Dining In

B. Gualda

Diana gingerly lifted the saucepan and placed it on the stove. Sheturned the heat on beneath it and then slowly, carefully, walked overto her cupboard and took out a jar of spaghetti sauce. She placed iton the countertop and tried to open it, but her hand kept slippingand she couldn't get a good enough grip on the lid. She triedcovering it with a towel for added friction, but the jar stillrefused to open. She tossed the towel aside and guardedly walked overto her silverware drawer. Opening it slowly, she picked out a tableknife and made her way carefully back to the jar on the counter.Taking ahold of the jar, she rapped the side of the stubborn lidseveral times with the knife. She put the knife down and triedtwisting the lid again, to no avail. Swearing under her breath, shewarily carried the jar over to the sink.

Hot or cold? she wondered. She decided on cold, and turned thefaucet on, holding the jar lid under the flow of icy water for a fewminutes. Satisfied, she turned off the water, dried the jar with thetowel and tried to open it once more.

"Damnit!" She slammed the jar down on the countertop, and withreluctant resignation, slowly went to the cupboards to find somethingelse to fix.

Gingerly, she reached up and opened the cupboards again, frowningand shaking her head in disgust at the lack of appealing contents.She thought she spied a can of vegetable soup that had been pushedtowards the back and she stretched up to reach for it, wincingslightly. It was just out of her reach and she knew she'd have to geta chair if she wanted to have the can of soup. She stood, debating,trying to decide if it would be worth the effort when she smelledsomething burning. She suddenly remembered the pan and turnedquickly. Too quickly as another jolt of pain sent her reeling.

Gray smoke was billowing from the scorched pan and rapidly fillingthe kitchen area.

"Oh jeez!" She had forgotten about turning on the heat under theempty pan. Normally she would have had the sauce in it long beforenow. She hurried as much as she was able, back over to the stove.Diana's only thought was to get it off the heat before it started afire. Without thinking, she grabbed the handle and seered herhand.

"Shit!" she swore, as she jerked her hand back. The pan clatteredloudly to the floor. Diana continued swearing, waving her handrapidly in the air to cool it. Angrily, she kicked the pan as hard asshe could, immediately regretting such an outburst as sharp paingripped her back. She turned off the heat with a heavy sigh. Then thesmoke detector went off.

Diana screamed in fury and hobbled over to the broom closet andseized her broom. She walked as fast as she could over to where thesmoke detector was mounted on the wall. She beat at it with the broomhandle until she dislodged it, and ignoring the pain, she took outall her anger on the hapless device, all but smashing it into pieces.Finally the alarm ceased and a blissful quiet ensued. Diana stoodover it, glowering, panting from anger and pain. She straightenedslowly and sighed.

She struggled to calm herself and subdue her anger. It was then,she realized, she was not alone. His presence suddenly hit herpowerfully and she turned slowly, and frowned.

Vincent stood leaning rather casually against the bedroomdoorframe, his arms crossed loosely over his chest, wearing anexpression somewhere between shock and amusement.

"Temper, temper," he admonished teasingly. He straightened andbegan walking over to where Diana stood glaring at him.

It wasn't that she was unhappy to see him. If anything could turnthe tide on a bad day, a visit from him could. But this had been anexceptionally bad day and her temper and nerves were frayed short.She was suddenly embarrassed to think he might have witnessed herchildish tantrum and she turned away from him, angry that he had notmade his presence known sooner.

"Oh, you're one to talk about tempers," she retorted, miffed, butknowing since he had baited her, he would expect an equally barbedresponse. She knew he wouldn't take her seriously and he seemed toenjoy trading gibes with her. Diana enjoyed it too, but mostlyenjoyed the fact that he felt comfortable enough with theirfriendship to grace her with glimpses of his rather dry sense ofhumor.

"How'd you get in here anyway?" she asked. She stalked back intothe kitchen, coughing slightly. Undaunted by her anger, Vincentstarted after her, waving his hand through the smoke still hangingheavily in the air.

"I knocked. You must not have heard me. I knew you were home, so Ilet myself in," he admitted with a hint of an apology in hisvoice.

Diana looked over at him. "Next time, make some noise." She nevercould quite figure out how someone of his size could move about withsuch stealth.

Diana dipped down to retrieve the fallen pan, supporting her lowerback with her hand. Vincent stopped to observe her curiously.

"You're hurt, aren't you?"

Diana sighed. "Slightly." She rose slowly and tossed the pancarelessly on the stovetop.

"I had no sense of it earlier." He looked disturbed, not liking toadmit such a thing.

Diana tried to reassure him. "It doesn't hurt constantly. Only ifI move a certain way. Besides, I've been feeling more frustration andanger than pain since you've been here." The fact that he had anysense of her at all was something of a miracle as far as Diana wasconcerned. She didn't mind if he occasionally misinterpreted herfeelings even if he did mind. She knew he had an empathic sense ofpeople and things around him and she knew over the last year or so,his sense of her had grown considerably. It made her feel special andcloser to him in a way.

Her anger subsiding, she sighed heavily. "I tried to liftsomething that I shouldn't have. I threw my back out." She lookedinto his concerned eyes and swallowed hard, her bad luck beginning tooverwhelm her. "I'm not having a good day. Or night for thatmatter."

Vincent's mood immediately shifted to one of tender consolation.He walked over to her and folded his arms around her. "No?" he saidquietly, agreeing more than inquiring.

His gentle, soothing embrace and the sincerity in his voice,encouraged Diana to relay the hapless events of her day. He noddedand brushed her disheveled hair from her eyes with a barelyperceptible touch of his forefinger.

Finally Diana gestured impatiently at the jar of sauce on thecountertop. "And then, I couldn't get the stupid jar open," shemuttered.

Vincent's gaze followed hers to the forlorn jar. Wordlessly, hereleased her and walked over to the counter. Grasping the jar andcovering the lid with his large hand, he twisted it once and Dianaheard the telltale 'pop' of the broken vacuum seal. He turned andlooked back at her.

Diana tried hard not to smile. She tried to cover it up by rubbingher eyes. "Thank you," she said softly. Then, under her breath,"Where were you fifteen minutes ago?"

Of course he heard her. "I was standing over there. Watchingyou."

Diana looked irritated again. "And you didn't offer to helpme?"

Facing her, Vincent leaned his hips against the edge of thecounter. "At the time, I wasn't aware of your injury. And besides,anyother time, you would have been insulted if I had rushed forward tooffer to open a jar for you."

"I suppose you're right," Diana admitted with a quick nod. "I wasnever the type of woman who lets men open doors, and jars, for them."She turned her attention to the scorched pan on the stove. She tookthe pan over to the sink and sighed heavily. It would have to bescrubbed before she could use it for the sauce. She turned on thewater and tried to focus on the task at hand.

Vincent was surveying the ingredients on the counter beside him."What are you cooking?" he asked finally, unable to piece togethermuch of a meal from them.

"Cheese tortellini. I like to use spaghetti sauce and freshbasil." She proceeded to explain in detail the exact process ofcooking the tortellini just the way she liked it. "It's easy and it'sone of my favorite meals and I felt deserving tonight after the dayI've had." She flashed him a quick hopeful smile. "Have you eatenyet?"

Unexpectedly, he shook his head slowly. "No....It's not likelyI'll be able to eat anything tonight."

"Oh? Why not?"

Sighing, Vincent lowered his eyes. "I'm a little sore todaymyself," he began, somewhat self-consciously. "I had my teeth cleanedand worked on this afternoon."

"Worked on? You mean you went to the dentist?" Diana turned offthe faucet and faced him intrigued.

"Actually, he comes to us. Below."

Diana hated going to the dentist. "What did you have done?"sheasked with undisguised curiosity.

"If you must know," he replied with exaggerated patience. "Themost significant thing was that I had cracked a tooth. It had beencausing me some discomfort, so I decided to have it repaired."Vincent looked up at her. "My mouth is still tender and my jaw aches.Especially when I bite down."

Diana could sympathize easily, having been to a dentist just lastweek herself. She could imagine with his unique teeth being as largeand pristinely white as they were, he probably had regular dentalwork done. "And you haven't eaten since this morning? You must behungry." She thought she would try inviting him to dine with her moredirectly this time. "Stay and have dinner with me. I've got plentyand you'll like this. It's soft."

Vincent smiled. He straightened and walked over to her. Silently,he placed his hands on her arms and turned her around carefully. ToDiana's delight and utter shock, he began massaging her shoulders,gently kneading her stiff muscles with strong fingers.

"I am hungry," he confessed.

Diana smiled brightly, taking his admission as a 'yes.' "Good,"she said and sighed heavily. Closing her eyes, she daringly leanedback into his hands. She could feel the surface of her skin becominghot where he was touching her, the warmth spreading through her stiffmuscles as the stress tethering them began to ease.

"Where are you hurt?" he asked quietly.

"....Lower back."

His hands moved to the small of her back. He worked his thumbscautiously along her spine and around her hips in slow small circles,pressing softly, using the pads of his fingers to keep fromscratching her. She flinched once as he encountered a particularknotted muscle. He paused, then continued, even more tenderly thanbefore.

"You must be in more pain than you say," he noted. "I was barelytouching you."

"Don't stop....It feels great," she breathed. "You have magicalhands." She smiled as she heard his scoffing laugh behind her. It'strue, she thought to herself. Those hands of his were reshaping her,healing her, loving her. Her mind was sinking slowly into thick darkwater. The warmth and security of it enveloping her. Vincent was soclose to her, she was practically leaning against him. The only thingholding her back was the pressure of his hands. A tiny contented moanescaped her throat. "Oh yeah. Right there," she directed, gratefully.She could feel his warm, moist breath on her neck as he leaned overto speak to her.

"Poor Diana," he whispered.

Not so poor as to have derived this kind of nuturing from you, shethought. Her whole body was beginning to tingle and she longed toturn around in his arms and capture his mouth in a kiss of wildabandon. Dispondently, she realized even if she had the courage to dosuch a thing, right now, she lacked the physical capability to movewith any 'abandon' and her passionate kiss would probably hurt hisalready sore mouth.

"Oh well," she sighed, not realizing she had actually voiced herresignation until he responded.

"Do you want me to stop?"

She felt something close to panic surge through her at hissuggestion, but her rationality quickly snuffed it out. "Not really,but maybe you should." It feels too good. You feel too good. Damn itall.

He stepped back and she forced her attention on getting theirdinner started and off of his warm, strong hands.

"Thank you, Vincent. That made me feel....better."

"You're welcome." He sighed, concerned, feeling like he hadn'treally done anything to help her. "How are you going to manage whenyou can barely move?"

Diana half shrugged. "I'll be fine. Really. This is nothing new tome. I've always had a tempermental back." She looked over at him andsmiled. "I called my sister, Susan, and she is coming tomorrowmorning. She'll stay a few days to help me. She's been through thiswith me before."

Vincent was looking at her rather unhappily, but Diana wasn't sureif it was from concern, regret, or sympathy. She turned around again,a little too quickly, and winced in pain. She grabbed at her back,her eyes watering, and took a deep ragged breath.

Vincent put his arm around her shoulders. "Come on," he urged andbegan slowly guiding her from the kitchen area. "You need to liedown."

Diana started to protest. "No, Vincent. If I lie down, I'll neverbe able to get back up. Besides, I'm almost as hungry as you are andthat tortellini is not going to fix itself."

Pointedly ignoring her protests, he led her to the sofa and beganpiling pillows and cushions against the arm.

"Sit then. But rest. I'll make dinner."

Diana looked startled. "No. I couldn't."

"Sit now," he told her and pointed at the end of the sofa with allthe cushions. "And don't argue with me," he commanded in the sametone of voice he used on unruly children.

Diana knew she had lost this battle before it had begun. Resigned,she let him help her sit down and slowly eased her back into thecushions. She watched him carefully arrange the pillows around herfor optimum comfort, pausing to touch her cheek affectionately beforeturning towards the kitchen. Diana reached up and grabbed his handbefore he got out of her reach. He looked at her, his expression openand anticipating.

"You're sweet," she whispered and felt more tears well in hereyes; but this time not from the pain in her back, but the pain inher heart. She was so in love with him. How could she ever tell himhow she truly felt? "Thanks for caring," she said and sniffed.

He squeezed her hand and tilted his head slightly to the side. Itwas his most innocently charming gesture and Diana adored it.

"You sound surprised," he stated quietly. "You shouldn't be. Ofcourse I care for you. Apparently more than you think."

Diana's heart skittered, then began pounding heavily inside her.She watched him, mesmerized, as he slipped out of his cloak anddraped it over her, tucking it in around her. He offered her afleeting smile and silently retreated into the kitchen.

Diana buried her face in the supple leather and took a deepbreath. She smiled, relishing its softness, its warm weight lyingagainst her, and its heady scent. It made her feel as though he hadjust wrapped his body around her and she gazed over at him in thekitchen and allowed herself the luxury of a brief but highly eroticfantasy.

Suddenly, Vincent all but dropped the pan he was holding. Heclutched it to his chest and his eyes shot up to Diana. She merelylaughed at his rather uncharacteristic clumsiness, not really givingmuch thought to it. He looked away from her and set the pan carefullyon the stove.

"Nice recovery," she teased.

He looked up at her again, opened his mouth to say something,thought better of it and turned away towards the refrigerator.

With a flicker of concern, a thought occured to her."Vincent?"


"Do you even know how to cook?"

He was hidden behind the refrigerator door. "A little."

Diana didn't think that sounded very confident. "You don't have tomake the tortellini," she told him, reassuringly.

He closed the refrigerator and placed the package of fresh basilon the counter. "But you deserve it," he replied, overly sincere.

Diana blushed slightly. "No, really. I don't want you to go to anytrouble." He appeared to be too absorbed in what he was doing toacknowledge her. Either that or he was blatantly ignoring her again."I can have something delivered. I can call Henry at the restaurant.I don't have any money, so I can't pay him now, but I'm sure he'lltake pity on us and be willing to accept an IOU. Considering. I knowyou like Chinese food." Vincent still did not answer. "It's soft,"she continued hopefully.

Finally, Vincent looked up, exasperated.

"Relax, Diana. You told me exactly what to do. It's hardly beyondmy capabilities." He narrowed his eyes, the hint of a smile on hislips. "I'm already off to a better start than you were."

Feigning insult, Diana tried to sound cross. "I see you are backto being sarcastic." But that's all right, she thought. I can handleyour sarcasm a lot better than your tenderness.


As nice as it was to be sitting, snuggled under Vincent's cloak,Diana felt uncomfortable making him do everything for her when hemore than likely had just stopped by for a chat.

She pried her eyes off of him and looked around the living area,trying to find something else to hold her interest. The red powerlight on her stereo receiver caught her attention and she got an ideafor something she could do.

"Do you want me to put on some music?" She was already strugglingto get up, but Vincent was beside her in the blink of an eye.

"Don't get up!" he told her. "I'll do it."

Diana reluctantly settled back into the cushions as Vincent turnedhis attention on the tower of components that made up Diana'ssystem.

"It's already on," she explained. "There's a cd in the player.Just hit 'play.' It's the button on the right with the littlearrow--"

Vincent faced her, amused. "Diana. I can read." He gestured at thestereo. "On. Off. Play. Skip. Pause. Stop." He shrugged. "See?"

Diana grinned and lowered her eyes, a little embarrassed. "I'msorry. It's just that this whole scenario is kind of strange. You andtechnology. It's like an oxymoron. It's not that I don't have anyconfidence in your abilities. I know you are highly intelligent andcapable. It's just so different for me watching you do all this. Moreoften than not, you are just an observer."

He turned back to the stereo. "You must come and spend a day withme below when you are better. You'd be amazed at all the things Iactually do."

"You mean I would be the observer then? I think I would like that,alot." She smiled affectionately at him. "Vincent, nothing about youamazes me anymore. You're like Christmas morning to me. Just onedelightful surprise after the other." Her words apparently touchedhim. Even with his back turned to her, she could see his reaction. Hestraightened and stood frozen momentarily, considering what she hadjust told him. Then he took a deep breath and resumed what he wasdoing as if she'd said nothing at all.

"If you need anything," Vincent said quietly, "Let me know." Softstrains of piano playing floated up from the speakers and drifted outinto the room. Vincent turned to face her with a rather smugexpression, then stalked back into the kitchen.

Diana sighed, leaning her head back. She pulled the cloak tighteraround her shoulders and closed her eyes. She listened to him moveabout the kitchen, enjoying the sound of that more than the music.Pans dinged, drawers were opened, water was run. She felt almostgrateful to her injured back, knowing it had been responsible for theevents which had unfolded this evening.

"Are you finding everything okay?" Diana looked over at him buthis back was to her and from her angle, she couldn't tell what he wasdoing. "Do you need any help in there?" He wouldn't answer her andshe wondered if he was ignoring her. "Vincent?" She tried to pushherself forward, determined to get up. "Vincent?" She didn't want tobe in here while he was in there. Even if he wouldn't let her doanything, she wanted to at least be able to watch him. Her back beganto protest with sharp, stabbing pains that rendered her immobile. Shegasped and swore and tried to shift back against the cushions butthat motion caused even more pain. "Vincent! I'm stuck!"

He turned around finally and strode into the living room, dryinghis hands on a towel. He sighed when he saw her and shook hishead.

"What are you trying to do exactly, get up or sit back?" he asked,unsure of just how to assist her.

"I want to get up," she told him, resolutely. "I don't want to sitanymore."

Positioning himself directly in front of her, Vincent sighed andstretched out his hands to help her up.

Diana noticed he had pushed up his sleeves to his elbows whileworking in the kitchen, revealing his shapely and rather hairyforearms. She tried not to stare, knowing it would most likely makehim self-conscious. But since he so seldom exposed even his arms, hereyes were drawn to them and she couldn't help but want to get a goodlong look. Purposefully, she grasped his wrists rather than his handsso she could touch his bare arms.

Effortlessly, Vincent pulled her to her feet and held onto her asshe steadied herself.

"Were you uncomfortable sitting?" he asked.

"No. I just want to help you," she stated and started towards thekitchen.

Vincent released her and put his hands on his hips. "There'snothing to do at this point. The sauce is simmering and I was justwaiting for the water to boil."

"Did you remember the basil?"

He nodded.

Chagrinned, she sighed. "Got it all under control then, huh?"

"I have all the dinner preparations under control, yes. I was justabout to put down the place settings when you called for me. You wereout of forks, so I washed some. Diana, it's nothing I can't handleand I'm truly happy to help because I want you to rest tonight." Hesighed heavily. "You're as hyperactive and stubborn as Jacob. Can'tyou just sit and let someone take care of you for a change?"

Diana lowered her eyes. "Of course I can. That's why I calledSusan this afternoon. To have her come and take care of me." Sheshrugged slightly. "But with you, it feels like I'm takingadvantage--"

"But you're hurt," he reasoned. "And you've done no less for me inthe past."

Diana smiled. "That was different. You were dying. I'm hardlydying." She became serious again, reaching out to rub her hand overone of those irresistable arms of his. "Besides, I don't want to bein here while you're in there. I want to be where you are," shecontinued in a small hesitant voice.

"Ah," Vincent replied. "If you agree to sit back down, I'll sit inhere with you until the water is ready for the pasta. All right?"

"Deal," she agreed and took his offered hand. He helped her settleback onto the sofa, then he sat carefully beside her,stretching hislong legs out in front of him and placing his arm along the top ofthe cushions. She smiled warmly, pleased that he was able to feel sorelaxed in her loft. In the past year or so he had becomeconsiderably more confident and at ease; with her and in her home,and had no qualms about making himself comfortable here. Tonight hadmarked another milestone with him having adroitly taken over herkitchen.

He gazed contentedly back at her, his exotic blue eyessparkling.

"For someone who went to the dentist this afternoon, you seem tobe in fine temperment," Diana noted.

"Am I?" he inquired, then half shrugged. "It is nice to have anight off," he went on to explain.


"Free," he sighed.

Diana grinned. "Is Jacob with Father?"

"No. Jacob has a tendency to run Father into the ground," Vincentsaid with a rather toothy smile. "I left him with Brooke. She's youngenough to be able to keep up with him." He looked away from Dianabriefly, concentrating, then smiled wider. "He must be sleeping now.I feel his contentment. Nothing but peace. All is right with hisworld...for the moment."

"So you get a night off and you came to visit me? I'm flattered,"Diana said, half-jokingly. Then with complete sincerity, she said,"I'm glad you like to come here."

Vincent took a deep breath. "I didn't just happen by. I came toyou tonight, specifically. I wanted to see you. I wanted to talk withyou." He touched her hair, rubbing a fiery red lock slowly betweenhis thumb and forefinger, savoring it's silkiness. "I like it here. Itruly enjoy your company." He paused, sighing heavily. "But it's morethan that, Diana, I have something to tell---" He stopped talkingabruptly and looked away.

"What's wrong? Is it Jacob?" Diana asked.

Vincent slowly turned to face her. "No. The water is boiling. Ican hear it." He stood up and held out his hand to her. "Do you wantto come with me?"

Sighing, frustrated at the untimely interruption, Diana took hishand and pulled herself up.

"I'll set the table," she announced and gingerly toddled over tothe kitchen for plates. Vincent busied himself over the stove withthe tortellini, stirring the sauce and adjusting the heat levels.

Diana went to the table and began laying out the plates andsilver, taking time to butterfly fold the napkins. She looked around.All she had for candles were a couple of half melted beeswax pillars,but they would have to do. She wasn't about to have dinner withVincent and not have candles lit.

Vincent came up behind her quietly, looking over her shoulder asshe struck a match and held it to the already blackened wicks.

"It looks lovely, Diana," he breathed into her ear, jolting herheart into double time.

".....Thanks." She glanced behind her. "Really. Thanks foreverything. Seems like it hasn't been such a bad day for me afterall. Not since you've been here, anyhow."

She turned her head and looked back at him, sighing appreciativelyat the sight which met her eyes. His face, now heavily shadowed, wassoftened by the muted glow of the candles, pleasingly framed by hislong honey-colored hair. He was looking at her with undisguisedfondness, and suddenly, unexpectedly, he wrapped his arms around herand laid his cheek against the top of her head. She heard and felthim take a long, deep breath, as if inhaling the essence of her hair.She closed her eyes, willing herself to melt into him, basking in hisstrength and warmth.

Silently, he held her to him, unmoving for a minute or so, thenjust as suddenly, he released her and slipped back into thekitchen.

Diana looked longingly after him, wishing fervently she knew whathe had been thinking while holding her. Wishing she had the courageto tell him how wonderful his arms felt around her. She turnedstiffly, and refocused her attention on the table.


This dinner had all the potential for romance, Diana mused. Music,candlelight, tortellini, and Vincent. What else could she possiblyneed?

"Ah! The wine!" she said to herself and crossed the kitchen to therefridgerator where the bottle of lambrusco she had purchased lastweek was still chilling.

Vincent looked up at her and raised an eyebrow in intrigue as hewatched her set the bottle on the countertop and opened the cupboardto get down two crystal wine goblets.

"If I would have known beforehand that this was going to be aformal dinner, I would have dressed more appropriately," he teased.Diana gave him a quick sour look, knowing he was really poking fun atthe oversized tee shirt and sweatpants she was wearing.

"Chez Bennett has no dress code, Monsieur. Come as you are," shesmirked and busied herself opening the wine.

Vincent laughed. Diana paused to listen. The rare sound sent adelightful tingle throughout her body.

"Touche' la belle," he retorted. He turned and gestured at thetortellini on the stove. "I believe it's ready."

Diana gestured at the cabinet to her left. "There's a serving bowlin there. Just throw it all together and bring it to the table."


Diana had just finished pouring the wine, when Vincent brought ina half a loaf of french bread and the bowl of tortellini, smotheredin sauce and sprigs of fresh basil, just the way Diana liked it.

Diana couldn't help but smile. It looked and smelleddelicious.

"I hope," Vincent began. "I've done your recipe justice. Is itsupposed to look like this?"

"Yes. It's perfect. I couldn't have done it better myself," Dianareassured him. He stepped behind her and pulled out her chair for herand helped her ease into it. "Haven't you ever had tortellinibefore?"

He shook his head slowly and seated himself across from her. Dianasmiled and picked up her glass.

"Here's to dining in," she toasted.

Vincent smiled. They touched glasses, the crystal dingingelegantly. They locked eyes and sipped the lambruscosimultaneously.

"I hope, after having to cook this meal, you'll be able to eatit," Diana told him quietly, watching him.

He placed his hand over his empty stomach and sighed. "I do too."He looked at the plate before him and speared a single tortellini.Cautiously, he placed it in his mouth and bit down. He chewed slowly,paused, then looked pleasantly surprised. "That's delicious."

Diana was relieved. "It doesn't hurt?"

"Nothing I can't tolerate. Then I might have overcooked them." Hegestured at her plate. "What do you think?"

Diana realized she had yet to eat any. She forced her eyes off ofVincent and looked at her own plate. She sampled it anxiously andnodded. "Mmmm. No. It's just the way I like it."

He looked up at her, his eyes twinkling, and sighed, pleased."You're not just being kind, are you?" He leaned forward and passedher a slice of bread.

"No," she replied. "Honest." She paused and took a sip of wine."William would be proud of you." I'm proud of you too, Diana thoughtto herself. Just knowing that Vincent had cooked this meal for herseemed to make it taste better than if she had made it herself.Taking a quick sip of wine, she peered over her glass at him andsmiled. The reflection of the candles in the crystal and the slowlyswaying shadows the flames cast over the table, gave their dinnertogether a dream-like ambiance. Diana wondered when she would bewaking up.

The remainder of the meal was spent in relative silence. Vincentwas too busy savoring each bite and Diana was too busy thinking. Shecould feel herself falling even more in love with him than shealready was because of tonight. She let herself hope that maybe hisfeelings for her might intensify a little as well. Everytime Dianalooked at him now, her heart began beating wildly and she thought hewould certainly sense the shift in her emotions, even though shetried desparately to suppress it. She didn't know how much longershe'd be able to keep it from him when her love seemed to be growingwith each passing second. Vincent glanced up at her and smiledeasily, but didn't seem to be aware of her inner struggle.

He leaned back in his chair and gestured at the empty plate on thetable.

"That was really very good. It was very different from anythingI've ever had before," he was saying. "It's very rich."

"I'm glad you liked it," she told him. "I'm glad you were able toeat."

He smiled slightly. "Thank you for inviting me to dine withyou."

Diana lowered her eyes and mopped up sauce with the last of thefrench bread. "Your welcome....anytime." She suddenly feltdisappointment settle over her as she began to realize this eveningwas all too quickly coming to an end. "So you...will probably beleaving soon?"

"Soon," he echoed, laying the napkin alongside his plate. Hecasually pushed his hair back over his left shoulder and thenabsently traced the stem of the wine glass with a long curved nail incontemplation. He looked like he wanted to say more, but remainedsilent, his eyes fixed on the goblet.

"This has been really nice," Diana started hesitantly. "Having youover for dinner like this. It was kind of like a date," she grinned."Maybe we could do it again sometime? I'll even cook."

Vincent shrugged. "Or, we could always call Henry at therestaurant and order Chinese food."

Diana's smile grew. "Maybe." At least he didn't say no, shethought. She scooted back her chair and bracing her hands on thearms, tried to stand up.

Vincent rose to assist her. Diana gestured towards the living roomand they started off in that general direction.

"I want you to rest now," Vincent told her, leading her to thesofa. "I'll clean up. I don't want you to have to do anything."

Diana made a face at him. "No. Just leave it. It's not goinganywhere and my sister will be in tomorrow. She'll take care of it. Idon't want you to spend the rest of your time here, doing mydishes."

"Diana, it won't take me long," Vincent explained. "Besides, Ididn't intend to leave...just yet."

She thought again about what he was going to tell her before.Maybe he wasn't going to leave until he had finished explaining whyhe was here tonight. She wasn't about to let him delay further bycleaning up.

"Look, if you are worried about me cleaning up after you go,don't. I'm too achy to do dishes. Right now, I think I want to liedown. Get settled in for the night." He sighed heavily and lookedback at her, a mixture of emotions darkening his eyes. "What'swrong?" Diana asked quietly.

Vincent took her hand and squeezed it softly. "I'm worried aboutyou. I don't like to see you hurting like this and I know you are inmore pain than you say," he said, his silky, lispy voice laced withconcern. He gazed at her piercingly; searching her feelings. "I knowtoo you are trying to hide your pain from me, why?"

Diana took a deep breath. She looked at him longingly. Shewondered if he was actually sensing the pain in her heart. It achedten times more than her stiff back. She wanted to just open herselfto him and let her thoughts and emotions become one with his. Shewanted to let her love for him blaze forth into his heart and consumehim with its intensity. But she didn't dare. She had his friendship.She wasn't about to jeopardize that.

"Vincent, I'll be fine, really," she told him softly and tried tosmile. "I don't want you to worry about me. Please just help me liedown, before you go." He still looked troubled and his expressionshowed he didn't find much consolation in her reassuring words. Shetried to think of some way to ease the sudden tension betweenthem.

"Do you want me to take you to bed?" he offered.

Diana began to shake her head, then stopped and grinnedmischieviously. "Well there's an offer that's hard to refuse, butdon't you think we would get more out of it if you could wait untilmy back heals?"

She could tell by his blank expression and the slight tilting ofhis head that her suggestive statement hadn't registered with himyet. C'mon Vincent, don't disappoint me, she urged him mentally andallowed an inkling of her truthful desire for him to surface.Suddenly his eyes widened and he stared back at her surprised.

"Diana!" He dropped his eyes to the floor, as a hint of a smileplayed on his lips. "I can hardly believe what I'm sensing in you atthe moment," he admitted, shaking his head.

Diana couldn't help but laugh. He seemed adorably embarrassed."I'm teasing you. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

He looked up at her. The crease between his fair arched browsdeepened. "Really?"

"Of course!" she quickly assured him. She thought she heard a hintof disappointment in his voice, but knew that couldn't be possibleand dismissed it. She gestured at the floor space behind the sofa."No, I don't want to lie down in bed, I want to lie down rightthere."

Vincent followed her gaze. "The floor?"

She nodded. "In my experience, it does wonders for a soreback."

He considered it. "I'll have to try it myself, sometime."

She smiled. "Just give me time to go brush my teeth."

He nodded and watched her disappear into the bathroom. He walkedto her bedroom and pulled off her comforter and pillow and broughtthem into the living room. He stood waiting, thinking abouteverything that he and Diana had done tonight, and talked about, andwhat he thought he had sensed in her. She was complex beyond hisunderstanding and sometimes he felt he didn't really know her at all.He wanted to. He knew his heart had changed towards her in the slowcourse of their friendship and the sense he had of her was growing,but still fledgling at best. He wished he could be certain of what heknew. What he felt. Perhaps the time had come to simply ask her whathe needed to know and tell her, what he hoped she wanted to hear.

Diana smiled, seeing Vincent standing in the middle of the floor,clutching her pillow and comforter to him in such a way, he lookedlike a small insecure child instead of the usual imposing figure hewas.

"Thanks," she said.

He merely nodded and placed his bundle over the back of the sofa.She took ahold of his outstretched hands. "Careful," he told her asshe slowly descended to a prone position on the floor. She straightenout flat, lying on her back and sighed with relief.

Kneeling, Vincent took the comforter and placed it over her,tucking it in at her sides and around her feet. He slipped his largehand behind her neck, cradling her head forward as he placed thepillow beneath it with considerable tenderness. He sat back on hisheels and looked down at her.

Her bright red hair fanned out against the pillow in an attractivedisarray. She was gazing up at him with those huge blue eyes, heavilyshadowed; so lovely and alluring. Her smooth complexion reminded himof cream and coral roses and her pale delicate lips were partedslightly, invitingly. Vincent had to force himself to look away. Hedidn't want to make her feel uncomfortable by staring at her. Tonighthad been wonderful, he thought. He quickly decided he didn't want tospoil it by confronting her and risking what could be a devastatingrejection.

"Goodnight...Diana," he breathed shakily.

Diana's heart sank. She tried hard not to let him see, or feel,her obvious disappointment his impending departure caused. Shestretched out her hand towards him and he caught it between both ofhis, then touched it to his cheek, letting it brush his lips lightlybefore releasing it again.

"....Goodnight," Diana whispered, surprised and confused by hisprofound display of affection and like the unexpected embrace earlierthis evening, the unspoken passion behind it. There was a perceivabletension between them once more, but Diana knew this was differentfrom the one before. The air around them was charged with an energyand an intensity she couldn't comprehend. Was this her imagination?Did he feel it too? His mood and manner was different than before. Hewas brooding, uncertain, and hesitant. She could feel it in him asthough his emotions had suddenly become tangible. Once again, shesought to reassure him and ease the pressure of the moment. "I wantto thank you...for taking care of me tonight." She took a deepbreath, staring deeply into his beautiful blue eyes. "Oh Vincent, Ilove you," she said before she could stop herself. She could tell bythe look on his face that she'd startled him and added quickly,"You're such a good friend."

Vincent swayed back from her as if he had been struck. He lookedaway, his expression now was unreadable. He placed his hands on histhighs and leaned forward, his head so low, his hair fell forwardobscuring his face.

"Yes, of course. As a friend," he whispered, not actuallydirecting his statement specifically at Diana. He sat back suddenlyand closed his eyes tightly.

Diana didn't understand. "What? What is it? Talk to me."

He shook his head slowly.

"Vincent, you were going to tell me something... you came heretonight to tell me something. What is it? Don't you dare tell me youdon't remember it, either."

He opened his eyes. He looked defeated. "I remember," hesighed.

Diana reached out and covered his hand with hers. Her fingersclosed around his and she squeezed tightly. "Please. We have to talkto each other. This trying to gauge each other through sensedemotions is not working. It's not strong enough. It's too new to bothof us. It leaves too many unanswered questions and it isn't paintingthe whole picture."

"I know. I was wrong to rely on it the way I did. With you. Yourfeelings. It led me to believe something I know now is not true. Notto the depth I thought it was...hoped it could be." His words werespilling from him in a jumble of heartwrenching confessions, notreally making any sense to Diana.

Diana tugged at his hand. "Come here." He resisted at first, butthen his sheer need to be close to her overcame his hesitation and heslowly sank to the floor beside her, settling on his side, laying hishead on his arm. He looked at her unhappily, regret shadowing hiseyes. Diana stroked the side of his face, combing her fingers throughhis hair, soothingly. "Tell me what you are thinking."

He took a deep ragged breath. "I was going to tell you about adream of mine. One I hadn't had in a long time."

"A dream?" Diana frowned. He could be so frustratingly vaguesometimes. "All right. Tell me about this dream."

He shook his head slowly. "Now is not the right time. The dreamwas based on a misconception."

"Why do you say that?"

"It was not founded in truth, in facts. Only the hopes andlongings from the heart of someone who perhaps dreams too much."

"But how do you know the truth?" Diana shifted her position untilshe was on her side, facing him and inched as close to him as shecould get. Her heart began pounding inside her. She thought she wasbeginning to understand what he was trying to say. She hoped andprayed she was not wrong. She continued running her fingers slowlythrough his hair. His handsome face lay mere irresistible inches fromhers. "If you tell me your dream, I will tell you mine," she said.She wanted so badly to kiss him. To wrap her love around his troubledheart and take away all his doubts and fears and uncertainty. Hedeserved her honesty and she suddenly needed him to know how shetruly felt about him. To hide her love from him anymore would be animpossiblity.

Vincent was staring into her eyes. He looked confused. He stilledher hand by taking it in his and holding it against his chest. "Verywell," he agreed. "I'll tell you my dream. But you must be asforthcoming with your dream as well."

She nodded readily.

He dropped his eyes from hers momentarily. "I began to sense inyou...a stirring of feelings. I would get glimpses of your heart nowand then. The feelings were strong when I felt them, so I didn'tdismiss their sincerity. I was only left to wonder as to their truenature. But it wasn't based on perceptions of emotions alone. Therewas a certain look, or touch. Whenever you touched me or whenever Itouched you. It was there. I was certain. So I dreamed. I hoped. Ilaid my heart open to a new realm of possibilities. Letting my ownfeelings merge into these dreams, perhaps diluting what I felt was socertain in you. My need obscured the truth, however. In the end, Isaw something that was not really there. Not in the way I wanted itto be."

Diana sighed. Tears of joy began welling in her eyes as she knewnow without a doubt what he was telling her. He loved her and hewanted her to love him too. She hadn't been able to hide her feelingsfrom him after all. He had known all along. But why did he doubt itnow, when it was pouring from her heart like a raging river? Sheleaned her head forward and nuzzled his forehead. She couldn't resistplacing a tiny kiss between his eyes.

He inhaled sharply and seemed to quiver beneath her lips.

"Tell me your dream," he breathed, barely audible.

"My dream, it would seem, has come true," she started, swallowinghard. "I dreamed, that someday, this extraordinary being who cameinto my life so suddenly, so vulnerable and so powerful at the sametime, would find in his vast heart, a small piece to spare for me.I've been completely swept off my feet by the purity of his love andhis passion. His innocence and intelligence. His sweet, gentle soul."A tear rolled down her cheek, glistening against her skin in the dimlight of the room. Vincent reached up and carefully traced the trailof wetness it left on her face.

"Love?" he said simply. Diana nodded.

"Why do you doubt it? Search my heart now. I won't push you away.I want you to know how much I love you."

"The love shared between friends?" he began abruptly. Then in asoft, weary voice, he continued. "I don't mean to belittle that sortof love. It can be quite beautiful and just as strong, but in adifferent kind of way. If that is the love you offer me, I welcomeit. With all my heart. But I was feeling something more, however. Foryou. I thought you were feeling something more for me."

Diana sighed, frustrated. "Oh Vincent. Is it because of what Isaid? About you being my friend?"

"...After you said you loved me."

Diana smiled slowly. "That's because I was being a coward. Iwasn't sure you would welcome what I truly felt. Let me assure you,your empathic sense of my love was right on the mark. Come into myheart, Vincent. Feel the reality of the love that overwhelms me.You'll find I'm very much in love with you. I've been in love withyou...for a long time now."

His eyes suddenly lit with an inner spark. "Diana...Then what Isensed was true," he stated. "You do love me." He felt it clearlynow, but he wanted to hear her say it as well.

"I love you," she responded without hesitation.

For the first time in quite awhile, he smiled. "That was thereason I came here tonight. What I wanted to tell you before," hepaused and tried to organize his thoughts. "Father and I had a longtalk last night. I told him many things. Things that I felt and knewand wanted, and he was rather encouraging. It filled my heart withsuch joy. Just to have acknowledged it. I told Father the impressionsI had felt in you. That there was a chance we were falling in love.He wisely advised me to see you tonight, to tell you, that I was inlove with you too."

"Vincent." Diana smiled and cupped his face in her hand. "Likeyou, I dared to dream."

"You commented on my fine temperment earlier," he recalled. "Nowyou know why. I'm in love."

Diana's smile broadened. "Apparently, love for you works as wellas nitrous oxide."

Vincent chuckled deeply. "It would seem so. My heart had takenflight. Nothing could bring me down today. Not even seeing thedentist."

"When can I see you again?" Diana asked.

"How long is your sister staying?"

"For the rest of the week. Or until my back lets me functionnormally again. Whichever comes first."

He sighed. "I wish I could stay with you. I could take care ofyou. I don't want to have to leave you now."

"I know. I don't want you to," she confessed, her eyes so full oflove, reflecting the love in his. "Maybe Susan will leave sooner.I'll throw her out if I have to."

Vincent smiled. He leaned forward, taking her chin in his hand,and touched his lips to hers in a faint whisper of a kiss. A merehinting of promises yet to come. It sent chills racing all overDiana's body and slowly the world around her seemed to dissolve away.His kiss was exquisitely tender but full of passion. Diana knew inthat instant everything that ever had been or ever would be wassuddenly changed and her life was never going to be the same.

"Goodnight, Diana," he sighed. "Sleep well."

"Goodnight, Vincent." She watched him rise and retrieve his cloakfrom the sofa where she had left it. He flung it across his shouldersand turned.

"I love you, Diana."

She smiled brightly. "I love you, Vincent."



Susan was puttering about in the kitchen, cleaning up, while Dianasat propped up on the sofa surrounded by pillows.

"So who did you entertain last night?" she inquired.

Diana hadn't even thought to clear away the extra place setting.Now the fact that she had not been alone was glaringly obvious.

"Oh, just a friend," she answered quickly and winced inwardly,knowing that was the one word that had almost cost hereverything.

Susan came out from around the island, brows raised and eyed thetable suspiciously.

"Wine, candles," she listed. "Must have been some friend." Shebegan clearing off the table, much to Diana's dismay. She was hadbeen enjoying herself looking at it and remembering.

"I wouldn't have thought you were up to having company last night,the way you sounded on the phone yesterday."

Diana was trying to sound nonchalant.

"Oh, I wasn't really. But he just showed up. I had to feed him."She tried to think of some other subject to talk about, but her mindwas so full of Vincent, she wasn't able to.

Susan peered at her sister curiously. "Don't I get any details?Don't I even get a name?"

Diana avoided her eyes and tried not to smile. "All right. It wasJoe Maxwell. He was worried about me with my back out and all." Itdidn't sound very convincing to Diana, but Susan seemedsatisfied.

"Is something brewing between you two that I don't know about?"she asked skeptically. "I know you don't share your tortellini withjust anyone."

"Can we talk about something else please," Diana said at last. "Itwas a casual little dinner." She hated lying. She really was no goodat it.

Susan stopped while clearing the table suddenly and seemed to bescrutinizing something beside one of the wine goblets. Diana watchedher, wondering what it was she was looking at.

Carefully, Susan reached down and picked up what appeared to benothing. She held it up to her eyes between her thumb andforefinger.

"Well what have we here?" Susan began, giving her sister asideways glance.

"I have no idea," Diana said truthfully.

"Since when does Joe Maxwell have long blonde hair?"

Diana gasped. "Let me have that!" she blurted.

Susan brought it to her warily and Diana took it with a delightedsmile. It was a single strand of Vincent's hair. Thick and glossy andas luxuriant as a silk thread. Diana spied her sister's expressionand hurried to explain.

"Oh, that's where I sat. It's one of mine."

Susan laughed and watched Diana lovingly stroke the hair and windit around her finger. "You're so full of it, Diana. Since when do youhave blonde hair?"

"Oh, there's a few here and there."

"Uh huh." Susan didn't believe her for a minute. "Just promise me,one day, before the wedding, you'll at least tell me his name."

Diana grinned. Her mind was off and running and she beganconjuring up all kinds of fun images. "Deal. Before the wedding. I'lltell you his name. I might even introduce you."