CHAPTER ELEVEN — UNREQUITED


Vincent? When we first met, remember how we talked about feeling alone?

I remember.

Well, I've been thinking. It doesn't have to be that way, not anymore. All these things keep coming back into my head - everything we've talked about, things I never talked to anybody about before . . . And I keep thinking about when the baby came, how you were there - close to me - close to her. Let me love you, Vincent.

Lena . . .

I can feel your heart.

I will always cherish the moment we first met–how you saw me–how you accepted me.

It's the same for me . . .

I know. But what you ask now is impossible.

Why?

Because my heart is bound to another.

Catherine?

Yes.

Do you love her?

With all that I am. With all that I can ever become.

But she's not here! Why isn't she with you?

She is where she needs to be. I can't explain . . .

But if she's not here, how can she love you?

Lena, you don't understand. Her love opened the world for me!

What do you think you've done for me?

 

 

--- God Bless the Child (Written by Gansa & Gordon)

Waiting patiently for Vincent to appear, Diana stood just inside the threshold of the tunnel, a weathered duffle bag on the ground beside her. She closed her eyes, and again tried to force the images of her latest case out of her mind. Still, the scenes kept replaying, over and over again. The crime photos of the broken little boy wouldn't go away: the vacant eyes sunk within a face frozen by death into a mask of agony; the head impossibly angled, revealing in vivid detail that his neck had been snapped; the scars and burn marks lacerating his tiny frame. Together, they told a story of torture and depravity made even more horrible because they involved a child. Now, as before, no amount of mental fortitude kept the memories at bay, and although the murderer was dead, the horror of an innocent child's brutal death had taken its toll on her.

                       

She shook her head in frustration. She was well aware that the lingering images from profiling a killer as horribly sadistic as Danny Lombardo was the price she paid for her gift; but this time the price had left her spirit battered and bruised from the accumulation of horrors she had gathered from Lombardo's mind. Sick at heart and physically exhausted from days without sleep, she knew she had stepped too far over the line in her headlong determination to bring the killer to justice. The fact that she - who prided herself on her self-reliance - stood inside the mouth of a desolate tunnel, seeking refuge Below from her pain, gave ample proof of just how deeply she'd been wounded. Her hair hung limply from a single barrette, and shadows under her eyes reflected the emotional strain she had endured.

But how could I have done less when faced with so heinous a crime, so great an injustice as the murder of a little boy?

Too weary to continue standing, she braced her back against the inside of the tunnel wall and slowly slid down to the ground, her legs bent to her chest. Ever so slowly she leaned her head forward until it rested on her knees. Stifling the sob that threatened to escape, she remembered how she had pushed herself to the very limits of her endurance, attacking little Bobby Jensen's case with a single-focused determination that blocked out everyone and everything. Investigating the murder of a child was difficult for seasoned cops, but for someone of her sensitivity it had been sheer agony. Yet she had known the price she might pay in driving herself so hard, and she had also known that for her, there was no other choice.

Ruthlessly honest with herself, Diana acknowledged the complex emotions that had fueled her determination to see justice done in this case - and the murder of a child had not been the only reason. Bobby Jensen's murder had come on the heels of her last visit Below and her conversation with Father. At first she had used the case as a way to escape the fears and truths Father had insisted that she must face regarding her feelings for Vincent. But that had all changed the first moment she gazed at the photos of the Jensen boy. His parents had provided the police with the most recent pictures of the child, taken at his birthday party two months earlier. Bobby Jensen had been only two years old—only two! Diana discovered in those photos a sweet blond-haired boy with an engaging, mischievous smile and an innocent beauty that was the gift of childhood. Staring at the pictures of the happy little boy had tugged at her heart as his face melded into her memories of another child, almost two years old, with dusky, honey and gold locks and sparkling blue eyes. Thus it was, that after seeing the photos of little Bobby Jensen, there had never been any other choice for her than to pursue his killer, regardless of the consequences to herself.

Toward the end, Joe had finally noticed her obsession with the case. As expected, he tried to put on the brakes, but by then it had gone too far. Diana was in Lombardo's head, and as much as it sickened her, she knew him—and she knew that only she could find him. What was more, Joe knew it, too. And so, cursing his own inability to keep Diana from harm's way, but equally desperate to get a child killer off the streets, Joe had stepped aside to let Diana finish what she had begun. Like a worried parent, he trailed her moves from then on, but never interfered—that is, until she found the creep.

Diana could scarcely believe the gall of the man to brazenly sit in Central Park, on a bench with a woman who was clearly the nanny of two toddlers playing just a few feet away. Observing him from a crop of bushes, Diana felt his calculated hunger for the small lives like a tangible force. . . . and that was when she lost it. Her jaw ached from where she'd clenched it, and her eyes narrowed on Lombardo with all the anger and despair of the past four weeks. Something dark and dangerous within her boiled over into an explosive rage so powerful she lost control. She wasn't aware of her sprint to the park bench or the shout from behind her where Joe and two officers had taken up positions. She was acutely aware, however, when she kicked out one long graceful leg that connected her booted foot to Lombardo's chest with enough force to throw him from the bench. It hadn't been a kick designed to kill, only to immobilize and place him out of easy reach of the children and their terrified nanny. Then with the deadly accuracy of the hunter that she was, Diana followed the kick, body slamming her lithe, long torso against him and flattening him to the ground. Without missing a beat, she pulled out her gun, tucked securely in the back waistband of her jeans, and in one smooth movement, shoved the barrel against Lombardo's temple. In what became the longest seconds of her life, she saw the man's total destruction in her mind and God how she wanted it - like an avenging angel - the same avenging angel that had rid the world of Gabriel.

With a calmness that was far more terrifying than her earlier actions, she locked eyes with the murderer of Bobby Jensen. Their eyes held, and white hot anger rushed through her as she realized that there was nothing to stop her from putting an end to the life of this miserable excuse for a human being. In him, she sensed no fear, no remorse, not even the recognition that he was only moments away from being executed for his sins against the most innocent of humanity. She also knew that where a soul should have been there was none - only a black cavern of hunger for his next victim. He returned her stare with the smug assurance of one who had nothing to lose, and therefore nothing to fear. Diana decided, then and there, that if ever a human deserved to die, it was Danny Lombardo. Knowing the evil he hid in the outward trappings of a man, Diana felt the familiar cool weight of the gun, and her hand trembled in deadly anticipation of pulling the trigger.

With single focused determination, she let out the breath she held and steadied her hand. It was then that other sounds began to filter through to her hypersensitized awareness. From behind she registered the shouts of Joe and the others, but what ultimately penetrated her fog of hatred was the sound of crying: children's terrified wailing. From the periphery of her vision, she saw the two toddlers. Startled from their play, they sat some feet away from her, crying in terror and with an unobstructed view of her and the man she held down. If she killed him now, they would see it all. Their presence did what no other force could have done. For the sake of the children and the horror reflected on their young faces, she savagely pulled herself back from the brink of revenge. Slowly releasing the pressure on the trigger of her gun, she next registered Joe's presence. Joe, sworn to defend a judicial system that had commuted Lombardo's previous jail sentence and in so doing had condemned Bobby Jensen to death. Despite it all, she knew Joe would never condone the outright execution of any man, regardless of his crimes.

Now walking slowly toward her, Joe held himself rigid with tension, his eyes riveted to her as though willing her to stop before it was too late. With her gun still trained on Lombardo, she pushed herself to her feet, not missing Joe's expression of relief that certain disaster had been narrowly averted. Two officers trailed behind him, and in what Diana would later chalk up as the height of incompetence, neither had yet drawn their firearms. And it was in that moment, as she stood and looked at the approaching men that all hell broke loose. Lombardo managed to push himself up from the ground in one move, kicking out at Diana's legs in the process. She went down hard, but not before she saw him turn in the direction of the two toddlers who still sat crying in the grass.

As she hit the ground, pain shot up from her shoulder to her neck, almost causing her to drop her gun. Thankful that the injury was to her left side, she bit down hard on her lip, her only concession to the agony spreading through her shoulder. Drawing on the last reserves of her strength, she spotted Lombardo's fleeing figure. In seconds he would have at least one of the children in his grasp, and in turn, a hostage. Diana's blood ran cold. The bastard would get away. She knew with absolute certainty that once he had one of the children in his possession, none of them would dare endanger a child's life with heroics.

"Noooo!" she yelled, as she rolled to her good side and trained her weapon on the man. Lombardo didn't even pause, his sight fixed on the closer of the two children. And then the sharp crack of a single shot rang out. With grim satisfaction, Diana watched as Lombardo abruptly jerked and then fell face down in the grass, only inches from a little boy whose terrified shrieks filled the park.

In mere minutes, Joe had confirmed that Danny Lombardo was dead, killed by a single gunshot wound to the base of the skull. Less than an hour later, paramedics popped back in Diana's dislocated shoulder, and refusing their offer of pain medication, she nearly passed out from the burning agony. Slowly limping to the park bench, she slumped down and, for the first time, noticed that the two young children had been returned to the nanny who was being escorted to a waiting police car.

Diana felt weariness tugging at her, but with the adrenaline of battle still pumping through her veins, she couldn't relax. Even when Joe walked over and lightly touched her, she flinched defensively. Raising both his hands, he backed up a couple of steps, staring at her with a look she had never before seen in his eyes. Dragging a large gulp of air into her lungs, she pulled herself together enough to formally apologize to District Attorney Joe Maxwell for her momentary loss of control when she first apprehended Lombardo, but she was damned if she'd ever apologize for being forced to kill the bastard. A subdued Joe assured her that the killing was justified, given that they all had witnessed Lombardo's attempt to abduct the children. However, as a detective involved in a shooting that had resulted in the death of the suspect, there would naturally be an investigation by Internal Affairs. As a matter of policy, she was immediately relieved of duty and placed on administrative leave. With more concern than Diana had ever heard him express, Joe suggested that she take off the next month - get away from her work - to regain her balance and her perspective. A rebellious streak in her wanted to challenge his generosity, but the throbbing in her shoulder had intensified, and a part of her recognized that she needed the rest, and even more, the time to heal.

Tired and in pain, Diana told Joe she would take the leave from her work. She told him she was alright. She told him 'no', she didn't need to speak with the station counselor. Finally realizing that she would let him do no more, he walked away. Safely out from under Joe's scrutiny, Diana admitted to herself that she'd lied. She wasn't alright. Today she had killed a man, and even now she couldn't summon a single feeling of remorse - and despite the circumstances that justified the shooting, Diana knew that she hadn't even tried to avoid the kill or disable him. The truth was that she had wanted Danny Lombardo dead. With that admission, she felt herself go cold inside, and she knew she was going to be sick. Turning so that her back was to the group of officers still taking evidence from the crime scene, she leaned over the edge of the bench and promptly lost the contents of her stomach.

Her head was now throbbing, and it joined the pain radiating in her shoulder. The only bright spot was that no one had noticed her moment of weakness. Now shivering uncontrollably, she was once again reminded of how completely her facade of total self-reliance was destroyed. Right now she was hurt and weary, and she needed a safe place to recover. It was then that she remembered hearing that Father had opened Below to all Helpers as a refuge from the heat wave that had blanketed the Northeast. She knew she wasn't at risk from the heat that even now, at midmorning, was steadily building, but she was far from well. She needed to be around people who cared for one another. She needed to hear Jake's laughter and watch as the children beat Father at chess or performed an impromptu concert. She needed a safe place to heal.

For two days, she struggled with her decision, but in the end, she sent a message to Vincent, asking him to meet her today. She would ask him for refuge Below for the next two weeks, hoping that her presence would not disturb the already precarious balance of their relationship. Lost in her thoughts, she failed to notice that Vincent had arrived. For all of his height and build, Vincent could be a quiet man. Now, from the inner shadows of the tunnel, he stilled himself and allowed that part of him that was empathic to sense the anguish roiling within his friend. He could feel the depth of her pain, both physical and emotional; and his eyes narrowed with concern as he noticed what he'd missed before. Diana was not standing with the sure wide stance that so reminded him of a Valkyrie from Norse mythology. With her head resting on her knees, she radiated fatigue; and though she wore her trademark jeans and baggy sweatshirt, Vincent could tell that she'd lost weight since last he'd seen her. And above all, he felt her grief, a sadness so profound it was as if she had buckled under the weight of despair.

Diana was his friend, a woman who had aided him in finding his son and had willingly taken on the burden of Gabriel's death so that he could begin the long, hard road of healing. To see her so shattered and vulnerable brought out in Vincent the protective instincts that he felt for all he considered family or friend. Softly, so as not startle her, Vincent called out.

"Diana, is everything alright?" She looked up, and Vincent quickly masked his shock at the stark desolation reflected in her eyes. Wearily she passed a hand over her face and slowly came to stand before the man who had captured her heart while his own still belonged to another - another who was dead. She had intended to ask him quickly and outright if she could seek sanctuary Below. Instead, the grief she felt for the senseless killing of Bobby Jensen and her recent fear for the two toddlers in the park merged in her mind.

With a choked sob, she asked him. "Is Jake alright? Is he safe?"

Responding to her desperate inquiry, Vincent nodded. "He's safe, Diana. I just left him with Mary."

Diana released her breath in a sigh, and tentatively reached out her hand to Vincent. That was all she needed to do to ask for his help, as he closed the distance between them and gathered her in an embrace that offered comfort and refuge from the death and killing that symbolized her life Above. Great gut-wrenching sobs shook her body, and Vincent stood, solid and true, absorbing her grief and pain and providing the shoulder that she so desperately needed to lean on. As Diana's sobs slowly subsided, Vincent spoke to her softly.

"Tell me, Diana, what has made you so sad?"

Looking up at him, Diana's eyes glistened with tears. Vincent thought, for a second, that she might succumb to more weeping, but crying was the last thing on her mind. From the moment she stared into the startling blue of Vincent's eyes, she was lost all over again. No talks from Father could stop the attraction she felt for him: it was there, it was real, and whether he returned it or not, Diana simply could not stop the love she felt for this man, his son, and the community Below. Marshaling her emotions with an effort that made her heart ache all the more, she drew in a ragged breath and stepped back from the comfort and safety of Vincent's embrace.

"There was a case, Vincent," she whispered softly, ". . . an innocent little boy only two years old. A little boy who reminded me so much of Jake . . . This boy was murdered. No....not just murdered, but tortured without mercy and then killed when he could no longer satisfy the sadistic cravings of this man. Two days ago, I found his killer. I wanted to destroy him, Vincent - to kill him so that he could never harm another child - and I would have killed him that way. No trial. No jury. Just executed by my hand - by my justice. But there were other children in the park - children who would have seen his murder, who would forever remember the sight and smell of his death. And so I pulled back. Joe and two other cops were there. They saw me pull back, and that's when the man tried to abduct one of the children to pave his escape with a hostage. So I shot him, Vincent, through the head - and he died at the feet of a child. And now. . . ."

For the first time she faltered. Vincent waited patiently. Knowing how fiercely she protected her independence, he was afraid to suggest that she stay Below where he and others might look after her. Still, it was obvious that she needed to be cared for. As the silence between them stretched out, Vincent glanced around and for the first time spied the worn duffle bag that sat at the very entrance to the tunnel. The true reason for her request that he meet her suddenly became clear.

Walking over to the bag, he lifted it easily onto his shoulder and then held out his hand to her.

"Come, Diana. No one can be strong all the time. We are your family, and with us you will always have a safe place whenever you should need it. As the savior of my son's life and my friend, it would give me the greatest honor for you to stay with us Below for a time. Please, let us help you."

Slowly, she reached out and clasped Vincent's hand tightly, as though it was a lifeline, and perhaps in the end, it was. Turning them toward the darkness beyond, Vincent thought of how many times he had offered his comfort to Catherine, but seldom the sanctuary of his home. Perhaps if he'd insisted more that she stay Below, things would have been different. Glancing down at Diana, as she walked quietly beside him, he promised that he'd do whatever he must to help her through this time. Her friendship was precious to him, and he would be there for her; and perhaps in some small way atone for a time, not so very long ago, when he had not been there for Catherine.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Father entered his chamber to discover Vincent and Diana sitting at his table, a plate of cookies and two pots before them. Knowing his visitor as he did, he imagined one pot contained water for Vincent's tea, while the other was most certainly coffee for Diana. As he approached the table, his eyes widened momentarily in alarm as he took in Diana's appearance. Noting the almost imperceptible shake of Vincent's head, he quickly masked his shock, but looked at her even more closely. Her fatigue was obvious, but he was also certain that she had lost weight. In light of her exhausted state, any reticence he might have first felt in seeing her with Vincent, especially after their last conversation, disappeared completely. With only a brief glance at Vincent to acknowledge that he understood, he turned his full attention to Diana, and without the usual small talk, came directly to the point.

"Diana, you are unwell."

"I'm fine, Jacob," she said softly, staring at the steaming cup she held in her hands rather than confronting the censure she expected to see in his eyes.

"No, you're not fine - not by a long shot. Mind you, this is just my opinion without the benefit of examining you, but based on no other evidence than looking at you now, I'd say you're suffering from acute exhaustion; you've lost at least ten pounds in the past month; the shadows under your eyes tell me you're obviously not sleeping well; and something seems to be bothering your left arm if the way you have it cradled in your lap is any indication."

Diana looked up at Jacob in surprise, and the compassion in his expression totally demolished her defenses, leaving her on the brink of tears: unable to respond to him, lest she break down completely. Sensing her distress, Vincent interceded, "Father, Diana has pushed herself too hard lately, and I've invited her to stay with us for a few weeks to rest."

Vincent didn't miss the sharp glance Father threw at him with those words, but he was relieved that Diana obviously had. Yet, when Father spoke again, there was nothing but concern in his voice.

"Of course Diana is welcome to stay with us, and you won't be alone my dear. We have several Helpers who have taken us up on our offer of refuge from the heat Above. But given your condition, I must insist you allow me to examine your arm immediately. Then, I want you to rest - in bed. Vincent, while we get this business over with, would you be so kind as to find Mary and have her prepare a chamber for Diana?"

"Certainly Father," Vince replied as he rose from the chair. "And thank you," he said so softly as he walked past Father that there was little chance that Diana had overheard. Neither man would fail Diana when she so needed the support of their family Below, but both men also knew that there were issues surrounding Diana's stay that would have to be addressed; words that would have to be said. But for now, Diana would stay Below, and they would help her heal. For Vincent, for now, that was enough.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After checking to assure himself that Diana was comfortably settled in one of the few remaining guest chambers, Vincent dropped in on Father. He found the Patriarch of their world at his desk, his concentration focused on the list of Helpers who now resided Below. As though sensing his presence, Father looked up toward the entrance and a smile of welcome replaced the look of worry Vincent had already noted.

"Come in, Vincent," Father called to him. As Vincent drew near, Father wrote a few additional notes next to several names on his pad, and then laid the entire list to the side.

"I am sorry to disturb you, Father. If this is a bad time . . . ."

"Nonsense," Father said with a wry smile. "I doubt there ever will be a good time for what I'm doing, and in all honesty, I could use a diversion right about now."

"Would talking about it help?" Vincent offered, as he settled himself more comfortably in the chair.

"It wouldn't hurt, I'm sure, but there's not much to talk about. The Helpers have always been there for us, and it's time for us to offer them the help they need. The addition of twenty more persons to our community does stretch our resources, but I believe we have enough in reserve for several more weeks before things become strained. Hopefully, by then, this heat wave will have snapped."

"Then what is it that has you so concerned?" Vincent asked.

"In truth, I'm not as concerned about the presence of our Helpers or the depletion of our resources as I am in trying to find something useful for them to do. I was looking at the list to see where they could best fit into our community. I suspect it will be far easier for all of them if they have something productive to occupy their time while they wait for the weather to break."

"And what have you come up with?" asked Vincent.

"I've decided to pair each Helper with one of our tunnel residents. In the beginning they can just shadow them - see how things are done. Then as they get accustomed to our ways, I should think they will want to accept more responsibility."

Vincent leaned over to look at the list which Father pushed across the desk to him. Nodding, he commented,"It seems that you've done a good job with matching our Helpers with the services they performed Above."

"Not in all cases, Vincent. For some, I've had to make a guess as to what functions Below would best meet their needs....or their present circumstances," Father admitted.

Picking up on Father's discomfort, Vincent looked at the list again. Then, as two names caught his attention, he looked up in sudden comprehension. More casually than he actually felt, he commented, "I notice you've paired Josiah and Diana with Mary and Rebecca to care for the children."

"I have, and I would appreciate your thoughts on my assignment for Josiah," Father replied.

Vincent hesitated. Through James Honig, a store owner and steadfast Helper, he had become acquainted with Josiah. Vincent had found him to be a gentle, hardworking giant of a man with a good heart. So when Honig approached Father to accept Josiah into their community, there had never been any doubt that the Council would approve the admission of this strong and willing Helper. Yet, no one had expected that less than a week later James Honig would be dead, and Josiah would come to them as the sole survivor of the crime. When he'd first come Below, Vincent had taken the time to check on him, desiring only to ease his transition into their world. Their first meeting had been uncomfortable. Rather than gratitude or relief at being a part of their community, Josiah radiated an underlying thread of resentment and hostility that Vincent immediately sensed. Each subsequent encounter left Vincent feeling slightly disquieted, a vague unease that told him all was not well.

Vincent assumed that much of Josiah's buried anger was directed at the senseless death of his boss and mentor, Mr. Honig. Now, however, Father had come upon the idea of assigning Josiah to care for the most precious resource of their world: the children. Vincent was unconvinced that it was in Josiah's best interest to work with the children, given his present mental state. Still, he was equally reluctant to cast aspersions on the man for feelings that he, himself, had experienced in the wake of Catherine's murder.

Yet, Vincent also had great faith in his innate ability to sense danger. Thus, with as much diplomacy as he was able to muster, Vincent answered Father in words that would not commit him to either decision.

"Josiah has endured much, Father, but I must wonder if he has recovered sufficiently from his ordeal to be saddled with the responsibility of the children. He appears so much more aloof than I remember, and I am somewhat concerned that he may not be adjusting to life with us."

Clearly not understanding, Father spoke up quickly in Josiah's defense. "Of course he hasn't adjusted, Vincent! That's to be expected, given all that he has been through! As for his reticence...yes, I've noticed it, too; but Josiah was always a quiet man. Is it any wonder that with the murder of his mentor he is even more withdrawn? In fact, it is for that very reason that I thought being around the children would help. And as for working with the little ones, he'll be supervised by Mary and Rebecca. What better teachers could he have?"

Frustrated at his own inability to pinpoint the source of his feelings toward Josiah or explain his doubts to Father, Vincent remained silent. In good faith he couldn't find a single concrete concern sufficient to cast shadow on Josiah's character. Still, his instincts could not be ignored, and while he might not object to him being assigned to work with the children, he most certainly intended to keep a close eye on him. Thus, with a grim reluctance he did nothing to hide from Father, Vincent told him, "I realize that James Honig had great faith in Josiah, and in honor of his memory, I agree - for now - with your assignment for Josiah....but I also think I'll keep a watchful eye on how things progress."

Father looked at Vincent closely and read the worry in his expression. He knew then that something was amiss, and perhaps he had sensed it all along - thus his request that Vincent review the Helpers' work assignments. No other words of warning or concern needed to be said, since both men knew each would give Josiah the opportunity to prove himself guiltless of any suspicions . Knowing Vincent's personal interest in Josiah's reliability in caring for the children, Father had no doubt that he would personally keep an eye on things. That thought brought Father a sense of relief, and with finality, he said, "An excellent course of action."

Clearing his voice in far too exaggerated a manner for it to be natural, Father then inquired, "And what are your thoughts about Diana working with the children...."

This time there was no hesitation as Vincent answered with ease. "Diana has spent much of her time with the children whenever she's come to visit in the past. Yet, her last case nearly crushed her spirit, Father. So much of what she does is the stuff made of nightmares, and given that the tragedy of this recent case involved a child, I believe she would benefit greatly from being around the children. It will help to repel the darkness that surrounded her for weeks while she hunted the killer of that little boy. Perhaps in rediscovering the innocence and beauty in childhood, she will find a balance within herself."

"Yes," Father replied carefully. "Those were my thoughts, as well. I think being Below with us and working with the children may well help her to heal - but I can't help but wonder at what cost . . ."

"Must there always be a cost to everything or is this just your way of implying that you now have second thoughts about Diana being among us?" Vincent asked quietly, although he well understood Father's question and by his own response acknowledged that they had now come full circle to the real reason he had dropped by Father's chamber. The ramification of Diana living among them was an issue Vincent had refused to consider from the moment he found her sitting in the midst of despair at the entrance of the tunnel. He would listen and even acknowledge Father's right to parental displeasure over this matter, but his will was set. Should Father desire Diana to leave, Vincent's would adamantly refuse. He had no intention of escorting her from their home before she was well once again.

Father allowed the power of silence to guide his reply, as he looked at Vincent implacable expression. Finally, he sighed. "Right now, Diana needs our help, Vincent. And of course I'm not rescinding my decision to offer her sanctuary. I should be insulted that you would think so badly of me - although my past actions toward Catherine may have influenced your conclusions and so I take no offense. Neither do I have any illusions that Diana will stay in bed and regain her strength, regardless of the fact that she desperately needs the rest. So if work she must, then I agree that it would be best among the children. Her love for little Jacob is known by everyone. So no, Vincent, there is no cost in Diana looking after the children. They are probably the best medicine for her spirit, and Mary will most certainly welcome the help. My question concerned what your influence will be on her well-being....and what the cost will be to her heart in being constantly around you . . ."

Vincent looked up, startled. He expected anything other than for Father to come so bluntly to the heart of the matter. Struggling for a response to Father's words, he blurted out the first thing he thought.

"Father, this may not be the best of solutions for Diana, but it's the best I could offer her when she was in such pain, and her need was so great."

Father stared at him steadily, and Vincent realized with sudden clarity that Father knew how Diana felt about him, and more than that, he accepted her feelings, something he had never done with Catherine until it was too late for them all. Before he could falter any further, Father surprised him once again.

"You do realize, Vincent, that Diana is in love with you."

Yes I know, Vincent thought, but putting those thoughts into words was harder than he had imagined. Grimly, he grabbed hold of the logic that had previously guided him in his dealings with Diana and replied. "I know, that she cares for Jacob. I know that she is my friend and ally, Father - that she cares for you and our entire community. I also know that love is too strong an emotion for what we share."

"And exactly what is it that you and Diana share?" Father queried with a gleam of amusement in his eyes that set Vincent teeth on edge. How could he find humor in something as tragic as unrequited love? Vincent thought. Yet, tamping down hard on his irritation, Vincent managed to reply.

"It is the closeness that comes from shared pain, shared danger. Diana feels much, and she also has great empathy, Father. It is only natural that her feelings would align with my own, given what we have endured in the past year, but imagining that she is in love with me is simply not the way things are between us."

"No Vincent, perhaps not for you," Father now said somberly. "But for Diana, love is exactly what she imagines is between you - at least on her part. Oh, she would appear to seek only friendship, but as you correctly stated, she is an empath in her own right. She knows what you desire of her. Still, it remains that her heart is in your hands. You, Vincent, are capable of causing her much distress in your unwillingness to acknowledge and deal with her love for you."

"And if I am unwilling to acknowledge her love because it is not what I feel in return, what would you have me do? Would you rather that I crush her with the brutal truth - that my heart and soul are as much Catherine's today as they ever were? Do you think I should confess to her that I dream of Catherine, that I hear her voice, that I've even "felt" her inside of me again? Would it be better for Diana to know the truth of my desires? That my dreams are filled with the touch and taste and scent of a woman dead for almost two years?"

In obvious anguish, he whispered, "Do you really believe, Father, that baring my soul to Diana would cause her less pain than my silence?"

Father answered without reservation. "I would have you do whatever it takes, Vincent, to prevent Diana from being misguided by your silence. I would have you do whatever it takes to prevent a repeat with Diana of the unfortunate misunderstanding that occurred with Lena. Believe me, the pain of confronting your enduring love for Catherine will be far better for Diana in the long run than having her hold on to a lie. . ."

"Father, I pledge to you now that I will do everything in my power to protect Diana's heart. She is my friend, and I would not see her suffer because of feelings I cannot return. But likewise, you must allow me to see this thing through in my own way and in my own time."

Vincent's sincerity was obvious. Father nodded somberly, and replied, "I hope, for her sake that you will be able to protect her from her own emotions for you, Vincent. Diana is here to heal, not to be brought to the brink of emotional collapse by feelings which you both have danced around for the better part of a year."

The ominous tone of Father's pronouncement made the ensuing silence oppressive, and just when Vincent thought their talk was over, he suddenly sat up and reached across the table to place his hand over Vincent's. Steely gray eyes bored into brilliant blue ones as he whispered earnestly: "Know this, Vincent: You are no longer an inexperienced youth who I should either berate or order about on this matter. You are a man; a father in your own right. You've known desire, and you've known love - but I wonder if you've ever faced the power of physical need when coupled with loneliness and the temptation of a willing woman?"

Pulling his hand from under Father's, Vincent rose now, a smooth motion that belied the inner turmoil he felt and the doubts that Father's words had set off.

"Father, it is true that I do not fear intimacy as once I did. This is another gift left to me by Catherine's love. But along with this has come the responsibility I have, as any other man, to not take advantage of another, despite my physical needs."

The last Vincent said through clenched teeth and balled fists. Father noted his stance, and sighed with weary resignation. "Calm yourself, Vincent. I do not accuse you of lightly dealing with Diana's heart. It's more that you've ignored the problem altogether. Now that she is among us, however, I merely warn you - as one man to another - that passion is a powerful force. It can be your greatest enemy in maintaining an emotional distance from Diana; an enemy you would do well not to underestimate in this effort of yours to keep from hurting her. That you honor your friendship with Diana and would not intentionally tread upon her heart are not in question. But to know your weakness is to acknowledge the danger and guard yourself from the temptation that Diana presents."

"What danger, Father? What temptation? What would you have me acknowledge that I have not already done?"

"Why passion, lust, desire or whatever you choose to call it, Vincent," Father replied, genuinely puzzled that Vincent had still not figured it out. Then too, Father thought, it is possible that perhaps he hasn't. More patient, and he hoped, less overbearing, he took a different approach.

"I just stated to you that passion is a powerful force, Vincent. You and Diana are alike in your attempts to submerge this part of yourselves. She channels her passion into her work, even at the expense of her well-being. You focus yours on our community Below and all who fall under your protection. But now, with her in our midst and within your reach, that may not be as easy as you imagine. The proximity of someone who is there, who is willing to soothe and comfort, with whom you have established a friendship, if not love . . . may set into motion desires you have, thus far, kept under firm control."

Vincent whirled around suddenly and interrupted Father with an angry growl. "And do you think I would allow my "desires," as you so politely term them, to rule my head, Father? Have you forgotten that ever since the day I reached out for Lisa I have had to control my desires to the point of death? Yes, I admit that Diana is a beautiful, vibrant woman, and I do care for her. But she is not Catherine! And I am not in love with her!"

Now Father rose from his seat, his own emotions rising at Vincent's words, and he shot back with brutal honesty. "And do you really think, Vincent, that this is merely about love? Are you that naive about emotions and physical attraction that you give no thought to the chemistry between you and Diana? Love will not be the deciding factor should things get out of hand, son. It will be about need and opportunity. It will be about momentary weakness, and the human condition that makes one person reach out to another."

"And you truly believe these forces are greater than my commitment to Catherine and the love we shared?" Vincent asked in open arrogance.

"Catherine . . . is . . . dead!" Father yelled in exasperation. "Regardless of the love you have for her memory, you can't hold her in your arms, Vincent, and all the memories in the world cannot change that one fact!"

Father was not so far gone as to not know the devastating affect of his words, and his heart broke to see the abject despair now mirrored in Vincent's expression. Drawing in a shuddering breath, he sat down wearily and rubbed his eyes. Then, releasing his hold on the emotions and memories of his own complicated past, he whispered, "Vincent, I of all men understand the power of both love and loneliness. You know of my past and my love for Margaret. You know that I have never married another, and yet how do you think Devin was conceived when my heart - my love - always belonged to Margaret?"

Vincent suddenly looked up at Father, sensing a depth of sorrow he'd never felt from him before, and he realized the toll his admission had cost him. Now, Vincent, too slumped back into his chair. Haltingly, he reached out and touched Father's hand.

"I didn't know...." he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.

"How would you know?" Father replied. "It was so hard in those early years Below, and Grace was there - always supportive, comforting - much like Diana. She knew I didn't love her. Oh, certainly I cared about her, but not the way she wanted, not the way she deserved. I have never regretted being with Devin's mother. I have never regretted the passion we shared. But I will forever live with the guilt that I was never able to return the same measure of love she unselfishly gave to me. And then when she died in childbirth with Devin . . . . ."

Silence now engulfed the room, and Vincent realized just what had prompted Father to speak on this issue. His and Diana's predicament hit so close to home, it could not be ignored. But Vincent also understood, even if Father did not, that regardless of the similarities or differences, his feelings for Catherine were far more than his refusal to accept the reality of her death. In his heart, she still lived - as she did in his dreams, and as she had for a brief second in their bond. He could no sooner forsake his love for Catherine than he could change the circumstances of his birth. Softly now, Vincent's voice rumbled, low and with conviction.

"Father, Catherine is not dead. She lives inside me, in my dreams, my memories, my waking thoughts, and even in the depths of my passion. There is no place in my heart to love Diana, other than as my friend. But I will concede that you may be correct, and Diana's presence may present a very real temptation to me. For her sake and mine, I must bear that burden. That is the only guarantee I can give you that Diana will be safe here, among us, and with me. Father, I am grateful for Diana's presence in my life, but I do not love her, and without that love, I could never truly give myself to her. Anything else she might have from me would only be physical release and a cruel mockery of love."

Suddenly overcome with the truth of his words and the memories that gave substance to that truth, Vincent turned away from Father. His breathing was slightly labored as he fought to control the rush of feelings that coursed through him. Thoughts of Catherine, their love, and the circumstances that made it necessary for him to now express the depth of his feelings for a woman who everyone considered dead left him emotionally drained. Finally, he acknowledged to himself that all he could do was give Father the truth of his feelings. It was up to him to accept his words as the only reality Vincent would entertain, and thus he began to speak again.

"I know everyone believes that I simply refuse to accept Catherine's death, and maybe that is a part of it. But Father, the greater part is that we were bonded, she and I, not only for life, but for all eternity. She is no longer with me physically, but her love surrounds me, soothes me, and even . . . satisfies . . . my desires. There are times when her presence burns through me so intensely that I know - I know - that she is with me, and the warmth of that love fills me, holds me, eases my loneliness and my longings . . ."

The heat of embarrassment warmed Vincent's face as he admitted how intrinsically linked he was to Catherine, beyond death and beyond the grave. Pushing away the urge to flee Father's all too perceptive eyes, he forged on relentlessly.

"If I can experience such joy - such completion - clinging to the specter of Catherine, can you imagine what it was like for me . . . the intensity of joy that we shared when she was by my side? And how, Father, could anyone else replace those feelings? How could I bring myself to reach out for what would pale in comparison? At some elemental level of my soul that makes me all that I am, I remain joined to her. It is true that I am incomplete without her, but not truly unfulfilled, for she is still with me. Please don't ask me to explain this to you any further, only believe me when I tell you that Diana cannot replace that which was never lost inside my heart."

Resisting the urge to argue further, Father suddenly acquiesced. In Vincent's words, Father had glimpsed, for the briefest moment, the power of the love that kept his son bound to the memory of Catherine Chandler past all rational explanation. For that moment he had seen into the private world that Vincent and Catherine had created for themselves, and the magnitude of their love rendered him speechless. For the first time he truly understood what Catherine meant just before she entered the cave to rescue Vincent at a time when it had seemed that his humanity had been lost forever. She'd said, Father he is my life. Without him, there is nothing.

Obviously, she was his life, as well, and regardless of the physical separation caused by her death, Catherine was truly alive. She lived in Vincent: not as a rose-colored memory, but as a real force within his soul, sustaining him and loving him. Despite the reality of her demise, it was as if the her spirit, her love, her goodness and generosity had overcome the grave to keep alive the dream they once shared. It was this realization that brought Father to reluctantly recognize the enormity of the chasm which separated the love Vincent had for Catherine from that he had once held for Margaret. Father knew that his love of Margaret had been real, but Vincent's love for Catherine was not only real, it was as unique and as different as he was.

Father now accepted with a new clarity that he might never understand all the facets of his son, and with a tinge of regret, he told him, "You are right, Vincent, I do not completely understand; and I hope you will forgive me for once again jumping to the conclusion that you needed my warning."

The underlying apology in his words were not loss on Vincent, and briefly his hand tightened around Father's hoping to offer the reassurance his parent now needed.

"You are too hard on yourself, Father," Vincent said with a small shake of his head. "Your unwavering love for me has always been the cornerstone of my life. Catherine's love is the depth and breadth of all that I am, and as Jacob's father, I understand your concern. But Father, we both know that we will allow Diana to remain Below, and we will help her to heal. I will do all within my power not to encourage Diana's feelings, for she can never give me what I had in Catherine. And if I cannot have Catherine in my arms, I will not use Diana for what would be a poor substitute to soothe my lust or loneliness - for in truth, it would soothe neither."

Standing now, Vincent walked around to Father and placed a gentle kiss on the older man's cheek. "Please Father, do not worry. Things will work out," he whispered.

Still unsure how Vincent had ended their talk still believing that things would just work themselves out, Father shook his head ruefully and watched as his son left the chamber. There was no chance in all of heaven or hell that he would not worry, for he understood Diana and her will was nearly as formidable as Vincent's. Alone, he remembered another time when he had been helpless to stop the flow of events that surrounded Vincent. Then it had involved Catherine as she stayed Below to heal from the death of her father. Now, it involved Diana. With a sad shake of his head, he realized that all he could do now - all he had been able to do then - was watch and pray.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Outside of Father's chamber, Vincent hastily threw his great cloak over his shoulders. He knew he should check with Mary and reclaim Jacob, but he could feel that his son was sleeping, his slumber a gentle rhythm in his mind. For now, he desired only to walk off the tension of his talk with Father until he had regained a measure of peace. Thus, with his focus directed inward, Vincent took the seldom-used tunnel that branched off to the Catacombs and, in so doing, failed to notice the figure of a woman pressed hard against the indentation of a stone alcove only a few feet from Father's entrance. It was only after his footsteps became a faint echo that Diana stepped forward. The sheen of tears on her cheeks stood out starkly against her anguished face. Yet it was the fierce glint of determination in her eyes that flared in the shadows of her hiding place and gave testament to all she had overheard.

 


Continued in Chapter 12