart as quickly as the debilitating pain had overrun his state of health.

Carefully, he eased himself back down to the pillows, fighting the nausea, trying to comprehend was was happening to him. Up until a moment ago, he'd been drifting within the restoring joy of Jacob's and Diana's essences within him. Now, he needed to raise a trembling hand to wipe his forehead unsteadily from a sheen of cold persiration, as the startling ache that reverberated within his body finally gave up its hold on him.

Lying absolutely still, Vincent closed his eyes and made a conscious effort to clear his mind of everything around, and within, him -- the gentle clanging of the pipes, the nearly inaudible sizzle of the waxpooling candles. The sound of his own pounding heart took an eternity for him to get his awareness past, though, as he attempted to reconnect his bond to his loved ones, trying to comprehend the pain that had unexpectedly coursed through him.

Had it only been borne from his own injuries? He must have inadvertantly overtaxed his still recovering body somehow in his sleep, he thought, with a fair amount of guilt, given his final mental images, yet, he didn't remember the feeling as originating in his wounded side. It had seemed to course its insistent way through his entire body at once. And he couldn't be certain that his lightheadedness had been caused only by his sudden bolting reaction to that pain.

He'd found Jacob's essence within him again, and Vincent unconsciously let a sigh of relief escape his lips. But his momentary reassurance as to the child's safety was only short-lived. His son's emotions were no longer directing themselves with exhuberant delight to him. Instead, the little boy's spirit was . . . stilling . . . suddenly self-contained, and almost . . . sad. What had happened?

Vincent swallowed hard, then sought out his other precious inner gift in anxious turmoil: his bonding to Diana and their unborn child. He shouldn't have had to reach so far within himself to find it. She'd brought him such joy today, easily sharing her gifting warmth in generous connection even only a moment ago. But now, her essence within him was also . . . stilled . . . obviously so, only a thread of . . . disquiet . . . finding its way back to him.

Coming unsteadily back up to his feet, Vincent stood quietly in the center of his chamber, attempting to judge how long he'd been asleep. The candles had probably burned down more than an hour since Father had left him.

Diana had promised to return home by supper time.

The pipes were ringing now with the familiar preamble calls before the meal, announcing the end of lesson times, signalling the workers in the far chambers Below that the hour was becoming late. Diana would not have lingered too much longer Above.

For all his urging acceptance of her trip to the city to meet with her sister, Vincent knew that his beloved didn't in an instant believe that he held no worry or anxiety about her being far from the tunnel world's safe confines. He'd only been able to concede to her that

they'd considered every prudent precaution for the excursion, in light of her state of health, and his own. Only the thought of what a cherished opportunity spending some welcome time with Maureen would be for Diana had kept his instinctively protective impulses to

within reasonable consideration.

He realized, too, that she had only gone Above because she understood that being able to allow her some small measure of space and freedom was as precious to him as her own experiences of the day were likely to become for her. Yet, she would never do anything to cause him concern for her in her absence.

A growing sense of foreboding, though, had begun to overtake Vincent as he considered their present circumstances. Something was not right.

He should not have felt so . . . bereft . . . of his connection to his love.

Reaching for his cloak, he automatically swept it over his shoulders with a sweeping motion. It drew a protesting jab of pain that he did recognize had come unerringly at him from his still healing side, and was forced to seek out the chair back to steady himself. The thought formed itself in his mind as he shakily tried to catch his breath -- Father would be livid if the physician knew what he was contemplating. But Diana and the children held uncontested precedence in his purpose at the moment: He would go out to meet them, make certain they were safe and well, recovery admonishments be damned.

Vincent didn't set three steps beyond the table edge, though, before another slash of pain nearly felled him; this time he knew for certain it did not originate in his wounded side. The pain was sensation . . . and fear . . . together, shooting through him totally, encompasing his body, mind, and spirit completely. He leaned back, hard, against the table's side to balance himself, the agony coming to him somehow through his spirit as momentarily devastating to him as the physical pain that had yet to withdraw from his body.

With gasping entreaty, he managed to form the word in his beseiged state, "Diana!"

But then, the overwhelming force of the pain pulled back from him, retreating without trace, seemingly cut off at the source with abrupt deliberateness.

"She's trying to keep it from you, Vincent. The pain. The fear."

A gentle voice, tinged with compassionate tenderness, forced him to whip around, search for its origin with startled astonishment. But, in the low light of the chamber, there was no one near. Vincent's heart went from pounding to skipping a beat, as he admitted to himself he'd expected to see no one -- he'd recognized those soft tones with confounded certainty, a voice he knew he'd carry in his heart till they laid him in his grave.

"Catherine?"

"She's trying to keep you from harm, Vincent, holding her emotions in check so she won't draw you into danger. But, she's frightened and needs you desperately right now. You must hurry and go to her."

The words were as much within him as around him. Though he could see nothing beside him with his actual sight, his empathic awareness brought him a light, caressing breath of a touch at his brow, brushing over his hair, slipping softly past his cheek. He closed his eyes, grateful for the . . . love . . . he could still feel in that touch. He acknowledged no hesitation in speaking aloud to a watchful presence that was only spirit, and that love.

"The baby is coming, isn't it, Catherine? Diana is anxious because of that. Our child."

For an instant, the tenderness that caressed those last two words was heavily overburdened with -- guilt. The tones that responded to him were quietly understanding.

"You must open your arms to receive your blessings, your gifts, Vincent. She needs you there beside her. Hold her to you, and help her."

"Always."

His instantaneous acceptance of the welcomed responsibility again gave Vincent momentary pause, his heart anxious at the thought that a voiced commitment to another love would wound the one near to him now.

"I'm happy for your happiness. Never think otherwise, Vincent. You cause me no pain."

His own thoughts so easily revealed took him by surprise. He was grateful that she could still read the care he yet cherished towards her, no longer a guilt-riddled memory,

but a beloved guardian.

"Thank you," he whispered, in his heart setting a gentle hand to her soft brown hair. She smiled sweetly up to him, her lively grey eyes flooding with emotion. But then she turned away from him, with a broken sigh.

An otherworldly hand reached to an angel's face and brought her attention back to him with quiet urging. "What is it, Catherine?" he questioned softly, catching a shadowing of pain evident even in a celetial gaze.

"She'll protect you with her dying breath."

The almost awestruck sound of those words tore at Vincent's heart. They left so much unsaid, but understood, nevertheless. He could never allow her to even think such a thing.

The reassuring reply was spoken in a heartbeat. "As you always did, Catherine."

He watched her shake her head, slowly. Sadly. She would not meet his eyes. "Memory can be a forgiving thing."

"I need forgive you nothing, nothing," came his vehement reply.

"And that is a gift I need to find the strength to accept, don't I?" When he was ready to continue his protest, she lifted her own hand up to his face, touching his lips gently, to silence him. "You need to find your way to your family now. Go to them. Hold them close to you Vincent. Their love is what you deserve."

A cherishing warmth filled his heart as he felt the loving presence recede from inside him. The warmth then became a compelling need, as Vincent sought out Diana's essence in his own. Even though she was willing herself to keep her anxious pain from him, he drew her heart to him with aching compassion. "I'm with you, my love," he reassured with tremulous care. "Let me be with you in this."

The swell of emotion that lifted itself around his plea was unmistakably Diana's now. He knew it as he knew his own heartbeat. "Oh, Vincent, I'm scared. I need you so . . . "

The steps that headed him down the outreaching tunnels pounded faster and faster, fed by the urgency he'd heard in his beloved's besieged confession. The ache to hold her to him, hold their child safely between them, went far beyond the limits of any physical pain he might have been forced to endure. Diana was not the only one driven to protect to her last breath. The cab was crawling along Fourteenth Street at a snail's pace. Joe anxiously drummed his fingers on the seat, cursing under his breath. He would have loaned his car to Rita to drive down to Baltimore the other day: Perfect timing, as always. Still, he hated to think of the young attorney juggling luggage and Christmas parcels for hours on the train. At the moment, the tie-up of city traffic, all heading for holiday destinations, would have yet stalled his own progress, whether he was doing the driving or not.

He'd told Diana, ten minutes, and twenty had already elapsed since he'd hung up on her in his office. Twenty minutes for a woman in labor. Damn, why hadn't they just called the paramedics for her at that blasted coffee shop she was at?! Reaching into his inner jacket pocket, he drew out his wallet and tossed a $20 onto the driver's seat.

"Sorry, pal. I can't wait. I'll get out here."

The cabbie just looked up in the mirror. "Suit yourself."

Joe got out of the stopped vehicle and picked his way through the traffic to the sidewalk, setting off a chain-reaction of horns sounding at him. He murmured a fitting Italian epitaph at the drivers all hellbent on going nowhere, then set off at a quick jog down the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians and piles of slush.

He'd done this once before because of Diana, he recalled, trying to keep his thoughts from dwelling too long on the panic in Samantha's voice, and the unexpected pleading in Diana's. He'd rushed headlong in a cold sweat to try and reach her once before -- when she'd disappeared that time for three weeks. The . . . terror . . . that something had happened to her, the . . . ache . . . that had encircled his heart because of it . . . He'd been

astonished to realize that he could yet allow himself actually to . . . feel . . . care . . . about

another human being to the point of . . . love. Not romantic love, but heartfelt connection

nonetheless.

That episode had turned out to be yet another mystery in the series of indecipherables that had plagued his every encounter with the fiery-spirited policewoman. She'd simply re-surfaced later, presenting herself at his office with broken limbs but a strangely at peace spirit that had just overwhelmed his understanding. The forces at work within her life were

always going to be beyond his comprehension, he'd long ago conceded. Still, that would not keep him from committing himself to Diana -- She'd all but given him back his life again, goaded him, challenged him, ached for him, as he stumbled back into a worthwhile existence once more, an existence that held Catherine only as a beloved memory.

That he could even contemplate offering Rita an engagement ring tomorrow evening had everything to do with his resurrected hope in life, a hope that his quicksilver colleague had helped him to grasp and hold on to. But Diana wasn't ever going to make it easy for him to survive with her influence in his life, that was for sure.

Now she was in labor, and she'd called on him for help. What in God's name was he supposed to do for her? How could he possibly come to her assistance at a moment like this? She wanted to get home, Samantha had said, pleaded for his help to get them home

. . . which was where? And after all the mystery of Diana's new life's circumstances, after all she'd done to keep him in the dark about everything the past three years, he was now going to be thrust into the center of everything with a phone call?

After running two blocks on the main thoroughfare, the DA turned down a side street in Chelsea, then another, following the directions that had been given to him. The streets

were becoming nothing more than a maze to him, and he actually knew his way around the city pretty well by now. Why on earth were Diana and Samantha even out on a night like this, he found himself thinking with impatience, if she had been so close to her baby's birth?

But, then Joe thrust aside the momentary irritation for a conclusion that set his protective alarms all off at once within him. He'd meant it, that he wanted Diana to call on him if she ever needed help. Ever. Still, for her to actually take him up on his offer . . . she was fiercely independent and self-reliant, so self-contained, never revealing herself too easily. For her to have called for his help was nothing short of a miracle. Or because of a catastrophe. He prayed that the circumstances were only ones that would allow him to repay, in some minute way, all she'd done for him, so much that she'd done for him that she'd never even own up to in a conversation, and not a situation that would force him to witness devastation and loss touching yet again someone he cared for deeply.

Turning down one final block of chic boutiques and converted brownstones, Joe at last picked out the small coffee shop, "Clare's" on the next corner. He made his way to it with his heart in his throat, not exactly certain of what he would find, storming heaven silently with urgent pleas on behalf of his friend.

A gentle-featured, middle-aged waitress met him just beyond the doorway. She'd apparently been looking out for him. "Joe?" she questioned as he shook a bit of the snow off his shoulders absent mindedly.

"Yeah. Where is she?" he asked in mounting anxiety when he couldn't find a trace of Diana in the shop. The waitress smiled in patient reassurance, guiding him past a knot of customers who were trying to both finish their lattes and stay abreast of developments in the small office off the side of the counter area.

"Diana and the kids are over here. Don't worry, she's doing fine. Just being adamant about getting home. I'd be feeling better, though, if we could just have gotten her to a hospital by now."

In his anxious state of mind, Joe suddenly felt that he owed the obviously perplexed lady he'd only just met some sort of explanation in defense of Diana's seemingly illogical behavior. "Well, her circumstances are kind of complicated."

The waitress took firm hold of Joe's arm before he entered the small room. "She does have someone to take care of her there, doesn't she? I mean, the poor thing isn't all alone in this, is she?"

The evident concern on the woman's part struck Joe to the heart. He'd not been witness to too many genuine acts of compassion in this city of late, only devouring terrors, and cold indifference. Looking long at the woman, his mind replayed the evening Diana had come to him at his office, announcing her impending departure . . . and marriage . . . to Vincent. She'd been so profoundly infused with radiant hope that it had taken his breath away.

"She has a husband she loves very much. She'll be all right, I'm sure, once we get her where she needs to be."

The look of relief on the older woman's face was something she couldn't disguise. "Good. I was hoping so. The kids have been perfect angels with this, too." Nodding her head to urge him on, Joe let the woman then take her leave of him as he entered the small office.

"Boy, Bennett! You are one for dramatics, aren't you?" he teased, trying to steady his near-to frazzled nerves in familiar fashion. After all, he was here to help Diana, not be the one in need of help.

The red-haired former police officer looked up at the sound of his voice, and her beautiful face brightened visibly. "God, Joe! am I glad to see you!" She reached her arms up to him from her improvised accommodations, and Joe couldn't help but gather her close in a grateful embrace.

His breath caught in his throat at the feel of her in his arms. She felt so unexpectedly --

fragile -- vulnerable. And she looked so beguilingly -- feminine, tender. In most of his past dealings with her, she'd always seemed made of cold-tempered steel, impervious to turmoil, defiantly in control. Seeing her now thus, revealed to be of flesh and blood humanity, made his heart swell with protective care and awestruck wonder. He couldn't imagine anyone not loving such a mercurial force of nature, nor of anyone actually surviving loving her, either.

Freeing himself gently from Diana's embrace after a moment that allowed him to catch his breath, Joe looked deeply into her face. The porcelain features were gently glowing, but at the same time drawn, and showing evidence of mounting exhaustion. Her braided hair was loosening, throwing tendrils of amber to curl freely around her face. At that moment, she appeared so totally -- maternal -- her swollen figure unconcealed by her unfastened trench coat, and completely, startlingly, beautiful. The last nine months had been kind to her, he thought, gratefully, very kind.

Pulling his attention from Diana completely, Joe turned to acknowledge the children. Lord, Samantha was a young lady, too, he thought immediately. She'd blossomed far and away from the soft-spoken youngster he'd last seen nearly a year ago. She was tenderly holding Jacob on her lap, with protective care, sitting on a chair that had been brought in for her from out in the shop. The concerned love in her face was unmistakable.

Finally, Joe had to take note of the little boy being gently held. Jacob was nothing less than . . . arresting . . . too. Joe found himself swallowing hard as he accepted the little boy's hug of gratitude from off Samantha's lap. "Thank you for coming to help Mama,

Mr. Maxwell," he offered, totally sincerely.

The little boy was about as close an embodiment to a Christmas cherub as anyone could ever imagine. The halo of golden-red curls had lengthened into a ring of brightness about his fair, open face. Joe saw it now, too. It hit him quite unexpectedly: Catherine's features in the child's gaze -- yet, not -- the cheekbones becoming a bit more pronounced, more exotic, as the child was loosing his baby fat. His lanky legs were strong too, seeming to destine him to a share of his father's strength, the massive power of a cloaked figure revealed to the DA that night in a windswept cemetary. So many kids his age looked like long-legged little grasshoppers.

And those eyes . . . limpid, crystaline blue . . . so full of . . . wisdom . . . and serenity, seeing into Joe's very soul. He felt it, undeniably, the reach of that quiet, certain gaze, mystical.

The DA's contemplation of the little boy came to an abrupt end when he heard Diana take in an audible gasp. He came to her side instantly and took hold of her hand. "Here, hang on to me, Diana. Try to breathe past the contraction." The pressure of her grip and the trembling shudder running through her body warned Joe that the young mother was indeed far advanced in her labor. Where on earth was she expecting him to take her? She needed to be in a hospital, and quick.

Diana fought to hold on to her focus away from the pain, as Mary had instructed her, attempted to regulate her breathing, but the power of the contraction was near to overwhelming. She'd been at Maureen's side when Alex had been born, but Diana couldn't remember her sister going through such -- intense -- labor so quickly.

It was almost as if, she thought, wildly, her baby was . . . desperate . . . to be born.

"Please God, please, help my child," she pleaded softly, clutching at Joe's hand. He blanched at the words, and at the visible force of the young woman's pain.

All the color had drained from Diana's face in those few seconds, and her hair was damp from perspiration. When at last Joe felt her grip weakening on his hand, he realized that her breathing remained shallow and forced.

"Diana, we've got to get you to a hospital," he announced with determination, turning to the desk and the phone nearby. "You need a doctor."

A grip as fierce as the one he'd endured from her labors took hold again of his arm, forcing Joe's gaze back to the young woman. The green eyes that held his were shot with lazer intensity. "No! I can't go to a hospital. If you won't help me, Joe, I swear I'll get home by myself!" A movement to come to her feet was futile, her strength of voice far superior to her body's, at the moment. Joe caught sight of the tears in those emerald eyes, and he felt his throat constrict.

Reaching a trembling hand to his cheek, Diana whispered, "They took Jacob away from Cathy . . . Please Joe . . . help me get home . . . to Vincent."

The quiet, anguishing terror in those words sent tremors down Joe's spine. "They kept her alive long enough to have the baby . . . I need to know who wanted that baby . . . "

Diana's chilling interpretation of the early facts in her investigation into Catherine's murder spoke all of the pain and apprehension he knew she was engulfed in now. At the time, the forces they had been dealing with had been hellish, merciless, bent on a twisted possession of an innocent life, and the manipulation of those who cherished that life.

Circumstances now would be completely, totally, different, of course, he reasoned. But would they be any less threatening?

Joe had been so focused on attempting to relieve Diana's present physical suffering that he'd nearly overlooked the other half of her baby's parentage, and the spiritual agony its discovery could pose for the beleagured young mother in a hostile world. Jacob was an arresting child, yes, but, aside from his seeming . . . intuitive . . . abilities he showed very little outward sign of anything besides Catherine's genetics.

What if Diana's baby favored its beyond human father?

What would a hospital staff, or a conscienceless public, be likely to do in a situation like that? The child's father had apparently never actually been seen in the light of day. A cage in Gabriel's stronghold suddenly loomed dark and telling in the DA's memory just then, echoing every horror within Diana's heart.

He set a soft, reassuring kiss to the frightened young woman's forehead, tears coming to his eyes. "Don't worry, kid. I'll take you wherever you need to go. I'm here for you. Just say the word. It'll be all right."

The flood of gratitude that reached out to him from that angelic, enigmatic face stopped Joe's heart a beat. He wiped the tears away from her cheeks, swallowing his own hard, praying that he'd be worthy of her trust.

"Samantha and Jacob will lead the way," came her quiet instruction.

A moment later, the young girl had the little boy muffled against the cold once more, and Joe had helped Diana dress herself against the elements, too. Clare returned to the little office with a small white bag that she handed to Jacob, full of the muffins she'd placed at their table earlier.

"You'll need to keep growing big and strong, young man, if you're going to help your Mom raise a new baby."

"Yes, ma'am," the child responded. "Thank you."

"Yes, thank you, Clare, for your kindness. And your generosity. We'll never forget it." Diana reached a hug around the older woman who accepted it readily.

"You just try to make it back here with that new little one some time. Take care of yourselves."

Samantha also gave the older woman a hug, then took Jacob by the hand. Joe spoke sincerely to Clare, too, "You've resurrected my hope in humanity." The kind-spirited hostess just patted him on the arm.

As the children led the way out of the small office and back into the coffee shop, Joe bent down to where Diana was still seated. But instead of simply offering her his hand up, as she'd expected, he swept her into his arms, taking her completely by surprise.

"What on earth are you doing, Maxwell? You can't carry me all the way!"

The steel-willed firebrand might have been suddenly back in his embrace, but this time she was going to let him look out for her as he saw fit, whether she liked it or not. "How many more blocks do we need to go, Samantha?" he asked, deliberately ignoring Diana's protests.

"Three more blocks, at first," was his rather cryptic reply, at which he turned his attention at last back to the woman in his arms.

"Well, that settles that, doesn't it? You are in no shape to walk that far, Bennett, so you'd better just pray that my back holds up until we get wherever the hell we need to."

"Joe, really, I'll be okay between the contractions," came the almost apologetic response, as Diana was eager to keep her friend from becoming, literally, more burdened by this whole situation. "You do not have to . . . "

This time the dark Italian eyes brooked no protest. "Do I look like I'm going to accept an argument from you now, Sergeant?"

Diana looked long into the face of her trusted friend and realized that he was absolutely serious. So was the overwhelming fatigue that engulfed her from the moment they'd set foot into the shop, now a good 45 minutes ago. Meekly, she settled her head against Joe's shoulder and allowed herself to be carried back out into the street, the sounds of a half dozen voices all wishing them godspeed warming her heart, if not settling her spirit. The snow was whipping about from a strengthening wind and piling onto the sidewalks and streets in earnest. Joe judged that probably three inches had already fallen, with more to come, surely. But, through the increasing bluster, Samantha picked her way down the quiet, dimly lit streets with purpose and familiarity. Little Jacob had to take two steps to each of hers, but he was keeping valiantly up with her stride. Joe prayed that he himself would be able to do so as well. Diana seemed to weigh next to nothing, his adrenaline-fed stamina apparently up to the task of carrying her however far that was necessary, but the cold was determined to defeat his purpose, numbing his limbs and threatening his balance and strength.

"I don't suppose I could have hailed us a cab for this trip?" he asked uncertainly. Diana raised her head to smile patiently.

"We'd still have to contend with traffic, and causing me to have this baby in the back seat of a cab isn't exactly how I thought you'd be able to help me."

Joe appreciated her attempt to bring some relief to the tension of the situation, but he still couldn't help feeling the apprehension hold fast within him. Even though he believed Diana knew what she was doing, and how she was asking him to help could be the only way out of her presently unpredictable situation, a major part of Joe's level-headed good sense was saying that this entire thing was absolutely crazy: He was working his way through a snowstorm of growing intensity, following two kids God knew where, carrying a very pregnant, and hard-headed, young woman, who needed an obstetrician's expertise, not a piggyback ride.

Clare's anxious questioning of him at his initial appearance in the coffee shop took hold of his awareness, shaking his confidence. "Diana, when we get where we need to go, will you have some real help? I mean, medical . . . you know, someone who'll be sure you and the baby are all right?"

Diana nodded with quiet reassurance at his concern. That was Joe for you, always looking out for her, in spite of herself. "I have a wonderful doctor taking care of me, Vincent's father. And a midwife who knows more about babies and children than Dr. Spock himself."

"Well, that makes me feel a little better."

Reaching her gloved hand softly back up to Joe's face, she dusted a few snowflakes from off his features. "I'm sorry to have to put you through all of this," she apologized genuinely.

The generous face close to her own became teasingly menacing. "Oh, you'll owe me for this one, big time. Really big. We're talking a debt to the grave here, Bennett!"

"I get the picture, Joe."

The easy banter that helped to quell anxious hearts momentarily was halted when Joe felt Diana's arms stiffen around his neck. She let her head drop wearily to his shoulder again.

"Another one?" he asked in concern, mentally timing the contractions. Seven, eight minutes between them, tops. "All right, Lord," he prayed silently, without a second thought. "We need some serious intervention here."

He wasn't certain that the answer he needed to his prayer would be the sight of Samantha pulling to a halt in a dead end alley way.

In his concentration on Diana, Joe'd not consciously been observing their route along the streets, only following the girl's snowy wool coat step for step down several dark city blocks. Now, he thought, with a shiver that had nothing whatever to do with the dropping wind chill, the poor kid seemed to have led them into unfamiliar territory. The backs of commercial buildings all appeared anonymously the same. Only a lone street lamp lit the alley halfway down its length.

A good place to get mugged, Joe thought, grimly. Or worse. He could see the headlines in tomorrow's paper, "DA, Pregnant Woman, Two Children . . . "

But then Samantha set her parcels down next to a manhole cover and began to pull at the heavy weight. Joe set Diana gently down to her feet, his arm around her waist holding her to him, helping to steady her against him. "What in God's name are you doing, Samantha," he asked, incredulously.

The girl looked up at him with patience, but kept tugging at the cover. It finally moved a bit to one side. Jacob struggled mightily to help her shove it completely off its opening even before Joe'd managed to attempt to lean down to it, too.

"This is the way home, Mr. Maxwell," came the girl's voice.

There were at least a dozen and a half questions the beleagured rescuer needed to ask at that moment, but he fought them all back as he watched the girl expertly make her way down the metal ladder within the manhole. Jacob then eased the parcels down to her and climbed below the street confidently himself.

"We're going down there?" came Joe's undisguised disbelieving query. Diana nodded, then took his hand,urging him away from her side and to the opening's edge.

"It might be best if you go down first, Joe."

Hesitating only a moment, the DA swung his legs onto the metal ladder and descended a couple of steps. He stopped, then reached back up to Diana to balance her as she came down to sit at the edge of the opening, in the snow. Slowly she managed to ease herself around and set her feet onto the first step, then the next, gripping the metal side rails tightly as she made her unsteady way down. Joe matched her movements step by step, keeping a few paces ahead of her, helping her hold herself onto the ladder, until he set foot into a large drainage pipe that was lit by a kerosene lantern Samantha was now carrying.

He reached up and lifted Diana down beside him. She slumped against the wall of the pipe tunnel when her feet at last touched, and Joe realized that she was trembling. Her face, in the sputtering lamp light, was ashen, as she fought to catch her breath.

"You'll have to go back up to close the lid, Mr. Maxwell," Samantha instructed. Joe did as he was told, then returned to join the children and Diana. The girl handed him a second lantern that she had lit.

"How far do we have to go?" he asked her.

"Another four blocks until we can call for help on the pipes."

"And then what?"

"It's probably another mile home from there." Diana's voice was weary.

Joe turned to look long at his companion, his conclusions coming to him aloud. "A mile for anyone else to get to us. Or for us to get to them." A nod of the amber-haired head was his response.

"It usually isn't so long, but this is the route that was damaged in the flood, when Diana was hurt." Samantha's explanation, though offering him a great deal of acknowledging trust in revealing some of her world's secrets, did little to steady Joe's racing heart. All he could think of, at the moment, was the fact that a child was going to come into the world in a drainage tunnel beneath the streets of New York City and there wasn't going to be anything he could do to change that reality. And this was how he was going to help?

He took a deep breath, then leaned down to Diana and gathered her back into his arms, following Samantha and Jacob further into the reaches of the dimly lit passageway.

After several minutes of following the pipe and its turning circuit, Samantha led the way down another metal stairway. Joe breathed a grateful sigh that this obstacle at least was an actual staircase and not a simple access ladder. He could still carry Diana down it. She'd have never managed it otherwise. Though he was terrified of losing his footing on the metal steps and sending them both plunging, he was able to at last get them down and into another tunnel that was much larger than the drainage pipe, its smooth surfaces illuminated by regularly placed work lights in cages.

Though he longed to just sit down on the last stair and catch his breath, the DA fought his own mounting exhaustion and continued on after the children, letting his attention settle onto their surroundings in distraction. He remembered that Diana had told him about a network of old tunnels and chambers she'd discovered beneath Catherine's building, a mysterious, and apparently all but forgotten access area that fanned out beneath the city streets for miles. She'd hinted that those tunnels somehow linked that city with the shadowed world of Cathy's protector, Vincent.

Joe could readily believe such a reality. But all he could think of was that Diana had evidently given up her airy, bright loft apartment for a drainage tunnel beneath the city streets. He was certain, now, that he understood the red-haired beauty in his arms even less.

A few moments later they came to one more stairway, and the DA began seriously praying that his strength should hold up, because this obstacle was a great, circular metal stairway, several stories, it appeared, in length, that was lit by burning torches along the walls that had become brick and stone somewhere along their descent. Diana had been able to negotiate such a climb earlier on her way into the city? Nine months pregnant? He allotted her a generous portion of silent admiration. There was no way he was going to attempt to carry her now down that circling expanse without a momentary breather.

Diana read the weariness taking hold of her friend even before he admitted it and said, "We'd better wait a minute here, Joe. You can catch your breath."

Softly he set her back to her feet, nodding in agreement. Then he leaned heavily beside her against the stone wall, afraid that if he should come to sit down, he'd never be able to get up again. "Boy, you weren't kidding about these tunnels, were you?" he breathed incredulously. She smiled softly at his consternation.

"I know. It took me by surprise, too."

Jacob accepted the opportunity their halt in movement gave him to come over to his mother's side from where Samantha had sat on the topmost step. The poor girl was beginning to give in to fatigue, too. The child gave his young nanny a hug, then came to rest beside his mother, leaning against her body. He wrapped his little arms as far as they would go around what was left of her waist, his golden-locked head coming to rest on the baby she carried. He closed his eyes, as he quietly spoke. "Don't worry, Mama. We're nearly home."

Diana reached a cherishing hand down to the little boy's curls, then felt him tighten his embrace about her. "You and Samantha have done so much to help me today." Joe let his own acknowledgement reach the children, too, as he smiled over to Samantha and patted the little boy beside him on the back.

"We'd better get going," he announced again, decidedly.

The children began their advance down the stairway, as Joe moved to gather Diana back into his arms, but, from the look of weary astonishment that came over her porcelain features, he realized that she was having another contraction. She clung to him with a force that was at once startling as well as debilitated, gasping for breath. She'd bit down on her lower lip hard enough to draw blood, and the DA's heart lurched at the evidence of her pain. In the firelight of the torches, her amber hair had darkened considerably around her face from the moisture that beaded up there suddenly.

He forced himself down the stairway with her in response, praying that he'd be able to get them both to the next level in one piece. The sight of Diana's pallid features urged him on in spite of the rising fear taking hold of his spirit.

Then panic, full, cold, and paralyzing, hit him, as he felt an unexpected warmth of rushing wetness work its way across his right arm and down the front of his wool overcoat as he carried his precious burden. God . . . she was bleeding! he decided in an instant that stopped his heart. But the young woman in his arms read the overwhelming fear stiffen his body even in the midst of her own pain and pulled herself under control far enough to stammer a few words in explanation.

"Water . . . my water . . . broke . . . Supposed to." Joe nodded in understanding, but his heart still was racing at the sensation.

The contraction this time seemed to go on forever, still holding Diana with a consuming power by the time they'd made it to the bottom of the twisting stairway. Her voice came out in a labored whisper, the last thing he prayed he'd need her to say. "Joe . . . can't go on

. . . please stop . . . here."

Calling to the children ahead of them, the DA gently set his colleague down to the floor of the tunnel. Quickly he ripped off his coat, turned it inside out and bundled it beneath Diana's head and shoulders. When Samantha returned to them, he asked, urgently, "How much farther until you can get help?"

The girl took in the ashen features of her beloved friend, and the anxious edge in Joe's voice. "The signalling pipes are just ahead. We can send word from there."

"Then do it, Samantha. Diana can't go on. I'll try to get her comfortable here."

Taking in the stricken young mother, a cold fear overcame the girl, instantly. She'd been around Mary any number of times when babies were born in the community, helping whenever she could, but she didn't remember any of the labors being as intensely forceful as this one. Diana appeared on the verge of collapse.

Catching the worry in the young girl's face, and in Jacob's embrace as he, too, had returned to her side, the besieged mother attempted to reassure both the children. "Go on Samantha . . . and take . . . Jacob with you . . . Signal for help, then . . . keep going to . . . home chambers."

"But Mama, I don't want to leave you now. You need me." Jacob's gentle eyes were darkened with his own turmoil, attuned to the distress his mother was enduring. Diana kissed him softly on the cheek, intent on sparing the child from more worry. Something within her was urging her to drive the little boy safely away from the mounting chaos of their situation, protectively.

"Go on with . . . Samantha . . . angel . . . You know Grandfather . . . doesn't wish anyone to walk the tunnels . . . alone now. You have to watch out . . . for Samantha. I'll be with . . . Mr. Maxwell. Don't worry."

The little boy seemed unconvinced, torn between the need to remain near each of the two women he loved most in the world. A soft, urging nod from Joe, however, swayed him to Samantha's direction. "I'll take care of her, Jacob. You go get help."

Assured now that his departure would be necessary for both his cherished soulmates, Jacob let Samantha take his hand. Still, even as the two children broke away to a run down deeper into the tunnel, the golden-haired child kept watching over his shoulder until they finally turned a corner in the tunnel and disappeared from sight.

With mounting anxiety, Joe then turned to tend his charge. His heart about broke as he took in the sight of Diana, lying on the dirt, propped up on a coat, trembling from pain and an anxious -- despair -- not even her beautiful features could disguise any longer. He reached into his pants pocket, past the jeweler's box that held Rita's ring, and drew out his clean handkerchief, pressing it against her still bleeding lip. Then he wiped off her wet face gently, tenderly. The frightened uncertainty in the depths of her green eyes took hold of his heart. There was little that he remembered had ever really frightened Diana, but her fragile form now was heartstopping in its vulnerability

"I don't suppose you know anything about actually delivering a baby," he asked her in a forced humor that was tinged with hopeful pleading. Some help he'd proven to be!

"When I was in uniform . . . my partner and I helped one mother . . . in the back of a

station wagon. It's been a while, but I might . . . remember enough . . . to talk you through it . . . if it comes to that."

Joe shook his head. "We might have done better in that cab, then."

The green eyes focused determinedly onto his brown ones. "I'm not worried, Joe. You're here," she responded with soft reassurance.

He had to catch himself, keep from uttering the words that leaped into his mind. Yeah, I may be here, but what about your baby's father? Running a shaking hand through his thick hair, Vincent tried to draw in a deep breath but was unsuccessful. He leaned heavily against the stone wall then, and closed his eyes, working to gather his strength back to him, steady his spirit which was in complete turmoil from colliding emotions and sensations.

His own body was vehemently protesting the pounding trek he'd just subjected it to for the past twenty minutes. The wound in his side throbbed, his lungs were on fire from the gasping need for air. Yet, Vincent forced his conscious pain to the background of his mind in order to touch, instead, to Diana's.

She was calmed now, her battered spirit regaining its strength after the last wave of pain that he had felt coursing through her. There was a flood of generous gratitude within her, too, directed towards someone near her. She wasn't alone. Someone was helping her, beyond the children, someone she trusted without question.

Laura? Jerry? Vincent remembered vaguely that Diana had told him the young couple and their little boy would be leaving for a holiday trip that evening.

Was it her sister, perhaps, who'd delayed her return home? Having come to know Maureen through Diana's recollections, as well as in the correspondence they'd lately been sharing, Vincent knew without question that if there had been even a hint that all was not well with Diana Above, her sister would not have hesitated to remain at her side.

At any rate, Vincent felt the tremendous relief that presence was causing Diana to experience, and he blessed heaven for it, even as he inwardly berated his own unsteady state of health that was keeping him too long from his beloved's side at a moment like this.

Diana's momentary respite in her intense besiegement gave Vincent a tiny opportunity to clear his own thinking, reclaim his own emotions. Since she'd stopped trying to keep her distress from him, he'd been battered by a torrent of powerful forces he couldn't believe the bare slip of humanity he loved would have been capable of surviving.

Her turmoil had been devastating in its physical force, and terrifying in its emotional toll. For an instant, Vincent cursed himself, that he might have been the cause of such . . .

anguish . . . to touch the amber-haired angel he loved. Then he chastised himself in ready shame for allowing such a thought to even pass within his mind . . . Diana's pain was bringing their child to birth, the breathtaking passion of their love embodied into life itself. Dare he curse that miracle? He might as well curse all of their devotion to one another.

Attempting to take hold of his embattled spirit, Vincent was able to recognize the overwhelming forces at work within his own soul, at that instant that troubled him, as well.

He was terrified of losing Diana.

His connection to her debilitating labors was setting off a chain reaction of pain, fear... and grief . . . that he realized were coming to him from the memory of Jacob's birth .

And Catherine's death.

Forcefully, Vincent drew his awareness back into the actual circumstances of his present reality. It was Diana's pain he was connecting to, not Catherine's. Taking advantage of the momentary lull in sensation pounding him, he continued on in the tunnel, trying to take the trek at a more prudent speed. He wasn't going to be of any assistance to Diana if he reached her in a state of collapse himself. He sought to keep hold of that practical state of good sense, knowing that she, and their child, would need to depend on it here in the far reaches of his Underworld home.

For a moment, that practical good sense urged him to consider signalling back for help on the pipes. He'd purposely avoided running into anyone on his exit from the home area of the tunnels, knowing that Father would have been quick to put an end to anything even remotely having to do with his quitting his chamber. No one had caught his departure, and he was sure that Father still believed him at rest where he'd been left, but now Vincent conceded that he'd need to advise everyone of his whereabouts to get Diana the help she obviously required.

Just as he was about to reach to the pipes, a fervent tapping leaped from this quiet section of the tunnels, reverberating against the narrow confines of the space before him. Vincent froze, all of his attention rivetted to the quick, staccato that repeated itself several times for urgent emphasis - "West End Stairway. Send Help for Diana. Samantha."

His beloved and the children then were already well along in the tunnels. He'd thought their presence felt especially close. Thank God! He was afraid they were stranded somewhere Above, the colliding forces at work within him leaving his empathic sensitivities embattled as well, uncertain. But his premonition, his unexpected encounter with Catherine's presence, were all proving true -- Diana was having the baby. Now.

The Great Stairway was only a few moments more away. Vincent drew himself from the pipes, urging himself onwards, but was promptly engulfed by an overwhelming magnification of sound, rhymthic, pounding. A heartbeat.

His unborn child's?

At first awestruck at its sudden surging presence, where it had only always been a quiet, comforting acknowledgement of new life he could touch within Diana, Vincent felt his own emotions stumble into a staggering, and bittersweet, recollection that had begun in similar fashion nearly three and one half years ago -- the moment he'd first heard Jacob's pulse beating within his own consciousness, as Catherine had struggled to bring him to birth.

Tears . . . of remembered loss . . . filled Vincent's eyes at the memory . . . so wondrous, and yet so . . . haunting, anguished. He'd believed the heartbeat to be Catherine's, the bond to her spirit returned to him after its hope-numbing absence that had been the cost of his collapse in the dark catecombs Below. Catherine had been lost to him for months, ripped from his love by the fanatical Gabriel and his horrific obsessions. The sudden, gifting sound of that heartbeat had drawn Vincent back, miraculously, to his love's side.

But, the blessed sensation had not been Catherine's bonded heart returned to him. It had been, in truth, the sound of Jacob's tiny spirit struggling to life outside the womb, the child Vincent never knew had even been conceived. The baby's heart was what drew him to that windswept rooftop three years ago -- to find Catherine dying, alone, and bereft of her son.

Shaking his head in desperate, aching, frustration, Vincent sought to force the unendurable memories back to their deep place within his heart. He attempted, in overwhelming anxiety, to touch to the reality of this moment before him: It was Diana he was now aching to reach, not Catherine. The heartbeat urging him on was seeking only to call him to the joy of birth, not to the devastation of death, not to watch his beloved wife take her final breath in his embrace.

"Please, God, I must be able to do this!" Vincent whispered in the silent tunnel, taking in the forceful shaking of his hands before him with growing dismay. "Diana needs me. Our child needs me. Please."

Divine intervention seemed, for once, to respond to his pleading request quickly. The pounding in his head drew back, somewhat, at last, resettling itself into the gentle, cherished, familiar rhythm of his baby's heartbeat again, no longer a battering prophesy of loss. Vincent sought out Diana's presence instantly within him then -- and found it reaching far into his consciousness with its own plea: an ache, to be acknowledged. She was still safe, but yearning to have him at her side, struggling to bear up under the powerful onslaught that was her labor and needing, acutely, to be held.

Taking a deep, steadying breath that actually made it past the limitations of his healing lungs, Vincent strode purposefully down the tunnels again. He would be at his wife's side and there was nothing more that capricious Fate could throw at him to stop him.

Turning into one more flood-forced detour of the tunnel route, Vincent felt a strong jolt hit him square against both legs, at knee height, nearly sending him sprawling. It was lucky for both the projectile, and its unwitting victim, though, that the jolt was swathed in damp woolens.

"Father!" Jacob grasped the powerful legs he'd careened into with grateful recognition. After regaining his balance, Vincent pried the little boy off his resting place, and gathered him up into his arms in concern at the blow.

"Are you all right Jacob? You should never come running blindly around a corner like that! You're not hurt?" The gentle admonition was halted as Vincent took in Samantha's breathless form just three steps behind the little boy.

"Vincent . . . you must . . . come . . . quickly . . . "

Trying to spare the girl what little respiration she had left, her welcomed companion reached one arm from Jacob to her heaving form in comfort. "I heard the pipes. Try to calm down, Samantha. I am here."

The girl collapsed against his side only long enough to catch her breath somewhat under the gentle touch of his hand across her shuddering shoulders. Jacob took the opportunity to fill his father in on the pertinent details of the emergency.

"Mama needs you, Father. The baby is coming, and she wasn't expecting it to happen today. She hurts very badly."

"I know, son." Setting the child back down gently next to Samantha, Vincent urged, "Now get to Grandfather. Tell him what's happening. I'll go to your mother."

The children were already turned down into the tunnel he'd just quit before Vincent called after them, remembering the sensations of relief he'd picked up on from Diana a few moments earlier. "Is someone with Diana, Samantha?"

A nod of her head confirmed Vincent's impressions as the young girl returned to his side. "Mr. Maxwell. He's been carrying her. She's too exhausted to walk. We called him when Diana realized I wasn't going to be able to help her enough. I'm sorry, Vincent."

Standing with head bowed momentarily, uncertain as to whether she would be able to bear the knowledge that she'd let her beloved teacher's trust in her waver as easily as she could stand a stern reprimand for a breech in community security, Samantha was instead relieved to feel Vincent gently raise her chin, and her gaze, back up to him. He nodded, urging her on her way.

"You did the right thing, Samantha," came her heart-swelling response. "I felt it was someone you all trusted. Thank you for watching over her for me."

The warm smile on the girl's earnest face spoke the gratitude and love she could not, at the moment, take the time to express.

Vincent turned from the retreating children and automatically reached back up to draw the hood of his cloak over his head, reacting to Samantha's disclosure. But then, he stopped, in mid-action, not because of the twinge of pain that movement sent down through his wounded side, but because the reality of the situation had come clearly to his mind:

He was deep within his own world, in the safety of his own home chambers. Diana had trusted Joe Maxwell with her unborn child, turned to him in a moment of need in the world Above where her own husband would not have been able to reach her, come to her side. This was not a time of hesitation, of second-guessing trust, Vincent conceded.

He and the DA were destined to meet face to face, this night. Joe was gently stroking his hand over Diana's hair, wishing with every fiber of his being that he could offer her a more tangible source of relief for her pain, but there wasn't any. She was totally exhausted, lying heavily across the arm he had offered her in minimal comfort. The contractions were coming pretty much at will now, almost one after another. Yet, they seemed to no longer have any conscious effect on her.

She appeared to have withdrawn into some far away place deep within herself. It frightened Joe.

"Diana, can you hear me?" It took a second attempt before Joe was able to get a response out of the young woman beside him. Her emerald eyes opened slowly, took a long time to focus on him. The tiniest breath of a smile on her fragile features told him she'd recognized him, but that did little to hide the disappointment in her eyes.

"The kids will get you help. You'll be all right."

The words were as much for his own reassurance as for hers, Joe admitted wearily. He took a moment to scan their strange surroundings, that were right out of a Victorian novel, trying to come up with some destination the children might be heading for that could somehow bring welcomed aid.

"Samantha knows . . . these tunnels . . . like the back . . . of her hand." Diana's words were just above a whisper, yet they startled Joe as he was touching to the uncertain anxiety of letting two youngsters walk away from them and into the dimly lit passageways beyond.

Joe settled Diana a bit more against his side. She was shivering now, though her face was bathed in persiration. He pulled her unbuttoned coat more closely about her, a wave of instinctitive protection reaching out to her from him. He could sense her pain, that was so much more than simply physical suffering, and he was only reacting to the chaotic situation he'd been thrust into with her unexpected phone call. All of his care, all of his sheltering instincts were aching for the amber haired young woman, and his only true connection to her was the fact that she was a friend.

How much more intensely plain should her need have become to someone who truly loved her, to someone she'd given her every hope to?

Yet, Diana was still going through this all alone. She was minutes away from giving birth, lying on the dirt floor of a stone tunnel somewhere beneath the streets of New York,

looking to him for help. This was supposed to be a place of refuge for her, a place she'd pleaded for him to bring her.

Why, in God's name, was she still in his arms?

Didn't Vincent realize she needed him here at her side?

His absence was the cause of the painful disappointment Joe'd caught in her eyes as she'd struggled back from where she'd slipped to in her weary ordeal. Joe knew it for certain: She was grateful that he was there with her, but her heart was on the verge of breaking for want of her husband's presence.

Couldn't Vincent sense her need now, the DA wondered, not a little bitterly. He'd supposedly been at Catherine's side too many times when danger had threatened her. A chill rose up Joe's spine. The force of that mysterious being's compelling devotion to Cathy had apparently extended to his . . . killing . . . to keep her safe from harm.

Yet, here was Diana, the woman who'd become his wife, ready to give birth to his child, alone in a drainage tunnel, and he was nowhere near.

Joe almost lit it slip again, asked Diana the reason why, but his sheltering instincts set off those protective alarms for her within him again, so clearly -- The question, if he'd ever find the heart to ask her, could prove to be just as painful as her presently -- abandoned --state, the answer -- unendurable.

His own answer to the confounding situation was hardly comforting: Perhaps the . . . bond . . . that Diana had hinted at, the force of devotion that kept drawing Vincent to Catherine's side, the connection that gave him the intimate knowledge of Catherine's state of heart, was something purely unique to their relationship.

Maybe Vincent, now, wasn't as attuned to Diana's spirit, and needs, might never have been. What he and Catherine shared could have been destined never to be experienced again.

It didn't seem to leave Diana with much.

Joe wondered, with a pang, what the fiery-spirited police officer could actually have given up her dreams for: a reality that might have proven less than gifting. He looked long into the features of the young woman in his arms. She'd always been a rock, an extraordinary source of strength for him, her friendship an unshakeable anchor in the chaos of his own besieged life. Now she seemed reduced to the trembling image of an abandoned child -- with child herself. The uncertainty in her eyes, the possible reasons for it, beyond her physical devastation, was unbearable to him.

He'd tell her what he knew she was praying to hear, if only to give her some momentary relief and hope.

And, if he needed to, Joe swore to himself, he'd carry her out of here and back into the real world, if those words should prove untrue.

"I'm sure Vincent must be on his way here."

The sound of his voice betrayed enough of his concern, though, for Diana to pick up on it, even within her own reeling spirit. She was not so far lost inside it that she'd miss her dear friend's emotional pain -- for her.

"I know he will be, Joe." She closed her eyes again, as another contraction swept over her, then found her breath enough to continue speaking, despite Joe's efforts to quiet her. "It's a long way . . . for him now . . . coming so far . . . He's hurt . . . I almost . . . lost him."

The DA felt a staggering burden of guilt suddenly drop itself squarely onto his shoulders. So, there was an explanation as to why Diana had been so hellbent on making it back home, one that went beyond her fear for her baby in the world Above. There was fear for her husband, too, a reason he couldn't get to her: He was hurt, and she'd been determined to make it back to his side, even though she was obviously the one in need of sheltering care.

"I'm sorry, Diana. I had no idea," came Joe's heartfelt explanation. A shaky hand reached around his arm then. "Is he hurt badly?"

"Ribs . . . punctured lung . . . concussion. I almost thought . . . I'd lost him . . . to Cathy . . . He fought his way . . . back, though." The gentle awe in her soft eyes made Joe's heart skip a beat. She continued. "It will cause him . . . so much pain . . . if he can't make it here . . . in time. But I don't think this little one . . . will wait . . . any longer."

"He'd want to be right here with you, I'm sure, Diana. Any man would want to be with the woman he loves at a time like this, but maybe it's not meant to be."

The deep, emerald eyes shifted from acknowledging tenderness, to disappointed acceptance, then to trusting decision. "I think it's going to be . . . up to you, Joe . . . to give me some help." With a weary smile, she added, "Looks like . . . you're going to . . . have your way . . . with me after all . . . Maxwell."

Joe felt himself melt at the offhand remark, evidence of the considerable power of her spirit, able to make light of their situation even now. "God, Diana!" he admonished her, blushing at the thought. She continued to attempt to ease his heart, unfazed, reading the tender care in his eyes, the concerned, frightened uncertainty of a friend trying to help.

"It's not like . . . you've ever been . . . physically attracted to me . . . Joseph . . . anyway. It'll be . . . all right . . . Something to tell . . . your kids."

"Yeah, right, Bennett," he countered, defensively. "Who the hell could possibly be attracted to a spitfire banshee like you?" Bending gently down to the angelic face, the DA kissed Diana softly on the forehead. She smiled a breath and nodded her head, giving Joe permission to literally take her life, and her baby's into his hands.

At the undeniable trust he saw flooding from those beautiful features, Joe crossedng himself, automatically, whispering a silent prayer for guidance and help. He was startled to see that Diana did the same thing: She quietly crossed herself, then brought her hand back down to her swollen abdomen in an obvious caress for her child.

Joe drew on his defensive humor again to attempt to cut through some of the tension surrounding them. "I hope you realize that if I'm going to help bring this baby into the world, I fully expect to be chosen it's godfather."

"That would be an honor for us all."

The sound of a deep-toned, slightly hoarse, man's voice, above and behind him, stopped Joe's heart cold.


Continued in Chapter 14